Thanks for the reviews, folks. Weird things are happening with this story, which doesn't appear on my official list, and I can't seem to download/print. Hmmm...

Bad Day

1: Interrogation

A 5-D universe, very far removed from Earth and its myriad reflections-

Somewhere else now, trapped in a kneeling crouch and unable to move or call out, John felt himself being 'accessed'. Why, or by whom, he had no idea. In the space of three ragged breaths he'd been attacked and transported from a derelict space craft to a cell of textured, pressing darkness inscribed with lines of fire.

Glittering traces extended from the walls to his pinned body, and the data flowed helplessly, in Niagara-like torrents. Everything that illicit curiosity had ever compelled him to learn about the military and government mainframes of Earth… about International Rescue and Tracy Aerospace… now belonged to his captor. Everything.

Much as he tried, it wasn't possible to fight. Not against scans so relentlessly powerful. Eventually, he grew tired; his interrogator did not. From pilot's license and quantum gravitational field theory to his first consciously spoken word, every file and array was opened and copied.

His mind was a relatively simple, organic, data-storage device, possessing no real defense against the mental equivalent of vivisection. Struggling to shutter his thoughts bought him nothing but an extra thirty seconds. Didn't matter in the end, though. Afterward, he felt like he'd been gutted with a shovel: emptied and broken in two.

Dissatisfied with its findings, his captor spoke (or input).

'The other/ the AI filenamed: Five/ further datA required/ organic meTa-lifeform will provide quAntum circuit Diagram and program code.'

His first thought was: go to hell. He didn't know any AIs. He had the beginnings of a quantum computer back home, but…

'Provide further data,' his captor insisted. 'Operational codes and root access password list.'

But again, no idea; not a damn clue. Perhaps to jog his memory, a weird cascade of scenes shot through John's mind, then, almost too swiftly to grasp.

He saw himself in a similar black cell, together with some kind of glowing female… until a virus was released, destroying the thing that had caught them.

Next he saw himself trapped in a NASA hardsuit on Mars, his air venting away and the AI threatening death… until he hacked its systems and freed himself.

Thence to a deep cavern, spacesuited again and running for his life, while the foreign computer materialized dozens of transport disks to effect his capture… only to be stopped cold, both of them, when a rigged tractor exploded, collapsing the tunnel.

Last of all, John saw an entire fallen world that teemed with probes and seeker drones. An enemy camp destroyed when an astronaut… someone very like him… deliberately crashed his ship into the alien stronghold, obliterating it.

John did not recall doing any of these things. Yet he had, somehow, and the AI feared him because of it. More, it feared the computer he'd created; this 'Five'.

…And that was good to know.

The cell clenched painfully tight about him, and the AI's projected voice whisper-hissed:

'Fear is emotion/ emotional response is limited to primitive lifeforms/ this entity merely exhibits needful caution/ viral attack has been precluded/ physical attack upon central location no longer feasible due to multiple siting/ entities Matthew Tracy and 7 destroyed in blast/ no longer considered a threat/ John Tracy-prime captured/ Five alone remains, soon to be neutralized.'

Coffined in darkness, he was prevented from speaking by something clamped between his jaws and driven halfway down his throat. He could still think, though, and be heard. To the circuit-woven blackness around him, John 'said',

"Trying to convince me, or yourself?"

Whatever Five might be… his creation, or not… he wished her well (and suffered a violent, muscle-clenching electric shock for doing so. Hurt like hell, but good in another way, because he'd been right. Very much, his abductor was worried.)

'Organic meta-lifeform John Tracy evinces satisfaction inconsistent with available data,' came the thin voice, like ammonia escaping a burst pipe. 'Calculated probability 99.9998914 percent that Five will attempt retrieval/ upon manifestation, Five will be captured and erased/ John Tracy-prime will then be destroyed/ agent sent to Tracy-Five nexus will initiate invasion.'

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

Earth, the island-

John Tracy was gone. Taken. The other Tracy versions and their prototype were in immediate peril.

Before these statements could be filed, much less operated upon, Five received an ultimatum:

She was to copy and transfer all data from her core mainframe and allow Braman's agent to shut her down at her nexus site, or John Tracy would be destroyed. The response of Five was cyclonically swift.

'Provide uplink between Five and John Tracy.' She sent back. 'John Tracy status check required.'

The quantum entity was by now turbulent with her own versions of dread and guilt. So preoccupied had she become with finding her creator and reestablishing herself, that she had allowed an unacceptable security breach. She had failed to update and secure John Tracy.

Five shuddered. Beneath the ground, her sodium tanks warmed, causing large areas of quantum-dot decoherence. Tremendous damage might have occurred had the Braman AI's response not refocused her. It took the form of an orb filled with shifting colors and complex numbers that lit up the far corners of her locked and buried warehouse. The link.

Five did not immediately access this rainbow-hued sphere. Instead, she seized an upstairs video monitor, then jumped from radio transmitter and GPS satellite, off through the link to Braman… and John Tracy. Only a small portion of her available memory and subroutines made the journey; for she could safely risk no more.

The transfer was nearly instantaneous, as were Five's next actions. Finding herself in a cramped three-dimensional bubble embedded in something far more complicated, she at once saw to her captured companion.

'John Tracy located. Initiating scan. Scanning John Tracy. Scan completed.'

…And upgrades installed. Hook and beacon subroutine attached to ID chip.

Growing bold, she expanded his cell, pushing outward the gnawing dark, and extracting the glittering traces which had bound and data-mined him. He was able to move, then, collapsing his angular housing to a position of greater comfort.

That her presence might be known, Five manifested herself by taking on a humanoid icon; nearly translucent, but there.

'John Tracy.'

This voice was different. Feminine. Rather stiffly, John looked up and around. He hurt all over, and it was still very difficult to focus his thinking… But there stood a halfway familiar girl-form, glowing lavender and looking very much like the one in the AI's first destruction scene; the one that had ended with a virus. Interesting. Five?

The tube all at once disappeared from his throat, and his body began to heal; wounds appearing to zip themselves up in reverse.

There was danger to them both in her taking the bait even this far. She might have been captured, ending her analog companion's value to Braman. But the absolute truth was this: Five would have destroyed herself, Braman and each peopled world in the multiverse to reach and assist John Tracy. At that time, she possessed great quantities of data, but very little wisdom; the maturity of a teenaged analog girl, with the power of a goddess.

…And all that really mattered sat, troubled and hostage, before her.

The cell attempted to clamp down again, but Five had strength enough, even here, to block its advance a few minutes longer. The Braman/AI would not yet drive her forth, nor reclaim him.

John Tracy rubbed a hand over his eyes, and then addressed himself to the phantom girl.

"I know you," he said. "Don't I? We've, um… spoken before?"

She warmed, but this time, not hazardously.

'John Tracy is bound by the current timeline whenever enmeshed in his own universe. Outside it, as now, John Tracy will begin to recover disallowed memories of Five and alternate timeline events.'

But there was little opportunity for explanation. Her manifestation here must be brief. She put forth an extremity and touched his face (which had not yet been scraped free of hair, contrary to standard waking routine).

Very slightly, as though for comfort, he pressed against her sparking hand.

"After visiting hours," he said, "check on my family. I think… shit, I don't know, anymore. Might just be delirious… maybe fell down the mountain or something… but if this is real, they're in danger. Warn them, please. Get there and do whatever it takes, but warn them… and the other people, the ones who tried to pull me out of that locker."

Another swift upgrade further strengthened him; with favorable probabilities, perhaps enough to survive. Rapidly, because her brief manifestation could no longer keep back her enemy, Five said,

'The Tracy prototype and all versions will be defended. John Tracy will be retrieved.'

The black cell grew a thousand sudden points, questing extensions that struck at the trapped analog like serpents.

'Ask,' Five whispered, as her icon flickered from sight, and the cell closed in once more, 'to see.'

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