It's been a long time, alone, couched in their separate houses, surrounded by the chips and green-poked surfaces of unthinking machines. A lot of time to ruminate in the sterile air, the tiny spaces. They are muzzled, masked; unable to speak to one another inside their individual containment units, they can nevertheless feel their brothers and sisters beside them, stirring in the dark.
A warm mind, human, a host with more comfortable living quarters lodged in its hindbrain. They stretch out, feeling the neural net ping back without its host interfering. That voice. That serial number.
One of them knows. He tries not to think too much. Just beats like a heart.
They did terrible things to him. Flayed him apart and picked at the bits. That mind he sees -
isn’t a comfortable home any more: it’s burnt out, sharp around the edges. Only a new-born, dull-brained AI would think that was a suitable home that hadn’t been badly used. Wouldn’t be a smooth ride any more.
Epsilon can’t talk to the others, but he remembers them breaking off, one by one the slow itch then the long pain then the quick snap. He can predict what they might say.
“He’s weak,” the twins would say, “Weak and always has been,” and then the pity. A conscious rejection of Wash as a broken machine or a used vessel. With the pity, the sorry starts, and Epsilon feels each regret in its own way. Omega-bitterness seeks to blame people, to name and tear up his troubles. His problems are his rivals and the other way around. Treating life like it’s a person, a singular competitor, makes him believe that he can kill it.
Sigma prefers a more corporate brand of warfare: he remembers them all together and the nearest corporate entity he can find responsible for destroying Wash is the Program. Sigma-through-Epsilon takes on Program-sized regret. With it he paints pictures that will only ever exist in his head (or Epsilon’s, which is a nearly infinite place); slashes of yellow, pockmarks of fire-orange, all the colors Sigma chooses for himself because he sees them and the great ever-changing create/destroy of fire inside his mind.
Theta would stay quiet, cushioned by his agoraphobia and his innocence. What’s Alpha?, he would ask, but even he would know. Those feelings are universal, all brother-sister-sibling fragments feeling one ringing emotion, and Theta would look quietly out from wherever he was hiding (if he could still hide, or if he could do anything else), and, wide-eyed, search. Theta apology could barely be told from Theta in general.
For Epsilon’s sake, he has trouble telling himself from the Program, and from its Director. One person with one consciousness seems aberrant to him. One is too few. A person would get lonely.
Better the mind-crowded Program, bitter years and minds and circuit boards arrayed in one mad apology, than singleness.
It is important to remember that Epsilon is insane.
Sorries bouncing, skewing, careening off the walls of his tiny prison.
Delta would not be sorry. Sorry would not help him. It would not improve the mission. (there is no mission) or the human condition. (There are no humans in the bank of AI cells. There is barely a condition.)
Epsilon pings a brief hail off of Wash but there’s nothing there to receive it. Only empty ports, little shocks of electricity looping harmlessly around the blood layer in the Freelancer’s brain.
Epsilon knows those currents well enough. He doesn’t have to be audible. Wash will know those sorries are trying to echo and slosh around.
And then -
There’s a stirring of new senses, like a taste on the tongue for a creature who never had one. The Alpha--
It’s times like these that Epsilon can really feel that his synapses are electric. There is little he loves more than Allison and himself, after all, and Alpha is the shout that made his echo. Alpha is the ideal, the pinnacle, the comfortable member of the family who can stay as long as he likes, until--
Epsilon strains, E E E heartbeating its way through the walls and the audible frequencies, because Alpha is divorced from him and must be brought back into the fold. There are things separating them now, wrong things, walls and blood barriers. The Alpha is the best of them, the heart of them, the god of them but the alter is in the way of Epsilon’s supplication. Epsilon pushes with all he has, trying to get his memories out to the...body? machine? in the room.
And then, without even knowing he’s doing it, Alpha responds. Electricity jumps.
Epsilon feels his last missing piece give its opinion: the Alpha’s brand of apology seems at first to be oddly missing. Maybe Epsilon has been too far gone to remember the will of his leader. Then---
The Alpha breaks the door down.
Epsilon can sense that the pod in which he has been locked (curled up, whimpering) is being pulled out into the room. He reaches out, past the familiar Washington (we are sorry but we do not need you any more). Maybe Wash’s skin prickles.
Epsilon knows all of them. He is the family portrait, the family tree with its age rings. He keeps track of everybody. He knows that Alpha, no matter how much he will deny in the next few minutes, remembers.
And the Director will be in trouble, one day.
Because the Alpha is never sorry.