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The Founder Program

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When he was elbow deep in wires and soldering motherboards by the dozens, he’d never once imagined he’d regret building the Machine, never thought for a second it was a mistake. John understood, or he understood the small tidbits of information Finch had allowed him to know. But he didn’t know, and hopefully never would, that the Machine was only the first thing Finch had built, not the last, and not the only creation he regretted breathing electrical life into.

Beside his desk Bear whined. “I know,” Finch said quietly. It really was a terrible idea. Possibly his worst idea, second only to giving the Machine up. But desperate times called for desperate measures, and other cliches. He double clicked on an encrypted file folder and pulled up a program he’d carefully ignored for almost two years. The Founder. He double tapped it into life and felt the hum and whirr of fans clicking on to compensate for the power draw.

“Hello Nathan,” he said.

The Program, a shadow of what the machine was in size but every bit as impressive in finesse, blinked. Nathan’s face, digitized from a composite of photographs, stared at him in rendered perfection on the screen. “Harold.”

“I need your help.”

“I never thought I’d hear you say that,” Nathan’s voice said through the speakers. The sound compression was minimal and Harold had perfected the program’s syntax to represent Nathan’s most common speech patterns and inflections via thousands of hours of recorded conversations and phone calls. The smile, though, was flawless. Even as a disembodied, high resolution head on a screen, he projected the same presence that had drawn Harold to him all those years ago. Charm and candor and charisma.

“And technically you never will,” he said. Even now he was cruel out of reflex. Nathan, the real Nathan, had grown accustomed to his biting remarks, but had never really accepted the savageness as part of Harold’s personality. Except near the end.

The Program watched him for a while before responding. It gathered visual data from the webcam, allowing the program to make what appeared to be eye contact. “No, I suppose you’re right.”

It was disconcerting and Harold did his best not to look at the program too long lest he be sucked into nostalgia and yearning and forget his purpose. “I’m sure you’re aware that I haven't executed your program since I built you.” He’d built the program to log the passage of time in an internal clock.

“I am aware,” The Program said. “And I’m not quite sure why you’re talking to me now. You aren’t known for your sentimentality, Harold.”

Bear whined at his feet.

“You always were more adept at the social end of our friendship.”

Even now the program proved its social prowess; waited, eyes boring out into the world it saw as data, for Harold to meander to his point. Not pressuring, not rushing.

“I employed someone to help me with the Irrelevant List.”

“What!?”

Harold waved his hand lackadaisically. “You are aware of the List; it was you who pointed out the ethical travesty we were committing.” He took a moment to commend himself. The shock and worry on the Program’s pixelated face was nearly identical to what had adorned Nathan’s near the end. The program was a work of art.

“Harold...”

Harold glared at the screen. The program integrated the data and looked chagrined in response. “You needn't worry. Mr. Reese is fully capable.”

“It’s not this Mr. Reese I’m worried about,” the Program said under its breath. Then processes caught up with it. It was fascinating to watch. The visual display glitched ever so slightly and looked at him with new understanding. Harold would have to re-think his coding on that. The glitch was troublesome. “You want help... making friends, Harold?” The sarcasm, however, needed no help at all.

He sat back in his chair. “In so many words, yes.”

*

Since first running the program, not long after his kidnapping by Root, he’d taken to speaking with Nathan on a regular basis. It wasn’t, he knew, a healthy relationship. But it was a refreshing one. He’d forgotten how it felt to be known. Even his interactions with Mr. Reese, while enjoyable and deepening, were hinged on deception. With the Nathan Program there was none of that.

He’d deployed the program so he could access it remotely, much like the Machine itself, and he’d taken to running it off of his phone. When Mr. Reese had been captured by the FBI and spent time in Rikers, the Program got many hours of run time. He’d ironed out a few bugs with it and it ran smoothly now, even when processing new information.

“What does it feel like?”

Nathan blinked at him. “Death?” Nathan’s face, compressed to an almost microscopic size on the LCD display of his smartphone, looked at him with the same sympathy Harold remembered from life. Nathan had always been protective of him. “You built me, Harold.”

Harold rolled his eyes at him. “I’m perfectly aware of that, Nathan.” They were between Numbers. Mr. Reese was sleeping off the bomb vest fiasco, tending to his wounds in a five star hotel room Harold had selected for him with a very discreet staff. Harold’s legs were still shaking. The roof, almost two days ago, was burned in his memory.

“I don’t know what death is like,” the Program says kindly. “But I do know there are worse things.”

Harold sent him a sidelong look. He sat in the park across from Grace’s home. It was raining again and he’d opened up a large black umbrella to shield himself and Nathan (his phone, he corrected himself. Nathan was in the ground and the Program itself was back at the Library) from the drizzle. It had the added effect of hiding him from prying eyes. “Olivia?”

“Olivia left because I was a crap husband. I don’t blame her for that. Not any more.” Harold can’t bring himself to look at Nathan’s face on his phone or at Grace’s door, so he stares at the food carts, devoid of people in the rain. “Will, mostly. He’s my son and he never really knew me. I miss him.”

“You were protecting him.”

“Yes. But not being known is a hard thing.”

*

It shouldn’t have surprised him that the Program had ideas of its own. He’d built it after all, and the things he built had unsurpassed intelligence and uncanny desires to be useful. Mr. Reese had been on the phone, standing under the Library’s scaffolding to escape the rain. All calls from his phone, outgoing and incoming, were recorded of course, but out of habit more than anything else, Harold patched into the phone call and listened to the feed live.

And heard Nathan’s voice.

He’d shut everything down, then. Spasmodically ripped the plugs from the walls and hobbled to the generator and threw the switch on that too. John, probably fearing Root, had run up the stairs two at a time, gun drawn and breathing heavily. Harold just flicked the flashlight onto him and let the beam rest on the phone still clutched in his hand. John had the decency to look abashed.

“I see you made a new friend,” Harold said. His voice was shaking. He blamed the adrenaline rush and tried not to think about volatile code and hackers who might abuse it.

“I met him through a mutual friend,” John said. “A Mr. Harold Wren. I think you know him.” John was like Nathan in so many ways, but unlike him in so many more. He was playful in times of crises. Nathan had only ever been afraid. “Seemed to think there were some things I should know about you.”

Harold stood in the dark and watched John’s face. It was serene now that the fear had slipped off it. “Oh? And did you learn anything interesting, Mr. Reese?”

“Nothing I didn’t already know, Harold.” John strode to the generator in the dark with his usual cat like grace, navigating the room as if he’d memorized it. He probably had. He flipped it on and the Library flooded with light. “It’s still raining and the Machine has been quiet. Shall we go see a movie?”

Harold wanted to check on his systems. Instead he said, “I believe ‘Rashomon’ and ‘The Rain People’ are playing downtown. A double feature,” and gathered up his umbrella.