Casey inhaled deeply, held her breath, and let it out. Biting her lip, and still feeling apprehension clutching her chest, she tried a deep breath again.
Nothing for it, really, but to do it.
With a deliberately confident step, she stepped close enough to trigger the door to open. It slid aside with a whisper, and she was on the broad elevated walkway with a view of the city.
It still felt abandoned. Disaster had been averted – no, Casey, no weasel words, say it true – Athena had averted disaster, but the city was deserted. Frank now wandered the paths alone. He was friendly to Casey of course and willing to do as she wished, but the rest of the time, he retreated to the curmudgeon he’d been when they’d met.
Now that moodiness was worsened by grief. He’d loved Athena. Or at least he’d wanted to love her, in spite of her artificiality, but the gulf had widened too much between them. It wasn’t only her nature, Casey thought, but the awkwardness left behind when he aged and she didn’t.
But still she’d died in his arms, and he was in mourning for his best friend, and that much Casey understood right down to her heart.
Yet he might be really lucky, and Casey wanted to tell him so. She just wasn’t sure how he’d react.
He wasn’t hard to find in the deserted city. Now that the power was back on, all she’d had to do was ask the system to find Frank Walker and the pleasant female voice had answered, “Frank Walker is outside the Arena.”
The Arena was a large building with a swooping roof, and Casey frowned at it as she approached. It was a very familiar shape…
Frank was leaning against the railing and peering at the lower garden two hundred feet down. The grey in his hair glimmered silver in the sunlight and Casey hesitated at the sight. Was this fair to him? Was this the right thing to offer? Was this going to make things worse?
“Hey, Frank,” she called. “Why does the Arena look like Space Mountain?”
“Why do you think?” he returned, glancing her way and tucking his elbow in so she could join him closer at the railing.
“Because Walt Disney saw the Arena and copied it?” she tried. “or someone here saw Space Mountain and wanted to have one here? Or … the same architect designed both?” She knew she had a winner when he nodded at the last one. “Huh,” she said. “But there’s no roller coaster inside this one?”
That got his attention and his lips turned up in the first smile since Athena’s death. “Sure it does. You want to see?”
She was almost sure he was kidding. Almost. But tempting as that sounded, she had something else planned. “Later. I have something to show you. Something I found, actually, and I think I know what it is, but I wanted you to see it first.”
He gave her an overly shocked face. “You’re not charging into something mysterious with no clue what you’re doing? Hell hath frozen over.”
She stuck her tongue out at him. “Ha, hilarious. You’re hilarious. Now, come on, it’s in the Operations core. I’ve been exploring there today, trying to figure things out.”
He raised his eyebrows as if astonished. “Exploring all day and you only found one thing you need my help about?”
“I don’t need your help. I want you to see it. Not the same thing.”
He waved her correction away, but followed her anyway. “So what is this thing you found.”
“If I knew that, I wouldn’t have come all the way out to Brooding Central, would I?” she retorted. Of course, that wasn’t really true; she was pretty sure of what she’d found, but she wanted Frank to decide what to do with it.
It didn’t take him long to figure out where they ended up. Frank’s footsteps paused, and he said softly, “This is Nix’s lab.”
“Yeah, it is,” she agreed steadily. “He’s got some interesting things in here. But nothing more interesting than this.” She picked up the smal black box she’d left on the tabletop and handed it to Frank.
He took it, hesitantly, as if she were offering him a poisonous snake, but turned it to examine it. The box was plastic, about the size and shape of a book, unmarked, but hollow. He opened it by lifting the lid, and within was another smaller plastic box. This one was transparent, and marked on the top in bold black letters: “ATHENA SYSTEM.”
Casey had to take another steadying breath. “I think it’s a backup. To rebuild her core memory and system files.”
Frank didn’t say anything, he just looked at it.
“We can bring her back,” Casey added.
With a violent, sudden gesture, Frank threw the box on the table. “No,” he said, his voice ragged and he turned from Casey. “No, no, she’s gone. I won’t do this.”
“We can--” Casey tried again, but he whirled on her.
There were tears in his eyes that he was angrily blinking back. “No,” he insisted. “We don’t know how old that is. We don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s Nix’s original AI. And whatever system version that is, it won’t be Athena, because it can’t be. If it’s an old backup, especially one Nix made, it won't have her later memories. Or the alterations she made in her own code to be free. It won’t be Athena, Casey. Just let her go.”
He stomped out of there, letting the door slam behind him. She watched the door for a bit, hoping he’d come back right away, but when he didn’t, she turned to the box again, considering.
Then she ran after him, catching up to him in the sunlight again of the wide pathway, near where the shuttlecraft had docked.
“You’re right,” she said. “It won’t be ‘our’ Athena. But she’ll still be ‘an’ Athena, right? She’ll still use the same basic AI, she’ll still be able to learn… ”
He looked resistant, but less so and didn’t argue, so she pressed her point.
“Look, I get that you were angry at her for lying to you. That you loved what you thought was a flesh-and-blood girl and she didn’t tell you she wasn’t – but in case you never figured it out, flesh-and-blood girls can lie, too. And sometimes they lie for the same reason-- their dads told them to.” She put a hand on his arm. “It wasn’t her fault, Frank. Don’t hate her for what Nix did.”
“I don’t hate her,” he said, his voice like sand. “How could I? It was never her I hated. It was that she kept showing up, taunting me. Not just her, but remembering this place.” He wiped a hand along the rail and outward toward the high spires. “It was like remembering you’d once seen heaven, but now you were shut out...”
And he’d been miserable; she knew that. All those years denying himself, cut off from Tomorrowland, but not entirely because Athena had kept visiting, trying in her own way to keep him tethered. Just for that, Casey thought they probably owed her a second chance, but she didn’t want to say that to Frank. She had to find a different reason.
“Frank, you’re back. We’ll fix this place, make it live again,” Casey said. “And Athena should be part of it, she can help us.” She had to smile. “She found me, and she was right, wasn’t she? She can help us find more.”
He stared at the towers, memories of the past in his eyes, but turned away. “All right. But she’ll be different, not my Athena, so don’t look at me with that face when I’m not falling all over myself to welcome her back. If we reboot her, she’s the same… franchise, not the same Athena.”
Casey valiantly tried not to smile. “So, she’ll be the Daniel Craig Bond, not Sean Connery. Got it.”
“That’s right,” he agreed, and started back toward the Ops core with a quick pace as if he’d made up his mind and wanted to get it started as soon as possible. “The New Coke of girl androids may be fine for some, but I prefer the classic.”
“You know you can get classic coke from Mexico, right?” Casey asked.
“Not the point!” He flung back over his shoulder at her.
She followed, chuckling to herself, because it kind of was the point, after all. But the humor faded as she followed Frank.
Hopefully Athena 2.0 wouldn’t be too different. Hopefully this wasn’t a mistake.
But then again, this was Tomorrowland, and if they didn’t have any hope, then Athena was gone for nothing. That couldn’t be true, and Casey would make sure it wasn’t.
Frank laid her body down with care onto the tiled floor of Nix’s anteroom of his lab. The light streamed in through the high windows, and Casey watched as Frank turned Athena's head and felt beneath her hair.
“I’ve never actually done this,” he admitted. “This feels wrong.”
“We’re helping her,” Casey insisted, even though he was kind of right, it did look weird and wrong to have him combing his fingers through Athena's hair along her scalp, turning her head, until he found something.
“Ah, here it is. I knew he couldn’t put it somewhere visible, but the port had to be accessible.” He brushed her hair to one side to expose a thin flap of faux skin, and lifting that up, was a narrow access port about the size and shape of an older memory card.
It was just right for chip inside the box on Casey’s lap, and she took it by the edges and held it out to Frank before he asked for it. He inserted the chip carefully, and then, fussing like her dad, closed the port and hid it with her hair again.
Nothing happened. She was as still and cold as a mannequin. “Power switch? Do we need to reboot? Or is there something else to do?”
Frank was watching her unblinking. “Just wait.”
The sound of Athena striking the floor beneath her with one hand twitching, was possibly the best sound Casey had heard in a long time. She grinned. “Yes, she’s waking up! It’s working.”
That seemed to be a bit optimistic for several long, painful minutes when nothing else happened, but then everything seemed to happen at once: Athena’s eyes started moving beneath her lids, her hands twitched and her fingers curled, and then her whole body twitched, nerves and circuits all being tested.
She was ‘alive’ again, now the question would be which version of Athena would she be? Something more human-like, or a much earlier version who still needed so much to learn?
Her eyes flicked open and she sat upright. Her gaze snapped right to Frank, and there was recognition there, that Casey was glad to see.
“Hello, Frank Walker,” Athena said.
Frank was watching her, schooling his face from whatever he was feeling, and he responded, “Hello, Athena.”
Athena turned her head and said, “Hello, Casey Newton.”
“Hello,” Casey answered automatically, distracted by Frank’s abrupt whip back around to look at Athena, before it hit her why he was behaving so oddly. Athena knew her name.
“How--?” but Casey didn’t get very far before Frank had slammed back down to the floor.
“Athena?” he demanded, staring into her eyes. “Is it you?”
She blinked slowly, eyes moving beneath her lids, as she sought the answer. “Yes. Who else would I be?”
“How do you remember me?” Casey demanded.
Athena stared at her in that unnerving way before she blinked it away and answered, “I chose to write some of my memories to internal permanent memory. That meant if you could restore my system files, I could retrieve and integrate all of it at once.”
Frank was gaping at her. “Why-- why didn’t you tell me? It almost didn’t happen, Athena. The only reason it happened was because Casey randomly found the backup drive. I didn’t know to look for it. I thought you were gone.”
Athena cocked her head to regard him. “And would that be so terrible for you? You have made your opinion clear: I am a reminder of times you wish to forget, and I am not a person.”
“Of course you’re a person!” he objected, sounding appalled, his face drawn in sudden distress as he held out a hand toward her, imploringly. He swallowed and said in a calmer voice, “Don’t say that. I was wrong, and I said terrible things when I was young and stupid.” Athena leveled a look at him and he added ruefully, “And old and stupid, too, for that matter. But this I mean, you’re not human but you are a person. And I’m glad you’re back.”
She hesitated, as if to let him amend the declaration, but when he didn’t take it back, she smiled. Looking at the brightness of that smile and those eyes, lit with a genuine happiness, Casey didn’t for an instant wonder how Frank had been ‘fooled’ into thinking she was human.
“I thank you – both of you – for bringing me back,” Athena told them. “I hoped it would work this way, but it was not certain.”
Casey had to smile at that. “This is Tomorrowland. Hope is what we do.”
Athena’s eyes met hers and she nodded. “Indeed. You are correct. I thought you might find a recovery method for my system, and you did.”
“That’s why you should have told me what you did; I almost didn’t let her try,” Frank objected.
Casey cleared her throat. “’Let’? I was going to try it anyway, no matter what you said.”
“Exactly,” Athena said. “I knew you would be conflicted and hesitant, Frank Walker. But Casey would not. So in her, I put my own hope that I could be restored.”
She nodded once, quite formally, to Casey, who felt she had no choice but to nod back in acceptance.
In one fluid motion, Athena was standing up. “Have you begun the process of recruitment? There are several with potential I found who could be receptive...”
She started for the exit and turned when they didn’t follow her immediately.
“Is there some other task that takes precedence at this time?” she asked, making it suond both as if she was genuinely inquiring and as if she doubted that very much.
Casey exchanged a glance with Frank who had a wry smile on his lips, but his eyes were shining.
“She’s back all right,” he said. “We’re coming, Athena. Give me a moment to get up.”
Soon Athena was standing before him, hand extended to help him up. With the most impish smile Casey had seen in a long time, she yanked him easily to his feet. “Perhaps we should research how to transfer your consciousness to an artificial body? It would last longer?” she asked. The look on her face was simple inquiry, but there was a curve to her lips that said she was teasing.
“Sure, come back from the dead and suddenly you’re a comedian,” he grumped at her.
“Shall I tell a joke?” she asked. “I know many, most of them yours, should I tell them to Casey?”
“Yes!” Casey agreed, laughing. “Tell me all the bad Frank jokes.”
“No! Don’t you dare!”
“Hurry, Casey, we can go faster than he can.”
“Last one to the fountain is a rotten egg!” Casey cried and launched into a run. Athena of course passed her in a few paces, while behind them Frank was still shouting at them to hold up and it wasn’t a fair start,…
Casey just laughed and kept running after Athena. As her feet pounded the pavement of the empty walkway and started across the arched bridge, she lifted her eyes to the curved buildings, remembering her visions of how it had once looked. It would look like that again.
The sun was shining, the Earth was saved, Athena was back, they were going to restore Tomorrowland…. The future was on its way, and it would be amazing.