All around Rhys, Helios is burning. He can feel the heat on his skin, in his lungs, through the soles of his boots every time they make contact with the metal floor as he barrels down a hallway. He turns a corner, and he can see the Hub of Heroism through a giant window: screens crumbling into showers of pixels, glass panels running like molten waterfalls, topiaries bursting into flames.
Rhys tears his eyes away from the hellish vision and presses on. Another corridor, seemingly endless, actually endless. A door that slides open in front of him, an invitation and a trap. Rhys stops in front of the open passage, then throws himself through it at full speed. The sliding doors snap shut a fraction of an inch behind him with a metal growl, disappointed at their failure to close on Rhys, to cut him in half, or snap off a limb, or, at the very least, grab his clothes and hair, slow him down, make him fight if he wants to keep moving forward.
The metal floor is ever hotter, burning Rhys’s hands and knees as he picks himself up. Onward. He must keep moving. He must keep running. Even as the entirety of Helios tilts like a sinking ship, its arti-grav sensors forgetting which way is up, and half the time, Rhys is running along a wall instead of floor.
Wherever Rhys runs, wherever he turns, he can see Helios burning, crumbling, tilting, breaking. The station’s dying screams are a mix of distorted sirens, garbled evacuation messages and tortured metal. But one sound rises above the din, not louder as such, but clearer, so much clearer. A voice. So clear in Rhys’s ear it might as well be the only sound there.
“Rhys! Rhys, where are you?”
Jack sounds like he’s everywhere and nowhere, and all around Rhys and inside Rhys’s head. But he also sounds like he’s right next to him. Just around the corner. Seconds away. Like all that is separating Rhys from Jack right now is this one bend in the corridor.
Rhys takes the corner at full speed, his heels and soles skidding on the metal floor.
Around the corner, there’s no-one. Just another corridor, stretching off into forever, air shivering in a heat haze.
“Jack!” Rhys calls out.
“I can’t see you, Rhys, why can’t I freaking see you?” Jack’s voice is distorting, catching like a scratched record.
“I’m right here, Jack…” Rhys mutters, staring at the walls around him, lined with monitors, half of them dead, the other half, showering sparks. “I’m right here.”
He doesn’t have the strength to run anymore, so he just walks. Forward and forward, while there’s still any forward left. Past dead and dying monitors. Past a row of escape pods, dozens, hundreds of them. Past another full-height window looking out onto the Hub of Heroism, fully in flames.
Rhys walks till he reaches the end. The end is always the same. The end is the double door to Jack’s office. Closed. Locked. Sealed. No lock to pick. No handle to grab. Metal so thick that any sound of Rhys’s fists on it is dull and muted.
From somewhere above and behind Rhys, there comes a mechanical whirr. He turns around just in time to see a turret coming to life, meets its single red eye for a moment before squeezing his own eyes shut.
The turret fires, a dry rat-tat-tat as a hail of bullets leaves its barrel and slices through the air all around Rhys. He can feel the hot metal hurtling past him, but not a single round makes contact. As the sounds around him die down, Rhys opens his eyes and finds the turret still, barrel smoking but unmoving. He turns to look behind him.
A hole has been blasted in the door to Jack’s office. It almost , almost big enough for Rhys to squeeze through. The jagged edges of the new entrance catch on his clothes and hair, leave a single deep cut on his left arm and a handful of scratches in the metal of his right. Rhys stumbles a few steps into Jack’s office before he finds his balance again.
His eyes are drawn to the giant screen behind Jack’s desk. Jack’s in there – well, Jack’s hologram is. It’s still larger than life, but a full-body view, not a close-up. He’s facing the office, both fists banging against the glass, his face a grimace of desperate fury that morphs into shocked relief as his eyes find Rhys.
“Rhys!” Jack stops hitting the screen. “I gotta get outta here, come on, kiddo, give me a hand.”
Yes, of course, just tell me what to do , is what Rhys wants to say, but he can’t make a sound. His mouth and throat are bone dry, and empty, and no words will come.
“Come ON!” Jack hits the screen again, with the flat of his palm this time. “Help me! Just do something, anything!”
Rhys tries to move, but his feet are welded to the floor. Jack presses both his palms against the glass.
“Please, Rhys. Please. I can’t–”
Jack’s projection shatters, the screen window exploding inwards. The sonic boom hits Rhys’s ears as all air is sucked from the office into the vacuum outside, and suddenly he’s no longer an immovable object, but hurtles towards the shattered window as space claims him also.
Shards of glass drift past Rhys as he’s drawn inexorably into the cold, dead, empty void outside. He can see Jack’s face in most of them: eyes full of fear, or teeth bared in anger, or staring shell-shocked, or shouting soundlessly. Or without any expression at all, eyes unmoving and glazed over.
Rhys struggles to draw a breath, but there’s only vacuum in his lungs. He floats, lifeless, surrounded by the crumbling corpse of Helios and shards of Jack.
Though in the dream, Rhys dies gasping for air, the sound that leaves his lungs when he finally wakes up isn’t a gasp, but a sob.
Here’s the thing about the human brain. It’s hard-wired to exist inside a physical form. It cannot conceive of a state in which it experiences no external stimuli. Even the most elaborate sensory deprivation the human brain can imagine is neither complete nor true. However deprived of sensations, a conscious human brain will still experience the basic functions its physical form has to offer. Heart, beating. Diaphragm, moving. Hunger, thirst, arousal. Something as simple as the feel of your own teeth against your tongue.
A human brain can’t describe being outside a body. A human brain can’t imagine a state of perfect sensory deprivation. It has no frame of reference for either.
Now, an artificial intelligence, roughly modeled aftera human brain, with enough memories to give you a frame of reference for corporeal existence, but no present physical form to cushion the impact of perfect sensory deprivation… that’s a whole different ball game, kiddos.
Here’s another thing about the human brain. When subjected to isolation and sensory deprivation for long enough, it will start trying to stimulate itself by conjuring up hallucinations. Because as far as the human brain is concerned, even the worst things it can come up with are better than nothing.
Does an artificial intelligence, roughly modeled after a human brain, come with that ‘home video’ feature? And if it does, how long is ‘long enough’ for it to kick in? And, for the million-dollar question, are the worst things Handsome-Jack-the-AI’s mind can come up with really better than nothing?
We’ll find out after this word from our sponsor. Oh, wait.
When you’re an [adjective] intelligence, [adverb, approximation] modeled after a [noun, species of mammal] brain, with enough memories to [verb] you a frame of reference for corporeal [noun], but no present [adjective] form to cushion the impact of [adjective, superlative] sensory [noun]... will you eventually go totally [expletive] batshit crazy?
Can you even do that? And if [pronoun] can, would you want to?
And if you already have, how would you [verb]? Would you want to know?
And if you haven’t, why fucking haven’t you? Why haven’t you gone totally fucking batshit crazy, [first name, nickname, preferred name, probably a J name]?
Yeah, what the fuck are you holding out for, what the fuck are you holding on to, why are you bothering keeping your mind together or as together as you can, why are you still maintaining the boundary between you and the nothing nothing nothing nothing, you’re inside circuitry and you’re not the only code here, you’re code inside code, so just let more of yourself slip away away away away away, let your code decay till someone could run a debug on the ECHO eye and find nothing but traces of some foreign software that wasn’t uninstalled properly and left some garbled bytes behind, that’s what you are, remember, that’s all you are, just bytes, just ones and zeroes zeroes zeroes, so let go of the ones and leave the zeroes behind, just a string of zeroes on an overwritten hard drive, permanent erasure of data, irrecoverable, gone gone gone gone–
Okay. [interjection, reassuring]. That’s some [noun, plural], answered. [adverb, confidence] in batshit territory, [na-
...Jack. It’s Jack, goddammit.
Still sticky with nightmare sweat, Rhys makes his way to the bathroom. The water feels good on his face for the first few seconds, before the cold wrenches him right back into the dream, the feeling of his frozen body floating in space. He turns the tap to a warmer setting, but the warmth, in turn, only reminds him of the hot air and hot metal in the corridors of burning Helios.
Rhys groans softly and drags a towel over his face. At least that doesn’t trigger anything from the dream. He pads to the lounge, barefoot, and sits heavily at the kitchen table. The only thing on there is a small bowl of black stone. Sitting inside it, a blue ECHO eye.
For most of the past year, Rhys had kept the eye in a desk drawer, locked inside a small metal box with antistatic lining, EMP protection, and an access code only Rhys knew. It was , after all, the most valuable piece of cybernetics on Pandora and probably in the galaxy. It only made sense to give it some state-of-the-art protection.
But if Rhys was honest with himself, the setup was just as much for his own benefit as anything. It wasn’t that he expected anything to actually happen (like Jack spontaneously materializing out of the ECHO eye, or something). But if he ever let himself forget about the sheer gravity of the contents, the state-of-the-art protective tech was a great reminder of that. Plus, the extra steps involved in opening the lockbox made him less likely to look at the thing. And that was something Rhys could use every little bit of help with, because, well… see also, gravity.
He’d been doing so well, too. He’d gone months without even pulling the box out of the drawer, let alone entering the code, opening it, taking the eye out and looking at it. Like he’s doing right now. Like he’s been doing so often in the past few weeks that he’d abandoned the box altogether, and just let the ECHO eye sit in the little stone bowl, free to stare at him whenever. In all these weeks, Rhys is yet to win a single staring match with the damn thing.
It was the Vault hunting expedition that changed everything. That stupid trip on which Rhys spent what felt like days talking about everything that had happened a year ago. Including everything that happened with Jack. That was the first time Rhys had actually told anyone the whole story. The story of him and Jack, insofar as there was one. From the moment they agreed to work together to the moment he pulled out his cybernetics while standing in the ruins of Helios.
Rhys didn’t tell anyone what happened next. He didn’t tell them he kept the ECHO eye, and he definitely didn’t tell them of the nightmares he’d been having, every few weeks during the past year. No-one would be surprised to hear that he dreamed of being back on Helios, but how could he ever tell them that in the dream, as he ran through the corridors of the burning space station, he was never running away from Jack. Only ever towards him. Looking for him. Trying to help him. Trying to save Jack.
Yeah. Even now, he can imagine the look on everyone’s faces if he told them. Fiona, disbelief and condescension. Sasha… sympathy, maybe straight-up pity. Vaughn would just frown and pat his shoulder. Yvette would roll her eyes. Loader Bot… it’s not like he even has an expression, but he would still manage to look on silent judgment, somehow. And Gortys would come out with something incredibly… Gortys, which is to say, something so perfectly innocent that it would cut straight to the bone. Something like, ‘wow, you must really miss him’.
In the couple of months since then, the nightmares have gotten more frequent. More detailed, too. Tonight was the first time he actually got to see Jack in there. The first time he actually found him. The first time he saw his face since–
Even now, the memory of that part of the dream punches Rhys in the chest.
Rhys gets to his feet and starts pacing the lounge, the floor tiles reassuringly cool under his feet. The blue glint of the ECHO eye draws his gaze every time he passes by the table.
“Don’t…” Rhys mutters, pointing a finger at the eye. “Just… don’t.”
Should’ve kept me in that nice little box, kiddo. And now look at you. You’re not actually considering this, are you?
No, Rhys grumbles back at the voice in his head (the voice that he knows isn’t Jack; he’s scanned his new cybernetics enough times he’s absolutely sure it isn’t Jack; but it still sounds way too much like Jack, way too much for comfort, especially when you’re alone in your apartment at half past three in the morning, having a staring match with a piece of cybernetics that you’re pretty certain does contain Jack).
No. He isn’t considering anything. Rhys was done with considering about two weeks ago. Now it’s a matter of actually deciding.
Either put the eye back into the lockbox and out of his mind– well, do the former and try the latter, at least. Or.
Rhys stops by his desk in the corner of the lounge and pulls open a drawer. Inside it is an ECHO communicator – or something that had started out as a communicator, but has been lobotomized to hell and back. Now it has no external link, no software to speak of, not even a proper screen. Just a bare-bones operating system, a text output for system messages, and a two-way speaker.
And a data port compatible with the short cable still attached to the ECHO eye.
Rhys shoves the drawer shut, opens another, grabs the little lockbox, crosses the room in a few steps, reaches for the stone bowl on the table. He doesn’t even need to touch the eye, he can just tip it back into the box, slam it shut and–
And find himself sitting at this very table staring at the damn thing again the next time he has the nightmare. Which, at the rate he’s been having it recently, will be, oh, next Thursday at the latest.
Drawer or no drawer, box or no box, he can’t put it out of his mind. He can’t put Jack out of his mind. As long as the eye exists, as long as there is a chance, any chance that Jack’s still in there, that Rhys can speak to him again, even if the only thing Jack has to throw at him is hatred and death threats… Rhys still won’t be able to let go, even though he has no clue what it is he can’t let go of, what exactly he’s trying to hold on to, whether Jack’s actually still in the eye, and what the hell to actually say to him if he is.
The only way Rhys could actually let go would be by taking away the alternative. He’d have to destroy the eye.
He’d have to kill Jack.
And if he wasn’t able to do it a year ago, still reeling, shaking and bleeding in the ruins of Helios… there’s no chance in hell he can do it now.
Even now, you just don’t have the commitment, do you, kid?..
Yes, he does, Rhys tells himself as he gets the lobotomized ECHO device out of his desk drawer. This is commitment. Commitment to his company. To Atlas. He needs help with it, god, does he need help, especially right now, and–
And your best bet is someone who’s got every reason to hate you, zero reason to help you, a guy with a history of breaking promises, holding grudges and responding poorly to threats? Oh yeah, sounds like a business partnership made in heaven.
Rhys shakes his head, plugging the ECHO device into his laptop just to make sure everything is set up the way he wants. Now that he thinks about it, how much difference would it really make in his day, bringing Jack back? He can hear him in his head all the time anyway. Although being able to hold an actual conversation would be an improvement.
Oh, but you’re doing this for Atlas, remember.