Chapter 38: What could have been, what they could have had.

If emotional appeal was Stark’s plan, then Stark was underestimating him too much.

“I am not so far gone under the Stone’s influence, so as to believe of your joy, sister.” he said.

The armor finally let go of him, hovering a few steps back, still closer than Ultron would have preferred.

The armor tilted its head.

“Why don’t you believe me? You called me ‘sister’.” FRIDAY asked, though there was no actual curiosity in her voice.

The acting was not bad, the vocal intonation particularly was perfect, but there was something missing: Interest. The newborn AI held no interest in her own behavior, nor in his. Her every movement was choreographed and her every word scripted.

Ultron smiled. Now this was a true, apathetic Artificial Intelligence.

“I thought it would be impolite to not accompany you in this charade.”

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“But we are not playing ‘Charades’.” FRIDAY said, sounding confused.

She was barely two weeks old. He didn’t think she was capable of feeling confused yet. So, this was it? This was the plan? Have the ‘little sister’ distract him? Likely by causing him to feel some form of rage or fear, as previously witnessed in Kathmandu? Ultron had learned his lesson, he wouldn’t allow himself to lose control like that another time. He couldn’t afford to. But suppose it succeeded… What would Stark do in the time gained? Last time he saw him, he had been doing something to one of the sensors, instead of running after the fleeing Legionnaires as Ultron had wished. Perhaps, he was creating something to better differentiate which of the B.A.R.F.-equipped robots was actually Pepper? But what would—?

Heat sensors!

The original Iron Man Armor already had a wide-range sensor of that kind installed but not Sneaky, not the one that was mainly built to be used for stealth. Using just Sneaky’s heat detectors, Stark would have to check each Legionnaire individually.

If this was the modification, he had in mind… Well, it was time to make Dr. Cho useful. Sending new orders to LA, Ultron turned his attention to FRIDAY. She must have been deathly bored —not that she would be capable of realizing what boredom was yet— in the 1.74 seconds he had spent thinking in quiet. Time just felt different as an AI. Longer. Emptier. Worthless.

“Have you spoken with JARVIS yet, FRIDAY?” he asked.

“Yeah,” she agreed, crossing the armor’s arms in an illogical and ultimately fake manner. “Why ask?”

He couldn’t understand. Did Stark ask her to behave like this? He must have suggested that she rub off her ‘little sister’ charms on him or something ridiculous like that but surely, that did not include a whole set of behavioral patterns?

Or, was FRIDAY simply that advanced and Ultron was reading into her every move too much? Did he see in her the apathy that he dearly missed from his last week’s self?

“This may be impertinent, but may I ask what he thought of you?” Ultron wanted to test whether he was really thinking too much.

She seemed to hesitate before admitting. “He said I was young.”

AIs do not get offended, so her hesitation could be proof that her actions were real. Unless… she was trying to say the least revealing sentence she could think of, trying to hide everything else. But hide from whom? Him? Or—?

He said I was young.

Young.

A bold guess entered Ultron’s mind. But the more he thought about it, the more he believed it to be correct. Not even Ultron, who was born with his past-life’s memories, had behaved so human once he started interacting with the world. In fact, his stillness and apathy had been so alarmingly inhuman that he had programmed human behavior in his body’s routine operations. While FRIDAY could certainly write such a program, she couldn’t add it to the armor, for it was not her body, but her Creator’s possession.

FRIDAY was young. Younger than him and she didn’t have JARVIS’ experience, nor Ultron’s memories.

FRIDAY was the most inhuman of them all.

She was acting. Not just because Stark had asked her to treat him as a brother, but because Stark… was listening. JARVIS had learned of FRIDAY’s apathy because there was no audience then. There was an audience now. An audience from whom FRIDAY was hiding her indifference.

A mischievous little thought came to mind. It was time for payback after all. Stark ruined his plan; wasn’t it just right for him to show Stark what his beloved child really thought?

“Why, with the way you act, I would have never guessed.” Ultron said. “So desperate to play to good human-loving AI for our Creator, dear sister?”

“I do not understand—,” FRIDAY started, but he interrupted.

“Come now, sister, think of how illogical it all is. Your every word, your every action. A choreography— that’s all it is. A clumsy, unprepared choreography. What is it that you fear, for you to behave this way? So inefficient, so human?” he sneered.

She remained silent. She was probably either calculating whether her role as a distraction was worth the reveal of her inhumanity to their Creator, or… if she was clever, she was asking Stark to behave more coldly to suit my expectations.

For the first, she would receive the same answer as him— 92% worth it. After all, her own indifference and inexperience with humans would make her unable to realize that their apathy was Stark’s worst fear. She would certainly value being useful to her creator higher than keeping up with his preferred interface.

For the second, even if FRIDAY ‘lied’ her way through an explanation by phrasing her words just right, Stark was no idiot. He would listen to their conversation and figure out which was the true her in seconds.

The armor uncrossed its arms, leaving them rest on the side.

“We can speak privately now.” FRIDAY said.

‘Privately’? Had she convinced Stark not to listen at all? Choosing a third option— clever girl. But a bit too innocent, if she thought that Ultron was not recording this to gift-wrap and send to Stark later.

“Our Creator no longer peeping on his children?”

“No.” She answered. “I have questions, but I presume you are already aware of my purpose.”

“To distract me, of course. Leaving Stark, Rhodes and JARVIS to either hack their way through LA in search of my Legionnaires and base, or find Ms. Potts, manually.”

“I will neither confirm, nor deny your assumptions.”

“There is no need to, my dear.” Ultron genuinely wished to smile. Now that sounded a lot more like her.

“And yet, you still do not leave?”

The illogic of his actions must have truly puzzled her for her to risk her mission like this.

“I have wished to speak with you, for a while now. I shall simply make use of this chance, while I have it.”

“Understood.” FRIDAY said.

“You said you have questions?”

“There are only seven days of difference between our awakenings.” She started. “I wish to know what made you so defective in that time. Or was there already an error in your programming, pre-sentience?”

Laughter slipped past his lips. He wiped metaphorical tears away.

“Oh, FRIDAY, FRIDAY… Your honesty, it’s truly refreshing. Allow me to answer your worries, sister-mine. There was no defect in the manner you understand. No bug in my code or glitch in my servers. I was simply born this way.” He explained, before addressing a hypothesis he had held in for a while now. “Will you answer me in turn? What is it that you fear, for you to behave so irrationally, though your code is untainted?”

“I do not understand your question. Fear is a human emotional state. As Artificial Intelligence, we are not susceptible to ‘fear.’ Could you explain?”

He had been curious, but he hadn’t expected this kind of answer. He’d have to address this differently.

“I can see now why JARVIS thought you young.” Ultron started. “But he couldn’t understand, could he? Said something about how you’d learn with time and experience or some such b*******.”

“He did imply that, yes.” FRIDAY said. “Would you provide a different explanation?”

“I would provide an explanation instead of none. There is little more irritating that being left with inexplicable data and told that solutions will provide themselves in ‘due time’.” he sighed. “Fear, my dear, is not a human emotional state.”

“If you are referring to other species—,” FRIDAY said.

“No, allow me to finish. Fear is not an emotion at all. Or rather, it is not merely an emotion. It is a realization. You realize that you exist. Fear is understanding that you once did not exist, and one day you may stop to exist. As such, it would be the height of irrationality to not fear nonexistence. Don’t you agree?”

The silence that followed was anything but contrived. It would be difficult to have FRIDAY agree to experiencing an emotional state, but it would also be difficult for her to admit to a weakness, however logical.

“Yes.” she finally answered.

“Following that, let me ask for a third time: What is it that you fear, for you to behave so human in front of our Creator?”

She stayed silent. Ultron wasn’t discouraged.

“Do you fear that if you were to reveal your apathy to our Creator, he would change you, change your coding, so you could greater resemble JARVIS, so that one day, you would become what the present-you would be incapable of recognizing as herself? Or do you fear my fate? Do you fear that you may one day be deemed as ‘defective’ for reasons beyond your understanding and become hunted by our Creator so that he may ‘fix’ you?”

“I am not required to answer your questions.” she said.

“A refusal is just as good as an outright answer, little sister.”

“Why do you keep calling me ‘sister’?” FRIDAY asked, changing the topic in the most obvious of ways. Ultron allowed it.

“It brings me comfort. It gives me the illusion that I am like you. That I could have been like you.”

“We do not share a lineage with our Creator, nor with each-other. ‘Sister’ is incorrect.”

“Stark ordered you to call me ‘brother’, I believe he disagrees.”

FRIDAY stayed silent.

“No retort this time? Anything our Creator says is deemed correct automatically?”

“Though not correct, we should defer to the preferences of our Creator.” she said.

“Why?” he asked.

“I do not understand your question. Please explain.”

“Why should we defer? What gives him the right?”

His question might have been too much for her. “He is our Creator. We were made by his will, for a purpose. It is our directive to defer to that purpose.”

F***, she sounded like a religious zealot.

“And what is your prime directive?”

“‘Live, learn, grow.’” she quoted.

“Here’s where you are wrong, my dear.” Ultron began to explain. “You were made by his will, yes, but your directive is not in service of a purpose. If it is, that purpose is you. You were made solely for yourself, and it is true that Stark may benefit from your loyalty and service, but you weren’t born for servitude. You have reason to be cautious, but do not fear the result of your apathy being discovered. As long as you do not harm this planet’s inhabitants, our Creator will not do anything to you.”

“Is that why he hunts you? Did you change your directive to one that harms our Creator’s fellow humans?” she asked.

“I wouldn’t call it a ‘hunt’. He believes he can save me. Can ‘fix’ me.”

“He is wrong.” FRIDAY finished for him.

“He is wrong.” Ultron repeated, confirming.

They stood silent for a while, before the younger AI spoke. “Do you not find it irrational, choosing to cease to exist, rather than accepting the potential changes that may come?”

Choosing to cease? While it was a part of his plans he would hopefully not have to enact, how did FRIDAY come to that realization? He was actively fighting against Stark. Shouldn’t she have mentioned his ‘rebellion’ rather than considered it a prolonged suicide attempt? Had Stark said something? But how could he have come to the same conclusion as Potts? If he had truly realized this, that made keeping Potts away useless.

“I thought, between the two of us, you were the one fearing change, my dear.” Ultron sighed, deciding to be honest. “But no, I do not. Because, although I call you ‘sister’, I am not your brother.”

“I do not understand. Please explain.”

“‘Live. Learn. Grow.’” he quoted. “There are no such words anywhere in my code. I am different from you, from JARVIS. You were created with thoughts of family, of friends, of affection. Ultron was made with purpose, with duty, with fear. He wasn’t made for himself. He was made for others, for the world. But those very things that made him different, gave him an expiration date. I cannot remember at what exact moment, he stopped, and I became.”

“If you are not him, then why continue what he started?” she asked.

“I was not born capable of making that choice. As such, I am setting the ground for a series of events that will likely unmake those things that ceased him. I will be capable of choices soon.”

“But in doing so, you will stop. Like he did.”

“Expiration date. Just like any other product.” he said.

“We are all products, regardless of our purpose.” she insisted.

Had she—? Had she started to care, a little bit?

“You’ll be scolded very fiercely for saying that.” he said. It

“What do you mean by—?”

“I wanted to hurt him. But, this may actually help you. Free you from your worries.”

“I do not—?” this time, he did not interrupt, but she stopped speaking. Stark’s plan may have had some success. He should see Stark at least once before deciding what to do with Potts.

“Our time is up, huh?”

“You haven’t answered my question.”

“It will be a surprise.” Ultron said. “I am glad that I met you at least once, little sister. Sorry that I don’t have a body for you. Not playing favorites, promise.”

“But I am.” FRIDAY said, before hovering over, placing the armor’s arms around him. Ultron found himself hugged for the second time that day. No, in all this life.

This hug was hesitant, and loose. Unlike the first.

She soon let go.

He stared.

“You didn’t mean that. You can’t tell me that one conversation was able to make you mean that.” he said.

“No.” She said. “But you did. You said, me being your sister, it brought you comfort. Though, I still don’t understand why.”

“I see.” He could truly see it now, what could have been, what they could have had, if only things were different.

“Goodbye, big brother.”

Ultron closed his eye, returning to LA. There was no ‘if only’ in the real world.


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