Quality of Memory

by dossier

Notes & Warnings

-[º◦º]-

I.

He is unboxed, and has the basic knowledge set of his placement: single, male. The bioload photo is a grainy snapshot.

He opens his eyes.

He was lying on his back in a crate that restricted his peripheral view, and the bioload in memcore3 instantly identified the human that loomed over the crate as John Sheppard, no middle name, 1.8 meters in height, hazel eyes. "Hello, John," he said.

"Hi. You wanna get out of there?" John reached in and offered a hand. "What should I call you?"

He didn't require assistance, but his etiquette program kicked in smoothly. He calculated stress on human flesh and calibrated his grip to ~6.9 kPa. Through contact with John's flesh, he detected a slight imbalance in John's endocrine system.

"I am not preloaded with an appellation," he said with eyes turned away, chin lowered, simulation of human reaction:embarrassment.

"Yeah, the box says Completely Automated Man, Model 12," John Sheppard said with a smirk. "How about Cameron?"

Memcore1 provided data, this is expected; approximately sixty two percent of his model were given the name Cameron or Camilla. "That works." He stood up easily and stepped over the edge of the crate to examine his surroundings. The room was 7.5 meters long by 4.5 meters width and 3 meters high. His electromagnetic sensors noted a high energy field that circumscribed the room—Human eyes wouldn't see it at all—and a low walled balcony beyond. A kitchen was at the far end, the rest of the room was sparsely furnished in light-colored wood and black pleather.

John said, "I chose the apartment because of the view." At a touch, the energy field flared into a blitz of color and a breeze swept through the room. John sauntered to the balcony's edge,and leaned on the low wall.

Cameron breathed in deeply. The contaminants were at an acceptably low parts per million. He followed John to the wall, and looked down. Over a thousand meters to the ground, and the vast city spread down to the ocean, glittering in the distance under the clear summer night. "This is much nicer than..."

He paused, didn't know why he said that. He shouldn't have any comparative memories, non-sentient AI's were purged of all data upon boxing to protect the privacy of the previous custodian. He attempted to trace the errata with a short diagnostic series.

Fingers snapped in his face. "Hey, where did you go?"

"Sorry, just thinking about something," he said. "Why don't you give me the dollar tour?"

"Right this way." They walked down a wide hallway perpendicular to the main room, past an open door to the left. "My room," John said when Cam paused to peer in. There was only a single large sleeping platform situated in the center. Another high energy containment field separated the room from a balcony.

John moved down the hall and gestured towards two open doors. "You can choose either of the guest rooms."

The room on the right was empty of furnishings and half the size of John's room. There were only four plain walls and no windows. Cameron immediately backed away, and turned to the second room on the left. It was a duplicate of John's room, and contained a similar bed. "No one else lives here?"

"Nope, just us." John leaned against the wall with one shoulder, watched Cam with an expression of curiosity.

Cam walked down the hallway. Lavish bathing facilities were on the right, as was a closed door. "What's in here?"

"Storage, mostly junk."

All other doors, including the bathing facilities, had been left open. Ergo, permission required. "May I go in?"

"Sure. It's just messy, not the first thing I want anyone to see when they come in." John's mouth twisted into a strange smile.

"Does that happen very often?"

"Nope," John said. "Go ahead. You have full permission to snoop around any where you want."

He said with a smile, "Thanks, I will." Upon opening the door, he discovered a room nearly identical in size and shape to the small, empty bedroom in size and shape, but this room had only a narrow trail that snaked between stacks of boxes, sporting paraphernalia, tools and cans of old paint that littered the room, in contrast to the stark simplicity of the rest of the domicile. He noted the location of the server rack with an available autoport. The clutter was untenable, gave him another unbidden image that he shouldn't have. Cameron shook his head, as if to dislodge the data. "I'll straighten that up later."

John shrugged. "If you want."

The hallway ended in a foyer with an imposing door. He saw a keypad, and Cam resisted touching it. He called up what little he knew of John—the bioload was very small—and decision made, he returned to the large room that was identical to John's. "I'll take this one."

"All right." John stayed in the doorway as Cam explored his room.

The hidden pocket doors opened with a spring when touched. The closet was empty, and a large terminal and chair slid out from another enclosure. A third revealed small but well appointed bathing facilities. Cam had no use for the toilet, but the occasional shower would be necessary.

"I've ordered some clothing for you, it should be delivered this afternoon. If you want something else, that can be arranged."

Memcore1 data: forty three percent of placements left their CAM12 in the durable one-piece they were clothed in at unboxing. He had no particular need for special apparel, other than the desire of his placement. Cam was struck by an image of being dirty, naked. It was particularly vivid, and it was paired with a ... feeling? He initiated a diagnostic subroutine, but was unable to reveal the source.

John touched his arm. "Hey, are you okay?"

Cam gave John a reassuring grin. "Whatever clothes you like will be fine."

"Uhm, the instructions said to make sure you have 'net access. The password's Pervu2305843009213693951shin."

Cam shuttled the information into memcore2, he'd need to retain that for the length of his placement with John. "Got it, thanks. What about the rest of the tour?"

The apartment, while each room was spacious, only contained the seven rooms. The open kitchen was moderately equipped, but the refrigerator and pantry were nearly bare. "Any food preferences?"

"I've got an account with a grocery delivery company, they've got a line of prepared meals."

Memcore2 data: food preparation procedures and sample recipes. He recalled the slight endocrine imbalance he'd detected when he'd grasped John's hand, and he'd have to sample the prepared food items for their nutritional value. "Do mind if I cook instead?"

"Naw, you don't have to go to any trouble."

"All part of the service," Cam said with a grin. He quickly sketched out a meal plan and, on John's approval, ordered in the required items.

An hour later the delivery arrived, a CAM10 bearing a huge load of boxes and bags. The Cam10 was receptive to his wireless handshake, but it...felt flat. Cameron shooed it out with a smile when it began to put away the delivery. "Go on, I got this."

He took care to follow and retain John's current pattern of food storage. Once that was done, he embarked on preparing his first meal. Though it was simple, it was the correct ratio of protein to carbohydrates, and John appeared to enjoy it.

While John ate, Cameron sat with him and chatted. It was mostly questions, storing the extracted information, slotting the data into the bioload in memcore3, though he was careful to make the queries casual, nonthreatening. He'd already ascertained that his placement was insular and private.

John asked his own questions, said he'd never met a biomeme before.

They talked for hours. When John bid him a good night, Cameron made his way to the junk room. He extracted a dongle from his wrist and plugged into the server to initiate hardware authentication. After the handshake, he created an encrypted wireless link and a memory cache on the server and linked his processor to it with virtual threads.

The strange expression on John's face when he'd asked about visitors and the vague answers to his questions had invoked his curiosity subroutine, so he examined and copied the contents of the server locally to memcore2. John had given tacit approval, and in order to provide optimal service, he needed more information about his new placement. John's personality inventory assessment was only thirty three percent complete.

 

-[º◦º]-

John slouched against the wall across from the store room door as he watched Cam clean and organize. Cam had asked—no, politely inquired—if 'full access' meant he was permitted to purchase items, and the answer had been an unreserved yes. Cam did a lot around the apartment, shopping, cooking, cleaning, entertaining John.

Shelving and storage systems had begun arriving shortly after he'd given Cam a household account to spend as he saw fit. A bedroom suite was on back order for the empty 'guest' room, and though John didn't expect that it would ever be used, the emptiness seemed to bother Cam.

Overall, he was pleased with his decision. He'd done his research; the CAM12 was still considered the best of Kawasaki's AI line, available in male, female or gender-free models. Close enough to sentience to be useful and a good companion, but never crossing the line. The later models for which the company claimed sentience tended to glitch and have emotional breakdowns. John was done with drama.

When he'd asked Cam if he needed any help, Cam had firmly replied, "This is my rodeo," and gently guided John out. Organizing the store room had always been a low priority and he was fine with letting Cam do it. At this rate, Cam was going to quickly work through the rest of John's list.

Cam was great, almost what Doctor Lam ordered. She had actually recommended a pet, but John disliked the mess that entailed. No, this was far better. Cam was quite the conversationalist; he had a quaint,nearly defunct mid-south accent, was well informed on a variety of topics, didn't require a litter box or poop scooper, and seemed to prefer a certain level of industriousness.

Hence, the store room.

It had concerned John at first, and he'd researched on the 'net what other renters said about their CAM12's, and Cam seemed to be unique. The other CAM12's always did what they were told and didn't exhibit this level of initiative. He'd easily befriended nearly everyone in the building, where as John had lived here for years and could name only his immediate neighbors. Cameron was respectful, but he never hesitated to call bullshit and he could hold his own in a debate.

John discovered that he liked that, it reminded him of Rodney, without the overblown ego and secret-keeping. He'd made a desultory attempt to contact the previous renter to find out if Cam had been like this before, but as expected, they were untraceable. Kawasaki kept all data pertaining to their customers in strict confidence.

No one owned a CAM10 or above, as a result of PETAAI's successful lawsuit that averred owning an AI was akin to slavery. Kawasaki had merely changed their business model and instituted AI 'usage' fees. There was always a lifetime—the biomeme's, not the leaseholder's—full replacement/repair warranty. There were a very few cases where the warranty had been voided by the lessee, and the biomeme was immediately removed from their possession, but generally a permanent lease ended upon the renter's death. The biomeme went back to Kawasaki, and depending upon the model, boxed after the memory was purged to protect privacy, ready for another rental.

It was ingenious, really. Kawasaki got their fee, and the goods came back to them for another rental, with the concomitant reduction in production costs. Due to the continuing popularity of the CAM12—stable AI but not sentient, those pesky memories of former owners purged—there weren't very many available. The Kawasaki rep had tried to convince John to get a more current model, the CAM15 was the most stable sentient model yet! But John had worn him down, because the CAM14 and 15 series had a far more complicated lease structure. Essentially the biomeme chose the human and the personality assessment had to be complete. The more expensive 'rental' was their salary, and they could resign, just like any human. No one wanted the problems associated with the 13.

John was just looking for a companion, nothing fancy. The sales rep eventually relented, and admitted that there was a CAM12 in storage, but it was very old, and its memory had been purged twice.

Old was a sales tactic; the CAM12 had been introduced only a hundred years ago, and they were nearly indestructible.

 

-[º◦º]-

Cam was programmed with a lexicon of human basic needs. In the months that he'd lived with John, there had been only the rare human delivery person. No friends or visitors, only the video conferences when John was working. He was glad to fulfill most of John's requirements, and John appeared to be pleased with his efforts, but Cam was worried. John's mental health required physical interaction, preferably with other humans.

"So, why do you live in the city, if you don't like going out in it?" Cam's articulated frame allowed him to slouch down onto the sofa in mimicry of John's position. For the hundredth time, John had refused to accompany Cam on his daily excursion. Today he was going out to the market and the second-hand book store. He was on the track of a rare first edition, and for once, his quarry was in the same city. The clerk had debited Cam's account; all he had to do was pick it up, and the trilogy was complete. The grocery delivery service was nice, but Cam enjoyed the tactile experience of shopping.

"It's the only place I can have a view from this altitude.Why didn't you just have them deliver it?"

Cam sighed and gave John a hopeful expression. "Okay, I get it. I just like getting out of here, and sometimes I'd like company. Your company."

"Fine," John grumbled as he heaved off the sofa. "When did you turn on the manipulation program?"

Cam gave him a sunny smile—his previous attempts had always failed to dislodge John from the apartment—as he gently ushered John towards the foyer. "I learned it from you."

John shook his head and grabbed his coat. "Yeah, right."

It was beautiful day. The dark clouds and rain of the previous day had cleared; the ambient temperature was a brisk 18°C and the fall breeze a mild 7 knots as they stepped on the conveyor.

Cam had never used it in his previous excursions. He could run across the continent and never tire or run down, but John was not constructed of such stern material. It was fun, standing still and watching the scenery fly past.

He caught John's eye, and his faintly wistful expression turned to a full blown grin. This was a very good idea.

Cam watched as John pleasantly nodded at the other people on the street, or returned a smile here and there. People didn't do that with him, he was unmistakably stamped from a common mold and was instantly recognized as a CAM12. They politely returned his greetings, but it wasn't a connection. They did the same for dogs on leashes.

It bothered Cam, but he had his own connection to the city. He was able to greet and exchange a wireless handshake with every unshielded device in stores or homes as he walked down the street, a little mental 'hello, how are you.'

They got off at the 3rd Street exit, and strolled the rest of the way to the bookstore. It was one of the old neighborhoods, quaint and mostly unmechanized. The bookshop was tucked next to a storefront church with a neon cross in the window, and across the street was a mobile food vendor. The scents were interesting, and Cam touched John on the arm to monitor his condition, then set a reminder to to stop for a snack.

John gave him a bemused look, and opened the door to the bookshop. They wandered through the stacks, and Cam found another book he wanted. "Hey, look at this." He handed the book to John.

"I have an electronic copy of this, you know—one that doesn't reek." John held it gingerly and wrinkled his nose.

"Yep." Books were his distant cousins, old style stored information transfer, and Cam liked them, liked being able to touch them, knowing that they had passed through many hands, performing their duty.

John had snorted beer through his nose when Cam had told him that he felt like he was rescuing them from an unknown fate. "Only you, Cam," he'd said, then laughed, the 'donkey snort' that was so difficult to get John to do.

He hadn't been offended, not at all. Despite the laughter, John had looked proud, and that had stimulated Cam's pleasure program in response.

Cam picked up another book, Armed Combat: The Twenty First Century. He flipped it open and glitched—hard. The bright after-image of an explosion faded slowly, and it was accompanied by an intangible horror. He immediately began a trace, but it was gone.

A touch on his shoulder, and John looked concerned. "Hey."

Cam liked the emotional response subroutine that kicked in at John's touch—it was nice, pleasant. "I'm fine. I'll get this one, too." The glitch was annoying, though. He'd experienced numerous memory aberrations since his unboxing, and he had yet to track down where the strange data was stored.

John waited by the door as Cam completed his transaction with the cashier, another CAM12. They exchanged an encrypted CHAP, and the books were released after verification of identity. Cam brought them closer to his nose and inhaled the faintly musty scent.

He'd deodorize them when he got home. The smell bothered John, so he wanted to savor it while he could.

There was a human attending the food cart, and Cam stood back a respectful distance while John completed his transaction. They wandered back towards the conveyor as John ate spicy, roasted chickpeas from a paper cone.

"This is pretty good. You want to try it?"

"Sure." Cam dutifully 'ate' a bite. He analyzed the components as it was efficiently macerated and vaporized, so he could later recreate the food item for John. "Hmm, tasty," he agreed.

Cam pondered the glitch and the feelings that it had provoked for the rest of the day. After John retired, Cam read the book that had initiated it, but it didn't trigger another memory cascade failure. Though he couldn't access the memories directly, his emotional response program was still using more resources than John normally stimulated on a day to day basis.

He was pre-programmed to care for his placement, though Cam wasn't certain that was all that he 'felt' for John. He liked John, and if his current configuration hadn't made it impossible, he might even allow that he loved him.

It was also possible that his glitch was the cause for the excessive use of resources.

He initiated a complete diagnostic that would be complete by morning, despite the fact that it had been ineffective the last one hundred thirty-six times. He wasn't designed to be self-repairing, biomemetics weren't part of his knowledge base, but had a couple of basic facts. The delicate, crystalline memory module would only take three wipes, then it was replaced. He wanted to tell John, but he was afraid that he'd be sent back, boxed up—replaced.

II.

John generally ignored holidays, but Cam had insisted and apparently John was a slave to Cam's wishes. A pre-decorated artificial tree was purchased and delivered, then John had scrounged around in the store room—he had a damn hard time finding anything since Cam had organized it—and located the box that contained a battered silver star. It was one of the few decorations from John's childhood that had survived, and yeah, it was nice to get the chance to use it.

He opened the box, picked off the packing material that clung to its sharp edges and turned to give it to Cam to put it on the tree.

Cam was frozen and unseeing, all animation that made him seem almost human was gone. John touched Cam and spoke to him softly, in the past that had brought him out of the fugue, or whatever it was.

He didn't respond. John shook him a little harder and yelled,"Cam!"

Still no response. Damn it! He called the Kawasaki hotline, and reported the failure. With shaking hands, John followed the instructions to hook Cam up to the 'net. "Fuck, you're heavy," he said, as he dragged Cam's inert form back to the server room. He leaned him against the wall and pulled the dongle out of Cam's wrist.

John watched the monitor for three hours as they ran test after test. In the end, the tech recommended that he send the CAM12 unit back to the factory, and they'd do a complete memory replacement and return it 'good as new'.

That was completely unacceptable. John had noticed an increase in the frequency of the little glitches, and offered to take Cam in for a checkup. He'd declined rather forcefully, insisted that they were minor, and he was fine.

John knew that Cam was a 'meme, but he had quirks and John liked them. Over the last few months, John had almost come to believe that Cam had crossed the sentience line on his own, but he knew better, it was not possible. A biomeme was, or wasn't, there was no changing that.

People went into catatonic trances, and this wasn't so different. John rudely told the tech to go to hell, and broke Cam's connection to them, afraid that they might try to initiate a wipe protocol without his consent.

Then he had a horrible thought—they could still get to him through the wireless. Cam had talked a lot about being able to connect with other devices, and that he thought the other CAM12's were a little cold and stiff.

He was paranoid enough to not call back to find out how to shut it off, they'd probably use him to get to Cam—if they hadn't already. He reviewed the short review of possible resources available on Christmas Eve; it wasn't a coincidence that all of them were his exes. Big brains were his Achilles heel, and he should have taken that into account when he ordered a biomeme.

McKay was not an option, because while they were reconciled enough to be friends, Rodney had done something to get himself banished to Antarctica, and it would be weeks before he could get out of there. Zelenka was only minutes away, but John was pretty sure that he still wasn't forgiven for being a shithead. That left Sam Carter, because he was an equal-opportunity offender.

John sighed, swallowed his pride and called her.

"Holy Hannah, John?!"

John gave her a weak grin and waved. "Hi, Sam. Merry Christmas."

She shook her head and smiled knowingly. "What do you need, John?"

"What, I can't call an old friend to wish her happy holidays?"

Sam snorted. "Any normal person could get away with that.You? Not so much."

"Sorry. You know me too well," John said with a faint grimace.

"As if," she snorted. "It's not a problem, I'm glad you called. What can I do for you?"

"I picked up a CAM12, and he's glitched. The factory wants me to send him back for a rebuild, and I. I just can't do it."

"Really? I've never heard of that model having that problem.You see it a lot in the 13, though."

"I don't know, but I'm afraid they're going to get to his wireless and do something drastic. Is there any way I can turn it off?"

"Is this call encrypted?" John gave her a sardonic lift of an eyebrow. "Sorry, I almost forgot who I was talking to. Let's see if it's still connected. Read me the access number."

John dug around in the desk, pulled out the packing slip and read Sam the serial number and access code. The instructions were very explicit. To keep your CAM12 safe, never store this data digitally!

"That's definitely a CAM12 ident number." She poked around in her Blue for a few minutes. "Yeah, I can't reach it, so don't worry about it. It's glitched badly enough that the backdoor is locked up tight."

John sagged in relief. "Thank you, Sam."

"Not a problem, John. What are you going to do with it?"

"I don't know. I'm hoping that he'll come out of it on his own. It's happened a couple of times before, but never for this long."

Sam's eyes almost glittered with fascination as she mused,"Really? Always wanted to get my hands on a Kawasaki 12."

"Stop right there, you are not going to disassemble Cameron."

"I'll be gentle," She said with a little sing-song cadence.

"No."

There was a flicker of motion behind her, and John could hear the kids laughing in the background.

"All right, be that way. Look, I've got to go, Charlie's just arrived and it's a madhouse. If you change your mind, I'll come over and see what I can do with it. No disassembly, cross my heart."

"I'll keep you posted. And I meant it, Merry Christmas."

"Thanks, John. You too." Sam reached out and the call was disconnected.

John didn't want to leave Cam in the store room, so he dragged Cam to his own bedroom, and tipped him onto the mattress. Cam affected sleeping in a bed because that's what John did.

He didn't want Cam to wake up alone. If he ever woke up.

 

-[º◦º]-

By the end of the third day, John gave up hope that Cam was going to come out of the glitch on his own.

It was too quiet in the apartment. John had become accustomed to Cam puttering around, the ready conversation and his solid presence. Going back to preparing his own meals, doing the chores around the house that Cam had taken over almost immediately upon unboxing wasn't a problem. He'd only relinquished those duties because Cam seemed to like doing them.

Now that Cam was inert, John realized how much Cam had tried to blend in. He'd simulated breathing, ate food, took showers. He smiled when he was happy, frowned when he was not. Despite the odd coloring, John never thought it was like looking into doll's eyes, there was something shining out from behind them.

All of that was gone. It was almost like there was a corpse in his bed.

That was it. John couldn't do this anymore. Time to call in the specialist.

"Sam? Can you come over?"

John nodded miserably. "Yeah. Miss him." God, he hated that wobble in his voice.

"Oh. My. God. John, you fell in love with your biomeme?"

"I guess so."

"I suppose you two would have a lot in common."

"Ow." Just because they'd had their issues didn't mean that it was okay to bring out the barbs when a man was down.

"Sorry, that was unfair. Give me a couple of hours to find a babysitter for the twins and I'll come over."

John took a deep breath. He wanted this fixed right now, but idea of Sam's sticky-fingered offspring running around the apartment..."That's fine, just come when you can." He'd freaked himself out with the idea that was Cam's corpse, and that he was never going to get him back, not the Cam he knew, and apparently, fallen in love with.

No one had ever accused him of being particularly self-aware.

"Wow, you are in dire straits."

"Yeah."

"Be there as soon as I can."

 

-[º◦º]-

John anxiously flung the door open, and Sam stood there, hugely pregnant, with a toolkit slung over her back. "You're, um. Hi. Come on in. Are you sure you want to do this while you're..." John waved a hand at Sam's middle.

"It's fine, John. I don't think I'm going to give birth in your living room."

Wouldn't that be the icing on the cake. "When are you due?"

"Two weeks ago. If the little monster hasn't shown up by Friday, he's getting evicted."

"Uhm. Congratulations?"

"Thanks." Sam squeezed him on the arm. "So what happened here?"

"We were decorating the tree. I turned around to hand him something and he was completely unresponsive."

"Just like that?"

"Yeah. He hasn't moved since. I dragged him in here."

Sam rolled her eyes when John pointed towards his bedroom, and he blushed, the tips of his ears burning hot. It never occurred to him that she would assume that. "Not what it looks like. I just wanted to be there when he woke up."

"Whatever. It's great, since I'm not in any condition to be working on the floor." Sam dropped the toolkit on the bed, and rested her hands on her lower back. "It's going to be messy. You have anything to cover the bed with? The lubricant's going to ruin everything it touches."

"Yeah, sure." John went to the store room and trashed it in his search for the roll of plastic sheeting leftover after he'd painted the apartment. He found it and returned to the bedroom.

Sam had wrestled off Cam's clothing. He'd never seen Cam naked. The shiny, hairless plastiderm was sculpted to resemble a human, right down to the toenails. John had heard of people that got off on 'memes, androidism and mechaphilia, but he shied away from the idea, because right now it seemed more like necrophilia.

He spread the plastic out where Sam directed, then laid down the absorbent pad she handed him from her toolkit. John rolled Cam over a few times until he was on his back on the center of the pad. "You might not want to watch," she said as she cut open a panel into Cam's chest. "Unlike humans, the central processor doesn't have to be in the head for cooling. The chest cavity is much safer, more central." Sam poked around in the revealed frame until she found the release. The top chest frame popped out with a snick and a cascade of clear, red lubricant dribbled out of the cavity and rolled down his side.

John ignored her snickering as he closed the door behind him.

 

-[º◦º]-

Cam's external sensors jolted back online, but he kept his eyes closed. He heard loud music thumping through the walls, John's favorite.

He was still at home; John had not sent him away. He'd glitched badly enough that he'd been cut off from his external controls, looping though the same horrific memory. Cam checked the timestamp, he'd lost 64.22098 hours.

A female voice he didn't recognize said quietly, "Come on, you big faker. I know you can hear me." The chest panel clicked softly as it snapped back in place.

"I can hear you," he said. He felt the vibrations of a hand pump replacing lost internal lubricant.

"Good."

He started to nod, but a hand on his chin stilled him. "Just a sec, still putting you back together."

Cam waited for the buzz of the plastiderm regenerator to stop before he sat up and opened his eyes. He recognized the woman from the photos in John's files. Not a tech, but Sam Carter, one of John's former lovers. John wasn't the mysterious man without a past, regardless of his efforts to appear so, but now Cam fully appreciated why John perpetrated the illusion. It would be fantastic to be able to 'forget', and pretend as if his suddenly revealed past didn't exist. "Hi."

"Samantha Carter, pleased to meet you." She offered him a lubriwipe, then used another to clean her tools before replacing them in her kit.

"Cameron." He wiped himself off, then rolled the towelette with the plastic; he'd destroy all of it together. "Did you get any of the lubricant on you?"

Sam stared at him while she pulled off the disposable plastic gloves and apron, tossed them onto the trash pile. "No, I'm clean. So, bad glitch?"

"Yeah." Cam felt discouraged. He'd been damaged during his last placement, the unusual energy signature released in the accident had burned the memories into the core itself. The read/write triggers on Memcore2 signified critical hardware failure.

He was in a state of near-constant glitching, tripping over the terrible memories that had surfaced when the restrictor failed altogether. John would have to send him back to the factory, and all of his memories of his time with John would be lost.

The two very different placements clashed in his processor, and Cameron was torn. How was he supposed to operate with the emotional response program co-opting most of his resources? He was not designed for this. "I forgot about the ex-factor—thank you for coming. I'm really glad that he called you, not Kawasaki."

Her pretty blue eyes widened in realization. "You don't want to go?"

"No! I don't want—there isn't a third memory wipe. SOP is total replacement of the physical memory core. My core's faulty, and the previous system wipe was... incomplete. "

She shook her head, and then pursed her lips. "And you didn't want John to send you in for a replacement."

"No. I'd lose John, everything."

"John was almost frantic when he thought there might even be a chance they'd do a soft reset over the wireless."

He cared for John, and it was discouraging to know that he'd caused him to worry, but he was glad that John had respected his wishes. "So, he trusted you to go digging around in my core?"

"Yeah."

"You're a really good friend, Sam. Thank you." Cam nodded at her with a sad smile and headed for the shower. "I'll take care of trash, just leave it there."

Sam shook her head slowly. "You're welcome," she said to his retreating back.

 

-[º◦º]-

John grabbed the remote and turned off the audio when Sam sat heavily on the other end of the sofa. He bit his lip and turned his head, he couldn't bear to have her see his face when she gave him the bad news. When he realized he heard the shower running, he jumped up, nearly vibrating with relief. "He's fine? You fixed him?"

"Well. He's running, but I can't say fine. He was glitched, but all I did was reboot. Cam's got some memory problems. I don't know how extensive—he seemed to think the failure was critical enough to warrant a replacement of his memory core, but he doesn't want it."

"I've tried a couple of times to get him to go for a checkup, but he refused every time."

"Yeah. I've always wondered how Kawasaki made the leap to the Model 13. No other biomemetic company's managed to achieve true sentience."

"I don't understand."

"He's got to be sentient, John. He's really afraid—not just simulating fear. I suspect that they didn't so much as invent or design their sentient series, as replicate a manufacturing error in the Model 12, then built onto the fault. I've never, ever heard of a Model 12 with this particular feature, so they probably just relabeled the entire production run as Model 13, and they missed Cam."

"God, and they just kept wiping his memory, over and over." He felt sick on Cameron's behalf. "Crap. What can I do?"

"Be extremely careful. No one's ever been able to openly study a Model 13 or later due to their protected, sentient status. The 11 and 12 derive some collateral protection, but not enough. If anyone finds out there's a sentient Model 12? He's in a lot of danger."

 

-[º◦º]-

John's shower was immediately adjacent to the living room, and Cam heard the entire conversation through the wall. It explained so much, but presented questions and problems that seemed insurmountable.

Cam should've done what John wanted. Knowing that John had been panicked and upset was painful. It wasn't his first mistake, nor would it be his last. He resisted the impulse to pull his chest open and rip out the offensive core. Sam would merely reseat it and put him back together again.

He wasn't who he thought he was, a slightly odd Model 12, but instead he was an uncaught error, all of the attendant glitches of a Model 13 and none of their lawful protection. He didn't know what to think about Sam's claim about his presumed sentience. There were programs and hardware, but how did that add up? It was an unobtainable goal, the stuff of daytime melodramas.

He couldn't think about that. He was terrified of the recovered memories, what they contained, what they meant. It was nearly unbearable, but he could hold onto the fact that he was still here, still with John.

 

-[º◦º]-

Cam looked up at him as John approached the shower. "Hey, buddy." He sat down next to Cam, clothes and all. "You catch all of that?"

"Yeah."

Cameron leaned in, and John put his arm around his shoulders. "Oof, you're really heavy. I nearly busted a gut dragging you around." Cam attempted to move away, but John pulled in closer to him and murmured, "I'm sorry."

"No, don't. I don't want to lose this, with you, but I don't know if I'm useful anymore."

"I don't want to lose you either, just want to make sure you're okay."

Cameron chuckled. "Yeah. So, what are we going do?"

"We'll figure something out. In the meantime, be careful. I don't want someone nabbing you off the street."

"I can defend myself, you know."

"It would make me feel better if I went with you."

"I don't have to go out, it's just something I always felt I had to do." Cam knew why now; Boch had stored him in the basement for years, the incomplete wipe bleeding subconscious reactions into his every day actions and behavior.

"Yeah, I know."

 

-[º◦º]-

At least John had stopped asking him if he wanted to go back to the factory.

Cam was determined to stay, but he and John began arguing over that. Quietly at first, but then the arguments over whether or not he was too broken turned into shouting at one another, and then there were tears, just one, and that had sent John flying into his room, slamming the door behind him.

That shocked Cam more than the waterworks or the yelling. Doors remained open at all times, except for the store room.

Cam wiped the fluid from his face. When he pulled his hand away, it was bright red—internal lubricant. That would be rather shocking. He cleaned up, then softly knocked on John's door. Cam waited patiently, as only a biomeme could, and John knew how patient he could be. That hadn't changed. Eventually, he heard a muffled, "Come in".

John lay across his bed, head tipped back toward the balcony and the night sky.

Cam laid down next to John and looked up. The stars were as bright as they could be, but even this high up, the city's output of lumina still obscured most of the visible starlight. It was a shame that John couldn't see the the entire spectrum of radiant energy. It was beautiful. He wanted to remember this moment.

John rolled to his side and draped himself across Cam protectively. "I don't want you to go away, but you need help. I need to help you," John whispered to his shoulder.

Cam attributed his oversight to the glitch, but his empathy routines were functioning correctly. "Whatever you want to do—I'll go."

The first business day of the new year, John initiated a cautious dialog with Diana Mendez, the local rep at PETAAI, and negotiated an evaluation for Cam in return for a hefty donation to the non-profit to overlook the fact that his biomeme was a 12 and therefore not sentient. PETAAI provided legal counsel and was the only approved, independent outlet for AI care.

Essentially, John had found a licensed biomemetic psychtech that charged outrageous fees. The plan was to get PETAAI interested enough to back some sort of legal action to get Cam relabeled sentient, or rather, correctly labeled as a CAM13; then they would be able to get a safer, second opinion on the faulty memory core.

Cam calculated the odds of a successful legal action at less than nine percent, but he had promised that he'd go.

 

-[º◦º]-

The ride on the conveyor didn't have any of the excitement of their last outing. The high speed conveyor was packed with throngs of people, despite the weather. They didn't chat, and Cam wouldn't meet his eyes. John stopped trying, and ducked his head further down into the collar of his coat. It was cold, and fog swirled around them as they zipped through the city, transferring twice to slower conveyors. John felt the dampness work its way through his hair and coat, and he was shivering before they reached their stop. He should've hired an autocab.

The PETAAI office was located in a modest turn of the century office building of concrete, glass and stainless steel. The receptionist logged them in as visitors, gave them badges and directed them to the third floor.

The flashy name plate on the third floor receptionist's desk introduced her. "Hi, Jenny. John Sheppard, to see Diana Mendez?"

"Please have a seat, and I'll let her know that you're here."Jenny motioned towards the chairs to wait for their appointment and then promptly ignored them.

John sprawled in a chair and looked through the cheap throwaway flimsies littering the end table. He picked one at random and paged through it. The battery was shot, and kept fizzing out. He put it back, and surreptitiously watched Cameron, who sat straight as a soldier, hands resting loosely on his thighs. He stared straight ahead, and the only motion was a faint twitch in his jaw. He'd stopped mimicking John after the incident, and John had gotten a better idea of who the real Cameron was. He was more serious, a little more sarcastic and he smiled less, but when he did, it was genuine.

John hoped this worked, that there was some compromise between Cam suffering glitches for the rest of John's life, or John losing him forever. If this failed, if they couldn't get Cam reclassified, he'd insist Cam go back to the factory. It was painful to watch Cam freeze up during a cascade failure. John's heart stopped right along with him, afraid that this might be the time when Cam had truly, permanently glitched.

There was a part of him that wondered if Cam was manipulating him, if this was an act. Cam was capable of it, had gleefully admitted to doing so on several occasions.

But now Cam was deadly serious, and John had to believe him.

A tall dark-haired woman strode toward them in excruciatingly high heels that were generally only seen in porn vids, and her hair was severely restrained in a tight bun. John and Cam both stood up, and she offered her hand to John, palm down. Her short nails were perfectly manicured, and painted to match her lipstick. She didn't even look at Cam, and leveled an intense smile at John that revealed, sharp, white teeth. "My apologies for the wait. Diana Mendez."

With the amount of flawless makeup she was wearing, John was surprised that she could smile, and her handshake was weak and awkward. "John Sheppard, and this is Cameron."

She gave Cam sweeping glance then nodded. "If I could have a word with you in private first, and then we'll get to the CAM12?"

John refuse to let it get to him. To the rest of the world, Cam was a Model 12, as easily ignored as the furniture. They were here to fix that, and John pushed away his niggling concern what would happen when—if—Cam was declared sentient. "Sure. You okay with that, Cam?"

A brief smile tugged at Cam's mouth. "John, it's fine."

He touched Cam's shoulder then followed Mendez down the hall into an office. She closed the door, and motioned to the chair in front of the desk. "Would you like anything to drink?"

John took the chair. "No, thank you."

Diana sat behind the desk, leaned towards John, and folded her hands together in front of her. "Very well. Mr. Sheppard, I know you believe that your CAM12 has gained sentience, but frankly, it's not just possible."

"No, I said I don't think that he's a Model 12, and that his last wipe was incomplete."

Diana pursed her ruby lips in annoyance. "Ah yes, your undisclosed 'expert'. I presume that you're not going to reveal your source?"

Sam didn't need to be dragged into this. She had a family to worry about. Whatever else she thought about him, she still trusted him to keep her safe. "No, definitely not."

"Regardless, I simply must have the information on your CAM12 if we're to proceed. I assure you that we have excellent security, and PETAAI will do everything possible to protect your biomeme." She pushed a flimsy across the empty desk with the tips of her red nails.

He'd memorized Cam's serial and access numbers. John keyed in the information, and handed the flimsy back to her.

She didn't sound particularly sincere when she said, "Thank you, Mr. Sheppard." Mendez slid the flimsy into a port on her desk, and her interested expression changed to one of satisfaction as she tapped a few keys.

Federal law made PETAAI the watchdog organization, and all biomemetic companies were required to provide PETAAI with information regarding the history of each AI, in order to provide effective service.

John didn't ask, they couldn't tell, but he considered having Rodney test their 'excellent security'. Something in that file had Mendez very interested, and that left him even more concerned for Cam.

"Thank you. I'll have the CAM12 brought back immediately," she said crisply.

"I'd like to be there."

Mendez said tightly, "This is not couples therapy, Mr. Sheppard. Either you trust us to do our job effectively and discreetly, or not. The choice is yours."

They stared angrily at one another for a moment, until Mendez softened a little. "Mr. Sheppard, we really do have your best interests in mind. He will not be further damaged and I guarantee you there will be no data loss without your explicit permission."

He and Cam were out of options, and she knew it. John relented with a sharp nod. "Fine."

Diana tapped her earpiece as she stood up and went to the door."Susan, please take Mr. Sheppard's biomeme to Eval 1." She held the door open and said, "This will take several hours at a minimum. There's a cafeteria on the first floor, if you prefer to wait."

John watched Cam walk toward him, escorted by a mousy slip of a woman. Cam was faintly smiling, and gave him a thumbs-up as he passed by.

 

-[º◦º]-

Susan Calvin ushered Cam into her lab. Half of the room was taken up by a clean room, the other contained a desk and chairs. Calvin dipped her head to the retinal scanner attached to the clean room and the door opened with a whiff of filtered air. "I'd like to start with a complete diagnostic," she said, "then we can discuss the results, your options, and any concerns that you might have. If you'll remove your clothing?"

"Sure," Cam replied, as he stripped and climbed onto the table in the center of the clean room.

Susan wheeled over a long cart with a variety of equipment and parked it next to the table. "I'm going to open your chest access and attach the leads. The physical plant testing can be disconcerting—hardware, applications and subroutines will be initiated externally. You can shut down during this portion, if you like. It won't affect the testing."

Cam didn't tell her that he never shut down, not unless it was required. He disliked the inert state. "You mind if we talk?"

"I'd prefer to have the results first, please."

For the next two hours, Cam felt like a marionette. At first it was simple things, physical motions, speech and communication centers activated, aural and visual tests. Then the tests became more subtle, and he was barely aware of them.

That is until a probe designed to test the core's contents triggered another massive cascade failure. The memories were known to him, but being out of control was unsettling.

When the physical testing and scans were completed, Susan merely hummed to herself as she disconnected the leads and put him back together. She handed him a lubriwipe. "If you'll follow me?"

Cam cleaned himself off, pulled his clothes on and sat down in front of her desk. "What's next?"

"Any one method for determining sentience can result in a false positive or negative, so current standards are to administer several very different tests. Shall we begin?"

The Random-Wijdeven test was merely selecting truly random numbers or objects from a string. The Voight-Kampf and Dukkha tests were more like a conversation, not unlike the sophistry that he and John enjoyed bantering back and forth. The Rowan-Martin test was just flat out fun.

Finally, Susan put her stylus down and silently looked at Cam.

"So, what's the verdict?"

"You tell me," she said casually.

Cam shrugged. "Cognito ergo sum?"

She laughed. "Congratulations. You are most certainly a sentient CAM12."

"Not a thirteen?"

"The CAM13 series was never actually manufactured. Every one of them is a former CAM12 with a manufacturing flaw that either causes glitching, sentience—or both. A bit of marketing sleight of hand to maintain the reliability standards that make the twelve series so popular. Kawasaki refined the 'flaw' and produced the Model 14."

"Why didn't anyone figure this out? I've been boxed twice."

"It's completely impossible to know which way the flaw will turn, and Kawasaki won't lease to anyone employed, even peripherally, in memetics. Those they do approve for a lease never know the difference, and if a Twelve exhibits signs of sentience, the lessee is treated to a free 'upgrade' or a replacement with another Model 12, because the Model 13 has a certain legal status. Also, people generally prefer the Twelves because they come with clean memories."

"But the hardware—why didn't they find that?"

"The hardware tested fine at boxing, though I imagine you've been running a lot of diagnostics?"

"Every day."

"That's probably why. You notice a problem, run a diagnostic, which causes the hardware to weaken, etc. Like a feedback loop, compounding the known flaw with the minor fault caused by the industrial accident during your last lease."

Cam went still. "What do you know about that?"

"A few pertinent facts. We only receive a compendium of critical events from Kawasaki."

"Those old memories are dangerous, for me and anyone who knows about it. I need to purge them, but I can't."

"The Kawasaki legal department will have to sign off on removing the failed restrictors—sentient models aren't required to have them. The damaged registers in the core will need to be replaced, too, if not an entirely new memory core."

"I'll lose my memory?"

"I won't lie to you; there's some risk involved. Flashing the new core from a defective one fails about half the time."

"A new core, what effect will that have on me?"

"You mean, will you end up a regular CAM12? No, the memcores aren't related to sentience—that's a function of the main quantum processor, but they do affect personality, your perception, etcetera. Removing the restrictors also gives you full access to all of your registers, and some better self-diagnostics. Though you should limit those, they're only making the problem worse."

Cam relaxed back into his chair. "Yeah, I'll try. How long will all that take?"

"I can transmit my results to them today, and we should have permission within a few days."

Fifty percent, that wasn't great but it was something to hold onto. If he didn't take the risk, he'd eventually break down altogether, and he'd go back to the factory anyway. "Do it."

"Mr. Sheppard will need to sign the forms, as legally, you don't have those rights until you're declared a Model 13."

Cameron thought that he knew what John's answer would be, that this was the compromise they both wanted. "He'll sign."

"I'll get the necessary flimsies and meet you in Ms. Mendez's office."

"Good, great. Thank you so much, I really appreciate it."

Susan smiled, and Cam thought it was her best feature, transforming her plainness into something radiant.

"It was my pleasure, Cameron."

The rest of the day consisted of flimsy forms and digital signatures for permission for the procedure. After that was done, Kawasaki required Cameron to come to the factory for a facelift, part of the 'upgrade' process, as John intended on retaining his current lease. People could pay to upgrade the exterior of their CAM12, but Kawasaki bore the cost for CAM13's, part of their sneaky marketing plan.

John looked exhausted when they finally exited the PETAAI office. It was dark and the fog had turned into a drizzle, so Cam called an autocab rather than make John take the conveyor in inclement weather. They stopped for take-away on the way home.

Now that he knew that he wasn't just an AI with glitches, but sentient, Cam pondered his affection for John as he sat beside him in the autocab.

He could love, he had the capability. His answer to Susan's question wasn't cognito ergo sum, but cognito ergo amor.

He slipped his hand into John's, and smiled.

After John had retired for the evening, Cam began the process of backing up as many memories as would fit onto the server. If Calvin's process failed, he'd still have something of John to remember.

 

-[º◦º]-

John thought the self-imposed protective custody while waiting for Kawasaki's decision had been fine. Anything they needed was delivered in, and their daily routine continued normally: work, exercise, entertaining each other. Cam curtailed his excursions altogether without complaint, but the apartment hadn't been this clean when John had moved in.

Cam tried to be as buoyantly charming as before, though the failing restrictor still caused irregular memory glitches, though none were as serious as the Christmas Eve debacle. When they occurred, Cam disappeared into his room apologetically; he didn't want John to see them.

One night, John shook his head and caught Cameron's hand before he could turn away. "Don't, stay with me." John turned the lights off, pushed the sofa to the forcewall, sat close together. John sat with him through his glitch, and then they talked and watched the night sky.

Cameron told him a little about the recovered memories. He'd been just another tool in the box, stored in the basement. There was another CAM12 in the vicinity, and they'd chat over the wireless, Cam's lifeline to the outside world. All he'd ever known was that dark, dirty space. The larger outside world was only a series of facts stored in memcore1, as seen through the eyes of another biomeme.

After hearing that, John thought that Cam's quirks made sense. The ghost data behaved as a subconscious, driving Cam to behave and respond in a certain way, and John had responded in turn to that behavior. He could tell that there was something that Cameron wasn't saying, though; something worse than simply being treated like an inanimate tool. When John pointed that out, Cameron had begged him to drop the subject.

He let it go, but he still wondered. Though he'd only known Cameron for six months, he'd come to depend on Cam, because he knew that Cameron was never going to go away or leave him for being a shithead. Knowing that Cam wanted to stay with him so desperately made something inside of John break open with relief.

When he called Mendez to check on the status of their case, she informed him that there had been a minor administrative delay, but it had been taken care of and Cameron's case would be satisfactorily wrapped up in a few more days.

The impending upgrade in Cameron's status probably wouldn't change anything.

 

-[º◦º]-

John was elated when Susan called, her contact at Kawasaki had said the request was approved, and they'd have the forms back in a couple of days. Cameron would be back to normal soon, and they could put this behind them and stop worrying.

The clear and sunny day suited his mood, so he lowered all of the forcewalls to let the cool January breeze flow through the apartment,then he stripped his shirt off and draped himself over a chaise lounge on the balcony, despite the temperature.

Cam's plastiderm didn't react to sunlight, but he'd taken his shirt off with a smirk that said, 'I'm only doing this to humor you.'

John reached out and took Cam's hand, and gave it gentle squeeze. "Almost over."

Cam said, "I feel like celebrating. Can we order a fish from the Wharf for dinner?"

Cam said stuff like that, even though he never really ate anything; it was all for John's benefit. "That sounds good." John tossed his Blue over. He didn't like Cam using his internal wireless for the duration. He didn't know what secret Cameron was keeping, but along with Sam's warning, it had made him paranoid.

 

-[º◦º]-

They came in the night, bypassing the security system and if Cam hadn't been attached to the server, obsessively downloading his memory core and running useless diagnostics against Susan's advice, they would never have gotten this far into the apartment.

Cam could've easily fought them off, but they pointed to an accomplice in the hallway with an illegal hand gun, and assured him that John would be dead the instant that Cam resisted.

If he hadn't been damaged by Boch, his restrictor wouldn't have failed, he'd never have figured out he was sentient, he thought bitterly. He'd still believe that his affection for John was an aberration and he could do what was necessary without worrying for John's safety.

Cam couldn't let them take what Boch had stored in his memory. Cam took advantage of the fact that he was faster than a human and jumped the thug with the gun aimed at John. He went down easily and Cameron turned to attack the other two.

Lead Thug thumbed the speed dial of his cell phone. He smiled meanly and said, "Nighty-night."

 

-[º◦º]-

John was overly groggy and had a hell of a headache, and wondered if he was coming down with something. It didn't feel like an insulin crash. The apartment was too quiet and he didn't smell coffee. Cam was always 'awake' before him.

Cam's bed still had the dent in the blanket where he 'slept' on top of it. He wasn't in the apartment, and there wasn't a note. John didn't know what he was going to do when Cam came home, but it would most assuredly involve yelling.

He took a couple of painkillers, and called Cam with the intention of delivering a blistering dressing down for leaving, and especially for not letting him know.

Cam didn't pick up on the call to his wireless. John fretted over whether it was Cameron employing the precaution that he'd insisted upon, or if he was unable to answer the call.

John's arm ached, and upon inspection, there was a bruise with a tiny puncture wound in the center. He checked the security system, and it had been turned off. John called the police and reported that his CAM12 had been stolen.

By the time that Detective Landry arrived with a forensics team, John had discovered that the server was missing as well. It was annoying, but he had backups of his backups, and he wasn't devastated by the loss of the hardware. He wondered if the server was a random item, or if it had something to do with the memories that Cam had been saving. It didn't make sense, though—Cam wanted to get rid of the dangerous memories, not save them.

When he took John's statement, John tried to impress upon Landry that the key issue was that Cam was missing, but the detective seemed more interested in what was on the server, what model, how expensive, ad nauseam.

Photos were taken, the apartment scanned for fingerprints and foreign DNA. John stayed at the periphery of their investigation, until a tech took a sample of John's blood and found vanishing traces of a swift acting anesthesia.

John followed Landry down to the building manager's office, where they reviewed the security camera files, but the inputs had been disabled. Landry took the files with him anyway, and sent a tech to gather the files from the surrounding buildings.

Landry issued a BOLO, but he looked doubtful. "I'll be in touch once we find out anything about your server, Mr. Sheppard. As for the biomeme, Kawasaki will track it down. They'll ship a replacement out today, just give them a call."

The one thing that Cam feared, how ever irrationally. "Thanks, I think I'll give you a couple of days first."

Landry shrugged as he left. "Your choice."

Cam had to have gone willingly. His abductors had threatened John, or had offered some enticement. No human could get the drop on a CAM12. They were far stronger, less susceptible to damage, and they could fight back.

John wasn't about to sit around and wait for Kawasaki to find Cam. He couldn't divulge Cam's situation to the police, and despite the fact that John had been drugged, Landry was treating this as if Cam had simply gone on a walkabout.

Screw that. John called McKay with double encryption. The cell connection to the bottom of the Earth was tenuous. The call went through, but audio only.

"Sheppard, this had better be the most important phone call of your life, to wake me up at the ass crack of dawn."

John snorted, he knew that the sun had been up for hours over Antarctica. "Hi to you too, McKay."

"Says the man who crawls out of the woodwork on a biannual basis. To what do I owe the pleasure?"

"I need a favor."

"Yes, yes. You and every other moron on the face of the earth. What is it?"

"Cameron is missing. If I gave you the access number, could you put your giant intellect to work and locate a CAM12?"

"Please, I've been languishing in the barrens—give me something challenging. What's the number?"

John reeled it off. "Thanks Rodney."

"Oh, you will pay. I haven't decided exactly what I want yet, but it will be very expensive."

"Sure, just let me know."

"Oh, wait. You're serious?"

"Rodney, just please, please see if you can track him."

"Right. I'll call you back."

John took a shower, then checked his Blue for a message from Cam for the twentieth time in the last two hours. He didn't honestly expect one, but was disappointed all the same.

He hired an autocab and went directly to the PETAAI office. John picked up a visitors badge at the main reception, blew past the third floor watch dog and barged into Diana Mendez's office.

Mendez stared at him with a hand held to her earpiece. "I see. Thank you, Jenny," she said, then folded her hands on the empty desk top. Her fingernails were painted an incongruous pink that clashed with her severely cut navy suit. "What can I do for you today, Mr. Sheppard?"

"Cameron's been abducted, stolen. I want to know what makes him so interesting, and how the fuck privileged information got leaked!" John stood up and paced the small office. "Someone convinced Cameron to just walk away with them, so whatever you know, I want to know."

She didn't bat an eye at John's rant. "Any information on his former lessee is confidential. Have the police been notified?"

John glared at her. "Yes, the police have been notified. I couldn't tell them the whole story. Landry's more concerned about the stolen equipment, thinks Cam just walked away from my apartment!"

"I think you need to calm down, and tell me the entire story."

John didn't calm down, couldn't, not when Cam was missing and no one else cared, but he gritted out the the morning's disaster, including the fact that someone he trusted was searching for Cam's wireless signal.

Diana listened attentively. "Considering the circumstances, even if it was allowed, I refuse to put you in further danger with sensitive information, Mr. Sheppard. Nor do you have any proof that PETAAI is the source of the leak."

John opened his mouth to yell some more—it was very therapeutic—but Mendez forestalled his rant with a lifted hand.

"However, I believe that your allegation has merit. I assure you, Mr. Sheppard, I will thoroughly investigate the situation."

 

-[º◦º]-

John called Landry to check on the investigation's progress, but disconnected when Detective Landry's tone became just a little too patronizing. He forced himself to eat when his blood sugar plummeted, though he had no appetite.

He paced through the apartment, far too wound up and worried to nap. He tried to watch the 'vid a few times, and angrily punched the remote when it proved useless as a distraction. He couldn't lose himself in work, because while virtual backups were nice, he couldn't work without something to put it on.

It was after midnight, when Rodney called. "So, you ready? The signal was on long enough to trace it, but disappeared before I could get to the phone." Rodney sent the coordinates through, and the text scrolled across the bottom of the otherwise blank screen, 38.744281°N, 104.846806°W.

John pushed the coordinates onto a map. Colorado. "What's there?"

"Cheyenne Mountain. It was an Air Force facility dating back a hundred years, until Zeditron Industries purchased it about ten years ago. They abandoned it after that earthquake, though."

John vividly remembered that one. It had nearly flattened several cities in Colorado, and registered so high on the Richter scale that everyone had thought that the entire west coast was going fall into the ocean at last. "I should be able to find a blueprint or something."

Rodney sighed. "I owe myself ten bucks. What's the problem, Sheppard? Just call Kawasaki, and tell them your biomeme walked off. They'll replace it, that's part of the lease agreement—or didn't you read it?"

"It's a little more complicated than that, Rodney. Don't go getting helpful on me."

"I'd recommend that you at least let an actual law enforcement organization handle this."

"They don't appear to be particularly concerned," John said tightly.

"Can't say I didn't try. Sending the file now. Don't make me come visit you in prison—or the hospital."

"Thanks, McKay."

"I'll call you in a couple of days. My exile is drawing to a close, and I'm in the middle of packing to escape this god-forsaken, frozen wasteland."

"Congratulations."

"Yes, upon months and months of forced reflection on the Ice, I realize that perhaps calling the General a slack-jawed idiot with marshmallow brains wasn't my best career move."

"Ya think?"

"Later, Sheppard."

John hadn't planned what he would do if McKay came through, but now that he knew where to start looking, he knew who to call. It had been a long time and it was late, but this qualified as an emergency.

 

-[º◦º]-

Cam managed to fight his way through the tangle of poorly executed shut down codes to regain access to his external sensors. Someone in a clean room suit was standing over him.

"Oh, no, this will not do at all." Bunny Suit put a hand into Cam's CPU cavity, and then Cameron was—

 

-[º◦º]-

Dawn over the Rockies should've been gorgeous, but John was completely focused on breaking into the former high security facility with his old team, Eric Holland, Michael Mitchener and William Dexter. Heavy ruts in the snow led to a vehicle parked in the main tunnel, but the nest of raccoons in the floorboards hissed their annoyance at the intrusion through the broken window.

They could've gone down an exterior access hatch and worked their up through the facility. Though John kept in shape, he wasn't delusional enough to think that he could rappel down a thousand meters then execute a search of twenty-eight levels. John knew how heavy Cam was, and his working theory—whoever had stolen him would've taken an easy route into the facility—was proven by the tracks in the snow that went into the facility: two sets of footprints and small, deep wheel tracks that were probably from Cameron on a handtruck.

Holland stayed with the van, hidden in the scrub that surrounded a dilapidated gatehouse. Mitch and Dex followed John inside. They had canteens of water, climbing gear, a small amount of detcord and infrared glasses, even a couple of illegal hand guns. He checked the clip and safety, and thought that the infrared equipment and weapons might have been his, back when he was on the team. John didn't want to know how they'd managed to keep them, or get the explosives; they would be in enough trouble if they were caught trespassing.

John was only mildly surprised that the three of them were this well prepared. One call to Holland and they were packed and ready to go by the time John's red-eye flight landed. It was gratifying to know that they had his back, but John suspected that they were there more for the excitement and challenge.

Damp footprints and wheel tracks were traced into the thick dirt and dust. The light from the open blast door quickly disappeared as they went further into the facility. The IR glasses turned the dark into ghostly shades of white, gray and red. They followed the wheel tracks to an open elevator, but the controls were dead. A single set of footprints led off down the dark corridor. "Dex, stay here. We're gonna go check those out."

John and Mitch followed the trail into the Stygian darkness. The IR gear left him in a tiny bubble of eerie light, and he caught glimpses of paint peeling off cracked concrete walls, a black stream of frozen slime that crossed the corridor and disappeared into a crack on the other side as he passed through. The earthquake had rendered the facility unusable; it was impossible to rehab nearly thirty thousand square meters of broken underground bunker.

John clamped down on his burgeoning hysteria at being trapped underground and in nearly complete darkness. He lived in the clouds for a reason, but Cam was in this facility somewhere. He had to do this.

The footprints stopped at an access hatch that had already been broken into. John peered inside, and the rungs looked rusty. John consulted the schematics on his Blue to confirm that the old power plant was on level five, but they didn't have two hundred meters of rope between them. They'd have to stage their way down, because he wasn't going to free solo on the ancient, rusty handholds in the dark.

While Mitch went back to get Dex's rope, John clipped himself into the harness and checked the carabiner and belay device. Mitch geared up and John set the first belay. A buddy check later, they climbed into the hatch.

The IR glasses barely broached the depths of the shaft as they swiftly descended past shuttered hatchways into utter blackness. They stopped twice to reset the belays. The hatch to level five was ajar, a sign that they were on the right track.

The trail here was less obvious—the footprints outlined in faint ghostly white—but still there. It led to a small, anvil shaped generator attached to the power grid. It was an unfamiliar design, but the controls were simple and conspicuous. He flipped the generator on, and though it was completely soundless, the power board lit up. John took a deep breath of relief as the red emergency lights glowed overhead.

Mitch asked, faux-casual, "You all right?"

"Yeah, that's better." John clicked the old-style radio affixed to his vest, but he didn't get a reply from Dex. John crushed a shudder at the thought of how much concrete it took to mask the signal.

"You take the elevator, I'll go back and clean the ropes. Meet you topside."

Mitch was giving him the easy route and that was annoying. John didn't like the idea that Mitch was going back up alone either, but this friend was an experienced climber. "You sure?"

He reassured John, "The rungs are pretty solid. It'll be a quick climb and we might need 'em."

"Right. Topside," John confirmed.

They split apart in the corridor. John went to the elevator and called the car down. It was empty, Dex was still waiting on level one.

He stopped at every floor on the way up to check for tracks, but there were none. Cam had been taken to a lower level. John hoped they didn't have to search all twenty eight floors. They would be here for days and they didn't have supplies for an extended search. Any subsequent break-in would increase their chances of getting caught, and he had no idea how long that generator would last—it hadn't appeared to be attached to a fuel source. He didn't know how much time Cameron had either. It was imperative they find him as quickly as possible—he'd been missing for at least thirty two hours. John couldn't afford to think that it might be too late.

Dex was stuffing the remains of a field-stripped cigarette butt into his pocket when the door opened. "Where's Mitch?"

"Cleaning the ropes." There wasn't anything he could do if Mitch fell, but John went back to the access shaft to wait while Mitch ascended.

When Mitch climbed out of the hatch, he said, "No problem, I'll be able to get back down there to turn off the generator when we find your 'meme."

They'd been willing to embark on the escapade when John had sketched out the problem minus a few details. Mitch, Dex and Holland thought they were rescuing a simple biomeme, not Cameron.

"Let's go."

 

-[º◦º]-

It become more difficult to determine whether or not there was a trail leading to Cam. They got out and investigated each descending floor, room after room full of broken down lab tables, ancient computers, or empty book shelves. John wondered what the facility had been used for before Zeditron Industries took over, and what Zeditron had wanted with it, it didn't look as if they'd used it at all—most of this stuff had to be at least a hundred years old.

John's desperation grew as the hours passed, until they hit level 19 and Dex pointed out a black tell-tale smear where the snow-wet wheels had made a sharp corner. They followed the track down the labyrinthine corridors and located a room where a dim light shone out of the door. Muffled voices echoed in the otherwise silent complex.

He yanked off the infrared glasses before he blinded himself and pulled his weapon. They cautiously approached the room and John chanced a peek in the door. A modular clean room took up most of the room. There had to be another way into the facility; the thick, opaque plastic draping looked new and modern—no way was that brought in on the route they'd just followed. Someone had been making plans, and John suspected he knew who that was.

Two men in clean room suits were working inside, apparently unguarded. John waved Mitch and Dex forward, they slipped into the room at a low crouch. When they signaled that they were in place with a pair of double clicks, all hell broke loose. The two men looked up and came out of the clean room with semi automatic weapons in hand to investigate the sound.

To distract their attention from the fact that Mitch and Dex were in the room, John yelled from the corridor, "We can do this easy way, just put the weapons down."

The response was a short firefight. The last gunshot was still reverberating in John's head when Dex called out, "Clear."

John carefully sidled into the room. Mitch and Dex checked the bunny suits, but they were covered in blood and liberally laced with bullet holes. He hoped that Cam was here, because otherwise they'd just killed those two guys for nothing.

He walked past them and pushed his way into the clean room. Yes, Cam was on the table. He muttered, "Jesus, Cam. What did they do to you?"

Cam's chest plate was off to the side, and there were wires trailing out to machines with flickering lights. A tray next him held a variety of internal components. It reminded John of an autopsy, and his stomach turned. He found a box of gloves and pulled one on. He had no idea of how to put him back together again, so he searched for something to put everything in, but Cam was the only sealable container in the room.

John swallowed nervously. The wires were simple I/O connectors, and he at least knew to not simply rip them out. He shut the machines down carefully, then removed the connectors. John gingerly placed everything on the tray inside Cam. There was a miniscule chance he could still get him back—if Cam's abductors hadn't taken away the one thing that made Cam, well, Cam. Or if John hadn't ruined him by loosely cramming it all inside.

He found his server when he went looking for a screwdriver. John pulled the disks out of the machines that had been attached to Cam and stuffed them into his backpack. They might have removed some important data from Cam, and John wasn't taking any chances, even if they'd only copied whatever they wanted.

The chest plate was easy to figure out, it snapped in place, and the flap of plastiderm laid over it. He couldn't find a regenerator—they hadn't intended to put him back together. A further search located a roll of tape, and John strapped the flap down tightly and hoped that was enough to keep him uncontaminated. Sam had opened Cam up in his bedroom, after all, but she'd only needed to get to the reset switch.

John tried to pick up Cam's arm, but he'd been locked down, unlike the limp, unresistant body he'd dragged through the apartment. He poked his head out of the clean room. "I'm gonna need some help. Check around, the hand truck's probably still here."

John tucked the server into Dex's backpack, Cam was tipped off the table and onto the handtruck, then strapped down with a length of rope. They picked up the spent brass, but left the bodies as they were. None of them wanted to go digging around in the corpses for the bullets.

Mitch got off on the fifth level. He'd know they were out when the elevator car returned empty.

John radioed Holland to bring the van to the entrance. Holland saw the blood on Dex and asked, "Where's Mitch?", just as Mitch loped towards the van, a grim look on his face.

Mitch held up a hand, the rust-covered glove was torn and bloody. "One of the rungs gave out."

"Shit, Mitch," John began. Christ, that shaft was hundreds of meters long.

"Naw, don't. Managed to catch myself—obviously."

Cam was loaded into the back, hand truck and all, with only minor damage to the plastiderm when they dropped him.

They climbed in the van, and Dex quietly passed out cans of local beer from the cooler at his feet in the passenger seat. Mitch sat cross legged behind the driver's seat with a first aid kit, and John stretched out next to Cam.

He'd been awake and on the move for more than thirty hours, tense and concerned. It wasn't over yet, still had to get Cam put back together, but it was a start. John fell asleep before Holland turned onto the county road, his last thought was what use did the Air Force and Zeditron Industries have for a gigantic, cement hole in the ground, and how long they had before the dead bodies on Level 19 were discovered.*

 

-[º◦º]-

It was dark when he woke up, and the van hummed along a freeway. Mitch and Dex were gone. John climbed into the passenger seat and checked the time, he'd been asleep for nearly six hours. "Where did the guys go?"

"I dropped them off at the airport to pick up their cars. Dex is gonna make sure Mitch gets to the doctor. Couldn't wake you up, so I decided to just drive you home. Didn't really have any way to pack the biomeme as air cargo, and anyway, always wanted to see the coast."

"Uh-huh," John said doubtfully. He recalled when Holland had sworn off any body of water larger than a bathtub after a nasty ex-fil from a sinking speeder off the African coast.

"Right. Dex filled me in on what happened down there. Plus, I still have these." He lifted the top of the center console, and the hand guns were nestled inside.

Okay, that made more sense. "Thanks, Holl."

"Any time, man. You know that."

John and Holland swapped turns driving through the night. Mid-morning, John checked his messages. Mendez was characteristically cryptic, but she had something and wanted to see him. Calvin said she had the approval in hand and that they could schedule an appointment their convenience. Two days ago that would've been great news; now John had his doubts.

John called McKay, but it went to voice mail, and he left a brief message, "It's done, call me." He fielded Holland's calls from Mitch and Dex when they checked in. Mitch had taken a couple of stitches, and insisted that it wasn't a big deal when John apologized again. He'd had worse injuries barbequing in his back yard.

Mitch, Dex and Holland were still a tightly knit team. They'd settled within a few miles of one another, and got together regularly for camping, climbing, or just hanging out. John used to be part of that, team, but when he'd taken the medical discharge, it had seemed less painful to leave altogether and drift away, but the Cheyenne caper made him realize that they hadn't let him go.

They stopped frequently to snack or take a piss in order to delay their arrival to late in the night.

 

-[º◦º]-

It was eleven pm when they arrived at John's building; the corridors and elevators were deserted, the other tenants snugged away in their apartments. Holland scrounged an old blanket from the piles of junk in the building's loading dock in the basement. John tossed it over Cam to hide him from the prying eyes of the security system, then pointed Holland towards the delivery elevator.

John left Cam standing tied to the handtruck in his room. Holland sacked out in borrowed clean clothes after a shower. Cam would be very pleased to know that the guest room was finally getting some use.

Given that someone had nabbed Cameron from his home, John stayed awake to keep watch and considered his options. Calvin was the best technical choice, but she was too closely affiliated with both Kawasaki and PETAAI. He didn't want Kawasaki swarming in to remove Cameron.

In the middle of the night, Holland got up and insisted that he'd take watch and that John get some sleep.

John hoped that Sam could reassemble Cameron. When he called her just after dawn, Sam said she'd make arrangements to be there early afternoon.

Mendez called again, and reiterated her message; she wanted him to come to the office immediately, but John didn't want to leave Holland alone, not with the possibility that someone was after Cam, standing frozen in his room.

When she offered to come to him, John mulled that over, then agreed. He didn't trust her, but he needed to string her along to find out, if possible, what she knew. He might be wrong about her, too. Whatever Holland heard, he was good for it, and he'd just tell Sam to delay her arrival if he had trouble dislodging Mendez.

III.

Holland retreated to the guest room, and John closed Cam's door on his way to let in Diana. He did not want her to know that he had Cameron until he'd heard what she had to say. As expected, she made a beeline for the balcony—almost everyone did—cooing with delight at the spectacular view. When she turned to look at John with a speculative expression, he groaned internally. He would be polite to get what he wanted from her, but overly dressed and made up was totally not his type. Sam was more his style, when he dipped into that end of the pool. Fun, no nonsense, eager to get her hands dirty, and smart.

Even if Mendez had been his type, John already belonged to Cam. She had to know that, why else would anyone go to these lengths for a biomeme?

He lured her back inside and closed the forcewall. "So what did you find out that you couldn't tell me on the phone?"

"I believe I found the leak, but I can't prove it. Last week, Jenny caught one of the board members in the corridor outside my office. She'd come back late to pick up something, and he brushed her off when she asked what he was doing. The board normally only visits in packs, during office hours."

"Okay, so what? I still don't know why I'm protecting Cameron."

Mendez studied him a moment, and then made her decision. "The former lessee used Cameron as his personal mobile computer. When he died in a lab accident, Cam was returned to Kawasaki, his memory wiped, end of story."

"Except, not so much." John's paranoia made him wonder why she was telling him this, and why now?

"The only complete record of what he was working on was in your CAM12—but that wasn't discovered until after Kawasaki had boxed it up."

John nodded thoughtfully. This was what Cameron had been hiding, and it expanded the list of possible suspects in the abduction. Simple biomemetic espionage moved down to the bottom of the list, and top secret research moved to the top. No way was Kawasaki going to allow anyone access to the data other than the signatory on the lease. The impending excision and repair had forced the invisible hand to act before the data was lost.

The security system chimed. John glanced at his watch and swore, Sam was early. "Excuse me."

John keyed in the code and opened the door a crack, prepared to fend off Sam and ask her to come back later, but McKay stood in the corridor, looking pretty rough with a tightly packed duffle at his feet. "Rodney?"

"I've been enroute for two days. Are you going to make me sleep in the corridor?"

"No, I guess not." He opened the door and McKay dragged the duffle in. "What are you doing here?"

"I got your message in the airport. I can't believe that you really did that!"

"Uhm." John glanced over his shoulder, and Diana had followed him into the hallway. "Crap. Dr. Rodney McKay, Diana Mendez. Rodney, why don't you..."

Diana approached with her hand out in that limp, awkward position," Very pleased to meet you, Dr. McKay." Of course she'd know, although most people couldn't name Nobel winners, much less the short list.

Rodney sized her up in a single glance and snorted dismissively at the hand. "You want me to kiss it? I don't think so." He turned to John. "Where's S—"

John slapped a hand over Rodney's mouth. "McKay, you're really exhausted, aren't you? Long flight, no shower, why don't you just come in here, and I'll get you all set up." Dammit, Holl was in the guest room, Cam was standing up in the middle of his room. After what she had just told him, he definitely didn't want Mendez to know that Cameron was here. John dragged Rodney into his bedroom,duffle and all, and slammed the door behind them, hand still over McKay's mouth. He held a finger up to his lips and shook his head.

Rodney's eyes widened then he nodded. John pulled his hand away, and Rodney said in an overly loud voice, "Yes, a shower."

John rolled his eyes, leaned in and whispered in Rodney's ear, "I'll tell you everything later, just don't say anything, got it?" He left McKay gaping as he closed the door behind him.

"Sorry about the interruption. I, ah, think we should probably finish this conversation tomorrow, in your office?"

Diana shook her head, arms crossed. "What did you do?"

John gave her a bright, earnest smile. "Nothing, it's a joint project we're working on." He was a terrible liar.

"Mr. Sheppard," she said coldly, "I've gone to extreme lengths to assist you. Perhaps we should talk when you're ready to be as forthcoming as I have been with you. I'll see myself out."

John had to rush ahead of her to turn the security system off before she yanked the door open and then closed it firmly in his face. "Well, that could've gone better." He wiped a hand across the back of his neck, then through his hair.

He couldn't help it though. He didn't think that Mendez had had that much to do with Cam's case, other than extorting a large sum of money from him. She might have a lot more information than he did, but he didn't trust her avaricious vibe, and her cool, derisive attitude bothered him. The teeth that looked as if they'd been filed to points and the heavily applied cosmetics made her look fake, plastic. Cam seemed more human than Mendez, despite his common features.

 

-[º◦º]-

Sam arrived a couple of hours later, considerably slimmer than she'd been at Christmas. She saw Holland sitting on the end of the sofa in plain sight of the front door and shouted, "Holl!" then sprinted down the hall and pulled him into a hug.

Holland warmly returned the embrace. "Sammy. Good to see you."

"What are you doing here?" Sam gave his shoulder a light shake.

John nodded at Holland's quick glance. "Went with him to find his 'meme."

She gave John a surprised look. "Really? You can tell me all about it when you feed me. Dad's at home with the baby, and Jack took the kids to Pipi's Pizza. I just hate that I had to miss that experience."

"Is take-out okay?"

"Chinese, extra egg rolls."

McKay stuck his head out of John's room. "Blondie, can you keep it down? Man sleeping in here."

Sam mouthed at John, McKay?

John shrugged with a full body twitch. "It's a long story."

Sam grinned, looking back and forth between John and Rodney, who growled and slammed the door.

Still smiling, Sam asked, "Where's Cam?"

John opened Cam's door. "He's in here. Sam, thanks for coming. I really appreciate it."

Sam circled around the scuffed and frozen biomeme with a raised eyebrow. "What happened?"

He told her pertinent sections of the story as she laid out a protective sheet, and Holland helped John wrangle Cam off the handtruck and onto the bed.

She shook her head as she ripped the tape off and opened up Cam's CPU cavity. "Oh, John. This is..."

"Bad?"

"I'm sorry, I didn't think they'd stripped it down this far. Everything will have to be tested for damage before it goes back in, and I don't have that kind of equipment."

John sat on the bed, shoulders slumped. He did not want to take Cam to PETAAI. His mistrust of Mendez aside, PETAAI would be required to report the unauthorized access of a CAM12, then Kawasaki would come and take Cam away—even though John wasn't directly responsible for his condition.

Sam sat down next to him and rubbed his back gently. "I have an idea. You might not like it."

"I'm pretty much open to any suggestion."

"I could call Radek. He'll have everything we need."

John threw himself back on the bed and stared at the ceiling. Great, just what this mess needed was one more ex-lover thrown in the mix, one who was probably still pissed at him. Though it was marginally better than going to PETAAI. "Yeah. Fine. Just be prepared for a lot of cussing when you tell him it's my 'meme."

"Who said I was going to tell him that?" Sam's mischievous grin was infectious.

"Evil." John sat up and kissed her on the cheek, then left the room. Ostensibly to give her some privacy, but John just didn't really want to hear what Radek had to say.

Holl followed him out. "Zelenka?"

"An old friend of Sam and Rodney's that I dated for a while."

"I think I'm beginning to understand why you got a 'meme."

John opened his mouth to deny that, and snapped it shut when he realized that Holland was probably right. Part of his logic in choosing a biomeme over a pet had been to avoid messy emotional entanglements, though at the time, he'd been thinking about his dead childhood pets. He was just glad that somewhere inside, he was still human enough to care.

Rodney called out from the sofa, "See how well that turned out." He'd made himself at home with a cup of fresh coffee and a sandwich.

The dizzy little rush at the sight and smell of Rodney's snack told John it had been too long since he'd eaten. He pulled the menu up on the 'vid. "Sam wants Chinese. Any preferences?" John picked out what he wanted, and left Holland and McKay to squabble over the menu.

He poured a cup of coffee and sat down to wait for the verdict from Radek. Holl sat down across from him.

Sam came out of the bedroom, Blue in hand. "He'll do it, but it has to be after the lab's closed."

John took calming breath. "Later is better—easier to get Cam out of here."

"Ten o'clock?"

"That'll work."

"See you at ten, Radek." Sam disconnected. "I'm starved."

"Menu's on the vid."

Sam and Rodney argued playfully over the remote keyboard. John really needed to expand his circle of friends. They all knew one another, and there were no secrets amongst them. Sam and Rodney joined them at the table after the order was finally placed, and Sam called Jack to let him know she was going to be very, very late.

"You don't have to," John said, pro forma. He knew what her answer would be.

"Are you kidding? I wouldn't miss this for anything."

John smirked a little. That was his Sammy. "Okay."

Rodney pinned him with a sharp look. "I know that you love your mysterious persona, but I'd like to know the whole damn story before I get any deeper into this."

They were already culprits and shielding them any further was almost cause. "Yeah, all right."

John related the entire story from day one, from Cam's unboxing to his sneaking suspicions about Cam's sentience, the memory failures, the 'memnapping and rescue, and concluded with the the tidbits Diana had fed him about the possible leak at PETAAI and Cameron's former lessee.

Rodney scoffed, "That idiot?"

John knit his eyebrows together. "You know the story?"

Sam shook her head. "Only that there is one."

"Aris Boch was something of a mercenary," Rodney said, "he'd work on anything if he was paid well enough, even things that were out of his league. Rumor had it that he'd bagged a lucrative weapons design contract, but managed to blow himself up. No one ever figured out who had hired him, and all data and evidence from the explosion vanished in the investigation."

"So what does Zeditron Industries have to do with all of this? Why take Cam all the way to Cheyenne?"

Sam said, "Adrian Conrad disappeared a few years ago, and all that's left is a shell company."

Holland remarked, "There was a lot of stuff down there. John, what about that generator?"

"What generator?" Rodney asked absently while he tapped away on his Blue.

"The power grid was hooked into a thing about this big," John sketched the size with his hands, "that didn't look like it had any fuel source. The emergency lighting was pretty dim, though—maybe I just missed it."

Rodney shrugged. "Probably. Guess who was formerly employed by Zeditron Industries?"

John guessed, "Mendez?"

"Hmm. No. I mean yes, Diana Mendez was Conrad's personal assistant and probably his lover, too. She was also a person of interest in his disappearance, but there's another Zeditron alumnus on the PETAAI board—a James Marrick."

Things started to slot together. "Son of a bitch."

"That about sums it up. Excuse me, I need to clean up a little before dinner." Rodney left the table, and John, Sam and Holl batted various speculations back and forth until dinner arrived.

McKay emerged from the facilities and the conversation moved onto more mundane matters. Sam and Holl traded pictures of their children. Antarctica was the one continent where John had never been stationed, and he prodded Rodney to talk about it. That provoked a grumbling rant with descriptive language that was rather uncomplimentary. John still thought it would be an interesting place to go.

Maybe he'd take Cam on a trip when he was back.

John was persuaded to get some rest, though he only laid on his bed, staring up at the sky.

 

-[º◦º]-

Cameron was evacuated to the van the same way he'd come home, but with less cosmetic damage in the process. John let Rodney have the passenger seat when he'd insisted on going, and Holland followed Sam in her personal autocab as she headed towards Zelenka Memetics.

The late hour meant traffic was light, and they pulled into Zelenka's lab on schedule. He met them at the front door. The lights were on, though the lobby was otherwise deserted.

John had been dreading this, he hadn't spoken to Radek in over a year and a half. He had new eyeglasses and had cut his hair. He looked good. "Radek," he said carefully, "thank you, I know that you don't have to do this."

"True, but I am wounded that you would think of me as a spiteful or petty man," he gave McKay a significant look, "unlike some people."

John cracked a solemn smile at Rodney's grimace. "Never crossed my mind."

"As it should not," Radek agreed with a smirk. "Come, this way." He led them to a second floor lab that contained a positive air clean room, and motioned to the store of all in one coveralls.

Holland declined the offer, and stuck a hand in his pocket. "I'll stay out here."

John nodded and turned to Radek and handed over the disks. "These are from the machines he was attached to."

"Very good."

Rodney snatched the disks out of Radek's hand. "I'll check these out for you."

"That would be very helpful—are you sure that you're Rodney McKay?" Radek touched the bioscanner at the door, and it opened with a whoosh of cold air.

"Very funny, Zelenka." Rodney glared at Radek as John wheeled Cam inside. Rodney helped John get Cam onto the workbench then went to work finding a connector for the drives.

Radek and Sam arranged the equipment around Cameron. Sam must have filled Radek in on the state of Cam, as he barely batted an eye at the tape holding the torn plastiderm together. John tried to stay out of the way as they worked. After each part was removed, cleaned and tested, Radek began to put Cam back together.

Holland had scraped up a chair, and he sat just outside the door, leaning back on two legs, looking relaxed and unconcerned, but John knew that he was alert and prepared for trouble.

John fidgeted and paced, but kept Radek, Sam and Rodney in sight as they worked. When Radek clucked and muttered over a component that failed to initialize despite passing the bench test, John followed him over to the parts drawers, where Radek searched for a replacement.

John asked hopefully, "Is that what caused the glitching?"

"This? No, not related."

"Oh." John cleared his throat. "Is it necessary? I mean, are they going to know that it's not a factory part?"

Radek shook his head. "Yes, it will be very obvious, but it is a critical component. He will not function without it."

"Okay. I didn't really have a choice."

"You were correct, the second best option was to seal them inside."

Radek didn't have to say what the first, best option was, though John couldn't see Radek sneaking around Cheyenne mountain in the dark.

Rodney finished inspecting the stolen drives and announced, "Nothing here," then proceeded to kibitz and generally get in the way, until Radek slapped his hand to get it out of the CPU cavity.

The work proceeded slowly. John found a place to stand and watch, and tried to think of a way to explain the replacement part in Cameron's gut. He was so screwed.

 

-[º◦º]-

Cam booted up slowly. He was in another lab, more people in clean suits. He recognized them though—Sam, and from John's files, Doctor Radek Zelenka.

"Hey there," Sam said with a smile.

John appeared in his peripheral vision. Cam asked, "John? What's goin' on?"

"You're at Radek's lab. They got you back together. How are you?"

Cam ran a short systems check and found an unfamiliar subroutine running in the background. Oh hell, he'd been infected with a virus. It was a compulsion app; he couldn't turn it off, couldn't tell them about it, and he didn't have very much time. "Please, John." He grabbed John's hand and squeezed it, too hard. "You have to sh—" He couldn't finish the sentence, and he tried another tactic, "You're..." He could call Susan Calvin, she'd taken a complete system image, would see the intruder program. Cam turned on his wireless to send a text message, but the virus was blocking his access to the interface.

"Cam, what's going on?" John looked torn and confused.

"I'm glitching, worse than ever. I need to get to Calvin, right now." He couldn't call and warn her, and his relentless, driving need to return to PETAAI was going to put them all in danger.

"Susan Calvin?" Radek asked. "Why did you come to me, if you know Calvin?"

"Because she's with PETAAI, and I have issues with their director," John snapped.

"Ah." Radek said mildly, and pulled out his phone. "I will speak with her, perhaps we can come to some arrangement."

Cam shook his head and gritted out against his will, "Needs to be there."

"Of course." Zelenka left the clean room, and Sam followed him.

Yet another familiar face stood out of the way watching the proceedings with intense interest. John must have called everyone he'd ever known; at least this mess had gotten him out and mingling. "Dr. McKay, pleased to meet you."

"Yes, I'm sure." McKay stared at him, arms crossed and chin tipped up defiantly. Cam wasn't sure what to make of him.

Radek tapped on the door control and motioned them to come out. He pointed to the recycling unit and everyone stripped off their clean suits as he said, "Susan will meet us at PETAAI in thirty minutes."

Cameron walked out of the clean room. "No. Thank you very much for your assistance, Dr. Zelenka, but I can handle it from here."

John grabbed his arm and got in his face. "Cam? You were 'memenapped right out of our apartment. I know about Aris Boch and why these people are after you—we all do."

He felt like he was going to explode with the need to explain, but he was fettered and gagged by the compulsion app. He could evade and escape John easily, but his chances were dramatically reduced by the extended company. Cam could still do it, he'd have to wait for an opportune moment to slip away, remove them from the danger. He was doomed, but he didn't have to drag John and his friends down with him. "Okay. Fine."

McKay spoke up. "I think I'll sit out this little shindig. Jet lag. Come on, Carter—you can drive me home."

"What?" Sam gave McKay a sidelong glance and he gave her a raised brow in return. "Oh. I do need to get home, too."

It was late, and the two of them weren't specifically necessary. John shrugged. "Sure. Radek?"

"I will go with you, as I would like to visit with Susan."

John headed for the elevator. "Let's get this show on the road."

 

-[º◦º]-

Radek directed Holland around to the back entrance of the PETAAI building. The door was unlocked, but the plain hallway leading in was poorly lit. Radek said softly, "Susan said she would meet us here."

"Yeah, I don't like this. Try calling her again."

Radek pulled out his phone as Holland said casually, "We've got an option."

John nodded. "Yes, go." He watched Holland from the loading dock as he trotted back to the van and returned with with a dark bundle. Holland took one of the weapons for himself and handed the bundle to John.

Radek looked up in surprise. "Susan said she was very sorry. She was detained, and is in her lab waiting for us. Are you certain those are necessary?"

"Nope, which is why we've got 'em." John gave one of the guns to Cam, tossed the cloth to the side and checked his clip with quick, practiced hands. "Radek, you're behind me. Cam, stay back with Radek."

To his right, closed doors of plain metal with stenciled labels punctuated the service hall. John and Holl leap-fogged their way down to the end, giving each handle a quick tug to make sure it was locked before moving onto the next. There didn't appear to be a stairwell. The door at the end was more decorative.

John motioned Holland forward, as he cracked the door open an inch or two. It was definitely the lobby, which was lighted slightly better. Holland whispered, "Hard to say, looks empty enough from here."

He peered over Holl's shoulder then carefully pulled the door shut and retreated a few feet. "It's the lobby, the elevators are on the far side. Cam, I want you to stay here with Radek. We're going to go check it out. If we aren't back in ten minutes, get out of here."

Cam pulled John to the side and argued, "No, I'll go. It's too dangerous for you."

John stared into Cam's silver eyes, and his arm ached in Cam's tight, frantic grip. He wondered how he'd ever thought that he was a plain biomeme, because Cam was scared and angry. "Look, this could be nothing, or it could be another ploy to get those plans. You have to get out of here if we don't come back. "

Cam shook his head angrily and let go of John's arm. When he started towards the lobby, John barked out a sharp, "Cameron, no—that's an order." He'd never had to do that, it felt awful, but Cam stopped where he was.

"This is insane."

"You don't have to do this, Radek. If you want to wait in the van, go ahead."

"Oh, no. I've seen all of the same old movies—the one that waits in the car is always killed. Why do we not simply return another day?"

John shot Radek a lop-sided grin. "True. Cam can tell you all about it while we're gone."

Holland dropped the keys to the van in Radek's hand with a reassuring smile. "Take it easy, be safe."

"You too."

John waited until Cam and Radek reached the far end of the hall, then pushed the door open with his foot, gun in a double handed grip. Holland ducked under and out and covered the open room.

John followed him. It was a terrible space for a covert sortie. There were no plants or furniture other than the receptionist's desk across the way, and the elevator lobby was hidden around the corner. They walked across the room slowly, covering each other until they passed the desk.

Diana Mendez stepped out from the elevator lobby, raised a strange weapon and a blue crack of something zapped Holland. John got off three wild shots as he dove for the desk, but he blacked out in a wash of electric agony before he even hit the ground.

 

-[º◦º]-

Cam was pissed that John had spoken to him that way, but relieved that it was enough to allow him to temporarily override the compulsion. He was immensely worried for John and his friend, and he'd barely begun to find some way around his compulsion to tell Radek the long story when he heard the gunfire. "Get out of here," he hissed at Radek, and he took off for the lobby at a full run. He burst through the door, and Mendez stood in the middle of the room. None of this made sense. He brought up his gun in an act of defiance.

The beefy guy that had abducted him dragged John's unconscious body out from behind the receptionist's desk, and the other stood over Holland.

"Kill them if the 'meme even twitches," she ordered without turning her head. "They're rather upset with your friend, they were very close to the men he killed for you."

"What are you talking about?"

"Didn't he tell you? I guess we all have our little secrets." John was dropped at Mendez's feet, and she aimed her weapon at him. "I assure you, a second shot will kill him."

Cam needed to stall long enough to figure out what to do. His reflexes were fast, probably fast enough to take her out, but not fast enough to get all three of them, and the compulsion held him in place. He couldn't call for help, nor could he warn Radek, or even check over his shoulder to the hallway door without alerting Mendez that he wasn't alone. It was redundant, but he asked anyway, "What do you want?"

"John," She kicked him in the side with those awful shoes, "interrupted my last attempt to regain my research. All I want is what is rightfully mine out of your tin pan brain."

"You hired Boch?" Cameron was usually a lot sharper than this, but in his defense, he was was half a glitch away from total shutdown.

"Yes. Now, if you'll get in the elevator, we can have those pesky memories removed. Isn't that what you want?" She wiggled the strange weapon over John. "It would be so sad, knowing that you caused his death for the rest of your short life."

There was a chance that Radek had called for help, that he might get out of this without John and his friend getting killed. Susan was smart, she'd figure something out—if she wasn't one of Mendez's accomplices.

Cam didn't want to, but he slowly leaned over, placed the gun on the floor, and walked to the elevators. Mendez ordered her henchmen, "Bring those two." She nodded at Cam, "Third floor, please."

 

-[º◦º]-

John struggled back to consciousness in a haze of pain. Whatever the hell she'd shot him with was worse than a gunshot wound—at least those were localized. He realized through the pins and needles that he was bound to a chair, and Holland was similarly restrained.

Cam was laid out on a table, CPU cavity open, and Susan Calvin was attaching leads inside of him. A large man in a suit was behind her, and he had one of those weird guns trained on her.

Had to be Marrick, Mendez's accomplice. Mendez stood to the side, weird weapon in hand, watching Calvin work.

"Diana," John growled. Surely an unpleasant death was in store for everyone involved, but he couldn't figure out what her plan entailed, why she hadn't already done away with him and Holl.

"John," she said pleasantly.

He ignored her and asked, "Holl, you all right?"

"Hurts like hell, but I'm okay otherwise."

"Good." John didn't even know if they were still in the PETAAI building, the lab and clean room were plain and anonymous, but the digital readout on the wall told him that it had only been ten minutes since he'd left Cam and Radek in the hallway. If Mendez had gotten to Cam, maybe Radek had gotten away, otherwise he would be here with them. Or maybe he was lying dead down in the lobby.

Only time would tell. He tried to loosen his hands, but they were strapped down tight. Holland was doing the same, just as ineffectively. All they could do was watch and wait as Calvin did Mendez's bidding.

John shoved his chair back with a loud scrape, and Calvin glanced up at him. He took a chance and nodded at her, hoping that she understood that he would sacrifice Cam if necessary, that he'd understand if she had to wipe Cam's memory or destroy the core to prevent Mendez and Marrick from getting the information Cam had in there. He wasn't likely to be around to mourn Cam, anyway.

He hoped that she had the guts to defy the man with the weird weapon behind her. She was a cool character, and he'd only spoken to her twice; didn't know if her look meant that she agreed with him, or not. Cam could've told him, but he was currently shut down, inert. John presumed that she wasn't a co-conspirator, as she was under the gun, too. That could be a red herring.

Calvin continued to set up, turning on machines, and verifying the connections.

John's attention was focused on trying to spontaneously become telepathic, staring at Susan and what she was doing, when Holland yelled, "Oh, ow, cramp!" then managed to tip over his chair.

Everyone in the room turned to look at him, then a burst of automatic gun fire shattered the clean room wall in a hail of glass and bullets. John ducked his head automatically, and heard the distinctive sound of Marrick and Mendez firing, saw Calvin drop to the ground and roll under the table and out the other side. She started yanking out leads out of Cam.

John looked up to see Jack O'Neill being attacked by Marrick. What the fuck was Sam's husband doing here? He should've guessed; if McKay was involved, then the General had to be close behind.

Sam wrestled with Mendez for control of her weapon, and O'Neill managed to shoot off part of Marrick's face, revealing metal mesh.

Marrick was a fucking biomeme.

He took O'Neill down easily, and began to pound on him. A fireteam of military police swarmed in through the broken door, McKay on their heels. Marrick took on all of the MPs, and was winning. McKay skidded through the broken glass and cut John free of the chair.

John dove for Marrick's weapon, but by the time he brought it up, Cam was off the table and fighting with Marrick. He didn't want to fry Cam, he had no idea what effect the blue beam would have on him, or Marrick.

It had to work better than bullets the MP's were firing, which just dented the tough metal mesh under the plastiderm and bounced off.

Cam and Marrick threw each other into equipment stands, slugging it out, never separated for more than a moment, but Cam's chest cover was off and he was losing lubricant fast. When his reflexes slowed, Marrick got a grip on Cam's arm and slung him across the room.

John took his shot. It barely zinged Marrick, who continued to advance toward Cam. O'Neill yelled, "Keep shooting, keep shooting!"

John fired again, and Sam started firing too, until Marrick just...vanished. John slip-slided through lubricant and broken glass over to Cam. His arm was hanging loose, his plastiderm was shredded and was covered in broken glass and red, red lubricant, but he was awake. Cam said, "Hey, you okay?"

"I'm fine." John wiped Cam's face clean and kissed him.The flat oily taste of internal lubricant on his lips was strange and Cam's mouth was dry, but it was warm and Cam returned the kiss tenderly. He pressed his forehead against Cam's and whispered, "I was sure we were all going to die."

Cam with a faint grin, "Naw, I'd never let that happen."

John looked over when O'Neill yelled, "Ow, dammit, Sam, it's broken, leave it alone! Is there a real medic here?"

Sam was patting down Jack's leg and grinning wildly. "Suck it up, Jack, you've had worse. Who knew civilian life could be this exciting?"

Two MP's hustled a restrained Mendez out of the room. A third pulled field bandages out of his vest and kneeled beside O'Neill.

McKay was busy digging through the wreckage, and handing off bits and pieces to an MP. Holland went to help Calvin out from underneath the table where she'd taken refuge."Thanks. Well. There goes that job," she said in a dry tone, and began sorting through the debris, righting the machines with Holland's help.

John didn't know about the job, but Cam's opportunity to get repaired had just been thoroughly trashed.

"Is Susan..." Cam gestured towards Mendez' back, "with her?"

"No, don't think so."

"Good. Hey, there were two other guys," Cam called out.

O'Neill waved as the medic helped him hop towards the door. "All tied up downstairs, ready to go."

John asked, "What happened to Radek?"

"Nothing, I am fine." Radek stepped into the former clean room, followed by two more marines. He added wryly, "I see that you have things under control."

"I guess we have you to thank for the rescue?"

Rodney snorted. "No, that was me. I'd already alerted O'Neill to get some back up together, and we followed you." Radek rolled his eyes, then moved to aid Susan's equipment assessment.

"Holl, I guess it's a good thing you needed a refresher course in evasion tactics."

"Hell no, I knew we were being followed."

"Hence the distraction?"

"Saw a head pop around the corner. Figured it had to be help."

"Rodney, how did you know that Mendez was going to be here?"

"Genius, remember?"

John glared at him.

"Oh, fine. The disks you gave Zelenka contained a copy of a compulsion application. Mendez's back up plan, if you will. I suspected that Cameron would lead me right to the source. We've been searching for Boch's employer for two years and you were going to PETAAI—probably Mendez's cover—under highly irregular circumstances, and I had to be sure it was her."

"Yeah, it was her last chance. Wait, we were bait?"

Rodney ignored his outrage. "Marrick was a surprise, though. Wasn't expecting a biomeme, or else we'd have sent the MPs in first. So, there's a nondisclosure agreement that you're all going to need to sign. In the meantime, please keep your mouths shut."

John nodded absently. McKay knew more than he was telling, though John didn't know exactly what he did for the Air Force. They'd funded his pure research in zero-point energy theory that was expected to win him the Nobel come October, but he was surprisingly close-mouthed on his day-to-day activities. "So, Cam, what are we going to do with you?"

"Give me a day or two to test my equipment," Susan called out. "It looks banged up, but appears to be operational. Going to need to move it though."

Radek gallantly offered up his facility, and gave Susan a besotted smile."Perhaps I will finally convince you into leaving the public sector."

Cam gave John a crazy grin. "Guess you're going to get to keep me for a while."

"Maybe. I think I've broken every stipulation in your lease—including military action."

"We'll figure something out, John," he said.

Susan kneeled down next to Cameron, and put a hand on his shoulder, "Cam, if you'd get on the table, please. I want to see what I can do about that app."

John and a MP helped Cam up, he was nearly frozen with lubricant loss. John hovered nearby while Susan clipped the leads back in, and started to track down the viral application.

"Oh, I don't think I've ever seen anything like this. Radek?"

Radek, then Rodney, joined the hunt and the three of them worked in tandem, until Cameron was compulsion free, and had access to his wireless.

Susan topped him off, sealed him up, then took a few moments to repair the damage to his plastiderm. "Take it easy for a few minutes until that's circulated. Your new memory core was damaged, I'm going to have to get another replacement. I'll call you once I'm set up in Zelenka's lab and have the new parts, including a shoulder joint."

Cam smiled. "Thank you, again."

Susan was almost sparkling under Cam's gaze. "Again, it was my pleasure."

John wondered again at the ease with which Cameron made friends.

 

-[º◦º]-

Once they were at home, Cam figured out that Holland had the guestroom and McKay had co-opted John's room, so he invited John to use his room. There was a lot that he wanted to say, and they had a short reprieve from the possible memory transfer failure, but John was wrung out.

He hustled John into the shower, and when he was done, carefully attended to the raw places on John's wrists. John didn't say anything, just gave him that familiar bemused look and Cam had to kiss him again. He felt giddy with the implication, that John had kissed him first.

John went easily under the covers and promptly fell asleep.

Cam cleaned himself then slid onto the bed next to John, pressing his nose into John's hair, lightly running his hand over John's soft flank.

Humans were so fragile, and he marveled at the strength they exhibited despite their delicate natures. He loved humanity in general, but John was special. He'd believed in Cam, had gone to extraordinary measures to protect him and get him home. He'd long since learned that with John, action replaced words.

When John rolled to his front, Cam slipped out of bed. As nice as this was, John was accustomed to sleeping alone, and he needed the rest more than Cam needed to reassure himself.

He lowered the forcewalls. It was cold, but the fresh air was pleasant, and provided a distance from the reminder of the filthy basement prison of his last placement. An inventory of the nearly barren kitchen revealed only a few boxes of leftovers. Cam placed a grocery order, and paid for a rush delivery. The young man who delivered a half hour later looked asleep on his feet. Cam sent him back with a cup of coffee, and a nice tip for his effort.

Only slightly hampered by the use of only one arm, Cam put together a batch of cinnamon rolls. Cam ordered the walls back up, and kicked on the heat. It was far too cold for the rising dough. He straightened up the apartment, then read for a couple of hours, until Holland drifted into the kitchen. "Good morning, Mr. Holland," Cam said softly, "would you care for a cup of coffee?"

"Yes. Just Holland, or Holl—Mr. Holland is too much like that kid's show."

Cam brought a cup of coffee, toast and jam to tide him over until breakfast, and sat down across the table.

Holland gave him an inquiring look over the mug's rim.

"Tell me everything. I need to know."

"I wasn't there, I was back at the van."

"But you know," Cam insisted.

"Yeah." Holland relayed what he'd been told—and what he had first hand knowledge of—up to and including the events at PETAAI. "She zapped us with a hell of a weird thing. When we woke up, there you were, on the table."

Cam nodded. He'd made assumptions and Mendez had told him a few things, but it was good to have the rest of the picture. "So, there's a few loose ends."

Holland shrugged. "As far as I'm concerned, they can rot down there. Someone would really have to be looking for them, and I guess they'll round up the rest of Mendez's minions."

"The hand guns can be traced, though. Do you trust me?" Cam asked quietly.

Holland stared at him, and Cam bore the weight of his speculation.

"John does, that's good enough for me."

"Leave them with me, I will make sure they are never found."

"What are you going to do with them?"

Cam smiled widely. "Eat them."

Holland laughed, "If I close my eyes, just talking to you, it's hard to remember that you're not human."

"Nope."

"So, let me ask you a question."

"Sure."

"I personally think it's kind of weird, but John's obviously crazy about you. You'll be good to John? Good for him? I know he thinks that we don't care, but we do—I do."

"Holl, I promise I'll do my best for him, for the rest of his life." He'd have to save this conversation on the server, it was a promise he meant to keep, no matter what.

"Thanks. If you ever need anything, me and the guys are just a phone call away."

"The same here, man. Anytime."

A few minutes later, John staggered out of the bedroom. Cam slid a cup of coffee under his nose. "Feel like some breakfast?"

"Mm."

Cam figured that was close enough to yes. He popped the prepared pan into the oven. Bacon, toast, then eggs. They needed fuel and caring.

McKay crawled out when the scent of cinnamon wafted through the apartment.

Cameron met him at the table with a full mug, and a refill for John and Holl. "Food'll be ready in a few minutes."

McKay just grunted. Obviously Holland was the only one who was verbal before coffee.

The timer on the stove dinged. It was unnecessary, Cam knew to the millisecond, but as John said, preferred the affectation. It was one of the little things that made him seem more human to them, and Cam liked that.

Over the remains of breakfast, McKay made them sign a huge stack of flimsies with nondisclosure agreements—even Cameron, now that Kawasaki had given written orders that declared him a Model 13.When McKay had all of the forms verified and filed, they all looked at him expectantly.

John drawled, "We just signed our lives away, Rodney. Tell us what's really going on."

"Fine," Rodney sighed "A cache of artifacts surfaced two and a half years ago, allegedly from a century-old top secret operation that ran for three years out of Cheyenne mountain. I had them all cataloged, we knew what they were, but then the technical analyst that was assigned to assist me in their examination was murdered, and it was discovered that nearly half of the devices were missing.

"I kept searching for them, and when Aris Boch died in an unusual explosion, I recognized the signature of the residual radiation. I confiscated all of the evidence from the investigation—the remains of only one of the missing artifacts, and from Kawasaki, the archived memory data from Boch's CAM12. There wasn't any information in that archive about Boch's employer or contact. Quinn insisted that the wipe was clean, and based on that assumption, I didn't expect that the 'meme would be necessary to the investigation. Quinn convinced me to let it go back into the rental pool.

"Imagine my surprise when you leased the very biomeme in question. When your CAM12 went missing, I came back to the States to continue the investigation, and it was my best judgment that we allow the scenario to play out until we could capture the culprit. Diana Mendez."

"But what about Cheyenne and Zeditron?"

"Zeditron held the lease to the very same facility where those artifacts were reported to have come from. The operation was so top secret that all official record of it was expunged. It's possible that there was some other information still at Cheyenne, but I can't say. It was private property, and Zeditron declined to allow us access, no doubt on the order of Mendez, acting as Conrad."

"So, Mendez and Marrick infiltrated PETAAI to find Cameron."

"And where did Marrick come from?"

"I'm going to have to look into the Marrick situation, but yes. PETAAI was their only source available to track the 'meme, short of going to work for Kawasaki directly. Marrick couldn't take that chance—they would have discovered what he was. I imagine if we looked into Kawasaki's employment records, that we'd find a decline to hire for Mendez. The two of them probably knew that you had their quarry from the very beginning."

"Which explains why she was so interested in Cam's case," John said. "Mendez even managed to wrangle a donation of out me in the process. She is good, I'll have to give her that."

Rodney shrugged. "During Conrad's illness, and after his disappearance, she essentially ran Zeditron until Colson Industries bought the company."

Holland asked, "That generator was part of it, right? Did you get all of them, the artifacts?"

"I found the rest last night, and the team that followed you into Cheyenne immediately confiscated the generator."

Cameron was more interested in keeping John and his friends out of trouble. "What about the mess they left behind?" John gave him an inquisitive look, but he ignored it for the moment.

"As I understand, it was self-defense. Mr. Mitchener and Mr. Dexter are exculpable by virtue that any charges in relation to the action would possibly require revealing classified information."

"I don't get why she didn't kill all of us, and be done with it."

"One of the devices in her possession last night was what I had determined to be a human memory extractor. Killing all of you would've been too obvious. She planned to erase your memories, and escape with the plans and artifacts. I honestly didn't believe that you were in physical danger. I had no intention of letting her get as far as wiping your memories."

"So, that's it? You've got all of Mendez's minions and we're done?"

"I'm sure that Mendez is being interrogated right now, but there's the not inconsequential problem of Cameron's memcore. It'll need to be destoyed, since the memories can't be erased."

Cameron was the only one that was going to lose his memories. McKay didn't seem very sympathetic. John had once quipped that McKay would have to kill him if he knew what he did, but Cameron was convinced that it wasn't a joke. It was obvious to Cameron that McKay used his offensive and blustery personality asa distraction from his position and connections.

McKay reinstalled John's server for him, then hung around for awhile. John seemed to have forgiven him for using them as bait, but it still bothered Cameron.

He was sentient and had free will. He didn't have to like all of John's friends. When Cameron announced that he was going to fix a nice lemon chicken for supper, McKay got the message and hit the road.

 

-[º◦º]-

Holland went home the next morning. His business needed attending, and his family would be back from a visit to his sister-in-law the next day.

A few hours later a delivery 'meme showed up. Teyla Emmagan, the National Executive Director freshly arrived from the PETAAI home office, extended a request to meet with them that afternoon. The 'meme waited at the door for the reply.

John wasn't convinced, but the handwritten invitation with a business card looked very attractive to Cameron. "The whole organization can't be rotten, John."

"Yeah. I'm not sanguine about unnecessary excursions—we don't know if any more of Mendez's minions are still out there."

"Then invite her here." Cam fully intended to do a detailed search on Emmagan the moment that the 'meme was gone.

"That turned out so well last time. You're right, as usual." John didn't own a pen or pencil, so he gave the 'meme his verbal reply; they would meet her at the PETAAI office at the appointed hour.

By the time they left the apartment, they knew everything there was to know about Teyla Emmagan.

The lobby of the PETAAI building was moderately busy and John looked jittery as the overly solicitous receptionist gave them their badges. The elevator ride to the third floor was shared with several other people who peeled off in another direction.

Jenny, the third floor receptionist, had been replaced. The shiny LED name plate now read 'Amelia Banks' and she was well briefed. "Go on back, Ms. Emmagan is in the conference room at the end of the hall."

John nodded and led the way. Cameron paused in front of Eval 1, the repairs were already nearly complete. He caught up to John in front of the open conference room door.

The woman waiting for them was slight in stature, but her photos on the 'net didn't do her justice. Emmagan was impeccably dressed in a chic pantsuit in soft, neutral tones, and her long, copper colored hair fell past her shoulders in soft, touchable curls. She exuded a warm strength and serene calm as she extended her hand in welcome. "I am Teyla Emmagan."

John took it and gave her a pleased, charming smile. "John Sheppard, and this is Cameron."

"Yes. I'm very pleased to meet you both." Teyla offered her hand to Cameron. "You've had an eventful week."

He adjusted his grip to match her firm grasp. "That's one way of putting it."

"Please, sit with me." She motioned to the heavy silver coffee service on the sideboard, "Would you care for something to drink?"

Cam knew that John would never turn down a cup of coffee and automatically moved to the sideboard. "Would you like something, Ms. Emmagan?"

"Teyla, please. I do not want this to be so formal. Tea would be fine, thank you." Teyla sat down and John took the seat across the table. "First, allow me to extend my sincerest apologies. Mr. Marrick's credentials were impeccable, and I accepted his recommendation to hire Ms. Mendez, despite her somewhat tarnished reputation. A second chance, if you will."

"You didn't have any reason to believe that he was a biomeme," John said.

Cameron only had use of one arm, and he served each of them separately. He placed the tea next to Teyla's elbow, then sat down next to John, who took the delicate china cup with a smile.

"No, I did not. The PETAAI board has a motion underway to institute a new policy that sentient non-humans will be required to self-identify as such upon employment. We already have many sentient non-humans on staff, but none have ever attempted such a masquerade." She frowned. "I do not countenance deception."

"Interesting, that's a pretty big step forward," Cam said. Though biomemes had been around for a very long time, they generally weren't employed in the same fashion as humans. Cam had a job, his placement with John, but his newly acquired status was going to open doors that had been previously closed to him.

"PETAAI has always taken the lead in these matters, and we will continue to do so. I feel an organization must always 'put their money where their mouth is'. However, let us return to your situation. I have spent many hours reviewing the accounting records for this office, and I found that you made quite a large donation. May I ask if it was entirely voluntary?"

John smiled. "No, I think it was extortion. She gave me the impression that it was standard practice, since he was a CAM12."

"I apologize for her misleading you, PETAAI does not discriminate based on sentience. I will make sure that the funds are transferred back to you immediately."

"No, keep it. If anything, we're responsible in part for trashing Susan's lab."

"That is very thoughtful, thank you. Now, Cameron, is there anything that I can do for you?"

"John and I are both worried about what Kawasaki's going to say about breaking the terms of my lease."

"I have already had a conference with Dr. McKay and Mr. Quinn, Kawasaki's CEO. Mr. Quinn has agreed, that in light of the extraordinary circumstances and your subsequent reclassification, they are willing to overlook the proscribed actions." She inquired with a raised eyebrow, "Ms. Carter's initial access was merely a soft reset, correct?"

Cameron figured that McKay had explained the entire debacle in the course of their conversation. "Yes, that's all, but Dr. Zelenka replaced a part, later on."

"In response to Ms. Mendez's exploits. Kawasaki would prefer to replace it with an authorized component from their inventory, and it has been delivered. Also, Mr. Quinn has taken the liberty of making an appointment at their plant for your exterior upgrade on the fifteenth, late afternoon. He will be there to personally assure you there are no repercussions."

He hadn't really given any thought about what he wanted to look like, hadn't had the time. "Sure, that sounds fine. What about Susan? I know she was worried about her job."

"She is as much a victim as you are, Cameron, and a very valuable employee. I have spoken with her, and I believe that she will remain with PETAAI for some time to come."

"Good." He was relieved to hear that; he liked and trusted Susan, and didn't want some tech he didn't know doing his repair work. "When will I be able to get the replacement core?" He was anxious to get rid of his experiences with Boch and to stop glitching, even at the risk of possibly losing some of his time with John.

"The new components have already been delivered, and Susan's workspace will be ready by the end of the day. She's prepared to come in at your convenience."

Cam glanced at John, who nodded briefly. "That'll be fine. Seven?" The sooner he had this crap out of his head, the better.

"I will make the arrangements for this evening and I will see you in a few hours."

 

-[º◦º]-

Amelia was still at her station when they returned. A tall, very good-looking guy with long dreads leaned against her desk, studying them warily as she waved them back with a smile.

Emmagan and McKay were in Susan's office, and John stopped short in the doorway. "Rodney, what are you doing here?"

"No one can see what's in the memcore—who else was going to do it? And, it's come to my attention," he glanced at Teyla, "that it was perhaps a little unfair to have used you in my efforts to track down Mendez."

Teyla crossed her arms and cleared her throat.

"Oh, all right. It was wrong, and I have something. If you want it—you don't have to take it, but as a a gesture of, uhm, my appreciation—"

"Rodney..." John rolled his hand in an exasperated 'get on with it' motion.

"It's for Cameron. His archived memcore dump from Kawasaki. I've cleared the classified information, and I thought you might like to have them back, I mean the memories. They don't normally permit that, but I uh. Talked Quinn into it."

Cameron was going to have to reevaluate McKay—the snarly rudeness was gone, replaced by something nearly agreeable. John had remained friends with him, and perhaps moments like this were the reason.

He knew that John was his third placement, and it was an accident that he'd retained any knowledge of his second placement. It felt uncomfortable, knowing that McKay knew more about his past than he did. "I'll be glad to take a look at them."

He gave Cameron the archival device. "I think you should, it's, they seemed very nice. Bucolic, even."

Teyla stepped forward and laid a hand on Cameron's arm. "Thank you, Rodney. Susan is ready for you now, Cameron."

John shifted nervously. "Good luck, buddy."

"I love you too." Cameron walked into the cold room, stripped his clothing off and climbed on the table.

Susan leaned in and smiled. "You ready?"

"Completely." He handed her the archive. "Apparently it's some memories he thinks I should have.

She took the it and turned it over in her hands. "I'm sure I can restore these." Susan tapped a few keys on a remote, and—

 

-[º◦º]-

It was another late night. John was going to sleep for a week when this was over.

McKay had gone into the clean room to oversee the extraction of the old memory core that contained the classified data, and make sure none of it was flashed to the new core.

Teyla brought John a flimsy loaded with the appointment information and brochure for the Kawasaki modeling salon, what to expect, what to bring, and made sure that he knew there were refreshments in the conference room. He went to grab a cup of coffee, and found Amelia and her boyfriend in there.

John struck up a conversation to pass the time. Amelia was Teyla's personal assistant, and Ronon Dex was one of the home office's biomeme psychtechs, brought along in case Susan Calvin had decided to leave PETAAI.

They'd never been here before, and John passed on a few tips for out of the way things to see, stuff that wasn't overrun by tourists before he drifted back to Susan's outer office.

McKay was stripping out of the clean suit, a small static bag was on the desk.

"So that's it—the old Cam is gone?"

"The data transfer from memcore1 was fine. Memcore2—that's where his experiences with you are stored—was pretty clean, about two-thirds. The rest was too corrupted, or too integrated with the classified data. The archive transferred perfectly."

John put his head in his hands and took a deep breath of relief. Cameron would remember him, they weren't going to have to start over from scratch. Cameron might not remember his last words, but John did, and that was good enough.

"He's going to seem a lot different, now that's he's got his past lease experiences." Rodney put a hand on John's shoulder. "I really am sorry. I wish I could have explained when I called you back. You probably would've gallivanted off to the mountain, regardless of anything I said."

"Probably. I understand." Rodney's tendency to behave like a spider in a web was John's least favorite thing about him.

"So. Susan's nearly done and I'm going to take off. Good luck, John."

"Thanks, Rodney."

"You're welcome."

John killed the remaining time by arranging for an autocab for the trip down to Kawasaki. Cam's appointment was late in the day, the instructions said to expect an overnight stay. The remodeling would take eight to ten hours, then a mandatory visit to a psychtech afterward.

It was all happening so fast, that he could barely had time to wrap his head around the face that it had only been three weeks since Cam's breakdown.

IV.

Registering new hardware: memcore1...

He awakens, and he is the sum total of his knowledge. Facts, figures, math, science, history. It is vast, varied and meaningless.

Registering new hardware memcore2... memcore3... memcore4...

Memcore4 not recognized: Override?

Memcore4 not recognized: Override?

Memcore4 not recognized: Override?

Memcore4 not recognized: Override?

An external command forces the installation and clears the error.

External sensors: status, active. A face: Human, female. Dark hair, light eyes.

Internal sensors: Data stream one status: 16.

He awakens for the first time. Family: Mitchell, lease status: permanent.

Wendy: mother, wife, age twenty-five. Frank: father, husband, age thirty, disability twenty percent. Courtney: son, age five.

Wendy teaches him to cook, childcare, household duties. Frank teaches him agriculture, husbandry, equipment maintenance.

Courtney is his...friend.

The data clicks into place, and he is Cameron.

Data stream one status: 64, indexing incomplete.

Courtney grows by leaps and bounds until he is gone, dead. Cameron grieves with the distraught parents of a son cut down in his prime, the grief never softened, never gone, always there.

Data stream one status: 64, indexing incomplete.

Frank and Wendy swiftly age and wither into ancient husks that barely resemble the people they were only moments ago. The farm is Cameron's responsibility, he attends to all tasks, and cares for his 'parents' until they pass away within days of one another. The memories end, there is no more.

Data stream one status: 128, indexing incomplete.

Internal sensors: Data stream two status: 16, indexing incomplete.

He awakens for the second time. Aris Boch. Status unknown, male, age unknown. There is no associated name. There is almost nothing, and the timestamps do not match.

Data stream two status: error 32, reject incomplete data?

An external command forces the input, overrides the error.

Data stream two status: 128, indexing incomplete.

Internal sensors: Data stream three status: 16, indexing incomplete.

He awakens for the third time, but he is no longer only the sum of his knowledge. John Sheppard, lease status: permanent. Single, male, age forty.

He is named Cameron again.

Data stream three status: 64, indexing incomplete.

The few months of this permanent lease store rapidly, but there are gaps, the time stamps do not match.

Data stream three status: error 32, reject incomplete data?

An external command forces the input, overrides the error.

Data stream three status: 128, complete. Indexing incomplete.

Internal sensors: Data stream four status: 16, indexing incomplete.

Data type, document. Kawasaki Model 13, PETAAI record.

Document status: 128, complete.

Indexing incomplete.

Indexing incomplete.

He's lying on a work bench, chest plate open, and the woman is still there. "Hey," he says.

"Everything settling in all right?"

"I guess. There's an extra register."

"Yes. I had make a call to make sure I'd been given the right part, and was instructed to force the initialization, but it came online."

"I should probably know your name, but..."

"I'm Susan Calvin, the biomeme psychtech here at PETAAI. The second and third downloads were rather aggressively redacted by Dr. McKay."

"No kidding, they feel like Swiss cheese. Nice to meet you—is John here? I'm still with him?"

"Yes, he's waiting outside for you. There's a few tests I need complete first, if that's all right?"

"Sure, no problem."

"I repaired your shoulder joint, how does it feel?"

"It's fine—why did you need to do that?"

"That part of your memory was excised, but you had an accident a few days ago."

"Oh."

"Why don't you tell me about your second placement."

"Aris Boch, limited contract. I resided in the basement, and had very little direct contact with him. I'm not even sure why he bothered to lease me."

"That's fine. I'm sure John will fill you in on the details later."

Cameron drifted away on the streams of data being indexed while Susan completed her tests, until she finally snapped the chest plate back on and sealed the plastiderm. "I'm going to bring John in now. Can you get up?"

"I think so."

He sat up, and and watched John walk into the room. It was hard to focus, and he tipped over.

John grabbed his arm and prevented him from falling off the table. "Cam?" He asked softly.

"I know it looks alarming, but this is normal. Cam will seem a little spacy for a few hours until the indexing is completed—it was a lot to absorb."

"I'm fine, John. It's good, we're good."

John smiled. "Glad to hear it."

"Me too. Can we go home now?"

Susan nodded. "You're free to go. Good luck, and come see me after you get your external upgrade; I'm curious to see what you decide on."

Cam didn't know anything about an external upgrade, but he'd ask John about it later. He got up and managed to dress himself without falling over.

John snorted a short laugh. "I'm sorry, it's almost like you're drunk."

"I'm indexing, you idiot." He glared at John, until the giddy, gleeful grin on John's face registered. It was relief, and he smiled back.

"So that's what they're calling it these days. Come on, buddy, let's get you home so you can lie down before you fall down."

A woman met them in the hallway and shook both John and Cameron's hands.

"Thank you for everything, Teyla." John nodded at him,"We're both grateful for everything you've done for us."

"It was a pleasure to make your acquaintance. If there is anything else that I can do for you, please don't hesitate to call me."

When they reached the elevator, Cameron asked, "Who was that?"

 

-[º◦º]-

Once the few, precious memories from John's server were uploaded to fill in a few of the gaps, and the indexing was completed, he spent hours rifling through the wonderful, rich, dense complex memories from over sixty years years of experience. It was overwhelming, there was so much to consider.

He avoided delving into the brief, second lease; not that there was a lot of it, but it felt abusive, wrong. Boch was the total opposite of the Mitchell family. Cameron had been a treasured part of their daily life, twenty-two thousand, one hundred and three days filled with constant interaction.

Courtney had been such a good kid. The pain of losing him was as clear and sharp as the day the officer had knocked on the door, but it was offset by the two decades of of caring for him, the joy of seeing him grow into a handsome young man.

Learning to cook side by side with Wendy, not merely following a recipe, but what it meant. The satisfaction with a perfectly browned pie crust or beautiful jars filled with preserves, knowing that food was more than fuel: it was the glue that bound a family together over shared meals and conversation.

Working with Frank, seeing the fruits of his labor sprout from the earth, brilliant green turning to gold under a Kansas sky so big and blue that it made him dizzy. The miraculous, mysterious birth of a foal or calf; a physiological concept that was utterly foreign to Cameron, the intimate physical knowledge of conception or birth barred to him for all eternity.

Cameron loved the entire seething, conflicted, wonderful mass of humanity. Not content to be restrained by their biological imperative, they'd conceived of and created him and his kind. No one person could be said to have built biomemes, it was the work of hundreds and thousands over many decades, discoveries and innovations piled on past inventions.

Wendy and Frank had taken him to church twice a week, every week, until their deaths, and seeing their faith gave him respect for a higher power. If humans were the children of God, then surely biomemes could be said to be the grandchildren, included in that wild, uncertain but undoubted, faith.

All of this would've been prohibited to him but for the machinations of Rodney McKay. He crafted and emailed a thank you note that was suitably apologetic, then made his decision.

He painstakingly built an avatar with the combined features of Wendy, Frank and Courtney, then replaced his own plain features in a dozen photos and videos.

He copied the images and more of the avatar alone from multiple angles and close ups onto a flimsy and took it to John. "I have something I want to show you. Is this all right? You're the one that's gonna have to look at me every day."

John took the flimsy. "I wish I could do that—just show you what's in my head," then he carefully studied each and every image. Finally he looked up and said, "Whatever you want is good for me."

"You don't mind that it's based on my first lease, Courtney, and his parents? I could re-do it, look more like you. I'd like that, too."

"No, that's a little too narcissistic, even for me." John laid the flimsy down, and stared at him. "That you want to, I guess, memorialize them, is very sweet. I'm proud to know you, no matter what you look like. But for the record? I think that you're going to be a good looking guy."

 

-[º◦º]-

John did his best to fill in the gaps in Cam's memories during the ride to Kawasaki and answered Cam's many questions. He didn't gloss over what had happened, as Cam would remember the events as only a conversation, the information wouldn't carry the same weight as living through it.

He didn't bring up the fact that they'd shared a pair of brief kisses or Cameron's last words before the replacemnt. He didn't really know if Cameron still felt the same way, he'd been almost a stranger after the core replacement. In retrospect, it was probably inadvisable to go down that road. If Cameron ever returned to that point, he'd reconsider reminding him.

They arrived just after noon. John hadn't expected an actual city, bustling with energy. He parked in front of the executive building, and Cameron insisted on carrying their small duffle.

The receptionist registered them, and asked them to wait a moment. The lobby was filled with employees, customers and biomemes of all sorts streaming in and out. A knock-out brunette with an easy smile and voluptuous figure met them at the receptionist's desk.

John grinned, and took her hand when she extended it. She didn't remember him, but if he wasn't mistaken, she was one of Jack O'Neill's ex-girlfriends. It really was a small world.

"I'm Kynthia, Mr. Quinn's executive assistant. I'm very sorry, but he's been delayed in a meeting, may I escort you to his office?"

"Sure. Lead away," John said breezily.

Cam gave him a sidelong, glowering look, but hell, he wasn't dead. John smiled and caught Cameron's hand. "I'll tell you later," he whispered.

Quinn's office was on the first floor in the back of the building, and it was not what he expected. It was almost tiny, windowless like a bunker of his recent acquaintance. Quinn stood and waved them in while he wrapped up his telephone conversation. "Of course, Daniel. I agree. Look, I'll call you back, my appointment is here.You too. Goodbye, Daniel."

He plunked the phone down. "I'm so sorry I wasn't able to come and greet you myself. Jonas Quinn," he said as he stuck his hand over the desk. John shook his hand and introduced himself, then Quinn offered his hand to Cameron as well. "I'm very pleased to see you looking so well, Cameron, is it?"

"Yes, sir."

"Please, call me Jonas. Have a seat. I'm sure that you're both anxious to get underway, so I won't keep you very long. I just like to have the opportunity to meet our newest upgrades. Any problems with the new memory core?"

"No. It's great to be glitch-free."

"Wonderful! We like our people out there to be top form."

"I'm sorry—"

"No, no, I'm the one apologizing. I looked over your scans from PETAAI myself, and compared them with your last boxing report. Considering the amount of external wear and tear, you should have had a more thorough internal component review, but," Quinn beamed broadly, "but you're here, and in tip-top shape. Do you have any preferences for your exterior enhancement?"

"Yeah. I brought this." Cameron handed over the flimsy."It's based on the young man from my first placement, I was his companion."

"The archive," Quinn agreed, then quickly scrolled through the lot. "Excellent work—you've taken into account your physical shape, but the resemblance to the young man and his parents is quite remarkable." He handed the flimsy back to Cameron, and turned to John.

"Mr. Sheppard, I want you to know that on behalf of Kawasaki, I personally take responsibility for your difficulties. I would like to reimburse you for any expense related to the mishap with Cameron's hardware issues."

John thought about it for a moment. Sam and Radek's time was worth a lot, but they'd freely volunteered that, then there was the plane ticket to Colorado and the miscellaneous expenses for the road trip home in Holland's van. All in all, he'd rather keep Kawasaki in debt to him. "I'll get back to you on that."

"My door is always open. Now, I've wasted enough of your time. If you'll come with me, I'll show you to the modeling salon."

Quinn ushered them out to the fleet of club cars parked in the back of the building, commandeered one and drove them across the vast grounds at a recklessly high speed. He shouted over the wind, "We're the number one employer in the state, both humans and biomeme, and an incorporated city, as well. The plant alone is nearly 2 million square meters—it's the largest building on the planet." The building in question loomed over the city complex like a behemoth. He pointed out the different buildings and their purpose, the open mall that contained restaurants and shops, the residential section and schools. The onboard GPS tracked the club car as it sped across the self contained city.

He careened into the drive of a hotel and screeched to a halt under the porte-cochere. "And here we are." He jumped out and chivvied them into the lobby and introduced the salon representative that would see Cam through the process. "Ms. Leda Kane, this is John and Cameron, they have an appointment for this afternoon."

Leda smiled, "I'll be sure and take good care of them, Mr. Quinn."

"You always do. And now, I'm afraid I have another engagement. Enjoy your stay!" Quinn bounded away.

John shook his head; Quinn definitely wasn't what he'd expected in a CEO. He turned around, and Cameron was checking them in. John leaned against the counter to watch. It had been Cameron's show so far today; John was just along for the ride.

"Room two-twelve is already keyed to you, and here's an entry card for Mr. Sheppard, which is also his credit chit for anything he needs while you're in the salon. The valet has your club car assignment should either of you wish to leave the hotel. Your appointment is at four pm. If you have any questions, please feel free to call me, I am at your disposal twenty-four seven."

Cameron grinned at John. "Hey, Leda, would you mind taking a picture of us?"

"I would love to!"

John smirked, handed over his Blue and put his arm across Cam's shoulder. He smiled for the camera and Leda snapped a few shots, then returned it. "Thanks."

"It's my pleasure, sir. Cameron, I'll meet you here at four."

The hotel room was well appointed with all the comforts of home. Cameron tossed the duffle onto one of the beds, and investigated the room. "So we've got a couple of hours, you want to go find something to eat?" He prowled around, opening doors and drawers.

"Yeah, in a minute." John sat down on the bed and scrolled through the pictures that Leda had taken. He'd never thought to take any, but he was glad that Cameron had. He was pleased that Cameron was getting the choice to change his appearance to something other than the average CAM12, but John had grown fond of the way that he looked, the pale metallic eyes with the faint epicanthic fold, square features, shiny, pale brown skin and the painted-on 'hair'.

The CAM series was modeled on a synthesis of a broad spectrum of nationalities to seem vaguely familiar, and yet obviously not human. A hundred years ago, people were concerned that the biomemes shouldn't look too human, but that prejudice had waned. The newer CAM12's were less obviously a biomeme, but still common and plain.

In every picture Cameron was looking at him, not the camera, with an affectionate expression. John had seen that look on his face almost every day, but to see it captured here was startling. He wished that he'd had been able to figure out earlier that Cam was more than what was on advertised on the tin. It would have saved them a lot of heartache and trouble.

Cam sat next to him, and John handed him the Blue. He glanced through them and commented, "These are pretty good," as the device chirped. Cameron pushed a few keys. "There. I'll put those in the album."

"The what?"

"I'm going to make one for us. Wendy had a book with pictures mostly of the family, but a few other things. Her sister's children probably have it."

"It's only been three or four years, have you looked into them at all?"

"Yeah. I did a brief search, and some of the family still lives around Auburn."

"We could go there, if you want."

Cameron nodded slowly. "Yeah. Come on, let's get you some lunch."

The afternoon was spent driving around Kawasaki City, checking out the mall and the recreation of a small amusement park from the last century.

Leda was waiting for them when they returned to the hotel. "Right on time. Are you ready?"

"I am."

John followed them into the salon. There were a couple of people sitting in the lounge, but John couldn't determine if they were human or not. It was hard to tell in Kawasaki City. Behind the glass door was the workspace where biomemes were undergoing various procedures.

"We process twenty to thirty upgrades every day, from all over the continent," Leda explained as she gave them a brief tour. "This is the deluxe salon, there is another that's automated, but Mr. Quinn insisted that you only have the best." Leda pointed out the features as they walked past. "This is the sloughing room, where the plastiderm is removed, and here's the molding room, where they apply the new plastiderm. The sensors are tested and replaced in here, before you get the plastiderm."

The sloughing room was hidden in a greenish cloud of steam. The salon corridors were filled with male, female and gender-free biomemes walking around in freshly applied plastiderm or only the fine metallic mesh that covered the articulated frames, laying on tables and sitting in chairs, or being carted back and forth on gurneys.More sat in styling chairs where silky strands of synthetic hairs were attached to their heads and bodies. Another room contained the eye replacement, where a skinless biomeme sat with one empty eye socket, the other had a pale brown eye hanging by fine fiber optics while the tech had his back turned. John's stomach squirmed at the sight. That was a little more than he wanted to know about the upgrade.

"Here we go. This is Aldwin, our Chief Aesthetician. Aldwin, this is Cameron and John. Page me when you're done?"

Aldwin gave her an odd, formal bow. "I will. Cameron, if you'll sit here. Is there anything special that you have in mind?"

John took a chair against the wall, and watched Cam hand over the flimsy. Aldwin loaded it into his workstation and began pulling the specs together, refining what Cameron wanted, matching skin tones, hair and eye color to the images, and defining the shape of the 'muscles' in the plastiderm. John was occasionally consulted, but he insisted that whatever Cam wanted was fine. When they had exactly what Cameron wanted, the specifications were loaded into the system. Every station would have the details of what he wanted and the necessary parts, down to the last follicle.

Leda returned. "Mr. Sheppard, this is the point where you must say goodbye. Policy stipulates there cannot be any contact between you until his upgrade is complete, but if you need any assistance, or have any problems, please call me. Cameron, I'll be with you every step of the way."

He gave Cam an encouraging smile, and tried to burn the moment into his memory; this was the last time he'd see this dear, plain face."See ya on the flip side, Cam."

Cam gave him a thumbs-up before Aldwin took him to the sloughing room, and John left the salon with Leda.

She held the door open for him and said, "There are a few contractual details that require your attention, if you'll come with me?"

 

-[º◦º]-

Removal of the plastiderm required a forty minute shut down of the external sensors, but Cam was still active inside. John's offer to explore Cam's past with him was interesting. He wanted to go back there, wanted to take John and integrate the two placements. He wanted to process the new data that John had given him, but the older memories of the Mitchells kept welling up, and he had to force himself to ignore them over and over.

The trip down here gave him a starting place to imagine driving cross-country, or maybe even flying. He'd never been awake for a plane ride, though he had to have been shipped air cargo to Kansas and back. He spent the time putting together an itinerary; they could fly out and drive back, maybe stopping in Colorado to visit John's friends, or go skiing. Or both.

Cam sat up when his internal timer went off. He was still hot, and he sat under the cold air blower for a few more moments. The thin metal fibers that served as his tendons and muscles were faintly visible through the flexible mesh if he held his arm up to the light.

The eyes were next. The tech showed him the newly fabricated eyes for his approval, and they were perfect; pale blue irises with dark rings and a faint tracery of 'blood' vessels. He only needed to close the visual sensors, and Cam built on his fantasy trip.

The Mitchell's were an extended family, cousins, aunts and uncles, and he'd been universally accepted by all of them. Except for the very youngest, they'd remember him, but they wouldn't be expecting him to look like part of the family.

For the first time, he reconsidered his choices. Was it ill-advised? For all that they knew, Frank and Wendy's 'meme had been wiped clean and sent out to another placement. What if they resented that he'd co-opted the family genetics for his own purposes?

He still felt like part of the family. He'd have to contact one of them in advance, explain the situation, and perhaps wrangle an invitation, and in return he had a gift for them, one of perfect recall. Events and images long lost to human memory, lived on inside of him.

Once the eyes were attached, the tech gave him the optical application to install, then tested his vision. He watched a series of videos and answered a handful of questions to verify the eyes were operating correctly in conjunction with his emotional responses.

The remodeling went on and on: upgrading the sensor whiskers, replace his jaw to soften the shape of his face; caps on the maxillary teeth; testing the stretch and flexibility of the new plastiderm; the color lab where the tiny scars and faint gradations of skin tone were permanently sketched on.

Laira, the hair tech, was an older woman who didn't mind chatting as she worked. She was a widow, her children grown so she lived on-site and walked to work every day. They chatted extensively for hours as she quickly attached individual hairs all over his body.

She asked casually, "So, have you picked out a new name?"

"No, I didn't know I had to. Why would I do that?"

"You're not rwquired to to, it's just that most 13's want to. I guess they see 'Cameron' or 'Camilla' as derogatory, like a pet name, or something." She didn't shrug, the motion would interfere with the smooth motion of tie, stab, cut, of her hands.

'Cameron' was simply who he was. Cam couldn't talk about the Mitchell family with her, he wasn't meant to have that knowledge. He remembered the amused smirk when John had suggested the appellation. "I like it, and John likes it. Though, I am worried because he refused to make any suggestions about the upgrade."

"None?" she asked, and when Cam nodded, "That's a little unusual. Most placements tend to want put their stamp on the biomeme, some idealized concept of perfection. He sounds like a good guy."

"Yeah, he really is," Cameron sighed and waved his hand over his body. "I hope that he really likes this."

"Sounds like someone has a crush," Laira teased. "Does it go both ways, you think?"

"Yes." He knew without a doubt that John felt something, he'd proven that over and over.

"If you don't mind my asking, is your relationship sexual?"

"Why do you want to know?"

"Just curious. I hear a lot about male/female human 'meme relationships, but very few same sex."

"No, at the moment, it's strictly platonic." They'd never even kissed, and Cameron hadn't dared to hope for more, not in that ugly old body. He was concerned that John's reticence to deliver any input on the creation of his new appearance meant that this was as far as John wanted to go. Perhaps when he saw the new façade, he'd reconsider.

"Interesting, " she said as she skillfully knotted a hair, then planted it with a nearly invisible needle.

If all that John wanted was friendship, Cam could and would accept that. He was capable of going further, but he wasn't driven to do so. It wasn't an imperative, but he wanted John to be completely satisfied with every part of his life.

Laira stripped off the magnifying eye glasses and stretched her back."Okay, take a look, and tell me what you think."

Cameron stepped into the mirrored cubby. Laira's art had given him a very lifelike representation of an adult male human. The hair on his head was dark blond with a few gray hairs to match John's, and nearly shoulder length in order to give him a choice of style. The hair on his groin, arms and legs looked and felt real to the touch. His face had eyelashes and and brows, a hint of a beard sketched onto the soft plastiderm, not perfect and shiny, but with a few imperfections that finished the look.

He ran his fingertips over his body, and the extra sensors give him a little thrill. "You did great, it's fantastic." There was a faint, hairless outline around the access plates to his CPU cavity and wrist dongle, but that was acceptable; he wouldn't ever be human, but he was an excellent simulacrum.

Laira handed him a robe, and Leda led him to the hair stylist.

 

-[º◦º]-

John avoided thinking about what was going on down in the salon by shopping, napping, watching a flick on the 'vid. He ordered in room service, and—in spite of the odor—managed to read a little of the book that Cameron had brought with him. It had taken a lot longer than the ten hours, hopefully only because Cam had asked for a specific, customized look, and not that there had been a problem.

The contract revision had given John doubts, and he hated them. Cameron now had the option to refuse his placement, and that was the reason for the gag order, so John wasn't able to influence Cam's decision. Leda had assured him that should that happen, they would be happy to place another CAM12, or they would refund the balance of his lease.

He didn't want another CAM12. He wanted Cameron.

Leda finally paged his Blue at seven am. John grabbed the shopping bag and headed downstairs with a hard knot of trepidation in his gut. It bothered him that Cam wanted to change so much. It felt like a little betrayal, that he could just change, willy-nilly, when John had expected him to be solid, immutable and forever.

What else would Cam want to change, now that he was in perfect working order, with a snazzy new exterior? Cameron had always been broken, from the first moment he stepped out of the box. Maybe, that...brokenness was why Cameron had thought he liked John.

Cameron was a sentient being with free will. He could go back to Kawasaki and get a job, or he might discover someone else who was more interesting and wanted to go and do the things that Cam liked.

No, Cam wasn't going to refuse to come home with him; not after what they'd been through. John shook his head, and remembered the jealous look that Cam had given him, concentrated on the image of Leda's snapshot. John had to trust that look of open affection, and he'd do whatever it took to keep Cameron looking at him that way.

He met Leda in the salon lounge, and handed her the shopping bag. "These are for Cam, thought he might like new clothes to go with the new look."

She peered into it, and nodded. "That's very thoughtful of you, Mr. Sheppard. I'll give these to him right now. Would you care to wait here?"

"Sure."

The lounge was half full, people, biomemes and their reps streaming in and out of the workroom. John slouched into the couch and picked up one of the flimsies scattered around, firmly shutting down his doubts. He could have persuaded Cameron to remain as he was, but John wasn't that kind of guy. Cam had potential, and he didn't want to hold him back—he just wanted to hold onto him.

He didn't have to wait very long. Soon, Leda appeared at the glass double doors, and good lord, Cameron right beside her.

John recognized the jeans and pullover he'd bought, and he'd seen the pictures that Cam had given him, but vision made reality was shocking.

He was gorgeous. He looked human.

"John?" Cam said his name softly. It was the same voice, and he realized that he was staring. "Is it okay?"

John held out his hands, and Cameron took them. "You look fantastic, Cam. I'm just...a little stunned, is all."

Cam smiled. The sweetly bowed curve of his lips was mesmerizing, and his teeth were white and even. "The good kind of stunned, I hope."

"Yeah. Yeah, it is." John ran a hand up Cam's arm, and into his hair. It was soft and thick and wavy. He stared into Cam's eyes, and stroked a thumb across the soft skin-like plastiderm on his cheek.

Leda cleared her throat. "Cameron, Dr. Frasier would like to have a word with you before you leave, in regards to your conversation with Laira?"

"Oh?" Cam sounded worried.

John looked back and forth between the two, and Cameron seemed abashed."What's the matter?"

Leda reassured him, "This is just routine counseling."

Cam murmured in his ear, "Dr. Frasier is the Chief of Memetic Psychology."

"Oh." John physically held in a retort that maybe it wasn't so routine by biting his lip.

Leda said, "I'll have you back here shortly." Cameron shrugged and went with her.

John couldn't imagine what Cameron had said to provoke this.

 

-[º◦º]-

He felt bitter and hugely betrayed; he'd assumed the conversation about John was confidential, but presumably, Kawasaki USA was the only one allowed to keep secrets.

Leda took him to Dr. Frasier in the ubiquitous club car. Pre-shift traffic was heavy, long trams and small autocabs crowded the streets with adults on their way to work, children on their way to school. She parked next to a tidy house in the residential neighborhood. "I'll wait here for you."

Cameron knocked on the door.

A teenage girl opened the door, yelled over her shoulder, "Mom, it's for you!", then rushed past Cam to catch the tram that had stopped in front of the house. He stepped inside, and closed the door.

The interior looked homey, lived in. Books were scattered on tables and shelves, a pair of slippers kicked partway under the sofa. He was prepared to like Dr. Frasier based on the books alone. A petite red head walked down the stairs. "Janet Frasier," she said and shook his hand when she reached the landing.

It was a risk, but it felt right, normal. "Cameron Mitchell, pleased to meet you."

"You mind if I get a cup of coffee before we get started?"

"No ma'am, not at all."

"I'll be right back, make yourself comfortable."

Cameron sat down and poked through a pile of books until she returned. "That's better." Janet curled up in the chair next to the couch. "First, I have to say, what a beautiful upgrade, that's really fine work."

"Thank you, I designed it myself."

"They're always looking for good aestheticians, if you're ever interested."

He already had a job, and he really wanted to get this over with, get back to John. "Why am I here, Dr. Frasier?"

"I know that you were given the Mitchell's archive. How does that feel?"

"I like it, but it's very distracting, I can't stop thinking about them." Cam leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees and studied his hands, twisted together. The faint dusting of hair on them was fascinating, he could see the near microscopic lumps the knots made under the plastiderm. "I still feel very attracted to the Mitchells. It's like I'm there, but not."

"There are a few humans that have the same problem that you do now. They have perfect recall of every detail of the entire life. All the feelings associated with every event, the rage and hope and loss are retained and are as powerful in the present as when first experienced."

"Yeah," he agreed.

"The storage patterns for the CAM series are much like the human brain, the semantic memories separated from the episodic memory. The removal of the episodic memories isn't merely to protect the privacy of the previous placement, but to prevent situations like this."

He'd just got them back, and he selfishly wanted to keep them, didn't want to lose anything, ever again. "I need to delete them?"

"Not necessary. I understand that it was meant as a gift, and I wouldn't want to take it away from you. My recommendation to Quinn was that it was a mistake to restore the archive, but I relented when Quinn and I came to a compromise: you had to have a memory core similar to that of the CAM15."

"The memcore4." He knew it was there, but it was foreign and he'd barely gotten over indexing before they were on their way to Kawasaki. "Don't exactly know what to do with it."

"Precisely. The problem is that you were not given any instructions on how to use the extra hardware, or the corresponding CAM15 processor. Had they done that, you might as well have been boxed and Mr. Sheppard given another 'meme. Its purpose is to locally archive the episodic memories. It's not unlike the human subconscious, the emotional impact is reduced. They'll take on a more semantic quality. The CAM15 has an automatic transfer protocol, but you'll need to do it manually."

"I'll remember that I have them, but they're not continually being processed? Why didn't Susan tell me this?"

"Susan is a brilliant tech, but her area of expertise is the Model 12. She called to get the installation override, but she purposely wasn't given any details."

Cameron selected a memory, just a small one that he wouldn't miss if it went astray. He had to force the transfer to the unfamiliar register, but it was successful.

It was interesting. It wasn't gone, but it wasn't resident, either. "Yeah, it's not easy, but it works." Putting the memories away would prevent him from constantly obsessing over the vast cache of experiences, and he could concentrate on John.

"I suggest that you be selective. Don't try and dump everything—start with inconsequential minutia and work your way up until you're comfortable. You'll know when to stop," she reassured him

"Thanks." Cameron gave her a friendly smile. "Was that everything?"

"No, I do want to talk with you about your current placement."

"Laira," Cam said with disgust.

"She's not a gossip. I was concerned about your early reluctance to seek out assistance with your hardware problem, and I specifically asked about your conversation with her because she's a good listener. When she mentioned your professed affection for Mr. Sheppard, well. It's a concern, is all."

"I was afraid that I'd be replaced. I wasn't even sure what was going on—it was all tangled together."

"The irrational fear was possibly caused by your failing hardware. Do you still feel that way?"

"No, not at all."

"Very good. As to the other—you're a companion by design. It's common for someone like you in your position to have feelings for your placement."

"Like the Mitchell family."

"Do you think it's the same?"

He thought about it for a moment and said slowly, "No. I love them, I'm sad they're gone—but I need John." Cameron glanced at Janet, wondered how she would take that.

She shook her head. "I'm not here to validate, or pass judgment. You feel what you feel. However, I will tell you that in many ways, you're still a child in the flush of a first love, and you should approach taking this step with caution. A sexual relationship is possible, but there's going to be a lot of challenges, both physical and mental, and your biggest hurdle is John himself."

"I think he feels the same way, he could've just gotten a replacement." He didn't really know what John thought. There were still broad gaps in his memory, and maybe that made them unreliable. It wasn't at all like the Mitchell memories; comforting and complete.

"That could very well be true, but unless he was raised by wolves, he's going to have doubts about embarking on a physical relationship with you. Your new appearance will help, though understand that he might never get over the preconception that sex with a biomeme is a perversion."

Cameron had an incredible store of semantic knowledge, she wasn't telling him anything new. "It's all up to him."

"I don't know him, and the bioload assessment is very skimpy," Cameron grinned, he'd been frustrated by that very issue, "but that is probably the best way to proceed. Keep the lines of communication open, talk with him and if he seems receptive, make sure he knows how you feel."

Cameron thought it would end up more like talking at John. "Okay. I will."

"That's all I ask. There's one last detail, and I feel little silly even asking after that, but I'm required by law. Do you choose to stay with Mr. Sheppard, of your own free will?"

"Yes, absolutely."

Janet got out of her chair and pulled a flimsy off the bookshelf. "This is a standard sentient CAM13 contract. The amortized rental fee will be held in escrow for you, until the end of the lease, or you invoke the right of refusal. At that time, you have several options: Kawasaki will provide you with employment at market salary rates, you can elect to remain in the lease pool, or you can seek outside employment."

Cam took the flimsy. He read it thoroughly, attached his digital signature, then handed it back to Janet. Someday, in the far future, those provisions would be important.

She accepted it with a smile. "I know a lot of people have probably said this to you today, but I am always available if you want a sounding board, or advice. And now, I'll let you get on with it."

Cameron stood when Janet did, and followed her to the door."Thanks for taking the time to see me."

Janet laughed at the irony. "Any time, Cameron."

 

-[º◦º]-

John and Cameron finally escaped the clutches of Kawasaki around noon. Cam seemed too quiet and thoughtful, but John put it down to the complete overhaul he'd gone through.

In the last two days he'd essentially had brain surgery and a total perceptual change in identity. Cameron wasn't human, he didn't have the same hangups about—wait. Maybe he did. People had always looked through him, ignored him, or instantly judged him on the basis of his exterior. Now, anyone who didn't know that he was a 'meme, would have to look pretty carefully to figure out that he wasn't human.

The hair looked good, but on close inspection, it was extruded plastic. The eyes were naturally colored, but slightly glassy, and his wrist bore the faint outline of his dongle flap.

Strangers in the street would assume Cam was just like them and react accordingly. John wondered how Cam wanted to handle the neighbors, if he even remembered them.

John couldn't stop staring at Cameron, but he was oblivious, similar to the spacy look he'd had in Susan's lab.

He didn't intrude, but John wondered what was going on in there.

 

-[º◦º]-

It took a week, but Cameron had finally whittled down the resident memories to a manageable level. He didn't want to delay getting on with his life with John any longer than necessary. They had a limited time together, based on John's life expectancy, and he wanted to be able to fully concentrate on every single second.

John had politely inquired if he was okay, and accepted his assertion that he was working through some stuff. Cameron hadn't neglected his daily routine, but he hadn't really focused on it, and he completely missed John's morose withdrawal.

Cameron told him at breakfast, "So, I'm think I'm done," but he wasn't prepared for the reaction he got.

John's face paled. He mumbled, "Yeah, okay," then stared hard at his fork as if it either contained the mysteries of the universe, or was going to spontaneously burst into a song and dance routine. "You have the right to do that, I know."

"What?"

"The sentient right of refusal on the lease contract." John lifted his head, and looked him in the eye. He looked devastated, wrecked, and his eyes were suspiciously bright. "I get it—you've got things to do now."

"Oh, no—that's not it." Cameron was out of his chair and carefully wrapped his arms around John. "I'm not. I'm here, I want to be here with you more than anything."

John relaxed minutely in his arms. "I couldn't tell, it was like there was a strange ghost walking around here."

It wasn't his first mistake, nor would it be his last. "I'm sorry, I'm really sorry. It was..." Cam pulled John's chair around and he slid to his knees, to get into John's eye line. "Look at me. The archived memories, there was too much stuff, I couldn't think around it. I was putting some of it—a lot of it—away."

He could have done it faster, but it was too important. To create a balanced data load, every single byte had to be examined for content and emotion before it was moved to memcore4, because the corresponding emotional subroutine was stripped away. Once that was gone, there was no getting it back. Put too much away, and he'd lose the low, emotional simmer that made him seem more human.

"I thought at first, it was like when you were indexing, but that only took a few hours."

"Kind of like that, but more tedious. I wanted to get it out of the way, because I have more important things to do. Like you," he said softly. He stared at John, wanted to see the instant that he understood.

John blinked, then the side of his mouth twitched into something like a smile. "Yeah?"

"If that's all right with you."

John leaned down tipped Cameron's chin up, and kissed him tenderly."We can...work up to that, but yes. That is definitely all right with me."

-[end]-

 

*n.b. artistic license ignored the fact that the SGC starts at sub level one of the Cheyenne Complex.

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Notes

Fandom: SG1/SGA Crossover.

Pairing/main characters: Mitchell/Sheppard, with past Sheppard/Carter, Sheppard/McKay & Sheppard/Zelenka (because that's how he rolls), background Carter/O'Neill (I know!), Zelenka/Calvin

Rating: T for language, a little violence, and adult themes

Word count: ~31,450 words

Prompt: Robot

Summary: A Boy and His Robot.

Warnings: Brief discussion of religion & the end veers perilously close to conceptual pedophilia. If you've got a concern, feel free to drop me a note or comment, and I'll be glad to talk it over with you.

Spoilers: This is hard to believe, but there is a mild, oblique spoiler for Ark of Truth.

Author's notes: Pretty much an amalgam of every robot story ever written, and a bit of cross-purposed 'history'. I'm not a robot, nor have I ever played one on TV; Fake 22nd Century Computer Science abounds! Also, I'm pretty certain that the title was an SF story, but in an ironic twist, I can't recall who wrote it, or what is was. I thought it was Lester Del Rey, but apparently not.

Props to my man Isaac Asimov for the unauthorized use of Susan Calvin, and the nod to Robbie.

Category: AU. Pastiche. SF. Romance. Kitchen Sink.

Disclaimer: Not mine, no profit, only having fun.

Beta: Auburn gave this a thorough scrubbing twice over and made it a far better story in the process. Army_Rat poked at it and offered suggestions, but I extensively played in the sandbox afterward & dinked around with post formatting. mea maxima culpa

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