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False Negatives

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Jack is pacing the truly unimpressive length of what has to be the shittiest room in the shittiest hotel on the shittiest of the Edens. He doesn’t dodge the furniture as he walks, letting his hologram clip right through the foot of the bed, the useless coffee table, and Rhys’s stupidly long legs stretched out in front of the armchair their owner is sat in.

Would you stop… ghosting through me, Jack,” Rhys mutters, his head thrown back against the armchair.

What, make an actual effort to stop inconveniencing you, cupcake?” Jack half-growls, half-snorts. “You know that’s not me. Seriously, you ever catch me doing nice shit like that, that’s how you know it’s time to run a freaking malware scan.”

That’d never work… Too many false positives,” Rhys grumbles.

Hah. ‘Cause malware’s malicious, and I– yeah, I get it. That was pretty good, cupcake. Anyway, it’s not like you can feel me walking through you.”

Can you?”

Nope.” Jack stops in front of Rhys, his ankles clipping through the kid’s. “Guess I am a ghost, Rhysie. Boo.”

Rhys lifts his head and gives Jack a look that makes Jack feel a couple of centuries old. “You’re… being weird, Jack. Even by your usual standards.”

Maybe it’s your weird I’m picking up. You’re so freaking sleep deprived right now, your brain barely has enough processing power to host you , let alone my handsome self.”

Jack’s not kidding. Rhys is going on, what, sixty hours with practically zero sleep now, and his brain’s starting to draw on emergency power, cutting processing capacity from whatever it doesn’t consider essential. Apparently, as far as the programming of Rhys’s cybernetics is concerned, the list of functions considered essential for Rhys’s brain does not include Jack. The nerve.

Running on limited power makes Jack feel fuzzy around the edges, kinda like being drunk without any of the fun parts. And so freaking… cramped. Like being stuck in a room that’s too small for him, stuffed into clothes too small for him, forced into skin that’s too small for him. The kind of feeling that, in the physical world, could be fixed with a long shower (scalding hot, so hot it actually hurts a bit, feels like it’s stripping your skin right off, but that’s kinda what you wanna do at the time anyway, so you let it, you stay there till you can’t even feel your skin anymore, and when you finally shut off the water, it feels like your whole body can finally take a breath.)

Yeah. Long hot shower and some sleep. The former isn’t available to Jack till he gets back into his simulated living space, back at Atlas. The latter isn’t available, period.

Just go the fuck to sleep, kiddo. You’re no use to anyone like this.”

Not yet. Gotta answer some messages. There’s… stuff back at Atlas.” Rhys leans forward and paws at his ECHO communicator on the coffee table. It lies just within the reach of his fingertips, at that exact distance that Rhys’s attempts to grab it only push it further away. The kid drops his head onto his knees with a groan. Jack observes silently, sitting (or the closest equivalent thereof) at the foot of the bed.

Rhys lifts his head off his knees, but only far enough to support his chin with a hand. He looks like he’s contemplating Jack, but his eyes are so unfocused, he’s probably looking right through him. Well, more so than he normally would.

Hey, remember when we did the thing when you, like…” Rhys places his thumb and pinkie on his temples, gives a squeeze and jerks his head backwards a fraction. “Whoomph. And then you were in my head again. Like, for real, sort of. With fewer firewalls. Kind of like back on Pandora. Remember that?”

Yeah. That was kinda fun.” The memory pulls a small chuckle out of Jack. “You wanna do that again? Not the worst idea, actually. The way you are right now, there’s a good chance the ‘whoomph’–” Jack mimes the grip on the temples and the head jerk “–is gonna knock you right out. Cheaper than sleeping pills, nicer than getting whacked over the head. Just about.”

No, that’s not what I…” Rhys trails off, looks off to the side without turning his head, then looks back at Jack, actually focused this time. “So if I can’t feel you at all right now, how come I felt things… back then? I mean, like when you… Like your hands, on my face, and…” He swallows. “Yeah.”

Jack reaches out and taps Rhys’s neural port with a finger. Even a momentary contact makes Rhys flinch.

Felt that, didn’t ya.” Jack chuckles. “That’s kinda like the primary interface for that, I guess. Long as I’m touching that, I’m just that tiny bit less of a ghost. As far as you’re concerned, anyway. Anyone else still wouldn’t feel a thing.”

Do you?”

Uh. Kinda?.. Definitely feels like… something. Can’t really put a name on it, this holo thing is a bit digital – heh, I mean, yeah, it is, but I meant more like, when it comes to sensory shit, while you’re in this thing, you either got it or you don’t. Not a whole bunch of different sensations, like in a body, or even that sim you’ve set up for me back at Atlas. Just one or zero. Well, mostly zero, I guess.”

That sounds… bad.” 

The look that Rhys gives him makes Jack wish he’d given a different answer. What he should’ve said is, nah, kid, there’s no feelings in holo. It’s just not programmed that way. So no, Jack doesn’t feel anything in this form. Didn’t feel anything during the time Rhys is referring to, either. Certainly not the warm, weirdly organic electricity of Rhys’s skin, so different from the low-frequency, distinctly cybernetic thrum of his neural port under Jack’s finger, or– Yeah, didn’t feel any of that.

Nah, it’s cool.” Jack leans back on his elbows, doing a pretty good job at not clipping through the bed. “So what’s with the scientific curiosity, Rhysie? Just procrastinating on your emails, or angling for a holo-booty call?”

I, uh–”

Two spots of pink appear on Rhys’s cheeks.

Well, holy shit.” Jack sits up and watches the progress of the blush as it colonizes the kid’s face inch by inch. “So, just to clear it up, you asking me if I felt anything back then, when I had my fingers all over that pretty face of yours, was that your way of being nice, cupcake? You wanna make out or whatever, but it just wouldn’t feel right if Jack doesn’t get something out of it, too?”

No, that wasn’t– Oh god, why do you always– Fuck, Jack. Forget it.” Rhys throws himself back into the depths of the armchair again.

Jack’s got the next bit of scathing commentary locked and loaded, mostly on the subject of how really fucking flattered he is by the offer, no, like, seriously, Handsome Jack, Rhysie baby’s booty call at the end of a shitty day, that’s the dream, right; followed by a suggestion for Rhysie baby to go down to the hotel bar and find someone actually corporeal to make out with his pretty face, which, given the prettiness of the face in question, shouldn’t take more than, oh, thirty seconds flat.

He doesn’t really feel like saying any of it, though. Maybe ‘cause Rhys’s exhaustion is seeping through whatever limited interface they do share. Exhaustion with a good side of the ‘god, why me’ flavor of existential despair, the exact kind you get after having a couple of shitty days in a row with no sleep in between. (It’s not like Jack in his current holo state can even have bad days, but he remembers moments like that back in the times of corporeal existence, that encroaching sense of pure defeat when you don’t even know what time it is anymore, but your whole world seems to be stuck between 3 and 4 am, scientifically proven to be the worst hour ever invented.)

That, and the kid looks like a kicked puppy; no, a drowned puppy; no, a bag of puppies that had been almost drowned, fished out of the river, used for a football team’s practice, and tossed right back in.

That, and it’s fricking hilarious how awkward Rhysie is being about it. Or it should be hilarious, anyway. Any other moment, Jack would be howling with laughter by now, because come on, how awkward can a grown freaking man get when talking about, god, not even sex, but makeouts? Jack doesn’t quite feel like laughing at the moment, though. Maybe it's that 'bag of puppies' problem, ruining such a good thing.

Also. Jack kinda wants to do it. It’s like he said: not exactly spoiled for sensory input in the holo world. So. Yeah, Jack’s down for whatever the kid’s got in mind. Not to sound desperate or anything.

Sorry.” Rhys says, kinda addressing the ceiling at this point. “That was… That wasn’t even stupid, that was, like, the next level. And I, uh… Didn’t mean to insult you or anything. I’m really not thinking straight anymore.”

No, thinks Jack. You’re not. That makes two, cupcake.

Hey,” Jack says.

Rhys grunts something vague in acknowledgment, face still turned towards the ceiling, eyes closed.

Rhysie.”

No answer. I swear to god, thinks Jack, if he picked this moment to finally fall asleep…

He gets to his feet and walks over to Rhys’s armchair. Stops next to it, sits himself on the armrest.

Eden… are we on five? Eden-5 to Rhys. You still there?”

Yeah.”

Jack hovers a finger over Rhys’s neural port. For a few seconds, no contact. Then he lets his finger pad land over the metal circle.

Rhys’s eyes shoot open. “Jack–” His breath hitches. “Shit. Don’t… sneak up on me like that.” Rhys breathes out. Sighs. Makes no effort to move away, or swat at Jack’s hand, ineffectual though it would’ve been.

The sound of Jack’s name caught on Rhys’s breath like that reaches into some part of Jack’s code that, apparently, has been specifically written to make a stab of… something go all the way through him. Well, shit. Maybe the sensory feedback coded into the holo isn’t just ones and zeros.

Well, obviously, ultimately it is , that’s what Jack is, a bunch of ones and zeros rather awesomely arranged, but maybe there’s more to his hologram’s sensory palette than he thought. Wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world to find out.

Also. Scientific curiosity, right. This is his holo, his code, his actual form right now. Gotta know what this thing can do.

Go on, kiddo,” Jack says, leaning over to Rhys’s face, finger still resting on Rhys’s temple.

Rhys is staring up at him; his eyes look wrong to Jack for a split second, before Jack realizes he was half-expecting to see brown and blue instead of brown and gold. Which is clearly a memory glitch; Jack has seen the kid’s new ECHO eye, has seen him with it for the last, oh, two years by now.

Gotta scan those memory files, see why they keep throwing outdated images at him. Later.

Jack gives the kid a smile; one of his nicer ones, a smile that suggests that even if Jack’s up to something (‘cause of course Jack’s always up to something), it’s also Jack’s intention for the receiver of that smile to survive it, probably.

Tell me what you got in mind.”