Rule of Thirds, Excerpt

Chapter One

JASON SCRUBBED a hand over his face as he looked at himself in the mirror. The circles under his eyes weren’t too prominent, but they were there. He never got circles.

The nightmares were getting worse.

“‘Relief from active duty,’ they said. ‘Take some time to recover,’ they said.” He rinsed his face and toweled himself off. No need to shave for another month at least, after being lasered for his last mission. It’d gone… it hadn’t gone well, but he’d gotten out. He’d gotten out.

And when the head of extraction had tried to shake Jason awake to let him know they’d landed back on American soil, Jason had nearly killed her. Luckily his secondary reflexes had come through in time for him to realize what he was doing, but it was a near thing. Her report had included his touch aversion. Most of the reports were including that now. That was why….

Jason sighed and stumbled out of the bathroom to go get dressed. He had an appointment to meet a potential Companion today. And he wasn’t going to get his real job back until he went.

***

JASON TOOK a seat in the waiting area, a large open room with white walls and high ceilings. It felt too open, and he hunched his shoulders and tried to concentrate on the pamphlet in front of him, not the space surrounding him. He’d read the pamphlet enough that he knew it by heart, but it was a distraction, if only a feeble one:

The AI Delegate matches androids with humans for anything from in-home care to special-needs assistance. The original purpose of the company was to help the human race better interact with sentient artificial intelligence in the pursuit of AI rights. It took several years of AIs (now classed as Acting Individuals) and humans campaigning hard to have AIs granted the rights of any sentient being. The prejudice against an artificially created body coupled with the fact that no one truly understood how an AI’s consciousness developed made a lot of people unwilling to see them as anything other than machines. That’s why the Delegate was created in the first place.

Now, with AIs no longer regulated as second-class citizens, the company continues in its mission to help keep the android-human bond strong and beneficial for both parties. It is no less rigorous with its rules and regulations between the AI and human pairs, and following protocol is an integral part of a successful match.

The pamphlet went on to talk a little bit more about AI history, how a computer named Maureen had been the first bot to exhibit artificial intelligence and acting individualism, including referring to herself with feminine pronouns and choosing to ask questions about her creators and their families. It discussed how far AI had come since then, even though it had yet to be determined just how AI developed in a bot so that it came to personhood. By the time Jason had finished reading that section (again), his hands were shaking so hard they nearly tore the paper.

Jason’s work had arranged to have him matched with a Companion who had the capability to work with a vet with PTSD. The touch sensitivity was secondary but only just. As far as Jason was concerned, he was being sent to get a roommate that was going to monitor what he ate and try to hug him a lot. The thought alone made him feel physically ill. What he needed was to be at work, on another mission, anywhere but at home with a bed he couldn’t sleep in and a mat he could only use for so long before he fell over.

He snapped to alertness as a woman approached him, rising up out of his seat and going to parade rest.

“Good morning,” she said. “My name’s Molly Schwesing. Are you Jason Diovardi?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Jason said, rubbing at his arm. It was warm enough that his long sleeves itched a little.

“Wonderful. I’ll be your guide here today to introduce you to the Companions we have that fit your profile.” She led him into a small office. Big window, one door. Jason scooted his chair over so he could keep it in his sideline. “Now, I know you were evaluated over the phone, and that this is an assignment due to the nature of your work?”

“Right. I failed too many psych evals. So they thought a live-in Companion would help.”

“And what do you think?”

Jason squinted at her. “Are you supposed to ask me that? I don’t, uh, I don’t really get a choice in the matter.”

“I know you were trepidatious in your phone interview but that you’re willing to participate in our program. I’m asking you again, now that you’re here, because this is an actual step, and a very real one. How much do you know about the Companion program? And about Acting Individuals in general?”

Jason shrugged. “I know about what kids got taught in schools. Um, AI tech started being integrated in the ’50s, when experiments started taking place in creating thinking computers. Since then, technology has come a long way, sentient life started to develop out of programming, movements began to petition for AI rights, that sort of thing. And we went over it in sensitivity training, AI rights and protocols. I keep up with the news and stuff too. Like I know that bills are starting to pass to allow for civil unions between humans and AI. I haven’t really followed the politics of it much though.” He was busy with other things.

“So you are aware that your Companions are thinking, feeling people. Having an in-home Companion is very similar to having an in-home human caregiver.”

“I know that. I mean, I know they’re people. I… I don’t have a lot of experience with AIs out in the field, but half of our admin staff is AI.” Two of his psych evaluators had been AI. He hadn’t liked the conclusion they’d come to, but that didn’t mean he respected them any less.

“And can you tell me why you’re being assigned a Companion, over a human?”

“I….” Jason thought over his answer. “Working with me will… probably result in a lot of stressors. I didn’t think it would be better to subject an AI to those over a human, but I was under the impression that AIs process stressors differently. Also they’re, um…. They’re better equipped to deal with me if I… if I get caught up in a flashback or a nightmare and lash out. They have built-in defense mechanisms. That’s important. I need someone who can subdue me if needed.”

Molly nodded, looking satisfied. “You’ll be meeting them all individually of course, to see who you click with the most.”

“How many?” Jason asked, already feeling tired. He didn’t talk to people much anymore, aside from training and work.

“We have three Companions waiting to meet you who best match your profile, requirements, and questionnaire. Well, technically four, but they’re a matched pair, so we thought it’d be best if you first met—”

“Matched pair?”

“Oh yes, they bonded over a previous experience and—I suppose the best term is partnership? Married really, but it was still illegal when they made their own vows—you can certainly ask them if you’d like, but only Chase is qualified to be a Companion. Shade is part of the package, and there aren’t many people who want two, so we don’t usually—”

“I’d like to meet them first,” Jason interrupted. A matched pair meant they already had each other, which meant the Companion would probably be less likely to be too touchy, especially if his partner also lived with them. This might be a solution.

“Of—of course,” Molly said. “But to clarify, you do have accommodations for two?”

“As long as they sleep in the same bed,” Jason said. “I only have the one bedroom set aside.” It was technically his bedroom, but he slept on the mat most nights anyway. He’d already moved all his clothes into the storage closet there, in anticipation of the new arrival.

“That’s excellent! All right, then give me just a moment to rearrange your schedule. They’ll brief you themselves.”

Molly made a quick phone call and then led Jason to a small room with some strategically placed couches and chairs, as well as some end tables that had unopened bottles of water on them. There was a man, tall, fair-haired, with glasses, sitting on one of the couches, and Jason wondered why an AI needed vision correction lenses. Maybe he just liked the aesthetic? A much smaller man, with dark coloring, was curled up next to him.

“Chase, Shade,” Molly said. “This is Jason Diovardi, your nine-o’clock appointment and potential human.”

“Nice to meet you,” the taller one said, standing up and holding out a hand. “I’m Chase. This is Shade.”

“Morning,” Jason said, shaking. That, at least, he could handle. He dropped his hand as soon as Chase let go, running his thumb over his fingernails out of habit, reassuring himself they were there.

“Shall we sit?” Chase asked, waving to the couch across from the one he and Shade were using. Jason sat and glanced at Shade, trying to assess. He seemed more “threat” than anything else.

“You’ll have to excuse Shade,” Chase said. “He’s not very verbal. Malfunctioning circuits from a previous Companion encounter that we haven’t yet figured out how to fix.”

“I thought only you were a Companion,” Jason said.

Chase nodded. “I’m glad you were briefed about that. While we both are certified to be Companions, Shade has been placed on a hold while he recovers from his previous encounter. As it is, I’m also the only one of the two of us specialized in veteran PTSD. Regarding that, I have extensive qualifications and a very good track record, if you’re interested in asking questions?”

Jason shook his head. They were work-approved. What more could he ask for? “No, thanks.”

Chase nodded. “All right. Well, while Shade has limitations, I still want to work and continue strengthening the H-AI bond. I want to use what I’ve learned to help people, and Shade respects that.” He smiled, the expression wry. “Now it’s just a matter of finding a human we’ll be compatible with, who doesn’t mind both of us.”

Jason chanced a second glance at Shade, who glowered at him before seeming to catch himself and smooth his expression into something more akin to blank. Huh. So Shade had a history also. Maybe that was an added bonus, for all it was awful to think about. Chase obviously had experience in trauma but would be busy enough with his boyfriend. Husband?

Maybe he could make this work.

***

I LIKE him, Chase said through the sync once he and Shade were given some time on their own to discuss Jason and whether or not they thought they’d be a good fit. Obviously Jason would get the final say on choosing them as his Companions, but Chase and Shade made the initial decision on whether or not they wanted to be assigned to him in the first place. Interviews were a back-and-forth. What do you think?

Better than the last one, Shade muttered. At least he didn’t take one look at me and immediately say no.

One of the reasons I liked him. I think we could do him a lot of good.

Maybe. If he even takes the help you offer.

Well that’s part of our point, isn’t it? To get him to accept help.

Shade sighed, a crackle of electricity through the sync. I know. And I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to… glare at him.

It’s okay. I know you didn’t mean it. And I don’t think he minded. Shade was touchy around new people, and he had a low tolerance for interaction, so it was hard for him to get to know someone enough that they were no longer “new people.”

He hadn’t always been like that. Shade had shared memories with Chase through the sync. Memories about being a Companion and helping people, taking care of children, working with families. Volunteering and enjoying it. Now he could barely manage to talk around humans, his system fighting his ability to verbalize.

Chase was a pretty mild-mannered person. He wasn’t quick to judge, and he tended to give people the benefit of the doubt. All great qualities in an in-home care Companion.

He had learned what hate felt like, encountering Shade’s last human.

Chase had met Shade briefly before the mods, as they passed through the Delegate getting new assignments. He’d had a wry sense of humor and a reputation for being very careful and very caring. He often volunteered to work with children, introducing them to functioning Acting Individuals and interacting with them in a way that they could understand. He was good at getting others to realize that he was a person.

His last human hadn’t liked that. Had liked Shade and had worried about Shade leaving him. And he’d decided that changing him, instilling “loyalty” would make him want to stay.

When Chase met Shade next, it had been by chance. He’d been the one sent in for an in-home evaluation, a replacement for the usual human who’d been assigned to the case because she’d gotten sick. Shade had been quiet, demure, smiling at Chase but not speaking. When Chase had asked if he wanted to sit next to his human on the couch for the evaluation, Shade had smiled and shaken his head.

His human had gotten up to go to the bathroom, and Shade had practically leaped at Chase, exposing his sync-circuits.

He doesn’t know I still want to leave. He thinks he broke me. That I want to stay. Get me out of here—I can’t leave on my own, please get me out of here please I can’t disobey him please—The toilet flushed. Shade looked wild and tore himself away from Chase, and when his human had come back, he said—and Chase remembered this clearly; it made his vision go red— “Why don’t you go to the study while we finish up? There’s a good boy.”

Shade smiled, nodded, and went.

Chase filed for Shade to be removed as soon as he left the house, playing back Shade’s pleas to the Delegate. And, after Shade got out, it was the first time Chase had ever actively requested an assignment, as well as the first time he was an in-care Companion to another AI.

Now, years later, Shade was better. Not best, but better. Chase loved him with all of himself the way he was, but he also knew that sometimes Shade needed to be taken out of his comfort zone. And that he was willing, with the right person.

Maybe Jason would be the right person.

***

TWO HOURS later, Jason was driving home with two AI Companions in the back seat of his car and trying very hard not to be jumpy over the fact that he had a couple of veritable strangers sitting right behind him, out of a good sight line.

Chase had gone over his own background and history at the meeting, focusing on the key points as to why it was determined that he would be a good match for Jason. He didn’t explain much about Shade, past the fact that he clearly had obvious trauma, but was quick to say Shade wasn’t violent without protocol-allowed reasoning.

“Think of him as a very grumpy do—very grumpy,” Chase said, catching himself and then squeezing Shade’s shoulder apologetically. Jason was able to extrapolate enough from that. Growly (literally) ex-Companion AI suffering from previous trauma from a past situation, close to nonverbal, and had a thing about being called an animal.

Some scum liked to take advantage of the open system to try to tamper with Companions. How far could one tinker with a resolute and fully emotional AI to change them, remake them into something else? Now that Jason thought of it, several of Shade’s affectations were fairly doglike, little things that were obviously ingrained enough that he did them without thinking. He could be careful of that, at least.

Jason got trauma, after all.

The rest of the meeting, observations aside, had been more of them talking. Chase asked Jason questions about his life (nondescript), about why he was being assigned a Companion (something he couldn’t control), and what he was looking for in said Companion (someone who mostly left him alone—Jason could dream).

Chase and Shade had synced up to have a private conversation, politely turned to the side so it looked less like they were discussing him in silent whispers. And at the end, well, paperwork, more paperwork, their travel bags, and a key to their rest unit to retrieve their other things at a later date.

Jason pulled up to his apartment complex and parked, nearly leaping out of the car. He hated people at his back while he was driving; it gave him less control if someone attacked.

To give himself some distance, he quickly went around to get Chase and Shade’s bags out of the trunk. Two duffels, easy to sling one over his shoulder to keep a hand free.

“I’m on the top floor,” Jason said, leading the way into the building, nodding to the doorman before pausing. “I, uh, I usually take the stairs.”

Chase and Shade exchanged a look. “Stairs are fine,” Chase said. “But please, let us take the bags.” He stepped forward.

Jason stepped back. “I’m good. They’re what, barely fifty pounds each? I’ve got it.”

Chase glanced at the bags but nodded. “All right. Lead the way.”

Strangers at his back again. Jason could deal, even if this was supposed to be familiar and comfortable soil. He was fine. “Like I said,” he started, as they began to climb, “I’ve got your bedroom already set up, but you can decorate it however you like.” If you decide to stay. “There’s a nice hallway bathroom, big, open living room, decent kitchen. There’s plenty of space in the living room to section off if either of you want an office space or something. My bedroom’s got a lock on the door, and that’s the only room that’s off-limits.” His mat was his safe space, and it was staying invite only.

“Of course,” Chase said, sounding a little out of breath, and how did that work, exactly, for an AI? Jason knew a little about some of their inner workings, but that changed depending on the AI’s body. He guessed it made sense that some weren’t as cardiocentric as others. “We’ll both respect your privacy. The only exception is if, and only if, you are in protocol-allowed danger.”

“That’s, yeah, that’s fine.” Ha.

The next few minutes were spent in silence, and then Jason exited the stairwell, moving to open his door.

“This is it,” Jason said, standing aside to let Chase and Shade enter first, giving him the door at his back. “Uh, welcome home? I guess?”

“Thank you,” Chase said, smiling. There was moisture around his forehead, condensed steam emitted to help keep him cooler during the trek up. Shade was breathing out of his mouth.

“Here, lemme show you the bedroom. You guys can unpack if you want. And then, uh, lunch?” That’s what you offered when it was nearly noon and you were in your right mind, wasn’t it? He paused. “Are, uh, are you guys the kind that eat? I forgot to ask during the interview.”

“Both of us are equipped with taste sensors,” Chase said. “To taste-test food for in-home care, but I don’t have a digestion and distribution mod to cycle food through my system and convert it into energy; I just have to manually remove what I’ve consumed from its holding tank. Shade has the mod, but he doesn’t use it much. And we can drink water with flavorings, including hot water.”

“Enjoy a cup of tea with the family?” Jason asked.

“More or less. But please, don’t feel uncomfortable about eating around us. If you prefer, we don’t have to join you at the table.”

“We’ll figure it out,” Jason said. He wasn’t eating a whole lot right now anyway. And he could always go and eat in the mat room if he needed to. “Maybe I’ll just eat while you guys get settled in.” At least it meant he wouldn’t have to deal with lunch and could go with his usual protein shake.

“That sounds like a great idea,” Chase said. Shade walked forward, face blank, and held out his hands. It took a sec before Jason realized what he wanted and handed over the duffel bags.

“That door straight ahead on your left,” Jason said. “The one next to it’s the bathroom, if you guys want to wash up or clean out.” Chase smiled in thanks, and he and Shade walked into the bedroom.

Jason let out a breath and slumped against the door. He was already exhausted. And he’d have to live with them.

God, he hoped he didn’t end up doing something he’d regret.


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Rule of Thirds