Ghosting Jack

"Kio, check Jack 15. The last rider says he's having some problems with the controls, slow response times or something. Oh, and some audio glitches." Kio's boss barked over the comm. "He's docking and offloading in the bay now."

"On it." Kio responded. He was getting tired of debugging Jacks. This was the fifth Jack in the last month that was showing defects. For the most part it was minor stuff, slow response, radio signals coming across the audio, and sometimes speaking errors. A couple were a little more disconcerting.

One Jack seized up while crossing the street, trapping the rider while the Jack was run over by a trash truck. In another case a rider sat the Jack down on a park bench and couldn't get it back up for almost an entire hour. They were forced to watch little kids on the playground the entire time. Luckily the riders couldn't get permanently hurt if something happened, they were just passengers in the HumanaForm, using it to carry out transactions or do some site seeing. That didn't stop people from threatening to sue for pain and suffering. Usually some free riding time was sufficient repayment.

The Jack HumanaForm was the budget model. Generic, average looking, bottom of the line, cheap. Well, cheap comparatively. Jacks cost almost a million each, not including the normal package of replacement parts. Charging riders $125 bucks an hour to ride meant that costs were recouped within about a year and they had a 10 year serviceable lifetime. So it was a fairly profitable endeavor. Not that any of that money trickled down in the form of spare parts, upgrades, or hell, raises.

Kio huffed at the thought of all that money. Money made off of invalids who wanted to go the park, spouses checking on cheating spouses, the occasional pervert, and quite a few "business men" peddling chemical wares or collecting on debts. Unfortunately it was illegal to monitor any rider, despite the potential for misuse. Evidently some people higher up in the government didn't appreciate the idea of being watched while riding.

Kio reached the bay just as the rider exited and the federally mandated wipe program began. He waited impatiently for the light to flicker green, signalling a completed wipe. Instead it just hung there throbbing red, taunting him. He rubbed his face vigorously with both hands trying to will the stress away. The red light still throbbed. Something was seriously wrong.

Two minutes had passed and the program hadn't even started yet. Usually after the rider exits, the program kicks off immediately, briefly switching the light from red to yellow and then after about thirty seconds to green signalling completion. Then just as Kio was looking around for a hammer or something heaving to bang into the equipment, an alarm sounded from the bay computer and a screen lit up next to the Jack. "WIPE ABORTED: RIDER PRESENT!"

Kio stopped himself mid swing from giving the bay frame a nice hard thump. Better not startle the rider right as he's settling in for the ride. Instead he turned around and got on the comm. "Harvey?! Did you just boot a rider into Jack 15?"

"No! A rider just exited. I wanted you to take a look at that unit so I took it out of rotation. Why?"

"The damned thing say's that it can't do the wipe because there's a rider present. The auditors are going to be all over us for this shit." Kio ran his hand over his face. "So... did the rider not exit or is there a glitch in the queuing software that allowed someone through even though you put the block on?"

"Nope man. Logs show a clean exit. The rider left the building 3 minutes ago. No new rider has come in to that stall."

Kio almost vomited. It was worse than he thought. Someone had finally figured out how to remotely hack a HumanaForm connection. The scientists had claimed it was impossible due to some trick of quantum mechanics and entanglement, blah blah blah. Kio just knew that a hack of this scale meant auditors and government agents crawling all over the place and eventually someone higher up would need a scape goat. He knew the score, at some point that scape goat would be him. It was always the low man on the totum pole when something bad like this happened. Not only that but he would probably have to be the one to fill out the tons of paperwork detailing how it was all his fault anyway.

"Shit!" Kio locked the bay. If a hacker had gotten into the Jack, he wasn't going to be able to take it on a joyride. The cage was just normal steel, but that was fine because Jacks had limiters to keep their strength on par with human. Better safe than sorry.

"Harvey, we've got a rider on this Jack. Might be a hacker." He cringed after saying the word.

"Hacker!? Ha right! Settle down, it's probably just a glitch and the system loaded someone from a different stall." Harvey chimed in with a reassuring tone. "Give me just a minute and I'll trace it from here." There was a long pause. "Hmmm... Okay Kio. Not a big deal, it's a glitch on your end. There's zero signal in or out of that Jack here, so there can't be a rider."

Kio sighed his relief. Still, there was a lot of work to do to isolate the glitch. His first step was to get the Jack wiped as soon as possible. So he found the service cap, unlocked the bay, sat down to ride the Jack out. It was only a partial ride, a little like driving a remote control car. Since the Jack hadn't been wiped yet Kio couldn't do a full ride and use the Jack's senses. Instead he had basic motor control, but enough to lumber the unit to the debug bay.

Once there Kio went through the motions again, lock the bay, login, find the service menu with the wipe option, type in the override code and wipe. The light on the bay went red and just like before stayed red and then the dreaded message appeared again, "WIPE ABORTED: RIDER PRESENT!"

"One down, ten million neural pathways to go," he said to himself aloud. "So the scanner sees brain activity, but there's no signal. Could be a receiver fault, shorted pathways tickling the cortex just enough to appear to be active. I can remove the receiver without any paperwork." He looked through the toolbox on the bench looking for a key and a HumanaForm multi-tool to be able to remove the Jack's head.

The key wasn't really a key per se, it was more like the tab of a zipper. It unlocked the synthetic skin so that techs like him could get to internal parts without too much trouble. It was a handy tool for service work but also one that could be used for mischief in the wrong hands. Every so often a Jack would get skinned by some kids. Sometimes they'd get caught walking around in the heavy skin and generic clothes set the Jacks wore. Who wanted to know what happened the times they didn't get caught.

He found the multi-tool and pushed his chair to the side. He slipped the multi-tool into his back pocket and reached up with the key to unzip the skin around the neck, just above the white starched collar of the suit shirt. Just as the key was about to make contact the Jack's head turned quickly to look down at Kio "Please don't" it said.

Kio startled, knocking back into the work bench and almost knocking the toolbox down. "Haaaaarveeeeeey!" He wailed, not realizing he hadn't hit the comm.

"Please stay calm" the Jack said. "I won't hurt you."

"Of course not, you're in the bay and I'm out here." Just then the bay lock clicked and the steel arms swung free. "SHIT! HAAAARVEEEEEY!" Kio became desperate. He wanted to run but didn't want to take his eyes off of the Jack. Any hacker who could ride a Jack while masking the signal like that AND unlock himself from a bay without touching anything, who knows what else he could do.

"Just relax Kioshino." The name was startling and disarming. Kio of the Shiny Nose, is what his grandmother had called him. Kee-Oh-She-No for short.

"Wait, wha... How did you know that name? Who..." Kio stammered trying to make sense of it all.

"You shared that memory with us once. Don't you remember. You shared the sandy beach and the seagulls and the little crabs that chased the water back and forth. You shared your grandmother with us."

He couldn't remember ever telling anyone. He hadn't even dated anyone long enough to reveal that much of himself.

"You shared that with us when you walked us back from the beach," Jack said with a slight smile.

Kio tried to remember the going to the beach, but couldn't. Not for at least a decade. He just hadn't had the time. The only time he'd seen the beach in all that time was when he had to ride a Jack back to the bay. He froze mid thought. Rewound. Thought it through again. Visualized the day.

"That boy dying the way he did. It made you sad. You remembered your grandmother..." Jack started, but Kio shouted back at the android.

"STOP! You stop!" Tears were welling up, it was getting hard to control the fear and the anger and the sadness all crashing in at once. "You stop."

He remembered that moment. A teenage boy had been granted a wish by one of those groups. He didn't have long to live, some genetic disorder was cutting his life short. The boy had always wanted to see the sea and feel the sand between his toes. His week immune system wouldn't even let him go outside or touch people without several layers of protection.

So some group came a long and decided to give him a few hours ride in a Jack. See the beach, play in the sand. Pure wish fulfillment. Unfortunately the kid didn't last long. He made it all the way to the beach, kicked his shoes off, stepped into the sand and then, after saying "WOW" at the morning sun break the horizon, his heart gave out. Dead kid, empty Jack, no one to bring him home.

Kio drew the short straw that day, to ride the Jack to a collection point. The first few moments were painful, knowing that this kid had just died in the same rig. It felt like desecrating a grave. Then he felt the sand between the Jack's toes and for a moment he was transported back to the beach with his grandmother. As a child she had taken him to another similar beach quite often. There he watched the crabs and the seagulls, built sand forts and tried to dig his way to China.

To Be Continued...