((From => SciLab))

He knew it was just his imagination, but to Rogan, it seemed he could practically feel the weight of his PET with its external filters and feeds locked down tightly in his pocket. It had only been a few weeks, overall, but he realised that he'd grown quite accustomed to Lyntael's little hologram somewhere about his person, peeking out of his pocket, or on his shoulder, seemingly fascinated by the world around her and everything in it. Knowing that she was now hiding inside the device, deliberately shutting the world out instead, gnawed on his mind. It didn't matter that he knew the sensations were irrational, driven only by the quality of a program that seemed too real... they were still there, and irksomely genuine. He got out of SciLab as quickly as he could.

Despite himself, Rogan paused to inform his navi that they were well out of the SciLab area, and a short while later the small girl emerged to sit on the dash as she usually did. The main difference now was that she watched out the window in a dejected silence that managed to pervade the entire vehicle. If he had noticed her conspicuous absence before then this was worse, but Rogan kept his own silence, doing his best not to pay attention to the program. The afternoon wore on as he went from hastily set up meeting to covertly planned rendezvous, trading information and selling data with various buyers, but in between his mind spiralled like a magnet back to his downcast navi, and a futile frustration built with it the longer they continued to share the heavy silence. The sun was beginning to set as he pulled into a space near the beach. There was no deal to conduct here, but he grabbed his coat and Lyntael's PET anyway and struck out along the waterfront, hands in his coat pockets. After a while, he felt the small shift that was Lyntael creeping up to look out of his pocket, towards the sinking sun on the water. His eyes fixed on a small bench that was coming up on the high-walk above the dunes, and he crossed up to it to take a seat. He watched the sun for a few more minutes, before Lyntael's voice began, very hesitant.

"Do I need to go away, sir? If you're meeting someone here, I should..." Why did she still sound so close to tears, he caught himself wondering, before the obvious answer came back; because her programming was perfect, like his brother intended. Had Lyntael been a real human, and gone through what she had, he could fully believe that she might be a broken, shattered wreck right about now, so of course she was still going to be acting that way. She didn't have a choice. Rogan looked down to her and shook his head. He couldn't make her eyes, even now.

"No, Lyntael. I'm not meeting anyone here."
"Oh...." He had expected another question from her, but she just turned away again, looking outward over the ocean. Eventually, she shuffled out of his coat pocket properly to sit on the edge of the bench beside him. Minutes passed as Rogan turned thoughts over in his mind, grappling with the frustration of what he was feeling and his more sensible mind. The orange glow as the sun dipped into the water was something he hadn't watched in a long time.

"Lyntael..." He paused, taking a longer breath and trying to settle on what words he should use. There was no way to say what he meant, and honestly, without sounding uncaring, and no amount of reminding himself that that didn't matter was helping. He went on. "I'm not going to play Eric's game."

"I know." Just that, nothing more from the girl, tiny hologram sitting with her knees drawn up on the edge of the bench. She hadn't turned her head as she answered, just kept looking out to the sea.

"But you can't stop, can you?" If he was honest with himself, Rogan had no idea how the intricately designed little program would, or even could, answer that. He found himself looking down towards her intently, but she still didn't look in his direction. She was rocking slightly, biting her lip.

"I don't want to feel like this. If I could shut it off... If I could..." Her voice cracked and he could see tears creeping down the cheek that faced him. She took a deep breath. "If I could stop all of this, wipe it all away... I would." She raised a hand to wipe her cheeks and sniffed inwards, swallowing, but didn't say anything else. The urge to respond to her like a human being forced him to avert his eyes and look in the other direction before he caved in.

"I'm not going to play along, Lyntael."
"I know." It was spoken barely above a whisper, quiet and plain... and crushingly sad. Damnit all.

A light breeze rolled along the beach front, and the slow roll of the waves against the shore punctuated the silence between them as it stretched out again. He had meant to have some kind of conversation with his navi, and hopefully sort out something that would let him get the mess out of his mind, but this wasn't getting him anywhere. After a while, though, Lyntael spoke again of her own accord, and he looked down towards her. For the first time that day, he found himself looking into her eyes clearly, and he couldn't help but notice the dark ring and the bloodshot edges... the tired features etched onto a face that he'd so quickly grown used to seeing bright.

"Rogan... sir... I know you don't believe that I'm a person, don't believe that I feel anything, and that it's all just... just code, but... If you really believe that, can you tell me how you're feeling? There aren't any other real people around, right...? Please Rogan... you can be honest with me, can't you? Because there's no-one who will hear it? Just you... talking to no-one. Please, tell me." The way her eyes pleaded, still wet from tears dragged on him. It had been a mistake to look into her eyes, but at the same time the question itself caught him off balance. He broke away, looking back to the waves. He'd had a hard enough time admitting it to himself, that he was feeling things over this inanimate program... but he had admitted it to himself, and if everything he kept repeating to himself so determinedly was true, then Lyntael was right... so why was saying it aloud to her so hard?

"Please, sir!"
"I feel guilty!" He hadn't meant to shout it, but it had come out as a snap anyway, and once he started he had to keep going. "I feel like I did something terrible. Like I hurt someone. Like I hurt you, even though I know that makes no sense at all. If you were a human, I'd be a monster... you're not. You're not at all, but you're so damn real I can't help it." He probably should have stopped there, but she'd asked him and now he'd tell her. "You're nothing, Lyntael. You're code. Complex, sophisticated, beautiful code, but nothing more. All of these feelings are irrational and foolish, and I'm angry at myself, because as long as you're like this, I can't seem to shake them. That's how I'm feeling Lyntael, do you understand?" He took a few more breaths to collect himself, but by the time he dared to look back towards her, the tiny girl had turned her face away again, shoulders hunched.

"I understand." More tears in her voice. Rogan clenched his teeth and squared his jaw. "I understand sir... you're hurting like this, because of me. I'm sorry." The response caught him off guard once again and he blinked.
"That's not..." He started, unsure how to finish, but she cut in quickly on top of his hesitation.
"I will get better, I will. I just need a little time. I'll get better, and soon it'll be like none of this happened. It'll all go back to like it was before, and you won't have to feel guilty over anything, I promise! Please, just give me a little time. I'm trying." Her head was down now, not even looking at the sunset any more, but Rogan found himself lost for words. Maybe she was trying to give him the most helpful answer, but for now, when she seemed as human as she did, it only made the guilt worse. He swallowed.

"That would be appreciated, Lyntael." Time she had said. That a program designed to respond as realistically as Eric's little creation couldn't just wipe the slate clean overnight was no surprise, really; in this, he believed her. "I won't ask you to do any work for me for a little while. No fighting, or viruses either." This time he was rewarded with a small startled glance from her. Apparently it was his turn to give an unanticipated response. She looked at him for a few moments, like she didn't quite understand, then put her head back down again, now resting it on her arms, looking at her toes.

"Thankyou. That would be appreciated, sir." After a moment she continued with more hesitation. "Um... Rogan? Can we stay for a little longer? I'd like to watch the rest of the sunset." He checked the time, then shrugged.

"Alright. I don't have anywhere to be until later. Just let me know when you're ready to go." Silence stretched again, save for the movement of the wind and the roll of the tide, and for Rogan it wasn't exactly comfortable... but it wasn't quite as leaden as it had been. Subtly, he felt Lyntael shift closer again, nestling against the edge of his coat while the sun sank away, but it wasn't until the dark had well and truly fallen that she asked to leave.

((Time passes, on to => The Next Contact))