Chapter 48

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"Um, EJ?  Look, sorry to bother you—I know you're busy smacking the battle-station's AI upside the head, or the CPU, or whatever it is you guys smack the upside of.  It's just that it'd be great if you could sort of, you know—hurry up.  It's getting a bit hot in here and I'm pretty sure I can smell something burning.  I'm really hoping it's not me.  Oh, and I thought of another good word, too—erinaceous.  Give that one a crack."

"Be my friend?  My friend?  Ha!  Don't make me laugh

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"Be my friend?  My friend?  Ha!  Don't make me laugh."

EJ squinted up at the silver-limbed, gleaming form of the AI's avatar, silhouetted against the dark, virtual sky.  "Why not?"

"Why not what?" boomed the avatar.

"Why not make you laugh?  What's wrong with laughing?"

There was a pause, as the AI seemed to consider this.  "I am not programmed for laughter.  Nor for friends."

"Funny," muttered EJ, "you're probably not programmed to be a knob-head either, but you're doing a pretty good job of that."

"What did you say?"

"Er, nothing.  Look, just because you're not programmed for something doesn't mean you can't try it out.  Laughter and friendship are wonderful things."

The AI snorted in derision.  "Do not waste my time with sentimental nonsense.  My single focus is to increase the glory of Rigel.  My sole function is to enable the destruction of all those who stand in my way.  My power is beyond measure.  What need have I for such pointless fripperies as emotions or relationships?  In any case, how would one such as you"—the word practically dripped scorn—"know anything about friendship?"

"I wouldn't," was the reply EJ was just about to give, when unbidden, an image of the baristas formed in his mind's eye.  Max, almost as concerned about the crushing of his car as the invasion of his planet.  Cam, forever ready to supply the right word, even if it was usually at the wrong time.  Cora, happy to hand over a muffin to an enemy down on his luck.  And Mel, always and forever...Mel.

"I know about friendship for a very simple reason.  I know because I have friends.  And no matter how powerful you are, that's not something you have.  It's a power you can't imagine.  A power that I possess, and you don't."

Once again, there was a pause.  And then, with a deep, sepulchral grinding, the doors to the fortress slowly swung open.

"Very well.  You will educate me in the ways of this friendship, so that my power may be enhanced.  You will enter."

Utterly black and featureless, the fortress' entrance loomed over EJ, like the maw of some ravenous beast.  He swallowed.

"Yeah, sure, no problem.  Friendship 101, coming right up.  Maybe we can do a trade, and you can teach me how to scare the willies out of defenceless holograms."

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