Chapter Seven

Mira Gallo leaned back in her office chair. It was a good chair, and had served her well in the decades she’d been at Sapienza. She hardly noticed it anymore, except when she sat somewhere else and was unpleasantly surprised by the difference.

{So many things I take for granted,} she thought, savouring the feeling of the leather as she took a deep breath. {So many things...}

Perhaps she should take a vacation or something, just by herself. Get away to some island paradise and catch up on her reading. She’d been meaning to read the new... whatever it was that Oriana was into. Time explorers?

Thinking about her daughter brought up uncomfortable memories of their last encounter. There was a wall between them now, just as there was with Raphael. She wondered if things with her children would ever be like they used to be. But of course they wouldn’t. They couldn’t. That was just the way of things, wasn’t it? {Time goes on and things fall apart.}

Most of the time, if she’d felt this way, she would’ve simply lost herself in her work. It had been so easy for so long. And yet, despite having two journals to read through, five emails to respond to, and a paper to edit... What was the point? It all seemed so irrelevant.

She leaned forward, intending to open her email inbox, but ended up planting her elbows on her desk and resting her face in her hands. She took off her glasses and rubbed at her eyes.

It wasn’t like the crystal wasn’t interesting... Right? She still wanted to know how it worked and where it came from. She tried to remember the enthusiasm she’d had back in April. It almost seemed like she was another person back then. Somehow a younger version of herself had stepped through time to be part of the most important scientific project in the world. Where had that girl gone, the one who stayed up late to get extra hours in the lab?

She put her glasses back on and forced her email open. This melodrama wasn’t doing her any good. She’d get nothing else done if she sat around moping. Somehow that thought cut at her more deeply than any amount of wishing for a return to how things were, but she pushed on, anyway.

As soon as her workstation flickered back to life she got a HUHI ping from Slovinsky. She flicked it open. Better than dealing with emails.

“Socrates in transit. Myrodyn pulling strings with Americans. Meet me at obsidianulitsa.holo/7r09mPw11E?avtozapusk=1&yazyk=en”

{Typically Slovinsky,} she thought. Mira Gallo had known the Russian boy for less than two months, and in that time he had managed to prove his genius, his arrogance, and his penchant for doing exactly the opposite of what any sane person would do. Perhaps it was a side-effect of having wired a computer directly into his head.

The URL that Slovinsky had pointed to was a holorealm, so Mira took off her glasses and put on her goggles. It was always such a pain to get them adjusted for her eyes. The straps pinched her hair just like they did every time she used hologear. Steve Jobs was probably rolling over in his grave. New tech just wasn’t designed with the same emphasis on comfort and ease of use that it had when she was growing up.

Initially the goggles were hooked up in glass mode, but Mira quickly synched them up to her com. She refused to use haptics. After decades of mouse-and-keyboard there was just no sense in learning a less efficient input method. She launched the holorealm and okayed the standard disclaimers, allowing use of her personal data and activating her microphone. The university’s connection would’ve stopped her if it had been genuinely dangerous.

The holo filled her vision, first with the crude shapes and soon followed by additional objects and details. The scene appeared to be a coffee shop, though there wasn’t the same sort of background chatter and noise that she normally would’ve expected. She was sitting at a table with a single other chair across from her. Empty.

It was night, in the holo. The windows of the coffee shop were dark, and mostly just reflected the light from the inside. The reflections weren’t perfect, but it was amazingly close to reality. As usual, the biggest graphical disparity between the virtual environment and real life was the people. There were lots of young people sitting around and enjoying each other’s company in the room, but their faces didn’t move quite right, and their animations were too predictable. None of them were any more real than the cups they drank from—just filler added by the computer to make it seem more convincing.

Slovinsky wasn’t here. That was strange. Was anyone else? Had he invited others?

She looked over her shoulder and felt momentarily silly as her head collided with the head-rest of her office chair in real life.

“I am very sorry that the board replaced you as Ethics Supervisor. Myrodyn is a fool by comparison.”

Mira jumped a little at the sound, and turned back to see... something standing by the table. It was surely Slovinsky, but it didn’t look a thing like him. The avatar was some kind of robotic suit of golden armour, glistening with polished spines and sharp corners. Its plate-metal arms ended in massive gauntlets tipped with sharp claws. Its face was a single smooth plate, featureless except for the glossy black lenses that marked his eyes. Instead of legs the avatar had a serpentine body and tail, like some sort of mythical creature coated in gold.

“Your tail is clipping through the scenery,” she observed, pointing to where it intersected the counter of the faux coffee shop.

Slovinsky turned and laughed as he pulled the tail on the avatar out to a more realistic position. “Physics model in these rooms is always so janky,” he said. He’d modified his voice, as well as his appearance. It had an echo to it which made the boy seem more inhuman. “You’d think they could afford something better based on what it costs to rent them.”

After a pause it was clear that Slovinsky was done talking, so Mira asked “What’s with the costume?” She typed a command and watched her avatar wave its hand in a vague gesture at the armoured form.

“To paraphrase The Third Principle: Birthform is not true shape. I am not some hairless ape. Only when we rebuild into who we want to be, can we know what it is to be truly free.”

Mira’s fingers flew across her keyboard, setting her avatar’s expression to one of skepticism. “More propaganda?” Slovinsky laughed, and as he did the jet-black lenses on his face contorted to a mirthful shape. {Skeumorphism?} The thought amused her.

“Hardly. It is a way of life, Dr Gallo, but I wouldn’t expect you to understand. Let us focus on more pressing matters instead.” He slid into the chair opposite Mira, an interesting feat considering the lack of hips or legs, and placed his hands on the table with an audible clack. The metal claws and armoured arms sounded authentic, though they didn’t scratch the wood like they would’ve in reality.

“Is anyone else coming, or is this just a personal chat?”

The armoured avatar shook its head as Slovinsky said “Just you. Wasn’t sure who else at the university I could trust.”

“You make it sound like there’s some sort of conspiracy. Does this have to do with what you said about Myrodyn in your message?”

Slovinsky nodded. “His first day here and he completely rewrites the schedule, preventing anyone from getting any work done, and then he serves Socrates right into the hands of the Americans.”

“What do you mean?”

“Socrates is being moved as we speak. The whole project is being hijacked.”

“You’re exaggerating,” she accused.

“The facts are clear: Myrodyn spoke with Captain Zephyr about an hour ago, after clearing Socrates’ schedule for the day. Now Socrates is being moved to some remote building on the outskirts of town. It’s supposedly to better protect Socrates without putting students in danger, but that’s nonsense. It’s clear that Myrodyn is working with the Americans to take full control of the project.”

“How do you know all this? Have you talked with the board?”

“Pah!” Slovinsky threw his arms in the air dramatically. “WIRL has many eyes. The board are a bunch of 20th century fools who’ll fold the second that Zephyr, Myrodyn, and Naresh argue their case.”

“Naresh? He’s involved?” Mira frowned, but didn’t bother pushing the expression to her avatar.

“Да,” agreed Slovinsky. “He signed off on it after talking to Myrodyn.”

“Then you’re chasing shadows. There’s no way that Naresh would agree to moving Socrates off-campus unless it was important to the project.”

Slovinsky must’ve exhaled sharply into his microphone, as his modified voice gave a harsh crackle. “Because there’s absolutely no chance he’s being strong-armed into yielding control of the project to the American government. Give me a break. Our models suggest he’d easily allow the project to switch hands if he could be sure to remain as the technical lead.”

Mira felt a familiar sense of annoyance rising within her. Ivan Slovinsky was a fool of a boy, not even as old as Oriana. He had no right to be second-guessing Sadiq’s loyalty to the project. “Our models? Who is ‘us’?”

Slovinsky leaned forward over the illusion of the table. “It doesn’t matter. What matters is the risk to global safety that he’s permitting in letting Zephyr and her bandits make off with-”

“Cazzo! Pull yourself together, boy! There’s no grand conspiracy! Zephyr is a nice woman, and as much as Myrodyn may be un mucchio fumante di merda, he isn’t about to hand Socrates over to any government or army. You’d know this if you’d read any of his writing!”

Slovinsky pulled back, his lens-eyes narrowing nearly to slits. “Then explain why Socrates is being moved.”

“Is work being halted, or is the whole lab simply switching locations?”

“It’s not clear. Myrodyn cleared the schedule, but it’s too soon to know what that means for the long-run.”

Mira sighed. “So wait and see. I am sure there’s a good reason for this.”

Slovinsky hissed in frustration and threw his arms up in the air again. “It will be too late by then. If there’s one thing the Americans won’t abide it’s a lack of control. First it’s the edge of town and next thing you know Socrates will be in some bunker in the US, playing with the nuclear launch codes!”

“You seem desperate. What would I even do?”

“You have contacts on the board, right? Talk to Vigleone or whoever. Get to them before Myrodyn does.”

“If I had that kind of pull, I would’ve used it to stay on as Ethics Supervisor. You’re grabbing at... oh what’s the expression? Straw? Anyway, I trust Naresh. If we’re moving Socrates away from Sapienza, I’m sure it’s for the best.”

Slovinsky waved his hands dismissively and said “Fine.” And then he was gone. There was no visual effect or warning, and none of the background humans noticed.

The room seemed darker with the monstrous avatar gone.

A few keystrokes pulled Mira out of the virtual world and she pulled the goggles off her head as gently as she could, trying not to pull out any hair in the process. The energy seemed to drain right out of her, then. That was happening more and more often, she found, where she seemed almost like her old self when around others, but fell to pieces by herself.

The obvious solution was to spend more time with others, but she hated that thought. Dealing with other people had never been her strong suit, and here in her dimly lit office, all by herself, socializing seemed infinitely more fatiguing than just relaxing in her chair for the rest of the day.

She put her glasses on and squinted at the time. It was almost 5:00. Nobody would fault her for leaving early. She’d done some good work that morning with Socrates, and if Slovinsky was right, the whole project might be on indefinite hiatus.

She thought about Socrates. The AI almost seemed like a real person now. They’d all come such a long way. A touch of excitement filled her again, thinking about the future. For not the first time she thought about how being able to replicate the crystal would surely win a Nobel Prize in physics. Sadiq had just missed this year’s Turing Award, but he’d surely get it in 2040. The only question there was whether Yan would get half the credit.

She opened up an instant message terminal to Sadiq. “I hear that Socrates is being moved off-site. Let me know if I can help with anything.”

She waited a minute, but no response came. It was typical. Sadiq barely ever checked his phone while he was working. She flinched away from the thought of returning to her mundane work.

She put some jazz on her headphones instead and leaned back in her nice leather chair. {Life is good,} she said to herself. {Whatever happens, happens.} She tried to let go. She tried to just enjoy the music. She tried.