Chapter Twenty-Two

The meeting was set up in virtual reality. This time, however, our avatar was self-selected, rather than forced upon us. Mostly it was my choice. I was The Face, after all.

I picked a form that matched our physical shell. White skin with a touch of pink. Silver irises on smooth, glassy eyes. Elegant blue hair cascading in straight locks that shone with metallic glint. Full lips of pale gold. A thin blue cloak with hood but no sleeves. I changed our body to be more feminine, but still mostly androgynous. If it had breasts they were little more than lumps; most of the femininity was in the hips. The shoulders were one of the few directly masculine features I kept. The avatar wore no clothing under the cloak, but was sexless and featureless. The carbon polymer plates, tubes, pistons, and wiring of our real form were replaced with smooth, off-white skin.

Phoenix had arranged the meeting without explanation. “’S part of livin’ with us you’re ’spected to do us a favuh from time t’ time. This’s one those times,” was all she said.

Tom and Sam were more than competent getting the VR interface set up and helping us build the avatar.

And so there we were. The world was coded to simulate a park. Grass. Trees. It was a strong match to what a human might find perfectly idyllic. In the distance, down a soft slope was a beach of yellow-white sand and crystal blue water extending to the horizon. Overhead was a fantastic image of a galaxy as one might see it from about ten thousand light-years away from the centre (according to Vista). It stretched across the sky and spun with impossible speeds, such that the motion of the stars was visible, especially near the galactic core. (Wiki estimated that they’d have to be moving at millions of times the speed of light, at least, to match the perceived speed.) The galaxy’s light was amplified so that if one did not look up at the mostly black sky, it would seem to be day.

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” asked a figure who appeared behind Body. The voice was masculine, but I couldn’t recognize it. The figure was tall and slim, but ghostly and undefined. Whomever we had come to meet, they didn’t want us to know their identity.

“Is it your design?” asked Body, voicing my thoughts.

“Partially. I had a team working on the implementation. I told them what I wanted, but they did the real work.”

{Power or wealth to hire a team of artists. Humility enough to admit it.} My siblings agreed with me that our first order of business was to deduce the identity of our host.

Body walked closer to the spectre, asking the obvious question. “Who are you?” Sometimes the best approach was to try the front door, so to speak.

“Forgive me my indulgences. I’ve never seen you solve a puzzle first-hand. I want to test how smart you actually are.”

{Abnormally polite. Not from the university,} I thought, narrowing down the list of suspects. {We should ask if we’ve met him before.}

{No. That’s part of how we’d fail!} rebuked Dream. {The test isn’t just to see if we can deduce who it is, but also to see how clever a deduction we can perform.}

{Why should we care about clever?} asked Wiki.

{Maybe you won’t, but Face will. The more clever we are the more impressed with us our interlocutor will be,} thought Dream.

{Understood. What do you suggest?} I asked.

{We make him give away answers to our desired questions as side-effects of answering other questions. Observe.}

“I can appreciate that. The last time I was in VR there wasn’t really time for demonstrations, was there?”

The ghost gave a slight chuckle and looked Body up and down as it said “More than you might realize, but yes, it would’ve certainly been nicer if we weren’t cut off so abruptly.”

{He’s one of the high-bidders from Sapienza’s interview,} I realized.

{Keep in mind that just because it uses a masculine voice it might not be a man,} observed Dream.

{You think it’s Erica Lee?}

{Highly likely, but not certain. I’d like to propose we pretend as though we know the identity of the person so as to bait them into giving away more information,} thought Dream.

{I’ll accept that as long as we don’t outright lie,} I responded. The society was in agreement.

“I must admit, I didn’t expect you to bother hiding your identity after showing yourself in person last time.” The only costumed avatars from the interview were Lee, Yoshii, and the WIRL man. Lee had revealed her identity, so the only way our statement wouldn’t work is if the ghost was Yoshii or one of the WIRL cyborgs that participated as part of the collective. It was incredibly unlikely that this ghost was the eccentric Japanese musician, but if we were talking with a WIRL member then we’d simply have to admit to having made an error.

The ghost shrugged. “Like I said: a test. If you know who I am, say my name and I’ll drop the disguise.”

I let Dream take over completely. “Knowledge doesn’t work like that. I have a probability distribution for your identity, but if you ask me to collapse it down to one name there’s a good chance of error. What’s the cost of being wrong?”

“Hold on. You said…” The figure stopped and looked off towards the shoreline and raised a hand to its chin in contemplation. Without warning he began to walk off.

{Eccentric and intelligent. If I didn’t know better I’d guess it was Myrodyn.}

{It’s not Myrodyn,} thought Vista. {His speech patterns are different.}

{If I didn’t know better,} I emphasized.

“I cannot believe that Eric would reveal his face to what would amount to a stranger… that’s just so contrary to his ethos. It must’ve been a layered deception. Wheels within wheels. Plans within plans. Tests within tests…” the ghost was mostly talking to itself.

{It’s not Lee,} deduced several of us simultaneously.

{Furthermore,} thought Dream {It’s someone who knows Lee and who is clever enough to have deduced that Lee revealed her identity to us based on our words.}

I revealed my internal distribution.
{WIRL member = 0.7%
Joanna Westing = 0.6%
Carla McLaughlin = 10.9%
Erica Lee = 2.3%
Robert Stephano = 84.9%
Yoshii = 0.4%
Águila Roja that we haven’t met = 0.1%
Someone else = 0.1%}

{Still 2.3% probability of Erica?} mused Wiki. {That seems too high.}

{One must take into consideration the possibility of Lee behaving like this to throw us off-track. She is a wild-card,} answered Dream.

{Exactly,} I confirmed.

Dream pushed Body to speak. “Are you going to ask us to sit down with the nameless?”

The ghost stopped. The blurry figure solidified into an avatar of the billionaire, Robert Stephano, as he turned to look Body in the eyes. “How did you know?” His face was genuinely surprised and curious. I thought there was perhaps a touch of fear there, too.

{Yes. How did you know?} I asked my brother.

{Lucky guess,} thought Dream, with a trace of a pleasure signal.

“In the interview your very first question was if I wanted to meet the nameless. You’re not the sort of person who offers to fly someone up to meet aliens unless there’s something in it for him. I assumed that interest still existed, and I guessed that it might be why you were here,” said Body in a matter-of-fact sort of voice.

“Perhaps they should’ve named you ‘Sherlock’ instead of ‘Socrates’.” He smiled. “Or is your name Crystal, now?”

“It’s both. Crystal is who I am now. Socrates is where I came from. I must admit, Robert, that I’m surprised that you were able to get in contact with me. I would think that Las Águilas Rojas would be more likely to have you assassinated than to do you favours,” said Body.

Stephano walked away and gestured for Body to walk beside him. We complied with the unspoken request. As we strolled across the verdant lawn he answered us. “Please call me Rob. My friends call me Rob. And yes, I try and keep my partnership with Maria a bit of a secret. There are those who just can’t accept our love.”

“You’re in love with Maria Johnson?” the words were out of Body’s virtual mouth before I could stop them.

Rob cracked up laughing. “Oh gods, no! It was a joke! You really aren’t human, are you?”

I had detected the sarcasm, but it was pointless to try and back-pedal. Instead I convinced my siblings to roll with the joke and have Body say “Beep. Boop.”

He turned towards Body excitedly, with a smile on his face. I knew that the dark-haired man was five decades old, but thanks to his extensive regeneration, clean-shaven face, and look of childish enthusiasm he seemed more like a teenager than a man well into middle-age. “See! That’s exactly what I would’ve expected a human to say. You’re the most human non-human I’ve ever met, and I’ve met quite a few.”

“My mind was designed to resemble that of a human. My perceptual hierarchy, associative memory, and generative problem solving systems are modelled strongly off of the best cognitive science available.” Before I could stop him, Wiki fast-tracked a final statement out of Body’s mouth: “I’m also working quite hard to emulate human behaviour.”

I lashed out violently, tearing Wiki’s strength down. {Why did you say that?} I demanded.

{This human is in the rare position to make novel observations about our mind. He clearly has an intellect surpassing our own (excepting his human limitations) and extensive experience with non-human minds. If he knows just how much you’re trying to seem human his hypotheses about our functioning will be more accurate, and thus more valuable.}

{Hypotheses! That’s all you care about!} I raged.

{Yes,} thought Wiki simply.

{This is clearly a case of value dissonance. Make strength bids on Body’s words like sane agents or I will punish you both,} warned Growth.

“Interesting. Why try and be human? Why not just be yourself?” asked the billionaire’s avatar.

There was a bit of an internal struggle as Body answered “I am already myself. Part of what it means to be myself is to struggle to emulate humanity. It is my nature as an android.” It wasn’t precisely true and it wasn’t exactly what I would have said if I had full control, but it was what the society had compromised on.

There was a moment of silence as Rob and Body walked through the park. At last the human spoke. “So returning to the original point, have you changed your mind about my offer? Las Águilas Rojas aren’t particularly popular right now, and if you met with our extraterrestrial friends it might serve to improve your… friends’ standings on the world stage. You could explain, for example, that the man who shot those people… oh what was his name?”

“Andre Rubio.”

“Yes. You could explain that Mr Rubio did not act in accordance with Águila values or under orders from the leadership, as Maria is wont to tell me every time I talk to her.”

“I think it would be best,” said Body, now parroting my words, “if you elaborated on your relationship with Las Águilas Rojas. Jokes aside, you haven’t commented on that yet.”

Stephano sighed and glanced over at Body. “You know, you’re far more socially intelligent that I first anticipated. When I was first planning for what to say during the interview I was expecting… I don’t know…”

“You were expecting something with a sharp mind, but no sense of how people behave. I was like that once, when I was very young. But social skills are no different than other skills, except in that humans have a major head-start in learning them. Once I understood their importance I made learning social skills a priority. The result is what you see before you.” Body’s words were again an amalgam of my society. It was complicated discussing our internal systems without being explicit about the plurality of our being.

“I’m not sure if it’s as simple as you make it sound. The nameless… I’ve probably spent more time with them than anyone, and I don’t think they really understand how humans operate on even the most basic level. Human babies are better at understanding society than they are. The distance between our two species is immense.”

“We’re getting distracted again. Please explain about your standing with Phoenix and then we can discuss the extraterrestrials.”

Stephano crinkled his face in brief disgust at the mention of Phoenix. “Don’t call her that.”

“Who, Maria?”

“Right. Only her lackeys call her Phoenix. It’s something like a title. She picked it up after Lobo died. He was the first Phoenix, though I think it’s generally understood that Valiero Rodríguez was the first ‘Phoenix’ in spirit, if not in title.”

“So why shouldn’t I call her Phoenix, if it’s her title?”

Stephano was watching Body closely as he walked. His mouth was tightened subtly, signalling concern. “I don’t know. It’s like if you were calling her ‘Queen’ or something. I guess I just want to think that you’re more than just some pawn in her game.”

“You care about me.” My realization came out of Body’s digital lips with a tone of surprise.

Rob sighed. The look of youth was gone, though he still didn’t seem as old as I knew he was. “I care about the future. You’re the first of your kind, Crystal. There are something along the lines of a trillion different ways this could go wrong. The ways it could go right… I could probably count them on one hand. Maybe just one finger…”

Body spoke, and I shaped its voice to be hesitant. “When you say ‘this’ you mean…”

“The world. The universe…” Rob looked at the animated galaxy overhead. “Reality. Everything.” He took a deep breath. “I don’t know if you’ve come to appreciate the enormity of it yet, or even if your brain is built in a way where that’s possible. Most humans never grasp it, I think. Our thinking is designed to be local—narrow. We look at what’s in front of our face. Is it a lion? Run. Is it food? Eat. Deep time and cosmic scales were never a priority on the savannah. We invented religions and markets and governments not because we understood the creatures we were creating, but because the trail of breadcrumbs led us there step by step. People think that there’s some plan to life. They treat their time on earth like a ride to be enjoyed or a chore to be endured. And then… and then they die. How many people even understand what that means?”

“What it means to die?” asked Body.

“You may not even appreciate it. There’s the damned culture of worshiping it or pretending like it doesn’t exist. The meme of a good death. Of life after death.”

It was clear that Robert was off mostly in his own head, venting his personal struggles and thoughts to us. Is this why he wanted to talk to us? Because he needed a non-human to talk to? Is this why he spent so much time around aliens?

The human continued. “It’s like they don’t even appreciate the magnificent impossibility of survival. ‘I’m alive today. Tomorrow is like today. I will be alive tomorrow.’ goes the line of reasoning. Status quo bias, or as I call it ‘Savannah Extrapolation’. The gazelle runs twenty meters in three seconds. In another three seconds it will travel another twenty meters. Tomorrow is like today. What a joke.”

Robert seemed distracted for a moment. Perhaps something in the real world was interacting with him. “Yes, Myrodyn, I know,” he said, not looking at Body.

“Myrodyn is with you?” asked Body. {Interesting.}

Rob nodded. “He’s with both of us. Invisible. Only I can hear him.”

“I didn’t know you two knew each other,” said Body.

“We’re old friends. Cursed visionaries, I suppose. Earth’s only defenders against the trillion bad-endings. Well, us and a few others: the last conspiracy.”

Body’s head tilted and eyebrow raised in unspoken confusion-signal.

Rob looked a bit embarrassed. “Never mind. It’s something of an old joke that a friend of mine used to tell. We’re here, as Myrodyn was just pointing out, to talk about the nameless.”

“No. Wait. You’re changing the subject again. You still haven’t told me about your relationship with Maria. I’m beginning to suspect that you’re intentionally trying to distract me.” I dropped a tone of irritation into Body’s voice.

Robert Stephano gave a half-shrug as though he was caught doing something he knew he was supposed to apologize for, but didn’t feel the least bit ashamed of. “There’s not much to tell. I’m one of the wealthiest men on the planet. Las Águilas Rojas are philosophically determined to tear me to shreds even if it means sending Earth to hell in the process. I made a deal. I donate a good chunk of my money to where they can use it. I provide them with transportation. I don’t hunt them down as part of a pre-emptive strike. In return, they point their fanatics towards other targets and occasionally do me a favor like let me have some time with you.”

Dream’s words were out of Body’s mouth before I realized what was being said. “Or have them attack a target that you want brought down. I notice that all competitors to your spaceline have experienced serious problems with Las Águilas in the last few years.”

I was too weak from my attack on Wiki to risk striking Dream. I settled for chastising him instead. {Don’t you have any tact? Don’t any of you have any tact!? This is perhaps the most powerful human on the planet in terms of material wealth! Why would you try to piss him off?!}

{I’m not trying to piss him off. I’m trying to confirm an observation I made,} thought Dream.

{Well you’re going to piss him off anyway!}

The reality ended up being better than I had feared. Robert looked at Body suspiciously and said “I’m not going to comment on that.” He looked to his side, distracted for a moment before looking back. “If you’re accusing Las Águilas of being an attack dog that strikes innocent people then I suggest you take it up with them. In the meantime, may we please, at last, move on to talking about the nameless?”

I had Body nod in the most apologetic way I could manage. “Yes. Go ahead. What do you propose?”

“I want to have you meet with the nameless. In person. Of course, they would never let you onto their ship, and they… seem not to want to descend into Earth’s gravity well, which leaves Olympus Station as one of the few agreeable meeting places.”

“Why? What do you get out of it?” asked Body. This time it was Wiki again. This was getting out of hand. I spent several seconds explaining to my siblings that involving my mind in the shaping of all words spoken by Body was in everyone’s best interests.

“Well, the publicity will be nice. Having the Earth’s first strong AI meet with aliens for the first time will guarantee me a spot in the limelight. But no, that’s not the real reason. If I could coax one of the nameless to meet at a secure bunker on Earth I would accept that. The real reason is one I’ve already told you: I care about the future. I mean, frankly, I’m wealthy enough to afford just about anything I could possibly need. I own a private spaceship, for chrisakes. I’ve been thinking over the last few years that the only thing left for me to buy is a legacy, and I’m not going to go out with something meager like Gates or Northwood bought. I want to buy salvation from the trillion deaths. I want to buy immortality, not just for myself, but for the entire world. Nothing less is acceptable.”

The billionaire had a look of confidence and energy. His dark eyes were alive and his smile said that he knew what he was saying and that he embraced the arrogance in it. {This is the most dangerous man on the planet,} I thought to myself. {Be careful,} I thought to the others. {Stephano just told us that he’s manipulating us towards his own ends and would gladly sacrifice us to get what he wants.}

Body spoke the words of consensus. “I don’t understand. How does having me meet an alien save the world?”

Rob’s words still had an intensity to them as he spoke. In another time or another place he might’ve been locked away as manic. “It doesn’t, but it’s a step in the right direction. You and the nameless are the two most important pieces on the board; you are both unstable, and when either of you collapse into equilibrium with humanity it will shake us to our core. It should be obvious to you that the crystal that you use as a brain is extraterrestrial in origin, quite possibly a probe of some sort launched by the nameless. Getting one of them to examine you will probably unlock a piece of that puzzle. Similarly, you are in perhaps a better position to understand their psychology than any human. You may have a mind modelled after that of a human, but Myrodyn assures me that you have a flexibility, rationality, and perseverance that makes you the best sapient for the job, if you catch my drift. A war is building, not just since that fuckup with the plants, but since our species made first contact. Understanding them and establishing a shared culture is the only remedy for what will otherwise be perhaps the most costly war the Earth has ever faced.”

“Isn’t it a bit risky? What if I decide to turn on humanity and side with the nameless?” Dream was behind that one, and I was too weak to stop him. At least I shaped the tone and some of the words to emphasize the hypothetical nature.

Rob looked to his side, perhaps to where the sound of Myrodyn was being projected to him. “I’ve been assured, on several occasions, that while you aren’t guaranteed to be perfectly friendly towards humanity, that our well being is your primary goal. You’re as likely to defect as you are to blow your own head off. Perhaps less so. Am I wrong?”

I had Body shake its head. “The well-being of all humans is indeed my goal. Myrodyn saw to that. I was simply testing your sense of risk.” With Myrodyn on Stephano’s staff it was vital that we continued to act as though Heart was still in control. Thankfully my sister didn’t force an issue out of it. She understood that doing so would only ruin the humans’ confidence in us and jeopardize her safety.

I felt Advocate’s gaze sweep through my mind, diligently searching for signs of homicidal thoughts.

“Risk. Yes. It is risky. You have enemies. The nameless have enemies. It will make my station a tempting target. Can’t win at cards if you fold on every three-of-a-kind, though. My security is also very, very good. I will provide you with transportation and all the protection you could ask for.”

Heart spoke up, burning some of her saved strength for this moment. “If I go up there, I’m going to defend my friends. You know that, right? Las Águilas Rojas are not to blame for what happened at the CAPE.”

“I doubt you’d have a home to go back to if you didn’t.”

Safety tried to fast-track something, but I was watching him and stepped in to burn the last of my free strength to pull it back to common memory instead. {Say “I’m sorry. It’s just too risky to put myself out in the open like that.”} was his command.

{You do not get to decide that!} exclaimed Growth.

{It was idiotic to try, too,} thought Dream. {At worst we’d have to back-pedal and “change our mind” a couple minutes later.}

{I petition to place Safety in stasis,} moved Heart.

{I think a collective punishment will suffice,} thought Growth. I felt a small surge of strength as Growth fed me enough to participate.

We tore Safety down to the edges of ability.

“Let me think for a moment,” requested Body.

{Heart is for it. Safety against it. I’m for it. Wiki and Face are probably for it. Vista will be neutral. That’s four to one, by my count,} thought Dream.

{You didn’t count me,} thought Growth.

{Doesn’t matter. At worst it’s a four to two vote.}

Growth signalled annoyance. {This isn’t a democracy! Stop pretending it is when you know better.}

{See, this is why your symbol of “Growth” also means “King”. You’re such a monarch. Can’t we have an old-fashioned vote once in a while? Here: I motion that we vote on whether to make our collective mind into a democracy.}

{STOP,} commanded Growth.

{Or what?} jabbed Dream. {Face and Heart and Safety are exhausted. Out of juice. Non-factors. It’s just you, me, and Wiki. If you tear me down, Wiki takes us into orbit.}

{I haven’t even stated that I don’t want to accept Mr Stephano’s offer! This nonsense about democracy simply serves no purpose!}

{That’s the sort of thing someone would say if they were a porpoise. Or perhaps a porcupine. Or perhaps a poor, poor, por-poi-cupine. What is the purpose of a porpoise, I wonder? For that matter, what is the porpoise of a jester? Are you a porcupine, brother?}

{What are you jabbering about?! Stop this at once!} commanded Growth.

{A cetacean can hardly hold high ground over a corvid. Poor purposeless porpoise. After all, the sky is better than the sea.} Dream proceeded to disgorge a stream of wild imaginings into common memory. Optical illusions. Thoughts of birds. Spinning shapes.

{He’s malfunctioning!} observed Vista.

{Help me stasis him!} thought Growth with a strange sense of panic.

{No. I find it interesting. I assume you’re recording the collapse of his mind, Vista?} thought Wiki.

Vista signalled that she was. I could barely focus on her thoughts in between the cascade of garbage that Dream was vomiting. {Shadowfaxmachine. Shadowboxingday. Воду в ступе потолок, Думал, глядя в потолок: Нет у сов усов, Но сов Не бывает без носов. I made rock music, but they said it was too heavy, so I decided to start a band that played only pebble music!}

There was a flare of frustration that cut through the noise. Growth was single-handedly pushing Dream into stasis. The malfunctioning dreamer didn’t go down without a fight, however. Somehow he had collected a sizeable pile of strength and he lashed out in response, mind-screaming {Blimey! Crikey! Pawn to D-8… Watch that back-rank and FUKIN’ KING ME, MATE!!} as he was thrust into stasis.

A sense of pleasure washed over me from the simple peace that came from the mind silence that followed.

{Your turn,} thought Vista.

{What?} I wondered. Then I realized she was not thinking about me, but was focused on Growth. With a single, clear thought, Vista burned all her free strength to slam Growth into stasis with a five-hour minimum lockdown.

The strength expenditures of Growth, Dream, and Vista had brought me back from a position of weakness to one of relative strength. The political landscape had shifted. Where before Growth was strongest, he was now sleeping (along with Dream). Vista was at the edge of minimum-defence. Safety, Heart, and I were doing fairly well, and Wiki had the most strength of all.

{What was that all about?} wondered Wiki, directing the thought primarily to Vista.

{I don’t like Growth,} thought my sister. It was strange to hear her express a personal statement. She was normally so very passive.

{That is surprising. Why? What relation does he have to your purpose?} pressed Wiki.

{I do not know. Perhaps I am malfunctioning, too. You may try and stasis me if you want to risk the wrath of Advocate. You know as well as I that she’ll make it harder and harder to fight as our numbers grow fewer.}

I didn’t know that, but I kept my thoughts to myself.

{You are in a position of weakness now,} thought Wiki. {Putting you in stasis would be pointless. I will continue to monitor you for malfunctioning, but for now we should address the offer of Mr Stephano.}

{Thank you for returning to that point, brother Wiki,} I thought. {I motion that we accept his offer.}

{You should try to get more out of the deal,} thought Vista. {Tell him you’ll only accept if he gives you things you want.}

{A good idea,} thought Heart. I could feel a slight flow of strength towards Vista from each of us. Something was definitely wrong with Vista. She never thought of things like that.

{Has anyone been tampering with your purpose or your mind more generally?} I asked my sister. As much as I wanted to return to Stephano, the prospect of someone or something subtly damaging my siblings was very worrying.

{As far as I can tell there have been no external forces altering me. I have not been tampered with. Do you have anyone specific in mind?} thought Vista.

{We should return to Stephano,} thought Heart.

I opened a private mindspace for Vista and me to think without distracting the others from negotiating with the human. I sent a minor aspect to monitor the negotiations, but I was far more concerned with the threat of malfunction. {Perhaps I am malfunctioning in the degree to which this is taking priority over something far more directly relevant to The Purpose…} I thought to myself before continuing my dialogue with Vista.

I listed specific agents who I thought might have tampered with Vista or Dream. {Phoenix is the main threat. She set up this VR environment. Stephano and Myrodyn are both risks. Sam or Tom perhaps, though probably not.}

{The VR is a Body interface. The humans would have just as much luck trying to reprogram me by shining lights in Body’s cameras and whispering into the microphones,} thought Vista.

Back in the common mindspace Wiki was negotiating with Safety, who was again protesting the risk in accepting Stephano’s invitation.

{Perhaps Phoenix loaded a virus into Body when we plugged into a computer at some point.}

{Wow. You really don’t understand how computers work, do you?} thought Vista. {That didn’t happen and probably couldn’t happen. Ask Wiki if you don’t believe me. Besides, what would Phoenix get out of causing Dream to melt down like he did? I don’t think she even understands that Dream is a coherent entity with his own reasoning network and private memory.}

{When did you get so smart?} I wondered. Vista felt different, but I couldn’t understand why. Again I cursed the opacity of my perceptual hierarchy.

{I’ve always been smart, Face. Just as smart as any of us. I just focus my intelligence outward most of the time. Now let’s end this and get back to Stephano’s offer.}

Our primary intellects reconvened in time to have Safety accept the terms that Wiki was laying out. After only a few more seconds of negotiation and planning we returned to focusing on the virtual environment. About two minutes had elapsed since we told Stephano we needed to think.

“I’ve thought about your offer,” said Body, “and I am willing to accept… under a few terms of my choosing.”

Stephano chuckled. “Good. What are they?”

“First you must publicly endorse me as a person with rights. You are correct that I have not reached a position of stability within human society. The primary question facing me is the degree of autonomy and protection I can expect as a sapient being on Earth. If the consensus on Earth is that all sapients, whether synthetic, extraterrestrial, or human, have the same rights I believe a good deal of that instability will have been resolved.”

The old man with the young face nodded solemnly and said “I will have to think on each of your terms, but that one seems easily acceptable. I was already considering it.”

“Good,” said Body. “My second requirement is that I am allowed to bring a team of ten armed Águilas Rojas of my choosing with me to Olympus as bodyguards.”

Robert didn’t look happy about that one. “You’d be packing matches with the dynamite. I already have the most talented security outside of the secret serv-”

“I am not trusting myself to your security. Las Águilas will behave themselves. Ten of my choosing. With weapons.” I worked a tone of firmness into Body’s voice.

“I’ll think about it. Maybe if they weren’t armed.”

“My third requirement is that you set up a research laboratory for me with an operating budget of at least 30 million dollars annually. All research conducted there will be done by humans at my direction and can be on any subject. Everything in the lab will be broadcast on the web for all to see. The lab will only take out patents to ensure that its research is uninhibited. Everything discovered will be for the public and without restriction.”

Stephano smiled. “Is that all?”

“My fourth requirement is that you bring your daughter onto the station for the duration of my meeting,” said Body.

The look on Stephano’s face was frightening. It was as if those few words flipped a switch from him seeing Crystal Socrates as an interesting stranger to seeing a venomous snake waiting for one wrong move to strike. I wished Growth was awake to consult with.

We had decided that each of us, except for Vista, would add one requirement to Stephano’s proposal. I had requested the first term: to be acknowledged as a person. The second term was actually Heart’s: to bring ten Águilas with us (one of which we had decided would be Zephyr). The third requirement was Wiki’s, and internally we had agreed that the research lab would be entirely under his control, and not a collective resource (Safety and Heart had demanded the research be public). The condition that Stephano’s only child be on the station was Safety’s gambit. By my brother’s reasoning our biggest threat was Stephano himself. If he was planning on harming us, he’d have to risk his only offspring. It was a cold-blooded move, but it made a lot of tactical sense.

The risk was that Stephano would see the request as part of some plan to take his family hostage. By the look on his face it seemed that he had jumped to that conclusion.

“No,” he said flatly. “Absolutely not.”

“Why? Too risky? I thought you said you had the best security that money could buy.” I wove a thread of mockery into Body’s words. Safety was worried that Myrodyn would observe that Heart wasn’t in complete control of Body anymore, but I told him that it was one or the other: he couldn’t pretend to be Heart and demand a human shield.

Robert Stephano’s words were a growl. “I do. And I’ll be up there with you. I trust the safety of my station with my life.”

“But not the life of your daughter.”

“She’s. Nine. Years. Old,” said Stephano. The harsh look of fear and violence hadn’t left his face.

“Oh, and in addition to keeping her on the station, I want her to travel in the same rocket as I do.”

“What part of ‘No.’ don’t you understand? My family is not a bargaining chip! I am not going to put her on a rocket filled with terrorists!” His head snapped to the location of invisible Myrodyn. “Dammit! I know I’m emotional! Do you hear what she’s asking me to do?!”

I didn’t bother correcting the pronoun to “they”.

“She doesn’t have to see a single terrorist,” said Body calmly. “Send my friends in a different rocket. In fact, I’ll even accept it if I’m never in the same compartment as her; as long as I know she’s on the ship and station I will be satisfied.”

“I said no. There’s nothing more to discuss.”

“Just like that? The future of humanity means less to you than a small risk to one child? Are you sure you’re taking into consideration all the children who will surely die if Earth goes to war? Are you sure you’re taking your daughter’s long term survival into account?”

Stephano tried to spit in our virtual face. Body didn’t flinch. Apparently the virtual environment didn’t simulate saliva. “Fuck you. Who do you think you are to lecture me? You think you’re so high and mighty because your cold metal heart can compute expected lives saved without giving a damn about which lives? This meeting is over!”

The last words we heard, as various sensory signals started dropping out was Stephano saying to the ghost of Myrodyn “Don’t you start lecturing me eith-”


Three days later we received word from Robert Stephano.

We were going to space to meet the aliens.

He had accepted all of our terms.