Xandra did her best to hold her spoon like a pencil or something while she took her first bite of Cheerios. It was uncomfortable and hard and she really just wanted to grip it with her fist like she normally did, but that was a baby way of eating and she wasn’t a baby anymore. Maybe it wasn’t as uncomfortable for grownups because their hands were bigger.
Or maybe grownups were all just used to doing uncomfortable things all the time. Trying to show off to each other in a race to the bottom of Serious Business. That’s why they wore suits and high-heels and ties and drank beer and coffee. (Blech!) Even their cereal was lame. She wanted Lucky Charms or Cap’n Crunch.
If Xandra ran the world, she’d have everyone wear pajamas to work and eat Lucky Charms for dinner. And, and, and if she ran the world, Lucky Charms would be 100% marshmallows.
But she didn’t run the world—grownups did. She’d have to learn to be a grownup if she wanted to help Daddy. So she sat on one of the big cushions of one of the several couches in the main living room and tried to eat like one.
The space was large and open, and one of her favorite parts of the house. Mommy had replaced the tall, east-facing windows with stained-glass. The gold, white, and blue tones showed a great mural. From left to right there was the Earth from space, an astronaut with angel wings looking down, a ring of space stations like a great train, and finally a large stylized sun.
The great images gave the room an intense emotional character in the morning as the sun blasted color everywhere. It was magical enough that she often felt as though she were part of that glorious future. Any thoughts to the contrary were just memories of what was back when she was a child.
Her parents were still in the kitchen, finishing cooking their breakfasts. When Xandra had left, Mommy had been teasing Daddy about how he could launch a multibillion-dollar industry but couldn’t make a decent egg, and he’d been retorting with something about comparative advantage and capitalism.
They didn’t always eat breakfast in the living room. There was a fancy dining room where they normally ate when their cooks were still allowed in the house. But ever since Eyepatch had taken over, there’d been some kind of shift, and her family had been eating in the living room more and more often.
Well, her family and Myrodyn.
The man sat silently in the room’s single armchair, drinking his coffee and looking impenetrably serious.
Despite how he’d been supporting Xandra in participating in the discussions that had been happening around the house, she still didn’t like Myrodyn. He was smelly and unpredictably weird.
Eyepatch was something of the opposite. Not just in that he wore nice cologne and was strangely human, but in that he had an unshakable roguish charm. Sometimes he called her “m’lady” and bowed to her. She knew it was a joke, but she was flattered anyway.
He was also there that morning, sitting up against the wall opposite the window with the angelic astronaut. The agent seemed to be meditating, legs were crossed, hands cupped in his lap, and his one eye closed. He was wearing a well-cut pink dress shirt and slacks that showed off his muscled body.
She was going to marry Eric Lee, the most brilliant man on the planet. She’d been planning on it ever since she heard of his accomplishments. But if she didn’t… Well, Agent Taylor wouldn’t be so bad, even if he was a cyborg.
“He’s linked up to the collective,” said Myrodyn, clearly noticing how she was studying the man while he sat. Myrodyn’s voice was fast and flat, as it usually was. When Xandra looked over at him, she saw him watching her with those intelligent, dark eyes. “Nobody’s allowed on the net except him.”
She knew that already. One of the very first things the FBI had done was change up their Internet connection so nobody could get online.
“But we can only guess where his mind goes…” mused Myrodyn. “Probably downloading the day’s news and contributing to the war with the dread Neurotoxin. That or reading webcomics.”
“Can still hear you,” said Eyepatch, not opening his eye.
Mommy stepped into the room carrying a tray of good smelling food. “You want any bacon, Mnemosyne?”
“Totes!” exclaimed Xandra, responding to the name she’d chosen for that week. She jumped up from where she sat and placed her half-eaten bowl of Cheerios on the central coffee table.
“I’ll come sit by you, and we can share. But if you want grits I should get you more from the kitchen.” Her dark hair was still wet from the shower, and she wore a big, thick bathrobe.
“Naw, juswan’ bacon,” said Xandra, snuggling up against Mommy as she sat down on the couch, enjoying the softness of the robe.
A minute of silence passed as Xandra happily munched on the bacon that Mommy had. Daddy soon came in and sat with them. He was wearing sweatpants and an old black tee-shirt with some peeling image from an album cover or something. His youthful appearance seemed to be fading. Where just a few months earlier he’d seemed a young man, Xandra could now see gray roots across his hairline, betraying his true age.
Eyepatch finally opened his eye, stretched, and got to his feet. He didn’t seem pleased. “War just broke out in Africa. Happened last night.”
“New Somalia?” guessed Daddy.
Eyepatch nodded and cracked his knuckles idly before going back to pacing around the room. “Surprise UAN invasion under the justification that the populace is being oppressed and the standard terrorism SNAFUs.”
Daddy’s voice was grim, but he seemed strangely relaxed, as though the bad news was a familiar friend who’d come to visit. “And Gore?”
Eyepatch shrugged. “Standard political smokescreen. ‘We stand by our allies in this time of uncertainty’ and all the rest. WIRL’s sources say the president is talking in private about getting back into Africa. Our internal market puts the probability at 82%.”
“Damned idiot,” snapped Daddy. “We put a single soldier on Protectorate soil, and the GOP is all but guaranteed to win the election next year.”
“If we live that long,” added Myrodyn from his chair.
Xandra could feel both her parents tense up on either side of her. Where the talk of Africa had been a comfortable, albeit serious, topic, Myrodyn’s doomsaying was something else. She could feel Mommy squeeze Daddy’s hand where their arms met on the couch behind her.
Daddy seemed like he was about to respond when a new voice, deep and smooth, came from the doorway to the foyer. “Well, I certainly don’t intend to die in the next year.”
It was Malka. His machine legs hummed as he strode into the living room. He’d never eaten with the rest of them before, though he’d sometimes show up briefly to grab food and then disappear as quickly as he came. The monster of a man mostly kept to himself, and Xandra wished he’d go back to doing just that.
Myrodyn’s face screwed up briefly. “You think you have a choice whether you live or die?”
Eyepatch stepped out of the way of Malka and stopped pacing, deciding to instead lean against a wall next to one of the stained glass windows. Backing up Myrodyn, he smiled his cocksure smile and said “I’d think quite the opposite, in fact. Nearly everyone who dies would choose not to, if they could.”
The hulking man, as though it were the most normal thing in the world, came and sat down on the couch directly opposite Xandra and her family. His face had a blank look as he turned his head towards where Myrodyn sat. Xandra still felt like those solid black eyes were watching her. “לא. Always have choice. Perhaps choice is whether to be alert or relax. Perhaps choice is whether to go to doctor. Perhaps choice is whether to grow stronger each day. But always there is a choice.”
Myrodyn scoffed. “That’s a nice story, but it’s completely irrational. There are things which we have no power over. Perhaps we could have done something at some point… but that crux is in the past. Do you know what exponential growth of machinery looks like?”
Myrodyn didn’t wait for an answer to continue. “It looks like everything is fine day after day. You hear something in the news about some lab in some university somewhere doing something exciting. Some AI has recently beaten some new computer game or solved some math puzzle. Some people claim the machine is shockingly human-like, and others say it’s still very different. Machines have slowly been integrating into every part of your life. Perhaps this exciting new breakthrough will mean a better autocook or a better com. Or maybe, you dream, it’ll mean we finally have bots that are actually as good as humans at being personal assistants, after goodness knows how many decades of trying. But nothing happens. Not at first. Life goes on. And then one day you hear some news from a… far away place, or of some new technology on the net. Perhaps there’s a conflict in orbit, or a new supervirus is discovered.”
Myrodyn’s voice became even faster than normal, a blur of sound punctuated by the occasional odd pause. In these moments Xandra watched Mommy strain to get a word in edgewise, but Myrodyn blew past her, unwilling to be interrupted.
“You’re a little worried, but things turn out okay. You wake up and barely anything is different. Then autocooks start to get better. And so do cars. And so do coms. Miracles start to occur every day. It seems good, but there’s no control. You can’t stop it. You can’t do anything. There’s no center… no heart. The parts move on their own. And then… one morning you wake up and find that the world no longer needs you, nor anyone else. The machines are everywhere you look… And they squeeze. They squeeze tighter and tighter, increasing in speed with each moment. They leave no room for you or me or any other human. Their merciless violence cuts through everything and everyone until a screaming cacophony of metal forces the blood of every last man, woman, and child into a fountain of death that consumes the whole—”
“MYRODYN!” snapped Mommy, nearly throwing the tray of near-empty dishes off her lap as she shot to her feet. “That’s quite enough! There’s a little girl present, in case you forgot!”
Mommy’s hand shot out towards Xandra, palm up, and hovered in front of her, not as an offer, but as an order to take it. Mommy’s voice was hard and full of anger. “Let’s leave the men to their war-dreams.”
A cold chill ran through Xandra’s whole body, but she didn’t take Mommy’s hand. She felt frozen solid.
“She deserves to be a part of this!” exclaimed Myrodyn. Whatever cap the man normally put on his emotions seemed to have come unscrewed. “She deserves to know the world she was born into, Karen. You can’t keep hiding her away!”
Mommy flinched as though she’d been slapped. The hand that she’d been holding out to Xandra coiled up and struck like a cobra, pointing towards Myrodyn with violent energy. “Don’t you dare judge me! That’s my child you’re talking about, this is my house, and the only reason you can afford to eat is because of our generosity!” Mommy looked down angrily at Daddy, who seemed as frozen as Xandra.
There was an awkward silence as the two of them looked at each other. Finding no support, Mommy turned back to Xandra, looking strangely desperate. “We can go visit the dogs together. You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”
Xandra didn’t move.
“She wants to be involved. She has for—”
“Stay out of this!” snapped Mommy back at Myrodyn.
But Mommy didn’t bother trying again, and for that Xandra was thankful. Instead, she stormed out of the room towards the central staircase, presumably to get dressed.
Daddy wrapped an arm around Xandra and gave her a half-hug. She wasn’t sure what had convinced her father. He’d been protesting her involvement just as much as Mommy had. But in that moment she loved him very much for just being there and letting her exist.
Another awkward silence descended over the room in Mommy’s absence.
Malka leaned back on the couch, oddly relaxed. Eyepatch leaned against the wall, looking contemplative. Myrodyn was frustratedly wringing his hands and rocking back and forth in his chair, agitated but clearly trying to calm himself down.
After a minute the eccentric scientist pulled the flat expression back over his face, leaned back in his chair, took a sip of his coffee and, looking at Eyepatch, said, “So… what else is new?”
“You mean besides the fact that we’re dealing with an attack from all sides by a distributed, adaptive supervirus?” The WIRL cyborg’s voice seemed to indicate that this was supposed to be a joke, but nobody laughed.
“Yes, besides that,” answered Myrodyn.
“Divinity is on the move.”
At those words, Xandra could see Malka perk up with an extra level of alertness.
“They’re consolidating all their power in Idaho. Spooked by Neurotoxin and the fiasco with the nameless, most likely. Hard to get more specific than that. They’ve been our enemy for a long time, and they’re used to evading our eyes and ears.”
“Probably because… as Neurotoxin has demonstrated… your network is as leaky as the Titanic, post-iceberg,” added Myrodyn.
Xandra, still cuddled up against Daddy, scrunched up her brow. “What’s Divinity?” she asked. It sounded familiar, but she couldn’t quite remember from where.
To her surprise, it was Malka who answered her. “Organized crime ring. Hugely powerful. They make zen helmets. You heard of those, yalda?”
Xandra shook her head, but mostly because she was curious what the man would say. Malka seemed strangely passionate about the subject.
“For brainwashing. The helmet gives you a feeling of peace and helps with focus. In return, you become zombie slave to Divinity gang. They are ruthless people with many addicts in places high and low. Most dangerous people in world right now.”
Myrodyn scoffed at that, but didn’t say anything.
“Nobody knows who runs them—who is leader,” continued Malka. “Nobody has been able to get a helmet for reverse engineer. Divinity are the only ones who have the technology, and it is so addictive that their members fight to the death when cornered. They aren’t human anymore.”
“They’re human enough,” said Myrodyn. “Seems to me like we should be trying to get them on the same side.”
Eyepatch scowled at this and seemed about to say something, but Malka looked downright angry and cut the other cyborg off. “They are evil. They tear families apart, kill innocents, and are clearly trying to seize control of as much of the world as possible!”
“Who isn’t?” quipped Myrodyn.
Malka seemed about to get to his feet. If Myrodyn had half a brain, he’d stop antagonizing the brute. “They strip the very free will from people! They are robbed of the very thing that makes them human and are turned into animals and puppets!”
“I think you’re just mad because… your eyes mean the magnets in the helmet would kill you, and you want to see what Zen is like.”
Malka did stand up, then, moving like his whole body was a weapon. His hand shot out and up, carving the air, though only as a gesture. “Ты чертов дурак! You speak of machines that squeeze the life out of humanity but cannot even see the true threat in front of your face! You are in love with your fantasy of evil AI and that the Socrates bot is a secret dragon. I have seen Socrates. It is like a human. Perhaps if there are a million of them there is threat, but they are right now a drop before the ocean of souls Divinity has claimed, and the force of that great tide.”
Myrodyn didn’t say anything.
Eyepatch cleared his throat, breaking the silence. “There are no plans to try and ally with Divinity. WIRL has a… different vision than they do, and our rift goes back a long way. Can we leave it at that? I have one last piece of news that I’d like to share.”
Myrodyn shrugged with a deliberate blankness. Malka also seemed to retreat into himself as he sat back down on the couch. The scars on his face seemed to be a deeper white than usual, a spiderweb of twisted flesh on a ruddy backdrop.
“The nameless mothership broke orbit early this morning.”
“What?! Why didn’t you start with that?” asked Daddy with a sudden agitation.
“Would it make a difference? Are you going to hop into high orbit and stand in their way?” Eyepatch’s hands were on his hips, staring coldly at Daddy.
“Where are they going? Have they issued any statements?”
Eyepatch shook his head. “All’s quiet. No responses to questions from various governments, either. We haven’t seen much, but the trajectory seems to be in line with Mars as a destination. Perhaps they’re trying to link up with the xenocruiser with Socrates onboard.”
“You need to let me try and talk with them,” urged Daddy.
“Why?” asked Eyepatch with a tilt of his head. “So you can try and calm them down if they’re on a warpath? Maybe you’ve forgotten our little arrangement here.” The FBI cyborg gestured around the room. “The only reason you’re not in prison right now is WIRL’s generosity. The AIs may have thrown a wrench into things, and we have the call set up with Dr Yan for talking about that later today, but the broader strategy is still the same. War with the nameless will bring a broader peace and a consolidation of humanity.”
Daddy growled but didn’t say anything.
Myrodyn chimed in. “You should tell them to destroy Socrates. Tell them the machine is an evil pervert.”
Eyepatch looked towards the bearded man. “Oh, we’ve been suggesting they destroy Socrates for days. Using Olympian codes, even. They never acknowledge it, but perhaps it contributed to their departure.”
Xandra was confused. “But wait,” she said, “arencha worried they gonna just leave? Then how are gonna make a war?”
Eyepatch shrugged. “We wouldn’t. It would be a loss. But what can we do? With Neurotoxin crawling through WIRL wreaking havoc we don’t have the extra capacity to make large-scale political moves. And even if it wasn’t, there are some things that are just beyond our reach.”
“Substitute war with Mars, maybe,” suggested Myrodyn. “If we don’t still have our hands full on Earth.”
“Whose side are you on?” growled Daddy.
“Humanity’s,” answered Myrodyn instantly, shooting back an equally sharp glare. The morning light filtered through the great stylized sun in the window and made his face half-gold and half-shadow. “And frankly, Rob, I’m disappointed in you. You need to let Olympian go; recognize that WIRL captured our pieces and move on. There was a time when you were a man I… could count on to see things from the perspective… of the deep future. In a thousand years the only part of this that will really mean a damn is what happens with Crystal, Neurotoxin, and the rest.”
That evening a call was set up with Japan.
Mommy and Daddy, after a long talk with Agent Eyepatch, managed to get some private time with their lawyers. The meeting was at the same time as the call, but Myrodyn was the primary person who needed to be in the call, so Daddy left it up to him.
After an equally long talk, Daddy also left Xandra in Myrodyn’s care. She knew that Myrodyn wasn’t exactly Daddy’s top pick for a babysitter, but he was surely more trustworthy than Eyepatch.
So, as the clock showed 8:00pm, Myrodyn dialed Tokyo where, based on the timezone heuristics she’d memorized a couple years ago, Xandra reasoned it was shortly before noon.
They were in the basement, partially so that Daddy could have more privacy in his office upstairs, and partially because that’s where the house’s virtual conference room was set up. The room was also the theater, depending on the furniture (which rotated in and out on command). The huge, high-definition wallscreen and sound system served both purposes.
Myrodyn was the only one who was sitting at the small, round table. Eyepatch and Xandra sat off to the side in the proverbial shadows, where Myrodyn could see them, they could see the wallscreen, but the camera wouldn’t show them on the call.
The screen lit up as the call went straight to the intended recipients: Dr. Chun Yan and Dr. Sakura Yan. To her surprise, it was not a real scene, but rather virtual image from some holo. The elderly Asian couple could not have picked a more stereotypical setting. They were sitting on cushions in a rock garden amid folding screens, with tall bamboo waving in the background.
In meatspace, they’d be plugged into holo rigs, like the ones they had in the room closer to the stairs. If they’d wanted a holo meeting, they could’ve easily requested it.
“Hello Chun,” said Myrodyn. His face had the deliberately calm expression he often wore, but Xandra thought she saw irritation creeping through.
“Hello Mister Myrodyn,” greeted Chun.
Xandra knew Myrodyn well enough to know that honorific grated on him. The Yans were his peers—fellow researchers in artificial intelligence who had worked on the Socrates project. But Myrodyn had no doctorate, and Xandra guessed that Chun knew that.
“Have you met my wife, Sakura?” asked Chun, gesturing to the avatar sitting next to him. Like him, she was wearing clothing that would have surely been more suitable hundreds of years ago. Her virtual dress was black and embroidered with white flowers. Neither of them had masked their age much, though the holo could only capture so much detail in the lines of their faces.
“We’ve only corresponded by email,” offered Myrodyn, nodding very slightly at Sakura. “I admit…” he continued, “the holo is a surprise. Don’t you have webcams in Japan?”
Chun’s avatar smiled politely. “We already in rig. More easy this way, I think.” Chun paused, then said “Besides! Much more beautiful to be sitting in peaceful garden than some stuffy office. The wonders of new technology are not to be…” The man trailed off, seeming to be looking for the right word.
“Taken for granted?” offered Myrodyn.
“Ah! Yes. As you say.”
Myrodyn crossed his arms. “I hope you’ll forgive me, but when we were at the Fifty-Second triple-AI conference in Bengaluru, and we were talking with Sadiq about the role of emotional processing in decision making, do you remember which of us was taking which side?”
Chun crossed his arms and squinted at Myrodyn. “What’s going on? Why do you ask this?”
“Timeline has advanced,” answered Myrodyn. “Just want to make sure you are who you say you are.”
Sakura exchanged a meaningful glance with her husband in the virtual scene but didn’t say anything.
“Perhaps my memory is failing,” answered Chun finally, “but I don’t think you were at triple-AI fifty-two. We were with Dr Naresh at the one in San Francisco in thirty-seven, but I don’t remember the conversation you are referencing.”
Myrodyn nodded, relieved, “It’s because I made it up. Sadiq and I had a big fight about it at the very end of the conference, and on Tapestry, but you weren’t there.”
“You suspect we are not genuine,” said Sakura. It wasn’t a question.
“There’s a successor to Socrates out in the world right now. I’m trying to gather information on it, but I don’t know who to trust.”
Chun spoke up. “Speaking of Dr Naresh, do you know what happened to him after the business on Olympus? I hear you were there, too.”
Myrodyn’s eyes darted to Agent Taylor, and back to the screen. “Yeah, we were up there together, but I don’t know what happened to him… after we landed. Maybe on his way back to India. He was talking about it in orbit. Wanted to go home and all that.”
“I think we would both be very curious to hear of what happened with Socrates and the nameless. And especially how you came to be up there. I hear Red Eagles were involved?”
Myrodyn nodded. They’d expected this in planning for the call. “I’ll tell you in a moment, but first… I have to ask if you know anything about Acorn.”
“The nut? From a tree?” asked Sakura, clearly confused.
“Don’t play dumb. You’re too enmeshed in the field out there not to have heard. Maybe RCN or AORCN is more familiar? The Asian-slash-Oceanian Regional Computing Nexus, also known as the worst name for a supercomputer ever to have been designed by committee?”
Chun gave a weak chuckle. “Ah yes, I did hear about that. Singapore, right?”
Myrodyn nodded. “So neither of you have anything to do with it? What have you been working on post-Socrates, anyway?”
Chun had a somewhat puzzled look. Sakura was harder to read. “Trying to recreate the next Socrates on our own computers, of course—same thing every other robotics lab in the world is working on.”
“But EARCI isn’t involved with the RCN?”
Sakura shook her head. “We have labs in Korea, China, and Japan, not Singapore. What’s this about?”
Myrodyn paused and closed his eyes in thought.
Xandra understood the pressure he was under. Eyepatch had okayed giving the East-Asian Robotics Collaboration Institute partial information as long as WIRL wasn’t mentioned, but there was still a risk.
His mind made up, Myrodyn opened his eyes and said, “Neurotoxin says that the RCN is home to a next-generation AI called Acorn.”
“Wait,” commanded Chun, with a sudden intensity. “Neurotoxin talked to you?”
Myrodyn nodded. “It’s not very eloquent, but the meaning comes across. Neurotoxin’s goal is to destroy Acorn. Possibly to destroy all other AI. I hope I don’t have to spell out just how dangerous that makes it.”
Sakura spoke up. “Much of the work in the last week has been trying to insulate ourselves from it. It still crawls through the cracks, though. We’ve already had a couple infections.”
Myrodyn kept his face blank. “But just because Neurotoxin is dangerous doesn’t mean Acorn isn’t, too. I was hoping that EARCI was working on it in secret, frankly. At least there’d be some hope, then.”
“You tried contacting the people running the RCN directly?” asked Chun.
“Couldn’t really get through. Can’t tell if they’re blocking me or if it’s just a mix of bureaucracy and trouble with the translator.”
“We’ll look into it as a favour to you,” said Chun, “and I’ll let you know what we find.”
Xandra though she noticed Myrodyn’s self-control tighten, like he was trying hard not to say what he thought of Dr. Yan’s “favour.” But he ultimately just said “Thank you.”
“Now you simply must tell us about Olympus! And Socrates!” insisted Sakura.
And so Myrodyn did.
Many of the details were left out. As much as the man seemed to trust the Yans, he clearly didn’t trust them fully, or even to the limit of sharing that Eyepatch had set ahead of time.
Xandra wondered if this was the real problem. Everyone was working on their own, towards their own ends, and nobody trusted anyone else. Or hardly any trust existed, at least. WIRL had brute-forced their cooperation, and she couldn’t help but think there was a kind of wisdom to that.
Xandra did her best to hold her spoon like a pencil or something while she took her first bite of Cheerios. It was easier than it had been the day before. She adapted quickly; it was in her genes.
As she went to sit in the living room and bask in the warm light of the stained-glass, she noticed that Eyepatch was there meditating again. She wondered if this would become a part of their routine.
Did the man have any family? Friends? He’d been staying with them for over a week now, and she realized that she knew basically nothing about the man aside from surface characteristics. He was flashy and charismatic, but not at all open.
The sense of mystery about him was stronger that morning because of a look of deep fatigue on his face. He had a sunken look to his eye, and his dark hair was disheveled. She realized that he was wearing the same pink shirt he’d had on the day before, too, which wasn’t like him at all.
Xandra plopped down on the couch in her favorite spot and watched the man, wondering at the mysteries of his machine-augmented mind.
“Hey princess. Have you seen Myrodyn?” asked Daddy as he came in, also holding a bowl of cereal. “We still need to sync up about yesterday.”
“Think he’s sleeping,” she answered between bites. “Leaves door to his room open when he’s up and wasn’t this morning. Seemabout time for him to stay up waaaaay late, anyway.”
“How late?” The words came from Agent Eyepatch, who had snapped out of his meditation. He was alert now, though the look of fatigue on his face was even more pronounced. “We need to go wake him up.”
Daddy took a seat in the armchair, letting the golden light of the stained-glass sun cover him. “Good luck with that. He sleeps like a rock. Part of the narcolepsy.”
“Why do you need him?” asked Mommy, carrying a tray as she followed Daddy into the room.
“Avram Malka is gone,” said Eyepatch gravely.
“Gone?” echoed Xandra.
“Escaped during the night. Looks like he’d been planning it for at least a few days, based on how cleanly it was done.”
“What?! Why didn’t you wake us up?” asked Daddy.
“Why? So you could stand around and gawk at the bodies?” Eyepatch’s voice carried a dark, irritated tone.
“Bodies!” exclaimed Mommy, moving to sit next to Xandra.
Eyepatch nodded. “Killed two of my people. Kicked them to death. Stole their guns.”
“Jesus…” gasped Mommy, grabbing Xandra’s shoulder and looking around as though the monster could jump out at any moment.
Xandra wasn’t scared. Logic dictated that Malka was long gone. She deliberately relaxed her body, or at least tried to. Her heart was beating stupidly fast.
“Stole one of your cars too, I’m afraid: the Porsche,” said Eyepatch, looking at Daddy.
“Which one? If it’s the one-thousand—”
Eyepatch shook his head as he stood. “Already thought of that. It was the manual.”
Daddy slumped back in his chair. “And you can’t, I don’t know… track it by satellite?”
Eyepatch didn’t even bother responding to that, but instead crossed his arms and said “I’ve been talking with the bureau since I got up, trying to convince them to keep letting me use your house. My supervisor is understandably pissed, and I’ve been pulling every favor I can to keep the status quo.”
Something was off. Xandra could feel it.
“I hope you’ve explained to your superiors that he wasn’t with us. He never should’ve even been kept in the same building,” said Daddy.
Eyepatch nodded. “They know. It’s part of why you’re here eating breakfast in your own living room instead of in the back of a van in handcuffs.”
“Do you think Myrodyn had something to do with it?” asked Mommy.
Eyepatch scowled as he paced around the room. “It’s possible, depending on how late he was up. I just wish I’d seen it coming…”
Something felt like it was tickling the back of Xandra’s brain. Eyepatch was a mystery, but he wasn’t that much of a mystery. He wasn’t telling the…
And then the pieces came together.
“He’s going to Idaho,” she said, drawing attention from the rest of the room.
“That’s one possibility…” ventured Eyepatch. He was cautious.
“No. Going to Idaho for sure. You see him yesterday? Guy’s like a rock, but jus’ mentioning Divinity got him all totes mad. And you know it, too. You helped him escape.”
There was a pale flash of fear on the WIRL man’s tired face before the anger took over. “You don’t know what you’re talking about, girl. I suggest you shut your mouth and let the adults handle this.”
Xandra could feel her body tense up. She was sick of everyone except Myrodyn treating her like she was nothing. “Or what? Gonna kill me too, jus’like killed your own guards?”
Agent Taylor’s teeth bared, and his right hand opened and closed several times, as though he were grasping for his cutlass.
But it was Mommy that spoke next. “Mnemosyne! That’s a terrible thing to say!”
“Not if’s true!” she exclaimed in protest, jumping to her feet off the couch. It made her uncomfortable to be sitting there, vulnerable, while Agent Taylor was standing up. That and the motion helped her think.
“I didn’t kill anyone—”
Xandra cut off Eyepatch. “Not direc’ly duh. But WIRL wanted him free, right? Like a bullet to shoot Divinity. Boom! Headshot!” She mimed firing a rifle as she bounced around the room, always keeping Eyepatch in her vision. “Akshully don’t think you knew ‘bout the escape makes more sense that way. Big problem in story is you didn’t akshully go to bed. Didn’t wake up. Still wearing same clothes. Never do that. Nope nope. WIRL kept you up late, didn’t they? Gotta check in on the home front help with the war and talk to the generals yeah. You kick Neurotoxin out of your heads yet? Must’ve ‘cause otherwise it could warn Divinity and rat you out to the real FBI.”
“You have no gorram idea what you’re talking about,” said Eyepatch, glowering at her. His words seemed like a warning, but the emotion on his face told her she was right. Eyepatch was a cool cucumber; if she’d been wrong, he would’ve been calm and curious.
Or maybe he was just livid because he’d been up all night and let two of his team get murdered.
She continued before the doubt could grow. “Brainlink goes both ways,” she said, tapping on her head suggestively. “WIRL knew codes to net and tracking codes for guards and buncha other stuff you knew. Bet they jus’ told him where to go and who to kill. And meanwhile, they knew you were busy. Maybe tied you up with an alibi? And then boom! Gotta deal with his escape! Cover things up so he doesn’t get caught. He gets caught you lose everything, yeah? Don’t want to even bother waking us up. More chance we’ll see what you’re doing.”
Daddy was staring at her with his mouth open slightly. His spoon was in his right hand, forgotten. Mommy was tensed up on the couch, tray of food by her side, watching Agent Taylor like he was a wild animal. The man didn’t seem to be wearing his gun, which Xandra thought was lucky, even though she didn’t think he’d try and use it, regardless of how obnoxious she was.
But Eyepatch had grown cold, glaring at her with arms-crossed. The possibility that he’d been telling the truth poked her again. “You’re a smart kid,” he said. “I’ve read the reports. But just because you’re smart doesn’t mean you have any clue what’s happening. WIRL isn’t the villain you think it is. And even if you’re right, what’s the point? You’re still under arrest. Malka is still gone. Jones and Malovich, my agents, are still dead. And you have zero proof of anything.”
Xandra bounced up onto the back of one of the couches to get more eye-to-eye with the cyborg, putting her hands on her hips defiantly. “Point is you’re doin’ it wrong! WIRL’s still fightin’ old battles. Myrodyn’s right: Divinity should be our ally. Need to be working together to build the future and save the world!”
“Princess, I think you should come down from there,” suggested Daddy, no-doubt simply searching for a thing he could tell her to do in an attempt to get the situation more under control.
“No!” she protested. “Y’all keep tryin’ to scheme of ways to beat everybody else! Gotta blow up the nameless Crystal WIRL Divinity Neurotoxin Las Águilas Rojas Acorn Republicans Singapore Africa and Mars!!! Can’t be allowed to live! Nobody allowed to live! Gotta tear each other into teeny tiny bits! Grar grah nagh!” Xandra proceeded to violently pantomime being an animal with claws while making more grunting-growling noises and dancing on the top of the couch, trying not to kick Mommy.
Daddy had set aside his cereal and was covering his face with both hands, but she could see the smile in his eyes.
Encouraged, she looked at Eyepatch and said “The point is that maybe you should be trying at least as hard to bring people together as you’re trying to tear them apart. Neurotoxin has been attacking you for days, right? And it’s tryin’ to destroy Acorn. And we’re tryin’ to learn about Acorn and prob’ly destroy it too! Why not be friends?”
“What? And invite an intelligent virus named Neurotoxin to just come and live in our minds?” rebuked Eyepatch.
“Maybe if you cooperated would stop attackin’ ya, huh? Did ya ever think of that? But that’s not the point. The point is that if you’re not gonna work with Neurotoxin, you should at least work with Acorn! Been creepin’ around tryin’ to find where it is and whether it’s bad, but have tried just goin’ on the web and saying ‘Yo, Acorn, wanna be friends? Can come over to my place, play Nintendo, and punch superviruses!’” At that last word she jumped off the couch (which might’ve fallen over had Mommy not been sitting on it), did a front-flip(!), landed next to the coffee table, did a couple cool punches, and posed triumphantly.
Agent Eyepatch stared at her, speechless.
Daddy hummed quietly to himself, then muttered, “I suppose it’s worth a shot…”
And after a day of sending out hooks to Acorn on the net (and much arguing with Myrodyn), it worked. They made contact with an AI that before a few days ago, none of them had known existed.
Acorn reached out, cautiously at first, then more boldly, but always on secure channels, arranging to meet Daddy and Eyepatch in a holo-realm to discuss eliminating Neurotoxin.
When the time came, they set up the rigs, and Xandra watched their PoV cams on the basement’s wallscreens. But it wasn’t Acorn that came to meet them. Or at least, it probably wasn’t Acorn.
It was her future husband: Eric Lee, the smartest man on Earth.