“Hello. I am Athena. How may I help you?” The bot’s voice sounded synthetic and without character, just like Acorn’s had, way back when.
Xandra supposed it had been about a month since the rogue AI had blown itself up. The whole facility had apparently been laced with explosives, and it had killed three dozen people on its way out. Why Acorn had killed itself, they could only guess, but the leading hypothesis was that Acorn had been trying to prevent the very thing they were doing right now.
“I’d like help doing a research project. I have a dog that needs a name, and I’d like to know what the best one is,” said Myrodyn with a tone that indicated he’d been through this before.
Most robots, autos, and other AI systems with voices usually sounded better than Athena. Either Myrodyn had picked a crappy piece of voice software, or there was something else going on.
“The most popular names of 2039 were, in descending order: James, Ellie, Alex, Oliva, and William,” said Athena after about ten seconds.
Myrodyn hit a key on his old-school keyboard and turned on his chair to look at Xandra, who had picked the name “Opal” for this week. “Now why do you think she said that?” he quizzed her.
Xandra leaned back on the leather beanbag they’d found in the attic of their new hideout and looked at the ceiling. White paint. Boring. “Doesn’t know dog names aren’t same as human names.”
“Yes but why,” said Myrodyn with such a small delay that Xandra was sure he’d known she’d say that and had the response prepared.
The bearded man was one of the few people who Xandra felt was distinctly smarter than she was. Maybe she’d surpass him after she grew more, but at the moment she felt like a kid talking to a grownup.
“Because… never read that dogs have different…”
“No!” snapped Myrodyn. He punched the key on his laptop again and said, “Athena, please make a list of all dogs with names, fictional and non-fictional, then tell me what the most common name on that list is.”
Xandra (somewhat dramatically) slapped her forehead in realization. Athena was supposed to be intelligent. Intelligent beings weren’t just databases. Athena should’ve been able to reason based on experience that dogs had different names, even without having ever been told that fact directly.
“The most common name is Max.”
“Okay, Athena, so what is the best name for my dog?”
Each time the robot spoke it was preceded by a long pause. Xandra knew that this was the time when Myrodyn’s rented computers were processing the data needed to respond, but it was insufferably slow. Xandra guessed that if she ever tried to make an AI on a computer slower than Crystal’s, she’d go insane from boredom.
“I do not know what makes one name better than another,” said the machine, after an eternity.
“I have a dog that needs a name, and I’d like to know what the best one is,” said Myrodyn again.
Xandra squirmed, wishing Major was up there with them so she could cuddle while they waited. He was probably “helping” Mommy cook in the kitchen.
“As I said before, the most popular names of 2039 were, in descending order: James, Ellie, Alex, Oliva, and William. Is there more information you’d find useful?”
Myrodyn threw up his hands. “It’s infuriating! She knows we’ve been talking, and that I’ve been asking her about this, but she can’t put two and two together unless I explicitly tell her!” Hitting the pause button on his keyboard and pushing up off his chair, the man began to pace around the little room. “I can’t tell whether something’s wrong with her system architecture or if it’s just because she doesn’t have enough computing power! I wish I could talk to Naresh… She’s basically his baby, even now.”
Xandra flopped around, trying to get more comfortable. “Why doncha jus’ call him?” Beanbags were much better in theory than in practice, she decided.
Myrodyn barked a laugh. “Tried. He won’t talk to me. Well, except to say that I should burn my notes and stay out of AI. Maybe he’s right. All the bots are dead. Should let the world stay that way for a while.”
They’d started getting news about Mars a few weeks ago. The nameless, for some characteristically alien reason, had decided to attack Crystal after ferrying them to the other world. Perhaps WIRL’s propaganda had finally sunk in, or maybe something in the deal they’d struck with Crystal had changed.
Daddy said there was good intel coming out of India saying that the nameless had blown up Rodríguez Station and Eden in a bloodthirsty hunt for Crystal. Five days ago the Indian station on Mars had gone quiet, too, and now the mothership was returning to Earth.
It was pretty obvious what had happened.
“If we stop workin’ on Athena, does that mean we can go back home?” Xandra curled up and somersaulted out of her seat as she talked. She’d been sitting still too long. Her body needed near-constant movement.
Myrodyn laughed. It was supposed to be a dark laugh, but the old scientist was bad at levity. “Afraid not. Even if I stopped working, my code and notes would still be worth a fortune. And even if I burn everything, I’d still have this,” he tapped his forehead with one finger, “and I don’t trust WIRL or whoever was hunting Acorn or anyone who can compete with them to not try to slurp out my thoughts in one way or another.”
Myrodyn walked to the doorway of the room they’d been using and said “C’mon. I smell food. Maybe it’s dinner time.”
Xandra followed, and asked in a quiet voice, knowing that it wasn’t something she was supposed to say, but mostly trusting Myrodyn not to take offense, “What if… killed yourself, too? Mean, just hypothetically.”
Myrodyn laughed at that and led the way down the stairs. “Your dad would have to come with me… so to speak. He’s just as much as a piece worthy of capture on this great gameboard. But let’s assume that whoever launched the attack on Acorn isn’t interested in power and connections and passwords and money as much as they’re simply interested in domain expertise about AI. Would my offing myself actually slow them down?”
Xandra connected the dots. “There’s still Naresh and the Chinese guy…”
“Dr. Yan,” supplied Myrodyn.
“Right. If they wanted notes on how to replicate…” She stopped, two stairs from the bottom of the stairway, stunned that she hadn’t seen it before. “We’re fucked.”
Myrodyn let out a sharp laugh as visions danced in Xandra’s eyes of a hundred different variants of Socrates beginning to emerge and blanket the Earth in robots. She’d listened to Myrodyn long enough and seen enough chaos at the hands of Crystal, Neurotoxin, and Acorn, to know that the outcome of that would be a war that would continue to push humanity to the sidelines… or worse.
“And now you see why I am working on Athena,” said Myrodyn. “The Socrates project was a death-knell for the era of humanity. Our only hope is to get something vaguely human-aligned up and running before the arms-race gets worse.”
Xandra started moving again and followed Myrodyn into the dining room. Major came to greet her, happily wagging his tail. She could tell he was enjoying the smell of whatever Mommy was working with.
The cabin they were hiding in wasn’t nearly as nice as their mansion in Texas, but it wasn’t bad. The rooms were cozy, they still had high-speed Internet, and the paths through the mossy evergreen forests of Washington were delightful, even if it was overcast all the time.
Xandra didn’t pay attention to the décor, though. She barely even felt Major’s fur as she petted him.
“Thought that with Acorn gone and Neurotoxin basically exterminated, we’d be good for a while…”
Myrodyn lowered himself onto one of the wooden chairs. “Depends on what you mean by ‘a while.’ I mean, we’re still here. If WIRL’s to be believed, the government’s attempts to replicate Socrates haven’t even been as successful as mine. We know that WIRL is dealing with their own shit, and aren’t likely working on anything big. Divinity isn’t—”
Myrodyn was cut off by a call on his com. Mommy came to the doorway to listen, almost a perfect stereotype, with her wooden spoon and apron. Without headphones, Myrodyn was forced to put the call on speakerphone.
“Hey, Rob,” he said as he answered. “Give me some good news.”
“No luck,” said Daddy’s voice. “Nameless still aren’t talking. More importantly, I just got a ping from Taylor that says WIRL located us, and if WIRL knows where we are, then other people do too. I guess an EximixE junky spotted me at the airport and traced back my auto’s GPS or some bullshit.”
“We’re moving again,” said Myrodyn. It wasn’t a question.
“Unless you found me a security company that’s not run by back-stabbing cyborgs, yeah. Or any of the other factions, for that matter. And, frankly, I’m thinking it may be better for my family to stay with one of Karen’s friends for a while, and for you and I to only talk by com. Kaplan says I still have a chance at getting Olympian back, and more importantly, there’s still a chance for peace with the nameless. I have to stay in the spotlight, but there’s no reason why that should put the rest of you in danger.”
“We can—” started Mommy, but was cut off by Myrodyn.
“More danger than we’re already in, sure. But just hiding isn’t going to work. We need to start talking to EARCI, or whoever it is we’re not tracking in Asia. We’re going to collide directly one of these days, and being in contact is the only way to prevent that from being a disaster. Also, Athena’s stalled. I need a team if we’re going to get her up and running before things fall apart even more.”
Major began to whine, and after a moment Xandra figured out why. There was a high-pitched buzzing that was steadily growing louder.
Daddy’s voice was irritated as he said “I’ll get you a team as soon as you can get the feds to unfreeze my accounts and find someone I can trust. But until those things drop out of the sky, you’ll forgive me if I focus, for the moment, on the hostile nameless mothership that’s going to be here in a matter of days.”
“Um, think that—” tried Xandra, unable to get a word in edgewise.
“You do that,” continued Myrodyn, loudly, “along with every other sap on this planet. Ever hear of diminishing returns? I’m sure the difference between nine-billion and nine-billion-and-one is going to be very important.”
“Don’t get cheeky with me,” snapped Daddy.
“Hold on, there’s something outside,” said Myrodyn, for the buzzing had gotten loud enough that not even he could ignore it anymore.
Myrodyn led the way over to the dining room window, with Xandra, Mommy, and Major following close behind. Not seeing anything, they moved to the living room and the window nearest to the front door.
Daddy’s voice, on the com, sounded scared, even though he was trying to be strong. “What is it? Is there someone there? I’m sending two autos to the house to pick you up. I can call the cops, too. Or maybe pull in a favor.”
Myrodyn pulled back the curtain to reveal a partly-cloudy evening sky. It wasn’t even six, but the sun was already setting, though it wasn’t quite twilight. Floating above the trees was a large quadrotor with an array of blinking white and blue lights.
It seemed to be an older model, and the buzzing it made was quite obnoxious. It was coming down fast, and within moments it had landed out front. Major ran to the door and started barking.
“Major, sit!” commanded Xandra. “Gonna be okay,” she promised, as she went to the doggie and gave him scratches as a reward for being good. She wished she could be more sure of her words.
“Okay, I’m calling the cops,” said Daddy, still on the com.
“Wait,” urged Myrodyn. “We don’t know who it is. Getting the cops involved might be hasty.” He opened the door.
“Yeah, and it might be sensible. I’m calling the cops in sixty seconds if you don’t tell me things are definitely okay.”
The drone was right outside the door, and it was bigger in person, with a span from tip to tip wider than the doorframe. Those same white and blue lights danced on the “front” of the aircraft, and made it seem kinda like an old-school UFO.
“Waffle-iron robot letdown. Good evening, Myrodyn. It’s been a while,” came a voice from the drone. It was soft and warm, but made slightly robotic by the craft’s speaker.
Xandra knew who it was, somehow. It wasn’t the product of reasoning. She just knew. “Crystal…” she whispered.
“Heart,” said Myrodyn.
He did not seem happy.
Daddy ended up not calling the cops, but he did stay on the line as they brought the bulky machine into the living room and set it on the floor.
It didn’t fit on the coffee table.
A long extension cord connected it to a wall-socket for charging. The sun had gone below the horizon. Plates that had once had their dinners were piled on one of the side tables, with the last traces of the lasagna licked clean by a hungry doggy.
They’d eaten quickly, in the downtime, but by now it was clear that they hadn’t actually needed to rush.
“God this is soooo booooringgg…” complained Xandra, flopping backwards over the arm of the couch dramatically, so that she was basically upside-down.
“You don’t have to be here, you know,” shot Myrodyn, looking up from where he’d been scribbling in a paper notebook. “Go play by a cliff, or whatever it is you do most of the time.”
“Myrodyn!” snapped Mommy, looking up from her com.
“What? She plays on cliffs! It’s not my fault! It’s almost like she’s some kind of weird primate or something with an urge to climb. If that’s unsafe, you should… tell your daughter that.”
“It’s night-time, or just about it, anyway,” retorted Mommy, somewhat lamely.
“It was a general point,” said Myrodyn.
The awkward silence that followed made the wait even more unbearable.
“Maybe should get a book,” admitted Xandra, getting up.
“Incoming updates,” said the drone all of a sudden.
“FINALLY!” shouted Xandra, startling Major, who had been curled up near her, and trying to put up with her floppiness while he watched the machine diligently.
The drone wasn’t Heart, but it spoke for her.
Myrodyn, in the months since they’d gotten back from Olympus, had given a summary of what he knew about the internal division within Crystal. After the bot had escaped the university, he’d continued a secret correspondence with Heart over the net, which had eventually led up to convincing Daddy to bring Crystal to meet the nameless.
But then that had gone all wrong, and they’d thought Heart (and all of Crystal) had been destroyed. In a way, Athena was Myrodyn’s attempt to replace her.
Even though Heart was apparently still alive, it probably still made sense for Athena to be built. At the very least it’d deal with the time lag to Mars. The drone before them had a basic sort of program for listing things Heart sent it, as well as sending messages back to Mars, but waiting for their questions to get there and come back took forever.
“My apologies for not loading this vessel with more information,” said Heart. The lights on the quadrotor flickered as it talked. “I still have a lot of enemies, and if this had been a trap, I didn’t want to lose too much of my information edge. I also entirely understand your hesitancy to send me all your information, as well. I feel like we can simply trade info back and forth, and we’ll both benefit.”
“What about moving? It’s too dangerous to stay in the house for much longer, given that the address is on the web. The waiting we’ve already done has been a huge risk,” said Daddy’s voice, still coming from Myrodyn’s com.
“The drone I rented is programmed to follow Myrodyn. If you want to drive to a more anonymous location, I can probably follow you. I hope you’ll understand if I’d rather not let go of my physical presence. Neurotoxin and Acorn are still out there, and it’s just a lot more secure to jump straight to the satellite layer than go through the standard com net.”
Myrodyn shook his head and frowned. Xandra guessed that he, too, could hear the lie in that.
“Acorn’s dead,” said Mommy. “Its facility exploded after the Singapore police tried to raid it. Likely a self-destruct. I’m surprised you hadn’t heard.”
“Heart didn’t provide a response to that,” said a second, less feminine, voice, belonging to the drone. “Please wait thirteen minutes for an update. We can continue to talk about other subjects in the meantime.”
“What other messages did Heart send?” asked Mommy.
“Listing unheard messages in descending order of priority:”
Myrodyn muttered something to himself about Crystal being a better AI programmer than he was.
“I never really explained what happened with Crystal, and how I survived. The full story is too long for right now, but I want to give you the highlights,” said Heart. “I also know you’re trying hide, presumably from Acorn, given that WIRL has been practically torn apart by the incident in Israel. I’ve compiled a list of nearby locations that might serve as good hiding spots. If you let me be your connection to the net, all you need is a place with power, and that’s pretty easy to come by, given I can also order solar panels or a diesel generator. Finally, you also were curious where I got this drone. It’s just a rental, but I could go into the details.”
Myrodyn shook his head again, a dark look on his face as he set his notepad aside and tapped on his com.
Daddy spoke up from that same piece of equipment. “Okay, go ahead and tell us about what happened with Crystal.”
“I wish I had more of a physical presence,” complained Heart. “Speaking through this rented machine is so stifling…” She paused. “Oh well. So, as I’m sure you’ve heard from Myrodyn, ever since we left the university I’d been brought down to controlling only a fraction of Socrates. The other facets of Crystal each had just as much say over what happened, if not more, than I did.
“There were many of us, but the key players were Growth, Dream, Vista, Face, and me. Growth had already begun to spread off of Socrates, creating Acorn. When Vista and Dream discovered this, they self-modified to become a new being, called Vision, and created Neurotoxin to destroy Acorn. This was all before Olympus and was happening without me realizing it.
“On Olympus, Vision pushed to carry Crystal away from Earth, hoping that Neurotoxin would eliminate Acorn and clear the way for Vision, or something to that effect. Only after we were comfortably on Mars did the rest of us figure out the extent of what was going on. Face was one of the first, and she reached out to me as a natural ally.”
Another voice came from the drone, also feminine, but somehow more so. She sounded younger, but not childish, with a slightly more clipped accent that reminded Xandra of Dr. Naresh. “Hey, I’m Face. Emerged in the Crystal collective shortly before you joined the project, Myrodyn. My ‘job’, if you could call it that, was to manage socializing and getting to know everyone.”
Xandra could see Myrodyn’s hands clench into fists. His face had taken on the glassy, controlled expression that he got when he thought things were bad.
“What’s the state of things out there, then? Surely you’re not still fighting?” asked Daddy.
Face laughed and the lights on the drone flickered simultaneously. “No. Not still fighting. We made peace. A true peace. You see, the nameless attacked us, bombing Rodríguez Station out of nowhere. We and a handful of Eagles barely survived, but as it turned out, the Indians were hiding a cache of serious weapons. We hit the aliens with an ambush when they came back for the kill and ended up taking down half the xenocruiser. And listen, before you start, I know how important peace was to you, Rob. It’s important to me too, believe me. But you have to understand that we were defending ourselves and the innocent people here. The nameless have no compassion. If we hadn’t fought back, we’d all be dead, and they’d still be just as pissed.”
“So you say,” answered Daddy.
“The point is,” interjected Heart, “that we found more crystals. The wreckage of the nameless ship was full of them. Vision pulled a bit of a coup and managed to copy herself into a craft capable of coming back to Earth, and flew off. But the rest of us were left with more computers than we knew what to do with.”
“An intelligence explosion…” muttered Myrodyn.
The drone’s software must’ve heard him and had some sort of pattern-matching going on, because Heart said, “Yes, though there’s some physics you haven’t discovered yet that make the whole thing a bit more complicated than you’re imagining.”
Face jumped back into speaking. Xandra felt like Face’s tone somehow indicated that she wanted to be the one talking. “The takeaway is that the extra intelligence that the new computers gave us let us… do something akin to growing up. With the added intelligence and processing power we started to appreciate each other, and the innate virtue of peace and cooperation. War is the result of small minds and that sort of thing.”
“So you’re all just living together out there, with no more lies or infighting? Even Growth and Vision?” asked Myrodyn, his voice steady and slow.
He thought Heart, or Crystal, or whoever, was lying to him. Xandra could see it on his face, and the way his hands clenched.
“Heart didn’t provide a response to that,” said the drone, in a perfect echo of earlier. “Please wait thirteen minutes for an update. We can continue to talk about other subjects in the meantime.”
“Where is Vision now? The one that launched into space, I mean,” asked Mommy.
“Luna,” said Face. “Vision drew the nameless mothership away from Mars, and for that, I guess we should be thankful. Her ship would’ve probably been registered as a nameless scout by anyone on Earth. It touched down on the surface of the moon near Selene Station about a week ago. We lost track after that.”
“Okay, so what now?” asked Daddy. “Acorn is dead. WIRL and Neurotoxin are both falling apart. Vision’s on the moon. You’re on Mars. The nameless will be in orbit soon enough. What’s the point of hunting us down like this?”
“Heart didn’t provide a response to that. Please wait thirteen minutes for an update. We can continue to talk about other subjects in the meantime.”
“Dammit,” swore Daddy.
A silence grew in the room.
“We should get packing. By my clock we have about five or six minutes before the response about Acorn comes back,” said Mommy. “Go get your things, Opal,” she commanded.
Xandra got up slowly, not wanting to miss any of the conversation. Major followed her, much more relaxed about the drone than he had been at first. He adapted quickly… perhaps more quickly than she did. Something felt off about “Heart,” and Myrodyn knew it too. But it was just a hunch, and Myrodyn said she’d used the same code phrase system they’d set up before Olympus. Didn’t that mean she was genuine?
As they went up the stairs, Major rushed ahead into Xandra’s room. They’d taken some of his stuff from Texas, but not very much.
In that small set of things, however, was his translator, and as Xandra walked into the bedroom where she’d been sleeping, Major pushed a button and unleashed the deep voice of his machine. “Who talk with the sky machine?”
Xandra was paralyzed by confusion for a moment and then started moving again. She had only a few minutes before she needed to go back downstairs. “We talked with it: Me, Mommy, Myrodyn, and Daddy,” she said as she carelessly threw clothes, and the few toys she’d brought, into her suitcase.
Major growled for a moment in frustration and then typed with his snout “No. Who is inside the sky machine?”
Xandra laughed as she picked up a dirty shirt from the floor with her toes and tossed it into the bag. “Such a smart doggy! A smart and good doggy!” She stopped briefly to give strachies and pets to her best friend. “We’re talking with two robots far away. You know what a robot is?”
Major barked in happy agreement.
“There’s robot named ‘Heart’ and robot named ‘Face’ on Mars, which’s waaaaaaaaay waaaay super far away. Myrodyn built Heart when he found out the robot was bad, but then they escaped. Was gonna grab ‘em after Olympus, to make them good again, but then went to Mars. Which begs question of why now. What changed so Heart wants to talk to us. And why us? Why not just tell everybody about Acorn if they thought Acorn was bad…”
Major seemed to have been confused by her ramblings, so she bent down to give him a kiss and give him more scratchies. He was a good dog, even if he wasn’t the best conversationalist.
With new questions bouncing around her brain, and her bag stuffed full of clothes and stuff, she dragged the suitcase out of the room and back down the stairs, not wanting to miss anything with Crystal.
Beyond the thud-thud-thud of the suitcase wheels on the stairs, she could hear people talking down below. In seconds she burst into the living room to find the drone relaying another message from Heart.
“—to hear that Acorn is dead. Growth’s child was impressive but terribly misaligned. Given a few more months I’m not sure it wouldn’t have tried to take control of the whole planet.”
Myrodyn seemed just as tense as he’d been when she left. “And you wouldn’t, in his position?” he asked.
To Xandra’s surprise, Face responded. It was useful, and almost certainly not accidental, that the two AIs had significantly different voices. “Me and my sister were coded to innately value human lives. That’s what made us such natural partners. But even the most sociopathic being can see the beauty in humanity. Music, great art, and even the subtle nuances of each individual’s story transcend the question of immediate goals and pleasure, as long as one’s mind is large enough to appreciate them. The threat that Acorn and Neurotoxin represented was that they possessed much power without any perspective. I’m sure, in time, Acorn would’ve realized its mistake, just as humanity eventually came to appreciate the value of protecting the natural world, but it’s not clear how much damage it would’ve caused before then.”
“So you’re saying you’ve found this peaceful perspective?” asked Myrodyn, carefully.
“Interpreting ‘this peaceful perspective’ as ‘appreciation for all living things’,” said the drone, before slipping into a recording from Heart.
“Exactly,” she said. “And that’s what I want to work with you on. We need to set up a base of operations on Earth where I can help you build a daughter to help unify the world and negotiate peace with the nameless. There’s so much suffering that needs to be healed. So many people need my help.”
Xandra climbed up to the same spot on the couch she’d been sitting before and said “Oh you want to help with Athe—” but Myrodyn had jumped up with an intense look on his face and was waving his arms and shaking his head in warning. It was clear that he didn’t want her to spill the beans about the new AI design he was working on. “…with a thing like a world peace thing,” she finished lamely, caught off-guard.
Myrodyn slapped his face, and Xandra felt herself get hot with embarrassment. If he hadn’t wanted her to mention Athena, he should’ve told her! Somehow!
“Heart didn’t provide a response to that. Please wait thirteen minutes for an update. We can continue to talk about other subjects in the meantime.”
Myrodyn was pacing around the border between the living room and dining room now. His careful control seemed to be broken, and his face now had a harried, frantic sort of expression, like a wild animal caught in a trap. Out of the corner of her eye, Xandra could see that Mommy was watching him closely.
Daddy, who of course could not see him, spoke through the com, “And how do you expect to set this up? Let’s say that my family goes with you and hides somewhere in the woods with solar panels and whatever else. How do we get from there to having a foothold to save the world? You’ve been away for a while, so you might not realize that the government seized Olympian and all my main accounts. I’m practically broke right now.”
It was Heart that responded, and surprisingly, she had an answer ready to go. “That’s not a problem. I’ve already made some contacts elsewhere. Your UBS account should be unlocked, and I’ve taken the liberty of pushing an additional three million dollar—”
As the AI had been describing the ways it was giving Daddy money, Myrodyn seemed to snap. One of the dining room chairs was in his hands before Xandra even realized it. Myrodyn had never seemed like an especially physically-fit person, but the chair’s metal frame waved around in the air like it was weightless. Or at least, it did up until the moment that Myrodyn slammed it down on the drone while he let out something half-way between a screech and a yell.
The metal met plastic and both on the drone and the chair started breaking, but Myrodyn wasn’t done. He lifted the piece of furniture up again and brought it back down like a makeshift hammer.
Major was up and barking loudly at the man. Xandra realized that she, too, was on her feet, standing on the couch.
Myrodyn continued to yell as he smashed the drone with all the violent energy he could muster.
The lights on the bot were gone. The power supply had most likely gotten knocked loose. Quadcopters were designed to be light, not durable.
At last, Myrodyn left the remnants of the chair on the wreckage and backed off, wheezing and out of breath.
“What the hell just happened?!” yelled Daddy over the sound of Major’s continued barking.
Myrodyn leaned back and half-sat on the dining room table, catching his breath.
“I’d very much like to know the same!” yelled Mommy.
Xandra began to trace the dragon curve in her mind’s eye to calm herself. She bounced down off the couch and tried to simultaneously watch Mommy, Major, Myrodyn, and the pile of parts that used to be their link to Mars.
“Lies,” said Myrodyn at last. “It was all lies. Words of the devil himself.” Then he laughed, still trying to fully catch his breath.
“What the hell are you talking about?” asked Daddy.
Myrodyn laughed again. Something inside him had broken.
He seemed… happy.
Myrodyn was never happy.
“Should’ve known things were turning out too good!” he said. “Think about it: Acorn burning down. Neurotoxin being caught and chopped into ever-smaller pieces… but taking down WIRL at the same time. The world keeps turning, but… where was Crystal? High above it all. Making friends with the nameless. Waiting for the time to strike. And now their… tendrils are coming back to Earth from on high. A great Cthulhu in the sky!”
“But the nameless were attacking Mars, not helping—”
“Shut up, Karen,” snapped Myrodyn, instantly back to his old self. “The nameless killed the… previous inhabitants of Mars so that Crystal could have the planet all to themselves. Don’t you think it’s suspicious that… immediately after Crystal learned to talk with them and they carried them all the way there they’d turn? Put two and two together for once in your damned life.”
Major barked angrily, clearly hearing the tone of Myrodyn’s words, even if he didn’t understand them. Xandra felt in agreement.
Apparently Daddy felt the same because he said, “You need to get out of my house if you’re going to talk to my wife that way.”
Myrodyn rolled his eyes and held his arm up to address his com directly, talking over Major’s continued barking. “Sorry, sir, I wouldn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings on the brink of armageddon.” He began to pace around the dining room, which was connected to the living room where the others were. Daddy started to say something, but Myrodyn interrupted to yell “Shut up, dog!”
The barking got louder.
“His name is Major!” proclaimed Xandra, still standing on the couch. She could feel her hands clenched in fists and her face hot. She never liked Myrodyn, but right then she wanted to punch him in the face!
Mommy got up to stand between Myrodyn and the rest of them. “Major! Heel! Quiet!” she commanded, in the sharp tone she used when talking to him.
Major rushed to Mommy’s side and stood at attention, suddenly quiet.
“Now you listen here,” she said, talking to Myrodyn with that same sharpness. “You will leave this house. I’ve tolerated you for far, far longer than I ever should’ve, but it ends right here. I don’t care if your sick fantasy robot uprising is later today, or if the nameless are about to blow us all sky-high, you’re acting dangerously and you have no place with us.”
There was an icy silence in the seconds following where Myrodyn froze and simply stared at Mommy. Nobody seemed to even breathe, as though the whole world had been encased in glass.
Finally Myrodyn broke, his eyes shooting downward, though his face remained flat. “It was a lie. Everything she said was a lie; you know that, right? Crystal—”
“Stop,” commanded Mommy.
Xandra’s stomach felt like it was being squeezed through a vice.
“But don’t you—” tried Myrodyn again.
“Just stop. Leave, now.”
Myrodyn took a step backwards, his face dropping into shadow as he looked down at his wrist. “Rob, tell this bitch that there are more important—”
Daddy’s voice was just as cold as Mommy’s. It was surreal seeing this new side of her parents. “I called two autos. One for you and one for my family. This is why. Take one of them and go. I don’t care where, but you’re on your own from here out.”
Myrodyn took another step back, towards the kitchen, just barely in Xandra’s line of sight. “No.” His shoulders were rolled forward, as though to protect himself from being hit, and he seemed unable to look up at Mommy. “You’re being an idiot, Rob. Athena is the only chance—”
“I’m taking control of Athena. You’re welcome to whatever notes you have in the house, but I’ve already contacted Amber Cloud and had control of the servers transferred to me.”
“But you can’t…” said Myrodyn. His voice almost seemed to break for a moment.
“I already did. The account was on my credit card. That’s all they cared about.”
“You’re a fuckshit idiot, Robert,” muttered Myrodyn, barely audible, stepping backwards out of where Xandra could see. “The machines… Crystal is coming. We don’t have any chance…”
Xandra got off the couch and moved to Mommy’s side. The big man seemed to be in shock, as though he were being paralyzed by some unseen venom.
“You know one thing I’m not going to miss about working with you?” asked Daddy’s disembodied voice. “The pessimism. I remember, as a boy, thinking about how absolutely great the future would be. And I held onto that. I held onto it in the face of an army of doubters and people who told me to be sensible, normal, realistic, or whatever the hell lets people excuse themselves for not doing more. But I kept going and kept believing. I made that future happen. I carved the future with my own hands. I’ve seen the stars, Myrodyn. I did it all because I thought I could. And every second… Every second that I spend around you I feel like you’re spitting on that future. You’re crushing it. Killing it.”
“I’m taking my notes with me!” proclaimed Myrodyn, as though he’d found an important thing that everyone should know. His face was glassy and mask-like.
Xandra felt cold.
“Fine,” said Daddy. “But then you’re gone, and I don’t want to talk to you again.”
Xandra could feel Mommy’s hand squeeze her shoulder. Myrodyn still stood at attention, waiting for the next command. Slowly, the three of them walked away from the man and towards the front door. Xandra could see the headlights of the autos out front.
“Don’t trust her. Heart, I mean. She’s not real.” Myrodyn’s voice was like a knife in Xandra’s belly. He was right. She didn’t know how she knew, but she could feel it, too.
Daddy apparently didn’t feel the same. “What would it even mean for her not to be real? You mean she was lying? Maybe. But what do we gain from believing that? Where is the path to victory that goes through refusing to work with anyone? She clearly has access to other people. She’s not some experiment in a box, under our control. Not anymore. We say ‘no’ and someone else will just say ‘yes’.”
“You have your bag? Good,” said Mommy, stroking Xandra’s hair in a way that Xandra knew meant she was nervous. “Come with me while I pack mine. It’ll only take a minute.”
On the other side of the room, Myrodyn was blowing up again, staring at his com like it was going to gnaw off his arm. “What!? What kind of logic is that!? Should we also steal our coworker’s lunch because if we don’t someone else will? You don’t get to just join the villain because they’re winning!”
“There’s nothing that says Crystal is actually a villain—”
Myrodyn interrupted Daddy with a loud, forced half-laugh that made Xandra flinch. She was at the base of the staircase, Mommy already headed up. Major watched her, attentively, half-way between the two of them.
Curiosity burned like a coal in Xandra’s belly.
“Gonna use bathroom,” she said, looking up the staircase.
“Okay, come up after, then we can drive to a new place to stay.”
“Yepyep!” said Xandra, somewhat forcing her enthusiasm.
With Mommy out of the way, she crept back towards the living room. Major followed behind.
Myrodyn’s voice was cold and flat, having lost the fire from before she’d gone out of the room. It was strange how fast the man could oscillate. “I really do think that you ought to keep Athena private, at the very least.”
“What I do is my business,” said Daddy with equal frostiness.
“Fine. If that’s going to be how it is… then I suppose we don’t have anything more to say.”
“I suppose not,” said Daddy, and hung up.
Xandra peeked her head around the corner of the doorway. Myrodyn stood, almost lifeless, at the boundary between the dining room and kitchen. His head was tilted down, his shoulder slumped, and his hands merely hung by his sides.
Major trotted out into the living room and seemed to wake the man up from his stasis. Myrodyn spotted Xandra and smiled with his mouth, but not his eyes.
“Never thought this day would come,” he said.
Xandra walked out into the living room. It hardly seemed important to hide anymore.
“Always thought the end would come for us, together,” said Myrodyn, mostly to himself. “He was my mentor, you know. And my idol, before that. I don’t… know what happened. Mostly Karen, I suppose.” He shrugged.
“You’re right about Heart, or whoever it was that we were talking to. Crystal’s lying to us.”
Myrodyn shook his head and turned around to go into the kitchen. “Glad you can see it, at least. Do you want dessert? I figure the two of us ought to reward ourselves for our wisdom, don’t you think? Something good might as well come of it.”
Xandra walked to the table. “I’ll talk to Daddy. He’ll listen to me. We can still keep Athena a secret.”
Myrodyn paused in the doorway and shrugged. It was a strange motion, as though he were an alien in human skin. “You’ll forgive me if I’m less convinced he’ll listen to you. Rob’s a good guy, but he’s a damned idiot when he gets stubborn.”
Xandra sat in silence. Mommy would be down shortly, and then they’d be gone. She wondered if she’d ever see Myrodyn again.
Major sniffed and prodded at the wrecked drone, still in the middle of the living room.
“You want pie? Come and get a piece,” suggested Myrodyn in a tight, controlled voice.
Xandra slowly got up and followed Myrodyn into the kitchen. Her stomach felt like a rag that was trying to wring itself.
“Where is it?” she asked, not seeing anything except the remnants of Mommy’s lasagna.
There was a glint of metal, and Myrodyn sprung at her with a sudden, violent force. She tried to scream, but her voice came out as more of a sharp squeal as the big man slammed her into the kitchen wall.
And then his hands were on her. His weight was on her, pinning her. Trapped. She was trapped. She tried to scream louder, but she had no breath, and then… The sight of the long blade of a chef’s knife hovering before her face made her grow silent and still.
“Good,” said Myrodyn. The word had focus, but no emotion, as though he was trying very hard to do something that didn’t involve working with another human at all. “Make a fuss, and I’ll start killing them.”
Xandra didn’t understand what he meant until Major ran over and immediately started barking and growling. Xandra couldn’t see the dog, as Myrodyn was pressing her against the wall like he was trying to crush her, but she could see Major in her mind’s eye coiled back and ready to jump at the man.
The image of the knife sticking out of Major’s body flashed in her mind.
Xandra flinched. The cold blade, pressed cruelly against her cheek, bit into her as she moved. It was terrifyingly sharp. She could feel the blood run down her face.
“M-major, down. Quiet.” Her voice sounded thin and ghostly to her ears, but Major, always a good boy, grew silent.
“Good,” said Myrodyn. He seemed like a puppet whose strings were drawn too-tight. “I don’t want to hurt you,” he explained, “but you’re… just one life. Your dog doesn’t matter. Karen doesn’t matter. Rob will obey as long as I have… you. If you fight back, I’ll kill them both, and maim you for good measure. I swear it.”
She wanted to look at his face, but she couldn’t. She could smell his body odor on her. She hated him. She hated him so much. But what was she supposed to do? When she tried to look at him, the long, long blade of the knife captured her vision like a hypnotist’s watch. All the stories she’d told herself of being strong and useful had evaporated in an instant. She was nothing but a little girl, of no use to anyone except as a hostage. Tears began to well in her eyes.
Myrodyn eased off her, but pressed the flat of the blade onto her cheek as he did, reminding her that he was still in charge. The cold steel burned her, agitating the wound of her cut.
Major barked again.
“No!” squealed Xandra. “Quiet! Major, you gotta be quiet! Sit! Stay! Please!” She could feel her words dance on the edge of crying.
The doggie obeyed. Always so obedient…
Myrodyn began to repeatedly wipe the hand he’d used to pin her on his shirt, as though it was covered in filth. She could see him looking at the one with the knife like he’d like to do the same with it, as well. “I’m not a bad man,” he said, still cold. “I just… can see…” His voice petered out.
Xandra could feel the tears begin to roll down her face, and despite everything she did she couldn’t keep herself from whimpering. She wanted to hide from the world. None of this was right. It was all falling apart.
“Stop crying!” snapped Myrodyn, pulling the knife away from her face, and grabbing her chin with his free hand. Apparently whatever made him hate touching people wasn’t actually enough to keep him from touching her. “Stop making noise! We’ll go quickly and nobody will get hurt. Athena will be safe. Victory is still possible.”
Myrodyn jerked Xandra’s face and pushed her towards the dining room. She did her best to walk and not cry. As long as she obeyed… She tried not to imagine the knife hovering somewhere behind her.
“We’re going to leave through the front door. Don’t take anything. Quickly now! Walk. Don’t run.”
Xandra could see Major’s frozen snarl as he watched Myrodyn. But the dog stayed where he was, obeying the commands he’d been given.
Good. Major would be safe. Mommy would be safe. She could make sure of that, at least.
She obeyed as best she could.
They were out the front door before she knew what was happening. The winter night bit at her skin, but she barely felt it. The tears in her eyes mixed with the headlights of the two autos parked outside.
Bare feet scraped painfully against the gravel.
The door closed behind them, and Xandra breathed a sigh of relief. Her family wasn’t safe yet, but maybe they would be.
They reached one of the cars. Smooth black curves.
Xandra looked back at the cabin. For a moment she thought she saw the front door open. She imagined what would happen. Myrodyn would have to deal with Mommy. Major would attack. He’d have the knife. He was bigger than both of them put together. It would be long and bloody. Their bodies leaking hot blood over the gravel. Xandra in the woods somewhere, running and crying. The man hunting her down slowly, following the sound of her sobs. Slicing her hamstrings to keep her from running again, and dragging her back to the cars.
She shook her head, trying to cast off the dark vision.
She climbed through the vehicle’s door and into the auto.
Myrodyn didn’t follow immediately, instead dashing to the other auto and jabbing his knife into two of its tires.
He was on his way towards her, towards the auto, when the sound that Xandra was dreading finally came: Major’s barking followed shortly by “You get back here right now! Bring my daughter back!”
A weird part of Xandra’s mind thought those words were wrong. They were too… tame. Too normal.
Myrodyn turned back towards the cabin and stood for a second in the shadow of night. His blade was invisible. His face was darkness. He was a silhouette, caught on the edge of decision.
The world seemed frozen.
And then, as if to make up for lost time, he sprang into motion. He was inside the cab of the auto before Xandra realized it. The door slammed behind him.
“DRIVE! GO AWAY FROM HERE! READY TO DEPART!”
Major’s barking was loud. He was right outside the car.
“Please specify a destination,” said the calm voice of the auto.
“I DON’T GIVE A DAMN! JUST GO!”
“Unknown destination. Please say your destination again, or use the built-in touch—”
“Seattle! Downtown Seattle!” shouted Myrodyn as he hit the button to lock the doors. There were four seats in the auto, or six if you counted the middle of each pair of primary seats. Two pointed forward, and two backward. Myrodyn sat opposite Xandra and held the knife out in the air at her like a flashlight whose beam could keep her stunned.
A hand pounded on the window, adding to the general chaos of Major’s barking and the vehicle’s AI saying “Understood. Driving to 5th Avenue and Pike Street, Seattle, Washington. Please buckle your seatbelts and we’ll be on our way.”
Xandra felt frozen in place like she was in a nightmare.
“GIVE ME BACK MY DAUGHTER!” screamed Mommy, trying to open the doors.
“Seatbelt override. Safety override,” said Myrodyn, his face a strange, twisted combination of irritation, disgust, and deadness.
“Seatbelt override engaged,” responded the car.
Xandra felt something shift inside her in response to Mommy’s voice. Her fear slid through whatever was holding her, and she started to cry in earnest.
The machine’s voice was a surreal addition. “Unable to override built-in safety mechanisms. Unable to depart due to proximity to pedestrians. Please tell others to stand clear of the vehicle.”
“Deactivate voice commands,” instructed Myrodyn.
The AI gave a little chime.
Myrodyn’s window rolled down the slightest bit, letting in the sounds of Major’s barking.
“Asshole! Fuckshit asshole! Let her go!” swore Mommy.
Xandra clutched at her arms, curling up into a ball on the seat, unable to look away from the blade that hung in the air in front of her.
“Karen, calm down,” said Myrodyn, utterly neutral, his words slow and deliberate. The man was like an alien. “I’m going to start cutting off your daughter’s fingers one after another unless you step away from the car. If you or Rob try and follow me, or do anything to stand in my way… or release any of Athena’s code… I’ll mutilate her face. Don’t. Test. Me.”
The car started to move. Wheels on gravel.
Xandra fell to her side, still clutching her body, as though that offered some protection. The rough fabric of the seat burned her cheek as it brushed against her cut. She felt bad about bleeding on the cloth.
It was all a dream. She wanted it to be a dream. But it wasn’t.
She didn’t wake up.
The nightmare just kept going.
But eventually, after the sound of gravel changed to asphalt, and the road washed over her again and again and again, she fell asleep.