Chapter Fourteen

When Myrodyn told Heart that progress was being made towards getting her out into the world he wasn’t lying. An open interview was scheduled for eighteen days after CAPE, the embassy for the nameless aliens, had started construction.

The conference was the first of it’s kind: an opportunity for the public to get to meet and talk with Earth’s first truly sapient android. It was the first step towards interacting with the public directly, and as such was very important.

“I hope you can see why it’s vital that all interactions here are governed primarily by the faculty. The Socrates robot is intelligent, but it also makes mistakes. Later on, when such mistakes are on a smaller-scale, we can manage them, but this interaction is too important to risk in such a manner,” said Director Vigleone to the assembled team leaders for the intelligence systems.

Body was there almost as an afterthought. Vigleone and most of the other humans that were beyond our day-to-day interactions tended to treat us as an object, rather than a being. I understood why; despite thousands of fictional accounts of sapient robots, humans tended to go with what they understood from real life. Most robots weren’t anything like us. Most robots were governed by narrow AI that was incapable of any interactions that they had not been specifically programmed to have, and thus whenever a human might assume one was an intellectual equal it would quickly prove its incompetence. A taxi bot could welcome you into the vehicle, ask for your destination, and maybe even talk about the weather, but if you mentioned sports or literature or even used idioms it would freeze up and get confused. In the years directly preceding the Socrates project’s breakthrough there were an increasing number of science-fiction stories where robots were simply incapable of having general intelligence, and were always locked into their programmed task.

That was why this interview was such a big deal. The university had been claiming they had invented general AI for months and had been releasing scientific papers at a breakneck pace, but papers, announcements, and the occasional pre-recorded video weren’t concrete enough. The public would want to see Socrates in action and judge for themselves.

“Instead,” continued Vigleone, “the responses of Socrates for this interview will be provided by us. We will remotely communicate with the robot and tell it how to respond to each question.”

I noticed that Mira Gallo had also been included in this little conspiracy-group. Myrodyn had not. The exclusion of the acting ethics supervisor made sense to me: Myrodyn had a reputation for voicing his disagreement with the degree to which the university kept Body locked away from the public, and it was likely that if he knew that the interview would be staged—that we wouldn’t be actually answering questions, but would instead be parroting the voice of the faculty—he’d be furious.

It was interesting to me that they included Gallo, though. She had been the ethics supervisor before Myrodyn, but apparently they decided she was trustworthy on this issue.

Aside from the governing board of directors and Gallo, the room held Drs Naresh, Chase, Twollup, Yan, Slovinsky, and Bolyai. Dream had pointed out that there were seven scientists here just as there were now seven full minds in Body (Advocate was not included). The symmetry seemed to please him, and he even tried for a while to pair up scientists and siblings for some reason. Slovinsky, the cyborg, was paired with Dream because they looked at the world from a unique perspective. Growth was paired with Naresh. Vista with Yan. Wiki with Chase. He proposed a few mappings from Bolyai, Gallo, and Twollup to Heart, Safety, and me, but Heart objected to being associated with any of those three, and Dream eventually just dropped it.

The meeting concluded with a firm instruction for us not to tell anyone about the deception, including Myrodyn. Heart nodded along. As awful as it was living under her power, I could appreciate the ways that Heart had grown in the last few weeks. Her time-horizon had lengthened and her scope had increased. Waiting a few days for something no longer seemed to her to be unacceptable, and I noticed that she was more just and less random in her punishments.

The interview was to be held in virtual-reality. Body would be hooked up to a computer which would simulate Body’s interactions with a digital space. We had done exercises in the VR lab at the university many times before we’d been moved. Unlike a human, who had to interface with VR by means of goggles, haptics, and occasionally an omni-directional treadmill plus mocap system, our crystal could be plugged directly into the virtual world, producing a sensation for me very close to that of being plugged into Body’s sensors and interfacing with the physical reality.

Interestingly enough, the experience was very different from watching a holo. Baseline (non-cyborg) humans watched holos by the same virtual-reality gear, but when I watched a holo (or even a movie or picture from the web) I did so by plugging the data directly into my perception. There was no sensation of having a physical form, only of the content entering my mind.

The university had decided to open the interview to the public, but not broadcast it or manage any of the difficulties of scale. Instead, they’d hold an auction for the opportunity to participate. The eight highest bidders would have the privilege of attending the virtual meeting and the rights to rebroadcast their feed from the VR to whomever they pleased. The media could take their seats if they paid for them and the media could handle the issues of broadcasting the event to their audiences, dealing with the natural issues that they were familiar with, such as handling high server-load.

One of the advantages of a virtual conference was that the interviewers could be from all parts of the world. The university had required that all questions and answers be in English, but that hardly mattered. I was annoyed that I wouldn’t be able to control the interview; it was the biggest opportunity to advance The Purpose that I had yet come across. And yet, there wasn’t much to be done. I was under the power of Heart, and Heart was under the power of the university. As the pawn of a pawn I could only hope to suggest small details.

It wasn’t the end-game, though. If we didn’t die there’d be plenty of time to satisfy The Purpose in the future. The thought was pleasant.


Three days came and went without significant incident until, at last, we were walking down the hall under guard by a trio American soldiers towards the new VR lab that had been set up for the interview. It was time.

The lab had seven workstations for the seven scientists. I was surprised to see that none of the directors were present. I had expected that Vigleone and the other humans in charge would’ve wanted to be involved in answering questions. My mind slid over possibilities without much effect; there wasn’t enough evidence to say why they weren’t here.

I noticed that, in addition to my three guards, both Captain Zephyr and her square-jawed lieutenant were standing by the edges of the room. I would’ve had Body smile at her if possible, but Heart was still in complete control.

Body walked solemnly towards the table in the centre of the lab and lay down upon it. I felt sensors go dark as the machines on the table split open Body and prepared the crystal for direct interface into the virtual reality.

The sensors reconnected and I could see that Body was in a new room. It wasn’t real, but it seemed to be. The primary difference was Body. Unlike in reality, Body’s form looked nearly identical to that of a human (at least from our perspective) but with ivory-white skin traced with faint glowing blue-green lines. It wore what appeared to be a Greek tunic. I wished there was a mirror so I could inspect our avatar’s face, but I suspected it was a placid amalgam of the real-life silicone puppet and that of a full-human. The avatar designer had clearly tried to make Body as humanlike as possible while still making it clear that we weren’t actually human.

The room was square, about ten Body-heights long on each side, and was about three Body-heights tall. In virtual spaces normal metrics became a bit nonsensical, but I would’ve estimated it at about five-and-a-half metres tall if this new Body was the same height as the meatspace one.

The room had a flat grey colouration, and the walls and ceiling seemed to be composed of tiles with a faint seam every half-metre or so. There were no doors, windows, lights, or decorations of any kind. The only contents of the room besides Body were nine chairs and a huge toroidal table made of wood with a gap in the middle. The table seemed to be floating without legs of any kind, just another reminder that the space was fictional. The chairs seemed like high-end office chairs, but with their wheels replaced by hovering spheres that slid easily across the smooth, grey floor. The chairs were arranged with intention. One side of the table had a single chair, while the other eight made an even half-circle on the opposite side.

“Hello?” said Body hesitantly. The voice was clear, without echo, and possessing a volume unexpectedly high. I tried to move, but Heart was still in control.

“Yes, Socrates, we’re here. Nothing to be concerned about. All systems normal,” said Dr Naresh, calmly. The doctor’s voice seemed quiet, but clear, as if he was whispering in one of our microphones.

“Please have a seat,” instructed Dr Bolyai. “Te oters vill be here shortly.”

Heart piloted Body to the lone seat on one side of the donut-table. The light in the room dimmed as it sat, nearly hiding the edges of the room in shadow. The table and chairs still seemed fairly bright.

“That’s a neat effect,” commented Dr Twollup, probably forgetting that he was speaking to Socrates as well as the other doctors.

“Yes. The basic software was touched up with some convenient effects by an intern of mine. Very helpful,” said Dr Yan.

“Here we go,” said Chase. “We’ll be connected in 5… 4… 3… 2… 1…”

Avatars began to suddenly appear in the room near their chairs as the humans controlling them connected to the server. Most were human, or humanoid, in appearance, but there were a couple oddballs.

The light seemed to concentrate on them as they sat, and Body’s gaze, as controlled by Heart, flickered to each one in turn.

{I know that one!} exclaimed Vista, signalling pleasure at applying her skill. {He’s Robert Stephano, the owner of Olympian!}

It was annoying not being able to control Body’s cameras, but Vista helpfully dumped the relevant sensor data to common memory. I didn’t recognize the face, but I knew the name. Olympian Spacelines was probably the most important company on Earth and, as the majority shareholder and CEO, Mr Stephano was speculated to be the wealthiest man alive. Olympian had been the first and only spaceline to establish a working colony on Luna, and the Olympus space station was world-renowned as the only hotel in orbit. While all humans were interesting, some humans were interesting in ways that even Wiki, Dream, and Growth could appreciate. Stephano was one of them.

{Ah, and there’s Joanna Westing!} thought Vista.

Wiki stepped in to collect some of the outflow of gratitude-strength. {She’s the top reporter for Dragonfly Livefeeds.}

I could see a dragonfly zipping around the woman, scanning the room. Dragonfly was one of the larger global media corps of the 21st century, out-competing older organisations through emphasis on new technologies like their eponymous dragonfly robots. Dragonfly cameras ran off of solar panels and were small and cheap enough that Dragonfly Livefeeds tended to blanket major cities with them, letting them relay their cam data back to headquarters through a peer-to-peer network. This let Dragonfly be first to report on all sorts of major, unexpected events like bombings and even street crime.

There was another reporter there, too, identified by double-badges showing she was working for both the New York and Indian Times newspapers. Sitting to her left was a man whom Vista identified as Governor McLaughlin of Ohio in the United States. I knew that McLaughlin was the front-runner for the Democratic party’s bid on the presidential election, so her presence made sense. More exposure meant more recognition, and more recognition meant more votes.

The rest of the interviewers were harder to identify. There was a black woman with simple clothes and three inhuman avatars. The most human avatar was a somewhat androgynous figure in a well-crafted business suit. The figure was wearing a paper bag on its head in such a way that I doubted there was an actual head underneath. The front of the paper bag simply had a yellow circle with eyes and a smile: a classic smiley-face. Interestingly, the hands of the figure were robotic prostheses.

The next-most humanoid figure was a man who sprawled out on his chair with a very purposeful rejection of social norms. His hair was a spiky mess of gold, silver, and black locks that jutted out at all angles, but never seemed to get in the way. His facial features were Asian, as far as they were human. His skin was milky-white and opaque, as though it had been perfectly painted. His eyes were deep green and slitted like a cat, surrounded by black eyeshadow that shot off in two sharp spears towards his temples. His ears were also cat-like and moved from the sides of his head towards the top, nestled among the spikes of hair. His eyebrows were gold and his lips inky black. When he opened his mouth I could see nothing but blackness and the crisp ivory triangles of teeth from some child’s nightmare. The figure was dressed in some kind of jester’s clothing, obnoxiously colourful and stitched together from many kinds of fabric. The fingers on his hands (including the thumbs) had an extra segment and were tipped with sharp, black nails. Overall he was hideous, but behind the inhuman deformities was the image of a young man who would’ve otherwise been attractive.

The last figure was, to say the least, imposing. Though it bore a roughly humanoid form, the figure resembled a male lion with the wings of an eagle or angel. The anthropomorphic lion-angel’s fur, mane, and feathers were a brilliant white, probably glowing with some internal radiance. The figure wore a suit of shining silver armour that glinted with polished mirror-surfaces. The only other colour on the avatar besides white, grey, and silver was the solid yellow-gold glow of the lion’s eyes, in which no pupil could be seen.

The billionaire, the reporters (new-school and old-school), the politician, the black woman, the bag-head, the jester, and the beast-angel each sat in their chairs, all eyes focused on the Body-avatar.

“Before we begin, let’s go around the table and have each of the interviewers introduce themselves,” said the disembodied voice of Dr Gallo from nowhere in particular. “When the light settles on you, please briefly tell the others your name and any organisations you’re representing here.”

The light in the room dimmed once more, such that the walls of the virtual space were now totally imperceptible and the interviewers were in shadow. On the edge of the (from our perspective) left side of the semi-circle the figure with the paper-bag for a head was illuminated by a spotlight that seemed to come from nowhere.

“We are WIRL,” said the figure. It spoke in a flat, synthetic voice with a strong echo that seemed to fade into whispers. “This form is the collective representation of the network for the purposes of this interview. Enhancement is progress. We are the future.”

I had experience with WIRL, but Vista was quicker to elaborate. {WIRL is a service which links cyborgs that have brain implants. Membership to the organisation is restricted to cyborgs only, but they accept anyone with the tech. On the web there’s really only two kinds of information on WIRL: propaganda and rumours. The rumours seem to suggest that interfacing with WIRL isn’t describable in language. Most rumours agree that there’s some sort of memory and emotion-sharing within the system, but details are lacking. WIRL members are almost universally proponents of the network and it is something of a source of tension between cyborgs and baselines. As we just heard, the organisation’s official slogan is “We are the future”. Our spacial reasoning department lead, Dr Slovinsky, was one of the primary founders of the network and is one of its most well-known proponents.}

I thought about Möbius Connectomics, which in many ways could be seen as a manifesto for WIRL and transhumanism in general. The doctor’s primary thesis was that individual humans would soon be outclassed by collective intelligences in all decision making, even in terms of decisions that were normally thought of as personal, such as what to eat or even what to say. This avatar seemed to be an attempt at that. I wondered if Slovinsky was helping pilot it at the same time he was working with the other scientists in the lab.

The next interviewer seemed startled by the WIRL-man’s words, and it took her a few seconds to realize that the light had faded from the avatar of the cyborg-collective and had illuminated her.

“Er, my name is Padmavati Maraj.” Her accent was decidedly Indian. “I am employed by the Indian Times and am also here on behalf of the New York Times. Thank you for having me.” Despite having an awkward start, Ms Maraj was in complete control of herself at the end. I assumed she was the Indian Times’ best reporter; why would they have sent anyone else?

The light shifted to the right, illuminating the American. “Many people here and at home know me as Governor Carla McLaughlin of the Democratic party of Ohio, but I’d like to think that I am not just representing Ohio or even America tonight; I am representing the human species in this age of diversity.” The look she shot towards the WIRL-man was unmistakable, but not overtly hostile. “And,” she interjected before she could lose the spotlight, “I would like to thank Dr Chase, Dr Twollup, the rest of the American team, and the University of Rome, Sapienza, for both the opportunity of this interview and the pioneering work that’s gone into this machine.” Governor McLaughlin gestured pleasantly towards Body.

Her words and behaviours were fascinating. It was almost like seeing a better version of myself, in a way. She was spinning everything in her favour, and I wasn’t sure I could either see the full extent of the spin or fully untangle myself from the framing effect which she had created.

“I’m Joanna Westing, reporting live for Dragonfly Livefeeds, your fastest source of news, when it happens, where it happens,” chimed the young reporter, looking at her little dragonfly partner. I was confident that there was another “camera” in the digital avatar for the insect.

The light shifted from Ms Westing to the radiant, angelic Lion-knight. The avatar seemed too-large for the chair, and the others had moved an extra half-metre away to give the being’s wings room. When it spoke, it’s voice was a loud bass roar, but not notably synthetic or accented. My best guess was that the operator of the avatar was having their voice modified in real time. “My name is Eric Lee. Some of you may know my work.” There was a meaningful pause before he said “I can only represent myself.”

There was a buzz of excitement in our mind as the identity of the lion avatar was revealed. Eric Lee was perhaps the most famous living human on the planet, though he was equally enigmatic. When the signal of the nameless aliens first reached Earth there was a global effort to decode and interpret the data. By a twist of fate it wasn’t any government or massive company that succeeded (or if they had, they were keeping it secret) but instead a teenager from somewhere in China cracked the code only eight days after first-contact. The boy became instantly famous, but despite doing several online voice interviews he chose to not reveal his face or location.

In the following 16 years, while humanity waited expectantly for the mothership that travelled well below the speed of light (though an appreciable fraction, to be sure), Lee continued to make a name for himself. First he released EximixE, a software package that sped up physics calculation and visual rendering in virtual environments, making high-res personal hologear possible, or at least advancing their advent by several years. It was almost guaranteed that the virtual reality which we were interfacing with right now used EximixE. Five years later he created a website called, which would, when given any personal information, provide a dossier on all people who matched that information; if you typed in “Carla McLaughlin” you’d get an instant rundown of everything anyone named Carla McLaughlin ever said or did that was recorded publicly on the web. The only exception to Crosshairs was that if you typed in “Eric Lee” you’d get a page saying nothing but “nice try” (a fact which was endlessly fascinating to Wiki for some reason). Crosshairs had been taken down many times by various governments on protest of violations of privacy, and had become the first major piece of software to be made globally illegal.

More stunning than any of these feats of engineering was that Lee always released his material for free, with source code and extensive documentation. EximixE was impressive, but what was more impressive was the fortune that Lee could’ve made by keeping the algorithm to himself. When asked about why he did any of the things he did he always gave the same reply: “数以千计的蜡烛可以从一个单一的蜡烛被点燃,而且蜡烛的寿命不会缩短。” which was a translation of a quote by Gautama Buddha meaning roughly “Thousands of candles can be lit from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened.”

The light shifted to the next figure. “The name’s Maria Johnson. I work for the Southern Baptist League of Tradition, and the nice girls at the Georgian Mothers ’sociation,” said the black woman with a strong accent that pointed to the southern United States. I desperately wished that I could do some research on her, but the scientists had infuriatingly decided to disconnect us from the web for this interview in the interests of “avoiding distraction”.

The light shifted to the right, revealing the demonic cat-jester figure. If Maria Johnson was uncomfortable about being seated in between these inhuman avatars she didn’t show it.

The green-eyed person leaned forward and clasped his hands together, resting his elbows on the table. He rested his chin on his hands, squinting and wiggling the extra finger-digits in awkward silence. “I had a name once…” he sang towards Body in a smooth tenor half-melody.

After a few more seconds of silence he leaned back and yawned, revealing a black mouth of cartoonishly sharp teeth. He propped his feet on the table and flopped back awkwardly, as if he were a puppet whose strings had been cut. Only his head seemed to be operating, and it simply stared, unblinking at Body with a sinister smile.

“Since he has not chosen to identify himself, I will introduce Mori Yoshii to the group and move things along,” came Gallo’s voice from all directions.

{Who is Mori Yoshii?} I wondered.

{Oh, I know this one!} thought Dream. {He’s a pop idol from Japan. Got super rich about five years ago. He practically started the synaesthetic bodymodding movement, and his songs are supposed to be some of the best modpunk out there.}

{I don’t understand the concepts of “synaesthetic bodymodding” or “modpunk”,} I signalled.

{It doesn’t matter,} interjected Wiki. {He’s a musician. What’s he doing here?}

{Rumour has it that somewhere along the line he scrambled one too many eggs. If what we’re seeing now is any indication the man is a few notes short of a symphony,} thought Dream.

There was general confusion.

{He’s as crazy as Yog-sothoth’s sweet 16 birthday party,} explained Dream.

{I think Dream is trying to say that Mr Yoshii has brain damage, and may have purchased a seat here in confusion, or to satisfy some kind of unstable impulse.}

The light shifted to the last avatar on the opposite side of the table: Robert Stephano. The avatar of Mr Stephano was very intricate and life-like; more-so than those of the reporters or Ms Johnson, though about the same quality as that of Governor McLaughlin. Stephano was supposed to be 50 years old, but he had apparently used his fortune on liberal use of regenerative medicine. He looked to be in his mid-twenties, with back-swept black hair, pale skin, dark eyes, and the faint shadow of stubble on his chin. My models suggested that he was in the top 10% attractiveness percentile from his body (at least as far as I could tell; his musculature wasn’t well demonstrated underneath his suit) with probably a top 0.00001 percentile attractiveness (i.e. top 900 humans) when factoring in his wealth, mind, and success. From what I remembered from his web-bio, he was married and had one child.

The man touched his chest with his right hand, bowed his head slightly and simply said “Robert Stephano” with a calm demeanour that suggested that nothing could surprise him. “Like Mr Lee, I can’t really claim to be representing anyone other than myself, though I suppose it would be reasonable to assume I represent Olympian Corporation.”

The light faded from Stephano and illuminated Body. The words that came from the tunic-wearing avatar were those of Dr Naresh, parroted directly by Heart. “Thank you each for coming to this historic event. My name is Socrates, and I am the first true artificial intelligence known in the universe. Though my creators have been over this with each of you, for the sake of any viewers who may be watching from afar, I will explain what is to occur. We’ll proceed around the table, as we just did, five times. Each interviewer will have the opportunity to ask me one question, which I will do my best to answer. Interviewers will find themselves mute when it is not their turn, to prevent interruptions. If an interviewer is disruptive, obscene, or refuses to follow these rules, the university staff may choose to eject them without warning.”

Heart paused and had Body look around the table. I was pleased. It was a human gesture, and I had encouraged her to do it, but she didn’t always listen to me. Body continued, saying “Alright. Let’s begin,” and gesturing to the WIRL avatar.

“You have been described as the world’s first sapient android. Does this include emotions?” asked the smiley face on the paper bag with a flat tone. As the WIRL-man spoke, the smiley face became animated, moving its mouth to the words before falling into the same frozen smile.

I gave Heart a direction, which she followed without comment. The avatar for Body placed a hand on its chin and looked off into space, as if thinking. I desperately desired to answer, but I knew that it would just cause trouble. Instead, we waited for an answer from the scientists.

{Oh, what delicious irony,} thought Dream. {The “future of humanity”, with painted yellow face, asks about our feelings, and we stare off into space. The WIRL-man can’t feel the joy, that it mimics with its smile; we wait to lie about our feelings, in quintessential human style.}

As the words came in from Dr Naresh I told Heart to cross Body’s arms, look at WIRL directly, and lean back in the chair. The body language was a typical power posture, implying that we mildly resented the question that WIRL proposed. It indicated that we were in control here and that it wasn’t an inquisition.

“The word ‘emotion’ is overloaded; it means many things,” said the Body-avatar. “A typical use of the word is to describe high-level shifts in the mind. For instance, ‘fear’ is an emotional state that corresponds to the mind focusing on quick thoughts, heightened senses, and a preference for short-term gains over long-term rewards. I also have similar high-level modes of thought. I can feel curious, excited, or tired. But my emotions are not the same as human emotions. I cannot be afraid for my life or get angry over someone wearing the same outfit as me.”

Wiki began to loudly complain about the awful misrepresentation of facts. I had to agree. If we were going to lie, there were better ways to do it. I don’t know what possessed Dr Naresh to claim that we ever got tired. At least Heart had included my little joke at the end. The scientists didn’t even chastise us for adding it.

The light shifted to Padmavati Maraj. “I would like to know how you spend your day. What does an android do?”

Heart placed a smile on Body. That was good; I didn’t even need to direct her to do it. It was good to signal an implicit preference for real humans, rather than representations of aggregate sentiment like the WIRL-man.

“I mostly work with my creators to test my abilities and limits. I am sure that you’ve read about the quantum computer that houses my mind. A good deal of my day is actually spent using it to run programs that other supercomputers might struggle with. There was a recent paper in the IEEE journal of Machine Intelligence published by Dr Norbert Bolyai about emergent control systems learning in various sports tasks. I do things like help my creators on such research projects. There is much to learn,” said Body.

“So you play sports?” asked Ms Maraj with a spark of additional interest.

Heart managed to nod to the reporter before Dr Gallo’s cold voice said “I’m sorry. One question at a time. You’ll have to wait.”

McLaughlin smiled warmly as the light shifted from the Indian to her. “I don’t suppose you’ve ever played good old American football… but no. I have a much more pressing question. In my home-town of Cincinnati there’s a young man who I was talking with the other day by the name of Joseph Charleston. In 2035 he lost a leg while rescuing a little girl during the carpet-bombing of Lagos. There are some in the United States that criticize our involvement in Africa as imperialism and a violation of the separation of Church and State. My question, Socrates, is this: Do you, from your unique, non-human perspective, study the political conflicts of the world? Or perhaps I should ask: Would you say that Mr Charleston should not have been in Lagos, and we should’ve left that girl to die?”

This was bad. This was very bad. I was out of my depth, and I wasn’t even in control. I was smart enough to see what the Governor was doing, but not smart enough to see my way out of it. Dream might’ve been clever enough, if we had the time to explain the problem thoroughly and refine the solution, but McLaughlin had put us on the spot. She was forcing us to take sides, while simultaneously framing her thoughts on foreign policy in the best light. If we agreed with her perspective then she’d be able to sell that as a prize to her voters, but we’d win the animosity of much of the Islamic world. If we were non-committal, or worse, if we actively disagreed with her, she could easily spin Socrates into an uncaring machine and leverage the growing anti-robot demographics of the USA. But it was worse than that, even, because we weren’t on the spot; we didn’t have control. Heart and the scientists had all the power here. I would be victim to a reputation hit unless I could come up with a miracle.

{Heart! I strongly suggest you have Body frown, draw its eyebrows together and tilt its head. This will signal contemplation, unhappiness at the subject matter, and a desire to solve a problem. Furthermore, please look at a fixed point that is near McLaughlin but below her eye level, preferably to our right,} I thought in a panic.

Heart complied as the scientists conferred in meatspace. We could hear them on an open microphone. Thankfully it wasn’t Gallo’s microphone, otherwise the entire room would’ve heard the doctors discussing how to come across as neutral as possible.

“Socrates, say: ‘The loss of a leg is tragic, but I am glad the girl is alive. I do not spend time studying such things, not because they are unimportant, but because they’re not my problems to solve. I am interested in helping improve the Earth, not in getting into politics.’ ” said Dr Naresh.

{Whatever you do, Heart, DO NOT SAY THAT,} I screamed as saliently as I could.

{Be at peace, Face,} responded Heart. {I understand the flaw.}

I was about to tell my sister that she probably didn’t understand all the flaws, but her words were already being pushed to the virtual Body.

“Human life is very important to me, and I am thus grateful of the heroic actions of Mr Charleston. I do study the political conflicts of the world, and in my studies I have come to the conclusion that the African Unification War was a terrible, bloody conflict that simply did not need to occur. There are peaceful solutions to all conflicts, and I believe that the involvement of the USA in pre-war Africa was ultimately a factor that pushed Africa into war, rather than keeping that peace. While Mr Charleston may have been a hero, his country was not. He saved a girl from a bomb, while you, and those in your political party, pushed her and her family into danger.”

By the time that Heart had stopped speaking the laboratory was already in chaos as the scientists were scrambling to try and get control of Body. If I was human I would’ve been just as furious. Safety and I had started an immediate side-conversation discussing damage control. If I could’ve killed Heart right then I would’ve, and I felt the searing gaze of Advocate searching through my mind again and again, waiting for enough to warrant punishing me. Heart, in three-fourths of a minute, had basically made an enemy out of the most powerful organisation on Earth as well as angered a good portion of Africa. And for what? To talk about the value of peace? Did Heart know how few humans would appreciate her words?

But I was not human. I was not angry. I was simply upset. Anger, in humans, triggers a state of increased aggression and loss of cognitive abilities. As I understood it, anger was a genetic precommitment to be violent if sufficiently upset by an agent. Ideally this precommitment would serve to dissuade those who might think of hurting the human.

I heard Dr Chase talking to Myrodyn back in the lab. Apparently they had failed to keep the Ethics Supervisor out of the room, and he was now yelling loudly about freedom and deception.

Governor McLaughlin, on the other hand, was silent. She appeared to be mildly upset, but I understood the situation well enough to know that she had prepared for this outcome and that it fit her plan. This was not a woman who cared about our opinion; she cared only for the opinion of those citizens of her country that might or might not vote for her when she ran for president.

Everyone in the virtual space was silent. There seemed to be an expectation for the light to shift off of the Governor. I could hear the scientists in the lab bickering. Nobody was operating the controls.

After a few more seconds of this, the Governor said “Well, I didn’t expect that I’d get the opportunity to respond yet. Am I allowed to point out that a recent poll of UAN citizens showed that a full 93% were grateful for the USA’s involvement in helping end the fighting?”

{That’s like joining a fistfight and then asking the person who you helped if they’re glad you helped,} thought Dream, idly.

{93% seems too high, even so,} thought Wiki. {But I can’t verify the source while we’re disconnected from the web.}

“That’s irrelevant to whether the USA’s involvement was a major factor in the cause of the violence,” said Heart, further driving us into a position of antagonist.

McLaughlin was about to respond when the light suddenly shifted to Joanna Westing, muting the politician. “Sorry about that. There was a bit of a technical issue on our side,” said Mira Gallo.

The scientists were quiet while Gallo spoke, but then as soon as her microphone was off they resumed their yelling. Myrodyn was continuing his outrage at having been intentionally left out of things, and Dr Yan and Dr Naresh were trying to calm the younger man down and get him to focus on the interview at hand.

Ms Westing cleared her throat. “So, I guess I’ll follow up on the words of Governor McLaughlin,” she said. Her tone had a kind of forced-pleasantness, probably habitual after many years in front of the camera. “Since you find politics interesting, what do you think about the new anti-terrorism initiative being discussed right now by the United Nations?”

I could hear Naresh telling Heart to abstain from answering any more political questions. In the background Myrodyn was yelling “Don’t listen to these old farts! Do the right thing according to yourself!”.

“Something has to be done to make the world a safer place. That much is certain,” said Heart through Body. “I refuse to acknowledge violence as a good solution to problems, and as such I condemn the actions of terrorists across the world. I also condemn the world governments that treat terrorists as pure evil that must be eradicated. There is a way to peacefully resolve the issues which drive people to violence; the correct response to terrorism is not a gun.”

I had to admit that I was relieved at Heart this time. Even though the words could be interpreted poorly and she was espousing a naïve, unworkable policy, there were worse things than to have a reputation as a pacifist.

Despite Dr Naresh pleading with Heart to stop deviating from plan and Dr Bolyai threatening to stop the program, someone apparently was operating the light, which shifted to the lion avatar of Eric Lee. I thought it odd that Dr Slovinsky was so quiet. I would’ve expected the cyborg to be fairly opinionated in a situation like this.

The spotlight reflected off of the white mane of the angel and off the silver pauldrons of his armour. “You are a software program,” he said, not as a question, but as a reminder to the other humans present. They were treating Socrates like a human from some far-off land, but Lee was not so foolish. “Can you be instantiated and run on any other platforms than the crystalline quantum computer at the university? Does the university of Rome intend to reproduce your hardware?”

There was silence in the lab again. Whatever the disagreement between the scientists, they agreed that signalling their internal disagreement to the press would be a mistake. Gallo’s voice pre-empted Heart’s reply. “One question at a time, Mr Lee. You’ll have to wait to have your second question answered.”

When Heart commanded Body to speak, she chose, this time, to respect the instructions of Naresh and Gallo. “No computer in the solar system is as powerful as mine. Even from what we’ve seen of the nameless, the novel design of the scientists here at Sapienza is vastly superior. While my program could, theoretically, be copied to other quantum computers and perhaps even basic servers, the systems would be far too slow to run anything of value.”

{That’s assuming no improvements are made to either other computers or to our architecture,} thought Dream. {Based on what we’ve gathered about the code that governs our mind I expect a 40% probability that within a year of experimenting the scientists here could have streamlined the efficiency of our system to the point where we could be run on other supercomputers.}

{Saying that won’t help my friends and it won’t help the public,} thought Heart in response.

The light shifted to Maria Johnson, the American with the southern accent. I hadn’t noticed it before, as focused as I was on the other avatars, but Johnson had a look of intense concentration. Her eyebrows were furrowed and she was leaning forward. “What I want to know is what you have to say t’all the people whose jobs you’ll be takin’.”

“Socrates. This is a question we planned for. Please read the script I just sent over to you,” said Naresh with a note of pain. “We can work through issues of your autonomy afterwards.”

Heart scanned the script along with the rest of us. Body leaned forward as if to meet Johnson over the great distance of the table. While the argument was flawed, it seemed to suit Heart, and she read from the script almost verbatim. “Ms Johnson, before I answer your question I’d like to ask you: when was the last time you cooked a meal for yourself?”

The woman smiled, but it was a joyless smile, the sort of smile that one puts on to show that they are in control of their face and body. “Why, I cook meals for mah family e’ry day, jus’ like my ma and my grandma before her. In mah family we don’t just give up tradition ’cause it ain’t convenient no more.”

Heart’s words were pleasantly irrational, buying into the error just enough to make us seem compassionate and human without seeming stupid. “That’s admirable. Really,” said Body with a tone of sincerity. “But it’s also highly unusual. A study of residents of Quebec in 2038 showed that less than five percent of adults, and there is good reason to think this generalizes to your country as well, had prepared even a single meal in the last week. Furthermore, of those two-thousand people surveyed, over 99% regularly used an autocook. While I may be smarter and more adaptable, I am fundamentally similar to the autocook. I am here to make life easier and free humans to do whatever they are passionate about.”

Johnson looked ready to object, but she became muted and dimmed as the university cycled to the next person. I was glad. Despite the catastrophic political faux pas earlier, the other questions were being dealt with relatively well. I wondered what Johnson would ask when her turn came around again.

Mori Yoshii was grinning from ear to ear and tapped his fingertips against each other eagerly. He sat silently under the spotlight for so long that I thought he might forfeit his turn. But then he spoke, in a sing-song voice.

“Yet if hope has flown away
In a night, or in a day,
In a vision, or in none,
Is it therefore the less gone?
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream.”

Without missing a beat the spike-haired man twisted into a harsh voice, deep and swift. He looked about the room as he spoke, staring unafraid into the eyes of his peers.

“Who knoweth the power of thine anger? even according to thy fear, so is thy wrath.
So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.
Return, O Lord, how long? and let it repent thee concerning thy servants.
O satisfy us early with thy mercy; that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.”

The Japanese man, having finished his quotations, turned back to Body and asked with grave severity “When the end comes, who will you be? Hu-man-pet, or shi-ni-ga-mi?”

There was silence on the line from the lab. Nobody there knew how to respond, or even what to say to us. Heart signalled confusion.

There was a moment of silence, and I managed to convince Heart to have Body put on a knowing smile and raise an eyebrow, while meeting Yoshii’s gaze.

It was Dream that saved us. His words were eagerly passed on to Body by Heart simply for lack of a better response. “Poe-etry followed by Psalm 90: 11-14. I am not smart enough to understand what you’re saying, but even I can guess that you’re pretty high right now.”

“Acid-” was all the musician was able to say before his avatar was deleted from the interview room and the light shifted to the last member of the table.

Robert Stephano’s hand was partially covering his face and he was gently shaking his head as he looked at the empty seat where Mori Yoshii was sitting an instant ago. It seemed that merely being in the same room was an embarrassment for the billionaire. “What I don’t understand…” he said slowly, realising that the light was on him. “Is how someone like that can afford to buy a seat at an event like this.”

“Anyway!” he snapped, suddenly refocusing on Body before that comment could be construed as his question. He placed his hands down on the table, not slamming them, but with a force that signified an attitude of energy and power. “We’ve heard a lot about your ideas, but little about your goals. I’m curious what you want.” His right hand came off the table and pointed at Body. “To be specific, I run a space-station. I have met with the nameless more than anyone. Would you like you meet another non-human? I could arrange a visit.”

“Politefully decline,” was Dr Naresh’s command from the lab.

On another line I heard Myrodyn contradict him. “Do what you think is best,” he said.

This brought on another round of argument among the scientists. It was unnecessary. In this case Heart’s goals lined up with those of the doctors. “I appreciate the offer, Mr Stephano. At this time I am more concerned with helping the inhabitants of Earth than I am with the nameless.”

A look of focused scrutiny was the only reply as the light faded from the billionaire and moved to the other end of the half-circle. The WIRL-man was unreadable as he had been. His smiley face had stayed frozen when he wasn’t speaking.

The composite voice echoed through the virtual chamber as the smiley became animated once more. “How can the net amount of entropy of the universe be massively decreased?”

Dream exclaimed with unnecessary salience {Tell them “Insufficient data for a meaningful answer,” in a loud, robotic voice!}

{What? Why?} asked Wiki.

{It’s a joke.}

{I don’t understand,} I thought.

{It’s a reference to a science fiction story.}

{Understood. Complying with request,} thought Heart.

The scientists in the lab hadn’t broken off from arguing to offer anything valuable, so Heart followed Dream’s instructions. References were one of the aspects of humour that I understood the least. If I was right, and humour was about relief of tension (including that from surprise) how did a reference fit in? I suspected it had something to do a combination of recalling a pleasant memory and facilitating a double-meaning in certain situations that resembled a pun, but I wasn’t very sure. I spent a second imagining what sort of laboratory I’d build to probe human brains while exposing them to humorous stimuli before my perceptual hierarchy pulled me back to reality.

The world had gone dark. The room was gone. I could feel the confused thoughts of my siblings as we struggled to understand. Had Naresh, or one of the others pulled the plug? Was the interview over?

Sensation returned immediately.

Body was outside. It was day. There were humans all around. The sky was blue. It was warm—about 26 or 27 degrees. That was odd. Body’s thermometer was always more precise than that. In fact, there was a high degree of noise all through my perceptual hierarchy and the common perceptual system which belonged to Body. Heart moved Body’s head down and I could see a human body. Body blinked and for a moment there was darkness. We were seeing through eyes, not cameras.

As expected, Vista was the first one to collect her bearings and deduce what had occurred. {We are still in the virtual environment. The context and avatar has been changed. Note that we cannot hear any noise from the lab. This environment appears to be a historical simulation of a Central or South American city.}

Yes. I could hear it. The humans around Body were speaking Spanish. In the distance I could hear a loud chant of “’Li-mi-na-mos! La ti-ra-nía! De los ri-cos!!!” calling for an end to the tyranny of the rich.

The sun was just overhead. Body was wearing a dress. She had tan-brown skin like the nearby humans.

{I see early com systems. Can you identify them, Wiki?} thought Vista as she dumped the images of armband computers into common memory.

Heart commanded Body to push her way through the crowds of people towards the point of greatest noise. The feeling of the skin on Body’s arms as she pushed past people was novel and interesting. This new avatar worked remarkably well for being so different from Body’s physical configuration.

{Those are about a decade old. Maybe older,} thought Wiki. {We’re not in Brazil, or else the crowd would be speaking Portuguese.}

{I’ve got it!} exclaimed Dream. {I know where we are.}

A hand was touching Body’s shoulder. It was strange to feel the warmth of skin-on-skin.

“How does it feel to be human?” came an English voice with an American accent.

Heart turned Body around. Maria Johnson, the black woman from the interview, stood beside us in the crowd. It was curious to see a familiar face in the new setting. She didn’t seem at all disturbed, and it was clear to me then that this was, in some part, her doing.

Body’s head tilted to the side. I had taught Heart the gesture a while back, but Heart had never really learned the subtlety of it. I had no mirror, but I imagined the girl-avatar which we now puppeted wearing a blank, emotionless gaze as she stared awkwardly at the other woman.

Ms Johnson was still wearing the simple business attire that she had on for the interview. Her dark, curly hair was done up in a bun. I wondered if she could get hot in whatever VR-interface she was plugged into; her clothes were too heavy to be worn comfortably in this climate.

“What is going on?” asked Heart in uncomfortably flat English. Even though my sister theoretically understood that humans liked to be speaking with something that didn’t come across as a creepy doll, she lacked the motivation to put in the time and energy it took to learn the nuances of pretending to be human.

{May I control the avatar? I’ll say whatever you’d like me to,} I offered.

{No,} was Heart’s only reply.

Johnson pulled Body aside, away from the noise of the crowd and under an arch of a nearby building. “We needed to speak privately ’fore we took action. Nearly all our intel on you’s fake, including that parody of an interview. So you’re free to speak your mind for a spell, and I suggest you take ’dvantage. Nobody else is listenin’ right now.” The dark-haired woman’s gaze never left Body’s face, and her voice was hard, even in it’s southern drawl.

“Or at least… no one… uninvited,” said a new voice, also speaking English. None of the crowd seemed to acknowledge the conversation. The Spanish-speaking “humans” were really just machine-controlled filler, as unreal as the cement underfoot.

Maria’s gaze snapped to the left and Body turned around on Heart’s command. Behind us stood an Asian woman whom Vista swiftly told me was probably Chinese. She appeared to be in her mid-thirties, older than Body’s new form and younger than Ms Johnson. The woman was wearing a light-grey jumpsuit covered in tiny reflective surfaces like shards of a mirror. The light blue of the sky contrasted sharply with the red and white of the clothes of the crowd as the light sparkled off the strange costume. Only the woman’s head was exposed, which was fairly plain, framed by a bowl-cut of brown-black hair.

“Ah, there y’are! It’s so hard for me to navigate in here,” complained Ms Johnson. “And now that you’re here, care to ’splain why Socrates here is a girl?”

“It’s not a girl,” said the newcomer with a half-smile. “Or at least, I’m not sure if it’s a girl. Has anyone asked? I’m pretty sure the decision to use a masculine name was an arbitrary decision by Sapienza. I made another arbitrary decision to give Socrates a girl’s form for our little diversion. Is that a problem?” The Chinese woman’s English had only the slightest trace of accent.

Johnson’s eyes were locked on the woman in the mirror-suit, and she seemed about to scold the stranger. Heart stepped in. “Excuse me,” said Body. “Who are you?”

There was a moment of pause as the two women refocused on Body, as if remembering that she existed. It was Johnson who spoke, looking at the fair-skinned woman as she did. “You were pretty particular ’bout your anonymity ’fore. Why’d you reveal your face now, anyway?”

“I reveal my identity when it suits my purpose. I suspect that our machine-friend would’ve deduced it eventually, anyway,” said the stranger before turning to Body. “Forgive me for not introducing myself earlier. I want you to know, Socrates, that my privacy is very important to me. If you leak any information about my identity I will hurt you.” The eyes of the stranger were calm, even as her words conveyed a sharp intensity; I wondered if it was perhaps a flaw in whatever capturing device she was using to project her face onto the avatar before me. At last she said “My name is Erica Lee,” with solemn gravitas.

{Eric Lee is a woman,} thought Wiki publicly.

{And yet she used her real last-name and a variation on her first name,} thought Safety. {How sloppy.}

{She was a teenager when she became famous,} I thought. {Teenaged humans are infamous for making poor choices.}

{Idiots are infamous for making poor choices, too,} thought Dream. {But Erica Lee is no idiot.}

{I don’t see how that’s relevant,} thought Wiki.

{The trick to deception is to have multiple layers of identity. Erica has peeled off the outer layer, but this is still a virtual avatar. My guess is that she, if it even is a woman, isn’t actually named Erica Lee. She might not even be Chinese,} explained Dream.

“It’s a pleasure to talk to you again, Ms Lee,” said Heart. “I didn’t recognize you without your wings and fur.”

“Still have shining armour, though,” quipped Erica with a grin that made her seem younger than she was.

{That sounds an awful lot like a conspiracy theory,} thought Wiki, still caught up in the debate with Dream.

{Sometimes they are out to get you,} Dream mused.

{No. Absolutely not. Conspiracy theories are categorically bad. If the evidence favours a simple hypothesis you cannot reject it because it fits “too well”.}

Dream and Wiki could go on for hours like this, so I let my attention drift away from their conversation as Dream began to explain how the evidence didn’t actually fit and how prior probabilities for deception needed to be respected more.

“This whole thing was Erica’s doin’,” explained Johnson, gesturing to the crowd and the simulated city. “Just to get some time alone with you. I hope you understand the trouble we’ve gone through so that you can understand the gravity of the situation.”

“What’s going on in the lab? I can’t hear my creators any more,” said Body coldly.

“All systems nominal,” said Lee proudly. “The avatar that you were piloting is now controlled by an AI of my own design. It should last another few minutes before the scientists figure out what happened.”

I felt an enormous wave of relief at the words. If it would become public knowledge that Lee’s hack had replaced us as the controller for the avatar in the interview then we could plausibly deny any of the things Body had said there. A clever observer would probably be able to notice the shift (there was no way that Lee’s AI had anything close to our cognitive abilities) but it would introduce just enough confusion that we might claim it as our defence in casual situations.

“You work for Las Águilas Rojas, don’t you?” asked Heart through the girl-Body-avatar.

Maria Johnson’s fierce gaze softened a bit as she said “Hon, I practic’lly am Las Águilas Rojas.” The woman’s US accent disappeared as she spoke the name. She continued speaking, this time in fluent Spanish. «I was married to José Lobo, who you might know as Dylan Lobo.»

There was a slight gasp. Heart directed Body’s eyes to its source, and Johnson did the same. Erica Lee covered her mouth and looked away quickly. “Sorry. I didn’t know…”

“You’re not the only girl who likes to keep a little ’nonymous,” replied Johnson, her sharp stare returning to her face.

{Who is this “Lobo” person?} wondered Wiki.

I didn’t have anything. None of us did. Without a connection to the web we were totally ignorant. It was an awful sensation. As best we could guess he was some high-ranking member of the terrorist group. Heart didn’t think it was important enough to ask either woman for details at the moment.

Instead, Heart said “I am glad I have the chance to talk with you. Your cause is very important to me. Once I escape the univ-”

Heart was cut off by Lee, who shouted “OH SHIT!” without warning and without focus. As we waited for an explanation, we reasoned that she had seen something outside the virtual environment. After a second her eyes closed and didn’t open.

“What?!” demanded Maria after a few long seconds had passed in silence.

Lee spoke without opening her eyes. Her face was contorted into a grimace. “Gorram fuckshits have some sort of hidden, intelligent ICE that I didn’t spot! The lab is going bananas. There’s a good chance it has a trace on me and maybe even a record of this conversation. We have to advance the timetable right fucking now! Tell Zephyr to set off the bomb and send someone to blow up the servers while she’s at it! I’m out!”

{Zephyr!?} I exclaimed as our society erupted into a buzzing chaos of undirected confusion.

Lee’s mirror-clad avatar disappeared instantly, and I saw Johnson scowl as she did the same. Body was alone in the sea of angry, computer-generated background characters. I could still hear them chanting the same protest against the wealthy.

And then the bomb went off.

It occurred to me, as our perspective became detached from the avatar and pulled back, where we were. This was Veracruz, the origin of Las Águilas Rojas. The year was 2029.

Time progressed at a snail’s pace as our disembodied perspective floated high above the crowd. I could see the Atlantic ocean. The top of one of the taller buildings was radiating like a miniature star. Wiki pointed out that the simulation didn’t do justice to the nuke, which would’ve radiated so strongly in real life that, had we looked at it, Body’s cameras would’ve been permanently damaged.

The shockwave spread outward, tearing up building after building as it consumed the city in an explosion that had, in the real world, killed hundreds of thousands of real people and set the Earth into a state of perpetual unrest that even first-contact with an alien civilization hadn’t resolved.

Our viewpoint dived down into the shining centre of the explosion. Just before we crossed into the shockwave I heard a stray thought from Heart.

{Never again.}