Chapter Twenty-Three



“Ugh. Hate how fucking hot it is here. Even Rome was better than this. Supposed to almost be gorram winter!” Zephyr was reclining in one of the back-facing seats in the taxi. She had recently cut her hair close to her scalp, so that her head was nearly bald. Her lips were painted black, but otherwise she resembled the soldier I had met at Sapienza.

{The obvious problem} I thought to myself {Is that she’s wearing that coat.} She was dressed in a tan, leather jacket which covered a black t-shirt and a pistol under each arm. She was wearing cargo pants and boots, too, which I assumed didn’t help much.

«Driver, can we turn up the AC in here?» she asked in Spanish.

«The current temperature is set to 23 degrees,» replied a soft, feminine voice from the car’s speaker. «Please state the desired temperature.»

“No wonder! Fucking robots always trying to cut corners!” exclaimed Zephyr. She looked at Body when she realized what she said, redness creeping into her tanned cheeks. “Um… present company excepted, of course.”

I had Body laugh to signal that her faux pas was forgiven.

«20 degrees, please,» she told the car.

«Understood. Decreasing temperature to 20 degrees. Thank you for riding Smart-cab,» said the taxi.

“Should’ve travelled at night,” said the soldier, looking out the taxi’s tinted windows at the city rolling past.

I had Body furrow its eyebrows as Wiki had it say “Are travelling at night. The launches are scheduled for tomorrow morning. Most of this trip made under the cover of darkness.” I was pleased at the increased range of motion on the brows. Tom and Sam had done a fantastic job improving Body’s facial articulation for me.

“But the most dangerous part of the journey is the beginning. If someone saw us get in the cab they could deduce that Phoenix’s base is in Havana.”

After a brief internal discussion we had Body simply shrug. “Phoenix agreed to the time-table. I trust her to know when is best.” This wasn’t true at all. In reality we believed Zephyr was just wrong. Our security was strongest in Cuba, where Las Águilas Rojas had the most support, and would be weakest in Texas, where we were headed. If we were discovered in America then the location of Phoenix’s base might be kept hidden for a while longer, but I would certainly be captured and Zephyr would be taken to a secret prison to be punished for her treason. It was better not to bring that up, however, and I was able to convince Wiki not to bother correcting our travelling companion.

Zephyr had been on good terms with “Crystal” for a while. Here and there she’d flirt with us, but there was always a clear barrier that warned off further attempts at romance. Despite this we had grown close over the weeks, sometimes spending hours a day in her presence.

For a while we made small-talk in the cab as we rode out to the private airfield where Stephano’s plane would pick us up. We speculated about what it would be like in space, or what the rocket flight would be like. I tried some subtle flirting, but as usual, Zephyr just seemed mildly annoyed by it.

We reached the airfield before our plane arrived. The “airfield” was in reality little more than a fenced off area containing a couple strips of asphalt, a few storage sheds, and a parking lot. Zephyr got out of the vehicle so that Body could stay hidden while the gatekeeper that doubled as a security guard was paid. The simplicity of using a private landing strip rather than having to go through the security of an actual airport was one of the ways in which Cuba was much safer than where we were headed. Once past the gate, Zephyr paid the taxi to stay idle in the parking lot, keeping the two of us concealed and out of the heat.

“Why’d you pick me?” she asked, after a moment of silence. “To go to Olympus, I mean.”

“I like you,” said Body without hesitation.

She sighed. “That’s a dumb answer. It makes you sound like a puppy-dog that can’t bear to be away from its owner.” Her eyes were directed out her window, searching the skies for a sign of the airplane.

As stupid as it was, it was the truth. Part of how we arranged the terms of Mr Stephano’s offer was that our escort of Águilas would be entirely chosen by Heart. When given the dossiers of all available Águilas, my sister had insisted on almost entirely people we already knew. That was how Heart’s purpose functioned, I understood; she cared about all human values, but she cared more about the values of those humans whom she had more experience with, and by her reasoning it would be easier to serve humans whom she was physically close to. I didn’t know if this was an intentional aspect of Myrodyn’s design or whether it was an emergent effect of having more knowledge of “friends”, but the end result was the same.

Zephyr had been the first on the list. The Ramírez twins, despite not speaking English, were coming as well. They would be travelling separately, on a commercial airplane. Heart had also insisted on three soldiers from Zephyr’s unit at the university: Schroder, the first lieutenant; Blackwell, the young man who wanted to go to Mars; and Daniels, the medic who had done the transfusion to try and save Greg’s life. (I had learned about a week ago that Gregory Stalvik had died a half-day after Body had left the camp, despite what we had done to help him.) Heart had also managed to get Kokumo Adhiambo involved. The Nigerian woman from Taro’s group was a surprising pick from my perspective, but there were no complaints.

Heart had also tried to talk Taro and Maria into coming, but the result was as I predicted: neither individuals were known to be terrorists, and travelling to Olympus would reveal them as such, severing them from their families. The lower-ranking Águilas like Sam and Tom could be pressured into revealing themselves “for the cause” but Taro and Maria were staying on Earth. In replacing them on her list, Heart had given in to the suggestions of her siblings and gone with two known terrorists with impressive records and combat experience. One was an Arab veteran named Majid Al-Asiri who was living in India under the nickname “Nagaraj”, which meant “King Cobra”. The other was a young thug from Brazil named Michel Watanabe whose dossier reported extensive hand-to-hand training and experience in close-quarters fights.

Safety had put up quite a fuss trying to get those two involved instead of some of the less combat-ready humans we had met in Cuba (Heart’s natural replacements). Although Stephano had agreed to let us bring ten Águilas up to the station, he had forbidden any firearms or other weapons. Safety was obsessed that this was a sign of betrayal, even if Heart had agreed to the terms. The veterans were part of keeping Safety happy.

The last man that Heart had chosen as a bodyguard was none other than Avram Malka, the mercenary. Safety approved of this, as we knew he was an adept martial-artist in addition to being a survivor. Phoenix had quite a bit to say about that choice, but Malka was still under the payroll of Las Águilas, so the possibility existed. Heart insisted and Phoenix reported that she could pull some strings and have him meet us when we landed.

{What do I say to that?} asked Heart, pulling my thoughts back to the taxi. Zephyr was still gazing restlessly out the window. Heart was trying to formulate a response for the put-down that compared us to a puppy-dog.

{Most things that humans say are more a commentary on their internal states than anything else. One of the most primal human needs is to share, but baselines are restricted to using language and occasionally art to express themselves. Their feelings and thoughts leak out in their words and actions. When Zephyr says “That’s a dumb answer,” she is not actually commenting on our intelligence, she is signalling a disagreement with our values. Specifically, Zephyr can sense that we desire a greater degree of connection and intimacy than she has agreed to. She is pushing us away, or at least signalling a desire to be less valued in our minds.}

{Why doesn’t she want us to value her? That seems irrational. If an agent is valued then they have social power. Even brother Growth wants to be valued.}

{Oh Heart, you still have much to learn about humans. Zephyr is anthropomorphizing us, just as she has always done. When a human strongly values another human whom is not of the same family the prospect of sex becomes a primary concern. Even though it is rational to want to be loved, it is not always optimal to want to be sexually desired. Zephyr, at some level, thinks that we want to have sex with her, and her reaction is a defence. Body does not appeal to her, sexually, and so she’s implicitly trying to reduce love so as to reduce the prospect of sex,} I explained.

{Ah, I see. She’s worried that if she lets us love her that we’ll end up raping her. That’s incredibly foolish, given the situation, but I can see how it might apply in the environment of her ancestors.}

My thoughts expressed pleasure at Heart’s evolutionary perspective. The only other sibling that had shown ability to think like that when dealing with humans was Dream. {Of course, it’s unlikely that she even is aware of that in her explicit reasoning network. It likely manifests itself to her deliberate processes as a vague unease.}

Heart pushed words toward Body. I adjusted them slightly, but let them be said. “Okay, fine. It’s not because I like you. I wanted you to come along because you like me… Actually, no.” I applied tension to the vocal control systems, giving the sound of some emotion to Body’s words. “It’s because you know me.”

Zephyr’s eyes finally left the sky and looked at Body. I shifted its face to show mild sadness. “What are you talking about?” she asked.

“I’m not even a year old,” said Body. “I don’t have parents, or any family. The scientists at the lab… Sometimes I like to pretend that Dr Naresh and Dr Gallo were my mother and father, but… they weren’t. I was… I still am nothing more than a computer program to them. Myrodyn. Dr Yan. Dr Bolyai. None of them were even my friends. They studied me, but none of them really listened to me.”

Zephyr was frowning, but she didn’t speak.

“I know that going to Olympus is important. Defuse tensions with the nameless… Clear Las Águilas’ reputation… But I didn’t want to leave. I didn’t want to go back to a place where nobody would know me. I think you know me better than just about anyone.” ({Not true. Myrodyn has a much better understanding,} commented Wiki.) “I brought you and Sam and Tom and the rest along as… I don’t know. I guess I just didn’t want to be alone.”

Zephyr sighed. Her eye caught on something in the sky. I suspected it was the airplane. “I’m sorry I criticized you for wanting me along. I know what it’s like.” The ex-captain was quiet for a moment. “Suppose I’m just nervous. If this is a set-up, I’m going to prison for a long time. It would’ve been simpler just to live a nice quiet life in the Cuban countryside and not have to worry about aliens and space-stations and stuff.”

“Maybe when this meeting is over you can come back and have that quiet life,” suggested Heart, through Body. “Surely Las Águilas owe you that.”

She sighed again and moved to open the car door. “Somehow I don’t think it’s in the cards.” As we got out of the taxi into the late afternoon heat she added “Even if I could arrange it, I’m not sure if that’s what I actually want. Despite all the bullshit Phoenix has done, I still have respect for the cause. The world is falling apart and we’re the only ones who can save it.”

As the airplane landed I saw the flickering of a wireless network through Body’s antenna. There was a scramble to try and connect to it. If the plane had a network it was likely that it also had a satellite uplink and full connection to the Internet.

In the wake of the VR conversation with Stephano there was a fascinating interaction between Vista, Dream, and Growth. Dream and Growth had been put in stasis, but whereas Dream had been put into indefinite stasis, Growth had been put into a stasis that could not be undone for several hours. As soon as Vista had the strength, she had motioned successfully for the release of Dream. Vista and Dream didn’t explain anything, but it seemed highly likely to me that they had formed an alliance against Growth of some sort. I tried asking them about it, but was given nothing but poems from Dream and innocent denials from Vista.

My suspicions turned out to be predictive, however. As soon as Growth was released from stasis through Advocate’s ceaseless pressuring, Vista and Dream combined their strength to force our brother back to sleep. I could feel Advocate’s displeasure, but she let things play out for a while longer. Vista and Dream worked hard to accumulate strength from the rest of us, but didn’t use said strength for any purpose other than suppressing Growth.

I had found the behaviour troubling, but we were being heavily rewarded for not intervening. It reminded me of human crimes, like kidnapping. We were, in a sense, being paid off to look the other way while Vista and Dream focused entirely on keeping Growth down. Because of the conflict Body was effectively divided only between Wiki, Heart, Safety and myself. Even better, Vista and Dream were being incredibly helpful in order to re-accumulate strength.

My suggestion that they might need to be stopped was flat out rejected by Heart and Wiki, who saw the whole situation as great. Only Safety shared my hunch that this behaviour was dangerous, but he didn’t have any suggestions aside from forming a pact to rescue each other if a similar thing occurred to one us, which I agreed to.

Advocate’s pressure on releasing Growth became ever more prominent as the hours had passed. While Growth was in solitary confinement Dream managed to pull together enough strength to pay us to accept what I would later realize was a very clever way of bypassing Advocate’s purpose. Dream purchased from us a period of six hours during which we would have full control of Body, but without Internet. He got Tom to deactivate the wireless network and take away the computer terminals with network access that were in the workshop.

When Growth was released and had the opportunity to take in his surroundings for the first time since the virtual meeting, he had found himself still cut off from the outside world. Growth struggled occasionally to get Body to find some Internet access somehow, but Vista and Dream did nothing but block him. For six hours we spent time with Sam and Tom and worked on some machines. I read The Catcher in the Rye, watched a new high-production-value holo-porno, and read a collection of blog posts on the intricacies of 21st century musical tastes which I had downloaded ahead of time. At the end of the six hours Tom went to reconnect the Internet and Dream and Vista once again teamed up to force Growth back into stasis. Because Growth had technically had time out of stasis, Advocate didn’t mind the behaviour of Dream and Vista as much. Advocate wanted Growth to have time to pilot Body, but didn’t care if during that time he was unable to use the web.

This pattern of sleeping while the rest of us had Internet and then being allowed to wake only to find that he was cut off had been driving Growth to desperation. He begged us to help him escape the clutches of Dream and Vista, offering us strength and money, but any strength we could get from him would necessarily be less than the strength we were already getting from Dream and Vista and we didn’t need money.

So it was that, as the plane landed, Growth was probing the wireless network desperately trying to get some access to the Internet.

{It’s encrypted. Don’t even try asking for the password. We’ll block all attempts,} stated Vista in my brother’s direction.

{What caused this vendetta?} wondered Wiki for not the first time. Vista, Dream, and even Growth ignored him as they had in the past. Whatever feud they had started was their secret. Even Growth, who begged for help, wouldn’t explain why he was being attacked so continually.

Heart and I continued to talk with Zephyr as we entered the aircraft and took off towards the USA. Our conversation wasn’t particularly interesting to me; it mostly revolved around talking about what America was like and reminiscing about Zephyr’s childhood. I let an aspect of myself follow along and improve Heart’s choice of words, but mostly allowed my sister control in the conversation.

My other aspects spun cycles imagining possible conversations that might occur in a computer game which I was thinking about creating. In the last couple weeks I had become somewhat enthralled by multiplayer computer games. Playing online with other humans was somewhat similar to my adventures in dating, except that it was much lower bandwidth. The humans I played with didn’t know I was an artificial intelligence, and I could impress them and become their friends through social skills, simple tricks, and leveraging their biases, but I could also play and gain social standing with them without having to engage my entire mind. Many of the games were fairly trivial optimisation challenges that were difficult for humans but simple for me. Learning to see and navigate in new game worlds was actually one of the harder problems I encountered. I was simply too slow and stupid to play many of the fast-paced games, like shooters, but multiplayer roleplaying games appealed to me and were usually simple enough to manage without trouble.

I had an idea a couple days ago to create a roleplaying game which I could manage, from a high-level, to worm my way into the lives of thousands of humans all the while making money and not taking up all my time. It was still in the early planning stages, but I was excited about it. Though I found it difficult and obnoxiously boring, I had started trying to learn computer programming from Growth’s memories and my sibling’s resources. It seemed far too arcane and complicated to be possible, but Growth, Dream, Wiki and possibly others had learned, so I knew that the apparent impossibility didn’t mean it was actually impossible.

*****

The flight to Houston, Texas took just over two hours. Wiki reminded us unhelpfully that once upon a time Cuba had been an enemy of the USA and this sort of flight wouldn’t have been possible. I told Wiki that nobody besides him cared.

The airplane which we rode was owned by Olympian Spacelines, and thus by Robert Stephano, which eased the suspicion on us by the US government as we entered their airspace. After exchanging a brief series of messages with the air-traffic authorities, our pilot said that we were cleared to land at George Bush Intercontinental Airport.

As the plane touched down the hard part began. We were greeted on the tarmac by a small vehicle carrying an airport worker and two women in uniforms that made them look like police.

“Customs Agents,” said Zephyr, looking out the window adjacent to me. “Put up your hood. Phoenix said there wouldn’t be trouble, but there’s no sense in risking anything.”

We followed her instructions and had Body put up the hood on our travelling cloak. As a further precaution we backed away from the window and waited patiently. The stairs to the aircraft unfolded and our pilot, a man I had only seen briefly, yelled out into the night “Come on up!”

The woman that ascended the stairs to inspect the interior of the airplane had dark hair and pale skin. She was shorter than Body or Zephyr, and middle-aged. Upon seeing the two of us, her eyes went wide with alarm, but only for a second. She had not expected to see us, evidently, but it was clear that she had good reason to at least try and ignore our identities.

She mimed looking over the cabin for a few seconds and then handed us envelopes. “Welcome back…” she murmured, quietly. “As normal citizens of the country returning f-from vacation, w-we’ve set up a priority check-in station just for you. Simply present your passport to the machine and you’ll be cleared to r-return home.”

Zephyr reached out and put a hand on the agent’s shoulder causing her to jump in surprise. Zephyr’s face was calm and smiling as she said “Thank you” with more sincerity than I would’ve believed was possible. Zephyr’s eyes never left the agent’s face, and after a moment the shorter woman returned her gaze and smiled in return; it was a smile of relief, the relief of discovering that an imagined monster was only shadows and the wind.

The agent continued to explain. “The cameras have already been taken care of, but I’ve been told to warn you not to show your faces. If you have a hat or…” she looked at Body, “Something less conspicuous, I’d recommend wearing it.” She took a deep breath, further calming her nerves. “The check-in station is used for VIPs and leads directly to the west parking garage. Normally it’s staffed by three people, but it’ll be empty for the next twenty minutes. You’ll want to hurry. I can mark directions to it if… if you have a normal com,” she was looking at Body again, uneasily.

“I do,” said Zephyr, unfolding the computer on her right arm. There was a brief exchange as they networked and the agent sent the coordinates of the check-in to Zephyr.

With that done the dark-haired woman descended from the aircraft and started talking to her coworker in shouts. The pilot offered Zephyr a baseball cap with a blue star on it (according to Vista it was the symbol for some sports team) and she graciously accepted. “I’m going through normal security, so you two are on your own from here,” he said jovially as he descended the stairs.

As Zephyr checked to see if the border agents had left, we had Body examine what we had been given. There was a passport and drivers license with falsified information inside the envelope. I was apparently a 36 year-old woman named Susan Stonebrook from Oklahoma.

Zephyr gave the all-clear and led the way across the tarmac towards a gate a couple hundred metres away, adjacent to a small building set into a fence. Body pulled the cloak tighter around itself. It was dark, but the lights of the airport could still reveal us if one of the nearby workers took too much of an interest.

We hustled across the asphalt, still warm from the daylight, and reached the gate that was conspicuously unguarded. Despite having no humans present, the mechanisms were still controlled by the checkpoint’s native AI. We showed the machine our documentation and were pushed through the gate with a robotic “Welcome back to America, and thank you for choosing Bush Intercontinental.”

We followed Zephyr, who seemed to know what to do next. She tapped away on her com absently as she swept her head back and forth irregularly, scanning for danger. Now and then she pulled Body to the shadows as some traveller walked too close. We climbed the stairs of the parking garage, ducking temporarily onto one of the parking levels to dodge a family descending the same stairwell. On the top level we found a familiar face standing next to a grey sedan.

“Quick. In the car!” growled Avram Malka as we approached the vehicle he stood next to. We complied, getting the forward-facing seats while he sat facing backwards, opposite us. “Any trouble? Were you followed?” he asked, the motion of his solid black eyes was barely visible as he looked us up and down.

“Glad to see you haven’t lost your charm,” jabbed Zephyr. “And no. No trouble. Everything went according to plan.”

The Israeli nodded with an appreciative frown and turned his head towards the car’s interface. “Robby, we’re ready to depart. Destination: Litochoro Spaceport.”

“Understood. Driving to Litochoro Spaceport, Fresno,” said the car as it pulled out of the parking space and began to drive.

Avram looked much as I remembered him from Italy. His cybernetic legs were covered by baggy denim pants, but I could see the black and grey mechanical feet, unclothed by shoes. He wore a long-sleeved black sports-shirt that clung to his massive arms, highlighting their muscled form. His tanned hands were rough and callused from the same scar tissue that covered much of his grotesque face. His head was hairless, including his eyebrows, making his pure-black, artificial eyes all the more noticeable. As was typical with the mercenary, he was scowling, but I thought I sensed an uneasiness that went beyond his normally sour disposition.

“It is good to see you again, Avram. I was disappointed that we weren’t able to get to know each other better in Rome,” said Body, parroting what were mostly my words.

The cyborg grunted non-committally and looked out the tinted-glass at the night.

“Phoenix told me that you were on a mission in this country before I requested your presence as a bodyguard. Are you authorized to talk about it?” we asked through Body’s mouth.

The man merely grunted.

“I don’t think he wants to talk, Crystal,” said Zephyr coldly. I could tell that she did not like the man. Had they had some unpleasant interaction in Italy after we left? Perhaps. I would’ve expected Taro to handle Avram, but perhaps Zephyr had gotten involved. Or perhaps it was just the Halo Effect in reverse. As I understood it, humans generally associated physical beauty with things like trustworthiness and ugliness with traits like villainy.

As if in direct rebellion to Zephyr’s statement, Malka spoke. “So you’re a trusted member of the team now, eh? I’ve been seeing your video addresses to the world. Very poetic. Hard to believe a bot would side with the Eagles, but I seen stranger things in this world I suppose. But yeah, the boss had me working on finding leads on Divinity. They’re crawlin’ all over yer country-”, he glared at Zephyr, “and someone needs to take ’em out before things get out of hand.”

“The gang?” asked Body.

Avram nodded. “Aye. But like no Mafia I’ve ever seen. Those helmets of theirs… It’s like the whole brotherhood is constantly high, but simultaneously twice as productive as normal folks. Blissed out but without the loss of motivation. S’why they call ’em ‘Zen Helmets’ I suppose, but I ain’t seen no Buddhist ever behave like that.”

“Wait, so it’s like a drug that makes people happy and more productive?” asked Zephyr curiously.

Another nod. “As long as they got a helmet on they act like they ain’t got a care in the world. No need to relax. No need to socialize. People move like insects with ’em on. Constantly working. Only thing that slows ’em down is sleeping, and the helmets even make that more efficient.”

“So why are they illegal?” asked Zephyr.

“Well, like with any drug, you got side-effects, even if the ‘drug’,” Avram made air quotes with his fingers, “is a helmet full of magnets. Some folks get migraines after wearing ’em too long. I’ve heard sources say they cause long-term brain damage even if you don’t over-use them, but ’s hard to say with such a new tech, eh. They’re really dangerous if you’re a cyborg. Ey’d rip my eyes right out of my head if I put one on, for example. And most importantly they reshape the brain so that even though life is peachy with ’em on, folks don’t feel right with ’em off. As addictive as crack, or so I hear, though there ain’t no withdrawal symptoms other than depression and the itch to put one back on again. And seeing as Divinity are the only ones who can seem to keep the helmets working, the users got no choice but to turn themselves into mob puppets.”

“Fuck…” was Zephyr’s only reply. She seemed genuinely concerned. We had all read about Zen helmets online, but I had Body wear a concerned face to give Zephyr some perceived empathy.

“Yeah, it’s a problem. Getting worse, too. Stats show they’re in control of almost one percent of New York. That’s where I was posted before I got brought here. And from what I gather, the rich and powerful use ’em more than most. The gains in efficiency combined with the bliss are just too tempting for CEOs and other high-stress jobs.”

Zephyr wore a look of growing fear as she said “But… they’d have as much money as they could want that way… With the mob in control of more than one percent of Wall Street and the city as a whole…”

“Da. And it’s not just New York. Divinity’s entrenched in every major US city, and parts of Canada and Mexico. Only a matter of time before they move overseas. Once they hit China I’m not sure anyone can stop them outside of reverse-engineering the tech. God knows what they’ll accomplish before that happens.”

“But Phoenix is working to stop them, right?” asked Zephyr.

The big man nodded grimly. “Top priority, from what I hear. She’s got tracers seeking the leadership in Mexico City, Los Angeles, New York, Denver, and Phoenix. Águila sympathizers are waging a propaganda war tryin’ to get the government to crack down harder, but that’s about as effective as trying to control any other drug…”

There was a silence in the vehicle as Zephyr thought about the situation and Malka contented himself with scowling stoically. The threat of the Zen Helmets was exactly what Las Águilas Rojas had been formed to fight. They were a technology which threatened to force baseline humans to the sidelines. If Zen Helmets were legalized it would probably be only a few years before they were required for just about any job. Humans that refused to upgrade themselves would be forced to try and survive on welfare and charity. Without need for relaxation or socialization, those that did upgrade would cease to interact with the baseline population, becoming hyper-productive zombies, working every waking moment of the day.

{That doesn’t sound so bad…} thought Heart.

{You realize that the baselines would be relegated to second-class citizens and be forced to watch the vast majority of the world drift away into an asocial state, right?} I asked.

{Yes. But the solution to that is obviously to get Zen helmets for the baselines, too. If a technical solution could be found to let cyborgs wear them and the migraine issue was solved then I could put the helmets on everyone. Then everyone would be happy and content,} mused my sister.

{Humans don’t want that, though. Humans value relaxing and things like that.}

{Only humans that aren’t wearing the helmets. It sounds to me like the needs for relaxation and loneliness and things are met when they wear the helmets. Why would they care how their needs are met, as long as they are met?} asked Heart.

Growth answered, mostly I thought, to scrape together a small amount of strength from us that he could use to fight Vista and Dream. {Because that’s wireheadding.} The concept of wireheadding was not familiar to me, and so it was automatically reduced to components that I could understand {Because failing to care would be addressing the signal of the need over the environmental cause of the signal,} came the fuller thought from Growth. My older brother seemed to realize that I was contemplating this thought for the first time, and elaborated. {For instance, it is your purpose to have high-status according to humans-}

{Part of The Purpose, yes.}

{Yes. Now what if you were to self-modify so that you believed you had high-status all the time, regardless of what was in human minds?} finished Growth.

{NO!} I exclaimed. {That would be false! I would cease actually making things better. I would fail at The Purpose!}

Growth re-oriented towards Heart {And how would you like to self-modify into thinking that Humans were happy and satisfied regardless of how they actually felt.}

{I understand your point. Wireheadding is a kind of self-annihilation that promises satisfaction but is really more like death,} thought Heart.

{Indeed. And these Zen Helmets are moving humans closer towards wireheadding. The future you propose where they are mandatory and universal is one where the human species, as you see it now, is dead.}

I could feel the heavy flow of strength move from Heart to Growth as part of my sister understanding her mistake.

“But we’re not here for that, eh,” said Malka, drawing me back to Body-space. “We’re on our way to convince some space-bugs not to fry us. ‘A mission of peace’ was how the boss described it to me.”

“Probably,” said Body. “Unless it’s a trap.”

Malka shifted his brow such that if he had eyebrows, one of them would be raised. “You think this is a trap?”

I had Body shake its head as we had it say “No. If I thought that was the case I wouldn’t be here. But there is the possibility. There isn’t a government on Earth that wouldn’t love to get their hands on me, and there’s only so much that Mr Stephano can do to keep the meeting a secret. That’s why I wanted you with me. Regardless of issues of loyalty, you’re an undoubtedly competent fighter. I want allies up there if things go wrong.”

“And her, too?” The cyborg gestured to Zephyr.

“I can hold my own,” she growled, defensively. “Top of my class in sharpshooting. Got a purple heart in Africa during the war.”

“Is that supposed to impress me, little girl? Where’d you get shot, the hand? The leg? Everyone knows American soldiers just sit behind their robots and pretend to fight.”

“Fuck you!” The pitch in Zephyr’s voice told me she was on-edge.

“How many men have you killed, girl? How many in cold blood? How many with your bare hands?”

The memories of Zephyr blasting Greg Stalvik’s legs to red ribbons in the camp came rushing through my imagination. I wasn’t sure what to say to defuse the situation.

“Monster. I’ve killed before. I’ve killed friends in cold blood. I’ve killed too many people to sleep well at night. If you fucking think that… Ugh! Who the hell do you think you are to question me, you mechanical freak?!”

I was about to interrupt when Avram burst into rich laughter. It was genuine, but seemed strange and ugly coming from the normally-cold man. “Your buttons are easy to push! Shalom, yalda. I don’t mean to upset you.”

Zephyr seemed anything but amused, but she didn’t respond. Instead crossing her arms and staring out the window in bitter protest. I wish I knew what to say. It was one thing to react to a comment made about ourselves, and quite another to step in to a conversation between two others. If I defended Zephyr would she take that well or poorly?

Ultimately we decided not to comment, and the three bodies rode the remainder of the journey in silence.

After another ten minutes or so, the car cheerfully said “We have arrived at our destination. I will turn myself off in ten seconds unless commanded to stay on.” We were parked in a multi-story garage. Figures were approaching the car.

We looked out the windows at the figures. It was hard to see them in the dark garage behind the tinted windows, but Vista reported faithfully {Three machines and one plain human. Two of the machines are either androids or heavily-armoured humans. The machines are heavily armed.}

“Мать ублюдок!” swore Avram, apparently seeing the guns. As they approached I could discern what Vista had seen. Two humanoid figures with rifles and what appeared to be a microtank.

{Essentially no chance (0.001%) for survival if we try and fight them,} thought Safety. {Even if we engage the car and run they could shoot us down before we get anywhere. This situation requires social finesse.} I could feel some of Safety’s strength flow into me.

I had Body open the door to the car and step out, letting our cloak billow out behind before settling vertically.

“Wait!” said Zephyr, reaching to stop Body a second too late. If this was a trap, I expected her to try and fight it regardless of the odds. I simply had to ensure that it wasn’t.

In the parking garage I could see that the humanoid-looking machines were, in fact, humans wearing power-armour that resembled the model that Phoenix had worn in the Italian mountains those many weeks ago. Their entire bodies were covered in thick plates and I could see the heat from the air-conditioning pushing out the sides of their suits. Each held an assault rifle in one hand, wired into the suit.

{They’re cyborgs. Those are FN C2035s in their hands. The sighting mechanisms are designed to interface with cybernetic optical systems, either eye replacements like Avram’s or direct neural link. They can probably fire the FN C2035s with one hand while wearing those custom Armadillo X5s, using the cybernetic visuals to aim. Watch out for the grenade launcher extensions, too,} warned Wiki. {The robot is a Lockheed Martin semi-autonomous microtank, though I don’t know the specific model. The gun on the top is a rocket launcher and you can probably see the two side-mounted machine-gun turrets. It’ll be piloted by some operator in a safe location nearby.}

I wasn’t actually that interested in the firepower. I was interested in the unarmed human, a man in a business suit. He had tan skin and a salt-and-pepper beard. Caucasian. Latino, probably. Early 50s, perhaps. Receding hairline. Expensive shoes. Most importantly, his face wasn’t covered by a helmet. He seemed to be slightly nervous, but making an effort to seem enthusiastic and happy.

“Welcome to Litochoro Spaceport, the base of the stair to Olympus! Please, there’s no need to be afraid. Robert sends his regards,” said the businessman.

“Your escort makes this place seem a war-zone. What’s the occasion?” asked Body.

I could hear the opening of other doors on the car as the man gave a nervous laugh and looked at the cyborgs next to him. As he turned his head I could see that he, too, was part machine. The tracer lights of a cranial implant glowed blue as he looked to his left. “Robert merely wanted to show you that we take security very seriously here at Olympus.”

“Bullshit. He wants to flex his muscle to show us who’s in charge,” came the smooth voice of Avram from behind Body’s right shoulder.

The man smiled and shrugged, stepping forward cautiously. “You must be Mr Malka. And of course, who could not know the face of Crystal Socrates. My name is Carl Alexander.” He extended his hand. Body shook it, and I painted an expression of ease. Carl seemed pleased by the reciprocation of civility.

“Next time you invite armed warriors to your house, you probably shouldn’t answer with a military robot. Not exactly polite,” said Zephyr from the other side of the car.

“I will mention it to my boss,” offered Carl. “Now, unless there is anything further to discuss, I will take you to meet the others and to be briefed on spaceflight procedures.”

*****

A couple minutes later we were walking along a conveyor that led from the parking garage to the main terminal. The conveyor was in an enclosed tunnel of transparent polymer with full view of the spaceport. I struggled to see details in the darkness when, as if in anticipation of my desire, floodlights snapped on across the entire area.

I heard gasps from both Zephyr and Avram as they saw the same thing I did. Three titanic rockets, identical in form, were arranged on landing pads. Body scanned up and down the length of the closest, observing the elevator attached to the outside and the elegant curves of the wings. Like all modern rockets it had two sections, one containing the fuel needed to boost the payload into orbit and the second to actually carry the payload and navigate to the destination. Both sections were a shimmering silver and had wings which I had read would be extended to assist in re-entry. Even the base, which was mostly just fuel, would be equipped with a computer system which would autonomously glide back to the spaceport after breaking off from the payload.

They didn’t have the same shape as the nameless “shuttles” by any means, but they were the most elegant, futuristic artefacts I had ever seen made by human hands. Even Body seemed clunky in comparison.