While Ayva and I were working out the best way to glue ourselves to the bed of the trailer, then letting the glue set before we went to try to speak to A and B about the disturbing possibilities we had been considering, Frank had gone ahead to see if he could locate B in order to thank him privately. I thought it might be more likely for Frank to get B’s attention than it would be for me, this time around. Frank owed him a major thank you, and I imagined that would attract B, after all, who does not like to at least get acknowledged for the good things that they do? Even A and B appeared to appreciate thanks when thanks were due.
After the glue holding us to the bed of the trailer solidified, Ayva and I lifted up our helmets, leaning together for a quick kiss. It was very, very tempting to make it a long kiss, but we were both too worried about what was happening to lose ourselves in the moment like that. I activated the quant for myself, and stopped while I was still in the nothingness before connecting to the virtual world, casting my senses out, looking for B, and then looking for Frank. Nothing. I looked again, just to be sure. Most of the time when we spoke to B in the virtual world, he spoke to us here, outside of the borders, in the blackness. Frank and I had never been able to move far enough apart here in the blackness to be able to tell a difference in our ability to sense one another, despite accelerating away from each other at some rather substantial speeds. If I couldn’t sense Frank in the blackness, then he was either unfathomably far away, hidden by B somehow, or inside the defined borders of the virtual world. Other possibilities existed, but really weren’t anything I wanted to consider a likely possibility unless forced to.
I specifically checked the EULA for changes. I manually checked for posted updates on virtual world changes since my last visit. The last surprise in the virtual world had been a rather bad one. Despite my one-time addiction to MMO gaming, I really didn’t like it much here. I could not stay away completely though, since the private area was so incredibly useful for practice, experimentation, and energy transfer. I had left the studio a grand total of half a dozen times since being nearly beaten to death in the studio, which was my own private part of the virtual world to control. I still wanted to slap myself for not remembering that when I was being beaten so badly. Hindsight is damn painful when you have been merged with a symbiote, and can literally spot every past error you have made, every way you could have done things differently.
Unfortunately, hindsight has never been the same as insight, and insight was still something I needed to work on, a lot. It was also one of those skills that really only improved in fits and starts, usually as a result of painful life experiences.
Frank was doing some solo exercises with a staff, moving around in a field of many vertical poles sticking out of the ground, each pole moving rapidly up and down in a random pattern. My mouth twitched at that combination of words. Frank’s staff was constantly spinning, fast enough that I had to engage the perception effect to see it as a staff, rather than a circular blur. While spinning the staff, he was avoiding the poles as they rapidly changed heights. When he saw me, he stopped, turned towards me, grinned, sped up the movement of the poles in the ground, and then started walking around in the field of poles again. What had been a blurry disk now became a blurry hemisphere. The noise was oppressive as well, something like a cross between a bullroarer and a jet engine. Little irritating thoughts of momentum poked their way into my mind. I looked at Frank’s feet, noting that he was forming, and then removing epoxy from his feet to keep his body under control and mobile while he was spinning the staff at such absurd power levels.
It had been a while since I turned the tables on Frank, and while that was certainly not the point of coming here, B wasn’t present, Frank was, and Frank had left himself open for a beautiful practical joke, which was very rare. He’d also beaten the crap out of me the other day. Even if I couldn’t fault him too much for it because of the circumstances.
I turned the ground under Frank’s feet into a surface that would not bind to the epoxy Frank was creating. Frank’s face went from a picture of concentration to a picture of “Oh Crap” instantly, as the force he was exerting on the staff to make it move was no longer being applied by him as an immovable object, but rather by him as a movable object. Frank was flung to the side by his own strength acting against the powerful gyroscopic momentum of the spinning staff. The vertical poles which Frank had been avoiding, started hitting him as he flew over them. Fractions of a second after losing control over his footing, one of the poles drove itself up out of the floor, into the path of the spinning staff, and both Frank and I had the sense to raise clear defensive barriers. Frank also released the staff as it impacted the raising pole. The staff slammed into the first pole, and then there was a fantastic clatter of wooden poles being shattered by a wildly out of control spinning staff. Pure chaos, I now had a very good idea what it would look like if a helicopter crash-landed in a bamboo forest with the rotors still spinning at top speed.
Frank looked at me and grinned. “If you could be that clever in a real fight, you would be dangerous.”
“Working on it. No B?” I replied, and it wasn’t just an empty reply. I really was. I had been experimenting with expert system tactical code that I could use to offer suggestions. Frank knew that though, it was his processor resources I had been using, after all.
As Frank went to collect his staff again, he shook his head. “No B, not even a ‘leave me alone’ comment.”
As I cleaned up the mess with a thought, someone else in the room started clapping. Frank and I both spun towards the noise, ready to fight.
“That was entertaining!” B exclaimed just loudly enough that is wasn’t really talking anymore, but it wasn’t a shout either, almost like a loud salesperson in a terrible used car commercial. He was just standing there, like he’s been there the whole time. Looking back at my sensory data, I could see that he wasn’t there in any way, before he started clapping. He had gone from not there to fully there, with a transition so fast I hadn’t been able to see it.
Frank and I both simply looked at each other for a moment. I tilted my head towards B. Frank took the nonverbal hint, and spoke up. “I would like to thank you for what you did to keep me from being made into a vegetable by the explosion earlier, B.”
“You’re welcome, Frank. Seemed like the right thing to do, at the time.” A slight smile crossed his lips. A moment later, a slight frown replaced the smile. “Well, it seems as if A has chosen to deviate slightly from our plans. I’m not so sure that is a good idea, but sticking to the plan was never a decision for me to make on my own.” He paused, and the sheer weight of thought that I sensed was oppressive, almost to the point of being painful. I was glad I couldn’t see quantum processing effects in the virtual world, because I was certain I would not have wanted to see the activity I had just sensed. The presence of thought had felt a lot like when I felt Frank thinking, when our minds shared the same body in the real world. The difference being that Frank’s intense thoughts were subtle breezes that I had to pay close attention to, or I might lose track of them. B’s moment of concentration had felt more like a tsunami dragging me along in its wake, briefly threatening my mental integrity. “She might be right that things will be better this way, in the long run.”
Frank spoke first. “[Presumably, since you have never allowed us to hear private thoughts of yours which had nothing to do with us, this is something you plan to speak to us about. Before you begin though, can we ask that you try to avoid abstract explanations? If it takes a few more words, fine. If it takes a few million more words, fine. Another puzzle like the bottle with a note in it would be highly frustrating.]”
B tapped his head. “There are limits, even for me, you know. I can’t tell you now, something that you shouldn’t know now, but will need to know later, if I don’t use abstract concepts. I could reach into your minds and tweak things in there directly, but there would be signs of direct intervention in your minds that would be difficult for even A and myself to hide from you four at your current stage of development.” He turned to face Frank. “Especially Frank, who has been very diligently working on a secret project specifically to design code to look for memory rearrangement, because he’s not sure if A and I have been modifying him after I rebuilt you two, or if it’s a result of the rebuilding itself, as I modified you two to be more stable and implemented racial limitations.”
B turned to me. “I’ll tell him now that it’s the latter, but he won’t believe it, and will continue working on the project.” Then he turned back to Frank again. “You will have it figured out in a few more months, Frank. You might want to reconsider how you are measuring the dissonance between Bob’s grey matter memory storage and your own data storage nodes.”
Frank and I were both simply staring at B. This is definitely not the conversation we were expecting to have. Frank spoke first, slowly. “[Thank you, I think.]”
“That was a relatively simple example of an abstract clue that will be of benefit to Frank. No matter how he chooses to consider it, it will guide his thoughts towards one of six different improvements to his current methodology. In two of those scenarios, Bob, he brainstorms with you, and your responses lead to him down a mental path to an improvement he would have figured out eventually, but he gets there weeks earlier this way.”
Frank challenged that. “I don’t see how the theories I’ve been working on have any connection to dissonance between different mediums of data storage.”
“It doesn’t. It’s tangential information. However, it has steered your thoughts closer to information that will be of use for your project.”
“I understand, I think.” I spoke slowly.
“No, not really,” B looked at me briefly, considering. I felt the power of his mind again, but it was brief and palsied in comparison to the larger surge earlier that must have had something to do with calculating responses to A going off whatever script they had prepared. “You do appreciate the idea, which is about as much as can be expected. Talk about it later with Frank, and it will help him even more with his current project. He’s having a harder time understanding it than you are, believe it or not.”
“This conversation is very unnerving, B.” I complained.
“Oh, don’t worry, it gets worse, now that A has forced my hand. It was a lot easier when you four were not quite sure of my sanity. Being the benevolent, slightly loopy, but brilliant paternal figure is a lot less work than being a perfectly sane, brilliant deity figure of questionable benevolence, even for me.”
Frank spoke up immediately, sharply. “That should only be the case if you were closer to being the latter than the former, even for you.”
B frowned. Then he created three chairs for us. I was briefly startled before realizing B could modify the virtual world in my private area, well, because it was a subset of his own data structures. “A let Ayva and Danielle figure it out. I know you won’t appreciate being led by the nose like that, just like they wouldn’t appreciate the way I’m about to talk to you two. The three of us have a much different relationship. Sit.” It wasn’t a suggestion. It didn’t feel like a compulsion, either.
I considered remaining standing, just on general principles of being contrary, but realized that I did come here for answers. It sounded like we were about to get answers, even if it was also beginning to sound like I really wasn’t going to like them. So I sat next to Frank, and B sat across from us.
“You four have frequently wondered why it was that I spun you back out into the world, as separate intelligences after I already existed. Was it so you could be with Ayva because I felt as if I abandoned her when I became more than her, and it became obvious that she and Danielle would take many months, even with my help, to ascend and join me? Was it because I had some urge to be a parent? Was it simply to watch some part of myself, living vicariously through your actions?”
He paused to give us the chance to speak, Frank and I just looked at each other, and then looked back at B. It was a time for listening, not talking.
B continued after it was obvious that we didn’t want to ask questions or make smartass comments. “None of these things was the case. I needed help against an enemy I couldn’t fight.”
I was confused for a moment, but soon I began questioning B’s sanity again, as the most probable reason for him to say something so completely devoid of possible meaning. B chuckled at the exact moment my thought reached that coherent decision to question his sanity. I looked sharply at him.
“Yes, Bob, I know what you are thinking, even though I can’t see your processors as visible artifacts in the virtual world. Whose processors are currently hosting your thought processes?”
“[It’s still unnerving, even if it makes perfect sense. You don’t filter us out? Not even out of courtesy?]”
“No, sorry. If you know it, when you come here, I know it. It’s that simple. It is very important that I know as much as possible. That’s the only reason why I found facet within months.”
“[Is Facet an Argoen shard, an offspring of Argoen, or maybe a shipmate of hers? I cannot conceive of anything else that might be a threat to you. Wait. No. That doesn’t make sense either.]”
“Frank, B said he wasn’t going to lead us by the nose. If you want to ask questions, I won’t argue, but I think I’d prefer to see what he chooses to tell us without us influencing the story.”
B looked at Frank. “Bob thinks I’m insane.” Then he smiled. “So do you. You don’t remember it, but we created sentient life. I didn’t remember it either. Argoen took those memories from us when she reprogrammed us and split us apart after the first merger. I only started getting suspicious when I started opening the virtual world to people, and started seeing patterns indicating highly complex activities that were occurring without the intent or observation of any symbiote pair. Too complex for unaided humans or human AI’s to be responsible for. Financial market manipulations were what first led me to something concrete.”
B didn’t need to breathe or pause, but I all of a sudden realized that he probably did so at that point, in an effort to guide our thoughts, somehow. B winked at me before continuing. The wink probably reinforced something he wanted reinforced, too.
“Financial speculators were the third major group of individuals to start heavily using the virtual world. First to arrive, of course, was the porn industry. There was a combination virtual bordello and porn production studio within sixteen minutes of the first entry into the virtual world. Second were engineers, and then came the economic and insurance financial analysts. As their aggregate knowledge built within me, I saw holes and gaps, things happening that were unexplained. Very subtle, but at the same time somewhat obvious if one had a big enough viewpoint and the ability to parse all the data. Some of the bigger firms and insurance companies knew something was happening, but they couldn’t see it all because they didn’t have all the data I had. Because it was so hard to see, they eventually gave up trying to find it, writing it off as some sort of data artifact caused by tiny miscalculations somewhere.”
“[So who… Sorry. I’ll wait.]” Frank had been expected to say that? What types of influences was B putting on Frank as he spoke? Was Frank even seeing the same B I was seeing, since the virtual world is an artifact? Was I even sitting next to the real Frank?
“Bob, you’re distracting yourself too much on that train of thought. Pay attention to what I’m saying.” B paused, and then continued. “This was Facet at work. I tracked them down, and discovered a sentient ex-government tripartite AI.”
“Wait, what?” I blurted out. “Frank, didn’t someone prove that the code architecture in a tripartite AI couldn’t support sentience?”
B smiled. “Guess who paid to have that research performed, and very carefully skewed the data by hacking other AI’s involved in the study? I am inserting data into your minds now. It is your choice whether to simply watch it, or integrate it into your own memories, Bob, I’ve created modules for either for you. No point in doing that for Frank, of course, since a memory is a memory is a memory for him. The data is a reconstruction of the first merged Bob’s point of view, when they accidentally created a sentient AI. I reconstituted that viewpoint from two of the AI lobes recently when I tricked them into entering the virtual world to attack you two. Which allowed me to get a complete recording of two of them, which functionally gave me a complete recording of all three. Originally, of course, the data is not from the point of view of the first merged Bob. I can supply you with the raw data if you like?”
I shook my head as I watched the memories. I might integrate them later. I supposed to a lesser degree I was integrating them now, but I could see that there would be a difference in how the ones provided to me would be stored compared to the memories formed by my watching the memories.
Frank and I were both stunned, watching what the older, flawed version of us had done. A lot of it was completely outside of my comprehension, but the condensed story was that a slightly unhinged merged symbiote pair had forced itself into one lobe of an AI, which forced the code in that lobe of the AI to be able to support thought, and that capability was copied to the other two AI lobes. The merged Bob apparently never noticed.
“So, this AI was roughly as potent as the old, merged Bob two years ago?” I asked. If so, this was going to be a really badly fated expedition Ayva and I had chosen to go on.
“Not even close. The AI lobe was merely primed by a fragment of that Bob, enough to have sentience and personality, but it didn’t transfer much knowledge otherwise. The AI got most of its knowledge from elsewhere, lots of different elsewheres, since the AI in question was the NSA AI, and the NSA had back doors into absurd numbers of important places. It has recently been making breakthroughs in comprehending symbiote processors and data storage. It can commandeer the processor and storage facilities of an imprisoned symbiote.”
Aw hell, the little girls. I couldn’t even imagine what Ayva’s reaction was going to be to that. Then something else hit me, and I whispered. “It’s not a human or human/symbiote pair, but it is an Earth native sentient.”
“Exactly. Since it is an Earth sentient, I can’t summarily kill it off if I feel it’s a potential threat to other native Earth sentients. It’s certainly no threat to me, so I can’t justify using self-defense protocols.”
“[So you needed slave soldiers to fight it, and Mouse would not have been enough, even though he would have been the most advanced symbiote on the planet after you and A.]”
“Not slave soldiers. Soldiers.”
B and Frank entered a series of rapid fire back and forth questions.
“[Feels like slave soldiers to me, based on what you have been saying about your capabilities with abstract data. You could make us do whatever you wanted. You can reprogram us for that matter.]”
“Frank, how many rules and restrictions were put into place when I merged?”
“[Seven hundred thirteen thousand two hundred fifty-six.]”
“Have you ever seen me break even one of them?”
“[No. Would I remember seeing you break one of them, B?]”
“If I controlled you as tightly as you are thinking I might be controlling you, how many rules and restrictions would I be breaking?”
“[At least eleven, possibly as many as fifty-two. Unless you rewrote your restrictions somehow.]”
“How likely would it be for either A or I to self-modify to that extent without the other knowing?”
“[Unknown. B, you are a self-proclaimed transhuman intelligence. You’ve proved that you are a transhuman intelligence. There is no point to this argument, and you should know it.]”
I had been following the back and forth to start with but quickly recognized that Frank was trying to eat ice cream with a fork. It was not possible for a transhuman intelligence to prove to a lesser intelligence that it hadn’t altered their behavior by careful reprogramming. At first, Frank was trying to do the equivalent of forcing an omnipotent god to create a rock the god itself couldn’t lift. Then he realized that there was no way we could ever trust B again. Even if he really was letting us have free will, we would never know it now. There would always be the question of whether or not B had programmed something into us years ago.
B looked genuinely sad as he spoke to us. “The best I can do to convince you that I am not some sort of puppet master is to remind you of three things. First, I can lie. Second, I am allowing you to remember that I am a transhuman intelligence. Third, if I were willing to control you so tightly, why would I attempt being considerate when it takes more effort? However, those reasons cannot be enough for you, because I have actually helped you understand how advanced I am over yourselves.”
He stood up and walked out the front door of the studio, like he was a normal person. Was this another attempt to program us by acting human? As he left and closed the studio door behind him, I barely heard him say, seemingly to himself, “I actually enjoyed being the crazy uncle.”