I had so many questions, but one of them predominated.
“AI is not possible!” erupted from my lips.
Andy tilted his head to the side, even as the others in my group glanced at me.
I stilled the impulse to flap my hands. I hadn’t meant to be so loud, but I’d reacted in an instant. I fought down my insecurity and owned the outburst, keeping my focus on Andy’s placid visage.
Once again he broke into a smile as he responded. Andy did that an awful lot.
“You are correct, of course, Preventer. No one has ever been able to generate cognition from within our universe. Union scientists refer to this as the Chen Barrier, and take its impossibility alternately as a challenge and a tragedy. My creator never intended for the idea to serve as such, however.”
I frowned, not seeing where he was going.
When no one said anything he seemed to realize that elaboration was called for.
“I represent not a flouting of the Barrier, but an end run around it. If you can’t create cognition within the world, then you don’t, see?”
“So…. you are an artificial humanoid, you think, but you are not an artificial intelligence? I’m not sure I see what you are trying to say.”
Haunter had an expression on her face that I hadn’t seen in a while. It meant that one of her passengers had understood something that none of the rest of us had. I caught her eyes and shook my head slightly, willing her to understand that this was too important for guesswork.
I wanted to believe, of course. No one who even called themselves a scientist could deny the allure of any new information about the phenomenon that had overthrown the world. Even if Andy was a fraud in some respects, so long as he had actually known Dr. Chen I could never allow him to get away. Somewhere in the back of my mind I began to think about cells and locks, restraints to hold an Ultra.
“Look at it this way. Say you are an inhabitant of the ancient world. You want to invent a flying machine, how can you go about it?”
“The Wright Brothers answered this question well enough, I think.”
I kept my voice steady as I responded. I put my hands behind my back, mirroring Andy’s posture. This was an old debating trick. Opportunities to expand my knowledge were all too rare, of late. It would be remiss to allow this one to pass by without enjoying it to the fullest.
“Of course, but imagine if their planes kept smashing into the ground. Imagine if something, let us call it the Andy Barrier, prevented planes from taking off.”
“Then no one could fly?” asked Indulger, seemingly bewildered at the entire line of discussion.
“They couldn’t fly in PLANES” responded Nirav, before I could say much the same.
His cleverness was a large part of why I liked Nirav. He’d been dealt an unimaginably crummy hand, and yet he was always on the ball, always watching for the main chance. I could never be that way, but it was the sort of thing that I liked to surround myself with.
“Are there birds, in this hypothetical question?” I asked.
Even before Andy responded I could see from Haunter’s expression that I’d hit the hinge of the discussion.
“Indeed,” responded the man who called himself Dr. Chen’s masterpiece. “The birds of this world appear to defy the Andy barrier just as they defy gravity.”
Birds didn’t defy gravity, of course, which made the whole thing clear.
“You build a bird, then. Just put together an exact replica of what makes up a bird, and whatever lets them fly will let your creation fly.”
My hands ceased their trembling, assuaged by a mystery resolved.
“Precisely!” he said. Andy’s voice had the sort of ‘head pat’ congratulations that my best self resented, and my worst self craved.
“Or, in Dr. Chen’s case, you can’t build a thinking machine, but if you construct a person…then whatever lets people think should let the construct do the same.”
He simply nodded in response to my summation.
“Oh, so you are like Frankenstein!” said Indulger.
“His monster, sure.”
“Do you age?” asked Jane.
I was taken aback by how forcefully she said it. Ever since the Colonel had died there had been a rawness to Jane, a wound. But something about her voice in this moment made it seem as though that trauma had found its voice. If a wound could move like lips, and a voice emerge, then I fancy it would have the tone that Haunter used.
“Not as you do, no.” said Andy, still smiling. “I wear down, over time. Think of it less like a person growing older, and more like a vehicle that requires periodic maintenance.”
I started to say something, but Haunter cut me off with a flick of her hand.
“So, as long as you continue your ‘maintenance’ you will endure?”
That intensity was still there, strong in her voice.
I fought back the urge to speak up. I’d trained myself not to let people talk over me. Made it almost a reflex to immediately and instinctively stand up for myself if anyone made a short joke, or laughed at my hands or tried to browbeat me into silence.
But this was different. Jane wasn’t shutting me down because she didn’t think I was worth it, she was shutting me out of the conversation, because she had narrowed the world down to just the two of them. It wasn’t about bullying me.
“Unless someone drops a truck on me.”
Strangely enough, Andy’s grin faltered here. It made the joke fall a little flat.
Haunter subsided, making a sort of ‘take care of it’ gesture to Nirav and Fisher.
“Fascinating,” I said.
That brought the smile back. Real person or not, everyone likes the idea that someone else is interested in their story. It had been one of the first commonalities that my research had unlocked, way back in the day. Everyone liked to be listened to.
“If it is true,” said Fisher.
I looked over at her, trying to gauge her body language. Fisher was always so hard to read, but her monster form often betrayed her emotions in a way that her seduction form didn’t.
Right now the beast was bristling, leaning slightly forward and snapping at the air. Fisher was on edge, aggrieved. I wasn’t sure what exactly had set her off, but I suddenly realized that Haunter wasn’t the only one in our group on the verge of an inner abyss.
“Babe…” said Nirav, trying to placate her.
Fisher didn’t even look at him.
“This is all a nice story, but don’t you guys think that there are a few problems with it?”
“Problems?” asked Andy.
She rode over his response.
“Why does this artificial being look exactly like a person? Why wouldn’t Dr. Chen make a bunch of them? Where has it been since his death? Why is it in Redo? How have we never heard of it?”
Andy raised his hands in a gesture of surrender, cutting off the flow of questions.
“That’s a lot to answer, to be sure, but I’m not trying to convince anyone. If you guys just want to think of me as some random person, that’s fine by me.”
I shook my head slowly back and forth in confusion.
“Wait, if you aren’t trying to convince us of your story then why did you ask to meet with us at all? What are you after in this conversation?”
“ I just wanted to speak with you, that’s all. I wanted to get an idea how who I was handing the folk of Dover over to.”
He stopped, chuckling.
“Dover over… I like the stound of that.”
It was an oddly childish interjection for someone who was normally very articulate. I filed the moment away for later consideration, even as I met Haunter’s gaze.
In every person’s life, or at least most people’s, there are moments when you are seized with an inexplicable certainty. This was one such moment for me. Looking into Jane’s weary, haunted gaze I could tell that I was gazing upon a kindred spirit.
We shared an unspoken, desperate communion, which if put to words would have taken the form of a shouted “DON”T LET HIM GO”.
“No need to be so hasty, Andy” said Haunter. “We don’t mind Pantheon leftovers hanging around. You can be Bosses, Company Facility wardens, that kind of things.”
Andy cocked an eyebrow, and the cyclops beside him nodded slowly.
“Very generous of you, my new friends. I had understood your desire to be a simple reintegration of the citizenry of Laredo. Are you certain that my followers and I have a place within your vision?”
I fielded this one.
“We took on two hundred of you when we took the city,” I said. “I don’t think a dozen or so are going to cause any problems.”
As soon as I said that I knew that I’d done something dumb. Fisher’s eyes grew wide and staring, Nirav hung his head.
And around us, the milling crowd shrank away.
People hadn’t known that we had been the ones behind the attack. We weren’t going to tell them. I felt a familiar rush of shame and self loathing.
I’d even been the one to insist on it! I’d gotten Jane to tell all of her shades, as a condition for being allowed to participate in the reunion scene, not to discuss our role in the affair. I’d had persuasive reasons, won the argument.
Only to ruin it now, to fail in front of everyone. My hands twisted and writhed, flapping back and forth.
“Too true, too true,” said Andy. “None of us are Fist-class Ultras. We would be no match for you in any contest of might. I wasn’t attempting to insinuate that you might be afraid of us, however.”
I stilled my inner turmoil, reminded myself that I was invincible. I locked away the thought process that wanted to endlessly dwell on my failures and focused on the present.
“Then what is your concern?” I asked.
Andy looked out over the people of his tiny little burb, clustered in knots around the respawned specters that haunter had brought forth.
“Would your master look kindly on you allowing the enemies of your nation to remain within ground that you have claimed in her name?”
Before I could respond he corrected himself.
“Excuse me, Her name?”
I shook my head.
“Prevailer doesn’t care about the weak. We can kill them or rule them, as we see fit.”
“She defines weak as pretty much everyone, so don’t feel bad that you qualify,” Indulger interjected.
“Whether we chase you off or put you to work is all one in Her eyes. Her only concern is that we don’t run from you, let you push us around.”
Andy frowned at that.
“I never get used to such madness. You have been sent to change the name of this place. To ensure that Her writ is law. You will battle against those sent by Zeus for much the same purpose. And neither ruler has any interest in that which is claimed, nor any care for the people trampled underfoot.”
Worrying about Her was like worrying about gravity. Yes, She was capricious and unfair. What else was new?
“Can you introduce me to the Ultras that will be coming to live with us?” asked Indulger. “I’ve got to make sure that I make them good places to stay and stuff.”
Andy responded to him, and I pulled Haunter away as the rest of them began to delve into the minutia of the integration. I’d get a summary later, for now we had to talk.
Haunter’s shades kept everyone back, not a difficult task. The Sigils would probably have done that by themselves.
“What do you make of this?” she muttered.
“Hard to tell. Andy’s story is preposterous, but it is hard to see what advantage it would give him to sell us on it. Investigation will probably reveal more. For now I’m withholding judgement.”
Haunter didn’t seem to register what I’d said.
“I mean, what if it is true? Imagine if we could replicate the process?”
“Jane, the whole earth has been trying to duplicate Chen’s Process for decades, with far more information than we could possibly get out of this guy, and it hasn’t gone anywhere. If the way that the doc made him is anything like the Process, it is going to be some kind of magic that won’t benefit anyone else. And that’s presuming that he is telling the truth, which is still in doubt.”
Haunter looked right at me.
“I think that he is telling the truth, or at least the Jury does.”
She must have seen my quizzical expression.
“A group of my shades that are extremely good judges of character and the like. They watch from behind my eyes and let me know their thoughts on everyone I meet. From the first time we saw this guy, this thing, they’ve been saying that there was something wrong with him, with it.”
It was so easy to forget about all the parts of her power. Haunter had expelled so many shades to interact with the people of Dover that I’d just sort of been envisioning her as empty. But she’d been gathering people for a very long time. This wouldn’t even scratch the surface of her reservoir.
“Alright, so something is wrong with its facial features. Fine. That doesn’t necessarily mean that we can take the whole ‘I am a secret creation of a historical figure who has all of the information that you desperately want’ line at face value.”
“If it is telling the truth, though. And we can make another one, then I can finally save all of my passengers.”
She actually had tears welling up in her eyes. I felt uncomfortable witnessing this. Old people are ugly when they cry.
“You are eliding a lot of details, but sure. I can appreciate that for your particular purposes a human form that does not age would be crucial.”
I tended to get more clinical as other people got more emotional. I’d resolved to work on it before, but nothing had ever come of it.
“Then you’ll help me get to the bottom of this?”
I nodded, slowly.
“You and I have been at odds ever since the formation of this Fist, but I think that on this matter there is no division. We’ll get the whole story out of Andy, and see where that leads us.”
Haunter looked over at the rest of the group where they were enthusiastically welcoming Andy’s Pantheon washouts to the Regime.
“I think we already know where it is going to lead us, though.”
That was certainly true.
“Let’s hope She doesn’t see us coming.”