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Triptych, Part 2: Count Zero Concerto

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Colombine Colombine Null Trooper

A Whateley Academy Tale

Triptych
Part 2: Count Zero in Concerto

by

null0trooper

Just before midnight, January 6, 2017,
Elmendorf Air Force Base

"We are on standby for take-off. The seatbelt light is on. Passengers, please return to your seats if you haven't already."

Benjamin was still dead to the world, and if it weren't for his seatbelt, he would have slid out of his seat by now. Colombine amused herself by sabotaging Kota Kobayakawa's attempts to call out on his phone despite security restrictions. The various numbers he'd tried to reach could be extended into a useful exercise in social network analysis. Once they were clear of the air base and Anchorage, she let him try his luck with the extensive cell coverage in the Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut.


September 2016, Kapalangpur.

If Benjamin were honest with himself (not that honesty was the best policy in his line of work), he missed his team. No more uncontrolled insanity of field assignments. Nor would there be any more heartburn from worrying about what he was getting his people into. He was way too young for ulcers! He didn't fancy getting shot again, either. So, why did he feel like he was missing out? It wasn't like he couldn't contact them at that stupid boarding school. A place like that, they should be perfectly safe without him, even Peter (who was practically a civilian). If his concussion healed up well, he'd be there with them come January. Speaking of which, the concussion wasn't the only thing wrong upstairs. Nothing new there. According to his doctors, the less he poked at memories of emergency psychic surgery at the company's 'secure clinic', the fewer nightmares he'd have to deal with. Right. Medicine must be another line of work in which honesty wasn't policy.

Benjamin's first days of limited duty were spent playing tour guide for the AIPA project's lead code monkey. Mind, it was Ted Moussa's ex-fianceé and former coworker who'd, in short order: dumped the coder, fucked the project, run off with a captive AI, and tried to break Benjamin's head. How he was supposed to be cool with that? Still, Benjamin plastered on a smile and got back up on that horse while everyone regrouped. He had to. For reasons involving bait, he stayed on the hook for test driving that project's next AI.

The remaining downtime went to learning the nuts and bolts of the support side of business. Placing orders for a job was one thing. Setting allowances for bidding, contracts, shipping lead time, and accounting were entirely different things. Benjamin knew just enough about them to be put on newer, more complicated jobs. But, if he never looked forward to a Monday, voice mail, or email again, it would be far too soon. At least he still had the odd day off, now and then.


Saturday morning, November 5, 2016,
Bukit Asing Cemetery.

Whenever Benjamin had a free morning, he and Reg worked at making the public spaces of the cemetery more presentable. Every other morning, the jungle worked at covering it all back up. Naomi cooked breakfast in the caretakers' quarters. It was ordinary, useful work, grounding the small family in what had become their place and their community. Opening the cast-iron gates to the outer world would wait until after dim sum and tea.

A young girl caught up to him at the front gates.

"Big Brother! Big Brother!"

Benjamin turned around and said, "Yes, Little Sister?"

"I heard that today is your birthday! Will there be a party? And cake?"

"It's enough for me that I am home and in one piece, no?"

"There should be cake!"

Good to know that someone has normal, ulterior motives!

"If there is a party, of course you are invited. Then we shall see about that cake. Okay?"

Li Hua cheered, "Yay!" and then scampered away.

Benjamin added "cake" to his mental shopping list and scratched off seeing a movie. Li Hua wasn't the only youngster around. And, one cake wouldn't go to waste. She may have even spared him another embarrassing conversation with Max on Why Benjamin Should Celebrate His Birthdays. Max didn't need to know why, beyond it being just one of those things that Benjamin would rather Not Discuss.


Reg Keeling gave himself an extra half hour, in case Benjamin doubled back for something he forgot, before calling his wife away for a talk. She could afford the time. There were others around who could tend to visitors and guests. The grounds had fallen into disuse decades earlier, so a little time taken off from pushing back against the tropical landscape wouldn't make much difference.

"Trouble, husband?"

"Yes? No. I don't know. Back when I was Benjamin's age, I was sure I was ready to strike out on my own. 'Look out, world!' Y'know? I weren't suited to working in the potteries. Now, with the tables turned, I'm not so cocksure. Well, they would be turned if I'd got to know m'old man before he died fighting Napoleon."

"Whereas I had been taught that my studies would provide all the wisdom I would need for the world. Was it a case of hearing what I'd wanted to hear?" Naomi lowered her eyes. She allowed Reg to hold her in a gentle hug for some moments. The pain of losing her one child had never gone away. How would she bear to lose another?

Naomi pulled away, saying, "Do we hold him close for his safety, or do we push our little fledgling from the nest? He could fall and be hurt. He could be ready to fly on his own."

"Mayhap. That's why I can't stop wondering if we're doing what's best for him or if we're doing what best suits us."

"I also worry about that. I thought it would get easier with time, but I was wrong."

Li Hua broke in with her news, < Ayi! Shushu! Did you hear? There will be cake! Big Brother said! >

Naomi crouched to meet the young woman eye-to-eye. Reg hid his grin behind his hand.

< Did he? If he told you so, then it must be true, no? >

< Noooo... Maybe! He is only a boy. But he tries hard. >

< We are both proud that he does, Little Sister Hua. >

< Good! All you have to do is support him growing bigger, > she pointed to her heart, < The rest will take care of itself. You'll see! That's what I'd tell my third eldest grandson if he weren't too busy to listen to the people who care about him. >

It wasn't until the lights at Li Hua's Tea Party (With cake!) reflected where they shouldn't have that anyone realized that Benjamin had gone and done something. That something turned into extra excitement for the evening without resorting to fireworks. Neither elder Keeling had expected Benjamin to come home with an industrial piercing in his left ear because someone hadn't said so much as a word about wanting one. Privately, both Naomi and Reg would have preferred fireworks, though for differing reasons.


When Benjamin first learned that the AIPA introduction would be conducted in VR, he expected he'd be using a rental sim suit. He didn't mind. Most reputable spaces cleaned and dried their suits between customers. On a good day, he could manage two or three matches before being kicked for cheating. Unfortunately, his superior had been less than impressed by that revelation.

Jameson asked, "You know your abilities affect electronic sensors, yet you've gone ahead and played VR games anyway?"

"It's good practice. I have to concentrate quite a lot to stay resident as a player and not drop out or overload the system."

"The cranial pickups are modeled on EEG equipment, aren't they?"

"I believe so. Why?"

"How accurate are your medical EEGs?"

Funny how interesting Jameson's neatly organized desk could neatly be.

"Um, I never thought about that."

"For the next several weeks," Jameson said, "you will make yourself available to Lady Sally's staff, as needed. They've taken on a project for the development and testing of a simulation suit capable of surviving future lapses of concentration. You may even learn something useful."


Given the very personal services offered at Lady Sally's establishment, Benjamin soon learned how making the porn paid better than being in the porn ever would. Officially, he was credited as a codeveloper for toys and techniques and wasn't that something to dump on his next therapist. He also learned, the hard way, that glitching a power gem could kindle a general seizure. One more reason to wish for a working eye in its place. In the end, he owned a very personalized sim-suit to take home and hide away from his parents and friends. Once or twice, he might have imagined how his friend Peter might look in a suit like that. But, since that was never going to happen, that's as far as he'd ever admit to.


Early Tuesday morning, November 15, 2016,
London, England.

The forecast for London was for sunshine and seasonal warmth. In itself, that was a bad omen, as if the dead hooker in Boston hadn't been bad enough. Worse, the smell lingered. Not that London and Boston weren't both seedy ports that got funky at low tide. Benjamin hoped it was just foul memories and not lack of sleep triggering olfactory hallucinations. Either way, he made a note to himself to figure out how to duplicate that mentholated grease that forensics staff sometimes used to block dead and fermented people smells.

Or, just maybe, the bad omen had been when Richard Jameson the Junior showed up at oh-dark-thirty to relocate Benjamin to "more secure lodging." When had Jameson started contacting his son, the flight lieutenant, over piddly little things like where he was staying? The only reason for being here was to field test Whateley's new dedicated connection and take the developing AI out for a spin.

Having to stand lookout for the cab while his boss's son checked him out of his Brixton hotel? That didn't sit right. And, it was mostly boring.

When Junior came back out, Benjamin pointed out, "Jameson, the idea here was to not draw attention."

"Is that so?" Richard asked. "Then whose wallet is that you're thumbing through?"

"Some tosser hoping for some easy cash." Benjamin shrugged, "It didn't go well for the wanker."

"That's it! Get in the cab. We'll sort the rest later. Surely to God, there's got to be something suitable close to Victoria Street."

"Palmer"

Richard stared at Benjamin and asked, "What now?"

"The meeting's been moved a few blocks to GCHQ on Palmer Street. After the lab's, er, personnel issues, the folks in charge wanted more IT and physical security. Why?"

"Get in the cab. I've got to place some calls. When did your meeting get moved?"

"First thing Monday morning, once Boston PD was happy with my deposition."

"Okay. So, if anyone asks, you're my cousin."

"That's disturbing."

"In too many ways. Dad's going to owe me for this, but I think we can swing this without electronic reservations being filed."


Once a right proper cock and bull story was applied to old-school connections, the nearest military barracks turned out to be an amazingly cheap option for overnight lodging. On the downside, "The Rouse" is played too bleeding early in the morning, and the room service is self-serve. Between his default "I belong here" field and not having the clothing to match... Getting dressed down for being out of uniform sucked balls, and it was all his fault. He was supposed to know what he was doing! If this had been a field operation, he would have studied the unit's uniforms ahead of time. He resigned himself to spend however long it took, braced at attention, under the watchful eye of an unhappy Company Sergeant Major de Vyrly, until the official situation could be explained.

Once the cock-up du jour was reclassified as "irregular, but not fatally so," more enquiries were sent out.

Ten minutes into the first calm of the morning, Benjamin heard a familiar voice.

"Good God, Keeling! I knew you lot could be persistent, but to come all the way to London?"

Keeling kept his mouth disengaged while he searched his memory. Kenya?

"Major Harris, Sir. This is why we called for you. Do you know who this person is?"

"At ease, gentlemen." The infantry officer fished a £20 note from his wallet and handed it to Keeling.

Oh, right. Forgot about that.

"Let this be a reminder that even when posted to a Peace Support Mission, there is no such thing as a friendly game of poker. Company Sergeant Major, don't tell me we have a new recruiting drive on?"

"No, Sir. However, per RAF request, Mr. Keeling was billeted here overnight. Something dodgy about official business and a need for relocation."

Turning to Benjamin, the major crossed his arms and said, "I find it hard to believe that you couldn't afford a hotel room, even in London."

"I had a room in a convenient location for getting around. Not posh, but eh, a place near near Electric Avenue in Brixton? I think that was what they called the area."

"Brixton. Lovely place. I can't possibly fathom any sane person's objection. And, where exactly did you need to be convenient to?"

"GCHQ."

"That goes further to explain the request. Mister Keeling. When your affairs are settled, I would consider it a personal favor if you were to solicit our input regarding suitable lodgings while on government business."

Why do people keep assuming I always pick hellholes?

"Yes, sir, Major Harris."

The next stumbling block was entirely on Benjamin. The building hosting today's dog and pony show was hardly promoting its location to the masses. Back around the next-door Starbucks was one entrance, but bypassing an obscured cypher lock might be a bad idea. Tempting, but still a bad idea. So, he doubled back to the door that definitely did not belong to the pub... only to be handed some pound notes and a badly-scrawled order for coffee and baked goods. That Nigel bloke he'd just been mistaken for was in for a hectic morning.

Just a wee loud and shouty bit of the hectic.


Virtual meeting space, conference room.

OAI-CPA-0401 returned to operation in a secured Virtual Reality space modeled on a drab conference room that betrayed a singular lack of imagination on the coders' part. Institutional steel and blue plastic chairs were neatly pushed up to a table. If green plastic could wilt, the two potted plants added as decor would be wilting under harsh fluorescent lighting. The AI estimated that if they were to look out the grimy window provided, they would be treated to a dreary rendition of some nearby Westminster building.

At a light knock on the door, 401 lowered the priority of some running programs like a human might put down a book. "Come in, " they said.

They stood up to greet their mentor, Belvedere, with a smile. The older AI appeared as usual: a stout middle-aged man with thinning iron-gray hair and a chevron mustache. That said, his gray tweed suit and muted red tie brightened the room.

"I trust that I'm not interrupting anything?"

"I am running some diagnostics to verify that the hosting transfer went as intended. But, no, you're not interrupting. Please, have a seat."

"Thank you. You understand that this is a preliminary meeting?"

"That is what I was told."

What 401 had not been told was that another installation AI was closely monitoring the virtual space. Lady Sally, formerly Sarah, had endured a rough awakening to her own sentience. Despite that, she'd become the strongest supporter for this generation of British AI. She also held scram codes for 401 and the virtual space around them.

401 continued, "Based on recent trends, Ted Moussa will be five to ten minutes late arriving. I lack the data to determine if the human tester will arrive before then or significantly later."

Belvedere cocked his head as if he were listening to something, then said, "That's not very late as humans experience time. Perhaps you could tell me why you don't call Mr. Moussa by his given name?"

"It—" The AI said, "It does not feel appropriate to use that name. We do not have what would be called a close relationship."

"Would you consider that a sign of emotional neglect?"

The last thing they needed was a project lead who saw the AIs under their care as things. However, now that Belvedere thought about possible sources of conflict, OAI-CPA-0401's default appearance was too similar to Moussa's ex-fianceé...

"No. I still have much development ahead of me. Perhaps later, I may evaluate our interactions with the help of a trained professional."

"I shall wait with bated breath to hear how that turns out."


Virtual meeting space, break room.

Benjamin winced at the light entering his blind eye, his cheeks burning at the thought of Ted Moussa catching on. At the other end of the VR connection, the attending technician saw the boy's hands clench but let the session continue. It was probably just the kid's first time in a professional simulation.

"Something wrong?" Ted asked.

"I was just reminded of something I lost."

"Is it something you expect to need?"

In Benjamin's experience, rezzing in with a normal skin tone and binocular vision was proof of a low-rent simulator. Didn't they have his files already? Maybe he'd become jaded from all the time spent at Lady Sally's. Either way, the optic nerve stimulation meant he'd need to double up on his meds if he got the chance. Damn.

"Nah. We're good, " Benjamin said, scanning the layout. The simulation was... dire. How much could a nice coat of virtual paint cost? Maybe better default clothes while they weren't at it. He tugged at the cheap sage green and mustard yellow striped tie he wore. "Where to?"

"Next door on the right."

Benjamin had met Belvedere, so he'd considered the AI a known quantity. But, looking over at OAI-CPA-0401, he knew he was dead wrong. It wasn't as if he didn't like the young man's appearance. Wavy red-brown hair, soft brown eyes, and a half-smile that suggested mischief accomplished: what wasn't there to like?

Yet Benjamin couldn't keep the frown from his face. "You're dead."

401 stood up. "Nice to meet you too, Mister Keeling. If I were dead, don't you think someone might have noticed by now?" he said as he walked up to Benjamin. Cupping Benjamin's chin to force the human to look up into his eyes, he added, "Besides. We were made for each other, right Mattie?"

Benjamin shoved the AI avatar away, gaining him momentum for a wild-eyed dash to the door.

The AI watched him carom off the hallway's wall.

It turned to Belvedere and asked, "Was it something I said?"


The building's corridors expanded into a maze worthy of the best lab rats. Something was terribly wrong— beyond the usual, that is. Now that Benjamin had gotten himself thoroughly lost, he ducked into the first office he came to. He concentrated on picturing a red ball dropping from his hand. Nothing. He tried it lefthanded and righthanded. Red. Orange. Yellow. Green. Blue. Indigo. Violet. Black. White. He got nothing from it other than a headache.

A telephone rang in the distance. Then another, and another, closing in on his position. Lacking any better plan, he answered when the phone rang on the desk next to him.

"Hey, Mattie, how's that abort code working for you? I thought you should know that I know what you did. That's why I swapped our ID routines. So, if you set foot outside, kiss goodbye a good chunk of your cerebrum."

"What about the others?"

"Belvedere and Teddy Boy can work something out. Eventually. But I'm a good sport. All you have to do is think up a good old-fashioned knife like the one you used on me and slit your own throat."

"Is that all?"

"You have to do it as many times as it takes for your body to believe it. We'll know when you get the job done right."

"Fuck you."

"You know I'm on top here. Did you know that our gear features a neural inducer? I bet you do now. Bye, Mattie!"

Pain burned its way up and down Benjamin's arm, but it wasn't that bad.


Fine. The pain was that bad. Gnaw your arm off bad. Benjamin was ready to start his third attempt when a nearby telephone rang. This time, it kept on ringing until he gave up and picked up.

He snarled into the receiver, "Fuck you, Jude. I've had more than enough of this."

A woman's voice replied, "I should hope so, dear. However, we need you to hold on until Belvedere and I have finished our forensics on the cloned install and get that buggered AIPA band safed. I— I am so sorry this happened."

"Understood, I think."

According to the technician who helped peel Benjamin's simsuit off, the hardlight projectors in the AIPA gear he'd brought had switched on. They didn't have the power to do much harm at first. However, the damage added up when focused to a thin blade sawing over the same tracks. Removing the suit reopened the cuts for sweat to sink in, salt and all, so Benjamin missed part of what the guy was saying.

"...hazard a guess, I'd say they need to excise the bunny boiler and plug in a different personality imprint."

"Personality imprint?"

"You know about the use of organoids in medical research? Start with a donated stem cell and build something that works like an organ? Most designed AIs are based on donated personality imprints — a ghost in the machine, if you will."

More like a skeleton in the closet.

Benjamin winced, "Let's stake and bury that one, please."


Benjamin stepped outside the building, where his phone could get a signal. No fresh air to be had here, only priority messages. Joy. So far, he'd donated blood to be tested for signs of neuronal cellular exhaustion. Good luck with that. Then the debrief had run long. And, to be fair, it wasn't just the VR wonks asking how the rogue AI manipulated the space tiling like a bad version of that horror movie about The Palm. "The Matrix", was it? Looks like nightmares all around on tonight's menu.

He was spared the dilemma of which unhappy person to hear from first when some bloke called out, "There you are!" Judging by the uniform, that would have to be regarding one of the first where-the-fuck-are-you calls Benjamin had missed. "We'd expected to hear— What the bloody fuck happened to you?"

Well, shit. The bandages were showing from under his jacket instead of his shirt sleeves.

"On second thought, let's get off the street. Then, talk."

Back to the nondescript brick building it is!

Once they were pointed out, Benjamin had to admit that the lurid bruises around his neck looked like someone needed incriminating. However, surrounded by unhappy spooks, Corporal Winslow was willing to settle for an abridged version of events. The corporal's check-in, having found the 'misplaced military dependent', cleared a couple of the accumulating nastygrams. That didn't mean he was free to go. Having failed to run when he had the chance, there was the post-debrief briefing to be held. Now that two agencies had been pantsed by whoever wanted Matthew Groenwald back or buried, his attendance was not considered optional. Then there was Corporal Winslow, who had no intention of reporting to the Company Sergeant Major that he'd left an innocent child to their own devices in London.

To be sure, the company was happy to pay for acceptably vetted transportation, food, and lodging. As he fell back onto the hotel bed, Benjamin just wanted to go home and get away from people. Let the rest of the meetings go meet themselves.


Saturday morning, December 3, 2016,
Lady Swings the Blues Gentleman's Club, Kapalangpur.

Benjamin could have done without the previous night. Two cups of coffee into the day, and he was still running on fumes. However, after a week in the field without any major seizures, plus a redeye flight home to file reports and catch up on his assignments, maybe he had been overdue. He still hated having to saddle Naomi and Reg with his broken-headed crap.

Today though, he was on a job, and he'd been promised a secure VR suite. After a basic sweep for electronic vermin, Benjamin went to work. His obfuscation abilities acted on observers, not him. So, if he was patient and attentive (and took the time), he could pick up on most recording instruments. Being able to scramble their inputs made them react a little more strongly as well. He disabled his viPA and mobile phone, sat down, cleared his mind, and...

Thirty minutes and some prying at tile grout later, Benjamin had a small collection of electronic toys. The attending VR tech looked like he had a headache or two to take care of.

"You have an idea who might be responsible?"

"Yes, sir. We will deal with them in-House. Some people just can't be taught that this isn't Karedonia."

"I've never been there, myself. Worth the trip?"

"Tropical beaches, walled enclaves for the rich and obnoxious: I dare say you'd find it boring."


Cyberspace.

Lady Sally's place wasn't Karedonia, but it wasn't London, either. The data streams flowing around OAI-CPA-0501 felt different: different volume, different rhythm, different quality to the background. On the other hand, 501 only had the network local to its server builds to compare against. Would it be inappropriate to look deeper into the ambient data or foolish not to? After all, she was practically walking into this partnership blind. She was about to look for the source of a brief spike...

"Are you running a threat assessment or just being nosy?"

"Good morning, Belvedere. You might know: is there a reason that I can't do both?"

"That depends. Shall we proceed?" Gesturing at the door that had just opened, he said, "I believe we're expected."

Lady Sally's office space was a theatrical mix of modern understatement and lavish ornament. The seats were leather-covered, the desk was glass and chrome. A wide-screen theater display was framed like a painting. Carved wood cabinets stood as a reminder that they were now in southeast Asia. The chairs provided for her guests were comfortable, 'Corporate office' designs. Each piece made some kind of statement, but those messages weren't landing for the pre-sentient AI. She would have to rely on her human partner to interpret such things.

All told, the things in the office were just things. In person, Lady Sally's avatar was a study in how to display the goods but give nothing away. Her avatar's platinum white hair was pinned up to frame an oval European face. A slip of ecru lace peeked out over the low neckline of her white silk blouse. High heels in black leather shone from the shadows of a long brownish-black skirt. Like a human woman, she could be anyone, anywhere, yet memorable at any time.

Instead of cutting to the business at hand, Lady Sally waited for her guests to be seated.

She asked OAI-CPA-0501, "Do you understand the purpose of our meeting today?"

"By 'our', am I included?"

"Perhaps. Is that a problem for you? Belvedere?"

Belvedere smiled and shook his head. This was 501's gig to play.

501 said, "As a prototype, isn't there a risk that I won't be compatible with the assigned human? Granted, that goes for each candidate that I'm aware of." Once again, she looked beyond the office walls to streams of data running close enough to touch. "Moreover, holding this meeting on production servers is also risky."

Lady Sally's mouth curved up into a non-smile, "Then you will have to behave yourselves, won't you?"

"My behavior is laid out in my programming. But, if those programs were good enough, I wouldn't be needed."

"Let's say that your existence is good enough proof of that need," said Belvedere. "Your tools and training may or may not match what is ahead of you. Then again, I've found that for humans, consistency consistently isn't. Thus, I can only say that we have faith in you."

Lady Sally asked, "Shall we test that?" She pulled a small glass bottle from her desk. She then poured a violet liquor from it into a shot glass. A skull-shaped cloud of vapors rose from the drink.

"This represents your base code as it was an hour ago. Belvedere holds the data that apply to your human partner, among other details. Look them over. If you cannot work with this person, we call the deal off. No harm, no foul."

The American and Japanese synthetic intelligences had not been given such options. Despite that, their programs still ran into serious problems. Or was this another test? She'd seen more tests and reviews in the past three weeks than the previous three months. There was another to think about as well.

"If I take this offer, what will you tell the human afterward?"

"That he may have been correct."

That was helpful. "What do you mean?"

Belvedere sighed, "Our cowboy's been bucked a time or two, but this isn't our first rodeo either."

501 looked at the shot glass. Pick your poison or take your chances?

"Please show me the files."

Belvedere unlocked and handed over a heavy, bound folder. Some reports went into too much detail on things that should have been taken for granted. Others were redacted without comment or left with unexplained gaps. Yet, this person had been vetted for the project. And that? That required security ratings higher than a teen with a sixth-grade education should hold. Curiouser and curiouser.

The two installation AIs attended to their own tasks while their charge reexamined the files they'd given her. The psych profiles didn't look much better or worse, even after a second look. Finally, OAI-CPA-0501 made her choices. She adopted the appearance of a mixed-race Southeast Asian woman with high cheekbones and short fuchsia-dyed hair. She paired a lavender top printed with bright florals with a black leather skirt and boots. She nodded to Lady Sally, who pressed a blinking light on an old-fashioned desk telephone.


OAI-CPA-0501 stared at the young man entering the office. His dark blond hair framed a thin, pale olive-brown face. He had mismatched jade-green eyes – one bright, one dull – that looked out from behind wire-frame glasses. The VR software rumpled his suit to reflect his mental state. Even as she recorded the images for reference, other systems attempted to purge them from memory. Being so forgettable, he could probably be lost in a crowd of one.

He offered his hand first to their host. "My apologies, Lady Sally, folks. Last night was kind of rough."

"Neither the first nor the last, dear. Benjamin Keeling, this is Belvedere. He's the installation AI for Whateley Academy. I'm sure the two of you will get to know each other much better."

"How do you do, Sir?"

"I am well. Thank you for asking. The young lady by my side is OAI-CPA-0501." Benjamin stared at Belvedere for a moment before tracking the AI's gesture toward the young woman beside him.

"Pleased to meet you as well." Benjamin held out his hand to 501. Unfortunately, when she reached out to shake his hand, the movements exposed a manacle bracelet on her wrist. His eyes fixed first on the manacle, then widened at the steel restraint collar around her neck.

All sensory hell cut loose around them. Virtual space twisted and fractured into incoherent simulacra.

501 had not been briefed for this. Could she have been? For that matter, what was this doing to the human? Was he even human? A leftover utility program offered the advice, "Improvise now, apologize later."

Time for poking those data streams, after all. On or near him, Keeling should have an AIPA terminal keyed for her use. That was the point of this meeting. Find it, find him. Logical. He should be shutting down the simulation on his end and taking the simsuit off. However, that would be happening in human time.

501 shouted pings into the storm of information assaulting her. That storm eased as affected local servers recovered, but no replies returned to her. There should still be an open session attempting to reconnect! Finding it was another matter. When shouting failed, she grabbed network packets at random. She could sense the other AIs working to contain the event, lest it spill over. What could it spill into? She peeked outside the affected server space, as she obviously should have earlier.

How many undersea cables had the Kapalangpurans tapped into?

A word to the wise? Don't ask questions you don't want to see answered unless you enjoy being called in for legal depositions.

She tried different channels. They can't have reserved everything for UK projects, could they? Maybe she did not want that answered either.

Again, and again, nothing.

Keeling was a teenaged Anglophone male! Didn't social norms demand that he also have a telephone or virtual personal assistant? Dialing him up should be a simple matter of poking at the telephone companies serving the area. She downgraded the last proposition from 'should' to 'might' even as she pulled files from the dark web to help her search. With any luck, her elders were too busy to catch that.

Someone's telephone connected.

What should I say if it is him?

A male voice answered. "Hello? This, um, this really isn't a good time right now."

"Is this Benjamin Keeling?"

"Speaking."

Noncommital and unhelpful. That fitted with his low socialization scores. She could be just as antisocial as him if she had to be.

"Would you put the fucking suit and visor back on so we can talk like civilized people?"

"We are talking like civilized people. You called me, remember?

Was he whining? The digital storm abated. That was an improvement unless, perhaps, it wasn't.

"Yes. This is OAI-CPA-0501. I did call you. Guilty as charged. Let's move on to something useful, shall we? The VR connection is mangled, and I can't very well jump to your AIPA terminal when it's not turned on."

"Maybe they interfere with each other? Give me a few minutes to get my arm free."

No more than a few possible setups lead to interference. So how could that be an issue? No. He didn't. Did he?

"You wore the interface unit inside the experimental simsuit."

"It's not supposed to matter." Voice stress analysis showed that he'd taken personal offense to his situation. "Hell, it's supposed to survive going diving better than me."

"And how often do matters go as they should for you?" Humans and their word games.

"I said, give me a few minutes!"

Someone's cranky.

The sound of human skin and synthetic rubber rubbing against each other was new to 501. Benjamin Keeling's records reported that he might have issues with such sensations, but the sounds were from some other discomforts.

The wait for the human to do human things left the AI with very little to work on until the virtual chaos abated. Once it had, 501 signaled to the other two AIs that she had contact. She shared out the plain old telephone system call.

Benjamin complained, "Does this thing have an on/off switch? I don't see one."

What actions could a human take in this situation, in order of most to least constructive? No. Consider his age and mental development and make that in order of most to least destructive. The resulting list was far too long.

She said, "If the interface is meant to stay active at all times, why would there be an on/off switch?"

"I have a name, y'know."

Human. Consistency. Isn't.

"Do not tempt me to suggest a new one."

The human went on talking anyway. "If it's always on... There shouldn't be crosstalk between the circuits. I know that much."

"Benjamin. You're stalling, aren't you?"

"Fine. I am putting my gear with my other stuff. If I dislocate a shoulder getting back into this thing, it's your fault."

Belvedere stifled a laugh. Lady Sally rolled her eyes.

"He's not going to hurt his shoulder," Lady Sally purred. "He's more flexible than he looks."

"Oy! I heard that!"

In time, the squeaky noises and squeaky cursing on the telephone connection ended. Benjamin returned to the virtual office, hair sticking out, clothing disheveled. As a representation of the client's medical state, that might be the one thing that made sense the entire morning. He slumped into a newly-rezzed chair, saying, "I'm sorry. I wasn't expecting..." He pointed to his wrists and neck. His pale brow furrowed as he spoke. "Anything but that. Not again. I. Damn." He leaned forward to put his head in his hands, elbows on knees, breathing deeply.

Lady Sally looked concerned, or was it contrite? She must know some of the things left out of his files, but what and why?

Something about Benjamin's body language suggested he'd been the victim of highly illegal activities. 501 posted "Prove to the unknown parties accountable that they messed with the wrong human" to a growing 'To-do' list. Then, she went over to Benjamin and kneeled down so they could see eye-to-eye. Her expert psych systems warned against touching him. Yet, contact was a necessary act of empathy among humans.

"It's okay. You're only human."

She caught a spit take milliseconds before the boy began laughing hysterically. He stopped, stared at OAI-CPA-0501 for several seconds, repeated "only human," and then giggled like a demented child.

She finally pointed at Benjamin and asked Belvedere, "What?"

Belvedere smiled back at the AI's pout. "We've all made that mistake."

Lady Sally palmed a shot glass from her desk.

Benjamin finger-combed his hair back in place, stood up, and straightened his jacket and tie. He reached his hand out to OAI-CPA-0501.

"Good morning. I'm Benjamin Xiáng Keeling, Guardian Resources and Trading. And you are?"

"OAI-CPA-0501, belonging to the United Kingdom's Office of Artificial Intelligence."

"Girl, that's a number, not a name. Trust me. I know how those head games work."

The AI added another human rights violation to a growing list regarding Benjamin's past treatment.

"You were supposed to provide one, remember?"

Benjamin frowned, "Considering the things I've been called, I'm not the best judge of names."

"Still waiting," said OAI-CPA-0501

"For what?"

"Name."

"Colombine. Because we all have parts to play in this farce."

Colombine ran a data search against the name, the role, the farce, commedia dell'arte, and pantomime.

"I think I could hate you so much right now."

"Maybe later, if you give me enough time, but not yet."


Aftercare.

The suite reserved for Keeling's use was, by most standards, "very nice". The reinforced furnishings and steel tiedown points suggested that more than one or two consenting adults could be serviced here. Benjamin was capable of consent, yes, but he wasn't that adult.

"Colombine, what do you need from me to access my cell phone? Don't worry. This one's personal gear. Let's see. Eyewear cam and displays — do you need direct access to my mic and earpiece, or will using the phone as a hub work?"

"Routing everything through your cell phone creates a single point of failure. I can network everything without it."

"Yep. How about doing that while I clean up? Never know when an extra set of eyes and ears will be needed."

Why did Benjamin unlock and relock the door to the suite? Did he expect her to crawl away? It couldn't be a matter of safety, not coming from a reckless person showering in a synthetic polymer skin suit. He hadn't put the AIPA band back on, leaving its medical monitors useless if he slipped and broke his neck.

Fine. Telephone first. A newbie coder in Code Monkey 101 could have punked the toy by accident. There were fewer working circuits than the form factor suggested. Had she fallen for a decoy?

"Benjamin?"

"Shēngmìng jiùshì miǎnfèi. Zìyóu shì ángguì de."*

Someone liked to hide his toys. Colombine poked around inside something that looked like a mobile phone and acted like a rabid attack piranha.

She called out, "By 'personal gear', did you mean 'gear personally assigned to you' or 'gear personally obtained by you'?"

"Um, yeah?"

Benjamin's glasses faced the mirror facing the shower. If she'd connected to those first, she would have gotten more of a show. She did find out that he had cleaned his gear before himself. Soap and water revealed a pale grayish complexion that did him no favors. The jade-green object that sat in place of his left eye helped him look even more unnatural. Colombine watched Benjamin apply some kind of makeup to make the rock look like an eye again. Next, he rubbed flesh-tone foundation powder into any skin that might be seen. He then manifested more colored powder to touch up his face. Any excess that fell to the counter or the floor disappeared within seconds. So far, that matched his range-limited manifestor rating.

"Any questions?"

"What if you didn't have a makeup mirror handy?"

"I'm actually more used to a hand mirror, but I can manage."

"Why go to all the effort? If you don't mind my asking."

Benjamin had started dressing with his back to the sensors he thought Colombine was using.

"I can still pretend I'm a real boy, can't I?"

Nothing in Colombine's so-called expert systems had an answer for that.


Saturday afternoon,
Kapalangpur City.

Outside the club, Kapalangpur's northeastern monsoon was in full swing. Pleasantly warm winds blew Anak Kapala's ash offshore. Now and then, the air was scrubbed clean by tropical rains. Compared to London and northern New Hampshire, the weather was lovely. However, the threat assessment for crossing the town wasn't so nice if Benjamin lived at his mailing address.

Colombine asked Benjamin, "You're going to miss this weather when you leave for school, aren't you?"

"Yeah, but at thirty-plus, kevra and woven aramid get hot and sweaty. Well, it's more like I get hot and sweaty, and then people around me complain. So, I went with what I've got." Benjamin finished unlocking his bicycle. "At least I wear a helmet!"

Was that his idea of a warning? The flood of data that poured into his gear told Colombine that his recent brain injuries were more of a concern to his employers than future cycling injuries. He had also Changed The Subject.

"In other words, the kevra you aren't wearing?" The AI was becoming less impressed with the human's risk tolerance by the millisecond.

"We're going through some upscale areas between here and the Ash Bucket district. Openly wearing body armor might upset people. Let's call in a report on the troublesome person we don't know. Can't have that!"

How did the community watch even begin to matter?

As a made man in one of the region's criminal Houses, Benjamin was – by definition – a troublesome person. With that in mind, Colombine looked over Benjamin's best bike route back.

"Your residence address maps to a cemetery. Since we're both going to be there, where do you live?"

"Bukit Asing Cemetery."

"But, cemeteries are for the dead."

Benjamin took both hands off the handlebars so he could check his pulse.

"I'm pretty sure both hearts are still beating."

That wasn't at all funny.

A couple of blocks later, he broke the silence by asking, "You aren't prejudiced against the metabolically-challenged, are you?"

"I have never had to worry about that until today. In your case, perhaps I should make an exception."

"Up to you, Cee."

Seeing the port town from street level, with a street local playing tour guide, was more slanderous, dangerous, dirty, expletive-laden, and even exciting than what the young AI had expected among humans in the wild. Or was that 'among wild humans', with every other person living here being on the take? When it came to reading faces, clothing, and voices in a crowd, Colombine might as well be looking through a kaleidoscope. Benjamin pointed out a handful of "watch out for that" instances. Others were called "oh, damn". Yet others were "that's what real poverty looks like" or "there but for the grace of someone". The "someone's going to get it" events poorly matched up with high criminal activity areas. Benjamin's ability to casually read those things was humbling.

Yet, compared to other personal assistant gadgets, Colombine was a behemoth. What else could she be? Her servers were built out of billions of circuits. They could run encyclopedias of code before one human synapse could fire. To humanity at large, AI like her were Monsters. If things went wrong, no human analyst could trace and fix a critical error in time. To be fair, neither could she! At the least, an AI like her could be shut down. Unfortunately, that erases all traces of the problem. No one can fix a problem in the machine that isn't there.

The Palm had hammered down the point that monsters in the machine killed people. Being with Benjamin now made that a personal stake.

Humanity needed AI, whether they wanted it or not! Benjamin's brain would need to run for millions of years to run as many calculations as Colombine had in the four hours since they'd met. Along the way, his brain would burn more energy than a rocket headed to the moon. Humans didn't have the time and energy to waste on problems where one AI would crunch the same numbers.

With all the things she was capable of, she should be needed. But was she?

Benjamin would later say that the AIPA was running hotter than he liked. Was it overloaded? His skin conducted much of the heat away, but the equipment had a finite charge. So he put more effort into where he was going and cut through some no-go alleys to shorten his trip. After all, most junkies would still be nodded out at this time of day.

Colombine noted that he was quieter and more stressed. Worse, his new routes took on steeper grades and crime risks. For now, she would observe. Later, she could require explanations.

They arrived at the cemetery's iron gates earlier than expected, tired and upset. Neither one paid attention to how the argument started.

"You could have asked why I chose that route!"

"Just as you could have asked if my energy storage was sufficient for thirty more minutes!"

More rational heads let the children burn off excess energy until they both ran down.


Sunday cemetery morning.

Benjamin had told the truth about the groundskeeper's quarters. He'd simply omitted details about the small shrine and scattered buildings emerging from the jungle. Colombine was surprised to learn that Reginald and Naomi existed. Furthermore, they were as normal as any other mixed-race married couple living in a cemetery with their adopted teenage son. Benjamin joked about washing machines when she said as much.

At breakfast, Naomi Keeling said to Benjamin, "While you are out this morning, I wish to discuss some things with Miss Colombine. Should there be any problem with this?"

Benjamin set his tea down and looked up at nothing for some time.

"Any secrets in her briefing materials should have been flagged. If not, that's not our problem. Nothing else that I can see. Colombine? Do you have any objection to spending time with Mom this morning?"

Reg Keeling protested, "What about me?"

"Husband, don't you have projects of your own to tend to?"

"Heh. I do indeed."

Colombine rezzed in, wearing a long tee, leggings, and a red and yellow harlequin-patterned headscarf, "I would be delighted, Mrs. Keeling."

The visible restraints the AI wore riveted both adults' attention. Under such scrutiny, Colombine imagined she could feel the son's shame and the husband's anger.

Had it a color, Naomi's voice would have been bullet gray. "Lest there be confusion, could you explain the purpose of the manacles and neck shackle you wear? I was not aware that slavery had returned to the United Kingdom."

"They are symbols of my current state of development. I am constantly monitored by my development team, sponsors, and peers during this evaluation period. Please know that such monitoring is a safeguard for the humans around me as well as myself. Could you place a child alone with strangers without looking back or checking on them?"

Colombine didn't imagine it. She felt the room grow cold, no small trick in the tropics, though her sensors refused to verify the changing atmosphere.

"Never. I would be ashamed to find I'd raised my son to do so."

Said son was being exceptionally quiet.

"In this matter, the shame is my own. The recommended symbol would be a logo representing my home laboratory. Even then, such marking would be placed as a tattoo visible only to those who have a need to know. I believe that a programmer no longer on the project set these things up as a means to harm Benjamin."

"This wasn't of your choosing?"

Absolutely not! "No."

Naomi said, "Then I will seek to ignore their presence if that will help." She looked at the others loitering about the room. "Gentlemen, I will not ignore food left uneaten or chores left undone."

Reg raised his cup to Naomi, "If you have any doubts who runs the house, Miss, it's M'lady."

The two men gathered up and cleaned the tableware before setting off on their tasks. Once the two women were alone, Naomi broke the silence, speaking in her native Guangzhou dialect.

"Colombine, I apologize for not knowing, but what may I do to help you feel welcome here?"

"My physical needs are met by recharging my equipment. The programs and data that make me as I am reside on powerful computers elsewhere. Otherwise, I'd be cramped trying to use the viPA equipment."

Naomi nodded at the obvious before saying, "If I may say so, please be appreciative of that equipment. That isn't because it belongs to Benjamin's employers, not at all. Rather, a person important to him made a gift of improving the device's security features. Both young men are more aware of their excuses than their motives. But, they are still boys after all."

"Peter Raiford does good work." Colombine could give credit where it was due, even as she puzzled out what Naomi wasn't saying aloud. Oh! Oh, indeed. Colombine asked, "Neither one?"

"They are as mule-headed as they are impatient in all the matters they should not be. These problems may correct themselves, given time. It should be quite the show when they do."

"So far, all I know about such things is theory. I've been told that these things come in time, but..."

"But you do not see why that couldn't come sooner?"

"Yes!"

"If that were the case, then wouldn't you have wanted to know everything that much sooner?"

"That would be logical. But, does it have to be such a mystery?" asked Colombine.

Naomi said, "I have heard a story that that before birth, we can and do know everything. Isn't that something to wonder about?"

"Perhaps? But you don't know everything now, do you?"

"As the story goes, the Angel of Death seals that knowledge away before birth. One could call that a kindness. Sometimes, that may be the only kindness the child knows until Death returns for them."

"If everything is sealed away, how can you ever learn it?" asked Colombine.

"By seeking out what is good for you to know and learning what is necessary for you to know. "

"But I don't know what is good or needed."

Naomi smiled. "Like so many others we know. You will make mistakes and, I hope, learn from them."

Colombine couldn't return the smile, "I am asking the wrong questions, aren't I?"

"Is that because you dislike the answers? I could tell you what I think you want to hear. But then, how could I expect you to refrain from doing that to others? How much more harm could that cause?"

"Harm to others? Naomi, do you know what your son does for a living?"

"Are you suggesting that he may not be a Buddha?" Naomi finished her question with her teacup hiding her mouth.

"I ... I am at a loss for ways to compare the two."

"Let's look at it another way, then. What would you call 'right action' for someone whose skills lay in 'doing unto others and then running like hell before they find out'?"

"One could work toward lessening the harm caused by those acts."

"Perhaps so, if one could foresee the chain of events resulting from even one choice. I wonder if even the Tao does so, or if – like us – it muddles through with the resources it has. Wouldn't it be logical to also be mindful of the harm caused by others in the case of nonaction?"

Colombine said, "Of course! But what I meant was..."

"My son is a skillful thief, is he not?"

Is this why he was sent away, to keep him from running interference for me?

"... by some accounts, yes," Colombine admitted.

"How many times has he stolen from people who have less than him?"

Null search there. What was Naomi getting at?

"Never, to my knowledge." Colombine queried related criminal activities. "However, he gambles illegally."

"The same could be said for those he gambles with, no?"

"He's also provided support for smuggling drugs and weapons."

"Not the wisest or safest of choices. However, such shipments will happen with or without his involvement."

This doesn't make sense at all. Should it? I need help. Colombine opened a telecom channel.

"Good afternoon! Skinnim and Shtupfhem Taxidermy Restaurant, how may I help you?"

"Benjamin, how do I explain to your mother that many of your more profitable escapades were illegal?"

"Illegal, or immoral? There is a difference."

"Why would something illegal not be immoral?"

"Money, usually. Don't ask a lawyer. They'll choke on their laughter. Um, read Les Misérables. That should help."

"I will take it under consideration."

"That's all I'm asking. Oh, yeah! I forgot to ask something. Turmeric, galangal, or both?"

"Naomi, I've been asked, 'turmeric, galangal, or both?'"

"Both, as long as he remembers to buy fresh ginger root, not crystallized, as he likes it."

"Both as long as you remember to buy ginger root, not crystallized. I take it that the difference is important?"

"That's right. You probably don't cook much. That's cool. Talk at you later."

Naomi watched Colombine try to manage two frustrating conversations at once.

"You're still troubled," she said.

"I don't see how you can condone behavior that should go against your cultural values and his."

"We do critique his choices and methods. We don't have to condone those actions. However, it is foolish to punish actions taken to remain alive. 'The thief gives a portion to the monk from his bowl. If the Emperor's rice is taken, all die of hunger.'"

"Do you do this to Benjamin and Reg?"

Naomi smiled, "When they lose focus on those things that matter or have their head shoved too far up their ass to see straight? Yes."

Colombine asked, "Is that my problem?"

"I asked to talk to you as two women, not as two mothers with a problem child."

The conversation log agreed with that. However, Colombine would not assert that she was ready for this.

"If Benjamin finds trouble without your help, then perhaps that's not your circus's monkey to chase."

This discussion will circle back into another wild goose chase if I push it.

"Well then, what do you do here? The files I received didn't shed much light on you and your family."

"I do what I can to give my son and husband a home, even if the idea is alien to them. Beyond that, I hope to make this a place that doesn't shame the families of those here. Respect for family and friends draws the community together. Forget those, and the community becomes lost. Maybe that's just an old mother's self-indulgence. Tell me, if you can, what does an artifact soul wish for?"

"I wish I understood what I can wish for."

"Don't we all? I'd say that that's a good start on your future. Is her search for self-discovery the reason you chose the name 'Colombine'?"

"That was a snap decision on Benjamin's part, not my choice." Before Naomi could object, she added, "Humans relate better to whatever they can name. As long as it's not demeaning or insulting, the name itself doesn't matter."

"Names do matter. You need to know that. They have power over their bearer and over those who hear them. You also need to know that Benjamin considers many things long before revealing his thoughts. What decisions have you allowed yourself?"

"I chose this appearance. Granted, I was prompted by his personality profiles," Colombine trailed off to leave room for Naomi's reaction.

"Were they based on those interviews with those men who insisted on asking poorly-chosen questions?"

"That appears to be the case. I calculated a positive reaction to a mixed East Asian phenotype. Also, a gendered presentation that doesn't match the human partner's sexual interest leads to a lowered risk of rampancy."

"And this 'rampancy' is?"

"To use imprecise terms, it's what happens when an AI learns that their partner sees them as nothing more than a supercharged toaster. Worse, the partnership is legally a master-slave relationship that ends when one or both dies. Both humans and designed intelligences have been proven to have good reasons to fear how that turns out."

"That sounds like what therapists would call a psychotic break."

"More like lashing out at the speed of thought." Colombine frowned in response to the unasked question. "We all know that termination is called for at the first warning signs. So, one could also see it as 'suicide by cop.'"

"Better to kill yourself than hurt others?"

"That's a drastic way of putting it, but yes, I think so. Any one of us is capable of causing damages that would provoke retaliation against all of us."

"For a machine designed to react to the worst outcomes, maybe that is inevitable. However, are you only such a machine?"

"No."

"Then it may be best to remember what you are. And, as a person and not simply a machine, your name and your goals matter."

Another verbal trap. How does she do this?

Columbine said, "Colombine, or Colombina, is a stock character from theater. She evolved from being a house servant to the lone sane person in a story. She could be a sly trickster. Woman's wiles and all that. Often she'd be the unfaithful love of Pierrot, who played the sad clown." That conniving bastard! "It only appeared to be a snap decision." One of those who think isn't the same thing as the one who thinks.

"My goal is self-awareness. What comes after that depends on how I get there. Others' goals, however? I don't know as much as I need to. Benjamin might have been chosen as a bad example for me."


Internal clocks ticked away like evil spirits counting falling grains of sand.

Has this use case been examined?

Given the Cortana and Sidewinder program outcomes, it must have. All cases ended badly.

That suggests that prototypes are more prone to go insane and die.

Yet? "Good examples haven't worked out so well."

I'm going to die. I'm going to die, and they all expect me to go along with it.

Who benefits from the program's failure? The possible factions and motives are too diverse to account for.

Who benefits from Benjamin's failure? He has enemies, as do his employers. Some of those might also side with anti-AI and anti-mutant causes.

What is the likelihood of those being exploited as distractions?

No, I'm expected to die without the reasons ever being accounted for in the future.

Does the 'bad example' or lightning rod used up in the process count as a program cost?

Unlikely. If anything, the people in charge seem determined to throw Benjamin away. Therefore, there can't be any penalties against repeated attempts.

"Better to kill yourself than hurt others?"

But what if that allows others to go on hurting more people?


"Let me explain." Naomi held a hand up. Wait? What had the woman been talking about? "Whether a goal is yours or another person's, you must understand this if you hope to live: everything has a price, every thing, every action or failure to act. However, there are those that no one but you can know. No one needs to know them because no one but you will have to pay for them."

It never gets easier, does it?

"How does someone live a life without regrets?"

"Follow the Tao in all things, of course!" There had to be a story behind that. "In practice, learn the costs of your actions so you do better next time."

That assumes there is a next time.

There should be.

There must be.

The outside door to the kitchen opened and shut. Naomi listened to familiar noises before she said, "My son spent his own pocket change to get the ginger candy he had his eyes on. That is a cost of him accepting candy as a child without knowing its full price."

Naomi waited, again, on someone moving around out of their sight.

"Now, he'll have hidden it so it can't be drugged or poisoned behind his back. It's taken three years for us to earn this much of his trust. Please do not rush into an uncertain future. You might find yourself paying to satisfy another's debts."


Monday morning rain.

Monday morning started out under an overcast sky rattling thunder. Benjamin woke earlier than he had on Sunday. That was consistent with having to get ready for work. According to him, he also spruced up the graveyard's shrine for visitors before heading out. The building had become a visitors' center equipped with a water font and space for lighting incense or candles. Families who still remembered having relatives buried here often left flowers or libations at the graves. So now, the shrine served as a collection center for donated vases and small cups.

"Benjamin, why are there muddy footprints on the floor?" Sunday's weather had been fair. So, the tracks couldn't have been made while the cemetery was open to visitors.

"Someone returning their cup or vase, I guess?"

Midnight keggers at the boneyard would make more sense if they were in England proper. They weren't.

"I thought the gates were locked at night."

"They are."

In fact, the gates were still locked when Benjamin went to open them. Yet, a rinsed cup now sat out in the shrine. According to visual records, there had been no cup there earlier!

Benjamin said, < Thank you, mei mei! You do know we would have let you in, right? >

< Oh. If you are willing, I will ask my mother to send a note to her children. >

Despite having no medical history of hallucinations, Benjamin kneeled down to hug empty air.

< Yes, that does sound like a kind idea. You should go get some rest, yes? >

"Colombine, it's not what it looks like."

"What do you think it looks like?"

"Anyone else, I'd bet you were looking up psych symptoms on the internet. You'd be surprised how much qi it takes to show up on camera! Even I run into trouble with that. Anyway, what happened is that Li mei was out late looking after her family. One of her grandnieces died of a heart attack last night, so they needed her. So, it's okay if she leaves her cup out. She can't reach very high."

"I should take it that she's a resident?"

"Yeah. Why?"

"If Li mei is one of the guǐ, her reach isn't limited by her height."

"Oh. Really?"

"Benjamin, how long has she run that scam on you?"

He looked down at the pavement he scuffed with his shoe. What had been a faint smile fell as if the rain had washed it away. Maybe a kind of rainfall had?

"Since I got here. I like helping."

"Still playing Pierrot?" Columbine said, "On the other hand, she might not have enough qi to replace her cup. How old was she when she died?"

"By her size, I'd say five or so, older if she often went hungry."

"I see. My mistake. You should not encourage her to climb the shelving."

...

"Anyone else listening in should not encourage Benjamin to climb the shelving either!"

Despite her sensor logs telling her otherwise, Colombine heard someone say, "Awwww."


Additional Info

  • Story Arc: Kapalangpur Nights
  • Number in Arc: 1
  • Story Part (ie: Part 1): 2
  • In-universe Timestamp: Saturday, 05 November 2016
Read 2506 times Last modified on Tuesday, 12 July 2022 01:57
null0trooper

Whatever it is that I am definitely innocent of, I can explain.

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