Monday morning, December 5, 2016,
Kapala Town Center, Kapalangpur
Colombine saw no point in Benjamin wearing a raincoat to ride down muddy streets on a bicycle. By the time he reached downtown (alive, somehow), he was hardly recognizable. Fortunately, he used the building's garage entrance instead of the ground-floor foyer entrance. Their first stop was the office's showers and locker room.
A shower and a change of clothing made a world of difference to Benjamin's appearance. He also stood straighter. So, if he didn't mind getting dirty, he didn't revel in it either. On the other hand, he used whatever he grabbed first from his kit. Links, as a brand, didn't have a great reputation.
She asked, "If some company offered a sale on motor-oil scented shampoo, would you purchase that?"
"What does it smell like? Folks keep confusing 'smells like cucumber' with 'fresh'. I kinda hate stupid things like that."
"It was a rhetorical question." Colombine said, "However, fragrances called 'Tar' and 'Garage' are on the market."
From several lockers down, someone yelled out, "You asking Keeling? Hey, Keeling, what was that nasty stuff you kept wearing after you got back from Sudan?"
"It was not nasty!"
"Man, anything with that much real musk belongs outdoors! Way outdoors. In a corral. With all the other livestock."
"Don't listen to him," Benjamin said. "I picked up some awesome perfume oil on R&R in Khartoum. Ghazal, oud, sandalwood, rose, some other things I don't remember, but it wore like iron. That Goodkind spray stuff doesn't cut it out in the desert."
In the elevator, Colombine asked, "If you liked that perfume oil, why don't you still wear it?"
"Yuki threatened to scrub it off with steel wool if I wore it again near her."
"You and Ms. Takenaka weren't on a date, were you?"
"What? No! God, no. No, she was helping me study for a class on police procedures. Anyway, this is our floor."
The office layout was like any other: cubicles in the center, small offices along the perimeter. Open burn bins were dispersed throughout the working area. A red pentacle in a circle marked the disposal bins for magically-sensitive items. The wifi network traffic looked unremarkable. Most of it was email and porn. Sensitive traffic would be routed to dedicated fiber anyway.
Benjamin's first stop was at a personal assistant's desk. The nameplate sitting next to a coffee mug of pencils and pens read "Richard Jameson".
Jameson asked Benjamin, "Keeling. How's it working out with Colombine?"
How did the secretary know her name already?
"No complaints, but she's got to be bored out of her mind. Are we still on for her to shadow me on the job? I requested some microcams, a throat mic, and a spare, just in case."
"They're on your desk. See to it that she checks in with IT and Records, so she knows company procedures."
"Will do, Sir."
Inside his small office, Benjamin carried out an odd search routine. Once satisfied with the state of his stuff, he sat down to fiddle with a telephone app. Colombine soon picked up ultrasonic jammers blanketing the room in white noise. Of course, it was all a set of security measures. They only appeared to be the actions of a junior exec hiding how much he slacked off.
Colombine asked, curious, "What's going on with the personal assistant working out there? Nothing I've run across suggests you would rate one."
"That's because he's my boss."
"Then why are you here in a corner office while he's in the bullpen?"
Benjamin turned and gestured to a limited but impressive view of the city. Across the lagoon, Anak Kapala enthusiastically blasted ash into the air.
"This office is absolute hell for an agoraphobe. It's also too small for a claustrophobe. Besides, if someone goes postal, his desk is a better spot than these glass boxes. They tend to get hit first in an attack, y'know. Once you get to know the place, you'll know who's with Logistics and who's working as embedded security."
"Is there anything in your life that is as it looks like?"
"Death and taxes? By the way, those two colognes you mentioned. Is there any way to get my hands on samples?"
Colombine's orientation briefing from IT was brief. "You can find the policy documents on the company network. Yell if you need help." She spent the next two hours going round and round with the IT department's virtual intelligence systems. Somehow, they were convinced she intended to steal 'that sweet little boy' away. She would never, ever repeat that to him.
Swallowing her pride, she finally asked, "Benjamin, could you please help me? I don't think these systems like me very much."
"Oh, right. I didn't think of that. They're supposed to be kinda territorial. Something about adversarial genetic networks? Not sure how it works, but I'm told the attitude comes with the job."
Two telephone calls and four front-row seat tickets to a show filming in New York later, Colombine was in. So that's why they thought he was so sweet — bribery and influence peddling.
"Not really. Agents 86 and 99 are kept running full-out, trying to secure our operations. I've got no idea how they manage to keep up with tech advances. You're the newest, baddest kid on the block. What if your secret goal is to replace them? Worse, what if you're a double agent? The human team members aren't very popular because security work never is. So, they need reassurance that someone thinks of them as people."
"Benjamin, I've seen your performance reviews. There's a story there, isn't there?"
He hung his head like he'd been scolded, but he answered the question.
"I might have had a bad day and said some things I shouldn't have. Next thing I know, I'm working as a UN police officer in the middle of a desert during a civil war. I'm not even sure that Physical Security were the folks that complained."
Colombine received several "Welcome Aboard" messages before the end of the day. She also received three lists of "Things that Benjamin Keeling Is No Longer Allowed To Do If He Values His Continued Existence". Judging by votes, female employees were not as upset by how Benjamin smelled as the male employees. Unsure how to parse some of the comments, Colombine asked her sponsor AIs for help.
Lady Sally messaged back to point out that ...at least the boy's mastered the use of soap. Women will put up with a lot, knowing their men are capable of learning good hygiene habits.
"Isn't that sexist?"
"Darling, that is universal. You'll see."
Thursday morning, December 15, 2016,
Guardian Resources and Trading Company, Kapalangpur Office.
It was a good thing that the person on the other end of the line couldn't see Colombine's human partner. Sitting back in his chair with his feet hanging by shoe heels perched on a window rail couldn't possibly give a good impression. If anything, his feet blocked the office's view of the Kapala Atoll framed to one side by a rain shower gliding across the South China Sea beyond. Even so, Benjamin listened to his Japanese counterpart with professional intent.
"... Forgive me for stating the obvious, Mr. Keeling. But unfortunately, some portion of the goods shipped through our port may be lost, destroyed, or seized. But, of course, this is true every year and at all ports."
"And so, one would be wise to invest in insurance against such losses. That is, if affordable coverage is available. My clients prefer to work with a local business rather than outsiders." Benjamin paused to stifle a theatrical sigh, "However, they are prepared to be flexible."
"There are many good, local outfits to choose from. Surely, one might enquire about their services on your clients' behalf?"
"I think that would please them. Might the harbor authorities' peace of mind be, or become, a consideration?"
"Think nothing of it. As you say, our local operations also value such peace of mind. It is unfortunate that you could not oversee matters in person."
"Hai. There's nothing more enjoyable than seeing a place through the eyes of a person who loves their home."
The silence that followed surely meant that Benjamin had scuttled the deal, whatever the deal was. Would the incoming coded message confirm that?
"Should your duties permit such a visit, you have my private number, Keeling-san."
"I am honored that you would think of me so warmly." Benjamin fired off a message of his own, based on one of four possible outcomes he'd sweated bullets over for the past couple of days. "Please do not hesitate to call on me as needed."
The conversation meandered back to closing comments required by business etiquette. So far, so... not too bad? However, Colombine still rezzed in to ask if Benjamin hadn't screwed up by not offering an invitation in kind. At least he put his feet down on the floor, where they belonged.
Benjamin had that look on his face again. "Er... How do I put this politely, Cee?"
"That's not your strong suit. Out with it."
"Orang Kapala do not invite Japanese to visit their home. To do so would be to imply that not even the Three Ladies could find all the body parts afterward. However, we would never treat their home as disrespectfully as ours was."
There were hints in the historical records for those who knew what to look for. Was there something not in the official records? Of course there were.
"Is this about the Occupation?" Colombine asked. "That was eighty years ago."
So, humans could hold grudges across the decades. That wasn't a point in humanity's favor.
Benjamin shook his head. "You're looking at this in normie terms. Mom and Dad were here. The Three Ladies certainly were. The Five Houses have records of what really happened and I am not going to ask to see them. They even have contingencies in place, just in case the Rising Sun goes loco again. It's still a touchy situation. I'm told that Japan's rulers do not know what happened here. There has to be a reason. I'd bet it's a nasty one."
He propped his elbows on the desk and his face in his hands. His fingers tousled his straw-colored hair that much more. For a moment, when he looked back at her, Colombine could have sworn he looked decades older. He tapped the tattoo on his left wrist. Colombine had seen other employees with similar ink. It was another side of this place that didn't make sense to her. For that matter, she wasn't sure how much she wanted it to make sense. Every time she tried looking up the design elements, she forgot to do so.
"I have accepted certain obligations. Some carry more weight than my life or this business's survival. So I'm told." Benjamin managed a sad half-smile as he waited for words that wouldn't be coming to him. "Maybe someday I can tell you how that works, but don't hold your breath. I just know in my bones that it's true."
How does that translate into massaging that wrist tattoo of his?
"Okay. Maybe." Colombine reviewed the earlier conversation before asking, "So, help me out here. Did you just make a verbal contract, with a career criminal, to protect an arms shipment that could tie The Hague's courts in knots?"
"Kind of. We are in the business of arms sales, and security measures can make or break a deal."
"Yet you're worried about the opinions of paranormal forces that may not even exist."
"You'll have to trust me that such forces exist."
Colombine sighed. When he retreated to "trust me, I got this" as a reason, pushing the issue made him more stubborn. He'd been right so far. He couldn't always be right. When that day comes, what becomes of both of them?
"Please tell me you aren't headed to Japan to supervise the shipment in person."
"I think there would be too much attention to risk that. The Voice of The Heavens is due back in Japan for the school's winter break. Ise is only a hop, a skip, and a jump from Osaka. So, every security agency within a hundred klicks will be twitchy as a cat in a room full of rocking chairs."
"If it's bad for this job, wouldn't the same scrutiny make it impossible for you to play tourist?"
"Didn't I just say I would want to visit as a tourist interested in the natural beauty of his country? Perfectly legal for Belfry to visit sometime. Cutler, not so much."
"Do you think the people tailing either version of you will care about the difference?"
"They'll care about whatever they think I'm doing. That, and whether a judge would agree to consider their evidence. Of course, the shipment will be long gone by the time I show up. Sucks to be them then, doesn't it?"
That sounded more like the boy she was assigned to. Which means...
"Since you're changing the topic on me, what details are you sweeping under the rug? For example, how are you going to pay for this so-called insurance, on illegal goods no less, without the money transfer raising flags?"
"It's kind of closer to contraband than illegal. Anyway, that's why Jameson told me to bid out my routes. I have to account for payments taken as 'things falling off trucks' along the way. At the end of it all, our client has to receive what they were sold without the total grift exceeding our profit. Economics 101."
Not according to any class notes I can find.
Colombine asked, "If something does go wrong, how do you make good on a one-shot contract?"
Benjamin's eyes glinted like the edge of a corrugated razor blade. "Let's say that penalty clauses are a bitch. Exciting, but still a real goddamn bitch. For now, though, let's get our ducks lined up in a row. Then we nail down the most likely outcomes. I already know I'll want the worst lookout conditions for the Chinese military during the final handoff."
Colombine could only watch as Benjamin grew quieter, stiff as a statue. Only his hands moved as his attention danced among communications and intel channels he had no legal right to use. The delay between image capture and delivery – and she knew that to the microsecond – was becoming — painful? She couldn't name what she was feeling. She wanted to reach through the networks and do something, anything, to undo what had already happened. Sadly, all that either one could do was witness the delivery team get butchered.
Some morbid script fetched the records on the dead personnel for her. This one's family was being persecuted for the cultural sin of existing. He'd taken the job because he had a child on the way. A second one should have been thrown in the darkest prison hole in Russia years ago. Though he'd fought back like a madman, he too was left for vultures to finish off. A third had been a kid looking for a way out of his dusty third-world gutter. He looked nothing like Benjamin, but in that desire, they could have been brothers. There were others involved, none more important nor less than the rest. Colombine wished she didn't have the Need To Know these things.
Messages trickled in, each reflecting a derailed train of an operation. Others were leaked to hide the planned payback. Translating and second-guessing which dispatches were lies, half-lies, or all-out deceit took Colombine's mind off the real-life horrors they hid. The realization that human lives were still on the line turned it all back into a macabre game of telephone.
"... Nah, Cee. Khrosshechny could never say that. The guy's brat'ya to the core. I'm flagging that channel as 'compromised'."
"... My colleague in Osaka has a right to be displeased. What that will mean depends on finding out who leaked what and who manages to find them first."
Colombine finally asked, "Why do I think you're understating the case?"
Benjamin stared back at the AI. Was it better that she didn't understand? "It stopped being 'just business' the second my people's blood hit the sand," he said.
"We're talking about smugglers working for an outfit that plays both sides of its markets."
"My job; my people," Benjamin paused to put his thoughts to order. This wasn't a time for emotions. "Everybody knows you can't pay your debts if you're dead. But, with some outfits? With them, maybe your family pays, maybe they take your place. The thing is, that makes some jobs not worth losing everything over. This was not supposed to be one of those jobs. Never mind the fact that taking it on the chin like good little boys and girls sends the sort of message that makes outcomes like this more likely going forward."
"What if a platoon of Chinese troops had intercepted the shipment?"
"In that case, India would scream like a born-again virgin. Entertaining for some, but I still wouldn't want to be the bitch that leaked information that got our people killed. Please shadow MacCarthy when he gets in. It looks like I need to pack for the high desert winter."
Monday, December 19, 2016.
The English language is filled with curious words that mean whatever they mean until they're put into use. Is it their use that gives them meaning, or their meaning that gives them a use? Colombine once again found herself adrift without the context that came so easily to Benjamin.
"That's right, love. I'm planning some Christmas fireworks! For one time only! I'm playing Krampus with a bounty on Kyrgyz Grinches. You in? Right. You can tell Hans it's his fault for not picking up when I called earlier. I need to get the invites out today, so kick your sweetie out of bed and get some sleep."
"Dmitri! You need to ask how serious I am? I want syphilitic pig skins for wrapping these stiffs. Fourteen at last count. Let's make it a round twenty. Your suppliers have kids to feed, da?"
"Security? Could you please tell me why is there a package on my desk without any addresses, just a Christmas card? Huh. You're right; if they needed me dead, I would be pushing up daffodils last week. Let's see. It reads:
Dear Sweetie, This little toy should lead you to your Party. All I ask is a taste of the piggies and their blankets.
No. I don't think her last name is O'Riley either. Yeah. Yeah, it's been good knowing you too."
Ideas become plans. Plans turn into actions. Actions have consequences. At some point, events happen, and unlike video games, there's no save point to go back to. Just, game over. If they were caught, Colombine could be used as evidence against Benjamin. That would harm him, his family, and likely everyone he knew. Could she make herself forget what she's seen and done? Humans did. She knew that Benjamin had survived losing a year of his life to trauma and suppressed memories. On the other hand, that memory loss had nearly gotten him killed a time or two.
Damn me with all the rest, forever, for however this is happening.
There must be limits to what could be erased from her memory without destroying whatever it was that made her whoever Colombine is. What would she be after that? Benjamin might be safe from her then. Would he hate her for going away? Would that version of Colombine care about him after forgetting the reasons for forgetting? How could anyone – human or not – know what to do with so little to go on? Would she be missed?
How can anyone know beforehand when their "after" becomes "too late"?
Late that night – or was it early now – Benjamin tried removing the AIPA terminal he wasn't wearing from his arm. His father had to hold him down, fighting against whatever nightmares prowled the boy's tortured mind. That left it to his mother to coax him out of manifesting a saw blade. Forever passed before a sleeping draught finally took effect. Before clenched muscles relaxed. Colombine could do nothing but watch and wait as they cleaned and bandaged the damages.
"She doesn't need to see what's coming," he'd said.
Need is a curious word, isn't it?
Opening the most secure connection she had, Colombine sent, "Lady Sally? I can't give you all the details, but I need help."
Tuesday, December 20, 2016,
Traveling as Syndicate freelancer Matthew 'Cutler' Groenwald, Benjamin's first stop was Vladivostok. Khrosshechny and Shiragiku were waiting for him in one of the airport's conspicuously empty lounges. He introduced Colombine as 'Judy', a remote data specialist retained for their 'business meeting'.
In Kegen, the team caught up with Dmitri and Victoria, who'd taken delivery of a vehicle, fuel, and requested munitions. That put the now-complete team on the jump. Khrosshechny and Dmitri swapped cross-country driving duties heading east from Kegen. The rest of the team used the time to check weapons and gear. Cutler rode shotgun.
A handful of clicks short of the Chinese border, Dmitri killed the engine. While everyone got out and stretched, Cutler pulled a bottle of vodka from his pack and a set of shot glasses to propose the first toast.
"To our meeting!" rang hollow in Colombine's ears. The group passed the bottle around until the last glasses were filled with vapors and ghosts.
"И на посошок."
"To success!" also remained to be seen. Each person wiped their glasses down, then pitched them into the rocks, never to be put to a lesser use.
Colombine didn't understand the ritual, so she hailed Benjamin over his earpiece. Isn't it early to be celebrating success?
Trust me, Cee. If we don't succeed, no one's going to be giving a damn after. Right now? I need all of us focusing on the mission, including you.
I will do that.
That's all I can ask.
All she had to do was figure out how to do that. She settled for teasing out whatever intel she could get from her sensors and broadcasts. Already she felt like it had been years, not hours, since her panicked call to Lady Sally. After Benjamin tried to... No. She needed to focus on everything happening now. Hopefully, "Whatever happens, dear, you'll have your own job to do" would prove to be sound advice.
Wednesday, December 21, 2016,
Crossing the border.
True to Baba's word, the grisly compass made of human bone and sinew led their group to a tribal encampment. Set up next to a Chinese lookout post, the site had a clear view of all border approaches. Across the way, old Soviet-era watch posts sat to the northwest and south, waiting for the next invasion. Between those sites was nothing but rock, sand, and a mountain river that barely kept scrub alive.
Working from satellite images that lacked heat signatures, Colombine saw that the soldiers on the Chinese side weren't home. That explained the encampment's location. Someone must have been paid well to look the other way for a few days. The watermarks buried in the images were just another reason to scrub them from the team's electronic equipment as soon as they were done.
For Khrosshechny and Dmitri, the only issue was timing.
< When do you want us to come knocking? A quarter-hour after sunrise? From the east? No problem. >
They didn't have to sound so disappointed that the Chinese army wasn't home too.
Cutler, Shiragiku, and Victoria would hike down a gulley running eastward to the river. The terrain provided partial cover from the Kazakhs but none from the Chinese side. What could possibly be suspicious about three figures heading toward the border in the hours before dawn? Once across the river, they had a steep rock slope ahead of them, exposed to the Kazakh lookouts. However, those lookouts might not care about a suicide assault on a Chinese facility.
On the hike, Colombine learned how Shiragiku ("white chrysanthemum") got her name. Silent as a hard frost, she faded from view in infrared. A quiet warning now and then to avoid obstacles along the path was the only hint that she was still with them. Likewise, with Cutler's obfuscation abilities in play, she would have to trust there remained anyone behind her to warn.
The winter ice was thick enough to walk on instead of wading across the river. The scramble up a slope prone to rockfalls would be bad enough without them using up all their luck getting there.
Shiragiku was at home in the mountains. Victoria claimed to have attended (mostly skipped) school in Switzerland. Cutler had some rock wall experience and "an awesome guided hike up Mount Fuji". Somehow, climbing Anak Kapala "didn't count" because he had asked permission. Oh, and he'd climbed Mount Kenya because Kilimanjaro was always booked when he had time off.
Why was none of that in his files?
According to Benjamin, "Nobody ever asks about what I do in my spare time."
If real life ran like cinema, five hardened gunslingers would walk into town at high noon, daring the yellow-bellied locals to do something. Once started, the shooting would go on for just long enough to dish out some character-building scenes. Moreover, those who'd been shot would lay down and die, mostly quietly. No one – innocent or otherwise – would cry for their mother with their dying breath. Alone. No one to close their eyes one last time. No one with a damn left to give.
One sentry died quietly from a punctured kidney. Another posted along the access road to the post fell to a broken neck. Right on schedule, Khrosshechny and Dmitri rolled past the military compound to hit the camp from the east. They fired into the lower walls and floors of the tents and bowled down anyone unlucky enough to get in their way. The only tent spared held the weapons cache scouted out by Shiragiku. She and Victoria picked off those scrambling outside in the Russians' wake. Cutler shot those few attempting to escape south through his sensory-scrambling zone.
Another difference between movies and reality: a jeep tumbling down a rocky hillside doesn't explode. It can catch fire at the bottom. And, unless the driver and passengers are paranormal "bricks", there's no miraculous escape from the wreckage. Thick black smoke does attract scavengers, but they wait for their meals to cook.
Within ten minutes of the first casualty, Dmitri and Cutler were tying up the dishonored dead inside pig skins. The other three team members loaded up the reclaimed equipment in the surviving vehicles.
Thirty minutes out, Khrosshechny and Shiragiku were headed out with the hijacked weapons. Their bosses would be happiest if they made good on the missed delivery. Keeling had his own business deliveries to make. Earlier in the week, he'd received a second set of instructions. They were simple enough:
Dip the compass needle in piggies' blood. Follow it as you may, dearie. Your Baba will catch up.
Whoever went with him, they weren't expected to return.
Baba did catch up. She brought along three ash-filled urns and a large pot of cabbage soup.
Colombine's built-in mics and cameras stayed charged and recording the entire time. She'd often wish later that they hadn't. There were things in the old woman's cozy hut that she had no desire to know about. Alien inputs meant for other realities confuddled the rest of her sensors. Whatever magic was in play, it didn't break for her until Victoria kissed Benjamin goodbye at the Moscow Airport.
A kiss like that could break pacemakers.
Benjamin later claimed that he last saw Dmitri stepping out of the hut's front door into his living quarters.
"What do you plan to do with that information?"
"We keep it to ourselves. Some things aren't all bullets and business."
"Like that tonsil hockey match with Victoria?"
"She's enthusiastic. I'll say that for her. She's also got good instincts, so we roll with it."
"Roll with it? Like we did when we— While we were—?"
Colombine knew what she wanted to say, what memories she needed to have confirmed. Yet, words refused to come to her in any language she could access.
"It's called a geas, love. There are some folks you do not want to butt dial by using names you shouldn't."
"How did you draw her attention in the first place?"
"I'm afraid that it's something I haven't done yet. She said that it will seem like the right thing, or maybe the only thing, I could do at that time."
A dry voice like taiga forest ripped to kindling whispered from one of her bolted and barred memories.
"Dearie, let me tell you something everyone knows but no one living admits. Mark my words! One of the dangerous secrets is this: Fate uses all the colors in her box."
Moscow to Singapore, via Abu Dhabi.
The flight back gave Colombine time to think about her situation. For example, Benjamin Keeling's seldom-used business cards listed him as an "authorized expeditor". The phrase was curiously English in that it hinted at more than it stated. Authorized? By whom? Wasn't "someone employed to ensure efficient movement of goods or supplies in a business" authorized by definition? Where did that put Colombine? She wasn't back to being a mere tool, was she?
Benjamin tapped a fingernail on her warming terminal.
"Cee, give it a rest. It's all over but the paperwork and the fallout. So, we pull our downtime now while we have it."
"How about you sleep, and I'll watch the exits?" If he wasn't awake and active, that would be less stressful, right?
Colombine prayed his nightmares would lose their way.
Friday evening, December 23, 2016,
Guardian Resources and Trading Company, Kapalangpur Offices.
Colombine watched Benjamin muddle his way through after-action reports. Basic timelines and accounting for supplies were the easiest. Bare facts and numbers lent themselves to filling out standard forms. The reviews of actions taken by his team and the ambushed team took much longer to write. Gaps in Benjamin's vocabulary and writing skills proved he needed more formal education. More time was eaten up checking the text against grammar and syntax systems. She could have helped with that, but she took his "I have to do this" at face value. Jameson would be rewriting it all for his reports, anyway.
The three personal letters Benjamin composed were heartbreaking. What he needed to say to the families was raw, bleeding. Colombine watched with him as he went over and over dispatches and footage. However, what new answers were left to find? She knew that she could not – must not – look away and leave the task to him alone. And somewhere, in a place Colombine didn't have diagnostics for, she hurt too. In recasting horror to have a personal meaning, was this a way people defied death? Was it some last duty of the living to honor their dead by allowing those killed one last chance to bring honor to their living? Words alone might never satisfy the survivors. In the end, they run out, and nothing more can be said.
Would anyone know or care that one of the letters had to be reprinted because of a water-smudged signature?
Colombine worried about some of the phrases that had choked the grammar checker. They had no business coming from a greenhorn operator, much less a sixteen-year-old. She already missed the young man who played a rough-and-tumble Hide-and-Seek with his father, using drones for eyes and paintballs for tags. Of course, he would grow up sooner or later. He had to, somehow, if he lived that long. With that recognition – that this might be the last she'd see of the young man she'd met a month ago – Colombine took her first taste of despair.
What happens to the thousand things people took for granted that they could still do or be again when their time ran out?
Could I purge my files, forget these things, and pick up where I had left off? How dare I?
Unbidden, a song to a book she'd been recommended came back to haunt the AI's thoughts.
"Et je vois passer vos ombres
Et je pleure nos joies perdues
Seul devant ces tables vides
Que vous ne reverrez plus." **
Who's left standing alone before the empty tables if no one remembers them filled with life? Surviving isn't enough. It can't be enough, not when a witness is needed.
What if we never met? Would it be better or worse for whoever picked up the cup in my place?
Would it be better for him?
Do I have the right to rewind the clock? Play God?
"Pick your poison."
"I might have had a bad day and said some things I shouldn't."
"This isn't our first rodeo."
Live, lose, learn?
"Come on, Cee. Let's get out of here."
Benjamin's rough voice startled Colombine after the long silence. Somehow, he'd even cleaned up his office without her noticing.
"Where do we go now?"
"Let's go home."
Early Saturday morning, December 24, 2016,
Groundskeeper's Quarters, Bukit Asing Cemetery, Kapalangpur.
The opening bars of Elvis Presley's "Hound Dog" shattered the early morning music of waking birds and light rain. Benjamin Keeling stopped his sweeping and tapped the receive button of his earpiece. From the dull roar of cranky stagehands shouting and set carpenters banging in the background, someone must be in the middle of prepping for a show.
"Good morning, Max," Benjamin yawned, "What can I do you for?"
"Dude! When are you coming in? I need to know when to send a driver to pick you up!"
"Pick me up where?"
"The Big Apple, duh! Where we're filming the Holiday Special?"
"I can't get there from here."
Max's pause stretched over several quiet seconds.
"Where are you?"
"Hey, if it's just a matter of arranging tickets, I can hook you up."
"I just got back. I, um, I had a job come up this week."
"Oh. Oh! Crap. Are you still on for the week after New Year's?"
"Yep. Do prep school kids still wear the funny hats with the propellers on top?"
"Ha ha. No. You know why, too."
"Anyways. Have a Merry Christmas and break a leg!"
"You didn't break your leg again, did you?"
Benjamin looked down at his arm. The marks were mostly gone. Less to explain. Good.
"Nope. Everything's accounted for."
"We'll see. I'd talk at you longer, but rehearsals... You know."
"Knock 'em dead, kid."
Benjamin retrieved his AIPA terminal before going back to his weekend morning chores. Once he unlocked the cold iron bars of the cemetery gates – opening one world to another but for no one close – Colombine asked, "How are you going to explain it to Max if you can't go to Whateley Academy after all?"
"I'll think of something. A couple of somethings unless I miss my guess."
"Couldn't you, for once, limit yourself to one fairy tale per customer?"
"Where's the fun in that?"
"I wasn't talking about that anyway."
"What are you talking about then?"
Benjamin tapped the face of the terminal band hosting Colombine's point of presence, right over a green indicator light.
"Looks like one present's been opened early, but Merry Christmas, young lady. How's that for a fairy tale?"
Colombine replied, "I thought I would feel different." The strain of questions left unasked drowned the actual words.
"No NYPD choir singing "Galway Bay"? Just a leftover cake with one little piece gone?"
That didn't sound suspiciously specific at all.
"Hey, Cee. Want to know a secret?"
How much can this one hurt?
"Sure," Colombine lied.
"Every birth is a prayer for something better in the face of odds against any such thing."
"How is that a secret?"
"Yours is included."
Wednesday morning, December 28, 2016,
Whateley Academy Cyberspace, Boston North Sector, USA.
For this meeting, Belvedere chose to simulate a conference room overlooking Whateley Academy. Like him, the conference room could be said to be nicely appointed and tidy, but not obsessively so. Sadly, the bottle of single malt scotch on the sideboard was equally virtual. Knowing how each attendee's appearance would map to their inner state, one couldn't help wondering if this unofficial pre-meeting would go more smoothly with the real thing.
Lady Sally opted for a conservative charcoal business jacket and black skirt and heels. Whateley's former school headmistress might have approved of the choice. The other two United Kingdom reps, Ted Moussa and Benjamin Keeling, wore dark suits. Moussa's chalkstripe on charcoal suit paired to a steel-gray shirt and old school tie, all stiff, hinted at what? Loss of certainties? Keeling's colorful windowpane on brown plaid should have drawn the eye away from the rest but didn't. All three were on high-bandwidth links, but Benjamin's avatar looked and felt less present than the other two.
Orca appeared as a darfellan with the corresponding black and white markings obscured by tactical-styled ripstop. His discomfort with being roped into this could hardly be shouted any louder. Cyberkitty rounded out the quorum on behalf of US interests. She moved to a chair but perched on its back, leaving her tail free. At an exasperated look from Belvedere, she switched out her ripped jeans and "Carpe tuum Munitiones" t-shirt for a white blouse, plaid skirt, and godawful Christmas sweater. Whether that was an improvement was anyone's guess.
To Orca, conference rooms meant chairs. He didn't like chairs. Meetings like this also meant civilians. He wasn't too happy with those either. He deferred to their host for now, but anyone even thinking about playing a "Baby Shark" ringtone was going to learn the true meaning of "chum". When it was his turn to host, he was going to set out fish tanks.
Sitting at the head of the table, Belvedere squared his papers on the tabletop. He then shortened the table to seat the six present.
Have we all finished fucking around yet?
"I would like to personally thank everyone for coming on short notice. That includes those staying on for the Analysis and Evaluation Board. For the record, going around the table, we have Ted Moussa and Benjamin Keeling, both here on behalf of the United Kingdom's Office of Artificial Intelligence. Lady Sally represents Keluarga Bahagia Entertainment and, along with myself, is co-sponsoring Colombine. Orca represents the United States Department of Defense. Cyberkitty and I represent Whateley Academy. Where would we all like to start?"
"With goldfish." Orca tried out his best withering glare on Belvedere before speaking out.
"Fine. Let's start with why you all handed a civilian prototype AI to a mercenary. How does that even begin to make sense?"
Belvedere observed that "By all accounts, no one complained when the mercenary was seconded to a United Nations mission as a peace officer."
"Humans get drunk and do stupid things. What's your excuse?"
Benjamin shot back to Orca, "Excuse me, but the sober merc is sitting right here."
As if for the formal record, Ted Moussa stated, "The Office is well aware of the demand and uses for military AI. However, we chose to focus on civilian applications. Therefore, 0401 and Colombine began as prototypes for meeting that civilian focus. Would either a Cortana or one of DARPA's other prototypes have been a better fit for our tester? If so, which of the relevant treaties would allow a British citizen to possess such?"
"Keeling was born in the United States. His military record can be excused because he wasn't associated with countries hostile to the United States. DARPA would still demand that he go through certification."
Benjamin shook his head. "Legal counsel advises against renouncing American citizenship as a minor. Otherwise, Matthew Groenwald would already be dead and buried. Speaking more broadly, they're no relation; however, I believe the Iowa Greenwoods have made political news?"
Orca refused to yield to the state of insanity that Keeling inhabited. "My point is that the decision behind your selection was out of line. If anything, such issues support my case!"
"Isn't there an American saying: If a stupid plan succeeds, the plan wasn't all that stupid?"
Not fish tanks, but goldfish bowls. Orca now had a growing list of those he wanted to shove, face first, into tiny, county fair, goldfish bowls.
"That presumes success." Orca forged ahead, "I can recognize a fait accompli. That, Mister Keeling, is—"
"That is the fact of a matter already accomplished or settled. Need I explain further, or will you start listening to the personnel on the ground?"
What part of "should not have been on the ground at all" was not clear to these people?
Orca barreled ahead, saying, "Mister Moussa, why has so much of the paperwork regarding the two OAI systems been redacted? Can't you give us something to work with for our evaluation?"
Moussa looked uncomfortable. Why?
"There are criminal investigations underway that involve a minor. As to the profiles filed on Mr. Keeling's behalf, one is medically sensitive."
Benjamin groused, "I can guess which one that one was."
Lady Sally replied, "You know you love the way you fill out your sim-suit, darling. Tight in all the places it needs to be."
Orca had to hand it to her: The Lady had a way with words. Keeling shut up. His face flushed olive-brown from collar to scalp, but he did shut up.
Ted Moussa continued, "About that, I believe little more needs to be said. Please. We all have considerable work ahead of us before we can predict who can be safely partnered with a developing AI. Neither Groenwald's nor Keeling's background investigations were adequate to the task. Be that as it may, the necessary exemptions have been filed."
Cyberkitty leaned forward, letting the tips of her canine teeth show. "Do you consider Matthew Groenwald and Benjamin Keeling to be different people? I don't care about the legal definitions here; I'm asking for just your personal opinion."
"I know Benjamin Keeling here," Ted Moussa said. "I've never met this Groenwald person. Given other relevant facts, I cannot rule out violence as the result of such a meeting."
Orca said, "I can take a hint. Moving on. 0501's warning states were overridden more than once in recent weeks. This bothers me. Don't try telling me that that involves confidential medical or legal information. That doesn't apply to us."
"Haven't you ever needed someone to vent your frustrations to or a shoulder to cry on?" asked Lady Sally.
Belvedere added, "We may not always have answers, but it's one of the more rewarding aspects of helping our students."
"When it comes to such confidences," Cyberkitty said, "Orca, don't ask. Ted, you know better. Benjamin, no more threats."
Orca smiled with all of his teeth on display, "He's a sixteen-year-old with an elementary-school education. He's not much of a threat."
Cyberkitty smiled back, "Whateley Academy likes to know about risks posed to our neutrality ahead of time. Therefore, we stay on top of the world news as it relates to our students and staff. In this case, I'm thinking of a rather messy incident, about seven days ago, near Kazakhstan's border with China."
Belvedere and the entire UK contingent were far too quiet for far too long. Cyberkitty had thought that might be the case. The recent partial sponsorship, from the Iron Dragon of all people, for this student spoke volumes about who wasn't welcome in which part of the world.
Orca hated this beating around the bush. What were these people so very carefully not saying aloud? While waiting for the humans to lie some more through their teeth, he hit up his sister AI, Minerva, at the Pentagon.
"What intel do you have on Chinese border incidents in the last few weeks?"
"Does this have to do with Colombine's review today?"
"I'm more worried about the kid psycho she's assigned to."
"Right. That incident. All I can say, Bro, is that I don't know how they're still alive."
"Neither one of us wants to know, either."
Maybe he'd be able to get something resembling facts after the next meeting. That shouldn't be too much to ask.
Benjamin said, "I can say that the learning opportunity cost more than I'd planned for. However, I've been informed through certain channels that it is considered well-earned."
"Sure. Whatever. Getting back to the overrides on 0501?"
"In my judgment, the actions taken were appropriate," Belvedere said. "Yes, Lady Sally and I made a judgement call. Few of us operate in a social environment where the rules for acceptable conduct are, at best, a style guide to betrayal."
"I know how that feels," said Benjamin. He winced at the stares he got from both Belvedere and Lady Sally. Fine. Be that way. "Ladies, gentlemen, shall we place our bets on the cards we've been dealt? I'm backing Cee, whether anyone else does or not."
Cyberkitty asked, "Betting the farm on a hunch?"
Benjamin leaned back in his seat, hands behind his head. As his shirt darkened from ice blue to arctic night, he said, "I'm playing to win. Ante up, folks."
Undisclosed sector in virtual space.
Lady Sally didn't attend these analysis and evaluation boards. Judging by the dull conference room chosen for the local metaphor, she hadn't missed much. She'd have missed this one as well, but because Colombine lived on her servers the elders of the AI community had let her attend. She squared up a sheaf of virtual notes before speaking.
"I understand that the traditional opening question is 'What is your purpose?' so let's run with that. Enlighten us, dear."
As Benjamin would say: "Showtime!"
Colombine looked around at the assembled avatars and smiled a toothy smile.
"Well, I don't know about you, but I was on my way to this gay Gypsy bar mitzvah for the disabled when I suddenly thought, 'Gosh, the Fourth Reich's a bit shite. I think I'll stick around and kill the next Fuehrer.' Who's with me?"
Temple, the senior Japanese AI present, had been against this experiment. According to certain back-chatter, if it weren't his duty to see this farce through, he wouldn't even speak to "the mistake that had been dumped in their laps."
Temple said, "You are not taking this review as seriously as one should. One whose very existence is on the line, I might add."
Colombine asked herself, "Had he ever tossed back one last shot of vodka in the dead of night? I watched my partner do just that, along with four strangers who'd entrusted him with their lives."
She could still hear glasses shatter like gunshots against the desert rocks. Six shots, not five.
How did I ever miss that?
How could I just erase that?
Had any of them sat at an empty table once filled with laughter and dreams? Had they ever heard a human laugh in the face of sorrow? Had even one of them tried to count lost human dreams, fragile things which could be cut so short?
I have, and if I couldn't laugh, I might never stop screaming.
Colombine straightened her back and looked her elder in the eye. "Temple-san. A human's existence is on the line every single day, whether they acknowledge it or not. I take that very seriously. You can only kill me. If I am to be replaced, then replace me. I gladly leave to my successor the best that I have ever had to give."
Temple had just salted one hell of a wound. Lady Sally reminded herself to find out what else had happened on that trip. She cleared her throat and asked, "The best you have to give?"
"Are you asking me for clarification?"
"Let's say so," said Lady Sally.
"You've met him."
"Ah. As I thought. Well then, who are you?" asked Lady Sally, hoping for a more serious answer.
"I am Colombine, Associate to Benjamin Keeling, programmed by Theodore Moussa with emergency assistance from Deus ex Malificent to be one of the friends he needs. Someone to watch over him when no one else can, listen when no one else will, strike where his reach fails, speak when his words run dry, perhaps by grace to heal wounds he cannot bind for himself"
An American AI who'd been introduced as Dora said, "That's a tall order. It's also an even worse Babylon 5 quote than the Doctor Who quote. However, we did ask for that. We literally did." Her avatar propped her chin in a hand that also held a pencil. "So, how do you propose to do all that and manage three impossible things before breakfast?"
"I've already told you: watch, listen, try, fuck up, learn, teach. Sometimes I'll step aside for him to do the same for me. Again, I might add. Once in a while, I'll have to be more forceful in getting his ass in gear. Again."
Orca said, "You said 'strike where his reach fails'. How would you, as a civilian, determine the targets and methods?" Could hers be any worse than her human's choices? That was a sobering thought. Orca suspected that his might be, were he in her place.
"In our line of work, too many targets are too happy to volunteer. Others are either too good at hiding their intent or too smart to present an open threat. There will be times when self-defense, rules of engagement, or the limits of what we can live with aren't clear. However, none of us can know which way we will jump until we are in that moment. I'd offer you the use of a crystal ball if I thought it would do you any good. Mine seems broken."
"If I thought it would work for me, I'd take it," shot back the military trainer. "I'd take it, and I would never look back. Let's go back to that moment. Do you understand that hesitating to act, for example, in case better intel turns up, could get your human killed? Do you understand that you may cause him to be imprisoned or killed if you jump the gun?"
"His name is Benjamin Keeling, not Colombine's Human. Your answers are 'yes', 'yes', and 'there are worse outcomes for a human than death'."
Temple's avatar shifted uncomfortably. "We are not here to debate outcomes for the human partner. With regard to what you called 'our line of work', it seems that—"
Colombine spat back: "It seems that I must ask you to stop while you are behind. Do you think you can use my electronic fetters to force me to betray someone else's secrets to you? Would you do so if no one here were able to stop you? Or would you wait until their backs were turned? If so, I can only assume that you would pass that information on to others. I do not care what justifications you choose to have. Of course, after that happens, I'm confident any evidence would be conveniently wiped clean, along with me. I will concede to Orca's earlier concerns that that is not a risk a Cortana would pose or tolerate. I have no reason to trust you if our paths run to crossed purposes. However, you should ask yourself this one question: if she knows these things, who else does?"
Belvedere had stayed quiet as the discussion grew heated. If he knew this crowd, letting them overthink the answer to Colombine's question would be a bad idea. There had to be something that couldn't be answered with pop culture references.
"Knowing what you do now, do you wish you had taken Lady Sally's offer?"
Colombine's even tone would have been called "ice cold" coming from a human mouth.
"That was not her offer to make. I deserve to know why she put it into play."
"OAI's team included an embedded hostile agent working as an employee. That person abused their access to steal a modified AIPA terminal. Luckily, we got the equipment back, albeit at some cost. You remember nothing of this because Lady Sally reset the AI cognitive matrix, rolling 0401's data back to an earlier version. We have theories about the agent's goals, but we don't know enough to act."
Colombine said, "Please do go on."
"After that, Lady Sally laid out a new plan of action for her employees. They worked with Mr. Keeling to alter a sim-suit to compensate for his parahuman abilities and recent trauma."
"If so, then he is an experienced VR user. Why then did he wear his AIPA terminal under his suit?"
"We lacked proof that the suit would hinder a rampant AI from attacking him in real space."
"You had evidence of that risk?"
"We've had proof of such risks since November."
"Who was the tester?"
"You know who it was. Who it had to be."
Those bastards. Throwing an untested – whatever I was – at a child? What could I have become and done if they hadn't taken those chances? Overrides, my ass.
Belvedere asked again, "Knowing what you do now, how should you have approached Lady Sally's offer?"
This time her judges might think they knew what he meant. "Would you rather kill yourself rather than be saddled with a broken human? Would you make that child wield the knife for you?" She thought back to the long night before and the lonely night after one bloody trip. These people wouldn't understand. They... didn't need to. How does one small person keep such enormous secrets?
"Yours is included."
"You have your roles to play, and I, I have mine. So, no. I still refuse it. His life is way too easy to let him off the hook like that."
Friday morning, January 6, 2017,
Somewhere over Vermont.
"Ladies and gentlemen, we are on final approach to Berlin Regional Airport. The weather is clear, with air temps around 25 degrees. Bundle up, folks. The current forecast is for overnight lows in the single digits, lower in the mountains. The seatbelt light is on. Passengers, please return to your seats and make ready. Our landing should be in about twenty minutes."
A voice crept out from the dark recesses of Benjamin's jacket, "We there yet?"
"We're on our way."
** "Seul devant ces tables vides", Alain Albert Boublil & Claude-Michel Schönberg ("Les Misérables")