"Take a look," Olivia said, calling up the screen she wanted and then tossing the PADD into my hands. "It is an insect mound."
"What?" Rebecca said, looking over the chart. "I thought we had determined that the centerpiece was part of the World Seed."
"It is," Olivia repeated. "That's what's so weird. Take a look at the telemetry we're getting back from the chase probe, and compare it to the data we get from the azzies we sent into Launch Site B, which we don't expect to be ready for another twelve years or so."
Rebecca Remal re-examined the PADD she had been looking at earlier. "Let me get this straight. Your conclusion is that the mound at the center really is an insect mound, complete with a queen--"
"Several dozen queens," Olivia corrected her.
"Several dozen queens," Rebecca repeated. She put down the PADD and took another bite out of her sandwich. We were sitting around one of the outdoor lunch tables under the blazing noonday sun, exchanging the data that was now pouring in from around the camp now that we knew what we were looking for, looking at. I have to admit, it was kind of pleasant to have the intellectual attention of three beautiful fems. "And that these insect colonies are building the worldseed at the center?"
"That's what it looks like," Lindsay said. She leaned back and stretched; I smiled while watching her. In less than two weeks I had really come to appreciate the beauty of the Han. She shot me a broad smile when she noticed. They were doing fine among us, although they were having more than a little trouble reconciling what they had learned from their history of what Earth had been like, with the Earth and Pendor that existed now. And all the new species just made their heads spin.
Despite that, the integration could only be described as 'fun!' really. They had taken the attitude I had hoped for, one of joy at being alive. Of course, they had their curmudgeons, but those were still few and far between.
"Is it preprogrammed suicide?"
"We don't think so," I said. "As far as we can tell, this is a survival mechanism. The worldseeds are packed with several dozen different types of seed, not just the D1 to D4 types we now know make up the launch rings. And we think that there are also insect pupae forms aboard as well."
"You're suggesting, then, that this is a coordinated effort beyond that of the organism? This doesn't evolve on its own, guys," Rebecca objected. "There's no feedback mechanism. How in Hell does this thing know it's even got a chance of working?"
"It doesn't," I said. "But what choice does it have? You've seen the telemetry. From ice age to tectonic rendering to stellar novae; this place has got less than ten millennia, Becc."
"That's not the point," she said argumentatively. "I'm saying that your conclusions point to this being engineered."
"We're not arguing that," I said.
"So what are the options?" Lindsay said.
"Before we consider the options of sentience," Olivia interrupted, "We should discuss one other thing. Does this 'worldseeding' operation go on around the clock, or not? Has it always been around, or is it a recent development?"
"Easy to answer that one," I said. "There are nineteen discs," I said, calling up the data on my PADD. "There have been seventeen launches, according to all the satellite records."
"Those discs are built besides the ocean," Olivia said. "Maybe more could have eroded away from the archaeological record?"
I shook my head. "Damn, wish someone from the Shigokai family had come along. Anyway, we've looked at the nineteen Launch Sites. The two that are growing are getting damnably hard to get to; each time we go nearby there are more bugs then the time before. But as far as we can tell, the Launches have been increasing in recent years. There first and second were nearly fourteen decades apart. As of a year ago, this world had three growing simultaneously."
"That suggests... a test program?" Lindsay asked. The more I hung around her, the more I liked her. She was smart, fast, and completely fascinated with the world around her. She had pitched herself headfirst into the goals of the Battia project and was already able to ask the right questions, like her last one.
"Might be. The record of the oldest Site is very hard to extract. It's probably nearly a thousand years old. If it hadn't been for Dao's expertise with the infrared satellite data, we'd've never found it."
She nodded. "So, we know it hasn't been going on forever. We don't know if it ever happened more than a thousand years ago, but we do know that about a thousand years ago this 'worldseed' project initiated. Or re-initiated."
"So," she said, holding up one four-fingered hand, "We have to ask if this world is the result of a worldseed project itself. If not, we have to ask if this evolutionarily impossible project is the result of external intelligence or local intelligence. And if it's local intelligence, where are they?"
"If it's the result of a worldseed project itself, where's the homeworld? What happened there?"
"Good questions," I said.
Olivia startled everyone by suddenly slamming her paw down on the table. "Sorry," she said sheepishly. "My napkin was about to go flying."
I laughed softly.
"I have interesting news, if I might be allowed to join?" The voice from behind me surprised me.
"Feel free, Dao," I said, sliding to my right unconsciously to give him a place to sit. "What's this interesting news?"
"Lance, can you cue it?"
"Surely," the AI's voice said, coming from the PADD speakers. "It's on your screens, with permission."
"Granted," I said. The screen cleared and the illustration on my screen surprised me for a moment. Then I coughed. "What the...?"
"Your son found that two days ago. We spent all of yesterday getting it out of the ice up along a mountain ridge near the northern arctic circle."
"Any idea what it is?"
"The bones of an animal?" he said, laughing. "From the shape of it, it's some kind of carnivore."
Rebecca, long a self-suffering zoologist, looked dumbstruck. "A carnivore?" she said.
"At least seventy kilos in weight, too," Tonni replied. "Now, I'm not a zoologist... they've got that right now, by the way... but this says that, a long time ago there were a lot of animals running around."
A memory, from almost a year ago, began circling inside my head. A strange idea. "After making a cursory inspection for animal life and not finding any, we pretty much settled on the idea that there were no animals on Battia Two, that they had never evolved. We never made a serious dig for them. This changes things."
"Kinda like the dinosaurs on Terra, then?" Rebecca said.
"Not like that at all," I said. "Whatever wiped them out didn't get to the smaller animals. Some adapted. Whatever wiped out the animals on Battia got them all."
I gave her a disdainful look. "You're a scientist. Do better than that. What gets everything?"
"A concerted effort by a sentient species?" Lindsay asked.
"The only reasonable answer," Olivia said, looking to the skies.
"Lance, who's heading the Zoological examination?" I asked.
"Toshura Tambelli. I can get him on the line if you like."
"Hello?" The voice came through almost immediately, sounding positively peeved at yet another interruption. I shook my head; every frustrated zoologist on the team must be trying to get hold of Tambelli right about now. Including Rebecca.
"Toshura, I'm sure you're getting a million requests for information about this thing, but I'd like to ask if the ice it was found in has been sent for atmospheric analysis?"
"We have sent samples over to the lab, but we have not gotten results yet. Please ask Lance to beep you when they are ready."
"I'll 'beep' you," Lance said, amused.
I looked up. "Now that I have four relatively unattached people here, let me all ask you a question. Have any of you had any strange dreams at all in the past, oh, year? Anything very memorable?"
There was silence for a second, and then Lindsay said "Yeah. I have had one."
I looked at her, surprised. "After only two weeks being here? Describe it for me. If it's not too personal."
"It's not. I've had this dream twice in the past week, I remember. It was a dream about spinning in a dark room. It's so weird, that's why I remember it. I remember spinning, around and around, in one direction. Did any of you ever like to spin around and around when you were little, just 'cause it's different? Get yourself dizzy? It was that kind of feeling. And then something began tugging at me as I spun around. And it slowed me down."
"When you stopped, did you see anything?"
"No, not really... I just kinda stopped. Like I said, it wasn't a visual dream, just a lot of feelings. And then, I started spinning in the other direction. And this time I was spinning not quite so fast, but I felt like I was spinning for a lot longer. Like, hundreds of times longer than I had been spinning in the other direction. And then I woke up."
"That's a weird dream, all right. I think we've got a pattern here, a very strange pattern of dreams. I'm going to make a general post, to the Weird Happenings bulletin board. Everybody keep abreast of changes, will you? And alert everybody else along the way."
The day after the post, Weird Happenings went wild. It seems everybody but me had had some kind of strange dream. A lot of posts were anonymous, people shamefully admitting to distressing dreams of directed homicide. Aramo and his team called a meeting that night, on the big general field where we held meetings.
"It's not destructive homicide," Aramo was saying. "That's not the case. The most common emotion among those admitting to it is constructive."
"Psychopathic?" someone around the table asked.
"I think you're looking at it wrong," Aramo said. "You're assuming that the homicide is happening within your sociological structure. I think what we're looking at is a telepathic memory from a period in this planet's history."
"And that is?" Lindsay asked.
"Kill all animals," Aramo said.
There was a loud murmuring from around the small crowd that had joined the briefing. "Why?" seemed to be the general gist of it.
"I'll let Tana Booth answer that question."
Tana, a short centaur with white-spotted pelt and Asian features, stood up slowly, stretching. "We think that the message is part of the worldseed project. It may have been an unnecessary move on the part of the worldseed initiators, whoever they may have been, but we think the message was more along the lines of 'remove everything higher on the foodchain than those species which contribute to launches.' Remember, the higher on the foodchain you go, the more inefficiently the ATP/ADP cycle gets transferred."
"So, you're arguing that this move was a way of ensuring..."
"That every last scrap of solar energy collected by this planet went towards feeding the plants and their mobile units, the insects. Also, remember that at our level of technology, long- duration hibernation is now possible. But it's unlikely that these worldseeds could carry anything higher then an insect form."
A hand shot up. "What about the other dreams?"
"Good question," he said, standing up again. His tail swished along the ground thoughtfully. "These other dreams come in several flavors, sometimes combined. There are dreams of freezing, dreams of spinning, and dreams of escape. The 'freezing' dreams often come with a wish for escape, and the dreams of spinning often come with a successful feeling that one has escaped something.
"The ramifications of the freezing dream are nothing except astonishing. They suggest that, despite an apparent lack of intelligence, there is a collective, active awareness on the part of this entire world that it is about to freeze over, and that the worldseed project is the only way that this world's genetic heritage can possibly survive."
"And the spinning dreams?" Lindsay asked, curious. Gods, Han are gorgeous.
"Those dreams bother us even more," I said, not getting up but instead letting Lance carry my words around the circle. "The theory getting the most attention at this time is that the spinning dreams represent an awareness on the part of this collective. An awareness of the mathematics of spaceflight, and a way of representing that awareness.
"If the theory is true, uplifting the network could be the most important thing we accomplish here. But, more disturbing then that, it may mean that we are sitting on a vast collective intelligence already."
Aaden slowly and carefully picked his way through the rainforest undergrowth, lecturing as he spoke. "In this part of the jungle, the network as we know it exists in two parts; a set of vine-like constructs that link the trees up there, and a ground- based bush that looks like... Ah!" he said, kneeling down. "See this here?" he asked, pointing to a green bush that seemed to grow around the base of one of the thousands of trees that grew in close quarters here. The heat felt oppressive, making me drowsy. The humidity didn't help. "This bush here somehow communicates with the vines up there, the long ropy ones that hang from tree to tree. See them? And the bushes, they have very shallow roots, that run among themselves, providing another part of the 'net. Somehow, in this square kilometer alone, sixteen species of plant have grown together with a common set of electrochemical standards that allow them to exchange signals."
"But what's the information?" I asked.
"We can't tell," Aaden said. "We're laying out grids of the network and programming azzies to check them by induction, to see if we can find a commonality of stimulus and response. But nothing is solid so far."
I nodded. "Sounds like one hell of a project."
"It is," he sighed. "And it's not a going well. The insects are very destructive to the azzies, almost like they know their not part of the system."
"Well, they aren't." 'Azzy' is a generic term for any robot under two centimeters in length. At that size, it was possible to model their flight capabilities on those of the insects they were to imitate or replace. "They probably don't smell right, for one thing."
"But the attacks seem to be destructive, not feeding. And they're concerted. A couple of surviving Azzies recorded simultaneous attacks by two or three different kinds of insect."
I smiled and knelt down next to him, leaning over to give him a kiss. "You think about bugs too much."
He sighed. "I never wanted to be an entomologist. It seems thrust upon me by this damned planet." He kissed me back, his tongue and nose leaving two wet spots on my cheek.
With a playful push, I shoved him off balance from where he knelt. He went sprawling over the ground, landing on the wet grass that floored much of the rainforest. "What? Ken!" he objected as I crawled over him, looking down.
"Listen," I said. "If I have to crawl around in the jungle with you for a day just so I can have a day with you, I'm damned well not going to waste my time while I'm here." I leaned over and kissed him, hard. At first objecting, he finally eased into the kiss, responding with passion finally towards the end.
"You're right," he gasped. "I've almost forgotten how good a kisser you are."
"Anything else?" I said, shifting my knee up against his groin and grinding against him slowly.
"What?" he gasped. "Here? Now?"
"Best time," I said. "Middle of nowhere. The rest of the party out hunting the rest of the jungle in pairs, so we're completely alone. Just think about how... primeval it would be." I leaned down and nipped his neck, biting into the fur around his throat. "Gods, you're sexy, Aaden."
He growled softly. "Stop that," he said, not objecting too strenuously.
"Why?" I said.
"Because... because... "
"Come up with a good reason," I said playfully, my fingers finding their way up into his shirt to run over his chest, touching his fur.
He sighed. "You're crazy."
"I know," I said, chuckling. "You tell me that all the time. But is it really crazy to love you the way I do, or is it just love?" I crawled down the length of his body to his crotch, opening his fly with my teeth.
"Ken!" he gasped. "Don't!"
He chuckled softly as I freed his cock from his pants, sucking on his sheath and feeling it grow in my mouth. "You're so good..." he said.
I swallowed his cock in my mouth, feeling it grow and pulse. I love the taste of his penis, the sweaty scent that arose from him after the past couple of hours hacking our way through the dense forest. I inhaled deeply, appreciative of the musky undercurrent of both male and skunk that I could almost feel coming from him. His cock was slick and smooth under my tongue as I tasted him, suckling his beautiful melhood from its sheath. I closed my eyes and felt it slide into my mouth, against the roof of my mouth and into the back, where my gag reflex had learned long ago to ignore this lovely thing, Aaden's cock.
I started a slow, regular motion, sucking on him, feeling his cock throb and grow under my ministrations. His hands were on top of my head, and once in a while one would move to brush away one of the myriad insects. He tensed as he got closer to his orgasm, and I could feel it winding up within him, coming closer and closer.
"Oh, Ken!" he gasped as he came. I felt his come, sweet and salty and, admittedly, slimy, but slimy in a way I adored, hitting the roof of my mouth. I rolled it around with my tongue, tasting it, tasting him, and then I swallowed, feeling it slide down my throat. "How was that?" I asked.
He gasped softly. "Wonderful," he said, looking up.
"We're not done yet," I said, grabbing his pants and pulling them down to his knees with a swift jerk. "I want something in return now."
"What?" he asked as I grabbed his hip and pulled, rolling him over onto his stomach, his cock pressed against the grass.
"I want your ass, Aaden. It's been two weeks since I fucked you properly."
He laughed. "Here?" he asked.
"Right here, right now," I said as I pulled my own pants open and freed my erection. Without lubricant, I was going to have to fake it. I bent over and, pulling his tail out of the way, buried my tongue between his asscheeks, taking the saliva and what was left of his come and getting his hole as wet as possible. I knelt over him and spat into my hand, spreading the spit over the head of my cock. I leaned forward, aiming downward, and pressed my cock against his asshole. He didn't resist at all as my cock slid into his, his sphincter tightening around my shaft as we melded together, two mel. His asshole was hot inside, hotter even than the jungle we were making love in, and if felt a little like my cock was getting scorched... or was that just the friction?
I began to stroke him slowly, looking down at his face, turned to the side, and seeing the satisfied look on his face as I fucked him, lovingly stroking his asshole with my cock. "I love you," I whispered.
"Feels so good to have you inside me again," he half-moaned, half- whispered as we made love. "Love you so much."
I smiled down at him as I began fucking him faster, feeling my urge to come closing in on me. My hips slammed against his. His tail brushed back and forth between us, and he whimpered gently every time I hit the base of it a little too hard. "You know... I prefer to be on my knees."
"Tough," I cooed softly as I felt my climax coming. "I wanted you this way."
He gave just a tiny nod as I sped up, feeling my orgasm rising as I fucked him gently, and I groaned loudly as I came, closing my eyes and whispering his name. "Aaden."
I lay down on top of him, kissing the side of muzzle lustfully as I tried to catch my breath. His tongue licked back, and we lay there enjoying our soft intimacies when I felt something bite my butt. "Ow!"
I leapt up and, of course, out of Aaden, rubbing my ass. "Bug bite?"
"Yeah!" I said, indignantly. "You think they could wait until the mushy stuff was over..." Aaden looked a little indistinct, and suddenly I felt light headed. "Aaden..."
"Ken?" he asked worriedly, just as he slapped a bug on his own arm. "Ow!"
"Aaden, I think that bug had something to its... bite..." I was really spacing out now. I fought hard, turning my thoughts over to the biocybe connectors. But the organics have to be working right for that to happen, and this wasn't something the nanochine was programmed to recognize as inimical. I tried to get the commands right, but I couldn't think.
I wasn't falling asleep, really. Just felt weird, indistinct, without real direction. Insects started to crawl over me, lots of them. All over my legs, my chest, my face. I didn't swat them away; I didn't feel the need to... There were bugs on Aaden too, where he was lying on the ground. "Aaden?" I asked.
"Huh?" he said, looking up.
Bugs started crawling up my nose. That hurt, and I shook my head violently. I closed my eyes and started choking. Then, for no reason I could really fathom, I passed out...
It came from a long way off, and it sounded very indistinct.
I sighed and wondered why P'nyssa was calling me right now. What did she want that couldn't wait?
KEN! Damn you, I know you're awake. Answer me! Please?
P'nyssa? What's wrong? Memories flooded my brain. The insect attack, the conversation afterwards... P'nyssa! Aaden, is he okay?
Good, your brain isn't damaged. We couldn't tell for a while there. We don't know.
How long was I out?
Eleven hours. And Aaden hasn't showed signs of waking up yet.
A soft chill gripped my spine. You know I hate talking like this. Am I capable of talking?
I thought hard about my mouth, my tongue, my teeth. "Can you understand me?"
"You can talk!"
"I hope so." I opened my eyes slowly, feeling my body slowly coming on-line. I recognized some of the feelings as those of an endorphin dump, a recognition that forced me to smile. I focused on P'nyssa. "How's Aaden?"
"I'm going to check on him now. I'm leaving you with Dr. Trairong."
A human with a Terran medico's garb leaned over me, her teeth brilliant white in her black face. "How are you feeling, Dr. Shardik?"
"Like Hell," I said. "I have... Get Dr. Garenna for me, would you?"
"Sir, you have to recover," Trairong insisted.
"Listen, Doc, I'd love to talk, but I really need to see Garenna and I need a recorder and I need them now."
"But your coimelin..." she insisted.
"Is in the best of care and I can't do anything for him. Get Garenna!"
"Yes, sir," she said angrily.
I waited. "Eh, Ken? You've got your doctor in one bit of a snit, I must say," I heard Garenna's voice as he walked in.
"Gary, you've got to listen to me. I've got the answers."
I told him the story, exactly as I had heard it from Battia herself. I laughed, and he visibly smiled, as I applied a gender to the world. "That's incredible," he said after I finished.
"I know. But we've got to take it at face value, Gary."
"Will you be ready for a conference tomorrow?"
"If you let me do it my way," I said.
He laughed. "You've got it."
"Good morning, peoples," Aaden said, looking rather healthy as he stood at the podium. "Before we start answering questions on the basic biology underlying Battia, Dr. Shardik would like to start with the introductory material."
I stood up and, taking a laser pointer in hand, summoned a picture of the standard humanoid brain on the main mural display. "Many of you here are not physicists, although we do have a few interdisciplinarians in the audience. Hopefully some of you will have a strong grasp on the quantum and essentially random nature of subatomic phenomena.
"Now, popular theory states that life only exists because of a high degree of order. To achieve that order, the so-called 'laws' of physics dictates a higher-order of interaction, where there are enough 'predictable' results to drown out the randomness of low- order interactions. We call this 'matter.' 'Life' is a more- ordered form of 'matter,' essentially. But there's still one realm of 'life' where quantum mechanics has effect. Anyone want to hazard a hint?"
"The brain?" a voice asked from the back of the room.
"Well, seeing as there's a huge brain on the screen, that's a good guess," I said. "Indeed." The image closed in on neurons firing in a stylized display. "We think, as all creatures with a brain, even AIs, think, because of the interaction of millions of small memory cells and their interconnecting nets. The more reinforced these nets, the more significant the relation between items in our database. It's only the small flaws caused by essentially 'random' firings, minuscule as seen by any one neural interaction but additive by sheer volume, caused by quantum effects that gives us what we call 'consciousness' above and beyond simple neural processing. We've decided, as sentients, to call this randomness 'free will' and I'm not uncomfortable with that. Nothing really tells us why these firings happen as they do."
"But the fact remains that the mind is not, as some would wish it, a 'ghost in the machine' of the brain." I paused as a new image came up on the main screen, an overview of Battia. "Now what we have on the planet's surface is, essentially, an almost linear layout of billions of individual neural connections. We surmise that the rise of the first connections is coincidence, perhaps between two same-species ground-based insect colonies and a symbiotic plant form of some kind. It grew when both colonies created new queens, and they either took their plant with them or established colonies near similar plants. Sort of like the original evolution of anarchic computer networks seen on Terra and llerkindi. As network met network, standards, 'gateways' were evolved. The network grew. Eventually rudimentary, directed intelligence began showing up in the network, and other insects started becoming part of this great matrix.
"The problem, as I saw it, was simple. 'Where was the randomness?' What gave rise to original thoughts? Even the insects that made up the basic modules couldn't be the source of randomness that gives rise to creative thought in such an incredibly monolithic structure such as the 'mind of Battia.' Even Battia couldn't tell me, but in my conversation with her, I figured out the answer."
I turned and pointed. "Look at that map. Where on that map do you see randomness?"
A hand in the audience. "The earthquakes."
"Close, but not quite. Battia knows, better than even we ever could, when earthquakes are coming and what their effects will be. She is that much in touch with her thought processes, that she knows precisely what an earthquake will do to her. She can compensate for earthquakes. Let me rephrase the question. Where on that map is a truly highly nonlinear system? Where on that map does chaos reign?"
"The weather!" a voice from the front row.
"Exactly," I said. "Battia's thought processes are much slower than ours. She's not even more intelligent than we are... about equal. She was stunned to realized that Aaden and I are equal to her in intellect, and that each of you, as individuals, is not a 'node' but a whole sentience in your own right. She was saddened to realize that there's nothing we could do to save her, but we could provide for as many of her children as could prepare without the launch mechanisms. Our conversation with Battia contains an estimated twenty minutes of verbal transmission. According to our physicians, the insects held them at bay for over ten hours.
"Battia can predict local weather, and knows that if she wanted to she could predict the effects of it on her thought processes, if she dedicated all of her resources to that project and gave up any hope of remembering her post-effect contingencies. Thus she doesn't bother. Just as an AI can simulate other people, or even itself, for short periods of time, Battia could do the same, but chooses not to. I don't blame her; sounds depressing to me.
"Battia admitted to killing all animals on the surface of the world; her attack on Doctor Satpulov and myself was part of an initial investigation of these animals that had suddenly appeared on her body's surface. When she realized she was dealing with a sentient, spacefaring species, she relented.
"Our mission on this world is only slightly changed. We must continue to research to find what would be the optimal combination for plant and insect life from Battia for transplantation and possible expansion into a similar network on a variety of other worlds. I would also like for us to come up with some way of communicating with Battia that does not involve having insects crawling around inside my body.
"As an advance, I propose that a single, keyboard-driven terminal be set up as a communications node with Battia. We must remember that she is only one individual, not even remotely an AI, and her thoughts crawl; the number of thoughts that shoot through our minds every two minutes would take her an hour to consider. Also, she has dedicated her life to saving her children, and is still in that frame of mind. She knows how much bioenergy it takes to converse with us, and is still very adverse to wasting any of it.
"I now turn this over to Doctor Satpulov to give details on species designations as we have categorized them." I sat down.
The afternoon wore on, the audience enraptured.
At dinner, Lindsay cornered Aaden and I. "I have a question, you two. If you don't mind. You've probably been asked this a million times before."
"And that is?"
Lindsay looked away momentarily, her eyes fluttering with embarrassment. "The report says that you two were, uh, found in 'a state of undress.' Were you two fucking before the bug attack?"
"Yep," Aaden said calmly between bites of crab salad. "Why?"
"Just wondering," Lindsay said. "Like we were saying the other day, people have been having strange dreams. Do you think it's possible that... Battia might be a little telepathic? Is it possible she picked up on your orgasms as a... unique form of mentation, and decided to investigate rather than kill you outright?"
I looked at her with mouth open. Aaden looked equally stunned. "I... I don't know, Lindsay. It's... possible."
"If it is, Ken, I'll make sure Sarah apologizes for every little thing she said the past month about you being oversexed, indiscriminate and indiscreet. Your sex drive may just have saved the lives of many of the people in camp."
I looked at Aaden, my hand over my mouth, my eyebrows as high as I could push them. He was staring at me, the smile on his face widening until I knew we were both going to lose control of our laughter. When we did, it was a loud, roaring laugh that brought the attention of everyone at the tables closest to us. We spent much of the night explaining ourselves. And again, going over what we knew.