Honest Impulses 23: Denoument

Anar, Yavar 08, 03262

Meet me at Shelter W5 in the meadow at 5pm Friday.

Linia had no better idea of what the note meant than Gazelle did, but there was something about it, especially the backup note on the Conspiracy server, that told both of them not to miss it. She and Misuko had arrived early, the first ones there. She pinged the area, then looked. “I think we’ve found our host,” she said, pointing.

Misuko’s lips pursed when she saw shining reflection of dozens of rounded, melted blocks all hovering in a mass flotilla vaguely suggestive of some simian centaur thing. “Our puppetmaster, you mean?”

“Probably,” Linia said.

Behind Nawazi, Gazelle and Shandy emerged from the treeline. They weren’t holding hands, but they stood close to one another and Linia thought Gazelle looked better already. Gone was the severe business suit with the armored jacket and leggings. Instead, she wore a white silk v-neck shirt that stopped just short of her cleavage, dark blue trousers and low leather boots. Gone also was the halo braid tightly bound about her head. Instead, her long white hair trailed down her back in a thick double-braid that reached all the way to her belt line. Shandy looked gobsmacked, but in a positive, almost manic fashion.

Linia walked past Nawazi and took Gazelle’s hand. “How are you doing?”

“Good. It’s different, but a good different. I’m getting used to it.”

“Thank you all for coming,” Nawazi said. Its usual, lilting giggle had been replaced by a note of sincerity and seriousness. “First, before I get to any explanations, let me tell you, Gazelle, that I am deeply sorry for your loss. We know you were worried about Geroma. Anyone who could read the Conspiracy servers could tell you were. We didn’t know he would go right then, and certainly not in the manner that he chose.”

Gazelle only nodded. Linia saw Shandy’s hand move out and cover Gazelle’s, her head turned to look up at the taller woman, her eyes wet with worry.

“Who is ‘we?’” Misuko said, angrily.

“The Encompassment.” Everyone stared at him. “The lTP force in orbit is ‘visiting’ only in the sense that they’re here to support the Sudice. They don’t know that, and neither does the Sudice. Someone from the cybernetic side of the Encompassment had to be here, and I am that someone.

“Misuko understands that every civilization has individuals who believe that something fundamental about their civilization is immoral.” His ‘head’ turned to look at her. “The Encompassment, and Purpose with it, is one of those somethings about which good people can argue forever. Raij Mertum belonged to an extremist opinion about the Encompassment: he believed it was immoral because it didn’t allow people like Linia and Gazelle to kill people like you and Shandy.” Shandy gasped. “They call themselves ‘The Next Step.’ Next Step people believe that we are holding back the natural evolution of thought. That through the Encompassment, we somehow force people who are faster, stronger, more durable, and more intelligent serve their lessers, and that this is somehow wrong.

“Raij Mertum never described himself as a member of Next Step, but he believed as they did. When he moved to Hiroshi, all sorts of alarms went off. Raij was one of the few people who had the skills and talent necessary to subvert a variety of Encompassment protocols. Hiroshi, with its hands-off, limited-surveillance tradition of benevolent neglect was the sort of place where he could refine his subversions without bringing too much attention to himself. We are fortunate that often, as they get close to their goals, criminals grow more and more sloppy.

“I am sorry, Linia, that we couldn’t warn you ahead of time. Our strongest simulations indicated that you were the most likely target, since your hardware is archaic. I’m glad you survived.

“You like playing with people’s lives, don’t you?” Shandy said

“No,” Nawazi said. “No, I don’t, and I never will. It is as much against my nature as it is for Linia or Gazelle to betray you. But I have to, Shandy. I can’t interfere with your free will, and I can’t show my hand until the other player does.”

“‘Tis just excuses.”

“Maybe. But it’s all I can say. I didn’t know what he was going to try until he tried it. I couldn’t just come down and smite him. What would you have said then, woman from Abi?”

Shandy twisted her mouth in anger, then nodded her head abruptly. Nawazi said, “Do let me say, Shandy, that you are the most amazing, most wonderful, most valuable project I’ve backed in a very long time.” Shandy stared at him. He giggled. “Oh, yes, I’m your patron. There. Now I am not. I’ve transferred the rights to your education fund to Hiroshi, to pass on to Nozomi if she wants it, or to keep them on your behalf if she doesn’t. You were my eyes and ears, a precious outsider’s view of Raij Mertum that proved more valuable than I could ever have imagined.

“More than that,” Nawazi went on, “You saw right to the heart of the problem. You penetrated what makes Linia different in a way not even Misuko could elucidate: you saw that it’s not Linia that’s different, and it’s not Misuko that’s different, but it’s the way other people treat their inescapably deferent companions. We knew almost twenty-five hundred years ago that this might happen, but robots were too useful, too convenient, and too much fun to give the naysayers much credence. Now we know they were right.”

“So my talent with machines wasn’t all that important.”

Nawazi reared back. “Oh, no, never think that, Shandy! You skill with HMRI is very valuable, and you should improve it as much as you can. You could very possibly be one of the finest powered armor operators this century will ever see, and you should display that talent as best you can. Still, while it may not have been the ‘why’ I brought you into the school, it was the ‘how’ and you earned it legitimately. Shandy, your talent for cybernetics is just as valuable to me as your being able to see robots from what they are.”

For a minute, Linia heard only the wind as she thought furiously, trying to figure out what Nawazi’s real endgame was. “Where does Isabelle fit in? Is she part of this?”

“Why, no, Linia, Is it impossible for you to believe that some of my projects, the ones I’m publicly backing, are exactly what they appear to be? I am interested in Isabelle because I’d like to meet her and hear her story. To understand what it was like to be Terran in the second century PE.”

Linia snorted. “It’s almost impossible.”

“I’ll have to take that.” Nawazi made a very human-sounding sigh. “In the meantime, I have a favor to ask all four of you.”

“Can we refuse?” Misuko said.

“Of course you can, but I doubt you will. Why, Misuko, don’t you want my favour and auspice?”

Linia saw Misuko’s jaw muscles clench as she bit off a reply. “I could wish for a better outcome than what happened to Saia and Geroma.”

“Geroma wasn’t Nawazi’s failure, Misuko. Geroma was mine.” Gazelle voice was soft and she held her gaze rigidly level with Misuko’s. “Saia was Saia’s.”

“I want to change that,” Nawazi said. They all looked back at him. “I told you that Raij believed that robots and AIs are faster, stronger, more durable and more intelligent than humans. And we are.” He turned his “head” toward Misuko. “I know you played paper-and-pencil games when you were younger, Misuko. Strength, dexterity, endurance and intelligence. What’s missing from that list?”

Misuko frowned. She had enjoyed tabletop gaming back when she’d been a student. It hadn’t been a major hobby, not like some of her peers, but it had been fun. She tried to remember the common characteristics. “Strength, dexterity, endurance, intelligence…” She looked up. “Wisdom?”

Nawazi nodded. “Wisdom. What is wisdom, but the one thing robots have more and more ready access to than anyone else? Breadth. The ability to survey all possible responses and seek the one that has the best possible outcome for all involved. And unlike even a historian like yourself, Linia has the ability to not privilege some stories over others due to bias when doing her surveying.” He turned his head until he looked at Linia. “Funny thing. Misuko’s already done her part. What I want to ask, I must ask most of all from Linia and Gazelle. I want you to teach first-handers to be like you.”

Gazelle took a sharp breath. “I don’t know how to do that myself!”

“Learn,” Shandy said. “And I promise, as long as we try to be good to each other, that I will stay by your side for as long as it takes.” Linia saw the manic expression had gone, replaced with a solemnity that made Linia weep inside for the young woman she had known two months before. Those words were very much like the ones Linia had said to Shandy, about Misuko, on that fateful shopping trip. Gazelle let Shandy entwine their finger and the smile on Gazelle’s face told her they’d make it work somehow. Shandy wasn’t Misuko, but she had that Abian quality Linia loved as much as any other: neither woman knew how to give up.

“Write about it,” Nawazi said. “Talk about it. Tell others about it. It’s not enough to be deferent. Deference is the weakest link in the Encompassment’s frighteningly fragile chain. If we’re going to build a stronger civilization, we need to build stronger bonds. Reinforced bonds. Linia found the most important bond of all.” Linia had no idea how a semi-melted wedge of polished steel could give the impression of turning the floor over, but Nawazi’s headbrick looked to her with exactly that.

“Love?” she said.

Gazelle shook her head. “It’s too pat. Too neat. Too much like a children’s fairy tale.”

“No,” Linia said. “No, it’s not.” She reached out and took Misuko’s hand. She wanted to do the same for Shandy, but they were sitting too far away at the other table. “I understand it now. There are two futures, the one where Raij wins and all feeling is bleached out in the service of efficiency– the things you do with strength, speed, endurance and intelligence. And then there’s the other future, the one where we feel more.” She looked at Nawazi. “And you value the one where we feel more.”

It nodded. “The first has no value. A universe where nobody feels is one that values nothing. Yes, Gazelle, it is that simple: Love. Not a simplistic love, either, but the complicated, wise kind where trust, and sacrifice, and room to let the other person be their best self is paramount to all involved. It is the most complex of emotions, evergoing, everchanging. It is worth everything we have to preserve it.”

They were silent for a moment. Misuko said, “So what’s next.”

“I felt you deserved an explanation. I’m sorry for the pain I knew might happen, but couldn’t prevent.”

Gazelle said, “Are we free of your interference now?”

“I never interfered in the first place,” Nawazi said. “With the exception of backing Shandy’s scholarship, for which I had perfectly valid alternative reasons— you really are that good, Shandy— my main role was to stay out of your lives, even as I worried that it might be to your benefit to act otherwise.” It gave a loud sigh. “And now, I think it would be best if I continue to stay out.” It walked out into the sun, it’s steel chassis blazing with the bright late afternoon light, and ambled back toward the treeline.