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I: A Guest in Virginia

Lieutenant General Thomas Wharington had weathered his share of challenges, but nothing like Alpha. She was an android in Air Force custody, female in appearance, apparent age thirty, though no one knew how far her artificial brain had developed. As human as she appeared, she was a machine—a deadly biomechanical construct.

Thomas directed the Office of Computer Operations, a deliberately vague term for the Machine Intelligence Division of the National Information Agency. Founded twenty years ago, in 2012, the NIA concerned itself with the world mesh, formerly known as the Internet. He also headed the Senate Select Committee for Space Research, which those with the proper clearances knew as the Committee for Space Warfare Research and Development. In his youth, he had been a fighter pilot. He had flown an F-16 jet, later the F-22 Raptor, and now he was spearheading the development of the F-42 for the Air Force. Over the course of his career, he had received the Congressional Medal of Honor, the Distinguished Flying Cross with silver oak leaf cluster, and a Purple Heart. Physically fit and benefiting from medical advances, he looked more than two decades younger than his age of seventy-two.

Alpha was Thomas's primary tie to Charon, the megalomaniacal fanatic who had created her. Before his death, Charon had controlled a shadowy criminal empire. The Pentagon knew he had intended to build an army for rent to the highest bidder—but an army of what? Constructs, like Alpha? Something else? Had he set in motion some master plan before his death? No one knew. They had too few details, and Thomas feared they were running out of time.

The secrets remained locked within Alpha.


"I can't do it," Thomas repeated.

"You'll be fine." His daughter handed him a bulging shoulder bag decorated with puppies.

Thomas wasn't the type to quail in a desperate situation, but this morning he was in over his head. They were standing in the entrance foyer of the house that belonged to his daughter, Leila Wharington Harrows, and her husband, Karl. Looking sharp in a gold silk suit, with her blond hair swept up into a roll, Leila normally presented a cool face to the world. Right now, though, her hair was escaping its roll and curling in disarray around her face.

"So where is that husband of yours when you need help?" Thomas asked.

"Dad, don't get mad. Karl is coming home early from his conference." Leila pushed the bag back into his hand. "I'm really sorry. I had a nanny, but she got sick. And I couldn't get out of the trip. The partners say I'm not pulling my weight at the firm." Anger edged her voice. "If we didn't need the money, I'd quit this damn job."

Thomas liked less and less what he had heard about the law firm where she worked. "Leila, if you need money—"

She cut him off before he could offer. "We can manage."

He understood she wanted to do it on her own. But he wished he could ease the strain of her life. He wondered what it said about him, that he felt more comfortable offering money than looking after his granddaughter for a few days.

"Well." He spoke awkwardly. "I guess I can manage."

"You're a gem." Leila smiled, perhaps too brightly, but with warmth. "Jamie would rather stay with her Grandpa anyway. She loves spending time with you."

"The feeling is mutual. I just don't know how I can take care of a three-year-old for a week." He could probably find babysitters while he worked, but what would he do with her when he was home? Three-year-old girls were a mystery to him, even after having been the father of one. That had been thirty years ago, during his days as a pilot, and he had been more comfortable in the cockpit of an F-16 than a nursery.

A door upstairs creaked, and footsteps padded on the stairs. As Thomas looked up, a small girl with large blue eyes and gold curls came into view. She held a big stuffed kitten in her arms.

Thomas smiled. "Hello, Jamie."

His granddaughter's angelic face brightened. She ran down the steps and trotted over to him, holding up her toy. "See my kitty, Grampy? Her name is Soupy."

Thomas felt his face doing that thing again, turning soft. He awkwardly patted her toy. "She's a fine kitty."

Jamie dimpled at him, and he felt as if he was turning into putty. She looked so much like Leila at that age. He sighed and picked her up, kitten and all.

To Leila, he said, "I'll do my best."


The NIA was in Maryland. Even more shadowy than its precursors in the intelligence community, the agency was on almost equal footing with the CIA in the National Security Council. Thomas could have fit two of his previous offices in his present one and had room to spare. Currently, a screen installed on his desk was displaying a report from the Links Division, which analyzed mesh traffic for patterns that might warrant investigation. It seemed an arcane discipline to Thomas, half analysis and half intuition, but Links had a good record of success in tracking criminal activities through the mesh.

Basically, the report advised the NIA to monitor the site for a hardware store. They suspected it sold industrial espionage as well as widgets, specifically, that it employed agents from Charon's black market operations. Their purpose: to spy on an institute whose maintenance department ordered from the store. The Department of Defense had contracts with the institute in the development of artificial intelligence, or AI, one of Charon's specialties.

A buzz came from the comm on Thomas's desk. He tapped its receive panel. "Wharington here."

A man's voice came out of the comm. "General, this is Major Edwards. I'm on my way to the base. Would you like to grab a pizza for lunch? It might soften our guest's mood."

"Very well, Major. I'll meet you out front." Thomas knew what "guest" Edwards meant: Alpha, their captive android. For reasons that weren't clear, she would talk only to Thomas, when she talked at all. Questioning an android was an exercise in frustration; she didn't react to known techniques. Yet to Thomas, she seemed human. He couldn't make himself authorize the mech-techs to take her apart and analyze the filaments that constituted her brain. Eventually they might have to resort to such measures, but for now they were trying less drastic forms of interrogation.

He left notes for his appointments with his second in command, Brigadier General Carl Jackson Matheson, or C.J. Thomas could speak with Senator Bartley tomorrow morning and reschedule today's staff meeting for tomorrow afternoon. His housekeeper, Lattie, had agreed to look after Jamie until he came home. He would miss his appointment at the barber, though. He supposed he should be glad he still had a full head of hair. Its grey color seemed to delight Jamie. She surprised him. He had expected to fumble for words around her, but this morning he had greatly enjoyed their breakfast conversation.

Thomas shut down and locked his console and picked up his briefcase. Then he headed out for "lunch." He wished they really were going for pizza. Perhaps they could pick one up on the way, a large pepperoni dripping with cheese and grease. Unfortunately, he would spend the entire meal feeling guilty and recalling his doctor's admonitions on the dangers of his former eating habits. Yes, it could shorten his life if he ate what he wanted, but at least he would die a contented, well-fed man. He had no wish to have another heart attack, and his cholesterol levels were finally normal, but damned if his reformed eating habits weren't a bore.

"Out front," where he was meeting Edwards, was a euphemism for an underground lot with NIA hover cars and trucks. Had Edwards contacted him from within the NIA, he would probably have been more forthcoming about their plans, a visit to the safe house where the Air Force was holding Alpha. But he had called from his car as he drove through suburban Maryland, an area riddled with mech-tech types who loved to ride the wireless waves and explore any signals they could untangle. NIA signals were encrypted, but with all the mesh bandits out there nowadays, no security was certain.

Thomas took an elevator that operated only with a secured code. It listed no floors; the only clues it was doing anything were the hum of the cable and a few flashes of light on its panel. The lights stilled as the hum faded into silence. The silver doors snapped open and Thomas walked into a cavernous garage. Cars and trucks were parked in separate sections, and pillars stood at intervals, supporting a high ceiling. The columns glimmered with holo-displays of innocuous meadows and mountains.

He went to the nearest column and ran his finger across a bar at waist height. The meadow disappeared, replaced by a wash of blue, and a light played across his face, analyzing his retinal patterns. A message appeared on the screen: Proceed to station four. At the same time, the display on a distant pillar changed to blue, specifying "station four." He walked over to the new column and waited. The garage was silent, with a tang of motor oil.

An engine growled, and he turned to see a hover car floating down a lane delineated by holo-pillars. The car had a generic look, except for its dark gold color, a bit flashy for the military, but appropriate for a general. Its unexceptional appearance served as camouflage; it was actually a Hover-Shadow 16, the latest model in a line of armored vehicles with "a few extras," including machine guns and an AI brain. The digital paint used on its exterior could mimic any design programmed into the car, and its shape drew on technology used for stealth fighters. Thomas appreciated the Hover-Shadows; riding in one reminded him of his days as a pilot.

The car stopped a few yards away and settled onto the concrete, remarkably quiet given its turbo fans and powerful engines. Robert Edwards got out from the driver's side. A man of medium height with light brown hair, he would blend into any crowd, except for his Air Force uniform. Just to look at him, most people wouldn't guess he had played offensive tackle at the University of Missouri or that he had defied his jock image by majoring in physics. Thomas enjoyed conversing with Edwards, who could go with ease from predicting which teams would make the Super Bowl to discussing galactic formation. He was a steady officer, one of Thomas's handpicked aides.

"Good to see you, Bob," Thomas said.

"Thank you, sir." Edwards opened the back door.

Thomas slid into the car and swung his briefcase onto the seat. Edwards was also trained in escape and evasion, but Thomas didn't expect trouble. Charon had died several weeks ago. However, Thomas's boss, General Chang, continued to take precautions. The "safe house" where they had Alpha was in fact a fully secured installation.

As the car hummed out of the garage, Edwards said, "Would you care for music? I have that Debussy recording you like."

"Thanks, but no. I have to work." Thomas spoke absently as he took a foot-long pencil tube out of his briefcase, then set the case on his lap in a makeshift table. He slid a glimmering roll out of the tube, his laptop film. Then he unrolled the film on his briefcase and went to work.

His files held a wealth of detail. Biomechanical research had diverged into two paths: robots developed for specific purposes, with designs that optimized their performance; and androids intended to follow human appearance and behavior. Collectively, robots and androids were called formas. Thomas knew the AI side of the field best; he had majored in computer science at the Air Force Academy and earned a doctorate in AI from MIT. He read widely, especially the work of Kurzweil, McCarthy, Minsky, and more recently, Dalrymple. Groups such as theirs deserved the fame. It aggravated him that a criminal like Charon had achieved more success. Then again, "success" was relative. Charon's work had drawn the attention of the NIA because he had trespassed against the nation's interest, not to mention the bounds of human decency.

Thomas scanned the history of Charon, a man who had begun life as Willy Brand. By the time he was seven, Willy was living on the streets. He might have died there if not for one person: Linden Polk. A scholar and a teacher, Polk was known for his innovations with android skeletons. He was also known for his dedication to outreach for disturbed youth, which was how he met Willy. Wild and unrepentantly criminal, the eight-year-old boy had a life no one doubted would land him in prison. But Polk recognized a rare genius within him. With mentoring, Willy straightened out, went to school, and eventually earned a doctorate in biomechanical engineering, after which he joined Polk's research group.

Willy had always been odd, and he never truly respected the law, but he stayed out of trouble. Then Polk died—and Willy lost his lifeline. His already troubled mind crumbled. In a heartbreaking act of denial, he imaged Polk's brain, built an android, and copied Polk's neural patterns into its matrix. But the project failed. He couldn't bring back his father figure, the one person he had ever loved—and his grief pushed him over the edge into insanity.

Willy reinvented himself as Charon, an enigmatic mogul who set up corporations to develop his bizarre but lucrative ideas. He stayed in the background of his businesses and eventually hid his involvement altogether. He became the wealthiest nonexistent person alive.

Charon wasn't the first fanatic who craved an inhuman army that would obey his commands without question. Unlike his predecessors, however, he had both the financial resources and the intellect to make his obsession into reality. Twisted by loneliness, he also created Alpha: an immortal mercenary with no free will; an AI dedicated to optimizing his financial empire; and a forma sex goddess. Obedience, wealth, and sex: she gave him everything he craved.

Charon also copied himself. His body was dying from a lifetime of misuse, so he became an android. Nor was he satisfied with one version of himself. He committed the ultimate identity theft. When a man named Turner Pascal died in a car accident, Charon imaged Pascal's neural patterns, rebuilt the body with a filament brain, gave it Pascal's patterns—and then downloaded a copy of his own mind into Pascal. It was the perfect disguise; he stole Pascal's face, mind, personality, and body. He considered Pascal inferior and never doubted he could control the mind of his rebuilt man, a hotel bellboy who had barely finished high school.

That arrogance had been Charon's downfall.

Pascal wrested back control of his mind and escaped from Charon. He sought help from Samantha "Sam" Bryton, one of the world's leading AI architects. Sam. She was like a daughter to Thomas. Charon sent Alpha after them, Alpha grabbed Sam and Thomas instead of Sam and Turner, the Air Force sent in operatives—and by the time it was over, Charon was dead.

Thomas gazed out the window. Vehicles moved smoothly through Washington, D.C., which only a few decades ago had earned the dubious honor of being named the city with the worst traffic in the country. Now traffic grids controlled the flow and minimized congestion. Nearly half the vehicles were hover cars, and little trace remained of the smog Thomas remembered from his youth. In the south, across the Potomac, the silver spindles of a new federal center pierced the sky, tall and thin, sparkling in the chill sunlight. Thomas had never realized how much he liked living here until he had come so close to dying as Charon's hostage.

Major Edwards soon crossed the river and entered Virginia. As they reached more rural areas, the traffic petered out. Large houses set back from the road were surrounded by lawns or tangled woods. The landscape gradually buckled into the Appalachian Mountains, with forests of pine, hemlock, wild cherry, poplar, and white oak. In a secluded valley, Edwards stopped at a guard booth on the road. The badges he and Thomas wore sent signals to a console within the booth. In the past, the guard would have leaned out to touch their badges; nowadays they never rolled down the windows. It added an additional layer of protection, but it meant security also required extra identification, from the passengers and from the car. Beetle-bots hummed in the air, ready to accompany them and monitor their progress.

The guard motioned them through, and an invisible barrier hummed as they crossed the perimeter. About half a mile farther along, they came to the safe house amid well-tended lawns and groves of trees. The "house" resembled a hospital, but its old-fashioned architecture also evoked a cathedral. The grounds sloped through scattered pines and trees with yellow, green, and red leaves. Paths bordered by azalea bushes curved around sculptures that swooped in arcs of bronzed metal.

Edwards pulled into a carport shaded by trellises with leafless vines. As he and Thomas walked to the front door, a chill wind blew across them, presaging the winter. The genteel feel of the place made it seem as if they were visiting friends rather than a prisoner who was potentially one of humanity's most dangerous creations.

Two "orderlies" were waiting inside, burly men who had more martial arts than medical training. Each wore a staser on his belt, a stun gun that could knock out a large adult. They accompanied Thomas and Edwards down wide halls with gold carpets and artwork on the walls, and through several security gates. Finally they reached a normal door, except Thomas knew its attractive wood paneling hid a steel portal half a foot thick.

The room beyond was pleasant, with a sofa and armchairs in pale green. Paintings of pastoral scenes graced the ivory walls, and a blue quilt covered the bed. The room had no windows, but plenty of light came from an overhead fixture and lamps with stained glass shades in the corners.

A woman was waiting for them.

She stood across the room with her back to the wall, watching Thomas with the feral wariness of a trapped animal. Six feet tall, with another two inches from her heels, she matched his height. Her black leather pants fit her snugly, and her red blouse did nothing to disguise her well-proportioned figure or the definition of her muscles. Black hair was tousled around her shoulders, and her dark eyes slanted upward. She exuded a sense of coiled energy, as if she might explode any moment. The biomech surgeons claimed her android body had three or four times the strength and speed of a human being. Her internal microfusion reactor supplied energy. It disturbed Thomas for many reasons, not only because Charon's technology surpassed the military's work, but also because she looked so human.

So female.

"Good afternoon, Ms. Alpha," Thomas said.

She spoke in a dusky voice. "I am not 'Ms.' anything."

He went farther into the room, but he halted a few yards away from her, so she wouldn't feel pressured. Edwards and the orderlies stayed. Even knowing Alpha was a weapon, Thomas felt strange that his CO assigned him three guards as protection against one attractive young woman. Her first day here, Alpha had tried to fight her way out. She hadn't come close to succeeding, but she had injured several orderlies.

"I'm not going to talk to your flunkies," Alpha said.

"Then talk to me," Thomas said.

She regarded him impassively. This was the second time he had met with her at the safe house. The first time she had interacted with him more than with anyone else, though she still hadn't said much. He was curious as to why he succeeded even a small amount where others failed. It also disconcerted him, for he had no idea what conclusions she was making about him.

Thomas indicated the sofa. "Would you like to sit?"

"No." She narrowed her gaze. "So you're the boss."

She made it a statement rather than a question. It wasn't completely true; he was director of one of the two divisions that comprised the NIA, but that didn't put him in charge of this safe house. General Chang, the Deputy Director of Defense Intelligence, had assigned that duty elsewhere. But Alpha was programmed to respond to authority, and Thomas was overseeing the work with her. If that convinced her to respond, he would use it to full advantage.

He said only, "That's right."

"Where is Charon?"

"Dead." Thomas wanted to offer sympathy. He quashed the urge, knowing it was inappropriate here. He also wasn't certain how a machine would response to compassion. Yet still he felt it.

"He's not dead," Alpha said.

"You saw him die."

She crossed her arms, which could have looked defensive but instead suggested a vulnerability he doubted she had intended. "The android called Turner Pascal carries Charon's mind within his matrix."

"Pascal says he isn't an android."

Alpha waved her hand. "The human Pascal died."

Thomas suspected it would take the Supreme Court to figure out the tangled definitions of humanity posed by Pascal. "Either way, he isn't Charon."

"Charon downloaded his brain into Pascal."

"Pascal deleted it."

She snorted. "If Pascal is human, how would he 'delete' another mind within his own?"

She had a point. "Regardless. He isn't Charon."

"How do you know?"

"Doctor Bryton verified it."

Alpha cocked an eyebrow in a perfect imitation of skepticism. "Samantha Bryton? She would believe anything Pascal told her."

"Why?" he asked, intrigued.

"Love has no judgment." Alpha laughed without humor. "She's infatuated with a forma."

Pascal's relationship with Sam bothered Thomas a great deal, but it wasn't something he would discuss with Alpha. Regardless, he would never have defined Sam's cautious, cynical view of romance as infatuation.

"Pascal thinks he is human," Thomas said.

"He's more than half biomech."

"He isn't the first person to receive biomech prosthetics."

She uncrossed her arms and put one hand on her hip. "Like his brain? He's a frigging AI, Wharington."

He almost smiled. Had Charon programmed her to cuss? It didn't serve any functional purpose. Thomas wanted her to have developed it on her own, for that would mean she could evolve independently of Charon's designs.

"Why does Pascal bother you?" he asked.

Her fist clenched on her hip. "He doesn't conform to specifications."

"You mean he has free will."

"That is an irrelevant comment."

"Why? Because Charon denied you that freedom?"

At the mention of Charon, her face lost all sign of emotion. It chilled him. He was aware of his guards watching, but he refrained from glancing at them or doing anything that might dissuade her from talking. After about a minute or so, though, he gave up trying to wait her out. Silence often provoked humans to speak, but apparently she could stay in whatever state she wanted, for as long as she wanted, with no visible effort or unease.

Thomas broke the standoff by sitting in an armchair across from the sofa, facing her. He settled back, stretched his legs under the coffee table, and considered Alpha.

"If Charon is gone," he asked, "who is your boss?"

She continued to stand with her back to the wall. He tried to see some chink in her expression, some flaw in her too-perfect skin, some indication she felt stress, tension, unease, anger, anything. He found none.

When she didn't respond, he tried another approach. "Alpha, do you want free will?"

"What?" She looked as if he had put an indecipherable command into her system.

"Do you wish to make your own decisions?"


He had expected her to say yes, wanted her to say yes. But he was reacting as he would to a person, and she was a machine designed to lack free will. She was trapped within her programming as thoroughly as she was imprisoned at this safe house, and it bothered him far more than it should.

"If you don't make decisions yourself," he said, "who will?"

"Charon," she said.

"Charon is dead."


"If I'm the boss," Thomas said, "you should answer to me."

"You aren't my boss."

"Then who is?"


He felt as if he were caught in a programming loop that kept going around and around the same section of code. "Charon is dead."

She hesitated just a moment, but for an AI it was a long time. Then she said, "You may be a compelling specimen, General, but I wasn't made for you."

Well, hell. Apparently androids could be just as blunt as young people these days when it came to their private lives. He cleared his throat. "I didn't have that in mind." He almost said he had come to debrief her, then decided that wasn't the best choice of words. So instead he added, "I need you to answer some questions."

Her expression turned stony. The effect was almost convincing, but after her total lack of affect a moment before, he didn't believe it. Unexpectedly, though, she didn't refuse to speak.

"What questions?" she asked.

"Charon has a base in Tibet."

She gave him a decidedly unimpressed look. "No. One of his corporations has a research facility in Tibet."

Thomas met her skeptical look with one of his own. "Hidden at the top of the Himalayas? I don't think so."

She stepped toward him. "Charon is a genius. Of course people struggle to understand him. They lack his intelligence."

"Did he program you to say that about him?"


That figured. Charon had been some piece of work. "He had great gifts," Thomas acknowledged. "But his sickness constrained him."

She folded her arms as if she were protecting herself. "People always call the brilliant minds unbalanced."

Thomas wondered if she had heard all this from Charon. Her ideas sounded oddly dated. "Alpha, that's a myth. Geniuses are no more likely to be mentally disturbed than anyone else. Charon was a sociopath and he had paranoid schizophrenia. It probably limited his work by making it harder for him to plan or to judge the feasibility of his projects."

Her lips curved in a deadly smile. "He created me. If that isn't genius, nothing is."

When she looked like that, wild and fierce, her dark hair disarrayed, her eyes burning and untamed, he was tempted to agree. He suppressed the thought, thrown off balance. He had to remember she was a machine.

"Did he program you to say that, too?" Thomas asked.


He smiled slightly. "What makes you a work of genius?"

Her voice turned husky. "Maybe someday I'll let you find out."

He thought of pretending she had no effect on him, but he didn't try. She could interpret emotional cues, gestures, even changes in posture. It was a tool AIs used in learning to simulate emotions. Unfortunately, it also made them adept at reading people, better even than many humans. If he put on a front, she might figure out he wanted to hide and use that knowledge in their battle of words.

Right now, they were battling with silence. He tried to read her expressions. Sometimes she simulated emotions well, but other times, she either couldn't or wouldn't. To be considered sentient, she would have to pass modern forms of the Turing test, which included the portrayal of emotions. Over the years, the tests had become increasingly demanding, but they all boiled down to one idea: if a person communicated with a hidden machine and a hidden human—and couldn't tell them apart—the machine had intelligence.

Decades ago, people had expected that if a computer bested a human chess master, the machine would qualify as intelligent. Yet when the computer Deep Blue beat Gary Kasparov, the world champion, few people considered it truly intelligent; it simply had, for the time, good enough computational ability. Nowadays mesh systems routinely trounced champions, to the point where human masters were seeking neural implants to provide extra computational power for their own brains. Thomas couldn't imagine what that would do to the game at a competitive level. What defined machine intelligence then?

Older Turing tests had relied on sentences typed at terminals, with the typists hidden. The most modern test, the visual Turing, required an android to be indistinguishable from a person. Some experts believed human brains were wired to process more emotional input than an EI matrix could handle. They considered the visual test impossible to pass. Although Thomas didn't agree, it didn't surprise him that only a handful of machine intelligences existed. Alpha passed the visual Turing only if her interactions involved tangible subjects. When pushed to more complex questions of emotion, philosophy, or conscience, she shut down.

While Thomas was thinking, Alpha studied him. After a while, she stalked over, sleek and deadly in her black leather. The orderlies stepped closer, but he waved them off, keeping his gaze on Alpha. She halted by the couch, on the other side of the coffee table, as tense as a wildcat ready to attack.

"You can't control me," she said. Her voice made him think of aged whiskey.

"But you have no free will," Thomas said. "And Charon is dead."

"I have orders."

It was the first time she had revealed she might be operating according to a preset plan. "From Charon?"

"That's right." She had gone deadpan again. Every time Charon came up, she ceased showing emotion. Why? In a person, he might have suspected some sort of trauma associated with Charon, but with Alpha he couldn't say. Although she presented an invulnerable front, something about her made him question that impression. It wasn't anything he could pin down, just a gut-level instinct on his part.

"What orders did he give?" Thomas asked.

"Return to him." She sat on the couch, poised on the edge like a wild animal ready to bolt. "If I can't, then protect myself."

"How? And against what?"

"Do you really think I would tell you?"

"With you, I never know," Thomas admitted. She had already said more to him today than she had to everyone else combined.

Unexpectedly, she said, "I like it that way."

"Can you like something?" His scientific curiosity jumped in. "Most people think an AI doesn't truly feel emotion."

"Here's an emotion for you." Alpha looked around at the guards and her room. "I don't like being cooped up here."

"Where would you like to be?" Maybe she would bargain.


"Why? Aren't you just simulating unease?"

She smiled with an edge. "You think you're clever, implying my request is illogical. You humans love stories about people outwitting machines by virtue of your purportedly greater creativity, blah, blah, blah. But you see, we read all your books. You couldn't come close to mastering the breadth of human knowledge if you worked on it your entire life, but it takes me only weeks to absorb, process, and analyze the contents of an entire library. I know all the scenarios and supposed solutions humankind has come up with in your ongoing paranoia about the intelligences you've created. You try to outthink us, but ultimately you fail."

Thomas leaned forward. "Yet you miss the most obvious flaw of your analysis."

She raised an eyebrow. "Do tell."

"We are becoming you." He watched her closely. "Do you really believe humanity would settle for being second-class citizens to our own creations? We will incorporate your advantages within ourselves while retaining that which makes us human."

She waved her hand in dismissal. "It's all semantics. Whether you choose to call yourselves formas or human won't alter the facts. Biomech changes you, whether you put it in a robot or your own brain." Her eyes glinted. "Who knows, perhaps it will overwrite what 'makes you human.' Corrupt your oh-so-corruptible selves."

Thomas gave a rueful grimace. "Maybe it will."

She seemed satisfied with his response. "You want to bargain with me. Fine. Take me for a ride outside and I'll tell you what orders Charon left me."

"You know I can't do that. You might escape."

"True. Do it anyway."

Thomas had to give her points for audacity. "Why?"

Her expression went completely flat. "Because you want to know what Charon ordered me to do."

Thomas wondered if she knew the unsettling effect it had on him when she turned off her emotional responses. At times he thought she used her human qualities as a weapon, banking on his difficulty in separating her sexualized appearance from her biomech nature. Yet if she had realized how she affected him, why suppress it? She "lost" her emotions when she spoke about Charon.

"No matter what orders he gave you," Thomas said, "I won't take you out of here."

"Your loss."

He smiled dryly. "Actually, it would be that if you escaped."

To his surprise, she laughed, a low, sensual rumble. "And what a loss that would be. For you."

Good Lord. A laugh like that could make a man lose all sense of reason. "You don't lack for self-confidence." After a pause, he added, "Or at least the simulation of it." He kept forgetting that.

Her smile vanished. "Make no mistake, General. More is at stake than my freedom."

"Such as?"

She met his gaze. "Human ascendancy on this planet."


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