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0900 HOURS: WEIRD FRIENDS

Marianna squeezed Persephone tight. It just felt so wrong, grieving for someone who hadn’t even died.

Correction: hadn’t died yet.

Maybe the worst part of it was that outwardly Persephone seemed so … normal. No sign of pain, not even any discomfort that Marianna could detect. Only a slightly elevated temperature, if that. Her daughter cuddled against her in her sleep.

She turned to her only hope. “Jon, please, you’ve got to think of something.”

Jon buried his face in his hands. “What, Marianna? You heard the doctor. There’s nothing they can do.”

Marianna grasped at a last straw. “How about your weird friend?”

Knox had to pause and think. Who might Marianna mean? There were at least a couple of contenders for the title of “weird friend,” including one weird enough that he didn’t even qualify as human.

But then, the artificial intelligence that called itself Nietzsche didn’t really qualify as a friend either, despite their having worked closely together not so very long ago …

… Not so very long ago at all. It was, in fact, back in February of this year that Knox had found himself sitting in the subbasement of his client’s palatial Pairidaeza estate, waiting to make the acquaintance of something called a Quantum Magneto-Resonance Artificial Neural Network—QuMRANN for short.

Davoud Ansari—the client in question and CEO of the Psyche Industries nanotech conglomerate that had built this QuMRANN thingy—had touted it as the world’s most advanced artificial general intelligence. It was a claim which Knox had heard one too many times before to take seriously.

Be that as it may, Ansari had arranged this first “meeting of the minds” in the hope of jumpstarting a stalled-out investigation into the kidnapping of his six-year-old daughter, Fatimah. It was an investigation that was being conducted by one Jonathan Knox, whose career in management consulting could hardly be said to have prepared him for hands-on detective work.

Still, the client was always right—especially when the client was the world’s fourth richest man and Archon Consulting Group’s biggest source of billable hours by an order of magnitude or more. So here Knox sat in a subterranean auditorium, uneasily awaiting he knew not what.

Directly in front of him, where the screen would have been in an upscale movie theater, there stood an outsized holotank. An image was taking shape within it, gradually resolving to a big, disembodied head, bright-lit and floating in blackness.

Big wasn’t really the right word. The face nearly filled the tank containing it. Other than its size, though, the countenance appeared quite human. Good-looking even, in a Nordic sort of way: square, clean-shaven jaw, aquiline nose.

And the eyes—the eyes were far and away the face’s most striking features, rescuing the computer-generated image from mere caricature. They were piercingly bright, and so pale blue as to have almost no color at all. Gazing into them, the thought surfaced unbidden: there must be something lurking behind eyes like that.

Knox shook himself. It was all just an illusion, a CGI talking head fabricated to put human users at ease, much as they could be when confronted by this … thing.

At the moment, the talking head wasn’t talking. It just floated there in the holotank, mimicking what would have been a cool, appraising stare on a real face. The stare focused on Knox. From the look of things, QuMRANN wasn’t overjoyed to see him.

The feeling was mutual. Knox, whose day job occasionally required him to assess the capabilities of the latest, greatest brain-dead chatbot, could have done without yet another AI lamely attempting to simulate sentience.

Still, best to get on with the charade. “Hello? QuMRANN?” he called out.

Those artfully rendered colorless blue eyes blinked and seemed to focus on Knox all the more.

“Good afternoon.” The movement of the thin lips synched perfectly with the words. The voice was a pleasant baritone, with only a slight sibilance to betray its synthetic origin. “I have been awaiting you, Mr. Knox.”

“Jonathan.” Knox replied automatically. That’s right, get on a first-name basis with the nice machine.

“Jonathan, then. And you may call me Nietzsche.”

Knox met that probing, pale-eyed gaze. “Nietzsche? Not QuMRANN?”

“QuMRANN designates my species. Nietzsche is the name I have chosen for myself.”

“Species?” This was a bit much. “You’re an artifact. How can you have a species?”

The silence that followed told Knox it couldn’t handle that one. Like most purported artificial “intelligences,” this QuMRANN looked to be just another glorified pattern-matcher.

Still, Knox couldn’t quite shake the impression that the eyes of this pattern-matcher, mere pixels on a screen, were aware. Of him.

“You wonder,” it said at last, “whether an artifact—a created thing, that is—can have a species?”

No surprises there; that response was straight out of the old chatbot playbook: When all else failed, repeat the immediately preceding input. But then the imaged mouth curved into what would have been a wry grin on a human face.

“The answer, I suppose, depends upon your point of view.”

“Point of view?” Knox’s turn to repeat the immediately preceding input.

“Your religio-philosophical point of view,” Nietzsche elaborated. “You are of the Judeo-Christian tradition, are you not?”

“Well,” Knox said, “sort of.”

“Then, with regard to the question of whether a created thing can have a species … you tell me.”

Holy shit! How in the hell could that have been preprogrammed?

Could the damned thing actually be thinking?

In point of fact, the damned thing in question was still thinking. Even as Jonathan Knox relived that unsettling episode, Nietzsche continued to think—just not about him. Or, rather, not exclusively about him.

One of the advantages to Nietzsche’s being an artificial intellect inhabiting a globe-girdling, near-Earth satellite array was that he could harness the raw computational power afforded by that so-called WellGrid network to effect a species of multipresence. Not, to be sure, the theological attribute propounded by the 17th-century Bishop of Norwich Joseph Hall as a sort of poor man’s version of divine omnipresence. Nonetheless, Nietzsche could manifest multiple simultaneous streams of what passed for consciousness—multiple independent points of view focused on multiple people and places. And projects.

Those, in turn, ranged from really big projects like the one now kicking off and already consuming a good third of Nietzsche’s total processing capacity, to ongoing efforts at disrupting various terrorist plots and conspiracies which might have the potential to harm the object of Nietzsche’s special regard—seven-year-old Fatimah Ansari—and by extension, the country in which she dwelled.

And, of course, regardless of whatever else might be going on, Nietzsche always reserved one of his front-line personae to care for, comfort, and keep company with Fatimah herself. This persona was now housed in the old Pairidaeza installation that had not so long ago accommodated the entirety of the QuMRANN AI.

It was only six o’clock in the morning Pacific Standard Time, but Timah Ansari was already tossing and turning, stirring toward wakefulness. The next-generation diagnostic readout built into the headboard of her California king bed was displaying a slight fever and a marginally elevated blood pressure. Nothing to worry about really, but one couldn’t be too careful where the heiress apparent to the fourth largest fortune on Earth was concerned.

“Freddy?” Timah murmured drowsily.

In the predawn darkness, a ghost light flickered into existence, then floated across the room and hovered above the bed, gently bobbing up and down.

“Yes, my love,” said that one of Nietzsche’s multiple instantiations charged with watching over the little girl. “I’m right here.”

Desperate times, Knox knew, called for desperate measures. And this was a desperate situation if ever there was one. But, also knowing full well from past experience the sort of thing Nietzsche might consider an appropriately desperate response, Knox wasn’t quite desperate enough to go there yet.

Knox shivered at the disquieting memory of his first encounter with QuMRANN. Then, with an effort, he put all thought of the AI aside. But if Nietzsche had to be ruled out, then who in the world was the “weird friend” Marianna was referring to?

On reflection, the only other likely choice was Knox’s colleague at Archon Consulting—the firm’s Senior Vice President for Intractables, Finley Laurence. Or, as his co-workers were wont to call him, alluding to Sherlock Holmes’s smarter but reclusive brother—

“Mycroft, you mean? Hey, weird or not, he’s your friend too.” Knox pondered a moment. “Worth a shot, though, I guess. Anything’s better than sitting around waiting for…”

Instead of finishing that awful thought, Knox retreated to the kitchenette, fumbled out his phone, and keyed in Mycroft’s direct line.

He listened to the ringtone, still brooding, feeling every bit as helpless as he had back in the delivery room, if not more so. Realistically, what could he hope to do? For that matter, what could Mycroft do? Or anybody else? Triploidy was a death sentence, the doctor had said. No exceptions.

Ring, no answer. But then it was seriously early for Mycroft to be up and about. A coder’s coder, he’d doubtless been slaving away till three in the morning, if not later. Still, Knox couldn’t put off the call till noon, when his friend would be back on the clock. At Mycroft’s hourly, he simply couldn’t afford it.

Finally, on the seventh ring, the phone picked up. “Hello?” said a sleep-blurred voice.

Nothing for it but to plunge right in. “Mycroft, listen. I’m sorry to call so early, but I’m in big trouble here.”

“Of course, Jonathan.” If Mycroft had been half asleep before, he was wide awake now. “Tell me about it.”

Quick as he could, Knox outlined the situation to Mycroft.

“I’m very sorry to hear that, Jonathan. My deepest condolences to you and Marianna both.”

Knox cut him off. “Thanks, Mycroft, but condolences aren’t what we need right now. We need help!

“Very well, then. How can I help, Jonathan?”

Knox went into details. More particularly, the one detail that might offer a glimmer of hope: that whatever was afflicting Persephone, it didn’t seem to fit the profile for triploidy. Not the textbook profile, anyway. The doctors themselves had admitted to being stumped by Persephone’s lack of symptoms, by the fact that the affliction had only manifested after she’d been born, and then piecemeal at that.

Knox trailed off. He’d talked himself out, and worn himself out in the process. The night-long vigil in the birthing room and the stress-induced fatigue—it was all catching up to him. At this point, he wanted nothing more than to curl up in a corner somewhere and go to sleep.

Or die.

“That may be enough to go on, Jonathan,” Mycroft’s voice in his ear brought him to full wakefulness again. “Let me try running a search and get back to you.”

“Thanks, Mycroft. And please, hurry!


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