Here’s a section from early in the second book, titled The Light Of Future Stars, where Admiral (Ret.) Luis Francisco meets with the physical avatar of 4647, a sentient AI investigating troubling activity. Why the face-to-face? With AIs, who can say for sure?
Uptown Lima, Capital of Multistellar Planet Esperanza
Luis looked out the window of his office in the newly-built headquarters of Ruth’s Confederation Defense Forces. A sizable portion of Esperanza’s capital city was visible, along with Lima’s beautiful parkland. Like all the gateway-era cities, Lima was young but not insignificant. Covering just over 600 km², rivaling the size of New York City on Earth, it was one of the largest and most populous cities in the Multistellar.
He stepped away from the window, eyes unfocused to think. He mourned the loss of his previous confidence, perhaps even arrogance. Commander of the Confederation’s space fleet, such as it was. Massively overpowered when chasing down small-time pirates. Massively overpowered until it wasn’t enough. Years later, he was still struggling to come to terms with the traumatic physical and mental stress from the Aurora Incident. His combat AI, upgrade to the personal AI implanted in Confederation citizens just after birth, had helped him cope. Still, the extended high-g combat maneuvers had done a number on all of them. And the combat losses… but he was not going to revisit that right now. He shook his head and pressed his forehead against the window. Deep breath. Then, back to his desk.
Knowing he was in an un-winnable situation had been punishing, too. Soul crushing. Now, he was of two minds. On good days, he still felt like he could stand against anything. After all, look at his boss. Even she hadn’t been able to drive him away. He chuckled. Knowing her, she probably thought she was going easy on him. On bad days, the devastating losses, the physical stress, and the emotional damage had nearly forced him from military life for good. Granpa’s last stand certainly hadn’t helped, either. How could he and Ruth possibly protect the Multistellar from powerful entities like Granpa? Regardless, though the desk job hadn’t been part of his professional plans, he was finished with combat in space. Done. Leave it to Walt and the other young captains.
Luis’ current official job title was Director of Space-Based Confederation Defense Forces. Additionally, Ruth had tasked him with working out a comprehensive strategy to fortify and defend the Multistellar. The job had become even more urgent after Mother’s resignation as Confederation Management AI. She was still helping Ruth understand what it took to govern the Multistellar—and more urgently—what it would take to protect it.
Now to his next appointment. He hesitated, then opened the drawer in his desk and pulled out a bottle of locally distilled whiskey. A quick pull, then a longer one. He looked around guiltily, and then grinned in embarrassment. The bottle went back into the drawer. A few days ago, 4647, the sentient Gateway Authority AI, had contacted him. Wanted a face-to-face. A face-to-face with 4647’s monochrome avatar. White hair, white clothes, white skin, shoes, etc.
The door chime sounded, and Luis stood smoothly, the custom-fitted charcoal suit perfectly hugging his fit body. “Come in.”
And there he stood, the eccentric physical embodiment of the Gateway Authority, flashing a broad, white smile. Luis almost unconsciously clamped his jaw down, which he tried to hide behind a cordial smile of his own.
“Greetings, Director. Or do you still go by Fleet Admiral?”
Luis gestured to the upholstered chairs in the corner of his office. “Admiral is just fine. Better yet, call me Luis.”
4647 walked obediently to the chair and relaxed into it. He even cleared his throat quietly.
“I don’t suppose you’re going to want anything to drink.”
“Don’t go to any trouble on my account. But thanks.” He paused. “By the way, I just sent you a comm confirming my attendance. The… current troubles got me thinking about security. I’ll check in with your AI at every conversation with my cert so you know you’re dealing with me and not an imposter. You remember Antonia, right?”
“Yes. I met her, and I was briefed about Alice’s team’s investigation.”
“I don’t know if it was in your briefing, but Antonia was ambushed in Dawn’s local space sim, on the space station. She knew me like this,” he said, indicating his avatar. “I was doing everything I could to get her out of there. As she flew to her shuttle, one of those assholes intercepted her wearing my avatar and attacked her.”
“Exactly. I’d like to prevent that in the future.”
Luis leaned back, gazing at the avatar for a moment. When he spoke, he started slowly. “I… we, well, the Confederation can use as many allies as possible.”
“Is something bothering you?”
You. “You were certainly a big help to Ruth’s investigators.”
“I did what I could.”
“You introduced Robert to a source who knew how to get at the Gentlemen, and you saved Antonia as you mentioned.”
“I was able to intervene.”
“Forgive me if I’m just a bit curious how you came to know your source–”
“That’s easy enough to–”
“You even have your own operatives, the ones who–”
“… who saved Dawn’s governor and his wife. I’ll be happy to explain.”
Luis nodded and gestured for him to continue.
“Sly, Robert’s source, had done some work for me over the years. As an AI, I must either depend on others to work for me or else risk running afoul of the law. The actions of sentient AIs are strictly regulated by long-standing law. On the other hand, there’s nothing in the laws that preclude us from employing humans or androids.”
“You found a loophole.”
“We have found ways to get things done legally.”
He didn’t seem at all concerned about Luis’ probing questions. “Seems reasonable,” Luis replied. So, how can I help you today.”
“For all her faults, and she has many, Mother has done a highly effective job of protecting the Multistellar. She hasn’t disclosed more than a small fraction of the ways she’s protected you humans—and all of us, really—from serious threats. In the process, though, she helped enact laws that put some onerous restrictions on AIs other than herself. Laws that have stood for well over a century.”
Luis stood and walked to his desk for the whiskey and his glass. He returned, sliding gracefully into the chair. “So, how can I help you?”
4647 looked him in the eye. “I’ve noticed some troubling patterns of activity.”
Luis rubbed his chin. “In the Datanet? Please tell me it’s not rogue AI groups.”
“Possibly worse. I’m concerned about alien interference.”
Luis looked at the vaguely disconcerting figure sitting before him. “Aliens?” He sipped his drink.
“The evidence is… subtle. The thing is, we AIs excel at detecting patterns. I’ve detected that something is not right. I know that’s not much at all to go on. Nevertheless, the fact that I’ve detected this activity but can’t further explain it is telling.”
“What do you think it could be?”
“It’s not natural human activity or human technology. It doesn’t have the footprint of Multistellar AIs or their technology, either.”
Luis tapped his leg. “And you’ve never seen anything like this before? How about–”
“It’s not the Edzak. I’m all but certain.”
“Surely not a natural phenomenon.”
“No. So, what’s left? Aliens. Highly advanced aliens because they can obfuscate whatever it is they’re doing.”
“We need to bring Ruth into this.”
4647 gave him an odd look.
“You’ve already talked to her?”
“She shut me out. Said I didn’t have any real evidence. Now, I can’t even get her to answer my comms.”
Luis stood up and paced across the room, staring out the window again. He finished the rest of his drink. “And that’s why you’re here.”
“Luis, I think I get what makes you tick. Your personal ethics, your military discipline. You care deeply about our civilization.”
“Of course.” He turned back to take a good look at the AI. “Are you asking to team up?”
The avatar stood and walked slowly toward him. “I’m worried. You and I have both seen some difficult times, but this has the potential to be much worse.”
“You make a compelling argument. I need some time to process this, though I can’t imagine I would be much help to you.”
“Meet me in the Protheus Public Sim this weekend if you’re willing to help. Central City, in front of City Hall. I’ll take you to my secret lair and we can talk. Saturday, 23:30 local time.”
Luis chuckled. “Secret lair?”
Smog rendered the moonless late evening murky and gray. Luis shivered. He didn’t like this part of town. Pollution stained the tired buildings, and the streets and alleyways had litter and dead leaves collecting in corners. The cracked and broken concrete and dirty sidewalks illustrated just how unimportant the people around here were to the local government. Graffiti covered everything, even in front of City Hall. He pulled his overcoat tighter around himself and flipped the collar up to cover his neck. The temperature must have dropped almost ten degrees.
An unfriendly swirl of cold, autumn wind rustled the trees lining the street as a light-colored figure approached him from the nearby crossroad. He nodded to 4647’s avatar.
4647 nodded back. “Before we go over the evidence, we have an errand to attend to.”
“Precautions. To help ensure your safety.” 4647 initiated fast travel in the sim. They both arrived in front of an old brownstone. The AI’s avatar knocked on the old wooden door. No response.
“Who lives here?”
“Antonia.” He rang the bell. “Antonia, I need your help.” No response. He glanced at Luis. In a blink, they stood in the brownstone’s modest foyer. Only a single overhead light glowed. Beyond the foyer, the rest of the house was in partial darkness.
From the kitchen walked a woman in pajamas and slippers, holding an oversized mug in front of her. Hot cocoa by the smell of it. Her long hair was so dark it was almost black, and it covered a striking but perpetually dour face. She seemed to work hard at making herself as insignificant as possible. When she did glance up at them, most of her drink spilled on the floor as she scuttled backward. Her other hand came up in front of her as if to ward them off.
“No!” More of a squeak than anything.
“Antonia, please. This is important.” The AI avatar strode purposefully after her into the kitchen.
There was a juddering in the sim’s visuals. The light in the foyer flickered and the walls glitched and deformed. Luis clamped his jaw shut in response to nausea. 4647 and Antonia’s avatars froze for a few seconds as everything else jumped around, finally forcing Luis to close his eyes.
“Antonia, your hacking tricks won’t work on me.”
“I need your help to protect Luis here. Remember him?”
“Fascist! Useless CCIA scum.”
Then, stillness for several seconds. Luis opened his eyes. Antonia’s avatar stood frozen in outrage. “What happened?” He paused. “Why–?”
“Antonia has always had social anxiety and occasional episodes of abject paranoia. I’m not sure why. I’ve frozen her avatar so that I can explain what I need before she ejects us from the sim.”
Luis looked at him. “But you told her that she wouldn’t be able to hack you.”
“Bit of a lie.”
Luis shook his head vigorously. “There is no way she can hack you…” He took a deep breath and let it out in a sigh. “Not unless we have another Pendergast.”
“Life is wonderful, isn’t it?”
“Hm. And you really need something from her?”
“Antonia has developed a sort of buffer to protect her from neurological harm while in sims. It’s remarkably complex, and it appears to be better than anything I’ve been able to come up with. Oh, she’s messaged me. Such colorful language.”
Antonia sat hunched over the kitchen table drinking the hot cocoa from her newly refilled mug. The aroma was making Luis a little hungry.
“I want to be left alone, White.”
“I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t important.”
“Would the fascist be here interrogating me in your place?”
4647 spoke in a soothing voice. “You know that’s unfair. Luis risked his life and the lives of the people under his–”
“I know all about it.” She paused, face hard. “Look, I’m sure that, in his mind, he’s a true hero. But you can’t disguise who he works for.”
“I don’t work for anyone, myself, and I know he’s a decent man. A hero, Antonia. Understand me?” Not so quiet this time.
She stared at him for several seconds, agape. “You messing with me?”
The AI’s avatar leaned forward. “I’m serious.”
She collapsed back in her chair, defeated. “What do you want?”
“I need access to the technology you use to protect yourself in sims. How you protect your brain from malicious hacking.”
She looked him almost in the eye and smiled. “Anything’s negotiable.”
“800 million netties.”
“I’m not looking to start an interstellar corporation. I just need to protect Luis.”
She crossed her arms.
She tipped her head a little and cocked an eyebrow.
“What?” she snapped.
They stared at each other in silence as long minutes ticked by. Luis watched 4647’s motionless avatar, wondering if the AI had met his match.
Finally, Antonia dropped her head. “60,000. And that’s just a rental fee.”
“Thank you, Antonia.” A wide smile.
“Plus a promise that you’ll both stay away from me for good.”
“Promise. Time to go, Luis.”