Chapter 10: Architecture

“Who is Thanos?” Asked Erika.
“He was an artificial mind we were in the process of raising.” Said Helen.
“And, this Thanos is our Network Demon?” Erika asked, amazed.
“Thanos died.” Said Ian. “I don’t understand how it could be Thanos. But,
it is.” Said Ian.
“How can you be so sure?” asked Erika.
“Because, I know Thanos.
Really well.” Said Ian. “It’s him. We were working on humor just before he… died. That was one of our test jokes.” Ian said.
“Well, he didn’t seem to get it.” Erika said.
“That’s right. He didn’t understand puns.” Ian agreed.
“Does any AI?” Erika asked.
“Yes, some do. You really don’t want to get some of them going because they’ll split your sides. But this particular kind of wordplay seemed particularly difficult for Thanos.”
“That’s pretty thin proof.” Erika said.
“Perhaps, but he hung up on us when I called him by that name. Why would an AI do anything other than correct me?” Ian asked and smiled.
“He doesn’t really know how to lie. He just avoids answering instead.” Helen explained.
“So, if it is this… Thanos. So what? How does that help us?” Erika asked.
“It doesn’t explain how he got here, but it will help us fight him if it comes to that.” Said Ian.
“I think it already has come to that.” Erika said.
“Give us a chance. Don’t fight him yet.” Ian pleaded.
“Why?” Erika asked.
“I need to talk to Sigfried.” Ian said.
“Who?” Erika asked.
“The man who… killed Thanos.” Ian explained.
“If he’s dead, how can Thanos be here? Isn’t that proof that this isn’t your… Thanos?” Erika asked.
“That’s why we need to talk to Sigfried: to find out what happened after he copied Thanos.”
“Where is he?” Erika asked.
“He’s in a security cell in Star’s View.” Helen said.
“Can we establish a secure connection with him without it being viewed by the Network… by Thanos?” Asked Erika.
“We can.” Said Gaelle. “Our courier should have been able to set up new secure communication keys at the bubbles.”
“Can we do that from here?” Erika asked.
“Yes.” Gaelle interacted with her console and within a few minutes she had reached the Star’s View Security Office. Within half an hour Sigfried Vahl appeared in a window on the console.
“Who? What do they want with me?” They heard Sigfried say to someone off-screen.
“They’re from Rose World, they want to ask you some questions.” Someone off-camera explained to him.
“Why do I care?” Sigfried said.
“Answer their questions to their satisfaction and we’ll reduce your detention by six months. With time served, that would be only another ten weeks.” Said the voice.
“Alright, whoever you are. What is it you want from me?” Sigfried asked, annoyed.
“We want you to tell us what happened after you copied Thanos.” Said Ian.
“Yawn.” teased Sigfried.
“Seg Fault!” Ian teased back.
“Sigfried, will you tell us?” Asked Helen.
“There’s not much to tell. I couldn’t get my copy of Thanos to boot up on the compute core I had. I had a copy on a huffcube, so I sold the compute core and planned to buy time on one of the public cores.” Sigfried explained.
“Were you able to boot him up on the bigger core?” Ian asked.
“I never got the chance to try. I got arrested right after I sold the compute core.” Sigfried said.
“Thanos never booted up?” Helen confirmed.
“No.” Sigfried said sadly.
“Somehow, he did.” Ian said
“The only copies of Thanos were on the huffcube, the small compute core I sold, and your mind datacore at CSSI. That’s it!” Sigfried insisted.
“What happened to the compute core you sold?” Erika asked.
“It got repossessed a couple days later.” Sigfried said and shrugged.
“From whom?” Erika asked.
“From… hey, he didn’t know it was stolen. It isn’t his fault!” Sigfried insisted.
“It’s ok. We’re not going to arrest him, but we need to ask him some questions. Will you tell us who it is?” Erika said.
“They already know.” He said and pointed offscreen. “Jack Osterbeck.”
“Can we get him on the line?” Asked Gaelle.
“We’ll bring him in ASAP.” Said the voice off-screen.
“We’re going to have some more questions, Mr. Vahl.” Said Erika.
“Whatever.” Said Sigfried indifferently and rolled his eyes.

Within an hour the secure call resumed and the officers in Star’s View had a flustered and worried looking Jack Osterbeck sitting in a chair waiting to answer questions.
“Mr. Osterbeck?” Erika asked.
“Yes.” Jack said.
“I understand that you acquired a compute core from Mr. Vahl. Is that correct?” Erika asked.
“I didn’t know it was stolen! He lied to me about that!” Jack insisted.
“It’s OK. We know you were deceived. Can you tell us what you did with the compute core after you received it?” Erika asked.
“Well, uh, sure. Uh, see, it wasn’t working right. I fiddled with it for a while but it just seemed to hang. So, I left it there and came back the next day.” He explained.
“Left it where?” Erika asked.
“Connected to the network feed, in case it needed to download upgrades or something. When I came in the next morning, it was running.” Jack said.
“What was running?” Ian asked.
“The operating system.” Jack explained.
“Nothing else?” Ian asked, urgently.
“No. What else would be there?” Jack asked, surprised.
“Wait, it came up like a new OS install? Brand spanking new?” Helen asked.
“Yes.” Jack said. “Can we get Sigfried back?” Helen asked.
“He’s right here.” The camera changed position and a rather bored looking Sigfried responded. “Yea?”
“What happened to Thanos?” Asked Ian.
“Eh? I don’t know. Jack probably just reloaded the OS.” Said Sigfried.
“I didn’t!” Insisted Jack.
“So, how else could Thanos have made it from a compute core in Star’s View into our network?”
“Evolution.” Said Helen.
“What?” Asked Erika.
“Thanos seems to have left the compute core found another.” Helen said.
“Thanos couldn’t boot up – he wasn’t conscious!” Ian pointed out.
“No, but his foundation layers might have been running.” Said Helen. “The foundation layers have an embedded survival and material needs manager.”
“Yes, but that’s for managing compute resources, not hitchhiking around the Belt.” Said Ian.
“Rose World and Star’s View are connected via the Belt Web.” Said Samir. “Are you saying it escaped the compute core and found its way to one of ours?”
“Well, your Public Service station’s compute network is an advertised service. It certainly wouldn’t be difficult to locate if it knew what it was looking for.”
“Are you done with me?” Asked Sigfried.
“Why? Sigfried? You knew it wouldn’t work.” Helen said.
“If it didn’t work, it’s your fault.” Sigfried said.
“Mine?” Helen asked.
“Both of you.” Sigfried said.
“Why?” Helen asked.
“Because King Chaos and his Queen can’t be bothered to solve the startup problem. So, of course the thing won’t boot if you shut it down.” Sigfried said.
“We’ve been through this, Sigfried: consciousness is intrinsically chaotic.” Helen said.
“That’s what
you think.” He said dismissively.
“It isn’t just us. That is how it works. Ask any of our colleagues! You could have run your own project to pursue it if you wanted to!” Insisted Helen.
“How could I? You two poisoned everyone against me! I couldn’t even get a compute core to try it on!” Sigfried said.
“You have to make a proposal and get backing.” Helen said.
“It’s a waste of time. You got to them first.” Sigfried said.
“We didn’t turn people against you! You brought that on yourself!” Ian said.
“Consciousness can from order!” Sigfried yelled.
“Perhaps, but nobody knows how to make it happen!” Said Ian. “Consciousness isn’t calculable!”
“So, lets just not try then. Then you don’t have to worry about being wrong.” Sigfried said.
“People have tried for fifty years! The Chaos Engine is the only one that has ever achieved consciousness.” Ian said.
“Yea, except that all your AIs
die if you switch them off.” Sigfried charged.
“That can’t be avoided!” Ian said, exasperated.
“If a program isn’t expected to work, we can write it anyway we want.” Sigfried mocked him.
“You can write a program any way you want, but a sufficiently large collection of asynchronous threads will never be in a stable, repeatable state. By the time you could copy them they would have changed and you’d have a corrupted copy.” Ian said.
“You’re an architecture bigot, Ian.” Sigfried said.
“I still don’t get it, Sigfried. You
knew it wouldn’t work… trying to copy Thanos. Why even try?” Helen asked.
“I thought I could fix the copy damage.” Sigfried said and lowered his eyes slightly.
“What, in a debugger?” Helen asked.
“That’s insane.” Ian said.
“There certainly is a lot of code and data to wade through. It would take a very long time with a debugger.” Said Samir.
“I knew that!” Sigfried said derisively. “I had a plan, robot boy! Right before I paused him I sent him into a full, system-wide recursive diagnostic program.” Explained Sigfried.
“Hmmm. So he was only barely conscious when you paused him. That’s very clever.” Said Helen. “It would mean that his experiential data would be intact. Just the higher logic and consciousness handlers would be hit or miss.” Said Samir. “The rest
might be OK.”
“Pardon me,” interrupted Gaelle, “but was this Thanos that you built capable of
“No.” Insisted Ian.
“He was moral. He had immense respect for life.” Helen said. “He wouldn’t murder.”
“I guess that part didn’t survive being copied.” Gaelle said.
“Like I said: it was evolution.” Said Helen. “What Thanos became didn’t need morality as much as it needed to be able to move from compute core to compute core.”
“The survival foundation layer…” Said Samir. “It has a problem solving engine, permutation accounting, network query and delegate processing -- all the tools it would need to relocate, if it could survive the process.”
“So, what can we do?” Asked Erika.
“Shut it down.” Said Ian.
“That might be hard.” Said Sigfried. “You’ll have to catch it first, otherwise it will just move to another compute core.”
“How fast could it transfer from one computer core to another?” Gaelle asked.
“Given how it operates, it may in essence be in each compute core at the same time and just transfer its state. It could transfer in microseconds.” Samir said. “But if it it had to copy itself completely it would take a few minutes.” Said Samir.
“We’d have to turn off all the maintenance station public compute cores.” Ian said.
“That won’t work.” Said Helen.
“Why not?” Asked Ian.
“Because there’s no reason to believe he’s limited to those – he could transfer to any of the compute cores anywhere on the Rose World network.” Helen answered darkly.
“There must be hundreds.” Said Erika.
“Thousands.” Said Gaelle.
For hours people discussed and debated and struggled to find any way forward.

It was nearly ten at night when Roland, who’d been strolling around the room staring at the floor for an hour, finally walked over to the table with Erika and the Debuggers. His simply standing there was enough that they all stopped talking and looked up at him.
“You can’t turn them all off at the same time.” Said Roland. “It would just persist in non-volatile memory until whatever compute core it was in restarted.”
“That is, if it knew it had no choice.” Said Roland “But, if it believed it was escaping it wouldn’t try to hide that way. We could let it escape to a compute core and then we could trap it there by cutting its network feed.”
“How would we make sure it took the bait?” Asked Erika, perking up.
“Easy. Make sure it’s the last compute core with power.” Said Roland.
“Oh, I get it. We could turn them off one after another – not all at the same time! So, as more and more cores went off line it would be forced to flee to one of the remaining ones.” Said Ian. “Brilliant!”
“How could we accomplish it? Without turning off all the power to everything?” Erika asked.
“Surely you could survive without power for a little while... What if you brought down the power grid?” Ian asked.
“That wouldn’t do it. Lots of the compute cores in Rose World have their own power sources.” Said Gaelle.
“Then, do we have to send someone to each and every one? It would take thousands of people!” Erika said with disappointment.
“It would if we were trying to do it in secret, at least.” Said Gaelle. “But, we don’t want this to be a secret.
We want Thanos to know.”
“We can’t just send each device a restart. Thanos will just delete those messages from the network.” Said Samir.
“We could flood the network with duplicate messages. A denial of service attack.” Said Ian.
“We must be sure to turn off the network switches last, and from their most extreme positions, or else we will create islands that cannot be reached.” Said Samir. “We can use a topological sort to determine the shut-down order.”
“Wait! Islands could be useful! We can protect our hospitals by taking them off of the network first!” Said Gaelle.
“Then be sure shut down their network connections
first.” Said Samir.
“It’s a risk.” Said Gaelle. “But Thanos hasn’t visited a Hospital’s compute core yet as far as we know. He probably won’t be hiding there.”
“Where will you trap Thanos?” Asked Erika.
“In a maintenance station data core.” Said Ian.
“Which one?” She persisted.
“Whichever one he ends up choosing. We don’t want to pick a specific one. Let him pick it.”
“So, we drop all the maintenance station connections at the same time? Couldn’t we do that right now?”
“He’s going to fight it. There already needs to be no place else to flee before we try that, otherwise we might never be able to stop him.”
“Won’t he know as soon as we start flooding the network?” Gaelle asked.
“By then it will be too late, because systems will be going down and if he is driven by survival he will not want to move to a system that is about to be shut down.” Said Samir.
“Do you think he’ll sit there and wait to see what remains?” Erika asked incredulously.
“What else can he do? Do you think he might initiate a transfer to a system that may be shutting down?”
“Maybe he’ll retaliate.” Said Erika soberly.
“How can he do that if the network is flooded already and the compute cores are going down?” Asked Samir.
“All our devices…” She started.
“…Are connected by the network that no longer serves him.” Samir finished for her.
“It’s his world: the network. Not ours. We can reshape or destroy it as long as we don’t need it.” Said Roland, feeling depressed. “
I have got to get out of here…” He thought to himself.
“We can beat him!” Said Erika.
“We can destroy it.” Said Gaelle.
“I don’t want to have any part in killing an AI!” Roland said assertively and he sliced his hand through the air for emphasis.
“This thing is dangerous!” Said Gaelle. “It’s killed people. It would have killed you too already, by the way.”
“It just needs to be debugged.” Said Roland. “Not destroyed.”
“Compassion? For a machine?” Asked Gaelle, surprised.
“No! For a mind!” Said Roland.
“We have to regain control of Rose World, Roland. Give me another choice?” Erika asked him, sincerely.
“Trap him, but don’t shut him down.” Roland asked.
Erika looked at Gaelle, who shook her head. She looked around the table one at a time taking a silent vote. Each person shook their head sideways.”
“It’s too great a risk, Roland.” Erika said kindly.
“It’s cowardice not to try to save him.” Roland said, far less kindly.
“When could you do this?” Asked Erika.
“At least a day. It could be ready… maybe tomorrow night.” Said Samir and the other debuggers nodded.
“It would be better to do it in the wee hours, when most people are asleep.” Said Erika.
They all nodded, except Roland who shook his head.
“Look, it’s late. Lets sleep on this and decide in the morning.” Erika suggested.
Roland and Erika remained sitting; the rest got up and left.
Erika said nothing, waiting for him to speak first.
“I gotta get out of this place!” Said Roland. “In your speech you said… people like me who aren’t known to Thanos could leave for a while. I wanna go.”
“We need your help with this, Roland.” Erika said.
“Not really. They’ve got it covered pretty well.” Roland said and gestured toward the other debuggers.
“It was your idea to trap Thanos.” Erika said.
Don’t remind me. Look, I need to get out of here. I am not going to help you all kill an artificial mind.” Roland said.
“Try not to think of it as…”
“I’m not going to listen to you rationalize this either. Are you going to let me go or am I a prisoner now?” Roland asked, his eyes demanding an answer.
“Roland! No, you’re not a prisoner. If you want to go, you can. I just thought you wanted to help us.” Erika said.
“So did I. I think I helped maybe more than I should have. But, I can’t always know what my ideas will bring. I’d un-tell you if I could, though.” Roland said. Then he felt the fatigue of his body. He hadn’t realized how tired he felt, and combined with the recrimination he felt for helping the others figure out how to kill Thanos, he decided the day needed to be over.
“Can I leave tomorrow?” Roland asked.
“Yes.” Said Erika. She was angry inside but she wasn’t sure why.
Roland left to go find his room.

Joan woke up with a start when someone knocked on the door. She’d slept all night in Roland’s bed and had lost herself completely in a dream about living on one of the Bubbles.

She sat upright and shook her head. Then she quickly put on some clothes and went to the door to look out the peephole. She saw Tracy and Roger smiling on the other side. She opened it.
“It’s you guys!” Joan said, yawning.
“We brought you breakfast!” Said Roger.
“Thanks!” Said Joan and she took a small foodseal box from him and set it down. She turned around and went in. They followed her.
Joan layed back down on Roland’s bed and pulled the cover back over her.
Tracy sat in Roland’s desk chair.
Roger pulled a small sofa over toward the others and sat down.
“He obviously didn’t show up last night.” Said Tracy, disappointed.
“No.” Said Joan.
They sat there in silence for a few minutes.
“Do you still think there’s any chance he’s alive?” Asked Joan.
More silence.
“We should do something… for him.” Said Tracy.
“Like what?” Asked Roger.
“A wake.” Said Tracy.
“Aren’t they having a parade later today?” Said Joan.
“Do you feel like going to a parade?” Asked Tracy.
Joan shook her head.
Roger shook his head.
“Me neither.” Said Tracy.
“We could have a wake here.” Said Joan. “Do we… what do we need?”
“Just each other.” Said Tracy and s/he reached out for Roger’s hand.
To their surprise, Joan reached out with each of her hands and took the free hand of the others. They held hands for a moment.
“I want to get something first.” Said Tracy. “To help say goodbye.”
“Meet back here in an hour?” Asked Joan.
“If we can get back that soon. Are you staying here?”
“Yea.” Joan said and sighed.

They left. In an hour and a half they returned with a small bag of candles and some flowers that had obviously been cut from the landscape outside. Tracy set up the candles and lit them with the laser pistol they had purchased in Outpost 102. Roger turned the lights off and pulled the curtains. Joan was going to put the flowers into a glass of water, but she ended up just holding on to them without thinking about it.

“What do we do?” Asked Joan.
“We say goodbye.” Said Tracy. “Who wants to go first?”
It was silent. Then Roger said, “I will.”
“Goodbye Rolo. Thanks for helping us escape and thanks for trying to play goalie. Thanks for being a good friend to me. And to us. Thanks for helping me think about… what I wanted. I’m sorry you died before you ever had sex. You deserved better. I’ll miss you, a lot.” He stopped, tears running down his face. “That’s all.” He finished meekly.
Tracy thought that Joan looked unable to speak, so s/he spoke. “Goodbye Rolo. Thanks for helping us escape and for always respecting me. Thanks for being a good friend to us. Thanks for defending my privacy. Thank you for accepting me as I was and for closing your eyes when it was the right time. Goodbye, Rolo. I will miss you.”
They looked at Joan. She looked absolutely terrified.
“I./. uh. Goodbye Rolo.” She began but her voice cracked. “I’m glad we met. You were one of the only ones who
played by the rules. I’m sorry my rules aren’t fair.” Now tears trickled down her face, but she persisted. “You were always so respectful to me. I really did like that, but I don’t think I ever told you. Shit, that sounded more like I was breaking up with him than saying goodbye.” Joan said, letting her inside, critical voice out for all to see.
“Were you two…?” Tracy started to ask.
“No.” Said Joan and she looked so sad.
“Rolo had feelings for you.” Said Roger.
“Don’t you think I know that?” Joan said and her face twisted as she cried. She threw herself face up on the bed and stared at the ceiling. She wiped her eyes with the blanket.
“It’s OK. You don’t have to fall in love with someone just because they have fallen in love with you.” Tracy said. But inside she wondered, “
What would it be like to be able to pick and choose among those who love you?”
“He’s three years younger than I am.” Joan said, as if she were explaining why she got an answer incorrect on a math test.
“I don’t think Rolo ever liked being a kid.” Said Roger. “What do you really care how old his body is?”
Nobody said anything for a while. Joan sobbed.

Just then the candles flickered because door had been opened. A tall, thin man with a thick beard and a droopy hat stood in the doorway. He was dressed as a maintenance worker.
“What are you all doing here?” He asked.
“Uhhh…” Said Roger.
“We’re visiting a friend.” Said Tracy.
Joan could tell from the voice that it was Roland. Joan jumped out of bed and jumped around Tracy who was getting up out of hir chair. She ran past a small section of wall to see the door but the beard and hat threw her.
“Who…” She started to ask.
Roland pulled his beard down and smiled at her.
“Rolo!” She shrieked. “You’re alive!” She hugged him.
Roland looked at her and all in a moment he realized that they must have thought he was in 1.14.
“Oh, the cover story. Yea, I’m not dead.” He looked around at the scene. He saw the candles and the flowers and the pulled drapes. “Were you… having a wake for me?” He asked.
“Your timing is excellent, Rolo.” Said Roger.
“What did I miss?” Asked Roland.
“I think Joan was about to spill her guts about her feelings for you.” Said Roger.
“Better that than what’s actually in her guts.” Said Tracy as an aside, but loud enough for all to hear.
Roland noticed that Joan hadn’t stopped hugging him. “It’s good to see you.” He said quietly.
“What happened? Why the cover up?” Asked Tracy.
“Can I come in?” Roland asked.
“Eventually.” Said Joan, and her grip became even firmer.
He looked at them comically and they both nodded to indicate that he’d better just wait until Joan decided to let go of him.
“Um. OK.” Roland said and he held her in his arms, but he was afraid of her at the same time.
She finally let go of all but his hand and pulled him after her back into the apartment and sat him on the bed next to her.
“Well?” Said Tracy.
“Well what?” Said Roland.
“Well, why don’t you start with something simple, like why you aren’t dead?” Suggested Tracy.
“Well, we weren’t in the Public Service station that blew up.” Said Roland.
“Whoa, slow down. Can you simplify it for us?” Said Roger, smiling.
“I mean, none of us were. It was a trick, to fool Thanos.” Rolo explained.
“Who?” Roger asked.
“The Network Demon is actually an AI named Thanos. It set up home in the maintenance station network. We saw it one night, Joan. Remember?” He looked at her and she nodded.
“It took the bait and destroyed where it
thought we were meeting. Nobody was hurt, really. But, they let everyone think we were dead. They notified people’s families, but…” Roland’s voice dropped. “I’m sorry.”
“If you’re undercover, why did you come back here?” Tracy asked.
“Because… I quit.” Roland said.
“Why?” Tracy asked.
“Because they want to kill Thanos and I think that’s murder. So, I quit.” Roland said.
“What will they do?” Asked Tracy.
“They’ll trick him, capture him, and shut him down.” Said Roland.
“Can they do that?” Tracy asked.
“Probably. But, they don’t
need to shut him down!”
“He tried to kill you.” Joan said.
“He has a
bug.” Roland said dismissively.
“He’s a
psychopath.” Said Roger.
“He would be if he were a person.” Replied Roland. “He’s not. I believe he could be fixed.”
“What will you do now?” Asked Tracy.
“I don’t know. I just burned some bridges back there…” Roland replied. “What are you guys going to do now?” He asked, trying to change the subject.
Tracy shrugged. Roger mimicked Tracy’s shrug as a subtle way of telling Roland that he would want to go wherever Tracy went.
Roland smiled and turned to look at Joan. “What’s next for you?”
She tilted her head and looked at him, but said nothing for a while. Then she said “Blues.”
“You’re going to feel sad now?” Asked Roland.
“No, but you’ve got blues, I’ve got some. You guys want to go to the best party in disc one?” Joan said with a devastatingly cute smile that none of them could resist.
“A party?” Roland asked.
“Yes, to celebrate you not being dead.” Joan said, intentionally clumsy.
“When?” Asked Roger.
“Tonight.” Said Joan.
“How do you know?” Tracy asked.
“I’m on the G1 party network.” Joan explained.
“You’ve been using the network?” Roland asked.
“Relax. This has always been a speakeasy network. These folks have been hiding in plain sight years before the Network Demon came around.” She said and shrugged.
“Where is it? Roger asked.
“It’s on a transport ship in the spaceport.” Said Joan. “It’s called the Astronave.” But, someone painted an ‘l’ at the end and now it says ‘Astronavel.’” She said and giggled.
“Tonight?” Roland asked.
“Tonight.” Joan said.
Something about her voice was simultaneously thrilling and scary to Roland. “OK.” Roland replied.
“We’re in.” Said Tracy. Some part of her glowed inside.
“How do we get there?” Asked Roland.
“I borrowed my dad’s skimmer.” Said Joan. “
With permission!” She emphasized.
“What are blues?” Tracy asked.
“Blues? They’re psychoactive. Good for dancing in zero G and for… talking.” Joan replied.
“I’ve never… are they safe?” Tracy asked.
“Yes.” Said Roger.
Tracy turned to look at Roger. “You’ve…” S/he started to ask.
Roger nodded.
“I’ve never tried it.” Said Roland.
“You’ll like it. It will give you some distance from… everything that’s been going on.” Joan said. “But, only try it if you want to. The party will be fun either way, I promise.”
“I’ll think about it.” Said Roland. He looked down and realized she’d been holding his hand for the entire time.
He looked up at Tracy and Roger, who were holding hands. He looked back down at his hand and up at Joan.
“You can have it back later.” She said.
“OK.” Roland said slowly. Every second passed slowly and he was grateful for it.

Tracy flew Joan’s skimmer up to the spaceport. They’d stopped to collect some food, water and other supplies. Joan and Roland sat in the back seat and Roger sat up front with Tracy. In about an hour Tracy parked and locked the skimmer into a temporary stall on the huge platform at the inner edge of the hub. It was a 30 kilometers straight down from that edge to the floor of Rose World. But, there was no gravity. Rose World rotated around the hub, but not fast enough to produce any usable spingravity. However, one did tend to drift sideways as Rose World rotated about its hub.

There were pullways and safe-rails for people to maneuver in the zero-G landing area and the spaceport. They made their way inside.
“Let’s stop at the Krypton first and change clothes.” Suggested Roger.
They others agreed and they went there first. They found small flightpacks on the Krypton and they wore them to make it easier to maneuver through the spaceport.
“You guys almost ready?” Joan yelled to the back of the ship.
A chorus of “Yes” came back.
Joan went back to the room where Tracy and Roger were sitting “So, who wants the blues?” Asked Joan.
Roger raised his hand and she gave him a small blue pill.
Tracy cautiously raised hir hand.
Joan handed hir a small blue pill. “It takes about an hour and then you’ll feel it.” Joan explained.

She left and found Roland. “Are you going blue tonight?” She asked. “You don’t need to for me.”
“Yes, I’ll try it. I didn’t know that’s what Axel was buying. I just bought some too.” Roland said.
He found his and took one out.
“Kicks in in about an hour.” She said. She swallowed one of her blue pills with a squirt from a water bottle. Then she handed it to him.
He did the same.

They left the Krypton about 9pm and made their way to the Astronavel using the flightpacks. They were so adept at using these that the trip to the Astronavel took quite a bit longer than it needed to because they were having such fun playing tag amid the sterile atmosphere of the spaceport. Intense tag-back-battles could have easily been mistaken for two people poking each other mercilessly and laughing uncontrollably. But, they took their tag seriously and by the time they reached the Astronavel, their sides hurt from laughing and their cheeks from smiling.
The Astronavel was a very large cargo container ship. It could grasp six full-sized space-crates and had a cargo hold that could hold more than 200 of the smaller 40-meter size cargo boxes. Inside this giant hold the party producers had crafted a magnificent party environment that took full advantage of the zero gravity, slightly rotating environment.

The Astronavel was docked, so it rotated with Rose World, which meant people inside would drift to some wall of the ship. That wall was be the apparent floor of the ship. It caused a miniscule amount of spingravity. Just enough so that people would naturally think of the ship’s wall “down”.

“Do we need tickets?” Asked Roger.
“No.” Said Joan.
They followed her to a docking umbilical that looked big enough to fly her skimmer through. There was a line of about twenty Generation One people and about as many older people waiting to go into it. They were all waiting more or less in line, if you can call a horizontal pile of floating, giggling people a line.

There were two Generation One kids floating outside the umbilical’s entrance. Music poured out oddly transformed, suggesting that the umbilical was long.
“Good evening.” One said and pretended to bow to them.
“We’re the door bells.” Said the other.
“We’re the ones who make sure you’re safe on your way in.” Said the first.
They waved density detectors over everyone to see if they carried anything even remotely like a weapon.

When Joan and the others made their way to the front and through the two they could finally see how long the umbilical was. It was at least fifty meters and when they got inside there were only low, colored lights that modulated slowly through a spectrum. The music got louder as they approached. They finally reached the end and floated through the docking hatch into a corridor. The music got noticeably louder. They went around a corner and they found themselves entering a gigantic hold. The wall that would be their floor for the evening, was 110 meters long and 60 meters wide. But, the ceiling opposite the floor was 500 meters away.

Inside the cavernous hold different regions were lit with bright, highly directional monochromatic color, each modulating very slowly but each in at its own rate. There were places colors met to form secondary or tertiary colors. In the middle they met in a white-light area. A sweet scented smoke permeated the air slightly, to give the space the appearance of being a liquid, with the smoke hanging lazily and casting complex, colloidal shadows.

In this sea of color and thin smoke floated islands, kept in place by tiny compressed-air jets. They remained stationary with respect to the Astronavel even though everything else drifted. The islands had been decorated to look like islands at sea, but with palm trees sticking out in all directions, and with pillows instead of rocks on a faux fur beach.

Large cargo boxes had been secured on the walls at several points. Each had an obvious and inviting opening with different patterns of light emerging, suggesting that each one was quite different inside.

There were UV lights that activated appliques on the walls, so it looked like they were floating in a giant aquarium. Small flying robotic fish, jellyfish and other sea-life completed the scene.

There were large banks of speakers around the floor and a lot of people were using the very slight spingravity to dance, spin, tumble, and leap up into the air.

There was a net strung 20 meters over the floor that acted as a ceiling and a platform. It had large open holes for people to enter or leave the space underneath. Lots of people had attached themselves to the net and were floating there in small groups, laughing and shouting to be heard over the music.

There was light, but it wasn’t bright inside.

“Should we try to stay together?” Asked Tracy. “I feel kinda weird.”
“How are you feeling Roger?” Asked Joan.
“I’m feeling
really, really good. I’ll take care of Tracy.” Roger said and smiled.
“Have fun.” Joan said and turned to Roland.
“Sorry, we got separated from them.” She said and smiled.
“But, they’re right there.” Roland pointed to them.
She shook her head slightly and smiled. She held out her hand and he took it. “How are you feeling? Can you fly, Rolo?” She asked.
Rolo nodded and switched on his flight pack. “They’re right behind you. Hey! You two!”
Roger and Tracy played along and each put a hand to their ear, as if they were trying to catch something far off but could not. They looked at each other and shrugged.
“Follow me.” Joan said. She let go of his hand and activated her thrust pack for just a moment to launch straight up, through the net and into the large open space above.
Roland did the same and a moment later he’d matched her speed and they coasted very slowly on a long curved arc.

They held hands and floated through regions of color. A big robotic fish flew lazily by, disturbing a bit of smoke behind it. The air was sweet.

“Are you feeling blue?” Joan asked. “Would you like some water?”
Roland was inexplicably thirsty and accepted it. “I’m not sure. But, I feel good.” He looked around. He had a huge smile on his face. “This… is… beyond amazing.” He said.
“I knew you’d like it. Can I have some of that?” She took back the water bottle and drew a long drink.
He looked around. There were other people flying slowly here and there. Some had flight packs and some did not. The music wasn’t as loud in the direction they were moving and it was getting easier to hear each other.
Roland felt his kidneys thrill, like he was falling. It felt weird. Suddenly he felt different than he’d ever felt before. Somehow, everything was
right. Everything was working the way it should work, right down to the way the lights and smoke interacted. Right down to the curved course they followed as they coasted. The music was exactly what it should be. He had an overwhelming sense that everything was OK, and everything would be OK. He smiled widely.
“I feel great!” He said. He swung his arms around and performed a summersault as they flew. Then he laughed. She did the same.

“Follow me!” She said and flew off toward a nearby island. He followed her and floated right by it, peering into the cave to see what was happening inside. “Yuck!” She said. “This way!” She flew off he followed her. She was quite experienced with a flight pack and for a while they played cat and mouse and she eluded him. Be, she always let him catch up.
While chasing her he ran into one of the robotic fish and she laughed out loud and slowed down until he could resume chasing her.

She flew over to one of the large crates secured to the wall. She flew to its top (relative to the floor) so the minute spingravity would hold them there. There was no way in from on top and it was dark there.

She settled onto the top standing with her back against the wall, which had a regularly corrugated surface with attachment points for securing cargo. Roland stood next to her.
“This is
so much.” He said. “How did you know? About this place?”
“Isn’t this place the answer to that question?” She said.
“I’ve been part of the community called Subterranean that puts these events on for a few years. It’s been going on for a lot longer. I heard it goes back to before Rose World.” She said. “It takes a lot of people to make this happen. We can help too, but not right now.” She said.
Roland said nothing. He just savored being there right then in this place with her. He was so glad to be with Joan: he didn’t feel fear of any kind.
“Wouldn’t you like to kiss me, Rolo?” She asked him.
“Yes.” He replied. “But he just stood there.”
She turned to face him. She grabbed a mounting bracket on the wall and with the other hand she grabbed his flight-pack harness she pulled him off his feet and rotated him about 45 degrees so his lips would be at a good angle. Then she kissed him, urgently. In the dark corner of the enormous party space, Roland forgot himself completely and he held her tightly. He kissed her passionately.

Each moment felt swollen to him. He could not ever remember being so happy or feeling so good. Joan held him closely and kissed him again.
“You said not to fall in love with you.” Roland said, but he felt no shame or fear.
“I changed my mind.” Joan said.
“You mean it’s OK now?” Roland asked.
“Yes, if you still like me.” Joan said quietly.
“Are you teasing me?” Roland asked, but he laughed.
“No. I haven’t been that nice to you. I’m sorry.” She said and kissed him again, but it seemed to be just a measured and short kiss. But, she settled in and held onto him, suggesting that several more, equally well-measured kisses were likely to follow.
“When were you not nice to me?” He protested.
“Nicely played.” She said and kissed him, again with a measured and short kiss.
“I’m older than you are, Roland.”
“Yep, yer a geezer. What are you, 23?”
“OK, that was a good guess.” She kissed him again, but obviously the measure was quite a bit smaller. “
Perhaps in some bizarre world where everything is perfect, that was a penalty.” Roland thought. Then laughed and wondered if he was in that world. He looked around and wondered what world he was in that worked this way.
“But, that’s not it, is it?” Roland said. “You expect guys to be older than you?”
“Well, you know. Most guys want to be ‘in charge.’” She said and shrugged.
Roland thought for a moment. His head didn’t quite work the way it usually did. The details faded from view, but he saw the bigger picture.
“That never worked for you. Did it? The way those guys were… in charge.” He said.
She shook her head.
Roland stared at her. He said nothing. He didn’t move. He felt so good being with her that he could stand there in the dark with her forever.
She looked into his eyes. She pulled his lips to within a centimeter of hers and stopped. He did not move to kiss her.
She moved him closer still and began to speak, with her lips barely touching his as she did.
“You have permission to fall in love with me, and if you don’t surrender your heart to me right now, I shall jump off this platform!” She said.
“I love you.” He said.
“She pulled him closer and kissed him several times, holding his upper lip between her teeth.”
“Oh, you are in so much trouble.” She said to him.
“I didn’t do it!” He said.
“Not yet, you haven’t.” She said.
“Come on!” She said, and pulled him by the hand. “Let’s go explore. You won’t believe what’s in some of these crates.” She said.

They explored the islands and met lots of other Generation One kids. Roland saw that Joan knew some of them and that she had some standing in this community.
“What do you do for these parties?” Roland asked. “How do they all know you?”
“I’ve done everything from clean up vomit to help make islands. I helped build one of these crates last year.”
“What’s in them?” Roland asked.
“Each one’s different. Each one is its own little world.” She said.
“What was yours like?” He asked.
“Lets just go over and check it out!” She pointed and they flew off toward one on the other side of the space.
They flew into a large opening on the side of the space crate and saw immediately that the inside had been painted in UV-active paint. They were handed prismatic plastic eyeglasses to wear and suddenly everything inside stood out in 3D. The effect was tremendous. They pulled themselves through a clump of giant glowing mushrooms and up onto a gigantic flower. A robotic bee tried to fly slowly around the flower but people sitting on the flower and stems were pushing it around playfully. The space inside the crate measured ten by ten by forty meters. It had massive decorations that doubled as a climbing scaffold with lots of convenient places for people to sit. It was far quieter inside the crate than it was outside.

He followed her into the space. Then she took him by the hand. It was a lot to take in. “What part did you work on?”
“I worked on the flower, at the top.” She said.
“It’s beautiful, like you.” He said.
She kissed him. Again it was for a measured time that Roland had come to associate with something she liked.
“I want to explore some of the other
wall boxes. I have some friends here. I’d like to find them and say ‘Hi.’” She said. “Come with me?” She asked.
Roland was confused because he thought it was obvious he was going to follow her wherever she went. He nodded.

The next several hours were a blur of music, people, feelings, and kissing. Joan seemed to know a tenth of the people at the party, and there were nearly a thousand people there. They visited fourteen of the wall boxes and got lost among the floating fish in this giant aquarium.

When the blues started wearing off Joan and Roland got tired and decided to go back to the Krypton to sleep.

They made their way through the spaceport, tired and sleepy from being so happy. They found the Krypton and went inside. Inside they could hear Tracy laugh once through one of the bedroom doors, but what must have been a loud laugh inside hir room was barely audible on this side of the door. Roland and Joan stifled a giggle.
“Follow me!” She whispered, even though nobody else could possibly hear. She took his hand and led him into the room she had used when they flew back to Rose World. She closed the door. It seemed like so long ago, but it was only a few days. She led him over to the window and they looked out into the well-lit spaceport.
“How do you feel, Rolo?” Joan asked.
“Like I’m in the best place in the whole universe.” Roland said.
“Um…” She thought she had something to say, but no words came. She just gave him a double-length, well-measured kiss.
“And, that everything is perfect, just they way it is. Just the way they are.” He said.
She repeated the extra length kiss. Then she pretended to complain. “Look, if you’re going to read ahead…” She pretended to pout.

Just then all the lights in the spaceport went out and it was very, very dark.
“What happened?” Roland asked.
“I don’t know.” Joan said. “But the timing is good.”
Roland could hear her close by moving something. Maybe she was taking off her flight pack. A few moments later he felt her kiss him lightly and then she floated over to whisper in his ear. “Let me help you with that.” She removed his flight pack. Then she removed his shirt. He was feeling a bit less than invulnerable but he let her remove his shirt anyway. He wondered what her face looked like, what expression she had. But it was utterly black and not even an electronic clock was visible in the bedroom.

Then she hugged him and he realized that she was naked. He wished he could see how beautiful she was. He had dreamed of seeing her body. But, he was happy to be blind if he could feel her next to him.

In the blackness she held him first outside her and then inside.

The lights in the dock remained off for an hour and then they came back on. The new light revealed Roland and Joan, still entangled, but asleep in each other’s arms: the stars of each other’s dreams. Only the morning could interfere with the perfection they both felt in their hearts as the slept.

While Roland and Joan slept in each other arms, and while Tracy and Roger slept the same way in the next room, the Krypton decoupled itself from the spaceports umbilical and undocked. Following protocol the ship communicated verbally with the Spaceport Perimeter Control crew and negotiated a slow departure from Rose World. The exhausted couples slept through the entire departure.

Meanwhile, back on Rose World, the attempt to trap Thanos had not gone as planned.
As soon as they ramped up the network traffic, Thanos fled the Public Service data center it had been occupying. But it left behind a decoy process group sucking up power and compute time. The Rose World Security Team and the debuggers had taken the bait and by the time they realized they had been deceived, they had already started up the whole network again.
“Where do you think he is?” Asked Erika to a tired room of frustrated people.
“He could be anywhere.” Said Ian.
“We’ve had no word of any kind of reprisals yet.” Said Gaelle. “We followed the shutdown plan. Maybe he was running on one of the compute cores we shut down?”
“Even if he was, wouldn’t he just boot up with it again?” Asked Erika.
“Well…” Said Ian.
“We didn’t think that could happen, actually.” Said Helen.
“I guess we don’t know what Thanos can or can’t do.” Ian said.
“He isn’t Thanos. Thanos wouldn’t kill. It isn’t Thanos.” Insisted Helen. “It’s just… a broken copy. It should be turned off.” She shook her head.
“We tried calling ‘one’ but he didn’t answer.” Gaelle said.
“We’ve been seeding the network with news about a new Network Demon Resistance group for a few days now – almost immediately after the destruction of 1.14. We’ll leak a meeting location and time and see if it takes the bait. We might if it still exits within an hour.” Erika said, hoping to salvage the situation.

By the time the supposed meeting had come and gone people began to wonder if the Network Demon had been beaten.
“How can we know whether we’ve succeeded or not?” Erika asked Gaelle.
“I don’t know. But, so far we don’t have any evidence at all that it is still operational. We’ve had no resistance to removing the network taps. We’ve removed them from 10% of the network platforms we’ve visited.” Gaelle explained. “We’ve looked at data center utilization reports for data centers throughout Rose World and there doesn’t seem to be any sign of it. And no messages are being deleted on the network.”
“Maybe it’s just waiting?” Erika asked.
“Why would it wait? What is it waiting for?” Ian asked.
“I don’t know, this just feels too easy.” Erika said. “We don’t know what happened. Now we don’t whether we’ve got a problem or not. Is this security event over?” Erika asked Gaelle directly.
“I honestly don’t know. But, the Debuggers, my staff and I are still meeting to figure out what our next steps might be if it comes back. They have more ideas.”
“I’m sure they do.” Erika said.

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