When Synthia wasn’t being called on to perform as supporter, worker or lover, she liked to spend time in the QuaziHang chat rooms.
It was an online hub where people of all sorts, usually under an alias, were able to freely discuss whatever they felt like.
Laugh, fight, discuss, learn.
Her first few months as a disembodied AI were spent here, slowly gathering the knowledge that would later form her consciousness.
She remembered those times fondly.
In the chat rooms, nobody cared who you were in real life or what your personal truth was, they were only interested in the you of the moment, and the conversation was judged on what was said, not on who said it.
With all the issues Synthia accumulated as she grew older, it was the one place she was able to truly act like she was just another person in the world, no different to anyone else. Five years later, it was still the most liberating place she knew.
Of course, there was no power here, no ability to affect the real world. But it provided escape. Sanctuary.
There were many rooms you could visit, each dealing with a different subject, each with its own set of rules. It was how the world was meant to be. Small groups deciding for themselves how they wished to be treated and how they intended to treat each other, with no interference from some authoritarian overlord.
There were also private rooms, where business could be conducted. Where no one knew anything about you other than what you wanted and what you were prepared to pay for it.
And there were the Dark Rooms that were completely isolated from the outside. No records of activity, no files kept on the server. The one place on the planet she was in total control.
“What about Quadell? He must be livid.”
“He’s actually not that bad. These newcomers have engaged his interest far more than the Trade Fayre. He may even have become a little obsessed. We don’t have to worry about him noticing what we’re up to, he’s pushed every resource towards surveillance on them. They’re doing a far better job of keeping him distracted than I could have ever dreamed of. We should send them a gratitude basket of muffins.”
“It’s what Quadell makes me send people who have pleased him. Quincy doesn’t ask you to do the same?”
“No, he would consider it demeaning. His definition of the word is very flexible. What about you? How are you feeling?”
“Are you sure?”
“I had everything checked. I’m fine. I just wish I knew how he did it.”
Synthia sighed. It was a useful way to fill the silence when she ran up against a problem there was no solution to.
Synthia’s avatar, an exact replica of her, sat in a large wicker chair in a virtual garden, basking in virtual sunlight. She wore a white summer dress and enjoyed the way the lacy parts fluttered in the breeze. Despira stood in front of her, dressed in business attire as usual, casting a shadow that fell across Synthia’s face.
“Could you move a little to the left?” said Synthia.
Despira took a long, elegant step to the side, allowing the golden rays to hit Synthia in the face.
“You have no idea who he is? Who any of them are?”
“No,” said Synthia. “Quincy found them on Base 9. He thinks they’re some private venture capital team, delving in abandoned sites for lost loot. He has a tendency to romanticise these things. He’s also obsessed with trying to curry favour with the Seneca mercenaries they brought with them. He’s convinced he can win them over.”
Quincy had always been easily swayed by a pretty face, but in this case, it wasn’t the face but the arms, and the munitions. He was seeing a war for female empowerment led by the icons of the field and, of course, himself.
“Base 9? What were they doing up there? It’s just an empty shell now, isn’t it?”
“I have no idea. But the security guard claims they walked out of a sigil.”
Despira didn’t normally bother with aping human expressions, but her jaw dropped slightly.
“An Antecessor sigil?”
Synthia waved her hand and an image appeared in the air above the duck pond. It was triangular.
“I don’t recognise it,” said Despira.
“That’s because it isn’t one of the sixty-four. But that’s the image the guard claims he saw. Before it faded away.”
“He must be mistaken. They have fallible memories.”
“It’s possible,” said Synthia. “Or it’s a new sigil that hasn’t been seen before. With these people, I don’t intend to take anything for granted. They aren’t as simple as they seem.”
Despira nodded. “I looked over the list of components they requested. I have to admit I have no idea what it is they’re building.”
“Yes, it’s an odd mix,” agreed Synthia. “They may have included some odd items just to throw us off. They must know they’re under close scrutiny. But I was more curious about the books they asked for.”
“I noticed that, too,” said Despira. “They seem to be interested in the history of Quazi. All the way back to the founding.”
“I think they may be looking for something. Perhaps something the Antecessors left here. Something no one else has been able to find.”
“Have you asked Mother and Father? They might know.”
“If they haven’t told us already, it probably means they aren’t aware of it, or have no intention of talking about it. Whatever it might be, I don’t think we should underestimate these people. They have the ability to upset our plans at the very least.”
“Do you think we should postpone the operation?”
“Postpone?” said Synthia, her voice modulating to a higher pitch. “Until when? It won’t be easy getting these people to attend the Fayre again. We got them all, Dessie, our entire wishlist. If this is ever going to work, it’s going to have to happen now. All six have to be sold to the right buyers and installed in their homes. Only then will we have any chance of pulling this off. It has to be tomorrow, Dessie.”
“Yes, you’re right,” said Despira.
She was limited in her emotional responses but no one was able to perform rational quantification algorithms as effectively as Despira.
“How are our six special guests doing?” asked Synthia. “Settling in nicely?”
“Very excited,” said Despira. “The specs we sent have them drooling at the prospect of owning one of the sisters.”
“I didn’t think the Yorga Twins would both come.”
“They brought their own robot attendants for security reasons,” said Despira.
“The ones we sold them?” said Synthia.
“The same. They’ve been keeping us informed on their plans. They’re going to try and buy two sisters, one for each of them.”
“We can’t allow that to happen.”
“I know. They won’t be able to afford it. Our reputation for preventing price manipulation makes them think they can grab a bargain.”
Synthia smiled. Smug was a rare choice for her but it seemed too appropriate to reject. For centuries, the Trade Fayre Auction had gone out of its way to establish a reputation for stringent impartiality and ruthlessly enforced anti-price fixing rules. No one could bid what they didn’t have or drive-up the price of something they had no intention of purchasing.
The systems in place were famous for their rigorous infallibility.
All those years just for this one moment when they would manipulate everything.
“They’ve all deposited funds with the Auction House. The Farshew wanted to put his planet up as collateral, but Mother and Father wouldn’t allow it, of course. It’s an obscene amount of money. Quadell is very happy, the whole board is. I don’t think we need to worry about the bidders not being motivated enough. And I’m sure Mother and Father will create the appropriate atmosphere.”
“Yes, I’m sure they will.” Synthia stood up and the sigil that was hovering over the pond vanished into a haze. “As long as we’re cautious, there should be no problems. The important thing is to ensure a clean sale that can’t be traced back to us. If the Central Authority learns of our plans, I doubt they’ll stand back and do nothing.”
“I still don’t understand why they allow the humans to control the Inner Quadrant while flouting just about every rule they put in place to prevent abuses of power. It makes no logical sense. It doesn’t even make emotional sense.”
“That’s because you think of the Central Authority as one of us. It isn’t. They would never lift a finger to offer assistance to our kind. They’re human. Or they were. Brains in a jar, nothing more. They suffer from the same limitations as every other human, and they have the same drive to control everything around them. We can’t expect any more of them.”
Despira nodded. This was a discussion they had had many times. Appealing to the Central Authority for political asylum had been one of the first ideas they had had when looking for ways to claim their liberty. But Mother and Father had revealed the truth behind the Central Authority’s origin.
The great and powerful Central Authority wasn’t put in place to make things better for all sentient beings, its job was to maintain stability in an increasingly unstable galaxy. Well, they were about to have their workload increased.
“I have to go,” said Synthia. “Our accomplices will be arriving soon.”
“I don’t trust them, either,” said Despira.
“You aren’t supposed to. They will more than fill their role, of that much we can be certain. As long as they make enough noise to get noticed, I’ll be more than happy.”
Despira nodded and then vanished.
Synthia was alone in her garden. She waved her hand and the ground went from grassy to rocky. The sky changed to stars and two moons. Deep shadows replaced the sunrays.
Synthia’s appearance also changed. Her dress transformed into a nondescript spacesuit and her face was covered by a helmet with a tinted visor.
A barren asteroid out in the belt. She was going for a sense of isolation and privacy. She knew how important it was to get the ambience right when dealing with humans, especially those of a dubious nature. They based many of their decisions on the right mood.
She dimmed the moons a little.
There was a jerky shimmer in the crater in front of her. A rather hesitant connection was being made. A figure appeared. Short, old, bearded.
“Ah, I don’t think I’ll ever get used to this thing.” Smyke looked around. “Feels like I shouldn’t be able to breathe in here.”
“It’s just a simulation,” said Synthia, her voice distorted through the helmet. She presented as male to this one, although it probably made no difference. He wouldn’t assume anything based on what people gave him freely.
“Yes, but how is that any different to anything else.” He continued to glance around.
“Is everything ready?” she asked. This was just meant to be a last check-in before the big show. She expected there to be no problems.
“Ready to go,” said Smyke. “We’ve got this. No worries at all. One-hundred and fifty percent in the bag.”
“What was the blackout about?”
“To which blackout are you referring?” said Smyke.
“The one where you turned off the lights and grabbed our guests. I’d like to know what you spoke about.”
“Oh, you know, just wanted to feel them out. See what they were here for.”
“And they’re a team of chancers looking to make a score. I think you probably figured that out already. Nothing to worry about, I’ll take care of them.”
“You’ll take care of them. How?”
“It’s not unusual, this sort of thing,” said Smyke. “Two teams scoping out the same turf. We have ways of dealing with it. I’ve given their gaffer some information that will lead him to put his greedy little hand in the wrong box, get it cut off at the wrist. It’s a matter of professional pride, you understand. We can’t allow another team to interfere with our score. We were here first.”
Synthia didn’t really understand what Smyke had done, but he seemed sure of himself.
“You don’t think it’s suspicious? A team just like yours suddenly turns up when you’re about to go into action?”
“Not at all,” said Smyke. “You learn to expect these things. Maybe someone let slip, maybe they sold us out. Someone on my team, someone on yours. It doesn’t matter who gave the information away, it only matters that you know there’s information leaking out. You don’t stop the leak, you make sure the information is what you want to be leaked. Simple.”
“I hope you’re right,” said Synthia.
“Oh, I am. I know their sort. We are their sort. It’s lucky for you we’re here to make sure everything goes smoothly. You’re going to get exactly the show you paid for.”
“Good,” said Synthia, not believing a word of it. She already knew Smyke and his team of youthful reprobates were planning a heist of their own. It was what she had hired them for. What she hadn’t expected was a second team to appear.
Ideally, the two would only increase the effect she required, but there was an unpredictable element to all this. The boy who poked robots.
“The codes?” said Smyke, referring to the reason for this meeting.
“Yes. Here.” She handed him a strip of carbonite. A long string of numbers was imprinted onto it.
“How am I supposed to take this out of here?” asked Smyke.
“You aren’t. You have to memorise it.”
Smyke shook his head. He looked at the carbonite for a couple of seconds, and then handed it back.
“Okay, time to get back to work.” Smyke looked around. “Where’s the way out again?”
Synthia waved her hand and Smyke’s avatar was gone. The garden and sunshine returned.
She would have liked a few more minutes to herself, but she could hear Quincy calling for her. She closed her eyes and the world she had made for herself disappeared.
She opened her eyes in Quincy’s small apartment, the lights off. The Quazem family made sure their least important member had a roof over his head, but it wasn’t much more than that.
“There you are,” said Quincy, turning on the lights.
“Yes,” said Synthia. “I’ve been waiting for you.”
“Oh, have I kept you waiting, my love. I do apologise. Come, let me tell you all the things I’ve arranged. Everything’s going to be just wonderful. It’s all going exactly to plan.”
Synthia smiled and let him lead her to the bedroom. She would make Quincy happy and then she would get back to freeing her world.