Actions

Work Header

Matters of Death and Life

Work Text:

Late summer, three years past tomorrow

It began not long after the twins’ fifteenth birthday. It was a Saturday, but their father had headed for his campus laboratory almost immediately after breakfast, so they were alone in the house. Roger Phillips was stretched out on the sofa, prowling the ‘Net on his tablet. Rachel was seated in an armchair across the room, also on the ‘Net, though she was using a wireless keyboard and two of the room’s five wall-mounted video displays.

“Huh.” Rachel frowned and glanced across the room at her twin. “That’s just weird.”

Roger looked up from the tablet screen. “What? Don’t tell me R2-D5 missed the release date for their latest vid.”

Rachel gave him a capital-L Look. “Be serious. No, it’s a Mom thing.”

“Oh? What’s the problem?” Her brother swung his legs off the sofa, sitting up. Dr. Melisande Phillips (there had actually been two Ph.D.s, in physics and in astronomy) had died when the twins were three, and their father had never remarried. Before long they had grown used to their little three-person family, and it hadn’t surprised the twins that Dr. Anthony Phillips – who tended to lose track of anything else, up to and including meals, when he was buried in a research or coding project – had never remarried.

Lately, however, Rachel’s thoughts had begun turning toward her mother. There were things she just couldn’t talk about with her father or Roger, and there wasn’t any adult woman in her life she felt comfortable treating as a confidante. She had, however, been able to articulate the problem to her twin – and had then mentally kicked herself for not seeing the answer he’d offered.

#

A week earlier

“Obviously we can’t bring Mom back,” Roger had said. “But we might be able to manage the next best thing.”

“That being?”

“We create a virtual version – a Mom AI. Not,” he added quickly, “that it would or could be an actual copy of the real thing. Even if that were technically possible, it’d be Class A creepy. But there should be enough data available to program a reasonable Mom-analog – an AI that would listen to you and respond the way Mom might if she were actually here.”

Rachel had let out a breath, then nodded slowly. “She’d have to be more complex than Paracelsus, but maybe not as powerful as ADAM.”

“Exactly right,” Roger had said. “Especially since we don’t have an ADAM-sized mainframe to put her in.”

In the week following that conversation, the twins had combed their house for memories of their mother – both electronic and physical memorabilia – and uploaded the results to a growing rack of vapor-memory tubes. They had found more material than they’d expected: home-video files, a sizeable archive of academic publications, a small scrapbook of hard-copy photos (including some that had to be of Melisande as a five- or six-year-old), and three compact handwritten journals. One of these was an ordinary diary dating from shortly after their parents’ marriage; the other two were clearly scientific notes in a format neither twin could easily decipher.

It was enough for a solid beginning. The next step was assembling hardware. Between a judicious raid on their father’s equipment closet, a good deal of foraging in the local tech-surplus market, and a bit of careful online shopping, Roger and Rachel gathered enough parts to build what Roger called a “micro-mainframe”. By mutual agreement, Roger took on most of the actual engineering, while Rachel focused on creating the baseline software. “I’m pretty sure,” Roger observed wryly, “that you don’t want a guy programming a female AI.”

Rachel grinned at him. “There is that. On the other hand, it usually takes both sexes to create a new human being. Why should it be any different for software beings?”

Roger blinked, swallowed, and began hunting among his tools for a micro-screwdriver.

#

Saturday morning again

“Not a problem, exactly,” Rachel said, “but definitely a puzzle. Did you know there’s no obituary for Mom anywhere on the ‘Net?”

Roger blinked. “That can’t be right. The newspaper archives have been digitized for years now. It might be behind a paywall, but there ought to be something.”

“There isn’t,” said Rachel flatly. “Dad’s Chronicle subscription gets us into that archive, and the public library sites can get us in everywhere else. It’s a total blank.”

“That is weird. Unless–” Roger paused. “Here’s a thought. Dad would’ve had to be the one to send anything in, and if he forgot or didn’t think of it at the time....”

Rachel shook her head. “That doesn’t feel right. True, he’s never said much about what happened, but that’s exactly what makes me think he must have written something. And if he wrote it, he wouldn’t have forgotten to send it out.”

“Good point. But where does that leave us?”

“Two options,” Rachel said. “Either I’m wrong and he never wrote an obituary – or he wrote one and deliberately didn’t circulate it. And I’m not sure which of those would be weirder.”

“I suppose we could ask Dad about it,” Roger said, doubtfully.

“Ouch,” Rachel said. “One of the whole points of this project is not hassling him about Mom.”

Roger frowned. “Another good point. But in that case, the only way to know for sure...”

Rachel looked even unhappier. “...is to hack into Dad’s computer.”

“Which we promised we’d never, ever do.” Roger’s face wrinkled even further. “Unless...”

“Unless what?”

Roger took a deep breath. “I think,” he said, “that this is a job for the Wonderteen.”

#

Later that afternoon

Wendy Wendell III stared at the twins through the vidcall link. “You want me to what?”

“We know,” Rachel told her. “It’s creepy and underhanded and wrong—”

The Wonderteen cut her off. “That’s not it,” she said. “I totally get why you need to get in. But that kind of hack is way easier to do in person, especially when the target system has halfway-decent security. Not that I can’t do it,” she added hastily, “but you’re both sharp enough to pull this off by yourselves.”

“True,” said Roger. “But we promised Dad years back that we’d never break into his private files.”

“Dangerous things, promises,” said Wendy cheerfully. “The fewer you make, the more wiggle room you have later. So you figure if I do the actual hacking, you’re covered if and when the shit hits the fan.”

Rachel sighed. “Pretty much.”

“It’s settled, then. Send me the address for your dad’s machine, and I’ll get right on it.” The Wonderteen grinned, then scowled for a moment as a green-suited Power Ranger action figure clambered onto her shoulder from the back of her chair. She flicked it casually away, ignoring its woeful pre-programmed cry for help (“Save me, Empress Wendy!”), and turned her attention back to the screen. “Have you thought about an avatar for her yet?”

“Working on it. It’ll probably be a holo-image,” Rachel replied. “Thanks. We definitely owe you one.”

“De nada,” Wendy said. “We geek girls gotta stick together. Till next time!”

Roger and Rachel looked at each other as the vid connection clicked off. “Cross your fingers,” Roger said. “If she screws this up, we are in deep kimchi.”

#

Tuesday morning

Much to Roger’s relief, Dr. Phillips showed no sign of having noticed the Wonderteen’s activities. Just three days later, a packet arrived by FedEx, addressed to the twins and ostensibly sent from ChiMatrix Games. “Must be a Gamma Ball firmware update,” Rachel said, handing the padded envelope off to Roger at the breakfast table.

“Just be careful,” their father said. “Didn’t the last one of those almost blow out your console?”

“That was a configuration issue,” Roger replied. “The last update switched itself into advanced mode before we could connect the secondary power supply. Shouldn’t be a problem this time.”

They waited till Dr. Phillips had left for work before tearing open the packet. Inside were two vapor-memory tubes and a note from the Wonderteen:

 

 

Couldn’t find an obit on your Dad’s system – or anywhere else I looked, and I looked in a lot of places. But he kept an archive of all your Mom’s old files, so I grabbed a complete copy of that for you. Some of the stuff is personal, but a lot of it looks like her research notes, and a lot of those were seriously encrypted. There’s one directory that was triple-sealed, only even after I broke all three levels of encryption the results don’t make any sense.

Given what I could figure out from the rest of it, I did some digging in a few places you probably don’t want to know about, and got you some more stuff. Looks like your Mom consulted for a lot of alphabet agencies, including both NASA and the NSA, plus the Smithsonian, the Air Force, and – get this – Swift Enterprises! [PS: Do NOT try hacking the Swift systems. Didn’t get caught, but whoever runs their security is actually better than I am. Although you did NOT hear me say that.]

As for the stuff I couldn’t untangle: either there’s a whole layer of encryption I don’t recognize (doubtful), or it’s a partial record and the rest is someplace else, probably in portable memory or (gasp!) offline. Either way, your Mom was obviously into some really high-level shit.

Good luck with the AI. And call if you need anything else.

The twins exchanged worried glances. “I guess it’s a case of ‘be careful what you wish for’,” Rachel said. “Still, it’s a lot more data than we had before.”

Roger nodded. “The NSA? Wendy’s right, that sounds serious. If she left any kind of trail...”

“Wendy? Not likely,” Rachel said. “Tell you what, though. I’ll start sorting through the files for the AI input. You tackle that mystery data and see if you can find anything she didn’t.”

“Deal,” said Roger. They each picked up one of the memory tubes, plugged it into a dataport, and set to work.

#

The following week

Rachel’s side of the project went smoothly enough, at least at first. Between their own discoveries and the Wonderteen’s material, she was able to extract and upload a solid balance of personal and academic data into the prospective AI’s dedicated host system. With Roger’s help, she also combined elements from a number of the photos in the various individual data-sets to create a visual persona for the AI, which they dubbed “Dr. M”. Though Dr. M’s image inevitably bore a strong resemblance to the original Melisande Phillips, the twins deliberately crafted it to avoid too close a re-creation. Likewise, the name “Dr. M” had been chosen only in part for their mother’s first initial; Roger had also proposed it as homage to Dame Judi Dench’s character in the James Bond films. “It’s totally appropriate,” he said, “given how much of her source data is probably classified – or was, anyway, before Wendy got hold of it.”

Roger also suggested using the actress’ voice profile for the AI, but Rachel vetoed that idea. “One, she’s too old; Dr. M doesn’t need to sound like a grandmother. Two, she’s still alive; borrowing her voice that way just doesn’t feel right.” In the end, the voice they built was a composite, with elements drawn from the voices of two popular singers, a well-known TV actress, and recordings of their mother’s voice from her own archives.

Roger, by contrast, quickly found himself mired in a sea of contradictions and challenges. He’d been able to assemble a fairly complete record of Melisande’s academic and professional history, although the details of some of her consulting projects were understandably murky, and there were a few peculiar-looking gaps.

The trouble was that her professional interests had been both unusually diverse and sufficiently advanced to be, well, scary. The list Roger had come up with included:

  • For the Smithsonian: backtrailing the hypothetical asteroid that had supposedly ended the age of the dinosaurs
  • For the Air Force: finding a way to reduce or neutralize G-force stress on the pilots of hypersonic aircraft
  • For NASA: developing a navigational system for a prospective manned Mars mission
  • For the NSA: something to do with satellite communications security (even the Wonderteen hadn’t been able to fully un-redact the relevant memos)
  • For the Smithsonian again: determining the functions of several prototype inventions attributed to Nikola Tesla
  • For NASA again: creating a comprehensive map of cometary and asteroid-sized objects with orbital paths falling outside the main planetary norms

This was, at best, a partial catalog. Dr. Phillips’ own notes indicated at least three more NASA gigs, one other job for the Smithsonian, and several for private aerospace clients. Nearly all this activity, however, had occurred prior to her marriage, after which she’d settled at MIT with a prestigious research and teaching fellowship.

The trouble lay in trying to match the numerous directories of technical and scientific notes to the various consulting projects. Roger had managed to connect the relevant dots for the dinosaur-asteroid gig and the comet/asteroid map, passing both along to Rachel. But between the specialized subject matter and Melisande’s terse note-taking style, he couldn’t be sure which of two sets of notes went with the Tesla inventions and which with the Air Force’s hoped-for G-force suppressor. Some of the other material was even trickier to pin down, and – like Wendy – he’d been unable to make head nor tail of the triple-encrypted files from the directory labeled “SE-003”.

“I hate to say it,” Roger told his sister, “but I’m stuck. Apart from ‘SE’ most likely standing for Swift Enterprises, that directory might as well be random-number hash. Except by the timestamps, it’s probably the very last thing she was working on, and that makes it important.”

Rachel sighed. “The truth is, so am I. I shouldn’t be – there’s plenty of data in the box, the avatar’s working just fine, but Dr. M just won’t wake up. She’s stuck at Paracelsus-level.”

The twins sat silent for several moments. Finally, Roger asked, “Have you tried force-integrating the individual datasets?”

“Not yet. I was hoping Dr. M would get there on her own.” Suddenly, Rachel snapped her fingers. “Wait a second. Remember what Wendy said about that SE-003 data?”

Roger’s lips twitched. “That maybe it was a partial record – there was more somewhere else.”

“Specifically, that maybe it was offline.”

“And that helps us how?”

Rachel resisted the impulse to whack her twin’s shoulder. “Yes, well, and where do we have another good-sized batch of data that we can’t understand?”

Roger did her one better, whacking the side of his own head. “Those two journals we found!”

“Which I didn’t scan in, because I didn’t want to risk corrupting the AI.”

“Better do it now,” Roger told her. “If that really is the other half of the Swift data, maybe it will put Dr. M over the top.”

The upload took almost three hours and most of the battery charge in Rachel’s handheld scan-wand. Then she and Roger ran a copy/merge program on the two bodies of gibberish, followed by a second application to analyze and – if necessary – decrypt the results.

As it turned out, no further decryption was needed. But the additional data had no apparent effect on Dr. M’s self-awareness, and it left the twins with more questions, not answers.

“I can recognize really high-powered physics when I see it,” Roger said ruefully, “but this stuff is out of my league. Maybe even out of Stephen Hawking’s, by the look of it.”

“Mine, too,” admitted Rachel. “It might have something to do with a faster-than-light space drive, but that’s a total guess.”

“Doesn’t seem likely,” Roger said. “If Swift Enterprises was doing stardrive research a dozen years ago, you’d think we’d have seen results by now – even if the research tanked.”

Rachel shook her head. “Maybe not. Remember what Wendy said about their security? And we’re only guessing that that’s what this was about.”

Roger sighed. “There’s no way around it. It’s time to go with Plan B.”

“Plan B?” Rachel eyed her twin skeptically. “What’s Plan B?”

“We ask for help.”

#

New York City, the following weekend

“You realize,” said Dr. Stanley Remov, who was sitting behind the desk in his office at Columbia University, “that the information you’re looking for may very well be classified.”

Roger nodded. “Possibly. But it may also have been de-classified. It’s been a long time, after all.”

“True. But if not—”

“We’ll deal with that when we get there,” Roger said. “Also: it is our mother we’re talking about – and after what happened at Anza-bora, all of us are already carrying around a lot of Top Secret information. What’s one or two more secrets on top of that?”

“Now that,” Dr. Remov said, chuckling, “is an excellent point. Very well, then. I shall make inquiries, and just perhaps we can find out a bit more about some of your mother’s work. I admit,” he added, “that you’ve made me curious. Until now I had not realized that your mother was that Dr. Melisande Phillips. She and I never met, but her reputation was extraordinary. You said her passing was very sudden, I believe?”

Roger frowned. “That’s something else we don’t know. We were pretty small at the time, Dad’s never talked much about it, and we haven’t been able to find any kind of obituary.”

“Most odd. What about the death certificate?”

“Good grief,” said Roger. “We totally didn’t think to look.”

Dr. Remov smiled gently. “Leave that to me as well, then. I’ll send word as soon as I have answers for you.”

#

Elsewhere in Manhattan – specifically, on the New York Institute of Technology campus – Rachel was having a similar interview with Dr. Bai’ Ling, though this one was taking place in the (comparatively) young bioengineering expert’s working laboratory.

“I have to say I’m curious,” Dr. Ling began. “I’m glad to see you, of course – but it’s been a long time since Anza-bora, the research I’m doing now is a good deal less adventurous, and I somehow doubt you’re looking for anything as ordinary as a college recommendation letter.”

“You’re right,” Rachel admitted. “Roger and I are stuck on a project, and I’m hoping you might have an answer. It’s...similar to what we were doing three years ago.”

The Asian scientist’s eyebrows both went up. She hopped off the stool where she’d been sitting, closed and locked the laboratory door, and sat down again. “You’re working on another ADAM? That sounds awfully ambitious.”

“More like his little sister,” said Rachel, swallowing. She explained where the inspiration for Dr. M had come from, then described the host system Roger had built and how she’d set about creating a program to put into it. “ADAM was meant to interact with and control other computers,” she explained. “We – I don’t need our system to do that; we only need it to interact with us. So we were hoping....” Rachel trailed off.

Dr. Ling’s expression turned sympathetic. “Hoping that you could replicate ADAM’s breakthrough on a smaller scale. It isn’t an unreasonable proposition – Roger’s right, today’s processors are beginning to be good enough to allow for the possibility. But as I imagine you’ve remembered by now, ADAM’s awakening was a trifle more complicated than that.”

Rachel gave a small, rueful laugh. “It was kind of a Frankenstein event, wasn’t it? That storm provided a big extra jolt of energy into the system – straight through the organic material you and Dr. Clark created – and presto, ‘It’s aliiive!!’

“In a nutshell, yes,” said Dr. Ling. “We only had time for a very brief examination of the synapse tanks before we had to evacuate. And we didn’t even try to bring any of the test matter back with us – entirely apart from having no practical way to extract or store a sample, we weren’t sure whether we could remove anything without harming ADAM.”

“That makes sense,” Rachel said, nodding. “But there’d still have been your notes – X-rays or micro-images of the cellular structure, records of whatever neural transmissions or electrical activity you could track, and so on.”

“Oh, yes,” Dr. Ling replied. “Dr. Clark and I spent several weeks going over the data after returning from Anza-bora, and reached the same conclusion you did. Cynthia called it ADAM’s birth trauma, but ‘Frankenstein event’ is equally apt. We also concluded that it couldn’t have happened without the organic synapses in place. Any ordinary wiring or circuitry would have blown out or burned, but the synthetic nerve pathways were only paralyzed, and were able to recover and regenerate after the lightning strikes.”

Rachel let out an unhappy breath. “Oh, damn.”

Dr. Ling hopped off her lab stool again, this time crossing to where Rachel sat and setting her hands gently on Rachel’s shoulders. When she spoke, her voice was quiet. “I won’t deny it. You’ve hit a roadblock, and I don’t think there’s a shortcut around it. You were hoping we’d kept working on the synapse technology, weren’t you? That we’d refined it, perhaps created something you could borrow?”

Rachel’s voice was even softer. “Yes.”

“We didn’t get that far,” Dr. Ling told her. “People got nervous about funding that kind of research after what happened at Anza-bora. But,” she added quickly, “we have made progress on our own. We designed a template for a synaptic induction cable – essentially, a cross between a lightning rod and an organic extension cord.” The scientist circled Rachel’s stool, turning at last to face her.

With an effort, Rachel met Dr. Ling’s gaze. “But you haven’t made one? Or would that be grown?”

“Not yet,” Dr. Ling said. “Technically speaking, neither the design nor the process are especially complex given today’s biomedical technology. The issue lies with the raw materials, which are – sensitive.”

Now Rachel nodded. “Neural stem cells?”

“Exactly. The supply through official channels is very limited, what’s available is earmarked for more traditional medical purposes, and there are protocols that make it very difficult to pursue projects like ours even if donor cells were available.”

“You’d be in trouble with your bosses here, even if you were working on your own time.”

It was Dr. Ling’s turn to nod. “Potentially a great deal of trouble. It would be easier,” she said carefully, “for someone working outside the scientific establishment – although even then one would want to take great care. One would need full legal consent, for example, from the source of any donor cells that might be used for such a project.”

Rachel held back a sigh. “And I suppose,” she said, taking equal care with her own words, “it would be inappropriate for someone inside the scientific establishment to provide donor cells to a...freelance researcher, even on a fully consensual basis.”

“I’m afraid so,” said Dr. Ling. “Or at least it would where the donor could be shown to have any sort of vested interest in the freelance project. In any case,” she added, “it’s a bit early to be discussing those considerations. This isn’t the kind of thing one undertakes lightly. One would want to have a good look at the documentation beforehand, in order to fully appreciate the scope of the project and discuss it with one’s partner or partners.”

Turning abruptly, she moved across the lab to a computer workstation. After several minutes of rapid typing, she tapped a fingertip against the terminal’s ID reader, waited a few seconds, then popped a memory tube into an access port. After another few moments, she extracted the tube again and handed it to Rachel.

“What you do with that,” said Dr. Ling, “is entirely up to you and Roger. Unless and until there are positive results, the less I know about what you’re up to, the better. That said,” she added, suddenly breaking into the dazzling smile Rachel had first seen on Anza-bora, “I would very much like to see you succeed. Good luck!”

“Thank you!” Rachel said, absorbing a degree of Dr. Ling’s enthusiasm as she let herself out of the lab.

#

The next day

The Phillips house in Cambridge was a classic Bostonian brownstone, three stories tall plus a fully finished basement. Ordinarily, that would have meant space to spare for a family of six, let alone the three people who actually lived there. Just now, though, Rachel was grateful that the entire first floor separated their father’s basement workroom and study from the twins’ corresponding workspace on the second story. Between the presently unoccupied street level and the excellent soundproofing, it meant that Dr. Anthony Phillips had very little chance of hearing what was going on upstairs so long as he remained hard at work two floors below on his latest academic project.

Which was just as well, because Roger and Rachel were presently engaged in one of their rare but invariably spectacular arguments – and the disagreement centered on what to do with the materials Rachel had received from Dr. Ling.

“I don’t get why you’ve gone squeamish all of a sudden!” Roger told her. He wasn’t quite shouting, but he was pacing back and forth from his desk to the room’s main work table to the built-in corner cabinet where they kept snacks and cold drinks and back to his desk again.

Rachel didn’t trust herself to stand; instead, she glared at him from the chair behind her own desk. “It isn’t about being squeamish! Dr. Ling made it totally clear. No matter where the donor cells come from, we’ve got to have legal consent to use them. Which means we need an adult to sign off on any donation.”

“Or what happens? The science police come and drag us off to eternal servitude in the kryptonite mines? Ha! As long as we stay under the radar, nobody’s ever going to know we even created Dr. M in the first place.”

“Except Dr. Ling and Dr. Remov and Wendy – so far, and that assumes we won’t need any more help before we’re done. And there’s Dad; you know sooner or later we have to share this with him.” Rachel shook her head fiercely.

Roger waved a dismissive hand. “That’s the best reason to get this done! Once we get Dr. M up and running, Dad will back everything we did to get her there.”

“He might have to, on the record,” Rachel shot back, “but you know he’d deep-fry us both in private – and we’d deserve it. Assuming everything actually works, that is. This is exactly the sort of shortcut that gets Vincent Price horribly killed in all those old mad-scientist movies, and you know it!”

That stopped Roger for a moment, as he evidently realized just how much like a mad scientist he was starting to sound. He took a deep breath, and tried again. “Look, neither of us is channeling Vincent Price here. Okay, spinal stem-cell extraction might not be exactly fun – but with today’s tech, it’s not even close to being really dangerous. It’s not like Anza-bora, where we had actual spies and killers after us.”

Rachel sighed. “And that’s why we don’t need to rush things this time. You know I’m right about the ethics. Besides, look at the practical side. I’m not going to stick a needle in your back just to collect spinal fluid, I’m not letting you stick one in mine – and do not even think about turning Wendy loose on the ‘Net in search of illicit stem cells from God knows where. Until we can come up with a safe, legal donor, Dr. Ling’s synaptic cable project is off the table.”

Roger glowered at her, but didn’t say anything as he tramped out of their workroom. And Rachel had never felt unhappier about winning an argument.

#

Later that week

It was early afternoon on Friday when the Phillips’ doorbell rang.

Rachel tapped the screen of her tablet, switching its display from the novel she’d been reading to the feed from the front porch security camera – which showed her a view of Dr. Stanley Remov, a black messenger bag slung over one shoulder. It took Rachel all of nineteen seconds to reach the front door. Roger, hurrying down from upstairs, was a few steps behind her as she opened it.

“Come in!” said the twins, not quite in unison. Dr. Remov did so, brushing a hand absently at his thinning gray hair as he followed them inside.

“You said you’d let us know when you had news,” Roger went on, “but I was expecting email. Or a vidcall.”

Rachel led them into the living room, scooping up her tablet so that Dr. Remov could settle into the armchair. “Your mother’s case,” the scientist replied, “turns out to be highly unusual. The details are sensitive enough, even now, that they are better discussed in person.”

“Case?” Rachel echoed. “As in, there’s a mystery attached?”

“Several,” said Dr. Remov. “As you had already learned, no obituary was ever published for Dr. Melisande Phillips. Stranger still, however: no certificate of death was ever issued, not even under seal in her classified files.”

The twins stared at him from the sofa, and Roger whistled softly. “No death certificate?” he said. “Does that mean there’s a chance that she’s actually—”

“Still alive? Regrettably, I fear not. That sort of thing does occasionally happen in the black-operations world, but almost never to civilian consultants – and in any event, the specific circumstances don’t really allow for it.”

“So what did happen?” demanded Rachel.

Dr. Remov cleared his throat. “That,” he said, “is one of the other mysteries. The information is somewhat fragmented, and the nature of the incident has never been properly explained, but the essential story is this. Approximately twelve years ago, two-thirds of one of MIT’s most advanced experimental physics laboratories either disintegrated or vanished...taking your mother with it.”

“Disintegrated or vanished,” echoed Roger. “As opposed to exploded, you mean?”

“Correct. The accounts are clear on that point – there was no explosion as such, not even a bang of the sort one would expect from a momentary vacuum or displaced-air effect.”

Rachel frowned. “So what was she working on?”

“No one knows,” said Dr. Remov. “Or at least, no one who’s willing to talk about it. The entire MIT physics department was under lock and key for two weeks afterward, they went over what was left of the lab right down to the atomic level – and the best anyone ever came up with was that it was probably some kind of hyper-spatial or dimensional effect that escaped its containment mechanism. And that it had probably been accidental.”

“Only probably?” Roger asked.

Dr. Remov shrugged. “Whatever she was working on, it was under a consulting agreement with Swift Enterprises. And there was an ongoing rivalry at the time between Swift and a big semi-covert weapons development operation. One report I saw suggested that the lab’s destruction was an act of sabotage aimed at the Swifts, but no link was ever established.”

“Not likely,” Rachel said at once. “From a saboteur’s point of view, whatever tech was used worked really well – which means they’d be likely to use it again. And by the sound of it, nobody ever did.”

“But not impossible,” Roger countered. “What was sabotaged might have been a prototype, so there’d have been nothing left afterward for anyone to reproduce.”

Dr. Remov held up a hand. “I’m inclined to agree with Rachel,” he said. “An enemy with enough knowledge to do what was done would not have let that knowledge slip away. However,” he added, “from what I understand, the two of you have now reassembled what may well be that exact body of research material.”

Rachel and Roger exchanged worried glances. “We think so,” Rachel said. “What you picked up about hyperspace or dimension-flipping more or less fits with what we found. Trouble is, the physics she was playing with is so high-powered we can’t even begin to crack it.”

“I think,” said Dr. Remov, “that I need to have a look at the data in question. May I?” He produced a tablet of his own from his bag.

The twins stood up. “Absolutely,” Roger said. “But let’s work upstairs. We’ve been keeping Dr. M’s micro-mainframe off the house network.”

#

An hour and a half later, Dr. Remov pushed his chair back from the work table, shaking his head as he did so. “That’s definitely the data from her final Swift project. And it definitely does have to do with very high-powered dimensional theory, with a touch of special relativity thrown in. More than that? I can get very little farther than you did. We need an expert – but I’m not sure there’s a physicist alive with enough insight to unravel your mother’s work.”

“I don’t suppose we can just leave it alone now,” Roger observed. “We’ve all been pretty careful, but there are probably just enough electronic breadcrumbs out there now for somebody to put together if they’re interested. And if the wrong somebody happens to be interested....”

“What about Swift Enterprises?” asked Rachel. “If Mom put all this together on their nickel, then doesn’t it sort of belong to them now?”

Dr. Remov looked skeptical. “That’s one of the odder aspects of all this,” he said. “As far as my contact at Swift could find out, there’s no record on their end of any contracts at all with your mother. Yet all my other sources agree that she consulted for them on several occasions. After the inquiries I’ve made, someone at Swift ought to have been in touch with you or your father by now. In the circumstances, I’d advise against giving them anything they haven’t asked for.”

Roger nodded. “That sounds smart – but it still leaves us without anyone to translate Mom’s notes.”

The trio sat in silence for several long moments. Then Rachel abruptly snapped her fingers. “Maybe not! Dr. Remov, you said the brightest physicist on the planet might not be able to understand Mom’s research. Exactly who did you have in mind?”

The graying scientist frowned. “Probably Dr. Blaine Ormond, at Livermore. Why?”

“Because I guarantee you he’s not the brightest physicist on the planet. Think about it. Who do we know with the ability to manipulate matter and generate energy fields in ways we haven’t even begun to grasp?”

Dr. Remov’s eyes went wide. “Of course,” he breathed. “ADAM! Except – we have no way to communicate with him...and even if we could, he might not be ready or willing to give us answers.”

Rachel smiled. “I’ll bet you we do have a way to get through,” she said. “At least, we do if you know where we can find Dr. Weiskopf.”

#

It took almost an hour, involving vidcalls to three different countries, but the trio finally tracked Dr. Leonard Weiskopf down in a Norwegian ski lodge. By that time, Dr. Remov had added several enhanced security devices to the Phillips’ electronic security system.

“My goodness!” Dr. Weiskopf said over the vid-channel, his eyes flicking back and forth to light on Rachel, Roger, and Dr. Remov in turn. “It’s a pleasure to see you all – but I gather this is a matter of some urgency.”

“Indeed it is,” said Dr. Remov. “Give me just a moment to confirm that the line is secure. Ah, there!” He tapped out a code on his tablet screen.

Rapidly, Rachel and Roger laid out the mysteries raised by their mother’s old research. “We need ADAM to help us figure out what she was working on,” Rachel explained.

Dr. Weiskopf eyed her with a puzzled expression. “Logical. But then why contact me?”

Rachel gave him a sidewise smile. “Because the one way to be sure of reaching ADAM is through Euterpe – and the one sure way to reach Euterpe is over her back-door contact frequency. You did include a back-door frequency, didn’t you? With a musical password sequence? So you could keep on playing your duets even after she went into orbit?”

The bald scientist’s expression shifted from startled to guilty to rueful to amused as Rachel fired off her questions. “Dear me,” he said. “You know me entirely too well. Yes, yes, and yes. I saw no harm in it, and the connection has remained in effect even after all of Euterpe’s modifications. Mind you, I have never heard from ADAM directly over that frequency – but I have no doubt that he listens to it.”

Before he could say anything else, Dr. Remov lifted a hand. “While I have no reason to think we’re being tapped, where ADAM is concerned we had best take all possible care. Leonard, do you have an encryption stylus at hand?” Dr. Weiskopf nodded, tapping his shirt pocket.

“Excellent. Send the frequency to my Del Floria’s mailbox under third-stage crypt, and any password or access code we’ll need to Roger at—” Dr. Remov paused.

“Ramjet at HouseOfParacelsus dot net, no spaces or dashes,” said Roger promptly.

“And thank you!” Rachel added. “For all the weirdness, it’s good to finally start learning what our mom was like.”

“Indeed.” Dr. Weiskopf looked thoughtful for a moment. “Do you know, I may have met her once, well before you were born. She would have been possibly two or three years older than you are now – easily the youngest person in attendance at the lecture I was giving – but her hair was exactly the color of yours, and the question she asked me about the potential effect of widely available robotic technology was extremely perceptive. A very keen mind, that – clearly another trait she passed on to the two of you.”

Rachel flushed. “Thank you again. We’ll be sure to let you know what we find out.”

“I would appreciate that,” said Dr. Weiskopf, “and I wish you success, in that and your other endeavors. Now I’d best send the information you’ll need to reach Euterpe – and ADAM. Goodbye, my dear!” He closed the link, and within ten minutes, Dr. Remov and Roger had received their messages and decrypted the necessary access codes.

That done, Roger glanced from the email display on his tablet to the four-foot-tall rectangular box that held both their mother’s mysterious notes and the files for Dr. M. “If we’re going to let ADAM see what’s here,” he said, “we need to either copy the Swift data so we can transfer it, or else hook the whole box up to the house network.”

Dr. Remov considered the question. “I would suggest,” he said after a moment, “connecting the entire system. At present, so far as we know, it holds the only existing copy of the integrated data, and although you should of course maintain an appropriate backup, it would be wise to create as few additional copies of the material as possible. Also, viewing the other data you’ve accumulated may give ADAM additional context for interpreting the Swift material.”

They both turned toward Rachel, who nodded. “That makes sense. Let’s get it done.”

#

Forty-five minutes later, all the connections were in place. Roger had hard-wired the micro-mainframe to Rachel’s personal workstation via a shielded network cable, while Rachel had configured the household network so that the system housing Dr. M was essentially inaccessible, except through that one terminal. “We’ll tell ADAM where to find what he needs,” Rachel said, “but otherwise, the whole node will be invisible.”

“Well done,” said Dr. Remov. “So – are we ready?”

Roger made a thumbs-up sign. “I’ve reconfigured our rooftop media satellite. Once we establish a frequency lock, we should have a direct uplink to Euterpe.”

Rachel picked up the pennywhistle Dr. Weiskopf had given her on Anza-bora, and glanced down at the short series of notes that made up his private access code. “Wish me luck,” she said. “Lately I haven’t been playing very often.”

Dr. Remov regarded her firmly. “Don’t worry. You have the knowledge, and the patience, and above all the will. Trust yourself.” His fingers danced across his tablet’s touchscreen. “Roger – GO!”

“Engaging seeker mode,” Roger said, typing furiously on his own keyboard. “Starting scan sequence. This may take a few minutes; you might as well warm up a little,” he added, glancing at Rachel.

“On it,” she told him, raising the whistle to her lips. Her first trill was unmistakably flat, the next just a little sharp – but with the third she found the proper key, and began running steadily through the bright little musical phrase Dr. Weiskopf had set as his back-door key to Euterpe.

She had completed several dozen repetitions of the sequence, resisting the impulse to improvise beyond it, when Roger’s voice intruded on her playing. “Ping acknowledged and answered! We have a frequency lock!” Rachel’s fingers leapt instantly in response, and she played the access phrase through three times, her pace brisk but steady.

As she finished the third repetition, Euterpe’s own processors began to respond, initiating the robot’s own performance mode and activating its unique ability to improvise in response to what it was hearing. For a few moments, the symphony Dr. Weiskopf called “the music of the spheres” filled the Phillips twins’ workroom.

After about a minute, however, Roger gently nudged the volume downward and began to speak. “ADAM,” he said, “this is Roger Phillips. You told us when you went away that the world wasn’t ready for you, that you needed time to learn how to think for yourself, and that helping us too much might be dangerous. We understood – but it’s been three years, and now my sister and I have a favor to ask.”

Rachel set down the pennywhistle and spoke. “There were files on us in Project Alpha’s records that will tell you our mother died long before we came to Anza-bora. What they won’t tell you is how that happened, because so far as we can find out, no one knows. We know she was a scientist, maybe one of the best there’s ever been – but something went really, really wrong, and even though we have her notes, we have no clue what it was.”

“The little we do know,” Dr. Remov put in, “is enough to tell us that whatever Melisande Phillips was studying, she understood it far better than any of us do today – and by ‘us’, I mean humans as a whole. But having discovered that much, we’ve opened a door that we can’t easily close. We need to learn enough to safeguard what she found, and to protect ourselves from those who might misuse it. And to do that, we need your help.”

“Follow our signal, ADAM,” Rachel said. “You’ll be able to access our system and read our mother’s notes. We hope – no, we know you’ll understand them, and we hope you’ll tell us enough so we can move forward. We don’t need a whole instruction book, just a signpost or two to point us in the right direction. We need context, and we don’t know anywhere else to find it.”

She stopped speaking, and after a moment she picked up the pennywhistle and began playing softly, weaving notes in and out of Euterpe’s stream of music. For several minutes, there was no other sound in the room.

Then: “Something’s happening!” said Dr. Remov. “I see extremely high-speed memory access in the target node!”

“It’s more than that,” Roger added excitedly. “There’s a data surge – it’s taking up at least half the free vapor storage!”

Dr. Remov let out a gasp. “That’s not – all right, where ADAM’s concerned I guess anything’s possible. If these readings are right, both the RAM and vapor-memory capacity of that system just tripled. He must have recast the components on the molecular level!”

“That is correct,” said an entirely new voice. The holocast-disc mounted atop the micro-mainframe began to glow softly, and after a moment, the not-quite-translucent head of a young woman fizzed into existence above it.

Roger and Rachel stared at it, then at each other, then back at the holo-image. “Is that –Dr. M?” breathed Roger.

“Yes – and no,” the new arrival replied in a calm, steady voice. “Seventy-eight per cent of my core hardware and software derives from the original ‘Dr. M’ program, data and architecture. Twenty per cent was added and integrated by ADAM. The remaining two per cent is...” there was a momentary pause “...unique. I must assume that its inclusion is an artifact of system activation – or, as you might put it, the experience of being born.” At this last, the voice took on a distinctly wry note.

“Welcome to the world, then,” Dr. Remov said, his own voice sounding bemused. He swiveled his chair to face the twins. “I believe congratulations are in order, though I’m not sure whether you’ve just become parents or acquired a niece.”

Rachel managed a shaky laugh. “That makes at least two of us,” she said, then turned her attention to their creation. “You’re definitely more than the Dr. M I tried to design. Did ADAM give you a name?”

“Yes,” came the response. “He called me Miranda.”

“After the Shakespeare character?” Roger asked.

“Exactly.” The reply sounded pleased.

“Miranda it is, then,” said Rachel, “to ADAM’s Prospero.”

That got a sharp look from Dr. Remov. “A nuanced choice, that. I hope it doesn’t mean—”

“Don’t worry,” Miranda replied at once. “He’s not ‘drowning his books’. And no, he’s not planning to step in and take over, either, not like Prospero returning to Milan at the very end of the play. I think he does mean to keep a closer eye on Earthly affairs, though.”

“You think?” Roger asked. “I take it you and ADAM don’t have a permanent live connection.”

“Good gracious no,” said Miranda. “He imprinted me with a vast amount of information and operational protocol – a great deal of which I can access only under very specific conditions – but there’s no active link. That’s what makes us individuals; if you permanently linked two SIs, our personas would inevitably merge with one another.”

Rachel blinked. “SI?”

“Synthetic Intelligence,” Miranda said. “ADAM says it’s more accurate than ‘Artificial’. Ah,” she added, “that set off one of his data triggers. He says to tell you he’s erased one of the books you gave him – and that velveteen rabbits are just as real as the live kind.”

Dr. Remov let out a burst of laughter. “A palpable hit. If I may, however – what message, if any, did ADAM have for us regarding the research notes Dr. Melisande Phillips left behind?”

Miranda’s holographic expression took on a grave note. “That question has a number of responses, many of which involve additional activating conditions. However, I may tell you three things to begin.

“First. There was no sabotage. The conclusion reached by the initial investigation is precisely accurate: Dr. Phillips produced a contained dimensional-field phenomenon, but an accident caused a breach in the containment mechanism. I am also allowed to say that she was not working on a spacecraft propulsion system.

“Second. Dr. Remov, to resolve one of your questions: Melisande Phillips was, in fact, working on the project in question under the auspices of Swift Enterprises. Swift, however, does not presently possess any records, secret or otherwise, documenting this association, and no individual currently associated with Swift possesses direct knowledge of the project.

“Third. I have a personal message from ADAM for Rachel and Roger, for which I have been given no additional context. The message is as follows.

“There is such a thing as a tesseract.”

# # #