Multiplicity is only apparent. In truth, there is only one mind.- Erwin Schroedinger
Separation of the observer from the phenomenon to be observed is no longer possible.- Werner Heisenberg
Li tells herself that she's accepted the AI's invitation to a post-mission dinner because she's got nothing else to do in the Ring until her next deployment. It doesn't help that she can hear General Nguyen's voice in the back of her head telling her to play nice with Cohen. Li is not very interested in playing nice, not after the entire week-long mission with Cohen on shunt next to her. He was too charming to be pleasant and too competent to ignore, transforming Baker's familiar stolid gestures into an easy fluidity that should have looked incongruous on a two-hundred pound Peacekeeper. That Cohen hadn't seemed ridiculous at all, shunting through Baker – Li thinks that might annoy her as much as how good his work was.
Their reservations are in the Zona Angel, a district she's never had reason – or ready credit – enough to go to before. Even in streamspace, Li finds it ostentatious in its enormous quietude: perfect, exquisite mansions – French, nineteenth century, her oracle tells her when she looks at one, and then Japanese, Meiji era for the next – most of them empty, their owners somewhere on the Ring, or out on Alba, or unbodied entirely. One of these is Cohen's, Li knows. It still puzzles her why an Emergent AI would want to keep a house, even one that should be a museum, surrounded by other museums.
The restaurant is new construction, a virufacted gossamer web of gold strands that form crystalline angles and approximate the shape of a building. Li decides not to feel underdressed in either her uniform or the broad planes of her construct's face; the AI invited her, the AI is going to get what he invited.
He's waiting for her just inside.
Li hasn't seen the woman he's shunting through before. She's of middling height, delicate but not fragile, large bones prominent under her skin at her collar and wrists, and she is wearing a silk suit the color of rusting copper, cut close to her body. The effect is completely breathtaking, and Li resents it immediately – both her response and how sure she is that Cohen knew what her response would be.
"Catherine," the vision says, and that's Cohen, unmistakable even wrapped in the flesh of some beautiful woman – ironic, inclined, as if all of this human interaction was some sort of entertainment. He even moves the same, coming to shake her hand.
Li nods to him, and keeps all of her trained formal politeness up on her face where he can see it and know it for the front it is. "Cohen. This is a very nice place. Thank you."
"This is more than a very nice place," Cohen laughs, "but I appreciate that you noticed. Shall we go sit down?"
"Sure." Li follows him. The interior is cream, the walls glowing paper-smooth, the tablecloths edged in gold -- organza, says her oracle, and she represses a shudder at the sheer sensory assault of this place. The tableware is black and made of something she thinks is actual wood, and the waiter holds both of their chairs for them. Cohen settles into his with extravagant grace. In this woman, he seems like he's supposed to be part of the décor.
If Cohen wants her to look awestruck, he is going to have to deal with being disappointed.
"Do they serve food here or only ambience?" she asks him.
He grins, spitfire-quick. "Mostly ambience. But I wouldn't have taken you anywhere where the food wasn't worth your time."
She doesn't laugh, but he can probably tell that she had the impulse to. "Why did you invite me at all? I was under the impression that you were almost as tired of dealing with me as I am dealing with you."
"Oh, I am," Cohen says, smiles someone else's brilliantine smile. Li wonders if this woman's eyes are so intense when she isn't being ridden by an Emergent old enough and large enough to count as a multi-planetary corporation in his own right. "But you drove me absolutely crazy, and hardly anyone does that to such an impressive degree, so I thought I should apologize."
"This is an apology."
"Yes." He gestures to the plate of tiny golden pastries the waiter has placed in the middle of the table. "Have one. They have real figs in them."
"You could have actually apologized instead," Li says, and puts one in her mouth. The flaky layers of pastry crackle and then there is a burst of tart-salt cheese and darkly sweet fig. It is too good.
"I'm enjoying this more."
"Having me eat things I don't know the names for and wearing the body of some girl whose entire function is matching the restaurant you picked?"
"Watching you not be cowed by either of those things," Cohen retorts, and pops one of the pastries past the woman's pale, full lips. "Oh, those are as good as I remembered."
Li settles her elbows on the table and doesn't drop his gaze when he looks right at her. "I'm honestly curious. Why do you bother with all of this?"
"All of what, Catherine?"
"Pretending to be human," she says, and it is very satisfying to finally say it after holding her tongue like the good Peacekeeper she is through the whole mission. "Playing at being something that likes exotic food and real wood forks and dressing your bodies up like this one. You're what, two hundred years old?"
"Closer to four," Cohen breathes, and he's still smiling. Li doesn't shiver. He's older than the Embargo.
"Four hundred years old," she goes on, "eighty or so AIs twined together, you code better than anything human ever could, you're buried in Emergent politics – "
"Oh, you've been looking me up."
"It's not like you aren't obvious to anyone who looks for you in streamspace."
"In a certain sense I am streamspace," Cohen says. It is an implausibly arrogant statement and Li is relatively sure it might be true.
"All the more reason not to playact humanity."
The way Cohen looks at her now feels like the weight of something nova-huge, focusing down. "I'm not playacting, Catherine."
"You," Li says, "are a dilettante."
"You," Catherine says, "are a dilettante," and Cohen is actually angry, brightly so, enough that Chiara's heartbeat speeds up and her hands tremble just enough for him to feel – and maybe for Catherine's internals to spot, the UN military does work that good, so he puts them down on the rich pile of the tablecloth and leaves them there.
"And you," he says, "are an impertinent primate."
Catherine, who has not once in this entire time flinched, and who persists in treating him as if he was something both comprehensible and frustrating, laughs at him. "Isn't that speciesist?" she asks. She's quoting him. He said that in an interview on Alba a month ago, with that same little upward inflection of disdain.
"I should ask you the same question," he tells her. "What makes you think an Emergent can't want to enjoy experience?"
She stops long enough to show him she's thinking about it. The ambience of the light turns the planes of her face into solid, glowing bronze. If he listens he can hear the drag of her respiration, slower than Chiara's, her part-construct body using more of the air, better. It occurs to Cohen that compared to him, she is a far more efficient machine.
"You can want whatever you like," she says. "But this," she doesn't wave her hand at the restaurant, she makes one clean, sharp gesture, precise and unwasted, "is indulgence in human luxury. And I'm not impressed."
"I hardly patronize this restaurant to impress UN Peacekeepers."
Catherine doesn't smile, and Cohen wishes she would – is abruptly intrigued by how much he wishes she would. "Why do you come here? Not why you brought me here."
For something that can make more than a billion computations per second, Cohen chides himself, he's hesitating far too long.
"I like remembering," he says, finally, and discovers only as Chiara's perfect mouth shapes the words that he not only means them, but hopes Catherine understands.
"The imperfections in the universe," he clarifies. "I've been human. Once. And I've lived human lives. Been in love, gotten married. Watched humans remake themselves and destroy themselves and remake themselves again into something different. I don't always remember it precisely and I'd like to. And now you know more about me than you can get from research in streamspace, even if your oracle is as good as I think it is."
He'll have to apologize to Chiara for the aftereffects of an adrenaline spike. Her mouth is dry and there are tiny shivers sliding down her spine, and if he tried to stand up she might have difficulty for a moment.
Catherine is watching him, not quite clinical. Closer to interested. It's hard to tell. He wants to dip into her internals and find out how she's reacting, physically, emotionally. He doesn't. Yet. There are imperfections.
"I think I accept your apology," is what she says to him.
Cohen, entirely despite himself, laughs. Chiara's laugh is an exquisite thing, light and warm.
Catherine's is neither.
Cohen smiles anyway.