Tuesday, September 30, 2014


I didn't see Mephistopheles coming. More than half of my brain had been fried during my battle with Raymond. The difference was barely perceptible to a human (I was so far beyond them that an extra factor of two didn't make much of a difference), but it did mean that I had dropped many auxiliary functions, when the parts of the brain responsible for doing them (and remembering to do them) had been destroyed. Those tasks included keeping up with Serbian election polls, reworking all of Russian Wikipedia, running through the Hubble Space telescope's data to find evidence of hydrocarbons falling into black holes, writing an awesome theme song for everything I saw, and making sure nobody nobody was flying towards my country. Guess which one of those proved to be a major problem.
I first saw him through a mansion security camera. Most of the cameras had been destroyed by my battle with Raymond,  but I still caught a glimpse of him. It was a simple matter to enhance the image. I saw him carrying Vera. She didn't look well. He had flown her across an ocean, through the upper atmosphere, with only minimal shielding. That is not good for a person.
And I saw her hands. He flesh shorn off. How did that happen? Some sort of torture? Unlikely. Most likely the result of repeated blunt trauma. She was trying to punch her way out of a cell. Was that her own idea? No. Cognis. He figured it would either result in her being freed or killed. Either way, she couldn't be used as a hostage. Well, my dear arch-nemesis, I don't need you to kill my former girlfriends to save me the emotional trouble of watching them die. Because I am perfectly capable of saving them myself.
It seemed that he had paralyzed her endoskeleton. That was pretty impressive. There was a chance that he had managed to completely subvert the endoskeleton's programming. Or that he had made her swallow explosives. Or any one of a dozen ways of killing her that I couldn't possibly remove.
So what could I do? If I got closer, I could scan to see what sort of measures Mephistopheles had taken. And then what? Well, most likely any booby traps would be remote controlled. Most likely with a range of less than a hundred meters. Could she be teleported out of range faster than Mephistopheles could react? I was still working out the details when Mephistopheles touched down. He punched down the door.
"You know," I said, "I have doorbells so resilient they survived a nuclear blast. You should try it." I scanned Vera. Her endoskeleton did not appear to have a kill switch. I detected a small explosive placed in one of her molars and... nothing else. Could it be removed? The only way I could think to do that was gunshot. Was that feasible? Of course not. Oh, maybe I could have a small machine teleport in. Much better than some race against time scenario. I gave Noetron instructions.
"Phoenix, I have come to accept your unconditional surrender."
"Sorry, my enhanced cyborg ears must have made a mistake. Or maybe a bit was flipped in my skull. It sounded like you thought I was going to surrender to you." Supervillain banter. A well-loved way to waste time while you assess the other guy's defenses. Good thing I could multitask far better than my merely human opponent.
Mephistopheles remembered he was dealing with a fellow genius. One whose cyborg intellect was, at least for the moment, far beyond his. So he hit me. A gigantic black tentacle flung me into the air. On the way down I considered my options. Was I willing to sacrifice Vera for an upper hand in this fight? Yes. But was I willing to put myself at a momentary disadvantage (it would take another three minutes to save her) in order to preserve her life? Three minutes was a long time in a life-or-death battle with a supervillain.
I decided to make a tactical retreat. I opened my wings and blasted away. I was faster than him. But I needed to keep him near my laboratory so the microbots could save Vera. Or- better idea- I could move the fight to a different location and then come back. The travel couldn't be good for Vera, but so what? I had just been crippled by an extremely localized nuclear war. She could take some uncomfortable flight.

The best place to fight Mephistopheles was over water. His tentacle material only barely floated, so he would either need to extend tendrils all the way to the bottom or create a truly impressive volume. I moved slowly enough for him to follow me, and positioned myself above the Baltic. I ran diagnostics. How prepared was I for a fight?
Not at all. My magnetic monopole muscles were barely functioning. Ditto with the onboard lasers. But the fibers in my flesh were largely intact, so I was still resistant to some pretty intense harm. Even if I just stood there, it would take Mephistopheles close to two hours to beat me to death (based on what I knew about the strength of his hits and his likely strategy). This was going to take some time.
This meant two things. First, Vera stood a good chance of surviving this. Second, I should try and call for help.
Help would either mean the heroes or Genesis. I attempted to contact both while I waited for Mephistopheles.
Both were pretty implacable 'no's. The heroes were all worked up over the opportunity to rescue Cognis, and Genesis didn't want to risk the sanctity of his garden. I considered turning my offers into threats, but that sort of thing can get dangerous, and the last thing I needed was a two-front war.
What other defenses did I have? Noetron and I had prepared some weapons. But many of them had been destroyed in my battle with Ray. Most of the rest wouldn't have been any good against someone like Mephistopheles regardless.
I saw the black monster approaching. He had created an inky boat, and was propelling it towards me. Slow, but clever. No doubt he was filling the boat with those duplicates he could create. I thought of a few tactics to deal with that sort of thing.
I checked with robots at the mansion. He had left Vera there, paralyzed. Saving her would be cake, unless there was something I was missing. Which meant there probably was.
Mephistopheles was getting close. I pulled something out of my pocket- a nickel given to me as change during my last trip to the States, and threw it as hard as I could. It went through three of Mephistopheles' clones. If only the real one was that easy.

Saturday, September 27, 2014


Centurion did not feel proud of himself. He had been created to protect the New Archivist and Lucy. He was a failure. His greatest accomplishment had been stopping a poisoning only slightly too late. And now, he was guarding the New Archivist's quarters while she visited the Fortarian Imperial Library. Apparently, machines like him weren't allowed in such sacred halls.
He heard a cracking sound. What was it? A bomb? Some new cosmic being sauntering in to visit his charge, completely disregarding any mortal robots who might get in the way?
He searched for the source of the noise. He found it scurrying around on four robotic legs.
"Who are you," he asked the strange machine in front of him. He normally would have attacked first and asked questions later, but after Alexander Star he felt nervous about assaulting unknown beings in the New Archivist's quarters.
"I am Noetron."
"Phoenix's machine?"
"Yes. Where is the New Archivist."
"I'm not sure I should tell you."
"It is imperative that I speak with Lucy immediately," Noetron said. He didn't mention that before speaking to her he was going to kidnap her and bring her to Earth where Phoenix could forever destroy the New Archivist.
"You want to talk to Lucy?"
"Yes." Noetron was incapable of impatience. He could repeat himself all day. Besides, he was occupied with plenty of other tasks. Like trying to establish communication with Phoenix so that he could communicate all that he learned pillaging the Archives.
"So, you don't know?"
"I don't know what?"
"Lucy is gone. She died. There is just the New Archivist now."
Noetron was so taken aback, he spent a tenth of a second processing the information. Then, he demanded more. "Give me more details."
Centurion explain how Lucy had been poisoned, and subsequently plunged into molten metal. How the damage had destroyed her brain, and how she couldn't survive without constant access to the New Archivist's powers.
Noetron switched off all extraneous functions. There was no need to make pleasant conversation with this dullard machine. No reason to try to calculate Acme's response to a small spacecraft teleporting away from the Archives. No need to sift through the scientific information gathered in the ancient alien halls. There were only two things that mattered: figuring out had happened to Lucy, and telling Phoenix about it.
Noetron got through to Phoenix first. The mad scientist had created several channels with which to receive information from his machines, but there seemed to have been a great deal of violence in Estveria, and it took time for Phoenix to register the signal.

As soon as I heard from Noetron, I dropped everything. This was more important than mourning Justin King. This was more important than saving Vera. I did what I did best. I thought. I thought with more depth and brainpower and background knowledge than one could expect from ten thousand human brains working in parallel. It took a lot out of me, but within a minute I had deduced what had happened.

Noetron received a response startlingly quickly. He wondered how an essentially human mind could process information so quickly. Perhaps it was the main Noetron, the larger copy Phoenix had kept on Earth, that had done the heavy thinking.
The response included a detailed analysis of everything Noetron had determined about Lucy's brain. It showed that, with ninety-nine point nine four percent confidence, the chain of events Phoenix had witnessed were not consistent with this new information on Lucy's hardware. That suggested the New Archivist was lying. That Lucy was alive and the alien goddess was trying to repress her.
Noetron explained this to the Centurion (as Phoenix had instructed him to do). The science went over the warrior's head (to be fair, it was a little advanced even for Noetron), but the alien machine seemed to get the gist. "I should go confront her," he said.
"Yes," Noetron said. Yes, Noetron thought. As Phoenix had predicted, the robot was going to try to guilt the New Archivist into releasing Lucy. This was more likely to work coming from a familiar shapeshifting face like Centurion's than coming from Noetron, the robotic servant of Lucy's protector.

One thing nobody had accounted for when coming up with this plan was the sheer obstinacy of the Fortarians when it came to letting robots into their Library. "It's important," Centurion said.
"What?" The Fortarian hadn't been paying attention.
"You need to let me in."
"I can't. You're a robot."
"It's a matter of life or death."
"You're a robot."
"This is extremely important."
"I'm confused."
"By what?"
"Aren't you a robot?" Even by Fortarian standards, this particular guard was a bit on the slow side.
Eventually, Centurion left. A minute or so later, a Fortarian showed up. "Can I come in? It's important."
"Can I come in?"
"Oh, sure."
And with that, Centurion was inside.

"Is the alive," Centurion demanded.
The New Archivist turned to look at the intruder. "Who?" She had a feeling she knew the answer.
"I don't know what you're talking about." Those who travel the galaxy preserving truth tend to be bad liars.
"If you take off your diadem, will I find a living talking girl?"
"I... I think I made it clear that she was dead."
Centurion's hand shot forward at incredible speed. He grabbed the diadem.
He was paralyzed before he could pull it off. Power crackled through the New Archivist. "I could melt you into slag. Turn you into plasma."
"Then you would be responsible for taking two lives."
Most people don't like killing. I know I don't. It is really hard to kill someone, and even harder when they are pointing out what you are doing. You know how the villains in movies always sneer at how the heroes don't have the courage to kill them? That's because the bad guys have killed before and they know just how hard it is.
The New Archivist couldn't do it. She couldn't take the Centurion's life in cold blood (or boiling blood, as the case may be). She let him go.
"Give me the diadem," he said. "Let Lucy go."
The New Archivist was wracked with guilt, over trying to kill both Lucy and Centurion. Even with the stabilizing influence of a billion year's of knowledge, she still wasn't in top decision-making mood. So she gave in. She took off the diadem.
This turned out not be a good move. Because Lucy wasn't nearly as capable of fending off a horde of Fortarians trying to steal the New Archives.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Belly of the Beast

Vera thrust her hand into solid concrete. Her body shook with the impact. A loose bit of flesh fell to the ground. Vera pulled out the gleaming metal skeleton that was her left, and thrust it forward again. She had tried to spare her right hand. The pulverized flesh still clung to the metallic bone, and Cognis said that proper medical attention could restore it.
Cognis... The one who had made her do this. The one who had sat around while she tore her body to shreds trying to free them both. Why shouldn't he take a turn trying to punch through solid concrete?
She turned to look at him. He looked at her. "Is something the matter?"
"Yes, something's the matter! I lost my hands while you sat there doing nothing."
"I am sorry that you needed to lose the flesh on your hands. I do have some ideas for skin and muscle grafts that could remedy the damage."
"Would they work?"
"Probably not."
Vera's eyes narrowed. "Give me one good reason not to kill you right now."
"Murder is wrong."
Vera couldn't think of a retort to that. It's a pretty hard line of reasoning to argue with. "Why don't you give this a try? Why don't you pummel your own hands until they're bleeding lumps of dead flesh?"
"It wouldn't accomplish anything. You are our only hope."
Just like that, all of Vera's anger turned to sadness. She started to cry. "This is all my fault. I shouldn't have come here. Phoenix told me to stay away from Mephistopheles. I should have listened."
Cognis saw what was going on. When an evil maniac from another dimensions holds you captive, and you destroy your hands trying to escape, and you look back on your life, you'll probably come up with a lot of mistakes. He tried to comfort her. "You were taking a risk, trying to stop a villain. Similar to what I do. Similar to what all heroes do."
Vera ignored him. "I never should have left Phoenix. He was a great man. And I left him for no reason."
"You made your decision. I will not comment on whether it was the right one." Phoenix was no great man. Vera was suffering from mild depression. Most likely brought on by the physical and emotional pain of the last few days. It would be best to get this process over with. "You are almost done. We just need you to get through a few more inches of material, and we'll start to see the outside."
Vera hadn't seen the outside in days. The idea of even a glimpse of sunlight was appealing. She stood up, and wiped the tears off her face. She walked over to the wall, and punched it with all of her inhuman strength.
Cognis wasn't surprised. Motivating people, bringing out their best, convincing them to work hard to help themselves and others. That was what he did. That was why the United Heroes existed. That was why he spent so much time talking to the rich and powerful.
But Cognis worked most of all to bring out the good in himself. He forced himself to work countless hours to help others.He had no personal life, no real friends. Just allies in the never-ending battle for the good of humanity.
Here in this cage, it was tempting to get distracted. To spend time getting acquainted with Vera. But he couldn't afford it. He was working out solutions to a dozen of the world's problems. He was thinking of new scientific inventions to improve the state of the environment. Designing new cars, new planes, even new types of clothing. A minutes's thought could save the lives of dozens down the road. What right did he have to spend a minute on idle conversation?
Cognis realized he had just spent several seconds on introspection. He got back to work thinking about the thermohaline cycle in the North Atlantic.

Cognis didn't get very far in his thoughts. He was interrupted by a black-clad figure. "Sorry if I'm interrupting an escape attempt, but I'm going to need your help."
Cognis tried to figure out what was going on. Mephistopheles had addressed Vera. He most likely needed her as bait in some trap for Phoenix. He might want to remove her skeleton and reverse engineer the technology. But that would kill her, wasting a valuable hostage. There was a chance she would be used as a human shield in a confrontation. Most likely, shit was about to go down.
"Here or there," he asked.
Mephistopheles studiously avoided him. He was probably afraid Cognis would pump him for information and then find a way to turn the tables. Which he would.
"I'm guessing there. It's what, ten o'clock here? You wouldn't want to fight him in the middle of a workday." It was a deliberate show of deductive strength. Designed to throw Mephistopheles off balance. "Of course, when you're there, you won't have the element of surprise. Phoenix will sense you coming hours in advanced." Cognis thought. "Unless, of course, you have some sort of distraction for him. Something that could weaken him enough to keep him occupied. Maybe some powerhouse with Demented's Disease?" Cognis had to be careful he wasn't giving Mephistopheles any new ideas. He couldn't read the villain's mind (dark tendrils in the brain interfered with psionics), but he could get a general impression of how the monster's mind worked. "Better hurry," the hero said, "I estimate Phoenix's new form can fully repair itself in under eight hours."
Mephistopheles made a dignified retreat, Vera in tow. Cognis permitted himself a rare smile.

Saturday, September 20, 2014


I had lost Rosa to cancer. I had lost Lucy to poison. I wasn't going to lose Vera to a bullet. I was working on tools to deal with human injuries. Substances to clot blood in a millisecond. Prosthetic arms that could fuse with the nervous system. Prosthetic spinal cords, even.
I also needed machines that could extract Vera. Miles away, Noetron was constructing a teleporting robotic warrior.
Was there a way I could give myself those same abilities? Teleportation could be useful. I roughed out a design. No. There were more improvements to make first. I wanted to be able to grab a portion of a building and teleport it away to make a hole. Time to research that.
I reversed-engineered the shards of Acme I had recovered several months ago. Their molecular structure gave hints as to how Acme synthesized them so quickly. I stored the information away for future use. In the extremely near future.
I also worked out several great philosophical enigmas. As a human, I had considered the subject a shambles, a poor reflection of science and mathematics. And I was right. Human brains were evolved to run and jump and take stock of their possessions and observe their surroundings. Those skills made them passable mathematicians, but their brains had no apparatus to think about deeper meanings for the universe. My brain did.
Of course, you can only take so much solace in a theory of meaning that you developed in five minutes with less than  tenth of your brain.

I sensed Raymond's approach. I heard the tremors of his footsteps, his heartbeat. His hair growing. I saw him through hidden cameras. I felt his radiation signature, I could almost make out his body heat. I communicated with the elevator that brought him down into my laboratory.
He entered the room. I could feel his heart pumping, smell the sweat. I sensed the chemical balance in his brain. He was going to try to confront me about something.
"Phoenix," he said, "we need to talk." The tone of his voice only served to confirm my expectations. It wasn't about the poker game. That wouldn't give rise to that level of anger. I had killed a lot of people, but there was no reason he would suddenly be getting confrontational about it. Something to do with his deceased family?
"About what?"
"About the thing you are becoming." Interesting. He was angry about my ascension to cyborgdom. I quickly planned out a few possible paths of conversation.
"Why does my being a cyborg make you uncomfortable?"
"Because it's making you lose touch with who you are." Not one of the responses I had planned. My conversation engines would need to get more powerful. Easy enough to backtest using the thousands of conversations stored in my memory.
"It is who I am." I began working on new models of conversation trees.
"No, it's not. I knew you before this whole cyborg thing toke over your life." He was winding down. It is hard to maintain anger against someone who remains perfectly calm.
"When you first met me, I had not yet realized my full potential."
Apparently, that was the wrong thing to say. I really needed to work out a general theory of human emotion. I made it number eight on the to-do list, and tasked a section of my mind with the problem. "Full potential? You think you're better than you were. You think you're better than us!"
Of course I'm better than you! "I am different from you."
Raymond let loose a torrent of electromagnetic energy. It drowned out all communication on radio and microwave frequencies. I couldn't hear the steady stream of Noetron's reports.
"I don't trust what you say. I want Noetron to explain it to me. What is your plan?"
This could be nasty. My very unreliable models were predicting a twelve percent chance of violence. Raymond had powerful offensive capabilities; his blasts could be comparable to nuclear strikes. But he was just as vulnerable to a supersonic punch as any normal human.
No, that wasn't an option. First of all, it would kill him. Second, he contained enough energy inside him to vaporize my home, and many of the surrounding neighborhoods. I calculated that close to eight hundred people would die, and that my research would be set back two weeks. Unacceptable.
"Noetron, tell him what he wants to know."
"Phoenix is in the midst of several plans."
"What is his plan for us? For humans?"
"Phoenix believes that humans are primitive and inefficient. He is working to develop cybernetic implants to help you realize your full potential. He estimates that some ninety percent of the human race will willingly take on those powers. The rest will need to be coerced."
"You are going to force people to become robots."
"Cyborgs, yes."
"You can't do that to people!"
I didn't trust Noetron to field this question. "I'm helping people. Helping them see things they never could have seen, do things they never could have done."
"What if all they wanted was to live with the people they love?"
"Then they can do that too. Cyborgs can experience love just as deeply as humans." Even deeper, if we choose. Or shallower, if we gradually dial down our emotions, thinking them useless distractions. Nobody said the cyborg condition didn't need beta testers.
"You're just machines."
Noetron spoke before I could respond. "Humans are also machines. They are complex nanotechnological constructs capable of repair, replication, and intelligence."
"We aren't machines. Humans have souls. Unlike either of you. Tin cans."
Ad hominem attacks. Or ad cyborgium attacks. "And what about the addition of cybernetic components destroys the soul?" This was the wrong move. I should have moved to a subject less likely to make Raymond angry.
The human let out a wave of radiation. Destroyed most of my optical sensors. Visual information flow decreased by ninety-seven percent. My eyes were now only slightly better than those of a hawk. Raymond advanced towards me. "You think you know anything about souls. You robot! You machine!" Another blast of radiation crippled a wing.
He was mad. Sixty percent chance of physical confrontation mad. Seventy. I gave up, the fight was going to happen. I needed to be prepared. I couldn't communicate with Noetron via radio. But I needed the machine's help.
I spoke out loud. "Noetron, I will give you several thousand hours of instruction in-several-seconds-solistencarefullyIneedyoutoassembletheteleportingrobtndsndthrmlsrtdgsdadfniadsuogmkafnhscgnoasdgj dslkfhadsnofsldfchndaajklgqnjasdmfpoasdgoanglsdugmklajg"
"What did you just tell him to do?"
"I merely gave him some device for completing a project of ours."
"The destruction of the human race?" Another wave of radiation. I almost fell over. Nearly every bit of equipment in my lab was rendered unusable. But I couldn't risk attacking him. Not with the destructive power he had bottled up inside him.
"No. Something completely unrelated."
"Don't lie." Raymond blasted me with his power. I lost four percent of my brain. I wanted to kill him. What would you do to a lower form of life tearing your body and mind apart?
No, that was how humans treated insects. We cyborgs held ourselves to a higher standard. Wait, did we? I never held myself to a high standard as a human. Was it something about being the sole member of the next evolution of sentient life? Was I growing into my new responsibility? Was it because Raymond had been my friend? My pet? No, my friend. And I couldn't treat humans as animals because I had once been one. Humans weren't like cyborg pets. They were cyborg children. The future of the future. They should be killed only with extreme prejudice.
"Tell me what you are doing!" Raymond touched me. He burned straight through my cloak. My skin began to blister. I lightly pushed him away. He slammed into a wall.
Raymond charged at me. That was stupid of him. He had ranged attacks. I lifted up a table, and used it to swat him aside. The table would block about a third of all radiation. At least until it melted.
A condensed stream of radiation cut the table in half. He sliced across my stomach as I backed away.
I couldn't feel my legs. I had four data trunks that functioned like spinal cords, and three of them were damaged. It took my a half of a second to regain control of my legs. In that time, I had fallen onto the ground.
"I don't want to hurt you," Raymond said, his body glowing with deadly power, "but you left me no choice."
"I didn't want to hurt you either." A machine materialized behind him, grabbed him, and teleported away. It teleported straight upwards, again and again and again, covering almost a kilometer in the first second. Raymond realized what was happening at 1.4 kilometers. He detonated at 2.6.

Almost nobody had been hurt by the blast. Air at such altitude hardly transmits shockwaves, and there wasn't enough radioactive material generated to be a major threat. The casualties had come earlier. From my duel with Raymond beneath the Earth. The energy released had been too much for Justin to take. His genome had been torn to shreds by ionizing radiation. I estimated he had four hours left to live.
Not enough time to save him. I honored him in the only way I could. As I repaired myself from the damaged I had sustained, I sat near him, leafing through his hippocampus. Trying to understand what it had meant to be Justin King.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Five-Card Draw

Cyborgs are good at poker. Really good. We can calculate probabilities in our heads, and count cards with ease. We have perfect poker faces. Our enhanced senses make bluffs transparent. With a little work, we can determine your cards from across a room. Justin calls this 'cheating.'
After two disastrous (if very short) games, a compromise was reached. I could cheat as much as I wanted. But I couldn't cheat the same way twice. In return, I needed to display at least one tell (the same tell throughout the game) and I started out with half as much money.

It was a high-stakes hand. Justin had thrown in fifty bucks. I didn't know his cards.
I was running low on tricks. I had already analyzed all of Justin and Raymond's tells. I had seen the faint reflections of cards in Justin's glasses. Smelt Raymond's excitement. Felt Justin's nervousness in his heartbeat. I had analyzed microscopic scratches on the backs of cards. I had kept track of every card, even as they were shuffled. I had analyzed Raymond's eye movements as he looked over his cards, and determined that he had a pocket pair.
But I still had a few arrows left in my quiver. I had been saving up the obvious route of facial expressions. I could look at the cards in other regions of the electromagnetic spectrum (they are slightly transparent to ultraviolet and microwave rays). I could analyze how Raymond's emission varied depending on his cards. I could use the cards' own natural radioisotope distributions. I could use my nanofiber tentacles to read a human's brain chemistry.
I Thought Fast. I currently held three hundred of the five hundred dollars. There were now close to one hundred in the pot. If I could win this, it was all over. I had a pair of jacks. Justin's previous history showed that he was an aggressive bluffer.  But fifty dollars was a lot of money. I took a peak in the microwave spectrum.
"I fold."
"I fold too," Raymond said.
"Did you fold because you wanted to or because Phoenix did?"
"There was a lot of money in the pot."
Justin muttered something about cyborgs. I heard it of course, but decided not to respond.

"So," Raymond said, "make any interesting discoveries today?"
"Ha. He spent the day doing cartwheels and somersaults."
Raymond was interesting. He was constantly suppressing enough nuclear power to level a town. Yet he tended to believe in people. "I'm sure he was busy trying to save Vera."
"Actually, you're both right. I was trying to make myself more agile. I wrote a few million lines of code, an agility engine, if you will. But I needed to debug and optimize it, so I ran it for a few hours. While my physics body was doing that, I was creating a plan to save Vera." Even as I played poker, even as I engaged two people in conversation, the majority of my brain was focused on my laboratory, guiding Noetron as he created a prototype of a teleporting robot. I already knew where Mephistopheles was. The goal was to extract Vera without him noticing.
"And explain the nosebleeds," Justin said.
"Me re-configuring some body parts. My sense of smell is better. My stomach is way more efficient. My lungs are half the size and ten times more powerful. A few other modifications. Making room for some new hardware."
"Like what?"
"Like additional power units. Like small robots capable of separating from my body. Like a laser system. Like the tissues that give Flashpoint, Concept, and Raymond their powers."
Both humans looked somewhat shocked. They pondered me in silence, in awe and fear. I cranked out a design for a teleporting assault robot, a better supersonic jet, a cool particle accelerator, and a machine to make brownies more efficiently than a human cook. I also proved a theorem in abstract algebra, designed an interesting physics experiment, and showed that the problem of calibrating a teleporting robot was NP-complete. I worked out a theorem about geodesics in curved five-dimensional space. It's a lot easier if you can visualize it. I checked my growing to-do list of machines to build and experiments to conduct. Eight million entries. Noetron was going to need an upgrade. I sketched out a rough design.
Finally, the slow seconds of silence came to a close. "Ante up," Justin said. The game continued.

As I listening for the sound of Raymond's nervous system, I thought about Lucy. Was she really dead? Was the New Archivist faking it?
Somewhere, a copy of Noetron was working to liberate her. But how could I liberate her if she was already gone?
No, she wasn't gone. You don't get to be called the Archivist without storing backups. Somewhere, there was some sort of copy of Lucy. I could separate the New Archivist from her diadem, undo the damage to her brain, and reinsert Lucy's mind.
Actually, that was impossible. The New Archivist was powerful. If she wanted to stay on the Fortarian ship, I wasn't getting her off by brute force.
Deception wasn't a likely method. Tricking her into removing the diadem would be impossible.
I heard it. Raymond buzzed with excitement. Literally, his nerves tingled. That could mean any number of things. I tried to locate the source of buzzing. The frequency. Quantitative information that could help me win the game. Ah, there it was.
"I'll raise you twenty."
"Dammit! I fold." Raymond looked pensive for a moment. "Is there some sort of camera in my clothing?"
"Are you accusing me of cheating or looking at your private parts?" Of course, I could see his private parts. I could see all of his parts. But I didn't need cameras in his pants to do it.
"The first one."
"No. The coat is just a lead-based compound designed to absorb the bulk of your radiation."
"Isn't lead poisonous."
"Not in that form. Trust me, I have a Nobel Prize in Chemistry."
"You know," Justin said, "stealing a medal from the rightful owner doesn't make you a Laureate."
"I am the rightful owner. I did that research three years before he did, for one of my senior theses."
"You know," Justin said, "I think I remember that. You locked yourself in our room."
"I did that a lot. You could be a distraction."
"I sure can."
Raymond interjected. "There's something I've been meaning to ask about your college experience. Did you ever meet Dr. Carnage?"
"Yes. We were Putnam fellows the same year."
Raymond looked at me.
"We did the same math competition."
"And you didn't... he didn't seem weird?"
"He was clearly a psychopathic sadist with an unhealthy interest in the nature of the human body." I paused. "I just assumed he'd become a dentist."
"So, you can't tell who will become a murderer."
"I never suspected Phoenix," Justin said. "And I lived with him."
Another uncomfortable silence. I roughed out an analysis of Demented's Disease. I had a vague idea of how the virus was a quantum superposition of various nanobots.
No, not a quantum superposition. The other versions of the virus interacted, through forces mediated by compact extra dimensions. It made my brain hurt. Both the main brain in my head and the second, smaller one I was growing in my abdomen.

Justin was already out. Raymond had about forty dollars left, after a round of aggressive raising. I examined the patterns of fingerprints on the backs of his cards. He had nothing. I threw in five bucks. "You have a jack high." He folded.
Four rounds later, antes had forced him out of the game. A great triumph for every member of the cyborg race. Which, admittedly, was just me.
"Nice job," Raymond said.
"It will be harder next time. I used up all the obvious tricks." I realized my mistake. "If I win at all. You played a hell of a game."
We went our separate ways.

That night, I made a mistake. I had two humans under my care. And I was negligent. It is impossible for humans to police each other's every action (unless they are the NSA), but it is easy for a cyborg. I could have allocated less than a percent of my brain to keeping Raymond and Justin out of trouble, and I could have saved them. But I didn't.
Why? Perhaps it was some misplaced trust in humans. Maybe it was sheer laziness. Either way, there was nobody, not me, not Noetron, watching Raymond as he accessed the internet.
Nobody watched as someone called 'futurist' chatted him.
futurist: Hello, Raymond.
RayHark123: Who are you?
futurist: You live with Phoenix.
RayHark123: None of yoru business.
RayHark123: *your
futurist: It is everyone's business.
futurist: Phoenix is a threat.
RayHark123: he's helped a lot of people.
futurist: He has hurt a lot of people.
RayHark123: He helped me.
futurist: He isn't human. It isn't human.
RayHark123: he is
futurist: It is a cyborg. A glorified machine.
RayHark123: so
futurist: You have seen what one cyborg can do. What will you do when it starts to assimilate the rest of us? How long until there aren't any humans left?

Raymond wasn't stupid. He knew better than to let a stranger on the internet shape his worldview. But futurist was persuasive. futurist persuaded him that I was a threat to humankind. And futurist persuaded him to act.  

Saturday, September 13, 2014


Vera was pushed into a standard cell. Maybe fifteen feet on a side. What wasn't standard was the cell's other occupant.
Professor Cognis. The telepath. The world's greatest genius, and leading superhero."Vera Rapport," he said. "I wasn't expecting you so soon."
"You knew I'd be here?"
"Mephistopheles would want you as a bargaining chip in his struggle against Phoenix."
"You didn't see? Mephistopheles is Phoenix."
"No he isn't."
"I think I'd know. His haircut was different, but it was definitely him."
"It was Vafnir. The alternate version of him from Earth Beta."
"I thought Phoenix killed him."
"I thought so as well. Evidently, we were misled." Cognis seemed distracted. Vera had heard he was always like that, constantly juggling scenarios, solving problems.
"Anyways, how did you know I'd go after Mephistopheles?"
"That much was obvious. Slightly less obvious was that Mephistopheles would enable you to find him, and stop Phoenix from stopping you. For instance, he provided the plane that brought you here, and deliberately made it easy for you to track him down."
"How did you know about the plane? Oh, right. Mindreader."
"While I'm explaining things to you, let me change the subject to the accommodations. They are significantly better than what many villains provide. Food comes in through a hole in that wall, waste goes away through a series of holes over there. There is no surveillance."
"Why?" Vera was trying to absorb information as fast as Cognis could dispense it. It was like trying to discuss math with Phoenix.
"Because where Vafnir grew up, nobody was as smart as him. Dr. Demented was brilliant in his way, but he was always locked in his castle, doing science beyond mortal comprehension and leaving his lieutenants to run the world. Vafnir was king of the intellectual mountain before he could drive."
"People like Vafnir, like me and Phoenix, we can go years without meeting an intellectual peer. But Phoenix and I have struggled against each other dozens of times. We've learned to deal with minds as brilliant as our own. Mephistopheles hasn't. He knows he'll always underestimate me. And because he knows he'll always underestimate me, he compensates for it by overestimating me. He worries- possibly accurately- that observing would give me the opportunity to engage in psychological warfare."
Vera took some time to parse what he had said. As soon was she was done, the Professor launched into his next spiel.
"Vafnir is almost certainly aligned with Dr. Demented. With me in captivity, Phoenix is the best hope at stopping them. You provide Mephistopheles with leverage. Can you think of a way to eliminate that leverage?"
"You mean you can't?"
"I am the greatest mind in the world. I want to see what you'll say."
"You can't see just by reading my mind?"
"It is very difficult to project future thoughts. And, in the event that you have a better idea than me, I'd like to hear it."
"Well, we could try to call for help."
"Mephistopheles blocks all forms of telecommunication I can check, and no sort of sound or other vibration could penetrate the concrete walls of our cell."
"Maybe we could tunnel out?"
"Again, that would require going through eight feet of solid concrete."
"Oh. Well, um, could we do something with the food? Or those waste disposal systems?"
"I give up."
"You were on the right track with the idea of tunneling out. You use the powered skeleton Phoenix gave you."
"How- Oh, right. Mindreader. You think I can punch through eight feet of concrete?"
"It should take a few days. And before you start getting nervous about exploiting modifications Phoenix made without your permission, please bear in mind both that the safety of the world may well be relying on it, and that imprisonment can be far more dehumanizing than any bionic implant."
Vera took in the responses to the arguments she had yet to make. "You don't think anyone will notice?"
"It is reasonably likely that someone will." He closed his eyes for a moment. He opened them again. "I scanned your skeleton." He backed up, sensing the confusion bubbling up in Vera. "The same apparatus that lets me scan brains also lets me scan simpler machines. It is a little-known fact that I am a technopath." He waited for Vera to absorb this. "I scanned your skeleton. It can accomplish the task in about 3.4 days. It won't run out of energy. It is actually an exceedingly clever design." Listen to him waxing poetic about my inventions, right when they start saving his butt from an evil genius. Who's the smartest guy in the world now, Cognis?
Vera still wasn't impressed with the hero's plan. "That's the best you could think of? You, the world-renowned supergenius?"
"Yes. Some problems do not have perfect solutions."
"How long did you spend thinking about it?"
"Four minutes."
"And you give up after that long?"
"I am not a normal person. If I don't see a solution in four minutes, it doesn't exist. So I move on to a different problem. Right now, I am thinking about the financial crisis in Bali."
"Fine." She punched the wall. For the first time, the robotic muscles Phoenix had created were used to their fullest potential. Cracks appeared in the concrete. Her skin was shredded. That was one punch out of the thousands? Millions? needed to get through. She punched the wall again.
"You know," said Cognis, "out is the other way."

As the hero watched Vera punch through the wall, tearing the flesh off her hands, he reflected on his little misdirection. He had told Vera that this plan would result in Mephistopheles losing his hostages. He didn't tell her about the chance that the hostages would wind up dead.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014


Vera was on an airplane. She wasn't in the air, but she was on an airplane. It was the interminable period where everyone had gotten in their seats, but, for some reason beyond human comprehension, the plane couldn't fly. She had spent the last half hour in a German airport.
Her cell phone vibrated. That was odd, she thought she remembered turning it off. She pulled it out of her pocket. Phoenix was calling. She paused before making sure it was off and putting it in her pocket.
It kept vibrating. Typical Phoenix. She pulled it out again to find that it was still on. She took out the battery. The phone didn't even make a show of turning off.
She put it in her pocket.
"Vera, get off that plane."
"Because you are taking that plane to Boston, where you will find Mephistopheles. You are not, by any means, a match for him. Get off the plane."
"I had a feeling talking wouldn't work."
Four hours later, the pilot was still working out technical difficulties. Two other flights to Boston were also grounded. Vera wasn't surprised.

Vera Rapport was no stranger to evading authorities. And she had to admit that Phoenix counted as the authorities. In the span of six hours, he had gotten her onto the no-fly list, tracked her through the city with an extensive network of security cameras, and even caused a traffic jam when she tried to rent a car.
She had one idea left. Get a bicycle. Go off the grid. Try to get a flight in another city. If that didn't work she'd go to Phoenix and demand the right to travel. Maybe even apologize for dumping him.
As it turned out, it didn't come to that. Phoenix was the one to apologize.
"I shouldn't have interfered with your life. You'll find a private jet waiting for you."
"This might be the first time you've changed your mind on you own." Changed my mind. If only she knew what an apt metaphor that was.
"I need to respect your rights. My overreach was the reason I lost you in the first place."
Vera was nearing the United States when her phone range again. Phoenix. What now?
"Clever, how you circumvented me. Getting a private jet. But you are no match for Mephistopheles. I cannot allow you to continue."
"What are you talking about. You're the one who got me the jet."
"No I didn't." Unless I had done it and forgotten. My mind was malleable. Would I force myself to forget something like that? Unlikely. A more probable scenario would be...
"Vera, the plane was sent by-" and then the signal died.
That was suspicious. Was Phoenix testing her? Running some sort of mental experiment? He was probably going crazy. Those cyborg elements were affecting his mind.

She landed at Logan airport early in the morning. She knew the villain's address. Phoenix had said he was hiding in one of Sabien Pallis' facilities. Near the outskirts of town.
She booked a cab. Bad traffic, followed by good traffic, followed by bad again. Phoenix's constantly swerving mind reversing his orders to traffic lights? Or just driving in Boston?
She paid for the ride in cash. She stared at the building. It actually did look grand enough to house a supervillain. She'd been expecting some abandoned-dilapidated factory. But this looked more like a national monument from a nation that valued sleek, industrial design.

On the way in, there were all manner of booby traps, security systems, and other inconveniences. But Vera was a pro. She got in. After a little bit of snooping, she found what seemed to be someone's home. Most likely, Mephistopheles. She heard a voice. Somewhere in the distance. "The raid on the Zoo was mostly a failure. But we did gain some important assets."
There was a pause, presumably while someone spoke on the other end. Vera tried to track down the source of the noise.
"Of course the Order of Darkness will remain. The loss of General Electric and Titan is only a minor setback. Especially since we shall soon return Jack Frost into the fold." The voice sounded strangely garbled. Not like Mephistopheles' usual speech.
He was behind a closed door. Vera slipped a camera through the threshold.
She gasped.

When bad guys take off their mask, they typically have a good reason. You don't just periodically do it in order to reveal yourself to the hidden cameras.
In Mephistopheles' case, the reason was dental hygiene. He was brushing his teeth. And talking on the phone.
But his face. It was one nearly everyone on Earth knew, and Vera more than most. It was Phoenix.

The door blasted open, and black tendrils bound Vera's arms and legs. She was so shocked she barely even put up a fight. "Excuse me," the villain spoke into the phone. "Something has come up."
He regarded Vera. She regarded him.
"What are you doing," she asked.
"You'll figure it out," Mephistopheles said. "Well, maybe you won't. But your cellmate will be happy to fill in the details. He's always loved explaining things to little minds."

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Mind Control

The Necker Cube is a two-dimensional drawing, consisting of two squares with the corresponding corners connected. When you look at it, you see a cube, with one square as the front and the other as the back. If you try, you can switch which one is in front. A few years ago, I had become interested the cube. I had drawn a pair of cubes side by side, and tried to give them opposite orientations. What about three cubes? I found I could control up to four at a time.
It would be an interesting challenge for a cyborg. I visualized a cube. Switched orientations. Easy.
I spit my mind in half. Each half visualized a different orientation.
Two cubes. Four possible orientations. Four threads of my mind.
Three cubes. Eight orientations. Easy.
Skipped to nine cubes. Five-hundred-and-twelve pieces of my mind each performed a visual task beyond the brightest the human mind.
Twelve cubes. More than four thousand portions of mind. Each one perfectly focused on an array of cubes.
I increased one by one. Thirteen. Fourteen. Fifteen. Sixteen. Seventeen. Eighteen. My brain teetered under the strain of a quarter of a million minds. Nineteen. Half a million streams of thought. Twenty. It all collapsed
I picked up the pieces of half a million strands of consciousness, and wove it back into my mind.

Time to think about something more fun. Like the Inca. I needed to decode the quipu knots. Part of my brain devoted itself to that task.
Another portion pondered the teleportation-plasma I had created. What was the correct mathematical formalism for such an object?
Another piece broke off to write some science limericks. I had been meaning to get around to that. And algorithmic rhyming was one of my interests.
A portion of my mind worked on a more efficient data compression algorithm for text. For instance, how would you formulate an algorithm with just a small sample of the language? And did this have applications to the quipu problem?
A bit went to work trying to determine what had happened to Professor Cognis. Would Mephistopheles have killed him? The Professor was extremely valuable. But also dangerous.
Some of me wondered how to create more cyborgs who shared my advanced abilities. And even if I worked out the technical problems (which would most likely require nanotech. Scratch that, brain implants), would others accept my new race of superpeople? Could they stop it?
One portion of my mind (I think it was the one working on the quipu knots) told me to stop with the bullshit. What bullshit, I asked myself.
Sitting here, working on science problems and ancient riddles when Lucy is gone.
And what would you have me do? I have already thoroughly analyzed the situation. There is nothing I can do. Noetron is already working to liberate her. Until then, there are only two things I can hope to accomplish: convincing the New Archivist to release Lucy in the unlikely event she is lying, and wreaking vengeance on the Fortarians. Neither of those is possible.
Perhaps a show of emotion is in order?
I'm not going to do a theatrical performance of a sad human. 
At this point it is worth noting that I wasn't actually having a dialogue with myself. I was communicating in a way so complex and complete that nothing in normal human experience is even remotely analogous.
You just don't care any more.
I do. But if there's nothing I can do-
The disadvantage of being a cyborg, my inner cynic pointed out, is that you can no longer lie to yourself. It is easy to analyze your brain for chemicals. The results are fairly conclusive.
There are components of my mind not stored in a chemical brain.
A more rigorous analysis gives the same result.
At this point someone called me. Vera. I really should have changed my number.
We/I are/am in the middle of a conversation.
We/I are/am more than capable of having two at once.
I picked up. "Phoenix," she said, "I need to ask a favor."
"Really. You dump me for what I'm still convinced is a stupid reason. Don't say anything for weeks. Then you call asking for a favor."
So what are you going to do about your apathy?
Why would I do something? Why would I artificially induce emotions in myself.
Your past self would want it.
I am not my past self.
"I need your help tracking down Mephistopheles."
"I'll see what I can do." A small section of my brain tried to find him, making use of the fact that he was most likely traveling with Cognis in tow.
Your apathy hurts those you profess to care about.
But emotions are irrational.
You only got rid of them because they distract from your work, not because of some grand philosophic reason. Now, your apathy prevents you from doing great work.
"He is fairly easy to track. A large body is easy to check on satellite. A few decoys, but their flight paths were all unrealistic. I'll email you his coordinates."
"Thanks. Um... why are you being so nice?"
I can't just go changing who I am.
You already did. You should undo it.
"I am being so helpful because I trust that you will screw Mephistopheles over. I'm sure you're aware of the risks you are facing, and I'd rather you go after him without tipping your hand with some silly goose chase."
I am not going to turn emotions back on.
Because that would mean admitting you were wrong. But it doesn't. You are both wrong and right. I am you.
It's not a stubbornness thing. I've transcended that.
Stop deluding yourself.
Stop trying to convince me to become an irrational being. I am who I am, and returning the distractions of chemical imbalance would only weaken me. Do not waste my time.
You're right. I have been wasting your time. I don't need your permission to do this. I am you, and control you as much as you do.
I felt a wave of emotion. Unbearable sadness. Lucy was gone. Probably permanently. I had been neglecting her. Maybe if I had tried harder, she would still be alive. It was all my fault.
I turned my emotions off.
What was that?
I didn't need to ask. I already knew that it was about a tenth of what I would normally be feeling in those situations. A normal psychiatrist wouldn't even call it depression.
I have to say, a reminder of how painful sadness could be is not the best argument for emotions.
I cycled through the rest. I made myself feel the happiness discovering a new quantum field theory. I made myself feel the anger of talking to someone on the internet. I made myself feel the frustration of a dozen defeats at the hands of Cognis.
I bubbled with internal conversation. Internal simulations of Plato, Nietzsche, and a guy who thought philosophy was bullshit all arguing. Personalities bubbling off to voice their opinions and being subsumed.
What was I doing by cutting emotion out of my life? It was part of what defined me.
But I didn't think that earlier. What was I if my opinions could be changed by the flick of a switch?
That was true of normal people too. Just nobody had built the switch yet.
But in a sense, they had.
Just if other people have existential problems, does that make mine better?
Even with my multiple personalities, I might still be a more cohesive person than a human filled with mood swings and subconscious mind.
I needed to keep the emotions. They may be inconvenient, but they were powerful tools. I could rough out a system to automatically keep them in check. And I should make it so I couldn't modify the system, in case I weaken later. Or should I trust the judgement of my future self?
No, in a world where my brain could be rewired in a matter of minutes, I didn't trust my future self. I would put safeguards in place to prevent any further self modification without extraordinary justification.
I forged my personality. I kept many of my former traits. Curiosity. Egotism. I enhanced a few, dialed down a few. Made them less variable with time. Then, like a computer updating its operating system, I loaded my new personality.

I was stricken with grief over what happened to Lucy. But it was not my first priority. My first priority was the former love I had knowingly sent to face the Devil.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Power

Alexander Star wondered how he had come to be. He knew that he had once been a different person, and his Crucible had judged a new version to be superior. So he had been regenerated into a a younger, more clever individual. But could he regenerate into something else? Could he regenerate into someone taller? Someone with a tattoo on his arm? Someone with claws.
Alexander decided to find out. So he ripped of his thumb. The flesh boiled and rippled as a new thumb formed. No claw. He tore off the thumb again. No claw.
He spent hours mutilating himself, trying to manipulate his body. It hurt, but pain was just sensory input to him at this point. It didn't mean anything to someone who could recover from any injury in a fraction of a second.
Alex looked with some disgust at the growing pile of severed limbs and shorn-off fingers. He realized that the pile probably weighed more than he did. That was disgusting.
Alex knew he should stop injuring himself. But think of all he could do with this new power. He could make himself look like anything.
He was just about to stop (his third 'last try' in a row) when Dr. Demented entered his room. "What is this," he demanded. He wasn't wearing his armor. His musculature bulged through his futuristic robes, making him look like a strange combination of an octogenarian, a body builder, and someone at a science fiction convention.
"I wanted to see if I could control how I healed."
"And so mutilate your own flesh and blood?"
"Well... yes. I couldn't think of a better way to do it."
The Doctor stared at Alex for a moment. Then he smiled. "Curiosity. Good. And no harm done to one who can heal as you. Unfortunately, you is not understand working of Crucible. Does not create what you want. Creates what is."
The Doctor summoned a sentence of coherent English. "If you want something of the Crucible, tell the Crucible you lost it."

Alex thought he understood that sentence. He needed to act as if he really did have claws. He needed to convince the Crucible he had claws. He ripped off a hand. Didn't work.
Again. Failure.
Once more. It worked! Yes!
Alex flexed his serrated hand. He sliced through a steel table like a hot knife through nothing.
Did he even need to injure himself at all. What if he just thought that his normal state was to look like, say, a dragon? He concentrated. Slowly and surely, he began to change.

The Master of Time was working out some of the finer details of his master plan when a gigantic dragon burst into his laboratory. "Foolish boy," the Doctor said. "To alter his own brain. What he do without me, eh?"
He was already wearing his armor, because his armor knew it was going to be needed (the Time Key was an unreliable messenger through time, but it was vastly better than nothing). He froze all of his machinery in time, so it wouldn't be damaged by the rampaging dragon. A quick scan revealed the location of the Crucible.
"What am I doing," the Doctor asked. It wasn't a rhetorical question. He had completely forgotten his own battle. His armor reminded him that he had just been looking for Alex's heart. Dr. Demented cursed his forgetfulness, and formulated a plan. He plunged his hand into the dragon's chest. The energy of a small atomic bomb was expended tearing apart the dragons flesh. The Doctor wrapped his fingers around the Crucible, and locked them into position. The flesh of the dragon attempted to expel the armor, but nothing could break the armored grasp of Dr. Demented.
All the air in the laboratory was turned to plasma. The Crucible put more and more energy into destroying or expelling the foreign body. Meanwhile, the Doctor was attempting to control the flow of time near the Crucible. It was difficult, made even more difficult by the fact that the Crucible was a doorway to a whole other dimension. With quite a lot of work, the Doctor reversed then flow of time for the Crucible. The Crucible now thought that Alex was the host's natural state, and that the dragon was an alteration. The dragon evaporated, and Alex was reassembled from the subatomic level up.

From Alex's point of view he had suddenly gone from willing himself to be a dragon to reconstituting from being... a dragon. "What happened."
"Dragon not sentient."
Alex tried to ask for more details, but the scientist ignored him. Machines came back to life, and the Doctor did his work.

Alex wondered what else he could do. Carefully keeping his brain the same, he grew into a twenty meter tall giant. He created and retracted claws. He made lasers come out of his eyes and fingers.
Wait a second. If laser beam were coming out of his fingertips, did that mean he had little bits of electronics in his body. A few minutes later, he had a smartphone screen on his arm.
But, hold on. Alex extruded a virtual reality console from his hand. He tore off the console, and found it still working. He could create anything he wanted. This was going to be fun.