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I woke up this morning to find myself alone on an empty estate. The cooks, the programmers, the garden staff and the guards: all gone.

One of the deserters has left a letter on the table. Handwritten by Hayate. I should expect an unwelcome visitor, he said.

I had guessed as much.

I was, before today, a powerful man. Still, there are those more powerful than I. I have pawned their friendship to retain some honor. Still a good bargain, I believe.

Serene on the mountain's flank, my estate fills with the smell of wood and water, the drowse of bees. Alone on the mountainside, I become aware of my own insignificance.

This spring I removed all robots from my grounds. I believed that loyalty compelled was not loyalty at all: but I must admit that just now, shuffling amonst my empty rooms, even the pretense of faithful companions would be welcome.

Still, these are not ancient times, and none of my people, apparently, feel the need to die with their master. Well, have I not said "adaptability is the glory of our species?" Words to haunt me now. Certainly my friends have proved . . . flexible.

The first David was chained by a loyalty he could not escape.

When he disappeared, and Allen Hobby killed himself, grieving for his second dead son, Paolo Tsang, the Cybertronics Vice-President who had overseen the secret David project was left with a mess on his hands. He shut down the Weeping Lions lab. He ordered the wiping of Hobby's AI, MUSE. He told Hobby's team the project had been deemed a failure, and they were not to talk about it. And crucially, he decided to keep the news of Hobby's death a secret too, because by then the Visionary's name was the key to the Cybertronics brand.

But David was not really a failure. David was actually a tremendous opportunity. He had been made to look nearly human. And he had evolved into an independent agent with his own initiative, driven by a fanatic loyalty that could never die.

Paolo Tsang thought a man could do much with enough servants like that.

Through the following years, a small, secret team worked to perfect the Passers. The costs were enormous, and soon Tsang needed money. He did not wish his superiors at Cybertronics to discover this project. Instead, he found other investors: men and women with deep pockets, and vision, who were patient enough to wait years for the return on their investment.

As you have guessed, I was one of those investors. Our numbers have always been small. Tsang is dead, and N'Gawa has replaced him. Koramov you know. There are a handful of others.

It's been a long time since I made my own tea. A good discipline. When I opened the canister, memories welled out; the smell of cheap cha in my mother's apartment as she struggled into business clothes. Dry leaves rattling like insect wings around the scoop.

She drowned when I was thirteen. I have not thought of her in many years before today. Curious.

I prepare a tray as she taught me, long ago. I take one cup; then, after a moment's hesitation, a second. Courtesy in the absence of pressure is merely habit. We judge a man by his form when situations intensify. Until now, I would have said I had been facing the day with a commendable calmness of spirit, but when I lift the tray, the two cups rattle and shake. My hands seem to be trembling. Apparently my pose of serenity has fooled only my mind. The body knows better.

But you don't care about this. You want to hear about the murder of Evan Chan.

I take the tray out to a little tea-house built for me some forty years ago. Close by, a mountain stream jumps like a young man from a second story window, landing with a splash and laughter in a rocky pool. Giant blotched koi, fat with indolence and wisdom, drift in the quieter pool beyond.

At the beginning of this unlucky year, I was ill at ease. I directed my code soldiers to perform an exhaustive breakdown of everything touched by Jane Sutter's known confidantes, including Katya Rukowski and Jeanine Salla.

They found a hidden account, routed through Jeanine's node at Bangalore University: a secret tunnel through which rivers of information were flowing. Almost every message coming through this secret door came from an AI, or an old colleague of Jane and Jeanine's. There were thousands of messages every day on a vast array of subjects: far too much for a human being ever to use. I was sure then that I had picked up the trail of Muse.

Many of the university sites were ones we might expect from Jeanine's acquaintance—AIT (her alma mater) and BWU, where she was currently teaching. But out of all the Ivy League schools, why were there so many messages from Brown, and comparatively few from Dartmouth, or Penn, or the relocated Harvard? Why so many messages from Duke and UNCCharlotte, and so few from Columbia or UCLA, Oxford or Tokyo?

Jeanine had a friend in North Carolina. A man named Evan Chan. He hardly fit the profile for a shadowy mastermind. He didn't even have an intelligent house, where Muse could have hidden comfortably with the resources she needed.

What he did have was a boat.

Far, far down the hillside, a car comes to a stop at the gate to my estate. After a moment, a figure emerges. My visitor emerges: black-haired, slim, wearing a red top and black pants. I cannot tell if it is a man or a woman. I will know soon enough.

I will have to tell the story more quickly.

In January of this year, my colleagues and I had a very large (though hidden) position in two companies headed for a very profitable merger. There was ecological due diligence to be done to satisfy various agencies. Koramov suggested we hire his wife's firm. Everything seemed routine.

Then, like the butterfly in the parable whose wings precede the storm, the generally unexceptional Evan Chan began to be a problem. Already the oblivious carrier of a demonic Intelligence, his studies delayed our merger, and finally endangered it. My colleagues wanted him silenced.

Ah. Footsteps on the path. A woman emerges from between the trees. I must jump part of the story now, including the reason she means to murder me, and hurry to the end.

Now we come to a singular mystery. What power kept the rogue robot, Venus, from erasing Cloudmaker when she had the chance? She must have known her chances of escaping were far worse if the boat's mind survived intact. Did Muse contact her somehow, overpower her mind or reach her with argument? Or was the greatest artificial intelligence in the history of the world mute and helpless, tied to a button on a sailing boat console … spared by nothing but the flicker of a robot's remorse?

Venus' memory is gone now, thanks to Basta, who in turn is dead: and so we will never know what happened when those two unreal persons met.

She is here. It's to be knives.

I offer tea. She accepts. As I pour, I will my hand to stillness, but it shakes, scattering drops of tea. My killer does me the courtesy of pretending not to notice.

"I am just at the end of a letter," I say. "May I write for the time it takes you to drink your tea?"

She agrees. These are the small benefits of being executed by the well-bred. She will also take the letter to Hayate, who like his steel is true, though not kind. He will see the message delivered.

Sitting here in my garden, quiet on the mountain's flank, I make no excuses. I do not ask for forgiveness. But now, as the news comes in from India and Hong Kong, from the server farms of Germany and the SPCB's Epidemiology Center, I wonder what would have happened if we had just paid more attention to a middle-aged man's dreary thermal analysis reports. I wonder how much the murder of Evan Chan has cost us all. Perhaps a great deal. Perhaps everything.

Ah. The cup is empty.

This is the end.

Note: The preceding material is relevant as of the year 2142. See A.I., or the A.I. Interactive Metanode for more information.

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