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The greatest secret of El Shaddai and Bat-El is that they could manipulate time, and this secret was shared with the B’nei Elohim, but to protect this secret a deep inhibition against revealing it by any word or deed was part and parcel of the Change. So when Aliwe returned to Taurus City she chose a time when she could speak to her mother the Baroness Victoria outside of the earshot of her father Baron Bayard Sala. Aliwe chose 1970 on Timeline Iota, around the time of NASA’s aborted Apollo 13 moonshot, and her mere entry made it Timeline Kappa.

The Executive Lounge was empty except for Victoria, who was sitting in one of three plush chairs which formed a triangle, all facing askew rather than directly facing each other. There was a elegant rounded glass coffee table that doubled as a display monitor between the chairs, projecting reams of military data. In this case, Victoria had chosen to monitor the feed from her husband, flying on patrol a million miles out in space in a Sandwich Fighter.

“Aliwe!” Vic said when her daughter came in, and she extended her arms, but elected not to stand up to hug her because she was, at that moment, very pregnant, and even in the light lunar gravity she wasn’t keen on scrambling to her feet every time.

Aliwe embraced her mother, then put a hand on her belly. “Hello, me!”

“Okay, so it turned out to be a girl, we saw that on ultrasound, but I refuse to believe this is really you.”

“Actually, Mom, it is me. This is the timeline where we win, the one where I was born.”

“What if I prove you wrong? What if I name my baby Anita instead of Aliwe?”

“But you won’t. You’ll name me Aliwe, and Daddy will be pleased. He’ll think you’re a sentimental woman who wants to honor my ‘death’ when I fell from the Catwalk.”

“But when I asked, you didn’t seem to know if we would ever meet again.”

“I was confused by your question. I thought you meant on that Timeline. I’m not a prophet like Robyn. Obviously we met on the timeline where you gave birth to me, and of course, the me sleeping there inside your womb doesn’t know I’m standing out here, so how could she know we met as adults?”

“If you’re not a prophet like Robyn then what is your job, daughter?”

“I’m a historian, mother. This is now Timeline Kappa, that makes a grand total of ten tracks. I’m a messenger. I’m the only B’nei Eloah allowed to move between them, mostly to keep El Shaddai and Bat-El synced up so they’re all on the same page. But this time I brought someone with me.”

“Lilith, I hope. She seems to have gone missing.”

“Lilith died on Timeline Iota, on Mercury, in 1977. That presents a problem because this reset is moving the clock back to what is ‘now’ for you, 1970. If Lilith continued to live on this timeline, then the backup she made of her human memories up to 1977 would need to be integrated somehow with the ones she continued to pile up here, and there’s absolutely no way to do that. So she elected to die here on Kappa also, so there won’t be two Liliths when she lands in her next body.”

“And when will that be?”

Aliwe fell silent for a short span, trying to find a place where she could begin to explain it all to her mother. Then she said, “We’ve been moving technology created on one timeline back a few years in another timeline, over and over, creating a feedback loop that drop-kicked the world into the future, but we still can’t make a computer program that can convince us that it is aware it even exists. Still, Mark Felton back on Iota says we obtained artificial intelligence when the Swarm crossed a certain threshold of connectivity. The Swarm is aware, but that awareness is too alien for us to recognize it as being aware.

“Robyn had the idea that an artificial intelligence had to live as one of us, at least through the crucial early years of childhood, or it would never think like we do. I remember that Mark rolled his eyes when he heard that. He said, ‘That’s been tried many times. We can’t get silicon to work like living brain cells. An electronic switch is either on or off, but a brain cell sputters. It doesn’t fire every time it’s supposed to, it makes mistakes. Our brain runs at ninety watts, like a dim incandescent light bulb. We evolved to work with low-power switches that have a high error rate by screening every decision through layers of filters.’

“’But we can still use brute force methods,’ Robyn countered. ‘Numerical methods. With a micro we can simulate every misfiring neuron in a human brain, and all of its connections.’ And Mark complained that it would run at five thousand watts, where would Robyn get the power, and how would she shitcan the waste heat? So Robyn just held up a macro, and Mark said, ‘Oh.’”

Vic said, “I don’t understand any of this, kiddo. I feel like I’ve been cut out of this conversation.”

“I’ll make it more clear, Mom, but first you have to understand that what you are about to see is not a real girl. It’s a machine. We made her right here on Timeline Kappa from a frame I brought over from Iota. Mostly Mark Felton made her, using tech we dragged in from other timelines. He doesn’t know how that works, that we can move in time. He doesn’t need to know. The important thing is this kid thinks she’s a real little girl, and it’s doubly-important that for these crucial early years no one ever tells her she’s not real. Will you agree to that, Mom?”

“Of course.”

“Okay, I’ll go fetch Mark and his daughter.”

When Aliwe came back a few minutes later, a smiling little girl was walking beside him with her hand in his, wearing her dark brown hair in two pigtails. The girl’s apparent age was about five.

The machine child was certainly beautiful, and her little round face was absolutely authentic, triggering no instincts of revulsion in Vic that have plagued the creators of artificial people (both movie characters and physical objects) ever since the problem was documented by a Japanese researcher in 1978 on Timeline Eta and labeled the Uncanny Valley. The revulsion invariably happened when the virtualization was almost, but not exactly perfect, and the effect seemed to be buried deep, grounded in human evolution itself. Something in the limbic “lizard” brain screamed: FAKE! FALSE! COUNTERFEIT! But not here with this little girl.

Mark said, “Vic, I’d like you to meet my lovely daughter Hope.”

Vic told her hello, but she felt funny talking to her, knowing that she wasn’t really real.

David went on to say, “Hope, this is my B’nei Eloah friend. Her name is Victoria.”

Hope came up to shake Vic’s hand. Her skin was a perfect replica of a girl’s hand, Vic was astonished, but the simulacrum was so exact Vic began to suspect the whole episode was a practical joke on Aliwe’s part and this really was a real girl.

Hope was totally without guile. She said exactly what was on her mind, and this was what was on her mind today: “Victoria, are you going to marry my daddy?”

There was a yelp, but Victoria recovered in time to turn the yelp into a laugh. She said, “No honey, I’m already married to somebody else.”

David said, “Hope, don’t be silly. Now say goodbye to Victoria, and I’ll take you back down to the park.”

“Goodbye Victoria!”

“Goodbye, sweetheart.”

When Mark left with the girl, Vic turned to Aliwe and said, “That was a robot?”

Aliwe nodded. The base system is something Robyn stole from Mercury last year, and that wasn’t easy. The power and cooling is handled by a copy of the Golden Gift from one of the other timelines. But the really difficult and expensive thing was getting the look just right.”

“Why did you make it a girl?”

“Number one, because she has no sex organs and no body hair, just like a Barbie doll. With her clothes on she has no genital bulge like a boy does. There seemed no need to add a penis. She doesn’t urinate. And number two, eventually she will become the host for Lilith’s personality. The merger will go much more smoothly if the host is the same gender as the client. So we socialized Hope to be a girl. Mark dresses Hope in little girl’s clothes, gives her little girl’s toys and lets her do little girl things. Hope’s brain was programmed to accept either choice easily enough, but after a few weeks the pathways for a feminine brain were well-established and impossible to reverse.”

“So you’re thinking about Talishi’s Number.”

Aliwe nodded. “The square root of one-half. Point seven zero seven one. That’s the strength of what memories and personality you retain whenever you do a mind-transfer. Leaving about twenty-nine percent of the host’s memory and personality intact. Or rather, a new composite personality is formed, and those are the relative strengths of the personalities involved. There’s no way around it. Even the gods themselves, when they possess human beings, are subject to Talishi’s Number. It’s built right into the physics of the process.”

“Do it enough times,” Vic said, “and your original identity can actually be lost. That’s what Lilith said has already happened to Mastema.”

“Or you can get what’s happening now with the Jills. One single greedy personality distributed across many bodies, at the expense of diversity. But with artificial intelligence you could do one final transfer and be done with body swapping forever.”

“And I can see a side benefit,” Vic said. “When we are between bodies, we can have a place to land instead of timeless oblivion as ones and zeros in a flat-pack. We could live inside a virtual reality until a new artificial body was made available, maybe even live inside the Swarm itself.”

Vic said, “It’s an incredible dream, but we have such a long way to go. We’ve spent billions to make Hope’s eyes and skin absolutely real, but the part that money can never buy is loving parents. Mark has taken the role of her father, and in a way he really is her father, because he created Hope’s brain, but he’s going to be too busy. Hope needs the influence of a mother, and I can think of nobody better suited than my own mother!”

“But after I give birth to you I’ll be busy too,” Vic objected. “I can fly!”

“Not for very much longer, Mom. Your power is based on moving the end of the fold-door, and that’s going to be employed doing something else in a few years. So you’re going to be bounced down to just housewife and mother. Sorry Mom.”

“How ironic,” Vic said. “I bring Bayard here from days of dragons and castles, he’s out flying on patrol, and I’m about to be grounded.”

And so Hope, after the initial trauma of being handed off from Mark to her foster parents Victoria and Bayard, embarked on what would become a legendary childhood, the common shared childhood of eventually countless B’nei Elohim after they merged their own memories with copies of Hope’s electronic mind. But Hope’s presence stressed the marriage of Vic and Bayard in a way they hadn’t thought of when they agreed to adopt. They came to realize that through Hope’s memories their marriage was literally being filmed for a potential audience of millions.

But Bayard and Vic were attentive parents, perhaps too much so. It was easy for them to think of Hope as a child as real as her little baby sister Aliwe. Only a few things stood out to remind them of her artificial origin, such as the fact that she was not a picky eater. Anything Hope ate, within reason, could be turned into the electricity which gave her power. Even garbage or spoiled food, but her parents tried to get her to stick with real food. Acids or things which would damage her internally were out. And she never had to go potty.

When Hope was really only two years old, her parents gave her a birthday cake with seven candles and seven presents. They got away with it because most people don’t remember very much about the first few year of their life unless something very dramatic happened in that time. There was nothing to set Hope wondering much about her missing years and when Hope grew older and talked about it with her sister and friends, they too would be unable to recall very much about when they were three or four years old.

Vic and Bayard followed Aliwe’s admonition to keep Hope in the dark about her origin as long as possible. Hope was learning many things very quickly, but if Hope learned she was not a real human being too early, the psychological damage would be incalculable.

Occasionally Hope was taken to Mars (ground zero for Project Hope, to keep it far away from the Jills) where she rendered unconscious. The damage Hope had accumulated by horsing around at Taurus City was repaired, and her frame was stretched a few inches. This happened every summer between school years. The trip was by wormhole at first, but by spacecraft after Charybdis appeared. It was something Hope learned to look forward to, becoming a bigger girl literally overnight.

Different kids rotated in and out of Hope’s life every few months, or even on a weekly basis. Two or three years later Hope could not even recall the names of her old friends at school. And that was actually very good, because only robots had perfect memories. Schoolgirls did not.

In the fall, when Hope returned to school, she was slightly taller than most of her classmates, and they put it down to a normal growth spurt over the summer, and most of the kids didn’t remember how tall she was the preceding year anyway. Because she didn’t grow naturally, by the end of the school year, Hope would be slightly shorter than most of her classmates.

When she was on her service call at Valles Marineris at age eight, Hope was given a double-blind Turing Test, though she didn’t know what it was all about. She successfully fooled a panel into mistaking her for an eight year old girl, and therefore passed the test. It was a historic moment in the search for artificial intelligence, something that would have won Mark Felton global professional accolades if it was more widely known, but that had to wait. Hope had been accepted to attend Canterwood Academy on Barbelo.

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Strangers In Paradise