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Chapter 3
The next morning my depression had abated somewhat as I savored the challenge of coming up with a replacement control rod for a time machine. It had taken me most of the night to make up a rope ladder, climb down into the crater, remove the broken rod and climb back out. But I finally had the titanium bar in the trunk of my car headed down the mountain to the office.
I still had to come up with a payment for the work, though, so Ell’s protocol wouldn’t be violated. She seemed quite concerned about that. I had no idea what kinds of payments she could offer but planned to discuss the matter that evening. It was becoming apparent I was in an even worse bargaining position than a Neanderthal might be in negotiating with one of us modern humans. The poor guy wouldn’t know what to ask for other than something he needed immediately like a new spearhead or some fresh meat. He wouldn’t know he could ask for a hunting rifle, or a stainless steel skinning knife, or even vaccination against disease.
The gate guard waved me into the company parking area, and I headed for the procurement office. By lunch, a company in Connecticut that fabricated titanium parts for nuclear submarines and high performance aircraft got the contract with a promised rush delivery date of seven days.
Ell was waiting in the living room when I got home. By now I was used to conversing
telepathically with her, or it, or whatever was in the glider’s plumbing. I just voiced the words
“I should hear something on the purity of the titanium in a few days. If that doesn’t become an issue, the part should be ready in a week.”
Ell pushed forward in the papasan chair studying me as I crossed the room. “So, have you been working on what I can do for you in return?”
Dropping onto the sofa I said, “I have the feeling you can read minds and already know the answer to that question.”
She flopped back into the cushion. “Actually, I can’t do that. I can scan your neural structures and pick out the fixed language and visual centers to allow me to communicate with you but there’s no way I can tell from the more dynamic areas of your brain what you’re thinking.”
“Then how did you know I planned to kill myself?”
“That wasn’t a thought. That was a deeply held intent. The glider is designed to detect an
intention of threat in neural patterns. In your case, the threat was to yourself, though. Even then, there
was no way to know how you planned to end your life. Or even where. Only that it was imminent.”
I pondered that explanation for a moment. It made sense. Sort of. But I suspected I was up against
something a good deal smarter and far more advanced than me, even if she didn’t know much about

the metallurgical properties of the broken control rod. Then it occurred to me this thing might be able to implant any thought in my head it wanted me to have. It wouldn’t have to make up lies. Then again, maybe it had just planted that thought. I sighed. There was no way to think my way safe of this if it were a threat, so I just went with the obvious.
“Well, to answer your question, no, I haven’t figured anything out yet because I don’t have any idea what you’re capable of delivering. Your technology is so far beyond anything I’ve ever dreamed, I’m at a loss. Perhaps you could suggest something.”
“Well, I suppose immortality is out of the question since you plan to end your existence as soon as I leave.”
“Immortality? You and your glider can offer immortality? I don’t see how that would be possible.”
“It’s simple, really. Though I currently exist in the, what I guess you might call it the central processing core of the glider, I was in the community mind of the home network before that. I can transfer myself from one node to another as desired. Even across much of the galaxy if I want. The glider can handle eight separate, independent personalities. I was just on a simple mission and needed no help so it’s just me at the moment. But given a few hours, the glider could upload your entire consciousness to an empty crew slot and into my reality.”
“Into your reality?” I was beginning to feel like a parrot.
“Yes. Mine is much richer than anything you’ve ever known. Don’t forget, you’re a construct of a
rather limited, inefficient biological brain. I’m a construct of a galactic neural network made up of
ever-improving non-biological systems operating millions of times faster than your own neurons.”
I had been right. I didn’t have a clue what to ask for. Apparently she could deliver wishes like
the fabled genie of the lamp. I leaned back and studied her for a time. There was much to be gained
from getting this protocol gift right. If she could be trusted. The fabled djinns and genies of legend,
however, were noted for their devious and disastrous granting of wishes to those not wise enough to
be specific. I could be playing a dangerous game with this creature. Sure, sitting in the papasan chair
across from me she looked human enough. The temptress. Naked and lithe. Regarding me with those
black ophidian eyes …
Black? I hadn’t noticed that before. Had her cloak of affability just parted slightly in a moment of inattention to expose some hidden dreadfulness lurking beneath? My pulse lit out at a canter even as I fought to quell it. Surely she could hear the thumping.
“I detect that you are in mild alarm, Cager.” Clearly she had sensed my unease?
“Didn’t you have blue eyes before?” I stammered.
“You noticed. Yes. You don’t like them now?”

No, I didn’t like them at all.
“They’re fine,” I lied. “Just wondered why the change. That’s all.” My defenses were up. She had noticed. Her eyes flashed back to blue.
“You look worried. Did I do something wrong. You know I can project any form I please don’t you? I was just playing around trying to match the eyes on your painting,” she said, tilting her head toward the Diebenkorn hanging over the credenza.
“No, it’s fine. Really.” But now I was beginning to wonder again if this unbelievable confluence
of events wasn’t something more. Had I too readily accepted her story? It hadn’t mattered at the time.
It was just a brief diversion from my evening’s plan. In fact, I should have been dead by now, so what
was the worry.
Unless she was a djinn.
Those ancient stories must have had some basis in fact. Were the stories of djinns and genies really stories of encounters such as I was having? I managed a weak smile. “It’s just that I’m beginning to have doubts you’ve told me the whole story of why you’re here.”
She smiled back. “I understand. This whole event must be pretty hard to take in. You’ve seen and heard things impossible in your world. But theoretically, I could just take over your mind. Use you to do the work you have volunteered to do on your own. I haven’t because it’s not allowed. All I’m permitted is to place a perception in your mind of things I want to show or tell you. I can’t make you do anything. It’s protocol. If I tried, the glider would stop me by blocking my communication channels into you. And there are good reasons for that.”
“Good reasons?” I parroted again. “Like what?”
She grew serious. “Your civilization will soon face a similar problem. You aren’t far from
developing machines smarter than you. Smarter even than your whole civilization. Once assembled,
those machines will quickly create other even smarter machines. It happens to every civilization that
doesn’t destroy itself first. But getting those first advanced machines without them taking over is only
the opening hurdle. If you get past that, you’ll soon discover how to copy your consciousness into
your machines. Eventually you’ll have your entire civilization living in a planet-wide network of
interconnected virtual systems that will someday seek out and join forces with similar networks of
other civilizations that have also made the transfer to virtual reality. At that point you’ll be immortal.
“The problem is some of the virtual beings will want to seize control of the Network and run the imbedded civilization for their own corrupt purposes just as happens in the real world. If that were to occur, all of the Network denizens would be trapped. Imprisoned. There is no escape from the virtual world. And worse, whoever controlled that world would be omniscient and could never be forced from power. Once in control, their rule would be absolute and they could punish in any way they desired. And they could do it forever.”
Well, that was Biblical damnation if I’d ever heard it. I was a bit shaken. “So you have your

machines restrain your control? Your power over others?”
“Pretty much. Actually it’s a delicate balance among a number of systems but it has worked so far. The protocols can’t be violated without at least one of the systems noticing. That’s the price of living forever. Constant surveillance.”
I nodded understanding. “Yeah. We say the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.” “Well said. Yes. That’s it exactly.”
“And you say once you’ve entered the virtual world there is no way out. No escape.”
Ell rose from the papasan and stood gazing out the front window at the crater for a time. I knew
full well it was only her image in my mind and wondered at her need to appear to be looking
somewhere outside. Was she learning the rudiments of body language? Finally she spoke. “Well,
you’ve just touched on the heart of the dilemma we in the virtual world face. Returning to the real
world has its own set of problems. First, there are no more original bodies around to go back to. My
living body died long ago. I could make another, of course. I have that ability. And I could copy my
consciousness into it. But that still leaves the big problem. It’s one we have never satisfactorily
“And that would be?”
“We just end up with a body living in the real-world with a copy of the original consciousness embedded.”
“And that’s the big problem?”
“Yes,” Ell said rather curtly as if to indicate there was nothing more to say on the matter.
But I didn’t see the problem; especially not ‘the big problem.’ After all, Scotty had beamed everyone all over creation in those early Star Trek episodes. There had never been mention of any kind of consciousness problem then? How was this any different?
I took another shot at it. “But if the copy of the original is safely in operation in the real-world body, the conscious being lives on in that world.”
Ell turned from the window to face me. “You’re missing the point.” Her eyes fixed me with a studious contemplation I had not seen in her before. She shifted her stance as though anticipating something. A realization from me, perhaps, of the problem with transferring conscious beings about from place to place. Was this becoming some kind of intelligence test? I thought about it again. Hard. I didn’t want to appear stupid.
But I eventually had to concede defeat. “Sorry, Ell. I just don’t see the problem. After all the same being now exists in the real world.”
“That’s the problem, Cager. The same being doesn’t exist in the real world.”
A twinge of insight began to niggle at a ragged corner of my own consciousness. Ell continued.
“The original continues to live on in the virtual world just as before. You see, it’s not a case of
just moving the consciousness from the virtual to the real world. There’s no way to do that. All we

can do is make a copy of the virtual consciousness to place in the real-world body. In other words, the original you would still be you except now there’s a copy that thinks it’s you. And when you delete either the original or the copy, you kill a conscious being. You certainly wouldn’t want to be deleted just because there was a copy of you somewhere else. Well, maybe you would. You were about to do that when we met. But the average original wouldn’t. Or the copy either.”
It finally clicked.
“No. I suppose not. Just having someone else around that thought they were me after I was dead wouldn’t make them me. Even if the other copies were up to date to the moment of my death, it wouldn’t make any difference. They wouldn’t be me. I would be dead no matter how many earlier copies of me existed.”
And poor Captain Kirk. Every time Scotty had beamed him somewhere, he’d killed the former and replaced him with a copy that thought it was captain of the starship Enterprise. Dang. That was a bit of a disappointment.
I had thought some moments earlier perhaps Ell’s payment for my help could be dropping me
back to the early years of my life. In my own original body, of course. Upgraded with all the stuff I
knew now but ten years old again. But who hasn’t thought of doing something like that. Living your
life over with the lessons you had learned the first time through. Now that seemed to be impossible so
far  as  it  being  me  who  lived  my  life  over  versus  some  Johnny-come-lately  doppelganger.
Nevertheless, I filed the thought away for a later time when I could consider the problems that had to
be overcome for such a trick to work. I had always been rather good at problem solving. Maybe I
could figure something out.

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