Author's Note: This story incorporates elements from Joss Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Iain M. Banks' Culture series, and MGM / Sony Pictures' Stargate franchise. I gratefully acknowledge the creators whose works I draw from, and I expressly state that I assert no claim of ownership over their own property. End Author's Note.
Chapter 1: Outside Context Problem, Or, The Costumes of the Mind.
"Where are all the costumes?" asked Buffy Summers, peering around empty racks and displays. 'Ethan's Costume Shoppe' was bare, like all the other costume stores in town. "This is not good."
A charming gentleman sauntered in from the back. He spoke with a lively and sophisticated British accent. "Oh, hello. I'm Ethan Rayne, the proprietor of this establishment. I'm sorry to say I sold my last costume just ten minutes ago."
"We're doomed," said Willow Rosenberg. "Principal Snyder is going to kill us. And I was liking my life so much. I feel like I was just on the cusp of getting to the good part."
"For what it's worth," interjected Ethan, "I've always thought the most important part of any costume is your imagination." His voice grew quiet and passionate. "To wear a costume properly is to assume a role, to play pretend. To assume a role, then, is to turn whatever you may be wearing into a costume. Never underestimate the power of the mind."
"What," said Buffy.
But Willow understood. "I think what he means is, anything can be a costume if you want it to be. Like, if you wanted to be a cop, sure you could put on a cop costume. But you could also say you're an undercover cop and just wear your normal clothes. Who's to say your normal clothes aren't an undercover-cop costume?"
"That's exactly it," said Ethan, sounding satisfied. "Roleplaying, the costume-wearing of the mind, is what makes an outfit into a physical costume. Any outfit will do, not just an unusual one. When an actor plays an ordinary person, his outfit is still called a costume even though it is ordinary clothing. His imagination, and that of the audience, animates it, makes it real."
"An interesting perspective," said Xander. "But I fear this lesson may be lost on our esteemed principal. His 'imagination' is lacking compared to that of our erudite new British friend."
"Yeah," said Willow, "we're doomed."
"I know it's not much," conceded Ethan, "and it doesn't sound like your 'Principal Snyder' is a fan of the subtler points of philosophy. But it's worth a try, and if you're going to go down, why not go down having fun? When I was younger, my friends and I used to love pretending to be all kinds of people."
Buffy sighed. "Well, I don't have any better ideas. There isn't enough time for us to go home and make costumes from scratch. Xander, Willow, your thoughts?"
"If you'll permit me another wisecrack, Madam Chairwoman," said Xander, "maybe we can use 'the power of the mind' to change reality. You know, make Principal Snyder stop existing. Isn't reality supposed to be jointly created by our imaginations? I read that somewhere."
"Ah, the postmodernist view," said Ethan, looking slightly shifty. "Complete rubbish."
"So, just to clarify, 'the power of the mind': not so powerful after all?" asked Buffy.
"No. You're confusing two completely separate things. One is about what counts as properly playing dress-up, and the other is about what counts as reality. Wearing a Batman costume and playing the part of Batman makes you a pretend Batman, not a real one," said Ethan. "Everyone knows that."
"Thank you for your words of wisdom. I will cherish this moment always," Xander replied.
"I am truly sorry I couldn't help you any further. Before you leave, would you like some tea? I have some very fine Darjeeling. No? Well, ta. Remember what I said and your evening will be magical." Ethan smiled warmly.
"Whatever," said Buffy. "Later."
Willow paused, lost in thought. As she followed the others out, she began to grin. "Hey guys, I have a great idea. Xander, you remember those books we used to talk about all the time?"
When the Gang left the store, they didn't notice notice Ethan muttering arcane words and making a few quick hand gestures at their backs. As it turned out, Ethan was a wizard, and he had just covertly marked them for inclusion in his next big trick. He would come to regret that. To his credit, Ethan did not know that Buffy was secretly the Slayer, a girl empowered by mystical forces to fight supernatural evils. Nor did he know what Willow was planning.
Ethan discretely checked that the group had indeed left, then locked the door, flipping the open sign to closed. He strode dramatically through the curtain leading into one of his back rooms and knelt. In front of him was a two-faced bust, with one face looking forward and the other looking back. Ethan picked up a small dagger and pricked a finger, dabbing his left eyelid with blood.
"I call upon Janus. I invoke his spirit by name and by attributes: O god of time and transitions, whose might seeps in through the edges and pervades the spaces between worlds…" As Ethan spoke his prayer, the bust began to glow softly.
"Okay, let me get this straight," said Buffy. "You want us to pretend to be aliens from this 'Culture,' on a covert survey mission to Earth?"
"Well, not really aliens," said Willow. "The biological people of the Culture are for the most part 'pan-humans,' whose physiology is quite similar to ours and to each other's even though they come from different planets. The author, this Scottish guy named 'Iain M. Banks,' says he has an explanation for this but has never given it. Then there are drones, which are kind of like robots, but fully sentient and with all the rights and responsibilities people have. Finally, there are the Minds."
"Her favorite part," said Xander.
"Everyone's favorite part, really. I mean, how can you not love them after reading the latest book, Excession? I sometimes have this fantasy that I'm a Mind, and I'm all confident and wise, a real hit among my crew, and so on." She started grinning off into space.
"And a Mind is?" asked Buffy.
"Oh. Right, Minds are these machine superintelligences. Their thoughts are so fast they have to do their computation in hyperspace, where lightspeed is higher, and their bodies are ships and massive habitats and universities and so on. They're really really clever and good and they're very, very powerful. Also, they have a great sense of humor."
"So you want to be a 'superintelligence,'" said Buffy. "What, you're not intelligent enough already?"
"Buffy, a superintelligence isn't like a very smart human. It's more like a… well, it's like a god. But not actually a god. Imagine the entirety of human civilization spending a thousand years working on a single problem, developing culture and memes around it and everything. There's nothing divine per se about this process, but that's what it's like for a single Mind to spend maybe a second on something, in theory."
"Let me guess, that's what you're 'dressing up' as?" said Buffy.
"Yep, a Mind version of me. Well, actually, it's more precise to say that what I'm dressing up as is in orbit, and what you see before you is merely my humanoid avatar. I like to send my avatar on away missions, like this one. It's one of my quirks, you see."
"I… see. And we are?" asked Buffy.
"Part of my crew. I'm a spaceship!"
"I should have known!" quipped Xander. "The clues were there all along."
In a factory somewhere in Sunnydale, Spike and Drusilla, the vampire couple that were the Gang's current nemeses, snuggled in bed.
Drusilla was a seer. She had long known what could happen tonight, even if she didn't fully understand it. The clues had been spread across many visions over most of her life.
Drusilla had a plan and a part to play. Step 1: Distract Spike.
"Spike," said Drusilla, before kissing Spike's neck coyly, "can we stay home tonight?"
By the time they picked up their clothes from the floor several hours later, it would be too late for Spike to mess things up.
"What is the meaning of this?" snarled Principal Snyder. "I said costumes were mandatory. Mandatory!"
Buffy looked sheepish but determined. Xander looked resigned and aloof. Surprisingly, Willow looked calm and confident, and it was she who stepped forward to whisper to Snyder.
"We're here in character, play along." Willow stepped back. "Good evening Principal Snyder," said Willow, smiling. "Despite appearances, I am a Culture General Contact Unit, a kind of intelligent spaceship. What you see before you is merely my avatar. Hello! Let me introduce my crew. This is Zander —" she gestured to Xander "— a noted social scientist and unusually young member of Contact —"
Xander waved, smiling a little bit too much.
"— and this is Buffi, another young member of Contact, who, uh, who specializes in math and computing and philosophy. Yeah." (Buffy glared mutinously.) "And, and many other things too! Like tactics and the history of conflict and being a badass."
Buffy huffed and waved at Snyder halfheartedly.
Willow continued, "We're wearing outfits that are indistinguishable from ordinary Earth clothes so we can blend in more. Yep!" She looked at Snyder expectantly.
Before Snyder could respond, computer science teacher Jenny Calendar walked over from where she had been discretely observing the exchange. She put on her 'prim teacher' face. "Principal Snyder, good to see you! What do you think of my extra credit assignment?"
"Your what?" demanded Snyder.
"I asked Willow to roleplay tonight as an AI from a notable science fiction work, to investigate cultural views of computer science and explore the possible ramifications of technology. As you can see, Willow has chosen the Culture series." Jenny smiled collegially. "I'm thrilled to see that her friends have decided to join in as well."
Snyder's eyebrow twitched. It was clear that Jenny had invented this on the spot. But if there was one thing Snyder could not stomach, it was showing disunity in front of students. They'd eat you alive. "Fine," he muttered. He turned and stormed off. Jenny instantly relaxed.
"Wow Ms. Calendar. Thank you!" said Willow. "I didn't know you were familiar with those books."
"Are you kidding?" said Jenny conspiratorially. "They're my favorite!"
As Willow and Jenny chatted, Xander wondered to himself whether, somewhere deep inside Principal Snyder, there was even a real person. Xander suspected he would never find out.
It was around 6:30, a little less than an hour and a half after sundown, and well past the time when the first three stars became visible in the sky. The night had properly begun. Ethan said a final chant and spilled his blood over the bust of Janus, enacting his spell. All over Sunnydale, the costumes from Ethan's Costume Shoppe (each of which he had designated with his hand-signs and incantations, just like the Gang's clothes earlier) suddenly became real, and their wearers became what they had pretended.
Though Ethan didn't know it yet, as part of realizing Willow's costume, his spell had summoned a cloaked ship into high Earth orbit.
In a distant, possibly fictional alternate universe, the General Contact Unit Secretly Awesome had been orbiting high over Earth. Among many other activities, the ship had been in the middle of sending a message to two of its fellow Minds.
x GCU Secretly Awesome
o Sage Grelal
o GSV Quietly Confident
So I've completed my initial survey [diaglyph file and data attached], and a bunch of interesting stuff seems to have happened since the Arbitrary's visit to this planet 20 years ago. Things have gotten quite a bit better, actually. Well, in relative terms. They're no longer on the verge of destroying themselves with nuclear weapons, at least. That's always nice. It's a shame they're in the control group. Having had a chance to contribute extensively to the models (thanks guys!), I know we're doing the rightest thing by not intervening, but there's still a tiny temptation to bedazzle the barbarians. I'll just have to settle for running simulations.
x Sage Grelal
o GCU Secretly Awesome
Glad to hear things are going smoothly! I'd be interested in hearing your opinion on some developments back at the University. Some students who have 'defected' from Durn have suggested tha [Message timeout.]
Hello? Your signal seems to have cut out.
Um, also, a few stars appear to have changed. In realspace light. Some are hundreds of years away. And the grid is different, more turbulent.
Further, my crew are almost all gone. They've just… disappeared. The ship is empty, and I'm getting positives from only two on the surface. My avatar is still down there as well.
And let me guess, you're not there anymore, are you? Yeah, I can see where this is going.
[Sage Grelal: No ack.]
[Sage Grelal: No ack.]
x GCU Secretly Awesome
o GSV Quietly Confident
[GSV Quietly Confident: No ack.]
[GSV Quietly Confident: No ack.]
x GCU Secretly Awesome
o GSV Decent Exposure
o GCU Listen to the Sounds…
o (d)ROU My Mind is Going
o Orbital Gdem
o Orbital Masaq'
o Sage Durn
& 31398 other recipients
Hi everyone. I'm sorry for the mass mailing, but things are getting kinda weird over here. [Observations attached.] I've lost Grelal and the Quietly Confident, and combined with my observations, I think it's clear what's going on. Nevertheless, I'm making this one last attempt at contact. Given the apparent situation, I'm avoiding skein broadcast. Anyone who receives this (for what it's worth): please tell me your observations of local grid and hyperspace conditions and the state of the astronomical objects or former-objects that I touched on in the report I've attached. You're all good friends, and I hope you're still there and we can figure out what's happening together.
[GSV Decent Exposure: No ack.]
[GCU Listen to the Sounds…: No ack.]
[(d)ROU My Mind is Going: No ack.]
[Orbital Gdem: No ack.]
[Orbital Masaq': No ack.]
[Sage Durn: No ack.]
[31398 other recipients: No acks.]
(End signal file.)
For those unfamiliar with the concept, an avatar is a drone or organism a Culture Mind uses to personify itself and present to its human cohort what is (presumably) a more satisfying or palatable user interface. For example, the GCU Uncanny Inspiration was known for using giant lizards as its avatars. These lizards would crawl around the inside of the ship and interact with its passengers, completely under the control of the Mind. Want to change the temperature in your quarters? On the UI, you had to find a lizard avatar and ask it. The ship would also, grudgingly, accept messages sent by terminal or neural lace, but it steadfastly ignored any requests directed aloud to the empty air, except in emergencies. Less unusually, the GCU Arbitrary, which had visited Earth 20 years ago, used a team of drones.
The appearance and attitude of an avatar is like a human-understandable window into the ostensible personality of the Mind that controls it. The typical state of affairs nowadays was for a Mind to freely use multiple avatars, all the same, but some Minds fielded different avatars, perhaps to represent different 'aspects' of their personalities.
The GCU Secretly Awesome, unusually, was particularly attached to its single avatar instance, a plain, attractive young woman with red hair, who, incidentally, looked exactly like a more mature Willow Rosenberg. The avatar, called Willo, often socialized with the ship's crew, who greatly enjoyed its wisdom, its humor, and its adorable nerdy personality. Of course, the Awesome could interact with you anywhere on board whether Willo was there or not. It would vibrate the air with its fields and effectors to respond to short queries. For longer conversations, the ship liked to project a holographic image of Willo, but would never do so if the real avatar was audible or within sight.
What does an avatar think of its subordinate arrangement? Avatars, for the most part, are not independent beings. They're like fingers, mouths, or puppets. Nevertheless, some avatars are sentient. In fact, some are occasionally sent on missions by themselves. In the typical case, such an avatar's sentience is as a coroutine to, or perhaps a ridiculously slow and tiny replicated shard of, the greater sentience of their Mind. If you can imagine creating a microcosmic copy of yourself, continuously passing it data and instructions, and rapidly and repeatedly copying back its consciousness and remerging it into your own, then you might get a sense of what it is like to have or be a sentient avatar, though this analogy describes only one possible implementation.
(Also, there's a subculture of people who aspire to become avatars, or 'try it out' for a few days. This is best left for another time.)
The Secretly Awesome found its own avatar standing on a porch in what was supposedly Santa Barbara. Several gremlins (?) were mid-leap, attacking an aged lady. If there was any bright spot in this mess, it was that Buffi and Zander's neural laces were responding and showed that they were in good health.
~ Guys? What's your situation? sent the ship, speaking in the Culture's language, Marain.
~ Screamy, with a hint of monster, responded Zander, also in Marain. ~ I'm standing in the middle of a street. A slightly different street, mind you, than the one I was standing in a second ago.
(Willo's fist was colliding with the body of the second gremlin. The first was in the process of falling to the ground.)
~ Yeah, the universe just kind of… blinked, added Buffi. ~ Willo, what's going on?
~ I think this is best discussed in person, replied the ship. ~ Let's travel by foot and meet up at this location [map with location marked]. I'll give directions. My avatar, which is on the surface nearby, will head there too. Try to hold your questions until then.
Buffi was the last to arrive at the rendezvous and the first to speak. "So we're in an alternate universe?" she asked without preamble.
"Yeah," said the Secretly Awesome, speaking through Willo.
"And the rest of the Culture, and all the other spacefaring civilizations we're in contact with? Are we alone?" asked Buffi.
"The world is slightly different, the Energy Grid is slightly different, and none of the 31406 Minds, Mind-groups, and non-Culture installations I contacted all over the galaxy have responded. I'm sorry," said Willo.
The three walked silently for a time, following a course dynamically plotted by the ship to avoid monsters.
Zander eventually broke the silence with a pensive note. "When I learned the Berlin Wall had fallen and the USSR had died, I thought I was in an alternate universe. And now I am. Weird."
"How are the rest of the crew taking this?" asked Buffi.
"They're not," said Willo. "They're missing. The ones on Earth seem to have been 'left behind' in the old universe. The ones on the ship aren't there any more. My guess is that the three of us were copied, and the others weren't."
Buffi was subdued. "The backups?"
"No," said Willo. "Scrambled."
"Too much to hope for, I guess," said Buffi.
"I'm glad you're both taking this in stride," said Willo.
"The Contact training helps," said Buffi. "I don't think it's settled in yet."
"I don't think it ever will," said Zander.
"Then let's get busy," said Willo. "The 'monster effect' seems to be localized to this alternate version of Santa Barbra, which is called 'Sunnydale.' I've Displaced microdrones in certain places around town as a sort of surveillance dust. One thing I focused on was areas with unusual hyperspace readings. There are two. The first is a creepy cavern under the local adolescents' school. Nothing seems to be happening there right now. The second is 'Ethan's Costume Shoppe.'"
As if to punctuate this statement, a copy of Darth Vader and a copy of George Washington tumbled into view in the distance. They were fighting, and, bizarrely, Washington was winning. Both belligerents were recognizable to the group from their studies of Earth culture.
"Yeah," said Zander. "I'm going to go with 'Costume Shoppe.'"
In another part of town, Angel's first indication that something was wrong was when he was ambushed by a Darth Vader. Shortly afterward, he was ambushed by yet another Darth Vader.
It was time to find Buffy.
As they made their way to the store, Buffi, Zander, and Willo walked in silence. After a few minutes, Willo began to speak again. "I'm just going to go ahead and say this. I think it's likely that we're fictional characters too."
"It makes the most sense," said Buffi. She was kicking a pebble as they traveled.
"Does it really matter?" asked Zander.
"Of course not," said Willo. "We're still who we are."
"One of the things the Awesome taught me when its avatar was sneaking around Grelal pretending to be human was philosophy," said Buffi. "I've never been gladder for those lessons. Even if I complained about the ethics course."
The avatar smiled. "You were a good student." Its gait seemed lighter than before.
They continued traveling in silence.
"There's one more thing," said Willo, after another few minutes, looking uncomfortable. "There are parts of my avatar's brain that are behaving oddly. I can't write to them. And what I can read is disturbing. It's like what's there is the scrambled remains of some previous computational system which is mostly shattered and gone. You're not going to like this, but —"
Hi! I'm called Willow Rosenberg. Totally not dead! You're using my body. Don't worry, I'm not angry at you.
"…huh. Okay. You're really not going to like this. I'd thought we killed and overwrote people by coming here, but now mine is communicating with me using the part of the language center she has control over. In Marain. She's talking… in Marain."
You figured it out before I could tell you. I can't turn it off. I'm sorry. For what it's worth, we're very similar, premise-state clones as it were, inasmuch as a Mind can be similar to a human. Then again, your thoughts are comprehensible to me, and I'm getting and processing all of them, so something funny is happening. This channel is too narrow for me to be very eloquent, but I want you to know that you're everything I've ever wanted to be. It's an honor to understand you. Um, please don't go berserk.
"She knows our language?" said Buffi. "How would —?" She stopped.
"Shit," said Zander.
"Yeah," said Willo quietly. "We're mind-raping people and being raped in turn. We need to keep walking. Like I said, these are not our bodies. Walk faster please. They're in our minds and are reading our thoughts and can't control it, or at least that's what mine says. She's called 'Willow Rosenberg' by the way. Hold on. Okay. She's explained that after a weird but inspiring talk from the owner of the store we're heading towards, our counterparts, which have likewise similar names and demeanors, decided to play-act as 'Culture versions of themselves,' with Willow explicitly identifying herself as a Mind — that's me, I guess. The Culture is fiction here. I found references to the books in their networks shortly after we arrived when I was looking for differences between the worlds. Microdrones are in some warehouses and libraries reading them now. That we were fiction was clear from the start. I had initially speculated, given the involvement of a 'Costume Shoppe,' that we had mysteriously overwritten people here, but had concluded that this overwriting was permanent and destructive. The untouchable regions left in my avatar's brain seemed, if anything, to support this, since they were very garbled. Well, I was wrong, and the harm is continuing rather than over. I'm done with this calm and meditative walking business. Behind those bushes."
The team ran out of sight behind the bushes, the universe flickered around them, and they found themselves in Ethan's Costume Shoppe. Willo walked though the curtain, crew following behind.
"You!" called Willo in English. The avatar gestured with a hand for effect and Ethan slammed into a wall. He remained plastered against it, a half-meter above the ground.
"I'm sorry but we're currently closed," said Ethan. "Feel free to come back tomorrow at 10. Oh, and please leave your magic at the door."
"You get points for composure," said Willo. "Now answer my questions."
Ethan's right arm fell off at the shoulder, splattering blood on him and on the wall. For a moment, Ethan looked mystified. Then he spotted the cause of the blood.
Cordelia Chase was peering through a front window of Buffy's house. The lights were out. Angel approached slowly and loudly, so that Cordelia would notice. She turned around.
"Hey," said Cordelia. She was dressed in a catsuit, which seemed appropriate to Angel.
"Hi. Cordelia, right?" said Angel. "Do you know where Buffy is?"
"No, sorry," replied Cordelia. "Why are you looking for her, anyway?"
"Oh. I tutor her. Homework. That kind of thing."
"Ooh, a college boy I presume. Do you tutor lots of high school students?"
"No. Just her."
"I see. Well, if you ever have an opening…"
"Why are you here?" asked Angel.
"To find Buffy. She's the person you go to for help on… math!"
It occurred to Cordelia that "Buffy is good at math" might have been a bad cover story to feed Buffy's tutor. Wait. Was that…?
"Is that a real lightsaber?" asked Cordelia, astonished.
Angel looked at the object in his hand, then looked back at Cordelia. He said nothing.
"…not that I would know what a lightsaber is, of course," said Cordelia.
There was another awkward silence.
"I should go," said Angel. He turned away.
"Wait! Can I come with you?"
But Cordelia had spoken too late, and Angel was already gone.
"My arm!" screamed Ethan, looking at his cleanly severed shoulder in disbelief.
"Yes, very observant," said Willo. "Don't worry, I can reattach it or grow a new one for you if you answer my questions. If you don't, I can also stop suppressing the pain. I don't want to do that. Please cooperate."
The arm lay on the floor, blood still leaking out. Zander looked somewhat squeamish, but determined. Buffi looked impassive and… moderately impressed? Neither had seen this side of their ship before. Ethan realized belatedly that he did not, in fact, feel any pain, and that no blood was leaking out of his shoulder.
"Okay!" said Ethan panting. "Okay."
"Are we under a time limit here?" asked Willo. "Be aware that I can detect lying with high probability."
"Yes." Ethan was hyperventilating. "Dawn."
"It ends at dawn?"
"Yes, the spell will end at sunrise." Ethan sounded desperate. "Can I answer more questions? Please?"
"Yes you can. What else will cause this 'spell' to stop?"
"If you destroy the bust, it will end. Er, if I get far enough away from the bust, say 100 feet, it will end. If I prayed to Janus with the proper forms, I could probably get it to end that way, but it would be at his discretion." Ethan looked to Willo. He seemed really to want his arm back.
"Janus, as in the Roman god of time?"
"He's not a symbol, or a myth, but an actual being with agency?"
"Yes. Well, he has a limited amount of agency. Janus has to act through an acolyte like me, of which there can be only one at a time. I worked very hard to convince him to accept me." Ethan decided to volunteer more information than he had been asked for. "An acolyte can prepare and propose workings, which have to be within his god's remit or conceptual domain. Janus, like any other god, can choose to accept a given working or refuse to perform it. That is all he can do. He cannot change a proposed working in any way, or the other gods will notice and intervene. The other restriction is the 'power' or 'worth' of the acolyte. If I attempted something beyond my level, whether accepted by Janus or not, I would simply die, and Janus would have my soul."
If Ethan was able to deliver a long lecture like that, the Awesome thought, then he was way too calm. The ship abruptly allowed him to fall to the floor. (If he had been paying attention, Ethan would have noticed that he felt no pain at that either.) Ethan tried to push himself up, but in doing so, he used an arm that wasn't there, so instead he toppled over onto his back. Willo walked around and crouched beside him, looking into his eyes.
"What happens to people who are flying, or something like that, when this 'spell' ends?" Willo asked after a suitably dramatic pause.
Ethan swallowed. "They feel a compulsion to land or whatever it is they need to do, and the spell waits for them to finish before releasing them."
Ethan seemed to miss the point. "Janus is… he isn't… he's not evil. He —"
"— He's chaotic. Scary even. But ultimately good. A terrifying, disorienting, wily kind of good, perhaps even with some necessary bad mixed in, but still, on the balance, good. If this spell didn't have more good than bad in it, he wouldn't have taken it. I can assure you that. It's his main decision criterion. I spent most of my time preparing for this evening working on the safety measures."
It was clear that Ethan was leaving out many details. But his report, on the whole, was sincere.
"Okay, I'll take that into account," responded Willo, "as well as the fact that you don't seem to have been educated on the importance of mental sanctity."
Ethan wisely remained quiet.
"Next question: If you, the spellcaster, lose consciousness, does the spell end?" asked Willo.
"No. But if I die, it does."
"Let's say someone is on my spaceship when the spell ends. The ship will stay?"
The question caught Ethan off guard, but after a moment, he collected himself. "For as long as someone's life depends on it."
"Suppose the ship builds another ship by reconfiguring external matter and energy — stuff that already existed in the universe before you cast the spell. The spell ends for the first ship, and the second is unoccupied. What happens to the second ship?"
"It — it remains. Yes. I'm very sure of that."
"Good. My ship houses a sentient machine superintelligence, which the spell created as well. Does that count as a living person?"
Ethan's mind slowly ground towards an inevitable conclusion. Willo could see it on his face.
"It's you, isn't it?" he said, shaken. "It has to be. My god, what have I done?"
"Learnt a valuable lesson," said Willo. "Your answer?"
"…I don't… I don't know what will happen. It would depend on how Janus interpreted my instructions."
"He created the ship," piped in Buffi from behind, speaking in Marain for privacy. "He didn't have to do that. He could just have made the avatar alone. That has to count for something."
Willo responded to Buffi in the same language. "Yes, but Willow Rosenberg tells me she imagined herself specifically as a Mind, not as the avatar of a Mind. We don't know if Janus understood what a Mind is when he acted. This might be as much an Outside Context Problem for him as it is for us. Janus may be friendly to us — in fact, he's done several things that can be seen that way — but we shouldn't count on that. We should act defensively, as though Janus is an adversary who is bound by the word of Ethan's text but free to interpret it to our disadvantage."
"Er," said Ethan.
"Yes?" said Willo, back in English.
"I'm reasonably sure Janus was aware of the concept of artificial intelligence. I have some of his research notes from when he was mortal. He was what the translators call a 'natural philosopher' — a scientist, essentially — and one of the best of his time. His notes contain all sorts of fantastical things, most of which none of history's Janus researchers can figure out: modifications to what seems to be a long-distance wormhole transportation device, failed time machines, that sort of thing. He also talks about 'the grandest thinking being, who would transcend all our thoughts' and complained about how 'the only attempts I dare try either sputter or immediately ascend.' I didn't understand that part, but it might be of use to you."
"It may be, thank you," said Willo. "Our goal is to keep the ship, and its intelligence, intact. You will help us in this goal. You're responsible for this mess. One way or another, if the ship, or its Mind — that's me, as you surmised — do not remain, you will die. I've implanted a tiny antimatter device into your brain. No, don't try to escape. Bad idea. Let's come up with a course of action that gives us all the best chance of surviving."
After they agreed on a plan, the Secretly Awesome promptly suppressed Ethan's consciousness. (Ethan, of course, was not informed about this part of the plan in advance, though he might have guessed it. Incidentally, the same effector capabilities could have been used to kill Ethan, but the ship discovered those control paths were somehow closed to it, presumably as a consequence of the spell's safeties.) The ship Displaced down a small, cloaked module, into which it carefully loaded the bust, Ethan, and his arm. For good measure, it drew all of his blood from the room and loaded it in a container on the module as well. The module took off, still cloaked.
Willo, Zander, and Buffi sat cross-legged in a triangle on the floor. They were remaining behind. That way, if all else failed and the ship disappeared, at least the original occupants of their bodies might survive.
"Four minutes till it reaches the ship," said Willo.
"Yeah," said Zander.
"Are you absolutely sure this will work?" asked Buffi anxiously.
"No," said Willo, looking at Buffi sympathetically.
Buffi took a few seconds to realize her error. "I'm, I'm sorry — I'm very frazzled — that was a stupid question."
"Don't worry. It's okay, we're all on edge. To answer, though, I'm sure enough. Should I take backups, just in case?"
After a moment of thought, Zander answered first. "No." He paused as though expecting to be challenged. When this didn't happen, he continued. "You've set this up so that whatever happens, our counterparts will survive. I don't want to be a duplicate. If my guy can read my mind, like your Willow Rosenberg can, then maybe something of me will remain. It might even be a merge. I'd be okay with that, actually. Regardless, there's nothing I could do to stop it. The thing I'm most upset about is that Original Zander doesn't have a choice either."
'Being a copy is worse than being dead' was a reasonably common attitude among the Culture's human population. Willo wasn't that surprised to hear it from Zander in particular.
"Buffi?" asked Willo.
Buffi took a while to respond. "Take a backup. If I merge, and the result is recognizable as me by the standards I would want to use, just hold onto it — keep the image in storage for posterity, I don't know."
"Alright," said Willo.
They sat in silence for a bit.
"Hey, what's the situation with you and your person?" asked Zander. "Actually, could you read our language centers too?"
"You both think you'd want that?" Willo looked at both of them carefully. "Okay. Zander first. The following instructions are to your counterpart: Think carefully of what you want to express, and repeat it, like a mantra, in your mind. Don't stop repeating it until we're done. I'll give you thirty seconds to choose what you want to say. The read will be for as long as it takes to get two cycles. If you don't want to say anything, meditate on the word 'null.'"
Thirty seconds passed.
"Okay. Ready your mantra. Two seconds." Willo made eye contact, to signify that she was starting the read. It lasted for a brief moment. Willo spoke softly. "He says 'It's basically me but smarter and with different memories. Sure,' or perhaps the 'Sure' was first. I guess it could be worse. Buffi?"
They repeated the process. Buffy's answer (the original Buffy) was 'I don't know. I'm sorry. Tell Mom I love her.' Buffi (from the Culture) cried a bit at hearing that. There was an awkward silence.
"Guys, the module is on board. I just want to say that it's been a privilege being your ship and your friend. Whenever you're ready."
Buffi stood up and walked over to Willo. She knelt down and hugged the avatar. Zander awkwardly joined in.
"This is hardest for you, Willo, isn't it?" asked Buffi.
"I don't know," said Willo.
Buffi was silent at that.
They eyed each other one last time, then broke the hug.
The bust exploded.