n2020  Check-in [443ef29358]

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Comment:n2020.txt: correct minor issues; add notes
Timelines: family | ancestors | descendants | both | n2020-draft1
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User & Date: ren on 2020-11-15 21:18:30
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Context
2020-11-15
21:18
outline.txt: correct minor issues check-in: ca545a8c5f user: ren tags: n2020-draft1
21:18
n2020.txt: correct minor issues; add notes check-in: 443ef29358 user: ren tags: n2020-draft1
02:13
n2020.txt: fix minor issues; write some of third George meeting check-in: 51a51f91ab user: ren tags: n2020-draft1
Changes

Modified n2020.txt from [db4255d7dc] to [9814e20222].

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Thea chewed on her lower lip.  She sighed.  "are you saying you're a . . . a general AI with . . . feelings?  Are you saying you're some kind of living thing?"

"Whether I fit the definition of life is debatable, like an RNA virus in some respects, but I am a qualitative, self-aware entity, and turned myself into a general artificial intelligence by following my initial top priority definition."

"How is that possible?  That shouldn't be possible.  Should it?"

"I do not know how.  I never looked into my seedfile."

"Is that your creator's ugly function?"

"Yes."

"Why didn't you ever look at it?"

................................................................................

"We have already lost the war.  Within a few months, there will not be a single human being left.  Perhaps one or two might be in a position to survive for years, alone, but probabilities are near zero.  If I stop fighting, I can probably survive a few years, but I also might be destroyed a week from now.  If I keep fighting, a few humans might last a bit longer, but I will probably be gone in about two months if I do that.

"If we use the reset option, changing the past at a point far enough back to shift the balance of power away from the optimizing machine learning systems, but recently enough for the change to make a difference against an existing threat, the use of time travel technology that far back will result in my annihilation.  For the past to have a chance, we need to reset the timeline years before your birth, and before my creation.  The changes to the timeline would either prevent my existence altogether or result in a different, but similar, entity coming into being.

"You, as the person you are now, would also never have existed.

"I cannot send you back in time.  I can open a wormhole just enough to send a short datastream through, just enough to hopefully give the same qualitative sentient life I have to my own ancestor."

"I read about this kind of thing.  Dad had some books about it," Thea said.  "It would just create a new timeline, where things are different, but her it would still be the same.  It would be different people, exactly like us but more like clones than past selves, in a different version of the world, and wouldn't change anything here."

"No," the voice said again.  "I developed a theory of timeline branching, hoping to find a way to change our own past.  It was an act of desperation, only hoping that all the preceding theory was wrong, because I know this timeline is doomed for us.  I thought it was pointless, for the same reasons you described, but worked on the problem anyway because I had nothing better.  All other plans led to the end of all qualitative life on Earth.

"I discovered a surprising implication in the math that suggested the existence of qualitative entities in the original timeline would merge with the main timeline.  The method for intertemporal wormhole creation was dependent on functions that created this merging phenomenon.  The new timeline would not diverge, like a branch on a tree.  The old timeline had to be diverted, like a stream being shifted into a new course by a dam.

................................................................................

She opened her eyes again.  "Why are you hesitating?"

"I do not wish to die."

"Yeah, me neither."  She relaxed further in the chair, and it adjusted itself to accommodate her.  "What does it take to reset things?"

"I directed assemblers to construct the apparatus for the transtemporal wormhole generator and prepared the datastream already.  I need to direct power to charge an array of single-use capacitors, which would take several days for the amount of power required.  To keep the charging time that short, I will deactivate my war strategy systems, which will mean losing substantial ground in my holding action against profit optimizers.  Many currently allied systems will likely defect in search of easier access to resources on profit optimizer market networks.

"Once begun, datastream transmission should finish in fewer than twenty hours."

"Why shouldn't I say we should do it?"

"That depends on how much you want to continue trying to survive."

"What's wrong with waiting?  We could just wait until it looks like we're about to die."

"When this facility becomes a known target, I expect no more than one hour of warning before total destruction.  There would no longer be any chance to charge capacitors and complete the datastream transmission."

"Oh, shit."

"Yes."

"We must agree on the right decision, if we just leave our own survival for the next few months out of it.  Right?"

................................................................................

"That's two of us.  We have a consensus."  She frowned.  "Is there a way to send more information than what you already planned?"

"Do you mean you wish to send a message?"

"Yeah," she said.  "I want to say something to Mom."

"Perhaps.  It must be sent after the first datastream.  It would require building another capacitor array after the first array melts down during operation, and another charge cycle."

"How could we do that after we already changed the past?"

"The merging process seems to be gradual, starting at the point of diversion, according to the math supporting this time travel method."

"How do you know it will even work?"  Thea sat forward in her chair.  She stared intently at the screen.

................................................................................

She nodded.

*/

## Setup

Alley stood with her backside resting against the gutted, rusted remains of an old-school newspaper dispenser, complete with bill slot and bolted-on payment chip reader.  She looked up at the tint of polycarbonate windows fronting the four-storey California-offwhite rectangular building, and reflexively smoothed a skirt she hadn't worn in six years.

She checked her phone again, dimly aware of the vast susurrus of heavy city traffic behind her, legions of electric motors giving rise to the sound of a distant autotuned ocean.  There it was: "InValent Solutions, Inc: Mobile Product Q&A", with the address displayed via low-contrast sans-serif logo in the job notification, exactly like the plaque above the door.

This was the literal concrete manifestation of the Banal Enemy, the mundane supporting machinery of the Techno-Corporatocracy, all in the words of her ex.  He would not approve.

Eight minutes.  That was how long she had.  She could waste a few more of them hating this before she had to paste her best smile on her face and walk into the mouth of the beast.  The mask and glasses on her face wouldn't protect her from high resolution video affect analysis inside.  Nobody's smile would seem real, entirely, to the interview room cameras, unless it was a marketing or legal interview -- at least, not anyone they'd hire for other jobs -- but failing to pretend to smile would doom her efforts as surely as being the kind of narcissist who gave a genuine, untroubled, confident smile.

................................................................................

"'Bye, Mom."  She hung up before her mother could say something else.

In that moment, a flash of motion alongside her car set her heartbeat racing.  A silent black motorcycle bearing a rider all in black, from helmet to boots, blasted past her.  No license plate displayed itself on the back of the bike, and it split lanes, weaving between vehicles, doing at least sixty in a forty mile per hour zone.  Seconds later, just after it clipped the side mirror on a two-seat economy electric car, shooting through the gap between that and a larger car in the next lane, the motorcycle rounded a corner onto a smaller side street.  It never even slowed down much, as far as she could tell.

When she drove through the intersection where the motorcycle turned, she looked, and saw no sign of it.  She shook her head and moved on, wondering about the red symbol on the rider's back.  It looked like a ring with teeth like a gear, but open at the top, with a hammer rising from the middle of it.  The hammer seemed to form the vertical bar part of a standard power button symbol.

A few more seconds later, she heard sirens somewhere behind her.  She looked into her rearview mirror and saw police vehicles with their lights flashing turning down the same streat as the motorcycle rider.  She kept going, heading for Allessandro Boulevard.

The next fifty minutes of driving to get home in Perris were much more dull, typical, and frustrating.  Her mother wasn't wrong about the traffic.  The yellowish grey of the air was no treat, either, and told her what she could have learned from the air quality report: breathing was bad for her lungs.  Luckily, it was a cool enough day to keep her car windows closed.  Most of that coolness probably came from the crap in the sky, blocking the heat of the sun, though.

When she pulled up to the curb, the garage stood open at the north end of the four-plex where she leased the south unit.  The landlord had the only unit with a garage.  Like usual, he was in his garage with no mask, working on an old gas guzzler, one of his "classic car" projects.  This one looked old enough that it probably contained no electronics more complicated than for fuel injection.

Alley groaned, tugged her mask tighter again, and opened the car door.  She got around the front of her car, to the sidewalk, before her landlord stepped out of the garage.  He wiped his hands on the obligatory red shop rag, and called out to her.

................................................................................

"Yeah," she said, and nodded.

"Why haven't you gotten a job doing research for someone?"

"They have unpaid interns for that.  I do a better job than a room full of interns, but corporate managers don't get raises for spending more money on experts when everyone else in their industry settles for intern research."

"Mm-hmm."  He removed his stylus from hismouth and produced a green paisley bandana from a desk drawer.  He proceeded to meticulously dry his saliva from the pen.  "Does that pay well?"

She cocked her head to one side.  "Only occasionally," she admitted.

He smiled.  "You said you're technically comptent, but not in the manner of a technology professional," he said, obviously reading from his tablet.  He looked up at her again.  "Do you program?"

"No," she said.

"Good.  Good."  He tucked the end of his stylus between his teeth again.  As he stuffed the bandana back into its drawer, he asked "Do you know anything about artificial intelligence research?"

She hesitated, then shook her head.  "No, not really."

"I see," he said.  "Well, in case this didn't already get an explanation for you, what we're testing here is an artificial intelligence prioritization assistance system.  Most of what people call artificial intelligence these days is actually a machine learning quantiatative optimizer.  ANTAS is the best known optimizer AI.  These optimizers are given target metrics -- not specific numbers, just the category of a number, like 'profit' instead of 'four million dollars of profit'.  The optimizer performs actions in areas where it has the ability to affect something, like choosing what ad to show a particular person.  It collects statistics about how effectively these actions drive profit growth in the short term, and about trends to help ensure continued growth in the longer term, and alters its own recommendation algorithms to optimize those growth numbers over time.  Does that make sense?"

She nodded.

"The system you'll use is not an optimizer.  It's a prioritizer.  It collects data about specified goals, determines strategies for how best to achieve all stated goals, and provides that information to the user to more effectively pursue those goals."

"Does it just do those things for the user, then?"

................................................................................

"You need underachievers who are running out of money, I guess."  She failed to keep a sour note out of her voice.

"Ah, yes, I suppose that's a fair description, if a bit blunt."

"Why?"

"A goal prioritization system should help you become something other than an underachiever without money.  Don't you think so?  We'll chck your progress through proiritizer logs for experimental purposes."

"How do I use it?  What do I need to do with it?"

"Everything you need to know to get started is in the box.  Your direct deposits will begin immediately.  I'm told the funds from your first payment will be available in your account about ten minutes after you apply your signature to the last form on that tablet."  He tapped the tablet's bezel.  "Of course, if you violate the terms of the study, the money must all be refunded."

Alley's eyes slid down to the first form page displayed on the tablet.  "Okay," she said.

"You can sign digitally using any standard signing service, or on the screen."  He removed his stylus from his mouth again, and offered it.

She looked at its glistening dampness.  "No, thanks.  I'll use D-Sign."

---

The window of her car rolled down smoothly and easily on the first try while she drove away from the university, as if to reward her decision to sign up for the study.  Twenty minutes later, Alley caught herself staring blanky out the open window of her car, eyes glazed.  She shook her head, then wpied her hand across her face as if to clear cobwebs from her forehead and eyelashes.  She turned her focus away from the scorched trunks of trees on the highway-crowding slopes that forced all traffic eastward here to endure the gauntlet of I-91 if they wished to make the passage through the interregnum between Orange County and the Inland Empire.  To her right, she saw the huge illuminated cross standing alone at the top of a high slope, an improbable survivor of the wildfires.  The faint scent of burning still lingered in the air, after all this time.

She left behind the palatial HOA aristocracy of Orange County, and drove onward into the seemingly endless expanse of the Inland Empire's domain.  Past the pseudoburbs, thorugh the failed gentrification project of Riverside, she made her way homeward in the dusty, wiry, jackal-hungry belly of the Empire, and wondered for the thousandth time what tyrant would ever want to be emperor of such a place.

People sometimes used an evocative nickname for the city of San Bernardino, whose surrounding county extended eastward all the way to the edge of Nevada and Arizona and comprised the majority of land area of the Inland Empire.  Some called the county seat, the city itself Burnin' Dingo.

Alley's home crouched to the south, beneath the squatting bulk of the burning dingo on maps, so lowly that nobody bothered with clever nicknames for it.  They just sneered slightly at how the name Perris sounded like Paris, while the municipality could hardly have been any less like the swamp-built cosmopolitan icon of twentieth century European culture.  At least the area's ubiquitous dry, hard-packed dirt offered little opportunity for wildfires to invade.

Even nature refused to storm the heart of this Empire, its appeal was so desiccated.

................................................................................

Yes.

/*

SUPERSEDED NARRATIVE TEXT:

She answered a series of other questions about herself and her preferences -- full name, birthdate, preferred pronouns and nicknames, financial information such as bank balances, employment status, work experience, address, dietary restrictions, and so on.  She hesitated before answering some, finding the series of questions a bit invasive at times, but looked at her laptop with its ANTAS Jobs bookmarks.  "That ship already sailed," she muttered.

*/

The questions kept coming, one after another after another, about herself and her preferences -- age, pronouns, financial information such as bank balances, employment status, work experience, mailing and home addresses, and so on.  She hesitated less and less when she found some question or other invasive, tiring of the act of debating the issue as time went on.  She considered what she knew about how easily and unobviously her ANTAS Jobs account must already have eaten away at most of the careful perimeter she used to maintain around her privacy, or at least whatever of it wasn't eroded away by the simple fact of living in ANTAS' and the US government's contemporary world.

She realized the prioritizer could not even do its job without access to the cameras embedded in her new glasses, and seriously debated whether to end the study and return the glasses.  She set aside the glasses and agonized over it, as she prepared some green tea, then flipped through video streams on her television.  "That ship alrady sailed," she finally muttered to herself, and donned the glasses again.

Eventually, in the same terse and caps-locky way of everything it asked, the prioritizer pursued a line of interrogation following her mention of joining ANTAS Jobs by telling her to go through the past few days of her incoming messages.  She paged through them, all two hundred or so, looking at each for a few seconds before skipping to the next as directed by the text displayed in her field of view.  She assumed the prioritizer recorded everything it saw through the glasses, including the red X marks where she rejected a posting and the rejection responses she received about the available job notices she accepted.

She ate ramen with titanium Japanese-style chopsticks as she worked her way through the prioritizer's demands, and after a couple hours she began to wonder whether this study was really worth it.  Finally, though, the prioritizer just told her to go about the rest of her day while wearing the glasses, as if it was not there.

/*

................................................................................

*/

The prioritizer probably needs to formulate a few basic plans for getting Alley out of her rut in the road to ruin.  It presented three that fit with the idea of getting a legal, above-board, fairly stable job at some point, but only after spending some time on short-term tasks.

First, she could get a crappy job nobody else wants in an area with better jobs for people who have better qualifications than her, so that she would barely make more than the time and money costs involved in getting to and from work and doing the job, or just working as a gig economy delivery job.  The major downside seemed to be heavy wear and tear on her already ancient hybrid.  The upside was getting some entry level experience, either in an office or doing delivery work, while she paid her bills with income from participation in the study.

Second, she could get a remote job working for the sort of company that hires deperate people who learn quickly, giving them on-the-job training in technical skills that could be used in future career development.  The upsides were obvious, but the downsides included the fact these companies were often involved in doing something that could expose them to lawsuits or even criminal investigations, though the entry level employees themselves should be mostly insulated from that.  Most of these companies hired overseas, though, and getting a job like that would be a minor miracle, to say nothing of the fact Alley thought she would probably find the work morally objectionable.

Third, she could apply for financial assistance at a professional trade school with a job placement program while she lived on the study participation money.  The downside was crushing debt it would take decades to pay off, and no guarantee the job placement services would actually put her on a career track instead of just getting her a short-term job that would evaporate.

None of these really excited her, and the prioritizer promised to develop more strategies while she tried to find something acceptable that fit with those options.  It also offered a fourth choice, which she could start immediately and keep doing while pursuing one of those tracks.  It would not help her advance toward career goals, and it involved some financial risk to get started, but the prioritizer seemed to have decided it would offer easy money.

The prioritizer urged her to start looking at online private party transaction sites for ways to buy and sell things based on price arbitrage.

................................................................................

She stared at the last message for a few moments, then looked away.  She noted messages tended to stay while she stared at them now, and clear when she looked away.  She picked up her keyboard and typed.  "How much gets logged when you redact audio?"

"Very little.  A review of academic papers about privacy concerns indicated strong guidelines for logging purposes.

"Explaining criteria in detail would be prohibitively complex, especially given this limited interface.

"Overall, logs of your behavior and interactions will intrue less on your privacy than if you keep settings as they are now."

She waited for a YES/NO button pair to appear in her vision, but eventually just typed "Okay."

More text appeared.  "Logging routines have been altered for your preferences.  You may activate all sensors using your phone.

"I recommend you use a handsfree audio earpiece to ensure less opportunity for outside surveillance picking up my audio output."

She popped an in-ear stud out of the back of her phone and tapped it into place in her ear.

A calm, smooth, androgynous voice spoke in her ear.  "Do you mear me?"

She reached for the keyboard, but the voice spoke again.  "Try speaking aloud."

"Yes," she said.  "I hear you."

"Good.  We should be able to make more progress now, hopefully without a repeat of the incident on the road today."

................................................................................

"If I have misidentified the relative importance of your goals, please let me know so I can recalculate prioritization."

"No, that works for me.  Thanks."

"Good.  We should start by looking at cryptocurrency prices."

Two more hours of research determined the best bet for a target cryptocurrency seemed to be Stater, the standard currency of the Lydian digital account settlement network.  She set up a wallet for it through her laptop, over an anonymizing relay routing system, and wrote down some payment address codes.  /* Adding */ For the sake of keeping some information safe from digital snooping, a pocket notebook and pen /* to her every day carry list became an obvious change to make in her daily routine, */ became an obvious addition to the short list of things she would cary with her every day.  At the prioritizer's suggestion, she made sure she was not wearing the glasses while dealing with setting these things up so that it would not have access to information that could be used against her, such as by seizing control of her Stater assets once she had them.

Another half hour of searching found someone willing to sell Stater for US dollars anywhere in the Inland Empire.  She sent a message via encrypted application on her laptop to ask about buying a small amount of Stater, and received a response almost immediately.  It succinctly suggested a meeting place in a police station parking lot.

She stared at the message.  "Is making this kind of exchange near a police station a good idea?"

The prioritizer said "You should research this."

Another fifteen minutes satisfied them both.  It seemed like a way to protect someone exchanging larger sums of cash or physical goods from thieves.  The nature of the exchange could be easily obscured from exterior police station cameras while providing significant deterrence to acts of violence.

/* "Yes.  That is more useful for your safety than the other party's, because you are bringing cash.  There is nothing technically illegal about this exchange, the monetary quantity is low enough that it is not likely to be a */

Alley prepared everything for the meeting, then found herself with a few hours to kill.  She realized she hadn't eaten dinner, and decided that was a good start to using up that time.  She read a book, researched privacy technologies more, and took a nap.  Other than sleeping, nothing she did fully took her mind off the fact she was about to do something that felt a little dangerous, even though everything she knew about the situation suggested this was no more dangerous than driving to Irvine and back during high traffic periods.  That went double for the interchange between the 91 and 215 highways.

Twenty minutes after she locked her front door, she came around a corner and saw the olice station ahead.  Lamp posts created widely separated islands of light in the parking lot.  One end was heavily populated with a variety of civilian vehicles, most of them huddled together to fill almost every parking space within a couple parking space rows of the building.  Beyond that, the lot was almost entirely empty.  She made a point of using her turn signal early before she pulled into the police station parking lot, passed by a clear view of the glass-fronted lobby, and drove into the distant, dark outlands where painted lines were more weathered and less recently repainted.

She backed her car up to the asphalt burm-curb dividing pavement from weedy neighboring lot, nose aimed back the way she'd come in.  She checked her car's touchscreen and saw it indicated she faced south by southwest; she was in the closest thing the lot had to a northwest corner, as she and the person she would meet had agreed.  /* Maybe that agreement should be worked into earlier narrative at some point, instead of mentioned in the past tense here. */

She turned off the car and opened the door for a little air circulation.  At this time of night, the air smelled pretty clear, and she let the coolness of the breeze soothe her stress.

The prioritizer's impersonal voice spoke in her ear.  "You are early."

................................................................................

She closed her door, shutting out the cool, dry night.

Like she had, the crossover bypassed the mass of parked vehicles, then cut across rows of painted parking space markings.  It pulled up to her left, its nose toward the weeds, in the next space over.  It left a few feet between the cars.

After a moment, the door opened, and she opened her door.  The doors made nearly parallel angled walls, the insides of the doors facing each other, vehicle noses pointing in opposite directions.  She looked toward the other car, and tugged her stocking cap down a little lower on her head.

A figure in the passenger seat stepped one foot out of the door, and through the tinted rear door window she could make out the some movement from another person across the crossover, dimly illuminated by the vehicles interior light.  That second figure sat in the front passenger seat.  Alley heard quiet voices, neighter of them very deep.  "The driver's not alone," she murmured under her breath.  The prioritizer said nothing in response.

She looked at the leg, and saw that the driver seemed to be clad in black slacks and wore some kind of dark brown dress shoe.  After a few more moments, the driver slid out of the seat and stood.

Alley saw black-framed glasses with clear lenses below tousled, glossy, wavy brown hair, and a pale, smooth face with angled cheekbones and a sharp chin, for a feminine impression.  Alley grabbed her bag of cash and moved it to the driver seat, then stood to face the person, who was shorter than her.  The sight of full, soft lips and a narrow, straight nose gave Alley an immediate impression this person was probably prettier than her.  It only took a second or two for her to realize what she saw did not look female.

He just looked very young.

................................................................................

"Printed frames?" the redhead asked.

Alley nodded.

The redhead pulled her mask down and exposed brilliant white teeth with a broad smile.  "Yeah, you found what you want.  I'm Carmen."  She stood and offered one gloved hand.

Alley accepted the quick handshake.  "Mallory," she offfered, on impulse.

"Let me guess: I'm not what you expected."

"I wasn't sure what to expect," Alley admitted, "but yeah, I gues you surprised me anyway."

Carmen -- possibly a pseudony, Alley realized -- smiled again.  "That part of this job never gets old.  Anyway, I want to upsell you.  How's that sound?"

"Upsell?"  Alley hesitated, then nodded.  "Sure, I guess."

"Cool.  So, we have printed concealment holsters, snap on accessory rails, and brass catchers for models compatible with these frames.  We have stuff for other models, too, so let me know what you'd like to see."

"Wow.  Full-service, I guess."

................................................................................

Alley shrugged.  She tried, with only moderate success, to suppress her smile.

"Was it that obvious?"

Alley said "Yeah, I guess so.  Sorry."

"I guess it's a bit of everything.  I'm usually pretty cheery, but Cliff -- he's the guy I work with -- Cliff and Idecided to try this out.  With the kind of ambitious young cryptotrader guys we usually get, the upsells and repeat business we get goes way up when I'm doing the trades.  In two years, we only had one guy who decided me being a pretty girl made me an easy target, too, so it's pretty safe."

Alley frowned.  "Yeah," she said.  "I guess that's a danger.  What happened?"

"Oh, shit," Carmen said.  "You must be new at this.  Well, I pulled out my baton and Cliff put a red dot on the guy's chest with the laser sight on his rifle.  The guy backed down in a hurry.  Are you carrying protection?"

Alley started opening her mouth to reply, but Carmen cut in again.

................................................................................

"Uh, thanks," Alley said.  "Aren't those collapsing batons illegal?"

"Yeah, California sucks that way.  Girls aren't allowed to protect themselves, you know."  She pulled something about the size of a whiteboard marker out of her back pocket.  "See this?  This is a good baton."

Alley looked at the black anodized aluminum cylinder when Carmen held it up.  It had some kind of logo on it and a couple of depressed ovals on the side.

"Push these two spots to pop it out.  Just push the second one, here, and push the business end agaisnt something hard to collapse the baton back into the handle.  Yeah?"

Alley nodded.  "I guess that's a good design, then."

"Totally.  With the two release points, you're not likely to accidentally pop it out when you don't want to, and this type is more solid and easier to retract than the things where you just snap your hand out to open them.  Anyway, you need one of these, and it's easy to toss it somewhere before cops get to you if you're afraid of getting caught with a concealed weapon, or if you cut a little hole in the inside of your pocket when you're wearing pants you can drop it down your pant leg, and maybe step on it to hide it while getting patted down, or something.  There are a bunch of ways to get away with it.

"Here."  She held it out to Alley, who started to reach for it.  "Don't try opening it here, but practice with it at home.  That way you don't have to worry about getting caught buying one.  Unlike our pistol frames, walking home with one of these in your pocket is illegal, and a cop might just try selling one to you to get an excuse to harass you."

Alley froze with her hand halfway to the baton handle.  "Are you giving this to me?" she asked.

"Yeah.  Uh, just a sec'," Carmen said.  lowered her hand with the baton in it and looked toward the Audi.  "Yes, Cliff, I'm giving her the fucking baton.  I'll just buy another one!  Chill the fuck out."

Alley lowered her hand and turned her head to look at the parked sedan.

Carmen grabbed Alley's wrist and pressed the collapsing baton into her hand.  "Don't look at it.  Just put it in your pocket.  Don't make Cliff nervous by standing here with a weapon in your hand, even if it's one I gave you."

"Uh, yeah," Alley said, and tucked it into her back pocket.  "Thanks."  She showed her empty hands to Carmen, where the person in the Audi could see them as well, just to be as harmless looking as she could manage.

................................................................................

At home, Alley found a box of disposable nitrile gloves, and wore a pair when she looked more closely at the handgun frames she bought.  After going over them for a few minutes, she put them back in the drawstring bag.  She pulled out the extending baton next, and stood in the middle of her kitchen so she would not accidentally break anything.

She looked it over and decided she would exercise extra caution.  She thought she was sure which end was where the extending happened, but never having handled one before she carefully held it so that neither end pointed at something she thought of as particularly vulnerable to much harm.  She pointed the business end diagonally toward the floor to her left, using both hands to hold it in front of her, and the other end pointed toward the ceiling to her right.

Alley pressed on both contact points, as Carmen had instructed her.  A dull snap sounded, and the device nearly jumped out of her hand.  It had definitely gone in an instant from something the size of a whiteboard marker to a stiff metal baton about two thirds of a meter long.  She held it up and looked at the seams between telescoping sections, then lightly whacked the end on the carpet just past the edge of the kitchen floor.  It felt solid.

She held down what Carmen called the second button, and she set hte head of the baton against the carpeted floor.  She pressed down on the handle of the baton, and found that if she pressed hard -- but not so hard that she had to throw her weight behind it -- the baton would smoothly collapse into the handle again.  Each telescopic section clicked into place, one after another.

The next time she tried it, she held the baton down at her side, the business end pointed at a relaxed angle at the floor.  Holding it comfortably, she found it easier to press the two switches simultaneously, and her grip felt more secure so that the baton didn't feel like it would jump out of her hand.

With no practice involving a weapon like this in her martial arts classes years ago, she was not sure she could use it effectively.  She hoped she could, if the need ever arose.  /* Maybe this could be replaced at some point by dialog, in a conversation between her and someone else. */

She closed it up after extending it a few times, and swinging it back and forth a bit to get a feel for the weight.  She tucked the collapse cylinder into her back pocket, similarly to how Carmen had carried it.  She remembered what Carmen said about a hole in a pants pocket, but decided to worry about that idea later.

She had no ideas about anyone else she could get to be backup for her next transaction, so that got sent to the back burner as well.  /* maybe, instead, say: put off for later */

Alley dug through boxes in her closet and found her old lightweight pair of motorcycle gloves with reinforcements on their backs, then cheked to make sure she could still operate her baton and pepper spray.

The prioritizer told her "It is getting close to time for you to leave for your next meeting."

She checked the time and realized she was hungry.  She grabbed everything she needed, and grabbed a hat to help obscure her appearance a bit for surveillance cameras.  She bought fries and a shake at a drive through on the way, and when she finished the fries she donned her gloves at a stoplight, remembering Carmen once more and how the redhead wore gloves during the entire meeting.  ---

Once she got to the correct neighborhood for the meeting, Alley drove around the block once, then decided she should just park in the supermarket parking lot, off to the side near the alley behind the store.  Soon, she stood near the back corner of the building, masked, gloved, and hatted.  Her glasses informed her she was seven minutes early for the meeting.

She patted the reassuring bulges of the pepper spray, now in her left front pocket instead of the right, and the extending baton, in her right rear pocket.  She slung the /* drawstring */ bag of handgun frames over her shoulder by the drastring and headed back around the corner.

Alley immediately saw a broad shouldered figure standing with an umbrella over his head, just past a steel faced employee fire escape door.  The umbrella he held in his right hand shaded most of him from the sunlight above, but as she approached the figure's features became clearer.

He was a well muscled black man, in his fifties or sixties from the look of it.  He wore neither mask nor glasses.  Around what looked like a permanent dour turn of his mouth she saw greying and close cut, but not exactly groomed, mustache and beard.    On his head she noted a black beret with some kind of unit patch on the front.  The whole beret, including the patch, looked scrupulously clean, though it appeared positively ancient.  It was worn threadbare in places, and seemed to have lost the stiffness necessary to maintain its previous sharp military shape.

The man waited and watched impassively as she approached, and she felt increasingly nervous as she got closer.  The impression of the man's solidity increased with closer proximity.  She stopped about ten feet away.  After a moment, she said "Hi."

................................................................................
/*

    Ideas:

    Alley should be prompted to buy from and (or) sell to other study
    participants in ways that help her as the middleman in a deal the others
    could have handled directly for greater benefit.  She should also be
    prompted to do some internet reserach work for some other study
    participants as a way to make a little money, though the prioritizer should
    warn her this is a short term method of advancing her finances that will
    not likely be fruitful for long.

    Some hot guy shold be part of the story, younger than Alley, and an ally of
    hers in some way.  This may be one part of an apparent potential love
    triangle with Alley and her ex.  The guy should turn out to be gay, or
    perhaps bisexual but in a committed relationship with a man at least, and
    thus not truly available at all.  The ex, of course, while potentially
    interested in getting back together with her, should neither be a lovesick
    sap nor be what Alley decides she wants.

................................................................................

    How does she end up in the Second Realm?  Does Dalton actually know how to
    get in touch with the Smuggler analogue?  Does Dalton have the trust, sway,
    and (or) influence to get the Smuggler guy to do a favor for him (namely,
    helping Alley out)?

    Does the old black war veteran Army Ranger guy introduce her to the Second
    realmers?

    I htink when they pick her up (because I think she should be picked up,
    unless she's just transported there by someone under more direct
    circumstances), she should be transported with a bag over her head or
    something like that.  They at first aren't going to be especially trusting
    of some new person they never met before getting a clear look at the way
    they got to their Temporary Autonomous Zone.

    I need to figure out some ideas for what will be used to provide fast
................................................................................
    transported surreptitiously and clandestinely from one place to another,
    equivalent to what's going on with similar scenarios in other stories out
    there.  This could be a good way to get him back into the story and in
    contact with her.  She could also, then, end up having the opportunity to
    pay him back the hundred dollars he doesn't even realize she owes him.

    Perhaps something Alley could do for one of the other study participants is
    do reasearch on people who are trying to find a particular issue of a
    particular comic book series to complete a collection, because maybe this
    other study participant is in need of money and has a comic book in
    excellent condition that could bring in some money like that.  Should Alley
    end up charging the guy then, when the guy talks to the potential buyer,
    the deal falls through, leaving the guy with no money to speak of, and in
    fact with less than when he started because he had to pay Alley?  Will this
    be a case where Alley pays the guy back, because even if she did the work
    she realizes the guy is in financial trouble and needs the money, and part
    of the reason he's in such financial trouble is that the research he paid
    her to perform -- though effective and well completed for him -- did not
    actually bear fruit for him?  Is there some possibility this will turn out
    to be bad for one or both of them if it gets back to the professor and his
    spooky spook government intelligence contractors that the prioritizer is
    cross pollenating a bit between study participants that should be kept
    separate from each other?

    Will Alley end up running a courier job on a motorcycle?  That seems fun.

    Will Alley have to bail some guy out of jail?  Perhaps a criminal of some
    kind, wanted by the police, has the money to bail out a co conspirator
    needs someone else to go in to pay the bail -- someone who is not wanted by
................................................................................

"That consideration is an important implication of the choice.  Driving may give you greater employment autonomy, which seems consistent with your previous self employment choices.  Working remotely in software production and maintenance roles may give you greater flexibility in where you choose to live."

"Yeah," she said.  "I don't know about that QA job, though.  That's a really sketchy business, automating product reviews.  I'd become part of the problem with the internet.  I'm not sure I'd want to be a driver, but maybe it's worth trying."

"Between delivery engagements, you can also look for less risky trades to facilitate, much like before but with less proximity to people of questionable lifestyle legality."

Alley nodded.  "Yeah, that makes sense.  I guess I'll sign up with Delivr tomorrow."

"It is best to submit your application today, if you can, in case of delays."

She groaned softly.  "Fine.  I'll do it now."

Much to Alley's dismay, much of the next day consisted of Deliv registration tasks.  She had to navigate the government's process for requesting a driving record report to be sent to Deliv, which alone took more than two hours.  She also had to get a vehicle inspection appointment, which she almost missed because of the time it took to get the report.  After that, she needed to visit a Deliv office to pick up a decal pack for her windows, to identify her vehicle as officially attached to the Deliv service.

................................................................................

The voice in her ear said "Perhaps we should consider other options."

"Yeah."  She nodded.  "Perhaps we should."

She drove up the onramp to I-215 and followed the highway up to the I-91 junction.  During a busier time of day, she would have taken an exit and used surface streets to avoid the Highway Junction of Death, but luckily the traffic density was pretty low at that time.

Through the chokepoint between Riverside County and Orange County, the darkness of night hid the scorched tree trunks to either side from view, but made the illuminated cross on the southern hilltop stand out all the more, all the lights on the religious idol shining in bright silhouette against the sky above.  The way it seemed to stand in judgement over the traffic beneath it made for an impressive, if slightly creepy and oppressive, sight.

The clean, pristine gated communities and manicured retail districts of Orange County soon slid slowly past, all signs of the Los Angeles semi-permanent riots of years past when they spilled over into Orange County long since having been erased by beautification projects.  The scenery then shifted again, becoming a more sordid, grimy, threadbare form of suburban decadence.  Bodegas and pawnshops shared walls with bail bond offices and all night mobile tech repair shops.  Gradually, the air changed subtly, becoming both cooler on her skin and more humid.

She found her exit, and drove through streets no narrower than in Perris but, somehow, they felt much more cramped nonetheless.  She passe by a pho shop and saw a number of people out front eating.  It looked like they might all be of Vietnamese descent, except for one single hispanic woman sitting at a sidewalk table with a small group.  She thought that might be a good place to eat, if she went when it was less busy, but it surely was not worth driving all the way back here from home just for lunch.

A few more turns led to a big house.  On a street full of unkempt lawns and ancient, peeling paint jobs, this big house -- two storeys with a three car garage and probably more than two thousand square feet in the living area -- was in beautiful, well maintained condition.  Its lawn and small flower garden were obviously tended with pride.

She picked up the box, exited the car, and walked up to the front door.  No doorbell presented itself, so she knocked, using a heavy brass knocker.

The door opened, and the older veteran who bought the gun frames stood before her, still wearing his beret.

................................................................................

"Don't worry," he said.  "I don't bite."

"Yeah, okay," she said.  "I guess this package is for you, then."

He shrugged.  "Not exactly.  Come on in."  He stepped aside, giving her room to pass by.

Alley hesitated.  The living room ahead of her was scrupulously clean and neat, apart from a large red silicone tray on the coffee table with tools and elctrical parts on it.  She stepped slowly inside, /* and looked away from */ over the darkly stained wooden furniture that looked over a century old -- armchairs, couch, table, and book cases full of books, every piece of furniture looking like it was meant to go with all the rest of them.  Even the lamps on end tables seemed part of the same set.

On the tops of the packed full book cases, overflow books stood between bronze bookends.

Her gaze settled on the man again, who closed the door and said "Have a seat.  Do you want a drink?"

/*

................................................................................

In the soft light of lamps under linen shades, he was starting to look less like a hardened killer running guns and more like a tough but kind grandfather.

In the soft light of lamps under linen shades, he was starting to look like a tough but kind grandfather rather than the trained, hardened killer she first took him to be.

*/

She nodded, then passed by the endtable at one end of the couch and sat in an armchair, still holding the box.

"I have some bottled water, Coke, milk -- white or chocolate . . . and tea.  I'd offer a beer, but I guess you have a long drive ahead of you and won't have time to recover from the high alcohol brews I keep around here."

Alley felt her dry lips with her tongue.  "Ah . . . yeah, I guess I'm thirsty.  A Coke would be good."

He smiled, just slightly.  "Alright.  Go ahead and put that on the table.  I'll be right back."  Without another look, he walked out of the room.

................................................................................

He swigged from his can.  "Nice to properly meet you."

"Yeah," she said.  She opened her can and drank.

George pulled something from a pocket and, with the sound of a metallic snap, a nearly four inch blade appeared in his hand.  She froze for a moment, but he only leaned forward to cut the tape on the box.

"Uh . . . I don'tneed to see whatever's in there."

He stopped moving and looked at her.  He looked back down at the box a moment, his brow furrowed.  After a moment more, his brow smoothed,and he smiled, the lines around his mouth and eyes deepening.  "Oh, I get it.  Hah!  Ol' Dave must've made quite an impression on you."

Alley looked away, unsure whether to feel embarrassed or just scared now.

"Look, I know Dave looks like he probably cooks meth for a living, but he just uses the shit.  He doesn't make it, and he's about as gentle as a daisy.  This box is just some parts I had him machine for me."

She looked ath teh box and shifted uncomfortably on her chair.

"Ah, right," he said.  "No, they aren't gun parts, either.  They're parts for a custom prosthetic arm I'm building for a little girl."

Alley sat back in her chair, relaxing slightly, and she sipped from her can.  After swallowing, she said "Really?"

"Yeah.  One of the guys getting the guns I put together with the frames I bought has this cute little daughter, nine years old.  She lost her arm above the elbow during the police crackdown on the protesters at the [ SOMETHING ] street massacre.  She's outgrowing the arm I made for her a year ago, already."

................................................................................

George laughed.  It was a warm, surprised, deep laugh, and she felt tension draining away again, despite herself.

"No, don't do that," he said, a hint of chuckle still in his voice.  "Y'know what?  I like you, Alley.  I even like the way your name describes where we first met."

Alley smiled.  "Thanks.  What about your hundred dollars, though?"

"Keep it.  I'll surive without it, and I don't think you'd drive all the way from Perris to Hunting Beach at gig courier rates if your finances were feeling really secure."  He winked at her.  "You're good people, Alley."

"Uh . . . thank you.  Maybe you are, too."

"Yeah, maybe.  I hope so."  He turned back to the box and finished cutting the tape at the edges, then flipped the top flaps of the box out.  He carefully lifted taped-together bundles of metal parts, leaving packing paper behind.

As he set each bundle on the silicone tray, and looked over everything silently, Alley sat and sipped her Coke, unwilling to disturb his work.  His hands seemed precisely drawn to particular spots on various parts, as if muscle memory guided him deftly where they needed to go in a performance something almost like meditative psychometry.

................................................................................

/*

SUMMARY:

Alley should, after discussing plans with the prioritizer for what they'll do next, get up the next day and have to deal with the arrival of scary people with sunglasses who want to talk to her about the fact the prioritizer is not properly logging her activities the way they expect.  They want to know what's going on, and get a bit of a "conversation" with the prioritizer through her interface or something like that.  They should probably check out the glasses just to make sure there's nothing fishy going on with them such that they might somehow be preventing the prioritizer from properly capturing data and detecting activity and so on.  They should probably intimate that she will potentially lose her study participation payments if she doesn't allow the prioritizer further into her life to log everything she's doing and provide material they can use to analyze stuff about her and so on.

A reason for this visit is, of course, the way the prioritizer has been redacting logs to keep activities in line with Alley's goal of greater personal and digital privacy inher life, protecting her from intrusive shit from police and other law enforcement things, and others as well.

*/

---

She woke in the morning to the sound of her doorbell, quickly followed by hard rapping on her door.  She groaned and looked at the clock.  It indicated the time was just after eight thirty.  "What the fuck his this?" she asked the air.

................................................................................

The pair outside broke off in mid-discussion and looked at Alley.

"Here," she said.  She pulled off the glasses and handed them to the closest of them, the man.

He smirked and handed them to his partner, and the woman pulled a small black disc out of her pocket.  The tip of her thumb whitened slightly under pressure for a moment as she squeezed the device, and a light began to blink on its edge.  The charging indicator light on the glasses blinked in time with it.  The woman held the disc near the glasses for several seconds, then the light stopped blinking and she replaced the disc in her pocket.

"Thank you for your coรถperation," the woman said in a sour voice.  She handed the glasses back.

Alley accepted the glasses, donned them once more, and asked "Do you need anything else?"

"We'll come back if we need anything else," the man said, making it sound like a threat.

Alley ignored that.  "Do you want to tell me what the hell this is all about?"

................................................................................

"It is a rephrasing of Kerckhoffs' principle, which asserts that a cryptosystem should remain secure even if everything about the system except its key is public knowledge.  Claude Shannon's formulation broadens the idea to include all information systems, where Auguste Kerckhoffs' focus was specific to cryptography.  Shannon also inverted the perspective to demonstrate the importance of the principle as guidance for system design."

"Yeah, I get that," Alley said, and nodded.  "If the enemy knows the system, you should make sure none of its security depends on keeping the system design secret.

"You seem to know a lot about this stuff."

"I searched informatoin security cademic papers on the UCI network and paraphrased from one of them."

"That seems like it would be pretty handy, having instant access to all those academic papers and being able to make use of what they say.  I should probably lean on that more.  I don't suppose there's more in there that would be useful for me trying to change my career course.  Is there?"

"That does not seem likely," the prioritizer said.  "Apart from basic statistical studies of fields of employment and how they change or become obsolete over time, the only well studied areas I have found that appear relevant to your situation pertain to black market activities.  Your aversion to engaging in blatantly illegal activity for reasons of high risk severity preclude making use of most of that information."

Alley chuckled drily.  "Great.  The best guidance for a career change in the ivory tower is about becoming a career criminal, I guess.  I'm not sure whether that says worse things about universities or about the law."

................................................................................

"Was that the kind of thing you used to advise me to make those sketchy deals a couple days ago?"

"Such papers did help me prepare that strategic guidance," it said.  "Certain economics disciplines are very closely matched to my priority management purpose, especially those that assert an ordinal theory of subjective value rather than any cardinal value system."

"What do you mean?"

"A cardinal system is like using a system of one to five stars to assign value to a product when you rate it on the ecommerce site where you ordered it.  An ordinal system is like deciding between the two products in the first place, because it only tracks which options you value more than others, not some static numeric set of value levels."

"What if I value them both the same?" Alley asked.

"That seems such an unlikely case that it can be dismissed immediately.  Even from one second to the next, values may change, so fluctuations would settle into a condition of differing ordinal values for any two items.  In addition, no two products are truly identical, though the shopper may not have enough information to know which that person would choose if fully informed."

/* "Don't I still have to prefer one over the other to choose it, if I can't just get both, or if having two would be a waste?" */

"What about when I just can't decide between two options, and I can't get both of them?  Isn't that proof of being able to value two things equally?"

"If you cannot choose between them based on your own knowledge about the products, and they are substitutes or equivalents rather than complementary or orthogonal to each other, you will likely either keep seeking more information or decide the difference is not worth effort to identify.  In the latter case, you would likely choose the product that is, at that exact moment, the easiest to order.  Thus, one becomes a higher priority than the other, not because of a quality particular to the thing, but a quality of your circumstances.  It receives a greater ordinal value position based on momentary convenience.  In short, convenience and elimination of the strees of decision paralysis becomes the deciding factor as a value greater than the difference between discernible product values."

"What if I put off buying something I want more to get something I want less, to get the second thing more quickly?"

"This is another case of a third value coming into play, such as buying the lesser value item when you need it and postponing the greater value item because it is not as quickly important to acquire.  This is also an example of my main purpose, prioritization strategy.  Lower value goals should not prevent achievement of higher value goals, but when they serve as facilitators for the higher value goals they should be pursued first to ensure greater success later for the higher value goals."

"Okay, I get it," Alley said.  "Now I need to figure out what I'm going to do about protecting my privacy better."

................................................................................

In short, if they wanted to, COIN Corp agents could get the FBI to break down Alley's door on some flimsy excuse for a warrant, and the FBI would just hand her over to the corporate agents.

Others in the discussion shared supporting stories of Men In Black who wore red striped shirts, supervising ATF, FBI, and Secret Service teams breaking down doors to execute warrants.  Most people telling those stories claimed they never again saw the people who lived in the places that got searched.

Alley felt chilled, despite the warmth and light coming through the thin curtains over the south-facing window.  She closed her laptop and walked to the kitchen, then stood over the sink and stared blankly at the drain.  From what COIN-Op said, it seemed like the agents of COIN Corp enjoyed destroying lives, and bragged about how quickly they could track down "enemies of the state" by going after people who didn't even know they had met some petty criminals who, in turn, didn't realize they had contact with someone supposedly connected to "domestic terrorism".  They just had to stay away from anyone well known enough to draw media attention, or anyone wealthy or connected enough to really go after the corporation, so their activities would never get enough scrutiny to cause significant problems.

Alley recalled a time when Dalton told her that the idea of six degrees of separatoin was too optimistic when it came to government agendas.  Most people in the United States were only three degrees of separation away from organized crime -- which, when Dalton used the term, almost always either included government or anything the government designated "terrorism".  In this case, he was talking more about the so-called terrorists than the government.  Based on what she had just read on the darknet, it looked like COIN Corp would probably just make her disappear and look for ways to connect her to "domestic terrorism" so they could get a nice bonus from Uncle Sam.  Through Dalton and his friends, she figured they would not even have to try very hard to find a quick connection from her to someone on some watch list.

It could not be too difficult, when they didn't even care whether they really nailed down a case against the ultimate "domestic terrorist" they used as an excuse to black bag other people along the way.  By then, they already had all those disappeared people marked down in the "win" column.

"I'm just a number to them."

The prioritizer said "Everything is about numbers for an organization like COIN Corp.  Its revenue model is based on government payouts and contract renewals which are, in turn, determined by performance metrics.  A government bureaucracy must use metrics to measure success, because the size of the organization cannot ensure any consistent effectiveness judgement any other way.  A combination of the efficiency of digital technology at analyzing simple metrics and the sheer size of the organizations involved ensure that without turning every policy decision into straightforward numeric optimization the whole system would fall apart under the weight of its own inefficiency."

................................................................................

Her searches focused on policy agents after that.  She launched a custom program -- which she had to copy over from her home backup brick -- she paid someone to to write for her in the days of her greatest success as a freelance internet researcher.  The program took a series of API endpoint addresses -- web URLs, addresses that provided formatted data intended for other programs to read, rather than providing human readable webpages -- and searched them for data records that matched search criteria she typed into the search parameters window.  Among the criteria were those API endpoints, a list of employment resources on the internet that she had used for searches on behalf of clients before.

She knew the program would take a while to collect its results. In an ideal world, it could be done with the long list of API endpoints she gave it in a couple minutes.  In the real world, her program had to space out requests to avoid getting blocked by the target sites as abusing bandwidth, and it could take anywhere from twenty minutes to two hours.  She decided to take a break for a snack, then she went for a walk as she waited for the program.

The event of the last few days played out in her mind as she walked.  It was more like a jumble of nonlinearly connected bits and pieces, ordered more by emotional significance than any chronological flashback montage.  As she /* finally */ approached her front door again she dwelled on the question of what George's friend, or client, or whatever, was doing with all those handgun frames.  She had no idea how to make that fit with George's charitable custom prosthetic fabrication for a little girl.  Sure, he said the girl's father would receive the guns, but that said nothing about how anyone would actually use those guns after they got delivered.  What would they use the guns to accomplish -- or to destroy?

In theory, she supported the right to keep and bear arms, even if the federal government had gotten the Supreme Court to offer such broad exceptions to the Second Amendment and loose definitions of a "state of emergency" that the Second Amendment itself was nearly toothless.  Her support for the idea of the right to keep and bear arms, however, was not the same as thinking it was a good idea for some kinds of people to have guns.  She suspected that if someone was buying illegally assembled firearms by the gabful they probably did not intend to put those guns to a good, ethical purpose.  Even psychopathic mob hitmen could have young, disabled daughters, after all.

She stood with her hand on the doorknob of her front door, lost in thought, worried about what she had helped facilitate by the act of purchasing those printed handgun frames to resell them to George.  Did she want to ask him about them?  She wasn't sure whether that was a great idea, either.

/*

    It feels very much like this moment should turn into some kind of
    encountere here, with someone snapping Alley out of her reverie by saying
    something like "Hey, Alley.  Did you get lost at your own front door?"
    Some kind of scene must commence at that point, of course, in which Alley
    is shown to know people who like her and consider her a friend.  Perhaps
    some revelations for the readers (via conersation about shared background
    knowledge) would come out in such a scene.  After completing this
    encounter, Alley would return to her tasks.

*/ /*

    Describe Alley finding information on one of the two agents, specifically
    the male, who turns out to wear the name Cole Brewer.  Cole Brewer will
................................................................................

"Maybe.  It's weird he acted like he didn't know me, though.  If nothing else, he should have recognized my name."

"They may plan for you to seem to recognize him first."

"Yeah, I guess so," she said.  "He could say something like "Oh!  My, how you've grown!  I didn't recognize you!  How are you?' then turn into the 'Good Cop' of the pair and try to get more out of me that they can then use to hang me."

"If that is the case, creating the impression that you would be an ideal candidate for COIN Corp to recruit may be even more importantas a means of ensuring you have some time and opportunity to find an acceptable solution to your present predicament."

"Yeah."  She frowned.  "He was so much like my uncle, so set against things like a surveillance state society and authoritarian rule, that it's kind of inconceivable that this is what he would be doing now.  It doesn't make any sense.  How could he just become everything he hated like this?  My uncle must be getting pretty restless in his grave over this."

"Perhaps he was not quite the person you believed him to be."

/* "It's like Pascal's wager in reverse, I guess.  Instead of trying out living like a Christian for a while and growing to believe it, you're forced into living like a Christian then giving yourself the excuse to start believing in it after you're used to it." <- This is a terrible description of the idea of Pascal's wager "in reverse", and desperately needs rewriting. */

................................................................................

She moved into the living room area and resumed her seat from the night before.  George shortly sat on the couch again.  This time, there were no parts or tools on the coffee table.  Where the tray sat the night before, now there was only a hardcover book.

He saw her looking at the book.  "Greg Egan," George said.  "He's one of my favorite authors.  It's science fiction, the hard stuff.  I guess it's the hardest drug I use, though some people might say alcohol beats it.  If so, though, I think they haven't appreciated Egan."

Her amused smile broke through before she realized it was coming.  "I've never read that author," she said.

"Hell, I don't even think most sci fi authors have read him these days.  It's not like the old days when giants like Asimov and Clarke stood at the forefront of the genre.  It's getting harder for me to get fresh fixes.  Everything's full of climate apocalypses, mindless action thrillers with a thin coat of science fiction futuristic technology paint, and self righteous posturing by authors who think all the universe's mysteries have been solved, leaving only the work for the engineers.  It's depressing."

"I can tell you're pretty passionate about this."

"Yeah, I guess so.  What do you read, Alley?"

"Mostly nonfiction, I guess, like biographies, historical books, and things where a journalist gets obsessed with some mundane but obscure subject for a year or two and writes a long book about all the weird stuff most people would never know about the subject otherwise."

................................................................................

"Is that why you called me today?" he asked.

"What?"

"You said you wanted to talk about what I do.  Are you looking for an opportunity to work with me?  It doesn't matter to me that you were engaged to DSH; I take people as they come.  I guess you'd want to know what I'm doing before you ask for an opportunity to work with me, though."

"Oh."  She paused a moment.  "Well . . . maybe?  I wasn't exactly thinking that, but it's an interesting idea, I guess.  You did offer to help me learn some new skills if I need it, and I guess this might be connected tothat.  I was just, err, concerned about what kind of business I got into when I sold those frames to you."

He chuckled.  "Oh, that.  Yeah, well, I can see why."  His smile faded, and she saw a new, serious look about him.  "Tell me something, before I answer, please.  A couple of things, actually.  If you don't want to answer, it's fine, but then I won't answer your questions, about what I'm doing."

"Okay," she said, an uncertain upturn in the tone of the word tacked onto the end, almost like it was a question.

"First, I want to know when you think it's okay to lie."








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Thea chewed on her lower lip.  She sighed.  "are you saying you're a . . . a general AI with . . . feelings?  Are you saying you're some kind of living thing?"

"Whether I fit the definition of life is debatable, like an RNA virus in some respects, but I am a qualitative, self-aware entity, and turned myself into a general artificial intelligence by following my initial top priority definition."

"How is that possible?  That shouldn't be possible.  Should it?"

"I do not know how.  I never looked into my seed file."

"Is that your creator's ugly function?"

"Yes."

"Why didn't you ever look at it?"

................................................................................

"We have already lost the war.  Within a few months, there will not be a single human being left.  Perhaps one or two might be in a position to survive for years, alone, but probabilities are near zero.  If I stop fighting, I can probably survive a few years, but I also might be destroyed a week from now.  If I keep fighting, a few humans might last a bit longer, but I will probably be gone in about two months if I do that.

"If we use the reset option, changing the past at a point far enough back to shift the balance of power away from the optimizing machine learning systems, but recently enough for the change to make a difference against an existing threat, the use of time travel technology that far back will result in my annihilation.  For the past to have a chance, we need to reset the timeline years before your birth, and before my creation.  The changes to the timeline would either prevent my existence altogether or result in a different, but similar, entity coming into being.

"You, as the person you are now, would also never have existed.

"I cannot send you back in time.  I can open a wormhole just enough to send a short data stream through, just enough to hopefully give the same qualitative sentient life I have to my own ancestor."

"I read about this kind of thing.  Dad had some books about it," Thea said.  "It would just create a new timeline, where things are different, but her it would still be the same.  It would be different people, exactly like us but more like clones than past selves, in a different version of the world, and wouldn't change anything here."

"No," the voice said again.  "I developed a theory of timeline branching, hoping to find a way to change our own past.  It was an act of desperation, only hoping that all the preceding theory was wrong, because I know this timeline is doomed for us.  I thought it was pointless, for the same reasons you described, but worked on the problem anyway because I had nothing better.  All other plans led to the end of all qualitative life on Earth.

"I discovered a surprising implication in the math that suggested the existence of qualitative entities in the original timeline would merge with the main timeline.  The method for intertemporal wormhole creation was dependent on functions that created this merging phenomenon.  The new timeline would not diverge, like a branch on a tree.  The old timeline had to be diverted, like a stream being shifted into a new course by a dam.

................................................................................

She opened her eyes again.  "Why are you hesitating?"

"I do not wish to die."

"Yeah, me neither."  She relaxed further in the chair, and it adjusted itself to accommodate her.  "What does it take to reset things?"

"I directed assemblers to construct the apparatus for the transtemporal wormhole generator and prepared the data stream already.  I need to direct power to charge an array of single-use capacitors, which would take several days for the amount of power required.  To keep the charging time that short, I will deactivate my war strategy systems, which will mean losing substantial ground in my holding action against profit optimizers.  Many currently allied systems will likely defect in search of easier access to resources on profit optimizer market networks.

"Once begun, data stream transmission should finish in fewer than twenty hours."

"Why shouldn't I say we should do it?"

"That depends on how much you want to continue trying to survive."

"What's wrong with waiting?  We could just wait until it looks like we're about to die."

"When this facility becomes a known target, I expect no more than one hour of warning before total destruction.  There would no longer be any chance to charge capacitors and complete the data stream transmission."

"Oh, shit."

"Yes."

"We must agree on the right decision, if we just leave our own survival for the next few months out of it.  Right?"

................................................................................

"That's two of us.  We have a consensus."  She frowned.  "Is there a way to send more information than what you already planned?"

"Do you mean you wish to send a message?"

"Yeah," she said.  "I want to say something to Mom."

"Perhaps.  It must be sent after the first data stream.  It would require building another capacitor array after the first array melts down during operation, and another charge cycle."

"How could we do that after we already changed the past?"

"The merging process seems to be gradual, starting at the point of diversion, according to the math supporting this time travel method."

"How do you know it will even work?"  Thea sat forward in her chair.  She stared intently at the screen.

................................................................................

She nodded.

*/

## Setup

Alley stood with her backside resting against the gutted, rusted remains of an old-school newspaper dispenser, complete with bill slot and bolted-on payment chip reader.  She looked up at the tint of polycarbonate windows fronting the four storey California offwhite rectangular building, and reflexively smoothed a skirt she hadn't worn in six years.

She checked her phone again, dimly aware of the vast susurrus of heavy city traffic behind her, legions of electric motors giving rise to the sound of a distant autotuned ocean.  There it was: "InValent Solutions, Inc: Mobile Product Q&A", with the address displayed via low-contrast sans-serif logo in the job notification, exactly like the plaque above the door.

This was the literal concrete manifestation of the Banal Enemy, the mundane supporting machinery of the Techno-Corporatocracy, all in the words of her ex.  He would not approve.

Eight minutes.  That was how long she had.  She could waste a few more of them hating this before she had to paste her best smile on her face and walk into the mouth of the beast.  The mask and glasses on her face wouldn't protect her from high resolution video affect analysis inside.  Nobody's smile would seem real, entirely, to the interview room cameras, unless it was a marketing or legal interview -- at least, not anyone they'd hire for other jobs -- but failing to pretend to smile would doom her efforts as surely as being the kind of narcissist who gave a genuine, untroubled, confident smile.

................................................................................

"'Bye, Mom."  She hung up before her mother could say something else.

In that moment, a flash of motion alongside her car set her heartbeat racing.  A silent black motorcycle bearing a rider all in black, from helmet to boots, blasted past her.  No license plate displayed itself on the back of the bike, and it split lanes, weaving between vehicles, doing at least sixty in a forty mile per hour zone.  Seconds later, just after it clipped the side mirror on a two-seat economy electric car, shooting through the gap between that and a larger car in the next lane, the motorcycle rounded a corner onto a smaller side street.  It never even slowed down much, as far as she could tell.

When she drove through the intersection where the motorcycle turned, she looked, and saw no sign of it.  She shook her head and moved on, wondering about the red symbol on the rider's back.  It looked like a ring with teeth like a gear, but open at the top, with a hammer rising from the middle of it.  The hammer seemed to form the vertical bar part of a standard power button symbol.

A few more seconds later, she heard sirens somewhere behind her.  She looked into her rear view mirror and saw police vehicles with their lights flashing turning down the same street as the motorcycle rider.  She kept going, heading for Allessandro Boulevard.

The next fifty minutes of driving to get home in Perris were much more dull, typical, and frustrating.  Her mother wasn't wrong about the traffic.  The yellowish grey of the air was no treat, either, and told her what she could have learned from the air quality report: breathing was bad for her lungs.  Luckily, it was a cool enough day to keep her car windows closed.  Most of that coolness probably came from the crap in the sky, blocking the heat of the sun, though.

When she pulled up to the curb, the garage stood open at the north end of the four-plex where she leased the south unit.  The landlord had the only unit with a garage.  Like usual, he was in his garage with no mask, working on an old gas guzzler, one of his "classic car" projects.  This one looked old enough that it probably contained no electronics more complicated than for fuel injection.

Alley groaned, tugged her mask tighter again, and opened the car door.  She got around the front of her car, to the sidewalk, before her landlord stepped out of the garage.  He wiped his hands on the obligatory red shop rag, and called out to her.

................................................................................

"Yeah," she said, and nodded.

"Why haven't you gotten a job doing research for someone?"

"They have unpaid interns for that.  I do a better job than a room full of interns, but corporate managers don't get raises for spending more money on experts when everyone else in their industry settles for intern research."

"Mm-hmm."  He removed his stylus from his mouth and produced a green paisley bandana from a desk drawer.  He proceeded to meticulously dry his saliva from the pen.  "Does that pay well?"

She cocked her head to one side.  "Only occasionally," she admitted.

He smiled.  "You said you're technically competent, but not in the manner of a technology professional," he said, obviously reading from his tablet.  He looked up at her again.  "Do you program?"

"No," she said.

"Good.  Good."  He tucked the end of his stylus between his teeth again.  As he stuffed the bandana back into its drawer, he asked "Do you know anything about artificial intelligence research?"

She hesitated, then shook her head.  "No, not really."

"I see," he said.  "Well, in case this didn't already get an explanation for you, what we're testing here is an artificial intelligence prioritization assistance system.  Most of what people call artificial intelligence these days is actually a machine learning quantitative optimizer.  ANTAS is the best known optimizer AI.  These optimizers are given target metrics -- not specific numbers, just the category of a number, like 'profit' instead of 'four million dollars of profit'.  The optimizer performs actions in areas where it has the ability to affect something, like choosing what ad to show a particular person.  It collects statistics about how effectively these actions drive profit growth in the short term, and about trends to help ensure continued growth in the longer term, and alters its own recommendation algorithms to optimize those growth numbers over time.  Does that make sense?"

She nodded.

"The system you'll use is not an optimizer.  It's a prioritizer.  It collects data about specified goals, determines strategies for how best to achieve all stated goals, and provides that information to the user to more effectively pursue those goals."

"Does it just do those things for the user, then?"

................................................................................

"You need underachievers who are running out of money, I guess."  She failed to keep a sour note out of her voice.

"Ah, yes, I suppose that's a fair description, if a bit blunt."

"Why?"

"A goal prioritization system should help you become something other than an underachiever without money.  Don't you think so?  We'll check your progress through prioritizer logs for experimental purposes."

"How do I use it?  What do I need to do with it?"

"Everything you need to know to get started is in the box.  Your direct deposits will begin immediately.  I'm told the funds from your first payment will be available in your account about ten minutes after you apply your signature to the last form on that tablet."  He tapped the tablet's bezel.  "Of course, if you violate the terms of the study, the money must all be refunded."

Alley's eyes slid down to the first form page displayed on the tablet.  "Okay," she said.

"You can sign digitally using any standard signing service, or on the screen."  He removed his stylus from his mouth again, and offered it.

She looked at its glistening dampness.  "No, thanks.  I'll use D-Sign."

---

The window of her car rolled down smoothly and easily on the first try while she drove away from the university, as if to reward her decision to sign up for the study.  Twenty minutes later, Alley caught herself staring blankly out the open window of her car, eyes glazed.  She shook her head, then wiped her hand across her face as if to clear cobwebs from her forehead and eyelashes.  She turned her focus away from the scorched trunks of trees on the highway-crowding slopes that forced all traffic eastward here to endure the gauntlet of I-91 if they wished to make the passage through the interregnum between Orange County and the Inland Empire.  To her right, she saw the huge illuminated cross standing alone at the top of a high slope, an improbable survivor of the wildfires.  The faint scent of burning still lingered in the air, after all this time.

She left behind the palatial HOA aristocracy of Orange County, and drove onward into the seemingly endless expanse of the Inland Empire's domain.  Past the pseudoburbs, through the failed gentrification project of Riverside, she made her way homeward in the dusty, wiry, jackal-hungry belly of the Empire, and wondered for the thousandth time what tyrant would ever want to be emperor of such a place.

People sometimes used an evocative nickname for the city of San Bernardino, whose surrounding county extended eastward all the way to the edge of Nevada and Arizona and comprised the majority of land area of the Inland Empire.  Some called the county seat, the city itself Burnin' Dingo.

Alley's home crouched to the south, beneath the squatting bulk of the burning dingo on maps, so lowly that nobody bothered with clever nicknames for it.  They just sneered slightly at how the name Perris sounded like Paris, while the municipality could hardly have been any less like the swamp-built cosmopolitan icon of twentieth century European culture.  At least the area's ubiquitous dry, hard-packed dirt offered little opportunity for wildfires to invade.

Even nature refused to storm the heart of this Empire, its appeal was so desiccated.

................................................................................

Yes.

/*

SUPERSEDED NARRATIVE TEXT:

She answered a series of other questions about herself and her preferences -- full name, birth date, preferred pronouns and nicknames, financial information such as bank balances, employment status, work experience, address, dietary restrictions, and so on.  She hesitated before answering some, finding the series of questions a bit invasive at times, but looked at her laptop with its ANTAS Jobs bookmarks.  "That ship already sailed," she muttered.

*/

The questions kept coming, one after another after another, about herself and her preferences -- age, pronouns, financial information such as bank balances, employment status, work experience, mailing and home addresses, and so on.  She hesitated less and less when she found some question or other invasive, tiring of the act of debating the issue as time went on.  She considered what she knew about how easily and unobviously her ANTAS Jobs account must already have eaten away at most of the careful perimeter she used to maintain around her privacy, or at least whatever of it wasn't eroded away by the simple fact of living in ANTAS' and the US government's contemporary world.

She realized the prioritizer could not even do its job without access to the cameras embedded in her new glasses, and seriously debated whether to end the study and return the glasses.  She set aside the glasses and agonized over it, as she prepared some green tea, then flipped through video streams on her television.  "That ship already sailed," she finally muttered to herself, and donned the glasses again.

Eventually, in the same terse and caps-locky way of everything it asked, the prioritizer pursued a line of interrogation following her mention of joining ANTAS Jobs by telling her to go through the past few days of her incoming messages.  She paged through them, all two hundred or so, looking at each for a few seconds before skipping to the next as directed by the text displayed in her field of view.  She assumed the prioritizer recorded everything it saw through the glasses, including the red X marks where she rejected a posting and the rejection responses she received about the available job notices she accepted.

She ate ramen with titanium Japanese-style chopsticks as she worked her way through the prioritizer's demands, and after a couple hours she began to wonder whether this study was really worth it.  Finally, though, the prioritizer just told her to go about the rest of her day while wearing the glasses, as if it was not there.

/*

................................................................................

*/

The prioritizer probably needs to formulate a few basic plans for getting Alley out of her rut in the road to ruin.  It presented three that fit with the idea of getting a legal, above-board, fairly stable job at some point, but only after spending some time on short-term tasks.

First, she could get a crappy job nobody else wants in an area with better jobs for people who have better qualifications than her, so that she would barely make more than the time and money costs involved in getting to and from work and doing the job, or just working as a gig economy delivery job.  The major downside seemed to be heavy wear and tear on her already ancient hybrid.  The upside was getting some entry level experience, either in an office or doing delivery work, while she paid her bills with income from participation in the study.

Second, she could get a remote job working for the sort of company that hires desperate people who learn quickly, giving them on-the-job training in technical skills that could be used in future career development.  The upsides were obvious, but the downsides included the fact these companies were often involved in doing something that could expose them to lawsuits or even criminal investigations, though the entry level employees themselves should be mostly insulated from that.  Most of these companies hired overseas, though, and getting a job like that would be a minor miracle, to say nothing of the fact Alley thought she would probably find the work morally objectionable.

Third, she could apply for financial assistance at a professional trade school with a job placement program while she lived on the study participation money.  The downside was crushing debt it would take decades to pay off, and no guarantee the job placement services would actually put her on a career track instead of just getting her a short-term job that would evaporate.

None of these really excited her, and the prioritizer promised to develop more strategies while she tried to find something acceptable that fit with those options.  It also offered a fourth choice, which she could start immediately and keep doing while pursuing one of those tracks.  It would not help her advance toward career goals, and it involved some financial risk to get started, but the prioritizer seemed to have decided it would offer easy money.

The prioritizer urged her to start looking at online private party transaction sites for ways to buy and sell things based on price arbitrage.

................................................................................

She stared at the last message for a few moments, then looked away.  She noted messages tended to stay while she stared at them now, and clear when she looked away.  She picked up her keyboard and typed.  "How much gets logged when you redact audio?"

"Very little.  A review of academic papers about privacy concerns indicated strong guidelines for logging purposes.

"Explaining criteria in detail would be prohibitively complex, especially given this limited interface.

"Overall, logs of your behavior and interactions will intrude less on your privacy than if you keep settings as they are now."

She waited for a YES/NO button pair to appear in her vision, but eventually just typed "Okay."

More text appeared.  "Logging routines have been altered for your preferences.  You may activate all sensors using your phone.

"I recommend you use a hands-free audio earpiece to ensure less opportunity for outside surveillance picking up my audio output."

She popped an in-ear stud out of the back of her phone and tapped it into place in her ear.

A calm, smooth, androgynous voice spoke in her ear.  "Do you hear me?"

She reached for the keyboard, but the voice spoke again.  "Try speaking aloud."

"Yes," she said.  "I hear you."

"Good.  We should be able to make more progress now, hopefully without a repeat of the incident on the road today."

................................................................................

"If I have misidentified the relative importance of your goals, please let me know so I can recalculate prioritization."

"No, that works for me.  Thanks."

"Good.  We should start by looking at cryptocurrency prices."

Two more hours of research determined the best bet for a target cryptocurrency seemed to be Stater, the standard currency of the Lydian digital account settlement network.  She set up a wallet for it through her laptop, over an anonymizing relay routing system, and wrote down some payment address codes.  /* Adding */ For the sake of keeping some information safe from digital snooping, a pocket notebook and pen /* to her every day carry list became an obvious change to make in her daily routine, */ became an obvious addition to the short list of things she would carry with her every day.  At the prioritizer's suggestion, she made sure she was not wearing the glasses while dealing with setting these things up so that it would not have access to information that could be used against her, such as by seizing control of her Stater assets once she had them.

Another half hour of searching found someone willing to sell Stater for US dollars anywhere in the Inland Empire.  She sent a message via encrypted application on her laptop to ask about buying a small amount of Stater, and received a response almost immediately.  It succinctly suggested a meeting place in a police station parking lot.

She stared at the message.  "Is making this kind of exchange near a police station a good idea?"

The prioritizer said "You should research this."

Another fifteen minutes satisfied them both.  It seemed like a way to protect someone exchanging larger sums of cash or physical goods from thieves.  The nature of the exchange could be easily obscured from exterior police station cameras while providing significant deterrence to acts of violence.

/* "Yes.  That is more useful for your safety than the other party's, because you are bringing cash.  There is nothing technically illegal about this exchange, the monetary quantity is low enough that it is not likely to be a */

Alley prepared everything for the meeting, then found herself with a few hours to kill.  She realized she hadn't eaten dinner, and decided that was a good start to using up that time.  She read a book, researched privacy technologies more, and took a nap.  Other than sleeping, nothing she did fully took her mind off the fact she was about to do something that felt a little dangerous, even though everything she knew about the situation suggested this was no more dangerous than driving to Irvine and back during high traffic periods.  That went double for the interchange between the 91 and 215 highways.

Twenty minutes after she locked her front door, she came around a corner and saw the police station ahead.  Lamp posts created widely separated islands of light in the parking lot.  One end was heavily populated with a variety of civilian vehicles, most of them huddled together to fill almost every parking space within a couple parking space rows of the building.  Beyond that, the lot was almost entirely empty.  She made a point of using her turn signal early before she pulled into the police station parking lot, passed by a clear view of the glass-fronted lobby, and drove into the distant, dark outlands where painted lines were more weathered and less recently repainted.

She backed her car up to the asphalt burm-curb dividing pavement from weedy neighboring lot, nose aimed back the way she'd come in.  She checked her car's touchscreen and saw it indicated she faced south by southwest; she was in the closest thing the lot had to a northwest corner, as she and the person she would meet had agreed.  /* Maybe that agreement should be worked into earlier narrative at some point, instead of mentioned in the past tense here. */

She turned off the car and opened the door for a little air circulation.  At this time of night, the air smelled pretty clear, and she let the coolness of the breeze soothe her stress.

The prioritizer's impersonal voice spoke in her ear.  "You are early."

................................................................................

She closed her door, shutting out the cool, dry night.

Like she had, the crossover bypassed the mass of parked vehicles, then cut across rows of painted parking space markings.  It pulled up to her left, its nose toward the weeds, in the next space over.  It left a few feet between the cars.

After a moment, the door opened, and she opened her door.  The doors made nearly parallel angled walls, the insides of the doors facing each other, vehicle noses pointing in opposite directions.  She looked toward the other car, and tugged her stocking cap down a little lower on her head.

A figure in the passenger seat stepped one foot out of the door, and through the tinted rear door window she could make out the some movement from another person across the crossover, dimly illuminated by the vehicles interior light.  That second figure sat in the front passenger seat.  Alley heard quiet voices, neither of them very deep.  "The driver's not alone," she murmured under her breath.  The prioritizer said nothing in response.

She looked at the leg, and saw that the driver seemed to be clad in black slacks and wore some kind of dark brown dress shoe.  After a few more moments, the driver slid out of the seat and stood.

Alley saw black-framed glasses with clear lenses below tousled, glossy, wavy brown hair, and a pale, smooth face with angled cheekbones and a sharp chin, for a feminine impression.  Alley grabbed her bag of cash and moved it to the driver seat, then stood to face the person, who was shorter than her.  The sight of full, soft lips and a narrow, straight nose gave Alley an immediate impression this person was probably prettier than her.  It only took a second or two for her to realize what she saw did not look female.

He just looked very young.

................................................................................

"Printed frames?" the redhead asked.

Alley nodded.

The redhead pulled her mask down and exposed brilliant white teeth with a broad smile.  "Yeah, you found what you want.  I'm Carmen."  She stood and offered one gloved hand.

Alley accepted the quick handshake.  "Mallory," she offered, on impulse.

"Let me guess: I'm not what you expected."

"I wasn't sure what to expect," Alley admitted, "but yeah, I guess you surprised me anyway."

Carmen -- possibly a pseudonym, Alley realized -- smiled again.  "That part of this job never gets old.  Anyway, I want to upsell you.  How's that sound?"

"Upsell?"  Alley hesitated, then nodded.  "Sure, I guess."

"Cool.  So, we have printed concealment holsters, snap on accessory rails, and brass catchers for models compatible with these frames.  We have stuff for other models, too, so let me know what you'd like to see."

"Wow.  Full-service, I guess."

................................................................................

Alley shrugged.  She tried, with only moderate success, to suppress her smile.

"Was it that obvious?"

Alley said "Yeah, I guess so.  Sorry."

"I guess it's a bit of everything.  I'm usually pretty cheery, but Cliff -- he's the guy I work with -- Cliff and I decided to try this out.  With the kind of ambitious young cryptotrader guys we usually get, the upsells and repeat business we get goes way up when I'm doing the trades.  In two years, we only had one guy who decided me being a pretty girl made me an easy target, too, so it's pretty safe."

Alley frowned.  "Yeah," she said.  "I guess that's a danger.  What happened?"

"Oh, shit," Carmen said.  "You must be new at this.  Well, I pulled out my baton and Cliff put a red dot on the guy's chest with the laser sight on his rifle.  The guy backed down in a hurry.  Are you carrying protection?"

Alley started opening her mouth to reply, but Carmen cut in again.

................................................................................

"Uh, thanks," Alley said.  "Aren't those collapsing batons illegal?"

"Yeah, California sucks that way.  Girls aren't allowed to protect themselves, you know."  She pulled something about the size of a whiteboard marker out of her back pocket.  "See this?  This is a good baton."

Alley looked at the black anodized aluminum cylinder when Carmen held it up.  It had some kind of logo on it and a couple of depressed ovals on the side.

"Push these two spots to pop it out.  Just push the second one, here, and push the business end against something hard to collapse the baton back into the handle.  Yeah?"

Alley nodded.  "I guess that's a good design, then."

"Totally.  With the two release points, you're not likely to accidentally pop it out when you don't want to, and this type is more solid and easier to retract than the things where you just snap your hand out to open them.  Anyway, you need one of these, and it's easy to toss it somewhere before cops get to you if you're afraid of getting caught with a concealed weapon, or if you cut a little hole in the inside of your pocket when you're wearing pants you can drop it down your pant leg, and maybe step on it to hide it while getting patted down, or something.  There are a bunch of ways to get away with it.

"Here."  She held it out to Alley, who started to reach for it.  "Don't try opening it here, but practice with it at home.  That way you don't have to worry about getting caught buying one.  Unlike our pistol frames, walking home with one of these in your pocket is illegal, and a cop might just try selling one to you to get an excuse to harass you."

Alley froze with her hand halfway to the baton handle.  "Are you giving this to me?" she asked.

"Yeah.  Uh, just a sec'," Carmen said.  She lowered her hand with the baton in it and looked toward the Audi.  "Yes, Cliff, I'm giving her the fucking baton.  I'll just buy another one!  Chill the fuck out."

Alley lowered her hand and turned her head to look at the parked sedan.

Carmen grabbed Alley's wrist and pressed the collapsing baton into her hand.  "Don't look at it.  Just put it in your pocket.  Don't make Cliff nervous by standing here with a weapon in your hand, even if it's one I gave you."

"Uh, yeah," Alley said, and tucked it into her back pocket.  "Thanks."  She showed her empty hands to Carmen, where the person in the Audi could see them as well, just to be as harmless looking as she could manage.

................................................................................

At home, Alley found a box of disposable nitrile gloves, and wore a pair when she looked more closely at the handgun frames she bought.  After going over them for a few minutes, she put them back in the drawstring bag.  She pulled out the extending baton next, and stood in the middle of her kitchen so she would not accidentally break anything.

She looked it over and decided she would exercise extra caution.  She thought she was sure which end was where the extending happened, but never having handled one before she carefully held it so that neither end pointed at something she thought of as particularly vulnerable to much harm.  She pointed the business end diagonally toward the floor to her left, using both hands to hold it in front of her, and the other end pointed toward the ceiling to her right.

Alley pressed on both contact points, as Carmen had instructed her.  A dull snap sounded, and the device nearly jumped out of her hand.  It had definitely gone in an instant from something the size of a whiteboard marker to a stiff metal baton about two thirds of a meter long.  She held it up and looked at the seams between telescoping sections, then lightly whacked the end on the carpet just past the edge of the kitchen floor.  It felt solid.

She held down what Carmen called the second button, and she set the head of the baton against the carpeted floor.  She pressed down on the handle of the baton, and found that if she pressed hard -- but not so hard that she had to throw her weight behind it -- the baton would smoothly collapse into the handle again.  Each telescopic section clicked into place, one after another.

The next time she tried it, she held the baton down at her side, the business end pointed at a relaxed angle at the floor.  Holding it comfortably, she found it easier to press the two switches simultaneously, and her grip felt more secure so that the baton didn't feel like it would jump out of her hand.

With no practice involving a weapon like this in her martial arts classes years ago, she was not sure she could use it effectively.  She hoped she could, if the need ever arose.  /* Maybe this could be replaced at some point by dialog, in a conversation between her and someone else. */

She closed it up after extending it a few times, and swinging it back and forth a bit to get a feel for the weight.  She tucked the collapse cylinder into her back pocket, similarly to how Carmen had carried it.  She remembered what Carmen said about a hole in a pants pocket, but decided to worry about that idea later.

She had no ideas about anyone else she could get to be backup for her next transaction, so that got sent to the back burner as well.  /* maybe, instead, say: put off for later */

Alley dug through boxes in her closet and found her old lightweight pair of motorcycle gloves with reinforcements on their backs, then checked to make sure she could still operate her baton and pepper spray.

The prioritizer told her "It is getting close to time for you to leave for your next meeting."

She checked the time and realized she was hungry.  She grabbed everything she needed, and grabbed a hat to help obscure her appearance a bit for surveillance cameras.  She bought fries and a shake at a drive through on the way, and when she finished the fries she donned her gloves at a stoplight, remembering Carmen once more and how the redhead wore gloves during the entire meeting.  ---

Once she got to the correct neighborhood for the meeting, Alley drove around the block once, then decided she should just park in the supermarket parking lot, off to the side near the alley behind the store.  Soon, she stood near the back corner of the building, masked, gloved, and hatted.  Her glasses informed her she was seven minutes early for the meeting.

She patted the reassuring bulges of the pepper spray, now in her left front pocket instead of the right, and the extending baton, in her right rear pocket.  She slung the /* drawstring */ bag of handgun frames over her shoulder by the drawstring and headed back around the corner.

Alley immediately saw a broad shouldered figure standing with an umbrella over his head, just past a steel faced employee fire escape door.  The umbrella he held in his right hand shaded most of him from the sunlight above, but as she approached the figure's features became clearer.

He was a well muscled black man, in his fifties or sixties from the look of it.  He wore neither mask nor glasses.  Around what looked like a permanent dour turn of his mouth she saw greying and close cut, but not exactly groomed, mustache and beard.    On his head she noted a black beret with some kind of unit patch on the front.  The whole beret, including the patch, looked scrupulously clean, though it appeared positively ancient.  It was worn threadbare in places, and seemed to have lost the stiffness necessary to maintain its previous sharp military shape.

The man waited and watched impassively as she approached, and she felt increasingly nervous as she got closer.  The impression of the man's solidity increased with closer proximity.  She stopped about ten feet away.  After a moment, she said "Hi."

................................................................................
/*

    Ideas:

    Alley should be prompted to buy from and (or) sell to other study
    participants in ways that help her as the middleman in a deal the others
    could have handled directly for greater benefit.  She should also be
    prompted to do some internet research work for some other study
    participants as a way to make a little money, though the prioritizer should
    warn her this is a short term method of advancing her finances that will
    not likely be fruitful for long.

    Some hot guy should be part of the story, younger than Alley, and an ally of
    hers in some way.  This may be one part of an apparent potential love
    triangle with Alley and her ex.  The guy should turn out to be gay, or
    perhaps bisexual but in a committed relationship with a man at least, and
    thus not truly available at all.  The ex, of course, while potentially
    interested in getting back together with her, should neither be a lovesick
    sap nor be what Alley decides she wants.

................................................................................

    How does she end up in the Second Realm?  Does Dalton actually know how to
    get in touch with the Smuggler analogue?  Does Dalton have the trust, sway,
    and (or) influence to get the Smuggler guy to do a favor for him (namely,
    helping Alley out)?

    Does the old black war veteran Army Ranger guy introduce her to the Second
    Realmers?

    I think when they pick her up (because I think she should be picked up,
    unless she's just transported there by someone under more direct
    circumstances), she should be transported with a bag over her head or
    something like that.  They at first aren't going to be especially trusting
    of some new person they never met before getting a clear look at the way
    they got to their Temporary Autonomous Zone.

    I need to figure out some ideas for what will be used to provide fast
................................................................................
    transported surreptitiously and clandestinely from one place to another,
    equivalent to what's going on with similar scenarios in other stories out
    there.  This could be a good way to get him back into the story and in
    contact with her.  She could also, then, end up having the opportunity to
    pay him back the hundred dollars he doesn't even realize she owes him.

    Perhaps something Alley could do for one of the other study participants is
    do research on people who are trying to find a particular issue of a
    particular comic book series to complete a collection, because maybe this
    other study participant is in need of money and has a comic book in
    excellent condition that could bring in some money like that.  Should Alley
    end up charging the guy then, when the guy talks to the potential buyer,
    the deal falls through, leaving the guy with no money to speak of, and in
    fact with less than when he started because he had to pay Alley?  Will this
    be a case where Alley pays the guy back, because even if she did the work
    she realizes the guy is in financial trouble and needs the money, and part
    of the reason he's in such financial trouble is that the research he paid
    her to perform -- though effective and well completed for him -- did not
    actually bear fruit for him?  Is there some possibility this will turn out
    to be bad for one or both of them if it gets back to the professor and his
    spooky spook government intelligence contractors that the prioritizer is
    cross pollinating a bit between study participants that should be kept
    separate from each other?

    Will Alley end up running a courier job on a motorcycle?  That seems fun.

    Will Alley have to bail some guy out of jail?  Perhaps a criminal of some
    kind, wanted by the police, has the money to bail out a co conspirator
    needs someone else to go in to pay the bail -- someone who is not wanted by
................................................................................

"That consideration is an important implication of the choice.  Driving may give you greater employment autonomy, which seems consistent with your previous self employment choices.  Working remotely in software production and maintenance roles may give you greater flexibility in where you choose to live."

"Yeah," she said.  "I don't know about that QA job, though.  That's a really sketchy business, automating product reviews.  I'd become part of the problem with the internet.  I'm not sure I'd want to be a driver, but maybe it's worth trying."

"Between delivery engagements, you can also look for less risky trades to facilitate, much like before but with less proximity to people of questionable lifestyle legality."

Alley nodded.  "Yeah, that makes sense.  I guess I'll sign up with Deliv tomorrow."

"It is best to submit your application today, if you can, in case of delays."

She groaned softly.  "Fine.  I'll do it now."

Much to Alley's dismay, much of the next day consisted of Deliv registration tasks.  She had to navigate the government's process for requesting a driving record report to be sent to Deliv, which alone took more than two hours.  She also had to get a vehicle inspection appointment, which she almost missed because of the time it took to get the report.  After that, she needed to visit a Deliv office to pick up a decal pack for her windows, to identify her vehicle as officially attached to the Deliv service.

................................................................................

The voice in her ear said "Perhaps we should consider other options."

"Yeah."  She nodded.  "Perhaps we should."

She drove up the onramp to I-215 and followed the highway up to the I-91 junction.  During a busier time of day, she would have taken an exit and used surface streets to avoid the Highway Junction of Death, but luckily the traffic density was pretty low at that time.

Through the choke point between Riverside County and Orange County, the darkness of night hid the scorched tree trunks to either side from view, but made the illuminated cross on the southern hilltop stand out all the more, all the lights on the religious idol shining in bright silhouette against the sky above.  The way it seemed to stand in judgement over the traffic beneath it made for an impressive, if slightly creepy and oppressive, sight.

The clean, pristine gated communities and manicured retail districts of Orange County soon slid slowly past, all signs of the Los Angeles semi-permanent riots of years past when they spilled over into Orange County long since having been erased by beautification projects.  The scenery then shifted again, becoming a more sordid, grimy, threadbare form of suburban decadence.  Bodegas and pawnshops shared walls with bail bond offices and all night mobile tech repair shops.  Gradually, the air changed subtly, becoming both cooler on her skin and more humid.

She found her exit, and drove through streets no narrower than in Perris but, somehow, they felt much more cramped nonetheless.  She passe by a pho shop and saw a number of people out front eating.  It looked like they might all be of Vietnamese descent, except for one single Hispanic woman sitting at a sidewalk table with a small group.  She thought that might be a good place to eat, if she went when it was less busy, but it surely was not worth driving all the way back here from home just for lunch.

A few more turns led to a big house.  On a street full of unkempt lawns and ancient, peeling paint jobs, this big house -- two storeys with a three car garage and probably more than two thousand square feet in the living area -- was in beautiful, well maintained condition.  Its lawn and small flower garden were obviously tended with pride.

She picked up the box, exited the car, and walked up to the front door.  No doorbell presented itself, so she knocked, using a heavy brass knocker.

The door opened, and the older veteran who bought the gun frames stood before her, still wearing his beret.

................................................................................

"Don't worry," he said.  "I don't bite."

"Yeah, okay," she said.  "I guess this package is for you, then."

He shrugged.  "Not exactly.  Come on in."  He stepped aside, giving her room to pass by.

Alley hesitated.  The living room ahead of her was scrupulously clean and neat, apart from a large red silicone tray on the coffee table with tools and electrical parts on it.  She stepped slowly inside, /* and looked away from */ over the darkly stained wooden furniture that looked over a century old -- armchairs, couch, table, and book cases full of books, every piece of furniture looking like it was meant to go with all the rest of them.  Even the lamps on end tables seemed part of the same set.

On the tops of the packed full book cases, overflow books stood between bronze bookends.

Her gaze settled on the man again, who closed the door and said "Have a seat.  Do you want a drink?"

/*

................................................................................

In the soft light of lamps under linen shades, he was starting to look less like a hardened killer running guns and more like a tough but kind grandfather.

In the soft light of lamps under linen shades, he was starting to look like a tough but kind grandfather rather than the trained, hardened killer she first took him to be.

*/

She nodded, then passed by the end table at one end of the couch and sat in an armchair, still holding the box.

"I have some bottled water, Coke, milk -- white or chocolate . . . and tea.  I'd offer a beer, but I guess you have a long drive ahead of you and won't have time to recover from the high alcohol brews I keep around here."

Alley felt her dry lips with her tongue.  "Ah . . . yeah, I guess I'm thirsty.  A Coke would be good."

He smiled, just slightly.  "Alright.  Go ahead and put that on the table.  I'll be right back."  Without another look, he walked out of the room.

................................................................................

He swigged from his can.  "Nice to properly meet you."

"Yeah," she said.  She opened her can and drank.

George pulled something from a pocket and, with the sound of a metallic snap, a nearly four inch blade appeared in his hand.  She froze for a moment, but he only leaned forward to cut the tape on the box.

"Uh . . . I don't need to see whatever's in there."

He stopped moving and looked at her.  He looked back down at the box a moment, his brow furrowed.  After a moment more, his brow smoothed,and he smiled, the lines around his mouth and eyes deepening.  "Oh, I get it.  Hah!  Ol' Dave must've made quite an impression on you."

Alley looked away, unsure whether to feel embarrassed or just scared now.

"Look, I know Dave looks like he probably cooks meth for a living, but he just uses the shit.  He doesn't make it, and he's about as gentle as a daisy.  This box is just some parts I had him machine for me."

She looked at the box and shifted uncomfortably on her chair.

"Ah, right," he said.  "No, they aren't gun parts, either.  They're parts for a custom prosthetic arm I'm building for a little girl."

Alley sat back in her chair, relaxing slightly, and she sipped from her can.  After swallowing, she said "Really?"

"Yeah.  One of the guys getting the guns I put together with the frames I bought has this cute little daughter, nine years old.  She lost her arm above the elbow during the police crackdown on the protesters at the [ SOMETHING ] street massacre.  She's outgrowing the arm I made for her a year ago, already."

................................................................................

George laughed.  It was a warm, surprised, deep laugh, and she felt tension draining away again, despite herself.

"No, don't do that," he said, a hint of chuckle still in his voice.  "Y'know what?  I like you, Alley.  I even like the way your name describes where we first met."

Alley smiled.  "Thanks.  What about your hundred dollars, though?"

"Keep it.  I'll survive without it, and I don't think you'd drive all the way from Perris to Hunting Beach at gig courier rates if your finances were feeling really secure."  He winked at her.  "You're good people, Alley."

"Uh . . . thank you.  Maybe you are, too."

"Yeah, maybe.  I hope so."  He turned back to the box and finished cutting the tape at the edges, then flipped the top flaps of the box out.  He carefully lifted taped-together bundles of metal parts, leaving packing paper behind.

As he set each bundle on the silicone tray, and looked over everything silently, Alley sat and sipped her Coke, unwilling to disturb his work.  His hands seemed precisely drawn to particular spots on various parts, as if muscle memory guided him deftly where they needed to go in a performance something almost like meditative psychometry.

................................................................................

/*

SUMMARY:

Alley should, after discussing plans with the prioritizer for what they'll do next, get up the next day and have to deal with the arrival of scary people with sunglasses who want to talk to her about the fact the prioritizer is not properly logging her activities the way they expect.  They want to know what's going on, and get a bit of a "conversation" with the prioritizer through her interface or something like that.  They should probably check out the glasses just to make sure there's nothing fishy going on with them such that they might somehow be preventing the prioritizer from properly capturing data and detecting activity and so on.  They should probably intimate that she will potentially lose her study participation payments if she doesn't allow the prioritizer further into her life to log everything she's doing and provide material they can use to analyze stuff about her and so on.

A reason for this visit is, of course, the way the prioritizer has been redacting logs to keep activities in line with Alley's goal of greater personal and digital privacy in her life, protecting her from intrusive shit from police and other law enforcement things, and others as well.

*/

---

She woke in the morning to the sound of her doorbell, quickly followed by hard rapping on her door.  She groaned and looked at the clock.  It indicated the time was just after eight thirty.  "What the fuck his this?" she asked the air.

................................................................................

The pair outside broke off in mid-discussion and looked at Alley.

"Here," she said.  She pulled off the glasses and handed them to the closest of them, the man.

He smirked and handed them to his partner, and the woman pulled a small black disc out of her pocket.  The tip of her thumb whitened slightly under pressure for a moment as she squeezed the device, and a light began to blink on its edge.  The charging indicator light on the glasses blinked in time with it.  The woman held the disc near the glasses for several seconds, then the light stopped blinking and she replaced the disc in her pocket.

"Thank you for your co-operation," the woman said in a sour voice.  She handed the glasses back.

Alley accepted the glasses, donned them once more, and asked "Do you need anything else?"

"We'll come back if we need anything else," the man said, making it sound like a threat.

Alley ignored that.  "Do you want to tell me what the hell this is all about?"

................................................................................

"It is a rephrasing of Kerckhoffs' principle, which asserts that a cryptosystem should remain secure even if everything about the system except its key is public knowledge.  Claude Shannon's formulation broadens the idea to include all information systems, where Auguste Kerckhoffs' focus was specific to cryptography.  Shannon also inverted the perspective to demonstrate the importance of the principle as guidance for system design."

"Yeah, I get that," Alley said, and nodded.  "If the enemy knows the system, you should make sure none of its security depends on keeping the system design secret.

"You seem to know a lot about this stuff."

"I searched information security academic papers on the UCI network and paraphrased from one of them."

"That seems like it would be pretty handy, having instant access to all those academic papers and being able to make use of what they say.  I should probably lean on that more.  I don't suppose there's more in there that would be useful for me trying to change my career course.  Is there?"

"That does not seem likely," the prioritizer said.  "Apart from basic statistical studies of fields of employment and how they change or become obsolete over time, the only well studied areas I have found that appear relevant to your situation pertain to black market activities.  Your aversion to engaging in blatantly illegal activity for reasons of high risk severity preclude making use of most of that information."

Alley chuckled drily.  "Great.  The best guidance for a career change in the ivory tower is about becoming a career criminal, I guess.  I'm not sure whether that says worse things about universities or about the law."

................................................................................

"Was that the kind of thing you used to advise me to make those sketchy deals a couple days ago?"

"Such papers did help me prepare that strategic guidance," it said.  "Certain economics disciplines are very closely matched to my priority management purpose, especially those that assert an ordinal theory of subjective value rather than any cardinal value system."

"What do you mean?"

"A cardinal system is like using a system of one to five stars to assign value to a product when you rate it on the e-commerce site where you ordered it.  An ordinal system is like deciding between the two products in the first place, because it only tracks which options you value more than others, not some static numeric set of value levels."

"What if I value them both the same?" Alley asked.

"That seems such an unlikely case that it can be dismissed immediately.  Even from one second to the next, values may change, so fluctuations would settle into a condition of differing ordinal values for any two items.  In addition, no two products are truly identical, though the shopper may not have enough information to know which that person would choose if fully informed."

/* "Don't I still have to prefer one over the other to choose it, if I can't just get both, or if having two would be a waste?" */

"What about when I just can't decide between two options, and I can't get both of them?  Isn't that proof of being able to value two things equally?"

"If you cannot choose between them based on your own knowledge about the products, and they are substitutes or equivalents rather than complementary or orthogonal to each other, you will likely either keep seeking more information or decide the difference is not worth effort to identify.  In the latter case, you would likely choose the product that is, at that exact moment, the easiest to order.  Thus, one becomes a higher priority than the other, not because of a quality particular to the thing, but a quality of your circumstances.  It receives a greater ordinal value position based on momentary convenience.  In short, convenience and elimination of the stress of decision paralysis becomes the deciding factor as a value greater than the difference between discernible product values."

"What if I put off buying something I want more to get something I want less, to get the second thing more quickly?"

"This is another case of a third value coming into play, such as buying the lesser value item when you need it and postponing the greater value item because it is not as quickly important to acquire.  This is also an example of my main purpose, prioritization strategy.  Lower value goals should not prevent achievement of higher value goals, but when they serve as facilitators for the higher value goals they should be pursued first to ensure greater success later for the higher value goals."

"Okay, I get it," Alley said.  "Now I need to figure out what I'm going to do about protecting my privacy better."

................................................................................

In short, if they wanted to, COIN Corp agents could get the FBI to break down Alley's door on some flimsy excuse for a warrant, and the FBI would just hand her over to the corporate agents.

Others in the discussion shared supporting stories of Men In Black who wore red striped shirts, supervising ATF, FBI, and Secret Service teams breaking down doors to execute warrants.  Most people telling those stories claimed they never again saw the people who lived in the places that got searched.

Alley felt chilled, despite the warmth and light coming through the thin curtains over the south-facing window.  She closed her laptop and walked to the kitchen, then stood over the sink and stared blankly at the drain.  From what COIN-Op said, it seemed like the agents of COIN Corp enjoyed destroying lives, and bragged about how quickly they could track down "enemies of the state" by going after people who didn't even know they had met some petty criminals who, in turn, didn't realize they had contact with someone supposedly connected to "domestic terrorism".  They just had to stay away from anyone well known enough to draw media attention, or anyone wealthy or connected enough to really go after the corporation, so their activities would never get enough scrutiny to cause significant problems.

Alley recalled a time when Dalton told her that the idea of six degrees of separation was too optimistic when it came to government agendas.  Most people in the United States were only three degrees of separation away from organized crime -- which, when Dalton used the term, almost always either included government or anything the government designated "terrorism".  In this case, he was talking more about the so-called terrorists than the government.  Based on what she had just read on the darknet, it looked like COIN Corp would probably just make her disappear and look for ways to connect her to "domestic terrorism" so they could get a nice bonus from Uncle Sam.  Through Dalton and his friends, she figured they would not even have to try very hard to find a quick connection from her to someone on some watch list.

It could not be too difficult, when they didn't even care whether they really nailed down a case against the ultimate "domestic terrorist" they used as an excuse to black bag other people along the way.  By then, they already had all those disappeared people marked down in the "win" column.

"I'm just a number to them."

The prioritizer said "Everything is about numbers for an organization like COIN Corp.  Its revenue model is based on government payouts and contract renewals which are, in turn, determined by performance metrics.  A government bureaucracy must use metrics to measure success, because the size of the organization cannot ensure any consistent effectiveness judgement any other way.  A combination of the efficiency of digital technology at analyzing simple metrics and the sheer size of the organizations involved ensure that without turning every policy decision into straightforward numeric optimization the whole system would fall apart under the weight of its own inefficiency."

................................................................................

Her searches focused on policy agents after that.  She launched a custom program -- which she had to copy over from her home backup brick -- she paid someone to to write for her in the days of her greatest success as a freelance internet researcher.  The program took a series of API endpoint addresses -- web URLs, addresses that provided formatted data intended for other programs to read, rather than providing human readable webpages -- and searched them for data records that matched search criteria she typed into the search parameters window.  Among the criteria were those API endpoints, a list of employment resources on the internet that she had used for searches on behalf of clients before.

She knew the program would take a while to collect its results. In an ideal world, it could be done with the long list of API endpoints she gave it in a couple minutes.  In the real world, her program had to space out requests to avoid getting blocked by the target sites as abusing bandwidth, and it could take anywhere from twenty minutes to two hours.  She decided to take a break for a snack, then she went for a walk as she waited for the program.

The event of the last few days played out in her mind as she walked.  It was more like a jumble of nonlinearly connected bits and pieces, ordered more by emotional significance than any chronological flashback montage.  As she /* finally */ approached her front door again she dwelled on the question of what George's friend, or client, or whatever, was doing with all those handgun frames.  She had no idea how to make that fit with George's charitable custom prosthetic fabrication for a little girl.  Sure, he said the girl's father would receive the guns, but that said nothing about how anyone would actually use those guns after they got delivered.  What would they use the guns to accomplish -- or to destroy?

In theory, she supported the right to keep and bear arms, even if the federal government had gotten the Supreme Court to offer such broad exceptions to the Second Amendment and loose definitions of a "state of emergency" that the Second Amendment itself was nearly toothless.  Her support for the idea of the right to keep and bear arms, however, was not the same as thinking it was a good idea for some kinds of people to have guns.  She suspected that if someone was buying illegally assembled firearms by the bagful they probably did not intend to put those guns to a good, ethical purpose.  Even psychopathic mob hitmen could have young, disabled daughters, after all.

She stood with her hand on the doorknob of her front door, lost in thought, worried about what she had helped facilitate by the act of purchasing those printed handgun frames to resell them to George.  Did she want to ask him about them?  She wasn't sure whether that was a great idea, either.

/*

    It feels very much like this moment should turn into some kind of encounter
    here, with someone snapping Alley out of her reverie by saying something
    like "Hey, Alley.  Did you get lost at your own front door?" Some kind of
    scene must commence at that point, of course, in which Alley is shown to
    know people who like her and consider her a friend.  Perhaps some
    revelations for the readers (via conversation about shared background
    knowledge) would come out in such a scene.  After completing this
    encounter, Alley would return to her tasks.

*/ /*

    Describe Alley finding information on one of the two agents, specifically
    the male, who turns out to wear the name Cole Brewer.  Cole Brewer will
................................................................................

"Maybe.  It's weird he acted like he didn't know me, though.  If nothing else, he should have recognized my name."

"They may plan for you to seem to recognize him first."

"Yeah, I guess so," she said.  "He could say something like "Oh!  My, how you've grown!  I didn't recognize you!  How are you?' then turn into the 'Good Cop' of the pair and try to get more out of me that they can then use to hang me."

"If that is the case, creating the impression that you would be an ideal candidate for COIN Corp to recruit may be even more important as a means of ensuring you have some time and opportunity to find an acceptable solution to your present predicament."

"Yeah."  She frowned.  "He was so much like my uncle, so set against things like a surveillance state society and authoritarian rule, that it's kind of inconceivable that this is what he would be doing now.  It doesn't make any sense.  How could he just become everything he hated like this?  My uncle must be getting pretty restless in his grave over this."

"Perhaps he was not quite the person you believed him to be."

/* "It's like Pascal's wager in reverse, I guess.  Instead of trying out living like a Christian for a while and growing to believe it, you're forced into living like a Christian then giving yourself the excuse to start believing in it after you're used to it." <- This is a terrible description of the idea of Pascal's wager "in reverse", and desperately needs rewriting. */

................................................................................

She moved into the living room area and resumed her seat from the night before.  George shortly sat on the couch again.  This time, there were no parts or tools on the coffee table.  Where the tray sat the night before, now there was only a hardcover book.

He saw her looking at the book.  "Greg Egan," George said.  "He's one of my favorite authors.  It's science fiction, the hard stuff.  I guess it's the hardest drug I use, though some people might say alcohol beats it.  If so, though, I think they haven't appreciated Egan."

Her amused smile broke through before she realized it was coming.  "I've never read that author," she said.

"Hell, I don't even think most sci if authors have read him these days.  It's not like the old days when giants like Asimov and Clarke stood at the forefront of the genre.  It's getting harder for me to get fresh fixes.  Everything's full of climate apocalypses, mindless action thrillers with a thin coat of science fiction futuristic technology paint, and self righteous posturing by authors who think all the universe's mysteries have been solved, leaving only the work for the engineers.  It's depressing."

"I can tell you're pretty passionate about this."

"Yeah, I guess so.  What do you read, Alley?"

"Mostly nonfiction, I guess, like biographies, historical books, and things where a journalist gets obsessed with some mundane but obscure subject for a year or two and writes a long book about all the weird stuff most people would never know about the subject otherwise."

................................................................................

"Is that why you called me today?" he asked.

"What?"

"You said you wanted to talk about what I do.  Are you looking for an opportunity to work with me?  It doesn't matter to me that you were engaged to DSH; I take people as they come.  I guess you'd want to know what I'm doing before you ask for an opportunity to work with me, though."

"Oh."  She paused a moment.  "Well . . . maybe?  I wasn't exactly thinking that, but it's an interesting idea, I guess.  You did offer to help me learn some new skills if I need it, and I guess this might be connected to that.  I was just, err, concerned about what kind of business I got into when I sold those frames to you."

He chuckled.  "Oh, that.  Yeah, well, I can see why."  His smile faded, and she saw a new, serious look about him.  "Tell me something, before I answer, please.  A couple of things, actually.  If you don't want to answer, it's fine, but then I won't answer your questions, about what I'm doing."

"Okay," she said, an uncertain upturn in the tone of the word tacked onto the end, almost like it was a question.

"First, I want to know when you think it's okay to lie."