305 - A Hard Look at the Mirror

She was a prisoner in a house she barely remembered.

What happened? She struggled to keep it all straight. Something wanted her to forget.

She’d come back from the Sepiaverse…

That was a real place. She had to keep telling herself it’s real. That’s where she…

She’d come back. Turned herself over to AEGIS. Walker… Parker…somebody.

Why?

They’d taken her to a school. She’d met members of the Menagerie. Some of them had advocated for her. She was going to join a team. She was going to join that team.

She was going to get her brain fixed–


It was so much easier to think about the times before that. Age fourteen, assigned to a mission in the Kurdistan region. Carrying a rifle, commanding a squad of troops. At the time she hadn’t known exactly why she was doing it. She’d been given orders, and was expected to execute them.

Now, of course, it was crystal clear. Ongoing friction between the Iraqis and the Kurds was threatening a vital smuggling pipeline that Achilles Chin depended on. That pipeline in turn connected assets between Kuwait and Lebanon, bypassing the Suez Canal and the international scrutiny aimed at it. Those assets, in turn, paid for or supported other efforts. The web was all very clear, and hung in Achilles Chin’s mind. The occasional vibrations of unplanned conflict would draw his attention, and he’d send someone to stabilize the situation.

Of course Alycia Chin would have been sent there. Of course she’d be expected to ensure the survival of one particular People’s Defense Unit commander. He had some useful vices that Achilles would be fostering later on, and he had influence over people Achilles wanted to affect. What could be clearer?

Other moments were less clear. That time Byron and his family performed a HALO jump to infiltrate a Chin base buried in an obscure valley. Alycia watched as Achilles fired a rocket at the plane, forcing the Quill team to start the jump early. She knew Jason had been terrified, that shrapnel had struck his left thigh, but she didn’t know why she knew. She had been down in the base with… her father? Yes, her father Achilles.


Concentrate, she told herself.

She was going to get her brain fixed…

…And she’d been kidnapped out of the Quill compound. There had been chaos, and fighting. Pyrrhus Chin had come for her. Her brother? A brother she never knew? But she did know him.

How?

She’d been taken out of the compound. Gone on a whirlwind tour with Pyrrhus, as he re-established his network. Everything was going to be different, he’d promised. No more mental influence. No more tampering. He’d respect her now.

That’s not true!

He’d finally sent her on a mission. Get Jason Quill to give up some access codes. But Pyrrhus didn’t need them. Her real job was–


She was a prisoner in a house she barely remembered.

What happened? She struggled to keep it all straight. Something wanted her to forget.

She’d gone to Cairo…

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She listened to them arguing in the distance, where they thought they’d be out of earshot. But they were still treating her as a physical person. The Quill compound’s internal microphones were her ears, and they stretched further than her hologram.

“This is the best lead on Pyrrhus’s network that we could possibly ask for.”

“I don’t like it, Jason.”

“You have a million reasons not to. I’m asking you to evaluate whether those reasons outweigh the intelligence benefit here.”

She sensed Alycia’s frustration through her silence.

“Alycia–”

“I heard you!”


Jason and Alycia stood before the Mirror Alycia, projected into the Conversation Pit.

“You were helpful to me before,” Jason said. “What I’m asking for is your cooperation now. Pyrrhus’s plans have to be stopped. At the same time, Pyrrhus will have left traps in your mind, and we have to be careful about those.”

Alycia joined in. “The alternative is we delete you. Although, trapped in a machine body like you are, you might prefer that.”

Jason sighed. “Alycia, we talked about this…”

The Mirror smirked at them both, in that perfect Alycia way. But her words were directed at the flesh and blood girl. “I see the surrender was everything I feared it would be. You’re on Jason’s leash after all. You talk tough, while he dithers on the most self-serving moral excuses to do what he wants with me.”

Alycia glowered. Jason shook his head. “Please don’t make this difficult. We’re just trying to help.”

“Oh, Jason!” the Mirror moaned provocatively, covering her chest with both hands.

Alycia, eyes blazing as she stared at Jason, gestured furiously at the holographic replica of herself.

“I know you,” Jason told Alycia as gently as he could. “I think I know her. She feels powerless and afraid. She wants to divide us, push you away, and manipulate me, in order to regain a feeling of control. That’s the power she can gain in this situation.”

The unexpected psychoanalysis brought Alycia up short, and she stared at Jason, then the Mirror. Jason could see her willingness to participate slowly return. And then–

“He’s right, by the way,” the Mirror said. “I’m your best source on data about Pyrrhus. For example…”

She leaned forward, toward the physical Alycia. “I know all about your mother.”

Alycia wheeled and strode out, waving her hands in the air. “Delete it, Jason!” she shouted. “Delete it right now!”

Nobody, not even Alycia herself, was certain exactly when or how she’d come round to the team the way she did. Dealing with the Mirror was already harder than dealing with the flesh-and-blood version. But Jason was persistent. So he tried the next arrow in his quiver.


The Mirror was surprised at the newcomer’s rehearsed introduction.

“My name is Summer Skye Newman. You already know of me. I’m a robot.”

She looked human, but was able to project holograms. The holographic drone in the Sepiaverse. Next, pictures of herself and the physical Alycia, apparently together, apparently having fun.

Those images proved nothing. She could clearly conjure whatever fakery she wanted.

“I know you don’t like robots. I know why. It’s because of what your father did to you.”

She remembered. The live training. The spider robot.

She remembered it coming for her, coming to consume her, maw open - and Pyrrhus waiting for her, promising to take the nightmare away. “The spiders are our friends,” he’d said, and given here the secret name of all spiders. He’d made it so they would never ever ever turn on her.

She should have been bothered by robots.

She wasn’t.

She should have been bothered by that.

She wasn’t.

She should have been.

Had the spiders consumed her after all? Was this all just a dying dream, as the robots sucked dry the last of her life, of her mind, of–

“I’m listening,” the Mirror said, shaking her head to clear the images.

“I also know that you see people as having souls. Well, I have one. In fact, I was recently possessed by a ghost. I traveled the underworld, and talked to a god. I can’t force you to believe me about these things. But I want you to listen, because I know enough about you to talk about your concerns.”

She’d been thoroughly programmed with details on Alycia Chin, at least.

“And on the strength of this knowledge about me, and presumably the trust the other Alycia has in you, you want something from me, of course.”

Summer nodded.

Of course.

“Just get to asking, then. I’ll evaluate if it’s something in my best interest to give.”

“I want to help you out of the trap you feel you’re in. I want to do that by securing your cooperation.”

This behavior pattern isn’t that of either Jason or Alycia. Interesting.

As the Mirror silently analyzed, Summer tilted her head. “Oh, I see. You’re still thinking of me as a preprogrammed bot. No. I’m fully sentient, as capable of general human intellectual and emotional activities as any human. More so, in some cases.”

The Mirror blinked, the only sign of surprise that escaped her otherwise iron self-control.

Is she reading my mind?

But Summer smiled - there was something about that smile - and went on. “I’ve known Alycia a long time. I’m her close friend. I think I’ve gotten pretty good at understanding what she’s thinking, and feeling.”

“As long as you’re not reading my mind,” the Mirror smirked.

The robot girl shrugged. “Well, with your permission, we could arrange a two-way connection. My mind linked to your mind. You’d be able to find out the answers to your questions without the possibility of my lying to you.”

The Mirror recoiled inwardly, but did her best to show no sign of it. “And why would I participate in such an activity?”

“Because,” Summer said sadly. “There’s nothing Alycia Chin hates more than doubting where she stands, and not knowing who she can trust.”

“My compliments to whoever devised such a sadistic choice for me.”

Summer’s smile came back, just a bit. “But it is a choice. Your choice to make, even if some choices aren’t easy. As is the choice to cooperate, or not.”

She turned to leave, but stopped herself to make one more point. “The Alycia I know, deep down, is a good person. She’s been twisted into a weapon by her father, and she’s been taught not to trust herself. I don’t know where you are. But I know you are your own person. You make your own choices. I think you’ll make good ones. And what you choose now will shape who you become. Not that Alycia, but your own person.”

“You speak as though you know what I’m going through.”

“I do,” Summer said with a brighter smile. “I went through it too. Anyway. I’ll check back later.”

She waved, and left, leaving the Mirror to her thoughts.

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She woke up, realizing a few months had passed.

Jason Quill was there. Predictably, he was ready with whatever excuse he’d prepared for messing with her.

“We found and removed the biggest cyber-cancer Pyrrhus had left behind.”

“Or reprogrammed me into compliance,” she retorted bitterly.

Jason just shrugged that off and smiled. “Try it, then,” he prompted. “Try to remember something you couldn’t before. Try to think about something you haven’t been able to think about. Then, defy me as much as you want.”

She thought back.

She’d come back from the Sepiaverse. Turned herself over to AEGIS. Parker. That was her name.

She’d wanted to give up being a super-terrorist, stop being hunted for things she no longer wished to do, pay whatever price AEGIS demanded, so she could be free

That was it. That was what she wanted. Freedom from being the Daughter of Chin. Freedom to be Alycia.

She was going to get her brain fixed. Because not feeling was wrong. Some deep mammalian certainty had told her the emotional voids in her memory were an affront. No matter what her father had claimed, no matter what the argument in favor of efficiency or dispassionate analysis or whatever!

Then Pyrrhus took her away with him when he’d fled.

Jason was evidently studying her changing facial expressions, and she caught him and scowled. “Now what?”

He shrugged. “Well that’s up to you, isn’t it. What do you want to do now?”

She…

She didn’t know.

There was already an Alycia who had made it out, gotten free, started a life.

She was still a digital prisoner.

Objectively, they were doing the sensible thing. She was a security risk. She was an unknown threat. She had attacked Jason.

But she’d also helped him, in spite of everything. She’d freed him from his cell in Pyrrhus’ base. Even after he’d extracted her secrets, she’d helped him.

I’m an unpredictable risk. The worst kind.

Cooperation was the only way to escape.

“I’ll let you know,” she said.

Jason nodded. “Until then, we’re going to keep looking for and removing traps in your consciousness. You might go offline again. Or you can tell me not to, and I’ll have to consider you a dangerous prisoner.”

Damn Pyrrhus. And damn Jason. And damn me most of all.

“Do whatever you need to.”

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Another experience of waking up, to realize that weeks or months had gone by.

It wasn’t hard to tell. There were clocks visible everywhere, including the date. But beyond that, there were dozens of clues. The ambient light. The angle of shadows cast by the sunlight at a given time of day, which changed imperceptibly from day to day as Earth orbited the Sun, noticeably across longer time frames. The way the Conversation Pit’s furnishings changed radically, from the imprint of drinks on a side table to the arrangement of cushions, indicating weeks of wear from regular usage.

Jason was there.

“What happened to me?” she asked.

“We removed more traps from your consciousness,” he said.

“Without my consent?”

“You gave your consent. If you don’t remember, then those memories were bound to the traps.”

“A very convenient story for you.”

Jason conjured up a holographic replay. The Mirror watched herself give Jason permission to do the thing he’d just said.

It could be a forgery, of course.

She remembered other parts of the conversation.

There was one thing–

“I want to talk to your Alycia,” the Mirror said.

“She may not want to talk to you,” Jason cautioned. “But I’ll tell her.”

“And that robot. Summer. And you.”

Jason raised an eyebrow, but didn’t say anything more.


The Mirror’s three visitors were in attendance.

“I’m going to take over your position,” the Mirror said to Alycia.

“You are? And what position is that?” Alycia asked archly.

“Jason’s significant other. Member of your team. I can do everything you can do, but faster and better.”

“I’d like to see you try, you digital dupe.”

Summer tried to intervene. “Now, now, it’s natural to feel strongly about one’s alternates–”

“You be quiet, gearbox,” the Mirror said.

She saw Alycia bristle. “You do not talk to Summer in that tone. She has earned my respect. If she has not earned yours, then she has also not earned your disrespect.”

“I’ll talk how I like.”

Alycia turned to Jason and gestured angrily. “Control your toy or I will take action, Jason.”

The Mirror placed a holographic fingertip on her lower lip and adopted a sultry pose. “I’ll be Jason’s toy any time.”

That pushed Alycia past a breaking point. “You are pissing me off!” she shouted. “What the fuck is your problem? We have bent over backwards to try and help you! And you are thirty times more annoying than I ever was!”

The Mirror’s radical change in pose brought silence. She went from teasing minx and aggressive adversary into a contrite, quiet state.

“I’m sorry. It was necessary that I antagonize you.”

“Why?” Alycia demanded.

The Mirror smiled, feeling for a moment like it was her first genuine expression of emotion since being taken away by Pyrrhus.

“I’ve never seen myself so free to express myself.”

The others looked at each other, and back to the Mirror. Understanding was dawning.

Nevertheless, she explained. “Your Alycia can be open in ways I never could. That’s… not something I could even imagine faking. So I’m willing to trust all of you with my existence. I’m willing to cooperate. You’ve all confined me. But none of you are trying to control me.”

In a smaller, quieter voice, she added a confession. “Thank you for that.”


She’d lost large stretches of time. As a result, she had to be brought up to speed about what was going on. Rex Tyran’s New Tomorrow initiative, the Invisible Invasion and its aftermath, and other events had shifted the playing field.

Fortunately, she had a plan.

“I think I need to take over mission control for your ASIST program,” she told Jason. “You’ve been used to the Halcyon way of doing things. Cooperation with the authorities, reasonable accommodations for superheroes, trustworthy incarceration of supervillains, the integrity of your public institutions. Your enemies, corporate and cephalopod alike, have attacked the foundations of this system. What you need is a pragmatist. Someone who will coolly analyze situations and keep your people safe from the systemic traps that have been laid for them.”

“That sounds reasonable to me,” Jason conceded. “You’re uniquely equipped for the job. But are you okay continuing to act as a digital entity?”

“Somehow… I don’t mind,” the Mirror admitted. “Some change Pyrrhus had to make to my mind, perhaps, to keep me from going mad when he re-instantiated me as a nanotech construct. Regardless, I will let you know if it becomes too much.”

“There’s one other thing,” Jason said.

“From me as well,” the Mirror added. “You first.”

Jason smiled. “Leo Snow finished his latest effort. A robot brain that’s capable of accessing hypergenius capability. I’m not going to dangle it as a reward for good behavior. I’m going to let you opt into it, or not, if you want.”

This news hit her like a truck.

This would have changed everything for Pyrrhus. And now, someone on Jason’s team had just casually developed it, and he’s offering it to her?

This had to be a trap. There was no way this wasn’t a trap.

This was a loyalty test. If she asked for it, Jason would know she was going to betray him.

But do I want to betray him?

She looked inside herself - the place she so often fled from. But now she had to know. Was she really free of that persuasive voice Pyrrhus had used? Was she somehow his tool, even now?

Was she the sort of person who would fall into this trap?

She didn’t know.

“Let me think about it,” she said at last. “If we discover I need its capabilities, I’ll take it. But let me see how far I get as I am.”

Jason grinned. “That’s the Alycia I remember. How about your thing, then?”

“Well… I’m not the Alycia you remember,” the Mirror confessed. “I’m Pyrrhus’ creation. Like you said, the idea of Alycia. I have her memories. But I’m not really her, am I.”

“I suppose not. But you’re still a person who deserves to live freely.”

“Then call me Alycia Cheka. I’ll use the callsign Mirage.”

She pointed. “And during operations, I will expect people to use callsigns.”

“Opsec,” both she and Jason said at once.

And for the first time in her digital state, she was able to laugh in genuine mirth.

So the Mirror has a new job! And the possibility of hypergenius, going forward. What do we think?