The flight back to Miami from D.C. was uneventful. Cecilia went to retrieve her vehicle, and paid the $350 parking bill with her American Express. There was still some money left on the card Colonel Oates had provided for her, but Cecilia felt that the mission was complete and she should not use it to offset this cost, all things considered. She drove back home to unpack and reassure her mother that she really was fine. She walked in the door of the condo to find her mother watching one of her telenovelas and Rubio asleep on his bed next to the sofa. Her mother came and gave her a hug, looking at her bandaged head with concern. Rubio woke up, gave Cecilia a glance, and then went back to sleep. “Well, that’s a change from his normal, aggressive greeting!” Her mother made her a delicious lunch of piccadillo and bread with Plugra butter and sea salt. After lunch, Cecilia contacted Mirabel and assured her she’d be in to work shortly, after she’d had a little nap. She went into the bedroom to lie down for a bit. The next thing she knew she was back in the upstairs room, sitting on the green loveseat. Emily was, as usual, sitting in front of the computer screen, tapping away.
“Good work on that speech thing – almost got the whole thing yourself. Grandma and I were proud of you.” Cecilia nodded and said “Thanks…couldn’t have done it without you,” still feeling foolish for telepathically communicating with a ten year old. Cecilia said, “I’m feeling so much better after a couple good meals and an excellent night’s sleep. So would it be okay if I asked you a bunch of questions? I’m really curious about all this. There is so much I don’t understand.”
“Sure – shoot,” said Emily, as usual not diverting her eyes from the monitor screen. Cecilia grabbed a notepad that was lying on the trunk coffee table. She reached in a basket for a pen. “You’re going to write this stuff down?” Emily asked. Cecilia replied, “Is that OK?” Don’t see why not…seems silly, though,” Emily said. There will always be a record of everything we discuss in the history table. I can show you how to retrieve it if you want.” Cecilia said, “That’s OK – maybe later.” Cecilia coughed slightly to clear her throat. “OK – let’s start with me. How…why…gosh this is hard…how did I come to be?” Emily replied, “I told you a couple of times: grandma created you. So you’ll have to talk with her about that.” Emily turned her head to the right and shouted, “Grandma! Someone is here to see you!” Emily glanced back at Cecilia with a conspiratorial gleam in her eye. “Wait ’til she sees you – she’s gonna flip!” A voice floated up from downstairs, “What, Emily? What do you want? Did you eat your lunch?” Emily shook her head and said, “She always asks me about that.” Emily shouted down the stairs, “Yes, I finished my lunch. But come upstairs! I want to show you something!” Emily stifled a laugh, squinched her eyes shut and nodded at Cecilia. “Here she comes.”
In the next moment, a woman in her mid-sixties appeared on the landing. She came around the corner, and started to pick up the empty glass and plate from what was left of Emily’s lunch. Emily pointed toward the love seat. Her grandmother turned around and saw Cecilia sitting there. She dropped the plate, spilling the pieces of sandwich onto the carpeted floor. “What the…Emily! What have you done?” Emily laughed wholeheartedly. “Isn’t this just the coolest thing? I have no idea how this happened. But ya gotta believe this is gonna get me into the Programmer’s Hall of Fame. The first, self-aware Avatar! I am so stoked!”
Her grandmother continued to stare at Cecilia for what felt like an eternity. “Uh, grandma, she’s got some questions. Ya wanna sit down and try to help her figure all this out?” “Ah, okay…I guess…um…” Grandma turned back to face Emily, and whispered loudly, “So was this what happened the other day when you tried to tell me she was here?” Emily nodded. “See? You never believe me when I tell you these things.” Grandma turned, shrugged her shoulders in a ‘what the hell’ gesture, and sat down on the adjacent green love seat. She looked at Cecilia. “You’re sitting in my seat.” Cecilia looked at Emily, who waggled her two fingers at Cecilia, indicating she was to switch seats with the older woman. When they were both seated, the grandmother stuck out her hand to Cecilia. “Hi, I’m Susan. Cecilia?” Cecilia reached out her hand. Susan felt it in hers. It was warm, dry and oh so very human feeling. “This is a bit much to get used to. Give me a second,” the woman said. There was silence for a few moments. Then, again the shrug from the grandmother. “Emily said you have some questions?”
“Yes. How did I come to be?” Cecilia asked with more confidence now. Susan replied, “I put together a composite of attributes using the Howling Moon software Emily downloaded. The App is called Entrained Goldfish, which is a tongue-in-cheek reference to Einstein and Hawking’s examples of model-dependent reality. We added the Augmentation and Kinect features, and…there you were!” Cecilia nodded. “OK – where did you get my name?” Susan replied, “I knew a girl in junior high school named Cecilia Vasquez. When we’d developed your features, you reminded me of her.” Cecilia asked, “What about my home – the condo on Brickell Avenue? The hospital they sent my grandfather to? My mother’s house?” “Whoa! Slow down, Susan said as she frowned. “One at a time, please! OK, the condo on Brickell. I was born and raised in Miami, and at one point in time my father and stepmother lived in the penthouse of the Brickell Town House. Mercy Hospital? Seemed logical for a Cuban ex-pat to go there, since it’s a Catholic hospital with a heart unit. Your mother’s house? Before my father and stepmother got rich – only a temporary state of being – they lived in a little house on 34th Avenue, right down from the one I posted for your mother’s house. I got it off the Trulia website.
Cecilia asks “What about everyone else I’ve come into contact with? Dr. Kardashev? Olga Arkhipov? The staff at the hospital?” Susan replied, “They are all just as real as you are, within the reality of this Matryoshka.” Then Cecilia asks, “What about my knowledge of history: World Wars, the Holocaust, all that? Is that all made up?” At that point Susan turns to Emily, and she responds. “My Matryoshka is just one of many. Others have, for a very long time, created their own Matryoshkas, some with more dolls, some with fewer. The guy I told you about – Cosmo Topper? His Matryoshka had 12 dolls. He nearly blew up the game! He was blacklisted from that server. All that history is just recorded in the database for the game and inserted into the memory of all new avatars.” Cecilia replies, as much to herself as to Emily and Susan, “Why would anyone create history that was so filled with evil as that of the Holocaust?”
Emily and Susan were quiet for a few seconds. Then Emily speaks up with some very wise words, given her age. Slowly, she begins. “Cecilia, there are some people in ‘our’ world that take no pleasure in building up the elements of the game. There’s always somebody that only likes to tear things down. After the Sys Op finds out about them – which can sometimes take a while – they’re blacklisted from the game and their Matryoshkas are deleted. But usually that means they just go on a different server and start tearing stuff up again.”
At the notion of a different server, Cecilia frowns and shakes her head. “A different server? You mean there are more servers with other games going on simultaneously?” “Of course..see, each server contains…” Emily begins to explain, but the grandmother can see that Cecilia is overwhelmed by all this. Susan quickly says, “But you asked about a very specific event: the Holocaust. I have my own theory about that. I believe there was a serious error in the program that has since been fixed. Recall Emily explained the last time you visited that her operator error created the limited nuclear war that you and Dr. Kardashev investigated?” Cecilia interrupts to ask, “Does Dr. Kardashev know he’s in a virtual world?” Emily answers, “No! Of course not – you’re the only one that knows…I think?”
Cecilia turns to Susan. “Go on. You said you thought there was an error?” Susan says there are limits built into the system, limits based on fundamental morality and ethics. She says, “An example would be that Avatars aren’t supposed to randomly kill other avatars. But every so often those limits are temporarily lifted – usually when a Master Programmer is making adjustments to the Entrained Goldfish software, say introducing an updated version. I think it was during that short time interval that some gamers in Germany went well past the limits and …well, the result was the most horrific 15 minutes of the game. There was a lot of discussion about whether their Matryoshka should be deleted. We all agreed it should be left in the game as an example of truly evil output.”
“Did you say fifteen minutes?” Cecilia’s eyes grew wide and her mouth was agape. Susan says, “Oh, dear … we need to take a break before we launch into the discussion about the difference in time scales ..Cecilia, would you like a soda or cup of tea?” Cecilia shakes her head no and says “Please, go on..I’m..I’m ok.”
Emily says to Cecilia, “What you have learned as history is just the notes in the database about past play. So what can take years to occur within the Matryoshka can often only take a few minutes of game time. Avatars’ perception of the passage of time is a feature that the programmer can manipulate – choosing from a menu of options.”
Emily stops because, once again, she and Susan see Cecilia is totally overwhelmed by all this information. Susan says to Cecilia “Maybe you need to rest a bit and think about where to go from here. It’s a lot to digest in so little time. And frankly, I’m not sure you can go back into the Matryoshka without some impact. Having an avatar going around telling everyone that they’re just bits of code in a virtual world might get that person locked up in a psychiatric institution – and you’ve already done that, eh?” Emily says, “Grandma – Cecilia and I already had that conversation.”
Cecilia nods and thinks for quite a few moments. They she asks “Are you and Emily real, or are you avatars as well?” Neither Susan nor Emily responds. The game has frozen.