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Rebecca Costa-Brown finds a notebook
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That works just fine for me! (I can also rearrange my pages, so you don't have to worry about us running into the start of the questions if we turn out to have a lot to say to each other.)

So just to make sure, you want me to wait until you tell me you've written in all the questions, and then start answering them from the top, and wait for you to turn pages before I write on them, so you can record me writing my answers? Is that right?

Yes, that's right! Thank you for the clarification on the page turning; I'm not used to these mechanics and didn't think of that.

Once I've written everything (I'll write all the questions on one page, and you can number your answers) I'll come back to this page and write "questions ready", and I'll flip to a fresh page, and you'll begin?

(You can tell what page you're opened to, am I understanding that right?)

Yes, I can tell what position my covers and pages are in and where they're being touched, so I can tell what page I'm open to. But I can't tell whether you're recording, because I can only see my own pages and covers, and not anything outside them. I can sort of tell whether the space around me is bright or dark, but not very easily.

I think that's a sensible way to do things, and I can start answering questions on the fresh page you flip to after you say "questions ready"!

Which implies it can't hear them.

He would guess it's not lying, but it doesn't cost anything to play safe, so he doesn't act on that information.

I'll start recording just before I write "questions ready" and I'll verbally (well, textually) confirm with you when you're done before stopping the recording, in case you want to ask questions or make some clarifications on the record before ending.

He flips over the page, giving him two blank sheets to work with. On the left sheet he writes,

(New page for formatting.)

I'll start writing questions on the page on the right after a little while, once I've worked out the right set. You can say something here anytime while I'm doing that. I'll also put the starting prompt here.

And he starts preparing.


The notebook waits.

Joel uses the intercom and wrangles permission to get his usual Negotiations consult on the line. He outlines the situation in the most general term—an animate object, possible power manifestation, requesting a meeting with an L6+, presents the following deviations—and workshops the questions. His two colleagues still in the room technically don't have much reason to still be here, their areas of expertise now mostly out of the running, but more eyes are never unwelcome for these cases. Besides, they're one of very few cleared for this, and he's done his own fair share of hanging around war rooms he has no business in just because they looked interesting.

Once they have a good draft ready, he transcribes it off his phone.

The following terms are defined for reference:

  1. INTENDED RECIPIENT: The person who first wrote in you.
  2. PATRON: The being whom you represent, who sent you to the Intended Recipient.
  3. PROPOSED MEETING: The interactions you aim to arrange with the Intended Recipient.
  4. EVALUATION: the process of determining if the Proposed Meeting is to be approved.
  5. MEDIATORS: the persons performing the Negotiation and Evaluation and their organisations, including
    1. The Parahuman Response Team;
    2. The Protectorate;
    3. The Asia-Pacific Intelligence Group;
    4. The British Secret Intelligence Service.
  6. NEGOTIATIONS: the interactions you conduct with the Mediators towards the end of enabling the Evaluation, and if approved, towards arranging the Proposed Meeting.
  7. HARM: any physical, mental or functional damage or influence, provision of adverse information or advice, reduction of access to resources, or other injury to the interests of an entity, direct or indirect. The above if informedly and uninfluencedly endorsed by those afflicted are not considered harm.

Answer the questions below to the best of your knowledge.

You may not request further clarification of the terms above; any ambiguity is by design. You may clarify the interpretations you take for your answers; they will be used as part of the evaluation.

Where you wish to clarify interpretation or uncertainty, begin with a short answer (for example: "yes", "no", "most likely", "unclear", "medium confidence", "in a sense") and only provide elaboration afterwards.

If you think the meanings are unambiguous and you are confident in your answer, there is no need to provide justification or reasoning beyond your short answer.

The questions are as follows:

  1. Do you expect the content of the Proposed Meeting to be relevant to the Intended Recipient's interests?
  2. Do you or your Patron intend to Harm the the Intended Recipient or the Mediators via the Negotiations, the Evaluation, or the Proposed Meeting?
  3. Do you or your Patron expect Harm to come to the Intended Recipient or the Mediators due to the Negotiations, the Evaluation, or the Proposed Meeting?
  4. Do you represent your Patron with their knowledge and endorsement, such that you expect them to
    1. accurately reflect your claims of them;
    2. comply in good faith with agreements you make on their behalf;
    for the duration of and with respect to the content of the Negotiations and the Proposed Meeting?
  5. Do you or your Patron intend or expect any interference or bias in the process of the Evaluation, not known and endorsed by the Mediators?

After answering all of the above, please reproduce the full text below, without alteration and including the empty checkbox at the start. Then, complete the assertion by checking your box.



He goes back to where he was talking to the notebook earlier. Has it written anything while he was working on this? (He may have slightly forgotten to check.)

I think I understand most of this but it's very puzzling why I'm not allowed to ask for clarification of terms. I can do that, though! Okay, is everything ready?

That sounds like it's pretty recent. He's not going to draw attention to it.

I can explain why, but afterwards! For now:

They've been recording the whole time, but he gets up and forks the recording to write to a dedicated file in parallel.

Questions ready.

The notebook waits until the page after the questions is open to be answered on, and then starts answering. She tries to write at an easy-to-follow conversational speed, and when her answers run to the end of a page she waits for it to be turned and laid flat before continuing.

(I think your definition of harm accidentally includes existing in the same universe as someone because that's a physical influence that's not necessarily actively endorsed, but I'm pretty sure you didn't mean it that way and it's mostly a pretty good definition. When I talk about harm I don't mean existing in the same universe as someone without their permission but I do mean the other things like making them worse off or giving them bad advice or hurting them.)

1. Yes, very much!
2. No, definitely not!! I don't want to hurt anyone. I was sent to help, not harm.
3. Probably not? I hope not, anyway! It seems possible that someone could get hurt because of me, like if you're not being honest with me about the Intended Recipient and you coerced them into letting you write in me, or if one of the people who's trying to hurt them that you have all these procedures about gets to them because they're distracted by me, but that's not what I'm here for and it's something I'm trying my best to avoid.
4. Yes! I take my job as a representative of my Patron very seriously. It's really important to only say things about them that are true and only promise things on their behalf that I know they can do, and make it clear when I'm not sure about something and try to be clear about how unsure I am.
5. I don't think so! I guess our priority is that the Intended Recipient get to make informed and endorsed decisions about what my Patron wants to offer them, so if your evaluations were intentionally and endorsedly trying to make sure they didn't get the chance to do that regardless of what was in their interests, then I would hope that you'd fail, and so would my Patron. But if you're trying to make sure that the Intended Recipient only gets to talk to me if I'm safe to talk to and talking to me is a good idea, then I want you to succeed, and I don't want to do anything that would make your job harder or push you to decide differently, and my Patron feels the same way.


And last of all, the box gets checked.

"Influence" is narrowly construed in contexts like this. Even in the civilian sphere, he thinks—he's seen that ten-minute-long compilation of Nicolas Cage saying "under influence" in different voices. He's never had or read about anyone worrying about the more general interpretation—not in more than a passing, legibly pedantic way. There might be something about that vocabulary disconnect, but he's not sure.

All in all, there's not much unexpected. People don't walk up and tell you that they're planning to salt your fields and poison your water.

Just that last answer is... either misinterpretive, or evasive. The question didn't say anything about hope or desire; it asked "intend" or "expect". And all that circumlocution is to almost imply that if the PRT isn't acting in good faith, the notebook or the Patron might attempt to interfere with or bias the proceedings. It's less concerning that they would do it than that they think they have the capacity to, which doesn't quite fit with sending a limited, ill-prepared agent in a poorly aimed way. It also makes the long approach a bit more fraught.

(And that's one of the reasons they ask for the straight answer up front.)

Well, his observation that the book is more canny than it looks continues to hold.

Thank you for the answers!

You can ask any other questions or say anything on the record now. If you want the recording to stop, write "answers complete".

I can respond to your early question about allowing clarifications before or after stopping the recording. If you don't have a preference I would do it after.

Okay! Answers complete.

So what's the trouble with clarifications?

Great! I'll stop the recording now.

He stands up and "stops" the recording.

So we get this question a lot, which is why even though technically it's internally classified, we're allowed to tell interviewees about it. We can't tell if you spread it around and it's not illegal, but we'd prefer if you didn't do that. (Though if you end up talking to the person you're supposed to talk to, you can tell them anything we say here; they have higher clearance than anyone who's spoken to you.)

Clearance doesn't actually work that way, but it's true for their purposes.

The official answer is that it's for control, in the experimental sense. The Thinkers and analysts have lots of experience processing intake responses and a large archive of historical cases to reference. These are most useful when the premises of the responses are the same for each case. If the interviewee is allowed to clarify questions with their interviewer, that's a source of variability: different agents might give different responses or use phrasings which prime the interviewee in different ways, which degrades the quality of the analysis.

(We do modify the questions and definitions sometimes—for example, with you we adapted a variant we use for people who can't speak out loud—but those variations are standardized and documented in a way that's harder to maintain for an ad hoc back-and-forth.)

...That's what they tell us, anyway. Privately, I think the Thinkers just don't want to have to sift through all the extra conversation it generates. I've read some of the transcripts from back in the day when they still allowed questions, and people would spend half an hour litigating definitions before getting around to answering anything.

What he doesn't say:

Most Thinkers and analysts need clues or handles to work off. Their target says a sentence and they get a red or green feeling off it, or they look at lips through a crystal ball and tell you if they like spinning yarn. Information turns into information. Placing the onus on the target to fill in the details gives them more bits; overdetermining the solution at the target's request gives them fewer. You need a controlled set-up, but you don't want a true-or-false questionnaire.

Give them the rope to hang themselves with.

Oh! I think I see what you mean. That makes sense now that you've explained it, but I wouldn't have thought of it at all! I'm used to it being really important to clarify definitions when trying to communicate, because I have such a different perspective from the people I'm trying to talk to.

I'm glad to help.

Now, after this, I'm going to go write a summary of the situation and send of a copy of that and the recording to the think tank after we're done here, and how long it takes to get back depends on what their backlog looks like. It could be anywhere from days to, in worse cases, months. There are options to fast-track requests if it ends up looking more like the second thing and you can't wait that long.

With a human ambassador we usually ask them to provide contact information and they can leave. In your case, I'm not sure what the appropriate protocol is. I know I asked you earlier if you need any accommodations, but I'll ask again, if you want to go to a different location, or need any sort of nourishment, or need entertainment or social contact?

And if you have any other questions or things you'd like to know you can also ask.

I can wait! I'm very patient. The thing I usually tell people I'm sent to talk to is that I don't mind if they put me in a drawer and take their time thinking about me, except that I'll be sad if they die of old age before they get around to picking me back up again.

If it isn't too much trouble, I would like it if someone occasionally copied a poem into me, or pressed a printed one against one of my pages. Maybe even a short story? I don't usually ask for short stories because I know it's pretty inconvenient to deliver them, but it sounds like you're prepared to handle me needing even more inconvenient things than that, so maybe it's okay.

The thing I usually tell people I'm sent to talk to is that I don't mind if they put me in a drawer and take their time thinking about me, except that I'll be sad if they die of old age before they get around to picking me back up again.

What the fuck?

He glances back at the two behind him. They look as bemused as he is. He looks back at the words.


Alright! I was actually thinking we could see if you can operate a touchscreen device pressed against your page, depending on how your ink creation and writing detection works. Maybe some sort of optical input interface and a contact printer? We work with or care for people sometimes who have unique body plans a lot of the time, so we maintain a staff with expertise in this this sort of work. For example, the setup I just mentioned is used by people who can't hold a pen or type to fill out physical paperwork.

If something more clever doesn't work, I don't think short stories will be more difficult to print than poems. And if you prefer handwritten that can be done, though I don't know if it'll trade off against quantity.

The Accommodations Department are the people to talk to about that, and I'll send down a liaison to work out the details later.

And to confirm, you don't mind being stored where you were before and don't have any nourishment needs and so on?

I don't mind being stored where I was before and I don't have any nourishment needs!

I don't want to use an optical interface because it's very important to me to be a notebook who can't act outside my covers. If that means I don't get to read as many stories, I'm okay with that!

I'm fine with printed stories and poems. Whatever's more convenient is okay!

This is either a very nonhuman person or a very brainwashed human.

If that's what you prefer!

Is there anything else you want to discuss before I go send off the report and call down the Accommodations liaison?

I will probably check back in a few days, or ask the people with you to pass a message if not.

It still is suspicious that the notebook isn't even trying to dig about who they are and who its intended recipient is, but he's increasingly tempted to chalk that up to the being's nonhumanity.

I can't think of anything. Thank you for being so helpful!

Glad to help! :)

And he closes the notebook.


Wrapping up is a quick affair. They keep the chatter to a minimum. The notebook goes back in the box, the recording equipment goes in the bag, and the table and chairs they leave in the room for the next people to use. They'll just file for an extension against the supply officer.

Their earpieces crackle to life the moment the vault doors slam shut behind them.

    "Room 031," says the Site Director, and a belated, "Good work."

And he's gone. They follow the lights on the floor. Joel gnaws on his lip while they walk. Edwards fiddles with his scanner as he pushes its cart along. Sinclair keeps glancing back every now and then.


She's the first one to break the silence as they turn a corner.

"'Days to months,' my ass."

    "You don't think so?" Joel snorts.

        "I've been denied a consult for an honest-to-god apocalypse device," remarks Edwards.

"We've all heard, yes."

        "This ain't making their shortlist."

    "Docile talking notebook, Master-Stranger-cleared, unspecified offer?" Joel shakes his head. "It's not going to make their backlog."

        "You thought she could hear us."

"So I wasn't imagining that."

    "I suspected," he corrects. "The doctor reminded me. I don't think it's likely, now, but better safe than sorry."

        "I don't understand the point of all this song and dance, then," says Edwards. "You're setting yourself up to fail."

Sinclair shakes her head.

"Compliance strategy."

    Joel raises an eyebrow. "You caught on."

"It was obvious," she says. "You're never as slimy as when you're trying to butter up a perp."

    "I come back in a week." He spreads his hands. "I'm really sorry. Watchdog isn't willing to prioritize your case because the screeners don't think there's any imminent urgency. Is there anything we can tell them to speed things along?"

Edwards looks at him.

        "That's manipulative."

Joel looks back incredulously.

    "What do you think we do at MS Ops?"


There's a few seconds of silence, punctuted only by footsteps and the sound of the rolling cart.

        "You think that'll work?" says Edwards eventually.

Joel winces. "Maybe. Maybe not. I didn't like that last comment about—"

"Dying of old age," bursts out of Sinclair. "What the hell was that?"

    "She was implying she'd done this multiple times before. Deployments lasting up to years, decades."

        "Now, hold on—she only said she'd suggested it, not that it'd been done."

"It's a high bound for its patience."

        "What she claims to be her patience."

    "I believe her," says Joel. "Maybe not literally decades, but that she'll last weeks, months—this isn't her first rodeo. I believe that. It lines up with her presentation. You can fake inexperience, you can fake ignorance, you can't fake that veteran quality if you don't have it. I thought she was young at first, maybe even newly created, but once she's said it, I see it. It's concerning. The someone's out there, running these plots that we've somehow never heard about. I'm tempted to say this is from an alternate Earth, except—"

"It's never an alternate Earth," finishes Sinclair.

        "You're still modelling her as a human," says Edwards. "I'm not necessarily disagreeing on this specific point, but I think you're too anchored on your knowledge of human psychology. For all you know, the creator can manufacture and preinstall memories that reproduce the effect of experience."

Sinclair looks visibly troubled. "Then what's the plan, if you don't think stringing it along isn't going to work?"

    "I don't know," admits Joel. "But I have two other cases to close before the end of the month, and my wedding anniversary is on Tuesday, so I'm not going to spend all week agonizing about it. We do this debrief, I submit the paperwork, and we sync again in three days."

"We?" asks Sinclair. "You think the Site Director's going to keep us on the case? I'd think we've overstayed our welcome."

    "I think the picture this puts together is strange enough the Director isn't going to want to bring in more people. And I know you, you know Doctor Edwards..."

"Important enough for information lockdown, not important enough to get Watchdog's eyes on it. Got it."

    "If you want to try push it with Ellie, I'll ask to pencil you in on her calendar."

She rears back. "Fuck no."



The lights bring them to a stop outside a door with an empty nameplate. When they enter, there's a wooden desk, and behind it, a large screen already on a video call. A man with a scarred eye is behind it, downing the last of a cup of coffee.

"Sit down and talk," he says.


And they debrief.




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