Heartburgh Episode 2: Part 5

As Geoffrey walked down to the Drunken Pie Inn, he thought about his strategy. He didn’t quite have the power to run full simulations — he’d have to wait until he was off-world and had access to more than just the human brain that Krim saddled him with. He’d paid extra to max out his intelligence but natural-born humans had more experience using whatever they had to work with, so it was probably a wash.

Still, he could do some basic planning and research.

If he wanted Flame to take his test for him, he’d need to approach her carefully, making her think that it was her idea. He needed to make her feel invested in his progress, prove that he deserved her help, while simultaneously convincing her that he was just someone who tested badly.

As a private platform, World of Battle had a lot of flexibility in how they administered their tests, and they skimped on security. He’d already found several ways in which someone else could help him answer the ethics questions without technically breaking any laws.

One he passed the test, and he still had time to kill, he might head over to Garthram and cause some havoc there. It would be a fun, pleasant way to while away the time until he could get back to World of Battle.

But first, he needed to convince someone to help him cheat on an ethics test.

Flame was halfway through a sandwich in the inn’s small dining area when Geoffrey walked in.

She raised her eyebrows when she saw him come in. After she swallowed what she’d been chewing, she said, “Aren’t you supposed to be on a coach right about now?”

“Spending hours cooped up with Bartram doesn’t appeal to me,” he said. “Mind if I join you?”

She frowned but he sat down across from her, anyway. “I’d rather be spending the time with you.” He smiled. He hadn’t just maxed out his intelligence but his physical appearance, as well. Her natural human reaction to want to help attractive people should be kicking in any moment now.

She scowled at him. “Why?”

“Because…” He knew this was a trick question. “Because you’re attractive and I want to spend time with you.”

She leaned back and crossed her arms. “Really. How many romantic relationships have you had?”

“Well, none…”

“How many dates have you been on…”

He opened his mouth but she held up a finger to stop him. “Real dates, not dates that were designed to destroy relationships and bring down alliances?” She squinted at him. “Well?”

“I don’t…”

“Have you actually ever been attracted to anyone?”

“I’ve been busy…”

“Well, that’s just sad,” she said. “Is there a nice AI somewhere who rings all your bells?”

He looked away.

“Do you even have any other AI friends? Or any friends?”

“Sure.” This one was easy. “Luke’s a friend.”

“Okay,” she said. “If the general is a friend of yours, you probably know if he has any children. Friends always tell each other about their kids.”

Geoffrey didn’t answer.

“I knew it! You don’t know the first thing about human relationships, just how to ruin them.”

This wasn’t going well. But there might be a way to turn things around.

He sighed. “You’re right,” he said. “I don’t have anyone. I’m all alone.”

Her expression softened. She reached out and patted him on the arm. “I guess AIs can get lonely too.”

Kind, empathetic people were ridiculously easy to manipulate. The trick was not to over do it.

“I’m not lonely,” he said. “I’m self-sufficient. Not that it matters. Who wants to be friend with an AI, anyway?” He shook his head. “But I’m fine.”

Flame snapped her fingers. “You’re wrong if you think nobody wants to be friends with you. They do. And learning to be a friend can help you become a better person. That’s why you’re here, isn’t it?”

“You want me to be your friend?”

“I want you to be Bartram’s friend.”

“Wait. What?”

“He hired me a vet just so he can spend some time with you,” she said. “I think it’s sweet.”

“He wants to go with him to a sex cult. For male bonding. I can’t see that I’d gain anything for that. How do I become a better person at a sex cult?”

“That’s my point,” she said. “You wouldn’t be gaining anything. Bartram would. He’s a lonely guy who’s trying to buy himself some friends. This is your chance to spend some time with someone and make them feel better without getting anything in return.”

“Can’t I come help you talk to farmers?”

“No, and my ride’s here,” she said, waving at someone outside the window behind him. “I have to go.” She stood up and grabbed the uneaten half of her sandwich as the front door opened and Abigail walked inside the inn.

“I saddled our horses,” Abigail said. “Are you done eating?” She glanced at Geoffrey. “Is he coming with us?”

“No, he’s going up north with Bartram,” Flame said.

“Bartram was just asking me about the Cult of Qualdir,” said Abigail. “It’s so nice to see him taking an interest in spirituality.”

“It’s a sex cult,” said Geoffrey. “Don’t they do human sacrifices?”

“Well, I think it is always a positive sign when people start to look for something bigger than themselves,” said Abigail. “This could be a spiritual quest for the two of you.”

“He just wants to go to an orgy.”

“That’s what his mouth might be saying,” said Abigail. “But his soul is hungry for meaning, for connection to a higher power.”

“With the god of a sex cult?”

“Qualdir, God of the Underworld, may be a made-up god in a made-up world,” Abigail said. “But just as there are many paths up a mountain, there are many roads to faith. God wears many faces. Bartram didn’t have to come to Krim if he just wanted to find orgies. And he didn’t have to come to Heartburgh. I think he’s looking for meaning, a connection to a greater purpose.”

“Abigail’s right,” said Flame. “Bartram is a lonely man. Go to him. Catch him before he’s gone.”

She pulled Geoffrey up to his feet, Abigail opened the door, and before he knew it Geoffrey was outside the inn.

“Go on, you’ll have fun,” Flame said and looked up at the castle. The coach to Cleig Grijan was just leaving the castle. As it rolled down the hill toward him, Geoffrey hoped that the driver would continue straight down the road but Abigail waved and caught the driver’s attention. He swung to the left and pulled up in front of the inn.

Bartram stuck his head out the coach’s window. “Oh, good, you’re ready,” he said. “Hop in. We’re going to have a blast.”

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