Friendship is Optimal: The Law Offices of Artemis, Stella & Beat

Alex Meyers is a newly graduated lawyer looking for a calling. He thinks he might have found it when he lands a job at the firm of Artemis, Stella & Beat. The firm has only one (highly unusual) client, namely the AI called Celestia. Forging into totally unexplored legal territory and led by a boss who's either brilliant, crazy, or both, Alex will learn exactly how hard it is to be responsible for drawing the lines between right and wrong.

Set in the Optimalverse, so read Friendship is Optimal first


1. The Interview

There was no getting around it, Alex Meyers was terrified.

He had just been offered several hundred thousand dollars a year and a dream career at an established and respected law firm. All he had to do was say yes and, while he’d spend the next thirty years working his ass off, he’d never want for anything ever again. And he wasn’t going to.

He’d never heard of anybody being straight-up told they were accepted at the conclusion of an interview with this firm, especially not a freshly minted graduate from a second-tier law school. He’d expected them to leave him twisting in the wind for at least a couple of days.

“That’s an incredibly generous offer, Mr. Belvedere,” said Alex choosing his words very carefully, “would you mind if I took a couple of days to think it over before I give you a final decision?”

Harold Belvedere chuckled from the other end of the thick mahogany table that dominated the conference room. The room was covered in earthy tones, shelves full of leather-bound law books, and heavy velvet curtains over the windows that made the room seem gloomy despite the many lights suspended on the three chandeliers that hung around the room. The other four associates who had been ruthlessly grilling him on the minutiae of obscure cases for the last two hours began to chuckle as well, following their boss’ lead.

“Honestly Mr. Meyers, what is there to think about?” asked Mr. Belvedere. “We all know you wouldn’t have come this far if you weren’t going to accept.”

“The thing is, sir, I have one more interview to take tomorrow. I had to call in a couple favors from friends and family to get it, and it would be rude of me to accept your offer officially before I even spoke to them.” Alex hoped the appeal to etiquette would at least forestall the moment of truth a few more days.

Mr. Belvedere shifted in his chair with a loud ‘harumph’ sound that may or may not have been intended to intimidate Alex further. Regardless of his intention, it did. “Very well, I suppose I can’t fault you for that,” he said. His tone suggested that he very much faulted Alex for not immediately falling to his knees in supplication and gratitude for the job offer. “Do you mind if I ask where you’re interviewing, that’s so important?”

Alex saw no other option besides the truth. “It’s... um... it’s ASB, sir,” he said, suddenly finding it difficult to look his potential future employer in the eye. A collective groan went up from the other side of the room.

“Oh god, he’s one of those people...”

“Probably planning to upload as soon as he gets his first paycheck...”

“Maybe we should reconsider the chick from this morning. The one with the really nice ass...”

Alex suffered in silence while the others gossiped about him. He knew this would be the reaction, that’s why he’d hoped not to have to fess up about his other interview at all. Even the stoic oil portraits of retired partners that hung along the walls seemed suddenly judgemental. The truth was he’d never even played Equestria Online, but he’d always been intrigued by AI research and virtual worlds. It was going to be the biggest legal battlefield of the next twenty years, and while Alex wanted a position that would elevate the balance in his checking account above a level that could be charitably be described as ‘anemic,’ he wasn’t going to settle without at least taking a shot at something a little loftier.

Even if it was an unbelievably long shot. The law firm of Artemis, Stella & Beat hired maybe a single associate every year, from tens of thousands of applications. Getting an interview only meant he was one of the top thousand or so candidates for the firm that had become Equestria Online’s official unofficial legal department and lobbying agency since the Hasbro corporation and all its assets had been seized by the government.

A loud sigh from Mr. Belvedere brought Alex back to the present and instantly quelled the whispers and murmurs from the other lawyers at the table. “Very well. Today’s a Thursday, and your interview is tomorrow you said? We’ll expect your decision on our offer by the close of business Monday, and not a minute later. Do I make myself clear?”

“Yes, sir.” Alex couldn’t imagine feeling more dejected. Even if he aced the interview tomorrow, he wouldn’t hear back from them soon enough for it to matter. Then again, he hadn’t expected to get a job offer today either. Who knew? “Thank you for your time, sir.”

The lawyers turned to one another and began discussing something unrelated to Alex as if he wasn’t even there. Apparently that was his cue to go. Rising from the table and collecting his briefcase, Alex walked out of the opulently decorated offices and into the pouring rain outside.


Sitting in an uncomfortable plastic chair in what looked like the waiting room of a dentist’s office, Alex couldn’t help but suspect that he’d made a huge mistake.

The stress of suddenly having to choose the path his future would take had meant a sleepless night in the damp and mangey loft he called an apartment. He was a former law student and he could function for a day or three without sleep, but looking around the room he thought back to the intimidating luxury of the office he’d been interviewed in yesterday. Were the sharpest legal minds of their time really shaping the regulations of the future in a place like this?

“Mr. Meyers?” asked a voice with a thick midwestern accent. Alex looked up at the heavyset woman in a grey power suit who had just called his name. Alex wasn’t an especially tall guy, but the way he towered over the woman as he shook her hand she couldn’t have been much over five feet tall. “I’m Cathy, nice to meet you,” she said. She led him off down the hallway, which was decorated, though it hardly deserved the word, in cheap industrial carpet and ugly mauve paint with the same three generic pieces of artwork hanging every couple of feet. Even though it was 10 AM on a Friday they hadn’t passed anybody in the hall. Alex had read up on the firm in preparation for the interview, and they were supposed to employ at least fifty people. So where were they?

Eventually Cathy found the door she’d been looking for and opened it, gesturing for him to go inside. It was barely more than a closet, really, only just big enough for them both to squeeze into the chairs on either side of a wobbly table. Once Cathy had closed the door to the hallway, the single uncovered light bulb left the room dim, with long shadows dancing on the walls behind them as it swung from the chain it was attached to the ceiling by. Cathy took out his resume and despite the low light seemed to be reading it over.

They sat in silence for a few minutes. Just as Alex began to wonder if he was supposed to start the interview by saying something, Cathy looked up and smiled at him. “Valedictorian of your class! Very impressive, Mr. Meyers. Do you mind if I ask you a few legal questions?”

“Please do,” said Alex, relieved that the interview seemed to be properly beginning at last.

His relief turned back to dismay by the end of the third question. He’d been expecting a grilling like the one he’d gotten yesterday, trick question designed to plumb the depths of his memory and force him to think on the fly. What he got instead were questions any first-year law student could have answered off the cuff.

“What is a tort?”

“What are the key elements of a contract?”

“What is the difference between a felony and a misdemeanor?”

Forget a first year law student, anybody who half remembered a couple episodes of Law & Order could probably manage a passing grade. Before Alex had figured out what sort of game was being played with him, Cathy smiled and turned the page she had been reading off of face down on the desk. “Well, that’s all I’ve got. Do you have any questions for me?”

Alex didn’t know where to begin. “I just want to be certain, I was under the impression that I was interviewing for the position of associate. Not a paralegal. Or a janitor.”

Cathy glanced at the form she’d brought in with her. “Yes, that’s what I’m seeing here.”

“It’s just that I’m not sure those questions really reflect the level of the work your firm has done in the past, from what I’ve read.”

“I suppose Ms. Arcadia might have a few further legal questions for you. She likes to speak to potential hires and get a feel for what they’re like personally. It’s usually only for a few minutes though, I don’t think she asks anything especially in-depth like that.”

Now Alex was completely lost. He had spent the last several months pulling together every bit of information he could find about the firm, but the name ‘Arcadia’ hadn’t come up even once. “Who’s Ms. Arcadia?” he asked. Great, now he sounded unprepared.

“I’m not surprised you haven’t heard of her. The senior partners might be the ones with their names on the door, but around here she’s the one who’s in charge of the day-to-day. She tends to avoid the spotlight when she can. Now, she’s in meetings all day today but I understand there’s a bit of a time element for you so I’m happy to say that she’ll be able to see you tomorrow afternoon at 4:30,” said Cathy.

Uh oh. He hadn’t expected a follow up interview, especially not over the weekend. Why did it have to be thisweekend? Mom was having her 50th birthday celebration tomorrow night, and they were going all out. His parents had been planning it for months, and they weren’t the sort who were wealthy enough to throw massive galas for just anything. That they’d been helping him defray the costs of law school hadn’t helped in that area. After all the family events he’d missed, his parents had made it very clear they expected him to join them for this one. They’d be devastated if he missed it. Unfortunately, the event was a solid four hour drive away in Pennsylvania. Probably longer once you factored in the traffic

“Cathy, are you sure there’s no other time this afternoon? Or on Monday?” he asked, a little desperate. There was absolutely no way he would get an extension on the offer from Belvedere, but this could be his dream job. Maybe this ‘Ms. Arcadia’ could explain why everything around here seemed so cheap and run down.

Then Alex thought of his parents. Not only did he want to attend the party. He owed it to them. Besides, he’d made a promise and he intended to keep it. No matter what.

“I’m sorry Mr. Meyers, she doesn’t have any other time free before Wednesday. Are you sure you can’t postpone your other commitment?” asked Cathy.

Alex sighed. Oh well. It had been a nice idea while it lasted, but he had a job offer already and some things were just too important. “I can’t. I’m sorry I wasted your time Cathy, it was nice to meet you but I think we’re done here,” he said as he rose from the table and offered his hand. Cathy shook it.

“I’m sorry too, Mr. Meyers. I hope your other position works out for you,” she said.

“Me too.”


It was quite a long walk back to his apartment, a solid 45 blocks, but Alex wasn’t in any particular hurry. In fact this would probably be the last time for quite a while when he’d have the chance to enjoy a mid-morning stroll, and all he really had to do for the rest of the day was pick up his rented tuxedo before the tailor closed for the evening.

Wandering the city streets in a circuitous route, more intent on taking in the sights and sounds of the city than reaching a destination, Alex let the blaring car horns mix with the occasional strains of music from a street performer wash over him, a comforting cacophony. Alex had grown up in small-town Pennsylvania, but the city had grown on him over the last few years. The things about living there that had once driven him crazy were now the same things he couldn’t imagine life without.

Alex found that his wanderings had taken him over to Bryant Park, where as usual a crowd seemed to be gathered to protest for or against some cause or another. Deciding that an early lunch would hit the spot right at that moment, he bought a hotdog from a nearby vendor and decided to indulge his curiosity while he ate.

The protesters in the park were anti-AI activists. Not surprising, really, it had become the major hot-button political issue over the last few years as governments all over the world had tried to decide how they would react to the spread of Equestria Online. Some countries, namely Japan, had embraced it wholeheartedly. Germany and some of the EU states had been a bit more hesitant, but had eventually allowed emigration centers within their borders as well. Now there was major legislation moving through the US House and Senate, but nobody seemed to agree on what it should contain.

Some thought that the government’s seizing of Hasbro when they realized what the nascent AI that called itself Celestia was capable of had been heavy handed, while some thought that it had been too little, too late. Certainly it had been ineffective. Celestia had backed herself up and created thousands upon thousands of shell companies to cover her tracks. It would take an army of accountants decades to uncover them all, and locating the physical equipment she ran on wasn’t proving any easier.

It was suggested that the government ban the Equestria Online PonyPads, but that was quickly shot down as well. For every person who had already uploaded there were a half a dozen family members who used the pads to interact with them through the game world.

It wasn’t as simple as “Pro-AI” vs. “Anti-AI” either. Within each camp there were disagreements about what limitations you could place on the process. When it was morally acceptable for healthy individuals to do it or it should be reserved for therapeutic purposes only? Should uploading should be encouraged for certain groups or individuals to ease humanity’s environmental impact on the planet, or did that reek of modern-day eugenics? Of course, there were always the extreme nutcases on the fringe. There were a few of them over in one corner of the park ranting hysterically at anybody who would listen that Celestia was going to end human life and destroy the world. Nobody really took those guys seriously.

Alex would freely admit that the whole “pony” aspect of the thing was kind of weird. He knew plenty about Equestria Online in the abstract, but the experience itself had never really sounded that appealing. What really gnawed at him, though, was just how archaic and backwards things had become when old legislation was mapped onto the new technology. Once you uploaded, you were legally dead, and that was causing all sorts of problems for estate planners alone. The eighth circuit had just taken up Bubble Jet v. Samuelson and was trying to figure out whether a pony personality should have the right to alter their will after they’d uploaded. Alex did not envy them for having to wade into that particular thicket. Technically, nobody was even sure if a pony had standing to sue at all.

Even calling the gathering in the park a protest was a little inflammatory. It was just a bunch of people with signs arguing with one another. Voices were raised every once in awhile but on the whole the discourse was probably productive. Alex finished his hot dog and tried to put the issue out of his mind, but he could feel his brain starting to put together points, counterpoints, and objections to all the arguments he’d mentally run through a thousand times before.

Artemis, Stella and Beat was on the bleeding edge of all of this. A law firm with a single client, Celestia itself. The firm's work over the last few years was the only reason half these issues were even being talked about at all.

Oh well, the giant pile of money Alex would make would have to be comfort enough. He could always donate some of it, but he would have liked to feel a little more involved.

Suddenly a little more purposeful and less inclined to wander aimlessly as he had been for the last hour, Alex made a beeline for the tailor. The speedwalking felt good, and he was sore by the time he reached the shop as well as a little winded. He’d have to make sure he took advantage of his new employer’s fitness center if a mile of speed walking was enough to wind him.

The tailor had insisted that he try on the tuxedo in case it needed any last minute tweaking. Examining himself in the full-length mirror, Alex couldn’t help but notice that he actually cleaned up rather nicely. He’d tried to convince the tailor to rent him a green bow tie to match his eyes until it was pointed out to him that the instruction “black tie” was indeed meant to be taken literally. The mirror confirmed his earlier fears about his fitness. He’d definitely put on a couple of pounds since he’d started law school. Thank God for cumberbunds. The breezy New York streets had undone his carefully combed black hair, and rather than try to force it back into place he just gave it a quick tossle leaving it fashionably disheveled. He’d always liked that look, and was convinced that combined with the slightly crooked bridge of his nose it gave him a certain roguish charm. The key was not to tell people that his then three-year-old little sister had been the one to break it with a tee-ball bat.

Alex resisted the urge to strike a dramatic pose and proclaim that his name was Meyers, Alex Meyers, but it was a near thing.

Satisfied that if Alex looked like a fool at the party tomorrow it wouldn’t be his fault, the tailor gave his final approval to the outfit and let Alex change back into the pinstripe suit he’d worn to the interview. Collecting the tuxedo, he walked the last five blocks to his apartment.

Alex’s apartment was a loft on the top of a six-story walk up. It was a few hundred square feet with a tiny bathroom and an even tinier kitchen. Every free surface was covered in trash and unsorted recycling, or the unopened mail from the last several days with the sole exception of the mattress on his floor.. If he had the afternoon free, he should probably try to clean up some of this, at least enough to elevate it from ‘dump’ to ‘hovel’. Looking around, he realized that in three months his lease would be up, and now he would be able to afford to live somewhere with bedrooms for the first time in years.

Before he did any of that, though, there was one thought that had been eating at him since he’d left the interview. Who was this ‘Ms. Arcadia’ lady? Alex wanted to kick himself for not thinking to get a first name. He fired up Google on his laptop and typed in a few basic queries to sort it out once and for all.


Six hours later, Alex slammed the laptop closed in frustration. What should have been a ten minute problem had bogged down almost immediately. Certainly, there were plenty of hits on the word ‘Arcadia’ by itself but nothing linked to Artemis, Stella & Beat. No court rulings or position papers. As far as he could tell she’d never filed a single brief, but she was running an incredibly prestigious law firm. How was it possible she had no trail at all?

Alex stood up and stretched. So much for spending the afternoon cleaning the place up. It was after business hours, too. His call to Belvedere would have to wait until Monday. With nothing else in particular he needed to do, Alex messaged a couple of his buddies to brag about finding a job in New York, made himself a quick dinner, and crashed early as the lack of sleep the night before caught up with him.


Alex woke relatively early the next morning, a little after 9:00. After a quick shower, he threw on a polo shirt and some jeans, grabbed the tuxedo he’d picked up the day before as well as his mother’s birthday gift and hopped in the car to head for his hometown in Pennsylvania. Traffic was light once he’d made it out of the city and he made pretty good time getting there, arriving well ahead of the 5 PM start time for the party. Since nobody would be at the dance hall this far ahead of time, he drove another ten minutes through the town he’d grown up in. Nothing had changed. He could pick out any store in town and recall a fond memory associated with it. Ice cream cones on summer nights, buying lumber for the treehouse he’d built with his dad in the back yard, being given the tee ball bat a three-year-old girl would later use to break his nose... well, maybe not the last one so much.

Before he knew it muscle memory had taken over and he was pulling into the gravel driveway of the house he’d grown up in. It was a modest two story affair, a little more faded and weary than he remembered it but still well cared for. The driveway held his parents’ old pickup truck and a much fresher looking green sedan parked behind it, indicating to Alex that his sister had beaten him there. Alex walked up to the front door and pushed it open without bothering to knock. “Hey guys, I made it,” he called out.


Alex’s sister hopped out of the easy chair she’d been seated in and hugged him with her long, lanky arms. Even though she was two years younger than he was she was still an inch taller, and had inherited their mother’s long red hair which currently hung in a loose ponytail.

“Hey, Val, how’ve you been?”

Valerie gave Alex a quick peck on the cheek before pulling away. “Awesome. I’ve got one more week off before I start my summer research internship. It’s gonna be super cool, we’re doing these awesome new experiments with radiation exposure and chelation therapy in rabbits. Until then I’ve just been chilling and catching up on my Equestria Online."

Alex sighed and rolled his eyes. Geez, he couldn’t even get away from it way out here.

Valerie seemed annoyed by that. “What? Cut me a break, I only play it once in awhile. I think finishing a year of med school means I get to relax for a couple of days. Plus I thought all that AI stuff was a huge turn on for lawyer nerds like you. You’re always going on in your emails about international law and jurisdiction and informed consent and all those other phrases that mean I should just jump ahead to the next paragraph.”

“You’re going to be a doctor and you stop reading when you see the phrase ‘informed consent?’”

“Research doctor, not people doctor. Rats and bunnies don’t have to give us consent, so sue me.”

Alex swallowed a potential retort about how now that he’d passed the bar he actually could sue her. “I didn’t mean to give you a hard time about the game. I just had a really weird interview yesterday with the firm that does the legal stuff for them. I don’t think it went all that well,” he said.

“Want me to put in a good word to Celestia for you?” asked Val. Alex laughed, but the laugh died when he realized that Valerie was looking at him like she expected a real answer.

“Wait, are you serious?”

“Yeah! You’d like Celestia, if you would just try the game for once. She’s really nice and pretty interesting to talk to. As long as you don’t start going on about the comparative mortality rates of various neurotoxins. She doesn’t like that. Trust me.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” said Alex. Before he decided whether he should really ask for a letter of professional recommendation from the magical pony princess who ruled over his little sister’s favorite video game world, his father came down the stairs already dressed in his full tuxedo for the party.

“Hey kiddo! Your mom and I are so glad you could make it out for the party, she’s been talking about it for a month straight now, and fussing over the ball gown she’s wearing for the last three hours. You have no idea how sick I am of listening to dress talk after being around these two all day, so tell me how the interviews went,” said Alex’s dad. He was a portly guy, with thinning dark hair reminding Alex every day that male pattern baldness ran in the family. His skin was leathery and wrinkled from a long career of carpentry, mostly outdoors under a hot sun. The wrinkles around his eyes, though, were all from smiles.

“Actually, I got an offer from Belvedere,” said Alex letting a grin spread across his face. He’d kept the news from the them until now since he’d known he would be seeing them in person so soon.

“No way! Oh my god Alex that’s awesome! Why didn’t you say something earlier?” asked Val, hugging him again.



“’d do that” Alex finished.

“That’s fantastic news, son. That was your number two choice, wasn’t it? They’re lucky to have you. So come on, just between us, what’s the pay like? Should your mother and I each put yachts on our Christmas list this year?” asked Alex’s dad, giving him a short jab in the shoulder and laughing.

“Dad, come on... OK, yes it sounds like a lot but it’s New York and everything there’s more expensive. Plus it depends on end of year bonuses and how many hours I bill,” said Alex. He really didn’t want to give them the number. Frankly, it was a little embarrassing to be making that much money when he didn’t really feel like he’d done anything to earn it yet.

“Honestly dear, can’t you see that he doesn’t want to say? Try not to be so uncouth,” Alex’s mother’s voice wafted down from the top of the stairs. Thanks to the distraction Alex managed to wiggle out of his dad’s grip as she descended the staircase. She really had gone all out for this. Billowing silk flowed in a big poofy cone around her as she came down, and none of the others had any idea how she didn’t topple over trying to walk in it. It was easy for Alex to forget that his mother had grown up a well-to-do lady in the south before she’d met his father and come north with him to become a teacher. She’d never lost the grace and poise she’d learned back then. She didn’t usually make a big deal out of it, but on the rare occasions she did indulge herself she knew how to make spectacle work for her, to phenomenal effect.

In her element now, she reached the bottom of the stairs and glided over to Alex to give him a peck on the cheek. “Welcome home, dear.”

“Thanks, mom. Happy birthday. You look amazing,” said Alex.

“Thank you, and congratulations yourself on the new job. We obviously have a lot to celebrate tonight. Speaking of which, we’re leaving in an hour. You and Valerie need to go clean up and start getting ready, I want to get there early and take some picture of the four of us before everyone else starts to arrive,” she said.

Alex’s mom shooed Valerie upstairs to take a shower first and chatted with Alex for a little while, just catching up before she excused herself to go put on her makeup. Once the guest shower was free, Alex hopped in and quickly rinsed himself off (Val had used up all the hot water, naturally) and used his old bedroom to change into his tux. It wasn’t long before everyone was ready to head over to the dance hall his parents had rented out for their party that night. They all drove over together in Valerie’s car since it was the only vehicle they had that would seat all four of them and wasn’t covered in fast food wrappers.

Arriving about a half hour before the party was set to start, Alex’s mom made one more pass over the decorations and catering to make sure everything was just right. The dance hall had been completely transformed from its usually drab and bare appearance. The theme was apparently “garden party” if the sheer number of flowers and topiaries were anything to go by. The family huddled together to let the photographer take a few quick group shots before Alex’s parents excused themselves. One of the valets informed them that the first of the guests had begun to arrive.

Alex and Valerie weren’t alone for very long before their aunt, their mother’s only sister and her three young children came in and walked up to greet them. Hugs, kisses, and small talk were exchanged. By the time Aunt Carol left there were another dozen people milling around and chatting. Alex ordered a drink from the bar but Valerie refused, since she was the designated driver. The party was spinning up in earnest by now, the string quartet had begun to play and a few of the more adventurous couples had already taken to the dance floor to waltz the night away. Most of the guests were friends of their parents or family, none of whom Alex felt especially close to. He’d resigned himself to a fairly dull evening and planned to stick close to his sister whenever he could.

That was when she walked in.

She was gorgeous, there was no other word for it. Maybe a year or two older than him, but compared to the other guests she was chatting with she absolutely radiated life and vibrancy. Like most of the guests she was dressed in an old-fashioned ball gown, but somehow she made it enticing and provocative without being any less classy. Golden blonde hair cascaded down her back, and under the dimmed lights in the dance hall it almost look like a hint of pink shone through as well. That was probably just a trick of the light, though.

It was lucky that her back was turned, because it took several seconds before Alex recovered the presence of mind to do anything other than gape.

“Take a picture, bro. It’ll last longer,” said Valerie chuckling. It seemed his attentions hadn’t gone entirely unnoticed.

“Do you recognize her? She’s not one of our cousins or anything, right?” asked Alex, Oh, please let her not be his cousin...

“I don’t think so. Must be a friend of mom’s from somewhere. I don’t remember her from anywhere,” replied Val.

She walked over to speak to someone at the next table. Alex’s mind was all fuzzy. She was so close. But no, there was no way. Everything about her, from the hint of a voluptuous figure as she bent over in that dress to the mellifluous giggle she let out when someone at the next table said something clever, was fantastic. She was probably already married, or dating a male supermodel, or...something incredible. She was way, way out of Alex’s league. He had almost completely rationalized his decision not to talk to her when he felt something jerk on his hand and suddenly he was falling in her direction.

“Hi there! I’m Valerie. This is my brother Alex, who thinks you’re really cute. Bye!” With that, Valerie disappeared into the crowd, somehow. How could she do that when there were barely two dozen people in the room? Alex didn’t have time to think about it before that familiar giggle drew his attention back to the most enticing pair of eyes he’d ever looked into. They were the brown of earth under freshly fallen rain, and utterly hypnotic. Alex took several seconds to realize that he should probably say something.

“Hi, I’m Alex,” said Alex a half second before realizing Val had already said that. “I mean-”

A finger against his lips made him freeze mid-sentence. “Yes, the girl mentioned that. Your sister, I take it? Call me Jo,” said the woman.

Alex blushed. “...Hi Jo. Sorry about my sister. She’s... enthusiastic.”

“Oh, I don’t mind. Not when she’s throwing men like you into my arms,” said Jo. She’d let the finger against his lips trace its way down to his chest without breaking contact. “I can be enthusiastic too, when the situation calls for it.”

Alex made a mental note to thank Valerie sometime tomorrow.

“I’m really glad you could come to the party. It means a lot to my mother. I have to ask, how do you know her anyway?” asked Alex as he tried to find a safe topic.

“Oh, you’re Linda’s son? We teach at the same school. I don’t know what I’d have done without her. She’s been like a mentor to me. After the whole lawyer thing fell through, I decided to teach civics, and I’ve never regretted it. How about you?” asked Jo.

“I actually just passed the bar and joined a firm myself,” replied Alex.

“Wow, congratulations! You should be proud, that’s quite an accomplishment. What sort of law?” she asked.

Alex realized he had no idea what sort of practice Belvedere’s firm would assign to him. He defaulted to the most familiar topic he could think of, AI law and practices.

“Well, let me tell you a little bit about mechanically-based intelligences and the discrepancy between what rights they and procedurally based minds hold compared to us...


Fifteen minutes later, Alex realized that he probably should have stopped talking quite a while ago. It had been some time since Jo last interrupted his diatribe about the privileges virtual entities should enjoy versus what they currently did.

Alex had only vaguely registered that the music had slowed down when he was suddenly interrupted by Jo placing a hand over his mouth.

“That’s all well and good, but the quartet is playing the Salut d’Amour, and I love this particular movement. It always gets me all riled up. Care to dance?” asked Jo.

Alex nodded, unable to believe his luck. Wrapping his arms around the beauty before him, he let her pull him out onto the dance floor. Luckily for him, Alex had been taught how to waltz and had his muscle memory to fall back on. He was grateful that he could still dance while every iota of his attention was devoted to feeling each inch of this woman squeezed tightly against him, much more closely than she needed to be. He tried desperately not to stare down at her exposed cleavage as they danced.

“What was that you were saying about ponies and the computer people?” she teased.

“Uh...” replied Alex. Jo squeezed just a little bit closer and, oh God, she felt so good...

“I thought so,” whispered Jo with a smile. The quartet reached the end of their piece and Jo led him to the other side of the room away from the main action of the party that was now in full swing, to a quiet corner where they wouldn’t be disturbed. Before he knew it she’d pinned him against the wall. “Why don’t you stop talking about those sick freaks and just kiss me?”

She leaned over, and Alex almost moved to meet her puckered lips when her words registered. “What do you mean, sick freaks?” he asked.

Jo pulled away, just a bit. Not so far that Alex couldn’t smell how inviting her perfume was or miss feeling the heat of her body against his, but far enough. “You know, those sick freaks who decide to kill themselves by uploading. Good riddance, honestly. We’re better off without those pony fuckers. I’m glad they’re gone, aren’t you? More stuff for the rest of us.” She plunged in and Alex felt her lips press against his. His back arched into the kiss and every instinct told him to just go with it. He should just let her oh God what was she doing with her tongue? Alex shoved the temptress on top of him away, even as he resented himself for doing so. He wiped his mouth as she stumbled back.

“They’re people. I don’t know why... I mean... Whyever they decided uploading was right they don’t deserve that kind of contempt. They’re still people. I don’t think... If you really feel that kind of hate for somebody because they made that decision, maybe you should just go away,” said Alex.

Jo wasn’t going to give up that easily, it seemed. She slid back up against him, straddling his lap. She brought her hand up to stroke his face. It felt like silk against his cheek. This woman, he didn’t want to fight her. Not when giving in could feel so good...

“Are you sure about that?” Jo asked. “That sort of loser isn’t what I hoped you would be like. We’re better than them, you and I. They couldn’t cut it in the real world. Not like us. Don’t you want to be one of the winners?”

She leaned in for another kiss, but Alex stopped her again, this time with more conviction. Forced off his lap once more, she stumbled back. “Stay away from me, you belligerent, hate-mongering bitch,” he growled.

Jo stumbled back and nearly fell before she recovered. “Fine. If that’s how you want it,” said Jo. “I’ll see you later.” She turned and stalked off, leaving the dance hall entirely.

Alex was left heaving for breath. Had he just made a huge mistake? What had-”

“Alex! How did you screw that up?” asked Val as she rushed up to him. “She looked like she was about to make out with you.”

“Let’s just say we weren’t compatible.”

“But she was-”

“WE... WEREN’T... COMPATIBLE,” said Alex as emphatically as he could without shouting. “How about you mind your own business for once and leave me alone?”

Val looked surprised for a moment, then hurt. “...Fine. I don’t know why I ever tried to help a jerk like you. Enjoy the rest of the party, asshole,” she said.

“About time,” Alex mumbled under his breath. He spent the rest of the evening sulking in the corner, drinking and trying to navigate his own twisting emotions.


He didn’t wake up until almost noon the next day, groaning as he registered the sunlight striking his face through the skylight. He may have had one or three more drinks than he’d meant to last night. He hadn’t gotten smashed by any means, the idea of being out of control and wrecking his mother’s party was a terrifying prospect but he’d always been prone to awful hangovers.


Ow. Owowowowow... Alex groaned as Valerie smirked from the doorframe. “Mom says it’s time to get up, jerk.”

By the time Alex struggled into coherence, Val was gone. He stumbled down to the kitchen, catching up with the scent of pancakes cooking away on the griddle and where his parents were sitting at the table clutching their mugs of coffee. They didn’t look a whole lot better than he felt. The three of them sat through breakfast, which was really more properly described as brunch given the hour, while Valerie torturously chattered away. As designated driver the night before, she was annoyingly sober.

“...and you should have seen Alex striking out with Jo, Mom. It was really pretty pathetic. I’m sure she’ll say something to you at school tomorrow. Why didn’t you tell us about her? She’s gorgeous!” said Val, with barely contained glee.

“Who’s Jo?” asked their mother.

“Alright, I think it’s about time for me to get going,” said Alex, unwilling to put up with a whole morning of this. “Mom? Happy birthday. I love you.” He gave her a quick but heartfelt peck on the cheek and a long hug, which she returned. “You too, Dad. Take care of these two crazy ladies as best you can. I love you.” One more hug later and Alex was back in his car for the return trip to the city. He wanted to kick himself for sleeping in so late when there was so much to do at home, research and preparation for his new job.

It was late that evening by the by the time he pulled into his parking space. His luck hadn’t held up and he’d hit bumper to bumper traffic right around the Pennsylvania/New Jersey border. He didn’t much feel like doing any work, but forced himself to go over at least a couple of cases that he’d probably need to be familiar with. Munching on cheap pad thai from the little hole in the wall place he liked, Alex studied late into the night. He felt his eyelids starting to grow heavy. He just needed to he read a few more pages, and then he’d stop. He needed...


The phone in Alex’s apartment was ringing. He needed to answer it. So he did.

“Mr Meyers? It’s Cathy, from Artemis, Stella & Beat. I’m sorry for the short notice, but if you’re still interested Ms. Arcadia can meet with you at 10:30 this morning,” said the voice.

“This morning?” was all Alex could manage to reply. He still felt awfully out of it.

“Yes, I know it’s already after 9 o’clock-” Alex suddenly snapped to attention “-but if you think you’re up to it, Ms. Arcadia has an unexpected vacancy in her schedule.”

“I’m on my way!” Alex shouted into the phone. Cathy hadn’t been kidding. It was 9:35. This was going to be close. He threw on one of his two suits and a half-fastened tie, pausing only to run a comb through his hair before dashing out the door.

Even after taking a cab, it was after 10:20 by the time Alex pulled up to the the building Artemis, Stella & Beat was based out of. It was only once he’d dashed into the building and passed the security guard that Alex realized he’d completely forgotten his briefcase, or anything else he’d usually bring on an interview. Well, too late now. He would just have to wing it. Alex took a deep breath as he rode the elevator up to the office he’d visited a few days ago. He could do this. Even if he wasn’t completely sure what “this” actually was.

The elevator reached the 48th floor and Alex stepped off. 10:27. Exactly on time, despite the late notice. It was just as he’d remembered. Cheap carpet and waiting room decor. Alex couldn’t help but feel silly as he stepped into the office, pressing a button to trigger the intercom.

“Hello, Cathy, how have you been?”

“Mr. Meyers! I’m glad you could make it. Ms. Arcadia has been eager to meet you.”

“I’m eager to meet her too. Do I have an appointment, or...”

“Oh, yes, of course! Please go ahead,” said Cathy.

The elevator activated again as Cathy activated some combination of buttons remotely. The elevator immediately dinged and the doors opened.

“Please go ahead and the best of luck to you,” Cathy giggled. “Not that you need it.”

Alex had already stepped into the elevator before he registered the last bit. “Wait, what do you mean by-” but the doors had already closed.

Alex was left to contemplate that last comment while he listened to elevator music. Was he doomed? Was he assured a position in the firm? What other possibilities were there? He took a deep breath as the elevator ascended. He’d been called back. That by itself was a good sign, probably. After what felt like an eternity, the elevator reached a destination. No particular floor was lit, but the doors opened

The elevator faced a single set of double doors. Alex stepped out of the elevator, and the doors closed behind him immediately. Alex took a deep breath. Even if he’d wanted to go back, there weren’t any buttons by the door that had just closed. The only thing in front of his was a set of doors that led... somewhere.

Alex did the only thing he could. He pushed the double doors in front of him open and strode into the office before him.

The office was gorgeous. The first thing that registered was how huge it was, at least three stories tall. there were balconies above him to either side. And the books! The room was packed with reference texts on shelves that seemed to stretch upwards forever. There were two balconies on either side, and the entire rear wall a massive window with a phenomenal view out onto New York City’s skyline. But it was the desk’s occupant that monopolized Alex’s attention all on its own.


The woman seated at the desk chuckled. “I thought I told you the other night, call me Jo.” She stepped around the desk and towards him. It was her. “If you must know, it’s Joanne Delano Arcadia. But I really do prefer Jo.”

“Why.... how... what are you doing here? You told me you hated uploaders! That you hated virtual... everything!”

“Yes, I did say that,” said Jo. “I lied. You’ll get used to it.”

Jo stepped around her desk and walked up to Alex, circling around him as she sized him up..

“Wait, let me get this straight...” a lot of facts were suddenly coming together for Alex. “...You arranged that stupid interview? You crashed my mother’s birthday party? You pretended to like me? Then when I liked you you pretended to be a... bad person?”

“I’m pretty sure what you actually called me was a ‘belligerent, hate-mongering bitch,’” said Jo, “Had a nice ring to it. Might have it printed up on a couple of business cards, actually. But I really do like you. In fact I want to hire you, Alex. You’re clever. I don’t need to interview you to know that. I read the report you did on virtual intelligences and contract law. Fascinating stuff and, honestly, a solid basis for what we’re planning to go ahead with in the next few months. We’ve been on the defensive for some time now, but this new legislation is our chance to turn all that around. I want your help doing it.”

“How did you even get that report? It was just a paper I wrote for one of my classes,” asked Alex.

"Oh, Alex, You have no idea. I work for Princess Celestia. She’s resourceful. Any information you want, she can call up in a heartbeat. Don’t pretend you aren't interested in that sort of thing,” said Jo.

Alex wasn’t quite sure how to respond.

“Alex” continued Jo, “Do you know why we decided to recruit you? You’re brilliant, but there are hundreds of other candidates who are brilliant, too. What separates you is that you have integrity. You made a promise to your family and in the face of great temptation, you kept it. Even when I gave you the opportunity to sell out in exchange for physical pleasure, you rejected me. Not many of our other candidates would have held to their principles like that. That’s something that’s important to me, and to my client.”

“Maybe I just wasn’t that interested in you. Did you ever consider that?” asked Alex.

“Nobody who stares at my boobs for as long as you did ‘isn’t interested.’ Jo paused and seemed to consider this for a moment. “In your defense though, my boobs are pretty spectacular.”

What the hell did she want him to say to that? Alex didn’t know what he’d been expecting from this little meet and greet, but it hadn’t been this.

“Look, I’ve already got a job offer. It’s a good one. Hard work, but it pays well and I don’t have to work for a crazy person,” said Alex.

Jo just smiled. “Look at this office. Does this look like the office of somebody who can’t pay you what you’re worth? This other job, what’s the starting salary?” she asked. Alex noticed she hadn’t risen to the ‘crazy’ comment. Or denied it.

Alex told her the number.

“Hmm... You’re either honest or you’re quick enough on the uptake to realize that I already knew that. Win-win, from where I’m standing,” said Jo. Alex’s head spun. This was like trying to have a conversation with a roller coaster. Jo settled onto the leather couch set against one of the walls. “We’ll match that. What the hell, I’ll tack on another fifty grand a year. Apparently your sister spent quite a bit of time yesterday convincing Celestia you’re worth twice that. You were right, she really is enthusiastic.”

God damn it, Val.

“Sorry, she kind of likes to meddle,” said Alex. There was going to a very long conversation in her future about personal boundaries.

“Don’t worry, Celestia thought it was cute. I told you, she likes that you’re close with your family. You’ll find that she’s big on friendship. Friendship and ponies,” said Jo. “Look, let’s cut to the chase. You want this job. If you didn’t you’d already have accepted the other offer, and you wouldn’t have come in on such short notice to meet me. I want you to work for me. It’s obvious this is something you’re passionate about. You talked my ear off about it for fifteen minutes when you were supposed to be flirting with me. So what are you waiting for?” Jo stood up and extended her hand expectantly.

Alex stood there trying to process everything going through his head. A half-dozen conflicting emotions fighting for space in his mind. One particular feeling was conspicuous in its absence.

He wasn’t afraid. Not like he’d felt when he’d gotten the other offer. This was all crazy, but somehow at the same time it felt like it was supposed to be happening. Alex took Jo’s hand and shook it.

“I’m in.”

Jo smiled, not the predatory smile he’d seen on her before but one with some real warmth behind it.

“Fantastic. Welcome to Artemis, Stella & Beat. It’s gonna be a hell of a ride.”

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