10 am EST, Saturday 27th September 2130, the Georgetown house of Michael Sedgwick,

"I've been thinking," said Michael, as he joined John, Jocelyn and Slavica at a very late breakfast. He had been up since five, but he supposed that the teenagers had needed a very long night's sleep after the excitements of the previous two days. Michael had ferried them back to Georgetown in his private jopper with Sven, putting up the rest of the gang at the Plaza courtesy of Fox News. Ferdinand had immediately been swept up in a maelstrom of election preparations.

"Oh no," they cried, having learned that Michael seldom thought small thoughts, and that the bigger ones came with consequences to match.

"You'll like it," he said, "really."

"I think we should set up a foundation, a private foundation, to publish, distribute, whatever you want to call it, the 'alignments' - how I don't like that word - with a free RCC to download so that any group can experience them. But not just any of them, I mean a lot of them are going to be quite private to the group that makes them, or between two or three groups. So it will need an editorial function, to screen the content and pick out the best ones, and those editors should be of an age with the compilers. And that's you guys!"

"But we're students, not editors," said Jocelyn. "And what makes you think we'll be allowed to do it, anyway?" added John, cautious as ever. "We have to work for our qualifications," pitched in Slavica. "We're all just about to be 19." All of them talking together.

"One at a time," laughed Michael. "Let me explain a bit more how it would work and that might answer your questions. It would be a kind of hybrid between the completely open, free sites where people just dump their scrawlings and it's a lottery whether anyone's going to be interested in them, and the kind of paid-for, highly edited sites that I normally deal in, with teams of salaried editors, like Media International. Experienced editors would be useless in this case, because their training's all wrong. It has to be people with the same experience as the compilers of the alignments, and that means nobody over 25, at least at first, even nobody over 19.

"On the other hand, it needs to be professional-seeming, slick, and work well, and there needs to be a structure. We don't know yet what structure, obviously, that's what may come out of the research project. And that's where you come in, Slavica. I'll get back to that later.

"So one way or another it's going to cost money, and I don't want that money coming from the powers-that-be. The moment 'they' get their hands on the financing, they can twist it all in any direction they like."

"I thought we had just beaten 'them'," said Jocelyn plaintively.

"It's only one round in a long contest, I fear," said Michael. "An important one, but just one round. It doesn't alter the fact that of the thousand most senior and powerful people in the world, three-quarters of them are actually against what you're doing, and almost all the rest don't understand it. You musn't judge by your father: he's a rare individual. This is why we must seize the initiative now we've got the chance, and as quickly as possible, before 'they' manage to re-group. Obviously, they're on the defensive for the time being, but it won't last long.

"I'm prepared to finance the foundation, or rather my charitable social foundation will finance the foundation, initially for five years. I am proposing to the trustees that EUR100m should be devoted to the publishing venture, and a further EUR100m should be contributed towards the research project that has been suggested by the Educational Advisory Committee and was approved by the Assembly this week before it was, ahem, suspended. On strict conditions, of course, and Slavica, that's why I'd like you to be on the management team of the research project."

The Sedgwick and Campbell merger of 2040 had created by far the world's largest media organization, and Michael's own father had followed in the footsteps of charitable behemoths like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett by establishing a EUR20bn foundation to support social improvement.

"You would all receive salaries, naturally. I think it can only be good for your contribution prospects. But of course it's going to be a strain: it won't be easy to combine these jobs with your qualification training, and there's not too much I can do about that. Sven will help, of course."

"Sven?" they exclaimed. "What will he do? Where is he, anyway?"

"You weren't around for breakfast at seven, unfortunately," said Michael, mock seriously, "so Sven and I had to have the first board meeting of the publishing foundation on our own, without you. He's very enthusiastic, and if you'll have him, he'd like to be Marketing Vice-President. I'll be titular President, but really I can only manage the odd board meeting. Then John, you and Jocelyn would be editorial directors, and I'll provide an executive team to do all the donkey-work."

They were reduced to silence, for a moment.

"You're a steamroller," said John, eventually. "But how can we resist you? It's such an obviously right thing to do. I'm up for it." He looked at the others, who both nodded.

"It'll be an RCC, obviously," carried on Michael, who was used to getting his own way, but might have stopped to say thank you. "So there'll be the minimum amount of traveling. Everyone can stay where they are, including my people. We use RCCs for 95% of our business, always have done since 2080."

"I know you're very stressed out, and I'm sure you want to get back to your e-clones as soon as possible. You're welcome to stay here as long as you want, but assuming you do want to get back I've booked you out of Dulles later on. But we really ought to get a usable RCC shell up in the cloud with a set of apps. Slavica: is there any chance that we could get something going today, before you leave?"

"You don't know me very well, yet, do you, Michael?" said Slavica with a positively prissy expression. "I put my clone and its apps back in the cloud as soon as I'd been through the scanner yesterday. So everyone who'd downloaded the clone can use it now. I thought they wouldn't dare to do anything during the election, at least. It's a little bit more difficult with a free-standing RCC, only because I've got to strip out the screen from what we did, and make the clone into just another visible RCC function. I did most of that this morning since no-one invited me for breakfast at 7, and it'll be up by the time we leave. Needs publicity, of course, since no-one will know it's there."

"Touche," said Michael. "I am getting to know you, and I like what I see, believe me." He paused.

"I want to say how sorry I am that you've had such a bad experience, partly because of me. I wish it could have been different. Maybe one day we'll be able to look back and see that something important was achieved, and if that's so, then you guys will get the statue, not me. Now, I have to go to New York. I'm sure you all want to sit here and mull it all over for a while. Call me if you want to. Then the staff will fix everything you need, take you to Dulles, get you clothes, whatever. Just ask for what you want. And let me know when you've decided!"

And that was that. He smiled broadly, stopping around the table to hug each of them, and swept off, trailing clouds of money, power, influence, and, amazingly, good feeling.

"More coffee?" said John, after they had sat for a while, speechless, more to break the silence than because he thought anyone would want it. Of course, there was a servitor there almost before the words had left his lips, with a fresh pot of coffee, and another rack of hot toast.

"It's happening too quickly," complained Jocelyn, the first one to assemble a relevant thought. "I can't think straight. It was just a game, and now look at what's happening. At one moment I don't know if I am really interested, to be honest. And then ten seconds later it seems totally exciting again. I was just a regular teenager. 19 next week, OK, but still a teen. I like buying shoes and dancing, and I do want to do ten years of research into the sleep patterns of a virtual thalamus. And with this groups business, I'm just lost. The things we made, they seem real, anyway they felt real while we were making them, but it feels real when you have virtual pixie dust just as much. I don't know if I'm strong enough to live the groups thing through, day after day, judging other groups. I don't know if I care enough. And it's going to go on being risky, from what Michael said."

"Me next?" asked John. "I think you're just being emotional, it's natural enough after what's happened. Perhaps I'm wrong, but I think after a few days you'll see that you can't walk away from it. Anyway, that's your decision. For me, I couldn't not want to be involved. We've talked for years about having the chance to explore the groups, and here it is in front of us on a golden plate. I'd think I was crazy not to take it up. I can see the risks: if 'they' get back on top, we're going to stick out a mile and who knows what they'll do to us. But we've got Michael behind us, and he's come right out now into the open. And Jocelyn, you of all people, you're going to have Ferdinand to help you. I saw on a cast this morning that he's sure to be on the new Assembly and he's favourite to lead it, before they've even put in the nominations. But never mind all that, what really turns me on is the chance to explore the 'alignments'. I agree with Michael about that word, but anyway whatever you call them it's the most interesting question to be asked in brain sciences today, surely. How can you compare it with pinning down the molecular behaviour of synapses in the thalamus?"

"Me," said Slavica. They had this nice, orderly habit of following each other with set speeches as a result of the RCR protocols, rather than pitching into a melee of argument and counter-argument. "I don't think we should try to pressure Jocelyn. Her life plans are hers, and they're nothing to do with the pursuit of group behaviours. Jocelyn, if you're not comfortable with it then just say so. Live your life as you want, and sod everybody else! Me, I couldn't refuse the research foundation even if I knew it was going to kill me. It's not just that this is such an interesting subject in itself; I could work for fifty years and not get such an opportunity in professional terms. So I don't have to think about it, risks or whatever. I'm in!"

"Oh, all right," said Jocelyn. "You just musn't mind if I moan from time to time. I'm a Cancer, you know. It's our nature. Now, I want to go home." She laughed. "Strange, isn't it, that home is a bunch of electrons floating around in cyber-space?"


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