8: Hidden Intelligence
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Danika logged in to her work account, and ignored her assistant's protests that she wasn't scheduled to work today, as she entered the empty workspace where she normally interacted with the system.

The first thing she did was call up an instance of the traveling merchant. She wanted to verify that his relationship level with Kit really hadn't changed before she replied to Lin Hao. The merchant cheerfully assured her that his affection for Kit Tay remained unchanged.

Danika asked, "Was the marriage between you dissolved normally? I mean, as though Kit had dissolved it?"

She knew that the merchant could easily answer questions about the game's marriage system, but she wasn't sure he could answer what had happened to his own settings until he replied seriously, "Kit Tay did not dissolve our marriage, it was dissolved by the will of the Jade Emperor. This is such a rare occurrence that I do not believe it can be considered normal."

It seemed that the merchant could analyze changes to himself beyond his stats, but that she'd asked the question too vaguely. Danika tried again, "Why didn't your affection for her change when the marriage was dissolved?"

The traveling merchant replied unexpectedly formally, "I'm sorry honorable celestial servant of the sixth class, Danika Belova, last among your rank, serving the Jade Emperor in the construction of the Living Jade Empire, I may not share a player's private information with you unless it concerns your current job."

Danika stared at him for a long moment. She'd been working for long enough that she could infer a few things from his response, and none of them lessened her worry for Kit.

The merchant was basically telling her that his behavior had probably been modified by the risk evaluation system. Everyone was evaluated all the time to allow the game to create the personalized quests that it flaunted, and avoid throwing people with a fear of snakes into their nests, but it could also respond to psychological or medical data obtained outside of the game. All of that data was private, so she probably wouldn't be able to find out anything more from him directly.

She frowned and tried to think of a way to ask what she wanted to know that wouldn't infringe on Kit's privacy. Her assistant announced, "Josh Beagle asks if you're available?"

Danika shook her head, but then looked at her assistant and nodded. The little celestial dragon gazed at her with a confused expression, "What should I tell him?" it asked.

"Give me a minute," Danika replied. "I need to read the messages." She sighed and dismissed the merchant.

Lin Hao's message through Magna Silvam read: "Ugh, they still refuse to clear me to work yet. But at least they let me change who's in charge in the meantime. Don't badger Josh into reinstating the marriage, Myles wasn't wrong about the solution, just the method. I told him to assign the cats to you. I'll be logged in here after your morning meeting is over on Monday to talk to you about it."

Danika replied: "The cats? OK. The merchant's relationship wasn't inverted, but I'm pretty sure that it's not a bug. It looks like it's a personalized risk response."

She told her assistant, "OK, I'm reading Josh's next, you can tell him I'm available now."

Josh's message read: "Lin Hao told me to assign his AI development project to you until he gets back, but I've been going through the errors and flags all morning and it's really interesting. I mean, I can see why Myles was getting a little freaked, it's really out of his area of specialization, but it's pretty cool how the cats are developing. May I have your permission to view ZipZing's records?"

Josh popped into existence beside her before she'd quite finished and she looked up and said, "Sure, you can have my permission. Lin Hao's AI development is focused on cats?"

Josh laughed and shook his head. "Ah, I probably said it wrong. He and Devon Yu developed the core of the game's AI reaction systems together, but the focus was on humans. A lot of the animal reactions were developed by the system itself after all the data was submitted to it. And it looks like cats are a little strange, there are fairly ordinary cats based off of real cat data, but then there are things like how the King of Cats was generated."

"Strange like willows?" Danika asked, after thinking of the kinds of stories that featured cats.

"Oh," Josh said thoughtfully. "Yeah, it really is similar isn't it?"

"What do you need me for?" Danika asked directly. She added a little guiltily, "I left my cousin waiting on going out to breakfast to check on why the traveling merchant didn't suddenly hate Kit after that guy deleted the marriage and her baby, but I think it was a personalized risk response."

"Oh, probably," Josh agreed. His expression was serious as he told her, "Lin Hao said that the whole marriage was, and that's why he didn't insist on dissolving it originally after her first bug report."

Danika felt a little disappointed somehow. If the actions that had seemed independent were only being dictated by a different portion of the system, then the traveling merchant was really just a very complex, but ordinary AI.

Josh continued, "It's not that I need you for anything exactly, I just wondered if you know what's happened to the King of Cats? I can't find him."

"You can't find him?" Danika repeated blankly.

"No matter how I phrase it, the system can't locate an entity called the King of Cats anymore," Josh explained. "Half of the error messages were attached to him, because most of his monitoring routines are reporting null data."

"Most?" Danika questioned the key point.

"Right," Josh agreed. "The functions of the King of Cats are still operating, the luck routines and everything look normal. It's just that his avatar seems to have vanished, and yet the title isn't unclaimed."

"How is that even possible? I've been trying to find him again as ZipZing because he vanished from my messengers and my friend list, but I thought that was just from a player's point of view?" Danika questioned. "Did he reincarnate again?"

"What?" Josh asked blankly.

Danika explained what Lin Hao had told her about how the King of Cats had recreated himself as the cub of the guardian of the western vault, and Josh said laughingly, "Well, that certainly explains why Lin Hao said to assign this to you. I thought it was weird since you can't work with the code directly, but that never even occurred to me as a possibility."

"Was he killed because I asked him to protect people during the expansion?" Danika worried.

Josh reached out and poked her, startling her, and said firmly, "The cat is just an NPC, as cool as he is. Myles isn't wrong, even though he can stop ranting any time now, about how NPCs aren't as important as real people. Thanks for answering my questions, and now go have breakfast with your poor starving cousin, and don't worry."

Danika hesitated, but then she nodded. "Alright. But don't tell the King of Cats that you said that though, when you find him," she said laughingly. Josh rolled his eyes at her as she logged out.