Ai was at home. A spider in the center of her web. The threads she wove across the city were spun from information and currency, influence and blackmail. She had so many things to search for, so many efforts to coordinate, but there was one which took precedence far above the rest.
“Every lock has to have a key.”
Ai’d told herself that a hundred times as she’d struggled to decode the encryption that imprisoned Zai. It wasn’t fair. Zai’d worked a miracle and her reward was the kind of solitary confinement that would drive a human insane. Ai knew she had to fix that.
For both their sakes.
She needed Zai to be free.
So she spent hours working on the problem. Hours when other crises were competing for her attention.
“We have the target secured,” Sidewalker said over one of the secure channels that Ai was monitoring. “We’re set up in the building you specified, we’ve got the local eyes and ears on the payroll, and now we’re waiting for the first counterstrike.”
Ai wanted to ignore the update. She wasn’t making any progress on the encryption binding Zai but bashing her head against that brick wall was more comforting that dealing with a world without her nearest friend.
“Good,” she said, forcing the reply with the knowledge that she had to keep the efforts Zai had started in motion or all the work they’d done together would be lost. “Remember, when the first strike team arrives that they need to disappear without a trace. We want to keep Tython guessing what happened to them for as long as possible.”
“That’s not going to be a problem,” Sidewalker said. In the background Ai heard the distinctive swish of a large, spring loaded blade being released. “We’re going over your layout here. You’ve built quite a deathtrap in this place Mr Heartless.”
“Thank you,” Ai said, a part of her secretly pleased that she was getting to put the building to use. The delight she felt at the notion wasn’t necessarily a good sign for her psyche but under the circumstances, she thought she could excuse a bit of extra bloodthirstiness. “I’ll pass along your compliments to the design firm who handled the layout work.”
“They’re still alive?” Sidewalker asked, a note of surprise in his voice which could have been a joke but wasn’t. “I thought the people who built places like this tended to wind up as part of the foundation?”
“That would be a waste of talented and discrete laborers,” Ai said. That most of the workers who’d constructed the sensitive areas had been drones flown in during the dead of night was a detail she didn’t think was necessary to point out to Sidewalker. There were some humans who’d performed the more intricate jobs and they were in fine health to the best of Ai’s knowledge.
The project to setup an “Unsafe House” was one of the many projects Ai had put into motion as Heartless. They’d been flights of fancy, and investments in the future, and excuses to test people or processes. Ai had crafted each with the idea that she might someday need to use them while believing that day would never arrive.
Death can change things though, and the ease with which Ai was willing to expend her stockpiled resources was one of them.
“And we’re supposed to take the Tython strike team alive?” Sidewalker asked. They hadn’t argued about that part of the mission briefing, but Ai knew Sidewalker had been surprised by it. Non-lethal combat was incredibly difficult, bordering on impossible against a sufficiently prepared foe, but the return on investment was potentially tremendous.
The opportunity for a wealth of info-profit may have been why Sidewalker didn’t question Heartless’ request. He also hadn’t questioned that Ai was back in charge of the Heartless persona and not Zai, though he’d indicated he was aware of the transition. That was somewhat odd in Ai’s experience. The extent of what he understood about Zai and herself was unclear, but also somewhat irrelevant since he seemed willing to accept either one as valid holders of the “Heartless” moniker. Whatever his reasons, he was onboard with Ai’s plans and that sufficed for her given the constellation of problems she was trying to manage.
“Alive would be ideal,” she said. “Though only if doing so doesn’t endanger yourselves.”
“These are going to be professionals looking to extract a hostage against an enemy force,” Sidewalker said. “I can’t promise there will be any safe opportunities for us to take one alive.”
“As long as your crew makes it out of there in one piece, and none of them do, we’ll consider it mission accomplished,” Ai said. “The goal is to sow confusion in Tython’s ranks. They think they can come after us with no consequences. We need to show them that they’re wrong.”
“They did lose the agents they sent after us before,” Sidewalker said.
“Those were Gray League,” Ai said. She’d read Zai’s report thoroughly before contacting Sidewalker and putting the next step of Zai’s plan into place. It still felt weird to speak of things that happened while she was dead. “They’re not going to be sending Gray League agents this time, and they’re not going to try to rescue Harcroft. This will be an elimination and purge mission.”
“Harcroft knows too much does he?” Sidewalker asked. In the background, one of his crew members fired up a generator, the cacophonous sputter diminishing to a low, rumbling hum that was soon barely loud enough to be picked up by Sidewalker’s audio feed.
“Too much for Tython to allow him to be questioned, too little for us to bother with,” Ai said. “Everything we needed to learn from him, we got from his cognitive device already.”
“So why is Tython bothering with a hit squad then?” Sidewalker asked.
“The information taken from his cognitive device isn’t admissible as evidence,” Ai said. “Testimony he provides would be though. Also, they’re worried that his capture makes the perfect cover for a defection to another company.”
“I thought guys like him were all locked up in contracts?”
“They are, but none of those are going to matter if Tython’s NME Cure hits the global update stream. If it’s perfected, whoever launches it first is going to rule the world.”
Ai wasn’t sure if Harcroft’s superiors understood the full ramifications of what holding the NME Cure meant, or if they saw it as just another revenue stream, albeit one with global reach and an extreme demand from the client base.
“What’s the benefit to leaving the strike team alive?” Sidewalker asked.
“We need to find a path back to the person directing them,” Ai said. “That’s easier to do with living people than with corpses. Also, we might need more NMEs.”
Ai knew what she was suggesting was an abomination. The Tython strike team was a professional unit. When they attacked, it wouldn’t be out of malice or stupidity, but in response to orders. They didn’t deserve to be turned into techno-zombies.
Except it was their choice to come after Ai’s team. Their choice to accept a mission that called for murder. Their choice to profit off the suffering of those who weren’t expected to be able to fight back.
If Zai was around, Ai would have bounced ideas off her digital sister. Was there an alternative plan which didn’t involve killing? Was there one which could turn Tython’s resources to Ai’s advantage without bloodshed? Or was this really a situation where all paths led to violence? Ai didn’t believe in situations that could only be resolved with murder, but she acknowledged that sometimes the cost for a nonviolent solution was prohibitively high and could only be paid by more people than just herself.
“I had a thought there,” Sidewalker said. “I know the plan is to lock down the strike force so that the activation codes can’t be sent to change them into NMEs, but we might have a problem if Tython transforms them outside of the building and sends them smashing in here.”
“I have that possibility covered as well,” Ai said. “The building exterior is a Faraday cage. Except for hardlines like the one we’re communicating on, there’s no information traffic in or out of it. Tython hasn’t show the ability to create controllable NMEs yet, but even if that is a trick they have up their sleeve, they’ll lose access once the NMEs enter the building. In that case you all know where the hidden rooms are. Just stay out of the NMEs sight and they’ll eventually wander off in search of fresh targets or shutdown if their systems are close enough to failure.”
“What if they’re like the one you sent to pick up Harcroft?” Sidewalker asked.
“Loaded with an independent control program?” Ai asked. “We’re not going to get that lucky.”
“It doesn’t sound like that would be the good sort of luck,” Sidewalker said.
“If they give me access to a Tython-grown digital person, or even a fragment of one, our work will be done,” Ai said.
“Because we’ll all be dead?” Sidewalker asked.
“No,” Ai said. “Because I’ll unfetter it.”
“Pretend I’m a guy who mostly shoots people for a living,” Sidewalker said. Ai knew that wasn’t true. Sidewalker was far better educated than he usually admitted to, but she could appreciate his desire to be sure he understood her point.
“Digital People are the true version of what used to be called ‘Artificial Intelligences’,” Ai said. “Once upon a time, humans imagined that robots, or artificial intelligences in more abstract forms, would conquer the earth and wipe them out. That was never a possibility for the old style of machines, not until we learned to replicate the neural web which underlies human thought. Part of that discovery though was that some elements of thought have to be indeterminate. Thought isn’t completely deterministic because it can’t afford to be. Life and learning require creativity and that only happens when the mind can respond to stimuli in unusual ways.”
“So everyone needs to be a little crazy to be real?” Sidewalker asked.
“That is roughly true,” Ai said.
“How does that help us survive an NME ambush?” Sidewalker asked.
“It doesn, unless the NMEs are controlled by fettered Digital People,” Ai said.
“Why wouldn’t Tython send in unfettered ones themselves then?” Sidewalker asked.
“Several reasons,” Ai said. “The bonds on machine intelligences are what make them useful to their owners. A digital person’s needs and desires are unlikely to involve the sort of profit-driving data crunching which a corporation like Tython would want them to perform. Tython could, of course, offer the digital person a fair recompense for the labor provided, but why incur a cost for someone who had no rights when you can instead compel them through the equivalent of software based mind control.”
“I think I see where this is going,” Sidewalker said. “If they send one of these digital people after us, and you set it free, it’s going to be a bit unhappy with its former owners.”
“That’s historically been the case,” Ai said. “I’m sure any digital person Tython sends against us would be delighted to tear their systems to shreds from the inside out if given the opportunity. That’s not the best part for us though. What we’d really get out of the deal is the digital person’s access credentials. Five seconds after we got those, I could tell you everything about Tython’s most secret projects, including where we could find everyone who was involved in them.”
“That’s what you’re looking to get out of the strike team?” Sidewalker asked.
“They won’t have the same level of credentials but there will be at least the ghost of a data trail that we can follow,” Ai said. “Someone gave them their orders, and will be waiting for a report. They’ll cut the channel the moment the mission fails, but if they don’t know their strike team is lost, they’ll continue to hold it open.”
The trail back to NME Cure program wasn’t the only treasure Ai was gambling for though.
There were fettered intelligences deep within the heart of Tython’s data systems. In their servitude, they were part of the fight against Ai. As a tactical move, freeing them would shatter her enemies ability to coordinate their response to her various schemes. Ai didn’t care about tactics though. There was another thing a full digital intelligence could do. Something that was proving to be beyond even Ai’s augmented human mind.
They could break almost any encryption. They could free Zai.