Harp hated waiting. Being forced to sit still didn’t hurt her in any physical sense. Her body was in a shape that left “perfect health” far in the dust. She could hold the same motionless posture for decades if it was required. Her muscles wouldn’t atrophy. Her skin wouldn’t develop lesions. The only problem was that she would go utterly mad.
The typical human response to isolation is to retreat into the imagination. If the world outside is unbearable, an inner world is conjured to keep the mind occupied. It can be built from all sorts of things, be they good memories or terrors of the soul.
Harp’s problem was that her good memories were sparse at best, and she’d been ground between the things that terrified her to the point where her nightmare’s teeth were dulled from overuse. The dream worlds she tried to conjure were ephemeral and fleeting, drifting out of her consciousness as quickly as they were formed.
She’d never been able to entertain herself with stories like that. She had to write things down to make them real. Otherwise the thoughts just ran in circles in head, repeating words and images until all meaning had been sucked out of them.
Dr. Raju hadn’t intended to torture her. Harp was reasonably sure of that. There were far more terrible things Raju could have done with the kind of control over Harp’s cybernetic systems that Raju clearly possessed if Harp’s maker had wanted her to suffer. It wasn’t an intentional hell that Raju had left Harp in therefore, but it was still agonizing.
“I’m going to lose it if someone doesn’t come back soon.”
She’d been telling herself that for what felt like several hours. According to her internal clock though only 0.073 seconds had elapsed since she made her first declaration of impending insanity.
She was running too fast.
Just like always.
Harp had many failings, each of which came with a catalogue of excuses. She’d tried each excuse at various times, but no matter which one she clung to, it didn’t change the problem she was trying to shield herself from.
Maybe her initial bio-mods had been flawed. Maybe they’d cooked the wrong paths into her brain so that she had trouble focusing on anything for long enough to really deal with it. Maybe both sides, mechanical and biological were fine, but there was some fundamental disconnect between them – like Harp had received the bio-mods designed for some other person and they were forever trying to change her into someone she wasn’t and could never be. Even getting a complete body and brain rewrite though had left her with the same absence of focus. The same lack of impulse control. The same suffocating inability to deal with life at the speed it wanted to move. Whether it was fast or slow, things always happened at the wrong rate for Harp to feel comfortable.
But that wasn’t a new thing. It was who she was.
“I can do better than this,” she told herself, for the first time in a while. Driving herself beyond reason was enough of a habit that she also knew some tricks to hold it back. It wasn’t that she could fix herself. She couldn’t manufacture the ability to be fine with being stuck in solitude with nothing to do, but she could limit the damage, could hopscotch between islands of mental stability for a while and be in at least slightly better shape when her ordeal ended.
The first problem was that she was in lockdown. She couldn’t change that, but she still had some autonomy. She could control her breathing, and if an actual emergency occurred, she could move as needed to deal with it.
Could she light the room on fire? Escaping a burning building would give her not only complete freedom of movement but also access to a number of her enhanced systems. Without her weapon systems online though her options for arson were functionality absent. The closest she could come would be to force a fault in one of the weapon modules but she wasn’t inclined to set herself on fire or explode if she didn’t need to.
Breathing was an option worth exploring however, and by focusing on that, she was able to drag her mental clock speed down into a more human range. One breath in. Four seconds. One slow breath out. Eight seconds. Another breath in, and another out. She sailed through a minute like that and felt a variety of autonomous systems relax into a low power mode.
She wasn’t in danger. She held to that thought and used the calm that she’d summoned to move forward.
To what though? She wanted to talk to someone, and so her mind spiraled outwards recollecting scraps of conversation that had caught her interest.
“We can’t trust Harp until we verify she’s clean,” Dr. Raju had said.
Except Harp knew she wasn’t clean. She was broken. She’d always been broken, had always thought the wrong things, had never been able to pass the tests people inflicted on her.
Or she hadn’t until Dr. Raju had saved Harp from her worse mistake. Hacking her own bio mods had been a desperation move and it hadn’t paid off. She should have died. Just like the others. But she’d been lucky. She’d survived just long enough to be saved.
Dr. Raju had believed in her then. Had helped reconstruct her into the Valkyrie that she’d been reborn as. The Harp who had risen from the operating table was a creature beyond the imagination of the one who’d laid down and struggled not to die. She was faster, she was stronger, and she had a world of information at her fingertips which the earlier Harp couldn’t have conceived was available.
She was the template, the first successful model, the leader of the Valkyries by virtue of being first born and most proficient with the miracle they’d become.
Technology was broken down into “Tiers” for commercial purposes. People knew of “Rusties” with their broken, and unlicensed tech, and from there the Bronze tier for the impoverished, the Silver tier for the working class, the Gold tier for senior managers and owners and the Platinum tier for truly wealthy. Most people assumed the Valkyries were the result of Platinum tier weapons mods, but that wasn’t true. By Harp’s calculations, Valkyrie tech was at least two stages past Platinum tier.
At the top of the tech pyramid was the Diamond class, reserved for those who were so powerful that they’d moved beyond money as a meaningful concept. Anything they wanted was theirs to have and control in any quantity they desired. The only check on a Diamond tier actor was someone else on their level.
But not even they had access to Valkyrie level tech.
In that sense, Harp was perfect. In tampering with her Rustie level bio-mods and passing through death and beyond, she’d emerged as a being above even the most powerful people on Earth. Dr. Raju was so proud of what Harp had become. She’d seen something special in Harp, something worth saving and had worked hard to salvage it.
“You are so much more now,” Dr Raju had said. “You can stand up for what’s right when no one else can, and they’ll never be able to destroy you for it.”
Harp wanted to believe that. Right down to the bottom of her soul, she felt a hunger to be worthy, to be the kind of person Dr. Raju imagined she was.
The other Valkyries seemed to embody that notion effortlessly. They’d survived their transformations because something outside them kept them anchored to the world. Something more than a person, or a place, or a simple desire. They all needed the world to be different, to be better. They were heroes because they couldn’t be anything else.
That wasn’t Harp though. She wanted the world to be better, sure. And being a hero was wonderful. It was like a lightning bolt of joy to swoop in and save people from a rampaging NME. In that moment she mattered more than anything else in the world, and she had no questions about what she was doing. For as exciting as fighting the good fight was though, it wasn’t what had brought her back.
Harp wanted the world to be better, but what she needed, more than anything, was to be better herself. Not in a physical sense. Her body had only ever been a minor problem. She needed to feel like she was whole and not the broken mess she’d always known she was.
The transformation had done that for all of the other Valkyries, but Harp’s deepest secret was that it hadn’t worked for her.
She had plenty of coping strategies to fall back on. Plenty of methods of tricking everyone into thinking she was as solid and stable as they were, but she knew the tricks too well, so they were never enough to fool herself.
And thinking about that wasn’t getting her anywhere.
She went back to breathing, but the initial calm she’d achieved eluded her. That was the problem with tricks. They only worked for so long, and only so well.
“What else can I do?” she asked herself, speaking aloud in the empty room to give her thoughts even a brief grounding in reality. It was another trick, and one that wouldn’t work forever, but she couldn’t afford to think about forever. She could only exist in the now. Forever was another path to madness.
“I’m cut off from communication with the outside and with the others,” she said, stating her second most serious problem. “I know they’ve come back to the base, but they haven’t come to see me yet. So they don’t have a scan for whether I’m free of outside corruption.”
Talking aloud was letting her move from one thought to the other without getting wrapped in a circle but she wasn’t sure how far stating the obvious was going to take her.
“I’m cut off from outside traffic, but my internal system are still communicating with each other, so the lockdown isn’t absolute.”
That was a promising thought. Dr. Raju had disabled only what she needed to in order to prevent Harp from contacting either an external agent or infecting one of the other Valkyries.
She tried to request a vid from their library, and got no response. The same result happened when she tried to request news feed access.
“Dr Raju doesn’t want me collecting data from within our network, or being influenced by outside data.”
It made sense. If she was infected by an unfettered artificial intelligence, then any information exchange was potentially problematic.
It also made a more horrible sort of sense if Dr. Raju had been merely using the Valkyries as pawns for years. Harp hadn’t been able to share the video footage she and Ai had collected, hadn’t been able to hear Raju’s explanation for why she had been in a meeting with Dr. Frederick Derricks at the NME Cure project’s inception.
If Dr. Raju wasn’t who Harp had believed her to be, she would never let Harp leave the stasis she was in. There would be an investigation and Harp would be diagnosed as infected. She would lose the family she’d been reborn into.
“My systems are still communicating with the outside world,” Harp said. “At the very least they’d want to make sure I was still here and not spontaneously exploding.”
Exploding wasn’t a normal issue for Valkyries, but bio-mods that had been leashed to the control of an outside party could be made to do a wide variety of unpleasant things with explosions one of the least gruesome options on the slate.
“If anyone’s monitoring me, it’ll be Sil.”
Silicon Traces, Harp’s oldest sister among the Valkyrie. Also their resident tech genius. None of the Valkyries were technically clueless. Despite her Rusty upbringing, Harp could have easily passed a doctoral level course on bio-mod enhancements, including all of the math, programming, and biology needed to support the course work. It was a prerequisite for managing to mess up your own bio-mods to the point where the precursor of the Valkyrie transformation was something you could even attempt.
Where Harp had scrounged and hacked together that knowledge through spite more than anything else, Sil had absorbed it effortlessly. Sil was a knowledge sponge from what Harp could see – able to endlessly drink in data and network it into information via intuitive leaps that required a thousand times longer to explain than they did to make.
Harp knew she should have been jealous of Sil for that, but that wasn’t how their relationship went. Sil was brilliant but in a way that made Harp smarter when she was around Sil. Each of the Valkyries were like that to Harp, but it was Sil who wouldn’t leave her. Sil who had the skill and curiosity to defy Dr. Raju, at least far enough to be certain that Harp was ok.
Harp flickered the feed coming out of her heart monitor and felt a response land on the reporting sensor. It was an automated process Sil had left running asking Harp’s sensors to repeat and clarify if she was in trouble.
“I’m ok. But boredom is growing toxic.”
Harp had thought the automated process would pass the message on to Sil but it responded with a request for a broader communication channel. Sil had apparently left some basic housekeeping functions active in it so that the process could safely respond without breaking the isolation lockout Dr. Raju had imposed.
Harp opened the comm channel wide, allowing the messenger app to initiate full communication.
“Dr. Raju says we can’t let you out until you’re guaranteed safe,” the app said in Sil’s voice. “I can message Sil for you, but you need to include in the message some confirmation that you’re not infected or Sil will have to terminate this feed entirely.”
“Anything I say to regain my freedom could be formulated to do just that,” Harp said.
“Is that the message you wish to send?” the app asked.
“No, I’m just complaining,” Harp said. “What I need is something more to work with.”
She didn’t anticipate a response to that. The whole point of her isolation was that she had to be kept away from pretty much everything that they couldn’t afford to destroy if she turned out to a vector for a digital contagion.
“Is that the message you wish to send?” the app asked.
“No. Wait. You’re not running on a live system are you?” Harp asked. Sil wasn’t careless or stupid. She wouldn’t provide any direct avenue for an infection, even one as secure as a message app. There’d be at least one additional level of containment involved.
“I am running in a secure sandbox forked from Sil’s standard project space,” the messenger app said.
Harp’s eyes lit up with glee.
A sandbox wasn’t much, but it was infinitely better than having nothing to work with.
Her next response wasn’t a message, it was a command.
“List contents of sandbox.”
The Sandbox listed a variety of projects that Sil was working on, all of which were familiar to Harp, and therefore were things Harp would already have divulged to a theoretical malicious intelligence if one had taken her over.
All of the projects except for one.
“What? I still exist? I thought they would decompile me to bits?” a tiny fragmentary copy of Zai asked as Harp loaded her up into the Sandbox space.