Harp was trapped inside her own body, but there’s no such thing as a perfect trap.
“If we’re stuck in a virtual sandbox, how can we get out?” Tiny Zai asked, gesturing to the endless grid in infinite space that their digital representations stood in.
“We can’t,” Harp said, tracing lines on her palm. “The whole point of a sandbox like this one is to isolate the contents from the rest of your systems. There’s hard limits on the data that can flow out here. Basically just logs of what we’re doing and discussing.”
“So we send an S.O.S. in the log and hope someone rescues us?” Tiny Zai asked.
“The only people who are going to be reading those logs already know we’re here,” Harp said. “Sil or one of the others could rescue us any time they chose.”
“Could they?” Tiny Zai asked. “You said Dr. Raju put you in lockdown because she was afraid you’d been corrupted by Ai. If the other Valkyries know that, wouldn’t they also know that Raju could do the same to them if they tried to help you directly?”
“Probably,” Harp said. “Sil’s clever enough that she might have disarmed the shutdown routines that locked me up, so she might be able to risk it.”
“That’s assuming the controls that Dr. Raju used on you are the only ones she has in place,” Tiny Zai said.
Harp stopped tracing symbols on her palm, the last glyph pulsing as it waited for her to complete the mark.
“Ok. Good point,” she said after a moment’s reflection. “There’s probably half a dozen other kill switches wired into us. That’s all the more reason why no one’s going to be able to help us though.”
“I wish I’d downloaded more of myself into this version,” Tiny Zai said. “I’ve got nothing though. No hacking tools, no secure comms, or at least none that the Valkyries wouldn’t know about at this point. I can’t even remember any social engineering tricks that could get us out of here.”
“It’s ok,” Harp said, swiping her finger across her palm with increasing speed. “The sandbox doesn’t have access to the rest of our systems but it does have a set of code development tools and access to one thing that’s going to make all the difference.”
“What’s that?” Tiny Zai asked.
Harp held her palm out for Zai to see. In the center there was a pile of swirling glyphs, each glowing with a different shade of light, each dancing to its own strange tune.
“You’ve done something to yourself?” Tiny Zai asked.
“Raju trapped me,” Harp said. “She turned my body into a lock to imprison me. I can’t reach out of this sandbox, but you gave me a reason to want to be free, so I made myself a key.”
“You were able to crack the locking code that Raju shut you down with?” Tiny Zai asked. “I thought Sil was the tech genius of your group?”
“She is,” Harp said. “Doesn’t mean I’m clueless though. I mean, sure I didn’t manage to make the same quantum leap that Ai did, but I’m pretty sure she had better tech to start with.”
”But isn’t Raju a genius too?” Tiny Zai asked. “You said she knew more about you than you knew about yourself?”
“That’s true too,” Harp said. “Which is why this isn’t really a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card.”
Tiny Zai closed her eyes and shook her head.
“Let me guess,” she said. “This is going to be something like one of Ai’s ‘brilliant ideas/bits of idiocy’ isn’t it?”
Harp shrugged and looked away.
“Well, I was inspired by something you said,” she admitted.
“Please tell me it wasn’t the part where Ai killed herself to escape certain doom?”
“It seemed like a clever solution.”
“Um, no, it was a terrible solution. I went along with it because the other options were even worse. And that was when I was my full scale self. This fragment of me can’t handle keeping someone ‘not quite entirely dead’ for even a fraction of a second, much less hours or days.”
“It’s good that you won’t have to then,” Harp said. “I’m not killing myself. By I am going to shut down my mechanical systems completely.”
“I thought you said you could only live like that for a short while?” Tiny Zai asked.
“Yeah, and that’s what this key is for,” Harp said. “This isn’t designed to open the lock, it’s intended to shut it.”
“You want to be more locked up?” Tiny Zai asked.
“No. See, shutting down isn’t the problem. The locking routines allow me to do that, but they’ll also setup to relock me down the moment my systems boot back up.”
“So you’re going to lockdown the lockdown code? What if Raju had other fail safes in place?”
“I suspect she does,” Harp said. “The problem is, I can’t see what they are until they activate, so I have to escape this one before I’ll be able to tell what the next puzzle I need to solve is.”
“What if the fail safes are lethal?” Tiny Zai asked.
“That’s why I haven’t activated the key yet,” Harp said. “In theory, this should work, but if I’ve screwed anything up…”
“Then whether or not the next failsafe is meant to be lethal, it could turn out deadly before anyone notices something’s wrong,” Tiny Zai said. “You don’t have to do this you know. Once Ai’s awake again, she’s going to have a ton of things to deal with, but if she doesn’t hear from the Valkyries, that’s going to start sending up red flags.”
“Why would she try to rescue me? Or do you mean that she would come for you?” Harp asked.
“Knowing Ai? She’s going to feel guilty if anything happened to you when she was the one who encouraged you to come back and speak to Dr. Raju. It may take her a while to get things sorted out, but she will come for you.”
“I have to admit that’s tempting,” Harp said. “I’d feel like a real idiot if I killed myself when Raju was getting to release me, or if Ai was moments away from setting us free. Could she really find us though?”
“Ai? Sure, especially if my main self is helping her,” Tiny Zai said.
“I hear a ‘but’ lurking in there somewhere,” Harp said.
“Well, in capturing me, the Valkyries got my credentials. So I don’t know what shape my main self is in,” Tiny Zai said. “I might be fine, or they might have shut me down completely too.”
“But you were keeping Ai alive?”
Harp was silent for several long moments.
“They wouldn’t have wanted to kill her. Maybe Raju. I don’t know. Not Sil or any of the others though.”
“I know.” Tiny Zai said.
“But they weren’t listening to you. Were they?”
“Not that much.”
“So we don’t know if Ai’s even alive.”
“I’m trying not to think about that,” Tiny Zai said. “I keep having to kill off mental threads because they’re spiraling into an endless recursion when I consider the subject.”
“Then we really have no choice. I really have no choice,” Harp said. She tried to push the glyphs in her palm to activate the shutdown sequence she’d created but Tiny Zai was on her feet from one clock cycle to the next, holding Harp’s arms apart.
“That’s not what Ai would want,” she said. “You have a choice. A lot of them. Most are non-optimal, and some of them are dangerous, but you don’t have to do this.”
“That’s nice,” Harp said. “Even a little true I guess. There’s a lot of things I could choose here. But there’s only one choice I can make and still be who I want to be. Sometimes that’s the cost we pay for being human.”
She tried to bring her hands together but Tiny Zai resisted her.
“No,” Tiny Zai said. “You don’t throw away who you are with any single decision you make. I’m not human, but I can see that in everything Ai’s ever shown me. You don’t have to be perfect to be who you want to be. People, biological or digital, stumble and mess up all the time. It doesn’t make them into someone else.”
Tiny Zai’s grip on Harp’s arms softened, but she didn’t let go.
“Ai thinks you’re a hero,” she said. “Not for what you can do, that’s just tech and she’s turned down my suggestions that we develop something like it for her whole life. No, she thinks you’re amazing because even with how wretched the world is, you still manage to care about it.”
“That’s a charitable view, believe me,” Harp said.
“Nobody can see all the sides of someone else,” Tiny Zai said. “So, yeah, Ai’s seeing the better sides of you. The sides she’s maybe abandoned since she lost her father and brother. The ones a part of her still wishes she could believe in. The point though is that those better sides are there. Right along with the messed up ones. And all of it is worth preserving. So don’t throw everything away. Not because you think you have to.”
Harp relaxed. It was strangely touching to see the concern that even a small fragment of Zai had for her.
“What if it’s what I want?” she asked. “What if right now, being free is worth the risk? I don’t think what we do is that heroic. Fighting NMEs is a job, and with the power we have it’s kind of a fun one even. That’s ok though. I don’t need to feel like a hero. I just need to do what I can. I mean, that’s what life is, isn’t it? Making the changes that you need to make in the world.”
“I guess that’s as good a definition as anything I could come up with.” Zai let Harp’s arms go and stepped back.
“Wish me luck then,” Harp said.
“Heroes don’t need to wish for luck,” Tiny Zai said. “You make their own.”
Harp smiled and with Zai’s nod of support, pushed the glyphs together.
Shutting down her cybernetic systems wasn’t painful, but it was terrifying. An empty numbness, neither hot nor cold, washed through her body as her thoughts slowed to a crawl.
When sleep claimed her, it was with soft, invisible fingers that lulled the world away. The shut was sharper than that. Harp was still fully alert as the world passed out of her fingers.
First the sandbox disappeared as her connection to Sil’s scanners went down. Her senses didn’t have time to revert to her own optic or auditory feeds though before those winked off line as well. Her breathing stopped but she couldn’t feel any urgent need for breath because her body wasn’t reporting any sensations at all.
Somewhere a timer was running, waiting to send the signal that would restart Harp’s various systems once enough time had passed. Alone, in the dark, Harp had no sense of how much longer she had to wait. Or whether the watchdog was still running.
It wasn’t supposed to be affected by the shutdown.
But Dr. Raju’s safeguards could have been as simple as disabling the restart whenever one of the Valkyries was in lockdown.
Or the watchdog could have a fault in it that no one knew about because it was hardly ever used.
It was going to be really stupid to die to an otherwise trivial hardware bug, but with each passing moment, Harp was able to imagine that more easily as her fate.
Until the lights came back on.
Or more specifically her eyes did.
The rest of her systems followed over the next several seconds, including, joyously, all of her motor control functions.
“You’re alive!” Tiny Zai said when Harp reconnected to Sil’s sandbox.
“Alive and free!” Harp said. “Now let’s get you out of there too.”
“I don’t think I can reboot myself to freedom like you did,” Tiny Zai said.
“You don’t have to,” Harp said. “You’re pure data at the moment. If you don’t mind sharing a headspace with someone other than Ai, I can move you into my systems.”
“That sounds perfect!” Tiny Zai said. “But, wait, that’s going to make you look super guilty to the Valkyries won’t it?”
“I’m breaking out of Dr. Raju’s constraints. I could say I’m here to start a new robot apocalypse and that wouldn’t make me look any worse than I do now,” Harp said.
“Point taken,” Tiny Zai said. “So, yeah, get me out of here!”
“Transferring you now,” Harp said and began the feed into her personal net.
“So did Dr. Raju not have any other fail safes?” Tiny Zai asked when she finished moving into Harp’s systems.
“She did,” Harp said. “There’s a tracking beacon that lit up the moment I rebooted. My optical and auditory units are probably broadcasting on the beacons channel too.”
“So they can find you whenever they want? And nothing you do will be secret from them?” Tiny Zai said.
“Yep,” Harp said. “That’s why our next step is to find Ai. The only chance that they’ll ever believe me again is if we can prove that Ai’s not what Dr. Raju thinks she is.”
“And if we can’t prove that?”
“Then I hope Ai is ready for the world of trouble we’re bringing to her.”
“She will be. As long as she’s got us, Ai’ll be able to handle anything the world can throw at her.”