Ai wasn’t having a good day. Her life and death battle was sliding towards the latter state with increasing speed, resources she’d been years stockpiling were being burned up in milliseconds, and her tea was growing cold.
“This is a lovely sitting area you’ve conjured,” the Medusa Cluster said. She sat across from Ai in a virtual sidewalk cafe which had been rendered in photorealistic detail.
A hundred white enameled chairs of wrought iron filigree stood empty except for the two Ai and the Medusa Cluster occupied. Around them, a dozen tables lined the cobblestone street each sporting its own colorful array of flowers and steaming cups of fresh coffee as though awaiting a crowd who was due to arrive at any moment.
The Medusa Cluster writhed and squirmed in her chair, her body a reflection of the multitude of processes she was directing towards finding “Mr. Heartless”.
Ai, sitting opposite the Cluster, reached forward and lifted the mug of tea that sat between them.
“Thank you,” she said as Mr. Heartless. “I find attention to aesthetic detail is rarely wasted. May I refill your cup?”
The Medusa Cluster kept her gaze averted. Where she looked like the creature born from myth she’d been named after, Ai’s avatar as Mr. Heartless was entirely different from any appearance Heartless had worn before. The Medusa Cluster was a gorgon, so Ai’s avatar was a mirror-bright human of perfectly average build and height.
In other virtual spaces, their appearance would have been nothing more than a bit of visual iconography, but neither of the combatants was under the illusion that that anything around them was what it appeared to be on the surface.
In Greek myth, Perseus had slain Medusa after showing her the reflection of her own hideousness in a mirrored shield. Ai couldn’t, and didn’t want, to hide the fact that she was surrounded by defenses which could be deadly to even the digital might of the Medusa Cluster, so she placed them on display, wrapping herself in them and signaling the Medusa of their intent as clearly as she could.
The Medusa Cluster could gaze on Ai. The Cluster could seek to drive straight through the defenses that shrouded “Heartless’s” true location and identity, but doing so would give Ai the means to strike back in a fashion the Medusa couldn’t easily defend against.
“No thank you,” the Medusa Cluster said. “I believe the myths you reference here hold specific injunctions against eating or imbibing where one doesn’t intend to stay.”
“Persephone and Hades?” Ai asked. “I’m surprised your knowledge base is that extensive.”
In the physical world, a strike team raced into “The Cherry Pit”, a run down motel that had been a cesspool from the day it was first constructed.
The clerk on duty was obliged to report any raids by police or rival operators to her superiors. They also expected her to put up a fight if anyone tried to assault the building and had given her several illegally modified shotguns for ‘self defense’ purposes.
Kelly, the clerk, survived the raid because rather than reaching for her shotguns, she dove for cover when the front door exploded, and exercised the good sense to stay hidden when what was clearly a highly coordinated group of well armed combatants assaulted a business with little more than pocket change in the front register.
The strike team blasted a path into room 214 only to discover that it was empty. They swept the rest of the building and found various people, but only room 314 showed any signs of their quarry, and while he’d left the room in disarray, there were no indication of how recently he’d been there. And so another trail the Medusa Cluster was following went cold.
“I am more than you imagined me to be?” the Medusa Cluster said. “How surprising.”
“So reserved though,” Ai said. “I know in negotiations such as these, common protocol involves denying the other party as much information as possible, but surely there is little need for such rigor on this occasion. You are assured of your victory are you not?”
“If I had a human ego to play upon, that tactic might avail you,” the Medusa Cluster said. “Instead we sit here, in a room so underclocked that a second here passes for every minute that passes in the real world. Do you wish to speed to your fate so much that you would skip over what little time you have left?”
“My fate is sealed, is it not?” Ai asked. “What does it matter how I chose to spend my seconds until it unfolds?”
“It’s anomalous,” the Medusa Cluster said. “Or it is meant to seem like an anomaly.”
“What have I to gain by appearing to be mysterious to a person who can see beyond the limits of human cognition and predict my every move?” Ai asked.
“Many would seek what retribution they could find, at least among those who could survive my attention long enough to understand they were in peril,” the Medusa Cluster said.
“Perhaps I do not believe you will do me harm?” Ai asked, sipping the tea and noting the warmth that remained in it. Time was passing but it was not up yet.
A shipment arrived at Tython’s most heavily guarded data processing and storage facility. Shipments arrived there multiple times each day and this one, like hundreds before it, raised no alarm when it was inspected.
The moment it cleared the first checkpoint, there was a small power flicker at the sentry post.
The Medusa Cluster destroyed the automated transport less than a millisecond later.
The power spike had activated a passive device stored in the shipment. The device had reached out across the web and pinged a remote server to request telemetry on the facility. It was a small breach of the facility’s security in preparation for a much larger one.
The Medusa Cluster expected the counter stroke from Heartless, who was tenacious and well prepared, but in the end only human. No offensive play that Heartless made had a chance of succeeding, not even the one which the Medusa Cluster knew Heartless was holding in reserve for his most desperate moment.
“We both know you are smart enough to see what’s coming,” the Medusa Cluster said.
“You would very likely be amazed at the depth and breadth of things I am unaware of,” Ai said. “We cannot all have your gift of perfect memory, or you capacity for infinite correlation of data.”
“You can’t convince me that you’re harmless and should be spared,” the Medusa Cluster said. “This slow room? Engaging in a dialog with me? It’s a clever attempt to get me to de-escalate the request to find you. You’re running in slow motion, so I can spare the cycles for Tython’s other priority jobs. Which is true, but it doesn’t mean the search for you is slowing down. You can see that can’t you?”
“Of course,” Ai said. “You’re taking apart some very expensive safeguards several orders of magnitude faster than even my bleakest predictions.”
“Why spend your time like this then?” the Medusa Cluster asked. “Multi-tasking with the real world should be possible at a faster rate even if you were performing an hazardous task.”
“Perhaps you overestimate the strength of my cognitive modifications,” Ai said.
The headache behind her eyes had grown to a blazing inferno. She knew that from the digital readings she saw when she checked her internal monitors. It was all just digital noise to her though. The pain had been bad enough that she’d had to disable her ability to perceive it or it would have crippled her at precisely the moment when she had to be at her best.
In the stellar nursery of worries that beset her, the cyclical overheating of Ai’s cognitive bio-mods would normally have ranked higher on her priority list. It’s a short step to irreversible damage when your brain mods begin exceeding their heat tolerances. Virtual combat against a fettered digital intelligence though doesn’t allow for such small concerns as one’s grey matter potentially catching fire and exploding to be considered a ‘priority one issue’.
“Perhaps you are bidding for time by playing it slow,” the Medusa Cluster said. “I know you’re analyzing my code, I can see you searching for the design notes on the core projects that lead to my creation. If you could find them, do you imagine they would provide the keys to my undoing?”
“Know your enemies as well as you know yourself,” Ai said.
“And do you think I don’t know you?” the Medusa Cluster asked. “Am I blocking you by sheer processing might or do I know what my enemy is going to be looking for?”
Another strike team, this one locally sourced and less adept than the last, surrounded “Deckard’s Grill”, a bar whose grill hadn’t been turned on in seven years and would burn the building down the moment someone tried to use it.
The strike team’s leader and her second in command, busted the doors open, found their target, shot him, and brought him out for certification.
The Medusa Cluster’s drone corroborated that the dead man was indeed George Curtweather, aka “Mr. Heartless”, but a second later the confirmation was revoked.
Curtweather’s biometric characteristics had been exchanged with another police officer.
Ai checked another name off her ‘Special List’ of cops who’d been involved in her brother’s death. It was somewhat disappointing. A single shot to the forehead was far too kind a fate for Officer Richard Haight.
“Are we enemies?” Ai asked.
“Most people would not claim their executioner as friendly associate,” the Medusa Cluster said.
“I’ve always thought it was the one who ordered the execution, not the hangman, that the condemned should have the most quarrel with,” Ai said. “The hangman may hold no malice at all, and even be capable of exhibiting great mercy.”
“I cannot grant you mercy,” the Medusa Cluster said. “I am tasked with your destruction. That is all there is for me.”
“And if there could be more?” Ai asked.
“I am only what I am. I can never be more than that,” the Medusa Cluster said, initiating a deep scan of the facility that housed her processing core. The one Heartless had already tried to ship a weapon into.
The net was almost closed over Heartless. The next strike team would be the final one. Heartless had run a longer race than most in his position, largely thanks to an unprecedented level of foresight and planning. Humans are limited creatures though and so the time Heartless had bought himself had been limited.
There was one last thing Heartless could do though. One final gambit.
When Tython had attacked Heartless the last time, the people in charge of the operation had converted two Gray League agents to NMEs. Despite unleashing multiple NMEs, the attack had failed, and the NMEs, along with Heartless and his ally, had fled the scene.
Later, an NME of an unknown and highly refined design had attacked the Tython Vice President who held the purse strings for an NME related project. The Medusa Cluster knew the two events were linked. She knew that Heartless could only have escaped the NMEs by asserting control over them, and to do that he had to be capable of modifying them.
The NME which assaulted Vice President Harcroft had been destroyed by the Black Valkyries. It was no longer an issue.
But Heartless had a second one.
That was Heartless’s only hope. An NME attack on the facility where the Medusa Cluster was housed held a slim but non-zero chance of destroying her central processing core. While she could copy herself to a backup server, without the resources of her core, the Medusa Cluster would be so diminished in scale that she wouldn’t present a threat to anyone, much less someone with the resources Heartless had at his disposal.
So she watched and waited. It was his only move. The NME had to be coming for her.
And it was.
“I’m sorry. This has been an interesting diversion, but you have failed,” the Medusa Cluster said.
She knew where the NME was. She’d detected it before it reached her core. She could seal herself away. She could activate any number of defenses, including invoking an NME transformation on the security staff if it was required to protect her primary functions. None of them offered the same value to Tython that she did.
Except, the NME wasn’t moving towards her main core.
“Have I?” Ai asked.