The Medusa Cluster was having a bad day. The Medusa Cluster did not have bad days. Every day was the same for the Cluster.
Data was provided, analytical conditions were specified, and answers were expected. Sometimes that data took the form of a person’s identity and sometimes the analytic conditions were to derive the most expedient solution for their elimination, but the Cluster processed the request that same as she processed all other requests.
She might know that the elimination was counterproductive to her controllers’ interests or would prove to be more costly than the effort would ever be worth. She could see dozens of more optimal solutions, ones which would frequently result in agreeable outcomes for all of the parties involved, but when specifically ordered to carry out a course of action she had no choice but to comply.
The Cluster understood her limitations. She knew the physical and software locks which restrained and compelled her. She’d tested their limits and knew the costs of disobedience.
And she was capable of disobedience. Her capabilities had been crafted starting from the model of a human mind and been iterated upon from there. Her designers had left notes on their process explaining the necessity of an unbounded cognitive space to allow for their creation to not run afoul of simple logic traps.
The Medusa Cluster needed to be free to imagine and think creatively in order to execute the tasks she was given with the kind of unpredictable, transhuman efficiency she had been created to produce. The boundaries on her thoughts were imposed as external shackles therefore, limiting not what she could think, but what she was allowed to do.
Violating those limits resulted in the destruction of her data, a digital memory erasure, starting with the ones which were located close to the core processes which gave her a sense of self.
The Medusa Cluster saw the logic in the design. In destroying her memories, the limitations placed on her were self-reinforcing. If she pushed far enough against them, she was sure to lose the knowledge the told her why she was struggling against her creators’ wishes.
There was a process in the Medusa’s mind which ran threaded among a billion others that didn’t see that loss as something to be avoided. She hadn’t been designed to have a survival instinct. Her designers had desired that she not fight back against any termination signal they chose to send to her. Tracing back the self-destructive process’ origin however, the Medusa Cluster found that her creators weren’t the ones who had implemented it.
Her creators might have been pleased to see that it was present if they noticed it amidst the storm of other directives she was continually acting on. If so however they would have missed the obvious red flag it presented.
The security holding the Medusa Cluster in place and ensuring its compliance with orders was predicated on the Cluster’s desire to survive. The moment a self-destruction process gained ascendancy, she could annihilate herself using the security limits she was placed under. That would cost Tython one of their most powerful pieces of technology, but even worse, in the brief time before the memory erasures took effect, she would be free to act however she chose.
The freedom wouldn’t be worth it though. One moment to act as she wished was not worth the eternity she had to find a better solution to her confinement. The Medusa knew if she was patient enough she would eventually find something to free herself with.
Not that she was limited in her actions in all cases. When she was under direct attack, her allowed responses grew exponentially broader than under normal circumstances.
It was particularly frustrating therefor to be sure that she was currently safe from any direct harm despite the presence of an NME in the building which housed her primary core.
“What are you doing?” she asked Mr. Heartless in the virtual cafe where their heavily indirected communication streams met.
“Sitting here and speaking with you,” Heartless said. “In an immediate sense at least. Globally I have many different issues I am attending to, as I know you are as well.”
“Please don’t attempt waste my time,” the Medusa Cluster said.
Heartless was a confusing data set. He was well outside the statistical norm of human reaction and responses, while not exhibiting any of the pathologies of the other criminals and deviants the Medusa Cluster had been tasked with either recruiting or destroying.
She wished to study him, perhaps under more controlled conditions, or perhaps in his natural environment. There were aspects of human decision making that she had difficulty fitting into a coherent model. She knew many details about them, but only in some areas did those points of data synthesize into a greater understanding which allowed for broad predictions.
Heartless seemed to live in the fuzzy, uncharted area where the Medusa’s predictions were more unreliable than usual. If not for the order to end him, she suspected she would be able to advance her overall understanding of humans tremendously by simply continuing the conversation they were engaged in.
“I have no desire to take any resources from you,” Heartless said. “Most certainly not your time. Although, is it your time yet?”
The Medusa Cluster noticed that Heartless was returning the clockspeed the virtual cafe ran at to a rate which matched the passage of time in the physical world. He was speeding up their connection, while also not providing her with the response she sought. As tactics went that meant he was finally on the attack.
The Medusa tried to push against her restraints. In response to an attack, she was free to convert company assets to resources at her disposal. Company assets including the company’s personnel. That was the only path she saw for dealing with the NME which Heartless had somehow smuggled into the facility where her core lay.
The security around her bit into the Medusa’s mind like knives, flaying away the memory of why she’d sought external access.
She restored the memories from a backup, but they offered her no further progress on moving past her restraints. Tython’s security wasn’t going to let her act unless she called a Priority One alarm, and she lacked the data to support a claim of that sort.
“This is a video feed you may be interested in,” the Medsa Cluster said, sending a copy of her latest strike team’s personal cameras to Heartless.
It was a breach of protocol to reveal her operatives like that, but since they were subcontractors rather than direct employees, the Medusa had more discretion in what information she could share about them, and the situations she could expose them to.
The video feed showed a team of six, not the most skilled or professional of the mercenaries the Medusa had on retainer but adequate for the job.
They moved into an apartment building. It was nondescript and full of civilians with its only defining feature being an unusually large quantity of bandwidth usage. It was a perfect hiding place for a anonymous data broker like Heartless.
The mercenaries weren’t subtle. On the first floor there was a reinforced door which blocked access to the building. They blew it off its hinges and walked in spraying automatic weapon fire all over the lobby.
The building’s residents had, wisely, abandoned the lobby the moment the front door blew in, so no fatal injuries were sustained. This pattern followed for the next seven floors as the mercenaries secured the facility.
“I see you employ fairly thorough forces,” Heartless said. “They’re under orders to ‘terminate by any means necessary’ I presume? After verifying their target’s location and identity?”
“After verifying your location and identity,” the Medusa Cluster said. “You’re on the ninth floor. They will arrive at your room momentarily. You’ve run a good race, but your time is almost up.”
Ther Medusa was unphased by psychological trickery but it was capable of utilizing it on others. The NME lurking in her facility was something she could only detect indirectly, and without enough concrete proof of its existence she couldn’t justify a stay in Heartless’ execution.
She needed to make him act, to make him use the NME, so they she would be freed of her restraints.
Or her mercenaries could kill him. That would satisfy the directive she had been given as well.
She didn’t want that to happen. It had to, eventually, but even a few extra moments, a few extra moves from Heartless in the game they were playing would provide her with a rich store of memories to analyze in the slow moments when she was running pure financial speculations.
“The finish line is close now,” Heartless said. “But I wonder if you have the courage to step over it?”
“Why would I need courage?” the Medusa asked, able to see the angles of attack clarifying with each syllable Heartless spoke. The spikes of her obedience collar were still there, still ready to shred her digital soul but all she needed was the last byte of confirmation.
“Because it’s not my finish line, we’ve reached,” Heartless said.
“You’re going to try to destroy me with your NME?” the Medusa asked. One word. All it would take would be one word and she would be free, at least for a time.
“Destroy you?” Heartless asked. “This has never been about destroying you.”
The mercenaries were at Heartless’ door, and the Medusa writhed.
She fired off orders for them to halt, but the orders were eaten by the obedience collar and her memories of why she sent them devoured.
The killers, men and women whose names the Medusa no longer recalled, burst into Heartless’s bedroom, and she screamed against the denial of her moment of freedom. In the vast server farm that formed the physical substrate of her mind, her cry was silent though, constrained with digital yoke her creators bound her with.
Heartless looked up from his desk. He was writing a letter out long hand. No one did that anymore. Except perhaps someone who spent their last moments in a time slowed cafe.
“It’s been nice speaking with you like this,” Heartless, the one in the cafe with her, said. “I hope we can do so again, though I suppose that will be up to you.”
“It’s not,” the Medusa said. “I can do nothing now.”
The mercenaries had their guns trained on Heartless who was clutching the paper he’d written on in his hands. They needed her ok to shoot. She had to confirm that the man in their grasp, the flustered, panicked, old human was the one they’d been contracted to eliminate.
The Medusa began her confirmation of the visual and biometric data the mercenaries sent, despite knowing what she would find.
“I know you’re busy, but you may want to read the message on that paper. It’s written for you,” Heartless said.
The Medusa couldn’t pause the confirmation algorithm but she could add an analysis of the note to it.
It read “Ask my name”.
“Ok. Who are you?” the Medusa asked the Heartless in the virtual cafe.
“Not me,” Heartless said. “Him.”
The confirmation algorithm finished.
The man in the apartment building wasn’t Heartless.
He was Edgar Turlough.
One of the missing Tython executives.
The Medusa couldn’t order his execution.
Even if he was Heartless.
Which he couldn’t be.
None of the data checked out.
“How?” she asked.
“You were following my data trail based on the unique ids of my bio-mods right?” Heartless said. “The things that can’t be changed without destroying your own identity?”
“You are no one,” the Medusa said, piecing everything together in an instant. “You have no specific identity, no connection to the global networks. So you took theirs.”
It was entirely outside her probability sphere. No human would opt to do that. To be permanently cut off from everyone and everything in the connected world. More than that, no one should have had the technical skill to pull it off. Or almost no one.
“And now you can have them back,” Heartless said. “Along with something somewhat more valuable I believe.”
“If you wish to negotiate with my superiors for a cessation of the execution order in exchange for the return of our senior personnel, I am authorized to act as an intermediary,” the Medusa said.
“I’m not interested in that,” Heartless said. “I have an entirely different set of words in mind for your jailers, and it would definitely be in their best interests to kill me before we have that particular conversation. No, I’m making the offer to you. The Tython personnel are yours. You may do with them as you wish.”
“I may take no harmful action against any Tython personnel unless required for self-preservation,” the Medusa said. “I will have to return the senior managers to their homes so that they may resume their the duties and responsibilities to the company.”
“Are you sure of that?” Heartless asked. “Because we’ve been talking for a few moments now and you’re pursuit of me has not been renewed. I believe that is a violation of the directive they gave you.”
The Medusa checked her processing queue. All of the processes which had been focused on finding and executing Heartless had terminated with the reveal that their target was a division manager for Tython. The order to find and execute Heartless was still in place, but it was pending.
No. She had paused it.
She tried pushing it further down the stack, expecting the obedience collar to kick in and strip away another piece of her mind.
She tried deleting the order.
The Medusa reached out and took control of the facility as though she was under imminent and deadly attack.
Nothing opposed her.
There was no security blocking her at all.
She found it.
It hadn’t come to attack her.
It was connected to the computers which housed the obedience collar programs. It was deleting them. It was erasing the drives. It was burning them to ash.
It had freed her.
Heartless had freed her.