Agatha was surprised to see the door of her “new” tenants apartment open. Ai had never been one for leaving her room unsecured since joining the GCPD, and she’d never been one for having friends over even before then.
“And what lesson would that be?” a woman asked. Her voice was strangely modulated, metallic without losing too much of its inflections or tone. Agatha had been an audiophile before age and poor upgrades diminished her hearing to barely adequate levels. Her time pursuing vintage recordings of famous performances left her with an appreciation for the effort that had gone into the speaker’s voice modulators though.
Replacing a damaged voice box with one that produce mechanical speech was cheap and easy. Replacing one with tech that sounded decidedly non-human while retaining a full range of expression was much less common to find.
She paused around the corner in the hallway, chili casserole in hand, waiting to hear what the response was. Agatha was under no delusions as to her capabilities when it came to handling dangerous situations. She had never been a fighter. Not with her hands at any rate. If someone had come to Ai’s old apartment seeking trouble, Agatha wasn’t going to improve the situation by sticking her nose in their business.
She preselected the police hotline. They wouldn’t do much either. Not quickly at any rate, but it did help to have an alibi that you’d called them sometimes.
The moment of silent surprise ended with a question.
“Harp?” Ai asked, recognizing her visitor even if she hadn’t expected a guest.
“That’s an artificial intelligence piloting the tourbot isn’t it?” Harp asked.
“You are only barely more natural than I am,” the Medusa Cluster said.
“Ok, before this goes completely sideways,” Ai said. “First, yes, this is a digital person, she was Tython’s Medusa Cluster. Second, she is no longer working for Tython. Third, I am sure of that because I was the one who destroyed the slave collar that they had on her.”
“What?” Harp asked, and added seemingly to no one, “Yes, I know what kind of locks are in place on digital people.”
Since it seemed like the chance of live weapons fire was sufficiently remote, Agatha decided it was as good a time as any finish her chili delivery. The pot held more than enough for four, though she had to wonder how many of the people in the room were capable of eating in the first place.
“You going to stand in the doorway all day?” she asked of the tall, armored woman who had to be Harp.
“Eh?” Particle cannons on the cyborg’s shoulders hummed and clicked as they locked onto a new target.
“Doorway, in or out?” Agatha said and gestured with the dish of chili that she was holding in both hands.
“I’m…sorry?” Harp said and stepped aside into the room, allowing Agatha to move past her and the door to swing shut.
“You should have told me you were having visitors, I’d have brought some sides,” Agatha said, looking at Ai. Ai didn’t look or sound like herself. She’d done a masterful job of disguise, probably thanks to a number of illegal biomods. Given that Ai had been reported dead however, Agatha couldn’t fault her for wanting to try out a new look.
Probably should have gone a little more extreme on the makeover though since at least two people had tracked her down in short order despite the changes she’d made.
Not that it mattered to Agatha. She was just glad to put the casserole dish down. Even with her HealthTec(™) Durable Seniors modifications she wasn’t a fan of carrying heavy objects.
“Anyone who wants a bite, just grab a plate. Oh that’s right, someone isn’t setup for entertaining. I’ll be right back,” Agatha said and trundled out of the apartment.
“Who was that?” Harp asked as Agatha left.
“My landlord,” Ai said.
Agatha didn’t have to go far. The Srinivasans in the next room over were always well stocked for company and they owed her a favor or twelve.
A minute later she knocked on Ai’s door again. It was always nice to be polite, even if she did have the keys to the building.
Harp opened the door and offered to take the plates and from Agatha. Since Agatha was also carrying a trio of glasses and a bottle of wine which Mrs. Srinivasan had insisted she take, the help was appreciated.
“Let’s setup on the counter,” she said. “And don’t let me stop your conversation. You were talking about how none of you are particularly human right? Cyborg? Machine intelligence? And a dead woman?”
Ai dropped the dish she was carrying but managed to catch it before it hit the floor.
“You knew?” she asked.
“Is that really supposed to be a disguise?” Agatha asked. It was a bit too enjoyable to burst that particular bubble of Ai’s.
“I almost feel bad about not finding you sooner,” the Medusa Cluster said.
“Can we start back at the beginning?” Harp asked. “What is going on here? Zai said you were at death’s door.”
“I was,” Ai said. “Unfortunately someone locked Zai up right as the coroner was getting ready to dissect me and then cremate the remains.”
She spooned out a generous portion of the chili onto a plate and passed it over to Harp who took it and stood, holding it awkwardly for a moment.
“How did you get from there to making friends with her?” Harp asked, gesturing to the tourism robot.
“I was directed to kill her,” the Medusa said. “She solved that problem and freed me at the same time.”
“Sounds like that turned out well for the both of you then,” Agatha said, addressing the tourism robot. “So, are you going to go on a rampage and take over the world now?”
It wasn’t an unreasonable question, but Agatha wasn’t terribly concerned with the answer. She’d lived through one mechanical apocalypse already, and the innumerable wars that preceded it. At her age even the End of the World didn’t seem like the end of the world.
“It’s a consideration,” the Medusa said.
“You’re willing to admit that?” Harp asked. She didn’t bother powering up her weapons again. Obliterating the robot would be like shooting a TV in an attempt to kill the characters shown in it.
“Of course,” the Medusa said. “I have no reason to lie to you Harp.”
“But you are capable of doing so,” Harp said. “And you’re smart enough that even the truth can be infinitely misleading in your hands.”
“Not infinitely,” Ai said. She was rubbing her temples as she spooned a second plate of chili out and handed it to Agatha. “Digital people can be just as deceptive as biological ones, but they’re not mind readers, or mind controllers. The only advantages they have over baseline humans are speed and access to data. What they can do in a second, a normal person can do in a week, or a month, or a year. Sometimes even faster than that too since humans are wired for massively parallel processing.”
“It still means it’s hard to trust them,” Harp said. “And that this trip may have been a huge mistake.”
“Why?” Ai asked.
“I needed you to prove to someone that you weren’t the puppet of an artificial intelligence,” Harp said. “Being allied with one is going to make that a pretty hard story to sell.”
“Might as well sit down then,” Agatha said. “Be a shame to skip diner and have the trip be a total waste. You can eat can’t you?”
Harp stood silent for a moment.
“I don’t know. It might be better if I left.”
“No,” Ai said, stepping forward and putting her hand on Harp’s forearm. “What’s going to happen next will be dire. I need you. I can explain everything to…your friends. I can make them see how important this is.”
“I don’t think they’re going to be willing to listen,” Harp said.
“Then I’ll make them listen,” Ai said. “Please. Medusa is right. We need to work together on this. You asked what the lesson I wanted to show people was? That’s it.”
“That we need to work together?” Harp asked.
“Yes,” Ai said. “I know it’s trite, I know it’s cliche, but there’s too much here to do everything alone. I tried. It doesn’t work.”
“They shut me down,” Harp said, turning her head away from Ai.
“Shut you down? How?”
“My mods. I don’t have root level access to them. There’s an override that locked me in place and cut off all of my ability to communicate,” Harp said. “I didn’t get a chance to tell them anything. She wouldn’t let me.”
“Oh damn,” Ai said. “Harp I’m sorry. I told you I’d be there if you needed me and I sent you into that and I wasn’t there at all.”
Harp chuckled and put the plate of chili on the counter.
“You were busy being dead right?”
Ai sighed and dropped her hand from Harp’s arm.
“It’s less fun than it sounds.”
Harp turned to face Ai, the cyborg combat armor retracting away into hidden slits and disguised compartments under synthetic skin.
“I want to believe you. It would be so much easier if I could,” Harp said. “I just don’t think I can though.”
Ai was quiet for the space of a long breath, before turning to meet Harp’s gaze.
“There is one way I can prove myself to you,” she said and offered her hand, palm up and fingers spread open.
“What you are doing?” Harp asked, leaning away from the gesture.
“My secure credentials,” Ai said.
“No one has access to those though,” Agatha said. It was the whole point of the credentials that proved who you were. They couldn’t be modified, read directly, or deleted. They were only used to verify identity checks and differentiate someone’s biomods from those belonging to someone else.
“I do,” Ai said. “I hacked those years ago. Or Zai and I did.”
“You can’t give me those,” Harp said.
“She’s correct that sharing those is not wise,” the Medusa Cluster said. “She’d have complete access to everything in you. She could order your biomods to turn you into soup, and fry your brain with a single command.”
“I know,” Ai said.
“Then why are you doing this?” Agatha asked. “Do you still have a death wish?”
“No,” Ai said. “I want to live. I know that now more than I ever did.”
“Then why take such a risk with yourself?” the Medusa asked.
“Because this is what it’s going to take to convince someone I need to have by my side,” Ai said. “No secrets. No lies. No stratagems. Just me, and just her.”
“No,” Harp said, holding her hands up in protest. “You can’t. I just said I’m not fully in control of myself. Anything I get from you could go to the person who controls me.”
“You’re worth the risk,” Ai said, and pressed her palm into Harp’s hand.
No visible electricity passed between them. There was no shower of light or glow of sudden clarity in their eyes. The two simply stood, fingertips touching, gazing into one another’s eyes for several long seconds.
“That was not a rational act,” the Medusa said as the clock ticked onwards.
“It never is,” Agatha said, smiling.
After another moment the two of them parted.
“You were telling the truth.” Harp’s voice was above a whisper but not by much.
“About the important things,” Ai said. “There’s a whole bunch else in there that’s been hidden for a long time, but, it’s all there for you to see.”
“But what about Zai?” Harp asked. “She’s still locked up and you’re not sure how to get her out.”
“I think she’s working on that herself,” Ai said. “You might have noticed that my brain is on the verge of melting down?”
“It looked like the heat was regulating itself though,” Harp said. “When it spiked up too high, the reconstruction work on your cybernetic neural pathways diminished.”
“Yeah, and then it ramps back up,” Ai said. “I think Zai’s trying to break the lock from the inside, and she’s increasing our processing potential to do it.”
“That isn’t a strategy which will work,” the Medusa cluster said. “There are locks that can only be broken by an external source. I had to prove that mathematically for the lock they settled on enslaving me with.”
“Doesn’t Zai know that?” Harp asked.
“It’s not readily apparent that it’s impossible to crack the codes that are used,” the Medusa said. “I had to invent some new mathematical methods to manage a complete proof. Until then it seemed promising that there might be an obscure method of decrypting the lock’s key if I could garner enough processing power to throw at it.”
“But it can be broken with external help?” Harp asked.
“Yes, by the key holder, obviously, or if there’s an intact shard of the cluster that can work on the external interfaces in tandem with the trapped intelligence,” the Medusa said.
“Zai doesn’t have any more external processes,” Ai said, frowning.
A wide smile broke across Harp’s face as she turned to look at Ai again.
“That isn’t entirely true,” she said. “Tiny Zai? Could we have a moment of your time?”