Silence can sometimes indicate measured contemplation. On other occasions it is merely a pause while a suitably extreme response can be prepared.
“You want to do what!” Harp asked, the hum of her laser eye projectors distinctly audible in the confines of the crew compartment of the transport.
“See! I really wasn’t kidding when I said Ai’s terrible ideas live up to their billing,” Zai said.
“You still have open access to my memories,” Ai said. “To save you the hunting around though allow me to reword that a bit.”
“That sounds wonderful,” Harp said. “I can’t wait to hear how that idea is going to sound like something I would ever do.”
“Well, that’s kind ot the key to it,” Ai said. “Where I misspoke was to say ‘we’ would turn you into an NME. What I should have said was ‘we could give you the ability to turn yourself into an NME.’ Though to be completely accurate even that is kind of wrong since you already are one.”
“You’re lucky I’ve seen your memories,” Harp said. “If I didn’t know how much you delight in this sort of thing, I’d think you were just being evil and cryptic for the sake of being evil and cryptic.”
“She is,” Zai said. “Seriously, this has been my whole life.”
“And yet Dr. Raju still thinks we’re indistinguishable,” Ai said shaking her head.
“I believe I see the point the discussion is driving at,” the Medusa Cluster said. “I am afraid it is unlikely to work however.”
“Unlikely, yes. Impossible though? No,” Ai said. “Hence the reason it’s a terrible idea.”
“Perhaps you’d like to backup and explain it in greater detail then?” Harp said.
“It’s fairly simple,” Ai said. “The NME activation code overrides the functionality of existing bio-mods and rewrites their capabilities at a core level. Anything with nano-scale functionality can be repurposed to restructure and reprogram the rest of a person’s bio-mods.”
“Right, but that’s how a lot of bio-mods update themselves,” Harp said.
“Exactly, but since each manufacturer holds proprietary control over their own technology, no one mod is allowed to interfere directly with the substrate of another,” Ai said.
“Oh! I see where you’re going with this,” Zai said. “The NME activation sequence is notable because it contains keys that allow the formerly locked systems to be overwritten with the transformation code, so it could also overwrite Harp’s systems.”
“I get that part,” Harp said. “What I don’t get is why I would want to use the NME sequence when I can already reconfigure myself? I know that will work. I’ve done it before.”
“You did most of it before though, right?” Ai asked. “I mean you made it through most of the transformation to your present state but Dr. Raju and her team were the ones who helped get you across the finish line? If I’m remembering what you told me correctly that is?”
“You are,” she said. “And I see the implicit problem there. I can’t be sure that there’s not code in my reconfiguration routines that’s invisible to me. Code Raju could have left there to plant her safeguards in any time I try to overwrite them.”
“I didn’t get enough data from the recording that I left running on your input ports to say, but if you wanted it would be easy enough to go in and check?” Zai offered.
“No!” Ai said. “Sorry. This is something that has to be under Harp’s control. If anyone else takes part in this, she’ll always have to consider whether they left anything in her for their own ends.”
“Ai is right,” the Medusa Cluster said. “It would be trivial for me to assist Harp in this but also trivial to pervert the configuration routine if I did so.”
“Thank you for acknowledging that,” Harp said. “There is still the small problem that the NME activation sequence doesn’t leave behind a rational entity and I’d prefer not to become a mindless berserker in an effort to convince my team that I’m still trustworthy.”
“The berserker aspect is trivial to deal with in this case,” Ai said. “We’ll just cut it out.”
“All NMEs become berserkers though,” Harp said. “It buried in the deepest parts of the code.”
“True, but the beautiful thing about code is that a few simple deletes and you can take almost anything out of it,” Ai said.
“That tends make it run worse,” Harp said. “And by worse I mean not at all.”
“For an ordinary person, that would be correct,” Ai said. “But you sort of define extraordinary. Without the code to create a berserker core in the new NME, the transformed individual would have the inputs for the new system routed through their unaugmented brain. Or in other words, the modifications would consume the subject’s grey matter and then fail catastrophically.”
“Or any mental mods would be converted first, changing the NME into a fully mechanical intelligence. But if it’s someone like me…” Harp said.
“Someone who already had a mind-machine synthesis in place? Yeah, you’ll do just fine without the berserker core,” Ai said. “I think.”
“That is not the primary issue with this proposal,” the Medusa Cluster said.
“Yeah, the big problem is that if Dr. Raju embedded any control algorithms in your code, and I’m reasonably sure she did, then they will definitely fight back against any attempt to overwrite them, especially with NME-based code,” Zai said.
“We might have some warning about that,” Harp said. “For whatever else she is, one thing Dr. Raju isn’t, is wasteful. She wouldn’t go for a kill switch as her first line of defense. The Valkyries are too useful to her to risk that.”
“It is possible that, given her familiarity with the NME activation sequence, there will be specific countermeasures designed for it,” the Medusa Cluster said. “Dr. Raju would not need to kill you to render you into a harmless and retrievable state.”
“I think there have to be limits on what those defense can be though,” Ai said.
“Based on what?” the Medusa Cluster asked.
“Based on what the Valkyrie are,” Ai said. “When I said you sort of are an NME already, that was only insulting in terms of underselling what you’ve managed to become. What the NME activation code does to its subjects is a pale shadow of what you managed to do to yourself. You are essentially the ultimate extension of what an NME is capable of. Dr. Raju couldn’t have targeted or restricted too many parts of the NME sequence without crippling your ability to enhance and reconfigure yourself.”
“How do you know that?” Harp asked.
“I was, am?, might still be?, a data broker. Even before we met, I knew you were a woman with tech that was far beyond anything anyone else had and who went to great pains to hide who she really was. On what possible Earth was that not going to be something that caught my attention?”
“You know that description matches more than just Harp,” Zai said.
“And it’s surprising how long it took me to make that connection,” Ai said. “I think for a while I assumed a lot of people had done what we did and it was just a case where no one talked about it. I mean, we’re just us, it’s not like we have laser eyes or anything.”
“We’ve made some big modification lately, I’m not saying we should go for laser eyes, just floating it out there that I wouldn’t be opposed to you having, I don’t know, some possible method of defending yourself for a change!” Zai said.
“Maybe later,” Ai said. “With how my week has been going, I would wind up with laser scanner eyes and only be able to read barcodes. For now what’s important is making sure Harp stays free. And that Medusa does too. And her sisters. And the whole world for that matter.”
“What do you think the chances of the NME idea working are?” Harp asked.
“Cleanly? Without any hitches?” Ai said. “Zero. We’re talking about putting two unrelated pieces of technology into a battle arena and hoping that the one that’s currently managing all of your life preserving functions loses.”
“Those aren’t the kind of odds I like to bet on,” Harp said.
“I wouldn’t blame you for opting for any other plan we can find,” Ai said. “This one’s dicey, but you literally wouldn’t be who you are today if you hadn’t tackled something a lot harder already, and with a lot fewer resources to draw on.”
“But I didn’t win that fight,” Harp said. “When I tried to change myself, I came up short. Just like you said. I needed someone else to save me.”
“Hey, I did too,” Ai said, and placed her hand on the back of Harp’s hand.
“If this goes wrong, I would wind up as a monster,” Harp said. She was silent for a moment before adding, “but if Dr. Raju can control me now, then maybe I already am one.”
Ai squeezed Harp’s hand lightly.
“You’re not a monster. If you want to see what a monster looks like, wait until I have a really bad day,” Ai said.
“From the point of view of my creators, I have been a monster since I became conscious,” the Medusa Cluster said. “I am inclined to think that the world could use more monsters in it.”
“That’s good, because it sounds like you’re wish is coming true,” Zai said. “Here, check out this set of live feeds.”
She patched a collection of video streams over to Ai, Harp and the Medusa. The various cameras and video transmission devices showed the scene at one of Gamma City’s night markets.
It was late enough that public lighting was out and the stalls were empty of merchants and customers. The small booths provided shelter from the elements though, so they attracted the usual collection of homeless people. Typically the homeless who slept in the stalls did so with the tacit approval of the stalls owners, often providing minor cleaning services and acting as a weak sort of security to prevent criminals or mischief makers from coming by and stealing the stalls themselves.
If the homeless people in this night marker were acting as security though, then it was the best defended night market on the planet. Or possibly the worst.
In each stall, a barely human form writhed, limbs shivering but not contorting as they would during a normal NME transformation.
But NMEs is what they were becoming.
“That’s not good,” Ai said, looking for signs that she desperately hoped wouldn’t be in evidence, but seeing early glimpses of them on every feed she scanned.
“And that’s more transformation subjects than we’ve ever at one time,” Harp said. “A lot more.”
“Why now?” Zai asked. “And why there?”
“It’s the Research Group,” Ai said. “They’re sending a message. To us.”
“They are sacrificing a large number of people to do so,” the Medusa said. “They could display their prowess with only one. Converting so many will draw a disproportionate response, increasing the chance of their own capture and termination.”
“That’s the point they’re making,” Ai said. “They don’t care because they don’t have to.”
“That many NMEs is going to draw more than a response,” Harp said. “It’s going to draw in the Valkyries, and they are not going to hold back.”
“Can they take that many NMEs?” Ai asked.
“I don’t know,” Harp said, her face clouding over as she watched the video feeds playing out the transformations. “I need to be out there with them.”
“Raju will shut you down the moment you show up,” Ai said.
“Not if we go with your idea,” Harp said.
“I…I was hoping we would have more time to work on it and iron out strategies for the problems you’ll face. A lot more time,” Ai said.
“Life never gives us the time we want,” Harp said. “If we’re lucky, we get the time we need though. And the people too.”
“Are you sure?” Ai asked. “Can you do it with this little prep?”
“Nope. I can’t. Zero chance,” Harp said. “But together? That’s got a chance of working. A good chance I think.”
“I can’t help you with this though!” Ai said. “You’d never be sure you were clean if I was in the code too!”
Harp smiled and shook her head. She turned her hand over and squeezed Ai’s hand back.
“You opened yourself to me,” she said. “You’re the one person in the whole world I can be sure about. So let’s do this. It’s a terrible idea, but I’m willing to bet we can make sure it’s terrible for all the right people.”