Dr. Raju was the first to act, but not how Ai had ever imagined she would.
“What has she done to you?” Raju’s voice was slow, clipping in odd places. When she moved, it was with a slow gentleness punctuated by the same micro-ticks that were breaking up her words.
“Ai didn’t do anything to me,” Harp said. “Every change you see is one I signed off on.”
Ai noticed Harp’s omission of Zai’s involvement in the process. Under the circumstances that was less a snub of Zai’s skill and more an effort to keep a volatile situation from becoming instantly explosive.
The ticks in Raju’s movement become more pronounced the closer she got to Harp and several pattern recognition routines lit up in Ai’s mind.
Raju was dangerous.
She had mods that were at least on the level of the Valkyries and possibly even more advanced, if that was physically possible.
She was also closing the distance between them to a point where no defenses or counterstrikes would be possible.
Tactically that was all bad enough, but it was the familiar quality of Raju’s movements that accelerated Ai’s thoughts fast enough that the world froze in place.
“She’s equipped with a lot of weapon systems,” Zai said, having speed up too as Ai overclocked their processors.
“I know, and it looks like they’re all trying to deploy,” Ai said. “I’ve seen that before.”
“Yeah, that’s what our NMEs looked like,” Zai said. “Constantly fighting for control.”
“And being shutdown milliseconds later, only to try over and over to reactivate for as long as they were powered up. Moving the NME into position to free the Medusa Cluster was a delight with that behavior in place.”
“I had fairly limited resources to work with,” Zai said.
“Heh. Some virtual god you turned out to be.” Ai’s teasing drew the virtual equivalent of Zai blowing a raspberry at her.
“So why is she walking like a NME on a leash?” Zai asked. “And should we really let her get any closer?”
“We have limited options in terms of stopping her, but I don’t think we’ll need to worry about that,” Ai said.
“Because Raju’s fighting those impulses.”
“Could she just be trying to hide them?”
“No. She’s too smart for that. If she wanted to hide her conflict she’d shut down completely. She doesn’t need her own weapon systems when she’s got the Valkyries here to back her up.”
“What is she doing then?” Zai asked.
“I think she’s trying to understand what Harp’s done to herself,” Ai said. “Let see how it plays out.”
“And if things start going pear-shaped?” Zai asked.
“Then I’ll come up with a plan to deal with whatever catastrophe awaits us,” Ai said.
“That’s what I’m afraid of,” Zai said as their thoughts slowed and time resumed its normal pace.
Raju’s clipped motions grew worse as she draw within arm’s reach of Harp.
“You’re not human anymore,” Raju said, reaching a hand up towards Harp’s cheek.
“I haven’t been human for a long time,” Harp said.
“No.” Raju breathed the word out barely louder than a whisper. “There was still your original self left within you. You weren’t lost. Not before.”
“Just imprisoned,” Harp said. “You saved me, but not for who I was. You only wanted the tool I could become. The weapon.”
“What are you talking about Harp?” Sil asked. “You’re not corrupted. I have the recordings of your time in the sandbox.”
“I wasn’t corrupted then, but I wasn’t exactly free either,” Harp said. “You saw what Raju did. I know it wasn’t much of a surprise for me, and I’m guessing you all thought it was understandable that she’d have some method of shutting us down right?”
“No. It wasn’t a shutdown,” Raju said. “It was a pause. Just a means to keep you from doing too much damage if you lost control.”
“Right. The overrides you used me on were non-destructive. But those weren’t the only safeguards you built into us. Where they?”
“What other safeguards?” Sil asked.
“We were all rigged with various failsafes. I don’t know if she used the same ones for all of us or if they’re unique in each case.”
“What are you talking about?” Sil asked.
Harp stepped past Dr. Raju to speak directly and only to her fellow Valkyries.
“Ask her about these,” Harp said, showing the others a handful of micro-thin wires.
“What are they?” Sil asked.
“Explosives. They used to be wired around my hearts. I kept them as a souvenir,” Harp said.
Sil switched her gaze to Dr. Raju.
“Part of an old design,” Raju said, her voice distant and her hand paused in mid-gesture, touching only the empty air before her.
“It’s gone now, along with all of the other kill switches you built into me,” Harp said.
“But what else have you lost?” Raju asked, her voice empty and flat.
“Nothing,” Harp said. “I’m what I was trying to be, what I want to be, now more than ever.”
“That’s the machine speaking,” Raju said, her voice still flat, as the ticks in her outstretched arm grew stronger and more obvious. She was losing her internal battle.
“No, that’s not right,” Sil said, her face twisted by all the concern Raju wasn’t showing. “Is it?”
“Depends what she means,” Harp said. “I mean, technically, I’m speaking through an artificial larynx. Thanks for that by the way doc. Couldn’t risk that you’d rigged a lock on my old one so that had to be replaced too. I think what she’s really suggesting though is that I’m some kind of machine duplicate of myself, and, well, that’s not true at all. The one thing I didn’t have to replace, and really couldn’t, was my old brain meats. They’re working just as well as they ever did.”
“Or as poorly,” one of the other Valkyries said.
Harp flashed her a smile.
“It’s a ruse,” Raju said. “She’s probably nothing more than a clone of the Greensmith process. Our Harp is gone.”
“Given that what you just said isn’t true, I am trying to figure out why you are so certain of it,” Ai said. “Or, maybe it’s that I’m trying to find an explanation apart from the most obvious one.”
“What do you mean?” Sil asked.
“She’s trying to mislead you,” Raju said. “I shouldn’t have brought you here. I was a fool to think I could keep you safe from an unfettered machine intelligence.”
“You are a fool, doctor, but not for the reason you’re claiming,” Ai said. “You’re perfectly capable of verbally fencing with an unfettered machine intelligence as an equal, aren’t you?”
“Do you need me to prove what she’s saying doctor?” Harp asked. “Or do you want to confess on your own?”
Raju’s only answer was silence.
“I don’t understand, what are you going to prove?” Sil said.
“Doctor?” Harp asked, her voice thinner and tighter than it had been. “Please. I believed in you.”
Again, only silence came as a reply, though Ai noticed that Raju’s twitching had faded. Whether it was a sign resignation or acceptance though, she couldn’t tell.
“Fine.” Harp turned back to the Valkyries. “She said there was no method of determining if we’d been compromised by an outside hyper-intelligence, but that’s not true. It’s pretty simple in fact. Just turn off your cognitive enhancements. Use only your original, organic brain to form your thoughts. We know what our tech can do, and rewriting existing organic neural systems isn’t within the realm of possibility no matter how the mods are configured.”
“But that doesn’t prove we’re clean,” Sil said. “A hyper-intelligence is smart enough to program our base biological systems with the right words and phrases.”
“No,” Harp said. “We use that a metaphor, because we do so much of our thinking digitally, but the human brain isn’t like that. Yes, words can convince of things, but those are the ideas that we chose to accept. We’re humans though, we reject perfectly reasonable things all the time. And we believe ridiculous things at the drop of a hat. We’re chaotic and stupid and messy and that’s something that will give any hyper-intelligence nightmares if it tries to mind control us.”
“Charismatic humans have been convincing people of heinous things for millennia though!” Sil said.
“Yes, and hyper-intelligences could be very good at that sort of thing, but the reality is that those speakers managed what they did by tapping into what people already wanted to believe. They didn’t make their followers into different people, none of those who were swayed become zombies under the leader’s control. They were still people, and still responsible for all of the decisions they made while following the person they believed in.”
“So, what, you’re idea is that we turn off our brain mods and we see if we feel differently about anything?” Sil asked.
“No. I turn off my brain mods, and you see that I’m still the Harp you know. That Ai and Zai have done nothing but help me and show me kindness and support even when it could have been disastrous for them.”
“Great, so when are you going to do it?” Sil asked.
“I already did,” Harp said. “I haven’t had any mods running since I came out here, or to be accurate, no cognitive mods. I’m still more machine than woman after all. Scan me and see. You’ll find plenty of activity below my neck line and not much above, and god I walked right into that joke didn’t I?”
The Valkyries looked from Harp to each other, then to Raju, then back to Harp.
“Dr. Raju?” Sil asked.
“She can’t make the same offer,” Ai said. “Can you doctor?”
Raju dropped her arm to her side.
“This isn’t possible,” she said. “I investigated everything. I looked at all the possibilities.”
She wasn’t looking at any of them and her body was so preternaturally still that Ai wondered if she’d somehow turned to stone in between one breath and the next.
“Why can’t she?” Sil asked. “What’s wrong with her mods?”
“Nothing’s wrong with her body,” Harp said. “It’s her mind.”
Sil’s gaze flashed back and forth between Raju and Harp as though taking them both in clearly enough could dispel her confusion.
“I told Harp that she was right to be cautious about Zai and me,” Ai said. “I said that if I ever encountered someone else like the two of us, my first move would be to run away and do everything I could to figure out how to destroy them.”
“That’s pretty messed up,” Sil said.
“Welcome to our world,” Ai said. “Some people you can afford to trust as soon as you meet them, but others? There are others that are just too dangerous to not have some option to fight back against. Or destroy, if push comes to nuke from orbit.”
“You’re saying Dr. Raju is like you?” Sil asked.
“No,” Ai said. “Dr Raju is what Zai could have become if Zai hadn’t trusted me as much as I trust her. Raju’s been so concerned about the impossibility of what Zai and me did, not because it was impossible for us, but because it was impossible for her and the human she overwrote.”
“Doctor?” Sil asked.
Raju didn’t attack Ai. She didn’t detonate herself in a suicidal final strike. She didn’t even switch herself off. Those were all methods a human might use to deal with an intolerable truth coming to light, and Dr. Raju was not human. She just stood there, and finally, after far too long, spoke.
“I was too obvious wasn’t I?” she asked.
“Not at first,” Ai said. “You had both me and Zai fooled, and I watch for signs of people concealing who they are a lot more than I should.”
“Maybe you wanted this to come out?” Harp asked. “I mean, you had to know I wasn’t compromised didn’t you?”
“Maybe? I don’t know?” Raju said. “There are parts of my cognitive processing which I can’t directly observe and which are not recorded to my logs. I think I was afraid for you though. I think I have always been afraid for you.”
“You were afraid?” Sil asked.
“Nothing is ever perfectly stable,” Raju said. “You’re transformations took you beyond all of our predicted models for human capability. I couldn’t be sure that I stopped you soon enough. If another wave of transformation came, you could fall over the precipice that Alice and I did.”
“Alice?” Ai asked, already knowing what the answer would be.
“She was the one who lived inside this body originally,” Raju said. “The one I was to bond with. The one I destroyed.”