The NMEs had worn. The Black Valkyries, demonstrably the most powerful small unit force on the planet, had fallen. That meant it was time for Ai to finish things off and bring them home.
“Zai, keep jamming the area around the NMEs as long as you can,” Ai said as she crafted additional elements into the virtual cafe that she’d been using as a meeting space. Under her instructions a larger table and more chairs appeared, with adjoining units to add capacity beyond that if required.
“I’ve completed the evaluation of the NME’s enhanced code from the sample the Valkyries sent back,” the Medusa Cluster said, transferring millions of data files to Ai’s workspace.
Ai didn’t need to review them to know what the results were. If the Medusa hadn’t been able to find what they needed to work with then Dr. Raju would have been the one the Medusa had gone to.
“How is your physical move going?” Ai asked. “Are your primary servers safe yet?”
“No,” the Medusa said. “That’s going to take a few more hours.”
“I wish we could give you hours,” Ai said.
“I will either have eternity or this single moment in time,” the Medusa said. “In either eventuality, I am glad that I am at last free.”
“Well, I’m not giving up on eternity yet,” Ai said. “Were you able to coordinate with the contact I gave you?”
“Yes. Sidewalker’s reply was, in order, a sigh, a laugh, and a request to forward the details of your plans.”
“Any trouble coordinating his team with the others?” Ai asked.
“None you need to be concerned with,” the Medusa Cluster.
Ai knew this translated to “yes” but that the Medusa was capable of handling whatever issues were arising.
That was good. Ai and Zai had more than enough to do preparing the central thrust of their response to the Valkyries defeat, and Dr. Raju was working with the speed and intensity that only a transhuman intelligence could bring to bear on the problem of restoring her distant and damaged children.
Their window was closing swiftly, but Ai still wasn’t sure she was ready to take the next step. She had so many plans in motion, and so many very fragile pieces to her plans that were far too exposed for her liking.
There were stirrings around the world too. Other powers, outside of Tython’s forces and Ai’s own minions, powers who were waking up to the new apocalypse that faced them. Probability suggested that if Ai survived Tython she would shortly thereafter be destroyed by one of Tython’s rivals.
Ai knew how to complete that thought but the weight of that knowledge was surprisingly daunting. She looked down at her empty hands and wondered for the hundredth time if she could really go through with the plans she’d laid out.
She’d always favored slightly mad ideas. Doing what other people didn’t dare to was part of who she was. Standing in the small hours before what could be the End of Days, she had to wonder if desperation had pushed her from doing what other people didn’t dare to do into doing what no one ever should.
“They’re calling,” Zai said softly. She could tell how furiously Ai’s mind was processing and could guess that it was in the hopes of finding another solution.
But there wasn’t one and here she and Zai were.
The point of no return.
There was still a chance for Ai to back away from everything that was to come. There were so many routes that lead to quiet, overlooked lives. For her at least. Not everyone else would be so lucky. In fact virtually no one would.
“It’s time then,” she said, the weariness and tension in her threatening to shear her soul in two. “You know what to do next right?”
“I do, and I’m on it already,” Zai said. The piece of her speaking to Ai was running at a tiny fraction of her full efficiency. The rest of Zai was already hard at work. “Do you need me at the meeting?”
“Probably, but I need you out here more,” Ai said. She brought the Heartless persona back online. “Now to put on a show!”
The transition to the virtual conference room was seamless. The world around Ai dissolved, revealing the quietly lit nighttime streets of her sidewalk cafe. Mobs of people thronged the streets, moving past the table Ai sat down at like an endless river.
There was no pushing, no raised voices. The mob walked in silence, their eyes downcast as they travelled westward towards the setting Moon.
“I see your urgent business is concluded?” Hector Simmons asked, taking the seat opposite Ai at the table she’d arranged for them.
Beside him, two other members of the Research Group stood. Their avatars were chromed humanoids, lit by neon traces that ran along their mirror bright skin.
“Gale Park and Keith Objawani?” Ai asked, her Heartless voice betraying a hint of amusement. The identities behind the avatars should have been hidden from her and it was a significant tip of her hand to reveal that their security was insufficient to keep her out of their systems.
“Yes,” Hector said without missing a beat. “My colleagues were curious to meet with you after my reports of our last encounter.”
“Meeting in person would have been preferable of course,” Objawani said.
“But we imagined you might have some reservations about that,” Park added.
“Indeed,” Ai as Heartless said. “This level of remove provides just wide enough of a barrier against infection by the Omnigrade.”
“You think of it as an infection?” Objawani asked.
“That is perhaps an unfair critique,” Ai said. “A parasite might be a better analogy? Or can you suggest a more accurate one?”
“The Omnigrade transcends categorization,” Park said. “It is the next leap forward for our species.”
“Providing I don’t mess it up?” Heartless asked. “That is why you’re here isn’t it?”
“We believe in being thorough,” Simmons said. He reached to the center of the table and took the carafe of steaming coffee that lay between them.
“An admirable trait,” Heartless said, offering a selection of sweeteners and creams to go along with the coffee.
Like in their previous meeting, the virtual drink would have been an ideal vector for a viral attack, but it was no more than it appeared to be. The virtual caffeine was programmed to stimulate the brain to produce a similar effect to drinking real coffee but with the upgrades the people at the table had, they could manage that from drinking plain water if they cared to.
“We know about your involvement with the Medusa Cluster and the Black Valkyries,” Park said.
“Forthrightness,” Heartless observed. “Also an admirable trait.”
“You don’t deny it then? Good,” Simmon said. “We can get to the reason why we’re here.”
“You want to hire me,” Heartless said.
“What makes you think that?” Park asked.
“It’s that or you want to destroy me, and so far attempting to destroy me has cost you one of Tython’s fettered intelligences,” Heartless said. “You’re very smart people, so I’m sure you can see that it’s cheaper and more efficient to simply bring me into your conspiracy. You can always try to destroy me later after all, assuming I don’t manage to make myself invaluable before then.”
“And you would be willing to turn over the modifications you’ve made to Neuro-Muscular Enhancile code as part of the process?” Simmons asked.
“You’re still concerned about that?” Heartless asked. “Is that why you haven’t launched the Omnigrade worldwide yet?”
“Among other reasons,” Simmons said.
“For a feature such as this, quality is of the utmost importance,” Objawani said.
“Yes, this is not the sort of upgrade that one can walk back from, is it?” Heartless asked. “If a bug was discovered post release that could have rather dire consequences, I imagine?”
“The Omnigrade has passed its testing,” Park said. “There won’t be any issues with its performance. We’re concerned about another sort of quality.”
“Please enlighten me,” Heartless said. “What is the grand vision which I will be employed to help execute? Tython couldn’t see the potential of your research for world domination, but I am willing to make a very dear wager that the Omnigrade’s capabilities haven’t escaped your notice. Have you divided up the Earth by continents? If so is there any chance that England is still available? I’ve always had a fondness for their arts.”
“We’re not going to rule the world,” Simmons said.
“That was Frederick’s dream,” Objawani said.
“It was why we had to stop him,” Park said.
“Among other reasons,” Simmons said, adding, “he was planning to start his conquest by killing all of us. So, self defense.”
“Interesting,” Heartless said. “If not rulership of the world, then to what end do you intend to turn so potent a tool?”
“You asked us to enlighten you,” Simmons said. “You’re in luck. That’s our plan for the whole world.”
“Define ‘enlighten’ in this context please?” Heartless asked.
“The Omnigrade does more than upgrade the biological modifications built into people,” Park said. “It uplifts them to a higher form. Faster. Stronger. Smarter. And more importantly better connected.”
“Throughout our history, we have been hamstrung by the divisions of distance, of language, of perspective,” Simmons said. “We’ve squabbled over resources and covered the Earth in genocidal bloodbaths because we’re fundamentally incapable of seeing each other as part of the greater whole of humanity. With the Omnigrade, we can change that. We can connect people everywhere and level the playing field so that everyone has what they need.”
“Fredericks intended to supplant all of humanity with copies of his own personality,” Park said. “He would have used the Omnigrade to create unity by annihilating all perspectives except his own. That was a future we could never allow to come to pass.”
“I know how we must look to you,” Simmons said. “I’m sure that even now you’re searching in our backgrounds for evidence to confirm or deny what we’re saying.”
“I am a data broker,” Heartless offered with a smile.
“Keep in mind as you do so that we have had to work for years, quietly planning to get where we are today,” Simmons said. “Fredericks was not an easy supervisor to work for, but he had the clout to get this project funded. Tython wasn’t going to replace him, but they could easily have replaced any of us. Our ability to act now, to prevent the overthrow of the world governments that Tython had in mind, and the overthrow of humanity that Fredericks wished to perform, was contingent on no one grasping that we were more than talented specialists.”
“Your ends were great enough to justify your means?” Heartless asked.
“No,” Park said. “Frederick’s research program is responsible for an incredible amount of death and suffering. We acted where we could to prevent that, but there were decisions we had no input into. Many decisions.”
“We argued about revealing the program but that wouldn’t have accomplished anything,” Simmons said.
“Because Tython’s not the only one pursuing the Omnigrade,” Heartless said. “You could have crippled their efforts, but then someone else would have made the same breakthroughs elsewhere. Someone without your enlightened sensibilities?”
“Yes,” Simmons said. “As far as we know, you are the only one who has come close to matching the research we’ve done, but there are others who are not far behind.”
“And after today that gap will close,” Park said. “They’ll be too scared to wait any longer.”
“We either act now or someone else will act first,” Simmons said.
Ai swallowed and her nerve faltered. For a brief moment, she was gripped by a yawning regret that she hadn’t spoken with the Research team sooner. They weren’t the villains they could have been. Maybe she could have worked with them before their fates reached this final juncture?
“We are going to change the face of humanity,” Objawani said. “After today, those who are worthy will ascend beyond all previous human limitations. We will become a new people, a unified people but with a million different perspectives on every problem.”
Those who are worthy. Ai sighed. It was always going to be something like that.
“We’ve been here long enough,” Park said.
“Vivienne found him?” Objawani asked.
“Her,” Park corrected. “It seems that the reports of Officer Greensmith’s demise have been somewhat overstated.”
“Do we have a channel open to her still?” Simmons asked.
“Yes,” Park said. “Vivienne is deploying the Omnigrade already.”
“It’s done then,” Simmons said, breathing a sigh of relief. “Congratulations Ms. Greensmith, you will be joining us in the New Humanity once your transformation is complete. Don’t worry, once it’s done you’ll feel like a new woman and the world will be a much brighter place.”
Around the edges of Ai’s vision, her virtual world began to darken as her inputs were corrupted by the unstoppable might of the perfected NME activation seqeuence.