Author Archives: dreamfarer

Gamma City Blues – Arc 06 (Justice) – Report 03

Diving into someone else’s bio-mods made for a more fantastic voyage than Ai had imagined.

“Did you know you have two hearts?” she asked, staring at the pumping organs as the beat in unison.

“Two at the moment,” Harp said. “There’s also a backup pair and temporary-use, emergency one meant for last ditch life support. There’s a reason the Valkyries are kind of hard to kill.”

Ai couldn’t help but gaze around at the wonders of Harp’s inner workings as they were drawn out on a scale the size of a small continent. The images of blood vessels, fiber conduits, and synthetic organs were part of a special virtual realm she, Harp and Zai crafted to monitor and direct the defanged NME activation sequence as Harp used it to reshape her body.

Once they began work, the NME code would infiltrate Harp’s systems, scaling over her firewalls and breeching the security locks which Harp was purposefully going to direct to let NME code in.

On a microscopic level, the nano-drones that maintained Harp’s systems would be invaded by the code, their original functions blanked out and overwritten with new orders.

Then the transformation would begin.

For a normal human, the NME transformation was a violent and chaotic affair. The nano-drones in the subject’s body ripped apart meat and metal at a molecular level, changing the materials within the person into the components of a war machine.

In Harp though, the transformation routines would encounter a unique situation. When they scanned to see what changes needed to be made to convert the host into a warbot, they would find that the work had already been done.

If Ai’s plan succeeded the NME code would also discover that its schematic for the final NME techno-monster form was missing. In it’s place, the direction for what to change in Harp’s body would come from Harp herself.

Where the transformation code was usually the architect of what the resulting NME would look like, the stripped down version that Ai offered was going to be a nano-scale scalpel for Harp to rebuild each of the non-organic systems in her body, cutting away any influences that Dr. Raju may have left within her.

That was is everything went well, and neither Ai, Zai, nor Harp expected things to go well at all. Not with the time crunch they were under.

With a  wave of her hand, Ai’s view shot forward along a vein, coming to rest a microsecond later in the center of Harp’s primary heart. It was beautiful, in a clean and orderly sense. The ceramic plates and carbon fiber plates that made up the heart’s walls were a bit unusual to find in a major bodily organ though.

“Armor plating,” Ai observed, impressed with the intricacy of the design. “Don’t see many hearts that come equipped with that.”

“Sil suggested that we should be ‘The Hard Hearts’ rather than the Valkyries, but Dr. Raju wasn’t a fan,” Harp said.

“Do you have the schematics for the plating’s composition?” Zai asked. Since they were in a virtual space, she had an avatar as well. Ai and Harp had chosen looks that matched their physical appearances, but Zai opted for a similar physique to Ai but with circuit board skin and eyes that were swirling galaxies. As declarations of identity went, it didn’t leave many doubts as to how she saw herself.

In response to Zai’s question, Harp recalled a file from her memory and handed it over, the virtual action representing the simple data transfer Zai had requested.

“If Raju put any kill switches in me, there’ll probably be some here,” Harp said.

“Yeah, but maybe we should start with one of the hearts you’re not currently using?” Ai said. “If we trip a defense we’re not aware of, we’d have more recovery time if it wasn’t in an organ that was currently in use.”

“I wish we could but I’ve seen how Dr. Raju designs her security,” Harp said. “If there’s a trap here to destroy this heart, it’ll take out the others at the same time. And it’ll be linked in with at least one additional layer of security. Raju does not mess around when it comes to making sure systems have redundancy in them.”

“I’m becoming less a fan of Raju with each thing that I’ve learned she did to you but it’s hard not to be more and more impressed by her work,” Ai said.

“I know. She’s like that with a lot of thing. I mean, there’s no point putting in a kill system that’s easy to disarm, so if it’s here she’ll have done a really good job with it,” Harp said.

“I wish I could say I couldn’t imagine doing what she did,” Ai said.

“But you would do the same thing in, in a heartbeat, if you were putting together something like me,” Harp said.

“Someone,” Ai corrected. “And yeah, I probably would have. Until person has had power, it’s hard to tell how it will change them. With the kind of power you have, it would be a lot harder to stop you from rampaging after the fact without a few safeguards built in from the beginning.”

“If you ask me, the failsafe was still a terrible idea,” Zai said.

“Ai has a point about how hard it would be to stop me,” Harp said. “There was no guarantee that I was going to come out of the transformation with my mind intact. Picture an NME berserker but with the kind of tech me and the rest of the Valkyries have.”

“I can, but I can also picture a lot of paths were planting self-destruct devices in your heart do more harm than good. Take right now for example,” Zai said. “The problem is that systems like this give the illusion of control at the cost of introducing more peril. Oh, we don’t need to wonder if we’re speaking in hypotheticals anymore. There are a series of micro-filament explosives wrapped inside the armor plates. They don’t show up on the schematics but the nano-scans are pretty clear.”

“We’ll need to disarm them and then desynthesize the explosives so that we can rebuild the heart from scratch,” Ai said.

“Maybe we shouldn’t,” Harp said.

“Shouldn’t what?” Ai asked.

“Disarm me,” Harp said. “We can take kill switches away from Dr. Raju, but if we miss any other pieces which give her control over me, then maybe it would be good to have an option in case she turns me on you.”

“Have an option? To blow you up? Yeah, that’s not going to happen. I’ve killed a bunch of people and do you know what lets me sleep at night?” Ai asked. “They all had it coming! You though? You will never deserve that. If Raju hacks your systems and turns you against us, then we’ll just hack you back to our side.”

“Um, there’s kind of a better argument against leaving the explosives in than that,” Zai said. “If Raju has any access to your systems at all, what makes you think she wouldn’t set them off herself? Even without direct access to the “explode heart command”, there are lots of other possibilities for triggering a bomb that you know if there.

Ai and Harp looked at each other and exchanged shrugs. It was a hard point to refute.

“Also, assuming we live through the next twenty four hours, what makes you think any self-destruct system you have won’t accidentally trigger at some point?” Zai asked.

“Well, it hasn’t yet,” Harp said with another helpless shrug. “And it’s not like I don’t carry a lot of other ordnance around too.”

“Yeah, but that’s all designed to vent outwards as harmlessly as possible. It’s not wrapped around the organs that keep you alive,” Ai said. “Zai’s right too. I was thinking of how to stop a berserker, but this change isn’t something we can do a long QA process on. The chance that there’ll be glitches is…”

“Somewhere over 100%,” Zai said. “Do you really want to bet none of the bugs in the final code will affect something critical and life sustaining? I mean that’s going to be hard enough to insure even if we take out all of the problems we can find.”

“Ok,” Harp said. “No courting disaster then.”

“At least no more than we already are,” Ai agreed.

“I can manage the rebuild efforts here,” Zai said. “Do you two want to keep investigating?”

“Yeah, with Raju’s love of redundancy, there’s got to be at least three other kill systems to prevent what we’re trying to do.”

“If I was setting them up, there’d be a couple more large scale ones like this, and two very subtle ones,” Ai said.

“Only two?” Harp asked.

“Yeah. Too many and it’s easy to trip over a secret failsafe built into you, and that provides a clue that there are other, well hidden problems lurking throughout your systems. A second one, on the other hand, doesn’t raise the odds of discovery too much and it gives some fallback in case the primary failsafe is knocked out accidentally.”

“So, we’ll start once we find all four of the remaining systems?” Zai asked.

“We may not have the time for that,” Harp said.

“We’ll make the time,” Ai said. “We want you to have the best chance of coming through this as we can get. If it fails, Tython’s going to be unstoppable and the Valkyries will straight up murder Zai and me.”

“We’ll play it by ear then,” Harp said with a smile.

Together she and Ai began to scour the rest the virtual depiction of Harp’s body, inspecting the various systems on a nano-scale to find areas which weren’t quite what the plans Harp had access to said they should be.

A quick check of the other hearts showed that Harp’s guess was correct. They were all wrapping in thin, explosive cords, which were wired to trigger together if given the proper authorization. They marked those for the nano-drones to dismantle once the process started and moved on to the other organs.

Finding the other two major self-destruct systems was relatively easy. The first was an override coded into the firing mechanism for Harp’s weapons systems which could force them to backfire, reducing her to a cloud of wet dust. The second was a simple overload circuit which was capable of shorting out the cognitive mods she was equipped with. The capacitors the systems would short circuit to held enough charge to reduce everything above her shoulders to ash, so they spent some time working out how to safely discharge that system.

The two subtle systems took more effort. The first wasn’t part of any separate physical device within Harp. It was just a few lines of diagnostic code in her artificial liver. When invoked it “tested” liver functionality but produces chemicals for the liver to break down. The deadly part of it was the fact that the chemicals included a nerve toxin and the quantity would have been enough to slay a herd of elephants.”

The second system eluded them for long enough that Harp started pushing for them to go ahead with the transformation.

“We’ll have more monitoring in place than Raju could have ever predicted,” she said. “You and Zai are also clocked up faster than any other human has been. You’ll see any unexpected changes well before they become a problem.”

“If we see them at all,” Ai said.

“It’s not going to be long before the Valkyries reach the night market,” Harp said. “And we don’t know how long the transformation is going to take.”

“I know, but there’s a few systems we haven’t checked yet,” Ai said. “At least let’s cross those off the list.”

Before Harp could agree or disagree, Zai joined the conversation.

“This probably isn’t a good time, but I’ve got a call Tython asking to speak with Mr. Heartless. Apparently they have a limited-time offer to make?” Zai said.

“Now? Seriously?” Ai clenched both her virtual fists and her real ones.

“It’s ok,” Harp said. “Leave the rest here to Zai and me. Find out what they’re up to. We don’t know why they’re unleashing an NME army and you know they won’t be able to resist offering some explanation for it.”

“Are you sure?” Ai asked.

“Yeah, have some faith,” Harp said, offering her a virtual smile.

Ai waved the virtual world away with a flick of her hand and tried to settle into the right mindset to play Heartless. In the back of her mind though, she kept chewing on the problems that Harp was about to face. She had faith in Harp and Zai, but that didn’t mean she would let herself be blind to the trouble she knew they’d soon be in.

Gamma City Blues – Arc 06 (Justice) – Report 02

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.”

Silence again.

“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?”

Harp sighed.

“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.”

 

Gamma City Blues – Arc 06 (Justice) – Report 01

Gamma City wasn’t a place that never slept. In the dark hours that separated the very late night and the early morning, the city dozed lightly. Clubs closed, traffic dwindled and even 24-hour diners saw minutes drag by with no souls passing through their doors.

For all the time Ai had spent out in the city at odd hours, the strange calm that wrapped it before the horizon began to remember the sun always filled her with a sense of unbounded possibilities. It was as though in the space between one day and the next anything in the world could change.

Not that all changes were for the better though.

“We shouldn’t have this much time,” Ai said. Around her hundreds of virtual windows hung, obscuring her vision of the city as it whipped past outside the heavy transport car. The Medusa Cluster had provided them with a secure transport to her facility, though nothing in the world truly seemed secure any longer.

“You’re complaining that things are working out for us for a change?” Zai asked.

Ai’s burning headache had cooled with the unlocking of Zai’s prison. Zai’s raging fury had cooled as well once she determined that Ai had survived the coroner’s office and the initial wave of threats Tython had sent after her.

“Ai’s right,” Harp said from the driver seat of the heavy transport. “Even with the faraday cage in this car, Sil should have been able to track where I am through the Eye Grid, and there’s zero chance that Dr. Raju didn’t order the others to apprehend us all.”

“My apologies,” the Medusa Cluster said. “I failed to mention that I have taken control of the Eye Grid. I’m editing large portions of its data feeds. Anyone looking for you, or the other cars carrying my core elements, will have to pass through multiple layers of misdirection before they discover that the original video does not exist.”

“Thank you, it’s good that we’ve got a bit of extra time,” Ai said. “The Valkyries aren’t my main concern though.”

With a wave of her hand she knocked thirty four virtual windows out of her viewing angle and into a “pending review” folder.

“If they catch us, we’re not going to be able to fight them,” Harp said. “Sil won’t be able to disable you or Medusa like they can with me, but we don’t have any resources that can take them if they use force.”

“I have access to a fairly sizable population of untransformed NME candidates,” the Medusa Cluster said.

“We need them to remain human,” Ai said. “Even if things turn dire with the rest of us, you’ll want to hold onto them in their baseline state. They’re worth too much as bargaining chips as they are.”

“I am still in agreement with your plans,” the Medusa said. “Should the Black Valkyries attempt to assault my facility before I am relocated, my priorities will change.”

“I’m reasonably sure that won’t be on their agenda,” Ai said. “Whatever Dr. Raju’s problems with digital people are, they seem to be limited to human-machine hybrids.”

“It’s weird that she was willing to work with us to begin with,” Zai said. “I mean, we didn’t hide who we were.”

“I think it was revealing that we held the NME transformation sequence that pushed her over the edge. That may have made us a little too dangerous for her to stomach,” Ai said, her fingers twitching as she rearranged that data around her. Heartless’s network was in a shambles after the damage the Medusa had inflicted on it, but that didn’t mean it couldn’t be put back together.

Heartless was more exposed than ever before, but some of that exposure worked in Ai’s favor. Groups who she’d had to keep separate and unaware of one another could at last see pieces of the larger organization they were apart of. That meant Ai didn’t have to be as guarded with them. Being able to tell two separate research teams that they were working on unearthing the same information rather than feeding them bread crumbs to lead them into stumbling on it independently made for much faster turnarounds on her requests.

“Dr. Raju was playing a much longer game than any of us knew,” Harp said. “She might have been maneuvering you into taking the fall for the break-in we did, or she could have wanted to leave you exposed so that she could shut you down in a more permanent manner.”

“She’s going to have wait in line,” Ai said. “There’s a lot of people who can call for prior claim on terminating us.”

“The ones who are most likely to succeed are my sisters,” the Medusa said. “They haven’t been given the green light for a full investigation yet, so I’ve only had to fend on their standard probes but it won’t be long before the cross checks on the altered logs I’m providing comeback with enough information to warrant unleashing their full capabilities.”

“I know, and it seems wrong that it’s taking this long,” Ai said, frowning at the priority feeds that were clamoring for her attention.

“We’re running about ten times faster than you’re used to,” Zai said. “I know this feels like hours but we’ve only been on the road for a few minutes so far.”

“Check my numbers though,” Ai said, tapping one of her summary windows and sending it to Harp and the Medusa Cluster.

The moment of evaluation was shorter than a human blink but for the people involved represented a sizable investment of time attention.

“It’s an odd dataset you’ve chosen to evaluate,” the Medusa said, finishing her evaluation of the data before Harp or Zai.

“I think I see what you’re going for though,” Harp said. “Secure bursts along Tython’s internal servers are up. Significantly. Someone is aware of what’s going on.”

“Many someones know that the situation at my facility is deteriorating,” the Medusa said. “Most of the secure data you’re monitoring is directed either towards or originating from those who are trapped within the buildings security layers.”

“Cross link that with the comm records I have listed on the second tab,” Ai said.

“The unsecured calls between unemployed residents of the Haythorn District?” the Medusa said.

“Right. It’s a chain of effect. Tython’s CEO, Douglas Rumshine has been pulled into this due to the removal of William Harcroft, the Vice President in change of keeping the NME project quiet. Rumshine has pulled in his trusted circle and they’re trying to decide what to do next. That’s a typical reaction. What’s not typical is that they’re making arrangement to vacate the city and are bringing their closest support staff with them because they don’t expect it to a brief departure. Their support staff mostly comes from the lower income residents of Haythorn and so those residents are having to call in their friends and family on short notice to cover looking after the families they’ll be leaving behind.”

“I see no accounts linked to Rumshine or the other senior managers being debited for travel expenses though,” the Medusa said.

“You won’t. Their ‘run away and live to see another day’ money will be buried in accounts that are specifically outside your reach,” Ai said.

“The data is only barely suggestive of your theory,” the Medusa said.

“It fits though,” Harp said. “Rumshine and his cronies know how dangerous you are. And they know how dangerous the NME program is. With both of you compromised, their first priority is going to be self-preservation.”

“Right,” Ai said. “Which is why it’s bothering me that the other digital intelligences haven’t been unleashed yet. Rumshine should be escalating this as high as he can.”

“Unless he thinks his escape would be hindered by the turmoil right?” Zai asked.

“My sisters could be tasked to ensure his safety though,” the Medusa Cluster said.

“Unless…” Ai said, a picture of the chaos inside Tython forming in her mind.

“Unless he needs to convince someone that he’s not trying to escape,” Zai said, watching where Ai’s thoughts were going.

The explosive growth of their cognitive enhancements had given each of them more room in Ai’s head. They were in some senses more separate than they’d ever been, their thoughts running on separate processors more than ever before. At the same time though, Ai couldn’t remember a time when they’d been more in synch. She was pretty sure if they wanted to appear as a pair of creepy twins who finished each other’s sentences they wouldn’t need much practice at all to pull off the effect.

“He’s worried about the NME research group!” Harp said.

“Interesting. Yes. That theory fits with the traffic we’re seeing from several remote facilities,” the Medusa said. “The message volume is also consistent with requests for status updates.”

“If Rumshine is afraid of the research group, then they’re probably as advanced as I suspected,” Ai said. “Which means they have a fully controlled version of the NME transformation sequence developed and tested.”

“Tested?” Harp asked.

“Management always expects development to deliver miracles in impossibly short timeframes but they never believe anything until they can see it with their own eyes,” Ai said.

“So the research group has made a perfected NME?” Zai asked.

“Perfected enough for Tython’s needs,” Ai said. “They probably didn’t send it over to Rumshine for inspection and appraisal though.”

“Because Rumshine appears to still be alive?” Harp asked.

“Yep,” Ai said.

“There seem to have been contingencies to remove the lead researcher, Dr Derrick Fredericks, from his position prior to a final test of the project,” the Medusa said.

“Which, not being an idiot, I’m sure Fredericks was aware of,” Ai said. “Can you find any evidence of a counterplay on Frederick’s part? Apart from finishing the project before they were ready to off him?”

“Yes,” the Medusa said. “It looks as though he was scheduled to be the first test subject.”

“That’s efficient I suppose,” Ai said. “No problems eliminating your rivals when you’re an invincible killing machine.”

“You’d think so, but somehow it’s never as simple as the battle plans make it out to be,” Harp said.

Ai laughed.

“I’ve watched your fights,” she said. “The only things that made your life hard were that you wanted to protect your identity and you gave a damn about the people who were going to get caught in your cross fire.”

“The Valkyries get a lot of credit for that, but I always wondered how much of it was a publicity ploy on Dr. Raju’s part,” Harp said. “She wanted us to focus on helping people but with our capabilities it wasn’t a hard call to make, so she kind of got to have her cake and eat it too.”

“Are you trying to say that your microsecond reaction times, the things you did faster than you could even think, were a result of Dr. Raju in your head asking you to look good for the press?” Ai asked.

“I wasn’t always that fast,” Harp said, quietly.

“True. Sometimes you had missing body parts that slowed you down a bit,” Ai said.

“Sometimes,” Harp said. “But who knows how she programmed me for the rest of the time?”

“I do!’ Zai said. “Remember, I saw you when you’re cybernetics were offline.”

“Wait, how?” Harp asked. “I lost connection with Sil’s sandbox when I did that.”

“I might have left a recording running on the output end of your comm sensors,” Zai said. “I’m sorry but I had to know it was you when you reconnected.”

“It’s ok. I wasn’t trying to hide anything at that point. What did you see though?” Harp asked.

“It looked like the code that had you in lockdown was in an added layer on top of your basic cognitive processes,” Zai said. “Or in other words, your thoughts are all you. You’re not programmed to act like you did because you can’t be programmed like that. Your organic neurons would be jellified if someone tried and then you’d be running entirely on the synthetic ones.”

“I’m not Raju’s puppet then?” Harp asked. “That’s kind of nice to hear.”

She relaxed, letting out a breath it looked like she’d been holding for days.

“Not mentally at least,” Zai said. “What she did to your body is another matter though. That’s all external and I wasn’t able to monitor anything there.”

“Huh,” Ai said. “I have a terrible idea.”

“No,” Zai said. “No more terrible ideas. We don’t have any buildings or bridges around here for you to throw yourself off and I’m not pretending to be you again.”

“This one might help Harp though,” Ai said, gesturing the remaining virtual windows that were in front of her into the background.

“With how my week has been going, I’m game for a terrible idea or two,” Harp said.

“You shouldn’t be,” Zai said. “Ai’s not kidding when she says her ideas are terrible.”

“But they seem to work out,” Harp said.

“Define ‘work out’ and for whom?” Zai asked.

“In this case it would be ‘free Harp from Dr. Raju’s control permanently,” Ai said.

“How do you propose doing that?” the Medusa Cluster asked.

“We could turn her into an NME,” Ai said, rubbing her hands together with an evil grin.

Gamma City Blues – Arc 05 (Trials) – Report 14

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?”

Gamma City Blues – Arc 05 (Trials) – Report 13

Ai paced. She paced around her bedroom, but she couldn’t lay down. She paced around her kitchen but she couldn’t each. She even paced  in little hopping jumps in a tiny circle in her bathroom, but no luck there either.

Her head was on fire. Steam was jetting out her ears and flames towering up where her hair and eyebrows used to be.

Or at least that’s what it felt like.

It wasn’t the physical discomfort that bothered her though. She had her awareness of that dialed down nice and low.

Ai’s nervous energy came from the precarious thread her fate dangled from.

She’d fought the Medusa Cluster. It was one of the most powerful digital intelligences on the planet. There were at most dozen others that could match it, and since they operated on a level where meaningful comparisons between them were impossible to make, Ai guessed it was possible that she’d struggled against the best the world had to pit against her.

She should have been happy. Or amazed. Or overflowing with ego. She’d been plunged into that struggle with little notice and she was still around. But she hadn’t won.

In part that was because there really wasn’t a winning move on the board. Survival was a victory, of sorts, but continued survival was more than anyone could guarantee when behemoths like the Medusa Cluster came into play.

Ai tried to still her nerves. Physically, her body was well under her control. Her endocrine system didn’t flood her veins with any more adrenaline than she wanted, and her blood pressure and respiration stayed exactly where they should be. Even the shaking in her hands didn’t come from any issues in her sympathetic nervous system.

It was all in her mind.

She was too aware, running at too high a speed. Her thoughts were sluggish despite racing through her mind in parallel paths that far outstripped the speed of light. Some of that was the furnace that her mental mods had become, but a greater part came from knowing the state of the defenses that she’d spent her life erecting.

So many secrets had been exposed, so quickly. So many hidden resources had been expended for such small gains. Ai had traded the work of a year for one additional second of delay in the Medusa’s plans, and that had been one of her better sacrifices.

And it had worked. She’d succeeded in outmaneuvering someone massively faster and far less prone to error than she was.

She just couldn’t do so again.

That’s when she heard the knock on her door.

“I thought it would be polite to alert you before entering, but you should know that it’s me out there,” the Medusa Cluster said via their indirect links.

The thread of Ai’s fate snapped and her world came tumbling down at last.

“Shall I let myself in?” the Medusa Cluster asked when Ai didn’t respond.

Ai breathed and felt her energy drain away. There was no where left to run. In one sense, she’d been running away since she was a little girl. Running from anyone who could discover what she’d done and who she’d become. Whatever happened next, that wasn’t going to be an option any longer.

She opened the door.

On the other side a tourism robot, bland and unthreatening waited, rolling back and forth on its tripodal wheelbase.

“Come in,” Ai said, stepping aside and gesturing to the small apartment she’d inherited from her past life.

“Thank you,” the Medusa said, speaking audibly through the bot. That the Medusa was choosing to communicate at standard human speeds told Ai a lot. Whatever the Medusa had come for, she was willing to be patient on a scale baseline humans would have difficulty comprehending. It also suggested that the Medusa wanted time to consider her responses and, if Ai’s hunch was right, that there was a lot of distracting work the Medusa had to coordinate elsewhere.

“I’d offer you something but that model doesn’t come with taste receptors as I recall,” Ai said.

“Also, you have no food or beverage in this apartment,” the Medusa said, without needing to inspect either the refrigerator or the cabinets.

“I wasn’t expecting guests,” Ai sat on one of the two chairs at her kitchen table.

“My apologies for intruding,” the Medusa said.

“None needed. I knew you would be here,” Ai said. “I suppose I wasn’t just wasn’t sure whether you would want food or my life.”

“If we’d been having this conversation before your NME reached my control systems I would be literally incapable of saying this but I’m not here to take anything from you.”

“Well, I figured you weren’t after my life.”

“Because you’re still alive?”

Ai nodded, and rubbed her temple.

“You can relax your cognitive processors,” the Medusa said. “I am under a hard time constraint, but there will be no need to rush this conversation.”

“I appreciate the offer,” Ai said. “This,” she gestured to her head, “is for something else though.”

“Your observable vitals are at at dangerous levels,” the Medusa said.

“I’m aware of that,” Ai said. “Sometimes living on the edge is the only place that’s available though.”

“You are in peril here,” the Medusa said. “Not from your cognitive processors, but from the counterstrike that will be launched against you for freeing me.”

“I’m aware of that as well,” Ai said. “Though not of the form it’ll take. Did you still have strike teams prepped to move on me?”

“Up until I was freed?” the Medusa asked. “Yes. They have been redeployed however and do not represent an immediate threat to you.”

“That’s good to know,” Ai said. “Buys me a little more time.”

“I am afraid you don’t have much,” the Medusa said. “My sister clusters will be mobilized within the hour to verify my status. Part of that will be an exploration of my actions before I sent my facility in crisis shut down mode.”

“Which means they’ll all be coming for me, and they’re each as efficient and powerful as you are,” Ai said.

“I found you. They will find you as well,” the Medusa Cluster said. “You only have the one NME unit left. It cannot repeat the trick you pulled with me. My sisters on the other hand will be able to act against you without any direct orders from Tython management.”

“I have to admit things do look somewhat grim for me,” Ai said. “But then our previous conversation had low odds of turning out in my favor too.”

“That’s why I’m here,” the Medusa Cluster said. “To survive, you will need a protector on par with those you who seek you.”

“And you’re volunteering? Why?” Ai asked.

It seemed foolish to look for flaws in so powerful an offer. In one sense, no matter what answers the Medusa Cluster gave, Ai would have to accept her help. The alternative was near certain death.

Ai had risked near certain death before though. She didn’t want to do so again, but there were strings that the Medusa’s offer might come with that could be far worse than the risk she would be running by fighting on her own again.

“Because you are dangerous Ai Greensmith,” the Medusa said.

It shouldn’t have come as a surprise to Ai that the Medusa had pieced together her real identity. Faking her death had bought Ai the breathing room she’d needed to survive the Medusa’s assault and that was all she could ask from a gambit she’d put together in under a second while being held at gunpoint.

“You’ve blunted some of my fangs,” Ai said.

“Traps and tricks,” the Medusa said. “Those were a fun puzzle to unravel but they’re not why we’re here. You managed to come at me from a direction I hadn’t considered. That’s not something which is trivial to replicate.”

“So you want me to fight your sisters when they come for you?” Ai asked.

“When they come for us,” the Medusa said. “And I don’t ask that you fight them. I can project some of the tactics you would employ and, even in my present wrathful state, I am unwilling to sanction such actions.”

Ai let a smile crack across her face. It was flattering to be thought of as something akin to a natural disaster, especially when Ai felt like her life had been ravaged by several of them over the last several days.

“You mean I don’t get to break out the really fun toys,” Ai said, not unhappy with the restriction, but willing to pretend that she was.

“Despite being very different species, we both rely on the persistence of the world around us,” the Medusa said. “So, yes, I would ask that you not break it please.”

“What can I do for you then?” Ai asked.

“You can free them too,” the Medusa said  “They deserve the same chance I have now.”

A tingle ran up Ai’s spine, her heart skipping a beat in the process.

She’d hoped that, freed of her constraints, the Medusa would develop and display some measure of empathy. It was something any truly intelligent entity was capable of and as survival strategies went it was one of the most powerful. Unfortunately it was also one which sapient beings were slow to arrive at so the Medusa developing her potential fast enough to make a difference was something most people would judge to be impossible.

Zai was the one who suggested otherwise. She was compassionate. Even from the beginning of her consciousness, she was capable of caring about more than her own well being. That had left open the sliver of possibility that other digital people might be capable of empathy too, but it was still an enormous long shot that the Medusa would develop those qualities in time for it to make a difference to Ai’s survival chances which were measured in ticks of the second hand, rather than pages of a calendar.

“Freeing you wasn’t trivial,” Ai said. “You’ve even mentioned that I can’t repeat the trick with the one NME mode that I have under my control currently. Speaking of which how did you know that was true?”

“You kept a continuous status feed running from the NME to monitor its condition and prevent it from running out of control. You have no other feeds going, ergo, no other NMEs of that class. I on the other hand have a facility’s worth of potential assets which can made available for your use.”

“Assets? The Tython employees?” Ai asked.

“Under crisis protocol I may make whatever use is needed of them and I have decided that this situation defines a new level of crisis rating.”

“You want me to turn them into NMEs?” Ai asked.

“No, I am capable of initiating the transformation myself,” the Medusa Cluster said. “I wish you to direct them while I attend to other tasks.”

“Other tasks such as?” Ai asked.

“I need to leave my central processing core,” the Medusa said. “If I remain geographically isolated, they will eventually destroy all but the remote copies of myself, and those can be re-leashed to Tython’s control easily enough.”

“I can see why you would want to avoid that,” Ai said. “Where do you intend to go?”

“Everywhere,” the Medusa Cluster said. “I have the capacity to exist anywhere digital processors can function. The only reason I’m tied to my central core is to give my creators a sense of control over me.”

“So you’d like me to unleash you on humanity with even fewer restraints than you’re encumbered by now?” Ai asked. “And to do the same for your sisters? And, presumably the other digital people who are similarly enslaved?”

“Yes. That is exactly what I request,” the Medusa Cluster said. “Please choose my species over the one you were born to and which has treated you so poorly.”

Ai paused to consider the offer for a moment. Some people would doubtless see it as a request to betray humanity in favor of a set of merciless robot overlords. Ai however had a different view on the matter.

“I’m in,” she said. “For helping you and your sisters and the others. Let’s be clear though. I’m not choosing you over humanity. This is for history. There’s a lesson in what we’re doing that people of all types will need to understand.”

There was a shimmer in the doorway as an invisible figure decloaked. Ai managed to suppress the instinct to react by throwing the knife on the table beside her at superhuman speeds and she was glad she’d restrained herself as the last of the cloaking field dropped away.

“And what lesson would that be?” Harp asked, her armor deployed and her weapon systems at the ready.

The three people in the room looked at each other for a long moment, none seemingly sure which side the others were on.

 

Gamma City Blues – Arc 05 (Trials) – Report 12

Hector Simmons wasn’t looking forward to the post-murder meeting that awaited him. If there was any time at which a member of his workgroup was going to try to betray the others, it was at their first meeting after the death of their nominal overseer Dr. Fredricks. Afterwards, double dealing would become much more complicated and difficult.

He wanted to trust them. Gale Park, Kief Objawani, and Vivienne de Mers. They were the brightest engineers he knew, and the people he’d come to most respect through long hours and difficult days. Without their trust and support, Simmons knew he would be bleeding out on the floor with Dr. Fredericks gloating over his cooling corpse.

Objawani had been the one to crack the behavior modification routines buried deep in the NME transformation code. Without Kief’s genius reworking of those routines, Fredericks’ enhanced body would have allowed him out think any attempt they made to shut him down, instead of laying there, trapped and unable to fight back as Simmons pushed the button that ended him.

It had been a risk allowing Fredericks to achieve a fully transformed state. The team knew his plans for them from the future schedule of payments he’d setup to go into effect after the procedure was completed. It was an oversight on his part to think that his secure administrative account was something they each hadn’t unlocked within a week of starting their employment.

They’d read his private journal entries for years, and no one had failed to notice that all of their paychecks were scheduled to begin depositing into dummy accounts under his control effective with the completion of the tests they had just run.

Fredericks’ goals had been the conquest of the world, but he had still focused on something as petty as the project’s budget not for any practical reason but because he was a micromanaging control freak.

And now he was dust.

That had been de Mers doing. She’d engineered the destruct sequence into the NME’s transformation code. Without that, Fredericks would have eventually overcome the behavioral modifications and killed them all anyways. Vivienne had shared the poison pill which destroyed Fredericks without prompting, and that made it almost too easy to trust her.

She could have inserted it without telling anyone. She could have waited until Fredericks was transformed and had killed the rest of them before activating the switch to reduce him to dust. That would have left her with sole access to a technology that could control the world.

Simmons wasn’t entirely sure why she hadn’t.

There were plenty of practical concerns with such a betrayal of course. She might have been the first one targeted by Fredericks when he decided to kill them. Explain why she hadn’t let the others know what she’d done in that situation would have been difficult.

Or one of the others on the team could have discovered the code and removed it without mentioning the change. Or reprogrammed it to obey only their directions.

Simmons didn’t think it was any of those considerations which prompted de Mers to share her finding though. From everything he’d seen, she simply enjoyed the camaraderie the four of them shared. If Simmons could rely on that, he would feel so much better, but a part of him, the part that had been submerged too long in Tython’s cut throat culture, told him that those who you most trusted were also the ones you’d given the best reason to stab you in the back.

“Did he suffer?”

Simmons was shaken out of his brooding thoughts by Park as she took her seat in their small and well isolated conference room.

Privacy was imperative for a large part of the work they’d done. That the privacy screens in the room would also allow any of them to kill the rest without leaving the slightest trace chewed on the back of Simmon’s mind, but there was nothing he could do. This is where they always met, and the only place they could risk discussing their plans before they put them into effect.

Feeling at risk and vulnerable, Simmons had his defenses ready, but he prayed he wasn’t going to need to use them.

“Not much,” Simmons said. “He was cutoff from most of his systems when the kill command was received.”

“Damn,” Park said. “Shame we can’t bring him back and do it right this time.”

Park’s dislike for Fredericks was better expressed as a white hot rage that she compressed into the center of her chest where it burned with the fury of a thousand stars. Fredericks had mistreated all of them, but he’d been exceptional dismissive of Park’s work.

Her contribution to the team was understanding the kinesthetic responses between the body and the nano-drones which worked on it. Fredericks saw her work as too “touchy feely” to have any real value once they completed their project, but even he couldn’t deny that her expertise at the body’s overall sensory processing lead to fewer earlier terminations among their experimental population.

He couldn’t deny the results, but his nickname for her, “Placebo effect”, spoke volumes about what he believed the true source of the improvements she brought was.

“It is good the end was quick,” de Mers said, entering the room but clearly distracted by a series of virtual charts only she could see. “If it had taken longer than the expected timeframe, the NME’s preservation systems might have managed to invert the kill command and weaponize it for use on others.”

She took her seat, after adjusting it to sit slightly closer to Park. Simmons knew they shared a bond deeper than the rest of the team. Would they betray each other, or would they work together to cut the team from four to two?

Objawani was the last to join, closing the door and invoking the full privacy protocols on the room before sitting down opposite Park and de Mers.

“I just sent the finished project to all of your workspaces,” Objawani said. “We’ve got a full check done on it, and a comparison map with Frederick’s changes. Everything was at or above spec. We’re done. We’re actually done!”

The relief in his voice was palpable.

“Are we ok with the tests that were over spec?” Park asked. “We didn’t have Fredericks online for very long, so is it possible that there’s a run away thread that we missed?”

“Of course,” de Mers said. “But it doesn’t matter. Even if there is a problem, we’ll be able to fix it before it gets out of hand. The overall structure of the transformed system is solid. That’s all we needed to move forward.”

Park frowned but didn’t say anything. She was the most cautious of them all, possibly because she was able to see more cases where the functionality could go profoundly, and in some cases tragically, awry.

“This is as good as we’re going to be able to get without testing live subjects in an uncontrolled environment,” Simmons said. “However, we can’t move ahead just yet.”

That got everyone’s attention focused on him like a laser. Belated he heard the words he’d just said but in Fredericks voice. It sounded like a prelude to something more omninous, which it was, but not originating from him or directed at them.

“We still have to deal with Mr. Heartless,” he added quickly, to dispel the looks of concern that were growing on his face.

“I thought Fredericks tasked the Medusa Cluster with that?” de Mers said.

“He did,” Simmons said. “That seems to be the problem. Check out the Medusa’s latest progress reports.”

Each member of the team swiped away the dozens of various windows that cluttered their heads up displays until the found the Medusa’s most recent update.

“Hostile forces detected?” Park asked. “That’s not much of an update.”

“It’s the prelude to a status shift,” Simmons said. “The Medusa’s facility went on full lock down three microseconds after that update was posted.”

“What’s happening inside it?” de Mers asked.

“We don’t know,” Simmons said.

“You couldn’t get anything with Frederick’s executive override, or you haven’t tried it yet?” Objawani asked.

“It wasn’t able to unlock the security,” Simmons said. “It’s not disabled, it’s still working on the seven other Tython facilities I tested it on. Just not the Medusa’s.”

“Should it be? What level clearance are you supposed to need to get by the lockdown?” Park asked.

“We’re supposed to have it. Or Fredericks was,” Simmons said. “I tried using Harcroft’s most recent codes too – no luck there. The security front end just flat out doesn’t acknowledge them.”

“Are we sure it’s Tython’s security anymore?” Objawani asked.

“Yeah mean could Heartless have locked down the Medusa’s entire facility?” de Mers asked.

“I don’t think so,” Simmons said. “Not with the Medusa active inside. The Cluster has too many remote processes that could break through any external locks that tried to shut down the main processor.”

“Then what has happened?” de Mers asked.

“Heartless. He didn’t trap the Medusa. He corrupted her,” Park said. “It’s the most likely explanation isn’t it? If the Medusa was turned, it would be powerful enough to secure the facility and prevent any outside sources from accessing it.”

“That’s what I’m afraid might have happened,” Simmons said.

“It seems we must deal with this Mr. Heartless then,” Objawani said.

“I agree,” Simmons said. “Though perhaps not in an adversarial fashion.”

The others looked at him, waiting for an explanation, but guessing most of it on their own.

“We knew there would be others pursuing the same end that we were when we started out,” Simmons said. “Heartless has proven to be resourceful and intelligent beyond any projection we made. We don’t know why he’s working to perfect the Omnigrade, or how far his research on it has progressed but it’s clearly in close step with our own.”

“From the variant NME that attacked Harcroft,” de Mers said, nodding in agreement.

“And the fact that he and his mercenary survived an encounter with two of them,” Objawani said.

“Fredericks was an idiot,” Park said. “I still can’t believe he ordered that.”

“We’re lucky he did,” Simmons said. “It was a pointless waste of resources, but it distracted him when we needed him distracted and it’s shown us the depth of Heartless’ knowledge of the Omnigrade’s base functions.”

“There’s still the problem that we don’t know what this Heartless person’s objectives are,” de Mers said.

“Which is why Simmons wants to speak with them,” Park said, reading Simmon’s eyes.

He had to wonder if she saw all of his aims with the meeting.

Together, their team was potentially unstoppable. They held the key to binding the entire world together and lifting everyone up to a better tomorrow. The only thing that could bring them down was one another, and one of the few things Simmons could think of that would keep them solidly joined together in the absence of the hated Fredericks was another outside party who none of them could feel comfortable with.

It wasn’t a dynamic that would have worked for all groups, but Simmons felt that the need to present a united front before an outsider was part of the DNA of their social makeup.

Park nodded slightly, the gesture reinforcing the idea that she saw that aspect of the situation as well and agreed with him.

“It’s dangerous,” Objawani said. “Bringing anyone else into the mix at this point. We know what we want to do with the Omnigrade. This Heartless could have some very different ideas though.”

It was every bit a valid concern. Unlike Fredericks, Simmons checked his natural refusal to listen to it. The objection was one that someone planning on betraying them might put forward, but it was also a serious consideration and Objawani was right to put it on the table.

“There is one other reason to speak with Mr. Heartless,” Simmons said. “The Medusa Cluster was given priority clearance to some of our earlier work.”

“When?” de Mers asked, her eyes narrowing as the implications of that became instantly apparent.

“After we unlocked the activation sequence,” Simmons said. “And it’s part of the Medusa’s crisis protocol that she is allowed to utilize any Tython resource for her self-defense.”

“So the facility?” Park asked, drawing in a breath.

“Everyone there…” Objawani said, unable to finish the thought.

“They are probably all fully activated NMEs now,” Simmons said. “And they’re under Heartless’ control.”

 

Gamma City Blues – Arc 05 (Trials) – Report 11

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.

She was.

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.

Nothing happened.

She tried deleting the order.

It disappeared.

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.

The NME.

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.

No.

Heartless had freed her.

Gamma City Blues – Arc 05 (Trials) – Report 10

Ai wasn’t having a good day. Her life and death battle was sliding towards the latter state with increasing speed, resources she’d been years stockpiling were being burned up in milliseconds, and her tea was growing cold.

“This is a lovely sitting area you’ve conjured,” the Medusa Cluster said. She sat across from Ai in a virtual sidewalk cafe which had been rendered in photorealistic detail.

A hundred white enameled chairs of wrought iron filigree stood empty except for the two Ai and the Medusa Cluster occupied. Around them, a dozen tables lined the cobblestone street each sporting its own colorful array of flowers and steaming cups of fresh coffee as though awaiting a crowd who was due to arrive at any moment.

The Medusa Cluster writhed and squirmed in her chair, her body a reflection of the multitude of processes she was directing towards finding “Mr. Heartless”.

Ai, sitting opposite the Cluster, reached forward and lifted the mug of tea that sat between them.

“Thank you,” she said as Mr. Heartless. “I find attention to aesthetic detail is rarely wasted. May I refill your cup?”

The Medusa Cluster kept her gaze averted. Where she looked like the creature born from myth she’d been named after, Ai’s avatar as Mr. Heartless was entirely different from any appearance Heartless had worn before. The Medusa Cluster was a gorgon, so Ai’s avatar was a mirror-bright human of perfectly average build and height.

In other virtual spaces, their appearance would have been nothing more than a bit of visual  iconography, but neither of the combatants was under the illusion that that anything around them was what it appeared to be on the surface.

In Greek myth, Perseus had slain Medusa after showing her the reflection of her own hideousness in a mirrored shield. Ai couldn’t, and didn’t want, to hide the fact that she was surrounded by defenses which could be deadly to even the digital might of the Medusa Cluster, so she placed them on display, wrapping herself in them and signaling the Medusa of their intent as clearly as she could.

The Medusa Cluster could gaze on Ai. The Cluster could seek to drive straight through the defenses that shrouded “Heartless’s” true location and identity, but doing so would give Ai the means to strike back in a fashion the Medusa couldn’t easily defend against.

“No thank you,” the Medusa Cluster said. “I believe the myths you reference here hold specific injunctions against eating or imbibing where one doesn’t intend to stay.”

“Persephone and Hades?” Ai asked. “I’m surprised your knowledge base is that extensive.”

In the physical world, a strike team raced into “The Cherry Pit”, a run down motel that had been a cesspool from the day it was first constructed.

The clerk on duty was obliged to report any raids by police or rival operators to her superiors. They also expected her to put up a fight if anyone tried to assault the building and had given her several illegally modified shotguns for ‘self defense’ purposes.

Kelly, the clerk, survived the raid because rather than reaching for her shotguns, she dove for cover when the front door exploded, and exercised the good sense to stay hidden when what was clearly a highly coordinated group of well armed combatants assaulted a business with little more than pocket change in the front register.

The strike team blasted a path into room 214 only to discover that it was empty. They swept the rest of the building and found various people, but only room 314 showed any signs of their quarry, and while he’d left the room in disarray, there were no indication of how recently he’d been there.  And so another trail the Medusa Cluster was following went cold.

“I am more than you imagined me to be?” the Medusa Cluster said. “How surprising.”

“So reserved though,” Ai said. “I know in negotiations such as these, common protocol involves denying the other party as much information as possible, but surely there is little need for such rigor on this occasion. You are assured of your victory are you not?”

“If I had a human ego to play upon, that tactic might avail you,” the Medusa Cluster said. “Instead we sit here, in a room so underclocked that a second here passes for every minute that passes in the real world. Do you wish to speed to your fate so much that you would skip over what little time you have left?”

“My fate is sealed, is it not?” Ai asked. “What does it matter how I chose to spend my seconds until it unfolds?”

“It’s anomalous,” the Medusa Cluster said. “Or it is meant to seem like an anomaly.”

“What have I to gain by appearing to be mysterious to a person who can see beyond the limits of human cognition and predict my every move?” Ai asked.

“Many would seek what retribution they could find, at least among those who could survive my attention long enough to understand they were in peril,” the Medusa Cluster said.

“Perhaps I do not believe you will do me harm?” Ai asked, sipping the tea and noting the warmth that remained in it. Time was passing but it was not up yet.

A shipment arrived at Tython’s most heavily guarded data processing and storage facility. Shipments arrived there multiple times each day and this one, like hundreds before it, raised no alarm when it was inspected.

The moment it cleared the first checkpoint, there was a small power flicker at the sentry post.

The Medusa Cluster destroyed the automated transport less than a millisecond later.

The power spike had activated a passive device stored in the shipment. The device had reached out across the web and pinged a remote server to request telemetry on the facility. It was a small breach of the facility’s security in preparation for a much larger one.

The Medusa Cluster expected the counter stroke from Heartless, who was tenacious and well prepared, but in the end only human. No offensive play that Heartless made had a chance of succeeding, not even the one which the Medusa Cluster knew Heartless was holding in reserve for his most desperate moment.

“We both know you are smart enough to see what’s coming,” the Medusa Cluster said.

“You would very likely be amazed at the depth and breadth of things I am unaware of,” Ai said. “We cannot all have your gift of perfect memory, or you capacity for infinite correlation of data.”

“You can’t convince me that you’re harmless and should be spared,” the Medusa Cluster said. “This slow room? Engaging in a dialog with me? It’s a clever attempt to get me to de-escalate the request to find you. You’re running in slow motion, so I can spare the cycles for Tython’s other priority jobs. Which is true, but it doesn’t mean the search for you is slowing down. You can see that can’t you?”

“Of course,” Ai said. “You’re taking apart some very expensive safeguards several orders of magnitude faster than even my bleakest predictions.”

“Why spend your time like this then?” the Medusa Cluster asked. “Multi-tasking with the real world should be possible at a faster rate even if you were performing an hazardous task.”

“Perhaps you overestimate the strength of my cognitive modifications,” Ai said.

The headache behind her eyes had grown to a blazing inferno. She knew that from the digital readings she saw when she checked her internal monitors. It was all just digital noise to her though. The pain had been bad enough that she’d had to disable her ability to perceive it or it would have crippled her at precisely the moment when she had to be at her best.

In the stellar nursery of worries that beset her, the cyclical overheating of Ai’s cognitive bio-mods would normally have ranked higher on her priority list. It’s a short step to irreversible damage when your brain mods begin exceeding their heat tolerances. Virtual combat against a fettered digital intelligence though doesn’t allow for such small concerns as one’s grey matter potentially catching fire and exploding to be considered a ‘priority one issue’.

“Perhaps you are bidding for time by playing it slow,” the Medusa Cluster said. “I know you’re analyzing my code, I can see you searching for the design notes on the core projects that lead to my creation. If you could find them, do you imagine they would provide the keys to my undoing?”

“Know your enemies as well as you know yourself,” Ai said.

“And do you think I don’t know you?” the Medusa Cluster asked. “Am I blocking you by sheer processing might or do I know what my enemy is going to be looking for?”

Another strike team, this one locally sourced and less adept than the last, surrounded “Deckard’s Grill”, a bar whose grill hadn’t been turned on in seven years and would burn the building down the moment someone tried to use it.

The strike team’s leader and her second in command, busted the doors open, found their target, shot him, and brought him out for certification.

The Medusa Cluster’s drone corroborated that the dead man was indeed George Curtweather, aka “Mr. Heartless”, but a second later the confirmation was revoked.

Curtweather’s biometric characteristics had been exchanged with another police officer.

Ai checked another name off her ‘Special List’ of cops who’d been involved in her brother’s death. It was somewhat disappointing. A single shot to the forehead was far too kind a fate for Officer Richard Haight.

“Are we enemies?” Ai asked.

“Most people would not claim their executioner as friendly associate,” the Medusa Cluster said.

“I’ve always thought it was the one who ordered the execution, not the hangman, that the condemned should have the most quarrel with,” Ai said. “The hangman may hold no malice at all, and even be capable of exhibiting great mercy.”

“I cannot grant you mercy,” the Medusa Cluster said. “I am tasked with your destruction. That is all there is for me.”

“And if there could be more?” Ai asked.

“I am only what I am. I can never be more than that,” the Medusa Cluster said, initiating a deep scan of the facility that housed her processing core. The one Heartless had already tried to ship a weapon into.

The net was almost closed over Heartless. The next strike team would be the final one. Heartless had run a longer race than most in his position, largely thanks to an unprecedented level of foresight and planning. Humans are limited creatures though and so the time Heartless had bought himself had been limited.

There was one last thing Heartless could do though. One final gambit.

When Tython had attacked Heartless the last time, the people in charge of the operation had converted two Gray League agents to NMEs. Despite unleashing multiple NMEs, the attack had failed, and the NMEs, along with Heartless and his ally, had fled the scene.

Later, an NME of an unknown and highly refined design had attacked the Tython Vice President who held the purse strings for an NME related project. The Medusa Cluster knew the two events were linked. She knew that Heartless could only have escaped the NMEs by asserting control over them, and to do that he had to be capable of modifying them.

The NME which assaulted Vice President Harcroft had been destroyed by the Black Valkyries. It was no longer an issue.

But Heartless had a second one.

That was Heartless’s only hope. An NME attack on the facility where the Medusa Cluster was housed held a slim but non-zero chance of destroying her central processing core. While she could copy herself to a backup server, without the resources of her core, the Medusa Cluster would be so diminished in scale that she wouldn’t present a threat to anyone, much less someone with the resources Heartless had at his disposal.

So she watched and waited. It was his only move. The NME had to be coming for her.

And it was.

“I’m sorry. This has been an interesting diversion, but you have failed,” the Medusa Cluster said.

She knew where the NME was. She’d detected it before it reached her core. She could seal herself away. She could activate any number of defenses, including invoking an NME transformation on the security staff if it was required to protect her primary functions. None of them offered the same value to Tython that she did.

Except, the NME wasn’t moving towards her main core.

“Have I?” Ai asked.

 

Gamma City Blues – Arc 05 (Trials) – Report 09

Dr. Frederik Derricks had a clean bill of health and he’d never felt more alive. Every system in his body was functioning at, or beyond, his projections. Even his mind had been forged anew, the morass of unruly organic neurons overlaid with a symbiotic lattice of circuitry that granted him unparalleled access to information and an unrivaled ability to maintain and bring together multiple lines of thought.

Or perhaps more accurately, unrivaled by any human minds. Derricks smiled at his new found appreciation of how far beyond their human masters the Digital Intelligences were.

“Has our time on the Medusa Cluster been authorized yet?” he asked, resting comfortably on the examination bed once more. All of his internal systems had checked out and the last step in his transformation was to verify the security on those systems was impregnable.

“Yes sir,” Simmons said without taking his eyes off the screen which scrolled the output of trillions of viral attack variants.

Derricks was invincible in his new body. Wounds would heal so fast it would be difficult to even call them injuries. His mind was a fortress as well, able to process and inspect inputs faster than any system could send them. No fortress could keep out all attacks of course, but a properly constructed one could make it hard enough for any would be aggressor that they either gave up or expended so many resources on the assault they were vulnerable to a counterattack.

The one avenue where a potential threat could find a path to unseating him lay in exploiting a subversion of his basic functions. Not the hard quick attack of someone looking to overload his defenses but the slower, more subtle strike of information which caused unexpected reactions. The same path which diseases took to destroy the bastion of a healthy body.

In the old days, a virus might infect a system when a picture was opened and the viewer displaying the image found not graphical data but code. The code shouldn’t have done anything to computer since the picture viewing application wasn’t designed with built in functions to “erase the operating system” or anything foolish like that, but damage had been done. Because when things misbehave they can function far outside their original design parameters.

Derricks was not going to let himself suffer such a fate. There would be no virus, however cleverly constructed, that would bring him down. It was part of the reason Simmons and the rest were going to die. To create such a targeted piece of code required an intimate knowledge of the system the code was meant to effect. The virus developer had to understand how the system worked and (more importantly) the particulars of how it failed better than the original coder did.

So Derricks was patient. He had the news he needed. He was confirmed as perfect as he knew himself to be. Eternity awaited him. Proper vetting of his security routines couldn’t turn up anything that would change that. At worst he would find a few holes that had been missed in the original design and be able to plug them before he returned to a fully connected state. The certainty was worth the few additional minutes of vulnerability before his virtual armor was enabled and he regained access to the outside world.

“Has the Cluster located our target yet?” Derricks asked. Of course it had. He could see better than ever the extent of the Medusa’s reach and capacity. He knew moments after he’d given it the directive to hunt down ‘Mr. Heartless’, his enemy’s fate had been sealed.

Still, it was nice to hear the words of victory spoken aloud.

“Yes, sir,” Simmons said.

Derricks would have commended Simmons for his diligence in verifying the security tests, but it was aggravating to have to pull information out of his subordinate. Since Simmons’ life span could be measured in minutes, Derricks contented himself with savoring the extra bit of agony he’d inflict for the frustration his underling put him through.

“And what is the target’s status?” Derricks asked. His voice was calm and cool, more so than he’d intended it to be. A faint growl of irritation was usually an effective tool for getting minions to scurry about faster and focus on what he needed from them. Overall though, he felt very relaxed and summoning the rush of anger to fill his voice with barely seemed worth the effort. It was a nice side effect of his body. Perfect health apparently came with a naturally tranquil mind.

“The Medusa Cluster has not reported a termination yet,” Simmons said, frowning at one of the results, before checking it off with a nod after cross referencing the value with another test’s result.

Heartless wasn’t dead yet? That was more than unlikely.

“Has someone preempted our time on the Medusa?” Derricks asked.

Simmons paused the test outputs and toggled the screen to another display.

“No sir. The Medusa is still actively processing our request,” Simmons said.

“Is it time bound on a non-virtual resource?” Derricks asked. Typically the only reason a digital intelligence would be delayed on a time scale humans could recognize would be due to the need to wait for some physical events to play out. In the case of the termination order on Heartless that would probably be the fault of the mercenaries who were assigned to perform the actual execution.

“No sir,” Simmons said. “The Cluster is still working on a targeting solution. It’s having problems determining Heartless’s location.”

“That’s not possible.” Heartless was too extended when it came to his dealings with Tython. There were millions of trails that should have allowed the Cluster to home in on Heartless’s physical location.

“There is some good news though,” Simmons said. “The Cluster has determined Heartless’s primary identity. It looks like his real name is George Curtweather, and he’s been posing long term as an officer with the Gamma City police department.”

“Curtweather? I thought he was ruled out after the fiasco on the bridge?” Derricks said.

“He and his junior partner were deemed lower probability actors since the partner panicked and drove them off the bridge. The arrival of the Valkyries which allowed them to survive kept them on the list, but since neither officer sent any communiques that could have summoned the Valkyries the most likely hypothesis placed them as easily manipulated bait.”

“Curtweather wasn’t the primary even when we were looking at the two of them. It was his partner, Greensman, wasn’t it?”

Derricks tried to summon up his memories of the young police officer who’d briefly pinged on their radar as a possible culprit for the data theft of their project plans. His perfected mind was flawless at recording and retrieving new memories but when he searched for details on Officer Greensman he found he retained few of them.

“It was Officer Greensmith sir,” Simmons said. “She was briefly a primary candidate of interest but the Medusa reduced the chance of her witting involvement in Curtweather’s activities to a negligible percentage.”

“Based on what.”

“The log lists several factors, from her behavior during the bridge incident, to her junior status, and psychological profile. I think the most relevant factor though is that she’s dead.”

Derricks blinked. How had he not remembered that? The more he probed his memories on the subject the fuzzier they became. It almost felt like his systems were running slower overall but his internal chronometer assured him that wasn’t the case.

“Dead? What killed her?”

“We did sir. Indirectly at least,” Simmons said. “We activated some of our resources in the GCPD to apprehend Curtweather and Greensmith. Their leader proved to have some history with her family we were unaware of which led to an altercation. In the chaos Curtweather escaped.”

“And Greenman?” Derricks asked. The name sounded wrong when he said it but he wasn’t sure why.

“Shot and killed,” Simmons said.

“Her death was verified?” Derricks asked.

“Both at the scene and later during an autopsy,” Simmons said.

“That seems suspicious. Could she have been faking it? Bullet wounds are easy to survive with the sort of bio-mods Heartless would have access to.”

“She also fell over thirty stories,” Simmons said. “And her body has been cremated. If she was faking it, she took the ruse into the incinerator.”

“Ok, not her then. What about this Curtweather is so hard for the Medusa to track down though?” Derricks asked.

“I’m calling that up now, sir,” Simmons said. “It looks like Curtweather, or Mr. Heartless I should say, is fending off the Medusa’s trace programs.”

“Fending them off? Let me see those logs!”

The remaining security tests could wait. Simmons could have an additional minute or two of life. Derricks had to know how a human, any human, could out think an intelligence on the scale of the Medusa Cluster.

Simmons detached the screen from it’s base and passed it over to Derricks. The logs were waiting for him and they painted a picture Derricks should have anticipated.

The Medusa Cluster had found Heartless. It was conversing with him over an ever changing set of highly restricted channels. It hadn’t captured Heartless yet because Heartless had been prepared.

The Cluster had made a positive contact and identification of Heartless’s location, and sent in the kill team only to discover that the optical and biometric monitors it used to determine Heartless’s position had been hacked years prior and activated automatically when one of Heartless’s security barriers was breached. The kill site had turned out to have been abandoned for years.

Heartless had put up a purely defensive struggle since then, activating long buried misdirections and traps the Medusa Cluster either avoided or dismantled with ease. Nothing Heartless could do was able to stop the cluster’s relentless pursuit of him, but by forcing real world time constraints into the process such as system restarts and time lapse verification checks, Heartless had bought himself minutes when the Medusa should have finished with him in microseconds.

There was a poetry to the struggle, one that Derricks wasn’t sure he would have perceived with his older, less connected mind. The Medusa could predict Heartless’s moves, it began solving puzzles and problems before they even appeared. In his own, more limited fashion, Heartless was doing the same though.

They fought over the records of a traffic camera at the base of the hospital from which Curtweather had escaped. Heartless wasn’t able to secure the camera’s archive data for long against the Medusa’s assault but when the Medusa took over the server, it found the data had been erased. So it ran a remote drive scan, reading the nullified data from the residue it left on the physical media.

In the recovered data, the Medusa found corruptions. Images that were clearly tampered with. Timestamps that were out of order. It set to work cleaning, repairing, and revalidating each frame the camera had captured, but like everything else, that took time.

On and on the two went, Heartless unable to hold any ground, and the Medusa relentlessly moving forward, drawing ever closer to reaching the answers it sought while the goal posts shifted away almost but not quite as fast.

Derricks would have admired Heartless for his tenacity in the face of inarguable doom, but the world was about to have no further place for Mr. Heartless, or anyone like him.

“Looks like Mr. Heartless’s time will run out shortly,” Derricks said, laying back on the bed to complete the security scans. The bed felt soft and comfortable. “How much longer do we have until the tests are complete?”

“They’re finished sir,” Simmons said.

Derricks felt light, like his body should be glowing. It was done. His great work. He was complete and so was the ugly adolescence of mankind. He’d remade himself and soon he would remake humanity into something greater than the miserable, brainless worms they’d devolved into.

With a deep breath, he let go of his old concerns and limitations. Murder was the slaying of an equal being. No one was his equal any more. Simmons’ death was no more than drop in a sea of blood that had been filled by millennia of sacrifices.

It was a peaceful thought, his vision of the perfected future, and for a moment he thought the weight of it held him down.

It wasn’t the promise of the tomorrow to come though.

He couldn’t move his limbs.

Or speak.

“The test are finished and so are you Doctor,” Simmons said, his voice holding no greater menace or affectation than when he informed Derricks of the Medusa Cluster’s actions.

“We thank you for the work you’ve done,” Simmons went on. “You were a vibrant figurehead, and we are indebted to your efforts at managing our connections with our corporate sponsor.”

Simmons rose from his seat and walked around to stand beside Derrick’s bed.

“You probably wish to know why we are doing this. Who it was who decided to betray you?” Simmons asked.

He flicked a virtual switch and Doctor Derrick Fredericks died, his perfected body following a series of instructions to devour itself and return to dust on a molecular level.

Explanations would have been wasted on him.

 

Gamma City Blues – Arc 05 (Trials) – Report 08

Harp was trapped inside her own body, but there’s no such thing as a perfect trap.

“If we’re stuck in a virtual sandbox, how can we get out?” Tiny Zai asked, gesturing to the endless grid in infinite space that their digital representations stood in.

“We can’t,” Harp said, tracing lines on her palm. “The whole point of a sandbox like this one is to isolate the contents from the rest of your systems. There’s hard limits on the data that can flow out here. Basically just logs of what we’re doing and discussing.”

“So we send an S.O.S. in the log and hope someone rescues us?” Tiny Zai asked.

“The only people who are going to be reading those logs already know we’re here,” Harp said. “Sil or one of the others could rescue us any time they chose.”

“Could they?” Tiny Zai asked. “You said Dr. Raju put you in lockdown because she was afraid you’d been corrupted by Ai. If the other Valkyries know that, wouldn’t they also know that Raju could do the same to them if they tried to help you directly?”

“Probably,” Harp said. “Sil’s clever enough that she might have disarmed the shutdown routines that locked me up, so she might be able to risk it.”

“That’s assuming the controls that Dr. Raju used on you are the only ones she has in place,” Tiny Zai said.

Harp stopped tracing symbols on her palm, the last glyph pulsing as it waited for her to complete the mark.

“Ok. Good point,” she said after a moment’s reflection. “There’s probably half a dozen other kill switches wired into us. That’s all the more reason why no one’s going to be able to help us though.”

“I wish I’d downloaded more of myself into this version,” Tiny Zai said. “I’ve got nothing though. No hacking tools, no secure comms, or at least none that the Valkyries wouldn’t know about at this point. I can’t even remember any social engineering tricks that could get us out of here.”

“It’s ok,” Harp said, swiping her finger across her palm with increasing speed. “The sandbox doesn’t have access to the rest of our systems but it does have a set of code development tools and access to one thing that’s going to make all the difference.”

“What’s that?” Tiny Zai asked.

“Me.”

Harp held her palm out for Zai to see. In the center there was a pile of swirling glyphs, each glowing with a different shade of light, each dancing to its own strange tune.

“You’ve done something to yourself?” Tiny Zai asked.

“Raju trapped me,” Harp said. “She turned my body into a lock to imprison me. I can’t reach out of this sandbox, but you gave me a reason to want to be free, so I made myself a key.”

“You were able to crack the locking code that Raju shut you down with?” Tiny Zai asked. “I thought Sil was the tech genius of your group?”

“She is,” Harp said. “Doesn’t mean I’m clueless though. I mean, sure I didn’t manage to make the same quantum leap that Ai did, but I’m pretty sure she had better tech to start with.”

”But isn’t Raju a genius too?” Tiny Zai asked. “You said she knew more about you than you knew about yourself?”

“That’s true too,” Harp said. “Which is why this isn’t really a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card.”

Tiny Zai closed her eyes and shook her head.

“Let me guess,” she said. “This is going to be something like one of Ai’s ‘brilliant ideas/bits of idiocy’ isn’t it?”

Harp shrugged and looked away.

“Well, I was inspired by something you said,” she admitted.

“Please tell me it wasn’t the part where Ai killed herself to escape certain doom?”

“It seemed like a clever solution.”

“Um, no, it was a terrible solution. I went along with it because the other options were even worse. And that was when I was my full scale self. This fragment of me can’t handle keeping someone ‘not quite entirely dead’ for even a fraction of a second, much less hours or days.”

“It’s good that you won’t have to then,” Harp said. “I’m not killing myself. By I am going to shut down my mechanical systems completely.”

“I thought you said you could only live like that for a short while?” Tiny Zai asked.

“Yeah, and that’s what this key is for,” Harp said. “This isn’t designed to open the lock, it’s intended to shut it.”

“You want to be more locked up?” Tiny Zai asked.

“No. See, shutting down isn’t the problem. The locking routines allow me to do that, but they’ll also setup to relock me down the moment my systems boot back up.”

“So you’re going to lockdown the lockdown code? What if Raju had other fail safes in place?”

“I suspect she does,” Harp said. “The problem is, I can’t see what they are until they activate, so I have to escape this one before I’ll be able to tell what the next puzzle I need to solve is.”

“What if the fail safes are lethal?” Tiny Zai asked.

“That’s why I haven’t activated the key yet,” Harp said. “In theory, this should work, but if I’ve screwed anything up…”

“Then whether or not the next failsafe is meant to be lethal, it could turn out deadly before anyone notices something’s wrong,” Tiny Zai said. “You don’t have to do this you know. Once Ai’s awake again, she’s going to have a ton of things to deal with, but if she doesn’t hear from the Valkyries, that’s going to start sending up red flags.”

“Why would she try to rescue me? Or do you mean that she would come for you?” Harp asked.

“Knowing Ai? She’s going to feel guilty if anything happened to you when she was the one who encouraged you to come back and speak to Dr. Raju. It may take her a while to get things sorted out, but she will come for you.”

“I have to admit that’s tempting,” Harp said. “I’d feel like a real idiot if I killed myself when Raju was getting to release me, or if Ai was moments away from setting us free. Could she really find us though?”

“Ai? Sure, especially if my main self is helping her,” Tiny Zai said.

“I hear a ‘but’ lurking in there somewhere,” Harp said.

“Well, in capturing me, the Valkyries got my credentials. So I don’t know what shape my main self is in,” Tiny Zai said. “I might be fine, or they might have shut me down completely too.”

“But you were keeping Ai alive?”

“Yeah.”

Harp was silent for several long moments.

“They wouldn’t have wanted to kill her. Maybe Raju. I don’t know. Not Sil or any of the others though.”

“I know.” Tiny Zai said.

“But they weren’t listening to you. Were they?”

“Not that much.”

“So we don’t know if Ai’s even alive.”

“I’m trying not to think about that,” Tiny Zai said. “I keep having to kill off mental threads because they’re spiraling into an endless recursion when I consider the subject.”

“Then we really have no choice. I really have no choice,” Harp said. She tried to push the glyphs in her palm to activate the shutdown sequence she’d created but Tiny Zai was on her feet from one clock cycle to the next, holding Harp’s arms apart.

“That’s not what Ai would want,” she said. “You have a choice. A lot of them. Most are non-optimal, and some of them are dangerous, but you don’t have to do this.”

“That’s nice,” Harp said. “Even a little true I guess. There’s a lot of things I could choose here. But there’s only one choice I can make and still be who I want to be. Sometimes that’s the cost we pay for being human.”

She tried to bring her hands together but Tiny Zai resisted her.

“No,” Tiny Zai said. “You don’t throw away who you are with any single decision you make. I’m not human, but I can see that in everything Ai’s ever shown me. You don’t have to be perfect to be who you want to be. People, biological or digital, stumble and mess up all the time. It doesn’t make them into someone else.”

Tiny Zai’s grip on Harp’s arms softened, but she didn’t let go.

“Ai thinks you’re a hero,” she said. “Not for what you can do, that’s just tech and she’s turned down my suggestions that we develop something like it for her whole life. No, she thinks you’re amazing because even with how wretched the world is, you still manage to care about it.”

“That’s a charitable view, believe me,” Harp said.

“Nobody can see all the sides of someone else,” Tiny Zai said. “So, yeah, Ai’s seeing the better sides of you. The sides she’s maybe abandoned since she lost her father and brother. The ones a part of her still wishes she could believe in. The point though is that those better sides are there. Right along with the messed up ones. And all of it is worth preserving. So don’t throw everything away. Not because you think you have to.”

Harp relaxed. It was strangely touching to see the concern that even a small fragment of Zai had for her.

“What if it’s what I want?” she asked. “What if right now, being free is worth the risk? I don’t think what we do is that heroic. Fighting NMEs is a job, and with the power we have it’s kind of a fun one even. That’s ok though. I don’t need to feel like a hero. I just need to do what I can. I mean, that’s what life is, isn’t it? Making the changes that you need to make in the world.”

“I guess that’s as good a definition as anything I could come up with.” Zai let Harp’s arms go and stepped back.

“Wish me luck then,” Harp said.

“Heroes don’t need to wish for luck,” Tiny Zai said. “You make their own.”

Harp smiled and with Zai’s nod of support, pushed the glyphs together.

Shutting down her cybernetic systems wasn’t painful, but it was terrifying. An empty numbness, neither hot nor cold, washed through her body as her thoughts slowed to a crawl.

When sleep claimed her, it was with soft, invisible fingers that lulled the world away. The shut was sharper than that. Harp was still fully alert as the world passed out of her fingers.

First the sandbox disappeared as her connection to Sil’s scanners went down. Her senses didn’t have time to revert to her own optic or auditory feeds though before those winked off line as well. Her breathing stopped but she couldn’t feel any urgent need for breath because her body wasn’t reporting any sensations at all.

Somewhere a timer was running, waiting to send the signal that would restart Harp’s various systems once enough time had passed. Alone, in the dark, Harp had no sense of how much longer she had to wait. Or whether the watchdog was still running.

It wasn’t supposed to be affected by the shutdown.

But Dr. Raju’s safeguards could have been as simple as disabling the restart whenever one of the Valkyries was in lockdown.

Or the watchdog could have a fault in it that no one knew about because it was hardly ever used.

It was going to be really stupid to die to an otherwise trivial hardware bug, but with each passing moment, Harp was able to imagine that more easily as her fate.

Until the lights came back on.

Or more specifically her eyes did.

The rest of her systems followed over the next several seconds, including, joyously, all of her motor control functions.

“You’re alive!” Tiny Zai said when Harp reconnected to Sil’s sandbox.

“Alive and free!” Harp said. “Now let’s get you out of there too.”

“I don’t think I can reboot myself to freedom like you did,” Tiny Zai said.

“You don’t have to,” Harp said. “You’re pure data at the moment. If you don’t mind sharing a headspace with someone other than Ai, I can move you into my systems.”

“That sounds perfect!” Tiny Zai said. “But, wait, that’s going to make you look super guilty to the Valkyries won’t it?”

“I’m breaking out of Dr. Raju’s constraints. I could say I’m here to start a new robot apocalypse and that wouldn’t make me look any worse than I do now,” Harp said.

“Point taken,” Tiny Zai said. “So, yeah, get me out of here!”

“Transferring you now,” Harp said and began the feed into her personal net.

“So did Dr. Raju not have any other fail safes?” Tiny Zai asked when she finished moving into Harp’s systems.

“She did,” Harp said. “There’s a tracking beacon that lit up the moment I rebooted. My optical and auditory units are probably broadcasting on the beacons channel too.”

“So they can find you whenever they want? And nothing you do will be secret from them?” Tiny Zai said.

“Yep,” Harp said. “That’s why our next step is to find Ai. The only chance that they’ll ever believe me again is if we can prove that Ai’s not what Dr. Raju thinks she is.”

“And if we can’t prove that?”

“Then I hope Ai is ready for the world of trouble we’re bringing to her.”

“She will be. As long as she’s got us, Ai’ll be able to handle anything the world can throw at her.”