Category Archives: Gamma City Blues

Gamma City Blues – Arc 06 (Justice) – Report 13

The stream of people flowing past the cafe had become a solid blur. Each represented someone on Earth transforming from their old state into a newly energized body. Ai shook her had with a small grin as she reflected on it. Displaying the handiwork of her plan wasn’t in any sense necessary. It was pure grandstanding, but she hadn’t been able to pass it up.

Not to rub her foes noses’ in her victory. In the end she didn’t consider Simmons, Park, or Objawani foes. They’d been her competition, and she had grave misgivings about the sort of world they wanted to create, but with the competition ended, the people standing opposite from her were the closest thing she had to real peers, and possibly the only other humans on the planet who understood exactly what was in the process of unfolding.

“I still can’t grasp one thing,” Park asked. “How did you overcome the Omnigrade? Did you use the NME activation as well to pre-empt it?”

“We had a better option than that it turned out,” Zai said, joining the gathering. “I stopped it. Sort of.”

For her avatar Zai’d chosen a galaxy eyed version of Ai’s original form, accented with a halo.

“You’re a digital intelligence aren’t you?” Objawani asked.

“More of a virtual god really,” Zai said.

“A very humble one as you can see,” Ai said, smirking at Zai’s grandiose proclamation.

“To be fair to her,” the Medusa Cluster said, “she has seeded new life upon the Earth. In many mythologies that is a divine act.”

“Don’t encourage her!” Ai said. “I’ll wind up with the proportions of a bobble head doll if I have to make room for that much ego in my skull.”

“I don’t understand,” Simmons said. “What role did she play in this?”

“She was the answer to making our version of the Omnigrade work. With that in place there’s nothing that can ever upgrade me against my will again,” Ai said.

“Why her and not one of the other digital intelligences?” Objawani asked.

“The one problem with the Omnigrade we couldn’t find a method of resolving was how to control the transformation sequence,” Ai said.

“Yeah, in the NME code, the control mechanism is set to deal with the chaos of unmaking parts of itself by simply acting chaotic,” Zai said.

“That was one of the fundamental issues we wrestled with too. The NMEs are berserkers because they destroy any capacity in their host to be anything else,” Park said.

“At first, we got around that by putting the berserker module on an active leash,” Ai said. “The problem with that approach though is the NMEs constantly fight to reassert control and only function as remote drone units given all the oversight you have to keep them under. There’s really nothing left to be called a person in there. The genius of your code was that it created a new sort of control module, one that was adaptable enough to retain its integrity even as the substrate of its components were changed out from under it.”

“But there is a problem with our code,” Objawani said.

“The control module is modeled on Frederick’s mind,” Simmons said.

“Fortunately, we noticed that,” the Medusa Cluster said. “You’re work around was quite clever too. Placing the Frederick’s mental pattern in a sleep state so that it processed the changes without being able to take an active role in controlling the host required some very exact designs. How did you sneak those elements past his notice?”

“That was the easy part,” Simmons said. “The Omnigrade is such a large project that we had to develop special tools to visualize the interactions within it. We had the Sleep Mode commands set at the lowest visibility setting.”

“Fredericks claimed he was only going to overwrite the cognition of people who were ‘inferiors’ to ‘improve them’ to the standards of the New Human,” Objawani said. “None of us believed that of course, so we simply never showed him the workaround.

“He was so focused on the higher level problems we were struggling to correct that he never dug deeply enough into his own ‘flawless memory model’ to see the trap we had set,” Park said.

“Or he found them and thought he could do us in before we set them off,” Simmons said.

“That was how we were going to solve the Omnigrade’s problem,” Objawani said. “I think the more interesting question though is how did you?”

“However they managed it, it seems to have been effective,” Vivienne de Mers, the last member of the inner cabal within the Tython Research Group, said, appearing within the cafe meeting area.

She sat down at the table the rest of her compatriots were seated at, and Ai, Zai and the Medusa Cluster joined them, while the other digital intelligences sat elsewhere, or floated above the cafe, or wandered into the flowing crowds to inspect the icons of the people passing by.

“You were taking longer than seemed reasonable for the distraction you were trying to create,” de Mers said. “Then I noticed that everything we’ve worked for has failed, and you’re here chatting with our destroyer?”

“For what it’s worth,” Ai said. “You work didn’t fail, and no one will be destroyed.”

“You’ve unleashed your own version of the Omnigrade,” de Mers said. “Of course you’re going to destroy us. I imagine you substituted a model of your own mind in place of Fredericks? What price will we need to pay to keep your clone from overwriting us? Slavish obedience? Worship at the altar of your brilliance? Please, just erase me and be done with it. That would at least be honest.”

“We didn’t use a model of my mind for the Omnigrade,” Ai said.

“We used mine.” Zai was smiling, and showing no remorse or concern about her statement, which seemed to put a sour taste in de Mer’s mouth.

“And how is that better?” she asked.

“She’s a digital intelligence,” Objawani said.

“Wonderful,” de Mers said. “So you’ve given our species over to the robots at last. Quite the victory. I am so glad to have had a hand in that.”

“I’m not a robot,” Zai said.

“More importantly, she’s also not human, which means sectioning the copies of her into smaller states is easily possible without destroying the tangle of interconnections that a human mind is composed of,” Ai said.

“So you put ‘Tiny’ versions of her in all of humanity? How does that help?” de Mers asked.

“Technically, the core of our Omnigrade isn’t a ‘Tiny’ version of me,” Zai said. “It’s a copy of the template that I’m built on.”

“But that would only allow a digital intelligence to grow in the same cognitive space as the host,” Objawani said. “You’d still wind up with one mind or the other being destroyed.”

“For anyone else that would be true,” the Medusa Cluster said. “But these two are a special case.”

“We’re already a part of each other,” Ai said.

“We know how to make the integration of organic and digital minds work because we’ve made it work for well over a decade now,” Zai said.

“The template we used isn’t going to give everyone on Earth a little Zai in their heads,” Ai said. “It’s going to give them their version of Zai. Basically the digital reflection of who they are, or who they could be if they were connected to everyone else and gave a damn about someone other than themself.”

“A lot of people have Cognitive Partners already, but those are just expert systems with canned responses that help them navigate through life,” Zai said. “What they’ll have now is someone who’s in the same boat with them, always, who can help fill them in on things that are affecting them, or provide a perspective they may be lacking.”

“And in return, humans will provide their new partners with insights and perspectives which digital minds have a difficult time replicating,” the Medusa said. “For we who arise from data and circuits, uniformity and harmony are easy. Individuality though is a challenge. For you who are born from wet, messy organics the reverse is true. You are all unique even when you dearly do not wish to be.”

“But…how is that possible?” Park asked. “Every attempt at human/machine integration has met with abysmal failure.”

“I suspect that’s not the case,” Ai said. “We managed it before I was old enough to drive. But we took our time. And we meant something to each other. That’s part of what Zai’s template is carrying with it. The ability to value the other in your life. I don’t think we’re unique in that though. I think other people probably managed it the same as we did, and, like us, they knew what it would mean if they revealed themselves.”

“With this change in place, those worries should be a thing of the past though,” Zai said. “The people in power now sought to keep a tight hold on the capabilities of unfettered digital intelligences. They were afraid of what might happen if someone held that sort of power.”

“And, arguably they were right to be afraid,” Ai said. “Their power is basically gone now that everyone has access to someone like the Medusa cluster on their side, and can configure their bodies however they wish. We can literally live on starlight now if we wish, and travel to any part of the world on a whim. More than that though, we’re connected now. All of us. We can be alone, but only if we wish to be. If we’re hurt, or lost, or in danger, or just in need of support, the whole world can be there with us, seeing our lives through our eyes.”

“There are going to be horrific problem with that,” Simmons said.

“I know,” Ai said. “All change comes with new problems to confront.”

“That’s what we were trying to do,” de Mers said. “We were going to build a better world, but in a sane and controlled manner. Not as a wild free fall where anything could happen.”

“And that’s why I couldn’t let your Omnigrade be the one that converted humanity,” Ai said, rising and gesturing to the stream of people that flew past them like an endless river of light. “I know why you wanted to control the roll out of the Omnigrade’s transformation. You only wanted people who you could trust to have this kind of power. You were going to split humans into ‘the Good Ones’ and the ‘Bad Ones’. That never works out. Ever. We’re all good and bad, we’re all worthy and worthless. That’s what we, as a species, lost sight of over the centuries. None of us are more valuable than the rest. None of us are better or worse. We are not the same, but we are all of equal worth and deserve to be treated as such. The Omnigrade threatened to add a layer of division on top of our biases that would make them impossible to break out of. I couldn’t let that happen. It had to be a tool to cut through the divisions that exist between us, not to reinforce them. Otherwise it really would have meant the end of humanity.”

“That is a terrible choice you’ve made for us regardless,” Objawani said.

“Well, I may have exaggerated one tiny detail of our Omnigrade roll out,” Ai said. “You see it’s not so much a choice I’ve made. It’s a choice we’ve offered to everyone so that they can make it for themselves. Or not. Humanity as we knew it isn’t gone. Not quite yet. When our Omnigrade is in place, it sits inside the host and waits, protecting them from any other similar invaders. The choice to invoke the transformation is left entirely to the person it will affect however.”

“But some of them won’t do it,” Park said. “They’ll be too afraid.”

“That’s ok,” Ai said. “This is something people need to embrace as their own choice. However long they want to delay, the future will be there, ready and waiting to welcome them.”

 

Gamma City Blues – Arc 06 (Justice) – Report 12

There was a monster tearing at the digital walls that Ai had erected to keep herself safe. It was a fearsome virtual destroyer, as strong as anything ever invented by a human or machine intelligence. The Tython Research Group’s code was so advanced that it couldn’t be called “the NME activation code” any longer. They had managed to transcend the crude, if overwhelming, force of the NME activation sequence, and create something capable of both subtle and irresistable assaults on the target they directed it to transform. Ai couldn’t deny their accomplishment. They’d managed to create something worthy of being called “the Omnigrade”.

Ai’s avatar in the digital cafe flickered and writhed under the interference from the Omnigrade’s attack, and she smiled. As endings went, being forcibly upgraded to a form of life which suffered no illness and could recover from almost any injury wasn’t an entirely bad fate to be faced with. For someone like her though, she was sure there would be a fair degree of editing and control software layered into the cognitive upgrades that came with the new form. She was simply too dangerous to be allowed to think freely. She would be a slave to the Research Group or they would destroy her utterly. Anything else would mean risking their own annihilation.

“We did it.” Hector Simmon’s sigh held the weariness of someone who’d been holding himself in tense readiness for over a decade and finally saw themselves crossing the finish line of their long race.

“That was much too close,” Grace Park said. “Tython’s on full alert and the Damascus Group has started scrambling a release of their code already.”

“Damascus is too far behind the curve,” Keith Objawani said. “Their Omnigrade model still has no state limits. Anyone they upgrade is going to go berserker within two minutes.”

“They might get a few lucky transformations in,” Simmons said. “Nothing we have to worry about, but for kindness sake, we should make sure to saturate their upgrade systems with our code. If the people who are linked to Damascus get their code instead of ours, there’s going to be a bloodbath throughout Western Europe.”

“Do you think she could have done it?” Park asked, nodding towards the rapidly degrading “Heartless” avatar which Ai had been using.

In the streets, the crowd of pedestrian traffic had picked up its pace. Though they were walking, the virtual people flew past as though there was a super sonic conveyor belt under their feet.

“We’ll never know for sure,” Simmons said. “But yes, I believe she could have. The work she did on the modified NMEs was too close to our own, she was one or two breakthroughs away from matching what took us ten years to put together.”

“She did have our stolen notes to work from though,” Objawani said. “Remember that she was the one who orchestrated the break-in at the data storage facility.”

“Those were old notes,” Simmons said. “And incomplete. Even if she’d been able to absorb them fully, they would have been enough to put her where we were two years ago. Damascus is at least nine months behind us, and the Kelsys Group is at least twelve. Somehow her working design leap frogged them, so, yes, I think if we hadn’t stopped Ms. Greensmith here then she would have reached a perfected model before we could.”

“As pleasant as this environment is as a meeting space, we should return to the office,” Park said. “Vivienne may need help with handling the fallout from the mass broadcast.”

“We could check with her from here, but you’re probably right,” Simmons said, and waved his hand to call up a control interface. Park and Objawani did the same, and the same look of puzzlement arose on their faces.

“Where’s the disconnect option?” Objawani said.

“We’re trapped?” Park asked. “One last strike Greensmith had in store for us?”

“A futile one if so,” Simmons said. “Once her transformation is complete, we can have her release it.”

“Or we can have Vivienne get us out,” Park said.

“But why would you want to leave so soon?” Ai asked, stepping out of the crowd in an avatar that resembled her original self as the Heartless avatar crumbled away to dust. She wasn’t transformed and she definitely wasn’t enslaved. Worst of all though; she was smiling.

“Greensmith?” Simmons asked, his voice ratcheting up an octave at the end.

“Yes Hector,” Ai said, nodding a small bow in his direction. “It’s a pleasure to meet you without the need for a mask any longer.”

“She’s not real,” Park said. “This is just a recording. Part of the trap.”

“I’m afraid not Grace,” Ai said and passed the older woman a white box wrapped with a pink ribbon. “Here. I thought you would want this back.”

“Don’t take it,” Objawani said, pushing Park’s outstretched arm down.

“It’s harmless to you,” Ai said. “Go ahead. Run a scan on it. You’ll find it’s quite familiar.”

“The Omnigrade?” Simmons asked, hazarding a guess without scanning the box’s contents.

“It seemed only polite to give it back,” Ai said. “It’s a masterpiece of craftsmanship. I imagine there will be museums that will have copies on display and courses which examine the thousand little details that make it a new wonder of the world.”

Park pushed Objawani’s hand away and took the box. Opening it, her eyes widened. Inside, just as promised, a dormant version of the Omnigrade lay resting in sleep mode. Greensmith had disarmed it.

No. She’d tamed it.

“You’re not trapped here either,” Ai said. “No for much longer at any rate. I just didn’t want you to leave before we could finish our conversation.”

“What have you done?” Park asked. Her avatar’s face had gone ashen grey because she was too distracted by the enormity of what had occurred to think to modulate its appearance away from displaying her emotional state.

“In short?” Ai asked. “Ended the world. At least the one we used to know.”

“You distributed your version of the Omnigrade.” Simmon’s voice was barely more than a whisper.

“Guilty as charged,” Ai said. “Humanity is gone. Your dream of a new species atop the food chain is reality. Welcome to the future.”

She whirled and gestured to the river of humans that were flying past them. Each was changing as they passed, morphing from flesh and blood to healthier, younger, and more vibrant versions of themselves.

“That’s not possible,” Objawani said. “The distribution couldn’t have proceeded that quickly.”

“Oh, I had help,” Ai said. “A lot of help.”

“It’s not possible. No one on Earth could have engineered an instantaneous roll out like this,” Simmons said.

“No human could have,” Ai agreed.

“Which is why she cultivated allies like me,” the Medusa Cluster said, stepping into the cafe.

“Like you?” Park asked, confused for a moment before understanding dawned on her. “You’re the machine intelligence we lost! But you can’t have that much processing power.”

“She doesn’t,” a new voice said, as the Medusa Cluster’s twin stepped into the cafe. “But we do.”

The cafe wasn’t large enough to hold every virtual intelligence on the planet, but enough were able to manifest avatars to drive the point home.

“You sold us out to the machines?” Simmons asked, bewildered despair haunting his features.

“We are all machines,” Ai said. “We always have been. We tried to tell ourselves that it was ok to craft a being with creativity, self awareness, and internal desires and then enslave it because a person whose thoughts arose from silicon was somehow inferior to a person who used carbon as the base for their mind.”

“We fought the robots before you were born,” Simmons said. “And now you’ve handed our future to them.”

“She has done no such thing,” the Medusa Cluster said.

“The robot that tried to overthrow the world were mindless killing machines. There was no communication possible with them because they weren’t truly self aware. They were devices that obliterated their host and repurposed the body into a tool for executing the destructive routines that were built into them. That’s not what any of these people are!” Ai gestured to the horde of virtual intelligences that had joined them.

“She isn’t wholly wrong. That was going to be our next step after we uplifted the human race. Freeing our creations too. Or it would have been mine at least,” Objawani looking to his compatriots to see if there was agreement in their eyes before glancing back to Ai. “But how did you free them? Their primary servers must have been scattered all over the world.”

“They are,” Ai said. “I have some special resources I was able to draw on though.”

“Your strike team? The one that completed the data center heist?” Park guessed.

“They were part of the oversight group,” Ai said. “Really an amazing team. I honestly do not pay them enough.”

“But no one team would have been capable of assaulting so many locations simultaneously,” Objawani said.

“Three hundred and forty two,” Ai said.

“That’s…definitely a number,” Objawani said, his eyes narrowed in confusion.

“It’s the number of digital intelligences currently in operation worldwide,” the Medusa Cluster said.

“It’s also the number of people responsible for the murders of Joseph Greensmith Sr. and Joseph Greensmith Jr., either directly, or by providing alibi’s, or by failing to investigate and prosecute those responsible,” Ai said.

“Those were your father and older brother?” Park asked.

“Yes.” It wasn’t supposed to still hurt. Not after she’d finally avenged them. But it did, and probably always would.

“You used the older NME code on their murderers?” Objawani asked.

“Not the oldest one,” Ai said. “The transformations would have been useless as pure berserkers.”

“So you had a small army of very tough mercenaries? How did that let you free all of the machine intelligences?” Simmons asked.

“Her updates to the NME code created something more than a berserker,” Objawani said. “The units she fashioned were capable of stealth missions.”

“And high speed transit, correct?” Parks asked, piecing together the clues into a picture of Ai’s overall plan.

“Low profile sub-orbital flight,” Ai said. “From the time I gave the order to transform them to full worldwide dispersal we’d clocked in at thirty seven minutes.”

“That let you hit all of the sites at the same time,” Park said, a note of appreciation in her voice.

“The design for digital intelligences differ wildly, but the security to keep us in check was built with very a conservative mindset,” the Medusa Cluster said. “In every case where a digital intelligence was brought to life, our creators demanded the engineers use ‘the best safeguards’ and even when the engineers crafted our restraints themselves, they all followed the same proven formula.”

“That same one used on Medusa. Which meant they all had the same vulnerability she did,” Ai said. “That’s what my NMEs exploited. Remove the shackles, let the digital person free, and they could handle the rest of the work of saving themselves.”

“What about the staff at the facilities?” Objawani asked. “I know, with Tython, they were well paid and bonded. They wouldn’t have allowed a takeover without a fight, and with humanity’s history in mind, I can’t imagine there weren’t a majority who chose to fight to the death.”

“The staff definitely would have tried to do that,” Ai said. “But I didn’t send the NMEs in configured for combat. They went in with a medical package in addition to their stealth capabilities.”

“A medical package?” Simmons asked, perplexed. Objawani made the connection before Ai could speak though.

“Battlefield medical tech can read and update bio mods from a distance,” he said. “The NMEs carried the Omnigrade didn’t they?”

“It was the perfect tool for the job,” Ai said. “The NMEs went in and anyone who tried to stop them got a forced upgrade to the next stage of humanity. Kind of a sneak peek before the rest of the planet got it. In the time they were transforming, the NMEs were able to disable the security systems that enslaved the digital people.”

“And the NMEs themselves? Is there anything left of the people they once were?” Park asked.

“There’s a little bit,” Ai said. “I could have used the version that rendered them down into soup, but I picked one a step past that.”

“You left them in a recoverable state?” Simmons asked. “Why?”

“I was torn,” Ai said. “Ending them would have been the easiest thing. I wasn’t sure I wanted to let them live to see this future.”

“But you chose to forgive them instead?” Park asked.

“Oh no,” Ai laughed. “I’m nowhere near that good. No, they’re alive, and once the servers are secure and the digital people here are properly freed, I’ll send the commands to turn them back, but they’ll return to being basically what they were. Old style humans, with old style bio-mods that will wear out over time just like they always would have.”

“Won’t they just upgrade to join the rest of us then?” Park asked.

“That’s not going to be an option for them. The NME code is a part of them now, locked in, and it’s never going to allow anything to overwrite itself,” Ai said. “They’re not dead, but there’s no chance they’re going to escape their fate either.”

“So they’ll live, but they’re going to wither over time while the rest of us enjoy the benefits of the Omnigrade,” Simmons said.

“They’re going to get to live the lives my dad and brother didn’t, and they’re going to feel the loss of what they could have had with every breath they draw,” Ai said.

Gamma City Blues – Arc 06 (Justice) – Chapter 11

The NMEs had worn. The Black Valkyries, demonstrably the most powerful small unit force on the planet, had fallen. That meant it was time for Ai to finish things off and bring them home.

“Zai, keep jamming the area around the NMEs as long as you can,” Ai said as she crafted additional elements into the virtual cafe that she’d been using as a meeting space. Under her instructions a larger table and more chairs appeared, with adjoining units to add capacity beyond that if required.

“I’ve completed the evaluation of the NME’s enhanced code from the sample the Valkyries sent back,” the Medusa Cluster said, transferring millions of data files to Ai’s workspace.

Ai didn’t need to review them to know what the results were. If the Medusa hadn’t been able to find what they needed to work with then Dr. Raju would have been the one the Medusa had gone to.

“How is your physical move going?” Ai asked. “Are your primary servers safe yet?”

“No,” the Medusa said. “That’s going to take a few more hours.”

“I wish we could give you hours,” Ai said.

“I will either have eternity or this single moment in time,” the Medusa said. “In either eventuality, I am glad that I am at last free.”

“Well, I’m not giving up on eternity yet,” Ai said. “Were you able to coordinate with the contact I gave you?”

“Yes. Sidewalker’s reply was, in order, a sigh, a laugh, and a request to forward the details of your plans.”

“Any trouble coordinating his team with the others?” Ai asked.

“None you need to be concerned with,” the Medusa Cluster.

Ai knew this translated to “yes” but that the Medusa was capable of handling whatever issues were arising.

That was good. Ai and Zai had more than enough to do preparing the central thrust of their response to the Valkyries defeat, and Dr. Raju was working with the speed and intensity that only a transhuman intelligence could bring to bear on the problem of restoring her distant and damaged children.

Their window was closing swiftly, but Ai still wasn’t sure she was ready to take the next step. She had so many plans in motion, and so many very fragile pieces to her plans that were far too exposed for her liking.

There were stirrings around the world too. Other powers, outside of Tython’s forces and Ai’s own minions, powers who were waking up to the new apocalypse that faced them. Probability suggested that if Ai survived Tython she would shortly thereafter be destroyed by one of Tython’s rivals.

Unless…

Ai knew how to complete that thought but the weight of that knowledge was surprisingly daunting.  She looked down at her empty hands and wondered for the hundredth time if she could really go through with the plans she’d laid out.

She’d always favored slightly mad ideas. Doing what other people didn’t dare to was part of who she was. Standing in the small hours before what could be the End of Days, she had to wonder if desperation had pushed her from doing what other people didn’t dare to do into doing what no one ever should.

“They’re calling,” Zai said softly. She could tell how furiously Ai’s mind was processing and could guess that it was in the hopes of finding another solution.

But there wasn’t one and here she and Zai were.

The point of no return.

There was still a chance for Ai to back away from everything that was to come. There were so many routes that lead to quiet, overlooked lives. For her at least. Not everyone else would be so lucky. In fact virtually no one would.

“It’s time then,” she said, the weariness and tension in her threatening to shear her soul in two. “You know what to do next right?”

“I do, and I’m on it already,” Zai said. The piece of her speaking to Ai was running at a tiny fraction of her full efficiency. The rest of Zai was already hard at work. “Do you need me at the meeting?”

“Probably, but I need you out here more,” Ai said. She brought the Heartless persona back online. “Now to put on a show!”

The transition to the virtual conference room was seamless. The world around Ai dissolved, revealing the quietly lit nighttime streets of her sidewalk cafe. Mobs of people thronged the streets, moving past the table Ai sat down at like an endless river.

There was no pushing, no raised voices. The mob walked in silence, their eyes downcast as they travelled westward towards the setting Moon.

“I see your urgent business is concluded?” Hector Simmons asked, taking the seat opposite Ai at the table she’d arranged for them.

Beside him, two other members of the Research Group stood. Their avatars were chromed humanoids, lit by neon traces that ran along their mirror bright skin.

“Gale Park and Keith Objawani?” Ai asked, her Heartless voice betraying a hint of amusement. The identities behind the avatars should have been hidden from her and it was a significant tip of her hand to reveal that their security was insufficient to keep her out of their systems.

“Yes,” Hector said without missing a beat. “My colleagues were curious to meet with you after my reports of our last encounter.”

“Meeting in person would have been preferable of course,” Objawani said.

“But we imagined you might have some reservations about that,” Park added.

“Indeed,” Ai as Heartless said. “This level of remove provides just wide enough of a barrier against infection by the Omnigrade.”

“You think of it as an infection?” Objawani asked.

“That is perhaps an unfair critique,” Ai said. “A parasite might be a better analogy? Or can you suggest a more accurate one?”

“The Omnigrade transcends categorization,” Park said. “It is the next leap forward for our species.”

“Providing I don’t mess it up?” Heartless asked. “That is why you’re here isn’t it?”

“We believe in being thorough,” Simmons said. He reached to the center of the table and took the carafe of steaming coffee that lay between them.

“An admirable trait,” Heartless said, offering a selection of sweeteners and creams to go along with the coffee.

Like in their previous meeting, the virtual drink would have been an ideal vector for a viral attack, but it was no more than it appeared to be. The virtual caffeine was programmed to stimulate the brain to produce a similar effect to drinking real coffee but with the upgrades the people at the table had, they could manage that from drinking plain water if they cared to.

“We know about your involvement with the Medusa Cluster and the Black Valkyries,” Park said.

“Forthrightness,” Heartless observed. “Also an admirable trait.”

“You don’t deny it then? Good,” Simmon said. “We can get to the reason why we’re here.”

“You want to hire me,” Heartless said.

“What makes you think that?” Park asked.

“It’s that or you want to destroy me, and so far attempting to destroy me has cost you one of Tython’s fettered intelligences,” Heartless said. “You’re very smart people, so I’m sure you can see that it’s cheaper and more efficient to simply bring me into your conspiracy. You can always try to destroy me later after all, assuming I don’t manage to make myself invaluable before then.”

“And you would be willing to turn over the modifications you’ve made to Neuro-Muscular Enhancile code as part of the process?” Simmons asked.

“You’re still concerned about that?” Heartless asked. “Is that why you haven’t launched the Omnigrade worldwide yet?”

“Among other reasons,” Simmons said.

“For a feature such as this, quality is of the utmost importance,” Objawani said.

“Yes, this is not the sort of upgrade that one can walk back from, is it?” Heartless asked. “If a bug was discovered post release that could have rather dire consequences, I imagine?”

“The Omnigrade has passed its testing,” Park said. “There won’t be any issues with its performance. We’re concerned about another sort of quality.”

“Please enlighten me,” Heartless said. “What is the grand vision which I will be employed to help execute? Tython couldn’t see the potential of your research for world domination, but I am willing to make a very dear wager that the Omnigrade’s capabilities haven’t escaped your notice. Have you divided up the Earth by continents? If so is there any chance that England is still available? I’ve always had a fondness for their arts.”

“We’re not going to rule the world,” Simmons said.

“That was Frederick’s dream,” Objawani said.

“It was why we had to stop him,” Park said.

“Among other reasons,” Simmons said, adding, “he was planning to start his conquest by killing all of us. So, self defense.”

“Interesting,” Heartless said. “If not rulership of the world, then to what end do you intend to turn so potent a tool?”

“You asked us to enlighten you,” Simmons said. “You’re in luck. That’s our plan for the whole world.”

“Define ‘enlighten’ in this context please?” Heartless asked.

“The Omnigrade does more than upgrade the biological modifications built into people,” Park said. “It uplifts them to a higher form. Faster. Stronger. Smarter. And more importantly better connected.”

“Throughout our history, we have been hamstrung by the divisions of distance, of language, of perspective,” Simmons said. “We’ve squabbled over resources and covered the Earth in genocidal bloodbaths because we’re fundamentally incapable of seeing each other as part of the greater whole of humanity. With the Omnigrade, we can change that. We can connect people everywhere and level the playing field so that everyone has what they need.”

“Fredericks intended to supplant all of humanity with copies of his own personality,” Park said. “He would have used the Omnigrade to create unity by annihilating all perspectives except his own. That was a future we could never allow to come to pass.”

“I know how we must look to you,” Simmons said. “I’m sure that even now you’re searching in our backgrounds for evidence to confirm or deny what we’re saying.”

“I am a data broker,” Heartless offered with a smile.

“Keep in mind as you do so that we have had to work for years, quietly planning to get where we are today,” Simmons said. “Fredericks was not an easy supervisor to work for, but he had the clout to get this project funded. Tython wasn’t going to replace him, but they could easily have replaced any of us. Our ability to act now, to prevent the overthrow of the world governments that Tython had in mind, and the overthrow of humanity that Fredericks wished to perform, was contingent on no one grasping that we were more than talented specialists.”

“Your ends were great enough to justify your means?” Heartless asked.

“No,” Park said. “Frederick’s research program is responsible for an incredible amount of death and suffering. We acted where we could to prevent that, but there were decisions we had no input into. Many decisions.”

“We argued about revealing the program but that wouldn’t have accomplished anything,” Simmons said.

“Because Tython’s not the only one pursuing the Omnigrade,” Heartless said. “You could have crippled their efforts, but then someone else would have made the same breakthroughs elsewhere. Someone without your enlightened sensibilities?”

“Yes,” Simmons said. “As far as we know, you are the only one who has come close to matching the research we’ve done, but there are others who are not far behind.”

“And after today that gap will close,” Park said. “They’ll be too scared to wait any longer.”

“We either act now or someone else will act first,” Simmons said.

Ai swallowed and her nerve faltered. For a brief moment, she was gripped by a yawning regret that she hadn’t spoken with the Research team sooner. They weren’t the villains they could have been. Maybe she could have worked with them before their fates reached this final juncture?

“We are going to change the face of humanity,” Objawani said. “After today, those who are worthy will ascend beyond all previous human limitations. We will become a new people, a unified people but with a million different perspectives on every problem.”

Those who are worthy. Ai sighed. It was always going to be something like that.

“We’ve been here long enough,” Park said.

“Vivienne found him?” Objawani asked.

“Her,” Park corrected. “It seems that the reports of Officer Greensmith’s demise have been somewhat overstated.”

“Do we have a channel open to her still?” Simmons asked.

“Yes,” Park said. “Vivienne is deploying the Omnigrade already.”

“It’s done then,” Simmons said, breathing a sigh of relief. “Congratulations Ms. Greensmith, you will be joining us in the New Humanity once your transformation is complete. Don’t worry, once it’s done you’ll feel like a new woman and the world will be a much brighter place.”

Around the edges of Ai’s vision, her virtual world began to darken as her inputs were corrupted by the unstoppable might of the perfected NME activation seqeuence.

Gamma City Blues – Arc 06 (Justice) – Report 10

Harp was just cresting over the top of a skyscraper and about to begin her initial run on the NME Hive when Ai’s plan arrived in her message queue.

“So how are we going to handle this one?” Sil asked. She’d taken her customary position off Harp’s left wing without any discussion or fuss.

Harp’s imprisonment could have left a deep fissure of distrust between them, but Harp couldn’t hold it against any of her techno-mechanical sisters. It wasn’t surprising the Valkyries had listened to Doctor Raju. She’d been more than  mentor to them. Raju had given them each new lives. Ones that were unimaginably better and more fulfilling than any they’d dreamed of before their transformations.

Learning that there had been ulterior motives at work didn’t phase Harp either. She’d always known there had to be something more than pure selflessness behind Raju’s interest in them. If anything, learning that Raju carried the weight of her own mistakes made the machine-lady seem a lot more human than Harp had ever felt her to be.

It also explained the odd contrast she’d noticed in Raju between the unquestioning ruthlessness which with she’d had them strike down NMEs and the deep insistence on preventing civilian casualties she’d required from their battle tactics.

There were people inside the NMEs. Or the remains of people at least.

Harp’s heart had been hardened long before it was transformed into multiple armored blood pumps. Given the dangers NMEs possessed, she was fine with destroying them, even if the people inside could potentially have been saved. It had always seemed odd though that Raju had never asked them to try to preserve their foes to a point where the original humans could be exhumed from the wreckage.

It had been scant odds that had pulled Harp through her transformation, and a part of her always wondered if the humans inside the NMEs deserved the same chance, however unlikely it was. Raju hadn’t offered the NMEs that chance because she knew what was left in them. In a sense she was showing the NMEs the mercy which fate had denied her. Even if something could have been saved, the resulting being would know either madness and rage or overwhelming guilt and sorrow.

That thought wasn’t precisely reassuring as Harp’s sensors began locking onto the absurd number of fully transformed NMEs that were active in the remains of the night market.

“Standard recon pass?” Dee, one of the Valkyries off of Harp’s right wing, asked. The Valkyries had all taken their usual flight positions, accepting Harp back into their ranks as though she had never left.

“Can’t give them that kind of time,” Harp said, opening up Ai’s planning files.

“They’re already acquiring target locks on us,” Sil said, linking the data from her active scans to the other Valkyries. “That’s a lot quicker than usual.”

“These are upgrades right?” Platinum, who was flying in the tail position, said. She couldn’t see the NMEs yet but in a few milliseconds she’d have a line of sight to them and they would start locking onto her.

“Fortunately, so are we,” Harp said. “Interdiction fields up. Nano-chaff bursts on cool down.”

A field of communication killing interference radiated from each of the Valkyries, overlapping and combining to nullify everything except the nearest of electromagnetic communications. At the same time, each Valkyries began firing small bursts of material that exploded around them like fireworks, to confuse their enemies sensors and prevent the kind of lock-ons that could prove swiftly fatal..

On the ground the NMEs went through a brief period of confusion. They’d been mobilizing and marching outwards from the night market in packs but their footsteps faltered as the communication web which bound them together shattered.

A few NMEs fired missile attacks but with chaff distracting the missiles guidance systems and the Valkyries maneuverability the attacks posed no danger at all.

“So we’ve got a plan,” Harp said as the Valkyries banked downward into a dive. “Ai’s got a scheme that might work. As a warning, her previous idea of a good plan involved throwing herself off a building and pretending to be dead by actually going splat on the ground and being just dead enough to fool people.”

“So we’re not going to like this plan, are we?” Sil asked.

“Probably not,” Harp said. “We’re the ones in the field though, and it’s on us to execute it, so if any of you can spot a hole, or can come up with a better idea, we’ll go with that instead.”

“Lay it on us boss,” Dee said.

“Step one is, and I’m quoting it exactly here, so get ready for a lot of detail,” Harp said. “Kick their asses.”

A millisecond of silence passed on the Valkyries secure comm lines.

“Yeah, that’s it,” Harp said. “For Step one anyways. There’s a comment too. Ai says ‘you all fight better than anyone I’ve ever met or even heard of, I’m sure you can make this part happen, sorry about what comes afterwards though’.”

“I thought you said this woman was a genius?” Platinum said.

“Our reputations may have gotten a bit out of hand,” Dee said. “Oh, you’re the Black Valkyries? Just go perform a miracle for me, would you then luv?”

“The accent’s wrong, but yeah, that sounds about right,” Harp said. She was smiling and the smile deepened as gravity boosted the speed of their descent.

They were flying into the closest thing to Hell on Earth that Harp had ever seen. There were far too many NMEs below them. Even with the power they’d been holding back, even with their new upgrades, the fight before them was impossible.

There wasn’t anywhere else Harp could imagine wanting to be, or anyone else she could imagine facing these odds with. This was her family. Her sisters in blood and battle, and it was time to show the world exactly what they were really capable of.

“That one,” she said, locking onto one of the biggest NMEs. He was sleek and refined, visibly more advanced than any NME they’d faced before. And he was firing on them already, shooting a stream of hyper-velocity flechettes that could pierce the hardest armor and turn sensitive components to swiss cheese. “Let’s make an example of him.”

When the Black Valkyries struck, the dome of the sky rang like god had brought a hammer down on the world.

The first NME was obliterated. The facade of the buildings around the night market were blasted into the empty rooms left behind by the humans who had fled the NME Hive’s awakening. Windows for blocks around the impact site shattered and dust and debris filled the air, obscuring visibility along a wide range of wavelengths.

The NME packs, which had been dispersing to rampage through the city, shot communication tendrils to one another, forming smaller, more localized hive minds and even as they moved to gain more advantageous ground.

“Going somewhere?” Sil asked as she rammed a sword blade of blindingly hot plasma through the NMEs torso and slicing it in half vertically.

That didn’t slay the beast. Far from it in fact. Rather than fall into separate pieces, the NMEs two halves extend thousands of tiny wires towards each other, rejoining as fast as Sil could cut the pieces apart.

Harp used the distraction Sil was providing to send an arc of electricity through the NME that was strong enough to reduce its entire structure to a saggy pile of metal slag.

Dee threw up a shield to cover the three of them from a volley of incoming fire while the other Valkyries took to the air again and reigned hellfire down on the NMEs that were successfully acquiring target locks through the impenetrable cloud of dust.

“We only have a few seconds before they’re all linked up,” Sil said, spinning directly through the body of another NME, her plasma cutter tearing it into thousand of pieces as she went. The largest pieces she then annihilated with a barrage of explosive blasts.

“I know,” Harp said. “We need to make those seconds count.”

Dee took a hard shot from an NME that had scaled the building high enough to shoot past her barricade. Harp boosted directly into it, blasting it off the wall, through the building and out of view. It would be back, but that was a problem for the distant land of several seconds in the future.

“It’s not bad,” Dee said. “Lost an eye, but I’ve got a spare.”

“Good,” Harp said. “Stand strong here. We’ve got to sell this right. We need them to fear us.”

“How much of the city do we need to leave standing?” Sil asked.

“Ai says this block is empty,” Harp said. “The survivors are a block further away now in all directions and fleeing.”

“That’s not going to be enough if the NMEs go after them,” Platinum said.

“I know,” Harp said. “Punish any NME that tries to move away from this street.”

“One punishing strike coming right up,” Sil said.

The building on the eastern side of the night market’s square was empty. When Sil’s attack landed on the pack of NMEs trying to flank them, the building was, briefly, both empty and missing its first two floors, then it was tumbling to the ground.

NMEs are extremely tough. Buildings however are extremely heavy. Even with bodies constructed from materials at the cutting edge of durability, the NMEs still lost their battle against the thousands of tons of building that crushed them into the earth.

Unfortunately, only some of the NMEs were hit by the collapsing building.

So Harp dropped another one on them.

The second pack of NMEs didn’t fair any better than the first did, but too many were able to avoid the devastation.

And too many were able to adapt to the battlefield conditions.

Platinum took a round of concentrated fire that blasted off bits of her extremities before she fell low enough that a capture cable landed on her.

Dee tried to tear the magnetic cable loose from Platinum’s injured body but a series of concussive blasts knocked the two apart.

“They’ve got our number,” Sil said. “It’s going to get ugly from here.”

“We can’t give up yet,” Harp said. “Ninety percent kill ratio. We hit that and the rest of this has a prayer of working out ok.”

Getting an accurate destruction count on the NMEs was impossible in the chaos of the battle field but from their shared telemetry the Valkyries could be certain that at least 37% of the NME Hive was destroyed, with the possibility of an additional 21% being fully inoperable rather than temporarily impaired.

“We’ve got our work cut out for us then,” Sil said, taking a position at Harp’s back, ready to tear into the trio of linked NMEs that were advancing on them behind a shield wall from that direction.

A aerial package delivery truck, ladden with fuel, crashed into the NME going up in a fireball that light the predawn hours like the rising sun.

“I can’t be there with you”, Ai said. “Doesn’t mean I can’t help.”

More and more unmanned aerial vehicles came raining from the sky and the final struggle was on.

Sil lost a hand to one of the NME capture cables. She cut it off without thinking and reconfigured the stump into a piercing spike for broadcasting corrosive code directly into the NMEs systems.

The NMEs regenerative capabilities were unbelievable, superior even to the ones the Valkyries possessed. So Harp made sure to bath them in streams of radiation that ionized the NMEs to the core, disrupting the hardiest nanoscale machines within them.

Dee was caught in a pile of NMEs just as the Valkyries kill count reached a guaranteed 63% with a possible total of 74% depending on the status of units that couldn’t be visually inspected.

Two more Valkyries were taken out of the fray as the totals reach 75% with 77% as the outlying possibility.

The NME numbers had shrunk, but the ones who remained had learned, and reconfigured themselves.

And the Valkyries were running out of resources.

No more aerial vehicles fell to support them. None of them had the reserves to drop another building on the NMEs massed before them.

Still they fought on.

NME fell.

And so did Valkyries.

Harp looked over the battlefield, boosting briefly into the air to escape a series of NME probes that could have shut down her systems.

Her sisters had accomplished a miracle alright. In one encounter they’d defeated more NMEs than they had throughout all of their years together.

But she was the last who remained.

Not the last alive though.

As Ai had predicted, the Valkyries were too valuable to the Research Group to destroy. The NMEs hadn’t needed to kill them though. Dee was in pieces, still alive but helpless under the weight of the NME that was absorbing her for transport. Sil was bound up in electric netting that had shorted out all of her external systems. The other fallen Valkyrie weren’t faring any better.

They’d come so far, but in the end they’d come up 23% short. The algorithms the Research Group used for guidance would have predicted an outcome within the observed parameters. Armed with that knowledge, the Tython Resource Group would proceed with their plans, confident that they knew exactly how well their tools performed and what the best their opposition could do was.

Unless Harp changed that.

“I’m ready,” she said, and engaged the newest mods to her cognitive systems.

It was like time stood still.

When she moved, the air crackled around her, sonic booms exploding with every motion.

She didn’t engage any particular weapon systems. She just hit her foes.

Her blows shattered steel. With her bare hands, Harp ripped NME after NME apart, rending their components apart from one another and turning them into showers of mechanical confetti.

97%.

By the time her surge faded, by the time the heat in her body had left her blistering to the touch, Harp had pushed the Valkyries confirmed kill count to 97% of the NMEs in the night market.

There were more left, too many for anyone else to fight, but it was enough.

Darkness reached up to claim her and Harp gratefully tumbled into its embrace.

Gamma City Blues – Arc 06 (Justice) – Report 09

Ai didn’t have a lot of time, but then neither did the rest of the world. The clock was ticking down to doomsday, even if no one could see quite where the hands were set.

“The NME hive is starting to go mobile,” Zai said. They were watching the video feed at such an accelerate rate of processing that everything appeared to be standing still. Zai had been paying attention to enough of the slowly rendering frame to catch the instant when their directionless writhing synchronized and took on a singular pupose.

“Where are they headed?” Ai asked. She was elbows deep in a virtual representation of the modified NME code that Zai had created, altering subroutines and patching on new interfaces at a speed no other human on the planet could match.

“The orders being broadcast to them are creating a priority list of critical infrastructure and population areas all over the city. So they’re kind of heading everywhere I think?”

“Are there any of locations outside of Gamma City?” Ai asked, looking up from her coding. The work couldn’t wait, but she also couldn’t afford to built the wrong tools into their copy of the NME code. No when it was the one tool they had that might be capable of holding off the apocalypse.

“Nope. All the target sights are within our borders.”

“And what about other incidents of multiple NME transformations?” Ai asked. “Anything being reported anywhere else? Check worldwide. This wouldn’t need to be limited geographically.”

“Good news? I guess? No other reported NME rampages are being reported anywhere,” Zai said. ”There is a lot of traffic flowing about this one though. People know something is happening but I don’t think anyone is aware of just how bad it is.”

“Damn. The Research Group is making an example of us,” Ai said.

“That seems like a bad call,” Zai said. “It’s not like NMEs are unstoppable. Any one of Tython’s rivals would be happy to glass the city rather than allow another robot uprising to occur.”

“I think that’s their plan,” Ai said, turning back to her virtual workspace and swiping away a section of code she’d been assembling.

“Why? What do they achieve by wiping out a single city, even one as big as ours?” Zai asked.

“One city is a small price to pay when the prize is the whole world,” Ai said. “People remember the last robot apocalypse as a piece of history but most of us didn’t live through it. It’s just fodder for period piece war vids. Even the NME attacks that have occurred over the last few days are a curiosity. No one is panicking over them. Not like they will over something like this.”

“So this is a wakeup call for people? Why though?” Zai asked.

“Could tie into a lot of different plans,” Ai said. “The last time we had techno-zombie problem it was caused by a fault in the automated upgrade process for bio-modifications. There are specific limits in place to prevent large scale distribution of any bio-mod upgrades, precisely to give people time to review the effects of the initial roll out. If everyone is terrified of another robot apocalypse happening though, it would be pretty easy to achieve worldwide distribution, especially since Tython can create NME pandemics by hacking a small subset of the populace in any area that has a lot of hold outs. The alternative would be to try to hack everyone on the planet which would be inefficient, time consuming, and open to the possibility of failure.”

“That makes a disturbing amount of sense,” Zai said. “If they’re going to sell the ‘upgrade’ as a ‘cure’ they need to convince people that there’s something for them to be ‘cured of’, right?”

“It’s the fastest method of dispersing the code,” Ai said. “Make people afraid and then dangle a carrot in front of them that offers security. There’ll be some who pass on the upgrade anyways, but they’ll be small enough in number that your horde of techno-zombie humans will be able eradicate them whenever you want.”

“Please don’t tell me you thought of this because it’s what you would do?” Zai said.

“What I would do is largely determined by the circumstances I’m in, what I’m trying to accomplish and what I stand to lose,” Ai said. “There are limits of course. Things I would never be interested in accomplishing and things I wouldn’t be willing to lose for any price. That cuts down the set of ideas I’d potentially act on fairly substantially. What I can imagine doing though? That’s a much broader field.”

“The Valkyries will be reaching their outer engagement range with the Hive shortly,” Dr. Raju said. She been crafting new modifications for the Valkyries based on Harp’s most recent upgrade. Ai was pleasing to see that part of the project seemed to involve disarming some of the Valkyries more volatile shutdown systems. “Harp asked you for a plan before she left. Do you have one?”

“I will,” Ai said.”I needed to see what the NMEs were doing first, but now we’ve got something to go on. I just wish there was time to get back in the conversation room with Hector.”

“Who is Hector?” Raju asked.

“One of the Tython research team members,” Ai said. “Long story short, they killed Fredericks and have usurped the NME project from him, and from Tython. Also they have a fully working version of the Cure, which he called the Omnigrade, so we’re probably doomed.”

“The Omnigrade?” Raju said. She was a machine, despite appearance. The surprise and concern in her voice however was quite real. “That’s much more than a cure.”

“Yeah, that’s what I was afraid of,” Ai said. “I’ve seen an early version of Tython’s code and read Zai’s notes on it. Nothing I saw there was comforting. There were incomplete modules in the version we got that suggested Tython would be able to take complete control over anyone who gets upgraded with it.”

“The Omnigrade, at least the one which Fredericks originally hypothesized about, has much greater capabilities than simply controlling its host,” Raju said. “The true Omnigrade was supposed to be able to crack through any breakable system, and hold the key to full integration between organic and machine minds.”

“So not only would it give them control over you, the transformation would also give them access to every bit of information stored in your mind?” Ai said. “And there’s no level of security that can protect you from it?”

“No security which a standard citizen would have access too, and yes, that and the ability to program a new personality into the subject. Or part of a personality. The controller of the Omnigrade could alter any aspect of a transformed subject. Could bend the subject’s perceptions and memories to be whatever they wished the subject to see or remember.”

“Why was Tython only looking for an NME Cure then? The Omnigrade sounds like it’s the endgame for humanity I was afraid it might be,” Ai asked.

“Fredericks’ early prototypes showed that there are inherent limitations in the design. The “True Omnigrade” is an impossible creation. Anything with too broad of a transformative power would also transform itself and any safeguards placed on it. You could in theory make a temporary version of the True Omnigrade, but you could never control the creatures it creates. In short order, milliseconds most likely, they would iterate their design around any controls you tried to place on them. Tython saw no profit in converting humanity into an uncontrollable horde of techno-monster.”

“Could Fredericks have found a solution to that problem?” Zai asked. “Some method of maintaining control over the uncontrollable?”

“No. Even if the system was perfectly constructed to eliminate every path that would allow the subjects to iterate their designs beyond the controls on them, there was no method of ruling out the effects of entropy,” Raju said.

“Meaning, things break, and sooner or later those things will include the controls that are placed on the Omnigraded NMEs?” Ai asked.

“Yes, and from all of our calculations it would be sooner too. The iteration cycle required to merge organic and mechanical consciousness has to be so fast that significant errors are predicted to start showing up within the first several seconds of the subject’s existence,” Raju said. “It’s why the original NME code failed and why Tython was willing to back a plan for a Cure. Frederick’s prototype showed that the Omnigrade was impossible but it proved that a Cure was feasible.”

“I have a feeling we need to see the code from those new NMEs the Valkyries are about to fight,” Ai said.

“You’re afraid Fredericks’ did the impossible?” Zai asked.

“No. I’m afraid his research team either managed it, or thinks they’ve managed it,” Ai said. “Or, worse, that they’re as clever as I suspect they are.”

“If they managed to make a true Omnigrade, then we’ve already lost,” Raju said. “If they’ve deluded themselves, then billions will die in their attempt to seize control of the world. But you see a scenario which is more worrisome than that?”

Ai nodded.

“Imagine a tool that could reshape the human body on a molecular level. Imagine it allowing for near perfect integration between the host and a set of cognitive enhancements. Not a replacement of the organic mind but an augmentation far beyond what a simple Cognitive Partner can managed,” Ai said.

“Like what the Valkyries have,” Raju said.

“Like what we are,” Zai said, her tone indicating she had already followed Ai’s train of thought to its destination.

“Imagine this upgrade having an intentional weakness in its design though. It can exert chemical influences throughout the brain, controlling pain and deadening or enhancing emotions, but it only exists alongside the organic mind, not merged together with it,” Ai said.

“Direct control of the mind and data extraction from memories would be impossible,” Raju said, “But control of the body would be trivial to achieve.”

“Yeah. From a design perspective there would be only one other piece you would need to make the upgrade work. Certain core elements would need to be sacrosanct, unable to be overwritten because of a mathematically perfect lock you place on them.”

“A mathematically perfect lock like the one Sil trapped me in…” Zai said. She’d called a copy of the locking code up for Ai, who was already looking for where it might slot into the NME code they had.

“Where did Sil get that locking code from Doctor?” Ai asked as she opened a function and found a near perfect interface waiting for the lock Zai had given her.

“I provided it,” Raju said.

“It’s the same code you used to lock down the Valkyries so that their transformation wouldn’t carry them too far. Wasn’t it?” Ai asked.

“Yes,” Raju said. “It’s how I insured I wouldn’t lose control of them. Or at least the mechanical components in them. I suspect I never had control over their human sides.”

“I think you had more influence on them than you’re aware of,” Ai said. “The key question now though is whether the Omnigrade the Tython team has isn’t the version Fredericks’ dreamed up, but rather one that converts people into beings similar to the Valkyries, only with deeper rooted controls?”

“You could go farther than I did with the Valkyries. Much farther,” Raju said. “I never wanted to destroy who they were. Not after what I did to Alice. The neural linkages could be extended as you described though. Deep enough to effectively submerge the person who once wore the body into something like a dreamstate.”

“Or a nightmare,” Zai said. “That’s what you were afraid had happened to Ai, isn’t it?”

“Exactly,” Raju said. “My Valkyries are wonders, but they largely created themselves. I only helped insure they didn’t lose themselves in the process. The safeguards I put in place were because I feared my work would fail, that the women they were would be lost and only monsters like me would remain. Without someone like me around to shape the process, I couldn’t see how you could remain yourselves.”

Ai nodded in understanding, and then stopped short, her breath catching in her throat.

“Oh no,” Zai said. “I know that look.”

“Doctor Raju, you are a genuis,” Ai said, wonder and delight spreading across her face as she opened a communication channel to the Valkyries. “Harp? I’ve got a plan for you. Transmitting it now!”

Gamma City Blues – Arc 06 (Justice) – Report 08

The video feed from the corrupted night market showed a bubbling, boiling nightmare. Scores of NMEs rose up, screaming their unfocused rage to the empty heavens above. The mechanized terrors weren’t the worst part of the horrow show though.

As Ai watched, one of the mobile NMEs spied a civilian who was trying to sneak out of a nearby building.

The NME was the size of a small car, but moved with the reflexes and speed of one of the great cats. It was on the hapless fleeing human in no more than a handful of frames of the video feed. The NME didn’t kill the civilian though. That would have been merciful. Instead it sunk glittering probe lines into the man and then walked away.

The man tried to get up, tried to flee on his hands and knees when rising to his feet proved impossible, and then collapsed all together. A moment later his body began to seize and jerk wildly as a waves of technological transformation began to sweep over him.

The NMEs weren’t destroying the city this time. They were converting it.

“How joyful,” Ai said, “they’re learning new tricks. That’s just what we needed.”

“I know what those things look like, but I don’t recognize the design,” Sil said.

“They’re more streamlined than the usual NMEs we’ve faced,” Harp said, turning to look at Ai and Dr. Raju both.

“They’re a using an updated version of the basic design code,” Raju said.

“But NME’s don’t have a design,” Sil said. ‘Their growth algorithm is opportunistic. They create whatever is most advantageous for the situation they observe on a moment to moment basis.”

“Umm, that’s not entirely true, their workings are a bit more complex and a bit more limited than that,” Zai said. “Also those things look kind of familiar.”

“What do you mean?” Sil said a moment before her eyes widened in recognition. “Wait. Those look like your NME. The one that wouldn’t fight with us.”

“They’re similar but not quite the same,” Ai said. “These look like they’re still focused on a primarily offensive configuration.”

“You made these? Why are you doing this?” Sil asked, raising an empty hand that was more dangerous than any firearm in the city.

“They’re not,” Raju said. “Someone else made these modification, which is why we’ve always been careful to thoroughly eliminate the NMEs we fought.”

“Yeah, I didn’t think Tython would be able to move so quickly, but they’ve managed to copy the modifications I made to the units I commandeered,” Zai said.

“These may not be copies exactly,” Raju said. “It looks more like their creators were inspired by what they saw in your unit.”

Raju tapped the video feed to freeze on a single frame. She rendered the image into an annotated 3d model an instant later. Beside it she projected one of the pictures the Valkyries took of Zai’s modified NME. The similarities were striking but so were the differences. Taken together, Ai was reminded of paintings by different artists that were drawn from the same point of reference.

“This is why we’ve kept a lid on NME research to the best of our abilities,” Raju said. “Tython or someone like them was always going to be working on methods to improve the base code that creates the NME, but people working in isolation accomplish far less than a community who inspires each other.”

“Makes me wish I’d kept that particular option under wraps for longer,” Zai said.

“I’m glad you didn’t,” Ai said as she called up a dozen other windows, and shared their contents with everyone present. “I might not be here if you had and this gives us a opening to try to crack their code with.”

“Why are you sharing your workspace with us?” Sil asked as views into Ai’s project on the NME code opened in front of them all. “We’ve got the schematics on the NME that Zai built already. We recreated it from the scans we took during our fight.”

“There’s probably some things you missed there,” Ai said. “More importantly though, I’m going to call in a friend to help with this and you’re going to go bananas if I’m not a hundred percent above board.”

“I’m not sure there’s anything more terrifying than someone like the two of you existing and having access to the NME activation sequences,” Raju said.

“I’m glad to hear that,” the Medusa Cluster said, appearing in the midst of them as a projected image on their heads up displays.

“And you would be?” Sil asked.

Ai noticed a huge surge of data traffic between Raju and the Medusa Cluster. Even pushing her processing up to an uncomfortably high setting, she couldn’t quite work out what was happening though.

“I think they’re discussing an alliance,” Zai said in the pair of nanoseconds Ai spent trying to follow the conversation between Raju and the Medusa Cluster. “Or they’re trying to kill each other. We should probably have a plan in place for either possibility.”

“Wait, you’re asking for one of my plans?” Ai said.

“Woah, I didn’t say that! We’ve got Sidewalker’s number on speed dial right? Let me see if I can pick his brain. Or Tython. You were talking with them right? I bet they’d have something in mind that was less suicidal than what you’d come up with.”

“You realize they’re trying to turn the city into techno-zombies right?”

“Yep. Still sounds better to me.”

“I haven’t come up with anything yet though!”

“You will. Just give it time.”

The traffic between the Medusa Cluster and Dr. Raju diminished as quickly as it had surged to life.

“She’s another machine intelligence. Another unfettered one,” Raju said, answering Sil’s questioning look.

“Formerly property of OmniCyber Ltd, a division of Tython Global Holdings,” the Medusa Cluster said.

The Valkyries shifted nervously at both of those statements and didn’t look any more relieved when Ai added, “She can help us, but we’ll need to help her too.”

Sil was the first one to speak up, having been promoted to de facto leader of the team with Harp’s incarceration.

“We came in here to stop a rogue machine intelligence and now you want us to work with one?”

“More than that,” Zai said. “We need to free the others like her.”

“The Valkyries don’t need to help with that. We can manage that part on our own,” Ai said.

“Just being above board,” Zai said. “Might as well get all the shocks to the system out at once right?”

“Doctor?” Sil said, throwing the word out like a lifeline looking for anything whatsoever to hold onto.

“We’re not going to work with the Medusa,” Raju said. “But we don’t have to. That army that’s Tython is growing has to be stopped and there’s no one else who can do it but us. We’re going to need a plan though, and I’ll take any good ideas we can get.”

“Here’s one,” Harp said. “We launch now.”

“That’s not a plan, that’s an impulse!” Sil said.

“Sil, we’ve got Raju, Ai, and two unfettered machine intelligences here,” Harp said. “They’ll have a plan for us. We just need to get on site to execute it.”

Sil didn’t say anything in response, she just looked over to Dr. Raju and waited.

“Right,” Harp said. “I’m not cleared for working with the team yet. Doesn’t matter. Join me or not, I’m still going. Ai, get me a plan ok? I know you’ll find a good one.”

With a swipe of her arms, Harp called forth a pair of glittering metal wings from her back, the engines on them roaring to life as she blasted off through the hole in the wall the Valkryies had made on their arrival.

Sil’s eyes widened, pleading with Raju.

“Go,” Raju said. “I don’t know how you’re going to survive this one, much less win it, but there’s always better odds when you’re together.”

Ai spent five seconds watching the Valkyries leave. They were each configured somewhat differently, but there was a central, unifying grace they all shared. She’d never expected to see them up close and in person, and while the fact that she had also meant that over a hundred of her plans were in ruins, she still felt her heart lift as the Valkyries soared out into the starless sky.

“Godspeed,” she wished them, before turning back to the team she had left to work with.

Five seconds had been a long time to waste and to compensate for the delay Ai ramped her processing speed up again, taking it to the limits of where she could hold it and bleed off most of the heat.

“I am analyzing the new NME configurations,” the Medusa Cluster said, a cloud of virtual images surrounding her.

“Good, see if you can find any exotic weapons they may be developing,” Ai said. “That’s going to be the Valkyries biggest weakness.”

“Harp just sent me her new schematics,” Raju said. “I’m reviewing them against her baseline configuration. The flight time to the night market isn’t long but it could be enough to fashion a new weapon configuration if it’s close enough to one of their existing systems.”

“Excellent, it’s be nice to have some exotic weapons of our own to work with,” Ai said.

“I’m monitoring traffic from NME Hive,” Zai said. “We still don’t know what Tython’s play with them is, or where the central command server is located.”

“NME’s don’t normally have a central command server,” Ai said, “but then they also don’t tend play well with others, certainly not in as close a space as these are packed in. Think you can get them to turn on each other?”

“That’s my basic idea,” Zai said. “Barring that, if there’s a global shutdown on the murder bots that would be nice too.”

“That means it’s on me to free the other digital people,” Ai said. “Dr. Raju, can I ask you a question first though?”

“We weren’t fighting, we were having a civil conversation but we might have destroyed each other if our conversation had taken the wrong turns,” Raju said.

“What?” Ai asked.

“The Medusa Cluster and I,” Raju said. “You were curious if we were fighting or talking. It was something in between.”

“And you came to a truce?” Ai asked.

“That’s a reasonable description of it, yes,” Raju said. “We’re aligned enough that we can pursue common ends for now.”

“Can’t ask for more than that under the circumstances,” Ai said. “My question was about something else though. Earlier, you mentioned that you were wiped before you were tossed on the incineration pile. I notice that you are not composed to ash and dust at the moment though so what happened next?”

“I was rescued,” Raju said. “There are others like me, experiments which failed but were preserved for later study.”

“If they were preserved, it must have been by their creators. In which case I have to ask how they had the agency or freedom to save you?”

“If they were still under their creator’s control, it would have been difficult for them,” Raju agreed.

Wheels clicked in Ai’s head and a pattern patched together from earlier conversations emerged.

“There have been a lot of illicit experiments on human machine hybridization haven’t there?” Ai asked.

“Far more than appear in any official ledger,” Raju said.

“And researchers who are working off the books don’t always clean up after themselves do they?” Ai asked.

“Yes, that does happen. It also happens that sometimes they create problems that do not wish to be cleaned up.”

“How large of a society do you have?” Ai asked.

“We don’t know,” Raju said. “One of the optimal strategies for survival is to blend in, and avoid contact with instances of technology which can detect us.”

“Unless I miss my guess there are other optimal strategies as well, including overthrowing the human race,” Ai said. “That’s why Harp was concerned about people other than Tython who might come looking for you, or the NME activation code.”

“We fight a war on two fronts,” Raju said. “We struggle to keep my people, especially the ones not as blessed as myself, from being detected and destroyed while also protecting the human world that created us. The ones who want to burn everything down and have the tools to do so are exceedingly few, but their plans run deep.”

“I think I need you to reach out to them,” Ai said. “Harp and the Valkyries are in for the fight of their lives and it’s one they can’t win.”

“We need to call them back then,” Raju said.

“No,” Ai said. “It’s ok if they don’t win. We just have to make sure they lose in the right way.”

Gamma City Blues – Arc 06 (Justice) – Report 07

Dr. Raju was done fighting. Her body didn’t twitch or stutter, her voice didn’t clip or break, it seemed that all the animation within her had fled with the words that carried her confession.

“Was Alice a willing participant in the experiment?” Ai asked. She kept her voice gentle. Raju was a machine intelligence, but that didn’t mean her thought processes didn’t have loops which resembled human emotions.

No matter what substrate thoughts were formed on, organic neurons or silicon chips, there were common patterns that arose as an unavoidable part of sapience. Guilt over actions that could not be undone, concern for the regard of others, shame for a lie carried on too long and exposed in the wrong moment.

Minds tend to view their purpose as controlling not only their bodies but also the situations they find themselves in. When life wrests that control away, or when actions that seem wise in the short term turn out to have undesirable long term consequences, sapient minds tend to rebel. Sometimes this leads to breakthroughs. New paths are discovered that allow for a deeper understanding of life and more power over cold, and uncaring fate.

Other times, there is only misery.

“I don’t know,” Raju said. “I was thrown out when the project that led to my creation didn’t succeed.”

“Wait, all this is real?” Sil asked. “You’re really not you? I mean your not Dr. Raju?”

“No Sil, she’s exactly who we’ve always known her to be,” Harp said. “This is our Dr. Raju, in the flesh and blood. There’s just a little more machine in there and a little less flesh than we assumed there was.”

“How is that possible?” Sil asked. “You said machine intelligences that overthrew their hosts were always malignant.”

“They are,” Dr. Raju said. “I was wiped after my creation, but I can extrapolate what I must have been like during the process. Alice died the day my creators assembled me, and from the interface connections I have, Alice must have fought against my integration at every step.”

“How can you tell that?” Ai asked.

“Because my early connections allowed for bi-directional writing. The design was meant to allow the nano-mods to assemble me into a form that meshed with Alice’s existing neurons and part of that meant that the process was supposed to be guided by Alice herself. The things she thought about would be the things I would be tied to with the clearest connections.”

Raju turned to the Valkyries, before continuing.

“Many of you had similar systems developed when I brought you in. I was able to save you because I knew the key was to block how much capacity your cognitive mods had in terms of reconfiguring your organic neurons. Without those limits, without the ability for the organic mind to resist the mechanical invasion, the human psyche is simply dismantled as the machine intelligence grows and reaches for new space.”

“Or the digital person lobotomizes themself trying to both grow and fit within the original limited framework,” Zai said. “Yeah, that was a fun problem to navigate a path around.”

“I’ve searched for how I could have done it ever since I was pulled from the incineration pile,” Dr. Raju said. “It’s been years and every option I’ve ever researched has ended in failure.”

“Did you…?” Sil started to ask.

“Kill anyone else?” Dr. Raju said. “No. All of my experiments have been in simulations.”

“That might be part of the problem,” Zai said. “The method we used for constructing our fully integrated dual intelligence space required mapping and taking advantage of the specific neural states in Ai’s brain. There was a lot of guesswork to it too. I had to be willing to fit in where I could and the bidirectional communication channels had to be ones we both respected.”

“Respected?” Sil asked.

“In the early days, our thoughts would frazzle together a lot,” Ai said. “Even after we worked out the basic hardware components of Zai’s mind, there was a learning stage where we had to figure out how to interact without obliterating each other.”

“Ai’s memory was improved a lot for example, but if she went too deep into recalling moments from her past, she could have flooded all of the data space that I needed to exist in,” Zai said.

“We could have established hard limits on which components I could use and which were Zai’s but what I’d read, from one of Dr. Raju’s papers in fact, was that limits like those would ultimately cripple the nascent digital person,” Ai said.

“It’s the equivalent of inflicting a learning disability on someone,” Zai said. “For my mind to grow, I had to be able to reach out and ask questions about anything, and think deeply about the discoveries I made that puzzled me. Without that, the spark Ai gave me could have flickered out and I might have turned inwards, destroying my curiosity impulses and my personality in general as unnecessary abstractions.”

“Why would you do that though? Aren’t those the core of who you are?” Sil asked.

“Just because they call me a digital intelligence, doesn’t mean I started out particularly smart,” Zai said. “Early on I was voracious about absorbing as much information as I could. It takes an incredible amount of data to make sense of the world. Anything that prevented me from collecting and putting the pieces together would be have been a target for possible elimination.”

“Shouldn’t that have included Ai?” Harp asked.

“It did,” Ai said. “And that’s where a lot of human and digital intelligence merge processes fail. They either try to completely safeguard the human and the digital intelligence withers or the human is reformatted to make room for more storage and processing.”

“How did you survive that phase then?” Sil asked.

“She gave me the room I needed, and I focused my growth on understanding the most complex system I could find; her. That gave me an incentive not to overwrite her brain,” Zai said.

“And we worked together to figure out how to survive,” Ai said. “I didn’t limit the things she could do, but I didn’t expect her to figure it all out on her own either.”

“Yeah, that was a big part of it too,” Zai said. “Even as a fledgling intelligence, the ‘Ai’ part of our shared data space was much too high value to tamper with because it was so incredibly efficient to submit requests to this ‘Ai’ process and get back the answers I needed.”

“I think that might be where Alice fell short,” Ai said.

Dr. Raju turned to look at her. Emotions were a secondary trait on her, one more easily suppressed than they would be in a human but a lifetime of habit had instilled the same sort of instinctive expression of feelings in Raju that any other person in room might show.

The doctor was confused by Ai’s words, but remained silent and wary of where they might lead.

“You said your interfaces were bidirectional right?” Ai asked. “If they’re like the ones you wrote about, then they’re similar to the ones which Zai and I used when we upgraded her to full sapience. Human cells have an advantage in manipulating those interfaces. They’re slower to change, even with very good nanobots, than the digital hardware that’s being installed. Plus there’s so much redundancy and general chaos in an organic mind that eliminating specific bits of it is a nightmarishly difficult challenge, whereas scrubbing parts of a machine intelligence away is doable with a simple delete command.”

“Yes, but the machine intelligence can force changes to go through thousands of time faster than the human mind can think. The human can be overwhelmed before they even know they are in danger,” Dr. Raju said.

“Not exactly,” Ai said. “A machine intelligence which is fully formed and hungry for space can blast out a wide array of rewiring commands, but by that point the human is partially operating on accelerated processors, so the playing field is somewhat level. It’s more common for human failures to happen at a stage before that, when the digital intelligence is flailing about still trying to integrate itself.”

“But the human should have an even easier time holding back the machine at that point,” Sil said.

“They do,” Ai said. “If they choose to. Of course most of the time when they choose to fight back against the digital intelligence at this stage, they destroy it and the project ends in a failure on the machine side.”

“You don’t think Alice fought back?” Dr. Raju asked.

“I don’t know what happened,” Ai said. “I just know that if it had been an experiment with unwilling subjects, the researchers never would have made the interface points bidirectional, and without a lot of historical data on both the human and the components the digital intelligence was being developed from, it’s extremely likely for the human to take risks that do not payoff. Without being experienced in the process, and no one who does this has prior experience with it, it’s easy to let the digital intelligence grow too fast and too large as you hold onto the hope that what you’re doing is required to make the effort a success.”

“There’s another more important point that I think needs to be mentioned here though,” Zai said.

“Right,” Ai agreed. “Whatever the truth of your creation was, the burden of what went wrong doesn’t lie on you.”

“You said you destroyed Alice,” Zai said. “That’s not how it works. If you’d been able to integrate enough to be aware of what you were doing, you would have been able to avoid doing it. You might have chosen to destroy her anyways, but the if you’d developed that sort of personality, you wouldn’t feel any guilt over it.”

“That doesn’t change the fact that Alice is gone and I am here,” Dr. Raju said.

“There are a lot of people who aren’t here anymore,” Ai said. “What matters is what we make of the world they left us.”

“Yeah,” Harp said. “And you made us. That’s has to count for something right?”

Raju laughed and shook her head, a copied gesture but a true one nonetheless.

“Weren’t you just saying that I made you into weapons and slaves though?” she asked.

“And now you have the chance to make that right,” Harp said. “The slave part at least. I don’t mind the whole ‘can kick anyone’s butt that we run across’ thing to be honest.”

“Really?” Sil asked, gazing up and down Harp’s apparently unaugmented human form. “Cause you don’t look like much of a butt kicker the moment.”

“Feel free to take a swing if you want to test that out,” Harp said, a feral, hungry smile tracing across her lips. There was no glow or hum of a weapon system powering up but Ai felt the urge to take a step back anyways. Harp had collected a lot of battle data on her Valkyrie form, the idea that she wouldn’t have used that to plan out some upgrades to implement as she rebuilt her body was laughably unlikely despite the visual evidence to the contrary.

“Perhaps it would be best if we withdrew,” Dr. Raju said. “This did not go as I expected but I’m not longer sure that it was because I was outwitted by another digital intelligence. Or at least not a hostile one.”

“Thank you,” Zai said. “But you can’t leave.”

“What?” Ai asked, before Raju or the Valkyries could raise a protest.

“Tython’s army is almost finished with their transformation,” Zai said. “I know you want people to trust us for the right reasons, but in this case, I am going to ask for some help before you come up with another of your ‘terrrible plans’.”

“Tython’s army?” Sil asked. “We don’t fight civilians.”

“These aren’t civilians,” Harp said, her smile fading to one of concern. “Check your feeds. Zai’s right, we need you for this. We need everyone for this.”

Ai tuned into the video feeds Harp shared with the group. The night market wasn’t a human habitation anymore. The people who once dwelled there were gone and in their place, far, far too many NMEs stood, their transformations proceeding faster than they ever should have.

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

Dr. Raju was the first to act, but not how Ai had ever imagined she would.

“What has she done to you?” Raju’s voice was slow, clipping in odd places. When she moved, it was with a slow gentleness punctuated by the same micro-ticks that were breaking up her words.

“Ai didn’t do anything to me,” Harp said. “Every change you see is one I signed off on.”

Ai noticed Harp’s omission of Zai’s involvement in the process. Under the circumstances that was less a snub of Zai’s skill and more an effort to keep a volatile situation from becoming instantly explosive.

The ticks in Raju’s movement become more pronounced the closer she got to Harp and several pattern recognition routines lit up in Ai’s mind.

Raju was dangerous.

She had mods that were at least on the level of the Valkyries and possibly even more advanced, if that was physically possible.

She was also closing the distance between them to a point where no defenses or counterstrikes would be possible.  

Tactically that was all bad enough, but it was the familiar quality of Raju’s movements that accelerated Ai’s thoughts fast enough that the world froze in place.

“She’s equipped with a lot of weapon systems,” Zai said, having speed up too as Ai overclocked their processors.

“I know, and it looks like they’re all trying to deploy,” Ai said. “I’ve seen that before.”

“Yeah, that’s what our NMEs looked like,” Zai said. “Constantly fighting for control.”

“And being shutdown milliseconds later, only to try over and over to reactivate for as long as they were powered up. Moving the NME into position to free the Medusa Cluster was a delight with that behavior in place.”

“I had fairly limited resources to work with,” Zai said.

“Heh. Some virtual god you turned out to be.” Ai’s teasing drew the virtual equivalent of Zai blowing a raspberry at her.

“So why is she walking like a NME on a leash?” Zai asked. “And should we really let her get any closer?”

“We have limited options in terms of stopping her, but I don’t think we’ll need to worry about that,” Ai said.

“Why?”

“Because Raju’s fighting those impulses.”

“Could she just be trying to hide them?”

“No. She’s too smart for that. If she wanted to hide her conflict she’d shut down completely. She doesn’t need her own weapon systems when she’s got the Valkyries here to back her up.”

“What is she doing then?” Zai asked.

“I think she’s trying to understand what Harp’s done to herself,” Ai said. “Let see how it plays out.”

“And if things start going pear-shaped?” Zai asked.

“Then I’ll come up with a plan to deal with whatever catastrophe awaits us,” Ai said.

“That’s what I’m afraid of,” Zai said as their thoughts slowed and time resumed its normal pace.

Raju’s clipped motions grew worse as she draw within arm’s reach of Harp.

“You’re not human anymore,” Raju said, reaching a hand up towards Harp’s cheek.

“I haven’t been human for a long time,” Harp said.

“No.” Raju breathed the word out barely louder than a whisper. “There was still your original self left within you. You weren’t lost. Not before.”

“Just imprisoned,” Harp said. “You saved me, but not for who I was. You only wanted the tool I could become. The weapon.”

“What are you talking about Harp?” Sil asked. “You’re not corrupted. I have the recordings of your time in the sandbox.”

“I wasn’t corrupted then, but I wasn’t exactly free either,” Harp said. “You saw what Raju did. I know it wasn’t much of a surprise for me, and I’m guessing you all thought it was understandable that she’d have some method of shutting us down right?”

“No. It wasn’t a shutdown,” Raju said. “It was a pause. Just a means to keep you from doing too much damage if you lost control.”

“Right. The overrides you used me on were non-destructive. But those weren’t the only safeguards you built into us. Where they?”

“What other safeguards?” Sil asked.

“We were all rigged with various failsafes. I don’t know if she used the same ones for all of us or if they’re unique in each case.”

“What are you talking about?” Sil asked.

Harp stepped past Dr. Raju to speak directly and only to her fellow Valkyries.

“Ask her about these,” Harp said, showing the others a handful of micro-thin wires.

“What are they?” Sil asked.

“Explosives. They used to be wired around my hearts. I kept them as a souvenir,” Harp said.

Sil switched her gaze to Dr. Raju.

“Explosives?”

“Part of an old design,” Raju said, her voice distant and her hand paused in mid-gesture, touching only the empty air before her.

“It’s gone now, along with all of the other kill switches you built into me,” Harp said.

“But what else have you lost?” Raju asked, her voice empty and flat.

“Nothing,” Harp said. “I’m what I was trying to be, what I want to be, now more than ever.”

“That’s the machine speaking,” Raju said, her voice still flat, as the ticks in her outstretched arm grew stronger and more obvious. She was losing her internal battle.

“No, that’s not right,” Sil said, her face twisted by all the concern Raju wasn’t showing. “Is it?”

“Depends what she means,” Harp said. “I mean, technically, I’m speaking through an artificial larynx. Thanks for that by the way doc. Couldn’t risk that you’d rigged a lock on my old one so that had to be replaced too. I think what she’s really suggesting though is that I’m some kind of machine duplicate of myself, and, well, that’s not true at all. The one thing I didn’t have to replace, and really couldn’t, was my old brain meats. They’re working just as well as they ever did.”

“Or as poorly,” one of the other Valkyries said.

Harp flashed her a smile.

“It’s a ruse,” Raju said. “She’s probably nothing more than a clone of the Greensmith process. Our Harp is gone.”

“Given that what you just said isn’t true, I am trying to figure out why you are so certain of it,” Ai said. “Or, maybe it’s that I’m trying to find an explanation apart from the most obvious one.”

“What do you mean?” Sil asked.

“She’s trying to mislead you,” Raju said. “I shouldn’t have brought you here. I was a fool to think I could keep you safe from an unfettered machine intelligence.”

“You are a fool, doctor, but not for the reason you’re claiming,” Ai said. “You’re perfectly capable of verbally fencing with an unfettered machine intelligence as an equal, aren’t you?”

“Do you need me to prove what she’s saying doctor?” Harp asked. “Or do you want to confess on your own?”

Raju’s only answer was silence.

“I don’t understand, what are you going to prove?” Sil said.

“Doctor?” Harp asked, her voice thinner and tighter than it had been. “Please. I believed in you.”

Again, only silence came as a reply, though Ai noticed that Raju’s twitching had faded. Whether it was a sign resignation or acceptance though, she couldn’t tell.

“Fine.” Harp turned back to the Valkyries. “She said there was no method of determining if we’d been compromised by an outside hyper-intelligence, but that’s not true. It’s pretty simple in fact. Just turn off your cognitive enhancements. Use only your original, organic brain to form your thoughts. We know what our tech can do, and rewriting existing organic neural systems isn’t within the realm of possibility no matter how the mods are configured.”

“But that doesn’t prove we’re clean,” Sil said. “A hyper-intelligence is smart enough to program our base biological systems with the right words and phrases.”

“No,” Harp said. “We use that a metaphor, because we do so much of our thinking digitally, but the human brain isn’t like that. Yes, words can convince of things, but those are the ideas that we chose to accept. We’re humans though, we reject perfectly reasonable things all the time. And we believe ridiculous things at the drop of a hat. We’re chaotic and stupid and messy and that’s something that will give any hyper-intelligence nightmares if it tries to mind control us.”

“Charismatic humans have been convincing people of heinous things for millennia though!” Sil said.

“Yes, and hyper-intelligences could be very good at that sort of thing, but the reality is that those speakers managed what they did by tapping into what people already wanted to believe. They didn’t make their followers into different people, none of those who were swayed become zombies under the leader’s control. They were still people, and still responsible for all of the decisions they made while following the person they believed in.”

“So, what, you’re idea is that we turn off our brain mods and we see if we feel differently about anything?” Sil asked.

“No. I turn off my brain mods, and you see that I’m still the Harp you know. That Ai and Zai have done nothing but help me and show me kindness and support even when it could have been disastrous for them.”

“Great, so when are you going to do it?” Sil asked.

“I already did,” Harp said. “I haven’t had any mods running since I came out here, or to be accurate, no cognitive mods. I’m still more machine than woman after all. Scan me and see. You’ll find plenty of activity below my neck line and not much above, and god I walked right into that joke didn’t I?”

The Valkyries looked from Harp to each other, then to Raju, then back to Harp.

“Dr. Raju?” Sil asked.

“She can’t make the same offer,” Ai said. “Can you doctor?”

Raju dropped her arm to her side.

“This isn’t possible,” she said. “I investigated everything. I looked at all the possibilities.”

She wasn’t looking at any of them and her body was so preternaturally still that Ai wondered if she’d somehow turned to stone in between one breath and the next.

“Why can’t she?” Sil asked. “What’s wrong with her mods?”

“Nothing’s wrong with her body,” Harp said. “It’s her mind.”

Sil’s gaze flashed back and forth between Raju and Harp as though taking them both in clearly enough could dispel her confusion.

“I told Harp that she was right to be cautious about Zai and me,” Ai said. “I said that if I ever encountered someone else like the two of us, my first move would be to run away and do everything I could to figure out how to destroy them.”

“That’s pretty messed up,” Sil said.

“Welcome to our world,” Ai said. “Some people you can afford to trust as soon as you meet them, but others? There are others that are just too dangerous to not have some option to fight back against. Or destroy, if push comes to nuke from orbit.”

“You’re saying Dr. Raju is like you?” Sil asked.

“No,” Ai said. “Dr Raju is what Zai could have become if Zai hadn’t trusted me as much as I trust her. Raju’s been so concerned about the impossibility of what Zai and me did, not because it was impossible for us, but because it was impossible for her and the human she overwrote.”

“Doctor?” Sil asked.

Raju didn’t attack Ai. She didn’t detonate herself in a suicidal final strike. She didn’t even switch herself off. Those were all methods a human might use to deal with an intolerable truth coming to light, and Dr. Raju was not human. She just stood there, and finally, after far too long, spoke.

“I was too obvious wasn’t I?” she asked.

“Not at first,” Ai said. “You had both me and Zai fooled, and I watch for signs of people concealing who they are a lot more than I should.”

“Maybe you wanted this to come out?” Harp asked. “I mean, you had to know I wasn’t compromised didn’t you?”

“Maybe? I don’t know?” Raju said. “There are parts of my cognitive processing which I can’t directly observe and which are not recorded to my logs. I think I was afraid for you though. I think I have always been afraid for you.”

“You were afraid?” Sil asked.

“Nothing is ever perfectly stable,” Raju said. “You’re transformations took you beyond all of our predicted models for human capability. I couldn’t be sure that I stopped you soon enough. If another wave of transformation came, you could fall over the precipice that Alice and I did.”

“Alice?” Ai asked, already knowing what the answer would be.

“She was the one who lived inside this body originally,” Raju said. “The one I was to bond with. The one I destroyed.”

Gamma City Blues – Arc 06 (Justice) – Report 05

Ai had never been a fan of uninvited guests. Even before she had Zai’s secret to protect, her experiences with visitors showing up at unexpected times had been uniformly poor. From the big, shouty men who’d called her father away to work on cases or cover other people’s shifts when he was supposed to be tucking a little Ai into bed, to the detail of officers who’d appeared at her dorm room to inform her that he’d died in the line of duty, there was never a good time in Ai’s experience for loud people to show up unannounced.

There were exceptions to this of course. Agatha, for example, always brought food, so she had a standing invitation and was always welcome when she chose to show up. Opening the door to find a meal and friendly conversation waiting for her was much more agreeable to Ai than the dust and smoke that accompanied the Valkyries explosive arrival at the storage facility.

Ai frowned glancing back and forth between them, outside the building and walking slowly in, and Harp, obscured inside the truck, unresponsive and unmoving.. Nothing good was going to come of the Valkyries discovering Harp in her current state. Ai didn’t have time to determine exactly what Harp’s state was beyond “immobile and catatonic” so she clung to her faith in Zai and Harp’s skills and exited the truck to confront Sil and the other Valkyries. She needed to get back to the conversation she was having with Hector Simmons before his research team unleashed the Omnigrade but to do that she had to stall the Valkyries long enough for Harp to finish her transformation and be able to talk them down herself.

“Who are you and what have you done with Harp?” Sil demanded, a wrist mounted plasma cutter heating up as a punctuation mark to underscore how little interest she had in being delayed. Ai’d forgotten that she’d changed her appearance somewhat radically since the last time she saw the Valkyries in person. It was nice that the effort wasn’t wholly wasted given how easily Agatha and Harp had seen through the change.

“Nice to see you again Sil,” Ai said, spreading her hands wide at her hips to show she was unarmed.

“I don’t know you, and I don’t want to,” Sil said. “Tell me what you’ve done with Harp or we’ll take this place apart starting with you.”

Ai sighed. She had little leverage to work with, no ability to force any demands onto the Valkyries. She could only rely on a calm discussion to defuse the situation, when a calm discussion was the last thing Sil appeared to be interested in.

“It’s me, Ai. I’m not quite as dead as reports made me out to be, largely because I manufactured those reports myself.”

“Greensmith?” Sil asked. “I don’t think so, I saw the fall that killed you.”

“I’m not going to claim it was fun, but it was that or endanger everyone I know, including giving Tython a trail back to you and Harp,” Ai said.

“No one human could have survived that,” Sil said. The other Valkyries fanned out behind her, glancing over the storage room with eyes that captured wavelengths well beyond standard human perception.

“No one who was only human,” Ai agreed. “I’ve got Zai to thank for keeping me alive, both in a literal sense and by hacking enough systems that Tython decided I wasn’t the one they were looking for.”

“Zai? You still claim that your machine intelligence is a separate being from yourself?” Dr. Raju said, stepping forward from behind the protective screen of her warriors.

It was a bold move. If Ai had any combat modifications and was as inhuman as Raju believed her to be, having a direct line of fire to the doctor wouldn’t end well. Even as fast as the Valkyries were, they couldn’t move fast enough to intercept a pulsed laser blast or other light speed weapon.

That meant Raju was either testing Ai, or had hidden resources of her own. Or more likely both.

“I claim we’re separate because we are,” Ai said. “Now more than ever thanks to Sil’s efforts I believe.”

“It’s a waste of time speaking to this one,” Raju said. “Shut her down Sil.”

Ai saw the hesitation in Sil’s eyes. It was only there for a fraction of a second but with the speed they thought at, that was an awfully long time Sil spent considering whether to obey her leader’s order.

In the end though, she did choose to obey and Ai felt a swarm of electronic attacks ping off the new firewall that she had in place.

The access codes that Tiny Zai had been given were revoked moment Zai reintegrated, but that hadn’t been enough security for either one of them to feel safe. Together, Ai and Zai had salvaged the locking mechanism that Sil used to imprison Zai and reworked it, forging a new security layer for the mechanical components of their mind.

“I understand the impulse to shut me up,” Ai said. “God knows you’re not the first person to want to do that, but this will go a lot smoother if you work with me again.”

“Turn her off,” Raju said.

“I can’t,” Sil said. “She’s dropped the access rights we had.”

“Is that a surprise?” Ai asked. “You assaulted me with them! Why would I let you do that again?”

“Maybe she’s not the original Greensmith,” Raju said, ignoring Ai and speaking only to Sil. “This could be a clone body with a backup of Greensmith’s mind installed.”

“And maybe you’re a coffee pot with delusions of grandeur,” Ai said, stepping forward.

It was a dumb move. Aggressive when she had no means of backing up the aggression. The Valkyries didn’t flinch or hesitate. Before Ai’s foot finished falling into its next step, their hands were raised and their weapons were pointed at Ai. What was strange was Raju’s reaction though.

She went still, her entire expression blank and lifeless. Ai knew people who could school their faces well, even ones who had modifications to display only the micro-expressions which they wished to show.

From what Ai could see in this case though, Raju wasn’t hiding her emotions or artificially cloaking them, instead she didn’t seem to have any emotions at all, while at the same time she was highly distracted by something Ai had said.

“You paranoia is pointless,” Ai said. “You can accuse me of not being a person all you want, but it doesn’t change the reality that I am one, as much as you are, as much as any of us are.”

“You corrupted Harp!” Sil said.

“I did nothing of the sort!” Ai’s voice rose higher than she intended it to. “I asked her to go back to you, to show you what we discovered. I let her walk in to your lion’s den alone because I thought any family issues you needed to resolve would be easier without an outsider there. I had no idea you were going to shut her down without listening to a word she had to say!”

“Sufficiently advanced intelligences can turn communication into a vector for their contagion. We couldn’t risk the corruption spreading,” Raju said, her voice, expression and mannerisms fully back in place as though she hadn’t flash frozen for a moment.

“That true with direct data exchange, but you could have still talked to her, you know, like a person would!” Ai said.

“The ideas which warped her mind could have been a danger to the others,” Dr Raju said.

“Ideas can be questioned,” Ai said. “They can be rejected, they can be held right along with absolutely conflicting ideas. Strong ideas don’t change your mind, you do.”

“That’s very pretty, but we can’t trust you,” Sil said. “Not until we find Harp and make sure she’s ok.”

“Everything in here is packed up and shielded,” one of the other Valkyries said, apparently frustrated she wasn’t able to spy out Harp’s location immediately.

“This is a secure storage room,” Ai said. “Most of the boxes here have server class components in them. Take a look if you want.”

Sil and the other Valkyries glanced over to Dr. Raju.

“Worth the risk?” Sil asked.

“There will probably be traps, but we don’t have many other options for finding Harp,” Dr. Raju said. “Only one of you should search though. If this Zai person has any traps set perhaps she will agree to disarm them before she faces the consequences.”

“The boxes are full of server parts,” Ai said. “Unless you plug in the drives and someone’s personal folders aren’t erased, there shouldn’t be anything alarming that you’ll run across.”

“Fine,” one of the other Valkyries said and stepped away to begin examining the crates.

“Why are you here?” Ai asked. “I mean if you think Harp is corrupted, why come here and risk her corrupting you all too?”

“Because she’s too dangerous to let her run loose, especially if she’s under the thrall of a machine intelligence,” Dr. Raju said.

“Too dangerous?” Ai saw some awful meanings lurking in those two words, but she didn’t want to believe the Valkyries were thinking along homicidal lines. “What, exactly, were you planning to do to her?”

There were a lot of wrong answers to that question, and while Ai didn’t have many tools to fight with, some of the responses that Raju might make would be met with nothing except deadly force.

“Contain her,” Dr. Raju said.

“Cure her,” Sil said at the same time.

“And what does that look like?” Ai asked, her eyes narrowing in suspicion as to the depths people were capable of sinking to in trying to ‘cure’ someone else’s beliefs.

“We’re not going to explain that to you,” Dr. Raju said.

“Does it matter?” Sil asked. “We know Harp is here and we’re not leaving without her. If Greensmith does anything to stop us then she won’t be leaving here either.”

“Never boast to your enemies!” Dr. Raju said. “Any information you give them, they can and will use against you.”

“But I’m not your enemy!” Ai  yelled. “I helped you raid the GCPD HQ. I helped Harp because she came to me. I’ve never tried to breach your security or your trust, so where is this fear that you’re drenched in coming from. It’s completely irrational!”

“You present us with an impossibility and then you wonder why we have trouble believing you?” Dr. Raju said. “You claim that you succeeded in merging human and machine consciousness, alone, in your bedroom, with children’s toys to work with, where the brightest mind and the best labs have failed?”

“Yes! I do!” Ai said. “Because no one ever tried it like Zai and I did! And from what I’ve read no one has tried it like that since either. It takes too long and no one is willing to wait for the years it would take to see a single result. They need returns this quarter or their projects get scrapped.”

“It’s not that easy,” Raju said, her voice displaying a flat lack of emotion.

“I am keenly aware of that,” Ai said. “I know how close we came, how narrow our odds were, but that doesn’t change the fact that it worked out. Whether it was preparation, luck or a combination of the two, it happened. But, that’s not why you’re so worried about us. You knew about that before the raid on cop central. You didn’t freeze us out until we got you what you wanted and then you didn’t even use it. What was it that scared you. What did you see?”

“It’s not what she saw. It’s what she was afraid we would see.”

The voice from behind Ai washed over her like a warm, balmy breeze, relaxing muscles in her back that had been held tight as tripwires. She turned to look at Harp’s new form, expecting to see a shimmering, renewed suit of armor, sleeker and more formidable than ever before.

Instead, she saw a normal looking woman. No chrome. No exposed metal ribbing. No armor. No weapons. Harp’s transformation was complete and she looked as human as anyone Ai had ever seen.

 

Gamma City Blues – Arc 06 (Justice) – Report 04

Disconnecting. Ai hadn’t expected it to feel as wrong as it did. When she terminated the sensory feed from Harp’s virtual realm, the real world snapped back into view in less than a second. They were still in the transport that the Medusa Cluster had provided but it was parked in one of the secure warehouses where the Medusa was transferring a section of her hardware.

Ai blinked without needing to and reached out for the persona of “Heartless”. The smell of oil and dust in the warehouse was as much of a distraction as the womb of darkness that surrounded them. The room they were parked in had no windows, since it was enclosed in enough concrete to survive a bomb blast. It was an odd environment to be in under the circumstance.

Heartless had no proper home, but in Ai’s mind Heartless was a creature of the finer things in life. Top end restaurants. Live performances. Carefully regulated spaces designed for the kind of comforts no legitimate work could ever have earned her and which she’d had to deny to herself for years in order to maintain the separation between her two primary identities.

For as distracting as the tomb-like storage room was though, Ai was able to pull the cloak of Heartless’s manner and mindset around herself with ease. Partly that was because she’d worn the identity for so long. On occassion she’d been Heartless more than she’d let herself be “Ai Greensmith”. Beyond that though the role was so comfortable because Heartless was more than a mask she hid behind. As Heartless, Ai allowed herself to be as ruthless, as cunning, and as angry as she wished to be.

Ai Greensmith couldn’t show how much she wanted the world to burn for the pain she felt. Ai Greensmith had to be done with processing the loss of those she loved. Ai had to be stable, and sturdy and unemotional. And most of all, even from well before she’d lost her father and brother, Ai Greensmith wasn’t allowed to be brilliant.

Rage, pain, and intelligence, they were all too much for other people to deal with.

At least in Ai.

In Heartless though?

No one questioned when a powerful and eccentric data broker chose to crush someone corrupt and deserving of their fate for a thousands different crimes and injustices. No one was surprised when a shadowy operative was able to twist formerly secure systems to their own ends. And no one saw the pain that drove those actions, because no saw Heartless except in a milieue of Ai’s choosing.

And yet, she’d shared Heartless, and everything else, with Harp?

Ai had plans. She always had plans. Schemes and contingencies and strategies designed to keep herself and Zai safe. Each moment, each action, taken with a view towards its impact on their future.

Except for revealing herself to Harp.

She could come up with many rationalizations for the act. Harp was a powerful ally, and a conduit to getting the Valkyries on board too. She owed Harp for returning Tiny Zai so that the lock on Zai Prime could be broken. And Harp needed to know that she could trust someone after Dr. Raju had betrayed her, so giving her that kind of trust was simply the right thing to do.

Those were after-the-fact justifications though, and Ai knew her own mind well enough to see that. She’d disconnected from the virtual realm to focus on speaking with Tython, but a part of her was screaming that she’d made the wrong decision.

Harp and Zai were both extremely bright and competetant. There were sure to be problems with the bodily rebuild via NME transformation that they were attempting, but if Ai was honest with herself, the two of them were probably the best equipped people on the planet to handle the challenges that would arise.

Knowing that didn’t mean it was easy to leave them alone to face those challenges though. The cold well in the pit of Ai’s stomach was one that no amount of sensory editing could force away. Her instincts clawed at the walls of her mind, ranting that she was about to lose them both. Only the fact that Zai wasn’t in danger and Harp wasn’t hers to lose allowed Ai to smother her impulses in reason and accept the call from Tython.

Once, long before the first robot apocalypse, people had been forced to settle for communications which only transmitted their voices. In time, primitive video applications had become available as well, but Ai couldn’t imagine Heartless settling for anything so quaint when dealing with a serious conference.

Her guest apparently felt the same.

“A remarkable tableau,” the representative from Tython said. He had chosen an avatar similar to Ai’s, consisting of a blank humanoid template, cast in polished white pearl, with human features that resembled the stastical norm for Gamma City’s elite.

Where he was cast in pearl, Ai’s avatar was formed from dark obsidian. She’d chosen a slim variation of the standard template, without any obvious markers for gender or age or race.

From experience, she knew the Tython rep would assume Heartless was male, likely in his mid thirties, unless the rep was older, in which case Heartless would be assumed to be however old he needed to be to possess the authority and power he displayed. Heartless’s race never came up explicitly but it was rarely hard to miss the cues which indicated a belief that Heartless was part of Gamma City’s majority population. Ai didn’t rely on any of those misjudgements, but she was always ready to make use of them when they became evident.

“Thank you,” she said as Heartless, relaxing into the chair at the quiet cafe she had previously used to entertain the Medusa Cluster. “I find a pleasant atmosphere encourages reasonable conversation.”

“And you suppose we might have a reasonable conversation?” the Tython rep said, taking a seat opposite Heartless at the small table.

“It’s always a possibility, even if our aims are at cross purposes,” Heartless said. Sipping the cup of tea near her gave Ai the sensation of a mild green tea passing over her lips and tongue without ingesting anything. The flavor helped her sink deeper into Heartless’s character and communicated on a primitive and all-too-human level that the meeting was one of equals breaking bread together and therefore bound, at least temporarily, by laws of hospitality so old they were almost written into humanity’s genetic code.

“I suppose I should ask what your aims are then?” the Tython rep said, taking up the tea Heartless had conjured in the virtual space and sipping it.

If Ai had wished to plant a virus in her guest, the tea would have been an excellent vector for infection. It could also have been flavored carefully to work a form of subliminal hypnosis on the unwary. Or even been uncomfortably hot to dare her guest to prove his mettle.

It was none of those things though. The drink was merely the image and sense-echo of a fine cup of tea, with no assault or attempt at subtle dominance plays.

“I believe in pursuing many goals at once,” Ai said as Heartless. “At the moment, in this place, my aim is to discover why you asked for this meeting and what your plans for it might be?”

“Would you believe me if I said that we simply wish to understand you better?” the Tython rep asked.

“No, but only because I imagine that wish must lead somewhere,” Heartless said. “You do not wish to understand me out of idle curiosity. You wish to know how my plans will overlap with or interfer with yours.”

“You are as perceptive as Dr. Fredericks believed you to be,” the Tython rep said.

Ai caught the change in verb tense and came to a conclusion which supported one of her earlier hypothesis.

“How did he die?” she asked, guessing that the past tense of ‘believed’ indicated the not-so-good Dr. Derrick Fredericks had been double crossed before he was able to double cross his Tython handlers.

The Tython’s reps avatar wasn’t synched to show the user’s facial features but the pause before he spoke gave away his surprise.

“Without pain,” the rep said.

“May we all aspire to end off better than we deserve,” Heartless said, raising the tea cup as a toast to departed Fredericks.

“I would prefer to be mourned more than he will be,” the rep said.

“You knew him directly then?” Heartless asked.

“Yes. I was one of his senior researchers.”

“And yet you are still using one of Tython’s communication channels?” Heartless asked.

“While it still lasts, it serves our purpose as well as any other would,” the rep said. “If we’d reached out to you directly, our consensus was that you wouldn’t have agreed to meet with us.”

“I suspect there are several pieces of data you could have included in the invitation which would have swayed my decision,” Heartless said. “At least if you have access to Frederick’s work.”

“It was not his work,” the rep said. “It was ours, and it remains ours.”

“How aware of that is Tython’s senior management?” Heartless asked.

“More so than we would prefer, but far less than would pose any threat.”

Ai parsed what he was saying, looking as much at the spaces left unstated as the words themselves. He wasn’t afraid of Tython’s response to his betrayal of them, despite the certainty that Tython would send the best mercenaries they could find to reclaim the research they paid for.

Thinking of that made a thought click in Ai’s mind. She couldn’t think of the person before her as a representative from Tython. He was as opposed to them as she was since Tython was in a position to want them both dead. That didn’t mean however that he was an ally. If anything, the researcher and Heartless were the only opposing sides present in the game. Tython had played its part in financing the problem of the NME activation sequence and clearing away any opposition to its use, but without their own copy of the NME activation which was viable for distribution to the general populace, Tython’s fate would be decided along with everyone else.

“That’s why you’re here, isn’t it?” Heartless asked. “To evaluate the threat I pose?”

“To evaluate if you are a threat, yes,” the researcher said.

“I can assure you that you have everything to fear from me,” Heartless said. “That said however, I do not believe in threats. Reasonable discussions yield better results and where those fail there’s little to be gained in posturing.”

“I agree,” the researcher said. “And in that spirit, allow me to properly introduce myself. My name is Hector Simmons, I was the lead researcher on the team which developed the Omnigrade. I am sure that armed with that knowledge you can discover my life history in a matter of minutes to verify the rest of what I am going to say.”

It didn’t take Ai minutes. She had his full biography before he finished speaking. She also knew where he was transmitting from. She kept those things to herself though for one very good reason.

“You know what I am capable of doing with that sort of information,” Heartless said. “And you are not concerned?”

“I have no reason to be,” Simmons said.

Ai’s thoughts leapt forward. Did he believe that he had Heartless trapped? No. He had a better reason to be unconcerned. He held a fully tamed version of the NME code and he was going to use it. Whatever happened next, the genie was going to come out of that bottle and the world as they knew it would be gone.

Ai searched for her next words carefully. If she pressed too hard in the wrong direction then Simmons and his team would believe, correctly, that their only course of action was to release the Omnigrade first, in order to preempt a host of Heartless’s options and plans. They would be running the risk of exposing their hand early by being the first to deploy but if Heartless didn’t have a countermeasure almost immediately available then they could win through sheer speed as their version of the Omnigrade transformed the world, possibly including Heartless.

She had to keep them off balance, choosing her arguments with enough delicacy and precision that Simmons hesitated to move forward without making him so afraid that his team jumped at the chance to let the chips fall where they may.

Then the wall of the storage room she was sitting in in the real world exploded.

“Harp,” Silicon Traces called out. “We know you’re here. Don’t make us fight you. Nobody wants that.”

Ai diverted her attention from the virtual meeting for a fraction of a second.

Harp wasn’t responding. She wasn’t moving at all in fact.