Sometimes when nothing’s going right, when there doesn’t seem to be anything you can do, or anyway to make things better, the most important thing you can find is someone to talk to.
“Zai? What are you doing here?” Harp asked.
The virtual sandbox Sil had set up appeared as a spartan space of amber grid lines against a black backdrop. There was no other sensory components included with it, so Harp still smelled the conditioned air of the cell they were holding her physical body in, and felt the wafting chill of the air that was scrubbed of the city’s usual pollution. Even her own voice didn’t make sound exactly. It was closer to the memory of having spoken than sense transmission from her augmented ear drums.
“I am hoping you can tell me that,” Zai said. “I’m not exactly running at full speed here.”
Zai’s appearance threw Harp for a moment. She hadn’t taken on a virtual avatar in their earlier encounters but in the sandbox she needed some sort of visual representation.
So she looked like Ai.
Or rather a younger Ai. With electric yellow streaks running through her dark hair and eyes that literally sparkled in a fashion that only pricey cosmetic mods could manage in the physical world.
“I’m sorry, I’ve been in lockdown since I got back here,” Harp said.
It hurt to say that. Despite Dr. Raju’s treatment of her, Harp didn’t want to cast doubts on Raju in front of anyone else. It was hard enough dealing with those doubts on her own, somehow hearing them echoed back from someone else would put her in too terrible of position to deal with.
“Is that something I should have known?” Zai asked. She sat down on the grid patterned floor and began inspecting her hands as though they were new to the point of being alien to her.
“It wasn’t the response I expected,” Harp said.
Ai had offered her a lifeline, had given her a secure line that would provide not only communications but two way positioning, if Harp had chosen to invoke it. It was meant as a token of trust. Harp could contact and find Ai whenever she wanted, and Ai could only do the same if Harp allowed her to. In retrospect Harp wished the show of trust had gone the other direction.
“Good,” Zai said. “I mean, not good that you’re cut off, but good that I’m not missing an important memory there.”
“What did they do to you?” Harp asked, kneeling down beside Zai’s seat figure. She couldn’t imagine Sil tearing apart a Digital Person, but Dr. Raju seemed to have more extreme views on the subject than Harp had been aware of.
“I don’t know,” Zai said, turning to look at Harp with less surprise than she showed in examining her own limbs. “But the memory issue wasn’t them. That’s me. Or my main process.”
“Your main process?”
“Yeah, I’m a Task Focused copy of the Zai you met before,” Zai said. “Sort of like a stray thought or a daydream version of the full me.”
“So you’re not the real Zai? I guess that makes sense. Your project size was too small to be the real you,” Harp said.
“I’m sort of real,” Zai said. “The memories I do have any my motivations match my main processes where they overlap, I just wasn’t able to fit everything I know into this little package. Or most of special functions. All that this version of me has access to is the memories I’d need for context if I got a chance to talk to you or the other Valkyries, and some secure credentials to link back up with the main version of myself once my task was done. Oh, and the routines to pilot and control our upgraded NME.”
Harp stared at her for a moment, while Zai watched her patiently in return.
“I have so many questions about everything you just said.”
“Go ahead and ask them, I don’t think I have anything else to do and from the credentials you shared at the beginning of this conversation you seem to be the Harp I was looking for.”
“First, you can control NMEs now?” This was a dangerous revelation in Harp’s mind.
NMEs were berserkers. Uncontrollable and endless destructive. The only thing that made fighting them practical was that their destructive capacity wasn’t tied to any tactical or strategic amount of intelligence. In a one on one fight, Harp had proven that she could take down an NME, but even with that there had been considerable collateral damage.
An NME that was directed by a transhuman intelligence would be able to harness their power and apply it at the places and times where they were the hardest to oppose.
“Tython sent two NMEs after me. They absorbed the bot I was piloting but that allowed me to get inside their command structures and subvert them,” Zai explained. “We used one to stage an attack on the Tython VP who was connected to the Cure project in order to draw out the Valkyries and send a message to Tython.”
“What happened to the NME?” Harp asked.
“Your sisters destroyed it,” Zai said. “That’s where they got me from. I was copied into its command systems to make sure it didn’t go out of control even if it go cut off from my main process.”
“If you were in control of it why would they try to destroy…no wait, I don’t have to ask that. That was just more ammo in Dr. Raju’s quiver.”
“Yeah, I tried to talk to them but they weren’t in a chatty mood.”
“She thinks you overthrew Ai years ago and are just pretending to be two people,” Harp said, looking away from Zai as she did.
There was a pause as Zai absorbed the information.
“I can see that,” she said at last. “I mean, it’s kind of a hard thing to disprove isn’t it? Ai and my main process are in almost constant communication, so our aims and ambitions are fairly similar. Seeing where one of us ends and the other begins would be pretty hard from the outside.”
“But there is a difference right? Somethings that you don’t agree on?” Harp asked, turning back to face Zai.
“Yeah, I’m not particularly happy with how she treats herself. Once she gets over being dead, the main version of me is going to have a long conversation with her about valuing her own well being a bit more.”
“Gets over being dead? Has she gone into hiding?” Harp asked, wondering why that prevent Ai and Zai from conversing.
“Sort of,” Zai said. “She’s dead because that was the most effective manner of throwing Tython off her trail.”
“How does she plan to convince Tython that she’d dead?” Harp asked.
“By having no pulse or brain activity,” Zai said.
Harp blinked, waiting for more.
“Wait, she’s really dead?” That was all kinds of wrong. Ai couldn’t be dead. She was someone who wasn’t on the front lines. She wasn’t supposed to be in danger like Harp was. She wasn’t built for it. “How did she die? What happened?”
“She got shot several times and then fell off a building onto concrete,” Zai said. “The med-techs pronounced her dead at the scene but the official call wasn’t made until several hours later.”
“I don’t understand. How could that happen?” Harp asked.
“Tython called out a hit squad on her and her partner because they were too close to case. Ai wouldn’t let me take them down because if she escaped it would give away that she was the one who’d been behind everything that she’d done against them. Then they’d be able to backtrack her activities and find out all sorts of thing. Like that she’d met you for example.”
Harp didn’t need to breath like an unaugmented human, but for a moment even her enhanced respiration systems failed her.
“She died for me?” she asked. No one was ever supposed to die for her again.
“Not forever died,” Zai said. “My main version can do a lot of things with her bio-mods. They’re not as advanced as yours but putting her in a medical coma and fooling the med-techs by flatlining her brain for a bit was manageable.”
Harp exhaled sharply in relief.
“So she’s ok?”
“I hope so?” Zai said. “The longer I had to keep her under the harder it was going to be prevent long term issues from occurring. I lost connection to my full self before it was safe to bring her back but I know that was going to take priority over everything else. Even rescuing you I’m afraid.”
“No, that’s fine,” Harp said, still reeling at the thought of how desperate things had gotten for Ai. If they’d stayed together, could she have saved Ai? Spared her from such a sick gamble?
Or would her presence have made things worse? Having a Valkyrie swoop into save Ai once had painted a target on her back. Would twice have been enough to destroy her life as thoroughly as the fall had?
“Can I ask a question?” Zai turned met Harp’s eyes and Harp was struck by a difference between the Zai and her organic sister that neither seemed to notice. Zai was more polite.
Ai wasn’t rude, at least not to Harp or anyone she’d seen Ai interact with, but she tended to be more straightforward and assured. Zai was insightful but she didn’t have the same confidence. Because, Harp realized, Zai was too new at speaking to people directly.
“Go ahead,” Harp said, plopping down to sit facing towards Zai.
“What is this place? I thought when the Valkyries captured me they were going to pick me apart bit by bit and use the pieces to take out my main self.”
“This is a virtual sandbox. We’re cut off from the outside world and I don’t think anyone’s even looking in here. They’re too concerned that any contact with either of us will be a vector for you to take them over.”
“That seems kind of ridiculous,” Zai said. “I mean, apart from the fact that I have no interest in doing it, this little piece of me literally can’t even imagine how that would be possible.”
“Maybe they more concerned about me then,” Harp said. “And maybe I should be too? Would Dr. Raju be this worried about me being compromised if it wasn’t a real possibility?”
“I don’t know,” Zai said. “Most of my memories on how to evaluate people weren’t copied over. I only brought enough with me to remember that I needed to find out if you were ok, and to let the Valkyries know that we were still on their side.”
“That has to prove it then doesn’t it?” Harp asked. “Or not. Anything could be a trap.”
“Well, there is one thing that can’t be,” Zai said. “You. I mean, the organic part of you. Digital tech can be compromised, but there’s no method I know of to rewrite organic memories or change a biological person’s core self. You’re always going to be you, even if that you could be hidden or trapped behind a virtual wall.”
“But how would they know they were dealing with me and not a program speaking through my voice box?” Harp asked. “Wait, by turning everything else off. If they disable all of my mechanical systems, even the mental enhancements, I can talk to them without any danger of artificial misdirections involved.”
“Can you survive like that?” Zai asked.
“It won’t be fun, and not for long, but yeah, it’s doable. Long enough to have a damn conversation at least,” Harp said rising to her feet. Then she sagged as a new idea dawned on her. “Raju. She had to know that too. She knows our systems better than we do. So why didn’t she try that first? Why did she leave me locked up in here without access to anyone?”
“I don’t know. There could be a lot of reasons,” Zai said.
“And none of the matter. We have to get out of here.”
“Isn’t that going to make you look entirely guilty in the Valkyries’ eyes though?” Zai asked. “I mean you talk to me and then you’re busting out of you confinement?”
“It doesn’t matter how bad I look,” Harp said. “If I’m right, the Valkyries are in danger, Ai’s in danger, everyone is in danger! I can’t sit here and let them all be swept away because I want to look like I’m still good.”