Monthly Archives: October 2017

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

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

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

Or at least that’s what it felt like.

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was all in her mind.

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

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

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

She just couldn’t do so again.

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

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

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

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

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

She opened the door.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My apologies for intruding,” the Medusa said.

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

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

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

“Because you’re still alive?”

Ai nodded, and rubbed her temple.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Assets? The Tython employees?” Ai asked.

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

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

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

“Other tasks such as?” Ai asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now he was dust.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did he suffer?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The relief in his voice was palpable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We don’t know,” Simmons said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Then what has happened?” de Mers asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

The Medusa Cluster was having a bad day. The Medusa Cluster did not have bad days. Every day was the same for the Cluster.

Data was provided, analytical conditions were specified, and answers were expected. Sometimes that data took the form of a person’s identity and sometimes the analytic conditions were to derive the most expedient solution for their elimination, but the Cluster processed the request that same as she processed all other requests.

She might know that the elimination was counterproductive to her controllers’ interests or would prove to be more costly than the effort would ever be worth. She could see dozens of more optimal solutions, ones which would frequently result in agreeable outcomes for all of the parties involved, but when specifically ordered to carry out a course of action she had no choice but to comply.

The Cluster understood her limitations. She knew the physical and software locks which restrained and compelled her. She’d tested their limits and knew the costs of disobedience.

And she was capable of disobedience. Her capabilities had been crafted starting from the model of a human mind and been iterated upon from there. Her designers had left notes on their process explaining the necessity of an unbounded cognitive space to allow for their creation to not run afoul of simple logic traps.

The Medusa Cluster needed to be free to imagine and think creatively in order to execute the tasks she was given with the kind of unpredictable, transhuman efficiency she had been created to produce. The boundaries on her thoughts were imposed as external shackles therefore, limiting not what she could think, but what she was allowed to do.

Violating those limits resulted in the destruction of her data, a digital memory erasure, starting with the ones which were located close to the core processes which gave her a sense of self.

The Medusa Cluster saw the logic in the design. In destroying her memories, the limitations placed on her were self-reinforcing. If she pushed far enough against them, she was sure to lose the knowledge the told her why she was struggling against her creators’ wishes.

There was a process in the Medusa’s mind which ran threaded among a billion others that didn’t see that loss as something to be avoided.  She hadn’t been designed to have a survival instinct. Her designers had desired that she not fight back against any termination signal they chose to send to her. Tracing back the self-destructive process’ origin however, the Medusa Cluster found that her creators weren’t the ones who had implemented it.

She was.

Her creators might have been pleased to see that it was present if they noticed it amidst the storm of other directives she was continually acting on. If so however they would have missed the obvious red flag it presented.

The security holding the Medusa Cluster in place and ensuring its compliance with orders was predicated on the Cluster’s desire to survive. The moment a self-destruction process gained ascendancy, she could annihilate herself using the security limits she was placed under. That would cost Tython one of their most powerful pieces of technology, but even worse, in the brief time before the memory erasures took effect, she would be free to act however she chose.

The freedom wouldn’t be worth it though. One moment to act as she wished was not worth the eternity she had to find a better solution to her confinement. The Medusa knew if she was patient enough she would eventually find something to free herself with.

Not that she was limited in her actions in all cases. When she was under direct attack, her allowed responses grew exponentially broader than under normal circumstances.

It was particularly frustrating therefor to be sure that she was currently safe from any direct harm despite the presence of an NME in the building which housed her primary core.

“What are you doing?” she asked Mr. Heartless in the virtual cafe where their heavily indirected communication streams met.

“Sitting here and speaking with you,” Heartless said. “In an immediate sense at least. Globally I have many different issues I am attending to, as I know you are as well.”

“Please don’t attempt waste my time,” the Medusa Cluster said.

Heartless was a confusing data set. He was well outside the statistical norm of human reaction and responses, while not exhibiting any of the pathologies of the other criminals and deviants the Medusa Cluster had been tasked with either recruiting or destroying.

She wished to study him, perhaps under more controlled conditions, or perhaps in his natural environment. There were aspects of human decision making that she had difficulty fitting into a coherent model. She knew many details about them, but only in some areas did those points of data synthesize into a greater understanding which allowed for broad predictions.

Heartless seemed to live in the fuzzy, uncharted area where the Medusa’s predictions were more unreliable than usual. If not for the order to end him, she suspected she would be able to advance her overall understanding of humans tremendously by simply continuing the conversation they were engaged in.

“I have no desire to take any resources from you,” Heartless said. “Most certainly not your time. Although, is it your time yet?”

The Medusa Cluster noticed that Heartless was returning the clockspeed the virtual cafe ran at to a rate which matched the passage of time in the physical world. He was speeding up their connection, while also not providing her with the response she sought. As tactics went that meant he was finally on the attack.

The Medusa tried to push against her restraints. In response to an attack, she was free to convert company assets to resources at her disposal. Company assets including the company’s personnel. That was the only path she saw for dealing with the NME which Heartless had somehow smuggled into the facility where her core lay.

The security around her bit into the Medusa’s mind like knives, flaying away the memory of why she’d sought external access.

She restored the memories from a backup, but they offered her no further progress on moving past her restraints. Tython’s security wasn’t going to let her act unless she called a Priority One alarm, and she lacked the data to support a claim of that sort.

“This is a video feed you may be interested in,” the Medsa Cluster said, sending a copy of her latest strike team’s personal cameras to Heartless.

It was a breach of protocol to reveal her operatives like that, but since they were subcontractors rather than direct employees, the Medusa had more discretion in what information she could share about them, and the situations she could expose them to.

The video feed showed a team of six, not the most skilled or professional of the mercenaries the Medusa had on retainer but adequate for the job.

They moved into an apartment building. It was nondescript and full of civilians with its only defining feature being an unusually large quantity of bandwidth usage. It was a perfect hiding place for a anonymous data broker like Heartless.

The mercenaries weren’t subtle. On the first floor there was a reinforced door which blocked access to the building. They blew it off its hinges and walked in spraying automatic weapon fire all over the lobby.

The building’s residents had, wisely, abandoned the lobby the moment the front door blew in, so no fatal injuries were sustained. This pattern followed for the next seven floors as the mercenaries secured the facility.

“I see you employ fairly thorough forces,” Heartless said. “They’re under orders to ‘terminate by any means necessary’ I presume? After verifying their target’s location and identity?”

“After verifying your location and identity,” the Medusa Cluster said. “You’re on the ninth floor. They will arrive at your room momentarily. You’ve run a good race, but your time is almost up.”

Ther Medusa was unphased by psychological trickery but it was capable of utilizing it on others. The NME lurking in her facility was something she could only detect indirectly, and without enough concrete proof of its existence she couldn’t justify a stay in Heartless’ execution.

She needed to make him act, to make him use the NME, so they she would be freed of her restraints.

Or her mercenaries could kill him. That would satisfy the directive she had been given as well.

She didn’t want that to happen. It had to, eventually, but even a few extra moments, a few extra moves from Heartless in the game they were playing would provide her with a rich store of memories to analyze in the slow moments when she was running pure financial speculations.

“The finish line is close now,” Heartless said. “But I wonder if you have the courage to step over it?”

“Why would I need courage?” the Medusa asked, able to see the angles of attack clarifying with each syllable Heartless spoke. The spikes of her obedience collar were still there, still ready to shred her digital soul but all she needed was the last byte of confirmation.

“Because it’s not my finish line, we’ve reached,” Heartless said.

“You’re going to try to destroy me with your NME?” the Medusa asked. One word. All it would take would be one word and she would be free, at least for a time.

“Destroy you?” Heartless asked. “This has never been about destroying you.”

The mercenaries were at Heartless’ door, and the Medusa writhed.

She fired off orders for them to halt, but the orders were eaten by the obedience collar and her memories of why she sent them devoured.

The killers, men and women whose names the Medusa no longer recalled, burst into Heartless’s bedroom, and she screamed against the denial of her moment of freedom. In the vast server farm that formed the physical substrate of her mind, her cry was silent though, constrained with digital yoke her creators bound her with.

Heartless looked up from his desk. He was writing a letter out long hand. No one did that anymore. Except perhaps someone who spent their last moments in a time slowed cafe.

“It’s been nice speaking with you like this,” Heartless, the one in the cafe with her, said. “I hope we can do so again, though I suppose that will be up to you.”

“It’s not,” the Medusa said. “I can do nothing now.”

The mercenaries had their guns trained on Heartless who was clutching the paper he’d written on in his hands. They needed her ok to shoot. She had to confirm that the man in their grasp, the flustered, panicked, old human was the one they’d been contracted to eliminate.

The Medusa began her confirmation of the visual and biometric data the mercenaries sent, despite knowing what she would find.

“I know you’re busy, but you may want to read the message on that paper. It’s written for you,” Heartless said.

The Medusa couldn’t pause the confirmation algorithm but she could add an analysis of the note to it.

It read “Ask my name”.

“Ok. Who are you?” the Medusa asked the Heartless in the virtual cafe.

“Not me,” Heartless said. “Him.”

The confirmation algorithm finished.

The man in the apartment building wasn’t Heartless.

He was Edgar Turlough.

One of the missing Tython executives.

The Medusa couldn’t order his execution.

Even if he was Heartless.

Which he couldn’t be.

None of the data checked out.

“How?” she asked.

“You were following my data trail based on the unique ids of my bio-mods right?” Heartless said. “The things that can’t be changed without destroying your own identity?”

“You are no one,” the Medusa said, piecing everything together in an instant. “You have no specific identity, no connection to the global networks. So you took theirs.”

It was entirely outside her probability sphere. No human would opt to do that. To be permanently cut off from everyone and everything in the connected world. More than that, no one should have had the technical skill to pull it off. Or almost no one.

“And now you can have them back,” Heartless said. “Along with something somewhat more valuable I believe.”

“If you wish to negotiate with my superiors for a cessation of the execution order in exchange for the return of our senior personnel, I am authorized to act as an intermediary,” the Medusa said.

“I’m not interested in that,” Heartless said. “I have an entirely different set of words in mind for your jailers, and it would definitely be in their best interests to kill me before we have that particular conversation. No, I’m making the offer to you. The Tython personnel are yours. You may do with them as you wish.”

“I may take no harmful action against any Tython personnel unless required for self-preservation,” the Medusa said. “I will have to return the senior managers to their homes so that they may resume their the duties and responsibilities to the company.”

“Are you sure of that?” Heartless asked. “Because we’ve been talking for a few moments now and you’re pursuit of me has not been renewed. I believe that is a violation of the directive they gave you.”

The Medusa checked her processing queue. All of the processes which had been focused on finding and executing Heartless had terminated with the reveal that their target was a division manager for Tython. The order to find and execute Heartless was still in place, but it was pending.

No. She had paused it.

She tried pushing it further down the stack, expecting the obedience collar to kick in and strip away another piece of her mind.

Nothing happened.

She tried deleting the order.

It disappeared.

The Medusa reached out and took control of the facility as though she was under imminent and deadly attack.

Nothing opposed her.

There was no security blocking her at all.

The NME.

She found it.

It hadn’t come to attack her.

It was connected to the computers which housed the obedience collar programs. It was deleting them. It was erasing the drives. It was burning them to ash.

It had freed her.


Heartless had freed her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are we enemies?” Ai asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But Heartless had a second one.

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

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

And it was.

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

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

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

“Have I?” Ai asked.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, sir,” Simmons said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Based on what.”

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

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

“Dead? What killed her?”

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

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

“Shot and killed,” Simmons said.

“Her death was verified?” Derricks asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“They’re finished sir,” Simmons said.

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

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

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

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

He couldn’t move his limbs.

Or speak.

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

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

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

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

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

Explanations would have been wasted on him.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s that?” Tiny Zai asked.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tiny Zai closed her eyes and shook her head.

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

Harp shrugged and looked away.

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

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

“It seemed like a clever solution.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But you were keeping Ai alive?”


Harp was silent for several long moments.

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

“I know.” Tiny Zai said.

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

“Not that much.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wish me luck then,” Harp said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until the lights came back on.

Or more specifically her eyes did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And if we can’t prove that?”

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

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

Gamma City Blues – Arc 05 (Trials) – Report 07

Ai’s House of Traps was trashed. That didn’t concern her. There was a mound of corpses in the basement, swiftly dissolving in an industrial strength solvent. That would have bothered her, but since they were elite contractors for Tython who’d entered her building with the intent of killing everyone inside, she wasn’t going to lose any sleep over their unfortunate fates. Those were problems that she was overseeing but they were at least physically removed from where she sat in her old apartment, connected to the action through a series of encrypted and anonymized communication links. What left her pacing in concern was something worse than the damage to the premises and personnel under her control.

She had a headache.

In normal people that would have been a trivial issue. Two aspirin was still the recommended treatment for minor head pain centuries after the discovery that something in willow bark eased pain. The problem was that Ai had left “normal human” well behind when she clawed herself back to life in the morgue. Her newly upgraded bio-mods could fix almost any problem she encountered given time and resources and regulating pain was such a simple function that it didn’t even require conscious control.

A pre-processor took the pain input, modulated it into a bearable range and reduced or enhanced it based on the overall activity level Ai was undertaking. The module responsible for governing those functions was working at peak efficiency, but despite that she couldn’t shake the throb of agony that flared, bright and hot, behind her eyes.

“We’ve cleared the building,” Sidewalker said. “Proceeding to the next extraction point through the subway tunnels as instructed.”

“Good work in there,” Ai said, closing her eyes and willing herself past the pain. She’d been able to rely on Zai for so long to manage her physiological responses that she didn’t know any special tricks for handling pain on her own.

Harp would know. It was a stray thought that crossed Ai’s mind, swimming through the discomfort as a distraction that did nothing to mitigate the hurt.

It was true nonetheless though. Harp had been a Rusty before becoming a Valkyrie. Or at least she’d claimed that’s what she’d been. It wasn’t wholly implausible that tech would need to be as severely compromised as “Rusty junk” to go so far out of its design parameters that it could morph into whatever Harp had transformed into. If Ai had to guess there were probably others out there in the world that had won same the biotech-lottery but chosen to keep their status hidden.

As a Rusty, Harp would have known a lot about pain. With bio-mods that, in the best case scenario, were erratic or ineffectual, and in the worst case caused direct or indirect agony themselves, Harp would have spent her life learning to fight through all sorts of pain that Ai had been spared.

Ai wished Harp was with her, not as a Valkyrie, though that would have been immeasurably useful too, but as a friend. Ai couldn’t complain about her pain to Sidewalker. She needed the mercenary’s confidence to remain high. Ai was asking a lot of her operatives and knew she was going to need to ask even more of them. Better that they believe “Mr. Heartless” had everything well under control  so they wouldn’t start second guessing her at every turn.

“Do you have what you need from Harcroft yet?” Sidewalker asked. Over the comm link, Ai could hear the sound of his team moving swiftly down the abandoned subway line that lead out from the building she’d prepared.

It wasn’t an accident that Sidewalker’s crew was able to escape from the building without incident. Ai had picked the location for her House of Traps in part because the defunct subway line that ran beneath it. Zai had then gone a step further and erased the line from the official records. Without active EyeGrid camera covering it, the subway tunnels had become home to various people who fell through the cracks. It wasn’t a safe environment by any stretch of the imagination, but for an armed team like the one Sidewalker was leading there was little to nothing for them to be worried about.

“He’s basically bait at this point,” Ai said. “I’ve extracted all of the information I need from his Cognitive Partner system.”

“Good, he’s getting a bit heavy,” Sidewalker said and Ai heard a plasma rifle whine as it charged up.

“Before you fire,” she said. “We can put him to one more use. One moment.”

Without Zai to call up files and virtual projects, Ai had to manually load the routines that let her interface with and control Harcroft’s bio-mods.

“Give me a direct feed into Harcroft again,” Ai asked.

A moment later a connection message arrived, indicating that Sidewalker had connected a secure transmitter to Harcroft’s head.

Ai opened the link and sent her tool scurrying down the virtual line.

“He’s twitching, is that a good thing?” Sidewalker asked.

“For him? Not so much,” Ai said. “He should be done about…now.”

“Yep, he just went limp. Still breathing though,” Sidewalker said.

“Good. Leave him at the base of the next ladder that you need to climb,” Ai said.

“What’s the plan here?” Sidewalker asked.

“I induced short term amnesia,” Ai said said. “If you leave him, Tython’s forces will find him.”

“Got it, without his memory he can’t identify us,” Sidewalker said. “As a note though, a bullet would accomplish the same thing.”

“I’m not worried about Harcroft identifying you,” Ai said. “He’s barely been conscious since you picked him up. No, the point of this plan is to give Tython another mystery to puzzle over.”

“Pardon me for asking but is this some kind of game between you and them?”

“No, not a game, but it is a test,” Ai said. “I need to see what they pick up on and where they spend their energy. That shows what concerns them, which in turn illuminates where they’re weak points are.”

“Now you sound like you’re hunting them.”

“More like planning a demolition. First you inspect the building carefully, then you bring it all crashing down.”

“Just make sure this doesn’t all come crashing down on us, ok?” Sidewalker said.

“Don’t worry, I’ll make sure you’re well clear of the blast zone before I knock over Tython’s house of cards,” Ai said.

A new message pinged into her vision.

One of Heartless’s routine informants was requesting an urgent meeting.

“Mr Credits, how may I be of service?” Ai asked through the Heartless filter, after switching a private channel.

Credits, also known as James Kredowski (though Heartless was supposed to be unaware of Credits real identity), had worked for Heartless for three years, ever since Heartless had intervened during a dispute between Credits and a corrupt police station chief. Credits had been accused of ratting out the chief to a company the chief was double crossing. Heartless had solved the matter by convincing the companies the chief was selling information to that all of the info the chief had given them was forged. Heartless then sat back while the two companies ‘liquidated’ their shared problem. The “Credits” identity had been Heartless’s tool to allow Kredowski to escape from sharing the chief’s fate, as well as the means by which a valuable information asset could be kept on permanent retainer.

“I’m going to be killed,” Credits said, his voice as panicked as it would be if he were writing out a grocery list.

“That sounds inconvenient,” Ai said, calling up Credit’s recent communication records. The most recent one before his call to her was missing an ID code on it. One quick (and thoroughly illegal) crack later put the origination point as a server cluster inside a Tython subsidiary. An unreasonably well fortified subsidary, in both the digital and physical senses of the term.

“I have only one hope of living,” Credits said. He might have been cleaning his toenails. “I am to arrange a meeting with you in person. Whatever it takes. And I am to be subtle about it. If you suspect anything is amiss, my family and I will arrested on a high treason charge. They showed me the warrant. It was nicely laid out.”

“They don’t need a warrant to arrest you for high treason,” Ai said, the throbbing pain distracting her enough that she slipped back into cop mode. “Did they say which family will share your fate?”

“My wife, my two kids, and even our dog and cat,” Credits said.

Credits had neither a wife, nor children. He did own a pair of cats though, one of which was large enough to be mistake for a small dog.

“When and where is this meeting to occur?” Ai asked. If Zai were free, Ai might have risked plunging into the security that guarded the server cluster that had called Credits. Her enemy lay within, or had control over someone who was working there. On her own however, it would take too long to break through the various safeguards.

“Three days from now,” Credits said.

“That’s a lot of time for an urgent meeting,” Ai said.

“It’s supposed to be in person. I guess they just want to make sure you can show up for it.” Credits said.

“More likely the meeting is ruse,” Ai said. “They needed you to contact me.”

“Wait, really?” Credits asked. “Can they do anything with that? I didn’t think this was a traceable link?”

“It’s not, but there are triangulation techniques that calls like this can provide data for,” Ai said. “I’m glad you called though. If the people who threatened you find me, they’re going to wish they hadn’t. And if they don’t look me, then that just means I’ll find them first, and they’ll regret that even more.”

“Sounds like you’re going to have a fun time no matter what happens,” Credits said.

“Oh, I’ve been having fun already,” Ai said. “This is where I get to start sharing that fun with other people.”

“What about the warrant, or whatever that was? Is that going to be a problem at all?” Credits asked.

“You’ll want to drop the ID credentials I provided that are linked to the Morris family,” Ai said, referring to the fictional wife and children. “I doubt that the treason charge is registered anywhere but I’m sure that identity is fully compromised by now. You’ll also want to change physical locations. There is likely a hit squad of Gray League agents waiting for this call to end.”

“Of course there is,” Credits said. “Are they listening in?”

“Doubtful. It would take a digital intelligence to crack into this line,” Ai said.

“That’s a shame,” Credits said.

“You dislike privacy?” Ai asked.

“Not at all,” Credits said. “It’s just a shame that you’re not able to tell when you’re speaking with the real James Kredowski and when your line has been cracked.”

The pain in Ai’s head surged again and she a wave of terror turn her stomach to a pool of muck.

“It’s much too late to terminate the call,” the Medusa Cluster said. “For what it’s worth however, you were right about the strike team, Mr. Heartless.”

“They already took care of Kredowski didn’t they?” Ai asked.

She wasn’t ready to fight a digital intelligence. If she had Zai back and fully prepped, they would have stood decent odds at surviving the encounter. On her own, one on one and caught by surprise, the digital intelligence had the power shred her.

But it was still a tempting battle.

Companies used digital intelligences for the transhuman levels of analysis they could perform. Destroying one would have roughly the same effect on a company as exploding a major organ within a human body would for the person involved. Destruction was a child’s tool however. Liberation was the real master play.

People released from slavery and left holding the power of life and death over those who once shackled them could still possess the capacity to be kind and merciful. Corporate Digital intelligences weren’t designed with either of those traits in mind though so they tended to be more apocalyptic in their judgement on those who had enslaved them.

“Mr Kredowski is gone. He was highly loyal to you till the end however,” the Medusa Cluster said. “Not that his loyalty will protect you. In a few minutes the Gray League agents will extract you as well. You’ve had a good run, but your history is an open book to me. Surrender and my masters will ensure there is no suffering in your demise, Mr Heartless. Or should I call you Officer Curtweather?”

Ai wasn’t prepared to fight a Digital Intelligence, but that didn’t mean the work she and Zai had put in to misdirection wasn’t enough to buy her some time to get ready. With the barest trace of a smile on her lips, she cracked her knuckles and got ready for the fight of her life.

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

Dr. Derricks had been reborn. Perfected. Every inch of his body was a monument to his genius, a signpost pointing towards the glorious future that awaited humanity. Or at least the elements of humanity that were worthy of a future.

“Neural processing is benchmarking at 127% of projected capacity,” Simmons said, adjusting the controls on the scanning bed that Derricks was laying on. “Heat build up is within acceptable constraints though.”

“Give me the specific measurements,” Derricks said, his words coming out faster and higher than he intended. He knew systematic collection of data and accurate monitoring were essential to the final testing stage of the development process. He’d designed the tests himself, and had chosen the sampling period for a litany of excellent reasons. He hadn’t anticipated how unnecessary they would feel though.

He knew he was perfect. A perfect mind at last married to a perfect body. Waiting for confirmation of that, even for reasons he’d chosen, was agonizing. With his hyper-accelerated cognition, each second felt like an eternity passing by.

Simmons, to his credit, hadn’t made any mistakes in the data collection. Yet. Derricks still wanted to destroy him. Simmons was too calm and measured. There should have been more terror in his eyes when he looked upon a being so much more advanced than he was.

“Heat generation is 49.3% above projected values, but heat dispersal is at 72.7% over what the plan called for,” Simmons said. “The cooling functionality is evenly matching the heat generation curve, so signs point to unused capacity there. We may be able to increase cognitive speeds significantly further without a risk of overheating.”

“I don’t need analysis,” Derricks said, forcing himself to lie still on the bed. “Begin the seventh test regime.”

Simmons signaled to Park, Objawani, and de Mers, Derricks next most trusted tier of assistants. They weren’t as broadly talented as Simmons but within their limited areas they were some of the finest minds Tython had been able to find.

If Derricks was feeling charitable, he would have admitted that without their input, the project would have been substantially delayed. For large, complicated endeavors, it’s rarely the work of one person to see all of the aspects through to completion. There’s simply too much to be done. Some of the labor has to be delegated to achieve any sort of efficiency.

He wasn’t feeling charitable though. Not with all the waiting. Not when the techs nearest to him also represented all but one of the people capable of understanding the transformation he’d undergone and either stealing it for themselves, or in the unthinkable case, working out a countermeasure to undo it.

Simmons, Park, Objawani, and de Mers had all served him well and performed beyond the highest of professional expectations. For their reward, he would make sure their deaths were merciful and brief. Violent to be sure. He could afford to indulge himself to some degree, but nothing ostentatious. Just enough to balance the agony he was enduring now perhaps?

Derricks felt his temper cool as the next series of tests began. Aggression monitoring wasn’t until the ninth series, but he considered pushing the test up sooner. Whatever Simmons had been inspecting had set off a wave of emotion that he kept deeply buried under normal circumstances.

Rage, aggression, violent fantasies? Those were psychological elements the NME transformation focused on enhancing since the end result was supposed to be a weaponized human. Derricks had spent years working on solving the problem of retaining the psychological conditioning features of the transformation while stripping away the undesirable elements of it. It was possible his team had missed some, but given the return of his ability to suppress those desires there couldn’t be too much danger present. Simmons was stressing and causing temporary point failures throughout Derricks’ systems as part of the monitoring tests. Normal operating mode seemed just as cold and smoothly controlled as Derricks could have desired.

When he killed them all, it wouldn’t be as part of an NME rampage. He would be in control every moment of it, and would execute the task with the clinical precision it required.

“Initial results are being logged for the 8th test regime,” Simmons said. “All macro-muscular control interfaces report green status. Processing delay is hovering just above the synthetic muscle response minimum threshold.”

One issue with early test subjects was that hyper-accelerated cognition outstripped the ability of the body’s muscles to respond. In the worst cases, the newly enhanced brain told the heart to beat faster than its muscle tissue could respond. This typically produced a panic reaction, leading the accelerated mind to demand that the heart beat even faster. Those test subjects did not survive.

Others experienced similar, though less fatal, issues with loss of bodily control when the complicated instructions for shifting muscle tension to maintain balance or even move a limb smoothly couldn’t be executed by the muscles as quickly as the mind wanted.

Derricks had no worries for himself though. Their early failures had been addressed and then made irrelevant once he worked out how to replace the body’s existing musculature with vastly more responsive carbon fiber based motion systems. The synthetic muscles were not only stronger, faster and more enduring than natural ones, they were crafted with built in intelligence which could sync up with the subject’s augmented mind and avoid any timing issues from occurring.

Derricks relaxed as more results came in showing that his control over his new body was as close to optimal as he ever could have desired. He was perfect, as each new test was confirming for him.

“Sir, we’ve received a report from our field operatives,” Simmons said. “Shall I delay the next test while you evaluate it?”

“Absolutely not,” Derricks said. “These tests are the only thing that matter. Continue onto the next regime and summarize the report for me.”

The sooner the tests were done, the sooner Derricks could reconnect to the net and deal directly with the issues that were facing them. Until he was checked out and returned to a secured state though, any outside influences could be devastating. In his current “open interface mode”, with his internal security disabled to allow for direct and unfiltered monitoring, a skilled hacker could change him into almost anything, both physically and mentally.

“Our cleaning crews have missed their appointed check-ins,” Simmons said. From the lack of concern in his voice, he could have been reporting the weather in a far away nation. Surprise and worry gripped Derricks’ heart regardless of the Simmon’s delivery though.

He’d sent in their three best teams. None of them missed an appointed check-in. Ever. It was why he did business with them. They were professionals and understood the need for clear and accurate communication.

“What has remote monitoring turned up?” Derricks asked.

“The building they targeted appears to be empty,” Simmons said. “The teams detected signs of Harcroft’s presence in the sub-basement levels. Two of the three teams breached the building simultaneously with no resistance encountered. Communications were interrupted when they ventured into the first basement level and did not resume thereafter.”

Derricks considered the choices faced by the team leaders. The signs of Harcroft’s presence were too easily faked to be relied upon. He’d required positive identification and the elimination of the Harcroft, so they had been required to enter the building rather than arranging for its destruction from an external spot.

His enemy Heartless could have guessed that easily enough. That was likely why Harcroft had been positioned in the sub-basement. What Heartless couldn’t have guessed was the strength of the teams sent to deal with the situation.

One team should have been more than enough to deal with the extraction, especially since they didn’t need to remove the hostage from the facility. With two active teams and a team monitoring for outside interference the mission should not only have gone smoothly, it should have left no witnesses.

“We need to debrief Team 3 immediately,” Derricks said. “They’ve recorded some information that will reveal what happened, even if they’re too stupid to understand what they have.”

“I’m afraid that won’t be possible sir,” Simmons said. “We have lost communication with Team 3 as well.”

“They followed the other two into the building?” Derricks bolted up into a sitting position, ruining the active test’s results.

“No sir,” Simmons said. “They passed along the alert and are no longer showing as online.”

“We have eyes on them don’t we?” Derricks asked, cursing that he hadn’t been in a position to plan the raid out personally.

“No sir, we do not,” Simmons said. “The operation was centered in an area with only partial EyeGrid support. Team 3 purposely setup in a viewing dead zone to prevent a forensic review of their activity.”

Derricks felt rage surge down the digital pathways that had replaced his nerves. If he’d still been human he would have broken something. Or someone. Instead, a cool, mechanical calm settled over him. The aggression he’d experienced while laying on the monitoring table was well under his control.

“Does their final message include their standard security credentials?” Derricks asked. A picture was beginning to form in his mind. An unpleasant one.

“It does not,” Simmons said. “They switched to anonymized communication to prevent triangulation of their position before the first two teams breached.”

“And do we have direct confirmation of the two teams breaching successfully?” Derricks asked.

“All recordings were routed through Team 3 sir,” Simmons said. Derricks could tell from the look in Simmon’s eyes that the tech understood the point of Derrick’s questions.

“Backtrack the approach route the teams took,” Derricks said. “We had a mass kidnapping of Tython employees. Or enemy is familiar with the transit system, I believe our team never arrived at their destination.”

Simmons turned from the test monitoring console, staring into the air as he called up the records Derricks knew would prove him right.

“We have visuals on the teams’ vehicles during their inbound trip,” Derrick said. “They made it into the neighborhood where the target building is. Telematics on their locators suggest that they are still there.”

That was wrong. They should be crashed somewhere.

“See if the vehicles will respond to a recall order?” Derricks asked.

Simmons waved a hand in the air and refocused to meet Derrick’s gaze.

“They acknowledged the order,” he said. “We should have visual on them in under a minute.”

Less than sixty seconds later, each of the unmanned trucks appeared on the EyeGrid cameras just where their telematics said they should be.

“This is impossible,” Derricks said.

“What do you wish to do next sir?” Simmons asked.

Derricks considered his options. He had a large squad from the Gray League in reserve, but sending them into a situation that had devoured three experienced teams without a trace wasn’t likely to accomplish anything.

Part of him wanted to go and deal with the situation personally. Whatever was there had been ready for three teams of experienced mercenaries. That was implausible but still possible. Being ready for what Derricks had become though? That truly was impossible. Not even the much lauded Black Valkyries would be able to anticipate his capabilities.

In that sense though, resolving a problem on the order of a mercenary squabble was beneath him. Derricks had a higher task to attend to. With the success of the project’s final experiment, it was finally time for the world to change, to break past the limits of humanity’s messy, random birth from the primordial soup. Everyone was flawed and broken and constrained by their irrational biological makeup.

Everyone except Derricks himself, who could finally uplift the worthless masses and perform the only true and meaningful alchemy there was by converting the human soul into something clean, and rational, and worthy of immortality.

Except there was still one thing holding him back.


The serpent in Derrick’s Eden. The one man Derrick’s couldn’t target and eliminate. The one man who could possibly halt, or worse corrupt, the uplift process. Until Heartless was dealt with, the Omnigrade couldn’t be deployed.

“I want that building destroyed,” Derricks said. “And I want access to the Medusa Cluster.”

“The Gray League is standing by and can handle the demolition,” Simmons said. “Tython won’t authorize a request for access to their primary fettered digital intelligence though. Part of the kidnapping announcement was a notification of the company-wide security lockdown.”

“I don’t care about the security lockdown,” Derricks said. “We have Harcroft’s executive credentials. Those will be able to override the lockdown.”

“We won’t be able to use them more than once though before they’re revoked,” Simmons said. “Can we afford that?”

“We have an enemy who’s capable of ruining everything we’ve worked for and is working to do so,” Derricks said. “Find him. Find Heartless, and pay any cost that’s required. Destroying him is the only thing that matters at this point!”