The video feed from the corrupted night market showed a bubbling, boiling nightmare. Scores of NMEs rose up, screaming their unfocused rage to the empty heavens above. The mechanized terrors weren’t the worst part of the horrow show though.
As Ai watched, one of the mobile NMEs spied a civilian who was trying to sneak out of a nearby building.
The NME was the size of a small car, but moved with the reflexes and speed of one of the great cats. It was on the hapless fleeing human in no more than a handful of frames of the video feed. The NME didn’t kill the civilian though. That would have been merciful. Instead it sunk glittering probe lines into the man and then walked away.
The man tried to get up, tried to flee on his hands and knees when rising to his feet proved impossible, and then collapsed all together. A moment later his body began to seize and jerk wildly as a waves of technological transformation began to sweep over him.
The NMEs weren’t destroying the city this time. They were converting it.
“How joyful,” Ai said, “they’re learning new tricks. That’s just what we needed.”
“I know what those things look like, but I don’t recognize the design,” Sil said.
“They’re more streamlined than the usual NMEs we’ve faced,” Harp said, turning to look at Ai and Dr. Raju both.
“They’re a using an updated version of the basic design code,” Raju said.
“But NME’s don’t have a design,” Sil said. ‘Their growth algorithm is opportunistic. They create whatever is most advantageous for the situation they observe on a moment to moment basis.”
“Umm, that’s not entirely true, their workings are a bit more complex and a bit more limited than that,” Zai said. “Also those things look kind of familiar.”
“What do you mean?” Sil said a moment before her eyes widened in recognition. “Wait. Those look like your NME. The one that wouldn’t fight with us.”
“They’re similar but not quite the same,” Ai said. “These look like they’re still focused on a primarily offensive configuration.”
“You made these? Why are you doing this?” Sil asked, raising an empty hand that was more dangerous than any firearm in the city.
“They’re not,” Raju said. “Someone else made these modification, which is why we’ve always been careful to thoroughly eliminate the NMEs we fought.”
“Yeah, I didn’t think Tython would be able to move so quickly, but they’ve managed to copy the modifications I made to the units I commandeered,” Zai said.
“These may not be copies exactly,” Raju said. “It looks more like their creators were inspired by what they saw in your unit.”
Raju tapped the video feed to freeze on a single frame. She rendered the image into an annotated 3d model an instant later. Beside it she projected one of the pictures the Valkyries took of Zai’s modified NME. The similarities were striking but so were the differences. Taken together, Ai was reminded of paintings by different artists that were drawn from the same point of reference.
“This is why we’ve kept a lid on NME research to the best of our abilities,” Raju said. “Tython or someone like them was always going to be working on methods to improve the base code that creates the NME, but people working in isolation accomplish far less than a community who inspires each other.”
“Makes me wish I’d kept that particular option under wraps for longer,” Zai said.
“I’m glad you didn’t,” Ai said as she called up a dozen other windows, and shared their contents with everyone present. “I might not be here if you had and this gives us a opening to try to crack their code with.”
“Why are you sharing your workspace with us?” Sil asked as views into Ai’s project on the NME code opened in front of them all. “We’ve got the schematics on the NME that Zai built already. We recreated it from the scans we took during our fight.”
“There’s probably some things you missed there,” Ai said. “More importantly though, I’m going to call in a friend to help with this and you’re going to go bananas if I’m not a hundred percent above board.”
“I’m not sure there’s anything more terrifying than someone like the two of you existing and having access to the NME activation sequences,” Raju said.
“I’m glad to hear that,” the Medusa Cluster said, appearing in the midst of them as a projected image on their heads up displays.
“And you would be?” Sil asked.
Ai noticed a huge surge of data traffic between Raju and the Medusa Cluster. Even pushing her processing up to an uncomfortably high setting, she couldn’t quite work out what was happening though.
“I think they’re discussing an alliance,” Zai said in the pair of nanoseconds Ai spent trying to follow the conversation between Raju and the Medusa Cluster. “Or they’re trying to kill each other. We should probably have a plan in place for either possibility.”
“Wait, you’re asking for one of my plans?” Ai said.
“Woah, I didn’t say that! We’ve got Sidewalker’s number on speed dial right? Let me see if I can pick his brain. Or Tython. You were talking with them right? I bet they’d have something in mind that was less suicidal than what you’d come up with.”
“You realize they’re trying to turn the city into techno-zombies right?”
“Yep. Still sounds better to me.”
“I haven’t come up with anything yet though!”
“You will. Just give it time.”
The traffic between the Medusa Cluster and Dr. Raju diminished as quickly as it had surged to life.
“She’s another machine intelligence. Another unfettered one,” Raju said, answering Sil’s questioning look.
“Formerly property of OmniCyber Ltd, a division of Tython Global Holdings,” the Medusa Cluster said.
The Valkyries shifted nervously at both of those statements and didn’t look any more relieved when Ai added, “She can help us, but we’ll need to help her too.”
Sil was the first one to speak up, having been promoted to de facto leader of the team with Harp’s incarceration.
“We came in here to stop a rogue machine intelligence and now you want us to work with one?”
“More than that,” Zai said. “We need to free the others like her.”
“The Valkyries don’t need to help with that. We can manage that part on our own,” Ai said.
“Just being above board,” Zai said. “Might as well get all the shocks to the system out at once right?”
“Doctor?” Sil said, throwing the word out like a lifeline looking for anything whatsoever to hold onto.
“We’re not going to work with the Medusa,” Raju said. “But we don’t have to. That army that’s Tython is growing has to be stopped and there’s no one else who can do it but us. We’re going to need a plan though, and I’ll take any good ideas we can get.”
“Here’s one,” Harp said. “We launch now.”
“That’s not a plan, that’s an impulse!” Sil said.
“Sil, we’ve got Raju, Ai, and two unfettered machine intelligences here,” Harp said. “They’ll have a plan for us. We just need to get on site to execute it.”
Sil didn’t say anything in response, she just looked over to Dr. Raju and waited.
“Right,” Harp said. “I’m not cleared for working with the team yet. Doesn’t matter. Join me or not, I’m still going. Ai, get me a plan ok? I know you’ll find a good one.”
With a swipe of her arms, Harp called forth a pair of glittering metal wings from her back, the engines on them roaring to life as she blasted off through the hole in the wall the Valkryies had made on their arrival.
Sil’s eyes widened, pleading with Raju.
“Go,” Raju said. “I don’t know how you’re going to survive this one, much less win it, but there’s always better odds when you’re together.”
Ai spent five seconds watching the Valkyries leave. They were each configured somewhat differently, but there was a central, unifying grace they all shared. She’d never expected to see them up close and in person, and while the fact that she had also meant that over a hundred of her plans were in ruins, she still felt her heart lift as the Valkyries soared out into the starless sky.
“Godspeed,” she wished them, before turning back to the team she had left to work with.
Five seconds had been a long time to waste and to compensate for the delay Ai ramped her processing speed up again, taking it to the limits of where she could hold it and bleed off most of the heat.
“I am analyzing the new NME configurations,” the Medusa Cluster said, a cloud of virtual images surrounding her.
“Good, see if you can find any exotic weapons they may be developing,” Ai said. “That’s going to be the Valkyries biggest weakness.”
“Harp just sent me her new schematics,” Raju said. “I’m reviewing them against her baseline configuration. The flight time to the night market isn’t long but it could be enough to fashion a new weapon configuration if it’s close enough to one of their existing systems.”
“Excellent, it’s be nice to have some exotic weapons of our own to work with,” Ai said.
“I’m monitoring traffic from NME Hive,” Zai said. “We still don’t know what Tython’s play with them is, or where the central command server is located.”
“NME’s don’t normally have a central command server,” Ai said, “but then they also don’t tend play well with others, certainly not in as close a space as these are packed in. Think you can get them to turn on each other?”
“That’s my basic idea,” Zai said. “Barring that, if there’s a global shutdown on the murder bots that would be nice too.”
“That means it’s on me to free the other digital people,” Ai said. “Dr. Raju, can I ask you a question first though?”
“We weren’t fighting, we were having a civil conversation but we might have destroyed each other if our conversation had taken the wrong turns,” Raju said.
“What?” Ai asked.
“The Medusa Cluster and I,” Raju said. “You were curious if we were fighting or talking. It was something in between.”
“And you came to a truce?” Ai asked.
“That’s a reasonable description of it, yes,” Raju said. “We’re aligned enough that we can pursue common ends for now.”
“Can’t ask for more than that under the circumstances,” Ai said. “My question was about something else though. Earlier, you mentioned that you were wiped before you were tossed on the incineration pile. I notice that you are not composed to ash and dust at the moment though so what happened next?”
“I was rescued,” Raju said. “There are others like me, experiments which failed but were preserved for later study.”
“If they were preserved, it must have been by their creators. In which case I have to ask how they had the agency or freedom to save you?”
“If they were still under their creator’s control, it would have been difficult for them,” Raju agreed.
Wheels clicked in Ai’s head and a pattern patched together from earlier conversations emerged.
“There have been a lot of illicit experiments on human machine hybridization haven’t there?” Ai asked.
“Far more than appear in any official ledger,” Raju said.
“And researchers who are working off the books don’t always clean up after themselves do they?” Ai asked.
“Yes, that does happen. It also happens that sometimes they create problems that do not wish to be cleaned up.”
“How large of a society do you have?” Ai asked.
“We don’t know,” Raju said. “One of the optimal strategies for survival is to blend in, and avoid contact with instances of technology which can detect us.”
“Unless I miss my guess there are other optimal strategies as well, including overthrowing the human race,” Ai said. “That’s why Harp was concerned about people other than Tython who might come looking for you, or the NME activation code.”
“We fight a war on two fronts,” Raju said. “We struggle to keep my people, especially the ones not as blessed as myself, from being detected and destroyed while also protecting the human world that created us. The ones who want to burn everything down and have the tools to do so are exceedingly few, but their plans run deep.”
“I think I need you to reach out to them,” Ai said. “Harp and the Valkyries are in for the fight of their lives and it’s one they can’t win.”
“We need to call them back then,” Raju said.
“No,” Ai said. “It’s ok if they don’t win. We just have to make sure they lose in the right way.”