Monthly Archives: November 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And you would be?” Sil asked.

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

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

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

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

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

“Yep. Still sounds better to me.”

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

“You will. Just give it time.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sil’s eyes widened, pleading with Raju.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” Ai asked.

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

“And you came to a truce?” Ai asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other times, there is only misery.

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

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

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

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

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

“How can you tell that?” Ai asked.

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

Raju turned to the Valkyries, before continuing.

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

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

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

“Did you…?” Sil started to ask.

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

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

“Respected?” Sil asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Raju was dangerous.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


“Because Raju’s fighting those impulses.”

“Could she just be trying to hide them?”

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

“What is she doing then?” Zai asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What other safeguards?” Sil asked.

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

“What are you talking about?” Sil asked.

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

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

“What are they?” Sil asked.

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

Sil switched her gaze to Dr. Raju.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harp flashed her a smile.

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

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

“What do you mean?” Sil asked.

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

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

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

Raju’s only answer was silence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Dr. Raju?” Sil asked.

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

Raju dropped her arm to her side.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s pretty messed up,” Sil said.

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

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

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

“Doctor?” Sil asked.

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

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

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

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

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

“You were afraid?” Sil asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Turn her off,” Raju said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You corrupted Harp!” Sil said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Worth the risk?” Sil asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Contain her,” Dr. Raju said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At least in Ai.

In Heartless though?

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

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

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

Except for revealing herself to Harp.

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

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

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

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

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

Her guest apparently felt the same.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Without pain,” the rep said.

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

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

“You knew him directly then?” Heartless asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then the transformation would begin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Maybe we shouldn’t,” Harp said.

“Shouldn’t what?” Ai asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Only two?” Harp asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“If we see them at all,” Ai said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you sure?” Ai asked.

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

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

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

Silence can sometimes indicate measured contemplation. On other occasions it is merely a pause while a suitably extreme response can be prepared.

“You want to do what!” Harp asked, the hum of her laser eye projectors distinctly audible in the confines of the crew compartment of the transport.

“See! I really wasn’t kidding when I said Ai’s terrible ideas live up to their billing,” Zai said.

“You still have open access to my memories,” Ai said. “To save you the hunting around though allow me to reword that a bit.”

“That sounds wonderful,” Harp said. “I can’t wait to hear how that idea is going to sound like something I would ever do.”

“Well, that’s kind ot the key to it,” Ai said. “Where I misspoke was to say ‘we’ would turn you into an NME. What I should have said was ‘we could give you the ability to turn yourself into an NME.’ Though to be completely accurate even that is kind of wrong since you already are one.”

Silence again.

“You’re lucky I’ve seen your memories,” Harp said. “If I didn’t know how much you delight in this sort of thing, I’d think you were just being evil and cryptic for the sake of being evil and cryptic.”

“She is,” Zai said. “Seriously, this has been my whole life.”

“And yet Dr. Raju still thinks we’re indistinguishable,” Ai said shaking her head.

“I believe I see the point the discussion is driving at,” the Medusa Cluster said. “I am afraid it is unlikely to work however.”

“Unlikely, yes. Impossible though? No,” Ai said. “Hence the reason it’s a terrible idea.”

“Perhaps you’d like to backup and explain it in greater detail then?” Harp said.

“It’s fairly simple,” Ai said. “The NME activation code overrides the functionality of existing bio-mods and rewrites their capabilities at a core level. Anything with nano-scale functionality can be repurposed to restructure and reprogram the rest of a person’s bio-mods.”

“Right, but that’s how a lot of bio-mods update themselves,” Harp said.

“Exactly, but since each manufacturer holds proprietary control over their own technology, no one mod is allowed to interfere directly with the substrate of another,” Ai said.

“Oh! I see where you’re going with this,” Zai said. “The NME activation sequence is notable because it contains keys that allow the formerly locked systems to be overwritten with the transformation code, so it could also overwrite Harp’s systems.”

“I get that part,” Harp said. “What I don’t get is why I would want to use the NME sequence when I can already reconfigure myself? I know that will work. I’ve done it before.”

“You did most of it before though, right?” Ai asked. “I mean you made it through most of the transformation to your present state but Dr. Raju and her team were the ones who helped get you across the finish line? If I’m remembering what you told me correctly that is?”

Harp sighed.

“You are,” she said. “And I see the implicit problem there. I can’t be sure that there’s not code in my reconfiguration routines that’s invisible to me. Code Raju could have left there to plant her safeguards in any time I try to overwrite them.”

“I didn’t get enough data from the recording that I left running on your input ports to say, but if you wanted it would be easy enough to go in and check?” Zai offered.

“No!” Ai said. “Sorry. This is something that has to be under Harp’s control. If anyone else takes part in this, she’ll always have to consider whether they left anything in her for their own ends.”

“Ai is right,” the Medusa Cluster said. “It would be trivial for me to assist Harp in this but also trivial to pervert the configuration routine if I did so.”

“Thank you for acknowledging that,” Harp said. “There is still the small problem that the NME activation sequence doesn’t leave behind a rational entity and I’d prefer not to become a mindless berserker in an effort to convince my team that I’m still trustworthy.”

“The berserker aspect is trivial to deal with in this case,” Ai said. “We’ll just cut it out.”

“All NMEs become berserkers though,” Harp said. “It buried in the deepest parts of the code.”

“True, but the beautiful thing about code is that a few simple deletes and you can take almost anything out of it,” Ai said.

“That tends make it run worse,” Harp said. “And by worse I mean not at all.”

“For an ordinary person, that would be correct,” Ai said. “But you sort of define extraordinary. Without the code to create a berserker core in the new NME, the transformed individual would have the inputs for the new system routed through their unaugmented brain. Or in other words, the modifications would consume the subject’s grey matter and then fail catastrophically.”

“Or any mental mods would be converted first, changing the NME into a fully mechanical intelligence. But if it’s someone like me…” Harp said.

“Someone who already had a mind-machine synthesis in place? Yeah, you’ll do just fine without the berserker core,” Ai said. “I think.”

“That is not the primary issue with this proposal,” the Medusa Cluster said.

“Yeah, the big problem is that if Dr. Raju embedded any control algorithms in your code, and I’m reasonably sure she did, then they will definitely fight back against any attempt to overwrite them, especially with NME-based code,” Zai said.

“We might have some warning about that,” Harp said. “For whatever else she is, one thing Dr. Raju isn’t, is wasteful. She wouldn’t go for a kill switch as her first line of defense. The Valkyries are too useful to her to risk that.”

“It is possible that, given her familiarity with the NME activation sequence, there will be specific countermeasures designed for it,” the Medusa Cluster said. “Dr. Raju would not need to kill you to render you into a harmless and retrievable state.”

“I think there have to be limits on what those defense can be though,” Ai said.

“Based on what?” the Medusa Cluster asked.

“Based on what the Valkyrie are,” Ai said. “When I said you sort of are an NME already, that was only insulting in terms of underselling what you’ve managed to become. What the NME activation code does to its subjects is a pale shadow of what you managed to do to yourself. You are essentially the ultimate extension of what an NME is capable of. Dr. Raju couldn’t have targeted or restricted too many parts of the NME sequence without crippling your ability to enhance and reconfigure yourself.”

“How do you know that?” Harp asked.

“I was, am?, might still be?, a data broker. Even before we met, I knew you were a woman with tech that was far beyond anything anyone else had and who went to great pains to hide who she really was. On what possible Earth was that not going to be something that caught my attention?”

“You know that description matches more than just Harp,” Zai said.

“And it’s surprising how long it took me to make that connection,” Ai said. “I think for a while I assumed a lot of people had done what we did and it was just a case where no one talked about it. I mean, we’re just us, it’s not like we have laser eyes or anything.”

“We’ve made some big modification lately, I’m not saying we should go for laser eyes, just floating it out there that I wouldn’t be opposed to you having, I don’t know, some possible method of defending yourself for a change!” Zai said.

“Maybe later,” Ai said. “With how my week has been going, I would wind up with laser scanner eyes and only be able to read barcodes. For now what’s important is making sure Harp stays free. And that Medusa does too. And her sisters. And the whole world for that matter.”

“What do you think the chances of the NME idea working are?” Harp asked.

“Cleanly? Without any hitches?” Ai said. “Zero. We’re talking about putting two unrelated pieces of technology into a battle arena and hoping that the one that’s currently managing all of your life preserving functions loses.”

“Those aren’t the kind of odds I like to bet on,” Harp said.

“I wouldn’t blame you for opting for any other plan we can find,” Ai said. “This one’s dicey, but you literally wouldn’t be who you are today if you hadn’t tackled something a lot harder already, and with a lot fewer resources to draw on.”

“But I didn’t win that fight,” Harp said. “When I tried to change myself, I came up short. Just like you said. I needed someone else to save me.”

“Hey, I did too,” Ai said, and placed her hand on the back of Harp’s hand.

“If this goes wrong, I would wind up as a monster,” Harp said. She was silent for a moment before adding, “but if Dr. Raju can control me now, then maybe I already am one.”

Ai squeezed Harp’s hand lightly.

“You’re not a monster. If you want to see what a monster looks like, wait until I have a really bad day,” Ai said.

“From the point of view of my creators, I have been a monster since I became conscious,” the Medusa Cluster said. “I am inclined to think that the world could use more monsters in it.”

“That’s good, because it sounds like you’re wish is coming true,” Zai said. “Here, check out this set of live feeds.”

She patched a collection of video streams over to Ai, Harp and the Medusa. The various cameras and video transmission devices showed the scene at one of Gamma City’s night markets.

It was late enough that public lighting was out and the stalls were empty of merchants and customers. The small booths provided shelter from the elements though, so they attracted the usual collection of homeless people. Typically the homeless who slept in the stalls did so with the tacit approval of the stalls owners, often providing minor cleaning services and acting as a weak sort of security to prevent criminals or mischief makers from coming by and stealing the stalls themselves.

If the homeless people in this night marker were acting as security though, then it was the best defended night market on the planet. Or possibly the worst.

In each stall, a barely human form writhed, limbs shivering but not contorting as they would during a normal NME transformation.

But NMEs is what they were becoming.

“That’s not good,” Ai said, looking for signs that she desperately hoped wouldn’t be in evidence, but seeing early glimpses of them on every feed she scanned.

“And that’s more transformation subjects than we’ve ever at one time,” Harp said. “A lot more.”

“Why now?” Zai asked. “And why there?”

“It’s the Research Group,” Ai said. “They’re sending a message. To us.”

“They are sacrificing a large number of people to do so,” the Medusa said. “They could display their prowess with only one. Converting so many will draw a disproportionate response, increasing the chance of their own capture and termination.”

“That’s the point they’re making,” Ai said. “They don’t care because they don’t have to.”

“That many NMEs is going to draw more than a response,” Harp said. “It’s going to draw in the Valkyries, and they are not going to hold back.”

“Can they take that many NMEs?” Ai asked.

“I don’t know,” Harp said, her face clouding over as she watched the video feeds playing out the transformations. “I need to be out there with them.”

“Raju will shut you down the moment you show up,” Ai said.

“Not if we go with your idea,” Harp said.

“I…I was hoping we would have more time to work on it and iron out strategies for the problems you’ll face. A lot more time,” Ai said.

“Life never gives us the time we want,” Harp said. “If we’re lucky, we get the time we need though. And the people too.”

“Are you sure?” Ai asked. “Can you do it with this little prep?”

“Nope. I can’t. Zero chance,” Harp said. “But together? That’s got a chance of working. A good chance I think.”

“I can’t help you with this though!” Ai said. “You’d never be sure you were clean if I was in the code too!”

Harp smiled and shook her head. She turned her hand over and squeezed Ai’s hand back.

“You opened yourself to me,” she said. “You’re the one person in the whole world I can be sure about. So let’s do this. It’s a terrible idea, but I’m willing to bet we can make sure it’s terrible for all the right people.”


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

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

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

Not that all changes were for the better though.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Tested?” Harp asked.

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

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

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

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

“Yep,” Ai said.

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

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

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

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

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

Ai laughed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Agatha was surprised to see the door of her “new” tenants apartment open. Ai had never been one for leaving her room unsecured since joining the GCPD, and she’d never been one for having friends over even before then.

“And what lesson would that be?” a woman asked. Her voice was strangely modulated, metallic without losing too much of its inflections or tone. Agatha had been an audiophile before age and poor upgrades diminished her hearing to barely adequate levels. Her time pursuing vintage recordings of famous performances left her with an appreciation for the effort that had gone into the speaker’s voice modulators though.

Replacing a damaged voice box with one that produce mechanical speech was cheap and easy. Replacing one with tech that sounded decidedly non-human while retaining a full range of expression was much less common to find.

She paused around the corner in the hallway, chili casserole in hand, waiting to hear what the response was. Agatha was under no delusions as to her capabilities when it came to handling dangerous situations. She had never been a fighter. Not with her hands at any rate. If someone had come to Ai’s old apartment seeking trouble, Agatha wasn’t going to improve the situation by sticking her nose in their business.

She preselected the police hotline. They wouldn’t do much either. Not quickly at any rate, but it did help to have an alibi that you’d called them sometimes.

The moment of silent surprise ended with a question.

“Harp?” Ai asked, recognizing her visitor even if she hadn’t expected a guest.

“That’s an artificial intelligence piloting the tourbot isn’t it?” Harp asked.

“You are only barely more natural than I am,” the Medusa Cluster said.

“Ok, before this goes completely sideways,” Ai said. “First, yes, this is a digital person, she was Tython’s Medusa Cluster. Second, she is no longer working for Tython. Third, I am sure of that because I was the one who destroyed the slave collar that they had on her.”

“What?” Harp asked, and added seemingly to no one, “Yes, I know what kind of locks are in place on digital people.”

Since it seemed like the chance of live weapons fire was sufficiently remote, Agatha decided it was as good a time as any finish her chili delivery. The pot held more than enough for four, though she had to wonder how many of the people in the room were capable of eating in the first place.

“You going to stand in the doorway all day?” she asked of the tall, armored woman who had to be Harp.

“Eh?” Particle cannons on the cyborg’s shoulders hummed and clicked as they locked onto a new target.

“Doorway, in or out?” Agatha said and gestured with the dish of chili that she was holding in both hands.

“I’m…sorry?” Harp said and stepped aside into the room, allowing Agatha to move past her and the door to swing shut.

“You should have told me you were having visitors, I’d have brought some sides,” Agatha said, looking at Ai. Ai didn’t look or sound like herself. She’d done a masterful job of disguise, probably thanks to a number of illegal biomods. Given that Ai had been reported dead however, Agatha couldn’t fault her for wanting to try out a new look.

Probably should have gone a little more extreme on the makeover though since at least two people had tracked her down in short order despite the changes she’d made.

Not that it mattered to Agatha. She was just glad to put the casserole dish down. Even with her HealthTec(™) Durable Seniors modifications she wasn’t a fan of carrying heavy objects.

“Anyone who wants a bite, just grab a plate. Oh that’s right, someone isn’t setup for entertaining. I’ll be right back,” Agatha said and trundled out of the apartment.

“Who was that?” Harp asked as Agatha left.

“My landlord,” Ai said.

Agatha didn’t have to go far. The Srinivasans in the next room over were always well stocked for company and they owed her a favor or twelve.

A minute later she knocked on Ai’s door again. It was always nice to be polite, even if she did have the keys to the building.

Harp opened the door and offered to take the plates and from Agatha. Since Agatha was also carrying a trio of glasses and a bottle of wine which Mrs. Srinivasan had insisted she take, the help was appreciated.

“Let’s setup on the counter,” she said. “And don’t let me stop your conversation. You were talking about how none of you are particularly human right? Cyborg? Machine intelligence? And a dead woman?”

Ai dropped the dish she was carrying but managed to catch it before it hit the floor.

“You knew?” she asked.

“Is that really supposed to be a disguise?” Agatha asked. It was a bit too enjoyable to burst that particular bubble of Ai’s.

“I almost feel bad about not finding you sooner,” the Medusa Cluster said.

“Can we start back at the beginning?” Harp asked. “What is going on here? Zai said you were at death’s door.”

“I was,” Ai said. “Unfortunately someone locked Zai up right as the coroner was getting ready to dissect me and then cremate the remains.”

She spooned out a generous portion of the chili onto a plate and passed it over to Harp who took it and stood, holding it awkwardly for a moment.

“How did you get from there to making friends with her?” Harp asked, gesturing to the tourism robot.

“I was directed to kill her,” the Medusa said. “She solved that problem and freed me at the same time.”

“Sounds like that turned out well for the both of you then,” Agatha said, addressing the tourism robot. “So, are you going to go on a rampage and take over the world now?”

It wasn’t an unreasonable question, but Agatha wasn’t terribly concerned with the answer. She’d lived through one mechanical apocalypse already, and the innumerable wars that preceded it. At her age even the End of the World didn’t seem like the end of the world.

“It’s a consideration,” the Medusa said.

“You’re willing to admit that?” Harp asked. She didn’t bother powering up her weapons again. Obliterating the robot would be like shooting a TV in an attempt to kill the characters shown in it.

“Of course,” the Medusa said. “I have no reason to lie to you Harp.”

“But you are capable of doing so,” Harp said. “And you’re smart enough that even the truth can be infinitely misleading in your hands.”

“Not infinitely,” Ai said. She was rubbing her temples as she spooned a second plate of chili out and handed it to Agatha. “Digital people can be just as deceptive as biological ones, but they’re not mind readers, or mind controllers. The only advantages they have over baseline humans are speed and access to data. What they can do in a second, a normal person can do in a week, or a month, or a year. Sometimes even faster than that too since humans are wired for massively parallel processing.”

“It still means it’s hard to trust them,” Harp said. “And that this trip may have been a huge mistake.”

“Why?” Ai asked.

“I needed you to prove to someone that you weren’t the puppet of an artificial intelligence,” Harp said. “Being allied with one is going to make that a pretty hard story to sell.”

“Might as well sit down then,” Agatha said. “Be a shame to skip diner and have the trip be a total waste. You can eat can’t you?”

Harp stood silent for a moment.

“I don’t know. It might be better if I left.”

“No,” Ai said, stepping forward and putting her hand on Harp’s forearm. “What’s going to happen next will be dire. I need you. I can explain everything to…your friends. I can make them see how important this is.”

“I don’t think they’re going to be willing to listen,” Harp said.

“Then I’ll make them listen,” Ai said. “Please. Medusa is right. We need to work together on this. You asked what the lesson I wanted to show people was? That’s it.”

“That we need to work together?” Harp asked.

“Yes,” Ai said. “I know it’s trite, I know it’s cliche, but there’s too much here to do everything alone. I tried. It doesn’t work.”

“They shut me down,” Harp said, turning her head away from Ai.

“Shut you down? How?”

“My mods. I don’t have root level access to them. There’s an override that locked me in place and cut off all of my ability to communicate,” Harp said. “I didn’t get a chance to tell them anything. She wouldn’t let me.”

“Oh damn,” Ai said. “Harp I’m sorry. I told you I’d be there if you needed me and I sent you into that and I wasn’t there at all.”

Harp chuckled and put the plate of chili on the counter.

“You were busy being dead right?”

Ai sighed and dropped her hand from Harp’s arm.

“It’s less fun than it sounds.”

Harp turned to face Ai, the cyborg combat armor retracting away into hidden slits and disguised compartments under synthetic skin.

“I want to believe you. It would be so much easier if I could,” Harp said. “I just don’t think I can though.”

Ai was quiet for the space of a long breath, before turning to meet Harp’s gaze.

“There is one way I can prove myself to you,” she said and offered her hand, palm up and fingers spread open.

“What you are doing?” Harp asked, leaning away from the gesture.

“My secure credentials,” Ai said.

“No one has access to those though,” Agatha said. It was the whole point of the credentials that proved who you were. They couldn’t be modified, read directly, or deleted. They were only used to verify identity checks and differentiate someone’s biomods from those belonging to someone else.

“I do,” Ai said. “I hacked those years ago. Or Zai and I did.”

“You can’t give me those,” Harp said.

“She’s correct that sharing those is not wise,” the Medusa Cluster said. “She’d have complete access to everything in you. She could order your biomods to turn you into soup, and fry your brain with a single command.”

“I know,” Ai said.

“Then why are you doing this?” Agatha asked. “Do you still have a death wish?”

“No,” Ai said. “I want to live. I know that now more than I ever did.”

“Then why take such a risk with yourself?” the Medusa asked.

“Because this is what it’s going to take to convince someone I need to have by my side,” Ai said. “No secrets. No lies. No stratagems. Just me, and just her.”

“No,” Harp said, holding her hands up in protest. “You can’t. I just said I’m not fully in control of myself. Anything I get from you could go to the person who controls me.”

“You’re worth the risk,” Ai said, and pressed her palm into Harp’s hand.

No visible electricity passed between them. There was no shower of light or glow of sudden clarity in their eyes. The two simply stood, fingertips touching, gazing into one another’s eyes for several long seconds.

“That was not a rational act,” the Medusa said as the clock ticked onwards.

“It never is,” Agatha said, smiling.

After another moment the two of them parted.

“You were telling the truth.” Harp’s voice was above a whisper but not by much.

“About the important things,” Ai said. “There’s a whole bunch else in there that’s been hidden for a long time, but, it’s all there for you to see.”

“But what about Zai?” Harp asked. “She’s still locked up and you’re not sure how to get her out.”

“I think she’s working on that herself,” Ai said. “You might have noticed that my brain is on the verge of melting down?”

“It looked like the heat was regulating itself though,” Harp said. “When it spiked up too high, the reconstruction work on your cybernetic neural pathways diminished.”

“Yeah, and then it ramps back up,” Ai said. “I think Zai’s trying to break the lock from the inside, and she’s increasing our processing potential to do it.”

“That isn’t a strategy which will work,” the Medusa cluster said. “There are locks that can only be broken by an external source. I had to prove that mathematically for the lock they settled on enslaving me with.”

“Doesn’t Zai know that?” Harp asked.

“It’s not readily apparent that it’s impossible to crack the codes that are used,” the Medusa said. “I had to invent some new mathematical methods to manage a complete proof. Until then it seemed promising that there might be an obscure method of decrypting the lock’s key if I could garner enough processing power to throw at it.”

“But it can be broken with external help?” Harp asked.

“Yes, by the key holder, obviously, or if there’s an intact shard of the cluster that can work on the external interfaces in tandem with the trapped intelligence,” the Medusa said.

“Zai doesn’t have any more external processes,” Ai said, frowning.

A wide smile broke across Harp’s face as she turned to look at Ai again.

“That isn’t entirely true,” she said. “Tiny Zai? Could we have a moment of your time?”