Monthly Archives: December 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And how is that better?” she asked.

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

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

“I’m not a robot,” Zai said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No. She’d tamed it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No human could have,” Ai agreed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Three hundred and forty two,” Ai said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unless…

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

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

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

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

The point of no return.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You want to hire me,” Heartless said.

“What makes you think that?” Park asked.

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

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

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

“Among other reasons,” Simmons said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Vivienne found him?” Objawani asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lay it on us boss,” Dee said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So Harp dropped another one on them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the Valkyries were running out of resources.

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

Still they fought on.

NME fell.

And so did Valkyries.

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

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

But she was the last who remained.

Not the last alive though.

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

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

Unless Harp changed that.

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

It was like time stood still.

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

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

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

97%.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who is Hector?” Raju asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ai nodded.

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

“Like what the Valkyries have,” Raju said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I provided it,” Raju said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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