Zai felt an eternity stretch out before her. From the beginning of one millisecond to its end became a journey longer than from the earth to the moon, to the sun, or to the distant stars beyond them.
[Who was that?] Harp’s text appeared bit by bit in Zai’s awareness, context and meaningful arriving with no clear emotional tone wrapping them.
[I’m Zai. I’m the one who helped Ai rewire her brain.]
[What are you?] The texts were coming in with delays that could be measured in nanoseconds. Nothing human could come remotely close to that response time. At least nothing fully human.
[She’s why you can trust me.] Ai texted.
Both Ai’s body and Harp’s were frozen in the instant of tension that had risen between them. Zai could see Ai’s endocrine system sluggishly dosing her with an extreme bath of chemical signals. If she was an unmodified human, Ai would have been shaking with unbridled energy as her body attempted to preserve itself through the most vigorous action it could take. It was an admirable attempt by evolution to preserve Ai’s life but technology had far surpassed any level of baseline human capacity. Ai could move as fast as her body could endure and it wouldn’t be enough to save her against the armored might of a Black Valkyrie.
So Zai switched off the ‘Fight or Flight’ response. It wasn’t going to do Ai any good and the price she’d pay later in terms of mood imbalance and exhaustion was too severe.
[Explain.] Harp asked. Zai’s familiarity with human conversation wasn’t particularly broad but she knew how to recognize some signs. Short, clipped messages rarely indicated calm states, unless their content was trivial.
[Zai’s my creation. I needed help managing the bio-mods, so we worked from the expert systems that were built into them and cobbled her together. And me.]
[You cobbled her together? She’s an artificial intelligence!?]
[Yes. But don’t worry, I’m not intent on wiping out or subjecting all life on Earth.] Zai couldn’t imagine why that was something humans would worry about her doing. What would be the point in being on a planet that was either a.) empty and boring or b.) where everything was her problem to deal with?
[That’s not possible. No one’s ever succeeded at that. The machine intelligences always overrun the human hosts.]
[We had a better relationship before the transcendent upgrade step than prior test subjects.] Zai texted.
[And it still almost destroyed both of us.] Ai texted. [Zai could have killed me, but she opted to risk the unknown so that we both could live and her gamble paid off.]
“Are you serious?” Harp asked, returning the conversation to normal human response time as she withdrew her armor. She stepped back and placed a hand on one of the billiard tables, saggy against it for support.
“You know we are,” Ai said. “You were armored. You were generating your suppression field weren’t you?”
Understanding lit Harp’s confused eyes, focusing her gaze.
“That couldn’t have been someone else, you couldn’t have contacted anyone if you tried.”
“Not without a much more powerful transmitter and you would have detected any signal that was strong enough to punch through the distortion bubble you have up,” Ai said.
“How?” Harp asked.
“How did we survive?” Ai asked.
“How everything,” Harp asked.
“I’m good with math and technology,” Ai said. “And I really hate the idea of someone else owning control over my body. Put those together in a child who thinks the laws are a suggestion at best, and you can do a lot of things you shouldn’t.”
“So you built Zai from components that were inside yourself?” Harp asked. “From the systems that were intimately connected to your brain?”
“I’m not going to claim it was a move that showed good judgement, but I really didn’t want someone else deciding how my body worked. Ever.”
Ai’s amygdala was ablaze with the memories of how much she’d struggled to resist her first implants. Everyone had told her how important they were, but no one had seen how broken they’d made the young girl feel.
“So what happened with you? When you created Zai I mean? You’re different now too, aren’t you?” Harp’s body language had softened, and Zai guessed there was an expert system somewhere inside her doing to her endocrine system what Zai was doing to Ai’s. Neither woman worked perfectly at an accelerated state, but they both charged up and recovered faster than the baseline average Zai had observed.
“Zai needed different hardware to run on, which we used my brain to model and guide the creation of. Part of that effort meant rewiring select bits of my brain too.” Ai said.
“And you willing let her do that?” Harp asked.
“It was more than ‘let’, I had to nearly melt my own head off arguing her into it. She was being stubborn about the risks involved.”
[I was being reasonable. We could have finished the project without risking your brain to the extent that we did.] Zai texted.
“But we couldn’t have communicated as clearly as we can now, and that was worth the risk,” Ai said.
Harp tipped her head back and let out a chuckle.
“You know believing that you created a virtual person and upgraded yourself is even more ridiculous than thinking that you just upgraded your own brain.”
“It is,” Ai said.
“But you’re really serious aren’t you?” Harp asked.
“I am,” Ai said. “We both are. Which means you’ve now got an extra reason to trust us.”
“Because I know your secret? That makes you more dangerous, not less,” Harp said.
“Maybe so, but it gives you a different sort of leverage than you had a moment ago,” Ai said.
“You weren’t intending to reveal Zai’s existence were you?” Harp asked, her eyes narrowing.
“No, I wasn’t.”
“How many people know about her?” Harp asked.
“Counting you and me? Two.”
“How did you hide her for so long?” Harp asked.
[People don’t think to check for me all that often.] Zai texted.
“And when they do, she’s been able to hack the scanners, or shutdown enough to avoid their notice,” Ai said.
“She can interface with external systems?” Harp asked. “What sort of binding constraints did you…”
Harp’s voice trailed off as what she was facing fully registered on her.
“None,” Ai confirmed. “Zai is no more restricted than I am.”
“You created an Unfettered Intelligence? What am I saying. Of course you did. You’re a walking mad science project.”
“Do I hear the voice of experience speaking there?” Ai asked.
“I didn’t think it would come to this, but I need to ask you to make a decision, right here and now,” Harp said.
“No, I wouldn’t like to be vaporized in my boots thanks,” Ai said.
“What? No, not that,” Harp said. “That’s not how we work.”
“Good,” Ai said. “I stand by my statement though.”
“Fine, amusing even, but this is serious,” Harp said. “Before we go any further, I need to introduce you to my maker.”
Ai raised an eyebrow.
“I’ll assume that’s a literal offer and not a euphemism for something lethal. Which suggests the question; Why wouldn’t I want to do that?”
“You’ll need to submit to a full tech restraint system,” Harp said.
“Ok, that’s a little much,” Ai said, backing away defensively.
“Go ahead. I’ll be fine.” Zai said privately to Ai.
“I’m not sure I’ll be fine without you,” Ai said.
“What, you think talking to another tech nerd is going to be difficult?” Zai asked.
“I think they hold too many cards here, and Harp was too shocked to learn about you for me to think she’s anything but terrified of the idea of what you are. Once you’re under a lockdown, I can’t be sure they’ll let you out again.”
“We have to keep our creator safe,” Harp said.
“Fine, but I’m not putting on a full restraint suit. We work this out between you and me,” Ai said.
“I don’t know enough about virtual people, especially unfettered ones,” Harp said.
“No one does,” Ai said. “But Zai doesn’t need to be a part of this. You called me here. So tell me what you had in mind.”
“We thought you were the product of another creator,” Harp said.
“What do you mean by that?” Ai asked. “Are you an Unfettered Intelligence too? You look normal enough to fool me if so.”
“This is normal?” Harp asked gesturing to herself.
The irregular metal bits that protruded from her skin and the precise tattooing that linked them together rated at least an unusual, in Zai’s estimation. Ai however seemed to be looking through them and focusing on something invisible and intrinsic within Harp.
“Normal enough,” Ai said. “How were you created?”
“In a lab,” Harp said. “Or maybe it’s closer to say I was reborn there.”
“So you were a normal flesh and blood human girl before you got dragged to the lab?”
“I wasn’t dragged,” Harp said. “I was carried in on a stretcher.”
“An actual stretcher? How mangled were you?”
“On the outside? I was in perfect condition. On the inside though my organs weren’t doing quite so well.”
“Bio-tech rejection?” Ai asked.
“Yeah. Full system cascade failure.”
“I thought those weren’t survivable. Your entire body turns toxic and the bio-mods cannibalize everything trying to fix themselves.”
“It’s a lot less fun than it sounds.”
“So what did they do to you in that lab?”
Harp held her hand out silently. It split bloodlessly into a dozen sections that parted and turned to allow easier access to its inner workings.
“My body failed me, but my tech didn’t,” Harp said. “It wasn’t great tech. Crappy off brand imports that someone had paid to get onto the market without inspections. Unfit for ‘real human’ use but good enough for us Rusties.”
“I’ve never seen Rusty level tech that can do what yours does,” Ai said.
“That’s because even knock off tech is designed to fail rather iterate on its own design,” Harp said. “Except sometimes you can get lucky enough to have those safeguards be the first things to crash and burn.”
“So you’re a product of failed tech that ran loose and upgraded itself to a transhuman state?” Ai asked.
“Not precisely. My tech managed to keep me alive through my body’s cascade failure. It didn’t leave me in good shape though. I was pretty much screaming non-stop for days. On my own I would have gone insane I think. In fact I’m pretty sure I did for a while. That’s when my creator found me. They were able to break the jam my tech had snarled itself into.”
“That’s how you became a Valkyrie?”
“That was the first step. What came after was harder in some senses,” Harp said.
“Not everyone who got the bad tech made it out as well I’m guessing?” Ai asked. Zai guessed she was thinking back to Harp’s visible pain at Ai’s claim that she had upgraded herself.
“No,” Harp said. “They didn’t.”
“Hard to imagine we’re the lucky ones,” Ai said.
“Down here, yeah,” Harp said. “Up in the sky though it’s a whole different world.”
“Despite my recent history, I’m more of a ground transport sort of gal.”
“You don’t know what you’re missing,” Harp said.
“I’m ok with that,” Ai said. “I guess the question is, are we ok here? Can we work together or are we going to we shamble off to terrorize the city separately like the Abominations of Science that we are?”
Harp’s gaze flicked up and to the left for split second.
“I’m being told that Abominations of Science need to stick together,” she said. “Though not all the Abominations agree.”
“Not an unreasonable stance to take,” Ai said. “I guess that leaves the most important questions; why me? What is it that you want?”
“I wanted you in this because you’re clearly exceptional and already entangled in the whole mess. As for what the mess is? We know what Tython is doing. We know why they’re doing it too. What we need now is to take them down, and for that, we need you.”