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.