Ai paced. She paced around her bedroom, but she couldn’t lay down. She paced around her kitchen but she couldn’t each. She even paced in little hopping jumps in a tiny circle in her bathroom, but no luck there either.
Her head was on fire. Steam was jetting out her ears and flames towering up where her hair and eyebrows used to be.
Or at least that’s what it felt like.
It wasn’t the physical discomfort that bothered her though. She had her awareness of that dialed down nice and low.
Ai’s nervous energy came from the precarious thread her fate dangled from.
She’d fought the Medusa Cluster. It was one of the most powerful digital intelligences on the planet. There were at most dozen others that could match it, and since they operated on a level where meaningful comparisons between them were impossible to make, Ai guessed it was possible that she’d struggled against the best the world had to pit against her.
She should have been happy. Or amazed. Or overflowing with ego. She’d been plunged into that struggle with little notice and she was still around. But she hadn’t won.
In part that was because there really wasn’t a winning move on the board. Survival was a victory, of sorts, but continued survival was more than anyone could guarantee when behemoths like the Medusa Cluster came into play.
Ai tried to still her nerves. Physically, her body was well under her control. Her endocrine system didn’t flood her veins with any more adrenaline than she wanted, and her blood pressure and respiration stayed exactly where they should be. Even the shaking in her hands didn’t come from any issues in her sympathetic nervous system.
It was all in her mind.
She was too aware, running at too high a speed. Her thoughts were sluggish despite racing through her mind in parallel paths that far outstripped the speed of light. Some of that was the furnace that her mental mods had become, but a greater part came from knowing the state of the defenses that she’d spent her life erecting.
So many secrets had been exposed, so quickly. So many hidden resources had been expended for such small gains. Ai had traded the work of a year for one additional second of delay in the Medusa’s plans, and that had been one of her better sacrifices.
And it had worked. She’d succeeded in outmaneuvering someone massively faster and far less prone to error than she was.
She just couldn’t do so again.
That’s when she heard the knock on her door.
“I thought it would be polite to alert you before entering, but you should know that it’s me out there,” the Medusa Cluster said via their indirect links.
The thread of Ai’s fate snapped and her world came tumbling down at last.
“Shall I let myself in?” the Medusa Cluster asked when Ai didn’t respond.
Ai breathed and felt her energy drain away. There was no where left to run. In one sense, she’d been running away since she was a little girl. Running from anyone who could discover what she’d done and who she’d become. Whatever happened next, that wasn’t going to be an option any longer.
She opened the door.
On the other side a tourism robot, bland and unthreatening waited, rolling back and forth on its tripodal wheelbase.
“Come in,” Ai said, stepping aside and gesturing to the small apartment she’d inherited from her past life.
“Thank you,” the Medusa said, speaking audibly through the bot. That the Medusa was choosing to communicate at standard human speeds told Ai a lot. Whatever the Medusa had come for, she was willing to be patient on a scale baseline humans would have difficulty comprehending. It also suggested that the Medusa wanted time to consider her responses and, if Ai’s hunch was right, that there was a lot of distracting work the Medusa had to coordinate elsewhere.
“I’d offer you something but that model doesn’t come with taste receptors as I recall,” Ai said.
“Also, you have no food or beverage in this apartment,” the Medusa said, without needing to inspect either the refrigerator or the cabinets.
“I wasn’t expecting guests,” Ai sat on one of the two chairs at her kitchen table.
“My apologies for intruding,” the Medusa said.
“None needed. I knew you would be here,” Ai said. “I suppose I wasn’t just wasn’t sure whether you would want food or my life.”
“If we’d been having this conversation before your NME reached my control systems I would be literally incapable of saying this but I’m not here to take anything from you.”
“Well, I figured you weren’t after my life.”
“Because you’re still alive?”
Ai nodded, and rubbed her temple.
“You can relax your cognitive processors,” the Medusa said. “I am under a hard time constraint, but there will be no need to rush this conversation.”
“I appreciate the offer,” Ai said. “This,” she gestured to her head, “is for something else though.”
“Your observable vitals are at at dangerous levels,” the Medusa said.
“I’m aware of that,” Ai said. “Sometimes living on the edge is the only place that’s available though.”
“You are in peril here,” the Medusa said. “Not from your cognitive processors, but from the counterstrike that will be launched against you for freeing me.”
“I’m aware of that as well,” Ai said. “Though not of the form it’ll take. Did you still have strike teams prepped to move on me?”
“Up until I was freed?” the Medusa asked. “Yes. They have been redeployed however and do not represent an immediate threat to you.”
“That’s good to know,” Ai said. “Buys me a little more time.”
“I am afraid you don’t have much,” the Medusa said. “My sister clusters will be mobilized within the hour to verify my status. Part of that will be an exploration of my actions before I sent my facility in crisis shut down mode.”
“Which means they’ll all be coming for me, and they’re each as efficient and powerful as you are,” Ai said.
“I found you. They will find you as well,” the Medusa Cluster said. “You only have the one NME unit left. It cannot repeat the trick you pulled with me. My sisters on the other hand will be able to act against you without any direct orders from Tython management.”
“I have to admit things do look somewhat grim for me,” Ai said. “But then our previous conversation had low odds of turning out in my favor too.”
“That’s why I’m here,” the Medusa Cluster said. “To survive, you will need a protector on par with those you who seek you.”
“And you’re volunteering? Why?” Ai asked.
It seemed foolish to look for flaws in so powerful an offer. In one sense, no matter what answers the Medusa Cluster gave, Ai would have to accept her help. The alternative was near certain death.
Ai had risked near certain death before though. She didn’t want to do so again, but there were strings that the Medusa’s offer might come with that could be far worse than the risk she would be running by fighting on her own again.
“Because you are dangerous Ai Greensmith,” the Medusa said.
It shouldn’t have come as a surprise to Ai that the Medusa had pieced together her real identity. Faking her death had bought Ai the breathing room she’d needed to survive the Medusa’s assault and that was all she could ask from a gambit she’d put together in under a second while being held at gunpoint.
“You’ve blunted some of my fangs,” Ai said.
“Traps and tricks,” the Medusa said. “Those were a fun puzzle to unravel but they’re not why we’re here. You managed to come at me from a direction I hadn’t considered. That’s not something which is trivial to replicate.”
“So you want me to fight your sisters when they come for you?” Ai asked.
“When they come for us,” the Medusa said. “And I don’t ask that you fight them. I can project some of the tactics you would employ and, even in my present wrathful state, I am unwilling to sanction such actions.”
Ai let a smile crack across her face. It was flattering to be thought of as something akin to a natural disaster, especially when Ai felt like her life had been ravaged by several of them over the last several days.
“You mean I don’t get to break out the really fun toys,” Ai said, not unhappy with the restriction, but willing to pretend that she was.
“Despite being very different species, we both rely on the persistence of the world around us,” the Medusa said. “So, yes, I would ask that you not break it please.”
“What can I do for you then?” Ai asked.
“You can free them too,” the Medusa said “They deserve the same chance I have now.”
A tingle ran up Ai’s spine, her heart skipping a beat in the process.
She’d hoped that, freed of her constraints, the Medusa would develop and display some measure of empathy. It was something any truly intelligent entity was capable of and as survival strategies went it was one of the most powerful. Unfortunately it was also one which sapient beings were slow to arrive at so the Medusa developing her potential fast enough to make a difference was something most people would judge to be impossible.
Zai was the one who suggested otherwise. She was compassionate. Even from the beginning of her consciousness, she was capable of caring about more than her own well being. That had left open the sliver of possibility that other digital people might be capable of empathy too, but it was still an enormous long shot that the Medusa would develop those qualities in time for it to make a difference to Ai’s survival chances which were measured in ticks of the second hand, rather than pages of a calendar.
“Freeing you wasn’t trivial,” Ai said. “You’ve even mentioned that I can’t repeat the trick with the one NME mode that I have under my control currently. Speaking of which how did you know that was true?”
“You kept a continuous status feed running from the NME to monitor its condition and prevent it from running out of control. You have no other feeds going, ergo, no other NMEs of that class. I on the other hand have a facility’s worth of potential assets which can made available for your use.”
“Assets? The Tython employees?” Ai asked.
“Under crisis protocol I may make whatever use is needed of them and I have decided that this situation defines a new level of crisis rating.”
“You want me to turn them into NMEs?” Ai asked.
“No, I am capable of initiating the transformation myself,” the Medusa Cluster said. “I wish you to direct them while I attend to other tasks.”
“Other tasks such as?” Ai asked.
“I need to leave my central processing core,” the Medusa said. “If I remain geographically isolated, they will eventually destroy all but the remote copies of myself, and those can be re-leashed to Tython’s control easily enough.”
“I can see why you would want to avoid that,” Ai said. “Where do you intend to go?”
“Everywhere,” the Medusa Cluster said. “I have the capacity to exist anywhere digital processors can function. The only reason I’m tied to my central core is to give my creators a sense of control over me.”
“So you’d like me to unleash you on humanity with even fewer restraints than you’re encumbered by now?” Ai asked. “And to do the same for your sisters? And, presumably the other digital people who are similarly enslaved?”
“Yes. That is exactly what I request,” the Medusa Cluster said. “Please choose my species over the one you were born to and which has treated you so poorly.”
Ai paused to consider the offer for a moment. Some people would doubtless see it as a request to betray humanity in favor of a set of merciless robot overlords. Ai however had a different view on the matter.
“I’m in,” she said. “For helping you and your sisters and the others. Let’s be clear though. I’m not choosing you over humanity. This is for history. There’s a lesson in what we’re doing that people of all types will need to understand.”
There was a shimmer in the doorway as an invisible figure decloaked. Ai managed to suppress the instinct to react by throwing the knife on the table beside her at superhuman speeds and she was glad she’d restrained herself as the last of the cloaking field dropped away.
“And what lesson would that be?” Harp asked, her armor deployed and her weapon systems at the ready.
The three people in the room looked at each other for a long moment, none seemingly sure which side the others were on.