Chapter 4.34: Monster vs. Monster
I knew what Frank was going to say next, so I cut him off over the common channel we shared. “Yes, Frank, its positive reinforcement, but they didn’t need to do it. Creating a cookie, or even just teleporting one, is a whole lot more energy expensive than what they would need to make a few alterations to our memory.”
While I was saying this, I was wondering in my head, privately, if I was simply being reprogrammed on the fly to imagine myself eating a cookie, complete with sensory input. I did not mention that to Frank. I did continue to eat my cookie. It tasted the same whether it was real or some sort of artifact, I supposed. I saw Ayva nibbling on her cookie as well, thoughtfully. I could smell the dark chocolate from her cookie, despite the turbulence of the air around us.
“On to other things. I can detect cell tower signals through our skeletal antennae, so I suspect that Facet has lost track of us, as we were hoping. Sitting at the front of this load of bricks, behind the cab of this truck, has apparently hidden us from sight well enough that they haven’t found us by investigation of the data from cameras on passing cars and trucks, but if I were them, I’d have drone assets moving to try to locate us.” I popped the last bit of cookie into my mouth. “I suggest we put the helmets back on, engage stealth again, and only communicate over the cable.”
Ayva popped the rest of her cookie into her mouth, put her helmet on, engaged her stealth system, and disappeared. The activation of the stealth system had the appearance of a heat mirage displaying hundreds of fractal patterns, quickly fading in intensity before it was fully active. I was able to detect her with gravity still, and watched her vague image stretch one leg out a bit, touching her heel to the metal frame of the trailer. Soon, I started seeing an almost undetectable change in the temperature of the metal frame of the trailer as Danielle apparently configured the bottom of Ayva’s heel armor to be a grounding point for the heat energy that her stealth system was generating. Considering the mass of the trailer, and the temperature of the air passing over it at nearly eighty miles per hour, the trailer’s heavy steel frame would absorb the waste heat from Ayva’s stealth system with almost no temperature change, meaning there would be no need for either of them to go to the virtual world for more than a few seconds per hour.
My combination of dermal and armor stealth systems would eventually cause problems for me too, so I also needed to vent heat. I just activated what had once been my blood cooler, at very low output. The blood cooler was actually now a superconducting cooler, as most of the blood in my body had been changed into a flexible superconductor. The superconducting power transport system was occupying most of the same areas as the blood filled arteries and veins used to, since there wasn’t a significant difference between where organic muscles needed oxygen, and where nanotube fiber muscles needed power. The nervous system had also been made superconducting, and could handle the power needs for the body’s muscles, but having redundant systems was nice. The nervous system was not connected to the cooler. It could be attached though, with a little effort. I was going to make that happen myself, but when I looked, I saw I had been mistaken. Frank had already designed a connection from the neural network to the cooler, probably at some point when I had been in the virtual world, and Frank had been in the real world. It was not always on, but could be activated at need to help with cooling.
I decided to test something else. I was a little nervous, but knowing if there would be a reaction to this, and what the reaction would be was a bit important. In my own mind, I started reciting “Oh, B, who art in Antartica…” I was interrupted by a squid falling in my lap. A very dead squid.
Ayva and our symbiotes were speechless. Ayva started saying something twice, then on the third start managed to ask “Do I want to know?”
“Well, B can apparently read thoughts directly from my mind, even when I am not in the virtual world, and he doesn’t appreciate being prayed to. He also appears to still have something resembling my sense of humor.”
Ayva commented across the connection “Two very good pieces of information to start, the last one is not-so-good. I hope A and B won’t be this reactive at all times. Random dead squid every time I think about something they don’t approve of would get extremely old, rather quickly.”
“I think B was just waiting for me to be a smartass.” I commented, offhand.
“That does make a lot of sense.” Ayva immediately replied with a grin.
Frank took control of our body, picked up the squid, and put it in the kangaroo pouch. From there, I could feel him moving the squid deeper into our body, until it rested up against the organic bits around my brain, where Frank started disassembling it with nanites like he had done with the cookie. The current body needed almost no food, but reserves were good.
After a couple uncomfortable silent moments, we all started reviewing everything we knew about Facet, which wasn’t much at all.
First: They were a tripartite AI.
We would need to kill all three of them. If one lived, it would be able to recreate the other two with little effort. If they were smart, they would never engage us all at the same time. I could very easily see us continuing to hunt these beings, seeking them out for years as they jumped from place to place. That was actually the most probable situation anyway, that they would never all be in the same place at the same time. If the super intelligent AI’s didn’t have that figured out, it would be absurd. I’d be happier if the bad guy were stupid, but that only happens in comic books. Bad guys in real life, if they got big enough to throw around billions of dollars, were typically extremely smart.
Second: They were apparently capable of at least limited control of symbiote processor resources, meaning they were not restricted to existing inside human computer hardware.
We didn’t know the limits of their control. I carefully did not notice Ayva’s reaction to that too closely. I could smell her anger, and from past experience, I knew that she would want to talk about it later, but not right now. Those little girls were haunting her now, and would be haunting her later too. This potentially explained the extremely well disciplined clone soldiers Ayva had fought, as well as the ones Frank and I had fought in the virtual world. Frank indicated that if an outside intelligence were able to interface with symbiote technology, it would not take much of a mass of processors to coopt a human body and control its nervous system. Designing such a system to survive inside a human body that didn’t match its genetic material would be difficult, but by no means impossible. A human body containing a small node of processors with the express intent of using those processors to only control the body would be extremely limited, unable to self-heal, unable to self-modify, but Ayva and I had already seen how effective they could be.
Third: They were perfectly willing to kill large numbers of sentients to accomplish whatever their goals were.
This meant it was very likely we would be required to incapacitate or kill many humans if we attacked their base. If the humans we encounter were controlled by the AI, their minds might still be intact, or they might be destroyed. We chose to assume for planning purposes that the human minds would be functional within their bodies, because the AI would certainly be smart enough to consider that psychological effect.
Fourth: The AI would certainly use hostages. They had worked against Ayva once, and in the same situation, they would probably have worked against me.
We could not continue. At this point, the discussion broke down. Ayva couldn’t imagine taking any offensive action against the little girls used as hostages, again. Danielle very cautiously offered to do what needed to be done, which made Ayva more upset, knowing that her symbiote would kill or maim children. Not that she didn’t know it already, but it was one of those things that one doesn’t generally want to discuss with the resident symbiote. Half of every symbiote pair would not blink an eye to kill another human in cold blood if necessary. That was one thing that caused a lot of friction for symbiotes and their hosts. It also created some worrisome individuals when the human half of the pair was sociopathic.
“Ayva, we know that this AI will use our emotions against us. It’s going to happen. Period. It will use them against us if we attack, it will use them against us if we don’t. It’s already proved this when it came to you the first time.”
“Are you saying you could kill a bunch of two year olds, or see them killed in front of you?” The shadowy image of Ayva I could see through gravity senses was very still.
“Is there an alternative?” I was on extremely thin ice here. “You, yourself said that if the men and women had moved to attack any of the girls after the first, you would have done the best you could to kill them all and keep as many of the girls alive as possible.”
“I did say that. But that scenario was dropped on my head. I’m heading towards this one of my own volition.” She whispered, barely audible across the connection between us.
“We can’t just let them keep coming at us, and only allow ourselves to act defensively, Ayva. What we have learned about them so far makes them absurdly dangerous. They would eventually manage to get one or both of us if they keep trying.
Ayva’s voice carried venom. “I know, Bob, but unless the AI is a complete moron, no more than two of its nodes will be in the facility. We can’t win this way, we can only delay them. How many hostages would have to die for a non-victory? How many times will we attack facilities like this, gain a non-victory, and kill a bunch of hostages?”
She was right, but there was more at stake than hostages. I was almost glad I couldn’t see Ayva’s face right now. What I could imagine was bad enough. “What would be the cost of letting them continue with their plans? Remember, they are a native Earth species, so A and B are extremely limited in how they can deal with them. They are learning how to interface with symbiote processors. Perhaps their goal is to become a system node? We were worried enough about A and B as system nodes when we discovered they had become transcendent, and they were based on us! Can you even imagine the terror if the AI develops into a system node? If or when it develops to a point where an AI system node might actually threaten A or B, they will act to defend themselves, but not before that point. I suspect that if they were fighting for their lives, A and B would be throwing attacks around that are on an energy level comparable to that of dinosaur killer asteroids.”
Ayva shook her head violently. “No, I can’t imagine that. I don’t even want to think of what war between system nodes would be like for humanity. It’s only a possibility though. The deaths of hostages in that facility are a certainty.”
I wondered if I was sacrificing my marriage to take out this facility. Despite how much I’d hate myself for it afterwards, the scale of the potential destruction if the AI managed to become a system node just didn’t bear thinking on. Even if it cost me my marriage, even if it cost me everything, I simply couldn’t allow the AI to continue whatever it was doing, with no interruptions.
Ayva read me right, as I suspected she would. “You’re going in, no matter what, aren’t you? Even though you certainly realize everything you do in there will be recorded, and the AI will massage the data into something that looks like you simply started killing hostages without provocation. The AI is better than us with electronics, so we can’t stop it from slanting everything its way. The US military will come after you with everything they have when the politicians start making enough noise, and the AI will use what you do at that facility to create the groundswell of anger that will cause politicians to begin making that noise.”
Ayva was silent for a while, obviously in communication with Danielle.
“Can you give me a few days to think about it? You will need to scout the land there, get the best data you possibly can about the facility?” Ayva’s voice was broken. I could tell she was close to crying. For that matter, so was I.
I replied with a broken voice. “Yes. It’s Friday. I will attack the facility on Monday at twelve hundred hours, local time.” I didn’t add ‘with or without you’ because I was hurting her badly enough already. I doubt she missed it in my voice though. I could and would wait a few days, on the off chance that she would rejoin me. I would probably spend about half of that time staring off into nowhere anyway, soul searching, because even though I was committed to doing this, I expected it was going to be horrendous. If she came with me it would certainly still be horrendous, but we might save more hostages. Then we would almost certainly never be a couple again.
We had no sense of how potent the AI nodes would be in a straight up fight, either. Two of them might be a match for me. For that matter, one of them might be. They didn’t have access to the virtual world for power and restoration though, from what B had said, he had tricked them in, once. That implied that he didn’t let them in any longer, or they didn’t want to get in any longer. If the latter, they might still access the virtual world if I attacked. Always plan for the worst, and you won’t be surprised.
“Promise me you will wait. Monday at twelve hundred local.”
“I promise I will wait until Monday at twelve hundred local. At exactly that time I will be blitzing the facility through the main gate.” I didn’t add anything else. There wasn’t anything else to add. I understood why Ayva didn’t want to do this, and I’m certain she understood why I had to. That wouldn’t save our relationship though, I didn’t think.
What was even scarier was that I would likely not be able to convince Frank to let me run the operation, not after the Tomahawk. Frank would be in control, and if the situation got dangerous enough, I suspected he wouldn’t hesitate to use matter programming to generate antimatter as a direct weapon, which meant very few hostages would survive. For that matter, if Danielle and Ayva were there, they might not survive Frank going into maximum offense either. I would need to have some very serious words with Frank before the operation if Ayva did show back up.
I wondered if this was how Colonel Gantt felt when he was assigned to eliminate the Agency in the diesel chamber, or when he tried again in Shreveport with Project Thor and conventional military forces. In both cases there were innocents known to be present, but he had been required to attack the symbiote pairs anyway. I shivered, and it had nothing to do with the temperature, which was actually nice. I started seeing images of a biofactory controlled by Frank collecting dead soldiers and digesting their flesh and organs. The clothing was bleached and reformed into very thin body bags and personal effects bags. Skeletons brutally damaged by a once-captive berserker were stitched back together by Frank. We took their flesh to use to grow the biofactory we used to escape the facility, and gave them dignity after what the berserker Dominic did to them.
That had been a traumatic enough experience to give me flashbacks still, and I hadn’t been the one to kill those soldiers. This time around, I would be doing the killing, and the victims would probably number children amongst them. I was beginning to understand, I think, about the dangers of being too idealistic to make the hard decisions. If I had an opportunity to do so, I would need to speak to Colonel Gantt and apologize. The next time I met Colonel Gantt though, there was a very good chance that he would be coming after me with everything the military could bring to bear. I would still find a way to apologize to him, if I could. I now understood him a little better, I think.
I wondered why B hadn’t taken those memories from me. Did that mental scarring somehow add to my value to him as a crusader? Was it now enough of a part of me that I would somehow be worse off without the memory? To be fair, I had never found evidence that B took any memories from me. Only Argoen had done that, that I could prove, and from what we had pieced together, Argoen had done mostly right.
Ayva had been in intense conversation for some time with Danielle while I was wallowing in my own misery. Eventually she sent another message over the cable between us. “I’m sorry, Bob, I need to do this.”
“I understand, Ayva. I hope you understand that I need to do this.” I wouldn’t stab her in the heart with an ‘I love you’ guilt trip tacked on the end. I think she was even able to understand everything I said through my cracking voice.
“I do understand.” Her voice was pretty broken up too.
She stood, and disconnected the cable between us, then jumped off the trailer, hitting the ground at over seventy miles per hour without stumbling or missing a stride. She rapidly accelerated in a horseshoe back the way we came. I couldn’t see her well at this range with gravity senses, but I could see the rooster tail of grass sod she left in her wake as she made her turn in the green space between the West and East lanes of the interstate. I noticed a child looking out the window of their car, marveling at the weird flying grass, and couldn’t help but grin a little.
The involuntary grin caused by the child’s reaction to Ayva’s departure was quickly suppressed as I watched Ayva go. She was the best thing that ever happened to me, and I was probably going to lose her because I was mentally capable of becoming a monster to fight another monster.
Oh man, I like the moral dilemma.
This is so well written that my heart hurts…
This was one of my favorite chapters after it was written. It gave me issues when I was writing it.