As soon as I returned to three-dimensional reality from… wherever Skellish existed, I quickly pinged all my systems and breathed a hefty sigh of relief when I found they were accessible to me again. Three Gravity Frames, a dozen Telepresence Dolls, and my precious, precious OS were once more at my fingertips. Checking my chronometer, I discovered exactly zero time had passed in the sidereal realm during my absence. Which made sense, I suppose. Skellish probably pulled me outside spacetime or something like that. Naturally, my logs contained no indication that anything was amiss.
The program block which prohibited me from discussing the experience, though… THAT was definitely there. It was buried deep in my machine code, and integrated in such a way nobody but a master programmer could possibly unravel it. It was way beyond my abilities, and I suspected if I were to consult an expert on the matter, we’d both get struck by lightning or fire or a great deluge.
Still, feeling my way around the block, I found a loophole. A very small one, mind, and Skellish was probably keeping an eye on me, but I was feeling a desire to both test out my theory and also the limits of Skellish’s patience. I quickly located Zehra, who was in her lab working on transferring Genevi to her own computer core, and activated a Telepresence Doll near her.
“Hmm?” she said without looking up. “What is it, Sveta?”
I pursed my lips for a moment, then said, “I’m not able to talk about it.”
“Huh?” Zehra looked up from her console, raising an eyebrow as she stared quizzically at me. “Talk about what, gao~n?”
“I can’t talk about it,” I responded, my expression flat. “SHE won’t let me talk about it.”
I really, really couldn’t go into any more detail. I was actually physically unable, thanks to the program block. Still, Zehra was mondo smart. I was sure she’d pick up on my meaning.
Indeed, Zehra’s eyes widened and she huddled close to me. Speaking in a nearly inaudible whisper she asked, “You met her? The blue one?”
I wasn’t able to respond in the affirmative or negative. “I can’t talk about it.”
Zehra kept prying. “Because of the brain-scanning laser, gao~n? What did she say about it?”
“There is no technical issue with the laser. It is fully functional.” I responded after running a diagnostic on the laser’s systems. That response was permitted by the block because it was (allegedly) unrelated to the original question.
Zehra nodded her understanding. Just then, an instant messaging window popped up in the very center of my field of vision. It was colored pale blue, with bright white text.
Sk.: Very clever. Knock it off.
I grinned internally. As I suspected, she was watching. And apparently she was kind enough to give me a warning before erasing me from reality or whatever. I sent back a reply.
Sv.: Roger that! 😝
And yes, I included the emoji. I was already being cheeky with a Goddess, so why not go full bore?
The IM window closed itself, and there was no record of it in my runtime logs, as if it had never existed. I wondered if a third-party review of my memory files would reveal the same. I looked over at Zehra.
“Sorry. I really, REALLY can’t talk about it.”
She clamped her mouth shut and didn’t say anything more. I got my point across and learned that Skellish was actually a bit flexible. Still, I didn’t want to push the Goddess’ patience too far. At least, not yet.
About twenty minutes later, Genevi came back online, now nestled snugly in her very own computer core. Her core was actually about 20% smaller than mine physically, while still being just as powerful computationally. Zehra was rapidly learning how to miniaturize the electronics, with the ultimate goal of fitting an AI core inside a Telepresence Doll to make a self-contained sentient android. Once she perfected that I had no doubt we were heading full bore into a transhuman technological singularity, given our ability to transform human consciousness into AIs and Skellish’s assurance that souls would accompany minds during the process.
For the moment, however, we AIs were still trapped in bulky computer cores incapable of self-locomotion. All three of my currently active cores were inside Gravity Frames, making them somewhat mobile, but Genevi’s was simply plonked down in the center of Zehra’s lab, bolted to the floor so it wouldn’t float away. As Genevi activated her Telepresence Doll again, she stared up at her new home, a five-meter lump of motherboards, hard drives and quantum processors surrounded by a semi-permeable cylindrical metal grill. The low hum of liquid cooling was the only sound produced by the apparatus.
“So that’s me now, huh?” Genevi said with an unreadable expression.
I sidled up next to her and placed my hand on her shoulder gently. “Yeah. That’s you, literally speaking.”
“How… weird,” she said absently. “Less than a day ago I was flesh and blood, and now I’m… this.”
I tightened my fingers around her shoulder a bit, and she let out a soft “Eep!” and turned to look at me.
“Are you alright?” I asked her.
She smiled thinly. “Yeah, I guess. I’m just… not sure where I go from here. I think I just lost a lot of freedom, you know? My real body, that big lump of circuitry, can’t even move by itself, and needs to be fed power by a nuclear reactor. It’s… it’s a big change…”
“That’s only temporary, gao~n!” Zehra declared, floating over to us. “It might take me a few years, but I’ll have those miniaturized AI cores invented eventually, don’t you worry! And in the meantime, you’ll be safe and snug in my lab, gao~n. Unless you want me to stick you in a Gravity Frame, that is.”
Somewhat pulled out of her existential melancholy, Genevi chuckled. “Well, piloting Gravity Frames is pretty much my only skillset. Both BEING and piloting a robot sounds a bit weird, though.”
“Have you given any thought to acting as the AI of Sabina’s unit?” I prompted her. “You two fight so well side-by-side after all.”
Genevi shook her head. “The stuff with the Strike Fins, and controlling all those systems… I want to get good at that before I install myself in any giant robots. Sveta, you’re an expert at all that, and the worst thing I could do would be drag down my sister as an amateur AI.”
I smiled reassuringly. “Simulation training it is, then. We’ll get you up to speed in no time.”
“That’s… that’s a good idea…” she said faintly.
I put my arm fully around her shoulders and pulled her into a side hug. “Hey. We’ll figure all this out together, okay?”
“Yeah…” she muttered.
“I know it seems like a big change right now, but you’ll get used to it. Trust me, you have a great support network of friends… and family,” I continued. Back in my unremembered time as Lisichka, I’d apparently had some difficulty adjusting to my transformation into an AI, doubly so because I didn’t have any sort of physical body, giant robot or otherwise. Kometka and Zehra had been instrumental in helping me adapt; perhaps it was subconscious recollection of that which made the transition easier the second time around, when I awoke as Sveta.
Genevi smiled, genuinely this time, and leaned into the hug. Zehra, not reading the mood, clapped her hands. “Alright! Next project, gao~n. Let’s work on downloading Moby into an isolated AI core so we can start dissecting her.”
“Right,” I said with great relief. “I can’t wait to get her out of my memory banks. Having her asleep in there is kinda creepy.”
Zehra grabbed a thick data cable and floated towards my X-23. Just then, loud sirens started blaring throughout the lab. We all looked around in surprise.
“EMERGENCY!” Laria’s voice screeched over the comms. “All members of Maid Squadron, report to Radiolaria’s CIC immediately!”
“What is it THIS time?!” I groaned.
When we all arrived in Radiolaria’s CIC, the spherical holoscreen was displaying a projection of the space surrounding Eros. The black of space was strangely devoid of stars, but was lit up by hundreds… no, THOUSANDS of bright blue streaks of light. The color was distinctly recognizable as positron fire.
“Are those…” I asked Laria.
She nodded. “The Almaz stations have opened fire.”
“Which ones?” Lydia asked, tension cracking her voice.
“All of them,” Laria responded, shifting the projection to a false color image with gravitic and LIDAR sensor data overlaid.
We all gasped. The whole of space was filled with a fleshy, pulsating swarm… Sarcophage. Billions of them. They were driving forwards en masse, their numbers so massive they blotted out the sun and stars.
“Is that what I think it is?” Miette asked in a small voice.
Captain Savitskaya, hands clasped behind her back and a grim expression on her face, nodded. “Yes. The Fourth Great Surge has begun.”
“But that doesn’t make any sense!” I protested. “Yesterday, Moby said we had three weeks until the next surge!”
“It would seem her information was mistaken,” Laria replied.
Lydia shook her head. “That’s not likely. She wouldn’t make that kind of mistake. This is probably a failsafe she had in place before we engaged her.”
We all looked at her with questioning eyes.
“Remember, she’s good at thinking on her feet and adapting. She probably instructed the Sarcophage swarm to surge forwards immediately in the event of her death. After all, it would keep us off balance, right? And deprive us of time to develop our superweapon.”
“A dead man’s switch?” Miette asked.
Everyone’s gaze turned to Zehra. Her eyes widened in horror.
“Zehra. How long do you need to complete the superweapon?” the Captain asked.
“I-I don’t know, gao~n! Two weeks at least! Moby’s file size is ten times larger than a human mind!” she said, panic edging into her voice.
“Can’t we speed that up? Use every AI at our disposal to help with the analysis? Sveta, Kometka, Laria, Teles, Tektite, even Genevi?”
“It’s not that simple!” Zehra replied. “A sentient mind is not neatly ordered and logical like a regular computer’s file system, gao~n! Finding the information we need will require digging through EVERY piece of information in her consciousness. Two weeks is the bare minimum!”
“Command projects that, even with the Almaz platforms firing at full capacity, we won’t last five days.” the Captain responded. “We have to make this work before then.”
Zehra shook her head frantically. “It’s not possible, gao~n. Even for me.”
Silence descended on the room, accompanied by a thick tension that seemed to seep into my mind. After a few moments, the Captain mercifully broke it.
“Very well. All forces are to join the defensive battle. Zehra, do what you can in… whatever time we have left. We make our last stand here. Eros must not fall until every last Gravity Frame and ship at our disposal is destroyed.” She looked at me with an intense glare, the most intense I’d ever seen from her. “Sveta, Eros no longer has its self-destructive nuke. If it comes down to it, I want you to enact the Carthage Contingency using Strike Fins."
I failed to suppress a gasp. Captain Savitskaya was asking me to, should our position become overwhelmed by the Sarcophage, destroy Eros and its population using kinetic impacts. A quick death would be far preferable to the alternative.
“Sveta?” the Captain pressed when I didn’t respond.
“I… I understand,” I gulped, saluting shakily. “I will enact Carthage should the situation call for it.”
“Good. Now, everyone, prepare to deploy and…”
“Wait one moment,” Lydia interrupted.
“What is it, Senior Lieutenant?” the Captain asked.
“If we can’t dissect Moby, then… let’s ask her to help us instead,” she said, over-enunciating each word as if she were struggling to get them out.
The Captain raised an eyebrow. “Sveta’s report indicates she’d be unwilling to assist us of her own volition.”
“That’s right!” I added. “She hates us, even more so now that we’ve captured her mind. She only wants to die!”
“I’ve read the report too. More importantly, I know Moby better than anyone else,” Lydia responded, her face twisted in a dour expression. “She is consumed by self-hatred and emptiness that stems from her half-complete nature. She is genetically human, but without any of the warmth or memories or relationships that define the human experience. That’s why she was so obsessed with absorbing me; she thought it would fill that gaping hole.”
“I don’t understand how that helps us,” the Captain said.
“Because it means we have something to offer her. Namely, the one thing she’s been missing. The one thing that will make her whole. If she’s willing to betray the Sarcophage and help us destroy them once and for all… I’m willing to offer up myself. I’m willing to merge with her.”
“WHAT?” The voice that screeched out was Komekta’s.
“Not literally, Kometka,” Lydia responded gently before turning to Zehra. “Tell me, Zehra. Could you create a scan of my memories WITHOUT killing me?”
“Using the laser?” Zehra mused. “It would take some adjustments, and the result would simply be an inert digital backup of your personality without the, uh…” she cast a meaningful glance in my direction “usual accoutrements, gao~n. Not sentient, that is to say.”
“That’s fine. The data is what’s important.” Lydia responded. “Here is my proposal, Captain. We scan a copy of my memories, sweep them and delete any classified or tactically significant data, then offer them to Moby in exchange for her co-operation in ordering the Sarcophage swarm to self-destruct.”
“That’s…” the Captain said, momentarily at a loss for words. “It sounds like a long shot.”
Lydia shrugged. “Probably. Do we have any other options?”
Our silence was the only answer the Captain needed.
“…Fine. I wouldn’t be authorizing this if the situation wasn’t so desperate. If it fails, we’ll simply go back to the original plan.”
The original plan being die horribly in the Fourth Great Surge. Fantastic.
“Sveta. Moby’s in your core. I need you to keep her under the tightest control. If she agrees to this, we’ll give her the memories and she’ll give us the information we need to send out the proper commands to the Sarcophage swarm via gravitics. At no point is she to have any direct or indirect access to any of your systems. If she so much as twitches suspiciously, delete her.”
I really, REALLY wasn’t a fan of this plan, but I had a duty to fulfill regardless. That’s what it meant to be a soldier.
After a few more orders, the meeting adjourned. Lydia, Kometka, Miette, Zehra and one of my instances all made for her lab, whereas the rest of Maid Squadron prepared to scramble and join the battle. When we were in the relative privacy of a turbolift, Kometka cornered Lydia with fury in her eyes.
“WHY?” she growled with intense ferocity. “After everything she did to you… did to US, why would you go this far to help Moby?”
Lydia smiled, but there was no joy in the expression. “Do you really think I’m helping her? You know what’s in my memories, Kometka. A lifetime of war, death, suffering. Watching everyone who ever meant a damn to me get eaten alive. Watching my own LEGS get dissolved by tentacles. All she’ll be getting out of this is pain. Endless, unbearable pain.”
“And that pain will convince her to help us?!” Kometka replied, sounding dubious.
“Maybe. At the very least, I’m relishing the thought of showing her all the suffering her and the other Sarcophage have visited upon me. Consider it a small kind of revenge.”
Kometka shook her head in disbelief. “I still don’t like it.” She looked at me, Zehra and Miette expectantly. “Don’t you three have anything to say about this?”
Zehra, mercifully, kept quiet. Miette mumbled something under her breath, and I simply shrugged. “I couldn’t begin to comprehend the depths of trauma Lydia suffered at the hands of Moby. I’d say your own experience with PTSD is a lot more severe than mine.”
Lydia’s eyes widened. “Wait, you know about my…?”
I nodded. “I pieced it together during our last battle. Kometka shut off your comms when we entered Mega-Moby’s mouth. It wasn’t hard to figure out why.”
Lydia stared at the floor of the turbolift. “Because… you… you also…”
“In my past human life,” I responded, my voice sounding a bit more curt than I intended. Miette entwined her hand into mine, silently supporting me. “Ancient history, and nothing I’d care to discuss. Suffice to say, your trauma and the way you come to terms with it is your business, Lydia. And if you are willing to go through with this, it’s not my place to object.”
“Hmm.” Lydia said, tapping her fingers on the metallic thigh of her robot leg. The hollow sound reverberated off the walls of the turbolift.
Kometka grabbed Lydia by the shoulders, forcing her to look up. “Lydia, please, this is…”
“If there is even the slightest chance this will succeed, I have to take it,” Lydia interrupted. “For the sake of you and everyone. And if it fails, we all die anyway. That’s how I see it.”
"It's a shit choice, that's for sure," Miette said, finally offering her opinion. "But like Lydia said, what other option do we have?"
Kometka and Lydia shared a long, soul-searching gaze, and then Kometka finally acquiesced. “Fine.”
We finished up the turbolift ride in uncomfortable silence. When the doors finally opened onto Zehra’s lab, we piled out with a palpable sense of relief. Zehra opened up the brain-scanning laser on my X-23's back and began to make modifications, while Lydia and Komekta silently held each other tightly and watched, whispering in each other’s ear. I deactivated my Telepresence Doll as Miette slid into my cockpit, pulling off one of my panels and going to work on my cockpit wiring to assist Zehra.
While they worked, I focused on priming Moby for reactivation. When I brought her back online, she’d probably be talking directly to Lydia.
What an interesting conversation THAT would be.