As soon as Sveta had my memories in her clutches, she vanished into her mind to apply them to Moby. The full process took about ten minutes, during which time I impatiently zoomed around Zehra’s lab like a rat trapped in a cage. My tension was clear to Zehra and Kometka, and the latter eventually stopped me by gripping my upper arm.
“You seem tense,” she said, stating the obvious.
I looked deep into her unflinching red eyes. Her face was devoid of all emotion, but I knew she was tense as well. “So do you.”
She hummed a noncommittal response, not releasing my arm. We just kind of… floated like that for a while. Then, with a static blitzing sound, two Telepresence Dolls blazed to life. One was Sveta, and the other was… her.
My face must have twisted into a rather frightening scowl, because Sveta shrank back a bit when she caught sight of me. Either that, or Kometka was the one scowling. The former seems more likely.
I floated down towards Moby, who was using one of the bigger Dolls; she stood a full head above Sveta. Her features perfectly matched mine, excepting her red-on-black slitted eyes, mouth full of razor-sharp teeth and lack of scars. Clad in a simple black dress, she looked at me with no expression, her vertical irises narrowing to thin lines.
I had seen that face so many times, but always over comm windows. This was my first time seeing it in person. And then, to add to the absolute surreality of the moment, she BOWED to me as if we were greeting each other at a fancy party.
“Lydia,” she said as I floated over. Her voice sounded… different, somehow. Smoother, calmer.
“Moby,” I spat back, not making the slightest attempt to disguise the naked hatred in my tone.
Her irises widened a bit, but that was the only reaction. Zehra nervously inserted herself between us two.
“S-Sveta, is it a good idea to let her use a Doll, gao~n?”
“She’s not controlling it.” Sveta responded reassuringly. “I’m performing the projection based on input data from her simulation. She has no access to any of my systems or hardware. Don’t worry, Mom, this isn’t my first rodeo with data security, okay? I’m not gonna let an alien consciousness hijack me.”
Zehra still fretted, not quite satisfied with that answer, but I decided to move the conversation along. “So the joining process was successful?”
Sveta nodded. “Wholly. Even to the point where Moby abandoned her previous duplicity and is now aiding us genuinely. It seems experiencing your memories firsthand had a rather stark effect on her.”
I doubted that; I’d be one foot in the grave before I ever trusted Moby. “You sure she’s on our side now?” I said, not hiding my skepticism.
Sveta shrugged. “No, but I have a tight grip on her reigns. If she so much as breathes wrong, I can shut her down in nanoseconds.”
I studied Moby intently. There were small signs she was acting differently, little emotional tells such as a twitch of her left eyebrow or a flare of her nostrils. The tension between the two of us was so thick Zehra seemed entirely paralyzed, although Sveta was unbothered.
Moby spoke again, her works coming more naturally than I’d ever heard before. “Thank you.”
I blinked. “Pardon?”
“Thank you for your memories. You gave me the one thing I’ve been seeking all my life, despite our history as mortal enemies.” She bowed again, and I gawked at how incongruent it seemed with her nature.
“I didn’t give them up because I wanted to,” I responded. “We need your help. That’s the only reason you’re here.”
“I know,” she responded. “I am a fortuitous benefactor of extreme circumstance.”
Her vocabulary had grown too, and she slipped into sesquipedalianism with ease. In so many ways, this new version of Moby was completely different than she had been before… but also exactly the same, underneath the sophisticated veneer. I couldn’t quite pin her down.
“I have one more thing to say before we begin,” she said, her mouth drooping into a slight frown.
“And that is?”
“I am sorry.”
I looked at her in disbelief, vainly searching for some sign of insincerity on her face. “You’re… you’re what?”
“I am sorry,” she continued, bowing so deeply her spine was parallel to the floor. “For all the pain and suffering you endured at my hands, and the hands of my kind, I apologize. I did not realize, prior to gaining your memories, the extreme harm I was causing to your species. I did not have the context to understand it. However, ignorance is no excuse. So I am sorry.”
I felt Kometka let out a low growl beside me. I wasn’t quite sure how to react to this apology; it was completely unexpected. I fell back on my old standby, seething hatred.
“I don’t have to forgive you,” I said heatedly.
“No, you do not,” she responded with infuriating coolness. “I don’t expect forgiveness. I must apologize regardless. If the world lacked shades of grey and was merely a stark representation of right and wrong, things like apologies would be unnecessary.”
I froze. That little nugget of profound-sounding nonsense was something my mother used to say to me, usually when forcing me to apologize for something I thought wasn’t my fault. The fact that Moby knew it, and thought it applied to this situation, meant she was trying to convey something that couldn’t be openly spoken. That was unsettling in the extreme. I felt white-hot rage boil up inside me, but it had nowhere to go, so it quickly morphed into frustration. This was my own doing; I had willingly given her my memories. What right did I have to be mad that she now possessed such an intimate knowledge of me?
As I my thoughts spiraled in confusion, I heard Kometka speak. Her voice was low, her tone carefully controlled. “Moby. What exactly are your intentions?”
Moby tilted her head. “That query has insufficient data for a meaningful response. Please elaborate.”
“Your apology was unnecessary,” Kometka continued, “unless you are attempting to establish a relationship with Lydia that extends past the end of the upcoming battle. I fail to see why your obsession with her continues. You have her memories. What more do you need?”
“I gained access to a large quantity of data, much of it unorganized and seemingly random,” Moby responded, sounding more and more like an AI with each passing second. “The initial impact this had upon my self-awareness cannot be understated. However, processing the full implications of everything I have gained will take time. Furthermore, it is a task I cannot accomplish on my own. I lack the context.”
“So what you’re saying,” Kometka summarized, “is that you possess human memories, but still don’t know how to BE human.”
“Precisely. I strive to better understand the human condition, as was my original purpose. Merely my methods have changed.”
Kometka’s eyes narrowed. “And you’re hoping Lydia will help you?”
Moby shook her head. “No. I know she wants nothing to do with me after all this is over, and I cannot blame her for that. I will seek assistance elsewhere, if I am permitted. If I am not, well…” she shrugged sadly. “I died once already. The prospect of a second death gives me pause, but if that is to be my fate than I shall accept it graciously.”
She sounded almost DIGNIFIED she spoke that final sentence, and I realized Moby had shifted inexorably closer to becoming truly human, despite her lack of flesh and blood. She wasn’t quite right, though… like an insect piloting a meat suit, motions jerky and unnatural.
I remembered meeting the very first AIs, over a decade ago. They moved algorithmically, like rusty puppets, and spoke like equations… their voices flat, their sentences perfectly clipped, every sound precisely annunciated. A simulation that wasn’t quite right, a bundle of circuits and math mimicking something they didn’t truly understand. Yet, despite their inherent uncanniness repulsing everyone they met, they still fought and died alongside us on Mars. They EARNED our respect.
Could Moby do that? Could this strange human-looking creature become just as important to the war effort as the first AIs had been? Could she earn our respect? Could she earn MINE?
I didn’t think so. Whatever she was becoming, I wanted nothing to do with it. I spun around and kicked off the floor, heading for the hanger. “Let’s get this over with so I never have to see her again.” I said over my shoulder, leaving Moby, Sveta and Zehra behind.
Komekta glided along with me, still silently clinging to my arm.
Once I was safely locked in Komekta’s cockpit and going through the comforting motions of pre-launch prep, I felt my nerves ease. As Kometka’s mighty nuclear reactor thundered to life, I felt her entire body shudder as if in anticipation.
“So,” she said softly, “that was creepy.”
“Moby’s ALWAYS been creepy,” I answered, finally breaking into a small smile. “But yes, her possessing my memories has heightened the creep factor by an order of magnitude.”
“I guess that makes her a total creepazoid,” Kometka responded, her smile matching mine.
I’d never heard that term before. “Creepazoid?”
Kometka chuckled. “It’s an expression I’ve heard Sveta use, likely vernacular from her original timeline. I believe it means ‘an entity whose primary defining characteristic is creepiness.’”
I laughed, my smile widening. “Well, in that case, all the Sarcophage are ‘total creepazoids.’ What does that make Moby? The Creepazoid Queen?”
Kometka nodded. “Officially designating Moby as the ‘Creepazoid Queen’ strain of Sarcophage. Combat manuals updated accordingly.” She wasn’t joking either, she actually did it. On the cockpit display, she marked Miette’s X-23 as containing the following entities: 2nd Lietenant Miette Levesque, Sveta Prime and Creepazoid Queen. Despite myself, I broke down into a fit of giggling.
A voice rang out through the cockpit. “Well, you two seem to be having fun.” I stifled my giggling and focused on the comm window that just opened up. Laria’s icy eyes glared back at me, aglow from within with brilliant blue light.
“Hello, Laria. How’s the battle going?” I asked sheepishly, withering under that glacial glare.
She sighed, and her expression softened marginally. “The fight does not go well, Lydia. We’re attempting to withdraw and regroup around Eros. I hope you and your enterprising companions are ready.”
“We are.” I confirmed. “Sveta’s got Moby on a short leash, and Miette’s X-23 is spooling up now. I’m ready to launch too.”
She straightened her glasses. “Good. Without OPS-121, our section of the Line is under-strength. The Sarcophage are breaking through far too easily, although we’re suppressing their advance with artillery fire from our carriers. I’m currently in formation with the Telesthesia, Hypernova and Synchotron 1500 kilometers lineward of Eros. Please rendezvous with us immediately and prepare to deploy the superweapon.”
I grinned wolfishly. “Roger that, Laria. Tell the Captain that the calvary’s on the way.”
“I look forward to your arrival.” she responded as her transmission was interrupted by a burst of static. The comm window closed, signal lost.
I asked Kometka to open up another comm line to Miette’s X-23. I noticed that only Miette’s face appeared; Sveta and Moby were absent. Perhaps they thought it better not to aggravate tensions right before battle, or maybe I was overthinking things.
“Are we ready to roll?” I asked in a carefully neutral tone.
“Ready as we’ll ever be,” Miette replied, flashing me a thumbs up. “Zehra’s downloaded all the pertinent data, and Sveta’s ready to go. So is, uh… our passenger.”
“Good.” I walked over to Eros’ linear accelerator, taking the lead. “On my six, 2nd lieutenant.”
“Aye-aye, ma’am.” she responded.
I took a deep breath and gripped Kometka’s controls tightly. “Ready?”
I twisted the throttle, and her entire body quivered as we began to accelerate. The magnetic field seized us, compounding our acceleration and pushing us forwards at velocities that made my teeth scream.
“I pray for your glory in battle, my pilot.” Kometka said softly as we exited the tube and blasted headlong into the Fourth Great Surge.