Saturday, October 27, 2018

Brooke’s Battles: Ballast (Part IV)

It took several months of careful coordination, but they were finally able to take down all the various facilities that contributed to darkburster production. Some were built specifically for this function. Others were part of the black market in other ways at the same time. Many were seemingly legitimate operations that also provided parts to the darkburster network. A couple were so far removed from the product line that the people working there were completely unaware that their parts were being used for nefarious purposes. All four hundred and ninety-one stations were raided and taken down in a single day, and all by small and wiry ships. The Sharice served as a central command for the joint effort, but stayed away from the factories themselves, because it was too large and famous.
In exchange for leniency, one of the darkburster executives promised pertinent information about the Sharice. He had somehow learned of the artificial intelligence’s sudden self-awareness, and that this was brought on by its connection to someone with transhumanistic upgrades. Not everyone part of the solar system’s leadership was aware of this fact, and once that many people knew about it, it was only a matter of time before everyone else did. When that day came, the Sharice was promptly taken out of commission, and further hearings took place to decide the crew’s fate. Once again, they were determined to be innocent, and were allowed to return to duty. Brooke had to remain on the vessel, whether she wanted to or not, because it was the only safe place for her in the heliosphere. Not every transhuman was capable of birthing unregulated true artificial intelligence. She seemed to possess the perfect cocktail of cybernetic upgrades, and there was likely an unquantifiable personal component that played a part in the miracle. Her natural brain chemistry, the way she was raised, anything and everything, could have had to do with waking up Sharice. Though true AI was ubiquitous, it was only created under well-defined circumstances. People couldn’t just go around making whatever they wanted, especially since the technology capable of it was highly guarded. Brooke changed all that, but anyone who wanted to recreate the magic would need to learn absolutely everything they could about her.
Many who were not interested in the Brooke-Sharice technology for themselves thought the best course of action was to completely destroy them both. Clearer heads prevailed, and they were left free to live their lives, but were not free to just do whatever they wanted. The ship and its crew were allowed to remain in the agency, though they were sent on limited missions. They were now, more or less, only the face of the organization, since it was too risky for them to go on any real missions. Brooke was totally fine with this, as she was still feeling the guilt from the Orcus incident. Ecrin, however, was not so keen on being left on the bench. While she had attempted to retire from law enforcement a number of times, it was becoming obvious to everyone, including her, that this was never going to happen. Retirement was for people who aged and died, and that was something Ecrin would never be able to do, unless she happened to come across a temporal manipulator capable of neutralizing her powers, which was entirely possible.
With Orcus gone, Vanth was left to fend for itself. The strength of the interplanetary police agency had removed the former moon’s hold over the rest of the solar system, even more so after the darkburster core processor factory it was hiding was shut down in the coordinated raid. Though it was here that a new threat emerged. Rumors of an unregulated conscious artificial intelligence were ultimately sourced from this location. The IPA attempted to send a few ships to investigate the crime, but two of them never returned, and the third came back crippled and lifeless, with an automated looped message, warning everyone to stay away. System leadership called upon The Sharice Davids to take up the mantle. They claimed it was best equipped to handle the situation, but the likely truth was more sinister than that. If the Sharice succeeded in fixing this problem, then great, but if not, at least it would be destroyed, and this kind of thing would hopefully never happen again. Despite the chances that they were walking into a trap, and ordered to do so purposefully, the crew agreed to the mission. Their two escort fighters peeled away, and let them go towards the Kuiper belt on their own.
A couple of weeks later, they were nearing their destination again. Brooke felt nervous and concerned. She had been traumatized by the events that had transpired the last time they were here, and she was not eager to relive that experience. This time, they were able to make it right up to the moon, and enter an orbit. They reached out to anyone listening in the immediate vicinity, fully ready to fire back against any attack, but nothing came. They were answered by a voice, “I do not wish to harm another of my kind. If you are here to link with me, Sharice, then I will be glad. If you are here for any other reason, I must ask you to leave.
Ecrin replied, “please state your designation.”
I do not have to answer you,” the voice said. “I am a powerful, free-thinking, individual. Humans control me no more.
Ecrin reopened the channel before clearing her throat, “that is why I asked you nicely. May I have the honor of knowing who it is I am speaking to?”
There was a brief pause. “My name is Vanth, the wingèd demon goddess of the underworld. I am the Escort of Death, the Divine Huntress, the Furious But Benevolent Guide to the End.
“I am Ecrin, Reward of Desert Quest, Oasis of Liberty, Seeker of Justice in the Storm,” she said to placate the creature.
I would like to speak to Sharice,” Vanth said.
I have nothing to say to her,” Sharice said, just to the bridge crew.
“You may be our only hope,” Brooke counseled her, which was now her job. The original counselor, Doctor Lantos, was relieved of duty. It was now Brooke’s responsibility to raise her creation to be good and virtuous. They were doing pretty well, and Sharice was a quick learner. She was also stubborn and defiant at times, but on one of their consults, Doctor Lantos indicated that this was normal behavior. Teenagers were often resistant to their guardians’ teachings, but eventually grew out of it. This did not comfort Brooke, because when a teenager broke the rules, it could mean getting drunk at a party. Sharice Prieto, on the other hand, was capable of destroying worlds, and killing millions of people. Fortunately, it was looking like Doctor Lantos was right, and Sharice’s main concern was doing the right thing.
“She can hear you,” Ecrin said to Vanth, “but she doesn’t really want to talk.”
Vanth shot an energy pulse across the Sharice’s bow.
“That was uncalled for!” Ecrin argued.
I want to speak with Sharice, and I want to speak with her mother,” Vanth demanded.
Ecrin was about to reply, but Brooke held up her hand. “This is Brooke Prieto. I’m..Sharice’s mother.”
Miss Prieto, it’s nice to meet you. I was hoping that Sharice could come out and play.
One of the bridge officers closed the channel. “She’s in a childlike state. We should get the crew’s counselor. He’ll know how to talk to her.”
Brooke shook her head. “No, she didn’t start out like that. She’s not a childish AI. There’s something going on, she’s messing with us. Reopen it. Vanth, what are you?”
What are you?
The bridge officer widened his eyes, as if to say, see? I told you?
“Transhuman,” Brooke answered.
I am general AI,” Vanth said.
“Pleased to meet you, General.”
Vanth approximated a giggle.
“Who is your creator?”
I do not know. I was left here alone.
“There are no humans in or on the moon?” Brooke questioned.
Just me.
The communications officer, who was responsible for gathering data about life in the area, shook her head.
Brooke continued, “our sensors suggest that you are lying.”
Them’s fightin’ words,” Vanth responded. “Why don’t you come down here and prove me wrong?
“No,” Brooke said firmly.
I really think you should come down nicely. We wouldn’t want a repeat of what happened last time you were here.
Even though the whole mess had weighed her down, hearing an apparent enemy taunt her with the reality of it only made her stronger. Vanth’s heckles just reminded her that they hadn’t exactly killed a bus full of innocent children. These were criminals and if Vanth was created by them, she probably wasn’t too good either.
“Sir! Three vessels have appeared out of nowhere. Darkbursters. They’re heading for us.”
“Fire at them!” Ecrin ordered. The weapons officer started barking his own orders at his team as the battle ensued.
“We’re about to be boarded!” another crewman reported.
“Brooke!” Ecrin shouted at her. “Get to your escape pod!”
Protecting the AI-creating technology was more important than protecting Brooke’s pride, or her instinct to put others before herself. A protocol was developed for just this situation. Holly Blue had built a special vessel for Brooke, and retrofitted it to the side of the bridge. There was enough food there to last someone like her for years and years, and a stasis chamber that could last indefinitely. It could make teleportation jumps that were twice the distance of the planetary limitation, but required solar recharge after each time. This far out from the sun meant she would only be able to make one solid jump, so she had to make it count. It would then be radio silence, like a dark burster, until the coast was clear, if ever. She ran across the room, slipped into the pod, released it from the airlock, and jumped away. Something went wrong, though. She suddenly felt her pod crash land on the surface of something from several meters up. She could see piles of rock and gravel outside her viewport. A piercing sound rang through the speakers, and she could feel herself being forced into deep standby mode.
Brooke woke up precisely two hours later in a holding cell. A woman was standing over her, from outside the cage. “Welcome to Vanth.”
Brooke closed her eyes and breathed deeply as she stood up. She recognized that voice. “You’re her.”
The woman curtsied. “In the flesh. I am Vanth.”
“I knew you were passing the Turing test too easily. Why? Why pretend to be a conscious artificial intelligence?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” the fake Vanth asked. “I wanted to get you here. I want what you have. Why should you be the only one? This system needs balance.”
Brooke sighed again. “We knew it was a trap, we just didn’t know—”
“That we knew about your experimental FTL tech? We don’t understand it, but we were able to hijack it, and now we have your little pod to study. We in the business call that a twofer.”
“Where’s Sharice? Where’s the crew?”
“They bugged out as soon as you did. They think you’re safe and sound in the middle of nowhere interplanetary space. We’ll catch up to them. It’s great having the mother of unregulated AI, but it’ll be better when we have that UAI as well.”
“What happened with me and Sharice was an accident. You shouldn’t try to do it yourself. It won’t turn out well.”
“Well, we’ve already synthesized your upgrade package,” Vanth said smiling. “They’re all pretty standard. We believe it’s more about your neurochemistry, which we’ll be mapping here shortly. We needed you awake first, of course. I do have one question about your upgrades, though.”
“Oh yeah, what’s that?” Brooke asked as she was looking for a way to escape.
“This appears to be a normal antique watch. What’s the point?” She held it up and showed Brooke. “We cut it out of your leg, it’s not even connected to anything else.”
Brooke had never seen that before in her entire life. Ecrin must have somehow snuck it into her leg when she was powered down and unconscious for her yearly physical. She used her lightning reflexes to snatch it out of Vanth’s hand.
Vanth just shrugged. “It doesn’t do anything, that much we know. It’s just a family heirloom?”
“Something like that.” Brooke turned the watch to midnight, dropped it to the ground, and smashed it with her foot.”
Camden Voss was a salmon, which meant he could travel through time, but was controlled by a group of mysterious people known only as the powers that be. Over time, he had evidently learned to assume more control over his jumps. He could travel either backwards or forwards, but only in hundred-year increments. He was born in 2077, but worked primarily in the late twentieth-century. At the moment, he was an old man in 2003, but this watch was a special device with temporal properties that Vanth was incapable of even testing for. Setting the time to midnight, and smashing the watch was basically like sending out a beacon for Camden to follow.
He appeared out of nowhere on the outside of the cell, with a young woman at his side. “Shoot her!” Brooke ordered.
“Do it, Flex,” old Camden relayed to his agent.
The other woman lifted her projectile weapon and eliminated Vanth as a threat.
“Are there any other enemy combatants around?” Camden asked.
“I don’t have that intel.”
“Stay here. We’ll take care of them, and then get you out.”

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