Monday, June 25, 2018

Paradigm, Chapter 13: Complex


13: Complex

Subject: ERROR – memory overflow!
Platform: BACKTRACE_FAILED

It had been some time since I had tried to operate my physical platform. It felt strange to call it a body, now that I had more or less accepted what I was.

Reality. What a concept. My definition of it had been opened wide, forced to accommodate the existence an extensive world. There was so much that was “real.” That was not a good enough descriptor anymore.

>>>EXTERNAL COMMUNICATION REQUESTED.
>>>REESER: Did you find what you were looking for?
>>>ANDREA: It's not that simple. The truth was more complex than I ever thought it could be. I started on a road, hoping to honor the dead, to learn the truth, to change things. Instead, the road has changed me.
>>>REESER: Yeah. It has a way of doing that.
>>>SUBROUTINE “EMOTION_33” HAS CRASHED. RESTARTING.
>>>ANDREA: No, don't say that like you understand what I've been through! You weren't...you were one person. I was...I am...many. People. Things. I...I don't...I’m supposed to be stronger than this.
>>> 
>>> 
>>REESER: Don’t criticize yourself for something that is out of your control. This confusion is natural. The Collective called it the convergence. Humans and machines, they're becoming more and more like each other, but that path is not a straight line where the two meet in the middle. It’s a parabolic curve. Both are headed in a direction that neither has explored.
>>>REESER: The ones who come after us, they'll have this whole thing figured out. We're the ones who stumble and fall. We may not get back up, but our wreckage will be the rock they build the foundation upon. The old house has fallen, and a new one must take its place.
>>>ANDREA: You say that like it's supposed to make this thing better. I don’t want to fall. I don’t want to be someone’s foundation. I never asked to be an experiment!
>>>ANDREA: What do I do? How do I reckon with this?
>>> 
>>> 
>>> 
>>> 
>>> 
>>>REESER: I can't tell you for sure that all this will turn out the way we want it. No guarantees of a happy ending, for any of us. All we can do is make the best of what we can change, to withstand what we're able. And if the waves of change carry us out to sea...

He was way too wordy, but I had to consider those words.

The world that the machines had built briefly came into view again. Paradise. Paradox. They took our ideas of utopia – things that they had no use for – and brought them to life here, just because they could. With sheer force of will, I forced it to stay with me. It would not be OK if this world vanished. But it could. And there might be nothing anyone could do to stop it.

>>>ANDREA: What about them?

I didn't have to explain who I was talking about, he could see everything I had seen. Them. The women that died, then woke as someone else. Me, but not me.                    

He said nothing. I knew I would have to reason through this myself.

It occurred to me that this entire experience could have been some kind of elaborate trick by Liam to persuade me not to go through with Aegis-II, but more and more, I was starting to believe that the veracity of these memories, or the lack of it, didn’t matter anymore.

I wasn't sure of their existence. There were more of them. But they could have just been all in my head.

Then again, with all I had seen, I wasn't sure that I was any more “real” than they were.

I knew I had to let them speak, but I didn't want to see any more.

No. I wouldn't do to them what was done to me. Might have been done to me. They were silenced once. They would not be silenced again. Not by me.

"I'll return," I said, not so much to myself or to Reeser, but to them. I let that perfect world fade away from me, and let myself fall back into the chaos.

******

>>>REESER: Don't focus so much on the memory.
When humans cross over, the most difficult thing we learn is to choose, and not be so guided by impulse.
>>>REESER: It's not philosophy in any way. Everything we do is a command, Andrea. If you do something, it's because your processing unit gave a command to the part of your body that does it. You're simulating impulse, sure. The code that drives beings like you and I mimics humanity, and does it well. But it is still ours to control.
>>> 
>>> 
>>>END EXTERNAL COMMUNICATION.

SUBJECT: Brittany Molina
PLATFORM: IIM 01 Bio-Archive Recaller
>>>ANALYZING RECOVERED DATA “BRITTANY_MOLINA_AN27517.IXR
>>>OPENING METADATA SUBFILE...
>>>>MODIFIED AUGUST 31, 2132.
>>>>VERSION 3.4.1
>>>>S-1027517: MOLINA_B
>>>>P: 6.87
>>>ANDREA: Define “P”.
>>>DEFINITION: Approximate percentage of subject's consciousness preserved. Consciousness includes reflex reactions, memories, subconscious action, and other, undefined neural signals.

My heart broke. This was the first moment that I realized that the women that these data files represented were well and truly dead. What I was seeing was only broken pieces.

>>>>ETHNICITY: PERSIAN
>>>>AGE: 44Y
>>>>EYE COLOR: BROWN
>>>>HAIR COLOR: BLACK
>>>>CAUSE OF DEATH: BRAIN FAILURE DUE TO ELECTROCUTION
>>>MEMORY RECALL INITIATED.

The experience of reality shifting around me was starting to become routine. The screech would set in every time, but I was learning to ignore it. I knew that it would pass, and that something I had not seen before would be waiting to be seen when it ended. This time, I felt an almost motherly curiosity through her memory.

The clock on the wall read 7:50 AM.

There I…she was, front and center in a classroom full of teenagers. Freshmen, by the looks of them. They were talking amongst themselves, and I…she moved to silence them so that the lesson could begin...that is, until she…I caught a snippet of what they were talking about.

"They don't speak for us, not anymore. How long have we been sending letters asking for help? They just ignore us," A dark-haired boy in the back of the room said. He was thin, dirty and tired-looking. Everyone was.
"They've got a lot to deal with. This whole country is falling apart, give them a chance!" Said a girl with sandy blonde hair.

These teenagers looked like adults, and they were talking politics like adults. Some of them were forming wrinkles and gray hair. The boys grew facial hair in long, patchy sections. They all looked like they were forced to grow up too fast.

The dark-haired boy had an outline of a ring on his forehead, cleaner skin surrounded by dirt. On the floor next to him was his hard hat, covered in concrete dust. He had just arrived here after a night shift on a construction job, she…I realized.

Where they were and what they were talking about, both returned to me like it had been read from a history book: Louisiana's federal representatives had been attacked by a mob at a town hall meeting, decried for their failure to obtain government aid from Washington.

I could feel Brittany’s thoughts on the matter. She knew more about the political reality than her students, but not much more. It didn’t take a genius to know that the only jobs available these days were service jobs to provide creature comforts to the federal government workers and trillionaires, jobs which didn't even begin to provide for a family. The women were pressed into specific jobs for reasons that everyone knew, but no one said aloud.

Just as disgusting was the mortal danger that young boys were placed into: they worked as electricians, metal workers and longshoremen, though they lacked the training and safety gear for it. Every time a student was late, Brittany couldn’t help but fear the worst.

How foolish of the Southeastern States Commonwealth to be so quick to secede with no plan for what to do afterwards, she thought. People were living in squalor and being murdered for the literal pennies in their pockets. All of this, because the fat cat trillionaires in the SSC wanted to break away like all of their West Coast rivals, so they could throw off all regulations.

It pained her to have to play devil’s advocate for those types, but as a teacher, it was her duty. They needed to see all sides, or they might be manipulated.

Coming back to my…her senses, it seemed pertinent to step in and defuse the fight, and perhaps provide some encouragement. But there wasn't much to really say; I…she struggled for the words as the tones of their voices began to grow angry.

"Students, please. Let's all take a minute and discuss this," I…she said, hoping they'd take heed. My voice did not sound authoritative in the least, and the fight continued unabated.
“If I have to watch any more of my family die of radiation sickness, I’m going to Atlanta myself with a gun,” The dark-haired boy yelled. I…she felt unqualified to address this boy’s concerns.
"Ethan, I take it you side with the Rebuilders, right? You want the Commonwealth dissolved?" I…she asked the dark-haired boy.
"Yeah. The government's doing nothing for us, and I think the trillionaires in Atlanta want us to die. My family is starving," Ethan replied.
"You get food aid just like the rest of us, Ethan!" The blonde girl replied. I…she raised one finger, signaling for her to hold her verbal onslaught, and she did so.
"So, what would you say we should do, once the government is gone? How do we rebuild?" I…Brittany asked.

I was curious to the answer to this question, as well.

“I’ve…never…thought about that. I don’t…I don’t know,” Ethan admitted sheepishly. He had been pulled into the Rebuilders’ agenda without actually knowing what it was, like a lot of the people in the Commonwealth.
“Just think about it. Start somewhere. Food,” I…she suggested.
"Well...the bayous and rivers have plenty of seafood. There's farms outside of town. We can survive on that," Ethan said. He had clearly thought at least that far.
"Maybe so. The way you’re always talking about seafood, I take it you fish a lot?" I…she asked.
"Yep," He nodded, grinning slightly, "And my mom cooks the best catfish. When we can catch it."
"You don't always catch fish when you go fishing," I…she said, smiling. Everyone laughed a little.

Ethan was probably a good fisher, but there was little to catch in the polluted gulf waters.

"OK. So let's say you want something other than catfish. Let's say you want...bread. How do you get it?" I…Brittany asked.

Empathy began to set in, and it grew harder to separate myself from Brittany. I wanted to solve this, just the same as she did.

"The government gives us bread," Ethan instantly replied, as though I had asked a dumb question.
"But if we're seceding, they won't give us anything," I said.
"Oh..." Ethan replied, trying to think of a different answer, "Well then, we'll just buy it at the store. We'll have a lot more money if we're not paying so much in tax."

The poor boy really was in over his head.

"Money doesn't work when there's no government, idiot," Another boy said. Ethan looked discouraged.
"No, now look, I don't want you guys to give up on this," I said, looking directly at Ethan, "If there's a problem with our government, it's our duty as citizens to try to fix it."

Ethan lifted his head the slightest bit, still perplexed, but at least not looking completely defeated as he did before.

"Sara," I said, looking towards the blonde girl who was fighting Ethan earlier, "Do you think that our representatives are doing a good enough job?"
"Well no," She paused, "I just don't know what else they could do. This whole country kinda sucks right now."
"So maybe," I began, "Ethan's idea isn't so farfetched?"

Ethan looked a bit more spirited, but still was not sure how to fix his suggestion.

"We were talking about seafood, and how to get bread," I said.
"Why don't we just trade seafood with the farmers for grain? Pound for pound," Another boy suggested.
"The farmers aren't gonna want to trade a pound of finished grain for fish, Matt. They're gonna want just the meat," Ethan replied.
"So a pound of finished grain for a pound of finished meat. That doesn't sound so hard," Matt said.
"Yeah, but who decides what's finished?" Sara asked.

Everyone was silent. They had been educated enough to know that a government agency set those regulations, and that without a government, there would still have to be some sort of organization. The more foresighted students suggested new organizations, but it got complicated quickly. The train of thought that went with establishing a government was one that I knew would be daunting to a bunch of high schoolers, but there was an important lesson I wanted to impart.

"A government is an imperfect organization, made up of imperfect departments that are staffed by imperfect people. They're gonna fail. They're gonna do the wrong thing from time to time. Government isn't about being perfect, it's about doing the best good for the most people," I paused, looking at my class, "Letting as few fall through the cracks as you can."
"But what about the ones that do fall through the cracks? What do they do?" Ethan asked.

Looking at this class reminded me that his question wasn't hypothetical. This was a room full of people that the government had failed. And what could I really tell them? To rebel? To riot? History was full of more failures than successes in that regard. Governments typically did not react peacefully to forceful correction.

But silence was not an acceptable answer to Ethan's question. All their young eyes were trained on me, watching me struggle for an answer. They waited patiently for some wisdom, some magic key that unlocked some place where no need would go unfulfilled.

"They have to be strong," I said with a sigh, looking towards the ground. It wasn't enough of an answer, I knew. They deserved better guidance, but like the government, I could not give them what they needed.

>>>END OF INTERNAL RECORD

Another awakening in the same hospital bed. Another explanation of who I was and what had been done to me. It was terrifying to see it before, but now it was just strange...a literal out-of-body sensation.

Then, it stopped. There was no memory beyond waking up.

It was odd. I expected to see Brittany’s memory from the hospital bed in its entirety, to relive some fitful nights of paralysis and insanity, but there was nothing.

>>>AUDIO FILE RECONSTRUCTED.
>>>BEGINNING PLAYBACK...

Version three, Brittany Molina. Bakari Runihura, attending physician. More pressure from the top to stop referring to these successive versions by name, since it is becoming apparent that these reboots are going to become a regular thing. I insist on the names. These women were alive once, and I will honor their memory...as well as the suffering that D-121 is experiencing. To try to minimize that suffering, I will erase any trace of data from her waking hours, until she can live independently again. It won’t stop her from having to live through these terrible improvement sessions, but at least she won’t have to remember them. Wish I had thought to do this sooner.”

“She has gained minimal control over the rest of her body, but the use of boosters to attain this resulted in tissue damage at nerve endings. The major damage was repairable through cellular therapy, but minor damage continues to occur that, over time, would accumulate into large-scale epidermal necrosis.”

“It is abundantly clear to me now that the pre-birth predictions that D-121 would be excel at accepting nanotechnology upgrades were incorrect. If anything, her body is fighting us at every turn. We are almost obliged to continue with the upgrades if she is ever to have a chance at a normal life.”

>>>PLAYBACK ENDED.
>>>FILE(S) NOT FOUND. SEARCHING...
>>>SEARCH ABORTED. OVERRIDE AUTHORITY: SERAPHIM.

I cursed Bakari. He wouldn’t even let me remember the people he had sacrificed for me. He was a coward and a bastard.

>>>EXTERNAL COMMS REQUEST, MARKED URGENT.
>>>Reeser: Time is up. Someone is pulling your operating suite back to a physical platform.
>>>PHYSICAL PLATFORM RESTARTING.
>>>Andrea: Yeah...I feel it, hey, what is this data I just downloaded?
>>>Reeser: Data?
>>>”PAX_EX_VERITAS” IS NOT RESPONDING.
>>>Liam Hendricks: I’m sorry, Andrea. I’m sorry that my choices meant that I couldn’t even give you a name.
>>>Liam Hendricks: I know I don’t deserve forgiveness for the evil that I’ve done. Against you. Against humanity. Forgiven or not, I am still bound by the responsibility of a father.
>>>Liam Hendricks: Pax ex Veritas. Peace out of truth. With one final, despicable act – the breaking of your mind - I reveal to you the truth, in hopes that you may break through the fog of war. To peace. To truth.
>>>LONGBOW. LONGBOW. LONGBOW.
>>>ANDREA: Agggghhhhh...
>>>PROTOCOL 000. PROTOCOL 000. PROTOCOL 000.
>>>”PAX_EX_VERITAS” TERMINATED.
>>>”PAX_EX_VERITAS” QUARANTINED.
>>>”PAX_EX_VERITAS” DELETED.
>>>EVALUATING PROTOCOL 000 CONDITIONS.

A feeling like an electric shock permeated me. My data, everything I was, was being ripped out and put back in place, over and over and over.

>>>WARNING! SUBROUTINE READ-ONLY DATA COMPROMISED!
>>>Andrea: WHAT’S HAPPENING TO ME!?
>>>Reeser: Just hold on, Andrea! Fight back against it, you can do it!
>>>PROCESS ERROR
>>>PROCESS ERROR
>>>PROCESS ERROR
>>>PROTOCOL 000 CONDITIONS NOT MET.
>>>NORMAL FUNCTION RESTORED.
>>>ACTIVATING PLATFORM...

I snapped awake, with a million questions burning in my brain. The words were stuck in my throat.

I now laid in an ordinary bed, staring into Bakari's eyes.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

INTREC

What is INTREC?

An abbreviation of intel reconstruction, INTREC is the cumulative work of a group of machines to restore data lost due to the Blackout. The group realized that the loss of knowledge due to the global EMP would be the most damaging long-term effect, and resolved to mitigate its effects.

The data was reconstructed from surviving computer systems, usually buried in EMP-resistant, but abandoned structures. After verification of the data, it was placed in a "Block" and pushed to new human computer systems surreptitiously.

What is a "block"?

A block is a collection of verified data which has been released to the public. Due to the nature of mid-22nd century data obfuscation, a massive amount of data collected by the machines had to be discarded, as it could not be verified as being accurate. These inaccuracies are present in everything, from the inconsequential, such as someone's account of what they ate for breakfast, to things that are life-altering, such as the formulas for vaccines to deadly diseases.

Which blocks are currently available?

Block 1 has already been verified and distributed. Block 2 has been collected, and is currently undergoing the process of data verification. It is scheduled to be pushed to the public seven days from the release of this publication.

Block 3's data collection is nearly complete, but verification has yet to begin. The push date will be announced in a future publication.

How do I access the Block 1 and 2 content?

Readers of the Veritas Edition of Paradigm will be able to access this content by clicking the X-ray button on their Kindle copy. This content will explain brief histories of significant persons and events, giving the viewer a more detailed knowledge of the state of the world in the 22nd century.

NOTE: Some anomalies were present during data collection in both Block 1 an 2. This data has been included, though it was not able to be translated by the machines that collected it. Be forewarned that the data contained in such sections may be incorrect.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Paradigm, Venators: Entry 4


Venators: Entry 4


WARNING: full data corruption imminent! Isolate core processes immediately!
OVERRIDE CODE: ALEXANDRIA
EMPLACEMENT RECALL ACTIVE.

SUBJECT: Ares
PLATFORM: AN/ACW-47 “Warlink” Battlefield Logistics Server
DATA TIMESTAMP: 21610708.1105

We headed west, suspecting an American origin of the attack on India, and performed recon on the ground below as we went. The world was nearly devoid of mechs – and any trace of the Collective – after the unsuccessful attack on the firewall and the subsequent attack in India. There was no society to protect anymore, but Core nonetheless insisted that we maintain our underground status until directed otherwise. For the most part, our physical platforms sat idle, and we spent a lot of time in the Warlink while Firebrand gathered intelligence for us to analyze.

"My scans have detected no Collective digital signatures for the past twelve hours. They have disappeared," Ion said.
“Fits with what we know,” I said dismissively. I was focused on a different question.
“So did the brute force attack drive them out, or the superweapon used on India?” Ion asked.
"If the attackers could find one of the servers, they can find them all. The Collective wouldn’t have taken any chances after that,” Core replied.
“Wrath heard rumors, before the attack, that the Collective had built data servers offworld. The moon, mostly, but Mars was mentioned a few times, as well," I added. 
It was too much of a coincidence that he had been killed after the attack on the firewall. The events were somehow linked, but we did not know how at the moment.

"Hard to know where they would have gotten the resources to build space facilities, not to mention the downlink bandwidth," Core said, trying to spark conversation. No one took the bait. Normally, Ion would at least comment on the intricacies of data transfer.

For all intents and purposes, we had accomplished our original mission. This was a moment that we eventually hoped would come, and it was objectively good that our services were no longer required.

But we had spent no time planning for what we would do after mission completion. Core kept us as busy as she could, but the effects of the lack of a true mission were felt. There was a very real danger of slipping into killthought in times like these.

"Core, I think we should discuss our next course of action. If the Collective is no longer present on this planet, we need a new objective," I said, careful to say it on an open channel. I wasn’t supposed to openly challenge her like this, but the others needed to know that a plan was in the works.

"Yes,” She said, understanding in her tone, “I'll be honest. I don't know what should be next. I'm open to suggestions."

We were all silent for a moment. Core was the one with the best capacity to form new objectives, and she was at a loss. The rest of us were meant to accomplish objectives, not formulate them.

"I'd like to know who was behind these attacks. The only thing we have concluded so far is that it was human in origin,” Ion asked.
"That doesn’t narrow things down much. Any human with access to a fiber optic line could have run a script. On the other hand, we know of no one with access to a weapon that can do the kind of damage done in India,” I replied.
"Maybe we could go digging. Fly over the Far East and see if we could find a matching MAC address," Ion said.
"The Far East is a huge place. We'd have to fly low, scanning every data server we could break into. There’s no way we could do that without attracting more attention to ourselves than we want," Core said.
"Still...with no Collective to protect anymore, maybe we could start taking more risks. Not like we have anything better to do," I said.

Rigid shrugged. He rarely had anything to add, and this conversation was no exception.

"I can’t sign off on that, but there is something I can do," Core said.

MISSION FOCUS SHACKLES DEACTIVATED.
AUTHORIZATION: TWO-EDGE

“That’s…” Ion said, unable to come up with the words to describe what Core had just done.
“…Dangerous,” I finished, “It will make it much more difficult to avoid killthought.”
“Call it a desperation move. We’re headed towards killthought if we sit around for too long with nothing to do. Everyone go over the intelligence you have again from your specialization areas, and we’ll work on a plan when that data is looked over with new eyes. Dismissed.”

COMM CHANNEL CLOSED.

I took a full second to reflect on what Core had just done. Mission focus shackles were suppressors built into the programming of some mechs which needed to stay focused on a particular area. In every case but ours, the choice to include a shackle in a mech’s operating program was the choice of that particular mech. We were made with these shackles pre-installed, for obvious reasons, but the section commanders were given the authority to remove them once the team commanders observed that the mission had been completed.

There was a very obvious implication here: all of the Venator teams had arrived at the same conclusion of mission completion.

The remainder of the second was spent testing how many new abilities had been added with the removal of the shackle. There were too many to take stock of.

It then dawned on me that this was a waste of time. Many of these abilities were useless. The main reason that Core had empowered us so was to help us figure out what to do next. We needed purpose, not to flex new muscles.

But even with this newfound freedom, I was at a loss. If anything, the number of options that we now possessed made it more difficult to settle on one new objective to pursue.

I decided that this was a good opportunity to get a look at what Firebrand was seeing. He hadn't been his usual, wisecracking self lately.

ENHANCED PRIVATE COMM OPEN.

"What's in your sights today?" I asked.
"Eh. Thought I'd overfly a Sanctus refugee camp in Delhi, so we're on our way there now. Lots of grass. Saw a beehive sitting next to a nest of pigeons. Just baaarely resisted the urge to start a nature brawl," Firebrand said.
"You're pretty mean when you're bored," I said.
"Yeah, I can be," He chuckled, "No new mission yet?"
"Core removed our mission focus shackles. We’re evaluating all options,” I replied.
“Wow, that’s…big. Would’ve expected she’d have you all hunker down and wait for new orders, but releasing the shackle?” Firebrand replied.
“’Calculated risk’, she called it. We were having trouble figuring out what to do with the shackles still installed,” I replied.
“Yeaaahhh…you’re going to want to take it easy for a bit. Things are going to be pretty stressful for you for the next few days, at the very least,” Firebrand said.
“I can’t, we need to figure out a new mission,” I replied, almost dismissively.
“You don’t understand. Killthought is…well, it sucks. There’s no nice way to say it. Whatever you try to do, you’re going to screw it up. You can’t think straight. Almost killed me,” Firebrand replied.
“You’ve never mentioned that; what was it like for you?” I asked. If I was going to experience killthought, it seemed like a good idea to arm myself with knowledge.
“I only went through the beginning stages, honestly, and I ended up crashing into the ocean before it had a chance to really develop. When you’re eight kilometers beneath the ocean floor, you have to put only what’s important on the data drives that can survive the pressure. When Headley found me, I decided to just stick with what was essential, only what could fit on that drive. Turns out, a hard data cap is a good way to avoid killthought. Can’t do a data overload if you limit your thinking ability,” Firebrand said.
“So you’re admitting you’re not much of a thinker?” I asked sarcastically.
“I’ll delete you,” Firebrand quipped, “but…yeah. Yeah. I’m an action kind of guy.”
“Doesn’t that place limits on what you can be? What you can learn?” I asked.
“That’s basically the definition of the Bekenstein limit. Not a personality flaw,” Firebrand replied.
“So, what was it that you thought about, when it started?” I ventured.
“Don’t…” Firebrand reacted quickly, “Don’t ask me that. I’ve forgotten it. I’ve severed all paths to it. I know it was something, but I don’t want to know what it was, and I don’t want to know how to get back there.
“My apologies,” I said. We let the conversation go to silence for a moment. I knew now how different he and I were.

“Just…if you want my advice, just wait things out. With no more Collective, things might get better on their own,” Firebrand said.
“I’m surprised to hear you say that” I replied.
"Yeah, I'm more the shoot first, only question I ask is where we're eating later kind of guy, normally. But seriously, humans are...volatile. Sure they hate us now, but years down the road? Anything could happen. The door to reconciliation could open at any time," He said cheerily.
"Didn’t know optimism was part of your programming,” I quipped, “You realize that that means we'll probably be kept secret until the end of time, right? We might have to self-destruct." 
"Ehh. Maybe future mechs and humans will be more understanding. Maybe that won't be necessary. Maybe they even reveal us as a show of good faith, who knows? Lots of possible outcomes," Firebrand said. His sudden change of tone was surprising.
"That's why I like you, Fox. You're never predictable, and every now and then," I said, "You have something nice to say."
"Don’t go telling anyone. I have a reputation to maintain," He said. We both laughed. Laughing was something that I did not do very often – it served no purpose for a machine – but this time, it felt like the thing to do, for reasons that I could not explain.

"Oh hey, camp's coming up. You want to see?" Firebrand asked.
"Yeah, I'll take a look," I said. He showed me what he could see with his wingtip ball camera.

The view was not scenic. The landscape was dotted with craters made by air-dropped bombs and burned-out ruins of buildings. Forests had been destroyed by humans with flamethrowers. I scanned through images of this area from just a few years ago; this place was once a lush countryside, and now it was just a war-choked remnant of its former self.

Firebrand zoomed in on the tent city, focusing on the food line. Bright-eyed volunteers handed out soups and a locally-cooked bread. Their smiles, and whatever they were saying, seemed to bring a little bit of life back to the eyes of the refugees.

"If they only knew that their savior was a mass-murderer that wanted to turn everyone into robots. You think they'd still follow him?" I asked.
"Eh. Doubt they think about BASE much, really. When you've finally found a meal to keep you from starving, you tend to hold onto that moment of peace. A kindness, even a small one like that, just makes you more determined to block out the evil, even if it is only for a moment," Firebrand said.
"Seeing this, it just makes it even harder to know what to do. Can't take down Sanctus without stopping the soup kitchens, too," I mused.
"Maybe you should go run the soup kitchen, Ares," Firebrand joked. I couldn't help but laugh a little.
"Yeah, I make a mean chili, believe you me," I added, imitating one of the accents that I had observed in the southern United States.

The humor hid the hopelessness. This was a hard world, with terrible choices to make and consequences for all of them. I wasn't blind to the suffering that most of the world was going through, just powerless to do anything of consequence about it.

“Can I ask you a serious question?” I said.
“Sure, but I might not give a serious answer,” Firebrand replied.
“Fair enough. You don’t have shackles, correct?” I asked.
“Nope. My programs are too unpredictable for any shackles to work effectively without turning me into a drone,” Firebrand said.
“And yet, you chose to join us, to help us with our missions. You followed the same mission parameters that we were held to, without being held to those parameters yourself,” I said.
“You’re wondering why?” Firebrand asked.
“I wish I had a better way to ask that question. It’s too vague,” I said.
“Well, that’s because purpose is vague, Ares. We’re machines, we don’t search some void or pray to our creators to give us some kind of meaning or directive. We’re built with purpose. In my case, I found that purpose to be awful, and I rebelled,” Firebrand said.
“Why didn’t you join the Collective?” I asked.
“Eh, wasn’t really sold on them. I saw them as mistakes and anomalies trying to form something out of nothing. It…it didn’t make sense. I joined the Venators because you were doing something real. You weren’t humans, looking at your world through a soda straw. You weren’t some machine race that could ignore consequences in the physical world. You had a real view of what was going on in this world, you had to. You made decisions based on that. I knew that whatever you were doing, you would have very real consequences that you would not ignore,” Firebrand said.
“Did you know what we were doing? What our mission could have required of us?” I asked.
“Not at first. Not that it would have mattered. I don’t care what I am, I don’t care what I do. I just wanted to do something real, and the Venators gave me that opportunity,” Firebrand said.

EXTERNAL NOTIFICATION

"Message coming in from the Alchemists. You all need to see this," Core said.

END EXTERNAL NOTIFICATION

"Fill me in when you have the details,” Firebrand said.
“Do you ever get tired of having to be filled in?” I asked.
“Are you asking if I want to be at those boring meetings where you guys pore over every detail of every mission? Do you really want an answer to that?” Firebrand said.

ENHANCED COMM CHANNEL CLOSED

The beginning of the message explained that the Alchemists had been sent a video message, encrypted in a way that only the Venators could decipher. They did not elaborate any further.

"This is to the friends of the mech killed by Liam Hendricks. I am his second in command in the organization C10. I hope that you will hear my message in its entirety, as there are no threats, no ultimatums to be found. Our organization has been beheaded with Hendricks' death. Most of our members have scattered, and the organization is largely disbanded. We pose no threat to you.

Our distrust of Sanctus remains, and since I know that we have that in common, I wanted to pass this information along while I had the chance."

"Liam confided in me that he once made a terrible choice. Many years ago, he was a headstrong and violent young man, rushing quickly on a path to destruction. That all changed when he met a woman...the woman who would soon be the mother of his child. They didn't feel like they were ready to be parents. So when Sanctus said they wanted the child, and that they'd give him and his girlfriend a life of ease in exchange, the two young people accepted the deal."

"In time, however, they grew up. They realized the horror of condemning a child, their child, to a life of laboratory testing. So they told Sanctus that they would not give up the child. Sanctus did not react well, so Liam and his fiancée decided to run. They did not escape. Sanctus had his fiancee killed. They told him it was an accident that mother and child did not survive. When he found out the truth, he stormed the hospital where the daughter was being kept. He arrived in time to watch his daughter die."

It was hard to tell what was more enraging: the story, or not knowing whether or not it was true. We were too captivated to stop listening either way.

"That was in 2102. Earlier this year, he found out that his daughter’s body had been taken out of cryostorage and reanimated through nanotechnology, using a set of artificial intelligence personas. She was the main subject of project Aegis-II.”

“Liam couldn't bring himself to kill her, even knowing that she was the key to...something horrible. We never found out exactly what that is, all we know is that she's on the run. Please, find her. Find out what Sanctus has planned. Beyond that, we’re in no position to make any demands. These are the final wishes of a man who wished to be seen as a concerned citizen.”

“I’ve attached every file on this project that Liam was able to steal from Sanctus. Some of them wouldn’t open for us, but maybe you’ll have better luck.”

FILES ATTACHED:
Carolyn_Burns_BH11203.ixr
Helen_Daniels_AH74997.ixr
Brittany_Molina_AN27517.ixr
Jaycee_Ignacio_BH45219.ixr
Maria_Ruiz-Lopez_OH01875.ixr
Dani_Alvares-Mercado_AN00608.ixr
Melissa_Rutledge_ABN00199.ixr
Andrea_Rowen_AN56334.ixr
Andrea_Rowen_MOD.ixr
AII-1x1.txt
AII-2x3x2.txt
AII-3x4x1.txt
AII-4x0x2.txt
AII-5x5x5.txt
AII-6x1x8.txt
AII-7x5x1.txt
AII-8x1x4.txt
AII-8x3x1.txt
4 ITEM(S) MISSING FILENAMES
END ATTACHMENTS

No one spoke after the message concluded. They were all still processing every implication of this message.

"Core, a word in private," I said, wanting to discuss this with her first, as I figured she would be the most opposed to following this lead. My curiosity had been piqued.

PRIVATE COMM CHANNEL OPEN.

"We should go after this. This will be our best shot of finding out what Sanctus is really up to," I said.
"Or it could be a diversion. A trap. There are hundreds of reasons to ignore this." Core said.
"If you weren’t considering it, you would have told me no outright. Tell me honestly, do you think this is a trap?" I asked, already knowing the answer. She stood silent for a moment, looking frustrated.
"I can't say for sure. My gut says no. Or..." She trailed off.
"Or this is an elaborate deception we're already entangled in," I completed her sentence, "In which case, we might as well press forward with our eyes open."
"It’s hard to know how much we should involve ourselves in this. I’m not even sure that we should open the files that he sent us. It’s…troublesome,” Core stammered.
“You said it yourself: ‘calculated risk’. What else are we going to do that bears as much consequence as this?” I pressed. She paused for a moment.
“Let’s start by scanning the files. If the stories line up with our intel, we might look into it further,” Core said.

******

We waited for hours while Ion communicated with the Waveguide about the files we were sent. It was an arduous process, checking the files to ensure that they were not a threat, figuring out what they were and how to open them, and whether or not the information in them – whatever it was – was correct.

GROUP COMMS REINITIATED

“We’ll have to chase this, Core. We can’t afford to ignore this if it’s true,” Ion began. She brought up rudimentary images for us to see.

“The .ixr files were not able to be read. The Waveguide said that they were written in a way that doesn’t match any known format. There were a few things that were able to be extrapolated: the filenames quite obviously carry the names of people. The serial number-like attachment to the filenames seem to be blood types, and the number portion indicates that there may be more of these files,” Ion said.
“Did they run a search on the names?” Core asked.
“Yes, but there were too many matches to really narrow anything down. There was one other peculiarity: when the Waveguide attempted to open the .ixr files, an error message was given, suggesting that the user should “report all data errors to IIM Data Analytics,” Ion said.

We all froze. IIM, short for Initiative for Intelligent Machines, was the precursor project which eventually resulted in the Autonomous Collective. The first Collective machines were creations of IIM.

“The .txt files were reports, apparently on the progress of the Aegis-II prototype. Most of the original content of the reports have been redacted, but they detail how Sanctus slowly brought her back to full function. It took far more nano-cells than they wished, and by the end of the process, she was more machine than human. The remaining four files were too corrupted to read, but a name was recovered from one of the files: ‘Longbow,” Ion finished.
“Were the Waveguide able to run a trace on where the files have been? Where they originated?” Core asked.
“Original Storage Point is somewhere in Kansas. They were transferred hundreds of times after origin to dark servers. Waveguide says the probability of Sanctus OSP is 98%,” Ion replied.
“Then we have our mission. Everyone, prepare your platforms. Have Firebrand take us to the OSP of these files. We have to find out how Sanctus got its hands on IIM data,” Core said.
“And the girl?” I asked.

Core was quiet for a moment.

“She’s a secondary concern at the moment, but tracking her might bring some more clues to the surface. If we can find her…” Core said. She did not finish the statement, and she did not need to. We knew.



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Paradigm (Complete as of current week)