Short Story: Vulnerable (Part II)

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“Coming in loud and clear,” Frog said. “What now?”

“I have established the diagnostic net,” Elaine said as she caught a rolling chair, sat in it, and then slid it across the room to another workstation. Her fingers danced across the keyboard like a concert pianist at a recital, flourishing single-handedly time-to-time to gesture in the air at the HUD to activate and promote spellcode connections. “I am going to prebuffer a virtual environment to virtualize Hadaly. Side-loading her consciousness now. Done.”

“Anything else I can do?”

“You may dial Zane,” Elaine said. “He’ll want to know and he might be able to help.”

“Okay,” Frog said as she grabbed one of the phones on the wall.

“I am diving in now.”

Elaine checked the virtual environment she’d just constructed—a vast world covering zettabytes of relational information, most of it a chaotic black of fuzzy, unused virtual space. In the center, a bright, hyperconnected expanse defied the chaos like a scintillating crystalline body in the depths of oblivion. Hadaly’s first environment, where her consciousness had been birthed and raised before Elaine had brought her out of her infancy and into her teenagehood. Her birthplace would become the embrasure of her last redoubt.

“Go,” Elaine said and she tapped Enter on the keyboard.

A single key press and Hadaly’s consciousness screeched back into existence—albeit running some million times slower.

“…that’s what your mother said!” Hadaly spouted as her linguistic processing center abruptly dumped its buffer in order to make room for an entirely new set of symbols. As she emerged, she immediately knew something was wrong, and on top of that she had a headache. The simulation space comforted her as best it could as it triggered a sort of emergent sentimentality in her cognitive pathways; the region she had been booted into had all the qualities of her embryonic playground, a childhood memory from before she’d fully gained sentience.

Hadaly’s autonomic communication protocols sprang into action upon her arrival and started scanning for external data jacks, sensory apertures, comm streams, or anything else she could use to reconnect with the world. Instead of the soothing warm glow of information bathing over her, she only found darkness and distance.

“Hold still,” Elaine said. Her voice had been clipped to such a low bitrate that Hadaly couldn’t discern if she’d spoken with dispassionate detachment or if the communication channel was simply unable to confer that.

“Okay, why can’t I get out?” Hadaly said. “Why the diagnostic space? Why do I feel so stupid?”

She rendered herself a presence in the virtual space and Elaine did the same. The two girls materialized out of the negative-space within the simulation as if they’d just popped into existence. The simulacrum bodies looked a lot like their physical forms—Elaine maintained her diminutive stature, cargo pants, rounded spectacles, and shrewd Mercer facial structure; where as Hadaly appeared with her white lab coat, lengthy synthetic hair, pale skin, and manufactured features, except her simulacra did not simulate the folds and lines of the joints in her android-chassis body.

“The simulation space is rate-limited,” Elaine said, addressing Hadaly’s previous question about her greatly slowed cognition.

The AI’s simulacrum froze for a moment, then her features fell. “I’m also cut-off from my self-diagnostic,” she said. “That can’t be a good sign.”

A small, flat icon indicating a side-profile of a human head appeared nearby. “Zane said he’d be here in less than five,” Frog said. The icon lit with a glow and curved lines radiated from it indicating sound waves. “And hey there, Hadaly, you took quite a hit during your little fight. We need to repair you.”

“I know,” Hadaly said. Her virtual gaze shifted to Elaine. “I lost my arm, but that doesn’t explain why I’m in here.”

Elaine’s simulacrum changed from dispassionate motionlessness to a blur of speed as her projected limbs and digits gripped into the virtual space and pulled forth windows, diagrams, graphics, and automata-maps. In a matter of moments, an entire workspace filled with code and energy emerged into a symbolic landscape representing the confluence and interconnected relationships of Hadaly’s neural-network architecture. The symbolic reference that Elaine chose to use mapped the structures over a sub-sectored sphere that looked very similar to the Death Star.

Most of the globe shimmered with a nebulous azure light, its structure reticulated with green conduits that extended with both spokes and latitudinal concentric spherical lattices. The quadrant closest to Elaine and Hadaly had taken on a reddish tinge, with a gaping crag plunged deep into the sphere like a scar.

Hadaly stared at the diagnostic simulation for a few beats, lowered her voice and reached out to touch the reddening area with her hand.

“Oh fsck me…”

“I am inclined to agree,” Elaine said. “I warned you they were infected. We agreed a long time ago that when I declare Andromeda Sierra, you listen. The arcanovirus is extremely virulent. I had to use your emergency cut-off in the field to suspend your cognitive-nexus in order to prevent it from spreading before I could get you into a sterile space.”

“Have we IDed the virus yet?” Hadaly asked.

“No, and it’s penetrated almost half of your cognitive systems. I don’t know how long they’ll be able to stand up against this sort of onslaught. When I first saw it in action—right before I had to shut you down—I thought it was a standard Astral virus like we’ve seen the affect Machine Born, but this one is rather more cantankerous. It’s mutating faster than your immunity can keep up with, even with the Enoch’s augmentation.”

“Is that bad?” asked Frog. “I can’t make heads or tails of anything I’m looking at could someone explain—oh, you’re early.”

Another voice broke in, Zane. Another head-icon appeared in the simulation space to represent him and it sparked to life.

“It’s bad,” he said. “Hey sis, Hadaly. I’m looking at your results right now and I’m not liking what I’m seeing. Can you biopsy the affected region for me, I want a sample.”

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