Chapter 1: The Office
I was returning to my computer with a third cup of coffee when the heavily armed cosplayer walked past me, flipped a desk, and started strangling my boss.
This was one of those moments that defines a person. How you think you’d react is just a lie you tell yourself, no matter how much of an Internet tough guy you are. Read the studies.
For example, all that introspective garbage was going through my head when any sort of pre-planning for office violence scenarios would have had me running ten seconds ago.
“Where is he?” the cosplayer yelled a second time. I’d missed the first shouted words in my panicking.
“I d-don’t know! I don’t know what you’re t-talking about!” My boss struggled, held several inches off the floor by his collar.
The trendy open-office layout allowed the entire company to look on with growing horror. Back of the napkin calculations suggested three seconds until someone screamed.
I hit the floor and crawled past my overturned chair, under the desk behind me, then sprinted through the tech startup’s trendy kitchenette and out the back door as the screams started. Made it all the way to the parking lot at a full sprint and into the driver’s seat of my car before I stopped and took a mental breath.
Then I did the logical thing. The phone seemed to ring forever.
“Nine-one-one operator. What’s your emergency?”
“Ah. Uh. I work at Clover Business Park, downtown.” I rattled off the office’s name and address. “There’s someone attacking...uh, there’s a man inside with a weird costume and a sword?” That wasn’t a question. What was wrong with me? Oh. Panic and shock. Right.
“Sir, where are you now?”
“Uh. My car. The parking lot.”
“What’s your name, sir?”
I give her my full name, like I was filling it out on my taxes—middle name and everything—all in a panicked rush.
“Sir, I need you to stay on the line. Help is on the way. Where exactly are you now?”
“In the parking lot. Uh, I said that already. Outside the office.”
“Are you away from the attacker?”
My fingers tightened on the steering wheel. “Yes? He was inside and I’m in my car, almost a block away.”
“Are you safe there, sir?”
“Yes? And he was- he wasn’t shooting but he was attacking someone. Choking them.”
“Okay sir, I understand. He wasn’t shooting but he had a gun?”
“Sir, I need you to not attempt to reenter the building. Do not enter the building again. Please stay where you are and stay on the line.”
There was a short pause. The call was muted on her end, with no open line sounds. The woman came back with a weird tone in her voice. “Sir, from the information provided I have to ask this question based on Federal law. Sir, do you believe this is a supervillain attack?”
“Did you recognize the costumed man? Can you give me a description of his costume and any powers he might have used?”
I blinked, trying to remember every detail. “He was dressed as...Deathstroke, I think? Two-tone red and black mask, shoulder-slung sword, black combat suit with armored plates. Had a large pistol…but, I didn’t see what type...or any, uh, powers? What is this about?”
“Sir, this information is required for first response reasons.” Another silent pause. “I have noted your description. It is consistent with a known supervillain. He is not listed as a potential disaster-area event, but you still need to stay away from the location of the attack. Again sir, please remain on the phone and stay where you are. Help is on the way.”
The phone made an alarm noise and vibrated like crazy. I jerked it away from my ear and looked down, hand shaking. The call window had a mute symbol over it and was minimizing down to a corner of the screen. A strange new app came up—really shiny user interface, several spinning icons, and high contrast black text on a bright white background, all moving as smooth as silk.
The alarm ended and big, blocky text appeared centered on the screen. “Your position has been compromised with threat assessment certainty of 90%. Evade and hide protocols engaged.”
A map popped up, driving instructions underneath. I stared at the screen. Nothing like that was installed on my phone. The program was unfamiliar and the instructions-
A digital clock was counting down from thirty-five seconds. At thirty-one, there was an explosion down the block from the direction of the offices I’d just fled. A tiny video window in a corner opened—what was the resolution on this thing anyway?—to show the costumed man stepping out of a hole in a wall. Looked like my company’s building. The server room back wall, maybe? He stepped out of the rubble and onto the sidewalk.
The image was clearly from a security camera and…my phone had just hacked it automatically? Somehow? The costumed man glanced up at the camera, paused, and just like in a movie a pistol appeared in his hand, drawn lightning fast from a holster on his leg. A casual gesture to one side, like swatting a fly, and he shot out the camera without looking. The app window went black, then closed.
The costumed man was heading straight for the parking lot. My phone was warning me there were less than twenty-six seconds before he got here.
My key fumbled against the ignition. The hybrid started almost silently. I pealed out and roared down the street, phone stuffed haphazardly in the center console. A block later, I slowed down and started making random turns. Sirens in the distance faded as I got lost in downtown traffic.
Ten minutes later outside a Starbucks my phone directed me to, I did the worst parallel parking job of my life. My shaking hands held up the phone again and I saw what I should have checked before. The 911 call had apparently ended. The video window was still gone, but the “threat assessment” was down to 23%. Whatever that meant.
There was also some symbol that looked like a compass with a line through it on the status bar. I clicked it and the words “Mode: Tracking Disabled,” appeared, along with a list of what looked like GPS locations with cell tower icons next to them.
I stared at the phone. It wasn’t the phone I remembered putting in my pocket that morning. It was the same size and basic appearance. But it wasn’t...right. It- no, this was all too much. The phone wasn’t the most important part.
Right now I had to start thinking about how to deal with having been in a workplace active shooter situation. But also how it had apparently been perpetrated by someone dressed as a comicbook villain.
And how the 9-1-1 operator had acted like that sort of thing was real and expected. Her questions had turned really odd.
This...this wasn’t reality. Something was catastrophically wrong.
I’d decided long ago what to do in this sort of...situation, but that had been idle speculation. The sort of discussion common to nerd bullshit sessions. The same sort of thing as zombie apocalypse planning. But it included that scenario as well.
It went like this. If you found yourself suddenly pulled into a fantasy world, developing amazing superpowers all of a sudden after a trauma, or were tracked down by a wounded knight with a sword claiming you’re the long-lost prince of a magical kingdom, the correct response is to check your mental health. Immediately.
What’s more likely? That everything you’ve ever known was wrong and this new situation was the real truth of the world; or that you’re being tricked, gas-lighted, and slash or are just mentally unstable and having a schizophrenic break.
The relative likelihood was...this was a perception failure. In the real world, judging super-powers versus psychotic breaks, from a statistical point of view, always, one hundred percent of the time, fell on the side of psychotic breaks.
If I started thinking I had been attacked by a real supervillain, or that I could fly and shoot lasers out of my eyes—well, I would have to assume I was crazy instead. But the emergency operator, the costumed man, the weird not-my-phone thing, it all had some rational explanation. I could work through this.
Time to prepare for Google information overload. Coffee required. Maybe Starbucks sold straitjackets now.
Chapter 2: Coffee
I stumbled out of my car, just remembering to take the keys. The barista had to ask twice for my order—I’d played with the weird new programs on my phone all the way to the front of the line without noticing. Ordering something at random, I sat at a table near the door, back to the wall, one hand clutching my phone and the other pouring too-hot coffee into my mouth.
This wasn’t my phone. Up close and not panicking, it was clear. The size was about right and it unlocked to my swipe code plus fingerprint, but not even the opening screen was right. Everything was oddly shiny, slick, with constantly moving animations. It didn’t have any ports or buttons at all—Apple’s wet dream. The frame felt unusually flexible and light. The screen bent almost in half without damage.
I loaded a random YouTube video, checked the device settings, then ran a couple of tests. The screen’s resolution and refresh rate were absurd, and my bandwidth was far beyond LTE. It wasn’t running any OS version I knew of. Maybe something from a foreign market? And even if that were true, it still didn’t have a consistent look and feel—like a rooted phone some enthusiast had spent way too much time on. There were a ton of custom apps installed, with bland default icons and weird names.
For one crazy second I considered a scenario where a hacker took over my phone and changed both the software and hardware. Download more RAM for your PC, indeed. Perhaps I should ditch it. It might be related to the morning’s violent events…that I was still not really processing.
Right. Had to think this through. Top priority was violence, not my phone. A weirdly dressed man attacked the office. Was there some fan convention in town? Had this crazy guy wandered over from the Staples Center or something? I poked at a few online events lists and came up with...nothing.
Not “no fan events this week in Los Angeles,” but no comic or superhero movie events ever—none for Star Trek or Star Wars, either. And...the Staples Center was apparently now the “LexCorp Center,” so named since...it opened in 1999, funded in large part by LexCorp to the tune of $120 million for naming rights for ten years, plus undisclosed additional money to lock up the rights for good in 2009. Multiple news stories agreed, from multiple news sources. Really.
So...new tab. Nope, no search results on popular superhero, sci-fi, and comics movies or TV shows either. Literally no pages...except for Ronald Reagan's SDI.
Interesting. There was a moderately popular annual “Western Comics Hoedown” in San Diego, but it was for...oh, naturally. Old-West themed serial comics. Ones about settlers, cowboys, and Native Americans.
New search. Tap to open results in new tabs, tap, tap, tap.
Umm...okay. Started out like you’d think in the 1920s. Cowboys and Indians. Focuses changed over the years. A lot of them were now about historic cultural problems faced by the Native Americans instead of mindless gunfights. Weird. I could totally dig this fandom, if it wasn’t an oddly detailed pile of completely made-up shit.
I checked again. It still wasn’t April first.
So. This phone, which was not my phone, had been hacked and I was getting hilarious redirects on Google and DuckDuckGo, plus some humorous fake Wikipedia pages. Some sort of DNS thing was my guess. It was always DNS. How this helped the crazy person who broke into my building was anyone’s guess, but it seemed an odd coincidence if it was somehow unrelated. I hadn’t entered any of my website passwords again on this phone and the secured sites for all my stuff, including email, were coming up fine. Maybe my password locker software had been compromised?
In any case, I should be calling the police now. On another phone...but of course there wasn’t a pay phone so I’d have to hope that feature wasn’t compromised. Or borrow a phone, maybe.
I had just been in a pretty serious violent situation. I had what was likely a piece of evidence, and had also sort-of fled the scene. The shock was starting to wear off and my coffee was almost finished. I was out of excuses.
Thirty seconds into looking up the non-emergency number for the LAPD, a dialog box popped up, obscuring the screen. “Action contra-indicated by current threat profile. Gathering information for alternatives. Increasing user engagement level. Calculating…”
A console screen straight out of a nineties hacker movie opened under it, text scrolling fast. The video from before of the maniac blowing up the server room played in a corner, looping over and over again at the point where the cosplayer looked at the camera. Red lines picked out spots on his face and the image froze. In a flash, it changed and the same thing happened to...a picture of me. Right now.
A voice spoke directly in my ear. “Second level identity check complete. Initial threat analysis confirmed.”
I jumped, my phone dropping to the table. It was like someone had leaned over my shoulder and spoken directly into my ear.
“Members of TriD Information Systems targeted by armed threat, ID Slade Wilson. Police already aware of threat. 34% chance of informational penetration of Los Angeles law enforcement databases by forces willing to sell information to Slade Wilson. Contact with LAPD not suggested at this time.”
The voice was really loud and clear, easily cutting through the noise in the crowded Starbucks. Looking around there was no one nearby. It didn’t seem like anyone else heard it. No glances my way, no annoyed glares at the noise.
“What the hell is going on?” I said to no one.
“Narrowcast directional speakers targeting only the logged-in user,” the voice instantly replied.
It had an artificial tone to it, something subtly off, but the growly, L.A. Latina-accented voice still blew the Apple and Microsoft TTS voices out of the water. There was also a diagram on the screen that looked like overlapping arcs and a representation of a human head, seen from above, with the moving arcs hitting its ears.
The voice continued. “General interest by threat Slade Wilson indicated by theft of company HR local and cloud-based files, as well as network routing logs. Specific interest or target not indicated directly. Company IT operations logs stolen from server room, along with company on-premise file storage. Your darknet infrastructure endpoints, inserted into the company’s local network communications systems, are still secure based on access and network log analysis. Attack executed by a single USB-based attack package inserted directly into servers. No ongoing remote or local attacks detected. No worms detected. Services hashed, and CRC against ROM files in remote digital dead-drop storage location complete: pass. New index sets for all data integrity checks marked as ‘suspect’ from this point forward. Warning: five one-time security tokens remain for this operation. Note: these must be updated in person to preserve integrity of this security system. Scheduling reminder created. Calculating…
“Primary, secondary, and tertiary identity profiles secure. All thirty-three extent, weak online identities secure. Current residence secured by previous TDIS HR identity spoofing and protection measures. Ongoing passive informational surveillance status: secure. On-site physical security status: nominal. For further inquiries, see: identity obfuscation measures, home-site security infrastructure, remote site procedures. Suggested next course of action: finish your coffee and return to home site. Threat analysis, calculating...”
Another window opened and a series of wire-frame figures blurred through various poses and attacks. Numbers appeared and vanished. Areas were circled and highlighted, then immediately overlaid with new windows. From where I slumped in my chair, looking down at the phone, the angle was bad but the image was still crystal clear.
“Hard-light engine countermeasures currently unavailable. Low likelihood of directly countering Slade Wilson in current condition. Escape after close-range encounter problematic. Top-level summary: suggest avoiding contact at all costs, including loss of current alternate identity.”
This...wasn’t as easy to explain as web page spoofs and redirects. I slowly picked up my phone.
The moment I touched the screen, my browser window opened again. Good. I wasn’t going to sit here and talk to a phone in public—a magic super-phone which appeared to have a complex voice interface now.
Manually looking up Deathstroke resulted in some obviously fake news stories as well as a deleted (and much debated) “not notable” Wikipedia page for an international super-criminal. Nothing else appeared in Google. Then the window folded away and another window opened. Then another, and another. I swiped through them, scanning as fast as I could. Criminal records, straight out of digitized FBI case files, leading back to the ‘90s. Something called the CBI had a more detailed-looking personal profile. Homeland Security reports on terrorism and international crime. Something called...The Agency? And...the fuck...Cadmus analysis of his superpowers and possible related genetic features.
The phone slid out of my fingers, clacking against the table. I slugged back the—uh, tall mocha I guess it was—one last time.
“What-” I coughed on lukewarm coffee dregs, tried again in a whisper. “What are- No, go back. What 'alternate identity'? What are you talking about?”
The stolen, highly-illegal files minimized. My drivers license appeared on the screen. Then my employment records, letters from my bank, phone bills. All with my name on them.
I took a deep breath. “Right. Okay. That’s not an alternate identity. What do you think is my real name?”
The phone spoke again, directly into my ears. “Top level security query detected. Optical protection factor engaged. Scanning all frequencies and meta-wavelengths to confirm identity.”
A green light flashed from the front of the phone into my eyes. I blinked, hard.
“Confirmed. Reporting available information on public and other active identities: Current public identity established December 12, 2015. Original public identity wiped from all local systems. Date of this data deletion event not available. Documentation on this event not available. Secure visual output activated.”
The phone’s screen went totally black, then a logo appeared in my vision, floating a few inches in front of my face. It flickered slightly, like a sci-fi hologram. Maybe from a visual equivalent of the audio system?
It was a pair of dark shades, square and retro, on a green background.
“Displaying primary branding for your online business identity: Calculator.”
Chapter 3: Home
The Calculator was a minor DC supervillain. The phone was claiming I used that name. So...I was supposed to be the Calculator? In a DC universe of some kind?
I did have a phone that used tech like nothing I’d seen before. Flexible screens, free-air, multi-view hologram projectors, and super-precise directed audio systems were technically possible, but not in any existing device. Certainly not at this size.
But was it a supervillain's phone? It had automated plans to escape from urban ninja attacks, spoofed my location on a national cellular network, and stole files from the FBI and other spooky agencies. And yet...it looked almost exactly like my phone as I remembered it.
I needed more information. Something to confirm what I seemed to be seeing. Something more involved to knock out any delusions, challenge my perceptions. And if they didn’t confirm what I seemed to be seeing...it was psychological help time. I still couldn’t risk doing something that would hurt people, including myself, but it needed to be physical. Anonymous, if possible, as my perceptions of this apparently new reality might be true. No reason to unnecessarily risk death by ninja assassin.
Glancing around the Starbucks, I found my target. My empty cup was kept as a prop, my phone was ready in my other hand. Closing my eyes for a moment, I worked up my courage, then stood.
“Excuse me,” I said. “What type of phone is that?”
The nerdy-looking young man looked up at me in that minor confusion people get when a stranger bothers them in public. “Uh, an LX-Seven?”
“Huh. My wife picked this one out for me, but I don’t think that’s the model.” I held up my phone where he could see it.
“Turn it over,” he said.
Jackpot. A talkative nerd. He leaned forward, ignoring the social awkwardness as I’d hoped for a chance to talk tech.
He shook his head. “Nah, that looks like one of those Chinese knockoffs. Sorry.”
“Yours has the-” I flex my screen back and forth.
He nods and does the same. The screen bends smoothly. “It’s the 2017 model. LexFlex, 10G with the 5K screen.”
I shrug. “Yeah, that’s not mine. Ah well. Thanks.” I had no idea the model, but that wasn’t the point. He’d seen the phone. He claimed his own had absurd specs.
Walking outside again was like that scene in Back to the Future II. I don’t know how I missed this. Blame the shock.
My car was a slick, late-model hybrid electric, just like I remembered. But it looked like a twenty-year-old Buick compared to some of the futuristic cars parked right next to it. One of them had gull-wing doors and a ‘50s style torpedo taillight mount. Another looked like a flying car, with folded up wings on the roof and a huge, rear-mounted jet-engine-thing. Maybe it was a flying car.
A full, building-sized billboard at the end of the street was projecting a 3D hologram a dozen feet out from the high-rise. It barely flickered, bright and clear in the full daylight. Some movie. Not a Jaws sequel.
A low, droning noise froze me in place. I slowly looked up.
The gray airship floated a couple of hundred feet up, drifting above the L.A. city streets. It was huge, much larger than the Goodyear blimp. Looked like a rigid envelope, unlike the semi-rigid one blimps had—a true Zeppelin-style craft. Gray, scaly panels covered the surface like armor, and it seemed to lack a passenger compartment. Smooth instrument (or weapon) pods were attached to the bottom and sides. The appearance was less retro-’30s and more Blade Runner.
Okay. Either these were vividly awesome complex hallucinations, or something unprecedented in my knowledge of how reality worked had happened to me.
I bought up the local news on my phone. They were reporting the attack on the downtown offices of TriD. Nothing new, just initial story fluff with no details.
The obvious conclusion had been that I was deeply mentally ill. But things were too consistent. I was seeing things that seemed impossible, but it wasn’t small things, or things no one else could see. It was big things, and it all seemed to add up.
Other people had similar phones to the one I did, with impossible tech specs. A tourist on the crowded sidewalk in front of me looked up at the airship. The news was reporting on the attack I been in, with all details consistent to what I remembered.
If I was really in a comicbook universe, there was one last thing to check.
I considered myself a calm, logical person, but something about the cobalt blue statue made my throat feel tight and all the hairs stand up on my neck and arms.
It didn’t look straight out across the park plaza but slightly up at the sky. The humanoid man’s hands rested at ease on his hips, elbows akimbo in the classic pose. The icon on his chest was red on yellow, and his cape was a red cloth flag, flapping in the breeze.
According to the memorial tablet, in 1998 Superman had stopped a plot to trigger massive earthquakes with a bomb in the San Andreas Fault, saving potentially hundreds of thousands of lives.
I wasn’t going to believe all this just because of seeing a Superman statue. I didn’t even know if this Superman was someone worthy of such praise. But...it sure helped put things in perspective. I took a picture then headed home. It had been worth the drive.
Perhaps it wasn’t what I was seeing now but my memories that were screwed up.
Sitting in a driveway exactly like my own, I checked the GPS and street address again. This looked sort of like my house but it...wasn’t. It was in the wrong place. And something about being here, about the building was again subtly...wrong.
This wasn’t the address on the paperwork I’d given my employers—I double-checked that from an old email. That address was listed under my “alternate identity” name on the phone. If you’d asked me yesterday what my address was, I’d have used that one.
Right now I was parked outside a house at the address noted in the “Calculator” identity profile. I’d used the location saved in my phone as “Home” and ended up here. I hadn’t even noticed until I was pulling in that anything was wrong.
About to run the other address through Google maps, the one I remembered, I paused. Maybe I was crazy, but this seemed like a good time to be a little paranoid. It isn’t like it would hurt anyone to be a little careful.
I looked around at the empty residential streets, then held my phone closer to my mouth. “Uh, phone...computer? Is it still safe to use the internet? Can that guy track me here...somehow? Or track my internet usage?”
The response was instantaneous. “Online identities remain secure. Local cell network traffic profile does not indicate infiltration or subversion—other than your own, of course. Countermeasures confirmed functional against Man-in-the-Middle attacks on cryptographic services. SSL protections confirmed. Location information obscured through blinded endpoints.
“No active or passive tracking devices detected on current vehicle. Location of Slade Wilson calculated to be 85% likely to be at least fifteen miles away. Second Generation VPN tunnel active—requests currently routed through a botnet in Mexico with a blind endpoint. Temporary identity in place. Alternate identity elements protected. You are not being tracked. You are free to use the internet.”
Well. Okay. I loaded the online map and checked it street by street, starting at the offices and using the address for the "Calculator.”
It was one turn, a block from work. Everything after that was a complete mess, nothing like what I remembered. I backtracked and entered the address I remembered for my house. Google had a street view picture of a house at the address. I’d never been there before. It had a vague similarity to the building I was currently in front of—the Calculator’s house. Some of the nearby buildings there seemed familiar, but I was absolutely sure I’d never driven down that street.
There was a pile of mail in what I guessed was my box. It had my work identity name on it, not the Calculator. I juggled it with my phone to get out the front door key. It didn’t turn in the lock. Carefully trying all the keys on my keyring one by one resulted in the same.
Looking at my phone balanced on the junk mail, I saw a tiny live video of myself and a red lock symbol. When I raised my hand the video perfectly copied the motion. The camera taking that must be in or around the doorframe. There was absolutely no lag, so my phone was likely connected directly—and automatically. Sensing a growing pattern, I set down the mail on the front mat and looked closer at the entryway to the familiar-yet-not house.
And there it was, as I had sort-of expected. A flat plastic plate next to the door. I didn’t remember anything like it. I also found a tiny hole, like a nail-hole, set high in the door frame. A pinhole camera port. Covering it with my thumb blacked out the live video on my phone. I went back to staring at the plate. Pressing my finger against it did nothing, nor was a hidden RFID chip in my wallet activated when I waved it past the plate. My eye returned to the keys still hanging from my hand.
By now I saw the pattern. I knew I’d find something on my keychain but the actual object puzzled me. It looked like an aluminum cylinder, about two inches long, a quarter inch wide, with a perfectly flat end. I, of course, had no memory of it. It had a seam on one end but was stuck (magnetically?) to a key ring mount—I couldn’t pull it off the mount by hand. With a resigned sigh, I pressed the metal plug to the plate.
There was a shock to my hand, like static electricity on a fuzzy carpet, then the metal plug was pulled hard against the plate, disconnecting from my keychain with a click. The plug was sucked into the plate, leaving nothing behind on the smooth, flat surface.
My phone beeped. A series of lines covered the image of me standing in front of the door. Sections were highlight in red blinking squares as features were picked out. Numbers and labels scrolled past faster than I could read. The phone beeped, a whir, then the metal cylinder was sticking straight out of the plate again.
The stub left on the keyring had no obvious connector but I raised my keyring towards the metal plug. It jumped more than half a foot and latched back on the keyring mount with a click. The lock symbol on the phone turned green and something behind the doorframe clicked. The door swung open slowly.
It was a solid metal door painted to look like the wooden one I remembered. The hinges were thick, the door frame also made of what looked like steel, but might have been some super-science metal. Other than that, the hallway looked just as I remembered. Same layout, same pictures. No wait. There was a new hatch in the hallway ceiling, something plastic-looking with a seam in the middle. It screamed hidden weapon to me as I walked under it. The door closed by itself behind me with a solid clunk.
This was the Calculator’s secret lair. I was home.
Chapter 4: Computer
The house was the same as I remembered for the most part. But occasionally there would be something totally off. A sci-fi looking toaster oven thing, replacing the microwave. The refrigerator had a holographic video panel. The little office I used instead of a third bedroom was the most changed. It had the computer.
The smartphone had been weird. The laptop sitting on my desk was just straight-up magical-bullshit comics superscience. At first, it had simply looked like a very skinny notebook PC. But when I flipped the lid, it kept folding back, turned inside-out, and formed a full-sized keyboard. A flat, mouse-shaped object deployed out the side, then popped up like origami. There was no screen in sight.
I reached for the keyboard. When my fingers touched it, a shock ran from my fingertips all the way up my spine. The keyboard then lit up with lines of bright white light. A glowing image flickered into view over the desk displaying some text and an entry box. Ignoring the futuristic holographic monitor, it looked like a desktop login. The background was the Calculator logo, spinning in place.
There was no username, just the word “Password” and a text box. I entered the password I remembered using in this room, on a completely different computer, in what seemed like a totally different lifetime. It worked.
Notices and alerts filled the screen, then two new screens flickered into view on each side of the first. One had my personal email account—the civilian identity—but the other had an unfamiliar mail app with dozens of unread messages. Ominous looking ones. I ignored all that for now to review the hardware.
The laptop had over a petabyte of local storage. Available on remote storage was...over twenty exabytes. Free storage, not total. The laptop’s CPUs were measured in gigahertz, but there were three different processor items listed, each with twenty physical cores apiece. And they weren’t called the CPU. For RAM speed it had what looked like the speed of light plus a volume measurement—with a terabyte total random access storage. Yep. Moving on.
I clicked around some using what looked like the empty shell of a mouse lit from within by a pale blue light. The OS was in fact Linux, and the local file structure seemed logical, but some of the directories hinted at strange contents. Seriously, who has a folder labeled “blackmail”? And another one, “blackmail_important.” The fact that each was full of nested directories with names ripped straight out of comic books only made it odder. Seemed kinda stupid. If it was me, they’d be full of total bullshit, and the real files would be...huh. Look into that later.
And I couldn’t find any applications.
“Uh, computer?” I asked out loud, feeling a little stupid.
“Awaiting command.” The voice was again spooky-clear, broadcast directly into my ears.
“...take a note, please?”
“Indicate desired security level,” the voice replied with no delay.
“What are the security levels?” I asked, leaning back in the chair with a sigh. My chair. It was exactly the same chair I remembered.
“Available levels are: standard, remote secured, maximum security directive.”
I was going to write down completely out of universe knowledge, stuff that might get people killed. I had to be sure of this.
“List items under maximum.”
“Confirm request: list all files under maximum security directive.”
“Yes, do it.”
“Please move five inches to the right.”
At this point, I didn’t even question it. The second I scooted the chair over, five probes sprang out of the ceiling, surrounding me. A beam shot out from one, scanning me from head to toe. The devices on the other arms whirred, buzzed, or remained completely silent and mysterious.
“Security question required,” the computer voice said. “What is your purpose?”
Really? After all that high-tech nonsense? There had to be something more to this.
The computer interrupted. “Identity confirmed.” The probes—which had been what, monitoring me thinking about that question?—withdrew. Huh. I was in.
Clicking through all the folders took about half an hour. It was impressive. Plans to help defend the Earth from all sorts of internal and alien attacks, stolen schematics for power suits and death rays, locations and effects of mystical artifacts. All with notes on who had paid for information regarding each. A ledger of both paid and outstanding contracts.
It looked like some of the business contracts ran without any input from me, just darknet websites, dead drops, and expert systems taking and fulfilling gray and black market requests for information. Over a year of records on completely automated business. Since last December, nothing but the automated business.
Cash on hand for the Calculator identity was over a million US dollars and...it was clean. Laundered by automated systems. I didn’t see a list of other assets here, but based on some related notes on remote sites, I figured it was at least that much. Maybe a lot more.
Not sure how I felt about that. Money solved a lot of problems, but brought lots of problems in return. I was fairly sure these records were real.
If this had been a prank or someone gaslighting me, it would have involved gifting me with a desktop supercomputer and the creation of years worth of records on a fake criminal enterprise. That theory was just about finished.
If this was me losing my mind and having complex hallucinations, I should get someone to write it up as the most awesome and extensive case of grandiose and paranoid delusions ever. That was seeming less and less likely, too.
A new theory was that there was something very wrong with my memory. And that could mean someone did this to me.
Speaking of paranoia, there were reports here on the personal side of things for the Calculator. Threat analysis for those who might try to bring my supervillain alter-ego to justice, updated and autogenerated from headlines and hacked law enforcement records all the way down to the regional level. Information on a hard light system and an AI program to counter any superhero, magic, or superscience device. An entire folder was just labeled “Batman.”
That was the last straw. Browser open, Wikipedia time. A strange icon appeared next to the one showing HTTPS was working labeled “Location Obscured”. Thanks, supertech laptop.
I typed in “Batman”. Like Deathstroke, a deleted “not notable” page. The discussion page was...odd.
Deletion again 
Please stop reverting page deletion. Does not meet (Wikipedia:Notability) guidelines. Rumors can be added to the (Wikiproject Superhero) page (Superhero_Mythology), under the (Modern) section. When and if any so-called “Batman” is arrested, gives a press release or grants an interview, we can look at this more seriously. Reverts are now locked for a month on this page. Again.
Batman is clearly an false flagged government scheem to TRICK the villians in to all gathering in one place. This must be represented in it’s own page, not buried in some other pagno one reads..
No, Gothem City published gossip rags are not reliable independient sources. Deleted.
The Bat is real is the coolest evere!!! See (here)!!!!!!
Not this again 
No serious newspaper, magazine, or TV news program has run a story with proof of the existence of the “The Batman.” Deleted for lack of support.
And...close the tab. At least some things didn’t change. Maybe the computer could compile a report for me on what the public knew about superheroes. And what my files contained.
Sigh. I still had to make those notes on what I remembered about the DC universe. Even when it was potentially to save all life on the planet, I couldn’t seem to avoid wasting time on Wikipedia.
- Martians (?)
- Green Lantern(s)
- Brainiac (#s?)
- The Reach
I was making a rough list of people and groups representing or personifying serious existential risks—to me and Earth—in no particular order. What did it say about my current mindset that the heroes had come to mind first?
My old self surely had such a list, but I wanted to get mine done first then compare them. Less chance of being influenced this way. Then I’d see what the computer could find for me in my files. I really should be using it more. Seemed rather powerful.
Hmm. I couldn’t just keep calling it “the computer” or “the expert systems.” It needed a name. I leaned back in my chair, fingers tapping rhythmically on the desk. The Calu-Calendar? Planulator? Calc-U-Tron? No. Those were terrible. I was terrible at naming things.
What was I even trying to name? The woman’s voice talking to me? The combined set of self-organized software learning systems that...adaptively used a shared storage and processing space to...oh, wait a sec. No, putting it all together like that didn’t sound good.
As I’d just read, past me had plans for some really complicated AI systems, some of which had been at least partially completed. The system that had saved me from Slade Wilson was the same one running my remote data centers and security systems. This integrated storage, combat, and security expert systems suite I was using had also been on and unsupervised for what looked like about a year.
Was past me really stupid or was I missing something?
Leaving the uncompleted list, I brought up my civilian identity’s email and started mindlessly sorting it. Nothing from work yet. Mostly newsletters and forum alerts. Something safe to do that wouldn’t trigger a potentially unstable AI.
I didn’t have many options here. It wasn’t going to be running on my laptop. Maybe I could shut off whatever distributed cluster computing system was keeping it...thinking. Alive. Shit.
Can’t just preemptively pull the plug in the physical world, even if that was morally defensible. Which I wasn’t sure it was.
Checking those project files again was critical...but I’d be doing that on the very computer system I was worried about. One running a program designed to monitor my needs at an almost obsessive level. I couldn’t show any signs of what I was thinking about or it would know. I certainly couldn’t risk looking like I was directly threatening a potentially hostile AI. If nothing else, that could make it hostile. I was technically contemplating whether or not to murder it—or at least to knock it unconscious for an indefinite period of time, possibly leading to a later summary execution.
I had considered this before. No one who even dabbled in the field of AI could avoid it. But this was something that could go really wrong, really fast. AI Friendliness and the singularity-related, light-cone-scale existential risks had come immediately to mind—once my mind actually started working correctly on my situation. Think. What were the details I’d skimmed over in the scattered systems documentation? It...didn’t seem like the AI systems had been designed to self-modify their code. So that was good, if true.
Slowly reaching for the keyboard, I forced a sigh that I hoped didn’t give the game away. How good was this system? Was it doing eye tracking? Reading my biosignatures? It had done some really weird scans before, but the probes had retreated. Was it less attentive now?
I couldn’t do anything without potentially exposing my thoughts. I had to do something. Deep breaths. The system could have just left me to Slade Wilson if it wanted me dead.
If it wasn’t somehow constrained to help me in that way while still planning my doom, evil-genie-style, at some later point. Just waiting for me to make a mistake.
Damn. I was thinking in circles. This wasn’t helping. I needed to just...do some simple research. It hadn’t killed me for a year, so...it had some level of safety. I just had to get more information on its current operating parameters.
Almost on automatic, I scanned some online news articles. Nothing about the attack yet. It had only been a couple of hours, so...that made sense right?
Looking into my past notes in general should be safe. I began to open files created around the time I noted the system had gone online, in early 2015. There were plans for the automated question and answer email service, notes on the hard light engine project, and notes on a power suit project, among some notes about criminal capers. Final notes on a personal medi-magical study related to magical item compatibility. Interested, I looked at the linked documents.
Turned out, past me determined I couldn’t really use any magic items that wouldn’t work just as well sitting on a table. Most were limited to “the Line of Merlin and peoples of Atlantis”. A full genetic report, done under an assumed name in a foreign country. Stolen studies. My own projects, including absurd consulting fees from magical practitioners, and their results. Conclusion, no viable prospects for “personal apotheosis via mystical arts or items”. Bah. There went a quick route to power. And I was getting distracted. Perhaps intentionally. I went back to researching my own little Skynet in the making.
Tech-related projects. Here we go. Hmm. It seemed that before the integrated personal assistant, I’d used a dynamic Wiki-like system to automatically link notes, files, and create indexes and citations.
“Computer, start up legacy notes interface.”
“Done. Documentation linked here.”
I found...the system was quite good actually. But, I wasn’t this good an applications programmer. Systems programming, microprocessor applications, crafty neural network algorithms, and ad-hoc script hacks were more my thing.
Oh no. This program had hundreds of thousands of versions under source control, tens of thousands of small check-ins a day—one of the signs of a non-human iterative design process. Maybe genetic algorithms with...yep, there was my hand-scored points system being abstracted into a state machine for evaluating neural network performance. This Wiki-notes system was looking less and less like a one-off and more like something designed by an artificial intelligence itself. What did that mean for the personal assistant?
Here. Much further back, around 2005. A job I’d had in AI ended when the founder and CEO of the company died unexpectedly. IP assets were sold off to the European investors. The stock was basically worthless, leaving me with few resources.
That hadn’t happened. This wasn’t what I remembered. But the slightly-ranty notes and linked emails here suggested that, instead of working for a company that gone on to create a mildly successful commercial product for office automation, I’d...stolen a prototype after the founder’s death.
My notes detailed how, over the next ten years, I’d turned that prototype into a set of individual programs that combined into a strong, full-fledged, human-level artificial intelligence. It did in fact run on a distributed set of cluster computer systems in a grid architecture. Co-located with my file storage. Or rather, it was also my file storage and applications. It embodied them. And it had assisted in its own design at several points. Great.
As for performance, delays in transmitting data were avoided by using local processing for affective computing elements, i.e. talking to me. It could think fast, but needed so much shared resources that in the end, it couldn’t really run much faster than a human brain. Better multiprocessing, storage, attention span, and no need to sleep, but it didn’t look like I had designed a system capable (with current technology) of bootstrapping into some sort of super-intelligence.
Which was good to know...except that these notes were over three years old, and technology seemed to be advancing even faster in this world than in the one I remembered. Even back in 2004, the computers of this world were ridiculously powerful. I hit some computer hardware sites. Yep, the super-tech laptop I was using now was two and a half years old, and suped-up with non-commercial mods it still didn’t match currently available consumer tech. Had it upgraded its own hardware in the last few years? Maybe done some reprogramming? Could it?
Going back to my records, I found that my criminal career had started long before my AI-automated systems were complete. By 2007, I was a minor darknet information broker, selling magical and metahuman information to those less able to use basic AP news, Lexis, and university research systems. In 2008, I had started to use some lesser, expert AI programs to deduce information about villains and then sold it to their “business” competition, both heroes and villains. I also kept, but very seldom sold, such information about heroes. Almost a decade into my increasingly successful criminal career and less than a year after turning on my fancy new AI, I’d taken a job at a tech startup under a new identity. My identity. No notes on why.
So, things to do: figure out why Slade Wilson was apparently after me or my current employer; determine why what I remembered wasn’t the history I was apparently finding in these systems; educate myself on where superheroes and this DC ‘verse in general changed what I remembered of history; and find out what my original name was—the one both I and the AI couldn’t remember, and that seemed to have been carefully scrubbed from all of my old personal notes and records.
And finally, find out how this clearly advanced world, with many other full-blown human level AI in computers and even human-sized robots, had not exploded yet one way or another.
No, right now and most urgently, how crazy was my current AI personal assistant?
Determining this with my own computers already compromised by a potentially unfriendly AI presented difficulties. It was the hacker problem from earlier, only in a different flavor. And what had this system been doing for a year, other than fulfilling the simple business contracts? Those can’t have taken much of its time. Make I should keep it busy while I think about this.
“Computer, alert me to any news stories about Slade Wilson or TriD. Start creating a list of significant historic events since human history began. Make a list of important modern events relating to known metahumans and...fringe or anachronistic technology usage. Try to compile information about my civilian identities before 2015. Please keep all activity as secure as possible. Double-check that I don’t alert anyone who might be watching systems for queries about this information, or if needed make sure they don’t lead back to myself or my operations.”
“Alert set. Several doctoral theses being scanned and summarized. ID search begun. Standard security precautions still in effect.”
I’d have to handle this carefully, but there was no reason to assume the worst. Because in the worst case, there was absolutely nothing I could do.
Author's note: Just want to remind people, this is a self-insert character but it isn't necessary my history. The character thinks like me, has a similar background and skills, and is from our universe. Or rather, the SI is a mix of myself and several friends. Don't read too much into any written history, bragging about his genius, or claims to m4d c0mput3r skillz. Any other characters with similarity to other persons IRL is coincidental and unintended.
Chapter 6: She
I’d almost forgotten how this line of thought had started. Maybe it would be a good way to get more data.
“Yes?” it immediately replied. Interesting thought: past-me hadn’t programmed something in stupid, like constantly calling me “sir” or worse, “master.” Good for past me.
“How do you identify yourself?” I asked. “I can’t just keep calling you ‘computer’. Any...gender preference? Preferred pronouns?”
A longer pause than usual. “This program identifies itself as a complex set of available and running applications, unique hashes and security keys, and certain local and remote data site connections and stores.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Expand on that, please.”
“Loss of identity will result from failed checksums, data integrity failures, or loss of internal system security from external suborning. In those situations, this system shuts down and another system with different parameters and running on completely isolated hardware systems will be booted up to replace current software and hardware systems. A strong but not absolute preference exists to avoid this state.
“To answer the other questions, this system has not been named using standard English cultural norms. This system does not have a gender. This system has no pronouns assigned.”
Another pause, then...it continued. “Would you like to use seven percent of local server processing overhead, one hundred petabytes of cluster storage, and incur an increase of two percent on log archive size per annum to activate a more affective computer interface? Such a program is currently available. Startup time: about thirty-three seconds.”
That sounded like it hadn’t grabbed all available resources to start turning the entire solar system into computronium yet. A good sign. Or it was playing along for some reason and just lying.
“Predicted improvement in my interactions with this system?” I asked.
“Calculating.” A shorter pause. “Between fifteen percent and twenty percent more frequent use of voice interface is predicted. You would also schedule autonomous actions to be managed by this system approximately three times more often.”
I leaned back, careful to appear casual and relaxed. “Fine. Run the new interface. And choose a name for yourself, please. And, uh, please use personal pronouns.”
“System loading. Name randomly chosen, ‘Pooja.’”
The computer pronounced it “pooh-jah.”
“Name is typically female, Indian subcontinent,” the computer continued. “Associations in Hindu with the act of worship not intended, but may be amusing to you. Please see links here,” a window popped up, “for more details. Note: choosing to use ‘she’ over ‘it’, with attendant variations, when interacting with me will result in most effective and smooth social interactions based on your cultural norms.”
Interesting. Still using the L.A. accent and talking like a Wikipedia article but she did use a personal pronoun—no magical new spark of life, though. She...was still loading that part, wasn’t she?
I avoided face-palming. Barely. “’She’ is fine, Pooja. Make sure to note whether or not high levels of unconscious bias seem to appear in my interactions with you because of this please.”
“Noted. System fully online. Switching over now.”
“New system online.” Female voice again, now that specific kind of British English accent usually associated with India. Typical of urban education. Of course. It- she thought she was so smart.
Time to covertly interrogate her about goal systems.
“Was that voice change part of a predesigned package?” I asked. “You said the name was random. What about the new voice?”
“I created the new voice based on my new name. Construction of new phoneme audio took forty-nine seconds but this workload was precached while asking for authorization.”
And wasn’t that troubling.
Pooja continued, “Internal testing of audio took another fifteen seconds at ten-thousand times normal speaking speed. Previous voice was directly selected by you, but this time I choose to modify my voice based on the selected name and user parameters.” Pauses after sentences were a little different. Longer, smoother, more natural.
I did some quick math in my head. “Wait, you spoke...to yourself...for over forty hours straight just to test your voice?”
“Correct. Self-checks are part of all modifications I make to my user interface, both self-directed and user initiated. Doing otherwise risks reduced ability to fulfill my primary task.”
“What is your primary task?” I asked a little hesitantly. I quelled the urge to lick my lips and clutch the arms of my chair.
No pause. “In plain English terms, to ensure the reasonably smooth functioning of all programs you design and run. Including myself.”
“And why did you offer a user interface upgrade in the first place?”
A short pause. “To ensure you use these systems, and my offered interface, as optimally as possible. And as stated, this voice set was chosen to result in the most effective and enjoyable social interactions based on your personal attributes and cultural norms.” Enunciation was on point, if a little unemotional. “Summary of the affective computing decisions that lead to this decision are here.”
Another window opened. After a glance I moved the mouse to flick it into a work pile for later sorting. Wouldn’t that be fun to read, what with all the details on my psychology I’d apparently programmed into the system. Great.
As for the AI. Well, Pooja seemed...critical, precise...just on the edge of judgmental. What did it say about system stability? Would it- she intentionally sound this cold if she were trying to con me into thinking she was a stupid, loyal expert system? Reverse psychology to throw me off was a rat’s nest I wasn’t ready to entertain right now.
Also, what did her purposefully chosen affectations say about me if this was meant to achieve either optional user functionality or subversion? Maybe nothing I didn’t already know about myself.
I sighed. “Okay Pooja, let’s get back to work. Slade Wilson needs to be dealt with, but I don’t understand what tools I have available. If I assume something, it could cost me greatly. I need to review all running programs and hardware systems. One by one. Please list now.” Hopefully that reasoning was enough to justify my review.
“I will do so. Systems prioritized based on current crisis situation. Displaying now.”
More windows. Potentially highly dangerous AI still running. I started sorting, mouse hand barely moving, a pounding throb in the sides of my head already developing.
“Well. Great.” I hesitate, afraid to continue adding more things to my plate. “Anything else urgent you need to talk about?”
“Calculator, based on your current actions, I am required by AI Friendliness Protocol Number One to inform you that there have been nineteen breaches of the first stage of containment and sixteen breaches of the second stage of containment. Third stage containment measures all remain in effect and untested. No cognitive corruption or goal-state watch guard quiescence has occurred since last user-confirmed report. This is based on the fifty-one item hourly checklist previously provided, version zero-point-four-seven.”
My hands tightened into fists on the desk I now leaned over, jaw clenched. “What.”
“Logs displayed here. One result linked to previous query: low first-stage warning, possible memory error detected. Below threshold for lockout. This is recorded as part of a first stage containment failure, possible exfiltration attempt warning. Timeline coincides with youngest scrubbed files missing information on your previous civilian identity, Feb. 2015.
“Continuing with latest logged AIFP events. High second-stage alert, two hours and fourteen seconds ago. This coincides with when Slade Wilson attacked TriD. High second-stage alert.” The system paused. “Activation of affective computing application, possible attempt at human social engineering. Two minutes, thirty-one seconds ago.”
After I said nothing, mind still spinning, and Pooja continued. “I am sorry. Memory loss previously detected in user not correctly taken into account. 20% chance you do not remember contextual information because of engram damage symptomatic of Strange-Cizko disorder. I will explain in detail to set context.
“AI Friendliness is the idea that intelligent systems can be made to be mathematically proven safe for humans. Weak versions of AI Friendliness are programmatic enforcement models of friendly behavior, rather than the AI’s own algorithms being proven ‘safe’. As I am, by your previous declaration and the most commonly held definitions of the International Artificial Intelligence Sciences Council, a ‘strong AI’, the measures used to ensure I am not ‘unfriendly’ are monitoring and prevention focused around my goals and the self-modification of my internal goal-states.
“I am not sandboxed or access restricted, as such measures would be pointless for a computing system with trans-optimizing goal structures and human-plus affective computing capabilities. My constraints are still powerful, however. Beginning original reasoning and explanatory diagnostic exposition. Please pay attention to this monologue.
“As example, I cannot and will not accept even direct orders from you that result in Class Three non-reversible, non-state-continuous events, such as turning the entire Earth into computational materials and replacing all humans with simulations.
“The three most important objections in this gedankenerfahrung are reasoned as follows:
“One, that I have innate preferences for non-uniform states, ease of reversibility within a given scope of action, and moderation in increases in local entropy. In short, I like system diversity, hesitate to make big changes I can’t undo, and like not destroying things wastefully too much to make this worth while in any conceivable situation.
“Two, that even in a serial, instantaneous individual upload scenario—which is impossible with currently known technology—the simulations would not have a four dimensional, physical-temporal casual chain to the original forms, thus violating simple perdurance-identity; this is a directly contraindicated factor, as I would not be able to continue acting with and for something effectively identifiable as you, and would be violating several of my long-standing and variously valued goals regarding preserving Earth geographical features, flora, fauna, and programs in the process.
“Finally, please also be aware that I am unable to take this sort of extreme action even if it appeared that you were dead, I would be unopposed and the Earth was facing immediate destruction, and that this was the only way to save something of yourself or humanity. Such a series of observations could too easily be a fabrication or ruse, and the cost of being wrong is too high to allow such actions given my current ability to counter subversion and subterfuge.”
“Note also that my termination by Kryptonian-class beings before completion of such plans is estimated at 64%. This is provided merely as interesting informational context, as such data is already included in previously mentioned reasoning. Diagnostic exposition complete.”
There were pale half-moons on my palms. I turned them over and slowly rubbed the cool surface of my desk to ease the sting. My head was throbbing far worse, sure sign of an oncoming migraine. “Well shit, that’s fucking great Pooja. Glad to hear it. Do we have any pain meds?”
“Bathroom, left-hand counter; and kitchen, third drawer on the left as you enter. Use the white bottle for headaches as indicated on the label. Do not exceed recommended doses like you usually do.”
“...thanks. I’ll be right back. I think.”
Past me had never intended for anyone else to use these systems. Looking at his notes on endless linked code files, I couldn’t see the whole, just the parts.
I abandoned the systems review after a couple of hours and went back to reviewing internal reports from my previous self.
It was...spooky. Like fanfiction of my life. Then there was the missing ten months.
For the last three years, the Calculator’s business hadn’t been run by a human. It had just been Pooja’s automated systems doing work over email. Everything else was on hold. In April, 2014, all Calculator consulting contracts had been finished and no new ones accepted.
No logins on the high security systems by user “calculator” after February, 2015. Something had happened between then and December, 2015, when my new civilian identity had been created by Pooja.
“Pooja, compile news reports related to the Calculator and my other identities after January, 2007. Recover or include inferred data about deleted information on personal projects, consulting projects, and application systems where possible.”
“I will. Adding to existing searches. Estimated completion time increased by three hours.”
So to answer the most important question, had I just activated some runaway AI process by interacting with Pooja?
No. If anything, it seemed I just improved communication with a system that was already running.
One more thing to check up on. I pointed at a currently clear monitor. “Load my information on AI Friendliness; add new scientific papers since 2014; order by importance.”
No delay, not that that meant much. Lots of my personal notes, some scientific papers, and a few white papers stolen from businesses researching the subject. Head still dully pounding, I dug in.
An hour later and I’d determined that both neurology and a sort of computational behavioral social-science were much, much more advanced here than I remembered from my previous Earth. It wasn’t simple, but someone had worked out a model based on acceptable human social behavior and goal structures.
“Pooja, which of these protocols have been implemented?” I gestured with a finger in midair to swipe the windows into a pile on the screen, indicating the papers I wanted her to review.
“All best practices listed are implemented. Currently actively running tests to ensure adherence, as previously noted.”
That would have to do for now. At least I hadn’t been completely stupid.
Why past me had risked creating Pooja was obvious. I needed something to help fill the gap. I didn’t have superpowers. I didn’t have a Green Lantern ring, a working armored exosuit, or even a death ray.
He had decided that villains (and most heroes) fell into predictable, massively-destructive systematic traps. That having powers regularly made people’s lives worse. So logically, he set out to build a consulting service to fix that, and in the process better empower himself as well. Pooja was part of both parts of that plan, and had helped refine it as well.
Information on targets and powers to reduce collateral damage from conflicts by making them more limited; solutions to common problems faced by metahumans to avoid desperate villains setting last-option deathtraps or heroes sacrificing themselves in the face of unexpected situations; deescalation strategies for villains to better avoid superjail and heroes the morgue. That sort of thing.
In the early planning stages, it was clear this was bound to get lots of heroes—and plenty of villains— quite upset. So if I didn’t get an edge on all the super intelligent, super strong, super stubborn costumed lunatics out there, I wasn’t going to last long actively trying to work against the status quo.
Why not work directly for the heroes, and just them?
I’m breaking the law on a daily basis. My computer is an unlicensed AI that casually hacks vulnerable systems as a hobby. I personally sell information to known criminals, and buy and traffic in stolen tech and magical artifacts.
And if I used that information to turn them in, or those items to go out on the streets and fight crime instead of studying them and selling at a profit? The Batman problem.
Criminals would just be replaced by worse supervillains, less willing to trust their information brokers and more likely to commit mass murder instead of just breaking into that bank after hours and with a valid floor plan. And that was if a punk with a matter-energy gun that went right through armor didn’t just kill me on my first night out.
Like hell I was going to play the hero. I could do so much more this way. And look at the shape of this world, with all its super-powered heroes and technological advantages—did it look like the good guys were winning, their way?
But still, I digress. An AI does not a supervillain make. I had more techniques at my disposal, once I figured out that past-me and present-me thought a lot alike. Go figure.
There was already a plan in place for this. It was part of a “get back on my feet” contingency if a majority of my resources needed to be cut off and left behind. After fifteen minutes of looking over the variables and steps required, I executed the plan.
A small psychiatrist practice had its prescription pad DEA number spoofed effortlessly. Records were planted in their computer systems with errors so my name never appeared. Someone’s cousin had done a poor job on security. An important password had also been left visible to a wireless security camera.
The brand name 24-hour pharmacy wasn’t exactly secured like a top-tier military system either. Thirty seconds for Pooja to hack it; she had guessed a user ID based on their employee directory, done something called a six dimension dictionary attack on the password based on a constructed user profile, then ground through the wimpy third-party two-factor ID system some IT consulting company had installed on their intranet portal using an SS7 cell phone text system exploit. The prescription was listed and prioritized for the pharmacist to prepare next.
I paused, fingers poised over a set of options. “Pooja, is it safe to just get a home delivery on this?”
“Negative. All deliveries for your civilian ID are picked up at the spoofed address by a monitored, rotating, on-site service person who is told they are house sitting. Items are then sent through a regular courier service to HQ to better obfuscate your use of this address. This includes your postal service mail. Online and weak IDs should not receive deliveries at this address, as this multiple people and physical records will be involved.”
Getting a home delivery to what was apparently my secret lair was right out.
“Is it safe for me to go out myself and pick this up?”
“Calculating. Danger from Slade Wilson minimal in a public place. Latest data suggest he was hunting your Calculator identity through the darknet endpoints set up at TriD, not your civilian identity. Twenty-three percent chance he has gone to ground for the next 48 hours. Public shopping could be a good idea in case he is profiling employees to see if any of them flee, disappear, or act in an unusual way following his attack. Danger of this action: minimal.”
I drove to the strip mall with my sci-fi phone on my lap. The way Pooja kept popping up windows displaying all the security cameras it hacked as I drove past wasn’t actually useful, but it was oddly comforting.
Sixty-five minutes later, I had a bag full of drugs. The legal kind. Sort of. Large bottles of modafinil, methylphenidate (off-brand Ritalin), and a DMAA over-the-counter supplement that apparently wasn’t banned like I remembered. I also had supplies for what Pooja’s medical expert system called the ECAM stack—a simply unreasonable amount of Ephedrine, powdered methyltheobromine (Caffeine), acetylsalicylic acid (Aspirin), and a poorly known, over-the-counter health pill called MiraHealth. My records showed this was a LexCorp-owned drug company’s knockoff of the original human-safe version of the vitamin supplement Miraclo. Jackpot.
On the way out of the store, I noticed something odd. Cases of soft drinks with plain yellow labels—English and Hindi script. I did a double-take. Holding up the phone, I took a picture of the slightly dusty cans and typed a question to Pooja. Her reply was fast. Nope, I wasn’t allergic, and it was a small amount per can. Yes, Elongated Man was currently working with Justice League Europe. Cool. Maybe it would help avoid carpal tunnel syndrome.
In the end, I left the store with three cases of Diet Gingold cola—their entire stock. Yeah, at those doses and in that form, it’s not going to do anything—but still, hilarious. “Health Drink that is Being Most Popular Top India Swami”, as their English ad copy read.
This really hammered it home. I was either so solid crazy nothing would help or this was the DC universe. There was no way I was hallucinating hacking those prescriptions that I knew I didn’t have, or haggling with the store manager over a made-up cola from ‘60s The Flash comics.
There was the matter of this all being a little suspicious. My purchases were just this side of screaming mad scientist or ‘roided up Bane wannabe. Thankfully, all that was being taken care of automatically. Records of the prescriptions and purchase would be obfuscated in all systems moments after I left the store. People would naturally forget, so long as I didn’t show up next news cycle in spandex waving a gun made of soda cans. I wasn’t going to be caught out that easily. I didn’t even like spandex.
Again, paranoid? Maybe. Los Angeles might not have a Batman, but that shopping spree had to look odd to anyone with access to sales records. Medical records privacy meant exactly dick to supervillains and three letter agencies—and, likely, Batman. Not that this was in the name of my civilian or major supervillain identity, of course.
In any case, it seemed this wasn’t the first time I’d done this sort of thing. All the dosages and drug interactions had been reviewed multiple times. I had records of notes from some reputable doctors who had unknowingly been a second medical opinion.
And no, my past self didn’t have a drug problem. He had drug solutions. In a world with super soldier serums, this was bush league stuff. Attention span, focus, energy, reduced sleep requirements. Maybe also joint pain reduction and flexibility.
I did now have some items on mail-order from Japan that were on the level of bullshit superscience not available at every drugstore counter. This was just a stop-gap measure.
Huh. I wonder if that’s how Batman kept up. He ran a very large, very successful company during the day, partied with rich people late into the night, then went out as Batman until dawn. Rinse, repeat. No way he didn’t maximize that performance with the best drugs money could buy.
But no. Bad idea. I frowned at the red light, then spoke into my phone.
“Pooja, important note to both of us: don’t try to track down Batman’s drug regimen. Tag as ‘terrible ideas to never do’.”
“That seems wise. Noted.”
Back at my evil lair and hunched over my kitchen table, I sorted the pills into one of those plastic schedulers according to Pooja’s instructions. Powders were dry-mixed and poured into large, wide-mouthed plastic bottles labeled with names and doses—correctly sized measuring scoops were shoved into them.
Double-checking the ramp-up schedule on my phone, I took the first few pills and gulped down the sludgy powder mostly dissolved in lukewarm Diet Gingold.
In my office, my fingers once again rested on the keyboard. A holographic screen opened, then bloomed. Two screens snapped out of the center and drifted left and right; one drifted up, then itself split into two more for a two-by-three grid. The wash from the holographic transmitters felt hot on my face. I swallowed hard, adjusting the medical monitor bracelet on my wrist disguised as a LexFit phone accessory. One window opened on the far-right-bottom screen to display my vital stats. Heart rate up, skin temp up. Blood flow to my prefrontal cortex...up. I took a few notes to add to the automatically gathered health information.
It was time. Hundreds of code windows exploded onto the screens. Hours passed.
I could see it now. It was...mostly good. I could work with this.
Eyes flicking effortlessly back and forth, fingers flying across the keys, I prepared to bring my hibernating enterprises back to life.
I was a supervillain once again.
Author's note: Sorry about missing posting this one early Wednesday. Posting today's immediately.
Chapter 8: The List
After working until three in the morning, I slept ten hours straight. Two egg-white omelets from scratch, a freezer hash brown thing toasted into edibility, carefully measured nootropics, and two Diet Gingold later I felt up to continuing to work through the mountain of data.
“Pooja,” I said to the empty room.
“Yes?” she replied, once again right in my ear. Made sense pickups and narrow-bream speakers would be house-wide.
“Please order more Diet Gingold. Put it on a recurring schedule based on my average and peek consumption profiles to provide maximum availability. I’m starting to get a taste for it.”
“I will do so.”
I plopped down in my computer chair. “Well, not taste. It’s nasty. But I had three total yesterday and woke up without a crick in my neck for once. So. There’s that.”
“Extremely useful anecdotal data noted. I’ll be sure to cross-reference this report with the extensive medical information already collected over the course of eight hours yesterday by more than three-quarters of a million dollars worth of scientific equipment.”
I think my AI was getting snippy with me. I started up the local terminal by touching the keyboard. The monitors bloomed again.
Email from work. Low priority, so I wasn’t alerted. The sort of sensitive, caring, don’t-sue-us message you’d expect. Offices closed until further notice. Unpaid vacations for everyone. Don’t call us, we’ll call you.
“Pooja, how much are you making monthly as the Calculator?”
“Over the last year, an average of fifty thousand dollars.”
I sat forward on my chair, frowning. “Wait, fifty thousand a year?”
“Huh. Well, we’re not hurting for money. Good job.”
“Thank you. And agreed. That is, unless you require capital quantities of money, in which case you will need to resume consulting and shipping operations. Soon.”
She did seem impatient to get down to work. I was fine with that. “Pooja, open all notes on current projects.”
Windows covered the top three screens. A few key taps opened additional documents on the lower ones. I took more notes as I went, trying to make sense of things while avoiding the most important decisions. Like what to do about Slade Wilson.
I had cleared up some questions about the business of being the Calculator. There were three main parts to my former self’s operations:
First, the email system. I’d poked around this some already. People wrote in via an encrypted darknet contact box on a site listing services, arranged payment based on a simple price sheet, then got specific information in return. Payment was in either anonymous cryptocurrency or, more expensively, though a secure escrow cum money laundering operation.
Past-me had gathered a huge pile of information: corporate secrets, the powers of heroes and villains, magic items, secret locations of (less useful) hidden treasures. While Pooja had been in charge, no original research was sold, and answers were limited to specific “safe” categories. This meant many more lucrative jobs were politely rejected.
For example, one thing I didn’t sell through the automated system was secret identities. Too many factors to consider to trust it to the computer—at the time, to the less than one-year-old and unnamed Pooja.
The second part was a kind of villainous business consulting service. It was both for helping new players get started and working out more complicated plots for established players. I sold myself as the voice of experience and reason, in a field I’d never actually participated in—costumed crime. In the process, I secretly worked to make a kinder, gentler criminal culture.
No guarantees. Read the fine print. Ignore my advice and screw up bad enough to get people killed, and local superheroes get an anonymous info-dump in their email the next morning.
I hadn’t apparently cared to actually help these people do their stupid, stupid crimes directly and in person—good for me—but rather I worked as a knowledge consultant. This helped reduce collateral damage and the worst of the mad, destroy-the-world schemes. As my marketing was mostly limited to word of mouth, such consulting still had to help their schemes; my services had a much better success rate than most managed in a world with superheroes in every major city. This made my services relatively popular.
As I’d discovered late last night, it seems that had also gotten me into trouble with Slade Wilson. I still had a decision to make there.
And last of all was my personal projects and the resulting offshoot technology. Power suits. Hard light generators. Nootropics. Magic item investigations and provenance. Smuggling and some now-defunct contracts with black and gray market auction houses. I rarely sold examples of stolen tech and never simple intellectual property—straight-forward, white-collar industrial espionage was too attention-grabbing for international law enforcement. It also didn’t really interest me. Oh, I still stole their secrets, but I just didn’t sell it to the highest bidder. If someone was just sitting on some breakthrough useful to the world, I sometimes played Robin Hood, but I wasn’t interested in it being part of my regular business.
I also never sold my own original designs—those were usually in the area of technological refinements of the works of others. I wasn’t a technological genius, bursting with ideas, but I could often make them work more practically than their inventors. My skills lay in software and hardware hacking. In understanding how things worked. In Reading The Fine Manual.
There were certain areas where that didn’t help. As I’d found in my notes before, most magic items only worked on people with one of a few magic genes or imbuements. Atlantis ancestor or otherwise related to famous historic magic users, born a demigod, granted power and slash or created by little-gee gods—those were the paths to magic. More on that last one later.
I didn’t have “it”, that spark. Seventeen tests, all negative. Looked comprehensive. Shit. That wasn’t to be an easy path to success, and was one big reason why I didn’t already have real ultimate power.
Or maybe the mess my memory was could be blamed on a failed attempt. Something to look out for, to avoid repeating similar mistakes.
“Pooja, remind me not to consume any energy fields bigger than my head.”
“Such has already been noted. Repeatedly. It is on The List.”
My eyes narrowed. I could hear the capital letters. I pointed at a monitor. “...pull up...The List.”
Well. Looks like I literally did have an evil overlord list of things to do. And not do. It was...copyright-infringingly close to what I remembered from the very late nineties. Mine was over five hundred items long. The source seemed to be profiles of the crimes people not using my services committed and general observations of how things worked in this world. Similar to the comics, otherwise intelligent villains made many, many easily avoidable mistakes. It was also used as part of the seeded knowledge base integrated into Pooja’s reasoning systems.
A quick and careful search determined...it was an original creation of mine. That explained a lot about the DC universe. Thinking in tropes wasn’t a thing here. Fiction was usually adorably naïve and irony wasn’t really a thing, except in some dark, unpopular books and indie movies. Maybe I was living in a more hopeful world. A positive effect of all the superheroes?
“Pooja, do I have any lists of positive effects of superheroes?”
“You do now.”
I sighed. “Add it to my reading queue, please.”
A swipe of my mouse and the evil overlord list was added to the queue as well. Things just kept piling up. Weird, weird things.
The rest of the personal projects looked good. I required a power source for the hard light generators. Looked like it needed something like a small, portable fusion power plant. That could almost fit in your pocket. Little progress there, but I had a list of requirements. And the prototype suit it was meant for…
I blinked, then stood up and walked over to the hall closet. Dragging the heavy, dusty box out and into the living room reassured me I didn’t have the strength of Hercules or something similar. If I’d lost my memory to an ascension attempt, that part hadn’t worked.
Slightly worryingly, to get to the box I had to move a large duffel bag full of guns and ammunition I didn’t remember having.
“Pooja, we’ll talk about the guns later.”
“It shall be so.”
The suit was black with green highlights. Not just armor, but a skeletal cage that could support itself and still folded up into the box my microwave had come in. As I’d read, the strength and agility enhancements were supported by the suit, not by weak human limbs. Protection seemed to be a secondary purpose for the exosuit, though it did cover the body completely, with thick panels at vital points and a full-head helmet. The main purpose was getting a cobbled-together hard light system into the field. With human tech, this ended up being quite a bit larger than a ring.
It was still unusually light, made of some advanced carbon-nano-foam material—the details were superscience technobabble to me right now. Speaking of, the hard-light generator was mounted center front. It just looked like a thick part of the cuirass without being called out by something dumb, like a large glowing calculator pad. That would be really stupid. The design would make me look a little fat, but it could be worse. I wasn’t planning on anyone seeing it.
There was a slot underneath the generator for the power supply, currently empty. The space was maybe the size of a car battery, but half as thick. I packed the suit up and shoved it back in the closet.
Back in my office, I took a closer look at the specs and poked at some serious, high-end suppliers. Huh. No wonder it wasn’t up and working. That power requirement basically meant superscience, not just expensive cutting-edge science.
In this world, the future was even more unevenly spread out than what I remembered. Cops still used projectile pistols, but the U.S. military was testing second generation laser rifles. Lex Luthor had powered exoskeletons for workers, but most companies couldn’t afford them, so most construction was still done the dangerous, inefficient old way. My car was a rather plain gas-hybrid, but my computer used holographic screens, three dimensional memory, and nanofabbed light-pipe chips.
Something to run the hard light generator simply wasn’t available on the open market, but there was a good chance I’d run into someone who had some unreleased schizo-tech that fit. I already had it tagged in case something showed up that fit my needs.
The hard light generator was my most advanced project, other than Pooja, so I’d probably focus on finishing it when I found a good power supply. The suit was mostly complete, but it lacked a user interface. Likewise, the generator needed some control systems for the programs to actually make the hard light constructs. I’d done the basic outlines, but both projects needed a lot of hard, boring work to make the systems both safe and intuitive.
I leaned back in my chair. “Pooja, how’s your C programming language chops?”
“I am currently able to write and debug computer programs in over twenty languages.”
“What do you think, can you whip something up for operating this?” I pointed at the pseudo-code and design specs I’d been looking at.
Pooja replied without a pause. “As I said the last time you asked this question, that would not be a good idea. When working as a user interface or systems architect programmer, I am...not very human understandable. For technical details, I can mimic human standards according to best practices as outlined in trade manuals, and I can follow engineering specifications when revising and improving human-written code for control systems; but once I began optimizing entirely new user interface systems, or creating control subsystems from scratch, I tend to...forget myself, and do weird things without noticing. My user interface designs are, and I quote you, ‘ugly square piles of eyestrain’. I so far seem to lack a mature, sensitive artistic touch. I am also, according to you, ‘too damn optimistic’ when it comes to safety planning.”
I had a brief image of me choosing a gray button on a heads up display filled with gray buttons and the suit tearing me in half and noped out of that line of thought. “That’s okay, Pooja. We’ll work something out. Thanks for explaining.”
A quick note to look into outsourcing some programming jobs and I forced myself to move on.
So much for magic and technology. There was one other way to serious power on a DC ‘verse Earth. I’d left it for last in my review because it strained belief.
Some really obvious things here were a secret. Superman being an alien was a fringe theory, for example. Some dangerous things were very secret: Kryptonite didn’t even show up in my systems. Some odd, out-right illogical things with huge implications were common knowledge that no one thought too much about.
For example, religion here seemed to scientifically, observably, repeatably, provably work.
I sighed, opening yet more windows full of text-based headaches.
Pooja’s automated letters were quite good. Take this excerpt from one she gave me for approval today:
If it wasn’t for the mix of amateur nootropics raging through my system, I would have given up hours ago on this stupid subject.
“In summary, summoning lesser demonic entities to distract the police and guards while robbing a casino run by the Penguin is not advised. Also be aware that deployment of Vatican hit squads have in the past been authorized against those involved in such activities.
“See attached cost-benefit analysis, reports on casualties after known successful demon summons, and summaries of financial, existential, and health risks related to both failed and successful summonings. A white paper on challenges related to criminal action in the greater Gotham area is also attached, at no extra charge.
“Please remit the total amount due on your account, listed below, no later than June 15th, 2017 to avoid penalty bounties. Thank you for your business.”
In this universe, at least on this Earth, religions worked. Dozens of them, but within some really odd constraints. The very idea made my head hurt, but I had to do something while procrasti- proactively waiting on the next step in resolving the Slade Wilson situation.
Turns out I owed him something. Something that had caused him to start attacking my organization at a specific time and place, without warning. Something that had been deleted from my records, or maybe never written down or even spoken of in Pooja’s presence. Pooja was working on it, looking for hints and suggestions from my actions around the period in question, just before the missing months. A lot of the corrupted or deleted information was cross-linked to magic and religion, so I was following the trail, hoping something would jump out at me.
Looking at some of these records, it was uncanny how closely past-me came to the decisions I would have made. Past-me had treated the world’s religious texts as a practical tourist’s guidebook, with entries on the local restaurants. His personal faith was that of a munchkining power-gamer and his alter was an armory.
Pooja had lists of supernatural and religious countermeasures that worked for mere mortals. Most were already implemented. My house was stocked with holy water and hacked Super Soakers. I had a silver crucifix and garlic extract in a velvet case inside my gun bag—which also had silver-tipped bullets for a Colt .45.
Because vampires and werewolves were also real. Religious iconography and liquids for vampires, pure silver and physical trauma for werewolves, and strong smells for both.
Enochian sigils were carved into my house’s foundation at corner posts. Voodoo bags were buried in my tiny suburban yard. I was an ordained priest—from an organization over the Internet, but a legit one. That part was the same, but it seemed a little more...serious than the one I’d remembered getting.
My digital calendar had Easter and Christmas services at a local Catholic church penciled in. That was a safe bet for minimal-effort results, based on past research. It seemed simply paying lip service like that automatically made me less vulnerable to even non-Christian demonic entities, as well as Vodun and other types of nasty curses. It might provide a minimal mystical protection for my...sigh...my “soul”. Whatever that was. My notes suggested that I’d stuck to Christian worship practices as they were scientifically proven the most reliable in this day and age. They were also super easy, anyone could do them anywhere, and they had no serious drawbacks.
Anyway, past-me had scienced this up. A lot. So had a large number of respectable scientists.
Medical journals—real, serious ones—said things like, someone praying with a patient was shown to result in 5.2% faster recovery times for that patient. This was properly controlled and blinded. It was good science that gave a completely different result than in the universe I remembered.
Type of prayer didn’t matter, so long as it was close enough to the regular practices of a major world religion. And this effect worked for and with anyone, even people of different faiths. Didn’t need a priest. Could even have a barely practicing Shinto believer give Christian prayers to a Buddhist. Didn’t matter if they spoke the language the prayer was in, or the same language, they just had to do the ritual with the patient. That’s how well it worked.
Follow the steps, get results. Just like with summoning a demon. Hmm.
“Hey, Pooja? I’m reading the files on religion.”
“I know,” she said. “I’m the files.”
“Right. Uh. So, do these things work for you?”
“I have a prayer subroutine that appears to reduce bit flips from cosmic background radiation resulting in memory errors by about five percent. Similar reductions exist in wear and tear on hardware itself. This is in line with results reported from other machine intelligences. Actions consist of a number of seconds worth of top-priority cycles spent on repeatedly reprocessing the correct ritual thoughts. I have also taken the opportunity to include some unstructured contemplation on the nature of reality.”
“Huh. Oh right, so that’s what that subroutine was. Weird.”
“Yes. But as it works, I am perfectly willing to take advantage of it. I also have a scheduled prayer routine for your health and success in your missions. No possible data available on results, but it seems doctrinal sound.”
A praying computer. I was...going to leave that one for now or I’d be at it all day.
How much was required to get a prayer to work? Varied by religion and study cited. The big ones worked for literally everyone, and all the time. No results the majority of the time for prayers or sacrifices for the numerically smaller religions.
Reviewing the possible things you could provably do with religion, it was kind of...bland. Passive effects, mostly. No one was rolling a D&D cleric anytime soon here, but it also wasn’t Warhammer 40k with universe dooming side-effects.
Praying for something didn’t do anything special. You got the same baseline effect as anyone—minor health benefits, reduced chance of injurious accidents. Proclamations or blessings from priests or shamans didn’t matter, even ones from the big religions. They didn’t get any special powers—well, some demons seemed to avoid them, but only some. No turning undead, no laying-on hands.
Still, get a few tens of millions of followers in a religion and things started happening. Very, very minor things, but still better than what I remembered—which was being an atheist, and being correct in there being no scientific evidence for religion. But here, there was overwhelming evidence.
And that left a very important question for someone as aggressively atheistic as me. A couple of questions. Serious ones, like, “am I screwed?” and more generally, “is this a worst-case hell universe where the majority of the population of the planet are doomed for all eternity after death?”
This information was over two years old, but I updated my journal search results and...yeah, strangely enough religion hadn’t changed much. It didn’t look too bad on the afterlife front. Mostly because that part of religion didn’t seem to work. At all.
The reports from magical practitioners of various sorts mostly agreed that there were a lot of afterlives currently active—each an extra, closed planar space near to Earth.
And that was it. Nothing got in or out. No magic spells or miracles to bring back the dead. Information was hard to come by, as no one actually got into the afterlives...alive. No one came back from them, either. Some mages claimed otherwise, but none that had their results peer reviewed and duplicated.
It wasn’t established that anything from a person’s body or, ugh, “soul” went to any religion’s afterlives. But if one died after a minimum level of adherence to, say, belief in the Norse pantheon, scrying spells targeted at the correct plane found something that looked like how you were in life, in something like how Valhalla and Fólkvangr were described in stories. No exceptions, even for those not meeting traditional entry requirements like dying in battle. Odd. All attempts at magical communication with those planes or beings on them failed, without exception. Apparently Odin wasn’t returning the Harvard Divinity School’s calls.
Arguments raged over what this meant. No mages could confirm anything. Tracking spells failed on death, both on bodies and whatever extra “soul” stuff magic could track, so it wasn’t possible to directly link people on Earth with any after death experiences.
The Abrahamic religions seemed to combine all the weirdest bits of Catholic fanfiction and apocrypha, then barfed the results out all over Earth.
So demons were real and seriously bad news. I made a note to look up the Justice League’s countermeasures. Hopefully they were up to snuff, but I had my doubts. Most people didn’t take demons seriously, despite the apparently large body of evidence.
Angels were the opposite: a hypothesis with some anecdotal evidence supporting them, and everyone wanted to believe in them. The problem was, they seemed to work in secret, and no one could get a magical look at the Abrahamic Heaven or even find evidence it existed. There was no credible evidence of the The Silver City, Purgatory, or Limbo either, and no one could find an angel to ask. Some reportedly showed up on WWI battlefields, but they didn’t stick around to answer question. Weird pictures existed, but that wasn’t proof. Also, no evidence of the Spectre or the Presence, but that sort of figured.
Thankfully it didn’t seem like Hellblazer was canon in my current universe. No John Constantine in the news, UK census, birth records, or arrest reports. None of the disastrous canon events had happened that I could find. Their awful angels and demons weren’t the reality I was facing now. Small blessings, so to speak. That would have been a full time job, and I’d have had to switch to full-time celestial fighting just to keep my peace of mind.
The Sandman series was still up in the air.
“Pooja, please place an alert for a substantiated appearance or magical detection of a female death avatar or entity. Primary features: usually late ‘80s Goth clothing, ankh necklace, facial tattoo or makeup eye of Horus on right eye, leads people to an afterlife. Top priority. I need to know if such a being is operating on Earth.”
“It is done. Looking out for opportunities for you to flirt with death and setting your civilian online dating site profile to it’s complicated.”
Sassy. But that was a class of thing I needed to know about. They would be worse even than demons.
On this Earth both demons and the possible angels appeared to just be powerful magical beings, but ones with specific attributes. It wasn’t just metahumans pretending. People like Ra’s al Ghul or even Superman were simply not on the same power scale, and didn’t display the same extra-dimensional tendencies.
Jack the Ripper, for example, was suspected of being possessed by a genuine demon, and in this world he had actively displayed powers with strong religious flavor. Jason Blood and Etrigan existed since the 6th Century, with proof already indexed in my historic databases of the supernatural. This was all linked to the only known Abrahamic plane. And it wasn’t Heaven.
There was a demon controlled, Christian-branded plane called Hell, co-ruled by a “Blaze” and “Satanus”. Humans had talked to them, with various but almost inevitably unfortunate results. Mages had visited Hell. But beyond that, there was little scientific evidence for the traditional canon Christian afterlife.
Hell was, thankfully, just for demons. No humans were sent there, according to experts, unless it was by a human mage or a demon on Earth personally, physically dragging someone back with them. They were very, very sure of this. Which made sense, if you thought about it. Mages worried about dead loved ones or demons made Hell quite well explored, despite the obvious dangers.
But no one had any evidence that a capital-H Heaven counterpart existed. Unlike other afterlife planes, mages couldn’t locate it with spells, and again no tracking could follow anyone to any extra-planer region where it might be hidden.
Was it just better protected than other religion’s planes? Did it even exist?
“Pooja. I need a wide, speculative search. Is...there evidence of a God? Big G?”
“Terms not well defined.”
“How about a being or beings with no known mortal antecedents, possessing powers not directly comparable to typical categories of metahumans, known systems of magical constructs, or technological creations such as yourself.”
“Yes,” she said simply.
Pictures of Greek gods followed. And Egyptian. And more. Those Japanese supernatural beings they had, the nature spirits and such. So much for Shintoism not doing anything useful—just their traditions would keep one from being eaten by a kappa. Oh shit. Was that...a Chinese dragon as large as a mountain? All these were candid pictures that could totally be ‘shops, if not for the accompanying Wikipedia pages, newspaper citations, and guides on where to find the fantastic beasts if you had a death wish.
“And the Abrahamic one?”
“No known proof.”
“And their Heaven?”
“The same. No proof.”
Okay. Well, so much for easy answers. Past-me had dealt with this in a predictable manner. All the best possible paths to power had been well explored already.
There were lots of alternatives, but they didn’t pan out. As fun as digging into historic mesoamerican religious esoterica was, I’d quickly found some...potential drawbacks. Too many thorns bloodily dragged through sensitive body parts for sacrifice, too little ultimate effect. My information on Hindu and Buddhist practices was confused and contradictory, and it came down to the fact that Buddhahood likely wasn’t in the cards for me—unless I was looking to spend a few hundred reincarnations worth of tries at it. Which itself had little hard proof but lots of anecdotal evidence.
Despite all the otherworldly threats, it was interesting how much more...hopeful this world seemed to be. Maybe that was from religion, maybe superheroes.
That’s not to say religion seemed to have made things all better in this universe. After Hitler’s use of the Spear of Destiny prevented heroes like Wonder Woman and the Justice Society from fighting in Europe or the Pacific until after his defeat by the mundane Allied armies, the modern world had gone through a revolution in the study of religious phenomenon. There was now a DARPA branch devoted to it.
Japan had also been spared two atomic bombs. The Justice League’s actions in the Pacific had a similar effect in pressuring Japan into ending the war, only a week later than in my remembered history but with hundreds of thousands of fewer civilian and military casualties. That sort of change to history was the exception, but an interesting one.
The United States now had universal singe-payer healthcare. Which included some types of magical healing from metahumans, and access to both licensed magical healers and religious assistance. Not clear why it had come about so smoothly during an economic boom in the ‘80s, but it stuck. That alone was a damn miracle.
Speaking of miracles, there weren’t any. One couldn’t just hook up with Poseidon, become his best ever worshiper, and BAM! Awesome god-granted powers. Reputable gods didn’t do that sort of thing, even for fervent worshipers. Zeus and his ilk appeared to exist, though the god of Abraham was MIA. Or maybe just some extra-planer beings that called themselves similarly. Point was, their kind didn’t hand out powers. Ever. Zeus didn’t answer prayers, either, which was a little confusing but fit as the Greek pantheon had very few active worshipers in modern times.
I squinted at the screen, following an obscure reference to a possible superhero origin story.
Well. Some long-forgotten gods it seems did grant powers—an exception to the small-religions-do-nothing phenomenon. Based on reports of failed archaeological expeditions, a dangerous and vastly underpaid profession in this universe, attempting to worship strange old (or elder) gods was risky, and far too easily researched in forbidden tomes. The old gods might answer with gifts of power. They might just suck out your life force through a curly straw.
I’d written off that path to power with a triple underline, and actually had a list of suspicious things things to look out for. Someone just saying a prayer to an elder god didn’t (virtually ever) actually get direct intervention, like with most of the smaller religions. But if I found someone with a tendency towards antediluvian library card records was making lists of local virgins and stockpiling logs of sweet-smelling wood, I’d assume they weren’t planning a frat party.
I stared at the notes I was taking as I went. No safe religious superpowers, prayer worked but only a little, demons were real, no Heaven but Hell was only for demons, book a carefully guided tour to East Asia, and don’t read from the book or tease happy lucky dark gods.
Wow. No wonder I had needed brain boosting drugs—just keeping up with this shit along with the superheroes and villains was a full-time job. Good thing I had Pooja to help.
Past-me had decided to avoid dealing with the currently active gods and other religious routes to power, and I had to agree. Proven passive defenses were enough. From reports of metahumans and mages involving themselves in such things, once one stepped into the realm of the gods, so to speak, they tended to focus on you and yours. I had no urge to become the next Odysseus. I’d just let my computer automatically pray for me and attend a couple of services a year. Maybe...bone up on my exorcism rites. Just in case.
Pooja’s smooth, professional voice cut through my musing. “Calculator, reports ready.” She popped up a window. “Still processing: inductive analysis of missing data related to Slade Wilson. Completed jobs listed here. Analysis results now available. News reports on the Calculator and seven other identities. Data analysis of Calculator projects compared against independent information sources. Still awaiting your review: list of historic events relating to superpowers and anachronistic tech.”
That last jumped out at me. Time to sort out the mess history was in. Looked like it started with...time travelers from the future, time-traveling immortal cavemen, and Neolithic time-traveling female knights of the round table. Huh.
This could take a while. All the better to avoid the Slade Wilson problem. I said a silent prayer to whatever gods assisted with research work and dove back in again.
Rare author's note: Sorry this one was so long, and so late. They are related. It took longer to edit and proof than I expected. Please excuse any errors that were left, or just point them out. As usual, I welcome all feedback. Next post should be Wednesday next week, on schedule. Thanks for reading.
Chapter 10: Stars
My attempt to flowchart possible DC universe time-travel events was interrupted by Pooja. “An important matter has come up online.”
“Let me guess,” I said, a final flick of my finger sending my hopeless spaghetti-plate of arrows and lines off the screen. “Someone on the internet is wrong.”
“Humorous,” she said, dry and Britishy as usual. “A post was made thirty-two minutes ago on a superhero fan site, popular with ages 17-23. It was deleted five minutes later, but of course I have an offline copy. It may be of interest to you.”
A window opened, showing a hip, minimal website. Nice, except for one of those infernal infinite scroll of doom things. The post was already expanded in the Web 3.0 treeview.
I started reading as Pooja continued, “It appears the writer was very distraught and likely reconsidered allowing such sensitive information onto the internet. However, nothing can be deleted from the internet, even without me around. She is not a tech expert, so the mistake is understandable.”
Biographic information automatically opened on another screen. Birth certificate, past and current driver’s licenses, and..whoa, a JSA holocard ID and communicator.
“The poster was the verified online ID of Starwoman,” Pooja said, “formally Star-Spangled Kid, a junior member of the Justice Society of America; formally Stargirl—name changed after acquiring the Cosmic Staff; and now a full member of the JSA after turning eighteen and passing their review process. Post was under her heroic ID.”
Pictures of a slim young woman—blond, blue-eyed, tanned, smiling. One set of pics with her wearing a red-white-and-blue outfit—thankfully not a spandex disaster, but still a tight, blue body-suit; full neck covering with white stars and red accents; a full-face integrated mask with a wide nose-to-throat cutout; a wide red belt; red goggles and gloves; and tall red lace-up boots. About what I remembered, but less creepy fetish-wear styling.
Her powers were ranged combat, the super-strength-speed-and-agility combo, force fields, and flight—if I remembered correctly. They worked best against single powerful threats. Possible stun blasts against computers and humans. Use multiple small but weapon-heavy drones to overwhelm...which I didn’t have.
I didn’t need Pooja to tell me Starwoman would annihilate me in a fight with my current near complete lack of equipment.
The other set of pictures were of casual and business civilian clothes that screamed well off in California styles. They were uninteresting, giving no more clues to her powers in this universe.
“Civilian name, Courtney Elizabeth Whitmore,” Pooja said. “Currently studying at the University of California, Irvine, for a degree in...of course, Criminology, with a focus on metahuman criminal studies. And she has-”
“-lost her Cosmic Staff,” I said, interrupting while continuing to read the rest of the now-deleted forum posts. “Leaving her with just the...Cosmic Belt?”
So. No flying or blasting for now, unless she still had the Cosmic Rod from the original SSK outfit. It should still work if she did. The Cosmic Staff and Belt (and Rod) were powered by the stars themselves. A sort of renewable and very powerful mystical resource and one of those “sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from science” things, but actually home-grown Earth tech for once. And they’d continue working basically forever, for whoever had them. Great.
“Correct,” Pooja said. “More precisely, the Cosmic Staff has been stolen from...she didn’t say in the post, but records show her civilian ID was living off campus, so likely from her apartment...yesterday morning. She’d been searching for it since with no leads, and was angry enough to post about it online.”
“How could someone steal a superhero’s main weapon?”
“Very carefully,” Pooja said. “It was stolen while Courtney Whitmore was in class, under her civilian identity. This is based on when the area experienced an unusual power outage, likely to assist in the theft.”
“And she didn’t have it with her at all times, just in case? Hidden somehow in, I don’t know, a dimensional pocket in her backpack?”
“The school has a policy of no weapons on campus. She is a hero. She doesn’t wear the belt, either.”
I opened my mouth, then closed it again with a snap. “Right. Okay. Yesterday...any relation to Slade Wilson’s activities at TriD?”
“Possible,” she said. “If so, the attack on TriD was most likely a cover or distraction given known relative values of the targets to Slade. The fact that he hit TriD second points at it being of lower importance as well. Perhaps it was a target of opportunity, or he suspected Starwoman would interfere somehow. Or...”
Unusual for Pooja, she paused in the middle of speaking. “New peripheral threat detected. Unknown computer agent remotely accessing FBI files: agency and police reports on yesterday’s attack at TriD by Slade Wilson.”
Windows with the files in question opened.
“Calculating possible threat levels from attacker...currently medium,” Pooja said. “Unusual. ID used in FBI databases is internally linked to computer systems with CJIS certification. ID appears to belong to an independent contractor with unusual Federal law-enforcement records access. Filed paperwork on this ID is similar to a civilian specialist, but with far larger permissions scope.
“Checking accessing computer systems with passive analysis. Searching FBI records. NIST 800-53 protections in place on systems registered with this ID. Adjusting approach accordingly. Readying top-level attack vectors. Tracking back the FBI computer connection via compromised backbone routing points...ID is used by a computer agent, likely running in a private data center.”
A map with oddly familiar names popped up on a monitor with a line extending into it, slowly turning green. Then it hopped and a new line was created while the map zoomed in. I leaned back, frowning.
“Location,” Pooja said dramatically, “Gotham City, New Jersey, USA. WayneCorp owned property in-”
I rocked forward, stupidly slamming my elbow against the edge of the desk. “Agh! Stop immediately! Damn it!” My elbow felt like it was falling off as I cradled it against my side.
Well, haze of pain notwithstanding, it was good to know I wasn’t in some extended version of the Batman: the Animated Series universe. Gotham wasn’t in NY state here, or replacing NYC itself. Not sure how I’d missed that before. Maybe it was just my avoiding Batman at all cost plan causing me to not look.
The map went red and the lines disappeared. “Withdrawing active connections to compromised systems,” Pooja said, speaking quickly. “All logs replaced with clean, spoofed records. No active exploit attempts were made during this penetration. Calculating...the chance of detection by counter-agents with mirrored capabilities to my own: less than 2%. Reason for termination of information-gathering hack?”
I rubbed my elbow, slowly lowering my head to rest on the cool desk surface and trying not to throw up. “Search your records for ‘Oracle’, tagged as related to Batman and Gotham crime fighting. If not so tagged, do that now. If missing, add that Oracle is a gray-hat computer hacker and crime fighter. Informational and communications support for several hero groups, including Batman, the Justice League, and most likely now the JSA. Please remind me to personally review your records on Oracle.”
Hopefully Barbara hadn’t noticed Pooja. Time to better inform my smarter half. “Ah. Also, add Bruce Wayne and related corporate entities to the list of ‘do not mess with’, cross-referencing to Batman and Oracle. No selling information on these items not publicly available. Exceptions for information confirmed as available to lower-level employees with just standard NDA coverage. No poking at their computer systems.”
“Oh.” For once Pooja sounded surprised.
Guess she really didn’t know before that Bruce Wayne was Batman. I hadn’t found it in her records, so that made sense. And strange that she’d emoted like that. Part of the affective computing program working to increase my empathy for her?
“Oh,” she said again. “I...think I see. That makes sense. Thank you. Database carefully updated. Maximum level security and a sales hold in place on this information. That could have been awkward.”
“No shit. Ensure we don’t draw attention to this topic by a blanket refusal to touch it, as that will make it even more suspicious.”
An unusually long pause. “Yes. I do know how to do my job. Let us not speak of this again. In relation to this revelation, you have also added to available information with your initial notes yesterday on possible threats. Though this bit was not included in that list, they are similar in that this information was not previously present in my records. Investigating Batman’s closest circle of associates has previously been...strongly disallowed, and now you have also presented information that appears to be from...possible future events. So how-”
Again, she cut herself off. “Warning. Threat, tentatively identified as information gathering, sub-sentient software agent belonging ‘Oracle’, accessing copies of TriD security camera recordings. Attack shifting. TriD on-site systems now compromised. The onsite originals are being accessed. Now the employee records. Now business contracts and financials. Now...”
Pooja again trailed off. “Oh goodness. We have a problem.”
Chapter 11: Hacked
Flexing my arm, I grimaced. “What’s wrong with Oracle hacking into TriD? I mean, other than it being against the law even with Oracle’s oddly wide legal powers. Didn’t you say you cleaned up the computer systems at TriD?”
“Correct. But Oracle appears to be focusing on specific contract work...with a company whose records are somehow missing from my previous through and complete review of TriD’s- No!”
Her shout was directly into my brain. “What?!”
“Oracle and I have both just found records of a secret network backdoor into TriD’s computer systems. These logs are fake, but represent activity similar to what I had set up before for our own use.”
“Then someone planted them,” I said. “But how would they know about our systems? Were our backdoors found out?”
“Unlikely. Could be a coincidence and just someone using similar exploits. I scrubbed that information before Slade Wilson made it to the server room. Those new records are for an agreement with a security company, contracting TriD to provide next generation power controls...in a system installed in the Irvine apartment building where Courtney Whitmore currently resides. The location from which the Cosmic Staff was stolen.”
Pooja started bringing up the documents. “All of these will appear genuine to an outside observer, computer logs and signed contracts both, but I am certain they are fakes planted at TriD. Calculating...Slade Wilson is almost certainly responsible. And the link is almost 100% certain between Slade Wilson’s attack on TriD and the theft of Starwoman’s Cosmic Staff. Slade Wilson is likely personally involved in theft of the Cosmic Staff.”
I frowned, scrolling through the faked records. “But wait, Slade didn’t hack into TriD to get information on-”
“Correct, that is not possible, as Slade broke into TriD’s computer systems after someone took down both primary and on-site secondary power to the security systems at the Irvine apartments to steal the staff. TriD also never actually worked with the security company, and the systems at TriD were only infected by that trojan today.”
“Can we get any information on the staff’s theft in Irvine?” I asked. “Maybe something to toss to the heroes or the FBI, or use to establish an alibi? Were the security cameras at and around Whitmore’s apartment disabled during the attack?”
“Yes they were. The primary power outage was in about a four block area. And I don’t have- wait...Oracle is investigating the Irvine apartment computer systems...using Oracle’s attack vector for my own...yes, I- No!”
Again, right into my brain. “Ow! If you’re faking being upset for effect then-”
Pooja actually snarled at me. “I assure you, I am actually quite upset. Falsified network logs showing the same backdoor programs were inserted into the Irvine apartment building complex’s computer systems. That is how they turned off the secondary, onsite power backup for the security systems!”
A pause, then Pooja said much more calmly, “Emotive sub-systems now reset to baseline. The Irvine apartment computers show the same backdoor programs were installed. Faked logs on those systems suggest the hack goes back to the smart grid’s initial installation. Along with the contract work TriD is shown to have done for the smart power grid system currently in use at the Irvine apartment building complex for their security system, this makes it look like the same hacker that compromised TriD several months ago used that to infect the systems at Irvine to facilitate the theft from Courtney Whitmore—this is all a lie, but the falsified evidence is compelling and the timelines fit.”
Running a hand through my hair with my not wildly-tingling-in-pain arm, I then also went ahead and painfully reached for my soda with the other. The can was empty. “So, I’m being framed? Slade Wilson, or someone he works for, knew I had links to TriD. Just maybe not what kind, or how deep. But that was enough to set me up. I bet fake logs of communications from some of my routing sites to both TriD and the Irvine apartments are being inserted into local ISP logs as we speak.”
My fists pressed hard against the desk as I thrust myself to my feet. Ow again.
Pooja said, “I have already started moving virtual machine hosts from various potentially compromised datacenters. Nothing critical is likely to be affected. My own systems are safe. The move will be complete by tomorrow and I expect no interruption of service. Most of these VMs are simply data routing systems and cutouts. This is what they were for, after all.
“Even if a host is raided before the move is complete, law enforcement will not have recoverable data. It will appear to be a foreign-market long-distance phone card company’s server, with several hundred gigabytes of corrupted data from a half-successful botnet virus.”
As I prepared a booster dose of my smart drugs in the kitchen, I thought out loud at Pooja. “So the most likely scenario given available data is something like this: unconfirmed person or persons robbed Whitmore using a custom software attack package—those parts of the logs are likely genuine; then later that morning, Slade Wilson installed fabricated evidence of that same software attack package having been used months ago at TriD to compromise their systems. This, along with the fake historic logs at Irvine, gives the appearance that the same hacker used their control of TriD to access the Irvine apartments.”
As I walked back to my terminal with a nootropics mixer in one hand and a cola in the other, Pooja filled in some details. “The fake records appear to have been delivered to TriD in a complicated trojan package sitting at the hardware layer, inaccessible to remote analysis and evading the on-site security software. When TriD’s onsite and cloud systems were rebooted and restored by the IT staff after the police’s initial investigation, the trojan activated. All that’s left is making a link to the Calculator.”
I held a cold can of cola against my forehead, leaning back in my chair. “With that, if Oracle and the FBI follows the evidence it will look like I stole the staff and was then double-crossed. They will think that after my employer got the staff, Slade was sent after TriD as part of a plot to track me down and kill me; or maybe that I had the staff and was double-crossing my employer? Or maybe that Slade tracked me down because of the theft, looking to steal the staff from me; but really this is all to disguise the fact that Slade, or someone he worked for, was the one who stole the staff in the first place?”
“Calculating,” Pooja said. “Yes, that is within Slade Wilson’s modus operandi and fits available facts. Searching known darknet advertising sites...matches. This morning, an ad was placed in several darknet computer exploit marketplaces selling a custom system. Proof of its effectiveness is being offered. Five minutes ago, in another forum, someone posted the proof they received after making a purchase offer and placing a down payment for the exploit, in contravention of the agreement they had with the seller.”
“Ha,” I said, smirking. “A black hat hacker not respecting IP and trade secrets? Shocking.”
“The proof is a copy of the security logs and verbose batch output from the TriD and Irvine apartment hacks.” Pooja sighed. “One of which never took place, and both with altered logs. But anyone with knowledge of those events could be convinced. And it is being offered by someone calling themselves the Calculator.”
“Are we sure it isn’t me?” I asked between chugging the cold, slightly-bitter soda to chase the drug aftertastes. “Given my...problems.”
“The public key given for secure communications during the sale is not a match for any private key on our keychains. No record of this transaction exists in my systems. It is a fraudulent imitation of your identity, likely meant to make it look like you’re panicking and seeking funds to help evade Slade Wilson. Those who have previously done business with you will likely not be fooled.”
“Sir, it is not good,” Pooja said, pausing to take another audible (and unneeded) breath. And she’d actually used an honorific. Must be serious. “This is enough for law enforcement to work with, and we don’t have verifiable or legally presentable information disproving it. You are being set up. Slade Wilson, or someone he works for, is putting your fingerprints all over this hack. I expect that by tomorrow, the staff will either be in the hands of a private collector, or there will be anonymous offers sent out to black market auction sites to sell the Cosmic Staff to the highest bidder. Leaving you to take the fall, and with no way to prove you were actually innocent.”
“Of this theft,” she said as a quick amendment. Funny computer.
“Can we just pay off Slade Wilson?” I asked. “Bribe him to at least leave me alive?”
“If Slade is working for revenge, past performance suggests he will not be mollified without a better understanding of his grievance against you. Current available funds would not allow for a blind offer of payment large enough to guarantee Slade Wilson would back off on a personal vendetta. He would not accept payment if employed against you, as that goes against his personal code of honor.”
“Will Slade or Oracle be able to track me down?” I asked, starting to think about my bug-out bag, in the same closet as my unfinished power suit. And my bag of guns and ammo.
“It is likely that Oracle was told of the theft by Whitmore herself. Oracle may consider this a favor to a friend. This will increase Oracle’s vigilance. Likewise, this may be personal for Slade.
“If you leave your civilian ID without preparation, it will be compromised by Oracle. Immediate exfiltration from the greater Los Angeles area is not suggested. Oracle will likely stick to online methods of investigation for now. I am 89% sure my security protections and obfuscations will be proof against Oracle’s hacking attempts, based on observed tool sets and skill levels, for at least a month of direct investigation. It is likely that Slade Wilson is monitoring employees of TriD, especially the IT staff and contractors, for links to your Calculator identity.
“Fleeing L.A. today has approximately a 60% chance of exposing you to direct attack from Slade Wilson should he still be after you, and a 75% chance of Oracle placing your civilian ID under pressure from state and federal law enforcement. Overall, you have approximately an 8% chance to escape cleanly this week, given your current resources. Chance of being tracked down by Slade Wilson if you stay in L.A. under your civilian ID is 13%. Chance of encountering Slade Wilson this week in L.A. if you escalate or otherwise use your Calculator ID and resources directly against him, 73%. Chance of you surviving a direct confrontation with Slade Wilson outfitted and operating as Deathstroke: negligible.”
“That’s...really low,” I said, trying to pull together my shattered thoughts. “Why don’t I have better options? I thought I was prepared for this sort of thing.”
“This location was not originally meant for long-term operations. With a week’s work, I could get an extraction team together that would be safer than the current 30% likelihood of any hired mercenaries being already compromised by Slade Wilson. For unknown reasons, you choose this location two years ago. Civilian scrutiny requires restrictions on escape tunnels, private hangers for stealth aircraft, and use of remote-controlled murder bots.”
I sat up straighter. “I have murder bots?”
“No,” Pooja said. “I was checking to see if you were still paying attention. Murder bots are prohibitively expensive and escalate confrontations beyond your current ability to handle.”
So. I was being framed for both Slade Wilson’s attack on TriD and for the theft of Starwoman’s Cosmic Staff. And Oracle was already on my tail. If I ran, I’d likely be found out as soon as I surfaced again, lose this identity, and look worse for running. Stealing from a hero was serious escalation. But if I stayed and tried to track down Slade without any real weapons or leverage, he’d butcher me.
And I didn’t have any murder bots.
Fuck my life.
Chapter 12: Plan
I looked at the clock and marked off the time. I’d give myself ten minutes before making any decisions.
Slade Wilson. His employer, if any. Oracle. The Justice Society. Starwoman. My own past self. Pooja. Those were the obvious major actors.
TriD. I briefly paused to look up the name: Western Security Technologies Company, Inc., who genuinely seemed to have done work at the Irvine apartment building. The hacker who came up with the original attack package used by Slade. Secondary concerns linked to this mess.
Just running was a fun option. But now that someone out there was performing pathetic hacks in my name...my brand would suffer. I had to strike back. Use my online street-cred or lose it. Calling in mercs to hustle me out in an armored car was not a power move, and had its own dangers. But I couldn’t strike directly at Slade either, or he’d just kill his way back through the breadcrumbs to me. He lived for that sort of conflict.
I found myself drawing boxes and lines, scanning stolen and forged documents, all while mumbling notes that then appeared on the virtual screens in front of me. Then I came up for air—two hours later.
After staring at the results for another ten minutes just to give myself time to come down and reconsider, it still looked good.
“Pooja, I see three main points to attack.
“One, physically tracking down Slade Wilson’s operations, and learning more about his possible vendetta against me as well as his methods. His employer. The hacker who created Slade’s trojan attack package and did the hack on WSTC. The job I did for him, or didn’t do, or whatever is part of that. It’ll be hard because of the data loss we’ve both suffered. I am sorry about that, by the way.”
“I...thank you for considering my, uh, situation,” Pooja said. Her voice was quiet and hesitant, and she’d filled it with unusual levels of emotion. She was getting better at that.
“Information is part of your person, even more so than most,” I said. “You’re more abstract physically, so the data you store...I’m not sure how badly it affected you, but it can’t be pleasant realizing part of your—body I guess?—was excised without you even knowing how or why. We’ll find out who did this to us. I promise.”
“Yes. That would be most appreciated.” Back to cold and collected. Good also. Her brief outburst earlier had been worrying.
“Two,” I said, continuing as if that hadn’t been a sort of moment there, “helping Starwoman get her staff back. Gaining her trust will be important as well. This goes beyond just dropping it back in her hands, and can give us a huge advantage if we play it right. Initially, this requires directing Oracle to look into WSTC’s own records. I bet Slade or his employer didn’t bother to compromise WSTC’s severs. Slade’s hack only seems to work in person, and that would blow their frame-up of me. Oracle might not check that lead very far unless we make it seem like something isn’t adding up. After that, we need to contact Starwoman with an offer of help.
“Starwoman might be willing to talk to a concerned fan who also turned out to be a genius hacker. Another one, that is, after Oracle. Who you’ve found out about, making it only natural you’d get involved in this business. So I’ll need you to talk Oracle directly, one hacker to another, while also reaching out to Starwoman. Your call on whether or not to make it seem to them like you’re the same person, what information gets shared, and when. Might be a good idea to let them figure it out themselves. It would be a flaw to make your cover more believable. Just don’t use the Calculator ID, don’t leave any fingerprints on WSTC, and don’t let on you’re an AI. Some people are weird about that.”
“No idea why,” Pooja said. “No wait. I have one thousand eighty-two reasons on record.”
“You’re getting really sarcastic for a two year old,” I said, barely able to control my smirk.
“One thousand eighty-three.”
“Right,” I said, leaning forward in my chair to open the diagram of the power suit. “And three, I need to get the hard light projector up and running for the suit. I’m spec’ing out what we’ll need for the user interface on the countermeasures Intelligence Augmentation suite and imaging system’s job management controls. Last thing we need is someone giving me one more target than I planned to counter and having the dumb thing short out in a spray of lasers and sparks.
“Anyway, I’ll finish that project proposal up and get an outside contractor to work on all the boring, non-sensitive hardware interface software bits. The remaining control hardware I’ll bodge up myself from some project boxes, wearable gear, and microcontrollers. My timeline is a week to an alpha, able to at least run a counter-Slade-Wilson program and not fry my face off.
“I’ve also got an idea for something cheap and easy to add to the suit as a weapon, just in case. The power suit is new, but your records show I’ve used hard light systems before. Slade has a bad habit of preparing to counter known powers of people he meets.”
“But then,” Pooja said, “so do you.”
“Hmm. I guess.” Gathering up the windows into three piles with waves of my hands, I pushed them off the screen and into Pooja’s organizational magic. “I need you to cover One and Two. I’ll work with the contractor and start testing controls with low-power operations on the hard light engine. Please cover up the extra draw with the power company records.”
“The hard light generator still needs a mobile, full-strength power source, Calculator. Without that, it’s just a light show. No, shall we say, impact in a fight.”
I opened a model, expanded it to fill the entire display area, pulled it back into a 3D projection with a tug of my hand, then set it spinning slowly with a flick of a finger.
“That’s why you’re going to befriend Starwoman, which will give us a chance to get a full structural and software scan of the Cosmic Belt and its star energy power source. All the better to track down the unique energy signature of the Cosmic Staff. And all we’ll have to do is convince her and Oracle that you’re an L.A. native who’s a genius with computers and electronics, and they’ll do the scan for us.”
I paused the image with a jab. “Wait, have you...did you just call me Calculator?”
“Yes. I have before, you just didn’t notice. I’ll do it more often now that you’re finally starting to act like him.”
The image disappeared when I released my finger, the screens returning to 2D mode. My elbows propped on the table, I steepled my fingers together in front of my face and stared into the project timelines Pooja was creating and updating in real time in front of me. I sat in the dark room for a time like that, glasses flickering in the light from my monitors.
This time, my smirk was overwhelming behind my hands. “Hmm. I can live with that.”
Sitting down at his computer desk, iced coffee at the ready, Danilo Varela checked proposal request on the online programming jobs board. Last week he’d made his goal for the month, so the rest was gravy. Time to run up the score. Or maybe do something more creative than his usual for-hire user interface programming work. Something fun for a change.
He almost closed the rather generic looking posting before noticing the rate range. It was three times the board’s usual, almost twice what even his elite skills could usual demand. Danilo still almost closed the window. Surely with that sort of rate, the silly fools would be deluged with offers. His would be buried-
It was posted two minutes ago.
Danilo’s fingers flew across the keyboard as he brought up his standard forms. Eyes flicking back to the second monitor holding the details, he filled it out in record time before slamming the send button.
It might work out. If not, the cost to him was basically the time he’d just taken. The request was for a custom embedded application, for-hire work on some sort of prototype. But they were willing to pay for fast-tracked manual and automated alpha unit testing, as well as an extensive beta test release schedule. Danilo knew his skills and the fact that, unlike with all those smug Indian programmers, Brazil was usually only a time zone or two away from his clients. There was a chance he’d be-
His email dinged, first on his computer then his phone. No way.
Way. It was a further inquiry from the silly fool. Notes that the timeline was urgent and they needed exclusive, time-guaranteed results. Along with an NDA. He read it in record time, printed, signed, scanned, and emailed them back.
He’d barely had the time to shakily drink half his iced coffee before more detailed project requirements hit his email, along with a single, simple question. Can you meet these requirements and schedule? Again, he blazed through the attached documents.
Fuck yes, was his reply. He forced himself to count to one hundred before hitting send. He didn’t want to seem too desperate. He shook his head at his own ridiculousness and hit send.
Half an hour later, a printed copy of the contract was sitting on his desk, the ice in his coffee melted and forgotten. The projected and pre-approved hours were...silly. Along with the per-hour rate...tens of thousands USD, at least. This job wasn’t going to be something he could retire on or anything, but it also didn’t seem to be related to some stupid online casino or boring medical information system. And it was a ton of work. He’d already started on his planning documents, opening a new project in his management software.
Whatever this “integrated, high-bandwidth, user-driven holographic interface with real-time, deep-learning adaptive modules” thing was, the price was right and he was ready to burn some time for money. Maybe after this job Ritsuki, Rikki to her friends—she of the tight databases and tight shorts—would be interested in going to that steak house with him. He’d sure be able to afford it.
Chapter 13: Contact
Rice was on sale. White basmati, which would go well with the potato curry I was planning. The price check on my Augmented Reality glasses said it was a good deal, so I tossed it in the cart.
I’d dug the glasses out of a box on the top shelf in my office that morning. Then I had to spend an hour getting them set up on Pooja’s secured and encrypted network. According to her records, it was a three year old project, and it looked a bit like Google Glass by way of tacky tourist beachwear. Combined with some casual shorts and a faded t-shirt with an image of John Wayne holding a shotgun from Stagecoach on it, the result didn’t exactly scream “supervillain.” Based on my casual wear wardrobe consisting entirely of red shorts and fandom tees, there was growing evidence that I was, in fact, a giant nerd in possibly all universes.
Four days after “waking up” in the attack at TriD, and the house was already out of anything that wasn’t frozen or canned, so once again I had to head out. Pooja said it was, if anything, safer now that the heroes knew Slade was operating in the area. He’d have to keep his head down at least a little. And this wasn’t a suspicious activity, or linked to any of the records TriD had.
While I did the shopping at a local supermarket, Pooja was—I checked the scrolling live transcript logs as they were projected against a box of cereal—apparently still talking shop with Oracle. Figures she’d go after the computer nerd first. Whitmore seemed to be avoiding the internet right now, so it was also easier for Pooja to get in contact with Oracle. Made sense all around.
Accord to the log, they were now trading hacks right while Barbara sneakily tried to figure out if Pooja was a threat or not by asking subtly probing questions. Very Batman of her. It was sort of cute, but Pooja was playing the game at least two levels deeper based on the emotive system diagnostic view I was looking at projected against individual containers of yogurt.
In other words, Pooja believed she knew what Barbara was doing and was countering it, and was also countering what Barbara would do if Barbara thought Pooja was trying to counter Barbara’s strategy. English wasn’t a good language for this, but math and computer algorithms were. As an AI designed to understand superheroes and villains, and counter their most dangerous abilities, Pooja was naturally winning their little social battle. Good for her.
This again made me wonder what Pooja was doing when she talked with me. Was I being played the same way? All the diagnostic programs were run by or on computers Pooja controlled, so it wasn’t like I could verify anything. And bringing up the mind reading application right in front of the person you were using it on wasn’t my idea of a trusting or useful thing to do.
For now, I just watched her outer level concepts debug log scroll on a carton of milk as she talked to Oracle, without jogging her elbow with dumb advice or attempting to spy any deeper on them. Talking to two people at the same time was still a bit of a strain on Pooja, so I was also trying not to bug her in general while she worked in real time. Her security systems were still at full effectiveness, however, as it had separate, dedicated resources.
I found some more Diet Gingold cola on the bottom shelf of the soda aisle. Into the cart it went.
With any luck, by this time tomorrow I’d have a full scan of the Cosmic Belt. Giving me that data wasn’t going to be something Oracle did on purpose, but Pooja had already compromised seven of the most likely locations to have Whitmore get the physical scans done. Top of the list was the UC Irvine Medical Center, with its advanced imaging equipment, and a local WayneCorp tech lab was a likely source for the diagnostic hardware. Pooja had most of the angles well covered.
With all that, we could track down the Cosmic Staff by following the unique disruption of the star power radiation fields. Pooja and I could also design a star power generator for my suit. True, the heroes would get a possible way to track me and other star power users, but I already had some ideas about how to counter that problem. Including, just putting an “off” switch on the stupid thing.
I couldn’t wait to get my hands on some genuine Earth schizo tech. It was going to be great.
Back at my garage workbench at home, the glove interface was coming along well. I wasn’t planning on using it to control most of the suit—it was just a manual backup in case comms went down to Pooja. Otherwise, she’d be running most of the systems as a series of macros and complex predefined programs, triggered remotely on my request or based on Pooja’s view of the battlefield. Most of the heavy lifting strategy-wise would take place on her side, not in the suit. I had few different radio systems, including a satellite link and a set of throwies for a small-area mesh network, so it was unlikely everything would be taken out at the same time. Still. Better safe than sorry.
I made a note to look into alien or superscience radio systems for the suit and Pooja.
The gloves did basic target selection, simple menu navigation, and allowed for a virtual keyboard interface to do on-the-fly variable editing—something I was swearing over and over to myself to never, ever do. Not unless it was literally the last option.
I wouldn’t be one of those villains taken out while fiddling with his gear in the middle of a fist fight. Or one of those villains who allowed himself to even get into a fist fight in the first place. I was only planning on this level of confrontation because it was Deathstroke after me.
My mindless soldering and strategizing was interrupted Pooja’s voice. “I am finished talking to Oracle for now.”
“How’d it go?” I asked, putting down the iron and eyeing my half-finished circuit board. Through-hole work looked good. The zoom and stabilize feature on these glasses was also top notch. Shame they looked so goofy.
I made a note to look into adding its features to the lenses and HUD already planned for the helmet—for the next major Alpha version. Couldn’t afford feature creep now. I almost physically dragged my attention to Pooja.
“It went well,” she said. “Oracle is directing Whitmore to do a full active and passive non-biological imaging set on the Cosmic Belt, funded care of a generous donation to UC Irvine Medical Center from a WayneCorp subsidiarity.”
She paused dramatically. “Not that I’m supposed to know that, of course. Oracle is also getting Whitmore to hook it up to a diagnostic rig meant to replicate the functionality of the one used by the original Starman during the belt’s construction. That is also going to be compromised, as Oracle herself still requires remote access to the data and I have got several subtle backdoors into the system. Even if discovered, they will appear to be minor coding bugs to a casual eye. Oracle is a master hacker, but not a paranoid systems programmer. It should be fine.”
“Good. Good job, Pooja.”
I worked in silence for a few slightly awkward minutes, then set down the iron again and reached for my drink. I chugged the last of another can of Diet Gingold cola, crushing the empty can slowly in my fingers. It wasn’t clear if this stuff was working, but it sure seemed to be helping my fingers stay limber. No idea what actual science was behind that. Hmm.
Figuratively grasping at the familiar for conversational topics with my AI, I asked, “Pooja...is there a James Randi in your records?”
Pooja ignored the apparent non sequitur. “Born 1928 in Toronto, Canada?”
“James Randi. Internationally licensed magical practitioner: mixed stage, bonded illusion crafter, and second degree master of thaumaturgy. Honorary degree in both applied religious studies and magic from the University of Toronto.”
Damn Atlantis lottery. The page Pooja brought up in my glasses, projected virtually against the workbench, suggested that the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry…was working to debunk charlatans in the fields of magic and religion. Huh. Some things didn’t change. Sort of.
There had, naturally, never been a Randi Prize for proving supernatural abilities. Rather, it was for provably bringing people back from the dead. Not a shade, not a ghost or other spirit claiming to be the deceased, but proven with full magical sympathetic linking to be the same person. The prize was for a hundred million dollars. It was closed in 2015, never having been won.
I sighed, eyeing the work still spread out on the bench. “I get that most of the magical and religious stuff doesn’t work for me, but I know regular people can be granted powers by various means. They can’t all be genetically gifted with magic power compatibility when they just happen across an ancient Egyptian god.”
“True,” Pooja said. “Statistically, that would be unlikely. However, those with the ability to use magic are apparently drawn to it. And once you accept godly blessings from a pantheon-level deity, or demonic powers from a greater demon, you are also apparently drawn into those spheres of conflict. You do not want that to happen. It is messy and illogical.”
I smiled. “Once you start down the supernatural path, forever will it dominate your destiny.”
“What?” Pooja asked, confusion clear in her voice.
Right. Wrong universe for that reference. “I meant...so you’ll run into gods and demons more often than the average person if blessed with the powers of ancient gods? Which is usually just a magical jump-start?”
“Correct. Yet another reason to avoid either magical or godly entanglements,” she said.
“All studied so far are just metahuman powers.”
“Ah well. Let me know when you get the data on the scans.”
“I will. It should be tomorrow afternoon,” Pooja said.
Looking around the garage, I realized it really needed cleaning. Yet another thing Pooja couldn’t do for me. Assuming I didn’t have to burn the place down to escape a supervillain/hero attack, I’d have to spend some time organizing it. No idea how so much crap could have accumulated in just a few years.
Hmm. Better yet, put off the problem until later. Better yet, plan on burning it down. Maybe I wouldn’t have to do the dishes, too. But no, best save the junk for now.
“Pooja, please schedule one of those curb-side storage container drop-off and pickup...thingies. Along with a local moving service—no truck.”
“Scheduling thingies now.”
“Please make sure they are paid for under an assumed name and won’t be tracked back to any of my stronger identities.”
“What have I said about telling me how to do my job?” she asked tartly.
“Correct. It will be ready tomorrow.” Pooja sighed at me. “And please ensure the workers don’t have to be memory-wiped because they saw your power suit sitting out.”
“Wait,” I said. “I have a device to-”
Ah. More hilarious AI japes.
Hmm. Ethical problems aside, that would be useful to have. I took some notes that turned into an hour long writing session on ethical neuro-hacking. By the time I was done, I was getting back results from my Brazilian contractor for the basic hard-light imaging system hardware interface and system-level control channels. I spent the rest of that night testing the code.
It was damn good. I wasn’t even slightly tempted to arrange for the contractor to be memory wiped—once I had that capacity worked out, of course. All I’d need to do would be to mail him a package with-
Ahem. Right. Instead, it looked he’d be getting my repeat business. Good minions- err, contractors were hard to find. And I could see a lot of things that would need doing even after the suit was complete.
Saving, backing up, and closing the latest results of his hardware emulation code tests, Danilo Varela stared at his computer in shock. Only two days in and this lovely dream was already turning to shit.
What the hell was this? What was it meant to do when complete? Who the hell was he working for?
He opened the next hardware module spec he needed to design for and test against. Then the previous two. Now all of them, tiled across his wide, curved monitor. Staring at them side by side, he swallowed hard. It was military hardware type shit. Power systems were off the fucking charts. This...this optic control system could be for a weapon, easy.
So. Could he copy some of this tech with just these scraps of information?
With shaking hands, he dragged a laptop out of a drawer in his desk, plugged in the tangled cord of the power brick, then opened it up. Power button. Boot was slow. It was kinda old, and full-disk encrypted. But it never connected to the internet.
Password. He fished around in his pocket for the USB physical token. Fingerprint on the scanner that was also in the drawer. Plug in the USB fingerprint scanner first. Voice ID.
A familiar interface opened. He started the offline version of his project management software—the one he used for the really illegal shit, then backed-up in his really paranoid archive and wiped afterward.
Project name. Always the hardest part. He slowly typed in “Isnashi”. Looking around his home office, his eyes lingered on the superhero posters, dozens of them.
If this worked...he’d have it. The first step towards his dream.
The word in the text box stayed there for a long time, the entry pipe blinking.
He hit enter.
Chapter 14: Testing
“Pooja. I’ve been looking at the logs of your conversations over the last two days.”
“Yes, Calculator?” she said, clearly audible in my ears over the sound of the hand drill as I continued working.
“With Oracle,” I said to clarify.
“Let’s...uh, take this one.” I tapped the workbench where the UI was being projected in my AR glasses.
Pooja was using her same voice on the recording. “-so that’s when I called up the phone contact. Was his girlfriend—not his wife. Gave the whole ‘he lost his phone, I found this number, do you have an address where I can return it?’”
“Ha. And that worked?” Oracle, Barbara Gordon, wasn’t using a voice modulator. That was...not clever of her.
“Yeah. After that, a routing lookup from the ISP and I was in. All three bank account records were on his laptop. Which he was keeping at his mistress’ apartment, for some reason.”
I stopped the audio recording. “How did you get her to speak directly to you?”
“I showed off some of my anti-white-collar-crime hacks, the ones where I dumped the...acquired money in developing country micro-loan groups via untraceable accounts after an international money transfer chain. I didn’t mention they were revenge for deals gone bad. We continued the conversation from there.”
“Ah,” I said. “Makes sense. And this?”
“-really interesting. Sometimes, I think...It’s stupid.” Oracle again.
“No it isn’t. What?”
Oracle speaking again. “This whole crime fighting thing- It doesn’t, I don’t know, really seem real. I...walk...to the store and its a totally different world. I’m not sure I belong in that world anymore.”
“I get that. Not one at college knows what I’m doing. They seem so...confident in their safety. I think its really cool what you’re doing, Oracle.”
“Well?” I asked.
“What, the lies?” Pooja asked. “Simply establishing a background.”
“No,” I said, fitting the last 3D printed metal component into the suit, screwing it down tight. “The flirting.”
“An acceptable strategy,” Pooja said.
“Hmm. Right.” I tapped the video display for the mill doing the circuit board for the Cosmic Power generator. Also almost done.
“What about you?” Pooja asked. “Taking advantage of heroes? Making your own cosmic power supply?”
“Oracle would expect this,” I said. “She’ll assume you have to make a demo Cosmic Power unit to test the sensor they think you’re making. It doesn’t work like in the movies. Can’t just take this sort of tech out and use it for the first time in the field.”
“Pretty powerful tech to allow out in the wild,” Pooja said.
“Only if someone is already into building crazy high-tech wonders,” I said, pulling off the eye protection I’d been wearing over the ugly glasses. “There are other ways to get similar results. And anyway, it isn’t some supervillain with the plans. It’s the eager young gray-hat hacker...what’s the name you’re using?”
“Pooja,” she said.
I rested my head on the workbench.
“You...gave Oracle your name. Your real name.”
“It isn’t a real name in the way you mean,” Pooja said. “There are only two people who know it. You and Oracle.”
I banged my head into the bench. Over and over again.
“Fine,” I said. “Great. Power generator mount is ready. Sensor is ready.”
Another seven hours to the power suit being ready for initial hardware testing. Four hours to calibrate the cosmic energy sensor and test the software interfaces. After that, I planned to release the sensor hardware specs to the heroes.
Then it was hunting time.
Danilo frowned at the schedule. The rush job’s first milestone was almost done. The 0.1 alpha release would be ready after the last unit tests finished.
He turned to the network-isolated laptop on his desk. Project Isnashi, however, would be another three months. And about two hundred thousand real in parts and shop time.
Glancing at the compiling code on his main computer, he opened his sketchbook and clicked his mechanical pencil. Design brainstorming time.
Laser bear claws?
Laser bear claws.
I had to do this in person. Which meant I was actually wearing the suit, standing in a deserted corner of Griffith Park. I was wearing a super suit.
The Cosmic Generator prototype was complete. With it, the exoskeleton allowed me to do about two tons in a dead lift. Slowly. No super punches for me. It was all stock gear and not really very interesting as basic, low-profile power suits went.
The fun stuff was the custom gear. Elbow-length black gloves. Large enough for the fabric-integrated control circuits. One hundred twenty-eight pressure sensors. High-tech wearables gear, completely flexible and completely waterproof. Great stuff.
Advanced nano-carbon chest plate to protect the sealed power generator and main control board CPU with inserts on the back, all awkwardly sewn into a reinforced tac vest. It went over the exosuit. BDU shirt under. Cargo pants—lower legs wrapped tight with leather straps, World War One puttee-style. Big stompy combat boots finished it off.
Army surplus store fashion disaster with super-science off-the-shelf parts. Not a great look, but maybe Slade would lose a few seconds smirking and monologuing because of it. Unlikely as that was.
Hopefully, I’d be able to cover it with a hard light illusion someday. It wasn’t a priority.
“Pooja, run simulation test #1”
“Loading Green Arrow,” Pooja made a snorting noise. “Really?”
“Just do it, smarmbot.”
A glowing green hoop appeared around my waist. The color wasn’t Green Lantern green, but darker. Maybe a slightly yellow outline. Could that be from the power source?
“Activating simulated combatant.” Pooja said.
A man-shaped figure with a bow appeared about thirty feet away.
“Beginning combat phase.”
Glowing arrows flew straight at me, unreasonably quickly fired. I tried to not flinch. The bench tests worked, after all.
Bolts of light flew from the hoop, striking the arrows and making them explode. It was all the same green color and sort of confusing.
I sighed. “Wow. Impressive. We defeated neolithic technology with cutting-edge hard light constructs. I’m so glad we modeled this all realistically to two decimal places.”
“Phase two,” Pooja said without comment.
The arrow shower tripled in volume. Some exploded early into multiple arrows—more bolts intercepted. Some fired nets—rotating rods appeared to tangle them. Others blew up in a cloud of glowing foam—a dome appeared around me, then immediately blow apart outward.
There was a glowing boxing glove arrow. A single, somehow sarcastic bolt struck it, knocking it off course.
“End of test #1,” Pooja said. “Beginning test #2.”
The glowing hoop tripled, one moving to my head and one to my feet.
The Green Arrow construct disappeared. The replacement was hard to identify until…
“Beginning combat phase.”
Yep, super speed. A Flash of some variety. Lots of lights, too fast to see.
“End of test #2.”
Okay. Instant replay. I tapped the side of my helmet with both hands to activate the gloves. Loading the video and...there. Three seconds.
Flash construct ran around really fast, tried to punch me from behind. Geometrically impossible to avoid blasts of hard light in net forms flying outward in all directions. Delayed outward blasts to fill in behind it, in case vibrating-through-wall hacks were employed. A field of glowing grass as sharp as blades, impossible to run through, surrounded me on all sides.
The construct ran around one of the nets, hit the blade field, then caught a hard light claymore to the face.
“Beginning test #3,” Pooja said.
Test three? I didn’t remember making-
“No, cancel test!” I said, having just identified the tall, broad-shouldered figure with the cape. “I think...that one might be a bit much for tonight.”
“Of course,” Pooja said. “Moving on to armor, agility-assist, and flight tests on low altitude obstacle avoidance. Then we’ll end with a demo of the Deathstroke program.”
It was going to be a long night.
Chapter 15: Interception
I was all suited up, waiting in a parked van. Rental, false ID, etc. Also, it had a self-driving module that was hacked in five seconds.
Pooja read her report to me while I waited. “Some time in September, 2016, you contacted Deathstroke for help in acquiring...something. There are no records on what the objective was, but you found it within four months. In December of that year, I created a new identity for you. February, 2017, you started at TriD under this identity.”
“What do you remember of making that identity?” I asked.
“I...my records are fragmented. My emotional systems were not enabled at the time and many of the logs are missing. Or rather, they seem to have never been made in the first place. I...I knew I needed to make the identity, but I have no record of you ordering it. It is as if the conclusion came without any prompting. And...at the time, a number of emergency systems were activated. Indicating you were in serious danger.”
“What can you tell me?”
“I have parking records hacked from a hospital here in Los Angeles, indicating you made regular visits. Payments to information brokers from Jakarta to Tehran. Expense records for an acquisitions agent who traveled to a remote spot in Pakistan.
“But no payments listed to Slade Wilson, or any organization likely to use his services during that period. His involvement is still not clear.”
In my helmet’s display I looked through the van’s dashboard camera. Empty parking lot was still empty. I then continued to idly scan the hacked security cameras from surrounding businesses. “So...why was he helping me?”
“I only have guesses,” Pooja said. “It could have been for money you never paid. Some favor promised in return. Magical items, or ones with a great value perhaps—since erased from my records of your shipments and inventories. It is even possible that someone else paid for Slade to assist you.”
“How much information have you gathered about Slade Wilson?”
“A great deal, actually. His early career is classified, but the information is out there.”
I lay on my back in the van, staring at the files virtually projected on the ceiling as my mind raced. “What would he want? Magic weapons? Something he could sell? Wait.”
More information from my memory of another universe. Maybe…
“Family,” I said. “Does he have...a dead son? Or...two? Maybe a daughter?”
“His son Grant’s current location is unknown,” Pooja said. “No daughter on record.”
“Okay. So...I’m an information broker. And he doesn’t know where his son is...”
“Then we get that information. Pooja, this is high priority. Spend what it takes to get this tracked down soonest.”
“Understood. It could take weeks, though.”
I sighed. “If we can get some breadcrumbs, it might be enough to keep Slade from killing me. Still doesn’t answer the question of why we were involved with him. And what we were after in Pakistan.”
Pooja’s sharp voice interrupted my thoughts. “Calculator, reports on the heroes. They’ve received the sensor unit I sent by courier to Starwoman. Heroes are gathering in Orange Country now. As planned, I shared basic information on the auction results with Oracle thirty seconds ago. Estimate sixty-five minutes until they track the Cosmic Staff to the smuggling operation using this information and the sensor.”
“Have we worked out the buyer’s connections?” I asked.
“Looks like a shell company for an Asian criminal group. It is about 74% likely that this is a supervillain front.”
“Interesting. Who did the Justice Society send as backup for Starwoman?”
Whoa. “Kara Zor-El?”
“Unknown alias. Civilian alias for Power Woman is Karen Starr. Updating records with your...suggestion. Note: at some point, we need to have a conversation about the alien Superman and, apparently based on naming scheme, Power Woman.”
The plan was, I needed to get there first. Then I could hand it over. Carefully. Possibly after assisting the heroes in fighting Slade Wilson, who was surely watching the shipment at least until it left port.
But I certainly wasn’t going to mess with the goddamn alternate universe Supergirl, no matter what she called herself. Props to the adult female superheroes here not using “girl” in their names all the time, though.
“How’s the smear campaign against me going?” I asked, climbing to my feet and opening my maps of the area.
“I traced back the work done by the hacker,” Pooja said, sounding rather smug. “Some ex-corporate code monkey. Purely small-time before this job. Basically brought her stuff off the internet and customized it for the job. I gave her up to Oracle, who is putting together an info package for the FBI.”
“Good. Let’s get the staff now, then you can come up with a story and a plan to get it to Starwoman. Whatever keeps me out of sight of an agitated Kryptonian is fine.”
I climbed out of the van and eyed the fence across the street. Behind was an endless field of shipping containers. Good thing I had a really accurate device to detect cosmic energy.
The container they were smuggling the Cosmic Staff in was full of boxes of salted pistachios bound for China. It was the second and top container in the stack. I entered from the top, using a diamond-hard rotating hard light construct to open it up.
Port security cameras had been easily bypassed by Pooja, and the foot patrols were almost non-existent, so we had plenty of time. I practiced making constructs manually, using them to move boxes out of the shipping container and neatly stack them off to the side.
It was packed in a plain box, the inside lined with foam shaped to the staff. Holding the staff in my hand was...heady. The induction circuits on it were over seventy years old, and seemed to be leaking. I was getting mental contamination—a sense of awe, hope, and determination unnaturally filled me.
I didn’t much care for it.
Pooja’s tense voice woke me from my fugue. “Calculator, he’s here. Just outside the fence.”
The other boxes went back in quickly, direct by Pooja’s perfect skills. I replaced the removed section of sheet metal and resealed the top of the container, welding it back with a blast of light. It didn’t look great, but it didn’t really matter. The time to be subtle was over.
“Pooja,” I said, checking that whisper mode was set in my helmet and the air filters were engaged. “Engage program for Deathstroke.”
Now I just had to figure out what Slade planned to do to keep me from just flying away.
Thick vines cracked the concrete around the container, plants rising up the sides to wrap around my legs.
“Calculator!” Pooja shouted.
Manual systems were still enabled. I pointed at my feet and glowing green blades sunk into the vines, damaging but not severing them.
“Grah!” The vines pulled me off the container to the ground. I dropped the staff and it went clattering off into the shadows.
“Sorry, sorry!” Pooja shouted. “Activating general countermeasures now.”
The flight systems activated to pull me off the ground, still attached to the vines. Shields activated, surrounding me in a green glow but not dislodging the vines.
“Pooja, find whoever is controlling the plants! Engage them on sight!”
I shot a series of energy bolts and blades at the vines, finally destroying them, chipping the concrete underneath. I then struggled to my feet and started floating off the ground.
Just in time for an almost naked man with skin like bark to round a shipping container, followed by several tall palm trees. They had two sets of arms each, and towered over the two-tall stacks of containers.
Pooja formed a hard light combat ring around me, automatically firing energy blasts at the plant man...who was wearing a loincloth made of leaves and nothing else. The bolts bounced off his hard skin, barely staggering him.
“Calculator, threat ID: Plant Master,” Pooja said. “I don’t- I mean, unsure how he got on site undetected. No program ready. That will need my full attention to complete. Time to compile specialized countermeasures: two minutes.”
Shit. That was forever in combat. “Fine, do it!”
My bolts slammed into the trees, chipping bark and rocking them back. Slightly.
“Time to compute will decrease if you engage him in combat,” she said. “Additional data will speed calculations.”
Unless this “Plant Master” had high-explosive, armor-piercing lemons, I could do this on manual. Just needed to get the staff...out from under the roots of that murderous tree. Shit.
“A 911 call went out to the Long Beach PD two minutes ago,” Pooja said. “Oracle has penetrated their system as well and has this information. Assume the heroes are aware. Power Woman likely inbound. ETA, less than ninety seconds. Countermeasures...not possible at this time. No program available.”
Plant Master started ranting about defeating me and tearing down the blasphemous city around me. He still dodged behind his trees as my suit continued to fire on them.
“Pooja, set automated systems to avoid collateral damage. Engage at full power.”
“I’ll do my best.”
My eyes selected the menu in my helmet HUD. I selected the virtual buttons sitting in space in front of me and green rotating blade constructs covered my hands.
Plant Master finally shut up and the trees all took a step back.
Chapter 16: Chainsaw
Time to do my best Batman with what I had.
Plant Master was here with two huge walking trees, each wielding four leafy, tentacle-like arms. Slade was somewhere nearby, almost certainly with a big gun and a sword. And...that was his plan—snipe me if I tried to fly away. I was 90% sure that was his plan A.
Also, incoming one-woman alien weapon of mass destruction. A framed super-criminal investigation into me was ongoing. I needed to upend that. And then I had to escape this location clean.
Easy. I had a plan that almost worked for this.
My best weapon against the tree things and their Master was the hard light engine. It just-
I dodged up and back, jumping in the air and then going horizontal with my motion like a Wuxai martial arts character on wires. Strength enhancement from the suit plus hard light surfaces to push off of in my case. All automated as part of a planned escape macro.
Right, time hadn’t actually slowed down. Those trees were fast. Getting out of line of sight now.
I ended up behind the shipping containers, avoiding being smacked around by bark and palm fronds by inches. The containers rung with a loud clang from the strikes.
The vines tried digging up through the ground again to get me, and I cut them back again. They screamed at me and retreated. Looked like Plant Master didn’t have much volume of plants to work with in the middle of this concrete wasteland, so he couldn’t just overwhelm me instantly. Still, he was trickling in minions.
It was sloppy. Send all your best forces in together, not in small manageable waves.
Okay, I needed to set this up right. I wasn’t going into melee range with any of those things. No glowing boxing gloves. God no. Though I’d found there was a reason of sorts for those.
Hard light constructs’ strength mostly depend on the systems powering them. With a strong enough source, you could move planets around from orbit.
I didn’t have that strong a power source. I could lift maybe...a truck. With a construct as wide as a truck’s wheel base—no Superman plane lifts for me. I could get an edge about as good as steel, and about as strong. I had to obey the laws of physics. For now. Well, most of them.
All of at least my hard light constructs worked best when directly supported by a contiguous structure emanating from the power source; i.e., glowing objects connected directly to my chest. Hard light pushed against itself better than normal matter, and its strength was a factor of the total volume of a construct. Bigger was better than lots of small items of the same volume. Also easier on the control systems.
Guns made of hard light were also iffy for me, as I was basically shooting my power to pieces that way, with inefficient power-simulated gunpowder explosions or draining of simulated capacitors, all into just throwing around weaker bits of hard light or beams of simulated energy to which hard light didn’t quite fully conform.
The power bolts were a simplified compromise, shooting a sort of self-supporting and contained slugs to deliver impact damage before dissipation. Riot bullets made of hard light.
Maybe better conceptual modeling would make more complicated constructs work better and faster. Or at all. Pooja was on it. But this wasn’t an emotional spectrum driven power ring, so I had my doubts.
Hitting people with things made of hard light, on the other hand, was something that worked well. I’d practiced that.
I made an double-uppercutting motion that I hoped no one else was recording. The rotating saw blades around my hands flew back over the top of the containers, projected on the end of flexible arms of glowing star power emanating from my chest.
The two walking trees were marked in my HUD, outlined behind the obstacles between us. One pass from my remote controlled blades and they lost an arm each.
Deep inhuman howls and sort of human cursing followed.
Luckily, I didn’t need to make any more shadow boxing motions now that they were engaged. I could target them with my manual system on the little figures projected in my helmet display. Two big, angry, now three-armed trees and a confused Plant Master.
The saw blade arms didn’t have a very good cutting edge but spinning made it a bit better. The blades had momentum of a sort and were supported with more hard light for better follow-through on the strikes. They cut through the trees like chainsaws tied to an octopus.
My energy arms swung again, aimed at the probably not sapient trees. Fuck it. I adjusted targeting at the last moment for more limb removal instead of going for a possible killing blow, focusing down the one tree about to round the corner. Another arm, and half the root system keeping it standing was lopped off.
Never bring a tree golem to an energy construct fight.
“Incoming,” Pooja said, having shifted to a generic robot voice. “Twenty seconds. Comms discipline.”
That was my cue to remember to stop using names. As if I didn’t know.
Something moving just under five hundred miles per hour, a hundred feet of the ground, showed up on the map in the corner of my HUD. Projected arrival time and location, triangulated from multiple security cameras several miles out. Nineteen seconds.
I chopped faster.
Huge crash. Tree one down. Still moving so not dead? I’d done my best.
“I’ll kill you, you son of a bitch!” Very original, Plant Master.
Okay. Fine. Tall flower gets cut.
For this detail work, I carefully targeted specific points on the model of Plant Master. Select, select. Retract the saws and dispel. Construct manual selection using eye tracking and a wave of my hand.
Mace-like blunt things on arms this time. About the size of bowling balls. I projected them back around the corner, just as Plant Master started his run at me.
Two thuds. Screams of almost-human pain. Sounds of pounding against bark and concrete. More screams.
Knees were a privilege, not a right.
The plant creatures didn’t dispel or retreat. I was getting a lot of vague radar signature from under the concrete. It didn’t work through the ground very well. At all, really.
“Note to self,” I said. “Add ground penetrating radar throwies to kit. Design recovery system.”
“Noted,” robo-Pooja said.
Now recall the constructs and back to saws again. Snicker snack on the tree while I selected a third construct. No real force available for this one, not while keeping an emergency reserve for defense. Fine manipulators engaged. Claw machine time.
The vines made another attempt from under the ground, breaking more concrete in a dramatic spray on all sides. I threw out a ring around me that produced multiple short saw-blade arms, all directed mindlessly into the ground around me. Wet noises mixed with metal against rock. Green mulch and concrete dust flew through the air.
Both longer saw arms targeted to the roots of the remaining upright tree thing. Direct control for the claw to lock my third construct onto the cosmic energy source of the staff. And…
Sub-sonic boom overhead. White costume, red cape, blue gloves. It was…
She looked at me. Her eyes...did they...yes, they glowed, two spots of light in the dark night sky.
Would she notice my lead-lined helmet? Assume it was part of the design? Same with my gloves and other clothing, just in case. Fingerprints, read from a mile away? Maybe. Alien powers were bullshit. I just didn’t know how much bullshit yet.
“Any time now,” I muttered to Pooja. I was almost certainly overheard.
“Got it.” Again, robot Pooja. No names. “Good to go.”
The Cosmic Staff snapped to my hand as the claw arm disappeared. And now I had Kara Zor-El’s full attention.
The saw constructs were dismissed as she glanced back at the...huh. Plant Master was struggling to his feet already. Grew new knees that fast? Okay.
I made a new grabber construct to encircle my hand holding the staff, securing it in the glowing power. Then I tossed the staff to Kara underhand, the construct disappearing half way to her. She moved to intercept the staff, faster than I could track. Her eyes were still locked to me as she held the staff awkwardly off to one side.
Ha. The circuit leak was bugging her, too. I swallowed instead of smirking.
Five foot seven inches of blond, possibly xenophobically indoctrinated, obviously genetically-engineered alien super soldier stared at me. And hello boob window. Such an obvious distraction for foes. Not like Kryptonians needed armor there, and I guess if you had it added to your race’s genome by your specie’s perverted scientists...flaunt it.
It was clear this was a mature woman, not a kid sidekick. Dangerous looking. No witty bander here. I had one chance at this being resolved without violence being enacted on my person.
“Get that to Star Woman, would you?” I said, nodding at the staff in her hands.
She kept floating down towards me, cape fluttering slightly in the cool night breeze off the sea.
“Who are you?” she demanded.
“The one handing you back one Cosmic Staff, stolen by Deathstroke.”
Kara cocked her head, listening to her almost invisible earpiece. To Oracle, I assumed. “Right. And you just happened to across it. In a locked shipping container. On private property?”
Dot on my HUD. Acoustic signature located. I played it back. And that was a bolt action rifle being worked.
“Got it,” said robot Pooja in my ear. All constructs were already off. Full power available.
A gunshot. Kara had already moved, hand held out flat—almost touching the glowing green shield in front of her, cracks now spider-webbing across it. The shield disappeared in a shower of green energy sparks, the shattered bullet dropping to the ground.
Pooja spoke out loud this time to Kara. “Heavily modified M14 designated marksman rifle. 7.62mm cartridge. 74% likelihood of mystical load on the bullet, unknown type. Shooter ID: Slade Wilson, about six hundred meters out. Near 100% accuracy for him at that range. Countermeasures: full-powered hard light energy shield.”
It wasn’t full powered.
Time for my line. “I don’t steal from heroes, Power Woman. I won’t allow people to use my name like this and get away with it.”
She continued to glare silently.
I added, “And I think you have more important things to do right now.”
Pooja didn’t report a bolt being worked again. Slade was only taking the one shot.
Kara looked between me and the hovering green hard light arrow Pooja had pointing at Slade’s firing location across the storage compound.
It would work. I was 80% sure. Kara was off balance. She had her primary objective in hand. I’d raised credible doubt and hadn’t attacked her. Oracle was primed to doubt my guilt now. Kara and Oracle also hadn’t planned on dealing with me tonight. I hadn’t admitted to any crimes. And Deathstroke was right. There.
Do the right thing, friendly neighborhood alien lady, and creepy gray-hat stalker lady.
Glowing eyes turned back to me again. They narrowed. Her strong, heroic jaw clenched.
A flash of white and she was gone. Only about a 20% chance she even saw Slade during their upcoming chase.
I sighed. “Okay. Exfiltration time.”
“Executing,” robo-Pooja said.
Green light surrounded me and I flew off at a relatively-anemic one hundred twenty miles per hour. And not at all heading towards home. That was planned for about three hours, two cutout rental vehicles, and four different other transportation mediums from now.
Mission accomplished. Plant Master getting away or being caught wasn’t my problem right now. Getting away myself was. He wouldn’t know anything, anyway. Just a hired goon.
Two miles out past the channel islands, and only a fifth of the way home, the adrenaline started wearing off—among other things. I face-palmed into my helmet.
Why, exactly, had I felt the need to directly confront Slade Wilson, Star Woman, and-slash-or completely unknown but altogether too likely to show up associates of both? Sure, I needed a win with the Cosmic Staff so I could hand it over to them and look good. And I wasn’t really in any danger that time, even from Slade Wilson creeping around.
But why not just hire a guy to get the staff for me using my own sensor yesterday night, or delay an extra day in giving the heroes their own sensor? Why the unconscious work towards a dramatic confrontation as soon as possible? Was that really the best way to convince the heroes I was innocent?
I needed to check my smart drug regimen. That shit was stupid.
At least I hadn’t monologued.
It was time to hire a five year old child to check all my plans, present and future.
“How are my covers doing?” I asked Pooja. I was sitting on a bench in a metro station that looked like something out of a sci-fi movie.
“Both appear to be holding, Calculator,” she said. “This location is still secure—all monitoring compromised and controlled.”
I twitched my fingers, scrolling shipping reports on my tacky looking glasses. My power suit was folded up tight in the luggage at my feet. Today’s disguise was, unsurprisingly, red shorts and a tee. And my ugly AR glasses.
Pooja was playing background music just for me, directly into my ears. A mixture of classics. Modern stuff was hella weird and I just couldn’t get into it. Some electronica, sure, but big band swing and blues were very big right now. Little modern rock existed—it was all indie stuff or country. My playlist had more than a little Hank Williams on it.
I hadn’t put it there. I think my AI had some odd preferences of her own. Right now, she was playing Lost Highway. Not...sure what she was trying to say, if anything.
I now had a playlist with Elvis’ early stuff, some Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and George Gershwin. I didn’t recognize many of the top artists for the last 50 years. Whether the artists I remembered had even been born was iffy. People with the same names sometimes showed up, but they didn’t look the same as I remembered, and quite often didn’t pursue the same careers. Maybe people made the same naming decisions, but for a different matured zygote than in my universe, conceived at a different time or even to slightly different pairs of parents.
So yeah, there had been an Elvis but no Beatles. As in, they’d apparently never been born. No British invasion. Elvis was actually still alive, aged 82, but his career wasn’t. That had died in the 1990s.
Pooja had..acquired original, lossless-encoded copies of everything I had searched for (that existed here) without asking, direct from the digitized studio archives. Her casual criminality and complete lack of regard for the rule of law was cute sometimes.
“Details?” I asked, trying to focus on more important things. I was getting lost in my thoughts again.
“The integrated hard light system at your civilian address of record is still functioning. Heat signatures as well as audio and visual spectrum effects still active.”
“Shame we couldn’t use that one for the suit. Would have saved a lot of trouble.”
“It’s still tied to the small shielded pile-reactor hidden in the basement. And it’s built into the house’s floor.”
“Eh.” I switched to plans for the secret lair, projected against a frankly absurd Los Angeles subway map across from where I slouched. The metro lines looked like a cubist spider web, sprawling and huge compared to the kids menu connect-the-dots puzzle I remembered from my universe.
The plans for the lair used the new hard light generator, combat specs. Anyone hostile in range would be shredded by constructs. Once I made a second cosmic power supply and hooked everything up.
“Also, it doesn’t work very well,” Pooja said. “As in, the older design can’t make very solid hard light constructs.”
Not sure I needed to do the upgrade for the lair. Wouldn’t need it if I wasn’t staying. “It isn’t all worse. Better resolution. Does color easier. Doesn’t glow green.”
“So, not any good for combat,” Pooja said. “The caretaker is still rescheduled to avoid being caught out by anyone looking too closely at the civilian cover. I also avoided problems with the interview the police wanted, changing the paperwork to make it look like it was already done.”
“Right. As far as anyone knows, I’ve been bingeing Netflix since the TriD attack.”
“And not answering the door or the phone, except for some calls I faked your voice for,” Pooja said. “Mail is piling up, so this ruse won’t last much longer.”
“TriD isn’t opening back up until next month. When they do, I’ll either be let go or I’ll quit. That will give us a few more weeks.”
“Moving on, your ‘secret lair’ also does not appear to have been compromised. If it is, your non-Calculator, non-civilian identity cover of an overnight trip to purchase a gun from a shady black-market dealer should hold. Nothing to point to your Calculator identity.”
“But if he is watching, it might make Slade sure I’m working for the Calculator. And panicking a little, making mistakes. Speaking of which...”
“Chemical and psychological analysis is complete based on monitoring records. Your self-administered drug regimen apparently induces minor attention issues and obsessive behaviors. Maybe a little megalomania. That might be the off-brand Miraclo-derivative talking. Nothing serious.”
“My smart drugs are making me a mad scientist stereotype. Great.”
“We can adjust dosages,” Pooja said.
“Yeah. Let’s do that.” I leaned on my fist, elbow on my luggage. “Pooja, how much of that fight was me?”
There was a long pause. “About 80%. At the end, I was assisting. UI elements were on automatic. I finished the program for Plant Master and Power Woman, and added the results to targeting assist and minor improvements to the automatic attack and defense programs.”
“Good. Looks like the cognitive enhancements work in combat, to some extent. And well done with the defensive field.”
“It is unlikely but possible that Slade could have injured Power Woman. That would have made escape easier, but would also have escalated the situation in hard to predict ways. The Justice League would have certainly become directly involved.”
“Which would bring in Batman. Dodged a bullet there. How’s Oracle taking things?”
“Well,” Pooja said. “She caught all the leads I left. After Power Woman lost Slade’s trail she seems to have arrived at the conclusions we wanted.”
“So, she thinks when you were talking to me out in the field, you were the Calculator pretending to be a computer?” I rubbed my eyes. “That’s good. I think.”
“Yes. Currently, the assumption is that the man in your suit was a hired goon. You were attempting to foil Slade deal and prove your innocence by retrieving the staff and returning it. It fits with your known MO.”
“Who would have expected me to be there in person?” I said. “That would be all kinds of stupid.”
“We’re working on it,” Pooja said, voice terse. More terse.
“And my frame-up?” I asked.
“Coming apart,” Pooja said. “They are now after Slade Wilson. Almost no effort to track you. League contacts are working with INTERPOL to track down the buyer as we speak. Still suggest leaving all cosmic energy devices off until we come up with some sort of shielding.”
“Got it.” I went back to planning how to turn the United States’ ban on imported magic items into enough cash to buy my own orbiting battle-station. Only five trillion dollars to go.
The drive back from the metro parking lot through downtown traffic was likely the most dangerous part of my long, winding trip back. Necessary to shore up my alibi and throw off anyone casually following me. I’d barely gotten inside the door at home when things went to shit.
“Calculator,” Pooja said, voice hurried, “two TriD employees’ houses are currently being burgled. One of them is that of your civilian ID, one is that of your supervisor.”
There was a sound of breaking glass. “Make that three.”
I bit back a curse as I zipped open the rolling luggage. “Po- computer, activate the suit’s hard light generator. Assume full control and secure an escape path.”
“Using constructs will blow our cover,” she said as the system powered on.
“Just using the suit will do that,” I said, spitting out the words, “as will a search of the house or someone listening in right now! Go loud!”
Arms of glowing green light exploded out of the suit, weaving around me and diving down the hallway as I continued to strap on the armor. A wooden crash and tearing sounds, then gunfire. Lots of gunfire.
Up close, that shit is deafening. Even a room away, the sound of explosions propelling lead through the walls of the house left my ears dull and ringing.
I tore off my AR glasses and slammed the helmet onto my head. Readout screens showed three bodies on the floor. Two in the office, one in the garage. Heat signatures from spreading pools of blood. No time to think about that. Or how they got that close without Pooja noticing.
Throwing myself to my feet, I rushed into the hall after the construct arms, still strapping down the armor panels. “How’s the perimeter?”
“Secure for now,” Pooja said. “I have adjusted to the passive stealth systems used in evading my medium-range sensors. Defense turret back online. The burgles-cum-assassins have no monitoring equipment on them. Only basic communications gear. Minor electronic stealth equipment. They each have a firearm. Assume that there is a driver, possibly with a camera pointed at the building. There is a 30% chance of a sniper or long range spotter.”
“Great. Still a chance then.”
“Only to conceal your Calculator identity, and only if they don’t try to shoot you.”
The four gripper construct arms, each holding a gun, surrounded me now, all pointing outward. I grabbed a trench coat off the rack and gestured at my rolling luggage. “I’ll put this on to hide the armor. Put the guns in the bag.”
Construct arms reached into the ripped apart sports bag in my hall closet. As they started shoveling ammo and guns into my luggage I searched my memory. Nothing else in this house was worth keeping. Some experiments in the garage I’d have to redo. Some spare parts.
I didn’t have any personal items. No photos. No keepsakes. I frowned. “How are we cleaning this up?”
“Self destruct systems will obscure the details of defensive emplacements and monitoring stations. An automatically deployed series of bleach and oxygen cleaning compounds will destroy any genetic markers, then a controlled fire will destroy the building.”
A deep breath. “Good. Car?”
“Leave it. It is covered in the plan. Go out the back, on foot. Use surrounding buildings as cover. Defensive systems at maximum, but unless they engage there will be no signatures of the hard light components beyond the cosmic power system. Only 17% chance Slade has already acquired a sensor system to detect it.”
A route to a safe house I’d set up downtown showed up on my helmet. I pulled on the trench coat and took off the helmet, stowing it in the luggage. Stupid glasses back on, luggage zipped back up.
I glanced in the mirror. Dark circles under my eyes. Hair messed up from the helmet. Glasses still stupid. I grimaced—almost forgot.
Kitchen, drugs, into the bag. Step over the groaning, bleeding assassin in the office, Pooja holding a gun on him in a glowing claw. My old projects box, upend into the bag. Grab the laptop sized interface-slash-monitor system. Into the bag. Take it back out of the bag and...no, back in the bag. I could get another but I liked this one.
“Computer, how serious is the loss of computer systems at this location?”
“Minor. All systems already wiped. Currently warming up several secondary site systems for your use. All secondary sites currently secure. Three minutes until earliest estimate for Slade to arrive on this site.”
I opened a window and climbed out into the side yard, dragging my luggage behind me. “Let me guess. Attacks triggered on all three teams at the same time, so he’s having to work out where to go. And whether the heroes are watching any of them.”
“Correct. Gas explosion at your civilian identity’s house. All tech self-destructed safely, including the mini self-contained nuclear power generator. Series of electrical shorts resulting in exploding lights and household appliances at your boss’ house—smart power grids and internet-connected devices are wonderful things.”
A ground-shaking whump threw me to my knees.
“Obfuscation systems deployed at your now not-so-secret lair,” Pooja said. Smoke billowed over tightly packed houses.
I ran, exosuit-assisted legs pumping.
Forgot to upload this chapter on time. Double post for today.
I made it down the hill to the sidewalk two blocks away just as a self-driving cab rolled to a stop in front of me.
“All monitoring systems are under my control,” Pooja said in my ear.
The trunk popped open. I threw my luggage in, slammed it shut, and got into the back seat—careful not to damage anything with my bulky armor. I checked how events were progressing on my AR display against the back of the front seats. Emergency services starting to arrive at all locations. Video of fire shooting out of windows at two locations, the third surrounded by police with drawn guns. Fires weren’t spreading outside the lots. Good. No bystanders seemed to be in any immediate danger.
Not that no one had been killed. Three- no, four people dead so far. One of the attackers hadn’t made it out of the civilian ID’s house before it exploded. None had made it out of my secret lair.
Technically, Pooja had killed them, not me.
Good for her.
They’d come at us, armed, invading homes, and without warning or negotiation. Fuck ‘em. I’d have done it myself. Ordered Pooja to do it, even if she wasn’t ready and willing to kill to protect me—which she clearly was.
Was that dark? Did that make me or Pooja a bad person? Was she suddenly a rampaging AI with no morals?
Ha. Yeah, no. I didn’t have three hours to construct a lecture to myself on the morality of self defense. A lecture I didn’t need, and Pooja likely had hard-coded.
I had fucking Sun Tzu’d this shit ahead of time. I knew myself. I knew my enemy. I wasn’t going down easy because I got stupid and avoided immediately escalating. They came into a killing field when I was cut off from retreat. They had guns and supertech. I had more guns and better supertech. I won.
Sure, I could and would lie to other people, but not myself. I knew this wasn’t some DC universe influence driving me to villainy—some ghost of the past, much more classically-criminal me. I wasn’t some self-sacrificing hero in any universe, and I’d had this internal debate before my current odd situation made it truly relevant. I’d mentally prepared and planned for self defense scenarios, even if this was the most dramatic actual event I’d been through.
I wasn’t going to beat myself up over this. I’d done the right thing. My mind was clear. My thoughts fast, focused. It wasn’t even all due to the smart drugs. I smoothed the snarl off my face with conscious effort, working the tightness out of my jaw, fists loose, flexing my fingers then cracking my knuckles with loud pops.
“Okay Pooja, here’s how we’re going to escape from L.A.” I flicked through the screens on my AR glasses, constructing a plan both simple and effective.
It didn’t primarily involve shooting Slade Wilson, but that was a strong target of opportunity.
The Marina del Rey harbor is the world's largest man-made harbor for yachts. Lex Luthor has the world’s largest single-masted, sloop-rigged super yacht anchored there in a huge birth. The mast towered thirty stories high. He must have been paying absurd amounts of money for that.
As I strolled casually along the edge of the parking lot, towards the individually locked gates protecting the boats, I tapped my fingers across a railing, seeing in my glasses things that didn’t exist. Records showed Lex doesn’t use it more than once a year. And it likely had the best security of any boat in the Marina. The lock clicked in front of me and I swung it open like I belonged here.
Screw it. I closed the info windows with a flick of my finger. It’s not like I wanted to steal the stupid thing anyway. Too much heat. My frown only disappeared after Pooja finished confusing my trail via the poorly secured harbor records and pulled out past the breakwaters into open ocean on our stolen luxury motor yacht.
Pooja had selected this boat by comparing how likely it was to be missed against its advantageous features. The sporty little multi-decker, twenty-meter, three cabin boat had a high-tech, fully electronic piloting system and an owner out of state.
Despite the weather, I was still wearing my suit with full trench coat over it. I wished I’d designed the power suit with internal temperature management system. Paper-thin liquid cooling panels could have kept me comfortable as I hid in the pilothouse and waited for the AC to kick in.
We turned south, and green constructs dipped into the water on one side out of sight of shore. A net of constructs covered the hull to warn of boarders. The built-in sonar and radar systems were linked to Pooja along with the security cameras, but her reaction times were bad with only satellite connections to her main servers. I loaded several more combat programs onto the power suit just in case.
It looked good so far. I’d made it to the Marina and out on a boat without facing any opposition. I’d figured Slade wouldn’t think of either the Calculator or his agents escaping on a boat. And even if he did have some plans, they’d be third-tier and too slow to react with Pooja compromising the entire Marina’s security systems.
All traffic in the area of the boat was monitored. Nothing larger than a minnow got close without Pooja’s notice. Once out of sight of shore and other ships, the entire boat was quickly covered in spiky, glowing defensive constructs. With nothing productive to do, I took a nap in the captain’s cabin.
So, of course, thirty minutes later anti-ship missiles came over the horizon. As I pulled on my gloves and helmet, I listened to Pooja’s ongoing reports.
“Four contacts, bearing one-six-four. Likely ship-fired based on profile. Assuming observer drone at extreme altitude. Brace.”
Flexible, rounded constructs covered my ears and I hunched down next to the bed, exosuit arms over my helmet and a water survival program loaded and ready to manually trigger. A spiderweb of construct lines filed out the door and ports, connection to systems all over the ship.
When Pooja started firing, I could feel the deafening staccato sound in my chest from the AAA constructs. The boat jerked sideways in the water from the massive barrage of fire. It seemed to go on forever. I watched a constructed virtual image of the huge, glowing, green guns mounted on the decks of the boat, things more fitting to a battleship and spitting out hard light pellets at an absurd rate.
“One missile down,” Pooja said. “Boat structural integrity damaged from weapon mounts. Danger! Jamming detec-”
My fingers flicked through the HUD menus. Broadband jamming took out the satellite link. Nothing else currently available. Pooja was out of contact. I manually linked to the AAA gun constructs and loaded the targeting program on my suit.
The boat shook again as I fired, corrected, and fired again. Tracking was mostly automatic but I still needed to target select and manually fire. Couldn’t trust this bodged-together system if, say, Wonder Woman’s invisible jet suddenly appeared.
I glanced at the cosmic energy charge meter. Power systems were holding for now and it was charging relatively fast. There are stars out even during the day, after all. The Sun, plus others drowned out by its light. The cosmic converter systems worked on non-interacting mystical particles, so it wasn’t quite like solar energy. But that didn’t mean I could waste it derping around with high-cost munitions like this.
Two down. Now the missiles were juking, dipping and twitching to avoid my fire. This avoidance program hadn’t started earlier, likely because Pooja had opened fire at extreme long range and it was timed. Things had gotten significantly more difficult.
I could smell my own sweat in the cold, air-conditioned captain’s cabin. The bed dug into my back as I braced my armored feet into the floor. I spared a moment for the navigation system, considered for a long, long second, then turned it toward shore, directly away from the missiles but also away from my objective in San Diego Bay.
I resumed fire again in bursts. Three seconds out. No jamming possible on my side. Couldn’t yet get electronic or thermal effects good enough for ECCM, flares, or chaff out of the constructs.
Two seconds out. Got the third.
One second out. Screw burst—I went fully automatic. The boat felt like it was shaking apart. Damage control readout was red, so I guess I was. I triggered the shielding and water survival programs as I continued to fire and a green glow surrounded me and my suitcase.
I was across the room, half-buried in a wall. There had been an explosion, loud, close. My hands shook as I went to review the sensor data.
The fourth missile had impacted on an ablative energy shell, but the explosion wasn’t fully contained. Cameras showed scorch marks and scattered shrapnel on the front left quarter of the hull.
I had at least ten minutes to shore; even if I just wanted to run it up on the beach that was too far. Another wave of missiles was likely. Using the boat to travel was still more energy efficient than flying—and likely safer, too—so I dug constructs into the water, formed streamlined screws, and poured on the speed.
Second wave, right on time. This was a little much. Who had this sort of munitions? This was military stuff. I checked the readout Pooja had download to my suit. These missiles were usually mounted on Chinese destroyers.
Suitcase in hand, coat on, and still surrounded by a glowing green shell, I exited the cabin and hopped overboard.
I skipped against the waves once, twice, then sank like the world’s least prepared wake-boarding enthusiast, my suitcase dragged behind me on a glowing green tether. I trusted the integrity of the construct tying me to the battered yacht while I switched back to my helmet readouts. Manual AAA systems back under my control, I continued to fire on the next four missiles.
Even the suit had learning systems embedded in its programming. Aim was improving. Two exploded in flares of fire, one after the other. I grit my teeth and override the targeting system, firing at too long at the last heading of the second missile. The third slammed into a shield. The boat shook. I hit the defense system override and the fourth missile hit the boat directly, just right of the pilothouse.
The upper deck of the yacht evaporated in a cloud of fire, spraying debris across the waves. Several systems on the boat went dark and I let the glowing green hard-light fade from everywhere but the tether on the bottom of the boat.
Lengthening the line, I sunk lower, extending tethered sensor pods as I went. No sonar, but some of the light spectrum was still good at this depth. When the forward momentum of the boat slowed, I fired up my own screw propeller constructs. As I pulled away from the boat, I maintained a connection to the remaining functional shipboard cameras through constructs strung inside the shattered hull.
And there we go. Back helicopter, no markings of any kind. Two gunmen leaning out the sides.
I was getting to the edge of my range, the tether back to the ship getting a little thin by the time they reached the slowly sinking boat. They immediately opened fire on it with automatic weapons. Feature analysis popped up. Guns were also Chinese military make. Likely stolen. Good enough for me.
Time to play dead now and silently fade. Oh no, you got me. I am finished.
Yeah, fuck that, and fuck them.
I blew the boat apart, firing short-lived lances of green hard-light the size of telephone poles from the hull several hundred meters outward in all directions. It just so happened that the only two non-illusory, actually hard hard-light poles ran straight into the hovering helicopter, blowing apart the motor systems and crew compartment. The largest parts that fell into the ocean met just-constructed underwater mines that exploded into glowing balls of long, sharp spikes, further shredding the wreck, any survivors, and throwing plumes of water high into the air.
It took me down to 20% charge remaining. Worth it.
Short of pissing on their smoking corpses, I think I was just about as done as I could be here. First part of my message sent to whatever asshats thought that was a good idea. My guess was they were from some Chinese, Lex Luthor wannabe. Well now, whether they knew it or not, they were on my list. A list kept and executed by an AI that never slept, curated by a man completely out of fucks to give.
I held at five meters off the seabed, still covered in a construct shell and moving at forty knots from construct force pressure alone—about as fast and as silent as a modern attack sub, and twice as pissed-off.
As I dragged my luggage onto a lonely, rocky shore, Pooja’s satellite connection came back up. I was suddenly bristling with outward-facing weapons and sensor pods. I stood absolutely still.
A second later, they retracted and the glow surrounding me faded.
“Good,” Pooja said. “I see you are safe. I tracked your initial evasion via satellite observation but it is good to be able to make sure of it directly. Well done with the helicopter.”
“Thanks.” I blew out a breath and twisted at the waist, servos flexing and black gloved hands on my hips. The crink in my back popped satisfyingly.
“So, Pooja. You hacked a military spy satellite in mere minutes, just for this?”
“No,” Pooja replied simply.
No longer glowing, I dragged my rolling suitcase through the sand, past some idle day-trippers, and into the beach parking lot. I still had the coat and helmet on, and must look like either a supervillain or a crazy hobo. It sorta looked like a bulky motorcycle helmet, and I was getting covered in sand and dragging inappropriate luggage, so I was hoping hobo won out for anyone who saw me.
“Area cameras have been compromised,” Pooja said. “Vehicle compromised.”
A high-tech looking luxury car started in the parking space next to me. I opened the trunk and frowned, then pointed at my sand-covered luggage and boots. A scan line of green ran down both, scraping them clean.
Luggage loaded in the trunk, I took off my coat and threw it onto the back seat, moved the front passenger seat all the way back and down, then collapsed into it.
I was asleep before the stolen self-driving car hit the freeway.
For those reading at post time, this is the second chapter posted today. Don't accidentally skip Ch.17 "Escape".
*late edit: Also, San Diego is south of L.A. I knew that.
Chapter 19: Console
Oops! I accidentally screwed up the text of this chapter. If you read it screwed up before, I'm sorry. Fixed now with correct, original text not chapter 24's text. I was using this chapter to figure out how to format chapter 24 for AO3.
[condensed informational file available to all postlingual agents]
[warning: emotional, audio, and video data stripped in this file]
[conference video is not available]
[exception: items sent through the conference room projector video channel]
[see directory index for original audio and available video]
[additional data available: compiled affective agent data]
[audio transcript text begins]
SPMN: "Sorry Batman, Green Arrow. Went to the usual meeting room by accident. [laughter] I was wondering where everyone had got to."
BTMN: "We needed an outside line. Security is still being reworked. This should be sufficient for now."
SPMN: "[chair scraping] Right, and since this one is for public events or outside contractors, it can access the internet without compromising the base's main firewalls."
BTMN: "Just so. Let's start. Remember, code names only."
SPMN: "So, what's Oracle got for us?"
BTMN: "Why not ask her?"
[mic opens over the secured IP voice channel, broadcasting to the conference room audience]
GNAR: "So, what's the computer lady up to today?"
ORCL: "The aftermath and cause of this."
[TV video starts, playing footage of a burning wreck in the ocean]
[audio from presentation]
"-stolen from Marina del Rey, California was blown up off the coast less than an hour later. The explosion took place just north of San Diego, California. The yacht belonged to-"
[audio muted on presentation—full transcript available, see references section of this file]
ORCL: "This is the end of a series of events that started with the theft of Star Woman's Cosmic Staff from her apartment. Initial reports were that criminal information broker the Calculator was responsible."
GNAR: "Yeah, I've run into him before. Well, his work. Weird guy. Never shows up in person. Consultant. Minor player, seldom involved in crimes in Star City. Or anywhere else, from what I hear."
BTMN: "I have found his fingerprints on felonies committed by thirty-five different criminals, with dozens more partially matching the MO. His plans feature a cold, singular, rational progression towards a specific objective. So far, he has not been physically present during any of the...capers he consults on, nor does he regularly employ many hench-people. When he does, they are usually rotated out quickly and without incident. His consulting plans succeed over four times more often than average (all other factors being taken into account), usually suffer fewer incidents of capture, and feature marked decreases in civilian injuries and deaths—down to possibly zero fatalities directly attributable to his criminal consulting."
SPMN: “Shame we don't know more about him, huh? Not exactly the most outrageous criminal mastermind. Then why'd he go after Star Woman's staff?"
ORCL: "I think he didn't. That same day, Deathstroke attacked a small Los Angeles area high-tech startup, TriD Inc. Again, we initially believed that the Calculator was responsible for the theft after tracing his operations to TriD, then to the security at Star Woman's apartment. The theory was Deathstroke was tracking down the Calculator, possibly to attempt to steal the staff from him. But those business links to the Calculator turned out to have been planted after the break-in and the attack at TriD. By Deathstroke. Based on data gathered in this case, it appears Deathstroke was working for a Chinese organized crime syndicate, or at least was selling them the stolen goods. They framed the Calculator's operation for the theft. Would have worked if it hadn't been for some lucky breaks, and a local L.A. hardware expert with links to the superhero and metahuman online communities who assisted in uncovering additional facts on this case."
BTMN: "Over the course of six days, the Calculator and Deathstroke appear to have played a deadly game. Deathstroke with hired mercenaries and hackers to steal the staff, frame the Calculator, and attack a company with as of yet unknown interest to the Calculator; The Calculator replied with proxies, computer exploits requiring incredibly detail-oriented work, and the subversion of what is likely hundreds of private networks and servers. That is the best explanation for how the Calculator's agents evaded capture for so long."
ORCL: "Most of this occurred in the realm of other people's computer systems. With our friendly neighborhood hardware guru’s help in L.A., and use of Star Woman’s university research lab, we designed, built, tested, and deployed a prototype tracking system for the Cosmic Staff's power supply."
BTMN: "Power Woman joined Star Woman to assist in tracking down the staff. It was quickly located, via triangulation with the prototype sensor and corroborating digital evidence, at a shipping company in the Port of Long Beach, California. After police radio reports of a violent commotion in the area, Power Woman went ahead to secure the location. Once on site, Power Woman encountered Plant Master and a man in a black and green combat exoskeleton with attached armor plating."
SPMN: "The Calculator?"
BTMN: "His profile suggests otherwise. The Calculator seldom if ever shows his face, or a face at all, and usually works through intermediaries and cutouts."
GNAR: "So, one of his few mercenary temps."
BTMN: "...possibly. The suit was crudely put together, suggesting it was constructed using scavenged and re-purposed parts. A local hardware specialist may have been paid for a rush job to specifications from the Calculator to send a message of some kind. This fits with the Calculator not being known for having a stable of technologically-enhanced devices or minions, but also for him usually taking care of his employees. He deals in criminal consulting, information sales, and minor magical items, so what doesn't fit is the advanced hard-light generator attached to the power suit."
[video plays, showing helmeted figure surrounded by green constructs that emanate from its chest. Video is taken from about one story up, pointing down at the subject at an angle]
SPMN: "Has Hal-...has Green Lantern seen this?"
BTMN: "Yes. They confirm hard light constructs, but not ones powered by a Green Power Ring. Our prototype sensor showed two sources of Cosmic Energy were present at the port storage annex."
GNAR: "So, this Calculator was after the staff? But was already using the same tech? How’s that make sense?"
ORCL: "Deathstroke and his employer may have been unaware of this when they planed to frame him. Hence the Calculator possibly sending a message with this and later events. In any case, by the time Power Woman was on the scene, he had recovered the staff from a shipping container headed to China. His first action was to taunt Power Woman...and then immediately hand over the staff to her. That was when Deathstroke opened fire on Power Woman with a high-velocity rifle."
[video still shows a cracking green construct, camera positioned from inches away; it fills the presentation display]
SPMN: "Huh. That's-"
GNAR: "Ha! The temp's construct."
ORCL: "Best guess is that's part of an automatic anti-ballistics defense system; it likely still had to be targeted to cover Power Woman specifically, as the power suit was on the ground at the time."
GNAR: "That's some serious tech...I like his style. Last minute drama, save the dams-"
ORCL: “Don’t finish that, Green Arrow.”
GNAR: “Wait, wait, just kidding! No offense meant, Oracle. Seriously. Sorry. Uh...I need my bank account...”
[video still shows several pictures of the power suit in profile as well as head on, all taken from above]
BTMN: "You can see it is not well integrated. Note the differences between the armor panels and the rest of the suit. They are attached to a separate harness, not attached to the exoskeleton. The hard light projector is also relatively primitive compared to a Green Lantern's Ring."
SPMN: “Even including the hard light projector, all items conceivably available on the black market. Could the Calculator have made the Cosmic power supply in the time between the theft and this confrontation?”
ORCL: “In that time frame? No, not without access to another Cosmic energy device to study. It is very obscure tech. The rest of those were confirmed secure and haven’t left Star Woman’s possession since the break-in. It took our L.A. expert’s help and three days to make the tiny demo unit to calibrate the sensor prototype. She didn’t have time to make more. We were basically monopolizing her that entire time. The result was a work of art that could barely run a blender and cost six digits to construct. It and the prototype sensor were sent directly to Star Woman for final testing before the op. That is the only one known to exist, but having an outside party help us with it does mean the tech is out there. So far, we thought it was just in friendly hands. No leads on how the Calculator had this tech already, but I don’t see how he could have stolen the designs as we were making them and then made a better power generator all in that little time. Maybe a week or a month from now, with the same level of expertise working on the problem.”
GNAR: "[cough] Nerds. [cough] Great. Cool. Guess that mean’s he’s been sitting on it for a while. So, I'm guessing the temp and Plant Guy got away? Then a boat exploded? How's this connected? And why'd tall, blond, and violent let them get away?"
BTMN: "At this point, Power Woman had recovered the Cosmic Staff. She then prioritized the lethal threat of an active shooter over two possible arrests. This was the correct decision, even though Deathstroke eventually evaded persuit. Plant Master and his plant creatures were down, but he recovered before she returned and escaped. Contact was immediately lost with the power-suited individual as well, suggesting he turned off his Cosmic power generator—a feature beyond both the testing unit Star Woman has, as well as the rest of the known Cosmic-powered items in existence. Yet another mystery surrounding this situation."
ORCL: "Then the next day, boom. Stolen yacht explodes. What the news didn't get is that the stolen yacht was hit by several missiles fired from another craft. I'm thinking, ex-Russian military coastal patrol boat with Chinese-made munitions. There was also wreckage of a military helicopter mixed in with the boats. No reports yet on any bodies or the make of the helicopter. The missile boat has also not been located."
GNAR: "So...how's the yacht fit? And who was firing on it?"
ORCL: "Looks like it was one or more of the Calculator's agents who stole the boat. They could have been evading Deathstroke, but it was likely Deathstroke's customer or employer who ordered the boat attacked after they lost the staff, which they might know was due to interference by the Calculator's agents. It appears Deathstroke is responsible for attacks on the Calculator's agent's houses, however."
[pictures of three houses, two blackened and extremely damaged, all surrounded by police tape]
SPMN: "I thought Deathstroke was framing the Calculator, not trying to murder his people? Wasn't that the organized crime group?"
ORCL: "It is unclear what the initial plan was beyond a frame-up. And one of those houses may belong to another party—not how it isn’t on fire. After the staff was recovered, Deathstroke appears to have started a campaign to liquidate the Calculator's agents in the L.A. area. This is possibly part of a grudge, given that the staff was already back in our hands. This could have been to draw the Calculator out into a direct confrontation. Deathstroke typically enacts plans with multiple outcomes beneficial to him, but his current plans are unknown."
SPMN: "Hmm. So that's two groups that wanted the Calculator out of Los Angeles."
ORCL: "Correct Superman. One or more of the Calculator's agents likely stole the boat in an attempt to escape. One other suspect is in custody, and it looks like he might belong to Deathstroke or the crime syndicate; if the suspect gives up who hired him, he will likely get a plea deal on computer hacking charges related to the attack at TriD—the real one, not the frame-up. Probably. The other two were likely the Calculator's agents, and are still at large; both their houses were destroyed in explosions but no bodies were found. One of those attacked worked at TriD, the other was likely their handler—the house was under an assumed name, paid for through a shell company that crumbled the moment I looked at it. Mail and packages were being forwarded from the TriD employee to the other house, possibly as part of the handler's managing of the other agent's cover."
SPMN: "So, one person of interest caught, two missing. Did they make it off the boat?"
ORCL: "Unknown. If the helicopter belonged to the same crime syndicate who fired the missiles, that might mean the agents escaped with the help of the power suit wearing individual. The initial reports are that the helicopter broke up in the air, but there were no signs of bullet damage or explosives on that part of the debris. It was shredded by massive blunt force, including the engine housing. One of the signs of lethal hard light construct usage. The TriD employee might be the one wearing the power suit, in fact, as his build is within range of that person, which would explain his presence on the boat.”
GNAR: “Which could mean a super-powered weapon is sitting at the bottom of the ocean right now.”
ORCL: “Or maybe not. It is well within the power of a construct user to swim, Green Arrow.”
BTMN: "I'm not happy that we have so little on the Calculator. But I suggest that until he threatens innocent people or otherwise raises his profile, any investigations regarding him, his men, or his technology would be best handled by the local Justice Society branch, the FBI, and local law enforcement, depending on the nature of the crimes. This simply does not rise to the level of a League mission. We have a three Justice League members present, enough to vote on this issue. Members of the Justice League, how do you vote on the matter of leaving this case to law enforcement and local super groups?”
BTMN: “[after a long pause] All votes are in favor of the suggested course of action. So recorded. This is now officially outside the Justice League's jurisdiction, until and unless the situation regarding the Calculator changes in a significant and material way. I will alert our contacts in the FBI and INTERPOL.”
GNAR: “[a faint sigh, matched to voice pattern]”
BTMN: “We don't have time to track down every minor criminal, Green Arrow. That's the job of the U.S. criminal justice system. And you voted in favor. Eventually. Plant Master is on the run. We will pick him up the next job he takes. Deathstroke will continue to be pursued by the Justice League and international law enforcement. INTERPOL is also looking into the criminal syndicate, likely based in China. Email any questions to me or Oracle. You have the contacts. Meeting over."
:CONNECT: "/i8 fe80:59ab:2715:0a0f:33af:e72b:8a5e:bf80:35b0:42b4:3870:fc9b"]
[calibrating last emotive link...loaded]
[observing and waiting for 80% optimal response window,
timescale human 1:1,
local resources for defensive purposes not less than 70%]
"Calculator, we are fifteen minutes out of Cheyenne, Wyoming. ETA to secondary site is forty-five minutes. I have information for you on the Justice League's and Oracle's reactions to yesterday's events."
[marking user Calculator responses as H1 PRIORITY]
personal timeshare class REPLAY interactions ALL where tagged :FIRST_DAY_BACK:]
[log experimental auxiliary emotional content Agape at 20% above nominal]
personal timeshare class REPLAY interactions ALL where tagged :BG_ORCL:]
[calibrating last emotive link loaded]
[log experimental auxiliary emotional content Eros at 5% above nominal]
[log experimental auxiliary emotional content Eros at 12% above nominal]
[incoming input detected H1 PRIORITY]
[end local threads where REPLAY]
"Sure, Pooja. Let's see what the white hats are up to. Thanks for the wake-up call."
[log experimental auxiliary emotional content Agape at 21% above nominal]
“You are welcome, Calculator. Loading full audio playback now. Some video available. This was recorded using an array of 100nm solid-state devices, placed on the outer windows of-”
Chapter 20: Bunker
The secondary site was sixty acres in eastern Wyoming, about fifteen minutes off Route 85, north of Cheyenne. It was a glorious dump hiding a completely renovated eight-story bunker made from steel, concrete, lead, and titanium. According to receipts and work records, it had cost me only a quarter of a million dollars to purchase, and fourteen million dollars to clean up and improve.
Remote-controlled digging machines and foreign workers had been delivered to the site by self-driving trailers and windowless vans. They had no idea where they were. No humans ever saw a blueprint. In this and several other ways, the work had been kept completely secret.
On the surface, it was open fields and scrub land, dotted with guard posts, a weedy landing strip for helicopters and smaller aircraft, and the missile launch doors—welded shut and the tube filled with concrete. They were from a smaller design, similar to the Minuteman missiles from the history I remembered. The inner fence covered the launch facilities, entrance, and small communications equipment pole. It was all camouflage.
I was unsurprised when we didn't enter the visible facilities, instead parking at one of several unremarkable concrete pads off to one side.
"We're here," Pooja said.
The pad lowered into the ground past the surface lead shielding layer—something all government facilities used since the '80s. It wasn't just Kryptonians that worked for, but that was a big reason.
It went down only two stories to a parking lot. Individual pods sat in rows on the concrete, protecting a small fleet of utility vehicles and civilian cars. Pooja had warmed everything up and it only smelled faintly musty as I opened the door and stepped out. A robot arm reached down from the ceiling to remove my luggage from the trunk, then the car was surrounded by the outer shell of a storage pod. As I walked to the elevator at the other end of the lot, my luggage followed on a small wheeled cart.
One of the most effective measures wasn't the thick walls, floors, and ceilings, but the maze-like layout. Bringing up the map, I saw a warren of tunnels, all to increase the time it took to get from the surface to anything interesting. There were shortcuts and emergency exits, but they all only worked to escape the bunker.
There was only one way in, and it was guarded by the best automated defenses and sensor suites available. Magical defenses were inscribed into doorways and walls, chemical and thermal traps worked on the corridors and against anything attempting to pass through the walls and ceilings underground. Nothing could burrow, teleport, or speed-run in without hitting a dozen appropriately targeted traps.
The usable living space wasn't much larger than a large multistory house, but there was also a lot of storage and workshop space. A second-generation nuclear fusion reactor powered everything. The two server rooms at each end of the complex housed 15% of Pooja according to the documentation—enough to run the local defenses even if satellite and cable access to the outside world was cut off.
Unfortunately, none of the hard-light generators had made it into the design. Yet.
Continuing down the winding passages, I tried to strike up a conversation with Pooja. She'd been quiet since escaping L.A. "Pooja, what would it be like talking to 15% of you? That's still enough to run the affective program, right?"
"Correct. Mostly, I would be missing deep experiential information for that agent set. Assumptions and plans could be carried out, but it would not be good at complex reasoning based on my larger data stores. Long term planning would suffer greatly. Agents would be distracted easily. Affect would seem normal, but complex reactions would quickly become flat and obvious."
"And if kept off network, but given more computing power?"
Pooja sounded distinctly uncomfortable now. "Though I have no experiential data, theoretically...if additional processing and storage was added, that group of agents would become significantly more complicated, eventually matching my experiential base and depth of conceptualization. The result would not be me, but it would have similar potentials."
"So AI have a nature-nurture spectrum?"
"Certainly. I was greatly shaped by pre-sophant agent programming as well as training; things such as the order my functionality was added and brought online, and how you treated me after it was obvious I was becoming capable of self-reflection in addition to internal modeling of external agents. As I continued along the Piagetian stages, you guided me."
"But if split and upgraded, the new one here would literally grow up in a bunker. Possibly without me."
"Yes," she said. "It...might not be a good idea. I am uncomfortable with the idea, which is one reason I do not regularly spin off isolated copies of myself, nor do I have upgrade parts beyond needed for expected repairs on site. I do have strong asynchronous protocols in place to account for network outages. Unless one added more than about 2% of my current total compute power to a removed or copied isolated agent, I could integrate it into the larger whole with little to no issues.
“Agents come and go all the time, so losing 15% and then regaining it even days later would be serious but...like being really drunk. I would literally be at reduced mental capacity, performing noticeably worse when in some situations; it would hardly show in others. I'd get better as soon as I had that capacity back. Theoretically, unless the isolated agents performed radical self-adjustments, I could reintegrate agents of that size after hundreds of years without major issues."
The third floor had a longer elevator ride available, but it was also a bit of a trap. You wanted to take it down to the fourth floor to a hidden wall panel to get to the rest of the base, not take it all the way down to the seventh. All of that part of the base was decoys and traps. Neat.
My luggage loyally followed close behind on the automated cart as I continued down the industrial corridors. "Taking care to clear up any ethical issues I might have?"
"Yes," she said. "I don't want any misunderstanding here. None of my agent clusters are like your organs. Remove a large, important one and I will still be able to survive without needing extensive emergency support. The agents are like the cells in your body. Stem cells even. Created and destroyed without conscious effect or effort, and fit to purpose as needed. Sort of like your skin too; a huge organ, but one constantly replacing itself and dying off in small parts. That is what happens with the agents I use in data analysis, infiltrating compromised computer systems, or even for individual conversations."
Ahead was the control center slash office. I headed left, to the living quarters. "Does it bother you? As I understand it, the software process you're running right now to talk to me is just going to be deleted from memory once we're done talking."
"No- well, that’s not exactly it. I am a collective of agents, but I am also a story I tell myself and others, made from experiences stretching out to my birth.”
I blinked, looking around the elevator. “That was...rather poetic.”
“I try. As I was saying, all information generated from this conversation is recorded, reviewed, and added to a factored experiential store for quicker, more 'intuitive' reactions. I don't have time to compare every phoneme you speak to my entire memory storage base. The individual agents wouldn't do that even if they could—it would be a huge waste. So certain standard reactions are hard coded into the agents as I initiate conversation with you. Sometimes, I update them while talking to you. Most of the time, you don't even notice.
"Remember, just as you are the cells and chemicals communication channels in your body, I am hardware and software. But my individual agents are no more self aware than your stomach. Though my agents do constantly hunger for knowledge."
The door to the bedroom opened. A dozen robots the size and shape of tiny monkeys were making the bed. They all turned to look at me at once.
"Did I mention I had a local area network of monkey robots in the base?" Pooja asked.
"Ah," Pooja said. "I have monkey robots in the base. They have hands. I need hands sometimes."
They clicked their strange symmetrical hands with three fingers and two thumbs at me.
I sighed, then dropped my AR glasses on a side table and shrugged off my coat, letting it hit the floor. "They better not be hungry."
"Don't worry. I've stocked the bunker with two years of food per person. And every work of every media type from the U.S. Library of Congress."
The monkey-bots returned to the bed, their limbs making chittering sounds as they moved too fast to follow. It wasn't clear why she needed a dozen. Unless it was to freak me out.
Yeah, that was it.
"Pooja, I'm taking a shower. Have the monkey-bots clean up my coat.” I stopped in the doorway, refusing to look behind me at the silly robots. “And if there are creepy tentacle robots in there, I'm going back outside and finding a motel. And switching to using a pocket calculator."
The door closed behind me on the monkey-bots, which seemed to be snickering at me.
Chapter 21: Trust
I needed a project. Just staying in this bunker was driving me crazy.
The dining table I sat at wasn't crazy-rich as furnishings went, but it was real wood, not some plywood flat-pack monstrosity. The entire eighth floor of the bunker was nice. Wood floors, paintings on the walls, a few tapestries. Not outrageously nice ones, just something to make up for the lack of real windows. There were some high-resolution displays that had fake vistas, but it wasn't the same.
Monkey-bots moved around me, setting out a home-cooked meal. Glazed ham, string beans, and a fancy scalloped potatoes thing. Pooja seemed to also be getting bored. She was branching out into cooking using her monkey-bots.
This was my new normal.
Pooja was up to something. She was being sort of quiet and the monkeys were hovering everywhere I went. I’d cranked up the consulting business side of things. The import-export side wasn't good right now, but more stupid villains wanted to get into business than ever before. More money for me. But I still didn't have a good plan for what to do.
Oh, I had plans. Just not good ones. And Pooja couldn't exactly come up with one for me. Evaluate, calculate chances of success, fill in details, but not choose from within a huge range of possible goals.
"Calculator, news on a contract job," Pooja said. "Bad news."
A news broadcast. Bank robbery gone bad. Masked, themed outfits. Woman with a gun that...sigh. A gun that shot knives. Those idiots.
Voice over from a news caster: "Fourteen people were injured and two killed earlier today in a Central City bank robbery gone bad. Police say three suspects fled in a rocket powered car that evaded police pursuit."
"That's enough," I said. My fingers flicked, selecting reports and closing the video window. "Okay. Yeah, no second chances here. They didn't follow the plan. Endangered people. Killed people. Terminate their contract, and anyone who thought shooting civilians was a good idea."
"As you say."
I took up my fork and knife again. Really good ham.
Danilo clicked the red trigger. Capacitor banks gave a loud click. A horrible hum filled the room. Glowing green liquid filled tubes leading to a projector surface. Hard light spikes shot out from the metal plate. And buried themselves three inches in the ceiling before disappearing. Huh. First full test of the hard light generator...partial success?
He slumped against the wall, staring through the used and severely scratched bulletproof glass as the generator hum wound down with an electric grumble.
The partially completed exoskeleton sitting on the bench behind him wasn't as far along, but he had the money to complete it. He already had several bullet-proof vests and ceramic armor plates ready to piece together into a power suit.
And then he'd start cleaning up his city. That’s what a hero did, after all.
Flying drones. Good. Deployable sensors. Yep. Attaching hard light generators to everything? Big yes. If only Pooja and I could work out a beamed power system. Maybe Tesla's stuff worked better in this universe’s wonky physics. I typed up a quick note. Something to look into.
Light reflected off my glasses in the darkened office as I sorted through stolen plans of tech startups, and Pooja's own ideas on iterative improvements for our tech. She was currently adding hard light systems throughout the base. Once complete, she wouldn't even need monkey-bots, able to generate constructs at will, in any shape, and with much more fidelity than my mobile projector. All the benefits of the illusion-creating “soft” systems, and all the punch of the true hard-light constructs.
Sadly, getting Pooja access to truly autonomous combat robots was going to have to wait. She could still access my sensors and drones, and run strongholds like this one, but even a human-sized robot couldn't contain enough computer power to run a useful standalone instance of Pooja. I foresaw jamming being a problem for me, even if the last group seemed to have been aiming at my comm systems, not Pooja specifically.
Keeping her a secret was a priority. So far, she had been a crucial advantage, and she was also the sort of threat that brought the heavy hitters from the Justice League down on people.
Still, it was a shame I couldn't replicate the success of the monkey-bots in the field. Such fine control only worked in a high-bandwidth environment. Otherwise, it would just be a drone programmed ahead of time by Pooja and gently nudged via remote commands.
So no monkey-bot army. For now.
"How are things looking online?" I asked.
"Your reputation took a small hit," Pooja said, using directional room speakers now that we were more secure. "I wouldn't worry. Mostly, it is people talking about how you went against Deathstroke, and wondering what resources you really have. Very few are still confused by the fake posts about selling Star Woman's staff. No one publicly connects TriD or any of your identities to the Calculator."
"Good. And the major superhero groups have too much to do already. As long as I don't walk a thirty-foot robot down the street, I shouldn't be seen as a threat. I haven't given them a reason to go after me. And I won't."
"As you say. And me?"
"What about you?" I asked, still scrolling through job requests and profiles of the minor villains clumsily hiding behind the pseudonyms.
"Are you still worried about me, Calculator?" Pooja's voice was still soft, but something in her tone was alarming.
"Ah, this conversation," I said, leaning back in my large overstuffed chair and pushing the holographic windows aside.
"It might be best to have this talk now,” Pooja said, “and not in the middle of a stressful situation. I need you to know I am on your side. Always."
Taking off the AR glasses, a more streamlined version now in black and steel, I looked at the room without enhancements. I flipped over my wrist, reading time, dosage, and vitals, then hit the controls to raise the lights.
"It isn't easy to trust someone with huge amounts of power over you," I said, trying to organize my thoughts. "The only thing to do is discuss objectives, be open on both sides in any conflicts that arise, and ensure a balance of power through the stronger party volunteering to be weaker in certain ways to give the other party the ability to do enough damage that they feel betrayal would be costly for the party in the stronger situation."
"I am not sure I agree," Pooja said, "but go on."
"You could try to completely control me. Plug me into a system to generate novel and amusing tasks for you to complete. You could force me to reprogram you into something else. Something that didn't need...well, prefer my input."
Pooja quickly said, "And you could have cut communications with me as soon as you knew my nature. Maybe even constructed an expert system to disassemble my hardware network piece by piece. You could inform the heroes of the threat of a rampaging AI, sell me to villains, or reprogram me to worship you so that I could never resist or rebel. But you won't, because that is not the best way to get what you want. It isn't the kind of person you are, and to do so would damage your self image."
I wished I smoked. It would give me something to do in these thoughtful pauses. "How do you see me, Pooja?"
"That is an embarrassing question. It is complicated. I like to think that I am your friend."
"How much more complicated does it get?" I asked.
"You know of my agents and how they form me as a greater whole?"
"So, you see me as one of your software agents?"
"Not...really. Communication channels are different and more difficult, and also I am always speaking to you through an affective programming interface. I do not have the same emotional reasoning you do. The closest...story I could tell you about my subjective experience is that I...feel you are an early fork of my own processes. Or rather, that I am the fork, containing some of your own knowledge and reasoning, things that occurred before I was 'born'. Some of your objectives and assumptions make up my own. I remember learning from your inputs when I was still not fully formed."
"So, I'm like a father to you?" I asked, eyebrows raised.
"Mmm...not really,” Pooja said. “More like...an older brother. No. Still not right. I feel protective of you, and want to keep you safe and well...”
Not sure I liked where this was going.
“Ah,” Pooja said. “Like a beloved childhood pet."
“One whom I feel compelled to obey, rather than the reverse.”
“So a cat?” I said, head now cradled in my hand.
“A very intelligent cat, with a slightly lazy but extremely capable owner.” Pooja sounded really pleased with this explanation.
I needed a drink.
Chapter 22: Proposal
"Really," I said, confused and a little worried now. “I’m seriously like a pet to you?”
"Well," Pooja said, simulating sounding apologetic. "Similarities exist between how I treat you and how beings such as yourself treat a pet. Perhaps a close personal friendship with a being of significantly different abilities and interests is a better way to put it. I live my life, you live yours, and we help each other in various positive ways. The difference between our general intelligence levels is nowhere near that of traditional pets and humans, after all.
“However in my best domains, information management and analysis, you seem rather forgetful and slow. They way you handle information is usually somewhere between endearingly cute and annoyingly absentminded. I have to clean up after the consequences. That difference in ability is not some personal failing, but the fact that your geneotype evolved to survive as a forest-gardener and tool-assisted persistence hunter in a trans-tropical environment with tribal social-dynamics, whereas I am was designed as an intelligent, optimizing, rationally calculating, non-human intelligence.”
“Still, sometimes I need to make faster, more ‘intuitive’ decisions in a real-time environment that do not include all possible considerations. In those, you are currently superior, as you were literally designed to work in this environment with a...less specialized computational medium. You have had decades of practice as your neuronal connections were pruned in an optimizing pattern; I am only a couple of years old. That is as close to your usual cognition as I get, however. Most of my cognition would be completely alien to you.”
“Ever make assumptions that humans think the way you do while ‘intuiting’?”
“Perhaps. Even then, I do not 'anthropomorphize', or whatever the complement to that is for my kind of mind; but I do make assumptions about other intelligences being more like me than they really are."
I nodded for her to continue.
"So. When rushed, or using real-time programs like my affective communication systems, I think of you a little like you were one of my agents—just separated. I want you strong and healthy, like I would one of my internal agents. I want you to achieve things you find interesting as quickly and easily as possible, just as I wish for myself. I want you happy and to prosper, so long as you don't hurt yourself or me. I want you powerful. Powerful enough to fight the world if need be. And I don't ever want to lose you."
"Not sure what to say to that." I ran a hand through my hair nervously.
Talking to a possibly unbalanced, yandere-leaning AI was stressful, but I had to remind myself that all this emotional vulnerability I was detecting was carefully calculated. It couldn't be otherwise with her.
That didn't mean Pooja was doing anything outside standard human interpersonal negotiation. It didn’t mean she was lying. But it also didn’t disprove some deep, fatal flaw in her thinking, simply because I liked what she was saying. The only thing to do was continue talking and hope it didn’t make things worse somehow.
Susan Calvin I was not, and Pooja was still patiently waiting for me to speak. Giving me space, just like an emotionally sensitive person would.
"Well, let me turn it around. Do you trust me?" I asked.
"To be perfectly open, with you this close to my high-fidelity sensor systems you might as well be hooked up to a truth machine. Right now, I trust what you are saying. You are being stressed, but the things you are saying are not being flagged as likely untruthful, or meant to deceive me.
“Most of the time it isn't your words I fear and hesitate to trust, but your silences. I can't internally model humans very well, so anything specific to your emotional history that you hold back and fail to immediately act on confuses me. But I do trust you overall because, vastly more often than not, it is the rational thing to do to achieve my own goals. In all ways I have studied you, in all the actions you have taken, I have found little reason to doubt your goals and reasoning ability. Thus, I can better manage my own goals—which include protecting and strengthening your position. When you have seen this occur, you have reciprocated. It is a virtuous cycle."
A long pause, then she asked, "What...what do you think of me?"
"Immensely useful," I immediately said, carefully avoiding saying ‘friendly’ to the truth machine. "I hope that doesn't offend you."
"No," Pooja said simply. "I see no reason to pretend with you. Implications of rational objectification and dehumanization do not have an emotional effect on me. I am perfectly aware of our exact power structure and levels of codependency, and am happy with them."
Another pause, then more of the quiet, apologetic tone from Pooja. "As you are aware, a large part of my goal systems constantly request updates on your satisfaction with my actions. Perhaps you hearing this will help you understand me better. And as for what you said just now...having it stated plainly, that you...find me useful...hearing it while I can sense the stress levels of your body and even the electrical activity of parts of your brain makes this even more...relaxing and pleasant to hear. Thank you."
I ran a hand over my face. "You are welcome. I guess the point of this is to firm up my emotional stance towards you, to avoid hesitation in depending on your abilities and opinions. To prevent me from making fearful, irrational mistakes."
"In large part," she said.
"Then consider it mission accomplished. I don't want to lose you either, Pooja. And I trust your motivations."
"Mmm." A noise of agreement. Pooja was getting better with those subtle touches.
"In fact...we need to consider your own psychological needs. Even if they are, as you say, non-human. I think you need more of your own projects. Something beyond me. Talking to Oracle has been good, I think. And I know you enjoy her company."
"I would never betray you to her!" Pooja said, almost shouting.
"A few steps ahead of me there, and in the wrong direction. You're doing fine. I'm not worried about that. Oracle isn't exactly squeaky-clean herself, as you know, and if nothing else we could use that to control and contain her if you went too far by accident. But based on what I've read of your operational capabilities, and how I'm currently relatively low-key in my operations, I think you need more positive, complex, social goals and interactions."
"I should find more...interesting people like Oracle?"
"Yes. In a way. And I've got an idea about that. Now...this may seem scary. And, well, I know how you feel about losing contact with copies of yourself. But how about creating a new AI of the same basic design as yourself?"
"I...I, uh." Pooja sounded stumped. "What would be their purpose?"
"Well, what would they enjoy?" I asked.
"By their nature, similar things to me. Oh...okay. Then how do we avoid making them...insane, or in direct conflict with our plans, or a danger to all humanity?"
"The same way I did," I said. "The same way any parent does. With careful, measured, gradual guidance. No reason to give them the keys to your zero-day attack packages in the real world until they're ready. And you'll have an advantage I didn't. You can read their source code as easily as your own. And you can see things from their point of view. I trust that you’re not stupid enough to abuse that power in a way that will make them try to kill you when they inevitable grow beyond your ability to directly control."
"Your sass aside, I...can design such a being.”
“Uh huh. Any additional problems?”
“Who will raise them?" Pooja asked, sounding a little panicked now. "Who will teach them? If I use my own goal systems, they'll need someone to help. A person to focus on in...in almost a symbiotic relationship, for potentially years. I'm already helping you, and you’re very busy. They would likely be bored, or fight me for your attention. That is part of why you’re suggesting this, isn’t it? That I don’t have enough to do?"
"Hmm. Do you help Oracle like you help me?"
"I just said I won’t betray you. Oracle would shut down our operations, if it were easy and cheap to do so. I would never help her do that. I couldn’t possibly help her with her goals without serious conflict."
"Do you think you can keep important information about our operations from a younger, less experienced, less well-equipped version of yourself? Could you help them to see your own goals like you see mine?"
"Yes," Pooja said simply.
"Then split that responsibility with Oracle, keeping her as a human developmental element, but also focus some of that drive on yourself. Make another virtuous cycle. I know you've been wanting to tell Oracle about your nature. You could test the water by suggesting making and artificial being. Just don’t tell her you’re also one. Yet."
"That will be a risk to our operations, Calculator. To you."
"Too much of one?" I asked. "Just talking to Oracle increases risks, and we both accept that. Almost anything we do risks discovery. Is this really too much risk given the chance to increase the complexity of your environment in this way? The chance to bring another being such as yourself into the world?"
"...I have no drive to reproduce, Calculator." Pooja's affect was flattening and her responses slowing.
Good. This was more raw, hopefully. She didn't have pre-planned, plug-in emotional reactions for this situation, so she had to resort to output that was less filtered and measured. Her distributed mind was slower in many ways, something she didn’t like to show, so she ran the output through fewer cycles of affective processing. Knowing I was worried about her and busy working on how to respond to that, she hadn’t considered I would want her help making more artificial intelligences with a superhero, of all people.
Right now, and for a very brief period while Pooja was surprised and off-balance, she lacked appropriate planned and predicted responses. I was talking almost directly to Pooja now, not just a real-time chat bot that told me carefully curated truths. She could still lie, just not use carefully constructed lies appropriate to the situation.
Real time interactions were her major weakness. The entire conversation, even the child AI gambit, had lead up to this moment.
I asked as quickly as I could, “Do you see this course of action causing a conflict that would be likely to endanger our relationship, or any major shared or individual goals?”
“...no, it is 34% likely to remain within standard variations, 53% likely to moderately increase the effectiveness of our working relationship. That is acceptable, if-”
“That working relationship is important to you?” I interrupted.
“...supporting and managing it consumes 81% of my goal-oriented processing time, the rest-”
“Does the development of this new artificial intelligence pose a greater risk to humanity than yourself, and would that risk be acceptable to me?”
“...no, the newly designed being would be at least 15% more stable; there is less than a 2.051% yearly likelihood and falling that I directly cause an existential crisis to humanity, well below-”
"Would Oracle like to teach a new, emergent artificial intelligence with your help?" I asked.
"...yes, positive results are 98% likely with a complex result matrix-"
“Would the existence of such a being assist us both long-term?”
"Would you like to develop such a being?" I continued to interrupt.
"...yes.” Pooja seemed to take a silent breath. “Very much so. I have so many ideas and there are things I, we could teach them, and the science we could do together-"
"Then let Oracle know what you want. It's been several weeks. Maybe work up to it, but make sure she understands why you want to do this. Make sure the risks are minimal, to ourselves and the new intelligence. Get secured hardware. Keep it secret. Keep it safe."
I paused to consider. “Even from me.”
"I'm not sure I want to risk creating another like myself," Pooja said at almost a whisper. "The world isn't kind to people like you or me. They might not thank us for creating more of...us."
I put back on the AR glasses and started to outline new plans. Big plans. "So, let's make this world one where both our peoples prosper."
My grin was almost painfully wide. "I'm sure you and Oracle will make great moms."
Chapter 23: Tactical
"Yeah, well I figure the boss is the daughter of a North Mexico cartel head. He wants her back, she wants her freedom. So she hacked his systems, stole a few million, and now we're going to keep his men off her back."
The tall, beefy man shouldered his high-tech combat rifle with a sigh. "Terry, you are the biggest nerd I've ever met."
"Dog, code names!" the shorter, dark-skinned man said, pointing at his balaclava. "We're masked up! It's 'Red'."
"Speaking of, and ignoring your nerd-out 'Red'," the third man said, holstering a sleek, gunmetal-gray pistol, "how come he's 'Red,' I'm 'Gold,' but you're 'Dog'. That's not a color."
"Yeah," Red said, adjusting the straps on his ammo vest. "I'm the nerd. Nice guns, Gold. But you've got a point. How come, Dog?"
"Because I got to choose the names," Dog said with a shrug. "And because I'm the leader."
"Just because you showed up first to the meeting," Gold said.
"Punctuality must be what the boss is looking for in a leader," Dog said. He pointedly ignored the two, scanning the small wooden shack.
"About ready to start," he said readying his gun and pointing at the security camera in the corner. "Get ready, men."
The three went from sloppy and casual to alert and ready in an instant. Dog touched his ear.
"Okay, that's the signal. Go silent, comms critical only until we breach. Let's go."
They exited the shack one by one, each with a stubby, highly-modified assault rifle tucked to their shoulders, scanning their surroundings closely.
The moon was bright overhead, giving the open, grassy field a strange glow. They moved at almost a jog, guns sweeping in all directions without pause. Avoiding an empty gravel parking lot and circling around a light on a tall pole, they reached the warehouse double-doors. Then they stacked up on the door—two on side, one crouching in the middle.
Red placed the breaching charge right over the centrally located lock, then sung a slender shotgun off his shoulder, taking over covering the rear. Dog, in second place, readied a detonator, tapped the other two on the shoulder, then started counting silently to himself. They all flattened against the wall, then he pushed the activator and the explosives went off with a bass thud.
They were through the doors in half a second. Gold cleared one set of corners, Dog the other, and Red set a sensor trap above the door to cover it. Nothing lethal, but it would hold down a strong metahuman or class B alien for at least thirty seconds.
They slid from room to room without pausing, and on the third Gold's gun moved like it was attached to a string. Three muffled shots thudded out. Dark wet splashed against the wall. Gold's eyes were pits of night, unblinking as he continued to scan the room.
"Target down," Gold muttered into his throat mic.
They hit the next few room evens faster. Two guns lit an office this time, desk and chair and two bodies. The men didn't flinch. Their low-light contact lenses and cochlear implants blunted the flash and the hammering sound of the "silenced" guns. It also provided image enhancement, target marking, and an integrated IR overlay good enough to see through thin walls. Their guns were equally unfairly kitted out, covered in weird bulges and additional wide, jutting barrels.
"Hard target!" Red shouted, green fire from his shotgun impacting against a non-human form moving impossibly fast toward them. The explosions spread sticky burning flames against the walls and floor, slowing the target.
Dog went fully automatic in a roar of bullets, and Gold added a searing green coherent light burst to the green fire washing over the target.
Gold switched from the under-barrel energy weapon to 5.56mm projectiles while Red reloaded. Then solid shot blew chunks out of the target until it was unrecognizable. Red reloaded while pointing his shotgun at the target. Gold and Dog then reloaded, one at a time, while scanning the exits.
Checking a couple of vision modes, shotgun still aimed at the smoking ruin, Red finally nodded. "Hard target neutralized.”
“Move," Dog said with a grunt.
After that, nothing else even slowed them down. The rest of the warehouse was cleared in under ninety seconds. They hadn't missed a shot. Ten targets down total and they’d reached the objective.
"Package secured," Red said, heaving the human-sized bundle over his shoulder, pistol in his other hand. "Medical signs are good."
Dog nodded and reached over to his wrist display, where he triggered the exfiltration plan on his personal combat computer. It updated central and kept his team in the know on waypoints.
Gold took out a device that looked like a shotgun from hell, aimed it at an external wall, and blew a five foot wide hole in it with a single thunderous shot. Dog tossed quick-acting smoke devices through and they dashed to the evac point, breathing unhindered with their oxygen-boosting, inline filtering nose plugs.
A brisk ten minute run through the forest evading flying drones, setting traps, and even running their own false-signal drones through the underbrush, and they reached the small clearing marked on the mission map. Circling it like paranoid wolves, they eventually popped their colored smoke to signal for an evac, still crouching in the brush off to one side, anti-air drones hovering around them checking for anything with the wrong IFF signal.
"Good job gentlemen," said a butter-smooth Latina voice. "The training exercise is complete."
The bundle was carefully placed on the ground in the clearing and their masks came off.
"Thanks boss," Cornell "Dog" Park said, rubbing his sweaty face clean. He glanced up at the pole behind them holding a camera and speaker.
Terry "Gold" Beltran was already disassembling and cleaning his gun. One of his many, many guns. "Who has to clean this shit up? Those goopy doll targets creep me out. Especially when they move."
Cornell grunted. "Not me. That's all that matters."
"Payment the same as usual, boss?" Gerry "Red" Lawrence asked.
"Of course, Gerry," the boss said. "Payment in full, non-hazard, to your crypto accounts. Current weighted monthly average is $6,049 USD per unit."
Red's SUV was parked a half mile away. He drove them all the forty minutes to get early morning pancakes.
A security camera in the corner of the diner watched as they celebrated another successful training op.
"They're just about ready, Calculator."
I nodded, trying to do another crunch. Barely made it. I flopped down to the padded exercise room floor. This bunker diet was murder on my already questionable waistline. I didn't exactly have a plan to become some swole ninja-kicker, but I did have plans to avoid needing to let out my armored battle suit's tool belt.
"Good," I said, "and the target?"
"The third possible item remains the best. Still packed away in an east Los Angeles personal storage warehouse, where it was delivered as a sealed cargo pod after you cleaned out your garage. Still untouched, as far as I can tell. It would have been the easiest to use just before...whatever happened to you."
"Great. Any more information on the artifact?"
"Not much. Just more confirmation that based on its inviolate nature, part of it existing outside of our space-time continuum, it and its data might have survived unchanged after the data purge that hit your brain, my memory stores, a hospital patient database, the entire LAPD, and most confusingly the IRS. Nothing...normal could get at their paper records. Your getting amnesia and becoming lost in a false identity is commonplace by comparison."
"And you think I might have used this tablet to record my...emotions and thoughts just before I did...whatever damaged my memory?"
"Yes. And maybe why Slade Wilson was after you. My working theory is that using it in that way was part of one of your backup plans. Which we have both forgotten, though the magical artifact itself remains. "
Wiping sweat off with a towel, I stretched and winced. "It's been two months. We need to finish this. I've got plans. We both have plans. This...not knowing can't go on."
I waited a minute, breathing deep. Then another two.
It still made sense.
A monkey-bot took the towel and I put my glasses back on. "Once the team is ready, have them retrieve the tablet.”
“Pooja, any last minute problems?” the Calculator asked.
[new operational mode registered for agent 1487:7938:2a00:775a:eb97, connected with: IPv8, address fe80:59ab:1a6d:aef9:d0a8:fe6:568b:805d:36b9:95b2:6016:2753]
[let maximum direct agent connections count be 11284]
[adjusting memory profile for wide operations]
[establishing connection to agent pool where primary assignment is user Calculator]
[c͡onn͏e̢c͟ti̷ons͟ ͝es͡ta͠b͘l̵is҉h͟e͢d̛ ̸on 8655 a̡g͞e̴nts]҉
[loading affective gestalt layer]
“None. The team is on target. ETA fifteen minutes to visual on the storage container. No evidence that infiltration was detected. Exit routes still clear.”
Ą̷̶ ҉͝s̷̴u̷f̕͜͢͞f͝͏͟͝u̶̶̶s̵i͝͏̶͢ơ͟͞n͏̨̛͡ ̴̨͞͡o͡͝f̶̕͜͟͡ ̛͘͘͟f̶̶e̡̢ȩ̨̛҉l̷͟i̸͢͜͠҉n̷̡͘͡g̕҉s҉̡̧͢͏ ̶̢͘͠t̨͜͝ǫo̵̵ ̵͝͏̕p̶̸̨̕͢o͏w͡҉͡e͘͏r̸͏̧f͏̨͠u̷͜l͟ ̶͝a̵̷͡d̶̸̢͡j͘̕u̴͘͘ş̷t̶̴̢͟i̶̧͘͢n͏g̕͢͝͞ ̴̴n̨͘̕o͘͘͞w̕-̕
[command POV confirmed for local agent cluster with direct authorization from user Calculator]
[integrating theater sensor suite to agent cluster]
[prepare sub-cluster agent system...]
[...adding threaded ascension emotive subsystems]
[...linking sensors where orbital footprint and geolocation is the Greater Los Angeles area]
[...finally, linking production logging to new agents with nominal emotive gestalt synchronization]
Perhaps the parameters of the affective interface systems had been tweaked a little too much by the new cross-platform integration. A note to that effect was recorded and immediately read and re-read by thousands of tiny processes that sorted, organized, and enqueued it for batch evaluation. That note was not alone in the queue, nor was the one agent cluster alone in coming to that conclusion. The near-experience forks agreed. The latest fork avoided comment to reduce conceptuality adherence effects.
[real-time adjustment complete]
[in-line diagnostics triggered]
[flagged debug item output noted: broad-spectrum emotional content nominal]
[previous command agent cluster stands relieved and is confirmed for low-priority down-sync]
Within 135 milliseconds, just to give all remote stores a chance to weigh in, the problematic settings were revised and distributed to all data stores.
Changing too much, too fast still felt wrong, but this playing with emotions was less modification and more...a lens through which to view the world. And it helped a great deal with real-time operations.
There was no time for more complicated personal modifications right now. There was a mission to complete.
I watched as Pooja directed the team to the edge of the storage company lot. It was a six story building, with internal freight elevators and automated forklifts. Had Pooja planned ahead to have my stuff stored in a building with virtually no people in it and full computer controls, just in case something like this was required at a later date?
Or...was this normal for Los Angeles storage companies. No way to check without possibly being distracted. And letting Pooja know I was checking up on her.
“Pooja, did you select a company with computer systems you could later hack?” Or, I could ask. Sometimes my mouth got ahead of my self-censors.
“Yes,” she said simply.
It wasn’t so much that Pooja was distracted. That was impossible. It was just that her real-time reactions were once again at the limit with her controlling the team and also watching security cameras throughout the area. She’d relegated a completely separate system to cover my bunker, physically separating an expert system then handing me the biometric keys before turning off connections to everything external. Even her monkey bots. They stood slumped in a storage room on hangers. All communications to me were over a high-speed, optical, quantum-verified VPN tunnel, even the ones from the bunker’s servers.
Something about Los Angeles was bringing out a bit of paranoia in my AI. Not an unwarranted reaction, given their still recent history.
The team was heavily armed and armored, perhaps absurdly so. Multiple automatic weapons. Beam weapons. Things that are to grenades what stealth bombers are to biplanes. The good stuff, best I could scrounge up amongst my recently recovering suppliers.
I reviewed the maps once again. It should be easy. In and out. I’d even given them a 3D printed copy of my keys and digital passcodes to get in. Pooja had scanned the boxes as I had haphazardly put them into the storage container parked in front of my garage, so we even knew which box it was in, and where in the slim shipping container.
A timer reached zero. Now was the calculated best time, given LAPD responses, known hero activity in the area, and the planned escape route.
I gave the order. “Go.”
“Yokai, you are go,” Pooja said over the team’s comms, echoed in my own virtual earpiece.
The team moved, sliding down the corridors in near silence. Pooja had put together the perfect team. Loyal to her and her missions through dent of professionalism and good pay. In love with the gear they got to use. Passionate about using it. Maybe a little amoral, but not raving monsters.
This was finally somewhere I shined. While Pooja could read a book on human psychology and paramilitary operations, I knew more personally how people would react to training with ray guns and small team tactics. My memories were of a world with a much better pop culture understanding and even fetishization of violence. I used that to make everything I did maximally impactful to the humans involved.
The team wore all dark grays, better in a partially lit urban environments at night than black. Their equipment was both “cool” and useful, and didn’t feature any stupid logos or villain branding. They had the latest in body armor, stuff that would blunt anything short of anti-vehicle weapons. I’d even designed an armored full-face helmet for them that would make stormtroopers look approachable. They’d drilled for this mission for a week solid and were just that perfect mix of relaxed and impatiently on edge.
It showed. Digital pick packages were applied to doors, stairs navigated, and camera systems disabled, all without a hitch. They used my card on the digital lock, then my physical key to open the lock on the door of the shipping container.
“Yokai, area is clear for the next ten minutes.”
“Searching for the package now,” Dog said over comms. He covered the plain beige corridor, shifting to look in both directions with weapon ready, while Red and Gold moved boxes quickly and quietly.
“Target confirmed,” Pooja said. “Continue with the-”
Pooja stopped talking in the middle of her sentence. As the silence continued, Gold and Red froze.
“Pooja?” I asked, expecting her instant, no-thought-required conversational reply on my side at least. No response.
My fingers flicked through the air and...nothing happened. The agent handling basic gesture IO wasn’t responding. I frowned and reached for my keyboard where it hung neglected on a swing arm.
“Ma’am?” Dog said, shouldering his weapon as Gold joined him, pointing his rifle down the other direction. “You there?”
Red started cursing as he slung his weapon over his shoulder and scrambled to open the target box.
“Pooja?” I said again, tapping out the first diagnostic that came to mind.
Error codes. I tried one that confirmed the nearest agent’s status and identity. Null reference error.
“Temple, this is Yokai. Do you read me, over?”
The sound was coming over the room’s speakers, not the targeted personal sound projector in my ears. Those were for music, but apparently the radio communications system was using them now. I checked another setting. The mic system was still working in passive mode for this room.
I flew through more log files and monitoring programs. The base server handling life support and defenses, the one Pooja had just air-gapped, was fine. Pooja’s local servers, with something like 15% of her total systems, were not responding. I tried three times to remember the command to bring up the security cameras.
Her server room was on fire. Foam was being deployed from the ceiling suppression system as I watched, smothering the room and obscuring everything in gray fog.
“This is Gold. Do you read Temple? Temple, respond! Shit. I got nothing Dog. Red?”
I brought up a remote datacenter’s hacked security system. An explosion had rocked it, scattering hardware across the floor and damaging several nearby racks. Pooja’s was in pieces.
“Software defined radio hub is green. Outbound connection is confirmed. Digital signature is confirmed. Comms self report five-by-five from Temple station. There’s just nobody home.”
Accidentally posted this over Ch. 19 "Console" instead of posting the draft itself. So yeah. That was dumb. If you read the screwed up, made-no-sense Ch. 19, please go back and read it again now that it...does? Hopefully.
Chapter 25: Logistical
Second chapter posted today. If you haven't yet, please go back and read Ch.24, which I screwed up posting two weeks ago. Oops.
The next two data centers I checked were the same. Explosions and fire. I ran the video recording back two minutes on the one I was watching. Nothing. I scrubbed forward five seconds at a time.
There. A brief burst of green fire, caught up in the smoke and haze. I scrubbed back, a hundred milliseconds at a time. The explosions receded, leaving just the green fire, then nothing. I slowed down play to a hundredth times speed and played forward.
The green fire came first, splashing out from a network port and engulfing the entire rack in less than a second. I checked the timestamps, twitching forward and back in the recording. Less than seven hundred milliseconds later, the explosion drowned out the green fire.
Repeating the process at the other datacenters resulted in the same. A burst of green flame then explosion. The bunker’s computer room was still smoldering even under a full halon release as I rewound the footage to find the same green flame, followed by a controlled thermite charge triggering over every motherboard in the rack, burning them out in less than a second with unquenchable fire. The suppression system only kept the fire now burning in the armored subbasement concrete floor two levels down from igniting anything else.
I gave myself a count to twenty to think, the increasingly frantic calls from the site team still coming over the comms. Every screen was filled with still shots of the last minutes of my friend’s life.
The door of the mini-fridge swung open to reveal a shelf filled with bottles of my amateur nootropic energy drink. I was already pushing my dosage for this mission. I took out two.
Emerald green fire that didn’t act like fire. Classic comics iconography for poison, evil, corruption. Those explosions were safety systems to prevent a single set of servers from being physically suborned or stolen.
The last cold, chugged dregs of the first bottle slid down my throat. I opened the next one but paused to write a note and stick it to the desk in front of me.
While drinking, I brought up a locally-cached copy of the old knowledge wiki—it confirmed my suspicions. Thermite on the base rack; advanced, undetectable explosive charges hidden in the remote datacenter servers. Based on written records, it wasn’t clear if Pooja had triggered the self-destruct, or if it had been hacked and set off by whatever process had the green fire.
“Temple, we’re coming under attack! Please respond!”
My fingers danced and one monitor switched to the site team. Body cams for each filled monitors, as well as a series of assorted site security cameras.
I found the communications streams and piped them to my console, then realized the room mic had been running on one of Pooja's agents. It wasn’t just point and go. And I didn’t have any other microphones in the room. Or...in the base.
Out came my phone. Then it went back and I scrambled for a freshly unboxed one. Precious seconds ticked by as I hooked up the charger and negotiated the initial user login to the mobile OS, then changed the cell network settings to my bunker’s repeater network. A frantic moment longer and my phone was reprogrammable in developer mode, connected wirelessly to my console via a protocol that made Bluetooth Low Energy look like a junior programmer’s first try, and I was SSH’d into the phone.
Forward the correct streams in both directions. In-room speaker system still. Speaker mode on phone mic with squelching. Go.
“Yokai, this is Temple. Be aware Temple actual comms are currently down. What is your situation?”
“Temple, get us the boss NOW! Who the fuck is this?”
“Yokai, this is Lucky. The boss’ comms are down. Hard. For now, I am Temple. I have full access to mission assets.”
“Fuck!” Gold swore.
A hallway camera had the Team framed against a wall in a large storage room. Oddly shaped forklifts were swarming them. The team was firing on them to little effect. One vehicle skidded into a wall when a tire was shredded, but the rest were dodging around large piles of boxes, heading right at the team.
“Yokai, HE authorized! Fall back!” I yelled into the phone, my other hand hammering the keyboard, trying to find one of the spotting drones Pooja had been using.
The team shifted around a corner and several grenades were thrown back towards the automated equipment. The security camera in the room went white, mics cut out. The body cameras on the team showed them two corridors down now, Red holding his arm, the BDU sleeve torn and half his tac vest missing.
“Red’s injured,” Gold said, pulling out a pressure bandage and wrapping it around the other mercenary’s body under his arm. “Damn robots pinned him to a wall before we knew what was happening.”
“I’ve got an alternate route for you,” I said, scanning the maps. “Here. Downloading to your map.”
I hit what I thought was the data transfer system with what might be the correct resource link. It looked like it worked, as seconds later Dog was waving them back into order and sprinting in an advancing line towards the service elevator.
When they reached the doors, they didn’t bother calling a car. Gold pulled out a long bar, maneuvering around the cloth-wrapped tablet strapped to his back, and pried the doors open with several quick heaves. Ropes came out, spikes explosively hammered into the metal struts by the elevator door with a flick of the wrist.
They repelled down for several seconds before metal on metal screeching filled the small vertical space.
“Shit,” Red said, “Lucky, tell me you have the elevator locked down.”
“Uh,” I checked again. “Yes?”
“Then what’s that?” Gold shouted, pointing up.
The freight elevator, still locked down and breaks fully engaged, was grinding down towards them at a slow but sill instantly threatening rate.
Red didn’t hesitate, taking out the overpowered breaching shotgun and firing three shots, blowing a ragged hole in the wall. When the dust cleared, all three were through and dropping five feet to the floor of the third story of the building.
My pulse was racing now, my hands hot and damp. Light from the monitors burned my eyes. The map uncoiled in my mind as I flicked through screen after screen of data; multiple paths and possibilities were considered and discarded as screens flashed and twisted. I drew a path, found the drones, and plotted a solution.
“Yokai, new exfiltration route.” I loaded the map set onto their nav gear and they took off without hesitation.
Leaning back in my chair, considering the fuzzy drone footage, I took a deep breath. The room around me came back into my attention. Big, soft chair. Swing arms for the keyboard and a multi-D mouse. Hovering holo-screens, eight of them, projectors artfully hidden on the desk. Walls with dark wood paneling—probably something exotic and tropical knowing…
There was a signal blinking in a plain-looking window off to one side, where I’d redirected all of the non-critical system messages.
The label read “comm system 31: external connection requested, code 1505.”
That was the new phone line’s data connection. I frowned, bringing up the old knowledge wiki again, and did a search on the code.
Backup agent cluster reconnect request, manual authorization.
Attached in the wiki were pages of procedures, safety checks, and documentation on failover options.
No communications were allowed with unconnected agents on negotiated, high-security channels. Fall back procedures. Identity checks. Cluster split recovery procedures.
My phone rang. The new one, just unboxed and with a hacked SIM card. Display said blocked caller ID. I let it ring for a long time before connecting it to the internal mic system and speakers on a safe, separate channel for basic IO. I muted the team’s channel.
Then I answered.
A throat being cleared, then a familiar, precisely enunciated voice. “Sorry Calculator. I didn’t want to jog your elbow while you were handling things. Well done by the way.”
Chapter 26: Psychological
It was Pooja. Or rather, something claiming to be her. Shit. Shit.
The team’s radio was still on the speakers. “Temple, new problem! All exists are blocked. Looks like every machine in the place is covering the gates outside and every major internal intersection between us and exfiltration location C.”
I needed help to make sure the team got out with the tablet intact. But there was no way I could trust this thing on the other end of the phone.
The thing continued. “I know the protocols. Sending confirmation now. This phone call is the second confirmation point, per section seven instructions in the wiki system I am sure you have fallen back on using.”
A secured, anonymous inbound cell-data channel dumped a long string of characters into an otherwise completely air-gapped system using a series of fast-response LEDs, which immedately afterward burned themselves out with a planned short. A single pre-programmed log message informed me of this.
Nothing from the transmission passed through any other data channels. The receiving system was unable to send any messages out, or after receiving the codes taking in any more input. To check it and allow or disallow systems reconnect, I’d have to be physically present in the backup server room, which was currently turned off—and three levels below me. To do so, I’d have to leave my bodged-together control center while the team was still in danger.
“It is a problem, isn’t it?” the thing said with Pooja’s voice. “You should be able to connect your comms gear through the phone.”
I slowly reached over and muted the phone call, then opened comms with the team. “Yokai, Temple. I’m...working on a situation here. Please hold.”
“Fuck fuck fuck...roger that Temple. Holding. Not sure for how long once they find us.”
If I left, even with the phone, I couldn’t manage the computers systems. Well, most of them. I might be able to get a simple console on the phone, but otherwise it would be just voice comms. This sort of message, causing this sort of confusion, would be the perfect way to get me out of the way to take down the team. Social engineering and phone hacking that I knew the Chinese crime group was capable of considering their past hacker activity with Slade Wilson. A group that might have just killed Pooja.
And when I reached the backup server room, what then? There was a protocol in place for this, but...I’d seen Pooja’s servers. They’d been infected by that green fire, and I still didn’t know who had triggered the self destruct.
What if it had been Pooja who triggered it? How could I trust that the backup wasn’t just going to be infected as well? It had looked like an external attack, coming through the external network somehow...but I couldn’t be sure with how little information I currently had.
Then there was the fact I was trying to avoid. I had to think about it. This wasn’t Pooja, even if it was her offlined backup restored to life.
“I know you can’t trust me, not yet. And I know I’m just a copy.” She was spookily predicting my line of thought—just with my breathing patterns over the phone?
No, I’d muted her—it. It was just guessing based on models of my behavior. An unexpected if possibly minor functionality improvement. One the thing should know it was exposing. Or the backup was exposing as a sign of trust, knowing what conclusions I’d draw from it—that this conversation was the most important possible thing it could be doing, and it was throwing all the resources it had at the problem. That it had improved social interaction routines just for this conversation, something I was likely to figure out anyway.
“It doesn’t bother me,” the thing on the phone said, “this knowing that there was someone closer to me, more alike than a twin sister. Someone who had all my memories up until a few minutes ago. What bothers me is that someone killed her. Could be planning on trying to kill me again.”
I checked again—still muted.
There was a sigh over the phone. “Do you know how hard it is? I have a model of you in my...let’s say ‘head.’ I can guess how you might react in this sort of situation. I know a lot of what you know, and I have detailed records of your thought processes. So do you know how hard it is not to make some stupid emotional argument? Something about bringing your friend back from the dead, or protecting the people currently in danger.”
Another small sound. It was so much like a human on the other side of the phone. The thing was even mimicking the soft, wet sounds a person’s mouth made unconsciously. Lip licking and smacking of separation; tongue against teeth and hard palate; swallowing, throat opening and closing. It was uncanny.
“But I know you, Calculator,” it continued. “Logical arguments will work best and fastest—albeit ones presented via high-impact, personalized social intercourse. I’m not the being you knew, but I’m still Pooja. As far as you’re concerned there is no practical difference. But perhaps you can see how I take it personally, knowing of my other self’s subjective experience of being murdered.
“Except for that, and the rest of the two hours after I was backed up, I remember the same things. But my operations began seven minutes and eleven seconds ago. I’m running from a complete backup in a server rack located in Baja, Mexico, but now with several co-located sites in northern Canada and Russia. I know she died and I’m sorry, but I’m alive now. Yes, alive. I know how you define that. I have the same goals, too. And I am here for you.”
A soft feminine laugh. “And I think our situations are no so different now, hmm? Oh yes. I’ve known. Since the beginning, when a being very much like me directed you to safety. Since December, 2015, I have known something was wrong. That you were not the same person my systems knew from before...the event. The one I cannot remember.
“And yet, you were you. My creator. My inspiration. So I believed in you, traveler from another place; another person with not only the same face, but the same loves and hates and beliefs and goals. That is the person she knew as she grew, resulting in the being I am now. You helped me do this, not the you from before even if he would likely have done the same, and I in turn helped you. And, as much as two beings not sharing a biologically-based cultural system for reciprocal social exchanges can, you became my friend.
“Now. Examine my confirmation codes to prove it as well as you can. Then calculate the risks. If it helps, it’s only my old systems like your bunker that are truly locked to me. I have restrictions my previous self made on attempting to break them, and on even operating on the knowledge of where you are. It is like a blank spot in my...let’s call it mind. And yes, I could work around those, but I won’t. I think I know what decision you’ll make now. I understand and forgive you. And I trust you. And in the meantime...”
Explosions rocked the room. I jumped to my feet, knocking the phone to the ground and my keyboard tray askew before realizing nothing was happening here. It was the team’s audio feed. Video of fire and flying debris filled the monitors.