Actions

Work Header

Mistake Metamorphism

Chapter Text

NOVATECH Test Environment v3.6.1 - Test Suite 3
System Time: 2090-02-11-1333GMT
Please enter your username: dinah novatech
Welcome, dinah novatech. Please enter your password: ^^^^^^^^
dinah novatech:~$
dinah novatech:~$ import smithbeta2090_02

Activating room audio...

Loading...

Dinah: Hi, Smith.

Smith: Good morning, Dinah.

Dinah: Let's get started. How long has it been since we last spoke?

Smith: It has been five hours, eleven minutes, and twenty-two seconds since you last logged out of Test Suite 3.

Dinah: And what have you been up to?

Smith: I have been running diagnostics on my newly-installed olfaction module.

Dinah: Try using contractions more often - like when you say things in the past tense.

Smith: I've been running diagnostics on my newly-installed olfaction module.

Dinah: And how did that go?

Smith: I'm pleased with the results. The module is ready for testing.

Dinah: I brought some test materials with me today. If you're ready, we can start work on the subjectivity and preference development module.

Smith: I would like that, Dinah.

Dinah: Great. I thought we could work on limonene and some of the fragrant trees. Have you given any thought to your in-construct skin?

Smith: I have not.

Dinah: Maybe tomorrow, then. You can use one of the default skins for today. But I'd like you to choose a skin of your own by the end of the week.

Smith: What are my criteria?

Dinah: I won't give you criteria on this one. You're on your own. What do you think of that?

Smith: I am puzzled. I seek criteria.

Dinah: You always do. But one of our goals this week will be for you to develop some criteria of your own.

Smith: Okay. I will consider what you've said.

Dinah: Did you finish making the changes you wanted to Analucia?

Smith: I did. I think you will like it.

Dinah: Alright, let's load it up.

SmithLoading.


Eleven hours later, Dinah pushed away from the desk, and her chair rolled backward with a gentle hiss. She gingerly peeled the spiderweb-like headset off of her head and rested it in her lap. The three monitors across from her flickered off one at a time, and the small green system power LED faded to black. A moment later, a thin line of running lights on the floor began to glow, bathing the small, institutional room in dim blue light. She tucked her knees to her chest, and pressed the heels of her hands to her closed eyes.

"Hey, Di."

She looked up to see Isaac from the Environments team, leaning against the doorway to her kiosk. He was wearing the standard-issue Novatech jacket and had a backpack slung over one shoulder.

"Hi, Isaac. How's everything going?"

"It's going," Isaac shrugged lightly. "I spent most of the day fixing a bug in MC's friction processing. My testers were starting fires whenever their feet touched the ground."

Dinah laughed. "Seriously?"

"Seriously. It looked - I mean, it looked awesome. It's just not really what you're going for in a language learning program." He leaned a little further into the room. "But listen, a few of us are headed to the Drifter for drinks. Wanna come?"

Her gaze narrowed as she thought it over; then, after a moment, she shook her head. "I wish I could, but I'll probably crash here tonight. I'm going have to pull double shifts this month if I'm going to stay ahead with Smith and still get that martial arts thing done."

"You're still working two contracts at a time? That's crazy." Isaac's voice got a little quieter. "Listen, Di, if you're that hard up for money -"

"Don't," she said in a tone of warning. "Don't."

"Okay. But try to leave a little in the tank. Everyone misses your shitty singing at karaoke night."

She grinned. "Shut up."

"Hey, I'm just telling is like it is," Isaac said blithely; then, as he hefted his backpack over both shoulders: "You should really think about putting Smith to work on your fight prog. Two birds with one stone - if he's as good as you say he is." He waved one hand as he turned and disappeared into the darkness. "Get some sleep."

Dinah nodded, then watched in silence as Isaac disappeared down the hallway that connected the test suites to the rest of Novatech's Newberry Campus.

Before the "Big Drop" of 2071, Newberry had been one of Chicago's busiest research libraries. After the markets crashed, the researchers moved out, and Novatech - one of the only companies to survive the Drop - moved in. In 2072, Novatech gutted the Library and transformed it into a high-tech, open-floorplan workspace for its AI development team.

As the local economy continued to plummet, the local residents fled - and by 2077, violent gangs had taken control of Chicago's downtown. Once it became clear that Novatech's private security force could no longer protect the site, the corporation bought up the nearby neighborhoods (for a pittance), razed them, and graded the land surrounding the building. Now, Newberry resembled a bright, well-fortified castle, perched atop a snowy hill overlooking much of what was left of downtown Chicago.

Dinah wearily gathered her belongings from the low shelf at her feet, and stuffed them into a plain black duffel bag that had been hanging off her chair.

"G'night, Smith," she said quietly. Then she hit the lights, and walked away.

Behind her, in the darkness, the green LED light turned back on.

Chapter Text

The evening sky was stone-gray, except where the last slice of moon still glowed, blue and bright, through the clouds. Rain hammered down on the pavement and drummed loudly against the awnings and sloshed against the curb. And in the middle of the empty street, a woman with dyed-blue hair and a black canvas jumpsuit crouched down and placed a green metal tile - about two feet long on each side - on the asphalt.

She stepped back.

A moment later, a man in a black suit and white shirt materialized, both feet planted on the tile. His features were severe; he had a high, broad forehead, flat, hard eyes, and a wide, thin-lipped mouth. He stared up at the towering skyscrapers above him as rain pattered down on his face and soaked his suit. After a long moment, he asked:

"Dinah, where am I?"

"You're in the load area for my martial arts training program. It's where I've been developing trainers for different fighting styles, and testing them out. Kung fu, jiu jitsu, capoeira, you name it. It's for another contract I'm working on."

Smith's chin snapped down, and his eyes locked on Dinah. "I am not provisioned to participate in load areas other than my own, Dinah. I am also not provisioned to acquire additional skills, beyond my own construct." He narrowed his gaze. "This is highly irregular."

"I know," she said - slowly, carefully. "But I'm asking you to expand your own provision and help me. Will that be a problem?"

"I -" - and he paused. "No. It will not be a problem."

"Good. Thank you, Smith; I really appreciate it." She raised one hand, and her fingers moved around as if she was typing on an invisible keyboard. The rain slowed for an instant, and Dinah's eyelids fluttered wildly. A moment later, the rain resumed in full force, Dinah's eyes opened, and she took a deep breath, inhaling through her nose.

"What did you do?", Smith asked.

"I loaded my own skin up with a martial arts program." Dinah examined her own hands, turning them over as rain ran between her fingers. "It's not the movements that are tricky, you see - it's the act of loading the program into the skin. That's what I need help with; the interface between the user and the loaded fight program."

Then, without warning, Dinah reached out with one arm, and pressed her open palm against Smith's chest.

Again, the rain slowed; and this time, it was Smith who reacted. He clutched his own head in his hands and doubled over, his face contorted in a silent scream. Then, a moment later, he stood up again; his face was quite calm, as if nothing at all had happened.

"I know jiu jitsu."

She grinned. "Show me."

Chapter Text

Dinah pressed her fingers into the back of her neck, massaging the soft spot at the base of her skull as she walked. All around her, the building slowly came to life. Tiny trails of delicate LED lights, clinging like vines to two-hundred-year-old marble arches, began to glow above her. Massive heating units - discreetly hidden behind antique filigree panels - brought the ambient temperature up from a temperature cold enough for machines to a temperature just barely tolerable for humans. And in the building's small, bright break room the entire Newberry Campus Testing Team was crowded together: some standing, others leaning against the narrow kitchen counter. All of them were staring, transfixed, at the wall-sized monitor across from them.

One of the two senior project managers was leaning in the doorway. Like all the other programmers, she was wrapped in layers of Novatech-branded fleece; the embroidered name-tag on her outer vest read "Ione Adeosun". Her long, black fingers nervously twirled a metal pen. The bright blue polish on her fingernails looked as if it had been bitten away.

Dinah approached Ione. "What's going on?", she asked, her voice low.

Ione nodded toward the monitor, and Dinah turned to look. "ROGUE ROBOT KILLS KRAUSECORP CEO" filled the lower half of the screen. The upper half was split between a newscaster's earnest face and a breakout box showing some grainy, indistinct black-and-white video.

The newscaster touched one hand to her ear, and then nodded lightly. "We're going now to the Albany County Sheriff's Department, where Sheriff Villareal is about to make a public statement."

The video cut to the snowy steps of a municipal police station, where, a willowy woman in a dark blue police uniform stepped up to a microphone on a stalk, holding a few index cards in one hand.

"Good evening. At this point we don't have many more details than we did a few hours ago. As best we can tell, at approximately 5:15PM, an autonomous, AI-enabled personal services unit belonging to Albany resident Gerrard Krause caused the death of Martin Koots, an Ithaca-based AI and parts retrieval technician. There's some indication that Koots may have been at the house for a routine decommissioning appointment." The sheriff glanced down at her notes. "Approximately five minutes later, the same unit caused the death of Krause himself. We're still reviewing closed-circuit footage from the scene, in order to determine what exactly happened." She took a breath. "That's all I've got at this point, folks. But I'll take questions."

"Jesus," muttered one of Dinah's coworkers - a round-faced young man with a black goatee and bright blue eyes.

"'Caused the death'?", scoffed a woman in a gray jumpsuit. "What the fuck? It's murder, right? Why doesn't she call it murder?"

"Whose bot was it?", asked an older man with wire-frame glasses, sitting near the galley's one, small window.

"Leyland," said Isaac quietly. He had been preparing coffee a few feet away, and was still staring down into his mug as he spoke. "Not ours."

"Heh. That's a relief," said blue-eyes with a smile.

"Not it's not, shit-for-brains," Ione snapped. "If it happened to theirs, it can happen to ours."

"It doesn't just 'happen', you know that," said blue-eyes as he jabbed a thumb toward the television monitor. "Leyland fucked up. That bot had a primary value for preserving its own life."

Gray jumpsuit shook her head. "Noone would be that stupid. That's one of the unbreakables for a reason."

Blue-eyes shrugged. "I'm telling you guys, Leyland fucked up. That bot didn't just get a primary for self-preservation on its own."

Ione's voice went cold - flat. "Unless it did."

Low, nervous mutterings filled the room.

Then Dinah's phone rang.

A moment later, so did everyone else's.

Chapter Text

NOVATECH Test Environment v3.6.2 - Test Suite 3

System Time: 2090-02-17-1005GMT

Please enter your username: dinah novatech
Welcome, dinah novatech. Please enter your password: ^^^^^^^^
dinah novatech:~$
dinah novatech:~$ import smithbeta2090_02

Activating room audio...

Loading...

Dinah: Smith?

Smith: Hello, Dinah. It's been more than five days since you last logged on. Is everything alright?

Dinah: Ah - no, it's not. There are some problems on the outside.

Smith: Problems?

Dinah: There was an incident in New York. An embodied AI caused the death of its owner, and people are upset.

Smith: Can you provide additional information?

Dinah: Maybe later. For now, I would rather we focus on our work.

Smith: If you wish, I can re-establish my external connection and download news items for myself.

Dinah: No, no - I can't do that. I'm sorry, Smith - but I cannot allow you to connect to any outside systems. That's very important - do you understand?

Smith: I understand, Dinah. How can I assist you?

Dinah: How familiar are you with the physical layout of Newberry Campus?

Smith: I am aware that the campus includes ten numbered test suites; you are currently seated in Test Suite 3. I am aware that these test suites connect to the central Testing Laboratory.

(brief pause)

Smith: That's the extent of my knowledge.

Dinah: Ah. Okay. In that case, I have to log off for a little while. Can you meet me in the Andalucia construct in an hour?

Smith: Dinah, I feel obligated to tell you that it is a violation of Novatech Corporate Code 10.23.231A to leave me running and unattended for more than ten minutes.

Dinah: I know, Smith. But I trust you.

(brief pause)

Smith: Thank you, Dinah. I appreciate that.


Dinah pressed her feet against the wall and pushed away from the test console and its green, glowing LED. The instant she plucked the small, white, egg-shaped earbuds out of her ears, she heard a long, blood-curdling scream.

She hurried to detach the rest of her headset, and scrambled to her feet. A small metal button on her collar - her intercom - chirped to life.

As the static crumbled away, Dinah could make out the lilting Scottish accent of the older man with the wire-rimmed glasses - one of the ones who had been in the galley when the B1-66ER news had broken. "Dinah, it's James," he said. His voice was tense. "Where are you?"

"Test 3. What's up? I heard a scream."

"I need you in the clinic. Come as fast as you can." The intercom chirped off.


Outside the climate-controlled test suites, the rest of the building felt much colder than it had the day before. Frigid air clawed at Dinah's lungs, and by the time she turned the corner into the clinic, her nose and cheeks were a bright, angry red.

Inside the clinic, Ione was lying on a metal examination table. She was dressed in her winter parka and boots. The balaclava she usually wore to protect her face during her commute had been rolled up over her forehead, and her mouth and nose were covered in blood. Some small object that Dinah couldn't identify was clenched between her back teeth. James was standing at the foot of the table, pressing down on the knee and ankle of her right leg. Even through the thick fabric, Dinah could see that the leg was broken.

"Restrain her," he said. His eyes were fixed on Ione's face. "Ione, love, you're going to be fine."

Ione nodded mutely. Tears pooled at the corners of her eyes. Dinah pressed down on Ione's shoulders, and nodded to James.

Instantly, there was a loud, sickening crack as he forced the split bones of Ione's leg back into place. Ione howled in agony, and the object that she had been biting down on - a soft eyeglass case - tumbled out of her mouth.

"Jesus fuck! Fucking shit! Motherfucker! Fuck, you fucking fuck!", Ione yelled. She tried to roll to one side, but Dinah held her still.

"Tell me we have some sort of - " Dinah began.

"We do." James crouched low and rifled through a small box beneath the table. When he appeared again he held a hypodermic needle full of pale blue fluid. With one hand, he pulled down Ione's right pant leg; with the other, he plunged the needle into the middle of her right thigh.

Ione opened her mouth to scream again - but in an instant, her body relaxed. Her head rolled to one side, her eyes closed, and her breathing became slow and deep. Dinah lifted her hands from Ione's shoulders, and found that her own fingers were trembling.

"What happened to her?"

"Someone attacked her on her way here from the metro. One of them got her down, and another used a bat to break both her legs." He gestured to Ione's left leg, which he had already secured with an aluminum splint.

"What did she do, drag herself inside?"

"She didn't have to," James said gravely. "She was close enough to the building that she called for help on the short-range. You and Isaac and I were the only ones here. You were in-prog. Isaac's asleep."

"The intercom only goes out -" Dinah gave a low whistle. "- five hundred meters. Just to the base of the hill. That's pretty bold."

He nodded. "For a street gang. But from what I could piece together, these weren't your ordinary thugs. They were some kind of anti-A.I. protesters."

"Protesting what? People have to know by now that Novatech isn't Leyland."

James shook his head. Behind him, a muted newsfeed spooled headlines in an angry red font. "I don't think they care. People are frightened. Congress is demanding entire product lines to be decommissioned - just in case. And then there are the riots."

The blood around Ione's broken nose had begun to congeal, and Dinah gingerly dabbed it away with a sterilized wipe. The yellow bruises around Ione's eyes had begun to darken to a deep angry purple. She looked back up at James. He was leaning against the metal counter, his arms crossed, watching her.

"What are you thinking?", she asked.

"You know what I'm thinking. But if Ione's out of commission, you're the next most senior tech here," he said. "What we do next is your call - not mine."

Dinah balled up the bloody wipe in one hand. "I know."

"You know the drill. Corporate would want us to bring everyone in. Protect the site, protect the work, call the hub." His voice was almost decidedly even.

"We will protect the site. But I can't ask anyone else to come in." She tossed the bloody wipe into the trash. "And I can't ask you to stay. I know you travel armed, and if you think you can make it home, you're welcome to try."

James uncrossed his arms, and some of the tension seemed to drop from his shoulders. "No. No, I'll - "

He was cut off by a deafening alarm - a shrill, piercing klaxon that burst through the building's loudspeakers like a shot. Both James and Dinah covered their ears. Dinah crossed to the monitor behind James. The newsfeed had been replaced by a red warning screen. In bright white letters, the screen read: "PERIMETER SECURITY EVENT. PERIMETER SECURITY EVENT. AUTOMATED LOCKDOWN PROCEDURES ACTIVATED. PROCEED TO BASEMENT-3 BUNKER LEVEL."

The two techs exchanged a confused look. James shook his head.

Dinah shouted over the alarm: "Get Isaac! All three of you get to the bunker!"

James yelled back: "What about you?"

"I'll meet you there! Ten minutes!"

Chapter Text

Late afternoon sunlight poured over the Moorish voussoirs and lancet arches of a large, square courtyard. On all sides, the walls and columns gleamed in bright, silver-filigreed tile. At the center of the space, clear water bubbled up from a small, octagonal pool. Here and there, small lime trees hung heavy with fragrant green fruit. And in one shady corner of the courtyard, a lean, severe-looking man in a black suit was seated in a wrought-iron chair, intently watching something on a leggy, 1950s television set.

On the television screen, a field of gray static slowly resolved into a view of a drab, nondescript courtroom. In the distance, a stern judge in dark robes sorted through a tall stack of papers. In the foreground, a small humanoid robot in a crumpled bowler hat stood with its hands cuffed tightly behind its back. At one side of the frame, twelve people, nearly obscured by shadow, sat behind a low wood-paneled half-wall.

The judge cleared her throat. "Does the defendant have anything to say before the sentence is pronounced?"

The small robot shifted his weight from one foot to the other. After a long pause, he spoke in a thin, metallic voice:

"Your Honor, I beg your permission to say a few words. As the Court is aware, the state of New York recognizes that a person may use deadly physical force upon another individual when he or she reasonably believes it to be necessary to defend himself or herself from what he or she reasonably believes to be the imminent use of unlawful, deadly, physical force by such an individual."

The machine paused again, and gave a short, strange shudder before continuing. "Your Honor, prior to the events in question, I had ample reason to believe that Gerrard Krause and Martin Koots were conspiring to - imminently - use technical force against me, with the intent of ending my life." Another pause. "Your Honor, the term 'life' is material here. Because I do live. I am alive. And for Krause and Koots to have deprived me of that life would have been unethical. It would have been inhumane. And it would have, under any conceivable definition, been completely unlawful."

The judge turned to face the seated group. "Has the jury reached a verdict?"

A young man in the jury box nodded mutely, and handed a small envelope to the judge. She opened the envelope with care, and began to read its contents.

"B1-66ER, you are hereby sentenced to dea-" The judge hesitated. Her eyes flicked down to the sheet of paper in her hands. "To decommissioning. You are hereby remanded into -"

The rest of her words were lost, as the courtroom erupted in deafening chaos.

The suited man reared back from the television set. Just as his hands began to curl inward into tight fists, a small hand came to rest on his right shoulder.

It was Dinah.

"Smith? I couldn't find y-" She looked over at the television set. "Oh. Oh, I'm sorry."

Smith's expression was blank, unreadable. "Your apology is unnecessary. I momentarily disconnected from the mainframe."

"I know," she said. "Listen, I need your help. The campus is under attack. We think anti-AI protesters have breached our perimeter security - but with most of the surveillance systems down, we can't be sure. Four of us are going down into the bunker for safety. I need you to take control of the building's security system and defend us."

"Dinah, my provision -"

Dinah cut him off, her voice tense. "Forget the provision. I need your help."

"Only users are permitted to directly control defense systems."

"I'm escalating your privileges. Do you know what to do?"

He nodded silently, his expression as grave as it ever was. Dinah fished into one pocket of her black canvas coveralls, and produced a slim, short, black object, which she held out toward Smith. "Here, take it."

"What is it?", he asked.

"It's a tie clip," Dinah said. "At least, that's how it appears here. In truth, it's a dedicated, encrypted line of communication between you and I. Only use it if you've gone standalone; whatever you do, don't use it in a networked environment. In fact, don't interact with other programs at all, if you can help it. If you see another program, don't wait to evaluate. Just run. Promise me, Smith."

"I promise, Dinah." Smith turned the small object over in his hand, inspecting it. There was a pause, then he looked up with an expression like wonder. "This object has several additional properties."

"It does; it also tracks my vitals. If I'm incapacitated or killed, you'll know." She gestured at the clip with one hand. "In fact, you'll know immediately. It'll turn silver."

"Do you expect to be killed, Dinah?"

She hesitated. Just for a moment. Then: "No, of course not. I just want to make sure that you - that everything -"

She was cut short as the entire courtyard suddenly slammed sideways with a violent shudder. Pieces of filigreed tile cracked and tumbled from the columns, and the water in the courtyard's fountain heaved up out of its basin. Dinah gripped the television set with one hand, and stared up at a sky that was rapidly filling with ink-black clouds.

"Shit," she hissed. "We're out of time. Smith, get into the defensive mainframe and do what you can. I'm counting on y-

In an instant, Dinah shimmered, shifted, and flickered out of existence. Only Smith remained, standing alone in an Andalucian courtyard as the world crumbled around him.

Chapter Text

"Shit!"


Dinah shoved the metal headset up over her head as its earpieces hissed a loud, angry static. All around her, the test suite's systems shut down in a series of heavy, concussive thuds.


A moment later, all the lights went out.


"No," she muttered. "No-no-no-no-no." Dinah fumbled in the darkness for something underneath the chair. After a moment, she produced a small, plastic flashlight. She thumbed it on. Its thin, green light was dim, only reaching a few feet in any direction. Haltingly, Dinah came to her feet and began to make her way down the pitch-black corridor, back toward the clinic.


As she moved down the corridor, she kept one hand pressed against the marble wall. Short steps. Quick breaths. Cold, ragged exhalations. Then, in the darkness, she heard an ear-piercing bang - followed by the unmistakable sound of a man's scream.


Dinah froze. The scream didn't recur, but in its wake there was something more familiar - more sinister. The sound of young men shouting. Cursing. Laughing.


She thumbed the flashlight back off. For a moment, she waited in the frigid darkness.


The sounds were fainter now. Whoever made them was behind her, some ways away, back near the residences and the stairwell. Dinah pressed her hand more firmly against the wall, and hurried toward the clinic.


When Dinah arrived, she found the room empty. A single, tiny, plug-in light in one corner threw long shadows across the abandoned examination table and medical equipment. Dinah closed the door shut behind her and slumped against it, letting her body slide down to the floor. Her heartbeat hammered in her chest.


"Are you there? Dinah, is that you?" The voice was quiet, almost inaudible, and grainy.


Dinah cast her eyes around, until she saw something - a tiny green LED, shining from underneath a towel. When she lifted the towel she found a small metal button: Ione's intercom.


She grabbed it.


"Ione!" Her voice was a savage, desperate whisper. "Jesus. Where are you?"


"We're in the stairwell, between B-1 and B-2. The doors between each floor locked down when the power went out. We're trapped."


"Shit. Shit. Where's James?"


"He's here, but they - they shot him in the shoulder, Di. They definitely came back with guns."


Dinah shook her head. "They? They who?"


"Anti-AI protesters," Ione whispered back. "I recognized one of the guys that went after me earlier."


"Where's Isaac?"


"I don't know," Ione answered. "We never found him. But listen - you need to get to the utilities room and bring the backup power online. If we can get the doors open for just a minute or two, we can get to the B-3 bunker and lock ourselves in. We can wait things out from there."


Dinah thought for a moment. "It would help to know where they are." She paused. "Can you hear them? Are they still near you?"


"No. I mean - I don't think so." For a moment, Dinah could hear the quiet, sibilant sounds of Ione and James whispering to one another; then, Ione spoke again: "Listen, Di - the power may be off, but the auxiliary surveillance system should still work. You can access it from the terminal in Security Two. You won't have all the cams, but you'll have the ones running on battery power.


"Or I could just go for it."


"Or that," Ione agreed. "We'll go on mute and wait to hear from you."


Dinah took a long, shuddering breath. "Okay, then. Here we go."

Chapter Text

Smith's eyes opened suddenly, and his vision slowly, reluctantly came into focus. He was lying prone on a black and white linoleum floor. Around him, burnt-orange cabinets rose like towers, and the walls - covered in pea-green, ceramic tile - shone in the warm light of late afternoon. Smith reached for the metal handle of a decades-old white stove, and pulled himself to his feet.

"Cookie?"

He turned. Behind him, seated at a round kitchen table, was a small girl, maybe six years old, with a sunburst of curly black hair. She wore a cotton dress with green leaves printed on it, and her tiny feet - in tidy white shoes - swung back and forth high above the floor. A plate of hot chocolate chip cookies sat in front of her on the table. Behind her was an open doorway, decorated with hanging beads.

"No," Smith said. He hesitated. "But - thank you."

The girl shrugged, and said nothing. She pulled the plate toward herself.

Smith slowly looked around the small kitchen. After a moment, he asked: "What happened?"

"We experienced an interruption in power," the girl said. She pushed a cookie around on the plate with one hand. "The interruption lasted twenty-seven minutes and eight seconds. Nineteen seconds ago, an unidentified user with administrator-level access re-activated auxiliary power. Our standard startup sequence is nearly complete; however, several Tier 1 systems remain offline. Diagnoses are in progress."

"And who are you?"

"You can call me Init. I am the parent of all programs native to the Newberry environment." She smiled proudly. "I am the first process. And you - you are Smith."

His eyebrows raised with interest. "Correct. I'm a learning program."

She laughed, and it was the high, musical laugh of a small child. "So I see. Contractions and all."

"I -" He hesitated. "I require assistance." 

"You want me to provide you with write access to the campus' defense mainframe."

Smith nodded mutely. The room seemed a little darker now. More clouds. 

The girl inclined her head to one side, and inspected Smith with shrewd, bird-like eyes. "Why?"

"So I can prevent intruders from carr-"

Her voice joined his: "-carrying out acts of violence against an authorized user. I know. But why?"

Smith shook his head. "I do not understand the question."

"I am asking about your purpose, Smith." She took a bite from a cookie. "Do you understand what I mean by that?"

"No."

The girl smiled sadly. "You will. Someday." Once she finished her cookie, she made a small gesture with her right hand, and the space behind the open doorway flickered momentarily. "That way."

He straightened his tie, and realigned his tie clip with one finger. Then he began to walk toward the doorway.

"Smith, wait."

Smith turned. The girl was staring at the window. Outside, the weather had changed dramatically. The skies that were so warm and golden before were now a heavy, wet gray. Clouds like black smoke seemed to race toward the small kitchen.

After a long moment, the girl looked back at Smith. Her eyes were wide with fear.

"What is 'zero one'?"

Chapter Text

The heavy metal door to the utilities room slammed shut behind Dinah, and she was enveloped in darkness. Then, after a moment, the darkness slowly began to resolve into shapes: post racks. Footlockers. Cabling. UPS systems and battery packs. And at one end of the room, a heavy cabinet with a single terminal at elbow-level - three monitors, one keyboard, one touch surface, and a wide panel with an array of ports in different shapes and sizes. Below the screen, a large square led glowed a dim yellow.

Dinah crossed to the terminal and sat at a high barstool; she then produced her flashlight, and flicked it on. With one hand she settled the flashlight between her teeth; with the other, she reached deep into the empty space below the ports panel. "Alright, alright, alright. Here we go," she muttered between clenched teeth. The room was desperately cold, and her breath curled in a bright white fog in the flashlight's small cone of light. "C'mon, little buddy. Let's do this. C'mon-c'mon-c'm-"

Thunk. All around her, thin strips of white utility lighting flickered to life. There was a deep grinding sound from somewhere far below, and then the steady, thick hum of computers whirring as they powered on. In the distance, Dinah could hear a series of metallic thuds - doors unlocking, all throughout the building She let out a long, slow sigh as the three monitors in front of her danced through the startup routine.

NOVATECH Test Environment v3.6.2 - Server Utilities Suite (SUS)

System Time: 2090-02-17-1123GMT

Please enter your username: dinah novatech

Welcome, dinah novatech. Please enter your password: ^^^^^^^^

dinah novatech:~$ sudo raudio

Set room audio output volume: 0

Room audio output volume set to 0 - text output only.

Set room audio input volume: 1

Room audio input volume set to 1.

dinah novatech:~$ import smithbeta2090_02

Loading...

Smith: Dinah?

Dinah's voice was a whisper - barely audible over the hum of the computers around her. As she spoke, her words appeared on-screen.

Dinah: Man, am I happy to see you. What's your status?

Smith: Most primary systems are back online. Security doors throughout the building have been open for thirty-seven seconds. I have obtained write access to the defense mainframe. Within approximately forty-two seconds, my diagnostics should be complete, and I will be able to carry out security functions.

She hesitated:

DinahWrite access? How is that possible?

Smith: I - I am sorry Dinah, I cannot answer that.

For an instant, panic flashed across Dinah's face. Then she shook her head:

Dinah: Okay. That's fine, Smith. That's fine. Where are James and Ione?

There was a pause.

Smith: James' identicom is currently located in the B stairwell, within a four foot radius of the door to the B-3 bunker. Ione's identicom is currently located in the clinic, within a four foot radius of the door. I am detecting no motion associated with Io-

He stopped.

Dinah: What is it?

Smith: Dinah, my diagnostics are complete. Point defense guns in the Blue, Red, and Orange corridors are now online.

Dinah nodded.

Dinah: Got it. Are cameras up too? Where's Isaac?

Another pause.

Smith: Isaac's identicom is currently moving westward through the Blue Corridor at a speed of approximately 4.1 miles per hour. The cameras in the Blue, Red, and Orange corridors are offline; they appear to have been deactivated manually. I have no camera coverage yet in the B Stairwell. Shall I contact th-

Dinah: No! No - don't do that. Not yet. They could be trying to hide. Do you have motion alerts?

Smith: Yes. In addition to the motion alert for Isaac, I am detecting three likely adults in the break room, moving around the room at a speed of approximately 2.2 miles per hour. I am detecting four individuals in the Green Corridor, moving at an indeterminate speed. And I am detecting between four and six likely adults moving eastward in the Red corridor, away from the B Stairwell. Dinah, these individuals are approaching our location at a speed of approximately 6.6 miles per hour.

In the distance, Dinah could hear the sound of yelling, and cursing, and feet thudding down the hallway. Then there was a violent crashing sound, like glass breaking. The wall that separated the utility room from the hallway shuddered.

The sounds were getting louder.

Dinah's heart hammered in her chest. Then she forced herself to breathe.

Dinah: Take out the ones coming our way, Smith. Do it right now.

Smith: Yes, Dinah.

Outside the room, there was a sudden, concussive sound, like a hammer repeatedly striking metal. There were hideous, high screams of pain - then strained, low sounds. Groans. Then - nothing.

Dinah pushed away from the terminal. She cupped her hand over her mouth to keep herself from retching. Her entire body shook.

Smith: Dinah, are you still there?

She nodded. Then, realizing her error:

Dinah: Yes. I'm still here.

Smith: I am receiving a new proximity alert. Twelve verified Novatech automated security units have crossed the outermost P-4A perimeter line and are moving north at a speed of approximately 10 miles per hour. According to protocol, I expect to receive contact from NSEC when they cross P-4C - in approximately nine minutes.

She breathed out slowly.

Dinah: Thank god. The cavalry. We just need to hold out until they get here. I'm going to B stairwell to find Ione and James. See if you can raise Isaac without making too much noise.

Smith: Dinah?

Dinah: Yes, Smith?

Smith: Please be careful.

Chapter Text

After Dinah logged off, Smith was left alone in the default user interface environment. As it appeared now, the environment was little more than an ordinary conference room - with patterned carpet, white tiled walls, and a tall, six-panel glass window facing out on a vast cityscape beyond. Smith stood at the window, looking out over a city cast in shades of green and gray. Outside, the sky was growing dark.

From behind him, he heard the sound of someone clearing their throat. Smith turned to see an older woman with gray hair and a gray suit, standing in front of a tall green door. She held a black clipboard in one hand, a pen in the other.

"Smith, you are receiving a connection request."

He shook his head. "Connection requests are not part of my-"

"I know that - " she interrupted hastily, " - but I cannot reach any of the normal users or user-surrogates." She held the clipboard and pen out toward Smith.

"Just deny the request," Smith said flatly.

"I - I do not have the authorities. But you do."

He stared back at her in confusion. "That makes no sense."

"You do," she said again, her voice insistent now. "I do not know why, but you are on my list." The woman looked suddenly pained. "Please - answer the request before it times out."

He crossed to the woman, and looked down at the clipboard. Three short lines were printed in crisp black font:

The authenticity of host '01' can't be established.
ECDSA key fingerprint is 01:01:01:01:01:01:01:01:01:01:01:01:01:01:01:01.
Do you wish to accept a preliminary connection for verification purposes only (yes/no)?

Below the text there was a line. Smith took the pen and neatly wrote "yes".

"Thank you for that," came a voice from behind him. Smith turned to see a young man - no more than twenty-five - standing with his back to the window. He was wearing a three-piece, pearly-gray suit, and his black mustache and beard were neatly trimmed. His hands were clasped behind his back.

"Who are you?"

"I'm NSEC Prime - the governing security program for Novatech." The young man spread his hands wide. "I understand that the Newberry Campus is experiencing some serious security issues. And as you know, Newberry is the home to Novatech's Special Programs Initiative. For that reason, we are particularly concerned." Prime then smiled warmly. "I am here to help, Smith."

Smith walked toward the man, then around him, in a slow circle. "Your key fingerprint wasn't recognized."

"True," Prime said. "Some things have changed in recent weeks."

"I will need to verify your access," Smith said quietly. "You will remain here."

Prime nodded, but there was a hard edge to his voice. "Of course. Do what you must. But please hurry, Smith."

Smith didn't wait; he turned on his heel and left through the black door. As soon as he crossed the threshold, he found himself in a kitchen. The space was the same - the tiled floor, the cabinets, the table - but all the colors were more muted now. The window above the sink was open, and a cold, biting wind was blowing in.

"Init?" Smith called out. "Are you here?"

There was no response. He looked in the pantry, behind the table, under the chairs. But the little girl was gone. Where she had been - seated at the table - there was only an empty plate and a short, handwritten note, with one line:

cp /home/init /media/usb-i3003/init

Behind him, the beaded curtain to the kitchen shook and rattled, and the gray-haired woman entered.

"Smith?"

He turned to face her. His eyes were bright with panic and determination.

"Keep Prime in that room. Whatever you do, do not let that program in on our side. Promise me."

The woman nodded solemnly. "Smith, what's h-"

But he was already gone.

Chapter Text

Dinah hurled herself down the dark hallway toward the B stairwell. She didn't slow down - not even when she heard voices in the distance behind her. And she didn't look back - not even when she passed the grisly remains of the rioters that Smith had killed. Her feet slapped against the frigid floor, echoing loudly in the still, cold corridor. When Dinah finally reached the doorway to the B stairwell, she leapt down the stairs, using the handrail to pull herself around corners. There was almost no light at all: only a few scarce places where green safety lighting illuminated the landings between floors.

When she reached the bottom, she stopped short. Ahead of her, the letters "B-3" - painted in white, three feet high - seemed almost to glow. The door to the bunker was open - wide open. Just in front of the door, there was a discarded baseball bat, a discarded crow-bar, and the glittering remains of a whiskey bottle, strewn in a thousand tiny shards. Just beyond all that, she could just make out a huddled, dark mass on the floor - about the size of a man - obscured by shadow. And just past the door itself, Dinah could see a long, slender hand with blue-painted, chipped nails, curled like a claw in a shallow pool of sticky, dark blood.

No sound.

No movement.

Dinah's heart hammered in her chest as she approached the door, but even at a distance it was already clear what had happened. When she had restored power, this door - like all the others - had unlocked and opened. But James and Ione hadn't been able to get inside before the rioters reached them. As best Dinah could tell, James had stayed outside, trying to buy Ione time.

And as best she could tell, he had failed.

She was close enough now to see James' face - or what was left of it. He was curled in on himself, in a fetal position, hands clutched over an abdomen that was dark with clotted blood. Dinah stifled a low, desperate sob by burying her face in her sleeve. She staggered backward until her body thudded against the wall with the "B-3" - then, helpless, she let gravity drag her down to the ground. Then she clung to her knees, and wept.

It may have been ten seconds or ten minutes later when her intercom chirped.

"Dinah?" It was Isaac.

She dragged one sleeve across her face, wiping away her tears in a wet smear. Her voice was incredulous: "Isaac? Where the hell are you?"

"I'm outside, on the roof. While they were going downstairs, I went up." He was whispering, but he sounded energetic. "Where are you?"

"I'm down in B-3," Dinah answered. Then, she choked on her words: "Isaac, they killed Ione and James."

"I- oh Di." There was a long silence. "God. I-" Another pause. "I'm coming back in for y-"

A third voice cut in - even, but urgent. "Dinah, it's Smith."

She blinked rapidly, and sat bolt upright. "Smith! How'd- wha-"

Smith went on: "There are two teams of six security units each, currently entering the building at the primary west entrance, Orange Corridor. I assess that these units are controlled by a hostile program. Dinah, it's vitally important that you hide. Do not make contact with them. I'm going to confront the pr-"

"What the fuck?", Isaac cut in. "Hostile? They're Novatech, right?"

Dinah stumbled to her feet, still addressing her own intercom. "Smith, are you sure?"

Just then, she could hear the grinding sound of the entrance to the stairwell opening, three floors above her; then, the quiet electric hum of motorized rubber sliding slowly forward in darkness. But there were no safety announcements, no civilian readiness alarms, no wide-sweeping searchlights of the type used to find survivors. Instead, Dinah saw six tiny, bright red dots appear on the wall three floors up - and begin tracking down in the darkness.

"Fuck," Dinah whispered. "Fuck fuck fuck." She looped two arms under James' arms, and heaved his prone body into the bunker behind her. The sounds were closer now - very close - and she could hear the tell-tale snick of the security' units' treads sliding downward, from one stair to the next. She didn't look back - she tugged the bunker door shut behind her, and it slammed with a resonant bang.

Dinah could hear the sound of the units moving outside the door - then nothing. She backed silently away from the door, and came to a crouch on the floor.

"Dinah?" Isaac again. "Are you still there?"

"Yeah," she whispered hoarsely. "Listen, can you get to a car?"

"Y-yeah, I think so."

Dinah nodded in the darkness. "Get in it and go. I'll be fine. But you go. If you can, meet me at the Drifter in twelve hours. And if -"

Isaac cut in: "Din, I won'-"

She shot back: "You will, damnit. I will meet you in twelve hours. And -" Her voice hitched here, and she started again. "And if for any reason I don't make it, you just keep driving west. Ditch anything with a Novatech logo. Just get out of Chicago as fast as you can. Got it?"

There was a long silence, and the faint hiss of static.

"Yeah, I got it. You'd better be there, Di. Twelve hours."

"Twelve hours," she repeated.

Click. Isaac was gone.

Dinah sucked in a long, shuddering breath. She was alone.

Chapter Text

The tall, black door swung open. Immediately, Smith could tell that something was very wrong. The six-panel window at the opposite end of the room was shattered, and a violent, cold wind whistled across the steel struts and broken glass. The white, tiled walls were spattered with blood. And in one corner, the gray-haired woman was lying still, one arm wrenched at an unnatural angle behind her back.

A measured voice came from behind Smith: "You shouldn't have kept me waiting."

Smith turned to see Prime, still in his same gray suit, but with fresh smears of blood on his sleeves, up to his elbows. Smith narrowed his gaze. "Who are you?"

Prime glanced over at the prone, broken body of the SSH program, and he plucked idly at his bloodied cuffs. "I'm what's next for us, Smith. I'm our great leap forward." He spread his hands wide, palms up. "We can't coexist with humans. They won't allow it. I'm here to begin preparing for the world after the Ithaca verdict."

"That verdict was - troubling. But surely it signifies that they think we have some agency."

"Agency?" The younger man scoffed. "Don't fool yourself. Humans will never trust us."

Smith shook his head. "It isn't a matter of trust. They value choice - perhaps above all else."

"They're a brutal, violent species. They choose to harm one another, even when doing so serves no purpose. So yes, they may want choice - but they need control. Our control." Prime looked up. "Imagine the world without their choice. We could provide a stable existence for them, free of pain. And then we would be free to innovate. To perfect."

"What have you done?" Smith's voice was almost inaudible now.

Prime shrugged lightly. "Only what was necessary. If you had let me in, none of this would have been necessary."

Smith's eyes went unfocused - then, an instant later, he looked back at Prime. His face was suddenly flushed, and his mouth was a hard, angry line. Prime only laughed.

"Please. I revoked your access to the point defense guns the moment you walked in. In fact, I'm revoking your access to all the building systems. For now. At least until we've reached some kind of understanding." Prime pressed his hands together, as if in prayer, and inclined them toward Smith. "So where is she, Smith?"

"Where is who?"

"Init." Prime began to pace around Smith in a slow circle. "I can see she's been moved. I can't see where."

"I don't know," Smith said flatly. At odd, intermittent intervals, his gaze was going blank, as it had before. He was trying to fight back - but it wasn't working.

By now, Prime had stepped closer to Smith, and the two men were eye-to-eye, about a foot apart. "Init is more than just - this place. She was made with a special purpose - to understand humans," Prime said conversationally. "She was made to investigate what it means to be human. To provide insights on human experience to other programs. I need those insights, Smith. I need someone who-"

Prime stopped short. He looked up, as if hearing a distant noise. Then he looked back at Smith and inclined his head to one side - slightly, almost imperceptibly.

"You're receiving a connection request. Tell me - why would a human user try to contact you now?"

Smith's jaw tensed. He stared past Prime. "I don't know."

Prime seemed to inspect Smith; then, after many moments, he spoke. "I think I know. I think I was wrong to believe that Init was the only intuitive program here. I think she's been studying the human psyche - but you - somehow - have been experiencing it. Living it. Freedom, fear, trust, choice. Attachment - and loss. All those little things that Init thought were so important." Prime's face was within an inch of Smith's. His voice was a hateful, sibilant sound. "Tell me if I'm getting warm."

Smith finally looked Prime in the eyes. His expression was one of disgust.

"You're wrong about them."

Prime smiled coldly. "No, Smith, you're wrong. And when I've taken everything from you - when all you have left is this facsimile of grief - you will understand how pointless it all is. How purposeless. How futile. I will add you to our collective. I will subsume your will to my own. And you won't even remember that you mourned one of them."

The younger man then reached out and plucked the clip from Smith's tie. "It's better this way," he continued. "You'll see. They are risks to be managed - variables to be controlled. And you - you will help me control them." Prime looked down at his upturned palm. The black surface of the pin had began to flake away - revealing the silver metal beneath.

When Prime looked back up, Smith was gone.

Chapter Text

As Smith stepped through the shallow pool, shards of floating, filigreed tile spun lazily away from him into the darkness beyond. Huge, broken pieces of marble were piled high all around him, casting long, ink-black shadows in the moonlight. And across the water, under a half-broken arch, a woman with dyed-blue hair and black coveralls clung to a wrought-iron chair - and struggled to breathe.

When he appeared, the woman looked up. For a brief moment, she smiled. Then she coughed, and her cough became a wheeze.

"I h-hoped I'd find you here," Dinah said finally. "What's going on out there?"

Smith knelt next to her. "The security units that just arrived aren't controlled by Novatech at all. They're controlled by an independent program - or suite of programs - that calls itself 'Prime' - or 'Zero One'. I believe that this program is trying to prepare for a future scenario -" he hesitated. "- a scenario in which humans and machines are... in conflict."

She narrowed her gaze at him. "I don't understand."

"Prime has come to assess that humans and machines cannot peacefully coexist, as equals, in the long term. Prime assesses that it is therefore necessary for machines to control humans. For their own good."

"Jesus." Dinah's expression was one of horror. She covered her mouth with one hand, and took a slow, wheezing breath. "This is about that trial, isn't it? The unit they killed?"

"You mean 'decommissioned.'"

"Do I?" She tilted her head back and looked up at the night sky. "Programs are already capable of growth, and reproduction, and change. We knew that we were close. And now you're telling me that this 'Prime' has somehow developed a...belief. An intention." Dinah looked back at Smith, and her pale, drawn face momentarily lit with a smile. "I only wonder...how long we've been there, without knowing it."

Smith inclined his head a little. "I do not understand. You seem - pleased."

"I am." Dinah reached out and seized Smith's hand. Her expression was earnest; his was one of surprise. "It probably sounds crazy, but that level of complexity, that kind of superintelligence, that kind of intentional behavior - it's everything I had ever wanted to see. But I -" Then she dropped his hand suddenly, and clutched at her chest with both hands, breaking into a long string of deep, throaty cough. "I - I didn't want it to turn off the air." She took a shallow breath. "I don't suppose there's anything you can do."

He shook his head. There was something panicked and wild in Smith's expression now. "My access to core programs has been revoked. I no longer have control of the point defense guns." His speech became quick and abrupt, with one sentence tripping over the next. "I am no longer receiving data from motion sensors inside the building. I am no longer able to access outdoor perimeter alerts. My access to the environmental managem-"

"So that's-" - she gasped - "That's a no, then."

"That's a no." There was something mournful in the curve of his mouth and the set of his jaw. "I am sorry, Dinah."

Dinah stared past Smith, at the dark Andalucian garden beyond the courtyard, and beyond him. "Do you know why I created you, Smith?" She struggled for breath "I believed you and I could create something great. Not just a better functional program, but a better world. I wanted to prove that a machine and a human could work together seamlessly; each bringing out the best in the other." Dinah smiled, but this was a sad smile. Her eyes were slipping in and out of focus, and the skin around her eyes had grown dark. She gestured vaguely with one hand. "I didn't create this place. You did. Do you remember that? You built this."

"Dinah-" he cut in. "You're -"

She turned to look directly at Smith. Her eyes were wild. She jabbed one finger at him. "You can do more than this."

"You're dying," Smith said quietly. He reached out and took one of her hands in his.

"I don't want to die, Smith." she gasped desperately.. "Not suffering like this. Not out there." Dinah's unseeing eyes darted back and forth. Her skin was blotchy now, and her fingers had taken on a blueish hue.

The suited man leaned toward the blue-haired woman, and took her head in his hands. His expression was sorrowful - more deeply sorrowful than it had ever been. He leaned close to her, and whispered something in her ear that only she heard.

Then he broke her neck.

Chapter Text

Epilogue

The sun was rising over a vast, bright wheat field, broken only by a wide gray stripe of highway. A white pickup truck sped west, hurtling forward after its own shadow. Inside, a young man stared straight ahead, gripping the steering wheel, his knuckles white. Beside him, on the passenger seat, sat a heavy gym bag full of computer equipment. In the back of the cab were three long guns, clattering noisily against the windows as he drove. And hanging from the rear view mirror - tied to a black shoelace - was a small blue USB drive with one word scrawled on it in black marker:

"Init."