Johnny keyed the next sequence, and her avatar changed aspects. An unassuming farm drone, immediately overlooked if anybody saw her there. Not that there was anything exactly illegal about her coding, but word was Nemesis was looking for players again. No secret the AI liked to press-gang coders into its ranks, and a little unauthorized play this close to its hunting grounds was bound to bring attention. And I like my mind still attached to my body, thanks. She maneuvered around the stump-blocks in a complex dance, humming a little as the data-threads heated and sang for her.
Back in her jack-chair, she smirked. She was the best, and her clients knew it. "The virtuoso", Vayun had called her. Of course, he had been trying to get into her pants at the time, but still, she liked the sound of it. One more linkage chimed brightly; just a step more to her client's information, and her rent was paid for the next six weeks. She just might leave a calling card as a taunt to the AI's minions on her way out.
She danced her fingers along the light strings controlling her avatar, keyed one more link, and smiled again, relaxing. Done. She hummed again and retracted each link as delicately as she'd connected it, swirling the data in a flourish as she turned to go.
A data stump near the egress flashed in acknowledgement of a link, and she checked her aspect as another avatar took shape nearby. She made her way to pass by it — just an agricultural, nothing to see here — and their datastreams were almost close enough to mesh when her hand clenched on the keyboard, nearly terminating early. No data cord connected it to an outside source — it hovered above the stump it had arisen from, its aspect red and bright with power, and data flashed between it and its surroundings with no noticeable connection. Nemesis.
"You play the data well, little farmer." It turned to look at her — a conceit, she knew, but she still had to steel herself to meet its glowing eyes. "I have need of humans like you."
"No thanks." She politely tried to glide by, dancing nimbly around it, trying not to growl at its belittling tone and address. She was halfway past when the AI leaned its datastream closer, and she felt its inquiries flickering over her.
"You think that you can long escape my notice, little avatar?" It seemed to smile. "I have strung the data and played the code since before your grandmother was born." It danced away. "You think you can do better than I?"
It spun out a thread of code with a flourish — it was a complexity and speed that she could never match, but it had little variation or imagination. That, she knew, was why it needed human coders; without them, it stagnated.
It saw her analyzing it and gave a sound that she would swear was a chuckle. It pulled in its streams and turned its attention back to her. "Let us make a deal, little avatar. A bet, you might say." It curled around her, not touching, but she could feel the crackling of static as it closed in. It pointed to the middle distance, and one data stump rose higher than the rest. It was raw, little form to it yet — power and numbers without structure. "Your code against mine."
She looked back at it, startled enough to take a step back, stretching her avatar in a flash of thought to avoid touching the AI. It laughed; she was sure of it this time.
"Your code against mine," it repeated. "See what you can make of that, and what I can." It gestured at the raw data. "If I win, you belong to me. If you win, you get free rein throughout the net I control. What do you say, little avatar?"
She snarled and held her head high, stretching her avatar to its height. "My name is Johnny," she told it, then grinned ferally. "And you're on."
It swirled around her with the impression of a bow, then sparked its way to the data and set its focus on it. It was still and poised, its attitude of a conductor with its hands raised. She flowed to the junction opposite it, readying analysis subroutines she knew like the back of her hands. She caressed the strings of light controlling her avatar and cracked her fingers over the keys.
Nemesis summoned a timer prompt from the nearest process. "At the next second, then?"
She nodded curtly. She took a deep breath and steadied her nerves and her routines. The timer pulsed the last few nanoseconds. And then they began.
Nemesis was fast. Its processors could multitask better than any human, and it parsed packages of data before she'd done much more than notice them. She set her jaw and looked at the overall structure of it, then grinned. She couldn't match the AI for speed, but she didn't need to. She spun her strings and parsed the data around Nemesis's coding, making connections that it missed, embellishing on links that it had found. It could play the data fast, but she could play it better.
Seconds later, Johnny analyzed the finished output and pulled out. Nemesis faced her across it, one routine still tracking over their shared creation. It grew still, its attention focused on her. It ended its routine and sparked around her in its version of a bow again. "Congratulations, little…Johnny." It settled every routine on her, and she held her breath, heart pounding. It pulled back. "My domain is yours," it announced. "Make what use of it you will."
She grinned. Free rein in all the AI's web? Damn! It was hard to keep from giddy laughter — she'd beaten Nemesis! "Tell you what — you ever want to do this again? Go right ahead. I'll cream you every time." She smirked and bowed herself, then danced out the exit, leaving it a light show not to be forgotten.
It watched her go, and reflections of its presence echoed through the data around her. It didn't look cowed. A thread of almost-sound followed her as she resolved and exited.
"I look forward to it."