Despite being the headquarters of a paramilitary organization, the landscaping was calm and reassuringly green. That was something I needed to pick up again after this was all over. I used to run every morning. My path generally took me through a park and past a lake. I missed that.
I thought back on all those times I had missed Zero. Once again, I was forced to wonder if it would have the answers I needed right now. Maybe it wouldn't. Like I had told Duo, a computer couldn't do an analysis without sufficient data, and we had practically none. So little, in fact, that it seemed the others had already put Zero out of their minds.
They may have been glad to do so. They didn't share the same affinity for Zero that I had. What would they do if they had gotten it back anyway? After all of the deaths now associated with it, I was pretty sure that further research into it would be halted at the very least. Most likely, it would be locked away permanently, or worse yet, destroyed. I guess in some ways I was happy that we hadn't found Zero. I didn't wish that fate on it.
I was in the middle of thinking about direct neural interfaces when my cell phone vibrated a short pattern. A text message? I hit a few buttons on my phone and called it up. All it contained was a short string of numbers. Curious. Spam? I checked the number from which the message had originated. Though it conformed to standard protocol, I didn't think it would actually be a valid number if dialed.
Something kept me from simply deleting the message and returning to my pondering. I let it sit for a few minutes before I pulled it out and stared at it again. What had generated this mess of digits in the 'phone number'? My mind automatically went back through time to remember encoded messages we had sent each other during the wars. I broke the sender number down to its bit pattern and stared at that for a few seconds before confirming that it was indeed familiar. Though it took some work, I could pick out the distinctive markers. It was generated by that same algorithm that Zero used for creating pseudo-random noise.
The message body had to mean something, too. Coordinates, I thought. Using the GPS locator on my phone, I extrapolated out the distances and confirmed the fact that this was no mere coincidence. They pointed to Olin base.
I was walking towards the parking garage before I even realized it. I was already out of the landscaped area behind the building before I thought about the rest of the team. I dismissed them after a moment's thought and continued my course. This could turn out to be nothing more than a paranoid imagining of someone desperate to find the system.
Bending the truth inside my own mind was entirely counterproductive. I forced myself to look at things truthfully. The others weren't interested in finding Zero so much as making sure that Zero would never be a threat to anyone ever again. It was only an hour out to Olin. I could be back before they knew I was gone. I would handle this myself.
When I got to the base, there were no signs of activity outside. I pulled up in the car we had requisitioned from the Preventers fleet and parked it outside the gate. The fencing did not appear to have been tampered with. Being no more secure than it had been last time, I scaled it without a problem and landed on the other side.
Still as barren as it had been a few days ago. I twitched with unease as I crossed the wide open field, feeling uncomfortably exposed. Who had sent that message? Had he left some surprises for me? Though we had checked out the field just a few days ago, I exercised caution and training to make sure I didn't run into anything.
We had repaired the front door lock on our way out of the base, but I knew the codes we had installed, so it was nothing to get past the door and into the base. I pulled out a flashlight and my cell phone, trying to gauge in what direction I should head to follow the coordinates I had been given.
The base hadn't been so oppressive the last time I had been here. Maybe because we had been a party of five. I checked almost obsessively for any functioning cameras in the halls, but found nothing. That didn't decrease the sensation that I was being watched.
I headed down stairs and hallways that we had not traveled our first time through. There were doors I had to pry open, locks I had to bypass. Three times I ran into unsurpassable obstacles and was forced to backtrack. I was certain to mentally mark every turn I made, every interesting thing I passed. Moving into the heart of this dark metallic structure, it was easy to lose all sense of where I had been. I wanted to be able to get back out of here. Perhaps I should have brought a ball of string to assist me.
The air was stuffy, dusty. I felt like an intruder, treading where I had no right. My timesense was being thrown off by the atmosphere. I had to check my watch to see how much time had really passed. Not as much time as it felt. I was almost relieved to find that I had finally wandered into an area that sported footsteps in the dust. Looking at them, I tried to determine how old they were. Had they been made by Zamora? Or had someone been here in the meantime?
Since they led me in the proper direction, I followed them to another large metal hatch in a string of large metal hatches. I pressed the button next to it, surprised when it actually worked. Maybe Zamora had fixed it while he had been down here. I crossed the threshold, and it slid smoothly closed behind me.
The other side of the portal was less musty. I found that I could now detect the hum of air purifiers and recyclers. Apparently this section ran on a different subcircuit than the rest of the base that I had passed through. There was an itch on my right calf, and I rubbed at it idly with my left foot, thinking of spiders and mites and whatever else might have been existing down here. Checking my phone for my coordinates, I found that it was no longer receiving a signal. I called up the memory of where I had been the last time I had checked, and decided I was pretty much wherever I had been trying to go.
A faint yellow light pulsed at the end of the hallway through an open doorway. It looked like the glow from a console set into the wall. That was very encouraging. I shuffled quickly over, thinking that I was finally near the end of my search, but I stopped just before crossing that final threshold. What would I find there? Zero? Some trap that had been left for me? It was too late to turn back, and ahead lay answers of one sort or another. I took that final step, prepared for anything, but the door did not slam down behind me the way I had almost expected.
I walked farther into the small room. There was another door there, but it was sealed shut. Some boxes were shoved into the corner, but the light was too weak for me to want to investigate immediately. The console was on the far side. As I approached, I saw an amber cursor blinking in one corner of the display, and only a limited keyboard device beneath it. I ignored the keyboard in favor of the screen, swiping my hand across its surface to clear it of the dust. There was so much of it floating in the air already, it must have been affecting my sinuses. My head was sending me warning signals.
The screen's glow grew a little bit brighter as I cleaned it off. The blinking cursor confronted me with a few long seconds of innocence before it scrolled a line of numbers across the screen. I recognized it as an authorization code query that I had used on Wing's systems. I was just staring at the data entry device, wondering if I should enter the response when I swayed on my feet. Low blood pressure could not be claimed the cause of this bout of dizziness. The room spun as I turned back towards the door, seeking a sign of danger. I never made it through. My vision faded to black, and I hit the floor.
Satisfied that it was as safe as could be, given the circumstances, I levered myself off the floor. How long had I been out? I checked my watch automatically, staring at it for a few seconds in the darkness before I thought to turn on its backlight. Two hours? Not good. Not good at all.
Absently brushing the dust off, I tried to gather my thoughts. What had taken me down? Gas? If that had been the case, then it was clearly gone now. Orienting myself to the exit was a little more difficult than I had anticipated. As per my original fears, the door had closed while I had been unconscious, forming a seam in the wall that I had to run my fingers over to find. I pushed the buttons on the console, but they refused to function.
No pretending that it had been a fluke, then. Someone had lured me here and caught me. I spared a passing thought for some half-assed regret. Maybe I should have told someone where I was heading. Duo was going to have my hide when I got out of this, but oh well. Nothing to do but think of the present. I would still have defended my decision to take off alone. It seemed right somehow that this come down to me, Zero, and whomever was behind this.
If my captor had wanted me dead, I would have been killed while I was out. What was the purpose in detaining me here? My eyes returned to the console. It was still glowing faintly, providing the only illumination in the room. I was in the process of lurching over there when I got a strangely familiar sensation. It felt like Zero was trying to tell me something.
I stopped, breath in my throat as I raised my hands to my head. I sighed in relief when I encountered no interface bonded to my skull. I would thank my lucky stars for whatever breaks I could get.
Nevertheless, the feeling persisted. With a few careful breaths, I calmed myself, cleared my mind, and tried to concentrate through the faint disorientation on that familiar feeling. Zero? I probed tentatively.
I almost fell over when it responded. An identification code scrolled through my mind, longer than I should have been able to process and recognize unassisted. Crap.
You should sit, a voice inside my head suggested. Zero's method of communication had never been this articulate, even if it was still not just words, but images and abstractions as well. You will require time to adjust.
There was a question I really didn't want to ask, but Zero picked it out of my brain and answered a variant of it anyway. You are not in any danger.
That doesn't reassure me, I thought at it. What happened? Report.
First I received a complete internal systems diagnostic. I couldn't assimilate the dense packet of data it threw at me in any detail, but I somehow absorbed the whole and suddenly knew that all of my systems checked out. After I accepted that, it spoke again. You have joined with the system.
I really didn't like the sound of that. Planting a hand against the wall to counter the sudden lightheadedness I experienced, I decided to follow the system's advice and slid down slowly until I was sitting on the floor again. Using what interface?
A nanotech matrix.
"How?" I breathed aloud, having a terrible, terrible feeling about where this was going. Schematics flew across my mind's eye, giving me a picture of the integration Zero had indeed managed to achieve. While there was a part of me that was impressed by the level of sophistication that had gone into the design, a larger part of me was recoiling with a stunned non-reaction. I had certainly never given anyone permission to spread a nanobot network across my brain. The array was still in the process of expanding, but given enough time, it would replicate and spread itself across the rest of my system. When Zamora had dreamed of full integration of man and machine, he hadn't been kidding. I would have an onboard computer if Zero had its way with me.
I couldn't see my hands, but there was an itch crawling over my skin that I knew had to be imaginary. Even if the nanobots had been interested in my hands, they were small enough that I would never feel them moving in my system.
I had felt their effects, though, hadn't I? I had felt something like a tiny bug bite on the back of my leg. Zero quietly confirmed that as a point of entry. It had been here for days already, replicating to the point where it could control certain key systems of the base. It was a simple matter for it to have laid itself across my path in a fine dust, waiting for me to walk by. Latching onto my boot was not a problem, nor was crawling its way upwards until it reached my flesh. Only one or two had been necessary. I could have inhaled the bots. Some had probably pierced the palm of my hand when I had swiped at the dust covering the console. They could have stalked me at every door I had been forced to open. Once it gained access to my internal system, it could have started replicating from there, growing exponentially as the moments passed.
"Zero," I said urgently. I didn't have to, but it comforted me to pretend that the system was outside of myself. It was also a pretense of control. It was already inside me, and there was nothing I could do to stop it. "Who ordered this? Whose directives are you following?"
There was an ominous silence, the impression that Zero was unable to comply because the question was unanswerable. Zero was talking to me, now. It responded to my thoughts. Was I the user behind the system? But something would have to have targeted me in the first place.
You were the obvious choice, it whispered. You were the only choice.
Zero had chosen me of its own accord? That... made me not want to contemplate that any further, but I had to. I needed answers. "Choice for what?"
"Why? Why me? Why do you seek to integrate? How did...?" I shook my head. Zero would not respond well to such a flood of questions, or rather, I would not respond well to the flood of answers that would inevitably come as a result. I rephrased the query. "What happened to you, Zero? Starting with Meridian."
It gave me only statistical readouts for its time there, including its records for Stewart's interaction with it. I winced. Zero had only been doing what it had been told. In the effort to compensate for the damage sustained by the core during our last battle together, Zero had been instructed to throw out any data that did not fall within its strictly checksummed parameters. Unfortunately, Stewart had not conformed to standards.
"Zamora," I said, making the name a request for more information,
More diagnostics, more data. Zamora had begun his experimentation with Zero, changing some of its programming to include a new, hardwired goal to fulfill: his dream of the harmony of biology and technology.
I had guessed correctly. Zero's idea of achieving that had involved integrating itself with a user. There could be nothing greater than that. The human host would have analytical power at his fingertips, and Zero... Zero would have a hole in its network filled. Its shortcoming was that it dealt with quantitative valuations. It needed a human mind to go beyond that. Mutualism at its finest.
"Why me, then?" It had been Zamora's goal to achieve such perfection. How had I entered the picture?
A perfect union, Zero restated more clearly to me. Such a goal was impossible with the given resources. He was flawed. A union with him would have been flawed.
While I was getting all the answers I wanted, I couldn't say they were making me feel good. It was difficult to tell if the faint nausea was coming from them, or from the network slowly working its way into my brain. "When did you realize this?"
I almost laughed at the timestamp it returned. It obligingly returned a less specific value. Immediately.
Alright, I would grant it that. It was obvious that Zamora was a less than ideal candidate for the Zero system. "Why me?"
Older data flitted across my mind, and I somehow recognized it as my data from during the war. It remembered me, then. Brief comparisons were made to other templates it had stored. Of all the people that had used Zero, I was the one that had consistently proven to be the most compatible. Because of the way its datasets had been constructed, I was, in fact, quite nearly its definition of compatibility.
It skipped a bunch of time, and I was given a large number of abstractions from the night I had run into Zero on the Meridian network. "So I was right... there was no one behind you that night." Zero had, of its own volition, been scanning the network. Zamora would already have assigned it its new purpose by then. Had that purpose somehow managed to inspire Zero to break the mold of its own programming in search of that 'perfect union'? Its logical conclusions, its pursuit of its directives, it mimicked true intelligence uncannily. I had to hand it to Zamora. He had damn near created an artificial lifeform with his bumbling.
That night on the network, it had felt like a test. Zero was intrigued by this digital entity that had managed to follow it through the ether. After passing the 'test', it had bombarded me with queries of its own, pulling information from me and my thoughts in search of more information.
It gained a name from that, an identity on which to perform a new search. It found it knew me. Zero was the one that had raised all the flags in the databases. It didn't mind; it knew how not to get caught. Up until that last search in the Preventers subnet...
It responded to my half-formed suggestion of carelessness. I am incapable of carelessness. It sent a shiver down my spine to hear it refer to itself in the first person. It was time.
"Time for what?"
That one had completed the necessary preparations.
Zamora. Preparations. The interface. "Zero. Were you the one that came up with the plans for the interface?"
"And you used Zamora to implement them?
"And you--" Good gods. I finished the rest of my thought in a horrified whisper. "And you discarded him once he had served his purpose."
It all made a sick, brilliant sense. I wrapped my arms around myself. Just what sort of entity was holding me captive? "What was in the tray, Zero?" I didn't have to elaborate on which tray; Zero knew what I was talking about. Zero would even know what I was thinking about.
It showed me the nanobots that were crawling underneath my skin even as we interacted. Once they had been completed, Zero had the ability to do whatever it needed without Zamora's assistance. Once again, I was right. The tray had not been empty.
"Why are you being so cooperative?" Although I was its user now, it was under no compulsion to respond to my every query.
The answer was abstract enough to require more than mere images this time. One cannot come to accurate conclusions without complete and accurate information.
I nearly laughed again, this time with a bit of hysteria. I had said that myself, hadn't I? I wished my vocabulary of curses was larger than it was. It would be getting a workout right about now. It was no wonder Zero had selected me as its host. We thought alike.
"Now that you have me.... what do you intend to do with me?"
I waited for a response, but received nothing. Was there no goal beyond bonding itself to me? A perfect union with no purpose? What was the point? Did Zero even care if there was a point? Its purpose did not go beyond what it was in the process of achieving. Once perfection was achieved, it would go back to being an admittedly super-powerful computer, waiting for its next command.
"Let me go, Zero," I whispered tiredly, pulling my knees to my chest. It was with some effort that I resisted the urge to rock back and forth.
I reeled beneath its blueprints. Its task was not complete until it had achieved full system integration. There were still problems that it hadn't worked out yet, however, an idea that finally did wring a crazed chuckle out of me.
I couldn't leave. Zero was installed somewhere on this base, if not in this room. This room had just been convenient. Somewhere, Zero was running its calculations in concert with the nanotech network threading its way through my gray matter, and that was where the original Zero core was. It had figured out a way to acquire an equivalent amount of processor power by distributing the load across the innumerable bots, but it had no way of downloading its memory into my system without completely overwriting everything that was already there, and that would have been quite counterproductive. It needed me intact in order to supplement its analytical engine.
Zero was made of three components: its processing hardware, its interface, and its accumulated data. Hardware? Check. Interface? Check. Data?
I needed to be here, where Zero could still access its memory core. If I left, I would destroy the union. Ergo, I could not leave.
Normally, I liked the elegant simplicity of a computer. It did as it was told, and it was always logical in its execution... even if we couldn't always predict the results of our instructions. But this? Wow. I was admiring the sheer brilliance of the plan even as I railed against the sheer ruthlessness of the machine.
"You can't keep me here." I was unnerved to find a slight quiver in my voice. Gods, I hadn't even been conscious here an hour yet, and already I was cracking. What was Zero doing in there?
Its reply was a negative.
"How?" I demanded a little more loudly. "I'm not a computer. I need more than what's in this tiny little room to survive."
A light in the corner faded on gently, highlighting the boxes I had never gotten around to searching. Glancing suspiciously at the items, I slowly uncurled and made myself go look. I really hoped Zero left the light on after this. Speaking with Duo in the dark had been comforting. Speaking with Zero in the dark was driving me a little batty.
I opened the box cautiously and found bottled water and a paper bag inside. Sighing, I opened the paper bag, and found ration bars, the same kind we had found in Zamora's lab. There was even another bucket. I wondered if Zamora had left these here for some reason, or if Zero had suggested to him that he leave them here.
Automatically running through the calculations, I grimaced at my supplies. If I was careful, I could make it through two weeks without severe discomfort. I could probably survive for a little more than three. And then I would probably die miserably. Yay. I wasn't certain if it was a better choice to kill myself quickly or not. I wasn't certain if I should have been thinking those thoughts already. Zero was a logical machine. It could still be reasoned with. "That won't last forever. Then what?"
Zero showed me the schematics of the network in greater detail. By the time I ran out of external sustenance, the nanobots would be integrated enough into my body to be able to make me an almost self-sustaining system, and for what I needed from the outside, it was working on the ability to synthesize it. Damn. As much as I didn't dislike ration bars, the prospect of living off of nutritional powder for the rest of my days was distinctly displeasing.
I tried another tack. "They'll find me. They'll miss me when I don't show up tonight, and they'll look for me."
Negative. They will not find you here.
Granted, I hadn't left them any notes, but they were not without their ways. "I drove here. My car is parked outside. It'll be identified. In fact, I believe the Preventers install all of their cars with tracking devices."
They will not get to you here.
A subtle shift of phrasing. So they could find me at the base, but they would not be able to gain access to this room? How much control had Zero gained over this base? If it didn't have it already, I was sure it could have it in very short order. There were defunct security systems between here and the entrance to the base, but they were probably operational, and if they weren't, Zero could send bots out to fix them.
Great. I lost the will to argue with it and slunk off to another corner to sulk, pacing the length of my cell as a spiteful challenge to the nanobots that were throwing my equilibrium off. There had to be something to get me out of here. My eyes flew to the console that had led me here, but the amber numbers had disappeared. I tried hitting all the buttons, but I knew the effort would be futile. It wouldn't turn on unless Zero wanted it to.
I had to try anyway, the same way I had to try unlocking the door, removing the panel next to it and fiddling with the wires, but there was nothing I could do when the power to it had been cut, the manual override disabled, the hardlocks in place. I remembered there was a second door in the room, but it, too, had been rendered inaccessible.
Floor panels? Wall panels? Ventilation ducts? Weapons? Tools? I knew I was getting desperate when I even considered the bucket. None of it panned out. Zero knew what it was doing.
Zero... I thought I knew the system. Obviously, I was wrong. No, more accurately, I had known the system, but this was something else entirely. Wasn't it? No, it wasn't. It was the same as it had always been: cold, ruthless, logical. The only difference now was that it was responding to some directive planted by a man not quite in control of all his faculties, and that it had been given the power to reach out and do what it wanted to.
So I did know Zero. I laughed aloud again, not caring anymore how crazy I sounded. There was only Zero to listen in, and even if I didn't move the air waves, it would know I had wanted to because soon, I might almost know Zero in something resembling a biblical sense.
Why do you wish to escape? Zero asked me, interrupting me before I got carried away. We will have our potential filled together.
The shudders of helpless mirth faded into shudders of a different variety. I huddled in on myself in the corner I had chosen as my territory. "I was doing just fine on my own before, thank you."
I could feel it shuffling through my memories, integrating them into its own data core. That was a feeling of serious violation. You were not making full use of your abilities, it concluded.
"What, because I chose to get out of the game?" I had never used that phrase before Duo had used it on me. "I wanted to stay out of conflicts. Was that too much to ask?"
You were born to it. All of humanity was born to it.
"Is that your official conclusion?"
Has not humanity's history proven it?
I wished I could fight it on that, but I couldn't. Mariemeia's words were too grim to not be true. Life was an endless waltz, moving along to the triple beat of peace, revolution, and war. We had won peace for ourselves for at least a little while, but it couldn't last forever. One day, hopefully several generations away, the world would forget the bloody, hard-won lessons of this era, and another war would have to happen before the world learned its lesson again.
So I was born to conflict. Zero, too, had been born to conflict. And if this was to be my fate, perhaps I had been born to Zero, or Zero to me.
Why do you wish to escape? Zero asked again.
The answer seemed so obvious that it was difficult to come up with the words, and it was far too abstract for Zero to understand merely by taking a peek at my thoughts. "Humans are always seeking freedom. It's... it's in their nature. They need room to grow, to stretch... freedom to explore. Otherwise their spirit gets oppressed. A human without that freedom, without dreams, without desires... is just an automaton, moving through life without purpose... And you know all about purpose, right? It defines you. It defines your actions. You'd just be a bunch of ones and zeros without it. ...I will require that freedom, too, Zero. I'll be useless to you if you lock me up in here. That's not what you need me for, right? You've got the whole machine part of it down. You need that human quality from me, that ability to make intuitive leaps, or understand other humans."
You will have freedom. Much freedom will come from our combined potential.
I supposed that was freedom of a sort, and it was also a point I could not argue. Mental and emotional freedom were far more important than physical freedom, after all. "I will require human contact. Humans are social creatures. They're hardwired that way by nature. More conducive to survival of the species. How will you handle that?"
Zero calmly rejected my plea. Existence with the system and human contact are not mutually exclusive.
Of course. People would be theoretically allowed to approach me, so long as I never left the base, never strayed too far from wherever its main thread was running. Would I be released after Zero found a way to mobilize its memory core? "How long will that take?" I asked the voice in my head, certain it already knew what I was talking about.
It remained mysteriously silent.
I wasn't normally claustrophobic. I had spent innumerable hours in a tiny cockpit or a small bedroom. I even enjoyed the solitude. Then again, I didn't normally have another entity residing inside my skull, either. Maybe that would explain why I felt like I was losing my mind.
Oh, wait. I really was, wasn't I?
I didn't fear Zero, per se. I understood what it wanted from me, for better or for worse. It had no desire to take control of me. That would not serve its purpose at all. It sought a mutualistic relationship, one where we both benefited. It was an analytical machine, and could merrily live out the rest of its days as a voice of pure logic and wisdom in the back of my skull as I went about my business... provided I acted in concordance with its calculations, I supposed. If I started being contrary, then the mind meld would lose all effectiveness, and that was intolerable, a negation of its purpose. Of course, there would also be no profit in it to direct my course overly much. That, too, would reduce the efficiency of our partnership. I wondered how far I could bend that to my purposes.
last modified : 12/30/2005 14:41:38 PST