Conglomerate Shelter, somewhere beneath the Pacific Ocean – Tuesday, the 19th of June 2012. 08:40 AM.
“Hello, Mascot. This is Morpheus, speaking through Lark.”
Chris lifted her head from the space between her knees.
“Who are you?” she asked warily.
Having no idea who Morpheus was, she assumed the most likely scenario: that Gentleman was playing some kind of game to torment her. She had ruined his long-held plans involving the Oracle. Perhaps the punishment of her childhood friend wasn’t enough.
The unfamiliar voice went on as though it hadn’t heard her question. “I don’t suppose you’ve heard of me. I’ve done my best to hide my existence, for reasons that should be understandable considering the situation that the both of us are in. Unfortunately, we lack the time to discuss the details of my personal history. This message, recorded eight minutes ago, should fill you in on the most relevant facts.”
Chris sat upright, steadying herself against the smooth metal wall at her back. Her thoughts raced in an attempt to connect the dots between what she knew and what she was being told. She wasn’t ready to believe in anything or anyone yet, but for as long as she heard no screams and could stubbornly pretend Ryan was alive, she could bear the passive listener’s role.
“First of all, you should know I am an artificial intelligence associated with Athena,” the voice from the darkness went on. “Second, I’m on your side. Third, none of the villains can listen in on us right now. And, most important of all… I have modified Lark to assist you for as long as you remain a captive of the Conglomerate. Should the villains become aware of the wide-ranging applicability of the modifications I made, they will shut Lark down immediately. Keep your cool. Don’t expose Lark unless you have a window of opportunity to cause maximum damage.”
Maximum damage. Chris rolled the words around in her head, wondering what they meant and whether the eight minute old recording still mattered. Had the AI been able to predict the situation she was now facing? More importantly, could she trust this unknown entity? Did she even want to?
So she sat on the floor, staring into the darkness, wondering whether this ‘Morpheus’ had anything else to say.
The stranger’s voice went on after a brief silence. “I wish I could tell you more, but I need to keep this short to increase the chances of my intervention remaining undetected. Lark will open doors as well as answer your questions to the best of her capability. Good luck, Mascot.”
That was the end. Chris spent a couple of minutes waiting for a cackling villain’s voice to reveal the purpose of the charade, but nothing happened. The silence around her was uninterrupted.
As she waited, her thoughts wandered back to the message which had appeared on-screen in the computer lab just before the villains caught up to her: You are not alone. Athena sends her regards. But had the sender really been Athena? Would the Covenant heroine have accepted the possible deaths of Sanctuary, the Oracle and numerous UN soldiers and done nothing about it?
No, Chris decided. That’s unlike her. She remembered the heroine as somewhat stiff and overly formal, but the woman cared about people. She’d been worried sick for one reason or another whenever Chris had spoken to her in person, and she hadn’t been very good at hiding it.
Chris pulled her knees against her chest, resting her face against them while she sorted her thoughts. She had no trouble believing Morpheus was who they claimed to be: an artificial intelligence. She wasn’t sure about the ‘associated with Athena’ part, however. Did Athena have the skills required to create an AI powerful enough to mess with Lark? No. The holo-bird wouldn’t have responded to anyone except Data; the villains had said as much.
Morpheus being a rogue AI was the most logical conclusion. Data had lost control over his creation, but the AI still felt obligated to its former master, so he was… hell bent on bringing down the Conglomerate, the villains responsible for Data’s death. The thoughts flowed together so well they left Chris momentarily breathless. Now that she had connected the pieces, she saw it all with perfect clarity. Athena’s name on the monitor in the abandoned computer lab. The disrupted video feeds which came back so suddenly and conveniently. The absence of any kind of backup or support.
Morpheus is a calculating little bastard. He didn’t help me there because I had to be brought back here to do maximum damage, and he used Athena’s name to gain my trust.
Chris supposed she should have been angry, but she still couldn’t bring herself to feel much of anything. She was done struggling and bleeding her emotions. She had made her own decisions, and those choices had brought her back here to face the consequences. If the AI was providing her with tools, she was going to use them for her own purposes.
“Lark,” she said. “Are you still there?”
A melodious chirp pierced the darkness.
“Would now be a good time to ask you to let me out of this room?”
“Not now,” an unknown man’s voice said, coming from the same direction as Morpheus’ recorded message had. Chris extended a hand, moving her fingers through the darkness to confirm that there was no actual person standing there.
“I guess I should wait for a better opportunity, then?”
A single chirp.
“Tell me if Ryan is alive.” She regretted the words the instant they left her mouth, but she had to know.
The AI didn’t give her a straight answer. What she got instead was King’s voice, replayed through the small drone sphere which she assumed was hovering somewhere above her. “If you’re going to dispose of her, then you might as well let her know that her boy toy is dead.”
There was a small pause in which Chris’s heart stopped and sank like a concrete brick in water. Her fingers clenched around her knees, relaxed, and clenched once more.
Gentleman’s voice broke the silence. “Not just yet. I am considering a certain, ah, opportunity I would hate to pass up. Our stubborn heroine may yet prove useful.”
Chris spent another long moment sitting in dazed, miserable silence while the meaning of the words sank in. She had known this was going to happen when she made the decision to grant the Oracle’s wish, and she had braced herself for the inevitable, but part of her had still been holding out hope for a different kind of ending. Her eyes burned. Her throat tightened, but no tears came. She couldn’t afford to invest any more of herself in a lost cause.
“You or the world, Ryan,” she whispered to herself. Her fingers curled into fists. “The world better be damn worth it.”
The hovering AI had nothing to add. It was just a stupid soulless machine, after all.
“Can you even talk?” Chris asked, sounding angrier than intended.
She heard a faint whir, quieter than the buzzing of a fly. Something hard and cold nudged the back of her left hand, light as the touch of butterfly wings, withdrawing before she registered the impact.
She couldn’t bring herself to smile, but her tone softened. “Really, can you?”
The answer consisted of another replayed recording. She didn’t recognize this man’s voice; it had a gentle, soothing quality to it that reminded her of the television preacher her bright-spirited aunt had been so fond of.
“Would you believe me if I told you Lark is a prototype?” There was a good-natured chuckle. “She was, in fact, one of my first projects. I was becoming overwhelmed with all those pesky little administrative matters I had to keep track of. She records everything – phone conversations, interviews, newscasts. Whenever I need to remember something, she recites the precise information I’m looking for.”
“Why don’t you teach her to talk?” Gentleman’s voice. “To give you a good summary instead of a full replay. Surely this would be more time efficient, no?”
“I don’t know. There is something deeply satisfying in being able to call you out when you trip up on your own words, and having the proof to rub it in.”
Chris’s fists unfurled and she laid her hands flat over her stomach, allowing herself to sink against the wall. “The man speaking to Gentleman, was that Data?” she asked.
Lark produced a chirping sound.
“It sounded like they were… friends. Or used to be.”
“He should have named you Parrot,” Chris added after a thoughtful pause.
As amusing as that thought might have been in any other situation, she didn’t hold on to it. There were more questions to consider, and she didn’t know how much time she had before the villains saw through her and Lark’s game.
“He said you were a prototype. What for, exactly?”
“For everything that came after her,” Data’s voice replied through the small sphere. “All of my later projects include modified sequences of Lark’s code. Iris, the AI I designed for Athena, is something of a degenerate twin. Don’t tell her I said so, though.” Another chuckle.
Wait, what? The mention of Athena, casually thrown in with one of Data’s pet projects, startled Chris. But she didn’t have the time to digest the news. Gentleman’s recorded voice went on where Data had left off, flooding her with more information which she needed to absorb.
“What about this, ah, ultimate project of yours? Will your sovereign AI be born from your electronic diary, as well?”
“Yes, and no,” Data’s voice replied. “I can’t unlearn what I learned from developing Lark back before my first power surge. Those first lessons provided the foundation for all of my later projects. That aside, let me assure you the Commander is much more than a sophisticated, modified copy.”
“How much more?” Chris heard the eagerness in Gentleman’s voice.
“Wouldn’t you just love to know?” Data’s grin, though hidden from view, was unmistakable. “Patience, my old friend. Everything in its own time.”
Thinking back to Athena’s name on screen as well as Morpheus’ eerily human voice and inflection, Chris couldn’t help but ask. “Lark. Is Morpheus the ultimate project?”
Once again, the answer consisted of a single chirp.
Chris was speechless. Not knowing how to fit the enormity of Athena’s name into a box with Data, she invested no further thought in it. The Covenant heroine’s possible entanglement with the Conglomerate didn’t concern her nearly as much as the more immediately relevant issues did.
“What’s Gentleman planning?” she asked.
Lark’s reaction came after an unusual delay of a few seconds. “Doesn’t it piss you off that he never talks about his plans?” Rampage’s voice. “It’s always some vague bullshit about the ‘new world order’ and ‘preparing for the final act’. Sometimes I wonder if he has any plans at all. Don’t you ever feel like he’s just pushing you around on some kind of game board? Like it’s all just a game for him. Or a play.”
Magpie chimed in with a conceited tone. “You better believe he knows his plotting. He just doesn’t talk about it. Not with you, anyway.”
“But he’s sharing pillow talk with you, huh?”
“No. He doesn’t need to because I trust him and his invisible friends. Why don’t you just make your life easier for yourself and stop worrying about it?”
“Those invisible friends are creeping me out,” Rampage muttered. “Haven’t met them or talked to them. Maybe it’s all just in his head. You ever consider that?”
“Oh, shut up already. We’re safe and healthy and having fun, unlike all those poor sons of bitches out there. They can’t as much as fart without Samael’s new Covenant breathing down their necks.”
So that’s what’s holding the group together? Chris frowned in thought. Not money, not power. Just a promise of safety. Considering the fear-mongering that was ripping the outside world apart, she could almost relate. At least a little.
“Who are Gentleman’s invisible friends?” she asked.
Another pause before Lark replayed Gentleman’s voice lilting in an eerily childlike sing-song. “Come out, come out, wherever you are… no? Ah, well. I do believe I will prove myself worthy yet. Wait and see, my elusive friends. Wait and see.”
“Why’s it always the nutcases who rise to leader status?” Chris wondered dully.
Lark didn’t have an answer for her.
“How do you record all this stuff? Are there multiple copies of you so you’re ready to listen whenever people talk about something?”
This time, it was Data’s voice coming from the small sphere. “Yes, I can listen into every room. And no, I won’t remove my little helpers from any of them. Not even yours.”
“Why are you so determined to keep the bugs?” Gentleman complained. “Should I have my box of tissues ready? I do hope you are not about to express your lack of faith in me.”
“Because I built this place, and because I’m running it. And, quite simply – because I can.”
Chris smirked faintly to herself. Data had never been on her radar, not even back in the early days after the Pulse, when he made headlines before disappearing so suddenly that even the Covenant freaked out about it. Now, though, she couldn’t help but like him a little. The replayed recordings made him out to be a genius rebel who had followed his path without doubt or regrets.
Until the day he died.
She shook her masked head, forcing herself to get back on track even though her flight instincts warned her to find a way out of this room. She still needed answers. “What’s this opportunity Gentleman was talking about? The reason he’s still keeping me around?” she asked the hovering AI.
“I have reason to assume that Dancer and friends are headed out of Bratislava,” Gentleman’s eager, disembodied voice informed her. “Yes, I do have an idea where they might be going. Three ideas, to be precise. All of them present us with new opportunities.”
“Oh, please do share,” a velvety female voice purred. Eve.
“Switzerland would be the natural choice; the girl is so predictably attached to things familiar and dear to her. Or perhaps she has gotten it into her head that she is the champion of legend, destined to defeat the Sleepwalker.” There was a soft snicker. “I do wish for the two of them to meet, but perhaps now is too soon. The Sleepwalker has not yet surged.”
“Perhaps you need to eliminate a few more Wildcards with mind-affecting powers,” Eve suggested. “What is the third possibility?”
“She may want to pay a visit to our old friends in Paris. If she does, well… I’ve always wanted to see her test the limits of her ability. If she truly has world-ending potential, nothing will stop her. Not even Power Zero. I may even pit her against our resident heroine. Our hard-working little schemer deserves a grand finale and the whole world as an audience, wouldn’t you agree?”
“You would broadcast the battle?” Eve asked skeptically.
“Depending on the outcome, I might. It would be an unforgivable crime to keep a tragedy of such heart-rending potential from the world.”
“Just don’t bring that Dancer girl here, please. If the drug isn’t enough to suppress her powers, nothing would stop her from destroying our base with a wiggle of her butt.”
The recording ended there. Chris sat with her arms clenching her knees, staring into the darkness with blank eyes and wondering where her heart had gone. Gentleman was referring to a ‘tragedy’; the word had little meaning to her. But now that it had been brought back into her awareness, all she could think of was the sound of that final, all too familiar scream which had been cut off by Morpheus.
Lark broke the silence with a recording of Gentleman’s voice. “The doors? Ah, yes. Alastair made some minor upgrades to Lark. Our twittering friend is now capable of managing and monitoring our basic security systems.”
“Are you serious?” Rampage growled. “You’re just handing security off to that kid?”
“No, I am not ‘just’ handing over control,” Gentleman corrected in an overly patient tone. “Data designed the system; it will not take orders from anyone else. Seeing as we don’t have access to a live copy of the man, Lark will make do.”
“What of the other intelligences he left behind? Are they going to murder us in our sleep by cutting off our oxygen supply?”
“Alastair culled them. Lark is docile by design. Surely you are not afraid of one little bird?”
The recording ended there. Chris narrowed her eyes to make out Lark’s sphere in the darkness, inches from her face. “So you can’t cut off their oxygen supply?”
She interpreted the following silence as ‘no’.
“When we were down in that facility, Alastair said someone was messing with him. Morpheus modified you somehow, right?”
“But he couldn’t change whatever code is making you docile.” It was meant as a question rather than a statement, but by the time the last words rolled off her tongue, Chris was reasonably sure the answer would be ‘no’. Morpheus wouldn’t have asked for her assistance if he could turn Data’s electronic diary into a killing machine.
“Did Morpheus give you any instructions on what to do next?” She asked instead.
Ironically, Lark used a recording of Gentleman’s voice to respond. “I am leaving the details up to you.”
“Thanks, I guess,” Chris muttered.
The modification keyword pulled her mind back to the Athena-designed communications armband which had been taken from her shortly after her kidnapping and delivery to the Conglomerate fortress. The other heroes must have deactivated it when they realized she had been taken captive, but they might not have done so right away. It was all too easy to imagine how a skilled Technician could hack into the hero comms using the stolen armband.
“I had a radio armband when I was brought here,” she said. “What did the villains do with it?”
“Uh… do you have any idea what Morpheus is?” Alastair’s young, agitated voice. “Of course he’s linked to the armband and all of their other systems. I could plant some bugs I guess, but he’d know. Like, right away.”
“Lark can emulate his code, yes?” Gentleman’s recorded voice asked.
“Yeah. Sort of. They’re kind of related, like… a grumpy old veteran and his baby girl, I guess. Except that the little tyke came first. It’s actually the mother.”
“You may need to listen through closed doors,” Gentleman suggested. “Intercept any messages that are being sent to the heroes by outsiders. Can you emulate Morpheus’ code well enough that he would not notice you sitting on the doorstep?”
“Yeah. I suppose I could.”
A red laser light lit up on the wall ahead, painting a thumbnail-sized target on Chris’s chest before she could absorb the latest revelation. “Congratulations, dear,” Gentleman’s voice announced through a hidden intercom system. “You may change lodgings.”
On cue, the darkness-filled room dwindled away before her eyes, replaced by a location she was already familiar with.