9.9 Interlude

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Corinth, Greece – Thursday, the 21st of April 2011. 02:03 PM.
 
 
They’re not looking for a Technician. They want a genius.

The more time Alexandra Latsis spent rifling through the documents she’d been mailed by the UN’s Evolved Committee, the more it dawned on her that she was going to fail this test. She could tell the documents were meant to be a final exam for a genius. It was neither a bureaucratic formality nor a measuring scale for her powers.

It was a do or die.

She could either solve the problems outlined in the eighty-five questions on twenty-nine pages, or she wasn’t going to join the Covenant. And that was a possibility she didn’t want to think about right now.

I need a break, she decided, reaching up to push her rose-tinted sunglasses down over her eyes. She’d been pleased to find that rose-tinted glasses weren’t just a figure of speech; she’d found them for sale in one of the local stores. Her home town proved to be a treasure trove of discovery.

It was a nice, reasonably warm spring day in Corinth, and Alexandra had decided to study the documents in her favorite cafeteria rather than her crowded home. On Thursday afternoons, it was nice and quiet here. The spring sun warmed her face, a pair of cherry trees bloomed overhead, and the only other guest sat a few tables away, partially concealed by the latest issue of a local newspaper.

Alexandra knew he wasn’t a local. The skin of his exposed arm was too pale, and his choice of beverage – a beer – hinted at a bad case of tourist ignorance. No local would have entered a Corinthian cafeteria at two in the afternoon to order beer, but the sight of the stranger amused her enough to provide some fleeting distraction from the stack of questions in front of her.

A tourist with an interest in local newspapers, she mused as she took another sip from her iced coffee, taking the time to savor the taste before swallowing. The caffeine gave her the kick she needed to shift her focus back to the documents. It didn’t make the questions any more appealing, though.

I can do this, she told herself for the hundredth time. They gave me three days. Enough to figure this out.

Failure was too depressing to consider. There were few employment opportunities for physics majors in Greece, and fewer still for superpowered ones. By all accounts, her supreme Technician abilities should have guaranteed her a job in research and development. But the opposite was true. Since her transition several weeks before, Alexandra had experienced more bias, prejudice, and discrimination than in the two and half decades she’d spent without powers.

Fear had a part in it, she suspected. People were afraid of the unknown. But some former colleagues and rivals had simply been envious; a physics major’s work just didn’t remotely compare to what a Technician could accomplish in less time and with similar resources.

But as she dared another peek at the test, Alexandra felt like an ignorant child. She knew the various technical terms outlined there, and she’d dealt with some of the problems before. But her specialties were powered equipment and semi-autonomous robotic units, not artificial intelligence, and she certainly didn’t know how to develop and maintain a communications and surveillance network of the scope the Covenant demanded.

They wanted global network involving satellites and autonomous artificial intelligence. Good gracious. Alexandra wasn’t sure anyone could pull it off, even though the UN seemed to believe someone could. The all-knowing tech genius was a cliché that somehow stuck in people’s minds more than angelic Lightshapers and villainous pyromancers, and the UN’s Evolved Committee was no exception.

I’d have to spend years developing my algorithms before I got remotely close to meeting those expectations.

Alexandra put the stack of papers down and rubbed her forehead with her thumb. Unfortunately, head massage didn’t gift her with the amazing ideas she’d need to make those algorithms work. The very idea of artificial intelligence was based off the concept of human brain emulation, and Alexandra didn’t have a better understanding of neurology than the average person did.

“Does Greek mythology fascinate you as much as it does me?” a male voice asked, startling Alexandra from her somber thoughts.

She’d been so absorbed in her musings that her reflexive reaction was to flinch. Her right hand hit  the tall glass with her iced coffee, nearly pushing it off the edge of the table. She managed to catch it at the last instant. Once assured that her drink wasn’t going to topple to the floor, she pushed the sunglasses up into her dark curls to see who’d addressed her.

The man was rather… noticeable with the sheer bulk of his body that now cast a shadow over her, and he was standing right beside her table. She couldn’t understand why she hadn’t heard his approach. Now that she was looking up at him and no newspaper concealed his face, her startled reaction seemed silly and a little embarrassing. He didn’t look like someone who meant her harm.

He had a broad face whose friendly, genuinely pleasant smile made the skin around his deep blue eyes crinkle up. Short blond hair curled around his ears and temples, and he had the now rolled up newspaper pinned beneath one of his large arms. He was a little thicker around the waist than the average Greek person but not exactly obese. Big-boned, she might have called him. All in all, he looked like a typical tourist. There was just one detail about him that didn’t match the impression.

His Greek was absolutely flawless. He didn’t even have a trace of an accent.

“You’re interested in local myths?” Alexandra asked in an attempt to hide her surprise. “I’m the wrong person to ask, unfortunately. I’m a physics graduate with no real interest in history.”

He nodded, eyes darting down to the assortment of documents she’d spread out across her table. The obvious interest in her print-outs  made her feel self-conscious, and she wished she’d stayed at her mother’s three room apartment where no one could have watched her personal struggle without invitation.

“That’s a shame,” the not-tourist said. “Did you know that the first mentions of intelligent automatons were made in Greek mythology?”

Intelligent automatons? Alexandra didn’t understand what he was referring to until she followed his glance to the page she’d been reading last. Page twenty-seven. Epistemological problems of artificial intelligence.

The documents were strictly confidential. Alexandra cursed herself for her carelessness and started gathering the scattered pages, keeping up the conversation to keep the stranger’s attention elsewhere.

“I remember mention of Talos,” she said. “A bronze giant, constructed to protect Crete from invaders. I can’t recall the particular myth, but Greek mythology is full of tales about talking statues and animated automatons.”

The blond man’s smile deepened. Apparently he wasn’t going to lose interest anytime soon. He tilted his head towards the vacant bench opposite of hers.

“Would you mind if I sit?” he asked. He wasn’t going to be brushed off with some made-up phrase about how busy and distracted Alexandra was. She was sitting in a cafeteria at a quarter past two in the afternoon, wearing rose-tinted glasses. The busy argument clearly wasn’t going to stick.

“Not at all,” she lied.

He nodded and sat at the other end of her table. He didn’t say anything. He just sat there and studied her face with his striking blue eyes. Something was eerily familiar about them.

I’ve seen him somewhere before. Alexandra was sure of this, but she couldn’t recall a time or a context and that nagging feeling frustrated her more than the test questions had. Is he expecting me to recognize him?

“Were you born in Greece?” she finally asked to break the silence and maybe to get an idea of where she might have seen him before.

His lips twitched with a hint of amusement.  “No. But there are many things I appreciate about your country.”

“Such as ancient, mythological automatons?” Alexandra asked. The strange and unexpected conversation was beginning to stir her curiosity.

“Yes. That would be one of the things. And perhaps a certain young woman who recently gained powers and doesn’t know what to do with them.”

A news reporter? Alexandra wondered, bemused by the change in subject. She’d done her share of interviews after her transition, and by now most of the media attention had shifted elsewhere. Yet another Technician didn’t interest the world nearly as much as the Sleepwalker or the Covenant.

“I know how to use my powers,” Alexandra countered, feeling obliged to defend the quality of her education. “I’ve had plenty of time and resources to analyze and experiment with my abilities.”

The blond man tapped the stack of papers on the table. “If you did, you would be able to answer these questions.”

“How would you know? This particular questionnaire was never sent to anyone but me,” she protested. Whoever the man was, she was starting to get an idea of why he was chatting her up. He had to be an Evolved stalker. She knew the type – they delivered great speeches to impress, pretending to know more than they did. Powers attracted them like moths to a flame.

She briefly considered downing the last of her coffee and excusing herself, but he wasn’t that irritating. Something about his speech and mannerisms intrigued her, and those eyes… if she didn’t figure him out, she’d likely keep wondering for weeks to come.

“I know you’ve been brooding over them for the past hour without taking any notes,” he said.

Touché.

“I’m enjoying the weather too much to take notes. The coffee, too,” Alexandra offered, touching the near-empty glass for emphasis.

“I can see that. And you hope to join the Covenant for the pleasant weather in New York?”

She caught herself smirking a little. “I hear the Americans make good coffee.”

The not-stranger steepled his fingers beneath his chin. “It would be an excellent opportunity for a talented young woman without employment or apartment of her own, especially if her family is in desperate need of money. Your younger brother is exceptionally gifted, I heard. If you were to join the Covenant, the United Nations would allow him to attend any college in the world.”

“You heard? How?” Alexandra blurted out, fingers tightening around her glass. She had no idea how the stranger learned about her family’s financial situation or her brother’s desire to study at Harvard. Neither subject had been mentioned in any of the reports or interviews that had landed her a few days of public interest. Just like that, the stranger had dropped her top three reasons for the Covenant application on her. Three reasons for wanting to pass that damn test more than she’d ever wanted anything in her life.

And then it dawned on her.

“You’ve got powers,” she said. “That’s how I know you. I’ve seen your face somewhere.”

“I do,” he admitted. “And I can get you into the Covenant.”

“How?” she asked, racking her brains for a memory of where and when exactly she might have seen the man. She assumed he had been on the news, but not anytime recent. She would have remembered.

“I’ll make you the world’s best Technician,” he said without a hint of doubt.

The world’s best Technician.

Those words triggered something in her, and her mind made the connection. That face, broader and meatier than she remembered, but framed by the same curly blond hair. This man – or rather, the incredibly advanced AI that possessed his robotic creation – had sparked a storm of media attention shortly after his transition. Then there had been nothing. No news, no updates, barely any rumors on the internet. He’d gone undercover. Until now.

“You’re Data,” Alexandra gasped.
 
 
Covenant Headquarters – New York, USA – Friday, the 29th of April 2011. 05:37 PM.
 
 
For a young Greek woman who’d never travelled beyond the borders of her country in her life, New York was overwhelming. The smells, the traffic, the sheer scope of the metropolis itself – they all made her head spin. Sure, Alexandra had experienced the city through Hollywood blockbusters, and she’d read about it in the little Covenant introduction booklet that was handed to her before the flight. But all the theoretical knowledge didn’t remotely compare to being in the midst of it all, and the fact that she barely understood English complicated matters further.

The entrance test had been translated to Greek for her sake, but now that she’d passed, she had to adapt to the foreign environment at lightning speed. The threat of subsequent failure hung over her head like the sword of Damocles. If the UN deemed her unworthy as an international heroine, her brother would be flown out of the States right alongside her. She had little hope that he’d be allowed to stay at Harvard.

Her failure was bound to break his and their mother’s heart. And if Alexandra’s connection to Data was discovered, it would not only mean an execution order for herself, but also lifelong shame and stigmatization for her family.

They can’t be making all this fuss about me, she thought, thoroughly intimidated by the hundreds of people who’d gathered on top of the UN tower to await her helicopter. It’s too much effort for one person.

Once she’d landed and arose from her seat, the thunderous applause that washed over her seemed unreal. Her knees buckled as she climbed down from the passenger cabin. Someone – an attractive, milk coffee hued young man with curly black hair – caught her arm before she could stumble over the hem of her dress and embarrass herself.

Alexandra didn’t understand what he said – his English was too fast and refined for her untrained ear – but she caught his name. “Jordan Steyn,” he said as he squeezed her hand. “Samael.”

She returned the only word that came to her. “Athena.”

Then his hand was replaced by a broad-shouldered UN officer who offered her his arm for support. She was led through the applause and the vast ocean of unfamiliar faces, all of whom seemed impossibly glad to meet her.

Her, the spy. The imposter. The Trojan horse.

Her future teammates greeted her with handshakes and a volley English gibberish that sounded well-intentioned. Still it overwhelmed her. The blonde girl, Sarah – Queenie – pulled Alexandra into a tight welcoming hug that lasted for what felt like minutes.

She’s the Visionary, she’ll figure me out, Alexandra thought, her heart racing within her chest while her new teammate whispered kind words into her ear. But Sarah’s demeanor never changed, and Alexandra was eventually released to enjoy the attention of a tall, extremely fit man instead. He took her small hand into his larger one, giving her a heart-stopping smile that lit up his strong, chiseled face with a rare kind of amicability that seemed genuine. He wasn’t the most attractive man she’d ever seen, but hot damn, he came close.

Radiant. As dangerous as Queenie, Alexandra noted, but in a different way. Men like him were always aware of their charisma, and they never failed to think of creative ways to use it.

“Welcome to New York,” he told her in strongly Russian-accented English.

“Thank you,” she replied, gently withdrawing her hand to be greeted by Paladin. His stoic reserve was highly appreciated in this hailstorm of novel impressions.

Alexandra endured the attention and let herself be accompanied into the building, through more rooms and across more stories than she could keep track of. More names and faces were introduced to her, and she hoped that no one expected her to remember them all.

One woman stuck in Alexandra’s memory though. Not because she looked special – she was a typical American with chin-length, wavy auburn hair, pirate style earrings and a few extra pounds to her curves – but because she spoke English-accented Greek.

“I’m Kathy,” the woman offered cheerfully. “The local girl geek. I’ll give you an introduction to the tech setup, just call me anytime and I’ll fill you in, alright? Then you can start bossing me around. I’m your sidekick, after all.”

“Hello, Kathy,” Alexandra replied in Greek, grateful for the chance to slip back into familiar terrain before she was dragged elsewhere and the English language assault continued. She maintained a smile through most of it and hoped that no one would notice how strained it was. She just wanted to withdraw someplace private before anyone saw through her facade.
 
 
+++
 
 
More than an hour later, Alexandra had completed a first look at the extensive tech laboratory that would be her realm. She stepped out of the elevator on the top floor, eager to finally withdraw into her apartment and have a few moments to herself. Her plans for the rest of the day involved calling her mother and not much else. Alexandra would provide the usual assurances that everything was alright, then maybe invest a few moments getting acquainted with the Covenant database. She wouldn’t be able to sleep before she got the backdoor for Data done and out of the way.

Halfway down the corridor leading to her apartment, she spotted Andrey Luvkov who was headed in her direction. He had his hands cupped around a small ceramic pot containing something that looked suspiciously like a cactus. It was about as tall as her finger was long, a bright shade of green, and as prickly as one would expect.

Their eyes met. He stopped in his tracks, and the look that flashed across his face let her know he’d been looking for her.

Dangerous, she reminded herself. She did her best to look both pleasantly surprised and exhausted, ready to crash. To be alone.

He walked up to her with his cactus and a disarming casualness, obviously not discouraged. “For you, Alexandra,” he said in very slow, deliberately simple English. His accent was nearly as strong as hers.

“The cactus?” she asked, amused despite herself. The choice of plant wasn’t exactly flattering, but it suited her just fine. Perhaps more so than he realized.

“Yes,” he said. “I don’t know if you like flowers. This is good even if you are too busy to water often. A new apartment here is empty, like a bookcase with no books, no personality. Mine was the same when I moved in.”

Seeing this athletic, notoriously powerful man clasp the tiny cactus pot the way an inexperienced parent might hold a baby amused Alexandra even more. “Thank you,” she said, extending a hand to accept the gift.

He passed the pot to her, careful to align it so that prickly needles didn’t get a chance to stick her hands. He said something else she didn’t understand all that well, but as far as she gathered, he was asking her if she liked coffee.

“Yes,” she replied truthfully. She was still interested in that fabled American coffee.

His face lit up with another of those dazzling grins, and she realized she’d just agreed to a date when he guided her down the corridor. To her surprise, they passed by the lounge and the elevator, heading to her apartment door instead. She couldn’t think of a good reason why she’d refuse to enter her own apartment, and now was a bit late to tell him that she’d misunderstood.

Besides, the rear view of him was hard to ignore.

“Open up,” he said, stepping aside to let her unlock the door mechanism with her key card. “All rooms have a coffee machine. Standard equipment.”

Data will have to wait, she decided. She hadn’t joined the Covenant for him, and spending some time with a teammate would help prepare her for her role as one of the world’s most influential heroines.

That was who she wanted to be. A combatant for the greater Good, someone who could inspire and innovate. She’d had enough first-hand experience with poverty and personal struggles to not make use of this chance. She had gained the power to change the world, and she wasn’t going to misuse it. If she betrayed the cause in addition to betraying the trust of her teammates and superiors, she’d never be able to live with herself.

The introductory tour through the Covenant’s headquarters had made her aware of everything the world’s number one hero team lacked. Equipment. Reliable surveillance and communications software. Fast transportation. And if some of those innovations were Data’s rather than her own, well, she was going to put them to good use.

Data will have to play along, she decided.
 
 
New York, USA – Tuesday, the 12th of June 2012. 11:03 AM.
 
 
When the main monitor lit up with a grinning Victorian mask icon, Athena knew with absolute clarity that this horrifying day was about to get even worse.

She’d already spent hours aboard her mobile command unit sending search drones after a killer she had no hope of catching, all the while putting on a good face for the sake of her teammates. They still thought Queenie’s killer was somewhere out there, and watching them chase after a phantom had been heartbreaking.

The worst part was they trusted her. If they’d suspected anything at all, they would have caught the drift from her voice. The regret. The wrecking guilt. The knowledge that no matter what, the villains had won a decisive victory today. Queenie’s death was going to change the world in ways that could never be undone.

Damn you, Gentleman. Damn you to hell. Athena rubbed a gloved hand across her cheek to remove any trace of the tears she’d shed for Queenie. There was no way she’d give the villain the satisfaction of seeing her cry.

Once she was reasonably sure she could hold herself together for a few minutes, she double checked the comm lines to ensure her teammates weren’t tuned in before touching the animated mask icon with her middle finger. Simultaneously, the door to her mobile command unit sealed itself with a pneumatic hiss. She was alone with her tech and her unwelcome visitor.

“What do you want now? Are you going to gloat at me?” Athena asked the monitor.

“Good morning, Alexandra. Or is it afternoon? Time zones still confuse me.” Gentleman’s voice dripped mock sympathy while the animated mask on screen cackled in silent rapture, its crescent shaped mouth opening and closing.

Athena didn’t respond. She contemplated the brief surge of satisfaction she’d get from kicking him out of her system, but the repercussion wasn’t worth it.

Data had never been like this. He’d been unobtrusive, respectful of her space and her obligations as a heroine. The organization he’d brought into being – the Conglomerate – had started as an efficient remedy against corruption and organized crime, and the funds Data had so skillfully relocated had found their way into countless humanitarian and disaster relief accounts. He’d been labelled a villain because corruption often correlated with political influence.

Then Gentleman had assumed leadership of the Conglomerate, and Athena’s double life turned into a nightmare of constant compromise and damage control.

“You’re in one of those gloomy moods, I see,” the villain finally stated. The animated mask had stopped cackling and was now frozen in an expression of wide-eyed shock, the corners of its crescent shaped mouth pointing downward.

“What did you expect? You murdered my teammate,” Athena shot back.

“A necessary evil. I do apologize, it never was my intent to upset my favorite heroine.”

Your favorite tool. That would be more accurate.

Athena pointedly turned her attention to the smaller monitor to her left, where blinking dots – representing her teammates and the currently active drones – moved across the multilayered, three-dimensional grid that represented New York. No emergency signals had gone out, and according to the routines that were monitoring the status of her teammates and the two Wardens who had been invited to New York, they weren’t under attack.

And neither was Radiant. Athena could see him as a yellow dot far above and hundreds of miles away from New York, most likely monitoring the American news channels with the help of Iris, the AI she’d developed off Data’s algorithms. It provided the support she wasn’t able to give him right now.

Go home, Andrey. Don’t get involved. Athena sighed sadly to herself, covering the yellow light that represented him with the tip of her armored finger. Go see your family.

“Get to the point, Gentleman,” she said. “Is there anything else you would like to tell me about your plans for today?”

“Do you believe there is?” the villain asked.

She attempted to force some semblance of calm into her voice. “You know what will happen if you go after Andrey,” she said. “In case you have forgotten – I can and will erase every last line of code that keeps Conglomerate projects running and hidden from international attention. My code and Data’s.”

“Why would I kill Andrey?” Gentleman replied with chipper sincerity. “I find him far too interesting to remove him from the stage. He is perfect as the tragic hero. Did I ever mention how much I would have loved to see him perform as Macbeth? Or perhaps Hamlet. The accent would be a bother, I have to admit, but we could remedy this with one of your language implants.”

Athena had no reply to that. The thought of anything being implanted into Andrey’s body disturbed her, and she had a hunch that Gentleman was aware of her feelings on the matter. Her own implants – the ones she had designed herself, without Data’s support – had been a necessary evil. As the sole person in charge of communication and information acquisition, it had been her duty to speak and understand every language perfectly. Andrey and she had never discussed the subject of how the modifications affected her personality and mannerisms, but she had seen a reflection of those changes in the way he’d looked at her.

He loved me once, she thought. Then he loved the memory of his wife more.

“And what is my role in your play?” Athena asked.

“I believe the Greek goddess suits you just fine. Unless you wish to place more emphasis on betrayal and deceit? I have a few suggestions in that case.”

“That is not the reason you called me up,” Athena said, sounding as weary as she felt. The blinking icons that represented her teammates had begun to move across the grid again, and she couldn’t very well fulfill her support role with half her attention claimed by a self-absorbed villain.

“No,” he admitted. “I wanted to kindly ask you to disable Iris for an hour.”

There was nothing kind about his request, and the further implications filled Athena with worry. If Gentleman wanted Radiant blind, the villain had to be planning for more than sabotage or a mere display of power. Disabling Iris would leave Radiant without means of communication. Without news alerts or the coordinates that helped him travel across the globe.

“Why?” she asked, her voice thick with suppressed emotion. “Why Iris, if you intend to honor our agreement of leaving Andrey alone?”

“So I do not need to kill him, of course,” Gentleman replied. “Knowing our stubborn friend, he would get in the way.”

Of course he would. He is a hero. For what seemed like the thousandth time, Athena considered executing the command that would destroy everything she and Data had built up over the past year. She was sick beyond description of her secret and the way it poisoned everything she touched. She was sick of pretending and of lying to her teammates when all she wanted was to be one of them.

A real heroine.

But she was too aware of the Conglomerate’s power and reach to ever execute the command. Gentleman had built an immensely powerful group capable of destroying everything and everyone she cared about, and he’d never pushed her to the point where she had no choice but to act against her beliefs. He’d always offered a middle way, a compromise she could grudgingly accept.

“Tell me what you’re planning,” she tried. If he gave her at least an idea, she might be able to do some damage control.

“No,” came the reply. “Ignorance is bliss, as they say. But I do promise that none of your loved ones will come to harm.”

Athena gave him no answer, but she pulled up Iris’ console and entered the command lines required for a one hour shutdown. Her finger hovered above the enter key for a few long seconds before she pressed it.

Forgive me, Andrey.

 

Somewhere near Heraklion, Crete – Monday, the 18th of June 2012. 02:24 AM.

 

Everyone, regardless of station or stature, eventually reaches a turning point in their lives where they must adapt to unforeseen circumstances. For heroes and heroines, those turning points occurred with more frequency, and the consequences were always more severe.

The death of a hero sent a ripple of consequence throughout the world. If the hero was as powerful and respected as Paladin had been, the ripple was a shockwave leaving a void of wasted potential in its wake. That day, the day of his death, the chances of preserving a stable society dimmed.

Athena had been preparing to fill the void with more advanced tech, to keep the Covenant running, to stand her ground regardless of how she felt about the loss of a dear friend. She had to keep going for the sake of everyone who still believed in her and the Covenant’s cause, and she knew Andrey was somewhere out there, out of reach but still looking to her for hope.

Hope. It was what heroes needed the most, what kept them going against all odds. If their numbers dwindled beyond the point of faith in a better future, the villains had won. Chaos would consume the world, and the most powerful villains would reign over what remained of society.

Athena wasn’t one of the villains, but she been walking on a knife’s edge ever since her introduction into the Covenant, and her role as a heroine had been a constant balancing act. It had never been bound to end well.

When Athena checked her private intrasystem messages from her new base on Crete, she knew she was looking at the turning point. Listed among system updates and AI-generated messages was an executable file, nicely packaged with a set of high priority instructions. It had been sent through the Conglomerate’s backdoor into Olympus, the operative system she’d built with Data to control and support all Covenant operations: the combat and support drones that had been stationed at different locations across the globe, the troop transport aircrafts she’d designed to fly her teammates – and others, if necessary – anywhere within a few hours, the highly complex communications and logistics network and the most extensive knowledge database in existence. She’d named it the Library of Alexandria, knowing full well that she was going to see it burn one day.

The instructions from Gentleman contained only eight words. The time has come. We are taking over.

“No, you’re not,” Athena informed her monitor, keeping her voice low as if she was sharing a secret. She had witnessed every gruesome detail of Paladin’s death through the vision of one of her surveillance drones, and the following hours had been a hazy blur of raw emotion that left her with swollen eyes and a scratchy throat.

She spent a minute staring at the lines of code contained within the file package, letting them fill her mind. The algorithm pushed the emotions aside and helped her focus.

A simple AI, she concluded. Based on Data’s code, but too amateurish to have been developed by him. Gentleman must have acquired a new Technician pet.

She knew exactly what would happen if she followed Gentleman’s order and allowed the program to execute. It would overwrite Olympus and remove the safeguards and restrictions she’d put in place to limit the Conglomerate’s influence. Their new Technician would gain access to all of her systems and software, assume control of her drones and gain admin rights to change her code.

Data already had full access to Olympus. The fact that Gentleman had hired someone else for the job spoke volumes about his lack of trust in the world’s most powerful Technician, who had laid out the groundwork for the world-spanning organization his former sidekick was now in charge of.

Because Data wasn’t, and never had been, a villain.

Athena realigned the metal frame of her chair with her sensor-equipped, armored gloves. The hydraulic systems that permeated nearly every inch of her small command cubicle responded with a low hum. Her seat rotated forty-five degrees until she was facing a different set of hardware and a smaller screen. Taped to the metallic wall behind it were a few photographs showing her parents, her younger brother Alexei, Andrey, her former teammates – and the massive blond man who had approached her in a Corinthian cafeteria fourteen months ago.

Athena raised a hand to gently trace her mentor’s face with a finger. “I’m sorry,” she whispered to the photograph. “I wish I could have held it all together for a bit longer.”

She was reluctant to lower her hand, but she had to activate the screen and type the few lines of code that would establish a forbidden connection. So forbidden, in fact, that its concealment took up more resources than even Gentleman’s backdoor into the Covenant database had. That was what it took to speak to her mentor without the Conglomerate listening in.

The face that materialized on screen wasn’t human, but it featured a near perfect illusion of Data’s deep blue eyes. They peeked at her from the network of glowing red energy veins that shaped the rest of his face.

You’re still alive, she noted with a surge of relief. Gentleman didn’t kill you.

“Hello, Student,” Data said in perfect Greek. His voice was almost human, with a faint metallic resonance that only a trained ear could pick out. It wasn’t him speaking to her, she knew. Ever since Gentleman’s hostile takeover, Data’s body had been a sleeping hostage, trapped in a stasis chamber that projected his consciousness onto the internet. The only reason he was still alive was that Gentleman hadn’t been able to replace him.

“Hello, Genius,” Athena replied in Greek, glad to for the opportunity to keep her language software deactivated for this conversation.

“Is it time?” he asked.

“Yes.” Athena wanted to say more, but her voice broke. She had to invest a few seconds into getting it under control.

The face on her screen waited patiently, averting those startling blue eyes while she struggled with the tremor that ran through her body.

“He has sent the command,” she said once she felt in control of herself. “With an executable file that will give the Conglomerate control of Olympus.”

“Truth be told, I had expected this to happen sooner,” Data replied. “But I can see why he waited. If he wanted a chance to reset the Covenant itself, now is the best opportunity. Samael will be in charge of the new team, and we both know what this means.”

“Yes,” Athena whispered, her armored fingers curling into a fist beneath her chin. “A team of killers. A flying strike force.”

She averted her eyes. For all her gentle encouragement, she hadn’t been able to smooth off Jordan’s rough edges, but she could tell that he loved her. Maybe more so than Andrey ever had. There was a very real chance that her betrayal would push him over the edge, but she hoped that he’d keep the promises he made to her.

“Of course Gentleman wants to be in charge of logistics and communication,” Data stated, oblivious to her internal conflict. “But that isn’t going to happen, is it?”

“No. I’m going to fry Olympus so thoroughly that they won’t be able to recover a single byte of data from it.”

“Not a single byte of me?” Data joked with artificial joviality. The metallic face smiled from the screen, inviting her to join in the humor. But she couldn’t.

“He’s going to kill you for this,” she choked out.

The smile disappeared from the metallic face, and for a few long seconds, it watched her silently from the screen. Then it dissolved in a swirl of pixels, leaving her to the status messages that had scrolled across her screen. They informed her of established links to countless bases across the world, hidden caches containing some of the most powerful tech Data had developed over the years, now activating to follow her command. The combat Golems the Covenant hadn’t been able to track down – Christina Chung had fought one of them shortly after her transition, Athena remembered. War drones of varying size and shape, all heavily armed and animated by incredibly powerful AI systems.

After two power surges, Data truly was the ghost in the machine, and he’d successfully kept most of his work a secret from the Conglomerate. Gentleman’s new Technician stood no chance of interrupting the satellite network that linked the mechanical army to Athena.

“I’ve overstayed my welcome, Alexandra.” Data’s voice echoed from every loudspeaker in the small command center, painfully devoid of emotion. “Consider Morpheus a newer, better me. He doesn’t need to eat, he can’t be contained, and given time, his intellect will far surpass mine.”

“Thank you,” Athena whispered, squeezing her eyes shut in an attempt to contain the tears. There was so much more she would have liked to say to her friend and mentor, but he had already initiated the Ascension protocol. The program started to run, its progress bar filling up little by little. They were almost out of time.

Thank you for your trust in me, she thought, her fingers pressing together as if she could hold on to it all. To love, to friendship. To her family, to dead teammates, to Andrey. To all the memories that would soon be her only company apart from Morpheus, the brilliant echo of a dying genius’ soul.

She glanced at the progress bar: ninety-five percent. Morpheus didn’t speak, but she knew the AI had already entered her shuttle’s local system. Having seen an earlier prototype in action, she could imagine what it was doing: figuring everything out at lightning speed. Her included.

Thank you for your lessons, and for the most terrible coffee I’ve ever tasted. Thank you for the dry humor, for the patience. Thank you for turning me into a better person. For making me the best heroine I could hope to be.

“Goodbye, Alexandra,” he said. “I’m turning you into a goddess. Make it count.”

“I will,” she sniffled, watching the progress bar jump to ninety-nine percent. It is time.

She took a deep breath, then grabbed the data cable that dangled from above. She smoothed back her curls to expose the datajack behind her ear. Today, it would do more than provide her with updates to her language software, and the prospect of what was about to happen made her skin tingle. She wasn’t afraid, but she still hesitated. There would be no turning back from this.

In every hero’s life, there was a turning point, and Athena was looking at it in the shape of a silver-hued connector that rested in her armored hand. She’d reached the edge of the cliff, and now all she could do was to jump.

And fly.

“Alexandra, are you ready?” a voice asked through the loudspeakers, its pleasant male baritone much too human to belong to Data.

“Yes,” she said. “Thank you, Morpheus. Do it. Shoot me into space.”

She plugged the connector into the data jack behind her ear, and the sheer flood of information that washed over her mind made her gasp. As she did, nearly a hundred robotic warriors stationed across the world shuddered in response.
 

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12 thoughts on “9.9 Interlude

  1. Look, Anthony! Someone is upping their game already! And Lankhmar, I hope I managed to surprise you after all. 🙂

    Any and all comments anyone wants to make on this preview page will be preserved. Next Sunday, I’ll link this page to the table of contents rather than the post update the followers get, so you don’t have to worry about comments disappearing.

    And I’m really hoping for a few comments on this one. This was a very special chapter for me for a variety of reasons. It’s one of only three chapters so far that made me cry like a baby (the others were 6.2 and 6.8). At 6678 words, it’s possibly my longest chapter to date, and probably my new favorite.

    And last but not least, I’d like to dedicate it to Hayley Greenhalgh, author of Caelum Lex, who originally planned to do an Athena interlude as an April fools update. However, because I already had an Athena interlude in my head and originally planned to publish it sooner, I convinced her to pick a different character.

    This one should address many more open questions, including one from alllll the way back in chapter 1.4. Did you wonder what the hell was up with that Golem robot Chris fought back then? Why did the Conglomerate just have such advanced tech on standby, seemingly doing nothing with it?

  2. This was such an awesome chapter.

    Alexandria felt very, very, human and fleshed out. It’s a wonder that you’ve managed to do so much with not that much text. I can recall, maybe, a handful of other POVs that have fleshed out a character so much in such a short time. Maybe once or twice with Wildbow, a few times reading Malazan Book of the Fallen, and a few other times in other various stories.

    Moreover, you did it with two characters. Alexandria and Data.

    So top 10 for sure.

    I wonder how much the new robots will change the game? I could imagine that the change would be insane, especially if the Conglomerate didn’t know about all of them (or know quite how advanced they are). Data obviously managed to hide quite a lot, so I wouldn’t be too surprised. Regardless, this will be a huge upset in Gentleman’s plans, and quite frankly, that bastard fucking deserves it. Dancer coming at him from one side, and Athena+Morpheus from another.

    “All the memories that would soon be her only company apart from Morpheus, the brilliant echo of a dying genius’ soul.”

    Awesome line. I think it might just be a tinsy bit over the top. Mostly in the way that “Brilliant” and “genius” are both words that espouse the same quality, combined they seem excessive.

    Now, to be fair I only noticed that when I went back to hunt for the line. The first time I read it, I was impressed.

    • Wow, thanks! That’s quite the compliment – I’m a huge fan of Wildbow’s character portrayal myself, and knowing that I succeeded with this chapter means a lot to me. I… don’t know what else to day. I’m a little speechless.

  3. Widbows works as a whole were fucking awesome.

    But a lot of the interludes, especially in Worm, were kinda “ehh”. Some of them, like Bonesaw’s, were fucking awesome. But there’s also a bunch I don’t remember.

    The new “Enemy” chapters in Twig are interesting, but they do not have as much character development.

    • I haven’t read Twig yet, but I devoured Worm in a week or so. I skimmed a bit in some of the longer combat scenes, but overall… wow. My favorite scene overall was the one with Taylor and Dad in the kitchen, just before she decides to leave home. Very little happened apart from dialogue, but that chapter had me on the edge of my seat. More so than any action scene.

      If you don’t mind me asking… what aspects of Anathema could I improve the most? I’ve only just started going over arc 4 with my editor, and there’s not much criticism to go by. Any reader opinion, positive AND negative, is appreciated!

  4. Ah you did surprise me, I was sort of right but still so very, very wrong! I don’t know how I feel about it though, after reading it twice or three times I still don’t because it was such a this was such a roller coaster ride of emotions:
    UP
    Nice to see Athena, before things went to hell and everything seemed to be going fine
    DOWN
    -TRAITOR- they trusted you, the *world* trusted you…
    UP
    So Data’s not a bad person, Athena’s not a bad person but if you work for someone who is, that’s not much better….
    DOWN
    So Data’s going to die before we ever truly knew them, Gentleman loses a tool but gets another threat out of the way
    UP
    Oh my gosh you’re both crazy, terrifying, awesome people. I’m scared, but oh so excited to see what madness of righteous fury was just unleashed

    So Gentleman, I doubt you planned for this and I doubt you are prepared for this. What will the playwright do when yours actors stop reading their lines and won’t follow their stage directions? When your carefully orchestrated plan devolves into a flurry of madness and death?

    Will Athena emerge triumphant bearing her aegis to shield the world from its own insanity? Will you lose yourself and become something less than human? Can you every repay what you owe the world and your friends? Can they find the ability forgive you?

    Ahahaha I guess I liked it. A lot! 😀
    I think everyone enjoys a character being strong and badass, seizing the reigns and saying “We will not go quietly into the night! This is the time when we STAND AND FIGHT!”. it’s hard to not enjoy a chapter like this.
    Maybe that’s just me? Fairly sure that’s why I didn’t like 9.7 all that much because a strong character broke 😦
    Which I understand! She’s strong physically but still pretty broken emotionally…but…sour taste left in mouth. Of course no character can be strong all the time! Which is the point but dammit Chris why didn’t you just punch his smarmy face! You’d feel better, your friends would feel better because you’d be back ASAP and everyone in the WORLD wins. Dammit.

    Personally my favorite bit in Worm is Arc 20: Chrysalis. There’s not much actual fighting, just a terrifying standoff while trapped between two rocks. And than later you learn about what that did to Dragon and waaah. Depth. Athena, you better be cooler than Dragon, and hopefully less Tragic so my heart isn’t broken a second time! And punch Gentleman in his smarmy face because Chris wasted her opportunity! 😄

  5. So Athena was a mole the whole time? I just revised that there are a whole lot of characters we hear about but don’t really know that well. Outside of their interludes we only know them by their iterations with main characters.

    First Queenie then Paladin then Data, everyone keeps dying.

    Also, can someone remind me, what’s the prophesy about the antithesis and the end of the world again? I seem to have forgotten the details and I don’t know where to find it in the text.

    • I’d like to give some of those characters more story time, but that might slow the pace down too much. I can tell you that Kathy, Athena’s IT sidekick, is going to make an appearance in several arc 10 chapters, though. 🙂

      The Oracle’s prophecy was never stated exactly. There are a lot of rumors about it – some true, many false. What is known is that the Oracle believed the Antithesis will end the world. But she didn’t say who the Antithesis is. The Oracle referred to the ‘Healer’ (she never used that word, it’s an UN classification) and the ‘Antithesis’ (another made up word) as ‘the one’ and ‘the other’. What exactly the ‘end of the world’ is wasn’t stated, either.

      It isn’t my intention to write yet another story about ‘saving the world’. There’s plenty of those already. I’d like to focus on the characters, their individual choices, and the consequences that evolve from them. I know exactly how the story is going to end – it will be the conclusion of everything that happened before.

  6. “She averted her eyes. For all her gentle encouragement, she hadn’t been able to smooth off Jordan’s rough edges, but she could tell that he loved her. Maybe more so than Andrey ever had. There was a very real chance that her betrayal would push him over the edge, but she hoped that he’d keep the promises he made to her.”

    This paragraph really confuses me. It seemed clear that she knew that Jordan was obsessed with her. Obsession is not love, except for oneself. How could she then think that he loved her more than Andrey did?

    Her betrayal would push whom over the edge? Samael? No, because he’s so self-obsessed that her actions mean close to nothing to him. Andrey? No, because he believes in her too much.
    What promises did who make? Andrey or Samael?

  7. Well i didn’t see this one coming, at all, for a moment there i thought you were going to reveal she killed Quenie, good thing it wasn’t like that, i particularly like the true character of Data, but i have some questions, how exactly did Paladin die? i mean who killed him? Was it a curbstomp battle or did he kill some bad guys (mooks without powers don’t count)? And just how gruesome was it really? i mean was it something that wouldn’t look out of place in game of thrones or was it hard on Athena because of the emotional attachment?

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