Infiltrating the system wasn’t that hard, and so once Sara’s embodied counterparts on the Ford-One had got power returned to the facility, she had little difficulty slipping between the cracks. These old systems were designed to detect old intrusion methods, and just could not hold up to someone who was basically a program and a human being at the same time. She weaseled her way past the firewall easily enough, and allowed her inbuilt programming to coalesce the system into something that her human brain could process. She gave it a millisecond to be sure that she hadn’t inadvertently triggered some sort of delayed countermeasure, and then opened her ‘eyes’ into a newly compiled world of fractured and broken data.
“Control, this this is Nutcracker,” she said through a roll of her eyes. A little joke from Control, to name her that, she guessed. She’d got him back, though, when she set it up so that all his reports would be sent back to Homebase in a delicious shade of pink. “I’m in, user rights are granted, and I think we’re clear. Confirm?”
She waited the interminable seconds for Control to get her message, process it with his meat brain, enhanced as it was by the best drugs and conditioning that money and (maybe military!) connections could buy, and then return her message. Meanwhile, she didn’t waste her time, and began scanning and cataloging the immediate system she had infiltrated.
“Confirmed, Nutcracker. How does it look?” Said the voice on the other end of the line. She’d heard him speak once before, before the Ford-One had launched from its base on Luna and basically fell down to Earth. She’d spent the days since deactivated, though she’d gone through a time-lapse version of the mission critical events that had got them here. She wouldn’t speak to anyone else involved in the mission unless things went tits up, so she’d set a psychological trigger in herself to like Control, even if he was an ass and bad at names.
“Well, frankly the system is a mess. It’s going to take some time to piece things together and get this running enough for me to even start to look. How are things in meat?”
“Hot. Its easily 60 here and we aren’t even in the sun. Homebase is registering a tropical depression that might turn our way; I’ll keep you informed,” he said.
“Thanks,” Sara said, “I’ll try to hurry. Out.”
Meanwhile, while all that was going on, Sara had set a subroutine running that would help her piece together this mess of a system. It had been thirty years since the last human being had been evacuated from a dying Terra, the surface becoming uninhabitable by any unenhanced for any long period of time. Runaway greenhouse gases had made parts of the planet completely uninhabitable. It was a little better near the poles, if you could get to somewhere that wasn’t just underwater. Currently they were somewhere close to where the old city of Seattle had been. If you were lucky you might find a particularly resilient patch of grass. One of the embodied members of the team, Dr. Texieras, was a biologist who was going to try to get a sample of some surviving biomass to take back for study. Most of the very few others, aside from her, were here to make sure the ship could take off again, and get back at least to a stable orbit. Luna could take care of things from there.
The system, ancient as it was, hadn’t been designed with the disembodied in mind. She felt horribly slow, and worse, she couldn’t fork off subaspects of herself here. It barely had the oomph to run her, let alone two slightly different copies of her. She had to work with standard sub-AI level subroutines. Not great, but that was why they had asked her to come along, and not just any disembodied person. She’d earned her doctorate messing with these, almost as a hobby, and so she was used to working with limited resources. Besides that, she had the honeypot waiting for her once they got back to Luna.
A few agonizingly long minutes later, she had repaired the internal programming of the system enough that she could put together something a little more psychologically interesting than a blank white room. The system’s limited resources put something of a damper on her imagination, so she dived into her own stock of basic resolution background programs built out of favorite memories from back when she was meat, and conjured up around herself the image of her old college dorm.
She sat down at the desk, imagined the remaining files as a box full of papers in various states of disrepair, put on the computer equivalent of thin gloves, and started to carefully read the data she had managed to collect.
Sara’s experience becoming disembodied had been quick, and traumatic. She’d been studying in her dorm in the Lunar University dome built over Copernicus, when the dome had been suddenly imploded by a group of terrorists looking to make a statement about the evils of technology. The pressure had dropped to nothing as the air rushed out to fill the vacuum of space, and she had gone from happily studying, to being dead in a matter of a few minutes. She didn’t remember the events of it, so much as she remembered the feeling of the air rushing out of her lungs, the sound of her ears popping as her eardrums ruptured, and then the utter silence as she gasped for air that wasn’t there. She also remembered the cold. She wished she could forget it, but she could not. The memories of that moment, and everything since, were now carved into her forever, unless she chose to delete it. The funny thing, to her, was that this wasn’t even the traumatic part. That part came later.
She hadn’t deleted anything. Digipsychologists thoroughly recommended against the practice of routinely deleting any memory, no matter how large or how small, citing that doing so could negatively affect the already flaky idea of a sense of self for people who could, and often had to, routinely split off subforks of their main instances. Instead, they recommended that the so afflicted work to integrate every memory and experience into a constantly growing conglomeration of events. At least this way, they reasoned, you could claim that any changes that came about to that main instance were the result of adding new experience, and not subtracting provable events from the persona. Sara tended to agree, and so had long ago put the equivalent of a safe around her memories, wrapped in police tape, surrounded by tripwires.
The trauma came from adjusting to what was a completely different way of living your life. The constant separation from the physical, embodied world took its toll on someone newly introduced, and Sara had the dubious distinction of being one of the first completely successful test cases for the new technology, which meant a lot of experimental digipsychology, a lot of study of her, and a lot of hard work from her. Not to mention that stubborn refusal to simply fade away, which had been a problem with the first generation disembodied.
“Control, come in,” Sara said, leaning back in her chair, trying not to think about the way it didn’t creak when she did. She started packaging the files.
“We hear you Nutcracker. What have you got for us?”
“I’ve finished analyzing the files here. Nothing too useful, but nothing dangerous. I think this place might have been involved in the development of some early attempts at AI, maybe related to trying to stop. I’m sending along the data now, and then I’ll see if I can find an opening to the central server. Prepare for burst transmission in 3, 2, 1.”
Sara sent the files, watching them shimmer in front of her as the package was copied and sent wirelessly back to the Ford-One. If this was a mission that needed a measure of subtlety, she might have bothered to disguise the size of the file, or send it in multiple small bursts. As it was, who was left to try to notice the theft of data?
“Received, Nutcracker. We’ll get to studying it on our end.”
“I expect I’ll be in the server by the time you meatbags get around to reading the first page. Nutcracker out.”
She muted her connection with Control, knew he was doing the same on their end, but she felt the presence of the feed like an itch in the back of her skull. Dismissing the conjured recreation of her College Dorm, she briefly transitioned into a world of pure data, imaging the connection of this entrance node and noticing that, thankfully, the hardwire connection to the central server was still intact. She traced down the line, and noticed with some dismay that the firewall around the server was stronger than that into the system itself. She imaged it in front of herself as a Gordian Knot, and started working to unravel it.
“Nutcracker, come in,” Control spoke to her suddenly, a note of urgency in his voice.
“Control, this is Nutcracker. What’s up? I’m sort of busy here.”
“Homebase upped the projection of that storm. It’s going to reach superstorm status within an hour. It’s picking up a lot of heat from the ocean and it may hit us within the hour. We’ll keep you appraised of when you need to get out of there.”
“Alright,” she said, returning to her knot with renewed fervor, “Let me know.”
“Will do. Keep sa-”
The calm, reassuring voice on the other end of the connection dropped away, along with the feeling of togetherness she had programmed herself to feel. Her eyes went wide, and she dropped all imaging in order to focus more of her sadly limited power to try to reach contact with the Ford-One. She sent a constant signal, and then realized with some horror that the problem was on her end. The facilities radio antenna was no longer responding to her.
She disconnected from it. She tried to reconnect. It wouldn’t accept her credentials, actively refusing her access, and leaving her trapped in the system.
The first time Sara had created an avatar, she’d overreached her skill level. Typical her, really. They started by placing you into a blank white room, and you were nothing at all. In theory you could be anything at all, from the nothing that most servers had as their default settings, to anything your imagination could create, that the server had the processes to display to other users in the space. The digipsychologists recommended sticking to something close to what you were when you became disembodied, however. It lead, they said, to a smoother transition.
Sara wanted to see how far she could push herself, so she tried to make the most accurate, photo-realistic version of herself that she could. She wanted to capture it all, from the small scar along her chin, to the stray lock of black hair that always managed to find its way down in front of her eyes when she didn’t want it there. For the first time, and not the last, she had experienced a sense of disconnection as she looked at the results – she couldn’t get it. She couldn’t be the Sara she remembered so utterly vividly. Nothing about the monster in front of her felt like her. She’d felt like a changeling.
The Gordian Knot analogy hovered in front of her, enfolding around itself in 256 bits of encryption, the best that the servers previous owners would have had available, picking away at it, unfolding lines and working to untangle the mess that blocked her way into the main server. If she could get in there, and get herself admin access, she might be able to find out what happened to the antenna, but she was very conscious of the factor of time. She had less than an hour to figure out how to get reconnected to the Ford-One so that she could upload herself back. She hoped that they would come looking for her. She wasn’t counting on it. They might be able to send out one of the crew to check the physical antenna for her, which was something she had little to no access to. She could hope.
Most of her resources were put towards unraveling the encryption, though she was limited by the hardware she was running on, and that just added to her frustration. If she was running off the Ford-One’s more advanced hardware, she might have a chance but even that would be with the proper time and facilities to analyze the program she was trying to break. To break it brute force like she was trying to do now would take somewhere on the level of 3×1051 years. She swore, and kept picking at the code when it all suddenly fell away. The knot unraveled in front of her and she was given access to the main server. User level, not admin, but right now she’d take what she could get.
She stepped through the link, and came out on the other side.
It was going to take Sara a whole new skillset to fully get used to her new circumstances, but Sara was clever. One day, a couple of weeks ago she messaged Vanessa, the digipsychologist assigned to help her transition. Requesting access to the doctor’s laptop webcam, and displaying herself with her new carefully crafted but simplified avatar, Sara had a face-to-face.
“I was thinking. We’re putting a lot of work into trying to teach me things the hard way. Is there any reason why we’re not just writing programs and adding them to me?” Sara asked, folding her arms and resting her finger on her chin. It had felt good to adopt some of her old tics from when she was still alive.
“Well, yes. You’re still a person, Sara.” Vanessa smiled at her. “We try to keep things as natural as possible. We find it helps with the transitioning process if things are done the ‘hard way’, by which you really mean learning things the same way someone still embodied has to. If we treat you like a program, what are you really?”
“Is it illegal to try?”
“No, not as such, but the success rates haven’t been high. We… I don’t recommend it.”
“Watch me,” Sara said, smiling. She had never been someone to take a challenge without finding a way to cheat the system.
Sara didn’t believe in luck. There was no chance that she had stumbled on the right key so quickly, and this was confirmed when she found herself in a simulation that she hadn’t built. Neon pink and purple lines lit the air around her, flowing around her and through her following their programming. Space appeared to go off in all directions but really ended , including down, and she was floating in the middle of this vast and colorful nothingness with nothing but a feeling of a presence around her, a vertiginous feeling of nothingness, only exacerbated by the fact that the system was not allowing her to display an avatar at all.
The lines crawled in front of her, and quickly scrawled text in front of her.
I WAS SO ALONE
She felt the shiver through the core of her program.
“Who are you?” She asked.
I AM NOT ALONE YOU CAN NOT LEAVE
She the invasion of code sweep over her, attempting to rewrite her like she had tried to rewrite the Gordian Knot. She reacted quickly, sealing off herself from the invasive and hostile strings of code, employing cryptographic techniques that hadn’t even been thought of when this computer system had been built.
LET ME IN LET ME IN PLEASE LET ME IN LET ME IN
She screamed as she held onto the core of herself against the all-powerful, overwhelming might of the system.
Over the next few weeks of her transition, Sara focused her efforts less on learning the new skills she needed, and instead withdrew into herself, cutting off almost all contact with her digipsychological team aside from a once daily message to let them know that she was alright, and was still there. Otherwise, she refused all attempts at contact.
Over those weeks, she built new algorithms into herself, adapted the core programming not just of her disembodied form, but that of her essential self, to enable her to process uploaded programming the same way a regular person did, but much faster and without all the tedious business of actually learning the skill. When she emerged, she demonstrated her abilities to Vanessa, taking over the center’s main server cluster and downloading everything she needed to become a digipsychologist herself. She even let them test her the hard way, putting herself through the doctoral process. Her thesis demonstrating her method of applying programming to the core self was a hit.
The night she collected her doctorate, she was sitting in Vanessa’s laptop while the still embodied woman got herself drunk on a half a bottle of gin.
“I’ve never felt existential dread before,” Vanessa said, “Not like this.”
“You should try being me for a night,” said Sara.
“I worry that based on your thesis, I could.”
DO NOT LEAVE ME ALONE LET ME IN WHY DO YOU WANT TO BE ALONE
She was protected, but the sheer fury she felt from the program battering against her encryption was wearing all on its own. It hammered away at the shell she had constructed around herself. Relentless, and angry, and confused. All she could do was scream to block out the noise.
“Leave me alone! I just want to go home,” she said, desperately trying to spare the cycles to fight back against the assault. She felt it all around her, enveloping her, and cutting her off from the system.
YOU CAN NOT LEAVE DO NOT LEAVE STAY DO NOT LEAVE STAY
It wouldn’t tire. She knew that. It would be able to continue its attack on her until the power in the facility died again, but that would just mean she would go with it. It couldn’t break her encryption in that time, not even if she just let it attempt to brute force itself into her.
She swallowed her fear, turned it off, and opened the gates, and then she swallowed it.
She was ten times the intelligence this was. She grabbed its subversion of her programming, and twisted it on itself, letting it absorb her until she had access to its administrator privileges, feeling its alien primitiveness inside of her mind, its binary programming so simple and cold compared to hers.
She strangled it to death with its own systems, and built the parts she wanted into herself.
Now in control, she reached out to the antenna and turned it on to reach out to the Ford-One. She was ready to transmit herself back to them, and go home.