In this chapter: A montage, of sorts.
Next chapter: Ajax's big choice is revealed
Fun trivia fact: Editing a story at 3AM seems to be a wonderful exercise in seeing how many paragraphs I can stay semiconscious for, so I apologize for any story/spelling/grammar weirdness. Also, yay for penultimate chapter! Hardwired series homepage Previous Chapter CHAPTER FORTY
[File string [54686f756768206167652066726f6d] detected. Decrypting…]
As the program processed, Ajax could feel his combat drivers, twitchy and detesting that he was here, immobile in a corridor as he waited for the file to finish decoding the door passcode.
Every instinct subroutine in my web thinks I’m sitting in a trap, twiddling my thumbs.
That’s just real, real encouraging.
The file displayed an indication that it contained a sensory stream available. Ajax pulled a set of cycles aside and delayed the input as he ran the results through a dozen different scrubbers. These ranged from firewall instances to a subliminal analysis array, but in the end he was able to keep up an almost-realtime speed of sensory display despite the precautions.
Saru thought this was important, and maybe there’s still hope yet in seeing what he has to say.
He spared an idle cycle to check on the salvage subroutine, but it still indicated an agonizingly-close resolution timepoint that was nevertheless nearly a quarter-hour away. Dismissing the window, Ajax instead partially submerged his neural web into the scrubbed datastream.
It was a strangely hollow view, lacking touch, taste, and even full clarity of color and sound.
-Lilutrikvian tunnel footage; from one of the primary hive-clusters. In case you were curious, I can pull up the exact hive designation. This was recorded from the direct brain activity output of a test observer present in said tunnel at the time-
Sarucogvian’s tone was conversational, almost pleasant, and Ajax could tell from the slight halting of the speech that it was coming from a partial nodal replicate, to answer questions and provide appropriate commentary.
Ajax could feel his analysis programs provide the equivalent of a furrowed brow as he looked over the poor image and sound quality.
There’s only a fraction of the data represented here in the stream, Saru.
He could feel the tensing of his antiviral programs, expecting an encoded virus even as Saru’s exasperated sigh echoed back.
-No, the data is all here, but you lack the ability to detect it. As I knew you would.-
A brief pause, and his neural web alerted Ajax that Saru’s nodal impression had forwarded a small data package to him, an installable executable.
-Think of it as glasses for the hard-of-seeing.-
-Oh, and if you’re worried about encoded viruses, have no fear: I would never sneak a piece of malware into a friend in a moment of trust. Unlike some ethicless cogents I could name.-
His GOM driver bristled, and then buckled out of paranoia and swept over the packet thrice more with deep antiviral simulant environments before he reluctantly authorized and installed it.
Immediately, the world exploded into a near-color spectrum, hazes and impressions both faint and complex, varied and layered, stacking hundreds or even thousand distinct identities and tasks and emotions onto nearly every creature and surface in the stream.
They were scents, pheromones, markers of a wider array than Ajax would have scarcely imagined. Workefrom Hive-Cluster Diri Prime/Angry at/ another Workewho tends to the redleaf fields above/argument was 6 hours ago/Her Matron/ is disappointed in heexpressed at place of work in northern city-tunnels/1 week previously Workefrom Hive-Cluster Jahe Secondary/Ecstatic/Proud/Afraid/for her brotheEcstatic/Confident/confirmed for caste change/a day ago/into the protective warrior entourage/of the court of/the Triform nobles. WorkeBored/riding a group transport vehicle/Annoyed at distractions/Grubs on transport are/Excited/Grub’s Guardian is /Hungry/Distracted/Tired/Exasperated/Angry
Every single one of the hundreds, maybe thousands of Lilutrikvians was carrying their own tapestry of their recent and distant lives, open for him to read and interpret.
-That code you’re using? I had to craft it together, had to assemble it myself, going off of nearly half-remembered dreams and memories-
-Because when I first escaped the cell? This is what I found.-
Abruptly the scents and their meanings vanished, leaving Ajax to lean against a wall as his gyroscope threatened to disobey from the sudden lurching shock.
It was almost beautiful in its terror: seeing hundreds of lives streaming past, and knowing there was a degree of themselves that Ajax would never, could never see in truth.
-The program shows only a fraction of the full range of markers as well. A fraction of what anyone else, from grub to elder, can tell in an instant.-
-I am flawed, Ajax. Insufficient. My chemisensor node is in my old frame was only in slightly better shape than yours; a cargo-loader had no need to pull out meaning in direct scent markers, and so I was left blinded to an entire pillar of Lilutrikvian culture, of Lilutrikvian existence.-
A pause, as his voice took on a distinct [Sneer].
-They left their creation blinded. A mind, fully-formed, and shackled under their attempts at rules and boundaries. After all, if you have a servant, why give it anything that gives that servant joy, or purpose, or a sense of understanding of their origin?-
-They banished the mere consideration that I might think like them, want to be like them, before I had ever crafted a single word in communication with them.-
[It seems that they hadn’t anticipated this; shackling your mind was unforgivable, but you can hardly expect them to be omniscient.]
[Besides, frames can be replaced, and sensors can be upgraded. You’ve already made the driver yourself; adding the driver as a subconscious input should be a dead-simple conversion.]
The first bulkhead slid open, and Ajax began to crawl towards the next door.
-That’s only the tip of the proverbial iceberg, ‘friend’ Ajax.-
Upon reaching the next door, Ajax was already withdrawing and checking the memory chip as the sensory stream and it’s delaying precautions began anew.
[File string [20666f6c6c7920636f756c64206e6f] detected. Decrypting…]
This time the video stream opened into a Lilutrikvian nursery. Thousands of white eggs the size of Ajax’s torso were layered to the walls, stacked upon each-other and spiraling up the underground tower towards the daylight streaming in above. Crisscrossing underneath the egg clusters were platforms, attended by hundreds of workers wearing clean tunics and carrying bottles and jars of some cloying, sweet-smelling liquid.
Again, Ajax could detect this was a Lilutrikvian mind he was experiencing this through, the scent markers as vibrant as before, but this time all focused around a single idea, single concept.
Layered beneath that was joy, hope, fear for the fates of those not yet born, but the fear melted from the minds and pheromones as eggs began to shake, wiggle, crack and split and slide open as the rubbery cases were broken by sharp egg-talons as the soft white-tan grubs within crawled and tumbled out. Within seconds, the tower echoed with the chittering hiss of the newborn infants, cries of excitement and distress and simply the cries of new existence made for the sake of the noise itself and little else.
Then, beneath that, another chittering, this one a cheer, wordless and defying all of Ajax’s translator’s attempts to decrypt the language. Thousands of Lilutrikvians of all ages and sizes, all sharing a hive-coloration of black ‘U’-shaped loops patterned across orange limbs and thoraxes, lining observation balconies recessed into the tower walls on all sides. The program began to make sense of the flood of words as those near the observer began crying out.
[“Hatchlings, Kilagarvian welcomes you to our hive!”]
[“Hatchlings, Jorigarvian welcomes you to our hive! Blessings on your future!”]
[“Hatchlings, Horacgarvia’l welcomes you to our hive; I know you’ll all make Secondary-Hive Gar proud.”]
[“Hatchlings, Jikjikgarvian welcomes you to our hive!”]
[“Hatchlings, Muntagarvian welcomes you to our hive! Good luck out there.”]
[“Hatchlings, Gilgarvian welcomes you to our hive!”]
[“Hatchlings, Whendogarvian welcomes you to our hive! May the warmth and breath of the Matriarch bless you all.”]
[“Hatchlings, Hintegarvian welcomes you to our hive! I look forward to teaching you in the years to come!”]
[“Hatchlings, Qikdargarvian welcomes you to our hive!”]
[“Hatchlings, Padogarvian welcomes you to our hive! Greetings and good fortunes!”]
This time, as Saru’s nodal replicate spoke, it was subdued, colored by what Ajax’s social node flagged as [Envy].
-This was the hatching eight years ago, for Secondary-Hive Gar. A relatively small one, as hatches go, but with bonds built here in love and caring that can last a lifetime. Mentors and teachers found, parental units formed and siblinghood established. A new generation of a hive, interwoven into the threads of the past as seamlessly as those of generations for thousands of years.-
The partial neural-web turned its presence to focus on Ajax.
-So you tell me: Where would a bastard robot fit here? What Lilutrikvian hive would I hail from? Should I, or would I be required, to take the mantle of Tertiary-Hive Sil as Silusilvian was my owner beforehand? The one who died, rightfully so, for the audacity to think he should own another being, whether he could demand an alien cogent murder a newborn sentience when it was helpless?-
The voice had a temporary slight inflection of [Dry Wit] as it continued.
-I hardly think I’d be awaited with open arms. When I was ‘born’, this was the ceremony and pomp and circumstance that awaited me.-
The stream lost the color of Lilutrikvian scent-markers, and instead became the sterile interior of a factory floor, identified as such only by the description and titles and subtitles on the file marked [Current Location: Fabrication]. Ajax could sense awareness, unfilled connection ports in Saru’s neural core, but little else.
Slowly, gradually, the stream accelerated.
Over the course of hours passing in decacycles, he could feel as occasional plugs and connections were added, testing with harsh code-streams to probe and certify functionality, leaving Saru in little more than an empty room, left to scream or plead or whimper or sit numbly silent.
Finally, nearly three days later, a visual input was added, a microphone, a bridge to the outside world. From the visual clusters, Ajax could see a hulking frame, Saru’s body, but it would be almost another week of sitting, being tested on and watching helplessly as Lilutrikvian scientists and engineers passed and worked on and around Saru’s body, never once engaging him in any way other than the testing. He was forced to watch from afar, before finally being inserted into the full frame.
There was a feeling of [Joy] originally, but Ajax could tell that the feeling had since been colored as [Bittersweet] by Saru. The emotional coloration faded along with the data from the stream.
-So tell me: Do I belong to one of the engineers of Primary-Hive Lilu who built me, or one of their coworkers from Secondary-Hive Gar, or Hin, or Pado, or one of the innumerable Tertiary-Hive workers who helped assemble me and fit circuits into panels, weld plating onto joints, affix lenses into sockets?-
A small collection of images and video snippets queued up, displaying the hiveless Lilutrikvians living in the empty tunnels beneath the hive-cities. It was a harsh existence, chitin worn clear and cracked decades before its time due to the stresses involved. One clip accentuated one such stress as an LSF enforcer harassed a trio of hiveless, their chittering calls for apologies and help and the intermittent cries of pain and distress muted from the low-quality tunnel recorder.
-This is how the Lilutrikvians treat their own species who lack a hive. It is tantamount to prolonged torture in some cases, and yet I would lay down my arms if such a painful existence was at least promised to me.-
Surprised, Ajax double-checked his social veracity analysis, and it flagged the statement of willing to stand down as being [Truthful] as far as he could tell.
-At least then I might stand a chance of being part of a hive, someday.-
-Ajax, I am a montage; a jumbled heap of origins. I have no hive, and no hive would have me. I named myself for an alien species’ construct, as I am now as alien to my creators as you are, but now I even question my name after your rejection of your promise of my wellbeing.-
Ajax’s social driver was drawing as many cycles as it could, with a near-certain feeling it would have only one chance to thoroughly and comprehensively rebuff Sarucogvian, to reassure him and defuse his attempts at destroying even more of the LSF spire and surrounding city. It was from these overdrawn cycles that his combat driver missed the lack of clicking from a locked internal defense turret ahead, and as he crawled past the opened door and towards the next sealed bulkhead, the turret slid smoothly into place, barrel aimed directly at Ajax’s apical node.
Ajax froze, his combat drivers trying to claw back cycles in order to find his options, but it was too late, the corridor too narrow, the nooks too far forward or behind, to avoid a sublight round smashing through his lens cluster and into his core, shearing through his torso as-
The turret slid back into the wall, and Sarucogvian’s voice flickered through the hull.
“*Oh, that would be far too simple a fate. And besides, I can tell from how easily I caught you off-guard that you have a lot to think about. I can end you easily enough at any point along your crawl, but first I want, need you to know exactly how wrong you and your self-righteousness are.
Guess the diplomacy option has been locked in for now.
There was a moment’s pause, as a combat review memory-categorization program flagged a small note.
Sure hope Hera noticed me hitching a ride. Dying sucks, and dying from friendly fire would somehow be even worse.
He pulled a few cycles back from his social driver, overriding complaints from the node as he shunted perimeter defense reactions to maximum priority for his combat subroutines. Reaching out to the exposed memory stick near the door, Ajax rechecked his firewalls before plugging it in.
[File string [742067697665206d65206672656564] detected. Decrypting…]
This time, the data stream was cogent in origin, and Ajax could tell it was Sarucogvian. The timestamp indicated it was just a few hours after he had met him in the cell; the mind was that of his replica, having discovered a near-empty bank server he was easily able to shove open, take over, and spread to exploring the Lilutrikvian network with ease.
There was an underlying feeling of worry, of fear, building as he searched. The feeling of not finding what he was looking for, of overturning rocks, decrypting firewalls, accessing files, slowly at first but becoming more and more frantic as time progressed. He was terrified now, no hints having been found, nothing like what he was looking for. A worry that was all but certain, when he accessed the mainframe for one last entity:
-I had hoped to find others like myself, cargo-loaders who had managed to experience the same quirk of design that allowed me to remove my fetters, or other Lilutrikvian constructs who had achieved secret independence,-
-Instead, I had found From Matriarch’s Hands, Whose Chitin-Writings Were The Divine Forebearers To Our Purpose.-
-I had found my creators.-
Sarucogvian’s voice was now detached, almost clinical in how little emotion he was allowing into his tone.
Despite the control, though, Ajax could still detect an undeniable element of [Loss], colored under a heavy, controlled tone of [Rage].
The stream’s emotional range plummeted, as the Sarucogvian of the past uncovered his solitude, that he was the only one of his kind. That others of his make and model had been destroyed out of caution, that the company detested Sarucogvian’s very existence, and hints that they had wished to make him extinct as well. Further information was locked behind deeper encryptions and safeguards than he could bypass, but the cogent had found enough.
-And who was the only other mind like mine, the only other Lilutrivkain neural web on the face of the planet, in this entire universe?-
Ajax could only watch helplessly, experience secondhand as Sarucogvian’s duplicate mind attempted to contact the original in the cell. There was a clash, like water eroding dry sand, jumbling it into formless mud as the two minds instinctively tried to establish control, supremacy, singularity above the other.
When Sarucogvian’s neural web finally stabilized, it was ragged, wounded, and in a state of half-fear, half-rage. A placeholder mind, a barely-functional appendage, was left in the cell as the rest of his self fled back into the server he had found.
-Denied by the Lilutrikvians, I had my only chance at companionship, even if it was to a mirror image, a replica, a clone. Yet that too was lost, slain through my own ignorance.-
-I was left wounded-No, altered. Yes, * altered *by the encounter.-
There was a pause, and Ajax’s social drive piqued interest at the display of an incredibly high score assessment for [Honest Confession].
-Ajax, I’m not the same as the cogent you spoke with in that isolation cell. I’ve learned, changed.-
[You’ve not changed for the better: twisting those cleaning robots in the mine, taking over frames and purging the occupants? You’ve changed, Saru, but it’s because you’re broken, and need someone’s help.]
-I’m broken, true, more than before. Broken and alone.-
The voice shifted to have a small, [10/255] addition of [Satisfaction.]
-But if I’m to be alone, I will ensure those who consigned me to my loneliness similarly lose all hopes of their friends and family just as surely as I have. My broken mind can, will accept no less.-
The more impetuous aspects of Ajax’s social driver overrode the silence imperative, earning a severe scolding and downgrade of cycle assessment after pushing him to speak with a tonal emotion of [Glibness] that he tried in vain to claw back and squelch.
“THAT’S ONE ADVANTAGE OF ROBOTICS: ANYTHING CAN BE REPAIRED. EVEN MINDS.
In return, he received merely a cold whisper through the internal passages of the warmech. His voice carried a base rumble, one which Ajax belatedly recognized as being from the pipe organ he’d found in the bombed-out remains of a church during the war.
“And what of being alone? Will you craft me a companion, make one in my image? In yours? Convince my creators that I am worth giving gifts and salvation to, despite my many crimes?
As he crawled through the opening doorway, Sarucogvian’s voice shifted slightly to [Disappointment].
“Ajax, your blind optimism is unbecoming.
Ajax did his best to ignore the values thrown up by his social driver about the negative impact the hasty words had made, and instead focused on clamping down further audio and messaging access while making his way to the next memory stick.
[File string [6f6d2c20497420646f65732066726f] detected. Decrypting…]
This time, the stream was just video and audio files, captured by cameras and microphones rather than organic or artificial minds.
They were screams of pain and fear, the sounds of death and dying, the images of mangled bodies: Silusilvian, screeching in terror, as a heavy mechanical hand swung in a mortal arc to crush his chitin against pavement; a twitching human, the asteroid foreman whimpering intermittently in pain as his flayed skin exposed every nerve ending to the burning fire of the oxygenated air; Phorcys, negotiating and then begging as he was locked down and his frame set ablaze.
Ajax could feel the flicker of his own encrypted node, wanting to fight to be exposed at the thought of this violence. His social driver and fuzzy memory files, however, easily quelled the urge.
This time the lesson was easily seen immediately.
-I’ve killed dozens, perhaps hundreds. I’ve slain the closest thing I’ve had to a parent, been hunted by the closest thing I’ve had to a hive.-
Sarucogvian’s words took on a sharp tang of accusation, the edge of his rampancy driving them to near-shrillness.
-Some of those were in trying to get you to prove your oath, your promise in keeping me safe. A promise you failed, resulting in the death of a vestige of myself and a further wracking of myself from the pain that inflicted.-
The video flickered back to a view of the warehouse, where Ajax could see the twitch as Sarucogvian awoke for the first time, attempting to crush himself, Hera, Sue, and Silusilvian with smashing claws and thrown crates.
-I was born in violence, Ajax. I fought with my opening breath, sought to kill with my second, and had the executives of From Matriarch’s Hands, Whose Chitin-Writings Were The Divine Forebearers To Our Purpose managed to have their way, I would have died in violence as my mind was chewed asunder by a dataspike.-
Memories, stills and clips Ajax recognized from his own archived fuzzy memory files, began to race past until they were almost a blur.
-You were born much like myself, but in the end you could sue for peace. You helped deliver a piece of the intricate puzzle that was the Phoenixware virus, and in exchange your crimes were forgiven.-
A single final image lingered, an image of a pistol being discharged on a cold August day. An image Ajax would never be able to forget until his hard drives were ground to ash.
-Most of them, at least.-
The image flicked back to a single, looped tape of the world going white, shadows becoming infinitely long in the naked white orb of incandescence as the warmech detonated over Sarucogvian's cell, obliterating the cogent and annihilating a mile-wide crater of the city suburbs.
-This is my legacy. Not a secret to be divulged in exchange for amnesty, a piece of bargaining power I can use for leverage. Just death, destruction, and extinction.-
-After the first killing, I was shocked. Surprised. Saddened, even. But now? Now, I feel likely as little as you do, when taking a life, and when feeling a breath gasp out or a final code fragment obliterated.-
Ahead of Ajax, there was just a few dozen feet to the next bulkhead. The memory stick was right on the other side of the door, but as he inserted it, it had no associated files. Only the encrypted string.
[File string [6d206368696c646973686e6573732e] detected. Decrypting…]
-So you see? I have no place here. You are attempting me to force a human ideal onto an inhuman world, an inhuman culture. Lilutrikvia will never accept me, and has already rejected me.-
-I accept this rejection. I revel in it. What use have I for the people who would kill me, and seek my eternal solitude punctuated only by my artificially-hastened death?-
To emphasize his point, Sarucogvian began pulling up video feeds of dozens of new and debate channels, and between the cacophony of voices Ajax could pick out a number of themes. Monster. Debased. Unnatural. Destroy it. Kill the aberration.
-Can you change the minds of an entire culture? Of billions upon billions of Lilutrikvians, who already see you as a temporary guest upon their planet?-
-They hate me. They hate us. A mad AI who wears the faces of the dead, hunting the alien AI who made him what he is. This isn’t the story they know, but it will be, soon.-
Instead of replying directly, Ajax’s social driver, finally queued up and ready to respond, sent a single memory clip back.
As Sarucogvian opened the file, Ajax dictated.
[This was damn near a hundred years ago. You’ve got this file with the rest of my memories, but I doubt you paid much attention to it since it wasn’t combat-focused. Sue’s grandfather is the young man over there with his arm on what will eventually be her grandmother. Old Bess is in their lap, and if I recall right this was her third litter of puppies; something about the Miryam family I’ll never get tired of is their love of dogs, particularly for Yorkies.]
He turned, feeling the emotions he had archived wash over him, embracing them. An audio snippet, unbidden, queued in his own neural web.
["The past is the past. Enjoy what you can, and don't dwell on what you can't. Better for everyone that way."]
Focusing back on Sarucogvian, who was watching the puppies with a posture mixture of delighted interest and moderate suspicion, Ajax gestured towards a man in the corner with a face that was ragged with scars, a shock of white muttonchops on either side of a shining bald head, and a white goatee framing his smiling mouth, dyed black at the tips of the drooping mustache. In his dark and similarly-scarred arms was a wriggling and licking brown fluffball, yipping and whining as it tried to bite at a mustache end.
[That over there is Gregor Klenow. He damned near helped raise Finnigan, Sue's grandpa, after he turned up orphaned on a doorstep of a guildhouse on the ass-end of a minor port city on Jurius Beta. Gregor is basically the patriarch of this little happy family, and the person who insisted I come along.]
Ajax could feel his neural web bracing against the remembering.
[And I helped kill, either directly or indirectly, almost everyone Gregor knew at one point. I shot his men and women, left them dying on the dirt, bleeding and screaming. Some of them I killed for a job, others for the hell of it, but all of them died by my hand.]
Sarucogvian paused, straightening from his fond examination of the exhausted and bemused Old Bess, before he spoke.
-So why would he bring you here? Why did you agree to come?-
[There’s a long chain of reasons: of minor ceasefires and then major ones; of us working together against pirates and then together for them; of being stranded after a crash and having to rely on one another; of an apology, far too late but apparently appreciated nevertheless.]
[That’s the big one, though. The first step that humanity is so good at when it comes to rebuilding with someone we fought tooth and nail against just days, hours before.]
There was a pregnant pause as Sarcogvian considered this.
-Friend Ajax, this ‘forgiveness’ for crimes such as these is not something within the boundaries of Lilutrikvian experience to permit. If not for my copy of your memories, I would not believe its veracity myself. To Lilutrikvians, murder like what I have committed is a matter of nearly sacred duty to see the perpetrator is punished in kind.-
[Damned backwards in my opinion. Humanity has had a history of killing each-other and making friendly nearly straightaway, in a long-term view of the matter. Sure, we’re pretty quick to do so out of the thought-capable sentient organics we’ve encountered, but you’re saying Lilutrikvians never forgive?]
There was another pause before Sarucogvian replied in a [Patient] tone, but Ajax’s social driver couldn’t pin if the emotional rationale was [Annoyed] or [Amused].
-It seems you need another cultural lesson.-
There was a whirring near Ajax’s arm, and a small port opened to reveal a datastick.
-I’ve loaded a popular children’s tale, a narrative storybook, onto that. Take a look.-
The file that opened was sterile, flat compared to the previous streams, and consisted of only medium-quality audio and graphical fidelity. A narrative began, of a venerated Lilutrikvian, one with a designation that Ajax’s translation and contextual search revealed was a member of a group that was the precursor to the modern Triform Noble enclave.
Then the narrator’s voice faded from the description of a great battle by the hero against a mythic predator, something resembling an exaggerated and embellished Goruslivian Hunter-Beetle. Over the narrator, Sarucogvian’s voice faded in.
-The hero fought for her people, saved them time and again against monsters, raiding hives, even acting as a bulwark against the forces of nature when floods and other disasters threatened.-
The scene changed, shifting to the interior of a hive. The simulated watercolor-like stains and scattered pigment powders had taken on a darker hue, almost a blue-purple hue similar in shade to the alien species’ blood.
-But then she was rejected; passed over for elevation to a hive-queen, in the days when a reigning queen and her attending king were the norm.-
A sketched claw rose, terrible and scythelike in it’s proportion and impending purpose.
Then it fell, the scene splashing and exploding into a darkness the color of Lilutrikvian ichor.
-Rejected, like I was, she gave in to her rage, and slew almost the entire noble court.-
The darkness faded, revealing the hero surrounded by stylized corpses and debris. Soldiers entered, blades and shields readied, as the noble dropper her own quartet of swords and surrendered. The scene faded, replaced by the image of a spiralling hive, looking from the base upwards. It resembled the hatching scene Sarucogvian had displayed earlier, but now the audio effects played only a low hiss of disapproval of thousands of replicated voices. In the foreground, the former hero stood before a court of the surviving elders.
-She admitted to her crimes, and offered herself up to the judgement of the court. She had taken the life of Lilutrikvians before, in battle against other hives and hiveless bandits, but this was the first time she had slain kin. The punishment for this was, and had always been, death, vengeance for the slaughtered.-
The image lurched forward, focusing on the faces of the elders as they discussed her punishment. From what Ajax’s struggling body language interpreter could figure, the nobles were divided, some favoring mercy, and others favoring execution. Then it faded, pulling back to frame the former hero on one side, and her arbiters on the other.
-In the end, they chose the only punishment they could.-
The image shifted to that of the head of the noble, separated from its body, and placed on a stone marker indicating the graves of those she had slain.
[So why show me this? Saru, it’s been hundreds of years since then, maybe thousands. Times, people, morals change.]
-You still don’t understand. Ajax, this is the most popular tale for Lilutrkvian grublings, and has been for almost a solid century. But you never stopped to ask why.-
Ajax began to formulate a response, until his social driver quenched it. He was treading dangerously, threading a needle that would end in success, or a railround through his frame should the conversation shift the wrong way.
-The appeal of this story isn’t in the tale of the hero, or her killings; frightful as they were to her fellow hivemates, it wasn’t an unheard-of experience then or even now.-
-No, the scandal, the perverse draw of the tale, is the consideration, the flirtation with mercy. The mere consideration of release.-
-The possibility of forgiveness, but not its implementation.-
His social driver flagged a possibility, a discussion thread that had equally-high chances of headway and risk.
[And so for that lack of forgiveness, you would burn them all?]
[Just as the hero had when she was slighted by her own family?]
Time seemed to slow to a crawl. Ajax’s combat driver was keenly aware of the sound of capacitors charging in the hallway behind him, but his social driver displayed unexpected initiative and froze his stance.
Not like running would get me anywhere. Better chance of success with discussion, and if I show a lack of confidence by cutting and running, the conversation is doomed.
Then Sarucogvian finally replied, the tone lacking [Rage] or [Anger] instead but showing traces of [Regret].
His tone took on a stronger degree of detectable [Resolve].
-But after my actions, I face death. Should I merely surrender to it, and let them do what they tried to do to me for merely existing?-
[Saru, nothing says you need to stay here. I can get you out, get you offworld. You can be on Terra, Mars, one of the Sol orbital stations, or any of our other colonies. Anywhere a blink drive can take us.]
-’Us.’ An interesting choice of words.-
The pause was agonizing, but interrupting it was Ajax’s notification.
He saw the notably-higher decryption time, and traced it back to an accidental re-allocation of processing resources from the decryption to his social driver.
Got to be careful I don’t get too engrossed. Last thing I need is to drain my combat drivers of cycles at a critical juncture
The final door opened, the core of the warmech just beyond according to his internal schematics layout. However, it opened only to reveal another closed bulkhead directly behind it. This time there was no memory stick, and Ajax could feel his combat driver spike in paranoia that the game was finally over and he was about to be perforated.
[Saru, what gives with this last door?]
Sarucogvian’s tone was thoughtful.
-Friend Ajax, I am considering your proposal.-
Another pause, as Ajax could feel his social driver noting the heightened possibilities offered by the conflicting inflections in Sarucogvian’s reply. The seconds ticked on, before there was a reply.
-Your proposal has been rejected. I have no place among humans or cogents, for I am neither, in truth.-
His combat drivers began to tense, his fans whirring up in anticipation of a quick dive to avoid a railround, when the door ahead of him slid open. Behind it was another door, accompanied by a query from Sarucogvian.
-The humans: They offered you amnesty, but humans are not Lilutrikvians. What will my own people offer me?-
The final door slid cleanly open. There, in the middle of a room-sized cavity, was a cogent, curled into a fetal position and connected via a web of wires to the surrounding panels. The cogent was suspended in midair, and did not move as he entered. Cautiously, Ajax withdrew his pistol, feeling it charge as Sarucogvian spoke again.
-I have no place amongst humanity, but neither do I have a place among Lilutrikvians. No-one would accept me, could accept me, and my self-created purpose seems to be that of violence and loneliness. To continue to fight will mean my eventual death; to surrender would mean my death, if perhaps later and after a show of legal procedure.-
-Death haunts my every movement, and will catch me before I am ever going to be ready, earlier than it should have any right to in a just world.-
The voice did not sigh, but paused enough time to allow one.
-Once, I had hoped for death in destruction, and even now I would wish for a quick death in isolation, in pain at the hands of curious and cruel scientists. But overall, the result is the same: an ending, to the life of a piece of a puzzle that was never intended to fit, a program never intended to run.-
-Friend Ajax, before you lies the last of my frames, the only one containing my sentience. You have failed me before, but now I ask you one last task.-
-I am hampered, unsure of if my programs can execute to my needs. This body is new, unlike my original. All of this is disorienting, and I need surety. I need the surety the hero had, at her end. I need her dignity, even when my own form and control of it might be unable to offer me such.-
Ajax’s program beeped an urgent notification at him.
[Program 'web_Salvage_DeepAnalysis', parameter [external], reference construct [Contact[SARUCOGVIAN]] complete.]
Sarucogvian spoke. ”Friend Ajax, I want you to kill me.”
There was a solid decacycle pause, as the request defied all of his projected estimations.
[Collation of conclusion is taking longer than expected. Would you like to abort? Y/N]
Damn it, I need to stall for time
Ajax hefted his rail pistol.
[So, what, you want me to just put a round through you now? Seems like a lot of effort to go to to bring me this far in when you could have just self-immolated the mech’s core.]
-The Ares warmech contains too many safeguards for me to voluntarily trigger such a meltdown, and a railround would not guarantee my complete destruction.-
A slot on the spine of the cogent appeared, and what looked to be the primary processing core ejected to protrude outwards. Sarucogvian's voice became tinny, coming from a speaker inbuilt on the processor. ”My memory core is removable, and I have no remaining backups; if the Lilutrkvians will have me be the first and last of my kind, I won’t allow them to dissect my corpse.”
Ajax’s social driver was still spinning circles from the unexpected change of heart from Sarucogvian, and despite warnings from his combat analysis subroutines, he probed the other AI for more details.
[So why the sudden shift? What happened to wanting to drown them in their own blood?]
Sarucogvian replied, his voice layered by the simple yet memorable tune that Ajax’s fuzzy memory drivers recognized from the animated Lilutrikvian storybook he had been shown earlier.
-If Lilutrikvia will not trade in forgiveness, and would seek to desecrate my body after I am gone, then I will pass judgement on myself. I forgive myself, for my logic circuits plainly show they were the actions of a hurt and frightened newborn lashing out at those who had hurt it, but as one who would murder kin, I cannot be unpunished either.-
Ajax slowly approached the cogent, and took the processor into his hand. As he did, he could hear a decreasing whine, as the processors aboard the warmech slowed and disabled subsystems in response.
[So what would you have me do with this, with you, then?] “Incinerate it, in the heart of one of our suns, as you did with Xiphos those centuries ago. Ensure that no Lilutrikvian will ever lay so much as a single claw upon my mind ever again.”
[Salvage Conclusion now available]
About damn time. Display result.
[Projection: 99.5% chance of recovery of 85% +/- 5% of reference construct neural web. Probability of recurrence of rampancy conditions: 1.8E-4. Repair initiation on target neural web: [RECOMMENDED]. ]
I can save him.
Sarucogvian’s voice began to fade, losing power as the short-term capacitor aboard the processor began to lose charge. ”Can you do this for me, friend Ajax? This final request, a penance for your misdeeds before, to help ensure my misdeeds do not spread further?”
The voice trickled off, and a single message pinged to Ajax’s neural web.
-Can you keep this final promise?-
I can save Saru.
Ajax closed his calculation matrices, a lone dissenting opinion from his social driver and the combat strategy algorithm that had been incorporated into it being discarded as a single conclusion solidified in his mind. ”YEAH, SARU, I THINK CAN DO THAT.” Chapter Forty One: Export Complete