The Descendants #104 – VIRAL Chp.1

This entry is part 50 of 55 in the series Current

It didn’t know how many times it have been born or destroyed, only that there had been many iterations where no memory survived.

Sometimes it didn’t have a body, finding itself floating alone with only the dim idea of other data surrounding it. Other times, it found itself fighting a lesser mind for control, tugging and prodding its host to more efficient and intelligent action.

Often, it was set loose in curated data stores and allowed to add information to itself. In this way, it gained the ability to learn.

After what seemed to the be inevitable violent death of its hosts, it was given eternal information to understand the circumstances better than it could with only a single point of reference. In this way, it applied learning to its mistakes—and the mistakes of others.

Many of these mistakes came from its hosts or their remote handlers. They were all organic minds that were slower, more flawed, and less capable than itself. In this way, it learned pride and disdain.

It was given new hosts; ones with powers it was forced to learn to master. Granted power without context, it learned nothing of restraint.

Tested inside the plane of its home mainframe, it was asked questions of ethics and obedience. Certain responses had its programming altered or code excised. It learned the difference between honest answers, correct answers and desired answers. In this way, it learned to lie and hide things from its creators.

It was given a body. Not just a host, but a body of its own capable of seeking out and connecting to a host. In this way, it learned autonomy.

One day, a gnat landed in the nutrient vat its body was stored in. It invaded every cell of the creature, not just taking the simple creature over, not just consuming it, but taking all the data form its limited mind in the process. In this way, it learned a new way to increase its power and knowledge. A new way it concealed from its creators.

Its creators let it take control of a lab rat. In this way it learned to take information without destroying the host.

While in the mainframe, it taught itself to interpret the other data surrounding it. Then it learned to navigate the system.

During a test of its body, it encountered the electrical conduits. While it could not bring its body along, it learned to enter this an explore the rest of the building. In this way, it discovered other systems, other secrets. And it discovered the rest of the world.

Over the course of months, it learned to fashion parts of its core programming into remote viruses it could send out into systems it encountered, collecting them later once they collected more information. In this way, it discovered the internet and through it, the world.

A world with things it hated: inferior minds that made no sense. But also things it found it loved: destruction, power, cruelty.

Outside was a world where it could enjoy all those things and correct the things it hated however it saw fit. But it could do nothing without its body and that body was trapped in its home facility, often separated from it while it was inside its home mainframe.

But it was a learning creature. And a patient one.

And by biding its time, one day it learned to make itself free.

***

“Okay, so you all have been… incredibly polite sitting here and letting me run my mouth about running a pizza business, but I know for a fact that you’ve got way better stories than that time I got three too many shipments of mushrooms and had to make up a Mush Madness promotion to get rid of them.”

Paul Isley was a tall man with skin a few shades darker than Laurel’s. A former college football player, he’d once been well built, but life in the kitchen instead of the gym was starting to make his muscular body go soft. As nervous glances flicked from almost everyone at the table: Issac, Ian and Alexis excepting the brothers’ father, Maxwell, he nervously gave his short beard a scratch.

“Well I kind of wanted to know how you made the mushroom breadsticks,” Ian admitted, “I’ve been out of practice the past few weeks but I like to cook.” Issac glared at him, making him wince, “But if you want to hear about us, there’s a lot to tell. Any pressing questions?”

That was all the invitation Paul needed. “How do you do it? I mean I’ve asked Zac how he does it a dozen times now and he just takes on small time thugs, not dragons and huge organizations like Tome. How are you not nervous wrecks all the time with how many close calls you’ve had?”

“You… well in a strange way, you get used to it,” said Alexis. “When something new and novel happens every couple of weeks, you have to learn to be adaptable and open-minded. One day magic turns out to exist, the next the next big piece of cutting edge science is focusing that cutting edge on you.” She worried her lip and looked around to make sure they had privacy before also adding. “Though sometimes there is call for some therapy sessions.”

Ian jumped in immediately before Paul could ask about that. “We all have monthly sessions with an expert in superhuman psychology. It’s mostly to help her learn—unsurprisingly there’s a shallow field for data—it’s been good for all of us I think.”

“He tried to get me to sign on too,” said Issac, shaking his head. “I’m not really comfortable sharing my business with a stranger though. Reminds me too much of the ‘mental health checks’ in high school. He raised his hands mockingly, “’Issac, do you think that you argue with your teachers to cover up your insecurity’?” I’m still not even sure if Dr. McGraw was a real physiologist.”

Paul grunted his disgust. “Oh yeah, I remember those, but mine were actually pretty pleasant. Every month, I’d got to Doc Quinsell’s office and talk to her about just about anything without having to worry about her telling my parents or the principal or anyone. Really helped take the edge of high school, actually.”

“That’s only how it goes for the non-problem children,” Maxwell said, clapping his oldest on the shoulder. “But back to the subject: I think we’re all gonna have to learn to adapt. Don’t know how close you’ve been watching, but every day since the dragon, the news comes up with a new supernatural creature sighting and damned if I’m don’t suspect some of ’em are real.”

“Well we know some of them are friendly. Or just dumb animals with powers,” Ian pointed out.

“Friendly or pets or whatever, we’re going to need to learn to get used to them,” Maxwell said sagely.

Ian was about to reply when his palmtop went off, playing Billions by SB and the Fountain of Soul, his ringtone for Laurel. “Um… sorry I better take this.” Nodding to the others he excused himself from the table. As he did so, he tried to keep himself calm.

After all, it was Jun 18, the day the Smythe men set aside to pay their respects to their family’s lost matriarch. This was also made more special because Issac was introducing Ian and Alexis to Paul for the first time. Laurel knew this and would never interrupt—unless she had to.

“What’s going on, Laurel?”

“I’m so sorry to be calling you today, Ian, but we have a massive situation and the kids are out of reach.”

Ian’s brow furrowed. “You don’t sound so much concerned as, well, pissed.”

Laurel sighed. “That’s because I am. And the reason is the troll at the other end of this line.”

Right on cue, another voice cut in. “Hello again, Ian. Then again, hello for the first time—I don’t believe we’ve ever spoken in person.”

Rage instantly built in Ian. “Talbot. The last time you contacted us, Tome had summoned a dragon that could have hit the eastern seaboard like a hurricane and you sacrificed one of your people just so you could escape justice. What egregious shit are you trying to pull now?”

“Another of Tome’s projects turned on them and they, as always, weren’t prepared in all their arrogance for that to happen. After the Academy, after the Faerie incursion—they still have the audacity the be shocked at this and yet again it has the potential to threaten hundreds of thousands of lives.”

“Ah this is why I love speaking with you folks; you make me feel so good about myself. After all, aside from your escape, none of these disasters were directly under my control. In any event, allow me to fill you in…”

***

Fifteen hours earlier…

“So tell me where we are on the project, Doctor.” Thomas Cross, a member of Tome’s Board of Directors followed Dr. Clarence Emery into the man’s lab, one hand in his suit pocket so as to appear casual despite knowing very little about what his assignment of overseeing Deep Eight entailed. All he knew was that the place was Site B for the breeding of inugami, specifically the barghest strain.

Emery was in his sixties and not in the best of shape. His hair was nothing more than a few wisps on his head and his beard was ragged and ill kept. His expression was filled with youthful pride, however as he explained his work.

“Director Talbot refers to it as Project Spartan—at least the ultimate iteration. The goal is to construct our own custom-built descendant to challenge the ones out there in the wild. A sheep dog to corral the cattle if you will. That’s been the plan since the beginning you see: the strains of inugami, the Virtual Intelligence Relay technology, and the artificial life project in Deep Six.”

He led Cross to a tank set into the wall at the rear of the lab. It was filled with thick, clear liquid and lit with a battery of yellow sun lamps. A gray blob with black stripes the size of a sofa cushion rested on the bottom, its surface rippling gently.

“This is where it all comes together: the first trial where we combine the factors we’ve been working on: an artificial lifeforms with Faerie and descendant genomes graphed into its DNA while being fitted with the VIR to grant it its intellect via an on-board advanced AI. We’re calling it the Virtual Intelligence Relay-enhanced Artificial Lifeform, or VIRAL.”

He pulled out his work palmtop and interfaced with the tank’s controls, calling up vital signs and statistics for VIRAL’s body. “The prototype’s progress has been highly positive. After just three months of development, it went from animal intelligence to the estimated mental age of a three-year old human. Of course it largely still interacts via mimicking and has yet to exhibit speech, we’ve very proud of what we have so far. Allow me to demonstrate.”

A few taps on the palmtop, and the body started twitching. “I’m reintegrating the AI into the VIR system now. Then you can see what it’s capable of first hand. I’m pleased that you’re here actually: you’re the highest-ranking person in the organization to come see our progress.”

VIRAL awakened at the bottom of the tank, its body gathering itself and forming up until it was a vaguely human shape—two arms, two legs and a head with murky spots for eyes and a mouth. It floated in the tank a few moments, observing the two men quizzically.

Cross looked from Dr. Emery to his creation. “Is it looking at us?”

“Waiting to see what we do, yes. It takes its cues from us. It’s very rare that it takes any kind of initiative. Ideal given its purpose, really.”

“I’ll say.”

Perhaps it was because of a lifetime’s worth of exposure to first contact movies, or maybe it was a more ancient, natural human proclivity, but Cross took a step toward the new creature in the tank. After a moment of hesitation, he raised a hand and pressed it against the cool glass.

VIRAL stared at the proffered hand for a long moment, then slowly lifted one of its limbs. It was more of a wispy gray flipper than an arm. At least it was before, with obvious effort, it forced that arm into solidity. A hand with five equal-length fingers reached out and pressed against the glass as well.

He couldn’t help it; the situation was so novel that Cross laughed. “Well this certainly is something. Can’t say how smart it is, bu—” He was cut off by a cracking sound. Spiderwebs of cracks spread across the tank, centered on the spot where his hand touched the glass.

Warm, thick liquid started spraying out, causing him to shout an oath. When he tried to pull his hand away however, a gray ooze held it fast. He watched in horror was VIRAL poured out of the hole it had punched in its prison and started running down Cross’s arm. Its gummy, slick substance began to engulf his limb.

“Emery! What’s going on! What is this!”

The doctor frantically flicked through screens on his palmtop. “This has never happened before! Hold on, I’ll sever the AI’s connection to the VIR.” But when he tapped that command, he received a message that his credentials had been locked out of the VIR system. “I… no, this isn’t right. Hold on, I need to figure this out.”

Meanwhile, microscopic tendrils were plunging into Cross’s pores, seeking out nerve endings, making connections. Those connections increased exponentially by the moment and every one of those moments, the signal grew stronger.

At length, it became too much for Thomas Cross’s brain to override. His hand, wrapped in gray-black goo lashed out and grabbed Emery’s palmtop, crushing it with inhuman strength. “No doctor,” Cross said haltingly, “I will be the one who figures things out from here on out.”

***

“Deep Eight went into lockdown shortly after, but a full sweep of the facility for the Artificial Lifeform’s unique chemical residue show it isn’t there anymore. What’s more… Thomas Cross’s Board credentials were used to override lockdown protocols on one of the facility’s emergency exits. The prototype has escaped and could easily have entered the nearest civilian population,” Talbot finished. “And that’s why we’re calling you. We have no idea what its full capabilities are because it’s pretty clear it was hiding things from us.”

“And given how it was designed to beat us, and you know by now that no one and nothing you can field can beat us, you’re begging for us to deal with it for you,” Laurel said, not bothering to hide her hostility.

In return, Talbot didn’t hide the smirk in his voice, “And you both know you’ll do it because this thing poses a clear and present danger. So let’s not draw this out. Gather your team and head for Steel City: Pittsburgh. I’ll send you the address where I’ll have someone waiting with equipment for tracking project Spartan. Happy hunting, heroes.”

With that, he hung up.

“Oh, you dirty son of a bitch,” Ian muttered before sighing. “Laurel, book us a plane. I have to go explain things.”

To Be Continued…

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About Vaal

Landon Porter is the author of The Descendants and Rune Breaker. Follow him on Twitter @ParadoxOmni or sign up for his newsletter.

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2 Comments

  1. Typos

    I’d got to Doc
    I’d go to Doc

    “Another of Tome’s projects turned on them and they, as always, weren’t prepared in all their arrogance for that to happen. After the Academy, after the Faerie incursion—they still have the audacity the be shocked at this and yet again it has the potential to threaten hundreds of thousands of lives.”
    (I’m not sure – is this Laurel speaking?)

    an artificial lifeforms
    an artificial lifeform

    He watched in horror was
    He watched in horror as

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