New Dawn Inc.
"Beginning live combat test three."
Hydraulics opened the doors in the test chamber, and a black bear wandered forth. It was one of the larger examples of its species, made even more intimidating by the fact that its fur bunched and bundled across its body, forming what looked, and acted like, a coating of nearly iron hard spikes. This particular specimen had already awakened a power.
Across from it, what looked like a large crustacean emerged from the opposite wall. The crab-like organism took one look at the bear and stopped moving, but whether it was attempting to avoid the bear, or play dead, its plan didn't work; the bear wasn't having it. The bear roared and charged, approaching the crustacean creature with all the fury of its six-hundred pound frame. The crustacean immediately sprung into motion, the top of its shell flipping forward like a car hood opening and hitting the bear in the face, causing it to stumble and huff in surprise more than pain. It wasn't surprised for long, and batted the shield of chitin to the side so hard the attaching tendons and muscle ripped, detaching it from the crustacean.
But the crustacean was prepared. As the shield went flying, a swarm of needle-tipped tendrils whipped forward from the opened top of the crab body and stabbed the bear in the eyes, blinding it. The bear went wild, raking its arms at its opponent in an attempt to dislodge the tendrils it could no longer see, but every time the tendrils withdrew as a paw came flying, and then stabbed forward to attack the bear's face once again.
The bear panicked, and attempted to shuffle backwards, but now it was the crustacean that wasn't having it. It kept pace with the bear, keeping tendrils in contact with its face to pump a solution filled with nanites into the bear's ruined face, and it wasn't long before said nanites managed to reach and attack the brain of the bear, killing it quickly. Its spiky-fur power hadn't even managed to come into play.
"Time. Fifty seven seconds," said the scientist recording the test.
The team went into motion, making sure that the data was recorded properly by the machines in their new setup. They'd all practiced with them before restarting the tests, but considering they had been working with an entirely different system of paper printouts and analog machines the first time around, their apprehensiveness about getting the data recordings right was an understandable concern. After all, animals with powers they could use as test subjects didn't grow on trees... or, well, if they did, the mad bio-tinker who must have made them wasn't sharing. The team nervously looked towards their leader, who sat hunched over a machine with lines of code rapidly scrolling across its screen.
"...That did it. Good job everyone," said Brett Savvy.
The team members let out muted cheers and congratulations, before turning back to their work. Brett took a brief moment to enjoy the atmosphere of a lab in full swing before doing likewise.
It was only gone for a little while, but I missed this.
He watched the lines of code scroll by on the screen, every now and then pausing the feed to rewind and take a closer look at what was happening. Before, if he wanted to do this he would have needed to dig his way through the printouts, as the digital code being called only displayed for an instant before the record was transferred to hardcopy. The old method was one of several anti-technopath countermeasures, one meant to prevent a passing technopath from having access to a digital layout of the code. Brett had gotten rather good at reading the code on the first try as it flew by, but he still missed stuff, and often went digging through piles of printouts for hours. He was glad to not have to deal with that anymore. The new lab was remote enough and guarded enough to not need such measures.
Which meant he now had the proper tools available to spot the obvious. He leaned back in his chair with a sigh.
"Penny for your thoughts Brett?" asked Dr. Mason, as he walked up behind Brett. He hadn't been in the lab when they were getting started.
"Didn't we have that long discussion about live testing precautions Dr. Mason?" responded Brett, ignoring Dr. Mason's question. "The one where we decided non-essential personnel shouldn't be around dangerous test subjects during Odd Summer?"
"Oh psh, looks like the test is already over to me," said Dr. Mason, smiling, "Come now. This was the most successful test yet, and yet you look like someone stuck a finger in your petri dish. What's got you in knots?"
Brett rolled his eyes at Dr. Mason's kind-hearted flippancy, but he supposed Dr. Mason was right. They were using already triggered animals for the test now for safety, and the new prototype (dubbed the mark two) was working as expected.
Which was sort of the problem.
"We managed to get the recording equipment properly calibrated with this test. I was able to follow the logic path just fine, but the thing is, all it really does is tell me what I already know from just watching the damn thing. The mark two is showing the same level of proficiency as the original prototype was following the fight with the grizzly, and I can't find any real difference between the kernel process recorded in our most recent back ups and the new model's. Somehow, the prototype's combat and pathfinding abilities advanced by a massive leap during that original fight, and I don't know why. Forget figuring out how it did what it did in the Trebla footage, I can't figure out how it got so good at stabbing bears. For all we know this thing will go awol just like the mark one did, so I'm thinking of putting a pause on all combat testing until we figure this out."
Dr. Mason cringed, "Ah... then I suppose now is a bad time to tell you New Dawn's president is coming by for a tour?"
The lab went silent, wide-eyed technicians turning to Dr. Mason.
"New Dawn's president. He will be coming by later today."
"That's... rather short notice."
"I'm inclined to believe that is on purpose. I tried to rush here after I got the call but, old bones and all that," he smiled apologetically, "Sorry I couldn't get here before you killed the bear."
"No, that's alright, we can just, um..." Brett looked around the lab, taking in the scene. Frankly the lab was a mess. They'd plunged back into live testing as fast as possible, under the assumption that Odd Summer might be crucial to worthwhile results, and they hadn't wanted to waste their window. Half of their equipment hadn't even been properly organized yet, haphazardly set up throughout the lab wherever they had space. Filing cabinets were pushed into one corner, half-finished coffee cups rested on tables, and their mark two was nibbling on the dead bear in the background, probably ruining any results they could get off the corpse in the process.
Screw it. Showtime then.
"Alright, you heard the man. We've got..."
"About four hours," supplied Dr. Mason.
"Two hours to turn this into a respectable operation. We'll let the mark two eat the bear, make sure its reserves are topped up. Then Dr. Janice, I want you to put it through its paces, critical thinking skills, obstacle course, the works. Make sure the upload of the back-ups took properly, but nothing that can break it; let's assume he'll want to see a combat demonstration. Jacobson, Grentle, start up the clam. If we time it right we might be able to show it to him in action; might as well give him the complete pitch. Everyone else, help me put this lab in order, and for gods' sake throw your coffee cups away before they spill and fry something."
The team scattered to their tasks, setting to them with a vigor that bordered on manic. This was their second chance after the disaster with the prototype, and they all knew that this "tour" could easily make or break the project permanently. They'd all had a brief taste of life without the lab, and none of them wanted to return to the cubicle hells, or endless job searches again. The best they could hope for right now was perhaps a teaching or tutoring position at a college, and the fight for those positions was tooth and nail this far into Odd Summer. No, this was the dream, and they'd be damned if they didn't grab it while they could.
Brett himself helped with the clam, since his power was needed to start things up, then he started moving equipment and cleaning the place up, since the need to monitor the mark two's kernel process right now was not as pressing as showing a good front to their soon-to-be guest. Instead, he used the time doing physical work to zone out, and go over what needed doing in his head. He wasn't sure how the president would react to the project; he'd only ever seen the man in pictures or brief interviews in documentaries and the like. The man had built New Dawn Inc. from the ground up over a decade ago, using the bolter as its flagship product, and the company was now on the bleeding edge of weapons technology. They should probably start with a demonstration of the mark two, try and impress him with the actual combat results? Then try and sell him on the viability of the project as a commercial success to seal the deal. Hopefully the clam would be almost finished by the time he showed up.
"Beginning puzzle box test one," called out Janice.
Brett glanced over at the mark two for a moment. The machine had reformed the top of its shell using the bear remains, and was now using its claws and two tendrils to maneuver the 'puzzle box', a square cube with various buttons and symbols on its surface. Idly he watched as it tried to figure out how to open the box, whereupon it would receive a nutrient pellet as positive reinforcement. Its two large claws slowly turned the puzzle box, allowing the mark two to see which symbols lit up, and then push the corresponding buttons on the other sides of the cube. So simple a child could do it, but right now the critical thinking skills of a child was the mark two's very best. It took eight minutes before the AI figured out it needed to match both the colors and shapes of the symbols to the buttons, and then another minute to press them in the right order, whereupon Janice announced the time.
"Time. Nine minutes, seven seconds."
Well at least that's working properly.
Brett went back to wrestling the particularly heavy gizmo he'd picked to a better spot. They'd left it near the door due to its weight, but it really needed to be further along the wall so he wasn't constantly walking to it from his work station.
What was our record for the puzzle test? Five minutes twenty seconds? But that was before we started randomizing the sequence better.
It was a shame that the prototype hadn't taken to puzzles the way it had combat, but then, the mental jump from following base instincts to complex problem solving wasn't exactly an easy one. Brett and Dr. Mason were a molecular engineering major and a microbiologist respectively, so when they'd been forced to shift the project from "nanites that stopped mutavus" to "nanites that controlled an autonomous weapon," they had gone with what they knew. The nanite core system was modeled on living organisms, and that meant the instinct for base survival had to come wayyy before the ability to recognize that a glowing blue circle meant you pressed the blue circular button, at least, if you wanted the nanite system to function as desired. Evolution had taken billions of years to get from simple molecular machines to complex-problem solving life, and yet they'd done so in less than two years thank-you-very-much, so perhaps they could be forgiven for making a crab with the intellect of a dull one year old.
"Beginning puzzle box test two."
Kinda funny how all the prototypes become crustaceans though. What did Mason call it? Carcinogeneration? Crancentination?... Crabification?
Brett snorted at the idle thought. Their method of training the prototypes had also modeled real organisms, which meant they'd needed to teach the machines to eat food and keep living, the basics of basics. The first nanite colonies had been placed in nutrient solution, and needed to be hard-coded by Brett to take in the right chemicals and keep the reaction going. Then he'd needed to hard-code the pathfinding when they placed the nanites next to the "food" and not directly in it. Then he'd need to design a way for the nanites to "remember" useful structures, and for that it became apparent that the nanites needed a dedicated core, and etcetera and etcetera.
And then began live testing with cellular structures. Good lord that had been a debacle. Up until that point the project was still Dr. Mason's anti-mutavus garage project. Brett and the other members of the team were collected from different colleges, master's programs, wherever Dr. Mason could find them. Heck, the only other actual doctor on the team was Janice, an animal psychology and behavior analyst.
"Time. seven minutes, nine seconds."
And we're damned lucky she gave us the time of day. She could be predicting fauna migration for the army and earning a pretty penny right now.
They'd made steady progress on the nanites, even with working between classes and other real-life situations, but then the project stalled hard upon introducing the nanites to living cells. Even the most basic of single-celled organisms could contain thousands of interlocking mechanisms, and the nanites had taken for-ev-er to finally duplicate a single amoeba. That had been three whole weeks of painfully monitoring and guiding and husbanding the nanites to make sure the algorithms didn't just determine the process a waste and give up prematurely. But finally, they had a nanite colony that could mimic and replicate amoebas... and nothing else.
"Beginning puzzle box test three."
He'd adjusted the next batch of nanites to give it more memory for recording cell types, but even that was too much for them. Sure they could finally "record" complex structures like living cells, but they needed to learn each cell type from scratch, and actually understanding how bone, blood, muscle, and nerve cells all worked in concert? Forget about it. Brett could have spent the rest of his life adjusting the nanites and they would have never reached a complexity above mobile slime mold. Great if you wanted a living, slimey roomba to patrol your apartment at the speed of drying paint, but if you wanted nanites that harmlessly interacted with a complex living being to root out mutavus? Pfft. The project predictably stalled there. Six months of amazing progress just to hit a brick wall.
"Time. Five minutes, thirteen seconds."
Oh, but Dr. Mason had swooped in and saved the day there. Somehow he convinced New Dawn Inc. that the project had merit as a weapons program, and right afterwards New Dawn had delivered the sample. That miraculous sample of mutant animal cells that made everything possible. These anomalous cells could shift from muscle cell, to nerve cell, to skin cell and more as commanded, like stem cells that never lost their charge, so the nanites only needed to learn a single one-size-fits-all design. Even better, and easily most crucial, was the fact that the cells taught each other. If one cell shifted, it could also transmit its changes to the next cell and the next. Suddenly Brett didn't need to guide the learning process for every new design, because the nanites would mimic the cells, and then the cells would teach the nanites, the learning process bouncing back and forth billions of times, trillions of times. Trillions of minute instances of trial-and-error learning, more than Brett could do by himself in a thousand lifetimes, and the prototypes had advanced exponentially from there.
"Beginning puzzle box test four."
Even the core signal concept was perfected from this advancement, providing a fast way to transmit commands from the core to the body, and receive feedback from the cells quickly. The fact that it reinforced the fail-safe at the same time was like a gift from the gods.
Or perhaps not a gift, and more like Prometheus's stolen fire. Just like mankind took that flame and eventually used the sciences to disprove the Greek pantheon, Brett and his team would use the mutavus created cells to eventually eradicate mutavus... hopefully. If he could get benedicci to stop destroying his nanites for two seconds and let them do their job rooting out mutavus' hiding spot. Ironic that humanity's best defense against mutavus was now hindering their chance at a complete cure. He was so close! He just needed one last push. One last key to the puzzle. What was he missing?
"T-time! Three minutes, four seconds..."
Maybe the rogue prototype was that key? If only he had access to it. He hadn't heard back from Mr. Slick since... wait.
"What was that?" asked Brett, his head snapping up from the console he was fiddling with. Most of the lab reacted similarly to Janice's pronouncement.
"Three minutes, four seconds. I'm resetting it, it must be a fluke."
Brett and the rest of the team watched as Janice reset the puzzle and started the next test. She was probably right, but what a fluke! Three minutes was half of their best ever time. No need to get hopes up though, it could be anything, from a faulty timer, to the randomizer screwing up, or maybe even-
"T-Time. One minute, t-two seconds."
"...Janice? One more time please," asked Dr. Mason.
"Already ahead of you. Starting test six."
The mark two grabbed the puzzle box as the lights started up and damn near spun the thing like a basketball, four small eyes on stalks scanning the sides of the cube. It stopped the spin with one claw holding the first button in the sequence, then used three tendrils to rapidly press and hold the other three buttons in the lock combination. A panel on the bottom opening and a nutrient pellet fell into a waiting tendril.
"Time! Thirty-seven seconds! I don't believe it... starting test seven."
The lab watched in spellbound silence as the mark two spun the puzzle box again. It was a silent magician, performing a trick never before seen by human eyes. The lights flashed and suddenly: ta-da!
"Time twenty-two seconds! Starting test eight!"
The mark two grabbed the box, spun it... and then froze. Its audience jerked at the sudden stop to the show, small gasps of surprise and worry escaping as if they had already been expecting the hammer to fall. But no, the mark two was not dead, or broken, or stumped. All of its eyes were trained on a single side of the puzzle box.
The reward panel.
Slowly, one of its tendrils moved forward and tapped the panel, producing a dull ring. It waited a moment, then released one claw which it then smacked against the panel, nearly causing it to drop the cube from its one-clawed grip. Its eyes moved from the panel only briefly to take in the claw holding the cube. Then it set the contraption down on the floor, raised one claw up, and hammered it down onto the panel. Then again and again, until the panel warped and bent, and then the mark two really went at it, using claws to crush, tendrils to pull, and even stabbing a needle-like foot into a small gap to lever the panel open in a flurry of force. With a final twist and snap of one claw, the offending panel went flying.
Then it calmly picked the cube up, spun it once, and dumped the entire supply of nutrient pellets on the floor.
The audience were stunned silent. Nobody moved, like they were afraid to do so would break the magic that had descended on the lab. It was Jacobson who finally couldn't take it anymore.
"What. The. Fuck."
That did it.
"The recording," said Brett, practically diving for his console. Everyone else reacted similarly as Brett started sputtering orders.
"Have it save state and download CoreMemory. Then put it into sleep mode. No, wait! Standby mode, in case the solution is temp memory related. Ben, Sally, start monitoring the live kernel process. But keep your eyes on the damn thing! Someone sit and stare if that's what it takes. We can't afford it going rogue on us. Jacobson, Grentle, start going over the kernel process recording. Separate consoles, ten minutes, I want your theories on when, why, and how its critical thinking skills started advancing. Everyone else, usual stations, start double checking everything.
Brett himself started going over the kernel memory at his own console, regretting they only had five of the gizmos they could use to watch the machine "think." Five had seemed like overkill at first, but now he wished he had a dozen. But, between himself, Jacobson, and Grentle they should be able to find what they were looking for. He kept scrolling back through the record. It was easy to see the acceleration, but where was the spark that set it off? He didn't see...
"Hey Brett?" called Ben, "It started a large-scale memory wipe before the download request went through."
Ben repeated it and Brett scrolled forward to the indicated time, but didn't see any wipe command logged in the record.
"Are you sure it was a wipe?"
"Absolutely, I saw it dump... what? Where did it... but it was a huge section of memory! How... I saw it!" Now the technician was confused, and Brett wandered over to his console so the man could point out the exact time when he thought the wipe happened.
There's no wipe command logged here, but Ben wouldn't mistake any of these commands for a memory wipe. The hell is going on?
He looked down the list of commands issued by the core, and only saw what he expected to see when they requested a download of the core's memory. Admittedly there were lots of commands that the feed didn't display. For instance a "grow" command issued by the core wouldn't display the thousands of individual smaller commands that described the organ it was growing, nor the trillions upon trillions of cell replication commands inside those. Trying to display all of those in a way a human could see and make sense of was a fool's errand, so Brett had long ago designed the core to "group" the commands and display them as a single action for ease of visibility. Was that a mistake? Did he need to go back and redesign it to display more? But then they would need to comb through a massive list of records. Even with the one or two people on the team who had a power that might help with that sort of thing, it would take too long.
Brett checked the file for CoreMemory now in their backups, but the file size of the core's memory state was also normal. It had grown a bit since their last check, but was still well within the estimated average, so what happened to all the data that was supposedly wiped? Ben was going bonkers while fretting over his console, certain that he had seen the mark two's core wipe a large section of memory before providing the backup.
"Here! Right here," said Ben finally, jabbing at his screen, "The timestamps. It issues a transfer, then does the cleanup, but the timestamps between the two are whole seconds apart. It transferred something big, then didn't record the wipe. Or, no wait, I think it grouped it into the clean-up command, the timestamp there is also a bit longer until the next command."
"So it transferred the data, deleted its copy, then hid the evidence in plain sight, which means its actively hiding something from us. That means the entire record is... well, not useless, but suspect. Wipe and clean-up are similar enough that you could define them in the same action, but when did it redefine the parameters? How?"
"...Or who," offered Ben, "It transferred data somewhere, and it wasn't to another spot in its memory. Maybe it really was a technomancer? Stealing the data and hiding his tracks?"
"We can't rule that out, but we're in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by a shielded facility, protected by armed guards. If they were powerful enough to steal data at this range they could have just taken what they wanted right off our new computers and there would be nothing we could do about it. No, the mark two is hiding things for a reason, we just need to figure out what and why."
The team pored over the code fast now that they had a better idea of what they were looking for. They started to find more odd instances like the hidden wipe command. Mislabeled temp variables, calls to functions that were then immediately canceled, commands that were repeated multiple times but which never wound up doing anything; all things that weren't unexpected in dynamic code generated by an A.I. up until you realized that none of it was random. The others might have taken days to put it all together, but Brett had designed the lowest level of assembly himself, and had spent weeks, months going over the records of the prototype's highest level thoughts. He knew what it was thinking, how it was thinking... just not the why. Brett probably would have gotten it on his own eventually, but as luck would have it, he glanced up briefly, his eyes idly drawn to the mark two.
It was staring right back at him. He blinked, and the little eye on a stalk wasn't there anymore, all four of its simple eyestalks turned away to stare at the room as it idled in standby mode. It had glanced away like a child caught peeking.
... It's been watching us the entire time. The entire lab is visible to it and its been transferring data somewhere. The way its been modifying its code and hiding it from us is outside of its scope, but not if someone's been doing all the clever thinking for it. Occam's razor. Ben was right. Someone's been playing us the fool.
Brett clenched his teeth at the bitterness he felt in that moment. All that progress, and it wasn't because of all the work they put into this project. It was because some asshole cowl had decided their project would be a good toy to play with. Likely Trebla, if that video he put out was anything to go by. Laughing in their faces.
He took a deep breath to try and get a handle on himself before continuing, then stomped his way over to the viewing window.
"Janice? I need you to order the mark two back to its pen. Then put it in biopsy mode and pop the core."
"Someone's been talking to our project. I'm putting an end to it."
Janice gave him one worried look before interacting with her console and having the mark two leave the test chamber for its pen. Brett started marching for the security door that would let him access the pen himself.
"Um, Brett?" said Dr. Mason, coming up behind him quickly, "Let's not do anything hasty."
"I'm not. Someone's been messing with the prototypes, and the most likely vector is the communications module. Everything we do here is pointless unless its turned off, and I intend to make sure it's off."
"Alright, but are you sure its wise to get so close to the mark two when you're so sure it's been tampered with?"
That caused Brett to falter. He stopped and turned to the concerned Dr. Mason, who directed his gaze to the remains of the dead bear. There were a few scraps of fur, cartilage, and bone left, but not much else; the mark two was quite thorough with its meal.
Fifteen minutes later, Brett entered the mark two's pen with six guards armed with bolters, who took positions around the waiting mark two (which was much larger up close), and then waved at Janice through the glass to trigger the biopsy. When she did, the mark two shuddered and twitched, requiring Brett to calm the guards before they shot it. Internal and external changes were required to expose the core, and it wasn't always pretty. They didn't need a stray bolt taking out the core because it surprised them with a jump scare. He somewhat expected the mark two to open the top of its shell again, and for the core to pop out like a bloody jack-in-the-box.
Eventually the mark two stopped twitching, and contrary to what Brett expected, the mouthparts opened wide, wider, and then a large part of the internal structure emerged from within. The guards muttered expletives at the scene, and Brett was inclined to join them, because it wasn't the core that emerged.
It was a human brain.
Brett froze. Then blinked. Then turned to the lab window to see if the others saw what he saw. Many of his fellow scientists had their hands covering their mouths, or were making other varied expressions of surprise or horror, so they obviously understood the significance. Dr. Mason was already trying to restore order and heading for the pen himself.
Someone should tell him not to. Who knows what this means. It's not supposed to make brains, the core signal should hinder secondary processing centers. Where did it even get a human brain? Did some poor fool enter the pen and it... no, it must be whoever messed with it... right?... But that explains all the data transferred... All the hung calls to missing methods. And it used the brain to redefine the parameters... That's why it suddenly got so good with the puzzle box! It ate the whole bear and finally had the reserves for the algorithms to justify operating at full capacity! Stabbing a bear isn't nearly as resource intensive for a brain as a puzzle. How smart is it now?
"Brett! Brett, don't do anything rash!" yelled Dr. Mason, emerging from the security door with several other panicked team members and interrupting Brett's stupor.
"Mm? Oh," he had been reaching for the brain without realizing it. He put his arm down. "No worries Mason, I wasn't going to... I think we might still be in business actually. This brain, it... it explains everything. Almost everything. I'm just, not quite sure where to go from here."
Dr. Mason sighed in relief, "Well. We'll figure it out together."
After the initial shock ran its course, the team of scientists went back to work. Now that the mystery of the anomalous behavior was solved, several things needed to be determined. The biologists in their group were having a field day.
"So it's not a human brain?" asked a very relieved Brett.
"No, it just looks like it," scoffed Grentle. "Its similar, but look here, the temporal lobe is quite atrophied, frontal lobe engorged, and look at these connections between the cerebellum and the surrounding structures!"
"To decrease reaction time to stimulus perhaps," said Dr. Mason. "The core has replaced most of the brain stem here," he pointed, "It's become the central hub of the brain from the looks of it."
"That's how it's bypassed the secondary processing center limitation," said Sally, "It just grew the brain around itself, like adding extra ram to a computer. The brain isn't thinking, it's just enhancing the core's capabilities. We should have opened it up to look ages ago. This has so many applications for medical training."
"Admittedly there wasn't much point," said Grentle, "Besides the liver it's basically just a stomach with legs, or at least it was."
"Where did it get the design from though? It didn't eat some poor SOB, did it?" asked Brett.
"It might have copied and amalgamated all the animal brains it ate?" suggested Dr. Mason.
"Er, that's unlikely," hesitated Grentle. "It's not a human brain now, but it looks like it might have started with one as the base."
"Dammit man, I asked if it was a human brain!" said Brett.
"It isn't one!"
"Gentlemen, gentlemen. Who cares where it got a brain? Spilt milk at this point," said a new voice, and the scientists turned as one to the owner. The man it belonged to was quite out of place in the cement lab, with his immaculately trimmed full beard, long black hair streaked with silver and held in a stylish ponytail, and wearing what looked like a ridiculously comfortable maroon suit with matching golden cufflinks and watch, but they still recognized him from pictures.
It was New Dawn Inc.'s president. He was flanked by several people, all in dark suits, and one of whom was Mr. Slick.
"The more important question is does it still work? I'm no scientist, but last time I checked brains go on the inside," he laughed past an unlit cigar. "Allec Ruben, your boss. Nice to finally meet you folks in the flesh. Dr. Mason, good to see you, and you would be Brett Savvy, correct? Don't mind my entourage, they're just here for show. Although I think you've met Mr. Slick?" he gestured at the man over his right shoulder.
"Uh, y-yes. Brett Savvy, nice to meet you," he shook Allec's hand, which Brett imagined must feel much like shaking hands with the mark two. The president emanated controlled strength, despite the slight paunch indicative of age and a healthy appetite. New Dawn's president introduced himself with a handshake to everyone there, despite the fact that some of them had been poking a brain not moments ago.
"Now then, onto business. Hopefully I didn't come too late in the day to get a tour, it looks like you all were about to start dinner here," he laughed, deep and jovial.
"N-no of course not! Please, right this way," said Dr. Mason.
They all retreated back through the security door, and thankfully Dr. Mason took over speaking with Allec Ruben for a moment. Brett's nerves already felt close to shot for the day, and that was before he forgot about the demonstration they would be doing. The team swallowed their nerves, and went about setting up the mark two, having it withdraw from biopsy mode. Luckily, it seemed their discovery of the brain hadn't caused anything bad to happen, and Brett hoped the mark two wouldn't explode or otherwise before the tour ended.
They set up a combat test, with a large praying mantis twice the size of a man as the opponent. Size was the most commonly triggered power among insects, and mantids in particular were a dangerous threat beyond the city walls.
The mark two bodied it. Literally. It bull-rushed the mantid into a wall, pinning it, then methodically tore the limbs off the mantid, using nanites to saw off its armored limbs.
"Not bad," nodded Alecc, "Those things can usually take a few bolter rounds. Hope you don't mind, but I brought along something a bit spicier to test it with. Mr. Slick?"
Mr. Slick nodded and went to prep the mark two's next opponent, while the scientists set up the test again (while conveniently "forgetting" to stop the mark two from eating the mantis). Twenty minutes later, three vampires entered the test area.
"Some of our boys picked these up earlier today. E12 was having a bit of a fire sale. Nasty things, and smarter than most people give them credit for. Let's see how it handles that."
The vampires entered the room much more timidly then the mantis had, eyeing the mark two with suspicion. The mark two did the same, taking the time to analyze these never before seen opponents. One of the vampires fanned its wings creating a subsonic hum, and its two companions separated to flank the mark two. It kept one eyestalk trained on each vampire, with the fourth flicking back and forth to whichever vampire hummed. It seemed unusually interested in the noise.
One of the vampires leaped forward with a feint, swiping near the mark two before rapidly backing off. The mark two stepped back as well, training two eyes on the offender, but held its ground afterwards, making no offensive moves.
"Bit slow this time, is it tired or something?" asked Allec, gesturing with his unlit cigar.
"It's never fought a vampire before. It tends to try and analyze new opponents for as long as possible before diving in."
"Huh, guess it does have a brain."
Inside the test chamber, two of the vampires decided to try a real attack on the mark two, and lept from opposing sides to swipe their claws along the mark two's shell, trying their claws against the material of the shell. Still, the mark two didn't respond to the provocation, and Brett began to grow worried. Normally the prototypes all began fighting once their opponents did physical damage. He wished they'd been able to do more tests with it; this was the mark two's fifth actual fight since they'd loaded the backups on it.
The mark two continued its possum act, and the vampires were getting bolder with the strikes, carving long, if superficial, scratches on the mark two's shell. Finally, the mark two shuddered, which Brett recognized as it having finished internal changes, and from its mouth emerged a long flat tendril. It inflated, revealing it was a tube, and then the mark two did something really unexpected: It blew air through the tube, and produced a subsonic hum.
The vampires all jumped back, reacting dramatically to the sound, and retreated to the far end of the room. The mark two didn't follow, instead producing a series of different humming noises, slowly getting closer and closer to the vampire's own tones and frequencies. Soon, one of the vampires fanned its wings, and started to respond.
"By God, is it trying to speak to them?" said Dr. Mason, in a hushed tone. Several of the members on the team were excitedly whispering to each other, mentioning the puzzle tests, and how the mark two might be trying to decipher the vampire "language." An amazing advancement if it were true, one that several members of the team were ecstatic about.
But one person wasn't quite so exuberant, and he was the person they needed to impress.
"The hell's it doing?" asked the president.
"I believe its trying to talk to them," said Mr. Slick, at his side.
"Well it's supposed to be killing them. Can we tell it to get a move on or something?"
"We can," said Brett, "but it won't be necessary. Please, patience."
Allec Ruben raised an eyebrow at Brett, but shrugged and kept watching.
The vampires were getting bolder inside the chamber, slowly approaching the mark two while making their own communicative noises, to which the mark two responded. Slowly the trio advanced to investigate this strange vampire that had a large shell and stood squat to the ground. The scientists were fascinated by the interplay, especially Janice, the animal psychology analyst. Vampires were known to be somewhat solitary hunters and killers, so seeing three of them work together like this, and for the mark two to so easily decipher the "language" and attempt to "talk back" was a fascinating event. The day had been filled with magical discoveries for the team.
So it was somewhat a shame how brutally they were reminded exactly what it was they'd built.
The vampires drew close to the mark two, all four of them subsonically humming at each other. Then the first vampire drew close enough to try and smell the mark two with its antennae, and the mark two responded by extending two tendrils in a similar, but much more ill-intentioned display. When the vampire leaned in, the tendrils struck, wrapping around its throat and pulling it in close. Immediately the mark two's large crab-like claws latched to the vampire's face and squeezed, popping its compound eyes.
The vampires went berserk, the two other vampires attacking in a frenzy of clawed hands in an attempt to save the dying third. The mark two didn't allow it, twisting its captive's neck to kill it fast, then opened the top of its shell to unleash its swarm of needle-tipped tendrils. Both attackers fended off the swarm of tendrils surprisingly well, using their four prehensile hands to grab clumps of tendrils behind the stabbing needle portion, and then extended their own needle-like proboscis into the mark two, attempting to drain and weaken it quickly. Less than five seconds after their first gulps, the mark two's blood self-destructed inside their gullets, and both vampires choked, convulsing in distress. The mark two's tendrils then quickly wrapped around their hands and pulled them inside in a reversal, and finally the open lid of its shell swung down, crushing and trapping them like a massive venus fly-trap. They quickly died soon after, and Brett let out the breath he had been holding.
"Now that's what I'm talking about!" said the president, his statement nearly echoing in the now-silent lab. "It goddamn tricked them and everything. Did you teach it to do that?"
"Er, no. Not as such," replied Dr. Mason, "Brett? Could you...?"
"The mark two is programmed with an objective hierarchy, part of which is to try new tactics when appropriate. It likely just determined that mimicking the vampires was worth attempting, as it had never encountered the behavior before, and it was low cost to attempt. It didn't know what the result of the mimicry would be, it only took advantage of the result. As programmed," for once. Even if it was rather... original.
"Well, either way this looks like a winner to me. I'm impressed with how quickly you got all this up and running again, to think we almost cancelled it."
"That would be due to the extraneous costs involved," spoke one of the suits behind Allec, the first to speak up since they arrived. "The cost to acquire the vampires it just killed, for example, was just under two-hundred thousand dollars. With the cost of acquiring powered livestock, anti-technopath security measures, tinker made supplies and parts, and security and general staff for the facility, the overall total balloons towards just under three million, for the past three days."
"Oof, that is indeed quite the butcher's bill," guffawed Allec, "Anything to say towards that?" he asked Dr. Mason.
"Well, the scientific advancement alone is worth-"
"It's cheap," interrupted Brett. The group of suits turned to him. He pointed to the mark two. "That right there represents about three hundreds pounds of nanotech infused biomass, which translates to about three hundred fifty pounds of nutrient feed, or five hundred pounds of whatever you can get your hands on. Which means the two-hundred-thousand dollar vampires just got beat by about eight hundred dollars worth of grocery store quality cane sugar," then he pointed at the lab and team in general, "This is all start-up cost. We have some testing left to do, but the hardest parts are over. Now is when we move towards production, which is the second part of this tour. If you would all follow me?"
Allec Ruben grinned and nodded, and the group followed him out into the hall, and to another room. Inside the new room was mostly blank cement, but for a massive machine that dominated one wall. There was an opening and what looked a little like a water tank at one end, which then led to a spiraling series of large pipes and valves coiled into an almost snail-shell like mass, the entirety of which led to a simple, rectangular box.
"This is where we produce the cores that provide the anchor for the nanite swarms. We've taken to calling it the Carbon Lattice Applicator Machine, or C.L.A.M. for short. Seed molecules go into this tank here," he touched the water tank, " and then pass through this series of pipes and coils. Each pass adds a coating of atoms to the original seed. Correctly bound molecules eventually pass to the next ring of coils, while failures are rigorously disposed of. Eventually, the result is deposited here," he touched the final box, unclicking a latch that allowed him to swing up the lid, and revealing three small, whitish cores. No two were exactly alike, but they were all mostly spherical, with several holes pocketing their surface, a small horn-like protrusion, and a single silverish filament extending from inside them.
"Heh, these must be the pearls," chuckled Allec.
"Basically yes. Any of these cores placed in or on suitable materials will begin to produce its own nanite swarm, and eventually grow its own body. We started the C.L.A.M. when we heard you were coming, which was about..." he checked his watch, "...six hours ago."
"Two hours per core?"
"Ehh, it varies. Because it relies on random chance for the molecules to coat properly, it tends to spit them out in odd clumps, but the average is around ten cores per day."
"That's not exactly mass production," said the suit from before.
Brett smiled, "The solution to that is simple: just build more clams."
"And how much would that cost?"
"This particular machine represents about... twenty thousand dollars in store bought parts, a hundred thousand dollars in raw materials provided by your company, and the combined efforts of twenty of the smartest people Dr. Mason could find, over the course of two years. Luckily you've already paid for that last one. That means you can make one of these machines for the price of a rather expensive car. Yes, acquiring the test subjects is the main cost of the project. Yes, the resources spent over the last two years is presumptuous. But most of those costs have already been paid, the math is done, and the most important point, the thing that makes this machine a viable product, is that it is not a tinker artifact. It uses actual logic in its design. When we started the project the goal was to not make something that would become defunct the moment its creator passed. Any team of engineers can put this design together with the blueprint, and any tinker with two brain cells to rub together can reproduce the specialized parts."
"Then what stops someone from stealing this device? Or just making it for themselves?"
"The seed molecules required to start the process. Right now my molecular manipulation power is the only way to reproduce them in large enough quantities. Eventually someone will figure out the specific molecule needed, and perfect a method to reproduce them in large enough quantities without a power, but not before New Dawn Inc. has a decade long headstart, and a stranglehold on the market that starts," he slapped the machine, "as soon as you make more of these."
Brett could see the look of comprehension dawn on the group of businessmen, but Allec Ruben was already grinning halfway through his presentation. In that moment, he would have bet his degree that the New Dawn Inc. president already decided how things would go long before ever restarting the project. Still, he grabbed Brett's hand in an iron grip, and shook it with all the vigor of someone who'd just listened to the world's best sale's pitch.
"Well Mr. Savvy you've convinced me," then he addressed the man who had been voicing concerns, "What about you Ericson? Still not convinced? You've already seen the failsafe specs. Any other complaints?"
The man who had been questioning the costs gave a very put-upon sigh, eyed the president, Brett, the machine, and the other businessmen with dollar signs in their eyes, then asked, "Can you make it look less like a crab? Something more palatable to buyers, more like a robot perhaps?"
Brett blinked, "...Sure."
"In that case consider your team employed indefinitely," said Allec. "Here's hoping this project is a success Mr. Savvy," he leaned in and winked, "Because it'll be funding your next one. I look forward to your results on the mutavus cure. Mr. Slick? I'll let you handle the details on this one. I'd like it all to go smoothly."
Mr. Slick nodded.
Twenty minutes later, Allec Ruben and his entourage had moved on, and Brett was sitting in the lab again as his team cheered at the good news. Dr. Mason particularly was all smiles.
"That was quite the pitch Brett, and you said you didn't like talking business."
"Just gotta speak their language Dr. Mason."
The team all chuckled at that.
"Well, this is another step Brett. We're getting closer to mutavus everyday."
"It seems that way. Now we just gotta figure out how the mark two got its hands on a brain. Did anyone manage to pull the data from it while I was giving them the pitch?"
"Er, good news and bad news there," replied Grentle. "Once we found the right query label it let us pull the data it transferred to the brain. The problem is it's... nothing. Just a large empty box filled with scraps of junk data."
"Damn. Maybe the backups?"
"I already checked," answered Sally, "The backups don't even have the junk data, just an empty section of memory. Whatever the prototype was hiding never hit our records."
"If I had to make a guess," hazarded Janice, "The behavior the mark two has been exhibiting is just junk data from the original prototype. It likely doesn't know why it's trying to hide that chunk of memory, only that the original had it labeled as a priority. That's why it didn't try to hide the puzzle test capabilities from us."
"Right right, the mark two's algorithms wouldn't have overwritten that particular behavior yet because its had so much success with everything else it inherited from the prototype. Damn, so we still don't know what set off this advancement."
"Will that be a hindrance to advancing the project?" asked the voice of Mr. Slick. Half the team startled in surprise, having nearly forgotten the suited man in their midst.
"It's concerning Mr. Slick, since it might happen again, and we don't know what effect it will have going forward. Has there been any progress with retrieving the prototype?"
"Unfortunately, passivity hasn't paid off this time as I might have hoped. The local authorities haven't had much success acquiring the prototype, and it seems surprisingly adept at evading the local heroes."
"How is that possible?" asked Grentle.
"See for yourself."
Mr. Slick pulled his phone from his pocket (which he really shouldn't have had with him in the lab), tapped it a few times, then showed it to the scientists, who gathered around. It showed a clip of the arrest of a masked individual by someone with a purple forcefield? And a large rock man? The audio was blanked out, but you could see them having some kind of discussion with the cowl or whoever it was, before the villain known as Warhead interrupted. The clip stopped there to the confusion of most the team, but not Brett and Dr. Mason.
"What was that?" asked Grentle in confusion.
"Why, that's your prototype," replied Mr. Slick. "This footage was acquired only a few hours ago. I've been keeping tabs where possible."
"What are you talking about? That was just some supers."
"The one in the black Grentle," said Brett. "Remember the Trebla footage I showed you? The suits match."
"It can't be."
"They were speaking to it!"
"The movements look completely different..."
"But it does look similar."
"I don't see any injuries this time. How can we prove it without..."
"There's no possible way-"
"Its advancing too quickly!"
"Please calm yourselves," said Mr. Slick, cutting through the exclamations like an icicle. "Mr. Savvy. In your estimation, does this project need the prototype to continue?"
Brett stared at the little phone in silence for a moment.
"I... think we could continue without it Mr. Slick, but... I also think it would be prudent to find out what is going on."
"In that, we are in agreement Mr. Savvy," said Mr. Slick, while putting away his phone. "I'll begin pushing forward on retrieving the prototype. From the look of things, it's had quite enough fun."