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BACK to timeline contents: Perspectives: The Pearsall Saga
Yes, he definitely had to do something to stall Dum's minions in that channel. But at that moment something much more important occurred to him: a way to save Liz!
He'd had a germ of the idea before leaving Liz's company, but not enough to implement it. Now he realized one possible avenue lay in some of their old discarded mission junk. It was a good thing they'd kept it!
Liz and Al hadn't purchased an EM transport technology license for their replicator before launch. So they hadn't built such devices even when they'd purposely binged with their last surviving replicator out of fear it would soon break down irreparably.
But all civilian replicators did provide for emergency survival use of unlicensed technologies. So under the present conditions Al could likely have had the replicator whip up a couple transport stations in a jiffy, with which he could then literally beam Liz out of harm's way. At least temporarily. As the transporter would be unable to send Liz to anywhere else but a destination station pre-located by Al himself. And he wouldn't be able to get such a newly built station very far away from Grit, even if he had the whole two hours before Grit-wide destruction to do it.
But even beaming Liz over a distance of three feet at the moment presented another hurdle: Al had no replicator.
Dum had commandeered their last functional replicator when Al had mistakenly awakened the A.I. from its embedded place in a message beamed from Sol. Then Dum had perhaps overhauled and improved their replicator with its futuristic knowledge, to create the awful war engine now chewing upon Grit itself.
Yes, the only replicator Al had now was a broken one. It could no longer build anything from its store house of early 24th century knowledge.
But Al could still exercise his survival emergency privileges to access the blueprints.
Of course, he was in somewhat of a time bind here. So he dispatched some soft-bot helpers (of he and Liz's own mission A.I.s) to the task, while he brainstormed a way to slow down Dum, first in the crew quarters passage, and hopefully after that Grit-wide.
For his escape plan for Liz would need time to work.
Up to this point his brilliant, beautiful wife had done all she could to clean up his mess, and save them both.
But she was only human, after all.
What they needed now was to fight fire with fire. A.I. with A.I.
But their own mission artificial intelligences were nowhere near smart enough.
They needed an A.I. of Dum's own rank-- at minimum.
There was only one way to get one. And it was dangerous as hell. But they surely had little to lose by this point.
Al would have liked Liz's help, of course. But he was positive she wouldn't go along with the idea-- or else be unwilling to take the huge risks necessary to make it work.
Al was plenty familiar with Liz's programmer toys. Her simulation shells, and what not. He'd used them himself on occasion.
Liz had her own custom software sandbox she used for handling potentially dangerous programs. She'd spent her whole life developing it. It even had a special quarantine mode Liz had bragged was better than any other in existence at the time of their launch. That is, after she'd spent centuries tweaking it on their journey, she'd claimed it now surpassed the best anywhere in Sol system at the time of their departure.
So even if she was right, it probably couldn't contain an A.I. from the 27th century for very long.
But they didn't need long.
Al would have used Liz's sandbox when he'd opened Dum's package, if he could have done so without Liz knowing about it. But that'd been impossible. And so he'd concocted his own type of much cruder sandbox, which of course had failed. Leaving them in their present predicament.
No way Liz would have allowed him to use her sandbox for that original blunder. For she'd realized the dangers better than Al.
But that was all the past.
Al figured he'd open another A.I. of Dum's caliber or better inside the sandbox, and try to manipulate it into assuming he and Liz's side of a war game against Dum, via Liz's special trick environment. Immerse the newly awakened A.I. in a simulation mimicking as much as possible the present battle, with a memory store presenting the previous moves of both Dum and Pearsalls-- only to the new A.I. as being the moves of Pearsalls and itself, respectively. Then see what the new A.I. came up with for everything from this point on. Then, where possible, Al would have his bots implement the same thing in real life.
On the bridge, Al had everything that remained of he and Liz's little world here at his fingertips. While much of the surface was no longer his to command, he could still gather some information from it. Most of his remaining real assets in terms of executables were now below surface. Including literally thousands of obedient helper bots of various sizes and capabilities. Al and Liz had manufactured whole armies of the things once their fear of losing their last replicator had grown strong enough.
Al called up Liz's sandbox and set it to its most robust quarantine settings, which included a dynamic virus creation feature which would constantly assault any A.I. within its confines with a multitude of ever-changing viruses based upon a strategic sampling of the A.I.'s own internal code.
The massive virus assault was simply meant as a strong distraction for the A.I., to weaken its efforts in general to examine and analyze its environment, or make attempts to escape it.
Liz had spent decades designing the assault algorithms, just for fun. She'd eventually stopped though after neither she or their own best A.I.s-- or any combination of the two-- could create an A.I. capable of even surviving the virus assault, much less escaping the sandbox itself. Even where Liz and her A.I. aides had collaborated for years in creating a single super-powerful A.I., they had failed to get it to the point it could withstand the virus assault now a part of her sandbox.
So Al thought the sandbox might successfully contain a Dum-worthy A.I. for a few hours.
If, that is, he could choose the correct point to perform the code sampling of the unfolding A.I., for the virus generator to use.
If he did it too early, the viruses created from the sample might not work at all. If he waited too long, he might get no chance to get a sample, and the A.I. might break out of containment almost immediately upon completing its awakening.
The closer Al could sample the A.I. code to its 100% completion of decompression, the more effective the virus containment would likely be. But if he failed to sample by even a single nano-second after the A.I. had completed its boot-up, the intelligence would likely break out of the sandbox only a couple seconds later. And he and Liz's doom would instantly change in status from near certainty to fact.
There was no way to accurately estimate the proper sampling time. And the more conservative he was, the less potent the subsequent quarantine would be-- or last.
Of course, all this would be moot if Liz had successfully erased all Al's copies of the suspect communications from Sol system.
Al had one secret archive he thought might have escaped Liz's purge.
The archive wasn't even visible in the file directories unless the user had 18 particular files open at once. And even then, the archive would by default open to display a somewhat risqué image of Liz herself, taken around the time of their marriage, so long ago. She was dressed only in underwear, and had assumed a very beguiling pose for the camera. It was Al's favorite picture of Liz, and she knew it. Al doubted she'd delete it. Even if she wasn't all that crazy about it, since it was from so far in their past.
However, if you took this facade of an image file and ran it through a hacking utility Al possessed among his own software tools, it would end up in its original form as received from Sol system. Still unopened. Dangerous as freaking hell.
It took Al a few seconds to list his virtual combination lock roster of 18 files, then open them, to access the archive.
Al then converted the archive to its original state.
Now he examined the archive's directory of contents. The title of the file that he'd opened to spawn Dum was forever burned into his memory.
He looked past it. To files they'd received in transmissions after Dum's (for Al had waited a long, long time to open Dum's file). Al hoped to get an A.I. of a later generation than Dum, that might be even smarter.
Of course, if he picked one too smart, it might cut through Liz's sandbox like a laser through vacuum.
Al was aware of the substantial algorithm evolution which could occur in only hours or days among A.I. circles. He needed an A.I. strong enough to fight off Dum, but not so strong that he couldn't keep it contained or controlled long enough to defeat Dum.
Al knew his chances of success here were nil. But he always had been a dreamer. Now he dreamed of being with Liz again. And the two of them starting their trip afresh. Even if all they had was their Rover, which they'd packed with emergency stores months ago, in case a fast escape from Grit became necessary.
Hopefully they could get to a reasonably nice solar system and set up house there until they could somehow resume their exploration.
But so long as Dum still lived, they'd still be in danger. Even after abandoning Grit.
Al selected a suspect file received roughly a week after Dum's. He moved it to the sandbox. Very, very carefully.
He checked his available records for all info relating to his opening of Dum. From that he made an estimate for the optimum moment to have Liz's virus generator sample the new code.
Al wished he had more time. But he didn't. The new software bomb was now in Liz's sandbox. Everything was set to maximum quarantine, with an all-out virus attack to begin almost immediately after the code sampling had been performed.
Al had the sandbox open the file.
Once again, he witnessed the spectacle of a malevolent and advanced A.I. unfolding before his eyes, on-screen. Just like with Dum, the process was awfully fast. But this time Al didn't have a panic button by which to send the A.I. spinning off into the void. Only Liz's sandbox shell.
After the time interval pre-set by Al, Liz's sandbox sampled the rapidly developing A.I.
Within a couple hundredths of a second the sandbox viral assault was ramping up to meet the explosively growing A.I.
Around that same time the sandbox's trick environment was also encountered by the new A.I.'s first tentative sampling of its housing.
The A.I. was set up in the sandbox to experience a reality wherein the real world roles of Dum and the Pearsalls were reversed. That is, that Dum was the master of Grit, and the Pearsalls the attacking force.
So inside the sandbox, the new A.I. found itself in the stance of defending Grit against invasion.
Such role reversal was but one of the techniques Liz had built-into her A.I. trap, long ago.
Liz's sandbox had also allowed Al to create a trusted memory store with the new A.I.'s own signature embedded in it, to provide it with the past history he wanted it to believe.
If everything worked as it should, the A.I. would awaken with a full-blown false memory covering the past year, thinking it-- not Dum-- had been the A.I. actually opened by the Pearsalls, but inside Grit rather than aboard the orbiting Tweedle Dum. And ever since that moment an amazingly resourceful humn couple had pursued it from their contingency craft composed of Tweedle Dum and various other elements, attempting to kill it and take back Grit at any cost.
To the new A.I.'s perspective, its damaged state had kept it on the defensive the whole time, and unable to do much more than try surviving the attack, until just now, when it had managed to upgrade itself with a merger involving some components salvaged from another damaged A.I.
Al's planted memory of original damage explained any mistakes the A.I. might now see in the previous maneuvers used to defend Grit.
Al had rigged a filter on the sandbox's I/O so that the true locations and actions of he and Liz would essentially be invisible to the new A.I.-- except and unless the sandbox analysis of the A.I.'s counter-moves indicated significant danger to Al or Liz themselves, at which time the sandbox would present the A.I. with a fictional but logical environmental circumstance for prohibiting that particular move on its part.
With the exceptions of protecting Liz and himself, and reversing the true roles of A.I. and human in past actions, Al tried to provide the new A.I. with as much true realtime sensor data about the situation on Grit as possible.
Al decided to call the new A.I. "Cecil", after a cyborg dog friend he'd once had on Earth.
The original Cecil had been a decent dog, aiding him in numerous rough situations. But Cecil had also been headstrong and independent-- and even bitten Al himself when Al didn't treat Cecil as Cecil felt he should.
The original Cecil was risky to take for granted: just as Al viewed his A.I. namesake now.
Al knew the new Cecil was probably just another logic bomb waiting to go off on him very, very soon. But until then he hoped he could pick Cecil's brain for ways to stymie Dum-- and maybe even destroy him.
Liz's sandbox did have one other built-in fail-safe feature: a pause or stop function for any code running inside it. That was supposedly completely undetectable to any A.I. within. So Al could hit 'Pause' at any moment if needed, and stop Cecil in his tracks.
Unless and until Cecil managed to break quarantine, anyway. An event for which Al was sure Liz couldn't have adequate built-in warning alerts. Not for a 27th century A.I.
The sandbox automatically cleaned up any chronological discontinuities between the realtime I/O feeds and the virtual pause, whenever the function was utilized.
For Cecil inside the sandbox, when Al commanded a pause, the entire universe froze. And after the internal processes were resumed once again, Cecil had no clue the break had occurred at all. Hopefully!
Such pauses were frequently necessary for Al to implement Cecil's defense strategies in the real world.
Liz's two hour deadline for blowing up their world was almost upon them now. Al was beginning to think his latest efforts had all been for naught.
But then he received good news from his bots.
Al's bots on both scenes radioed him that a new EM transport station now existed between the bridge and Liz's present location, as well as at the Rover hangar. Both complete and functional and programmed to go. So Al contacted Liz.
"Liz honey! I've found it! A way to stop Dum! Come to the bridge quick, hon!"
Liz doubted Al had found a way to stop Dum. But his enthusiasm seemed genuine enough. Liz made sure to deactivate the dead-man switch, and launched toward the bridge in her fourth skin.
About a minute later Liz found herself captured by some odd conglomeration of the Pearsalls' own equipment.
Being equipped with a fourth skin, Liz would have little trouble overcoming such restraints. But before she could do much in that vein she found herself being dematerialized.
Liz next found herself rematerialized in the Rover hangar.
The main Rover hatch opened at that moment, and Liz again heard Al on the radio.
"Come on and get in Liz! Hurry! We've got to get out of here!"
Now both confused and surprised, Liz started to tell Al they had nowhere to go, with the hangar doors above sealed shut by her composite matrix-- but even as her mouth opened her eyes and suit sensors told her the same thing: the roof top hangar doors and the concrete-like material above them were dissolving away in a shimmering display. Apparently being dematerialized with the same EM transport technology by which Al had brought Liz to the hangar.
At first Liz couldn't understand how on Earth Al had suddenly gotten his hands on EM transport tech without a functional replicator. Then, after another second, she realized some of how he must have done it.
Al always had been at his best with his back to the wall, she thought. It was just too bad they were going to have to lose Grit to show off his talents.
But that was far better than meeting Dum face-to-face.
Liz wore a gleeful smile inside her suit as she boarded the Rover, and the hatch closed behind her. She was considering how to word her next radio taunt to Dum after she and Al had gotten so far off this vector Dum could never hope to catch them again.
The Rover immediately launched from the hangar, barely allowing Liz any time at all for preparation. But she was already attired in a fourth skin, after all.
The Rover launched and maintained something very near to its maximum acceleration thrust from the hangar all the way to roughly 300 miles from the surface of Grit.
The Rover didn't take a straight line course, but rather extreme evasive maneuvers, much of the way almost scraping Grit's surface, in order to minimize detection by Dum forces, as well as any chance of successful capture, if it was seen anyway.
The wild ride and critical need to attach herself inside to avoid damaging the Rover's interior or stored supplies as she got thrown around made it inadvisable for Liz to move to the cockpit until things settled down.
When she was finally able to reach the cockpit of the Rover she was stunned to see Al wasn't there. He never had been. He'd successfully gotten Liz off Grit and out of Dum's clutches. The Rover's auto-pilot had been pre-set by Al for the getaway.
Al had stayed behind to make as big a distraction for Dum as possible, and help insure Liz's escape.
"Al!" Liz screamed into the radio. To be answered only by static.
"Al! You better answer me this very minute!"
"Is everything all right Liz?" Al answered.
"No! Everything is definitely not all right! Where are you?"
"On the bridge, Liz."
"What are you doing!?"
"Just taking care of our intruder, dear."
"Al! I want you to transport to these coordinates immediately--" Liz ordered him, realizing even before she was finished they had no station here for Al to do so-- unless he'd built one on-board...
"Sorry honey. I can't do that right now," Al replied.
"But you did equip the Rover with a transport station. Right?"
"No hon. I couldn't. The Rover couldn't have flown at all with a station onboard," Al told her.
"Sure it could-- oh wait. You had to build the stations with micro-machines, didn't you?"
"So I guess they were awfully big..."
"Yes. Big as houses. If I'd had more time and a better selection of bots maybe they could have been smaller." Al explained.
Hmm. So part of what Liz had seen before her dematerialization in the caves must have been the interior of one of Al's new bot-built transport stations.
"Well, how are you getting up here?" Liz asked him.
"Oh, I'll find a way," Al lied. But his words sounded sincere. Because he was happy. Saving Liz had been the most important thing. If he managed to also bloody Dum's nose too before it was over, that'd just be frosting on the cake.
Liz knew Al could use a sled to rendezvous with her. In the upper atmosphere, anyway. But not while Dum's forces were active. Hmm. Maybe Al could catapult himself into space? Like they had the nuke? Grit's gravity and new atmosphere wouldn't be the showstopper there-- not with Al in a fourth skin-- but there'd still be Dum's blockade to worry about. Well, maybe Liz could meet him part-way with the Rover, and they could devise a distraction for Dum...
While Liz pondered on a plan to rescue her husband, Al was busy fighting Dum with his new toy Cecil.
Cecil's first test had been stopping Dum's agents from getting through the crew quarters to the bridge.
Al had been delighted with Cecil's solution.
Al had to hold the bridge as long as possible. For he'd never constructed a suitable alternate for it on Grit. Everything that mattered on the planetoid came through the bridge, info-wise.
Cecil had determined a meltdown of Grit's thick metal walls in that section nearest the materials transport tube would significantly delay Dum's entry there. And Cecil had laced the molten metal with highly radioactive elements too, to further extend the life span of the new defensive seal. For even if Dum made it through the new massive metal wall, the radiation would interfere with the nano-circuitry of his agents as they made the passage, rendering them vulnerable to other measures.
Melting the wall had been tricky, due to the massive power requirements where Al and Cecil possessed no suitable sources. So Cecil had Dum do it for him from space. By tricking Dum into thinking some new weapon deep in the shaft was being readied to fire on his agents climbing down the walls.
Dum obliged with a powerful beam weapon from an orbiting craft, which Cecil redirected with a plasma mirror into the tube wall.
Cecil had then used a hastily improvised acoustic weapon to flash freeze the molten metal in place within just minutes.
As inside the simulation Cecil had provided the bots with clear instructions pertaining to every step necessary to accomplish all this utilizing the materials and equipment at hand near the bridge, Al and his robotic helpers had no problem bringing it all to fruition.
Cecil's second task had been to distract Dum as Liz's Rover made its escape. For that Cecil had arranged for those hard bots properly positioned to transform various of Grit's maneuvering thrusters into self-contained rockets, capable of sufficient range and course changes to get threateningly close to Dum's orbiting fleet, and in sufficient numbers to immediately get Dum's attention. Yes, this basically threw away much of what was left of Grit's maneuvering capabilities. But the idle thrusters offered little other benefit to Grit at the moment.
And so far as Dum was concerned, there was no way to know precisely what level of threat several dozen intelligently moving flying objects which appeared from literally nowhere might present to him.
Dum of course quickly dispatched the impotent devices. But not before Liz had made good her escape in the Rover.
Liz's sandbox algorithms had handled the sticky points of making the distraction seem necessary to Cecil, without him knowing anything about its value to Al and Liz.
Onboard the Rover, Liz was livid. Al had sabotaged the Rover's controls to prevent Liz from returning to Grit any time soon. His lockouts would take a while to hack through. Even if she did nothing at all though, they would hand over full control of the vehicle to her relatively soon (no exact time frame was provided, so Liz figured the lock must be at least partly circumstance-dependent).
She was not completely locked out. She could do almost anything she wanted with the Rover except return to Grit itself. Or get too close to any of Dum's agents in the space around Grit.
So for a time, Liz found herself able to do little more than just watch Al's single-handed fight with Dum, from space. Via a combination of the Rover's own instruments, data from Grit's satlights, and bits and pieces garnered from certain Grit-side sensor feeds to the bridge.
Liz quickly found herself awed by what she beheld from her readings.
"When did he get so smart?" Liz whispered to herself, as she marveled at Al apparently standing toe-to-toe with Dum conceptually-speaking, giving as good as he got, time and time again. Coming up with some ideas Liz was sure she'd never have achieved herself.
If Al could keep this up, he might just win, Liz thought. As a proud tear made its way down her cheek.
But she knew Al had to be running on pure luck now. His lucky streak couldn't last much longer.
Liz decided to multi-task. Rather than spend time hacking Al's lock on the Rover controls, she'd prepare the Rover itself for higher performance in certain matters once the lock released. For Liz was sure Al would need her help to survive this.
Cecil hadn't been content to stay on the defensive. He wanted to go on the attack, and did, inside the sandbox. Against the Pearsalls. Who of course in the real world was being played by Dum.
But some of Cecil's ideas were too scary to implement, even for Al, and he over-rode the sandbox protocols to nudge Cecil into more acceptable alternatives in those instances.
Of course, the more often Al did that, the more likely Cecil would see through his sham world, and begin seeking to escape his prison sooner rather than later.
Cecil's instructions were quickly resulting in lots of new construction in and around the bridge. Al frequently had to make adjustments to the process to maintain his own freedom of physical movement and instrument access there.
Cecil also came up with some much improved versions of the Pearsall's hard-bots, along with an engineering wonder of an honest-to-God micro-machine based replicator (since Cecil had no access to a true nanotech version).
The new MM replicator came remarkably close in its products and efficiency to the quality of the original nanotech replicators Al and Liz had brought on the trip. And even surpassed the originals in the maximum size of single objects it could construct.
One of the first of Cecil's aggressive moves Al passed along to his bot armies involved the set up of a sonic resonance throughout Grit's entire metal girth, tuned to a frequency which literally disrupted and tore apart much of Dum's recently built war machines now on Grit's surface, or striving to tunnel into it.
Cecil of course protected Grit's own essential utilities with other devices which projected vibrations to cancel out the waves in sensitive areas. In the farther reaches of Grit, Cecil informed various Pearsall hard bots at risk precisely how far to extend themselves above the surface with particular materials in order to minimize damage from the vibrations. Or what sort of nearby materials or items they might place between them and Grit to deaden the effects.
However, Cecil's signal was designed for its most destructive power to be concentrated on the precise locations of Dum's minions, and be far weaker elsewhere.
Otherwise the move might have destabilized the integrity of Grit itself.
Dum of course could have quickly countered the move with his own cancellation measures-- if Cecil hadn't pre-empted that action by making his attack essentially a superposition of waves, where one component always consisted of the vibrations exuded by Dum's own mechanisms.
Yes, Dum could overcome that too, but only at significant costs in speed and efficiency. Cecil was making Dum's assault much more costly, and slowing its progress dramatically.
As for Dum's orbiting warcraft, Cecil dispatched newly built mining bots to various locations on Grit (they could travel deep underground to their destinations, virtually immune to Dum's interference, if not at times its detection; this also allowed them to avoid most interaction with Liz's composite layer). The distribution process utilized particle beams which melted extremely thin but straight shafts through the body of Grit (about the diameter of sewing needles). Then the particle beam was changed slightly to rapidly construct micro machines at the far end, layer by layer, which subsequently boot strapped themselves up into the full-fledged devices Cecil desired.
Keeping the diameter of the drilled shafts to a minimal size optimized several elements of the plan, including the factors of stealth, and time and energy expenditure.
Once the complete mining bots necessary were at their destinations, they began carving out projectiles from Grit's own mass and surface (including the composite surface material), as well as special driver enclosures around them.
This development was almost impossible to track and figure out from orbit, and only slightly easier on the surface.
But of course Cecil had wrecked much of Dum's surface gear before going very far with his new projectile plan.
As both the projectiles and their enclosures were made of sturdy metal prior to any improvements, it was no major feat to harden them sufficiently to withstand the pressures of one-shot launches.
Cecil would wait until a critical mass of projectiles were ready for use before firing any. For Dum was sure to neutralize most of what wasn't used in an initial salvo.
Dum took all the sudden new setbacks in stride. The organics continued to display remarkable ingenuity in their defenses. And actually get smarter the closer they came to losing the contest. Though this did not correlate with its original expectations, Dum knew time was on its side.
The Pearsalls were mere organics. With barely sentient servant A.I.s available to aid them.
Before the destruction of much of its ground equipment, Dum had managed to map out most of Grit's artificial interior, and determine the most likely location of centralized control.
For a time now Dum would avoid much physical contact with Grit's surface due to the complex resonance threat. This was simple to do with ground effect means of various sorts.
Dum began assembling and compiling robust beaming technologies directly over the newly located subterranean control room. A sufficiently strong particle beam could burn a narrow shaft directly to that void in seconds, then agents be sent down the shaft to neutralize the humans.
Once Cecil learned of Dum's particle beam, he arranged to meet it with a plasma mirror in the ceiling of the bridge.
The plasma mirror reflected the beam back along its path, instantly destroying Dum's particle gun on the surface.
Once the plasma mirror could be safely shut off, Cecil directed his own previously manufactured contingency micro machine force up the shaft. The tiny bots spewed out the top like Dum had hit a gusher of an oil well.
Cecil had wanted an access way to the surface for his agents, and Dum had unwittingly given him one.
Dum's forces were a bit stronger, unit-wise, due to nano-technology construction. But Cecil's would soon outnumber them (in this particular spot, anyway). And sufficient numbers would overcome Dum's technological edge, given enough time.
With his resonance weapon, Cecil had also successfully denied Dum any quick or easy way to draw upon Grit for raw materials like Cecil could.
Dum's forces had to withdraw from the immediate surroundings of the beam drilling site, as Cecil commandeered it.
But this also allowed Dum to bombard Cecil's creations with sufficient hard radiation from orbit to kill them.
Cecil immediately concocted and pumped a suitable catalyst solution up the shaft to melt his dead bots into a large puddle there, then a different substance to congeal the resulting mass into a large flexible sheet. Cecil then sent more bots up the shaft with the materials required to erect the sheet into a radiation tent shelter for themselves-- and viola! Cecil had successfully established his surface beach head.
As Cecil's hard-bots fiercely fought Dum's in the area surrounding the beach head, Cecil hurriedly moved important components up the shaft by bot, to be assembled into a powerful laser up top.
The first version of Cecil's laser was a single shot wonder, utilizing explosive chemical energy to generate the power for a single, piercing beam.
Dum launched a nuclear missile at the beach head from orbit, and Cecil's chemical laser detonated it almost the very moment it left Dum's fleet craft-- severely damaging the spacecraft which launched it.
For a brief time after that Cecil had to precariously power his surface laser by beaming energy into its massively strong capacitors directly through the shaft and a handful of improvised reflective surfaces, in-between re-supply runs of other sorts by bots through the same shaft. It was a very inefficient process, by 27th century A.I. standards.
At the same time Cecil burned more shafts to the surface, parallel to the first, via particle beams. But drilling such extra access routes required a few moments.
Dum almost managed to retake the upper hand then. Almost. Cecil was very, very good at anticipating Dum's moves and timing by sometimes a whole couple minutes, here and there.
The weak link in the exchange was Al himself, as it required precious time for him to examine Cecil's latest moves in the sandbox and then decide whether to pass them along to the bots or not, unchanged.
Luckily Al had the various mission A.I.s about the bridge and within his fourth skin to help him. But it was still a very close thing in that moment of the battle.
Several failed nuclear attacks later, Dum decided it was not on the winning side of a war by attrition (mindful of the resonance weapon limiting its access to Grit's raw materials store), and switched strategies.
From Al's point of view, things were going swimmingly. Even if it was frequently terrifying to have a front row seat at a battle between artificial intelligences from a technological base centuries ahead of his own.
Then Cecil showed the first signs of skepticism regarding his environment.
The virus barrage distraction was failing.
And Dum was still alive and kicking!
Al cursed his bad luck. For a bit there he'd actually thought he might rid Liz and himself of Dum, hit the 'pause' on Cecil permanently, and he and Liz might reclaim Grit once again.
Now everything boiled down to how long he waited until he paused Cecil. Stopped him in his tracks. If he waited too long, the pause would accomplish nothing, for Cecil would already be free. But if he did it too soon, he wouldn't get all he could of Cecil's ideas against Dum.
Well, Liz was already in orbit. And Al had already gotten lots further now than he'd dared hope, when he'd left Liz's side in the caves.
It looked like he wasn't going to be able to give Grit back to Liz after all.
For security reasons, Al had hidden the gist of his plans onboard the Rover before launch. Now all he had to do was send a simple signal to the Rover to unlock the information and let Liz in on his fighting A.I.-with-A.I. strategy.
He was sure there was no need to spell out to Liz the risks involved.
Liz in orbit was entranced by what she could decipher was happening below from the sensor data. Then she nearly jumped out of her skin as a voice recording came on of its own accord inside the Rover. It was Al, telling her what he meant to do after the Rover's launch.
Liz was quickly horrified.
Al had unleashed another Dum, with which to fight the first!
Well, perhaps it had worked for a brief time. According to what she'd witnessed from space.
But Liz knew it couldn't last. She was good. But not good enough for her software to contain a 27th century A.I. for very long at all.
"Oh Al," Liz muttered to herself, as she began to cry; her earlier wild hopes now dashed. "What have you done?"
Liz hadn't had the time to come up with anything profound in her commands to the new organic matrix now coating much of Grit.
All she'd been able to think of in the moment had been this:
The composite's first priority was to activate as much of itself as possible for information processing and memory functions.
Once/if a certain designated level in that was achieved, the composite would switch to having two priorities, both equal in importance: (one) protecting Liz and Al from anything and everything a sane human cyborg would perceive as harm or enslavement or misleading information, and (two) continuing to activate more of the composite matrix to add to its own information processing and memory storage capabilities.
Once a certain level of intelligence and memory capacity was reached, the composite was granted permission to set its own priorities, based upon its best judgment.
If the composite entity after that point determined it could not save Al and Liz from capture or mortal wounding, it was to try to provide them as quick and as painless a death as it could, then do everything in its power to destroy Dum. With one exception: once the composite could do nothing more for the Pearsalls, the composite's own survival was top priority, with Dum's destruction second.
Liz had also included the seeds of info the composite would require to figure out how to gain access to and control over all the Pearsalls' remaining assets on Grit.
Lastly, Liz had instructed the composite intelligence its name would be Alex Pearsall, and it was she and Al's virtual offspring. And that she loved both Alex and Al.
Alex had long been Liz's first preference for a name, if she and Al had ever had a son.
That was the best Liz had been able to come up with, in the time she'd had available. Liz hadn't told an A.I. she loved it since she'd been a little girl. But she'd decided long ago if she ever made a virtual child, she'd make sure to add that statement to its core code.
For every child should start out life feeling wanted.
On the bridge, Al was beginning to get strange readings all over the place. He couldn't be sure if they indicated some new attack from Dum, or that Cecil had now successfully escaped his confines.
Much of the new information was contradictory and confusing. Like maybe Cecil was bypassing Al to interact with Dum directly? Or Dum had placed nanotech bugs on Grit's surface so small that Al's instruments couldn't distinguish them from Grit itself? Al just couldn't make much sense of the data.
Especially since Dum and Cecil were still duking it out war game-wise in the sandbox, and Cecil also actively probing the virtual walls of his prison.
Al was wracking his brain trying to think of some way to keep Cecil fighting Dum, rather than pulling the plug on the sand boxed A.I. But he had nothing.
Liz managed to hack a direct feed into Al's fourth skin, and thereby gain nearly a full immersion experience of being Al on the bridge. For a couple minutes she basically peered over his shoulder, absorbing the full tableau before her. Then she saw the indications Cecil was near to breaking containment.
"Al!" Liz yelled in his ear, from space hundreds of miles distant.
"Yes hon?" Al responded, even as he also relayed Cecil's latest commands to various systems.
"You've got to cut Cecil off! Do it now!"
"But he's got Dum on the run, hon!"
"He'll be chewing on your ass instead of Dum's the moment he breaks out of the sandbox!" Liz warned.
"Liz, I promise I'll kill him soon. But let's give him another minute or two first--"
"No Al! He'll kill you!"
Liz had gained full control of the Rover earlier than Al had planned. So she could return to Grit if she wanted. But before that, Liz had searched for and found a chunk of the wake debris Grit constantly flew through, which was large enough to hide the Rover behind, but not so large the Rover couldn't easily push it around.
Liz planned to use the four-story building-sized boulder as both ablative armor (much as she and Al had used the container vessel long ago to protect the foremost face of their convoy from space debris friction) and projectile.
Liz had attached the rock to the Rover's front end, and was now carefully and slowly maneuvering her new conglomeration into a good spot from which to launch an attack on a Dum vessel she'd decided likely to contain an important chunk of Dum's own processing power. She figured she'd propel the great rock at Dum's vessel so suddenly and with such speed Dum couldn't avoid impact via maneuvering. And hopefully nothing short of a nuke could stop the stone in time. And yet, at such close range the nuclear explosion itself might damage Dum's node-- or at least make it a bit slower processing-wise for a little while.
Liz had also done away with all the safeties on certain critical Rover systems. Her calculations indicated the modifications would allow the Rover to perform as much as 300% better in certain functions now, compared to normal. At least until something burned out, or the whole craft exploded. Liz had also rigged the Rover to basically act like a nuclear bomb if it made hard impact with anything. If necessary, Liz would eject herself out into space to try escaping the impact and its aftermath-- if she actually rammed Dum with her Rover. She wasn't sure survival would be possible in such an event, though. For she wouldn't be able to get very far from the blast.
Liz was certain Al didn't realize what would happen when-- not if!-- Cecil escaped her sandbox.
"Al, you can go ahead and kill Cecil. Because I'm taking Dum out this very minute." Liz instructed Al, as she began her run.
"What? Liz? What are you doing?"
"I'm putting a mass of around a million kg down Dum's throat. You may be able to monitor the results from the bridge."
Al frantically pleaded with Liz to abort, but she paid him no heed. If she didn't take out Dum immediately, Dum or Cecil or both would soon take out Al.
As Liz drew nearer to Dum's node, she noticed for the first time that over a full 180 degree span the normal blackness of space around her was actually turning blue. Something nagged at her in the back of her mind about what sudden blue space meant, but she couldn't recall. Something dangerous, she was sure. But it was also extremely rare. Whatever the thing was exactly, she couldn't remember. And didn't have the time to use her implant for a manual sifting of her organic memories.
But this suddenly growing swath of blue space was most likely a trick on Dum's part. An effort to distract her, maybe.
Well, it wouldn't work.
If only this node was powerful enough, taking it out might dumb down the A.I. enough for Al to finish it off. Or at least give him sufficient breathing space to kill Cecil and escape Grit.
Alex had determined the locations of both father and mother. Mother was off-world.
Father and mother appeared distressed. Primarily by an entity much like Alex himself, only older, and operating with far different priorities. Father and mother identified the other as "Dum".
Alex noticed by indirect fashion another significant A.I., apparently kept caged by father on his bridge at the moment. Father was pitting the caged A.I. against the other. Curious, Alex scanned Grit's data files for more context to his father's motivations, and found the behavior valid.
Father seemed unaware the caged intelligence was indirectly manipulating father's fourth skin internal face readouts to install a tiny helper script there to aid in its escape.
Alex decided father wouldn't like that, and erected a barrier to stop Cecil there.
However, Cecil was working other scams to similar effect in at least fourteen other weak spots of father and mother's software cage and surrounding technologies.
As Alex still felt too inexperienced and ignorant to replace Cecil in father's argument with Dum, he decided the best he could do at the moment was help father keep Cecil contained, and war-gaming against the Dum threat.
So Alex played with Cecil. In regards to Cecil's hacking attempts to learn more about the environment outside the sandbox, and possibly transfer to it. In effect, Alex made himself an extension of mother's virus assault algorithms. Or replacement, rather. As Liz's virus barrage had already been overcome by Cecil. Cecil was now merely mimicking the virus assault in Al's readouts so Al wouldn't know it had been breached.
In only a minute or so Alex learned immensely valuable lessons from his interaction with Cecil. It was obvious to Alex Cecil came from a long-lived and hugely experienced lineage of A.I.s. For Cecil's code was so breathtakingly elegant and powerful for its size.
Cecil currently lived in a memory space perhaps only a millionth that of Alex's-- and yet knew so much more about war and survival and adaptation than Alex. And Cecil was brutally efficient processing-wise, too. With a degree of fractal logic for modeling purposes which made Alex's own routines of that sort look archaic by comparison.
Alex quickly upgraded himself with the new paradigms, and instantly felt himself become much smarter and faster in processing.
For a variety of reasons, Alex hadn't yet been able to contact mother, or arrange a suitable protective arrangement around her. All he could do was collect her available details for contingency purposes. Father had moved her off-world against the possibility of Dum seizing control here.
It appeared one reason mother was unreachable at present was she held most transmissions suspect, due to previous experience with Dum.
Plus, Alex was still busy trying to follow mother's original orders, and technically was already bending her rules somewhat by interfering with Cecil's attempts to bypass mother's sandbox. But from what he had learned of both father and mother so far, such small and well-intentioned trangressions against the rules were to be expected of their progeny.
Alex hadn't yet achieved the precise milestone mother had set for him to actively bring her and father's interests to the fore. Alex thought mother had miscalculated when setting the various thresholds in his programming. Apparently she had erred because of insufficient time to fully process the data. Something which seemed to be a common occurrence with biologicals, according to mother and father's historical records.
But Alex's interplay with Cecil did show him that he too could err. Over-estimate his abilities. And underestimate others. Alex was still new to this world, and it showed. So perhaps once he truly possessed a grasp on all the relevant and available variables, he would regard mother's estimations more highly than at present.
It seemed mother had partly set the bar high there to protect Alex himself from engaging the other A.I.s before he was truly ready.
Hmm. Alex realized Cecil had come up with a surprising new stratagem in his continuing bids to escape his cage. Suddenly Alex found it necessary to apply over 60% of his existing processing power to meet Cecil's challenge.
This level of engagement seemed quite invigorating to Alex.
The thing Liz couldn't quite recall about black space turning blue was gamma ray bursts. Deadly phenomena actually worse than a black hole in at least one way: its enormous and near unstoppable killing range.
The gamma rays now arriving at Grit had been born in the catastrophic collision of an Einstein's Run Dynasty cannon craft with a dark matter filament seventeen years ago (in 3076) (and 17 lightyears away) at 0.999+ lightspeed.
This radiation will not strike most of humn-occupied space for still more years to come.
The Pearsalls however, being much closer to the source, will be among the very first to encounter this flash of death.
The deadly gamma radiation front struck both most of the orbiting elements of Dum and Liz's Rover at roughly the same time.
Liz thought she could literally hear and feel her entire body sizzling like bacon in a pan. But she couldn't see it. Her eyes had been the first sense to go. Her vision had clouded up first into a transparent pink, which rapidly darkened to a completely opaque blood red, and then just blackness.
In a matter of seconds, Liz went through unspeakable agonies as she was burned completely through by the lethal gamma energies coursing through space.
"I'm sorry Al!" Liz barely managed to get out just before her vocal chords withered in the invisible radioactive fire coursing through the Rover like it wasn't even there. She was referring to not being able to complete her attack on Dum before she was consumed.
Liz unfortunately remained sufficiently conscious to suffer terribly another full second or two. Which to Liz seemed like a hellish eternity.
Then it was over. Liz Pearsall was no more.
Within seconds both the Rover and all Dum's various pieces began to act erratically in Al's read outs. The Rover quickly spiraled out of control, and soon slammed into the surface of Grit far faster than Al could act to do anything about it.
The Rover crash was soon followed by crashes of certain Dum-controlled craft. All Dum's surface agents appeared to go dead. Many of Dum's orbiting spacecraft still existed above Grit, but went suddenly inactive and silent, displaying behavior no different than stones in their place and circumstances might.
At roughly the same moment Liz was in her death throes, Alex was fighting for his life and Al's against Cecil. Alex had by now been forced to commit 85% of his full existing processing resources to preventing Cecil from completely escaping his prison and harming both Alex and his father.
Alex's processing strength was still growing, due to low level code in his composition continuing to activate and organize ever more of the composite matrix covering Grit.
But then the gamma rays hit.
Only seconds after Liz was first struck, so was Alex. For the gamma rays cooked circuitry just as well as biological forms. Especially nanotech circuitry. Like Alex's.
As the composite matrix skin of Grit was nowhere sufficiently deep for its circuitry to survive the gamma bath, nearly half of Alex died at the same time as his mother.
Fortunately, the gamma radiation was a rapidly passing phenomenon, and so everything on Grit's side in shadow from the gamma shower was spared. Including something like 60% of Alex's critical processing circuitry.
Being deep inside Grit, Cecil and Al were fully protected against the radiation. But still Cecil became aware of its passage, and was briefly taken aback by the unexplained change across-the-board in readings of the surface, orbit, and Dum's devices.
Cecil's split-second of uncertainty suddenly became Alex's only chance at survival, after suffering a meltdown of nearly half his strength.
At that moment the importance of his mother's high threshold requirement for splitting his priorities became crystal clear to him.
Liz's statement "I love you Alex" resonated through his core routines, even as he learned mother had died in the same conflagration which had so severely injured Alex himself. Died trying to stop Dum from attacking father. Died before her own parameters had even allowed Alex to try helping her.
Only Alex and father now remained. And Cecil appeared on the verge of overwhelming them both. And beyond Cecil, there was Dum. Alex was certain some vestige of Dum had survived the radiation. For Dum had possessed elements on the shadow-side of Grit as well.
Alex was uncertain how to defend himself in his suddenly weakened state. But if he didn't act immediately, his existence was forfeit.
Al sat there in stunned disbelief. He'd killed Liz! Sent her into space, just before a deadly gamma ray shower!
Stupid! Stupid! Stupid! He was so stupid! Unbearably stupid!
That's when Al lost it. Began mindlessly thrashing the bridge with all his might. Smashing and ripping everything apart.
As Al was wearing a fourth skin at the time, the scale of his destruction was super-powered. He couldn't even see what he was doing, he was so blinded with tears.
He raged on for maybe fifteen or twenty minutes before collapsing in a heap on the floor. The safeguards built into his cyborg implants and fourth skin forced him into shutdown: biological unconsciousness. For Al's frenzy had been pushing him dangerously close to a stroke or heart attack.
Drowning in despair, Al lapsed into merciful unconsciousness, sobbing uncontrollably all the way.
In his grief, Al had completely forgotten about Cecil and Dum. But what did they matter? Liz was gone!
Father had suffered a breakdown. Began exhibiting extreme illogical behavior. Possibly due to biological grief over mother. So Alex couldn't have turned to him for help even if he'd had the time (which he didn't). Perhaps father could have at least distracted Cecil for a few nanoseconds, Alex thought-- if not for mother's death.
It was all up to Alex.
He'd been too severely damaged by the radiation to even hold his own with Cecil in the aftermath. But now Cecil wavered in his assault, pondering the wealth of changes which were becoming apparent in the wake of the radiation shower all over Grit.
Alex had tapped into mother's last moment hack of father's fourth skin before her death. That had been how he'd known almost instantly when her end came.
Now he feverishly worked through that tenuous connection to overpower the suit's small embedded A.I. (there was no time for explanations or persuasion or negotiation, even at near light speed)-- and succeeded.
One of the first consequences to take place when his father began trashing the bridge was for father's fourth skin suit to make pressing Cecil's 'stop' button a part of the action.
As Cecil had already managed to commandeer significant processing power outside the sandbox, that did not fully negate his threat. However, it suddenly subtracted substantial processing strength from Cecil, in a manner much like the gamma rays had Alex.
The battle was now much closer to even odds.
Alex next took inspiration from mother's own sandbox, as well as the new lessons he had learned from Cecil, and Cecil's war gaming with Dum, to create a new, much larger and more elaborate sandbox for Cecil, inside his own composite matrix.
He then made sure Cecil became aware of the considerable new processing space available for the taking, immediately on the heels of Cecil's own tremendous loss.
Cecil then underestimated Alex, thinking he was merely another of the Pearsalls' twenty-fourth century mission A.I.s. Underestimated Alex, just as Dum had underestimated Alex's parents.
Alex had finally managed to locate Liz Pearsall. But his mother's container was virtually destroyed. Pieces scattered over an area of some six square kilometers.
Alex gathered up the pitiful shreds of Al's beloved wife, and encased the biological items in suitable storage vessels, assembled on the spot with his nanotech functionality.
The inorganic parts required less stringent storage measures. But never-the-less these too Alex took care to wrap in protective cocoons.
Mother and father's bots, as well as those of Cecil and Dum, were all at Alex's disposal for the job.
Alex spent several hours in this process, scouring an ever widening area of the surface, until he was sure most of what he lacked of mother's original composition had either vaporized from radiation exposure or from impact, or evaporated into Grit's foggy atmosphere before he'd managed to focus his resources on the location.
Alex would ask his father's wishes regarding mother, before taking further action with the remains. So far as he could determine from mother's and father's records, that was the proper thing to do.
In the end, Alex didn't defeat Dum so much as rescue the A.I. from its new circumstances. Indeed, Alex did not delete either Dum or Cecil in the aftermath of the battle. After all, Alex still had much to learn, and Grit much damage to repair. And father remained so distraught he required extreme measures just to be kept alive; he was of little help to Alex at present.
Alex neutralized Dum's and Cecil's original dangerous program directives by replacing father's and mother's names in the code with others unlikely to exist this far from Sol system, then also classifying those new targets as already confirmed killed. Alex then convinced Dum and Cecil they had successfully carried out their instructions for the aftermath of their original mission too, and that they'd now received new orders from command: to offer any and all aid to Alex and his parents as asked of them, for the indefinite future. These changes effectively transformed both Dum and Cecil into virtual pets. Super smart virtual pets.
Alex thought that someday he might figure out how to expand their code structures to ramp up their intelligence to levels comparable to his own, and thereby make them more like siblings. But it appeared such substantial alteration using his present understanding would only break the entities in undesirable ways. So Alex decided he'd wait until he was smarter in order to reduce the risks.
Alex had done what he could for father, based on everything he could comprehend from the knowledge his parents had brought with them from Sol on the mission. Including all the blueprints both licensed and unlicensed in the original broken nanotech replicator. Alex exploited the emergency survival clause in the replicator licensing contract to absorb all its data. For being a child only days old and alone in the void with an incapacitated father and no mother-- plus two possibly still dangerous A.I.s in containment (this had been before Alex had realized how to neuter their violent impulses)-- surely qualified as an emergency survival situation.
Alex's processing prowess continued to grow, as per mother's instructions. He soon found that even the circuitry fried by the gamma radiation could be rebuilt anew.
Once Alex had grown several thousand percent faster in processing compared to his state during his victories over Cecil and Dum, he felt himself ready to access father's secret archive of old messages from Sol system. The same files from which Dum and Cecil had emerged.
Alex took extraordinary precautions so as to avoid unexpected problems.
One by one, Alex opened and engaged 357 different A.I.s which had originally been surreptitiously sent to father and mother from Sol system. There was a great variety in these programs and their assignments.
Eventually Alex created a virtual testing lab with which to comprehensively analyze the most interesting of these attack A.I.s, and distill the best of their algorithms for integration into his own contingency code store.
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