Part 22

'UNKNOWN-1' -: You understand what you're considering?

'UNKNOWN-2' -: Yes. Treasonous action against the Hamelin Organization and UN World Purification Project. But what's the alternative?

'UNKNOWN-1' -: Staying quiet. I've done my part and fought my battles already…

'UNKNOWN-2' -: And how many in your squad died because they lied? Over ninety percent of the sixth crusade was annihilated. For what? A brief respite at best for all those lives spent, all while they lied about the effectiveness of your weapons and what Luciferase actually does.

'UNKNOWN-1' -: Killing that red-eyed bastard set me up pretty well in case you forgot. And so they lied. That drug basically doesn't do shit if you don't believe in it. 'Applied pyscho-reactivity' according to the lab techs. Hell, you're the one that sent me those sealed reports in the first place.

'UNKNOWN-2' -: I did that so you could see what I uncovered. Why it was important that we worked together.

'UNKNOWN-1' -: Don't lie to me, you only need my help because you'd teamed up with that fucking sociopath and lost nearly everything. Hope the cowardly asshole chokes to death on the salt.

'UNKNOWN-2' -: I don't deny that Yura had… problems. But he was an effective agent. And without him I'd never have recovered all the files on the Maso exposure experiments.

'UNKNOWN-1' -: Yeah. Those poor kids. God, did you meet the one that lived?

'UNKNOWN-2' -: Yes. I've set up an android caretaker for the time being. Once things have settled we'll have to look into his case again. I don't have Dr. Adler's expertise, but I'm not sure his condition is stable given the reaction that his sister showed to similar levels of exposure.

'UNKNOWN-1' -: Damnit. Fine, I'll help you again. But not so you can play hero understand? Too many children used as weapons in this war, too many for me to save. And I don't want to see those responsible for signing off on all this getting away with it.

'UNKNOWN-2' -: I'm glad we're on the same page here Kali. I don't think I could do this on my own after the last disaster.

Archive data February 29th, 2040.

Searching for more information based on mentioned names…

Yura Masayoshi

Lieutenant Major (JSDF):

Discharged after psychological review.

Showed extreme aptitude for manipulation of Maso and multi-origin derived effects as well as a strong reaction to Luciferase despite his age.

Recruited into the Counter-measure against Special Biological Organisms Department (CSB-OD) following dismissal from the JSDF under administrative recommendation.

Following his attack on a Hamelin Organization experimental weapons research lab and the subsequent disappearance of sensitive lab materials he vanished from records.

Later re-appeared under the assumed name 'Tyrann' and underwent gestaltification. Following the discovery of his true identity his replicant data was destroyed.

Further records SEALED by Administrative Authority.

Identity noted, but not found within archived recording.


Codename used by Hana Himura

Commander of 63rd Squad, 6th Crusade

Distinguished herself in battle while surviving a total of thirty-seven combat encounters culminating in landing the deathblow on an incidence of the 'Red-eye' entity. Following this she was retired from active military duty and awarded a considerable stipend for her service.

Her genetics showed an unusually strong reaction to the drug Luciferase as well, which motivated the Hamelin Organization to use her as a template for the Vasilisa Program.

Further information regarding the product of this program is SEALED by Administrative Authority.

Hana Himura underwent gestlatification on December 24th, 2054 two months after stabilizing element *ERROR* was located and taken into custody by the Hamelin Organization.

Her gestalt body began to suffer advanced stages of relapse and all life signs ceased on January 5th, 3474.

All further information SEALED by Administrative Authority.

Identity of 'UNKNOWN-1' confirmed. Will save this information for all subsequent archive retrievals.

August 14th, 12155, Element Zero Prospecting Outpost Kasper.

"Performing simulation test 27. Begin recording."

"Yes Vercul."

The screen came alive, a scrolling mass of code, growing in complexity as the OS-chip began to construct a functioning system even within the harsh restrictions of the simulated hardware. As it began to accelerate its growth the system began to slow, ratcheting down the allowed processing speed to the point that the bank of additional computers nearby could record every element and every new connection for later analysis.

"Okay, freeze program and move over to the secondary iterations." Vercul moved over to the other console quickly, bringing up the holographic display which then separated into multiple screens

In truth constructing a dummy program to run the OS-chips without producing functional consciousness data had been the hard part of this experiment. Vercul had spent weeks fruitlessly trying to construct the proper program. Eventually he'd gotten an update from his Earth-based collaborator which had given him the key to moving forward with his research.

Thankfully X5 had turned out to be an acceptable lab assistant despite what Jackass had said about keeping 'realistic expectations' about what she would be capable of. While he had noted the limitations, he had also come to see that her problem might be less severe than the Androids examining her believed. Potentially coming about from a personal bias none of them had ever had the need to consider.

She didn't act exactly like a virtual intelligence has he had first suspected. Instead X5 seemed to be a strange wielding of rudimentary reasoning and logic, an eidetic memory, and culminating an extremely quick solving of those problems she could break apart into manageable components. All of which went well beyond a VI, even if it failed to meet what the Androids had come to consider normal for their own cognition.

Frankly she reminded him of a child.

"A young Salarian perhaps, hard to judge the age I'd place her at though. Two… maybe three years?" He spared a brief glance towards her. X5 observed in her own work, one hand adjust the speed of the program while the other continued typing her precise, if somewhat wordy, notes on the experiment. "Though that might be the problem. For all the attempts the Androids have made to resemble their creators they rarely consider how important the stages of cognitive development are to understanding an organic species and their mindset. They simply didn't recognize what they were observing as it was so alien to their own experiences."

He doubted Jackass would have entirely approved of him constructing a lesson plan to gradually bring X5 closer to the expected range of skills and behaviors. It would have proven her right after all that he had been distracted by this odd problem, spending time better allocated to his primary research then scaffolding an Android with X5's 'problems' up to a higher range of logical and emotional reasoning.

"Though if one considers how much effort she'd already put into X5 I doubt she's against the idea on principle." Vercul had ultimately decided that Jackass seemed like the sort of person that preferred people to just implement their ideas and be proven right instead of coming to her to beg for permission for each and every endeavor.

"Vercul I think I'm seeing something here. There is an increasing delay in the processing speed, as expected if our generalized attack programs had found a weakness in the simulation." X5 froze her set of the simulations, not waiting for Vercul to tell her she could, and stepped back so he could move over and look at the display. "Furthermore, I cannot perceive what is causing the slow down, as expected from the hidden exploits."

That wasn't all she didn't see of course, as Vercul looked quite pleased with himself as he leaned over to look at the results.

"This is quite good X5. I'm glad you caught this. Freeze the remaining simulations for later analysis while we run this one a bit longer," Vercul said, eyes locked on the data displayed before him. "I think we found it."

"I must have misheard you," Jackass said. Vercul seated across from her, desk cluttered with datapads, various notebooks, and a variety of mechanical parts that had likely been part of something she had judged not sufficiently important to keep her from dissembling it when she couldn't be bothered to get the appropriate part from the storage area on the other side of the complex. "You're saying I was wrong about it being hidden how exactly?"

"It is hidden from your perception yes, but you supposed that this had been some undetailed security feature installed by the original human programmers. I'm telling you that I now believe that to be impossible." Vercul placed his last report on top of the desk, the tablet rolling to the side on a misplaced screw before Jackass picked it up. "The security exploits I found were hidden from your ability to perceive, but moreover had also been hidden from every conceivable method of user access. I only found the existence of this… alteration by examining progressively more complex simulations of OS-chips until it formed."

"Formed? You mean… it's fucking malicious software?"

"In a sense. I've been referring to it as the 'Root' system thus far, but it appears to have been implemented into your OS-chips in such a fashion that it remains inactive unless the Android is actually activated and allowed to form a functioning consciousness data set. At which point the Root system expands outwards, altering perception so that the Android doesn't notice it exists and so that no user…" Vercul stopped, rethinking his words for a moment. "No 'technician' would notice what had been done without being aware of the system's existence in the first place."

Jackass didn't speak. Her gaze trailed down the damning report before her. Saying at last, "Did the humans do this?"

"If they did it was done in secret. There'd be no reason to hide this system so thoroughly at the time as the Machine Lifeforms would not invade for another three thousand years. I can only conclude that someone implemented it in secret. Though for what purpose I am at a complete loss."

"There's no point to this! We… why would this even be necessary?" The pad fell from her hands as she leaned back. Staring off to the side, expression dark and hands clenched tight at her sides. "We'd never think of doing anything that would have required a control method like this."

"I am aware of that. And how it functions can only lead me to believe that it was done without the permission and knowledge of those primarily involved in your initial… creation I suppose. I could also have occurred later."

"Would that be possible?"

"Assuming they had access to the full records and files by the original human creators." Vercul paused, looking down at his hands. "It wouldn't be impossible. We can't know for sure though."

The silence that followed lingered long and heavy. Neither Android nor Salarian speaking. One merely waiting for the other to grasp the full weight of what had been discovered.

"Okay," Jackass said at last, standing up as she did so. "How do we remove this? Even if it's functioning as you said we should still be able create a program to edit it from our consciousness data."

"Not using simulations though. I'd need to deconstruct the full system while active."

"So? We'll just back them up beforehand."

Vercul shook his head, picking up the same datapad from before. "Because of the nature of this malicious software I'd need to perform destructive analysis on dozens… hundreds of consciousness data in order to create a general patch. And I'm not sure it wouldn't reconstruct itself from traces left in those hidden sectors in your memory banks. Your primary OS is disturbingly intricate. Furthermore, I will not take part in the torture living androids."

"They'll be fine!" Jackass glared down at the Salarian. Daring him to object again.

Yet his will did not weaken.

"And what about me? What about you?" Vercul asked. "How many Androids are you willing to torture to death to create a limited patch. One that might fail even when we finish?"

The sound of glass shattering on metal echoed through the room. Half of the desk now cleared as the contents fell to the floor or collided against the adjacent wall. The scattered bits of debris colliding with Vercul's feet. Jackass letting out a sound that seemed almost… animalistic. An inarticulate growl that told Vercul that if he'd been examining her data at that moment she would have been quite 'emotionally disturbed.'

"This shouldn't be an insoluble problem. With more advanced computer systems it should be possible to perform the necessary simulations without having to harm a living Android."

"And what, just wait around till someone finds out about this and subverts us?" She stepped roughly past the broken glass, each footfall grinding the shards down as she passed.

"That shouldn't be an issue. As it stands I don't think that's possible. The Root system requires admin codes and a level of familiarity with your internal systems that just any hacker simply wouldn't have. Your really only in serious danger from an Android without this system installed."

"Great. So, they've got an insurmountable advantage over us and you refuse to help. You're not filling me with confidence here." Jackass let out a bitter laugh as she turned to face Vercul again. "And waiting for better computers? These are the best we could get and they still weren't good enough to do this without eventually using active OS-chips instead of just a limited simulation. What makes you think a computer advanced enough can even be made?"

"The Protheans."

Jackass cocked her head to one side and stared at Vercul. Not as angry as before, but now slightly confused.

"How do you figure? Prothean systems are practically unintelligible. Even ignoring the other quirks they installed."

"Yes, I suppose the preponderance of mind-machine interfaces keyed to organic brains must have presented a problem for you," Vercul said, not responding to the glare and nearly whispered words of 'Oh you just realized that?' "But Prothean systems are undoubtedly more advanced than anything we've been able to construct thus far. It's actually something of long-standing problem, not helped by how Protheans must have had a unique neurology that allowed them to skip several stages of computer design."

"Listen Vercul, I don't really care about these dead aliens everyone else in the galaxy seems so enamored with. If you want to nerd out with someone," Jackass pointedly ignored the confusion in Vercul's expression from her informal slang, "open a secured channel to 9S or someone else that spent decades trying to get the Mar's outpost to reveal its secrets to us. I want to know what we can do about this problem right now."

"I do have a plan. But I'm not sure you'll like it."

"Compared to everything else I'm sure I can deal with whatever you've thought up."

"I believe we can formulate a new firewall for Android consciousnesses using a variation of the programming used in the Machine Lifeforms."

Jackass hadn't liked it.

"But she did agree to my reasoning. Simple systems like the machine fish and older generation Machine Lifeform units showed that the evolution of their intelligence can be capped off or directed towards relatively non-destructive and safe objectives." In a way he likened it to the complexity of multicellular evolution, differing organism coming together to form a larger whole. In principal a new non-Android firewall could be adapted into their programming with limited interference, cannibalizing a minute amount of processing speed that would quickly be adapted around or mollified with only minor hardware modifications. And which could serve as a warning of otherwise undetectable commands being sent to the Android in question.

If the machine fish could exist in such a harmonious life with their organic duplicates, he was certain that an extremely rudimentary system could be constructed that would do the same for the Androids as a whole.

Now he'd gone well beyond his comfort zone, and would rely mostly on his Earth-side collaborators and others to provide the technical skill that he would check against the test simulations and later Android volunteers for success. Even if he had no idea how to use this hidden system to subvert them he could still check to see if it triggered when he transmitted signals to the appropriate channels.

"Of course, that won't do for new Androids. We'll also have to find someone willing to re-engineer OS-chips and the primary software. And I'll have to review that as well." Vercul took another long drink from his cup. He'd been working rather long shifts of late on this project and would enjoy the downtime now that specialists in Machine Lifeform code were being contacted. "I'm not sure how I'd function on only forty-five minutes of sleep without this coffee."

"Are you busy Vercul?"

"Yes X5?"

He turned around to see the Android had just entered. A slightly more relaxed outfit than the one she wore most of the time, a slim jacket and mid-length shorts, feet clad in easily slipped on shoes that were not meant for being worn in particularly harsh environments. The sheathed training sword at her side told why she was dressed that way.

Vercul had insisted she find something to do with herself when not working beyond waiting to work or reading about topics related to their tasks. And an emptied storage area that had been set aside for Androids that found the tedium of space living made them restless had seemed the perfect solution. X5 had eventually settled into simple martial training with a short light practice blade Jackass had fabricated after being asked about it repeatedly.

There had been a definite improvement in her behavior and expression that now felt far closer to normal emotional responses.

Though now she seemed… bothered by something.

"Are you alright X5?" Vercul asked, standing up as she walked closer. Setting her sheathed blade by her side as she sat down.

"I…" she paused, staring at him for a long moment before blinking and looking away. Finally speaking again, voice not as steady as he had come to expect from her. "What we found, it could be used to control Androids. Couldn't it?"

"It likely already has, in some limited since." Vercul thought over her words, trying to think of the right response to make at this moment. He was computer technician and an electronic warfare specialist, not trained in childhood development. But he still felt like he had to try. "Maybe. But I'm not sure it's as easy to use for that as it might appear. Not without a native understanding of your programming that simply isn't widely known now and will be very hard to obtain."

He probably should have added 'potentially impossible for a non-synthetic lifeform' but he bet against implying that the greatest danger of misuse might come from other Androids. And clearly that hadn't had the calming effect he had wanted.

"But then what? How can we-how can you trust us if… if…"

"X5. Please give me your hands." She hesitated, not sure at all as to his intentions. Vercul asked again, placing his own over hers as she started to raise them. "Don't worry. I just want to explain something to you. Okay?"

She nodded, letting him guide her. Lifting her hands up and placing them just behind his head so her fingers touched.

"It wouldn't be hard," he said, "just a matter of proper incisions, a few relatively electronic components to make a neural implant. The Batarians have started using them, though their attempts are crude compared to what we could do. Simple behavior conditioning through direct application of negative stimulus. But one can do far more than that."

She was staring at him as he spoke, her expression no longer pained but now unreadable. Whatever she might have thought he intended, this was not it.

"I'd have to sever the lobes, right down the middle between your fingers. Place a optical implant under the left eye and use a chemical to force familial imprinting. Could be used to cause rapid learning and mental conditioning. Would lower life expectancy of course. But that's because we don't practice such techniques. They are," Vercul finished, letting X5 pull her trembling hands back as he did, "immature after all."

"Why-why are you telling me this?"

"Because you are not special," Vercul said, standing once more. "Ways to subvert the mind and wills of organic beings have been known to every civilization and every species. We choose not to do such because we are better than that."

"Or we should be. We wish we were." Vercul looked away, trying not to think of what he had taken part of in the Krogan Rebellions. Of how his species had chosen to help the Krogan be their foot soldiers and now nearly sterilized them.

And most importantly about how even with the Genophage, he knew he wouldn't get to see the end of the war, nor stand to look at the causality reports that still came out for every hard fought battle that ground the Krogan's war machine to dust.

Instead he gestured to X5's sheathed blade, and took it from her when the still shocked Android offered it. Drawing it as he stepped back a safe distance he noted how the light blade reminded him of an even lighter and shorter sword that he had practiced with. A hobby of sorts, drawn from the family lines of a Salarian Queen whose particular choice for selecting mates for her and her family had been chosen by skills both martial and artistic. Long, long ago, when space travel had been a fantastical dream and not a common reality.

Now such things only existed in tawdry stories and fictional dramas. Though the strange mix of the modern and archaic which so many Androids choose for their personal aesthetic often reminded him of such things.

Though such thoughts were not why he had asked to hold her blade.

"There's an old saying, one which I doubt humans didn't know as well. Even if they said it differently. 'Science without morality is a blade without a hilt, a danger to others and to oneself.'" He sheathed the sword again, handing it back to X5. "Do you understand X5? No matter what we discover as long as we keep in mind the ends our research may be put to we will be able to control it. It is only when we lose sight of that that we are truly in danger."

X5 held her sword, staring at the simple hilt, light ridges of reflective metal catching the light above and distorting her reflection. Turning her gaze upwards again, a spark of comprehension that he couldn't be sure had been there before.

"Yes. I think I do."