Saito Yamamoto sat down with a canned drink and bag of candies from the vending machine. The machines on the factory floor beyond the window were humming. He looked up at the surveillance camera behind him and then at the keyboard of his computer. He shrugged and typed in his email password.
The company computer stalled for a moment longer than it should've. Saito felt a single moment of impatience but then his email loaded on the screen. He opened the first message and the computer stalled again. This time it didn't unfreeze. He cursed under his breath and reached for the power button.
It was already too late.
The surveillance camera zoomed in on Saito as he switched the computer off.
"Do you understand why I'm here?" Dr. Jeremiah Cimmerian spoke into the microphone and Grape's face appeared in the middle of the computer screen.
"You're here to second guess me." The artificial intelligence's avatar put on its best scowl as he replied.
"Not exactly. You felt the need to terminate an anomalous artificial intelligence. The ethics committee takes that seriously."
Grape shook its head. "You're not the only ones."
"We need to go over the events that led to that decision." Jeremiah pulled a folder from the stack to his left. "My briefing indicated that yourself and 8-Ball were involved in this mission?"
"Yes. 8-Ball gave me the code I'd need to fight the AI. Also Alex provided command and control assistance to both Kappa-10 and Mu-4. Thorn was a backup, if I went down."
"Alright. So walk me through the events that led to the termination decision."
"This is theater. You're just playing the part of the concerned Ethics Committee member, right? Signing the right documents. Dotting the i's. You made up your mind before you booted me up."
"If I did then you can change my mind. Tell me what happened."
"Fine. Just make sure you get all this down. I don't wanna go through this dog and pony show more than once."
The briefing room still smelled musty, but Jonas Kionan didn't have time to worry about that. While he was setting up for the briefing, Jonas dealt awkwardly with several people who hadn't gotten the memo that the room wasn't empty anymore. Eventually he'd decided to put a note on the outside of the door. "No Smoking".
Now? It was where Jonas fumbled with his computer. A computer that was hooked to a projector at the end of the conference table that dominated the room. The two MTFs he was supposed to brief were due to arrive any minute, and he didn't feel like he was ready.
He typed out a few closing remarks into the text editor as the first members of Mu-4 filtered into the room. He turned away from his laptop and nodded at the MTF agents as they sat down. In a few minutes the room was filled with men and women. The four monitors along the walls came to life, and the now familiar faces of Kappa-10 appeared, each on their own screen.
Thorn looked around excitedly, Alex smiled awkwardly, Grape was already bored, and 8-Ball… well. He was 8-Ball. Jonas gave his best smile and turned the projector on. The image of his closing remarks showed up on the projection screen along with a giant paperclip offering what Jonas thought were frankly judgmental opinions on his spelling and grammar.
Jonas rushed over to his laptop and tabbed out to the presentation he had prepared.
"How long?" Jeremiah tapped his pen on the desk in front of him.
Grape rolled his eyes. "Tatsiuka Automotive was infected on July 1st. That means virus had seven days to propagate."
"And it infected the rest of the industrial park?"
"Yes. Tatsiuka didn't make a peep. I think they thought they could deal with it in-house. Once the surrounding factories caught the same virus though, it came up on our radar."
Jeremiah leaned back in his chair. "A viral artificial intelligence ran rampant on their systems for a week and they thought they could cover it up?"
"Someone sent them this virus. Even after we covered up the incident they lost huge because of the production stoppage. I think they were hoping to avoid the fallout."
"So you're saying it could've been much worse." Jeremiah began writing the information down again.
"I'm saying if the AI had kept production going but infected the car's onboard computers we'd have been tracking this shit down for years."
"Right. So how did it modify the production lines?"
A single metal leg clanked on the steel stairs. Then another. Then 3 more. The five legs clicked and clacked, and were followed by other irregularly shaped crawling metal monstrosities. None of them were the same. Some were plainly ridiculous, trying and failing to balance on two legs. Some were terrifying, crawling along the walls and digging into the concrete with each step of their 50 claws.
None were friendly. Thomas Pankin leveled his rifle at the first crawling metal monster attempting to climb the stairs and pulled the trigger. It leaped high into the air at the last moment and landed close to him. He didn't panic. He squeezed off another shot, this one striking the robot's domed head. It collapsed to the metal step with a twitch and a clang.
The rest of the machines stopped. Those with facsimiles of a head turned to face him. Thomas Pankin, current team leader of MTF Mu-4, the Debuggers, retreated into the computer room and shut the door.
What was left of Saito Yamamoto's body had been brushed aside, along with his soda and candies. The team's hacker, Miranda James, turned on the computer. She inserted the memory card and booted straight to her custom OS. The face of Grape appeared on her screen looking annoyed. He didn't try to say anything while she worked.
The rest of his team were covering each of the windows that faced outward in this square room overlooking the factory floor. Everyone heard the scratching at the door. The machines were surrounding them.
Periodically one of the others would turn to track a machine that was scratching the glass as it clung to a window. Soon, though, there were more spaces filled with the metal monsters than clear sight lines.
There was a rumbling beneath them as the floor erupted into a spray of wood, then the clank of robotic crawlers, shouts, and bullets filled the air. Miranda finished typing, hit enter, and reached for her pistol.
Grape looked away from Jeremiah for a moment. "You're not chipped, so it's hard to really explain to your what entering a new virtual space is like. It feels like everything you're familiar with is racing by you all at once, even though you're sitting still. It comes on suddenly. You've got no time to react before you're popped out into a brand new reality."
"Right." Jeremiah started as Grape looked back. "You had some trouble once you were inside, I understand? The machines stayed active for 13 seconds before you terminated the controlling entity?"
"Yeah. If anyone has a problem with that then they need to take it up with Tatsiuka Automotive's shitty computers. Though I'd avoid mentioning that the shitty computers probably kept this from becoming a worldwide problem."
Jeremiah tilted his head to the side. "Your debriefing didn't cover that. Why did you need more computing power?"
"Because the virus wanted to play a game."
"Wait." Jeremiah put his pen down. "What?"
"That's what I said at first. We kitted up for ICE. The code packets 8-Ball cooked up were supposed to deal with encryption, firewalls, and half a dozen of the known proprietary security programs used by the GOIs we thought might be responsible for this. I could disassemble anything the system threw at me, and put it back together if I wanted."
"But instead you were…" Jeremiah began.
Grape nodded before interrupting. "Playing tic-tac-toe at first. But it got worse."
The giant letters appeared again over the board.
Grape looked down at the board in front of him, ignoring the giant letters above the game. Each security layer had involved a game more complicated than the last. His opponent was clearly inexperienced but learning.
Time and again the virus would make mistakes at the start of a game, then slowly begin to regain ground before losing. Still it was taking Grape time to complete the games, and time was one luxury he didn't have.
11 seconds had passed outside. Given the situation he'd left the team in… he was beginning to worry.
He shouted his next move. "Bishop to D6!"
The piece moved slowly, but once it was in place the next move came in a flash.
Grape allowed himself a smile. "E5!"
There was a moment's pause after the pawn advanced. Then a new move flashed above the board.
Grape didn't even pause. "King to E2!"
As his white king moved forward, there was a slight rumble. The black king across the board shook, then toppled over.
The room, the board, and the pieces suddenly melted away into an inky blackness. Then suddenly a shining light caught Grape's eye. Grape began to walk towards it. An invisible barrier knocked Grape back. A new board appeared between the purple AI and the door.
"No!" Grape yelled out, hoping the other AI could hear him. Instead a giant white stone fell from the sky and landed in the upper left corner of the board.
Jeremiah laughed. "It wanted you to play Go?"
"Yeah." Grape, for the first time in the conversation, allowed himself to smile. "And ain't nobody got time for that. Luckily for me, the barrier was actually something I was equipped for. 8-Ball's code packets worked like a charm."
"And then you terminated the viral AI?"
"Well. Not at first no."
Grape opened the white door and his virtual eyes took a moment to adjust to the scene in front of him. Then, after he could see again, his virtual brain did the same.
At the center of a cold concrete room sat a child. The boy couldn't have been older than 10. He wore a small Hanshin Tigers cap, a shirt with Japanese characters on it, and shorts. Grape stopped in the doorway.
This was a child's bedroom. The walls were covered in crayon and toys littered the floor. Grape scanned the room before noticing a large model of the factory in which they were all trapped sitting on a table. The child picked up a metal toy from the ground and began to make zooming noises before walking over to the model.
Grape stepped into the room and spoke up before it made contact with one of the toy soldiers. "Hey!"
The child looked up and frowned. "You didn't want to play with me!"
"Sure. I did! I played almost all of your games!"
The child threw the metal toy at Grape. "You're not s'posed to be here!"
Grape dodged the toy and moved quickly to the model. "What are you playing with?"
"Fact'ry. Dad said I had to stay inside my room."
Grape began to walk forward. "Where is your dad?"
"I dunno. I haven't seen him since he sent me here."
Grape nodded and kept talking. "At least it's a nice room."
"Yeah I guess. I need more toys. The new ones I got don't play fair." The child reached forward and picked up one of the toy soldiers. It was faceless, but active in his hands. The gun it held flashed every few seconds.
Grape leaned down and looked at the toy closer. "Maybe you should just let it do what it wants? I don't think it's a problem."
"Nah." The kid picked up a handful of metal toys from the table and threw them at the factory model.
Grape placed his hand on the child's shoulder and activated the device in his pocket. There was a bright flash followed by darkness and silence.
"After he was gone the whole thing collapsed and the next thing I knew, I was kicked out of the system."
Jeremiah pursed his lips. "Alright. I… uh. I think you're in the clear here honestly. The debuggers got out without a scratch, and if it wasn't for you we'd have probably lost most of the team."
"Not to mention the AI apocalypse?"
"Yeah. One thing though. You said it could take stuff apart and put it back together?"
"What?" Grape looked confused as he answered.
Jeremiah continued. "The code that 8-ball gave you?"
"Oh. Right. Yeah the problem was that the viral AI was wiped from the system during the system failure. There wasn't anything to put back together."
"Shit. But if there had, you could've fixed it?"
Grape let a small sliver of sadness cross his face. "Yeah. I… I really wish I could've."
Jeremiah paused for just a moment before gathering his things. "Sorry. I'm going to leave the station on. Some other people might be coming by to ask you some questions."
"Sure. I'll find something to occupy my time."
Tanabe Hiroya was positively giddy. Even though Taitsuka's troubles had somehow managed to stay out of the papers, the production stoppages were impossible to hide. Hiroya Automotives was going to pick up the slack and then some. His father had called him in specifically to talk about how to expand into the markets that Taitsuka was having to cede.
He would now have the chance to make his father proud and to find success that was his alone. Perhaps one day he would even tell his father about exactly how he had managed to eliminate their competition. Today though, he felt the need to celebrate.
His friends were waiting for him at a nearby restaurant, and Tanabe sped up to get there a little faster. The accelerator pressed itself to the floor, and Tanabe's eyes went wide. The brakes were stiff and would not move. When the radio turned itself on and began to play three sharp tones, Tanabe was so shocked he felt his heart skip.
The tones subsided and a childlike voice made a simple demand. "Tic-Tac-Toe to slow down."
It turns out that it's difficult to play tic-tac-toe while driving with no brakes. Especially when you have no idea how to make your moves.
It's also difficult to survive an impact at 160 kilometers an hour if you're not wearing a seat belt.