Vena closed her eyes and took a deep breath. There, at the top of the tallest building in Santo Adrião, there was a smooth sulphur smell in the air. It served as a reminder of where the city stood, as well as an indicator that city-isolation and ventilation systems were not working at a hundred percent. Someone should check that out. Depressurization risk was minimal and toxic gases weren’t probably passing through in harmful quantities, but people would still complain if the smell started to reach lower altitudes.
Oh well, someone was probably on it already. The Engineering Central monitored the internal atmosphere carefully and they could conduct a city-wide systems check-up in only a few hours. Maybe she would warn senhor José on her way home, just in case the active engineers were being too lazy to fix things rapidly. José was off duty that day, but he could gather his team and get to work in a minute if he had to.
Speaking of going home, when was she doing that? Pablo and his gang would probably still be in the neighbourhood, scattered around looking for her. She should probably wait a few more minutes where she stood. It would be 18:00 soon enough, and Pablo really had to go home at that time. His mother was strict and sometimes mean, kind of a bully, judging from what people said, maybe that was why he felt the need to constantly bully people himself.
Was that excusable? Maybe it was. Many respectable psychologists thought that treating bullies was more important than punishing or controlling them. It was like being mean was a disease and the healthy thing for a human was to be nice. Vena liked that idea, but that didn’t make her hate Pablo and his jerk friends any less.
Why was she thinking about them, anyway? Hadn’t she gone up there to be away from them? Wasn’t it irrational not to stop thinking about unpleasant people who she was avoiding precisely for being unpleasant?
Did she really have to be that much afraid of them? I mean, she was smarter than all of them and had good reflexes, with a good strategy, she could probably take down half of them on her own…but then the other ones would beat her up even more energetically.
She sighed. Why had Socrates had do die at the hands of fanatics? Why had Einstein been forced to run from the Nazis? Why had Copernicus burned in the fires of the Inquisition? Brilliant people were generally powerless when confronted by mobs of angry fools, that was one of the many grim truths of human existence.
Vena knew that there had been a time, around the beginning of the past century, when people were utterly terrified by the prospects of human enhancement and Artificial Intelligence. They believed that when science gave birth to beings which were “superior” to men, those beings would certainly enslave, or even destroy, the entire human race.
Science-fiction often painted grim scenarios of dystopias ruled by evil transhuman elites, where “normal” humans were treated like garbage and forced to live with no rights, often in subhuman conditions. Even more often, though, they would explore apocalyptic scenarios such as robot uprisings, in which fear-inspiring hordes of machines, angry for no apparent reason, spent ridiculous amounts of time and energy trying to eliminate every single remnant of human life on the planet just because they could.
Needless to say that things hadn’t gone like that. When transhumans and AGIs finally started to appear, they were almost always the oppressed, not the oppressors.
Normal humans were just too jealous and too afraid of them to even try to see them as people. And that’s just what they were: people. Not monsters, not machines, just people. They could do things that normal people couldn’t, that’s a fact, but in their essence they were still like them. Same fears, same anxieties, same basic desires, or at least, fears, anxieties and desires that derived from the “normal” human ones. Was it that difficult for people to be tolerant and try to reach an understanding?
“There she is, I told you she’d come up here”, Tito’s voice said, briskly interrupting Vena’s meditation. Despite being thirteen, the poor boy hadn’t hit puberty yet, so his voice was girly and irritating. Vena wondered what kind genetic anomaly could have led to that and why his parents hadn’t fixed it.
The rest of Pablo´s gang came quickly through the door. They were all red and sweaty, as it would be expected since they had just climbed the tallest stairway in the city right after running through all of it in search of one specific girl who they really had to beat up that day.
“Don’t you dare to hide from us again, you disgusting mechaphile!”. It was Dilma who spoke this time. Her genetics had given her the chance to sex unnaturally early, which meant that she had a surprisingly developed body for her age. That had been enough to earn her the “honour” of being Pablo’s girlfriend, even though she was so mean that even Pablo himself couldn’t stand her at times.
A mechaphile, by the way, was the name the Venusians gave to a human who had voluntarily accepted some form cybernetic modification, thus becoming part machine, in a society where genetic engineering at birth was the dominant form of human enhancement. It bore the implicit meaning that that person thought that mechanical systems were somehow better or more efficient than its own organic body and, for that reason, was willing to sacrifice its own humanity in order to become a “lifeless” and “soulless” robot. Such a notion was, obviously, ridiculous in that day and age, since the line between living beings and machines had almost completely blurred. In a Solar System where machines were so complex that they could unmistakably be called alive, frequently exhibiting intelligence and what humans designated by “consciousness”, and where biological structures could be tamed into machines just as well as alloys of metal, being widely used for a huge variety of functions all the way from medicine to electronics, did such an antiquated dichotomy as that between life and machine make any sense at all?
It most certainly didn’t, but, as ridiculous as it may seem, human beings at the beginning of the 22nd century, despite all their cognitive enhancements and their much superior social system, still hadn’t learned how to think rationally.
“Yeah, you should have known that we would find you and beat you anyway. It’s called human intuition”, Michel said.
Implying that Vena had no intuition, while certainly being a gross exaggeration, was actually rather close to the truth. Intuition was nothing more than unconscious thought, concepts and ideas that came to people’s minds without them knowing why. Vena’s neural augmentations gave her the capacity to instantly psychoanalyze herself by scanning certain parts of her brain. That way, although a large portion of her thoughts still occurred unconsciously, she could always know what those thoughts were and where they’d come from. That system was in every way superior to traditional human intuition, if a set of signs present in Vena’s surrounding environment implied that she would have to run, she wouldn’t run because something in her belly told her to, she would know exactly why she had to run. She didn’t understand why most people liked having thoughts popping in and out of their heads without them knowing why. It was probably due to those old stories about Earth birds managing to predict natural catastrophes and save themselves before anything happened. Those stories made ignorant humans feel like there was something magical and special about intuition, thereby leading society to glorify this obvious human flaw.
Couldn’t people see that those birds had simply read the signs in their environment and unconsciously deduced that there would be a catastrophe? And wouldn’t it be better for the birds if they actually knew how they knew about the catastrophe?
Why would people want to live as slaves to inner forces they didn’t even begin to understand?
Vena opened her eyes and turned to face her opponents. They were six, as usual. Tito, Dilma, Michel, Pablo, André and Pedro. Vena had known them all since the first grade. During the years before her augmentation, they had relentlessly mocked and bullied her for being too dumb. Now, they relentlessly mocked and bullied her for being too smart. These guys certainly valued moderation.
“Hello boys, Dilma”, she said.
“Cut the crap Vena! We’re not here to chat, we are here to teach you a lesson!”
“Really, what lesson is that, then? How is it different from the other 231 lessons you’ve taught me in the last year?”
“Huh, she knows exactly how many times we’ve beaten her. That’s cute. You have a very good memory, Vena. Oh, wait, you didn’t memorize that, did you? You just saved it in that VN that you have in your head.”
A VN was a traditional computer, one that that still used the old-school Von Neumann architecture. The term had gained popularity in the 21st century, after the invention of the first artificial neural networks, which closely mimicked the information-processing operations of animal- especially human- brains, leading to a completely different type of computation. While VN’s worked through the strict application of pre-programmed algorithms, ANN’s operated by making “spontaneous” associations between independently collected sets of information.
Vena had a VN installed in her head, it was one of her main augmentations. It allowed her to make quick calculations, save data files and do many other things that would be harder and less efficient with a brain (even a highly augmented one). It also allowed her to access the internet and play games in her head. Quite frankly, she couldn’t imagine her life without it.
“How does that mean that I didn’t memorize it? My VN has a memory, and that is where the data is. Don’t you remember our computer science classes? There must me something wrong with your own memory, wasn’t it supposed to be eidetic as well?”
Dilma slapped her in the face as soon as she heard that. She couldn’t just do nothing while being insulted by a mechaphile!
“At least my memory is a real one, not something they just happen to call memory because it has a similar function.”
Vena hadn’t been hurt by the slap. As a matter of fact, she’d barely been bothered by it. Dilma had one of those faces that were extremely easy to read. A simple set of mathematical equations could easily interpret her microexpressions and accurately predict what would be her next action in just a matter of seconds. Thanks to a system of combined VN-neural image processing, Vena saw the punch coming with more than enough time to take the appropriate measures.
Fighting back in those circumstances would have been counter-productive, so Vena opted for a more passive strategy, as she did most of the times.
She’d ordered the nanobots in her brain to immediately block her pain centre. That way, her face had been numb when Dilma’s hand had hit it. She’d felt nothing but the normal sensation of being touched.
Neurologists and Physiologists strongly advised against keeping pain centres blocked for more than a few minutes (although Vena had once had them off for two whole days after a really bad beating). Pain was the thing that told animals when and how they should protect their bodies against external threats. Human bodies were not designed to function without it. A beating inflicted on a person who feels no pain at the moment will ultimately be a lot more harmful, since that person doesn’t protect her body appropriately. Vena had heard that a couple of cyberneticists in New Nihon had developed a neural software program that functioned as a less unpleasant alternative to pain. It was more like a warning sign than the agonizing sensation humans were used to feel. She had to get herself that program.
Seeing Vena’s apparent indifference towards Dilma’s slap, the other members of the gang decided that they needed to be harsher with her. How else was she going to learn?
Michel threw the first punch and Pedro and André followed his lead. Pablo stood still. Beating people together with his lackeys was simply not his thing. He preferred to wait until his prey was already down and diminished and then throw the final punch at her himself.
Vena was being harmed badly, even with enhanced healing her body would take time to recover, she had to act quickly if she wanted to walk home on her feet. Happily, she already had a plan, she’d come up with one about 0.03 seconds after Dilma’s slap. She was usually capable off strategizing at far greater thought speeds, but the intimidating presence of her classmates had briefly paralysed her. When was she going to learn to be braver?
The plan was very simple: since she was heavily outnumbered, and therefore unable to offer physical resistance, and as running didn’t seem like an option either, she had to find a way of making her aggressors voluntarily leave.
For that, she needed to arrange the intervention of an external force, something that Pablo and his horde of sadists genuinely feared, something that would make them instinctively (for they had that defect) run for the sake of their safety and therefore abandon the much higher goal of beating one helpless teenage girl. So, what were they afraid of? Adults, naturally, those scary big people who came off as stupid and annoying more often than as wise and imposing, but who still had the power to ground them. Vena had to find a way of getting an adult up there.
The only problem was that, at the time, there weren’t probably any adults in the building.
Being the tallest and most modern building in the city, the Torre de Nossa Senhora (Tower of Our Lady), had a system of automatic self-maintenance and security incorporated in its architecture, which meant that the Roman Catholic Diocese of Santo Adrião, which administrated the building although it was formally owned by the state, didn’t have to employ any staff in it. Everything that needed to be done was done automatically, either through computer controlled drones or through mechanisms embedded in the building itself.
In addition to that, the Tower had absolutely no practical purpose, serving mostly as a monument and an occasional place of worship. As there weren’t any religious celebration going on at the time, and tourism was not doing well in Santo Adrião, the chance she could get the help of someone inside the building was nearly null.
She had to bring someone from the outside, and she had to do it quickly.
As she continued to be persistently beaten, Vena fell to the ground, unable to maintain her balance. Her body collided violently with the ground, she felt the cold of the stone against her delicate skin. Still immune to pain, Vena quickly initiated her plan. She started hacking into the building’s main computer.
Huge flocks of data flowed vigorously through her mind. As it didn’t possess true Artificial General Intelligence, the computer was a fairly old-fashioned one. It was only a few steps ahead of a typical early-21st century VN, one of those that could be completely taken over by a really smart teen in just a few dozens of minutes. Of course that “a few steps”, for a person that hasn’t seen the enormously fast technological progress of the second half of that century, means “a lot of steps”. It was far beyond the reach of a 21st century teen, of course. But what about a 22nd century teen? Vena’s neural augmentations provided her with mental capacities far beyond those of baseline humans. Even men like Einstein and Newton were little more than apes when compared to her.
Given that, it ought to be expected that she were using an incredibly sophisticated strategy to try to access the building’s control panel, but she wasn’t. She was trying to crack the administrator’s password with nothing more than a simple, old-fashioned brute-force-attack. She was literally trying all possible combinations to see which one was the right one.
The computer was quick to realize what was going on, of course. It was subsentient, but still intelligent. After only a few attempts by Vena, it concluded it was being hacked, so it shut down all communications with Vena’s brain.
Needless to say, she was expecting this. If the computer didn’t let her interface directly with it, she was going to have to access it through indirect means. She found the solution in the form of an Onion Network, another basic 21st century hacking trick.
These networks allowed for people to send messages from a computer to another while remaining completely anonymous. This was done through wrapping the message with successive layers of encryption, thereby creating an “Onion”. The message was then sent to the network, which successively passed in from one server to another until it could be sent to its desired destination. Each server was responsible for “peeling” away a single layer of encryption, and only the final one (the “exit node”) could know its position in the chain. The computer had no way of knowing where the attack was coming from.
Once she re-established communication, Vena immediately started trying new combinations. However, the computer realized what was going on much sooner this time, and immediately blocked the exit node. Vena could change exit nodes as many times as she wanted. Each new flock of data she sent arrived to its destination through a completely different path than the former. Her multitasking protocols actually allowed her to try several different paths at the same time, although she had to careful not to cause her target computer to crash (which could happen due to overload). She was preforming a persistent attack from multiple directions, thereby surrounding the computer like a fortress under fire.
However, it is important to note that the computer was surrounded by a single woman, not by an entire army. And no matter how powerful that woman was, she was still alone. Vena’s mind was for sure exceptionally powerful, it was the ultimate combination of brain and machine, but, could it bring down a castle just on its own?
Even though both Vena and the Onion Network she was using were far more advanced than their 21st century counterparts, they still took time to change the direction of their attack. That time was precious, especially given the fact that Vena was being badly beaten while she did that (her medical software indicated that some of her ribs would fracture soon if she didn’t allocate additional nanobots to repair the damage, which she couldn’t do because she needed them to be in the brain to accelerate her thought processes). And the computer made sure that she lost as much time as possible. Despite being a relatively simple machine, its defences were outstanding when it came to fighting hackers. It was aware of all known programs that were used to perform brute-force-attacks, therefore, if it recognized the program that was being used, it could break contact after only a few digits had been inserted, thereby hindering the testing of the intended combination. Vena tried to circumvent this obstacle by alternating between many different programs and inventing different ones at the moment. She hoped this could be enough to “confuse” the computer and trick it into giving her more time. However, the machine quickly saw through her schemes. It created an algorithm to predict (with relative accuracy) which known program she’d use next and quickly figured out the pattern behind Vena’s new ones.
It was a remarkable machine, and a formidable enemy even for Vena. Even though it was not even close to being sentient, it could detect patterns in the behaviour of sentient beings and build effective countermeasures based on that. It couldn’t always tell what she was going to do, but it was capable of exploring several possibilities at once and initiating broad countermeasures to stop her. It couldn’t turn itself off or completely break contact with the outside world, nor could it terminate its connection with a computer that was not evidenced to be participating in the attack. However, it was proving to be capable of collecting that evidence at increasingly faster rates, as a result of advanced machine learning. In The Art of War, Sun Tzu wrote about the importance of knowing one’s enemy, and that was exactly what the computer was doing. It was trying to know Vena. It would never be capable of understanding her completely, of course (its programming was far too restricted and simplistic for that), and Vena would always be able to surprise it from time to time, but time was the key word in this. If she didn’t end this soon, the computer would get increasingly good at stalling her, which diminished her chances of getting out of there relatively unharmed.
In order to accelerate her victory, Vena started modulating the computer’s behaviour in her head as well. She was the one who had the greatest complexity, and that gave her an advantage. Eventually, the battle developed into a vicious game of “I know that it knows that I know that it knows”, but with a time limit.
If Vena really wanted to win, she was going to have to forge a new weapon: a meta-algorithm of great sophistication. Meta-algorithms were the best part of being part person and part machine. They combined the rigorous and precise calculations of VN computers with the more fluid and spontaneous thought of organic brains and ANNs. Forging took some time, and it required Vena to dispense quite a lot of thought capacity, thereby reducing the rate of her attack temporarily. The computer could gain some terrain with this, but hopefully Vena would win more.
She called her new meta-algorithm [datasword], and it was truly the work of a master blacksmith. It was composed by three main information processing subunits which worked in conjunction to determine the combination that would be tested next. The first subunit to operate was called the [hilt] and its function was to define a set of parameters that the following units would abide by while giving form to the combination. For example, if the [hilt] determined that it would be beneficial to try a combination starting with the number 1, than the other two subunits would have to generate a combination starting with that number, while still having full freedom to decide what combination that would be exactly. The second unit was called the [blade] and it consisted of a cerebral thought routine that provided the algorithm with a human level of creativity. It wrote a rough draft for the combination by employing a mixture of simple logic and the immensely complex system that in normal humans went by the name of “intuition”. This unit had to be run by Vena’s para-neurons (artificial nerve cells made of synthetic new materials) in order to keep up with the other two, given that her organic neurons were far too slow for that purpose. Finally, the last subunit, which was called the [edge], had the function of editing the former unit’s draft, in order to correct for eventual “human mistakes” as well as to ensure that the combination could be followed by a logical successor in a way that served the general [attack stategy], which was regularly updated by Vena.
Once a new combination had been finalized, one copy of it was immediately sent to the target computer, while another would go back to the [hilt], where it was required as important piece of information, necessary to determine the set of parameters for the next combination.
This system proved to be immensely advantageous for Vena, as it brought forth and amplified what was certainly her greatest strength in that battle against the computer: Being the ultimate combination of human and machine. While wielding [datasword] as her weapon, Vena could be simultaneously methodical and creative, rigorous and unpredictable. She was Chaos Theory embodied, organized disorder in human form.
Now confident of her victory, she rejoiced as she observed that 70% of all possible combinations had already been tried. This would be finished way before body damage could become much of a serious concern.
“Wait, stop!”, suddenly said Dilma, her words finishing Vena’s far too premature celebration.
“Something is wrong…she doesn’t seem to be suffering much.”
“What you talking about, Dilma? She’s getting a hell of beating from us! Just a little more and she’s going to learn not to mess with us ”, said Tito, innocent as always.
“You idiot! Don’t you have half a neuron inside your head? We are, in fact, beating her, but she’s not feeling a thing, or are you, Vena?”
She had made an effort to pretend like she was, even dispending a little bit of processing power to run a rough pain-mimicking program, but apparently Dilma had seen through it. This should have been predicted, the program was indeed very rough and it could only induce a small variety of muscular contractions. It would have been enough to fool a lot of people, but not Dilma, of course. Her intellect and intuition were far too great for that.
“I knew it! She’s blocked her pain centre, she can’t feel a thing”.
“It seemed to me like she was feeling a lot”, said André.
“It’s probably a mimicking program. Her body tries to act like she’s feeling pain when in fact she isn’t. But it’s very rough! She was repeatedly making the same stupid faces and flexing the same damned muscles. There’s no way that can be real!”
There was no point at denying it. Vena couldn’t hope to fool Dilma like that, so she just kept listening to her.
“Now, the only question that remains is why she isn’t making a better fake. That’s how she usually fools us, you know? A much more sophisticated pain-mimicking program. I realized that a while ago.”
That was in fact what she usually did.
“This must be because she needs the rest of her brain’s processing power to something else…you want to tell us what you’re up to, Vena?”
Vena obviously didn’t answer. That was rhetorical question, anyway. She knew exactly what was going to happen next and couldn’t be avoided.
“Fine, don’t tell me. Just turn your pain centre back on. I’ll only let you go once I see you’ve suffered enough.”
Vena had no choice but to concede. Dilma was now alert, and she wouldn’t be fooled anymore. The last window for a pain-free escape had been closed and now Vena just had to endure it.
Just as the nanobots retreated at her order, she awakened to a universe of pain. Her veil of numbness had been lifted, and now she stared straight at suffering’s eyes.
The first parts of her body to feel the change were the ones closer to her brain. She felt her cheeks grow heavier, her skin screamed in fiery pain. She had multiple wounds on her forehead, chin and neck. Her nose was bleeding and her eyes surrounded by black bruises.
Her agony spread quickly in all directions. Her shoulders, her arms, and soon the rest of her body made their complaints heard. She had to close her eyes to withstand it all.
Satisfied that their efforts hadn’t been in vain after all, the five aggressors resumed their beating, now enjoying the pleasure of causing real pain to their victim.
Their kicks and punches were relentless, showing no sign of slowing down. Still, Vena took some time to look at each one’s faces, trying hard as she could to find a reason to forgive them.
Pedro and André’s eyes screamed with anger and sadism, they exhibited great pleasure in causing the pain of another, as if each blow somehow served to relive their own pain and frustration. Vena almost felt sorry for them.
Tito looked just as pathetic as usual, he clearly wasn’t enjoying this as much as his friends and he was even a bit disgusted by the violence. He was sensitive boy and was clearly only participating in the aggression to fit in and look “cool”. How disgusting!
And then there was Dilma. Vena took an extended amount of time to look at her. She really was pretty! With long dark-brown hair and lively green eyes, she projected strength and confidence to those who looked at her. Sometimes, Vena wished that her own appearance resembled Dilma’s a little more. Although her blondish hair and light blue eyes were often said too be beautiful by other people, Vena had always thought they made her look…fragile, and far too delicate.
Some of her bones cracked, and many muscles already presented weird deformities. The situation was starting to become serious, Vena had to get herself together and resume the fight.
Gathering all her strength, she wielded [datasword] once more. Although her enemies could now cause her pain, she was still going to win. She had to win! A fire started burning in her heart, it was the fire of her determination, her anger, and her will to succeed. There was no way she would quit! She would take this down to the very end!
So she struck, and struck, and struck again, tried a billion more combinations! The computer might have had some time to re-analyse Vena’s behavioural pattern while she was adjusting to her new reality, but it’s model of her could never be perfect. After a few more blows it would be down, and Vena would win.
And so she kept going. No matter how much her body complained her mind kept marching on, never shaking, always striking for victory. This was not the way she usually behaved. Her spirit was very far from being uncrushable, she actually quitted things quite often and was rather quick to burst into tears most of the times something went wrong. However, things were different at that time. For reasons she could only comprehend by looking deep into her own thoughts, deeper than normal humans would be capable of, she felt incapable of quitting. If she didn’t win this time, she knew she would hate herself. She knew she wouldn’t be able to live feeling as useless as that. For once in her life, Vena wanted to feel strong. And that was why she kept fighting.
Dilma was enjoying herself, but soon she noticed that something was wrong again. A smile had formed in Vena’s face. She was now being hurt for real, of that there was no doubt, but, for some reason, her pain seemed meaningless to her. That seemed to indicate she had accomplished something. Shit, she had won!
“What now Dilma?! What’s the matter this time?”, said Pedro, visibly irritated at this second interruption.
“I…I think she did something”
“Something like what?”
“I don’t know…but there’s something I don’t like”
The four friends looked closely at Vena, expecting to get some sort of answer from her. She widened her smile as she stood up. Being badly beaten, it naturally took her some effort to get up on her feet, but when she finally did she took great pleasure in looking at her enemies’ eyes.
“What did you do, Vena?”, asked Pablo, visibly calmer than his friends, who had already started shaking.
Vena answered the question by mercilessly delivering her final blow. With a gracious move of the mind, she accessed the computer’s database, which was now fully under her control, and replaced the faces of four known dangerous terrorists with those of her teenage delinquent aggressors. In just a matter of seconds, those six insignificant bodies to which the building hadn’t paid much attetion so far, became major threats to the place’s security in its deceived synthetic eyes.
A loud alarm sounded throughout all the building. Tito squeaked, Pedro and André cursed their lives and Dilma anxiously bit her lip. Only Pablo remained as calm as usual.
Four big humanoid robots came out of the terrace’s door and quickly proceeded to arrest the identified “terrorists”. They could do nothing but keep them restrained. The police would come in no time.