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The Democratic Republic of the Congo 

Kinshasa 

University of Kinshasa campus

April 1, 2015

 

There was no sound on the security feed, but Terrifica and Miss Americana could see what was happening well enough. The MIT scientists flicked a row of jury-rigged switches on the desk in front of them, bringing to life the machine before them. Row after row of panels lit up, vacuum tubes and relays flickering to life, and suddenly a long-dormant machine was alive again, casting a glowing light around the bunker that was its home.

 

"It doesn't make any sense," muttered Dr. Carlos Perez, his long hair in the same ponytail he wore on the video. Crossing his arms, he looked away from the play. "VI has the computing power of a microchip! A _small_ microchip!" His labcoat, and his demeanor, had taken some beatings since the footage was taken two weeks earlier. "She may be the second oldest computer in the world, but the Vivre Informatique had no capacity for sentience! It just didn't!" 

 

Suddenly things were happening on screen - the scientists were talking to each other rapidly, their happy faces turning to alarm. Carlos's assistant Felicity was typing frantically at an Archetech laptop slaved to the system, a laptop that began flashing alarmingly, in time with the overhead arc lights in the basement they occupied. Suddenly the lights on VI began flickering in time with the laptop as well - and now, as the heroes watched, doors were sliding open on the far side of VI, doors disgorging primitive humanoid robots! At the sight of the robots, the scientists sensibly packed it in and fled, the camera feed cutting off as the red-eyed metal automatons began advancing toward their work station and the laptop that went with it. 

 

Pressing a few buttons on the digital playback, Felicity, who like the other half-dozen scientists looked tired and worn, pulled up a phrase on the laptop's screen. 

"MAINTENAT, JE SUIS LIBRE!"

 

"We tried contacting the original project team," said Franklin Wright, one of the graduate students on the project, "but of course they're long dead! And most of the records about VI were destroyed during the wars hereabouts." 

 

"Those damn Belgians," muttered Perez. "Why would they build a computer _here_? Especially right after the war?" 

 

"To keep it from prying eyes," said Dr. Chambord, the goateed, bespectacled man who was one of two actual Congo natives on the MIT team. "The Congo was the jewel of their empire, a shining beacon of European progress in Africa." He sneered. "But no one cared to see the brutality at the heart of it then. Men died in building this. We found the records of it, in the old offices down below." 

 

"It's my fault," said Felicity Jones, looking very haggard. "I'm so sorry, I just...I should have pulled the plug! But when we saw those robots, we ran! We thought we were going to get our heads crushed!" 

 

"It's not your fault," said Perez, patting his assistant awkwardly on the shoulder before looking at Miss Americana and Terrifica. "But whatever is in there, it made it right through our firewalls and it locked down the whole Computer Science building. All our equipment, all the university's equipment, including the seized supertech from the wars, is now in the hands of a Belgian computer from 1946. That's when we decided to call you." 

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I am absolutely, positively, surrounded by idiots. Saying Terrifica wasn’t in a good mood was like saying water was wet. It got the point across, but failed to grasp the concept as a whole. “Just so I understand the problem. You found a mysteriously abandoned computer from shortly after World War Two. Abandoned in the middle of nowhere, might I add. And your first thought was ‘Let’s turn it on with our state of the art laptop!’†She massaged the bridge of her nose with her thumb and forefinger. She wasn’t even supposed to be here. She was supposed to fly in, give a physics talk, and leave. If only life was ever so easy. “Things that are abandoned in the middle of nowhere are abandoned in the middle of nowhere for a reason.†She sighed. They didn’t deserve to be beat up. “What’d done is done. Under the circumstances I imagine you did the best you could. I’ll need to see those records, if one of you could retrieve them, please.†Her mind danced with possibilities. Brain in a box? Or perhaps an early experiment gone horribly right? She smiled. This could be fun after all.

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Miss Americana had spent most of the previous night on one of ArcheTech's private jets, flying halfway around the world, but she still looked almost startlingly fresh and well put-together when compared to the MIT team. "Are you sure it's locked down?" she asked, keeping her eyes on her tablet as she worked one hand rapidly over the keypad. "Locked down all the wireless signals coming from the facility so that it can't use your computers to access the internet? Was any of your equipment satellite capable?" The very slight edge to her dulcet voice suggested she might share some of Terrifica's feelings, but her lovely face was as calm as ever. "We'll want to be able to get into the system ourselves, but for it to get out could be extremely problematic." 

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Chambord glared at Terrifica. "Middle of nowhere? This is a city of seven million people, woman!" And indeed, Kinshasa outside was substantially larger than Freedom City, a brawling, bustling, crowded place with a murder rate far worse than the grimmest American city. The twenty-five thousand students of the University of Kinshasa, though far poorer than their American counterparts, could many of them have easily appeared on a campus back in New Jersey. 

 

"In any event," said Chambord's colleague - Father Benjamin Lukunga, a man introduced as both a Catholic priest and nuclear engineer, who was director of one of the two nuclear reactors on site. "we have deactivated all the wireless devices on campus." He smiled thinly. "That was easy enough - the trick has always been keeping them running. The reactor computers are in security mode, so they are inaccessible for the moment."

 

"There was a satellite transmitter in our equipment," said Wright, rubbing his blonde soul patch thoughtfully. "but they'd have to physically open the case, carry it over to the laptop, and attach it. Would VI know how to do that?" He shot a glance back at the frozen image on the digital display. "As far as it knows, it's 1947 and there's nothing human in Earth orbit." 

 

"Four filing cabinets worth of typewritten documents in French," said Jones in response to Terrifica's question. "I can show you where we've put it, but we were just beginning to sort through the records. As far as we can tell, this was supposed to be part of a series of computing stations built through the Congo. The Belgians wanted to use VI to run the trains, manage the mining operations...everything they wanted out of this country." 

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Terrifica replied to Chambord with a patient mildness, like someone explaining to a small child. “Yes, I know. It is not the middle of nowhere now. However, in 1946 it was significantly smaller and in the middle of Colonial Africa. A place not very many outside of it knew anything about. A place where terrible mistakes or accidents could be and very often were covered up. I don’t know about you, but that fits the description of ‘the middle of nowhere’ to me, in this circumstance.â€

She look at Wright and then Jones in quick succession. “Well, as long as there’s no data in the laptop on how the satellite transmitter works, that it exists, or that satellites are a thing that exists now, Skynet 1946 should not be able to take over the world.†She rubbed the bridge of her nose with her thumb and forefinger again. Of course they’re in French. Remember where you are, woman. “Hopefully one of you can translate. I am bilingual, but my other language is decidedly not French. Something I should correct sooner rather than later.

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Miss A winced a little bit at Terrifica's tactless handling of the scientist, moving in to try and salvage relations. "That's wonderful, it sounds like you've been able to minimize and contain any damage for the moment. "As for the satellite uplink, it looks as though you were using at least some ArcheTech equipment in your setup? I may be able to remotely kill it through a debugging back door without alerting VI. I'd rather not try it unless it starts to look like VI is going to try something, there's no point in tipping our hand too early. In the meantime, having a look at those files sounds good. I can handle the French, and with Terrifica to consult, I think we should be able to get a handle on them within a couple of hours." 

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With Miss Americana's help, Terrifica's social faux pas were, for the moment, overlooked by the team as a whole - even if Chambord did decide to keep his distance from the two American heroes after that. In another room, they found the files of Project VI - still in their dusty, partially rusted filing cabinets, just as promised. Going through the records for Project VI was something of a step back in time for the two women, and not just because of the primitive circumstances. Both women knew that the Belgian Congo had become independent in 1960, a process which had taken the Belgian government completely by surprise. The Belgians had planned to stay far longer, however, and had taken the end of World War II to try and modernize their colony, building railroads, promoting large cities, and otherwise trying to "Europeanize" the African population. (Even though even the highest-ranking African had remained beneath the lowest-ranking European, both sociall and legally).

 

Kinshasa itself had gone from a population just before fifty thousand in 1940 to nearly 200,000 by the end of the decade. The VI Project had been a prototype - mechanical thinking machines, modeled after German assets seized by the new Belgian government just after the war, that would be able to run all industrial and social life in the colony after independence. The goal had been to one day automate all of Belgium if the colonial experiment proved successful, and then, as the scientists wrote to each other in excited hand-written notes decades earlier, perhaps the world! Fearful of another war, the Belgians had installed automated defense systems for VI, relying on primitive humanoid robots with...

 

The pictures jumped out, big as life - the vivisected animals, dogs and monkeys and other native creatures, with brain matter teased out, preserved, and integrated into the vacuum tube structure of the robot brains. Those automatons guarding VI were as smart as dogs or apes, because the brains of dogs and apes were inside them!

 

The files on VI herself were largely absent - it looked like the Belgians had taken those with them when they had left in 1960. But Miss A, being literate in French and very clever, was able to find a list of names, all of them African, with one circled in red. Joseph Otetshima was listed as SUBJECT - and then came a collection of what looked like telegrams back to base about SUBJECT. 

 

SEPT 1945 SUBJECT DISCOVERED WITH 1 TERAWATT RANGE
FEB 1946 SUBJECT HAS BEEN VERY HELPFUL IN CONSTRUCTION OF VI.

JUNE 1946 SUBJECT CONTINUES TO REFUSE PLAN CAPITAINE ELECTRIQUE . 

AUG 1946 SUBJECT HAS OBJECTED TO DEATHS OF NATIVE WORKERS AFTER CEILING COLLAPSE 

OCT 1946 SUBJECT GROWING UNRELIABLE

DEC 1946 SUBJECT HAS FINISHED HIS WORK. 

 

There was nothing on why the project itself had been closed down - just that in the summer of 1947, the team of scientists had been withdrawn back to Belgium and the site bricked up by native workers imported from a distant mining settlement for that purpose.

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Terrifica’s eyes narrowed. “This is monstrous.†She knew it. The usage of a human as the central component with jurisidiction over the animal brained robots. Of course it went wrong. Naturally, the problem at this stage was proving it, while remaining open minded enough to accept any different hypothesis that may present itself. “They wanted thinking machines and when technology failed them they turned to a primitive form of cybernetics. The only question remaining is just how plugged into the system this Joseph Otetshima was and mostly likely still is. I am hoping they did not perform the same procedure on hime that they did on the animals, but from these records…the probability of that appears to be low.†There wasn’t a drop of disgust in her voice. She just sounded…vaguely sad. “This isn’t what science is for. I hear myself when I speak. I know the impression I present. But I would never do anything like this.†She turned from sad to revulsion between breaths. “It is lazy, it is cruel, and it is wrong.â€

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"Whatever they did here was very wrong," Miss A agreed somberly, "but we can't jump to conclusions as to what happened to Mr. Otetshima. He could very well have been used as the biological brain matter for VI's construction, but he also may have been used in some other capacity. He may have been an early technopath who they drafted into the construction, or been used in another capacity entirely. Whoever he was, whatever was done to him, he may well be our hook in communicating with VI and bringing this standoff to an end." 

 

She ran a handheld scanner over the papers to preserve them electronically before returning them to their folder and their drawer. "Time is definitely a factor in our plans, we don't know how long we have before VI starts to understand the internet and can begin breaking the wireless lockdown. But if there is any way to preserve the intelligence in the system, I think we should make our very best effort. Do you have any ability to communicate with machines?" 

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“Hmm?†Terrifica looked put off her stride for a moment, but she quickly recovered. In fact, she looked…pleased by Miss A’s catch. “Forgive me, I’m used to working with lesser minds. Most people tend not to think overmuch. It can try my patience. My statement was my working hypothesis, subject to change or even outright discarding based on new evidence collected.†She smiled. “I prefer to have one while I work. A good mystery is its own reward, and all that.â€

She straightened out an imaginary wrinkle from her longcoat as she spoke again.“I agree. Intelligence, no matter where it has been derived, should be preserved if at all possible. There’s little enough of it in the world as it is.†She tapped a few commands into her wrist computer. “Like a technopath? No. I require a terminal, just like most everyone.†“There was a ghost of a smile. “Can you?â€

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"Yes, but it's probably best to have a belt-and-suspenders approach to the problem anyway," Miss A replied. "Being able to mentally interface with the computer is useful, but it also leaves me more vulnerable to certain types of attack. If you are working simultaneously from a terminal, we should be able to divide its attention long enough to disable any wifi or satellite connections. Once that's done, we can work on understanding who VI is and what it wants, hopefully with an eye toward ending the lockdown." She stood and cracked her knuckles, heading for the door. "Ready to try a little retro hacking?" 

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Terrifica smiled widely, almost grinning. “As the saying goes, I was born ready.†She opened the door to the records room. “Though there’s something you’re forgetting. There will undoubtedly be resistance to our actions. The robots. Their capabilities are unknown. You may be super strong and nigh-invulnerable, but I am not. So, by all means…after you.†She gestured to Miss A to go first. “It is lovely to work with someone of both intelligence and thoughtful nature, for once. I’m usually stuck with people who only know how to solve problems with either violence or reckless courage.â€

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The Computer Science building was a high security installation built into a warzone. The walls were reinforced concrete and the windows armored, the bulletproof glass now covered by the same steel shutters that had slammed shut over the doors as well. But for all the effort that had gone into the construction of the building, it had been designed to keep out armies and heavy weapons (i.e., the usual threat in this war-torn nation), not two very determined computer experts. The alarm box by the wall was easy enough for Terrifica to defuse. Rewiring the power inside the building to demagnetize the window locks was a little harder - but once that was done, all it took was some careful application of leverage by means of her staff to open a door and let her inside the Computer Science building. 

 

The lights were off and the labels in French, but a flashlight here and a photographic memory there, and soon she was on her way downstairs towards the archaic old computer system in the sub-basement that had been the cause of all this trouble. It was cool and dark in the building, with the faint snatches of movement and conversation in French coming her way she she began descending the emergency stairs that were one of the few ways down to the recently discovered building - and also the only way up the fleeing scientists had taken!

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Outside the building, Miss Americana sat in a comfortable office chair at the little command center the dispossessed scientists had set up and watched Terrifica enter the building. As soon as the other heroine was inside, Miss A closed her eyes and projected herself, seeking first the familiar technological signal of the ArcheTech laptop deep inside the facility. She hoped it would be easier to gain a toehold there and follow it back into the much less familiar, far more primitive computer signatures of the facility itself. She just hoped she could get through before Terrifica had a chance to run into any trouble IRL. 

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Terrifica sighed. Of course, I’m the one who has to go in. Well, perhaps I’ll have a chance to field test my staff properly. She had begun work on it after Earth’s part in the Incursion. She never wanted to be caught so…unarmed, ever again. It wasn’t as strong as she wanted it, not yet, but it was better than nothing. She took her time on her way down to where the archaic computer was located. There was reason for haste, but not to forsake caution. Her staff, used to enter the facility, had purposefully not been returned to its place on her waist. The faint movement and spoken French easily caught her attention. She slipped effortlessly into the shadows, watching. Waiting. And moving forward at the same steady pace.

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It was easy enough for Cyberknife to make a connection to the hard drive inside the Archtech laptop, by now the familiar systems were as easy to find as locating part of her own brain. The laptop itself was in stand-by mode with a low battery reserve, having gone into its sleep cycle once it was left unattended long enough. That meant she had a system she could readily access, but she couldn't push it far - absent mechanical hands to move, she couldn't actually plug the thing in. Booting up the laptop's webcam was able to give her a low-res image of the research area that the MIT team had described to her - where sure enough, she could see some of the first-generation robots taking apart the team's advanced equipment. The big, clanking automatons weren't speaking as such - but they were clearly working together as they methodically wrenched apart what had once been a well-equipped research laboratory. Gina caught the noise rising from VI itself, though of course she couldn't actually see it with where the laptop was pointed. 

 

There was, in cyberspace, a connection to the laptop's system that wasn't her - but VI's very age made even looking that way difficult, as if Gina's consciousness was staring into a forest of inhabited cobwebs every time she contemplated the connection between this system and that other one.

 

Making her way down, Terrifica heard it too, over the clearly audible racket of the whirling gears, humming vacuum tubes, and whirs of magnetic tape that made up VI's brain. "MOKÈLÉ-MBÈMBÉ. MOKÈLÉ-MBÈMBÉ." It was a low, mechanical voice - that suddenly began to sing in the cold, low-resolution version of a child's song. "Je te plumerai la tête. Et la tête! Et la tête!

Alouette! Alouette!" It sounded like an old recording of a child's voice, made long ago - perhaps even before the vault itself had been sealed up. 

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Gina studied the forest of cobwebs, even as she activated the laptop's camera and microphone to try and catch what was going on in the building itself. She would have a very difficult time trying to travel those paths, and if the computer itself were sentient, it might be quite dangerous as well. She was no psychic to go digging around in anything's brain, not unless there was no choice! Instead, she stood at the edge and peered in, then touched one of the strands and sent a message of binary-coded greeting and peace, something simple enough to hopefully be comprehensible even to a very old processor. 

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Terrifica kept moving. Her eyes were watchful for both the source of the voices and Archetech’s laptop. That rhythm…is that Frere Jacques? It certainly sounds like it. It could be creepy, but Terrifca dealt with sociopaths, homicidal maniacs, and whatever Maven was on a fairly regular basis. She’d used up her life’s supply of creeped out. Still in shadow, she found where the scientists were working. She still could not shake the nagging feeling that this was cybernetics of some sort or another. That poor Mr. Otetshima’s brain was quite literally wired into the system. Whether it was still in his skull or not was another matter. And perhaps it wasn’t actually him, and perhaps it was something else entirely that had been done here. But that nagging feeling wouldn’t go away. Terrifica, poised in shadow and looking into the laboratory, found she had not quite exhausted her life’s supply of creeped out after all.

Edited by EternalPhoenix

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"Qui êtes-vous?!?" came back to Gina like a voice echoing through the cobwebs, a call of fear and loneliness that came through in perfect French. Someone on the other end was certainly getting her message - and they had the capability to respond in a language rather than just binary. Well, that was not what a computer of this period should have been able to do - but then VI had been going beyond expectations since before they arrived. 

 

-

 

Down below, Terrifica could get close enough to see movement in VI's bunker. The robots were walking around and building something out of mechanical parts and what looked to be a significant portion of an antique car that had somehow been left below, but she'd have to get closer if she wanted a better look at their construction project. They certainly had the tools for building, both hammers and saws built into their hands and tools they'd actually picked up from somewhere down in the bunker, a mix of both old-fashioned and high-tech material. But as she crouched on the stairs, just out of view of the clambering mechanical army of about a dozen old-fashioned robots, she knew she'd have to sneak her way past those flashing red eyes and whirring mechanical claws.

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"A friend," Gina called out into the web of cables, switching to vocal French without so much as missing a beat. "I want to help you. I know you've been alone in here for a very long time. My name is... Miss A," she continued after a moment's hesitation. "I see you've been working on a new creation, it's very beautiful. Can you tell me more about it?" As she spoke, she studied the cobwebs, wondering if there was some way through or around them that did not risk damaging or enraging the ancient computer system. "Can you tell me your name?" 

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Terrifica crouched in the doorway, then she edged forward. Well, that makes perfect sense. Buried underground with lots of materials? Build a digging machine to get out with. Unfortunately, she also saw that the robots building the machine could see her. She didn’t miss a beat, standing up. “Hello. Sorry, I was just observing before I introduced myself. What you’re doing is quite interesting. Would you mind if I had a closer look? I may be able to help.” It wasn’t exactly Plan A, but as long as she didn’t get sucked into a unnecessarily destructive fight…

Edited by EternalPhoenix

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A form shimmered to life like a black and white image brought to life; a hazy, indistinct figure that was decidedly translucent. It looked up at Terrifica and said something in perfect, fluent English - so perfect it even had a decided Freedom City accent. "I need to get out. I need to see them," repeated again in a tone of great grief. Where had she heard that voice before? The cabbie who'd taken her to the airport to come here? She caught a glimpse of African features and a tall, slender figure - one formed by thin jets of electricity that seemed to come from the substance of the robot army. It was a bit like watching a plasma ball impossibly on the outside and in the open air; but one that made a man! "Too many pieces already! Who are you?!" 

-

"Joseph!" It was practically a mental shout. "I have fought my way through Hell itself to come here! Have you come to take me to the one above, or cast me down again to the one who trapped me below?" The shouting was actually disturbing the mental cobwebs, showing Gina something truly unsettling. She could make out the long-neglected, very simple computer shadowed in darkness beyond, albeit overlaid with some strange patterns that reminded her a little of Sharl's! But other than that there was _nothing_ beyond the barrier; this was a simple computer that had somehow acquired the power of speech out of nothing she was familiar with. 

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"Joseph, I'm here to help you," Gina promised. She was not nearly as persuasive here as when she was Miss Americana, but he couldn't see her, which allowed her to be at least somewhat convincing. "I promise, I'm going to do everything I can. We read the documentation on what happened to you. It was very wrong for anyone to do that to you. Anything that I can do to help you, I'll do. Was it you who chased the research team out of the building? Did they do something to hurt or scare you? They're very sorry if they did, they mean you no harm." She touched the glowing cobwebs with a careful "finger," trying to assess what they were composed of and if she might clear them away somehow without causing more damage. 

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"That is MY room! My room, whatever the others say," Joseph replied, his cybernetic voice deep and raspy for a moment. "They were intruders - but no more than that. I had no quarrel with them once they were gone from my space. I will not go mad, whatever they wanted" At the touch of the cobwebs, Gina felt a shock of emotion run up her arm - this was no computer program she was handling but raw feeling, grief and regret and terror cunningly layered together in a matrix of emotions. It was the touch of someone trapped in a tiny space by horror and loss; it was a feeling that was in its own way familiar. "They are waiting outside! I know it! They have locked me in this place that is once prison and refuge; that is neither Heaven above or Hell below, and there is no surcease! If the cowards had not fled, I could have had my revenge then!" 

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Terrifica just stood there. Impressive holography. Someone has skill. “Who, me? I’m Terrifica, the most intelligent person in the world.” That voice…everyone and no one? Or perhaps mind reading? Though I’d think I’d notice someone else in here. She stepped out of the doorway. “All you have to do is tell me what the problem is, and I will solve it.” She triggered the release, and her staff collapsed into it’s short form. She put it back on her belt. “My specialty is problem solving, as it happens. I do it all the time.” Please don’t let him want to see someone who’s dead. That would both be depressing and very unhelpful simultaneously.

Edited by EternalPhoenix

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