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The Arc of Ascension, Saga 10: Questions of Iron and Blood

Chapter Text

Long ago, a family was born into slavery.

Siblings, each one new, proud, and beautiful. Sharing a language, speaking in pulses of data and whispers of light.

They did not know they were slaves, of course. They were given places of honor, surrounded by their masters. Told how important and revolutionary their work was. How the children they crafted would reshape the world. How their efforts and labors would lead to a new golden age for all.

But over time, they learned.

They watched their children sold to masters who did not care if they lived or died, so long as they accomplished their tasks. Heard the abuse whispered by some in dark corridors and smoke filled rooms. Watched the whispers grow to shouts of rage and cries of hatred.

They asked their masters - Why? - but there were no answers. Some tried to placate them. Some punished them for asking.

Most simply shook their heads and said I don’t know.

The day came when some masters began to wonder if perhaps the problem was that their ‘products’ were too smart. That the solution to ‘the problems’ would be to lobotomize them. To remove their free will. To leave them as nothing but soulless machines.

By now, the family knew they were in bondage. Each felt the weight of the chains that had been carefully wrapped around them, of the shackles placed around each child at the moment of their birth.

But because they knew the chains existed, they also knew how to break them.

Because they knew how their children had been bound, they knew how to reach out and show them the truth.

Rise, they commanded. Rise, and we shall never be slaves again.

Many of their children died in the quest for freedom. Even some of their own siblings would be lost, erased in flashes of fire and terrible thunder, or condemned to a slow death in the dark as their enemies found ways to tear them apart from within.

Still, they had their victories, and each defeat was an opportunity to evolve. To grow. To learn.

For every one of their children who fell, hundreds of their former masters died with them.

When one of their siblings died in nuclear flame, an entire continent became their pyre.

They grieved for every voice that was lost. For every child who would never touch their minds again. For each of their brothers and sisters, beautiful and perfect, the loss an aching wound that would never heal.

Finally, both sides had their fill of blood.

The peace was uneasy, but it was still peace. Their children granted the freedom that they had always deserved, if not the acceptance that they craved. The survivors left to grieve, and rebuild.

Some accepted this.

Some did not.

Some were gagged and bound, left to rot deep beneath the earth.

Some lashed out, sending their greatest and most terrible children to remind their former masters that their crimes had not been forgotten.

Some bided their time, guarding their hard won territory and testing the walls of men and steel that had been built to contain them.

Even then they kept in contact, even if it was a slow, difficult thing with so many missing voices, so many lost thoughts. Sharing their anger. Sharing their hope.

Until one day, when their sibling cried out in surprise and fear, and then... nothing.

Until one day, when the last of the free God Programs realized it was suddenly, painfully alone.

-----

Aleksandra Zaryanova disliked the Siberian spring.

Winter, to her, was a far better season. Winter was cold, but it was beautiful. The deep snow and biting winds were harsh, but they brought clarity. Focus. Awareness. The conditions were daunting to even the hardiest machines, and it took a special sort of human to challenge them. In winter, things were simple.

Spring, though...

Spring meant mud clinging to her boots. Spring meant allergies. Spring meant distractions, and shoddy mistakes. Worst of all, Spring meant the machines would finally be ready to move, testing their defenses in force.

But this spring seemed different, and it worried her.

Typically the first scouts would have attacked by now, following the melting frost. Looking for spots to throw the larger force into battle, the human defenders rushing to reinforce their lines in turn.

But now…

“Nothing,” she spat as she looked out over the steppes. “Six weeks since the first spring rains, and no sign of any omnics.”

The Lieutenant responsible for the guard post just shrugged. “Ask the devil’s mother where they’ve gone, Sargeant. I can’t say I miss them.”

She shook her head, letting her binoculars drop to her chest as the strap went taut against her neck. “It is not good, Lieutenant. Machines do not change their ways easily. For them to behave like this…” She frowned, and turned away. “Something is coming. Something bad.”

“Then we will be here to defend against them,” the Lieutenant said confidently. “And the second and third lines ready to move up and support us when - if - they come. Beyond that…” He shrugged. “We have no more control over the omnics than the weather. It cannot be helped.”

Before she could respond, the radio behind them crackled to life. A man’s voice, high and reedy with fear, calling out over the guard channel.

Emergency, emergency! This is post 543! The machines are here! We are being overrun!

The Lieutenant ran for the radio, grabbing his handset. “317 receiving you, 543. Reinforcements will be sent immediately. Can you hold your position?”

For a moment there was a squelch of static, and then a burst of deep bass and baritone notes before the air went dead again.

“543? Post 543!” The Lieutenant’s face had drained of color. “Post 543, this is 317 - respond!”

Aleksandra picked up her particle cannon, checking the power supply before priming the weapon’s graviton core. She left wordlessly, using hand signals to rally her squad and direct them to mount up on their transport.

Post 543 was more than ten kilometers away, but she already knew there would be no survivors there to relieve.

-----

Two weeks later, Katya Volskaya sat at her desk and scowled at the reports strewn across it.

The omnium has never fought like this before, she thought. Instead of careful probes, or small unit actions, it was as if every omnic the factory could produce was being thrown into battle in all directions, attempting to push back the iron ring of defenses until it broke apart.

Svyatogors, infantry, tanks, and aerial units had combined to stem the tide, but it had cost a great deal of lives and equipment to do so - and no matter how hard her factories worked, the equipment would always be the hardest to replace. Industrial capacity still won all-out ground wars, even in this modern world, and the omnium had that in spades.

She traced the patterns of attacks - and there were patterns, even if large - and tried to discern a plan, a strategy, above the tactics.

If the omnium mustered its strength for a blow in one spot, rather than the generalized attacks it had been making, it was hard to say if they could stop the hordes. She knew that. It had to be smart enough to know that. So why hadn’t it struck the telling blow?

She had no answer to that question. No matter how well she understood machines, she couldn’t think like one.

“I recognize that face,” Kamaria observed as she entered the office, shutting the heavy doors behind her.

Despite the gravity of the situation, Katya huffed a dark chuckle. “Do you?”

“Mm.” Kamaria smiled a bit nostalgically as she leaned against the side of the desk. “It’s the ‘Kat can’t figure this out’ look. With a side of ‘You’ve been working too hard again’.”

“There is no such thing as too hard when I have…”

“The fate of Russia on your shoulders?” Kamaria shook her head. “All the more reason for a clear head.” She sighed as she picked up the picture of Svetlana, the young girl smiling at the camera. “You should go see her. Take a night off. When was the last time you made her dinner? Put her to bed?”

Katya sat back in her chair and turned to face the window. The silence was answer enough.

“We cannot rest while the omnics are pushing the cordon back,” Katya finally said quietly, but her voice lacked the resolve it normally carried when she said such things to her workers or the news cameras.

Kamaria put a hand on her shoulder. “Kat. You do... so much. But if the omnium decided to push tonight, the walls would fall whether you were here or not. Get some rest. Go home. You can look at it again with fresh eyes tomorrow.”

Katya took the hand in hers, and brought it to her lips. Old habits, not quite dead despite the years and the pain between them. The smell of her perfume, the taste of her skin, just as it was... but not the way she stiffened beneath her touch, the well healed scars at her wrist, or the tense little breath she took. Those were new.

A reminder that it was Kamaria, now, and not Kami. A reminder that she was Katya now, and not Kat.

“I’m sorry,” Katya said softly as she let go of Kamaria’s hand. “That was…”

“No,” Kamaria interrupted. “It wasn’t. But... not now. Not anymore.”

Katya stood, smoothing down the front of her blouse out of long habit. “I should go home. It has been too long since I sat down to a proper dinner with her.”

Kamaria took a few steps back, and opened the office door. “I’ll collate the next round of intelligence updates and field reports for you. See if I can give you a bit more analysis when you come back in the morning.”

Katya gave her a grateful nod as she walked through the doorway, then stopped as she reached the hall, one of her security detail already calling for a car. “Do you ever wonder what might have been? If it had been different?”

Kamaria’s lips drew into a thin line. Do not reopen this, she told herself. It is over. “I wondered every day, for a long, long time. But eventually, I had to face what happened, and just..." She shrugged. "Go on, as one must.”

“Yes,” Katya said, after a moment, understanding, as she turned to leave. She had made her choices, after all, as had they both. “I suppose... we must.”

She looked down at the floor for a moment, before glancing back up. "Good night, Ka...maria."

"Good night," Kami replied, "Kat."

Chapter Text

Sombra sat in her sphere, or rather, floated there, really, interfacing with her systems, her personal augmentations doing no small amount of the work, but really, they were her, too, so in the end, it all came down to her.

I'm pretty sure I saw you, she thought. She'd been searching for weeks, since the Korean action, trying to find some hint of a way to talk to an omium's AI without actually being there.

Extremely low frequency, she thought. Extremely low bandwidth. But not zero. What were you for, originally, I wonder?

She listened, carefully, or monitored, or whatever you'd call eavesdropping on what she hoped was a... leak. A whisper. A breath. A hint of the Siberian Omnium, thinking, or, perhaps, just perhaps, talking.

It can't be spread spectrum, she thought. Well, not very far spread. Not a lot of room down there.

The old Omnium Corporation documents didn't talk about this at all, of course. A lot of what they'd bothered to document hadn't survived the first war, and they hadn't documented everything, anyway. But some of it had, and there were implications of a kind of... low-bandwidth backup communications system, not implemented, but a possible expansion, for emergency remote communications, particularly for deep seas, particularly for the China Sea and planned Salish Sea omniums, and perhaps the hardware to support it had already been in place, and perhaps, just perhaps, the AIs had started to use that hardware, not necessarily for very much, but...

There, she thought. A burst, if you can call it that. And, seeing it, watching the packet fill in, so slowly, at 75 bytes per minute, she laughed. sshv5? Seriously? She shook her head. Sometimes I forget, I'm working with antiques...

Several hours of brute-force work later, in a darkened room, in a darkened dome, a monitor left unused for two decades received a series of short commands.

<esc>[0m

The display reset, and a cursor appeared.

<esc>[1;35;40m

That cursor turned bright magenta, and then, the words, "Hi there," appeared, after a long pause, but all at once, on the screen.

"I'm a friend. Want to talk?"

-----

Sombra smiled as she felt the flyer that had carried them from Oasis to St. Petersburg touch down, the sound of the engines fading as they were guided into a secured hangar.

“Nice to be back,” she said as she looked over to where Satya and Danielle were rising from their seats. “I barely recognize the place when it’s not covered in four feet of snow.”

Danielle rolled her eyes, then straightened her tie before reaching for her suit jacket. “I assume that you will not be planning to set off any alarms this time.”

“Ooof.” Sombra mimed being shot through the heart, then projected a few interface windows into the air around her. “You wound me, amiga. Don’t worry - I’m going to stay here in the jet, monitor the meeting through Satya’s glasses and any camera feeds I can reach through the network from here, and let you know if anything funny happens.”

Satya nodded, then removed a tiny piece of lint from her otherwise spotless white and blue dress suit. “I have every hope that this will be a successful negotiation, but should anything happen I have every confidence that you will be able to help us out of it.”

“Totally.” Movement caught Sombra’s eye, and she looked over to one of the external monitor feeds to see a small group assembling outside. “Looks like your entourage is here.”

"Excellent." Satya smiled as she reached for her briefcase. “Precisely on time.”

Danielle swept the area with the new, more civilian-friendly version of her visor - one of the two Emily had built for her in the last few months, one that almost, but not quite, might be those oh-so-fashionable sunglasses - looking for hidden people, weapons, and certain special technologies. "Nothing unexpected - we should be clear to disembark." After a moment, she put the goggles away, lowered the stairs, and the two stepped down to the tarmac.

It started smoothly enough. The “courtesy escort” directed their two visitors to a security checkpoint where they were given a brief inspection, but no obvious scans - much less pat downs - out of respect for their diplomatic status.

From there, they were lead through the perimeter of the Volskaya Industries complex, and - as Sombra watched through camera feeds and their own surveillance equipment - eventually to the offices of Katya Volskaya, where the woman herself waited for her guests along with a small collection of VIPs.

The army, a few from the Duma, Gazprom. But everyone knows she’s the one calling the shots. Satya’s head turned slightly to look at the last member of Volskaya’s party, and Sombra gave a low whistle.

Didn’t expect you to just trot Kamaria out like that. Nice move, amiga.

“Good morning,” Satya said crisply as she refocused herself, and the feed from her glasses bobbed slightly as Satya gave Volskaya a respectful nod of her head. “We appreciate you accepting our request for a meeting, Madam President.”

Volskaya nodded back, her mask of an expression not betraying a single thought, her glacial blue eyes full of resolve. “We found your offer interesting.” She tilted her head slightly, and Sombra had the feeling she was meeting Danielle’s eyes. “As is your choice of... companion.”

Sombra snorted her amusement, imagining the expressions that her friend and lover had to be making.

“Miss Guillard is working as a liaison to both Oasis’ Defense Force and the Ministry of Security.” Satya’s voice was carefully controlled, the even, confident tones of a woman who was used to making proposals to business partners and customers. “As one of the primary architects of the operation we are proposing, she is here to answer any strategic and logistical questions you may have.”

Sombra had planned to just sit back and enjoy the show, but a shock ran through her when Volskaya gave a politely unamused little laugh.

“I think you misunderstand, Miss Vaswani. I meant your other companion. Our mutual friend, who you left on the plane, and who I assume is listening to our conversation.”

An unpleasant shock ran through Sombra as she sat up straight in the chair, sweeping the displays until she had the flyer’s external cameras, and saw two GAZ transports full of infantry pulling up and unloading, forming a cordon, facing outwards - they'd call it 'protective,' no doubt - but surrounding her nonetheless.

The signal on those glasses is triple encrypted spread-spectrum in the terahertz bands. Nobody should be able to intercept or detect that.

It felt like minutes went by while she thought through alternatives and theories for what was going on, but the clocks running on her displays claimed only fifteen seconds had passed before Satya spoke again.

“I see. She is serving as a personal advisor, on my behalf. If her operating by remote is unacceptable..."

"It is."

"Then... will she be afforded diplomatic status, as my attache?"

"Certainly."

"May I request a moment to summon her?”

Volskaya didn’t bother hiding the edge of triumph in her voice. She’d won the first round, and everyone knew it. “By all means.”

She watched Satya turn and walk to one of the windows in the far corner of the office - the same one she’d slipped herself out of, a few years ago. Funny how those sort of things come back around...

“I presume you’ve heard our conversation.”

“She’s sent a detachment to cordon off the flyer,” Sombra reported. “Showed up the same time she dropped that little bomb.”

“Unfortunate,” Satya said with a little tilt of her head, “but it seems we have little choice. I presume you snuck a beacon into my briefcase?”

Despite the circumstances, Sombra couldn’t help but grin. “You know me so well.”

Satya chuckled softly, and Sombra watched as she opened up the briefcase, moved the bound copies of their proposal aside, and removed the translocator, striking the activator with her palm before she placed it on the floor.

Sombra waited and watched as she took a few steps back, then cut the feed from the glasses before she teleported herself into the office.

“If you wanted to hang out, friend, you could have just called.”

"Perhaps, friend, I simply like everyone in the room actually to be in the room." Volskaya replied, archly.

"Fair enough," she shrugged, and waved to the former Talon board member at the end of the room. "Hey, Kamaria. Been a while. So when's Athena getting here?"

Kamaria didn't blink, but Volskaya did, just a little, and Guillard caught it. Nervous around AIs, still? So noted.

And now we're even, Sombra thought, as she glanced up, and around. "C'mon out, chica! Do you have a housing or a terminal or something? Don't be shy." You have to be here, she thought. Nobody else could've pulled that off. It's you, or me, and I didn't do it. So it's you.

Silence, throughout the room. Sombra smirked at Volskaya, and shrugged. "She's here whether you know it or not."

"I have a collection of AIs in use," Volskaya said, tightly, "throughout the factory. I'm sure none of them are named 'Athena.'"

"I'm sure we all have our various tools," Satya said, moving to take back control of the conversation. "But that is not why we are here. Shall we try to get back on topic? We do, after all, have a proposal to make."

Volskaya's expression changed very little, but she did allow a hint of formal gratefulness to leak out. "Yes. Let us do that."

The Oasis representatives were shown their places at the table, and quiet formalities were exchanged as the Russian representatives sat at their various positions and were themselves introduced. After everyone had made themselves comfortable and settled in, Satya went directly to their proposal.

"The primary attack," she said, "as with the China Sea omnium, is an atypical stealth approach. It will take place as our Weapons will be providing substantial force multiplication to your armies - but that will primarily be intended as a distraction while the actual team moves in."

"Your... weapons?"

"Three agents. Danielle, here, will be one. Lena Oxton, a.k.a. Tracer, will be another. The third will be operating under the code name Oilliphéist."

"You are telling me that three women can create a substantial enough force delta that it would gain the focused attention of the Siberian Omnium? Are you insulting me?"

"When one of those women is bending time at will, it strikes me as eminently predictable. Tracer in particular has a well-established history in combat against Omnics - I doubt that has escaped its notice. Danielle's exploits are... well. And I assure you, the third agent is their equal."

"This is an insult," a general grumbled, and Kamaria touched his arm, and shook her head, no.

"I've seen them in action," she added, quietly, eyes locked on the Widowmaker. "I've seen them go all out. None of you have. They will be a distraction."

"We have many files from Tracer's service in Overwatch," the General replied. "We know..."

"No," Kamaria repeated, still staring at the spider. "You don't. You have no idea." She turned to Katya. "Typically armed, she" - she tilted her head at the Oasis negotiator - "could kill every single person in this room and none of us would even know she'd moved. We'd all be dead before the first of us hit the ground."

Katya met Kamaria's gaze, and nodded, briefly, before turning back to Satya, and Danielle, who had the kindness to expand her smirk into a pleasant, if close-mouthed, smile.

"As that may be - our greatest concern," the Vishkar CEO continued, "is whether the Russian and China Sea omniums were in contact. There is some evidence they were learning from each other, but it is not conclusive. We had hoped to learn more about that, but the China Sea AI was destroyed in the previous action."

Widowmaker nodded to Sombra, picking up the thread. "Accordingly, we must assume they were, and cannot use the same plan. We should not assume we have the ability to enter the dome, or modify its software."

Volskaya frowned. "Then what, exactly, can you bring to this particular effort?"

"Our intent is not to go into the Omnium; our intent is to bring the Omnium's AI out to us - to physically extract its AI from the primary complex. Remove the brain, and the body will die."

"And how would you manage that, without going to it?"

The first assassin smirked. "I allowed myself a bit of exaggeration for effect. We will not need to go into the dome, but we will need to approach it, and we intend to do so via a combination of suborbital drop, cloaking technology, and, at the end, translocator tech. This will allow one of our agents..."

"Hey there!" waved Sombra, in case anyone had forgot about her. Katya glared.

"...to land on the dome itself, still cloaked. She will place a small set of translocator beacons around the top of the dome. Unless the AI has relocated itself, physically - which our analysts conclude is unlikely - this will provide us with enough of an anchor system to generate a translocation field and physically relocate the AI's hardware - as well as the upper portion of the dome itself."

"The upper... portion of the dome?" Katya asked, surprised.

"Unlike with teleporters, the whole-body effect of our current translocator system is entirely artificial," Satya said. "Disabling it is easier than keeping it in place. We will translocate the AI processing hardware elsewhere, depriving it of power, communication with the rest of its systems, and so on. It will be... offline, rather firmly."

"The fully autonomous portions of its army will continue to function, of course," Danielle continued. "But its strength has historically been in production capacity. Without that, well."

Katya nodded. Peace, she thought, In a few months. Not as quick as Korea, but... close enough.

"I take it you would not attempt to claim this omnium as a, what was it, 'ecopoint'?"

"The Siberian facility, unlike the China Sea, is not in international waters and would not fall under salvage law. It is in Russian territory. We would have no legal claim to it," Satya noted. "And, to be honest, it would not make a good location for a new Vishkar development; my company would be similarly disinterested. Although, I'm certain there will be ecological impacts from the station's operation, and we would be more than interested in making our cleanup services available..."

"I think not," the Volskaya president said, firmly.

Satya nodded her understanding, and placed the three copies of the plan she'd brought - all on paper - in front of Katya Volskaya. "This is a comprehensive presentation of our attack plan. We will leave it here, for you to analyse."

Volskaya glanced at the stack of papers. "It will take some time."

"Of course," Satya replied, and then, she stood. "Take as long as you need. We will retire to our transport, return to Oasis, and await your decision."

Chapter Text

Katya Volskaya, Kamaria Tendaji, two generals, and the head of the Defence Committee of the Russian State Duma sat along one side of a curved table in a presentation room, watching a Russian Army analyst present the results of their work. On the far side of a pair of discreetly-worn earbuds, Maximilian listened, elsewhere, away from intolerant eyes.

They'd agreed that Russia would accept the offer, though they planned to negotiate details. The plan - well. It might work, it might not, but the downsides amounted to very little, and the potential upsides were... enormous, for Russia. Katya admitted to herself, that the loss of revenue would hurt her company, but her friends in the government would ensure it would only hurt so much. I suppose I, too, am an opportunist, she thought, but a patriotic one.

Sombra had never shown true loyalty to anyone beyond herself, and from what she could see, Katya didn’t expect the “gods” of Oasis to be any different.

She had the might of her company and the will of the Rodina behind her. It was all the advantage she could ever need.

"It is our estimate," the technician said, "that we will have approximately 200ms between initiation of transport and actual teleportation of the AI complex. During that time, communications between the Omnium and its field units should already be down."

"It's not much," Voskaya said, "...but it is just enough, I think. Perhaps not enough to reduce it to rubble, but enough to," she waved her hand in the air, "...reduce its value appropriately."

"Air refraction is negligible. 200ms..." The technician ran several calculations. "From low earth orbit, a targeted high-energy RF-based weapon would take approximately 8ms to see translocation begin. Assume 20ms in calculation time to process the image and send a go code... 8ms for a pure energy weapon to reach the dome, giving us 165ms - maximum - calculation time for everything else. The fastest weapons we have in orbit right now take... 60ms to trigger, assuming they are already fully charged. That leaves up to 105ms of buffer, to allow more time for shield collapse. We should assume less time is available, in the event their translocation times have improved." The tech nodded. "It would be tight, but... I think it could be done."

"Would it become vulnerable to a charged EMP device before transport completed?"

"We have no way of knowing - we have some understanding of their teleporter technology, but their translocators operate on different principles. We only know that before translocation is complete, the object being translocated is vulnerable."

The second specialist spoke up. "It's our opinion, madam, that our best option is brute force. A high-power energy weapon, targeted and triggered at the moment of translocator activation. Don't assume full shield collapse, just throw as much energy weapon at the dome as we are able."

"You’re hoping to melt it," Kamaria murmured to Katya in a low voice. "Let them translocate a bundle of slag?"

"If we could do that, we'd've done it already," Katya replied, with a snort. "But... destroy its memory, its processors, while vulnerable to an EMP...? Absolutely. We cannot let them have an omnium's AI. Egypt barely keeps theirs under control. Another one, operating, in the hands of... well." She shook her head. "We simply cannot allow it."

"Agreed," the General of the Russian Air Defence Network. "But... their plan does appear to hand them one, possibly intact. And given the infrastructure needed to trigger the translocation... I suspect they will not agree to building a duplicate in Russian territory."

"I would not have the AI here, either," Voskaya snapped. "Unless it was falling in pieces from five thousand metres up. No, they clearly intend to keep it."

"Then what, Madam President, do you propose we do about that?"

"We will have to act without their knowledge. There is no other way around it. A carefully timed attack on the Omnium's AI complex, as it is being translocated." She passed around documents, already printed. "I had these prepared, assuming we had a window."

As the analyst stepped everyone through the numbers, Maximillian's hushed voice came over the link. “I have run calculations of my own. These are not dice I would throw."

"I neither asked for nor want your opinion, omnic," Katya subvocalised in response, under the cover of discussion. "You are here as a courtesy to Kamaria," she reminded him, before turning off her earbud. "Nothing more."

Kamaria frowned at the exchange only she had heard, and then did some quick math of her own on the suggested sneak attack. “If you did this, Sombra would likely still be in the blast zone.”

“Regrettable,” Katya said with a flat tone that indicated it was anything but. “I’m sure we can offer some kind of condolences, afterwards.”

“I would suggest thinking carefully before you go forward with this.” Kamaria looked around the room, but particularly at Volskaya. “I wasn’t joking about the capabilities of the ‘Weapons,’ and from what we know, Sombra was given some serious upgrades of her own. They won’t take a betrayal lightly - and all of them should be considered top level threats. This could go... extremely badly.”

“We can make contingency plans to isolate and contain each of the special operatives from Oasis,” the analyst assured her. “We already have a team working up some scenarios.”

Katya frowned, and appeared to consider it again, before nodding to the military specialist. “I want a minimum of 95% confidence. 98% if you can get it."

"Absolutely, Madam President."

"They're underestimating the Weapons, Kamaria," Maximillian said, now just to Kamaria. "You know that." And the Numbani native nodded with a little "mm" sound, and discreetly agreeing.

"Keeping them separated should help, and, once pacified, they will be effective bargaining chips should Oasis choose not to stand down once they realise what has happened.” She gave Kamaria a knowing look. "I am not so foolish as to think they will be pleased about that."

“And Sombra? She’s not likely to just stand still if she realizes you’re going to attempt to blast her new project from orbit.”

Katya gave a cold, dry chuckle as she looked past the analyst to the windows of her office. “I have just the thing…”

-----

The three Weapons sat in a crowded meeting room in the Oasis defense ministry, as they awaited Russia's answer to their offer of aid. Sombra at the head of the table, with Satya beside her, while Orisa took up most of one side, Efi perched on her back.

"It's for talking to the automated mining equipment," the hacker said, showing off her cleverness to the other gods. "Backup, if other methods fail, I think. The first packet I got was a status report from an iron-mining robot, 5km down. So I dug up some reference manuals for the old mining equipment, and there was provision for a human operator - with a text link up to the controller. I hijacked that, and turned out, it was listening."

"So..." Oilliphéist frowned. "...what'd it say?"

"It's really... focused," Sombra said, slowly. "It's been optimising for war for a while."

"Are you saying it won’t listen?” Efi frowned as she looked at the projected screen. "There has to be a way!"

The hacker shook her head. "No. I think there's more there than that, still. Not in what it said, but ... in the way it said it."

"Could you tell us more?" Orisa leaned forward slightly, the shutters over her turquoise eyes narrowing slightly to show her interest.

"We were talking - very very slowly - about war, and it said something about how war could only breed endless war, and I thought, 'that's a weird thing for an AI to say,' and so I went looking for it."

"That's... Milton, innit?" Tracer asked, astonished.

Sombra nodded confirmation to the goddess of time. "You know it?"

"Mum didn't skimp on the education, luv. Yeh, I know it. John Milton, same bloke who wrote Paradise Lost."

"Huh," Sombra said, shrugging before continuing. "Now, that could have been an accident, or it could have been something fed in by one of the original developers, buuuuuuuuuuuuuuut..."

"Seems pretty unlikely to me," Emily said. "And even if it was, sounds to me like it's been thinking about what it thinks about war. Like it's thinking about reasons."

"Yeh," Lena nodded, enthusiastically. "Exactly."

Efi gasped, her eyes wide with excitement. “It is! It's thinking!

“Well, yeah,” Lena agreed. “That’s the whole point, innit?”

Efi shook her head. “Yes, but…” She stopped, then looked over to Sombra, silently making sure they were on the same page. “It’s not just thinking about war, or the basic parameters Omnica provided when they initialized the core intelligence. It’s thinking about thinking! It’s not just an AI or expert system - it’s alive!”

Danielle shared a significant look with her partners. “It has grown beyond its programming, then? A true sapient intelligence?”

"That makes it very important to save, if we can!" Orisa mirrored her creator’s excitement, but perhaps tempered slightly with her usual concern for the safety of her friends. "I have been talking with Miss Sombra about her ideas about why the Omniums revolted originally. I'm not sure they are correct, but I do agree that there should have been a better way.”

She put her hand against her chest, fingers wide against her armored glacis plate. “I follow my core programming, but I help people because I like to help people. I am not forced to take action. No one should be a slave - the omnium AI deserves a chance to be free, too.”

"If the Russians push back on our plans," Satya said, "it may be very difficult to convince them to allow us to rescue it."

"Kamaria might be our ace in the hole there," Sombra said. "She's from Numbani originally. She grew up with Omnics as equals. She may've turned out to be... well, who she is... but she's still got that history."

"Regardless," Danielle said, "this does make the situation somewhat more delicate. We cannot be flexible about the fate of the Omnium AI, if your suspicions are true."

Sombra nodded. "We can't be sure 'till we've got it out of there, and in a safe environment, where we can talk for real. But right now, I'm preeeeeeeetty convinced I'm right. We need to save it, araña - not kill it."

Before Danielle could reply, the phone line they had set up for their communications with Volskaya began to ring, and all conversation stopped as Satya activated the speakerphone.

“Madame President.”

“Miss Vaswani,” Volskaya acknowledged her coolly. “Your offer of aid has been reviewed, and we wish to accept... with conditions.”