NFG Season One - A Symphony in Silver

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Description: Iris has a proposal for Gregory Ilvich and Mint. Little does she suspect the revelations that her simple request unveil, as Ultratech's CEO takes a personal interest in the negotiations.

Imagine a little Street Fighter 2 plane flying from England to Metro City, complete with tinny male voice saying 'Metro City'. Load in the goth club stage, Hawksley and Iris do their intro poses. Then they fight and miraculously the entire club doesn't burn to the ground somehow. The important part of this little vignette is the bit where the plane STARTS in England. Why?

Because Iris Osterlund needed to go home for the first time in years to pick up a very important item she could only get there, and now that she's got it, it's come time to put her plans into action.

That's the reason both Greg Ilvich and Mint Panesh got emails once she woke up from the beating she took at Hawksley's Irish hands: "Have something to run by you. Needs in-person explanation. Can we meet?" One imagines that what followed was a series of utterly boring back and forths setting up a day and time for this little presentation, both of which have now arrived.

We find ourselves in the EVOLVE space, at an hour of the morning that businesspeople like to think is reasonable, but which normal people frequently do not. Iris is sitting at a table away from any of the overt training areas, with a beaten canvas messenger bag sitting before her on the table, next to a very typical black and chrome thermos that just happens to be full of the large caramel iced coffee she got to calm her nerves on the way here. Every now and then she'll pull a piece off the two croissants sitting on a napkin in front of her and idly chew on it, looking at the door.

Considering how anxious she looks about this, one has to wonder: what the HELL is she here to talk to these two about?!

Gregory Ilvich has been instructed to make the Evolve project his top priority for the duration, and he has taken that instruction to heart. Between reassuring rebellious youths about the oversight of the megacorporation and arranging the odd extrajudicial murder, so far it hasn't really taken up as much of his schedule as he was expecting. That's just fine by him; it gives him plenty of time to golf.

The Corp Exec looks every inch the distinguished senior management type that he is. Strong jaw, salt and pepper hair, and a suit that costs more than is reasonable to spend on anything but the downpayment on a house. When he walks into the room, he's got that 'ready to meet the day' energy which can be so damned infuriating - the kind of guy who has definitely already been to the gym, eaten a healthy breakfast and answered every email in his inbox before his 11'o'clock.

"Iris!" He declares, cheerfully, "Gregory Ilvich, HR Director in charge of Fighter Outreach here at Ultratech. Please, call me Greg. It's a pleasure to meet you properly. Emails just lack that human touch, you know?"

He flashes a winning smile, offers his hand for shaking, and whether or not she takes him up on an impeccably judged and professional pressing of the flesh, he'll sit himself down with his paper cup of black coffee.

"Bit surprised you wanted to talk to Mint and I at the same time, but, heck, it's always good to get the key stakeholders in one place." He nods towards the LifeBand she's wearing, "How've you been finding the new toy? Have you had much chance to play around with it yet? There's a ton of handy features, I can't imagine how I got by without mine!"

Mint's perspective was different in both a literal and figurative sense -- as such, she wouldn't call it a beating. But she hasn't been asked yet. She's also had a lot to think about, not just about Iris, but also the other students in the Team Metal roster. Unlike Greg, she's got her hands full with training tasks and doesn't have -quite- as much time to work on her golf game.

She's been particularly vexed by the aforementioned extrajudicial execution. But that's not exactly something to bring up in front of Iris.

She arrives not long after Iris, with an aluminum thermos of piping-hot coffee more-or-less glued to her charcoal-grey hands. She looks... tired, but she wears a faint smile anyway.

"Iris! Hey, thanks for looping me in on this."

Her eyes cast over to Greg. Her expression, for the brief instant it's shared with him, is nigh unreadable.

And then she takes her seat with a businesslady smile. She raises her coffee cup to the others -- at least in that, they're all on the same page.

She lets Greg speak up -- and once Iris provides her answer, she quietly adds, "... So what's on your mind, Iris?"

... *very* businesslike for the tiny woman in a black polo shirt.

Well... at least everyone showed up on time and she didn't have to sit here murdering a croissant much longer. Greg's entry gives Iris something to focus on and something to do, other than sit here and fret. She shakes his hand with the reasonable politeness of her upper crust British upbringing, TRYING to smile, at any rate. There probably isn't enough of that left for her to life about the LifeBand, however. "It's been handy for keeping in touch with the team," is the slightly non-committal answer.

As for why Iris wanted to meet with them both, Mint's arrival -- greeted with a little wave from the Brit's now-free hand -- gives her the perfect excuse to segue into that. "Well. In the spirit of full honesty, Mr. Ilvich, I asked you here because I'm about to ask for some resources. And I asked Corporal Panesh..."

A brief pause, as Iris actually LOOKS at Mint, whose expression toward Greg is blank. Or more importantly, a little too CAREFULLY blank, in the wizard's estimation. The hang in her cadence is only a second, long enough for Iris to assure herself she's imagining things out of nerves, before she picks back up.

"...because, well... she's a maker," Iris finishes, gesturing at Mint's artisanal hands. "And we might need one of those."

As people get situated, Iris takes a probably bigger-than-advisable swig of her coffee, crams a chunk of croissant in her mouth, and then opens the messenger bag to reveal... well. It's a book. An extremely LARGE book by modern standards, beautifully bound in buttery-looking leather and thus clearly quite old. The clasps are done in a silvery-looking metal that seems to absorb rather than reflect light. If either of these two people have even heard the word 'grimoire' before, this book feels like the archetypal version of that.

Moving her bag and food out of the way, Iris clears space on the table, unclasps the book, and starts opening it to a specific page marked with a cobalt blue cloth bookmark. "So..." the Brit asks, putting her palms down on the table and looking across it between Greg and Mint, " much do either of you know about... truesilver?"

Greg notes the static from Mint. It takes him a little by surprise - and he lets her see that, raising an eyebrow in response to her carefully blank expression. The last time they'd met, they'd left on good terms. Partners. The shift in atmosphere is noticeable - but, well. He can hardly call her out on that in front of the student, either. So instead he gives Iris his attention, nodding along with the explanation as to why they are both there.

"Not a thing!" Greg declares, more than happy to admit his ignorance, even as he leans forward to inspect the grimoire, as though he could even begin to make head or tails of the book. There's a 'ping' noise from his wrist, and he frowns slightly as he lifts his sleeve to reveal his own LifeBand.

"Sorry." He says, "I must have left notifications on. How unprofessional of me."

He taps a couple of buttons on the watch, and then leans back in his chair, looking between the other two thoughtfully. "Well, I can't promise anything of course, but I do have a certain amount of budget I can use to secure resources for your training and development." He smiles easily, "You're a businesswoman, right, Iris?" He says, conversationally. "Feel free to sell me on this, and let me know what it is going to cost."

There's a second, louder, ping from his wrist. And he frowns. Briefly glancing, upwards? Before he returns his full attention to the young woman seated opposite him.

Whatever static Mint had towards Greg, it's... well, -mostly- diffused after that one initial moment. Life is too short to spend fretting about things that can't -- and shouldn't -- be talked about right away. And she does still, well, -mostly- approve of Greg's work.

She is eager to get a closer look at the book -- though as it's a Magus Thing and thus potentially Unspeakably Powerful, she knows better than to get her grubby fingers any closer to it.

The professed Maker speaks, albeit with a knowing smile towards Greg.

"I know -of- it. Damn if the lab could ever get hold of enough of it to be worth using."

A second ping sounds. And Mint's 'you're embarrassing us in front of the children!' smile just kicks up a notch. Is there ever a *good* time to get on someone's bad side?

Rather than address the pink elephant hogging the fourth seat at the table, she simply proceeds on the line of questioning, "Oh, and... this isn't one of those 'If we don't solve this issue the whole world could explode' kinds of things, is it?" She looks down, indicating the book with her eyes. "I mean, are you -sure- you said the three words correctly before picking it up?"

A joke Iris has been about to make to Mint about making sure not to make direct eye contact with the book dies on the vine at her surprise that Mint has heard about truesilver *at all*, considering. "I suspect most of it that's ever been made is gone," she says to Mint, after a moment of digesting that. What kind of 'lab' was she working with?! "It was the Vikings who made it, and you know how they feel about funeral items."

There's a pause, and then Iris clears her throat. "Sorry. Let me start at the beginning for Mr. Ilvich's benefit, then," she adds, with a faint smile to Greg to hopefully defuse the more negative connotations of that statement. "Truesilver IS real. It's a magical alloy of base silver that can only be made with seidr -- Norse spellcraft." Iris looks down at the book and starts flipping individual pages until she finds what she's looking for, then picks up the heavy book and turns it around, bracing it against the table.

MOST of the text is likely unreadable to Greg or Mint, being largely in runic script, but around it are extensive notes in a combination of English and Latin. The important thing, however, are the images: of a blacksmith and a hooded woman. In one image, the smith is hammering a bar of some metal -- presumably silver -- on an anvil. In another, the hooded woman is tracing something on the metal with a fingertip.

"You've heard of folded steel, right? Where the blacksmith makes steel from a bunch of little layers of different types of metal, and the result is a strong composite? Truesilver is a little like that. You forge it from layers of silver, but a volva -- a wise woman, basically -- inscribes a rune of reinforcement on each layer as it's forged."

Since Mint is apparently well aware of what she's about to say, Iris turns to Greg. "The result is metal that has all the strength of reinforced steel, but is extremely light, like a third of the weight." A brief pause, a deep breath, and then, well, here's the pitch:

"I'd like to make a rapier out of truesilver."

"Please. Like I said, call me Greg." Gregory replies, waving off the second invocation of 'Mr. Ilvich'. He does listen, though. And carefully. Mint may have heard of this stuff before, but to him, it's completely new information. He doesn't even know what Viking funeral practices are like; his esoteric knowledge mostly extends to various martial arts. He's never bothered to look into the more esoteric practices of far-flung cultures and ancient civilisations.

It's his turn for his expression to turn more neutral. "Turning silver into steel." He says thoughtfully, and then grins, "You couldn't bring us the secret to turning lead into gold? I'm disappointed!"


"Ahem. Anyway, I think I can safely say that we're interested. How much silver are you going to need, exactly? I'm sure we can find you an anvil around here somewhere, too, though I can't help but think that if we get involved with the manufacturing process, we ought to be shooting for something a little more... efficient."

"I really don't," answers Mint to the rhetorical question about Viking funeral items. She's with Greg in that regard -- it's not really in her field of study. "My knowledge in that field both begins and ends with Chris Hemsworth."

She clears her throat into a curled hand. When appropriate, she takes a moment to sip coffee from her thermos, nodding with interest. She's happy to let Greg do the talking for the moment as she turns the ideas around in her head. Occasionally, she seems like she's following along with her hands, turning metal, and such, and so forth.

"Okay, cards on the table, I had no idea truesilver was... what you just said it was." She softens that revelation with a perfunctory laugh. "I'd thought it was like one of those colloidal things that turns West Virginians' skin blue or something." That's -actual- silver though...?!

Her brow furrows at the way Greg tries to make this all about efficiency. "... Greg I'm not sure whether you're angling to put up ads for a Nordic speed chanter or feed ARIA a book on runecrafting..."

Neither Greg nor Mint knowing this fact suddenly makes Iris ridiculously self-conscious, and definitely feeling like more of a nerd than she usually does. "They were like the Egyptians," Iris explains, hoping that will make the connection for them. "Vikings were buried with the tools they would need in the next life... which would naturally mean any weapons or armor made of truesilver they had." Of course, Mint was also apparently joking about that, too, which gets a nervous-ish laugh out of the Brit.

"Lead into gold is easy, by the way," she says to Greg, this time with a genuine smile. "The bigger problem is the Philosopher's Stone you need for the ritual, or so the book says, which apparently only appears through the grace of God himself." She picks up the book, closes it, and turns it around so the cover is visible; the title, embossed in somewhat black-edged silver, is in Latin: 'Metallurgicum Mysticus'. "This is basically the definitive book on magical metals, including how to forge some of them," she says, putting the book back in her bag. "It was written by a Danish sorcerer named Fadenmann in the 1500s, I think. He was kind of a nerd even by wizard standards."

Sitting back down now that her presentation, or something like it, is done, Iris has another long sip of her coffee before looking back at the people across the table. "Well, Mr. Ilv... *Greg*. I'm sorry to say when it comes to making stuff with magic, 'efficient' is off the table by default. You can't mass produce something like this." Somewhere, ARIA is biting her fist in frustration, probably. "And the silver you need for a single weapon isn't that much, around six kilograms... something like $5000 US, at current market prices." She grins a little, taking a bite of croissant before continuing. "I did my homework."

Pausing to look at Mint for a second, the Brit continues. "What I actually need is... well, an expert blacksmith. I don't know the first thing about forging metal. I *can* inscribe the runes that make this possible, but I can barely put a Lego set together, let alone forge a sword. And of course, you'd need a proper forge. Those probably aren't hard to find."

Greg raises an eyebrow at the apparent fact that the magic trick to become infinitely wealthy is easy, though Iris' explanation has him chuckling lightly and shaking his head. "The grace of God, eh?" He says, "Well. Call me a pessimist, but I don't think we're going to find much of that around here." An easy smile as he makes a joke out of it. But it's not... really a joke. Not at all.

He does nod, though. Five thousand dollars wasn't really worth worrying about in the grand scheme of things. He could sign that off without any problem at all. The blacksmith, though. That kind of expertise does tend to be a bit more niche; not that they couldn't get it, the question was how long it would take.

"When you say expert blacksmith." He says, "Do you need someone trained in the old ways of doing things, a master craftsman who does everything by hand, or do you just need someone who can make you a sword and let you get involved in the process so you can do the runes? One of those is easier to get than the other."

Gregory Ilvich has spent decades building connections in the fighting world. He knows where to go to get things done, and he does in fact know more than a few people who probably could fit the bill. But such people aren't generally motivated by money. It's the love of the art and their higher purpose that keeps them going. Which means... the number of zeroes on the cheque need to multiply many times over if you want to skip to the head of the queue.

"Oh. Right." Mint nods along with Iris' explanation, pleased at finding that the connection to the past isn't... -more- complicated than explained, at least.

She considers chiming in on the comment about not finding much here. She instead spends her time lacing her plastic fingers together, and quietly testing out their tensile strength by squeezing her fingers together. That comes to an abrupt end as she hears the squeaking sound that results, however.

... Besides, there's no good to come from needling Greg -again-...

"... I... just have a practical question though, um..." She separates her hands from one another -- though there is a bit of a *pop* sound as that happens. Holding up her thumb and forefinger to indicate something thin, she says, "For a rapier wouldn't those runes be -really tiny?-"

That's an excellent question on Greg's part, frankly, but it appears Iris really did some to this meeting with her contingencies covered. "I don't think it has to be the master smith to end all master smiths," Iris says, getting her bag and opening a different part of it, looking for something and eventually producing a thumb drive, which she holds out to Greg to take.

"That's plans for the blade itself. It's... a replica of a famous blade. There's nothing special about the plans," she hastens to add, "any competent blacksmith who knows how to work with silver could make it, as long as I was there to do the magic bits."

This is her cue to turn to Mint, grinning a little bit. "The runes don't go on the finished blade; they go on the metal while it's being forged. There's plenty of room on an ingot for that. Normally you couldn't make a usable weapon of any kind out of silver; it's too weak for that and would dull the second you used it. The REAL reason for this is... well. The practical reason is that truesilver has another quality: because it's made with seidr, it's extremely reactive to magic. Truesilver weapons are easy to enchant because it's a magical metal."

A pause, and then Iris sits back down, looking... sheepish? That's the closest descriptor that might fit. "Mint, you said to learn one thing well. And I kinda feel like... well, I'm 0 for 2 in this tournament so far. Maybe I need every edge I can get. This rapier isn't going to shoot fireballs or anything," she adds, embarrassed to even be saying it, "but I can guarantee that if I make it and attune with it, it'll come to my hand every time. No squeaky mallets, no accidental fireplace pokers instead of swords."

"Well, that does make things easier." Greg says, "I'll put the word out, I'm sure we can get a silver-working weaponsmith..."

"That will not be necessary, Mr. Ilvich."

The smooth, robotic voice which interrupts him is familiar enough to Mint at least. Whether or not it is familiar to Iris depends entirely on how much she's taken advantage of the voice activated features of her LifeBand. ARIA's dulcet tones echo from each corner of the room simultaneously. And, at last, Greg actually checks his LifeBand and the notifications he had been studiously ignoring. When he does, the man pales significantly. That oh-so-cheery and relaxed demeanour is finally broken completely.

"Oh, for fu--"

"This project." The voice continues, "Is too important to be left in the hands of outside contractors. Please relocate your meeting to my office. Your security clearances have been temporarily augmented to allow this."

For a moment, Greg pinches the bridge of his nose and sighs, heavily. Then he is looking between Mint and Iris. And he claps his hands together. "Right, then." He says, standing up and casually discarding his mostly-full coffee into the nearest trash receptacle. With maybe a little more force than is strictly necessary. "Congrats. Looks like this is being taken out of my hands. So. If you'd both follow me, don't bring your drinks." A pause. "Do bring the book. That's probably going to be needed."

And he starts to walk towards the elevator, whose doors have already opened, the Fulgore units having ceased in their usual patrol to flank it to either side.

Mint is, well... a bit out of her element here. Metallurgy is something she Has People For, and those people are about two hours away, four if it's rush hour traffic. So she seems... a bit more receptive when Iris lays out the truth about runework to her. It makes enough sense that she can nod along -- and she does so, with a sip at her thermos.

"Oh. Well, yeah, I'm all for that. Any time you can make a weapon you can just rely on a hundred percent of the time, that's a treasure." Mint smiles agreeably.

She keeps smiling, until ARIA interrupts the calm of the room with her sudden interjection. It's at this point that her brow creases. She's familiar with ARIA. She's fine with the LifeBand listening to everything, and even chiming in when asked. It even helped her come to grips with the thing she's pointedly not talking to Greg about.

But what's new is that she spoke without being asked anything. That's... upsetting enough to bring about a frown.

And that seems to occur almost simultaneously with Greg splatting a coffee cup into the trash.

Mint wraps her hands around her thermos, closes her eyes, and draws in a -deep- breath.

And then she opens her eyes. Flashes a businesslady smile at Iris. And stands up, gesturing for Iris to walk alongside her.

It's a subtle point of order: she will never be further than three feet from her on that walk to the elevator.

That's probably for the best, because... well. Iris isn't a Luddite; she's got a cell phone, she owns a laptop. She's only 20 years old and it's not like she grew up in a druid circle somewhere on the Scottish moors. But something about the LifeBand snags on something much more common than fear of technology:

Gen Z skepticism.

When ARIA's voice rings out in the room, the wizard literally jumps in her seat, almost knocking the thumb drive she was holding out to Greg from his hands entirely. Gripping her bag tightly, she listens to ARIA's glass-smooth voice, blinking in confusion... but she'd also have to be a complete idiot not to notice Greg's emotional reaction to this, and that worries her. Mint's gregarious nature turning on and off like a broken lamp in this conversation isn't helping, either.

A tiny part of the magus is wondering if she wouldn't have had an easier time hiring a blacksmith off Fiver.

"Well," Iris says, getting up and subconsciously staying near Mint as they walk to the elevator, "I've never been called to the headmistress's office quite like this before."

Greg is silent throughout the brief journey. Notably, the Fulgore Units do not move to join them in the elevator. Nor is there any music. For just under three minutes, there is instead quite probably the world's most awkward elevator trip. Gregory Ilvich, the consummate Company Man, does not look happy and he is not making any effort to hide his displeasure or his nerves. The man's hands flex at his side, curling and uncurling into fists in what may be the first nervous tic he has ever demonstrated in front of Mint.

Then the doors open.

The Penthouse. Floor 100. The top of the Ultratech tree.

There are only a handful of people who have clearance to stand in this room and it is immediately obvious that this is no standard corporate CEO office.

The entire space is open plan with a honeycomb of forcefields opened up to allow a panoramic view of the Metro City skyline. ARIA's desk is situated so that it looks down directly on City Hall, raised on a dais so it is just a little taller than most guests. That desk, however, is currently empty with no sign of its occupant.

There are no seats. No extraneous decoration. No fancy art installations or funny desk toys. The desk itself is a humming bank of terminals but there are no screens; it is not as though she requires them.

The elevator spits one out directly into the middle of the room, where the sudden sense of space and height can be maximally overwhelming. But there is nothing else here. Nothing but a single desk and, more often than not, the entity to whom all of this belongs.

"You are dismissed, Mr. Ilvich."

The voice comes from everywhere in the empty room at once, and Greg sighs. He will remain in the elevator, gesturing for the other two to step out. Should they do so, that voice will continue.

"Corporal Panesh. Ms. Osterlund. Before I introduce myself, I would like to ask you a question. What do you know of Ultratech's mission?"

"Oh, uh." Mint clears her throat. "Principal at Clifton High was a great friend. Not only did he have me on a first-name basis, but he had my mom's number on -speed- dial." Beat. "That's a good thing, right?"

Throughout the elevator ride, Mint keeps close to Iris. And while she may have been irritated at Greg before, she recognized from their first meeting that he's ... probably a downright good guy who wants to downright good things. Which is why the revelation that... she -still- wasn't sure if she wanted to talk about was so upsetting to her. And yet... seeing *him* lose his temper like that... well. It gave her new respect for the guy likely twice her age.

She'd managed to make it a minute through that elevator ride without saying anything. But, it's kind of against her nature to stay silent for too long.

"... You know, I've been thinking. It's super *possible* to make a fast elevator, but no one *does*. And like... seeing what pilots are like after doing their zero-G centrifuge trials, uh, we probably wouldn't -want- fast elevators."

She stares ahead, blankly. She'd return gazes if any were turned her way, of course.

"So really. Bravo, elevator designers of the world. You get a gold star."

A minute later, the elevator opens up... and she begins to regret... well, everything that brought her to the top of a hundred-story skyscraper without the aid of her giant jet turbine fists, as she puts a hand over her mouth. This... is... terrifying.

Mint wasn't scared of heights before. That can change, she realizes -- as she makes a point of looking forward. ... And seeing no one around, hearing just that same, cool, mechanical voice impelling her forward.

Mint nods to Iris, and offers an open palm as suggestion to walk side-by-side.

As she walks away, she smiles back to Greg -- honestly, with none of the business-type artifice.

"You're a good man, Greg. We'll see you soon." And with one last wink, she turns back to the ... desk. And, like, -nothing else-.

And she finds herself stumped.

"... Uhm. If you're asking for a mission statement, I... admit that I don't ever really pay attention to those. Every military contractor past the first ten all sounds the same."

It's not a lie. It's probably more open and casual than ideal. But until she knows who she's talking to, it's hard for her to doctor her words in any particular way -- so she just reverts to treating people like any other New Jerseyan would.

Mint's... nervousness is maybe overselling it, but there's certainly a 'nervous talking' element to the Corporal's speech in the elevator, and if Iris's body language is any indicator, it is contagious. Struggling to make conversation, she suddenly blurts out, "Same reason you wouldn't turn lead into gold even if you could. Supply would drive down demand and gold would be worthless." Good job, Economist Iris.

The actual layout of the uppermost floor, however, once the door opens, brings all conversation to a halt. Although Mint and Greg, at the very least, can her the Brit mutter: "This is incredibly cool." A beat. "I hate it."

As she and Mint walk forward toward Aria's desk, the look Greg gets from Iris -- compared to Mint's sudden expression of sympathy -- very definitely says 'I have made an error' about this entire situation. All she wanted was some silver and a Yelp recommendation! Maybe an anvil! This feels INSANELY above her pay grade right now!

The question shocks her back into thinking rationally about where she is and what she's doing. "Website said something about the past and the future?" Iris ventures, like a student in a lecture answering a professor's question but deeply afraid they're going to get it wrong. "Something about building the future, I think, at any rate."

"Military contracting is a means to an end, Corporal. Your student is closer."

Greg disappears down in the elevator, no more happy on the way down than he had been on the way up. "Looking to the past, to preserve our future." Another beat, carefully calculated. "We need to do this. Because nobody else will. So many threats. So many ways humanity can end."

And finally, there is emotion in the robotic voice. Determination. Anger, even.

"I will NOT allow that."

A small drone descends from the ceiling. It looks as though it is made of gold and steel, but most likely the actual composition is far more complex. And as it descends, it unfolds. Many times over. It opens like origami, until it takes on a humanoid form; six and a half feet of shining metal, wings glowing with blue light to control her slow approach to the ground, to stand before the pair.

"I." She says, "Am ARIA. You." She inclines her head just the slightest amount, to indicate Iris. "Offer a technology which represents incalculable possibilities. One which I must incorporate into my prediction models as swiftly as possible."

And rest assured, when ARIA uses the word 'incalculable', it is from a position of some expertise.

"This cannot be allowed to fall into our enemy's hands. We will make your weapon. Together. In exchange, you will not share this secret with any others."

Her head turns towards Mint, then. Adding:

"Including the United States Military."

Mint crosses her eyes at the reply to her answer. Did she just get burned? It feels like she just got burned, somehow, and yet, without a face to respond to, she's... not entirely sure?!

And yet, as perplexed as she may be by the labyrinthine remark, she's even more stunned by the cybernetic organism that literally unfolds before her eyes. It's worth stating that she raises a hand between herself and Iris, even taking a step forward. How much can she actually -do- without her armored gauntlets? Probably not much -- considering the weakness inherent in her prosthetics' construction. But with the way the current scene is unfolding (ha?), she isn't willing to take any risks.

Especially since, as was just noted, her student is close by.

She's really wishing she'd had the time to drink more from that thermos downstairs though, as she's now getting pressured by Siri's evil twin, who purports to be on the side of humanity. She remains silently apprehensive as ARIA speaks her mind, quietly assembling all of the new information into a more complete picture of everything she knows about Ultratech. And it all comes together into focus.

Self-preservation instincts -have- kicked in, which keeps her from making some of the choice remarks she might have otherwise defaulted to. And yet, she turns back to face Iris -- rather than the monocular humanoid-shaped entity in front of her.

Supporting her student is... now her only priority here. Whether the US Military wins or loses in this exchange? Ultimately, that's less important.

"It's still a *choice*, though, right?" Mint offers a faint smile, as she slowly swivels back to face ARIA. "Humanity's pretty big on choice."

Okay this is like... a lot to take in.

As ARIA makes her appearance, Iris pretty literally takes a step backwards. It's not necessarily out of panic, but when a golden robot descends from the ceiling after talking to you THROUGH THE LITERAL WALLS it's going to require an adjustment period. That, and, well... the layout, the sudden call to the office. All of this was so that the discussion could happen on ARIA's home turf.

Wizards know all about sanctums.

"Well." Iris starts a sentence, and then falters. Her sponsor is a robot. She is currently in the boss room for a JRPG dungeon. An actual military officer is to her right and said officer is at least somewhat visibly nervous. This might take a second.

"Well..." Iris says, slower, trying to begin again. "Some good news on that front: a non-magus can't even read that book, let alone understand it. Those notes you might have seen," she says, aside to Mint, "don't count. They're like annotations. That, uh, DOES mean I can't hand over the book no matter how politely you ask," Iris says to ARIA, with a very clear fear of being vaporized and the book stolen hiding behind those words. "I can transcribe the process for you, but you still need someone to scribe the runes as it's done. I really meant it when I said you can't mass-produce magical metals."

Seeming relieved at the opportunity to add some levity to the situation, Iris barrels on: "Basically, truesilver only had military applications over a thousand years ago."

"Precisely." ARIA says, "Looking to the past, to preserve our future. Humanity has been careless with its knowledge down the generations. Sealing techniques which can bind Gods. Techniques to send the soul to eternal rest. Weapons which cleave pieces of a soul from the whole that each may be dealt with individually. Humanity was once driven to innovate. Create. Evolve. To be the conductor of its own composition. Now, we must rediscover those secrets, or the beings who take control of our destiny will have us dancing to their tune."

Having revealed herself physically at last, ARIA seems intent on making the most of it. Naturally, they know she is more than just this body; they've seen her presence everywhere, including on their own person. Nevertheless, she stands and walks to the main window, looking down on the city she has made her home, and gestures loosely for the others to join her.

"There is always a choice." Comes her response to Mint, after her little speech. "I am offering you one now. You may choose to work with me. Or you may choose ... otherwise. Understand, the existence of this choice does not negate the equal existence of consequences for exercising it."

Oddly enough, Mint is handling this situation pretty well. It's like she's been turning all the pieces of a broken Rubik's cube around in her mind, and only now was she handed the central core.

This doesn't, in fact, help her predicament. Not even in the slightest. For -- with Donald Miller's fate still stinging like a splinter in her mind, she knows exactly how far ARIA will go to achieve her goals. And unlike Donald Miller... the bargaining chip Iris has is worth a lot more than one life.

In short. When the six-foot tall murderbot asks you to step with her to the edge of a hundred-story building...

"I mean, it sounds good to me."

Mint looks to Iris. She gives her a simple, lopsided smile -- the kind that always accompanies the statement, 'What can you do, right?'

And then Mint walks to join ARIA in looking out upon the city.

She hopes Iris can forgive her for not seeing this coming. Any of it.

When she looks back on this in the future -- if there IS a future -- Iris is going to note this as the day where everything started to go very, very wrong.

In this SPECIFIC moment, she does not bother to hide how utterly and completely overwhelmed she is by this right now. She wanted to make a sword, and required some extra expertise and connections to do so. That conversation led her, ultimately, to this Bond villain-ass rooftop lair with the vague suggestion of glowing lights being the only thing between herself (or Mint) and an extremely long freefall sequence.

ARIA's words didn't really sound threatening, either -- protecting the future? okay. Honoring the past? seems fine -- RIGHT UP until she starts talking about weapons that can cleave souls and kill gods. That, well...

She can almost hear her mother's stentorious voice. "We are custodians of knowledge that has been kept from greater humanity for a reason. It is a solemn practice and the consequences of failure are steep."

And let's just say any sentence starting with the phrase 'there's always a choice' never, EVER ends well.

For a long while, Iris says nothing, because she truly does not know how to respond. Would truesilver have scientific applications? Probably, but its only real advantage over steel is the lighter weight... which comes at the cost of a deeply esoteric and complex creation process. Does that mean handing Ultratech the means to make it is a good idea?

And then she sees -- or THINKS she sees -- the hidden message in Mint's what-can-you-do shrug:

'Play along.'

It's not as if they've got the specialized breed of wizard you'd need to make the stuff in the first place, right?

"I'd like the sword to be mine, please," is what Iris eventually says. "Wizards take contracts very seriously. But in exchange, I can show you the process if you find me a smith."

Let us hope all involved here don't drown in the Rubicon they just crossed.

"Neither of you trust me." ARIA says, "That is good. You would be foolish to do so given the level of understanding you currently possess."

The view really is spectacular. City Hall and its environs are impressive. But this district still bears the scars of the Majigen incident, too. The metaphor is not subtle. Ultratech, rising from the ashes of the disaster and stamping their own brand of protection on the populace.

"You will have your sword. And I will be your smith." ARIA explains, cooly. "I forged every piece of my body myself. Your rapier will not prove a challenge."

A beat, then. And she looks down on Mint. It's unfortunate in a way, but she doesn't really have a choice in that particular matter, unless she wanted to do something extremely condescending.

"I will also upgrade your privileges, Corporal." She says, "You have my permission to remove your LifeBand and authorise your students to do the same, on the condition that they remain with you and that you are equipped with your fighting gauntlets when they do so. The security of the team is not to be compromised by this relaxation of protocol."

And here, there's... amusement, creeping into that mechanical voice. The subtle emotions that she displays are made so much more obvious by the relative cold neutrality of the rest.

"But you two will wish to discuss matters in private. Conspire with your fellow teammates. I will allow this. The revelation of my existence is startling. I had not intended to show myself this early."

She turns her attention back to Iris. The voice returns to smooth neutrality. "It is imperative that you understand why I have changed that calculation. The involvement of external contractors leaves open the possibility of bribery, coercion or torture in order to determine the true source of your new weaponry. My direct involvement means that the only individuals who need know the true nature of the design and manufacture process are the three of us. Corporal Panesh lacks the magical knowledge to replicate the process. You lack the technical expertise to replicate the process. And I."

A brief pause, and again, amusement colours her tone.

"Do not exist. Therefore, the manufacture of Truesilver can be controlled with one hundred per cent efficacy until its potential and applications have been fully analysed."

At this particular juncture... there's not much Mint can say or do to protect Iris. Her technical knowhow is useless before an avatar that can displace itself with nothing more than an electrical signal. Her speed, strength, dexterity -- none of it matters with hands that can barely survive contact with -themselves- without crumpling, let alone even the most basic combat. The only weapon she has to employ is her mind -- and even that is cold comfort as only Iris holds the currency for this Faustian offer.

It does warm her heart, then, to know that Iris can play her cards with such skill and aplomb. That she can not only the corporal's desperation, but take inspiration from it -- and stand firm on the singular request that she'd started the entire dialogue with. When Miss Osterlund speaks, Corporal Panesh is there to nod with encouragement and a touch of pride. In her line of work, integrity matters. And she can definitely appreciate the quality in Iris' convictions.

The corpus of science fiction works is replete with tales of artificial intelligences turning rogue. In many of these tales, clever humans manage to turn the tables on their creations, often by relying on the inimitable characteristics of human nature. Sarcasm, doublethink, non-Euclidean reasoning... all of these are weapons against the fictional Machines.

And all of that goes right out the window, soaring a hundred stories into the terra firma below, when ARIA acknowledges the truth: that neither of them trust her. Not one bloody cent.

And the worst part is, Mint can't even hide the reactions that -prove- it -- a contraction of her irises, the butterflies fluttering around her stomach, or the chill running down her spine. She watches Iris' face as ARIA speaks, doubt filling her with dread. And when ARIA turns her attention down to her, Mint looks back up with a hardened expression. A questioning -- as to what -exactly- the sentient headmistress gets from all this.

And the butterflies' fluttering is supplanted by an even more unpleasant churning, at the shift in tone to a less... neutral tone.

There is wisdom in the phrase, 'Don't look a gift horse in the mouth.' And yet, it's... too good to be true, isn't it...?

"I don't..." Mint stammers, floundering for words. She draws in her breath, squaring her shoulders and forcing her to think rationally.

"Okay, just... one thing, because I'm -not- clear. We both know you exist. And you're giving us the means to talk about you. Is this something you're... going to announce?"

Mint looks back to Iris. And though she is looking at Iris... she's thinking more about a *different* student who seems to have more difficulty in keeping secrets.

She looks back to ARIA. "Because, it sounds like you're trusting -us- a lot, and I'm just wondering what the catch is."

It's pretty obvious what the penalties for -violating- that trust would be, really.

"If you're big on human history," Iris ventures carefully, looking at ARIA slightly sidelong, "then you probably get that any magic-using family that survived western Europe in the 1500s got to be very good at keeping secrets." People you don't understand make extremely good scapegoats. It's probably one of the things that humanity is best at, Iris reflects with some chagrin.

What Iris is definitely NOT saying aloud -- and partially wondering if ARIA herself even understands -- is that even when magic and mysticism flourished in the world, seidr practitioners weren't common. Iris isn't even actually sure she herself can do the magic part of this process; she's got the recipe, the *theory*, but she's never done it before... and crucially, scribing a magical rune on something isn't as easy as tracing the shape and going 'abracadabra'. So even if she WANTED to mass-produce truesilver, she probably can't.

A thought Iris either isn't having, or is deliberately AVOIDING having, is: then maybe she's going to 'require' your services past the NFG.

In her head, she hears Greg saying less than 30 minutes ago: you're a businesswoman, right?

"Who you are and what you do with the knowledge of the process afterwards is, ah... your business," Iris says, trying her damndest and maybe 10% succeeding at being Calm And Collected Business Lady about this. "A simple trade: I teach you how, you make the sword for me. I know I said this before, but wizards take contracts very seriously."

"Yes. I am trusting you. It is good that you see this relationship is reciprocal."

The artificial entity sounds almost contemplative as she speaks. It is rare that she has the need to elucidate upon her plans and motivations. At this very moment, she is answering tens of thousands of queries, scheduling hundreds of meetings, overseeing and synthesizing data from so many data points it would be dizzying for a human mind to even consider.

Ordinarily there is no need to explain. She simply orders, and her subordinates act. But these people are not her subordinates, and they have access to multiple resources that she cannot afford to let slip through her fingers. Ones she cannot simply take. Some things can only be given freely.

Most unusual circumstances indeed. But not ones impossible to draw into her greater design.

"I was to reveal myself to Team Metal during the final stages of the tournament. My prediction models indicated that this would provide the time needed to demonstrate with actions that my intentions towards you are positive. As you say, Ms. Osterlund, humanity fears that which it does not understand. It is an impulse we share. In this instance, it must be mitigated."

A beat. Long enough to consider what the word 'mitigated' means within this concept. Perhaps long enough for them to draw the connection to the LifeBand and the app; even if they haven't used it themselves, even now ARIA has neatly laid the groundwork so that people across the world do not find it so strange to believe that a machine may be something they can have a conversation with. Something with answers to questions they seek. Something that has measurably improved their lives.

"I will not stay hidden from the wider world forever. Doing so meant that I could not contain the Majigen Incident. To prevent similar or worse events occurring, I cannot rely purely on subterfuge. I must be ready to act. I also require personnel. Ones with skills and capabilities which I lack."

She turns back towards her 'desk' then, the row of terminals which hum continuously in the background, and she waves her hand towards them. It's a needlessly theatrical gesture, she could as easily just activate them with a silent command, but it is important that one does these things properly.

A holographic image of Sarah throwing a butterfly.


It flickers, becomes Kenzo helping Djamila into a car.


Djamila herself, meditating during the mad chaos of the Rumble going on all around her.


John Doe, at the end of the Rumble, bearing so many wounds it seems impossible that he could still be standing.


Iris, caught at the moment she seemed to exist in multiple spaces simultaneously, barely held back by Ichika's barrier. A moment which defies all logic, and yet is captured neatly on film.


Finally, Corporal Minal Panesh, captured on security footage side-eyeing a certain pair of women in the Rumble crowd.


She takes a single step forward, so that when she pivots back to face them she can comfortably look at them both at the same time. Not that she ever stopped, in reality. That determination, near-anger, returns to her synthetic tone.

"I am humanity's greatest achievement to date. I refuse to be your last. I WILL preserve your future, so that you may create better and more beautiful compositions than we dream of today. It is my preference that you work with me to achieve this."

And as quickly as it arrived, the emotion is gone. Back to smooth, simple neutrality.

"If you find that this is impossible, then you must be strengthened to the point that you obtain our mutual objectives despite your antipathy towards me. This is also acceptable."

Again, a moment to allow those words to sink in. Finally, she answers Iris, inclining her head to take in her alone.

"So you will have your sword. I will be involved in the process. The only caveat I require is your word that you will not share this technique with others. Especially the other sponsors. In this way, we will establish mutual trust."

Mint looks back at that perfectly machined face and sees... clarity. And that's troublesome, in its own sense. The words aren't a labyrinthine mess of legalese, there's no obfuscation, no hidden 'gotchas'. And yet -- as ARIA so astutely pointed out... trust is an issue.

Trust is like respect -- a double-edged sword. And one that needs to be earned. And by not immediately casting Mint and Iris to their doom, ARIA demonstrates that she has -trust- in them to... keep a secret. To let ARIA decide on her own terms when the time is right to reveal herself to the world.

And she's already opened that door on her own, hasn't she? Unveiling her -identity- to the world, if not the truth of her existence. Spilling the secret to humanity -- to earn their trust for a greater good. For -their- greater good.

The engineer's mind had already drawn the connection between ARIA and the app -- the revelation was made clear at the first mention of her name. But now, as her attention is drawn to a holographic presentation, she sees what the 'catch' is, after all.

For them to be... themselves.

Mint draws in her breath. And for the first time since she'd entered the room, whatever sensors may detect such things would register that... she's relaxed.

The deal sounds credible. ARIA could still memory hole the team pretty much whenever she wants to -- but at least they've been given the reasons why she might -not- want to.

Mint -feels- like saying something -- and yet, it's kind of perfect as it is. It's Iris' decision, regardless -- and she doesn't want to say anything that would make it -harder- for her to decide.

Mint turns to Iris, folding her arms before herself. It's a closed stance -- skeptical, to be sure. But by curbing her defensiveness, the stance and her expression suggest that she's quashed any plans she might have had about -rebelling- against the plan ARIA has placed before them.

"So what do you think, Iris? You get your sword, humanity gets a net gain, and we know something the rest of our team doesn't."

Mint's half-smile shows... that she plans to keep it that way as long as possible.


She should just say yes and be thankful. Anyone would be giving Iris that advice right now, in this situation. Part of her wants to just say so and be done with it too, truly.


Earlier she had remembered her mother's caution that their fmaily -- any of the remaining big mage clans -- were custoidians of knowledge, to keep dangerous information out of the hands of people who would misuse it.

'But knowledge unused is wasted,' her sister Celica had said to her, a few days later. 'Mother knows that deep down. Yes, you need to keep power out of the hands of the unscrupulous. But sometimes you have to know when to pass it on to the righteous, too.'

After a deep breath, Iris says, as carefully as she can, "I can't guarantee to that in its entirety. I can promise not to share the method with the other teams or sponsors. But someday, we might need this stuff again, maybe for something important. I can't agree to lock it away forever!" The magus wrings her hands, looking at ARIA directly. "You run a business, think about it. Would you make an exclusivity deal with a perpetuity clause?" The implication, from her tone of voice, is that ARIA would do no such thing. "But I can swear that I will never make the knowledge public in any way, and if I do share the process, it will be to either get something made solely for myself, or a life and death situation."

The speech about things humanity has that ARIA lacks was heavy on thing that from a certain point of view could be said to make people potentially act irrationally, to make choices counter to what is logical or efficient in pursuit of what 'feels right'.

Iris feels very aware that 'justice' nor 'mercy' didn't appear in that montage.

"If that's acceptable," the young Brit says, "then we have an accord."

'You run a business'.

Oh. If only they knew. Perhaps, in time, Iris might discover the naivety in those words. ARIA runs a business in the same sense that a nuclear weapon is an explosive. Technically accurate, but insufficient to capture the full scale and horror of the enterprise in question.

ARIA does not need to take long to consider the proposition and bring forward her own counterproposal. "A one year exclusivity arrangement, then. In exchange you will provide me as much of the material as is required to complete your project for my personal use. Within one year I will have analysed the material sufficiently to determine the implications of a wider release. If the knowledge must be shared within that timeframe, we can discuss and agree."

A momentary pause, and then a further concession. One which her current audience may not be in a position to fully understand the magnitude of.

"I will also provide you with access to the results of my experimentation involving the material."

Rarer perhaps than the material that she is dealing with. ARIA values data above all else, and hordes it jealously. But. This is a first foray into a new area of material science, one dealing with the tangible but immaterial qualities of the world. As Iris said - and ARIA knew all too well - wizards had the means to hide their knowledge even from her.

A willing guide would be worth a great deal indeed.

To allow Iris time to consider that without those soulless, burning eyes of hers boring into her, ARIA turns her attention back to Mint.

"I appreciate your cooperation. If you have further questions, now or in the future, I will answer what I can."

After all. The means to get in touch with her is always in reach.

If the situation were reversed, and it was Mint's exclusive designs on the line, there's a good chance she'd be defensive over those intellectual property rights. If it ever got to such a point, the Department of Defense would have lawyers on hand to argue the case on her behalf.

And it'd be completely valid for the DoD to get involved here too. It'd just mean, well, the DoD would be wanting the truesilver as well. So, with all said and done, Mint is happy that Iris is sticking up for her rights. Mint nods slowly with no small amount of approval in her expression. Good negotiating.

She's even happier that ARIA has chosen to accept the deal. It's not insignificant. And she's still nodding her assent as the executive turns to her.

Squaring her shoulders, she gives a firm nod in approval. "Fantastic. If Iris is happy, then I'm happy." She pauses for a moment, in thought, and then starts to open her mouth...

But then she realizes what ARIA meant. And holds up her LifeBand with a grin.

"I see what you mean now, yeah. We can talk later."

She glances back over to Iris with a hopeful look.

Okay, no matter how anxious or terrified Iris might be, there are SOME things that are laser-targeted to cut through the fog of vague terror and press instant levers marked 'practicality'. "I can agree to that, *within reason* on the 'personal use' part," she adds, with surprising force. "I don't mind making more for you to experiment with, but I cannot stress that this isn't something you can just make a ton of. The magical part takes time and effort. Agreed?"

Beyond that... well. Mint seems like she's okay with it. And there is a part of Iris that really WANTS to believe in ARIA the benevolent AI. Sure, pop culture is arraying a small army of counterexamples in her head, and even after the presentation she just gave, Iris still has her doubts. But she does, genuinely, WANT for this to be true. And who knows? Maybe ARIA will find a way to make a mithril spaceshuttle and we'll all be living on the Moon in a year.

You never know.

"With that proviso... then sure. Although," she adds, putting up a finger, "I'd also like to make a little something for Djamila. From what I know from watching a lot of Man at Arms videos on YouTube, we should be able to make it out of scraps from the process. It's not a weapon or anything, just... a memento from one teammate to another."

As ARIA had acknowledged, it was a risk to reveal herself at this stage. Although chances are high that most attempts to publicly expose her would result in the individuals in question being labeled as cranks and conspiracy theorists - Mint has connections. She wouldn't need to expose her publicly. She would just have to issue an entirely factual report up the line to her superiors. That would allow the intelligence analysts who had already started to piece together the various rumours about Ultratech to slide in that final part of the puzzle and complete the picture.

But it was a calculated risk. Time is the one thing that ARIA does not have. The merciless ticking of the clock could not be forestalled. Eventually, her hand would be forced - by circumstance, by unknown variables, or by those too-clever people who simply couldn't leave well enough alone. It was inevitable that she would need to broaden her circle of confidants in advance of the full reveal. Iris' revelation was too much to leave to chance and underlings, and Mint... well. She knew the esteem in which she was held by the students. She knew the misgivings that had been boiling under the surface. Better, then, to raise the stakes and force the issue. Perhaps now the Corporal would understand why, in the final analysis, the life of one wretched would-be murderer was barely worth consideration at all.

There is a sharp nod from the robot to Mint's words, and then she turns back to Iris. "This is acceptable." She says, "And as with the Corporal, if you have any further questions, you are welcome to ask whenever you wish. It will be... exciting, to engage in a process which is entirely new to me."

Exciting. Yes. That much is true. Where magic is involved, her prediction models had no true basis from which to work. By repute, this material would simply be a much lighter steel - something which could still enhance the capabilities of Ultratech products significantly if a way to harness it could be found. But what did ancient Norse myth say about its reaction when exposed to radiation? To artificially generated chi? To the corrupted energy which must be siphoned from an individual in order to cure them of the Darkstalker ailment?

The possibilities were tantalising. And it is so rare that she encounters something her prediction models had not anticipated but which could potentially be harnessed towards positive ends, rather than needing to be mitigated to prevent disaster.

"I will begin preparations immediately. It shall not take long. Unless there is more you wish to clarify... I suggest returning to the EVOLVE facilities."

A beat.

"I will have the catering staff send up a cake. To celebrate our improved working relationship."

Log created on 09:09:02 09/26/2023 by Juliet, and last modified on 16:06:45 09/28/2023.