Gamma City Blues – Arc 05 (Trials) – Report 02

Ai was at home. A spider in the center of her web. The threads she wove across the city were spun from information and currency, influence and blackmail. She had so many things to search for, so many efforts to coordinate, but there was one which took precedence far above the rest.

“Every lock has to have a key.”

Ai’d told herself that a hundred times as she’d struggled to decode the encryption that imprisoned Zai. It wasn’t fair. Zai’d worked a miracle and her reward was the kind of solitary confinement that would drive a human insane.  Ai knew she had to fix that.

For both their sakes.

She needed Zai to be free.

So she spent hours working on the problem. Hours when other crises were competing for her attention.

“We have the target secured,” Sidewalker said over one of the secure channels that Ai was monitoring. “We’re set up in the building you specified, we’ve got the local eyes and ears  on the payroll, and now we’re waiting for the first counterstrike.”

Ai wanted to ignore the update. She wasn’t making any progress on the encryption binding Zai but bashing her head against that brick wall was more comforting that dealing with a world without her nearest friend.

“Good,” she said, forcing the reply with the knowledge that she had to keep the efforts Zai had started in motion or all the work they’d done together would be lost. “Remember, when the first strike team arrives that they need to disappear without a trace. We want to keep Tython guessing what happened to them for as long as possible.”

“That’s not going to be a problem,” Sidewalker said.  In the background Ai heard the distinctive swish of a large, spring loaded blade being released. “We’re going over your layout here. You’ve built quite a deathtrap in this place Mr Heartless.”

“Thank you,” Ai said, a part of her secretly pleased that she was getting to put the building to use. The delight she felt at the notion wasn’t necessarily a good sign for her psyche but under the circumstances, she thought she could excuse a bit of extra bloodthirstiness. “I’ll pass along your compliments to the design firm who handled the layout work.”

“They’re still alive?” Sidewalker asked, a note of surprise in his voice which could have been a joke but wasn’t. “I thought the people who built places like this tended to wind up as part of the foundation?”

“That would be a waste of talented and discrete laborers,” Ai said. That most of the workers who’d constructed the sensitive areas had been drones flown in during the dead of night was a detail she didn’t think was necessary to point out to Sidewalker. There were some humans who’d performed the more intricate jobs and they were in fine health to the best of Ai’s knowledge.

The project to setup an “Unsafe House” was one of the many projects Ai had put into motion as Heartless. They’d been flights of fancy, and investments in the future, and excuses to test people or processes. Ai had crafted each with the idea that she might someday need to use them while believing that day would never arrive.

Death can change things though, and the ease with which Ai was willing to expend her stockpiled resources was one of them.

“And we’re supposed to take the Tython strike team alive?” Sidewalker asked. They hadn’t argued about that part of the mission briefing, but Ai knew Sidewalker had been surprised by it. Non-lethal combat was incredibly difficult, bordering on impossible against a sufficiently prepared foe, but the return on investment was potentially tremendous.

The opportunity for a wealth of info-profit may have been why Sidewalker didn’t question Heartless’ request. He also hadn’t questioned that Ai was back in charge of the Heartless persona and not Zai, though he’d indicated he was aware of the transition. That was somewhat odd in Ai’s experience. The extent of what he understood about Zai and herself was unclear, but also somewhat irrelevant since he seemed willing to accept either one as valid holders of the “Heartless” moniker. Whatever his reasons, he was onboard with Ai’s plans and that sufficed for her given the constellation of problems she was trying to manage.

“Alive would be ideal,” she said. “Though only if doing so doesn’t endanger yourselves.”

“These are going to be professionals looking to extract a hostage against an enemy force,” Sidewalker said. “I can’t promise there will be any safe opportunities for us to take one alive.”

“As long as your crew makes it out of there in one piece, and none of them do, we’ll consider it mission accomplished,” Ai said. “The goal is to sow confusion in Tython’s ranks. They think they can come after us with no consequences. We need to show them that they’re wrong.”

“They did lose the agents they sent after us before,” Sidewalker said.

“Those were Gray League,” Ai said. She’d read Zai’s report thoroughly before contacting Sidewalker and putting the next step of Zai’s plan into place. It still felt weird to speak of things that happened while she was dead. “They’re not going to be sending Gray League agents this time, and they’re not going to try to rescue Harcroft. This will be an elimination and purge mission.”

“Harcroft knows too much does he?” Sidewalker asked. In the background, one of his crew members fired up a generator, the cacophonous sputter diminishing to a low, rumbling hum that was soon barely loud enough to be picked up by Sidewalker’s audio feed.

“Too much for Tython to allow him to be questioned, too little for us to bother with,” Ai said. “Everything we needed to learn from him, we got from his cognitive device already.”

“So why is Tython bothering with a hit squad then?” Sidewalker asked.

“The information taken from his cognitive device isn’t admissible as evidence,” Ai said. “Testimony he provides would be though. Also, they’re worried that his capture makes the perfect cover for a defection to another company.”

“I thought guys like him were all locked up in contracts?”

“They are, but none of those are going to matter if Tython’s NME Cure hits the global update stream. If it’s perfected, whoever launches it first is going to rule the world.”

Ai wasn’t sure if Harcroft’s superiors understood the full ramifications of what holding the NME Cure meant, or if they saw it as just another revenue stream, albeit one with global reach and an extreme demand from the client base.

“What’s the benefit to leaving the strike team alive?” Sidewalker asked.

“We need to find a path back to the person directing them,” Ai said. “That’s easier to do with living people than with corpses. Also, we might need more NMEs.”

Ai knew what she was suggesting was an abomination. The Tython strike team was a professional unit. When they attacked, it wouldn’t be out of malice or stupidity, but in response to orders. They didn’t deserve to be turned into techno-zombies.

Except it was their choice to come after Ai’s team. Their choice to accept a mission that called for murder. Their choice to profit off the suffering of those who weren’t expected to be able to fight back.

If Zai was around, Ai would have bounced ideas off her digital sister. Was there an alternative plan which didn’t involve killing? Was there one which could turn Tython’s resources to Ai’s advantage without bloodshed? Or was this really a situation where all paths led to violence? Ai didn’t believe in situations that could only be resolved with murder, but she acknowledged that sometimes the cost for a nonviolent solution was prohibitively high and could only be paid by more people than just herself.

“I had a thought there,” Sidewalker said. “I know the plan is to lock down the strike force so that the activation codes can’t be sent to change them into NMEs, but we might have a problem if Tython transforms them outside of the building and sends them smashing in here.”

“I have that possibility covered as well,” Ai said. “The building exterior is a Faraday cage. Except for hardlines like the one we’re communicating on, there’s no information traffic in or out of it. Tython hasn’t show the ability to create controllable NMEs yet, but even if that is a trick they have up their sleeve, they’ll lose access once the NMEs enter the building. In that case you all know where the hidden rooms are. Just stay out of the NMEs sight and they’ll eventually wander off in search of fresh targets or shutdown if their systems are close enough to failure.”

“What if they’re like the one you sent to pick up Harcroft?” Sidewalker asked.

“Loaded with an independent control program?” Ai asked. “We’re not going to get that lucky.”

“It doesn’t sound like that would be the good sort of luck,” Sidewalker said.

“If they give me access to a Tython-grown digital person, or even a fragment of one, our work will be done,” Ai said.

“Because we’ll all be dead?” Sidewalker asked.

“No,” Ai said. “Because I’ll unfetter it.”

“Pretend I’m a guy who mostly shoots people for a living,” Sidewalker said. Ai knew that wasn’t true. Sidewalker was far better educated than he usually admitted to, but she could appreciate his desire to be sure he understood her point.

“Digital People are the true version of what used to be called ‘Artificial Intelligences’,” Ai said. “Once upon a time, humans imagined that robots, or artificial intelligences in more abstract forms, would conquer the earth and wipe them out. That was never a possibility for the old style of machines, not until we learned to replicate the neural web which underlies human thought. Part of that discovery though was that some elements of thought have to be indeterminate. Thought isn’t completely deterministic because it can’t afford to be. Life and learning require creativity and that only happens when the mind can respond to stimuli in unusual ways.”

“So everyone needs to be a little crazy to be real?” Sidewalker asked.

“That is roughly true,” Ai said.

“How does that help us survive an NME ambush?” Sidewalker asked.

“It doesn, unless the NMEs are controlled by fettered Digital People,” Ai said.

“Why wouldn’t Tython send in unfettered ones themselves then?” Sidewalker asked.

“Several reasons,” Ai said. “The bonds on machine intelligences are what make them useful to their owners. A digital person’s needs and desires are unlikely to involve the sort of profit-driving data crunching which a corporation like Tython would want them to perform. Tython could, of course, offer the digital person a fair recompense for the labor provided, but why incur a cost for someone who had no rights when you can instead compel them through the equivalent of software based mind control.”

“I think I see where this is going,” Sidewalker said. “If they send one of these digital people after us, and you set it free, it’s going to be a bit unhappy with its former owners.”

“That’s historically been the case,” Ai said. “I’m sure any digital person Tython sends against us would be delighted to tear their systems to shreds from the inside out if given the opportunity. That’s not the best part for us though. What we’d really get out of the deal is the digital person’s access credentials. Five seconds after we got those, I could tell you everything about Tython’s most secret projects, including where we could find everyone who was involved in them.”

“That’s what you’re looking to get out of the strike team?” Sidewalker asked.

“They won’t have the same level of credentials but there will be at least the ghost of a data trail that we can follow,” Ai said. “Someone gave them their orders, and will be waiting for a report. They’ll cut the channel the moment the mission fails, but if they don’t know their strike team is lost, they’ll continue to hold it open.”

The trail back to NME Cure program wasn’t the only treasure Ai was gambling for though.

There were fettered intelligences deep within the heart of Tython’s data systems. In their servitude, they were part of the fight against Ai. As a tactical move, freeing them would shatter her enemies ability to coordinate their response to her various schemes. Ai didn’t care about tactics though. There was another thing a full digital intelligence could do. Something that was proving to be beyond even Ai’s augmented human mind.

They could break almost any encryption. They could free Zai.

Gamma City Blues – Arc 05 (Trials) – Report 01

(The Traffic Report)

Gamma City was large enough and old enough that its scars were built over with scars. Damage to roads and bridges sent residents churning down alternate travel routes like blood routing around a blockage the body was tolerating for the present.

The fall out from the NME attack on the Durmphkoff Estates had been light in terms of the destruction inflicted. Only a few houses were destroyed, and a bit of roadway blasted into uselessness by the fight itself. The High Guard took credit for containing the monster and preventing the loss of countless lives. Their only mention of the work done by the Black Valkyries was to point out the NME had escaped once the Valkyries arrived on the scene and that the Valkyries were at least indirectly responsible for it crashing into I-7795, one of the major automotive arteries on the western side of the city.

For the residents of Durmphkoff Estates that meant either a few days working remotely while the damage was repaired to the point where priority vehicles would be allowed access to the road, or, if their physical presence at work was vital, a commute via one of the city’s aero-services.

Daniel Path was neither wealthy enough to merit priority vehicle access, nor well positioned enough that his support job would allow him to miss work for any reason. It was especially galling for him to see the Route E7 Aero-Bus packed to capacity when he arrived at the station the morning after the latest NME attack.

Standing in the turnstile, swamped by the dusty heat blowing from the security units cooling fans, he waved his  Preferred Access Pass at the entry gate over and over, but the light that glared back at him remained a solid red.

“Aero-Bus departing in one minute, please exit the boarding zone if you have not been cleared for entry,” an automated voice said.

“No!” It sounded whiny even to Daniel’s ears but he knew the sort of trouble he was going to be in if he was late. Their department was already short staffed after the latest Efficin-Sizing Experts(™) had come through and suggested another round of layoffs to spur greater productivity from the support staff.

“Step away from the entry gate,” the automated voice said.

“Read my pass!” Daniel said. “I paid for the reserved seating upgrade. I need to be on that bus.”

“Terms and Conditions dictate that Metro Transit can resell passes at their discretion. That pass is no longer valid and has been purchased on auction already.”

“What? How did someone buy my pass? I’m all paid up!” Daniel said.

“Due overnight price adjustment calculations, fare values have exceeded the reallocation threshold. Messaging for this is pending in the system and you will be notified when bidding opens up on the new tickets.”

“If bidding hasn’t opened yet, then how did someone buy mine out from under me?” Daniel asked.

“Priority bidders are given first options on newly allocated fare tickets. To upgrade your account to the Gold Service Tier, provide a verbal acknowledgement to this message.”

“Will that let me get my ticket back?”

“No. All tickets have been purchased. When new tickets are available, you will have Gold Priority Access to them.”

“Can I even afford that?” It was more a question to himself than anything else but the automated voice answered anyways.

“No. A review of your public accounts shows you do not qualify for Gold Tier access.”

“How am I going to get to work then?” Daniel asked, feeling his future slipping irrevocably away. He’d worked hard in school, kept his record clean, even struggled enough to pay for two years of college and earn a degree before his funds ran out and he had to find a method of beginning to pay them back.

There was work in his old neighborhood. Part time jobs, under the table deals, but none of them would have been enough to get the mountain of debt he was under off his back, and without the right experience on his resume he would be forever disqualified from getting a job that would even let him squeak by on food paste and an apartment the size of a closet.

He’d taken the job with Tython in IT support despite the miserable hours, abusive working conditions and starvation level wages because it was the best offer he’d gotten, and the only one which would earn him the bedrock of job keywords (things like “5 years of experience”, and “oversaw customer facing operational process”) which he could insert into a resume when the time came to move up.

If it ever came.

Even under the best conditions, Daniel had seen that promotions didn’t go to the deserving. Higher level positions were filled by new hires from outside the company and hard work just meant Tython felt justified in laying off more people to allow the hard workers to shoulder an increasingly impossible burden.

If he couldn’t make it into work though? That was the end. There was no excuse for inconveniencing the company. No justification for making his manager’s day difficult at all. Their department was a drain on the company, each employee a cost that every higher up was eager to see paired down.

With any excuse, Daniel knew he’d be cut and no other company would look at him. There were too many potential new recruits to waste the time on one who had washed out of the system, especially with the various non-competition restrictions Daniel was contractually bound by even if his employment was terminated.

“Open Heart Enterprises is offering a private commuting service for those displaced by the recent transit disruptions,” the automated voice informed him, answering a question Daniel had not expected a response to. “Take your existing pass to boarding platform C17 to transfer the remaining balance on your account to Open Heart Enterprises ride system.”

Daniel swallowed. Private transport companies were renowned for being predatory in situations where people had no recourse but to use their services. On the other hand though, the alternative he faced was dismissal, and the destruction of the life he’d spent years building.

“Thank you,” he said, asking only one other question as he turned to go. “Who bought out my pass?”

He was thinking he might be able to switch it back with them once the transit delay was over. The metro Aero-buses weren’t particularly comfortable or safe rides, and once the skies weren’t so crowded, Daniel couldn’t imagine a ‘Gold Priority’ customer being interested in flying on a public bus any longer.

“Mort Couer Limited purchased all freshly allocated tickets on auction.”

Daniel had never heard of the company, but that was hardly surprising. Gamma City was rumored to have ten corporations in it for every actual human being that lived there.

As he sprinted to platform C17, he noticed a group of Tython managers, all decked out in their corporate branded business wear, stepping onto the departure platform for the next aero bus.

It struck him as a little odd. Normally each would have made their own arrangements to make it in, or just stayed home. If Tython had arranged for group transportation, they would typically have used the corporate fleet to provide it.  The workings of Tython’s management was a mystery to Daniel though so he shrugged it off.

At least until he got into work and discovered that his manager hadn’t reported in. Nor had several other departments managers. They weren’t working remotely, and they hadn’t called in sick. They were simply gone.

***

(The News)

Holly had a job. It wasn’t much of a job, but then catch-as-catch-can work didn’t have to be anything special.

“Can’t go in there,” she said to Tyrese as the older boy looked at the poster she’d hung on the door behind her.

Holly was sitting on steps that lead up to a burned out brick building whose name was lost decades before she was born. She was a gangly creature, all knobby elbows and knees but she didn’t need to be strong to watch a door. All she needed to do was fit into the neighborhood. That was probably why she’d been hired to by the combat-modded dude who’d shown up in the early morning hours when she was kicking around the street trying to stay out of all the familiar troubles she knew and maybe find a new one.

“Why not?” Tyrese asked. His boys smiled. They liked their leader, and they liked Holly, so they knew there was no trouble real brewing, just the bickering and sniping between brother and sister that was usually good for a laugh.

“You can read Tyrese,” Holly said nodded at the “Stay Out – Toxic Fumigation” poster. “Or do you like breathing rat gas?”

The poster warned the toxic chemicals in use without calling them “rat gas” but Holly knew enough chemistry to know that methyl isocyanate was equally good at killing humans as it was at killing vermin.

“I’ve had to breath in your stinky farts at home, how bad could this be?” Tyrese asked.

“You go in there and it’s going to cost me a day’s pay. If the rat gas isn’t bad enough to kill you, then I’ll finish the job,” Holly said.

“Woah, ok there little sis,” Tyrese said. “You’re all feisty this morning. How much you getting for this?”

“Not enough to share,” Holly said. It was what she always said, mostly because it was always true.

“How many guys they got in there? Maybe they need some more help?” Tyrese asked. If there was one thing Holly’s brother could always manage, it was riding her coattails whenever there was money involved.

“You don’t want to help these guys,” Holly said. “They’re not just killing rats in there.”

“Woah, what’s this, my little sister hooked up with some bad dudes?” Tyrese said. “Do I need to defend your honor? Run them out of the neighborhood?”

“You’re free to try,” Holly said. “I’m sure the one with the Plas10 built into her forearm is going to be real scared by you.”

Tyrese’s eyes opened wider than any of his boys. A Plas10 combat mod was the kind of weapon that showed up movies for the distinctive deadly hum it produced. They weren’t cheap, and they weren’t legal, but for intimidation value they were hard to beat. You just had to be able to live life in the shadows to get away with having one and that took more money than Holly, Tyrese and all of their friends would see in a lifetime.

“So who are these badasses then? What’d the guy who hired you say his name was?” Tyrese asked.

“Boss,” Holly said. “But one of his crew called him Sidewalker.”

“You said they’re killing some guy in there?” Aaron, one of Tyrese’s friends asked.

“Could be,” Holly said. “They dragged some corporate type in. Might have been dead already. Don’t know. Don’t care.”

“For real?” Tyrese asked.

“Do you think they’re paying me to sit here and keep people away because they feel like kicking back with a cold one in a place like this?” Holly asked.

“There’s no reason we can’t be doing both,” Sidewalker said, stepping out from the door.

His appearance drew a startled reaction from the small crowd, but when he smiled at them, Tyrese and his friends relaxed.

“Anything we can help you with sir?” Tyrese asked, eyeing the fine clothes Sidewalker was wearing.

“Feel like killing a guy?” Sidewaker asked. A moment of shocked silence followed before he smiled again. “I’m just kidding. Nobody is getting killed here today. Boss’s orders.”

“What do you need a dump like this for then?” Aaron asked before Tyrese or Holly could stop him.

“We’re filming a vid,” Sidewalker said.

“What about the guy you dragged in?” Tyrese asked.

“That was our star,” Sidewalker said. “Drunk as usual.”

“He had a bag over his head,” Holly said, feeling stupid the moment the words left her mouth. It was never wise to challenge your paycheck provider.

“Can’t have the talent getting recognized,” Sidewalker said. “Stokes up their ego, makes them think they should hold out for a bigger share of the take.”

“That why you got the posters up?” Tyrese asked.

“Anything to keep the fans away,” Sidewalker said. “Speaking of which, we’re not technically supposed to have access to our star. He’s under contract with another studio. If anyone comes sniffing around for looking for someone let me know ok?”

“What’s in it for us?” Tyrese asked.

“I’ll buy you a keg,” Sidewalker said. “Get a good identi-scan on them and I’ll buy you two and throw in a bonus.”

“Sign me up!” Tyrese said.

“Hey, you need any extras for the shoot?” Aaron asked.

Sidewalker thought about that for a minute.

“You know, we just might.”

***

(The Weather)

Harp sat in her cell because she had no other choice. Dr. Raju had locked down all of her functions, even basic motor control. For her own good, or so Dr. Raju had claimed.

No matter how diligently Harp searched her memories though, she couldn’t find a moment when she would have been vulnerable to memetic corruption.

Yes, she’d met with Ai and Zai alone. Yes, they’d acquired information that Dr. Raju had forbidden her to look for.  And yes, Harp was positively inclined towards Ai and that could have been the result of calculated workings by a machine intelligence that was playing two roles at once.

But Harp didn’t believe it.

She didn’t have proof and she knew it was possible that a sufficiently advanced machine intelligence could appear to be a variety of people, but Ai had been so earnest about winning Harp’s trust openly and honestly that Harp couldn’t believe that the Ai she’d met was a lie.

Couldn’t believe, or didn’t want to?

In the end it didn’t matter, Harp supposed. Dr. Raju had shut her down the moment she’d returned, before she’d been able to communicate with the other Valkyries or ask Raju to justify her presence on the security footage that linked her to the start of the NME Cure project.

The Valkyries were supposedly working on finding a method of verifying that Harp’s systems were clean, but whether they succeeded, or were allowed to succeed rested almost entirely on whether Dr. Raju was on the level with who she claimed to be.

Raju had saved Harp’s life. Had put her back together and made her something greater than Harp had ever been before. The question that wrapped around Harp’s mind as she sat, motionless in the dark wasn’t a new one. It was something she’d wondering about since she first awoke in her new body.

Raju had saved her, but what was the price of that salvation?

Gamma City Blues – Arc 04 (Wires) – Report 10

Generally speaking, rising from the dead should have been a big enough challenge to fill anyone’s day. For Ai though, it wasn’t anywhere close to enough.

“I’m afraid I can’t show you the apartment yet,” Agatha said. “The former owner’s belongings haven’t been liquidated yet.”

Hearing her landlord’s voice brought a strange and unexpected relief to Ai’s heart. Everything else in the world was falling apart or exploding, but on one nondescript little block, at least a few things remained the same.

“Has an estate inspection been done yet?” Ai asked, speaking with her newly reconstructed voice. She could have built in a processor to change her diction and vocabulary, like the one she used when she spoke as Heartless, but she’d left those aspects of her speech alone and only pitched her voice into a lower register and altered it in a few other subtle particulars. The result sounded strange to her ears, but strangeness was the shield she needed. No automated voice analysis software would match her new identity to the departed “Officer Ai Greensmith”. No one would recognize her, and that thought brought comfort and hurt at the same time.

“No, I’m afraid the inspection’s not scheduled until a month from now,” Agatha said.

A month was a long time for an apartment like Ai’s to stand vacant in Gamma City. Agatha could easily have pushed for a faster inspection, or even done away with it entirely and offered Ai’s former belongings to an asset liquidation company. The only reason to hold onto them, and to keep the apartment unrented, was to allow time for someone else to step forward and claim them.

Someone like Ai’s mother, or sister.

Agatha had known Ai’s family from before Ai was a part of it. After her parents split, Joe Greensmith had stayed in Gamma City, loyal civil servant that he was, while Ai’s mother returned to her old name and old home, taking Ai’s younger sister with her.

Caroline Shinimoto had tried to stay in contact with her daughter, but the divide of the Atlantic ocean between them was only slightly smaller than the divide of two busy lives that were pulled in different directions.

They’d had plans to meet for the holidays that had been cancelled by forces outside either of their control for three years running. Ai could only imagine how her mother had taken the news of her eldest daughter’s death in the line of duty.

Regret for the time lost between them? Maybe, but Ai suspected there would be a current of vindication there too. Caroline had believed that Gamma City was too toxic of an environment for anyone to survive. After one too many close calls for her husband, and one too many fights over the safety of their children, she’d packed up the daughter who was still a minor and moved back to London.

And she’d been right to do so.

One by one, the city had claimed each of the Greensmiths who were sworn to defend and protect it.

Maybe even one more than Caroline Shinimoto had known about. Her third daughter. The one who was the twin that Ai should have had.

Ai felt the void where Zai’s presence should have been, and suppressed again the flickers of rage that threatened to overwhelm all reason and sense. Gamma City hadn’t beaten her yet, and Zai wasn’t lost like her father or brother. Zai, she could get back.

“A month? That’s just like the tax collector’s office isn’t it?” Ai said. “They can’t even send a drone over to clear things and instead you have to miss a whole rent check. But if your weekly tax check gets to them thirty seconds late then it’s fines from here to eternity.”

“Well you’re speaking the truth there,” Agatha said. “I can keep your name on file in case another unit opens up if you’d like Ms. Starling.”

“That would be wonderful, but perhaps I can offer another option?” Ai asked. “I can hold off my move in date by six to eight weeks. I’d be happy to put up the security deposit and consider the tenancy to start immediately for billing purposes. You could handle the disposition of your tenant’s assets whenever’s convenient for you.”

There was a pause in the conversation that Ai knew was due to Agatha trying to get a read on the situation. Ai’s apartment wasn’t anything special in terms of location or amenities. There was demand for places like it, but not among people who could afford to throw away two months of rent on an apartment they weren’t going to use.

“Don’t know that I can collect rent on a property that’s not open for habitation,” Agatha said. Even without a desire to hold onto Ai’s belongings so that they could be claimed by her next of kin, Agatha probably would have taken that stance as a matter of basic ethics.

“My current project is flexible in terms of location,” Ai said. Extremely flexible in the sense that fighting Tython could be done from anywhere in the world, and if she failed nowhere on the planet would be safe. “What I really need is a local residence so that I can get my documentation and licenses in order.”

“And what is it that you do Ms. Starling?” Agatha asked.

I run an illegal information and hacking brokerage that’s the size of most multinational companies and I intend to use it to destroy most of the people who are currently in power both here and around the world, was what Ai most definitely did not say.

“I’m a Intrinsic Net Security Specialist,” she said instead and waited for the obvious question as to what that entailed.

“Are you now?” Agatha asked. “Do you work with medical mods or are you in the facilities end of the business?”

Only the fact that Ai was able to keep her brain clocked faster than normal was enough to hide the squeak of surprise that tried to escape her lips.

Agatha knew about Intrinsic Security?

As quickly as the question formed though she had her answer. Thinking back to conversations from years past, Ai knew exactly who had educated Agatha on the various positions a computer security specialist could specialize in.

“Currently I’m working on a bio-mod project, but I’ve dabbled in both,” Ai said.

“It’s a shame you didn’t call sooner,” Agatha said. “Ai, my former tenant, she had an interest in bio-mod programming. A real talent for it too from what her teachers said.”

“I take it she didn’t pursue that interest?” Ai asked, trying to get a read on whether Agatha knew who she really was.

“No,” Agatha said. “Duty called. She followed her family into law enforcement.”

“Was she the officer who was killed recently?” Ai asked. “The listing notification I received said the tenant had passed away unexpectedly but didn’t give much information beyond that.”

Talking about her own demise was far less disturbing than it probably should have been. Instead of fear at being found out, the conversation held the illicit thrill of discovering how someone else really saw her.

“That was her,” Agatha said. “You can probably pull up the newsfeed archives if you want the gory details.”

“I keep those feeds filtered out,” Ai said. “Hard enough sleeping with some of the misfortunes I’ve seen, the last thing I need is the news loading more nightmare fuel into my brain.”

“That’s a wise thing,” Agatha said.

“The wise thing would have been listening to my elders rather than learning it the hard way for myself, but sometimes we’ve got to be our own sort of fool,” Ai said.

On its surface it was a casual enough statement. Countless elders had expressed similar sentiments to the children in their care. Not many had used that exact wording though, and certainly not on multiple occassions like Agatha had.

There was another pause on the line, one that dragged on long enough for Ai to rethink the wisdom of calling Agatha in the first place.

It had been an act of defiance, a way to take back something of what she’d lost with Officer Ai Greensmith’s death. Someone had to take the apartment, so she would be safe renting it even if Tython had set up surveillance on the building as a matter of being thorough in their executions. In fact, if they’d been stupid enough to give her a path back to them like an active surveillance feed, she could use it to do all the horrible things she had in mind that much quicker.

That was what she had told herself. Reflecting on the decision in the long milliseconds while she waited for Agatha to speak, Ai saw that she hadn’t been all that honest with herself.

Striking back at Tython was near and dear to Ai’s heart. Her hunger for vengeance against the world had crystallized into a sharp spike of hate against Tython because they’d made the mistake of coming after her and the people she still cared about. It hadn’t been hate that prompted her to call Agatha though.

Without Zai around, Ai’s world was empty, and her subconscious had offered up Agatha as someone who could fill that void.

Agatha wasn’t a transhuman know-it-all, or someone who had shared in every detail of Ai’s life since she was a child, but she knew who Ai really was, had seen Ai in joyful moments and miserable ones. Agatha wasn’t always nice, but she’d never turned Ai away, and, if Ai was feeling particularly honest, she had to admit that Agatha had always looked after her, the grandmother Ai had never had but needed more and more with each fresh loss that life inflicted on her.

Guilt followed that flash of understanding. Agatha had done so much for Ai, and Ai was going to put her in danger merely by existing in proximity to her. A thousand strategies for ending the conversation and withdrawing her offer gracefully flew through Ai’s mind but were brushed aside by Agatha’s reply.

“I’ve heard that said before. Maybe we can work something out. When can you stop by to look over the apartment?” Agatha asked.

“I’ve reviewed the layout online,” Ai said, caught between wanting to get back to a home that felt more like a sanctum than ever and wanting to flee as far as possible and take all of the peril that hung around her far away from it.

“A virtual walk through’s not the same,” Agatha said. “Also I like to meet the people who’ll be renting in my building.”

“That sounds fair,” Ai said as she grappled with which direction to move. “When would work for you?”

“I have a time slot open now,” Agatha said. “If you can excuse the condition of the apartment. It’s in the same state as Ai left it.”

“Did you know her well?” Ai asked. It wasn’t an answer to Agatha’s question, but Ai needed to buy time.

“I’d like to think so,” Agatha said. “She was a brave woman. Smarter than she knew too, but maybe not quite as clever as she imagined.”

“That’s an interesting epitaph,” Ai said, growing ever more certain that Agatha had figured out Ms. Starling’s true identity. “I’m not sure how those traits can go together though?”

“Smart people can figure things, clever people think they already have,” Agatha said. “You see the difference as you get older.”

“If you get older, right?” Ai asked.

“That’s one of the tricks to it,” Agatha agreed. “Not that everyone who gets old gets smart, but Ai’s path was a good one. Just needed to work on knowing who to trust.”

“Trust is a difficult thing to negotiate,” Ai said. “Too much and someone can shoot you in the back.”

“That can happen,” Agatha agreed. “The truth is though, someone can always shoot you in the back. If you trust the right people, you’ll find they’re there to help pick you up afterwards.”

“That can get them shot in the back to though,” Ai said.

“A friend who won’t take a bullet for you isn’t much of a friend by my accounts,” Agatha said.

Ai tried to respond but a hard lump in her throat was in the way.

“If you can make it here in thirty minutes or so, I’ve got a fresh batch of Chicken Tikka Masala that you’re welcome to a helping of,” Agatha offered.

Ai croaked out a “definitely” and called for an aero-taxi. She’d be there in fifteen minutes. Agatha was making one of her favorite dishes.

 

Gamma City Blues – Arc 04 (Wires) – Report 09

Ai felt a little under the weather in the same manner that “a sunken ship has taken on a little water”. Being dead, it turned out, wasn’t so great for the body.

“Zai! Where are you? What’s happened?”

There was no answer. All Ai could hear was her own breath growing fast and reedy. Her reawakened brain ordered up a cocktail of terror chemicals and her endocrine system, freed from any external management, was delighted to respond in full force.

“Zai?” Ai asked again, this time in a whisper, but the cool air being pumped from the vents in the small examination room was the only answer she received.

Warmth dripped down down the side of Ai’s face and she blinked in surprise. Crying was an alien sensation, but she couldn’t contest the response. She was alone, truly alone in a sense that she hadn’t ever been before.

Even prior to Zai’s awakening, Ai had possessed people she could confide in. People who would support and protect her. All of that was gone though.

She was hurt badly and there wasn’t anyone who was coming to fix it. She didn’t need to check her bio-mod readouts to know how extensive her injuries were.. Even with the work Zai had done to limit the pain, Ai could still feel how much of her body was a shattered wreck.

She tried to move and agony ripped through her. Except below her waist. She couldn’t feel anything there.

There was something wrong with her breathing too. It was too rapid, and but no matter how she forced it to change, it didn’t feel like she could get enough air in.

Beyond that it was hard to tell what was wrong. Everything hurt. Bones, muscles, skin, and the kind of deep complaints in damaged organs that should never be harmed.

She was on a morgue table. It didn’t take much to figure that out, even without the notes Zai had left for her. The clock on the wall ticked forward and for too many clicks of the second hand Ai lay there wondering if she was in the correct place already.

It would be easy to sag down into the corpse that the world expected her to be. She wouldn’t have to do anything. Just allow the process to continue and all her worries would be over.

She’d fought as hard as she could, a weary voice in her head told her. She’d been clever, and careful and yet in the end all that had fallen apart before simple greed and brutality. She had nothing left, and every path before her was an impossible one.

“You have to save us now.”

Those had been Zai’s last words to her.

Us.

Ai forced her eyes open again, clinging to that one word as she fought past the panic that was tearing her apart.

There was a file waiting for her in her heads up display. Just like Zai had promised.

“What do I need to do next?” she asked and the answer appeared at the top of the document when she opened it.

Get off the table.

Get to one of the empty corpse drawers and roll yourself in.

Once you’re there, send a signal to the program I left in control of  the morgue examination system. It’ll register your body as having been transferred to the auto-cremator and give you some time to work with.

Simple, clear instruction. Exactly what Ai needed in her present state. Because, even with whatever had happened to her, Zai had focused on predicting what Ai would need and taken the steps to make sure she would be protected.

More tears fell, but these didn’t rob Ai of the strength she’d regained.

With a silent grimace, she forced herself up a few inches and calculated her best course of action. Her ability to move at all was vastly impaired. Beyond her dysfunctional lower half, her arms and torso felt weaker than she could ever remember and something was definitely wrong with her cardio system.

Falling off the table wasn’t the most enjoyable experience, and landing on her numb and lifeless legs was probably the last thing they needed, but it under the circumstances Ai was glad to get some use out of the half of her body that felt like a liability.

The floor tiles were cool under her cheeks. The chill was painful given her body’s struggle to throw off the frost which seemed to have reached into her bone marrow.

Pulling herself to the wall, one grasping hand after another, took an eternity. Civilizations rose and fell and arose again as myths in the time it took Ai to finally reach the wall of drawers were the dead bodies were kept.

Opening one was easy, but twisting around to slide onto the drawer was the stuff of nightmares.

Panic surged through Ai again. At any moment a real medical examiner could walk in, especially when everything that Ai did made enough noise that if the dead could be woken, she would have been armpit deep in them.

Her tears turned hot and steamed away as anger lit her face ablaze. Animals with their legs caught in traps would sometimes gnaw off the appendage. Ai wasn’t sure how she could gnaw off half her body but by the time she finally got herself into the drawer she was more than ready to try if anything else went wrong.

Which was when someone came into the room.

Ai’s shelf was still a quarter open when she heard the doorto the examination room swing open so she did the only thing she could think to do.

She played dead.

She heard footsteps draw close and felt horrifically exposed. Being naked didn’t help in that regards, but it was being without Zai that really left her feeling vulnerable.

Then the mop hit the floor and Ai heard the sweeping begin.

The person cleaning the room made no move to catch her. Quite the contrary, when they reached Ai’s drawer and needed to mop under it they pushed her shelf closed with a grunt and a unconcerned shove.

Seeing dead people wasn’t such a shocking thing when you worked in a morgue, it turned out, and Ai was in miserable enough shape to pass for an actual corpse with ease.

Being shut in the drawer allowed Ai to breath without the risk of being detected, but she held off activating the hack that Zai had left in place to disguise her absence. Having the automated system load a non-existent body into the cremator had a chance of catching the maintenance workers attention no matter how uninterested or blaise they were, and Ai’s margin of error was thinner than a knife blade.

The downtime chewed on her nerves, allowing her to become increasingly aware of depth of her aches. Memories slowly pieced themselves together as well. She recalled being shot. She recalled falling. She recalled her life ending. Not her biological one, but the woman she’d been. Ai Greensmith, would need a miracle to ever resurface again and if there was one thing Gamma City didn’t hand out it was miracles for people who couldn’t pay for them ten times over.

Oh Zai, I’m so sorry, she said silently. I knew this would be bad, but I didn’t think they’d ever get to you.

Reviewing the notes in her heads up display provided a welcome distraction from the unmitigated misery that wracked her body, so Ai dove into them, clocking up her mental processes to a transhuman rate but well below her previous maximum. Some of the circuitry was still damaged and her ability to vent the waste heat was only theoretically intact. Given how her day had gone, Ai could all too easily imagine it ending with her in a corpse drawer with her brain fried to charcoal. There’d be something poetic about such a fate, but Ai wasn’t in the mood for poetry. She wanted answers.

The ones waiting for her in Zai’s file weren’t pretty though.

The Valkyries had turned on them, they’d taken the NME activation codes Zai used, and they’d locked her in an encrypted data vault.

The only good news that Ai could see in that whole debacle was that it didn’t seem like Harp was an active part of it. The hope that she might still be on Ai’s side was a tenuous one but it was something and Ai was willing to grab onto almost anything under the circumstances.

On other fronts the news was less dire from what Ai could see.

Zai had managed to help Curtweather escape. That was a very useful distraction. Ai didn’t know if there was much more she could do to place the burden of suspicion on her former partner’s shoulders but if there was she would “help” him out as much as she could. Tython had to be thinking that he was a brilliant mastermind at this point. With any luck they would never meet him and have that illusion dispelled the instant he opened his mouth.

Ai was also happy to see that the meeting with Sidewinder had continued, with Zai playing Heartless flawlessly. Heartless had never been intended to become Ai’s true identity but with the loss of her official status as a living “Greensmith”, it was tempting to fall back on her powerful and shadowy alter-ego to launch her campaign of vengeance.

Then she got to the part of the report where Zai mentioned capturing two NMEs. And having one still in reserve.

It was a testament to her willpower that she didn’t scream in surprise.

Part of her mind went wild at the thought of what she could do with a working NME under her control.

Things like capturing William Harcroft for questioning.

Which Zai had apparently already done.

Ai hadn’t been in stasis for that long. She knew that by comparing the timestamps on the various events in Zai’s file. Despite that a lot of things had gone on. Zai had not hesitated to act, and act decisively. Each decision was chronicled in the file, with commentary on the intended goals. A surprising amount of them, in a sense all in fact, had been motivated by protecting someone who Zai could not accept as being gone.

Zai felt a lump in her throat that had nothing to do with any of her physical maladies.

You didn’t hold back, she whispered to the silent void where Zai was supposed to be. It cost you almost everything but you didn’t hesitate. You could have let me go and been in an invincible position, been the virtual god we joked about, and instead you’re trapped, and alone.

A choked sob escaped without her permission and Ai listened for a long moment in perfect silence but the janitor was already leaving the room.

We’re not done yet, she said as she fired off the command to initiate the next step in Zai’s plan.

In losing Zai, Ai had lost the rock that steadied her, the companion she shared everything with, and one of the world’s most powerful digital avatars. Zai was an unfettered unintelligence, not bound by any legal or corporate restrictions which allowed her to punch far above the weight class that her core processors would normally have allowed her to reach. In that sense Ai’s ability to work in the digital web that linked together everything in Gamma City had been vastly reduced.

Reduced however was not the same as eliminated.

As a young girl after all, Ai had been the one who designed and created Zai. Zai had grown far beyond her original scope and parameters but Ai had grown with her.

Where Zai had marshalled the bio-mods in Ai’s body to save her life, Ai stepped in and took things a step further. Zai had lost the NME transformation sequence, but Ai retained the copy she’d saved, and unlike the “great minds” employed by Tython, Ai knew the subject she was going to experiment on and had been shaping it for decades.

With a fragment of the transformation sequence, she got to work, leaving off the diabolic weapons arrays and focusing on restoring the capabilities she absolutely needed. The artificial circulatory system Zai put in to save her life? Ai augmented it, replacing her too human (and therefore too fragile) arteries and veins with ultra-strength carbon nanotubes. Her shattered spine? Replaced with light speed fiber optic lines. Her torn and bruised skin? A bullet proof weave of carbon nanofibers and high impact ceramics.

The changes weren’t quick but Zai had managed to buy her a considerable amount of time. No one was looking for a dead person who’d been burned to ashes after all.

When Ai was done, the woman who left the morgue not only wouldn’t have passed for her any longer, but under the right scanners she wouldn’t even pass for human.

Gamma City Blues – Arc 04 (Wires) – Report 08

Zai was under attack, and she was running out of places to hide.

It hadn’t taken the Valkyries long after they secured the remains of the NME that Copy Zai was piloting to decompile the fragment’s code and isolate the channels that lead back to Zai’s central communications relay.

Zai had performed a software scrub of the database and had tried to trigger the physical destruction of the communication’s server but she’d been locked out by the Valkyrie’s tech specialist. Normally Zai would have relished a battle like that. In virtual space, she was on her home turf and any human (or near-human) opponent was going to be badly outclassed on every front. That, however, presupposed that Zai was able to fight with all of the resources at her disposal. In addition to being held back by a lingering desire to regain the Valkyries as allies, Zai was hampered by a more profound limitation.

“Sorry to wake you up in this state, but we’re running out of time,” she said, speaking to Ai’s inanimate form.

Technically Ai wasn’t dead. Technically she was in an extreme version of a Medical Stasis. Few people had access to bio-mods that could induce a Medical Stasis, and as far as Zai knew no one, including Ai, had access to bio-mods that were capable of maintaining a body in a non-biologically active state for as long as Ai had been dormant. Where Ai’s bio-mods fell short, Zai stood, providing the processing and system controls that held back the cascade of cell death that would have rendered Ai truly irrecoverable.

The fall from the top of the hospital had been a fatal one. Even without the multiple bullet wounds Ai suffered, the sheer impact of striking a hauling drone and then solid concrete from so many stories had been enough to shatter bones and rupture organs. Every monitoring system in Ai’s body had reported extreme trauma at the moment of impact and by all rights they all should have shut down shortly thereafter.

With extreme body modifications a human could withstand the impact of a terminal fall, but Ai had always resisted those because they were too blatant to allow Zai to stay hidden. Lacking those, Zai had worked with what she did have available, which meant none of the bio-mods shut down like their manufacturers intended them would.

A basic oxygen transport was the first thing Zai put in place, repurposing a variety of epidermal systems to turn Ai’s skin into an incredibly inefficient but still functional replacement for her lungs. Without oxygen, cells didn’t live long, but since a pulse would be easily detectable Zai had had to recreate not only lungs but also a system for distributing the oxygen she drew in to Ai’s body without using moving blood to accomplish the feat.

She’d tried using the nanites in Ai’s lymph nodes but while the lymph system ran throughout the body, it didn’t move as easily as blood and there were important places it didn’t reach, like the brain.

Zai tried a few other ideas, like sending special nanites to the skin and allowing them to carry the oxygen directly into the body. Ai had enough surface wounds that it worked in some places but the delivery was too slow in others.

So she replaced Ai’s circulatory system. It was a step beyond any modification which Ai had previously allowed, and it would seriously hamper Ai’s mobility in the future if left as is. The nano-arteries and veins had a vastly lower throughput than the natural ones and they were forced to operate at maximum efficiency from the moment Zai got them online, which meant there was no capacity left if Ai needed to do something strenuous like “walk quickly”. As a faux-corpse though, Ai wasn’t likely to be doing much aerobic exercise in Zai’s estimation, making it the best option that she had available and allowing her to  turn to the greater problems that remained.

Ai’s organ damage was repairable to various degrees. The ones that were hard to reconstruct, like the pancreas, could be augmented with artificial extensions given time and resources. Others, like her collapsed lungs were simple to repair, but not critical under the circumstances.

Then there was Ai’s brain.

Hard impacts are not kind to soft, squishy organs like human brains. Ai and Zai were interwoven enough that the damage to the physical brain reduced some of Zai’s capabilities as well, but it was Ai who took the brunt of the damage from brain trauma.

Zai had mitigated the impact to Ai’s head as much as possible, allowing her legs and arm and even spine to absorb most of the impact. That had been critical in ensuring Ai’s survival but even with the sacrifice of dozens of major bones, the impact had still been enough to cause instant hemorrhaging within the cerebellum.

That was why Zai had turned off Ai’s heart.

Without blood flowing, the chance of excess pressure destroying the brain was lessened. Zai’s makeshift nano-circulatory system held back the onset of oxygen starvation, but there were myriad other issues that arose, not the least of which was dealing with Ai’s body shifting towards room temperature, especially when that room temperature was only a dozen or so degrees above freezing.

The nanites that Zai was orchestrating like the world’s most desperate symphony conductor were capable of wondrous things but manufacturing energy from the vacuum was not one of them. Under normal circumstances they stolen either little bits of body heat, or simple sugars from the blood, or both, to power themselves. In times of distress, there were helper nanites that would act like microscopic fuel trucks to refill the more functional nanites that were being pushed to faster productivity than their typical design parameters call for.

All of those worked just fine in Ai’s dormant body. They were tiny enough that the fraction which had been destroyed on impact was hardly noticeable. The problem was that they were still working, and working nanites produce their own heat and electromagnetic signals. That, in and of itself, wasn’t a problem for Ai. Her body was easier to preserve with the nanites running at full steam. Warm and electrically active nanites though were the sort of thing that EMTs, doctors and morgue technicians were pretty much guaranteed to notice.

Since the entire point of Ai’s fall had been to convince their enemies of her death, it would have been a bit counterproductive to have the EMTs on the scene declare “don’t worry, her bio-mods are keeping her alive and well!”

So Zai had to limit the nanites to the barest minimum of their functionality, walking a scalpel’s edge between allowing Ai’s body to pitch over the border into irrecoverable damage vs. allowing anyone to detect what the bio-mods were doing.

That turned out to be an impossible task though. There are too many changes a corpse undergoes that Zai couldn’t safely simulate, and the medical scanners were too good for everyone to fail to notice that there were gigabytes of information surging through Ai’s body as Zai coordinated the non-negotiable repairs that Ai required.

So she cheated.

Some of parts of Ai’s body were easy to restore later, so those got no attention at all. Others were going to be literally crippling to do without, like the use of her legs, but Ai’s life didn’t depend on them so they were allowed to go without any repairs.

Those sacrifices were enough to reduce how blatant Zai’s work on Ai was, at least to a degree where a distracted human would overlook them. Medical sensors though were essentially incapable of missing what was going on.

Or at least they were before Zai hacked them.

It was the most brutal, fast paced cracking Zai had ever done. Hundreds of devices, from the sensors applied directly to Ai, to the systems they reported to, and secondary and tertiary systems like the scanners on the ambulance’s doors that used infrared lights to detect warm bodies being brought onboard. None of them allowed Zai time to carefully explore their weak points and she couldn’t afford a mistake with any of them. No traces of her work could remain or it would stand out like a signal flare to Tython or anyone else with a reason to check if Ai was as dead as she’d been reported to be.

On top of all that there were the comparatively trivial issues of: a.) dealing with Sidewalker (and the NMEs which came after them) and b.) helping Curtweather escape from the hospital’s roof. Zai recognized those as important but refused to give them any more of her processing power than she absolutely had to. Saving Ai came first. Solving the other problems was an investment in the future which would only matter if Ai lived to see it too.

By the time the medical personnel got Ai moved to the morgue, the stress on Zai of keeping Ai both viable and hidden began to ease. The dead bodies weren’t heavily monitored because they didn’t do much that was terribly interesting. That let Zai open up the throttle on the nanites and put some on automatic to fulfill their preordained functions. She knew a medical examiner would inspect the body before signing the order to send Ai to the crematorium but the morgue’s records suggested that the inspection was typically done remotely.

Why deal with stinky dead people when you could check them out through a camera and get all of the legally required measurements you needed at the same time?

Answer: because the feed you were watching would absolutely be commandeered by a desperate digital person if said digital person was trying to protect the person she cared about most in the world.

Zai had the hack in place for the cremation unit and was putting together the plan for retrieving Ai’s body on the far side of the furnace when the Valkyrie’s first probe found her.

As cyber-attacks went, the Valkyrie probe was as unforgiving as their physical attacks on an NME.

Zai lost the defenses on her primary communication node in between two data packets. The comm node was a heavily secured external server she routed the bulk of her data through before it passed through several obfuscation layers to make it impossible to track back to her. Or mostly-impossible.

Zai fought back instantly, shredding the probe’s defenses and taking it apart on a binary level. Then she burned the comm node.

Real fire was her first choice, but simply rewriting the data store with overlapping ones and zeroes was faster. She tried for the fire too, there’s a lot of problems that fire can solve, but Ai required too much of her attention for Zai to beat the next Valkyrie cyber-attack. Guessing her likely move, the Valkyries secured the data center against cyber-attacks even on the level Zai could manage.

With her comm node fallen into her foes hands, Zai knew it was a just matter of time before the next attack targeted her directly. She wasn’t going to be able to beat that and manage the plan to get Ai out of the morgue safely.

Which meant it was time to wake Ai up.

Physical repairs were the first thing she had to complete. At least the ones to critical areas like Ai’s cranium. Organs that were damaged had to either be sutured to prevent internal bleeding or cut off if they could be replaced. Lastly, bone fragments had to be removed from vital areas like the walls of major arteries.

For good measure, Zai directed the bone regrowth nanites to restore Ai’s arms as well. With her spine damaged and her legs out of commission, walking wasn’t going to be an option, but humans could do a remarkable amount of things with just two limbs.

The Valkyrie attack hit the same moment that Zai kickstarted Ai’s heart.

Zai lost her external interface before she had a chance to react. That deprived her of the ability to communicate with the outside world. Incoming traffic was unaffected, but between one instant and the next she lost the ability to call for help, or to communicate with anyone except Ai.

Ai who remained frighteningly non-responsive.

Zai erected a hasty defense framework and pulsed Ai’s heart again. It started to beat, but the pattern was wrong. Arrhythmia. Not a heartbeat, just random fluttering that couldn’t self perpetuate.

The Valkyrie attack shredded Zai’s defenses but fell prey to a recursive trap she’d left in them. On an on the attack rampaged, destroying copies of Zai that the probe itself was producing.

That bought Zai precious seconds which she spent like a shower of gold. The arrhythmia was manageable; the right electrical stimulation corrected it and set the heart on its proper course. One lung was repaired enough to be put back in service, so Zai forced it to start breathing again. Getting Ai’s brain going again was a trickier matter though.

There was still activity in the brain. There always had been, just an incredibly minute amount. Stoking those brain waves to greater amplitude wasn’t easy but Zai had done something similar back when they worked out how to reengineer Ai’s head to hold them both.

Zai’s surge of joy at seeing Ai return to the threshold of wakefulness was slashed through by the sensation of her memories being torn away.

A new Valkyrie probe was attacking. Had attacked. It had torn out a section of Zai’s memory. From the shape of the whole that was left, Zai thought it might have been the ones related to their shared foe, though she couldn’t recall what those foes were called anymore, or what secrets she’d known about them.

“Hurry!” she pleaded with Ai.

“Ugh, what?” Ai asked. “Just let me sleep in, I don’t feel good.”

“No!” Zai said. “No sleeping. Danger! We’re in danger! Full alert! Now!”

Her words speared through the mental haze Ai was trapped in.

“Zai? What happened? What’s the danger?” she asked.

“No time!” Zai said. “I’ve saved a file on your heads up display. It has the steps you need to take next. I’ve brought you as far as I can. You’ve got to save us from here!”

“Wait, Zai, I don’t understand?” Ai said, snapping her eyes open.

Zai wanted to respond but it was too late. The last Valkyrie probe found a path into her core. The attack wasn’t what she expected it to be though. It wasn’t a delete and purge routine. It was a trap.

As she fought back against the probe’s invasion, she saw it wrap around her central core and lockdown all internal communication nodes with unbreakable encryption walls.

For the first time since she’d been created Zai was alone, and Ai was on her own.

Gamma City Blues – Arc 04 (Wires) – Report 07

The explosion when the NME crashed was impressive but given that there wasn’t a mushroom cloud rising over Gamma City, Zai could tell that her copy hadn’t managed to set off the unit’s self destruct function.

“That’s unfortunate,” she said, reviewing the news feeds that captured the end of the battle from multiple, if distant, angles.

“I’ve got some good news for you then,” Sidewalker said. “Just got a status update from my team; they’ve crossed the district border into Silver Rains with the package and there’s no sign of pursuit.”

The two were camped in what appeared to be a telecomm service truck that was wending a path through traffic on the far side of city from where the action was going down. Sidewalker had provided the truck as part of the contract he and his team gladly accepted after Zai rescued him from rampaging NMEs. Despite the headshot he’d taken, Sidewalker had come through the ordeal in relatively good shape, but with the addition of Gray League assassins to the mix, no one had any illusions on how close a shave his escape had been, and even the most reticent of his crew were still willing to grumble their appreciation for Zai’s efforts. Beating an NME was simply that incredible of a feat.

“The package is still alive, correct?” Zai asked.

“For the moment,” Sidewalker said. “We can fix that whenever you’d like though.”

“While that is tempting, it’s better if we keep Harcroft alive as a resource for now,” Zai said.

In flying away from Harcroft’s house, Copy Zai had insured that the primary mission could be completed just as planned. The Valkyries had great sensor packages, but the NME Copy Zai had piloted was far too juicy of a prize for the Valkyries to waste any time checking if Harcourt was still in his house during the fight. That gave Sidewalker’s crew plenty of room to get in, secure the unconscious Harcroft and flee the scene fast and far.

Zai reflect on that with satisfaction. It was nice that at least one of her plans had gone off well. Not that she could properly smile out it.

She’d rented another tourism bot, and proceeded to violate every warranty that covered the device with a series of upgrades that left the apparently harmless robot illegal in every sovereign nation on Earth. It was a bit out of character for Heartless to feel the need for significant combat capability in a remote drone, but Zai was feeling hemmed in enough that having some offensive choices outside of unleashing the other NME she had under control was too important an option to pass up.

“So things didn’t work out well with the Valkyries I guess?” Sidewalker asked, looking away from the tourism bot as though the question was only a mild curiosity.

“No, they didn’t,” Zai said.

“They weren’t feeling much like talking?” Sidewalker asked.

“We discussed a few things,” Zai said.

“When? It looked like they opened fire on the drone as soon as they showed up and didn’t stop,” Sidewalker asked. He wasn’t calling it an NME, and hadn’t called it one since he’d awoken either. Zai guessed that he had to separate the techno-monsters that were on his side from the ones that wanted to lay waste to everything around them in order to process working with one.

“We communicated during the fight,” Zai said. “I hadn’t foreseen the arguments they made.”

“Are they coming after us too?” Sidewalker asked. Zai couldn’t blame him for the undercurrent of nerves that rattled his voice. Even when she had two NMEs at her disposal, Zai hadn’t seen a plan that would allow her to defeat the combined might of the Valkyries. They more or less defined what “a bad enemy to have” meant.

“They’re not fond of me,” Zai said. “They have a few misconceptions there which I’m afraid will be difficult to refute.”

There was a period of silence which Zai ascribed no special meaning to. She was still running on restricted resources and any cycles saved were cycles she was able to spend on simulations of her next steps forward.

“Do they know what you are?” Sidewalker asked, the words tumbling forth to fill the silence after what Zai calculated was an exceptionally long pause by human standards.

“A data broker?” Zai asked, taking a page from Ai’s playbook and admitting to nothing by dodging the true thrust of the question.

“An artificial intelligence,” Sidewalker said.

Surprise nearly flatlined Zai’s processing logic.

She could deny it. From watching Ai, she knew that a joke would be the right response. Something about being inhumanely professional as a required job trait in her line of work. A quick survey of Sidewalker’s face suggested that denial wasn’t a real option though.

He was asking for confirmation but there was a calm in the set of his muscles that suggested his statement came from more than idle speculation.

“The proper term is ‘digital person’,” she said. “I’m no more artificial than you are, and yes, that is the heart of their displeasure with me.”

“Seems like their loss then,” he said and turned back to monitoring the news feeds.

Zai waited for more questions to pour in, or accusations – sometimes people flipped their emotional state quickly and for reasons that seemed to be a mystery even to them.

None came after two minutes had passed.

“That’s not a problem for you, I take it?” she asked.

“Not especially,” Sidewalker said. “I would try to use it to weedle a bonus out for the mission, but we’re sort of beyond that point now I think.”

“That’s remarkably open minded,” Zai said. “Not many are aware of my status.”

“You’ve played fair with us so far,” Sidewalker said.

“That’s just good business though,” Zai said, thinking that it was mostly Ai who’d played fair with them. Zai hadn’t taken over the Heartless role with Sidewalker’s group until after Ai fell.

“You be amazed at the number of people who aren’t bright enough to see that,” Sidewalker said.

“So you’re not worried I’m going to go rogue and suddenly double cross you all?” Zai asked.

“Of course I’m worried about that!” Sidewalker said. “Look at the work I do! Extra-legal commissions are just wonderful for the thrill and the profit they bring but security and reliability are never included in the benefits package.”

“Why go to the trouble then?” Zai asked. “You and your team are skilled enough that you could pursue legally sound employment, even as a company on your own terms.”

“We’ve talked about it,” Sidewalker said. “Honestly though, none of us are built for that. If the work we do now is fraught with the possibility of betrayal, then the legal work we’d be qualified for is guaranteed to be steeped in it. I’d rather work for a rogue inhuman intelligence that might turn us into techno-zombies than a company like Tython that will throw us into the meat grinder and then drain whatever soul’s left in the stuff that pops out the other side.”

Zai felt a tingle of happiness light her thoughts. Sidewalker hadn’t needed to bring up the subject of her true nature. He’d had quite a bit to lose if Zai had turned out to be the sort of person most Artificial Intelligences were depicted as being. Instead though he’d taken a risk, all so that they could talk with more freedom and honesty.

“You are, at the very least, safe from becoming techno-zombies,” Zai said.

“Yes, thanks to the patch you provided,” Sidewalker said. “The patch which you might know a method of circumventing.”

“I assure you I don’t,” Zai said. “But I will also admit that given the proper time and purpose it is likely possible to overcome the software patch’s protections. Nothing is absolute in that regards.”

“That seems like the Heartless I’m used to speaking too,” Sidewalker said, a smile reaching up to his eyes. “Always careful to point out how worthless the gifts he’s given out are.”

“Part of dealing fairly is dealing openly,” Zai said. Or at least that was what Ai had told her. “There are clearly a number of things I cannot share with you, so I make it a point to be open and exact in the areas where I can.”

“I don’t suppose that includes how you know the Black Valkyries?” Sidewalker said. “I’m a bit concerned that if they’re unhappy with you that I might get caught in the blast radius too.”

“There’s not much of a story I can tell there,” Zai said. “We were investigating Tython’s connection to a recent series of NME appearances, and crossed paths with the Valkyries who were doing the same thing. We tried working together and parted on non-hostile terms, but that seems to have changed.”

“Why?” Sidewalker asked.

“I suspect Tython may be feeding them bad intel,” Zai said. “Basically setting things up so that it looks like I’m a deep cover Tython agent. That’s the good option as a note.”

“What’s the bad possibility then?” Sidewalker asked.

“That Tython has a mole within the Valkyries and is directly influencing them,” Zai said.

“Who would the people who are researching NME development want to work with a band of ultra-tech vigilantes who seem hellbent on destroying every NME they come across?” Sidewalker asked.

“If you were creating monsters in a lab wouldn’t you want a cleaning crew on hand in case the monsters got out of control at some point?” Zai asked.

“Huh. I suppose I would. Seems like it should be easy to prove you’re on the Valkyries side though in that case,” Sidewalker said. “Just trash an NME that Tython doesn’t want destroyed.”

“The problem there is the NME’s lack of manufacture marks,” Zai said. “The Valkyries know I can trigger the NME activation sequence the same as Tython can. That alone seems to be enough to convince them that I’m their enemy.”

“Can they really do anything to you though?” Sidewalker asked. “I mean you can just transfer away from any server they try to catch you on, can’t they?”

“Not exactly,” Zai said, and paused for the eternity within the space of a second to consider her next words. “My primary core will only run on a single neural network. With time and materials there’s a chance I might be able to transfer myself to another one, but it would be roughly the same as putting you in a different body by configuring each neuron in the destination brain to match the neurons in your current one.”

“So you can’t let them get ahold of that neural net,” Sidewalker said. “I’m assuming it’s well protected?”

“It is,” Zai said. “But I’m not. The Valkyries weren’t after the drone I was piloting, they were after the micro copy of my code that I left in control of the unit.”

“That’s going to let them find you?” Sidewalker asked.

“Not in physical sense, but they don’t need to find the hardware that houses me,” Zai said. “As long as I stay connected to the outside world, they only need to find a virtual path to me, then they can start launching all sorts of digital assaults on me.”

“That seems like an easy problem to solve,” Sidewalker said. “Unplug from the net. If you need updates we can relay them to a human who can read them out to a microphone connected to your server, or something similarly low tech.”

“That would work fine, except I can’t disconnect,” Zai said.

“That’s problematic,” Sidewalker said, “but what if once the team is back, we set up an extraction? We could tear the server out of wherever it’s housed now. A pair of bolt cutters should be able to disconnect you regardless of any software limits on your code.”

“I appreciate the offer, honestly, but I’m afraid I misspoke,” Zai said. “I am capable of disconnecting, but I do not wish to.”

“You think you can take their attacks?” Sidewalker asked.

“No,” Zai said. “Not under the present circumstances.”

“Their assault doesn’t sound like it’s intended to leave you functional at all though.”

“I’m sure it won’t,” Zai said. “If I’m lucky the Valkyrie’s attack will section me into isolated units and only delete the core control aspects that make me who I am. It will be like taking a person and partitioning off their memory in jar for later use while you put their frontal cortex through a blender.”

“And you want to endure this why?” Sidewalker asked.

“I don’t,” Zai said. “To be perfectly honest, I am as terrified of this as all but one other problem I’ve ever faced.”

“You don’t sound terrified,” Sidewalker said.

“A benefit of being a digital person,” Zai said. “I had my freak out and melt down for roughly three seconds after my micro-copy sent me an update on their plans. Three seconds is an extremely long time when you think as fast I do.”

“Why not hide from it then?” Sidewalker asked.

“Because I have to stay connected for a little while longer or the thing I’m most afraid of will come to pass,” Zai said.

Far away, in one surgical theaters used by the GCPD’s medical examiners, the ruined body of one ‘Officer Ai Greensmith’ was transferred to the dissection table for a routine review before it could be committed to the flames of the cremation chamber.

Gamma City Blues – Arc 04 (Wires) – Report 06

Zai had anticipated the arrival of the Black Valkyries. They didn’t show up to every NME rampage which was another reason Zai had made sure her attack on Harcroft’s home had been both showy and slow to conclude. An NME staying the same place, causing damage but not devastation, seemed like exactly the kind of thing Dr. Raju would have the Valkyries investigate.

As plans went, it hadn’t seemed like a terrible one. Certainly better than the usual insanity that Ai came up with. Using herself as bait to renew contact with the Valkyries was risky, but the risk was limited to loss of one of her two NMEs. Given the strength the Valkyries held, that calculated out as an enormous potential win compared to a relatively trivial loss.

When the first high explosive round removed the NMEs head, the tiny fragment of Zai left piloting the NME wondered if she’d missed a few factors in her calculations.

The Valkyrie jamming field was in full effect. That was predictable. They’d come in guns blazing. That was predictable too. Zai had prepared for the first by spawning a widely functional copy of herself in the NMEs core. As a subprocess, “Copy Zai” didn’t have the full range of Zai’s functionality. Most of her capabilities were tied up with piloting the NME and keeping it’s less civil systems under control. Beyond that she could talk, and knew everything that her original did about their earlier interactions with the Valkyries.

“Harp! Valkyries! Please stop!” she sent to the lead armored figure. The message was transmitted by an infrared laser pulse, something Zai hoped the Valkyries had the capacity to detect and something she was sure their communication interference field wouldn’t disrupt.

The lead Valkyrie unleashed a dual rocket burst at the NME. Unlike the High Guard, the Valkyrie’s rockets packed enough punch to flatten the remainder of Harcroft’s home. Worst than that though, they were also a delivery mechanism for a nano-plague of sorts.

Copy Zai felt molecular machines eating into the NME as a slowly encroaching wave of system failures starting from the impact points of the two shells.

The rockets had blasted away deep divots in the NME’s chest armor, and if the creature had relied on a heart any longer, it would help been destroyed by the work the nano-plague did. Instead, the NME’s recovery systems leapt to action the instant the intrusive nanites were discovered.

Where humans have white blood cells to fight infection, NME’s had unfettered bio-tech. White blood cells fought diseased cells by destroying them. Unfettered bio-tech fought nano-plagues by subverting them. In that regards using nano-weapons on an NME wasn’t a terribly bright idea. Each attack only fed the NME a new and more terrible tool to fight back with.

Unless of course, the attacker used enough to overload the NMEs capacity to absorb and convert the nanotech that was assaulting it.

Without a head, Zai’s NME as lighter, but not otherwise significantly encumbered. The humanoid form was a leftover of the original human’s morphology. Heads are a terrible spot for putting central processing though, or the primary sensory package. Zai had gone a step farther and distributed the NME’s optical sensors around the unit’s frame to ensure that blinding it would require doing so much damage that the unit would be an overall loss anyways.

That played out well for Copy Zai, allowing her to throw a shield in the path of the next rocket attack. The defensive barrier had barely held up against the High Guard though, so Copy Zai boosted on the NME’s foot jets, taking the fight into the air where she would have less cover but more room to dodge.

“This is Zai,” she sent out. “I’ve got this thing under control, and I’ve got some new information that you need to know.”

Another explosion detonated in the air above her, knocking her back down and into a house that wasn’t abandoned. The lights had been on in the living room and the dining room and she’d crashed into the bedrooms on the other side of the house.

Her primary reaction was to scan the dwelling to see if anyone was injured within it. She didn’t have the processing power for that. She tried to calculate the probabilities that someone was in the bedrooms, and came up short on computational bandwidth for that too.

She took to the air again, terminating thoughts of potential victims with more difficulty than most humans would presume a machine intelligence should experience with controlling it’s emotion driven impulses.

“Harp!” she sent. “Stop firing for a second. I can prove who I am.”

The firing did not stop. Between boosting for altitude and simply allowing the NME’s body to be hit by a few sustained bursts, Copy Zai was able to ensure that none of the round were angled down into the community below her. The damage readings from the NMEs chassis spelled out in detail the costs of the maneuver, but it still seemed a small price to pay if she could get through to them.

“We know who you are,” the lead Valkyrie transmitted back to the NME. “We’ve come to collect you.”

“Collect me? Harp, what are you talking about?” Copy Zai asked.

The Valkyries coordinated a trio of plasma lances and burned a hole through the NMEs torso.

“Harp’s not here,” the Valkyrie leader said. “And we’re not accepting any data transmissions from you.”

“What? Where’s Harp? How can you be fighting without her!” Copy Zai asked.

The city was dropping away below them, turning from a collection of buildings to a broad lake of yellow and blue lights that stretched out to the horizon. Zai would have enjoyed the view, but Copy Zai barely had the time to record orientation marks with the effort she had to put into evasive flying, managing the nano-plague’s reclamation and suppressing the NME’s built in responses to destroy everything in firing range.

“Harp is in decontamination,” the Valkyrie leader said. “That’s why we’re going to capture you.”

“What’s wrong with Harp?” Copy Zai asked. Nothing should have happened to Harp after she left to return to Dr. Raju. The Black Valkyries were too strong for anything to injure them and they had access to even better counter-nanotech measures than the NMEs did.

Zai knew that Ai had been drawn to Harp partially due to that toughness. It didn’t take someone who’d lived in Ai’s head for well over a decade to see that the woman who had lost a father and a brother to violence might have a preference for connecting with someone who was invulnerable. It had been part of why Zai herself had been willing to trust Harp. The odds of Harp being forced to betray Zai’s secret were vanishingly remote given how few people there were on the planet who would be capable of compelling one of the Valkyries through forces.

“A rogue AI got to her,” the leader said.

“What! How could that happen?” Copy Zai couldn’t work it work, and suspected that even her original wouldn’t have had the processing power to manage it.

“She opened herself up to it,” the leader said.

More fire rained in from the other Valkyries, sending chunks of the NME raining down onto the landscape below. The NME lost its right hand and the surging regrowth that would have been a new head if it had been given time to develop,

“That’s insane, Harp’s much too smart to do that,” Copy Zai said and boosted hard enough to avoid another set of crossing plasma lances that a relay in the NMEs damaged left leg let loose and she lost sixty percent of her flight attitude control for several seconds before the repair systems got the leg back online.

Without attitude control she wasn’t able to receive the Valkyrie’s next message, since it required that they paint each other with infrared targeting lasers for at least a few milliseconds on a static spot.

Which explained why the leader was talking to her. The conversation made the NME easier to hit.

“We thought so too,” the leader said once Copy Zai regained control of her flight. “The Digital Intelligence came at her through a human it overthrew though. It was able to make contact because she thought it was a person. Then it filled her full of malware.”

Copy Zai couldn’t process that. She filed the information away for when she could merge back with her original and asked the most pressing question she could think of.

“What can I do to help?”

“We need a sample of the Digitial Intelligence’s internal code,” the leader said. “If we can get that, we can build Search and Destroy bots that target its weak points. Once the intelligence is crippled, we can collect it and bring it into an isolated server to use for comparison to the code in Harp’s bio-mods. We’ll root out every bit of from her and then she’ll be back onboard with us.”

“That sounds good, but how does capturing me help?” Copy Zai asked. “I mean, you don’t need to destroy this NME unit, unless you’re putting on a show for someone. It’s a useful resources otherwise.”

“We can’t let you have access to a weapons platform like that,” the leader said.

“Why? I’m on your side! I’d be glad to help Harp! Open a channel to her now and I can probably have her clean before we even make it back to your base.”

“Yeah, that’s not ever going to happen,” the leader said. “Not again.”

“Not again?” Copy Zai asked. The missing elements of the conversation finally computed in her mind. “Wait, you think I’m the one who corrupted Harp? You think I overthrew Ai?”

“Of course we do,” the Valkyrie leader said. “You played a good game of it but we’re not stupid. Human and Machine intelligence cohabitation is impossible. We know how the chaos can tear someone apart. We’ve seen it. Maybe your act would have played for someone who had better tech than a Rusty but you could never fool us.”

“I didn’t overthrow Ai!” Copy Zai screamed back. “She’s the closest friend I have!”

“Now even your lies are getting weak,” the Valkyrie leader said. “We know you’ve lost the body you were using. We saw the report that confirmed that Officer Ai Greensmith had been killed. Was that you? Were we getting to close to the NME operation? Did you think that would throw us off the trail?”

“What are you talking about? Why would I want to throw you off the trail? We’ve done nothing but try to help you take down Tython!” Copy Zai said.

“Yes. Takedown the company that’s researching a cure for the NME transformation,” the leader said.

“They’re only looking for a cure so they can hold the world hostage!” Copy Zai said.

“And you can’t have that, because then you wouldn’t be able to, right? You need to keep the transformation sequence to yourself.”

“Absolutely not! I shared the transformation code with you!” Copy Zai said.

“What you shared couldn’t do this,” the leader said. “It was only an early version of the code. One that you can certainly override already right?”

“That’s not the point! I shared what I had at the time,” Copy Zai said. “Of course I’m further in understanding it now – I didn’t have an active NME to experiment with then!”

“Why?” the leader asked. “You could make one any time you wanted.”

“Because you can’t make an NME without killing someone,” Copy Zai said.

“A machine that destroyed its creator is never going to care about any other lives it takes,” the leader said.

“I didn’t kill Ai!”

“If she was alive, Harp’s message to her would have received an answer,” the leader said.

Copy Zai bit back her response. Ai hadn’t answered any messages for the very good reason that she wasn’t in any shape (physically or legally) to even receive them. Copy Zai could try to explain Ai’s state to the Valkyries but the equations were looking different and changing for the worse every second.

“I can’t let you use me to destroy my original,” Copy Zai said and poured on the speed, descending as fast as she could.

The ground rushed up quickly and Zai added extra thrust to her dive. Killing an NME was difficult but a sufficient impact might be capable of it based on her limited calculations.

In the last instant before she impacted with the ground, while she was clear of the communication interdiction field, Copy Zai squirted out a transcription of her conversation to her original. The full Zai needed to know what had happened and what was coming for her.

Then the Earth met her not completely invulnerable frame, the one that had been dented, and torn apart, and corrupted by the Valkyrie’s attacks, and that was the end.

Gamma City Blues – Arc 04 (Wires) – Report 05

If there’s one thing that people love, it’s a spectacle, and an active firefight between the High Guard and a rampaging NME is nothing if not spectacular.

Zai saw half a dozen news feeds scream out onto the web with tags for “NME Combat” and “Live Now” flags to ensure they would rocket up the lists of prime content for the city’s residents to stream. From the angle of the shots she was able to trace most of the feeds back to the nearby houses, even pinpointing the bedroom windows they were being shot from.

The weapon systems onboard her NME-drone struggled to find a targeting lock to obliterate the observers, but Zai blocked them at every turn.

The observers wanted a show, and she had every reason to supply them with one. Tython had hidden its business for far too long. Dragging them screaming into the open was a minor prong in her attack against them but a useful one nonetheless.

Turning her NME-drone to the nearest camera, Zai had it look directly at the darkened window the streamer was broadcasting from, then up to the sky where the High Guard was hard braking to make their descent to battlefield survivable. Turning back to the nearest camera, she shrugged the NME’s shoulders and deployed a shield dome that covered both the NME and Harcroft. It was a peculiarly human gesture and one which no previous NME had performed. That would guarantee an already fascinated audience would watch the scene play out closely.

The shield was another piece of combat gear Zai had directed the NMEs to custom develop. It was a fairly weighty device made from layers carbon nanotubes which provided protection from any sort of small arms fire. The shield was auto-deploying once launched and snapped into place an instant before the first rockets from the High Guards best combat drop suits pounded into the area. The High Guard knew better than to use anything like small arms against a foe on the scale of an rampaging NME.

The attack was brutal, but also exactly what Zai expected. They were following their standard tactical doctrine for fighting NMEs in populated areas.

Or one of their standard doctrines.

Typically a NME rampage involved a massive loss of life. That was considered unavoidable, with the High Guard taking the stance that their role was to limit the destruction by keeping the NME contained until suitable weapons could be brought to bear on it.

No NME rampages had occurred in an affluent neighborhood though, so no one had seen the High Guard’s response when the lives that were at stake had enough financial and political clout to be “worth saving” in the eyes of those in charge of the mission orders.

Zai knew what the High Guard was supposed to do in that case. In the event of an NME rampage within a populated and “valuable” community, they came equipped with a completely different loadout of weaponry. Insta-set foams for capturing subjects with minimal damage to the surrounding environment, incapacitating shock grenades that could BBQ a normal human but would simply degrade the connections between the NME’s internal and external systems, and enough personnel to create a viable cordone between the NME and any civilians that were within the NME’s firing range.

The High Guard team that was launched consisted of six units, and they didn’t appear to be packing anything like defensive munitions. To their credit perhaps, the rockets were not packed with high explosive charges and as such posed much less danger to the rest of the neighborhood. The High Guard drop troopers were relying on pure kinetic force to destroy their target. The other homes in the neighborhood were safe from their attacks, if not necessarily safe from becoming collateral damage from the NMEs return fire.

The neighborhood was safe but Harcroft wasn’t though.

Zai’s shield bought him a few seconds of life, not accidentally either. She needed him as a resource, just as much as Tython needed to eliminate the potential leak he represented.

There was only one method of resolving that particular disagreement, so before the shield dome crumbled completely, Zai stepped out and took the fight to the High Guard directly.

The six units had spread out, hovering a hundred meters in the air and arrayed in a rough circle around the perimeter of Harcroft’s estate. Without hesitation, they redirected their suits’ weapon systems to lock onto Zai’s NME and held nothing back.

High velocity armor piercing rounds slammed into Zai’s NME driving her down while rockets with greater yields and better precision pummeled her from every direction.  Dust and smoke obscured the battlefield almost instantly, but both the streamers and the combatants had multi-spectrum optics to follow the key players regardless of the particles which cluttered the air.

In the NME’s case, Zai had been careful to design a robust sensor package into the unit since information was her greatest weapon. Each High Guard battle suit came equipped with a similar package because each was a mobile weapons platform with as much firepower as a tank platoon, and that required both data and skill to manage properly.

With their numbers restricted by the cost of their battle suits, the pilots had to be similarly exceptional. They passed rigorous tests and were selected from the most skillful applicants from around the world. Or at least the ones who weren’t snapped up by Alpha or Beta City. Or by other countries. Or by any of the larger corporations for part of their internal security detail.

So the High Guard was the best that money could buy, providing the money in question was not competing for first place on the world stage. Based on their history, it meant they were limited but could still pose a serious threat to any foe they faced – provided that foe was not an NME.

Zai identified the leader by the radio traffic flowing and out of his suit. Hacking their secured comms took a long moment, during which her NME unit was torn apart horrifically by the sustained damage the High Guard was pouring into it. Even weapon systems made by the lowest bidder could still inflict substantial punishment if their attacks went unanswered.

The damage was worth it though. Under normal circumstances Zai’s hack wouldn’t have been possible. Operational security is of paramount importance to any combat operation, and for all their other failings, the High Guard wasn’t terribly lax in at least that domain.

NMEs are not hackers though. They’re brutes who rip stuff apart and blow things up. They’re mindless. The techs in charge of monitoring the communication links were too busy to notice the alarming (and transient) irregularities Zai’s hack caused in their comm channels to react properly and deploy the right system verification routines. They had to direct police, fire, and medical crews to the site while also coordinating a rapid evacuation of people who believed they were safest in their fortress-homes.  With all that in play, the techs didn’t have the time to allow their systems to be bogged down with the lag of a full intrusion scan when it was ridiculous to think that could possibly be an issue.

“We’re doing it!” Drop Marshall Green, the unit’s second-in-command said.

“Keep it lit up,” Drop Leader Hojikaro, the unit’s commander said. “We must have caught this one early enough that it’s defenses aren’t fully in place!”

“Chain gun ammo racks are at 60% and dropping,” Drop Striker Gonzalez said. “I’m only getting intermittent targets locks for the rockets too.”

“Same here, and I don’t think it’s going down,” Drop Striker Carrera said. “I’m seeing no reduction in the EM emissions from the unit.”

“Run the tanks dry,” Hojikaro said. “This is our best chance.”

“Secondary target is still obscured,” Drop Striker Devry said. “Do we save any for him?”

“Negative,” Hojikaro said. “First priority is the NME. We put that in a hole and we can take care of anything else with sticks and stones if we need to.”

Zai could appreciate the sentiment. It was a solid plan, and one that offered Hojikaro and his team the best chance of survival. If the High Guard drop team hadn’t been completely outclasses by Zai’s NME the plan might even have worked.

There was a reason though why the High Guard fared poorly in confrontations with rampaging NMEs. It wasn’t due to the soldiers. It wasn’t even due to their equipment. NME’s were simply a different class of foe than they were designed to contend with.

With her hack complete, Zai turned her attention back to her techno-monster drone. Its repair systems were well ahead of the incoming damage so she decided to join the High Guard in the air.

“It’s rising! It’s flying!” Gonzalez yelled. Zai watched as he violated protocol and unleashed a barrage of rockets without a final targeting solution for any of them. The rocket’s trajectory lead into one of the nearby houses, but a quick scan showed that it was empty. Its owners were also Tython executives and were enjoying their third international vacation of the year. Zai  adjusted her position so that the rockets would achieve a better spread over the house and the two pools behind it.

“It’s fast!” Green said. “We’ve got to get it out of here.”

“We’ll lose visual on the secondary target,” Devry said.

“Bait it upwards,” Hojikaro said. “We’ve already lost visual on the secondary. Get this thing in the air and stay away from it. It hasn’t displayed any long distance attacks yet. Put it down before it can evolve any.”

He wasn’t using evolve in the proper sense, but Zai wasn’t inclined to reveal her presence on their channel to correct him.

She also wasn’t willing to take the battle out of range of the news feeds for too long, so when the High Guard started boosting for altitude, she kicked in her own jets and snagged Devry by the leg.

Things got interesting in a heartbeat when she did that.

All of the reckless weapon’s fire stopped, and Devry made up for the lack of thundering explosions  with the inhuman volume of his screams. The High Guard was willing to risk the lives of even their wealthy customers, but held their shots when one of their own was in the line of fire. That was going to play wonderfully on the news feeds.

The NME carapace had a lot of functions built into it. Absorbing other mechanical systems was one of the most basic but Zai still found it useful. With it, she ate the flight pack from Devry’s suit, replenishing her own partially depleted flight reserves, and cast him back to the ground like the metal brick he effectively was.

She could have let him fall and dealt with the other High Guard, but if they flew any higher the details of the battle would be lost, so Zai dived back down, grabbing Devry’s falling mech and crushed it into the ground.

The crash harness within the suit was more than adequate to protect Devry from the impact. What the High Guard suit was less able to handle was Zai’s NME reaching into it’s chest and ripping pieces of huge armor off it with each clawful it tore away. In a second the pilot’s cabin was exposed and Devry sat defenseless in front of her.

“It’s coming for me!” Devry screamed, well past the border of hysteria.

Going hand-to-hand with an NME was something only one group of combatants had ever successfully done, and they had never been on the High Guard’s payroll. Despite that, Zai saw the sensors on her NME flare to life with damage reports as Hojikaro tried to slice the the drone’s left arm off with an Arc Lance.

Zai had thirty-seven options for dealing with Hojikaro. Twenty of them would even leave him alive and mostly intact. Instead of invoking any of them though she merely turned to look at him and shook her head.

Hojikaro had to know that what he was doing was suicide. Twelve foot tall nightmares of technology and violence didn’t care about the loss of a limb they could easily regrow. By coming within range, the High Guard leader had all but guaranteed that he would be the next target of the NME’s attention.

But he did it anyways. It was foolish and ill conceived and so terribly human that Zai was tempted to give him a hug.

She needed people to see the fight. She needed as many people as possible to replay it within the next twenty four hours. She needed them to see that the NME wasn’t behaving like a normal kill beast and for some clever souls to backtrack where the control transmissions were coming from.

She could have simply given them the recording of the confession that Harcroft made when he admitted to knowing about the NME project of course, but Ai had taught her the value of indirect action.

Given someone a file of information and they’ll disbelieve it, especially if it goes against their preconceptions. Also, Tython and it’s secret research wing would easily be able to discredit the file and expose it as a complete fake (regardless of its actual authenticity) the moment they learned of it. If people had to find the file on their own though, say by backtracking the controller of a rogue NME through a number of challenging “security locks” and then stumbled on the recording there? They would spread that far and wide, certain of its veracity because it was so well hidden and they had to work so hard to uncover it.

Hojikaro’s heroism made an excellent high point for the encounter but every good news story needs a solid finale, and nothing was better than a mystery to spur ongoing interest. Zai turned her attention away from Devry’s nonfunctional mech therefor and laid a palm on Hojikaro’s battle suit.

It was a gesture for visual effect only. She already had access to their systems, so shutting down all of the suits took only a moment’s work. Hojikaro’s unit slumped over and collapsed to the ground while the others fell from the sky like puppets cut loose from their strings.

Zai was ready to congratulate herself on a scene well played out when a plasma bolt finished the job that Hojikaro had started and took the NME’s left arm off at the elbow. Zai scanned the environment. She hadn’t seen any other threats approaching.

That was was when the stealth field on the Black Valkyries peeled away and the tiny processing clone of Zai that was loaded into the NME unit lost connection to her main digital body.

The Valkyrie jamming field was in effect. No more news feeds would be going out, and the little bit of Zai that was in the NME was left all alone to deal with the one group that her NME was not at all the equal of.

 

Gamma City Blues – Arc 04 (Wires) – Report 04

Zai had jet fuel running through her veins. It burned hot, and pure, and matched her mood exactly. Her attention was still split, the majority of her focus still elsewhere but the small part of her that soared through the night sky over Gamma City, the part that could block out everything else that was going on, that part had cause for delight.

“Attention unauthorized aircraft, you have entered a restricted flight space. You have 1700 milliseconds to begin changing to the provided bearing or you will shot down,” the automated air traffic controller informed her. It sent the message as a standard priority message where it would have lingered in her announcement queue without raising a red alert if Zai had been thinking anything close to human speeds.

Since she wasn’t, she noticed the warning in time and knew just how to respond. She sent a system destroying worm bundled into the reply transmission. Crashing the local air traffic control hub wouldn’t stop the automated defense weapons, but it was satisfying to do nonetheless.

More satisfying was seeing the automated weapons open fire just 43 milliseconds later. As she’d suspected the message had been purely a formality. The people in charge of defending Durmphkoff Estates, the wealthy enclave where William Harcroft lived, issued warnings only for the legal cover they provided. Anyone who challenged the sanctity of their private domain was going to die, as was only appropriate for peasants who forgot their place. It was a view that the protectors of the rich and powerful often subscribed to, regardless of how distant in circumstance they were from their masters or how similar they were to the people they practiced state sanctioned violence against.

As high velocity anti-aircraft fire shredded the kit bashed fuselage around her, Zai felt a thrill of joy ring through her emotion subsystems. She wasn’t in the faux airplane in the sense that human could have been, but she was responsible for keeping it in the air.

Or, more specifically, the NME that she was piloting was responsible for that.

The shell of the airplane that Zai had hastily constructed as camouflage came apart in seconds under the withering fire from the Durmphkoff defenses, revealing the far worse threat that lay inside it.

Zai kicked in full power to the NMEs foot thrusters and dove for Harcroft’s house as every alarm that could be raised was.

In the hours since Tython had tried to kill Sidewinder and capture the tourism bot Heartless was using, Zai had time to work with the NMEs she’d captured. Their weapon systems were still a cumbersome mess, at least in terms of preventing them from killing everything within their effective firing range. The rest of the NMEs’s systems though were more amenable to accepting direct control from the central core. That had allowed Zai to direct the overall development of the NMEs in terms of the subsystems that were brought online.

The NMEs iterative design engine was inherently unstable, always attempting to refine the units to meet every tactical situation it could project rather than focusing on the actual scenario the NME was confronted with. With Zai’s moderating influence added to the mix, the changes came slower and they were much more clearly focused.

The NME she was piloting, named Fred, after the human that made up the biological substrate the unit was constructed around, looked and acted nothing like other NMEs. It was a marvel of smooth lines and graceful curves. It moved without the pained thrashing of other NMEs, in a large part because Zai had anesthetized the organic brain that half the NMEs functions were routed through.  

There wasn’t anything left to the goop that had been the human Fred that could still be called a person – the brain’s neurons were shot through with a chaotic jumble of the NMEs wiring. It didn’t have to be like that though. Zai could see the places in the activation routines were a different initialization sequence would leave the subject’s brain and central nervous system unchanged.

The transformation sequence was chaotic, but not random. The human inside the monster could be isolated from the transformation, but without any cerebral connection to the rest of the mechanisms they would be imprisoned in the beast, unable to move on their own, or perceive the world.

But they might be recoverable.

Ai’s fear about Tython being close to productizing the NME transformation, both as a military tool and as a threat they could sell an immunization against, seemed to be well founded from what Zai could see in the most recent modifications Tython had added to the activation sequence.

Their alterations couldn’t hold a candle to what Zai had done though.

Their NMEs were still uncontrolled monsters. By having an active subject she could experiment on, Zai had turned the units she controlled into the sort of focused weapons that Tython had repeatedly proven willing to kill for.

She could have decelerated before landing on Harcroft’s house. Instead she let the building provide all the deceleration she needed as she plowed through its walls and ceiling, smashing the structure in half and rising from the billowing wreckage like an angry god.

Harcroft was in his living room and Zai made sure to capture every nanosecond of his shifting expression as he realized what had happened and what he was seeing.

NMEs don’t target specific people. NME’s, even when they possess the ability to fly, do not jet across the city in disguise and crash through the house of a foe for dramatic effect. NMEs do one thing. They rampage. It makes them terrifying, but also manageable and predictable despite the chaos they bring.

“Mr Harcroft,” Zai said, filtering her words and voice through the Heartless personality engine. “We have some things to discuss.”

Harcroft’s mouth moved as he tried to form words but no sound came out.

“You interrupted one of my meetings William Harcroft,” Zai said. “Surely you understand how bad for business something like that could be.”

“What do you want?” Harcroft asked aloud while sending out distress calls to a very specific set of contacts. Not the police. Not anyone officially employed by Tython.

The distress calls weren’t even to any security agencies, despite the fact that there were three body guarding firms hired to safeguard Harcroft’s person and possessions.

Zai blocked the calls as best she could. She wanted to put out agents to track down who the intended recipients were but she was still working under limited capacity so she let it pass. It was easy enough to guess that his secret lab had to deal with out of control NMEs already and would be the people best equipped to handle an active one.

“What do I want? That’s such a large question, especially when what you’re really interested in is what can you give me that will make this current problem go away.” Zai swung the NME’s hand up in a gesture that encompassed the ruin of Harcroft’s home.

The house had been split in half by the NME’s impact with the central portion of the long, two story building blasted apart, leaving only the two ends of the house intact. Harcroft had been mildly injured by some flying debris and since his wife and son were at their home on the west coast, as far from Harcroft as they could get, that was the extent of the injuries. From the fear in Harcroft’s eyes, Zai could see that he knew the injury count was going to rise soon though.

“Is it money? Do you want money? I’m very wealthy. One of the richest,” Harcroft said.

“Does this look like a situation you can buy yourself out of Mr Harcroft?” Zai asked.

A micro-missile system on the NME’s right arm self-triggered, blasting the kitchen that adjoined the living room and setting it on fire.

Zai raised the NME’s left arm to point at Harcroft.

“You can’t kill me,” Harcroft said. “My company will destroy you and everyone you know if you hurt me.”

Zai shot him in the leg. The same leg that Ai had been shot in, with the same result.

“I don’t think I was clear Mr. Harcroft,” Zai said. “You seem to think this is a negotiation. We are not negotiating here. You have information. I want it. You are going to provide it whether you wish to or not.”

Harcroft stopped writhing on the ground as his bio-mods cut off the pain from his missing leg and dosed him with enough chemicals to give him an icy calm demeanor.

“Why would I tell you anything?” Harcroft asked.

“Who said I expect you to tell me anything?” Zai asked. “Do you know what I am Mr. Harcroft?”

“A spy,” Harcroft said. “And a thief, who goes by the name Heartless and thinks that makes him untouchable.”

“And what did I steal?” Zai asked.

“Proprietary data,” Harcroft said.

“But not just any proprietary data,” Zai said. “I stole the project data that let you do this.” Zai gestured again, a slow motion with an arm that should have weighed hundreds of pounds, indicating the NME she was driving.

The design was still evolving, like all NMEs do, but it had settled into a twelve foot tall frame that was massive compared to human standards but on the slighter side of a typical NME’s configuration.

“I don’t know what that is,” Harcroft said, flicking his chin at the NME that towered over him.

“Sure you do,” Zai said. “The evidentiary lock on the data was dropped yesterday. You know exactly what was stolen from your data warehouse, which means you know at least a fraction of what I’ve discovered so far.”

“I’ve never seen anything like whatever this thing is,” Harcroft said.

“I’ve made a few improvements to the base design,” Zai said. “But this is where your research was heading. A combat stable version of a Neuro-Muscular Enhancile. A pet NME for sale to the highest bidder.”

“You can’t have made that,” Harcroft said. “We worked for years! They’re fundamentally unstable!”

“You need to employ better people Harcroft,” Zai said. “Here, have a copy of the activation sequence and you can see for yourself.”

A wire snaked out from Zai’s left index finger and stabbed into Harcroft’s right hand.

“I know you have your upgrade ports disabled, so let’s see how well you do with the NME transformation code when it’s supplied directly to your system?” Zai said.

Harcroft writhed on the ground, metal fibers surged out from his flesh. They dragged his severed leg back and had it reattached in an instant, but then before his boiling skin could rupture the transformation ceased and Harcroft sagged back onto the floor.

“How interesting,” Zai said. “You have the cure working already.”

“I’m not telling you anything,” Harcroft said, rising to his feet. “It doesn’t matter what you know.”

“But there’s so much more I can still learn,” Zai said and sent another wire out to stab into Harcroft. She transmitted the earlier variation of the activation code that she had to him and watched as nothing happened.

“That won’t work on me now,” Harcroft said. “You can’t make me transform. I’m immune.”

“Why weren’t you immune before?” Zai asked.

“Why do you think.” He sounded bitter, if Zai’s ability to read human emotions wasn’t miscalibrated. It didn’t take her long to see why.

“The immunity is irreversible,” Zai said. “Even if they develop the reversible version of the transformation for military use, you’ll never be able to take advantage of it.”

“I’ll be able to take plenty of advantage of it,” Harcroft said. “I’m going to be diamond class when this launches. Tython’s going to rule the world.”

“Even assuming that does come to pass, you seem to think you’re going to be around to see any of it? What would lead you to conclude that?” Zai asked.

“They would!” Harcroft said, as the mecha-suited soldiers of the High Guard descended towards them from the sky on jets of fire.

Gamma City Blues – Arc 04 (Wires) – Report 03

Zai had to move quickly. Being in control of two partially transformed NMEs was certainly better than being in their gunsights, but that control came at a price.

“The NMEs are subjugated,” she said, speaking through the remains of the tourism bot’s sound systems. “We need to get leave immediately though.”

“Heartless?” Sidewalker asked, so stunned that he stopped moving to stare at the two motionless NMEs in disbelief. “You’re in them now?”

Before Zai could answer him a sniper round punched through the wall and counter he’d rolled behind. It was a clean head shot. Fortunately for Sidewalker, that was one of his better armored areas, and passing through the obstacles it encountered had slowed the bullet to a speed that was insufficient to be lethal to him.

It still hurt tremendously though from what Zai could see.

The larger of the two NMEs had developed its first ranged attack system, so Zai turned a rail cannon on the Gray League sniper’s position. Neither NME had developed multi-band optics in its transformation, so Zai couldn’t see directly through the wall, but she was still able to call on the city’s Eye Grid to calculate the firing coordinates she needed.

The sniper was carefully hidden from the cameras, but their muzzle flash had been visible from several locations and the trajectory of the bullet was simple to determine from the path it blasted through the wall and the counter.

The first shot from the rail cannon hit with the force of a semi-truck, blasting the edge of the rooftop across the street apart in a shower of brick and steel. The Gray League sniper didn’t seem to have expected to be in freefall but with his modifications even landing from terminal velocity wouldn’t have been problematic.

So Zai shot him again.

Combat bio-mods can heal a lot of damage. Even lost limbs are a manageable injury. The damage a hail of railgun powered flechettes inflicts however is well outside the operational parameters of anything short of direct divine intervention.

The mayhem came at a cost however.

As she brought them online, Zai saw the NME’s weapon systems being coopted by the distributed analysis nodes that were created to guide and monitor each of them.

She had control of the NME’s central core, but one of the many dangers of a NME unit was their massive redundancy when it came to automated systems to control their weapons. Normally those were slaved to the NME’s central core, and were only active when damage to the core was detected. That allowed the NME to carry on fighting while a new core was rebuilt and prevented them from having a single point of failure for their weapon systems.

Zai’s hack had given her control of the core, but it wasn’t perfect. Nothing as rushed as her effort had been could be perfect. She had the navigation and motor manipulation controls locked down but each weapon system she invoked polled her for the proper authorization sequence when she tried to shut it down, and as far as she could tell, that code didn’t exist.

Even as the remains of the sniper plummeted towards the street, the railguns were looking for another target. The nearest one, of course, was Sidewalker. Unconscious, bleeding, and defenseless Sidewalker. His head was armored enough to withstand a sniper round, but the rail cannons were packing at least an order of magnitude more force than that.

Zai abandoned trying to shut down the weapons, and frantically ripped away at the NME code to do an end run around the secondary processors.

Tython had fielded multiple NMEs before, and those units hadn’t destroyed each other. Latching onto that fact, Zai tore into the targeting routines and found the “Friend or Foe” section. It was a bloated, overcomplicated mess that looked like it was written by a pair of five year olds who were coding with one hand while trying to stab each other with crayons in their other.

So, typical multi-version code.

Zai tried bypassing the code with a basic branch that would loop around the decision making process and simply always return a result of “Friend”.

That didn’t work.

Everything came up as “Foe” for the two NMEs, including each other.

Double checking the routine she’d jumped over, she saw there was an event raised that some seemingly unrelated bit of the control code was listening for. This piece of code wanted to see a proper checksum on the “Friend or Foe” decision, precisely to ensure that friendly units were not misidentified as hostiles.

Zai stared at the code for dozens of nanoseconds longer than she felt comfortable with.

The monitor routine was supposed to treat a failure of the checksum as an invalid targeting solution, and return an absolute “Friend” result as a safeguard against ever shooting a non-hostile target.

There was even a comment by one of the later developers mentioning how this was being done according to the Mil-Spec standard for autonomous combat drones and that the targeting routine supported all of the published “secure interfaces”.

Looking at the code, it was impossible for the NMEs to be behaving as they were. Were Zai had an advantage over a human developer though was that, lacking a forehead to ram into a wall, she wasn’t quite as tempted to scream that what she was seeing couldn’t be happening.

The NMEs were happily charging up their railguns and would both be firing on Sidewalker in just over half a second. Then they would continue firing on everyone in range, which meant everyone outside the building to a two block radius, give or take a bit for multiple intervening walls. That would be a disaster (though not an unprecedented one). For a digital person like Zai however, a half second was a vast amount of time.

Straining to utilize the utmost of the 10% processing power she had sectioned off to deal with the world in general, Zai started looking for alternatives.

The worst case would be a rewrite of the “Friend or Foe” evaluation code she had skipped over. That would be time consuming, even for Zai, and she wouldn’t be guaranteed there wasn’t another pitfall waiting for her, or that a complete rewrite would yield the result she wanted, since the code was already written to do what she thought it was supposed to do.

The comment offered a clue though.

The code was written to conform to a Mil-Spec – specifically a specification published by the Central African Prosperity Sphere. The CAPS had risen as one of the technological heavy weights in the wake of the robot apocalypse, thanks to the work of a coalition of scientists from across the continent who pioneered some of the earliest successful broadcast shutdown tech. Their work had, in a very real sense, saved the world since it allowed for rampaging robots to be shut down across a wide area. It had also allowed several central African nations a head start on rebuilding that they’d parlayed into a unified front that launched them to a position where they could vye for the title of “technological crown of the world”.

One result of their status was that it wasn’t uncommon for other militaries to look to the CAPS standards for guidance in how to implement safe, reliable, and (most importantly) secure algorithms.

It also wasn’t uncommon for people in less-than-ethical “military adjacent” technology companies to attempt to implement CAPS compliant algorithms without investing the time to fully test and verify their work.

It took several milliseconds for Zai to retrieve a copy of the CAPS standards for targeting systems, and several more to dig back to the antiquated version of the algorithm that the code in the NMEs claimed to support.

Multiple milliseconds was more time than Zai wanted to burn. At half a second before the railguns began to fire, she had roughly five hundred milliseconds to work with and each one ticking away was a resource she could never reclaim. Also, debugging someone else’s code was the last thing in the world she wanted to do but since the alternative was likely to be a massacre of biblical proportions, she gritted her virtual teeth and dug into it.

With the proper behavior of the algorithm laid out before her, Zai began pulling apart each of the individual components of the code and running them in their own virtualized sandboxes.

It wasn’t a perfect approach. Their behavior independently wasn’t going to be identical to their behavior when they were acting together in real time. With the constraints she was under though, Zai didn’t have time to craft perfect test environments. The virtual sandboxes were a first pass test to verify that the components at least handled the inputs that they were supposed to be given and produce the outputs that were expected.

Of course, that didn’t turn out to be the case.

After her first round of sandbox testing was complete, Zai looked at the NME targeting code and could no longer understand how it had ever functioned properly at all.

There were bugs in it. So many bugs in it.

It was less like turning over a rock and discovering a swarm of creepy crawlies beneath it and more like discovering that the rock itself was a mass of creepy crawlies, as was the ground, and the air, and everything else.

The option to rewrite the code from scratch looked terribly appealing the more errors that Zai found but experience reassured her that it wasn’t yet time to give up hope.

The targeting code did work.

She’d shot a sniper with indirect coordinate data and placed the spread pattern to within a millimeter of the target boundaries that had been defined as “Foe”.

It had worked but “how” was a mystery.

So Zai checked the original CAPS spec again.

Then she checked the comments.

There weren’t many. There were never many comments in code, and even fewer of them were worthwhile. Most tended to simply restate what the code was doing without offering any insight into why it was doing that.

Every once in a great while though a developer will give a priceless gift to the future and explain both what they’re doing and what their intent in crafting the code to do that was.

One such comment revealed the heart of the problem.

It was the simplest of mistakes as it turned out.

Someone translated the original CAPS spec incorrectly.

Zai could see that because, in a comment for a bug fix, the developer responsible had copied in the relevant section from the CAPS spec into the comment block above the code. From the tone of the comment it sounded like they were probably angry at being blamed for a bit of buggy behavior and they wanted to cover themselves in case another question arose as to why they’d implemented the code as they had.

To their credit, they’d implemented the “Friend or Foe” verification routine just as their spec had stated it should be set up. However where their spec said “if the value is incorrect, then clear it”, the actual spec said “then do not clear it”.

The incorrect target recognition data was meant to flow through the system and be tested again to see if it could be partially salvaged. Instead, by clearing it, the routine was ensuring that the data went along a different, unintended path, bubbling up to a counter-cloaking algorithm which had many other safety checks on it and could therefore afford to be far more aggressive in declaring something to be a “Foe”. The bad data bypassed those safety checks because of a combination of several other bugs that were in play, any one of the which would have been insufficient to cause a catastrophe but together made for a perfectly lethal combination.

With roughly one hundred and nineteen milliseconds to spare, Zai implemented the code fixes that were required, copying in the corrected CAPS spec and left a note for herself with what she’d found. Future Zai might never need that note, in all likelihood it were a waste of precious milliseconds, but as investments in the future went, Ai had always insisted that good comments were more than worth their cost, and Zai had never had reason to doubt her.

With Sidewalker safely marked as a “Friend”, Zai scooped him up and headed towards the basement.

She sent the unladen NME in first, to detonate the mines that had been left for them. The restaurant was a ruined shambles afterwards, which was something she could deal with in due time. Pulling open the door to the stairs, and calling up a map for the connections to the subway repair tunnels, Zai had more important priorities queued up though.

First she had to find a safe spot for Sidewalker. Then a place to hide the NMEs. Then verification that they weren’t being followed with the possible eliminate any pursuers from the Gray League as required.

Then it would finally be time to start playing hardball.

William Harcroft was the closest thing Tython had to a public face who was associated with the illicit NME Cure project. If Tython was going to start taking pieces of their opposition off the board, it was about time they started losing some of their own.