No one came to kill Ai. It proved to be a disappointing turn of events. A nice assassination attempt would have felt like they were making progress. It would have been a piece of incontrovertible proof of where and who her enemies were. That it might have succeeded was something Ai was also aware of. Her disappointment was tempered therefor with the relief that she didn’t need to fight for her life, though that shining crystal of joy was in turn marred because while an assassination attempt hadn’t happened yet, one could occur at almost any time, so she couldn’t exactly rest easy.
“We’ve gotten deep enough into this that we’re starting to lose safe options for moving forward,” she said, as she picked a path out of the deserted train yard. Gamma City never really slept, but public transit had sharply limited hours and apart from cops with a lot to hide and an sapient cyberpal to surgically disable security, no one had much use for the city’s trains when they were out of service.
“Should we back off then?” Zai asked, temporarily suppressing the alarms and giving Ai a marked route to safely exit the train yard. “We could be buried in normal case work that would keep us under the radar of everyone who’s involved in this.”
“Unfortunately, we’ve been active enough that it may not matter how unimportant and unconnected we appear to be,” Ai said. She wasn’t a ninja, but moving silently and invisibly was pretty easy with Zai making sure no one was watching or listening for her. Despite that she still took care to remain in the shadows of the cars. Zai was talented but that didn’t mean there weren’t people with similar levels of skill and Ai saw no reason to make her enemies lives any easy than she had too. “If Tython has caught sight of us, or Dr. Raju is playing the Valkyries as patsies, they’ll move against us just to be on the safe side.”
“No one’s made a move yet,” Zai said. “So is that a good sign or a bad one?’
“Probably a bit of both,” Ai said. “In the plus column, Tython and their associates aren’t so desperate about what we’ve discovered that they’re willing to come at us guns blazing. Which means they don’t know the extent of what we’ve uncovered.”
“That sounds like an exceptionally good thing. This Harcroft we found a trail to? He seems to like sending NMEs to solve his problems,” Zai said, she projected video footage on a side screen in Ai’s vision as a reminder of just how bad that attack had been. “Is there a reason he didn’t follow up the attack the Valkyries busted up though? I’ve been trying to figure that out for a while now. I mean, we barely survived the first encounter and that was with the Valkyries’ help and a convenient river to crash into.”
“I’ve been thinking about that too,” Ai said. “If he’s the one who unleashed the NMEs, then he’s clearly not on too tight of a leash, and that seems odd for a company like Tython.”
“I agree. Why be so obvious?” Zai asked. “The NME Cure project has been operating under hard walls of secrecy. It seems out of character to send three monsters at a time.”
“The usual explanations would be either desperation, or their creator wanted to send a message,” Ai said, getting into the automated taxi that Zai had waiting for her outside the trainyard.
In the systems that recorded her position, a worm wiggled, changing dates and locations to make a number of police location records unreadable. Only one was left with ‘difficult to detect but definitely present’ signs of tampering, and with enough digging an investigator could discover that the officer in question had faked being home at a time when he was selling patrol schedules to a backroom information broker.
“The lack of a follow up attack argues against the “desperation motive” though it might also speak to a change in leadership,” Ai said. “Can you see if Harcroft is still officially employed by Tython? They would have hidden him if he was directly in charge of the NME program.”
“Huh, they didn’t. He’s still a Tython employee. He’s even in the same role,” Zai said. “Wasn’t our theory that the NME Cure project was what got him his position in Tython?”
“Yeah, and the theory still stands,” Ai said. “He got a fat promotion after the acquisition. Going behind a research veil to manage an illegal program would have been a crippling blow to his career – you can’t list ‘illicit human experimentation manager’ on a resume – and it would have been hard to explain from Tython’s end. You don’t promote someone, give them a big bonus, and then wish them the best of luck pursuing ‘other opportunities.”
“So is he not connected to the project anymore then?” Zai asked.
“I can’t see that happening either,” Ai said. “It’s too big and too important, and if he’s not a part of it then he becomes a loose end. Given that he’s still alive, I can’t picture that being the case. I think he split the difference and is running the project through a trusted underling. That’s a lot more practical overall too. As a public face of Tython, there’d be too much scrutiny on him by the newsfeeds for him to have daily interactions with the research staff.”
The automated taxi slid as it turned a corner a little too tightly. Ai smiled knowing that Zai was messing with its control interface to ensure that the hidden monitoring systems were returning something painfully bland.
“And that’s true even if it’s being done is unlicensed labs, with contractors who can’t be traced back to Tython?” Zai asked.
“Especially then,” Ai said. “Picture if every day, or even every week, there were chunks of time out of his schedule that he couldn’t account for to anyone.”
“Is this the kind of thing that could be given to an underling though?” Zai asked.
“I’m doubting Harcroft was happy with the idea, but he’d already have been relying on a bunch of researchers to do the work. Having one of them step forward as the project director would have felt natural to everyone concerned.”
“And they could stay behind an Identity Hedge so we don’t have any direct one options for determining who they are,” Zai said. “That supports your idea that they’re not acting out of desperation.”
“Yeah. I’m starting to think there’s more to it than I originally considered though,” Ai said. “My first theory was that they were sending a message to the GCPD. Tython knew about the theft from their data vault. They probably guessed, or are just paranoid enough to assume, that Sidewalker’s crew escaped with the data, so the next step is to kill who has the data or someone close enough to them in a spectacular enough fashion that the real holder of the data will sit on it forever.”
“That seems like a pretty strong message,” Zai said.
“What if there was another side to it though?” Ai asked. Her gaze flicked over the people on the sidewalks as they drove by at the taxi’s regulated and unexceptional speed. Bits of metal, body piercings, low grade bio-mods, and handmade armor bits, kept catching her eye. None of the people in the crowd were who she was looking for though. None of them were Harp.
“They were trying to signal someone else as well? Like the Valkyries?” Zai asked.
“That’s one possibility,” Ai said. “They found us pretty quickly. I’m not complaining about that, but being the right place at the right time for an attack like that is tough. It would have been a lot easier if they received a sign that something was going to go down in advance of the NMEs being deployed. It wouldn’t need to be a direct invitation, just a stray bit of data that tipped them off.”
“We should ask Harp about that when she comes back,” Zai said.
“If she comes back,” Ai said without meaning to.
“Are you worried she’s going to turn on us too?” Zai asked.
“No, it’s just nerve wracking not hearing anything,” Ai said. “I told her to call if she gets into trouble, but what if she can’t?”
“You think Dr. Raju did something to her?” Zai asked.
“I don’t know,” Ai said. “It’s possible. If Raju is in on this from the wrong end, and I know that’s unlikely, she could have a literal kill switch installed in Harp. Given the power the Valkyries have, I’d almost be surprised if there’s not a kill switch in the code somewhere in fact.”
“Should we try to find Harp?” Zai asked.
“No, I’m being paranoid,” Ai said. “Interfering now won’t help things unless Harp is in serious trouble, and if things are that bad we’d need a very different plan than ‘rush in and try to rescue her’.”
The automated taxi arrived at the all night soy noodle shop where Zai directed it to stop and Ai got out. It was too long of a walk back to get back to her apartment from there but not too long of a walk to make it to the coffee shop Ai sometimes spent her nights at when she was in college. Calling another taxi from there would provide a fresh record of her whereabouts that was consistent with past behavior and, with luck, not arouse too any suspicion if someone was scanning for officers who were in unusual locations that night. Or in unusual company.
“I’ll try to keep my eyes out for any reports that might involve any of the Valkyries,” Zai said. “In the interim maybe you can explain what message you think Tython was sending to them?”
“Hmm, maybe the message wasn’t meant for the Valkyries, or not just for them” Ai said as her mind continued to chew on the idea. “Try this one; we were meant to be the victims. We get obliterated as a notice to the GCPD to stop poking around in any cases that Curtweather and I were working on. The three NMEs would have done tremendous damage to the city after that though, except the Valkyries show up and stop them, so the message to them was ‘get ready to up your game, because you can expect to see more and more of these things’, which is perfect if Tython is planning a pandemic for show and needs someone to make sure their client base survives to demand the cure they have to offer.”
Ai watched a light go flickering by in the cloud choked sky. It was only a plane, Zai’s information overlay confirmed that, but for a moment Ai could have believed it was a Valkyrie suit racing for the heavens. She shook her head and pulled her thoughts back in order, wondering how tired she was that they were getting as scrambled as they appeared to be.
“Then there’s the final message,” she said. “We weren’t the only people watching the fight. The Valkyries scrambled communications but those explosions weren’t exactly subtle. Anyone who’s been working with NMEs would recognize the damage patterns. All they wouldn’t know would be how the NMEs were stopped, and that would scare the hell out of anyone who knew that Tython was searching for a cure.”
“You think Tython was putting their competitors on notice?” Zai asked.
“Maybe it was a bluff,” Ai said. “And maybe not. Activating three NMEs, even though that wasn’t Plan A, is a pretty bold move. They have to be at a stage of the project where they can’t afford to back off on development and that means it’s at least possible that they’re close to the breakthrough they need.”
“I think they might be able to shutdown the NMEs already,” Zai said.
“Why?” Ai asked.
“Because earlier tonight one tore apart Eddie Page,” Zai said. “He was the one I picked off the Special List and routed the EyeGrid archive through.”
“I haven’t seen any security alerts on that,” Ai said. “So they deployed an NME and shut it down? That’s chilling. I wonder if the subject survived? Probably not. I hope not.”
“Why?” Zai asked.
“Because if they can turn off an NME transformation and recover the subject then they have the Stage 1 cure in their hands already and we’ve run out of time.”