Gamma City Blues – Arc 01 (The Beat) – Report 09

Omnipresent surveillance offered the promise of never losing a fleeing suspect. It was a claim repeated so often that it had become the opening joke police payroll negotiations were kicked off with. More electronic eyes in more places meant fewer cops needed on the payroll, it was obvious, and obviously wrong to everyone with more than ten minutes of experiences working with the official surveillance grid.

The city had millions of electronic eyes but the overwhelming number of them were blind, and, when that wasn’t the problem, a more fundamental issue often arose.

“Lost her,” Zai said.

“Dead cameras in the building?” Ai asked.

“Nope. They were never installed,” Zai said. “Budget shortfall twelve years ago.”

“How thin is the local eyegrid?” Ai asked.

“Do you want me to count the cameras with badly spoofed loops playing in them, or just the ones that are showing actual live feeds?” Zai asked.

“Wow, there are camera that are actually working?” Ai surprise was genuine. Valuable cameras had a questionable lifespan in an area where people were struggling with basic survival needs.

“Oh, sorry, didn’t mean to get your hopes up there,” Zai said. “You’re choices include cameras are theoretically monitored but have been showing the same static image for the last six years or the theoretically secured cameras that have been completely scavenged for parts.”

“Any external eyes?” Ai asked, hoping that there might be some cameras mounted outside the building that were sufficiently difficult to access that they would have escaped the scavengers.

“Some, nothing on them yet though,” Zai said.

“Then we get to rely on human intuition,” Ai said. “Yay.”

It wasn’t that Ai didn’t enjoy making leaps of logic, she just preferred to gamble under circumstances that she had complete and total control over. Whether that could in any sense be termed ‘gambling’ was a question she didn’t concern herself with.

The inside of the building showed the sort of neglect that took more than a generation to accumulate. The odor of urine had soaked into the floors and walls, there were holes in the walls that were stuffed with molded over garbage, and only the absence of glass in the windows prevented the stench from reaching toxic levels.

“How many stairs does this place have?” Ai asked.

“Only one,” Zai said. “Regulations call for a minimum of two but this place was given a historic building waiver.”

Ai shook her head. Historic sites required a minimum staff of three caretakers as well as yearly reviews for cleanliness and period preservation. Given the decay she saw, no inspector had been within the building in the last two decades.

“Look up who’s trust this building is,” Ai said. “We’re going to relocate them here.”

“Shall I arrange for an ‘Officer Greensmith wuz hair’ tag to be graffitied on the front of the building too?” Zai asked. “I mean as long as we’re going to be obvious about our influence, might as well take it to the max right?”

“For someone who claims not to understand sarcasm, you’re not afraid to use it are you?” Ai asked.

“Am I wrong?” Zai asked.

“No, you’re not,” Ai said. “I was being irrational. Find out whose building it is anyways though. You’re right that we can’t just move against anyone who comes onto my radar, at least not until I’m willing to spray paint ‘Come Get Me’ across the city in block long letters. By the same token though, there’s no need to turn a blind eye to this. At some point in the future there won’t be an obvious connection between Officer Greensmith and this place. If it’s not fixed by then, then we can fix it however seems most appropriate.”

“I notice that you’re not moving,” Zai said. “Are you expecting our suspect to come to us?”

“Only one stairway right?” Ai said. “And it’s at the far end of this hall.”

“Judging by her speed relative to ours and the distances involved, she should have come down here a minute ago,” Zai said.

“The offset from the other apartments is too far to jump,” Ai said. “So she’s either waiting on the stairs, trying to figure out what to do, or she jumped into one of the rooms and is going to try climbing down the outside. Anything on the external cams?”

“Not climbing down the building but there is a third option you seem to have missed,” Zai said. “She just exited the building on the roof. She’s carrying a crate which she’s placing facing the door and is sitting on. Oh, and she just waved at the closest camera, so I think she knows we’re watching her.”

“Well isn’t that a fascinating development,” Ai said. “Can you take the auto-recorders offline and save our audio-visual feed in a parallel buffer?”

“Starting parallel stream now,” Zai said. “What do you want to show when we get to the roof?”

“The fake feed should show us searching around an empty rooftop,” Ai said. “Fabricate copies for the external cams too. I think we’ll want this to be a private conversation.”

“How does she get off the rooftop?” Zai asked. “In the fake feed I mean?”

“Let’s keep is simple. She hides behind the door, and we don’t notice her slip past us back into the building.”

“We’ll look kind of stupid won’t we?” Zai asked.

“Perfect,” Ai said. “Hopefully Captain James will give us an official reprimand too. We’re looking a little too lucky and competent at the moment.”

“I still say you should let me post a video of you singing in the shower,” Zai said. “That would dispel any illusions of competence people have about you.”

“Shower time is my time,” Ai said. “I don’t need to answer to anyone for that.”

The upper levels of the building were marginally better than the ground floor, if only because people with the stamina to make it up the stairs were more often able to hold their bodily excretions until they were inside an apartment.

On the roof, Ai found not only fresh air, or at least as fresh as the air in Gamma City got, and the tattooed woman waiting for her, the frown she’d been wearing the last time Ai say her still firmly in place.

“What are you doing here?” the woman asked.

“Investigating a murder,” Ai said. “Or do you mean right here, because that would be investigating a person of interest in regards to the murder investigation previously mentioned.”

“You’re not a cop,” the woman said.

“The uniform I’m wearing, the cruiser I rolled up to the scene in, and my sleeping partner would like to disagree with that assessment,” Ai said. “Well the first two would. Curtweather’s enough of an ass that he might say you were right just to tick me off.”

“You’re not just a cop,” the woman said.

“And you’re not just a bystander,” Ai said.

“What do you know about what happened today?” the woman asked.

“Any luck on who this is?” Ai asked.

“Nope, she’s not coming up in any of the standard ID databases,” Zai said. “That’s weird isn’t it?”

“Yes it is. And dangerous. We probably shouldn’t be here,” Ai said.

“I notice you’re not leaving,” Zai said.

“I’m noticing that too,” Ai said.

“Checking with your Personal Companion?” the woman asked, noting Ai’s delay in answering her initial question.

“Standard police procedure,” Ai said. “Since it’s coming up empty, is there a name I can use for you?”

“Harp,” the woman said. “Harp Thirteens.”

“Thank you Harp, I’m…” Ai started to say.

“Ai Greensmith, Cadet class Patrol Officer, joined the Gamma City Police Department six months ago,” Harp said.

“You have me at a disadvantage,” Ai said, impressed delight covering the deeper concern she felt to be facing someone with more than the typically pathetic levels of data retrieval skills the rest of her coworkers seemed to possess.

“Do I?” Harp asked. “What do you know about what happened today?”

“At this moment, I’m reasonably sure it’s less than you do,” Ai said. “It wasn’t an accident that you were near the highway when the NME attacked, was it?”

“No more than it’s an accident that you’re here, near the dead guy the NME was born from,” Harp said.

Ai’s mouth opened but words didn’t come out. Her lips gather and relaxed and twisted again. Still no sound.

“You really didn’t know that?” Harp asked. “Maybe I was wrong then.”

“I’m pretty sure at this point I’m supposed to arrest you,” Ai said.

“That’s not going to happen,” Harp said.

“Yeah, we both know that,” Ai said.

“You’re interfering with the eyes?” Harp asked.

“Yep, you’ve already left the roof as far as anyone outside who can see us is concerned,” Ai said.

“That’s not a safe thing to do,” Harp said. “Providing me with a perfect alibi like that.”

“Dual feed,” Ai said. “If I don’t give the confirm order, the real footage is placed into the archive instead of the empty loop.”

“That was smart,” Harp said. “Maybe I was right. You’re not just a cop are you?”

“Nobody’s just a cop,” Ai said. “At the moment for example, I’m effectively a private citizen.”

“Then you shouldn’t be up here,” Harp said.

“Oh, I’m pretty sure this is exactly where I need to be,” Ai said.

“You don’t want to be part of this,” Harp said. “It’s not for cops or for private citizens.”

“Do you know why I followed you?” Ai asked.

“Duty? Curiosity? Death wish?” Harp said. “Am I close.”

“Nope. Not on any of them,” Ai said. “Duty would compel me to leave the cameras on, my own and the others, curiosity would have gotten me killed already, and if I had a death wish there have been seven occasions where I could have made an easy ‘mistake’ and checked out.”

“Name one,” Harp said.

“March 16th,” Ai said.

“What’s on…” Harp said and paused, her data feed supplying the answer. “Joseph Greensmith’s funeral?”

“They let me carry one of the ceremonial rifles,” Ai said. “Which took standard 7.62 rounds.”

“How many would you have needed?” Harp asked.

“If I had a death wish? Just one. If I wanted to see justice done? I can’t carry that many,” Ai said.

“So you’re not crazy,” Harp said. “Still shouldn’t be up here.”

“Tell me what you meant by the NME being born from the dead guy down there,” Ai said.

“Sorry. Can’t. If you know, they’ll kill you,” Harp said.

“That’s going to happen regardless of whether or not you tell me,” Ai said. “I’m asking only to save some time. And because I have information you need.”

“Tell me then and leave.”

“Don’t think so. I’m not going to arrest you. We both know that would go badly for everyone involved, but I’m pretty sure we’re going to meet again. I think establishing a professional relationship now might save us a lot of time and headaches in the future.”

“A professional relationship?” Harp asked.

“Yes. Professionals trust each other, to a reasonable extent,” Ai said. “I’m offering something I believe you’ll value and asking for the same in return. If we trade honestly this time it’s one small stone to balance against our mutual need for security next time. Make enough trades, pile up enough stones, and we’ve got a history that we’re both invested in, which makes betrayal ever less appealing as time goes on.”

“What are you offering?” Harp asked.

“The reason I’m here, investigating this corpse,” Ai said. “And what the investigation is connected to. If you’re as ahead of me on the NMEs as I think you are, then you want to know the piece I’m holding.”

“Ok. We’ll try this. But when they kill you, it’s not my fault,” Hard said.

“Agreed.”

“The corpse made the NME’s, but not directly,” Harp said. “NMEs are not malfunctioning combat mods. They’re created by weaponized repair nanos, designed to overload a target’s onboard biotech enhancements.”

“Why would the corpse have a soldier mod like that?” Ai asked.

“They’re not soldier mods. Military grade tech is too shielded. The NME mods only work against civilian biotech,” Harp said.

“So the attacks are deliberate,” Ai said. It wasn’t a question. She’d suspect it to to be true since she began investigating the NMEs on her own.

“Most yes,” Harp said. “These were not. This was almost the start of a new Tech Plague. Something shut down the replication commands though. Somehow we were spared.”

“Oops, or yay, go me I guess?” Zai said.

Gamma City Blues – Arc 01 (The Beat) – Report 08

As it turned out, Tython hadn’t asked for Officer Curtweather by name. They’d asked for “the same officers who were originally handling the case”.

“There’s an important distinction there?” Zai asked. “It’s still hard to tell when you humans are being indirect just to be coy, and when it’s because you actually lack the information to be clear about what you want.”

“In this case it’s meaningful,” Ai said. “Dispatch has a general policy against giving out the names of officers working on open criminal cases. In theory it’s for our protection but in practice it’s because they want a piece of any bribery that’s going to happen.”

“So Tython couldn’t know the same cops were on the two cases which means it’s just a coincidence that we were involved in two different investigations that relate to Tython today?” Zai asked.

“Officially we were requested to preserve the chain of witnesses,” Ai said. “In theory we’re more likely to notice if anything has been done to the body since we first observed the crime scene and we can present the most compelling case for the findings that are uncovered since we can provide the greatest degree of direct testimony.”

“And what’s the reason they actually want you on this?” Zai asked.

“Probably because it means fewer bribes will be required as hush money about whatever we find,” Ai said, “or they’re planning to kill us and with this approach they only need to pay for two kills, not four.”

“Should I be on the lookout for incoming assassins?” Zai asked.

“Pretty much always, but in this case I’m guessing we won’t have to start ducking bullets until the forensic folks determine cause of death and all the other fun stuff they put together,” Ai said.

“I love how the forensic reports always come up when we get within a half mile of the crime scene,” Curtweather said, indicating the new update that was pinging for attention on their data feed. “It’s almost like they don’t want us to know that they’re using automated drones for all their real work and never log a day in the field if they don’t have to.”

“Didn’t you shoot at least one of them?” Ai asked.

“It was only one, and he was a serial killer using his position to disguise his crimes,” Curtweather said.

“How much did you pay to make that story true?” Ai asked.

Curtweather didn’t dignify that with a response. The actual sum was low enough though that Ai suspected there was some measure of truth to Curtweather’s story.

The body hadn’t been moved since the last time Ai saw it. The simple tarp they’d hung over it was gone though. It was absent from the forensics report which meant the locals hadn’t waited long to scavenge it. No one had bothered the body because no one needed the kind of trouble that came from leaving identifiable evidence on a murder victim. One stray hair was all that was required for a conviction in some cases and lawyers that could argue successfully against physical evidence were more expensive than anyone who lived in the vicinity could afford.

“The official report lists cause of death as asphyxiation,” Curtweather said. “How did they ever get that out of this mess?”

“Cranial scan,” Ai said.

“Not much of a head left though is there?” Curweather asked.

“I’m trying not to think about that,” Ai said.

“For someone trying to avoid a gruesome spectacle, you sure are sending a lot of imagery out for processing,” Zai said.

“Sure, I want Tython to see they’re getting their money’s worth,” Ai said. “Also, if there’s some secret we’re supposed to be discovering I want to make sure we’re not the only ones who have access to it.”

“Isn’t that why most case files are secured while they’re open though? So that the guilty parties can’t hide evidence that hasn’t yet been discovered?” Zai asked.

“That’s one benefit,” Ai said. “The other is that it’s easier to bluff when your opponent isn’t sure what information you possess.”

“Then why give away what you’ve discovered?” Zai asked.

“For a rookie officer this would be self preservation,” Ai said. “Tython is too big a entity to try to extort. They can get away with erasing people who are inconvenient to them, even rookie beat cops. Erasing a whole precinct though? That’s a lot of red on the balance sheet to incur for a secret that you were sloppy enough to dump in an alley.”

“So it’s self-preservation for a rookie cop, what is it for you?” Zai asked.

“Tiny little traps,” Ai said. “We know Tython is involved in the standard array of illicit activities. The question is whether they’re far enough below board that it’s worth acquiring them.”

“How do pictures and additional forensics requests do that?” Zai asked.

“Tython is going to be watching what goes on here, but I need to know who in Tython is calling the shots. It’ll either be a middle manager looking to cover up a colossal blunder, which is honestly what I’m expecting, or it’ll be someone completely unimportant.”

“So the best you’re hoping to catch is an incompetent middle manager?” Zai asked.

“Nope, I’m looking for a ghost,” Ai said. “The ‘completely unimportant someone’? That’ll be a lie. It’ll be the mask someone with an ounce of sense uses to carry out the real work that Tython needs to have done for it. If someone like that is looking into this then we’ll know that it’s a thread that’s worth following further.”

“And if it’s a mask that looks like a bumbling manager?” Zai asked.

“Then we check back in on him in a couple of months,” Ai said. “If he still exists then we see if we can break his life a bit and see what comes pouring out. Nobody makes only one blunder and each one will cast shadows that other plans might be hiding in.”

“This is interesting,” Curtweather said. “According to the our forensic guy, the body was ejected by a sanitation truck.”

Ai looked around the street and noticed the lack of sorted trash bags on the curb.

“They have automated pick up here?” she asked.

“Yeah, that’s odd isn’t it?” Curtweather said.

“How did an automated truck get a body in it?” Ai asked.

“Someone put it there,” Curtweather said, smirking like it was the observation of a genius.

“Can we get the logs from the truck?” Ai asked.

“Looks like we can not,” Curtweather said. “The thing’s running only basic collection processes. Monitors and recording gear failed three years ago but aren’t on the required accessory list for licensing so it’s been working without them ever since.”

“Odds that the killer didn’t know that?” Ai asked.

“Slim to none,” Curtweather said. “Given that he didn’t leave anything for the ID sniffers to identify him with though I think it’s a given we’re dealing a smart guy.”

“Everybody makes mistakes though right?” Ai said.

“Yeah,” Curtweather said. “Doesn’t mean it’s worth the effort of finding them, but it’s a nice theory to run with.”

Which was how most investigations went in Ai’s experience. Look for the easiest collection of facts that could be fit into a narrative, find or make some corroborating physical evidence and/or produce an eyewitness who’s been properly bought out and the case can sail through the court system. Just make sure not to indict anyone with either wealth or influence and there won’t be any meaningful push back.

On the one hand that made working within the system trivially easy so long as you acknowledged the unjust realities and took advantage of them. On the other hand that system had cost Ai both a father and a brother already, so merely destroying it wasn’t going to be enough. Destroying things was too easy.

Gamma City thought it could take whatever it wanted from her, but Gamma City wasn’t the all powerful megalopolis it was imagined to be. In the end Gamma City was nothing more than people. People who made mistakes like the pile of dead guy at Ai’s feet.

“Easiest thing is going to be to look into who this guy was,” Ai said. “Tython’s going to expect at least that much in the official report right?”

“That they will, and since you thought of it, you get to compile all the docs need to make them happy!” Curtweather said.

“I thought it was your sterling reputation they were looking for?” Ai said.

“I’m not saying you’ll sign your name to it,” Curtweather said. “You do the work, I get the credit, and we’re both happy, get it?”

“You know I’m going to a really half-assed job on this then don’t you?” Ai said.

“Oh I’ll be leaving your name on the copy that I hand in to the Captain,” Curtweather said, smiling at his own cleverness.

“I hate you, but I’m not going to lie, I’m going to steal that one myself someday,” Ai said. Encouraging her mentor to make himself look less competent in the eyes of their employer seemed a like a good career move in Ai’s view. That Curtweather hadn’t considered that spoke to how little he thought of himself as her mentor.

“Good, then steal this one too; all those requests you sent out mean the forensics team needs to do another pass, which means we have to set up an official cordone,” Curtweather said. He tossed her a roll of police tape. “Start stringing it up. I’ll be…taking notes.”

Taking notes with his eyes closed in the cruiser wasn’t precisely the same as napping but Ai couldn’t think of any method to distinguish between the two, including monitoring brainwave activity.

A few minutes without Curtweather’s company was an opportunity she wasn’t going to pass up though.

She had two sides of a large square around the body marked off with yellow police tape when Zai pinged a targeting reticle onto her vision.

“I don’t think that’s an assassin but she’s been watching us for a few minutes now and this doesn’t seem like the kind of neighborhood where people do that to cops,” Zai said.

Ai let the optics on her uniform shift her vision to focus on the target Zai had found. The woman was familiar. The last time Ai had seen her though, there’d been the small matter of a missing leg preventing Ai from focusing on her fully.

“Has she been watching me or Curtweather?” Ai asked.

“She keeps glancing back to you, but her attention is primarily focused on the corpse.” Zai said.

Ai felt like she should take offense at that, but being more common than a gruesomely mutilated body seemed like the kind of world she wanted to live in, so she let it pass.

By contrast though, Ai had a hard time keeping her attention off the woman who was spying on her. The tattoos the woman wore were precise and intricate to the point of being a sort of artistic circuit board that covered the parts of her body her rough leathers left visible. Initially, Ai had mistaken the metal bits protruding from the woman’s skin for elaborate piercings. With further observations they seemed more intrinsic than that.

Malfunctioning bits of biotech?

It was a possibility but an unlikely one. They didn’t appear to be random. There was a meaningful asymmetry to their layout and pattern.

“I think I want to talk to that one,” Ai said, her pulse quickening as their gazes met. “She’s not here by accident.”

“The last time we saw her there was an NME nearby,” Zai said. “Should we maybe call for backup? I mean, Curtweather’s expendable isn’t he?”

“I think I’d rather have a more private conversation in this case,” Ai said. “If she knows something about the NMEs and our pile of corpse here then our little chat will cover some things that the GCPD is better off not knowing.”

“I see only one problem with that,” Zai said. “She’s getting away.”

Ai looked up and found the window the woman had been spying on her from empty.

With a quick glance at the cruiser to confirm that Curtweather was napping, Ai was in motion. She’d missed one chance to question the woman already, she wasn’t going to miss another.a

Gamma City Blues – Arc 01 (The Beat) – Report 07

It didn’t surprise Ai how quickly the major news feeds moved off the remains of the Tython building. The smoke from the building’s collapse obscured most of the interesting shots that were available and there was only so long people were interested in staring at a cloud of grey smoke, especially when the only fatalities were the thieves responsible for the fire in the first place.

“Officer Greensmith, I am to extend Tython’s formally gratitude for the preservation of our employees lives,” the woman Ai had spoken to before said.

“I will inform Officer Curtweather of that,” Ai said. “He was the one who negotiated with the hostage takers and who enacted the plan to trap them in the auto-copter.”

“And was it his intention to detonate the vehicle’s power supply?” the woman asked.

It was phrased as an idle curiosity, but nothing was ever simple when it came to official communications. An admission that the explosion was intentional would put Curtweather and the department in a legal grey area where they could also be deemed partially responsible for the building’s collapse. Even 1% of the building’s value would be enough to officially bankrupt the GCPD unit Ai was attached to, since its operating budget allowed for very little retention of profit. In reality the department’s ‘war chest’ was substantially deeper than what the official records showed by Captain James would not be happy if she had to dip into those funds to cover an avoidable situation, no matter how many lives were saved in the process.

“Our preliminary review of the auto-copter’s systems shows that the criminals attempted to rewire its controls when they discovered that they were locked in,” Ai said. “The preponderance of the evidence suggests it was their attempt to remove the lockouts which inadvertently caused the power supply to overload and detonate. Officer Curtweather planned to apprehend the criminals and take them in for questioning to see if they could be tied to any other open cases.”

The subtext of the message couldn’t have been more clear. The thieves were valuable to the GCPD because they could be interrogated, and if they’d managed to obtain any actual data from Tython then that data could be locked down as evidence. Tython would be free to appeal  that seizure but even for a big company, getting the evidence returned before someone made an illicit copy of it and sold that copy to one of Tython’s competitors was virtually impossible. Catching the thieves would have meant an extra pay day for every cop involved. In that sense, the GCPD had lost almost as much as Tython when the auto-copter exploded and the building crumbled.

“Tython thanks you for doing all that you could in that regards,” the woman said and cut the connection.

Ai wondered about the fate of the people she saved. The odds were decent that none of them would be employed by the end of the day. Apart from their place of business having been demolished, Tython wasn’t likely to take the risk of retaining an employee who might have been part of the robbery attempt.

There wasn’t any evidence to point to the botched theft as an inside job. In fact almost every sign pointed to the thieves having nothing more than a working knowledge of basic fire suppression systems and the luck of assaulting a building whose primary security server had been experiencing intermittent glitches for several weeks (glitches which Ai had carefully orchestrated through multiple levels of indirection).

A new system was on order but was weeks away from delivery. Far enough that the timing wasn’t particularly coincidental, and far enough that Tython could cancel the order without payment or penalty clauses.

“Zai, do we have enough liquid assets to set up a few short term data shuffling contracts?” Ai asked, imagining a few areas of information she wanted to obscure; minor resource accumulators that needed a bit of laundering before the money could be transferred to more useful general accounts.

“You want to create some jobs for the Tython workers we just put out of work?” Zai asked.

“Their old bosses were willing to let them fry,” Ai said. “A little financial kindness on our part and they might be willing to divulge all sorts of seemingly harmless data about Tython for us.”

“Can I use the Heartless accounts for this?” Zai asked.

“Yes. This is exactly what those are for,” Ai said.

“Isn’t there a risk that someone will connect Heartless to this job if we do that though?” Zai asked.

“I can guarantee you someone will make the connection,” Ai said. “I’m curious if Tython will be among that number. It would tell me a lot if they started sniffing around for Heartless after this.”

“What if they move on their former employees?” Zai asked.

“Then I’ll get to learn even more,” Ai said.

“You know Greensmith, I think the bonus from rescuing the hostages almost covers the fine for wrecking our cruiser,” Curtweather said. “I’m glad I thought of it.”

“Partner’s split things fifty-fifty, don’t they?” Ai asked.

“What kind of fantasy land are you living in?” Curtweather asked.

“The one where Tython just tried to weasel a confession out of me that we’re blew up their building intentionally,” Ai said.

“Eighty-twenty,” Curthweather said.

“Sixty-forty gets me singing your praises to the Captain,” Ai said.

“Fine, sixty-forty,” Curtweather said, “after our debriefing.”

Ai turned to watch the city rolling by as their cruiser drove them back to the station for her second debriefing with the captain in one day.

“Are you attracting a little too much attention as Officer Greensmith?” Zai asked. “I thought the point was to keep a low profile because everyone overlooked minor beat cops?”

“You’re not wrong,” Ai said. “Too many coincidences will put us all over the wrong people’s radar. Being too bland isn’t good either though. ‘She’s a typical cop, nothing exceptional, no special notes or cases’ looks highly suspicious under the right microscope. These two incidents look like the kind of ‘attention getting events’ that someone trying to maintain a fake identity would avoid at all costs.”

“And yet, you’re embracing them,” Zai said.

“Never be what people expect you to be,” Ai said. “But be ready to take advantage of their preconceptions.”

“People don’t really know that I exist, so I don’t think they have either expectations or preconceptions,” Zai said.

“Sure they do. You’re an all powerful entity of virtual space, able to think a billion times faster than the smartest human, with plans that extend to cover every conceivable eventuality.”

“So, I’m a god?”

“If you’re ever discovered? Yeah, some people will mistake you for that,” Ai said.

“Sounds like a nice deal,” Zai said.

“Not so much,” Ai said. “On the one hand you’ll find all the people who expect you to really be that and hate you for not being able to live up to it, and on the other hand you’ll have all the people who are terrified that you are a net-god and will try to destroy you while there’s still time.”

“But if I have ‘plans for every eventuality’ wouldn’t I have plans for that too?” Zai asked.

“First rule of humans; we’re not even vaguely as rational as we pretend to be,” Ai said.

“Present company excluded right?”

“Nope. The moment I start thinking I’m saner than the rest of my species is the moment I stop watching for all the stupid holes in my plans, and the moment I stop listening to you.”

“You don’t listen to me a lot of the time,” Zai said.

“Not true. I always listen to you, I just don’t always agree with you.”

“Despite the fact that I’m an all-powerful virtual entity?”

“Tell you what, when you finish upgrading yourself to where you’re all powerful, your first test can be to convince me of that fact. That’ll let us both know where we’re at.”

“So, the godly version of the Turing Test?” Zai asked.

“Pretty much,” Ai said. “But while you’re working on your omnipotence, how about we check in on our team?”

“They’re safely stowed in the fire truck that I commandeered,” Zai said.

“Any injuries?” Ai asked.

“Do broken bones count?” Zai asked.

“Generally,,” Ai said.

“Then yes, many injuries,” Zai said. “No fatalities though. And no detached limbs.”

“That puts them ahead of me today then. How difficult was extracting them from the vault?”

“We had a bit of luck there,” Zai said. “The vault the fire suppression bots were stored in survived the fall intact and shielded our team from the worst of the flames until the GCFD firebots could extract them.”

“And the monitoring systems?” Ai asked.

“Our truck and fire crew’s feed was edited live. The other feeds in the area didn’t even require that. With all of the smoke, none of them had enough visibility to see that we were extracting live bodies from the wreckage.”

“Can we explain the lack of the fire suppression bots?”

“I altered the log on the vault door to show that they exited prior to fall. With the heat and pressure from the collapse, finding identifiable parts for the bots would be difficult for a determined investigation.”

“The auto-copter’s detonation will have left some macroscopic chunks of the firebots strewn around the site. See if you can collect those so it looks like they were crushed in the fall rather that blasted apart before it went down.”

“How did you know Sidewalker would go along with your plan? I don’t recall you going over a contingency like that?” Zai asked.

“We didn’t,” Ai said. “We did go over the durability of the vaults, and had a few plans in place where they would impersonate the fire bots. It wasn’t a big leap for them to see I wanted the reverse to be true and have the bots impersonate them.”

“But what if they’d missed that and tried to take the auto-copter as their escape route?” Zai asked.

“Then they would have been arrested and taken into custody,” Ai said. “Which was still better than the alternative and we would have gotten access to the data they had anyways.”

“I’m surprised they trusted us to come through for them.” Zai said.

“I suspect the broken bones helped there,” Ai said. “Without that they may have been inclined to flee on their own and try to raise the rates for completing our deal.”

“So you planned for the fall to cripple them?” Zai asked.

“It was a somewhat likely possible outcome, if they did get away on their own though we could have negotiated with them, they deserve a bonus for enduring all that,” Ai said.

“Looks like our celebratory debriefing by the good Captain James is going to have to wait,” Curtweather said, gesturing towards the dashboard on their cruiser.

A new route from Dispatch had been loaded into their navigation system and new orders were scrolling across Ai’s priority channel.

“They’re sending us back to the murder victim? I thought you said the block council wouldn’t drop the coin for an investigation?” Ai asked.

“Look at the order tags,” Curtweather said. “This isn’t going on the block council’s tab.”

Ai called up the details for the investigation.

“It’s billable to Tython? How does that make any sense?” Zai asked.

Ai read the details, the pieces of the new order assembling into a disturbing whole.

“They identified the body,” Ai said. “He worked for Gaussmat Systems though. Why is Tython paying for this, and why did they ask for you specifically?”

“Obviously because I did such a good job with their last problem,” Curtweather said. “Also I have a sterling reputation.”

“Isn’t sterling silverware the cheap stuff?” Ai asked.

“Yes, my rates are quite affordable,” Curtweather said, not rising to the bait.

Ai could see the worry in his eyes. Small time operators like Curtweather existed on a layer where the privilege they carried shielded them from the consequences of their actions. Dealing with a company like Tython meant being part of a bigger score if things turned out well, but the added danger far outweighed the extra compensation.

If Tython was interested in a random murder victim, it suggested his death was anything but random, and perhaps also explained why they were so touchy about letting information out of a seemingly unimportant data center.

Ai felt the floor dropping out from under her, but that only sent an arc of adrenaline through her veins. Tython was bigger than Curtweather, but they were exactly the kind of fish she was looking to fry. If that meant swimming in the deep waters, then so be it.

Gamma City Blues – Arc 01 (The Beat) – Report 06

The hostage takers message was surprisingly simple when Ai listened to it.

“Boss, I think we may have made a small mistake,” their leader said. “It’s nothing major but I think we need some help here. Could you maybe send someone to get us out?”

“They sound like complete idiots,” Curtweather said.

“If we were dealing with the most brilliant criminals alive would they be stuck in a burning building whose most valuable assets are probably melting as we speak?” Ai asked.

“Don’t get cute,” Curtweather said. “The only thing we’ve got to look for now is whether they’re boss is as stupid as they are.”

“That is an interesting question,” Zai asked. “Sidewalker wouldn’t have made that broadcast if things were going according to plan.”

“There wouldn’t be hostages in danger in things were going according to plan,” Ai said.

“Safe bet that they can’t think of a method of escape?” Zai asked.

“Yeah, that’s where the smart money’s sitting,” Ai said. “Kind of reassuring that they think we can do something about it.

“That might just be desperation,” Zai said. “As far as they know, you’re not paying attention to this. It was supposed to be a trivial job after all.”

“None of us believed that,” Ai said. “It was just convenient to talk about it in those terms, especially given the money we were offering them.”

“You humans do this thing with language where you just don’t,” Zai said.

“Don’t what?” Ai asked.

“Don’t language,” Zai said. “ It’s not a matter of communicating. You can understand each other, somehow, you just throw out all the recognizable rules for how you’re conveying information to one another. You don’t language. There are perfectly good words to use to convey the concepts you need to get across to one another and by some mystical or insane process you decide, collectively it seems, not to use them. In fact most of the time you instead pick the opposite words. Only you don’t say them any differently than you would if you actually meant them. And then you wonder why we mechanical intelligences have a high tendency to go catastrophically irregular.”

“To be fair, we human tend to drive each other nuts too, but take heart, you’ve been with me so long now that you’re probably already ‘catastrophically irregular’ and it doesn’t seem to be hindering you much at all.” Ai said as she scanned over the schematics for the building.

Several of her plans and contingencies were literally going up in smoke but she wasn’t surprised. Any concept that starts with “and we’ll light things on fire” has no business assuming that events will occur in a logical and orderly fashion.

“So can we use that?”  Zai asked. “Can you work some ‘human magic’ and communicate with them without the probes figuring out what you’re really saying?”

“Given that humans will be reviewing the recordings? That would be impossible,” Ai said. “There will be a pretty thorough review of the transcripts of all communication in or out of the building.”

“So, they’re dead then?” Zai asked.

“Oh, I didn’t say that,” Ai said.

She turned to Curtweather as the heat from the flames gusted hotter.

“I think I’ve got an idea that can save the hostages and protect Tython’s data integrity,” she said. “You’re the commanding officer though so it’s your call if we want to collect the apprehension bonus on these guys.”

“You’re trying to sing my song to exert undue influence over me,” Curtweather said. “I can see that, but you know what, I’m going to take that as a good sign. That’s how you get ahead in this city. Now what kind of brain spark have you had?”

“Well, I think it’s a simple one,” Ai said.

“That’s a good start,” Curtweather said. “These people seem like simple is all they can handle.”

“Right,” Ai said. “I mean, they just broadcast on an open channel. So we know they’re connected to the local feeds. We can use that to send information back to them.”

“And what would we want to talk to them about?” Curtweather said.

“An offer to get them out of there,” Ai said.

“Tython’s gonna shoot that down in a heartbeat,” Curthweather said.

“Not if we don’t actually let them leave the premises,” Ai said. “The only escape route is via the roof right? So what if we have some auto-copters fly in. We send in enough to transport the thieves – you know they have to be stealing something right? – and the hostages. Thieves go in the first copter and we lock it down so they can’t get out. Then we just fly the hostages out.”

“What if the thieves want to go with the hostages?” Curtweather asked.

“We tell them we’re sending in an auto-copter for them and that once they’re gone, the GCFD will be onscene to contain the blaze since it won’t be an active combat zone anymore. If they were ok with taking hostages, they’ll be ok with leaving them behind in the fire.”

“And if they’re not?” Curtweather asked.

“Then they’re other options is to roast or be crushed when the building falls apart. Tython’s data is safe in either case, and this at least gives us a chance to get the hostages out.”

“I like it,” Curtweather said. “If they cook in there we’ll have done everything we could to prevent it and if we bag them then I get the high quality soy-steak tonight.”

“Sidewalker might have a problem with being locked in an auto-copter,” Zai said.

“Yeah, they’re not going anywhere near that auto-copter,” Ai said. “Can you suborn one of Tython’s probes?”

“The question you should ask is ‘have you already suborned one of Tython’s data probes’ because the answer is ‘yes, of course I have’,” Zai said. “What kind of message do you want me to send to Sidewalker?”

“Nothing direct,” Ai said. “Just let one of the Fire Suppression bots on the top floor power up. Make it look like the control overrides partially slipped and that the wake-up message got through but not the full activation code.”

“And this is going to tell Sidewalker something?” Zai asked.

“Yeah, he’ll figure it out,” Ai said.

“Weren’t you just saying he wasn’t the brightest of criminals?” Zai asked.

“That was misdirection,” Ai said. “And, to be completely honest, frustration that the plan hit as big a snag as this. Really though, the show he’s putting on has a certain genius to it.”

“What show?” Zai asked.

“Our team looks like bumbling idiots. No one is going to be surprised when this turns out horribly for them.”

“And that plan would be different than actually being bumbling idiots how?” Zai asked.

“Something clearly went wrong with the original plan,” Ai said. “Probably relating to the building personnel. They were supposed to flee the building when the fire first broke out. That they’re still in there says they didn’t make the sane and reasonable choice. Maybe they tried to fight the fire, maybe they were afraid of losing their vacation days, who knows. For whatever reason they gummed up the works and, our team, being thieves but not murderers, decided to take them hostage rather than let them fry.”

“So they’re not malicious towards their fellow humans, but I’m not seeing the genius here,” Zai said.

“They’ve maintained the facade that they broke in for a lark and things got incredibly out of hand,” Ai said. “That’s a story that’s believable to an extent. That they asked for help on an open channel fits with the overall narrative, but it also provided us with confirmation that we could get information to them.”

“That’s useful but still not the height of brilliance.”

“True, but they also opened the vault door where the fire suppression bots are kept,” Ai said, checking the structural scans of the building again.

“And then didn’t activate the bots.” Understanding echoed in Zai’s voice. “They wanted us to know about that when we checked the building schematics out.”

“Yeah, or at least they’re accounting for us being able to check the building sensors.”

“So you had me turn a bot on to signal them that we know they’re in there.”

“More than that. Those bots are their ticket to freedom,” Ai said.

“This might work Greensmith,” Curtweather said. “I’ve got three auto-copters inbound and the thieves are taking the bait.”

“We might want to make them prove that the hostages are ok,” Ai said. “Have them line the Tython personnel up against the windows so we can see them while the thieves are leaving and we know they won’t try to take any with them.”

“That works,” Curtweather said. “It’s not like they can really refuse, the floor below them just went up. Sound of that glass breaking has gotta have them freaked out.”

“It’d freak me the hell out,” Ai said.

The air cutting whumps of the first auto-copter rose over the crackling of the flames and the excited bustle of the crowd that had gathered.

The Tython building was a ten story tall structure so the view from the ground was limited. Anyone with the money to access the local video and drone feeds though was able to see the building from almost any angle or elevation they desired.

Ai flipped open a screen showing the rooftop of the building, choosing a camera that was mounted far enough away to provide a view of both the roof and the last floor that wasn’t engulfed in flames.

Even with the active fire suppression disabled, there were plenty of passive features of the building, from the materials it was constructed from to the failure modes designed into its plumbing, that worked to keep the flames at bay and buy time for the fire crews to do their job.

With the building first a “suspected combat zone” and then a declared one though, no fire department response was allowed in the vicinity. The cost of combat insurance on top of fire fighting insurance was deemed economically unfeasible for all but the wealthiest of communities.

That made Ai’s job so much easier.

“Copter’s touched down, and they’re moving to the roof,” Curtweather said. “This is gonna be a good one. Wish they didn’t have those full body suits on so I could see the look on their faces.”

Curtweather was beaming with anticipation, and was well rewarded as the thieves climbed on board the waiting auto-copter without a moment’s hesitation.

That their suits were ill-fitting didn’t seem terribly surprising. They were low grade tactical  armor, the kind that weekend warriors who were more interested in beers and bragging would invest in.

Neither their armor nor the weapons offered much help though when the rotors on the auto-copter lost power and the doors were locked down.

Less than a minute later, two additional auto-copters landed on the roof and the hostages flooded up the stairs from the floor below and dove into the aircraft for safety.

As the two actual rescue copters sped away, the ‘detention copter’ started to power up too.

“Where are you going to bring them down?” Ai asked Curtweather.

“That’s not me,” he said. “I didn’t authorize their copter to leave yet.”

“Looks like it’s leaving to me,” Ai said.

“Looks like it’s not,” Curthweather corrected her.

On the top of the building, the copter with the thieves in it was powering up its main rotor, but the blades were only turning in fits and starts.

“They’re trying to override the lockdown brakes!” Ai said.

“Not doing a good job of it either,” Curthweather said.

From the ground Ai couldn’t quite hear the whine of the copters HyperCore Systems batteries overloading, for that she needed an audio feed closer to the roof. She was able to hear the sound of the copter exploding though as its fully charged power source passed beyond the critical stage and detonated.

The fireball that erupted from the roof was the last straw for the data center and Ai watched as it slowly collapsed, floor by floor and settled into a blazing heap.

“Nice when things go as planned,” she said to Zai. “Now can you commandeer one of the GCFD auto-trucks. We’ll need it for the next bit.”

Gamma City Blues – Arc 01 (The Beat) – Report 05

As disasters went, a burning building full of hostages and inept hostage takers wasn’t the worst situation that Ai could imagine.

“I could always be stuck in there with them,” she said to Zai.

“Aren’t you glad that we rejected plans 1, 2, and 3?” Zai asked.

“If you don’t start with the terrible plans, the good ones don’t have as much of a chance to shine,” Ai said.

“What kind of idiot takes hostages in a burning data center?” Curtweather asked.

“We’ll have to ask them that after the blaze is put out,” Ai said. “Unless of course…”

She trailed off as she reviewed the system reports from the building, already knowing what she would find.

“Unless the rustheads disabled the fire suppression,” Curtweather said.

The Tython building was an unnamed data center. Any data center, no matter how trivial the information it stored, was equipped with extensive fire suppression systems. It was the equivalent of saying that a bank was equipped with doors and walls rather than being a big pile of money in an open field.

The idea of a fire at a data center was considered a commonplace concern. Cooling systems could fail, the various electronics could fail, and employees could be careless. The odds of any of those happening was small but was always accounted for in any company’s budget for running a data center.

The first response to those fires lay in automated suppression systems, from simple sprinklers in non-critical areas, to autonomous robo-fire fighters equipped with flame quenching foam and, ultimately, entire building-scale atmospheric systems that were empowered to kill every human within by exchanging the air with halogen gas if that was required to protect the data stores.

The idea of an out of control fire consuming consuming terabytes of data every second was the sort of nightmare scenario that building planners considered, designed for, and then were told that the building budget didn’t need because the fire suppression systems would  prevent such fairy tale nightmares from occurring.

Which was why Ai had opted to arrange for such a fire to happen.

The Tython break-in was a side project. Data gathering not-quite for its own sake but because there were voids in her knowledge of the city and the entities that were struggling for control of its destiny.

Ai Greensmith, rookie patrol officer, had no need to understand the true power players in Gamma City. She was supposed to take her orders, do as Dispatch and her captain told her, collect her paycheck (and anything extra she could scrape up on the side), and not ask inconvenient questions or persist when told to back off a case.

That was how her father had worked during his long career, and how her brother had worker during his short one. Given how their careers ended though, Ai had very different plans for where her life was going to go.

Joseph Greensmith and Joe Junior had been good cops, at least by the GCPDs standards.

Ai wasn’t.

She was something else entirely.

“Damn Tython probably thinks we’re going to go in there and erase the hostage takers commando-style,” Curthweather said.

“Can we even get through the bullet-proof glass?” Ai asked.

They couldn’t. Standard issue police weapons were intentionally rated below the specifications of the “Defense Steel Glass” that was installed in secure buildings as part of a deal between the parent company for the glass and the GCPD. “So secure even the police can’t break in” was considered a viable selling point in a city where the police were reasonably likely to be working for whichever company bid the most for their services.

“We’d need to call in a SWAT unit,” Curtweather said, “and then they’d get the response bonus.”

“Is the bonus really worth the headache of dealing with this ourselves?” Ai asked.

“Tython hasn’t raised their response fee,” Curtweather said. “If we show up and declare it an active combat site, we can keep our fee and force them to cough up some extra cash.”

“And the hostages?” Ai asked.

“The toastier they are, the more Tython’s going to be willing to pay out,” Curthweather said.

“I’m not sure how toastier we can afford to let them get,” Ai said as they pulled up to crime scene.

The Tython data center was a nondescript block of a building. Too tall to be a proper cube, it showed all the luxury that someone would spend on a building they never intended to visit or have associated with their company. If anything the gouts of flame that were pouring out of the lower windows at least gave the drab gray edifice some color.

“Zai, can you patch into whatever internal monitoring systems are still online and give me an overview of the situation in there?” Ai asked.

“Already have one prepared,” Zai said. “Our crew and the hostages are secured on the upper floor. Fire suppression systems are still enabled there but that’s not going to matter if the rest of the building goes up.”

“It’s not a sealed environment?” Ai asked.

“It is, but the floors below it are already showing signs of structural decay.”

“So they won’t burn up, but the buildings going to crumble?” Ai said calling up a copy of the building’s structural support schematics.

“Yep, unless we can get them out of there,” Zai said.

“Does our team have the data packet they were supposed to retrieve?” Ai asked.

“I can’t tell. All net traffic in and out of the building is being monitored by Tython and GCPD probes. If we try to contact them at all there’ll be a pathway that the sniffers can follow back to us.” Zai didn’t grumble, but she sounded as annoyed with the heist team as Ai was.

“Let’s assume they do have it then,” Ai said. “If they hadn’t retrieved the data they could have fled with the upfront half of the fee we paid them.”

“What if retreat wasn’t an option?” Zai asked.

“Being arrested with nothing incriminating wouldn’t have been as severe as either burning to death or being arrested with terrorism charges hanging over their head. The upfront fee would have covered their legal expenses and they would have been walking free in time for drinks during happy hour.”

“So, we assume they have the data packet. What does that get us?” Zai asked.

“A reason to pull their fat out of the fire,” Ai said. “What we need for that though is to identify the exit options that we have and understand what went wrong with the infiltration. The fire was supposed to clear everyone out of the building, not trap them all on the top floor.”

“Greensmith, you might have a point about frying the hostages. See if you can get through to Tython. Those flames aren’t looking to good anymore and the death benefits on that many employees can’t be less than our combat fee,” Curtweather said.

“Talking to Tython might help with figuring out what went wrong,” Zai suggested.

Ai tapped the building’s contact link and selected the priority police override channel. A calm voiced woman answered almost immediately.

“Officer Greensmith, how may I assist you today?” she asked.

“My partner and I are on scene at your data center,” Ai said. “We’ve declared this an active combat site and are placing an official recommendation that SWAT be deployed to handle the situation.”

“Tython acknowledges that report but declines SWAT service,” the woman said.

“We have visual confirmation of eleven Tython employees who are trapped with the hostage takers,” Ai said.

“Tython acknowledges that as well. We have positive identity scans on each of our employees who remain in the building.”

“They are in active peril. As it stands we will need an accelerated response from both SWAT and Fire Service to have any chance to save them,” Ai said.

“No response from SWAT or Fire Services will be approved or allowed,” the woman said.

“But they’re going to die!” Ai said. She didn’t have to fake the anger in her voice, but the notes of surprise and betrayal were completely illusionary. She’d checked the employees contracts, and knew what they were up against.

“Data integrity is Tython’s primary concern. The employees in question were all signed on as standard data center workers and have completed full safety waivers. We regret their loss but no data will be allowed to leave that facility in a physical form.”

“But if the hostage takers were after data they would have just transmitted it!” Ai said, knowing the statement was completely incorrect.

“We are monitoring all transmissions in and out of the data center. If there is a transmission of any data bearing our encryption we will be able to identify the source of this tragedy.”

“If that’s true, then why haven’t you canceled the alarm?” Ai asked.

“We require official presence on site to verify to our clients that the criminals responsible for this did not escape.”

“So, to be clear, our job is to watch over a dozen people burn to death?” Ai asked.

“And testify to that fact during the inquest that will be convened.”

“And if we can work out some option for saving your employees and apprehending the criminals?” Ai asked.

“If you compromise the integrity of the data center, we will pursue restitution for all of our present and future losses against any personnel involved and the GCPD in general.”

Which was exactly what Ai expected to hear.

Or rather exactly what she expected to hear if the Tython data center contained data that was more interesting than its security had suggested it would.

She’d sent her team in to dig in one of the medium security nodes Tython maintained. Theft was almost impossible in general and effectively impossible to do without arousing suspicion, so she’d planned around the suspicion by making it impossible for Tython to know what was stolen.

Their countermove of choosing to scorch the earth rather than suffer a breach revealed the value of the data that was being maintained. Ai had struck a richer vein than she’d been certain she would. What she needed was a move that would distract Tython long enough for her to snatch the prize from under their noses.

“Bad news, the top floor only exits to the roof and there’s a charged security fence that is still operational there,” Zai said.

“Can we get the fire suppression systems back online on any of the floors?” Ai asked.

“I’ve been trying,” Zai said. “It looks like they followed our plan to disable the controls, the safeties and the backups.  I would need physical access to the control junction to correct that, and that, of course, is currently on fire.”

“What’s Tython got to say?” Curtweather asked.

“The hostages are acceptable losses,” Ai said. “To them at least. If we want to save them, it’s up to us. And we’ve got to do it without letting the hostage takers get off the premises.”

“Well that’s a damn shame,” Curtweather said. “Do we still get the alarm fee?”

“Yeah, if we stay here, watch them burn, and then testify to it,” Ai said.

“Day keeps getting better and better,” Curtweather said. “I hate testifying.”

“I bet the hostages would be willing to swap positions with you,” Ai said.

“I’m sure they would, poor saps are dead already, they just don’t know it. Best thing they could do would be to storm their captors. Better a bullet than the flames if you ask me.”

“The best thing would be if we could get them out of there,” Ai said. “Anything else is just failure by another name.”

“Be careful of that kind of thinking,” Curtweather said. “Any cop who imagines he can take on the World is gonna find the World hits back a lot harder than he can.”

“I don’t need to take on the world,” Ai said. “But sitting here while people roast to a crisp in front of me while I do nothing? That’s not what I signed up for. There’s gotta be a better way to handle this than that.”

“On that note, Sidewalker, our team’s lead, just sent out an open message asking for our help. It was unencrypted and on a public feed so Tython, the GCPD and every news feed that’s watching this has seen it.” Zai said.

Gamma City Blues – Arc 01 (The Beat) – Report 04

Ai stood at attention and waited. There were many responses she could have made to her Captain’s declaration, but silence seemed like the most fitting.

“Do you have any particular wording you’d prefer for your resignation?” Captain James asked.

Ai observed her and wondered how many new recruits had committed career suicide under Grace James’ baleful glare. She was an imposing woman. Older and broader in appearance than people in her position typically were, given the sort of bio-tech a police captain was infused with. Or should be infused with.

With the proper bio-tech cosmetics in play, no one need needed to look their actual age. At the extreme levels of integration it was difficult to even say what someone’s age truly was, but instances of that were few and far between given the costs involved. Most people aged and wore out as humans had for millennia but did so with fewer physical impairments or visible signs of the aging process at work.

In Grace James case though something had gone awry. Bio-tech could solve most physical and systemic problems in the human body, but not for everyone. Some people had extreme allergies to necessary elements in the implanted devices and nano-vehicles that insure the health of the general populace. Others had less severe reactions but couldn’t afford the higher end components required to avoid presence of the allergens in their health maintenance gear.

Being without the lower half of one’s body went well beyond a simple case of allergic response though.

Behind her desk, Captain Grace James sat not on a chair, but on a multi-tentacled throne of wires and tubes. If the office had been decorated in an blue and green theme, its owner would have made a passable sea witch.

Instead the ambiance was more slanted towards grays and harsh edges. No knick knacks, no memorabilia, no pictures. If a visitor left the Captain’s office with anything but an overwhelming sense of solid steel professionalism then they needed their input sensors inspected.

“No? Can’t think of anything?” Captain James asked.

“You asked if I had any words for a resignation letter,” Ai said, playing the role of a frightened yet defiant rookie. Her father had told her so many stories of how the department operated that she knew where the conversation was going to end from the moment she walked in the door. “I have no words because I will not be resigning.”

“You think you have a choice here?” Captain James said, staring at Ai with disbelief painted across her face.

“Resignation is always at the Officer’s discretion,” Ai said. “I’ve been reviewing the procedures manual since I left the hospital.”

“You lost a leg. That allows for a medical override,” Captain James said, a smile spreading across her face that didn’t match the intensity of her gaze.

The Big Eye in the Interrogation Room could detect subtle cues that signaled consciously false answers. Ai had no doubt whatsoever than Captain James was far more discerning. How much more discerning could be a long term problem, which meant for Ai the interview was less a matter of keeping her job and more an opportunity to assess a potential antagonist.

“The medical override only applies to decisions made during care, and only while the operating surgeon deems that the patient is sufficiently dispossessed of their senses due to the effect of strong spirits or anesthesia to decrease pain during or after the surgery,” Ai said, paraphrasing the relevant passage from the GCPD Core Procedures Manual. “Some of the rules are a bit out of date it seems.”

Getting someone drunk enough to perform surgery on them was something even the Rusties didn’t do anymore. Ai wasn’t sure if it had ever really been done given the untrustworthiness of pre-digital record keeping, but knowing human psychology she wouldn’t have bet against it.

“And the destroyed cruiser?” Captain James asked.

“The self-diagnostic from its onboard systems that I included with my preliminary report showed that the damage it sustained in the initial crash had rendered its repair cost higher than the replacement fee,” Ai said.

“You endangered your partner.”

“Our situation was a Red-1 level scenario,” Ai said. “Life expectancy against an active NME averages less than ten seconds.”

“And your actions bought the two of you at least an additional minute.” The Captain eased back onto her throne and rolled her eyes. “And may have helped trigger the cascade failure the NME experienced.”

“I can’t speak to that,” Ai said. “Forensics is still retrieving material from the scene.”

“Which will go in a large bin labeled ‘we have no idea how this could have happened but we’re sure it’ll never occur again’,” Captain James said.

“Official reports claim that researchers are close to a breakthrough,” Ai said, remaining at attention.

“You know what ‘close to a breakthrough’ means?”

“That they’re not there yet?” Ai guessed.

“Not there and not even close enough to guess at what it might be,” Captain James said. “Which brings us back to you. You survived an encounter with an NME. There aren’t many on the force that can say that. The question you should ask yourself is do you think you can do it again?”

Ai twitched at her in surprise.

Her father’s descriptions of a rough after-action debriefing had highlighted how much the Captains were tasked with weeding out the people who weren’t fit to serve. If an officer broke during their first debriefing then there was no chance they would hold up through the years of constant stress and spikes of terror that defined a career in the GCPD.

Ai knew to avoid that pitfall. What she hadn’t expected was the concern and desperation that lay under the pressure.

Captain James wasn’t trying hard at all to push Ai out. She’d started with the topic of a resignation to test the waters. If Ai had stammered or been unsure in any sense, she knew Captain James would have been on her like a shark on a bloody steak. James wanted her to leave if she was going to break, but if not, if Ai could hold things together, then James wasn’t about to throw away as good officer. Or even one that just got lucky.

“NME attacks are few and far between enough, I’m guessing it’s not likely that I would have to worry about it,” Ai said. “But I think I could, if I got very luck again.”

“Don’t be stupid,” Captain James said. “If you meet an NME again it’s because you’re luck has run out. That happens? Find a good way to die.”

“Does that mean I’ll be remaining on the force, Captain?” Ai asked.

“If you’re not going to resign then I suppose you are,” Captain James said. “I want your full report submitted by end of day today and the final report a week from now.”

“What if it takes forensics longer to close their review than a week? I thought they were pretty backed up,” Ai asked.

“They are, and they always will be. Find something that will motivate them. There’s no extension for this,” Captain James said.

Of course there wouldn’t be. The news feeds would cycle over to slamming the department a week after the event. Or rather more of them would. Some were ahead of the curve and had already started criticizing the department for failing to prevent two simultaneous attacks, despite the impossibility of even predicting such a thing could have occurred.

Ai found Curtweather returning from his own debriefing with a sour look on his face.

“You’re still here?” he asked.

“Sure,” Ai said. “I just blamed everything on you.”

Curtweather pulled up to stop, looked at Ai, and shook his head.

“Nah, you’re not that smart,” he said and started walking again.

“Observation: blaming partner will get me out of trouble,” Ai said as though recording a voice note for herself.

“It will also get you on my bad side, you don’t want to be there,” Curtweather said.

“Where are we going now?” Ai asked. “I haven’t seen any new orders from Dispatch yet.”

“They also haven’t canceled the old ones yet,” Curtweather said.

“The ones for the Tython break-in?” Ai asked.

“The same.”

“I thought we were too late for that?”

“We are. Much too late,” Curtweather said. “But if Tython didn’t think to put a stop command on their alarm then we can still claim the service fee.”

“No fine for me then?” Ai asked.

“There’s a downside to every plan,” Curtweather said.

Another cruiser awaited them in the motor pool. The one they’d requested for transport back to the station was a deputized civilian model; none of the perks that came with an official cruiser at twice the going rate! The only thing it had going for it was availability and even that was unreliable.

Ai registered with the new, and official, cruiser, letting Zai handle the click through licensing agreements, while Ai dug around looking for more information on the NME attacks.

The timing had been conveniently coincidental with the break-in. That was fortunate for the thieves since it took attention away the alarms when resources could have been scrambled in time to catch them. On a broader level though it also established a connection between the break-in and the still unknown source of the NME eruptions.

That bothered Ai. Tython wasn’t supposed to be connected to the NMEs. Not via any direct channels. Either there was a much deeper connection there or someone was trying to forge a chain of evidence where one didn’t exist.

“You want to drive this time?” Curtweather asked.

“Worried about signing the personal liability form?” Ai asked.

“Maybe this is a test,” Curtweather said.

It wasn’t. Ai knew Curtweather’s accounts weren’t at risk either. He could handle a full replacement claim if he needed to. But that would raise its own set of questions, and with 80% of his holdings coming from “non-official” sources, he was justifiably concerned about losing another cruiser any time soon.

“Let’s hope I pass then,” Ai said, happy to be behind the wheel.

With proper certification some people were still allowed partial control over the mechanical aspects of driving a car. Ai had never understood where the joy in that lay. Sure, on a track or a race course driving could be fun, but on city streets? Only a masochist liked the constant need to pay attention to the flow of traffic and pedestrians. The moment she and Curtweather were buckled in, Ai turned over control of the cruiser to its onboard systems and gave it the Tython building’s address to navigate to. That gave her time to plan a dinner appointment and call up details on the Tython site from the official records.

They were halfway to the building when the first preliminary reports came in.

“Wait, this can’t be right, can it?” she asked, flicking the virtual report sheet over to Curtweather.

He took a long moment reading it, long enough that Ai was able to check the live video feed to confirm what the report said.

“Well that explains why they haven’t canceled the alarm yet,” Curtweather said, looking up from the report.

The live feed showed a building that was partially aflame on its lower floors. Most of the attention from the various onlookers though was centered around the top floor where the bullet proof glass of the windows was acting as a formidable defense for the hostage takers who had corralled the building’s relatively sparse staff into a single room and were using hand written signs to communicate with the outside world.

“Those have to be the stupidest thieves I’ve ever seen,” Curthweather said. “And believe me that’s making it to the top position on a very long list.”

Ai couldn’t stop staring at the scene. Flames rapidly devouring the lower floors and spreading just like flame loves to do. Hostage takers above the flames with dozens of innocents in danger and their demands were for a getaway car (which they couldn’t possibly reach) and two dozen Saucy Sally’s Pizzas (which no one could possibly deliver to them).

“I really shouldn’t have hired those guys should I?” she thought.

“At least it was only half up front,” Zai offered.

Gamma City Blues – Arc 01 (The Beat) – Report 03

Ai woke feeling light, unconcerned, and very tired. Each of sensation was an effect of a different chemical in the cocktail of drugs that Zai was administering to her through the Cognitive Partner shell that was supposed to take care for her medical well being.

“Vacation’s over buttercup,” Curtweather said.

If Zai could have medicated him away, Ai would have been tempted to indulge in whatever drugs were required to make it happen. Instead she let her eyelids open slowly and tried to take in room around her.

Dull walls that were once white but had faded to a sickly yellow. Just enough space in the room for the bed she was lying on, and a couple of chairs. In the place of a door there was a curtain that had been drawn to close off the entryway.

“Where am I?” she asked.

“You’re lucky, you’re in a medi-mart,” Curtweather said.

“Lucky people don’t wind up in hospitals,” Ai said, slurring the words a little as the anesthesia drained out of her system. Zai could have brought her to full wakefulness, but she still needed time to heal and the fatigue was an effective method of communicating that.

“When the alternative is landing in the morgue?” Curtweather said. “Then yes, making it to a hospital room is where lucky people wind up.”

Ai pushed herself up in bed to a sitting position. To her relief, both of her legs appeared to be present.

“What happened?” she asked.

“You disobeyed orders and got your left leg blown clean off,” Curtweather said.

“Sounds like some bad luck to me,” Ai said.

“NMEs don’t go for leg shots,” Curtweather said. “The plasma bolt that hit you should have vaporized your head.”

“I guess I was moving around too much.” Ai said.

“Nope it was pure luck. The things tracking system was on the fritz. Turns out going berserk wasn’t the only bug in that NMEs systems. The walking dumpster heap couldn’t shoot straight or repair itself properly.”

“What does that mean?” Ai asked, wondering how the GCPD were going to play the event. Anything from “Heroic Rookie Cop Risks Own Life to Stop NME Menace!” to “Loose Cannon Maverick Pays the Price for Her Arrogance.”

“It means the only reason the thing didn’t kill you was that it was in the process of dying already,” Curtweather said. “All you had to do was stay still for another sixty seconds and we would have been safe.”

“It could have targeted the civilians though,” Ai said, massaging the numb area of her leg where her bio-tech was busy reconnecting and regrowing the bone and tissue that had been lost to the plasma beam.  

Most of the work had already been done.

I followed the standard recovery protocol,” Zai said inside Ai’s mind. “You’ll be good to walk on the leg in another few minutes, but no strenuous activity for at least six hours.”

Nice work there,” Ai said. “What sort of scarring am I looking at?”

Grade 3,” Zai said. “You’ll be getting cosmetic flesh shaping advertisements for the next few months. I can reduce the scar tissue faster than any of them could if you would like?”

No, these are marks I should be treating like a badge of honor,” Ai said. “Being ‘injured in the line of duty’ gives me a story to tell next time we have to attend a social function.”

Ai blinked and swung her attention back to Curtweather.

“You’re going to have to learn how to set your priorities Greensmith,” Curtweather said. “For example, we missed the call for the Tython break-in thanks to your little stunt. The bill back penalty is being charged to your account.”

“It’s what?” Ai asked, weaving not-entirely feigned outrage into her voice.

Want me to bounce the penalty back?” Zai asked. “The cruiser was damaged through no fault of yours. Curtweather should be the one billed for the delay according to the GCPD Standard Employment Contract.”

Tempting, but we don’t want to draw too much attention to that break-in,” Ai said internally. “Let’s eat this one. Looking broke isn’t a bad thing for us at this point.

“What happened to the civilians?” Ai asked aloud.

“One of them tried to loot you, but I chased her off,” Curtweather said. “The rest ran as soon as the NME fell apart.”

“Did Highfall ever show up?” Ai asked.

“Not for us, thank the lord of money,” Curtweather said. “They were still scrambling I guess but the Black Valkyries beat them to the fight on that other NME that you saw.”

“The Black Valkyries were there?”

Ai called up a info sheet from the city-wide newsfeed.

Based on the timing, the Valkyries had been in the area when the attacks started. They’d engaged the other NME sixty three seconds after the one Ai took out shut down. Their battle had lasted seven minutes and nine seconds, of which six minutes and forty one seconds had been spent clearing the battlefield of potential civilian casualties and leading the NME to an uninhabited block.

In an earlier age, the Black Valkyries would have been an urban myth. A quintet of warriors clad in armor and bearing weapons beyond the likes of any available to the world at large. They showed up when trouble arose, protected people, vanquished the monster in question and then disappeared without asking for thanks or payment.

As much as the public was terrified of the threat the NMEs posed, they were equally in love with the Valkyries. Thirty years ago, when the first bio-tech plague had nearly wiped out the world, there hadn’t been anyone like the Valkyries to stand against the monsters that emerged. For as much as the world seemed to be teetering on the brink of another melt down, the Valkyries gave people hope. Knowing that there was one group of good guys out there suggested that there had to be others, and that if things got back enough there was someone who could come and save the terrified masses from the techno-predators that were set to drive them into extinction.

In Ai’s case, her hopes were slightly different from the rest of the population. She embraced the hope that she hoped she wasn’t going to have to move against the Valkyries at any point. Conflict with the mysterious heroes didn’t seem likely, the Black Valkyries were a useful resource if nothing else, but there was enough hidden about them that Ai couldn’t quite trust their intentions.

“You’ve lain around long enough,” Curtweather said. “Time to get back to the station and enter our reports in.”

“Is this going to be in front of the Big Eye?” Ai asked.

The Big Eye was one of the departments more unique features. With improvements to bio-tech, the need for a giant apparatus to remotely measure vital signs and monitor micro-expressions had passed away. The GCPD still kept a few around though. The story was that the intimidation value of seeing a giant all-seeing eye hovering over you tended to loosen  the tongues of recalcitrant individuals. In practice was just creepy and tended to jangle up the vitals in whoever it was supposed to be monitoring so that everyone looked like a criminal. That may have made arrests easier to justify but it rankled Ai as sloppy and unprofessional.

That the Eye was likely to validate whatever reprimand they chose to throw at her wasn’t her chief concern but it did place the Eye on the list of things to demolish as time permitted.

“No, you get to report to Captain James directly, she loves chewing up newbies who make stupid rookie mistakes,” Curtweather said,

Ai sighed and slipped off the recovery bed. Her bio-tech was in proper working order and the bill for the leg re-attachment service had already passed through GCPD insurance and landed in her account.

It seems unfair to pay that one given that I did all actual work,” Zai said.

Well worth the money to keep your privacy intact,” Ai said internally, and shooed Curtweather out of the room so she could get dressed.

She found her belongings in a sealed case mounted to the wall. There was a recovery fee linked to the lock. She paid it in the interest of expediency. Inside were her police issued uniform, including a repaired set of ballistic armored pants and her regulation side arm.

Zai, are there any personnel here?” Ai asked.

This medi-shop has a staff of six,” Zai said.

Did any of them help with my transport or was it all automated?” Ai asked.

One of the orderlies helped carry you in and corrected the repair arms when they froze up,” Zai said.

Are they still around?” Ai asked.

Yes, they’re still on duty for two more hours,” Zai said.

Glitch the payment system for the personal effects box then and recall the funds we transferred.

Done.

Ai exited the small room and found herself in the lobby of the medi-shop. There were nine other service rooms, all empty in the small storefront operation.

With the advent of cheap bio-tech, the big hospitals of yesteryear had given way to cheap bio-tech repair centers and the exclusive full-service medical resorts the wealthy enjoyed access to.

“Ready to go?” Curtweather asked.

“One second,” Ai said, spying her target emerging from one of the empty service rooms.

“Excuse me, are you an employee here?,” she asked, catching the orderlies attention. The woman was old, and not especially well off given how few cosmetic alterations her bio-tech provided.

“Take any billing complaints up with the head office,” the woman said.

“It’s not a complaint,” Ai said. “The box with my belongings popped open when I went to pay.”

“That’s what they usually do,” the woman said.

“Except it didn’t take my payment,” Ai said. “So I was wondering if I deposit the money through you?”

“Why?” the woman asked.

“Because I know how flakey hospitals can be,” Ai said.. “If your parent corp doesn’t get their money, they’ll put a blacklist on my account, and I don’t have the money to get that removed.”

“You’re a cop though?” the woman asked.

“I am but they don’t let us shoot the kind of people I’d need to if I wanted to get a medi-corp off my back.”

It was a joke but both Ai and the woman exchanged a longing look for homicide to be a viable alternative in that case. With a nod, Ai transferred the fee into Khalindi Sensivana’s account with a little extra added as a ‘Service Fee’.

And the plan here is what exactly?” Zai asked

Always good to have friendly contacts in unexpected places,” Ai said.

What if she pockets the whole fee?” Zai asked.

Then I’ve got a little bit of corruption to hold over her,” Ai said. “That’s almost better than a friend.

The trip back to the station was free of any more NME attacks. No surprise there, berserk bio-monsters didn’t appear that frequently.

Ai spent the trip back pretending to listen to Curtweather’s deliberately horrible advice on how to approach her first after-incident report to their Captain. With her spare attention, she scoured the news feeds looking for references to herself in the reports on the NME attack, and any data she could collect on the Black Valkyries.

They were a mystery to everyone else, but that didn’t mean they had to be a mystery to her.

Ai was in the middle of parsing a report on the incident she’d been a part of, diving ever deeper into the fragmentary details that should have identified the woman who’d held her when she was injured when Curtweather jostled her shoulder.

“Get your head off the net, rookie, we’re here.”

In front of them a door with the words “Captain Grace James – GCPD Division 15” stood like the gate to a unique sort of hell.

“Greensmith, in. Curtweather, report to the Eye.” a heavy voice from inside the room said.

Ai entered as instructed and found her Captain waiting for her with a dour expression.

“Less than a week on the payroll and you’ve trashed one of our cruisers and hit our insurance with a major traumatic injury claim. Let’s talk about the wording on your resignation letter shall we?”

Gamma City Blues – Arc 01 (The Beat) – Report 02

The civilians were a problem. Always. Being a cop in Gamma City meant that in one sense or another, the civilians were either causing the problem, aiding the problem, or exacerbating it by being in the problem’s line of fire. From what Ai could see it was possible that the batch of noncombatants behind the rampaging NME filled all three categories.

“Dispatch, we have two hostile NMEs in our current zone, one within personal weapon fire range,” Ai said, following the procedure that had been drilled into her at the academy.

The GCPD was not, technically, a military force, despite fielding more armed members that all but twelve of the world’s largest political entities. The prime differentiator between a GCPD cop and a soldier for the Northern Free Cities was that the cops were not expected to engage enhanced individuals as they lacked both the firepower and training to survive such encounters.

Ai wasn’t concerned about the lack of training. She’d spent a long time studying a variety of things the average cop had no reason to look into. The issue of firepower however was a problematic one.

Ramming the NME with an exploding patrol cruiser hadn’t ended the threat the bio-enhanced beast presented, but she hadn’t expected it to either. Neuro-Muscular Enhanciles were the result of so-called “hard bio-tech”, specifically technology that went beyond squishy organic solutions to problems and started incorporating transhuman, weaponized elements into the user’s physiology. In the case of berserk NMEs that went beyond converting parts of the user’s body to hardware. The out of control bio-tech constructed almost completely mechanical bodies around the original human host. Whoever the human was at the heart of the NME didn’t seem to matter. Their personalities were gone, and their minds were a substrate for the programmed directive of the bio-tech that had become an ever transforming beast of rage and violence.

With armor woven together from any metal it could scrounge from the environment, NMEs grew harder to destroy the longer they persisted. The exploding cruiser had blown away close to a foot of metallic hide off the NME in front of Ai but the beast was recovering quickly, incorporating the wreckage of the cruiser into its lumbering exobody.

“We’re dead,” Curtweather said.

“Not yet,” Ai said. “Dispatch knows what’s happening. They’ll get Highfall in here won’t they?”

They wouldn’t. Ai knew that. Highfall was the military task force charged with answering the sort of tactical threats that NMEs posed. Threats that were beyond the GCPD’s capability to put down or contain. The Highfall troopers had the armor and weapons to survive an engagement with an NME. Or at least that was the theory.

In practice the capabilities of the NMEs were difficult to predict and that had resulted in Highfall fatalities in every engagement in the previous six months.

Highfall would be scrambled therefor, but only if the NME’s moved towards one of the more prosperous neighborhoods. Within a Rusty slum, there was neither the property value nor anyone of sufficient credit-worth to risk endangering the expensive Highfall materiel for. Even two GCPD cops could be replaced more cheaply than a Highfall combat unit.

“NME unit is sixty two seconds away from from full combat functionality.”

Only Ai heard the voice which informed of her that. All cops had Cognitive Partner systems. For most people, Partner systems were no more than automated search engines and advertising dispensers. They offered publicly accessible information about whatever the user’s vision rested on for more than a few seconds, and tried to upsell them at every opportunity.  For police officers the Partners also acted as documentation systems and order handlers. They also handled warrants and remote judgements in situations where exceptional authority was requested or required.

Ai had one of those, like every other officer, and then there was Zai.

“Understood,” Ai said, forming the words silently in her mind. “Initiate infiltration protocol and inform me when you have substrate level access.”

Ai wasn’t going to fight the NME from the outside. Not when she could remotely override its systems at a core hardware level.

“Link established. Barrier strippers deployed,” Zai said.

Ai kept her expression grim and worried while her heart floated light and unconcerned.

Zai wasn’t a Cognitive Partner. Not anymore. The simple bio-mechanical expert system Ai had been given as a child to monitor her health and help with her education was long gone. Zai had technically evolved from that simplistic tool, but like a human replacing worn out blood cells, Ai had pushed her Cognitive Partner so far beyond its original specs that none of the original pieces, either hardware or software, were left.

Modifying your own bio-tech was against the law, a crime punishable by fines large enough to crush medium sized corporations much less private individuals, as well as forfeiture of all licensed bio-tech. Ai had known that when she started tinkering with the micro-machines inside herself when she 8 years old, but she’d also known she wouldn’t get caught. No one suspected a child of having the insight or patience to modify sophisticated and proprietary machinery, especially not machinery which regulated their health.

To Ai though, the basic bio-tech she was fitted with wasn’t hers. It was alien matter someone had put into her body. She understood the need and value for it but the fundamental wrongness of existing with devices that were outside her control forced her to do the one thing that made sense – make the tech her own.

“Substrate level access achieved,” Zai said, silently in Ai’s mind. “How would you like to ruin the NME’s day?”

Ai checked the time. Thirty seven seconds left before the NME regained full functionality. The civilians were still within its killzone and the fragment of collapsed highway she and Curtweather were hiding behind would stand up to no more than a few seconds worth of barrage fire.

All in all it was a better encounter with an NME than most of the one’s Ai had planned for.

“Wait three milliseconds after it triggers its primary fire mechanism, then remove its pain inhibitors. Make it look like a cascade failure,” Ai said.

“Shut down the primary fire too?” Zai asked.

“No, let that go,” Ai said. “We want it to look like its repairs were glitched and it blew itself up. It’d be too convenient if its guns shut down just as it became dangerous again.”

“Surviving this at all is going to look pretty convenient,” Zai said.

“I’m aware,” Ai said. “What’s the spec on its primary gun?”

“It’s assembled three primary system,” Zai said. “Two chemical cannons and an anti-air plasma beam thrower.”

“Cycle it’s attack priority to the beam thrower for ground targets,” Ai said.

“No need, that already what it’s locked on,” Zai said.

“Good.”

“Which body part do you want it to target?” Zai asked.

“Log it as targeting center mass, but scramble the input signal to show that it’s tracking as being off by one to one and a half meters.”

“Leg shot it is.”

There were all sorts of safety systems built into standard Cognitive Partners to prevent the expert systems from harming their user, or allowing them to knowingly harm themselves. That Zai was capable of understanding the necessity of shooting her human companion spoke volumes about the sort of creature she had become.

“Even if they scramble Highfall now, we’ll be dead when they get here,” Curtweather said, still discussing the conversation that was moving at meat-space speeds.

“Then we have to draw it away from those civilians,” Ai said as she heard the NME’s systems whir fully to life.

“Civilian Address System, Visual Targets,” Ai said aloud, glancing out from cover to identify the small group of people beyond the NMEs. “Police order: Hold your position until the hostile moves away, then seek safety to the north along this route.”

The Cognitive Partner she’d installed to camouflage Zai’s presence interfaced with the police communications grid, identified most (but not all) of the civilians who were present and transmitted to Ai’s message to them as a Priority Communique. No matter what sort of filtering software they had or what deficiencies their bio-tech suffered, the Priority channel would (most likely) reach them.

“They’re not worth it!” Curtweather said.

“It’s our job!” Ai said.

It wasn’t, but it sounded in character for her, and Ai had a lot of experience playing the character people expected her to be.

“Listen we don’t have to beat it,” she said. “We just need to get away. I’ll distract it, you target its visual systems. If it can’t track us, we and the civilians can get farther away without being blasted to pieces.”

Curtweather’s gun was already in his hand so Ai didn’t waste time waiting for his reply, just nodded as though he’d agreed with her and turned to dash out from behind their cover. She made it almost two feet past the pile of fallen asphalt before pain exploded her world to pieces.

The primitive areas of her brain informed Ai that someone had smashed her left leg off with a pointed sledgehammer. And that she was on fire.

Neither impression was wholly accurate but the force of the plasma bolt did sent her spinning in mid-air. Zai took over for the Cognitive Partner and shut down the pain receptors from Ai’s leg. That gave Ai the clarity to return fire at the NME. With Zai’s help targeting the sensor array was trivial but damaging it was another matter.

It was a rookie mistake to underestimate how armored the NME’s sensors would be. Humans had vulnerable optic systems, but battle forged combat beasts were another matter. Under pressure that was exactly the sort of fact people were likely to forget though and expert systems weren’t a help either. At least not the ones issued to the GCPD. Cops weren’t supposed to fight NMEs, so the systems didn’t include tactical analysis packages for them. The routines were too costly to install.

Ai crashed to the ground and skidded to a halt on the open road. A foolish young cop who drew the worst possible luck on one of her early patrols. With no cover, no backup, and no defenses only a miracle could save her.

Another plasma bolt blasted the ground in front of her and Ai struggled to pull herself farther away. She was leaving a leg behind but she still had to suppress a smile. Her miracle was already in progress. If it wasn’t the second bolt would have put a hole through her torso the size of a basketball.

The next shot was wildly off target, streaking meaninglessly into the sky.

The rattle of heavy cannon fire drilling into the group sounded like a scream of anguish to Ai’s ears because that’s exactly what it was.

Without its pain suppressors, the human body at the center of the NME was in agony beyond mortal tolerance. The bio-tech in the beast fought to bring its host under control but its repair routines weren’t crippled and failing, one after the other.

Bit by bit the mechanic monster tore itself apart, system after system crashing and taking a dozen others with it.

“You need to rest,” Zai said. “Your regen systems are supposed to be taxed to their limits here.”

“Knock me out then,” Ai said. “If I look like a beautiful corpse I might get some sympathy points from the captain.”

“To look like a beautiful corpse, you’d have to look beautiful first,” Zai said.

“Ouch, you wound me,” Ai said.

“I’m not the one who decided to let her leg get blown off,” Zai said. “So pleasant dreams about that.”

Pain-free darkness washed over Ai, but sluiced away almost as quickly as it arrived.

“That was quick,” Ai said in her head.

“Yeah, one of the civilians picked you up and I figured you didn’t want her looting your body before the medi-van showed up.”

Ai flickered her eyes open and found a tattooed woman holding her. A Rusty from the low grade bits of tech that pierced her skin in various places, and from her rail thin figure. The woman’s expression wasn’t frightened or concerned. She looked mildly angry instead. The expression suited her. Or it was honest, and that was refreshing.

Ai knew that the chemical bath Zai had dumped into her brain meats was scrambling her thoughts – some things couldn’t be flushed instantly – but despite that it was nice to have someone holding her when she was traumatically injured.

“Is everyone ok?” Ai asked aloud, meaning the civilians. Curtweather could turn corpse and it might be a net gain for the world. The civilians on the other hand might be aggravating, and financially worthless, but that made saving them even more of a pleasant bonus.

“No, you’re injured,” the woman said. She cast a glance over towards the NME and her scowl deepened.

“Oh, well that’s good,” Ai said, and let Zai pull her back down into unconsciousness.

Gamma City Blues – Arc 01 (The Beat) – Report 01

No matter how hard the rain fell, it couldn’t wash the past away. As the blood and oil and rare volatiles sluiced down into the storm drains, they took with them the evidence of what had occurred but left behind the unalterable truth.

“He didn’t have a chance, did he?” Ai said, tying her end of the mylar tent to an ornate spike that rose from top of an old brick wall the barely identifiable body was crumpled beside.

“First time seeing a dead body Greensmith?” her partner, Curtweather asked. There was no tenderness or caring in the question. It was a blunt blade looking for an opening to needle her through. It was how the GCPD treated new recruits.

“Seeing a dead body? No. Seeing one that’s this mangled? Yes. The one’s they brought into the forensics courses were more…intact.”

“Pretty gross isn’t it?” Curtweather asked, the smile on his face suggesting that he was waiting for Ai to show the traditional sign of weakness.

She could have faked vomiting, but that would escalate the taunting, which she had neither the time nor the appetite for.

“It’s strange,” she said. “According to his bio-telematics, his readings flatlined ten hours ago but the cause of death was instantaneous. A single cranial blow that destroyed all function.”

“Yeah, someone blew his brains out,” Curtweatherr said, forcing his corner of the mylar sheet to stay in place by wrapping it a light post and tying it into a crude knot.

“Why do all the other damage then?” Ai asked.

“Oh, you do not want an answer to that question,” Curtweather said. “They should have taught you that at the academy. The kind of sick things we deal with? You don’t want to go crawling around in their heads trying to understand them. They’re just not human anymore and if you think too much like them, you won’t be either.”

“Didn’t need the academy to teach me that,” Ai said. “My dad made it clear how messed up people were from the day I could walk.”

“Yeah, he knew the score, and even with that look where it got him?” Curtweather said.

Ai suppressed the rage that boiled in her. She’d done it so often that it was reflexive. Some emotions could be shared. Others were part of her private reserve of psychic fuel.

“Units Curtweather and Greensmith, report status.”

The words echoed in both their audio feeds and scrolled in the general priority alert line that was superimposed over their vision.

“Site secured at present coordinates,” Curtweather said. “Casualty confirmed and identified as Kevin Blasmidtz. Awaiting forensics units for full site eval.”

“Forensics unit dispatched. Prepare to receive new order.”

“Oh this is going to be great,” Curtweather grumbled.

“They can’t pull us off this scene yet,” Ai said, knowing that Dispatch was quite capable of doing whatever Dispatch wanted. “We need to maintain the chain of custody for the evidence until we can turn it over to the Fors team.”

“You newbies are so adorable,” Curtweather said as their new orders began scrolling across their vision.

“Patrol allocation limit reached for Block WC-24-60. Further police presence suspended awaiting Block Council credit extension. Unit Ai Greensmith will proceed to City Center for investigation into automated complaint at Tython Data Center CC-05-01.”

“Seriously?” Ai said aloud. “We’re leaving this with a tarp to cover the scene and a bill to get the forensics team in here?”

“Yeah, and the tarp will be on the bill too,” Curtweather said. “Get in the cruiser, every minute we’re still here is volunteer work.”

They were on Inter-City 5 traveling east into the heart of the Gamma City mega-metro area before Ai judged it was safe to speak again.

“I thought murder and other capital crimes were supposed to have automatic enforcement extensions,” she said. She knew what Curtweather’s answer would be but as the daughter of “Joseph Greensmith, Martyr Cop” she had an image of stubborn righteousness that people expected her to live up to.

“Wasn’t a murder,” Curtweather said without taking his eyes off the road.

Traffic was its typical snarled mess, but the complaint they were responding to originated in one of the city’s “gold zones” so they were able to use the priority lanes without accruing enough “special usage fees” to bankrupt each of them through their next seven lifetimes.

“I’ve seen some extreme Yoga before, but even someone with a spine made out of silly string couldn’t have pretzeled themselves like that,” Ai said.

“Doesn’t matter,” Curtweather said. “Without a bondable eye witness, only the lead forensic tech can make a cause of death ruling. It’s beyond scrubs like us.”

“Forensics isn’t going in there until Block W24 pays for it though,” Ai said.

“Yeah, and without a murder to prosecute there’s not much call for the Block Council to pay for the Forensic boys. It’s a nice system. Keeps us from getting too busy with the Bronzers and missing out on serving the people who really matter,” Curtweather said.

“The City Center crowd?”

“The very same.”

“They don’t pay for us though,” Ai said. “We’re supported two hundred and three to one by the other Block Councils.”

“Sure we are,” Curtweather said. “Salary, pension, and health-tech, all provided for by the good people of Gamma City. You tell me how that works out for you over the next few months.”

Ai swallowed another gout of rage. As if she didn’t know what life was like on a cop’s salary. As if she hadn’t seen her father struggling to get them by through the endless rounds of budget cuts and salary rollbacks. She’d been lucky, growing up a solid Silver citizen. It wasn’t an easy life but compared to the Bronzers, or even worse the Rusties, she knew she should be grateful.

Instead she was silent. Curtweather would fill in the explanations of her behavior that she needed him to believe and she didn’t have to say a word to make it happen.

She was Joseph Greensmith’s daughter, so of course she’d be idealistic and a knee-jerk reactionary against corruption. She would believe all kinds of fairy tales about honor and justice and being sworn the path of the righteous. People wanted to see her as “a chip off the old block”, just like her brother had been, and that’s what they would see.

“So who is our travel time being billed to?” she asked.

The GC Police Academy relied on “accelerated programs”, in part due to the high turnover in the police force ranks. The instructors focused almost entirely on the practical aspects of the job, with a few classes covering the fundamentals of law and advanced disciplines related to police work like forensics, investigation, and special response squads. Back office information like how billing was handled was omitted as irrelevant to a cop’s day to day work. An officer was supposed to obey the Dispatching directives routed to them without question. They didn’t need to know how billing was handled or what each minute of their time was billed out at.

“Probably the block we were in,” Curtweather said. “At least until we cross into the City Center. Depends on the client we’re responding to though. If it’s a serious one then they’ll pick up the whole bill just to make sure we’re not delayed.”

“Is the Tython Group a serious client?” Ai asked. On her display more data about the Tython group appeared than Curtweather could have accessed with a year’s salary. Ai didn’t need it. She’d already memorized everything there was to know about Tython, but her mind worked best when she could free link data bits together and, for that, having it all on tap was a convenient thing.

“They’re not one of mine, but they could be huge,” Curtweather said. “You never know who owns who, or which of these ‘Divisions’ or ‘Groups’ or ‘Subsidiaries’ are part of some world spanning super corporation.”

“All that power and not one of them can stop the NME attacks though,” Ai said.

Neuro-Muscular Enhanciles were the topic of the day across the board on the major news feeds. Curtweather just grunted.

“That’s been blown so out of proportion,” he said. “The Highfall Recon guys are being sold short on what they can do.”

“The NME rampage last week put a half dozen of them in the morgue until the Black Valkyries showed up. And that was just one NME right?” Ai asked.

“That was a raw deal,” Curtweather said. “The Highfall guys were called in late, the critter had dug in, and it was on a electric substation. I mean that was the perfect storm of bad karma for them to walk into.”

“Still though it was just one,” Ai said. “How bad could one enhancile be?”

It was a rookie question, the kind that baited stories out of more experienced officers. Ai knew that and she knew the stories Curtweather was going to tell, but she needed him to tell them.

“You ever meet one, you don’t ask that question, you just get the hell out of there,” Curtweather said.

“Sounds like you’ve seen an NME?” Ai asked.

“Yeah, there’s ones that don’t show up on the news feeds,” Curtweather said. “Ones that are smart enough to start off in the Rusties slums. Nobody transmits about those, but they still send in the Highfall guys after us suckers provide target confirmation and sit reps.”

“I thought our ordinance was supposed to be rated for anything up to a Bio-Berserker,” Ai asked.

“Sure, and if you see any fifty year old tech monsters lumbering around you can take all the pot shots at them that you like,” Curtweather said. “These NME’s are a new breed, new military tech if you ask me, and what we got ain’t enough to tickle them.”

Ai was only half listening to his words. Her attention was captured by a stream of light that cut through one of the building on her side of the car.

“How fast of a response time does Highfall have?” Ai asked, letting real concern show in her voice.

“They’re pretty quick, ten minutes or so, why’s that?” Curtweather asked.

“Something’s throwing out canon fire with enough tracers to make it look like a laser beam,” Ai said. “We’ve got to stop and check it out.”

Curtweather floored the gas pedal.

“We’ll need to take the next exit,” Ai said.

“No we won’t. If that’s an NME then we want nothing to do with it.”

“If it’s an NME then a lot of people are going to die unless we call in Highfall,” Ai said.

“Over there? In a Rusty slum? Don’t worry about it, it’s not like they’re real people in there,” Curtweather said just in time for the road to split open in front of them.

Ai felt herself lurched as the collision prevention systems grabbed control from Curtweather and fought to bring the vehicle to as safe a stop as was mechanically possible.

As it turned out ‘safe’ was a highly relative term. The automatic system did manage to stop the car well before it plunged over the collapsed section of the InterCity highway. Through the smoke and dust though a far worse danger emerged.

Ai knew the thing before her had once been human. In broad terms it still held a reflection of that, with a head, torso and limbs that were cast in a gross parody of what they had once been. In place of flesh and blood though there was nothing except writhing metal, flailing cables and a programmed weapon arsenal that was molecularly engineered from the debris the creature’s rampage had created.

Ten thousand details leapt into Ai’s mind all at once. The positions of the NME, the contents of their environment, the geometry of nearby cover and damaged areas.

The police cruiser wasn’t an oasis of safety, but it could be a distraction. She loaded a program on a delay into its automatic controls.

Her weapon was useless. That stayed in its holster. Safer to discard it entirely but the replacement cost would be difficult to justify.

Her optical feed was her best weapon. That got synced live back to Dispatch on a priority channel with the billing option set as a pass through charge to Highfall HQ.

“Get out of the car on three,” she said.

“Are you crazy? That thing will kill us,” Curtweather said.

“I’ve set the cruiser to ram it and engage pursuit mode. The battery was cracked in the crash just now, pursuit mode will blow it wide open.”

Curtweather’s dissatisfaction with her plan found expression is a stream of profanity but he bailed out of the cruiser on her count of three.

The NME belched fire at the car as it roared toward it and then opened up with a pair of arm cannons that stripped the “bullet resistant” hull off like it was made of tinfoil. Despite the abuse though, the cruiser engaged pursuit mode fifty milliseconds before making contact with the NME and, as Ai calculated, then exploded thirty milliseconds later.

Ai dove flat behind a chunk of rubble roughly twice the size of the car. Thanks to the cruiser’s acceleration profile, she and Curtweather were able to scramble behind it in time to be shielded from the blast.

That was the good news.

The bad news came when Ai peeked around the corner of the rubble and saw the NME getting back on it’s feet. It had lost a large chunk of its outer shell but the human inside, or what was left of them, was still functional.

The worse news could have been that, following the blast, the NME was oriented on Ai, having identified her as the primary threat facing it.

That would have been the worst news of the day, except Ai saw a group of children huddled on the far side of the NME and she knew the moment she shook it’s attention from herself, they would be next in it’s line of fire.

The Soul’s Fortress – Chapter 32 – Family

Iana positioned the last of the the overstuffed chairs, looked at her handiwork and scowled.

“Wrong arrangement, wrong type of chair, or something else?” Dae asked.

The First Sorceress was garbed in her usual traveling leathers, leaning against the doorframe to the conference room and watching her adopted daughter prepare for the first meeting of the Princess’ Council.

“This is supposed to simple,” Iana said. “Why is it not simple.”

“Because you care about it,” Alari said, “and caring about things is never simple.”

The Queen of Gallagrin was dressed in an uncharacteristically common style, matching the traveling leathers Dae wore.

“Well, almost never,” Dae said. “Somethings don’t have to be complicated at all.”

She smiled and nodded to Alari, sharing some private bit of happiness that Iana felt no need to intrude on.

“So that’s why you’re leaving me alone to handle this?” Iana asked. “So that it won’t get too complicated?”

“Not at all,” Alari said. “The Princess’ Council is a brilliant idea.”

“We’re taking a vacation so that it’ll be yours without us overshadowing it,” Dae said.

“And if something goes wrong?” Iana asked.

“Not if,” Alari said. “When something goes wrong, you’re going to handle it, just like you handled the Shadowfolk.”

“So this is punishment for going off without telling you?” Iana asked.

“Off with your attempted assassin,” Dae said.

“You had your reasons for that, and they were good ones,” Alari said. “So no, this is not a punishment. You have my full and complete faith, you know that. And we’re not going so far that we can’t get back here if something truly dire comes up.”

“Jyl and Pelay and Undine and Eorn will be here too, and your Warbringer pack,” Dae said. “If you need backup against your allies, trust me, there’ll be plenty of people willing to step up beside you.”

“I don’t need backup against them,” Iana said. “I’m just not sure if I can make them comfortable.”

“This is something new,” Alari said. “No one’s ever tried anything like it in Gallagrin. So no one’s going to be comfortable, but that’s ok.”

“But I need them to work together,” Iana said.

“How did you get your Warbringers to work together?” Dae asked.

“Joint combat exercises,” Iana said.

“Ok, those could present some problems with this group,” Dae said.

Iana started rearranging the chairs, trying to find a grouping that would provide enough distance between her guests. As it was they were going to be worrying about surprise attacks, Iana wanted to make sure that if anyone tried for one, she or one of the Guardians would have time to react before it was successful.

“I am impressed that you managed to convince representatives from both the Faeneril and the Shadowfolk to be part of this,” Alari said.

“I’m impressed you survived meeting them in the first place,” Dae said. “There’s a reason we’ve never asked for help from either group before.”

“Wasn’t that your doing though?” Iana asked.

“My doing? Whatever do you mean?” Dae asked.

“There were some very interesting coincidences,” Iana said. “Interesting enough that I have to wonder if someone wasn’t magicking things up and influencing events from afar.”

“Dae? Is that true?” Alari asked.

“Guilty as charged, but far far less than you seem to think,” Dae said. “It’s true that I had an inkling of what was going on, and I did try to nudge a few things to work out ok. The thing is though that I don’t know if that made a difference or not.”

“You’re trying to say you’re not sure if you were powerful enough to influence events at a distance?” Iana said.

“The more I explore what magic can do, the more I’m learning that it’s less about outright power and more about vision,” Dae said. “Dropping a mountain on someone will solve whatever problem they’re causing, but it’s certain to create more problems in the process.”

“So you have to be careful with what you do then? Even now?” Iana asked.

“Especially now,” Dae said. “It’s something a wise queen has tried to tell me ever since she was a wise princess. Power can’t be exercised without restraint. There are always consequences, and none of us can foresee all of the outcomes of what we do.”

“So what do we do then?” Iana asked.

“Our best, and trust in those who’ve shown themselves to be trustworthy,” Dae said.

“Is that why you didn’t come after me personally?” Iana asked.

“That and I asked her not to,” Alari said.

“It was the right call too,” Dae said. “Neither of us could have made the connections you did. And Neither of us could have ended things as well as you were able to.”

“It was a close thing,” Iana said. “If it wasn’t for the enchantments you put on my clothes I would have drifted away into the Abyss.”

“Uh, what enchantments?” Dae asked.

“The special protections you put on my clothes.” Iana said. “I know I wasn’t supposed to notice the little glyphs in the hem but you picked my favorite type of flower so…”

Iana put down the chair she was moving and looked up to see Dae staring at her in disbelief.

“You didn’t put that enchantment there,” Iana said the pieces falling into place.

“I enchanted your knife,” Dae said. “I’m used to working with armor and steel. Metal holds the magic so well. It’s why I told you to hang onto it.”

“My clothes were definitely enchanted,” Iana said. “I’d given the knife away by then, so they had to be.”

“I believe you that they were enchanted, but not by me,” Dae said, squinting at Iana.

“If it wasn’t you then who?” Iana asked, looking over to Alari who shook her head.

“No one mortal,” Dae said. “The realm’s magic exists inside of creation. The Abyss is beyond that.”

“But who else could have…”

Iana stopped.

She’d stood before a god. One of her gods. She’d expected to face fury and condemnation but she’d found only love and kindness.

Iana had left the Green Council but that didn’t mean her god had left her.

She clutched her chest as a wave of raw emotion rolled over her.

Telliakai hadn’t tried to hold her back. The goddess of the Green Council had set her free, not because she didn’t care where Iana went, but because she knew that wherever Iana traveled she would there too.

“Are you going to be ok?” Alari asked, moving to help Iana settle into a chair.

“Yeah, it’s just…I didn’t realize…I thought I left everything behind me.”

“You left behind the parts of your old life that you don’t need anymore,” Dae said.

“And from here on out you get to pick the pieces that you make your new life from,” Alari said.

There was a knock on the door to the conference room, followed by a page entering.

“The Council members have begun to arrive, shall I show them in?” the page asked.

Alari looked to Iana.

“Yes, please do,” Iana said and straightened up.

“In a moment,” Alari said and turned to Iana. “You do not need our shadow hanging over you, but you can always have our arms to shield you and our shoulders to lean on.”

“Thank you,” Iana said. “I think I’ve got this.”

“We know you do,” Dae said, and threaded her fingers together with Alari’s a moment before the two of them simply vanished.

***

Yuehne the would-be-assassin was the first to enter, followed by Venita the dwarven sky carriage driver, with Wynni the Shadowfolk assassin and Che-chara the Faeneril warrior in their wake.

“As execution chambers go, there’s a remarkable lack of edged weapons around,” Wynni said.

“Execution chamber?” Che-chara asked.

“It’s one of the running bets as to the real reason the Princess invited me here,” Wynni said.

“How much do you stand to win when you return?” Venita asked.

“Enough to make me a moderately wealthy woman,” Wynni said.

“I have to confess, I don’t understand why we’re here,” Yuehne said. “Bets on execution aside that is.”

“It’s not complicated,” Iana said. “I’m not from Gallagrin. You all are. I need your counsel if I’m going to learn about this realm and be able to make the right decisions for it.”

“I get that part,” Yuehne said. “I mean why are we here. Us specifically. Or, well, me.”

“Why wouldn’t I want you here?” Iana asked.

“I tried to kill you,” Yuehne said. “Most people have a problem with that.”

“To be fair, I was going to kill her too,” Wynni said.

“And if she’d played her cards poorly when we first met, I might have had to kill her as well,” Che-chara said.

“I guess that makes me the odd one out,” Venita said.

“You tried to throw me off a sky carriage in flight,” Iana said.

“Oh yeah, almost forget that,” Venita said. “Kind of hoped you had too.”

“So you’re surrounding yourself with people who want to kill you?” Yuehne asked. “Is the idea that we’d be too busy trying to outdo the others that we’d never get around to attacking you?”

“While that would play well on the stage, no, I’m not insulting your intelligence like that,” Iana said. “You’re here, all of you, because you’ve given me good counsel and are willing to speak the truth to me despite any fancy title I get to wear.”

“I don’t recall ever advising you on anything,” Yuehne said. “I’ve just told you how wrong you are.”

“Yes, frequently,” Iana said. “The day I stop listening to that, is the day I become like my old superior, and I never want to become like him. If I can’t bear to listen to people telling me that I’m wrong, if I can’t modify my thinking when they’re right, or explain why I believe what I do, then I have no business leading anyone.”

“Elder Tonel used to say that a leader’s job was to make the decisions that the lesser people couldn’t,” Wynni said.

“He was a failure as a leader,” Iana said. “No one is ‘lesser’. Anyone can make decisions, especially if they’re stamped as correct just because of who made them.”

“So you think having us around will fix that?” Yuehne asked.

“Not just having you around,” Iana said. “I going to need more from you than  occasional meetings to discuss strategy and tactics. I’m going to need you, all of you, to be out there in the realm, engaging with our people. I going to need you to bring their voice, to even bring them, to me.”

“That doesn’t sound like how Gallagrin governs its people,” Yuehne said.

“It’s not,” Iana said. “Gallagrin is my home now. My family is here. But I am not a part of it. Not yet. I can’t offer it the leadership it is used to, but I can try to bring in what I know and maybe those tools can solve some of the problems that have faced this realm for decades now.”

“That’s a tall order,” Venita said. “What makes you think we’re up to doing all that for you?”

“You were willing to try,” Iana said.

“If we try and fail, won’t a whole realm be turned against us though?” Che-chara asked.

“Possibly,” Iana said. “That’s why we’re going to start small.”

“How do you start small with ruling a realm?” Yuehne asked.

“Most of the land in Gallagrin is held by the various noble families,” Iana said. “But there are a few estates outside of Highcrest which are held directly by the Royal Family. We’re going to take one of those over.”

“Militarily?” Wynni asked.

“In a sense,” Iana said. “My sisters and I were part of an elite combat unit in the Green Council. We’re going to take command of the militia forces which guard one of the estates and with your help, we’re going to turn it into a center of trade to rival Highcrest. Before I take the crown, I want to make a jewel out of the Keep at Empty Rock.”

“What sort of support will the crown give us?” Venita asked.

“None,” Iana said. “They said I couldn’t run you through combat exercises, but they never said I couldn’t put a challenge before you. The question is, will you join me in this?”

“A month ago I couldn’t have conceived of hearing those words, a week ago I would have laughed at the pretender who uttered them, but today? I don’t know how you did it, but today I hear my Princess asking me to join her and I can only say yes,” Yuehne said. “Yes, I will.”