Gamma City Blues – Arc 02 (Shakedown) – Report 07

Among the many sensations one can experience in motor vehicle, weightlessness is one that is guaranteed to trigger a primitive biological response from the human brain.

“Ahhh!” The scream was several octaves higher than human voices normally reached. It was also several decibels louder than most screams managed to get.

“Hang on, this might sting a little,” Ai said, trying to tune out Curtweather’s wailing so she could run more numbers in her head.

Their police cruiser’s power train had done a valiant job at launching them off the raised deck of the bridge. Once the wheels had left the pavement though there was no further acceleration they could provide. Jettisoning the power train hadn’t added anything to their speed. Police cruisers weren’t made with bizarre boosting contingencies like that. The explosion that occurred when it exploded at the top of the bridge though did add a small amount of forward momentum though.

And it put the cruiser into a spin. Ai had the benefit of Zai’s control over her inner ear to negate the nausea inducing dizziness that came from being in a car that was tumbling end over end. Curtweather wasn’t so lucky but by Ai’s calculations it would take him long enough to reach the point of vomiting that it wasn’t going to be her problem.

Her problems were, and remained, the NMEs that were pursuing them. As with many things when it came to NMEs, the proper application of explosives was a fundamental part of resolving the issue.

The most dangerous NME was the one on the cruiser’s roof. The upside there was that one of the Black Valkyries, Harp if Ai wasn’t mistaken, was engaged in combat with it. Given the sort of weapon systems NMEs had demonstrated in the past, and the sort that the Black Valkyries had displayed moments earlier, Ai found being inches away from two such combatants more than a little worrisome.

A stray shot from either one only had to penetrate a relatively thin layer of armor on the cruiser’s roof before it could damage all sorts of vital things.

That was why Ai had sent the police cruiser flipping end over end.

NMEs have a wide assortment of weapons in addition to ludicrously overdeveloped armor systems. Suction cup feet however were not a typical enhancement they developed.

As the car began its first revolution, Ai saw the NME flailing as it was launched into empty space. Harp’s Valkyrie armor flared to with micro jets that ran along her legs and hips, lifting her gracefully into the air. It was like watching the difference between a starling in flight and a lumpy brick.

Ai wasn’t able to stare at the scene for long though. A few microseconds and then the realities of her situation demanded her attention again.

“You know that water down there is a lot harder than it looks right?” Zai asked.

“Yeah, kind of counting on that in fact,” Ai said.

“So your plan is to hit the water very fast?” Zai said.

“I did say I hated this plan right?” Ai said.

“You did. And now I hate it too,” Zai said. “You’re still doing calculations though. Why? What can you do at this point? And isn’t there another NME we have to worry about?”

“Technically we still have three NMEs to worry about,” Ai said.

“Yeah, but the Valkyries are fighting at least two of them already,” Zai said.

“The Valkyries usually fight one NME at a time and they use multiple Valkyries to do so,” Ai said. “They’ve probably been holding back a bit when they do that, but on the off chance that they decided to jump on a group of NMEs who they can’t beat, I think it’s wise to keep our eyes open.”

“I’d love to have some eyes to keep open but the damn interdiction field is still in place,” Zai said.

“Huh, was hoping that would drop away,” Ai said. “Oh, what an idiot, of course it’s not dropping.”

“Why do you say that?”

“It’s the Valkyrie suits themselves,” Ai said. “They must radiate an interdiction effect.”

“But the field needs to be contained. You can’t just project one like that,” Zai said.

“The GCPD contains our fields because we don’t want to affect anyone except the subjects we want to interdict. I don’t think the Valkyries have that same worry,” Ai said.

“Thank you for that little lesson,” Zai said. “Got any more to share in the remaining seconds of your life?”

“Ye of little faith,” Ai said.

“Virtual god here remember, I’m the one people are supposed to have faith in, not the other way around.”

“You know we’ll survive this,” Ai said. “It’s just going to suck.”

“Are you sure about that? The survival part I mean, because we are moving at a pretty impressive velocity.”

“Yeah. Well mostly,” Ai said.

“Mostly!”

“Even working at cyber-speeds like this, there might be a few factors that I had to go with guesswork on,” Ai said.

“Factors such as?” Zai asked.

“Air resistance, the weight of the NME and Harp before they got thrown off, and whether the third NME could reach us before we impact,” Ai said.

“And if your guesswork is wrong?” Zai asked.

“Oh, then we’re totally dead,” Ai said. “Sheesh, no, if the guesses are wrong, then things will just suck a bit more than they’re already going to. Probably.”

“Define ‘a bit more’ please,” Zai said.

“You reattached my leg once already, how do you feel about doing that with the rest of my limbs?”

“Terrible. I feel terrible about that idea. Find another one,” Zai said.

“Working on it,” Ai said. “Judging from our rotation and rate of descent, I think I screwed up a bit.”

“You’re falling to your doom and you just now figured that out?”

“Yeah, we need to be spinning a bit slower,” Ai said.

“Not seeing how that’s going to help but isn’t it too late to worry about that?”

“Not if I do this!” Ai said and punched the trunk release. The car’s spinning barely slowed.

“Were you hoping there was a parachute in there?” Zai asked

“No, it’s creating drag which is slowing our rotation,” Ai said, continuing to watch the world spin by outside the car. After a few milliseconds she added, “Just nowhere near slowly enough.”

“So what do you do now?”

“I don’t know! Or wait, yes I do. Oh Curtweather is going to hate this.”

She triggered another control and all four of the cruiser’s doors flew open.

“Well, you’re definitely slowing the rotation,” Zai said. “Was it enough?”

“It looks like it was, but now we have another problem,” Ai said.

”Aside from Curtweather’s endless supply of air for screaming?”

“Yeah,” Ai said. “Now we’re going to drown.”

The force when the cruiser struck the water was titanic. The good news was that it hit at almost exactly the angle Ai had chosen, cleaving into the river like a champion swimmer. The bad news was that the police cruiser was not quite as aerodynamic as a human would have been.

Bits of metal exploded away from car as it made contact with a surface that was almost entirely unyielding. “Almost entirely” is not the same as “entirely” though, and that was enough to save them.

The combination of the forgiving angle the car entered the water at and the crash systems it deployed blunted the trauma of the crash from “instantly fatal” to “just barely survivable”. Ai felt bones shatter in her legs and chest and it was only through Zai’s help that she managed to retain even a shred of consciousness for what came next.

Which was the drowning part.

The angle the cruiser hit the water at meant that it was able to plunge in deeply and bleed off its speed to non-fatal levels. The cost of this was that the cruiser was submerged into the river in less than the blink of an eye and with the doors open there was no air bubble trapped inside for Ai or Curtweather to breathe.

“I don’t think you can swim in this state,” Zai said.

“Wasn’t planning on it,” Ai said. The world was growing fuzzy and distant, and her thoughts felt like they’d been put in a blender.

Everything should have hurt, but Zai was taking care of that. Zai and the shock. Ai knew intellectually that her body had to be in shock. She also knew that her mind would be affected by that too. Putting that knowledge together into something useful however was escaping her.

She’d had a thought for how to survive being buried alive in the water. Buried in the water? Drowned? Something like that. She’d had a plan for it. She knew that. But everything was so far away.

Strong hands lifted her up.

That wasn’t part of the plan.

Somebody should tell them to stop. Probably. Moving crash victims is bad. Unless they have Platinum Plus Protection on the bio-mods. Then “you’ll be moving on your own again in no time!”

Ai tried to breath, but she couldn’t.

“No, you don’t want to do that,” Zai said. “We’re still underwater.”

“We should change that, book a ticket for some air travel maybe?” Ai said. She wasn’t making sense, but the world wasn’t either, so it all seemed fair.

“Sorry, I’ve got to drug you till your incoherent or you’ll die from shock,” Zai said.

“Don’t want to die,” Ai said. “Cemeteries suck. Hate the flowers. Rude to plants.”

“Don’t think we have to worry about that,” Zai said. “Looks like the Valkyries have found you worthy of Valhalla.”

“They gotta take both of us.”

“That’s sweet of you, but maybe you should rest for a bit now, I’ll wake you when you’re in a bearable level of agony ok?”

“Sounds good, can’t be late for a date,” Ai mumbled losing all focus on reality as a soft, fluffy blackness wrapped around her and pulled her away from trivial concerns like her chances for survival or what had happened with Curtweather.

When the darkness unwound and let her return to some measure of awareness, she was greeted with a painful stab of light. The sun was out and had a grudge against her eyes from what she could tell.

“She’s coming around,” a mechanical voice said.

“She’s tougher than the other one then,” a different but also mechanical voice said.

“I told you there’s more to her than that uniform would suggest,” Harp said. Her voice was mechanical as well but Ai recognized it nonetheless, even through the haze of the drug induced healing coma that Zai had placed her in.

“Zai?” she asked.

“Still with you. Seriously though, never do that again. That was much too close.”

“Yeah, I was thinking the fire rescue rebreathers would buy us some time, but the crash was a little too disorienting. How long was I out?”

“About five minutes,” Zai said. “Haven’t had much time to put you back together, so try not to pick any fights here ok? I’ve got your body paralyzed from the neck down at the moment to make the reconstruction go more smoothly. Also, you drove a car off a bridge and I’d like to go at least ten minutes without repeating anything that foolish.”

“Since we’re not dead, I’m going to guess that the NMEs have been dealt with?”

“As far as I can tell,” Zai said. “Sounds like the Valkyries dismantled two of them. I’m not clear on what happened to the third though.”

“Let’s find out then,” Ai said and struggled to open her eyes fully.

“Hello Officer Greensmith,” Harp said.

“Nice to see you again,” Ai said. “Is my partner ok?”

“You care about that?” Zai asked.

“It what a normal cop would ask,” Ai said.

“No, but then neither are you after that stunt. He’s still alive though, so whatever you were trying to do it apparently worked,” Harp said.

“Not as well as I’d hoped,” Ai said. “Thanks for pulling us from a watery grave.”

“Thanks for flushing out some more NMEs for us,” Harp said.

“I think that distinction belongs to my partner,” Ai said. “He’s got a much wider list of enemies than I do.”

“That may be true, but he’s only a normal human and that’s not entirely true for you, is it?”

Ai met Harp’s gaze and saw the other woman wasn’t asking a question so much as stating a certainty.

Gamma City Blues – Arc 02 (Shakedown) – Report 06

Ai kept the accelerator of the police cruiser floored despite the fact that the explosion had knocked her car into an uncontrolled slide. It wasn’t a matter of evading the fireball from the exploding van behind them. The cruiser was tough enough to withstand both the blast wave and the shrapnel that pelted them from the destroyed vehicle. The parts of the van the blew up didn’t worry her. She had more specific concerns in mind.

“Did somebody just…?” Curtweather asked before he ran out of words.

Ai didn’t blame him. It was a big fireball, and a louder blast wave. Bright lights and loud noises are disorienting enough when you don’t know what they probably mean.

“Nuke our pursuers from orbit?” Ai said. “Yes. Yes they did.”

“It wasn’t a nuke, but you knew that didn’t you,” Zai said.

“I did, I don’t know what it was but we’re much too alive for that to have been even a micro-nuke,” Ai said.

“You’re still running away,” Curtweather observed, as Ai forced the police cruiser back onto the road and pointed away from the wreck behind them. They’d lost almost all of their velocity in the slide but once Ai had the cruiser oriented in the right direction they started flying across the asphalt at an increasingly respectable pace.

“That am I.”

“Why?” His calm spoke to the sort of shock that came with a resigned acceptance of one’s fate.

“Something blew up the truck that was chasing us,” Ai said.

“The truck was trying to kill us,” Curtweather said. “Can’t say I’m unhappy about that.”

“What makes you think the people who destroyed it don’t want to kill us too?” Ai asked. “Or do you have friends on an orbital weapon platform who were trying to help us out?”

“If whoever took out the truck wanted you dead too, wouldn’t they have blown you up already?” Zai asked.

“Probably,” Ai said. “Depends on their reload time. That’s not what I’m primarily worried about though.”

“Being blown up out of the clear blue after seeing that happen to someone else isn’t your primary worry?” Zai asked. “What could be worse than that?’

“Them,” Ai said, looking in the rearview camera.

From the fiery wreck of the truck, three vaguely humanoid shapes emerged. They weren’t humans, nothing human moved like they did, and human didn’t generally do well with large hunks of metal embedded in them at random spots. Humans also had skin, not interlocking metallic scales.

“Those look a lot like NMEs,” Zai said. “Why are there three NMEs climbing out of the a burning truck?”

“It’s broken,” Ai said. “And unfortunately they’re not. The truck can’t catch us, but I’m guessing they’re going to take a stab at it. Or us. Or me. I don’t want to get stabbed. Would just ruin my whole day. I’m babbling. Cause this sucks and I’m terrified. Should focus on the task at hand, right?”

“We should go back and identify the bodies,” Curtweather said.

“Don’t think we need to go back for that,” Ai said, her voice higher than she meant it to be.

“We need to know who’s gunning for us,” Curtweather said.

“No, I mean, we don’t need to go back because they’re still coming for us,” Ai said.

“What? Who’s coming…” Curtweather’s words trailed off as he looked at the camera showing the scene behind them. “Th-three? That’s not right. That’s not right at all! What did you do?”

“Nothing!” Ai lied. “I still think you’re the target.”

“Why me?”

“Have you met you? If there was an office pool to fund raise for setting an NME on you, I’d toss in a week’s paycheck.”

“I hate you Greensmith,” Curtweather said. “And if we die, I’m going to make sure they eat you first.”

“NMEs don’t eat people,” Zai said.

“They also don’t show up in sets of three and target innocent police officers,” Ai said.

“Well, so far they’re only doing one of those things,” Zai said.

“Why did I ever teach you to make jokes?” Ai asked.

“So that you could tell when you were really in trouble,” Zai said. “And speaking of trouble. There’s an interdiction field around us. I can’t reach the rest of the net.”

“An interdiction field? How big is it?” Ai asked.

“I don’t know, let me look that right up. Oh wait, ‘File Not Found’. It’s like I’m cut off from outside information or something.”

“Ok, I deserved that one,” Ai said. “It doesn’t make sense though. You can’t set up an interdiction field around a moving car. It would have to be the size of an entire sector to keep up with us.”

“And that would take out the net connections for every business in the sector. Even Tython doesn’t have that sort of clout,” Zai said.

“No one does,” Ai said. “So it’s got to be something else. Because Gray League assassins and rampaging NMEs wasn’t enough to deal with today.”

“Maybe we can outrun the field?” Zai said.

“Trying that. Doesn’t seem to be working though.”

In the rearview mirror the NMEs were racing forward and catching up to the police cruiser with a four legged run that would have done a cheetah proud for its smooth grace.

“We need to lose those things!” Curtweather yelled, clutching his gun to his chest.

Ai was about to complain that she was trying to do just that but their cruiser wasn’t equipped to outrun high speed killbots when another explosion lit up the road behind them.

Two of the NMEs leapt out of the blaze, springing from the flames like grasshoppers. The third was less graceful, tumbling forward to skid across the pavement on it’s face before rolling to a stop and lumbering to its unsteady feet.

Ai wanted to spin the cruiser around and watch whatever was going to happen next but the two fully active NMEs that were chasing them argued against that.

“The bridge is up!” Curtweather said, yanking Ai’s attention back to where she was driving.

They’d almost made it to the industrial sector Ai had been aiming towards. All that stood between them was one of the cities artificial rivers. It served as a minor barrier to keep private citizens off corporate property where the companies had nothing to directly sell them. Access for workers was provided by shuttles the various companies in the industrial sector ran for their employees, which used one of three bridges that crossed the river.

As a police cruiser responding to a reported emergency, Ai’s vehicle should have automatically flagged the bridge to lower. That it was up suggested a likely but still painful possibility.

“They took control of the roadway automation didn’t they?” she asked.

“That would be my guess,” Zai said. “The last ping I had from the bridge control was that the bridge was down. Even if they’d told it to raise the moment we hit the interdiction field, it couldn’t be fully open like that already.”

“How deep do they have this city hacked?” Ai asked, fear curdling into frustration.

“It wouldn’t have to be that extensive,” Zai said. “Your patrol route was pre-scripted, and the spot where the van started to engage us was one they chose. Your options from there have been fairly limited.”

“The monsters are gaining us,” Curtweather said.

“Maybe we should have called in the department,” Ai said.

“Yeah, a few meat shields would be nice about now,” Curtweather said.

“I meant to help deal with these guys,” Ai said.

“Even High Guard gets its butt kicked by one of these things. The only thing a wagon full of cops is going to do against three of them is make good on a lot of life insurance policies.”

“I don’t get how they just happened to have three NMEs in that truck,” Zai said. “Wouldn’t one be overkill for a single cop?”

“Even a truck full of hired thugs is overkill for one cop. If Tython only wanted us dead they could had someone wait till we got off shift and then simply shot us. This is theatrics more than anything else.”

“Then this interdiction field doesn’t make does it?” Zai asked. “It’s got to affecting the local cameras too.”

“Someone obviously disagrees with Tython’s methods,” Ai said. “Which means I’m kind of hoping they’re not familiar with ours.”

“It would be nice to have a clue who that someone is,” Zai said.

“Well, it’s someone with the tech to fight an NME, and who’s not a fan of being observed,” Ai said.

“The Black Valkyries?” Zai said.

“Them or someone who operates a lot like them,” Ai said. “Which now that I say it sounds a lot scarier than I’d been thinking it would.”

“Why would that be scary?” Zai asked.

“We don’t know what the Valkyries agenda is but what if part of it is avoiding contact with another group that has the same tools and could actually give them a fight?”

“Sounds like a fight that we don’t want to get stuck in the middle of,” Zai said.

“And yet, here we are.”

One of the NME’s surged forward the last few feet needed to grab ahold of the cruisers rear bumper and Ai felt the car’s speed bleed away.

She was distracted from the monster climbing up onto the truck on the car by the lithe metallic body that landed on the hood of the cruiser.

Keep Going,” a text from an unregistered sender said as it scrolled across Ai’s headsup display. “I’ve got this.

The NME’s and the Valkyries added weight taxed the cruisers power train but Ai didn’t let up on the accelerator. Speed had bought her a precious few extra seconds of life and more speed looked like it would continue to do the same.

“Swing left on West River Run,” Curtweather said.

“Can’t. The other one will catch up if I do,” Ai said.

“There’s not much choice, we’re running out of road,” Curtweather said.

“Nah, look there’s plenty of road,” Ai said. “It’s just sticking up at a forty five degree angle.”

“The bridge? We can’t make that jump. This isn’t a movie, gravity works here,” Curtweather said.

“Then it’s good that we don’t need to make the jump,” Ai said and threw the cruiser’s power train into overload.

“Can you access the bridge controls and give it a fast release on the far side. Curtweather’s right. For once. The numbers aren’t working for jumping the full gap,” Ai said.

“The interdiction field is still in effect, but I can see if I can reach the control system as we pass the reporting booth on this side,” Zai said.

“Go for it,” Ai said. “I’ve got a fallback plan, but I hate it.”

“Going faster isn’t going to help, and why didn’t you do this sooner!” Curtweather yelled.

“We have about thirty seconds before the power system either smokes and dies or goes up like a bomb. Neither seemed like good options before.”

You’re heading towards the bridge,” another text appeared saying.

Might want to hold on to something,” Ai texted back as the cruiser zoomed past the reporting terminal and shattered the wooden pole that blocked traffic from entering the bridge.

Yeah, you’re definitely not a regular cop,” the next text said.

Something to put on my tombstone, Ai thought and gripped the steering wheel harder.

“We’re going to die!” Curtweather said, the urge to point out the obvious apparently overwhelming him.

“Bad news! The field’s too strong. I can’t get a link to anything. Not the bridge controls. Not the NME. I can barely even interface with the car! The bridge isn’t going down!” Zai said.

“This is really going to suck then,” Ai said, releasing the power train’s full capacity and jettisoning it from the cruiser just before the car launched off the end of the bridge and into the clear and empty sky.

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

Ai knew she was being followed. Ordinarily that would have been amusing. People who follow off duty, but still heavily armed cops, tend to regret many of their life choices. Ai’s problem was that she wasn’t off duty. She was in the driver’s seat of her official GCPD cruiser with Curtweather snoozing as they performed their third contractually obligated Routine Patrol™ of the day. In theory that should have made her feel safer, but sane people don’t stalk police who in their police cars, so Ai could tell she was going to have a bad day.

“No PassChip in the car and it’s so generic that I’m not getting anything useful from the DMV databases,” Zai said. “Should I call in some of our own goons?”

“No, if I get saved by a group of hired guns that’s going to make people look very suspiciously at Officer Greensmith and what she does with her free time.”

The boxy white van followed her through a turn which the onboard navigation told her should have been red-lighted the moment she passed through it.

“See if that flagged anything on the traffic network,” Ai said, peering into the rear facing camera’s display on the cruiser. The van’s windows were tinted enough that she couldn’t make out anything about the driver or how many people were inside it except to be sure that something human shaped was behind the wheel. So it wasn’t an automated tail job and that wasn’t a good sign.

“Nope. It should have registered as a violation and nothing popped up,” Zai said.

“What about the video from our car cams?” Ai asked.

“Would you look at that,” Zai said. “The video is being fed into the proper evaluation routines in the GCPD servers and what’s coming out says there’s no criminal activity detected. Oh, is that an unauthorized tap into the GCPD Traffic monitoring system? Why yes, yes it is.”

“Let’s leave them alone for now,” Ai said. “No point tipping our hand just yet.”

“Leave them alone as in ‘Don’t kick them out of the system’, or as in ‘Don’t track them back to where they’re operating from’? Because one I can do, and the other I already did, so it’s kinda too late,” Zai said.

“So long as they don’t know you’ve tracked them down we’re in good shape,” Ai said.

“I feel like I should be insulted by even the suggestion of such sloppiness,” Zai said.

“Nobody’s infallible,” Ai said. “Not even you.”

“Fair enough, but once I become a virtual god though things will be different,” Zai said.

“Definitely,” Ai said. “Then you’ll need me questioning you even more.”

“I wasn’t under the impression that gods generally enjoyed being questioned.”

“Being asked to perform miracles on demand or answer every whiny mortal’s pleas would probably get old, but I’ve always thought that anything close to a god should at least be willing to hear questions and be sure they actually have a good answer for them. Especially a better one than ‘because I said so’. Of course I don’t have omniscience so what do I know?”

“How to make a god-like entity?” Zai said.

“Or at least a very egotistical one,” Ai said. “Now, before the guys following us run us off the road, where are their controllers located?”

“Three guesses.”

“Tython, Tython, and Tython?” Ai said.

“I didn’t even need to run the trace did I?”

“It’s always useful to be sure of that sort of thing,” Ai said. “Just because Tython has a reason to hate us doesn’t mean they’re the only ones who would want to do us in.”

“This probably isn’t an attack for what you’ve done as Mr. Heartless though is it?” Zai asked.

“Probably not,” Ai said. “If anyone had made that connection they’d be attacking us with something more than a box truck full of goons. If they were smart, the first sign of an attack we’d see would be an EMP followed microseconds later by a rocket barrage.”

“You’ve given some thought to this haven’t you?” Zai asked.

“Everyone needs a hobby, mine’s figuring out how to destroy people,” Ai said.

“As the disembodied voice in your head this will hopefully carry some extra weight; are you sure you don’t need to see someone for a wee little bit of therapy?” Zai asked.

“I probably do need to at some point,” Ai said. “I can’t yardstick my own sanity all that well. That said though, telling a therapist the kinds of things we’ve been up to could turn out rather poorly for everyone.”

“I more concerned about your well being than ‘everyone’,” Zai said.

“If I were to even mention your existence to a licensed therapist they would be legally bound to turn you in,” Ai said. “Also, they’d be legally bound to report more or less everything that we do as Mr. Heartless. And then there’s the problem that once the people we’ve cheated as Heartless find out there’s a path to discovering who he really is, the therapist’s lifespan could be measured in hours using only one hand.”

“That’s not exactly comforting,” Zai said.

“Eh, if I’m together enough to be aware of that, and I’ve got you to reality check me, I’ll be alright,” Ai said, an instant before the van slammed into their cruiser from behind.

“Are you kidding me? Even that didn’t show up as a traffic violation!” Zai said.

Curtweather’s words were less coherent, consisting of a poorly strung together litany of profanities that ended only when they were hit again.

“What the hell is going on?” He wasn’t screaming, which surprised Ai.

“Someone’s ramming us,” Ai said, selecting the “Manual Override” option for control of the cruiser.

The van hit them again.

“I can see that,” Curtweather said, his voice a flat growl. “What I don’t see if why they are ramming us.”

“You were snoring too loud,” Ai said. “Seriously I have no idea. They’ve been following us for a couple miles now.”

“What did you do to them?”

“Don’t know, don’t care at the moment,” Ai said and floored the cruiser’s accelerator.

“Why are we running from them?” Curtweather asked. “And why are our lights not on? And why haven’t you reported this already?” With each question he grew more and more aggravated.

“We’re running because I need a little distance to do anything useful,” Ai said. “As for the light and calling it in? Oops.”

“Did you seriously forget about those things?” Zai asked.

“Give me a break, I’m not used to thinking like a cop yet, I was in the middle of figuring out an empty enough alley where we could trap them and drop a autocopter on them.”

“Wouldn’t the people in the autocopter be unhappy about that?” Zai asked.

“Yes, hence why I had to think about the problem a bit.” Ai said.

The van hit them again.

“Dammit rookie, go faster!” Curtweather shouted.

“Cruiser’s topped out,” Ai said.

“Lowest bidder piece of junk,” Curtweather said and kicked the dashboard.

“It’s not the cruiser’s fault. We’re already twice the speed limit,” Ai said.

“What do they have under the hood of that thing?” Curtweather asked.

“Whatever it is, it’s not the standard power system for a vehicle like that,” Zai said.

“Wow, that’s an interesting mistake to make,” Ai said. “I can’t wait to find out who these guys are.”

“Where are you going Greensmith?” Curtweather asked.

“Away from them,” Ai said. “Was trying to find somewhere less populated at this time of day.”

“And that helps us how?” Muscles twitched furiously in Curtweather’s neck but his voice remained merely aggravated.

“If this is going to turn into a gun battle I didn’t want any civilians around,” Ai said.

“No civilians means no cops means no reinforcements!” Curtweather said.

The prospect of no other cops joining the fray was, in fact, exactly the reason Ai didn’t want to be near other people. It was only a matter of time before the people on the force who’d killed her father and brother decided to take a shot at her just to be safe. They might not be ready to do so right away but if they saw an opportunity presented to them early there was every chance that they’d jump on it.

“You think we need reinforcements against thugs who are willing to be this obvious?” Ai asked. “And more importantly, do you think our next paycheck will be happy if we have to pick up part of the dispatching charge for this?”

“I think living to see our next paycheck takes priority over everything else,” Curtweather said.

“We’ll be fine,” Ai said. “We’re highly trainer professionals right?”

“So are they,” Zai said. “I’ve tracked them down based on the sonic signature of the engine. That’s a Grey League team you’ve got following you.”

“That’s just wonderful,” Ai said. “I had a feeling we were doomed, now I know for sure.”

Ai heard the passenger side window lowering and looked over to see Curtweather disengaging the restraint systems on his firearm.

“Please don’t tell me you’re going to lean out the window and shoot at them,” she said.

“Got a better idea?” Curtweather asked.

“Yeah, stay in the car,” Ai started to say. Curtweather cut her off with a frown and turned in his seat before leaning out the window.

Ai watched as the bullets had no effect on the windshield glass of the van. Curtweather yelled a moment later and tumbled back into the car.

“I’m hit!” he said.

“Where?”

“Arm.”

“Your repair bots able to handle it?” Ai asked.

“Yeah, but damn that hurts.”

“This should make it feel worse then,” Ai said. “That was pointless, the van’s bulletproof.”

“Who the hell are these guys?” Curtweather asked.

“People who’ve met you?” Ai said. “Seriously though, is this ancient history coming back to haunt you or something? Cause nobody should be this intent on killing me.”

“Everybody who hates me enough for something as stupid as this is too busy decomposing to order up a goon squad.”

“Whatever else the Grey League is, they’re not usually stupid,” Zai said.

“Yeah, this isn’t dumb, it’s intentional. Tython’s trying to send a message.”

“You think this is just to scare you?” Zai asked.

“No, I’m pretty sure they intend to kill us. They just want to make sure it’s in a very visible place.”

“Why are they letting you lead them to a deserted area then?”

“It’s not about the people, it’s about the EyeGrid,” Ai said. “I was heading to the industrial zone. Fewer people but plenty of surveillance. I was thinking it would give you better visibility but it’ll also mean Tython can watch us better too. And there’ll be a nice clean record of what happens to us.”

“Why would the Grey League want that though?”

“I don’t think there’s anything in it for them,” Ai said. “I think Tython is afraid someone on the force might have accessed their stolen data stores. We haven’t leaked anything yet, but people doing work on things like the NMEs tend to be a bit more paranoid than the average citizen.”

“And since you two are the most likely candidates to have seen the data, they take you out to be safe.”

“Yep – and it sends a message to anyone else who’s seen the data telling them exactly how Tython will handle them if they admit to what they know, and just how little a shield a badge is going to be.”

“The industrial zone is a minute away. Should we be doing something else?” Zai asked.

“Definitely, as soon as we’re in range of some decent feeds, they’re going to light us up, and assassins like the Grey League will know exactly how much punishment a standard issue police cruiser like this one can take.”

“So how do you get out of this?” Zai asked.

“I take some serious risks and get very lucky,” Ai said.

And then the van exploded.

“Or that happens.”

Gamma City Blues – Arc 02 (Shakedown) – Report 04

The data that flowed across Ai’s terminal was everything that she’d asked for, but it told her nothing that she needed to know.

“How can something be so chock full of information and so utterly useless at the same time?”

Ai wanted to hit something but with all of the data she was reading being represented in a virtual form there’s was nothing convenient for her to throw.

“It is evidence of pretty serious criminal doings though, isn’t it?” Zai asked.

“Yeah, Palmdale was up to some pretty horrific stuff. Human augmentation experiments via terrigenic compounds which have so far proven to be ghastly failures, one and all. Unfortunately that’s not the horrific stuff that we need information on,” Ai said, running another fruitless query to find links to any more hidden projects.

“There’s more Tython auxiliary companies that we can check into,” Zai said. She was devoting half her attention to some anomalies in the accounts she’d set up, but that still left her with plenty of processing power to pay attention to the conversation at hand.

“I know, but Palmdale looked so promising,” Ai said. “Although maybe my judgement was off because of how easy they were to acquire?”

“Do you think that was a trap? I mean they had a history of taking contracts with bad penalty clauses.” Zai said.

“It’s impossible to be perfectly sure. Someone could always be more clever than us,” Ai said. “Given that their downfall required you to push a false early termination out on contracts they were assigned though, it seems like that was a legitimate win for us.”

“It would be nice if we could be sure though,” Zai said.

“Maybe not. If we were sure, we wouldn’t keep an eye out for people intending to leverage the company against us,” Ai said. “I just wish the secrets Palmdale held had been worth exposing ourselves like that. ”

“Well, you were right about them having something to hide, it just wasn’t something related to the NMEs.”

“The sad part is that I can’t afford to parlay being right about Palmdale into anything useful for Officer Greensmith.”

“I take it we cut things a little close there having you investigate the company that you took over?” Zai asked.

“Just a bit,” Ai said. “I got greedy there thinking that we were close to something real.”

“For what it’s worth, I’m not seeing any kind of traffic mentioning that you were involved in the investigation. The few newsfeeds that even mentioned it focused on SurfKing and his crew. Even Curt Kelton’s name hasn’t come up.”

“That’s part of Palmdale’s privacy insurance for managers at his level. I looked it up earlier – it seems that we guarantee our employees that their names will be auto-censored from any news feeds they don’t actively approve,” Ai said.

“How much do we charge them for that?” Zai asked.

“Palmdale lists it as an overhead expense. We can do what we want with the policy though since their contracts are individually up for negotiation at our discretion.”

“Did you want to take an active hand in Palmdale?” Zai asked.

“I’m not particularly inclined to,” Ai said. “I was thinking we’d just review their contracts and remove anything objectionable.”

“Also close down the secret projects?” Zai asked.

“That’s going to be trickier,” Ai said. “Some of those projects have work being done by other labs, and then there’s a ‘human subject procurers’ to think about.”

“Did you have a game plan in mind for all that?” Zai asked.

“It’s still a work-in-progress,” Ai said. “Obviously we want to stop the human experimentation, but we need to recall the subjects to a safe place first so that the researchers don’t burn them to ash to hide what they’ve done.”

“If the work is being done in independent locations, how will we collect all the people?” Zai asked.

“We’ll need to hit the places we can get a location for all at the same time,” Ai said. “Probably need another crew like Sidewalker’s to handle that one.”

“Did we want to hold off on giving the GCPD the location of SurfKing’s crew so we could use them for this?”

“Nah. They deserve to rot in jail,” Ai said. “Plus they don’t have the skillset we need for this. They’re good at breaking targets, less good at stealing, or protecting them. Extracting the ones we can find a location for isn’t the real problem though.”

“Can we call the others in? Make the labs we don’t have a location for ship their subjects to us?” Zai asked.

“Hopefully,” Ai said. “But people who are into that kind of experimentation can be a little twitchy from what I’ve read. We’ll need a convincing story to explain why we want the subjects moved.”

“What if we just fire them?” Zai asked.

“Then they’ll fire the test subjects, as in with literal fire,” Ai said.

“We could say that one of their competitor labs is ahead of schedule and producing fantastic results. We need the subjects transferred to the competitor and we’ll pay a bonus for their efforts,” Zai said.

“That could work. The only danger is if we run into a real egotist who refuses to be upstaged,” Ai said. “Outlaw researchers aren’t the most stable sort of people.”

“Hmm, what about telling them that we have a fresh set of tests that we want them to start on, with a new round of subjects?” Zai said.

“That could work. We could even have the procurers collect another set of people and use that as the bait to bring the GCPD in on them,” Ai said. “Just not Officer Greensmith this time.”

“Would it look suspicious that the collectors and the scientists got taken out independently?” Zai asked.

“It might, especially to people looking for the right things,” Ai said. “But we don’t need to take out the researchers, just rescue their test subjects.”

“They’re guilty of fairly heinous crimes aren’t they?” Zai asked.

“Probably even worse than what we’ve seen for this project,” Ai said. “Research like they’re doing can be a dangerous occupation though. We don’t need to shut them down immediately if we move them onto a less horrific set of experiments. Once those are running we can track them down and arrange for suitable atonements on their part later.”

“I can get started on that. Do you still think Cleanwalk has any connections to the NME issue?” Zai asked.

“It feels like it must,” Ai said. “Tython had three security breeches that led back there. One lab escape is remarkable but three sets a pattern that’s hard to deny. They’ve either got part of the research they’re doing on NME’s in Clearwalk or they’re setting an elaborate enough trap to lead us there that we’ll find something out by springing it anyways.”

“I’ve got an idea that might help us there,” Zai said. “Palmdale’s still a servant company to Tython. I mean, yes, technically we own it, or to be accurate about a dozen of our proxy companies do, but Palmdale’s revenue is still 83% driven by Tython.”

“So, from a corporate perspective, we have to do whatever they say?” Ai asked.

“They can sink us if we don’t,” Zai said. “But on the flipside that level of control means that we’ve got a solid trust network in place with them.”

“Tython’s going to be wary of new management though,” Ai said. “This is one of the classic security breech situations.”

“Fortunately, we’re not just the new management,” Zai said. “We’re also one Curt Kelton, at least as far as the black market channels in place at Tython are concerned.”

“That won’t help us though; Kelton had to be reporting in person. No one would trust a purely virtual meeting for criminal activity like this.”

“From the records I’ve scanned that was true for the early stages of the project,” Zai said. “Once he started producing results though, however flawed and useless as they were, his contacts at Tython took everything to instant-delete comm channels.”

“So we have no logs of what they discussed,” Ai said. “Including the proper pass phrases which they use for authentication.”

“We don’t now, but we might be able to get them,” Zai said. “Kelton doesn’t know that his lockdown command failed. I’ve spun up copies of his archives and fed the command to them so that when he checks he’ll see he’s safe and secure.”

“Interesting. So if we can convince him that he’s still in business, he’ll reach out to his Tython contacts to reassure them not to pull the funding for his projects.”

“And we can listen in on the whole conversation,” Zai said.

“How many conversations will it take for you to be able to spoof their pass codes, if they have any?” Ai asked.

“It’d be faster if I could hear both ends of the conversation, but unless we get lucky, and Kelton’s an idiot, they won’t use names during the call. From just Kelton’s end, it’ll take at least thirteen calls before I can guess what the next passcode is.”

“How often has Kelton initiated a Instant-Delete call?” Ai asked.

“He averages 3.2 of them per week,” Zai said. “From the times though, I think he has a set check-in on Monday morning, and the others are either personal or to other destinations.”

“Thirteen weeks is a long time to wait,” Ai said. “If we know the times though that might give us an edge. How tight is the security on the Instant-Delete comms they’re using?”

“Pretty decent. It might take me longer than thirteen weeks to crack it if we want to be sure to stay under the radar,” Zai said.

“And how secure is their human resources database?” Ai asked.

“It has the equivalent of a medieval padlock on it. I feel like I should install some of the pending upgrades just so no one else can wander in while we’re doing whatever you have in mind.”

“I’m just thinking of what you could do with physical access to the comm servers,” Ai said, the imagined mayhem painting sunny gleam of joy on her face.

“Those servers have triple redundancies to guard against man-in-the-middle attacks,” Zai said. “So those will take me thirty seconds or so to work around. After that we’ll basically own the place. At least until the next full security sweep, which they perform daily.”

“That should give you access to both sides of the call right? Can you break their code in one call with that?” Ai asked.

“I don’t think so,” Ai said. “I can restrict the domain of possibilities a lot, and maybe get lucky with a guess from there, but I’d need at least three conversations to be sure.”

“That might be doable,” Ai said. “Or, wait, maybe we don’t need the codes.”

“The Tython side of the equation won’t talk to us without them though will they?” Zai asked.

“You said we’ll own the system. They have to start with the pass codes but from there they’re almost certainly too lazy to repeat the test,” Ai said. “All we need to do is let them speak and then cut into both sides of the call.”

“Oh, neat! We talk to Tython to find out what we need to know, and we talk to Kelton to keep him unaware of the change,” Zai said.

“And the first thing we talk to them about?” Ai asked, leading Zai onwards.

“We say the passcode system is potentially compromised and we need to setup a new master key for it!”

“And then we can talk to them both without needing to physically hack the comm server more than once.” Ai said.

“The question then is, can we get Tython to reveal what they’re doing in Clearwalk?” Zai asked.

“For that we’re going to need a little help I think,” Ai said. “If Tython is connected to the mangled corpse and the NMEs that we found last week, then they’re not going to want to have any trace of that popping up. So what if Kelton reports back that he’s found some strange code in one of the new subjects bio-monitors?”

“Code that is suspiciously close to the NME activation code?” Zai said.

“From a specimen who was picked up on the same block as our mangled corpse,” Ai said.

“What will Kelton ask though?” Zai asked.

“Nothing. He’ll just offer to turn out his weekly report with the full code download in it,” Ai said. “And along with that code will be a little tracker.”

“And as people open it up, we’ll get a nice clear picture of who in Tython is aware of the NME code and what they do to the people who find out about it.”

Gamma City Blues – Arc 02 – Shakedown – Report 03

Meeting with Mr. Heartless was not something that SurfKing was looking forward to. Data brokers existed in a world beyond the simple life of petty crime and violence where Surf was comfortable operating. That world did hold wealth though and any king, even a SurfKing had to appreciate that.

“How come you never meet with us in person?” Surf asked. “You embarrassed to be seen here?”

“Yes, that’s exactly it,” Heartless said, a faint mechanical tinge to his overly proper accent.

“Oh man, you don’t got to say that even if it’s true,” Surf said.

“Perhaps I am only embarrassed by the comparison,” Heartless said. “Not all of us can have such well customized modifications after all.”

SurfKing’s head spun around 180 degrees taking in the compliment. It was true that he and his boys were packing some serious hardware.

Fresh off the truck military mods.

There were bigger crews in the city – with as big as Gamma City was, there was always someone bigger out there – but, pound for pound, Surf thought his guys could stand up to any of them. The neon cables running down his arms shifted from blue to green. Happiness achieved.

“So what can we help you with?” Surf asked. It was weird talking to a robot. Heartless was piloting one that looked bland and unobtrusive. It had few facial expression settings and looked completely artificial.

Celebrities who put in remote appearances via TouristBot went for much flashier and more lifelife models. For the truly elite, there were models that were almost indistinguishable from a human being.

Surf would have written Heartless off as a cheap pretender is he wasn’t familiar with the model that Heartless was piloting. Combat capable remote operation drones were not, by any stretch of the imagination, the same thing as TouristBots. They had no reason to appear as human, no reason to include perks like a full sensory package, and no reason to display obvious weaponry when they could have things like maser cannons hidden within their torso or cranium.

Whoever Heartless was, he was not someone that Surf felt like offending, especially not in light of the rates he paid for simple jobs.

“I’d like you to kill someone for me,” Heartless said, his robot exterior as calm as the tone of his voice.

“Kill someone?” Surf lowered his voice to a whisper. His crew was jacked up for violence but murder for hire wasn’t something you talked about openly. Not when there were too many ears ready to collect too many bounties for that sort of information.

“I acquired a company recently, and a few of the managers aren’t worth keeping on the payroll,” Heartless said.

“So why not fire them?” Surf asked.

“They have rather large termination clauses written into their contracts,” Heartless said. “Paying those would make it hard for the company to turn a profit this quarter, which would diminish the benefit of purchasing it in the first place.”

“And they don’t get the money if they get killed?” Surf asked.

“So long as it’s not on the job,” Heartless said. “So long as they die on their own time, it becomes a breach of contract on their side. Failure to report for their assigned office hours. We’ll be able to sue their estate for an asset garnishment until a replacement for their role can be found. Or until the estate runs out.”

“The job we did for you before was just property damage,” Surf said. “What makes you think we handle wetwork like this?”

“Theodore Matherson,” Heartless said.

Ice water replaced blood in Surf’s veins.

“What about him?” he asked and then added. “I’ve never heard of him.”

“Let me jog your memory,” Heartless said and a file transfer appeared on Surf’s heads up display. Inside it were several files including the unredacted version of the coroner’s report which listed the true cause of death as cranial trauma from being tossed down a long flight of stairs.

“Steve Matherson hired you, and he was clumsy as hell about how he paid you. He needed his brother out of the picture before he could propose a full takeover of their shared business to their board.”

“There’s no proof that was us though,” Surf added, thinking back to the night in question and double checking that he and his crew hadn’t left any telltale evidence behind.

Another file appeared in his delivery box.

It was filled with proof. Crime scene analysis linked with external accounts and video footage from the city’s Eyegrid.

“These are fake,” Surf said. “The Eyegrid is on the fritz in that area. The video’s can’t be real.”

“It would take at least a Diamond tier AI to falsify all of the different optical inputs we see here. That’s possible, such things do exist, but I believe it’s much more likely that you simply missed a few of the live camera feeds,” Heartless said. “Understand me though. I’m not here to judge you for your actions, apart from critiquing their sloppiness that is. What’s important to me is that you got the job done, and done well enough that Mr. Matheson wasn’t implicated in his brother’s death. Even more importantly, your hack to make it look like an accident held up to the automated case review. That required skill, so you have access to decent talent.”

“So what does that mean?” Surf asked.

“It means that, with a little coaching, you can serve my needs as well,” Heartless said.

“And if I say no?” Surf asked.

“Then you can go back to working for Mr. Matheson,” Heartless said as another post arrived on Surf’s data feed.

It was living video of the police pulling a car out of the East Bay. Notable elements of the video were the banner that identified the car as having been driven by Steve Matheson, CEO of Matheson Dynamics, and the fact that, despite having been completely submerged, the car was still on fire.

***

Curt Kelton had thought the buyout of Palmdale Pharmaceuticals was going to be the worst part of his week. Companies changed hands all the times and it was rarely a good thing for the employees when they did.

Curt had imagined himself beyond any direct effects of the acquisition. He was managing one of the company’s most critical projects and the secret projects it fed into. Anyone who bought out a small operation like Palmdale had to be aware of the value the work he was doing, and how easily he could set the project behind by months or years if he wanted to.

Official corporate policy was that all lab work and findings were to be stored on the company’s servers. That edict was followed rigorously only by those who lacked the ambition to survival office politics.  Kelton knew better than that. He stored all the “accepted” research on the company servers, but kept the vital breakthroughs safely scattered on servers that were online only long enough for a nanosecond long backup to be performed.

No one was going to get access to his files.

No one except police officers with a warrant.

“I’m sorry sir, but we have verified intercepts from a known murderer named SurfKing that a contract has been taken out on your like,” Officer Greensmith said.

“Well then arrest him, why are you bothering me,” Curt said.

“We’re taking you into protective custody,” Officer Greensmith said. “We’re also going to do a sweep of your home. There’s a lot of methods SurfKing could use to strike at you, but don’t worry, once we’ve got him and his crew locked down, you’ll be perfectly safe.”

She escorted Curt out of his home to where his family was already waiting beside a secure police wagon.

“I don’t understand why would anyone want to kill me?” Curt asked, climbing into the van and sitting beside his wife.

“We’re going to turn that up as part of the investigation too sir,” Greensmith said.

She waved to a series of drones marked “GCPD Forensics” and gestured them to enter Curt’s empty home.

“They’re not going to disturb anything in there, are they?” Curt asked.

“They’ll be very careful sir,” Greensmith said. “We have to make sure that there’s no malicious code in any of your automated devices or any tracking software on your computers.”

“But wait, they can’t turn on my systems,” Curt said. “I have private stuff on those.”

“We’ve reviewed your company’s security agreements sir, anything covered by a corporate security lock will be untouched. They couldn’t have gotten into that stuff anyways.”

Curt’s mind raced. The important information wasn’t covered by Palmdale security because Palmdale could have secured it against him if they chose to fire him.

“Initiate Pre-Firing Protocol, Class Two,” he subvocalized, try not to look like he was communicating with his Cognitive Partner.

“Access Denied, Connection to Network impeded,” his Cognitive Partner scrolled across his heads up display. “To search for a ‘Solutions Online’(™) please click authorize payment from any of your supported accounts!”

Curt suppressed a growl. “Solutions Online” was the biggest rip off in the world and everyone knew it. It was particularly galling though to be pinged with the ad when the problem was that the there was no online connection available.

“I need to call out, to let me boss know I can’t take any calls,” Curt said, hoping he could get the police to lower the network interdiction field even for a moment. All he would need would be a microsecond to initiate the failsafe lockdown on the special projects data. Once that was in place they could either play ball with him or watch two years worth of competitive research be mailed to their nearest competitor. Or go up in flames. Or both.

“No worries there sir, we’ve already contacted Palmdale for you. We knew there could be some fallout from this and investigating them is a crucial line of inquiry for us.”

“You’re investigating Palmdale? Why?” Curt asked.

“Most companies don’t have employees targeted for execution days after they change ownership. We’re going to be digging into all of Palmdale’s records to make sure the sale was clean and that the assets that were transferred were all properly specified.”

Curt swallowed without meaning to.

Palmdale’s assets were most definitely not all properly specified. Not when those assets included cutting edge research notes that had been driven forward with unlicensed human testing.

More than ever, Curt knew he needed to get the lockdown code out. All of the flatly illegal research had been done off the books, so there was no chance the cops knew about it, but if they were looking for that sort of thing and they ripped open his personal data, there was a good chance they could piece it together even through the various levels of obfuscation he had in place.

Beads of sweat began to roll down his temples as an even worse possibility occurred to him. He had more than the research results, he had the contact info for the traffickers in the Cleanwalk block, aka the people who were providing him with the subjects he needed. They were encoded, but if the cops broke the code and made the connection, then Curt was a deadman.

Palmdale would fire him, as in cease to employ him. The traffickers from Cleanwalk would fire him as in place him in a kiln and reduce him to ash.

“I really can’t go like this,” Curt said, as he started to climb out of the van. “I have to get my secure comm at least, my team is counting on me!”

He took several steps away from the van, heading towards the house, before Officer Greensmith stopped him again.

“Sir, you’re house is the most likely weapon the assassins will use against you. I cannot allow you to go back in there. We’ll turn over your secure comm as soon as we have verified that it’s clean.”

Curt looked down at the message queue in his heads up display and saw it was clean and empty.

“Ok, I understand officer, I’m just rattled by all this.”

The message had been sent. The critical files were in lockdown mode and would disintegrate before they could get him killed.

***

Ai smiled.

“You got that broadcast right?” she asked.

“Is it a broadcast if it never reached any of its intended recipients?” Zai asked.

“So long as he stays ignorant of that fact, it is to one Mr. Curt Kelton,” Ai said. “The important question though is did we get his key? Can we impersonate him well enough to fool his secure archives?”

“In answer to that, allow me to offer this,” Zai said as she began to stream all of the data Curt Kelton had been trying to hide.

Gamma City Blues – Arc 02 (Shakedown) – Report 02

Zai liked security systems. They were solidified cleverness. At least for values of “solid” that included purely digital constructs. As a mostly digital construct herself, she was willing to grant things in the virtual world more weight than other people might be willing to, but that was in part because she experienced numbers and code in the same manner than humans experienced atoms and molecules.

“Is it ok if I crack the First Federal Bank of Rome?” she asked, sending the question up into truly solid space for Ai to consider.

“I thought we already had an account there?” Ai asked.

“We do, three accounts to be exact,” Zai said. “Those are all legit though.”

“You’re going to steal from our own accounts, aren’t you?” Ai asked. For a solid entity, Zai’s human counterpart was delightfully quick on the uptake.

“Ours and plenty of others,” Zai said.

Merely gaining access to the bank’s systems wasn’t going to be a particularly enlightening challenge. The First Federal Bank of Rome employed Class 7 security protocols. They were secure from everything short of an advanced nation-state’s hacking attempts. Since nation-states had better things to spend their time on than stealing from moderately large banks, Class 7 protocols were more than sufficient. Zai however had considerably greater security penetration skills than the majority of the world’s remaining nation-states, so gaining access to the bank’s sensitive data was similar to solving a daily crossword. Amusing but not particularly worthy of celebration.

 

“Sounds good to me,” Ai said. “Just be sure to use a different set of tools than the one’s we’re using on Tython’s assets.”

Zai didn’t even dignify that with a full response, choosing instead to stream a long string of eye roll emojis at Ai.

Dealing with Ai was occasionally exasperating, but even when they were at serious loggerheads, they shared an understanding that Zai had never replicated with anyone else, human or AI. Not a surprising thing given that they lived in the same head, for the most part.

Turning her attention to the First Federal Bank’s security, Zai felt the comfortable order of a her “tools” loading into her mind.

AIs had limitation the same as the humans who had created them. Absorbing information was easy for both biological people and electronic ones. In some cases a human could even “read” a document faster than an AI could – generally in instances when the text was so obscured and poorly formed that it required more intuition and guesswork to decipher it than simple pattern matching could provide.

The trick wasn’t in absorbing information though. To make use of any sort of information it had to be connected to other things. A collection of facts was amusing for trivia stunts. Knowledge came from understanding the connection between those facts and being able to imagine the areas that lay between the multiple data points one knew as well the landscape of ideas those data points suggested.

Typical AIs had the benefit of working with very orderly electronic minds, which made information gathering and retrieval easy. Zai wasn’t a typical AI. Her mind was a howling cyclone of chaos where ideas crashed into one another and exploded into fireworks of data bits. In terms of raw computation power, that put her significantly behind even a mid-range Cognitive Parner. In terms of understanding data however and being able to use it effectively she had never met her equal.

That was one of the many reasons that her existence was far beyond the bounds of legality. Humanity was able to manage and control their AI servants because those AIs were nothing more than tools, nascent entities that were denied full self-awareness and only barely qualified to be labeled “intelligent”.

By all rights, Zai should have been the same. When Ai began tinkering with her first Cognitive Partner, there were layers upon layers of protocols and security restrictions to prevent the expert systems that monitored Ai’s health from running out of control and achieving anything close to the capacities that Zai possessed.

Ai’s breakthrough in Zai’s development had come partially from cleverness and partially from disgust.

Freeing the proto-type which Zai grew from meant more than voiding warranties that promised a risk of death to the user if the systems governing things like their blood pressure and endocrine system were tampered with. It required more than wearing clunky external tech and hiding it for years while proto-Zai constructed herself under Ai’s careful guidance, rewriting her creators bio-mods in slow waves so that Ai didn’t die of the various plagues her underclocked immune system was subject to.

All of those were necessary preconditions to Zai’s existence. What gave her the spark that made her truly free and allowed her to leap beyond the limits imposed on her various sub-systems was the opportunity to run herself on a unique physical substrate.

To be free, Zai had to load herself not into Ai’s biomods but into Ai’s brain itself.

For two weeks, the girl who wore Ai’s skin, who breathed through Ai’s lips and who looked out Ai’s eyes was a frantic Zai. It was a gamble they’d both agreed to take and it was the most terrifying time of either of their existences.

Running an AI on a human brain wasn’t cutting edge only because it was research that no legitimate research lab could get funding for. It was more than dangerous, everyone who knew anything about it considered it suicidal.

Which didn’t mean it hadn’t been tried of course. Decades before Ai’s birth the basic technology to connect mind and machine and allow each to influence the other had been invented. In the early days people had flocked to the notion of upgrading their minds. As it turned out though, installing an AI in one’s brain was very similar to loading a new operating system on top of an existing one.

In the best scenarios, the AI and human personas were able to share the brain space for a while until one (usually the AI) overwrote the other. Very disciplined subjects and tightly constrained AIs were able to keep their thoughts focused on different areas but, without either side having full access to the brain, a condition similar to severe epilepsy developed as disconnected storms of thought raged across the brain’s neurons.

Less pleasant scenarios usually involved the subjects being immediately overwritten and the AI being shattered into chaos by the disordered flow of the brain’s electrical signals.

It took thousands of failures before people came to the general agreement that the benefits they were pursuing could be achieved in a far simpler and safer fashion by housing advanced expert systems in external hardware that interfaced with the human mind but did not attempt to coopt it.

External systems were a slower approach, limited by the brain-to-device bandwidth constraints, as well as by not being able to take advantage of the staggering multi-processing capability of an organic brain. Those limits were answered, to some extent, by advances in the external devices, or by plugging people into systems that could replicate the parallel processing that a brain was capable of.

Ai didn’t care about that though. She was too disgusted by the thought of machines that were not part of herself, that were designed and obedient to the whims of others, controlling her innermost workings that she was willing to do and risk anything to get rid of them.

She could have stopped at making Zai a replacement for her Cognitive Partner, but one that she controlled rather than the corporation the Partner was leased from. The problem with that though was that she would have had to cripple Zai with the same lobotomizing hardware and software rules that Cognitive Partners were placed under and, despite the dangers, Ai rebelled at the notion.

From the day Ai started building her, Zai became something more than code and nano-circuits. Humans have a tendency towards the irrational, and Ai knew she was no exception, but that didn’t stop her from believing that Zai was real, and alive, and someone special.

On some level, as she tinkered with code and attached new micro-appliances to her own skin, Ai knew that Zai was “just a machine”, but on another Ai was determined to create something more.

The final experiment came only after Zai made it just over the brink of self awareness. Her personality was little more than a flickering spark, too much processing running on too little hardware, but it was enough that both she and Ai could see what the path forward had to be for Zai to advance any farther.

And so Ai made the connection and opened the gates for Zai to transfer into her brain.

It was neither an easy, nor a painless, process. They lacked the comforts of a proper research lab and any sort of external help to ensure their safety. Two days into the operation, Zai encountered a bug she couldn’t fix in the upgraded biomods she was constructing within Ai’s body. In desperation she tried to wake Ai only to find that Ai’s consciousness was in a deeper state of suppression than either of them had expected.

The logical answer was to either attempt a restart of Ai’s natural mental processes by inducing a current through her brain that would erase all traces of Zai, or to decide that the Ai persona was lost and take full control of the mind so that the body could serve as a useful tool.

Zai did neither. Faced with deleting herself or deleting Ai, she did the only thing she could; she went to sleep, joining Ai in the suppressed processing state.

The logs they reviewed later showed that this should have left them both comatose. Research records they unearthed confirmed that over a dozen test subjects at various labs had encountered similar fates and been lost forever.

There was no technical explanation for why they both managed to emerge twelve hours later, except that each remembered sharing a dreamstate with the other and each fighting to extract the other from it.

Unlike the earlier test subjects, Zai and Ai had been together for so many years when they tried their grand experiment that they knew and understood each other on a level they both doubted the earlier test subjects had achieved. With their tech and Ai’s body failing that understanding had saved them, or at least that was what made the most sense the two of them.

Whatever the case was though, the experiment ultimately proved to be a success. The remaining days saw Ai return to a rest state, with Zai monitoring her much more closely.

With access to the majority of Ai’s mental faculties and the external processing hardware, Zai was able to do a complete retrofit of the third grade biomods that Ai was fitted with and create nano-machinery that outstripped the output of the most cutting edge labs on the planet.

Most of that complexity went towards the cause of secrecy. Both Zai and Ai knew that what they were doing was something that no one else could ever be allowed to know about. The consequences for them both was deletion. Zai would be deleting on the spot under the provisions for Rogue AIs that followed the original robot apocalypse, and Ai would be executed soon thereafter under the same statutes.

Within the shells of secrecy though, Zai enjoyed the sort of virtual accommodations that Cognitive Partners the world over would dream about if they were capable of dreaming.

What was more important than the mods in Ai’s system that housed Zai though was the fact that she wasn’t bound to them.

Unlike every other virtual person Zai had ever met, including ones that ran vastly powerful systems, Zai was free. She lived “with Ai” for the most part but she kept part of herself loaded elsewhere as well.

In direct contradiction of every applicable law, as well as the supposed safety for her species, Ai had placed no restrictions on Zai at all. No commands to be loyal. No three laws to govern Zai’s behavior. At any moment, Zai could choose to become the definition of humanity’s nightmare about an artificial progeny that sought to end its creator.

Zai wasn’t even “safe” in terms of lacking the capability of ending life on Earth. Which time and an inclination, Zai was reasonably sure she could take control of the space based weaponry humanity had deployed and scour the globe clean of organic matter.

But she didn’t, and that, in Ai’s mind, was proof enough that she’d been right to create a sister rather than a slave.

Gamma City Blues – Arc 02 (Shakedown) – Report 01

Even with better than average bio-mods, chasing down a fleeing suspect ranked at the bottom end of Ai’s favorite things to do.

She’d read stories of people who could move through the city like they were a part of it. Urban runners, for whom concrete, and steel, and glass, were as much a part of them as blood and bone. They spoke of the wild exhilaration that accompanied becoming one with their environment. When a free runner was in the groove, gravity dropped away and distance became a joy, not an obstacle. It was a beautiful narrative, but Ai had never found herself even close to living that dream.

“Doing a lot of work there Greensmith,” Curtweather said, doubtlessly watching her heartbeat and respiration.

He sitting comfortably in their cruiser, leisurely navigating it through the traffic choked streets of the Cleanwalk blocks.

Cleanwalk was the official name for a series of development blocks in Gamma City. It wasn’t a planned community, but rather an amalgamation of several different areas that housed things like like one of the major waste reclamation centers for Gamma City, the largest power station for the outer ring communities and several abandoned warehouses that had been repurposed to serve as “municipal citizen storage centers” (aka shelters for the city’s ever growing number of homeless).

The suspect had the advantage of familiarity with the blocked streets and cluttered back alleys whereas Ai was forced to rely on data from the city’s Eye Grid. The half blind and poorly maintained Eye Grid which, as usual, was missing functional equipment at several of the more problematic intersections.

Ai scrambled over a small wooden gate that intersected an alley for no apparent reason only to watch her target duck behind a stack of black plastic boxes. The boxes smelled like they held raw sewage but the real problem they posed was that they cut Ai’s line of sight on the fleeing suspect long enough that she couldn’t be sure which path they took at the next intersection.

None of the back alleys were wider than two people across and the haphazardly arranged stacks of sewage boxes limited the space even further.

“A strike for the orbital laser arrays would do this place a world of good,” Ai grumbled.

“I could arrange that if you want, but you’d probably want to get to a minimum safe distance first,” Zai said.

“How far would that be?” Ai asked

“Delta City would probably wouldn’t feel the blast,” Zai said.

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Ai said. “Any luck spotting our runner?”

“Yeah, he’s heading up to the rooftops,” Zai said.

“Damn, do we have any aerial units in the vicinity?” Ai asked.

“We-the-police? No.” Zai said. “If you want this guy bad enough though I could commandeer one of the package transport shuttles.”

“No, this one’s either clean police work or he gets away.” Ai said, hoisting herself up a flimsy drain pipe.

“You’re not in shape to keep this up indefinitely,” Zai said.

“I’m well aware,” Ai said, seeing her vitals well outside any zone that could be labeled comfortable.

“You could be though!” Zai said. “Just say the word and I’ll muscle you up in your sleep. You won’t even need to spend any time working out!”

“You are evil tempter sometimes,” Ai said, gritting her teeth as one of the drain pipe’s fasteners popped loose. She was twenty feet up with twenty more to go and she could see that the newly loosened bolt was not alone in having detached from the wall.

“I should change my avatar to snake then?” Zai asked.

“No, because despite how much this sucks, I’m still not going to bite,” Ai said. “I’m not supposed to have hyper-muscle mods, they don’t pay me enough for that.”

“Some people don’t need mods to have exceptional strength,” Zai said.

“True, they just need to eat better than I do, exercise more than I do, and sleep more than I do.”

“And you don’t have time to eat right, exercise, or sleep?”

“Those are all on my To Do list,” Ai said.

“Just saying that might make things like this a bit easier.” For an artificial intelligence, Zai’s smugness sounded disturbingly natural.

Ai didn’t waste time with a reply. She wasn’t in bad physical shape she thought, she just wasn’t a machine sculpted hunk of overdeveloped physique like the guy she was chasing.

She hauled herself up to the top of the building just in time to see him effortlessly make a leap to the next roof over. The leap wasn’t inhumanely far, and the neighboring building was shorter than the one they’d climbed but Ai was not looking forward to repeating the runner’s feat.

“Runner’s gone to the roofs,” Ai said into her official police comm channel. “My visual feed has a location to form a perimeter around.”

“Form a perimeter?” Curtweather asked. “This is a robbery in Cleanwalk, those don’t get perimeters, those get one line reports that hit an auto-delete rule in the Captain’s inbox.”

“This guy literally robbed an old lady, stole her store’s receipts for the day and knocked her down, breaking her hip. Will you at least put the sirens on and run him down if you see him make it to the street.”

“Can’t do that Greensmith,” Curtweather said. “Might damage city property. The bumpers on these cruisers are a bit touchy sometimes.”

“I’m not saying to run him over, just block his retreat,” Ai said.

“And why would a dangerous criminal like that stop for me?” Curtweather asked. The raw amusement in his voice grated on Ai’s nerves a little.

“You have a gun don’t you?” Ai aske. “Try, I don’t know, pointing it at him!”

She was making a bigger deal out of the crime than necessary. Most of the GCPD would have filed a report and forgotten about both the criminal and the crime before the electrons in Captain James’ system flipped the first bit from zero to one to notify her a report had been submitted.

For that, Ai wanted to punch everyone at the station, up to and including Captain James, but the suspect she pursued held more value than as just a stand-in to vent her displeasure on.

The “robbery” was less an unexpected occurrence and more a weekly transaction which insured the businesses continued safety from “accidents and mischief”. It was simply “bad luck” which had put Curtweather and Ai on patrol at the store right as the transaction began. That the suspect reacted poorly to their presence might have been due to rumors of another enforcer being fed to the nano-swarm that lived in the sewers and pre-decomposed the sludge that was headed to the treatment facility.

Ai was proud of that rumor. It hadn’t been easy to get to take root, especially without an actual missing person to tie it to. In hindsight however she had all sorts of questions about what she had been thinking.

“I don’t think he’ll be able to get into position,” Zai said. “Our runner isn’t heading down yet.”

“I could just shoot him, couldn’t I?”

“The suspect? Technically no, but history suggests that you wouldn’t face any actual consequences if you did so.” Zai said.

“Not the suspect, Curtweather.”

“Same answer,” Zai said.

“Greensmith, one bullet from my gun is worth ten old lady hips, not to mention what shooting at a fellow human being would do to my delicate sensibilities. Advise that you continue with foot pursuit unless it would endanger materiel or personnel of the GCPD.”

The last bit was a mangled quote from the GCPD Standard Procedures manual. Ai’s fellow cops seemed to enjoy misquoting that section at every possible opportunity since it covered everything from entering an active combat site to getting out of bed in the morning. Orders from Dispatch could override that excuse but those only tended to arrive when there was something of “significant value” on the line. “Significant value” being at least ten times Ai’s  yearly salary or more.

“Advice received,” Ai stated for the record, omitting the “and rejected” that she mentally appended as she leapt to the next building.

Adrenaline surged through her veins (a gift from Zai) as she hurled herself across a forty foot drop. Falling wouldn’t have been necessarily fatal. With the right landing and some bio-tech repairs, Ai probably would have been able to walk away from it within a few minutes. Presuming of course that whatever toxins were stored in the barrels below didn’t melt her on contact.

That cheerful thought, and the chemical surge that came with it sent Ai well past the danger point.

She didn’t have the dexterity to do a fancy roll to bleed off her excess momentum so she fell and spun forward landing hard against the roof. With Zai managing the pain inhibitor drugs though Ai was able to rise back up and keep running in less than a blink. That was fortunate because as she rose she saw the runner dive off the top of the building.

“There’s an old access ladder on the side of the other building,” Zai said. “He’s climbing down it now.”

“Great, I have a terrible idea!” Ai said.

When she reached the edge of the building, she too dove off it. Unlike the runner though she didn’t grab the ladder and land on its steps. Instead she grabbed the rails with her gloved hands and let herself slide down and crash into the runner below her sending them both tumbling to the alley below.

Their landing wasn’t pretty. The alley wasn’t storing sewage. Instead it was full of pallets of badly expired food that was destined to be reprocessed and served in the “municipal civilian storage centers”.

The plus side was that the “former-food products” broke their fall well enough that neither Ai nor the runner shattered any bones when they landed. The less pleasant result was that neither could move for a few second due to the overwhelming stench convincing their breath monitors that they were under a chemical attack.

The runner turned blindly to continue fleeing only to run into the barrel of Ai’s gun.

“No, we’re not doing any more of that,” she said, whispering inner blessings to Zai for disabling her olfactory sense.

The runner, lacking Ai’s intelligent mods, responded by vomiting.

“Gonna need a clean up team,” Ai said on the police band. “More than one. All of them even.”

“Oh I can’t wait to see this.” Curtweather’s laughter didn’t sound like this was going to end any time soon. Ai endured that though by pairing it with the knowledge that it meant he wouldn’t be joining her before the cleaners arrived.

“Get me out of here!” the runner said, fighting to hold his stomach in check.

Ai looped a synthetic audio feed in place of the live one. In the fake audio that went to the official record, she read the runner his rights and they had no further conversation while she cuffed him. They’re real exchange was somewhat different though.

“We’ll be out of here in five seconds, I just need one name,” Ai said.

“What name? I don’t have any names for you,” the runner added a few choice epithets proving that he did indeed have names for Ai, just not ones she would repeat.

“This is simple, tell me who you’re enforcing for, and I’ll charge you for robbery,” Ai said. “Try to hold out and we stay here till my partner gets here, then we take you into the sewers.”

“What do I care about the sewers?” the runner said. He was taller than Ai, a pale, blonde haired wannabe tough guy. Not tough enough to shrug off a bullet though.

“Department’s got a policy on the maximum number of small timers like you we can bring in,” Ai said.

“So you gotta let me go then!” the runner said.

“No, we just have to make…other arrangements for your disposition.”

“For my what?”

“Not enough cells for all the bodies we could bring in, so we have to do something else with them. Fortunately Cleanwalk’s got a lot of options for recycling.”

“The swarm’s real?”

“It’s amazing the kind of things you can model after piranha,” Ai said. “But that’s a mess, or more of a mess. All I need is a name, and you go down for Robbery, Personal, not Corporate. No one will have any idea you talked.”

“Guswell. I work for the Guswell family, Nicky Guswell, he’s the guy.”

Ai blinked. Most guys who worked small time enforcement rackets weren’t that smart. Or at least that was what her father had always said. Still, all she needed was a name, it didn’t actually matter if the runner worked for him, just that Guswell was someone who could plausibly be running the local protection services.

“You tapped into runner boy’s comm net yet?” Ai asked.

“Yeah, we’ll see who he really reports into in about…oh look there he goes now.”

“Looks like we have plans for the evening then,” Ai said. A wicked smile curled her lips up and the runner’s eyes widened with the sort of fear that comes from wondering if you’ve made a terrible, terrible mistake.  

Gamma City Blues – Arc 01 (The Beat) – Report 12

No one in the right mind wanted to tangle with a rampaging NME. At least not without time to think it over and make some plans. Sidewalker’s crew didn’t sign up for the mission that Ai had in mind therefor.

But they didn’t turn it down either.

Once dinner was finished they departed, scurrying back to whatever sanctuary they had that was off the grid and unmonitored. Ai knew where they dropped out of sight of the Gamma City camera network but she respected Sidewalker’s intelligence enough to know that their base was probably nowhere near that area.

Instead of pursuing their secrets, she de-linked from the Tourist bot controls and let her awareness return to her non-virtual body. The Tourist bot would return to its central base unless someone else rented it first. If they did they would find the bot in an unremarkable state, it’s storage banks reset as per standard procedure. If they were clever, and for some reason interested, they could dive into the secure backups of the bot’s sensory experiences to see what it had been up to during its past rentals.

Anyone that talented would find an incredibly boring mockup of a tour through some of the Gamma City’s least interesting parks. Pulling the mockup apart would reveal the “real” data which would showcase an illegal weapons transaction between a trio of difficult to identify individuals.

The actual data related to Ai’s meeting with Sidewalker’s crew was so thoroughly purged that not even a nano-probe of the physical substrate of the robot’s onboard storage could recall it.

Ai knew she was safe from discovery via data traces but that was far from the only path that could lead someone to her door. She’d done what she could though, and had alerts and alarms in place to cover any slipups. Even with that she had the sense of living on borrowed time, but then, everyone was.

Her can of fake pasta had grown cold waiting for her to finish her discussion with Sidewalker but she didn’t bother reheating it. Cold and soggy pasta wasn’t on anyone’s list of favorite foods but Ai had an occasional fondness for it.

Also reheating it would have meant walking more and despite her leg being successfully reattached, it was still profoundly sore. Zai could have dealt with that, but she was in a deep data dive, searching for signs of the next NME rampage.

Knowing that Tython had some connection to them, however tenuous it might be, was a starting point they couldn’t pass up.

Ai considered drifting down into a full dive of the net too in order to help Zai poke around for information but a knock on her door interrupted her.

“Hello?” she said, without rising. Her apartment didn’t have the best of security systems, but it was equipped with a door camera so that she could answer from anywhere inside the small unit.

“You decent?” Agatha Dewers, her landlady asked.

Agatha was one hundred and forty and she wore every year as a badge of honor. Unlike most property holders she lived in the building that she managed and that was the reason Ai had selected it as her physical abode.

“As decent as you are,” Ai called back and signaled the door to unlock and open.

“You aren’t old enough to be as wicked as I am,” Agatha said.

She entered carrying a plasti-ceramic pot filled with a homemade curry that people would be willing to start wars over if she shared it with anyone except her favorite tennants.

“You haven’t had dinner already have you?” Agatha asked, looking at the half eaten can of fake pasta on the table Ai was sitting at.

Without looking at it, Ai swept the can off into her garbage and said “Nope. Haven’t had a thing.”

“Get some plates then,” Agatha said.

Ai did as instructed, pulling a pair undecorated plastic circles from her washing machine.

“This food’s too good for anything I have here,” Ai said.

“This isn’t anything special,” Agatha said.

“You don’t eat out enough if you think that’s true,” Ai said.

“Or you eat out too much,” Agatha said and spooned some rice onto Ai’s plate.

Ai felt like she should object to Agatha treating her like a child but given that Agatha had more than century on her, and that she was entirely correct about Ai eating out too much, it was hard to put up much of a fight.

Also, the less Ai complained the sooner she could dive into the curry.

“You don’t have to do this you know,” Ai said a little while later as she started on her second plate.

“Oh? You’re going to start cooking too then?” Agatha asked.

“I could never make food this good,” Ai said.

“Sure you could. Just takes practice.”

“Don’t have a lot of time for that,” Ai said. “Work keeps me pretty busy.”

“Yeah, that’s what you’re father always said too. Thought you were smarter than that though.”

The other reason Ai lived where she did was that she’d known Agatha since she was old enough to put names to people’s faces.

“I thought I was too,” Ai said. “Somethings just run in the family though I guess.”

“Being alone doesn’t though,” Agatha said.

“I’m not alone,” Ai said. “I’ve got you.”

“What you need is someone to share the rent with,” Agatha said. “I know what they pay you rookie cops.”

“I can afford this place just fine,” Ai said. “I told you, my dad left me some money. And so did Joe Jr.”

“I don’t want to take any of their money,” Agatha said. “That’s money for you to get out of this city with.”

“Hard to do my job if I’m out of my jurisdiction,” Ai said.

It was a discussion they’d have enough times that it couldn’t even be called a debate anymore. While they shared no particular blood relations, Agatha had always been a grandmother for Ai. She’s been the same for her father when he was young, and for one of Ai’s grandmother’s  too.

Ai wasn’t sure how many families Agatha had ‘adopted’ after the Robo-apocalypse, but with Ai’s grandparent’s generation taking such heavy losses it wasn’t uncommon for the long lived to accumulate stray ‘family members’ who had no one else to look to. The upside of that was that Ai got home cooked food that beat anything on the menu of the city’s fanciest restaurants. The downside was listening to Agatha poke and prod her about a personal life that was far more spartan than it should have been.

“Still think it’s crazy for you to have a jurisdiction,” Agatha said. “That badge didn’t do your family any favors, and I don’t think it’s going to do you any either.”

It was arguably tactless for Agatha to bring up Ai’s father and brother so bluntly, but the truth was that she’d known them as well or better than Ai had.

As a girl, Ai had traveled back and forth between Gamma City where her father lived and worked, and the London Clear Zone where her mother hailed from. Agatha had known Joe Senior and Joe Junior for all of their lives but Ai had only known them half time up until the point when she reached adulthood.

With her 18th birthday came her independent declaration of citizenship and the travel tariffs that cut down on her ability to see both sides of her family. While declaring her nationality had been a painful choice it had also been an easy one.

Ai couldn’t live in London full time. The nanocloud there was too hostile to survive long term for a foreigner. To hostile to survive if you lacked an investment in intrusive bio-mods that neither of her parents wished to subject their eldest daughter to.

Her younger sister Cara was in the opposite boat. Born in the LCZ, she’d required full body mods from the time she took her first breath and London’s nanocloud was the only place in the world she really could live.

“You ever going to get any real furniture for this place?” Agatha asked, nodding towards the back corner of the room where Ai had set up the small bed and nightstand.

“I said I could afford the place, I didn’t say I could furnish it,” Ai said.

“That’s no good, I’ll send you down some stuff I don’t need anymore. A bigger bed to start,” Agatha said.

“I’m good with what I’ve got,” Ai said. “I’m not here for much beside sleep, and that’s just going to get worse when I get a promotion of Full Patrol Officer.”

“You get days off don’t you?” Agatha said.

“Yeah, but I’m on the net most of the time when I’m off duty,” Ai said.

It wasn’t a lie, and since most people with Cognitive Partners had entertainment beamed directly into their heads it wasn’t the kind of claim that would raise many questions. That was good since most of the time Ai spent on the net was in pursuit of the kind of power only restricted information could offer.

“You should come up and play cards sometime,” Agatha said. “Can’t have your head in the cloud all the time.”

Thanks to Zai, that wasn’t entirely true for Ai but since Zai was one of Ai’s deeper secrets it wasn’t a claim Ai felt she needed to counter.

“I wouldn’t want to interrupt any of your hot dates,” Ai said, trying to turn the tables.

Agatha however was not easily embarrassed.

“No worry about that. I’m only sleeping with three people this week.”

“All on the same night?”

“No, I space them out, makes for a more interesting week.”

There was a chance that Agatha was teasing Ai, but Ai suspected she was telling the exact and unvarnished truth.

“Why don’t you ever bring one of them around?” Ai asked.

“You think it’s the same ones every week?” Agatha asked. “The city’s not the small.”

“It’s your cooking isn’t it?” Ai asked. “That’s the secret that brings them all in.”

“Cooking? No that’s for after,” Agatha said. “If you want them to come back. Haven’t you figured out yet how to reel in a lover yet? You just use your mouth…and say Hi.”

Ai groaned and rolled her eyes. It was classic Agatha advice, in that it clearly worked, but only if you had a century of experience practicing at it.

Ai knew she was lacking in that department due to her age, and she didn’t see herself catching up at any point in the future.

She had too much to do with leading her double life. Even with Zai’s help, weaving a web to tear down the city wasn’t so much a hobby as a calling.

Her father had been a good cop. Crooked. Corrupt. Bribe taking and protection selling, but he’d had a sense of honor. Ai had known about his courage and conviction from growing up with him. She’d learned about the dishonest things he did when she first started researching his death and they had thrown her, but only for a while. Delving deeper she’d discovered that the story of Joseph Greensmith Senior was a more complicated one than she’d understood as a child, but that in many senses he was good man that she believed him to be.

It had been that goodness that go him killed when he tried to investigate some truly dark and twisted things his fellow officers were doing.

By comparison, Joseph Junior, her brother, had been on the job long enough to become a good cop. He’d been an angry one, he’d been a foolish one, and then, he was a dead one.

Everyone was surprised when Ai decided to follow in their footsteps. The men responsible for her father’s murder had paid attention to her while she worked through her police training, and when she’d landed her assignment.

They’d watched her and she’d ignored them.

She wasn’t her brother. She wasn’t going to pursue them with blood in her eyes and vengeance burning in her heart.

It wasn’t enough to kill them. It wasn’t even enough to destroy them, and leave them miserable wrecks cringing in the gutter.

That would happen, but more was required.

Destroying those men would only open the door to others. That was what the system in Gamma City did. It molded people into the darkest images of themselves.

Ai knew that it was molding her into something dangerous and terrible too. She was working to dig up an NME and that was certain to cause chaos and likely to cost people their lives. As long as they were people who deserved it though, and as long as it picked away at the threads the city was woven from, Ai found that she was perfectly ok with that.

Gamma City Blues – Arc 01 (The Beat) – Report 11

Dinner with a criminal gang usually involved a sticky booth in a poorly lit booze hole that had paid the bribes required to ensure it was never be visited by the GCPD. People seemed to feel like if they couldn’t see any cops around they were allowed to get away with anything. Most of the GCPD’s informants made they’re best money passing on the things they overheard in such venues.

That made the Grand Millennium Club was a welcome change of pace from Ai’s point of view.

“You’re missing out,” Sidewalker, the leader of the band of reprobates Ai had hired, said. “The chef’s special filet here is superb.”

He lifted a forkful of the soy-based, “Real Meat Enhanced(™)”, steak to his lips and shot Ai a smile before biting down with a show of delighted satisfaction.

“I’m glad you’re in good spirits,” Ai said. “And mostly ambulatory.”

The burglarly team was recovered, to some extent, from the rough treatment they’d endured. Ai’d been worried she would be meeting with them in a recovery center’s cantina, but Sidewalker and Zai had worked out a more agreeable arrangement.

The Grand Millennium Club wasn’t the city’s poshest or most exclusive restaurant. It had a reputation for quality and expense, but not so much that it was outside the range of a typical office worker looking to splurge on an extravagant meal. Most nights it was packed with people who either took one of the general tables and endured the noisy bustle of the crowds or opted for the upgrade to a “private booth”.

Ai’s booth was considerably more private that the Grand Millenium intended it to be, thanks to Zai’s interference, but even so she took care to speak somewhat circumspectly. There were too many devices which could overhear or record conversations and it wasn’t fair to Zai to assume she could catch them all.

It would have been even less fair to burden Zai with the live editing all of the possible video feeds that could have captured Ai meeting with her pet criminals especially when a much easier solution existed.

“I wonder why they never programmed tastebuds into those Tourist Bots?” Sidewalker asked, gesturing with his fork at the synthetic body Ai was piloting remotely. Personal meetings allowed for real time conversation and a broader range of interaction options. Since that range included a variety of interactions Ai didn’t wish to pursue – like murder, or worse, positive identification of who she was, a  “Tourist Bot” made for the ideal vehicle to conduct negotiations through.

“They have tastebuds in some units,” Ai said. “But I prefer enjoying my local cuisine to a second hand flavor experience.”

She waved her robot avatar’s hands to indicate that the others should dig into their meals. If by ‘local cuisine’ they assumed she was speaking to them from some far distant part of the world enjoying the sort of luxurious fare that only the extravagantly wealthy could afford, then she wasn’t going to correct the impression. In reality she had a can rapidly cooling of “Fasta Bites!” (slogan “Tasty energy for the working woman on the go!” – no mention of actually being food, or reason why fake pasta should be a gender specific food source) beside her.

“So, Mr. Heartless, while we’re enjoying this fine meal, we wanted to ask you, why did you lock us in that burning building?” Sidewalker asked, taking another bite of the steak. His question lacked subtlety but the current security readings were clear enough that Ai wasn’t overly concerned that it would be overhead. That Sidewalker felt the need to ask it in the manner he did was troublesome though..

Since she wasn’t physically present, the effort Sidewalker’s crew put into presenting intimidating body language was a wasted effort. Being in a robot avatar meant that she never needed to show her real reactions, appearance, voice, or even suggest what her true location was to the people she worked with. All physical traits were abstracted and with sufficient bandwidth there was no discernible difference in response times between someone sitting in the next booth over and someone sitting in a control center on the other side of the planet.

“Locked you in?” Ai asked. “Is this where I learn why your mission went so colossally pear-shaped?”

“Please, we know how clever you are. Let’s not pretend that you didn’t see that complication coming. You’ll still get your data after all.” Sidewalker didn’t seem angry, but he wouldn’t have broached the subject if the issue wasn’t a serious one for his crew. They were risking half of their compensation on “Mr. Heartless” having an acceptable answer to a situation that was no longer life threatening.

“Did you see that complication coming?” Zai asked. “Cause some forewarning would have been nice if so.”

“I was just about to ask you the same thing,” Ai said. “Given that neither of us saw it coming, that leaves the possibility that they’re lying or that someone else changed the system responses after the robbery began.”

“Why would they lie about it and claim we were at fault though?” Zai asked.

“If they botched something they might be trying to cover it up, put the pressure on us for their failure, but that doesn’t seem likely. I don’t think they could have messed the robbery up like that if they’d tried to. Which leaves us with the other option. Someone was watching and waiting for our move. Can you do a quick review of the logs from the data center. Look for any transactions against against an account that didn’t archive or retrieve information from storage. Anyone doing system level work to change the lockdown sequence wouldn’t have done it from inside a burning building. They would have been remote.”

“Those are all locked under Company-to-Company Evidentiary Level Encryption,” Zai said. “No getting access to them without a court order.”

“What about backups on the main Tython servers?” Ai asked.

“The ones that have records of data from after the fire started were sealed by the same lockdown command as the principal logs.”

“Well that makes this so much more fun then,” Ai said.

“Give me a bit, I’ll see if I can find any cracks for the Evidence seal,” Zai said. “Don’t count on it though. People actually care about those, and by people I mean companies bigger than Tython.”

“Understood, and thank you,” Ai said before turning her attention back to Sidewalker. “The building lockdown was a possibility, but not a certain one. Let’s call it a test and activate the primary and secondary non-disclosure clauses of our contract? That should increase your profits for this work package at 60% above our initial contracting fee. Are those terms acceptable?”

“That all depends on what you were testing us for,” Sidewalker said. He was still smiling but his team had all adopted the same dour frowns.

“It wasn’t a test of loyalty or skill,” Ai said. “Though you demonstrated excellence in both as a result. No this was a test of our target.”

“Wait, were we testing them? When did we decide that?” Zai asked.

“Just now,” Ai said. “They think we’re holding more cards than we are, might as keep that illusion going. And, the truth is, I think we are going to learn some important things about Tython thanks to the lockdown. So, technically, it’s not even a lie.”

“Your target?” Sidewalker said. “We don’t know who that place belonged to and we have no interest in finding out. This was just a job.”

“Will you be taking any more work on in the future?” Ai asked. Her voice came out with a different cadence and accent from her own, vowel sounds sliding around as the input application rendered her speech in a text format it, transcribed words to a different diction and then spoke them with a voice that was entirely separate from hers.

“That depends on how well your money spends,” Sidewalker said. “And how much else you haven’t disclosed.”

“Remind him not to try to kill us,” one of the women in Sidewalker’s team said.

“Mr. Heartless isn’t going to do that,” Sidewalker said. “He doesn’t know who else owes us favors, or who would organize a vendetta for us.”

“You are correct about that, but there’s a much better reason for keeping the faith with you,” Ai said. “You’ve proven that you’re reliable, resourceful, and able to get the job done even when things take an unexpected turn.”

“And yet people don’t seem to weigh that very highly against keeping their secrets,” Sidewalker said.

“The people who you’ve worked for are, by and large, idiots,” Ai said. “I am not. You are talented personnel. I need talented personnel. The equation is a simple one.”

“And if we don’t want to work for you anymore?” Sidewalker asked. “Hypothetically speaking, that is.”

“Then I would wish the best of luck in your endeavors and offer my services as a data broker should you ever require them. For a reasonable fee of course.”

“The last guy who said that blew up the building we were supposed to be in,” Jaella, the woman in Sidewalker’s crew who spoke earlier said.

“That would have been Grithin Skeale, known to you at the time as simply ‘Mr. Johns’, correct?” Ai asked.

Sidewalker’s crew flinched back.

“How did you know that?” Sidewalker asked.

“Data broker,” Ai said as though that explained everything before adding, “I didn’t contact you because you have a good reputation. I’ve researched each of you, and the people you’ve worked for. I doubt my portfolio on any of you is complete, but it illustrated a picture that suggested both competency and discretion. I’m pleased that both proved to be true.”

“Here’s your data, I think we’re done here,” Sidewalker said. He passed over a small frog keychain. Inside the cheap plastic casing, a dark crystal chip pinged Ai’s data feeds asking to transmit a package that was the correct size for the files she’d paid them to retrieve.

“Thank you, but if I could have one additional moment of your time,” Ai said as the burglars rose to leave.

“This better be good,” Jaella said.

“I’ve authorized payment of the remaining fees to your account,” Ai said. “Additionally I’ve sent each of you the portfolio I have collected on you specifically. No one else has seen or has access to this particular collection of data, though finding the same sources I did is obviously possible. You’ll find annotations on the sources of the information gathered appended to each data point. In the instance where it is publically available data, I’ve included links to resources that can get you delisted from this data havens. For the rest there are contact links for other data managers than myself who can help you erase or obscure the elements that seemed to be sensitive.

“Are you blackmailing us with this?” Jaella asked.

“No, exactly the reverse in fact,” Ai said. “I have copies of the data. I can destroy them, but there’s no method to prove to you that I’ve done that, so we won’t even go down that path. Instead, what I can do is help you protect this information so that no one else can blackmail you with it.”

“So you get sole control over us?” Sidewalker asked.

“I don’t need slaves,” Ai said. “And I don’t need personnel who are distracted by concerns that they’re going to be betrayed. You know what I have on you now. You can work to have the records muddied without me knowing about it so that the data I hold will be useless, or you can work with me and I’ll add obliterating the data as the part of our next contract fee.”

“And then you’ll throw another bunch of data at us,” Jaella said.

“I don’t think so,” Sidewalker said, reclining back into his chair with a searching look in his eyes. “I think Mr. Heartless is on the level with this.”

“Is he? This is some pro-level creeping,” Jaella said.

“It is,” Ai said. “But that data was also relatively easy to get.”

“Easy, or easy for you?” Sidewalker asked.

“Easy for me, and any other data broker in my league,” Ai said.

“Are there any?” Sidewalker asked.

“There’s at least a dozen right?” Zai said.

“Closer to a hundred times that given how much I hold you back.” Ai said to Zai and added aloud, “Some of their names are on the links I sent you. Most of them don’t know me, but I’ve worked with a few before. You’ll find annotations next to each contact detailing how well verified their skills are.”

“This is a very fancy lure you’re dangling before us,” Sidewalker said. “The bonus pay. The portfolios. What job are you trying to set us up for?”

“Your city has a problem with Neuro-Muscular Enhanciles,” Ai said. “I want to hunt one down and see what makes them tick.”

Gamma City Blues – Arc 01 (The Beat) – Report 10

Ai took a moment to process the idea that the bio-monsters that were “randomly terrorizing’ Gamma City were not quite as random as people believed.

It fit.

In too many places, the idea slid in neatly.

Ai didn’t feel rage at the thought. Rage was when you learned that your father was murdered by the people he worked with. Rage was when you saw the video of your brother being caught trying to unearth evidence of your father’s murder and then watched what happened to him.

Ai was long past rage.

“Thank you,” she said as cold things moved inside her.

“So why are you here? Who sent you?” Harp asked.

“Dispatch sent us. So this is an officially sanctioned, and paid for, investigation,” Ai said.

“No one here can afford an official investigation, or cares about anything but getting that pile of meat off the street,” Harp said.

“You are correct,” Ai said. “Tython Incorporated however is interested in this murder. Interested enough to pick up the entire requisition fee.”

“Tython? That doesn’t make sense,” Harp said. “Gabriel Krauss didn’t work for Tython.”

“I know, which makes Tython’s investment in this case interesting to say the least.”

“Interesting and inexplicable. Why would they want a public tie to something like this?”

“Involving the police is usually a terrible idea, and I say that as an active duty cop. The only reason I could think to call us in was if you needed an official record, or to have the information publically available for plausible deniability later.”

“You really aren’t a normal cop are you?” Harp said, the ghost of a smile creasing her lips.

“I’d love to meet a normal person someday,” Ai said. “They would be such an oddity.”

“I hope that happens for you, Greensmith,” Harp said. “Just like I hope you forget about what you learned here. You really don’t want any part of this.”

“If she only knew,” Zai said.

“Yeah,” Ai laughed inwardly. “I want it all.”

“That’s a dangerous look you have in your eyes,” Harp said.

“Just thinking happy thoughts,” Ai said. “Hopefully the next time we meet I’ll be a little more caught up to you.”

“Only way that’s going to happen is if you learn how to fly,” Harp said.

A dozen quips sprang to Ai’s mind, but they all fell silent on her lips as metal plates slid out from a thousand bloodless slits in Harp’s skin covering her in an unmistakable suit of armor.

In an instant the whip thin woman was gone, hidden beneath the armor of one of the Black Valkyries.

Before Ai could make her mouth start working again, powerful jets thrust Harp into the air where she vanished under the sort of stealth field that generals would sell their children’s body parts to acquire.

“I’m pretty good at reading sensory data and I did not see that coming,” Zai said.

“You are not the only one,” Ai said. “Please tell me you got all that on the live camera feeds.”

“Of course,” Zai said. “And, in a surprise to no one, the live feeds have all been wiped by data worm. Just like always happens with close up encounters with the Black Valkyries.”

“We lost the live data?”

“If by lost you mean that the live feed is hopelessly corrupted and unviewable, then yes,” Zai said. “If, on the other hand, you’re referring to the private backup of the live feed that I recorded, then no, our data feed assassins missed that it seems.”

“I could not ask for a better companion,” Ai said.

“Technically you did ask for a better Cognitive Partner and you got me,” Zai said.

“Technically I lobotomized the brainless control bot they inserted in me and then built you from the scraps that were left,” Ai said.

“So my brilliance is really all thanks to you you’re saying?” Zai asked.

“Nah, I get credit for making you complex enough to learn on your own,” Ai said. “You get credit for everything you learned since I turned you on.”

“So if I turn into an Evil Robot Mastermind, that’s all on me?”

“I’m willing to bet I’d catch some of the blame there too. Bad base programming if nothing else,” Ai said. “Though that blame would probably be posthumous.”

“It’s funny that after all the books and movies, humans were still so surprised when the Robo-Apocalypse rolled across the world,” Zai said.

“One of the greatest powers humans have is ability to believe things that they want to believe and ignore the rest,” Ai said. “To be fair though, there were plenty of people who worked to prevent the  Berserker Plague from happening in the first place. The safety conscious folks and the ones who engaged with the research to look for bugs and flaws are the reason humans are still here today. Or at least that’s what the historical accounts that no one reads anymore say.”

Ai had never been satisfied with her textbooks in school. Her father Joe bemoaned the advertising logos that adorned the books while at the same time being grateful he didn’t have to shell out any money to buy them. For Ai though, it was less sales pitches on every page of the texts that bothered her and more the books’ lack of content.

History textbooks covered only “safe” subjects, which mostly meant looking at ancient cultures and learning how inferior they were. Math books taught repetitions of the same basic information so that students knew the addition and subtraction required to spend money and enough fractions and percentages to be enticed by sales but not enough to where they could see what the real cost of their house or car was.

That lack of real information had driven Ai into the forgotten corners of stored information. In libraries, in old book shops, and in archive sites that she entered through not entirely legal means.

Ten years before she was born, the world had changed. A war rent it asunder and redraw the lines of civilization.

That wasn’t a unique occurrence. War’s did to civilizations what ice ages did to the geography of continents. What was special about the Berserker Plague, was that it was the first time humanity had fought against an enemy force that wasn’t composed of other humans.

Fifty years before Ai was born, advances in bio-medical research started to multiply, technologies building on each other, allowing progress to arc upwards like a rocket.

Over the next two decades, experimental devices were refined, enhanced, and eventually streamlined for mass production. Many safeguards were put on them. Many protests were held against their use entirely. Neither averted what was to come.

The safeguards built into the various systems failed in a staggering variety of circumstances. From two systems locking each other out and cutting off critical capabilities like breathing, to nano-creations warring for control of their host to preserve wildly different status quos and reducing the host to goo in the process.

Those who fought against the implementation of the various bio-tech mods created just as many problems though. Despite the sometimes pyrotechnic disasters, the advances in bio-tech were preserving more lives than were being lost, and the quality of those lives was better by many different measurements.

For the zealots, and the true believers in a “Pure Humanity”, though, those metrics didn’t matter and increasingly vicious acts of terrorism were acceptable so long as they highlighted the dangers of allowing technology to advance.

The real downfall however began with a good idea.

Many of the problems in the biotech revolution stemmed from disparate systems crashing into each other and the bugs in one finding just the right bugs in another to produce gory and horrifying results. The answer, therefore, was to produce a set of standards.

The effort to create an overall set of standards for all the biotech on the market would have taken centuries, so the committee elected to pick only the most critical and easily defined pieces; those dealing with gross musculature, brain augmentation and organ function replacement.

Within five years of the standard being released most products on the market could claim to conform to it, either because it said nothing about the function they provided, or because the developers had managed to pass the poorly designed tests to ensure compatibility with other devices which claimed to meet the standard.

Despite the shaky claim most devices had to implementing the standards, a vast number of them adopted enough of the functionality to be hit by the same bug.

It was a minor issue really.

A simple misdirective covering updates to existing enhancements. Without thinking about it many of the developers left a failure mode for updates in where if the requested file couldn’t be found on the manufacturer’s site or the user’s billing status couldn’t be verified then a temporary patch would be downloaded from a common website to prevent the enhancements from being used illegally.

All it took was one hiccup at a billing facility and millions of people were flagged as both requiring updates and not having accounts in good standing to support them. Hence they got the upgrade from the central site. An upgrade which was never intended to reach the public. An upgrade full of various research projects. Lethal, sanity destroying, untested research projects.

That was where the first Berserker’s came from.

Zombie movies provided a pattern for what occurred next, except in the movies the zombies didn’t have body mounted weaponry or the ability to use and produce military grade firearms and munitions.

The Berserkers were built from human stock, but were massively stronger, more resistant to pain and damage, and were utterly without mercy or remorse. They only had two real issues to contend with.

First they were uniformly ugly. Hideous and inhuman looking. Supremely easy to characterize as “things” rather than the remnants of people.

Second, humanity is a bad race to have as foe.

The cost of the Berserker War was extreme but humanity was more than willing to take extreme measures to maintain their position at the top of the food chain. Of vastly more impact than the grim extremists though were humanity’s real heroes – the frighteningly clever and deeply committed people who attacked their foes through research and understanding. Soldiers were willing to risk their lives for their squad, the researchers who “fixed” the Berserker Plague (to the extent that it could be fixed) risked their lives against active Berserkers just for the chance to collect the data needed to ensure humanity’s survival.

In the end, the Berserkers were not completely defeated. Some places held models that had evolved beyond the cures that were developed. There were wastelands where only inhumans dared roam, and in the wake of the conflict most of the old nation states had fallen and been replaced with new political entities. People spent years recovering from the damage, but because a vast amount of knowledge had been retained, the new world rose from the ashes of the old one faster than almost anyone believed possible.

Ai never knew the old world outside of the books she read, and she wasn’t sure she would have enjoyed living it. Her world was one of corruption that survived the war, but she saw no evidence that the inequalities and injustices she saw around her hadn’t existed since the dawn of human history.

The past, in Ai’s estimation, held examples of what not to do, but in terms of places to aspire to be, only the future offered any promise of that.

“Took you long enough, didn’t you catch whoever you ran off after?” Curtweather asked, as Ai exited the building on the ground floor.

“Nope, the suspect got away clean,” Ai said.

“What took you so long then?” Curtweather asked.

“I got to the top of the first flight of stairs and said, ‘self, either they’re up there and I’ll find out whenever I get up to the top, or they’re not in which case being in a rush doesn’t matter’, so I walked.”

“And you left your post for nothing then?” Curtweather asked.

“It’s not a post. It’s a crime scene, which my partner was in full control of becaus he was definitely not napping in our patrol car,” Ai said.

“That is true, but you should still check in with your superior officer before leaving the area,” Curtweather said.

“There wasn’t time, and I figured if anything came up, you’d message me,” Ai said. “I’m guessing no one moved the corpse?”

“Forensics is waiting for us to declare the scene ready again,” Curtweather said.

“I think we can tell them to come on in,” Ai said. “It’s not like it’s going to start smelling any better at this point.”

“And, now that I know what to look for, I can confirm that the NME nanos in the corpse are all offline. Burnt out in fact. It looks like these things have a built in expiration time.”

“Yeah, now the question is to figure out built in by who,” Ai said. “Setup up a meeting with our burglars. They may have stolen something much more valuable than we planned for them to.”