The hostage takers message was surprisingly simple when Ai listened to it.
“Boss, I think we may have made a small mistake,” their leader said. “It’s nothing major but I think we need some help here. Could you maybe send someone to get us out?”
“They sound like complete idiots,” Curtweather said.
“If we were dealing with the most brilliant criminals alive would they be stuck in a burning building whose most valuable assets are probably melting as we speak?” Ai asked.
“Don’t get cute,” Curtweather said. “The only thing we’ve got to look for now is whether they’re boss is as stupid as they are.”
“That is an interesting question,” Zai asked. “Sidewalker wouldn’t have made that broadcast if things were going according to plan.”
“There wouldn’t be hostages in danger in things were going according to plan,” Ai said.
“Safe bet that they can’t think of a method of escape?” Zai asked.
“Yeah, that’s where the smart money’s sitting,” Ai said. “Kind of reassuring that they think we can do something about it.”
“That might just be desperation,” Zai said. “As far as they know, you’re not paying attention to this. It was supposed to be a trivial job after all.”
“None of us believed that,” Ai said. “It was just convenient to talk about it in those terms, especially given the money we were offering them.”
“You humans do this thing with language where you just don’t,” Zai said.
“Don’t what?” Ai asked.
“Don’t language,” Zai said. “ It’s not a matter of communicating. You can understand each other, somehow, you just throw out all the recognizable rules for how you’re conveying information to one another. You don’t language. There are perfectly good words to use to convey the concepts you need to get across to one another and by some mystical or insane process you decide, collectively it seems, not to use them. In fact most of the time you instead pick the opposite words. Only you don’t say them any differently than you would if you actually meant them. And then you wonder why we mechanical intelligences have a high tendency to go catastrophically irregular.”
“To be fair, we human tend to drive each other nuts too, but take heart, you’ve been with me so long now that you’re probably already ‘catastrophically irregular’ and it doesn’t seem to be hindering you much at all.” Ai said as she scanned over the schematics for the building.
Several of her plans and contingencies were literally going up in smoke but she wasn’t surprised. Any concept that starts with “and we’ll light things on fire” has no business assuming that events will occur in a logical and orderly fashion.
“So can we use that?” Zai asked. “Can you work some ‘human magic’ and communicate with them without the probes figuring out what you’re really saying?”
“Given that humans will be reviewing the recordings? That would be impossible,” Ai said. “There will be a pretty thorough review of the transcripts of all communication in or out of the building.”
“So, they’re dead then?” Zai asked.
“Oh, I didn’t say that,” Ai said.
She turned to Curtweather as the heat from the flames gusted hotter.
“I think I’ve got an idea that can save the hostages and protect Tython’s data integrity,” she said. “You’re the commanding officer though so it’s your call if we want to collect the apprehension bonus on these guys.”
“You’re trying to sing my song to exert undue influence over me,” Curtweather said. “I can see that, but you know what, I’m going to take that as a good sign. That’s how you get ahead in this city. Now what kind of brain spark have you had?”
“Well, I think it’s a simple one,” Ai said.
“That’s a good start,” Curtweather said. “These people seem like simple is all they can handle.”
“Right,” Ai said. “I mean, they just broadcast on an open channel. So we know they’re connected to the local feeds. We can use that to send information back to them.”
“And what would we want to talk to them about?” Curtweather said.
“An offer to get them out of there,” Ai said.
“Tython’s gonna shoot that down in a heartbeat,” Curthweather said.
“Not if we don’t actually let them leave the premises,” Ai said. “The only escape route is via the roof right? So what if we have some auto-copters fly in. We send in enough to transport the thieves – you know they have to be stealing something right? – and the hostages. Thieves go in the first copter and we lock it down so they can’t get out. Then we just fly the hostages out.”
“What if the thieves want to go with the hostages?” Curtweather asked.
“We tell them we’re sending in an auto-copter for them and that once they’re gone, the GCFD will be onscene to contain the blaze since it won’t be an active combat zone anymore. If they were ok with taking hostages, they’ll be ok with leaving them behind in the fire.”
“And if they’re not?” Curtweather asked.
“Then they’re other options is to roast or be crushed when the building falls apart. Tython’s data is safe in either case, and this at least gives us a chance to get the hostages out.”
“I like it,” Curtweather said. “If they cook in there we’ll have done everything we could to prevent it and if we bag them then I get the high quality soy-steak tonight.”
“Sidewalker might have a problem with being locked in an auto-copter,” Zai said.
“Yeah, they’re not going anywhere near that auto-copter,” Ai said. “Can you suborn one of Tython’s probes?”
“The question you should ask is ‘have you already suborned one of Tython’s data probes’ because the answer is ‘yes, of course I have’,” Zai said. “What kind of message do you want me to send to Sidewalker?”
“Nothing direct,” Ai said. “Just let one of the Fire Suppression bots on the top floor power up. Make it look like the control overrides partially slipped and that the wake-up message got through but not the full activation code.”
“And this is going to tell Sidewalker something?” Zai asked.
“Yeah, he’ll figure it out,” Ai said.
“Weren’t you just saying he wasn’t the brightest of criminals?” Zai asked.
“That was misdirection,” Ai said. “And, to be completely honest, frustration that the plan hit as big a snag as this. Really though, the show he’s putting on has a certain genius to it.”
“What show?” Zai asked.
“Our team looks like bumbling idiots. No one is going to be surprised when this turns out horribly for them.”
“And that plan would be different than actually being bumbling idiots how?” Zai asked.
“Something clearly went wrong with the original plan,” Ai said. “Probably relating to the building personnel. They were supposed to flee the building when the fire first broke out. That they’re still in there says they didn’t make the sane and reasonable choice. Maybe they tried to fight the fire, maybe they were afraid of losing their vacation days, who knows. For whatever reason they gummed up the works and, our team, being thieves but not murderers, decided to take them hostage rather than let them fry.”
“So they’re not malicious towards their fellow humans, but I’m not seeing the genius here,” Zai said.
“They’ve maintained the facade that they broke in for a lark and things got incredibly out of hand,” Ai said. “That’s a story that’s believable to an extent. That they asked for help on an open channel fits with the overall narrative, but it also provided us with confirmation that we could get information to them.”
“That’s useful but still not the height of brilliance.”
“True, but they also opened the vault door where the fire suppression bots are kept,” Ai said, checking the structural scans of the building again.
“And then didn’t activate the bots.” Understanding echoed in Zai’s voice. “They wanted us to know about that when we checked the building schematics out.”
“Yeah, or at least they’re accounting for us being able to check the building sensors.”
“So you had me turn a bot on to signal them that we know they’re in there.”
“More than that. Those bots are their ticket to freedom,” Ai said.
“This might work Greensmith,” Curtweather said. “I’ve got three auto-copters inbound and the thieves are taking the bait.”
“We might want to make them prove that the hostages are ok,” Ai said. “Have them line the Tython personnel up against the windows so we can see them while the thieves are leaving and we know they won’t try to take any with them.”
“That works,” Curtweather said. “It’s not like they can really refuse, the floor below them just went up. Sound of that glass breaking has gotta have them freaked out.”
“It’d freak me the hell out,” Ai said.
The air cutting whumps of the first auto-copter rose over the crackling of the flames and the excited bustle of the crowd that had gathered.
The Tython building was a ten story tall structure so the view from the ground was limited. Anyone with the money to access the local video and drone feeds though was able to see the building from almost any angle or elevation they desired.
Ai flipped open a screen showing the rooftop of the building, choosing a camera that was mounted far enough away to provide a view of both the roof and the last floor that wasn’t engulfed in flames.
Even with the active fire suppression disabled, there were plenty of passive features of the building, from the materials it was constructed from to the failure modes designed into its plumbing, that worked to keep the flames at bay and buy time for the fire crews to do their job.
With the building first a “suspected combat zone” and then a declared one though, no fire department response was allowed in the vicinity. The cost of combat insurance on top of fire fighting insurance was deemed economically unfeasible for all but the wealthiest of communities.
That made Ai’s job so much easier.
“Copter’s touched down, and they’re moving to the roof,” Curtweather said. “This is gonna be a good one. Wish they didn’t have those full body suits on so I could see the look on their faces.”
Curtweather was beaming with anticipation, and was well rewarded as the thieves climbed on board the waiting auto-copter without a moment’s hesitation.
That their suits were ill-fitting didn’t seem terribly surprising. They were low grade tactical armor, the kind that weekend warriors who were more interested in beers and bragging would invest in.
Neither their armor nor the weapons offered much help though when the rotors on the auto-copter lost power and the doors were locked down.
Less than a minute later, two additional auto-copters landed on the roof and the hostages flooded up the stairs from the floor below and dove into the aircraft for safety.
As the two actual rescue copters sped away, the ‘detention copter’ started to power up too.
“Where are you going to bring them down?” Ai asked Curtweather.
“That’s not me,” he said. “I didn’t authorize their copter to leave yet.”
“Looks like it’s leaving to me,” Ai said.
“Looks like it’s not,” Curthweather corrected her.
On the top of the building, the copter with the thieves in it was powering up its main rotor, but the blades were only turning in fits and starts.
“They’re trying to override the lockdown brakes!” Ai said.
“Not doing a good job of it either,” Curthweather said.
From the ground Ai couldn’t quite hear the whine of the copters HyperCore Systems batteries overloading, for that she needed an audio feed closer to the roof. She was able to hear the sound of the copter exploding though as its fully charged power source passed beyond the critical stage and detonated.
The fireball that erupted from the roof was the last straw for the data center and Ai watched as it slowly collapsed, floor by floor and settled into a blazing heap.
“Nice when things go as planned,” she said to Zai. “Now can you commandeer one of the GCFD auto-trucks. We’ll need it for the next bit.”