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.”