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?”
“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.
“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.”