Ai felt the wheels in her mind spin into high gear in response to the declaration that she wasn’t human.
“Is she guessing or does she have some tech to spot the modifications we’ve made?” Zai asked.
“I don’t think she’s guessing,” Ai said, “but I don’t think she has a full picture of us either. With any luck, you’re still a mystery to her.”
“Any point in trying to deny what she said?” Zai asked.
“Curtweather is still out right? I think there’s a better path available here,” Ai said.
“I’ll give you credit, you do a good job hiding it.” Harp didn’t speak the message but sent it by text across Ai’s heads up display.
“Thank you,” Ai replied. “And I think I see what gave me away now.”
“Yeah, you were just a little too fast with the return message,” Harp said, aloud this time.
“That’s embarrassing really, the whole point of thinking fast is to avoid mistakes like that,” Ai said.
“You were in freefall at the time,” Harp pointed out. “Also there was a rampaging monster fighting on top of your car.”
“How quick was it?” Ai asked, calling up the chat logs to see for herself.
“Three microseconds,” Harp said.
Three millionths of a second. Faster than human perception by three orders of magnitude. Anyone beside someone with Ai’s class of enhancements would have taken at least a thousand times longer to even notice the Harp’s message arrive. Formulating a response, even with a direct neural link would have taken a thousand times longer than that.
“But you switched to normal conversation again?” Ai asked, puzzled that Harp, and by extension the rest of the Black Valkyries, were willing to spend the time required for an inefficient human form of communication.
“It’s taxing for you, isn’t it? Accelerated thought?” Harp asked.
“She noticed that? She’s got to have tech that can scan us,” Zai said.
“There are some trade-offs to it,” Ai said.
“Let me guess,” Harp said. “If you remain at an accelerated state for too long your hardware starts to overheat and you risk boiling your brain.”
“That is one of the downsides,” Ai said. “I thought cooling options but…”
“But they can fail, and they’re much easier to scan for,” Harp said.
“And they would need to be so distributed throughout the brain that they’d potentially interfere my regular synaptic processing.”
“We need to vanish,” Dee, one of the other Valkyries, said. “Our window’s closing.”
“Window? So they do have a time limit?” Zai said.
“That had to be true,” Ai said. “With how they vanish after every major battle? Whether it’s a tech limit or a detection concern, there had to be some reason they never stayed around.”
“Do we have the samples?” Harp asked.
“Extracted and sealed,” Dee said.
“Wings up then,” Harp said. “Pleasure meeting you again Officer Greensmith.”
Wait! Ai texted the message to Harp on a private channel.
Problem? Harp texted back.
How did you know to find us? Ai asked.
Isn’t it a Valkyrie’s job to choose from the worthy dead? Harp asked.
Sure, but I’m not dead, Ai texted.
Guess you’ll have to come to Valhalla to find out then, Harp said.
An address marker appeared on Ai’s internal mapping software. 83 Meadhall Blvd. Meadhall ran through a long series of “Rusty” blocks, slums for those who could only afford the lowest grade of bio-tech, which were explicitly out of bounds for any on duty police officer.
In theory the restriction was in place because the blocks were in arrears on their ‘municipal contributions to support a local police presence’. In practice it meant that ‘Madtown’, as the police exclusion zone was called, relied on ‘local forces’ to keep the peace.
The gangs of Madtown had reach and influence well beyond its unpatrolled borders but even with that neither they nor anyone else there should have had access to the kind of tech the Black Valkyries were enhanced with.
I’ll see you there, Ai texted. What time works for you?
When do you go off duty?
Be there at 8:00.
Ai watched as the Valkyries lifted off rising into the air and disappearing from view thanks to what had to be the most advanced camouflage system Ai could imagine.
“Is meeting with them wise?” Zai asked. “They may not have us completely figured out yet.”
“They probably don’t,” Ai said. “But we know far too little about them too, and I think they’re well ahead of us on the NME situation.”
“Is it going to be safe to meet with them though?” Zai asked. “Madtown is not exactly a cop friendly environment.”
“That’s probably part of the test,” Ai said. “They want to see how I handle getting to them.”
“Seems like there’s a lot of possible wrong answers there,” Zai said.
“Definitely,” Ai said. “Public transport or a rental vehicle are out.”
“Yeah, the auto-buses don’t run there and the rental agencies all have region lock-outs on places like that.”
“Walking in won’t work either. It’s too far and I’d be stopped probably a dozen times.”
“Could we try to disguise you?” Zai asked.
“If we had more time, probably,” Ai said. “There’s too much about me that’s off though. We’d need to hide all the effects of my mods and make it look like half of them have been offline for the majority of my life.”
“Depending on how you were dressed most of them wouldn’t show,” Zai said.
“I’d stand out just for being a stranger,” Ai said. “Most of the people who live in Madtown can’t work anywhere else. The transport lock-outs are there as much to keep them in as to keep the rest of us out.”
“So where does that leave us?” Zai asked.
“We need transportation but we can’t arrange it through legitimate channels,” Ai said.
“What about just buying a car?” Zai asked. “We can afford it if we tap into the Heartless funds.”
“Heartless is too close to Greensmith as it is,” Ai said. “As tempting as it is to wave a money wand and make the problem go away, it’s those kind of mistakes that always come back to bite you in the end.”
“What resources does Officer Greensmith have at her disposal that’ll help with this then?” Zai asked.
“I’ve got a badge and I’ve got you,” Ai said.
At 4:30pm, Ai exited the debriefing room with Curtweather at her heels. Captain James had glowered at the loss of another police cruiser but begrudgingly commended them for surviving another encounter with an NME. Missing was any mention of the Black Valkyries. The moment they showed up the recordings stopped. The official story was that the NMEs were growing more unstable and experienced catastrophic failure when they crashed into the water.
Ai noticed that Captain James was focused primarily on determining where the search teams should look to recover the NME bodies. Ai made a mental note to hack the records for that investigation. She doubted the forensic techs would find whatever they were looking for since it had probably fallen in the Valkyries’ hands.
At 4:31pm, Curtweather unofficially clocked out. Ai dropped him off at a “Spa and Grill”, Gamma City’s answer to low cost food and automated comfort dispensation. Since they were off their regular patrol routes for the rest of the day, there wouldn’t be any spot inspections to detect that the city was not getting its proper value from Curtweather’s time. Ai could have filed a report herself but given Curtweather’s mood after almost drowning, or really his mood in general, Ai was just as happy to let him have his extra free time, so long as it was far away from her.
At 5:45pm, Ai presented herself to the Bay Haulers City Services lot yard for an unscheduled inspection. Patrol cops like her got tasked to do all sorts of menial tasks, so no one batted an eye once they saw her badge and the work order she brought checked out.
At 5:58pm, Ai boarded the driver’s cabin of Trash Reclamation Vehicle A10-03. As an automated garbage truck, A10-03 didn’t need a crew. There was still a ‘driver’s cabin’ however for legacy purposes and to allow the truck to serve multiple roles as needed.
At 6:00pm, Ai went off duty and the GCPD monitoring system began recording her position in a purely passive manner. No alarms were raised an hour later when she crossed into Madtown.
“So police, fire, and ambulance crews are forbidden but the garbage trucks still get in?” Zai asked.
“The people who live here view cops as their enemies, for some pretty understandable reasons. Firefighter trucks and ambulances carry valuable equipment that the city doesn’t want to risk losing. Garbage trucks on the other hand carry junk.”
“Aren’t the trucks themselves valuable though?”
“They are, which is why they don’t stop and have all those theoretically non-lethal defense systems.” Ai said.
“The electrified body is for use against people?”
“What did you think it was for?” Ai asked.
“To keep the animals away,” Zai said.
“It does that too, but how much do you think a company would spend to protect trash from pigeons?”
“But there are laws against automated devices that are capable of harming or killing humans!” Zai said.
“Hence the theoretically non-lethal,” Ai said. “So long as you can point to a study published at the time that said the measures were within the accepted safety margins, you can get away with pretty much any anti-theft devices.”
“And if the study is found to be in error, then you did your due diligence and can’t be held accountable? I think I’ve heard this story before.”
“Just another part of the world that needs to burn,” Ai said. “On the upside though, we’ve got a self driving tank that will, eventually, take us where we need to go.”
Another hour passed before the garbage truck reached 83 Meadhall. Its sensors recorded that a door was opened from the inside, and that its occupant exited to vehicle. Since neither of those conditions matched the events of a robbery profile, the truck’s control system logged the occurrences and proceeded on its assigned route. When it made it back to the transfer station a standard automated scan was performed of its event log to double check the live telemetry that had been received. Ai’s exit from the truck raised no flags there and so the log deleted and replaced by a summary note which stated that nothing noteworthy occurred for that shift.
From the truck’s point of view, that was true. The residents of 83 Meadhall Blvd had a different take on the matter however.
“There are a lot of people here,” Zai said. “Even with the reloads you’re carrying, I don’t think we can fight it out if it comes to that.”
Ai smiled and let her gaze drift across the faces of the crowd that was assembled outside the old fashioned billiards hall.
There were easily a few dozen men and women loitering outside the bar. Everyone of them bore the marks of obsolete or partially defective bio-mods. None of that surprised Ai though. In a ‘rough neighborhood’ people naturally banded together for protection and power.
That didn’t explain the children though.
The crowd outside of the billiard hall held enough children that it looked more like a multi-family outing than a the drunken gang hangout that Ai had been expecting.
Like the adults around them, the children showed the same sort of ramshackle metal piercings and lean, muscle diminished forms that spoke of malfunctioning bio-mods. While every citizen was guaranteed the right to automated and internalized healthcare, there was no provision in place for the quality or durability of the bio-mods provided.
Ai’s stomach turned as she looked on an army of people who represented the nightmare she’d feared would be inflicted on her. Trying to avoid becoming one of them was the reason she’d risked everything to create Zai.
Looking at the people who waited for her though, the nightmare seemed shaky and uncertain. They weren’t miserable. They weren’t crying in the gutters waiting for someone to save them. By and large, the people in front of the Valkyries’ hall were just people, enjoy a loud and (mostly) friendly night.