Ai strode through the crowd outside the billiards hall with no one at her side, but she wasn’t alone.
“A lot of these people are carrying deadly weapons,” Zai said. “I’d mark them for you, but the few people I’d be leaving unmarked probably just have them out of your view.”
“Thanks for the heads up, I kind of figured that’s what we were getting into here though,” Ai said, scanning the crowd for any sign of Harp. She wasn’t in evidence but one or more of the other Valkyries could have been mingling in the crowd. Ai had only seen them in their armored forms and those obscured enough of their details that identifying them was impossible.
“I can’t help but notice our ride is moving on, and from what I can see of the garbage pick up time tables there shouldn’t be another one that comes by for another twenty four hours. Shall I arrange for to reschedule one for earlier?” Zai asked in a tone of voice that said she’d already hacked the Gamma City Waste and Water Management systems and had the change setup and awaiting the equivalent of a final keystroke to confirm it.
“I don’t think we want to leave that kind of trail,” Ai said. “There’s a record of my coming here, off duty. Riding on a garbage truck is weird, but at least technically there’s nothing wrong with it either. I could explain this to Captain James as trying to follow a lead in a creative manner and she’d basically just glower at me. If a second truck was repurposed, even if it appeared totally legit, she’d have a reason and a motive to dig further.”
“You have alternate ideas for our departure then?” Zai asked. If she sounded disappointed, Ai knew it was only because taking over other systems was like a game for her. Similar to crows teasing wolves, Zai was often happiest when she was poking at security systems that could could turn at any moment and tear her apart in their virtual jaws.
“I’m wagering we’ll have an escort of at least one Black Valkyrie,” Ai said.
She made it to the small flight of stairs leading into the billiards hall without anyone stopping her. She felt like most, or all, of the people in from of the hall were looking at her, but there was some shared understanding among them that while she was clearly an outsider, she wasn’t trespassing. Not yet at any rate.
“What happens if the Valkyries aren’t in friendly mood once all is said and done?” Zai asked. She projected areas of relative safety onto Ai’s vision. Places where, if she had to flee from the building, there would be cover and multiple routes to avoid pursuit.
“With this many lions outside the lions’ den? I think if the Valkyries aren’t happy with me then I’m very likely not going to be leaving here at all,” Ai said. It wasn’t the people outside the billiards hall that were the chief concern though. If Harp had ill intentions, then even one of the Valkyries would be able to take Ai apart efficiently enough that no class of bio-mod could put her back together.
She stepped inside the hall and refrained from blinking. Zai adjusted her vision to compensate for the lower light levels a million times faster than the human body could naturally have managed. Zai also put target outlines around the people inside to help distinguish them through the smoky haze that filled the building.
“Officer Greensmith? You’re right on time,” Harp said, standing up as the shot she had just taken sunk the final ball that was in play on her table.
“The smoke’s all retro-tobbac,” Zai said. “Nothing dangerous with our mods, but there’s enough second hand stimulants that you’d normally be feeling a mild euphoria in about thirty seconds.”
“Thanks, I’m not sure if they know how modded out I am, so I’ll play along for now,” Ai said.
“Have any trouble getting here?” Harp asked, as she chalked up a pool cue.
“Not really,” Ai said. “I caught a ride here, but it was a little slow going. Sorry I wasn’t able to change for the occasion.”
Ai had ditched the outer layer of her GCPD uniform. Walking into a meeting in Madtown was one thing. Walking in while uniform was a form of suicide that Ai had no interest in at all. That left her with the non-descript black t-shirt and generic black cargo pants she tended to wear even on her days off. Her boots were a dead giveaway that she was a cop, not because of their functionality but because the department’s fashion sense for footwear was so atrociously bad that no one but a cop would be seen in them.
Harp let a wry smile crack her lips apart as she took in Ai’s wardrobe.
“The pack’s nice,” she said, looking at the duffle bag Ai had slung behind her shoulders. “Any fun hardware in there?”
“Nothing like what you’ve got,” Ai said and dropped the pack onto one of the unused tables. She hadn’t brought an arsenal with her because there wasn’t really a point to it. Anything she could have fit in a carry along bag would have been irrelevant when faced with people who could go toe-to-toe with an NME. She could driven up in a tank and still been undergunned in fact.
“Interesting,” Harp said, her eyes flashing with a brief burst of green light. “No weapons at all?”
“Just the sidearm,” Ai said, gesturing to the GCPD regulation firearm she carried.
“Oh, yeah, cute, I guess that does qualify doesn’t it?” Harp said.
“Not really,” Ai said. “Not here at least.”
“So you’re not worried that you’ll need to defend yourself?” Harp asked.
“Or I don’t think I’d be capable,” Ai said. “Secrecy is decent shield, right up until it’s not.”
“Is that your defense or your weapon?” Harp asked, as she set up the balls for another game.
“Do I need a weapon here?” Ai asked, taking the pool stick that Harp offered her.
“We all need weapons,” Harp said, offering Ai the chance to open the game.
Ai lined up a shot with Zai’s help but didn’t manage to sink any balls on the break.
“I’m thinking you can probably get by without any in this particular instance,” Ai said, stepping back from the table to give Harp her turn.
“Because you’re harmless?” Harp asked, and sank four balls with a single shot.
“To you? Yeah, I’d say it’s a pretty safe bet to make,” Ai said.
Harp stood to chalk up her stick again.
“I wouldn’t take that bet in a thousand years,” she said. “You’re probably the most dangerous thing I’ve run into this week.”
Ai arched an eyebrow.
“You fought three NMEs less than twelve hours ago,” she said. “NMEs who, I will remind you, I crashed a car into the river just to have a prayer of surviving.”
“That was a beautiful thing,” Harp said. “Perhaps not exactly the definition of sanity, but just an amazing display of ingenuity.”
“I’m not not sure it was all that,” Ai said. “It was basically ‘drive forward, very fast’.”
“I was accelerated then too,” Harp said. “I know how tight the timing was on ejecting your power train, and on flaring the doors and trunk. I was trying to work out how to catch you and you managed to hit exactly the right angle to survive a fall that should have been fatal in 99% of cases.”
“Wait, you could have caught us?” Ai asked.
“Sure. In theory at least. I didn’t have a good solution on the approach angle before you hit the water though, so theory wasn’t exactly meeting practice there.”
“How strong are you?” Ai asked, genuinely curious.
As a kid, after she started hacking her own bio-mods, she’d toyed with the notion of amplifying her own physique. She’d held back in part because it would have been staggeringly difficult to hide the fact that she’d suborned the licensed tech within her if she made radical modifications to herself. There were technical challenges to internal human augmentation though that called to her like delicious puzzles. In the back of her mind she’d imagined a day when she was old enough and successful enough to no longer care about being discovered when she’d be able to chase down the solutions to those puzzles, and another part of her mind that was terrified at the prospect of the uncountable things that could go wrong within that sort of self-experimentation.
“That depends,” Harp said. “Do you mean me, or do mean Valkyrie One?”
Ai thought about that for a moment.
“You’re a partial conversion?” she asked, guessing at the truth Harp was hinting at.
“And there’s the weapon you brought with you,” Harp said.
“I’m no danger to you,” Ai said, as Zai dumped all the information Ai had compiled about partial conversion cyborgs across her active memory.
“You’re smart, and you appear to be a good cop,” Harp said. “You’re exactly what we need, and you’ve shown both discretion and trust in coming here. I cannot express how incredibly dangerous that makes you to us.”
“Why?” Ai asked.
“Because I want to trust you too, and that way lies betrayal and carnage and death,” Harp said.
“So, basically, an ordinary day on the job then you’re saying?” Ai asked, being more honest than it appeared.
“I’m serious,” Harp said. “We could do each other a world of good, but I’ve been down that road before and somehow, being humans, we always screw things up.”
“I can’t tell you to trust me,” Ai said. “I mean I think it’s clear that you do, otherwise you wouldn’t have invited me here, or even shown me your face in the first place. What I can offer is that there will very likely be betrayal, carnage, and death if we work together. The trick will be making sure it’s targeting the right people.”
“It’s like I’m standing on a knife. That should make me trust you so much less and yet I can’t help but feel drawn in.”
“That’s good,” Ai said. “You’ve got me boiling over with intrigue. It’s only fair you suffer a bit of uncertainty too.”
“You do seem to be running a bit on the hot side,” Zai said.
“Yeah, are you sure the stimulants in the air aren’t affecting me?” Ai asked.
“Positive. Whatever you’re feeling now is all you,” Zai said. “I can suppress it if you’d like?”
“Tempting but no,” Ai said. “This game’s kind of fun. I’d hate to miss out on enjoying it.”
“I’m not sure I follow the stakes you’re playing for,” Zai said.
“Each other pretty much,” Ai said. “We can each do tremendous damage to the other. Harp in a literal sense and me by revealing their secrets. Overcoming the fear of that is something that humans are typically miserable at. Either we pull back too soon and mess everything up, or we jump right in throwing caution to wind and leave ourselves so open that only tragedy can result.”
“How did your species ever manage to survive for a generation much less tens of thousands of years?” Zai asked.
“I think the official theory is we’re too stupid to die,” Ai said. “Might have been ‘too stubborn’, but I think stupidity is a stronger factor based on our history.”
“So I guess we should get the most important question out the way first,” Harp said. “Who was it who did your modifications?”
“That’s kind of personal, but since I can’t exactly pretend I don’t have any, I might as well trust you on that one I guess. But on one condition though,” Ai said.
“You want to know who did my conversion?” Harp asked.
“Exactly,” Ai said.
“That’s fair,” Harp said.
“Ok then, the truth is, I did my own mods. I started when I was seven. I only had the initial bio-tech installed then but I hated it, so, I kind of cracked it and used it to break the other systems they put in over the years.”
“You hacked your own tech?” Harp asked, her face clouding over. “That’s your story?”
“Yeah, believe it or not,” Ai said. “It was easy once I had root level access to the first system.”
“I don’t believe it,” Harp said, her eyes hardening. “I know what it takes to hack a mind. That’s not possible to do to yourself. Who are you really working for?”
“Myself,” Ai said, glancing around for the exits Zai had marked on her vision. None of them were close enough for her to reach before Harp could strike her down, as it was looking increasingly likely would happen.
Human stupidity at it’s finest. Ai decided, as an epitaph, it was absolutely the last thing she wanted on her tombstone despite it also being the most appropriate thing under the circumstances.
“Don’t lie. I knew you were too good to be true, so tell me who you’re working for and you can walk out of here,” Harp said, her body vibrating with suppressed energy as she held back the transformation into her battle form.
Ai let ice flow through her veins, her emotions drifting away under a neurotransmitter bath provided by Zai.
“I’m not lying,” she said, her voice flat and serious. “I took control of my own modifications. What I am now is what I have created myself to be.”
“That’s. Not. Possible!” Harp said, her armor flaring out to cover her skin. “We’ve seen people who’ve tried that. I know, exactly, what happens to them.” Her voice was metallic but it carried a raw pain that could only have been born in a personal tragedy.
“You don’t know me,” Ai said. “You don’t know what I’m capable of.”
“It doesn’t matter how smart you are,” Harp said. “You can’t rewrite your own brain.”
[You can if you have help.] Zai said, transmitting on a private channel that only only she, Ai and Harp had access to.