Ai liked the idea of destroying a large multinational corporation. Tython wasn’t particularly worse than any other megacorp but it wasn’t any better either. The key element in Ai’s view was making sure that when the bonfire of history consumed Tython the flames would spread to all the companies that colluded with it.
“We’re going to need to be thorough,” Harp said, leading Ai into a vault in the basement of the billiards hall. The door swung shut behind them. “We were safe from prying eyes and ears upstairs but safety’s never absolute.”
“That door looked like it was a foot thick. I take it the walls here are too?” Ai asked, surveying the inside of the room Harp had lead them too. Apart from the vault door, there was an exit from the room on the far well. It was simpler and led to what Ai guessed was the other half of the vault. The decor on the half she could see was starkly at odds with the rest of Madtown’s aesthetic. Warm dark wood with polished wood fittings and large overstuffed cushions graced the couches and chairs in the center of the vault. Around the walls there were
“I couldn’t blast in or out of here if I wanted to,” Harp said.
“That should be kind of creepy after I let you lure me down to your basement,” Ai said.
“We need the privacy,” Harp said.
A thousand crude jokes her father and brother would have made rose to Ai’s lips but she refrained from giving them voice. Harp would probably take them as teasing and Ai had little interest in offending someone she was trying to win as an ally.
“Can you emit the dampening field even when the armor is retracted like it is now?” she asked instead.
“No, our transformed mode acts as the final assembly for a lot of our more exotic systems,” Harp said. “It makes it a lot harder for scans to pick us out of the general populace.”
“I guess I can see that, but you’re still dripping with tech,” Ai said. “I can’t imagine it’s easy to stay hidden. Are you cooped up here all the time normally?”
“No,” Harp said. “We have normal lives. Looking like this means not a lot of people give you a second glance.”
“I find that hard to believe,” Ai said, taking another long look the various bit of seemingly miswired tech that adorned Harp’s rail thin body.
“What do I look like to you?” Harp asked.
“Amazing,” Ai said.
“Do I look like I belong here?” Harp asked.
“I guess so,” Ai said. “Whoever modeled the exterior mods you have was brilliant. They matched the look of the…mods the…people…here have.”
“You mean the junk the Rusties here are stuck with,” Harp said. “All of this though,” she gestured up and down the length of her body, “what you see now is exactly how my mods looked before I was reborn.”
Ai looked at Harp again. She blinked and tried to will away her wonder at the incredible engineering that she knew lay just beneath Harp’s skin. Another blink and she pushed back her awareness of Harp’s history and humanity. The woman who was left standing before her could have been any Rusty from among a crowd of hundreds or thousands.
It was brilliant camouflage but not for the intricacy of the technical design. It was brilliant because Ai wouldn’t have looked twice at Harp if she passed her on the street. Wouldn’t even have looked once if she could avoid it.
“Don’t like what you see as much now do you?” Harp asked, reading Ai’s expression.
“You still look amazing,” Ai said, shoving the uncomfortable insight into her own prejudices down for the moment at least. She’d need to revisit the idea or it would drive her to distraction. She could already feel questions arising around it, like how much of her antipathy towards being poor translated into disgust at the poor themselves.
Harp shook her head but a slight grin dimpled her cheeks.
“I stand by my assertion that you’re dangerous,” she said.
“But badly in need of some insight,” Ai said. “How do you think I’ll be able to help you?”
“Tython has a special project underway concerning the NMEs,” Harp said. “I know that’s not news to you, but perhaps this will be; their project involves the search for a cure.”
Ai shook her head slightly.
“There can’t be interference here affecting your ears can there?” Zai asked.
“No, but if she’s right then we’re farther behind than I thought,” Ai said.
“A cure might not be exactly the right term,” Harp amended her statement. “A better description might be a vaccine.”
“I’m not sure I follow that either,” Ai said. “There’ve been a lot of NME attacks, but even so your chance of being injured in one falls somewhere below being eaten by radioactive sewer alligators.”
“The vaccine isn’t targeted at defending you from being attacked by an NME, it’s to prevent you from becoming an NME,” Harp said.
“There’s all kinds of problems with that though,” Ai said. “The narrative the newsfeeds have out doesn’t mention that it’s normal people who are primarily affected. Most people are content to swallow the theory that it’s ex-military personnel whose gear was compromised.”
“Veterans are an important group to market to, but that’s not the segment that Tython is going after. They’re scaling up for mass distribution of the vaccine even before they have a working alpha version complete.”
“I can’t imagine that’s something they’re doing out of the goodness of their hearts?” Ai said.
“Insofar as they have neither hearts nor goodness that is correct,” an older woman said. She appeared to be in her early sixties but small tells from the ease with which she walked, to the lack of winkles near her eyes or on her hands, suggested that she was much older and had access to very good bio-mods.
“Doctor Raju?” Harp asked, spinning inhumanely fast to face the door on the far end of the vault where the older woman had entered from.
“I know, I know. We talked about my staying out of this for now, but you must forgive an old woman, my dear, my curiosity got the better of me,” Dr. Raju raid.
“Wow, if that’s who did Harp’s tech work then I’m impressed,” Zai said.
“You were able to look her up? I thought we were cut off?” Ai asked.
“We are,” Zai said. “I have info on topics and people of interest saved locally with you though.”
“And Dr. Raju made that list?” Ai asked.
“We used a few of her papers in redesigning me,” Zai said. “So, yeah, she’s kind of important in my view.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you in person Dr. Raju,” Ai said.
“I’m surprised me haven’t met sooner,” Dr. Raju said. “Where did you do your graduate work? We can’t find a record of it.”
“I didn’t do anything after my Bachelor’s,” Ai said. “I enrolled in the GCPD instead.”
“That is most interesting,” Dr. Raju said. “We will have to speak later. For now though please excuse my rude interruption.”
Harp was tense and making furtive glances at Dr. Raju and the door to the back half of the vault. Ai wasn’t sure if Harp wanted to drag the doctor back to relative safety of the mystery room or scream at her for leaving that safety. Instead of either action though, Harp settled on glaring at Dr. Raju as the doctor sat down at a table near the rear of the room and gestured for Harp and Ai to join her.
“Tython is trying to find a preventative for the malicious code that converts people to NMEs?” Ai said. “I’m going to guess that means they already learned how to trigger the infection?”
“Yes, that was the angle that we were researching when you and I first met,” Harp said.
“Their research seemed senseless from what we could determine,” Dr Raju said. “They have sacrificed thousands of lives on experiments that were all variations of creating active Enhanciles.”
“Thousands?” Ai asked and immediately regretted the question. Yes, it could thousands or tens of thousands. So long as they were people no one would miss, people with barely any official presence in the city’s social grid, the losses would either be unreported or would fall into the bucket of “Discretionary Community Engagement” just like all of the other cases that no one had the money to mount an actual investigation into.
“We thought Tython was trying to develop their own NMEs,” Harp said. “They were so successful at making them though that we couldn’t see why they hadn’t moved forward to the next stage of deployment.”
“But of course they couldn’t move forward, because the next stage wasn’t deploying the NMEs. It was finding the vaccine to sell so that they could ramp up the threat of the NMEs and then make a killing on sales once the story broke that normal people could be transformed without prior notice.” Ai could see the staggering profits a manufactured plague like that could reap. In retrospect it was only surprising that Tython was the first to dare those waters. Once the news got out, illicit research firms would dive on the concept like maggots on the corpse of whatever morality remained in Gamma City.
“That’s what Gabriel Krauss told us,” Harp said. “Or his corpse did anyways.”
“The guy who got mangled by the automated garbage truck? The one Tython paid for an investigation of?” Ai asked.
“He was employed by Tython at one of their labs. More importantly though he was also employed by Trimuricus Worldwide Holdings, one of Tyson’s principal competitors,” Dr Raju said. “Corporate espionage has always been a profitable game to play, though a great deal less so when the spy’s identity is discovered.”
“Someone within Tython authorized Krauss’ killing, but only realized their mistake when someone raided their data stores in response to the information Krauss had unearthed,” Harp said.
“Wait, weren’t we the ones who raided their data?” Zai said. “And we didn’t have any contact with Krauss before you stepped in a pile of random bits of him.”
“Yep, but just because there was no real connection between the two events doesn’t mean the paranoia of the guy running the top secret and super illegal project couldn’t invent a narrative that tied them together.”
“Did we get unbelievably luck then?” Zai asked.
“Not so much,” Ai said. “We moved them to an unwise action, but generated a lot more interest than we meant to. We’ll need to hold Heartless’ tools completely away from this or the connections to us will be inevitable for people to discover.”
“They had you run an identity check on Krauss’ corpse so that it could come to light that he’d been spying on them. The data from the raid is still under judicial review, so they can’t be sure what information Krauss directed the robbery teams towards. With a new case on the line the data from the robbery can be called as evidence and the judicial lock will be removed.” Harp said.
“Which means Tython can see the broad scope of what the thieves were looking for,” Ai said.
“Right, our belief is that they killed Tython before they knew that he’d made a transmission out. Their only option for stopping the spread of the news about their NME program is to discover who the information has spread to and silence them immediately.”
“Is that why they attacked me?” Ai asked.
“They were probably after your partner, but that seems to be the general idea.”
“From everything you’ve just told me they’re running scared. Whoever’s in charge is this project is behaving like their life is on the line, which, given what they did, it probably is.”
“That’s our read on the situation too,” Doc Raju said.
“Excellent, then what we need to do next is show them that they’re nowhere near terrified enough yet,” Ai said as wheels began to turn in her mind.