Tython was too massive an entity to die to any single blow. It had offices around the world and employed tens of thousands of people. It drew resources from mines in Africa, farms in Thailand, universities in Brazil and sweatshops in the Pacific Northwest. Gamma City was special in that it was the close closest Tython came to having a ‘head office’, or a central heart, that directed the rest of the vast corporate organism’s unchecked growth.
“Unfortunately, we can’t be sure that the one who’s directing their NME Cure project is based locally, so our access to them may be limited,” Harp said.
“We believe the principal research on the cure is being carried out here though,” Doctor Raju said.
“If Krauss stumbled on the NME tech-virus before he got garbage truck mangled then that seems like a solid guess,” Ai said. “Since you haven’t moved on any of the active labs yet, I’m guessing that you’re still hunting for them?”
The surface of the table they were seated at projected a miniature map of Gamma City with highlight tags at various locations. The spots where the Valkyries had fought NMEs were highlighted with dark red flags. Tapping on one called up a basic event summary including the date, time and duration of the fight. There were links to after action reports by Harp and the other Valkyries but they were locked and inaccessible to Ai.
“Their security package looks pretty tight,” Zai said. “Want me to get to work on it?”
“Not yet,” Ai said. “If their anti-intrusion is strong, their detection may be even better and I’d rather avoid bruising the bit of trust they’ve extended so far.”
“It’s not within any of the Rusty slums,” Harp said. “We’ve searched a few of the wealthier blocks as well but that’s a long and tedious process with the need to stay hidden.”
“That brings up an interesting point; why are you keeping your identities secret? Your tech is well beyond anything on the market today. You could make a killing if you went public with it,” Ai said.
“If they could find us, every security force in the northern hemisphere would be vying to take us apart and see what makes us tick,” Harp said.
“That would end poorly for them,” Ai said.
“We’re not invincible,” Harp said.
“Tell that to the NMEs that had the misfortune of running into you,” Ai said.
“They’re not a good test case,” Harp said. “They’re tough, but that makes they hard to stop. The damage they do is limited by their lack of judgment and intellect. If a group of serious tacticians were dedicated to putting us down and they had the full resources of Gamma City to draw on, our lives would not be pleasant.”
“Our cause it also better served by keeping our aims unclear,” Dr. Raju said. “The prevailing theory on the Valkyries seems to be that they are an elite combat unit being put through a beta-testing stage before offers are made to the general public.”
“Since we spare the Highguard resources and embarrassment, the GC City Council isn’t interested in pursuing us,” Harp said.
“Tython should be though. They know you’re after them,” Ai said.
“Possibly not,” Harp said. “The data trail for the NME Cure project runs back to Tython. We know that, but Tython probably doesn’t.”
“That depends how far up the line responsibility for the project goes,” Ai said. “If it’s an off the books project by an ambitious middle manager then virtually no one else there would need to be aware of it. That seems unlikely though.”
“We agree,” Dr. Raju said. “Even for a company as big as Tython, the resources required for a project of this scope would be difficult to divert without significant influence within the company.”
“Which brings us to our need for you,” Harp said. “We need to make sure that any move we make against Tython directly is targeting the right people.”
“Those responsible for the project must be identified so that all traces of it can be removed quietly,” Dr Raju said.
“GCPD doesn’t have much visibility into the inner courts of a company the scale of Tython,” Ai said.
“This isn’t the sort of project which can be handled openly within a company,” Dr. Raju said. “There will be private servers and untraceable connection streams.”
“I can’t necessarily help you with those either,” Ai said.
“You don’t need to identify those responsible directly,” Dr. Raju said. “All we need is Eye Grid’s archives.”
“Which ones?” Ai asked, beginning to piece together a scheme for liberating a selection of the Eye Grid’s massive (and massively well guarded) data.
“All of them,” Dr. Raju said. “Going back to at least two years before the first NME sighting in the city.”
“That’s not possible,” Ai said. “That data is scattered across multiple physical archives. Even if we could gain access to them, copying and transporting that much data would flag every alarm the GCPD owns.”
“We don’t need you to steal the information,” Harp said. “We need you to smuggle one of us in so that we can connect to it. We can handle the data filtering from there.”
“Each archive is stored in an offline mode though,” Ai said. “I’d need to smuggle you into every data storage facility the GCPD has.”
“Not if we have a manifest of the data which is stored at each,” Dr. Raju said.
“That’s held at central command,” Ai said.
“This sounds like fun,” Zai said.
“It’s not, you might be able to crack their electronic security but to get you access to it would require getting past a number of lethal physical barriers.”
“There are certain risks involved,” Dr Raju said.
“I can’t help you there,” Ai said. Seeing Harp’s reaction she hastened to add, “Not directly. My profile is too high as it is already. Even reporting in at central command would raise the kind of flags that I cannot have on my account. What I can offer though is some remote assistance.”
“Will it get us the manifest?” Harp asked.
“That will depend on you, and how much you can bring yourself to trust me,” Ai said.
Ai had considered a career in police forensics when she was younger. From her father’s description of them, she thought they were responsible for most of the actual detective work that the GCPD did. In the years since she’d learned the value of being out in the world and talking directly with people, but a part of her was still enamoured with the idea of interacting with crime scenes through an expertly piloted scanning and sampling drone.
As a beat cop for the GCPD, solving crimes via a remote drone wasn’t a part of her remit. Committing a crime via a drone though was well within the wheelhouse she’d constructed for herself.
[Are we in place yet?] Harp asked, sending the message as a coded string in one of the city’s trashier personal news feed.
[I’m afraid not,] Ai transmitted, coding her message to travel along the noise in the central command maintenance drone positioning system.
[These cleaning bots are a bit cramped,] Harp responded.
By speaking on separated channels, the chance of anyone intercepting their messages and understanding them was vastly diminished. Ai had still planned to keep their communications brief and circumspect, but she could sympathize with Harp’s situation.
“So you’re pulling double shifts for a week are you?” Curtweather asked from the driver seat of their latest patrol car. “Captain James must just love how what you’ve done to the department’s equipment budget.”
The best place to command a crime from was the front seat of police car. With Curtweather handling what little driving was required, Ai was free to silently direct the pieces of her plan as they moved around the board she laid out.
“The double shifts were my idea,” Ai said, as she turned her attention to the map of GCPD central command that Zai projected onto her vision.
The maintenance bot that Harp was huddled inside was trundling down its standard room sweeping path and failing to broadcast the error codes that its processor was desperately try to send.
The automated workforce that serviced central command was protected by a series of theft deterrence systems. The hole Ai had seen in their defense was that the theft deterrence systems were all designed around people trying to steal or reprogram the cleaning bots. So she didn’t steal the cleaning bot. She stole the theft system.
The theft system had wireless links to the bots’ components but the trigger for an alarm to be sent was keyed to the components leaving the building. Zai had suborned a delivery drone and used it to to disassemble the first isolated maintainence bot she could fit.
On the bot’s next trip to the loading docks, Harp had been waiting to climb onboard. The bot new that it was badly in need of repair, but it didn’t have any sensors to detect that someone had climbed inside it. That wasn’t a scenario that had been covered in the original design specifications and therefore the engineers hadn’t wasted money designing in components to cover it.
“Why would you volunteer for double shifts? It doesn’t come with any extra pay,” Curtweather said.
“The budget’s stretched thin right? And I’ve got red marks all down my balance sheet. I haven’t done anything actionably wrong but if I let things stay as they are then when the next funding review comes up who’s going to be first on the chopping block?” Ai asked.
“Darn, was kind of hoping you wouldn’t notice that,” Curtweather said.
“I notice everything,” Ai said, specifically referring to the security bot that was about to intercept Harp’s location.
[You’re about to hear an alarm. Try to keep your heart rate low], she texted to Harp.
[My gear is all in lockdown mode and I’m twisted into a pretzel to fit into this smelly can.] Harp replied. [None of that is conducive to keeping my heart rate down.]
[Think happy thoughts.] Ai suggested and triggered a proximity alarm inside one of the closets the security bot was traveling past.
The alarm had an audible component but its primary function was to alert the building’s security web that a potential breach had occurred. Cracking a system as complex as the GCPD central command meant knowing more about it than the original engineers did. Fortunately, Zai had both their documentation and the ability to absorb the entire design and correlate its components on a level the human engineers both couldn’t manage or hadn’t been paid enough to try.
“Forty milliseconds to sensor burnout,” Zai reported. It hadn’t been a lucky break that the promixity alarms had a failure mode where they literally smoked out if set to their highest power setting. The designers hadn’t thought to test what would happen if a sensor that had to scan a 2 meter square room was fed enough power to scan a thousand yard area. Every design has unrealized flaws of that sort. The lucky break was finding it in a timely fashion, and that was the sort of luck which Zai made for herself.
The security bot that had been heading towards Harp’s hideaway turned to investigate the closest. It would find the destroyed proximity sensor and add it to the repair queue behind the two dozen other sensors that had failed earlier thanks to Zai’s need to establish a pattern of complacency before the tactic put into effect.
With Harp’s path clear, and Curtweather providing all the alibi that Ai would ever need, the plan to grab the manifest for the Eye Grid archives seemed destined to succeed without a hitch.
Which, of course, is when everything went wrong.
[The two doors you just cycled through were the entrance to the entrance to the principal data storage area,] Ai texted. [Let the bot come to a rest and you can climb out and directly access them to grab a copy of the manifest.]
[There might be a problem with that,] Harp texted back. [My sensors are reading elevated levels of nitrogen in the air.]
[How elevated?] Ai asked, a sick feeling starting to grow in her stomache.
[There might be other gases in here but I can’t detect them,] Harp said.
Ai felt her jaw clench. It wasn’t a security system. It was fire suppression. An all nitrogen room so that nothing could burn.
And, of course, no one could breathe either. Harp was going to suffocate without ever feeling a thing.