Not all problems have solutions. Sometimes the answer is that failure isn’t an option, it’s inevitable and mandatory. It is the refusal to accept that however which leads people to find the narrowest paths to victory when every reasonable argument suggests that all is lost.
“Can you get the bot I’m in out of here?” Harp said on her private sub-channel.
“It’s still following its programmed cleaning pattern. It won’t leave the room for another ten minutes,” Ai said, replying on her own hidden sub-channel.
“Ten minutes is a long time to hold my breath. Can you block the sensors so I can bring my bio-mod systems back online?” Harp asked.
“Sorry. The bio-mod scanners have a hard coded alert system and active polling,” Zai said. “I could spoof the responses but we would need to have set up a physical splice into their transmission path.”
“I can blast a path out of the building,” Harp suggested.
“That won’t work,” Zai said. “The moment the sensors detect active bio-mods in the data vault the servers will power down and be locked with judicial encryption. The whole trip would be for nothing.”
“That would suck, but if it comes to that, do it,” Ai said. “If they successfully arrest you we’ll never see you again.”
“Queueing up my weapons platform then,” Harp said.
“Be ready, but hold off for a moment,” Ai said.
“Do you have an idea?” Harp asked.
“Zai, give me an overview of the High Guard Tactical Response Teams’ current rapid deployment zones,” Ai said.
A map of Gamma City replaced the map of the GCPD central command on Ai’s display. Highlighted in a green were the various areas which the High Guard could be deployed to in under a minute. Ai found it amusing but not surprising that GCPD’s central command was one of them. For all of the rivalry between Gamma City’s police and military forces, the higher ups in the law enforcement division were just as interested in being protected from NME related catastrophes as the rest of the citizenry was.
“What is calling in the High Guard going to do to help us?” Harp asked.
“High Guard deployments are costly,” Ai said. “GCPD command won’t voluntarily call them in for anything short of a in-building NME assault.”
“That sounds good. Fighting the military without my mod active seems only slightly more suicidal than staying in this room with no breathable air,” Harp said.
“How are you holding up so far?” Ai asked.
“If I could run anything more than the communication mods, I’d be doing a lot better,” Harp said.
“The comm mods are the only ones the sensors can’t be calibrated for. Too much communication flows through the building, they’d be ringing all the time if they tried to pick that up,” Zai said.
“Zai, can you get me the current position of the officers on the Special List?” Ai asked.
The display of the city lit up with blue dots showing the last reported position of a particular subset of the GCPD.
“Special list?” Harp asked.
“I’m not the first member of my family to join the GCPD,” Ai said. “I am the only one who’s currently serving though. The people responsible for that are a resource of sorts.”
“I think I can guess where you’re going with this,” Zai said. “Won’t that endanger your alibi?”
“A little,” Ai said. “Sometimes it’s worth courting a little danger though.”
“Worth it, or you’re frustrated that you missed the nitrogen room?” Zai asked.
“Let’s call it both,” Ai said. “I need someone for this and the Special List was pretty much tailor made for it.”
“What are you going to do?” Harp asked.
With their comms working via direct mental monitoring, Ai and Harp were communicating several times faster than speech would have allowed. That meant Harp wasn’t starting to suffocate yet, but there wasn’t a lot of time to burn before that became a serious or irreversible problem.
“I’m going to set off every alarm at GCPD command,” Ai said.
“That’s going to seal every lock in the building!” Zai said.
“Right. That’s why I’m also going to give the High Guard a reason to use the master unlock code,” Ai said. “Only an NME attack will bring the big guns rolling into town? Good, then they’re going to have an NME attack to deal with.”
“A simulated one you mean?” Harp asked.
Ai selected her target. Eric Andrews. He’d used a rusty pipe on her brother in the footage she’d watched. She knew the length of the pipe, and its weight, and how much force each of the nineteen swings had held. She’d held onto that knowledge for a long time. Locking in his name felt like grasping the forbidden fruit.
“No. Not simulated at all,” Ai said. She flipped a virtual switch to trigger the GCPD alarms and watched a moment later as an automated message rolled in declaring central command a Class Five danger zone. Hundreds of links to the alarm systems were bundled with that announcement. Each signaled that another part of central command had become a technological fortress.
“All hell just broke loose here,” Harp said. “And that loud clang didn’t sound too good either.”
“That was the battleplate dropping to seal the room you’re in,” Zai said.
“That’ll be coming up in a few seconds,” Ai said, and hit the “Commit” button that hovered over Eric Andrew’s name in her display.
The forbidden fruit was delicious, and Ai had to fight to keep her face from breaking out in a vengeful grin.
“NME transformation has begun,” Ai said.
“Wait, you were serious about that?” Harp said. “You unleashed an NME in here?”
“Will be unleashing one,” Ai said. “In about twenty seconds. The initial transformation takes longer than that for full efficiency but I just need something that looks, sounds, and fights like an NME.”
“People are going to die,” Harp said. “Your fellow cops I mean.”
“They’re not my fellows,” Ai said. “And they’ve got a twenty second head start. They’ll be fine.”
“I hear what sounds like metal retracting,” Harp said.
“High Guard’s got the confirmation of an NME transformation taking place. They’re launching for a combat drop now,” Ai said. “And most importantly, they’ve unlocked all of the secured doors to allow the command center staff to escape the combat zone.”
“Does that mean I can leave?” Harp asked.
“Yes,” Ai said. “Get out of the maintenance bot now and move it to prop open the door. I’ll put the recycling fans up to maximum to make sure we get you some breathable air in there.”
“Working on it now,” Harp said.
“There’s going to be consequences to this,” Zai pointed out.
“I know,” Ai said. “At the moment I’m more concerned about getting Harp out of there with the data we need, but we’ll need to circle back to consider what the fallout will be.”
“The bots are all in shutdown mode. We won’t be able to send her out the way she came in,” Zai said.
“The building is emptying rapidly though,” Ai said. “There’s a lot less chance of someone seeing her than there was before.”
“People yes, but the security systems are all on high alert,” Zai said.
“The security systems only work as long as their intact,” Ai said. “The Andrews NME is going to make scrap out of a pretty wide swath of them, and the ones he misses the High Guard will probably slag with their heavier weapons.”
“Do we really want to send Harp into that though?” Zai asked. “If she uses Valkyrie mode that’s going to raise a number of questions won’t it?”
“The timing will be a little tight I admit,” Ai said. “We’ll need to have her move through the destroyed areas before the fight’s over so that High Guard will still be distracted but not so close to the fighting they she gets caught in the crossfire.”
“I’ve got the data extractor running,” Harp said. “I just heard some major ordinance being deployed though. Nearby.”
“The NMEs active,” Ai said. “Partial transformation only, but it’ll be enough to put up some decent resistance to the High Guard’s troops.”
“Who’s it shooting at now?” Harp asked.
“Monitors mostly,” Ai said. “It only had time to load the basic kill protocols, I think. Any movement it sees, it fires on.”
“What are the command staff doing?” Harp asked.
“Fleeing,” Ai said. “Even SWAT command doesn’t want to tangle with an NME.”
“Good,” Harp said. “Then I’ve got my work cut out for me.”
“What, exactly, do you mean by that,” Ai asked.
“We haven’t let High Guard claim any unerased samples of the NME codebase,” Harp said.
“That was you? You’re the reason all the NME debris has been inert?” Ai asked.
“Yes,” Harp said. “We’ve either disabled it during the fight, or burned it out afterwards while it was being transported from the battle site.”
“Why? I mean, there’s probably a thousand good reasons for that, but, why?” Ai asked.
“I’m supposed to say so that no one else can get infected by it, or something heroic like that right?” Harp asked.
“That would fit with the rep you and the other Valkyries have built up,” Ai said. “If that’s what you want me to believe, I’ll accept it too. But I’m guessing it’s something more personal than that?”
“It’s a lot of things more personal than that,” Harp said. “Tell me why you activated an NME. I’m presuming Zai worked out the unlock code right? But why did you make that choice? I could have escaped in a lot of other ways.”
“For a lot of personal reasons,” Ai said, and paused.
She didn’t speak of her family. Not with strangers and not even with close acquaintances like Agatha.
But she’d already mentioned her father and brother as the reason.
Harp wasn’t a friend. She was at best a temporary ally. One who could turn on Ai the moment their interests no longer aligned.
That wasn’t what held Ai back though. She could spin her answer into a form that elicited sympathy. She could try to buy more trust with an admission of the pain she carried. Tactically there were several highly valuable reasons to tell Harp an edited version of her motivations.
But Ai didn’t want to.
She didn’t want Harp to see the thing that drove her. Her hesitation surprised her. It wasn’t like she wasn’t justified in what she was doing. Eric Andrews deserved the hell he was in. He deserved worse, as did so many others.
Harp didn’t need to see that though. The Black Valkyries were heroes. Whatever else they were, whatever other motivations drove them, Ai had watched the videos of their battles over and over again enough to see the unnecessary risks they took to protect civilians who were caught on the scene. She’d watched Harp emerge from battles leaking precious fluids from more holes than she could count because it had meant that a father got to go home and see his family, or a child lived to see her next birthday, or even so that a homeless woman didn’t meet her end face down in a gutter consumed by plasma fire.
Ai admired the Black Valkyries in the abstract. She was glad that people with the power they had chose to use it to protect those who couldn’t protect themselves. It wasn’t the path that Ai herself could walk down, but she was glad there was someone who could.
But that wasn’t what held her back.
“We’ll have to compare notes later,” Harp said after another moment passed in silence. “The battle sounds like it’s getting closer.”
“Has the data extractor located and downloaded the manifest?” Ai asked.
“Yes, it just dinged completion,” Harp said.
“Time to get out there then,” Ai said. “I’ll plot you a route.”
“There’s no need,” Harp said. “I’m out of the data vault. There’s no bio-mod sensors out here right?”
“None currently active,” Zai said.
“Good, then I don’t have to hold back anymore,” Harp said.
Ai saw a swath of sensors within central command drop offline. A camera feed from outside the GCPD building showed why.
Like a star returning to the heavens on a trail of fire, Valkyrie 1 ascended skyward carrying the thrashing form of the NME that had once been Eric Andrews above her.