Stars that rise in a blaze of glory often fall just as fast. In Harp’s case though, she fell considerably faster.
“The NME’s starting to reconfigure itself,” she said. “I’m going to need a landing point.”
“We’re putting together a profile on the surrounding blocks now,” Dr. Raju said, joining the conversation on a pre-selected channel. “The rest of the team is inbound now as well.”
“Hold them off,” Ai said. “I’ve got a deserted block seven kilometers away from your current position, you’ve got the position data now. You shouldn’t need to even fight there though. We’ll send the shutdown codes to the NME if you’ll rebroadcast them for us.”
“Do it fast,” Harp said. “It can’t gain mass while I’ve got it in the air, so it’s refining its existing systems.”
“Shutdown codes are in your data stream,” Ai said.
“Transmitting now,” Harp confirmed and then added, “no change in activity level. It’s electrified its dermis and it’s spiking its internal temperature. How long is the shutdown going to take?”
“It should have been instantaneous,” Ai said. “Are you in any danger?”
“No,” Harp said. “Its electrical and heat output are well below what my armor can handle. That’s going to change in a hurry when it gets access to some more mass though.”
“Can it absorb you?” Ai asked.
“It’s trying that but my armor’s teaching it a lesson,” Harp said. “As fast I can rot it away though it’s reassembling itself, and it’s growing some new limbs. So that’s going to be fun.”
“That should definitely not be happening,” Zai said. “Harp, can you run a trace program on it?”
“Little busy here,” she said. “Need to put this thing down before my jets overheat.”
“Connect my channel to an external data feed,” Zai said. “I’ll handle it remotely.”
“What are you searching for?” Dr. Raju asked.
“She’s going to see why the shutdown isn’t working,” Ai said. “It worked on the NME that assaulted us earlier, and it didn’t look like they had unique command pathways, so it should have worked on this one.”
“Zai, you’re connected, take this thing apart if you can,” Harp said. “I’m going to free fall to the target site.”
Ai watched the responses from Zai’s scan pour in. Decompiled code flowed across one of the display windows she had opened up with most of the text being effectively gibberish even in a decompiled state.
“Well that’s not good,” Zai said, and Ai saw the error message that shouldn’t have been there.
“Why’s the shutdown not working?” Harp asked.
“This one’s different than the one I cracked into before,” Zai said. “The last one was from someone who was infected with a different strain of the bio-mod virus. It had all sorts of backdoors and unsecured functions in its command structure. This one is much more tightly locked down.”
“Oh, of course it is. Why didn’t I see it!” Ai said on their secure channels, remaining silent in the police cruiser as a new song that fit Curtweather’s horrible taste started to blare out from the old fashioned car speakers.. “The last NME transformed from someone who was infected by contact with Eric Krauss. Krauss was poking around Tython and got exposed to the version of the virus they had there, but they were working on a cure for the general virus, so of course it’s security was shot full of holes. They were trying to make it easier to delete!”
“That doesn’t sound like shutting it down is going to be an option,” Harp said.
“Not via an external signal,” Dr Raju said. “The rest of the team is off standby.”
“No, hold them back,” Harp said. “This one only received a partial activation. I can handle it solo.”
“We don’t work alone,” Dr. Raju said.
“I can handle this battle,” Harp said. “And it’s going to be a lot easier for me to slip away without High Guard following if the others are able to provide a distraction. If we’re all here, the High Guard’s going to be able to follow where at least one of us goes.”
“We can deal with that when the NME is safely disposed of,” Dr. Raju said.
“We can’t risk it,” Harp said. “I’ll be fine. Really. High Guard’s been getting too close as it is. They might be able to penetrate our cloaks now. Let me protect the team. It’s what I’m here for.”
“She doesn’t have to fight alone,” Ai said.
“What do you mean?” Dr. Raju asked.
“The abandoned site I selected?” Ai said. “It’s an old housing complex that is under renovation. The block’s still working on funding the effort so the machines are there but idle.”
“I see them, we’re a second away from impact,” Harp said.
“I have your landing coordinates mapped,” Ai said. “Make some distance when you land. I need some room to swing.”
The telemetry that Ai was following showed confirmation of Harp’s impact as she slammed the NME into the ground. While the crash didn’t exactly crater the landscape, it did kick up an enormous cloud of dust and debris.
“I’ve got the control systems for the construction machines unlocked,” Zai said. “Do you want to drive or shall I?”
“You grab the fleet and do something creative with them,” Ai said. “I’ll take the primary crane.”
“What are you going to do with the crane?” Dr. Raju asked.
“This,” Ai said and sent a link to the crane’s onboard video feed so that everyone could watch in short wave infra-red as the NME struggled to its feet and cast around looking for Harp to resume its attack on her.
Then a wrecking ball hit it in the everywhere.
The crane’s swing carried the ball through the wall of the one of the dilapidated apartment buildings causes walls, floors and ceilings to collapse as the NME was driven through sheetrock and metal and concrete.
“That looked fun,” Harp said.
“It was,” Ai agreed.
“It’s not going to put that thing down though,” Harp said.
“Didn’t think it would,” Ai said, who was a little disappointed nonetheless, “How are your jets doing?”
“Still pretty hot,” Harp said. “I’d love to snipe this guy from the air but I should probably save some flight time for getting out of here.”
“Your team members are rebelling,” Dr. Raju said. “They’re threatening to head in regardless of what I say.”
“You idiots, give me thirty seconds and this will be wrapped up,” Harp said, broadcasting on a wider series of channels so that the other Valkyries could listen in directly.
“Thirty one seconds and you’re buying drinks tonight,” one of the other Valkyries said.
“That should probably go on my tab,” Ai said, sending the message only to Harp. “I really thought this was going to be easier to keep under control.”
“I’m glad to hear you say that,” Harp replied.
“Because it shows I can learn from my mistakes?” Ai said.
“No, because my team can drink like fish,” Harp said. “Hope you’re feeling independently wealthy.”
“I’ve been advised that I should look into taking more bribes,” Ai said. “Just have to find someone nice and rich to shakedown.”
“God, you are such a bad cop,” Harp said, the laughter in her voice singing even through the flat text medium she was restricted to.
“Never claimed otherwise,” Ai said. “Heads up though, I’m getting movement from inside the building. I think the NME ate the wrecking ball.”
“That was inevitable. You could have dropped him in a desert and he’d still have vacuumed up new material for his body.”
What emerged from the wreckage of the building gave clear evidence that both Ai and Harp were correct. The NME had been only slightly bulkier than the human it transformed from. In consuming the mass from the wrecking ball and sundry bits of the building it had more than tripled in size. Gone too were the misaligned growths of partially formed plating. In flight it had corrected for its thwarted early growth spurt and reconfigured itself along sleek curving lines.
“That is a lot of extra armor,” Ai said. “Where is it getting the power to handle converting that much mass at once?”
“The Rosario field,” Dr. Raju said. “It’s the only tech we have developed that can delivery that sort of power in that form factor.”
“But you can’t run a Rosario reactor, even a nanoscale one, at that output without melting,” Ai said.
“There are some efficiency tricks the general public isn’t aware of,” Dr. Raju said. “Even with those however, you’re right. Harp what’s the surface temperature of the NME?”
“Not cold, it’s around 400 degrees and climbing,” Harp said.
“Nothing human can survive that,” Ai said.
“There’s nothing human inside that thing anymore,” Harp said. “And I don’t mean that metaphorically.”
“In heavy combat situations, the human component is often self-consumed once the necessary neural circuitry has been copied from the host brain,” Dr. Raju said.
On her remote camera, Ai saw the NME lash out at Harp with jet of plasma that leap across the dozens of meters that separated them in an instant.
Harp dodged the beam and took briefly to the air a moment before a forklift speared through NME.
The truck had been launched off the top of the apartment building which wasn’t partially collapsed and aimed with the kind of inhuman precision that left no question as to its driver.
“That’s going to leave a mark!” Zai said. “I hope.”
With a tremendous scream, the NME ripped the forklift in half and tossed the pieces away from itself. The left prong was still embedded in its chest, but it didn’t bother trying to remove the spike. Instead its arms reconfigured themselves and a hail of bullets fired by the long railguns that extended from the NMEs shoulders pounded the sky around Harp.
“Twenty seconds,” the other Valkyrie said.
“Just giving you time to get in place,” Harp said.
“I’ve got a couple of cement mixers setup for cover,” Zai said. “They’re behind the building to your right.”
“Thanks, but it’s time to end this,” Harp said and landed ten meters from the NME, directly in its line of fire.
Bullets slammed into her, but she held her ground with no more concern than Ai would have had for walking into a particularly stiff rainstorm. Around her hands a globe of crackling electricity began to form and Ai’s monitoring sensors shot off the charts.
The NME switched back to the plasma lance but before it could bring the weapon to bear, Harp finished charging her attack.
It was one strike. A single ball of radiant light, crackling and expanding as it flew. It devoured the air as it flew, releasing still more blinding light until it hit the NME and exploded with a brilliance that was visible across half the city.
“What the hell was that?” Ai had to startle “awake” in the police cruiser as Curtweather swore and pulled over to the side of the road.
“That’s one I don’t get to use often,” Harp said. “Usually there’s too many people around to risk it.”
“I’m not seeing any sign of the NME!” Ai warned.
“No worries there,” Harp said. “I can see it just fine. It’s over there, and there, and way over there too.”
“Sweep it clean and then get out of there,” Dr. Raju said. “I should have known you were going to use that.”
Ai wasn’t sure from the text feed but she didn’t get the impression that Dr. Raju was at all happy with their victory.
“That didn’t go exactly according to plan, but we’ve got the manifest, so we can move forward at least,” she offered.
“Yes. We can. Thank you for your help Officer Greensmith,” Dr. Raju said. “For your own safety and ours, please do not seek us out again.”
And just like that, the secure communication channels went silent.