It was difficult to be miserable in the face of Agatha’s apple pie, but Ai was making a valiant attempt at hanging on to her frown.
“Now I know things can’t be that bad,” Agatha said, dropping a dollop of what couldn’t possibly be homemade vanilla ice cream on Ai’s plate beside the slice of apple pie.
“It’s not,” Ai said. “Things are fine really.”
“For values of fine that include ‘we made it out of Madtown alive and without organ damage’. Personally I’m chalking that one up as fantastic,” Zai said.
“Funny how things can fine and still suck isn’t it?” Agatha asked.
Ai smirked and mixed a piece of the oven-warm pie with a bit of ice cream.
“It’s just work stuff,” she said.
She hadn’t invited Agatha down, but she was, as always, grateful for her landlord’s habit of keeping tabs on the building’s tenants.
“Work stuff means cops,” Agatha said. “Can’t say I’m surprised you’re having trouble with them. Not a clean badge anywhere in the city, yours excluded of course.”
“You’re not wrong about that, but this time it was with a…consultant,” Ai said. She trusted Agatha but Harp’s secrets weren’t ones she felt she could share with anyone.
“Was this consultant particularly attractive?” Agatha asked, showing no concern for the specifics while trying to understand the larger shape of the problem Ai was wrestling with.
“That wasn’t the difficult part,” Ai said. “They were a bit skittish to be working with me. They’d had some issues with cops before.”
“Well that narrows the pool to everyone who lives in Gamma City,” Agatha said.
“The Platinum Tier and above folk don’t tend have a lot of complaints,” Ai said.
“Sure they do,” Agatha said. “Listen to them on the feeds sometime. GCPD costs too much and does too poor a job.”
“Chalk that up to the laws that prevent Platinum tier and above neighborhoods from having warrants drawn against them,” Ai said. “Not that we could serve a warrant against an estate that has a private militia guarding it.”
“So what happened with this consultant?” Agatha asked. “It’s not like you to scare off a skittish prospect.”
“I messed up,” Ai said. “We were working on a project and I thought I had my part of it under control. Turns out I did not.”
Agatha rolled her eyes and smiled.
“Oh, have I ever been there,” she said.
“I’m torn,” Ai said. “I want to make up for letting things get so far out of hand, but the consultant dropped out of contact.”
“Not returning your calls?” Agatha asked.
“Sort of,” Ai said, feeling foolish.
“How does someone sort of not return a call?” Agatha asked. “Unless of course you haven’t tried calling them?”
“I don’t think they want me to,” Ai said, remebering the cold finality of Dr. Raju’s last message.. “Working with me isn’t exactly safe, so it’s probably better if they stay well away.”
“Is the consultant a child?” Agatha asked, “Because that’s what making that choice for them says.”
“I know,” Ai said, frowning through her next bite of the apple pie.
“But it’s still hard to reach out, isn’t it?” Agatha asked.
“In theory it’s easy, but I just don’t see it going well in practice,” Ai said.
“It might not,” Agatha said. “Some people come into our lives, and just don’t fit. Or they expect things from us that we can’t give them.”
“In this case it was more a matter of them expecting a level of competency I should definitely have been able to manage,” Ai said.
“That’s not entirely fair,” Zai said. “We had to move fast and we did the best we could with the information we had.”
“There was more information there though,” Ai said. “I just overlooked it.”
“The nitrogen atmosphere in the room?” Zai asked, “I missed that too, and so did Harp and Dr. Raju. That’s not your fault alone.”
“It was my plan though, so I get the responsibility,” Ai said. “Plus that wasn’t my only mistake. Thinking that we had the shutdown codes for the NME when we didn’t could have been fatally stupid rather than just embarrassingly brainless.”
“How is that not my fault?” Zai asked. “I was the one who hacked the first NME. I was the one who found the shutdown code. Shouldn’t I have known it wouldn’t work on the ones we activated?”
“That’s not your job,” Ai said. “I’m supposed to be the one who understands how humans think. You’re still working on it. Once I found out that Tython was working on a cure, I should have considered what it meant for the NMEs that could be traced back to their labs.”
“Or I could have asked the simple question of why the NMEs were giving people so much trouble when there were security holes in their code that you could drive a tank through,” Zai said.
“I don’t think your competency is the problem,” Agatha said. “Everybody makes mistakes. Take this ice cream, it’s the second batch I made today. Turns out, it tastes a little weird when you mix up the sugar and the salt.”
“When a mistake comes close to getting someone killed though, I think it’s understandable to treat it a little worse than salty ice cream,” Ai said.
“Oh certainly,” Agatha said. “Some mistakes are so bad there’s no fixing them. It’s been my experience though that there’s a whole lot more mistakes that people don’t even try making up for.”
“Can I have another slice?” Ai asked, as she swallowed the last bit of the first one Agatha had given her.
“I certainly hope so,” Agatha said. “Second helpings are the best compliment you can give a baker.”
“So you think I should reach out to her?” Ai asked, trying to picture Harp’s likely responses. The best case scenario she could envision was Harp thanking her politely for her efforts and letting her know that the Black Valkyries would be conducting the rest of the campaign against Tython with the same discretion that had kept their motives and operations secret from a news hungry city for over a year.
Ai’s own quest to tear down those ultimately responsible for the state of the city and the world would benefit from the Valkyries as a group unconnected to her but working towards a common goal.
In activating the NME and taking revenge against one of her brother’s killers, Ai’d left an enormous clue regarding her connection to the events at central command. It really was for the best that she and the Valkyries part company on as good terms as they had. Harp would be better off. Everyone would be better off.
But part of her was still hoping for Agatha to tell her to call.
“Call her? Don’t call her? I don’t think it matters,” Agatha said. “Not until you decide what you really want to do.”
“What I want and what’s good for me are rarely the same thing,” Ai said.
“Welcome to life on Earth,” Agatha said. “I’m just saying that doing something because you think you should or not doing it because you think you shouldn’t is like letting someone else live your life for you. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes that’s a good thing. None of us know everything, so letting someone else take the lead can save us a lot of trouble. Other times though, much as it sucks, trouble can be just what we need.”
“I know the Valkyries have disappeared, but I’m pretty sure I can get a message to them,” Zai said. “They may not be talking, but they’re probably still listening.”
“What do you think?” Ai asked. “I mean, I don’t think I’m wrong that it would be better if we each kept working on things separately right?”
“Define better?” Zai asked.
“More likely to succeed, less likely to both get caught,” Ai said. “Tython does have a first rate set of data analysts, and there’s plenty of information to pick up from the wreckage of central command and the abandoned office complex.”
“Wouldn’t you both be better off with the other watching your back? I mean I do what I can, but as you pointed out, I have some blind spots. For now anyways.” Zai asked.
“Harp has Dr. Raju and the other Valkyries to look out for her,” Ai said.
“True, but she still wanted to work with you,” Zai said.
“Wanted, past tense,” Ai said. “They’ve got the manifest now. Whatever they think they can find in the EyeGrid archives they’ll be able to locate and pilfer without worrying about exposing their secrets to an outsider.”
“Is that what you think their next step is?” Zai asked. “A break-in at the EyeGrid archives? For what?”
“Confirmation,” Ai said. “They have to know what they’re looking for already. There’s just too much visual data to sort through otherwise.”
“Ok, but isn’t that something that we need to know too?” Zai asked.
“Maybe,” Ai said. “We’ve got a lot of work to tackle, and we’ve gotten really close to this one. It wouldn’t take many other slips ups to paint a target on us that was visible from space.”
“I guess I can see that,” Zai said. “It’s just weird though.”
“Why?” Ai asked.
“Well, Harp is the first person, aside from you, I ever spoke to as myself,” Zai said. “I mean, I’ve talked to a lot of people as Heartless, or pretending to be you, and I know it was sort of a special situation but it was nice having someone else that knew about me.”
“I’m sorry, Zai,” Ai said, a fresh pang stabbing through her,”I didn’t know that was bothering you.”
“I didn’t either,” Zai said.
“If we can find anyone trustworthy, I wouldn’t at all mind letting you speak through me, or you could use direct messaging like you did with Harp,” Ai offered. “We wouldn’t even have to look far. Agatha would probably be able to keep the secret.”
“Thanks,” Zai said. “I’ll think about it. I don’t think we’ve been wrong to have me hide away up till now. It’s not like my existence has suddenly become legal, and anyone we tell could wind up in a lot of trouble too if we’re discovered.”
“Yeah, but the last thing I want is for you have to suffer silently, waiting for a perfect moment that may never arrive. You deserve better than that, and we can make it happen.”
“In all the old movies about robots taking over the world, why did none of the humans try being like you?” Zai asked.
“Because the movies weren’t really about virtual and fleshy people. They were either about humans and forces of nature masquerading as science, or humans and other humans pretending to have mechanical bodies. When moviemakers wanted to write about people and other people, they just wrote about humans and other humans.”
“So I know starting with desert undermines my authority as a voice of age and wisdom,” Agatha said, “but I’m having some of the residents over to help celebrate the buildings sixtieth anniversary. I can promise you a full belly and some pleasant conversation. You might even meet someone there to take your mind off your consultant issue.”
Ai considered her options. She normally avoided people like the memetic plague carriers they generally were. Ones who Agatha vouched for though? Those might be a decent enough crowd to mingle with for an evening. Especially for the promise of a full meal of Agatha’s cooking.
Then the message app on Ai’s heads up display pinged with a new arrival. The message had no sender, and no recipient. It was pure gibberish as it scrolled across her vision.
“Zai?” Ai asked as a wild flurry of nervous energy shot from her stomach to her fingertips.
“It’s encrypted,” Zai confirmed.
A moment later the meaningless text was replaced by a simple, decrypted message, courtesy of Zai’s efforts.
“Sorry about before. If you’re willing, we should meet again. No need for another garbage truck ride though, I can come to you this time. Just say where and when. -H”.