The subway rolled on past Ai’s stop and Ai rolled on with it, leaving her home drifting ever further behind her.
“There’s a lot of questions I could ask you now, but why don’t we start with this one,” Ai said. “We’re going to rob one of the EyeGrid archives – when do we get started?”
“As soon as we can,” Harp said. “I’ve got a seven hour window where Dr. Raju won’t notice that I’m gone. If I miss the midnight check-in though, she’ll activate the search beacon we carry.”
“Can you disable that?” Ai asked.
“Yes, but we might need it if we run into trouble. And there’s a chance that she’d notice the deactivation.”
“And you don’t want her to know that we’re doing this why?” Ai asked.
“She threatened to wipe out the manifest data we got from GCPD central command if we tried to act on it before she declared it safe.”
“And without the manifest, even if we get the data, locating the time segments that you need will be all but impossible,” Ai said, perceiving the nature of the problem.
She couldn’t blame Dr. Raju for being cautious. Off hand Ai could think of several methods of using a falsified manifest as a trap for the unwary. From simple techniques like aliasing all of the indexes within the manifest so that you could discover what the Valkyries were looking when they tried to access it, to more complicated schemes like replacing specific image streams with staged video that showed the Valkyries what you wanted them to believe.
“Won’t she just wipe it if you show up with a copy of the archive before she’s ready to sign off the manifest’s integrity?” Ai asked. Bad data could be infinitely worse than no data, and sometimes safety had to be the paramount consideration.
“I’m not going to let her know I’ve retrieved the data until I’ve seen what’s in the archive,” Harp said.
“What if she’s right? What if there is a trap in the manifest?” Ai asked. “The people we’re up against are not amateurs.”
“If it’s a trap then I want to see what it is,” Harp said. “That’s part of why I’m not involving the others in this. If there’s some kind of worm in the data then I’d rather it fry my brain than any of theirs.”
Ai frowned. She’d heard of friendships like that. Read about them in books and seen them in videos her whole life. Experiencing it personally however had never been in the cards for her. In Ai’s experience people could be pleasant and civil at times but no one really wanted to die for anyone else.
But there was Harp, placing herself in harm’s way so that no one she cared about would have to.
“Who is it that’s pursuing you?” Ai asked. “You’d mentioned before that there were people hunting for you and the other Valkyries and it sounded like they were a serious threat.”
“That’s a long story,” Harp said. “You’ve guessed some of it already though. Tython and any other groups who deal in military supplies would pay anything to get their hands on us. Or to showcase their tech beating us.”
“Those aren’t the people who worry you though,” Ai said.
“No,” Hope agreed. “They’re not.”
“And here we reach the limit of what you trust me with?” Ai asked.
“I’m sorry,” Harp said.
“No, don’t be,” Ai said. “It’s damn healthy to be careful. I just want to be clear on what boundaries I shouldn’t push.”
“Thank you,” Harp said. “A lot of what Dr. Raju is worried about is how many of our secrets you and Zai could turn up.”
“I’m not going to offer any reassurances there,” Ai said. “Dr. Raju’s right to be concerned about us. If I meet another pair like Zai and myself the first thing I plan to do is to hide, and then try to find every weak spot they have.”
“You didn’t hide when I asked you to meet with us,” Harp said.
“You had just saved my life,” Ai said. “And you present a different sort of risk. When you fight it’s pretty clear what you’re doing. When Zai and I go after someone, things just start happening to them. Bad things. If we’re really motivated in fact, it will be the worst things they’ve ever feared.”
“That makes for a good argument in favor of not trusting you,” Harp said, her tone light but seasoned with suspicion too.
“Good,” Ai said. “I’d rather tell you not to trust me and show you that you can with my actions, than the reverse.”
Harp squeezed Ai’s hand tighter.
“You seem like you’re trusting me an awful lot,” Harp said.
“Sorry, I guess that’s a little insulting, isn’t it?” Ai asked.
“Maybe. Depends why you don’t think I’m a threat,” Harp said.
Gut instinct was not a valid answer to that question. Ai reflected for a moment on why she was willing to share secrets with Harp when she’d guarded them furiously for decades.
Harp had saved her, and had saved a lot of people from earlier NME attacks. Ai considered whether she was looking up to someone who seemed to embody what she had once dreamed her father to be?
No. There was an element of that, but Ai knew only too well how that everyone had flaws and petty failings. The Black Valkyries weren’t pure and noble superheroes. They had an agenda of their own. It didn’t mean they weren’t also capable of compassion and altruism, but they had more motivating them than a simple desire to do good.
Did she think her own technical skills and Zai’s digital prowess could safely manipulate Harp and her friends if they became a threat? No. She had some plans forming in the back of her mind if the she and the Black Valkyries came to cross purposes but she’d held off putting any wheels in motion there.
Was she lonely? That was a more difficult question to answer. Zai had discovered a need for recognition that she hadn’t been aware of until she spoke to Harp. Did Ai carry a similar need within herself?
Maybe? It was too large a thought to grapple with in the pause between sentences. Hiding who she was and how she felt all the time was a burden she’d carried for so long she felt like she was numb to its weight.
There was another hunger that drove her though.
“I think you’re a terrible, unstoppable threat,” Ai said. “Which is just the kind of threat that I need.”
“Why? What’s in this for you?” Harp asked.
“You’re the person I can’t be,” Ai said. “I have the power to crush regular citizens, especially if they’re not the ‘right’ race or creed, but I can’t do anything to the people who are really at fault for everything that’s wrong with this city.”
Harp chuffed out a small laugh.
“If you’d grown up where I did, I think you’d have a different take on the kind of problems ‘regular citizens’ can cause,” Harp said.
“It’s a big world and there’s a lot wrong with it,” Ai said. “People like the ones who run Tython though are the ones who have a vested interest in keeping it that bad or making it worse.”
“And you think I can do something about that?” Harp asked.
“I think you’re able to work openly in a way I can never afford to,” Ai said. “Before, my only hope of changing anything was to work so quietly that no one ever saw what I was doing. You can afford to be a lot louder and more direct though.”
“I can’t be your wrecking ball. Not exclusively,” Harp said. “We’ve got more to take care of than destroying Tython, and I’m not even sure that’s a good idea given how big it is. Is that going to be a problem?”
“If I said I was building a house, and you offered to help put the bedroom together would it be a problem that you didn’t also put together the living room and the kitchen? No. Same idea here,” Ai said. “At the moment, we’re useful to each other. I’m willing to work with that, and if we’re mutually useful again in the future, then it’s all to the better.”
“And if we’re working on elaborate schemes to sell each other out?”
“If we’re that stupid then we’ll probably get everything that’s coming to us,” Ai said.
“As long as we can make sure everyone else gets what coming to them too, I’d be ok with that,” Harp said.
“You’ve led a much less sinful life than I have then,” Ai said.
“Probably not,” Harp said. “I just never saw the point in feeling guilty about a lot of the things I’ve had to do.”
Ai let a wistful smile trace crumple her lips. Most of the sins she carried weren’t things she’d had to do. Like with Eric Andrews, the cop she’d turned into a techno-monster, all she’d needed was an excuse and the opportunity to do something she’d desired on a primal level for a long time. If Harp was willing to move forward though, Ai decided it wasn’t worth dwelling on the past that much.
“So which EyeGrid archive is our target?” she asked.
“The GCPD storage facility in the Unity Blue district,” Harp said.
“What kind of intel do we have on it?” Ai asked.
“Very little,” Harp said. “Unity Blue is a high security district, and over the last year it’s been on almost continual lockdown because of the NME incidents.”
“Were any of them in or around UB?” Ai asked.
“No,” Zai said, rejoining the conversation. “The EyeGrid archive is one of a hundred and twenty seven secure facilities in Unity Blue though and with the High Guard’s inability to predict anything about where or when the attacks will occur the entire district has been running on high alert to avoid any catastrophic losses.”
“How can the city afford to keep the EyeGrid archives there?” Ai asked. “They can’t even afford decent fake sugar in our breakroom. The rent on a permanent high alert facility has to be breaking their bank.”
“There was a special funding initiative passed to cover it,” Zai said. “And it looks like the people supplying the funds are a collective of shell companies put together solely for that purpose.”
“And those are owned by?” Ai asked.
“No one,” Zai said. “They’re actually empty shells. No assets and no financial transactions in or out of them.”
“How are they providing the funding for the high alert costs then?” Ai asked.
“Hard asset transfers,” Harp said. “That’s a bad sign.”
“They’re bartering for the extra protection?” Ai said. “Who does that?”
“On that scale? People we absolutely need to avoid being noticed by,” Harp said.
“Interesting,” Ai said. The hesitation in Harp’s voice made the mission seem significantly more dangerous, and that woke something in Ai’s heart. Dangerous puzzles were her domain and her intellect rose to devour the problems before her with a gleeful zeal.
“I did say we needed to quiet as ghosts for this mission right?” Harp asked.
“That you did,” Ai agreed. “So no more bashing problems with NMEs. You said we have seven hours to get you back to Dr. Raju right?”
“At the outside,” Harp said. “Is that going to be possible?”
Ai began running scenarios in her mind. Being able to think at hyper-accelerated speeds was useful. It allowed her to work through the numbers enough to discard complex non-viable options with a speed that even Zai had a hard time matching. The real benefit to her enhanced state though came from the technological memory she shared with Zai.
As a baseline human, she’d suffered from losing her train of thought as much as anyone else. One good idea would arise and before she could follow it to its logical conclusion, three more would pop up and inevitably one or more would be forgotten.
Since the upgrade, as long as she was able to maintain the right focus, she could balance her biological mind’s creative spark with the solid reliability of electronic memory and synthesize something greater than either could produce on their own.
“I can do better than that,” Ai said. “I’ll have you home early enough that we can enjoy a dinner and a show to celebrate our success before Dr. Raju catches you breaking your curfew.”