Zai had jet fuel running through her veins. It burned hot, and pure, and matched her mood exactly. Her attention was still split, the majority of her focus still elsewhere but the small part of her that soared through the night sky over Gamma City, the part that could block out everything else that was going on, that part had cause for delight.
“Attention unauthorized aircraft, you have entered a restricted flight space. You have 1700 milliseconds to begin changing to the provided bearing or you will shot down,” the automated air traffic controller informed her. It sent the message as a standard priority message where it would have lingered in her announcement queue without raising a red alert if Zai had been thinking anything close to human speeds.
Since she wasn’t, she noticed the warning in time and knew just how to respond. She sent a system destroying worm bundled into the reply transmission. Crashing the local air traffic control hub wouldn’t stop the automated defense weapons, but it was satisfying to do nonetheless.
More satisfying was seeing the automated weapons open fire just 43 milliseconds later. As she’d suspected the message had been purely a formality. The people in charge of defending Durmphkoff Estates, the wealthy enclave where William Harcroft lived, issued warnings only for the legal cover they provided. Anyone who challenged the sanctity of their private domain was going to die, as was only appropriate for peasants who forgot their place. It was a view that the protectors of the rich and powerful often subscribed to, regardless of how distant in circumstance they were from their masters or how similar they were to the people they practiced state sanctioned violence against.
As high velocity anti-aircraft fire shredded the kit bashed fuselage around her, Zai felt a thrill of joy ring through her emotion subsystems. She wasn’t in the faux airplane in the sense that human could have been, but she was responsible for keeping it in the air.
Or, more specifically, the NME that she was piloting was responsible for that.
The shell of the airplane that Zai had hastily constructed as camouflage came apart in seconds under the withering fire from the Durmphkoff defenses, revealing the far worse threat that lay inside it.
Zai kicked in full power to the NMEs foot thrusters and dove for Harcroft’s house as every alarm that could be raised was.
In the hours since Tython had tried to kill Sidewinder and capture the tourism bot Heartless was using, Zai had time to work with the NMEs she’d captured. Their weapon systems were still a cumbersome mess, at least in terms of preventing them from killing everything within their effective firing range. The rest of the NMEs’s systems though were more amenable to accepting direct control from the central core. That had allowed Zai to direct the overall development of the NMEs in terms of the subsystems that were brought online.
The NMEs iterative design engine was inherently unstable, always attempting to refine the units to meet every tactical situation it could project rather than focusing on the actual scenario the NME was confronted with. With Zai’s moderating influence added to the mix, the changes came slower and they were much more clearly focused.
The NME she was piloting, named Fred, after the human that made up the biological substrate the unit was constructed around, looked and acted nothing like other NMEs. It was a marvel of smooth lines and graceful curves. It moved without the pained thrashing of other NMEs, in a large part because Zai had anesthetized the organic brain that half the NMEs functions were routed through.
There wasn’t anything left to the goop that had been the human Fred that could still be called a person – the brain’s neurons were shot through with a chaotic jumble of the NMEs wiring. It didn’t have to be like that though. Zai could see the places in the activation routines were a different initialization sequence would leave the subject’s brain and central nervous system unchanged.
The transformation sequence was chaotic, but not random. The human inside the monster could be isolated from the transformation, but without any cerebral connection to the rest of the mechanisms they would be imprisoned in the beast, unable to move on their own, or perceive the world.
But they might be recoverable.
Ai’s fear about Tython being close to productizing the NME transformation, both as a military tool and as a threat they could sell an immunization against, seemed to be well founded from what Zai could see in the most recent modifications Tython had added to the activation sequence.
Their alterations couldn’t hold a candle to what Zai had done though.
Their NMEs were still uncontrolled monsters. By having an active subject she could experiment on, Zai had turned the units she controlled into the sort of focused weapons that Tython had repeatedly proven willing to kill for.
She could have decelerated before landing on Harcroft’s house. Instead she let the building provide all the deceleration she needed as she plowed through its walls and ceiling, smashing the structure in half and rising from the billowing wreckage like an angry god.
Harcroft was in his living room and Zai made sure to capture every nanosecond of his shifting expression as he realized what had happened and what he was seeing.
NMEs don’t target specific people. NME’s, even when they possess the ability to fly, do not jet across the city in disguise and crash through the house of a foe for dramatic effect. NMEs do one thing. They rampage. It makes them terrifying, but also manageable and predictable despite the chaos they bring.
“Mr Harcroft,” Zai said, filtering her words and voice through the Heartless personality engine. “We have some things to discuss.”
Harcroft’s mouth moved as he tried to form words but no sound came out.
“You interrupted one of my meetings William Harcroft,” Zai said. “Surely you understand how bad for business something like that could be.”
“What do you want?” Harcroft asked aloud while sending out distress calls to a very specific set of contacts. Not the police. Not anyone officially employed by Tython.
The distress calls weren’t even to any security agencies, despite the fact that there were three body guarding firms hired to safeguard Harcroft’s person and possessions.
Zai blocked the calls as best she could. She wanted to put out agents to track down who the intended recipients were but she was still working under limited capacity so she let it pass. It was easy enough to guess that his secret lab had to deal with out of control NMEs already and would be the people best equipped to handle an active one.
“What do I want? That’s such a large question, especially when what you’re really interested in is what can you give me that will make this current problem go away.” Zai swung the NME’s hand up in a gesture that encompassed the ruin of Harcroft’s home.
The house had been split in half by the NME’s impact with the central portion of the long, two story building blasted apart, leaving only the two ends of the house intact. Harcroft had been mildly injured by some flying debris and since his wife and son were at their home on the west coast, as far from Harcroft as they could get, that was the extent of the injuries. From the fear in Harcroft’s eyes, Zai could see that he knew the injury count was going to rise soon though.
“Is it money? Do you want money? I’m very wealthy. One of the richest,” Harcroft said.
“Does this look like a situation you can buy yourself out of Mr Harcroft?” Zai asked.
A micro-missile system on the NME’s right arm self-triggered, blasting the kitchen that adjoined the living room and setting it on fire.
Zai raised the NME’s left arm to point at Harcroft.
“You can’t kill me,” Harcroft said. “My company will destroy you and everyone you know if you hurt me.”
Zai shot him in the leg. The same leg that Ai had been shot in, with the same result.
“I don’t think I was clear Mr. Harcroft,” Zai said. “You seem to think this is a negotiation. We are not negotiating here. You have information. I want it. You are going to provide it whether you wish to or not.”
Harcroft stopped writhing on the ground as his bio-mods cut off the pain from his missing leg and dosed him with enough chemicals to give him an icy calm demeanor.
“Why would I tell you anything?” Harcroft asked.
“Who said I expect you to tell me anything?” Zai asked. “Do you know what I am Mr. Harcroft?”
“A spy,” Harcroft said. “And a thief, who goes by the name Heartless and thinks that makes him untouchable.”
“And what did I steal?” Zai asked.
“Proprietary data,” Harcroft said.
“But not just any proprietary data,” Zai said. “I stole the project data that let you do this.” Zai gestured again, a slow motion with an arm that should have weighed hundreds of pounds, indicating the NME she was driving.
The design was still evolving, like all NMEs do, but it had settled into a twelve foot tall frame that was massive compared to human standards but on the slighter side of a typical NME’s configuration.
“I don’t know what that is,” Harcroft said, flicking his chin at the NME that towered over him.
“Sure you do,” Zai said. “The evidentiary lock on the data was dropped yesterday. You know exactly what was stolen from your data warehouse, which means you know at least a fraction of what I’ve discovered so far.”
“I’ve never seen anything like whatever this thing is,” Harcroft said.
“I’ve made a few improvements to the base design,” Zai said. “But this is where your research was heading. A combat stable version of a Neuro-Muscular Enhancile. A pet NME for sale to the highest bidder.”
“You can’t have made that,” Harcroft said. “We worked for years! They’re fundamentally unstable!”
“You need to employ better people Harcroft,” Zai said. “Here, have a copy of the activation sequence and you can see for yourself.”
A wire snaked out from Zai’s left index finger and stabbed into Harcroft’s right hand.
“I know you have your upgrade ports disabled, so let’s see how well you do with the NME transformation code when it’s supplied directly to your system?” Zai said.
Harcroft writhed on the ground, metal fibers surged out from his flesh. They dragged his severed leg back and had it reattached in an instant, but then before his boiling skin could rupture the transformation ceased and Harcroft sagged back onto the floor.
“How interesting,” Zai said. “You have the cure working already.”
“I’m not telling you anything,” Harcroft said, rising to his feet. “It doesn’t matter what you know.”
“But there’s so much more I can still learn,” Zai said and sent another wire out to stab into Harcroft. She transmitted the earlier variation of the activation code that she had to him and watched as nothing happened.
“That won’t work on me now,” Harcroft said. “You can’t make me transform. I’m immune.”
“Why weren’t you immune before?” Zai asked.
“Why do you think.” He sounded bitter, if Zai’s ability to read human emotions wasn’t miscalibrated. It didn’t take her long to see why.
“The immunity is irreversible,” Zai said. “Even if they develop the reversible version of the transformation for military use, you’ll never be able to take advantage of it.”
“I’ll be able to take plenty of advantage of it,” Harcroft said. “I’m going to be diamond class when this launches. Tython’s going to rule the world.”
“Even assuming that does come to pass, you seem to think you’re going to be around to see any of it? What would lead you to conclude that?” Zai asked.
“They would!” Harcroft said, as the mecha-suited soldiers of the High Guard descended towards them from the sky on jets of fire.