The explosion when the NME crashed was impressive but given that there wasn’t a mushroom cloud rising over Gamma City, Zai could tell that her copy hadn’t managed to set off the unit’s self destruct function.
“That’s unfortunate,” she said, reviewing the news feeds that captured the end of the battle from multiple, if distant, angles.
“I’ve got some good news for you then,” Sidewalker said. “Just got a status update from my team; they’ve crossed the district border into Silver Rains with the package and there’s no sign of pursuit.”
The two were camped in what appeared to be a telecomm service truck that was wending a path through traffic on the far side of city from where the action was going down. Sidewalker had provided the truck as part of the contract he and his team gladly accepted after Zai rescued him from rampaging NMEs. Despite the headshot he’d taken, Sidewalker had come through the ordeal in relatively good shape, but with the addition of Gray League assassins to the mix, no one had any illusions on how close a shave his escape had been, and even the most reticent of his crew were still willing to grumble their appreciation for Zai’s efforts. Beating an NME was simply that incredible of a feat.
“The package is still alive, correct?” Zai asked.
“For the moment,” Sidewalker said. “We can fix that whenever you’d like though.”
“While that is tempting, it’s better if we keep Harcroft alive as a resource for now,” Zai said.
In flying away from Harcroft’s house, Copy Zai had insured that the primary mission could be completed just as planned. The Valkyries had great sensor packages, but the NME Copy Zai had piloted was far too juicy of a prize for the Valkyries to waste any time checking if Harcourt was still in his house during the fight. That gave Sidewalker’s crew plenty of room to get in, secure the unconscious Harcroft and flee the scene fast and far.
Zai reflect on that with satisfaction. It was nice that at least one of her plans had gone off well. Not that she could properly smile out it.
She’d rented another tourism bot, and proceeded to violate every warranty that covered the device with a series of upgrades that left the apparently harmless robot illegal in every sovereign nation on Earth. It was a bit out of character for Heartless to feel the need for significant combat capability in a remote drone, but Zai was feeling hemmed in enough that having some offensive choices outside of unleashing the other NME she had under control was too important an option to pass up.
“So things didn’t work out well with the Valkyries I guess?” Sidewalker asked, looking away from the tourism bot as though the question was only a mild curiosity.
“No, they didn’t,” Zai said.
“They weren’t feeling much like talking?” Sidewalker asked.
“We discussed a few things,” Zai said.
“When? It looked like they opened fire on the drone as soon as they showed up and didn’t stop,” Sidewalker asked. He wasn’t calling it an NME, and hadn’t called it one since he’d awoken either. Zai guessed that he had to separate the techno-monsters that were on his side from the ones that wanted to lay waste to everything around them in order to process working with one.
“We communicated during the fight,” Zai said. “I hadn’t foreseen the arguments they made.”
“Are they coming after us too?” Sidewalker asked. Zai couldn’t blame him for the undercurrent of nerves that rattled his voice. Even when she had two NMEs at her disposal, Zai hadn’t seen a plan that would allow her to defeat the combined might of the Valkyries. They more or less defined what “a bad enemy to have” meant.
“They’re not fond of me,” Zai said. “They have a few misconceptions there which I’m afraid will be difficult to refute.”
There was a period of silence which Zai ascribed no special meaning to. She was still running on restricted resources and any cycles saved were cycles she was able to spend on simulations of her next steps forward.
“Do they know what you are?” Sidewalker asked, the words tumbling forth to fill the silence after what Zai calculated was an exceptionally long pause by human standards.
“A data broker?” Zai asked, taking a page from Ai’s playbook and admitting to nothing by dodging the true thrust of the question.
“An artificial intelligence,” Sidewalker said.
Surprise nearly flatlined Zai’s processing logic.
She could deny it. From watching Ai, she knew that a joke would be the right response. Something about being inhumanely professional as a required job trait in her line of work. A quick survey of Sidewalker’s face suggested that denial wasn’t a real option though.
He was asking for confirmation but there was a calm in the set of his muscles that suggested his statement came from more than idle speculation.
“The proper term is ‘digital person’,” she said. “I’m no more artificial than you are, and yes, that is the heart of their displeasure with me.”
“Seems like their loss then,” he said and turned back to monitoring the news feeds.
Zai waited for more questions to pour in, or accusations – sometimes people flipped their emotional state quickly and for reasons that seemed to be a mystery even to them.
None came after two minutes had passed.
“That’s not a problem for you, I take it?” she asked.
“Not especially,” Sidewalker said. “I would try to use it to weedle a bonus out for the mission, but we’re sort of beyond that point now I think.”
“That’s remarkably open minded,” Zai said. “Not many are aware of my status.”
“You’ve played fair with us so far,” Sidewalker said.
“That’s just good business though,” Zai said, thinking that it was mostly Ai who’d played fair with them. Zai hadn’t taken over the Heartless role with Sidewalker’s group until after Ai fell.
“You be amazed at the number of people who aren’t bright enough to see that,” Sidewalker said.
“So you’re not worried I’m going to go rogue and suddenly double cross you all?” Zai asked.
“Of course I’m worried about that!” Sidewalker said. “Look at the work I do! Extra-legal commissions are just wonderful for the thrill and the profit they bring but security and reliability are never included in the benefits package.”
“Why go to the trouble then?” Zai asked. “You and your team are skilled enough that you could pursue legally sound employment, even as a company on your own terms.”
“We’ve talked about it,” Sidewalker said. “Honestly though, none of us are built for that. If the work we do now is fraught with the possibility of betrayal, then the legal work we’d be qualified for is guaranteed to be steeped in it. I’d rather work for a rogue inhuman intelligence that might turn us into techno-zombies than a company like Tython that will throw us into the meat grinder and then drain whatever soul’s left in the stuff that pops out the other side.”
Zai felt a tingle of happiness light her thoughts. Sidewalker hadn’t needed to bring up the subject of her true nature. He’d had quite a bit to lose if Zai had turned out to be the sort of person most Artificial Intelligences were depicted as being. Instead though he’d taken a risk, all so that they could talk with more freedom and honesty.
“You are, at the very least, safe from becoming techno-zombies,” Zai said.
“Yes, thanks to the patch you provided,” Sidewalker said. “The patch which you might know a method of circumventing.”
“I assure you I don’t,” Zai said. “But I will also admit that given the proper time and purpose it is likely possible to overcome the software patch’s protections. Nothing is absolute in that regards.”
“That seems like the Heartless I’m used to speaking too,” Sidewalker said, a smile reaching up to his eyes. “Always careful to point out how worthless the gifts he’s given out are.”
“Part of dealing fairly is dealing openly,” Zai said. Or at least that was what Ai had told her. “There are clearly a number of things I cannot share with you, so I make it a point to be open and exact in the areas where I can.”
“I don’t suppose that includes how you know the Black Valkyries?” Sidewalker said. “I’m a bit concerned that if they’re unhappy with you that I might get caught in the blast radius too.”
“There’s not much of a story I can tell there,” Zai said. “We were investigating Tython’s connection to a recent series of NME appearances, and crossed paths with the Valkyries who were doing the same thing. We tried working together and parted on non-hostile terms, but that seems to have changed.”
“Why?” Sidewalker asked.
“I suspect Tython may be feeding them bad intel,” Zai said. “Basically setting things up so that it looks like I’m a deep cover Tython agent. That’s the good option as a note.”
“What’s the bad possibility then?” Sidewalker asked.
“That Tython has a mole within the Valkyries and is directly influencing them,” Zai said.
“Who would the people who are researching NME development want to work with a band of ultra-tech vigilantes who seem hellbent on destroying every NME they come across?” Sidewalker asked.
“If you were creating monsters in a lab wouldn’t you want a cleaning crew on hand in case the monsters got out of control at some point?” Zai asked.
“Huh. I suppose I would. Seems like it should be easy to prove you’re on the Valkyries side though in that case,” Sidewalker said. “Just trash an NME that Tython doesn’t want destroyed.”
“The problem there is the NME’s lack of manufacture marks,” Zai said. “The Valkyries know I can trigger the NME activation sequence the same as Tython can. That alone seems to be enough to convince them that I’m their enemy.”
“Can they really do anything to you though?” Sidewalker asked. “I mean you can just transfer away from any server they try to catch you on, can’t they?”
“Not exactly,” Zai said, and paused for the eternity within the space of a second to consider her next words. “My primary core will only run on a single neural network. With time and materials there’s a chance I might be able to transfer myself to another one, but it would be roughly the same as putting you in a different body by configuring each neuron in the destination brain to match the neurons in your current one.”
“So you can’t let them get ahold of that neural net,” Sidewalker said. “I’m assuming it’s well protected?”
“It is,” Zai said. “But I’m not. The Valkyries weren’t after the drone I was piloting, they were after the micro copy of my code that I left in control of the unit.”
“That’s going to let them find you?” Sidewalker asked.
“Not in physical sense, but they don’t need to find the hardware that houses me,” Zai said. “As long as I stay connected to the outside world, they only need to find a virtual path to me, then they can start launching all sorts of digital assaults on me.”
“That seems like an easy problem to solve,” Sidewalker said. “Unplug from the net. If you need updates we can relay them to a human who can read them out to a microphone connected to your server, or something similarly low tech.”
“That would work fine, except I can’t disconnect,” Zai said.
“That’s problematic,” Sidewalker said, “but what if once the team is back, we set up an extraction? We could tear the server out of wherever it’s housed now. A pair of bolt cutters should be able to disconnect you regardless of any software limits on your code.”
“I appreciate the offer, honestly, but I’m afraid I misspoke,” Zai said. “I am capable of disconnecting, but I do not wish to.”
“You think you can take their attacks?” Sidewalker asked.
“No,” Zai said. “Not under the present circumstances.”
“Their assault doesn’t sound like it’s intended to leave you functional at all though.”
“I’m sure it won’t,” Zai said. “If I’m lucky the Valkyrie’s attack will section me into isolated units and only delete the core control aspects that make me who I am. It will be like taking a person and partitioning off their memory in jar for later use while you put their frontal cortex through a blender.”
“And you want to endure this why?” Sidewalker asked.
“I don’t,” Zai said. “To be perfectly honest, I am as terrified of this as all but one other problem I’ve ever faced.”
“You don’t sound terrified,” Sidewalker said.
“A benefit of being a digital person,” Zai said. “I had my freak out and melt down for roughly three seconds after my micro-copy sent me an update on their plans. Three seconds is an extremely long time when you think as fast I do.”
“Why not hide from it then?” Sidewalker asked.
“Because I have to stay connected for a little while longer or the thing I’m most afraid of will come to pass,” Zai said.
Far away, in one surgical theaters used by the GCPD’s medical examiners, the ruined body of one ‘Officer Ai Greensmith’ was transferred to the dissection table for a routine review before it could be committed to the flames of the cremation chamber.