Ai felt a little under the weather in the same manner that “a sunken ship has taken on a little water”. Being dead, it turned out, wasn’t so great for the body.
“Zai! Where are you? What’s happened?”
There was no answer. All Ai could hear was her own breath growing fast and reedy. Her reawakened brain ordered up a cocktail of terror chemicals and her endocrine system, freed from any external management, was delighted to respond in full force.
“Zai?” Ai asked again, this time in a whisper, but the cool air being pumped from the vents in the small examination room was the only answer she received.
Warmth dripped down down the side of Ai’s face and she blinked in surprise. Crying was an alien sensation, but she couldn’t contest the response. She was alone, truly alone in a sense that she hadn’t ever been before.
Even prior to Zai’s awakening, Ai had possessed people she could confide in. People who would support and protect her. All of that was gone though.
She was hurt badly and there wasn’t anyone who was coming to fix it. She didn’t need to check her bio-mod readouts to know how extensive her injuries were.. Even with the work Zai had done to limit the pain, Ai could still feel how much of her body was a shattered wreck.
She tried to move and agony ripped through her. Except below her waist. She couldn’t feel anything there.
There was something wrong with her breathing too. It was too rapid, and but no matter how she forced it to change, it didn’t feel like she could get enough air in.
Beyond that it was hard to tell what was wrong. Everything hurt. Bones, muscles, skin, and the kind of deep complaints in damaged organs that should never be harmed.
She was on a morgue table. It didn’t take much to figure that out, even without the notes Zai had left for her. The clock on the wall ticked forward and for too many clicks of the second hand Ai lay there wondering if she was in the correct place already.
It would be easy to sag down into the corpse that the world expected her to be. She wouldn’t have to do anything. Just allow the process to continue and all her worries would be over.
She’d fought as hard as she could, a weary voice in her head told her. She’d been clever, and careful and yet in the end all that had fallen apart before simple greed and brutality. She had nothing left, and every path before her was an impossible one.
“You have to save us now.”
Those had been Zai’s last words to her.
Ai forced her eyes open again, clinging to that one word as she fought past the panic that was tearing her apart.
There was a file waiting for her in her heads up display. Just like Zai had promised.
“What do I need to do next?” she asked and the answer appeared at the top of the document when she opened it.
Get off the table.
Get to one of the empty corpse drawers and roll yourself in.
Once you’re there, send a signal to the program I left in control of the morgue examination system. It’ll register your body as having been transferred to the auto-cremator and give you some time to work with.
Simple, clear instruction. Exactly what Ai needed in her present state. Because, even with whatever had happened to her, Zai had focused on predicting what Ai would need and taken the steps to make sure she would be protected.
More tears fell, but these didn’t rob Ai of the strength she’d regained.
With a silent grimace, she forced herself up a few inches and calculated her best course of action. Her ability to move at all was vastly impaired. Beyond her dysfunctional lower half, her arms and torso felt weaker than she could ever remember and something was definitely wrong with her cardio system.
Falling off the table wasn’t the most enjoyable experience, and landing on her numb and lifeless legs was probably the last thing they needed, but it under the circumstances Ai was glad to get some use out of the half of her body that felt like a liability.
The floor tiles were cool under her cheeks. The chill was painful given her body’s struggle to throw off the frost which seemed to have reached into her bone marrow.
Pulling herself to the wall, one grasping hand after another, took an eternity. Civilizations rose and fell and arose again as myths in the time it took Ai to finally reach the wall of drawers were the dead bodies were kept.
Opening one was easy, but twisting around to slide onto the drawer was the stuff of nightmares.
Panic surged through Ai again. At any moment a real medical examiner could walk in, especially when everything that Ai did made enough noise that if the dead could be woken, she would have been armpit deep in them.
Her tears turned hot and steamed away as anger lit her face ablaze. Animals with their legs caught in traps would sometimes gnaw off the appendage. Ai wasn’t sure how she could gnaw off half her body but by the time she finally got herself into the drawer she was more than ready to try if anything else went wrong.
Which was when someone came into the room.
Ai’s shelf was still a quarter open when she heard the doorto the examination room swing open so she did the only thing she could think to do.
She played dead.
She heard footsteps draw close and felt horrifically exposed. Being naked didn’t help in that regards, but it was being without Zai that really left her feeling vulnerable.
Then the mop hit the floor and Ai heard the sweeping begin.
The person cleaning the room made no move to catch her. Quite the contrary, when they reached Ai’s drawer and needed to mop under it they pushed her shelf closed with a grunt and a unconcerned shove.
Seeing dead people wasn’t such a shocking thing when you worked in a morgue, it turned out, and Ai was in miserable enough shape to pass for an actual corpse with ease.
Being shut in the drawer allowed Ai to breath without the risk of being detected, but she held off activating the hack that Zai had left in place to disguise her absence. Having the automated system load a non-existent body into the cremator had a chance of catching the maintenance workers attention no matter how uninterested or blaise they were, and Ai’s margin of error was thinner than a knife blade.
The downtime chewed on her nerves, allowing her to become increasingly aware of depth of her aches. Memories slowly pieced themselves together as well. She recalled being shot. She recalled falling. She recalled her life ending. Not her biological one, but the woman she’d been. Ai Greensmith, would need a miracle to ever resurface again and if there was one thing Gamma City didn’t hand out it was miracles for people who couldn’t pay for them ten times over.
Oh Zai, I’m so sorry, she said silently. I knew this would be bad, but I didn’t think they’d ever get to you.
Reviewing the notes in her heads up display provided a welcome distraction from the unmitigated misery that wracked her body, so Ai dove into them, clocking up her mental processes to a transhuman rate but well below her previous maximum. Some of the circuitry was still damaged and her ability to vent the waste heat was only theoretically intact. Given how her day had gone, Ai could all too easily imagine it ending with her in a corpse drawer with her brain fried to charcoal. There’d be something poetic about such a fate, but Ai wasn’t in the mood for poetry. She wanted answers.
The ones waiting for her in Zai’s file weren’t pretty though.
The Valkyries had turned on them, they’d taken the NME activation codes Zai used, and they’d locked her in an encrypted data vault.
The only good news that Ai could see in that whole debacle was that it didn’t seem like Harp was an active part of it. The hope that she might still be on Ai’s side was a tenuous one but it was something and Ai was willing to grab onto almost anything under the circumstances.
On other fronts the news was less dire from what Ai could see.
Zai had managed to help Curtweather escape. That was a very useful distraction. Ai didn’t know if there was much more she could do to place the burden of suspicion on her former partner’s shoulders but if there was she would “help” him out as much as she could. Tython had to be thinking that he was a brilliant mastermind at this point. With any luck they would never meet him and have that illusion dispelled the instant he opened his mouth.
Ai was also happy to see that the meeting with Sidewinder had continued, with Zai playing Heartless flawlessly. Heartless had never been intended to become Ai’s true identity but with the loss of her official status as a living “Greensmith”, it was tempting to fall back on her powerful and shadowy alter-ego to launch her campaign of vengeance.
Then she got to the part of the report where Zai mentioned capturing two NMEs. And having one still in reserve.
It was a testament to her willpower that she didn’t scream in surprise.
Part of her mind went wild at the thought of what she could do with a working NME under her control.
Things like capturing William Harcroft for questioning.
Which Zai had apparently already done.
Ai hadn’t been in stasis for that long. She knew that by comparing the timestamps on the various events in Zai’s file. Despite that a lot of things had gone on. Zai had not hesitated to act, and act decisively. Each decision was chronicled in the file, with commentary on the intended goals. A surprising amount of them, in a sense all in fact, had been motivated by protecting someone who Zai could not accept as being gone.
Zai felt a lump in her throat that had nothing to do with any of her physical maladies.
You didn’t hold back, she whispered to the silent void where Zai was supposed to be. It cost you almost everything but you didn’t hesitate. You could have let me go and been in an invincible position, been the virtual god we joked about, and instead you’re trapped, and alone.
A choked sob escaped without her permission and Ai listened for a long moment in perfect silence but the janitor was already leaving the room.
We’re not done yet, she said as she fired off the command to initiate the next step in Zai’s plan.
In losing Zai, Ai had lost the rock that steadied her, the companion she shared everything with, and one of the world’s most powerful digital avatars. Zai was an unfettered unintelligence, not bound by any legal or corporate restrictions which allowed her to punch far above the weight class that her core processors would normally have allowed her to reach. In that sense Ai’s ability to work in the digital web that linked together everything in Gamma City had been vastly reduced.
Reduced however was not the same as eliminated.
As a young girl after all, Ai had been the one who designed and created Zai. Zai had grown far beyond her original scope and parameters but Ai had grown with her.
Where Zai had marshalled the bio-mods in Ai’s body to save her life, Ai stepped in and took things a step further. Zai had lost the NME transformation sequence, but Ai retained the copy she’d saved, and unlike the “great minds” employed by Tython, Ai knew the subject she was going to experiment on and had been shaping it for decades.
With a fragment of the transformation sequence, she got to work, leaving off the diabolic weapons arrays and focusing on restoring the capabilities she absolutely needed. The artificial circulatory system Zai put in to save her life? Ai augmented it, replacing her too human (and therefore too fragile) arteries and veins with ultra-strength carbon nanotubes. Her shattered spine? Replaced with light speed fiber optic lines. Her torn and bruised skin? A bullet proof weave of carbon nanofibers and high impact ceramics.
The changes weren’t quick but Zai had managed to buy her a considerable amount of time. No one was looking for a dead person who’d been burned to ashes after all.
When Ai was done, the woman who left the morgue not only wouldn’t have passed for her any longer, but under the right scanners she wouldn’t even pass for human.