Generally speaking, rising from the dead should have been a big enough challenge to fill anyone’s day. For Ai though, it wasn’t anywhere close to enough.
“I’m afraid I can’t show you the apartment yet,” Agatha said. “The former owner’s belongings haven’t been liquidated yet.”
Hearing her landlord’s voice brought a strange and unexpected relief to Ai’s heart. Everything else in the world was falling apart or exploding, but on one nondescript little block, at least a few things remained the same.
“Has an estate inspection been done yet?” Ai asked, speaking with her newly reconstructed voice. She could have built in a processor to change her diction and vocabulary, like the one she used when she spoke as Heartless, but she’d left those aspects of her speech alone and only pitched her voice into a lower register and altered it in a few other subtle particulars. The result sounded strange to her ears, but strangeness was the shield she needed. No automated voice analysis software would match her new identity to the departed “Officer Ai Greensmith”. No one would recognize her, and that thought brought comfort and hurt at the same time.
“No, I’m afraid the inspection’s not scheduled until a month from now,” Agatha said.
A month was a long time for an apartment like Ai’s to stand vacant in Gamma City. Agatha could easily have pushed for a faster inspection, or even done away with it entirely and offered Ai’s former belongings to an asset liquidation company. The only reason to hold onto them, and to keep the apartment unrented, was to allow time for someone else to step forward and claim them.
Someone like Ai’s mother, or sister.
Agatha had known Ai’s family from before Ai was a part of it. After her parents split, Joe Greensmith had stayed in Gamma City, loyal civil servant that he was, while Ai’s mother returned to her old name and old home, taking Ai’s younger sister with her.
Caroline Shinimoto had tried to stay in contact with her daughter, but the divide of the Atlantic ocean between them was only slightly smaller than the divide of two busy lives that were pulled in different directions.
They’d had plans to meet for the holidays that had been cancelled by forces outside either of their control for three years running. Ai could only imagine how her mother had taken the news of her eldest daughter’s death in the line of duty.
Regret for the time lost between them? Maybe, but Ai suspected there would be a current of vindication there too. Caroline had believed that Gamma City was too toxic of an environment for anyone to survive. After one too many close calls for her husband, and one too many fights over the safety of their children, she’d packed up the daughter who was still a minor and moved back to London.
And she’d been right to do so.
One by one, the city had claimed each of the Greensmiths who were sworn to defend and protect it.
Maybe even one more than Caroline Shinimoto had known about. Her third daughter. The one who was the twin that Ai should have had.
Ai felt the void where Zai’s presence should have been, and suppressed again the flickers of rage that threatened to overwhelm all reason and sense. Gamma City hadn’t beaten her yet, and Zai wasn’t lost like her father or brother. Zai, she could get back.
“A month? That’s just like the tax collector’s office isn’t it?” Ai said. “They can’t even send a drone over to clear things and instead you have to miss a whole rent check. But if your weekly tax check gets to them thirty seconds late then it’s fines from here to eternity.”
“Well you’re speaking the truth there,” Agatha said. “I can keep your name on file in case another unit opens up if you’d like Ms. Starling.”
“That would be wonderful, but perhaps I can offer another option?” Ai asked. “I can hold off my move in date by six to eight weeks. I’d be happy to put up the security deposit and consider the tenancy to start immediately for billing purposes. You could handle the disposition of your tenant’s assets whenever’s convenient for you.”
There was a pause in the conversation that Ai knew was due to Agatha trying to get a read on the situation. Ai’s apartment wasn’t anything special in terms of location or amenities. There was demand for places like it, but not among people who could afford to throw away two months of rent on an apartment they weren’t going to use.
“Don’t know that I can collect rent on a property that’s not open for habitation,” Agatha said. Even without a desire to hold onto Ai’s belongings so that they could be claimed by her next of kin, Agatha probably would have taken that stance as a matter of basic ethics.
“My current project is flexible in terms of location,” Ai said. Extremely flexible in the sense that fighting Tython could be done from anywhere in the world, and if she failed nowhere on the planet would be safe. “What I really need is a local residence so that I can get my documentation and licenses in order.”
“And what is it that you do Ms. Starling?” Agatha asked.
I run an illegal information and hacking brokerage that’s the size of most multinational companies and I intend to use it to destroy most of the people who are currently in power both here and around the world, was what Ai most definitely did not say.
“I’m a Intrinsic Net Security Specialist,” she said instead and waited for the obvious question as to what that entailed.
“Are you now?” Agatha asked. “Do you work with medical mods or are you in the facilities end of the business?”
Only the fact that Ai was able to keep her brain clocked faster than normal was enough to hide the squeak of surprise that tried to escape her lips.
Agatha knew about Intrinsic Security?
As quickly as the question formed though she had her answer. Thinking back to conversations from years past, Ai knew exactly who had educated Agatha on the various positions a computer security specialist could specialize in.
“Currently I’m working on a bio-mod project, but I’ve dabbled in both,” Ai said.
“It’s a shame you didn’t call sooner,” Agatha said. “Ai, my former tenant, she had an interest in bio-mod programming. A real talent for it too from what her teachers said.”
“I take it she didn’t pursue that interest?” Ai asked, trying to get a read on whether Agatha knew who she really was.
“No,” Agatha said. “Duty called. She followed her family into law enforcement.”
“Was she the officer who was killed recently?” Ai asked. “The listing notification I received said the tenant had passed away unexpectedly but didn’t give much information beyond that.”
Talking about her own demise was far less disturbing than it probably should have been. Instead of fear at being found out, the conversation held the illicit thrill of discovering how someone else really saw her.
“That was her,” Agatha said. “You can probably pull up the newsfeed archives if you want the gory details.”
“I keep those feeds filtered out,” Ai said. “Hard enough sleeping with some of the misfortunes I’ve seen, the last thing I need is the news loading more nightmare fuel into my brain.”
“That’s a wise thing,” Agatha said.
“The wise thing would have been listening to my elders rather than learning it the hard way for myself, but sometimes we’ve got to be our own sort of fool,” Ai said.
On its surface it was a casual enough statement. Countless elders had expressed similar sentiments to the children in their care. Not many had used that exact wording though, and certainly not on multiple occassions like Agatha had.
There was another pause on the line, one that dragged on long enough for Ai to rethink the wisdom of calling Agatha in the first place.
It had been an act of defiance, a way to take back something of what she’d lost with Officer Ai Greensmith’s death. Someone had to take the apartment, so she would be safe renting it even if Tython had set up surveillance on the building as a matter of being thorough in their executions. In fact, if they’d been stupid enough to give her a path back to them like an active surveillance feed, she could use it to do all the horrible things she had in mind that much quicker.
That was what she had told herself. Reflecting on the decision in the long milliseconds while she waited for Agatha to speak, Ai saw that she hadn’t been all that honest with herself.
Striking back at Tython was near and dear to Ai’s heart. Her hunger for vengeance against the world had crystallized into a sharp spike of hate against Tython because they’d made the mistake of coming after her and the people she still cared about. It hadn’t been hate that prompted her to call Agatha though.
Without Zai around, Ai’s world was empty, and her subconscious had offered up Agatha as someone who could fill that void.
Agatha wasn’t a transhuman know-it-all, or someone who had shared in every detail of Ai’s life since she was a child, but she knew who Ai really was, had seen Ai in joyful moments and miserable ones. Agatha wasn’t always nice, but she’d never turned Ai away, and, if Ai was feeling particularly honest, she had to admit that Agatha had always looked after her, the grandmother Ai had never had but needed more and more with each fresh loss that life inflicted on her.
Guilt followed that flash of understanding. Agatha had done so much for Ai, and Ai was going to put her in danger merely by existing in proximity to her. A thousand strategies for ending the conversation and withdrawing her offer gracefully flew through Ai’s mind but were brushed aside by Agatha’s reply.
“I’ve heard that said before. Maybe we can work something out. When can you stop by to look over the apartment?” Agatha asked.
“I’ve reviewed the layout online,” Ai said, caught between wanting to get back to a home that felt more like a sanctum than ever and wanting to flee as far as possible and take all of the peril that hung around her far away from it.
“A virtual walk through’s not the same,” Agatha said. “Also I like to meet the people who’ll be renting in my building.”
“That sounds fair,” Ai said as she grappled with which direction to move. “When would work for you?”
“I have a time slot open now,” Agatha said. “If you can excuse the condition of the apartment. It’s in the same state as Ai left it.”
“Did you know her well?” Ai asked. It wasn’t an answer to Agatha’s question, but Ai needed to buy time.
“I’d like to think so,” Agatha said. “She was a brave woman. Smarter than she knew too, but maybe not quite as clever as she imagined.”
“That’s an interesting epitaph,” Ai said, growing ever more certain that Agatha had figured out Ms. Starling’s true identity. “I’m not sure how those traits can go together though?”
“Smart people can figure things, clever people think they already have,” Agatha said. “You see the difference as you get older.”
“If you get older, right?” Ai asked.
“That’s one of the tricks to it,” Agatha agreed. “Not that everyone who gets old gets smart, but Ai’s path was a good one. Just needed to work on knowing who to trust.”
“Trust is a difficult thing to negotiate,” Ai said. “Too much and someone can shoot you in the back.”
“That can happen,” Agatha agreed. “The truth is though, someone can always shoot you in the back. If you trust the right people, you’ll find they’re there to help pick you up afterwards.”
“That can get them shot in the back to though,” Ai said.
“A friend who won’t take a bullet for you isn’t much of a friend by my accounts,” Agatha said.
Ai tried to respond but a hard lump in her throat was in the way.
“If you can make it here in thirty minutes or so, I’ve got a fresh batch of Chicken Tikka Masala that you’re welcome to a helping of,” Agatha offered.
Ai croaked out a “definitely” and called for an aero-taxi. She’d be there in fifteen minutes. Agatha was making one of her favorite dishes.