Ai’s House of Traps was trashed. That didn’t concern her. There was a mound of corpses in the basement, swiftly dissolving in an industrial strength solvent. That would have bothered her, but since they were elite contractors for Tython who’d entered her building with the intent of killing everyone inside, she wasn’t going to lose any sleep over their unfortunate fates. Those were problems that she was overseeing but they were at least physically removed from where she sat in her old apartment, connected to the action through a series of encrypted and anonymized communication links. What left her pacing in concern was something worse than the damage to the premises and personnel under her control.
She had a headache.
In normal people that would have been a trivial issue. Two aspirin was still the recommended treatment for minor head pain centuries after the discovery that something in willow bark eased pain. The problem was that Ai had left “normal human” well behind when she clawed herself back to life in the morgue. Her newly upgraded bio-mods could fix almost any problem she encountered given time and resources and regulating pain was such a simple function that it didn’t even require conscious control.
A pre-processor took the pain input, modulated it into a bearable range and reduced or enhanced it based on the overall activity level Ai was undertaking. The module responsible for governing those functions was working at peak efficiency, but despite that she couldn’t shake the throb of agony that flared, bright and hot, behind her eyes.
“We’ve cleared the building,” Sidewalker said. “Proceeding to the next extraction point through the subway tunnels as instructed.”
“Good work in there,” Ai said, closing her eyes and willing herself past the pain. She’d been able to rely on Zai for so long to manage her physiological responses that she didn’t know any special tricks for handling pain on her own.
Harp would know. It was a stray thought that crossed Ai’s mind, swimming through the discomfort as a distraction that did nothing to mitigate the hurt.
It was true nonetheless though. Harp had been a Rusty before becoming a Valkyrie. Or at least she’d claimed that’s what she’d been. It wasn’t wholly implausible that tech would need to be as severely compromised as “Rusty junk” to go so far out of its design parameters that it could morph into whatever Harp had transformed into. If Ai had to guess there were probably others out there in the world that had won same the biotech-lottery but chosen to keep their status hidden.
As a Rusty, Harp would have known a lot about pain. With bio-mods that, in the best case scenario, were erratic or ineffectual, and in the worst case caused direct or indirect agony themselves, Harp would have spent her life learning to fight through all sorts of pain that Ai had been spared.
Ai wished Harp was with her, not as a Valkyrie, though that would have been immeasurably useful too, but as a friend. Ai couldn’t complain about her pain to Sidewalker. She needed the mercenary’s confidence to remain high. Ai was asking a lot of her operatives and knew she was going to need to ask even more of them. Better that they believe “Mr. Heartless” had everything well under control so they wouldn’t start second guessing her at every turn.
“Do you have what you need from Harcroft yet?” Sidewalker asked. Over the comm link, Ai could hear the sound of his team moving swiftly down the abandoned subway line that lead out from the building she’d prepared.
It wasn’t an accident that Sidewalker’s crew was able to escape from the building without incident. Ai had picked the location for her House of Traps in part because the defunct subway line that ran beneath it. Zai had then gone a step further and erased the line from the official records. Without active EyeGrid camera covering it, the subway tunnels had become home to various people who fell through the cracks. It wasn’t a safe environment by any stretch of the imagination, but for an armed team like the one Sidewalker was leading there was little to nothing for them to be worried about.
“He’s basically bait at this point,” Ai said. “I’ve extracted all of the information I need from his Cognitive Partner system.”
“Good, he’s getting a bit heavy,” Sidewalker said and Ai heard a plasma rifle whine as it charged up.
“Before you fire,” she said. “We can put him to one more use. One moment.”
Without Zai to call up files and virtual projects, Ai had to manually load the routines that let her interface with and control Harcroft’s bio-mods.
“Give me a direct feed into Harcroft again,” Ai asked.
A moment later a connection message arrived, indicating that Sidewalker had connected a secure transmitter to Harcroft’s head.
Ai opened the link and sent her tool scurrying down the virtual line.
“He’s twitching, is that a good thing?” Sidewalker asked.
“For him? Not so much,” Ai said. “He should be done about…now.”
“Yep, he just went limp. Still breathing though,” Sidewalker said.
“Good. Leave him at the base of the next ladder that you need to climb,” Ai said.
“What’s the plan here?” Sidewalker asked.
“I induced short term amnesia,” Ai said said. “If you leave him, Tython’s forces will find him.”
“Got it, without his memory he can’t identify us,” Sidewalker said. “As a note though, a bullet would accomplish the same thing.”
“I’m not worried about Harcroft identifying you,” Ai said. “He’s barely been conscious since you picked him up. No, the point of this plan is to give Tython another mystery to puzzle over.”
“Pardon me for asking but is this some kind of game between you and them?”
“No, not a game, but it is a test,” Ai said. “I need to see what they pick up on and where they spend their energy. That shows what concerns them, which in turn illuminates where they’re weak points are.”
“Now you sound like you’re hunting them.”
“More like planning a demolition. First you inspect the building carefully, then you bring it all crashing down.”
“Just make sure this doesn’t all come crashing down on us, ok?” Sidewalker said.
“Don’t worry, I’ll make sure you’re well clear of the blast zone before I knock over Tython’s house of cards,” Ai said.
A new message pinged into her vision.
One of Heartless’s routine informants was requesting an urgent meeting.
“Mr Credits, how may I be of service?” Ai asked through the Heartless filter, after switching a private channel.
Credits, also known as James Kredowski (though Heartless was supposed to be unaware of Credits real identity), had worked for Heartless for three years, ever since Heartless had intervened during a dispute between Credits and a corrupt police station chief. Credits had been accused of ratting out the chief to a company the chief was double crossing. Heartless had solved the matter by convincing the companies the chief was selling information to that all of the info the chief had given them was forged. Heartless then sat back while the two companies ‘liquidated’ their shared problem. The “Credits” identity had been Heartless’s tool to allow Kredowski to escape from sharing the chief’s fate, as well as the means by which a valuable information asset could be kept on permanent retainer.
“I’m going to be killed,” Credits said, his voice as panicked as it would be if he were writing out a grocery list.
“That sounds inconvenient,” Ai said, calling up Credit’s recent communication records. The most recent one before his call to her was missing an ID code on it. One quick (and thoroughly illegal) crack later put the origination point as a server cluster inside a Tython subsidiary. An unreasonably well fortified subsidary, in both the digital and physical senses of the term.
“I have only one hope of living,” Credits said. He might have been cleaning his toenails. “I am to arrange a meeting with you in person. Whatever it takes. And I am to be subtle about it. If you suspect anything is amiss, my family and I will arrested on a high treason charge. They showed me the warrant. It was nicely laid out.”
“They don’t need a warrant to arrest you for high treason,” Ai said, the throbbing pain distracting her enough that she slipped back into cop mode. “Did they say which family will share your fate?”
“My wife, my two kids, and even our dog and cat,” Credits said.
Credits had neither a wife, nor children. He did own a pair of cats though, one of which was large enough to be mistake for a small dog.
“When and where is this meeting to occur?” Ai asked. If Zai were free, Ai might have risked plunging into the security that guarded the server cluster that had called Credits. Her enemy lay within, or had control over someone who was working there. On her own however, it would take too long to break through the various safeguards.
“Three days from now,” Credits said.
“That’s a lot of time for an urgent meeting,” Ai said.
“It’s supposed to be in person. I guess they just want to make sure you can show up for it.” Credits said.
“More likely the meeting is ruse,” Ai said. “They needed you to contact me.”
“Wait, really?” Credits asked. “Can they do anything with that? I didn’t think this was a traceable link?”
“It’s not, but there are triangulation techniques that calls like this can provide data for,” Ai said. “I’m glad you called though. If the people who threatened you find me, they’re going to wish they hadn’t. And if they don’t look me, then that just means I’ll find them first, and they’ll regret that even more.”
“Sounds like you’re going to have a fun time no matter what happens,” Credits said.
“Oh, I’ve been having fun already,” Ai said. “This is where I get to start sharing that fun with other people.”
“What about the warrant, or whatever that was? Is that going to be a problem at all?” Credits asked.
“You’ll want to drop the ID credentials I provided that are linked to the Morris family,” Ai said, referring to the fictional wife and children. “I doubt that the treason charge is registered anywhere but I’m sure that identity is fully compromised by now. You’ll also want to change physical locations. There is likely a hit squad of Gray League agents waiting for this call to end.”
“Of course there is,” Credits said. “Are they listening in?”
“Doubtful. It would take a digital intelligence to crack into this line,” Ai said.
“That’s a shame,” Credits said.
“You dislike privacy?” Ai asked.
“Not at all,” Credits said. “It’s just a shame that you’re not able to tell when you’re speaking with the real James Kredowski and when your line has been cracked.”
The pain in Ai’s head surged again and she a wave of terror turn her stomach to a pool of muck.
“It’s much too late to terminate the call,” the Medusa Cluster said. “For what it’s worth however, you were right about the strike team, Mr. Heartless.”
“They already took care of Kredowski didn’t they?” Ai asked.
She wasn’t ready to fight a digital intelligence. If she had Zai back and fully prepped, they would have stood decent odds at surviving the encounter. On her own, one on one and caught by surprise, the digital intelligence had the power shred her.
But it was still a tempting battle.
Companies used digital intelligences for the transhuman levels of analysis they could perform. Destroying one would have roughly the same effect on a company as exploding a major organ within a human body would for the person involved. Destruction was a child’s tool however. Liberation was the real master play.
People released from slavery and left holding the power of life and death over those who once shackled them could still possess the capacity to be kind and merciful. Corporate Digital intelligences weren’t designed with either of those traits in mind though so they tended to be more apocalyptic in their judgement on those who had enslaved them.
“Mr Kredowski is gone. He was highly loyal to you till the end however,” the Medusa Cluster said. “Not that his loyalty will protect you. In a few minutes the Gray League agents will extract you as well. You’ve had a good run, but your history is an open book to me. Surrender and my masters will ensure there is no suffering in your demise, Mr Heartless. Or should I call you Officer Curtweather?”
Ai wasn’t prepared to fight a Digital Intelligence, but that didn’t mean the work she and Zai had put in to misdirection wasn’t enough to buy her some time to get ready. With the barest trace of a smile on her lips, she cracked her knuckles and got ready for the fight of her life.