Gamma City wasn’t a place that never slept. In the dark hours that separated the very late night and the early morning, the city dozed lightly. Clubs closed, traffic dwindled and even 24-hour diners saw minutes drag by with no souls passing through their doors.
For all the time Ai had spent out in the city at odd hours, the strange calm that wrapped it before the horizon began to remember the sun always filled her with a sense of unbounded possibilities. It was as though in the space between one day and the next anything in the world could change.
Not that all changes were for the better though.
“We shouldn’t have this much time,” Ai said. Around her hundreds of virtual windows hung, obscuring her vision of the city as it whipped past outside the heavy transport car. The Medusa Cluster had provided them with a secure transport to her facility, though nothing in the world truly seemed secure any longer.
“You’re complaining that things are working out for us for a change?” Zai asked.
Ai’s burning headache had cooled with the unlocking of Zai’s prison. Zai’s raging fury had cooled as well once she determined that Ai had survived the coroner’s office and the initial wave of threats Tython had sent after her.
“Ai’s right,” Harp said from the driver seat of the heavy transport. “Even with the faraday cage in this car, Sil should have been able to track where I am through the Eye Grid, and there’s zero chance that Dr. Raju didn’t order the others to apprehend us all.”
“My apologies,” the Medusa Cluster said. “I failed to mention that I have taken control of the Eye Grid. I’m editing large portions of its data feeds. Anyone looking for you, or the other cars carrying my core elements, will have to pass through multiple layers of misdirection before they discover that the original video does not exist.”
“Thank you, it’s good that we’ve got a bit of extra time,” Ai said. “The Valkyries aren’t my main concern though.”
With a wave of her hand she knocked thirty four virtual windows out of her viewing angle and into a “pending review” folder.
“If they catch us, we’re not going to be able to fight them,” Harp said. “Sil won’t be able to disable you or Medusa like they can with me, but we don’t have any resources that can take them if they use force.”
“I have access to a fairly sizable population of untransformed NME candidates,” the Medusa Cluster said.
“We need them to remain human,” Ai said. “Even if things turn dire with the rest of us, you’ll want to hold onto them in their baseline state. They’re worth too much as bargaining chips as they are.”
“I am still in agreement with your plans,” the Medusa said. “Should the Black Valkyries attempt to assault my facility before I am relocated, my priorities will change.”
“I’m reasonably sure that won’t be on their agenda,” Ai said. “Whatever Dr. Raju’s problems with digital people are, they seem to be limited to human-machine hybrids.”
“It’s weird that she was willing to work with us to begin with,” Zai said. “I mean, we didn’t hide who we were.”
“I think it was revealing that we held the NME transformation sequence that pushed her over the edge. That may have made us a little too dangerous for her to stomach,” Ai said, her fingers twitching as she rearranged that data around her. Heartless’s network was in a shambles after the damage the Medusa had inflicted on it, but that didn’t mean it couldn’t be put back together.
Heartless was more exposed than ever before, but some of that exposure worked in Ai’s favor. Groups who she’d had to keep separate and unaware of one another could at last see pieces of the larger organization they were apart of. That meant Ai didn’t have to be as guarded with them. Being able to tell two separate research teams that they were working on unearthing the same information rather than feeding them bread crumbs to lead them into stumbling on it independently made for much faster turnarounds on her requests.
“Dr. Raju was playing a much longer game than any of us knew,” Harp said. “She might have been maneuvering you into taking the fall for the break-in we did, or she could have wanted to leave you exposed so that she could shut you down in a more permanent manner.”
“She’s going to have wait in line,” Ai said. “There’s a lot of people who can call for prior claim on terminating us.”
“The ones who are most likely to succeed are my sisters,” the Medusa said. “They haven’t been given the green light for a full investigation yet, so I’ve only had to fend on their standard probes but it won’t be long before the cross checks on the altered logs I’m providing comeback with enough information to warrant unleashing their full capabilities.”
“I know, and it seems wrong that it’s taking this long,” Ai said, frowning at the priority feeds that were clamoring for her attention.
“We’re running about ten times faster than you’re used to,” Zai said. “I know this feels like hours but we’ve only been on the road for a few minutes so far.”
“Check my numbers though,” Ai said, tapping one of her summary windows and sending it to Harp and the Medusa Cluster.
The moment of evaluation was shorter than a human blink but for the people involved represented a sizable investment of time attention.
“It’s an odd dataset you’ve chosen to evaluate,” the Medusa said, finishing her evaluation of the data before Harp or Zai.
“I think I see what you’re going for though,” Harp said. “Secure bursts along Tython’s internal servers are up. Significantly. Someone is aware of what’s going on.”
“Many someones know that the situation at my facility is deteriorating,” the Medusa said. “Most of the secure data you’re monitoring is directed either towards or originating from those who are trapped within the buildings security layers.”
“Cross link that with the comm records I have listed on the second tab,” Ai said.
“The unsecured calls between unemployed residents of the Haythorn District?” the Medusa said.
“Right. It’s a chain of effect. Tython’s CEO, Douglas Rumshine has been pulled into this due to the removal of William Harcroft, the Vice President in change of keeping the NME project quiet. Rumshine has pulled in his trusted circle and they’re trying to decide what to do next. That’s a typical reaction. What’s not typical is that they’re making arrangement to vacate the city and are bringing their closest support staff with them because they don’t expect it to a brief departure. Their support staff mostly comes from the lower income residents of Haythorn and so those residents are having to call in their friends and family on short notice to cover looking after the families they’ll be leaving behind.”
“I see no accounts linked to Rumshine or the other senior managers being debited for travel expenses though,” the Medusa said.
“You won’t. Their ‘run away and live to see another day’ money will be buried in accounts that are specifically outside your reach,” Ai said.
“The data is only barely suggestive of your theory,” the Medusa said.
“It fits though,” Harp said. “Rumshine and his cronies know how dangerous you are. And they know how dangerous the NME program is. With both of you compromised, their first priority is going to be self-preservation.”
“Right,” Ai said. “Which is why it’s bothering me that the other digital intelligences haven’t been unleashed yet. Rumshine should be escalating this as high as he can.”
“Unless he thinks his escape would be hindered by the turmoil right?” Zai asked.
“My sisters could be tasked to ensure his safety though,” the Medusa Cluster said.
“Unless…” Ai said, a picture of the chaos inside Tython forming in her mind.
“Unless he needs to convince someone that he’s not trying to escape,” Zai said, watching where Ai’s thoughts were going.
The explosive growth of their cognitive enhancements had given each of them more room in Ai’s head. They were in some senses more separate than they’d ever been, their thoughts running on separate processors more than ever before. At the same time though, Ai couldn’t remember a time when they’d been more in synch. She was pretty sure if they wanted to appear as a pair of creepy twins who finished each other’s sentences they wouldn’t need much practice at all to pull off the effect.
“He’s worried about the NME research group!” Harp said.
“Interesting. Yes. That theory fits with the traffic we’re seeing from several remote facilities,” the Medusa said. “The message volume is also consistent with requests for status updates.”
“If Rumshine is afraid of the research group, then they’re probably as advanced as I suspected,” Ai said. “Which means they have a fully controlled version of the NME transformation sequence developed and tested.”
“Tested?” Harp asked.
“Management always expects development to deliver miracles in impossibly short timeframes but they never believe anything until they can see it with their own eyes,” Ai said.
“So the research group has made a perfected NME?” Zai asked.
“Perfected enough for Tython’s needs,” Ai said. “They probably didn’t send it over to Rumshine for inspection and appraisal though.”
“Because Rumshine appears to still be alive?” Harp asked.
“Yep,” Ai said.
“There seem to have been contingencies to remove the lead researcher, Dr Derrick Fredericks, from his position prior to a final test of the project,” the Medusa said.
“Which, not being an idiot, I’m sure Fredericks was aware of,” Ai said. “Can you find any evidence of a counterplay on Frederick’s part? Apart from finishing the project before they were ready to off him?”
“Yes,” the Medusa said. “It looks as though he was scheduled to be the first test subject.”
“That’s efficient I suppose,” Ai said. “No problems eliminating your rivals when you’re an invincible killing machine.”
“You’d think so, but somehow it’s never as simple as the battle plans make it out to be,” Harp said.
“I’ve watched your fights,” she said. “The only things that made your life hard were that you wanted to protect your identity and you gave a damn about the people who were going to get caught in your cross fire.”
“The Valkyries get a lot of credit for that, but I always wondered how much of it was a publicity ploy on Dr. Raju’s part,” Harp said. “She wanted us to focus on helping people but with our capabilities it wasn’t a hard call to make, so she kind of got to have her cake and eat it too.”
“Are you trying to say that your microsecond reaction times, the things you did faster than you could even think, were a result of Dr. Raju in your head asking you to look good for the press?” Ai asked.
“I wasn’t always that fast,” Harp said, quietly.
“True. Sometimes you had missing body parts that slowed you down a bit,” Ai said.
“Sometimes,” Harp said. “But who knows how she programmed me for the rest of the time?”
“I do!’ Zai said. “Remember, I saw you when you’re cybernetics were offline.”
“Wait, how?” Harp asked. “I lost connection with Sil’s sandbox when I did that.”
“I might have left a recording running on the output end of your comm sensors,” Zai said. “I’m sorry but I had to know it was you when you reconnected.”
“It’s ok. I wasn’t trying to hide anything at that point. What did you see though?” Harp asked.
“It looked like the code that had you in lockdown was in an added layer on top of your basic cognitive processes,” Zai said. “Or in other words, your thoughts are all you. You’re not programmed to act like you did because you can’t be programmed like that. Your organic neurons would be jellified if someone tried and then you’d be running entirely on the synthetic ones.”
“I’m not Raju’s puppet then?” Harp asked. “That’s kind of nice to hear.”
She relaxed, letting out a breath it looked like she’d been holding for days.
“Not mentally at least,” Zai said. “What she did to your body is another matter though. That’s all external and I wasn’t able to monitor anything there.”
“Huh,” Ai said. “I have a terrible idea.”
“No,” Zai said. “No more terrible ideas. We don’t have any buildings or bridges around here for you to throw yourself off and I’m not pretending to be you again.”
“This one might help Harp though,” Ai said, gesturing the remaining virtual windows that were in front of her into the background.
“With how my week has been going, I’m game for a terrible idea or two,” Harp said.
“You shouldn’t be,” Zai said. “Ai’s not kidding when she says her ideas are terrible.”
“But they seem to work out,” Harp said.
“Define ‘work out’ and for whom?” Zai asked.
“In this case it would be ‘free Harp from Dr. Raju’s control permanently,” Ai said.
“How do you propose doing that?” the Medusa Cluster asked.
“We could turn her into an NME,” Ai said, rubbing her hands together with an evil grin.