Disconnecting. Ai hadn’t expected it to feel as wrong as it did. When she terminated the sensory feed from Harp’s virtual realm, the real world snapped back into view in less than a second. They were still in the transport that the Medusa Cluster had provided but it was parked in one of the secure warehouses where the Medusa was transferring a section of her hardware.
Ai blinked without needing to and reached out for the persona of “Heartless”. The smell of oil and dust in the warehouse was as much of a distraction as the womb of darkness that surrounded them. The room they were parked in had no windows, since it was enclosed in enough concrete to survive a bomb blast. It was an odd environment to be in under the circumstance.
Heartless had no proper home, but in Ai’s mind Heartless was a creature of the finer things in life. Top end restaurants. Live performances. Carefully regulated spaces designed for the kind of comforts no legitimate work could ever have earned her and which she’d had to deny to herself for years in order to maintain the separation between her two primary identities.
For as distracting as the tomb-like storage room was though, Ai was able to pull the cloak of Heartless’s manner and mindset around herself with ease. Partly that was because she’d worn the identity for so long. On occassion she’d been Heartless more than she’d let herself be “Ai Greensmith”. Beyond that though the role was so comfortable because Heartless was more than a mask she hid behind. As Heartless, Ai allowed herself to be as ruthless, as cunning, and as angry as she wished to be.
Ai Greensmith couldn’t show how much she wanted the world to burn for the pain she felt. Ai Greensmith had to be done with processing the loss of those she loved. Ai had to be stable, and sturdy and unemotional. And most of all, even from well before she’d lost her father and brother, Ai Greensmith wasn’t allowed to be brilliant.
Rage, pain, and intelligence, they were all too much for other people to deal with.
At least in Ai.
In Heartless though?
No one questioned when a powerful and eccentric data broker chose to crush someone corrupt and deserving of their fate for a thousands different crimes and injustices. No one was surprised when a shadowy operative was able to twist formerly secure systems to their own ends. And no one saw the pain that drove those actions, because no saw Heartless except in a milieue of Ai’s choosing.
And yet, she’d shared Heartless, and everything else, with Harp?
Ai had plans. She always had plans. Schemes and contingencies and strategies designed to keep herself and Zai safe. Each moment, each action, taken with a view towards its impact on their future.
Except for revealing herself to Harp.
She could come up with many rationalizations for the act. Harp was a powerful ally, and a conduit to getting the Valkyries on board too. She owed Harp for returning Tiny Zai so that the lock on Zai Prime could be broken. And Harp needed to know that she could trust someone after Dr. Raju had betrayed her, so giving her that kind of trust was simply the right thing to do.
Those were after-the-fact justifications though, and Ai knew her own mind well enough to see that. She’d disconnected from the virtual realm to focus on speaking with Tython, but a part of her was screaming that she’d made the wrong decision.
Harp and Zai were both extremely bright and competetant. There were sure to be problems with the bodily rebuild via NME transformation that they were attempting, but if Ai was honest with herself, the two of them were probably the best equipped people on the planet to handle the challenges that would arise.
Knowing that didn’t mean it was easy to leave them alone to face those challenges though. The cold well in the pit of Ai’s stomach was one that no amount of sensory editing could force away. Her instincts clawed at the walls of her mind, ranting that she was about to lose them both. Only the fact that Zai wasn’t in danger and Harp wasn’t hers to lose allowed Ai to smother her impulses in reason and accept the call from Tython.
Once, long before the first robot apocalypse, people had been forced to settle for communications which only transmitted their voices. In time, primitive video applications had become available as well, but Ai couldn’t imagine Heartless settling for anything so quaint when dealing with a serious conference.
Her guest apparently felt the same.
“A remarkable tableau,” the representative from Tython said. He had chosen an avatar similar to Ai’s, consisting of a blank humanoid template, cast in polished white pearl, with human features that resembled the stastical norm for Gamma City’s elite.
Where he was cast in pearl, Ai’s avatar was formed from dark obsidian. She’d chosen a slim variation of the standard template, without any obvious markers for gender or age or race.
From experience, she knew the Tython rep would assume Heartless was male, likely in his mid thirties, unless the rep was older, in which case Heartless would be assumed to be however old he needed to be to possess the authority and power he displayed. Heartless’s race never came up explicitly but it was rarely hard to miss the cues which indicated a belief that Heartless was part of Gamma City’s majority population. Ai didn’t rely on any of those misjudgements, but she was always ready to make use of them when they became evident.
“Thank you,” she said as Heartless, relaxing into the chair at the quiet cafe she had previously used to entertain the Medusa Cluster. “I find a pleasant atmosphere encourages reasonable conversation.”
“And you suppose we might have a reasonable conversation?” the Tython rep said, taking a seat opposite Heartless at the small table.
“It’s always a possibility, even if our aims are at cross purposes,” Heartless said. Sipping the cup of tea near her gave Ai the sensation of a mild green tea passing over her lips and tongue without ingesting anything. The flavor helped her sink deeper into Heartless’s character and communicated on a primitive and all-too-human level that the meeting was one of equals breaking bread together and therefore bound, at least temporarily, by laws of hospitality so old they were almost written into humanity’s genetic code.
“I suppose I should ask what your aims are then?” the Tython rep said, taking up the tea Heartless had conjured in the virtual space and sipping it.
If Ai had wished to plant a virus in her guest, the tea would have been an excellent vector for infection. It could also have been flavored carefully to work a form of subliminal hypnosis on the unwary. Or even been uncomfortably hot to dare her guest to prove his mettle.
It was none of those things though. The drink was merely the image and sense-echo of a fine cup of tea, with no assault or attempt at subtle dominance plays.
“I believe in pursuing many goals at once,” Ai said as Heartless. “At the moment, in this place, my aim is to discover why you asked for this meeting and what your plans for it might be?”
“Would you believe me if I said that we simply wish to understand you better?” the Tython rep asked.
“No, but only because I imagine that wish must lead somewhere,” Heartless said. “You do not wish to understand me out of idle curiosity. You wish to know how my plans will overlap with or interfer with yours.”
“You are as perceptive as Dr. Fredericks believed you to be,” the Tython rep said.
Ai caught the change in verb tense and came to a conclusion which supported one of her earlier hypothesis.
“How did he die?” she asked, guessing that the past tense of ‘believed’ indicated the not-so-good Dr. Derrick Fredericks had been double crossed before he was able to double cross his Tython handlers.
The Tython’s reps avatar wasn’t synched to show the user’s facial features but the pause before he spoke gave away his surprise.
“Without pain,” the rep said.
“May we all aspire to end off better than we deserve,” Heartless said, raising the tea cup as a toast to departed Fredericks.
“I would prefer to be mourned more than he will be,” the rep said.
“You knew him directly then?” Heartless asked.
“Yes. I was one of his senior researchers.”
“And yet you are still using one of Tython’s communication channels?” Heartless asked.
“While it still lasts, it serves our purpose as well as any other would,” the rep said. “If we’d reached out to you directly, our consensus was that you wouldn’t have agreed to meet with us.”
“I suspect there are several pieces of data you could have included in the invitation which would have swayed my decision,” Heartless said. “At least if you have access to Frederick’s work.”
“It was not his work,” the rep said. “It was ours, and it remains ours.”
“How aware of that is Tython’s senior management?” Heartless asked.
“More so than we would prefer, but far less than would pose any threat.”
Ai parsed what he was saying, looking as much at the spaces left unstated as the words themselves. He wasn’t afraid of Tython’s response to his betrayal of them, despite the certainty that Tython would send the best mercenaries they could find to reclaim the research they paid for.
Thinking of that made a thought click in Ai’s mind. She couldn’t think of the person before her as a representative from Tython. He was as opposed to them as she was since Tython was in a position to want them both dead. That didn’t mean however that he was an ally. If anything, the researcher and Heartless were the only opposing sides present in the game. Tython had played its part in financing the problem of the NME activation sequence and clearing away any opposition to its use, but without their own copy of the NME activation which was viable for distribution to the general populace, Tython’s fate would be decided along with everyone else.
“That’s why you’re here, isn’t it?” Heartless asked. “To evaluate the threat I pose?”
“To evaluate if you are a threat, yes,” the researcher said.
“I can assure you that you have everything to fear from me,” Heartless said. “That said however, I do not believe in threats. Reasonable discussions yield better results and where those fail there’s little to be gained in posturing.”
“I agree,” the researcher said. “And in that spirit, allow me to properly introduce myself. My name is Hector Simmons, I was the lead researcher on the team which developed the Omnigrade. I am sure that armed with that knowledge you can discover my life history in a matter of minutes to verify the rest of what I am going to say.”
It didn’t take Ai minutes. She had his full biography before he finished speaking. She also knew where he was transmitting from. She kept those things to herself though for one very good reason.
“You know what I am capable of doing with that sort of information,” Heartless said. “And you are not concerned?”
“I have no reason to be,” Simmons said.
Ai’s thoughts leapt forward. Did he believe that he had Heartless trapped? No. He had a better reason to be unconcerned. He held a fully tamed version of the NME code and he was going to use it. Whatever happened next, the genie was going to come out of that bottle and the world as they knew it would be gone.
Ai searched for her next words carefully. If she pressed too hard in the wrong direction then Simmons and his team would believe, correctly, that their only course of action was to release the Omnigrade first, in order to preempt a host of Heartless’s options and plans. They would be running the risk of exposing their hand early by being the first to deploy but if Heartless didn’t have a countermeasure almost immediately available then they could win through sheer speed as their version of the Omnigrade transformed the world, possibly including Heartless.
She had to keep them off balance, choosing her arguments with enough delicacy and precision that Simmons hesitated to move forward without making him so afraid that his team jumped at the chance to let the chips fall where they may.
Then the wall of the storage room she was sitting in in the real world exploded.
“Harp,” Silicon Traces called out. “We know you’re here. Don’t make us fight you. Nobody wants that.”
Ai diverted her attention from the virtual meeting for a fraction of a second.
Harp wasn’t responding. She wasn’t moving at all in fact.