Ai had never been a fan of uninvited guests. Even before she had Zai’s secret to protect, her experiences with visitors showing up at unexpected times had been uniformly poor. From the big, shouty men who’d called her father away to work on cases or cover other people’s shifts when he was supposed to be tucking a little Ai into bed, to the detail of officers who’d appeared at her dorm room to inform her that he’d died in the line of duty, there was never a good time in Ai’s experience for loud people to show up unannounced.
There were exceptions to this of course. Agatha, for example, always brought food, so she had a standing invitation and was always welcome when she chose to show up. Opening the door to find a meal and friendly conversation waiting for her was much more agreeable to Ai than the dust and smoke that accompanied the Valkyries explosive arrival at the storage facility.
Ai frowned glancing back and forth between them, outside the building and walking slowly in, and Harp, obscured inside the truck, unresponsive and unmoving.. Nothing good was going to come of the Valkyries discovering Harp in her current state. Ai didn’t have time to determine exactly what Harp’s state was beyond “immobile and catatonic” so she clung to her faith in Zai and Harp’s skills and exited the truck to confront Sil and the other Valkyries. She needed to get back to the conversation she was having with Hector Simmons before his research team unleashed the Omnigrade but to do that she had to stall the Valkyries long enough for Harp to finish her transformation and be able to talk them down herself.
“Who are you and what have you done with Harp?” Sil demanded, a wrist mounted plasma cutter heating up as a punctuation mark to underscore how little interest she had in being delayed. Ai’d forgotten that she’d changed her appearance somewhat radically since the last time she saw the Valkyries in person. It was nice that the effort wasn’t wholly wasted given how easily Agatha and Harp had seen through the change.
“Nice to see you again Sil,” Ai said, spreading her hands wide at her hips to show she was unarmed.
“I don’t know you, and I don’t want to,” Sil said. “Tell me what you’ve done with Harp or we’ll take this place apart starting with you.”
Ai sighed. She had little leverage to work with, no ability to force any demands onto the Valkyries. She could only rely on a calm discussion to defuse the situation, when a calm discussion was the last thing Sil appeared to be interested in.
“It’s me, Ai. I’m not quite as dead as reports made me out to be, largely because I manufactured those reports myself.”
“Greensmith?” Sil asked. “I don’t think so, I saw the fall that killed you.”
“I’m not going to claim it was fun, but it was that or endanger everyone I know, including giving Tython a trail back to you and Harp,” Ai said.
“No one human could have survived that,” Sil said. The other Valkyries fanned out behind her, glancing over the storage room with eyes that captured wavelengths well beyond standard human perception.
“No one who was only human,” Ai agreed. “I’ve got Zai to thank for keeping me alive, both in a literal sense and by hacking enough systems that Tython decided I wasn’t the one they were looking for.”
“Zai? You still claim that your machine intelligence is a separate being from yourself?” Dr. Raju said, stepping forward from behind the protective screen of her warriors.
It was a bold move. If Ai had any combat modifications and was as inhuman as Raju believed her to be, having a direct line of fire to the doctor wouldn’t end well. Even as fast as the Valkyries were, they couldn’t move fast enough to intercept a pulsed laser blast or other light speed weapon.
That meant Raju was either testing Ai, or had hidden resources of her own. Or more likely both.
“I claim we’re separate because we are,” Ai said. “Now more than ever thanks to Sil’s efforts I believe.”
“It’s a waste of time speaking to this one,” Raju said. “Shut her down Sil.”
Ai saw the hesitation in Sil’s eyes. It was only there for a fraction of a second but with the speed they thought at, that was an awfully long time Sil spent considering whether to obey her leader’s order.
In the end though, she did choose to obey and Ai felt a swarm of electronic attacks ping off the new firewall that she had in place.
The access codes that Tiny Zai had been given were revoked moment Zai reintegrated, but that hadn’t been enough security for either one of them to feel safe. Together, Ai and Zai had salvaged the locking mechanism that Sil used to imprison Zai and reworked it, forging a new security layer for the mechanical components of their mind.
“I understand the impulse to shut me up,” Ai said. “God knows you’re not the first person to want to do that, but this will go a lot smoother if you work with me again.”
“Turn her off,” Raju said.
“I can’t,” Sil said. “She’s dropped the access rights we had.”
“Is that a surprise?” Ai asked. “You assaulted me with them! Why would I let you do that again?”
“Maybe she’s not the original Greensmith,” Raju said, ignoring Ai and speaking only to Sil. “This could be a clone body with a backup of Greensmith’s mind installed.”
“And maybe you’re a coffee pot with delusions of grandeur,” Ai said, stepping forward.
It was a dumb move. Aggressive when she had no means of backing up the aggression. The Valkyries didn’t flinch or hesitate. Before Ai’s foot finished falling into its next step, their hands were raised and their weapons were pointed at Ai. What was strange was Raju’s reaction though.
She went still, her entire expression blank and lifeless. Ai knew people who could school their faces well, even ones who had modifications to display only the micro-expressions which they wished to show.
From what Ai could see in this case though, Raju wasn’t hiding her emotions or artificially cloaking them, instead she didn’t seem to have any emotions at all, while at the same time she was highly distracted by something Ai had said.
“You paranoia is pointless,” Ai said. “You can accuse me of not being a person all you want, but it doesn’t change the reality that I am one, as much as you are, as much as any of us are.”
“You corrupted Harp!” Sil said.
“I did nothing of the sort!” Ai’s voice rose higher than she intended it to. “I asked her to go back to you, to show you what we discovered. I let her walk in to your lion’s den alone because I thought any family issues you needed to resolve would be easier without an outsider there. I had no idea you were going to shut her down without listening to a word she had to say!”
“Sufficiently advanced intelligences can turn communication into a vector for their contagion. We couldn’t risk the corruption spreading,” Raju said, her voice, expression and mannerisms fully back in place as though she hadn’t flash frozen for a moment.
“That true with direct data exchange, but you could have still talked to her, you know, like a person would!” Ai said.
“The ideas which warped her mind could have been a danger to the others,” Dr Raju said.
“Ideas can be questioned,” Ai said. “They can be rejected, they can be held right along with absolutely conflicting ideas. Strong ideas don’t change your mind, you do.”
“That’s very pretty, but we can’t trust you,” Sil said. “Not until we find Harp and make sure she’s ok.”
“Everything in here is packed up and shielded,” one of the other Valkyries said, apparently frustrated she wasn’t able to spy out Harp’s location immediately.
“This is a secure storage room,” Ai said. “Most of the boxes here have server class components in them. Take a look if you want.”
Sil and the other Valkyries glanced over to Dr. Raju.
“Worth the risk?” Sil asked.
“There will probably be traps, but we don’t have many other options for finding Harp,” Dr. Raju said. “Only one of you should search though. If this Zai person has any traps set perhaps she will agree to disarm them before she faces the consequences.”
“The boxes are full of server parts,” Ai said. “Unless you plug in the drives and someone’s personal folders aren’t erased, there shouldn’t be anything alarming that you’ll run across.”
“Fine,” one of the other Valkyries said and stepped away to begin examining the crates.
“Why are you here?” Ai asked. “I mean if you think Harp is corrupted, why come here and risk her corrupting you all too?”
“Because she’s too dangerous to let her run loose, especially if she’s under the thrall of a machine intelligence,” Dr. Raju said.
“Too dangerous?” Ai saw some awful meanings lurking in those two words, but she didn’t want to believe the Valkyries were thinking along homicidal lines. “What, exactly, were you planning to do to her?”
There were a lot of wrong answers to that question, and while Ai didn’t have many tools to fight with, some of the responses that Raju might make would be met with nothing except deadly force.
“Contain her,” Dr. Raju said.
“Cure her,” Sil said at the same time.
“And what does that look like?” Ai asked, her eyes narrowing in suspicion as to the depths people were capable of sinking to in trying to ‘cure’ someone else’s beliefs.
“We’re not going to explain that to you,” Dr. Raju said.
“Does it matter?” Sil asked. “We know Harp is here and we’re not leaving without her. If Greensmith does anything to stop us then she won’t be leaving here either.”
“Never boast to your enemies!” Dr. Raju said. “Any information you give them, they can and will use against you.”
“But I’m not your enemy!” Ai yelled. “I helped you raid the GCPD HQ. I helped Harp because she came to me. I’ve never tried to breach your security or your trust, so where is this fear that you’re drenched in coming from. It’s completely irrational!”
“You present us with an impossibility and then you wonder why we have trouble believing you?” Dr. Raju said. “You claim that you succeeded in merging human and machine consciousness, alone, in your bedroom, with children’s toys to work with, where the brightest mind and the best labs have failed?”
“Yes! I do!” Ai said. “Because no one ever tried it like Zai and I did! And from what I’ve read no one has tried it like that since either. It takes too long and no one is willing to wait for the years it would take to see a single result. They need returns this quarter or their projects get scrapped.”
“It’s not that easy,” Raju said, her voice displaying a flat lack of emotion.
“I am keenly aware of that,” Ai said. “I know how close we came, how narrow our odds were, but that doesn’t change the fact that it worked out. Whether it was preparation, luck or a combination of the two, it happened. But, that’s not why you’re so worried about us. You knew about that before the raid on cop central. You didn’t freeze us out until we got you what you wanted and then you didn’t even use it. What was it that scared you. What did you see?”
“It’s not what she saw. It’s what she was afraid we would see.”
The voice from behind Ai washed over her like a warm, balmy breeze, relaxing muscles in her back that had been held tight as tripwires. She turned to look at Harp’s new form, expecting to see a shimmering, renewed suit of armor, sleeker and more formidable than ever before.
Instead, she saw a normal looking woman. No chrome. No exposed metal ribbing. No armor. No weapons. Harp’s transformation was complete and she looked as human as anyone Ai had ever seen.