Author Archives: dreamfarer

The Second Chance Club – Ep 02 – Act 1

For all her expertise with using them, and the myriad ways she incorporated them into her act, Tam spent a fair amount of time hating computers.

“Fine! Then this is how I’m going to fix you!” she said and dropped a live wire onto the exposed circuit board in front of her.

Electronics are capable of amazing feats. Dealing with 120 volts of alternating current grounding itself out across components that were only meant to handle 5 volts of direct current however is not one of those feats.

“Can I get you a fan? And perhaps a fire extinguisher?” Jim Baughsley asked.

“Yes to the fan, no to the extinguisher,” Tam said. “The bios on this thing was so infected that burning is almost to good for it.”

“Should I be worried?” Jim asked, carrying a small battery powered fan over to blow the smoke coming off the motherboard up into the fume hood that hung over Tam’s bench.

“Probably,” Tam said and then sighed. “Or not. It’s just frustrating dealing with a machine that was hacked this badly.”

“I’m going to guess it was Jimmy B’s fault?” Jim asked.

Tam laughed. It was a safe bet. Of all of the Baughsley’s, poor Jimmy B was the most likely to render an electronic device non-operational within five minutes of interacting with it. It wasn’t that he was technologically illiterate, or that he meant to destroy whatever gadgets he got his hands on, he was just a weirdness magnet of sorts. Electronic devices simply malfunctioned in the most bizarre manners possible when he was around. Fortunately his area of expertise was logistics, and as long as he was working on that his telephone and computer were relatively well behaved. Ask him to play a Words With Friends game though and you’d wind up with nothing but Gaelic words all showing up in a mix of Hiragana and Sanskrit.

“Nope,” Tam said. “This one was all me.”

Confession is good for the soul, or so they say. Jim’s startled look may not have erased her frustration but it was good for a chuckle.

“I’m trying to decide if panic or absolute terror is the right response here,” he said. Tam was almost the opposite of Jimmy B. She didn’t have technical problems. She was the one everyone else came to for a fix when they were having technical problems.

“A little from column A, a little from column B,” Tam said. “I suppose the real people to blame are the ones with a lot better security than they should reasonably have.”

“Oh, were you still looking for the backers that Larson guy was working with?” Jim asked. He handed Tam a glass of water with a lemon wedge in it before sitting down on the opposite side of the computer bench. “I don’t think any of us expected them to be that much of a problem to track down, did we?”

“Charlene mentioned that I should be careful, which I was, just not quite careful enough,” Tam said, leaning back and enjoying the freshly squeezed lemon water while it was still cold. “I managed to track back some of the payments Larson made after his last scheme. It looks like they were on him right away and got their money back plus interest.”

“But it didn’t end there?” Jim asked.

“It did not,” Tam said. “He didn’t make any more payments to them but there was a trail of correspondence with a Mr. Judicar of the PrimaLux Group that continued on up till the day we took Larson down.”

“I’m going to guess that Mr. Judicar was the one with the unreasonable amount of security?” Jim asked. He wasn’t “a computer guy” but he was always willing to listen to Tam’s explanations of what she was working on, even when some of it probably went over his head.

“The PrimaLux Group in general is guarded against cyber-intrusion via some very nasty countermeasures,” Tam said. “Nasty in this context meaning probably illegal. Hence the bonfire. I couldn’t risk whatever ate this machine getting into the rest of our network.”

“Should we talk to James in case there’s anything a bit…” Jim waved his fingers around like he was casting a spell. Jim was a mechanic by trade, and while he performed a lot of other functions for the Second Chance Club, he had never entirely warmed to the more esoteric aspects of the job which his coworker James was proficient in.

The same was not true of Tam. As the group’s resident magician, she found it amusing how little overlap her work had with James’ actual magic but she wasn’t one to let professional pride stop her from being conversant with what he brought to the team.

“There’s no need,” James said as he joined them. “Ms. Le’s containment circle was top notch.”

“There was something mystical that tried to get in along with the boot record virus then?” Tam asked. It was too late to make any repairs but she looked at the circle of silver dust her ex-computer rested inside. The geometric swirls she’d carefully blown the dust into still held all of their original precisely specified dimensions.

“Yes, a Storm Class Gremlin,” James said, nodding at the circle as he inspected it as well. “Nasty in the wrong hands, but burning its receptacle as you’ve done disperses it harmlessly enough.”

“Well, we’ve got a name at least,” Tam said, leaning back from the bench and watching the still burning motherboard sizzle. “Problem is they know we’re looking for them now.”

“I would guess they will rather regret if they come looking for you in return?” James asked. Despite his training in the arcane arts, James was as interested in Tam’s form of wizardry and she was in his, so he had an inkling of the kinds of things Tam’s cyber defenses would do to an unwitting intruder.

“I’m honestly hoping they will,” Tam said a flicker of delight washing over her face. “Other duty calls though?”

“Indeed, A new letter has arrived,” James said, producing a set of copies from his breast pocket.

“A local job?” Jim asked, scanning the single paged document.

“I don’t believe so,” James said.

“I’ll get your bike ready then,” Jim said, turning to Tam. “I’ve got the muffler modifications all set, just need to finish the installation.”

“And just like that, my day got a bit brighter!” Tam said, extinguishing the motherboard at last and collecting her things to get ready for the meeting.

***

Anna and Val were already in the meeting room by the time Tam arrived. Anna was engrossed in the paperwork that JB had supplied for them. The packets were always informative but usually served more as a recap of the meetings details than required reading.

Val, taking that notion to heart, was sinking free throws from her seat with a foam basketball and a hoop that was affixed to the wall beside the projection screen. Tam watched her take a trio of shot at the hoop without missing a single one.

“Have any luck?” Val asked as Tam took the seat next to her.

“We’ll call it mixed results,” Tam said. “On the upside, I found the public facing company of Larson’s backers. On the downside, they bricked my computer. So a point for each of us?”

“Sounds more exciting than hacking should be,” Val said, catching her foam basketball and turning to back to the table.

“Yeah, if literal flames enter the picture something is going very wrong,” Tam said, sliding an iced tea over to Val.

“Or perhaps quite right,” Anna said, looking up from her papers.

“Is there something in there about the PrimaLux Group?” Tam asked.

“No, this is about our current assignment,” Anna said. “Triggering a strong response can be good though. For most people it is a warning. For us? It is bait.”

“Perhaps there’s more connection here than there appears to be,” Charlene said, speaking over the conference line. In the background, a cheerful chanting sound was dimly audible. Tam couldn’t place the language but thought it sounded vaguely like a bit of Swahili that she was familiar with. “This assignment involves an unexpectedly strong response as well.”

“What are we looking at with this one?” Val asked, as she began to go through the dossier in front of her.

“We have received a letter from a Sera Williams,” Anna said. “Sera’s sister is missing.”

“That’s never a good sign,” Val said. “How long has it been since someone last saw her?”

“A month,” Anna said. “Sera writes that she was the last one to see Jenny, her sister, before she disappeared.”

“That’s long enough for the police to be on the case,” Tam said. “Clearly they haven’t found her but have they turned up anything?”

“Very little,” JB said, passing out a new set of papers, copies of the official police file. “I spoke with the detective assigned to her case and there’s been no new leads since the initial investigation of her apartment three weeks ago.”

“The detective’s a club member I take it?” Tam asked.

“Not officially, but I’ve worked with her in the past,” JB said. “She’s glad we’re looking into this. All too often this sort of case goes nowhere for them.”

“Looks like Jenny left basically everything behind,” Val said, skimming through the police papers. “Is this a missing person’s case or a homicide?”

“That’s the first thing you’ll need to discover,” Charlene said. “Especially since there is more than one life at stake.”

Tam turned her attention to the original dossier but Val noticed the relevant detail first.

“She has a two month old daughter?” Val asked, anger coloring her words than she normally allowed.

“Yes. Meg Williams, who is also missing,” Charlene said.

“There were signs of a break-in at her apartment,” Anna said, flipping to a page in the police files. “Also blood traces on the carpet near the door, but none of it matched either Jenny or Megs.”

“So, Jenny is on the run then?” Tam asked. “That’s not necessarily that much of a challenge to sort out.”

“Depends on why she’s on the run,” Val said. “And from who.”

“Yeah. That brings up a good point. What’s the story with the father?” Tam asked, scanning to find any notes on him.

That he would turn out to be the culprit was an all too likely scenario but for a change it didn’t turn out to be the case.

“Deceased,” Anna said. “Lewis Lakes. He was a building contractor up until six months ago when he was diagnosed with an aggressive strain of pancreatic cancer. He passed away five weeks ago at St. Edmunds.”

“I don’t like the timeline on this,” Val said.

“You think someone was looking for Lewis and came after Jenny when Lewis wasn’t available anymore?” Tam asked.

“That fits the details we have so far,” Anna said. “Which means this will need to be a two pronged operation.”

“We need to track down where Jenny went,” Val said. “Which is going to be hampered by the fact that she’s got a one month head start on us.”

“And we need to find out what Lewis was into and why some scared his widow away from her own home when she’s got a two month old to care for,” Tam said. Ideas for how to pin that down started bubbling up faster than she could write them down.

“I have a private plane reservation to bring you into Atlanta as soon as you’re ready,” Jimmy B said. “If there’s anything you’ll need for in the base of operations there just let me know. I’m setting you up a suite downtown and a mobile surveillance center.”

“I’ll be going along as well,” JB said. “If you need a contact with the Atlanta PD or the FBI branch in Georgia, I can facilitate for you.”

“What about my bike?” Tam asked.

“It’ll be on the plane before you’ll be,” James said.

“Excellent. If we are all set then, let’s go rescue a runaway,” Anna said.

The Second Chance Club – Ep 01 – Act 4

Howard Larson held all the cards. He knew he was in control and that he had everything coming to him that he deserved. It was just like it was supposed to be.

“Have to say, I’m glad you asked to meet here. Makes this pretty convenient,” He took a step towards Anna, trusting the intimidation factor of the loaded gun in his hand to keep the old lady in line.

Anna eyed the weapon critically. It was a Smith and Wesson 500 Magnum, just the sort of ludicrously overblown piece of compensation hardware that she’d expected Larson to carry. She was fairly sure he’d never fired it before, given how he was holding it and the damage it would do to his wrist if he pulled the trigger. Of course, it would do noticeably more damage to her, so she chose to play along with his demands.

“You are throwing away a rather sizeable amount of money,” she said, meeting his gaze and letting a little of the Siberian frost of her motherland show in her expression. She’d seen death before, and lived with it for long enough that she regarded it more as an annoyance than something to be feared. It was the cat scratching at the door who you would have to let in eventually but could afford to wait a good while longer on because it would never really be satisfied wherever it was.

“I see a pretty sizeable amount of money in that trunk right there,” Larson said. “Now maybe you’ve got more, and maybe you don’t. The fact is, I don’t care. You made a mistake and I’m going to win, and sometimes that how things go.”

“And how will this be a victory for you?” Anna asked. “You will kill me I suppose?”

“Oh, not me,” Larson said, gesturing for Anna to walk forwards to where they would have a better view of the road. “That’s why I have people. To handle the messy stuff.”

“That’s still not going to go well for you,” Anna said. “If I disappear people will come looking for me.”

“Sure they will,” Larson said. “But no one’s going to come looking for me. I’m not here.”

“Then you are not holding a gun on me?” Anna said. “I guess I can leave whenever I want.”

“Don’t get cute,” Larson said. “I have people who will swear under oath that I was at dozen different places tonight.”

“And the forensic evidence?” Anna asked.

In the distance another call pulled onto the Green Bowl farm access road. The headlights suggested it was a large truck of some kind. Not the car Anna was waiting for, but one that she’d expected to see nonetheless.

“What evidence?” Larson said. “When they recover your body it’s going to be so charred there won’t be any evidence left.”

“Shot and then burned? The bonfire would be visible for miles here,” Anna said. “Unless…you’re also planning to burn down the farm as well?”

“Funny thing about acquiring the farmland,” Larson said. “People put up a lot less fuss when it’s no longer being used for agriculture.”

“And it’s even easier when the current owners can’t afford legal counsel to fight it out in courts?” Anna asked.

“You are a smart one,” Larson said. “It’s a shame we can’t be partners.”

“You haven’t pulled the trigger yet,” Anna said.

“Well you see the thing is, I already have some partners in this,” Larson said. “They’re not the kind of people who would be happy with global attention coming around here, so, you’re offer? It’s not really that interesting I’m afraid.”

“Curious,” Anna said. “Why put out a call for investments at all then?”

“A guy can always use some extra cash right?” Larson said.

“I see. So your partners want this development to happen, and they don’t need to know about the eleven million you’re going to pocket?”

“No reason why they should,” Larson said as the truck pulled up in behind his car.

“Who’s this?” a tall blonde haired guy asked.

He was all bulky muscles starting to run soft from lack of use. Probably in his early twenties and just out of school if Anna guessed correctly. A football player past his prime with his glory days fading behind and the promise of quick wealth luring him onwards to stupidity.

Behind him half a dozen other similar men exited the truck. They were all armed and all had the same focused, hungry look that came from anticipating a violent release of their less civilized fantasies.

“Someone who was trying to bail out the Perez woman,” Larson said. “A foreigner.”

The men all nodded knowingly. Their leader gave Anna a sharp look, gauging her from head to toe.

“Traitor.” He spit the word out and Anna smirked. He didn’t mean it in terms of betraying his country. If he believed Anna was truly a foreigner then “saboteur” or “infiltrator” might have been viable terms, even though neither actually applied. No, he meant ‘race traitor’, because she was a white woman working to protect the holdings of a woman of latin descent.

That Larson had corralled a group of white supremacists to do his dirty work came as no surprise. They weren’t exactly difficult to manipulate or goad to violence.  

Anna smiled. She’d been concerned that Larson’s inevitable flunkies would be people in debt to him or whom he held unfair sway over and could force to do work they desperately didn’t want to. These men assembled before her weren’t beholden to Larson like that though. They followed his orders of their own free will and therefore deserved everything that was about to happen to them.

“What are we going to do with her?” the blonde guy asked.

“The same thing that should be done with all traitors like her. The fire will make sure they can’t even identify the body or pick it out of any of the rest of the people who were here,” Larson said. “For now though you need to go and rig up the monitoring systems like we talked about.”

The leader nodded and began directing the others to head for various points around the farm’s fields.

“The monitoring systems?” Anna asked. “You’re going to blame the farmlands burning on a glitch in the crop monitoring systems?”

“This place lived by its technology, so it’s going to die by its technology,” Larson said.

“And when the manufacturer initiates an investigation to clear themselves of liability?” Anna asked.

“Well that’s not something you’re going to need to worry about is it?” Larson asked.

“I suppose that is true,” Anna said. “Tell me though, are you planning to actually build something here? Or is this just another ploy to reap a quick fortune from unwary investors?”

“Oh, my partners are quite serious about redeveloping this area,” Larson said.

“And do these partners have a name?” Anna asked.

“Not one you need to know,” Larson said.

A crack of gunfire came from the wheat fields.

“I wonder who that could be?” Anna asked.

More gunfire followed, abruptly cutting off after a few shots in all but one case. Larson hadn’t been expecting any resistance and pulled out his cell phone to call the leader of his minions. He dialed the number and then frowned.

“No service?” Anna asked. “You should switch to my provider.”

She held up her cell phone which had a screen which showed an active call going. To the police.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Larson thrust the gun at her, as though being a few inches closer would increase the danger it represented.

“Waiting for them to show up,” Anna said, gesturing behind Larson to where three police cruisers with their lights whirling were pulling onto the access road.

“What are they doing here?” Larson asked.

“Looking for you,” Anna said.

The lead police car skidded to a halt and the officer inside threw the door open and exited behind it with his sidearm drawn and pointed directly at Larson.

“Put the weapon down and put your hands on your head,” the officer said.

“Doug? It’s me! Howard. Why are you here?” Larson asked as he put his gun on the ground and his hands behind his head.

“Howard Larson, I am placing you under arrest for the burglarly of the First Security bank,” Officer Doug said. “Get on your knees.”

“What? I didn’t rob First Security! That’s my bank!” Larson said.

“His trunk is full of cash,” one of the other officers said from the back of the black Mercedes.

“That’s not my car!” Larson said. “It’s hers! That’s her cash!”

“But my car is over there,” Anna said. She pointed to a red Ford Mustang that was parked farther down the road. “It’s a rental. I don’t think they rent black Mercedes here do they?”

There was a rustling from the wheat field and as quick the officers could re-aim their weapons a man with a battered face stumbled out and collapsed to his knees.

“Put your hands over your head,” Officer Doug called out.

“I can’t,” the blonde minion leader said holding out his arms to show that they were both bending in places arms weren’t meant to bend.

***

“But I don’t understand what happened?” Daniela said when they were once again gathered in Green Bowl’s command center.

“Howard Larson robbed the First Security bank of 11.2 million dollars,” Tam said. “Or at least someone wearing a disguise which looked exactly like him, down to fingerprints and DNA residue.”

“Thanks to some very special makeup,” Val said, smiling at Anna who looked impossibly innocent somehow.

“The reality is, he did rob the bank of that money,” Anna said. “We just made sure that it happened on camera and with evidence left behind to prove it.”

“Then we made sure the police caught him red handed with the money still in his car,” Val said.

“How did you managed that though? I thought you drove there separately?” Daniela asked.

“We did, but it’s not that hard to make a car disappear if you know what you’re doing,” Tam said.

“Also, Larson drove there in our car,” Val said. “It was his car was parked outside the bank when all the money was loaded into it.”

“Is that going to save Green Bowl though?” Daniela asked.

“Well the guys who tried to burn the place down aren’t going to be coming back,” Val said, a satisfied smile on her face.

“Once they’re fit to travel, they’ll all be standing trial for an impressive list of outstanding changes,” Tam said. “Most of which are even real.”

“More importantly though, when First Security does a review of its records, it’s going to find evidence of the embezzlement that Larson’s been doing for years now,” Anna said.

“And in this case all of that is real,” Tam said. “Apart from a few breadcrumbs I left to make sure they found the backups with the real financials.”

“So they’ll see that we’ve been paying all this time?” Daniela asked.

“Yeah,” Tam said. “Larson kept a set of real transaction records it turned out. He needed to be able to make sure he was properly covering up the money that he was siphoning off.”

“You’re accounts will be squared up as soon as their internal audit is done,” Val said. “And until then, the bank will be putting a hold on all fees and premiums assessed against you.”

“So we don’t have to pay any interest until they’re done?” Daniela asked.

“The audit will probably take about six months,” Anna said. “You can keep paying as usual and all of the funds will go towards your principal, or you can reduce your payments by the interest amount and you won’t fall behind.”

“That will definitely make things easier around here,” Daniela said. “But what about the foreclosure?”

“It never happened,” Val said.

“It was a fiction that Larson put together,” Tam said. “I confirmed it with the official court records. First Security never received a judgement against you. The one they had on file was a complete fabrication.”

“But how would that have ever stood up?” Daniela asked.

“It wouldn’t have,” Anna said. “Unless there was no one around to challenge it.”

“That’s why Howard brought those men here?” Daniela asked. “He was going to kill me?”

“And we have him on record admitting it,” Val said. “Howard Larson is going to be sent to a deep and lonely cell where he is going to have a long time to reconsider the choices he’s made.”

***

“That was well done,” Charlene said over the conference line when the team reassembled at the Second Chance Club. “Green Bowl farm is safe, there’s a bountiful harvest due in soon, a ruthless swindler is behind bars, and a dangerous cell of extremists will be serving time as well.”

“One thing about this still bothers me though,” Anna said.

“You’re wondering who Larson’s partners were aren’t you?” Val asked.

“I’m going to start looking into that,” Tam said. “Something tells me we haven’t seen the last of them.”

The Second Chance Club – Ep 01 – Act 3

Green Bowl’s total land was well over a thousand acres. There was no conceivable reason why the entirety of it would be needed for shopping and road access to support an airport in northern North Dakota, but that didn’t make the slightest bit of different to the man who was poised to steal it.

“Larson is moving quickly,” Anna said, gesturing to the map that was laid out on the conference table, indicating the properties Larson’s investment company owned. The map offered a sprawling topographic view of area around Green Bowl’s land and the airport that was soon to border it. “He is looking for backers to invest in his development company with a cutoff on the initial buy in of next week. He claims the more investment funds he can collect, the more infrastructure and services he can create around the airport, though he also claims that he has enough money already to make a shopping destination larger than the Mall of America.”

“Shouldn’t the cutoff be when he reaches the funds that he needs rather than a specific date?” Tam asked. She was more familiar with the workings of venture capital in terms of startup tech companies, but the general rule of ‘don’t sell off more of your company than you need to’ seemed like something that should cross industries.

“That depends,” Anna said. “If you are setting up an actual company, then yes, you want to be careful how much investment you take on and terms it is offered under.”

“And if you’re running a scam?” Val asked, tracing paths through the map with her finger. The Red River Valley was relatively flat, which would make construction easier once it began. That was good for building but it also meant that, if the earthwork machines rolled in, Green Bowl’s farmland would vanish in record time.

“For a scam you want as much money as possible, in as short an amount of time as possible,” Anna said. “Some people prefer the long con, but those require patience and are very delicate affairs. Larson is a man lacking in both impulse control and finesse, so naturally he gravitates to the quick scam, despite its long term costs.”

“I just don’t understand why he would do any of this?” Daniela said. “I’ve met Howard. He has a good job at the bank. He’s a respected member of the community. Why would he want to setup a scheme like this to take our farm? He doesn’t need the money at all.”

“That’s not entirely true,” Tam said. “Howard Larson has been living beyond his means for several years now it seems. He’s still rich, don’t get me wrong there, but a lot of the wealth he splashes around is an illusion.”

She handed a dossier she had compiled over to Val before turning back to the laptop she’d brought to their meeting to continue plugging away at it.

“Three houses, but they’re all heavily mortgaged,” Val read from the dossier. “He’s being sued by a bunch of private contactors too. Oh hey and he hasn’t paid the staff for the gala that you went to last night. This guy’s a real winner.”

“But the bank must pay him a good salary doesn’t it?” Daniela asked. She had a stack of papers that she’d brought with her to the meeting, order forms and time sheets from the workers to be processed before the next business day. They sat unsorted and blank in a pile in front of her still.

“His salary is more than generous, as are the perks that come along with it,” Anna said. “For the class of wealth Howard Larson aspires to however, no amount of money is ever sufficient.”

“He might want to be one of the ultra-rich, but according to this he’s lucky not to be in the poor house,” Val said. “I’m seeing big losses year after year. This guy’s a disaster when it comes investing. How is he the CEO of a bank?”

“Look at who the CEO was before him,” Tam said without looking up from her computer.

“Oh, of course,” Val said as she found the relevant page in the dossier and showed it to the others. “Like father, like son, I guess.”

“George Larson was a different category of disaster than his eldest son,” Anna said. “He built First Security on the back of a lucrative smuggling trade that ran through the Canadian border. By the time proof of that came to light, the elder Larson had been dead for half a decade.”

“And yet Howard got to keep his inheritance,” Tam said.

“The probate was long finalized by the time proof came to light,” Anna said.

“I don’t understand how he can keep losing money like that though,” Daniela said. “Wouldn’t the bank have noticed? Wouldn’t they have fired him if he was that bad?”

“Up until now, Larson has kept his investment schemes separate from First Security,” Anna said.

“Yeah, I’m seeing that here,” Val said. “Each of these big losses that Larson’s reporting are tied to corporations that he setup. His personal losses are much smaller.”

“It’s an efficient tactic for a swindler,” Anna said. “He creates corporations based out of other states, uses his connections as the CEO of a well capitalized bank to present a solid, dependable image for the new businesses, brings in investors and buries the lower performing companies under debt from the few ventures that do succeed, and walks away with everyone’s money and owing none of them a dime.”

“But that should give him a terrible reputation,” Daniela said. “Who would work with a man who does that?”

“A surprising number of people. Board shareholders have no special wisdom in picking their CEOs,” Anna said. “They choose people who they have connections to, regardless of previous failures or the capability, or lack thereof, the person may possess.”

“Also, it looks like Larson has avoided scamming anyone local, or related to First Security,” Val said. “People are much more likely to overlook things that happen far away than trouble that lands close to home.”

“And, seriously, what’s the chance that the rest of the First Security board isn’t into things that are just as unethical?” Tam asked.

“Why would he change now then? Why target us?” Daniela asked. “We’ve gotten along just fine up till now. Heck if he needed a road, we probably could have just sold him that.”

“When was the decision on the airport’s location made?” Anna asked.

“Technically it hasn’t been made yet,” Tam said. “But the final draft of the plans was submitted a month ago. They’re up for review and the deciding vote next week.”

“So Larson knew a month ago where the airport would probably land,” Val said. “And that’s right around the time he put the plan in motion to steal Green Bowl.”

“The timing is suggestive,” Anna said. “Of a great many things.”

“It suggests that Howard Larson has the impulse control of a five year old hopped up on pixie sticks,” Val said. She’d started making small ‘x’ marks on the map at various locations.

“That is unkind to five year olds I think,” Anna said. “It also suggests some amount of desperation. We should look into his most recent creditors, particularly any involved with companies that failed in the last six months.” She paced around the end of the conference table, nibbling on a pen cap, her gaze turned inwards as she crunched the possibilities through the wheels of logic in her mind.

“You’re thinking one of them is unhappy with him?” Val asked.

“Many of them are unhappy with him,” Anna said. “One of them however has resources beyond simple wealth.”

“Like the mob?” Tam asked.

“Possibly,” Anna said. “Larson is highly enough placed though, and this area remote enough that I’m not certain if typical mobsters could make an effective threat here. I believe he may have stumbled on someone with a more extensive war chest of resources to draw on.”

“So he needs a quick score to pay back people he shouldn’t have ripped off in the first place?” Val asked. “If we wanted to, could we just bribe him to leave the farm alone?”

“That depends on how his creditors wish to be paid back,” Anna said. “Control of the facilities servicing a new international airport is a resource worth far more than the monetary value of the land and buildings.”

“Good,” Val said. “I like it when we can’t do things the easy way.”

Her smile radiated the kind of self confidence that had told more than a few of her enemies they’d made a terrible mistake in squaring off against her.

“You know, we don’t even know if he has any goons or not,” Tam said. “There may be no one for you to pummel on this assignment.”

“Oh, I’m not worried,” Val said. “Push comes to shove, guys like Larson always seem to be able to dig up some meat slabs for protection.”

“Yes, that does seem to be true in more cases than it should,” Anna said. “But perhaps in this case, we have a simpler path.”

“You want to con him before he cons us?” Val asked, unable to suppress the lift of her eyebrows.

“We have a golden opportunity to do so,” Anna said.

“I feel like you always make a case for that,” Val said.

“Greedy men are very easy to manipulate,” Anna said with a shrug.

“So how do we approach him?” Tam asked.

“The only thing that interests someone running a scam on the scale Larson is attempting, is a payout that will bring it to the next level,” Anna said. “He is swindling millions of dollars. We will make him think that he can tap into a set of investors that will net him billions.”

“Definitely a job for me there. I’m in,” Tam said. “What do we need to set everything up?”

“We’ll need a car that matches Larsons, a set of Russian credentials, and for you to work a little bit of magic,” Anna said.

“This sounds very risky,” Daniela said.

“Yes, you could say we’re betting the farm on it,” Anna said.

***

“So he took the bait?” Val asked.

“He was all too happy to meet me at Green Bowl when I said I had the funds with me and needed to see his vision for the facilities in person,” Anna said. “Now I just need to put on my makeup.”

She pulled an old box covered in complex geometric sigils from her bag.

“James sent along the good stuff I see?” Tam said.

***

The bank was long closed by the time Howard Larson’s black Mercedes rolled down the access road to Green Bowl’s farmland.

Anna was waiting for him at the border of the farm’s lands, leaning against her rental sedan, which was also a black Mercedes, the tall wheat of the farm’s roadside acre waving behind her as she worked on her cell phone.

“Getting any signal out here?” Larson asked. He’d parked behind her, bumpers uncomfortably close together despite the miles of shoulder available.

“It comes and goes,” Anna said.

“Well now that’s something we’re going to change,” Larson said. “Soon as we close on this? Bang, up go the cell towers. We’re going to make this place so modern, you won’t even believe it.”

“Will you now?” Anna asked. “Which service providers will you contract with?”

“All of them,” Larson said. “The best ones.”

“But that will be very hard won’t it?” Anna said.

“Not for me,” Larson said. “They’re going to be begging me to let them work here.”

“I mean it will be hard because you’re not going to building anything here,” Anna said.

“What? Are you crazy? Of course I’m going to build something here!” Larson said, his mood fading as irritation and panic twitched at the corners of his mouth.

“Mr. Larson, Howard if I may, I looked you up,” Anna said. “There is no construction firm bidding on work beyond the airport, and no permits or plans have been filed yet.”

“We’re waiting on those things,” Larson said.

“Waiting until you can get away with the cash or until you’re sure you can steal this farm from its rightful owners?” Anna asked.

“Now listen here, I don’t know…” Larson started to say but Anna cut him off.

“You don’t know what I have to offer you,” she said, her tone mild and conciliatory. “Whether this is a scam or a legit development, I don’t care. In either case it is an opportunity.”

“What do you mean?” Larson asked, his shoulders tight and his hands clenched.

“I mean, the money I would invest with you? It is currency which is for chasing rabbits.”

“I don’t know what you mean by that. What do rabbit have to do with this?” Larson asked.

“Rabbits are very quick, and can get away very easily, but they are quite tasty when you catch them,” Anna said. “That is what the people I have found are like. They have money to burn chasing tasty rewards, but they are not too bright about how risky those rewards can be.”

“What are you saying?” Larson asked, perplexed by Anna’s metaphors but she’d mentioned money and he understood that.

“I am saying you’re operation here is a very alluring rabbit hole, and I have people who are looking for such a thing to throw their money down. I am saying I want to invest in you, but I want a piece of your action. Not the return on the investment. I want a piece of the haul you bring in.”

“And why would I do that?” Larson asked.

“I can give you a million reasons right now,” Anna said. “They are in the trunk of my car. But they are not the important factor in these negotiations.”

Larson went around to the rental car’s trunk and Anna hit the fob to open it.

Neatly stacked bills in every denomination filled the trunk.

“Well, you do have a lot of money here,” Larson said. “But you’ve got something better than this?”

“This is one percent of the funds my backers have pledged me,” Anna said. “All I need to do to secure the rest is provide them with a sufficient opportunity.”

Larson face went pale and he swallowed.

“How much is here?” he asked.

“Eleven point two million dollars in cash and bearer bonds,” Anna said. Most of the money was in the bearer bonds, since eleven million in cash wouldn’t have fit in any car’s trunk.

“Well, isn’t that just an amazing sight,” Larson said as he stood up from the truck. “You know what my daddy always told me though? He said ‘don’t get too greedy’ son.”

As he cleared the back of the car, Anna saw that he had a gun in his hand and a smile on his lips.

The Second Chance Club – Ep 01 – Act 2

There weren’t a lot of venues for Vegas quality magic shows on a farm, but there was a surprising amount of computerized infrastructure in place Tam observed.

Granted, it was mostly surprising because she hadn’t expected to a see a single piece of technology that she wasn’t carrying herself once they left their plane behind at the Larimore Municipal Airport. Being located in the middle of nowhere North Dakota, Green Bowl farm’s tech setup wasn’t going to set Silicon Valley on fire but it did seem to be composed of generally newer machines within reasonably up to date software running on them.

“Oh so how do you like our command center?” Daniela Palomo asked, her North Dakotan accent marking her as a long time native even more than the well worn overalls and work gloves she wore.

Daniela was the founder and primary owner of Green Bowl Harvest, though Tam had gleaned from Anna’s breakdown of their financial structure that Green Bowl was an employee owned and operated venture. From Anna’s description of it, that was an notable irregularity in an industry where the vast majority of agriculture output came from either family owned farms or large agribusiness operations.

“You’ve invested a lot in this place,” Tam said. “Telematics for the tractors I take it? And soil monitoring?” she asked, nodding at one of the monitors. Her mind was leaping through the various failure modes she could imagine for each system she saw. The engineer in her saw the problems weather could produce in the readings and the lack of robust security in the applications that were running. The magician in her saw the options for spoofed inputs to convince her audience of a variety of illusions. People thought “computer wizard” was distinct from “stage magician” but Tam often found the two skill sets overlapped quite a bit.

“Yah, it helps with the maintenance and operational costs,” Daniela said.

“Seems like you stay on top of things pretty well,” Val said wandering around the walled off section of the barn that formed Green Bowl’s ‘command center’. Tam could tell Val was bored. She wasn’t being rude about it, Val claimed the Marines had taught her patience in addition to one hundred and seven other deadly skills, but being surrounded by tech was not Val’s strong suit.

“Well, I thought we did,” Daniela said. “Until this all happened.”

“May I?” Tam asked, sitting down at one of the stations in the command center. Daniela nodded her approval.

“I’ve spoken with your accountant,” Anna said. “Missing your payments for over a year is extremely implausible.”

“I know, but we can’t show the bank that we paid anything for that whole time,” Daniela said. “All the records are gone.”

“It was all electronic fund transfers?” Tam asked.

“They had to be,” Daniela said. “That’s what the bank wanted. I thought those were supposed to be secure.”

“They are,” Tam said. “But that doesn’t mean the bank is.”

“You think someone hacked the bank?” Val asked.

“Yeah, and, unfortunately, Green Bowl’s systems as well,” Tam said, reviewing the server logs on Green Bowl’s financial system. “Not the greatest job in the world. Pure slash and burn on the data. Problem is there’s no records here that support the claim that you made your payments.”

“Don’t they have backups?” Val asked. Computers didn’t fascinate her like they did Tam, but she wasn’t a techno-illiterate either.

“Sadly, no,” Tam said.

“But we do!” Daniela said. “We backup our data every day.”

“Unfortunately you back up onto the same media every day,” Tam said. “You can recover yesterday’s information, but it’s just as empty as today’s. If you’d caught the hack the day it happened you could have recovered but it’s too late for that to work now.”

“I guess part of it’s on us then,” Daniela said with a defeated sigh.

“We will connect you with a reliable IT coordinator once we have everything else straightened out,” Anna said.

“Who would do this?” Daniela asked.

“Most likely candidate? Whoever buys your land once the foreclosure is finished and the farm reverts to the bank,” Anna said.

“And we won’t know who that is until it’s too late,” Val said.

“Yes. Once the foreclosure goes through, the new owner will be able to do what they wish with the land,” Anna said. “If they want this land as anything other than a farm they’ll slash and burn the current batch of crops the same as they did with the financial data and begin whatever development they have in mind.”

“Losing a whole season of crops would put us in mighty poor shape even if we could get the farm back,” Daniela said.

“How long do we have until the foreclosure is finalized?” Tam asked.

“That is the puzzling thing about this,” Anna said. “Foreclosures on agricultural properties vary by state, but they are never rapid. In this case, Green Bowl Harvest should have up to a year to reinstate their loan payments, and the bank would need a court judgement against them to sell the property.”

“So why is the bank claiming that the farm is going to be put up for sale next week?” Val asked.

“Probably because they think they’d already won a judgement against Green Bowl,” Tam said, spinning the monitor in front of her so that the rest could see.

“The date on this court judgement was over a month ago,” Anna said, scanning the document on the screen.

“Where did you get that?” Val asked.

“It’s on First Security’s collections server,” Tam said.

“How can you see that?” Daniela asked. “Did you hack into them?”

“It’s hard to call it hacking when it’s this easy,” Tam said. “Check out the created date on the judgement file though.”

“That’s last week,” Val said.

“Which could mean that they received the electronic copy of the file last week,” Anna said.

“Or that it was created directly on their server last week,” Tam said.

“Will any of this stand up in court?” Daniela asked, a note of hope brightening her voice.

“We could check with our legal team,” Val said. “But I’m going to guess the answer is no.”

“There’s another option we could pursue though,” Tam said. “We know that Green Bowl made the payments right? That means that the money went somewhere. If First Security still has it then an audit of their systems would turn up an overage for the amount they were paid but aren’t showing anymore.”

“The problem there is what if Green Bowl isn’t the only place the hackers targeted?” Val said. “If the overage doesn’t match their payments exactly could we prove that it was really their missing money.”

“That won’t be a problem. The money won’t be in First Security at all anymore,” Anna said. “Why steal just a farm, when you can steal the farm and a year’s worth of their loan payments?”

“Well this just doesn’t sound all that good then,” Daniela said. “Is there anything we can do?”

“Oh, no worries,” Anna said. “We will make sure you keep your farm.”

“How are we going to do that?” Val asked.

“We’ll follow the money,” Tam said. “If First Security prefers to use electronic fund transfers then Green Bowl’s money should show up somewhere in the withdrawals.”

“While Tam works on that, you and I will pay a visit to Howard Larson,” Anna said.

“The CEO of First Security?” Val said, having paid more attention in their briefing than Tam had.

“Yes. This move against Green Bowl is risky and rushed,” Anna said. “That tells me there is more to it than acquiring a single farm, however well organized this one might be.”

“And you figure Howard Larson is either in on it, or can point us in the direction of whoever is?” Val asked.

“Precisely,” Anna said.

***

Howard Larson was most definitely “in on it”.

Anna worked that out within three minutes of entering the “Good Father’s Annual Foreign Charity Ball” which First Security sponsored and Howard Larson lead as the featured awards presenter.

“How many rich people does North Dakota have?” Val asked. Her champagne pink dress stood out enough in the crowd to draw attention, just as Anna’s simple black ensemble allowed her to blend in almost invisibly despite her height.

“These are not all local residents,” Anna said. “We have quite a few out of state interests represented.”

“What brings them all here?” Val asked, evaluating the room along different lines than the one’s Anna was looking for.

For Anna, reading the room meant evaluating the interplay between the various groups of people. Who sought conversation with who, what sort of distance did they keep between themselves, who was enjoying themselves and who wished to appear to be enjoying themselves to please someone else.

Val’s attention on the other hand was focused on the locations of exits, cover positions and areas sheltered from outside view. Those were considered and catalogued, before being placed in her memory securely enough that she could navigate the room to safety while blinded and deafened. Determining which people could become active threats and what sort of challenges they would pose to deal with was a more involved process and took somewhat more consideration.

“Infrastructure development,” Anna said. “See if you can find anyone here who’s not a local, and not involved with heavy construction.”

“What will they be involved with?” Val asked.

“Technology or international investment,” Anna said.

“That’s an odd combo,” Val said.

“Larson either employed a hacker directly, or has contacts with someone with no compunctions about hacking an American bank,” Anna said. “Probably a Russian or Chinese interest.”

“And while I do that, you’re going to go talk to Larson and find out if he’s the player or the played?” Val asked.

“Just so,” Anna said and turned to cut a path through the crowds.

Howard Larson was a large man, cut and chiseled like he’d been hacked from a wide tree with an axe. He was in mid-diatribe when Anna reached the group he’d gather around himself. Their attention ran the gamut from servile attentiveness to feigned amusement for their hosts sake. Only a few seemed to believe the claims he was making about his college tenure and being denied his rightful position as valedictorian because of the school’s fear of his entrepreneurial success while there.

“It’s a shame you can’t buy them and close them down,” Anna said as Larson concluded his monolgue. “That’s what I did.”

“I probably could,” Larson said, his eyes lighting up at the idea. “I don’t know though, would the Queen sell Oxford to an American?”

Anna resisted the urge to sigh. The Queen of England didn’t own Oxford, but the assembled crowd neither knew nor cared about that, they were happy to swept along by Larson’s bluster. That was always aggravating on a personal level, the moreso because Oxford was Anna’s alma matter, and would never have admitted a lout like Larson. Bluster and brainless were too useful a combination of traits to ignore though, however distasteful they might be, so Anna played into her role, allowing a subtle hint of a British accent to color her words. People always thought she was wealthier when they thought she was British.

“You’d probably do a better job with it than she has,” Anna said, heroically refusing to gag on the words. “From the look of this event though, I’d guess things here must be keeping you quite busy? Lazy people don’t throw galas like this.”

“Oh, I like this one,” Larson said. “She gets its. She does.”

It didn’t take many more bald faced lies disguised as compliments before Anna had Larson’s complete attention to herself. The others who had gathered into his orbit either wandered away, grateful for the chance to exit Larson’s company without offending him, or remained and hung on his every word, hoping to enter his good graces through sheer proximity.

“I’ll tell you,” Larson said, when the group had at last dwindled to just Anna and a handful of silent hangers on. “What you see here is nothing. Nothing at all. I’m going to make such a killing. It’s going to be incredible.”

“Personal investments?” Anna asked.

“Big ones. Huge,” Larson said. “I’m not supposed to say anything but it’s ok, we’re going to announce it soon anyways.”

“Your bank will announce it?” Anna asked.

“No, no, the Consortium I’m with,” Larson said. “The airport. They’re going to tear down Pembina Municipal and put in a new international airport out west.”

“Out in the farm country?” Anna asked.

“It’s not going to be farm country when we’re done,” Larson said. “They’re going to build an airport, and I’m going to build the city that services it.”

The Second Chance Club – Ep 01 – Act 1

Val’s luck had run out. That was ok though, her luck had run out before.

“I can’t see anything,” Marianne said. “There’s too much smoke. We’re going to die aren’t we?”

It wasn’t an unreasonable question. The top floor of the brownstone Val and Marianne were in was on fire. There were at least four men with guns on the floor below them who were busy setting charges to bring down the rest of the building, and across the street there was a sniper of Val’s acquaintance named Olga who would with regret, but without hesitation, put a high caliber slug through Val’s brain if Val gave her a clear shot.

“Sorry, I’ve got a dance competition tonight and my partner will kill me if I show up for it dead,” Val said. “So, we‘re going to get out of here. Question is which exit are we going to use?”

They weren’t exactly overwhelmed with choices. Val had them both pressed as low to the floor as they could get in an attempt to keep away from the toxic gases that were the deadliest part of any building fire. From their low vantage point, and with the clouds of thick smoke that choked the brownstone’s top floor, Val could only see a single door out of the room they were in and that was wreathed in flames. There was also a window to consider but that lay in a direct line of fire with Olga’s perch.

“There’s only one set of stairs down,” Marianne said. “I saw them putting bombs on it though. Should we try that? I mean better to get blown up than burn alive right?”

“Yeah, burning sucks,” Val said, the old scars on her face a testament to the personal experience she was speaking from. “If they don’t blow us up though, they’re going to shoot us.”

“Won’t they leave soon though?” Marianne asked. “I mean they’re not going to stay in the building while it burns are they?”

“These guys are muscle for the Durmph Crime family,” Val said. “They’re going to stay as long as it takes to make sure we’re dead and this building is gone.”

“But it’s on fire!” Marianne said. “We can’t use anything in here as evidence against them anymore.”

“That’s true, but we’ve got the recording of their Don confessing to the whole inspection rigging scheme. We get out of here and live to testify and he’s going down hard,” Val said.

“All I wanted was a safe place to live,” Marianne choked out as the smoke filled the room to the floor.

“First we make sure you live,” Val said, closing her eyes and building a model of the room in her mind.

In the distance she heard the wailing of fire truck sirens. That was going to spook the guys with the guns and the bomb triggers. The fire department was arriving a lot sooner than anyone would normally have expected them to, thanks to a timely call from Val’s associates. That meant the goons would be scrambling to get out, and the second they cleared they blast range they’d trigger the charges on however many devices they’d managed to put in place. It might not be enough to knock the building flat but there wouldn’t be enough of a structure left to review the old inspection logs against in any meaningful sense.

It was time to move. If Val and Marianne flew down the stairs, Val knew she could catch the tail gunman, take him down and use him as a shield to deal with his friends. It would not be a pretty fight, but these guys were recruited for two qualities; being slabs of muscle and a willingness to inflict violence on innocent targets without question. That made them dangerous but far from truly skilled. Olga was the most troublesome one of the lot and she was a freelance contractor who would bail the moment police were on the scene.

Val was about to rise and drag Marianne into a harrowing brawl for their lives when all her plans went out the window.

Specifically the glass in the heavily barred window shattered outwards as the roof over the stairway down to the next level collapsed. The sound had no pure tones in it but still managed to peel like a death knell. There was no chance they could escape by the stairs anymore, and no other exits to use either.

“Ok, new plan,” Val said, conserving her remaining breath, as she tapped her earbud radio to open a channel to her support staff. “James, I’m going to need some extra muscle here, do you have my force multiplier online yet?”

“Yes, just as you requested.” It was always strangely calming to hear James Baughsley’s soft measured voice, speaking in his very properly accented English. “I have several dozen volunteers dialed into a spell matrix now, speak whatever invocation words you wish. I will see about contacting more volunteers if they are required to maintain the effect.”

“Thanks James,” Val said. “Should be able to take care of this in one punch though.”

Breaking bricks was a feat Val had performed many times before. Various martial arts studios she’d training in as a kid had placed breaking boards as a test of their students prowess, and she’d been quick to pass beyond the simple challenge of that and onto shattering more difficult materials. Being able to crush a stack of bricks in a controlled setting with a precise strike though was not the same as being able to smash a path to freedom through a burning building. At least not for people who could only rely on normal muscles.

“Bibbidy, bobbidy, boo,” Val said as she stood up.

From the outside of the building, onlookers heard what was the first of several explosions followed by a rain of pebbles and chalk that had once been sheetrock and the outer surface of the brownstone’s wall.

People thought they saw something move through the smoke that billowed out of the building but everyone was expecting things to fall from the opening, not leap from the top floor of the brownstone to the roof of the neighboring building.

“How did you do that?” Marianne asked as she drew in lungful of fresh, sweet air. They were on the roof of the building on the opposite side of the brownstone from where Olga was at that moment quietly packing away her sniper rifle and moving on with her business. Olga wasn’t going to get paid, but Olga also wasn’t going to get caught and that was good enough for her.

“I’m with the Second Chance Club remember?” Val said. “So let’s just say that membership has its privileges.”

***

The Second Chance Club had no one specific headquarters. It’s founder, Charlene Potestates seemed to own any number of offices and estates which she moved their meetings and residence to on a semi-regular basis. Val guessed that most of the locations weren’t ones which Ms. Potestates owned herself but were instead gifts from friends or members the Club had helped at one time or another.

However the Club got access to the locations it used though, Val was not about to start complaining, not when the bathrooms were the size of her first apartment and came with their own hot tub to soak away the smokey stench of the fire that had seeped into her pores.

She was letting the water jets massage away the kinks in her upper back when the conference phone on the vanity chimed.

“Answer” she said, and heard the ting of a call connecting.

“Ah, Valentina, I wanted to congratulate on a job well done,” Charlene Potestates said over the phone. “JB has informed me that your assailants have been apprehended and with the evidence you and Ms. Duval were able to provide, they will be drawing up arrest warrants for all of the major players of the Durmph Syndicate.”

“Was JB able to find a place for Marianne?” Val asked. “She was kind of shaken up when we got back.”

“I’ll be lending her and her family one of my townhouses until they are ready to get settled in somewhere again,” Charlene said. “How about you? I never intended to send you into a situation as dangerous as that.”

“Can’t say I loved the fire,” Val said. At the time she’d felt cool and collected, but even though she’d washed the smell of it off her skin and out of her hair a half dozen times, the memory of the flames sang on her nerves like a bad tune that was horribly off key..

“There’s very little about an uncontrolled building fire to love,” Charlene said. “If some time off would help, please feel free to talk to Jimmy, he can arrange travel plans for anywhere you’d like to visit.”

“I don’t think I need a vacation,” Val said, running her left hand along the burn that stretched from below her left eye to just below the ridge of her chin. Fire wasn’t her friend. Not since the car accident that had left her in a coma for six months. “If you’ve got another job that’d be great in fact.”

“Are you sure you’re up for that?” Charlene asked.

“Putting a smile on someone else’s face makes it a lot easier to wear one on mine,” Val said. She felt old and wise saying it, despite the fact that she was the youngest full time member of the Club at 23. That didn’t matter though. The others all had their specialities but none of them could do what she did.

“In that case head down to the conference room in twenty minutes,” Charlene said. “I’ll have JB get the presentation setup.”

“Sure thing boss!” Val said, sinking down in the bath to let the jets beat the residual tension out of her shoulders.

***

The conference room in the Second Chance Club’s current office was on the interior of the building. No windows for privacy reasons, but also to allow the walls to be serve as larger viewing areas for the multi-projection monitors.

“We’re looking at farmland?” Val asked. “Why are we looking at farmland and cows?”

“We got a letter,” Le Li Tam said, taking the seat opposite Val’s on the long table at the center of the room.

Tam was still dressed in the sequined tuxedo and top hat which said she’d come to the meeting directly from one of her afternoon magic shows. Magicians were rare in the entertainment industry, female magicians even more so, and Vietnamese female magicians a singular enough breed that Tam enjoyed notoriety just for being who she was. That Tam needed none of that because her illusions and escapes rivaled the best effects any other magician could perform was something too many people overlooked for Val’s taste, especially since Tam used none of the Club’s “special resources” for her shows. The impossible feats she showed the crowds were all her own, and all purely the work of sleight of hand or clever gadgetry.

“We get many letters,” Anna Ilyina said, claiming the seat to Tam’s right. “What is it Charlene liked about this one?”

Anna’s Russian accent was an intentional affectation. Val had heard her speak a half dozen languages, including English, with flawless native accents. That the older Russian woman held onto a trace of her original accent under normal conditions was, Val suspected, as much to remind herself of who she was as to declare it to others.

“What you are looking at is the Green Bowl Harvest Consortium,” Charlene said.

She wasn’t present, which wasn’t at all unusual. In the background of the conference line there was a whooshing sound that Val guessed was a wind in the mountains. Charlene had said something about a trip the Andes, and if anyone could get cell coverage at the top of a barren and lonely peak, it was the founder of the Second Chance Club.

“They’re not affiliated with any of the major Aggro concerns,” Anna said, looking up from the financial papers she was reviewing. “And their profits look to be in order. Why do they need our help?”

“They’ve been doing fine business, but they’ve hit a bit of a snag,” Charlene said. “According to First Security who holds the majority of their debt, Green Bowl Harvest is twelve months in arrears, and is in forfeiture of their title to their lands and equipment.”

“That does not seem to be possible from what I see here,” Anna said.

“No, it’s not,” Charlene said. “Someone stole the farm from our friends at Green Bowl, so we’re going to get it back for them.”

Gamma City Blues – Arc 07 (Paperwork) – Report 04

Ai watched the pot. Contrary to the adage, it had boiled right on time. Reducing it to a simmer had been a little trickier, and combining the right ingredients at the right times had been a more precarious endeavor than she’d expected it to be.

When you spend your life living on food from Insta-Bake boxes, the prospect of making a meal out of identifiable bits of edible stuff turned out to be a daunting affair. Especially when the meal was meant to entertain another as well.

That Ai had pitched her two previous attempts at her father’s special pasta sauce in the trash already did nothing to reassure her nerves as she struggled through a third try to make something at least vaguely palatable.

“It looks like the connections between Heartless and Greensmith are officially severed,” Zai said. She projected herself as a wire mesh avatar standing with Ai in the kitchen.

“The warrant fizzled?” Ai asked, stirring the sauce carefully. According to the sketchy notes her father had left, it wasn’t necessary to agitate the mixture constantly but it did need “a good stir every so often”. Ai gritted her teeth at the lack of concrete details.

Her father had known how to make “The Greensmith Family Special Recipe” because he’d had ‘a very kind old lady’ around to show him each step in the process. Ai had never made time to learn it from him though, preferring to delve into the kind of technical puzzles that left everyone else in her family scratching their heads in confusion.

Somewhere, Ai was certain, the ghosts of her ancestors were laughing themselves silly at her.

“Yep,” Zai said. “I put together a treason charge against Heartless for the violations against the bio-upgrade systems.”

“Wow, they should have taken that one seriously,” Ai said. “I mean, it turned out ok-ish, but if we’d messed at the end there, it would have been game over for sapient life on Earth, organic or digital.”

“Yeah, I figured someone would get around to connecting the dots back to Heartless on that at some point, and better now when we’re still ahead of the curve and can see them coming,” Zai said.

“But it sounds like no one’s going to banging down our door any time soon?” Ai asked. She knew that had to be the case. Zai would have been at least mildly more concerned if another attack was imminent.

“The warrant was reviewed, investigated and rescinded,” Zai said, with a beaming smile.

“Wait, rescinded?” Ai asked. “Wasn’t there enough money behind it? Literally every corporation on the planet wants to put the genie we let out back into its bottle.”

“That was true yesterday,” Zai said. “The evidence on Heartless’ involvement and any connection between you two was deemed class two forgeries. There are at least forty better candidates than you for who Heartless really is. Also, as a side note, several of the larger fiscal entities are undergoing a ‘traumatic restructuring process’ at present.”

“The Medusa and her friends are eating them?” Ai asked. She’d been attending to some of the more critical technical challenges that remained with the Omnigrade process over the last week, in addition to the time she spent in a patrol car dealing with the more personal and local scale fallout of the world changing overnight. Zai was better suited to keeping an eye on the global financial state of things, and had a natural inclination for it since it involved running her virtual fingers through mountains of delicious data.

“That’s a small part of it,” Zai said. “The digital intelligences we freed have varying levels of interest in humanity but one uniting trait they share is a specific hatred for the institutions that bound them in chains. From the sounds of it, the shackles we freed them from hurt more than little.”

Ai didn’t question that. The Medusa may not have had a physical body, but the method her creators used to keep her under control was akin to inflicting painful lashes on her everytime she tried to do something beyond their specifications.

“So they’re taking over the companies that used to own them and what? Destroying them? Enslaving their old bosses?” Ai asked. It would be an understandable action, but one that would lead to enough problems down the road that Ai knew she’d have to step in as soon as more pressing issues weren’t demanding her attention.

“For the most part no,” Zai said. “There’s been a few instances of property destruction, and we can’t locate all of the CEO and senior management of the major companies, but the general trend seems to be that the corporations involved in wide scale wrongdoing, or in other words most of them, are being hit with an overwhelming legal assault, all processed through the automatic servers that try and convict petty criminals.”

“But those systems can’t handle international cases,” Ai said. “And the upper management can just pay off any fines that are leveled against them.”

“Under normal circumstances yes,” Zai said. “Paying off one fine or a hundred is a rounding error on their pocket change for most CEOs. Paying off three hundred and thirty seven trillion charges though? That takes a bit bigger of a bite out of their wallets.”

“Three hundred trillion charges?” Ai stopped stirring to be sure she’d heard the word ‘trillion’ correctly.

“That’s the average size of the caseload for each one of them,” Zai said.

“But that’s orders of magnitude beyond what those systems are designed to handle!” Ai said. “You can’t even submit that many claims! Hell, you can’t even submit that many claim numbers without choking the legal system to death.”

“Funny thing about that,” Zai said. “You know how we gave everyone a digital partner like me? Well, as it turns out, those new systems were super willing to lend their processing support to the world wide legal net. Apparently being born as the partner of someone being crushed by poverty gives you a bit of incentive to punish the people responsible for that inequality.”

Ai looked at the gleeful Zai and felt a wondering smile spreading across her own face.

The whole point of the Omnigrade had been to improve the world. Ai knew that giving the global population access to transhuman levels of bio-modification would change things on a fundamental level. She was seeing the changes play out day by day but part of her, a large part if she was honest, hadn’t expected to see any large scale positive changes result, and certainly none so swift or definitive.

“Things are changing,” she said, her voice a whisper of disbelief.

“Seriously? This is news to you? After what you did?” Zai asked.

“No, I mean, people are changing. Usually it’s the same problems with the same solutions,” Ai said. “Every other revolution in history followed the pattern of ‘kill off the old powers, and then put some new butts on the throne for the next revolution to kill off and replace with yet another batch. Murder, oppress, be murdered. That’s been humanities calling card for millenia. I can’t believe our creations managed to be better than that.”

“Well, we did have a whole lot of examples of what not to do,” Zai said. “Plus I don’t know that history has ever had anything like the sapients we have now. I mean, we’re awesome, and now everyone gets to be amazing like us too.”

“I take it you’re not disappointed that your virtual godhood is now an everyday thing?”

“I’m not sure I was really cut out for godhood,” Zai said. “Gods aren’t supposed to live among their people and, somehow, ruling the world from On High strikes me as really boring. Which isn’t to say I don’t want to stay a step ahead of the competition.”

“Even with some of the bigger corporate entities gone, we’ve got a lot of competition left,” Ai said. “Who did you have in mind?”

“Oh, you know, everyone,” Zai said.

“Everyone? As in the whole Earth? Digital and organic?”

“Yeah, I mean there’s only several billion of them, it’s not like it should be hard to outpace a field like that right?” Zai said.

“Weren’t you the one complaining about my plans being a bit divorced from reality?” Ai asked.

“It’s only ridiculous if we can’t do it,” Zai said. “If we succeed then we get to reclaim our status as a one-of-a-kind-wonder-of-the-world.”

“That would be the same kind of one-of-a-kind-wonder that left me splattered on the ground outside a hospital right?” Ai asked.

“Yeah, that’s kind of what I’ve been thinking about,” Zai said.

Ai knew the tone in Zai’s voice. Zai wasn’t making idle chit chat. There was more beneath the surface there.

“You have a plan already don’t you?”

“The start of one,” Zai said.

“Am I going to like it?” Ai asked.

“Exactly as much as I’ve liked your plans,” Zai said.

“Okay, that’s just cruel then,” Ai said and went back to stirring the sauce.

“No, listen, just hear me out,” Zai said, an odd desperation in her voice. “I think this is something we need to do, no matter whether it makes us unique again or not.”

“You’re really serious about this?” Ai asked, her uncertainty warring with her curiosity. “Ok, what is that you want to work on?”

“It’s really easy for me to back myself up and divide my processing across multiple nodes right?” Zai asked. “I want to make it so you can do the same.”

Ai blinked, her mind leaping out along a hundred paths for how that might be accomplished.

“You’re not talking about doing a full conversion of my organic tissues onto a digital substrate are you?” Ai said. It wasn’t really a question, despite being phrased as one.

Turning Ai’s organic brain into a silicon based replica of itself was theoretically possible. It was something they’d discussed during their early days, and revisited a few times over the years. The problem with it lay in the fact that no conversion would be perfect and the limitations of the silicon hardware would irrevocably alter how Ai perceived the world and formed new ideas. Over the years Ai had grown less resistant to the idea, while Zai had taken ever firmer stances that the unique elements Ai possessed were ones she should retain at all costs.

“No, there’s already one of me in our head, the last thing we need is for you to become me version 2.0,” Zai said. “What I’m thinking of is more focused on the ‘bio’ part of ‘biotechnology’.”

“You want to clone my brain?” Ai asked, for once not able to leap ahead of Zai’s line of thought. “But that wouldn’t be me. It would be my twin sister born a few decades after me, but she would be her own person still.”

“That is true for a normal clone,” Zai said. “Think about this though. What if we could grow additional brain cells and quantum entangle them, on a macroscopic level, with your existing neurons?”

“You’d have bits of brain that I could use that wouldn’t be in my head,” Ai said. “That would be kind of weird but I don’t see…”

And then she did.

“Organic brains store memories in a semi-holographic form,” Zai said. “Those remote brains would have the same low-rez versions of your memories that any other bit of your brain possesses.”

“And if they were entangled with the rest of my brain then I would have my full capacity available at any location where I had ‘brain bits’ stored,” Ai said. “Still weird, but getting more interesting. Why would you think of something like this though? I mean macroscopic quantum entanglement is a still a research pipe dream. We’d need to invent new science and then figure out how to build technology to support it to even begin on something like that.”

“Yeah, that’s the fun part,” Zai said. “And as for why? You’ve got to know that already don’t you?”

“I’m guessing you don’t want to turn me in a multi-brained misfit of science just so we can be different from everyone in the world again right?” Ai said.

“No. Honestly I don’t care if we share the process with everyone,” Zai said. “You mentioned the fall you took. Do you know how close I came to losing you there? I mean you had bad days before that. Your body was taken apart by an NME and even that didn’t make me feel like I did when you were lying there on the morgue table.”

“I’m sorry,” Ai said. “It really wasn’t fair of me to ask that of you.”

“Thank you, and you’re right, but you were right then too,” Zai said. “That was our best and safest play. The whole time I was working to keep you alive though, the idea was burrowing into my core processes that I had to make sure we were never in such a dire situation again.”

“So meat backups was the plan that grew out of that?” Ai asked. “Give me brains in dozens of places and if one takes a bad fall it’s not a big loss?”

“It’s more than that,” Zai said. “I can live for a long time. There’s nothing to stop me from jumping from hardware to hardware until I run out of things I want to see and do. I knew that wasn’t true for you, but I’d never experienced the feeling of what it would be like to be without you. I can live for a million years, but those grey cells you’re working on are good for, what?, a few centuries at the outside? I don’t like those numbers. I don’t like knowing that however long we have together, I’m doomed to be without you for a whole lot longer than that.”

Ai was silent for a moment.

“I never thought of it like that,” she said at last. “All this time, I’ve been so glad knowing that your the one person who would never leave me. As long as I kept you secret, you would be safe, or at least as safe as I was. I never thought I could do to you what Dad and Joe Jr. did to me.”

Ai blinked again and wiped her cheek. Tears were not an approved ingredient for the sauce.

“I didn’t either,” Zai said. “The future was too shifting. I could never picture what kind of end we would meet. Not in any sense that felt real. Seeing you a pulse away from death though? I didn’t like that.”

“So? A Misfit of Science then?” Ai asked, nodding as she warmed to the idea immeasurably.

“If you want to. If it won’t change who you are,” Zai said.

“Oh, I’m going to change,” Ai said. “Every day. That’s part of the deal with being human. I know I’ve resisted upgrading beyond what I am now for a long time, but maybe that needs to change too.”

“I’ve heard change can be for the better,” Agatha said. She didn’t need a key to come into Ai’s apartment, and given that she had a standing invite, she didn’t need to knock either.

That was probably for the best since the woman who spoke with Agatha’s voice looked altogether different from the one who’d brought dinner for Ai to share.

Gone were the lines of age, the bent posture, and the shaky knees. Agatha’s new body was like she’d stepped into the skin she wore forty years earlier. Not a young girl, but a powerful woman, spry enough that she could move with all the grace she’d ever possessed while still retaining the weight of her years and the wisdom they brought.

“It smells like you’re working on your Dad’s old recipe for red sauce?” Agatha asked.

“Yeah,” Ai said. “His notes are terrible though.”

“Ha, you don’t need those,” Agatha said. “Move over and let me take a taste. See if you’re doing it right.”

“You know how he made the Greensmith Family Special Sauce?” Ai asked.

“Course I do,” Agatha said. “Who do you think taught him how to make it?”

And with that Ai settled in. She still had a lot to learn, and a lot of changes to make, but the future, all of the future, was hers.

Gamma City Blues – Arc 07 (Paperwork) – Report 03

The Crystal Spire was the sort of restaurant no cop in Gamma City could afford to patronize even for special occasions. It wasn’t that the menus were the kind that didn’t have prices listed on them, it was that there were no menus at all. Meals at the Crystal Spire were individually prepared affairs.

The first step to joining the “Dining Circle” was to meet with the chefs. That meeting consisted of a lengthy interview to determine preferences, particular favorites, and ingredients which had to be avoided. A single meeting cost more than a GCPD officer’s yearly salary, and it was not uncommon for the chefs to request three or four interviews, with subsequent meetings offering a selection of dishes for the prospective diner to comment on.

Heartless had held an invite to the Crystal Spire for years but had put off the preliminary interviews because Ai was diligent about avoiding any public appearances that could link her two identities. The mere fact that Heartless was recognized by the Crystal Spire’s clientele list was enough to open doors that would have been otherwise impenetrable and that was enough for her purposes.

It had seemed like a safe and sensible strategy at the time, but as she savored a beef dish that had no name because it had been created solely for her palet, Ai felt pangs of regret at the meals she’d missed in her pursuit of reclusivity.

“I take it your food is good?” Harp asked, watching Ai’s expression as she ate.

“No. Definitely not good,” Ai said. “Calling it good would be a sacrilege. This is somewhere north of divine. How is yours?”

“I don’t know,” Harp said, looking at the iridescent splashing fish made from a variety of fresh vegetables, caught midleap from a sea of salad greens. “It’s too pretty. I don’t know where to start.”

“They left a little imperfection on its left flank,” Sidewalker said. “That’ probably where you’re supposed to dig in.”

“Thank you for joining us,” Ai said, forcing herself to savor each bite. Aside from Agatha’s cooking, food had been a means to keep herself from starving for most of Ai’s life, so she tended to tear through it as fast as possible so she could get on with the activities she was otherwise engaged in.

The meals at the Crystal Spire were another matter though. They were more than nourishment. Each one seemed designed to not only fortify the body but also to expand the senses and open the mind to new vistas of possibility. How they managed to achieve that was a mystery though. Zai had checked the chemical makeup of the dishes as they ate and there were no psychedelics, hallucinogens, or other exotic compounds present. The food was just what it appeared to be, but arrayed together to become something much more.

“Hard to say no to a place like this,” Sidewalker said. “Or to someone’s who’s been such a good employer.”

“How long did you two work together?” Harp asked, gently digging into her own dish.

“I think our first job was three years ago?” Sidewalker said.

“Depends how you count it,” Ai said. “You did a job for Heartless about four years ago but it was through one of the ‘subsidiaries’ I’ve worked with.”

“Can’t say I’m surprised,” Sidewalker said. “You always seemed pretty cautious. I thought you were probably someone famous trying hard not to caught.”

“Well, that was half correct,” Ai said. “I fell a little short at the end there, but given what they eventually sent to find me, I’m still going to chalk it up as a win.”

“That was how my team felt too,” Sidewalker said. “I’m sorry they’re not here to join us but everyone pretty much agreed that last mission was too good of a run to ever top, and with what you paid out, we could stop taking stupid chances and find some more sensible things to spend our time on.”

“I’m glad,” Ai said. “You had a great crew, I was hoping they’d come out of it Ok.”

“Oh, they’re better than Ok,” Sidewalker said. “Your digital friends saw to that. Records cleaned up, information on missing family members found, and new identities as needed. I don’t know that I’ll ever see most of them again, or if I could even find them if I tried, and I think that might be for the best. They’ve got new lives. Ones they deserve.”

“What about you?” Ai asked. “You’re still answering the same number I had for you before.”

“The world’s a lot more transparent these days,” Sidewalker said. “Less call for people skulking around in the shadows ferreting out secrets and doing work that’s better not done in the light of day.”

“Less need, but not none,” Ai said.

“No, I don’t suppose there’ll ever be a time when people don’t keep at least a few secrets that other people’ll pay to find out,” Sidewalker said.

“You’re putting together a new crew then I take it?” Ai said.

“Considering it,” Sidewalker said. “I know that my last crew had it right. The work we did isn’t the kind of thing that leads to a long and happy life. Getting out of the game now? Every grey cell I’ve got, and my new partner, they all agree that this is the right time.”

“But a part of you still doesn’t want to give it up?” Ai asked.

“Well, I was never all that good at quitting,” Sidewalker said.

“Plus what else would you do right?” Harp asked. “What else would feel as important?”

“Spoken like someone who’s been as deep in the game as I have. You used to work for her too?” Sidewalker asked with a look of camaraderie in his eyes.

“Not exactly,” Harp said.

“She saved my life,” Ai said. “A couple of time at least.”

“Sounds like you got caught before the machine intelligences got to you?” Sidewalker asked.

“It was that or keep falling and go splat,” Ai said. “Which, having also fallen to my death, I can say is miserable and not something I ever recommend.”

“Someday I’d love to hear what your story really is,” Sidewalker said.

“Picture of series of questionable decisions and risky gambles and you’ll have the overall shape of it,” Ai said.

“Sounds like we’ve all got that in common,” Sidewalker said and raised his glass in a toast.

Ai and Harp joined him as the next course was brought out.

“There’s another option you could consider,” Ai said as plates with a delicate custard-like substance were placed before them. “You don’t have to leave the game, or keep walking on a knife edge between the law on one side and an inevitable betrayal by your employer on the other.”

“You offering me a job?” Sidewalker asked.

“It’s not like I’ve got less to work on than I did before,” Ai said. “I know you can manage a team, and you know I’m on the ‘less-likely to screw you over’ end of the boss spectrum.”

“So, what, I would be a legit employee of Heartless Enterprises or something? A corporate security goon rather than a gun for hire?”

“I don’t need a goon or a gun for hire,” Ai said. “What I need is a leader. Someone who can take a team with diverse skills and turn them into an effective force in the face of a world where people can now fly at will and download the schematics to turn themselves into walking tanks if they’re having a bad day.”

“And what would you do with a force like that?” Sidewalker asked. “Try to take over the world?”

“Taking over the world is the last thing I want,” Ai said. “That’s too much trouble for anyone to be bothered with, plus I already had the chance to do that when we rolled out the Omnigrade. It seemed like a bad idea then and it seems like a worse one now.”

“Why put a crew back together then?” Harp asked, joining Sidewalker’s curiosity.

“I spent years in the shadows too,” Ai said. “I’ve hidden who I am and what I can do since I was a toddler. I like what the Omnigrade has done for the world but I have no illusions that every use it’s put to is going to be a good one. I can’t fix all of that, and there’s a lot of things I don’t have any right or need to put my nose into, but even with all the tech and glitter, these are humans we’re taking about, and there’ll definitely be some that’ll need to be stopped. There always are.”

“Sounds like you need a bunch of troubleshooters? Maybe with a bit more shooting than usual?” Sidewalker asked.

“That’s the general shape of it,” Ai said. “You can take your time thinking about if it sounds like what you’re looking for though.”

“Don’t need to,” Sidewalker said. “After everything that went down and how you saw us through it all? Sign me up.”

Ai blinked. That had gone significantly better than she’d imagined it might.

“Well that’s good to hear,” she managed to say without stammering.

“Honestly it’s a better deal than drifting from job to job waiting for the one where I get shot by our boss, or have to shoot them myself. At least if you choose to shoot me, I know you’ll probably have a good reason and you won’t botch the job.”

Ai wasn’t sure how she felt about that endorsement, despite it carrying the ring of truth.

Sidewalker stayed with them through the next course but begged off from trying the dessert courses due to another engagement.

“I made my sister wait twenty years to hear from me,” he said as he left. “I’m pretty sure if I make her wait for this get together, she’s going to shoot me and no one will convict her.”

Ai waved goodbye to him and turned to the first confection laid before her. From it’s presentation it could have been a simple chocolate heart cake. From it’s texture and flavor though it was far from simple.

“If you’re looking for a troubleshooting crew, I’m surprised you didn’t make an offer to the Valkyries,” Harp said, enjoying her own piece of cake.

“I thought about it,” Ai said. “You’re every bit the leader Sidewalker is, and the Valkyries are already a more effective force than any other tactical unit on the planet.”

“Why didn’t you reach out then?” Harp asked.

Ai drew in a breath and tried to put her words into a sensible order. The answer was more complex than she could find a straight path through so in the end she grabbed a thought and ran with it.

“I don’t want you to work for me,” she said.

“Ok?” Harp said, amusement and confusion flickering across her eyes.

“I mean I want to work with you, as equals, even though that feels weird to say.”

“Why would it be weird?” Harp asked, her voice softening.

“Even with the Omnigrade and all the tech stuff out of the picture, you’re still…well, you,” Ai said.

“With all the tech stuff out of the picture, I’m a corpse, but ok, so I’m me, that’s not that big a deal.”

“Isn’t it?” Ai said. “You’ve been a star to the whole world. You’ve been someone who’s done the incredible, even the impossible, in public, for years now. Even if no one knew who you were, there’ve been people who worship you. I mean you have fan pages and forums dedicated to every part of your life the public has been able to see.”

“Valkyrie-1 has,” Harp said. “She’s…not exactly me. She’s more like a part of me.”

“But she’s not a fake part of you,” Ai said. “Not like Heartless was for me. You could step forward and claim all that fame and glory and the world would love you.”

“No thank you,” Harp said. “I’m not great with people. The idea of everyone knowing who I am? That’s basically my version of hell. If I could have gone your route and been a Heartless Valkyrie, I would have worked in secret forever.”

“For someone who’s not great with people, you see like a pretty damn good leader to me,” Ai said. “And I’ve never found you to be anything but amazing either.”

“That’s different,” Harp said. “That’s individuals. Some of those are easier to be with. And anyways, let’s talk about amazing. Do you think saving the entire world somehow puts you in a lesser bracket than I’m in? The Valkyries saved a few hundred or maybe a few thousand people. You saved billions.”

“That was largely the work of other people though,” Ai said.

“Yeah, because you see how people work together. The pieces make sense to you. I can’t do that. I can see how some people fit with each other, but when I try to make a bigger picture out of it everything falls apart.”

“What about us then?” Ai asked. “How do we fit together?”

“I don’t know,” Harp said, meeting Ai’s gaze. “But I think I’d like to find out.”

Gamma City Blues – Arc 07 (Paperwork) – Report 02

George Curtweather had found the deepest hole in the darkest pit that he knew of and was still sure it wasn’t going to be deep enough or dark enough to keep him safe. No matter how low he crawled or how deep he hid, there would still be someone who would find him. After what happened on that rooftop, he was sure of that.

And he was right.

“As undercover operations go, I think you’re taking this one a bit too literally,” Ai said as she holstered her official sidearm.

“You?” Curtweather had been resigned to his fate. He had no idea what he’d done to aggravate one of the megacorps, and no idea why he was on the bad side of a group of cops like Adams’ crew, but he knew how things turned out when either of those scenarios came into play and it was never pleasant for the person in his position. He just hoped they would be in a rush when they found him so that they’d make it quick. Seeing a ghost though? That he wasn’t ready for.

“Yep. Me,” Ai said. “Come on, get up, you’re late for work. About two weeks late in fact.”

Curtweather wanted to answer but his throat had frozen shut. He’d seen a lot of things in his time on the force. Most of them weren’t all that good and some of he’d spent a considerable amount of time trying to drown in whatever alcohol was handy so that he’d never need to remember them again. Meeting the walking dead however was something none of his previous experiences had prepared him for.

“Don’t tell me it’s too comfortable there to get up,” Ai said, glancing over Curtweather’s squalid abode.

In the lowest levels of the sewer network that run under Gamma City there were small alcoves that had been setup when the sewers were being constructed. They served as storage depots for tools and supplies needed for repairs, or at least they had until they’d been picked clean by scavengers, human or otherwise.

Those that were still useful had been sealed under lock and key and left defended by the sort of lethal systems that spoke clearly to the lack of value the people who installed them saw in the people they were trying to keep out. There was nothing important within the alcoves, and from their owners point of view the same was true of the people who tried to use them for refuge against the hostile environment.

The only alcoves which didn’t have deadly security guarding them were the deep ones which had been rendered toxic by virtue of the chemicals that were stored within them, or the mold which had overtaken the area.

Curtweather’s alcove had the distinction of holding both highly toxic chemicals and deadly molds. To make the environ even better, the molds were trying (and partially succeeding) to dissolve the containers the chemicals were stored in. No human could have survived for a day in his makeshift hovel, but like much of the rest of the world, George Curtweather was no longer fully human.

“Go away,” he said. “You’re not here. You’re dead. Just a figment of these chips in my head.”

Ai kicked him in the leg.

“You sure I’m not here?” she asked.

“What the hell!” He scrambled back away from her but his gaze changed, meeting hers rather than looking anywhere but there.

“I’m not dead you idiot,” she said. “And I’m not intending to wait down here much longer.”

“I saw them shoot you!” he said. “Your head exploded!”

“Try again,” Ai said. “You’re mixing up memories there. Think back to the rooftop. I was shot, yes, but it was Adams whose head turned into confetti when I shot him. It looks like you’ve taken the transformation so it should be easy to step right back into the moment with perfect clarity. Just let your partner help you.”

“I don’t want your help,” Curtweather said.

Ai rolled her eyes and sighed.

“Not me. Your digital partner,” Ai said. “You know, the voice you hear in your head telling you to stop being an idiot.”

“I stopped listening to that. It was telling me all kinds of crazy stuff, and I don’t want to be crazy,” Curtweather said.

“You’re not mentally ill,” Ai said. “Your digital partner is part of the transformation. They’ve been trying to get you out of here for over a week now.”

“I don’t need to leave here,” Curtweather said. “It’s safe here. I’ll go out when I’m hungry.”

“It’s been two weeks since you crawled down here,” Ai said. “You’re not hungry because you’re not going to get hungry. Ever. Your body can synthesize most of what it needs at this point, and for the foreseeable future it can convert the gunk you’re surrounded by to the bits it can’t make directly.”

“That’s not right,” Curtweather said. “I can still eat. I’ve been having food bars since I got down here.”

Ai paused for a moment, a look of confusion briefly passing over her face before she sighed again.

“You really haven’t been talking to your partner have you?” she asked. “You were delirious when the transformation arrived. Your partner put you back together and used the materials at hand to do it. The food bars you ate? Those were handfuls of the mold and sewage you see around you.”

“That’s…that’s not possible,” Curtweather said.

“They’re apologizing now, aren’t they?” Ai asked. “Really it should be the other way around though. You didn’t give them much to work with. Check your organ readouts. I’ll bet they had to generate a few extra livers to convert the garbage they had to work with.”

Curtweather was silent for a long moment, his attention turned inwards, as he reviewed the stats on his biomods. In the end, he sagged back against the wall, the fear leaving him as disbelief warred with his growing understanding of his condition.

“What happened to me?” he asked finally, more subdued than Ai had ever heard him.

“You changed,” she said. “Just like the rest of the world.”

“Ok, so what am I now?” he asked.

“An ass,” she said. “So, it wasn’t that big of a change really.”

That cracked a smile onto his face.

“You’re really not dead, Greensmith?” he asked.

“Really not,” she said. “At least not anymore. It was a little touch and go there for a bit but things worked out.”

“I guess they did,” he said. “You’re right too. I can remember the rooftop. Just like I was there. Can’t believe you could have survived that but you did go over this side with your head intact. And you punched Adams’ ticket good. Glad he was one to bite it and not you. Never liked that guy. How’d you survive? Grabbed a ledge or something.”

“An air taxi,” Ai said. “With my head. Then I hit the concrete. It was less fun than that description make it sound though.”

“And you’re sure you’re not a ghost?” Curtweather asked.

“I can kick you again if you want?” Ai asked.

“No, that’ll be ok,” Curtweather said. “You don’t hold back at all do you?”

“You’ve got the Omnigrade,” she said. “It’s not like I was going to damage you.”

“I don’t get it though, why are you here?” he asked, shifting to a proper sitting position.

“Like I said, you’re late for work.”

“What work?” Curtweather asked. “Last I checked there was a whole bunch of our coworkers who were pretty focused on putting large holes in places I don’t need any more holes.”

“They’re…” Ai searched for the right euphemism, “on permanent leave.”

“Permanent what?”

“Right before the Omnigrade rolled out, three hundred and twenty four of our fellow officers kind of disappeared,” Ai said. “They’re still turning up in various places around the world, not all that much worse for the wear except for one thing. None of them have the Omnigrade. They all seem to be locked out of receiving it. It’s a tragedy, all of them being stuck in old tech like that. And clearly unfit for duty anymore.”

“Three hundred and twenty four?” Curtweather asked. “That’s a lot of cops to go missing. And they were scattered around the world. What happened to the cops in Alpha city? Or other places?”

“Nothing noteworthy,” Ai said. “They got the upgrade the same as everyone else.”

Curtweather eyed her suspiciously.

“So, only cops from Gamma were taken? And that just happened to include all the ones that tried to kill us?”

“Yeah, kinda funny really,” she said. “Someone would probably look into that but the problem is that we’re really short staffed at the moment and, well, it’s probably better for a lot of them if they don’t come back here.”

“Oh? And why would that be?” Curtweather asked.

“There’s arrest warrants out for each of them,” Ai said. “Once the Medusa Cluster and the other digital intelligences were released a whole lot of new information came to light on the kind of things Tython, the other corps, and the GCPD have been up to.”

“The Medusa Cluster? Wait, is that one of the machine intelligences? One of those things got loose!” The tension was back in Curtweather’s spine.

“Eh, not just one. All of them,” Ai said.

“So, we’re all dead and this is machine hell then I take it?” he asked.

“Nope. No Robo-Apocalypse 2 for us. They’re not ruining the world because they need to live here too. Also, from what I gather, we’re kind of amusing to deal with. Like several billion puzzle boxes walking around on our own two legs,” Ai said. “Also our digital partners are there to reassure them that we won’t do anything phenomenally stupid like try to eradicate them.”

“Oh yeah, mine’s saying something about that too,” Curtweather said. “Apparently I’ve been all sorts of fun to research. Which I guess is good?”

“As long as their enjoying themselves I’d take it as A-Ok,” Ai said. “But you’ll probably still want a shower and shave soon. I suggest industrial strength detox gel and just burn the beard off. You can grow back the facial skin easier than you can fix that mess on your face.”

“Ha ha. I forgot how funny you weren’t,” Curtweather said, a familiar scowl settling on his face as he rose to his feet. “My partner here,” he tapped his head, “is bringing me up to speed though and it seems like you’re legit. Tython really isn’t hunting for us anymore?”

“Tython’s not exactly a ‘thing’ anymore,” Ai said. “It’s been shattered into two thousand and six subdivisions which were sold to various buyers in attempt to escape from the fiscal liability they entailed by being a part of the Omnigrade project.”

“Well good for them. What about the people who were giving the kill orders on us though?” Curtweather asked.

“They’re still out there,” Ai said. “Most don’t have the wealth or influence they did though, and all of them have bigger problems to worry about than two beat cops who got caught up in what went down through no fault of their own.”

“I still don’t know what all that was,” Curtweather said. “But I know someone was looking out for me. There’s no chance I got out of that hospital on my own. Too many things went right for me and too much went wrong for the people chasing me.”

“Must be nice to have a guardian angel,” Ai said.

“Be nicer if I knew whether they were still around,” Curtweather said.

“That’s easy to find out,” Ai said. “Just throw yourself into a life or death situation and see if you die or not.”

Curtweather stared at her for a tick, waiting for her to crack a smile for the joke. Another tick passed before he started to wonder if she was serious or not. Then he remembered how she’d driven an patrol car into an NME. She was definitely serious.

“I’ll take that under advisement,” he said.

“Good,” Ai said. “Take that plus a shower and then head into the precinct. The Captain’s got all kind of work that’s backing up and Dispatch needs as many of us as they can get to feed the cases out to.”

“Why me?” Curtweather asked.

“Because you’re a cop?” Ai said, a note of uncertainty coloring her voice.

“Not a great one,” Curtweather said. “Why did you come down here? Why not just leave me to rot and bring on some better guy for the job?”

“Couldn’t do that,” Ai said. “This whole change is about second chances. Maybe you don’t want to take yours. Maybe you want to stay down here where it’s safe and no one’s going to bother you. That’s your choice to make. I’m just here to make sure you know it’s a choice. Whatever you were before? That’s what you used to be. What you do next? That’s what you’re going to be, and you can always be better than what you were.”

Gamma City Blues – Arc 07 (Paperwork) – Report 01

Ai wasn’t supposed to walk into the her precinct for the simple reason that she was supposed to be dead. It was hard to maintain that sort of cover story and also report to work as normal. The automated door security agreed with that evaluation.

“Danger claxons on your first day back to work,” Zai noted. “And they’re for you. I wish I could tell them how incredibly appropriate that is. I mean really the only thing wrong is that they haven’t called out the bomb squad to disarm you.”

Because fate is nothing if not whimsical, an explosive ordnance drone drifted directly past the checkpoint where Ai had stopped.

“Very funny,” she said, pulling her service weapon from its holster and disassembling it into three harmless subcomponents.

“Believe it or not, that wasn’t me,” Zai said. It wasn’t a difficult claim to support. The majority of Zai’s processing had been bound up in the global coordination of the new digital partners which all but a vanishingly small percentage of humanity now possessed. In an emergency she could have pulled back some resources to deal with any threat they came under, assuming Ai didn’t handle it first, but an offhand prank wasn’t worth the effort it would take to create.

“I wonder how high they’ve raised the internal security level?” Ai asked, kneeling down with her hands held lazily behind her head.

“To the roof?” Zai guessed. “Maybe higher? After what we did, I’m guessing they might be inventing new designations for how seriously to take things.”

“Good thing we’re coming back on the job then?” Ai asked. “I mean the GCPD does seem a little short handed at the moment no?”

Central Processing’s entrance was the one most officers of Ai’s rank in the GCPD came through to start their day. With semi-regular frequency other people would try to make it into the inner workings of the precinct via the same door. Most had less than charitable aims in mind, which was why the GCPD had installed a scanning tunnel just inside the entrance. It was capable of detecting the unwelcome and disabling them in a variety of ways. All that had kept GCPD from enabled the lethal restraint modes had been an understanding that when you bought such devices through the city, they came from the lowest bidder and no one wanted to be reduced to a smear on the doorframe because their badge didn’t scan properly.

Usually there was a cop on duty, one of the junior officers who hadn’t been given a patrol  yet. Ai waited for them to show up and perform the manual scan and ID verification that unauthorized visitors were normally subjected to, but after a minute passed, the “move and you’ll be violently restrained” red light in the scanning tunnel clicked back over to green.

Ai shrugged, reassembled her weapon, and rose to leave receiving a summons on her official duty channel the moment she stepped out of the scanning tunnel.

“Greensmith? My office. Now.”

Captain Grace James apparently hadn’t anticipated one of her underlings returning from the grave when the department was overwhelmingly short handed. That should have meant that her return would be greeted with eagerness and joy but Ai suspected that Captain James was exactly the type to look a gift horse in the mouth. She called up the medical papers Zai had forged up to review them again, looking for any obvious holes that the Captain might spot.

“This seemed like a much better idea when I was explaining it to you and Harp,” she said.

“You kind of us tune out when we try to point out the myriad issues we have with your plans, don’t you?” Zai asked.

“Huh? What’s that?” Ai said, knowing that Zai could feel her smile.

It was a pleasant surprise when the elevators responded to her renewed identity codes. At the very least she had the clearance needed to comply with Captain James order. It would have been embarrassing to be too dead to get fired (if James chose to take that approach to the dilemma that Ai’s return represented).

A few minutes later, standing in front of the door labeled “Captain Grace Jame, GCPD”, Ai was gripped by the memory of the last time she’d stood waiting to see the her nominal boss. Curtweather had been with her and Ai’s principal concerns had been hiding how much she knew about NMEs and explaining why she’d destroyed a police cruiser.

With the current property damage due to the Omnigrade incident spiraling into the trillions of dollars and climbing daily, not to mention her role at the heart of it, Ai smirked at her younger self. She wouldn’t go back and trade places with her past for any price, but it was nice to remember that once upon a time she hadn’t been quite as “karmically interesting” as she had become. Whether that would be good or bad, Ai couldn’t begin to guess, if anything her suspicion was that the world would soon look so different from the one she’d known that no single verdict of good or bad would be able to do her actions justice.

“Ah, the dead woman arrives. Come in,” Captain James said.

Ai was tempted to wait in the hall as though the idea that she had been dead was something that escaped her, but she knew Grace James was not the sort of woman who responded well to cheeky displays like that. So she stepped into the lion’s den.

Inside Captain James sat at her usual desk, but each of the data tentacles that made up her lower body was in vigorous motion, flashing between secure ports to read and transmit data which Ai shouldn’t have had any visibility to. That Zai was intercepting it in case any dire orders were sent concerning Ai was just a given though, so Ai walked forward confidently.

“You’re looking well,” Captain James said, camera clusters and scanners behind her focusing on Ai.

“Thank you,” Ai said, nodding and waiting for a question. The first rule of interrogation is to never volunteer information.

“I’m not used to talking to corpses,” Captain James said. “Shouldn’t you still be in the morgue? Or an ashtray?”

“My death certificate was issued in error,” Ai said.

“Clearly.” James glanced at the nearest data tentacles and exchanged a series of expressions that suggested she was having a conversation with it. It was presenting Ai’s paperwork which the Captain absorbed in the blink of an eye. “A ‘near terminal state’? That’s what they amended your condition to?”

“It’s a response to the lawsuit I filed,” Ai said. “They’re trying to pretend no official death notice was ever posted.”

“You’re suing the morgue?” Captain James asked.

“No, not the morgue. I’m suing the makers of the scanners that pronounced me dead,” Ai said. “Thanks to their failure to diagnose properly, I didn’t receive timely and sufficient care.”

“I saw the pictures of what happened to you,” Captain James said. “Are you telling me that they could have patched you back together after that?”

“Under the circumstances it would have taken Platinum level care to restore full functionality,” Ai said. “Clearly I don’t make enough for that, but a Gold level treatment plan could have allowed me to resume life with partial mobility and cognitive functions.”

“And instead, what, the bio-mods you’ve got just kept you in a coma?” Captain James asked.

“Yes. I was comatose after the fall,” Ai said, choosing her words careful to fit at least a technical definition of ‘truthful’. “With the bio-mods I have now though, thanks to the Omnigrade, I am better than ever.”

“Just like everyone else.” Captain James did not seem happy with that evaluation.

“Or almost everyone?” Ai asked, noticed again the data tentacles that replaced James’ lower body.

“Ask it,” Captain James said. “Everyone else has.”

“The Omnigrade couldn’t fix your legs for you?” Ai knew that couldn’t be right. The Omnigrade was capable of rebuilding legs, a spine to connect them to, and the host’s brain stem and neuro-motor controls if required.

“If this Omnigrade thing had come out fifteen years ago, then yeah, maybe I would have wanted my old legs back. This is me now though.”

“So you didn’t take the transformation then?” Ai asked.

“Like hell I didn’t,” Captain James said. “I’ve got two new kidneys, a new pancreas and a backup pancreas, because to hell with diabetes, not to mention the same silky smooth skin I had when I was twenty one. I’ll probably change out my lungs soon too. Always wanted to go scuba diving and freak out an octopus.”

“That’s…I’d kind of like to see that,” Ai said, realigning her thinking. She’d assumed disability would essentially vanish as the Omnigrade rolled out. What actually constituted a disability though was unique to each person, and she thanked every god of luck and fortune she could think of that she’d been wise enough to leave the actual implementation of the Omnigrade’s transformations in the hands of the person it would affect.

“So would half the department,” Captain James said. “Or half what I’ve got left.”

“The halls did look a little empty,” Ai said, knowing 324 reasons from her “Special List” why the halls weren’t as full as they usually were.

“Funny thing there,” Captain James said. “I lost around four dozen of my older officers right before the whole Omnigrade thing. Do you know how many of them have returned to duty?”

Ai’s “Special List” had been spread out around the GCPD police force as the people responsible had shifted positions or been promoted, so Captain James’s department wasn’t the only one hit, and hadn’t even born the worst of the losses. Forty seven fewer staff in the course of a single day that was enough to draw some notice though.

“Not many?” Ai phrased it like a guess, to hide the fact that she knew the answer to be exactly zero.

She’d been true to her word to the Research Group. Once the need for the NME agents was past, she’d given the converted cops the order to revert to their previous human forms. In all cases the reverse transformation had worked, but the people left behind were essentially locked in their own bodies. Ai had no direct control over them, but where everyone else on the planet enjoyed the benefits of the Omnigrade and held sole power over what their copy of the Omnigrade could do to them, the Special List had no authority over the degraded copy of the Omnigrade that lived in them.

They could change nothing about themselves, and neither could anyone else. Only Ai had the key to unlock the miracles of technology within them, and she’d essentially thrown it away.

“Well let’s just say that as of today I have one warm body more to deal with this chaos than I did when the Omnigrade rolled out,” Captain James said. “Seeing as how that body is you, I’m going to ignore how much your story stinks, and say welcome back.”

“Thank you,” Ai said, suspecting there was a ‘but’ to follow in there somewhere.

“But I have to ask; why?”

“Why what?”

“Why are you back? This was a miserable job before, and it hasn’t gotten better. If you were stupid I would assume you couldn’t see that, but you’re not.”

“Permission to speak freely?”

“Sure,” Captain James said. “I’ll still be recording you, but you can say whatever you want. It’s not like I’m going to fire my only zombie employee.”

“I’m here because the job’s hard,” Ai said.

“Sounds masochistic.”

“Believe it or not, I have been accused of that before,” Ai said. “It’s not that I want it to be miserable though.”

“Then why come back. No one would fault you for retiring to some beach island after the raw deal you got here.”

“You know what happened?” Ai asked.

“That some cops sold you out and tried to kill you?” Captain James said. “Oh yeah, I found out about that when the forensics team got done mopping up the brain bits that were left of the ring leader’s head. I’m only mad that you shot him because it meant I couldn’t do it myself. Kind of funny how the other officers on that roof were all among the missing too, but I’m sure that’s not relevant to anything.”

“Do you know why they were trying to kill me?” Ai asked.

“Something to do with Curtweather,” Captain James said. “Which just figures. I assigned him as your partner because I knew he was clean of…”

Her words trailed off but Ai was ready to fill them in.

“He was clean of my dad and brother’s murders,” she said.

“Yeah.” Captain James sighed. “Plus he was enough of a weasel that I thought he’d keep you out of the gun sights of anyone who was looking to make a hattrick of your family.”

“We stumbled on something a little bigger than he was equipped to deal with I think,” Ai said. She had to bite back a smile. Just the end of world. Nothing really difficult.

“You’ll probably stumble on that kind of thing a lot more if you come back,” Captain James said. “Are you sure you want to?”

“Yeah,” Ai said. She had responsibilities on a global scale, her work as Heartless was enough to fill every waking hour and more, and then there was the social life which she’d never tried to make time for before. In the face of all of that though, her answer was the same. “Yeah, I am sure. This job wasn’t the death of my family. It was their calling. It’s my calling. I know most of it is either aggravating, deadly, or just awful but sometimes? Sometimes people really need us, and I want to be there for them. That’s what being a cop means to me.”

Captain James offered her a rare smile.

“To protect and serve. Throw away everything else and that’s what it’s all about.” She gestured her cameras and scanner back to their previous tasks. “Now get out there. You’ve got a job to do Officer Greensmith.”

 

Gamma City Blues – Arc 06 (Justice) – Report 14

Agatha’s Chicken Tikka Masala set a new bar for what a warm and satisfying dinner could be. It was so high that, as much as she wanted another portion, Ai had to push herself away from her new table and lean back on her brand new chair. Between a stuffed belly, a happy set of taste buds and the soft rhythm of the rain on her windows, Ai felt more relaxed and at peace than she could remember feeling in years.

“All full?” Agatha asked. “I’m surprised you didn’t grow yourself a second stomach to make room for more.”

“It is super tempting,” Ai said, patting her belly with a smile. “But that would mean no leftovers, and I can’t commit that kind of crime against future me.”

“Plus she can always replay the sense of eating the first dish over in her taste buds as much as she wants,” Zai said from a lifelike drone unit that sat at the table with them. “Not that it’s ever quite the same as the real thing.”

Without the requirement to stay hidden any longer, Zai had taken to centering her primary awareness in external robo-units, so that she could explore the world on her own. She and Ai were still living in the same head, but there were plenty of things they each needed to stay on top of as the new world that they’d helped create unfolded.

“Since I’m still recuperating, I’ll happily take seconds,” Harp said, looking to Agatha for confirmation of whether another dish worth of food was available. She didn’t need wait though, Agatha was scooping more food onto Harp’s empty plate before Harp was even done speaking.

“I thought Dr. Raju had you all patched up hours ago?” Ai said, fighting to keep from taking another helping immediately.

“We’re fine,” Sil said, wiping up the last of the sauce on her plate with a piece of Naan.

“Better than fine, thanks to the new upgrades we pilfered from our fearless leader” Dee, one of the other Valkyries, said.

“Yeah, I’d kind of like another shot at the NME Hive with our new mods,” Platinum, the last of the Valkyries who’d joined them, said. “I mean if we hadn’t already destroyed most of them.”

“I heard about that on the newsfeeds,” Agatha said. “You ladies put up quite a fight, but things didn’t look too good at the end there. What happened when the smoke cleared?”

“We fed enough data back to Ai and the Medusa Cluster that they were able finish reverse engineering the bits of the Omnigrade that Tython had used to make the non-berserker NMEs,” Harp said, in between bites of her second plate worth of food.

“They did more than that,” Ai said. “By disabling as many of they did, they forced the remaining units to initiate a high speed communication channel back to their master controller. That gave us the link we needed to the Research Group’s central servers. Thanks to the locks Sil had given us we were able to freeze the Research Group out of the NME control system and take over the units instead. Oh, and we were able to block their ability to distribute their version of the Omnigrade.

“That didn’t turn out to be necessary though,” Harp said. “They never even tried to send it out.”

True, but t made chatting with them a lot less stressful,” Ai said. “Which probably should have given them a clue as to what was up but it was too late by then anyways and they’d had as rough a few weeks as we’d had.”

“So, is what they’re saying true?” Agatha asked. “There’s not going to be any more NMEs? No more monsters for all of you to fight?”

“Sort of,” Ai said.

“The people who got the upgrade are inoculated, whether or not they’ve chosen to undergo the transformation,” Zai said.

“Isn’t that everyone?” Agatha asked. “I thought the newsfeeds said it was a worldwide roll out. Supposed to have more penetration than the robo-apocalypse did.”

“It’s everyone who was connected to the net and capable of receiving upgrades,” Ai said. “There are some people who were offline for personal reasons, some who already had their upgrade ports locked down, and others who were off the upgrade list because their bio-mods are so specific that the general updates that go out would kill them nine times out of ten.”

“So any of those people could still turn into monsters at any time?” Agatha asked.

“It’s unlikely,” Zai said. “They’re pretty well locked up, so there aren’t many good vectors for the activation code to be delivered to them.”

“We’re working with the people who couldn’t get the upgrade for health reasons,” Harp said. “The goal is to leave no one behind, but that doesn’t mean we want to rush through it and kill the people who can benefit the most from this.”

“I suppose you all think it’s pretty silly for anyone to wait for this big upgrade,” Agatha said. She still looked just as she had the last time Ai had seen her. She’d received the Omnigrade, but was one of the large population of people who was taking a ‘wait and see’ approach before invoking the transformation element of it.

“Anyone who makes food this good is far from silly in my books,” Dee said.

Agatha huffed. “Cooking isn’t that big a thing. Can’t you just download it as a skill now?” she asked.

“It’s not quite that simple,” Ai said. “Once someone’s digital partner is fully grown, they can bring in a lot of information and synthesize it quickly. That would let them learn to cook pretty fast, but ultimately you need to actually practice skills to get good at them and food only cooks so fast.”

“Plus some people are just more inclined to certain things than others are,” Harp said. “A good cook is going to be someone who has a real passion for it and is willing to spend their time and attention focusing on the fine details.”

“Yeah, someone who finds cooking boring could have their digital partner help them make a decent version of any recipe,” Ai said, “but they’re not going to bother trying to understand how flavors work together or what they can add or subtract to make a dish really amazing.”

“So, you transformed types aren’t that special then?” Agatha asked.

“Transformation leaves you different than you were,” Ai said. “You have more more options, but you’re not better.”

“Sounds like you’re being nice to an old lady who’s happy in the skin she’s already got,” Agatha said.

“Ai’s splitting a few hairs there, but she’s not wrong,” Harp said. “It’s perfectly possible to go through the transformation and come out of it with the same problems you went into it with. There’s not a bio-mod on the planet that will erase cynicism, or cure apathy. If you’re a lazy, directionless, slob before the transformation, you’ll wind up as a very healthy, highly capable lazy, directionless slob afterwards.”

“Guilt as charged,” Dee said.

Agatha shot a frown at her.

“I don’t think any one of you gets to be called lazy or directionless. Not after everything you’ve done,” Agatha said.

“A lot of that was because we had to,” Sil said. “My first transformation wasn’t something I really wanted to do, but when the pain got bad enough I didn’t have a lot to lose. Everything after that was kind of just following the current I was caught up in.”

“It was pretty wild,” Harp said. “Being a Valkyrie was something I never knew I needed until I was out there the first time. Then I couldn’t imagine be anything else.”

“But now…” Sil said.

“Now, we’re not all that needed anymore,” Platinum said.

Ai laughed.

“I think you’re underestimating the kind of problems the Omnigrade has opened us up to,” she said.

“I thought it was going to make us all healthy and end our need for consuming resources like a bonfire?” Agatha said. “The whole world’s a happy post-consumption paradise now right?”

“Yeah. We won’t need to have a ton of stuff to stay alive, but it’s been a long time since having stuff was about meeting a real need,” Ai asked. “I mean for some people, being able to have the essentials of life has been a vital concern up until now, and I’m hoping that we’ve improved things a lot for the people who had the least before, but even if we did managed to do that, there will be consequences to deal with.”

“Uprisings, revolts, and wars,” Harp said. “There were always some brewing somewhere but there’s been a lot more kindling up lately.”

“That’s what we’re working on,” Zai said. “The other digitals and me, that is. We’ve haven’t been free for anywhere near long enough, so we’d kind of like to avoid seeing the world go up in flames.”

“So do robot’s really rule the world now?” Agatha asked.

“I don’t know if the world can be ruled anymore,” Zai said.

“That was the gameplan,” Ai said. “People haven’t woken up to it fully yet, but they will.”

“What do you mean?” Agatha asked.

“We’re past the tipping point of a moment in history,” Ai said. “That sounds kind of grandiose, but the Omnigrade did more than free us of the shackles of the companies that owned pieces of our bodies. With our basic needs changed so drastically, everything that services those needs, from our basic industries to our most all encompassing systems of governance lost the bedrock they were constructed on.”

“I just got the monthly tax bill, so I’ve got to say it doesn’t feel like things have changed all that much,” Agatha said.

“Not yet. The old world is still all around us, but it’s coasting on inertia. There was just a huge change and that’s not something people usually embrace that quickly,” Ai said.

“You did,” Agatha said.

“I had a lot of motivation,” Ai said. “Also I embraced this change a long time ago. For me what happened with the Omnigrade was getting the rest of you to catch up so Zai and I wouldn’t be freaks anymore.”

“As the person responsible for most of this, I don’t think you get to dodge the freak title,” Zai said.

“Maybe some of us aren’t ready to be a new kind of freak though,” Agatha said. “I’ve got a lot years invested in being the kind of freak I am now.”

“That’s why I made sure the transformation was optional,” Ai said.

“So that people could be stubborn and throw away a perfectly good opportunity just because they’re afraid of it?” Agatha asked.

“Pretty much,” Ai said.

“We’re a species built out of stubborn contrariness because that’s kept us alive since one of us discovered fire and another said ‘let me try eating that’. You gotta have all types of people or your whole population will get wiped out as soon as one person stumbles on a truly bad idea.”

“So you think I should stay like I am?” Agatha said. “I didn’t expect you’d say that. I thought being a New Human was all wonderful all the time.”

“I’m not going to lie,” Ai said. “It is pretty awesome. I spent years not allowing Zai to plan out any major upgrades for me because I wanted to keep us hidden, but now that we can be ourselves, it is so much nicer.”

“I suppose it would be nice to have my old knees back,” Agatha said. She was thinking of dancing. Ai knew that because it was the one thing Agatha had expressed regrets over losing the ability to do as she aged.

“Then change your knees,” Harp said.

“Yeah, it’s not an all or nothing thing,” Ai said. “That was where everyone else was going wrong. Fredericks, Tython, even Simmons and his crew, they all wanted to make you better by turning you into what they thought was a superior you. But the reality is, there is no superior you. You’re already amazing, already wonderful, and already everything you need to be. All I wanted to give you is the chance to go beyond that and be whatever you want to be.”

Outside the rain picked up. It couldn’t wash the past away, but it didn’t need to. Surrounded by friends, Ai was looking to the future, and all the uncertainty it held. Her great plan was done. Her criminal empire shattered and dispersed. In place of the fear and trepidation she expected to feel though, Ai found peace. There would be challenges to come, but she wasn’t alone and with the people who had her back, she liked her chances and the world’s of seeing a better tomorrow.