Harp asked for a meeting that was secure, private and in-person, so Ai met her on a commuter car during rush hour traffic.
“Not exactly what I had in mind, but points for cleverness,” Harp said without audible words.
“Thank you. I spend too much time thinking of stuff like this,” Ai said.
Speaking through an internal link was so common for Ai that she barely registered that she wasn’t verbalizing her words. The warmth and pressure of Harp’s hand in her own was new, though in this case “different” was also reassuring.
The broadcast communication scheme they’d worked out for Harp’s infiltration in the GCPD command center was secure from all but the most advanced levels of snooping. Normally that would have been sufficient for any sort of private conversation they needed to have. The only problem was that Dr Raju and the rest of the Valkyries knew the channels they had set up and could easily notice if Harp held an extended encrypted conversation with someone over them, and, for reasons Ai hoped to learn before the ride was over, Harp wasn’t fond of that notion. They needed a more discreet option for their conversion, so Ai suggested the most private mode of communication she knew of.
“How did you know I had a direct data link port in my hand?” Harp asked, holding Ai’s hand firmly to ensure the data ports at the base of their palms remained in contact. Anything that was transmitted wirelessly or across a network could be intercepted. Signals sent via direct contact however could only be detected with extremely sensitive equipment. Equipment which would have been horrifically overwhelmed by the sheer volume of electronic noise pumped out by the subway car’s countless and outdated advertising screens.
“If you’re modifying a human body for digital traffic, they’re too useful to pass up,” Ai said. “And I figured if you didn’t already have one, you’d be able to kitbash something together over the last few days.”
Waiting for their meeting had been a grueling trial. Ai hadn’t heard anything more from Harp beyond her original message except for a single “ok” confirmation when Ai transmitted a coded reply with their meeting time and location.
“It’s difficult to modify our existing systems,” Harp said. “But I probably could have managed.”
“I would have thought your mods would be highly configurable?” Ai said, letting the conversation flow along naturals paths and fighting back the urge to jump to her questions immediately.
“Within themselves they are,” Harp said. “They interface with external systems pretty well too, but trying to make additional modifications to our bodies isn’t easy. We have too many digital antibodies, if that makes sense?”
“It does,” Ai said. “Zai and I had to work through the failure mode where our bio-mods wanted to incorporate every device we made contact with. They were programmed to integrate with each other so well that when we unlocked them they started trying to integrate with everything else they could make a connection to.“
Harp shook her head.
“I still find your story hard to believe,” she said. “The two of you seem too incredible to be real.”
“I don’t know if we’re as uncommon as we seem,” Zai said, stepping into the conversation as easily as she did with any other digital stream she had access to. “I think the trials around human and machine intelligence cohabitation missed some fairly fundamental requirements.”
“Like that the human and the machine intelligence actually enjoy each other’s company,” Ai said.
“Yeah, which tells me that there have to be other people in Ai and my situation, probably hiding for the same reason we’re not trumpeting my existence to the world,” Zai said.
“Maybe,” Harp said. “I think you’re smarter than you give yourself credit for though. I know it’s what Dr. Raju is worried about.”
Ai held still, fighting the urge to lean into Harp and literally press her for more information.
“She sounded less than happy in her last message,” Ai said.
“You scared the hell out of her,” Harp said. “Both of you.”
“Everything turned out ok though didn’t it?” Zai asked.
“I’m guessing that the final strike Harp did was from a weapon system they were trying to keep under wraps,” Ai said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen the Valkyries break out something like that before?”
“We haven’t,” Harp said. “It hadn’t even been field tested, but I figured that was a good occasion to see what it could do.”
“I’m sorry you had to go that far,” Ai said. “And about activating the NME. It sounded like a much better plan in my head than it turned out to be.”
“Yeah, it was a bit of surprise,” Harp said.
“I take it that’s why Dr. Raju doesn’t want to work together anymore?” Ai asked.
“That’s a part of it,” Harp said. “She’s very protective of us.”
“What’s the rest?” Ai asked. “I mean apart from the bit where we couldn’t turn off the NME after it started rampaging.”
“She’s concerned that we don’t know what your agenda really is,” Harp said. “You were not only willing to sacrifice the cop who transformed but you had a plan in place to do so that predated the mission going off the rails.”
“I can’t deny either of those things,” Ai said, wishing she could pull away. Clasping hands was feeling less comfortable the more personal their conversation turned. “Do they bother you as much as they bother her?”
“I can’t claim to be comfortable with them,” Harp said, not pulling away at all.
“But you’re still here?” Ai asked.
“I am,” Harp said. “I think Dr. Raju is wrong. Not about trusting you, but about us working together.”
“Don’t we have to trust each other to some extent to do that?” Ai asked.
“To some extent, yes,” Harp said. “I don’t think we need complete trust though. You did a good job with the EyeGrid manifest. We’re weeks ahead of where we would have been without your help.”
“Nice to see the effort paid off,” Ai said.
“I wish Dr. Raju saw it that way,” Harp said.
“Why? What is she doing?” Ai asked.
“She’s holding us back and making us quadruple check everything we find because she’s worried the manifest is part of a larger scheme,” Harp said.
“By who? Me?” Ai asked. “What would I have to gain?”
“She won’t say. I think she’s worried that you’re trying to get us to expose ourselves so that we can be picked off by some of the people who are hunting us.”
Ai blinked, her mind trying to incorporate the idea that there were people who were a serious threat to the Valkyries. People who were hunting Harp and posed enough of a threat that the Valkyries cared about them.
Before she could respond, a pale face bearing a weak artificial tan and the kind of cosmetic bio-mods that said the owner was trying too hard for an aesthetic goal they cribbed off a bad action movie, appeared in the corner of Ai’s vision.
“I’m getting off at the next station, wanna get me off before then?” the swaggering salaryman asked.
Ai knew where this was going and turned a half step to give the guy a shove with her shoulder. Predictably this broke her and Harp away from him after the guy threw his arms around their shoulders. Also predictably, her action didn’t convince the salaryman to leave them alone.
“So you like it rough do you?” he asked.
“GCPD, step away,”, Ai said flashing her badge in the perps face. Occasionally that was enough to send them packing but more often than not, as with this guy, they doubled down on their stupidity.
“That’s a cute little fake badge you got there, want to play…” He didn’t get to finish the sentence.
Ai shot him in the face.
Only with a taser round unfortunately. Ai had considered “accidentally” suffering an ammunition misload, but a regular bullet would pose a danger to the other people in the train. As it was, people crushed tightly together to allow the perp to fall to the floor of the subway car.
Where Ai shot him again.
The first taser round only immobilized the subject for a few seconds. The cumulative effect from two rendered the subject unconscious for minutes. That was plenty of time for Ai to zip tie him. She could have registered his ID for official pickup by an on-duty officer. That would have placed him at the mercy of the courts, but since the courts didn’t particularly care about crimes of that magnitude unless they happened to someone with far more visible wealth and status than Ai had, filing official charges would amount to nothing.
Instead, Ai transferred his browsing history and personal credit statements to a shared network drive and then flagged his account as being in violation of corporate privacy mandates to ensure the wrong people would see it as soon as possible. In 24 hours he’d be unemployed and turned out of his apartment. Ai dashed off a reminder to herself to check in on him in two days to see if he deserved a harsher punishment.
When the doors opened for the next station, she dumped the still unconscious perp on the platform and resisted the urge to shoot him again.
“That was efficient,” Harp said, when their clasped hands again.
“No, that was disgusting,” Ai said.
“You didn’t kill him?” Harp asked.
“Stun round only,” Ai said, her adrenaline surge diminishing preternaturally fast thanks to Zai’s intervention.
Harp smiled and glanced over at Ai briefly.
“That’s why I think Dr. Raju is wrong,” she said. “I’m used to either holding back or playing a lot rougher.”
“I was holding back,” Ai said. “A guy who’s willing to act like that in a public area is a serial offender. Without exception. Part of me is still questioning if I should have ended him right there.”
“Why didn’t you?” Harp asked.
“Because I could have gotten away with it,” Ai said. “I’m a cop. People don’t question us, and the law only cares about punishing us when there’s a political or monetary need to do so. Or when we turn whistlerblower.”
“And that made you not kill him? Even when you guessed he might deserve it?” Harp asked.
“No,” Ai said. “I’m…I’m not that good.”
“What do you mean?” Harp asked.
Ai warred with herself. She knew what the truth was. It was simple enough. She held “Officer Greensmith” to a standard above the rest of the police force only because it allowed her to act more freely as Heartless with less chance for anyone to connect the two. She didn’t see any inherent worth in the life of people like the perp, even when she knew intellectually that she should.
“I’m more useful to you if I’m not under any suspicion. If the department thinks I play by the rules all the time, they’ll look for smaller infractions and not believe I’m capable of things like wrecking central command,” she said cleaving close to the truth but omitting the harsher elements. Why she didn’t want Harp to see those eluded Ai. Coming from Madtown, Harp had to be inured to the casual disposal of human life. She might even find Ai’s willingness to embrace the world’s cold hard realities appealing.
“I was there when you did wrecked cop HQ and I still don’t believe you’re capable of it,” Harp said. “The important thing though is that I think we can help each other still, if you’re willing to work together again.”
“I don’t think Dr. Raju will be happy about that,” Ai said.
“That’s why she’d not going to find out until we’re done,” Harp said.
“So, wait, this is just you and me?” Ai asked.
“We worked ok as a team before,” Harp said. “And I’ll still have a line to the other Valkyries in case things turn sour.”
Ai felt a flutter of excitement dance up her throat. The aggravation and nerves she’d felt over her previous misjudgments evaporated in the face of Harp’s willingness to look beyond them.
“What do you need me to do?” she asked. Her stop was coming up, but she would ride the subway around the city a dozen times if that’s what it took to hear what Harp had in mind.
Fortunately Harp’s answer was simple and to the point.
“We need to rob one of the EyeGrid archives. You and me. In and out. Silent as a ghost with no one the wiser. And we need to do it before midnight tonight.”