Ai’s biggest regret in her dealings with Sidewalker and his crew was that he loved eating in nice restaurants but she never got enjoy the fare in the rented robot bodies she used to keep Heartless’s identity secure.
“I was surprised to hear from you again so soon,” Sidewalker said. He’d chosen the venue for the meeting, though Heartless was the one footing the bill. As restaurants went it didn’t look like much, just a large open dining area with tables of various sizes and a kitchen in the back that several, somehow harmonious, scents wafted out from every time a server passed through the swinging doors that separated it from the main room.
“My gratitude for agreeing to this meeting,” Ai said, the voice and diction modulators rendered her words into Heartless’s precise accent and vocal range.
“It’s always nice to have someone pick up the tab for lunch,” Sidewalker said.
Since time was of the essence, Ai had scheduled Heartless’s meeting as early as was practical, making it a lunch meeting rather than a dinner one. Had either of them been regular office workers an even earlier meeting would have been plausible, but as a mercenary Sidewalker kept erratic hours, and if Heartless appeared to be in a hurry to resolve an issue Sidewalker would have had the sense to avoid the mission on general principal.
“I trust the proceeds from our last transaction haven’t run dry?” Heartless asked, the robot body executing a series of small motions meant to evoke a sense of liveliness without venturing into the Uncanny Valley. Ai wanted Sidewalker at ease. Talking to an unmoving, unblinking, near human face was not optimal for creating a sense of security. With small, relatively slow motions though, the sort that humans make unconsciously on an almost continual basis, it was easy to fool the pattern recognition engine of the mind into believing the machine in front of someone was a relaxed and unthreatening living being.
“It’s funny you bring that up,” Sidewalker said, as he dropped a forkful of rice into his curry. “With the bonus you added, we should have been on vacation for at least a few months, but when I checked the ledgers and with the others, the money seems to have just disappeared on us.”
“Not literally I presume?” Heartless asked.
“No, the money wasn’t stolen,” Sidewalker said. “We know what we spent it on, but it just seems odd that so many things we were looking for became available just as soon as we had the money to afford them.”
A server approached the table and gestured to the quarter full glass of synth-beer beside Sidewalker’s plate. Sidewalker responded in sign language, thanking the woman and agreeing to the refill.
Ai glanced around the room, noticing that they had arrived before the lunch rush and were one of only three tables of customers in the restaurant, each seated equally distant from the others.
“Deaf?” Heartless asked, indicating the retreating server.
“Since birth,” Sidewalker said. “Would need platinum tier bio-mods to restore her hearing and there can be serious sensory issues that come up even then.”
“I take it that’s why you prefer this establishment?” Heartless asked. “For the extra privacy it affords?”
“No,” Sidewalker said. “Kaeta can see what we’re saying just fine. She’s got a pretty decent speech-to-text rig, and it’s a restaurant, people only talk about so many different things in here.”
“Why the sign language then?” Ai asked. She knew various factoids about adaptive bio-mods, ones which worked around problems when the core issue couldn’t be addressed for whatever reason. With Zai’s mod reprogramming wizardry, Ai hadn’t needed anything like that for herself though so it wasn’t an area she’d studied in much depth.
“Respect,” Sidewalker said. “Also, come on, sign’s beautiful.”
“I can’t argue with that,” Heartless said. “As to your earlier question, you alluded to my being involved in your current financial situation? You’re correct there, to some extent at least. After our parting I did give a few of the people who contacted you your public links.”
Through Heartless’s eyes, Ai watched Sidewalker scoop up a bit of the curry and rice with the flatbread that came with his meal. He was going to be chewing for a few seconds after that so, risking a moment of disorientation, she blinked her real eyes and returned her vision back to the hospital cafeteria she was sitting in.
A meeting during lunch meant a meeting while she was on duty, so Ai had Zai make sure that the work she and Curtweather were assigned for the day didn’t require much attention. Normally patrolling would have fallen into that category, but since Ai needed to ‘zone out’ for the duration of the meeting with Sidewalker, Zai had substituted guard duty instead.
In theory, guarding a witness within a hospital was an assignment where the only danger was death by boredom. Even mildly decent hospitals were covered in EyeGrid cameras and had containment measures designed to stop anything up to, and possibly including, an NME from breaking out or in.
During the first zombie robot apocalypse, people had learned the hard lesson that critical care facilities were, by definition, critical to maintain. It was one of the few pieces of wisdom that endured past the rebuilding of society.
As Ai sliced through the bland Nutri-Paste on her plate, she had to wonder if all of the extra security spending for the hospital had come out of the food budget. It was particularly had to stomach something so unappetizing given the mouth watering scent of Sidewalker’s curry reaching out across the neural link with the robot she was inhabiting.
She made a show of picking at the paste and refocused on her conversation with Sidewalker. To anyone wandering into the cafeteria, it would look like she was viewing an internal display and spending her lunch break watching whatever vid-feed entertainment had drawn a decent number of hits the night before.
“So you were sending people to us as a favor?” Sidewalker asked in between bites of curry that Ai felt her real stomach grumbling for a taste of.
“As a favor yes, though not specifically for you,” Heartless said. “Keiyan Dhalmler was looking for someone willing to invest in his prototype armoring mod. It seemed like the kind of thing your team might find useful, but the favor was to Keiyan in providing him with a lead which turned out well. Similarly, Iatee Holdings needed an outlet for an arms shipment which was stuck here due to unforeseen export restrictions. You seemed like a local buyer who would benefit from the reduced sale prices.”
Ai didn’t mention that Keiyan’s two other investors had been seduced by vaporware projects which one of Heartless’s more distance shell companies had sold them on, or that Iatee Holding’s shipment of regulated firearms had been detained due an anonymous tip backed by a hefty bribe to the Gamma City customs officials.
Sidewalker’s crew had refused the request to capture an intact NME, and thought that was the end of their association with Heartless, but Ai had no desire to lose good talent. Not when grooming a relationship with them was so easy to do from several steps removed.
“We’ve had other turns of good luck since working with you along those lines, but I suppose it’s not worth looking that gift horse too closely in the mouth,” Sidewalker said. “That’s why I agreed to this meeting. I have a favor to return to you.”
Ai allowed her surprise to register on the robot’s face.
“I wasn’t aware I had asked for any favors?” Heartless said.
The crowd outside the restaurant was growing more dense but, as yet, no one else had entered to eat. Something about that felt wrong but Ai couldn’t place quite why.
“Could you run a scan on the Eye Grid cams around the place we’re meeting with Sidewalker?” she asked Zai, returning her focus to her lunch companion.
“Sure,” Zai said. “I’ll start running facial recognition on the people outside and let you know if anyone interesting turns up.”
The sound of several more people entering the cafeteria near her tried to divide Ai’s attention further, but she resisted the urge to switch video feeds. It would have taken only milliseconds to adjust but it would have been out of character for Heartless to be that distracted.
“This is the sort of favor that comes without being asked for,” Sidewalker said. “You hired us, and paid the fee fairly and promptly. I can’t tell you how much less of a hassle that makes you than some of our other customers. That’s why I refused a job yesterday.”
“You had a job related to myself? Or to my interests?” Heartless asked.
“Related to you,” Sidewalker said. “Related to this very meeting in fact.”
“We didn’t arrange this meeting until today though?” Heartless said.
“Yeah, but someone knew you were going to get in touch with me,” Sidewalker said. “Someone who wanted me to sell you out.”
“Sell me out how?” Ai asked, dozens of scenarios, each worse than the last, spinning to life in her mind.
“The offer was simple,” Sidewalker said. “The next time you arranged a meeting, I was to request we dine at the Charles Club and notify a contact number of the date and time we would be arriving.”
“Who was the contact?” Ai asked.
“It was a blind data drop,” Sidewalker said. “Or mostly blind. We followed the access logs back to an account with NovaGenesis.”
“They’re a division of Tython,” Ai said, not liking at all where the conversation was going.
“Yes, the same company we broke into a data warehouse to steal data from,” Sidewalker said.
“That wasn’t wise to say aloud,” Heartless said.
“You’re blocking the data feeds,” Sidewalker said. “Just like you did last time. It’s ok. I appreciate that. That however is why we will not be taking this new contract. We appreciate your business, and the work you’ve done for us since, but, at this juncture, we seem to be known by a corporation which is much larger than we wish to contend against. I don’t know what they can do to you, or whether they are a concern at all for you, but until we fall off their radar we can’t risk letting them get any closer.”
Ai felt the cool bite of metal press against her neck.
Her real neck.
For a moment she was confused, trying to sort out the conflicting sensations from the robot body and her natural one.
“Right Greensmith, wake up from your vid, you’re coming with us,” a cop said from behind her.
“I understand,” Heartless said for Ai. “Please hold that thought, I need to take care of a brief matter.”
Ai opened her regular eyes and found herself surrounded. They weren’t in uniform, but she recognized several of her fellow GCPD Officers. Even the feeling of the gun barrel pushed against the base of her skull wasn’t wholly surprising. A betrayal from within the force was something she’d been expecting ever since she made the decision to join it.
“We’ve got a few questions for you Greensmith,” Officer Adams said, punctuating his words with small presses on her neck with the gun.
Ai didn’t know what the questions would be, but she knew the last word said would be a gunshot. Three in fact. Two of them center mass in the torso and one right between the eyes. That they were willing to do the deed in a hospital was unexpected. Whatever happened would be recorded by at least a half dozen cameras.
Unless the camera’s had already been hacked.
“I’m checking for intrusion into the hospital’s system’s right now,” Zai said. “Starting to get back results on the facial analysis of the crowd outside the restaurant too.”
“Pardon me,” she said as Heartless to Sidewalker, “This matter may take a few minutes to resolve.”
“He may not have a few minutes,” Zai said. “At least a half dozen people in the crowd are active Grey League agents. Tython had him followed and I can’t imagine it was for his health and safety.”