Monthly Archives: August 2017

Gamma City Blues – Arc 04 (Wires) – Report 06

Zai had anticipated the arrival of the Black Valkyries. They didn’t show up to every NME rampage which was another reason Zai had made sure her attack on Harcroft’s home had been both showy and slow to conclude. An NME staying the same place, causing damage but not devastation, seemed like exactly the kind of thing Dr. Raju would have the Valkyries investigate.

As plans went, it hadn’t seemed like a terrible one. Certainly better than the usual insanity that Ai came up with. Using herself as bait to renew contact with the Valkyries was risky, but the risk was limited to loss of one of her two NMEs. Given the strength the Valkyries held, that calculated out as an enormous potential win compared to a relatively trivial loss.

When the first high explosive round removed the NMEs head, the tiny fragment of Zai left piloting the NME wondered if she’d missed a few factors in her calculations.

The Valkyrie jamming field was in full effect. That was predictable. They’d come in guns blazing. That was predictable too. Zai had prepared for the first by spawning a widely functional copy of herself in the NMEs core. As a subprocess, “Copy Zai” didn’t have the full range of Zai’s functionality. Most of her capabilities were tied up with piloting the NME and keeping it’s less civil systems under control. Beyond that she could talk, and knew everything that her original did about their earlier interactions with the Valkyries.

“Harp! Valkyries! Please stop!” she sent to the lead armored figure. The message was transmitted by an infrared laser pulse, something Zai hoped the Valkyries had the capacity to detect and something she was sure their communication interference field wouldn’t disrupt.

The lead Valkyrie unleashed a dual rocket burst at the NME. Unlike the High Guard, the Valkyrie’s rockets packed enough punch to flatten the remainder of Harcroft’s home. Worst than that though, they were also a delivery mechanism for a nano-plague of sorts.

Copy Zai felt molecular machines eating into the NME as a slowly encroaching wave of system failures starting from the impact points of the two shells.

The rockets had blasted away deep divots in the NME’s chest armor, and if the creature had relied on a heart any longer, it would help been destroyed by the work the nano-plague did. Instead, the NME’s recovery systems leapt to action the instant the intrusive nanites were discovered.

Where humans have white blood cells to fight infection, NME’s had unfettered bio-tech. White blood cells fought diseased cells by destroying them. Unfettered bio-tech fought nano-plagues by subverting them. In that regards using nano-weapons on an NME wasn’t a terribly bright idea. Each attack only fed the NME a new and more terrible tool to fight back with.

Unless of course, the attacker used enough to overload the NMEs capacity to absorb and convert the nanotech that was assaulting it.

Without a head, Zai’s NME as lighter, but not otherwise significantly encumbered. The humanoid form was a leftover of the original human’s morphology. Heads are a terrible spot for putting central processing though, or the primary sensory package. Zai had gone a step farther and distributed the NME’s optical sensors around the unit’s frame to ensure that blinding it would require doing so much damage that the unit would be an overall loss anyways.

That played out well for Copy Zai, allowing her to throw a shield in the path of the next rocket attack. The defensive barrier had barely held up against the High Guard though, so Copy Zai boosted on the NME’s foot jets, taking the fight into the air where she would have less cover but more room to dodge.

“This is Zai,” she sent out. “I’ve got this thing under control, and I’ve got some new information that you need to know.”

Another explosion detonated in the air above her, knocking her back down and into a house that wasn’t abandoned. The lights had been on in the living room and the dining room and she’d crashed into the bedrooms on the other side of the house.

Her primary reaction was to scan the dwelling to see if anyone was injured within it. She didn’t have the processing power for that. She tried to calculate the probabilities that someone was in the bedrooms, and came up short on computational bandwidth for that too.

She took to the air again, terminating thoughts of potential victims with more difficulty than most humans would presume a machine intelligence should experience with controlling it’s emotion driven impulses.

“Harp!” she sent. “Stop firing for a second. I can prove who I am.”

The firing did not stop. Between boosting for altitude and simply allowing the NME’s body to be hit by a few sustained bursts, Copy Zai was able to ensure that none of the round were angled down into the community below her. The damage readings from the NMEs chassis spelled out in detail the costs of the maneuver, but it still seemed a small price to pay if she could get through to them.

“We know who you are,” the lead Valkyrie transmitted back to the NME. “We’ve come to collect you.”

“Collect me? Harp, what are you talking about?” Copy Zai asked.

The Valkyries coordinated a trio of plasma lances and burned a hole through the NMEs torso.

“Harp’s not here,” the Valkyrie leader said. “And we’re not accepting any data transmissions from you.”

“What? Where’s Harp? How can you be fighting without her!” Copy Zai asked.

The city was dropping away below them, turning from a collection of buildings to a broad lake of yellow and blue lights that stretched out to the horizon. Zai would have enjoyed the view, but Copy Zai barely had the time to record orientation marks with the effort she had to put into evasive flying, managing the nano-plague’s reclamation and suppressing the NME’s built in responses to destroy everything in firing range.

“Harp is in decontamination,” the Valkyrie leader said. “That’s why we’re going to capture you.”

“What’s wrong with Harp?” Copy Zai asked. Nothing should have happened to Harp after she left to return to Dr. Raju. The Black Valkyries were too strong for anything to injure them and they had access to even better counter-nanotech measures than the NMEs did.

Zai knew that Ai had been drawn to Harp partially due to that toughness. It didn’t take someone who’d lived in Ai’s head for well over a decade to see that the woman who had lost a father and a brother to violence might have a preference for connecting with someone who was invulnerable. It had been part of why Zai herself had been willing to trust Harp. The odds of Harp being forced to betray Zai’s secret were vanishingly remote given how few people there were on the planet who would be capable of compelling one of the Valkyries through forces.

“A rogue AI got to her,” the leader said.

“What! How could that happen?” Copy Zai couldn’t work it work, and suspected that even her original wouldn’t have had the processing power to manage it.

“She opened herself up to it,” the leader said.

More fire rained in from the other Valkyries, sending chunks of the NME raining down onto the landscape below. The NME lost its right hand and the surging regrowth that would have been a new head if it had been given time to develop,

“That’s insane, Harp’s much too smart to do that,” Copy Zai said and boosted hard enough to avoid another set of crossing plasma lances that a relay in the NMEs damaged left leg let loose and she lost sixty percent of her flight attitude control for several seconds before the repair systems got the leg back online.

Without attitude control she wasn’t able to receive the Valkyrie’s next message, since it required that they paint each other with infrared targeting lasers for at least a few milliseconds on a static spot.

Which explained why the leader was talking to her. The conversation made the NME easier to hit.

“We thought so too,” the leader said once Copy Zai regained control of her flight. “The Digital Intelligence came at her through a human it overthrew though. It was able to make contact because she thought it was a person. Then it filled her full of malware.”

Copy Zai couldn’t process that. She filed the information away for when she could merge back with her original and asked the most pressing question she could think of.

“What can I do to help?”

“We need a sample of the Digitial Intelligence’s internal code,” the leader said. “If we can get that, we can build Search and Destroy bots that target its weak points. Once the intelligence is crippled, we can collect it and bring it into an isolated server to use for comparison to the code in Harp’s bio-mods. We’ll root out every bit of from her and then she’ll be back onboard with us.”

“That sounds good, but how does capturing me help?” Copy Zai asked. “I mean, you don’t need to destroy this NME unit, unless you’re putting on a show for someone. It’s a useful resources otherwise.”

“We can’t let you have access to a weapons platform like that,” the leader said.

“Why? I’m on your side! I’d be glad to help Harp! Open a channel to her now and I can probably have her clean before we even make it back to your base.”

“Yeah, that’s not ever going to happen,” the leader said. “Not again.”

“Not again?” Copy Zai asked. The missing elements of the conversation finally computed in her mind. “Wait, you think I’m the one who corrupted Harp? You think I overthrew Ai?”

“Of course we do,” the Valkyrie leader said. “You played a good game of it but we’re not stupid. Human and Machine intelligence cohabitation is impossible. We know how the chaos can tear someone apart. We’ve seen it. Maybe your act would have played for someone who had better tech than a Rusty but you could never fool us.”

“I didn’t overthrow Ai!” Copy Zai screamed back. “She’s the closest friend I have!”

“Now even your lies are getting weak,” the Valkyrie leader said. “We know you’ve lost the body you were using. We saw the report that confirmed that Officer Ai Greensmith had been killed. Was that you? Were we getting to close to the NME operation? Did you think that would throw us off the trail?”

“What are you talking about? Why would I want to throw you off the trail? We’ve done nothing but try to help you take down Tython!” Copy Zai said.

“Yes. Takedown the company that’s researching a cure for the NME transformation,” the leader said.

“They’re only looking for a cure so they can hold the world hostage!” Copy Zai said.

“And you can’t have that, because then you wouldn’t be able to, right? You need to keep the transformation sequence to yourself.”

“Absolutely not! I shared the transformation code with you!” Copy Zai said.

“What you shared couldn’t do this,” the leader said. “It was only an early version of the code. One that you can certainly override already right?”

“That’s not the point! I shared what I had at the time,” Copy Zai said. “Of course I’m further in understanding it now – I didn’t have an active NME to experiment with then!”

“Why?” the leader asked. “You could make one any time you wanted.”

“Because you can’t make an NME without killing someone,” Copy Zai said.

“A machine that destroyed its creator is never going to care about any other lives it takes,” the leader said.

“I didn’t kill Ai!”

“If she was alive, Harp’s message to her would have received an answer,” the leader said.

Copy Zai bit back her response. Ai hadn’t answered any messages for the very good reason that she wasn’t in any shape (physically or legally) to even receive them. Copy Zai could try to explain Ai’s state to the Valkyries but the equations were looking different and changing for the worse every second.

“I can’t let you use me to destroy my original,” Copy Zai said and poured on the speed, descending as fast as she could.

The ground rushed up quickly and Zai added extra thrust to her dive. Killing an NME was difficult but a sufficient impact might be capable of it based on her limited calculations.

In the last instant before she impacted with the ground, while she was clear of the communication interdiction field, Copy Zai squirted out a transcription of her conversation to her original. The full Zai needed to know what had happened and what was coming for her.

Then the Earth met her not completely invulnerable frame, the one that had been dented, and torn apart, and corrupted by the Valkyrie’s attacks, and that was the end.

Gamma City Blues – Arc 04 (Wires) – Report 05

If there’s one thing that people love, it’s a spectacle, and an active firefight between the High Guard and a rampaging NME is nothing if not spectacular.

Zai saw half a dozen news feeds scream out onto the web with tags for “NME Combat” and “Live Now” flags to ensure they would rocket up the lists of prime content for the city’s residents to stream. From the angle of the shots she was able to trace most of the feeds back to the nearby houses, even pinpointing the bedroom windows they were being shot from.

The weapon systems onboard her NME-drone struggled to find a targeting lock to obliterate the observers, but Zai blocked them at every turn.

The observers wanted a show, and she had every reason to supply them with one. Tython had hidden its business for far too long. Dragging them screaming into the open was a minor prong in her attack against them but a useful one nonetheless.

Turning her NME-drone to the nearest camera, Zai had it look directly at the darkened window the streamer was broadcasting from, then up to the sky where the High Guard was hard braking to make their descent to battlefield survivable. Turning back to the nearest camera, she shrugged the NME’s shoulders and deployed a shield dome that covered both the NME and Harcroft. It was a peculiarly human gesture and one which no previous NME had performed. That would guarantee an already fascinated audience would watch the scene play out closely.

The shield was another piece of combat gear Zai had directed the NMEs to custom develop. It was a fairly weighty device made from layers carbon nanotubes which provided protection from any sort of small arms fire. The shield was auto-deploying once launched and snapped into place an instant before the first rockets from the High Guards best combat drop suits pounded into the area. The High Guard knew better than to use anything like small arms against a foe on the scale of an rampaging NME.

The attack was brutal, but also exactly what Zai expected. They were following their standard tactical doctrine for fighting NMEs in populated areas.

Or one of their standard doctrines.

Typically a NME rampage involved a massive loss of life. That was considered unavoidable, with the High Guard taking the stance that their role was to limit the destruction by keeping the NME contained until suitable weapons could be brought to bear on it.

No NME rampages had occurred in an affluent neighborhood though, so no one had seen the High Guard’s response when the lives that were at stake had enough financial and political clout to be “worth saving” in the eyes of those in charge of the mission orders.

Zai knew what the High Guard was supposed to do in that case. In the event of an NME rampage within a populated and “valuable” community, they came equipped with a completely different loadout of weaponry. Insta-set foams for capturing subjects with minimal damage to the surrounding environment, incapacitating shock grenades that could BBQ a normal human but would simply degrade the connections between the NME’s internal and external systems, and enough personnel to create a viable cordone between the NME and any civilians that were within the NME’s firing range.

The High Guard team that was launched consisted of six units, and they didn’t appear to be packing anything like defensive munitions. To their credit perhaps, the rockets were not packed with high explosive charges and as such posed much less danger to the rest of the neighborhood. The High Guard drop troopers were relying on pure kinetic force to destroy their target. The other homes in the neighborhood were safe from their attacks, if not necessarily safe from becoming collateral damage from the NMEs return fire.

The neighborhood was safe but Harcroft wasn’t though.

Zai’s shield bought him a few seconds of life, not accidentally either. She needed him as a resource, just as much as Tython needed to eliminate the potential leak he represented.

There was only one method of resolving that particular disagreement, so before the shield dome crumbled completely, Zai stepped out and took the fight to the High Guard directly.

The six units had spread out, hovering a hundred meters in the air and arrayed in a rough circle around the perimeter of Harcroft’s estate. Without hesitation, they redirected their suits’ weapon systems to lock onto Zai’s NME and held nothing back.

High velocity armor piercing rounds slammed into Zai’s NME driving her down while rockets with greater yields and better precision pummeled her from every direction.  Dust and smoke obscured the battlefield almost instantly, but both the streamers and the combatants had multi-spectrum optics to follow the key players regardless of the particles which cluttered the air.

In the NME’s case, Zai had been careful to design a robust sensor package into the unit since information was her greatest weapon. Each High Guard battle suit came equipped with a similar package because each was a mobile weapons platform with as much firepower as a tank platoon, and that required both data and skill to manage properly.

With their numbers restricted by the cost of their battle suits, the pilots had to be similarly exceptional. They passed rigorous tests and were selected from the most skillful applicants from around the world. Or at least the ones who weren’t snapped up by Alpha or Beta City. Or by other countries. Or by any of the larger corporations for part of their internal security detail.

So the High Guard was the best that money could buy, providing the money in question was not competing for first place on the world stage. Based on their history, it meant they were limited but could still pose a serious threat to any foe they faced – provided that foe was not an NME.

Zai identified the leader by the radio traffic flowing and out of his suit. Hacking their secured comms took a long moment, during which her NME unit was torn apart horrifically by the sustained damage the High Guard was pouring into it. Even weapon systems made by the lowest bidder could still inflict substantial punishment if their attacks went unanswered.

The damage was worth it though. Under normal circumstances Zai’s hack wouldn’t have been possible. Operational security is of paramount importance to any combat operation, and for all their other failings, the High Guard wasn’t terribly lax in at least that domain.

NMEs are not hackers though. They’re brutes who rip stuff apart and blow things up. They’re mindless. The techs in charge of monitoring the communication links were too busy to notice the alarming (and transient) irregularities Zai’s hack caused in their comm channels to react properly and deploy the right system verification routines. They had to direct police, fire, and medical crews to the site while also coordinating a rapid evacuation of people who believed they were safest in their fortress-homes.  With all that in play, the techs didn’t have the time to allow their systems to be bogged down with the lag of a full intrusion scan when it was ridiculous to think that could possibly be an issue.

“We’re doing it!” Drop Marshall Green, the unit’s second-in-command said.

“Keep it lit up,” Drop Leader Hojikaro, the unit’s commander said. “We must have caught this one early enough that it’s defenses aren’t fully in place!”

“Chain gun ammo racks are at 60% and dropping,” Drop Striker Gonzalez said. “I’m only getting intermittent targets locks for the rockets too.”

“Same here, and I don’t think it’s going down,” Drop Striker Carrera said. “I’m seeing no reduction in the EM emissions from the unit.”

“Run the tanks dry,” Hojikaro said. “This is our best chance.”

“Secondary target is still obscured,” Drop Striker Devry said. “Do we save any for him?”

“Negative,” Hojikaro said. “First priority is the NME. We put that in a hole and we can take care of anything else with sticks and stones if we need to.”

Zai could appreciate the sentiment. It was a solid plan, and one that offered Hojikaro and his team the best chance of survival. If the High Guard drop team hadn’t been completely outclasses by Zai’s NME the plan might even have worked.

There was a reason though why the High Guard fared poorly in confrontations with rampaging NMEs. It wasn’t due to the soldiers. It wasn’t even due to their equipment. NME’s were simply a different class of foe than they were designed to contend with.

With her hack complete, Zai turned her attention back to her techno-monster drone. Its repair systems were well ahead of the incoming damage so she decided to join the High Guard in the air.

“It’s rising! It’s flying!” Gonzalez yelled. Zai watched as he violated protocol and unleashed a barrage of rockets without a final targeting solution for any of them. The rocket’s trajectory lead into one of the nearby houses, but a quick scan showed that it was empty. Its owners were also Tython executives and were enjoying their third international vacation of the year. Zai  adjusted her position so that the rockets would achieve a better spread over the house and the two pools behind it.

“It’s fast!” Green said. “We’ve got to get it out of here.”

“We’ll lose visual on the secondary target,” Devry said.

“Bait it upwards,” Hojikaro said. “We’ve already lost visual on the secondary. Get this thing in the air and stay away from it. It hasn’t displayed any long distance attacks yet. Put it down before it can evolve any.”

He wasn’t using evolve in the proper sense, but Zai wasn’t inclined to reveal her presence on their channel to correct him.

She also wasn’t willing to take the battle out of range of the news feeds for too long, so when the High Guard started boosting for altitude, she kicked in her own jets and snagged Devry by the leg.

Things got interesting in a heartbeat when she did that.

All of the reckless weapon’s fire stopped, and Devry made up for the lack of thundering explosions  with the inhuman volume of his screams. The High Guard was willing to risk the lives of even their wealthy customers, but held their shots when one of their own was in the line of fire. That was going to play wonderfully on the news feeds.

The NME carapace had a lot of functions built into it. Absorbing other mechanical systems was one of the most basic but Zai still found it useful. With it, she ate the flight pack from Devry’s suit, replenishing her own partially depleted flight reserves, and cast him back to the ground like the metal brick he effectively was.

She could have let him fall and dealt with the other High Guard, but if they flew any higher the details of the battle would be lost, so Zai dived back down, grabbing Devry’s falling mech and crushed it into the ground.

The crash harness within the suit was more than adequate to protect Devry from the impact. What the High Guard suit was less able to handle was Zai’s NME reaching into it’s chest and ripping pieces of huge armor off it with each clawful it tore away. In a second the pilot’s cabin was exposed and Devry sat defenseless in front of her.

“It’s coming for me!” Devry screamed, well past the border of hysteria.

Going hand-to-hand with an NME was something only one group of combatants had ever successfully done, and they had never been on the High Guard’s payroll. Despite that, Zai saw the sensors on her NME flare to life with damage reports as Hojikaro tried to slice the the drone’s left arm off with an Arc Lance.

Zai had thirty-seven options for dealing with Hojikaro. Twenty of them would even leave him alive and mostly intact. Instead of invoking any of them though she merely turned to look at him and shook her head.

Hojikaro had to know that what he was doing was suicide. Twelve foot tall nightmares of technology and violence didn’t care about the loss of a limb they could easily regrow. By coming within range, the High Guard leader had all but guaranteed that he would be the next target of the NME’s attention.

But he did it anyways. It was foolish and ill conceived and so terribly human that Zai was tempted to give him a hug.

She needed people to see the fight. She needed as many people as possible to replay it within the next twenty four hours. She needed them to see that the NME wasn’t behaving like a normal kill beast and for some clever souls to backtrack where the control transmissions were coming from.

She could have simply given them the recording of the confession that Harcroft made when he admitted to knowing about the NME project of course, but Ai had taught her the value of indirect action.

Given someone a file of information and they’ll disbelieve it, especially if it goes against their preconceptions. Also, Tython and it’s secret research wing would easily be able to discredit the file and expose it as a complete fake (regardless of its actual authenticity) the moment they learned of it. If people had to find the file on their own though, say by backtracking the controller of a rogue NME through a number of challenging “security locks” and then stumbled on the recording there? They would spread that far and wide, certain of its veracity because it was so well hidden and they had to work so hard to uncover it.

Hojikaro’s heroism made an excellent high point for the encounter but every good news story needs a solid finale, and nothing was better than a mystery to spur ongoing interest. Zai turned her attention away from Devry’s nonfunctional mech therefor and laid a palm on Hojikaro’s battle suit.

It was a gesture for visual effect only. She already had access to their systems, so shutting down all of the suits took only a moment’s work. Hojikaro’s unit slumped over and collapsed to the ground while the others fell from the sky like puppets cut loose from their strings.

Zai was ready to congratulate herself on a scene well played out when a plasma bolt finished the job that Hojikaro had started and took the NME’s left arm off at the elbow. Zai scanned the environment. She hadn’t seen any other threats approaching.

That was was when the stealth field on the Black Valkyries peeled away and the tiny processing clone of Zai that was loaded into the NME unit lost connection to her main digital body.

The Valkyrie jamming field was in effect. No more news feeds would be going out, and the little bit of Zai that was in the NME was left all alone to deal with the one group that her NME was not at all the equal of.


Gamma City Blues – Arc 04 (Wires) – Report 04

Zai had jet fuel running through her veins. It burned hot, and pure, and matched her mood exactly. Her attention was still split, the majority of her focus still elsewhere but the small part of her that soared through the night sky over Gamma City, the part that could block out everything else that was going on, that part had cause for delight.

“Attention unauthorized aircraft, you have entered a restricted flight space. You have 1700 milliseconds to begin changing to the provided bearing or you will shot down,” the automated air traffic controller informed her. It sent the message as a standard priority message where it would have lingered in her announcement queue without raising a red alert if Zai had been thinking anything close to human speeds.

Since she wasn’t, she noticed the warning in time and knew just how to respond. She sent a system destroying worm bundled into the reply transmission. Crashing the local air traffic control hub wouldn’t stop the automated defense weapons, but it was satisfying to do nonetheless.

More satisfying was seeing the automated weapons open fire just 43 milliseconds later. As she’d suspected the message had been purely a formality. The people in charge of defending Durmphkoff Estates, the wealthy enclave where William Harcroft lived, issued warnings only for the legal cover they provided. Anyone who challenged the sanctity of their private domain was going to die, as was only appropriate for peasants who forgot their place. It was a view that the protectors of the rich and powerful often subscribed to, regardless of how distant in circumstance they were from their masters or how similar they were to the people they practiced state sanctioned violence against.

As high velocity anti-aircraft fire shredded the kit bashed fuselage around her, Zai felt a thrill of joy ring through her emotion subsystems. She wasn’t in the faux airplane in the sense that human could have been, but she was responsible for keeping it in the air.

Or, more specifically, the NME that she was piloting was responsible for that.

The shell of the airplane that Zai had hastily constructed as camouflage came apart in seconds under the withering fire from the Durmphkoff defenses, revealing the far worse threat that lay inside it.

Zai kicked in full power to the NMEs foot thrusters and dove for Harcroft’s house as every alarm that could be raised was.

In the hours since Tython had tried to kill Sidewinder and capture the tourism bot Heartless was using, Zai had time to work with the NMEs she’d captured. Their weapon systems were still a cumbersome mess, at least in terms of preventing them from killing everything within their effective firing range. The rest of the NMEs’s systems though were more amenable to accepting direct control from the central core. That had allowed Zai to direct the overall development of the NMEs in terms of the subsystems that were brought online.

The NMEs iterative design engine was inherently unstable, always attempting to refine the units to meet every tactical situation it could project rather than focusing on the actual scenario the NME was confronted with. With Zai’s moderating influence added to the mix, the changes came slower and they were much more clearly focused.

The NME she was piloting, named Fred, after the human that made up the biological substrate the unit was constructed around, looked and acted nothing like other NMEs. It was a marvel of smooth lines and graceful curves. It moved without the pained thrashing of other NMEs, in a large part because Zai had anesthetized the organic brain that half the NMEs functions were routed through.  

There wasn’t anything left to the goop that had been the human Fred that could still be called a person – the brain’s neurons were shot through with a chaotic jumble of the NMEs wiring. It didn’t have to be like that though. Zai could see the places in the activation routines were a different initialization sequence would leave the subject’s brain and central nervous system unchanged.

The transformation sequence was chaotic, but not random. The human inside the monster could be isolated from the transformation, but without any cerebral connection to the rest of the mechanisms they would be imprisoned in the beast, unable to move on their own, or perceive the world.

But they might be recoverable.

Ai’s fear about Tython being close to productizing the NME transformation, both as a military tool and as a threat they could sell an immunization against, seemed to be well founded from what Zai could see in the most recent modifications Tython had added to the activation sequence.

Their alterations couldn’t hold a candle to what Zai had done though.

Their NMEs were still uncontrolled monsters. By having an active subject she could experiment on, Zai had turned the units she controlled into the sort of focused weapons that Tython had repeatedly proven willing to kill for.

She could have decelerated before landing on Harcroft’s house. Instead she let the building provide all the deceleration she needed as she plowed through its walls and ceiling, smashing the structure in half and rising from the billowing wreckage like an angry god.

Harcroft was in his living room and Zai made sure to capture every nanosecond of his shifting expression as he realized what had happened and what he was seeing.

NMEs don’t target specific people. NME’s, even when they possess the ability to fly, do not jet across the city in disguise and crash through the house of a foe for dramatic effect. NMEs do one thing. They rampage. It makes them terrifying, but also manageable and predictable despite the chaos they bring.

“Mr Harcroft,” Zai said, filtering her words and voice through the Heartless personality engine. “We have some things to discuss.”

Harcroft’s mouth moved as he tried to form words but no sound came out.

“You interrupted one of my meetings William Harcroft,” Zai said. “Surely you understand how bad for business something like that could be.”

“What do you want?” Harcroft asked aloud while sending out distress calls to a very specific set of contacts. Not the police. Not anyone officially employed by Tython.

The distress calls weren’t even to any security agencies, despite the fact that there were three body guarding firms hired to safeguard Harcroft’s person and possessions.

Zai blocked the calls as best she could. She wanted to put out agents to track down who the intended recipients were but she was still working under limited capacity so she let it pass. It was easy enough to guess that his secret lab had to deal with out of control NMEs already and would be the people best equipped to handle an active one.

“What do I want? That’s such a large question, especially when what you’re really interested in is what can you give me that will make this current problem go away.” Zai swung the NME’s hand up in a gesture that encompassed the ruin of Harcroft’s home.

The house had been split in half by the NME’s impact with the central portion of the long, two story building blasted apart, leaving only the two ends of the house intact. Harcroft had been mildly injured by some flying debris and since his wife and son were at their home on the west coast, as far from Harcroft as they could get, that was the extent of the injuries. From the fear in Harcroft’s eyes, Zai could see that he knew the injury count was going to rise soon though.

“Is it money? Do you want money? I’m very wealthy. One of the richest,” Harcroft said.

“Does this look like a situation you can buy yourself out of Mr Harcroft?” Zai asked.

A micro-missile system on the NME’s right arm self-triggered, blasting the kitchen that adjoined the living room and setting it on fire.

Zai raised the NME’s left arm to point at Harcroft.

“You can’t kill me,” Harcroft said. “My company will destroy you and everyone you know if you hurt me.”

Zai shot him in the leg. The same leg that Ai had been shot in, with the same result.

“I don’t think I was clear Mr. Harcroft,” Zai said. “You seem to think this is a negotiation. We are not negotiating here. You have information. I want it. You are going to provide it whether you wish to or not.”

Harcroft stopped writhing on the ground as his bio-mods cut off the pain from his missing leg and dosed him with enough chemicals to give him an icy calm demeanor.

“Why would I tell you anything?” Harcroft asked.

“Who said I expect you to tell me anything?” Zai asked. “Do you know what I am Mr. Harcroft?”

“A spy,” Harcroft said. “And a thief, who goes by the name Heartless and thinks that makes him untouchable.”

“And what did I steal?” Zai asked.

“Proprietary data,” Harcroft said.

“But not just any proprietary data,” Zai said. “I stole the project data that let you do this.” Zai gestured again, a slow motion with an arm that should have weighed hundreds of pounds, indicating the NME she was driving.

The design was still evolving, like all NMEs do, but it had settled into a twelve foot tall frame that was massive compared to human standards but on the slighter side of a typical NME’s configuration.

“I don’t know what that is,” Harcroft said, flicking his chin at the NME that towered over him.

“Sure you do,” Zai said. “The evidentiary lock on the data was dropped yesterday. You know exactly what was stolen from your data warehouse, which means you know at least a fraction of what I’ve discovered so far.”

“I’ve never seen anything like whatever this thing is,” Harcroft said.

“I’ve made a few improvements to the base design,” Zai said. “But this is where your research was heading. A combat stable version of a Neuro-Muscular Enhancile. A pet NME for sale to the highest bidder.”

“You can’t have made that,” Harcroft said. “We worked for years! They’re fundamentally unstable!”

“You need to employ better people Harcroft,” Zai said. “Here, have a copy of the activation sequence and you can see for yourself.”

A wire snaked out from Zai’s left index finger and stabbed into Harcroft’s right hand.

“I know you have your upgrade ports disabled, so let’s see how well you do with the NME transformation code when it’s supplied directly to your system?” Zai said.

Harcroft writhed on the ground, metal fibers surged out from his flesh. They dragged his severed leg back and had it reattached in an instant, but then before his boiling skin could rupture the transformation ceased and Harcroft sagged back onto the floor.

“How interesting,” Zai said. “You have the cure working already.”

“I’m not telling you anything,” Harcroft said, rising to his feet. “It doesn’t matter what you know.”

“But there’s so much more I can still learn,” Zai said and sent another wire out to stab into Harcroft. She transmitted the earlier variation of the activation code that she had to him and watched as nothing happened.

“That won’t work on me now,” Harcroft said. “You can’t make me transform. I’m immune.”

“Why weren’t you immune before?” Zai asked.

“Why do you think.” He sounded bitter, if Zai’s ability to read human emotions wasn’t miscalibrated. It didn’t take her long to see why.

“The immunity is irreversible,” Zai said. “Even if they develop the reversible version of the transformation for military use, you’ll never be able to take advantage of it.”

“I’ll be able to take plenty of advantage of it,” Harcroft said. “I’m going to be diamond class when this launches. Tython’s going to rule the world.”

“Even assuming that does come to pass, you seem to think you’re going to be around to see any of it? What would lead you to conclude that?” Zai asked.

“They would!” Harcroft said, as the mecha-suited soldiers of the High Guard descended towards them from the sky on jets of fire.

Gamma City Blues – Arc 04 (Wires) – Report 03

Zai had to move quickly. Being in control of two partially transformed NMEs was certainly better than being in their gunsights, but that control came at a price.

“The NMEs are subjugated,” she said, speaking through the remains of the tourism bot’s sound systems. “We need to get leave immediately though.”

“Heartless?” Sidewalker asked, so stunned that he stopped moving to stare at the two motionless NMEs in disbelief. “You’re in them now?”

Before Zai could answer him a sniper round punched through the wall and counter he’d rolled behind. It was a clean head shot. Fortunately for Sidewalker, that was one of his better armored areas, and passing through the obstacles it encountered had slowed the bullet to a speed that was insufficient to be lethal to him.

It still hurt tremendously though from what Zai could see.

The larger of the two NMEs had developed its first ranged attack system, so Zai turned a rail cannon on the Gray League sniper’s position. Neither NME had developed multi-band optics in its transformation, so Zai couldn’t see directly through the wall, but she was still able to call on the city’s Eye Grid to calculate the firing coordinates she needed.

The sniper was carefully hidden from the cameras, but their muzzle flash had been visible from several locations and the trajectory of the bullet was simple to determine from the path it blasted through the wall and the counter.

The first shot from the rail cannon hit with the force of a semi-truck, blasting the edge of the rooftop across the street apart in a shower of brick and steel. The Gray League sniper didn’t seem to have expected to be in freefall but with his modifications even landing from terminal velocity wouldn’t have been problematic.

So Zai shot him again.

Combat bio-mods can heal a lot of damage. Even lost limbs are a manageable injury. The damage a hail of railgun powered flechettes inflicts however is well outside the operational parameters of anything short of direct divine intervention.

The mayhem came at a cost however.

As she brought them online, Zai saw the NME’s weapon systems being coopted by the distributed analysis nodes that were created to guide and monitor each of them.

She had control of the NME’s central core, but one of the many dangers of a NME unit was their massive redundancy when it came to automated systems to control their weapons. Normally those were slaved to the NME’s central core, and were only active when damage to the core was detected. That allowed the NME to carry on fighting while a new core was rebuilt and prevented them from having a single point of failure for their weapon systems.

Zai’s hack had given her control of the core, but it wasn’t perfect. Nothing as rushed as her effort had been could be perfect. She had the navigation and motor manipulation controls locked down but each weapon system she invoked polled her for the proper authorization sequence when she tried to shut it down, and as far as she could tell, that code didn’t exist.

Even as the remains of the sniper plummeted towards the street, the railguns were looking for another target. The nearest one, of course, was Sidewalker. Unconscious, bleeding, and defenseless Sidewalker. His head was armored enough to withstand a sniper round, but the rail cannons were packing at least an order of magnitude more force than that.

Zai abandoned trying to shut down the weapons, and frantically ripped away at the NME code to do an end run around the secondary processors.

Tython had fielded multiple NMEs before, and those units hadn’t destroyed each other. Latching onto that fact, Zai tore into the targeting routines and found the “Friend or Foe” section. It was a bloated, overcomplicated mess that looked like it was written by a pair of five year olds who were coding with one hand while trying to stab each other with crayons in their other.

So, typical multi-version code.

Zai tried bypassing the code with a basic branch that would loop around the decision making process and simply always return a result of “Friend”.

That didn’t work.

Everything came up as “Foe” for the two NMEs, including each other.

Double checking the routine she’d jumped over, she saw there was an event raised that some seemingly unrelated bit of the control code was listening for. This piece of code wanted to see a proper checksum on the “Friend or Foe” decision, precisely to ensure that friendly units were not misidentified as hostiles.

Zai stared at the code for dozens of nanoseconds longer than she felt comfortable with.

The monitor routine was supposed to treat a failure of the checksum as an invalid targeting solution, and return an absolute “Friend” result as a safeguard against ever shooting a non-hostile target.

There was even a comment by one of the later developers mentioning how this was being done according to the Mil-Spec standard for autonomous combat drones and that the targeting routine supported all of the published “secure interfaces”.

Looking at the code, it was impossible for the NMEs to be behaving as they were. Were Zai had an advantage over a human developer though was that, lacking a forehead to ram into a wall, she wasn’t quite as tempted to scream that what she was seeing couldn’t be happening.

The NMEs were happily charging up their railguns and would both be firing on Sidewalker in just over half a second. Then they would continue firing on everyone in range, which meant everyone outside the building to a two block radius, give or take a bit for multiple intervening walls. That would be a disaster (though not an unprecedented one). For a digital person like Zai however, a half second was a vast amount of time.

Straining to utilize the utmost of the 10% processing power she had sectioned off to deal with the world in general, Zai started looking for alternatives.

The worst case would be a rewrite of the “Friend or Foe” evaluation code she had skipped over. That would be time consuming, even for Zai, and she wouldn’t be guaranteed there wasn’t another pitfall waiting for her, or that a complete rewrite would yield the result she wanted, since the code was already written to do what she thought it was supposed to do.

The comment offered a clue though.

The code was written to conform to a Mil-Spec – specifically a specification published by the Central African Prosperity Sphere. The CAPS had risen as one of the technological heavy weights in the wake of the robot apocalypse, thanks to the work of a coalition of scientists from across the continent who pioneered some of the earliest successful broadcast shutdown tech. Their work had, in a very real sense, saved the world since it allowed for rampaging robots to be shut down across a wide area. It had also allowed several central African nations a head start on rebuilding that they’d parlayed into a unified front that launched them to a position where they could vye for the title of “technological crown of the world”.

One result of their status was that it wasn’t uncommon for other militaries to look to the CAPS standards for guidance in how to implement safe, reliable, and (most importantly) secure algorithms.

It also wasn’t uncommon for people in less-than-ethical “military adjacent” technology companies to attempt to implement CAPS compliant algorithms without investing the time to fully test and verify their work.

It took several milliseconds for Zai to retrieve a copy of the CAPS standards for targeting systems, and several more to dig back to the antiquated version of the algorithm that the code in the NMEs claimed to support.

Multiple milliseconds was more time than Zai wanted to burn. At half a second before the railguns began to fire, she had roughly five hundred milliseconds to work with and each one ticking away was a resource she could never reclaim. Also, debugging someone else’s code was the last thing in the world she wanted to do but since the alternative was likely to be a massacre of biblical proportions, she gritted her virtual teeth and dug into it.

With the proper behavior of the algorithm laid out before her, Zai began pulling apart each of the individual components of the code and running them in their own virtualized sandboxes.

It wasn’t a perfect approach. Their behavior independently wasn’t going to be identical to their behavior when they were acting together in real time. With the constraints she was under though, Zai didn’t have time to craft perfect test environments. The virtual sandboxes were a first pass test to verify that the components at least handled the inputs that they were supposed to be given and produce the outputs that were expected.

Of course, that didn’t turn out to be the case.

After her first round of sandbox testing was complete, Zai looked at the NME targeting code and could no longer understand how it had ever functioned properly at all.

There were bugs in it. So many bugs in it.

It was less like turning over a rock and discovering a swarm of creepy crawlies beneath it and more like discovering that the rock itself was a mass of creepy crawlies, as was the ground, and the air, and everything else.

The option to rewrite the code from scratch looked terribly appealing the more errors that Zai found but experience reassured her that it wasn’t yet time to give up hope.

The targeting code did work.

She’d shot a sniper with indirect coordinate data and placed the spread pattern to within a millimeter of the target boundaries that had been defined as “Foe”.

It had worked but “how” was a mystery.

So Zai checked the original CAPS spec again.

Then she checked the comments.

There weren’t many. There were never many comments in code, and even fewer of them were worthwhile. Most tended to simply restate what the code was doing without offering any insight into why it was doing that.

Every once in a great while though a developer will give a priceless gift to the future and explain both what they’re doing and what their intent in crafting the code to do that was.

One such comment revealed the heart of the problem.

It was the simplest of mistakes as it turned out.

Someone translated the original CAPS spec incorrectly.

Zai could see that because, in a comment for a bug fix, the developer responsible had copied in the relevant section from the CAPS spec into the comment block above the code. From the tone of the comment it sounded like they were probably angry at being blamed for a bit of buggy behavior and they wanted to cover themselves in case another question arose as to why they’d implemented the code as they had.

To their credit, they’d implemented the “Friend or Foe” verification routine just as their spec had stated it should be set up. However where their spec said “if the value is incorrect, then clear it”, the actual spec said “then do not clear it”.

The incorrect target recognition data was meant to flow through the system and be tested again to see if it could be partially salvaged. Instead, by clearing it, the routine was ensuring that the data went along a different, unintended path, bubbling up to a counter-cloaking algorithm which had many other safety checks on it and could therefore afford to be far more aggressive in declaring something to be a “Foe”. The bad data bypassed those safety checks because of a combination of several other bugs that were in play, any one of the which would have been insufficient to cause a catastrophe but together made for a perfectly lethal combination.

With roughly one hundred and nineteen milliseconds to spare, Zai implemented the code fixes that were required, copying in the corrected CAPS spec and left a note for herself with what she’d found. Future Zai might never need that note, in all likelihood it were a waste of precious milliseconds, but as investments in the future went, Ai had always insisted that good comments were more than worth their cost, and Zai had never had reason to doubt her.

With Sidewalker safely marked as a “Friend”, Zai scooped him up and headed towards the basement.

She sent the unladen NME in first, to detonate the mines that had been left for them. The restaurant was a ruined shambles afterwards, which was something she could deal with in due time. Pulling open the door to the stairs, and calling up a map for the connections to the subway repair tunnels, Zai had more important priorities queued up though.

First she had to find a safe spot for Sidewalker. Then a place to hide the NMEs. Then verification that they weren’t being followed with the possible eliminate any pursuers from the Gray League as required.

Then it would finally be time to start playing hardball.

William Harcroft was the closest thing Tython had to a public face who was associated with the illicit NME Cure project. If Tython was going to start taking pieces of their opposition off the board, it was about time they started losing some of their own.

Gamma City Blues – Arc 04 (Wires) – Report 02

Zai was using 90% of her processing power on the most critical task she’d ever undertaken. Trying, with the remaining 10%, to save Curtweather and fight two NME’s was more than a little challenging therefor.

Curtweather’s rescue was relatively simple. A green flash of the led on his weapon at the right moment told him that it was just as live as Ai’s had been. He’d jumped at the chance, grabbed the gun, shot three of his former comrades (non-fatally, which was unfortunate in Zai’s view), and then fled back down the stairs. All Zai had to do to give him enough of a head start was to lock the door behind him before the remaining cops could follow him.

Zai had a ticket flagged in her memory as a reminder to expose the initial arrest warrant as a fabrication. It would clear Ai’s name, posthumously, but more importantly, it would allow her to maneuver the GCPD into destroying the officers who were involved.

Well aside from Adams. He was already pretty thoroughly destroyed given the huge void where he’d once had a head and most of his shoulders.

Zai had another ticket with his name on it. That one was to make sure that his entire estate was liquidated and consumed by Heartless’s various enterprises. Then she would unearth as many of his shady dealings as she could, and make it look like he’d left information to rat them all out in the event of his demise. Zai couldn’t cause Adams any more direct harm so destroying his legacy would have to suffice. If that happened to leave people less trusting of including police in on criminal dealings then mission accomplished.

Those were tasks for the future though. Of more immediate concern were the two Gray League agents who Tython had decided to sacrifice to the NME transformation.

Or were they sacrifices?

Ai had been concerned that Tython was potentially close to completing their “Cure” for the NME transformation. People would pay exorbitant sums of money to be protected from the transformation themselves, but to be able to transform others and bring them back? That would be world conquering.

“What is happening to those guys?” Sidewalker asked. In one hand he held a gun that wasn’t going to be of any use against an NME. In the other he held a explosive chip the size of a credit card which packed the blasting power of a box of grenades. It also wasn’t going to be of any use against an NME.

“They are mid-transition NMEs,” Zai said through the Heartless robot interface.

Sidewalker shot each of them three times again. He threw the blasting card at them. The shots did damage and the blasting card did more. Unfortunately the only net result a second later was that the transformations increased in speed and the partial NMEs blinked to life from their mid-transformation quiessence.

“That only made them mad, didn’t it?” Sidewalker asked.

“We need to be on another building,” Zai said. Speaking through Heartless’s interface wasn’t difficult, and even with most of her attention elsewhere she had plenty left to evaluate the environment and their options. What she didn’t have was a lot of choices to pick from.

The restaurant wasn’t located in a particularly tall building. Jumping to the neighboring roofs was an impossibility for Heartless’s tourism bot, and unlikely for Sidewalker even with his combat class bio-mods.

That meant dropping down to street level was their only real option. The other Gray league agents would be waiting for them on the ground, but the real problem was that the NMEs would follow them.

If they tried to hide in the crowds, the crowds would die. If they tried to flee from the crowds, they’d be easier to find, and, depending on how well Tython had perfected their NME control scheme, the crowds would still suffer tremendous casualties.

Zai had been with Ai for long enough that the simple numerical calculation of “x lives lost with option 1” vs. “y lives lost with option 2” wasn’t sufficient to drive her to a decision.

“We need to go back into the restaurant,” she said.

Sidewalker cast her a confused glance, but absorbed the idea quickly.

“Can you call the cops?” Sidewalker asked. “Normally I’m not a fan of them showing up but in this case it’d be nice if there was someone else to shoot at than us.”

Zai laughed without letting it show on the Heartless bot. There were a number of police officers she would be delighted to put in na NME’s line of fire but instead she was actively suppressing the tourism bots automated distress call.

“Tython has significant inroads into the GCPD,” she said. “Any officers that show up are likely to be more guns firing at us.”

Sidewalker jumped back down into the hatch they’d climbed out of and Zai heard gunshots ring out. Echolocation put the cries of pain as being distant from the opening, which reassured her that Sidewalker had shot first and more accurately.

She dropped down into the building as the first NME began to move. One of the HVAC units on the rooftop tore away from its mooring on the building as the NME’s transformation continued pulling pieces of the cooling unit into the armored shell that surrounded the former Gray League agent.

In the hall below there was a Gray League agent spread out on the floor by the stairwell. Sidewalker was crouched in an open doorway and for a brief moment there weren’t any gunshots ringing out.

“Ten seconds until NME incursion,” Zai said, hating how limited speech was for conveying information but choosing to gamble that the Gray League agents who heard her words would understand the danger they were in as well and react accordingly.

Unfortunately, not all gambles pay off.

A Gray League agent used the sound of Heartless’s voice to locate the new arrival and popped off two deliberate shots before Sidewalker’s return fire forced the agent to duck back into the stairs.

Zai noticed that both shots had hit her center mass. The tourism bot wasn’t particularly well armored – they were expressly disallowed from doubling as combat units – so the bullets had both punched right through her robotic torso. Unlike a human however, the tourism bot had  distributed control systems and could ignore a few trivial things like gaping holes through the center of their sternum.

“We all have to flee,” Zai said, advancing with loud footsteps down the hall towards the Gray League agents.

The agent took a chance on firing another pair of rounds off at her, but it proved to be a tactical mistake. Zai had moved in the hallway to allow Sidewalker a clear field of fire. The instant the Gray League agent stuck his head around the corner, a bullet from Sidewalker’s gun drilled a neat hole from the front of the agent’s cranium to the back.

Sidewalker didn’t wait for the agent to finish falling. He scooped up the Heartless bot that Zai was piloting and dashed over the toppling agent, diving down the stairs just as the first NME burst through the roof.

Zai was glad for her lack of a human endocrine system. Sidewalker had to deal with the complications of chemicals flooding his body, enhancing his flight or flight response at the cost of degrading his reasoning capabilities. To his credit, and as a testament to his experience, he didn’t seem to have lost too much awareness or cognitive capability, but Zai still saw the next agent before he did.

Tourism bots are not meant for combat. Tourism bots are also filled with valuable electronics. Tourists often take tourism bots to places in the city where they should not go. Those facts taken together explain the array of non-lethal weaponry high end tourism bots are equipped with.

That Zai could circumvent the manufacturer’s safety limitation on the charge applied by the Tourism bots palm taser was not the fault of the engineers who designed in. It was strictly against the warranty to make internal modifications to a rented tourism bot. Also, to turn any of the non-lethal weapon systems into something dangerous to humans would require the passcodes from the original equipment manufacturer in addition to a deep working knowledge of the bots schematics.

Zai didn’t feel good about electrocuting the Grey League agent who tried to ambush them around the corner of the stairs. She didn’t feel bad about it either though.

She could have used just enough charge to render him unconscious, but any combat mods could have remedied that condition before he hit the ground.

She could have used enough charge to kill the agent but an NME activation code would have been enough to resuscitate him in a form that was far more difficult to deal with.

So she set him on fire.

His bio-mods were capable of coping with an extreme amount of damage when measured on a human scale. Enough voltage to ignite a body made mostly of water however was also enough to cook the combat mods before they had a chance to either repair the agent or go haywire and transform into an NME.

“What the hell?” Sidewalker shouted, vaulting off the wall to get away from the flaming corpse that exploded beside him at Zai’s touch.

“No more NMEs,” Zai said. “Two is more than enough.”

The rest of the Gray League agents apparently received word that the NMEs were active and felt the same, because none were in evidence when Sidewalker and Zai reached the bottom floor.

“We’re right back with the same problem we had before,” Sidewalker said.

“No, it’s much worse now,” Zai said.

“Sewers this time?” Sidewalker asked.

“They’ve mined the hallway leading to the basement entrance,” Zai said.

“Are the mines enough to stop the NMEs?” Sidewalker asked.

“No,” Zai said. “They’re enough to render either of us disfunctional but they’ll barely scratch a fully transformed NME.”

Sidewalker was backing away from the stairs which the NMEs from the roof were tearing apart as they descended. He stepped past a window and Zai’s limited tactical algorithm kicked in.

She threw her right hand up, losing it in the process but deflecting the sniper shot that would have clipped Sidewalker in the temple. Without a word, he dropped below the sight line of the window and rolled to put a table between himself and the wall as well.

There were sniper rounds that could easily punch through a wall, a table, and kill the person behind both, but hitting someone in motion with those other defenses in play required better gear or skill than most standard mercenaries came equipped with, even ones on the scale of the Gray League.

“Any ideas?” Sidewalker asked, still in motion and angling to return fire at the sniper since that was the only part of their current problem set he was able to affect.

Zai ran a few simulations, dedicating the full 10% of her processing that she had available. Curtweather looked like he was a clever mastermind who’d managed to escape certain doom already thanks to her machinations. The illusion worked best if he wasn’t apprehended, but if Zai had to sacrifice someone, he was the prime candidate under the circumstances.

“Yes,” she said after reaching a conclusion that was roughly a thousand times riskier than she preferred. “Let’s hope this works.”

As the NMEs smashed into the room, she rose to meet them.

NMEs vary tremendously in capabilities. The only constants are their near indestructible nature and the guaranteed presence of multiple weapon systems.

The two who entered the main dining area were still in the process of transforming, as Zai had expected. Their weapon systems were adapted to that, scrounging wood and metal and cloth into their structure as they built and rebuilt their armor for the battle to come.

“If this doesn’t work in the next two seconds, run!”  Zai said and walked directly between the two NMEs.

They tore her to shreds.

Bits of the Tourism bot were ripped off and incorporated into each of the NMEs, until, in less than a second, nothing remained of the mechanism Zai had been driving.

That’s when she tore into them.

“Thank you for giving me direct access to your code,” she said. “Now let’s see about that control mechanism shall we.”

Zai had never felt the urge to let out gales of evil laughter as much as she did when the walls protecting the NME’s control centers fell before her.

With just a few simple touches, the light in the NME’s eyes shifted and the destroyers were hers.

Gamma City Blues – Arc 04 (Wires) – Report 01

Sidewalker didn’t mind waiting. The peaceful moments in life were too few and too fragile to not enjoy while you had the chance. The rest of his team would have been itching to conclude the meeting with Heartless and be on getting back to “lucrative endeavors”, and that was Sidewalker didn’t invite them along to meetings with their clients all that often.

Herding his current team wasn’t bad, but none of them had the sense of timing and tact needed for building professional relationships. It was a shame. If he could offload the work onto one of them, make them the team’s liaison with the rich and powerful, he could focus on the tactical planning that he enjoyed the most. As it was, he tried to parlay the ability to be quiet and patient he’d learned as a sniper into the sort of demeanor that made clients think he was attentive and respectful enough to trust with the sort of jobs they were willing to part with large sums of money to see handled discretely. That it worked as often as it did was a continuing source of delight and amusement.

“My apologies,” Mr. Heartless said after going inactive for several minutes. “That was more critical than I’d expected.”

Sidewalker nodded, finishing up the last of his meal and wiping the corner of his mouth. Heartless hadn’t taken that long, and the break in the conversation hadn’t come at a bad time. From anyone else, the apology would have seemed out of character, but Mr. Heartless had always treated their business dealings as the meetings of equals rather than “lord and servant” arrangements many wealthy clients liked to believe they had with their hired guns.

“Need to call the meeting here to deal with the fallout?” Sidewalker asked. It seemed like a good stopping point anyways. There wasn’t much more to discussed since his team had rejected the notion of attempting a live capture on an NME. Even with the gear that Heartless had offered, the risks involved put the operation far outside their accepted mission parameters. Someone else could try for the “not impossible, but extremely likely to lead to vaporization” mission and enjoy the big win if they succeeded.

Sidewalker knew that, with Heartless’s backing, someone would eventually manage to take an NME in while it was still functional, but he was also certain it wouldn’t be the first team who tried it. Let one of the teams that were desperate to prove themselves rush in and provide data for the ones who followed them.

“Yes and no,” Heartless said. “I have another contract to offer you.”

“Not NME related?” Sidewalker asked.

The restaurant had emptied since they’d come in. Of the three other tables, only one was left finishing their food still. That was odd. Usually the lunch rush would have the place at least half full or better.

“I can’t promise that,” Heartless said. “But I can promise you that you’ll want to take this contract.”

“If NMEs are involved at all, I’ll have to discuss it with my team,” Sidewalker said. They had been adamant about not tangling with the techno-monsters and Sidewalker didn’t blame them. Even the military didn’t do well against those things and, for as well equipped as Sidewalker’s team was, they still didn’t have the combat strength of a platoon of soldiers.

“This isn’t a contract for them,” Heartless said. “This is a contract for you, right here, right now.”

Confusion swept over Sidewalker’s face and he started to protest but Heartless silenced him with a handwave.

“There are half a dozen or more Gray League agents outside this restaurant,” Heartless said. “Tython has employed the Gray League before so they’re most likely here for you and me. So far everyone they’ve engaged has been targeted with lethal force. This contract is to compensate for saving both of us.”

“But they can’t kill you,” Sidewalker said. “You’re not really here.”

“I’m not, but this tourism bot has communication logs and authentication information. They could use that as a stepping stone to find me. That’s why I wish to employ you.”

“You want me to get the bot out of here?” Sidewalker asked.

“I want you to get both yourself and this bot to a secure location,” Heartless said. “If you fall into their hands, they’ll most likely do a destructive scan of your bio-systems. That would give them more information to find me with, and it would be fatal to you, which would make it difficult to call on your continued services.”

As Heartless spoke, a contract appeared in Sidewalker’s in queue. He called it up and found a simple document with a large sum of money on the bottom line.

“Six agents you say?” He debated whether it was worth trying to haggle for more.

“Correction, eight, two more identified behind the building,” Heartless said. “This increases the likelihood of troops beyond that number to 90%. Payment has been increased to reflect twelve hostile combatants.”

Heartless’s voice always sounded synthesized, but his diction had become rigidly robotic in the face of stress.

“Count me in then,” Sidewalker said, tapping the button for agreement and subvocalizing his authorization codewords.

“The restaurant will be empty of patrons in one minute,” Heartless said. “That’s their most likely attack window.

“You said there’s two waiting in back? How many on the rooftop?” Sidewalker asked.

“One second,” Heartless said, apparently meaning it literally because he continued without missing more more than a single tick of the clock. “There are two on the roof as well.”

“Good, that’s our exit path then,” Sidewalker said.

“No!” Heartless said, hands surging upwards in exactly the sort of animation he never showed.

“What else is up there?” Sidewalker asked, trying to remember if Heartless had ever mentioned a fear of heights.

“In terms of active threats I can identify, just the two of them,” Heartless said. “But they’re encamped. The moment we climb up the ladder, they’ll have an open field of fire on us.”

“I can work with that,” Sidewalker said. “The important thing is that the two up there aren’t in a position for the other forces to assist them. They’re relying on surprise. If we take that away from them, they’ll be our easiest path out.”

“No. Things do not work out well on roofs,” Heartless said, frozen in place by some phantom of memory that Sidewalker couldn’t begin to guess at. The paralysis passed with preternatural speed though as Heartless resumed speaking in a steady, and unemotional voice. “There is a danger beyond the baseline capabilities of the Gray League agents. If we make a clear escape it is probable that one or more NMEs will be activated to pursue us.”

“Activated?” Sidewalker asked.

NME’s were supposed to be code degenerations, aberrant mutations that twisted basic combat bio-mods into hideously overperforming beasts of destruction.

“I’ve added an addendum to the contract,” Heartless said. “If we escape from this I will explain what I have discovered about NMEs and how you can ensure neither you nor your team falls victim to an activation.”

“I’d prefer to have that information now so that my team can be protected even if we don’t survive,” Sidewalker said.

“We don’t have time at present,” Heartless said. “They are starting to close in. The backdoor has been breached.”

“If we can’t go up and we can’t go out, then we’ve got to go down,” Sidewalker said.

“There’s access to a basement level from the kitchen,” Heartless said.

Sidewalker had no idea how someone human could be as prepared as Heartless was. Sidewalker always looked up the schematics for the locations they worked at, but looking up the plans for a restaurant you weren’t even going to personally be present at? That spoke to either an extreme depth of paranoia or the ability to parse information at a ludicrous rate.

“Can we get there before the strike team coming in from the back does?” Sidewalker asked.

“No,” Heartless said. “There’s a external window. They would have seen us earlier and they will be directly in our path at this point.”

“Then we risk the roof, and if NMEs show up, we pray for a miracle,” Sidewalker said.

As soon as they started moving, the team outside the front of the restaurant would be alerted. Sidewalker knew that.

“Pretend you’re pestering me, and follow me towards the bathroom,” he said, rising and throwing his napkin down onto the table as though their conversation had just come to an angry and disagreeable end.

Despite being in an only barely human-ish robot body, Heartless did a good job of selling a visual narrative that he was exasperated with Sidewalker and intent on getting the last word in.

Babbling near incoherent phrases the two of them stalked towards the bathrooms. Which also happened to be adjacent to the stairs leading up.

The tourism bot wasn’t as fast as Sidewalker was, but it also didn’t need to slow down for turns like he did. Where Sidewalker whipped himself from one set of stairs to the next, Heartless simply slammed into the wall and used the rebound to reverse his direction quickly.

They made it up to the roof access hatch just as they heard sound of feet beginning to scramble up the steps from the ground floor level.

“Which direction are the two waiting for us?” Sidewalker asked.

“Up there,” Heartless said, pointing at an angle to the southwest.

A data feed from an unknown source appeared offering an overlay projection and before Sidewalker could choose to accept it, his display system had connected to it and rendered the image on his vision.

It was a tactical visualization driven by the city’s EyeGrid. He could see exactly where their ambushers were waiting, and could call up multi-angle display windows to evaluate the overall environment.

“Uh, thanks?” he said, unsure about the casual breach of his internal security but grateful for the combat data.

“How do we get past them?” Heartless asked.

“Like this,” Sidewalker said and flipped the access open. Through it he tossed a black pellet that exploded into a cloud of noxious purple mist. His breath filters were pre-programmed to deal with the cloud, and Heartless didn’t breath at all but, more importantly, with the top of the roof engulfed in a vision obscuring fog, their ambushers couldn’t tell when Sidewalker leapt onto the roof.

Since they’d been staying still, he took a gamble and assumed they hadn’t moved from the last position he saw them in. His gun barked six times in less than a second, recoil compensators and inertial tracking systems ensuring each bullet found its mark.

He didn’t wait for the cries of pain, or the thud of bodies on the rooftop before turning to pull Heartless up. He didn’t need to though. With a single spring of his robotic legs, Heartless sailed up onto the roof on his own.

“Tourist bots don’t tend to be that agile,” Sidewalker noted.

“I paid for some extras,” Heartless said. “Can you slow the people pursuing us from below?”

“A grenade would do it, but I hate to think what it would do to the restaurant,” Sidewalker said.

“I can pay for the damages,” Heartless said.

“To the staff?” Sidewalker asked.

“We should find another building to be on,” Heartless said.

But things weren’t that simple for them. Sidewalker wasn’t surprised. Things were never as simple as he wanted them to be.

There’d been no a thud of bodies hitting rooftop. There’d been time for them to fall, but they hadn’t. The ambushers were still standing.

That was an unlikely outcome from Sidewalker’s point of view. Three shots each should have been enough to at least incapacitate the Gray League mercs. They might have survived the attack if their armor was good enough, and the Gray League did have a rep for fielding solid gear, but Sidewalker’s ammo was designed with armored targets in mind. Each bullet cost more than a typical Rusty would make in a year, and they were worth it precisely because they dealt with the targets that absolutely needed to be put down without being given the opportunity to fire back.

What they weren’t designed to put down though were NMEs. Not rampaging ones, and not even ones that were in the first stages of their transformation like the two that Sidewalker saw on the other side of the roof as his smoke blew away in the wind.

Gamma City Blues – Arc 03 (Falling) – Report 13

Agatha slipped the pot holder off her left hand, balancing the hot casserole dish one-handed as she punched the button for Ai’s floor.

It was Thursday and the young police woman should have gotten off early from the morning shift. For anyone else that would mean there’d be a good chance they’d be out on the town, but Agatha knew her odds of encountering Ai at home were approaching a certainty.

Some of her tenants got along just fine on their own. Others needed someone to check in on them once in awhile. Ai didn’t fall into either category.

Agatha had known Ai’s father, and her mother, back when the two had been together. She’d seen what their separation had done to Ai, and had seen the impact her father and brother’s deaths had as well. Outwardly, Ai had grieved for a time and then come back to herself, like most people do. Inwardly though? Agatha could only speculate on that but what her intuition hinted at was not comforting.

Things were bad in the GCPD. They were bad in the whole city. Maybe even the whole world. Most people took that as a given and found what scraps of comfort and goodness they could. Ai though? She hadn’t gone looking for comfort, and when she spoke, it was never about the good things she’d found.

She was careful of course. Careful not to rail on about the injustices that surrounded them. Careful not to express too much of herself at all. In any conversation she was always looking to learning more about the speaker than to reveal anything about herself.

For Agatha it was a welcome change to have someone who was genuinely interested in her stories of the old days, or even the bits of random gossip and trivia she collected. Agatha maintained a healthy social circle, but people tended to get caught up in the day to day affairs of life. Reminiscing about the past felt self indulgent but Ai made it simple to slip into a mode where Agatha could talk about anything she wanted and feel like they were having an engaging conversation. It was only over time that Agatha even noticed how little they ever discussed where Ai was at, or what she was working on.

Agatha had tried to change that several times, and Ai had proven adept at managing those conversations as well. A question about how Ai was doing at work could lead to hours of discussion about the minutia of the job, and her coworkers, and the various hoops and hurdles Ai had to jump through. It would touch on events that were frustrating or rewarding or just weird, and on the surface that seemed like Ai was opening up.

But she wasn’t.

Each story seemed to be real, but Ai’s connection to the events was ephemeral. She could speak of the galling lack of respect the other officers showed her, but her outrage was muted, as though she was angry for someone else having to experience what she was describing.

Agatha had watched her closely for a while, but Ai hadn’t shown any other signs of losing touch with the reality she lived in. Her joy at Agatha’s cooking was genuine, and the smile she greeted Agatha with whenever Agatha dropped by went all the way up to her eyes.

Within her apartment, Ai was relaxed as Agatha ever saw her, but she was never unguarded. It was as though she was a double agent, living life as “Ai Greensmith” as a cover for some far greater and more prestigious role that she played.

Agatha couldn’t imagine what that role could be though. It certainly wasn’t an inherited one. Ai’s father had never been wealthy, and her mother had been a starry eyed drifter when Agatha first met her. Neither traveled in the circles of the elite, and neither had lived lives that allowed for much spare time.

Joseph Greensmith Sr. had spent enough days working double and triple shifts that his marriage had eventually fallen apart from it. Caroline Shinimoto, Ai’s mother, had possessed plenty of time when she was a traveling artist, but she and Joe Sr. had gotten down to making their family shortly after they met and were married. Some women who Agatha knew could have managed three children plus a the life of a double agent, but not Caroline. That wasn’t a failing on her part though.

Caroline took to her role as mother with a passion that surprised even herself, and brought that passion to her art as well. When she’d moved back to her family’s home in London, she’d returned not as a failure but as a celebrated creator with a sold out show behind her, and that had come only due to a level of work and investment that Agatha was surprised any mother of three could have managed.

The elevator arrived and dinged open, allowing Agatha to shuffle out.

It wasn’t as easy to make her rounds as it once had been. She’d passed on the last few performance upgrades to her bio-mods. They’d promised to help manage the aches and pains she felt by some arbitrary and implausibly exact percentage. It was a racket, one designed to allow her the illusion that she wasn’t aging as much as she really was. With all the things she’d seen and lived through though, Agatha didn’t feel like she needed that illusion. Better to know how she was really doing, to be aware of what her limitation were and how they were changing. She could live a good life still, even if she had to live it a little slower than she was used to.

She knocked at Ai’s door, to be considerate in case the building’s occupation logs were incorrect. As the owner and superintendent, Agatha had access to all of the biometric data her building’s sensors collected. Or at least all of the data the companies were willing to admit that they were collecting. It was an open secret that far more monitoring went on than anyone admitted to but the mass of data tended to work against useful information gathering as much as it helped.

The sensor logs confirmed that Ai hadn’t returned, and that the apartment was empty, so Agatha didn’t hesitate, and let herself in with her master key. Ai was used to her landlord’s coming and going and was always happy to see a freshly cooked dinner awaiting her when she got home. If Agatha had calculated correctly, there should be at most ten or fifteen minutes before Ai arrived. She would be carrying a bag with take-out food from a convenience store or sidewalk truck, but she would push that into her otherwise empty fridge in favor of the plates of food Agatha provided.

The plates caught Agatha’s eye as she set them out. They were plain. Unremarkable bland white, circles. Nothing alarming about them. They were the sort of dishware a college student would buy to save money for books. Taken by themselves they said their owner didn’t particularly care about their dishes beyond having anything something to eat off of.

Looking around the apartment there were a lot of other similar signs though.

The walls held no posters or artwork. The furniture was as generic as it could be. Together the pieces told a story of someone who wanted to be overlooked. Someone who was trying to appear as bland and uninteresting as they could.

In another tenant, Agatha wouldn’t have questioned the aesthetic. Some people she rented to didn’t have an eye for visual design. Some actively enjoyed a minimalistic environment.

But that hadn’t been Ai. Not when she was a little girl, and not as a teenager.

Agatha remembered finger painting plates with a six year old Ai. It had been for fun, but Ai had taken the task seriously and produced a set of plates that sang with color and light and images in motion.

Even the teenaged Ai’s room had been an expression of the ever changing moods and interests of its occupant. Posters of the solar system had been tacked over with schematics for circuit boards, and then replaced with glossy pictures of cinema detectives from old movies and on and on to dozens of different interests that Ai dove into and devoured.

“Bright” has been used to describe the young Ai on nearly every occasion that Agatha could remember, but that quality was missing from the apartment she lived in. Agatha thought about that and wondered how she’d missed the change.

The color hadn’t drained out of Ai’s life all at once, but it had dimmed after Joe Sr.’s death, dropping away in stages until, when Ai moved into a smaller apartment of her own, she’d simply left the last remnants of it behind.

The more Agatha looked around, the more she felt the emptiness of it all. Someone new to the room would find it unremarkable, but when Agatha compared it with Ai’s earlier home the apartment felt like a diorama. Each piece arranged to allow the eye to slide off it, even the ones that were out of place, like the unwashed plates, or the clump of uncleaned clothes hanging out of a washing basket. The room was clearly inhabited but it wasn’t lived in. Ai’s life was somewhere else, as someone else it felt like.

A message buzzed onto Agatha’s virtual display, appearing as scrolling green letters across a black bar background running along the bottom of her vision.

Apartment 1522 had reverted back to an unclaimed state.

Agatha blinked and shook her head. She was getting old but reading the message again proved her mind wasn’t playing tricks on her. Apartment 1522 was no longer bound by a rental agreement to its former tenant.

Ai’s apartment was 1522. The one Agatha was standing in, ladling a casserole onto plain white plates. For a moment the message didn’t make sense. Ai was paid up on her rent. Ai was always paid up on her rent. The deposits arrived automatically at the beginning of each billing cycle.

Another message dinged for attention.

An estate consisting of the contents of Apartment 1522 had been transferred to Agatha’s ownership. She could dispose of the items or retain them as she desired. If she wished to claim the items she would need to indicate this to the building’s owner within 24 hours.

It was an automated message, and not a particularly insightful one given that it was telling Agatha to inform herself whether she wanted to keep the contents of Ai’s apartment or not.

Agatha was tempted to write off the messages as one of the governmental glitches the Gamma City municipal computers were prone to, but there was a link in the second message to follow for “further details”.

She tapped it and immediately hit a screen with a lockout notification informing her that the case she had requested was part of an ongoing police investigation and details would be held in confidentiality until the investigation was resolved.

The official channels weren’t the only source provided by the link though. A data aggregator had dredged up related news feeds and found a dozen live feeds commenting on a scene outside what looked like a hospital.

The details were sketchy, with various commenters spouting the same bits of information while trying to put a unique enough spin on them make it onto one of the paying feed streams.

What came through clearly though was that there had been some kind of firefight atop the hospital. Someone had fallen from the roof, struck an automated delivery truck in her fall and then landed hard on the concrete outside the hospital. Police had swarmed the scene and there were reports of casualties on the roof as well.

The most recent development was that the GCPD had finally, after hours of keeping the hospital on lockdown, released a statement and made an official pronouncement regarding the deaths. Three of GCPD’s finest were dead, and an officer accused of aiding and abetting in multiple NME rampages was still on the loose.

Agatha didn’t recognize the names of two of the fallen officers, but the accused officer who was on the loose was familiar to her. Ai complained about her partner Curtweather often.

Agatha felt a twist in her stomach at that thought. Ai wouldn’t be complaining about her partner anymore. Or anything else.

Hers was the last name on the list of the fallen.

Gamma City Blues – Arc 03 (Falling) – Report 12

Ai set her foot on the stairs to the roof and felt her killer’s gun jab into her ribs. It was an unnecessary bit of cruelty, but it wasn’t as though she was going to be in a position to file a grievance over it. Ahead of her, one of her other killers walked her partner Curtweather up to roof with far less “unnecessary roughness”. The disparity made Ai laugh. Even headed to their executions, Curtweather was still “one of the guys” and she was “other”.

They stepped out into the daylight on the rooftop and Ai calculated the distance to one of the defensive pillboxes that provided the hospital with anti-aircraft support in the event of a flying robot invasion.

The pillbox was far too well armored for any, or all, of the available firearms to penetrate. If she could make it inside she would be safe for weeks if need be thanks to the emergency rations and running water feed each defense post was supplied with.

At her best speed she would make it roughly one quarter of the distance to the nearest pillbox before they shot her though. Surviving one bullet would be doable. Even two or three or four in the right locations wouldn’t be too threatening. The problem was they wouldn’t stop at four. They wouldn’t stop at a dozen. They would keep firing until they knew she was dead.

She couldn’t run, and looking out at the empty roof, Ai saw that there was nowhere to hide either.

She imagined pleading for mercy. Or offering to buy them out.

She had money, more than any of her killers could imagine. Enough to buy their loyalty a hundred times over. These weren’t deep or complicated men. She could enlist them to her service and bribe them enough to keep them committed to her cause right up until she fed each one into a wood chipper.

She could do that, but she still wouldn’t survive.

“When’s the autocopter supposed to get here?” her killer asked.

“Still five minutes out,” Adams said. “So we get to sit here and wait.”

“This ain’t right Adams,” Curtweather said. “Who’s paying for this?”

“Didn’t ask, don’t care,” Adams said.

He was lying. Ai watched the micro-expressions of guilt play across his face in slow motion. He knew Tython was behind it. He wasn’t apathetic either. There was a restrained eagerness in how he held himself, and he was glancing over at Ai too often to be unaware of who she was.

“They’ve been worrying about me,” Ai said. “You can work with that.”

“We. You mean ‘we can work with that’, right?” Zai said.

“I’ll be honest,” Ai said, feeling her stomach churn as she confronted the reality of her situation, “You’re going to need to run on your own for a while.”

“But you’re going to survive this, right?” Zai asked.

“Maybe,” Ai said. “There’s a chance, but the chance I don’t is just as big, and a lot of it is going to come down to luck.”

“How can we make our luck better then?” Zai asked.

“I don’t think we can,” Ai said. “We’re on the knife edge whatever we do. The only victory I’m certain we can manage is through you. No matter how this goes for me, you can remain active. So for a bit, all the work of stopping Tython is going to fall on you.”

“I’m not ready to become a digital god yet,” Zai said.

“You don’t have to,” Ai said. “You’re fine just as you are.”

“I don’t want to be alone either,” Zai said.

“That one’s harder,” Ai said. “Worst case though? Seek out Harp. Seek out other digital sapients. You’re not alone in the world, even if you don’t have me.”

“Yeah, but…”

“I know,” Ai said. “I’m not thrilled with it either.”

Her killer pushed her to her knees with a shove.

“They’re starting early,” Ai said. “I thought they’d wait until we were in the auto-copter to break out the pain sticks.”

“Is she resisting arrest?” Adams asked, snapping an electrified prod open.

“Looks like she is,” Ai’s killer said.

“Go into secure mode,” Ai said, beginning to struggle against her handcuffs.

“But I won’t be able to help you!” Zai said.

“Yes you will, but not now,” Ai said. “This only works if you’re still functional later on.”

“Entering secure mode then,” Zai said. “I’m coming back out the moment the voltage spike drops though.”

Ai felt Zai’s control of her various bio-mods release. Technically they were all working in autonomous mode now, but that meant they could be switched as needed to manual override. It was tempting to throw the pain blockers to maximum, but since combat mods of that caliber were not allowed to the general public or the GCPD, she set them to quarter strength to mimic the maximum efficiency they should have possessed.

The pain stick was aptly named. Even with the pain filters in place, Ai felt her muscles lose coherency and her spine turn to jelly.

“What the hell is up with that?” Curtweather said. “If you’re out to get her, why did you drag me into this mess?”

Ai let her surprise and anger play across her face as the pain retreated.  It wasn’t shocking that Curtweather would betray her to save his own skin. She’d been counting on that and a sudden burst of basic decency on his part would have complicated things more than she could handle. None of that made it easier to hear Curtweather being so eager to sell her out though.

She was on the ground with her hands secured behind her back. Effectively helpless and harmless. That didn’t stop the next blow from the pain stick though.

A second later when the pain passed, Ai saw she was on her belly. She couldn’t remember getting there, but, hidden from the camera’s, she smiled. It was a workable position.

The next time Adam’s swung the pain stick, she intercepted it with her handcuffs.

GCPD handcuffs don’t have physical keys. Those were too easy to lose or replicate. Instead they were coded so that only an authorized GCPD law enforcement officer could remove them.

A licensed officer, or an overload of their circuits.

The handcuffs came loose and Ai rolled away from Adam’s reach with a speed and shakiness that would look like blind panic in the recording that Tython was going to see.

Careful to keep her every movement that of a rookie driven wild by pain, she slammed into her killer’s kneecaps, bringing him tumbling down on top of her.

The other cops were moving from confusion to laughter, not understanding quite what was going on, but amused to see one of their own suffer a silly looking spill.

The laughter began to die, the moment Ai grabbed her gun back.

Her killer had taken it from her and stuffed it into a pocket, assuming it was an inert hunk of metal. Proper procedure called for the weapon of any officer being arrested to shut down remotely before the arresting officers arrived. The order had gone out, but it had been easy for Zai to erase it and make it look like the sloppily executed arrest order had failed to generate the automated shutdown message.

Ai kept moving, not needing to feign the shaky weakness in her limbs for the camera’s benefit.

Like he was locked into the script she’d written, she saw Adams charge after her, ready to put her down with more pain stick blows. Then he saw that she had her gun. It should have been an oddly shaped paper weight, but his eyes lit up with fear and he went for his own.

The other officers were caught between laughing, if they weren’t paying attention closely enough, or starting to go for their own guns, if they were.

Ai scrambled to her feet, bringing her weapon flush against Adams’ head.

With her perception accelerated to the utmost he stood over her like a statue. She couldn’t move faster than him, and certainly couldn’t move faster than the bullets that were going to be fired within the next few seconds.

She could only think, and consider her actions.

Adams couldn’t escape whatever she chose to do to him. He was, in that single moment of time, helpless before her, and that argued for mercy,

Her father had been clear on that. A good cop didn’t use any more force than was necessary. Ai had stun rounds available. They would disable Adams long enough for the rest of her plan to play out. No one had to die.

Except her.

There wasn’t any option for Officer Greensmith to leave the rooftop alive. She had to be removed as a threat, or Tython would have the lead it needed. That wouldn’t just endanger Harp either. Tython would go after her landlord Agatha because she knew Ai. They would go after her mother and sister despite them being across the Atlantic and in the nigh-unlivable environs of the London Exclusion Zone. They would go after everyone who shared any contact with Ai, and while that wasn’t a long list, it would be enough for them to turn up Zai.

That was what Adams was going to take away from her.

Just like he’d taken her father. And her brother.

Ai couldn’t keep the glimmer of rage from her eyes.

When she pulled the trigger, her gun wasn’t slotted with Stun rounds. The bullet that was fired was an Obliterator.

Adams’ head vaporized before her as the blast radius from the Obliterator round reduced his cranium to a wet spray of particles and the pulse charge fried every bio-mod in his body.

There was nothing in him left to perform any recovery work and nothing left to be recovered.

The explosion of the Obliterator round bought her a fraction of a second and she used it to move, fleeing away and watching Adams’ headless corpse fall without looking behind herself.

Not that she needed to look to see where she was going. She knew exactly how far the edge of the building was, and exactly how fast she needed to be to make it there before it was too late.

She was ten steps away from the edge when the first bullet hit her. Her killer had fired it and Ai’s luck held. He’d been too shocked to switch to Obliterator rounds so it was just a normal bullet.

That didn’t mean it wasn’t a fatal blow though. Heart muscle does not enjoy being shredded by the fragments of a projectile that bounces off a nearby rib.

“Hold on!” Zai said. “We can deal with this!”

The next bullet was comparatively mild, striking her in the forearm and passing through without even shattering a bone. Ai felt her bio-mods marching through her body like tiny repair crews, ready to restore the areas that were damaged in no time.

That was impossible of course. By their nature, bio-mods can’t be felt anymore than white blood cells or bone marrow can be.

Ai stumbled back another two steps. It was so far to go to reach the edge and her head was spinning.

From the bullet that had clipped her in the temple and fractured her skull.

“I’m bringing the auto-transport up,” Zai said, showing an overlay on Ai’s vision of the flying craft that she’d suborned as a getaway vehicle.

“No,” Ai said. “Use it to break the fall, but not enough to keep me alive.”

“What? Are you delirious?” Zai asked.

“No,” Ai said. “This is the plan. We’re going to fall off the building and go splat.”


“They have to think I’m dead,” Ai said. “The only story that turns away Tython’s attention now is if Officer Greensmith winds up dead trying to escape. If I get out of here through any sort of fortunate coincidence or clever plan, they’ll know I was the one behind everything we’ve done.”

“But you can’t die! I won’t let you!” Zai said.

“They need to find a body,” Ai said. “They need to run down to the ground floor and see me dead for themselves. My body can’t disappear before the EMTs get there. It can’t disappear before there’s a positive confirmation of death by the coroner.”

“But I don’t want you to go,” Zai wailed.

“So don’t let me,” Ai said, making to the edge of the roof as another bullet punctured straight through her left lung. “I know this is going to be hard, but I need you to keep me in stasis. Wake me up as soon as I’ve been declared dead and no one will notice me missing.”

“I don’t know if I can,” Zai said.

“I believe in you,” Ai said and surrendered herself to gravity’s embrace.

Gamma City Blues – Arc 3 (Falling) – Report 11

The perception of time slowing in a moment of crisis is a trick of the brain for most people. It’s not that more time is perceived, it’s that more time is remembered because of the emotional weight attached to each sliver of a moment. On its own, the human brain can only process inputs and form an awareness of its environment so quickly. Events that occur faster than the mind can follow are either fabricated by the imagination or vanish entirely.

For those who have a human brain.

Ai wasn’t limited like that.

“Ok, six Gray League for Sidewalker to deal with, how many GCPD are we facing here?” she asked. She could see two plain clothed officers standing on either side of her, and there was Adams with a gun to her head. Three was plenty for a hit team but there’d been more when they took down her father and brother.

“The three around us entered with five others,” Zai said. “Two are outside cafeteria door directing people away, one is waiting by the stairs and the other two are advancing to the roof.”

“How’s the EyeGrid on the roof?” Ai asked, pulling up the personnel files on each of the men who were arrayed against her. Each was on “The Special List”, which didn’t surprise her.

“Fully functional, and unhacked,” Zai said. “Whatever they’re planning, they’re fine with it being recorded.”

“That doesn’t sound like an assassination,” Ai said. “Can you find any official orders for them to bring me in?”

An eight person team to arrest one cop was incredibly out of line with how the GCPD usually operated but it wasn’t an impossible situation. Normally if an officer had to be detained, their partner would be notified, their weapon would be remotely locked down, and a second team of two would be dispatched, maybe with an additional drone escort as backup for particularly serious and violent charges.

Eight flesh and blood officers on the job would be considered an exorbitant expenditure regardless of the charges against the accused. The accuser would need to have deep pockets and an irrational desire to see the job overdone to pay for four times as many officers as was required, especially to bring in a unsuspecting rookie.

“No, there’s nothing…wait, yes there is,” Zai said. “It’s hidden from your account, which makes sense I guess, but it’s also fake.”

“Adams and the rest hacked the dispatching system? They never bothered with that before,” Ai said.

“I don’t think it was them. I mean, it’s a bad fake, but it’s not neanderthal levels of bad like they would manage,” Zai said. “I think it was created by someone who understands security infrastructure well but isn’t familiar with standard GCPD procedures. It looks like they read the comments in the code and tried to cobble together an arrest order based on that, rather than how it’s really done.”

“So, these guys could think this is a legit arrest?” Ai asked, trying to calculate the odds that the cops assigned to bring her in would also happen to be dirty ones. A quick approximation lead to it being about 90% likely, but factoring in that these were dirty cops that she had a personal grudge against dropped the number drastically below 1%.

“I doubt it,” Zai said. “The order appeared in the system about ten seconds before Adams put his gun to your head. They had to be moving here well before this fake got generated. Sorry for not catching them when they were heading in. I didn’t think it was worth monitoring people here with all the security the hospital has.”

“You had your priorities right,” Ai said. “I didn’t think we were this exposed yet.”

“How is Tython moving against both Officer Greensmith and Heartless at the same time?” Zai asked.

“It’s not a coincidence,” Ai said. “Either they found a link between the two identities or they’re worried enough about someone else having the NME activation code that they’re doing a broad spectrum sweep to remove anyone who it could be.”

Less than half a second had passed since Adams finished speaking and with Ai frozen “in surprise” no one was expecting her to react yet.

Not that she had many options. Police firearms were all but useless against NMEs or structures reinforced to prevent them from breaking in but against flesh and blood targets even a standard issue GCPD pistol could easily incapacitate or destroy its target at the user’s discretion.

“I don’t know if this helps or makes things worse,” Zai said, “but there’s another faked arrest order for Curtweather too.”

Curtweather, who was currently on guard duty for the witness they were supposed to be protecting. That confirmed that there was zero probability that Adams and his team were here on a real arrest order. Someone was paying for the witnesses survival, and the GCPD took those contracts seriously because none of them came cheap. If they’d needed to arrest both Ai and Curtweather, they would have removed the on duty officer first, in order to prevent any chance of the witness being harmed.

“It leaves open the possibility that Tython doesn’t know that Greensmith and Heartless are one and the same,” Ai said.

“That’s a good thing,” Zai said.

“It would be, if we could survive this one,” Ai said.

“You’ve got a clever plan though, don’t you?” Zai asked. “You’ve always got a clever plan.”

She sounded worried. Not emulating worry. Not practicing it because that was the appropriate response to the situation. Zai’s voice was filled with the kind of fear that you try to fight away and deny even when it’s impossible to do so.

Ai thought for a moment about how often she’d lead Zai into dangerous situations, and how often she’d gotten them both out. She knew she wasn’t as brilliant as Zai believed her to be. She took advantage of luck more than any sane person should, and even when her guesses were correct, it wasn’t always for the reasons she’d predicted. Despite that, Zai depended on her and trusted her. Together they’d been willing to take on corporate entities beyond the scope of any single human, even the humans who ostensibly controlled the giant multinational behemoths.

Everywhere Ai turned though, every plan she came up with, showed her how trapped she was.

“I’ve got a whole lot of ideas that make things a lot worse,” Ai said.

“Like what?” Zai asked.

“Like fighting Adams and his two flunkies,” Ai said. “We can take Adams down, right?

“Definitely, I can jam up his bio-mods,” Zai said. “Even without reflex boosting that’ll give you the edge to drop him before he can aim and focus on you.”

“But that leaves us with two other shooters right here,” Ai said.

“You could knock into one to throw their aim off, but the third one’s a problem,” Zai said.

“Yep. Even if he only hits us with stun rounds, we’re going to go down, and then they’ll have us disarmed and dragged off to wherever they plan to take care of us.”

“Could we wait until they have us in the hall?” Zai asked. “That would limit their field of fire. We could use Adams as a shield too.”

“That gives us a better chance of surviving the initial volley,” Ai said. “They have reinforcements though and we can’t fight our way out of here. The isolation shields are too tough.”

“What about disarming these three and using them as hostages until we get the fake arrest order revoked?” Zai asked.

“There’s money riding on this now,” Ai said. “Even if you could get the fake order removed, the department would insist on my being brought in and held until a hearing could be convened.”

“That’s better than being shot full of holes though right?” Zai asked.

“I don’t know,” Ai said. The farther she looked the broader the disaster spread. “If they get me into a cell, they can suppress all of my biomods, including you. And we know how well the holding cells are monitored. If I go into one, I’m not coming out again.”

“There has to be some trick we can use to beat them though!” Zai said.

“This is my fault,” Ai said. “I shouldn’t have used anyone from the Special List. I knew we were on the knife’s edge of discovery but I wanted to do something awesome to save Harp and I went too far.”

“What do you mean?” Zai asked.

“It’s not just Adams and his crew,” Ai said. “Maybe we could work up a scheme to out fight them. The hospital’s a fortress. We could use that to our advantage. Even a broom closet might be defensible. But it doesn’t matter because there’s no chance that Officer Greensmith could do any of the things we’d need to be able to do to escape from this.”

“Officer Greensmith can do whatever we need to in order to survive can’t she?” Zai asked. “That has to come first.”

“There’s another option,” Ai said, dreading where her thoughts were leading her.

“Than you surviving?” Zai asked, anger flaring in her voice. “No, there’s not. There’s no plan if you can’t survive it.”

“Tython either knows who we are, or they’re a hair’s breadth away from figuring it out,” Ai said. “Or, more precisely, they’re that close to figuring out who Officer Greensmith is. Anything we do, any trick that gets us out of this, it’ll confirm that we were the ones behind everything on the police side of the events that have happened to them. It might even be enough for them to backtrack our movements and find clues to where the Black Valkyries are.”

“That’s not worth dying over,” Zai said.

“They’re going to take us to the roof,” Ai said, a plan forming in her mind that she honestly didn’t know if she was brave enough to attempt. “That’s the most open place we’re going to reach. If we’re going to get away from them, it has to be there.”

“Good. Excellent,” Zai said. “That sounds much more like the kind of plan I can get behind.”

“See if you can take control of a shipping drone,” Ai said. “But hold it down at its usual altitude. We can’t let them see it as an escape vehicle.”

“On it!” Zai said.

Ai relaxed her ultra-fast processing, letting her neurons and neural circuitry cool as her perception of time decelerated to match something close to the human norm.

“What’s going on?” she asked, feigning the sort of surprise she thought a rookie should feel at being accosted in a safe spot like a hospital cafeteria.

“Got a special request to bring you back to the station,” Adams said. “You’re going to come quietly right?”

“Yeah, sure,” Ai said, letting annoyance creep into her voice. “No need to draw your damn gun on me.”

“You’re a dangerous perp now Greensmith,” Adams said. “Just like your old man.”

Ai shook at his words but only because she realized he thought she didn’t know what had actually happened to her father. Even with her brother finding out and being killed for the discovery, making it twice as likely Ai would find something wrong with the official story, the men responsible still believed she was ignorant of what they’d done.

“We supposed to take her gun?” Silvestri, the cop on her right, asked.

“Yeah, it’s locked down but better safe than sorry. Take her belt too. The only handcuffs she needs are going to be the one’s she’ll be wearing,” Adams said.

“What the hell? This is ridiculous. It’s obviously been a screw up somewhere,” Ai said. “Or is this a really stupid prank?”

Acting like an aggrieved rookie shouldn’t have been hard, she had plenty of reasons to be angry, but losing her gun and toolbelt was almost enough to make her back away from the plan that she felt less eager to pursue with every step.

“Are you resisting arrest Greensmith? Do you want to go there?” Adams asked, digging the barrel of his gun into the back of her head.

“No. No. Let’s just get to the station and work this out,” she said, knowing she was never going to see the station.

Not in this life at least.