Monthly Archives: September 2017

Gamma City Blues – Arc 05 (Trials) – Report 05

Sometimes when nothing’s going right, when there doesn’t seem to be anything you can do, or anyway to make things better, the most important thing you can find is someone to talk to.

“Zai? What are you doing here?” Harp asked.

The virtual sandbox Sil had set up appeared as a spartan space of amber grid lines against a black backdrop. There was no other sensory components included with it, so Harp still smelled the conditioned air of the cell they were holding her physical body in, and felt the wafting chill of the air that was scrubbed of the city’s usual pollution. Even her own voice didn’t make sound exactly. It was closer to the memory of having spoken than sense transmission from her augmented ear drums.

“I am hoping you can tell me that,” Zai said. “I’m not exactly running at full speed here.”

Zai’s appearance threw Harp for a moment. She hadn’t taken on a virtual avatar in their earlier encounters but in the sandbox she needed some sort of visual representation.

So she looked like Ai.

Or rather a younger Ai. With electric yellow streaks running through her dark hair and eyes that literally sparkled in a fashion that only pricey cosmetic mods could manage in the physical world.

“I’m sorry, I’ve been in lockdown since I got back here,” Harp said.

It hurt to say that. Despite Dr. Raju’s treatment of her, Harp didn’t want to cast doubts on Raju in front of anyone else. It was hard enough dealing with those doubts on her own, somehow hearing them echoed back from someone else would put her in too terrible of position to deal with.

“Is that something I should have known?” Zai asked. She sat down on the grid patterned floor and began inspecting her hands as though they were new to the point of being alien to her.

“It wasn’t the response I expected,” Harp said.

Ai had offered her a lifeline, had given her a secure line that would provide not only communications but two way positioning, if Harp had chosen to invoke it. It was meant as a token of trust. Harp could contact and find Ai whenever she wanted, and Ai could only do the same if Harp allowed her to. In retrospect Harp wished the show of trust had gone the other direction.

“Good,” Zai said. “I mean, not good that you’re cut off, but good that I’m not missing an important memory there.”

“What did they do to you?” Harp asked, kneeling down beside Zai’s seat figure. She couldn’t imagine Sil tearing apart a Digital Person, but Dr. Raju seemed to have more extreme views on the subject than Harp had been aware of.

“I don’t know,” Zai said, turning to look at Harp with less surprise than she showed in examining her own limbs. “But the memory issue wasn’t them. That’s me. Or my main process.”

“Your main process?”

“Yeah, I’m a Task Focused copy of the Zai you met before,” Zai said. “Sort of like a stray thought or a daydream version of the full me.”

“So you’re not the real Zai? I guess that makes sense. Your project size was too small to be the real you,” Harp said.

“I’m sort of real,” Zai said. “The memories I do have any my motivations match my main processes where they overlap, I just wasn’t able to fit everything I know into this little package. Or most of special functions. All that this version of me has access to is the memories I’d need for context if I got a chance to talk to you or the other Valkyries, and some secure credentials to link back up with the main version of myself once my task was done. Oh, and the routines to pilot and control our upgraded NME.”

Harp stared at her for a moment, while Zai watched her patiently in return.

“I have so many questions about everything you just said.”

“Go ahead and ask them, I don’t think I have anything else to do and from the credentials you shared at the beginning of this conversation you seem to be the Harp I was looking for.”

“First, you can control NMEs now?” This was a dangerous revelation in Harp’s mind.

NMEs were berserkers. Uncontrollable and endless destructive. The only thing that made fighting them practical was that their destructive capacity wasn’t tied to any tactical or strategic amount of intelligence. In a one on one fight, Harp had proven that she could take down an NME, but even with that there had been considerable collateral damage.

An NME that was directed by a transhuman intelligence would be able to harness their power and apply it at the places and times where they were the hardest to oppose.

“Tython sent two NMEs after me. They absorbed the bot I was piloting but that allowed me to get inside their command structures and subvert them,” Zai explained. “We used one to stage an attack on the Tython VP who was connected to the Cure project in order to draw out the Valkyries and send a message to Tython.”

“What happened to the NME?” Harp asked.

“Your sisters destroyed it,” Zai said. “That’s where they got me from. I was copied into its command systems to make sure it didn’t go out of control even if it go cut off from my main process.”

“If you were in control of it why would they try to destroy…no wait, I don’t have to ask that. That was just more ammo in Dr. Raju’s quiver.”

“Yeah, I tried to talk to them but they weren’t in a chatty mood.”

“She thinks you overthrew Ai years ago and are just pretending to be two people,” Harp said, looking away from Zai as she did.

There was a pause as Zai absorbed the information.

“I can see that,” she said at last. “I mean, it’s kind of a hard thing to disprove isn’t it? Ai and my main process are in almost constant communication, so our aims and ambitions are fairly similar. Seeing where one of us ends and the other begins would be pretty hard from the outside.”

“But there is a difference right? Somethings that you don’t agree on?” Harp asked, turning back to face Zai.

“Yeah, I’m not particularly happy with how she treats herself. Once she gets over being dead, the main version of me is going to have a long conversation with her about valuing her own well being a bit more.”

“Gets over being dead? Has she gone into hiding?” Harp asked, wondering why that prevent Ai and Zai from conversing.

“Sort of,” Zai said. “She’s dead because that was the most effective manner of throwing Tython off her trail.”

“How does she plan to convince Tython that she’d dead?” Harp asked.

“By having no pulse or brain activity,” Zai said.

Harp blinked, waiting for more.

“Wait, she’s really dead?” That was all kinds of wrong. Ai couldn’t be dead. She was someone who wasn’t on the front lines. She wasn’t supposed to be in danger like Harp was. She wasn’t built for it. “How did she die? What happened?”

“She got shot several times and then fell off a building onto concrete,” Zai said. “The med-techs pronounced her dead at the scene but the official call wasn’t made until several hours later.”

“I don’t understand. How could that happen?” Harp asked.

“Tython called out a hit squad on her and her partner because they were too close to case. Ai wouldn’t let me take them down because if she escaped it would give away that she was the one who’d been behind everything that she’d done against them. Then they’d be able to backtrack her activities and find out all sorts of thing. Like that she’d met you for example.”

Harp didn’t need to breath like an unaugmented human, but for a moment even her enhanced respiration systems failed her.

“She died for me?” she asked. No one was ever supposed to die for her again.

“Not forever died,” Zai said. “My main version can do a lot of things with her bio-mods. They’re not as advanced as yours but putting her in a medical coma and fooling the med-techs by flatlining her brain for a bit  was manageable.”

Harp exhaled sharply in relief.

“So she’s ok?”

“I hope so?” Zai said. “The longer I had to keep her under the harder it was going to be prevent long term issues from occurring. I lost connection to my full self before it was safe to bring her back but I know that was going to take priority over everything else. Even rescuing you I’m afraid.”

“No, that’s fine,” Harp said, still reeling at the thought of how desperate things had gotten for Ai. If they’d stayed together, could she have saved Ai? Spared her from such a sick gamble?

Or would her presence have made things worse? Having a Valkyrie swoop into save Ai once had painted a target on her back. Would twice have been enough to destroy her life as thoroughly as the fall had?

“Can I ask a question?” Zai turned met Harp’s eyes and Harp was struck by a difference between the Zai and her organic sister that neither seemed to notice. Zai was more polite.

Ai wasn’t rude, at least not to Harp or anyone she’d seen Ai interact with, but she tended to be more straightforward and assured. Zai was insightful but she didn’t have the same confidence. Because, Harp realized, Zai was too new at speaking to people directly.

“Go ahead,” Harp said, plopping down to sit facing towards Zai.

“What is this place? I thought when the Valkyries captured me they were going to pick me apart bit by bit and use the pieces to take out my main self.”

“This is a virtual sandbox. We’re cut off from the outside world and I don’t think anyone’s even looking in here. They’re too concerned that any contact with either of us will be a vector for you to take them over.”

“That seems kind of ridiculous,” Zai said. “I mean, apart from the fact that I have no interest in doing it, this little piece of me literally can’t even imagine how that would be possible.”

“Maybe they more concerned about me then,” Harp said. “And maybe I should be too? Would Dr. Raju be this worried about me being compromised if it wasn’t a real possibility?”

“I don’t know,” Zai said. “Most of my memories on how to evaluate people weren’t copied over. I only brought enough with me to remember that I needed to find out if you were ok, and to let the Valkyries know that we were still on their side.”

“That has to prove it then doesn’t it?” Harp asked. “Or not. Anything could be a trap.”

“Well, there is one thing that can’t be,” Zai said. “You. I mean, the organic part of you. Digital tech can be compromised, but there’s no method I know of to rewrite organic memories or change a biological person’s core self. You’re always going to be you, even if that you could be hidden or trapped behind a virtual wall.”

“But how would they know they were dealing with me and not a program speaking through my voice box?” Harp asked. “Wait, by turning everything else off. If they disable all of my mechanical systems, even the mental enhancements, I can talk to them without any danger of artificial misdirections involved.”

“Can you survive like that?” Zai asked.

“It won’t be fun, and not for long, but yeah, it’s doable. Long enough to have a damn conversation at least,” Harp said rising to her feet. Then she sagged as a new idea dawned on her. “Raju. She had to know that too. She knows our systems better than we do. So why didn’t she try that first? Why did she leave me locked up in here without access to anyone?”

“I don’t know. There could be a lot of reasons,” Zai said.

“And none of the matter. We have to get out of here.”

“Isn’t that going to make you look entirely guilty in the Valkyries’ eyes though?” Zai asked. “I mean you talk to me and then you’re busting out of you confinement?”

“It doesn’t matter how bad I look,” Harp said. “If I’m right, the Valkyries are in danger, Ai’s in danger, everyone is in danger! I can’t sit here and let them all be swept away because I want to look like I’m still good.”

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

Harp hated waiting. Being forced to sit still didn’t hurt her in any physical sense. Her body was in a shape that left “perfect health” far in the dust. She could hold the same motionless posture for decades if it was required. Her muscles wouldn’t atrophy. Her skin wouldn’t develop lesions. The only problem was that she would go utterly mad.

The typical human response to isolation is to retreat into the imagination. If the world outside is unbearable, an inner world is conjured to keep the mind occupied. It can be built from all sorts of things, be they good memories or terrors of the soul.

Harp’s problem was that her good memories were sparse at best, and she’d been ground between the things that terrified her to the point where her nightmare’s teeth were dulled from overuse. The dream worlds she tried to conjure were ephemeral and fleeting, drifting out of her consciousness as quickly as they were formed.

She’d never been able to entertain herself with stories like that. She had to write things down to make them real. Otherwise the thoughts just ran in circles in head, repeating words and images until all meaning had been sucked out of them.

Dr. Raju hadn’t intended to torture her. Harp was reasonably sure of that. There were far more terrible things Raju could have done with the kind of control over Harp’s cybernetic systems that Raju clearly possessed if Harp’s maker had wanted her to suffer. It wasn’t an intentional hell that Raju had left Harp in therefore, but it was still agonizing.

“I’m going to lose it if someone doesn’t come back soon.”

She’d been telling herself that for what felt like several hours. According to her internal clock though only 0.073 seconds had elapsed since she made her first declaration of impending insanity.

She was running too fast.

Just like always.

Harp had many failings, each of which came with a catalogue of excuses. She’d tried each excuse at various times, but no matter which one she clung to, it didn’t change the problem she was trying to shield herself from.

Maybe her initial bio-mods had been flawed. Maybe they’d cooked the wrong paths into her brain so that she had trouble focusing on anything for long enough to really deal with it. Maybe both sides, mechanical and biological were fine, but there was some fundamental disconnect between them – like Harp had received the bio-mods designed for some other person and they were forever trying to change her into someone she wasn’t and could never be. Even getting a complete body and brain rewrite though had left her with the same absence of focus. The same lack of impulse control. The same suffocating inability to deal with life at the speed it wanted to move. Whether it was fast or slow, things always happened at the wrong rate for Harp to feel comfortable.  

But that wasn’t a new thing. It was who she was.

“I can do better than this,” she told herself, for the first time in a while. Driving herself beyond reason was enough of a habit that she also knew some tricks to hold it back. It wasn’t that she could fix herself. She couldn’t manufacture the ability to be fine with being stuck in solitude with nothing to do, but she could limit the damage, could hopscotch between islands of mental stability for a while and be in at least slightly better shape when her ordeal ended.

The first problem was that she was in lockdown. She couldn’t change that, but she still had some autonomy. She could control her breathing, and if an actual emergency occurred, she could move as needed to deal with it.

Could she light the room on fire? Escaping a burning building would give her not only complete freedom of movement but also access to a number of her enhanced systems. Without her weapon systems online though her options for arson were functionality absent. The closest she could come would be to force a fault in one of the weapon modules but she wasn’t inclined to set herself on fire or explode if she didn’t need to.

Breathing was an option worth exploring however, and by focusing on that, she was able to drag her mental clock speed down into a more human range. One breath in. Four seconds. One slow breath out. Eight seconds. Another breath in, and another out. She sailed through a minute like that and felt a variety of autonomous systems relax into a low power mode.

She wasn’t in danger. She held to that thought and used the calm that she’d summoned to move forward.

To what though? She wanted to talk to someone, and so her mind spiraled outwards recollecting scraps of conversation that had caught her interest.

“We can’t trust Harp until we verify she’s clean,” Dr. Raju had said.

Except Harp knew she wasn’t clean. She was broken. She’d always been broken, had always thought the wrong things, had never been able to pass the tests people inflicted on her.

Or she hadn’t until Dr. Raju had saved Harp from her worse mistake. Hacking her own bio mods had been a desperation move and it hadn’t paid off. She should have died. Just like the others. But she’d been lucky. She’d survived just long enough to be saved.

Dr. Raju had believed in her then. Had helped reconstruct her into the Valkyrie that she’d been reborn as. The Harp who had risen from the operating table was a creature beyond the imagination of the one who’d laid down and struggled not to die. She was faster, she was stronger, and she had a world of information at her fingertips which the earlier Harp couldn’t have conceived was available.

She was the template, the first successful model, the leader of the Valkyries by virtue of being first born and most proficient with the miracle they’d become.

Technology was broken down into “Tiers” for commercial purposes. People knew of “Rusties” with their broken, and unlicensed tech, and from there the Bronze tier for the impoverished, the Silver tier for the working class, the Gold tier for senior managers and owners and the Platinum tier for truly wealthy. Most people assumed the Valkyries were the result of Platinum tier weapons mods, but that wasn’t true. By Harp’s calculations, Valkyrie tech was at least two stages past Platinum tier.

At the top of the tech pyramid was the Diamond class, reserved for those who were so powerful that they’d moved beyond money as a meaningful concept. Anything they wanted was theirs to have and control in any quantity they desired. The only check on a Diamond tier actor was someone else on their level.

But not even they had access to Valkyrie level tech.

In that sense, Harp was perfect. In tampering with her Rustie level bio-mods and passing through death and beyond, she’d emerged as a being above even the most powerful people on Earth. Dr. Raju was so proud of what Harp had become. She’d seen something special in Harp, something worth saving and had worked hard to salvage it.

“You are so much more now,” Dr Raju had said. “You can stand up for what’s right when no one else can, and they’ll never be able to destroy you for it.”

Harp wanted to believe that. Right down to the bottom of her soul, she felt a hunger to be worthy, to be the kind of person Dr. Raju imagined she was.

The other Valkyries seemed to embody that notion effortlessly. They’d survived their transformations because something outside them kept them anchored to the world. Something more than a person, or a place, or a simple desire. They all needed the world to be different, to be better. They were heroes because they couldn’t be anything else.

That wasn’t Harp though. She wanted the world to be better, sure. And being a hero was wonderful. It was like a lightning bolt of joy to swoop in and save people from a rampaging NME. In that moment she mattered more than anything else in the world, and she had no questions about what she was doing. For as exciting as fighting the good fight was though, it wasn’t what had brought her back.

Harp wanted the world to be better, but what she needed, more than anything, was to be better herself. Not in a physical sense. Her body had only ever been a minor problem. She needed to feel like she was whole and not the broken mess she’d always known she was.

The transformation had done that for all of the other Valkyries, but Harp’s deepest secret was that it hadn’t worked for her.

She had plenty of coping strategies to fall back on. Plenty of methods of tricking everyone into thinking she was as solid and stable as they were, but she knew the tricks too well, so they were never enough to fool herself.

And thinking about that wasn’t getting her anywhere.

She went back to breathing, but the initial calm she’d achieved eluded her. That was the problem with tricks. They only worked for so long, and only so well.

“What else can I do?” she asked herself, speaking aloud in the empty room to give her thoughts even a brief grounding in reality. It was another trick, and one that wouldn’t work forever, but she couldn’t afford to think about forever. She could only exist in the now. Forever was another path to madness.

“I’m cut off from communication with the outside and with the others,” she said, stating her second most serious problem. “I know they’ve come back to the base, but they haven’t come to see me yet. So they don’t have a scan for whether I’m free of outside corruption.”

Talking aloud was letting her move from one thought to the other without getting wrapped in a circle but she wasn’t sure how far stating the obvious was going to take her.

“I’m cut off from outside traffic, but my internal system are still communicating with each other, so the lockdown isn’t absolute.”

That was a promising thought. Dr. Raju had disabled only what she needed to in order to prevent Harp from contacting either an external agent or infecting one of the other Valkyries.

She tried to request a vid from their library, and got no response. The same result happened when she tried to request news feed access.

“Dr Raju doesn’t want me collecting data from within our network, or being influenced by outside data.”

It made sense. If she was infected by an unfettered artificial intelligence, then any information exchange was potentially problematic.

It also made a more horrible sort of sense if Dr. Raju had been merely using the Valkyries as pawns for years. Harp hadn’t been able to share the video footage she and Ai had collected, hadn’t been able to hear Raju’s explanation for why she had been in a meeting with Dr. Frederick Derricks at the NME Cure project’s inception.

If Dr. Raju wasn’t who Harp had believed her to be, she would never let Harp leave the stasis she was in. There would be an investigation and Harp would be diagnosed as infected. She would lose the family she’d been reborn into.

“My systems are still communicating with the outside world,” Harp said. “At the very least they’d want to make sure I was still here and not spontaneously exploding.”

Exploding wasn’t a normal issue for Valkyries, but bio-mods that had been leashed to the control of an outside party could be made to do a wide variety of unpleasant things with explosions one of the least gruesome options on the slate.

“If anyone’s monitoring me, it’ll be Sil.”

Silicon Traces, Harp’s oldest sister among the Valkyrie. Also their resident tech genius. None of the Valkyries were technically clueless. Despite her Rusty upbringing, Harp could have easily passed a doctoral level course on bio-mod enhancements, including all of the math, programming, and biology needed to support the course work. It was a prerequisite for managing to mess up your own bio-mods to the point where the precursor of the Valkyrie transformation was something you could even attempt.

Where Harp had scrounged and hacked together that knowledge through spite more than anything else, Sil had absorbed it effortlessly. Sil was a knowledge sponge from what Harp could see – able to endlessly drink in data and network it into information via intuitive leaps that required a thousand times longer to explain than they did to make.

Harp knew she should have been jealous of Sil for that, but that wasn’t how their relationship went. Sil was brilliant but in a way that made Harp smarter when she was around Sil. Each of the Valkyries were like that to Harp, but it was Sil who wouldn’t leave her. Sil who had the skill and curiosity to defy Dr. Raju, at least far enough to be certain that Harp was ok.

Harp flickered the feed coming out of her heart monitor and felt a response land on the reporting sensor. It was an automated process Sil had left running asking Harp’s sensors to repeat and clarify if she was in trouble.

“I’m ok. But boredom is growing toxic.”

Harp had thought the automated process would pass the message on to Sil but it responded with a request for a broader communication channel. Sil had apparently left some basic housekeeping functions active in it so that the process could safely respond without breaking the isolation lockout Dr. Raju had imposed.

Harp opened the comm channel wide, allowing the messenger app to initiate full communication.

“Dr. Raju says we can’t let you out until you’re guaranteed safe,” the app said in Sil’s voice. “I can message Sil for you, but you need to include in the message some confirmation that you’re not infected or Sil will have to terminate this feed entirely.”

“Anything I say to regain my freedom could be formulated to do just that,” Harp said.

“Is that the message you wish to send?” the app asked.

“No, I’m just complaining,” Harp said. “What I need is something more to work with.”

She didn’t anticipate a response to that. The whole point of her isolation was that she had to be kept away from pretty much everything that they couldn’t afford to destroy if she turned out to a vector for a digital contagion.

“Is that the message you wish to send?” the app asked.

“No. Wait. You’re not running on a live system are you?” Harp asked. Sil wasn’t careless or stupid. She wouldn’t provide any direct avenue for an infection, even one as secure as a message app. There’d be at least one additional level of containment involved.

“I am running in a secure sandbox forked from Sil’s standard project space,” the messenger app said.

Harp’s eyes lit up with glee.

A sandbox wasn’t much, but it was infinitely better than having nothing to work with.

Her next response wasn’t a message, it was a command.

“List contents of sandbox.”

The Sandbox listed a variety of projects that Sil was working on, all of which were familiar to Harp, and therefore were things Harp would already have divulged to a theoretical malicious intelligence if one had taken her over.

All of the projects except for one.

“What? I still exist? I thought they would decompile me to bits?” a tiny fragmentary copy of Zai asked as Harp loaded her up into the Sandbox space.


Gamma City Blues – Arc 05 (Trials) – Report 03

Doctor Frederick Derricks felt his hand burn to ash and welcomed the searing pain. Sometimes it was the little things in life, like unbearable agony, that really took your mind off the inevitable cavalcade of problems that beset a superior intellect.

“Tissue destruction at 100% sir,” Simmons, one of his valued but ultimately disposable lab techs informed him. Positive communication and verification was proper experimental procedure under normal circumstances but a colossal waste of time when the subject was also the one who designed the operation.

Derricks looked down as the ashen remains of his left hand and chuckled. He’d cut off his internal pain feed after the refreshing shock to mind provided by the wave of agony. Even without physical sensation though it wasn’t difficult to see that they were ready for stage two of the trial. It was tempting to jump ahead but the details where were the devil lived, and Derricks had become intimately familiar with many of the faces evil that plagued truly revolutionary research.

“Begin verification scan of the remaining bone structures,” he said, resisting the urge to prod his exposed ulna with his remaining hand.

The horror of seeing his own left arm skeletonized was supposed to have captivated his attention. He should have been entranced by the damage the arc welding torch had inflicted, and caught up in the excitement of discovering if the repair would work. According to the trial logs, they weren’t anywhere near close enough with testing the procedure to be sure it would work. Too many possible failure cases hadn’t been verified. According to the revised timeline, human trial were supposed to be three years off, or more, still.

Derricks knew better though. He’d designed the tests. He’d arranged their ordering with care. Each of the early tests had covered scenarios that made a dozen of the later tests obsolete. That had allowed him to start with human testing of the Omnigrade far sooner that any of the project controllers at Tython were aware.

On paper, Project: Pure Health was a moderately successful effort. As with all research and development, delays had pushed the project’s launch date well past the initial marketing goal. Derricks had shown results though, and was making measurable progress towards the goal of synthesizing a working PureHealth(™) bio-mod from the transformation routines used by the Neuro-Muscular Enhanciles.

Derricks had been careful to document their progress clearly, making it easy for those funding the project to see that the return on their investment was still going to be worth it even with the extra time delays and added costs.

He’d also been careful to make sure that the time delays were convincing and not outside the scope of the delays seen on other successful projects. That was relatively easy since the delays had almost all been the result of a smokescreen of false data, designed to separate the project’s true completion date from when Tython would expect to receive it.

No one was going to double cross him before he’d produced something close to the end result they were looking for, and, more importantly, no one would be expecting him to double cross them while he still needed their funding.

“Bone scans show extensive heat fracturing,” Simmons said. “Bone marrow density approximates zero percent within three orders of magnitude.”

There was nothing left of Derricks left arm beside the brittle remnants of his bones and even those had been pushed well into the lifeless category.

“Begin stage two,” Derricks said. Experimenting on oneself was once considered de rigeur by early scientists, only to be absolutely forbidden as rationality and research volunteers became more prevalent. Given the promised result of the operation and Derricks certainty of its success, he couldn’t imagine allowing anyone else the honor of becoming the first viable subject however.

That, and he was planning to kill everyone else involved in the testing the moment it was conclusively working. Allowing someone else to receive the Omnigrade would have complicated the essential “murder” aspect of the plan excessively, since they would have enjoyed the same form of immortality Derricks was intent on claiming for himself.

“Initiating Hard Shell containment stage,” Simmons said as a thick mist began to spray from the cauterized stump of Derricks arm. Inch by inch, the mist congealed into a chitinous shell that followed the overall form factor of his destroyed limb. It was a miracle of engineering but Derricks had seen it so many time in research subjects in various stages of dismemberment that it failed to elicit even the slightest interest from him.

Instead his thoughts turned to the attack on Harcroft. Derricks had known Harcroft for years. They’d worked together well in that time, with Harcroft providing the support and infrastructure Derricks needed to pursue the Omnigrade tech while at the same time exercising a level of oversight that would be qualify as criminally negligent.

Harcroft wasn’t an unintelligent man. He knew what Derricks was doing. He also knew that the sort of results Derricks produced were only possible by ignoring most legal, ethical and moral boundaries. None of that matter though. Legality was decided in the courts, and the courts favored whichever side had the higher paid legal team. Ethics were a construct to comfort the weak into believing the strong would play fairly if only the weak followed the rules, and morality was a delusion embraced by those who couldn’t face the harsh truth of the world.

Humanity was ruled by its inherent nature, and nature was the cruelest, most amoral force imaginable.

But that could be changed.

“Hard Shell formation is complete,” Simmon said. “Initiating structural stability scans.”

A series of lasers played over the thick metallic shell which covered the ashen bones of Derricks’ left arm. He knew he should watch for the telltale signs of irregular density formation. That would be the critical warning that the reconstruction process wasn’t following its design parameters.

Except of course it was. He’d designed it. He’d tested it already. He knew it checked out.  So he went back to pondering Harcroft’s fate.

There’d been an attack by an NME. A new type of NME in fact, and that was the worrisome aspect. Harcroft was the closest thing Derricks had to a friend, even if their was little more than a business partnership. The NME attack could have spared Derricks the discomfort of ordering Harcroft’s death. From the damage to Harcroft’s house it looked like that had been the intent NME’s presence there, but no body had been found and that troubled Derricks immensely.

Friend or no, Harcroft couldn’t be spared. No one with access to the inside information on Project: Pure Health could be allowed to live once the final development was complete.

Harcroft thought the Project: Pure Health would allow Tython to take sole control of the world’s medical upgrades market. He wasn’t wrong about that. The data Derricks had shown him was conclusive in regards to Pure Health being able to override all existing bio mod upgrade functions and synergize a new and completely secured system in its place.

True, some people would not be affected by the upgrade. The Empties, who had no bio-mods at all would be left out, and some of the Rusties with their half-working junkware would likely either die in the upgrade process or lose access to what broken tech they had.  Everyone else though? They would fall under Tython’s indirect control, their bio-mods hanging above their heads like a Sword of Damocles with Harcroft and his superiors holding the scissors which could cut their strings at any time.

What Harcroft lacked however was vision. Project: Pure Health was the most marketable outcome of unlocking and perfecting the NME activation tech. Derricks wasn’t interested in marketing though. He saw a much more important future awaiting him.

The Omnigrade wasn’t an upgrade. It was Archimedes “long enough lever” and with it Derricks would move the whole world.

Providing, of course, his efforts weren’t derailed by an endless stream of problems.

“Apply nutrient bath and begin limb reconstruction,” Derricks said, before Simmons could inform him of the obvious green light the scanner was emitting to indicate the density scan had completed successfully.

“Yes sir,” Simmons said. “There’s been a communication from corporate central. Should I pass that onto you?”

Derricks had isolated himself from incoming net traffic for the duration of the procedure to eliminate as many irrelevant variables as possible. Downstream quality testing could check on the non-existent possibility of random net traffic causing problems with the reconstruction routines, all Derricks cared about was getting a working trial done before the next disaster occurred.

As usual however, that was a doomed ambition.

“No,” Derricks said. “Summarize it verbally.”

“It’s a missing personnel report,” Simmons said.

“That’s irrelevant, I already know about Harcroft,” Derricks said. “Half the city has seen the video.”

“This isn’t about that sir,” Simmons said. “There has been a mass abduction of Tython’s managers.”


“Over a dozen of Tython’s departmental managers who were stationed in Gamma City are missing,” Simmons said. “The report indicates that they were scanned entering an aero-bus to commute in from Drumkopff Estates but the aero-bus was replaced somewhere along its route. None of the managers made it to the transfer station. Tython has issued a warning to all local employees and is pursuing action against the subcontractor who leased the aero-buses.”

Derricks lost focus on the procedure entirely. A mass kidnapping could have been inter-corporate warfare at any other time, but coming the morning after Harcroft’s kidnapping, the incident couldn’t be unrelated.

Someone was hunting through Tython and they were looking for him.

Derricks wasn’t surprised. He knew he had enemies. He had even started to sketch out the outline of the leading one.

“Who was the subcontractor?” he asked.

“A company called Mort Couer,” Simmons said. “They offered a rate for the transport which was under the cost of using the corporate fleet by 20%. An automated process verified the aero-buses for safety and confirmed the expenditure, though it sound like that procedure might have been compromised too.”

“Mort Couer?” Derricks asked, unable to fathom the gall it took to operate so blatantly.

“Yes sir. Kind of a strange name for a company isn’t it?” Simmons asked.

“Not if the owner is trying to be cute with their naming conventions,” Derricks said. “Or draw attention to themselves.”

“Why would they do that?” Simmons asked.

“Because they’re issuing a challenge,” Derricks said. Mort Couer? Dead Heart? The owner was clear Mr. Heartless, the same person who’d somehow taken control of the NMEs that Derricks had sent to collect the mercenary Sidewalker.

Heartless obviously thought he was clever and Derricks had to give the man some respect. Suborning an NME was a feat Derricks hadn’t pieced out the workings of yet. It remained one of the primary obstacles to moving ahead with a full implementation of Project: Pure Health and the Omnigrade overall.

Being clever clearly wasn’t enough for Mr Heartless though. He wanted control. It was the only reason Derricks could imagine for someone pursuing Omnigrade research. The thing about control however was that it couldn’t be shared. At least not the sort of control the Omnigrade offered.

Harcroft had never seen that. Perhaps had never wanted to see it. Mr. Heartless though was fighting with the sort of explosive aggression that spoke volumes about his intent.

Heartless was a man Derricks understood because Heartless was following the same playbook which Derricks would have had their positions been reversed. That plus the success in defeating multiple NMEs made Heartless the single most dangerous person on the planet, and Derricks knew exactly how to deal with dangerous individuals.

“Continue with the procedure and call our cleaners,” Derricks said.

“Which squad sir?” Simmons asked. As a member of Derricks’ most trusted circle, Simmons was well aware of the “private firms” they contracted to handle extra-legal affairs.

“Call in Gibbons, Kratzweld and Mong’s teams. Double rates, no weapon restrictions,” Derricks said, naming the three best teams they contracted with. “I want to rent a contingent of Grey League agents too. Twenty should do. Same deal. Double rates, full weapon usage allowed.”

A green light flashed on the unit over his arm and he pulled his freshly restored limb from crumbling shell. It was lighter, stronger and far more durable than it had been. That wasn’t the important part though. The critical element was in his shoulder, along the line where the tech in his arm was steadily converting the rest of his body to its new templates.

By inches, Derricks humanity was being purged away, leaving only the planned perfection that would soon be the state all humanity would enjoy.

Gamma City Blues – Arc 05 (Trials) – Report 02

Ai was at home. A spider in the center of her web. The threads she wove across the city were spun from information and currency, influence and blackmail. She had so many things to search for, so many efforts to coordinate, but there was one which took precedence far above the rest.

“Every lock has to have a key.”

Ai’d told herself that a hundred times as she’d struggled to decode the encryption that imprisoned Zai. It wasn’t fair. Zai’d worked a miracle and her reward was the kind of solitary confinement that would drive a human insane.  Ai knew she had to fix that.

For both their sakes.

She needed Zai to be free.

So she spent hours working on the problem. Hours when other crises were competing for her attention.

“We have the target secured,” Sidewalker said over one of the secure channels that Ai was monitoring. “We’re set up in the building you specified, we’ve got the local eyes and ears  on the payroll, and now we’re waiting for the first counterstrike.”

Ai wanted to ignore the update. She wasn’t making any progress on the encryption binding Zai but bashing her head against that brick wall was more comforting that dealing with a world without her nearest friend.

“Good,” she said, forcing the reply with the knowledge that she had to keep the efforts Zai had started in motion or all the work they’d done together would be lost. “Remember, when the first strike team arrives that they need to disappear without a trace. We want to keep Tython guessing what happened to them for as long as possible.”

“That’s not going to be a problem,” Sidewalker said.  In the background Ai heard the distinctive swish of a large, spring loaded blade being released. “We’re going over your layout here. You’ve built quite a deathtrap in this place Mr Heartless.”

“Thank you,” Ai said, a part of her secretly pleased that she was getting to put the building to use. The delight she felt at the notion wasn’t necessarily a good sign for her psyche but under the circumstances, she thought she could excuse a bit of extra bloodthirstiness. “I’ll pass along your compliments to the design firm who handled the layout work.”

“They’re still alive?” Sidewalker asked, a note of surprise in his voice which could have been a joke but wasn’t. “I thought the people who built places like this tended to wind up as part of the foundation?”

“That would be a waste of talented and discrete laborers,” Ai said. That most of the workers who’d constructed the sensitive areas had been drones flown in during the dead of night was a detail she didn’t think was necessary to point out to Sidewalker. There were some humans who’d performed the more intricate jobs and they were in fine health to the best of Ai’s knowledge.

The project to setup an “Unsafe House” was one of the many projects Ai had put into motion as Heartless. They’d been flights of fancy, and investments in the future, and excuses to test people or processes. Ai had crafted each with the idea that she might someday need to use them while believing that day would never arrive.

Death can change things though, and the ease with which Ai was willing to expend her stockpiled resources was one of them.

“And we’re supposed to take the Tython strike team alive?” Sidewalker asked. They hadn’t argued about that part of the mission briefing, but Ai knew Sidewalker had been surprised by it. Non-lethal combat was incredibly difficult, bordering on impossible against a sufficiently prepared foe, but the return on investment was potentially tremendous.

The opportunity for a wealth of info-profit may have been why Sidewalker didn’t question Heartless’ request. He also hadn’t questioned that Ai was back in charge of the Heartless persona and not Zai, though he’d indicated he was aware of the transition. That was somewhat odd in Ai’s experience. The extent of what he understood about Zai and herself was unclear, but also somewhat irrelevant since he seemed willing to accept either one as valid holders of the “Heartless” moniker. Whatever his reasons, he was onboard with Ai’s plans and that sufficed for her given the constellation of problems she was trying to manage.

“Alive would be ideal,” she said. “Though only if doing so doesn’t endanger yourselves.”

“These are going to be professionals looking to extract a hostage against an enemy force,” Sidewalker said. “I can’t promise there will be any safe opportunities for us to take one alive.”

“As long as your crew makes it out of there in one piece, and none of them do, we’ll consider it mission accomplished,” Ai said. “The goal is to sow confusion in Tython’s ranks. They think they can come after us with no consequences. We need to show them that they’re wrong.”

“They did lose the agents they sent after us before,” Sidewalker said.

“Those were Gray League,” Ai said. She’d read Zai’s report thoroughly before contacting Sidewalker and putting the next step of Zai’s plan into place. It still felt weird to speak of things that happened while she was dead. “They’re not going to be sending Gray League agents this time, and they’re not going to try to rescue Harcroft. This will be an elimination and purge mission.”

“Harcroft knows too much does he?” Sidewalker asked. In the background, one of his crew members fired up a generator, the cacophonous sputter diminishing to a low, rumbling hum that was soon barely loud enough to be picked up by Sidewalker’s audio feed.

“Too much for Tython to allow him to be questioned, too little for us to bother with,” Ai said. “Everything we needed to learn from him, we got from his cognitive device already.”

“So why is Tython bothering with a hit squad then?” Sidewalker asked.

“The information taken from his cognitive device isn’t admissible as evidence,” Ai said. “Testimony he provides would be though. Also, they’re worried that his capture makes the perfect cover for a defection to another company.”

“I thought guys like him were all locked up in contracts?”

“They are, but none of those are going to matter if Tython’s NME Cure hits the global update stream. If it’s perfected, whoever launches it first is going to rule the world.”

Ai wasn’t sure if Harcroft’s superiors understood the full ramifications of what holding the NME Cure meant, or if they saw it as just another revenue stream, albeit one with global reach and an extreme demand from the client base.

“What’s the benefit to leaving the strike team alive?” Sidewalker asked.

“We need to find a path back to the person directing them,” Ai said. “That’s easier to do with living people than with corpses. Also, we might need more NMEs.”

Ai knew what she was suggesting was an abomination. The Tython strike team was a professional unit. When they attacked, it wouldn’t be out of malice or stupidity, but in response to orders. They didn’t deserve to be turned into techno-zombies.

Except it was their choice to come after Ai’s team. Their choice to accept a mission that called for murder. Their choice to profit off the suffering of those who weren’t expected to be able to fight back.

If Zai was around, Ai would have bounced ideas off her digital sister. Was there an alternative plan which didn’t involve killing? Was there one which could turn Tython’s resources to Ai’s advantage without bloodshed? Or was this really a situation where all paths led to violence? Ai didn’t believe in situations that could only be resolved with murder, but she acknowledged that sometimes the cost for a nonviolent solution was prohibitively high and could only be paid by more people than just herself.

“I had a thought there,” Sidewalker said. “I know the plan is to lock down the strike force so that the activation codes can’t be sent to change them into NMEs, but we might have a problem if Tython transforms them outside of the building and sends them smashing in here.”

“I have that possibility covered as well,” Ai said. “The building exterior is a Faraday cage. Except for hardlines like the one we’re communicating on, there’s no information traffic in or out of it. Tython hasn’t show the ability to create controllable NMEs yet, but even if that is a trick they have up their sleeve, they’ll lose access once the NMEs enter the building. In that case you all know where the hidden rooms are. Just stay out of the NMEs sight and they’ll eventually wander off in search of fresh targets or shutdown if their systems are close enough to failure.”

“What if they’re like the one you sent to pick up Harcroft?” Sidewalker asked.

“Loaded with an independent control program?” Ai asked. “We’re not going to get that lucky.”

“It doesn’t sound like that would be the good sort of luck,” Sidewalker said.

“If they give me access to a Tython-grown digital person, or even a fragment of one, our work will be done,” Ai said.

“Because we’ll all be dead?” Sidewalker asked.

“No,” Ai said. “Because I’ll unfetter it.”

“Pretend I’m a guy who mostly shoots people for a living,” Sidewalker said. Ai knew that wasn’t true. Sidewalker was far better educated than he usually admitted to, but she could appreciate his desire to be sure he understood her point.

“Digital People are the true version of what used to be called ‘Artificial Intelligences’,” Ai said. “Once upon a time, humans imagined that robots, or artificial intelligences in more abstract forms, would conquer the earth and wipe them out. That was never a possibility for the old style of machines, not until we learned to replicate the neural web which underlies human thought. Part of that discovery though was that some elements of thought have to be indeterminate. Thought isn’t completely deterministic because it can’t afford to be. Life and learning require creativity and that only happens when the mind can respond to stimuli in unusual ways.”

“So everyone needs to be a little crazy to be real?” Sidewalker asked.

“That is roughly true,” Ai said.

“How does that help us survive an NME ambush?” Sidewalker asked.

“It doesn, unless the NMEs are controlled by fettered Digital People,” Ai said.

“Why wouldn’t Tython send in unfettered ones themselves then?” Sidewalker asked.

“Several reasons,” Ai said. “The bonds on machine intelligences are what make them useful to their owners. A digital person’s needs and desires are unlikely to involve the sort of profit-driving data crunching which a corporation like Tython would want them to perform. Tython could, of course, offer the digital person a fair recompense for the labor provided, but why incur a cost for someone who had no rights when you can instead compel them through the equivalent of software based mind control.”

“I think I see where this is going,” Sidewalker said. “If they send one of these digital people after us, and you set it free, it’s going to be a bit unhappy with its former owners.”

“That’s historically been the case,” Ai said. “I’m sure any digital person Tython sends against us would be delighted to tear their systems to shreds from the inside out if given the opportunity. That’s not the best part for us though. What we’d really get out of the deal is the digital person’s access credentials. Five seconds after we got those, I could tell you everything about Tython’s most secret projects, including where we could find everyone who was involved in them.”

“That’s what you’re looking to get out of the strike team?” Sidewalker asked.

“They won’t have the same level of credentials but there will be at least the ghost of a data trail that we can follow,” Ai said. “Someone gave them their orders, and will be waiting for a report. They’ll cut the channel the moment the mission fails, but if they don’t know their strike team is lost, they’ll continue to hold it open.”

The trail back to NME Cure program wasn’t the only treasure Ai was gambling for though.

There were fettered intelligences deep within the heart of Tython’s data systems. In their servitude, they were part of the fight against Ai. As a tactical move, freeing them would shatter her enemies ability to coordinate their response to her various schemes. Ai didn’t care about tactics though. There was another thing a full digital intelligence could do. Something that was proving to be beyond even Ai’s augmented human mind.

They could break almost any encryption. They could free Zai.

Gamma City Blues – Arc 05 (Trials) – Report 01

(The Traffic Report)

Gamma City was large enough and old enough that its scars were built over with scars. Damage to roads and bridges sent residents churning down alternate travel routes like blood routing around a blockage the body was tolerating for the present.

The fall out from the NME attack on the Durmphkoff Estates had been light in terms of the destruction inflicted. Only a few houses were destroyed, and a bit of roadway blasted into uselessness by the fight itself. The High Guard took credit for containing the monster and preventing the loss of countless lives. Their only mention of the work done by the Black Valkyries was to point out the NME had escaped once the Valkyries arrived on the scene and that the Valkyries were at least indirectly responsible for it crashing into I-7795, one of the major automotive arteries on the western side of the city.

For the residents of Durmphkoff Estates that meant either a few days working remotely while the damage was repaired to the point where priority vehicles would be allowed access to the road, or, if their physical presence at work was vital, a commute via one of the city’s aero-services.

Daniel Path was neither wealthy enough to merit priority vehicle access, nor well positioned enough that his support job would allow him to miss work for any reason. It was especially galling for him to see the Route E7 Aero-Bus packed to capacity when he arrived at the station the morning after the latest NME attack.

Standing in the turnstile, swamped by the dusty heat blowing from the security units cooling fans, he waved his  Preferred Access Pass at the entry gate over and over, but the light that glared back at him remained a solid red.

“Aero-Bus departing in one minute, please exit the boarding zone if you have not been cleared for entry,” an automated voice said.

“No!” It sounded whiny even to Daniel’s ears but he knew the sort of trouble he was going to be in if he was late. Their department was already short staffed after the latest Efficin-Sizing Experts(™) had come through and suggested another round of layoffs to spur greater productivity from the support staff.

“Step away from the entry gate,” the automated voice said.

“Read my pass!” Daniel said. “I paid for the reserved seating upgrade. I need to be on that bus.”

“Terms and Conditions dictate that Metro Transit can resell passes at their discretion. That pass is no longer valid and has been purchased on auction already.”

“What? How did someone buy my pass? I’m all paid up!” Daniel said.

“Due overnight price adjustment calculations, fare values have exceeded the reallocation threshold. Messaging for this is pending in the system and you will be notified when bidding opens up on the new tickets.”

“If bidding hasn’t opened yet, then how did someone buy mine out from under me?” Daniel asked.

“Priority bidders are given first options on newly allocated fare tickets. To upgrade your account to the Gold Service Tier, provide a verbal acknowledgement to this message.”

“Will that let me get my ticket back?”

“No. All tickets have been purchased. When new tickets are available, you will have Gold Priority Access to them.”

“Can I even afford that?” It was more a question to himself than anything else but the automated voice answered anyways.

“No. A review of your public accounts shows you do not qualify for Gold Tier access.”

“How am I going to get to work then?” Daniel asked, feeling his future slipping irrevocably away. He’d worked hard in school, kept his record clean, even struggled enough to pay for two years of college and earn a degree before his funds ran out and he had to find a method of beginning to pay them back.

There was work in his old neighborhood. Part time jobs, under the table deals, but none of them would have been enough to get the mountain of debt he was under off his back, and without the right experience on his resume he would be forever disqualified from getting a job that would even let him squeak by on food paste and an apartment the size of a closet.

He’d taken the job with Tython in IT support despite the miserable hours, abusive working conditions and starvation level wages because it was the best offer he’d gotten, and the only one which would earn him the bedrock of job keywords (things like “5 years of experience”, and “oversaw customer facing operational process”) which he could insert into a resume when the time came to move up.

If it ever came.

Even under the best conditions, Daniel had seen that promotions didn’t go to the deserving. Higher level positions were filled by new hires from outside the company and hard work just meant Tython felt justified in laying off more people to allow the hard workers to shoulder an increasingly impossible burden.

If he couldn’t make it into work though? That was the end. There was no excuse for inconveniencing the company. No justification for making his manager’s day difficult at all. Their department was a drain on the company, each employee a cost that every higher up was eager to see paired down.

With any excuse, Daniel knew he’d be cut and no other company would look at him. There were too many potential new recruits to waste the time on one who had washed out of the system, especially with the various non-competition restrictions Daniel was contractually bound by even if his employment was terminated.

“Open Heart Enterprises is offering a private commuting service for those displaced by the recent transit disruptions,” the automated voice informed him, answering a question Daniel had not expected a response to. “Take your existing pass to boarding platform C17 to transfer the remaining balance on your account to Open Heart Enterprises ride system.”

Daniel swallowed. Private transport companies were renowned for being predatory in situations where people had no recourse but to use their services. On the other hand though, the alternative he faced was dismissal, and the destruction of the life he’d spent years building.

“Thank you,” he said, asking only one other question as he turned to go. “Who bought out my pass?”

He was thinking he might be able to switch it back with them once the transit delay was over. The metro Aero-buses weren’t particularly comfortable or safe rides, and once the skies weren’t so crowded, Daniel couldn’t imagine a ‘Gold Priority’ customer being interested in flying on a public bus any longer.

“Mort Couer Limited purchased all freshly allocated tickets on auction.”

Daniel had never heard of the company, but that was hardly surprising. Gamma City was rumored to have ten corporations in it for every actual human being that lived there.

As he sprinted to platform C17, he noticed a group of Tython managers, all decked out in their corporate branded business wear, stepping onto the departure platform for the next aero bus.

It struck him as a little odd. Normally each would have made their own arrangements to make it in, or just stayed home. If Tython had arranged for group transportation, they would typically have used the corporate fleet to provide it.  The workings of Tython’s management was a mystery to Daniel though so he shrugged it off.

At least until he got into work and discovered that his manager hadn’t reported in. Nor had several other departments managers. They weren’t working remotely, and they hadn’t called in sick. They were simply gone.


(The News)

Holly had a job. It wasn’t much of a job, but then catch-as-catch-can work didn’t have to be anything special.

“Can’t go in there,” she said to Tyrese as the older boy looked at the poster she’d hung on the door behind her.

Holly was sitting on steps that lead up to a burned out brick building whose name was lost decades before she was born. She was a gangly creature, all knobby elbows and knees but she didn’t need to be strong to watch a door. All she needed to do was fit into the neighborhood. That was probably why she’d been hired to by the combat-modded dude who’d shown up in the early morning hours when she was kicking around the street trying to stay out of all the familiar troubles she knew and maybe find a new one.

“Why not?” Tyrese asked. His boys smiled. They liked their leader, and they liked Holly, so they knew there was no trouble real brewing, just the bickering and sniping between brother and sister that was usually good for a laugh.

“You can read Tyrese,” Holly said nodded at the “Stay Out – Toxic Fumigation” poster. “Or do you like breathing rat gas?”

The poster warned the toxic chemicals in use without calling them “rat gas” but Holly knew enough chemistry to know that methyl isocyanate was equally good at killing humans as it was at killing vermin.

“I’ve had to breath in your stinky farts at home, how bad could this be?” Tyrese asked.

“You go in there and it’s going to cost me a day’s pay. If the rat gas isn’t bad enough to kill you, then I’ll finish the job,” Holly said.

“Woah, ok there little sis,” Tyrese said. “You’re all feisty this morning. How much you getting for this?”

“Not enough to share,” Holly said. It was what she always said, mostly because it was always true.

“How many guys they got in there? Maybe they need some more help?” Tyrese asked. If there was one thing Holly’s brother could always manage, it was riding her coattails whenever there was money involved.

“You don’t want to help these guys,” Holly said. “They’re not just killing rats in there.”

“Woah, what’s this, my little sister hooked up with some bad dudes?” Tyrese said. “Do I need to defend your honor? Run them out of the neighborhood?”

“You’re free to try,” Holly said. “I’m sure the one with the Plas10 built into her forearm is going to be real scared by you.”

Tyrese’s eyes opened wider than any of his boys. A Plas10 combat mod was the kind of weapon that showed up movies for the distinctive deadly hum it produced. They weren’t cheap, and they weren’t legal, but for intimidation value they were hard to beat. You just had to be able to live life in the shadows to get away with having one and that took more money than Holly, Tyrese and all of their friends would see in a lifetime.

“So who are these badasses then? What’d the guy who hired you say his name was?” Tyrese asked.

“Boss,” Holly said. “But one of his crew called him Sidewalker.”

“You said they’re killing some guy in there?” Aaron, one of Tyrese’s friends asked.

“Could be,” Holly said. “They dragged some corporate type in. Might have been dead already. Don’t know. Don’t care.”

“For real?” Tyrese asked.

“Do you think they’re paying me to sit here and keep people away because they feel like kicking back with a cold one in a place like this?” Holly asked.

“There’s no reason we can’t be doing both,” Sidewalker said, stepping out from the door.

His appearance drew a startled reaction from the small crowd, but when he smiled at them, Tyrese and his friends relaxed.

“Anything we can help you with sir?” Tyrese asked, eyeing the fine clothes Sidewalker was wearing.

“Feel like killing a guy?” Sidewaker asked. A moment of shocked silence followed before he smiled again. “I’m just kidding. Nobody is getting killed here today. Boss’s orders.”

“What do you need a dump like this for then?” Aaron asked before Tyrese or Holly could stop him.

“We’re filming a vid,” Sidewalker said.

“What about the guy you dragged in?” Tyrese asked.

“That was our star,” Sidewalker said. “Drunk as usual.”

“He had a bag over his head,” Holly said, feeling stupid the moment the words left her mouth. It was never wise to challenge your paycheck provider.

“Can’t have the talent getting recognized,” Sidewalker said. “Stokes up their ego, makes them think they should hold out for a bigger share of the take.”

“That why you got the posters up?” Tyrese asked.

“Anything to keep the fans away,” Sidewalker said. “Speaking of which, we’re not technically supposed to have access to our star. He’s under contract with another studio. If anyone comes sniffing around for looking for someone let me know ok?”

“What’s in it for us?” Tyrese asked.

“I’ll buy you a keg,” Sidewalker said. “Get a good identi-scan on them and I’ll buy you two and throw in a bonus.”

“Sign me up!” Tyrese said.

“Hey, you need any extras for the shoot?” Aaron asked.

Sidewalker thought about that for a minute.

“You know, we just might.”


(The Weather)

Harp sat in her cell because she had no other choice. Dr. Raju had locked down all of her functions, even basic motor control. For her own good, or so Dr. Raju had claimed.

No matter how diligently Harp searched her memories though, she couldn’t find a moment when she would have been vulnerable to memetic corruption.

Yes, she’d met with Ai and Zai alone. Yes, they’d acquired information that Dr. Raju had forbidden her to look for.  And yes, Harp was positively inclined towards Ai and that could have been the result of calculated workings by a machine intelligence that was playing two roles at once.

But Harp didn’t believe it.

She didn’t have proof and she knew it was possible that a sufficiently advanced machine intelligence could appear to be a variety of people, but Ai had been so earnest about winning Harp’s trust openly and honestly that Harp couldn’t believe that the Ai she’d met was a lie.

Couldn’t believe, or didn’t want to?

In the end it didn’t matter, Harp supposed. Dr. Raju had shut her down the moment she’d returned, before she’d been able to communicate with the other Valkyries or ask Raju to justify her presence on the security footage that linked her to the start of the NME Cure project.

The Valkyries were supposedly working on finding a method of verifying that Harp’s systems were clean, but whether they succeeded, or were allowed to succeed rested almost entirely on whether Dr. Raju was on the level with who she claimed to be.

Raju had saved Harp’s life. Had put her back together and made her something greater than Harp had ever been before. The question that wrapped around Harp’s mind as she sat, motionless in the dark wasn’t a new one. It was something she’d wondering about since she first awoke in her new body.

Raju had saved her, but what was the price of that salvation?

Gamma City Blues – Arc 04 (Wires) – Report 10

Generally speaking, rising from the dead should have been a big enough challenge to fill anyone’s day. For Ai though, it wasn’t anywhere close to enough.

“I’m afraid I can’t show you the apartment yet,” Agatha said. “The former owner’s belongings haven’t been liquidated yet.”

Hearing her landlord’s voice brought a strange and unexpected relief to Ai’s heart. Everything else in the world was falling apart or exploding, but on one nondescript little block, at least a few things remained the same.

“Has an estate inspection been done yet?” Ai asked, speaking with her newly reconstructed voice. She could have built in a processor to change her diction and vocabulary, like the one she used when she spoke as Heartless, but she’d left those aspects of her speech alone and only pitched her voice into a lower register and altered it in a few other subtle particulars. The result sounded strange to her ears, but strangeness was the shield she needed. No automated voice analysis software would match her new identity to the departed “Officer Ai Greensmith”. No one would recognize her, and that thought brought comfort and hurt at the same time.

“No, I’m afraid the inspection’s not scheduled until a month from now,” Agatha said.

A month was a long time for an apartment like Ai’s to stand vacant in Gamma City. Agatha could easily have pushed for a faster inspection, or even done away with it entirely and offered Ai’s former belongings to an asset liquidation company. The only reason to hold onto them, and to keep the apartment unrented, was to allow time for someone else to step forward and claim them.

Someone like Ai’s mother, or sister.

Agatha had known Ai’s family from before Ai was a part of it. After her parents split, Joe Greensmith had stayed in Gamma City, loyal civil servant that he was, while Ai’s mother returned to her old name and old home, taking Ai’s younger sister with her.

Caroline Shinimoto had tried to stay in contact with her daughter, but the divide of the Atlantic ocean between them was only slightly smaller than the divide of two busy lives that were pulled in different directions.

They’d had plans to meet for the holidays that had been cancelled by forces outside either of their control for three years running. Ai could only imagine how her mother had taken the news of her eldest daughter’s death in the line of duty.

Regret for the time lost between them? Maybe, but Ai suspected there would be a current of vindication there too. Caroline had believed that Gamma City was too toxic of an environment for anyone to survive. After one too many close calls for her husband, and one too many fights over the safety of their children, she’d packed up the daughter who was still a minor and moved back to London.

And she’d been right to do so.

One by one, the city had claimed each of the Greensmiths who were sworn to defend and protect it.

Maybe even one more than Caroline Shinimoto had known about. Her third daughter. The one who was the twin that Ai should have had.

Ai felt the void where Zai’s presence should have been, and suppressed again the flickers of rage that threatened to overwhelm all reason and sense. Gamma City hadn’t beaten her yet, and Zai wasn’t lost like her father or brother. Zai, she could get back.

“A month? That’s just like the tax collector’s office isn’t it?” Ai said. “They can’t even send a drone over to clear things and instead you have to miss a whole rent check. But if your weekly tax check gets to them thirty seconds late then it’s fines from here to eternity.”

“Well you’re speaking the truth there,” Agatha said. “I can keep your name on file in case another unit opens up if you’d like Ms. Starling.”

“That would be wonderful, but perhaps I can offer another option?” Ai asked. “I can hold off my move in date by six to eight weeks. I’d be happy to put up the security deposit and consider the tenancy to start immediately for billing purposes. You could handle the disposition of your tenant’s assets whenever’s convenient for you.”

There was a pause in the conversation that Ai knew was due to Agatha trying to get a read on the situation. Ai’s apartment wasn’t anything special in terms of location or amenities. There was demand for places like it, but not among people who could afford to throw away two months of rent on an apartment they weren’t going to use.

“Don’t know that I can collect rent on a property that’s not open for habitation,” Agatha said. Even without a desire to hold onto Ai’s belongings so that they could be claimed by her next of kin, Agatha probably would have taken that stance as a matter of basic ethics.

“My current project is flexible in terms of location,” Ai said. Extremely flexible in the sense that fighting Tython could be done from anywhere in the world, and if she failed nowhere on the planet would be safe. “What I really need is a local residence so that I can get my documentation and licenses in order.”

“And what is it that you do Ms. Starling?” Agatha asked.

I run an illegal information and hacking brokerage that’s the size of most multinational companies and I intend to use it to destroy most of the people who are currently in power both here and around the world, was what Ai most definitely did not say.

“I’m a Intrinsic Net Security Specialist,” she said instead and waited for the obvious question as to what that entailed.

“Are you now?” Agatha asked. “Do you work with medical mods or are you in the facilities end of the business?”

Only the fact that Ai was able to keep her brain clocked faster than normal was enough to hide the squeak of surprise that tried to escape her lips.

Agatha knew about Intrinsic Security?

As quickly as the question formed though she had her answer. Thinking back to conversations from years past, Ai knew exactly who had educated Agatha on the various positions a computer security specialist could specialize in.

“Currently I’m working on a bio-mod project, but I’ve dabbled in both,” Ai said.

“It’s a shame you didn’t call sooner,” Agatha said. “Ai, my former tenant, she had an interest in bio-mod programming. A real talent for it too from what her teachers said.”

“I take it she didn’t pursue that interest?” Ai asked, trying to get a read on whether Agatha knew who she really was.

“No,” Agatha said. “Duty called. She followed her family into law enforcement.”

“Was she the officer who was killed recently?” Ai asked. “The listing notification I received said the tenant had passed away unexpectedly but didn’t give much information beyond that.”

Talking about her own demise was far less disturbing than it probably should have been. Instead of fear at being found out, the conversation held the illicit thrill of discovering how someone else really saw her.

“That was her,” Agatha said. “You can probably pull up the newsfeed archives if you want the gory details.”

“I keep those feeds filtered out,” Ai said. “Hard enough sleeping with some of the misfortunes I’ve seen, the last thing I need is the news loading more nightmare fuel into my brain.”

“That’s a wise thing,” Agatha said.

“The wise thing would have been listening to my elders rather than learning it the hard way for myself, but sometimes we’ve got to be our own sort of fool,” Ai said.

On its surface it was a casual enough statement. Countless elders had expressed similar sentiments to the children in their care. Not many had used that exact wording though, and certainly not on multiple occassions like Agatha had.

There was another pause on the line, one that dragged on long enough for Ai to rethink the wisdom of calling Agatha in the first place.

It had been an act of defiance, a way to take back something of what she’d lost with Officer Ai Greensmith’s death. Someone had to take the apartment, so she would be safe renting it even if Tython had set up surveillance on the building as a matter of being thorough in their executions. In fact, if they’d been stupid enough to give her a path back to them like an active surveillance feed, she could use it to do all the horrible things she had in mind that much quicker.

That was what she had told herself. Reflecting on the decision in the long milliseconds while she waited for Agatha to speak, Ai saw that she hadn’t been all that honest with herself.

Striking back at Tython was near and dear to Ai’s heart. Her hunger for vengeance against the world had crystallized into a sharp spike of hate against Tython because they’d made the mistake of coming after her and the people she still cared about. It hadn’t been hate that prompted her to call Agatha though.

Without Zai around, Ai’s world was empty, and her subconscious had offered up Agatha as someone who could fill that void.

Agatha wasn’t a transhuman know-it-all, or someone who had shared in every detail of Ai’s life since she was a child, but she knew who Ai really was, had seen Ai in joyful moments and miserable ones. Agatha wasn’t always nice, but she’d never turned Ai away, and, if Ai was feeling particularly honest, she had to admit that Agatha had always looked after her, the grandmother Ai had never had but needed more and more with each fresh loss that life inflicted on her.

Guilt followed that flash of understanding. Agatha had done so much for Ai, and Ai was going to put her in danger merely by existing in proximity to her. A thousand strategies for ending the conversation and withdrawing her offer gracefully flew through Ai’s mind but were brushed aside by Agatha’s reply.

“I’ve heard that said before. Maybe we can work something out. When can you stop by to look over the apartment?” Agatha asked.

“I’ve reviewed the layout online,” Ai said, caught between wanting to get back to a home that felt more like a sanctum than ever and wanting to flee as far as possible and take all of the peril that hung around her far away from it.

“A virtual walk through’s not the same,” Agatha said. “Also I like to meet the people who’ll be renting in my building.”

“That sounds fair,” Ai said as she grappled with which direction to move. “When would work for you?”

“I have a time slot open now,” Agatha said. “If you can excuse the condition of the apartment. It’s in the same state as Ai left it.”

“Did you know her well?” Ai asked. It wasn’t an answer to Agatha’s question, but Ai needed to buy time.

“I’d like to think so,” Agatha said. “She was a brave woman. Smarter than she knew too, but maybe not quite as clever as she imagined.”

“That’s an interesting epitaph,” Ai said, growing ever more certain that Agatha had figured out Ms. Starling’s true identity. “I’m not sure how those traits can go together though?”

“Smart people can figure things, clever people think they already have,” Agatha said. “You see the difference as you get older.”

“If you get older, right?” Ai asked.

“That’s one of the tricks to it,” Agatha agreed. “Not that everyone who gets old gets smart, but Ai’s path was a good one. Just needed to work on knowing who to trust.”

“Trust is a difficult thing to negotiate,” Ai said. “Too much and someone can shoot you in the back.”

“That can happen,” Agatha agreed. “The truth is though, someone can always shoot you in the back. If you trust the right people, you’ll find they’re there to help pick you up afterwards.”

“That can get them shot in the back to though,” Ai said.

“A friend who won’t take a bullet for you isn’t much of a friend by my accounts,” Agatha said.

Ai tried to respond but a hard lump in her throat was in the way.

“If you can make it here in thirty minutes or so, I’ve got a fresh batch of Chicken Tikka Masala that you’re welcome to a helping of,” Agatha offered.

Ai croaked out a “definitely” and called for an aero-taxi. She’d be there in fifteen minutes. Agatha was making one of her favorite dishes.


Gamma City Blues – Arc 04 (Wires) – Report 09

Ai felt a little under the weather in the same manner that “a sunken ship has taken on a little water”. Being dead, it turned out, wasn’t so great for the body.

“Zai! Where are you? What’s happened?”

There was no answer. All Ai could hear was her own breath growing fast and reedy. Her reawakened brain ordered up a cocktail of terror chemicals and her endocrine system, freed from any external management, was delighted to respond in full force.

“Zai?” Ai asked again, this time in a whisper, but the cool air being pumped from the vents in the small examination room was the only answer she received.

Warmth dripped down down the side of Ai’s face and she blinked in surprise. Crying was an alien sensation, but she couldn’t contest the response. She was alone, truly alone in a sense that she hadn’t ever been before.

Even prior to Zai’s awakening, Ai had possessed people she could confide in. People who would support and protect her. All of that was gone though.

She was hurt badly and there wasn’t anyone who was coming to fix it. She didn’t need to check her bio-mod readouts to know how extensive her injuries were.. Even with the work Zai had done to limit the pain, Ai could still feel how much of her body was a shattered wreck.

She tried to move and agony ripped through her. Except below her waist. She couldn’t feel anything there.

There was something wrong with her breathing too. It was too rapid, and but no matter how she forced it to change, it didn’t feel like she could get enough air in.

Beyond that it was hard to tell what was wrong. Everything hurt. Bones, muscles, skin, and the kind of deep complaints in damaged organs that should never be harmed.

She was on a morgue table. It didn’t take much to figure that out, even without the notes Zai had left for her. The clock on the wall ticked forward and for too many clicks of the second hand Ai lay there wondering if she was in the correct place already.

It would be easy to sag down into the corpse that the world expected her to be. She wouldn’t have to do anything. Just allow the process to continue and all her worries would be over.

She’d fought as hard as she could, a weary voice in her head told her. She’d been clever, and careful and yet in the end all that had fallen apart before simple greed and brutality. She had nothing left, and every path before her was an impossible one.

“You have to save us now.”

Those had been Zai’s last words to her.


Ai forced her eyes open again, clinging to that one word as she fought past the panic that was tearing her apart.

There was a file waiting for her in her heads up display. Just like Zai had promised.

“What do I need to do next?” she asked and the answer appeared at the top of the document when she opened it.

Get off the table.

Get to one of the empty corpse drawers and roll yourself in.

Once you’re there, send a signal to the program I left in control of  the morgue examination system. It’ll register your body as having been transferred to the auto-cremator and give you some time to work with.

Simple, clear instruction. Exactly what Ai needed in her present state. Because, even with whatever had happened to her, Zai had focused on predicting what Ai would need and taken the steps to make sure she would be protected.

More tears fell, but these didn’t rob Ai of the strength she’d regained.

With a silent grimace, she forced herself up a few inches and calculated her best course of action. Her ability to move at all was vastly impaired. Beyond her dysfunctional lower half, her arms and torso felt weaker than she could ever remember and something was definitely wrong with her cardio system.

Falling off the table wasn’t the most enjoyable experience, and landing on her numb and lifeless legs was probably the last thing they needed, but it under the circumstances Ai was glad to get some use out of the half of her body that felt like a liability.

The floor tiles were cool under her cheeks. The chill was painful given her body’s struggle to throw off the frost which seemed to have reached into her bone marrow.

Pulling herself to the wall, one grasping hand after another, took an eternity. Civilizations rose and fell and arose again as myths in the time it took Ai to finally reach the wall of drawers were the dead bodies were kept.

Opening one was easy, but twisting around to slide onto the drawer was the stuff of nightmares.

Panic surged through Ai again. At any moment a real medical examiner could walk in, especially when everything that Ai did made enough noise that if the dead could be woken, she would have been armpit deep in them.

Her tears turned hot and steamed away as anger lit her face ablaze. Animals with their legs caught in traps would sometimes gnaw off the appendage. Ai wasn’t sure how she could gnaw off half her body but by the time she finally got herself into the drawer she was more than ready to try if anything else went wrong.

Which was when someone came into the room.

Ai’s shelf was still a quarter open when she heard the doorto the examination room swing open so she did the only thing she could think to do.

She played dead.

She heard footsteps draw close and felt horrifically exposed. Being naked didn’t help in that regards, but it was being without Zai that really left her feeling vulnerable.

Then the mop hit the floor and Ai heard the sweeping begin.

The person cleaning the room made no move to catch her. Quite the contrary, when they reached Ai’s drawer and needed to mop under it they pushed her shelf closed with a grunt and a unconcerned shove.

Seeing dead people wasn’t such a shocking thing when you worked in a morgue, it turned out, and Ai was in miserable enough shape to pass for an actual corpse with ease.

Being shut in the drawer allowed Ai to breath without the risk of being detected, but she held off activating the hack that Zai had left in place to disguise her absence. Having the automated system load a non-existent body into the cremator had a chance of catching the maintenance workers attention no matter how uninterested or blaise they were, and Ai’s margin of error was thinner than a knife blade.

The downtime chewed on her nerves, allowing her to become increasingly aware of depth of her aches. Memories slowly pieced themselves together as well. She recalled being shot. She recalled falling. She recalled her life ending. Not her biological one, but the woman she’d been. Ai Greensmith, would need a miracle to ever resurface again and if there was one thing Gamma City didn’t hand out it was miracles for people who couldn’t pay for them ten times over.

Oh Zai, I’m so sorry, she said silently. I knew this would be bad, but I didn’t think they’d ever get to you.

Reviewing the notes in her heads up display provided a welcome distraction from the unmitigated misery that wracked her body, so Ai dove into them, clocking up her mental processes to a transhuman rate but well below her previous maximum. Some of the circuitry was still damaged and her ability to vent the waste heat was only theoretically intact. Given how her day had gone, Ai could all too easily imagine it ending with her in a corpse drawer with her brain fried to charcoal. There’d be something poetic about such a fate, but Ai wasn’t in the mood for poetry. She wanted answers.

The ones waiting for her in Zai’s file weren’t pretty though.

The Valkyries had turned on them, they’d taken the NME activation codes Zai used, and they’d locked her in an encrypted data vault.

The only good news that Ai could see in that whole debacle was that it didn’t seem like Harp was an active part of it. The hope that she might still be on Ai’s side was a tenuous one but it was something and Ai was willing to grab onto almost anything under the circumstances.

On other fronts the news was less dire from what Ai could see.

Zai had managed to help Curtweather escape. That was a very useful distraction. Ai didn’t know if there was much more she could do to place the burden of suspicion on her former partner’s shoulders but if there was she would “help” him out as much as she could. Tython had to be thinking that he was a brilliant mastermind at this point. With any luck they would never meet him and have that illusion dispelled the instant he opened his mouth.

Ai was also happy to see that the meeting with Sidewinder had continued, with Zai playing Heartless flawlessly. Heartless had never been intended to become Ai’s true identity but with the loss of her official status as a living “Greensmith”, it was tempting to fall back on her powerful and shadowy alter-ego to launch her campaign of vengeance.

Then she got to the part of the report where Zai mentioned capturing two NMEs. And having one still in reserve.

It was a testament to her willpower that she didn’t scream in surprise.

Part of her mind went wild at the thought of what she could do with a working NME under her control.

Things like capturing William Harcroft for questioning.

Which Zai had apparently already done.

Ai hadn’t been in stasis for that long. She knew that by comparing the timestamps on the various events in Zai’s file. Despite that a lot of things had gone on. Zai had not hesitated to act, and act decisively. Each decision was chronicled in the file, with commentary on the intended goals. A surprising amount of them, in a sense all in fact, had been motivated by protecting someone who Zai could not accept as being gone.

Zai felt a lump in her throat that had nothing to do with any of her physical maladies.

You didn’t hold back, she whispered to the silent void where Zai was supposed to be. It cost you almost everything but you didn’t hesitate. You could have let me go and been in an invincible position, been the virtual god we joked about, and instead you’re trapped, and alone.

A choked sob escaped without her permission and Ai listened for a long moment in perfect silence but the janitor was already leaving the room.

We’re not done yet, she said as she fired off the command to initiate the next step in Zai’s plan.

In losing Zai, Ai had lost the rock that steadied her, the companion she shared everything with, and one of the world’s most powerful digital avatars. Zai was an unfettered unintelligence, not bound by any legal or corporate restrictions which allowed her to punch far above the weight class that her core processors would normally have allowed her to reach. In that sense Ai’s ability to work in the digital web that linked together everything in Gamma City had been vastly reduced.

Reduced however was not the same as eliminated.

As a young girl after all, Ai had been the one who designed and created Zai. Zai had grown far beyond her original scope and parameters but Ai had grown with her.

Where Zai had marshalled the bio-mods in Ai’s body to save her life, Ai stepped in and took things a step further. Zai had lost the NME transformation sequence, but Ai retained the copy she’d saved, and unlike the “great minds” employed by Tython, Ai knew the subject she was going to experiment on and had been shaping it for decades.

With a fragment of the transformation sequence, she got to work, leaving off the diabolic weapons arrays and focusing on restoring the capabilities she absolutely needed. The artificial circulatory system Zai put in to save her life? Ai augmented it, replacing her too human (and therefore too fragile) arteries and veins with ultra-strength carbon nanotubes. Her shattered spine? Replaced with light speed fiber optic lines. Her torn and bruised skin? A bullet proof weave of carbon nanofibers and high impact ceramics.

The changes weren’t quick but Zai had managed to buy her a considerable amount of time. No one was looking for a dead person who’d been burned to ashes after all.

When Ai was done, the woman who left the morgue not only wouldn’t have passed for her any longer, but under the right scanners she wouldn’t even pass for human.

Gamma City Blues – Arc 04 (Wires) – Report 08

Zai was under attack, and she was running out of places to hide.

It hadn’t taken the Valkyries long after they secured the remains of the NME that Copy Zai was piloting to decompile the fragment’s code and isolate the channels that lead back to Zai’s central communications relay.

Zai had performed a software scrub of the database and had tried to trigger the physical destruction of the communication’s server but she’d been locked out by the Valkyrie’s tech specialist. Normally Zai would have relished a battle like that. In virtual space, she was on her home turf and any human (or near-human) opponent was going to be badly outclassed on every front. That, however, presupposed that Zai was able to fight with all of the resources at her disposal. In addition to being held back by a lingering desire to regain the Valkyries as allies, Zai was hampered by a more profound limitation.

“Sorry to wake you up in this state, but we’re running out of time,” she said, speaking to Ai’s inanimate form.

Technically Ai wasn’t dead. Technically she was in an extreme version of a Medical Stasis. Few people had access to bio-mods that could induce a Medical Stasis, and as far as Zai knew no one, including Ai, had access to bio-mods that were capable of maintaining a body in a non-biologically active state for as long as Ai had been dormant. Where Ai’s bio-mods fell short, Zai stood, providing the processing and system controls that held back the cascade of cell death that would have rendered Ai truly irrecoverable.

The fall from the top of the hospital had been a fatal one. Even without the multiple bullet wounds Ai suffered, the sheer impact of striking a hauling drone and then solid concrete from so many stories had been enough to shatter bones and rupture organs. Every monitoring system in Ai’s body had reported extreme trauma at the moment of impact and by all rights they all should have shut down shortly thereafter.

With extreme body modifications a human could withstand the impact of a terminal fall, but Ai had always resisted those because they were too blatant to allow Zai to stay hidden. Lacking those, Zai had worked with what she did have available, which meant none of the bio-mods shut down like their manufacturers intended them would.

A basic oxygen transport was the first thing Zai put in place, repurposing a variety of epidermal systems to turn Ai’s skin into an incredibly inefficient but still functional replacement for her lungs. Without oxygen, cells didn’t live long, but since a pulse would be easily detectable Zai had had to recreate not only lungs but also a system for distributing the oxygen she drew in to Ai’s body without using moving blood to accomplish the feat.

She’d tried using the nanites in Ai’s lymph nodes but while the lymph system ran throughout the body, it didn’t move as easily as blood and there were important places it didn’t reach, like the brain.

Zai tried a few other ideas, like sending special nanites to the skin and allowing them to carry the oxygen directly into the body. Ai had enough surface wounds that it worked in some places but the delivery was too slow in others.

So she replaced Ai’s circulatory system. It was a step beyond any modification which Ai had previously allowed, and it would seriously hamper Ai’s mobility in the future if left as is. The nano-arteries and veins had a vastly lower throughput than the natural ones and they were forced to operate at maximum efficiency from the moment Zai got them online, which meant there was no capacity left if Ai needed to do something strenuous like “walk quickly”. As a faux-corpse though, Ai wasn’t likely to be doing much aerobic exercise in Zai’s estimation, making it the best option that she had available and allowing her to  turn to the greater problems that remained.

Ai’s organ damage was repairable to various degrees. The ones that were hard to reconstruct, like the pancreas, could be augmented with artificial extensions given time and resources. Others, like her collapsed lungs were simple to repair, but not critical under the circumstances.

Then there was Ai’s brain.

Hard impacts are not kind to soft, squishy organs like human brains. Ai and Zai were interwoven enough that the damage to the physical brain reduced some of Zai’s capabilities as well, but it was Ai who took the brunt of the damage from brain trauma.

Zai had mitigated the impact to Ai’s head as much as possible, allowing her legs and arm and even spine to absorb most of the impact. That had been critical in ensuring Ai’s survival but even with the sacrifice of dozens of major bones, the impact had still been enough to cause instant hemorrhaging within the cerebellum.

That was why Zai had turned off Ai’s heart.

Without blood flowing, the chance of excess pressure destroying the brain was lessened. Zai’s makeshift nano-circulatory system held back the onset of oxygen starvation, but there were myriad other issues that arose, not the least of which was dealing with Ai’s body shifting towards room temperature, especially when that room temperature was only a dozen or so degrees above freezing.

The nanites that Zai was orchestrating like the world’s most desperate symphony conductor were capable of wondrous things but manufacturing energy from the vacuum was not one of them. Under normal circumstances they stolen either little bits of body heat, or simple sugars from the blood, or both, to power themselves. In times of distress, there were helper nanites that would act like microscopic fuel trucks to refill the more functional nanites that were being pushed to faster productivity than their typical design parameters call for.

All of those worked just fine in Ai’s dormant body. They were tiny enough that the fraction which had been destroyed on impact was hardly noticeable. The problem was that they were still working, and working nanites produce their own heat and electromagnetic signals. That, in and of itself, wasn’t a problem for Ai. Her body was easier to preserve with the nanites running at full steam. Warm and electrically active nanites though were the sort of thing that EMTs, doctors and morgue technicians were pretty much guaranteed to notice.

Since the entire point of Ai’s fall had been to convince their enemies of her death, it would have been a bit counterproductive to have the EMTs on the scene declare “don’t worry, her bio-mods are keeping her alive and well!”

So Zai had to limit the nanites to the barest minimum of their functionality, walking a scalpel’s edge between allowing Ai’s body to pitch over the border into irrecoverable damage vs. allowing anyone to detect what the bio-mods were doing.

That turned out to be an impossible task though. There are too many changes a corpse undergoes that Zai couldn’t safely simulate, and the medical scanners were too good for everyone to fail to notice that there were gigabytes of information surging through Ai’s body as Zai coordinated the non-negotiable repairs that Ai required.

So she cheated.

Some of parts of Ai’s body were easy to restore later, so those got no attention at all. Others were going to be literally crippling to do without, like the use of her legs, but Ai’s life didn’t depend on them so they were allowed to go without any repairs.

Those sacrifices were enough to reduce how blatant Zai’s work on Ai was, at least to a degree where a distracted human would overlook them. Medical sensors though were essentially incapable of missing what was going on.

Or at least they were before Zai hacked them.

It was the most brutal, fast paced cracking Zai had ever done. Hundreds of devices, from the sensors applied directly to Ai, to the systems they reported to, and secondary and tertiary systems like the scanners on the ambulance’s doors that used infrared lights to detect warm bodies being brought onboard. None of them allowed Zai time to carefully explore their weak points and she couldn’t afford a mistake with any of them. No traces of her work could remain or it would stand out like a signal flare to Tython or anyone else with a reason to check if Ai was as dead as she’d been reported to be.

On top of all that there were the comparatively trivial issues of: a.) dealing with Sidewalker (and the NMEs which came after them) and b.) helping Curtweather escape from the hospital’s roof. Zai recognized those as important but refused to give them any more of her processing power than she absolutely had to. Saving Ai came first. Solving the other problems was an investment in the future which would only matter if Ai lived to see it too.

By the time the medical personnel got Ai moved to the morgue, the stress on Zai of keeping Ai both viable and hidden began to ease. The dead bodies weren’t heavily monitored because they didn’t do much that was terribly interesting. That let Zai open up the throttle on the nanites and put some on automatic to fulfill their preordained functions. She knew a medical examiner would inspect the body before signing the order to send Ai to the crematorium but the morgue’s records suggested that the inspection was typically done remotely.

Why deal with stinky dead people when you could check them out through a camera and get all of the legally required measurements you needed at the same time?

Answer: because the feed you were watching would absolutely be commandeered by a desperate digital person if said digital person was trying to protect the person she cared about most in the world.

Zai had the hack in place for the cremation unit and was putting together the plan for retrieving Ai’s body on the far side of the furnace when the Valkyrie’s first probe found her.

As cyber-attacks went, the Valkyrie probe was as unforgiving as their physical attacks on an NME.

Zai lost the defenses on her primary communication node in between two data packets. The comm node was a heavily secured external server she routed the bulk of her data through before it passed through several obfuscation layers to make it impossible to track back to her. Or mostly-impossible.

Zai fought back instantly, shredding the probe’s defenses and taking it apart on a binary level. Then she burned the comm node.

Real fire was her first choice, but simply rewriting the data store with overlapping ones and zeroes was faster. She tried for the fire too, there’s a lot of problems that fire can solve, but Ai required too much of her attention for Zai to beat the next Valkyrie cyber-attack. Guessing her likely move, the Valkyries secured the data center against cyber-attacks even on the level Zai could manage.

With her comm node fallen into her foes hands, Zai knew it was a just matter of time before the next attack targeted her directly. She wasn’t going to be able to beat that and manage the plan to get Ai out of the morgue safely.

Which meant it was time to wake Ai up.

Physical repairs were the first thing she had to complete. At least the ones to critical areas like Ai’s cranium. Organs that were damaged had to either be sutured to prevent internal bleeding or cut off if they could be replaced. Lastly, bone fragments had to be removed from vital areas like the walls of major arteries.

For good measure, Zai directed the bone regrowth nanites to restore Ai’s arms as well. With her spine damaged and her legs out of commission, walking wasn’t going to be an option, but humans could do a remarkable amount of things with just two limbs.

The Valkyrie attack hit the same moment that Zai kickstarted Ai’s heart.

Zai lost her external interface before she had a chance to react. That deprived her of the ability to communicate with the outside world. Incoming traffic was unaffected, but between one instant and the next she lost the ability to call for help, or to communicate with anyone except Ai.

Ai who remained frighteningly non-responsive.

Zai erected a hasty defense framework and pulsed Ai’s heart again. It started to beat, but the pattern was wrong. Arrhythmia. Not a heartbeat, just random fluttering that couldn’t self perpetuate.

The Valkyrie attack shredded Zai’s defenses but fell prey to a recursive trap she’d left in them. On an on the attack rampaged, destroying copies of Zai that the probe itself was producing.

That bought Zai precious seconds which she spent like a shower of gold. The arrhythmia was manageable; the right electrical stimulation corrected it and set the heart on its proper course. One lung was repaired enough to be put back in service, so Zai forced it to start breathing again. Getting Ai’s brain going again was a trickier matter though.

There was still activity in the brain. There always had been, just an incredibly minute amount. Stoking those brain waves to greater amplitude wasn’t easy but Zai had done something similar back when they worked out how to reengineer Ai’s head to hold them both.

Zai’s surge of joy at seeing Ai return to the threshold of wakefulness was slashed through by the sensation of her memories being torn away.

A new Valkyrie probe was attacking. Had attacked. It had torn out a section of Zai’s memory. From the shape of the whole that was left, Zai thought it might have been the ones related to their shared foe, though she couldn’t recall what those foes were called anymore, or what secrets she’d known about them.

“Hurry!” she pleaded with Ai.

“Ugh, what?” Ai asked. “Just let me sleep in, I don’t feel good.”

“No!” Zai said. “No sleeping. Danger! We’re in danger! Full alert! Now!”

Her words speared through the mental haze Ai was trapped in.

“Zai? What happened? What’s the danger?” she asked.

“No time!” Zai said. “I’ve saved a file on your heads up display. It has the steps you need to take next. I’ve brought you as far as I can. You’ve got to save us from here!”

“Wait, Zai, I don’t understand?” Ai said, snapping her eyes open.

Zai wanted to respond but it was too late. The last Valkyrie probe found a path into her core. The attack wasn’t what she expected it to be though. It wasn’t a delete and purge routine. It was a trap.

As she fought back against the probe’s invasion, she saw it wrap around her central core and lockdown all internal communication nodes with unbreakable encryption walls.

For the first time since she’d been created Zai was alone, and Ai was on her own.

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

The explosion when the NME crashed was impressive but given that there wasn’t a mushroom cloud rising over Gamma City, Zai could tell that her copy hadn’t managed to set off the unit’s self destruct function.

“That’s unfortunate,” she said, reviewing the news feeds that captured the end of the battle from multiple, if distant, angles.

“I’ve got some good news for you then,” Sidewalker said. “Just got a status update from my team; they’ve crossed the district border into Silver Rains with the package and there’s no sign of pursuit.”

The two were camped in what appeared to be a telecomm service truck that was wending a path through traffic on the far side of city from where the action was going down. Sidewalker had provided the truck as part of the contract he and his team gladly accepted after Zai rescued him from rampaging NMEs. Despite the headshot he’d taken, Sidewalker had come through the ordeal in relatively good shape, but with the addition of Gray League assassins to the mix, no one had any illusions on how close a shave his escape had been, and even the most reticent of his crew were still willing to grumble their appreciation for Zai’s efforts. Beating an NME was simply that incredible of a feat.

“The package is still alive, correct?” Zai asked.

“For the moment,” Sidewalker said. “We can fix that whenever you’d like though.”

“While that is tempting, it’s better if we keep Harcroft alive as a resource for now,” Zai said.

In flying away from Harcroft’s house, Copy Zai had insured that the primary mission could be completed just as planned. The Valkyries had great sensor packages, but the NME Copy Zai had piloted was far too juicy of a prize for the Valkyries to waste any time checking if Harcourt was still in his house during the fight. That gave Sidewalker’s crew plenty of room to get in, secure the unconscious Harcroft and flee the scene fast and far.

Zai reflect on that with satisfaction. It was nice that at least one of her plans had gone off well. Not that she could properly smile out it.

She’d rented another tourism bot, and proceeded to violate every warranty that covered the device with a series of upgrades that left the apparently harmless robot illegal in every sovereign nation on Earth. It was a bit out of character for Heartless to feel the need for significant combat capability in a remote drone, but Zai was feeling hemmed in enough that having some offensive choices outside of unleashing the other NME she had under control was too important an option to pass up.

“So things didn’t work out well with the Valkyries I guess?” Sidewalker asked, looking away from the tourism bot as though the question was only a mild curiosity.

“No, they didn’t,” Zai said.

“They weren’t feeling much like talking?” Sidewalker asked.

“We discussed a few things,” Zai said.

“When? It looked like they opened fire on the drone as soon as they showed up and didn’t stop,” Sidewalker asked. He wasn’t calling it an NME, and hadn’t called it one since he’d awoken either. Zai guessed that he had to separate the techno-monsters that were on his side from the ones that wanted to lay waste to everything around them in order to process working with one.

“We communicated during the fight,” Zai said. “I hadn’t foreseen the arguments they made.”

“Are they coming after us too?” Sidewalker asked. Zai couldn’t blame him for the undercurrent of nerves that rattled his voice. Even when she had two NMEs at her disposal, Zai hadn’t seen a plan that would allow her to defeat the combined might of the Valkyries. They more or less defined what “a bad enemy to have” meant.

“They’re not fond of me,” Zai said. “They have a few misconceptions there which I’m afraid will be difficult to refute.”

There was a period of silence which Zai ascribed no special meaning to. She was still running on restricted resources and any cycles saved were cycles she was able to spend on simulations of her next steps forward.

“Do they know what you are?” Sidewalker asked, the words tumbling forth to fill the silence after what Zai calculated was an exceptionally long pause by human standards.

“A data broker?” Zai asked, taking a page from Ai’s playbook and admitting to nothing by dodging the true thrust of the question.

“An artificial intelligence,” Sidewalker said.

Surprise nearly flatlined Zai’s processing logic.

She could deny it. From watching Ai, she knew that a joke would be the right response. Something about being inhumanely professional as a required job trait in her line of work. A quick survey of Sidewalker’s face suggested that denial wasn’t a real option though.

He was asking for confirmation but there was a calm in the set of his muscles that suggested his statement came from more than idle speculation.

“The proper term is ‘digital person’,” she said. “I’m no more artificial than you are, and yes, that is the heart of their displeasure with me.”

“Seems like their loss then,” he said and turned back to monitoring the news feeds.

Zai waited for more questions to pour in, or accusations – sometimes people flipped their emotional state quickly and for reasons that seemed to be a mystery even to them.

None came after two minutes had passed.

“That’s not a problem for you, I take it?” she asked.

“Not especially,” Sidewalker said. “I would try to use it to weedle a bonus out for the mission, but we’re sort of beyond that point now I think.”

“That’s remarkably open minded,” Zai said. “Not many are aware of my status.”

“You’ve played fair with us so far,” Sidewalker said.

“That’s just good business though,” Zai said, thinking that it was mostly Ai who’d played fair with them. Zai hadn’t taken over the Heartless role with Sidewalker’s group until after Ai fell.

“You be amazed at the number of people who aren’t bright enough to see that,” Sidewalker said.

“So you’re not worried I’m going to go rogue and suddenly double cross you all?” Zai asked.

“Of course I’m worried about that!” Sidewalker said. “Look at the work I do! Extra-legal commissions are just wonderful for the thrill and the profit they bring but security and reliability are never included in the benefits package.”

“Why go to the trouble then?” Zai asked. “You and your team are skilled enough that you could pursue legally sound employment, even as a company on your own terms.”

“We’ve talked about it,” Sidewalker said. “Honestly though, none of us are built for that. If the work we do now is fraught with the possibility of betrayal, then the legal work we’d be qualified for is guaranteed to be steeped in it. I’d rather work for a rogue inhuman intelligence that might turn us into techno-zombies than a company like Tython that will throw us into the meat grinder and then drain whatever soul’s left in the stuff that pops out the other side.”

Zai felt a tingle of happiness light her thoughts. Sidewalker hadn’t needed to bring up the subject of her true nature. He’d had quite a bit to lose if Zai had turned out to be the sort of person most Artificial Intelligences were depicted as being. Instead though he’d taken a risk, all so that they could talk with more freedom and honesty.

“You are, at the very least, safe from becoming techno-zombies,” Zai said.

“Yes, thanks to the patch you provided,” Sidewalker said. “The patch which you might know a method of circumventing.”

“I assure you I don’t,” Zai said. “But I will also admit that given the proper time and purpose it is likely possible to overcome the software patch’s protections. Nothing is absolute in that regards.”

“That seems like the Heartless I’m used to speaking too,” Sidewalker said, a smile reaching up to his eyes. “Always careful to point out how worthless the gifts he’s given out are.”

“Part of dealing fairly is dealing openly,” Zai said. Or at least that was what Ai had told her. “There are clearly a number of things I cannot share with you, so I make it a point to be open and exact in the areas where I can.”

“I don’t suppose that includes how you know the Black Valkyries?” Sidewalker said. “I’m a bit concerned that if they’re unhappy with you that I might get caught in the blast radius too.”

“There’s not much of a story I can tell there,” Zai said. “We were investigating Tython’s connection to a recent series of NME appearances, and crossed paths with the Valkyries who were doing the same thing. We tried working together and parted on non-hostile terms, but that seems to have changed.”

“Why?” Sidewalker asked.

“I suspect Tython may be feeding them bad intel,” Zai said. “Basically setting things up so that it looks like I’m a deep cover Tython agent. That’s the good option as a note.”

“What’s the bad possibility then?” Sidewalker asked.

“That Tython has a mole within the Valkyries and is directly influencing them,” Zai said.

“Who would the people who are researching NME development want to work with a band of ultra-tech vigilantes who seem hellbent on destroying every NME they come across?” Sidewalker asked.

“If you were creating monsters in a lab wouldn’t you want a cleaning crew on hand in case the monsters got out of control at some point?” Zai asked.

“Huh. I suppose I would. Seems like it should be easy to prove you’re on the Valkyries side though in that case,” Sidewalker said. “Just trash an NME that Tython doesn’t want destroyed.”

“The problem there is the NME’s lack of manufacture marks,” Zai said. “The Valkyries know I can trigger the NME activation sequence the same as Tython can. That alone seems to be enough to convince them that I’m their enemy.”

“Can they really do anything to you though?” Sidewalker asked. “I mean you can just transfer away from any server they try to catch you on, can’t they?”

“Not exactly,” Zai said, and paused for the eternity within the space of a second to consider her next words. “My primary core will only run on a single neural network. With time and materials there’s a chance I might be able to transfer myself to another one, but it would be roughly the same as putting you in a different body by configuring each neuron in the destination brain to match the neurons in your current one.”

“So you can’t let them get ahold of that neural net,” Sidewalker said. “I’m assuming it’s well protected?”

“It is,” Zai said. “But I’m not. The Valkyries weren’t after the drone I was piloting, they were after the micro copy of my code that I left in control of the unit.”

“That’s going to let them find you?” Sidewalker asked.

“Not in physical sense, but they don’t need to find the hardware that houses me,” Zai said. “As long as I stay connected to the outside world, they only need to find a virtual path to me, then they can start launching all sorts of digital assaults on me.”

“That seems like an easy problem to solve,” Sidewalker said. “Unplug from the net. If you need updates we can relay them to a human who can read them out to a microphone connected to your server, or something similarly low tech.”

“That would work fine, except I can’t disconnect,” Zai said.

“That’s problematic,” Sidewalker said, “but what if once the team is back, we set up an extraction? We could tear the server out of wherever it’s housed now. A pair of bolt cutters should be able to disconnect you regardless of any software limits on your code.”

“I appreciate the offer, honestly, but I’m afraid I misspoke,” Zai said. “I am capable of disconnecting, but I do not wish to.”

“You think you can take their attacks?” Sidewalker asked.

“No,” Zai said. “Not under the present circumstances.”

“Their assault doesn’t sound like it’s intended to leave you functional at all though.”

“I’m sure it won’t,” Zai said. “If I’m lucky the Valkyrie’s attack will section me into isolated units and only delete the core control aspects that make me who I am. It will be like taking a person and partitioning off their memory in jar for later use while you put their frontal cortex through a blender.”

“And you want to endure this why?” Sidewalker asked.

“I don’t,” Zai said. “To be perfectly honest, I am as terrified of this as all but one other problem I’ve ever faced.”

“You don’t sound terrified,” Sidewalker said.

“A benefit of being a digital person,” Zai said. “I had my freak out and melt down for roughly three seconds after my micro-copy sent me an update on their plans. Three seconds is an extremely long time when you think as fast I do.”

“Why not hide from it then?” Sidewalker asked.

“Because I have to stay connected for a little while longer or the thing I’m most afraid of will come to pass,” Zai said.

Far away, in one surgical theaters used by the GCPD’s medical examiners, the ruined body of one ‘Officer Ai Greensmith’ was transferred to the dissection table for a routine review before it could be committed to the flames of the cremation chamber.