The civilians were a problem. Always. Being a cop in Gamma City meant that in one sense or another, the civilians were either causing the problem, aiding the problem, or exacerbating it by being in the problem’s line of fire. From what Ai could see it was possible that the batch of noncombatants behind the rampaging NME filled all three categories.
“Dispatch, we have two hostile NMEs in our current zone, one within personal weapon fire range,” Ai said, following the procedure that had been drilled into her at the academy.
The GCPD was not, technically, a military force, despite fielding more armed members that all but twelve of the world’s largest political entities. The prime differentiator between a GCPD cop and a soldier for the Northern Free Cities was that the cops were not expected to engage enhanced individuals as they lacked both the firepower and training to survive such encounters.
Ai wasn’t concerned about the lack of training. She’d spent a long time studying a variety of things the average cop had no reason to look into. The issue of firepower however was a problematic one.
Ramming the NME with an exploding patrol cruiser hadn’t ended the threat the bio-enhanced beast presented, but she hadn’t expected it to either. Neuro-Muscular Enhanciles were the result of so-called “hard bio-tech”, specifically technology that went beyond squishy organic solutions to problems and started incorporating transhuman, weaponized elements into the user’s physiology. In the case of berserk NMEs that went beyond converting parts of the user’s body to hardware. The out of control bio-tech constructed almost completely mechanical bodies around the original human host. Whoever the human was at the heart of the NME didn’t seem to matter. Their personalities were gone, and their minds were a substrate for the programmed directive of the bio-tech that had become an ever transforming beast of rage and violence.
With armor woven together from any metal it could scrounge from the environment, NMEs grew harder to destroy the longer they persisted. The exploding cruiser had blown away close to a foot of metallic hide off the NME in front of Ai but the beast was recovering quickly, incorporating the wreckage of the cruiser into its lumbering exobody.
“We’re dead,” Curtweather said.
“Not yet,” Ai said. “Dispatch knows what’s happening. They’ll get Highfall in here won’t they?”
They wouldn’t. Ai knew that. Highfall was the military task force charged with answering the sort of tactical threats that NMEs posed. Threats that were beyond the GCPD’s capability to put down or contain. The Highfall troopers had the armor and weapons to survive an engagement with an NME. Or at least that was the theory.
In practice the capabilities of the NMEs were difficult to predict and that had resulted in Highfall fatalities in every engagement in the previous six months.
Highfall would be scrambled therefor, but only if the NME’s moved towards one of the more prosperous neighborhoods. Within a Rusty slum, there was neither the property value nor anyone of sufficient credit-worth to risk endangering the expensive Highfall materiel for. Even two GCPD cops could be replaced more cheaply than a Highfall combat unit.
“NME unit is sixty two seconds away from from full combat functionality.”
Only Ai heard the voice which informed of her that. All cops had Cognitive Partner systems. For most people, Partner systems were no more than automated search engines and advertising dispensers. They offered publicly accessible information about whatever the user’s vision rested on for more than a few seconds, and tried to upsell them at every opportunity. For police officers the Partners also acted as documentation systems and order handlers. They also handled warrants and remote judgements in situations where exceptional authority was requested or required.
Ai had one of those, like every other officer, and then there was Zai.
“Understood,” Ai said, forming the words silently in her mind. “Initiate infiltration protocol and inform me when you have substrate level access.”
Ai wasn’t going to fight the NME from the outside. Not when she could remotely override its systems at a core hardware level.
“Link established. Barrier strippers deployed,” Zai said.
Ai kept her expression grim and worried while her heart floated light and unconcerned.
Zai wasn’t a Cognitive Partner. Not anymore. The simple bio-mechanical expert system Ai had been given as a child to monitor her health and help with her education was long gone. Zai had technically evolved from that simplistic tool, but like a human replacing worn out blood cells, Ai had pushed her Cognitive Partner so far beyond its original specs that none of the original pieces, either hardware or software, were left.
Modifying your own bio-tech was against the law, a crime punishable by fines large enough to crush medium sized corporations much less private individuals, as well as forfeiture of all licensed bio-tech. Ai had known that when she started tinkering with the micro-machines inside herself when she 8 years old, but she’d also known she wouldn’t get caught. No one suspected a child of having the insight or patience to modify sophisticated and proprietary machinery, especially not machinery which regulated their health.
To Ai though, the basic bio-tech she was fitted with wasn’t hers. It was alien matter someone had put into her body. She understood the need and value for it but the fundamental wrongness of existing with devices that were outside her control forced her to do the one thing that made sense – make the tech her own.
“Substrate level access achieved,” Zai said, silently in Ai’s mind. “How would you like to ruin the NME’s day?”
Ai checked the time. Thirty seven seconds left before the NME regained full functionality. The civilians were still within its killzone and the fragment of collapsed highway she and Curtweather were hiding behind would stand up to no more than a few seconds worth of barrage fire.
All in all it was a better encounter with an NME than most of the one’s Ai had planned for.
“Wait three milliseconds after it triggers its primary fire mechanism, then remove its pain inhibitors. Make it look like a cascade failure,” Ai said.
“Shut down the primary fire too?” Zai asked.
“No, let that go,” Ai said. “We want it to look like its repairs were glitched and it blew itself up. It’d be too convenient if its guns shut down just as it became dangerous again.”
“Surviving this at all is going to look pretty convenient,” Zai said.
“I’m aware,” Ai said. “What’s the spec on its primary gun?”
“It’s assembled three primary system,” Zai said. “Two chemical cannons and an anti-air plasma beam thrower.”
“Cycle it’s attack priority to the beam thrower for ground targets,” Ai said.
“No need, that already what it’s locked on,” Zai said.
“Which body part do you want it to target?” Zai asked.
“Log it as targeting center mass, but scramble the input signal to show that it’s tracking as being off by one to one and a half meters.”
“Leg shot it is.”
There were all sorts of safety systems built into standard Cognitive Partners to prevent the expert systems from harming their user, or allowing them to knowingly harm themselves. That Zai was capable of understanding the necessity of shooting her human companion spoke volumes about the sort of creature she had become.
“Even if they scramble Highfall now, we’ll be dead when they get here,” Curtweather said, still discussing the conversation that was moving at meat-space speeds.
“Then we have to draw it away from those civilians,” Ai said as she heard the NME’s systems whir fully to life.
“Civilian Address System, Visual Targets,” Ai said aloud, glancing out from cover to identify the small group of people beyond the NMEs. “Police order: Hold your position until the hostile moves away, then seek safety to the north along this route.”
The Cognitive Partner she’d installed to camouflage Zai’s presence interfaced with the police communications grid, identified most (but not all) of the civilians who were present and transmitted to Ai’s message to them as a Priority Communique. No matter what sort of filtering software they had or what deficiencies their bio-tech suffered, the Priority channel would (most likely) reach them.
“They’re not worth it!” Curtweather said.
“It’s our job!” Ai said.
It wasn’t, but it sounded in character for her, and Ai had a lot of experience playing the character people expected her to be.
“Listen we don’t have to beat it,” she said. “We just need to get away. I’ll distract it, you target its visual systems. If it can’t track us, we and the civilians can get farther away without being blasted to pieces.”
Curtweather’s gun was already in his hand so Ai didn’t waste time waiting for his reply, just nodded as though he’d agreed with her and turned to dash out from behind their cover. She made it almost two feet past the pile of fallen asphalt before pain exploded her world to pieces.
The primitive areas of her brain informed Ai that someone had smashed her left leg off with a pointed sledgehammer. And that she was on fire.
Neither impression was wholly accurate but the force of the plasma bolt did sent her spinning in mid-air. Zai took over for the Cognitive Partner and shut down the pain receptors from Ai’s leg. That gave Ai the clarity to return fire at the NME. With Zai’s help targeting the sensor array was trivial but damaging it was another matter.
It was a rookie mistake to underestimate how armored the NME’s sensors would be. Humans had vulnerable optic systems, but battle forged combat beasts were another matter. Under pressure that was exactly the sort of fact people were likely to forget though and expert systems weren’t a help either. At least not the ones issued to the GCPD. Cops weren’t supposed to fight NMEs, so the systems didn’t include tactical analysis packages for them. The routines were too costly to install.
Ai crashed to the ground and skidded to a halt on the open road. A foolish young cop who drew the worst possible luck on one of her early patrols. With no cover, no backup, and no defenses only a miracle could save her.
Another plasma bolt blasted the ground in front of her and Ai struggled to pull herself farther away. She was leaving a leg behind but she still had to suppress a smile. Her miracle was already in progress. If it wasn’t the second bolt would have put a hole through her torso the size of a basketball.
The next shot was wildly off target, streaking meaninglessly into the sky.
The rattle of heavy cannon fire drilling into the group sounded like a scream of anguish to Ai’s ears because that’s exactly what it was.
Without its pain suppressors, the human body at the center of the NME was in agony beyond mortal tolerance. The bio-tech in the beast fought to bring its host under control but its repair routines weren’t crippled and failing, one after the other.
Bit by bit the mechanic monster tore itself apart, system after system crashing and taking a dozen others with it.
“You need to rest,” Zai said. “Your regen systems are supposed to be taxed to their limits here.”
“Knock me out then,” Ai said. “If I look like a beautiful corpse I might get some sympathy points from the captain.”
“To look like a beautiful corpse, you’d have to look beautiful first,” Zai said.
“Ouch, you wound me,” Ai said.
“I’m not the one who decided to let her leg get blown off,” Zai said. “So pleasant dreams about that.”
Pain-free darkness washed over Ai, but sluiced away almost as quickly as it arrived.
“That was quick,” Ai said in her head.
“Yeah, one of the civilians picked you up and I figured you didn’t want her looting your body before the medi-van showed up.”
Ai flickered her eyes open and found a tattooed woman holding her. A Rusty from the low grade bits of tech that pierced her skin in various places, and from her rail thin figure. The woman’s expression wasn’t frightened or concerned. She looked mildly angry instead. The expression suited her. Or it was honest, and that was refreshing.
Ai knew that the chemical bath Zai had dumped into her brain meats was scrambling her thoughts – some things couldn’t be flushed instantly – but despite that it was nice to have someone holding her when she was traumatically injured.
“Is everyone ok?” Ai asked aloud, meaning the civilians. Curtweather could turn corpse and it might be a net gain for the world. The civilians on the other hand might be aggravating, and financially worthless, but that made saving them even more of a pleasant bonus.
“No, you’re injured,” the woman said. She cast a glance over towards the NME and her scowl deepened.
“Oh, well that’s good,” Ai said, and let Zai pull her back down into unconsciousness.