Omnipresent surveillance offered the promise of never losing a fleeing suspect. It was a claim repeated so often that it had become the opening joke police payroll negotiations were kicked off with. More electronic eyes in more places meant fewer cops needed on the payroll, it was obvious, and obviously wrong to everyone with more than ten minutes of experiences working with the official surveillance grid.
The city had millions of electronic eyes but the overwhelming number of them were blind, and, when that wasn’t the problem, a more fundamental issue often arose.
“Lost her,” Zai said.
“Dead cameras in the building?” Ai asked.
“Nope. They were never installed,” Zai said. “Budget shortfall twelve years ago.”
“How thin is the local eyegrid?” Ai asked.
“Do you want me to count the cameras with badly spoofed loops playing in them, or just the ones that are showing actual live feeds?” Zai asked.
“Wow, there are camera that are actually working?” Ai surprise was genuine. Valuable cameras had a questionable lifespan in an area where people were struggling with basic survival needs.
“Oh, sorry, didn’t mean to get your hopes up there,” Zai said. “You’re choices include cameras are theoretically monitored but have been showing the same static image for the last six years or the theoretically secured cameras that have been completely scavenged for parts.”
“Any external eyes?” Ai asked, hoping that there might be some cameras mounted outside the building that were sufficiently difficult to access that they would have escaped the scavengers.
“Some, nothing on them yet though,” Zai said.
“Then we get to rely on human intuition,” Ai said. “Yay.”
It wasn’t that Ai didn’t enjoy making leaps of logic, she just preferred to gamble under circumstances that she had complete and total control over. Whether that could in any sense be termed ‘gambling’ was a question she didn’t concern herself with.
The inside of the building showed the sort of neglect that took more than a generation to accumulate. The odor of urine had soaked into the floors and walls, there were holes in the walls that were stuffed with molded over garbage, and only the absence of glass in the windows prevented the stench from reaching toxic levels.
“How many stairs does this place have?” Ai asked.
“Only one,” Zai said. “Regulations call for a minimum of two but this place was given a historic building waiver.”
Ai shook her head. Historic sites required a minimum staff of three caretakers as well as yearly reviews for cleanliness and period preservation. Given the decay she saw, no inspector had been within the building in the last two decades.
“Look up who’s trust this building is,” Ai said. “We’re going to relocate them here.”
“Shall I arrange for an ‘Officer Greensmith wuz hair’ tag to be graffitied on the front of the building too?” Zai asked. “I mean as long as we’re going to be obvious about our influence, might as well take it to the max right?”
“For someone who claims not to understand sarcasm, you’re not afraid to use it are you?” Ai asked.
“Am I wrong?” Zai asked.
“No, you’re not,” Ai said. “I was being irrational. Find out whose building it is anyways though. You’re right that we can’t just move against anyone who comes onto my radar, at least not until I’m willing to spray paint ‘Come Get Me’ across the city in block long letters. By the same token though, there’s no need to turn a blind eye to this. At some point in the future there won’t be an obvious connection between Officer Greensmith and this place. If it’s not fixed by then, then we can fix it however seems most appropriate.”
“I notice that you’re not moving,” Zai said. “Are you expecting our suspect to come to us?”
“Only one stairway right?” Ai said. “And it’s at the far end of this hall.”
“Judging by her speed relative to ours and the distances involved, she should have come down here a minute ago,” Zai said.
“The offset from the other apartments is too far to jump,” Ai said. “So she’s either waiting on the stairs, trying to figure out what to do, or she jumped into one of the rooms and is going to try climbing down the outside. Anything on the external cams?”
“Not climbing down the building but there is a third option you seem to have missed,” Zai said. “She just exited the building on the roof. She’s carrying a crate which she’s placing facing the door and is sitting on. Oh, and she just waved at the closest camera, so I think she knows we’re watching her.”
“Well isn’t that a fascinating development,” Ai said. “Can you take the auto-recorders offline and save our audio-visual feed in a parallel buffer?”
“Starting parallel stream now,” Zai said. “What do you want to show when we get to the roof?”
“The fake feed should show us searching around an empty rooftop,” Ai said. “Fabricate copies for the external cams too. I think we’ll want this to be a private conversation.”
“How does she get off the rooftop?” Zai asked. “In the fake feed I mean?”
“Let’s keep is simple. She hides behind the door, and we don’t notice her slip past us back into the building.”
“We’ll look kind of stupid won’t we?” Zai asked.
“Perfect,” Ai said. “Hopefully Captain James will give us an official reprimand too. We’re looking a little too lucky and competent at the moment.”
“I still say you should let me post a video of you singing in the shower,” Zai said. “That would dispel any illusions of competence people have about you.”
“Shower time is my time,” Ai said. “I don’t need to answer to anyone for that.”
The upper levels of the building were marginally better than the ground floor, if only because people with the stamina to make it up the stairs were more often able to hold their bodily excretions until they were inside an apartment.
On the roof, Ai found not only fresh air, or at least as fresh as the air in Gamma City got, and the tattooed woman waiting for her, the frown she’d been wearing the last time Ai say her still firmly in place.
“What are you doing here?” the woman asked.
“Investigating a murder,” Ai said. “Or do you mean right here, because that would be investigating a person of interest in regards to the murder investigation previously mentioned.”
“You’re not a cop,” the woman said.
“The uniform I’m wearing, the cruiser I rolled up to the scene in, and my sleeping partner would like to disagree with that assessment,” Ai said. “Well the first two would. Curtweather’s enough of an ass that he might say you were right just to tick me off.”
“You’re not just a cop,” the woman said.
“And you’re not just a bystander,” Ai said.
“What do you know about what happened today?” the woman asked.
“Any luck on who this is?” Ai asked.
“Nope, she’s not coming up in any of the standard ID databases,” Zai said. “That’s weird isn’t it?”
“Yes it is. And dangerous. We probably shouldn’t be here,” Ai said.
“I notice you’re not leaving,” Zai said.
“I’m noticing that too,” Ai said.
“Checking with your Personal Companion?” the woman asked, noting Ai’s delay in answering her initial question.
“Standard police procedure,” Ai said. “Since it’s coming up empty, is there a name I can use for you?”
“Harp,” the woman said. “Harp Thirteens.”
“Thank you Harp, I’m…” Ai started to say.
“Ai Greensmith, Cadet class Patrol Officer, joined the Gamma City Police Department six months ago,” Harp said.
“You have me at a disadvantage,” Ai said, impressed delight covering the deeper concern she felt to be facing someone with more than the typically pathetic levels of data retrieval skills the rest of her coworkers seemed to possess.
“Do I?” Harp asked. “What do you know about what happened today?”
“At this moment, I’m reasonably sure it’s less than you do,” Ai said. “It wasn’t an accident that you were near the highway when the NME attacked, was it?”
“No more than it’s an accident that you’re here, near the dead guy the NME was born from,” Harp said.
Ai’s mouth opened but words didn’t come out. Her lips gather and relaxed and twisted again. Still no sound.
“You really didn’t know that?” Harp asked. “Maybe I was wrong then.”
“I’m pretty sure at this point I’m supposed to arrest you,” Ai said.
“That’s not going to happen,” Harp said.
“Yeah, we both know that,” Ai said.
“You’re interfering with the eyes?” Harp asked.
“Yep, you’ve already left the roof as far as anyone outside who can see us is concerned,” Ai said.
“That’s not a safe thing to do,” Harp said. “Providing me with a perfect alibi like that.”
“Dual feed,” Ai said. “If I don’t give the confirm order, the real footage is placed into the archive instead of the empty loop.”
“That was smart,” Harp said. “Maybe I was right. You’re not just a cop are you?”
“Nobody’s just a cop,” Ai said. “At the moment for example, I’m effectively a private citizen.”
“Then you shouldn’t be up here,” Harp said.
“Oh, I’m pretty sure this is exactly where I need to be,” Ai said.
“You don’t want to be part of this,” Harp said. “It’s not for cops or for private citizens.”
“Do you know why I followed you?” Ai asked.
“Duty? Curiosity? Death wish?” Harp said. “Am I close.”
“Nope. Not on any of them,” Ai said. “Duty would compel me to leave the cameras on, my own and the others, curiosity would have gotten me killed already, and if I had a death wish there have been seven occasions where I could have made an easy ‘mistake’ and checked out.”
“Name one,” Harp said.
“March 16th,” Ai said.
“What’s on…” Harp said and paused, her data feed supplying the answer. “Joseph Greensmith’s funeral?”
“They let me carry one of the ceremonial rifles,” Ai said. “Which took standard 7.62 rounds.”
“How many would you have needed?” Harp asked.
“If I had a death wish? Just one. If I wanted to see justice done? I can’t carry that many,” Ai said.
“So you’re not crazy,” Harp said. “Still shouldn’t be up here.”
“Tell me what you meant by the NME being born from the dead guy down there,” Ai said.
“Sorry. Can’t. If you know, they’ll kill you,” Harp said.
“That’s going to happen regardless of whether or not you tell me,” Ai said. “I’m asking only to save some time. And because I have information you need.”
“Tell me then and leave.”
“Don’t think so. I’m not going to arrest you. We both know that would go badly for everyone involved, but I’m pretty sure we’re going to meet again. I think establishing a professional relationship now might save us a lot of time and headaches in the future.”
“A professional relationship?” Harp asked.
“Yes. Professionals trust each other, to a reasonable extent,” Ai said. “I’m offering something I believe you’ll value and asking for the same in return. If we trade honestly this time it’s one small stone to balance against our mutual need for security next time. Make enough trades, pile up enough stones, and we’ve got a history that we’re both invested in, which makes betrayal ever less appealing as time goes on.”
“What are you offering?” Harp asked.
“The reason I’m here, investigating this corpse,” Ai said. “And what the investigation is connected to. If you’re as ahead of me on the NMEs as I think you are, then you want to know the piece I’m holding.”
“Ok. We’ll try this. But when they kill you, it’s not my fault,” Hard said.
“The corpse made the NME’s, but not directly,” Harp said. “NMEs are not malfunctioning combat mods. They’re created by weaponized repair nanos, designed to overload a target’s onboard biotech enhancements.”
“Why would the corpse have a soldier mod like that?” Ai asked.
“They’re not soldier mods. Military grade tech is too shielded. The NME mods only work against civilian biotech,” Harp said.
“So the attacks are deliberate,” Ai said. It wasn’t a question. She’d suspect it to to be true since she began investigating the NMEs on her own.
“Most yes,” Harp said. “These were not. This was almost the start of a new Tech Plague. Something shut down the replication commands though. Somehow we were spared.”
“Oops, or yay, go me I guess?” Zai said.