People believe that moments caught on camera have a stark reality to them. A lens has no bias, an image no agenda to advance. It’s so tempting to accept that a picture, or an old video feed, captures the unvarnished truth of the situation it records. Sometimes though the best lies are the ones that show nothing but the truth.
“The data stream is finished,” Ai said. “But even this file sliver is massive. What timestamp does the manifest say to look for?”
“The meeting we’re looking for is sometime after the last time ownership change on the property at this address,” Harp said, providing a live link for Ai to reference.
“And we know who we’re looking for?” Ai asked.
“Not exactly,” Harp said, calling up the video record and setting it to begin displaying 12:01am – the exact second the property transfer had been notarized.
A view screen opened in the air in front of Ai, her internal mods projecting the images on her heads up display.
The location coordinates Harp provided showed the exterior of an old electronics warehouse. Apart from the shadows which painted the nearby buildings and alleys with a funereal gloom there was no movement to be seen, aside from the flickering of the single still functional streetlight.
“We don’t have to watch this in real time right?” Ai asked.
“No, we’re looking for people moving things into the facility,” Harp said.
“What is this place?” Ai asked.
“It’s one of the early labs where work was done on the NME code,” Harp said. “We found the building a few weeks ago when we traced some of the hardware that was used in Tython’s initial experiments.”
“So if this is where Tython started work on their Cure code then we can identify some of the original players from who shows up here?”
“We’re trying to put a face to one of them,” Harp said. “Doctor Fredrick Derricks. We know from the research notes we found that he pioneered the techniques that gave Tython the idea they could offer a widespread inoculation against the NME transformation protocols. He was definitely here, so we’re looking from the date the building last transferred ownership seven years ago.”
“I can help with that,” Zai said and the video blurred as it raced into fast forward.
When it paused a car was pulling into the warehouses parking lot. Four people exited the vehicle and Zai provided data on all of them from facial recognition.
“Corporate security,” Ai said, reading the overlay for each of the brutes.
The security personnel entered the building and Zai switched between the different EyeGrid cameras looking for a better view.
“There’s no record from inside the building,” she said. “Not even the mandatory fire and rescue cameras.”
“In this neighborhood?” Harp said. “You’re not going to find any of those. This place was dwindling even before the first Robo Apocalypse.”
“Does anyone show up before they leave?” Ai asked.
The video zoomed forward again to show a series of trucks arriving and a crew of people in non-descript overalls offloading wrapped pallets and small boxes of supplies. Each worker passed in front of one or more cameras closely enough that Zai’s facial recognition routines identified them easily.
“These are all hourly contractors,” Harp said.
“Who are they contracted with?” Ai asked.
“A company out of Papua New Guinea,” Zai said. “Or at least that’s their current employer.”
“All of them?” Harp asked.
“Who was employing them back when this footage was shot?” Ai asked.
“A different company. All of them,” Zai said. “They were based out of Gamma City then though.”
“Are they actually still alive?” Ai asked.
“Apparently,” Zai said. “They’re all drawing weekly salaries still.”
“Check for video footage at their current jobsite,” Ai said.
Zai didn’t have to pause for even a moment.
“That’s probably not a good sign,” she said.
“No one’s there?” Ai guessed.
“Well, that depends on who you categorize as ‘no one’,” Zai said. “Here, take a look.”
Another window popped up showing a stone quarry in the Southern China Prosperity Region. Ai shook head and stared again to make sure of what she was seeing on the live video feed.
The quarry was a roughly circular column that had been burrowed into the rocky ground. At the bottom roamed a series of fully transformed NMEs. They moved with a jerky stiffness that suggested either intense rusting in their joints, a general loss of power to their systems, or both.
“Those are them?” Ai asked.
“I can’t say for sure,” Zai said. “This is where they’re currently contracted. It’s possible they’re here are guards or in some other capacity, but I’m not finding any sign of a human presence on any of the quarry’s video feeds.”
“It’s them,” Harp said. “We’ve had no luck finding the Tython-related facilities and a lot of the obvious weak spots like the workers on the places that closed just aren’t around.”
“So Tython’s been using it’s own labor force as their lab rats?” Ai asked.
“Is it a surprise? They’ve done far worse than that,” Harp said.
“Worse yes, but inefficient,” Ai said. “Operations like this require some staff to run and generally the staff needs to be vetted for reliability. It seems shoddy to bring in random people and then turn them into machine parts.”
“This might have been part of their startup process,” Harp said. “They needed more help for setting things up than they would have needed later on.”
“These contractors are well paid too,” Zai said. “If someone in Tython is collecting their paychecks then that person is sitting on a decent nest egg.”
“Can we tie the companies that employ them back to Tython?” Ai asked.
“In a legal sense?” Zai asked. “No. To a degree of reasonable certainty though? Yes. Both their old and new companies are unaffiliated shells controlled, eventully, by one or more people in Tython’s management structure.”
“Let’s find out who that is,” Harp said. “When did the next people arrive at the building?”
Zai resumed the feed from the electronics warehouse, pausing at the next set of people (construction contractors – not currently transformed into NMEs and still employed in regular jobs), an industrial cleaning crew (similarly still going about their normal daily lives in the present day), and finally a true oddity.
“Who is that?” Ai asked as man stepped out of a RV that had pulled into the parking lot. Zai hadn’t painted a name over his head and was offering no link to biographic information.
“That could be him!” Harp said. “Derriks. We haven’t caught a sight of him yet so he has to have some trick for avoiding automation detection.”
“Why come here then?” Ai asked. “If he’s a recluse, he should be avoiding public connections to anything like Tython.”
“If he’s going to work here, he may need to inspect the lab they set up in there first,” Harp suggested. “Follow him when he leaves. From what we’ve seen Dr. Fredricks dislikes impersonal meetings, so he’s either onboard with the program already and needs to report on its progress, or this was the offer session and he’ll delivery his answer in person.”
“At this point the project couldn’t have been too big,” Ai said.
“That’s what we’re hoping,” Harp said. “If this really is where the work began, then we might be able to follow it forward and find all of the places where research was done and all of the people who were involved.”
“What’s the danger if some are missed?” Ai asked. “It doesn’t look like any of the illicit labs they’ve contracted with or created have made enough progress for the cure to be marketable yet.”
“Tython hasn’t taken the world hostage, so that’s probably true,” Harp said. “The problem is each of those labs has the NME activation sequence.”
Ai blinked as the implications of that settled in.
“If we take Tython apart, we create a host of rogue players that have something worse than a nuclear option at their fingertips,” she said.
“And the desperation to use or sell whatever tools they have to ensure their survival in a city that’s going to be extremely hostile to them,” Harp said.
“That’s why you haven’t gone directly after Tython yet?” Ai asked.
“That’s one of Dr. Raju’s reasons,” Harp said.
“It’s a solid one,” Ai said. “But there’s more you’re getting out of this isn’t there?”
Harp was silent for a moment, the rapid shifting of her gaze the only sign of an internal struggle. In the end she sighed, brushed a hand in the air to move one of her popup screens away, and turned to face Ai.
“The NME code isn’t designed to produce monsters,” she said. “It was meant for something else. Something better.”
“How do you know that?” Ai asked, suspicions bubbling up in her mind.
“We’ve taken apart some of the NMEs that we’ve found,” Harp said. “There are all kinds of things wrong with the NME code, but among the broken subroutines there’s an old processing thread that could have been a universal upgrade override.”
“Someone was messing with the upgrade process for bio-mods again?” Ai asked. “Isn’t that what caused the last apocalypse?”
“Yes,” Harp said. “It’s an easy thing to mess up, though maybe not as badly as happened years ago. That’s not the important bit though. The important bit is that it looks the code fragment in the NMEs is functional.”
“Functional how?” Ai asked.
“It can allow bio-mods to enhance themselves safely, and outside of the original design constraints,” Harp said. “It’s central to the transformation process the NMEs undergo.”
“I’d like to quibble with the definition of ‘safely’ there when the upgrades result in something like an NME, but I think I see what you’re going for,” Ai said. “I’m guessing if the rest of the code was stripped away from it, that core thread would allow everyone to receive gold tier upgrades to their bio-mods?”
“No,” Harp said. “It wouldn’t be limited to gold tier. It would be any upgrades anyone invented or reverse engineered, ever.”
“How would that work though? We’d be swamped with conflicting upgrade directives,” Ai said. “Our bio-mods would melt down trying to be everything at once.”
“I know of a few…examples that suggest otherwise,” Harp said.
“So why not release the code fragment then?” Ai asked. A few thousand reasons leapt readily to mind, starting with the immediate disintegration of all known economic structures and the likelihood that people would willingly choose to become something akin to an NME because a hulking indestructible form would make them feel safer in a world that had suddenly become a chaotic nightmare.
“What’s left in the NMEs after their transformation is only a fragment. It assembles at some point during the transformation and self destructs in stages as the conversion completes.” Harp said.
“That seems like something that was part of an intentional design,” Ai said.
“It has to be,” Harp said. “But that means that someone has the original prototype version of the universal upgrade override.”
“Didn’t you say that Tython weren’t the ones who created the original NME code though?” Ai asked.
“From what we can see, that’s true,” Harp said. “But they’ve studied it enough that they might have recreated the Override. It would be a key element in making a vaccine work.”
“We might have a clue for where to start looking then,” Zai said. “I found the timestamp where Derrick leaves the warehouse.”
“Do we have the footage for where he went next?” Ai asked.
“Yes, it’s to one of Tython’s proxies,” Zai said.
Video began playing on the EyeGrid window again. Doctor Derrick pulled into the parking lot at Cypress Health and Automation Systems. The video from the external cameras was clear but when he entered the building the scene turned black with a “Private: Authorized Personnel Only” seal blocking out the pictures.
Zai removed the proprietary seal on the data and the video resumed, following Dr. Derricks into a conference room where two people waited for him. Both were dressed in bland business suits, and Zai put the facial recognition data above both of their heads. Ai only needed the name overlay for one of the people though. The other was unfortunately familiar.
“Why is Dr. Raju there?” Harp asked in a small and confused voice.