Fear has the power to bring every problem into immediate focus. No matter the likelihood of a particular bit of trouble occurring, it can feel like it will absolutely happen in the next instant unless something, anything, is done without delay. Ai was gripped with that sensation and fought against the panic driven urge to do something that rose within her at the thought that Tython had developed a working cure.
“We have to act like it’s not too late yet,” she said, as much for her own benefit as for Zai’s. The automated taxi had dropped her off at her apartment building, and she let the outdated bio-scanners identify her for the minute it took them to run their antiquated processing routines.
“The keyword there being ‘act’, right?” Zai asked. Ai knew that her companion had dozens of sub-tasks churning away, pre-fetching data that might be relevant. Where Zai was capable of gathering information though, Ai was the one who was able to synthesize it into a deeper, more meaningful set of contextual clues.
“Maybe,” Ai said. Her brain felt overheated, though a quick check of her internal thermometer showed that she was still well within the safety limits of her cognitive augments. “Acting feels right, but almost too much so. It’s easy to get caught in the trap of thinking each move an enemy makes demands a counter. The illusion of control is like a drug to the human brain.”
“I think I might have inherited that from you,” Zai said. “I’m not getting close to Tython but it feels like casting a wide net for data is mandatory at the moment.”
“As long as you’re careful, I think you’re doing the right thing,” Ai said. The elevator opened as she entered the lobby. It was mercifully empty, aside from the various advertising posters that were plastered over every wall. The posters flickered as Ai entered the small area, the Sensi-Papers reconfiguring the images they displayed to show ads targeted at her presumed interests. Life insurance ads were prominent, with cosmetic body mods a close second in frequency, and home security packages the next most common. Ai wondered if other cops saw the same messaging or if the ad servers just couldn’t find anything specific to link her to and so defaulted to the most generic of results.
“Before we take another step though, let’s take a moment to consider how things play out if we stop reacting to Tython’s moves.” Ai said, stepping into her apartment. It was quiet and still. Usually that was comforting. Silence meant no one had tripped any of the alarms she’d added to the room. Stillness meant the environment was safe, for the moment at least.
Ai threw her coat onto one of her chairs. The apartment didn’t feel safe so much as empty. She pushed away that though along with the fatigue that was dragging her down.
“If we don’t do anything doesn’t Tython win?” Zai asked.
“Yeah,” Ai said. “This round. Beating them at this stage though won’t fundamentally change how the system is setup. We could have Harcroft taken out and someone else would be promoted to fill his place.”
“On the other hand though,” Zai said. “If we walk away and Tython does finish their cure, society will change on a fundamental level, maybe even to one we won’t be able to effect meaningful change against.”
“Do we care?” Ai asked, forcing herself to look past her gut reactions and search for the truth beyond the cravings of her Id.
“About Tython ruling the world? I think we do,” Zai said. “That’s supposed to be your job right?”
Ai chuckled, and pulled a bottle of chilled PureWater™ from the refrigerator.
“Less rule the world, more remove the parts of it that aren’t working anymore,” Ai said. “That is a solid argument against inaction though. If Tython finds a cure they gain a stranglehold on the world that would be impossible for us to remove. Or more impossible, given that ‘quixotic’ is probably the kindest description you could give to our work as Heartless.”
“That makes things simple then,” Zai said. “We move against Tython because we have to, otherwise they’ll turn us into hideous techno-monsters. Well, maybe not us. Our bio-mods are so far off spec that no permutation of the NME activation code could come close to infecting us.”
“Hmm, thanks for reminding me of that,” Ai said. “We don’t have a cure for the NME code, but we do, in a sense, have an actual vaccination against it.”
“If Tython figures that out, we’re kind of in trouble aren’t we?” Zai asked.
“Not necessarily,” Ai said. “Or at least not for that reason. Military grade bio-mods are also too well protected to be affected by the NME code right?”
“True, but we’re not supposed to have military grade bio-mods,” Zai said.
“Yeah, but the key here is that if Tython wanted an actual vaccine against the NME code, they’ve got existing models they could draw from,” Ai said. “It’s not hard to figure out how to make people immune to the digital virus, it’s just costly.”
“At current pricing levels, there’s not a nation or multinational on the planet that could afford to shield all of their citizens or employees,” Zai said. “At most the top 40% of wage earners could be protected, but an economic analysis suggests the cutoff point is more likely to be the top 20% by net worth, with a portion of the remainder being able to self-fund their upgrades.”
“Upgrading everyone to combat levels of encryption on their bio-mods would create other issues as well,” Ai said. “Combat mods need to work in disconnected mode, right? Once people had a sufficient set of enhancements running, they could disconnect from the upgrade grid and escape the monthly maintenance fees.”
“That would also prevent them from being subject to similar attacks in the future, particularly if the NME activation code was released in an enhanced form,” Zai said.
“From Tython’s perspective, none of that is good,” Ai said. “They can’t afford to have their revenue stream cut off, even if it gained them an enormous one-time windfall.”
“What is their end goal with this project? Just more money or literal world domination?” Zai asked.
“I’d speculate it’s about putting them in the ultimate position of market dominance. Not exactly ruling the world, but with no restraints or competition to hold them back at all,” Ai said. “That’s the smart play from what I can see, but it’s never a good idea to bet on humans going with the smart play. As a species, we seem to have an addiction to grandiose displays of stupidity.”
“So the question is, how do we stop them?” Zai asked.
“As indirectly as possible,” Ai said. “They’re probably going to come after us at some point before this is all over. We’re too close to what’s gone on so far, for them not to try to clean us off the board.”
“Should we think about giving up the Officer Greensmith persona then?” Zai asked.
“No, that’s all that’s keeping us safe at the moment,” Ai said. “If Officer Greensmith disappears, or even changes her role significantly, whoever was watching enough to send the NMEs after Curtweather will definitely notice and readjust their aim.”
“If we run though, I can make sure they never find us,” Zai said.
“You can make us invisible, electronically, and socially,” Ai said. “Picture how we’d search for someone who’s hidden using the techniques you’d use though.”
“We’d have to try something unusual,” Zai said. “Flush them out through their habits or connections or across a wide enough array of statistical samplings.”
“Right,” Ai said. “Even if we’re invisible, Tython could find us by looking for the hole in the world that we leave behind. It’s a lot harder, but these are people with a lot of resources and a lot of motivation.”
“So what do we do when they come after Officer Greensmith again?” Zai asked.
“We rely on the honor and support of our fellow GCPD officers to see us through this trying time,” Ai said.
“Huh, I didn’t realize I needed to start administering anti-psychotics to you so soon,” Zai said.
“Yes, yes, the GCPD hates me, you know that, I know that, but Officer Greensmith doesn’t,” Ai said. “She’s just a rookie, and she thinks being stiff and formal is what cops do. She doesn’t know that she’s being snubbed when no one invites her out to their drunken bar crawls. She doesn’t know that mentors are supposed to fill their trainee in on all the little details that don’t make it into the manual. She still thinks that because she graduated with good grades, and is clean and honest that people look at her as being a good cop.”
“And if push comes to shove, not a one of them will stand up to protect you,” Zai said. It wasn’t a question.
“They’ll stand up for each other,” Ai said. “No one wants to be the one who let their buddy down. I just don’t make the cut for being a buddy. They’ll never stand up for me, but fortunately we don’t need them too.”
“You’re thinking of using more of the people on the Special List?” Zai asked.
“All of them and more if we need to. I’m planning to empty that list someday,” Ai said. “If and when Tython comes for me, that someday may get here in a real hurry. That’s assuming that they’re needed at all though. Part of me expects Tython to turn more subtle in their attempts to silence me. Subtle we can deal with. Subtle even gives us a chance, in most cases, to turn the tables on them. That’s why the other part of me is expecting another horde of NMEs to bust through our window any time now.”
“I don’t like how rational you make that sound,” Zai said.
“Well our best defense against an army of NMEs tearing the city apart as they hunt us down is to stop the Cure project before it reaches a viable implementation phase,” Ai said. “For that though we’re going to need the kind of access that only an insider can get.”
“Which insider?” Zai asked.
“I think we start with Harcroft,” Ai said. “He’s one of the initial architects of this and even if it’s being run by someone else now, there’d have to be touchpoints back to him.”
“I’ve gathered a lot of information about him from Tython’s servers,” Zai said. “I can’t put together what bits might be relevant to the NME Cure project though. They all seem to be removed from that by a wide margin.”
“I’m not surprised,” Ai said. “What we need is more than what you can find on the net about Harcroft, we need answers from the man himself.”
“I don’t think he’s likely to be all that interested in talking to us,” Zai said.
“We don’t need to talk to him,” Ai said. “In fact, I think speaking is pretty useless in this case. He has every reason to lie and he can do so about things we have no method of verifying.”
“So, you’re going to trick the information out of him,” Zai asked.
Ai tossed her water bottle into the bottle bin by the door and let herself tumble over onto her small couch.
“If he’s been in the game this long, he’ll probably be fairly cagey,” Ai said. “At least about the details of his life that he’s aware of. There’s a whole bunch of things that people just don’t pay attention to though. So we’re going to be play a little catch and release and see where Mr. Harcourt decides to lead us.”
“The ‘catch’ part of that sounds somewhat dangerous,” Zai said.
“It is,” Ai agreed. “Horribly. Which is why we’re not going to do it. Not when our good friend Mr. Sidewalker is eager for another contract.”
“Didn’t he call you back and turn you down for further work after the last time?” Zai asked.
“He did,” Ai said. “But that was before his team saw the work that you’d done on their behalf. Let’s get in touch with him again and see if his heart has soften as much as his bank account has.”