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.