Ai wasn’t supposed to walk into the her precinct for the simple reason that she was supposed to be dead. It was hard to maintain that sort of cover story and also report to work as normal. The automated door security agreed with that evaluation.
“Danger claxons on your first day back to work,” Zai noted. “And they’re for you. I wish I could tell them how incredibly appropriate that is. I mean really the only thing wrong is that they haven’t called out the bomb squad to disarm you.”
Because fate is nothing if not whimsical, an explosive ordnance drone drifted directly past the checkpoint where Ai had stopped.
“Very funny,” she said, pulling her service weapon from its holster and disassembling it into three harmless subcomponents.
“Believe it or not, that wasn’t me,” Zai said. It wasn’t a difficult claim to support. The majority of Zai’s processing had been bound up in the global coordination of the new digital partners which all but a vanishingly small percentage of humanity now possessed. In an emergency she could have pulled back some resources to deal with any threat they came under, assuming Ai didn’t handle it first, but an offhand prank wasn’t worth the effort it would take to create.
“I wonder how high they’ve raised the internal security level?” Ai asked, kneeling down with her hands held lazily behind her head.
“To the roof?” Zai guessed. “Maybe higher? After what we did, I’m guessing they might be inventing new designations for how seriously to take things.”
“Good thing we’re coming back on the job then?” Ai asked. “I mean the GCPD does seem a little short handed at the moment no?”
Central Processing’s entrance was the one most officers of Ai’s rank in the GCPD came through to start their day. With semi-regular frequency other people would try to make it into the inner workings of the precinct via the same door. Most had less than charitable aims in mind, which was why the GCPD had installed a scanning tunnel just inside the entrance. It was capable of detecting the unwelcome and disabling them in a variety of ways. All that had kept GCPD from enabled the lethal restraint modes had been an understanding that when you bought such devices through the city, they came from the lowest bidder and no one wanted to be reduced to a smear on the doorframe because their badge didn’t scan properly.
Usually there was a cop on duty, one of the junior officers who hadn’t been given a patrol yet. Ai waited for them to show up and perform the manual scan and ID verification that unauthorized visitors were normally subjected to, but after a minute passed, the “move and you’ll be violently restrained” red light in the scanning tunnel clicked back over to green.
Ai shrugged, reassembled her weapon, and rose to leave receiving a summons on her official duty channel the moment she stepped out of the scanning tunnel.
“Greensmith? My office. Now.”
Captain Grace James apparently hadn’t anticipated one of her underlings returning from the grave when the department was overwhelmingly short handed. That should have meant that her return would be greeted with eagerness and joy but Ai suspected that Captain James was exactly the type to look a gift horse in the mouth. She called up the medical papers Zai had forged up to review them again, looking for any obvious holes that the Captain might spot.
“This seemed like a much better idea when I was explaining it to you and Harp,” she said.
“You kind of us tune out when we try to point out the myriad issues we have with your plans, don’t you?” Zai asked.
“Huh? What’s that?” Ai said, knowing that Zai could feel her smile.
It was a pleasant surprise when the elevators responded to her renewed identity codes. At the very least she had the clearance needed to comply with Captain James order. It would have been embarrassing to be too dead to get fired (if James chose to take that approach to the dilemma that Ai’s return represented).
A few minutes later, standing in front of the door labeled “Captain Grace Jame, GCPD”, Ai was gripped by the memory of the last time she’d stood waiting to see the her nominal boss. Curtweather had been with her and Ai’s principal concerns had been hiding how much she knew about NMEs and explaining why she’d destroyed a police cruiser.
With the current property damage due to the Omnigrade incident spiraling into the trillions of dollars and climbing daily, not to mention her role at the heart of it, Ai smirked at her younger self. She wouldn’t go back and trade places with her past for any price, but it was nice to remember that once upon a time she hadn’t been quite as “karmically interesting” as she had become. Whether that would be good or bad, Ai couldn’t begin to guess, if anything her suspicion was that the world would soon look so different from the one she’d known that no single verdict of good or bad would be able to do her actions justice.
“Ah, the dead woman arrives. Come in,” Captain James said.
Ai was tempted to wait in the hall as though the idea that she had been dead was something that escaped her, but she knew Grace James was not the sort of woman who responded well to cheeky displays like that. So she stepped into the lion’s den.
Inside Captain James sat at her usual desk, but each of the data tentacles that made up her lower body was in vigorous motion, flashing between secure ports to read and transmit data which Ai shouldn’t have had any visibility to. That Zai was intercepting it in case any dire orders were sent concerning Ai was just a given though, so Ai walked forward confidently.
“You’re looking well,” Captain James said, camera clusters and scanners behind her focusing on Ai.
“Thank you,” Ai said, nodding and waiting for a question. The first rule of interrogation is to never volunteer information.
“I’m not used to talking to corpses,” Captain James said. “Shouldn’t you still be in the morgue? Or an ashtray?”
“My death certificate was issued in error,” Ai said.
“Clearly.” James glanced at the nearest data tentacles and exchanged a series of expressions that suggested she was having a conversation with it. It was presenting Ai’s paperwork which the Captain absorbed in the blink of an eye. “A ‘near terminal state’? That’s what they amended your condition to?”
“It’s a response to the lawsuit I filed,” Ai said. “They’re trying to pretend no official death notice was ever posted.”
“You’re suing the morgue?” Captain James asked.
“No, not the morgue. I’m suing the makers of the scanners that pronounced me dead,” Ai said. “Thanks to their failure to diagnose properly, I didn’t receive timely and sufficient care.”
“I saw the pictures of what happened to you,” Captain James said. “Are you telling me that they could have patched you back together after that?”
“Under the circumstances it would have taken Platinum level care to restore full functionality,” Ai said. “Clearly I don’t make enough for that, but a Gold level treatment plan could have allowed me to resume life with partial mobility and cognitive functions.”
“And instead, what, the bio-mods you’ve got just kept you in a coma?” Captain James asked.
“Yes. I was comatose after the fall,” Ai said, choosing her words careful to fit at least a technical definition of ‘truthful’. “With the bio-mods I have now though, thanks to the Omnigrade, I am better than ever.”
“Just like everyone else.” Captain James did not seem happy with that evaluation.
“Or almost everyone?” Ai asked, noticed again the data tentacles that replaced James’ lower body.
“Ask it,” Captain James said. “Everyone else has.”
“The Omnigrade couldn’t fix your legs for you?” Ai knew that couldn’t be right. The Omnigrade was capable of rebuilding legs, a spine to connect them to, and the host’s brain stem and neuro-motor controls if required.
“If this Omnigrade thing had come out fifteen years ago, then yeah, maybe I would have wanted my old legs back. This is me now though.”
“So you didn’t take the transformation then?” Ai asked.
“Like hell I didn’t,” Captain James said. “I’ve got two new kidneys, a new pancreas and a backup pancreas, because to hell with diabetes, not to mention the same silky smooth skin I had when I was twenty one. I’ll probably change out my lungs soon too. Always wanted to go scuba diving and freak out an octopus.”
“That’s…I’d kind of like to see that,” Ai said, realigning her thinking. She’d assumed disability would essentially vanish as the Omnigrade rolled out. What actually constituted a disability though was unique to each person, and she thanked every god of luck and fortune she could think of that she’d been wise enough to leave the actual implementation of the Omnigrade’s transformations in the hands of the person it would affect.
“So would half the department,” Captain James said. “Or half what I’ve got left.”
“The halls did look a little empty,” Ai said, knowing 324 reasons from her “Special List” why the halls weren’t as full as they usually were.
“Funny thing there,” Captain James said. “I lost around four dozen of my older officers right before the whole Omnigrade thing. Do you know how many of them have returned to duty?”
Ai’s “Special List” had been spread out around the GCPD police force as the people responsible had shifted positions or been promoted, so Captain James’s department wasn’t the only one hit, and hadn’t even born the worst of the losses. Forty seven fewer staff in the course of a single day that was enough to draw some notice though.
“Not many?” Ai phrased it like a guess, to hide the fact that she knew the answer to be exactly zero.
She’d been true to her word to the Research Group. Once the need for the NME agents was past, she’d given the converted cops the order to revert to their previous human forms. In all cases the reverse transformation had worked, but the people left behind were essentially locked in their own bodies. Ai had no direct control over them, but where everyone else on the planet enjoyed the benefits of the Omnigrade and held sole power over what their copy of the Omnigrade could do to them, the Special List had no authority over the degraded copy of the Omnigrade that lived in them.
They could change nothing about themselves, and neither could anyone else. Only Ai had the key to unlock the miracles of technology within them, and she’d essentially thrown it away.
“Well let’s just say that as of today I have one warm body more to deal with this chaos than I did when the Omnigrade rolled out,” Captain James said. “Seeing as how that body is you, I’m going to ignore how much your story stinks, and say welcome back.”
“Thank you,” Ai said, suspecting there was a ‘but’ to follow in there somewhere.
“But I have to ask; why?”
“Why are you back? This was a miserable job before, and it hasn’t gotten better. If you were stupid I would assume you couldn’t see that, but you’re not.”
“Permission to speak freely?”
“Sure,” Captain James said. “I’ll still be recording you, but you can say whatever you want. It’s not like I’m going to fire my only zombie employee.”
“I’m here because the job’s hard,” Ai said.
“Believe it or not, I have been accused of that before,” Ai said. “It’s not that I want it to be miserable though.”
“Then why come back. No one would fault you for retiring to some beach island after the raw deal you got here.”
“You know what happened?” Ai asked.
“That some cops sold you out and tried to kill you?” Captain James said. “Oh yeah, I found out about that when the forensics team got done mopping up the brain bits that were left of the ring leader’s head. I’m only mad that you shot him because it meant I couldn’t do it myself. Kind of funny how the other officers on that roof were all among the missing too, but I’m sure that’s not relevant to anything.”
“Do you know why they were trying to kill me?” Ai asked.
“Something to do with Curtweather,” Captain James said. “Which just figures. I assigned him as your partner because I knew he was clean of…”
Her words trailed off but Ai was ready to fill them in.
“He was clean of my dad and brother’s murders,” she said.
“Yeah.” Captain James sighed. “Plus he was enough of a weasel that I thought he’d keep you out of the gun sights of anyone who was looking to make a hattrick of your family.”
“We stumbled on something a little bigger than he was equipped to deal with I think,” Ai said. She had to bite back a smile. Just the end of world. Nothing really difficult.
“You’ll probably stumble on that kind of thing a lot more if you come back,” Captain James said. “Are you sure you want to?”
“Yeah,” Ai said. She had responsibilities on a global scale, her work as Heartless was enough to fill every waking hour and more, and then there was the social life which she’d never tried to make time for before. In the face of all of that though, her answer was the same. “Yeah, I am sure. This job wasn’t the death of my family. It was their calling. It’s my calling. I know most of it is either aggravating, deadly, or just awful but sometimes? Sometimes people really need us, and I want to be there for them. That’s what being a cop means to me.”
Captain James offered her a rare smile.
“To protect and serve. Throw away everything else and that’s what it’s all about.” She gestured her cameras and scanner back to their previous tasks. “Now get out there. You’ve got a job to do Officer Greensmith.”