Monthly Archives: June 2017

Gamma City Blues – Arc 03 (Falling) – Report 01

Harp asked for a meeting that was secure, private and in-person, so Ai met her on a commuter car during rush hour traffic.

“Not exactly what I had in mind, but points for cleverness,” Harp said without audible words.

“Thank you. I spend too much time thinking of stuff like this,” Ai said.

Speaking through an internal link was so common for Ai that she barely registered that she wasn’t verbalizing her words. The warmth and pressure of Harp’s hand in her own was new, though in this case “different” was also reassuring.

The broadcast communication scheme they’d worked out for Harp’s infiltration in the GCPD command center was secure from all but the most advanced levels of snooping. Normally that would have been sufficient for any sort of private conversation they needed to have. The only problem was that Dr Raju and the rest of the Valkyries knew the channels they had set up and could easily notice if Harp held an extended encrypted conversation with someone over them, and, for reasons Ai hoped to learn before the ride was over, Harp wasn’t fond of that notion. They needed a more discreet option for their conversion, so Ai suggested the most private mode of communication she knew of.

“How did you know I had a direct data link port in my hand?” Harp asked, holding Ai’s hand firmly to ensure the data ports at the base of their palms remained in contact. Anything that was transmitted wirelessly or across a network could be intercepted. Signals sent via direct contact however could only be detected with extremely sensitive equipment. Equipment which would have been horrifically overwhelmed by the sheer volume of electronic noise pumped out by the subway car’s countless and outdated advertising screens.

“If you’re modifying a human body for digital traffic, they’re too useful to pass up,” Ai said. “And I figured if you didn’t already have one, you’d be able to kitbash something together over the last few days.”

Waiting for their meeting had been a grueling trial. Ai hadn’t heard anything more from Harp beyond her original message except for a single “ok” confirmation when Ai transmitted a coded reply with their meeting time and location.

“It’s difficult to modify our existing systems,” Harp said. “But I probably could have managed.”

“I would have thought your mods would be highly configurable?” Ai said, letting the conversation flow along naturals paths and fighting back the urge to jump to her questions immediately.

“Within themselves they are,” Harp said. “They interface with external systems pretty well too, but trying to make additional modifications to our bodies isn’t easy. We have too many digital antibodies, if that makes sense?”

“It does,” Ai said. “Zai and I had to work through the failure mode where our bio-mods wanted to incorporate every device we made contact with. They were programmed to integrate with each other so well that when we unlocked them they started trying to integrate with everything else they could make a connection to.“

Harp shook her head.

“I still find your story hard to believe,” she said. “The two of you seem too incredible to be real.”

“I don’t know if we’re as uncommon as we seem,” Zai said, stepping into the conversation as easily as she did with any other digital stream she had access to. “I think the trials around human and machine intelligence cohabitation missed some fairly fundamental requirements.”

“Like that the human and the machine intelligence actually enjoy each other’s company,” Ai said.

“Yeah, which tells me that there have to be other people in Ai and my situation, probably hiding for the same reason we’re not trumpeting my existence to the world,” Zai said.

“Maybe,” Harp said. “I think you’re smarter than you give yourself credit for though. I know it’s what Dr. Raju is worried about.”

Ai held still, fighting the urge to lean into Harp and literally press her for more information.

“She sounded less than happy in her last message,” Ai said.

“You scared the hell out of her,” Harp said. “Both of you.”

“Everything turned out ok though didn’t it?” Zai asked.

“I’m guessing that the final strike Harp did was from a weapon system they were trying to keep under wraps,” Ai said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen the Valkyries break out something like that before?”

“We haven’t,” Harp said. “It hadn’t even been field tested, but I figured that was a good occasion to see what it could do.”

“I’m sorry you had to go that far,” Ai said. “And about activating the NME. It sounded like a much better plan in my head than it turned out to be.”

“Yeah, it was a bit of surprise,” Harp said.

“I take it that’s why Dr. Raju doesn’t want to work together anymore?” Ai asked.

“That’s a part of it,” Harp said. “She’s very protective of us.”

“What’s the rest?” Ai asked. “I mean apart from the bit where we couldn’t turn off the NME after it started rampaging.”

“She’s concerned that we don’t know what your agenda really is,” Harp said. “You were not only willing to sacrifice the cop who transformed but you had a plan in place to do so that predated the mission going off the rails.”

“I can’t deny either of those things,” Ai said, wishing she could pull away. Clasping hands was feeling less comfortable the more personal their conversation turned. “Do they bother you as much as they bother her?”

“I can’t claim to be comfortable with them,” Harp said, not pulling away at all.

“But you’re still here?” Ai asked.

“I am,” Harp said. “I think Dr. Raju is wrong. Not about trusting you, but about us working together.”

“Don’t we have to trust each other to some extent to do that?” Ai asked.

“To some extent, yes,” Harp said. “I don’t think we need complete trust though. You did a good job with the EyeGrid manifest. We’re weeks ahead of where we would have been without your help.”

“Nice to see the effort paid off,” Ai said.

“I wish Dr. Raju saw it that way,” Harp said.

“Why? What is she doing?” Ai asked.

“She’s holding us back and making us quadruple check everything we find because she’s worried the manifest is part of a larger scheme,” Harp said.

“By who? Me?” Ai asked. “What would I have to gain?”

“She won’t say. I think she’s worried that you’re trying to get us to expose ourselves so that we can be picked off by some of the people who are hunting us.”

Ai blinked, her mind trying to incorporate the idea that there were people who were a serious threat to the Valkyries. People who were hunting Harp and posed enough of a threat that the Valkyries cared about them.

Before she could respond, a pale face bearing a weak artificial tan and the kind of cosmetic bio-mods that said the owner was trying too hard for an aesthetic goal they cribbed off a bad action movie, appeared in the corner of Ai’s vision.

“I’m getting off at the next station, wanna get me off before then?” the swaggering salaryman asked.

Ai knew where this was going and turned a half step to give the guy a shove with her shoulder. Predictably this broke her and Harp away from him after the guy threw his arms around their shoulders. Also predictably, her action didn’t convince the salaryman to leave them alone.

“So you like it rough do you?” he asked.

“GCPD, step away,”, Ai said flashing her badge in the perps face. Occasionally that was enough to send them packing but more often than not, as with this guy, they doubled down on their stupidity.

“That’s a cute little fake badge you got there, want to play…” He didn’t get to finish the sentence.

Ai shot him in the face.

Only with a taser round unfortunately. Ai had considered “accidentally” suffering an ammunition misload, but a regular bullet would pose a danger to the other people in the train. As it was, people crushed tightly together to allow the perp to fall to the floor of the subway car.

Where Ai shot him again.

The first taser round only immobilized the subject for a few seconds. The cumulative effect from two rendered the subject unconscious for minutes. That was plenty of time for Ai to zip tie him. She could have registered his ID for official pickup by an on-duty officer. That would have placed him at the mercy of the courts, but since the courts didn’t particularly care about crimes of that magnitude unless they happened to someone with far more visible wealth and status than Ai had, filing official charges would amount to nothing.

Instead,  Ai transferred his browsing history and personal credit statements to a shared network drive and then flagged his account as being in violation of corporate privacy mandates to ensure the wrong people would see it as soon as possible. In 24 hours he’d be unemployed and turned out of his apartment. Ai dashed off a reminder to herself to check in on him in two days to see if he deserved a harsher punishment.

When the doors opened for the next station, she dumped the still unconscious perp on the platform and resisted the urge to shoot him again.

“That was efficient,” Harp said, when their clasped hands again.

“No, that was disgusting,” Ai said.

“You didn’t kill him?” Harp asked.

“Stun round only,” Ai said, her adrenaline surge diminishing preternaturally fast thanks to Zai’s intervention.  

Harp smiled and glanced over at Ai briefly.

“That’s why I think Dr. Raju is wrong,” she said. “I’m used to either holding back or playing a lot rougher.”

“I was holding back,” Ai said. “A guy who’s willing to act like that in a public area is a serial offender. Without exception. Part of me is still questioning if I should have ended him right there.”

“Why didn’t you?” Harp asked.

“Because I could have gotten away with it,” Ai said. “I’m a cop. People don’t question us, and the law only cares about punishing us when there’s a political or monetary need to do so. Or when we turn whistlerblower.”

“And that made you not kill him? Even when you guessed he might deserve it?” Harp asked.

“No,” Ai said. “I’m…I’m not that good.”

“What do you mean?” Harp asked.

Ai warred with herself. She knew what the truth was. It was simple enough. She held “Officer Greensmith” to a standard above the rest of the police force only because it allowed her to act more freely as Heartless with less chance for anyone to connect the two. She didn’t see any inherent worth in the life of people like the perp, even when she knew intellectually that she should.

“I’m more useful to you if I’m not under any suspicion. If the department thinks I play by the rules all the time, they’ll look for smaller infractions and not believe I’m capable of things like wrecking central command,” she said cleaving close to the truth but omitting the harsher elements. Why she didn’t want Harp to see those eluded Ai. Coming from Madtown, Harp had to be inured to the casual disposal of human life. She might even find Ai’s willingness to embrace the world’s cold hard realities appealing.

“I was there when you did wrecked cop HQ and I still don’t believe you’re capable of it,” Harp said. “The important thing though is that I think we can help each other still, if you’re willing to work together again.”

“I don’t think Dr. Raju will be happy about that,” Ai said.

“That’s why she’d not going to find out until we’re done,” Harp said.

“So, wait, this is just you and me?” Ai asked.

“We worked ok as a team before,” Harp said. “And I’ll still have a line to the other Valkyries in case things turn sour.”

Ai felt a flutter of excitement dance up her throat. The aggravation and nerves she’d felt over her previous misjudgments evaporated in the face of Harp’s willingness to look beyond them.

“What do you need me to do?” she asked. Her stop was coming up, but she would ride the subway around the city a dozen times if that’s what it took to hear what Harp had in mind.

Fortunately Harp’s answer was simple and to the point.

“We need to rob one of the EyeGrid archives. You and me. In and out. Silent as a ghost with no one the wiser. And we need to do it before midnight tonight.”


Gamma City Blues – Arc 02 (Shakedown) – Report 15

It was difficult to be miserable in the face of Agatha’s apple pie, but Ai was making a valiant attempt at hanging on to her frown.

“Now I know things can’t be that bad,” Agatha said, dropping a dollop of what couldn’t possibly be homemade vanilla ice cream on Ai’s plate beside the slice of apple pie.

“It’s not,” Ai said. “Things are fine really.”

“For values of fine that include ‘we made it out of Madtown alive and without organ damage’. Personally I’m chalking that one up as fantastic,” Zai said.

“Funny how things can fine and still suck isn’t it?” Agatha asked.

Ai smirked and mixed a piece of the oven-warm pie with a bit of ice cream.

“It’s just work stuff,” she said.

She hadn’t invited Agatha down, but she was, as always, grateful for her landlord’s habit of keeping tabs on the building’s tenants.

“Work stuff means cops,” Agatha said. “Can’t say I’m surprised you’re having trouble with them. Not a clean badge anywhere in the city, yours excluded of course.”

“You’re not wrong about that, but this time it was with a…consultant,” Ai said. She trusted Agatha but Harp’s secrets weren’t ones she felt she could share with anyone.

“Was this consultant particularly attractive?” Agatha asked, showing no concern for the specifics while trying to understand the larger shape of the problem Ai was wrestling with.

“That wasn’t the difficult part,” Ai said. “They were a bit skittish to be working with me. They’d had some issues with cops before.”

“Well that narrows the pool to everyone who lives in Gamma City,” Agatha said.

“The Platinum Tier and above folk don’t tend have a lot of complaints,” Ai said.

“Sure they do,” Agatha said. “Listen to them on the feeds sometime. GCPD costs too much and does too poor a job.”

“Chalk that up to the laws that prevent Platinum tier and above neighborhoods from having warrants drawn against them,” Ai said. “Not that we could serve a warrant against an estate that has a private militia guarding it.”

“So what happened with this consultant?” Agatha asked. “It’s not like you to scare off a skittish prospect.”

“I messed up,” Ai said. “We were working on a project and I thought I had my part of it under control. Turns out I did not.”

Agatha rolled her eyes and smiled.

“Oh, have I ever been there,” she said.

“I’m torn,” Ai said. “I want to make up for letting things get so far out of hand, but the consultant dropped out of contact.”

“Not returning your calls?” Agatha asked.

“Sort of,” Ai said, feeling foolish.

“How does someone sort of not return a call?” Agatha asked. “Unless of course you haven’t tried calling them?”

“I don’t think they want me to,” Ai said, remebering the cold finality of Dr. Raju’s last message.. “Working with me isn’t exactly safe, so it’s probably better if they stay well away.”

“Is the consultant a child?” Agatha asked, “Because that’s what making that choice for them says.”

“I know,” Ai said, frowning through her next bite of the apple pie.

“But it’s still hard to reach out, isn’t it?” Agatha asked.

“In theory it’s easy, but I just don’t see it going well in practice,” Ai said.

“It might not,”  Agatha said. “Some people come into our lives, and just don’t fit. Or they expect things from us that we can’t give them.”

“In this case it was more a matter of them expecting a level of competency I should definitely have been able to manage,” Ai said.

“That’s not entirely fair,” Zai said. “We had to move fast and we did the best we could with the information we had.”

“There was more information there though,” Ai said. “I just overlooked it.”

“The nitrogen atmosphere in the room?” Zai asked, “I missed that too, and so did Harp and Dr. Raju. That’s not your fault alone.”

“It was my plan though, so I get the responsibility,” Ai said. “Plus that wasn’t my only mistake. Thinking that we had the shutdown codes for the NME when we didn’t could have been fatally stupid rather than just embarrassingly brainless.”

“How is that not my fault?” Zai asked. “I was the one who hacked the first NME. I was the one who found the shutdown code. Shouldn’t I have known it wouldn’t work on the ones we activated?”

“That’s not your job,” Ai said. “I’m supposed to be the one who understands how humans think. You’re still working on it. Once I found out that Tython was working on a cure, I should have considered what it meant for the NMEs that could be traced back to their labs.”

“Or I could have asked the simple question of why the NMEs were giving people so much trouble when there were security holes in their code that you could drive a tank through,” Zai said.

“I don’t think your competency is the problem,” Agatha said. “Everybody makes mistakes. Take this ice cream, it’s the second batch I made today. Turns out, it tastes a little weird when you mix up the sugar and the salt.”

“When a mistake comes close to getting someone killed though, I think it’s understandable to treat it a little worse than salty ice cream,” Ai said.

“Oh certainly,” Agatha said. “Some mistakes are so bad there’s no fixing them. It’s been my experience though that there’s a whole lot more mistakes that people don’t even try making up for.”

“Can I have another slice?” Ai asked, as she swallowed the last bit of the first one Agatha had given her.

“I certainly hope so,” Agatha said. “Second helpings are the best compliment you can give a baker.”

“So you think I should reach out to her?” Ai asked, trying to picture Harp’s likely responses. The best case scenario she could envision was Harp thanking her politely for her efforts and letting her know that the Black Valkyries would be conducting the rest of the campaign against Tython with the same discretion that had kept their motives and operations secret from a news hungry city for over a year.

Ai’s own quest to tear down those ultimately responsible for the state of the city and the world would benefit from the Valkyries as a group unconnected to her but working towards a common goal.

In activating the NME and taking revenge against one of her brother’s killers, Ai’d left an enormous clue regarding her connection to the events at central command. It really was for the best that she and the Valkyries part company on as good terms as they had. Harp would be better off. Everyone would be better off.

But part of her was still hoping for Agatha to tell her to call.

“Call her? Don’t call her? I don’t think it matters,” Agatha said. “Not until you decide what you really want to do.”

“What I want and what’s good for me are rarely the same thing,” Ai said.

“Welcome to life on Earth,” Agatha said. “I’m just saying that doing something because you think you should or not doing it because you think you shouldn’t is like letting someone else live your life for you. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes that’s a good thing. None of us know everything, so letting someone else take the lead can save us a lot of trouble. Other times though, much as it sucks, trouble can be just what we need.”

“I know the Valkyries have disappeared, but I’m pretty sure I can get a message to them,” Zai said. “They may not be talking, but they’re probably still listening.”

“What do you think?” Ai asked. “I mean, I don’t think I’m wrong that it would be better if we each kept working on things separately right?”

“Define better?” Zai asked.

“More likely to succeed, less likely to both get caught,” Ai said. “Tython does have a first rate set of data analysts, and there’s plenty of information to pick up from the wreckage of central command and the abandoned office complex.”

“Wouldn’t you both be better off with the other watching your back? I mean I do what I can, but as you pointed out, I have some blind spots. For now anyways.” Zai asked.

“Harp has Dr. Raju and the other Valkyries to look out for her,” Ai said.

“True, but she still wanted to work with you,” Zai said.

“Wanted, past tense,” Ai said. “They’ve got the manifest now. Whatever they think they can find in the EyeGrid archives they’ll be able to locate and pilfer without worrying about exposing their secrets to an outsider.”

“Is that what you think their next step is?” Zai asked. “A break-in at the EyeGrid archives? For what?”

“Confirmation,” Ai said. “They have to know what they’re looking for already. There’s just too much visual data to sort through otherwise.”

“Ok, but isn’t that something that we need to know too?” Zai asked.

“Maybe,” Ai said. “We’ve got a lot of work to tackle, and we’ve gotten really close to this one. It wouldn’t take many other slips ups to paint a target on us that was visible from space.”

“I guess I can see that,” Zai said. “It’s just weird though.”

“Why?” Ai asked.

“Well, Harp is the first person, aside from you, I ever spoke to as myself,” Zai said. “I mean, I’ve talked to a lot of people as Heartless, or pretending to be you, and I know it was sort of a special situation but it was nice having someone else that knew about me.”

“I’m sorry, Zai,” Ai said, a fresh pang stabbing through her,”I didn’t know that was bothering you.”

“I didn’t either,” Zai said.

“If we can find anyone trustworthy, I wouldn’t at all mind letting you speak through me, or you could use direct messaging like you did with Harp,” Ai offered. “We wouldn’t even have to look far. Agatha would probably be able to keep the secret.”

“Thanks,” Zai said. “I’ll think about it. I don’t think we’ve been wrong to have me hide away up till now. It’s not like my existence has suddenly become legal, and anyone we tell could wind up in a lot of trouble too if we’re discovered.”

“Yeah, but the last thing I want is for you have to suffer silently, waiting for a perfect moment that may never arrive. You deserve better than that, and we can make it happen.”

“In all the old movies about robots taking over the world, why did none of the humans try being like you?” Zai asked.

“Because the movies weren’t really about virtual and fleshy people. They were either about humans and forces of nature masquerading as science, or humans and other humans pretending to have mechanical bodies. When moviemakers wanted to write about people and other people, they just wrote about humans and other humans.”

“So I know starting with desert undermines my authority as a voice of age and wisdom,” Agatha said, “but I’m having some of the residents over to help celebrate the buildings sixtieth anniversary. I can promise you a full belly and some pleasant conversation. You might even meet someone there to take your mind off your consultant issue.”

Ai considered her options. She normally avoided people like the memetic plague carriers they generally were. Ones who Agatha vouched for though? Those might be a decent enough crowd to mingle with for an evening. Especially for the promise of a full meal of Agatha’s cooking.

Then the message app on Ai’s heads up display pinged with a new arrival. The message had no sender, and no recipient. It was pure gibberish as it scrolled across her vision.

“Zai?” Ai asked as a wild flurry of nervous energy shot from her stomach to her fingertips.

“It’s encrypted,” Zai confirmed.

A moment later the meaningless text was replaced by a simple, decrypted message, courtesy of Zai’s efforts.

“Sorry about before. If you’re willing, we should meet again. No need for another garbage truck ride though, I can come to you this time. Just say where and when. -H”.


Gamma City Blues – Arc 02 (Shakedown) – Report 14

Stars that rise in a blaze of glory often fall just as fast. In Harp’s case though, she fell considerably faster.

“The NME’s starting to reconfigure itself,” she said. “I’m going to need a landing point.”

“We’re putting together a profile on the surrounding blocks now,” Dr. Raju said, joining the conversation on a pre-selected channel. “The rest of the team is inbound now as well.”

“Hold them off,” Ai said. “I’ve got a deserted block seven kilometers away from your current position, you’ve got the position data now. You shouldn’t need to even fight there though. We’ll send the shutdown codes to the NME if you’ll rebroadcast them for us.”

“Do it fast,” Harp said. “It can’t gain mass while I’ve got it in the air, so it’s refining its existing systems.”

“Shutdown codes are in your data stream,” Ai said.

“Transmitting now,” Harp confirmed and then added, “no change in activity level. It’s electrified its dermis and it’s spiking its internal temperature. How long is the shutdown going to take?”

“It should have been instantaneous,” Ai said. “Are you in any danger?”

“No,” Harp said. “Its electrical and heat output are well below what my armor can handle. That’s going to change in a hurry when it gets access to some more mass though.”

“Can it absorb you?” Ai asked.

“It’s trying that but my armor’s teaching it a lesson,” Harp said. “As fast I can rot it away though it’s reassembling itself, and it’s growing some new limbs. So that’s going to be fun.”

“That should definitely not be happening,” Zai said. “Harp, can you run a trace program on it?”

“Little busy here,” she said. “Need to put this thing down before my jets overheat.”

“Connect my channel to an external data feed,” Zai said. “I’ll handle it remotely.”

“What are you searching for?” Dr. Raju asked.

“She’s going to see why the shutdown isn’t working,” Ai said. “It worked on the NME that assaulted us earlier, and it didn’t look like they had unique command pathways, so it should have worked on this one.”

“Zai, you’re connected, take this thing apart if you can,” Harp said. “I’m going to free fall to the target site.”

Ai watched the responses from Zai’s scan pour in. Decompiled code flowed across one of the display windows she had opened up with most of the text being effectively gibberish even in a decompiled state.

“Well that’s not good,” Zai said, and Ai saw the error message that shouldn’t have been there.

“Why’s the shutdown not working?” Harp asked.

“This one’s different than the one I cracked into before,” Zai said. “The last one was from someone who was infected with a different strain of the bio-mod virus. It had all sorts of backdoors and unsecured functions in its command structure. This one is much more tightly locked down.”

“Oh, of course it is. Why didn’t I see it!” Ai said on their secure channels, remaining silent in the police cruiser as a new song that fit Curtweather’s horrible taste started to blare out from the old fashioned car speakers.. “The last NME transformed from someone who was infected by contact with Eric Krauss. Krauss was poking around Tython and got exposed to the version of the virus they had there, but they were working on a cure for the general virus, so of course it’s security was shot full of holes. They were trying to make it easier to delete!”

“That doesn’t sound like shutting it down is going to be an option,” Harp said.

“Not via an external signal,” Dr Raju said. “The rest of the team is off standby.”

“No, hold them back,” Harp said. “This one only received a partial activation. I can handle it solo.”

“We don’t work alone,” Dr. Raju said.

“I can handle this battle,” Harp said. “And it’s going to be a lot easier for me to slip away without High Guard following if the others are able to provide a distraction. If we’re all here, the High Guard’s going to be able to follow where at least one of us goes.”

“We can deal with that when the NME is safely disposed of,” Dr. Raju said.

“We can’t risk it,” Harp said. “I’ll be fine. Really. High Guard’s been getting too close as it is. They might be able to penetrate our cloaks now. Let me protect the team. It’s what I’m here for.”

“She doesn’t have to fight alone,” Ai said.

“What do you mean?” Dr. Raju asked.

“The abandoned site I selected?” Ai said. “It’s an old housing complex that is under renovation. The block’s still working on funding the effort so the machines are there but idle.”

“I see them, we’re a second away from impact,” Harp said.

“I have your landing coordinates mapped,” Ai said. “Make some distance when you land. I need some room to swing.”

The telemetry that Ai was following showed confirmation of Harp’s impact as she slammed the NME into the ground. While the crash didn’t exactly crater the landscape, it did kick up an enormous cloud of dust and debris.

“I’ve got the control systems for the construction machines unlocked,” Zai said. “Do you want to drive or shall I?”

“You grab the fleet and do something creative with them,” Ai said. “I’ll take the primary crane.”

“What are you going to do with the crane?” Dr. Raju asked.

“This,” Ai said and sent a link to the crane’s onboard video feed so that everyone could watch in short wave infra-red as the NME struggled to its feet and cast around looking for Harp to resume its attack on her.

Then a wrecking ball hit it in the everywhere.

The crane’s swing carried the ball through the wall of the one of the dilapidated apartment buildings causes walls, floors and ceilings to collapse as the NME was driven through sheetrock and metal and concrete.

“That looked fun,” Harp said.

“It was,” Ai agreed.

“It’s not going to put that thing down though,” Harp said.

“Didn’t think it would,” Ai said, who was a little disappointed nonetheless, “How are your jets doing?”

“Still pretty hot,” Harp said. “I’d love to snipe this guy from the air but I should probably save some flight time for getting out of here.”

“Your team members are rebelling,” Dr. Raju said. “They’re threatening to head in regardless of what I say.”

“You idiots, give me thirty seconds and this will be wrapped up,” Harp said, broadcasting on a wider series of channels so that the other Valkyries could listen in directly.

“Thirty one seconds and you’re buying drinks tonight,” one of the other Valkyries said.

“That should probably go on my tab,” Ai said, sending the message only to Harp. “I really thought this was going to be easier to keep under control.”

“I’m glad to hear you say that,” Harp replied.

“Because it shows I can learn from my mistakes?” Ai said.

“No, because my team can drink like fish,” Harp said. “Hope you’re feeling independently wealthy.”

“I’ve been advised that I should look into taking more bribes,” Ai said. “Just have to find someone nice and rich to shakedown.”

“God, you are such a bad cop,” Harp said, the laughter in her voice singing even through the flat text medium she was restricted to.

“Never claimed otherwise,” Ai said. “Heads up though, I’m getting movement from inside the building. I think the NME ate the wrecking ball.”

“That was inevitable. You could have dropped him in a desert and he’d still have vacuumed up new material for his body.”

What emerged from the wreckage of the building gave clear evidence that both Ai and Harp were correct. The NME had been only slightly bulkier than the human it transformed from. In consuming the mass from the wrecking ball and sundry bits of the building it had more than tripled in size. Gone too were the misaligned growths of partially formed plating. In flight it had corrected for its thwarted early growth spurt and reconfigured itself along sleek curving lines.

“That is a lot of extra armor,” Ai said. “Where is it getting the power to handle converting that much mass at once?”

“The Rosario field,” Dr. Raju said. “It’s the only tech we have developed that can delivery that sort of power in that form factor.”

“But you can’t run a Rosario reactor, even a nanoscale one, at that output without melting,” Ai said.

“There are some efficiency tricks the general public isn’t aware of,” Dr. Raju said. “Even with those however, you’re right. Harp what’s the surface temperature of the NME?”

“Not cold, it’s around 400 degrees and climbing,” Harp said.

“Nothing human can survive that,” Ai said.

“There’s nothing human inside that thing anymore,” Harp said. “And I don’t mean that metaphorically.”

“In heavy combat situations, the human component is often self-consumed once the necessary neural circuitry has been copied from the host brain,” Dr. Raju said.

On her remote camera, Ai saw the NME lash out at Harp with jet of plasma that leap across the dozens of meters that separated them in an instant.

Harp dodged the beam and took briefly to the air a moment before a forklift speared through NME.

The truck had been launched off the top of the apartment building which wasn’t partially collapsed and aimed with the kind of inhuman precision that left no question as to its driver.

“That’s going to leave a mark!” Zai said. “I hope.”

With a tremendous scream, the NME ripped the forklift in half and tossed the pieces away from itself. The left prong was still embedded in its chest, but it didn’t bother trying to remove the spike. Instead its arms reconfigured themselves and a hail of bullets fired by the long railguns that extended from the NMEs shoulders pounded the sky around Harp.

“Twenty seconds,” the other Valkyrie said.

“Just giving you time to get in place,” Harp said.

“I’ve got a couple of cement mixers setup for cover,” Zai said. “They’re behind the building to your right.”

“Thanks, but it’s time to end this,” Harp said and landed ten meters from the NME, directly in its line of fire.

Bullets slammed into her, but she held her ground with no more concern than Ai would have had for walking into a particularly stiff rainstorm. Around her hands a globe of crackling electricity began to form and Ai’s monitoring sensors shot off the charts.

The NME switched back to the plasma lance but before it could bring the weapon to bear, Harp finished charging her attack.

It was one strike. A single ball of radiant light, crackling and expanding as it flew. It devoured the air as it flew, releasing still more blinding light until it hit the NME and exploded with a brilliance that was visible across half the city.

“What the hell was that?” Ai had to startle “awake” in the police cruiser as Curtweather swore and pulled over to the side of the road.

“That’s one I don’t get to use often,” Harp said. “Usually there’s too many people around to risk it.”

“I’m not seeing any sign of the NME!” Ai warned.

“No worries there,” Harp said. “I can see it just fine. It’s over there, and there, and way over there too.”

“Sweep it clean and then get out of there,” Dr. Raju said. “I should have known you were going to use that.”

Ai wasn’t sure from the text feed but she didn’t get the impression that Dr. Raju was at all happy with their victory.

“That didn’t go exactly according to plan, but we’ve got the manifest, so we can move forward at least,” she offered.

“Yes. We can. Thank you for your help Officer Greensmith,” Dr. Raju said. “For your own safety and ours, please do not seek us out again.”

And just like that, the secure communication channels went silent.

Gamma City Blues-  Arc 02 (Shakedown) – Report 13

Not all problems have solutions. Sometimes the answer is that failure isn’t an option, it’s inevitable and mandatory. It is the refusal to accept that however which leads people to find the narrowest paths to victory when every reasonable argument suggests that all is lost.

“Can you get the bot I’m in out of here?” Harp said on her private sub-channel.

“It’s still following its programmed cleaning pattern. It won’t leave the room for another ten minutes,” Ai said, replying on her own hidden sub-channel.

“Ten minutes is a long time to hold my breath. Can you block the sensors so I can bring my bio-mod systems back online?” Harp asked.

“Sorry. The bio-mod scanners have a hard coded alert system and active polling,” Zai said. “I could spoof the responses but we would need to have set up a physical splice into their transmission path.”

“I can blast a path out of the building,” Harp suggested.

“That won’t work,” Zai said. “The moment the sensors detect active bio-mods in the data vault the servers will power down and be locked with judicial encryption. The whole trip would be for nothing.”

“That would suck, but if it comes to that, do it,” Ai said. “If they successfully arrest you we’ll never see you again.”

“Queueing up my weapons platform then,” Harp said.

“Be ready, but hold off for a moment,” Ai said.

“Do you have an idea?” Harp asked.

“Zai, give me an overview of the High Guard Tactical Response Teams’ current rapid deployment zones,” Ai said.

A map of Gamma City replaced the map of the GCPD central command on Ai’s display. Highlighted in a green were the various areas which the High Guard could be deployed to in under a minute. Ai found it amusing but not surprising that GCPD’s central command was one of them. For all of the rivalry between Gamma City’s police and military forces, the higher ups in the law enforcement division were just as interested in being protected from NME related catastrophes as the rest of the citizenry was.

“What is calling in the High Guard going to do to help us?” Harp asked.

“High Guard deployments are costly,” Ai said. “GCPD command won’t voluntarily call them in for anything short of a in-building NME assault.”

“That sounds good. Fighting the military without my mod active seems only slightly more suicidal than staying in this room with no breathable air,” Harp said.

“How are you holding up so far?” Ai asked.

“If I could run anything more than the communication mods, I’d be doing a lot better,” Harp said.

“The comm mods are the only ones the sensors can’t be calibrated for. Too much communication flows through the building, they’d be ringing all the time if they tried to pick that up,” Zai said.

“Zai, can you get me the current position of the officers on the Special List?” Ai asked.

The display of the city lit up with blue dots showing the last reported position of a particular subset of the GCPD.

“Special list?” Harp asked.

“I’m not the first member of my family to join the GCPD,” Ai said. “I am the only one who’s currently serving though. The people responsible for that are a resource of sorts.”

“I think I can guess where you’re going with this,” Zai said. “Won’t that endanger your alibi?”

“A little,” Ai said. “Sometimes it’s worth courting a little danger though.”

“Worth it, or you’re frustrated that you missed the nitrogen room?” Zai asked.

“Let’s call it both,” Ai said. “I need someone for this and the Special List was pretty much tailor made for it.”

“What are you going to do?” Harp asked.

With their comms working via direct mental monitoring, Ai and Harp were communicating several times faster than speech would have allowed. That meant Harp wasn’t starting to suffocate yet, but there wasn’t a lot of time to burn before that became a serious or irreversible problem.

“I’m going to set off every alarm at GCPD command,” Ai said.

“That’s going to seal every lock in the building!” Zai said.

“Right. That’s why I’m also going to give the High Guard a reason to use the master unlock code,” Ai said. “Only an NME attack will bring the big guns rolling into town? Good, then they’re going to have an NME attack to deal with.”

“A simulated one you mean?” Harp asked.

Ai selected her target. Eric Andrews. He’d used a rusty pipe on her brother in the footage she’d watched. She knew the length of the pipe, and its weight, and how much force each of the nineteen swings had held. She’d held onto that knowledge for a long time. Locking in his name felt like grasping the forbidden fruit.

“No. Not simulated at all,” Ai said. She flipped a virtual switch to trigger the GCPD alarms and watched a moment later as an automated message rolled in declaring central command a Class Five danger zone. Hundreds of links to the alarm systems were bundled with that announcement. Each signaled that another part of central command had become a technological fortress.

“All hell just broke loose here,” Harp said. “And that loud clang didn’t sound too good either.”

“That was the battleplate dropping to seal the room you’re in,” Zai said.

“That’ll be coming up in a few seconds,” Ai said, and hit the “Commit” button that hovered over Eric Andrew’s name in her display.

The forbidden fruit was delicious, and Ai had to fight to keep her face from breaking out in a vengeful grin.

“NME transformation has begun,” Ai said.

“Wait, you were serious about that?” Harp said. “You unleashed an NME in here?”

“Will be unleashing one,” Ai said. “In about twenty seconds. The initial transformation takes longer than that for full efficiency but I just need something that looks, sounds, and fights like an NME.”

“People are going to die,” Harp said. “Your fellow cops I mean.”

“They’re not my fellows,” Ai said. “And they’ve got a twenty second head start. They’ll be fine.”

“I hear what sounds like metal retracting,” Harp said.

“High Guard’s got the confirmation of an NME transformation taking place. They’re launching for a combat drop now,” Ai said. “And most importantly, they’ve unlocked all of the secured doors to allow the command center staff to escape the combat zone.”

“Does that mean I can leave?” Harp asked.

“Yes,” Ai said. “Get out of the maintenance bot now and move it to prop open the door. I’ll put the recycling fans up to maximum to make sure we get you some breathable air in there.”

“Working on it now,” Harp said.

“There’s going to be consequences to this,” Zai pointed out.

“I know,” Ai said. “At the moment I’m more concerned about getting Harp out of there with the data we need, but we’ll need to circle back to consider what the fallout will be.”

“The bots are all in shutdown mode. We won’t be able to send her out the way she came in,” Zai said.

“The building is emptying rapidly though,” Ai said. “There’s a lot less chance of someone seeing her than there was before.”

“People yes, but the security systems are all on high alert,” Zai said.

“The security systems only work as long as their intact,” Ai said. “The Andrews NME is going to make scrap out of a pretty wide swath of them, and the ones he misses the High Guard will probably slag with their heavier weapons.”

“Do we really want to send Harp into that though?” Zai asked. “If she uses Valkyrie mode that’s going to raise a number of questions won’t it?”

“The timing will be a little tight I admit,” Ai said. “We’ll need to have her move through the destroyed areas before the fight’s over so that High Guard will still be distracted but not so close to the fighting they she gets caught in the crossfire.”

“I’ve got the data extractor running,” Harp said. “I just heard some major ordinance being deployed though. Nearby.”

“The NMEs active,” Ai said. “Partial transformation only, but it’ll be enough to put up some decent resistance to the High Guard’s troops.”

“Who’s it shooting at now?” Harp asked.

“Monitors mostly,” Ai said. “It only had time to load the basic kill protocols, I think. Any movement it sees, it fires on.”

“What are the command staff doing?” Harp asked.

“Fleeing,” Ai said. “Even SWAT command doesn’t want to tangle with an NME.”

“Good,” Harp said. “Then I’ve got my work cut out for me.”

“What, exactly, do you mean by that,” Ai asked.

“We haven’t let High Guard claim any unerased samples of the NME codebase,” Harp said.

“That was you? You’re the reason all the NME debris has been inert?” Ai asked.

“Yes,” Harp said. “We’ve either disabled it during the fight, or burned it out afterwards while it was being transported from the battle site.”

“Why? I mean, there’s probably a thousand good reasons for that, but, why?” Ai asked.

“I’m supposed to say so that no one else can get infected by it, or something heroic like that right?” Harp asked.

“That would fit with the rep you and the other Valkyries have built up,” Ai said. “If that’s what you want me to believe, I’ll accept it too. But I’m guessing it’s something more personal than that?”

“It’s a lot of things more personal than that,” Harp said. “Tell me why you activated an NME. I’m presuming Zai worked out the unlock code right? But why did you make that choice? I could have escaped in a lot of other ways.”

“For a lot of personal reasons,” Ai said, and paused.

She didn’t speak of her family. Not with strangers and not even with close acquaintances like Agatha.

But she’d already mentioned her father and brother as the reason.

Harp wasn’t a friend. She was at best a temporary ally. One who could turn on Ai the moment their interests no longer aligned.

That wasn’t what held Ai back though. She could spin her answer into a form that elicited sympathy. She could try to buy more trust with an admission of the pain she carried. Tactically there were several highly valuable reasons to tell Harp an edited version of her motivations.

But Ai didn’t want to.

She didn’t want Harp to see the thing that drove her. Her hesitation surprised her. It wasn’t like she wasn’t justified in what she was doing.  Eric Andrews deserved the hell he was in. He deserved worse, as did so many others.

Harp didn’t need to see that though. The Black Valkyries were heroes. Whatever else they were, whatever other motivations drove them, Ai had watched the videos of their battles over and over again enough to see the unnecessary risks they took to protect civilians who were caught on the scene. She’d watched Harp emerge from battles leaking precious fluids from more holes than she could count because it had meant that a father got to go home and see his family, or a child lived to see her next birthday, or even so that a homeless woman didn’t meet her end face down in a gutter consumed by plasma fire.

Ai admired the Black Valkyries in the abstract. She was glad that people with the power they had chose to use it to protect those who couldn’t protect themselves. It wasn’t the path that Ai herself could walk down, but she was glad there was someone who could.

But that wasn’t what held her back.

“We’ll have to compare notes later,” Harp said after another moment passed in silence. “The battle sounds like it’s getting closer.”

“Has the data extractor located and downloaded the manifest?” Ai asked.

“Yes, it just dinged completion,” Harp said.

“Time to get out there then,” Ai said. “I’ll plot you a route.”

“There’s no need,” Harp said. “I’m out of the data vault. There’s no bio-mod sensors out here right?”

“None currently active,” Zai said.

“Good, then I don’t have to hold back anymore,” Harp said.

Ai saw a swath of sensors within central command drop offline. A camera feed from outside the GCPD building showed why.

Like a star returning to the heavens on a trail of fire, Valkyrie 1 ascended skyward carrying the thrashing form of the NME that had once been Eric Andrews above her.

Gamma City Blues – Arc 02 (Shakedown) – Report 12

Tython was too massive an entity to die to any single blow. It had offices around the world and employed tens of thousands of people. It drew resources from mines in Africa, farms in Thailand, universities in Brazil and sweatshops in the Pacific Northwest. Gamma City was special in that it was the close closest Tython came to having a ‘head office’, or a central heart, that directed the rest of the vast corporate organism’s unchecked growth.

“Unfortunately, we can’t be sure that the one who’s directing their NME Cure project is based locally, so our access to them may be limited,” Harp said.

“We believe the principal research on the cure is being carried out here though,” Doctor Raju said.

“If Krauss stumbled on the NME tech-virus before he got garbage truck mangled then that seems like a solid guess,” Ai said. “Since you haven’t moved on any of the active labs yet, I’m guessing that you’re still hunting for them?”

The surface of the table they were seated at projected a miniature map of Gamma City with highlight tags at various locations.  The spots where the Valkyries had fought NMEs were highlighted with dark red flags. Tapping on one called up a basic event summary including the date, time and duration of the fight. There were links to after action reports by Harp and the other Valkyries but they were locked and inaccessible to Ai.

“Their security package looks pretty tight,” Zai said. “Want me to get to work on it?”

“Not yet,” Ai said. “If their anti-intrusion is strong, their detection may be even better and I’d rather avoid bruising the bit of trust they’ve extended so far.”

“It’s not within any of the Rusty slums,” Harp said. “We’ve searched a few of the wealthier blocks as well but that’s a long and tedious process with the need to stay hidden.”

“That brings up an interesting point; why are you keeping your identities secret? Your tech is well beyond anything on the market today. You could make a killing if you went public with it,” Ai said.

“If they could find us, every security force in the northern hemisphere would be vying to take us apart and see what makes us tick,” Harp said.

“That would end poorly for them,” Ai said.

“We’re not invincible,” Harp said.

“Tell that to the NMEs that had the misfortune of running into you,” Ai said.

“They’re not a good test case,” Harp said. “They’re tough, but that makes they hard to stop. The damage they do is limited by their lack of judgment and intellect. If a group of serious tacticians were dedicated to putting us down and they had the full resources of Gamma City to draw on, our lives would not be pleasant.”

“Our cause it also better served by keeping our aims unclear,” Dr. Raju said. “The prevailing theory on the Valkyries seems to be that they are an elite combat unit being put through a beta-testing stage before offers are made to the general public.”

“Since we spare the Highguard resources and embarrassment, the GC City Council isn’t interested in pursuing us,” Harp said.

“Tython should be though. They know you’re after them,” Ai said.

“Possibly not,” Harp said. “The data trail for the NME Cure project runs back to Tython. We know that, but Tython probably doesn’t.”

“That depends how far up the line responsibility for the project goes,” Ai said. “If it’s an off the books project by an ambitious middle manager then virtually no one else there would need to be aware of it. That seems unlikely though.”

“We agree,” Dr. Raju said. “Even for a company as big as Tython, the resources required for a project of this scope would be difficult to divert without significant influence within the company.”

“Which brings us to our need for you,” Harp said. “We need to make sure that any move we make against Tython directly is targeting the right people.”

“Those responsible for the project must be identified so that all traces of it can be removed quietly,” Dr Raju said.

“GCPD doesn’t have much visibility into the inner courts of a company the scale of Tython,” Ai said.

“This isn’t the sort of project which can be handled openly within a company,” Dr. Raju said. “There will be private servers and untraceable connection streams.”

“I can’t necessarily help you with those either,” Ai said.

“You don’t need to identify those responsible directly,” Dr. Raju said. “All we need is Eye Grid’s archives.”

“Which ones?” Ai asked, beginning to piece together a scheme for liberating a selection of the Eye Grid’s massive (and massively well guarded) data.

“All of them,” Dr. Raju said. “Going back to at least two years before the first NME sighting in the city.”

“That’s not possible,” Ai said. “That data is scattered across multiple physical archives. Even if we could gain access to them, copying and transporting that much data would flag every alarm the GCPD owns.”

“We don’t need you to steal the information,” Harp said. “We need you to smuggle one of us in so that we can connect to it. We can handle the data filtering from there.”

“Each archive is stored in an offline mode though,” Ai said. “I’d need to smuggle you into every data storage facility the GCPD has.”

“Not if we have a manifest of the data which is stored at each,” Dr. Raju said.

“That’s held at central command,” Ai said.

“This sounds like fun,” Zai said.

“It’s not, you might be able to crack their electronic security but to get you access to it would require getting past a number of lethal physical barriers.”

“There are certain risks involved,” Dr Raju said.

“I can’t help you there,” Ai said. Seeing Harp’s reaction she hastened to add, “Not directly. My profile is too high as it is already. Even reporting in at central command would raise the kind of flags that I cannot have on my account. What I can offer though is some remote assistance.”

“Will it get us the manifest?” Harp asked.

“That will depend on you, and how much you can bring yourself to trust me,” Ai said.


Ai had considered a career in police forensics when she was younger. From her father’s description of them, she thought they were responsible for most of the actual detective work that the GCPD did. In the years since she’d learned the value of being out in the world and talking directly with people, but a part of her was still enamoured with the idea of interacting with crime scenes through an expertly piloted scanning and sampling drone.

As a beat cop for the GCPD, solving crimes via a remote drone wasn’t a part of her remit. Committing a crime via a drone though was well within the wheelhouse she’d constructed for herself.

[Are we in place yet?] Harp asked, sending the message as a coded string in one of the city’s trashier personal news feed.

[I’m afraid not,] Ai transmitted, coding her message to travel along the noise in the central command maintenance drone positioning system.

[These cleaning bots are a bit cramped,] Harp responded.

By speaking on separated channels, the chance of anyone intercepting their messages and understanding them was vastly diminished. Ai had still planned to keep their communications brief and circumspect, but she could sympathize with Harp’s situation.

“So you’re pulling double shifts for a week are you?” Curtweather asked from the driver seat of their latest patrol car. “Captain James must just love how what you’ve done to the department’s equipment budget.”

The best place to command a crime from was the front seat of police car. With Curtweather handling what little driving was required, Ai was free to silently direct the pieces of her plan as they moved around the board she laid out.

“The double shifts were my idea,” Ai said, as she turned her attention to the map of GCPD central command that Zai projected onto her vision.

The maintenance bot that Harp was huddled inside was trundling down its standard room sweeping path and failing to broadcast the error codes that its processor was desperately try to send.

The automated workforce that serviced central command was protected by a series of theft deterrence systems. The hole Ai had seen in their defense was that the theft deterrence systems were all designed around people trying to steal or reprogram the cleaning bots. So she didn’t steal the cleaning bot. She stole the theft system.

The theft system had wireless links to the bots’ components but the trigger for an alarm to be sent was keyed to the components leaving the building. Zai had suborned a delivery drone and used it to to disassemble the first isolated maintainence bot she could fit.

On the bot’s next trip to the loading docks, Harp had been waiting to climb onboard. The bot new that it was badly in need of repair, but it didn’t have any sensors to detect that someone had climbed inside it. That wasn’t a scenario that had been covered in the original design specifications and therefore the engineers hadn’t wasted money designing in components to cover it.

“Why would you volunteer for double shifts? It doesn’t come with any extra pay,” Curtweather said.

“The budget’s stretched thin right? And I’ve got red marks all down my balance sheet. I haven’t done anything actionably wrong but if I let things stay as they are then when the next funding review comes up who’s going to be first on the chopping block?” Ai asked.

“Darn, was kind of hoping you wouldn’t notice that,” Curtweather said.

“I notice everything,” Ai said, specifically referring to the security bot that was about to intercept Harp’s location.

[You’re about to hear an alarm. Try to keep your heart rate low], she texted to Harp.

[My gear is all in lockdown mode and I’m twisted into a pretzel to fit into this smelly can.] Harp replied. [None of that is conducive to keeping my heart rate down.]

[Think happy thoughts.] Ai suggested and triggered a proximity alarm inside one of the closets the security bot was traveling past.

The alarm had an audible component but its primary function was to alert the building’s security web that a potential breach had occurred. Cracking a system as complex as the GCPD central command meant knowing more about it than the original engineers did. Fortunately, Zai had both their documentation and the ability to absorb the entire design and correlate its components on a level the human engineers both couldn’t manage or hadn’t been paid enough to try.

“Forty milliseconds to sensor burnout,” Zai reported. It hadn’t been a lucky break that the promixity alarms had a failure mode where they literally smoked out if set to their highest power setting. The designers hadn’t thought to test what would happen if a sensor that had to scan a 2 meter square room was fed enough power to scan a thousand yard area. Every design has unrealized flaws of that sort. The lucky break was finding it in a timely fashion, and that was the sort of luck which Zai made for herself.

The security bot that had been heading towards Harp’s hideaway turned to investigate the closest. It would find the destroyed proximity sensor and add it to the repair queue behind the two dozen other sensors that had failed earlier thanks to Zai’s need to establish a pattern of complacency before the tactic put into effect.

With Harp’s path clear, and Curtweather providing all the alibi that Ai would ever need, the plan to grab the manifest for the Eye Grid archives seemed destined to succeed without a hitch.

Which, of course, is when everything went wrong.

[The two doors you just cycled through were the entrance to the entrance to the principal data storage area,] Ai texted. [Let the bot come to a rest and you can climb out and directly access them to grab a copy of the manifest.]

[There might be a problem with that,] Harp texted back. [My sensors are reading elevated levels of nitrogen in the air.]

[How elevated?] Ai asked, a sick feeling starting to grow in her stomache.

[There might be other gases in here but I can’t detect them,] Harp said.

Ai felt her jaw clench. It wasn’t a security system. It was fire suppression. An all nitrogen room so that nothing could burn.

And, of course, no one could breathe either. Harp was going to suffocate without ever feeling a thing.

Gamma City Blues – Arc 02 (Shakedown) – Report 11

Ai liked the idea of destroying a large multinational corporation. Tython wasn’t particularly worse than any other megacorp but it wasn’t any better either. The key element in Ai’s view was making sure that when the bonfire of history consumed Tython the flames would spread to all the companies that colluded with it.

“We’re going to need to be thorough,” Harp said, leading Ai into a vault in the basement of the billiards hall. The door swung shut behind them. “We were safe from prying eyes and ears upstairs but safety’s never absolute.”

“That door looked like it was a foot thick. I take it the walls here are too?” Ai asked, surveying the inside of the room Harp had lead them too. Apart from the vault door, there was an exit from the room on the far well. It was simpler and led to what Ai guessed was the other half of the vault. The decor on the half she could see was starkly at odds with the rest of Madtown’s aesthetic. Warm dark wood with polished wood fittings and large overstuffed cushions graced the couches and chairs in the center of the vault. Around the walls there were

“I couldn’t blast in or out of here if I wanted to,” Harp said.

“That should be kind of creepy after I let you lure me down to your basement,” Ai said.

“We need the privacy,” Harp said.

A thousand crude jokes her father and brother would have made rose to Ai’s lips but she refrained from giving them voice. Harp would probably take them as teasing and Ai had little interest in offending someone she was trying to win as an ally.

“Can you emit the dampening field even when the armor is retracted like it is now?” she asked instead.

“No, our transformed mode acts as the final assembly for a lot of our more exotic systems,” Harp said. “It makes it a lot harder for scans to pick us out of the general populace.”

“I guess I can see that, but you’re still dripping with tech,” Ai said. “I can’t imagine it’s easy to stay hidden. Are you cooped up here all the time normally?”

“No,” Harp said. “We have normal lives. Looking like this means not a lot of people give you a second glance.”

“I find that hard to believe,” Ai said, taking another long look the various bit of seemingly miswired tech that adorned Harp’s rail thin body.

“What do I look like to you?” Harp asked.

“Amazing,” Ai said.

“Do I look like I belong here?” Harp asked.

“I guess so,” Ai said. “Whoever modeled the exterior mods you have was brilliant. They matched the look of the…mods the…people…here have.”

“You mean the junk the Rusties here are stuck with,” Harp said. “All of this though,” she gestured up and down the length of her body, “what you see now is exactly how my mods looked before I was reborn.”

Ai looked at Harp again. She blinked and tried to will away her wonder at the incredible engineering that she knew lay just beneath Harp’s skin. Another blink and she pushed back her awareness of Harp’s history and humanity. The woman who was left standing before her could have been any Rusty from among a crowd of hundreds or thousands.

It was brilliant camouflage but not for the intricacy of the technical design. It was brilliant because Ai wouldn’t have looked twice at Harp if she passed her on the street. Wouldn’t even have looked once if she could avoid it.

“Don’t like what you see as much now do you?” Harp asked, reading Ai’s expression.

“You still look amazing,” Ai said, shoving the uncomfortable insight into her own prejudices down for the moment at least. She’d need to revisit the idea or it would drive her to distraction. She could already feel questions arising around it, like how much of her antipathy towards being poor translated into disgust at the poor themselves.

Harp shook her head but a slight grin dimpled her cheeks.

“I stand by my assertion that you’re dangerous,” she said.

“But badly in need of some insight,” Ai said. “How do you think I’ll be able to help you?”

“Tython has a special project underway concerning the NMEs,” Harp said. “I know that’s not news to you, but perhaps this will be; their project involves the search for a cure.”

Ai shook her head slightly.

“There can’t be interference here affecting your ears can there?” Zai asked.

“No, but if she’s right then we’re farther behind than I thought,” Ai said.

“A cure might not be exactly the right term,” Harp amended her statement. “A better description might be a vaccine.”

“I’m not sure I follow that either,” Ai said. “There’ve been a lot of NME attacks, but even so your chance of being injured in one falls somewhere below being eaten by radioactive sewer alligators.”

“The vaccine isn’t targeted at defending you from being attacked by an NME, it’s to prevent you from becoming an NME,” Harp said.

“There’s all kinds of problems with that though,” Ai said. “The narrative the newsfeeds have out doesn’t mention that it’s normal people who are primarily affected. Most people are content to swallow the theory that it’s ex-military personnel whose gear was compromised.”

“Veterans are an important group to market to, but that’s not the segment that Tython is going after. They’re scaling up for mass distribution of the vaccine even before they have a working alpha version complete.”

“I can’t imagine that’s something they’re doing out of the goodness of their hearts?” Ai said.

“Insofar as they have neither hearts nor goodness that is correct,” an older woman said. She appeared to be in her early sixties but small tells from the ease with which she walked, to the lack of winkles near her eyes or on her hands, suggested that she was much older and had access to very good bio-mods.

“Doctor Raju?” Harp asked, spinning inhumanely fast to face the door on the far end of the vault where the older woman had entered from.

“I know, I know. We talked about my staying out of this for now, but you must forgive an old woman, my dear, my curiosity got the better of me,” Dr. Raju raid.

“Wow, if that’s who did Harp’s tech work then I’m impressed,” Zai said.

“You were able to look her up? I thought we were cut off?” Ai asked.

“We are,” Zai said. “I have info on topics and people of interest saved locally with you though.”

“And Dr. Raju made that list?” Ai asked.

“We used a few of her papers in redesigning me,” Zai said. “So, yeah, she’s kind of important in my view.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you in person Dr. Raju,” Ai said.

“I’m surprised me haven’t met sooner,” Dr. Raju said. “Where did you do your graduate work? We can’t find a record of it.”

“I didn’t do anything after my Bachelor’s,” Ai said. “I enrolled in the GCPD instead.”

“That is most interesting,” Dr. Raju said. “We will have to speak later. For now though please excuse my rude interruption.”

Harp was tense and making furtive glances at Dr. Raju and the door to the back half of the vault. Ai wasn’t sure if Harp wanted to drag the doctor back to relative safety of the mystery room or scream at her for leaving that safety. Instead of either action though, Harp settled on glaring at Dr. Raju as the doctor sat down at a table near the rear of the room and gestured for Harp and Ai to join her.

“Tython is trying to find a preventative for the malicious code that converts people to NMEs?” Ai said. “I’m going to guess that means they already learned how to trigger the infection?”

“Yes, that was the angle that we were researching when you and I first met,” Harp said.

“Their research seemed senseless from what we could determine,” Dr Raju said. “They have sacrificed thousands of lives on experiments that were all variations of creating active Enhanciles.”

“Thousands?” Ai asked and immediately regretted the question. Yes, it could thousands or tens of thousands. So long as they were people no one would miss, people with barely any official presence in the city’s social grid, the losses would either be unreported or would fall into the bucket of “Discretionary Community Engagement” just like all of the other cases that no one had the money to mount an actual investigation into.

“We thought Tython was trying to develop their own NMEs,” Harp said. “They were so successful at making them though that we couldn’t see why they hadn’t moved forward to the next stage of deployment.”

“But of course they couldn’t move forward, because the next stage wasn’t deploying the NMEs. It was finding the vaccine to sell so that they could ramp up the threat of the NMEs and then make a killing on sales once the story broke that normal people could be transformed without prior notice.” Ai could see the staggering profits a manufactured plague like that could reap. In retrospect it was only surprising that Tython was the first to dare those waters. Once the news got out, illicit research firms would dive on the concept like maggots on the corpse of whatever morality remained in Gamma City.

“That’s what Gabriel Krauss told us,” Harp said. “Or his corpse did anyways.”

“The guy who got mangled by the automated garbage truck? The one Tython paid for an investigation of?” Ai asked.

“He was employed by Tython at one of their labs. More importantly though he was also employed by Trimuricus Worldwide Holdings, one of Tyson’s principal competitors,” Dr Raju said. “Corporate espionage has always been a profitable game to play, though a great deal less so when the spy’s identity is discovered.”

“Someone within Tython authorized Krauss’ killing, but only realized their mistake when someone raided their data stores in response to the information Krauss had unearthed,” Harp said.

“Wait, weren’t we the ones who raided their data?” Zai said. “And we didn’t have any contact with Krauss before you stepped in a pile of random bits of him.”

“Yep, but just because there was no real connection between the two events doesn’t mean the paranoia of the guy running the top secret and super illegal project couldn’t invent a narrative that tied them together.”

“Did we get unbelievably luck then?” Zai asked.

“Not so much,” Ai said. “We moved them to an unwise action, but generated a lot more interest than we meant to. We’ll need to hold Heartless’ tools completely away from this or the connections to us will be inevitable for people to discover.”

“They had you run an identity check on Krauss’ corpse so that it could come to light that he’d been spying on them. The data from the raid is still under judicial review, so they can’t be sure what information Krauss directed the robbery teams towards. With a new case on the line the data from the robbery can be called as evidence and the judicial lock will be removed.” Harp said.

“Which means Tython can see the broad scope of what the thieves were looking for,” Ai said.

“Right, our belief is that they killed Tython before they knew that he’d made a transmission out. Their only option for stopping the spread of the news about their NME program is to discover who the information has spread to and silence them immediately.”

“Is that why they attacked me?” Ai asked.

“They were probably after your partner, but that seems to be the general idea.”

“From everything you’ve just told me they’re running scared. Whoever’s in charge is this project is behaving like their life is on the line, which, given what they did, it probably is.”

“That’s our read on the situation too,” Doc Raju said.

“Excellent, then what we need to do next is show them that they’re nowhere near terrified enough yet,” Ai said as wheels began to turn in her mind.

Gamma City Blues – Arc 02 (Shakedown) – Report 10

Zai felt an eternity stretch out before her. From the beginning of one millisecond to its end became a journey longer than from the earth to the moon, to the sun, or to the distant stars beyond them.

[Who was that?] Harp’s text appeared bit by bit in Zai’s awareness, context and meaningful arriving with no clear emotional tone wrapping them.

[I’m Zai. I’m the one who helped Ai rewire her brain.]

[What are you?] The texts were coming in with delays that could be measured in nanoseconds. Nothing human could come remotely close to that response time. At least nothing fully human.

[She’s why you can trust me.] Ai texted.

Both Ai’s body and Harp’s were frozen in the instant of tension that had risen between them. Zai could see Ai’s endocrine system sluggishly dosing her with an extreme bath of chemical signals. If she was an unmodified human, Ai would have been shaking with unbridled energy as her body attempted to preserve itself through the most vigorous action it could take. It was an admirable attempt by evolution to preserve Ai’s life but technology had far surpassed any level of baseline human capacity. Ai could move as fast as her body could endure and it wouldn’t be enough to save her against the armored might of a Black Valkyrie.

So Zai switched off the ‘Fight or Flight’ response. It wasn’t going to do Ai any good and the price she’d pay later in terms of mood imbalance and exhaustion was too severe.

[Explain.] Harp asked. Zai’s familiarity with human conversation wasn’t particularly broad but she knew how to recognize some signs. Short, clipped messages rarely indicated calm states, unless their content was trivial.

[Zai’s my creation. I needed help managing the bio-mods, so we worked from the expert systems that were built into them and cobbled her together. And me.]

[You cobbled her together? She’s an artificial intelligence!?]

[Yes. But don’t worry, I’m not intent on wiping out or subjecting all life on Earth.] Zai couldn’t imagine why that was something humans would worry about her doing. What would be the point in being on a planet that was either a.) empty and boring or b.) where everything was her problem to deal with?

[That’s not possible. No one’s ever succeeded at that. The machine intelligences always overrun the human hosts.]

[We had a better relationship before the transcendent upgrade step than prior test subjects.] Zai texted.

[And it still almost destroyed both of us.] Ai texted. [Zai could have killed me, but she opted to risk the unknown so that we both could live and her gamble paid off.]

“Are you serious?” Harp asked, returning the conversation to normal human response time as she withdrew her armor. She stepped back and placed a hand on one of the billiard tables, saggy against it for support.

“You know we are,” Ai said. “You were armored. You were generating your suppression field weren’t you?”

Understanding lit Harp’s confused eyes, focusing her gaze.

“That couldn’t have been someone else, you couldn’t have contacted anyone if you tried.”

“Not without a much more powerful transmitter and you would have detected any signal that was strong enough to punch through the distortion bubble you have up,” Ai said.

“How?” Harp asked.

“How did we survive?” Ai asked.

“How everything,” Harp asked.

“I’m good with math and technology,” Ai said. “And I really hate the idea of someone else owning control over my body. Put those together in a child who thinks the laws are a suggestion at best, and you can do a lot of things you shouldn’t.”

“So you built Zai from components that were inside yourself?” Harp asked. “From the systems that were intimately connected to your brain?”

“I’m not going to claim it was a move that showed good judgement, but I really didn’t want someone else deciding how my body worked. Ever.”

Ai’s amygdala was ablaze with the memories of how much she’d struggled to resist her first implants. Everyone had told her how important they were, but no one had seen how broken they’d made the young girl feel.

“So what happened with you? When you created Zai I mean? You’re different now too, aren’t you?” Harp’s body language had softened, and Zai guessed there was an expert system somewhere inside her doing to her endocrine system what Zai was doing to Ai’s. Neither woman worked perfectly at an accelerated state, but they both charged up and recovered faster than the baseline average Zai had observed.

“Zai needed different hardware to run on, which we used my brain to model and guide the creation of. Part of that effort meant rewiring select bits of my brain too.” Ai said.

“And you willing let her do that?” Harp asked.

“It was more than ‘let’, I had to nearly melt my own head off arguing her into it. She was being stubborn about the risks involved.”

[I was being reasonable. We could have finished the project without risking your brain to the extent that we did.] Zai texted.

“But we couldn’t have communicated as clearly as we can now, and that was worth the risk,” Ai said.

Harp tipped her head back and let out a chuckle.

“You know believing that you created a virtual person and upgraded yourself is even more ridiculous than thinking that you just upgraded your own brain.”

“It is,” Ai said.

“But you’re really serious aren’t you?” Harp asked.

“I am,” Ai said. “We both are. Which means you’ve now got an extra reason to trust us.”

“Because I know your secret? That makes you more dangerous, not less,” Harp said.

“Maybe so, but it gives you a different sort of leverage than you had a moment ago,” Ai said.

“You weren’t intending to reveal Zai’s existence were you?” Harp asked, her eyes narrowing.

“No, I wasn’t.”

“How many people know about her?” Harp asked.

“Counting you and me? Two.”

“How did you hide her for so long?” Harp asked.

[People don’t think to check for me all that often.] Zai texted.

“And when they do, she’s been able to hack the scanners, or shutdown enough to avoid their notice,” Ai said.

“She can interface with external systems?” Harp asked. “What sort of binding constraints did you…”

Harp’s voice trailed off as what she was facing fully registered on her.

“None,” Ai confirmed. “Zai is no more restricted than I am.”

“You created an Unfettered Intelligence? What am I saying. Of course you did. You’re a walking mad science project.”

“Do I hear the voice of experience speaking there?” Ai asked.

“I didn’t think it would come to this, but I need to ask you to make a decision, right here and now,” Harp said.

“No, I wouldn’t like to be vaporized in my boots thanks,” Ai said.

“What? No, not that,” Harp said. “That’s not how we work.”

“Good,” Ai said. “I stand by my statement though.”

“Fine, amusing even, but this is serious,” Harp said. “Before we go any further, I need to introduce you to my maker.”

Ai raised an eyebrow.

“I’ll assume that’s a literal offer and not a euphemism for something lethal. Which suggests the question; Why wouldn’t I want to do that?”

“You’ll need to submit to a full tech restraint system,” Harp said.

“Ok, that’s a little much,” Ai said, backing away defensively.

“Go ahead. I’ll be fine.” Zai said privately to Ai.

“I’m not sure I’ll be fine without you,” Ai said.

“What, you think talking to another tech nerd is going to be difficult?” Zai asked.

“I think they hold too many cards here, and Harp was too shocked to learn about you for me to think she’s anything but terrified of the idea of what you are. Once you’re under a lockdown, I can’t be sure they’ll let you out again.”

“We have to keep our creator safe,” Harp said.

“Fine, but I’m not putting on a full restraint suit. We work this out between you and me,” Ai said.

“I don’t know enough about virtual people, especially unfettered ones,” Harp said.

“No one does,” Ai said. “But Zai doesn’t need to be a part of this. You called me here. So tell me what you had in mind.”

“We thought you were the product of another creator,” Harp said.

“What do you mean by that?” Ai asked. “Are you an Unfettered Intelligence too? You look normal enough to fool me if so.”

“This is normal?” Harp asked gesturing to herself.

The irregular metal bits that protruded from her skin and the precise tattooing that linked them together rated at least an unusual, in Zai’s estimation. Ai however seemed to be looking through them and focusing on something invisible and intrinsic within Harp.

“Normal enough,” Ai said. “How were you created?”

“In a lab,” Harp said. “Or maybe it’s closer to say I was reborn there.”

“So you were a normal flesh and blood human girl before you got dragged to the lab?”

“I wasn’t dragged,” Harp said. “I was carried in on a stretcher.”

“An actual stretcher? How mangled were you?”

“On the outside? I was in perfect condition. On the inside though my organs weren’t doing quite so well.”

“Bio-tech rejection?” Ai asked.

“Yeah. Full system cascade failure.”

“I thought those weren’t survivable. Your entire body turns toxic and the bio-mods cannibalize everything trying to fix themselves.”

“It’s a lot less fun than it sounds.”

“So what did they do to you in that lab?”

Harp held her hand out silently. It split bloodlessly into a dozen sections that parted and turned to allow easier access to its inner workings.

“My body failed me, but my tech didn’t,” Harp said. “It wasn’t great tech. Crappy off brand imports that someone had paid to get onto the market without inspections. Unfit for ‘real human’ use but good enough for us Rusties.”

“I’ve never seen Rusty level tech that can do what yours does,” Ai said.

“That’s because even knock off tech is designed to fail rather iterate on its own design,” Harp said. “Except sometimes you can get lucky enough to have those safeguards be the first things to crash and burn.”

“So you’re a product of failed tech that ran loose and upgraded itself to a transhuman state?” Ai asked.

“Not precisely. My tech managed to keep me alive through my body’s cascade failure. It didn’t leave me in good shape though. I was pretty much screaming non-stop for days. On my own I would have gone insane I think. In fact I’m pretty sure I did for a while. That’s when my creator found me. They were able to break the jam my tech had snarled itself into.”

“That’s how you became a Valkyrie?”

“That was the first step. What came after was harder in some senses,” Harp said.

“Not everyone who got the bad tech made it out as well I’m guessing?” Ai asked. Zai guessed she was thinking back to Harp’s visible pain at Ai’s claim that she had upgraded herself.

“No,” Harp said. “They didn’t.”

“Hard to imagine we’re the lucky ones,” Ai said.

“Down here, yeah,” Harp said. “Up in the sky though it’s a whole different world.”

Ai laughed.

“Despite my recent history, I’m more of a ground transport sort of gal.”

“You don’t know what you’re missing,” Harp said.

“I’m ok with that,” Ai said. “I guess the question is, are we ok here? Can we work together or are we going to we shamble off to terrorize the city separately like the Abominations of Science that we are?”

Harp’s gaze flicked up and to the left for split second.

“I’m being told that Abominations of Science need to stick together,” she said. “Though not all the Abominations agree.”

“Not an unreasonable stance to take,” Ai said. “I guess that leaves the most important questions; why me? What is it that you want?”

“I wanted you in this because you’re clearly exceptional and already entangled in the whole mess. As for what the mess is? We know what Tython is doing. We know why they’re doing it too. What we need now is to take them down, and for that, we need you.”

Gamma City Blues – Arc 02 (Shakedown) – Report 09

Ai strode through the crowd outside the billiards hall with no one at her side, but she wasn’t alone.

“A lot of these people are carrying deadly weapons,” Zai said. “I’d mark them for you, but the few people I’d be leaving unmarked probably just have them out of your view.”

“Thanks for the heads up, I kind of figured that’s what we were getting into here though,” Ai said, scanning the crowd for any sign of Harp. She wasn’t in evidence but one or more of the other Valkyries could have been mingling in the crowd. Ai had only seen them in their armored forms and those obscured enough of their details that identifying them was impossible.

“I can’t help but notice our ride is moving on, and from what I can see of the garbage pick up time tables there shouldn’t be another one that comes by for another twenty four hours. Shall I arrange for to reschedule one for earlier?” Zai asked in a tone of voice that said she’d already hacked the Gamma City Waste and Water Management systems and had the change setup and awaiting the equivalent of a final keystroke to confirm it.

“I don’t think we want to leave that kind of trail,” Ai said. “There’s a record of my coming here, off duty. Riding on a garbage truck is weird, but at least technically there’s nothing wrong with it either. I could explain this to Captain James as trying to follow a lead in a creative manner and she’d basically just glower at me. If a second truck was repurposed, even if it appeared totally legit, she’d have a reason and a motive to dig further.”

“You have alternate ideas for our departure then?” Zai asked. If she sounded disappointed, Ai knew it was only because taking over other systems was like a game for her. Similar to crows teasing wolves, Zai was often happiest when she was poking at security systems that could could turn at any moment and tear her apart in their virtual jaws.

“I’m wagering we’ll have an escort of at least one Black Valkyrie,” Ai said.

She made it to the small flight of stairs leading into the billiards hall without anyone stopping her. She felt like most, or all, of the people in from of the hall were looking at her, but there was some shared understanding among them that while she was clearly an outsider, she wasn’t trespassing. Not yet at any rate.

“What happens if the Valkyries aren’t in friendly mood once all is said and done?” Zai asked. She projected areas of relative safety onto Ai’s vision. Places where, if she had to flee from the building, there would be cover and multiple routes to avoid pursuit.

“With this many lions outside the lions’ den? I think if the Valkyries aren’t happy with me then I’m very likely not going to be leaving here at all,” Ai said. It wasn’t the people outside the billiards hall that were the chief concern though. If Harp had ill intentions, then even one of the Valkyries would be able to take Ai apart efficiently enough that no class of bio-mod could put her back together.

She stepped inside the hall and refrained from blinking. Zai adjusted her vision to compensate for the lower light levels a million times faster than the human body could naturally have managed. Zai also put target outlines around the people inside to help distinguish them through the smoky haze that filled the building.

“Officer Greensmith? You’re right on time,” Harp said, standing up as the shot she had just taken sunk the final ball that was in play on her table.

“The smoke’s all retro-tobbac,” Zai said. “Nothing dangerous with our mods, but there’s enough second hand stimulants that you’d normally be feeling a mild euphoria in about thirty seconds.”

“Thanks, I’m not sure if they know how modded out I am, so I’ll play along for now,” Ai said.

“Have any trouble getting here?” Harp asked, as she chalked up a pool cue.

“Not really,” Ai said. “I caught a ride here, but it was a little slow going. Sorry I wasn’t able to change for the occasion.”

Ai had ditched the outer layer of her GCPD uniform. Walking into a meeting in Madtown was one thing. Walking in while uniform was a form of suicide that Ai had no interest in at all. That left her with the non-descript black t-shirt and generic black cargo pants she tended to wear even on her days off. Her boots were a dead giveaway that she was a cop, not because of their functionality but because the department’s fashion sense for footwear was so atrociously bad that no one but a cop would be seen in them.

Harp let a wry smile crack her lips apart as she took in Ai’s wardrobe.

“The pack’s nice,” she said, looking at the duffle bag Ai had slung behind her shoulders. “Any fun hardware in there?”

“Nothing like what you’ve got,” Ai said and dropped the pack onto one of the unused tables. She hadn’t brought an arsenal with her because there wasn’t really a point to it. Anything she could have fit in a carry along bag would have been irrelevant when faced with people who could go toe-to-toe with an NME. She could driven up in a tank and still been undergunned in fact.

“Interesting,” Harp said, her eyes flashing with a brief burst of green light. “No weapons at all?”

“Just the sidearm,” Ai said, gesturing to the GCPD regulation firearm she carried.

“Oh, yeah, cute, I guess that does qualify doesn’t it?” Harp said.

“Not really,” Ai said. “Not here at least.”

“So you’re not worried that you’ll need to defend yourself?” Harp asked.

“Or I don’t think I’d be capable,” Ai said. “Secrecy is decent shield, right up until it’s not.”

“Is that your defense or your weapon?” Harp asked, as she set up the balls for another game.

“Do I need a weapon here?” Ai asked, taking the pool stick that Harp offered her.

“We all need weapons,” Harp said, offering Ai the chance to open the game.

Ai lined up a shot with Zai’s help but didn’t manage to sink any balls on the break.

“I’m thinking you can probably get by without any in this particular instance,” Ai said, stepping back from the table to give Harp her turn.

“Because you’re harmless?” Harp asked, and sank four balls with a single shot.

“To you? Yeah, I’d say it’s a pretty safe bet to make,” Ai said.

Harp stood to chalk up her stick again.

“I wouldn’t take that bet in a thousand years,” she said. “You’re probably the most dangerous thing I’ve run into this week.”

Ai arched an eyebrow.

“You fought three NMEs less than twelve hours ago,” she said. “NMEs who, I will remind you, I crashed a car into the river just to have a prayer of surviving.”

“That was a beautiful thing,” Harp said. “Perhaps not exactly the definition of sanity, but just an amazing display of ingenuity.”

“I’m not not sure it was all that,” Ai said. “It was basically ‘drive forward, very fast’.”

“I was accelerated then too,” Harp said. “I know how tight the timing was on ejecting your power train, and on flaring the doors and trunk. I was trying to work out how to catch you and you managed to hit exactly the right angle to survive a fall that should have been fatal in 99% of cases.”

“Wait, you could have caught us?” Ai asked.

“Sure. In theory at least. I didn’t have a good solution on the approach angle before you hit the water though, so theory wasn’t exactly meeting practice there.”

“How strong are you?” Ai asked, genuinely curious.

As a kid, after she started hacking her own bio-mods, she’d toyed with the notion of amplifying her own physique. She’d held back in part because it would have been staggeringly difficult to hide the fact that she’d suborned the licensed tech within her if she made radical modifications to herself. There were technical challenges to internal human augmentation though that called to her like delicious puzzles. In the back of her mind she’d imagined a day when she was old enough and successful enough to no longer care about being discovered when she’d be able to chase down the solutions to those puzzles, and another part of her mind that was terrified at the prospect of the uncountable things that could go wrong within that sort of self-experimentation.

“That depends,” Harp said. “Do you mean me, or do mean Valkyrie One?”

Ai thought about that for a moment.

“You’re a partial conversion?” she asked, guessing at the truth Harp was hinting at.

“And there’s the weapon you brought with you,” Harp said.

“I’m no danger to you,” Ai said, as Zai dumped all the information Ai had compiled about partial conversion cyborgs across her active memory.

“You’re smart, and you appear to be a good cop,” Harp said. “You’re exactly what we need, and you’ve shown both discretion and trust in coming here. I cannot express how incredibly dangerous that makes you to us.”

“Why?” Ai asked.

“Because I want to trust you too, and that way lies betrayal and carnage and death,” Harp said.

“So, basically, an ordinary day on the job then you’re saying?” Ai asked, being more honest than it appeared.

“I’m serious,” Harp said. “We could do each other a world of good, but I’ve been down that road before and somehow, being humans, we always screw things up.”

“I can’t tell you to trust me,” Ai said. “I mean I think it’s clear that you do, otherwise you wouldn’t have invited me here, or even shown me your face in the first place. What I can offer is that there will very likely be betrayal, carnage, and death if we work together. The trick will be making sure it’s targeting the right people.”

Harp laughed.

“It’s like I’m standing on a knife. That should make me trust you so much less and yet I can’t help but feel drawn in.”

“That’s good,” Ai said. “You’ve got me boiling over with intrigue. It’s only fair you suffer a bit of uncertainty too.”

“You do seem to be running a bit on the hot side,” Zai said.

“Yeah, are you sure the stimulants in the air aren’t affecting me?” Ai asked.

“Positive. Whatever you’re feeling now is all you,” Zai said. “I can suppress it if you’d like?”

“Tempting but no,” Ai said. “This game’s kind of fun. I’d hate to miss out on enjoying it.”

“I’m not sure I follow the stakes you’re playing for,” Zai said.

“Each other pretty much,” Ai said. “We can each do tremendous damage to the other. Harp in a literal sense and me by revealing their secrets. Overcoming the fear of that is something that humans are typically miserable at. Either we pull back too soon and mess everything up, or we jump right in throwing caution to wind and leave ourselves so open that only tragedy can result.”

“How did your species ever manage to survive for a generation much less tens of thousands of years?” Zai asked.

“I think the official theory is we’re too stupid to die,” Ai said. “Might have been ‘too stubborn’, but I think stupidity is a stronger factor based on our history.”

“So I guess we should get the most important question out the way first,” Harp said. “Who was it who did your modifications?”

“That’s kind of personal, but since I can’t exactly pretend I don’t have any, I might as well trust you on that one I guess. But on one condition though,” Ai said.

“You want to know who did my conversion?” Harp asked.

“Exactly,” Ai said.

“That’s fair,” Harp said.

“Ok then, the truth is, I did my own mods. I started when I was seven. I only had the initial bio-tech installed then but I hated it, so, I kind of cracked it and used it to break the other systems they put in over the years.”

“You hacked your own tech?” Harp asked, her face clouding over. “That’s your story?”

“Yeah, believe it or not,” Ai said. “It was easy once I had root level access to the first system.”

“I don’t believe it,” Harp said, her eyes hardening. “I know what it takes to hack a mind. That’s not possible to do to yourself. Who are you really working for?”

“Myself,” Ai said, glancing around for the exits Zai had marked on her vision. None of them were close enough for her to reach before Harp could strike her down, as it was looking increasingly likely would happen.

Human stupidity at it’s finest. Ai decided, as an epitaph, it was absolutely the last thing she wanted on her tombstone despite it also being the most appropriate thing under the circumstances.

“Don’t lie. I knew you were too good to be true, so tell me who you’re working for and you can walk out of here,” Harp said, her body vibrating with suppressed energy as she held back the transformation into her battle form.

Ai let ice flow through her veins, her emotions drifting away under a neurotransmitter bath provided by Zai.

“I’m not lying,” she said, her voice flat and serious. “I took control of my own modifications. What I am now is what I have created myself to be.”

“That’s. Not. Possible!” Harp said, her armor flaring out to cover her skin. “We’ve seen people who’ve tried that. I know, exactly, what happens to them.” Her voice was metallic but it carried a raw pain that could only have been born in a personal tragedy.

“You don’t know me,” Ai said. “You don’t know what I’m capable of.”

“It doesn’t matter how smart you are,” Harp said. “You can’t rewrite your own brain.”

[You can if you have help.] Zai said, transmitting on a private channel that only only she, Ai and Harp had access to.

Gamma City Blues – Arc 02 (Shakedown) – Report 08

Ai felt the wheels in her mind spin into high gear in response to the declaration that she wasn’t human.

“Is she guessing or does she have some tech to spot the modifications we’ve made?” Zai asked.

“I don’t think she’s guessing,” Ai said, “but I don’t think she has a full picture of us either. With any luck, you’re still a mystery to her.”

“Any point in trying to deny what she said?” Zai asked.

“Curtweather is still out right? I think there’s a better path available here,” Ai said.

“I’ll give you credit, you do a good job hiding it.” Harp didn’t speak the message but sent it by text across Ai’s heads up display.

“Thank you,” Ai replied. “And I think I see what gave me away now.”

“Yeah, you were just a little too fast with the return message,” Harp said, aloud this time.

“That’s embarrassing really, the whole point of thinking fast is to avoid mistakes like that,” Ai said.

“You were in freefall at the time,” Harp pointed out. “Also there was a rampaging monster fighting on top of your car.”

“How quick was it?” Ai asked, calling up the chat logs to see for herself.

“Three microseconds,” Harp said.

Three millionths of a second. Faster than human perception by three orders of magnitude. Anyone beside someone with Ai’s class of enhancements would have taken at least a thousand times longer to even notice the Harp’s message arrive. Formulating a response, even with a direct neural link would have taken a thousand times longer than that.

“But you switched to normal conversation again?” Ai asked, puzzled that Harp, and by extension the rest of the Black Valkyries, were willing to spend the time required for an inefficient human form of communication.

“It’s taxing for you, isn’t it? Accelerated thought?” Harp asked.

“She noticed that? She’s got to have tech that can scan us,” Zai said.

“There are some trade-offs to it,” Ai said.

“Let me guess,” Harp said. “If you remain at an accelerated state for too long your hardware starts to overheat and you risk boiling your brain.”

“That is one of the downsides,” Ai said. “I thought cooling options but…”

“But they can fail, and they’re much easier to scan for,” Harp said.

“And they would need to be so distributed throughout the brain that they’d potentially interfere my regular synaptic processing.”

“We need to vanish,” Dee, one of the other Valkyries, said. “Our window’s closing.”

“Window? So they do have a time limit?” Zai said.

“That had to be true,” Ai said. “With how they vanish after every major battle? Whether it’s a tech limit or a detection concern, there had to be some reason they never stayed around.”

“Do we have the samples?” Harp asked.

“Extracted and sealed,” Dee said.

“Wings up then,” Harp said. “Pleasure meeting you again Officer Greensmith.”

Wait! Ai texted the message to Harp on a private channel.

Problem? Harp texted back.

How did you know to find us? Ai asked.

Isn’t it a Valkyrie’s job to choose from the worthy dead? Harp asked.

Sure, but I’m not dead, Ai texted.

Guess you’ll have to come to Valhalla to find out then, Harp said.

An address marker appeared on Ai’s internal mapping software. 83 Meadhall Blvd. Meadhall ran through a long series of “Rusty” blocks, slums for those who could only afford the lowest grade of bio-tech, which were explicitly out of bounds for any on duty police officer.

In theory the restriction was in place because the blocks were in arrears on their ‘municipal contributions to support a local police presence’. In practice it meant that ‘Madtown’, as the police exclusion zone was called, relied on ‘local forces’ to keep the peace.

The gangs of Madtown had reach and influence well beyond its unpatrolled borders but even with that neither they nor anyone else there should have had access to the kind of tech the Black Valkyries were enhanced with.

I’ll see you there, Ai texted. What time works for you?

When do you go off duty?

Be there at 8:00.

Ai watched as the Valkyries lifted off rising into the air and disappearing from view thanks to what had to be the most advanced camouflage system Ai could imagine.

“Is meeting with them wise?” Zai asked. “They may not have us completely figured out yet.”

“They probably don’t,” Ai said. “But we know far too little about them too, and I think they’re well ahead of us on the NME situation.”

“Is it going to be safe to meet with them though?” Zai asked. “Madtown is not exactly a cop friendly environment.”

“That’s probably part of the test,” Ai said. “They want to see how I handle getting to them.”

“Seems like there’s a lot of possible wrong answers there,” Zai said.

“Definitely,” Ai said. “Public transport or a rental vehicle are out.”

“Yeah, the auto-buses don’t run there and the rental agencies all have region lock-outs on places like that.”

“Walking in won’t work either. It’s too far and I’d be stopped probably a dozen times.”

“Could we try to disguise you?” Zai asked.

“If we had more time, probably,” Ai said. “There’s too much about me that’s off though. We’d need to hide all the effects of my mods and make it look like half of them have been offline for the majority of my life.”

“Depending on how you were dressed most of them wouldn’t show,” Zai said.

“I’d stand out just for being a stranger,” Ai said. “Most of the people who live in Madtown can’t work anywhere else. The transport lock-outs are there as much to keep them in as to keep the rest of us out.”

“So where does that leave us?” Zai asked.

“We need transportation but we can’t arrange it through legitimate channels,” Ai said.

“What about just buying a car?” Zai asked. “We can afford it if we tap into the Heartless funds.”

“Heartless is too close to Greensmith as it is,” Ai said. “As tempting as it is to wave a money wand and make the problem go away, it’s those kind of mistakes that always come back to bite you in the end.”

“What resources does Officer Greensmith have at her disposal that’ll help with this then?” Zai asked.

“I’ve got a badge and I’ve got you,” Ai said.


At 4:30pm, Ai exited the debriefing room with Curtweather at her heels. Captain James had glowered at the loss of another police cruiser but begrudgingly commended them for surviving another encounter with an NME. Missing was any mention of the Black Valkyries. The moment they showed up the recordings stopped. The official story was that the NMEs were growing  more unstable and experienced catastrophic failure when they crashed into the water.

Ai noticed that Captain James was focused primarily on determining where the search teams should look to recover the NME bodies. Ai made a mental note to hack the records for that investigation. She doubted the forensic techs would find whatever they were looking for since it had probably fallen in the Valkyries’ hands.

At 4:31pm, Curtweather unofficially clocked out. Ai dropped him off at a “Spa and Grill”, Gamma City’s answer to low cost food and automated comfort dispensation. Since they were off their regular patrol routes for the rest of the day, there wouldn’t be any spot inspections to detect that the city was not getting its proper value from Curtweather’s time. Ai could have filed a report herself but given Curtweather’s mood after almost drowning, or really his mood in general, Ai was just as happy to let him have his extra free time, so long as it was far away from her.

At 5:45pm, Ai presented herself to the Bay Haulers City Services lot yard for an unscheduled inspection. Patrol cops like her got tasked to do all sorts of menial tasks, so no one batted an eye once they saw her badge and the work order she brought checked out.

At 5:58pm, Ai boarded the driver’s cabin of Trash Reclamation Vehicle A10-03. As an automated garbage truck, A10-03 didn’t need a crew. There was still a ‘driver’s cabin’ however for legacy purposes and to allow the truck to serve multiple roles as needed.

At 6:00pm, Ai went off duty and the GCPD monitoring system began recording her position in a purely passive manner. No alarms were raised an hour later when she crossed into Madtown.

“So police, fire, and ambulance crews are forbidden but the garbage trucks still get in?” Zai asked.

“The people who live here view cops as their enemies, for some pretty understandable reasons. Firefighter trucks and ambulances carry valuable equipment that the city doesn’t want to risk losing. Garbage trucks on the other hand carry junk.”

“Aren’t the trucks themselves valuable though?”

“They are, which is why they don’t stop and have all those theoretically non-lethal defense systems.” Ai said.

“The electrified body is for use against people?”

“What did you think it was for?” Ai asked.

“To keep the animals away,” Zai said.

“It does that too, but how much do you think a company would spend to protect trash from pigeons?”

“But there are laws against automated devices that are capable of harming or killing humans!” Zai said.

“Hence the theoretically non-lethal,” Ai said. “So long as you can point to a study published at the time that said the measures were within the accepted safety margins, you can get away with pretty much any anti-theft devices.”

“And if the study is found to be in error, then you did your due diligence and can’t be held accountable? I think I’ve heard this story before.”

“Just another part of the world that needs to burn,” Ai said. “On the upside though, we’ve got a self driving tank that will, eventually, take us where we need to go.”

Another hour passed before the garbage truck reached 83 Meadhall. Its sensors recorded that a door was opened from the inside, and that its occupant exited to vehicle. Since neither of those conditions matched the events of a robbery profile, the truck’s control system logged the occurrences and proceeded on its assigned route. When it made it back to the transfer station a standard automated scan was performed of its event log to double check the live telemetry that had been received. Ai’s exit from the truck raised no flags there and so the log deleted and replaced by a summary note which stated that nothing noteworthy occurred for that shift.

From the truck’s point of view, that was true. The residents of 83 Meadhall Blvd had a different take on the matter however.

“There are a lot of people here,” Zai said. “Even with the reloads you’re carrying, I don’t think we can fight it out if it comes to that.”

Ai smiled and let her gaze drift across the faces of the crowd that was assembled outside the old fashioned billiards hall.

There were easily a few dozen men and women loitering outside the bar. Everyone of them bore the marks of obsolete or partially defective bio-mods. None of that surprised Ai though. In a ‘rough neighborhood’ people naturally banded together for protection and power.

That didn’t explain the children though.

The crowd outside of the billiard hall held enough children that it looked more like a multi-family outing than a the drunken gang hangout that Ai had been expecting.

Like the adults around them, the children showed the same sort of ramshackle metal piercings and lean, muscle diminished forms that spoke of malfunctioning bio-mods. While every citizen was guaranteed the right to automated and internalized healthcare, there was no provision in place for the quality or durability of the bio-mods provided.

Ai’s stomach turned as she looked on an army of people who represented the nightmare she’d feared would be inflicted on her. Trying to avoid becoming one of them was the reason she’d risked everything to create Zai.

Looking at the people who waited for her though, the nightmare seemed shaky and uncertain. They weren’t miserable. They weren’t crying in the gutters waiting for someone to save them. By and large, the people in front of the Valkyries’ hall were just people, enjoy a loud and (mostly) friendly night.