Monthly Archives: July 2017

Gamma City Blues – Arc 03 (Falling) – Report 10

Ai’s biggest regret in her dealings with Sidewalker and his crew was that he loved eating in nice restaurants but she never got enjoy the fare in the rented robot bodies she used to keep Heartless’s identity secure.

“I was surprised to hear from you again so soon,” Sidewalker said. He’d chosen the venue for the meeting, though Heartless was the one footing the bill. As restaurants went it didn’t look like much, just a large open dining area with tables of various sizes and a kitchen in the back that several, somehow harmonious, scents wafted out from every time a server passed through the swinging doors that separated it from the main room.

“My gratitude for agreeing to this meeting,” Ai said, the voice and diction modulators rendered her words into Heartless’s precise accent and vocal range.

“It’s always nice to have someone pick up the tab for lunch,” Sidewalker said.

Since time was of the essence, Ai had scheduled Heartless’s meeting as early as was practical, making it a lunch meeting rather than a dinner one. Had either of them been regular office workers an even earlier meeting would have been plausible, but as a mercenary Sidewalker kept erratic hours, and if Heartless appeared to be in a hurry to resolve an issue Sidewalker would have had the sense to avoid the mission on general principal.

“I trust the proceeds from our last transaction haven’t run dry?” Heartless asked, the robot body executing a series of small motions meant to evoke a sense of liveliness without venturing into the Uncanny Valley. Ai wanted Sidewalker at ease. Talking to an unmoving, unblinking, near human face was not optimal for creating a sense of security. With small, relatively slow motions though, the sort that humans make unconsciously on an almost continual basis, it was easy to fool the pattern recognition engine of the mind into believing the machine in front of someone was a relaxed and unthreatening living being.

“It’s funny you bring that up,” Sidewalker said, as he dropped a forkful of rice into his curry. “With the bonus you added, we should have been on vacation for at least a few months, but when I checked the ledgers and with the others, the money seems to have just disappeared on us.”

“Not literally I presume?” Heartless asked.

“No, the money wasn’t stolen,” Sidewalker said. “We know what we spent it on, but it just seems odd that so many things we were looking for became available just as soon as we had the money to afford them.”

A server approached the table and gestured to the quarter full glass of synth-beer beside Sidewalker’s plate. Sidewalker responded in sign language, thanking the woman and agreeing to the refill.

Ai glanced around the room, noticing that they had arrived before the lunch rush and were one of only three tables of customers in the restaurant, each seated equally distant from the others.

“Deaf?” Heartless asked, indicating the retreating server.

“Since birth,” Sidewalker said. “Would need platinum tier bio-mods to restore her hearing and there can be serious sensory issues that come up even then.”

“I take it that’s why you prefer this establishment?” Heartless asked. “For the extra privacy it affords?”

“No,” Sidewalker said. “Kaeta can see what we’re saying just fine. She’s got a pretty decent speech-to-text rig, and it’s a restaurant, people only talk about so many different things in here.”

“Why the sign language then?” Ai asked. She knew various factoids about adaptive bio-mods, ones which worked around problems when the core issue couldn’t be addressed for whatever reason. With Zai’s mod reprogramming wizardry, Ai hadn’t needed anything like that for herself though so it wasn’t an area she’d studied in much depth.

“Respect,” Sidewalker said. “Also, come on, sign’s beautiful.”

“I can’t argue with that,” Heartless said. “As to your earlier question, you alluded to my being involved in your current financial situation? You’re correct there, to some extent at least. After our parting I did give a few of the people who contacted you your public links.”

Through Heartless’s eyes, Ai watched Sidewalker scoop up a bit of the curry and rice with the flatbread that came with his meal. He was going to be chewing for a few seconds after that so, risking a moment of disorientation, she blinked her real eyes and returned her vision back to the hospital cafeteria she was sitting in.

A meeting during lunch meant a meeting while she was on duty, so Ai had Zai make sure that the work she and Curtweather were assigned for the day didn’t require much attention. Normally patrolling would have fallen into that category, but since Ai needed to ‘zone out’ for the duration of the meeting with Sidewalker, Zai had substituted guard duty instead.

In theory, guarding a witness within a hospital was an assignment where the only danger was death by boredom. Even mildly decent hospitals were covered in EyeGrid cameras and had containment measures designed to stop anything up to, and possibly including, an NME from breaking out or in.

During the first zombie robot apocalypse, people had learned the hard lesson that critical care facilities were, by definition, critical to maintain. It was one of the few pieces of wisdom that endured past the rebuilding of society.

As Ai sliced through the bland Nutri-Paste on her plate, she had to wonder if all of the extra security spending for the hospital had come out of the food budget. It was particularly had to stomach something so unappetizing given the mouth watering scent of Sidewalker’s curry reaching out across the neural link with the robot she was inhabiting.

She made a show of picking at the paste and refocused on her conversation with Sidewalker. To anyone wandering into the cafeteria, it would look like she was viewing an internal display and spending her lunch break watching whatever vid-feed entertainment had drawn a decent number of hits the night before.

“So you were sending people to us as a favor?” Sidewalker asked in between bites of curry that Ai felt her real stomach grumbling for a taste of.

“As a favor yes, though not specifically for you,” Heartless said. “Keiyan Dhalmler was looking for someone willing to invest in his prototype armoring mod. It seemed like the kind of thing your team might find useful, but the favor was to Keiyan in providing him with a lead which turned out well. Similarly, Iatee Holdings needed an outlet for an arms shipment which was stuck here due to unforeseen export restrictions. You seemed like a local buyer who would benefit from the reduced sale prices.”

Ai didn’t mention that Keiyan’s two other investors had been seduced by vaporware projects which one of Heartless’s more distance shell companies had sold them on, or that Iatee Holding’s shipment of regulated firearms had been detained due an anonymous tip backed by a hefty bribe to the Gamma City customs officials.

Sidewalker’s crew had refused the request to capture an intact NME, and thought that was the end of their association with Heartless, but Ai had no desire to lose good talent. Not when grooming a relationship with them was so easy to do from several steps removed.

“We’ve had other turns of good luck since working with you along those lines, but I suppose it’s not worth looking that gift horse too closely in the mouth,” Sidewalker said. “That’s why I agreed to this meeting. I have a favor to return to you.”

Ai allowed her surprise to register on the robot’s face.

“I wasn’t aware I had asked for any favors?” Heartless said.

The crowd outside the restaurant was growing more dense but, as yet, no one else had entered to eat. Something about that felt wrong but Ai couldn’t place quite why.

“Could you run a scan on the Eye Grid cams around the place we’re meeting with Sidewalker?” she asked Zai, returning her focus to her lunch companion.

“Sure,” Zai said. “I’ll start running facial recognition on the people outside and let you know if anyone interesting turns up.”

The sound of several more people entering the cafeteria near her tried to divide Ai’s attention further, but she resisted the urge to switch video feeds. It would have taken only milliseconds to adjust but it would have been out of character for Heartless to be that distracted.

“This is the sort of favor that comes without being asked for,” Sidewalker said. “You hired us, and paid the fee fairly and promptly. I can’t tell you how much less of a hassle that makes you than some of our other customers. That’s why I refused a job yesterday.”

“You had a job related to myself? Or to my interests?” Heartless asked.

“Related to you,” Sidewalker said. “Related to this very meeting in fact.”

“We didn’t arrange this meeting until today though?” Heartless said.

“Yeah, but someone knew you were going to get in touch with me,” Sidewalker said. “Someone who wanted me to sell you out.”

“Sell me out how?” Ai asked, dozens of scenarios, each worse than the last, spinning to life in her mind.

“The offer was simple,” Sidewalker said. “The next time you arranged a meeting, I was to request we dine at the Charles Club and notify a contact number of the date and time we would be arriving.”

“Who was the contact?” Ai asked.

“It was a blind data drop,” Sidewalker said. “Or mostly blind. We followed the access logs back to an account with NovaGenesis.”

“They’re a division of Tython,” Ai said, not liking at all where the conversation was going.

“Yes, the same company we broke into a data warehouse to steal data from,” Sidewalker said.

“That wasn’t wise to say aloud,” Heartless said.

“You’re blocking the data feeds,” Sidewalker said. “Just like you did last time. It’s ok. I appreciate that. That however is why we will not be taking this new contract. We appreciate your business, and the work you’ve done for us since, but, at this juncture, we seem to be known by a corporation which is much larger than we wish to contend against. I don’t know what they can do to you, or whether they are a concern at all for you, but until we fall off their radar we can’t risk letting them get any closer.”

Ai felt the cool bite of metal press against her neck.

Her real neck.

For a moment she was confused, trying to sort out the conflicting sensations from the robot body and her natural one.

“Right Greensmith, wake up from your vid, you’re coming with us,” a cop said from behind her.

“I understand,” Heartless said for Ai. “Please hold that thought, I need to take care of a brief matter.”

Ai opened her regular eyes and found herself surrounded. They weren’t in uniform, but she recognized several of her fellow GCPD Officers. Even the feeling of the gun barrel pushed against the base of her skull wasn’t wholly surprising. A betrayal from within the force was something she’d been expecting ever since she made the decision to join it.

“We’ve got a few questions for you Greensmith,” Officer Adams said, punctuating his words with small presses on her neck with the gun.

Ai didn’t know what the questions would be, but she knew the last word said would be a gunshot. Three in fact. Two of them center mass in the torso and one right between the eyes. That they were willing to do the deed in a hospital was unexpected. Whatever happened would be recorded by at least a half dozen cameras.

Unless the camera’s had already been hacked.

“I’m checking for intrusion into the hospital’s system’s right now,” Zai said. “Starting to get back results on the facial analysis of the crowd outside the restaurant too.”

“Pardon me,” she said as Heartless to Sidewalker, “This matter may take a few minutes to resolve.”

“He may not have a few minutes,” Zai said. “At least a half dozen people in the crowd are active Grey League agents. Tython had him followed and I can’t imagine it was for his health and safety.”


Gamma City Blues – Arc 03 (Falling) – Report 09

Fear has the power to bring every problem into immediate focus. No matter the likelihood of a particular bit of trouble occurring, it can feel like it will absolutely happen in the next instant unless something, anything, is done without delay. Ai was gripped with that sensation and fought against the panic driven urge to do something that rose within her at the thought that Tython had developed a working cure.

“We have to act like it’s not too late yet,” she said, as much for her own benefit as for Zai’s. The automated taxi had dropped her off at her apartment building, and she let the outdated bio-scanners identify her for the minute it took them to run their antiquated processing routines.

“The keyword there being ‘act’, right?” Zai asked. Ai knew that her companion had dozens of sub-tasks churning away, pre-fetching data that might be relevant. Where Zai was capable of gathering information though, Ai was the one who was able to synthesize it into a deeper, more meaningful set of contextual clues.

“Maybe,” Ai said. Her brain felt overheated, though a quick check of her internal thermometer showed that she was still well within the safety limits of her cognitive augments. “Acting feels right, but almost too much so. It’s easy to get caught in the trap of thinking each move an enemy makes demands a counter. The illusion of control is like a drug to the human brain.”

“I think I might have inherited that from you,” Zai said. “I’m not getting close to Tython but it feels like casting a wide net for data is mandatory at the moment.”

“As long as you’re careful, I think you’re doing the right thing,” Ai said. The elevator opened as she entered the lobby. It was mercifully empty, aside from the various advertising posters that were plastered over every wall. The posters flickered as Ai entered the small area, the Sensi-Papers reconfiguring the images they displayed to show ads targeted at her presumed interests. Life insurance ads were prominent, with cosmetic body mods a close second in frequency, and home security packages the next most common. Ai wondered if other cops saw the same messaging or if the ad servers just couldn’t find anything specific to link her to and so defaulted to the most generic of results.

“Before we take another step though, let’s take a moment to consider how things play out if we stop reacting to Tython’s moves.” Ai said, stepping into her apartment. It was quiet and still. Usually that was comforting. Silence meant no one had tripped any of the alarms she’d added to the room. Stillness meant the environment was safe, for the moment at least.

Ai threw her coat onto one of her chairs. The apartment didn’t feel safe so much as empty. She pushed away that though along with the fatigue that was dragging her down.

“If we don’t do anything doesn’t Tython win?” Zai asked.

“Yeah,” Ai said. “This round. Beating them at this stage though won’t fundamentally change how the system is setup. We could have Harcroft taken out and someone else would be promoted to fill his place.”

“On the other hand though,” Zai said. “If we walk away and Tython does finish their cure, society will change on a fundamental level, maybe even to one we won’t be able to effect meaningful change against.”

“Do we care?” Ai asked, forcing herself to look past her gut reactions and search for the truth beyond the cravings of her Id.

“About Tython ruling the world? I think we do,” Zai said. “That’s supposed to be your job right?”

Ai chuckled, and pulled a bottle of chilled PureWater™ from the refrigerator.

“Less rule the world, more remove the parts of it that aren’t working anymore,” Ai said. “That is a solid argument against inaction though. If Tython finds a cure they gain a stranglehold on the world that would be impossible for us to remove. Or more impossible, given that ‘quixotic’ is probably the kindest description you could give to our work as Heartless.”

“That makes things simple then,” Zai said. “We move against Tython because we have to, otherwise they’ll turn us into hideous techno-monsters. Well, maybe not us. Our bio-mods are so far off spec that no permutation of the NME activation code could come close to infecting us.”

“Hmm, thanks for reminding me of that,” Ai said. “We don’t have a cure for the NME code, but we do, in a sense, have an actual vaccination against it.”

“If Tython figures that out, we’re kind of in trouble aren’t we?” Zai asked.

“Not necessarily,” Ai said. “Or at least not for that reason. Military grade bio-mods are also too well protected to be affected by the NME code right?”

“True, but we’re not supposed to have military grade bio-mods,” Zai said.

“Yeah, but the key here is that if Tython wanted an actual vaccine against the NME code, they’ve got existing models they could draw from,” Ai said. “It’s not hard to figure out how to make people immune to the digital virus, it’s just costly.”

“At current pricing levels, there’s not a nation or multinational on the planet that could afford to shield all of their citizens or employees,” Zai said. “At most the top 40% of wage earners could be protected, but an economic analysis suggests the cutoff point is more likely to be the top 20% by net worth, with a portion of the remainder being able to self-fund their upgrades.”

“Upgrading everyone to combat levels of encryption on their bio-mods would create other issues as well,” Ai said. “Combat mods need to work in disconnected mode, right? Once people had a sufficient set of enhancements running, they could disconnect from the upgrade grid and escape the monthly maintenance fees.”

“That would also prevent them from being subject to similar attacks in the future, particularly if the NME activation code was released in an enhanced form,” Zai said.

“From Tython’s perspective, none of that is good,” Ai said. “They can’t afford to have their revenue stream cut off, even if it gained them an enormous one-time windfall.”

“What is their end goal with this project? Just more money or literal world domination?” Zai asked.

“I’d speculate it’s about putting them in the ultimate position of market dominance.  Not exactly ruling the world, but with no restraints or competition to hold them back at all,” Ai said. “That’s the smart play from what I can see, but it’s never a good idea to bet on humans going with the smart play. As a species, we seem to have an addiction to grandiose displays of stupidity.”

“So the question is, how do we stop them?” Zai asked.

“As indirectly as possible,” Ai said. “They’re probably going to come after us at some point before this is all over. We’re too close to what’s gone on so far, for them not to try to clean us off the board.”

“Should we think about giving up the Officer Greensmith persona then?” Zai asked.

“No, that’s all that’s keeping us safe at the moment,” Ai said. “If Officer Greensmith disappears, or even changes her role significantly, whoever was watching enough to send the NMEs after Curtweather will definitely notice and readjust their aim.”

“If we run though, I can make sure they never find us,” Zai said.

“You can make us invisible, electronically, and socially,” Ai said. “Picture how we’d search for someone who’s hidden using the techniques you’d use though.”

“We’d have to try something unusual,” Zai said. “Flush them out through their habits or connections or across a wide enough array of statistical samplings.”

“Right,” Ai said. “Even if we’re invisible, Tython could find us by looking for the hole in the world that we leave behind. It’s a lot harder, but these are people with a lot of resources and a lot of motivation.”

“So what do we do when they come after Officer Greensmith again?” Zai asked.

“We rely on the honor and support of our fellow GCPD officers to see us through this trying time,” Ai said.

“Huh, I didn’t realize I needed to start administering anti-psychotics to you so soon,” Zai said.

“Yes, yes, the GCPD hates me, you know that, I know that, but Officer Greensmith doesn’t,” Ai said. “She’s just a rookie, and she thinks being stiff and formal is what cops do. She doesn’t know that she’s being snubbed when no one invites her out to their drunken bar crawls. She doesn’t know that mentors are supposed to fill their trainee in on all the little details that don’t make it into the manual. She still thinks that because she graduated with good grades, and is clean and honest that people look at her as being a good cop.”

“And if push comes to shove, not a one of them will stand up to protect you,” Zai said. It wasn’t a question.

“They’ll stand up for each other,” Ai said. “No one wants to be the one who let their buddy down. I just don’t make the cut for being a buddy. They’ll never stand up for me, but fortunately we don’t need them too.”

“You’re thinking of using more of the people on the Special List?” Zai asked.

“All of them and more if we need to. I’m planning to empty that list someday,” Ai said. “If and when Tython comes for me, that someday may get here in a real hurry. That’s assuming that they’re needed at all though. Part of me expects Tython to turn more subtle in their attempts to silence me. Subtle we can deal with. Subtle even gives us a chance, in most cases, to turn the tables on them. That’s why the other part of me is expecting another horde of NMEs to bust through our window any time now.”

“I don’t like how rational you make that sound,” Zai said.

“Well our best defense against an army of NMEs tearing the city apart as they hunt us down is to stop the Cure project before it reaches a viable implementation phase,” Ai said. “For that though we’re going to need the kind of access that only an insider can get.”

“Which insider?” Zai asked.

“I think we start with Harcroft,” Ai said. “He’s one of the initial architects of this and even if it’s being run by someone else now, there’d have to be touchpoints back to him.”

“I’ve gathered a lot of information about him from Tython’s servers,” Zai said. “I can’t put together what bits might be relevant to the NME Cure project though. They all seem to be removed from that by a wide margin.”

“I’m not surprised,” Ai said. “What we need is more than what you can find on the net about Harcroft, we need answers from the man himself.”

“I don’t think he’s likely to be all that interested in talking to us,” Zai said.

“We don’t need to talk to him,” Ai said. “In fact, I think speaking is pretty useless in this case. He has every reason to lie and he can do so about things we have no method of verifying.”

“So, you’re going to trick the information out of him,” Zai asked.

Ai tossed her water bottle into the bottle bin by the door and let herself tumble over onto her small couch.

“If he’s been in the game this long, he’ll probably be fairly cagey,” Ai said. “At least about the details of his life that he’s aware of. There’s a whole bunch of things that people just don’t pay attention to though. So we’re going to be play a little catch and release and see where Mr. Harcourt decides to lead us.”

“The ‘catch’ part of that sounds somewhat dangerous,” Zai said.

“It is,” Ai agreed. “Horribly. Which is why we’re not going to do it. Not when our good friend Mr. Sidewalker is eager for another contract.”

“Didn’t he call you back and turn you down for further work after the last time?” Zai asked.

“He did,” Ai said. “But that was before his team saw the work that you’d done on their behalf. Let’s get in touch with him again and see if his heart has soften as much as his bank account has.”

Gamma City Blues – Arc 03 (Falling) – Report 08

No one came to kill Ai. It proved to be a disappointing turn of events. A nice assassination attempt would have felt like they were making progress. It would have been a piece of incontrovertible proof of where and who her enemies were. That it might have succeeded was something Ai was also aware of. Her disappointment was tempered therefor with the relief that she didn’t need to fight for her life, though that shining crystal of joy was in turn marred because while an assassination attempt hadn’t happened yet, one could occur at almost any time, so she couldn’t exactly rest easy.

“We’ve gotten deep enough into this that we’re starting to lose safe options for moving forward,” she said, as she picked a path out of the deserted train yard. Gamma City never really slept, but public transit had sharply limited hours and apart from cops with a lot to hide and an sapient cyberpal to surgically disable security, no one had much use for the city’s trains when they were out of service.

“Should we back off then?” Zai asked, temporarily suppressing the alarms and giving Ai a marked route to safely exit the train yard. “We could be buried in normal case work that would keep us under the radar of everyone who’s involved in this.”

“Unfortunately, we’ve been active enough that it may not matter how unimportant and unconnected we appear to be,” Ai said. She wasn’t a ninja, but moving silently and invisibly was pretty easy with Zai making sure no one was watching or listening for her. Despite that she still took care to remain in the shadows of the cars. Zai was talented but that didn’t mean there weren’t people with similar levels of skill and Ai saw no reason to make her enemies lives any easy than she had too. “If Tython has caught sight of us, or Dr. Raju is playing the Valkyries as patsies, they’ll move against us just to be on the safe side.”

“No one’s made a move yet,” Zai said. “So is that a good sign or a bad one?’

“Probably a bit of both,” Ai said. “In the plus column, Tython and their associates aren’t so desperate about what we’ve discovered that they’re willing to come at us guns blazing. Which means they don’t know the extent of what we’ve uncovered.”

“That sounds like an exceptionally good thing. This Harcroft we found a trail to? He seems to like sending NMEs to solve his problems,” Zai said, she projected video footage on a side screen in Ai’s vision as a reminder of just how bad that attack had been. “Is there a reason he didn’t follow up the attack the Valkyries busted up though? I’ve been trying to figure that out for a while now. I mean, we barely survived the first encounter and that was with the Valkyries’ help and a convenient river to crash into.”

“I’ve been thinking about that too,” Ai said. “If he’s the one who unleashed the NMEs, then he’s clearly not on too tight of a leash, and that seems odd for a company like Tython.”

“I agree. Why be so obvious?” Zai asked. “The NME Cure project has been operating under hard walls of secrecy. It seems out of character to send three monsters at a time.”

“The usual explanations would be either desperation, or their creator wanted to send a message,” Ai said, getting into the automated taxi that Zai had waiting for her outside the trainyard.

In the systems that recorded her position, a worm wiggled, changing dates and locations to make a number of police location records unreadable. Only one was left with ‘difficult to detect but definitely present’ signs of tampering, and with enough digging an investigator could discover that the officer in question had faked being home at a time when he was selling patrol schedules to a backroom information broker.

“The lack of a follow up attack argues against the “desperation motive” though it might also speak to a change in leadership,” Ai said. “Can you see if Harcroft is still officially employed by Tython? They would have hidden him if he was directly in charge of the NME program.”

“Huh, they didn’t. He’s still a Tython employee. He’s even in the same role,” Zai said. “Wasn’t our theory that the NME Cure project was what got him his position in Tython?”

“Yeah, and the theory still stands,” Ai said. “He got a fat promotion after the acquisition. Going behind a research veil to manage an illegal program would have been a crippling blow to his career – you can’t list ‘illicit human experimentation manager’ on a resume – and it would have been hard to explain from Tython’s end. You don’t promote someone, give them a big bonus, and then wish them the best of luck pursuing ‘other opportunities.”

“So is he not connected to the project anymore then?” Zai asked.

“I can’t see that happening either,” Ai said. “It’s too big and too important, and if he’s not a part of it then he becomes a loose end. Given that he’s still alive, I can’t picture that being the case. I think he split the difference and is running the project through a trusted underling. That’s a lot more practical overall too. As a public face of Tython, there’d be too much scrutiny on him by the newsfeeds for him to have daily interactions with the research staff.”

The automated taxi slid as it turned a corner a little too tightly. Ai smiled knowing that Zai was messing with its control interface to ensure that the hidden monitoring systems were returning something painfully bland.

“And that’s true even if it’s being done is unlicensed labs, with contractors who can’t be traced back to Tython?” Zai asked.

“Especially then,” Ai said. “Picture if every day, or even every week, there were chunks of time out of his schedule that he couldn’t account for to anyone.”

“Is this the kind of thing that could be given to an underling though?” Zai asked.

“I’m doubting Harcroft was happy with the idea, but he’d already have been relying on a bunch of researchers to do the work. Having one of them step forward as the project director would have felt natural to everyone concerned.”

“And they could stay behind an Identity Hedge so we don’t have any direct one options for determining who they are,” Zai said. “That supports your idea that they’re not acting out of desperation.”

“Yeah. I’m starting to think there’s more to it than I originally considered though,” Ai said. “My first theory was that they were sending a message to the GCPD. Tython knew about the theft from their data vault. They probably guessed, or are just paranoid enough to assume, that Sidewalker’s crew escaped with the data, so the next step is to kill who has the data or someone close enough to them in a spectacular enough fashion that the real holder of the data will sit on it forever.”

“That seems like a pretty strong message,” Zai said.

“What if there was another side to it though?” Ai asked. Her gaze flicked over the people on the sidewalks as they drove by at the taxi’s regulated and unexceptional speed. Bits of metal, body piercings, low grade bio-mods, and handmade armor bits, kept catching her eye. None of the people in the crowd were who she was looking for though. None of them were Harp.

“They were trying to signal someone else as well? Like the Valkyries?” Zai asked.

“That’s one possibility,” Ai said. “They found us pretty quickly. I’m not complaining about that, but being the right place at the right time for an attack like that is tough. It would have been a lot easier if they received a sign that something was going to go down in advance of the NMEs being deployed. It wouldn’t need to be a direct invitation, just a stray bit of data that tipped them off.”

“We should ask Harp about that when she comes back,” Zai said.

“If she comes back,” Ai said without meaning to.

“Are you worried she’s going to turn on us too?” Zai asked.

“No, it’s just nerve wracking not hearing anything,” Ai said. “I told her to call if she gets into trouble, but what if she can’t?”

“You think Dr. Raju did something to her?” Zai asked.

“I don’t know,” Ai said. “It’s possible. If Raju is in on this from the wrong end, and I know that’s unlikely, she could have a literal kill switch installed in Harp. Given the power the Valkyries have, I’d almost be surprised if there’s not a kill switch in the code somewhere in fact.”

“Should we try to find Harp?” Zai asked.

“No, I’m being paranoid,” Ai said. “Interfering now won’t help things unless Harp is in serious trouble, and if things are that bad we’d need a very different plan than ‘rush in and try to rescue her’.”

The automated taxi arrived at the all night soy noodle shop where Zai directed it to stop and Ai got out. It was too long of a walk back to get back to her apartment from there but not too long of a walk to make it to the coffee shop Ai sometimes spent her nights at when she was in college. Calling another taxi from there would provide a fresh record of her whereabouts that was consistent with past behavior and, with luck, not arouse too any suspicion if someone was scanning for officers who were in unusual locations that night. Or in unusual company.

“I’ll try to keep my eyes out for any reports that might involve any of the Valkyries,” Zai said. “In the interim maybe you can explain what message you think Tython was sending to them?”

“Hmm, maybe the message wasn’t meant for the Valkyries, or not just for them” Ai said as her mind continued to chew on the idea. “Try this one; we were meant to be the victims. We get obliterated as a notice to the GCPD to stop poking around in any cases that Curtweather and I were working on. The three NMEs would have done tremendous damage to the city after that though, except the Valkyries show up and stop them, so the message to them was ‘get ready to up your game, because you can expect to see more and more of these things’, which is perfect if Tython is planning a pandemic for show and needs someone to make sure their client base survives to demand the cure they have to offer.”

Ai watched a light go flickering by in the cloud choked sky. It was only a plane, Zai’s information overlay confirmed that, but for a moment Ai could have believed it was a Valkyrie suit racing for the heavens. She shook her head and pulled her thoughts back in order, wondering how tired she was that they were getting as scrambled as they appeared to be.

“Then there’s the final message,” she said. “We weren’t the only people watching the fight. The Valkyries scrambled communications but those explosions weren’t exactly subtle. Anyone who’s been working with NMEs would recognize the damage patterns. All they wouldn’t know would be how the NMEs were stopped, and that would scare the hell out of anyone who knew that Tython was searching for a cure.”

“You think Tython was putting their competitors on notice?” Zai asked.

“Maybe it was a bluff,” Ai said. “And maybe not. Activating three NMEs, even though that wasn’t Plan A, is a pretty bold move. They have to be at a stage of the project where they can’t afford to back off on development and that means it’s at least possible that they’re close to the breakthrough they need.”

“I think they might be able to shutdown the NMEs already,” Zai said.

“Why?” Ai asked.

“Because earlier tonight one tore apart Eddie Page,” Zai said. “He was the one I picked off the Special List and routed the EyeGrid archive through.”

“I haven’t seen any security alerts on that,” Ai said. “So they deployed an NME and shut it down? That’s chilling. I wonder if the subject survived? Probably not. I hope not.”

“Why?” Zai asked.

“Because if they can turn off an NME transformation and recover the subject then they have the Stage 1 cure in their hands already and we’ve run out of time.”


Gamma City Blues – Arc 03 (Falling) – Report 07

Ai sat alone in the train car, her eyes at last taking in the dark and empty metal structure that surrounded her.

“I should have gotten off a long time ago shouldn’t I?” she asked, her brain twisting into knots of worry and concern.

“You seemed pretty absorbed by the footage we found,” Zai said. “I didn’t think you wanted to be interrupted.”

“You were right, it just feels weird to be here without anyone else but us around,” Ai said.

The emptiness of the deserted train car sent a chill running down her spine. Aside from the plastic seats, she could have been sitting in her apartment. She’d never been one for posters or artwork in general. Her “decorating style” was laughable to describe as either decorating or a style. She hadn’t noticed the emptiness in her life though until she noticed the Harp-shaped void that haunted the train with her.

“Am I missing something?” she asked, grappling to understand why she felt so tangled. Her parting words to Harp had been firm and supportive, but her imagination could conjure so many scenarios that turned out poorly for them all.

Even though it was far too early to hear anything about how Harp’s conversation with Dr. Raju went, Ai could feel the waiting eating away at her nerves. She had spent years being as patient as a spider in its web, but this still left her unsettled.

“In relation to what?” Zai asked.

“The footage I guess,” Ai said, hoping to force her thoughts onto a more productive path, or at least to distract herself from the phantom fears that threatened to entice her to actions both rash and stupid. “It’s an interesting coincidence that the breadcrumb trail of information from the lab the Valkyries found just happened to lead to video that suggested Dr. Raju was involved with the chief researcher’s work.”

“Coincidences do happen,” Zai said. “And the footage wasn’t exactly easy to acquire.”

“I know and that adds a lot of weight to it,” Ai said. “But it also makes for a really strong trap.”

“Because we’ve invested so much in getting this footage, we’re inherently biased towards accepting it as true?” Zai asked.

“Yeah, it’s one of the basic failure modes for human thought,” Ai said. “If we struggle for something we internalize the belief that it must have value, and we fight to hold onto that belief in the face of mountains of evidence that it’s incorrect.”

“That’s why the city council member manage to get re-elected despite having single digit approval ratings?” Zai asked.

“Partially. Their supporters are so dug into the belief that their candidate, and only their candidate, has their best interest in mind that they accept any argument that supports that belief no matter how outrageous and transparently false a lie it might be,” Ai said. “The other reason is that the current officials are there because the real powers in Gamma City want them there, they’re the ones who buy and sell the elections.”

“So you think we’re doing the same thing with the footage?” Zai asked.

“Maybe,” Ai said. “I thought of this before, but what if Dr. Raju is right.”

“What? That you’re an enemy agent?” Zai asked

“No, not me, the footage,” Ai said. “We knew Dr. Fredrick Derricks has some kind of system worm that’s running close to the root level of the EyeGrid. It corrupts images of him to make sure he looks normal still but not in a manner that’s consistent enough for recognition software to identify him.”

“There’s another possibility there,” Zai said. “He may not have a worm corrupting the EyeGrid’s data. He might have the worm working in the facial recognition sub system.”

“That would be simpler I suppose,” Ai said. “And if it’s true that we know what he looks like. Or at least what he looked like then.”

“But how does that explain Dr. Raju’s presence in the video?” Zai asked.

“If Derricks has a backdoor into the EyeGrid, the feed could have been manipulated from the beginning as a trap for anyone who came searching for him,” Ai said. “He was probably at the warehouse the day it changed ownership – this doesn’t seem like a project with Tython has been working on slowly and patiently – but his trip to Cypress afterwards could have been spliced in from an earlier or later date. Or fabricated entirely.”

“Even if what we’re seeing is a pure fantasy though, that leaves open the question of why is it Dr. Raju in the scene?” Zai asked. “If Derricks was setting a trap to destroy Raju’s credibility, then he has to know her. Pretty well in fact, because he not only could replicate her appearance, she’s also listed as having been employed at Cypress at that time.”

“What was her role there?” Ai asked.

“Vice President of Research Analysis,” Zai said. “The role description in their Human Resources system says she was the final reviewer on Cypress’ projects, responsible for coordinating the team that evaluated their research investments for technical impact, practicality, and security.”

“What was Tython’s stake in Cypress at the time?” Ai asked.

“None,” Zai said. “But Tython did step in an acquire control of Cypress a year after the project started.”

“Hostile takeover?”

“No, Cypress ran into a debt death spiral. One of their major bio-mods, a depilatory application, developed a fault and paying off the claims knocked two of their other projects off schedule enough that they didn’t make first to market, or capture the patents they were looking for,” Zai said.

“They lost their company over a bad hair care product? Wow, that’s kinda said,” Ai said, and asked, “the competitors who beat them to the market; were they Tython subsidiaries?”

“No, they were Cypresses chief competitors,” Zai said.

“That’s cleaner, so if it was part of a conspiracy then they’re not a dumb one,” Ai said. “Can you get access to the competitors research notes?”

“Some of them are public record now and the others are under pretty light security since the products are obsolete now, so, yeah, I’ve already got them,” Zai said, audibly pleased with herself.

“If I wanted to take a company’s value down by letting their competition leap frog them, corporate espionage would not be a bad tool to use,” Ai said. “With time to market pressures though, they would be under the gun to make sure those breakthrus happened in fast enough. So what are the chances that in their haste, the people in Cypress who were working to make the Tython acquisition happen delivered their secret data to both competitors on the same day?”

“That would be hard to prove unless we could find a record of the files being transmitted,” Zai said.

“True, proving it is probably impossible. I’m sure the conspirators, if they exist, would have covered their tracks well enough to prevent that,” Ai said. “We don’t need legally admissible evidence though. All we need is enough support to see if it’s worth pursuing this line of reasoning further.”

“Proof like the filing dates for the competing patents?” Zai asked. “Cause if so we’re looking at both competitors filing for their versions of the patents on the same day.”

“Wow, that’s even closer than I’d expected,” Ai said. “I was thinking it would be the same week, but I guess they were all really close to finding a working process on both inventions.”

“That seems likely,” Zai said. “In both cases the research notes point to a last hurdle that was overcome without a lot of testing leading up to it.”

“That can happen, but on two different projects? At two different companies? To sabotage the same third company? On the same day? That’s kind of stretching things.”

“This is all leading back to Dr. Raju somehow isn’t it?” Zai asked.

“Indirectly,” Ai said. “Check me on this one. The other guy in the room? His name was Bill Harcroft right? Is he still employed with Cypress?”

“No,” Zai said. “He transferred to Tython itself.”

“What’s his current title?”

“Director of Emergent Product Development for the Tython’s Dermal Group,” Zai said. “They’re a branch Tython absorbed from Cypress. Several personnel transfers with Harcroft leading the pack.”

“What about Dr. Raju? Is she still connected to either company?” Ai asked.

“No, she resigned from Cypress years ago,” Zai said. “It was shortly after the transition of ownership to Cypress but the termination of her contract seems to have been mutually satisfactory. She gave six weeks notice for her departure and facilitated her replacements onboarding process before she left.”

“Can we construct her real reasons for leaving?” Ai asked.

“She was on track to vest into a significant ownership stake in Cypress, not controlling but she would have had a place on the board probably. With the takeover, her shares were bought out,” Zai said. “So on the one hand, she had less investment and control in the new company, and on the other she had a pile of money to pursue her own agenda with.”

“Where did she go after Cypress?” Ai asked.

“I don’t see any records of her joining another company,” Zai said. “From her tax records, she’s been living off investments made with her buyout from Cypress.”

“We know she was part of the group that created the Valkyries,” Ai said. “Given Harp’s apparent age, I think the Valkyries are a somewhat recent invention, so that could easily have been after she left Cypress.”

“Were there any deaths among Cypress’ researchers either right before the change in ownership or soon afterward?” Ai asked.

“Yes. Thadwell Mars,” Zai said. “He was a Principal Research Associate but I can’t see which projects he was attached to. He was one of the people killed by the rampage of Hell Beast 1.”

“That’s him,” Ai said. “He’s the one who created the tech that cracked the NME activation code. Hell Beast 1 killed, what, fifteen hundred people before they put it down? Prior to that no one had ever seen a NME in action. This is just a hunch but I bet Bill Harcroft thought he was going to kill two birds with one stone by testing an NME in an environment that could never be tracked back to him or Tython while also removing the one man with enough familiarity with the activation code to identify what was happening. Then he sees what NMEs are capable of and backs off from using the technology again for years.”

“Dr. Raju would have known him, wouldn’t she? Or both of them really. I mean we saw her in a meeting with Harcroft and she had to have worked with Mars. So none of this should be news to her, right?”

“Hmm, how do the dates of Hell Beast 1’s rampage and Dr. Raju’s resignation from Cypress align?” Ai asked.

“They’re not that close,” Zai said. “Dr. Raju turned in her notice two months after the Hell Beast 1 rampage.”

“The Dr. isn’t a fool then,” Ai said. “Two month is plenty of time to make it look like she didn’t know anything about what was going on, while also being brief enough that she could set plans in motion before she lost too much ground to Harcroft.”

“So does that mean she’s in the clear?” Zai asked.

“Maybe, Ai said. “I want to see what story she spins for Harp. I would guess after all this time, she’ll try to cover some stuff up. It’s got to be habit at this point. What she covers up though should be very enlightening.”

“Could Harp still be right though?” Zai asked. “Could Dr. Raju still be working with Derricks and Harcroft as the ‘clean up detail’ for when their monsters get out of control?”

“It’s possible, but if so we’ll know soon enough,” Ai said.

“What will give her away?” Zai asked.

“When and how she tries to kill us,” Ai said.


Gamma City Blues – Arc 03 (Falling) – Report 06

The train sat in its yard, quiet and empty except for two bodies that stood clutching the support straps with one hand while their other hands were clasped together. The lights were off on the car but neither needed external light to see by. Together they watched the footage from inside Cypress Health and Automation Systems play out through its hundredth loop.

It was well past midnight, and neither dinner nor a show had crossed either woman’s mind.

“We’d need a better recording to do extrapolatory micro-expression analysis on Dr. Raju,” Zai said. She’d been largely silent during the hours while Harp and Ai reviewed the footage, speaking up only when either requested data to add to their expanding web of information regarding what had been a brief and apparently perfunctory meeting regarding assessing basic trial work on a set of new medical protocols.

“Did she choose her seat to obscure her face enough to prevent that?” Ai asked.

“Maybe,” Harp said. “She could have been there because she was gathering data on Derricks.”

“It’s possible,” Ai said, as counter arguments rose unbidden in her mind.

“But why wouldn’t she have known to send us looking for this footage before we found the lab?” Harp asked, voicing one of Ai’s reservations for her.

“Whose idea was it to seek out this footage?” Zai asked.

“Sil’s,” Harp said.

“One of your teammates?” Ai asked.

“Yeah, Silicon Traces, she’s the techiest of us I guess,” Harp said. “We normally rely on Dr. Raju and her associates for our maintenance needs but Sil’s sort of become her apprentice.”

“How did Dr. Raju react to that idea?” Ai asked.

Harp paused for a moment of thought and sighed before she continued.

“She wasn’t a fan of it,” Harp said. “She had good reasons though. We didn’t know which archive the right EyeGrid footage was stored in, we had no options for getting the manifest that didn’t involve a wholesale battle through the GCPD, and even if we got the manifest, none of us had a plan for how to get the archival footage out without triggering hard lockdowns on the data.”

“I’m going to call my batting average .500 in terms of helping you then,” Ai said. “That sounds better than a 50% test score.”

Harp was silent, and the moment of levity fizzled in the silence of the car.

“A request has been logged in the repair system for the cameras on this car,” Zai said. “You’ll probably need to break them before you leave, but I can keep them artificially on the fritz for now.”

“Thanks,” Ai said. “When is the repair crew due?”

“Their earliest slot is in four weeks,” Zai said. “Their repair logs suggest that the job will probably be deferred at least twice before work is actually done on the cameras though.”

“She didn’t ask any questions about who the new protocols were going to be tried on,” Harp said, reviewing the transcript of the conversation again.

“It doesn’t look like it was that kind of meeting,” Ai said. “Derriks was just checking in to make sure everything was on track on Cypress’s end and giving them his approval for the conditions of the lab.”

“Except for the state of the secondary power grid,” Harp said. “But that’s not important, probably.”

“It might be,” Zai said. “From what I can see of the building’s schematics, there wasn’t a need for a secondary grid when it was constructed, so that had to be a later addition.”

“That’s not a cheap thing to retrofit a building with,” Ai said. “What would Derricks have needed one for?”

“Secure backup power?” Harp suggested. “Working with a partially transformed NME would need very tightly controlled conditions.”

“Stand alone units would be more reliable for that though. and cheaper,” Ai said. “For the price of a full building refit, you could attach a platinum class backup unit to every piece of diagnostic augmentation tech you were running.”

“It’s not for a system that was incorporated into the building,” Zai said. “At least not officially. Did the Valkyries find any high capacity cabling running through the building when you discovered it?

“No,” Harp said after a moment spent recalling her personal record of the building’s current state. “But it was picked pretty clean. It might have been uninstalled by the time we got there.”

“Most of the cost of a secondary power system is in the labor, so no one ever bothers with uninstalling one, but if scavengers had access to the interior it’s certainly possible they could have extracted anything that was left around,” Ai agreed.

“There’s another possibility then,” Zai said. “If Derricks and his team were planning to work with Enhanciles, they may have needed holding facilities, and those would need to be highly reliable.”

“Yeah,” Harp said, her shoulders slumping. “Those we did find signs of.”

“So the next question is…” Ai started to ask.

“Did Dr. Raju know about them?” Harp said.

“It’s possible she didn’t,” Ai said. “The tests they talk about in the meeting don’t sound like anything related to the NME activation code. Or a vaccine to ward against it. They were talking about human trials for protocols that would be available by the next fiscal quarter. Those are minor mods at best, even on a fast approval track.”

“Then what did she think the secondary grid was for?” Harp asked.

“Dr. Derriks seems to be rather eccentric,” Zai said. “Humans often don’t question the eccentric as deeply as they do those who fit a more typical mold.”

“So she just ignored a request like that?” Harp asked. “That’s not how she operates. She’s too smart to miss a detail that important.”

“Even smart people can make simple, stupid mistakes,” Ai said.

“If it’s a mistake at all,” Harp said. “It has to be a mistake though, doesn’t it?”

“We can’t tell from the video,” Ai said. “There’s just not enough here.”

“We need to find more video then,” Harp said. “From after she leaves Cypress.”

“We didn’t get that in the data slice that we took,” Ai said. “And I don’t think we can go back for another using the same trick without Tython seeing through both ruses.”

“This is is important,” Harp said.

“I know,” Ai said. “But there’s another way. Talk to her. See what her side of the story is.”

“If she’s been lying all along she’ll have lies ready for when I get back,” Harp said.

“She will, if she’s been lying,” Ai said. “And if she didn’t know that someone she worked with was a part of this, then she’ll have a story to tell too. It may not be easy to tell those two stories apart but she doesn’t know the kind of resources we have, so a lie might not have a strong enough foundation to stand up for long.”

“You’re right,” Harp said. “I have to talk to her. I owe her that.”

“You can call her now,” Ai said. “You said she’d notice if you weren’t back by midnight. Has she tried to reach out to you?”

“No,” Harp said. “Not yet.”

“What about the other Valkyries?” Ai asked. “Would they have noticed you were missing?”

“Yeah,” Harp said. “Sil would have. We have scheduled check-ins so that the others can mount a rescue if they see we’re in trouble.”

“How long would a rescue take to put together?” Ai asked, a chilly thought plunging into her stomach.

“Depends on the situation we think we’re going into,” Harp said. “The cardinal rule is that none of us are expendable, but that means no one is allowed to die or get captured trying to rescue anyone else. If someone can catch one of us, we do not want to be used as bait to lure the others in.”

“That’s a good strategy to have in place,” Ai said. “You’re tracker is still active right?”

“Yeah,” Harp said. “They know exactly where I am.”

“And Zai, the cameras are down in this car still correct?” Ai asked.

“Yes,” Zai said. “And train yard’s security system doesn’t scan or monitor the interior of parked vehicles. No one can see you at the moment.”

“But the train did record us getting on?” Ai asked. “And it didn’t register a departure scan for us?”

“Not yet,” Zai said. “I was going to update the timestamp on the scan it took when you actually left the car to make it seem like you’d left at different stops.”

“Probably still good to do, but I see a problem we may have stumbled into,” Ai said. “How good is Sil at cyber-intrusion?”

“She’s not at ‘sapient-AI levels’ but she’s beaten every system we’ve needed her too,” Harp said.

“So something like the GC Transit system wouldn’t pose a real challenge to her?” Ai asked.

“It hasn’t in the past,” Harp said. “Why would she be looking for you though?”

“You missed curfew,” Ai said. “When they looked for you, they found you in a train yard. When they found you here, the next question would be ‘who are you with’ and the onboarding records would show only one person who could still be on the train with you.”

“We should have gotten off,” Harp said. “I wouldn’t normally stay in one place like this, even if I was trying to blow off steam.”

“I didn’t think of it,” Ai said.

“I didn’t either. We didn’t need to move to review the video and I couldn’t think of anything else.”

“See,” Ai said. “Smart people, dumb mistake.”

“Is this really a problem?” Zai asked. “Can’t you just call the Valkyries and tell them what you’ve found?”

“I just tried,” Harp said. “They’re not answering.”

“Oh, that is not what I wanted to hear,” Ai said. “Tell me if this sounds plausible; Dr. Raju was not happy with my work during the manifest heist. She thought I botched it in an effort to get you captured.”

“Or she was afraid of what we would find if we moved forward and she wanted you removed as a resource who could help us find out what she’d done.”

“Or that, but for the moment, we’ll give her the benefit of the doubt,” Ai said. “If the narrative that she’s embraced is that I’m a deep agent for Tython, then my play would be to feed you the kind of intel that would degrade or remove your loyalty to her.”

“Which would mean providing access to footage that shows that she’s guilty of aiding the enemy from the beginning,” Harp said. “Except that no matter what I saw, I wouldn’t lose my loyalty to the other Valkyries. They’re the closest thing I have to a family now.”

“Right, so after I break your loyalty to Dr. Raju, we’d have a situation where you would still have a connection to the rest of your team, and that’s something I could use to feed them the same corruptive evidence. You’d be the vector into severing the Valkyries ties with their principal backer and the person who understands their technology the best. It’s not a victory play, but it moves the pieces on the board heavily out of your favor.”

“So Dr. Raju has them on lockdown then,” Harp said. “She’s freezing me out?”

“You went against her orders and contacted a potentially toxic agent,” Ai said. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad you did, but as a security measure, what she’s doing makes sense both if she’s betraying you and if she’s clean.”

“But you’re not…” Harp started to say.

“Trying to corrupt you?” Ai asked. “You can’t know that yet. I want you to trust me, but not without a solid foundation.”

“How can we have that?” Harp asked. “You could always be betraying me, and I could always be using you. Isn’t that what this footage proves?”

“No,” Ai said. “The footage doesn’t prove anything. It’s just information. We need a lot more to see the full picture. Maybe we’ll never get that, and maybe even if we do we still won’t be able to really know who is working for which side, that’s when it becomes leap of faith time. Before we go jumping off any cliffs though, we have to at least try to see as much as we can.”

“How do we do that?” Harp asked. “You say you want me to know I can trust you and then you tell me exactly how you could betray me. What can you give me that will let me know one way or the other?”

“My trust,” Ai said. “Specifically, I can let you go, off to talk to Dr. Raju. Ask her about this. Let her explain what she can. Don’t show the footage to any of the other Valkyries first. If it’s a vector for treachery, then let it sit unseen and ineffective.”

“What if she can’t?” Harp asked. “What if we exist just to clean up her messes that get out of hand?”

“That’s where I have to trust in you, and in your judgement,” Ai said. “I think there are a lot of possibilities for how Dr. Raju could be involved in this either unknowingly, or so peripherally that it barely counts as being connected to it. Let her speak to that. Let her prove it to you as best she can. If she can convince you, then you can either present the footage to the other Valkyries with her explanation, or edit her out of it if that makes things simpler.”

“Why would you do that?” Harp said.

“Because it’s the one thing I can think of that would be absolutely against my interests if I was an enemy agent trying to seduce you away from people who were legitimately on your side.”

“That will work fine is she’s on our side, but if she’s not, if she is using us, she could turn the other Valkyries against me and I don’t think I can fight them.”

“I can’t go with you to talk to Raju,” Ai said. “Anything I said in that meeting would be instantly suspect. But that doesn’t mean you have to go without any lifelines. You have a link to me that you can call on whenever you want. If you’re in trouble, I promise, I will come for you.”

Gamma City Blues – Arc 03 (Falling) – Report 05

People believe that moments caught on camera have a stark reality to them. A lens has no bias, an image no agenda to advance. It’s so tempting to accept that a picture, or an old video feed, captures the unvarnished truth of the situation it records. Sometimes though the best lies are the ones that show nothing but the truth.

“The data stream is finished,” Ai said. “But even this file sliver is massive. What timestamp does the manifest say to look for?”

“The meeting we’re looking for is sometime after the last time ownership change on the property at this address,” Harp said, providing a live link for Ai to reference.

“And we know who we’re looking for?” Ai asked.

“Not exactly,” Harp said, calling up the video record and setting it to begin displaying 12:01am – the exact second the property transfer had been notarized.

A view screen opened in the air in front of Ai, her internal mods projecting the images on her heads up display.

The location coordinates Harp provided showed the exterior of an old electronics warehouse. Apart from the shadows which painted the nearby buildings and alleys with a funereal gloom there was no movement to be seen, aside from the flickering of the single still functional streetlight.

“We don’t have to watch this in real time right?” Ai asked.

“No, we’re looking for people moving things into the facility,” Harp said.

“What is this place?” Ai asked.

“It’s one of the early labs where work was done on the NME code,” Harp said. “We found the building a few weeks ago when we traced some of the hardware that was used in Tython’s initial experiments.”

“So if this is where Tython started work on their Cure code then we can identify some of the original players from who shows up here?”

“We’re trying to put a face to one of them,” Harp said. “Doctor Fredrick Derricks. We know from the research notes we found that he pioneered the techniques that gave Tython the idea they could offer a widespread inoculation against the NME transformation protocols. He was definitely here, so we’re looking from the date the building last transferred ownership seven years ago.”

“I can help with that,” Zai said and the video blurred as it raced into fast forward.

When it paused a car was pulling into the warehouses parking lot. Four people exited the vehicle and Zai provided data on all of them from facial recognition.

“Corporate security,” Ai said, reading the overlay for each of the brutes.

The security personnel entered the building and Zai switched between the different EyeGrid cameras looking for a better view.

“There’s no record from inside the building,” she said. “Not even the mandatory fire and rescue cameras.”

“In this neighborhood?” Harp said. “You’re not going to find any of those. This place was dwindling even before the first Robo Apocalypse.”

“Does anyone show up before they leave?” Ai asked.

The video zoomed forward again to show a series of trucks arriving and a crew of people in non-descript overalls offloading wrapped pallets and small boxes of supplies. Each worker passed in front of one or more cameras closely enough that Zai’s facial recognition routines identified them easily.

“These are all hourly contractors,” Harp said.

“Who are they contracted with?” Ai asked.

“A company out of Papua New Guinea,” Zai said. “Or at least that’s their current employer.”

“All of them?” Harp asked.

“Who was employing them back when this footage was shot?” Ai asked.

“A different company. All of them,” Zai said. “They were based out of Gamma City then though.”

“Are they actually still alive?” Ai asked.

“Apparently,” Zai said. “They’re all drawing weekly salaries still.”

“Check for video footage at their current jobsite,” Ai said.

Zai didn’t have to pause for even a moment.

“That’s probably not a good sign,” she said.

“No one’s there?” Ai guessed.

“Well, that depends on who you categorize as ‘no one’,” Zai said. “Here, take a look.”

Another window popped up showing a stone quarry in the Southern China Prosperity Region. Ai shook head and stared again to make sure of what she was seeing on the live video feed.

The quarry was a roughly circular column that had been burrowed into the rocky ground. At the bottom roamed a series of fully transformed NMEs. They moved with a jerky stiffness that suggested either intense rusting in their joints, a general loss of power to their systems, or both.

“Those are them?” Ai asked.

“I can’t say for sure,” Zai said. “This is where they’re currently contracted. It’s possible they’re here are guards or in some other capacity, but I’m not finding any sign of a human presence on any of the quarry’s video feeds.”

“It’s them,” Harp said. “We’ve had no luck finding the Tython-related facilities and a lot of the obvious weak spots like the workers on the places that closed just aren’t around.”

“So Tython’s been using it’s own labor force as their lab rats?” Ai asked.

“Is it a surprise? They’ve done far worse than that,” Harp said.

“Worse yes, but inefficient,” Ai said. “Operations like this require some staff to run and generally the staff needs to be vetted for reliability. It seems shoddy to bring in random people and then turn them into machine parts.”

“This might have been part of their startup process,” Harp said. “They needed more help for setting things up than they would have needed later on.”

“These contractors are well paid too,” Zai said. “If someone in Tython is collecting their paychecks then that person is sitting on a decent nest egg.”

“Can we tie the companies that employ them back to Tython?” Ai asked.

“In a legal sense?” Zai asked. “No. To a degree of reasonable certainty though? Yes. Both their old and new companies are unaffiliated shells controlled, eventully, by one or more people in Tython’s management structure.”

“Let’s find out who that is,” Harp said. “When did the next people arrive at the building?”

Zai resumed the feed from the electronics warehouse, pausing at the next set of people (construction contractors – not currently transformed into NMEs and still employed in regular jobs), an industrial cleaning crew (similarly still going about their normal daily lives in the present day), and finally a true oddity.

“Who is that?” Ai asked as man stepped out of a RV that had pulled into the parking lot. Zai hadn’t painted a name over his head and was offering no link to biographic information.

“That could be him!” Harp said. “Derriks. We haven’t caught a sight of him yet so he has to have some trick for avoiding automation detection.”

“Why come here then?” Ai asked. “If he’s a recluse, he should be avoiding public connections to anything like Tython.”

“If he’s going to work here, he may need to inspect the lab they set up in there first,” Harp suggested. “Follow him when he leaves. From what we’ve seen Dr. Fredricks dislikes impersonal meetings, so he’s either onboard with the program already and needs to report on its progress, or this was the offer session and he’ll delivery his answer in person.”

“At this point the project couldn’t have been too big,” Ai said.

“That’s what we’re hoping,” Harp said. “If this really is where the work began, then we might be able to follow it forward and find all of the places where research was done and all of the people who were involved.”

“What’s the danger if some are missed?” Ai asked. “It doesn’t look like any of the illicit labs they’ve contracted with or created have made enough progress for the cure to be marketable yet.”

“Tython hasn’t taken the world hostage, so that’s probably true,” Harp said. “The problem is each of those labs has the NME activation sequence.”

Ai blinked as the implications of that settled in.

“If we take Tython apart, we create a host of rogue players that have something worse than a nuclear option at their fingertips,” she said.

“And the desperation to use or sell whatever tools they have to ensure their survival in a city that’s going to be extremely hostile to them,” Harp said.

“That’s why you haven’t gone directly after Tython yet?” Ai asked.

“That’s one of Dr. Raju’s reasons,” Harp said.

“It’s a solid one,” Ai said. “But there’s more you’re getting out of this isn’t there?”

Harp was silent for a moment, the rapid shifting of her gaze the only sign of an internal struggle. In the end she sighed, brushed a hand in the air to move one of her popup screens away, and turned to face Ai.

“The NME code isn’t designed to produce monsters,” she said. “It was meant for something else. Something better.”

“How do you know that?” Ai asked, suspicions bubbling up in her mind.

“We’ve taken apart some of the NMEs that we’ve found,” Harp said. “There are all kinds of things wrong with the NME code, but among the broken subroutines there’s an old processing thread that could have been a universal upgrade override.”

“Someone was messing with the upgrade process for bio-mods again?” Ai asked. “Isn’t that what caused the last apocalypse?”

“Yes,” Harp said. “It’s an easy thing to mess up, though maybe not as badly as happened years ago. That’s not the important bit though. The important bit is that it looks the code fragment in the NMEs is functional.”

“Functional how?” Ai asked.

“It can allow bio-mods to enhance themselves safely, and outside of the original design constraints,” Harp said. “It’s central to the transformation process the NMEs undergo.”

“I’d like to quibble with the definition of ‘safely’ there when the upgrades result in something like an NME, but I think I see what you’re going for,” Ai said. “I’m guessing if the rest of the code was stripped away from it, that core thread would allow everyone to receive gold tier upgrades to their bio-mods?”

“No,” Harp said. “It wouldn’t be limited to gold tier. It would be any upgrades anyone invented or reverse engineered, ever.”

“How would that work though? We’d be swamped with conflicting upgrade directives,” Ai said. “Our bio-mods would melt down trying to be everything at once.”

“I know of a few…examples that suggest otherwise,” Harp said.

“So why not release the code fragment then?” Ai asked. A few thousand reasons leapt readily to mind, starting with the immediate disintegration of all known economic structures and the likelihood that people would willingly choose to become something akin to an NME because a hulking indestructible form would make them feel safer in a world that had suddenly become a chaotic nightmare.

“What’s left in the NMEs after their transformation is only a fragment. It assembles at some point during the transformation and self destructs in stages as the conversion completes.” Harp said.

“That seems like something that was part of an intentional design,” Ai said.

“It has to be,” Harp said. “But that means that someone has the original prototype version of the universal upgrade override.”

“Didn’t you say that Tython weren’t the ones who created the original NME code though?” Ai asked.

“From what we can see, that’s true,” Harp said. “But they’ve studied it enough that they might have recreated the Override. It would be a key element in making a vaccine work.”

“We might have a clue for where to start looking then,” Zai said. “I found the timestamp where Derrick leaves the warehouse.”

“Do we have the footage for where he went next?” Ai asked.

“Yes, it’s to one of Tython’s proxies,” Zai said.

Video began playing on the EyeGrid window again. Doctor Derrick pulled into the parking lot at Cypress Health and Automation Systems. The video from the external cameras was clear but when he entered the building the scene turned black with a “Private: Authorized Personnel Only” seal blocking out the pictures.

Zai removed the proprietary seal on the data and the video resumed, following Dr. Derricks into a conference room where two people waited for him. Both were dressed in bland business suits, and Zai put the facial recognition data above both of their heads. Ai only needed the name overlay for one of the people though. The other was unfortunately familiar.

“Why is Dr. Raju there?” Harp asked in a small and confused voice.

Gamma City Blues – Arc 03 (Falling) – Report 04

Officer Eddie Page had blood on his hands. It wasn’t a new occurrence. There was a sting across the knuckles that came with beating someone to a bloody pulp. It left him feeling a little high, and if he’d been the sort of man given to self reflection he might have noticed his dopamine levels spiked up after an “aggressive arrest” to levels that suggested a psychological addiction to the violence he inflicted. That wasn’t something he wanted to notice though. All he wanted was to feel the kick of it, again and again.

Punish the guilty and get a reward. The only thing better than that was punishing another cop. That had been a sublime thing. He would always remember the feel of Joe Greensmith’s face as the bones in it cracked. He hadn’t been there when they’d given Joe’s son the same treatment, but he heard the daughter had joined the force too, so there was always hope for another high like the last one.

The person laying on the ground wasn’t as exciting by comparison, but he was guilty of something. Probably. It didn’t particularly matter to Eddie. All he had do was to say that he’d seen the guy go for a weapon. It was oh so scary on the streets – bad guys were everywhere – and he’d had to keep himself and his partner safe. Instincts had taken over (which was at least truthful, though not in a sense that Eddie would ever confess to).

Once upon a time, a cop like Eddie would have shot the guy laying before him. It was a simple formula; see someone you don’t like, provoke a tense situation, and give free reign to your worst impulses under the cover of ‘self preservation’. Eddie had played that game a few times, and if he’d had a particularly bad week he wouldn’t hesitate to put someone down for giving him too much grief. Or if he thought they looked like they’d give him too much grief.

Fatal shootings always demanded a review though, and those came at the expense of paid time on duty. What was much more effective was the kind of pure physical brutality that left the victim a pile of agony, but which their bio-mods could repair in the course of a day or two. No lasting marks for a judge to see, or a jury to feel sympathetic over.

Not that it ever came to a trial. Everyone knew they could file charges for Criminal Assault in cases of police brutality, but everyone also knew that those cases were virtually unwinnable in the Gamma City Court system, and that was just how Eddie Page liked it.

What he didn’t like was the automated assignments that Central Dispatch assigned to him while he was on the clock. He was rubbing his hands, enjoying both the lingering pain in his knuckles as well as the incoherent groans from the wreck of a man at his feet, when the next pile of work orders dropped into his queue.

“You get anything good this time?” Eddie’s partner Mark asked.

“Don’t know,” Eddie said. “I need to file the report on this one.”

“I got two priority jobs,” Mark said. “Dispatch must be swamped tonight.”

“Nah this is typical,” Eddie said. “Work always comes in waves. Gimme a second to make up something here and I’ll check what they dumped on me.”

Eddie threw together a quick report on the incident that lead to the altercation he’d just been in.

The truth of the matter was simple. Eddie had seen a boy (correction: thuggish looking foreigner of indeterminate age) and had stopped the youth to hassle him about the clothes he wore (correction: had approached the man who was acting erratically, and asked the disturbed individual the standard set of approved questions to determine the state of the individual and the safety of those in the area). When the boy stammered back a “what are you stopping me for? I haven’t done anything wrong!” (correction: The thug became agitated and showed signs of escalating the situation with a violence), Eddie then punched him, breaking the boy’s nose, and asked him what right he thought he had to be in Gamma City (correction: Officer Page followed departmental procedure and resorted to “Hard Empty Hand Control Techniques” to regain control of the situation without endangering the numerous innocent bystanders.)

Eddied continued on in that manner for another few paragraphs, largely copying the text from the hundreds of other incident reports he’d submitted for similar events.

Zai watched him finish filing his report and slipped the work order to investigate Carlton Merriweather’s death into the long list of tasks that awaited Eddie Page’s perusal.

There was nothing unusual about the ticket authorizing Carlton Merriweather’s murder investigation. Like most people of his social standing, Carlton hadn’t left behind enough of a life insurance policy to cover a full investigation into his demise. On a busy night, Eddie didn’t give the work order even ten seconds of attention before tossing it off to his Cognitive Partner for data processing.

In theory, the Cognitive Partner was supposed to assemble the easily verifiable data and present a tentative finding to the officer, who would then follow up on leads, interview witnesses and close the investigation without wasting time on tedious work that an electronic agent could perform better.

In practice, Cognitive Partners could craft a solid enough narrative that it sounded convincing to nine out of ten human jurors and eleven out of ten artificial ones. A good defense lawyer knew the kinds of thing to look for in a CP generated case, but most of the lowlifes Eddie saw himself arresting couldn’t afford anything beyond the free AttorneyBot that the court assigned them. And anyone who could, would probably be able to get away with whatever they’d done anyways. That was why Eddie never bothered rich people.

Or at least never bothered rich people until Zai made him do so.

Everyone makes mistakes. People are built to do that. It’s what gives them creativity and the ability to learn. In Zai’s case the mistakes she made with Carlton’s file were specifically crafted to snarl in the Cognitive Partner’s logic structures and induce it to make the kind of requests it should have never attempted on its own.

Carlton Merriweather died in an area that wasn’t covered by the EyeGrid. He had to die there since he had no actual body to appear before a working camera. As such, there was no reason for Eddie Page’s Cognitive Partner to reach out and try to collect the relevant EyeGrid records surrounding the time and place where the murder occurred.

Zai’s malicious data jumped through a loophole in the Cognitive Partner’s code, a hastily knocked out algorithm which hadn’t considered how to handle a date which was before the dawn of time.  Zai knew exactly how it would handle that input and watched with satisfaction as Eddie’s expert system rolled the number around, truncating bita off to make it fit into a workable date range. Once it had “fixed the date”, it mindlessly spit out a request to the EyeGrid archive system to return a stream of what the cameras had recorded years previously and in a completely different part of the city.

Stealing from the archive in the time window Harp proposed wasn’t possible. Or Ai couldn’t think of a method of safely pulling it off. But why steal when you could take the information you wanted legitimately?

Within the systems watching the EyeGrid archive an alert was raised the moment the request from Eddie Page’s Cognitive Partner was received. There were thousands of requests made of the EyeGrid archive every day. Most of those were for information within a recent time span. The ones which asked for data that had been placed in offline storage were uncommon enough that they rated automatic review. The review bots scanned the datastream as it was transmitted. Facial recognition made several critical matches in the images that were being sent, and a deeper level warning system was engaged.

The deep agents tried to terminate the datastream, but were rebuffed because the request came from a verified source pursuant to an active murder investigation. Had the deep agents possessed the permission to override that lock out they would have but theirs was a subtle mission and the capacity of edit or delete privileged requests of the archive data would have made them too easy to detect and counter.

So they did the next best thing. They alerted their master.

In Tython’s system, an agent which was supposed to remain asleep forever woke at the notification it was never supposed to receive. After verifying the alert was properly signed and involved data relevant to its master, it sent a single innocuous packet to the human it was built to report to.

Zai couldn’t see further into the Tython web than that. She desperately wanted to know who was pulling the strings but had to settle for predicting what the hidden human controller would do with the information they’d just received.

Harp had provided them with a copy of the manifest, and together the three of them had pieced out the relevant backups that they needed access to. Those archive files were streaming into Eddie’s Cognitive Partner at the speed of light and through a backdoor that Zai had burrowed into the unwitting CP, the data was being passed on invisibly to Harp and Ai who were already watching it.

The whole transfer took only a few minutes. The EyeGrid files weren’t especially large but the pipe out of the archive facility was kept intentionally small to prevent widescale theft if the security was ever breached. Ai’s answer to that had been to utilize the data they’d received previously to make sure their theft was highly targeted and would go unnoticed by anyone except those who were actively trying to keep it a secret.

For its part, the Cognitive Partner received the data from the EyeGrid, parsed it for matches to Carlton Merriweather, found nothing, and dutifully deleted the records, supplying a confirmation code of its actions to the archive. As far as the GCPD was concerned, the EyeGrid request had yielded nothing of value, just like most such requests and the case sputtered out for a lack of useful evidence.

Eddie was informed of the lack of actionable data available in relation to the Merriweather murder and confirmed the “Close Case” command indicating that he had “researched the crime to the fullest extent possible and saw no likelihood that it was more than a isolated and non-repeating case of under-socialized psychotic behavior.”

For Eddie, that was as far as the Merriweather case went. Lost amid thousands of other cases Eddie wouldn’t have been able to accurately testify whether he worked on it or not even under threat of pain or death. Plus he’d managed to score a half dozen high paying work orders in the bundle that made the Merriweather investigation forgettable even if the Cognitive Partner had produced an airtight case against someone.

There were other actors though who paid much closer attention to the case of Carlton Merriweather.

From within Tython, barely discrete data probes were launched.

Who had requested the datastream which showed the human master in revealing  company? A cop.

Why was a cop snooping around in data which was that old? Because of a murder investigation.

What did a murder investigation have to do with events which happened years ago? Nothing.

Who was killed? Carlton Merriweather.

How was he connected to their human master? He wasn’t. Extensive checks revealed that he was nobody special, and certainly not involved in anything relevant to their master.

Why did his death warrant a request for archive data? It didn’t. The request was in error.

No. The request had been tampered with. The date on the request was intentionally scrambled to yield access to their master’s data.

Who tampered with the date? The original report had the correct date on it. The request to the archive was for the wrong date.

Conclusion: Officer Eddie Page slipped in a request for data he should never have needed.

Why did Officer Page ask for the data?

Hypothesis: Officer Page is one of the agents within the GCPD who was responsible for the NME incident, and is connected with the organization which is working to expose Tython’s NME Cure program.

Support: Officer Page’s account received an unusual influx of money due to a statistically unlikely collection of high paying cases. This was a prime method for a connected organization to make a payout to an operative.

Several minutes passed and then a response from the master arrived.

Hypothesis accepted.

One second later, Officer Page’s Cognitive Partner went offline. Eddie thought nothing of it. His unit performed poorly from time to time and usually just needed a night to reset itself. In the interim though he was blocked from sending any outgoing datafiles, but as far as he knew he didn’t have anything that he needed to upload anyways.

It was six hours before Eddie got off his shift. Four hours after that, he was alone in his car.

That was the remaining extent of Officer Eddie Page’s life span.

He saw the NME that had been sent after him.

He felt the sheer force it exerted when it ripped his car in half, and that was the last thing he ever felt.

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

Zai swam through Gamma City’s data streams on a mission to murder a man who never existed.

Carlton Merriweather was a fiction, an identity Zai created from the receipts and subscriptions and overdue notices. He began with an overdue library book. The digital rights complaint was automatically generated against his account without checking the validity of whether the book in question had ever been reserved. There was a significant bit of profit to be found in processing all charges for a publisher’s right to control the works they owned, regardless of whether or not those rights had been infringed on, or even existed in the first place.

Typical individuals paid off small charges without questioning them, and that was exactly what Carlton did in order to “lift the freeze on his account credentials”.  The charges could have been contested of course, but that would have involved hours of navigating through perplexing message menu systems, only to reach support personnel who were guaranteed to be fluent in the caller language and also guaranteed to fail to understand anything that was asked of them.

The digital rights charges were an abuse of power, but like so many others, people tolerated them because doing so was faster and cheaper in the short term than battling against a system designed, implemented and iterated upon with the goal of wearing down even the most determined of “defendants” through mind melting levels of frustration.

Zai took the receipt of payment for the late books and used it to file a request for a lifting of sanctions against Carlton’s account in the city’s “lending service system”.

The “LeSS” responded that no account could be found for Carlton Merriweather, because of course there was none.

But mistakes happen all the time, and an account being deleted when it should have been flagged as suspended was hardly unheard of. It was so common in fact that there were automated retrieval services in place to restore an improperly deleted account to full standing.

The retrieval process was a simple one from an implementation standpoint. “Deleted Accounts” were rarely purged from the LeSS databases. They were simply marked as Inactive and allowed to clutter storage space since they took up a vanishingly trivial amount of space.

Like with any garbage though, accounts that were left to rot in the inactive portion of storage occasionally suffered real losses. IDs were corrupted, or reused by other accounts, sections of the account were overwritten, and so on. The automated retrieval process was able to handle a wide spectrum of these issues as well though. It was much better from the corporation’s point of view to allow the machines to make all the decisions on marginal accounts rather than require a human become involved. Humans cost money, and even a task which would take seconds to resolve could mushroom out to demand an entire department to handle when you were faced with servicing tens of millions of people in real time.

Zai passed a deliberately corrupted account packet to the LeSS retrieval system and like the mindless automata it was, the LeSS account bot spit back a fully repaired and signed library card for one Carlton Merriweather.

Having access to the GCPD case system made Zai’s next step disappointingly easy.

Carlton was barely an outline of a man yet. With one account to support his name, even the briefest of cross checks would reveal that he was less substantial than smoke.

So Zai wove more history for him.

Carlton had been assaulted a few days prior. An automated report to the GCPD’s Bronze Tier Response System indicated that Carlton had suffered a Type 3 Mugging – threat of harm, loss of valuables, but no injuries. No need for an active duty officer to be called in, and no agreement from Carlton to pay for any expedited processing. With Type 3 assault related crimes the victim attested to believing they were in no immediate danger and that they did not believe they had sufficient evidence to merit an investigation or prosecution of a case. Carlton was resigned as so many others were to suck up the loss and move forward, though he did mention in his verbal notes that he was afraid of what would happen if the same group accosted him again and he wasn’t able to distract them by throwing his money away and running in the opposite direction.

Zai felt like her synthesized voice work as Carlton was one of her better performances but she planned to check with Ai in case she’d missed something. And maybe with Harp too, if Ai thought spilling the details of their plan was a good idea.

With the police report and an active City Library account to reference, Zai was able to send out cancellation requests for a wide variety of other accounts Carlton should have possessed.

Drivers license? Check. As one of the primary accounts checked for identity verification, the Driver’s license database had a robust system for reporting losses. The DMV’s computers were at one time a significant weak point in the battle to prevent people from creating fake identities. With the usual level of underfunding government regulatory agencies received that problem was a long standing one well after it was formally acknowledged. Over time though the wheels of change do turn, and, with updated procedures in place, the only method of gaining an active Driver’s account was to show up for one in person bearing a mountain of forms, many of which authorized the DMV to perform direct biological testing on the applicant and keep those results on file in perpetuity.

Zai could do many things but show up in a biologically human body that was no Ai’s was not one of them.

Fortunately she didn’t have to.

The DMV’s rules prevented any but the most determined of souls from creating an active ID. Their safeguards against someone creating a deactivated ID however were noticeably less well thought out. After all, what harm could an inactive account do?

Carlton’s history stretched back 20 years by the time Zai was done abusing the loophole in the DMV’s system. There was even an appointment registered for him to appear with the required paperwork and a readiness for the biometric testing to establish that he was who he said he was. As a ghost, Carlton was just as incapable of making that appointment as a work of fiction would be, and so no one would ever spend the time or energy to notice the difference.

From the DMV’s database, Zai took the expired but otherwise perfectly valid identity string for Carlton’s license and combined it with his similarly perfect library card and registered him with the city tax department.

The city tax records were the lifeblood of the politicians who ran each of the districts and so the security on them was substantially better than in other areas of the municipal web infrastructure. Creating a fake tax history was not the work of hours, or even days. To many changes logged all at once would alert even the least aggressive scans, and too short of a history would appear like a blazing beacon to anyone investigating whether Carlton Merriweather was real or not. Zai could craft Carlton a new history in time for Harp’s midnight deadline.

So she used an old one.

One of the many tasks that was part of creating the Heartless identity she and Ai used to manage their less-than-legal enterprises was the creation of a web of identities to support it. Most of the ones which Heartless used were either fully fleshed out or intentionally blank slates. Zai managed a larger constellation of unused identity fragments though so that she could cobble together which specific personas a need arose for.

It was Ai’s idea to take one of those partial personas and slice it off from Heartless’s sphere. Blending the two worlds was something she always frowned on due to the danger involved, but Ai had deemed it safe enough to use a piece of documentation that hadn’t been touched by Heartless at all in creating the poor, deceased, and never to be referenced again Carlton Merriweather.

Armed with a library card, driver’s license and poor tax history (since no one filed spotless returns each year), Zai turned to finding Carlton a place to live. Or to have lived.

It wasn’t hard to hack the tenancy records of an apartment in Gamma City. Zai wouldn’t even consider creating identities if she couldn’t manage that. What was difficult however was creating memories in people like neighbors or coworkers. Placing Carlton in an apartment that was empty would have been simple. Placing him in one that contained furniture that was lived in and where a person had been seen at least entering and exiting the space was somewhat trickier though.

Unless Zai made Carlton a salesman.

Despite all of the advances in telepresence technologies, all the myriad methods of making people feel “like they were right there!” despite being hundreds or thousands of miles away, there was still an inexplicable human need to meet face to face when discussing matters of financial importance.

Carlton therefor was a salesman, traveling from Gamma City on most days, with a home that existed largely as a convenient layover spot during the days he wasn’t called to negotiate a deal somewhere else on the eastern seaboard of North America.

There were many apartments that were cared for by automation and whose owners were rarely enough seen to make cryptids like Bigfoot seem positively photogenic. That took care of Carlton’s neighbors

With a job, Carlton needed a business to work for and that meant coworkers had to be able to vouch for his existence. Here again, Carlton’s role as a salesman worked to Zai’s advantage. Sales staff frequently have the highest turnover rate of all professions within a company. The unsuccessful ones are quickly fired for being underperforming regardless of the reason, and the successful ones parlay their luck into jobs at other companies who are willing to pay for anyone who can work the magic and bring revenue in.

Carlton was not a successful salesman. He was a typical one. Underperforming in most jobs, with occasional wins that kept him from washing out of the role entirely. Zai inserted him into the lower-middle tier of half a dozen corporations, knowing from Ai’s advice that if anyone researched his history at any of the businesses, people would check their records and “dimly remember some guy who was here for a bit and didn’t work out so we must have left him go”.

For his current employment, Zai set Carlton up with a bottom of the barrel external sales contract. Carlton was responsible for doing pre-convention setup and acting as a live salesman at events sponsored by different companies looking to launch the latest fad products.

Carlton generated no leads at these events, as was typical of someone with pamphlets and a sign board as the sole resources they could work with, but he also didn’t report any injuries, which rendered him indistinguishable from the non-entity that he was.

With all of the pieces of Carlton’s small and uninspiring life in place, Zai turned to murdering her creation.

Carlton existed for one reason. He needed to die to create a specific type of homicide case file. A spectacular murder was out of the question. As his fictional life was barren of the extraordinary, so to would be his death.

Zai created enough a life insurance policy that payment for an investigation could be arranged, but not so much that anyone would be eager to fight through the probate courts to claim it.

With that in place, Zai picked up the carefully drawn pieces of Carlton’s fictional life and placed him within the GCPD reporting system, weaving around the illusion of his existence a very real trap for another officer from Ai’s “Special List”.

No one was harmed by Carlton’s creation or destruction, but when Tython followed the trail to find who had purloined the data they had on lockdown, Zai was going to make sure they found someone who richly deserved what would happen next.


Gamma City Blues – Arc 03 (Falling) – Report 02

The subway rolled on past Ai’s stop and Ai rolled on with it, leaving her home drifting ever further behind her.

“There’s a lot of questions I could ask you now, but why don’t we start with this one,” Ai said. “We’re going to rob one of the EyeGrid archives – when do we get started?”

“As soon as we can,” Harp said. “I’ve got a seven hour window where Dr. Raju won’t notice that I’m gone. If I miss the midnight check-in though, she’ll activate the search beacon we carry.”

“Can you disable that?” Ai asked.

“Yes, but we might need it if we run into trouble. And there’s a chance that she’d notice the deactivation.”

“And you don’t want her to know that we’re doing this why?” Ai asked.

“She threatened to wipe out the manifest data we got from GCPD central command if we tried to act on it before she declared it safe.”

“And without the manifest, even if we get the data, locating the time segments that you need will be all but impossible,” Ai said, perceiving the nature of the problem.

She couldn’t blame Dr. Raju for being cautious. Off hand Ai could think of several methods of using a falsified manifest as a trap for the unwary. From simple techniques like aliasing all of the indexes within the manifest so that you could discover what the Valkyries were looking when they tried to access it, to more complicated schemes like replacing specific image streams with staged video that showed the Valkyries what you wanted them to believe.

“Won’t she just wipe it if you show up with a copy of the archive before she’s ready to sign off the manifest’s integrity?” Ai asked. Bad data could be infinitely worse than no data, and sometimes safety had to be the paramount consideration.

“I’m not going to let her know I’ve retrieved the data until I’ve seen what’s in the archive,” Harp said.

“What if she’s right? What if there is a trap in the manifest?” Ai asked. “The people we’re up against are not amateurs.”

“If it’s a trap then I want to see what it is,” Harp said. “That’s part of why I’m not involving the others in this. If there’s some kind of worm in the data then I’d rather it fry my brain than any of theirs.”

Ai frowned. She’d heard of friendships like that. Read about them in books and seen them in videos her whole life. Experiencing it personally however had never been in the cards for her. In Ai’s experience people could be pleasant and civil at times but no one really wanted to die for anyone else.

But there was Harp, placing herself in harm’s way so that no one she cared about would have to.

“Who is it that’s pursuing you?” Ai asked. “You’d mentioned before that there were people hunting for you and the other Valkyries and it sounded like they were a serious threat.”

“That’s a long story,” Harp said. “You’ve guessed some of it already though. Tython and any other groups who deal in military supplies would pay anything to get their hands on us. Or to showcase their tech beating us.”

“Those aren’t the people who worry you though,” Ai said.

“No,” Hope agreed. “They’re not.”

“And here we reach the limit of what you trust me with?” Ai asked.

“I’m sorry,” Harp said.

“No, don’t be,” Ai said. “It’s damn healthy to be careful. I just want to be clear on what boundaries I shouldn’t push.”

“Thank you,” Harp said. “A lot of what Dr. Raju is worried about is how many of our secrets you and Zai could turn up.”

“I’m not going to offer any reassurances there,” Ai said. “Dr. Raju’s right to be concerned about us. If I meet another pair like Zai and myself the first thing I plan to do is to hide, and then try to find every weak spot they have.”

“You didn’t hide when I asked you to meet with us,” Harp said.

“You had just saved my life,” Ai said. “And you present a different sort of risk. When you fight it’s pretty clear what you’re doing. When Zai and I go after someone, things just start happening to them. Bad things. If we’re really motivated in fact, it will be the worst things they’ve ever feared.”

“That makes for a good argument in favor of not trusting you,” Harp said, her tone light but seasoned with suspicion too.

“Good,” Ai said. “I’d rather tell you not to trust me and show you that you can with my actions, than the reverse.”

Harp squeezed Ai’s hand tighter.

“You seem like you’re trusting me an awful lot,” Harp said.

“Sorry, I guess that’s a little insulting, isn’t it?” Ai asked.

“Maybe. Depends why you don’t think I’m a threat,” Harp said.

Gut instinct was not a valid answer to that question. Ai reflected for a moment on why she was willing to share secrets with Harp when she’d guarded them furiously for decades.

Harp had saved her, and had saved a lot of people from earlier NME attacks. Ai considered whether she was looking up to someone who seemed to embody what she had once dreamed her father to be?

No. There was an element of that, but Ai knew only too well how that everyone had flaws and petty failings. The Black Valkyries weren’t pure and noble superheroes. They had an agenda of their own. It didn’t mean they weren’t also capable of compassion and altruism, but they had more motivating them than a simple desire to do good.

Did she think her own technical skills and Zai’s digital prowess could safely manipulate Harp and her friends if they became a threat? No. She had some plans forming in the back of her mind if the she and the Black Valkyries came to cross purposes but she’d held off putting any wheels in motion there.

Was she lonely? That was a more difficult question to answer. Zai had discovered a need for recognition that she hadn’t been aware of until she spoke to Harp. Did Ai carry a similar need within herself?

Maybe? It was too large a thought to grapple with in the pause between sentences. Hiding who she was and how she felt all the time was a burden she’d carried for so long she felt like she was numb to its weight.

There was another hunger that drove her though.

“I think you’re a terrible, unstoppable threat,” Ai said. “Which is just the kind of threat that I need.”

“Why? What’s in this for you?” Harp asked.

“You’re the person I can’t be,” Ai said. “I have the power to crush regular citizens, especially if they’re not the ‘right’ race or creed, but I can’t do anything to the people who are really at fault for everything that’s wrong with this city.”

Harp chuffed out a small laugh.

“If you’d grown up where I did, I think you’d have a different take on the kind of problems ‘regular citizens’ can cause,” Harp said.

“It’s a big world and there’s a lot wrong with it,” Ai said. “People like the ones who run Tython though are the ones who have a vested interest in keeping it that bad or making it worse.”

“And you think I can do something about that?” Harp asked.

“I think you’re able to work openly in a way I can never afford to,” Ai said. “Before, my only hope of changing anything was to work so quietly that no one ever saw what I was doing. You can afford to be a lot louder and more direct though.”

“I can’t be your wrecking ball. Not exclusively,” Harp said. “We’ve got more to take care of than destroying Tython, and I’m not even sure that’s a good idea given how big it is. Is that going to be a problem?”

“If I said I was building a house, and you offered to help put the bedroom together would it be a problem that you didn’t also put together the living room and the kitchen? No. Same idea here,” Ai said. “At the moment, we’re useful to each other. I’m willing to work with that, and if we’re mutually useful again in the future, then it’s all to the better.”

“And if we’re working on elaborate schemes to sell each other out?”

“If we’re that stupid then we’ll probably get everything that’s coming to us,” Ai said.

“As long as we can make sure everyone else gets what coming to them too, I’d be ok with that,” Harp said.

“You’ve led a much less sinful life than I have then,” Ai said.

“Probably not,” Harp said. “I just never saw the point in feeling guilty about a lot of the things I’ve had to do.”

Ai let a wistful smile trace crumple her lips. Most of the sins she carried weren’t things she’d had to do. Like with Eric Andrews, the cop she’d turned into a techno-monster, all she’d needed was an excuse and the opportunity to do something she’d desired on a primal level for a long time. If Harp was willing to move forward though, Ai decided it wasn’t worth dwelling on the past that much.

“So which EyeGrid archive is our target?” she asked.

“The GCPD storage facility in the Unity Blue district,” Harp said.

“What kind of intel do we have on it?” Ai asked.

“Very little,” Harp said. “Unity Blue is a high security district, and over the last year it’s been on almost continual lockdown because of the NME incidents.”

“Were any of them in or around UB?” Ai asked.

“No,” Zai said, rejoining the conversation. “The EyeGrid archive is one of a hundred and twenty seven secure facilities in Unity Blue though and with the High Guard’s inability to predict anything about where or when the attacks will occur the entire district has been running on high alert to avoid any catastrophic losses.”

“How can the city afford to keep the EyeGrid archives there?” Ai asked. “They can’t even afford decent fake sugar in our breakroom. The rent on a permanent high alert facility has to be breaking their bank.”

“There was a special funding initiative passed to cover it,” Zai said. “And it looks like the people supplying the funds are a collective of shell companies put together solely for that purpose.”

“And those are owned by?” Ai asked.

“No one,” Zai said. “They’re actually empty shells. No assets and no financial transactions in or out of them.”

“How are they providing the funding for the high alert costs then?” Ai asked.

“Hard asset transfers,” Harp said. “That’s a bad sign.”

“They’re bartering for the extra protection?” Ai said. “Who does that?”

“On that scale? People we absolutely need to avoid being noticed by,” Harp said.

“Interesting,” Ai said. The hesitation in Harp’s voice made the mission seem significantly more dangerous, and that woke something in Ai’s heart. Dangerous puzzles were her domain and her intellect rose to devour the problems before her with a gleeful zeal.

“I did say we needed to quiet as ghosts for this mission right?” Harp asked.

“That you did,” Ai agreed. “So no more bashing problems with NMEs. You said we have seven hours to get you back to Dr. Raju right?”

“At the outside,” Harp said. “Is that going to be possible?”

Ai began running scenarios in her mind. Being able to think at hyper-accelerated speeds was useful. It allowed her to work through the numbers enough to discard complex non-viable options with a speed that even Zai had a hard time matching. The real benefit to her enhanced state though came from the technological memory she shared with Zai.

As a baseline human, she’d suffered from losing her train of thought as much as anyone else. One good idea would arise and before she could follow it to its logical conclusion, three more would pop up and inevitably one or more would be forgotten.

Since the upgrade, as long as she was able to maintain the right focus, she could balance her biological mind’s creative spark with the solid reliability of electronic memory and synthesize something greater than either could produce on their own.

“I can do better than that,” Ai said. “I’ll have you home early enough that we can enjoy a dinner and a show to celebrate our success before Dr. Raju catches you breaking your curfew.”