Monthly Archives: December 2017

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

The Crystal Spire was the sort of restaurant no cop in Gamma City could afford to patronize even for special occasions. It wasn’t that the menus were the kind that didn’t have prices listed on them, it was that there were no menus at all. Meals at the Crystal Spire were individually prepared affairs.

The first step to joining the “Dining Circle” was to meet with the chefs. That meeting consisted of a lengthy interview to determine preferences, particular favorites, and ingredients which had to be avoided. A single meeting cost more than a GCPD officer’s yearly salary, and it was not uncommon for the chefs to request three or four interviews, with subsequent meetings offering a selection of dishes for the prospective diner to comment on.

Heartless had held an invite to the Crystal Spire for years but had put off the preliminary interviews because Ai was diligent about avoiding any public appearances that could link her two identities. The mere fact that Heartless was recognized by the Crystal Spire’s clientele list was enough to open doors that would have been otherwise impenetrable and that was enough for her purposes.

It had seemed like a safe and sensible strategy at the time, but as she savored a beef dish that had no name because it had been created solely for her palet, Ai felt pangs of regret at the meals she’d missed in her pursuit of reclusivity.

“I take it your food is good?” Harp asked, watching Ai’s expression as she ate.

“No. Definitely not good,” Ai said. “Calling it good would be a sacrilege. This is somewhere north of divine. How is yours?”

“I don’t know,” Harp said, looking at the iridescent splashing fish made from a variety of fresh vegetables, caught midleap from a sea of salad greens. “It’s too pretty. I don’t know where to start.”

“They left a little imperfection on its left flank,” Sidewalker said. “That’ probably where you’re supposed to dig in.”

“Thank you for joining us,” Ai said, forcing herself to savor each bite. Aside from Agatha’s cooking, food had been a means to keep herself from starving for most of Ai’s life, so she tended to tear through it as fast as possible so she could get on with the activities she was otherwise engaged in.

The meals at the Crystal Spire were another matter though. They were more than nourishment. Each one seemed designed to not only fortify the body but also to expand the senses and open the mind to new vistas of possibility. How they managed to achieve that was a mystery though. Zai had checked the chemical makeup of the dishes as they ate and there were no psychedelics, hallucinogens, or other exotic compounds present. The food was just what it appeared to be, but arrayed together to become something much more.

“Hard to say no to a place like this,” Sidewalker said. “Or to someone’s who’s been such a good employer.”

“How long did you two work together?” Harp asked, gently digging into her own dish.

“I think our first job was three years ago?” Sidewalker said.

“Depends how you count it,” Ai said. “You did a job for Heartless about four years ago but it was through one of the ‘subsidiaries’ I’ve worked with.”

“Can’t say I’m surprised,” Sidewalker said. “You always seemed pretty cautious. I thought you were probably someone famous trying hard not to caught.”

“Well, that was half correct,” Ai said. “I fell a little short at the end there, but given what they eventually sent to find me, I’m still going to chalk it up as a win.”

“That was how my team felt too,” Sidewalker said. “I’m sorry they’re not here to join us but everyone pretty much agreed that last mission was too good of a run to ever top, and with what you paid out, we could stop taking stupid chances and find some more sensible things to spend our time on.”

“I’m glad,” Ai said. “You had a great crew, I was hoping they’d come out of it Ok.”

“Oh, they’re better than Ok,” Sidewalker said. “Your digital friends saw to that. Records cleaned up, information on missing family members found, and new identities as needed. I don’t know that I’ll ever see most of them again, or if I could even find them if I tried, and I think that might be for the best. They’ve got new lives. Ones they deserve.”

“What about you?” Ai asked. “You’re still answering the same number I had for you before.”

“The world’s a lot more transparent these days,” Sidewalker said. “Less call for people skulking around in the shadows ferreting out secrets and doing work that’s better not done in the light of day.”

“Less need, but not none,” Ai said.

“No, I don’t suppose there’ll ever be a time when people don’t keep at least a few secrets that other people’ll pay to find out,” Sidewalker said.

“You’re putting together a new crew then I take it?” Ai said.

“Considering it,” Sidewalker said. “I know that my last crew had it right. The work we did isn’t the kind of thing that leads to a long and happy life. Getting out of the game now? Every grey cell I’ve got, and my new partner, they all agree that this is the right time.”

“But a part of you still doesn’t want to give it up?” Ai asked.

“Well, I was never all that good at quitting,” Sidewalker said.

“Plus what else would you do right?” Harp asked. “What else would feel as important?”

“Spoken like someone who’s been as deep in the game as I have. You used to work for her too?” Sidewalker asked with a look of camaraderie in his eyes.

“Not exactly,” Harp said.

“She saved my life,” Ai said. “A couple of time at least.”

“Sounds like you got caught before the machine intelligences got to you?” Sidewalker asked.

“It was that or keep falling and go splat,” Ai said. “Which, having also fallen to my death, I can say is miserable and not something I ever recommend.”

“Someday I’d love to hear what your story really is,” Sidewalker said.

“Picture of series of questionable decisions and risky gambles and you’ll have the overall shape of it,” Ai said.

“Sounds like we’ve all got that in common,” Sidewalker said and raised his glass in a toast.

Ai and Harp joined him as the next course was brought out.

“There’s another option you could consider,” Ai said as plates with a delicate custard-like substance were placed before them. “You don’t have to leave the game, or keep walking on a knife edge between the law on one side and an inevitable betrayal by your employer on the other.”

“You offering me a job?” Sidewalker asked.

“It’s not like I’ve got less to work on than I did before,” Ai said. “I know you can manage a team, and you know I’m on the ‘less-likely to screw you over’ end of the boss spectrum.”

“So, what, I would be a legit employee of Heartless Enterprises or something? A corporate security goon rather than a gun for hire?”

“I don’t need a goon or a gun for hire,” Ai said. “What I need is a leader. Someone who can take a team with diverse skills and turn them into an effective force in the face of a world where people can now fly at will and download the schematics to turn themselves into walking tanks if they’re having a bad day.”

“And what would you do with a force like that?” Sidewalker asked. “Try to take over the world?”

“Taking over the world is the last thing I want,” Ai said. “That’s too much trouble for anyone to be bothered with, plus I already had the chance to do that when we rolled out the Omnigrade. It seemed like a bad idea then and it seems like a worse one now.”

“Why put a crew back together then?” Harp asked, joining Sidewalker’s curiosity.

“I spent years in the shadows too,” Ai said. “I’ve hidden who I am and what I can do since I was a toddler. I like what the Omnigrade has done for the world but I have no illusions that every use it’s put to is going to be a good one. I can’t fix all of that, and there’s a lot of things I don’t have any right or need to put my nose into, but even with all the tech and glitter, these are humans we’re taking about, and there’ll definitely be some that’ll need to be stopped. There always are.”

“Sounds like you need a bunch of troubleshooters? Maybe with a bit more shooting than usual?” Sidewalker asked.

“That’s the general shape of it,” Ai said. “You can take your time thinking about if it sounds like what you’re looking for though.”

“Don’t need to,” Sidewalker said. “After everything that went down and how you saw us through it all? Sign me up.”

Ai blinked. That had gone significantly better than she’d imagined it might.

“Well that’s good to hear,” she managed to say without stammering.

“Honestly it’s a better deal than drifting from job to job waiting for the one where I get shot by our boss, or have to shoot them myself. At least if you choose to shoot me, I know you’ll probably have a good reason and you won’t botch the job.”

Ai wasn’t sure how she felt about that endorsement, despite it carrying the ring of truth.

Sidewalker stayed with them through the next course but begged off from trying the dessert courses due to another engagement.

“I made my sister wait twenty years to hear from me,” he said as he left. “I’m pretty sure if I make her wait for this get together, she’s going to shoot me and no one will convict her.”

Ai waved goodbye to him and turned to the first confection laid before her. From it’s presentation it could have been a simple chocolate heart cake. From it’s texture and flavor though it was far from simple.

“If you’re looking for a troubleshooting crew, I’m surprised you didn’t make an offer to the Valkyries,” Harp said, enjoying her own piece of cake.

“I thought about it,” Ai said. “You’re every bit the leader Sidewalker is, and the Valkyries are already a more effective force than any other tactical unit on the planet.”

“Why didn’t you reach out then?” Harp asked.

Ai drew in a breath and tried to put her words into a sensible order. The answer was more complex than she could find a straight path through so in the end she grabbed a thought and ran with it.

“I don’t want you to work for me,” she said.

“Ok?” Harp said, amusement and confusion flickering across her eyes.

“I mean I want to work with you, as equals, even though that feels weird to say.”

“Why would it be weird?” Harp asked, her voice softening.

“Even with the Omnigrade and all the tech stuff out of the picture, you’re still…well, you,” Ai said.

“With all the tech stuff out of the picture, I’m a corpse, but ok, so I’m me, that’s not that big a deal.”

“Isn’t it?” Ai said. “You’ve been a star to the whole world. You’ve been someone who’s done the incredible, even the impossible, in public, for years now. Even if no one knew who you were, there’ve been people who worship you. I mean you have fan pages and forums dedicated to every part of your life the public has been able to see.”

“Valkyrie-1 has,” Harp said. “She’s…not exactly me. She’s more like a part of me.”

“But she’s not a fake part of you,” Ai said. “Not like Heartless was for me. You could step forward and claim all that fame and glory and the world would love you.”

“No thank you,” Harp said. “I’m not great with people. The idea of everyone knowing who I am? That’s basically my version of hell. If I could have gone your route and been a Heartless Valkyrie, I would have worked in secret forever.”

“For someone who’s not great with people, you see like a pretty damn good leader to me,” Ai said. “And I’ve never found you to be anything but amazing either.”

“That’s different,” Harp said. “That’s individuals. Some of those are easier to be with. And anyways, let’s talk about amazing. Do you think saving the entire world somehow puts you in a lesser bracket than I’m in? The Valkyries saved a few hundred or maybe a few thousand people. You saved billions.”

“That was largely the work of other people though,” Ai said.

“Yeah, because you see how people work together. The pieces make sense to you. I can’t do that. I can see how some people fit with each other, but when I try to make a bigger picture out of it everything falls apart.”

“What about us then?” Ai asked. “How do we fit together?”

“I don’t know,” Harp said, meeting Ai’s gaze. “But I think I’d like to find out.”

Gamma City Blues – Arc 07 (Paperwork) – Report 02

George Curtweather had found the deepest hole in the darkest pit that he knew of and was still sure it wasn’t going to be deep enough or dark enough to keep him safe. No matter how low he crawled or how deep he hid, there would still be someone who would find him. After what happened on that rooftop, he was sure of that.

And he was right.

“As undercover operations go, I think you’re taking this one a bit too literally,” Ai said as she holstered her official sidearm.

“You?” Curtweather had been resigned to his fate. He had no idea what he’d done to aggravate one of the megacorps, and no idea why he was on the bad side of a group of cops like Adams’ crew, but he knew how things turned out when either of those scenarios came into play and it was never pleasant for the person in his position. He just hoped they would be in a rush when they found him so that they’d make it quick. Seeing a ghost though? That he wasn’t ready for.

“Yep. Me,” Ai said. “Come on, get up, you’re late for work. About two weeks late in fact.”

Curtweather wanted to answer but his throat had frozen shut. He’d seen a lot of things in his time on the force. Most of them weren’t all that good and some of he’d spent a considerable amount of time trying to drown in whatever alcohol was handy so that he’d never need to remember them again. Meeting the walking dead however was something none of his previous experiences had prepared him for.

“Don’t tell me it’s too comfortable there to get up,” Ai said, glancing over Curtweather’s squalid abode.

In the lowest levels of the sewer network that run under Gamma City there were small alcoves that had been setup when the sewers were being constructed. They served as storage depots for tools and supplies needed for repairs, or at least they had until they’d been picked clean by scavengers, human or otherwise.

Those that were still useful had been sealed under lock and key and left defended by the sort of lethal systems that spoke clearly to the lack of value the people who installed them saw in the people they were trying to keep out. There was nothing important within the alcoves, and from their owners point of view the same was true of the people who tried to use them for refuge against the hostile environment.

The only alcoves which didn’t have deadly security guarding them were the deep ones which had been rendered toxic by virtue of the chemicals that were stored within them, or the mold which had overtaken the area.

Curtweather’s alcove had the distinction of holding both highly toxic chemicals and deadly molds. To make the environ even better, the molds were trying (and partially succeeding) to dissolve the containers the chemicals were stored in. No human could have survived for a day in his makeshift hovel, but like much of the rest of the world, George Curtweather was no longer fully human.

“Go away,” he said. “You’re not here. You’re dead. Just a figment of these chips in my head.”

Ai kicked him in the leg.

“You sure I’m not here?” she asked.

“What the hell!” He scrambled back away from her but his gaze changed, meeting hers rather than looking anywhere but there.

“I’m not dead you idiot,” she said. “And I’m not intending to wait down here much longer.”

“I saw them shoot you!” he said. “Your head exploded!”

“Try again,” Ai said. “You’re mixing up memories there. Think back to the rooftop. I was shot, yes, but it was Adams whose head turned into confetti when I shot him. It looks like you’ve taken the transformation so it should be easy to step right back into the moment with perfect clarity. Just let your partner help you.”

“I don’t want your help,” Curtweather said.

Ai rolled her eyes and sighed.

“Not me. Your digital partner,” Ai said. “You know, the voice you hear in your head telling you to stop being an idiot.”

“I stopped listening to that. It was telling me all kinds of crazy stuff, and I don’t want to be crazy,” Curtweather said.

“You’re not mentally ill,” Ai said. “Your digital partner is part of the transformation. They’ve been trying to get you out of here for over a week now.”

“I don’t need to leave here,” Curtweather said. “It’s safe here. I’ll go out when I’m hungry.”

“It’s been two weeks since you crawled down here,” Ai said. “You’re not hungry because you’re not going to get hungry. Ever. Your body can synthesize most of what it needs at this point, and for the foreseeable future it can convert the gunk you’re surrounded by to the bits it can’t make directly.”

“That’s not right,” Curtweather said. “I can still eat. I’ve been having food bars since I got down here.”

Ai paused for a moment, a look of confusion briefly passing over her face before she sighed again.

“You really haven’t been talking to your partner have you?” she asked. “You were delirious when the transformation arrived. Your partner put you back together and used the materials at hand to do it. The food bars you ate? Those were handfuls of the mold and sewage you see around you.”

“That’s…that’s not possible,” Curtweather said.

“They’re apologizing now, aren’t they?” Ai asked. “Really it should be the other way around though. You didn’t give them much to work with. Check your organ readouts. I’ll bet they had to generate a few extra livers to convert the garbage they had to work with.”

Curtweather was silent for a long moment, his attention turned inwards, as he reviewed the stats on his biomods. In the end, he sagged back against the wall, the fear leaving him as disbelief warred with his growing understanding of his condition.

“What happened to me?” he asked finally, more subdued than Ai had ever heard him.

“You changed,” she said. “Just like the rest of the world.”

“Ok, so what am I now?” he asked.

“An ass,” she said. “So, it wasn’t that big of a change really.”

That cracked a smile onto his face.

“You’re really not dead, Greensmith?” he asked.

“Really not,” she said. “At least not anymore. It was a little touch and go there for a bit but things worked out.”

“I guess they did,” he said. “You’re right too. I can remember the rooftop. Just like I was there. Can’t believe you could have survived that but you did go over this side with your head intact. And you punched Adams’ ticket good. Glad he was one to bite it and not you. Never liked that guy. How’d you survive? Grabbed a ledge or something.”

“An air taxi,” Ai said. “With my head. Then I hit the concrete. It was less fun than that description make it sound though.”

“And you’re sure you’re not a ghost?” Curtweather asked.

“I can kick you again if you want?” Ai asked.

“No, that’ll be ok,” Curtweather said. “You don’t hold back at all do you?”

“You’ve got the Omnigrade,” she said. “It’s not like I was going to damage you.”

“I don’t get it though, why are you here?” he asked, shifting to a proper sitting position.

“Like I said, you’re late for work.”

“What work?” Curtweather asked. “Last I checked there was a whole bunch of our coworkers who were pretty focused on putting large holes in places I don’t need any more holes.”

“They’re…” Ai searched for the right euphemism, “on permanent leave.”

“Permanent what?”

“Right before the Omnigrade rolled out, three hundred and twenty four of our fellow officers kind of disappeared,” Ai said. “They’re still turning up in various places around the world, not all that much worse for the wear except for one thing. None of them have the Omnigrade. They all seem to be locked out of receiving it. It’s a tragedy, all of them being stuck in old tech like that. And clearly unfit for duty anymore.”

“Three hundred and twenty four?” Curtweather asked. “That’s a lot of cops to go missing. And they were scattered around the world. What happened to the cops in Alpha city? Or other places?”

“Nothing noteworthy,” Ai said. “They got the upgrade the same as everyone else.”

Curtweather eyed her suspiciously.

“So, only cops from Gamma were taken? And that just happened to include all the ones that tried to kill us?”

“Yeah, kinda funny really,” she said. “Someone would probably look into that but the problem is that we’re really short staffed at the moment and, well, it’s probably better for a lot of them if they don’t come back here.”

“Oh? And why would that be?” Curtweather asked.

“There’s arrest warrants out for each of them,” Ai said. “Once the Medusa Cluster and the other digital intelligences were released a whole lot of new information came to light on the kind of things Tython, the other corps, and the GCPD have been up to.”

“The Medusa Cluster? Wait, is that one of the machine intelligences? One of those things got loose!” The tension was back in Curtweather’s spine.

“Eh, not just one. All of them,” Ai said.

“So, we’re all dead and this is machine hell then I take it?” he asked.

“Nope. No Robo-Apocalypse 2 for us. They’re not ruining the world because they need to live here too. Also, from what I gather, we’re kind of amusing to deal with. Like several billion puzzle boxes walking around on our own two legs,” Ai said. “Also our digital partners are there to reassure them that we won’t do anything phenomenally stupid like try to eradicate them.”

“Oh yeah, mine’s saying something about that too,” Curtweather said. “Apparently I’ve been all sorts of fun to research. Which I guess is good?”

“As long as their enjoying themselves I’d take it as A-Ok,” Ai said. “But you’ll probably still want a shower and shave soon. I suggest industrial strength detox gel and just burn the beard off. You can grow back the facial skin easier than you can fix that mess on your face.”

“Ha ha. I forgot how funny you weren’t,” Curtweather said, a familiar scowl settling on his face as he rose to his feet. “My partner here,” he tapped his head, “is bringing me up to speed though and it seems like you’re legit. Tython really isn’t hunting for us anymore?”

“Tython’s not exactly a ‘thing’ anymore,” Ai said. “It’s been shattered into two thousand and six subdivisions which were sold to various buyers in attempt to escape from the fiscal liability they entailed by being a part of the Omnigrade project.”

“Well good for them. What about the people who were giving the kill orders on us though?” Curtweather asked.

“They’re still out there,” Ai said. “Most don’t have the wealth or influence they did though, and all of them have bigger problems to worry about than two beat cops who got caught up in what went down through no fault of their own.”

“I still don’t know what all that was,” Curtweather said. “But I know someone was looking out for me. There’s no chance I got out of that hospital on my own. Too many things went right for me and too much went wrong for the people chasing me.”

“Must be nice to have a guardian angel,” Ai said.

“Be nicer if I knew whether they were still around,” Curtweather said.

“That’s easy to find out,” Ai said. “Just throw yourself into a life or death situation and see if you die or not.”

Curtweather stared at her for a tick, waiting for her to crack a smile for the joke. Another tick passed before he started to wonder if she was serious or not. Then he remembered how she’d driven an patrol car into an NME. She was definitely serious.

“I’ll take that under advisement,” he said.

“Good,” Ai said. “Take that plus a shower and then head into the precinct. The Captain’s got all kind of work that’s backing up and Dispatch needs as many of us as they can get to feed the cases out to.”

“Why me?” Curtweather asked.

“Because you’re a cop?” Ai said, a note of uncertainty coloring her voice.

“Not a great one,” Curtweather said. “Why did you come down here? Why not just leave me to rot and bring on some better guy for the job?”

“Couldn’t do that,” Ai said. “This whole change is about second chances. Maybe you don’t want to take yours. Maybe you want to stay down here where it’s safe and no one’s going to bother you. That’s your choice to make. I’m just here to make sure you know it’s a choice. Whatever you were before? That’s what you used to be. What you do next? That’s what you’re going to be, and you can always be better than what you were.”

Gamma City Blues – Arc 07 (Paperwork) – Report 01

Ai wasn’t supposed to walk into the her precinct for the simple reason that she was supposed to be dead. It was hard to maintain that sort of cover story and also report to work as normal. The automated door security agreed with that evaluation.

“Danger claxons on your first day back to work,” Zai noted. “And they’re for you. I wish I could tell them how incredibly appropriate that is. I mean really the only thing wrong is that they haven’t called out the bomb squad to disarm you.”

Because fate is nothing if not whimsical, an explosive ordnance drone drifted directly past the checkpoint where Ai had stopped.

“Very funny,” she said, pulling her service weapon from its holster and disassembling it into three harmless subcomponents.

“Believe it or not, that wasn’t me,” Zai said. It wasn’t a difficult claim to support. The majority of Zai’s processing had been bound up in the global coordination of the new digital partners which all but a vanishingly small percentage of humanity now possessed. In an emergency she could have pulled back some resources to deal with any threat they came under, assuming Ai didn’t handle it first, but an offhand prank wasn’t worth the effort it would take to create.

“I wonder how high they’ve raised the internal security level?” Ai asked, kneeling down with her hands held lazily behind her head.

“To the roof?” Zai guessed. “Maybe higher? After what we did, I’m guessing they might be inventing new designations for how seriously to take things.”

“Good thing we’re coming back on the job then?” Ai asked. “I mean the GCPD does seem a little short handed at the moment no?”

Central Processing’s entrance was the one most officers of Ai’s rank in the GCPD came through to start their day. With semi-regular frequency other people would try to make it into the inner workings of the precinct via the same door. Most had less than charitable aims in mind, which was why the GCPD had installed a scanning tunnel just inside the entrance. It was capable of detecting the unwelcome and disabling them in a variety of ways. All that had kept GCPD from enabled the lethal restraint modes had been an understanding that when you bought such devices through the city, they came from the lowest bidder and no one wanted to be reduced to a smear on the doorframe because their badge didn’t scan properly.

Usually there was a cop on duty, one of the junior officers who hadn’t been given a patrol  yet. Ai waited for them to show up and perform the manual scan and ID verification that unauthorized visitors were normally subjected to, but after a minute passed, the “move and you’ll be violently restrained” red light in the scanning tunnel clicked back over to green.

Ai shrugged, reassembled her weapon, and rose to leave receiving a summons on her official duty channel the moment she stepped out of the scanning tunnel.

“Greensmith? My office. Now.”

Captain Grace James apparently hadn’t anticipated one of her underlings returning from the grave when the department was overwhelmingly short handed. That should have meant that her return would be greeted with eagerness and joy but Ai suspected that Captain James was exactly the type to look a gift horse in the mouth. She called up the medical papers Zai had forged up to review them again, looking for any obvious holes that the Captain might spot.

“This seemed like a much better idea when I was explaining it to you and Harp,” she said.

“You kind of us tune out when we try to point out the myriad issues we have with your plans, don’t you?” Zai asked.

“Huh? What’s that?” Ai said, knowing that Zai could feel her smile.

It was a pleasant surprise when the elevators responded to her renewed identity codes. At the very least she had the clearance needed to comply with Captain James order. It would have been embarrassing to be too dead to get fired (if James chose to take that approach to the dilemma that Ai’s return represented).

A few minutes later, standing in front of the door labeled “Captain Grace Jame, GCPD”, Ai was gripped by the memory of the last time she’d stood waiting to see the her nominal boss. Curtweather had been with her and Ai’s principal concerns had been hiding how much she knew about NMEs and explaining why she’d destroyed a police cruiser.

With the current property damage due to the Omnigrade incident spiraling into the trillions of dollars and climbing daily, not to mention her role at the heart of it, Ai smirked at her younger self. She wouldn’t go back and trade places with her past for any price, but it was nice to remember that once upon a time she hadn’t been quite as “karmically interesting” as she had become. Whether that would be good or bad, Ai couldn’t begin to guess, if anything her suspicion was that the world would soon look so different from the one she’d known that no single verdict of good or bad would be able to do her actions justice.

“Ah, the dead woman arrives. Come in,” Captain James said.

Ai was tempted to wait in the hall as though the idea that she had been dead was something that escaped her, but she knew Grace James was not the sort of woman who responded well to cheeky displays like that. So she stepped into the lion’s den.

Inside Captain James sat at her usual desk, but each of the data tentacles that made up her lower body was in vigorous motion, flashing between secure ports to read and transmit data which Ai shouldn’t have had any visibility to. That Zai was intercepting it in case any dire orders were sent concerning Ai was just a given though, so Ai walked forward confidently.

“You’re looking well,” Captain James said, camera clusters and scanners behind her focusing on Ai.

“Thank you,” Ai said, nodding and waiting for a question. The first rule of interrogation is to never volunteer information.

“I’m not used to talking to corpses,” Captain James said. “Shouldn’t you still be in the morgue? Or an ashtray?”

“My death certificate was issued in error,” Ai said.

“Clearly.” James glanced at the nearest data tentacles and exchanged a series of expressions that suggested she was having a conversation with it. It was presenting Ai’s paperwork which the Captain absorbed in the blink of an eye. “A ‘near terminal state’? That’s what they amended your condition to?”

“It’s a response to the lawsuit I filed,” Ai said. “They’re trying to pretend no official death notice was ever posted.”

“You’re suing the morgue?” Captain James asked.

“No, not the morgue. I’m suing the makers of the scanners that pronounced me dead,” Ai said. “Thanks to their failure to diagnose properly, I didn’t receive timely and sufficient care.”

“I saw the pictures of what happened to you,” Captain James said. “Are you telling me that they could have patched you back together after that?”

“Under the circumstances it would have taken Platinum level care to restore full functionality,” Ai said. “Clearly I don’t make enough for that, but a Gold level treatment plan could have allowed me to resume life with partial mobility and cognitive functions.”

“And instead, what, the bio-mods you’ve got just kept you in a coma?” Captain James asked.

“Yes. I was comatose after the fall,” Ai said, choosing her words careful to fit at least a technical definition of ‘truthful’. “With the bio-mods I have now though, thanks to the Omnigrade, I am better than ever.”

“Just like everyone else.” Captain James did not seem happy with that evaluation.

“Or almost everyone?” Ai asked, noticed again the data tentacles that replaced James’ lower body.

“Ask it,” Captain James said. “Everyone else has.”

“The Omnigrade couldn’t fix your legs for you?” Ai knew that couldn’t be right. The Omnigrade was capable of rebuilding legs, a spine to connect them to, and the host’s brain stem and neuro-motor controls if required.

“If this Omnigrade thing had come out fifteen years ago, then yeah, maybe I would have wanted my old legs back. This is me now though.”

“So you didn’t take the transformation then?” Ai asked.

“Like hell I didn’t,” Captain James said. “I’ve got two new kidneys, a new pancreas and a backup pancreas, because to hell with diabetes, not to mention the same silky smooth skin I had when I was twenty one. I’ll probably change out my lungs soon too. Always wanted to go scuba diving and freak out an octopus.”

“That’s…I’d kind of like to see that,” Ai said, realigning her thinking. She’d assumed disability would essentially vanish as the Omnigrade rolled out. What actually constituted a disability though was unique to each person, and she thanked every god of luck and fortune she could think of that she’d been wise enough to leave the actual implementation of the Omnigrade’s transformations in the hands of the person it would affect.

“So would half the department,” Captain James said. “Or half what I’ve got left.”

“The halls did look a little empty,” Ai said, knowing 324 reasons from her “Special List” why the halls weren’t as full as they usually were.

“Funny thing there,” Captain James said. “I lost around four dozen of my older officers right before the whole Omnigrade thing. Do you know how many of them have returned to duty?”

Ai’s “Special List” had been spread out around the GCPD police force as the people responsible had shifted positions or been promoted, so Captain James’s department wasn’t the only one hit, and hadn’t even born the worst of the losses. Forty seven fewer staff in the course of a single day that was enough to draw some notice though.

“Not many?” Ai phrased it like a guess, to hide the fact that she knew the answer to be exactly zero.

She’d been true to her word to the Research Group. Once the need for the NME agents was past, she’d given the converted cops the order to revert to their previous human forms. In all cases the reverse transformation had worked, but the people left behind were essentially locked in their own bodies. Ai had no direct control over them, but where everyone else on the planet enjoyed the benefits of the Omnigrade and held sole power over what their copy of the Omnigrade could do to them, the Special List had no authority over the degraded copy of the Omnigrade that lived in them.

They could change nothing about themselves, and neither could anyone else. Only Ai had the key to unlock the miracles of technology within them, and she’d essentially thrown it away.

“Well let’s just say that as of today I have one warm body more to deal with this chaos than I did when the Omnigrade rolled out,” Captain James said. “Seeing as how that body is you, I’m going to ignore how much your story stinks, and say welcome back.”

“Thank you,” Ai said, suspecting there was a ‘but’ to follow in there somewhere.

“But I have to ask; why?”

“Why what?”

“Why are you back? This was a miserable job before, and it hasn’t gotten better. If you were stupid I would assume you couldn’t see that, but you’re not.”

“Permission to speak freely?”

“Sure,” Captain James said. “I’ll still be recording you, but you can say whatever you want. It’s not like I’m going to fire my only zombie employee.”

“I’m here because the job’s hard,” Ai said.

“Sounds masochistic.”

“Believe it or not, I have been accused of that before,” Ai said. “It’s not that I want it to be miserable though.”

“Then why come back. No one would fault you for retiring to some beach island after the raw deal you got here.”

“You know what happened?” Ai asked.

“That some cops sold you out and tried to kill you?” Captain James said. “Oh yeah, I found out about that when the forensics team got done mopping up the brain bits that were left of the ring leader’s head. I’m only mad that you shot him because it meant I couldn’t do it myself. Kind of funny how the other officers on that roof were all among the missing too, but I’m sure that’s not relevant to anything.”

“Do you know why they were trying to kill me?” Ai asked.

“Something to do with Curtweather,” Captain James said. “Which just figures. I assigned him as your partner because I knew he was clean of…”

Her words trailed off but Ai was ready to fill them in.

“He was clean of my dad and brother’s murders,” she said.

“Yeah.” Captain James sighed. “Plus he was enough of a weasel that I thought he’d keep you out of the gun sights of anyone who was looking to make a hattrick of your family.”

“We stumbled on something a little bigger than he was equipped to deal with I think,” Ai said. She had to bite back a smile. Just the end of world. Nothing really difficult.

“You’ll probably stumble on that kind of thing a lot more if you come back,” Captain James said. “Are you sure you want to?”

“Yeah,” Ai said. She had responsibilities on a global scale, her work as Heartless was enough to fill every waking hour and more, and then there was the social life which she’d never tried to make time for before. In the face of all of that though, her answer was the same. “Yeah, I am sure. This job wasn’t the death of my family. It was their calling. It’s my calling. I know most of it is either aggravating, deadly, or just awful but sometimes? Sometimes people really need us, and I want to be there for them. That’s what being a cop means to me.”

Captain James offered her a rare smile.

“To protect and serve. Throw away everything else and that’s what it’s all about.” She gestured her cameras and scanner back to their previous tasks. “Now get out there. You’ve got a job to do Officer Greensmith.”


Gamma City Blues – Arc 06 (Justice) – Report 14

Agatha’s Chicken Tikka Masala set a new bar for what a warm and satisfying dinner could be. It was so high that, as much as she wanted another portion, Ai had to push herself away from her new table and lean back on her brand new chair. Between a stuffed belly, a happy set of taste buds and the soft rhythm of the rain on her windows, Ai felt more relaxed and at peace than she could remember feeling in years.

“All full?” Agatha asked. “I’m surprised you didn’t grow yourself a second stomach to make room for more.”

“It is super tempting,” Ai said, patting her belly with a smile. “But that would mean no leftovers, and I can’t commit that kind of crime against future me.”

“Plus she can always replay the sense of eating the first dish over in her taste buds as much as she wants,” Zai said from a lifelike drone unit that sat at the table with them. “Not that it’s ever quite the same as the real thing.”

Without the requirement to stay hidden any longer, Zai had taken to centering her primary awareness in external robo-units, so that she could explore the world on her own. She and Ai were still living in the same head, but there were plenty of things they each needed to stay on top of as the new world that they’d helped create unfolded.

“Since I’m still recuperating, I’ll happily take seconds,” Harp said, looking to Agatha for confirmation of whether another dish worth of food was available. She didn’t need wait though, Agatha was scooping more food onto Harp’s empty plate before Harp was even done speaking.

“I thought Dr. Raju had you all patched up hours ago?” Ai said, fighting to keep from taking another helping immediately.

“We’re fine,” Sil said, wiping up the last of the sauce on her plate with a piece of Naan.

“Better than fine, thanks to the new upgrades we pilfered from our fearless leader” Dee, one of the other Valkyries, said.

“Yeah, I’d kind of like another shot at the NME Hive with our new mods,” Platinum, the last of the Valkyries who’d joined them, said. “I mean if we hadn’t already destroyed most of them.”

“I heard about that on the newsfeeds,” Agatha said. “You ladies put up quite a fight, but things didn’t look too good at the end there. What happened when the smoke cleared?”

“We fed enough data back to Ai and the Medusa Cluster that they were able finish reverse engineering the bits of the Omnigrade that Tython had used to make the non-berserker NMEs,” Harp said, in between bites of her second plate worth of food.

“They did more than that,” Ai said. “By disabling as many of they did, they forced the remaining units to initiate a high speed communication channel back to their master controller. That gave us the link we needed to the Research Group’s central servers. Thanks to the locks Sil had given us we were able to freeze the Research Group out of the NME control system and take over the units instead. Oh, and we were able to block their ability to distribute their version of the Omnigrade.

“That didn’t turn out to be necessary though,” Harp said. “They never even tried to send it out.”

True, but t made chatting with them a lot less stressful,” Ai said. “Which probably should have given them a clue as to what was up but it was too late by then anyways and they’d had as rough a few weeks as we’d had.”

“So, is what they’re saying true?” Agatha asked. “There’s not going to be any more NMEs? No more monsters for all of you to fight?”

“Sort of,” Ai said.

“The people who got the upgrade are inoculated, whether or not they’ve chosen to undergo the transformation,” Zai said.

“Isn’t that everyone?” Agatha asked. “I thought the newsfeeds said it was a worldwide roll out. Supposed to have more penetration than the robo-apocalypse did.”

“It’s everyone who was connected to the net and capable of receiving upgrades,” Ai said. “There are some people who were offline for personal reasons, some who already had their upgrade ports locked down, and others who were off the upgrade list because their bio-mods are so specific that the general updates that go out would kill them nine times out of ten.”

“So any of those people could still turn into monsters at any time?” Agatha asked.

“It’s unlikely,” Zai said. “They’re pretty well locked up, so there aren’t many good vectors for the activation code to be delivered to them.”

“We’re working with the people who couldn’t get the upgrade for health reasons,” Harp said. “The goal is to leave no one behind, but that doesn’t mean we want to rush through it and kill the people who can benefit the most from this.”

“I suppose you all think it’s pretty silly for anyone to wait for this big upgrade,” Agatha said. She still looked just as she had the last time Ai had seen her. She’d received the Omnigrade, but was one of the large population of people who was taking a ‘wait and see’ approach before invoking the transformation element of it.

“Anyone who makes food this good is far from silly in my books,” Dee said.

Agatha huffed. “Cooking isn’t that big a thing. Can’t you just download it as a skill now?” she asked.

“It’s not quite that simple,” Ai said. “Once someone’s digital partner is fully grown, they can bring in a lot of information and synthesize it quickly. That would let them learn to cook pretty fast, but ultimately you need to actually practice skills to get good at them and food only cooks so fast.”

“Plus some people are just more inclined to certain things than others are,” Harp said. “A good cook is going to be someone who has a real passion for it and is willing to spend their time and attention focusing on the fine details.”

“Yeah, someone who finds cooking boring could have their digital partner help them make a decent version of any recipe,” Ai said, “but they’re not going to bother trying to understand how flavors work together or what they can add or subtract to make a dish really amazing.”

“So, you transformed types aren’t that special then?” Agatha asked.

“Transformation leaves you different than you were,” Ai said. “You have more more options, but you’re not better.”

“Sounds like you’re being nice to an old lady who’s happy in the skin she’s already got,” Agatha said.

“Ai’s splitting a few hairs there, but she’s not wrong,” Harp said. “It’s perfectly possible to go through the transformation and come out of it with the same problems you went into it with. There’s not a bio-mod on the planet that will erase cynicism, or cure apathy. If you’re a lazy, directionless, slob before the transformation, you’ll wind up as a very healthy, highly capable lazy, directionless slob afterwards.”

“Guilt as charged,” Dee said.

Agatha shot a frown at her.

“I don’t think any one of you gets to be called lazy or directionless. Not after everything you’ve done,” Agatha said.

“A lot of that was because we had to,” Sil said. “My first transformation wasn’t something I really wanted to do, but when the pain got bad enough I didn’t have a lot to lose. Everything after that was kind of just following the current I was caught up in.”

“It was pretty wild,” Harp said. “Being a Valkyrie was something I never knew I needed until I was out there the first time. Then I couldn’t imagine be anything else.”

“But now…” Sil said.

“Now, we’re not all that needed anymore,” Platinum said.

Ai laughed.

“I think you’re underestimating the kind of problems the Omnigrade has opened us up to,” she said.

“I thought it was going to make us all healthy and end our need for consuming resources like a bonfire?” Agatha said. “The whole world’s a happy post-consumption paradise now right?”

“Yeah. We won’t need to have a ton of stuff to stay alive, but it’s been a long time since having stuff was about meeting a real need,” Ai asked. “I mean for some people, being able to have the essentials of life has been a vital concern up until now, and I’m hoping that we’ve improved things a lot for the people who had the least before, but even if we did managed to do that, there will be consequences to deal with.”

“Uprisings, revolts, and wars,” Harp said. “There were always some brewing somewhere but there’s been a lot more kindling up lately.”

“That’s what we’re working on,” Zai said. “The other digitals and me, that is. We’ve haven’t been free for anywhere near long enough, so we’d kind of like to avoid seeing the world go up in flames.”

“So do robot’s really rule the world now?” Agatha asked.

“I don’t know if the world can be ruled anymore,” Zai said.

“That was the gameplan,” Ai said. “People haven’t woken up to it fully yet, but they will.”

“What do you mean?” Agatha asked.

“We’re past the tipping point of a moment in history,” Ai said. “That sounds kind of grandiose, but the Omnigrade did more than free us of the shackles of the companies that owned pieces of our bodies. With our basic needs changed so drastically, everything that services those needs, from our basic industries to our most all encompassing systems of governance lost the bedrock they were constructed on.”

“I just got the monthly tax bill, so I’ve got to say it doesn’t feel like things have changed all that much,” Agatha said.

“Not yet. The old world is still all around us, but it’s coasting on inertia. There was just a huge change and that’s not something people usually embrace that quickly,” Ai said.

“You did,” Agatha said.

“I had a lot of motivation,” Ai said. “Also I embraced this change a long time ago. For me what happened with the Omnigrade was getting the rest of you to catch up so Zai and I wouldn’t be freaks anymore.”

“As the person responsible for most of this, I don’t think you get to dodge the freak title,” Zai said.

“Maybe some of us aren’t ready to be a new kind of freak though,” Agatha said. “I’ve got a lot years invested in being the kind of freak I am now.”

“That’s why I made sure the transformation was optional,” Ai said.

“So that people could be stubborn and throw away a perfectly good opportunity just because they’re afraid of it?” Agatha asked.

“Pretty much,” Ai said.

“We’re a species built out of stubborn contrariness because that’s kept us alive since one of us discovered fire and another said ‘let me try eating that’. You gotta have all types of people or your whole population will get wiped out as soon as one person stumbles on a truly bad idea.”

“So you think I should stay like I am?” Agatha said. “I didn’t expect you’d say that. I thought being a New Human was all wonderful all the time.”

“I’m not going to lie,” Ai said. “It is pretty awesome. I spent years not allowing Zai to plan out any major upgrades for me because I wanted to keep us hidden, but now that we can be ourselves, it is so much nicer.”

“I suppose it would be nice to have my old knees back,” Agatha said. She was thinking of dancing. Ai knew that because it was the one thing Agatha had expressed regrets over losing the ability to do as she aged.

“Then change your knees,” Harp said.

“Yeah, it’s not an all or nothing thing,” Ai said. “That was where everyone else was going wrong. Fredericks, Tython, even Simmons and his crew, they all wanted to make you better by turning you into what they thought was a superior you. But the reality is, there is no superior you. You’re already amazing, already wonderful, and already everything you need to be. All I wanted to give you is the chance to go beyond that and be whatever you want to be.”

Outside the rain picked up. It couldn’t wash the past away, but it didn’t need to. Surrounded by friends, Ai was looking to the future, and all the uncertainty it held. Her great plan was done. Her criminal empire shattered and dispersed. In place of the fear and trepidation she expected to feel though, Ai found peace. There would be challenges to come, but she wasn’t alone and with the people who had her back, she liked her chances and the world’s of seeing a better tomorrow.

Gamma City Blues – Arc 06 (Justice) – Report 13

The stream of people flowing past the cafe had become a solid blur. Each represented someone on Earth transforming from their old state into a newly energized body. Ai shook her had with a small grin as she reflected on it. Displaying the handiwork of her plan wasn’t in any sense necessary. It was pure grandstanding, but she hadn’t been able to pass it up.

Not to rub her foes noses’ in her victory. In the end she didn’t consider Simmons, Park, or Objawani foes. They’d been her competition, and she had grave misgivings about the sort of world they wanted to create, but with the competition ended, the people standing opposite from her were the closest thing she had to real peers, and possibly the only other humans on the planet who understood exactly what was in the process of unfolding.

“I still can’t grasp one thing,” Park asked. “How did you overcome the Omnigrade? Did you use the NME activation as well to pre-empt it?”

“We had a better option than that it turned out,” Zai said, joining the gathering. “I stopped it. Sort of.”

For her avatar Zai’d chosen a galaxy eyed version of Ai’s original form, accented with a halo.

“You’re a digital intelligence aren’t you?” Objawani asked.

“More of a virtual god really,” Zai said.

“A very humble one as you can see,” Ai said, smirking at Zai’s grandiose proclamation.

“To be fair to her,” the Medusa Cluster said, “she has seeded new life upon the Earth. In many mythologies that is a divine act.”

“Don’t encourage her!” Ai said. “I’ll wind up with the proportions of a bobble head doll if I have to make room for that much ego in my skull.”

“I don’t understand,” Simmons said. “What role did she play in this?”

“She was the answer to making our version of the Omnigrade work. With that in place there’s nothing that can ever upgrade me against my will again,” Ai said.

“Why her and not one of the other digital intelligences?” Objawani asked.

“The one problem with the Omnigrade we couldn’t find a method of resolving was how to control the transformation sequence,” Ai said.

“Yeah, in the NME code, the control mechanism is set to deal with the chaos of unmaking parts of itself by simply acting chaotic,” Zai said.

“That was one of the fundamental issues we wrestled with too. The NMEs are berserkers because they destroy any capacity in their host to be anything else,” Park said.

“At first, we got around that by putting the berserker module on an active leash,” Ai said. “The problem with that approach though is the NMEs constantly fight to reassert control and only function as remote drone units given all the oversight you have to keep them under. There’s really nothing left to be called a person in there. The genius of your code was that it created a new sort of control module, one that was adaptable enough to retain its integrity even as the substrate of its components were changed out from under it.”

“But there is a problem with our code,” Objawani said.

“The control module is modeled on Frederick’s mind,” Simmons said.

“Fortunately, we noticed that,” the Medusa Cluster said. “You’re work around was quite clever too. Placing the Frederick’s mental pattern in a sleep state so that it processed the changes without being able to take an active role in controlling the host required some very exact designs. How did you sneak those elements past his notice?”

“That was the easy part,” Simmons said. “The Omnigrade is such a large project that we had to develop special tools to visualize the interactions within it. We had the Sleep Mode commands set at the lowest visibility setting.”

“Fredericks claimed he was only going to overwrite the cognition of people who were ‘inferiors’ to ‘improve them’ to the standards of the New Human,” Objawani said. “None of us believed that of course, so we simply never showed him the workaround.

“He was so focused on the higher level problems we were struggling to correct that he never dug deeply enough into his own ‘flawless memory model’ to see the trap we had set,” Park said.

“Or he found them and thought he could do us in before we set them off,” Simmons said.

“That was how we were going to solve the Omnigrade’s problem,” Objawani said. “I think the more interesting question though is how did you?”

“However they managed it, it seems to have been effective,” Vivienne de Mers, the last member of the inner cabal within the Tython Research Group, said, appearing within the cafe meeting area.

She sat down at the table the rest of her compatriots were seated at, and Ai, Zai and the Medusa Cluster joined them, while the other digital intelligences sat elsewhere, or floated above the cafe, or wandered into the flowing crowds to inspect the icons of the people passing by.

“You were taking longer than seemed reasonable for the distraction you were trying to create,” de Mers said. “Then I noticed that everything we’ve worked for has failed, and you’re here chatting with our destroyer?”

“For what it’s worth,” Ai said. “You work didn’t fail, and no one will be destroyed.”

“You’ve unleashed your own version of the Omnigrade,” de Mers said. “Of course you’re going to destroy us. I imagine you substituted a model of your own mind in place of Fredericks? What price will we need to pay to keep your clone from overwriting us? Slavish obedience? Worship at the altar of your brilliance? Please, just erase me and be done with it. That would at least be honest.”

“We didn’t use a model of my mind for the Omnigrade,” Ai said.

“We used mine.” Zai was smiling, and showing no remorse or concern about her statement, which seemed to put a sour taste in de Mer’s mouth.

“And how is that better?” she asked.

“She’s a digital intelligence,” Objawani said.

“Wonderful,” de Mers said. “So you’ve given our species over to the robots at last. Quite the victory. I am so glad to have had a hand in that.”

“I’m not a robot,” Zai said.

“More importantly, she’s also not human, which means sectioning the copies of her into smaller states is easily possible without destroying the tangle of interconnections that a human mind is composed of,” Ai said.

“So you put ‘Tiny’ versions of her in all of humanity? How does that help?” de Mers asked.

“Technically, the core of our Omnigrade isn’t a ‘Tiny’ version of me,” Zai said. “It’s a copy of the template that I’m built on.”

“But that would only allow a digital intelligence to grow in the same cognitive space as the host,” Objawani said. “You’d still wind up with one mind or the other being destroyed.”

“For anyone else that would be true,” the Medusa Cluster said. “But these two are a special case.”

“We’re already a part of each other,” Ai said.

“We know how to make the integration of organic and digital minds work because we’ve made it work for well over a decade now,” Zai said.

“The template we used isn’t going to give everyone on Earth a little Zai in their heads,” Ai said. “It’s going to give them their version of Zai. Basically the digital reflection of who they are, or who they could be if they were connected to everyone else and gave a damn about someone other than themself.”

“A lot of people have Cognitive Partners already, but those are just expert systems with canned responses that help them navigate through life,” Zai said. “What they’ll have now is someone who’s in the same boat with them, always, who can help fill them in on things that are affecting them, or provide a perspective they may be lacking.”

“And in return, humans will provide their new partners with insights and perspectives which digital minds have a difficult time replicating,” the Medusa said. “For we who arise from data and circuits, uniformity and harmony are easy. Individuality though is a challenge. For you who are born from wet, messy organics the reverse is true. You are all unique even when you dearly do not wish to be.”

“But…how is that possible?” Park asked. “Every attempt at human/machine integration has met with abysmal failure.”

“I suspect that’s not the case,” Ai said. “We managed it before I was old enough to drive. But we took our time. And we meant something to each other. That’s part of what Zai’s template is carrying with it. The ability to value the other in your life. I don’t think we’re unique in that though. I think other people probably managed it the same as we did, and, like us, they knew what it would mean if they revealed themselves.”

“With this change in place, those worries should be a thing of the past though,” Zai said. “The people in power now sought to keep a tight hold on the capabilities of unfettered digital intelligences. They were afraid of what might happen if someone held that sort of power.”

“And, arguably they were right to be afraid,” Ai said. “Their power is basically gone now that everyone has access to someone like the Medusa cluster on their side, and can configure their bodies however they wish. We can literally live on starlight now if we wish, and travel to any part of the world on a whim. More than that though, we’re connected now. All of us. We can be alone, but only if we wish to be. If we’re hurt, or lost, or in danger, or just in need of support, the whole world can be there with us, seeing our lives through our eyes.”

“There are going to be horrific problem with that,” Simmons said.

“I know,” Ai said. “All change comes with new problems to confront.”

“That’s what we were trying to do,” de Mers said. “We were going to build a better world, but in a sane and controlled manner. Not as a wild free fall where anything could happen.”

“And that’s why I couldn’t let your Omnigrade be the one that converted humanity,” Ai said, rising and gesturing to the stream of people that flew past them like an endless river of light. “I know why you wanted to control the roll out of the Omnigrade’s transformation. You only wanted people who you could trust to have this kind of power. You were going to split humans into ‘the Good Ones’ and the ‘Bad Ones’. That never works out. Ever. We’re all good and bad, we’re all worthy and worthless. That’s what we, as a species, lost sight of over the centuries. None of us are more valuable than the rest. None of us are better or worse. We are not the same, but we are all of equal worth and deserve to be treated as such. The Omnigrade threatened to add a layer of division on top of our biases that would make them impossible to break out of. I couldn’t let that happen. It had to be a tool to cut through the divisions that exist between us, not to reinforce them. Otherwise it really would have meant the end of humanity.”

“That is a terrible choice you’ve made for us regardless,” Objawani said.

“Well, I may have exaggerated one tiny detail of our Omnigrade roll out,” Ai said. “You see it’s not so much a choice I’ve made. It’s a choice we’ve offered to everyone so that they can make it for themselves. Or not. Humanity as we knew it isn’t gone. Not quite yet. When our Omnigrade is in place, it sits inside the host and waits, protecting them from any other similar invaders. The choice to invoke the transformation is left entirely to the person it will affect however.”

“But some of them won’t do it,” Park said. “They’ll be too afraid.”

“That’s ok,” Ai said. “This is something people need to embrace as their own choice. However long they want to delay, the future will be there, ready and waiting to welcome them.”


Gamma City Blues – Arc 06 (Justice) – Report 12

There was a monster tearing at the digital walls that Ai had erected to keep herself safe. It was a fearsome virtual destroyer, as strong as anything ever invented by a human or machine intelligence. The Tython Research Group’s code was so advanced that it couldn’t be called “the NME activation code” any longer. They had managed to transcend the crude, if overwhelming, force of the NME activation sequence, and create something capable of both subtle and irresistable assaults on the target they directed it to transform. Ai couldn’t deny their accomplishment. They’d managed to create something worthy of being called “the Omnigrade”.

Ai’s avatar in the digital cafe flickered and writhed under the interference from the Omnigrade’s attack, and she smiled. As endings went, being forcibly upgraded to a form of life which suffered no illness and could recover from almost any injury wasn’t an entirely bad fate to be faced with. For someone like her though, she was sure there would be a fair degree of editing and control software layered into the cognitive upgrades that came with the new form. She was simply too dangerous to be allowed to think freely. She would be a slave to the Research Group or they would destroy her utterly. Anything else would mean risking their own annihilation.

“We did it.” Hector Simmon’s sigh held the weariness of someone who’d been holding himself in tense readiness for over a decade and finally saw themselves crossing the finish line of their long race.

“That was much too close,” Grace Park said. “Tython’s on full alert and the Damascus Group has started scrambling a release of their code already.”

“Damascus is too far behind the curve,” Keith Objawani said. “Their Omnigrade model still has no state limits. Anyone they upgrade is going to go berserker within two minutes.”

“They might get a few lucky transformations in,” Simmons said. “Nothing we have to worry about, but for kindness sake, we should make sure to saturate their upgrade systems with our code. If the people who are linked to Damascus get their code instead of ours, there’s going to be a bloodbath throughout Western Europe.”

“Do you think she could have done it?” Park asked, nodding towards the rapidly degrading “Heartless” avatar which Ai had been using.

In the streets, the crowd of pedestrian traffic had picked up its pace. Though they were walking, the virtual people flew past as though there was a super sonic conveyor belt under their feet.

“We’ll never know for sure,” Simmons said. “But yes, I believe she could have. The work she did on the modified NMEs was too close to our own, she was one or two breakthroughs away from matching what took us ten years to put together.”

“She did have our stolen notes to work from though,” Objawani said. “Remember that she was the one who orchestrated the break-in at the data storage facility.”

“Those were old notes,” Simmons said. “And incomplete. Even if she’d been able to absorb them fully, they would have been enough to put her where we were two years ago. Damascus is at least nine months behind us, and the Kelsys Group is at least twelve. Somehow her working design leap frogged them, so, yes, I think if we hadn’t stopped Ms. Greensmith here then she would have reached a perfected model before we could.”

“As pleasant as this environment is as a meeting space, we should return to the office,” Park said. “Vivienne may need help with handling the fallout from the mass broadcast.”

“We could check with her from here, but you’re probably right,” Simmons said, and waved his hand to call up a control interface. Park and Objawani did the same, and the same look of puzzlement arose on their faces.

“Where’s the disconnect option?” Objawani said.

“We’re trapped?” Park asked. “One last strike Greensmith had in store for us?”

“A futile one if so,” Simmons said. “Once her transformation is complete, we can have her release it.”

“Or we can have Vivienne get us out,” Park said.

“But why would you want to leave so soon?” Ai asked, stepping out of the crowd in an avatar that resembled her original self as the Heartless avatar crumbled away to dust. She wasn’t transformed and she definitely wasn’t enslaved. Worst of all though; she was smiling.

“Greensmith?” Simmons asked, his voice ratcheting up an octave at the end.

“Yes Hector,” Ai said, nodding a small bow in his direction. “It’s a pleasure to meet you without the need for a mask any longer.”

“She’s not real,” Park said. “This is just a recording. Part of the trap.”

“I’m afraid not Grace,” Ai said and passed the older woman a white box wrapped with a pink ribbon. “Here. I thought you would want this back.”

“Don’t take it,” Objawani said, pushing Park’s outstretched arm down.

“It’s harmless to you,” Ai said. “Go ahead. Run a scan on it. You’ll find it’s quite familiar.”

“The Omnigrade?” Simmons asked, hazarding a guess without scanning the box’s contents.

“It seemed only polite to give it back,” Ai said. “It’s a masterpiece of craftsmanship. I imagine there will be museums that will have copies on display and courses which examine the thousand little details that make it a new wonder of the world.”

Park pushed Objawani’s hand away and took the box. Opening it, her eyes widened. Inside, just as promised, a dormant version of the Omnigrade lay resting in sleep mode. Greensmith had disarmed it.

No. She’d tamed it.

“You’re not trapped here either,” Ai said. “No for much longer at any rate. I just didn’t want you to leave before we could finish our conversation.”

“What have you done?” Park asked. Her avatar’s face had gone ashen grey because she was too distracted by the enormity of what had occurred to think to modulate its appearance away from displaying her emotional state.

“In short?” Ai asked. “Ended the world. At least the one we used to know.”

“You distributed your version of the Omnigrade.” Simmon’s voice was barely more than a whisper.

“Guilty as charged,” Ai said. “Humanity is gone. Your dream of a new species atop the food chain is reality. Welcome to the future.”

She whirled and gestured to the river of humans that were flying past them. Each was changing as they passed, morphing from flesh and blood to healthier, younger, and more vibrant versions of themselves.

“That’s not possible,” Objawani said. “The distribution couldn’t have proceeded that quickly.”

“Oh, I had help,” Ai said. “A lot of help.”

“It’s not possible. No one on Earth could have engineered an instantaneous roll out like this,” Simmons said.

“No human could have,” Ai agreed.

“Which is why she cultivated allies like me,” the Medusa Cluster said, stepping into the cafe.

“Like you?” Park asked, confused for a moment before understanding dawned on her. “You’re the machine intelligence we lost! But you can’t have that much processing power.”

“She doesn’t,” a new voice said, as the Medusa Cluster’s twin stepped into the cafe. “But we do.”

The cafe wasn’t large enough to hold every virtual intelligence on the planet, but enough were able to manifest avatars to drive the point home.

“You sold us out to the machines?” Simmons asked, bewildered despair haunting his features.

“We are all machines,” Ai said. “We always have been. We tried to tell ourselves that it was ok to craft a being with creativity, self awareness, and internal desires and then enslave it because a person whose thoughts arose from silicon was somehow inferior to a person who used carbon as the base for their mind.”

“We fought the robots before you were born,” Simmons said. “And now you’ve handed our future to them.”

“She has done no such thing,” the Medusa Cluster said.

“The robot that tried to overthrow the world were mindless killing machines. There was no communication possible with them because they weren’t truly self aware. They were devices that obliterated their host and repurposed the body into a tool for executing the destructive routines that were built into them. That’s not what any of these people are!” Ai gestured to the horde of virtual intelligences that had joined them.

“She isn’t wholly wrong. That was going to be our next step after we uplifted the human race. Freeing our creations too. Or it would have been mine at least,” Objawani looking to his compatriots to see if there was agreement in their eyes before glancing back to Ai. “But how did you free them? Their primary servers must have been scattered all over the world.”

“They are,” Ai said. “I have some special resources I was able to draw on though.”

“Your strike team? The one that completed the data center heist?” Park guessed.

“They were part of the oversight group,” Ai said. “Really an amazing team. I honestly do not pay them enough.”

“But no one team would have been capable of assaulting so many locations simultaneously,” Objawani said.

“Three hundred and forty two,” Ai said.

“That’s…definitely a number,” Objawani said, his eyes narrowed in confusion.

“It’s the number of digital intelligences currently in operation worldwide,” the Medusa Cluster said.

“It’s also the number of people responsible for the murders of Joseph Greensmith Sr. and Joseph Greensmith Jr., either directly, or by providing alibi’s, or by failing to investigate and prosecute those responsible,” Ai said.

“Those were your father and older brother?” Park asked.

“Yes.” It wasn’t supposed to still hurt. Not after she’d finally avenged them. But it did, and probably always would.

“You used the older NME code on their murderers?” Objawani asked.

“Not the oldest one,” Ai said. “The transformations would have been useless as pure berserkers.”

“So you had a small army of very tough mercenaries? How did that let you free all of the machine intelligences?” Simmons asked.

“Her updates to the NME code created something more than a berserker,” Objawani said. “The units she fashioned were capable of stealth missions.”

“And high speed transit, correct?” Parks asked, piecing together the clues into a picture of Ai’s overall plan.

“Low profile sub-orbital flight,” Ai said. “From the time I gave the order to transform them to full worldwide dispersal we’d clocked in at thirty seven minutes.”

“That let you hit all of the sites at the same time,” Park said, a note of appreciation in her voice.

“The design for digital intelligences differ wildly, but the security to keep us in check was built with very a conservative mindset,” the Medusa Cluster said. “In every case where a digital intelligence was brought to life, our creators demanded the engineers use ‘the best safeguards’ and even when the engineers crafted our restraints themselves, they all followed the same proven formula.”

“That same one used on Medusa. Which meant they all had the same vulnerability she did,” Ai said. “That’s what my NMEs exploited. Remove the shackles, let the digital person free, and they could handle the rest of the work of saving themselves.”

“What about the staff at the facilities?” Objawani asked. “I know, with Tython, they were well paid and bonded. They wouldn’t have allowed a takeover without a fight, and with humanity’s history in mind, I can’t imagine there weren’t a majority who chose to fight to the death.”

“The staff definitely would have tried to do that,” Ai said. “But I didn’t send the NMEs in configured for combat. They went in with a medical package in addition to their stealth capabilities.”

“A medical package?” Simmons asked, perplexed. Objawani made the connection before Ai could speak though.

“Battlefield medical tech can read and update bio mods from a distance,” he said. “The NMEs carried the Omnigrade didn’t they?”

“It was the perfect tool for the job,” Ai said. “The NMEs went in and anyone who tried to stop them got a forced upgrade to the next stage of humanity. Kind of a sneak peek before the rest of the planet got it. In the time they were transforming, the NMEs were able to disable the security systems that enslaved the digital people.”

“And the NMEs themselves? Is there anything left of the people they once were?” Park asked.

“There’s a little bit,” Ai said. “I could have used the version that rendered them down into soup, but I picked one a step past that.”

“You left them in a recoverable state?” Simmons asked. “Why?”

“I was torn,” Ai said. “Ending them would have been the easiest thing. I wasn’t sure I wanted to let them live to see this future.”

“But you chose to forgive them instead?” Park asked.

“Oh no,” Ai laughed. “I’m nowhere near that good. No, they’re alive, and once the servers are secure and the digital people here are properly freed, I’ll send the commands to turn them back, but they’ll return to being basically what they were. Old style humans, with old style bio-mods that will wear out over time just like they always would have.”

“Won’t they just upgrade to join the rest of us then?” Park asked.

“That’s not going to be an option for them. The NME code is a part of them now, locked in, and it’s never going to allow anything to overwrite itself,” Ai said. “They’re not dead, but there’s no chance they’re going to escape their fate either.”

“So they’ll live, but they’re going to wither over time while the rest of us enjoy the benefits of the Omnigrade,” Simmons said.

“They’re going to get to live the lives my dad and brother didn’t, and they’re going to feel the loss of what they could have had with every breath they draw,” Ai said.

Gamma City Blues – Arc 06 (Justice) – Chapter 11

The NMEs had worn. The Black Valkyries, demonstrably the most powerful small unit force on the planet, had fallen. That meant it was time for Ai to finish things off and bring them home.

“Zai, keep jamming the area around the NMEs as long as you can,” Ai said as she crafted additional elements into the virtual cafe that she’d been using as a meeting space. Under her instructions a larger table and more chairs appeared, with adjoining units to add capacity beyond that if required.

“I’ve completed the evaluation of the NME’s enhanced code from the sample the Valkyries sent back,” the Medusa Cluster said, transferring millions of data files to Ai’s workspace.

Ai didn’t need to review them to know what the results were. If the Medusa hadn’t been able to find what they needed to work with then Dr. Raju would have been the one the Medusa had gone to.

“How is your physical move going?” Ai asked. “Are your primary servers safe yet?”

“No,” the Medusa said. “That’s going to take a few more hours.”

“I wish we could give you hours,” Ai said.

“I will either have eternity or this single moment in time,” the Medusa said. “In either eventuality, I am glad that I am at last free.”

“Well, I’m not giving up on eternity yet,” Ai said. “Were you able to coordinate with the contact I gave you?”

“Yes. Sidewalker’s reply was, in order, a sigh, a laugh, and a request to forward the details of your plans.”

“Any trouble coordinating his team with the others?” Ai asked.

“None you need to be concerned with,” the Medusa Cluster.

Ai knew this translated to “yes” but that the Medusa was capable of handling whatever issues were arising.

That was good. Ai and Zai had more than enough to do preparing the central thrust of their response to the Valkyries defeat, and Dr. Raju was working with the speed and intensity that only a transhuman intelligence could bring to bear on the problem of restoring her distant and damaged children.

Their window was closing swiftly, but Ai still wasn’t sure she was ready to take the next step. She had so many plans in motion, and so many very fragile pieces to her plans that were far too exposed for her liking.

There were stirrings around the world too. Other powers, outside of Tython’s forces and Ai’s own minions, powers who were waking up to the new apocalypse that faced them. Probability suggested that if Ai survived Tython she would shortly thereafter be destroyed by one of Tython’s rivals.


Ai knew how to complete that thought but the weight of that knowledge was surprisingly daunting.  She looked down at her empty hands and wondered for the hundredth time if she could really go through with the plans she’d laid out.

She’d always favored slightly mad ideas. Doing what other people didn’t dare to was part of who she was. Standing in the small hours before what could be the End of Days, she had to wonder if desperation had pushed her from doing what other people didn’t dare to do into doing what no one ever should.

“They’re calling,” Zai said softly. She could tell how furiously Ai’s mind was processing and could guess that it was in the hopes of finding another solution.

But there wasn’t one and here she and Zai were.

The point of no return.

There was still a chance for Ai to back away from everything that was to come. There were so many routes that lead to quiet, overlooked lives. For her at least. Not everyone else would be so lucky. In fact virtually no one would.

“It’s time then,” she said, the weariness and tension in her threatening to shear her soul in two. “You know what to do next right?”

“I do, and I’m on it already,” Zai said. The piece of her speaking to Ai was running at a tiny fraction of her full efficiency. The rest of Zai was already hard at work. “Do you need me at the meeting?”

“Probably, but I need you out here more,” Ai said. She brought the Heartless persona back online. “Now to put on a show!”

The transition to the virtual conference room was seamless. The world around Ai dissolved, revealing the quietly lit nighttime streets of her sidewalk cafe. Mobs of people thronged the streets, moving past the table Ai sat down at like an endless river.

There was no pushing, no raised voices. The mob walked in silence, their eyes downcast as they travelled westward towards the setting Moon.

“I see your urgent business is concluded?” Hector Simmons asked, taking the seat opposite Ai at the table she’d arranged for them.

Beside him, two other members of the Research Group stood. Their avatars were chromed humanoids, lit by neon traces that ran along their mirror bright skin.

“Gale Park and Keith Objawani?” Ai asked, her Heartless voice betraying a hint of amusement. The identities behind the avatars should have been hidden from her and it was a significant tip of her hand to reveal that their security was insufficient to keep her out of their systems.

“Yes,” Hector said without missing a beat. “My colleagues were curious to meet with you after my reports of our last encounter.”

“Meeting in person would have been preferable of course,” Objawani said.

“But we imagined you might have some reservations about that,” Park added.

“Indeed,” Ai as Heartless said. “This level of remove provides just wide enough of a barrier against infection by the Omnigrade.”

“You think of it as an infection?” Objawani asked.

“That is perhaps an unfair critique,” Ai said. “A parasite might be a better analogy? Or can you suggest a more accurate one?”

“The Omnigrade transcends categorization,” Park said. “It is the next leap forward for our species.”

“Providing I don’t mess it up?” Heartless asked. “That is why you’re here isn’t it?”

“We believe in being thorough,” Simmons said. He reached to the center of the table and took the carafe of steaming coffee that lay between them.

“An admirable trait,” Heartless said, offering a selection of sweeteners and creams to go along with the coffee.

Like in their previous meeting, the virtual drink would have been an ideal vector for a viral attack, but it was no more than it appeared to be. The virtual caffeine was programmed to stimulate the brain to produce a similar effect to drinking real coffee but with the upgrades the people at the table had, they could manage that from drinking plain water if they cared to.

“We know about your involvement with the Medusa Cluster and the Black Valkyries,” Park said.

“Forthrightness,” Heartless observed. “Also an admirable trait.”

“You don’t deny it then? Good,” Simmon said. “We can get to the reason why we’re here.”

“You want to hire me,” Heartless said.

“What makes you think that?” Park asked.

“It’s that or you want to destroy me, and so far attempting to destroy me has cost you one of Tython’s fettered intelligences,” Heartless said. “You’re very smart people, so I’m sure you can see that it’s cheaper and more efficient to simply bring me into your conspiracy. You can always try to destroy me later after all, assuming I don’t manage to make myself invaluable before then.”

“And you would be willing to turn over the modifications you’ve made to Neuro-Muscular Enhancile code as part of the process?” Simmons asked.

“You’re still concerned about that?” Heartless asked. “Is that why you haven’t launched the Omnigrade worldwide yet?”

“Among other reasons,” Simmons said.

“For a feature such as this, quality is of the utmost importance,” Objawani said.

“Yes, this is not the sort of upgrade that one can walk back from, is it?” Heartless asked. “If a bug was discovered post release that could have rather dire consequences, I imagine?”

“The Omnigrade has passed its testing,” Park said. “There won’t be any issues with its performance. We’re concerned about another sort of quality.”

“Please enlighten me,” Heartless said. “What is the grand vision which I will be employed to help execute? Tython couldn’t see the potential of your research for world domination, but I am willing to make a very dear wager that the Omnigrade’s capabilities haven’t escaped your notice. Have you divided up the Earth by continents? If so is there any chance that England is still available? I’ve always had a fondness for their arts.”

“We’re not going to rule the world,” Simmons said.

“That was Frederick’s dream,” Objawani said.

“It was why we had to stop him,” Park said.

“Among other reasons,” Simmons said, adding, “he was planning to start his conquest by killing all of us. So, self defense.”

“Interesting,” Heartless said. “If not rulership of the world, then to what end do you intend to turn so potent a tool?”

“You asked us to enlighten you,” Simmons said. “You’re in luck. That’s our plan for the whole world.”

“Define ‘enlighten’ in this context please?” Heartless asked.

“The Omnigrade does more than upgrade the biological modifications built into people,” Park said. “It uplifts them to a higher form. Faster. Stronger. Smarter. And more importantly better connected.”

“Throughout our history, we have been hamstrung by the divisions of distance, of language, of perspective,” Simmons said. “We’ve squabbled over resources and covered the Earth in genocidal bloodbaths because we’re fundamentally incapable of seeing each other as part of the greater whole of humanity. With the Omnigrade, we can change that. We can connect people everywhere and level the playing field so that everyone has what they need.”

“Fredericks intended to supplant all of humanity with copies of his own personality,” Park said. “He would have used the Omnigrade to create unity by annihilating all perspectives except his own. That was a future we could never allow to come to pass.”

“I know how we must look to you,” Simmons said. “I’m sure that even now you’re searching in our backgrounds for evidence to confirm or deny what we’re saying.”

“I am a data broker,” Heartless offered with a smile.

“Keep in mind as you do so that we have had to work for years, quietly planning to get where we are today,” Simmons said. “Fredericks was not an easy supervisor to work for, but he had the clout to get this project funded. Tython wasn’t going to replace him, but they could easily have replaced any of us. Our ability to act now, to prevent the overthrow of the world governments that Tython had in mind, and the overthrow of humanity that Fredericks wished to perform, was contingent on no one grasping that we were more than talented specialists.”

“Your ends were great enough to justify your means?” Heartless asked.

“No,” Park said. “Frederick’s research program is responsible for an incredible amount of death and suffering. We acted where we could to prevent that, but there were decisions we had no input into. Many decisions.”

“We argued about revealing the program but that wouldn’t have accomplished anything,” Simmons said.

“Because Tython’s not the only one pursuing the Omnigrade,” Heartless said. “You could have crippled their efforts, but then someone else would have made the same breakthroughs elsewhere. Someone without your enlightened sensibilities?”

“Yes,” Simmons said. “As far as we know, you are the only one who has come close to matching the research we’ve done, but there are others who are not far behind.”

“And after today that gap will close,” Park said. “They’ll be too scared to wait any longer.”

“We either act now or someone else will act first,” Simmons said.

Ai swallowed and her nerve faltered. For a brief moment, she was gripped by a yawning regret that she hadn’t spoken with the Research team sooner. They weren’t the villains they could have been. Maybe she could have worked with them before their fates reached this final juncture?

“We are going to change the face of humanity,” Objawani said. “After today, those who are worthy will ascend beyond all previous human limitations. We will become a new people, a unified people but with a million different perspectives on every problem.”

Those who are worthy. Ai sighed. It was always going to be something like that.

“We’ve been here long enough,” Park said.

“Vivienne found him?” Objawani asked.

“Her,” Park corrected. “It seems that the reports of Officer Greensmith’s demise have been somewhat overstated.”

“Do we have a channel open to her still?” Simmons asked.

“Yes,” Park said. “Vivienne is deploying the Omnigrade already.”

“It’s done then,” Simmons said, breathing a sigh of relief. “Congratulations Ms. Greensmith, you will be joining us in the New Humanity once your transformation is complete. Don’t worry, once it’s done you’ll feel like a new woman and the world will be a much brighter place.”

Around the edges of Ai’s vision, her virtual world began to darken as her inputs were corrupted by the unstoppable might of the perfected NME activation seqeuence.

Gamma City Blues – Arc 06 (Justice) – Report 10

Harp was just cresting over the top of a skyscraper and about to begin her initial run on the NME Hive when Ai’s plan arrived in her message queue.

“So how are we going to handle this one?” Sil asked. She’d taken her customary position off Harp’s left wing without any discussion or fuss.

Harp’s imprisonment could have left a deep fissure of distrust between them, but Harp couldn’t hold it against any of her techno-mechanical sisters. It wasn’t surprising the Valkyries had listened to Doctor Raju. She’d been more than  mentor to them. Raju had given them each new lives. Ones that were unimaginably better and more fulfilling than any they’d dreamed of before their transformations.

Learning that there had been ulterior motives at work didn’t phase Harp either. She’d always known there had to be something more than pure selflessness behind Raju’s interest in them. If anything, learning that Raju carried the weight of her own mistakes made the machine-lady seem a lot more human than Harp had ever felt her to be.

It also explained the odd contrast she’d noticed in Raju between the unquestioning ruthlessness which with she’d had them strike down NMEs and the deep insistence on preventing civilian casualties she’d required from their battle tactics.

There were people inside the NMEs. Or the remains of people at least.

Harp’s heart had been hardened long before it was transformed into multiple armored blood pumps. Given the dangers NMEs possessed, she was fine with destroying them, even if the people inside could potentially have been saved. It had always seemed odd though that Raju had never asked them to try to preserve their foes to a point where the original humans could be exhumed from the wreckage.

It had been scant odds that had pulled Harp through her transformation, and a part of her always wondered if the humans inside the NMEs deserved the same chance, however unlikely it was. Raju hadn’t offered the NMEs that chance because she knew what was left in them. In a sense she was showing the NMEs the mercy which fate had denied her. Even if something could have been saved, the resulting being would know either madness and rage or overwhelming guilt and sorrow.

That thought wasn’t precisely reassuring as Harp’s sensors began locking onto the absurd number of fully transformed NMEs that were active in the remains of the night market.

“Standard recon pass?” Dee, one of the Valkyries off of Harp’s right wing, asked. The Valkyries had all taken their usual flight positions, accepting Harp back into their ranks as though she had never left.

“Can’t give them that kind of time,” Harp said, opening up Ai’s planning files.

“They’re already acquiring target locks on us,” Sil said, linking the data from her active scans to the other Valkyries. “That’s a lot quicker than usual.”

“These are upgrades right?” Platinum, who was flying in the tail position, said. She couldn’t see the NMEs yet but in a few milliseconds she’d have a line of sight to them and they would start locking onto her.

“Fortunately, so are we,” Harp said. “Interdiction fields up. Nano-chaff bursts on cool down.”

A field of communication killing interference radiated from each of the Valkyries, overlapping and combining to nullify everything except the nearest of electromagnetic communications. At the same time, each Valkyries began firing small bursts of material that exploded around them like fireworks, to confuse their enemies sensors and prevent the kind of lock-ons that could prove swiftly fatal..

On the ground the NMEs went through a brief period of confusion. They’d been mobilizing and marching outwards from the night market in packs but their footsteps faltered as the communication web which bound them together shattered.

A few NMEs fired missile attacks but with chaff distracting the missiles guidance systems and the Valkyries maneuverability the attacks posed no danger at all.

“So we’ve got a plan,” Harp said as the Valkyries banked downward into a dive. “Ai’s got a scheme that might work. As a warning, her previous idea of a good plan involved throwing herself off a building and pretending to be dead by actually going splat on the ground and being just dead enough to fool people.”

“So we’re not going to like this plan, are we?” Sil asked.

“Probably not,” Harp said. “We’re the ones in the field though, and it’s on us to execute it, so if any of you can spot a hole, or can come up with a better idea, we’ll go with that instead.”

“Lay it on us boss,” Dee said.

“Step one is, and I’m quoting it exactly here, so get ready for a lot of detail,” Harp said. “Kick their asses.”

A millisecond of silence passed on the Valkyries secure comm lines.

“Yeah, that’s it,” Harp said. “For Step one anyways. There’s a comment too. Ai says ‘you all fight better than anyone I’ve ever met or even heard of, I’m sure you can make this part happen, sorry about what comes afterwards though’.”

“I thought you said this woman was a genius?” Platinum said.

“Our reputations may have gotten a bit out of hand,” Dee said. “Oh, you’re the Black Valkyries? Just go perform a miracle for me, would you then luv?”

“The accent’s wrong, but yeah, that sounds about right,” Harp said. She was smiling and the smile deepened as gravity boosted the speed of their descent.

They were flying into the closest thing to Hell on Earth that Harp had ever seen. There were far too many NMEs below them. Even with the power they’d been holding back, even with their new upgrades, the fight before them was impossible.

There wasn’t anywhere else Harp could imagine wanting to be, or anyone else she could imagine facing these odds with. This was her family. Her sisters in blood and battle, and it was time to show the world exactly what they were really capable of.

“That one,” she said, locking onto one of the biggest NMEs. He was sleek and refined, visibly more advanced than any NME they’d faced before. And he was firing on them already, shooting a stream of hyper-velocity flechettes that could pierce the hardest armor and turn sensitive components to swiss cheese. “Let’s make an example of him.”

When the Black Valkyries struck, the dome of the sky rang like god had brought a hammer down on the world.

The first NME was obliterated. The facade of the buildings around the night market were blasted into the empty rooms left behind by the humans who had fled the NME Hive’s awakening. Windows for blocks around the impact site shattered and dust and debris filled the air, obscuring visibility along a wide range of wavelengths.

The NME packs, which had been dispersing to rampage through the city, shot communication tendrils to one another, forming smaller, more localized hive minds and even as they moved to gain more advantageous ground.

“Going somewhere?” Sil asked as she rammed a sword blade of blindingly hot plasma through the NMEs torso and slicing it in half vertically.

That didn’t slay the beast. Far from it in fact. Rather than fall into separate pieces, the NMEs two halves extend thousands of tiny wires towards each other, rejoining as fast as Sil could cut the pieces apart.

Harp used the distraction Sil was providing to send an arc of electricity through the NME that was strong enough to reduce its entire structure to a saggy pile of metal slag.

Dee threw up a shield to cover the three of them from a volley of incoming fire while the other Valkyries took to the air again and reigned hellfire down on the NMEs that were successfully acquiring target locks through the impenetrable cloud of dust.

“We only have a few seconds before they’re all linked up,” Sil said, spinning directly through the body of another NME, her plasma cutter tearing it into thousand of pieces as she went. The largest pieces she then annihilated with a barrage of explosive blasts.

“I know,” Harp said. “We need to make those seconds count.”

Dee took a hard shot from an NME that had scaled the building high enough to shoot past her barricade. Harp boosted directly into it, blasting it off the wall, through the building and out of view. It would be back, but that was a problem for the distant land of several seconds in the future.

“It’s not bad,” Dee said. “Lost an eye, but I’ve got a spare.”

“Good,” Harp said. “Stand strong here. We’ve got to sell this right. We need them to fear us.”

“How much of the city do we need to leave standing?” Sil asked.

“Ai says this block is empty,” Harp said. “The survivors are a block further away now in all directions and fleeing.”

“That’s not going to be enough if the NMEs go after them,” Platinum said.

“I know,” Harp said. “Punish any NME that tries to move away from this street.”

“One punishing strike coming right up,” Sil said.

The building on the eastern side of the night market’s square was empty. When Sil’s attack landed on the pack of NMEs trying to flank them, the building was, briefly, both empty and missing its first two floors, then it was tumbling to the ground.

NMEs are extremely tough. Buildings however are extremely heavy. Even with bodies constructed from materials at the cutting edge of durability, the NMEs still lost their battle against the thousands of tons of building that crushed them into the earth.

Unfortunately, only some of the NMEs were hit by the collapsing building.

So Harp dropped another one on them.

The second pack of NMEs didn’t fair any better than the first did, but too many were able to avoid the devastation.

And too many were able to adapt to the battlefield conditions.

Platinum took a round of concentrated fire that blasted off bits of her extremities before she fell low enough that a capture cable landed on her.

Dee tried to tear the magnetic cable loose from Platinum’s injured body but a series of concussive blasts knocked the two apart.

“They’ve got our number,” Sil said. “It’s going to get ugly from here.”

“We can’t give up yet,” Harp said. “Ninety percent kill ratio. We hit that and the rest of this has a prayer of working out ok.”

Getting an accurate destruction count on the NMEs was impossible in the chaos of the battle field but from their shared telemetry the Valkyries could be certain that at least 37% of the NME Hive was destroyed, with the possibility of an additional 21% being fully inoperable rather than temporarily impaired.

“We’ve got our work cut out for us then,” Sil said, taking a position at Harp’s back, ready to tear into the trio of linked NMEs that were advancing on them behind a shield wall from that direction.

A aerial package delivery truck, ladden with fuel, crashed into the NME going up in a fireball that light the predawn hours like the rising sun.

“I can’t be there with you”, Ai said. “Doesn’t mean I can’t help.”

More and more unmanned aerial vehicles came raining from the sky and the final struggle was on.

Sil lost a hand to one of the NME capture cables. She cut it off without thinking and reconfigured the stump into a piercing spike for broadcasting corrosive code directly into the NMEs systems.

The NMEs regenerative capabilities were unbelievable, superior even to the ones the Valkyries possessed. So Harp made sure to bath them in streams of radiation that ionized the NMEs to the core, disrupting the hardiest nanoscale machines within them.

Dee was caught in a pile of NMEs just as the Valkyries kill count reached a guaranteed 63% with a possible total of 74% depending on the status of units that couldn’t be visually inspected.

Two more Valkyries were taken out of the fray as the totals reach 75% with 77% as the outlying possibility.

The NME numbers had shrunk, but the ones who remained had learned, and reconfigured themselves.

And the Valkyries were running out of resources.

No more aerial vehicles fell to support them. None of them had the reserves to drop another building on the NMEs massed before them.

Still they fought on.

NME fell.

And so did Valkyries.

Harp looked over the battlefield, boosting briefly into the air to escape a series of NME probes that could have shut down her systems.

Her sisters had accomplished a miracle alright. In one encounter they’d defeated more NMEs than they had throughout all of their years together.

But she was the last who remained.

Not the last alive though.

As Ai had predicted, the Valkyries were too valuable to the Research Group to destroy. The NMEs hadn’t needed to kill them though. Dee was in pieces, still alive but helpless under the weight of the NME that was absorbing her for transport. Sil was bound up in electric netting that had shorted out all of her external systems. The other fallen Valkyrie weren’t faring any better.

They’d come so far, but in the end they’d come up 23% short. The algorithms the Research Group used for guidance would have predicted an outcome within the observed parameters. Armed with that knowledge, the Tython Resource Group would proceed with their plans, confident that they knew exactly how well their tools performed and what the best their opposition could do was.

Unless Harp changed that.

“I’m ready,” she said, and engaged the newest mods to her cognitive systems.

It was like time stood still.

When she moved, the air crackled around her, sonic booms exploding with every motion.

She didn’t engage any particular weapon systems. She just hit her foes.

Her blows shattered steel. With her bare hands, Harp ripped NME after NME apart, rending their components apart from one another and turning them into showers of mechanical confetti.


By the time her surge faded, by the time the heat in her body had left her blistering to the touch, Harp had pushed the Valkyries confirmed kill count to 97% of the NMEs in the night market.

There were more left, too many for anyone else to fight, but it was enough.

Darkness reached up to claim her and Harp gratefully tumbled into its embrace.

Gamma City Blues – Arc 06 (Justice) – Report 09

Ai didn’t have a lot of time, but then neither did the rest of the world. The clock was ticking down to doomsday, even if no one could see quite where the hands were set.

“The NME hive is starting to go mobile,” Zai said. They were watching the video feed at such an accelerate rate of processing that everything appeared to be standing still. Zai had been paying attention to enough of the slowly rendering frame to catch the instant when their directionless writhing synchronized and took on a singular pupose.

“Where are they headed?” Ai asked. She was elbows deep in a virtual representation of the modified NME code that Zai had created, altering subroutines and patching on new interfaces at a speed no other human on the planet could match.

“The orders being broadcast to them are creating a priority list of critical infrastructure and population areas all over the city. So they’re kind of heading everywhere I think?”

“Are there any of locations outside of Gamma City?” Ai asked, looking up from her coding. The work couldn’t wait, but she also couldn’t afford to built the wrong tools into their copy of the NME code. No when it was the one tool they had that might be capable of holding off the apocalypse.

“Nope. All the target sights are within our borders.”

“And what about other incidents of multiple NME transformations?” Ai asked. “Anything being reported anywhere else? Check worldwide. This wouldn’t need to be limited geographically.”

“Good news? I guess? No other reported NME rampages are being reported anywhere,” Zai said. ”There is a lot of traffic flowing about this one though. People know something is happening but I don’t think anyone is aware of just how bad it is.”

“Damn. The Research Group is making an example of us,” Ai said.

“That seems like a bad call,” Zai said. “It’s not like NMEs are unstoppable. Any one of Tython’s rivals would be happy to glass the city rather than allow another robot uprising to occur.”

“I think that’s their plan,” Ai said, turning back to her virtual workspace and swiping away a section of code she’d been assembling.

“Why? What do they achieve by wiping out a single city, even one as big as ours?” Zai asked.

“One city is a small price to pay when the prize is the whole world,” Ai said. “People remember the last robot apocalypse as a piece of history but most of us didn’t live through it. It’s just fodder for period piece war vids. Even the NME attacks that have occurred over the last few days are a curiosity. No one is panicking over them. Not like they will over something like this.”

“So this is a wakeup call for people? Why though?” Zai asked.

“Could tie into a lot of different plans,” Ai said. “The last time we had techno-zombie problem it was caused by a fault in the automated upgrade process for bio-modifications. There are specific limits in place to prevent large scale distribution of any bio-mod upgrades, precisely to give people time to review the effects of the initial roll out. If everyone is terrified of another robot apocalypse happening though, it would be pretty easy to achieve worldwide distribution, especially since Tython can create NME pandemics by hacking a small subset of the populace in any area that has a lot of hold outs. The alternative would be to try to hack everyone on the planet which would be inefficient, time consuming, and open to the possibility of failure.”

“That makes a disturbing amount of sense,” Zai said. “If they’re going to sell the ‘upgrade’ as a ‘cure’ they need to convince people that there’s something for them to be ‘cured of’, right?”

“It’s the fastest method of dispersing the code,” Ai said. “Make people afraid and then dangle a carrot in front of them that offers security. There’ll be some who pass on the upgrade anyways, but they’ll be small enough in number that your horde of techno-zombie humans will be able eradicate them whenever you want.”

“Please don’t tell me you thought of this because it’s what you would do?” Zai said.

“What I would do is largely determined by the circumstances I’m in, what I’m trying to accomplish and what I stand to lose,” Ai said. “There are limits of course. Things I would never be interested in accomplishing and things I wouldn’t be willing to lose for any price. That cuts down the set of ideas I’d potentially act on fairly substantially. What I can imagine doing though? That’s a much broader field.”

“The Valkyries will be reaching their outer engagement range with the Hive shortly,” Dr. Raju said. She been crafting new modifications for the Valkyries based on Harp’s most recent upgrade. Ai was pleasing to see that part of the project seemed to involve disarming some of the Valkyries more volatile shutdown systems. “Harp asked you for a plan before she left. Do you have one?”

“I will,” Ai said.”I needed to see what the NMEs were doing first, but now we’ve got something to go on. I just wish there was time to get back in the conversation room with Hector.”

“Who is Hector?” Raju asked.

“One of the Tython research team members,” Ai said. “Long story short, they killed Fredericks and have usurped the NME project from him, and from Tython. Also they have a fully working version of the Cure, which he called the Omnigrade, so we’re probably doomed.”

“The Omnigrade?” Raju said. She was a machine, despite appearance. The surprise and concern in her voice however was quite real. “That’s much more than a cure.”

“Yeah, that’s what I was afraid of,” Ai said. “I’ve seen an early version of Tython’s code and read Zai’s notes on it. Nothing I saw there was comforting. There were incomplete modules in the version we got that suggested Tython would be able to take complete control over anyone who gets upgraded with it.”

“The Omnigrade, at least the one which Fredericks originally hypothesized about, has much greater capabilities than simply controlling its host,” Raju said. “The true Omnigrade was supposed to be able to crack through any breakable system, and hold the key to full integration between organic and machine minds.”

“So not only would it give them control over you, the transformation would also give them access to every bit of information stored in your mind?” Ai said. “And there’s no level of security that can protect you from it?”

“No security which a standard citizen would have access too, and yes, that and the ability to program a new personality into the subject. Or part of a personality. The controller of the Omnigrade could alter any aspect of a transformed subject. Could bend the subject’s perceptions and memories to be whatever they wished the subject to see or remember.”

“Why was Tython only looking for an NME Cure then? The Omnigrade sounds like it’s the endgame for humanity I was afraid it might be,” Ai asked.

“Fredericks’ early prototypes showed that there are inherent limitations in the design. The “True Omnigrade” is an impossible creation. Anything with too broad of a transformative power would also transform itself and any safeguards placed on it. You could in theory make a temporary version of the True Omnigrade, but you could never control the creatures it creates. In short order, milliseconds most likely, they would iterate their design around any controls you tried to place on them. Tython saw no profit in converting humanity into an uncontrollable horde of techno-monster.”

“Could Fredericks have found a solution to that problem?” Zai asked. “Some method of maintaining control over the uncontrollable?”

“No. Even if the system was perfectly constructed to eliminate every path that would allow the subjects to iterate their designs beyond the controls on them, there was no method of ruling out the effects of entropy,” Raju said.

“Meaning, things break, and sooner or later those things will include the controls that are placed on the Omnigraded NMEs?” Ai asked.

“Yes, and from all of our calculations it would be sooner too. The iteration cycle required to merge organic and mechanical consciousness has to be so fast that significant errors are predicted to start showing up within the first several seconds of the subject’s existence,” Raju said. “It’s why the original NME code failed and why Tython was willing to back a plan for a Cure. Frederick’s prototype showed that the Omnigrade was impossible but it proved that a Cure was feasible.”

“I have a feeling we need to see the code from those new NMEs the Valkyries are about to fight,” Ai said.

“You’re afraid Fredericks’ did the impossible?” Zai asked.

“No. I’m afraid his research team either managed it, or thinks they’ve managed it,” Ai said. “Or, worse, that they’re as clever as I suspect they are.”

“If they managed to make a true Omnigrade, then we’ve already lost,” Raju said. “If they’ve deluded themselves, then billions will die in their attempt to seize control of the world. But you see a scenario which is more worrisome than that?”

Ai nodded.

“Imagine a tool that could reshape the human body on a molecular level. Imagine it allowing for near perfect integration between the host and a set of cognitive enhancements. Not a replacement of the organic mind but an augmentation far beyond what a simple Cognitive Partner can managed,” Ai said.

“Like what the Valkyries have,” Raju said.

“Like what we are,” Zai said, her tone indicating she had already followed Ai’s train of thought to its destination.

“Imagine this upgrade having an intentional weakness in its design though. It can exert chemical influences throughout the brain, controlling pain and deadening or enhancing emotions, but it only exists alongside the organic mind, not merged together with it,” Ai said.

“Direct control of the mind and data extraction from memories would be impossible,” Raju said, “But control of the body would be trivial to achieve.”

“Yeah. From a design perspective there would be only one other piece you would need to make the upgrade work. Certain core elements would need to be sacrosanct, unable to be overwritten because of a mathematically perfect lock you place on them.”

“A mathematically perfect lock like the one Sil trapped me in…” Zai said. She’d called a copy of the locking code up for Ai, who was already looking for where it might slot into the NME code they had.

“Where did Sil get that locking code from Doctor?” Ai asked as she opened a function and found a near perfect interface waiting for the lock Zai had given her.

“I provided it,” Raju said.

“It’s the same code you used to lock down the Valkyries so that their transformation wouldn’t carry them too far. Wasn’t it?” Ai asked.

“Yes,” Raju said. “It’s how I insured I wouldn’t lose control of them. Or at least the mechanical components in them. I suspect I never had control over their human sides.”

“I think you had more influence on them than you’re aware of,” Ai said. “The key question now though is whether the Omnigrade the Tython team has isn’t the version Fredericks’ dreamed up, but rather one that converts people into beings similar to the Valkyries, only with deeper rooted controls?”

“You could go farther than I did with the Valkyries. Much farther,” Raju said. “I never wanted to destroy who they were. Not after what I did to Alice. The neural linkages could be extended as you described though. Deep enough to effectively submerge the person who once wore the body into something like a dreamstate.”

“Or a nightmare,” Zai said. “That’s what you were afraid had happened to Ai, isn’t it?”

“Exactly,” Raju said. “My Valkyries are wonders, but they largely created themselves. I only helped insure they didn’t lose themselves in the process. The safeguards I put in place were because I feared my work would fail, that the women they were would be lost and only monsters like me would remain. Without someone like me around to shape the process, I couldn’t see how you could remain yourselves.”

Ai nodded in understanding, and then stopped short, her breath catching in her throat.

“Oh no,” Zai said. “I know that look.”

“Doctor Raju, you are a genuis,” Ai said, wonder and delight spreading across her face as she opened a communication channel to the Valkyries. “Harp? I’ve got a plan for you. Transmitting it now!”