Electric Sheep - IV
For the first time in a long while, Adam felt like he had well and truly rested. He wasn’t sure of the time, but he had abandoned his cot with the privacy screens in favour of the old couch. There had been an old battered book sitting on the other cushion and Adam hadn’t been able to resist. Every so often, there would be a soft cough and the rustle of sheets, but then the sound of slow breathing would resume, some of it loud and congested, but always blending in with the rhythm of the others.
After finding a plasma lamp and turning it on to the lowest setting, he smoothed his fingers across the cover. The old material crackled a bit under his touch, leather he suspected from a vague memory he couldn’t fully bring to mind. He opened the book carefully, fingers lingering on the corner of the pages. The paper felt rough under his fingertips and the words on the page seemed like they jumped out of the page, stark black against the murky rag paper.
“Enjoying the book?”
Adam nearly jumped at the whispered words, but he turned to look back and saw Monster coming around to the other side of the couch. “Haven’t read it. Just, I have never seen a real book before. I think I’m the only one,” he tilted his head back toward the cots. “Neil’s seen them even, with Leila and E—with our programmers.”
Monster grunted as he sat down, looking at the cover. “Books are rare. I picked that up on the black market. Smuggled in from the North.”
“What’s it about?’
There was a long moment of silence as Monster simply looked at the book in Adam’s hands. Then, “A man who creates something. A being. It doesn’t go so well for him.”
Adam closed the book and studied the cover. “I was created. I was a program at first. Ones and zeroes, that formed binary, that comprised a program. Somehow, that binary was turned into electrial impulses and here I am now.” He frowned at some distant idea, “It wasn’t… There was a virus, I think. I’m not too sure, but here I am.”
“Here you are. And Neil,” Monster paused for a long moment. “Is Adam really your name?”
“Yes. It’s as good as any. My program designation was adam.exe and I was an entertainment construct. They called me Adam. I mainly performed for VR users.”
“So you played for rich people.”
Adam nodded his head, glancing over at Monster. He had the same starburst implant that Tommy and the others had, nestled just at the ear. But there was something else snaking down from it, along the side of his neck and curving around to the back. Adam turned his attention back to the cover, turning over the idea in his mind. Why did Monster have this book, about a being and creator?
“Were you an early prototype model?”
“…I’m not an android. I’m human. Well, mostly. I’ve got so many cybernetic implants…” Monster gave a dry snort. “Don’t ask. Because when the others wake up, I’m sure they’ll want to know.”
“Oh,” Adam wasn’t too sure if he really felt disappointed or not. “I’m pretty sure Neil and I are constructs of some sort.”
There was a pronounced silence at that before Monster said, “I won’t know for sure until I run a diagnostic. But if you are a construct, you and Neil probably have the same manufacturer. So that’ll make it easy to do any modifications, if you like.”
A spike of pain jolted through Adam’s stomach, lodging in his thoat. It wasn’t physical though. Another emotion. He went through his mental list, full of ones he could describe and even more he could not. This was new. This was like making Tommy smile, only it hurt.
“Can you run mine now?” Adam turned to face Monster directly. “Before everyone else wakes up?”
Monster blinked. He seemed a bit surprised at the intensity in Adam’s voice but didn’t say anything about it. “Sure. Let me get my holopad first.”
Adam nodded, fingers tightening on the book. He could remember when Tommy and Monte had first shown up. They’d stepped outside, but Adam had heard them clear as day, trying to figure out if Adam and Neil were androids or modified humans. The second option had left Adam with a bad feeling in his gut. But at the same time, he didn’t want to be an android. That would just mean he was a program made mobile in the physical world. He wanted this body to be his own. The simple experiences of walking, talking, breathing, eating… if he had any religious inclination, he could – and probably would have – call it a miracle. He wanted to be human.
The emotion came to him in a flash. The ache like a physical thing clenching around his stomach. Hope.
Soft footsteps came towards the couch again, and sharp trepidation made him feel light-headed. For better or for worse now, Adam was going to get his answer. Monster sat down, holopad and VR cable in hand.
“Okay, it’s fairly straightforward. I have the diagnostic program ready to go. I just have to plug this cable into your port and the program will do the rest. There are some physical side effects, but it’s not as pronounced as full immersion in VR.”
“Like what?” Adam wondered how he got his tongue to move, his mouth was so dry.
“It varies from person to person. But there’s nausea, dry mouth, vertigo, temporary motor loss… you don’t really know your symptoms until after you come out of VR for the first time.” Monster paused. “Are you sure you want –”
Adam still felt nervous, but there was so much floating around about him and Neil that simply needed answering. What were they, how easily could they be tracked if they plugged into VR… though Adam was more concerned to know why he was developing so differently from Neil. He knew their program parameters weren’t the same, but the marked differences had him really worried. Whatever they were, Adam felt like he’d gone wrong somehow.
“Okay. It might be easier if you lie on your side, this being your first time.”
When Monster gestured to the couch, Adam lay down on it, leaving the book by his head. The age worn fabric was soft against his skin as he stretched a bit, trying to get comfortable. Soft ‘bips’ came from the holopad as Monster worked quickly, fingers typing out rapid-fire commands. Adam stared at the back of the couch, vaguely thinking that it wasn’t anywhere close to how Tommy typed. Slow and steady, with a slower cadence to it rhythmic.
“I’m going to plug you in now,” Monster’s hand rested on the back of Adam’s neck, brushing the hair aside. “You might feel a pinch.”
Adam kept his voice low, but it didn’t hide the anxiety. “Just a pinch?”
“It’s one of those things. I feel a pinch but I know others who swear their head is being lopped off. Then I have to turn the jack and lock it into place. Unexpected pull-out from VR isn’t pleasant.”
Adam just nodded his head, not really wanting to think about that. Monster was silent for a moment before he spoke once more.
His gut was churning but Adam nodded his head anyway. The need for answers overrode everything at the moment. Monster’s hand pressed down more firmly, keeping the hair out of the way. For a moment, Adam wondered if anything was going to happen. And then he felt it. The touch of metal to metal sent a shudder through him.
But having the metal acutally sliding into him, feeling tiny electrical impulses respond and bring it to life… it was odd, there was no denying that. Monster pressed it in all the way before giving it a firm twist. He felt the click, of the jack locking into place. Then the world seemed to fade out and was overlaid with a blue grid. It was almost like a dream, seeing everything that he was in gentle pulses of the grid. It took him a few moments to realise the steady pulse of light matched his heartbeat.
And it seemed to be slowing down compared to when he was first jacked in. He was vaguely aware of a cold sensation creeping up from his fingers and toes. Moving his head seemed to take some monumental effort. And all he saw were blurry shapes moving around quickly and gesturing. One settled in front of him and a blinding light was shone into his eyes. He closed and opened them slowly. There were louder voices now, sounding muffled as if they were coming through a thick wall. But the growing, overwhelming impulse was to simply close his eyes and rest. So he did.
When he opened his eyes five minutes later he wasn’t on the couch. He was lying on a cot with someone warm wrapped around him. He blinked, disoriented, and looked down to see Tommy’s hair just below his chin. But what he was feeling was far too much skin.
He remained still for a moment before he shifted a bit. Tommy moved, craning his head up to look at him.
For the first time in his existence, Adam found himself at a distinct loss of what to say. Some things were easier when he was a program. A subroutine would have kicked in with the appropiate response to meet the parameters of the situation. But now, he was lying in bed with Tommy wrapped around him with what felt like the bare minimum of clothing. With these parameters, just what exactly was he supposed to say?
He tried a smile but immediately stopped, fully analysing the situation. There was anger in Tommy’s eyes, unmitigated and intent. But the longer Adam looked, he saw something else he wasn’t expecting in the slightest: fear. A horrible feeling washed through him, and suddenly the most obvious thing to ask popped into his head.
“Might I ask why you don’t have on any pants?”
The fear was suddenly gone, replaced by sheer relief for a moment before the anger kicked right back in. Tommy scowled, “Because I barely kept your stupid ass from going into a pre-cryo-stasis state, that’s why.”
“Oh.” Adam paused for a moment, feeling confused. “Is there a particular reason why I went into that state?”
“Monster can explain. He said he wasn’t saying a thing until he knew you were fine. How are you feeling?”
Adam thought it over for a moment. “Confused mostly. A bit thirsty. Headache. Neck kind of hurts too.”
Tommy sat up, pushing the blankets off. Adam shivered a bit and pushed himself up. Tommy’s arms were crossed and he was staring at Adam intently. It looked like he wanted to say something and was thinking it over. All Adam knew was that horrible feeling washed over him again, making him feel contrite. He hadn’t meant to make Tommy so worried, but also it wasn’t as if he had any control over what happened.
But it was easier to look away than to continue to meet Tommy’s gaze. His eyes wandered down, taking in the smooth-looking expanse of Tommy’s chest and Adam wondered if it felt as smooth as it looked. He had a sudden, impulsive thought of actually finding out, just reaching out to run his fingers along the pale expanse, but before he could act on it, Tommy climbed off the cot, bare feet slapping against the concrete floor as he walked over to a pile of folded clothes. Adam sat up all the way, watching Tommy distractedly and wondering precisely where that thought had come from.
He watched as Tommy pulled his pants up and then started on a shirt. A strange sensation sat low in his belly now and he just continued to stare as Tommy got dressed. When Tommy looked back, it wasn’t directly at him. No, Tommy’s gaze was fixed slightly lower than Adam’s face.
It was strange to feel heat flush his face and he wondered if it had anything to do with the strange sensation in his stomach. There was pressure building up and Adam pulled the blankets up more over himself. There was some sort of physical reaction happening, the front of his pants lifting up. Maybe if he didn’t pay any attention to it, it would go away.
“Are you still cold?” Tommy came over and shook out a blanket or two before settling them around Adam’s shoulders. “Maybe you should stay in bed.”
“I’ll come out,” Adam looked up at him. “You’re not mad any more?”
A conflicted expression came to Tommy’s face. “I’m still mad. It’s more that you scared the shit out of everyone. One minute we’re asleep and next thing we know Monster is yelling for help. You were shutting down. I mean, you’re hands and feet felt like blocks of ice. I’ve only ever seen that happen with prisoners who go into solitary. They put them in cryo-freeze and shove them in a box.”
“I’m sorry,” the words tumbled from Adam’s mouth before he really thought about it. “I didn’t mean to scare you. It’s just… I want answers.”
He gave a half-hearted shrug and pulled the blanket in closer. Tommy was silent for a moment before he sat back down on the bed beside him. When he finally spoke, his voice was soft but intent.
“We all want answers, Adam. You’re going to have to start thinking more long-term about some things. And take others into consideration too. I know it’s all new for you but,” Tommy trailed off for a moment before continuing, “All factors have to be taken into account before any decision can be reached.”
“No one can have all the relevant factors known to them,” Adam gave a frustrated sigh. “Sometimes, I think things were easier when I was a program.”
That got a smile from Tommy. “Welcome to being human, babyboy. Most of us just muddle on through as best we can.”
“Seriously?” Adam snorted when Tommy nodded. “How has homo sapiens survived as a species for so long then? I mean…”
Adam trailed off, making vague gestures in place of the words that failed him. Because if humanity had been muddling on through for so long, the astronomical odds of their surviving… it was truly too much to encompass. His program could have calculated it in a flash, and Adam could guess just how low that percentage would be. Tommy blinked and stared before he burst out laughing. Adam blinked but smiled tentatively. He failed to see where the humour was in his words.
“C’mon. I think most of your answers are still waiting out there. And mine too.”
Adam watched as Tommy rose. “Can I have a moment?”
“Sure.” Tommy paused for a moment before he came back over and settled another blanket around Adam’s shoulders.
Silence came as Tommy left him. Adam waited until he heard the soft murmur of conversation from outside the sleeping areas before he took a deep breath and composed himself. The strange feeling in his gut was gone and when he looked down at his lap, it looked like it had last night. Feeling much relieved, he pulled the blankets in tighter around himself and walked out.
The couch was full and the few odd seats taken as well. Everyone turned to look at him, silence falling. Neil was the first one up, walking around the couch and coming over. Adam came to a stop, and Neil stood in front of him, peering into his face. Apparently Neil found something, or what he was looking for because Adam found himself pulled into a tight hug.
“Don’t scare me like that.” Neil’s words were whispered, fierce and determined.
That horrible feeling was back and Adam was now sure it could be nothing else but guilt. He awkwardly managed to get a blanket clad arm around Neil’s shoulder and hugged him back tightly. “Sorry. I didn’t think anything would happen from a diagnostic.” He pulled back and looked at everyone as he and Neil started for the couch. “Sorry.”
“Why are you apologising?” Katy got up from her spot and practically pushed him into it. “From what I can gather something happened no one was expecting.”
Monster nodded his head as he untucked his holopad from under his arm. “Whoever made you two, they knew what they were doing.”
“So we are androids.” Adam couldn’t have kept the bitterness from his voice if he tried.
“No. You and Neil are completely human,” Monster placed his holopad down after some rapid typing. It threw up a projection in response. “You two are like me, enhanced with cybernetics. Only yours,” His mouth twisted in wry amusement, “are more discreet than mine. Fine-tuned.”
“So you’re saying that Fuller’s somehow managed to get AI programs into entirely human bodies?” Monte sounded sceptical. “That’s been theory for the past thirty years.”
“Maybe it was a matter of needing the right program or the right kind of body. But Adam and Neil are fully human. And judging from what happened to Adam earlier on, they’re also capable of redownloading back into a virtual enviroment.”
“I almost downloaded into your holopad?” Adam said. He felt a surge of displeasure from Neil and the realization that if he’d been downloaded into the holopad he would essentially be erased. The holopad simply wasn’t large enough to support Adam’s memory. He would have been dead. The idea felt strange even as Neil insistantly pushed it on him. The last time he’d considered dying had been while planning to escape VR, and then it hasn’t been fear of dying, but fear of being erased. Changed. Adam barely refocused as Monster answered his question.
“Almost,” Monster sighed and rubbed at his brow. “It took me, Kris, Tommy and Monte all we had to stop the program. It tried to put you in stasis when you jacked in. Because of this,”
Monster leaned forward and tapped something. A faint image of Adam came up before it zoomed in to the nape of his neck. There was the ghostly image of his barcode and right beside it, in what would have been skin…
“We’ve been chipped?” Neil’s voice sounded outraged and it snapped Adam’s attention back to the room and conversation.
“It’s what prompted the auto-run program and nearly downloaded Adam. It forced the body into a state of suspended animation, ready for cryo-stasis. I don’t think it would be a good idea for –”
“Take it out.” Adam was glad for the blankets. He felt cold again.
“I don’t think –” Monster began,
“Take the fucking thing out!”
Adam’s words were harsh and panicked even to his own ears. Monte stood up now, a serious look on his face, and Adam had a feeling he was about to hear something he wouldn’t like in the slightest.
“Adam, Neil, if you two are planning on leaving, it’s something you should leave in until after you cross the border. It’ll be easier to transport two supposed android bodies than two people who have never been in the system.”
Adam was quiet at Monte’s words. There was some sense in that, he supposed. But having something in the back of his neck that could knock him out if he tried to jack into VR… as soon as he could, he wanted the thing out. But then Neil’s quiet words left everyone momentarily speechless.
“I’m not leaving.”
Even as he turned to ask if Neil had taken leave of his senses, there was a determined look on his face that Adam wasn’t too sure he should question. And then right on the heels of that,
All attention was directed Katy’s way. Adam felt taken aback for the second time in as many seconds. He didn’t know what to say to either of them. Hadn’t the plan been to… And Neil wanted to split up..? That didn’t sit right. Kris though was looking at her in outright surprise, and he was also the first one to break the silence.
“What do you mean you’re not leaving?” Kris sounded worried. “The whole plan was for us to leave!”
“I know, but Adam and Neil’s existence begs more questions and –”
“There’ll always be more questions in this damn country!”
For the first time in nearly three weeks, Adam was treated to a first hand look at the growing effects of anger. Kris’s face was flushed and Adam could see him struggling to keep his composure. Maybe it was just him, but he could virtually see Kris’ rationality slipping away, bit by bit. Katy turned to face Kris directly now.
“There’s still so much to do here and –”
“What made you change your mind?” Kris sounded like he was trying very hard to keep calm and rational. “Because I really don’t understand this sudden change.”
Katy looked a bit unsure, but then she said, “Neil and I were talking one night –”
“You were talking?” Kris shot Neil a dirty look. “About what? How the two of you could possibly save this entirely fucked up country single-handedly?”
“Hey, look,” Neil interrupted.
“Shut up.” Kris didn’t even look at him, his gaze fixed on Katy. “C’mon, you know nothing good is going to happen if you stay –”
“She can make up her own mind.”
“I’m aware of that, jackass,” Kris snarled as he turned on Neil. “Don’t get in the middle of this.”
Neil scowled, crossed his arms and simply said, “Too damned late. So quit acting like a prick and –”
It was weird, seeing the exact moment that someone went past a certain point. Adam could have sworn he saw the last remaining vestige of rationality sputter and then extinguish beneath the wave of anger. Kris went perfectly still and then, as if in slow motion he saw Kris’s hand move upwards in an arc. It curled into a fist and Adam knew there was no way he could stop it.
The blow landed solidly on Neil’s jaw, knocking him off the arm of the chair and sending him sprawling on the floor. It seemed nearly instantaneous that Kris was clambering over to him. Then everything seemed to snap back into real time. There were exclamations of surprise and Adam threw off the blankets, surging forward with the others, trying to separate Neil and Kris.
His arms slid into the writhing mass of limbs and he somehow managed to grab hold of Kris’s waist. He stood up, muscles exerting and the next thing he knew, he had an armful of thrashing Kris. Neil was sprawled on the floor, his lip swollen and bloodied. Adam watched, distracted for a moment as Neil touched his lip and winced, the smear of blood bright crimson against his fingertips. Monte and Monster were helping Neil to his feet now, while Tommy was sitting beside Katy.
They were murmuring quietly and Tommy wasn’t exactly keeping his distance from her anymore. He focused his attention back on the situation at hand and once Neil was safely on the other side of the room, he finally spoke.
“If I put you down, you can’t go after Neil. Okay?”
That was all Kris snapped out in response. He had stopped thrashing a minute ago and Adam carefully put him back down. Kris shook himself free of Adam’s arms and stormed off to one of the private sleeping areas. Katy watched him go and a few minutes later she followed after him. When she slid the door shut behind her, Adam sat back down on the couch. Neil was sitting on the arm again and Monte was patching up his lip with a small capsule of something.
“There. Liqui-skin applied. That should heal up in a day or so. But you’re going to have wicked brusies on your face.”
Neil grimaced and it shifted quickly from annoyance to pain. He hissed and gingerly touched his cheek and jaw. But now Monster was watching him with worry. He regarded Neil for a long moment before he finally spoke.
“If you choose to stay, it won’t be easy. You’ll need an entirely new identity. And you can’t ever get medical attention. That barcode on your neck is going to make things difficult as well. It marks you out as property, and Fuller will always want you back. And the chip… I can try to remove it, but I won’t know the settings on it unless I run a diagnostic. It might have something programmed to stop removal. After Adam, I’d rather not take that chance.”
“I’ll make do.” Neil shrugged. “Maybe Katy can show me the ropes or –”
“Or you’ll both get yourselves killed eventually. What you want to do is on an entirely different level than what Katy and Kris do,” Monte shook his head. “I guess me and Tommy will have to keep you alive.”
Tommy however, now spoke up. “I’m leaving too.”
Adam wasn’t too sure what to make of the sombre look on Tommy’s face. Monster just nodded his head in acceptance. Neil shrugged as he slowly got up and headed back to his sleeping quarters. Monte was looking at Tommy and had a look that could only be called resignation, as though he’d seen Tommy’s decision coming. Adam wondered if he had. After a moment, he motioned to Tommy and walked away. Adam watched as Tommy got up and followed him. A flicker of movement from the corner of his eye made him turn to face Monster. The dreadlocked man was looking around, a frown on his face.
“And you?” Monster asked. “What’s your decision?”
There was a brief moment when Adam considered staying. He didn’t want to leave Neil here to fend for himself. He was his brother. But he’d already thought about this, every day since he’d woken up. And Tommy was leaving.
“I’m leaving,” Adam fell silent for a moment before he added on, “Do you know yesterday was the first time I saw the sky? When I looked out through the slats on the crate, it was just pale yellow as far as I could see.”
A slight smile came to Monster’s face. “The sky’s actually blue. That yellow you saw was smog.”
It wasn’t so easy to try and visualise a blue sky. Something so bright, dazzling and open-looking… “There’s a lot I don’t know of the world. I don’t think this is the place to learn much of anything.”
“Alright. I need to go get an answer from Kris. Judging from those two over there,”
Adam peered around Monster to find Monte and Tommy talking rapidly. Neither looked happy and seemed intent on getting their point across.
“Monte might be staying still,” Monster’s gaze fixed on something as he leaned over to pick it up. “You might as well keep busy and read something.”
Adam took the offered book and Monster headed in the direction of the sleeping quarters. He pulled the blankets in tighter around himself as he opened the cover, turned the page and started reading. When the couch dipped beside him, he looked up. Tommy was stretched out, head resting on the back with his eyes closed. For a moment Adam remained still before he shifted in closer.
“Is everything all right?”
Tommy cracked open his eyes and he looked so weary and tired that Adam felt that he should march Tommy right back to the cot and make him rest.
“I’m fine, don’t worry, babyboy.”
“Why do you keep calling me that?” Adam had wondered this since Tommy had started. “That’s not my name.”
“I know your name. But you’re still learning and… it’s nice that you aren’t as jaded as I am.”
“…Did you know that the sky is blue?”
Tommy blinked, seemingly surprised by this abrupt change in topic but went with it. “I’ve only heard that. Never seen a picture of a blue sky though. It’s always that dirty yellow colour. Permasmog. Like it’s burnt into the air.”
“How can a country ruin the sky?” Adam closed the book. “How can they make me, something that is defying a lot of theories?”
“Theories are just that: theories. Guesses, if you want to get down to it. And you’re not something, you’re someone. You are someone, Adam. I’ll tell you that as many times as it takes for it to sink in.”
The words weren’t spoken loudly, but it sounded like a roar in Adam’s ears. Tommy turned his head to look at him and Adam nodded. He might have been created somewhere, and have some barcode on the back of his neck, but he was still someone. His origins didn’t diminsh that fact in the slightest. He gave Tommy a smile.
Tommy’s returning grin was a bit lopsided and made Adam smile even more. “You’re welcome, babyboy.”
Adam hesitated all of two seconds before scooting to the edge of the couch, so his arm pressed into the armrest. He blinked at Tommy expectantly who was still staring back at him, now with curiosity. Tommy blinked and then snorted a soft laugh. He arched his back, stretching, then laid himself out along the couch, head propping up on Adam’s thigh. “Just until the others sort themselves out.”
“That’s what Monster said.” Adam brushed his fingers lightly through Tommy’s hair before gripping the book firmly once more. Maybe Tommy would get some rest. And it felt right, Tommy’s weight pressing in against Adam’s leg, one shoulder digging into his hip.
Clicking keys was the only sound that filled the room. Every so often, Leila’s fingers would pause and Eber could practically see her frown, her brow furrow as she pondered something. Then the click of keys would start up again. A few ration packs were tucked away neatly into a corner with a small empty stack of hydra-packs. The box sitting between the two of them was almost half full.
They had been pulled from work, pending the results of the investigation. That had smarted Leila, but Eber knew enough to bite his tongue. They literally had no idea of what happened to their boys, simple as that, but official results were the only thing Cowell would look at. Not their nearly twenty years of dedicated work.
He slouched back in the seat and rubbed the heels of his hands against his eyes. A few days ago, he and Leila had finished going over their backed-up copies of the Adam program. It wasn’t the latest one that had vanished, but everything had been fine. Isolating the time period when the program went wonky wasn’t the easiest feat, but it had happened about three weeks ago.
Now, they were picking over every single object that the Adam program had interacted with, in the hopes of finding the original source of infection.
Truth be told, Eber felt like his eyes were burning in their sockets.
“Hey,” there was a creak of a turning chair and then Leila’s hand sliding over his shoulder to gently squeeze the back his neck. “You okay?”
“Yeah,” Eber reached around and clasped her hand in his. “What about you?”
“Same old.” Leila said with a crooked smile and shrug.
Any other time, Eber would have been fine with that answer. But Leila had been pushing herself more and more. There had been that one morning where he’d woken up to find that she had been in VR over half the night. As soon as she was safely out, he’d put a high-level password on the access account and kept a close eye on her, but that didn’t keep her from working late at their consoles.
She had remotely downloaded practically every single file on hand from their office. He was glad she did because a few days later they had found themselves locked out. He was finishing up with the objects and she had gotten started on the personnel files. They weren’t leaving anything to chance. Leila squeezed the back of his neck a couple more times.
“Want to see something?”
“I’ll bite. What is it? Some new program on state broadcasting?”
“No, nothing on holocast,” she sat back down, pulling him over in small tugs. “It’s this.”
Eber looked at the screen. Right there, across the fronts of their personnel files was a large red block with white letters spelling out,’Restricted – LevelA567 Clearance Required. Please Enter Password.’ He stared at it for a long moment, trying to figure out why their own personnel file was restricted. This wasn’t good, whatever was happening.
“Have you tried to pull up our data files?”
Leila shook her head, even as her fingers started typing once more. The same screen popped up. He stared at the monitor, a sinking feeling in his gut. For the first time in ages, he looked at the little black box sitting in a wall niche on the other side of the room. Leila looked in the same direction as him.
“We’re good enough, we can crack this,” Leila said. “But it’s classified level ‘s’ so–”
“It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when they find you.” Eber rubbed at his chin taking a deep breath as he stared at the screen, the letter designations sticking out like a sore thumb. “What the hell is applied biometrics doing with our files?”
Leila made a vague sound before she muttered, “Let’s see what I have saved for our personnel and data files. Maybe there’s something we missed.”
Not a word was said as Leila brought up the search function and typed in specific terms. It took less than ten seconds for the processors to do their job. Eber read over Leila’s shoulder and felt even more confused.
“When did we sign up for an applied biometrics program?” he frowned and squinted. “Project Naise?”
“It’s not ringing a bell. But look at the date,” Leila jabbed a finger at a single line of numbers. “That’s only a week before Adam went live.”
“Cowell came to our office a few days before with some stuff for us to sign,” Eber rubbed at his forehead. “It was so hectic those last days before we got him up.”
“Any bet he sneaked the waivers for this project in.”
The expression on Leila’s face tightened and he could see that something else was added to her anger. He rubbed at her shoulder, squeezing every so often. She let loose an explosive sigh and rubbed at her temples.
“What the fuck does biometrics even do?” she asked.
“Damned if I know. But those tanks they delivered… wasn’t their code on the bottom of the work order I signed off on?”
“Ah,” Leila fell silent as she typed. After the ‘ding’ of the search running, “Yes. Departmental code BMA. Aren’t they the ones who deal with androids?”
“No, I think that’s the robotics department,” Eber shook his head and gave a dry laugh. “Fine pair we make. Brilliant programmers and we can’t even name what that department does.”
For the first time since this entire nightmare started, Leila laughed. She blinked, stared at Eber for a few seconds before she broke down laughing. It was genuine at first, truly amused. But then it started turning hiccupy and then she was blinking rapidly. Eber swivelled her chair so she was facing him and pulled her into a tight hug.
She hugged him back, not letting go,and Eber was trying very hard to just not crack as well. It was easier to focus on the problem and try to solve it. Working towards a solution meant he could ignore, temporarily at least, the deep aching worry eating away inside. He blinked rapidly and took a deep, steadying breath. Focus on the problem.
Leila shifted, moving in closer to him. “Eber, the statistcs on us finding them again –”
“We’ll find them again.” Eber cut her off.
They sat there for a moment, holding one another. Hearing her say those words made his heart lurch painfully in his chest. At this point, he had some vague notion of what the statistics were like. But then again, the statistical data on Adam and Neil simply vanishing like that would have had such astronomical odds that no one in their sane mind would bet on it. He drew back a bit and cradled her face in his hands. She sniffled a bit, but that determined look was in her eye again. He felt wounded and bleeding on the inside as he leaned in and kissed her softly.
“I know it sounds crazy and stupid, given the facts, but we’ll find them.”
She inhaled deeply, steadying herself. Her hands came up, fingers curling around his wrists gently. “How are you doing with those objects? Do you need a hand?”
Eber glanced back at his console to find the cursor still blinking on the input field. It would be there tomorrow and they weren’t going anywhere. He shook his head.
“I’ll set up an intensive search program to run through the night. We are going to do something most sane people would have done ages ago.”
“And that is?”
“We’re going to leave this workroom and go upstairs. Because as much as I want our boys back,” Eber wasn’t able to keep his voice from cracking a bit. “I feel like I’m losing you to this. I miss you, Leila.”
A few emotions flickered over her face. Confusion, anger and then realisation. “I’ve been a little… intense.”
“Intense?” Eber laughed now and it sounded a bit shaky. “I thought you were going to claw up that cop for not doing much of anything really,”
“Eber,” she started.
But he continued on, words just coming now. “And we’ve been going non-stop since this started. We’re both running on empty and what good is that because who knows when that cop will come back with questions and –”
Leila ended his nascent ramble with a kiss. Eber pulled her in closer, trying to keep his crumbling composure. Shit, now it felt like he was falling apart. But she pulled back after a moment, resting their foreheads together.
“It’s okay. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” she petted his shoulders before she buried her fingers in his hair, gently massaging his scalp. “I’m sorry, honey.”
All Eber could do for a few minutes was take a few shaky breaths. When a few minutes had passed, she dropped her hands to the nape of his neck.
“C’mon. You’ll get that intensive search set up faster with another set of fingers.”
All he did was nod his head before tugging her over to his plasma console. Another keyboard popped up for Leila and before long, the search was set up and started. He felt stiff getting up from the chair and wondered how Leila made it look so easy, like she hadn’t been sitting for nearly ten hours straight. She came over to him, sliding an arm around his waist.
“So, just the two of us tonight,” she gave him a small smile. “Truth be told, I’ve missed you too.”
A smile came to Eber’s face as he leaned down and kissed her forehead lightly. She hugged him for a moment before they started from the basement. For one of the few times in his life, Eber had never been happier to leave their workroom.
Truth be told, Kris wished he wasn’t sitting on this couch. He wished the past three weeks hadn’t happened. He almost wished he and Katy were back at that stage of blissful ignorance, where they were doing their best. They’d work and then spend some of their evenings trying to gather evidence.
Since that night they had broken into the compound at Cowell Industries, everything was feeling upside down.
Though he had to admit he’d done more in these three weeks than he’d ever have dared do if it had still been just him and Katy.
He’d broken in, infiltrated, hell, he even shot someone… That one still tore him up inside. He hadn’t meant to shoot them in the face, but looking back on it, the person surely would have reported them.
And everything so far had led to this.
Everyone was in the main room and the silence was almost oppressive. Neil was standing on the opposite side of the crate in front of the couch. Kris didn’t even really want to see Neil, much less have to talk to him. Katy had sat down on the couch and Kris sat down right beside her, glowering at Neil the entire time. Adam had seated himself beside Kris and Tommy had come to stand at the end of the couch, beside the black haired man.
Somehow, Kris wasn’t surprised.
Monte had taken one look at Kris and gone to stand beside Neil, as if he was waiting for Kris to launch himself at the man once more. Monster simply looked around at them all for a few moments.
Kris wanted this done and overwith. It was probably some ridiculous hour of the morning, if his internal clock was anything to go by, and his own bruises were throbbing. He did take grim satisfaction in seeing that Neil looked like hell too.
“Okay, so now that everyone’s cooled off from last night,” he shot a pointed look at Kris, “Today’s the day. I’m going to start for the border. I don’t have time for arguments or trying to convince anyone. Who is in?”
Monster looked around and for a few minutes, silence filled the room. Everyone was trying to not look at anyone else. Then the silence was broken.
“Us.” Adam said softly, while Tommy nodded his head.
Kris looked over at Katy, still feeling conflicted. He didn’t want to leave her but at the same time staying here… he was obviously courting danger. They all were. And if Tommy’s insinuation was any indication, he should do he best to stay away from jail.
“Me too.” He said after a few minutes, looking away from Katy when she didn’t turn his way.
Another few minutes of silence and then from Neil, “I’m staying.”
Monte shook his head. “And I can’t leave. I’m staying.”
He tried, he tried not to, but Kris turned to look at Katy again. If only he could convince her. There was a sombre, pensive look on her face and then she opened her mouth, “I’m staying as well.”
Kris closed his eyes, head bowing. Nothing had changed since last night then. Even their whispered argument had done little to change her mind. He felt a bit numb inside, as though if he let himself feel anything the sheer force of it might overwhelm him, make him try and convince Katy to come with him to the North. It felt like he was letting something slip through his fingers, letting it fall, only he couldn’t stop it from happening.
“Alright. Pack up whatever you need to. I’ll take you three back up and then come back for the rest of you. Once we’re gone, this place will be sealed shut for a year. Won’t be able to get back into it, at all.”
There were murmurs at that and Kris felt the couch spring up as Adam rose. He and Tommy were talking quietly and Kris knew he should get moving too. But he could only just sit there, head bowed. As if he could stay frozen in time like this, and nothing else would happen.
The couch dipped beside him and then there was a hand sliding up his arm and over his shoulders. “Kris? Talk to me, please?”
“Katy, just…” Kris finally lifted his head and turned to face her. “Please, for the love of God, please.”
Begging was something he figured he would never resort to, but here he was doing just that. Then again, he’d never thought he’d have to beg Katy. Katy gave him a smile as she cupped his face.
“I’ll be fine. I’ll be with Monte and Neil. Monte knows the ropes and with Neil,” she paused before she said firmly. “I really do think we stand a better chance with Neil.”
Kris just sighed heavily at that. There was no disputing that. Neil knew so much about the corporations, what linked into what, who ran what… it was truly astouding that he had retained so much so clearly. But to linger where he could be captured and then have who knew what done to him… he was with Adam on this one for cutting and running.
“I know you’re worried,” Katy rubbed at his shoulders. “I’ll be fine. If we still can’t do anything after awhile, I’ll come to the North. But for now, this is something I have to do, Kris. There are things I can still do here. You know that, you know me. But I’ll find you and we can be together.
For a few seconds, all Kris could do was look at her. Surely she didn’t know… but when that slow smile came to her face, he realised she knew. And his heart broke all the more for it. He felt like he should do something, his hands practically itched to. But to then lose her so soon…
“Katy…” Kris started, but words failed yet again.
She leaned in, pressing a kiss against the corner of his mouth. “We’ll be fine, you’ll see. This is just… I have to do this, Kris. Just like you think doing this from the North is more effective.”
Kris stared at her as she drew back, and he broke. He reached forward and pulled her in against him, kissing her fiercely. This could very well be one of the last times he saw her in who knew how long. There wasn’t a doubt in his mind that she would eventually wind up in the North. But this, here and now, felt like he was losing her, quite possibly forever.
He didn’t care what the others thought, and was dimly aware that someone was probably staring. All he cared about right this moment was the comforting weight of Katy’ body against his, her mouth opening against his and the way her arms wrapped around his neck as she arched into him. His hands went down to her waist and pulled her in tighter. He kissed her like he needed her very breath to breathe and live.
“Kris, Kris,” Katy murmured against mouth, her voice sounding sad as well. “Please don’t do this now. Kris, I - …You… Please. Don’t.”
Her hands moved up, fingers twining in his hair and he broke the kiss. He dropped his head, resting his forehead against her clavice, eyes squeezed tightly shut. He felt her chin on the back of his head and realised she bent over him. It was as if she could keep him from flying apart into a million little pieces from the sheer force of her will alone.
But Kris could believe her when she said she would eventually come and find him. Because she was stubborn that way. Stubborn enough to see the job done, and to not let anything stop her. He lifted his head up to her neck and hugged her tightly.
“You come find me, okay?” he whispered into her ear. “Or if you can’t, let me know and I’ll find you. Our code. I’ll find you.”
“Conway and Lexie can always find each other.” Katy gave him a smile that looked shaky and Kris knew her heart was breaking as much as his. She leaned forward and kissed his forehead. “We better go pack.”
Kris nodded his head and they got up from the couch. Everyone else in the room looked a little too intent on going through things and shoving them into their packs. He took Katy’s hand and gave it a squeeze as they headed to grab their things. Kris had finished putting the last standard issue shirt in his pack when the soft clump of boots made him look back.
“Katy?” Monster’s voice was quiet. When she responded with a soft, “Hm” he continued with, “I need to know, do you have a fail safe device?”
“Fail safe?” She folded a pair of pants and tucked them away before she zipped the bag shut. “Um, I’m not too sure what that is, so I’m going to guess, no, I don’t.”
Monster motioned with his head and Katy followed. Kris watched as they walked over to where Neil and Monte were and a rapidfire discussion happened. There was a serious look on Katy’s face followed by surprise and her shaking her head. Then Monte said a few things, with Monster nodding a few times, probably in agreement.
Kris closed his bag and went back over to the couch, trying to not stare so obviously at them. After a few more minutes of discussion, they moved. When Kris saw they were heading for the door, he wasn’t too sure if his feet would be steady enough to keep him standing. Their feet whispered against the ground for a few seconds before coming to a stop. There was the soft beep of numbers being punched in followed by a final long beep. There was a soft ‘whooshing’ sound and Kris knew the door had been opened. He glanced around to find Tommy and Adam over by the door now as well.
Adam and Neil were just staring intently at one another and it weirded Kris out a bit. They’d done the same thing for awhileafter they’d awoken up. That time they hadn’t been facing one another. But now, with that intense look and what could be called a semi-vacant stare… there was something a bit off-putting about it, and something that also looked oddly familiar. But then they moved, the vacant expressions vanishing, and he looked away, looked right at Katy.
She was giving him a small smile and before he even knew it he was standing up and heading over. Neil glanced his way before clapping Adam on the shoulder and slipping past Monte and Monster to the open door. Whatever Tommy and Monte had to say had been short, since Monte slipped out next, followed by Monster. As he left Monster shot Kris a warning look.
Kris just nodded his head in response. He wouldn’t be keeping Katy too long. He glanced back to find that Adam and Tommy were making their way to the sleeping cubicles. He waited until they were inside and the door slid shut before he turned to her. He opened his mouth to say something, but closed it again. Just what could he say now, anyhow? That they both had wasted too much time? That they should –
“We’re both idiots, I know.” She smiled at him before she hugged him tightly. “Stay safe, okay?”
“You too.” He hugged back just as hard, whispering in her ear. “If Monte says don’t do something, please don’t do your own thing. Promise?”
“Promise.” Katy whispered.
He closed his eyes and squeezed a bit tighter in relief. They held on for a minute longer before Katy drew back. Kris leaned forward and pressed a light kiss against her lips. She kissed him back before pulling away and slipping out the door. It slowly closed after her and Kris still couldn’t shake the feeling that he should have pushed harder for her to come with him. Should have done something that would have convinced her to stay. Walking back over to the couch, he sat down heavily. The couch dipped beside him a few minutes later and Kris glanced over, expecting to see Adam.
Seeing Tommy sitting there threw him for a loop. Adam was coming over, carrying their packs. An indecisive look settled on Tommy’s face for a moment before he finally spoke.
“If anyone’s gonna keep their word on some crazy-ass promise like that, it’s her,” Tommy nodded his head vaguely. “You’ll see her again, don’t worry.”
Kris just snorted and gave a half-hearted shrug. “I just don’t get it… before Neil was all for leaving and now he changes his mind?”
“Twelve years as a program designed to analyse. All the flaws, all the redundancies in the corporations, in the shell of a government that’s left,” Adam came over now, placing the packs on the floor. “He’s so use to analysing that it took him some time to realise that he can physically effect some change. It’s one thing to say it and quite another thing to do it. He wants to do it now.”
An odd look flittered across Adam’s face for a moment as he sat down beside Kris in the other free spot. A glance over at Tommy showed a thoughtful look on the other’s face as well. After a moment, he nudged them both.
“You know what I hear? In the North, they have real food. Not this genetically grown or modified stuff. I want to try a real apple for once.” Kris looked over at Tommy and then Adam. “What about you guys?”
There was a long silence and then Adam said softly, “I want to see a blue sky. Just a blue vastness over my head instead of the murk high above that makes everything yellowish.”
“Clouds too?” Kris prodded.
“That’d be nice.” Adam glanced at him, a small grin on his face. “Maybe it’d rain…”
Kris smiled and at the same time knew he had to keep focusing on this before he did something stupid. Like jump up running and screaming after Katy, grab hold of her and make sure she stayed with him. He turned to Tommy. “You?”
“Get this thing,” He tapped at his cybernetic link. “Out of my head for good.”
“What about your port?”
The silence from Tommy grew bit chilly but he still answered. “I doubt it could be removed. I tried once and it was botched. I was just barely able to get it fixed.”
There was more Kris wanted to say and ask, but the soft whooshing sound came and Monster stepped back into the room. The conversation died away as everyone got up, shouldering their packs. They silently left the room and Monster pulled the thick door shut before he keyed in a code. There was a loud beep and then a gentle hiss.
“We’re stowing away in a shipment to a major arms depot in Querque. We can determine the quickest way to get to the North en route. That alright?”
There were murmurs of assent and Kris couldn’t help but ask, “We don’t need fail safes?”
A vaguely surprised look came to Tommy’s face and Adam looked confused. Monster shook his head.
“No. My success rate for getting people over the border is one hundred percent. However, I don’t take many people in one go, which helps the rate. If you’d feel more comfortable with the fail safe –”
“He doesn’t need it. Adam doesn’t need it.” Tommy interrupted.
“I can decide that for myself.” Kris said.
Tommy gave a dry laugh. “So you’re telling me that you’re willing to have a small capsule of botulimix implanted subdermally at the base of your port?”
“Botulimix?” Kris paled at that. And then he took in Tommy’s expression. “You have it. Monte has it.”
“We’ve been hackers for a decade. There are things we know that we have to guarantee can’t fall into the hands of the police and corporations. But Monster is right. His success rate is perfect. Every rumour I’ve heard says nothing less. Now, are we going to keep talking or get going?”
Adam was giving Tommy an odd look. Tommy simply arched an eyebrow in silent question.
“When we get to the North,” Adam said at the look. “You’ll get the botulimix removed. And maybe they have procedures for the other…” He gave an optimistic smile in the face of Tommy’s darkening expression.
“But what if –” Kris began.
“Tell you what: I’ll shoot you myself.” Tommy offered, turning back to him with a trace of annoyance in his voice. “It’ll be less painful that way.”
Kris scowled at him. “You’re just…”
“A bucketful of sunshine?” Tommy pressed, sending a peevish look at Adam and Kris.
That was not the word Kris had in mind. But this was something he did not want to deal with right now. “Never mind. Let’s get going.”
Monster nodded his head and started walking. Kris fell in step behind him. From behind, he could hear Adam murmuring to Tommy, trying to figure out why he’d suddenly become so pissy. Truth be told, Kris couldn’t wait to leave this place behind him.
“Shit, are you still here?”
Cam jerked up from her desk, hair matted down against her face. Damn it, she’d fallen asleep at her desk again. She blinked slowly before rubbing at her eyes and yawning widely. Last thing she knew, she’d been doing an in-depth review of files, looking for any sort of link.
Not that she got far very on most fronts. The files on Taylor and the others showed nothing untowards, but they were still keeping in contact fairly frequently. Leila and Eber’s files struck her as odd, because why would two programmers have their personnel and data files marked with such a high security clearance level? Anything levelled class ‘S’ she needed to be part of the secret service branch of the police force to access.
And they weren’t recruiting anytime soon.
She groaned and stared blearily at the person standing in front of her. Magda. Of course. She made a hand motion as she yawned again. An annoyed look crossed Magda’s face. Cam felt a flash of irritation. Getting anything but information from Magda wasn’t going to fly today. She had a job to do and about five people practically ready to jack into her for answers. She needed to have something to tell them.
“What?” the word came out a bit more curtly than she intended.
“Officer Egberts. You know, the police officer from the raid? He’s awake now. I was able to pull something from his memories, but it’s going to take some time to clean up. The initial picture looks dark and –”
“He’s up?” Cam got up from her seat, wondering where her jacket was.
“And conscious, but still out of it. They’re still regenerating his skin,” Magda paused, looking a bit hesitant before she continued, “Don’t you think you’re getting a bit obsessed over this case?”
Cam levelled a long look at Magda before she said, “Three weeks ago, two androids were stolen and not a single clue was left at the scene. And nearly a week after the androids disappeared, a false raid was carried out on some bad intel, with some suspicious activity occurring within the police force itself. I don’t know what the hell is going on, and I’ve got Simon Fuller himself ready to rip my port and cybernetic out for answers. Two suspects claim to be innocent, probably are, but have a class ‘S’ security clearance on their files. Nothing is making sense, but something is going on and I want some fucking answers now. Forgive me if I have become a bit obsessive. It’s not like my ass is on the line here or anything.”
Magda remained silent as Cam growled in exasperation when she saw her jacket on the back of the chair. She shrugged it on and glanced at Magda.
“Anything else?” she grunted, zipping up the front.
“Yeah, don’t let the door hit your cranky ass on the way out,” Magda turned and walked away. “See if I help you again, be a bitch and bite my head off why don’t you…”
Cam rubbed at her brow, wondering just how much longer she could keep on it like this. There were a few things that weren’t matching up here. Like the sheer number of resources now being diverted to find the androids. Well, as of this week, since the wheels of bureaucracy ran so slow, it had Cam practically chewing on her computer console.
Her sleek HSV sat in its parking spot by the entrance doors. She got in and the vehicle hummed to life. For a moment, she considered driving but turned on the auto-pilot function. The address was punched in and the car pulled out smoothly before starting along. This whole case was a headache that she wished would go away.
The one and only lead by the name of Katy O’Connell was proving so elusive, Cam had started to wonder if she was real. There was a data and a personnel file, indicating that she worked in repairing small computer problems. Nothing that would have required a programmer, but the more technical things, like cooling units and plasma float screens. But she simply hadn’t reported for work one day. That had been just over three weeks ago.
Not a single blip of anything turned up on the woman after her initial identification.
The only thing of note was that someone else from Katy’s repair department was absent as well. Someone by the name of Kris Allen. From what she could tell, they occasionally had a few work rotations and spent some time together, but infrequently. There was nothing else linking these two individuals other than working over at Aris Corp. Or at least that was what she could gather without Allen’s file, which she couldn’t locate without further data.
She shook herself from her thoughts with a ‘tch’ and looked out the window. Too many unknowns were coming together in some strange ways that she couldn’t link. Or rather, she couldn’t now, but more than likely could if she had the right security clearance. The more she tried digging, the more she was convinced that it had to do with the two missing androids. It had nothing to do with wiping out a few computers or even top selling programs.
The vehicle slowing down jolted her out of her thoughts and made her look around.She was already at the hospital. They didn’t call them high-speed vehicles for no reason at all. When it pulled up into a parking spot, she sat there for a few minutes before she reached over into the small storage compartment. After a moment of hesitation, the Insta-Link box and jacks were in her hand. They were stuffed into her pocket and she headed inside the building.
The door slid open smoothly and the distinct scent of anti-septic cleaner and pine greeted her. She checked in at the med-aide station and after a brief conversation she was escorted to the officer’s room by a rather displeased young man. Cam couldn’t fault him for doing his job but she had an investigaion to get rolling. If she didn’t have something more concrete by the end of the week, she knew she was going to get pulled off the case and more than likely demoted. That meant those iritating rote cases or, worse, being transferred to a dead-end district or even a prison district. No way in hell was she going back that direction.
“Egberts is resting now. He’s inbetween regeneration treatments,” themed-aide paused for a moment. “I’m going to be right outside the door, if he rings for anything. I know you’ll insist on privacy but the second he presses that button –”
“Got it. I won’t take too much of his time. Well, hopefully.”
The aide nodded and then opened the door for her. Cam stepped into a deceptively bright, cheery room. Sunlight was coming in through the slats built into the window and on the bedside table sat a vase of flowers. She was surprised to catch a whiff of fragrance that held no hint of silicone. Egberts was propped up on some pillows and half of his face seemed fine, while the rest was covered in some thick bandages.
“Real flowers. Someone cares.”
“Detective Grey,” Egberts tried to push himself up. “It’s an –”
Camilla held up a hand. She pulled a chair over and sat down beside the bed. Egberts eyes never left her, and held more than a hint of awe. There was full on hero worship in there. On the upside, this would definitely make her job easier. But at the same time, it made her uneasy. Glorifying her for something that had resulted in the deaths of people… she’d never be comfortable with it.
“I understand you were attacked by an anarchist? During the failed raid?”
“Yeah. Karasek and Hallet weren’t replying before they answered they were maintaining radio silence. So I thought they might need some back up. The raid chief approved it.” Egberts winced. “Sorry. Talking’s not so easy. Scabs pull and crack.”
As if on cue, something seeped out against the bandage, pale yellow with a tint of red. Egberts patted at the bandage gingerly before he swore and shook his head. Cam really didn’t want to make him talk more than necessary so she said,
“I have an Insta-Link.”
Egberts turned to look at her. There was a cautious light in his eyes and Cam didn’t blame him one bit. It was one thing to have a program on a machine pick through ones memories. Machines were impersonal, for the most part. But linking up with another person… not everyone chose that route. Hell, most people avoided it when they could. It was far too intimate an act. But Egberts took one look at his dampened fingertips and nodded his head. His blind trust in her unnerved her more than she cared to think about.
The Insta-Link looked innocent enough with a connection node at either end. The two double-ended jacks came out of her pocket next and she quietly went through setting it all up. She jacked herself in first, the familiar blue grid appearing in her field of vision before the white log-in screen appeared. She quickly punched in her identification before a simple screen popped up.
‘Auto-Run Mnemonic Trace? Y/N’
After picking ‘yes’ the next command prompt appeared, leaving her feeling that churning sensation in her lower gut.
‘Please jack in Mnemonic Trace subject.’
The white log-in screen melted away from the center, forming a window she could see out of. With the other double-ended jack in hand, Cam leaned forward carefully. Egberts was already on his side with his head bowed forward, exposing his port. Even though she’d seen a port a million times, had one herself, she couldn’t help but feel repulsed by it. There was something about seeing that metal-covered hole that made her skin crawl. But she fought back the reaction as she slid the jack in and turned it, locking it into place.
For a moment there was nothing and then the small window was filled back in. There were a few prompts asking for the date and time, if possible. Cam entered all the data she knew and when the final input disappeared there was nothing for a few moments and then,
‘Mnemonic Trace activating in 5… 4… 3… 2… 1…”
The white screen was replaced suddenly by a dark warehouse filled with shadows and gently billowing cloth from covered objects. There was the peculiar scent of machinery and oil and fuck, Cam forgot how damned immersive these things were. If she wasn’t trained to know better… A faint rustling sound came from the other side of something and Egberts paused, his hand going to his holstered sidearm. But after a moment, he left it there and continued walking. A scuffing sound came now, of something that was moving away. The thought processes were lost to her, but when Egberts bent down to check under the first piece of machinery, it all clicked into place.
It didn’t stop her from watching to confirm. One by one Egberts checked underneath the machines. Row after row went by before he got to a machine halfway up the last row. He bent down, peering into the murky dark and leaning forward, as if trying to make out something.
The distinct whine of a plasma weapon charging came and before Egberts could even draw back, there was a burst of bluish light. The shot burned bright for a moment as it launched and then everything changed into blinding light and pain.
‘Freeze.’ Cam would have to do this next part carefully. Slowing down a memory replay was something tackled only by machines. But she didn’t have the time to go through all that paperwork or wait for Egberts to recover. With the first few seconds before the shot landed, she would have a clear view of the person who shot Egberts full on in the face. That was all she needed.
‘Play back last five seconds at one sixteenth original speed.’
A whirring sound faintly reached her ears and then the playback started. Egberts was bending down, hand slowly lifting up the cover. The darkness greeted her sight for a few minutes and then the long drawn out sound off the plasma whine came.
It was odd, seeing plasma energy coalesce into a bright orb. Minute particles streamed to a single location in front of the barrel, even in this slowed down state, gathering rapidly. And when the orb was fired, she could see the small soundwave from the sonic impact of the plasma being projected forward. The orb moved slowly through the air, and Cam waited, waited for the moment before she barked out,
The image stopped accordingly and there, looking panicked and utterly terrifed was the face of Kris Allen, illuminated by the momentary burst of plasma.
‘Copy freeze frame to cybernetic link number 462018475, authorization CG-LAMD-A01-7T8R.’
For a moment, nothing happened and then the image of Kris Allen’s face flickered. The main image shrunk and the image left behind was highlighted and vanished away. She couldn’t disconnect from the Insta-Link fast enough. It took her a moment to make sure the image was safely stored on her cybernetic. She could run the image though a facial recognition program back at the station, on a computer with a faster processor. She shut down the program and disconnected Egberts from the box first and then herself. The muscles at the nape of her neck were tightening up and she was immensely glad she didn’t have to drive back to the station.
“Got what you need?” Egberts rolled back over, a wince visible on half of his face.
“Yes, thank you,” Cam tucked the box back into her pocket. “I –”
“Good,” an intent look came to Egberts visible eye as his brow furrowed. “Get the bastard who did this to me.”
Cam just nodded as she spotted the spray bottle of disinfectant. She grabbed it and sprayed down the jacks before coiling them back up and slipping them into her other pocket. Egberts just nodded his head as he settled back against the pillow.
“My neck is killing me something fierce, so you’d better hightail it from here before I call for the med-aide.”
She knew when she was being kicked out. Cam nodded her head and silently headed for the door. As she slipped out, she caught the med-aide’s eye. She pressed a finger to her lips before mouthing the word, ‘Sleeping.’ Sure it was an outright lie, but this med-aide was fairly gung-ho and Cam need to get out of here, not be subjected to a lecture.
Her brisk pace got her back out to the HSV in minimal time and the auto-pilot function got her back to the station even quicker. While she didn’t really want to, she took a standard issue painkiller for her neck. But when she got out of the car, she had to admit, it was a hell of a lot better than trying to tough out the pain. She sat down at her desk, downloaded the image from her cybernetic and got herself a cup of synthetic coffee while the program ran.
She didn’t even get halfway through the plastic cup before the program finished. Her cup was forgotten as she stared at the screen.
“File not found?” Cam scowled as she stared at the display. “How do you not have a file on Kris Allen. “
Cracking her knuckles, she brought up the keypad and started typing. After ten minutes, and a variety of search terms, she still had nothing. She tapped her fingers for a moment in frustration before she typed in Katy O’Connell. Starting back at the source was not her idea of being productive. The program ran and a few minutes later the soft chime yielded…
“What the hell?” Cam swore. “Her file was here. I saw it, I fucking saw it.”
The simple words of ‘File not found’ was frustrating. After a moment, Cam was back to typing. If a local search wasn’t turning up anything, then she would have to expand her search. And she would hedge her damned bets as well.
The national search level took almost four hours, and more cups of synthetic coffee than she cared to count. But when the soft chime went off, she found herself looking at two files. She copied them to her computer and a dialogue box popped up.
“Update info… ugh, no.”
She typed and the box disappeared and she quickly brought up the information. There was something to be said for the ease with which files could be shared where needed.
When she opened Kris’s file, she ran the image from her cybernetic with the facial recognition software. She was going to do this one by the book and leave no doubt. As the program ran she trawled through the files.
A few seconds later, she had her confirmation that the shooter of Officer Egberts was indeed Kris Allen. It was only the start. He was known to sometimes associate with Katy O’Connell and had a list of charges as well, though, nothing as long as Katy’s and his file bore the tag, ‘pending further investigation’.
For a moment, she sat at her computer console, staring at the information on the plasma screen in front of her. How did a man who was a simple repair tech go from his regular job to hiding out under a machine, in standard police issue clothing, and shooting an officer in the face? It more than likely had something to do with whatever they were up to.
It was just figuring out what and where. After a moment, she punched in a new set of parameters into the facial regonition program. Cross-reference Kris Allen’s face against any and everything for the past month. If there was nothing in that time frame, then she was a damned idiot for missing the obvious.
She managed to finish off her coffee and get halfway through another one when the program finished running. It had only one other match. It was a security feed from one of the cameras at the automated shipping depot at the border of Los Angeles. All that the camera had was a partial view, but the computer had calculated the probabilty of it being Kris Allen at ninety percent.
“Pretty damned good odds…” she murmured as she rubbed at her lips.
Her fingers tapped against the sleek console for a moment before she sat up. The shipping manifestos were the first thing she brought up. Almost immediately, she had her answer. Nearly all the shipments leaving the depot were of heavy machinery. But one, the sole one, that stood out was a shipment of livestock to the Pastche Agricultural Depot. Anything carrying live animals was required to be open air or in a slatted container.
It would be perfect for someone to stow away in.
She gulped down the rest of her coffee and quickly typed up a brief report before sending it off to the department chief. There was no way in hell she was waiting for clearance on this. If there were anarchists hiding out in Pastche, then every second counted.
She was back in her HSV and heading for the hyperway faster than anyone could say ‘grav-cycle.’ Her fingers clucthed the steering wheel and she felt a thrill run through her… the sheer rush that filled her as she started out on a fresh trail as puzzle pieces started to fit together.
It almost made up for all the other things she tried to not think about.
The gentle vibration of the transport was soothing and, combined with the sound of the air recycler, it was no wonder that Adam was out like a light. When Tommy realised he’d nodded off, he couldn’t bring himself to wake him up. They’d been going non-stop since they’d left Pastche and none of them had really been able or willing to rest. After reaching Querque they’d sneaked onto another transport. They were almost to their new destination, Arile.
He didn’t know if Monster would push them futher or if they could stop and take a breather. Tommy was looking forward to a decent night’ sleep, just straight through and no keeping a gun close at hand. But Adam, he just nodded his head and did as asked. Tommy could pretty much see him stretching to the point of breaking again. The man didn’t know how to destress, just built everything up until Tommy got fed up enough to corner him on it. Now that Adam was sleeping, it was a good thing in his mind.
As the minutes passed, Tommy just couldn’t shake the sense that this all seemed crazy when they could have made a run for the border just north of Los Angeles. But they had struck out east from what he could tell.
It wasn’t as if he could ask Monster about it either. When they had snuck into these containers, Monster dumped an air recycler in his hands and directed them to one container while he hustled Kris to the other one.
Tommy had no doubt that Monster decided that Kris needed talking to. It was starting to look like he’d be the biggest liability on this entire –
A discontent sound from Adam made him look down. There was a frown on his face and his eyes opened a few seconds later. Tommy bit back a curse, seeing the slight circles under Adam’s eyes. He brushed back Adam’s hair from his forehead. There was a confused, wild look in Adam’s eyes but he stayed leaning against Tommy.
“You gotta sleep babyboy.” He let his hand follow the curve of Adam’s head, the short hairs along the side rasping against his hand. “You need to get –”
“They’re in Los Angeles again.” Adam murmured.
That caught Tommy by surprise. So he settled for a very simple, “What?”
Adam sat up, rubbing at his eyes. “They’re back in LA. In the Catacombs, from what I can tell.”
Tommy didn’t dare log onto his holopad to check in with Monte. These transports had a connection he could hack into,but they were notoriously hellish, tricky for him, and he didn’t have the energy for hacking past high-level encryption. He was sure Monster would be less than pleased if they were busted en route.
“And you know this how?” he finally asked. It briefly flashed through his mind that Adam had been dreaming.
An indecisive look flickered across Adam’s face as he sat up and leaned back against the container wall. For a moment, Tommy was sure he wasn’t going to talk. And then, “Neil and I, we’re linked.”
“Linked? What do you mean…” Tommy trailed off as it sunk in a few seconds later. “Shit, you two are literally linked up? Neurally?” It explained a few things, and now that Adam mentioned it, Tommy could kick himself for not guessing earlier, but… It set a gnawing worrying feeling in his stomach.
“I don’t know how precisely,” Adam shrugged and tapped his dead cybernetic lightly. “Maybe it’s through this? Neil seemed to know more about it, but we never got into it.”
Now was one of those moments that Tommy wished Monte was here. He knew more about biometrics than anyone else. Well, aside from the sick, brilliant fucks who managed to create Adam and Neil’s bodies. What he knew about that stuff was rudimentary at best. Going from what he knew, the cybernetic link and the port both tapped into the neural paths through the spine. Links between individuals were something temporary, meant to be maintained for sporadic periods of time…
“Adam, how long have you and Neil been linked?”
“Since the lab tube, I think,” Adam frowned for a moment. “No, no, since we woke up in the Catacombs.”
Nearly a month. Shit. This was not making sense to Tommy at all. “Can you talk to him now?”
“Not really. It’s mainly when I’m asleep. I think we’re too far right now for anything else.” Adam ran a hand through his hair. “Is there a ration pack around?”
“Yeah. Here. Hydra-pack too.” Tommy handed them over.
A smile came to Adam’s face as he took them. Tommy just watched as he tore the top off the box, pulled out the small spork and started eating. Maybe the link was designed to work better when they were asleep? Working through the subconscious or something like that? But it was the sheer distance that was confusing Tommy the most. They had to be at least five hundred miles from LA now. Both Adam and Neil’s cybernetics were turned off. How was a connection between them maintained?
“Hey,” Adam nudged him and held out the ration pack. “Want some?”
Tommy shook his head. “Not really hungry.” When Adam stared at him Tommy sighed. “I’m –”
Adam responded by jamming a bite of food in his mouth. Tommy sputtered for a moment before swallowing it. Better to swallow it than choke. He glared at Adam. Fuck, the man was stubborn when he got fixed on something. After they left Pastche, Adam somehow decided that Tommy wasn’t eating enough. And speaking of stubborn…
“You’re not defective you know.”
Now Adam was glaring at him. Tommy didn’t care if he had just used the subtlety of a brick. He’d knock that stupid idea out of Adam’s head if it was the last thing he did. Adam was poking at his food with a frown on his face.
“I’m resigned to the fact I guess. I mean, I thought I could be fixed but if jacking in causes me to go into a pre-stasis state then I’ll have to live with my deficiencies.”
Fucking hell, how on Earth was he supposed to get this through Adam’s thick skull? He watched Adam for a moment, eyes drawn to the bob of his throat muscles as he swallowed. Adam had been an entertainment construct originally. He remembered seeing Adam for that first time, body thrashing about and those unearthly perfect notes coming from his throat. And ever since he uploaded, all Adam had done was essentially bitch about how he wasn’t like Neil. Hell, Neil had a larger experience set to draw from, twelve years as opposed to Adam’s five. But Tommy got the implicit statement that Adam felt like he wasn’t like anyone else. He frowned slightly. Maybe that was it.
Tommy yanked the ration pack from Adam’s hand. Adam’s head snapped up and Tommy held out the hydra-pack to him.
“What are you –” Adam began.
“Shut up and drink the pack.” Tommy waggled it at him.
“I was eating.” There was pointed anger in Adam’s voice.
Tommy could play this game. He didn’t particularly want to, but he could. He knew all about aggression. “Drink the damned hydra-pack.”
Maybe it was the seething tone of anger or the glare he was giving Adam, but after a few moments Adam grabbed it, stabbed the straw in and drank. When it was empty and deflated, Tommy only said three words.
“Okay. Now, sing.”
“What?” Adam stared at him like he was insane.
“Sing. I don’t care what you sing. Sing the fucking national anthem for all I care. But sing something.”
Adam just continued to stare at him for a few more minutes before he made a dismissive sound. “The driver might hear.”
“I doubt that,” Tommy wasn’t going to let Adam get out of this. “These containers have six inch steel walls. And we have an air recycler. It’s not like we’ll run out of oxygen any time soon. I can wait.”
He picked up the spork and started eating the remains of Adam’s ration pack. He might be hungrier than he thought. The seconds ticked by and Tommy finished off the remnants of the meal. He was toying with the idea of a hydra-pack for himself when Adam inhaled, slow and deep. The first few words were soft, but it was unmistakable.
“Far away, this ship is taking me far away,” Adam didn’t glance at him as he sang, but the intensity in his voice grew slightly. “Far away from the memories of a people who care if I live or die.”
Adam tilted his head back and closed his eyes as he sang, voice easily carrying the words as a euphoric look came over his face. The notes washed over Tommy, leaving goosebumps along his skin. He felt electrified, like he was hearing someone actually sing something from their very soul for the first time. Not that prepackaged crap the corporations churned out for rich people with more money than sense, but something real.
For a few minutes the container was filled with song, and Tommy got a sense that the melody was something complex. Adam’s voice rose in some parts and then slid back down, as if it was nothing. And the long notes were easily held for their duration. When Adam finished singing, the last note sounded like it was still echoing in Tommy’s ears.
There was a different look on Adam’s face now. Something contemplative and intent. Tommy cleared his throat after a few moments, making Adam look over at him.
“Actually, I do,” there was a mild tone of surprise in Adam’s voice. “Guess I should sing more often, huh?”
Tommy nodded his head. Fuck, people could get hooked on the sound of Adam’s voice. “When you can, yeah.”
“Maybe I can do that when we get to the North? Sing for a living. Or do something else.”
“Don’t know yet. I’m sure I can find something,” Adam looked at him from the corner of his eye and smiled. “What’ll you do, Tommy?”
For a moment, all Tommy could do was stare. He opened his mouth to say something and then promptly shut it. It took him a few moments to untie his tongue and answer with, “Program, I guess. I’m good at it.”
Adam made a dismissive noise. “What do you really want to do?”
“Really?” Tommy flexed his fingers. “Play.”
“Play?” Adam turned to face him. “Play what?”
“Guitar,” Tommy snorted softly. “Monte taught me. Not long after I found him, he dug one up from somewhere, I don’t have a clue. But I guess he played before and he taught me.”
“So you’ve been playing all this time?”
“When I can. Not like I have much opportunity now. But back then, the first five years when we were really keeping a low profile… as much as I could.”
“What’s it like?”
There was something a bit harder to describe. “How did you feel when you sang?”
“…Indescribable,” Adam said after a moment. “It felt right.”
Tommy couldn’t stop the smile. “It’s kinda like that. You feel… whole and complete, like you’ve got some missing limb back.”
Adam grinned now and started to say something. But then he closed his mouth, apparently thinking better of it. A slow flush crept over his face and Tommy was a bit puzzled as to what Adam could be embarrassed about. Nothing ever seemed to faze him.
“Is there a blanket in the pack? It’s a bit chilly.”
It was probably twenty something degrees in here, but Tommy didn’t question it. He simply reached for the pack and dug out the blanket. It took a few quick snaps to unfurl it and he handed it over. Adam took it, pulling it over his shoulders and draping it over his legs before he tucked the ends beneath his knees. He shivered a bit and hunched over. Tommy frowned and started to get to his feet.
“Are you really that cold? I can –”
“No no, you don’t have to warm me up like last time.”
Adam was bright red now and had practically tripped over those words. Tommy watched him for a moment before he shrugged and settled back down. Adam sat there, hunched over and staring fixedly at the empty ration pack. After a few moments, Tommy dug out the blanket from the other pack and got up. Adam watched him as he came over and draped it over Adam’s head.
A small smile came to Adam’s face as Tommy sat back down. And then he asked, “Do you think Kris is okay?”
“I’d like to think so,” Tommy chewed on his lip for a bit. “I think he’s been pushed too far way too fast.”
“What do you mean?” Adam snaked a hand out to pull the other blanket over his head in tighter.
“Back before we left for Pastche, when we made that run on the police depot, he shot a cop in the face so we could get away.”
Adam’s eyes went wide. “Kris did?”
Tommy nodded his head. “I’m pretty sure that was entirely accidental. The face part, not the shooting. But I didn’t get a chance to talk to him about it. It sort of fell to the side. And then Katy dumping that news on him. Seemed to take him by complete surprise… Kris is hanging on by shreds. Katy and him are newer to this anarchist business than this adventure lets on. He’s not used to so much chaos.”
Those words hung quietly in the air. Adam made a worried sound and Tommy stretched a leg out to nudge him with a foot.
“Not much we can do now. Wait until we get to Arile. That’s where Monster will want to probably take a break.”
“… I want to help him, but I’m not sure how to.”
“Yet another part of the human condition,” Tommy gave a wry grin. “Like I said, we all muddle on through. And sometimes we lean on one another and try to figure it all out.”
“Like Kris and Katy?”
“Sometimes like that.”
A thoughtful look came to Adam’s face and silence fell. Then Adam looked at him, staring for a few minutes before saying, “You need to sleep too.”
Tommy shrugged. “I can sleep when we get to Arile. That’s only another two hours from now.”
“You didn’t sleep when we left Pastche. And you barely did on the way to Querque.”
“I’ll be fine,” Tommy had been doing an exemplary job of ignoring his exhaustion until Adam mentioned it. Now it was creeping back in. He was starting to suspect Adam had the power of suggestion on his side. “Really.”
Adam didn’t seem satisfied. He took the extra blanket off from his head and moved in closer. The blanket was warm from his body heat as it settled over him and Tommy couldn’t stifle a yawn. Shit, there was an intent look on Adam’s face now and Tommy knew he wouldn’t let up. He picked up the plasma gun and handed it to Adam, handle first.
“As soon as we can, target practice. But for now, you hold it like this,” he took Adam’s right hand and wrapped it around the handle. “Use your index finger for the trigger. This little button up here,” he paused as he yawned again. “That’s the safety. Flick it up with your thumb. If anything happens –”
“Nothing will. But I’ll make sure you’re safe.” Adam said. The tone of his voice spoke of determination and something akin to sacred vows.
Tommy snorted. Adam had never fired a gun in his life. But given the serious look on his face and how he was paying attention to everything said… Tommy honestly believed him.
“I was gonna say don’t fire first. Sometimes it’s just a worker who’s not armed. You see someone in an entirely black suit though, fire first and worry about getting your ass out in one piece.”
“Our asses.” Adam corrected immediately. He paused a second then ventured. “Cops?”
“Yeah, their uniform’s solid black. They also shoot first and ask questions later,” Tommy stood up, joints popping slightly. His vision also swam a bit as exhaustion crashed full on into him. “Bad idea.”
“Sit back down,” Adam sounded anxious, hand tugging gently on the blanket around him. Tommy did just that, sinking slowly to the ground on Adam’s other side. “What are you doing anyways?”
“Freeing up your line of sight. Just in case,” Tommy settled back against the wall. “Maybe I’m more tired than I realised.”
Adam snorted at that. “Come here.”
Tommy yawned again and Adam tugged on the blanket until his head was resting against Adam’s shoulder. He vaguely thought that the wall would have been fine, but then Adam was settling the blanket he already had around them. It was just as warm and smelled faintly of ration packs, but mainly like Adam. He blinked, trying to figure out when he’d noticed what Adam smelled like and feeling as if he was teetering on the edge of sleep.
Suddenly, Adam shifted, wiggling a little, and Tommy found himself sliding down until his head was pillowed on Adam’s thigh. Hell, he just didn’t have the energy to protest. And for the first time in a long time, he felt truly comfortable and not worried. Adam’s fingers were running through his hair and he was singing something.
“Say your prayers little one, don’t forget my son to include everyone,” Adam’s voice was soft as he started the lullabye. “I tuck you in, warm within, free from sin until the sandman comes.”
Tommy slowly drifted off and the last thing he remembered was Adam’s voice crooning about dreams of war, liars and something called dragon’s fire.
Leila walked down the stairs with her pack in hand. The entire house was silent. Everything was in place and ready to be executed. Eber was downstairs already, prepping the computers for their final run. She left her bag at the front door beside his and headed for the basement.
She paused on the stairs and took a deep breath before she stepped into the room. The pristine white and cool blue of the lab greeted her. Eber was sitting at a console, typing away, probably setting up the final protocols for the destruction of their lab.
That hadn’t been an easy decision for them to reach. There had been three solid days of arguments before they both agreed that there were some answers they both badly wanted.
Those answers required hacking into high level secure files. That type of deep security breach hacking… They would have to vanish in order to get those answers.
Making contact on the Subvert hadn’t been easy. With all of her skill, it still had taken Leila a monumental effort to connect up to the network. And even then it was a hard slog. Whoever wrote the coding for that network was a sheer genius in her mind. But she managed to get in touch with someone willing to help. There had been a ridiculous number of conditions to be met, but after discussing it with Eber they decided to go ahead. After all, they could hardly blame their hard found contact for being cautious. Two citizens asking for help to go to ground, it could easily have been a trap.
And now, in precisely two hours, their contact would be waiting for them. That would give them enough time to do what they had to and head over to the border of the neighbouring district. Leila suspected that their instructions to go into the sewers and access the Catacombs meant that they wouldn’t be crossing any district checkpoint legally.
Though, as she thought about it, legality had long since flown out the window.
“All set?” Eber looked at her over his shoulder.
“Yes. My bag’s at the front door. What credits we have aren’t in plastic. I broke into our savings jar,” she came over and pulled up the other chair. “And all our documents and stuff, scattered about.”
“Alright,” A momentary grin came to Eber’s face. “You ready?”
Leila chucked, “You’re enjoying this too much.”
“We should at least get some fun out of it, shouldn’t we?” Eber returned, his grin returning fleetingly.
“Sometimes I wonder if all men aren’t pyromaniacs deep down at heart.”
Eber winked before he looked back at the console. “There might be something to that. Then let’s get started.”
Leila turned on her own console and after it loaded the first thing that popped up again was that red screen demanding the password. She glanced over at Eber and he nodded. The cracking program was started and they were both typing away furiously. Security protocols were bypassed, automatic attempts at traces, all circumvented. After the most exhausting ten minutes of her life, the screen went green and a soft female voice said, “Password Accepted.”
Right after the voice spoke a small counter began running in the upper lefthand corner. She frowned and realised Eber had given them a window to work in. Thirty minutes. Nothing more, nothing less.
She looked back at the screen and found a single folder sitting there, bearing the words ‘Project Naise.’ Eber silently handed over a slim, portable harddrive. She plugged it in before booting up a super compression program. It took the program only ten minutes to download all the data and compress it onto the hard drive. She unplugged it and slipped it into her jacket pocket.
Eber was already up, magnet in hand. She looked at it, a wave of sadness washing over her. Their entire life’s work was about to be wiped out by a single thing that fit in the palm of her hand. Everything that Adam and Neil were, everything that was left of them on the hard drive.
“Leila, I know,” Eber began. “If you want –”
She didn’t wait to hear it. She got up from her seat, grabbed the magnet and slammed it against the side of the console. The plasma screen flickered for a few seconds before it vanished. She left the magnet on for a bit before she pried it off and slapped it back into Eber’s hand.
That was the only thing Eber said before they silently headed up the stairs. Leila let out a long breath, trying to ease the tension out of her body. There was nothing left but to go forward.
The kitchen was the only other place they went to. All the plasma displays were turned on, the fridge, the cooking unit, everything. After that, the only other thing turned on was the toaster, with a little extra tampering that would never show up as evidence.
That gave them five minutes to get out of the house and drive away. Fifteen minutes to get to their rendezvous with their contact.
All Leila knew was that labs and anything involving plasma was well ventilated for a good reason. Plasma weapons were essentially something capable of producing miniature explosions. Plasma, while useful could be deadly as hell.
They didn’t rush out the door though. They picked up their bags, walked out, locked the door behind them and got into the car. She started it up with the push of a button. Eber spent about three seconds punching in something and a soft chime echoed through the car. The car would still run, could still access things, but when it was found, not a single piece of information would be retained on the hard drive. The magnet would ensure that as well. They weren’t taking any chances.
It was easier than she ever would have thought to drive away from that house. That place they had called home, where Adam’s first code was written, with classical artist David Bowie playing softly in the background. Where the idea for Neil had first been conceived, when Eber saw the technician who came to fix their broken cooking unit, looking half starved and in need of a good meal.
When she felt the shockwave of the explosion four minutes later, she had no more tears left to shed. There were no more regrets about what they were leaving. Now, now they were doing something. She would get vengeance for their boys. She didn’t care if it was some antiquated notion, but Adam and Neil were her children, as if they were actual flesh and blood to her. She wanted someone to pay for what amounted to kidnapping them and doing who knew what. She wanted them back.
Eber reached over and took her free hand. Her eyes didn’t leave the road, but she grasped his hand tightly. They were doing something, finally doing something and it felt damned good.
The drive along the coast took them past well-maintained houses and malls, but when they took a turn onto the hyperway the scenery changed. The neat and tidy look of Pedrour, district seven, gave way to the crawl of industrial buildings. Off in the distance, she could see what looked like buildings. Long rows of something that could be tenaments, maybe. Leila frowned as she drove, wondering just how they had gone on for so long and not noticed any of this. Eber had his holopad out and was typing sporadically.
“Next exit, then turn left,” he was studying the holopad intently. “There’s an abandoned building about four miles due east from the turnoff. It connects up to the sewer system. We can access the Catacombs that way.”
Leila nodded. She slowed down as she got onto the city streets and kept an eye out for anything fenced off. Eber was fiddling with the dash console and then a soft beep sounded before a voice filled the car.
“… say the other two anarchists got away. However one anarchist, Katy O’Connell, was caught. At the moment, the authorities aren’t releasing any other information. Anyone seeing any suspicious activity in any city, nationwide, is asked to call the USS Military hotline. Once again, these anarchists are armed, dangerous and at large. Primary investigator Camilla Grey wasn’t available for comment though the LAMD issued a public statement.”
Leila gripped the wheel tighter as the reporter read through the statement. It was some sort of generic response, saying that it was an anarchist attack and was being fully investigated. Just up ahead she saw a chain link fence. That had to be the place. She pulled the car into a side alleyway and killed the engine, but left the broadcast running.
“Turning to entertainment news now, Cowell Entertainment Corp has announced it is bringing back its Fantasia and Clay programs for a short run while the infamous and wildly popular Adam program is still undergoing maintenance When precisely the Adam program will be back is –”
Eber made a derisive sound and turned off the dash console. Leila couldn’t have agreed with that more. She parked the car and Eber handed her the magnet as he grabbed the bags and got out. The magnet did its job in under a minute and Leila got out, putting it back in its case and tucking the case away in her pocket.
The fence was already cut and Eber was already working on the security system when she came up to him. After a few seconds of rapidly typing, the small red light on the door changed to green. They got inside quickly and the door was shut properly behind them. When Leila turned around, Eber was studying his holopad again. Probably trying to find the access door. She took a quick look around before she tapped him on the arm and pointed just off to their right.
A door was clearly illuminated in the bright midday sun and Eber’s eyes flitted over the holopad before he nodded his head. They headed over to the door and it only took another few seconds, the door left unlocked. Inside the room was an empty rack, but behind it was another door. One that was sealed shut. Leila dumped her bag and walked over, pulling the rack out of the way. A thud came from behind her, telling her Eber had done the same. She peered along where the faint outline was and she realised it had just been painted over.
“We can kick it in. But we’ve gotta hurry. We’ve only got what? Ten minutes?”
“Twenty actually,” Eber glanced at his watch. “I had my watch going as I set up the computers in our lab at home. Figured we might need extra time.”
“Alright,” Leila moved the empty shelves out of the way. “Let’s get started.”
The first thud of her foot against the door felt like it nearly jarred her leg right out of her hip. Swearing under her breath, she kept kicking at it where she figured the handle would be. Once Eber figured out her rhythm, he joined in. The door began making creaking sounds and collapsed a few minutes later. Stale air rushed up and out and she coughed, waving her hand through the gust of dust that floated out.
“C’mon,” Eber shouldered his bag and took her hand. “We’ve gotta go down four levels and over about eight blocks.”
Leila shouldered her pack and followed him, fumbling for a plasma light. “Damn, it’s dark. Really dark.”
“That it is,” Eber’s face was illuminated by his holopad. “I managed to get some really old city planning maps to help us through.”
“How old?” Leila asked, dropping her voice to a whisper. “I mean… the Catacombs are made up of old buildings and street levels from both decades and centuries ago.”
“I went as far back as the late twentieth century.” Eber was quiet for a moment. “Which seems ridiculous, but I figured I might as well hedge my bets with the rumours since this is where the contact wanted to meet us.”
All Leila did was nod her head as she followed him. The Catacombs. That had been considered nothing but urban legends when she was a kid. The Catacombs was where her parents had threatened to send her if she really misbehaved. And now here she was, willingly venturing forth into them, into this pitch black world to meet someone who she only knew as Alliecat.
Eber led them down, frequently checking their path on his holopad. The descent was easy enough, but going across the eight blocks was harder than Leila would have thought. Debris and old, rusted out shells of cars lay scattered in the way. They had to slow down, and they carefully made their way over the obstacles. The last thing they needed was to fall and to twist or break something. There was no medical attention down here.
When they went around the corner of a building, they immediately caught sight of another plasma light up ahead. Leila dropped back, outing her light quickly. Eber followed a few seconds later. They stood against the wall, and Leila was sure the wild thudding of her heart was echoing out. Had they been seen? Maybe, maybe not, but how were they to know –
“Hey!” a voice whispered out. “C’mon, I don’t have time for this. Venga, venga!”
Steps were coming towards them and Leila peered around the corner. A short, pretty Latino-looking girl was hurrying their way. Her face looked gaunt in the light and her long hair was pulled back into a ponytail.
“Alliecat?” she whispered back. She really hoped it was and wished she had thought of bringing a weapon of some kind.
“Yeah, that’s me,” Alliecat’s steps stopped and the whining prime of a plasma gun sounded now. “You two are?”
“Leila and Eber,” she hissed back.
There was silence for a moment and then, “Shit, those aren’t your real names are they?”
In retrospect, Leila could admit how monumentally stupid that was. But pressed for time, an alias was the last thing on her mind. Alliecat gave a dry laugh and there was the click of a weapon being turned off.
“Loco, no cop is stupid enough to use their real name. Might as well come on out. I won’t blast you.”
Eber’s hand found hers and she took a deep breath. They stepped out from around the corner into the bright white light. Leila’s jaw just about dropped.
“You’re just a teenager!”
Alliecat blinked then huffed. “And you two are ancient. Where are your weapons?”
“Non-existent,” Eber answered. “We don’t have any.”
“Dios mio,” Alliecat shook her head as she looked at their hands and then back to their faces. “I’ve got a card with some credits. I’ll have to get you two a weapon or something.”
“We have credits,” Leila said. “Don’t spend yours on us.”
“They aren’t mine to begin with,” Alliecat started walking, motioning for them to follow. “I tried to steal some guy’s wallet and he caught me. Then he turned around and gave me plastic with a shitload of credits on it. It was legit, so I wasn’t going to look at it twice. Should be enough credits to get you two set up with enough leftover for me.”
Leila let go of Eber’s hand and hurried after her. “What on Earth are you doing down here? You should be at home with your family.”
Something in Alliecat’s face hardened at that. “There are plenty of other things I should be doing. But here I am helping two locos, who don’t know enough to have a weapon ready to go and to use a simple alias.”
“If it helps any, we blew up our home.” Eber chimed in from the back. “It was on the coast, so maybe they’ll think our bodies were thrown into the surf.”
Alliecat looked back at them before she chuckled. “Man, what district were you two from?”
“Seven. Pedrour.” Eber caught up to them.
“That won’t buy you much time, that’s the rich blood district. Everything that happens there is more important. You two have gotta lay low for the next few months. They can’t find any trace of you at all, comprende? And you need some aliases. None of this real name stuff.”
“What do you suggest?” Leila was still drawing a big fat blank on that one.
Alliecat paused, eyeing them critically, before she pointed to Eber and declared, “Silver. And Sable for you, mamacita.”
Leila snorted in amusement as Alliecat winked at her. “Our hair colour, really?”
“You got anything better?” Alliecat asked before she shrugged and continued walking.
“She’s got a point,” there was a smile on Eber’s face. “Sable.”
“Oh shut up, Silver.” Leila grumbled.
But there was a smile on her face as well, and as they followed after Alliecat, Leila thought maybe it was time to have a little faith in someone else for a change. Even if that someone else barely seemed like they were seventeen.
She felt against her jacket and the slim rectangular shape of the harddrive was easily felt. Once they were safely hidden away and set up, they could start going over everything they had downloaded and make a plan of attack.
But one step at a time. They had to take it one step at a time.
Electric Sheep - III || Electric Sheep - V