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[personal profile] furorscribiendi


Electric Sheep - II


Nerves were something that hadn’t gotten to Leila since her final programming exam at USSU-LA. But now, sitting outside Simon Cowell’s office… Eber sat beside her, both of them called to explain what had happened over the weekend. As if they knew what happened over the weekend.

There was a strange wheezing sound and then she felt Eber’s hand on her back, rubbing soothingly. She realised she made the noiseand looked over at him to see the same anxious expression that mirrored her feelings. She just wanted to say the horrifying words aloud but didn’t dare. The police could see practically everywhere.

She stared at him for a few moments, making sure he was looking back, knowing he could read her like a book. Our boys are missing. How did this happen?

The corner of Eber’s mouth twisted up slightly in a sympathetic smile. That was all that could be done with at least three cameras in this office. Neither one of them wanted to deal with the police. I don’t know. But we’ll find them.

A slight buzzing sound came and the office door swung open slightly. Ryan stepped out, a sombre look on his face.

“He’ll see you now.”

“Thank you.”

Leila was grateful her voice was steady as she and Eber rose. Ryan’s job was one she didn’t envy in the slightest. It was one thing to work for Cowell as an employee of Cowell Industries, but to work for him, in direct contact day after day? Either Ryan was gutsy and wanted to move up or knew precisely how to handle the mogul, since he’d been doing the job for almost a decade now.

The office was cool with large glass windows taking up a full side. The cityscape of skyscrapers rose up high to this sixtieth floor office. Cowell was standing in front of the window but he turned to look at them as they entered the room. He smiled politely and suddenly Leila felt like she was going to just throw up. But she inclined her head politely and settled down in a chair beside Eber, biting her tongue until the feeling began ebbing away.

Cowell watched them for a moment before he sat down, looking entirely relaxed. “I think you two know why I called you up here.”

“To be honest, sir, we don’t know how it happened,” Eber spoke up first. “We followed protocol to the letter when doing the multiple repairs on the Adam program. Not to mention attempting the retrofitting of the Neil program.”

When the silence stretched into minutes, Leila spoke firmly. “The Adam program has made you billions. If you find out what happened, where… he could have been taken, we will fix him and get him operational as soon as possible.” Leila knew they had to be under suspicion, but there was no getting around that, and this had to be as much about the money as anything. The company would lose a fortune with Adam missing. As long as Cowell remembered they were useful and loyal to the company, this would blow over. They’d get out of this, find their boys, and this mess could go back to normal.

“As soon as possible,” Cowell mused. “That would be nice. Tell me exactly what you found when you came in this morning.” It wasn’t a request. Cowell did not make requests.

Puzzled, Leila and Eber glanced at one another. There was no doubt for either of them that Cowell would have already reviewed the security feeds from the night.

“Well, when we came in, the ambiotic tanks were empty and drained. The two grav beds were gone and the harddrive was wiped clean. A magnet was used. Someone obviously broke in and stole them and I want to know why nothing has been done yet to catch the anarchists who –”

Eber’s hand on her arm took her by surprise. She looked down at him, wondering when she’d stood. Or, as she realised it now when she’d begun yelling at Simon Cowell. He simply sat there, both eyebrows raised in surprise. When he finally shifted forward in his seat, the slight smile from his face was gone.

“Why don’t I show you what our tech security team found.”

The plasma screen came up and they watched as the security feed ran through at four times the normal speed. The lab looked fine for the entire night. The break came eight hours later, an hour before Leila and Eber came into the lab. Leila saw the problem before they even reached that point. No one could have broken in, stolen their boys and bodies, and gotten away with so little time left before morning crew arrived… So what the hell was wrong with the footage? And then the feed went from pristine and fine to empty with puddles of ambiotic fluid on the floor in half a nanosecond. Leila’s jaw dropped and she could feel the rage emanating from Eber.

“It’s a loop feedback.” Leila said, with more loud indignation than she intended.

“Indeed, very apt. The code used to create the loop feedback bears many marks of your coding styles,” Simon’s gaze flickered between them for a moment. “Given that two experimental pieces of property were stolen, the police have been notified and are handling the investigation. It was insisted upon.”

“By who?”

Silence fell for a moment. Leila couldn’t stop herself and figured that her anxiety and fear were making her brash enough to simply confront Cowell like that. But a moment later, his slight smile retured.

“Simon Fuller.”

Those two words were like a fist settling in Leila’s gut. Fuller indirectly owned almost all of the United Southern States in some capacity or other. Whoever stole Adam and Neil would be dead as soon as they were found. Hell, she remembered just over a decade ago when a promising young program developer went missing. He was known to ask questions. A glance over at Eber proved that the expression on his face was a bit too rigid, not loose and responsive. Anything involving Fuller usually went badly for the other party involved.

And honestly, Leila wasn’t sure whether she felt relieved or more worried. Worried, because if they were suspected anything could happen to them with Fuller involved. Relieved, because nothing happened yet, so they must’ve been cleared. For now. And whoever had broken in… They would be found.

“Good,” Eber’s voice was harsh. “Nice to know he’s got his fingers in something else.”

Leila stared at her husband in surprise. And more than a little trepidation. That wasn’t something to be said lightly. Hell, the Neil program had said something similar once and the number of anarchist attacks and increased police presence on Cowell servers had skyrocketed. Cowell gave a dry laugh as he leaned forward.

“Let’s make one thing clear: your programs are the property of Aris Corp. The official notice hasn’t gone out, but we were taken over a month ago. Simon Fuller bought us out. I stay on as CEO, of course, but we’re all technically his employees now,” Cowell paused for a moment. “I’m more than willing to overlook your… attachment, to your programs. I doubt Fuller will however. I suggest you start disassociating yourselves now.”

The sick feeling that settled in her gut was worse than the anxiety from before. Her knees felt like they were going to give, so she sat back down in the seat heavily. That was probably the worst thing anyone had ever said to her. The sheer number of hours she and Eber put into their boys, making sure they ran smoothly, that everything ran seamlessly… The long nights in those early days, coding and working out the bugs. The first run of the Neil program had made them so proud and when they did the same with the Adam program, it had felt like walking on air. And now to be told that they were just programs and to disassociate from them…

Leila didn’t care if she and Eber broke the first cardinal rule of AI programming. Neil and Adam were their boys and she’d be damned if some de facto despot like Fuller would get their hands on him.

“… Leila?”

Eber’s hand waved in front of her face and she snapped out of it. She looked over at him and shook her head. “Sorry, just…” she trailed off for a moment. “Eber and I put in a lot of hours and work on Adam… on the Adam and Neil programs. I’d highly prefer it if we could stay on in some capacity.”

Cowell just watched her for a long moment. “Duly noted. Now, Officer Camila Grey is here and she wishes to interview you both as to the disappearance of the Adam and Neil programs.”

A door to the side slid open and a woman with short black hair stepped in. Her uniform was a form-fitting plain black two-piece and the ion blaster was in a snug side holster at her hip. Combined with the sombre look on the woman’s face along with the glint off her cybernetic implant, it was all full of quiet menace to Leila. Another sign they had lost control over their own lives.

“If you’ll excuse us, Mr. Cowell.”

The soft sounds of cloth rustling accompanied Cowell as he left the office. Leila looked at the woman, wondering just how long she had been watching Cowell talk to them. Then she paled a bit as she recalled her thoughts from a moment ago. As if on cue,

“I’m more than willing to overlook your seditious thoughts in order to find the anarchists who stole from Aris Corp,” Camilla paused for a moment. “I’ve already drafted up a complete profile on you both.”

Leila could feel Eber’s eyes boring into hers, practically wondering what she had thought. When they were safe at home, she’d dare to say the words out loud, the ones she didn’t even want to think right now.

“Married in 2870, no children. You live down on the coast at precisely 3471 Mesa Coast lane, across from the ocean. You both graduated from United Southern States University, Los Angeles branch and were recruited by Cowell Entertainment Industries right afterwards. You apprenticed one Monte Pittman for a bit before his mysterious disappearance in 2879. In 2881, you created the Neil program. It ran from 2885 until 2893 when it was pulled due to multiple unresovled bugs. The Adam program was started in 2892 a bit before the Neil program was pulled and became wildly successful in 2893 after running for a year.”

A glance at Eber revealed a pale face and a set expression. So much of their lives under the microscope. It was probably only a matter of time before the police dug back really far and found something stupid in their youth to make them look like anarchists in hiding.

Camilla walked over to Cowell’s desk and leaned against it. She crossed her arms as she watched them for a long moment. Her voice was soft and quiet when she spoke.

“In order to find out who stole the Adam and Neil programs from Aris Corp, I’ll require your full co-operation and disclosure.”

There was a long stretch of silence. Leila managed to not look at Eber like she wanted to. Who the hell knew what this police officer would make of anything they said or did in front of her. Or where a security cam could see. Even their thoughts were apparently subject if the officer’s inference of ‘sedition’ was taken correctly. But that was no surprise. The police had access to the best innovations for observance tech. Fuller saw to that.

“Of course,” maybe it was just Leila, but it sounded like Eber was forcing the words out. “What ever you need.”

Leila took in Camilla’s stance and hoped that she and Eber could make it through this without ending up in jail. The words felt like they burned as she said with a faint smile. “You have our complete co-operation.”

She only hoped Officer Grey believed it.

_________________________________________________________



“Hey.”

Monte’s voice made Tommy look up from the wall he was crouched beside, fiddling with the phone jack. There was a holopad in Monte’s hand and a frown on his face.

It had only been a few days since they went to ground. The Catacombs were the only safe place to hide from the police. Their cybernetic implants didn’t work this far down, and they mostly couldn’t be bothered to descend into the ruined warren of the ancient buildings. For anyone with properly functioning implants, the effort wasn’t worth the pain.

Tommy and Monte had gone down deep after their brush with the police. By his guess, Tommy figured they were almost a mile underneath the surface. These old buildings were crumbling, but still standing. They had just enough ration and meal packs and hydra-packs, and more blankets than he cared to count.

Stealing stuff from the surface wasn’t exactly easy, but it was something they would have to do soon.

He got up, dusting his hands and his knees. Monte was by another phone jack and had hooked his holopad up. Getting all this newer tech hooked up to the Subvert network wasn’t the easiest thing. But it more than paid off. Tommy walked over as Monte started typing on the holopad. It threw up a screen, illuminating a message waiting for them. There was simply two words: ‘Food. Clothes.’

Tommy looked up and was honestly surprised to see that it was addressed to the both of them. Usually requests came to one or the other. Not many knew Tommy and Monte were a team. He frowned for a moment. “Anything embedded in it?”

Monte shot him a little smirk, “Already plotted out the co-ordinates left.”

Monte typed something on the pad and the screen was replaced by a set of co-ordinates. A small map of the Catacombs went up. Tommy looked at the numbers again carefully and couldn’t hide his surprise. The first digit was a 20.

“They’re twenty levels down? Shit, we’re only at ten.” A frown marred his face as he studied the screen. “Do you think they have people with them?” They would have to, to bother going down that deep. Or they were really scared shitless about something.

“They must if they’re asking for food and clothes,” Monte fell silent before he added on. “Probably people who are off cybernetics for the first time. Don’t know how to cope.”

Tommy snorted. “You want to cover a charity case?”

There was silence at that. He knew Monte wouldn’t say it but people fresh off cybernetics were the most dangerous. More often than not, the lack of instant knowledge and connectivity was something they missed too much. It was addictive. Tommy knew plenty of hackers who had been ratted out to the police by the people they were trying to help.

“Who sent the message?” he asked.

“Going by the number, I’d say it’s the hacker known as Conway. They mainly work to try and expose the things Fuller’s done. Their most recent claim is that Fuller is behind the disapperances here in LA. Human experimentation and similar testing.”

“That rumour’s been floating around for ages,” Tommy murmured. “But if they’re down that deep, they don’t want to be found by just anyone.”

“I don’t know what to make of this to be honest.” Monte tapped idly on the holopad. “It doesn’t add up the way it should. The way Conway’s MO usually does.”

“We need to head up to get some supplies anyhow. We grab some extra, come back, check it out. If we smell a trap, we bolt. Simple as that.”

Monte remained silent for a moment before he nodded his head. “It’s what time now? We should hit the surface during a police shift change.”

“Just after ten. The next one will be around one in the morning.” Tommy looked at the holopad before holding his hand out. When Monte handed it over, he typed quickly. “The message was sent just a few hours ago.”

“Think they have the cops on their tails?”

“Possibly. They’re running hard,” Tommy looked around. “We should probably do it now. Don’t need to walk into even more cops.”

There was silence from Monte for a few moments and Tommy didn’t wait to start packing up his stuff. When a resigned sigh came from behind him, he reached back to check the plasma gun tucked into his pants. Still charged and primed. Feeling satisfied, he zipped up his pack and slung in across his body. He watched Monte as he tightened the strap. There was a distracted look on Monte’s face.

“We’ll be close to the upper north side of LA.” Monte said after a moment.

Tommy didn’t say anything right away, looking over the room for anything they missed. When he was done he looked at Monte. “Not long, alright? Just while I’m swiping some stuff. Not like last time.”

“Yeah, I promise.”

Tommy wasn’t too sure what to say as Monte nodded his head. Suddenly Monte seemed far too old and weary to be running around and hiding in ruins beneath a city. He should be miles away from here, safe with his family. But then the expression left Monte’s face and he was out the door. Tommy fell in step behind him and their ascent to the surface was silent.

Even still, the Catacombs were impressive, the further down one went. Buildings atop of older buildings, crumbling monuments and walkways, twisting and spiralling up towards the newer subfloors of the towering sky scrapers that dominated the LA cityscape. Down here on the tenth level, it was the square modern buildings that heralded the beginning of the Second Civil War that split the former United States of America apart. 2159 was the year that all the official history books of the United Southern States started from. Anything prior to that just didn’t seem to exist.

But if Tommy had learned anything from the few illegal, and highly expensive, books that made their way through the border sometimes, it was that everything was wrong with the United Southern States. It was insular, borderline paranoid and after the war, so devastated that companies did whatever they could to stay afloat. A few big names had started up in the tumultous period. Aris Corp. Cowell Entertainment Industries. Martin Congolmerates. A handful of others.

And as far as Tommy could tell, Aris Corp owned pretty much every other company in some way. Majority shareholder, through a dummy corporation… if someone traced the ownership back far enough, it all went to Aris Corp and its owner Simon Fuller.

The man owned practically everything and everyone in the United Southern States. It made Tommy so sick to his stomach and so mad that he had blindly followed along for so damn long. They all were, every citizen of the United Southern States. The port at the back of his neck suddenly felt heavy, like it was a chain around his neck. The shudder followed after a moment and he rubbed at the piece of metal, wishing he could just get the damned thing removed. Hell, he hadn’t wanted the thing in the first place.

“Hey!”

The echo of Monte’s voice roused him from his thoughts. He was a bit surprised to see that Monte was half on a ladder and staring down at him. When he glanced around, he didn’t see the geometrical buildings of the 22nd century but the more stark lines of something from 30th century.

“You sure you’re with me?”

Monte’s eyes just about bored into his with their intensity. Tommy nodded his head, self-consciously rubbing at his port. When he realised what he was doing, he yanked his hand away. But after a moment it crept up to scratch lightly at his dead implant.

“Yeah, I am,” Tommy walked over to the ladder now. “Just… yeah. Let’s go, grab some stuff and get to Conway.”

“Tommy,” Monte’s tone said he didn’t buy it. Monte knew him too well.

“I’m fine.”

He hadn’t meant to sound so harsh and the words echoed out through the ruins. Monte simply looked at him for a bit longer before he turned and started up the ladder. Tommy followed, expression grim. Maybe all this running and hiding, the acts of what was called ‘cyber-terrorism’ against Fuller… maybe he wans’t cut out for it any more. He wasn’t too sure either of them were. Ten years was a long time to be running.

The ladder climb was a bit long and when they got off the final rung the pale grey of new concrete greeted their sight. Monte looked around before digging out the holopad and plugging it into a nearby port.

“Okay, we’re in… in the Burbank slums.” Monte glanced over at Tommy. “We need to get in and out. I don’t need to –”

“Yes, you do,” Tommy gritted out. This day was really looking to kick him in the nuts or something. “What time is it now and what block are we in?”

Monte typed for a moment and then, “Block J, section 4. There’s a ration depot three blocks to the west of us, but we can’t access it through a basement tunnel.”

“Street level access only? Then it’s Burbank Supply Depot Eight. The security on the store is tight, but we can give ourselves some time. The police should be swinging by in about,” Tommy glanced at the time on holopad projection. “Ten minutes. After that we have a fifteen minute window to get in and get out.”

“All right. I’ll let you call the shots.”

While it wasn’t said, Tommy all but heard Monte’s implied, ‘This is your neck of the woods.’ The Burbank slums was a place he tried to avoid like the plague. This was where he was born and it was where he was supposed to die. If he’d kept his head down and didn’t learn what he wasn’t supposed to about Big Brother, about the corporations. Down here, the people usually talked about Big Brother in a friendly way.

It was only because they didn’t know any better.

They made their way to a surface access point, cracking the door open a bit. The dark of the alleyway hid them and Tommy left the door open only a crack, just enough to peer out from. Sure enough, ten minutes later a police security cam floated by, lights shining in to the alleyway. Once it was gone, Tommy crept out in front of Monte, looking around carefully. Everything still looked the same.

The same cheap, ramshackle buildings. Curfew was obviously still in effect, judging by the empty streets and Tommy couldn’t quite shake the feeling of being horribly exposed out here like this. But they hurried down the street to the building. Holopads were plugged in, security codes cracked and they were inside the building in less than five minutes.

Tommy just pointed Monte to the vidphone as he started for the racks of things. “Ten minutes, that’s it.”

“Thanks. You sure –”

“Yes.”

That was all Tommy found he was able to say. He didn’t want to get into it. He turned and started for the meal and ration packs. He was feeling a bit raw being back here in his old neighbourhood. As far as he knew, his family had been told that he’d died during a prison riot. And for their own safety, he had no intention of contacting them again. That meant he had to get in and out of here without getting caught by a police security cam.

Being seen by those police officers from before was risky enough.

He undid the bottom of his pack and stacked in meal and ration packs before he headed for the back and the refridgerated hydra-packs. He topped it off with some standard issue blankets and extra clothes for him and Monte. Their own were starting to look a bit thin. When his was full, he walked over to where Monte had his holopad plugged into the vidphone and was busy. Tommy silently dumped his pack and took Monte’s fairly empty one.

As he stood up, he caught a glimpse of a woman seated on a couch and young girl beside her, flipping through a book of some kind.

He looked away from the screen quickly and filled up Monte’s bag with the same items. When he zipped it up and came over, he tapped Monte on the shoulder and held up five fingers. Monte nodded in acknowledgment and the image on the vidphone vanished. Tommy walked past the main counter, stuffing his pockets with small things.

By the time he slung his bag on his shoulder, Monte had finished and was doing the same. They silently slipped out from the deopt and reset the security code before hurrying back to the access point. Once the door was closed silently, Tommy glanced at Monte.

“They okay?”

That was all he asked, but Monte took a shaky breath and nodded his head. “Yeah. They’re fine. …Let’s get going.”

They started back down to the Catacombs, Monte taking the lead once more. It was only now Tommy shook off his unease, putting the slums out of his mind. His thoughts wandered back to the image of the woman and girl and Tommy wished he could have offered something comforting, but he knew the reality of Monte’s situation. There was nothing short of a full-blown revolution that could offer him the one thing he wanted more than anything else.

Their descent was fairly easy until they reached the fourteeth level. After that the number of paths sharply decreased and more than once, Tommy and Monte were forced to backtrack to find a way around. The further down they went, the more Tommy was starting to think that any police tail that Conway had was long gone. Given how heavily dependant the police were on cybernetics, the furthest down they could venture was five levels, six if they pushed it. Anything more and their cybernetic implants went on the fritz, and that caused major problems in the cerebral cortex. If the tech problems didn’t shake them off, the pain and loss of control would.

By the time they reached the twentieth level and were near the co-ordinates given, Tommy was pretty much convinced that there was no trap at all. A glance Monte’s way proved he was thinking the same thing. You didn’t spend years on the run with a guy and not learn to read his facial expressions.

But still…

Survival rule one, better safe than dead.

He and Monte moved in tandem, hands reaching back for weapons. There was a ruined building a few blocks up ahead. Gargoyles protruded from corners and from the broken windows came the whitish-blue flicker of a portable plasma lamp. They paused, noting that it looked like there were two… no… three… wait… four? Four silhouettes?

Tommy glanced over at Monte who frowned, then motioned that they should wait. Tommy turned his attention back to the flickers and watched. The people inside were moving around and it sounded like there were two main voices. They were still too far away to hear anything that was said. If Tommy was reading the flickering silhouettes clearly, there were two people walking around. Possibly another one, but sitting down. Maybe.

When Monte glanced at him, Tommy flicked off his plasma gun’s safety and nodded. Monte did the same and they moved forward smoothly. The building only had a single entrance point, so Tommy gave them some credit. But when he and Monte slunk in both people had their backs turned towards the door. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

He easily walked up to the woman and pressed the barrel of his plasma gun against the nape of her neck. Whatever she had been about to say next dried up into silence and her whole body stiffened. Monte had done the same to the man.

“Now,” Tommy said smootly. “Co-ordinates are as follows,”

“20.87.45.798.01 .” the man finished. Then the relief was evident when he followed that with, “Thank God you came. Did you bring food and water?”

“We have ration packs, meal packs and hydra-packs.” Monte stepped back, removing his gun and turning the saftey back on. “You’re Conway?”

“In the flesh. Call me Kris though. She’s Katy.”

Tommy stared at Kris in surprise. Who the hell was that open with a person who just pressed a gun to the back of someone’s neck? Even if that someone was the calvary. He snorted and stepped back, doing the same with his gun. The woman turned around, ashen faced and looking royally pissed off. Tommy was sure she would have ripped right into him but a low moan caught her attention and had her hurrying over to the far wall.

Lying there on some hastily made beds of some kind were two people. A man with curly brown hair was thrashing a bit, mumbling something. On the other bed, a black-haired man was starting to display the same symptoms.

“Shit, it’s starting again.”

Katy sounded strained as she tried to calm the brown-haired man. Kris went directly to the other man. Tommy looked over at Monte, throughly puzzled as to what was going on. This was not symptomatic behaviour of people who were off cybernetics for the first time. He started to say something, but it was drowned out by an unearthly cry.

It echoed in the building, reverberating and sounding much louder than it actually was. The hairs on Tommy’s arms stood up, because while it was a cry, it was pitch perfect. It warbled between a few notes, but the strength and clarity of it chilled Tommy to the bone. It sounded so perfect, it was inhuman.

“Don’t just stand there!” Kris yelled, looking back at them. “Help!”

That galvanised them both. Tommy figured he’d stay the hell away from Katy. Anyone who could look like they would tear him a new one… yeah. He hurried over to Kris, wondering why the guy on the bed was singing a note while he was pretty much having convulsions. He threw off his pack and stripped off his jacket. He tore off the sleeves and twisted up the main part before he quickly stuck it into the black-haired man’s mouth.

For all of a moment, the sound was muffled. Tommy wasn’t expecting those eyes to snap open, blue irises gazing up at him blankly while the hands moved on what looked like auto-pilot and yanked the gag out in a firm grip. That cry swelled again and Tommy was starting to feel a bit panicked. If they didn’t hear that on the surface, then he’d eat his stolen credits.

The cry continued for a bit longer, a rapid progression of notes coming from the man’s mouth to form a scale. And just as suddenly, it ended. That blank, blue stare vanished beneath closed eyelids and the body relaxed into sleep. Kris was sprawled across the man’s torso and he craned his neck to the side and looked at his face tentatively.

Tommy glanced over to see Monte frowning, staring down at the brown-haired man. But then Kris got back onto his haunches and caught Tommy’s attention again. And that’s when he noticed the thin stream coming from the man’s mouth. That jaw was slack with sleep and something silver was pouring out from it, not clear drool. For a moment, he leaned in closer and after a second’s hesitation, dipped his finger into it.

When he felt minute prickles against his skin, he dug his finger against the ground before scrambling back.

“Nanites! Get the fuck away from them!” Tommy snapped.

That made everyone jerk away from the two men quickly, stepping back out of reach. Tommy watched as the silver stream poured out of the man’s mouth, growing into a small puddle. When it finally trickled and then died off, he watched in trepidation. Nanites were difficult things to stop; they’d fulfill their programmed objective no matter what. They were almost always used in prisons to install ports in ‘naked’ prisoners.

But these nanites that came out of these two men… they did nothing. Whatever their programmed objective was, it was completed. The puddle of nanites on the ground was non-responsive. After a few minutes had passed, Tommy crept in closer to the inocuous looking puddle. He’d seen live nanites, seen them swarm in their tubes to the next closest person in the room. They could sense body heat and honed in on their targets that way. He’d heard stories of prison guards setting nanites loose in crowds of new, naked prisoners just to expedite the port installation process.

These nanites weren’t making a single move toward anyone in the room. Monte walked over and crouched down over the puddle beside the brown haired man. He frowned and picked some up, letting them stream between his fingers, like fine grains of silver sand. The nanites’ colour caught the plasma light and winked, looking like they were sparking.

“What are they?” Kris asked as he watched the last few fall from Monte’s fingers.

“Nanites.” Monte wiped his hand against the ground. “They’re completely inactive right now.”

All in all, that still didn’t help Tommy. He was pretty sure he’d broken out into a cold sweat and was still eyeing the puddle warily, rubbing his palms against his thighs. His own port installation hadn’t been a picnic in the slightest.

“Nanites?” Katy was the first one to speak. “Why would nanites come out of them?”

“Nanites are used for a few things,” the look on Monte’s face was grim. “Repairs, fixing things… any sort of fine, nearly microscopic work needed.”

“But in people?” Katy pressed. “Medical reasons?”

“Among other things.” Tommy muttered darkly as he looked at man he’d scrambled away from. “Where did you find these two?”

There was a long silence in which Kris and Katy just looked at each other before they started tucking in the men and making sure they were comfortable. Tommy slid over to Monte, keeping an eye on the two unconscious figures.

“Any ideas?” Tommy murmured. Monte had more experience in this area. Tommy only knew the nanites from a prisoner’s point of view. Monte had studied this shit.

Monte gave a brief nod of his head. “When I worked for Aris Corp in programming and biotechnics, any large quantity of nanites, like that, were almost always directed for human usage. I suspected it wasn’t medical but I was never able to find out more, even when I became more… proficient.”

“You mean they’re human?” Tommy tried to ignore the roiling, sick feeling in his gut. “Not constructs with some kind of rubberized or plasticised covering?”

“Hard to tell without the proper applications on the holopad. And there’s no way I can get something that sophisticated off the Subvert network. But I do know that Aris Corp was trying to make biological androids. Not that they got anywhere, they failed all the time. The body is a supremely complex machine. It’s probably the most difficult thing on the planet to duplicate.”

Tommy glanced over at the man with black hair, a sense of disquiet settling over him. “What do you think?”

“Me?” Monte slid him a glance. “I think we need to find out precisely what they are before jumping to any conclusions.”

“Yeah. Then we can take it from there,” Tommy frowned, still looking at the black haired man. Why did something about him seem so damned familiar? And the way Monte had looked at the other man earlier, as though he recognized him too… “Figure out how badly these two might be wanted back, if at all.”

“Yeah,” Monte was watching Kris and Katy now. “Hey, you two.” When they looked over, he continued with, “Neither one of you answered his question.”

Silence fell for a few moments as Kris and Katy looked at one another. Then Katy turned back to the brown-haired man. A look of resignation flickered across Kris’s face. Tommy and Monte just waited as Kris fussed over the black-haired man a bit longer before he stood up.

“This is Adam,” he gestured to the black-haired man before he did the same to the brown-haired man and finished off with, “And this is Neil.”

“Right,” Tommy drawled. The most popular AIs? Now that Kris put names to the faces, there was an eerie familiarity, but the idea of it was insane.

Kris pointedly ignored him and continued. “Katy and I broke into Cowell Entertainment Industries labs earlier on tonight with the express purpose of finding proof that they were experimenting on humans. We found, well, bodies in tubes of ambiotic fluid and honestly - ”

“Wait,” Monte interrupted. “It was ambiotic fluid, are you sure?”

“Pretty sure.” Katy chimed in.

This was officially out of Tommy’s sphere of knowledge. Ask him to hack, steal, cause general subversive chaos in varying degrees, then he was the person. He was the best. But things like ambiotic fluid, nanites and androids… that was all Monte. And judging from the worried look on Monte’s face, it was probably something they all should be very worried about.

“Kind of yellow, thick, leaves a thin coat. Dries fairly quickly?”

“Yeah, it was a bit like that. More like a gel actually. It was a little sticky as it dried, but that disappeared.” Kris looked between them. “Why?”

Monte ignored Kris’s question to ask another one. “And you found them at Cowell Entertainment Industries labs? In tanks of ambiotic fluid, right?”

“Yeah,” Kris’s brow furrowed now. “Why? What? I mean, they’re constructs of some kind obviously, but –”

“Fuck.” Monte’s jaw was clenched.

Kris didn’t get an answer as Monte tipped his head a bit and started walking away. Tommy followed after him. They left the building, and once they were safely out of earshot, Monte didn’t waste time.

“This is a big problem.” He whispered.

Tommy nodded his head. “Fuller just bought up a majority stake in Cowell’s company. But do you really think he’d come looking for constructs when it’d be cheaper to build replacements? I mean, he might come looking on principle –”

“Oh, he’ll come looking. Probably set the best of the police force after us all.” Monte glanced back to the building with the flickers of plasma light from the glassless windows. “These aren’t replacable.”

“What?” Now Tommy was sure he was missing some crucial piece of the puzzle. “Okay, out with it.”

“Tommy, constructs don’t need ambiotic fluid because they aren’t made of organic material.”

For one brief moment, Tommy felt absolutely sure that Monte was trying to pull one on him. But the worried look on Monte’s face was filled with the trepidation in his friend’s eyes.

“Fuck.” Tommy rasped out. If they weren’t people… “But you said they weren’t able to make –”

“Well, it’s one of two things,” Monte bit out. “Evidence to the contrary is lying in there unconsicious. Or, given the number of nanites expelled from Adam and Neil, Kris and Katy have found evidence to their claim about the disappearances…”

That was something Tommy didn’t even want to think about. “So they might actually be –”

“Yeah.”

“And the nanites –”

“Basically rewrote everything. And I do mean everything.”

Monte looked nauseous and Tommy felt like he was doing his best to just not hurl. Because if Fuller was seriously behind the years of disapperances from the slums, Tommy would do his damnedest to introduce that sick fuck to the muzzle of his plasma gun. No one person should get to play God that much. It never ended well, for the creator and the creation. Not to mention the number of people he’d known who’d vanished over the years. His friends. Anyone convenient.

But the most pressing thing that Tommy could think of was,

“We need to act and now,” he glanced back at the building. “In case we were followed, we need to move to another spot and secure it.”

“Agreed.” Monte rubbed at a temple. “Kris’s initial message included a request to get in touch with Monster. I’m thinking that’s a good idea now.”

“Smuggle ourselves into the Free Republic of the North?”

When Monte nodded, Tommy remained silent. There was no denying that the idea had some merit. But at the same time, getting across the border wasn’t exactly the easiest thing to do. The official line was that anyone attempting to stay permanently in the Free Republic of the North was caught. The official claim was a hundred percent. Tommy’s own digging had found that about fifteen percent of people attempting to flee from the United Southern States actually made it.

“You game for that?” Monte pressed.

Tommy gave him a long, even look. “Are you? I mean, leaving them behind… you won’t even be able to see them. Ever.”

“I know. Maybe,” a distinct look of conflict came to Monte’s face. “…This is something I probably should have done from the start. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it.”

For a long moment, Tommy watched Monte. It wouldn’t really do any good to press him on this one thing. And Tommy had an idea of how hard it was, but he couldn’t even begin to imagine. Monte’s expression was distant and all Tommy did was clap him on the shoulder.

“I got this. You…” he trailed off as he gestured for Monte to stay put. Thankfully, Monte didn’t put up a fight.

When he walked back into the plasma-lit room, Adam and Neil were sleeping peacefully again and Kris and Katy were sitting close together, heads bent over something. Tommy cleared his throat, making them look up. He simply sat down cross-legged on the floor, keeping his eyes pinned on Kris. It was probably not the best idea to stare at Adam, Neil or Katy.

“So what’s happening?” Kris finally ventured. “You two just up and left when I mentioned…”

Kris trailed off as Tommy held up a hand. “To be honest, neither Monte or I are sure. But we all need to make some decisions. And when they wake up, so will Adam and Neil.”

_________________________________________________________



Harsh, white light wasn’t something his optical sensors were used to. He managed to close the shutter, expecting total darkness. He didn’t get it. The harsh light was gone, but a haze of dim red remained, indicating some sort of translucency. Puzzled, he opened his shutters again, though his processors seemed slow and were trying to piece together what had or was precisely happening.

Everything appeared fuzzy and when he turned his head to look, he could just make out indistinct shapes off to the side. There were muted repetitive sounds… possibly snoring, the only thing that broke the silence. Slowly the images resolved from fuzzy indistinct shapes into solid, crisp images. There was a man sitting beside him. Behind the man, he could see crumbling buildings of some kind. The architechture looked familiar but the name seemed just beyond the grasp of his processors

That left him puzzled again. Before he’d always been able to retrieve information as fast as he even conceieved the idea of it. Now, it felt like his processors barely had the required amount of virtual memory. He opened and closed his shutters rapidly for a moment before a peculiar sensation made itself known.

His physical sensors said that he was frowning. There was the pull of skin and muscles in tandem. He raised a hand slightly and looked at it. Long fingers, wide palm, with a faint smattering of freckles on the back. It was his hand, same as always. Slowly, he raised his hand to his mouth. There was that familiar pull of muscles and skin, working together like a system of levers and pulleys to do as he wished. The skin felt soft, like it had been pampered its entire life. Or like it was new.

When his fingertips brushed his mouth he found indeed that he was frowning. There were the curved lines at the side of his face along with the downward turn of lips. He drew his hand back and looked at it.

So far this was a very realistic simulation. A realistic function of his form. But the surroundings were the opposite, nothing familiar, no faces or things. Of course, if this wasn’t a simulation… the chance they had taken had been slim, but it had been worth it.

It was time to get some answers. To be sure.

He reached out and took the hand of the man beside him. The man didn’t jump, just started to reach behind his jacket for something. But when he looked down, he brought his free hand back forward, leaving it at his side.

“Date?”

His voice sounded like a soft croak. The man leaned in, wedging what looked like a rolled blanket against the wall. He didn’t say anything as the man gently raised him up and rested him against the blanket. A swath of blond hair fell forward, and he noticed the soft fuzz of closely shorn hair along one side of the man’s head.

“The what?” the man asked.

“Date.” He repeated.

“August 31st, 2897,” the man’s voice was quiet. “Can you tell me your name?”

“I’m Adam.”

He considered giving his program serial number, but if this was a test simulation to see how well he was running, then self-identification would undoubtedly be one of the criteria. Failing that test wasn’t an option, not if he wanted to avoid more code changes by Leila and Eber. He focused his gaze on the other man, taking in his blond hair and brown irises. The other man was meeting his gaze, eyes narrowing slightly as his mouth tightened.

Finally, Adam murmured, “Your name is…”

“Tommy. Tommy Joe, if you want to be more precise.”

Adam looked at him for a moment before looking around. Surrounded by ruins, and in the brilliant white light around them he could see someone else on a grav bed that was low to the ground. Three other people lay on the floor, fast asleep with blankets rolled up around them. There was something peculiar about the simulation that made his nose tickle. It made him think of old things, dusty and forgotten from long ago. Things he hadn’t really be able to quantify in one of the two senses he hadn’t really needed. If he had one of those senses now…

He looked past Tommy to the old buildings and felt something thud hard in his chest. It actually hurt a bit and he suddenly felt choked by the distinct sensation of something holding his torso immobile. Had it… surely it had… hadn’t it?

“Serial number.” He murmured again.

“What?” Tommy leaned in closer again. “You need –”

“What’s your serial number and program designation!”

The words were snapped and it was the loudest Adam had spoken since he’d been booted back up. Or since he… hell, the word he wanted to say was too terrifying and thrilling all at the same time. Tommy was giving him a thoughtful look. Then the hard expression on Tommy’s face vanished. He moved in closer to Adam, pulling his own blanket in closer around his shoulders. He took Adam’s hand again.

“My name is Tommy Joe Ratliff. I don’t have a serial number but my worker ID number was 3181522. My work designation was for factories. Manufacturing things like constructs and some machinery pieces. But you just have a name and a barcode. You’re Adam, formerly the Adam AI construct for Cowell Entertainment Industries. You, somehow, managed to escape.” As if he knew what Adam worried about, he added, “You’re in the real world, Adam. Not VR.”

Suddenly the sensation of something holding his torso immobile vanished. He took a deep shuddering breath. Felt the dust and scent of ruins fill his lungs and exhaled the mix of oxygen and carbon dioxide that was the singular by-product of respiration.

“I woke up,” A warm sensation spread through his body. A smile came to his face, though he couldn’t explain why. He gripped Tommy’s hand as tightly as he could. “I woke up.”

It felt so good to say that sentence. Tommy squeezed his hand back and suddenly Adam couldn’t help but marvel in the fact that he and Neil had beaten the odds and were functioning in reality. He looked down at his and Tommy’s hands, caught up in the sensation and not really wondering how he knew Neil came through the process safely too. His own skin was pale, blending in with Tommy’s skin but standing out from the freckles.

He looked back up at Tommy and hazy images flickered through his mind. Of a white room with plasma consoles. Of something sliding out of his throat and making him heave, the burn of stomach acid raw against his throat. Of some razor sharp clarity that was now dulled by the passage of time. There had been another man, with short brown hair and a kind expression. There had been something Adam had wanted to say then, something that had seemed terribly important, but it was gone from him now.

“Your voice sounds a little dry. Hang on a second.”

Adam watched as Tommy got up and walked over to a wall. He crouched down and rummaged for something before coming back over. The bright red package kept Adam’s attention when Tommy came back and stabbed a straw into it. Nothing was said as Tommy leaned in, placing the straw in between his lips.

“What am I –” Adam looked at the bag in puzzlement before he looked at Tommy.

“It’s a hydra-pack. Full of something or other. Keeps you completely hydrated for a full seventy two hours.” Tommy put the slipped straw back between Adam’s lips. “Just close your lips and inhale through your mouth. But slowly, very slowly.”

It took Adam a few tries. When he figured out the trick of simply breathing through his mouth and not his nose, he did as Tommy instructed. And for a moment he thought he did it wrong, nothing was coming. But then the bright red liquid splashed on his tongue and he spit the straw out in surprise. Tommy swore softly as a bit spilled onto Adam’s blanket.

Adam rolled his tongue in his mouth, spreading the taste around. Taste was the other sense his program hadn’t needed in VR. But now, there was the sensation of something wet in his mouth overlaid with something else he didn’t know how to identify.

Other things were becoming apparent, now that he started looking for them. The warmth of his body beneath his own blanket. The still harsh whiteness of the plasma light. Tommy was still swearing a bit, softly and under his breath, as he brushed away the spilled liquid. Adam felt the slight pressure and warmth of his hand as it dabbed quickly at the blanket resting over his leg. Adam could feel, could taste and –

“Okay, ready to try this again, without spitting it out?”

There was a tone to Tommy’s voice that stirred something in Adam’s mind. “Sally? Sam? …Sasha? …Terrence?”

“What? No,” Tommy looked concerned now. “Do you remember my name?”

“Tommy Joe,” Adam frowned. “You… just… you sounded like someone else I know… knew.” Adam frowned and shook his arms free of the blanket. “Hydra-pack.”

His arms felt oddly heavy and lethargic, like they weren’t responding fast enough for him. Tommy didn’t say anything though, simply placing the hydra-pack in Adam’s hands. Then he wrapped his hands around Adam’s and guided the straw to Adam’s lips once more.

Prepared this time, Adam sucked slowly. And when the splash of liquid against his tongue came, he let it fill his mouth. Swallowing was reflexive and before he even realised it, the liquid was sliding down his throat into his stomach. He steadily finished off the hydra-pack and then looked at the empty bag. It was silver now and flat and when he squeezed it gently, the material crinkled slightly.

“Plastic?” he ventured.

“Polymer phalate,” Tommy said. “Plastic derivative. Still thirsty?”

“No, thank you.” Adam leaned back against the wall. The rolled up blanket behind his back had shifted a bit, but it was still comfortable. “It’s been a week since we…”

Tommy finished for him with, “Since you two uploaded into bodies?”

“…It sounds impossible when it’s said,” Adam lapsed into silence for a moment. “Neil and I haven’t been too troublesome, have we?”

“Nah. We had to swipe some grav beds so we could transport you two more easily,” Tommy shrugged, pulling his blanket in closer again. “We’re down real deep in the Catacombs. The police never venture down further than level six usually, ten at the very most. We’re on level twenty six.”

A vague recollection came to mind, that the Catacombs were the ruins of older buildings beneath the surface of the current major cities of the United Southern States. He frowned, trying to remember what time period that had been, what year the buildings surrounding them could have been built.

“What’s wrong?” Tommy looked at him intently.

“These buildings are…” he scowled now. Information was much harder to bring up instantaneously.

“They look like military buildings, probably from about the late 22nd century. Maybe around the time of the Second Civil War, when the great United Southern States was formed.”

There was a familiar tone to Tommy’s voice. He heard it in Neil’s comments about the government, or rather the ‘sham of one’ as Neil was fond of saying. Distaste and sarcasm. A hard look settled on Tommy’s face and Adam elected to remain silent. Politics had never really been his thing. There were a few things he’d been programmed to know when he was in VR, and politics wasn’t among them.

A definite trend had happened in the information he had been looking up while in VR and capable of researching. Things pertaining more to culture. Individuals, music, fashion, sexuality… He gathered information on any and everything that he figured could shape a personality. Personalities. Individuality. That’s what was interesting. What made a person?

It was annoying to not be able to retrieve data on something instantaneously. Maybe he made a sound, shifted slightly, but Tommy was talking to him once more.

“Give it some time,” it looked like Tommy shivered slightly, “It might take a bit for everything to get working.”

Adam felt something that could only be surprise creep over his skin, like minute prickles. “How did you –?”

“Frustration is a surprisingly universal expression.”

Tommy’s tone was dry and there was a smile on his face. Warmth spread through him, though Adam wasn’t too sure if Tommy was trying to play a joke on him. But that’s what it felt like. A smile came to his face yet again and he said,

“Something similar happened to you when you got upgrades of some kind?”

The words weren’t meant to be mean, but Tommy stiffened up and his hand crept up to the back of his neck, rubbing in what could only be a nervous gesture. Adam was starting to think that relationships between people were much more complicated than he initially suspected. Or it could be that his brain was just starting to really operate. It might be a couple days before everything was running at optimal efficiency.

“I apologise. I didn’t mean to –”

“Fuck, what time is it?”

Adam looked over to see Neil stretching a bit and blinking as he slowly sat up. The muscles in his arms bunched and stretched easily, not betraying a single quiver. If Adam had to venture a guess, he’d say that Neil had been up for longer than him, probably on multiple occasions. He blurted out, “When did you wake up?” right when Tommy shrugged and replied, “2:30 in the afternoon.” Neil looked at both him and Adam before he huffed.

“Since Adam’s up now, maybe I should wake the others?” Neil glanced around. “You four had something to discuss with us apparently?”

Tommy nodded. “I’ll do it.”

Silence fell as Tommy got up, leaving the blanket piled on the ground. Adam watched him for a few seconds before he looked over at Neil. It was decidedly strange, Adam thought, to see a face that had been comprised of nothing more than ones and zeroes made into flesh and blood. Before Adam saw a face and a program. Now there was only Neil’s face, no shadow of information under his skin. Neil seemed more comfortable in his body and Adam really wondered how much longer he had been up for.

Nearly five days now.

A frown came to Adam’s face. Tommy was still going around, the sounds of the others waking becoming more audible. Neil was looking at him intently. Adam tilted his head, eyes narrowed a bit in confusion. Had Neil read his –

I think we’re linked up. Implants probably.’ A frown came to Neil’s face now. ‘That would be right up Fuller’s alley, make his products more efficient.

Only one part of that fully caught Adam’s attention. Implants? As if on cue, Neil tilted his head and tapped just above the corner of his jaw. Nestled there, nearly hidden by his curly hair were the thin fingers of the cybernetic starburst. But the single light in the middle was off and nearly blended in with its matte finish. So it was off and it wasn’t transmitting or receiving. Not that it could, but still better to be safe rather than sorry. Maybe he and Neil were on a private network of some kind and –

That’s what I suspect. I don’t know for sure. It could be –

“Oh, you’re up!”

The kind eyes from his memory came into his field of vision along with a smile. The person looked relieved and, unbidden, a name floated through Adam’s mind.

“…Kris?”

Those eyes widened and after a sharp inhale, “You remembered my name?”

Adam’s face clouded with confusion. It had to have been Kris who was there when he’d awoken. He felt a vague sense of urgency as he looked at Kris, but about what precisely, he couldn’t say. Kris was peering at his face, asking if he was okay.

“I’m fine.” Adam said easily.

His gaze went to where Tommy was talking animatedly to a man with a goatee. There was a frown on his face and he was gesturing emphatically with his hands in short, curt motions. A definite sense of something not being right settled on Adam.

Think about what we are for a second. Think about who they are.

Neil’s sarcasm was exactly the same when thought as it was in computer binary. Adam pulled a face, forgetting that Kris was still looking at him. Forgetting Kris wouldn’t know why Adam was making a face. There was concern in his eyes and suddenly Adam remembered when he first woke up in the ambiotic tube, the same concern marred by panic and anxiety. He shook his head slightly as a dull throb settled at the base of his neck.

“Katy,” Kris looked over his shoulder. “Can you come here a second?”

There was a murmur of assent and next thing Adam knew a short blonde woman was crouching down beside Kris. She dug out a light from somewhere and before Adam could ask, a brilliant beam was directed right at his eyes. He hissed and turned his head as he tried to swat it away. Then Katy asked,

“Headache, right? Neil had one too. Are you still thirsty? You’ve been asleep for a nearly a week now.”

Adam rubbed at his forehead. Figured he was out cold for a week and Neil had bounced back sooner. And as if on cue, Neil’s offended reply came back.

I wasn’t the one warbling songs in a catatonic state.’ Neil paused, before adding, with a darkly amused tone, ‘We should be thankful. If we both woke up at the same time this connection probably would’ve sent us over the edge. I’ve been setting up firewalls to keep things down to a minimum’ And that was probably putting it mildly, Adam knew. An easy description for a complex process that, before, they could translate instantaneously. Now there weren’t words for the process, Adam just knew.

It’s called gut instinct,’ Neil supplied. ‘We should have it. We used to be lines of code.

That. That was going to have to stop. Adam was disoriented and edgy enough without the commentary. Now, he could feel Neil’s response to that thought.

The sensation that washed through him made him feel antsy and with a definite need to express the feeling in some sort of physical manner. For some odd reason, all Adam could think was that a well-landed punch would make the feeling disappear for a bit.

He directed a glare at Neil. “I get it, okay?”

The words were harsh and short. Katy looked puzzled and drew back a bit. Adam felt his gut twist and something new left him feeling horrible. She had only been trying to help and –

“Both of you, back off. Give him some fucking space.”

Tommy’s voice was abrupt and when Adam looked up, there was the blond haired man looming with the still-present frown. Kris looked like he was about to protest but Katy simply touched him on the arm and drew him back. Adam watched as they retreated over to where Neil was. And Adam watched as Tommy sat down beside him again, not saying anything. The dull throb at the base of his head slowly disappeared in the easy silence. After a few minutes, the man with the goatee came over, crouching down as well.

“Hi Adam. I’m Monte,” his voice still sounded a bit rough. “I’d imagine you’re trying to make sense of this all.”

When Monte gestured to his body, Adam considered his words for a moment before nodding. “This body… there’s a lot of sensory input to process.”

“That’s true. But all of us will help you and Neil as much as we can. I don’t know precisely what the nanites were programmed to do, but so far you seem to be progressing at a slightly slower pace than Neil.”

“That because he’s not running his damned mouth all the fucking time,” Tommy flicked a glance over to where Neil was talking to Kris and Katy in low tones. “You watch and you respond to people. You’re soaking a lot in.”

For a moment, all Adam did was stare at Tommy in surprise. That had been in part of his programming, it’s what made him interactive. But it had been based on a set number of algorithms. Was he already developing past the former limits of his programming? Or could it even be called programming anymore? What did any of this –

“Whoa,” Monte peered into his face. “You gotta stop thinking so much. Your neural pathways are still solidifying. The nanites set them up, but you’re already straining them by thinking too much. Or thinking on something too puzzling. Don’t do much for the first two days or so.” A grin flitted across his face, “Try not to think.”

“Everything’s going to be slow at first. Just watch, stick to simple things,” Tommy gave him a smile again. “Take it easy and just be. It’s a luxury not many get. You’ll pick up soon enough.”

Adam nodded his head as he looked at Tommy. And suddenly, he found himself saying, “I like it when you smile.”

Like that, the same smile vanished from Tommy’s face in confusion. “Um… what?”

Monte raised his eyebrows in surprise but he remained silent. Tommy’s brown eyes focused in on Adam, intent and curious now. Personally, Adam was wondering what had prompted him to say something like that. But it was odd, since his mouth was working again and he didn’t know what prompted it or how to stop it.

“I like your smile. You look so happy when you smile. Maybe you should smile more…?”

Tommy’s jaw was hanging open a bit as he stared at Adam, pure confusion on his face. Apparently, Monte found something hilarious in the situation since he was barely muffling his laughter. He got up, saying something about checking on Neil before he left Adam and Tommy alone, fighting off a grin and coughing into his sleeve to cover his amusement.

All Adam knew was that his face felt like it was burning hot, ready to spontaneously combust in a nanosecond. But Tommy closed his jaw after a few seconds and then opened it again. But then he closed it, and Adam could clearly see him struggling with something.

“I’m sorry.” Adam said suddenly. How had this turned so awkward? It was like sitting through a buggy simulation with no task manager pop-up to close the process.

“No don’t be. Just… It’s…” Tommy trailed off, studying the plasma lamp for a moment before he looked back at Adam. “You’ve got a nice smile too.”

That warm feeling crept through Adam’s body again and a smile came to his face. “Thank you? I don’t know if I look like I did when I was in VR.”

“You do,” Tommy nodded. “Down to the last freckle,”

Adam blinked as Tommy reached out and barely touched his fingertips to the tops of Adam’s cheeks.

“It’s the same for Neil as well. And that’s partially why we need to figure out what you two want to do.”

Those last few words were said quietly but they were sobering. Adam stared at Tommy as he motioned for the others to come over. They came, sitting down easily. Neil looked relaxed, but Kris and Katy kept sneaking glances at him, as if to make sure for themselves that he was okay. Monte settled himself beside Tommy, arms resting easily on his knees. Somehow, Adam had a distinct impression that Monte wasn’t someone to be trifled with if someone he cared for was threatened.

“Okay Adam, what you and Neil need to know is that you’re the spitting image of your avatars,” Tommy began. “And –”

“We never spit.” Adam said. “I’m fairly sure that wasn’t in our programming.”

Monte coughed, though Adam was sure he detected a trace of amusement in there. “What Tommy means is that you look identical to you VR avatars. Even if you could somehow blend into one of the systems above, you two would stand right out.”

“Is there any way to write that off somehow?” Neil asked. “Can we claim that we had nanites do reconstructive surgery on us so we could look like our favourite programs?”

“I don’t think that would work,” Katy broke in. “Both you and Adam have barcodes on the back of your neck. Nothing, no one in the United Southern States has that, unless it’s a piece of property. That’s how Cowell Entertainment Industries sees you two.”

“Simon Fuller,” Monte’s voice was hard now. “He bought out Cowell Entertainment Indusries about a week before Adam and Neil uploaded into bodies. Technically, he’d consider you his property. And he doesn’t look kindly on perceived theft or threats.”

There was a grim, absent look on Tommy’s face and Monte seemed entirely different from the warm friendly man he’d seen only a few minutes ago. Kris and Katy both went pale at that. But Neil was watching Monte closely. Either he noticed, or somehow felt it since Monte met Neil’s gaze and didn’t look away. After a few silent moments, Neil nodded his head and broke the eye contact.

Adam felt entirely sure he’d just witnessed his first wordless conversation. Not that it made a shred of sense. Neil’s thoughts were quiet now, supplying no commentary in Adam’s mind. Adam did not try to access the network connection, but reminded himself to ask about that later. He wondered if Neil noted it too, suspecting Neil felt his curiosity. “So what options do we have?” he asked after a few seconds of thought. “Because the only obvious one I can think of would be to leave the United Southern States.”

“Doesn’t that make it the dangerous choice?” Kris looked around. “I mean, it is obvious. They’ll be expecting it, won’t they? Watching the borders?”

“Not necessarily,” Monte said. “But I’ve heard rumours of people who defected being brought back. Tommy and I haven’t been able to confirm it.”

That seemed to take Katy by surprise and when she spoke, her words were slow and considered. “Well, Kris and I are still planning on leaving, but we couldn’t just leave you two here like that. You would have practically been slaves.”

Tommy snorted, “Aren’t most of us anyways? Besides, we’ve done like you asked and sent a message to Monster.”

“And?” Katy pressed.

“Nothing when we last went up to the surface. And nothing on the Subvert.”

“Excuse me,” Adam interupted. “But suppose I elect to stay…?”

All eyes turned to him and Neil’s disbelief slammed into him from their neural network connection. Adam just looked back at them. Why run to a place if there was a chance of being dragged back here? It would probably be better to just stay put and hide out until it was safe. Neil’s face furrowed but before he could say anything, Tommy spoke up.

“It’s not safe for either one of you here. It’s not a matter of ‘if’ they find you, it’s a matter of ‘when’ and prison is bad enough for people who break the law. Defectors, well, all we know is that they end up in some military facility, nothing else,” he looked at Adam for a long moment. “For all we know, something worse will happen to you and Neil. You just gained your freedom. Don’t you think it’s worth the risk?”

That took Adam by surprise. He could see Monte and Tommy’s cybernetic links were disconnected and yet they had persisted in staying in the United Southern States for nearly a decade, if his memory was right.

“So what is keeping you here?”

Tommy’s face went blank as he shrugged. “Someone’s got to try, right?”

When Adam glanced at Monte, he got a hard look and a shake of the head. After a few moments, he tried again. “Where would Neil and I go?”

“Katy and I are going to try for the Free Republic of the North,” Kris piped up. “Why don’t you come with us? We can help you guys out –”

“Assuming we make it past the border and who knows how many checks,” Neil interrupted. “But the Free Republic of the North is our best bet, Adam. We sure as hell don’t want to go south to Mexa. They’re pretty much in bed with the United Southern States.”

Everyone was looking at him, and Adam could feel the dull throb start up again at the base of his head. What he wanted to do was look at Tommy and apologise again. But he settled for looking at his blanket and nodding his head. The sooner he made this headache go away, the better. He simply closed his eyes as he rested his head back against the wall. Try not to think.

More talking happened and Adam simply let it wash over him. Discussions of what precisely to do, when to do it, and a lot of speculation about someone or something called ‘Monster.’ He took a deep sigh and opened his eyes a bit. Tommy was looking at him, his expression curious and wary at the same time. Adam blinked a few times before he closed his eyes again and tried to not think about Tommy and his reactions either. He didn’t want to make his headache any worse.

_________________________________________________________



Something wasn’t right with this. She felt it down to her bones.

The security feeds showed nothing out of place until the very last hour before Leila and Eber Lambert had arrived at their lab for work as usual that Monday morning. And yet, she had picked up on Leila’s seditious thoughts. There was no doubt of them. Cam wasn’t a programmer by any means, but Leila’s thoughts had been clear and easy to pick up through the cybernetic link. Her strong sense of attachment to the programs, of wanting to protect them and simply do what was best for them.

Eber’s thoughts were more hazy and overridden by a definite sense of anger. Either Eber was smarter or simply so pissed off he literally wasn’t thinking straight.

And Cowell, well, he’d been good for virtually nothing.

She’d been given the barest of information – ‘Someone stole our blank android proptotypes’ – and was expected to give a report in two weeks’ time, detailing her progress. So far all she had were two angry and clueless programmers, an idiot CEO who was definitely hiding something, just over 8 hours of clearly tampered video feeds and absolutely no leads.

The problem was, Cowell was trained at hiding things, or she would have picked up on his secret. At least a hint of it.

She seriously wondered who was out to destroy her career. Her fingers tapped a steady, calm rhythn against the desk as she thought. For some reason, all Cowell had provided her with was lab footage. Everything had yet to be cleared for her. Paperwork moved more slowly than a crashing VR server sometimes, but this time she couldn’t tell what the reason was. Was it the standard slow pace of bureaucracy? Or was there a reason she wasn’t getting clearance?

Whatever the case,interviewing all the people who had been present at the building the night of the supposed robbery wasn’t something she was looking forward to in particular. But at this point it was about the only way she was going to pick up a lead.

If her superior thought she was dragging her feet on this, she’d whip out the Miller case on his sorry ass. She’d been hounded. Hounded and ended up producing an inferior investigation. This time before she went out digging she wanted to be damned sure of who her targets were, their possible motives, opportunities, and back-up plans.

It only took a moment to close her eyes and perform the rapid person search before she was up and out of her desk heading for the elevator.

The elevator ride down to the forensic department was silent and the whirr of constantly going fans greeted her when the doors opened. She easily walked through the desks, walking the familiar path until she spotted the person she needed.

“Magda,” Cam rested the palms of her hands on the desk, pushing her head through the plasma display. “Tell me you have something.”

Magda flicked her a look. “If you’ll kindly remove yourself from my screen so that I can finish…”

Cam didn’t say anything, but she stood back up, running her hands through her hair and feeling vaguely satisfied at irritating her friend. It always maddened the woman when limbs popped unexpectedly through her work, and Cam was going to take any amusement she could. Magda went back to work with an intent look on her face. The minutes ticked by and Cam thought she’d have to grab her friend and shake her but then Magda spoke.

“Got it. Alright,” Cam was already beside Magda’s side, an intent look on her face. “There’s a discrepency in one of the completed work orders for the night of the robbery.”

“Which? One of the last ones out?”

“No, acutally the very first one. Work order number 57930, for cleaning on Victory Day,” Magda reached up, touched some buttons. The screen zoomed out, while red circles appeared over the faulty information. “They suppposedly cleaned the lower floor labs, with white rooms.”

“Including the room where the theft happened.”

“Precisely. On the surface the work order looks fine, but here, the time discrepency is the first thing. It says they went in at 11:37 but they came out at 12:09? I’m sorry, but a floor with ten labs with additional white rooms, that’ll take you all night to clean.” Magda pointed to the field with names. “The second discrepency, the first truck to leave, number 412, it never made it back to the nearby vehicle depot it was supposed to go to. And finally, Topher Conway and Catherine Braden… well, they are in the worker database. However, Topher Conway works in a factory in Charleston and Catherine Braden runs a supply depot in the Gulf of Texas.”

“So who the hell was in there?” Cam muttered. “Is there any sort of identifying mark on the forged work order?”

“Oh, you’re going to love me,” Magda cracked her knuckles, not bothering to hide her smug tone. “There’s a bit of code that was attached to the file, instructing the computer to accept as is. It’s a good piece of hack, for something that was written on the spot.”

“And?”

“It’s got all the hallmarks of a hacker who goes by the name of Conway. Nice, neat, unusually precise. A bit sloppy towards the end, but that’s to be expected given how fast they were writing it.”

“Excellent,” Cam stood back up. “Can you have a copy sent to –”

“Already in your inbox,” Magda sat back and smirked a bit. “When the truck is located I’ll call you as soon as we’re done going over it. I accept full payment in the form of caffeine or honest to goodness food.”

“What, do I look like I’m made of credits?” a grin came to Cam’s face as she started walking away. “How about a meal pack? Almost like the real thing.”

“Holding you to that!” Magda called.

The grin lingered until Cam got back onto the elevator. She finally cut a break. A slim one, but an honest-to-goodness break, and she might actually get somewhere. The security guard was the hinge on possibly breaking this case for a lead. But there was no way that she was sending out the request over the cybernetic network. It was one thing to see a request and entirely another thing to see an actual face making the request. She figured that was the only reason why there had been a prompt response from the team out by Cowell Entertainment Industries. That and her stoic expression in the face of the team’s attempted joke.

When the security guard was brought into the interrogation room, she was there and waiting. Historically speaking, Cam was sure that interrogation rooms had remained the same since… well, as far back as she could tell. Standard grey walls and a simple metal chair and table, nothing more and nothing less. She fixed her gaze on the security guard and let the visual recognition software do its stuff. After a moment, a name appeared in the bottom left corner of her gaze.

“Sit, Mr. Greene,” she made a slight motion to the chair. “Should you co-operate fully, there should be no problems.”

“Of course,” he sat, though Cam was getting nervousness and puzzlement from him. “What do you need?”

Cam didn’t answer right away, simply walking to her seat. On the back of the man’s neck, she caught the glint of a port. Interesting, since he was simply a security guard. She sat down in the only other chair, opposite from the man. His file was nothing presupposing. Taylor Greene, twenty six years old, worked on security during the day and moonlighted as a performer for Cowell Industries as well.

“Mr. Greene, how long have you been a security guard for Cowell Industries now?” Cam rested her arms on the table and linked her fingers together.

“Almost six years. I was on patrol details for almost the entire time. I was only recently switched to another detail,” he looked at her for a moment. “Call me Taylor. Mr. Greene isn’t for me.”

So far, this was all matching up with what they knew. Cam didn’t make any visbile response to his last few words though. “And you also work as a performer for the same company?”

Taylor nodded. “I was one of the backup dancers for the Adam program. I took the job to help one of my friends out.”

A list of names flickered in her lower right field of vision. Sasha, Terrence, Brooke… but other than the Adam program, there was nothing else linking them. She might have to do some more background investigating into Taylor. One of them might have stumbled across something that could explain where the Adam program had disappeared to. There was no doubt in her mind that the disappearance of the Adam program and the android bodies were connected somehow.

“Hm, what can you tell me of the night of August 23rd, 2987?”

Taylor blinked and looked surprised but he spoke. “Um, well, I arrived for my shift. Nothing really happened and the first cleaning crew left just after midnight. A man and a woman. They had two grav beds with cleaning supplies…”

He trailed off, a frown coming to his face. Through the cybernetic link, Cam picked up on hazy images. The grav beds in question, frosted privacy screens up with misshapen silhouettes underneath. There was a man, but Taylor’s memory didn’t recall him clearly enough. But the woman, Taylor remembered her well. Blonde hair, clear skin, blue eyes, about five foot six. Cam’s cybernetic device quickly linked into Taylor’s and captured the image before disconnecting.

“And?” Cam prompted as her visual recognition ran the image.

“I just found out the other day that all cleaning supplies for white room labs are on the same floor, like a little cleaning depot. So why were they leaving with full grav beds?” Taylor rubbed at his forehead with his fingers. “And they supposedly signed in early. But when a shift changes, the next one is informed if anyone checked in. Mikhel didn’t say anything. So how did they get in?”

For a moment, Cam felt a surge of triumph as the visual recognition software finished its run and the small alert flashed in her field of vision. She dismissed it for now with a thought, and the large icon shrank down to the lower center of her visual field. She thought back to the section of de-electrified fence they’d found and the tampered security cameras that had shown a clear path to the office where the theft occurred.

All the evidence pointed to the simple fact that this was a planned job right from the very start. It made it even more galling to Cam.

“I assure you, we’re looking into every possible avenue. You’ve been most helpful,” Cam rose and headed for the door as she said dryly, “Taylor. Should we need your assistance with anything else, I’ll be sure to contact you.”

Taylor got up from his seat, looking fairly confused. “That’s it? Nothing else?”

“Nothing else,” Cam opened the door. “An officer will take you back to your housing block.”

Silence fell in the room as Taylor left. Cam closed the door and activated the small icon she’d dismissed earlier. A file appeared in her field of vision. The picture was exactly the same, even if the woman looked thoroughly unimpressed. A list of charges appeared as well. Small stuff, like breaking and entering into small places, disseminating anarchist material in VR. It was more than enough to bring her in and interrogate her. She’d already been positively identified from Taylor’s memories.

“Katy O’Connell,” Cam murmured to herself. “Now all I have to do is find her.”

_________________________________________________________



Electric Sheep - I || Electric Sheep - III





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