“And we’re certain this is legitimate? If we act on it—” President Williams said.
“That was my first instinct, ma’am. It’s human.”
Ava picked up her glass. She gazed at the liquid. She sighed. “We can’t keep a lid on this.”
The general raised his eyebrow. “Understood,” he said.
She set her tumbler on the desk and rose to shake his hand. He stood to greet the handshake. “I’ve got someone who needs to go over this before I bring it to the World Council. You have a week,” she said.
“Until then, ma’am.” He fired off a quick salute and left the office. “Get me Colonel Sanchez,” he said into his phone.
The door closed behind him and she retrieved her glass. She belted the rest and reached for the desk phone. “Lydia, I need a detail. Priority one.”
“Yeah, yeah. I’m coming.”
Doctor Tate opened the door. He could see his grizzled form reflected in the two agents’ sunglasses. He tightened the towel around his waist. “Um, hi.”
“We’re okay, guys. Thanks. Go be inconspicuous,” Ava said.
“If I had known you were coming, I would have put on pants.”
“We need to talk, Warren.”
He moved aside and gestured inward with his free hand. She skirted past, and he closed the door.
“What does the leader of the North American Union want this fine hangover?”
She slid a pizza box over and sat. “There is someone on the Island.”
“The Collective are not poppets, Warren. This isn’t them. There’s something in the signal.”
“Anomaly. ID-10-T error. Rats gnawing on a wire.”
“For 25 years?” she said, “In English?”
He balked, no words escaped.
“Look, Warren, I know you still feel guilty. Your mother made it. She’s joined the Arabian Concord, or—”
“I need to analyze the data. There has to be another explanation. It can’t be human.”
“Do you keep an air gap?”
He glared at her.
She handed him a thumb drive. “We have a week before it comes out.”
“You’re bringing it to the Council?”
“I have to. Europe is still fuming after that mess with the APN.” Ava stared at her hands. “It’s volatile. But if we can prove humans are on the Island...”
Warren toyed with the drive. He headed for the kitchen. “I’ll buzz you.”
He heard the front door open and close. The smell of coffee grounds drilled into his brain and cleared the fog. He waited for the pot to fill, poured himself a cup, and headed upstairs.
He hid a backdoor in the design. One could tuck a text file into the payload of a ping. He wanted his mother to have a means to make contact. In the five years he worked at Island Observation, she never did.
He didn’t blame her. She’d gone there because her work was illegal everywhere else. The Island leaped from man-made isle to a sovereign nation. They decriminalized everything and the ultra-wealthy flocked to its sanctity. Most indulged in debauchery. His mother chose the mad scientist path.
Humanity didn’t need her advances. He left her when the war came. She continued, obsessed and insane.
Denizens of the Island didn’t care. She continued her work, twisting the human genome to her will. When the truce reshaped the world, the Arabian Concord welcomed the Island’s citizens. A blanket pardon was a peaceful means to evacuate the Island. Most took the arrangement, but others disappeared, his mother among them.
Maybe Ava was right, and she’d gone into hiding. Someone was using his backdoor. And unless his mother picked up a pop-culture habit, it was not her.
Each message contained references to movies or TV shows. The recent message made him laugh. It read, “We are here! We are here! We are here!”
Doctor Tate stumbled into the crisis room. His hair was a rat’s nest, his shirt untucked, and he was sure there was a mustard stain on his pants leg. The assembly stared at him as he walked to the screen. “Thank you for joining us, Doctor. We were discussing--”
“I can buy us time. I think I know how to contact them without getting the Collective’s attention. At least, we can let them know we hear them.”
“How long will it take?”
“If I’m on site at the collection point, I can have it set up within an hour, but how long it takes for them to respond is…”
“How does that buy us time? The press is going to rail us for this. If it comes out we’re risking another war with...”
“I am sending a file across the ping signal.” Warren pressed a button on the remote and a technical display appeared on the screen. “The ping protocol allows for a payload on send. Adding it on the return is more tricky.”
“You think our people can’t handle it?” the general sneered. “Do you even have clearance? Who is this clown, Ava?”
“He has clearance, General Pounds. And he built the system.”
Warren hated flying. Commercial was bad enough with its tiny seats and high population. Military flights were far worse. Still, at least they weren’t still using the C-130s of his grandfather’s stories. Those things sounded awful.
The soldier next to him jabbed him in the ribs. “Civie?” she said.
“Huh. We don‘t get contractors on this run. Geek stuff?”
“Been out here before?” she said.
“A couple times, yeah.”
“My third rotation. It’s boring, but it beats the city.”
“Don’t suppose they serve booze on this flight?”
She laughed and said, “Nope. Canteen has beer and stuff. It’s a two-hour drive for liquor. Hope you brought benzos.”
“Welcome back to Island Observation, Doc.” The Major reached out to shake his hand. “How was the flight?”
Warren shook the man’s hand. “More talkative than I prefer.”
“To business, then. Someone will take you to your quarters, then we can get busy.”
“Unless there’s a liquor cabinet in there, I’d rather get started, Tom.”
“I’ll see if I can’t find you something, Doc,” Major Jensen said.
Warren gestured for him to lead the way. They made swift progress to the server room. At the guard station, he logged his phone, laptop, and tablet. The guard placed everything in a metal box and buzzed them into the room.
“How long will it take, Doc?”
“I have most of the code written.” He pulled a sheet of paper from his pocket. “Just have to copy it and tweak it. Maybe an hour?”
“Is the workstation ready, Sergeant?” Tom said.
“Yes, sir. Far end of the room as requested.”
Warren said, “Thanks. I’ll get to it.”
He made his way past the rows and columns of massive servers. Every so often he got blasted by cold air from above. He found the desk and sat. The paper would not stay flat so he pushed one end under the keyboard and got busy.
He was nostalgic for this antiquated machine. Modern devices could handle much more at higher speeds, but they were too intuitive. He loved the clunky keys, the low resolution screens, and the hum of the fans.
The modern stuff had advantages, but he didn’t trust it. The Collective designed some of the tech; he was always suspicious. It would pass every test out there and he would still insist on caution. It would be more simple to send the code from his laptop, but that would breach the air gap between the Island’s servers and humanity.
He would never let that happen again.