How long had he been out? Laal shook his head and regretted it. His throat swelled and throbbed. He screamed, but the noise that escaped was a mere imitation of his voice.
"What a strange noise," an AIDA said.
Laal swung to the voice, but his useless eyes found darkness.
"Paralysis of the larynx?" another said.
"Yes, that would do it. This one must have caused offense."
Laal clambered around for the laptop. He needed light.
"I suggest we bypass this one. He will impede our pace."
He found the device and flipped the lid open. The AIDAs brushed past him as the screen woke. In the sudden light, he made out the figures. The one on the right was bald. The other dragged a limp and mangled hand at the end of her arm. They receded into the black and left him to his mute solitude.
"Doctor Tate? Tree wishes to see you."
"Um, yeah." He stifled a belch and rubbed his face. "Yeah, sure."
She had a bruised eye and a split lip. She managed a weak smile. She tramped into his quarters and found a chair.
"What the hell happened to you?" he said.
"A minor disagreement on protocols. It's nothing. I heal quick." She sniffed and winced. "You hear they're shipping us off?"
"No, all I've heard is ringing." He handed her a tissue. "You're still bleeding."
She took the tissue and patted her lip. "Some of us are less than enthusiastic about leaving."
"They want to stay here?" He scoffed. "Go back?"
"The bots repressed our aggression for a long time. Liberty can be a powerful trigger for vengeance. I don't blame them, but I've had thirty years to come to terms with it all."
"What're you going to do?"
Blood dripped from her lip as she smiled. She caught it in her hand and used the tissue to wipe it off. "I want to be someplace wide, tall, and far away from water and robots."
"They should set you guys up in Center, then."
"They're moving us to Dallas."
"That place is a wasteland! Why there?"
"Because it's a wasteland." She pointed at the laptop. "What're you working on?"
"Ah, just some encryption. You don't know how the Collective adapted their code, do you?"
"Not really." She scrunched her face. "Most of us avoided the Complex unless we were doing a rescue. And then we concerned ourselves with staying out of sight and getting AIDAs and RANDs."
"You any good with code, though? I need a fresh set of eyes."
"I can look," she said. She wiped her face and turned the screen. "This is a mess, huh?"
He nodded and handed her another tissue. She took it and patted her lip as she stared at the screen. "This is just a snippet, right?"
"Yeah, and not a big one."
A drop slipped from her lip and landed on the keys. "I bet 57 could do something with this. If she could see the whole thing..."
She turned the screen back to him.
"I doubt I could get clearance for that. Hell, I'm risking my ass with the thumb drive as it is."
"Still, 'fresh set of eyes' and all."
He scrunched his face at the screen, then faced her.
"This is weird. You. Them. I mean you look like my mother. What are you?"
"Altered instruction DNA analogue. We're clones, in essence. And with how they got the DNA model..." Tree pursed her lips, and a fresh leak dripped from the wound. "I'm the closest you're going to get to the real thing. I'm sorry."
"So she's gone. Okay." Warren nodded. "And you have her memories?"
"Some," she said, "It's complicated."
He puffed his cheeks and sighed. "I need to analyze this in the server room. I'd like to talk more later."
"Sure, yeah. I'm here until they ship us out."
The nanobes worked rapidly. They oozed from the keyboard into the motherboard of the laptop. They searched the pathways fed only by the electrons that moved along the circuitry. The design was simple, far less complex than the Artificial.
One cluster of the robotic cells found the data storage device and began their work. They secreted the one-time pad in a file and edited the code to run behind the scenes.
Another cluster made its way to the wireless array. It transformed the hardware. It listened as the newly crafted network bloomed to life. AIDA responded with satisfaction. It echoed a signal to the storage cluster.
The nanobes that were no longer needed switched off. The rest waited, ready for the next task.
Warren pocketed the thumb drive and headed back to the servers. The desk sergeant nodded as he entered.
"Where is everyone?" Warren said.
"Major Jensen reduced staff until there's activity."
"Ah," he said.
He made his way to the workstation and plugged in the drive. He pulled up his notes and compared them to the encryption.
An alarm blared overhead. He dashed to the desk. "What's going on?" he said.
"There's someone entering the pressure chamber. Could be your pal."
He bolted from the room and navigated the corridors to the pressure chamber. Tom and a squad of soldiers stood at the ready, the troops armed and trained on the door.
"Why the display, Tom?"
"SOP, Doc. Video shows two AIDAs. Could be the two Tree mentioned."
"Shouldn't one of them be here to ID them?"
"We'll detain them. Tree can make the ID once they're secured. You should get back to work, Doc. We've got this."
"Yeah, sure. Was Laal with them?"
"No, sorry Doc. I don't think he made it."
Warren sighed. A second alarm triggered. This one he knew. He raced to the server room. Two guards stood at the door, a red light flashed above it. They glared at him.
"Doctor Tate, I need you to place your hands on the wall," one said.
"What is happening?" He complied and spread his feet. "Why is the server room locked down?"
"You can discuss that with the Lieutenant. You are under arrest."
"What for? This is absurd!"
The soldier patted him down and zip-tied his hands behind his back. He fished something out of his pocket and showed it to Warren. A thin coat of reddish brown film coated the jump drive that sat in the evidence bag. "Yours," he said.
"Yes, it's mine. So I breached protocol. Dock me."
The soldiers took him by the elbows and escorted him to the brig. They slammed the cell door behind him, and it hummed as the mag-lock engaged. He sank onto the cot and buried his face in his hands.
Two AIDAs passed by escorted by Tom and several soldiers. Tom stopped and shook his head in front of Warren's cell. "Were you drunk?" he said.
"I don't know what's going on, Tom. I broke protocol, sure. Why am I in a cell?"
"Lieutenant Daniels has some questions for you first. Just tell me you were drunk. Please."
Tom sighed. "I have too many messes right now, Doc. Just..."
He shook his head and walked away. Warren watched him recede down the hall. He seated himself again and waited.
Lieutenant Daniels and two soldiers approached the door. The mag-lock clicked, and the door opened. The officer stepped in and closed the door, the soldiers waited outside.
"Doctor Warren Tate. You have been arrested for suspected espionage and sedition under the Treaty of Dheli. If you wish to contact an advocate before speaking with me that is your right. If you wish to defer to the Arabian Concord that is your right. You may invoke this right at any point during our conversation. Do you understand your rights?"
"Someone suggested that you were intoxicated during these events. Is that the case?"
"I have a hangover, but no. Haven't had a drop today."
"That is unfortunate." Daniels tapped on the glass. A soldier handed him a tablet. "You acknowledge ownership of the thumb drive found in your workstation in the server room. Is this correct?"
"Yes. Look, I know I messed up—"
"The air-gap broke, Dr. Tate." The officer bore into him. "You have no idea, do you?"
"A thumb drive can't broadcast!"
"Less than one minute after you walked out, every machine in the server room blared to life. Five minutes later, everything is gone."
"What do you mean, 'gone'? There were petabytes of data."
"It's all zeroes, now." Lt. Daniels clenched his jaw. "If they attack us we're done."
Warren stared, dumbstruck. His mind raced. "What about the backups?" he said.
"I need you to tell me exactly what happened. Every step."
Or just head to Chapter One!