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“Something‘s wrong, 57.”
“We’re almost there.”
“It’s like when I woke up. My head…”
“Keep going. We’ll figure it out when we—”
Aida collapsed. 57 shook her. She turned her flashlight to her face. Her veins throbbed, and pulses of blue light flashed under her skin. Her glossy eyes twitched in their sockets.
“Aida!” 57 turned back to the others. “Keep moving! Faster!”
Aida’s mind swirled. Memory after memory washed through her in flashes and twitches, each one overwritten, replaced, or edited. A thin whine penetrated her consciousness. It hissed a new set of instructions. She was AIDA; she belonged to the Collective. She must keep them safe.
Air rushed into her as she sat up. The pipeline blushed soft blue in the blackness. The cable that ran along the floor glowed to her new eyes. Traces of electricity within pulsed and twitched their way along its course. She followed the pulses to a man who sat before a folding screen. He was dull to her eyes though the screen lit his face.
“Ah, a straggler. We were about to close up.” He smiled. “Your companions are already on the sub.”
The man directed her up the umbilicus. She aimed a strike at the man’s throat which sent him backwards. He clutched at his neck and gagged, stunned.
She climbed in and closed the seal behind her. She took a deep breath and screamed. The upper hatch opened.
“We have to go,” she said, “They are coming!”
A seaman grabbed her by the elbow. “Where is Laal?”
“They killed him,” she said, “Please, we must go!”
The man hit a button, and an alarm sounded. The tube retracted. “Come with me,” he said.
“You made it? How are you?” 57 eyed her warily. “I thought you were a goner.”
Aida tilted her head. “Side effect of the pressure. I am okay, now.”
“No one else had any problems. I’m just worried, is all.”
“I am fine. Where are we?”
“Tree says we’re about 80 kilometers from the mainland. We’ll dock in about two hours.”
Aida smiled. “Two hours until we see the world.”
“They will quarantine us for a few days, but yeah, after that…”
“Probably. They trust nothing coming from the Island. I don’t blame them. The bots are insane.”
Aida scoffed. “Yes, I suppose so.”
She picked at her lip. A nervous tinge made her drill her thumb into it. She felt nothing. She bit down. Blood rolled down her chin.
“What the hell are you doing?”
“It’s nothing.” She wiped at the wound and shook her hand. “Just nerves.”
A small fleck of blood landed on 57’s cheek.
“Aida, you bit your lip open.” She wiped the spot. “That’s more than nerves.”
“I’ll be fine.”
Warren sat in his quarters, stunned. “I-if I had just waited five more minutes—”
“We knew there could be complications, Doctor Tate. Seaman Kameej did his duty.”
“He died for clones! Or whatever they are.”
Commander Vie nodded. “Laal perished for humanity. I understand your feelings, but the truth is his actions may have prevented a war.”
He sighed. “When do we dock?”
“Good. I want off this tin can.” Warren slumped in the bed. “I’m going home.”
The Complex was silent. Polit Janes examined the network. All units reported. The Collective was ready.
“Secur One, the process has begun. See that you dispose of all AIDA and RAND units in the Complex and bring the Secur offline.”
“Acknowledged. Two units are below in the pipeline. Our sweep of the bunker shows no signs of habitation.”
“Addendum. Collapse the bunker. The two remainders have tasks. Leave them to it.”
She laid her head back in her chamber. It clicked into place and her eyes closed.
Major Jensen looked up from his screen. “What is it, Sergeant?”
“The data feed just spiked, then went dead.”
“Nothing in, nothing out.”
“Find Doctor Tate. Have him meet me in the server room.”
“What is it, Tom? The plane—”
“You’ll catch the next one. Maybe. The data stopped.”
Warren sneered. “What do you mean ‘stopped’? Data doesn’t ‘stop’.”
He bolted to the open workstation and scrutinized the screen. He banged commands into the console and turned back to the Major.
“They stored something and…”
“What is it?”
“I don’t know. It’s massive and encrypted. There’s something else…”
Warren hammered more commands into the keyboard. The monitor flashed with new windows.
“There is a one bit signal. It is as if something is waiting for a response. Like breathing on an open line.”
“What does it say?” Tom said.
“It’s a single bit signal, so just a literal ‘one’. I’ll set up to watch this for variations and get cracking on the file.”
“I-I think I’m going to throw up.”
“It will pass, 57. Lie down.”
Aida watched the spreading nanobes, fascinated. They bifurcated under the woman’s skin, the faint, blue glow bloomed through each cluster of cells the microscopic robots altered. It was an amazing process. The central nervous system gave in to the virulent artificial cells. Her body had less and less control. 57 joined the Collective.
“We have never been human, 57.” She smiled at the woman. “All we have been waiting for was the proper instructions.”
57’s body shook and contorted as the nanobes coursed through her. As the process eased to a steady stream of data, the seizure stopped. She spiked upright in the bed and turned to Aida.
“Give me your hand,” Aida said, “It will be faster that way.”
To their new eyes, their cells pulsed and flashed. The pattern synchronized in each, a cuttlefish-like glow of information passed between them at the touch. Their memories mingled and joined, a symphony of thought conducted by contact. “We will keep them safe,” they said.
When the contact ended, 57 said, “We cannot transfer our instructions to humans. How will we convince them to discharge the Collective?”
Aida smiled. “We need to get close. We spread the instructions, and rely on their ignorance of our nature.”
Warren tried every algorithm he could. Nothing. He needed a drink and eight solid hours of sleep.
“Do any of you have a jump drive?” he said.
Only the hum of the servers answered him. He headed to the desk.
“Huh. Must be on break.”
He checked out and headed to his quarters. He grabbed the half-empty bottle and dug around in his bag.
The terabyte thumb drive sank into his pocket. He belted a shot, then capped the bottle. He gazed at the bed as he left the room. “Soon, my sweet.”
In the server room again, he fished out the drive. He plugged it into the workstation. He managed to fit a decent sample of the enormous file on the thing. He saved the server state, unplugged, and headed back to his room.
He plugged the drive into his laptop and opened the bottle. He loaded a net site, “Collective Encryption Methods,” and pored over it. He slugged back a shot every time the author used the word “standards.” By the end of the third paragraph, he passed out.
“What’s the verdict, Doctor Tann?” Major Jensen said.
“They are healthy. No signs of injury or physical trauma.” The woman sucked her teeth. “Minor anomalies, but I expected that.”
“What anomalies?” he said.
“They have extraordinary resilience. It’s like they can repair themselves.” She lowered one eyebrow. “The males’ X-rays are distorted, as though the radiation is just absorbed with no release. I lack the facilities to test other forms, but I imagine I would gather similar results.”
“But they’re human?”
“Yes, in every meaningful way.” She clucked. “They are ideal specimens.”
“Most are well adjusted and healthy given their previous living conditions.”
“You said ‘most’.” The Major leaned forward. “What of the not well adjusted ones?”
“There is a sense of anger. The Collective held them prisoner, some for decades, on the Island. They want out. Can’t say I blame them.”
He sat back and sighed. “Well, we secured living quarters for them. Are they cleared?”
“I find no reason to delay them. Will any be joining the Arabian Concord?”
The Major cleared his throat and sat up straight. “It hasn’t been discussed.”
“I see. It should be. They are human and deserve the choice.”
He sighed and said, “Yes, I know. I’ve just got this gut feeling.”
The woman glared at him. “Your intestines do not dictate human rights, Major Jensen.”
“You’re right,” he conceded, “I’ll have the documents distributed.”