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“You wanted to see us?” 57 said.
“Yes. I need someone to do a signal run.” Tree looked up at them from her screen. “New kid needs to get her hands dirty. You’re it.”
“Okay,” she said.
“I expected flack.”
“Nah, she’s picking things up crazy fast. Besides, a day near the beach is always fun, right?”
“Excellent. Here’s the data.” She handed her a slip of paper.
“Got it. Come on, Aida.”
Aida followed her through the bunker. They passed through the large metal door and headed towards the earthen tunnels. It took a few turns for Aida to get lost.
“How extensive are the tunnels?” she said.
“They run for miles, rigged to collapse if you go the wrong way.”
“Why do that?”
“The designers were nuts. They built them for the apocalypse. Hide from zombies or something. Dumb stuff.”
“You need to watch better movies. Check out the horror section later,” 57 said. “We’re here.”
She shined her light up the ladder. She climbed up and inched the hatch open. Satisfied, she opened it the rest of the way and climbed out. She helped Aida out and put a finger to her lips.
They stood at the edge of a clearing. In the center was a plain cement dome with a metal door. 57 focused on something else. Aida looked and said, “What is it?”
“Drones. They’re far off, but still. Let’s go.”
A broken padlock secured the door. 57 pulled it off and entered. The building was a single room, dedicated to a workstation walled by tall servers. Someone set these on risers which kept them a few inches from the floor. Beneath the standing work station was a heavy gauge mesh drain.
“We call this the ‘data center’.” 57 strode over to the screen, took out the slip of paper, and typed. “This should get someone’s attention.”
“What’s it say?”
“It’s a movie reference. Don’t worry about it.”
57 smiled. Something caught her eye. She clicked a file that appeared on the screen. She turned back to Aida, her mouth agape.
“Nothing’s wrong. Somebody heard us,” she said. “We have to get back. Now.”
She closed everything and bounded through the door. They bolted for the clearing edge. In the tunnel, 57 laughed.
“What is funny?” Aida said.
“You get to the Dr. Seuss stuff yet?”
“Man, that screen is a waste on you.” 57 clapped her on the shoulder. “You need monsters and cartoons. Let’s go. Tree will get a giggle from this.”
“What now, Doc?”
Warren had an exhausted grin. “Now, Tom, we wait. Where are those quarters?”
“Sir,” Sergeant Tannis said. “We got another one.”
“What’s it say?” Warren said.
“Life finds a way.”
“Huh. That’s the third reference to that movie they’ve made.”
“Thank you, Sergeant. Get back to it.” The Major looked at Warren. “What are you thinking?”
“Well, I doubt they’re making dinosaurs. I don’t know, Tom. I need sleep. Or bourbon. Or both.”
Tree looked up from her screen as they walked in. “You got back quick,” she said.
“Someone heard us, Tree.”
Tree stared at 57, stunned. “You’re certain?”
“Ping back read ‘Horton hears you’.”
“What about the drones?” Aida said.
Tree’s brief joy dissolved. “What drones?”
“We saw drones flying, near the coast and heading north.”
“Damn.” Tree fidgeted with the arm of her chair. “Next team needs three. Spotter, runner, and data.”
“What, right now?”
“Yes. Bring Red. She’s lightning on a keyboard. You can spot. Who’s your runner?”
57 jammed a thumb at Aida. Aida pointed at herself and shook her head. “I am lost in the tunnels, even with a guide.”
“Then you spot, and I’ll run. Let’s go get Red.”
The trio climbed out of the tunnels with Red in the lead. She crouched, and the others followed suit. “Aida, find a spot over there. You signal 57 if you see anything.”
Aida nodded and made her way around the clearing. She found a spot with a vantage of the building. 57 waved at her and gave her a thumbs up. Aida searched the skies above the trees and returned the gesture. Red dashed to the building and disappeared.
Her vigil was dull. She watched the sky then checked for 57. They exchanged thumbs ups several times. The sky grew black. She heard rumbling in the distance. She looked at 57. The other gave her a thumbs up.
A bright flash lit up the sky followed by a deep clap. Aida jumped and ran across the clearing, panicked. 57 stared at her, shocked. The sky flashed again.
“What is this?” she said. “Are we being attacked?”
57 shook her head. “Lightning. It can’t get to us here. Go back and keep watch.”
Another flash sparked above the clearing. The tendrils of lightning cascaded along an unseen barrier. Aida kept her eyes on the spot as she made her way back to her post. The storm raged on outside the barrier.
She looked at 57 and flashed her the thumbs up. 57 was pointing behind Aida, her face twisted in fear. Aida looked back. She turned back to 57. The woman signaled, “get low.” She went prone and waited.
Between peals of thunder, a high-pitched whir caught her attention. 57 shouted, she looked up at her. The woman waved her arms and shouted, then ducked deeper into the trees. The whir moved away, towards 57’s location. Aida saw the drone scanning the tree line. It moved further away.
Aida took her chance and bolted for the building. Once inside, she shut the door and panted against it.
“What’s wrong?” Red said.
“Drone,” Aida said. “57 is leading it off.”
“Damn. I need a runner.”
“I don’t know the tunnels.”
“Can you type?”
“Show me what to do.”
The cracks of thunder had dulled, and the storm passed. Aida read the files as they arrived. Questions for which she had no answer dominated the contents. She replied, “I don’t know.”
“How many are you?” the next file read.
“30+ more in complex,” she returned.
“The pipeline won’t sustain.” Another file appeared. “Have to split small groups.”
“Not sure. 10 at a time max.”
She heard a hum.
“Drone. Must hide. Return when safe.”