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Warren vomited. Submarines were far worse than airplanes, he decided. They informed him that this one was luxurious compared to the NAU subs. Let's not find out.
He rinsed his face and headed to the comm, making sure he banged his shins on every door frame he crossed. Engineers did not design submarines for hungover computer nerds.
“Doctor Tate, welcome. You are ill?”
“Ah, no. My first time.”
“Oh, yes. It can be disconcerting. We will arrive in fifteen minutes. Seaman Kameej will guide you.”
“Thank you, Commander. Wait, guide me where?”
“You are communicating with the Island from the pipeline, yes?”
“I can do that from here.”
“No, you must connect directly. We are on the edge of violating the truce as is. They allow two humans, maintenance connection only, and no diversion of the data stream.”
“Well, that blows,” Warren huffed.
“Let us hope not. Laal? Please take Dr. Tate to the umbilicus.”
The seaman snapped to attention. “Madam.”
“Okay, Doctor. The umbilicus attaches to the pipeline, then we enter. Once we’re in the pipe, the data port is in the center.” Laal pointed his finger at his palm. “From there, you can close off the mainland facing section of the pipe. This will keep pressure steady on the Island side.”
“So we aren’t pressurizing the whole pipe. Gotcha.”
“Yes. Are you ready?”
“I’m wearing my fancy diving suit. You realize if we need this, the pressure will kill us at once, right?”
“I don’t make the rules.” Laal smiled and wiggled his head. “But these suits are comfortable once you get accustomed to them.”
“So it‘s a passive aggressive boyfriend. Got it. Let’s get on with it.”
Laal guided the umbilicus into place. It latched and sealed, and he opened the hatch. “After you,” he said.
Warren climbed down and waited for the seaman. “We good?” he said.
“Yes. You can open the pipeline.”
As he turned the seal a hiss emitted. The pressure shifted. His ears stuffed, and he yawned. The pressure leveled, he spun the handle, and pulled open the hatch.
He clicked on his head lamps and climbed into the pipeline. He ducked over to the data port. Laal thudded to the ground behind him.
“Here,” Laal said, “You’ll need this.”
The seaman handed him a short cable. He plugged it into his laptop, then the data port. The screen blinked to life.
“After the security handshake, select ‘maintenance’ and you can seal us off.”
“Oh good. A five minute squawk-fest.”
“Yes, it is pretty ridiculous, but it prevents both sides from doing anything nefarious without warning.”
“Yeah, sure,” Warren said, “I’m not waiting it out on the sign-off.”
“No problem. I’ll do the sign-off. I need to send some maintenance codes through anyway.”
Warren followed the instructions. A seal swished shut behind them. His ears popped as the pressure evened out.
“Okay, let them know we’re ready. I’ll handle the rest.”
“Why didn’t they send you?” Warren typed in the code and shuffled out of the way. “I could have prepped you on the sub.”
“Canary in a coal mine. If one of us get loopy,” Laal said, “the other gets them to safety.”
The seaman sat in front of the laptop. He said, “Besides, I’m just a tech. You’re the coder. Get comfortable. We have a long wait.”
Aida slid the metal disk off the edge of the drain and let it fall. She deleted all the files and looked back at the door. She knew Red was gone, but…
She started down the ladder and slid the drain back into place. She continued her descent in silence. The door slid open above, and she froze.
“They are not here.” The voice echoed down the drain. “Perhaps they are still in the bunker.”
She winced as the echo of the disk rang up towards her. She watched as a silhouette moved over the drain. “Hello,” it said.
She clambered down the ladder. The drain slid away above her. Feet and hands smacked the rungs above. They were moving faster than her.
She let herself fall and shouted, “Run!”
57 turned to the wet smack that followed the shout. She ran back to the catchment. Aida lay next to the rope, unconscious. She looked up. Two people worked their way down the ladder. They were halfway and moved fast.
She hefted Aida over her shoulders and hauled her into the culvert. She she arrived at the fork and turned left. Footsteps echoed behind her. She switched off her light and headed back to the right fork. Ten meters in she set Aida down and held her breath.
The footsteps stopped. She heard whispers then silence. She breathed in a measured pace, careful not to make any sound. Aida groaned. 57 clapped a hand over the woman’s mouth. “They’re looking for us,” she said.
Whispers. Their pursuers took the other path. 57 helped Aida to her feet. Nothing broken, she stood on her own. She grabbed her hand and guided her down the culvert. When they reached the next catchment, she turned on her flashlight and examined Aida.
“Who were they?” she said.
“AIDA. The one that chased me, I think. I don’t know about the second.”
“Okay. Can you run?”
“I think so.”
“Good. We can get to the pressure lock before the last group leaves. Come on.”
“Incoming.” Warren yawned. “Let’s see what we’ve got.”
People scuttled up the pipeline two-by-two. One of them looked back and held up a hand. “Hold.”
She crawled to Warren, her dark hair covered her face. She flipped it out of the way. Warren could feel his jaw drop.
“Hi. I’m Tree,” she said.
Warren shook his head. “Mom?”
“Y-you should be old, or dead!”
Tree raised an eyebrow. “I’m not who or what you think I am. Your face is familiar. Who are you?”
“Your son, Warren Tate.” He shook his head. “I know you were working on some weird stuff, but…”
The man slumped and sighed. Tree nodded. “I’m sure it’ll be easier to explain somewhere less cramped.”
Laal said, “Next group is coming through. We need to send this group to the sub.”
“Yeah. Yeah, sure.” Warren spun a finger at nothing in particular. “I’ll take ‘em up.”
“No need. There are sailors on duty in the hold for maintenance runs. They’ll get them to quarters and Commander Vie will start the debrief.”
“Oh, good,” Warren snarked.
Warren watched as copies of his mother and a man he didn’t know filed past. Each time he saw her face it filled him with dread. They climbed up the umbilicus and the hatch re-sealed. He let out a long sigh.
“So you think that’s your mother?” Laal said.
“She’d be, I don’t know, seventy by now? Impossible.”
“Who knows what those bots are up to, my friend? Maybe they solved aging?”
“And apparently asexual reproduction.”
Aida’s compatriots milled around the pressure lock. 57 spoke with one other. Her face told the tale.
She returned to Aida, her jaw set. “They’re still depressurizing the lock. Could be a half hour.”
Aida rubbed her head. “I don’t think they followed us,” she said.
“Probably not, but if they’re bots, they’ll just keep looking.” 57 punched her thigh. “And call more in. No, this is bad. And we can’t do a damned thing about it.”
Aida sniffed. The murmur of the others swelled and ebbed as they talked among themselves. She disassociated. The flow of disparate conversations sounded like a drugged chorus that sang a new language. It sounded of hope and futures, questions and fears, longings and artificial memories.
All at once, it stopped. The door hissed and slid open. It was time. They filed in, the last of the AIDAs and RANDs filled the chamber. 57 grabbed Aida’s hand and reached for the switch.
“Wait!” Two AIDAs rushed the door. “It’s me! It’s Red!”
Aida postured inside the doorway, readied for a struggle. She flipped the switch, and the door slid shut. The unit’s hand was caught, crushed, and torn off. Several of the others shoved her away. One tried to throw the switch, but it locked in place. It was too late.
“Why would you do that?” one said.
Another said, “Are you insane?”
Yet another, “She had a rescue!”
Aida gripped her hand. “They were chasing us. They were with the bots. It was the right choice.”
“Let’s worry about it when we get out,” one said, “Red can come next.”
Aida felt something warm and wet on her cheek. She wiped it with the back of her hand.
“Just a little blood,” 57 said.
“Okay,” Laal said, “group four is coming. Once they get here, we’ll level pressure and open the pipeline.”
Warren watched his mother’s face pass by twenty times. He grunted at the man and returned to his game of tic-tack-toe on the pipe floor.
“What’s the problem, Doctor Tate?”
He rapped a knuckle on the floor. “So, okay, I guess they’re clones? Which, sure, that’s my mom’s wheelhouse. But…”
Laal looked at the screen and raised an eyebrow. “That makes little sense.”
“What, that they’re clones?”
“No, this. Come look.” He turned the laptop towards Warren. “I thought the last group was through.”
“Should be.” Warren pored over the screen. “What am I looking at?”
“New data files. There’s four or five in the past minute.”
Warren grabbed the laptop and bashed away at the keys. “These guys need to hurry.”
“What is happening?”
“The Collective is coming.”