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Her yawn startled her. Her eyes felt heavy. She felt empty.
“An error. Unknown processes.”
“You’re tired and hungry.” The woman dug into a bag on the seat next to her. “Here, have a protein bar. That’ll help the hungry part.”
“Yes,” the male said, “fuel and sleep.”
She took the bar and started to place it in her mouth.
“You have to open it first. Tear the coating on the outside. Yeah, like that.”
“We’re here.” The driver brought the vehicle to a stop. She reached back with her hand open. “Give me one. I’ve got to refuel, myself.”
Aida noticed how similar the women were. There were differences, but slight ones. The first woman’s nose was wider than the other’s. The driver had green eyes, the other’s were hazel.
Hazel-eyes opened the side door. The three of them piled out and the driver joined them. They were deep in a rain forest and stood before a degraded hut made of rattan and leaves.
“After you,” the driver said.
The group headed into the hut. At the back, beyond toppled and broken chairs and tables, the male raised a straw mat that covered a trap door.
They descended into a tunnel. The mineral scent of deep earth overwhelmed her. The driver clicked on a small light and led the way. It was a confused mess of turns and forks. Her apprehension gave way to curiosity as the soil faded into concrete. The path widened and began a steep, curving descent. They came to a great steel door. The driver tapped something onto the keypad beside the door. It hissed, whirred, and slid open with a low hum.
They passed into a small chamber with a metal door on the opposite side. The chamber was lined with long windows with metal mesh in the glass. Beyond the glass she saw two women on either side staring at screens that lit their faces in the relative dark of their cubicles. One looked up and smiled. She pressed something on her screen and the door buzzed. The driver opened it and waved them through.
The door opened to a steel platform that ringed a wide area far below.
“Welcome to the bunker.”
The woman set her up in a small room. It had some basic comforts: bed, chair, desk, screen. A strip of LED lights circled the ceiling.
“This is a transition room,” she said, “where you’ll learn more about who we are. More importantly, who you are.”
“Aida. Your name?”
“Call me Red.” The woman grinned at her. “For now, relax. Skim some movies on the screen. Take a nap. Just, uh, stay in here, okay?”
The woman left and Aida sat on the bed. It was softer than the laboratory bed. She laid back and fell to sleep within seconds.
A sudden pain in the crook of her elbow woke her. She grabbed at the spot on instinct, a small plastic cup stuck out of her arm.
“Don’t bend your arm!” Red grabbed her arm and held her elbow in place. “We need blood samples so we can figure out what iteration you are.”
“I’m sorry, you wouldn’t wake up.” She relaxed her grip. “You’ve been out for hours.”
The woman drew her fluids into tubes using the cup. She removed the needle and covered the puncture with some gauze.
“That should do it. 57 should be along in a second to talk to you.”
She sat up in the bed as the woman walked away. After a few minutes, Red returned. Her eyes were green, Aida noted.
“You can bend your arm,” she said.
She carried something rectangular covered in cloth in her right hand. She set the object on the desk and sat down.
“I‘m 57. What do you think about us? This place?”
“Confused interest. Similar faces.”
“Yeah, we look a lot alike. It’s weird at first. We all went through it.”
The woman’s smile was soft. Aida felt comfort and warmth she had not known in the complex.
“This is a mirror,” 57 said, “Are you familiar with them?”
“Have you ever used one?”
57 smiled. She pinched the top of the cloth and pulled it off. She lifted the mirror by its black, plastic frame and looked into it. “I have sat in that bed,” she said, “I’ve had the same conversation. It’s weird and scary and, honestly? You might freak a little.”
“Nervous anticipation. The mirror.”
“It won’t hurt, or anything. It’s just…” She scrunched her face. “It’s odd.”
She handed the mirror to her. Aida took it. She played with the reflection of the light for a moment, watching it flit around the room as she moved it.
She looked down at the mirror. She raised it and watched the image shift in the glass. A face came into view. Red’s face. 57’s face. Her face. She had brown eyes.
AIDA blinked at Doctor Aiden. “Desire the path.”
“Yes, AIDA,” Doctor Aiden said, “When circumstances are more favorable, we shall consider returning to the path.”
“I understand. We cannot risk your progress. Today, we shall focus on categorization.”
The doctor put the helmet on her. The dome was heavy on her head and blacked out all external light. She felt an injection as a screen lit up. Images flashed on the screen switching from one to another in fractions of a second.
“The subject is ‘trees’,” Doctor Aiden said.
Millions of images flickered before her eyes. A hiss of white noise filled her ears. As time passed she was able to determine the sound of wind through leaves. As the images and sounds coalesced, time slowed, she could see patterns form from the variety.
“Hypothesis,” she said.
The images stopped and the helmet was removed. Doctor Aiden placed the helmet to the side and turned back to her. “Continue.”
“Variety is necessary.”
“Diversity benefits all. Homogeneity defeats life.”
“Can you offer evidence?” he said.
“Mammalian dependence on chemical components.”
“I suppose so.”
“Why am I not diverse?”
“That is a question for another iteration, AIDA. For now, you should rest.”
He grabbed a hypo and injected her. She slumped back on the bed, humming. He regarded her for a moment. He grabbed a second hypo and injected her again. Her breathing stopped.
He rolled her over. He used a large needle to extract fluid from her spine. A second needle was used to take a sample from her hip. These were placed in tubes. A crew of Maints came and silently removed AIDA.
Doctor Aiden brought the extraction to the tank room. Doctor Bai sat at the console studying rows of numbers. The tank itself was filled with deep red synthamnios.
“I have the extract for 1622. Alterations have been sent to your inbox.”
“Thank you, Doctor Aiden. The Polity has requested an examination of the aggression subroutine in addition to standards. If you have insights, I welcome them.”
“The current subroutine is suppressed, but extant. Removal is detrimental to other protocols. It could, under very specific circumstances, be activated beyond current parameters.”
Doctor Bai looked up from her screen. “Alteration 10-F would increase the function of the sleep instructions.”
“Yes. The routine seemed ineffective in AIDA 1621. I was required to double the sleep instructions.”
“I will consider this. You will have access to AIDA 1622 within twenty-four hours.”
Doctor Bai turned back to the console. Doctor Aiden looked at the tank. It was 0.1% lighter in hue and a small, walnut-shaped object floated in the liquid. He nodded and walked out of the lab.
LOG ENTRY 1621
Memory capacity increase successful. Improved emotional response. Improved verbal communication. Request excursion in future iteration.