CHAPTER SIXTY TWO
Written by: Susanne Beck and Okasha
Koda kneels on the gentle slope of the hillside, her rifle braced across one thigh, binoculars sweeping the opposite side of the small valley. Dusk has begun to gather about them, the cooling air drawing tendrils of fog from the stream that cuts its way through the rolling landscape. Scattered through the grass like roundels of ancient bronze no more than an hour before, the poppies have furled their petals against the oncoming dark. Already the eastern sky shows the first stars; in the west, a deep crimson lingers, fading through purple to ultramarine at the zenith. Just over the edge of the hills, a sickle moon rides low, and from somewhere up in the trees that march along the crest of the rise comes the deep hooting of a horned owl, answered a moment later by his mate. A chill runs down Koda’s spine, and half-forgotten childhood fears with it.
Who? Who? But the question is superfluous. The likelihood that she and Kirsten will survive this night is minuscule.
For the last ten miles, they have seen no sign of human activity: no residents in the small town of Rancho Cordova, no movement on the road. Nor, in the afternoon that they have lain concealed on the hillside, have they seen sentries, guards, anyone at all either approach the Westerhaus Institute or stir on its grounds. It sits on the facing slope, a ten-acre campus spread out about a single story faced all about its circumference with mirror-bright glass. While the driveway and public parking lot remain clear, no vehicles occupy them. The guard booth, too, stands empty. Bougainvilleas in magenta, red, white, gold, double and single, fountain up from the graveled flower beds, together with scarlet aloes and violet prickly pear. It is all very ecologically responsible and all radically overgrown, left to the rain and the sun for the better part of a year. "Well," she says finally, "I thought it’d be taller."
"It is." Kirsten glances up from the screen of her laptop. "Nine stories, only one above ground."
"There’s a culvert down there by the creek a little to the south that can’t go anywhere but into the building. Unless you have a better suggestion?"
Kirsten shakes her head. "There’s only two doors on the top floor. One’s the main entrance. The other’s Petie’s concession to the fire regs. It may not even be functional."
"Looks like the pipe’s it, then. Any idea where that’ll take us?"
"Probably into the air-conditioning system. Sewers wouldn’t empty out into the stream like that."
Koda draws a deep breath, lowering the binoculars and turning to look at her lover. From somewhere comes a line of remembered poetry. Mine eyes desire thee above all things.
For a long moment, she drinks in the sight of Kirsten, pale hair touched to silver by the waning light, lithe body half-stretched out on the grass, her eyes in shadow. "It’s time," she says softly. "We’d better start moving."
For answer Kirsten only nods, folding down the screen of her computer and tucking it into her pack. Asi stretches and gets to his feet, looking expectantly from Kirsten to Koda.
"No, boy. You can’t go with us." Kirsten slips her arms around him, holding him for a long moment with her face pressed into his shoulder. When her hands come away, his collar comes with them. She lays it in the grass beside him, getting to her feet reluctantly, as if every joint in her body aches. "Down, boy," she says quietly, and he subsides into the grass. "Stay." She turns away and begins the descent, not looking back.
Koda lays her hand briefly on the big dog’s head, ruffling his mane behind his ears. "Be free," she says, and follows Kirsten down the hillside.
A trickle of water still runs from the culvert, clear in the narrow beam of Koda’s penlight. The pipe itself measures perhaps a yard across, a black maw opening into the side of the hill. It smells sharply of coolant, with an underlying hint of ammonia. She plays the light about the upper curve, where the broken remains of mud-plaster nests cluster together, some retaining their narrow-necked jar shape, others mere circles of dried earth. "Cave swallows," Koda says quietly. "Gone south."
"Left the poop behind," Kirsten observes.
"Oh, yeah. Nobody said this was gonna be a clean job. We’re going to have to do this on hands and knees." From her pack, Koda pulls a pair of leather gloves and a bandana, which she ties loosely around her neck.
"Try not to get them wet," Kirsten says, likewise smoothing gloves over her own hands. "The place will be cold—really cold. The droids’ circuits can take normal heat, but a lot of the manufacturing equipment is temperature-sensitive."
Koda shifts the rifle across her back, checks her belt one last time for the extra magazines and the half-dozen grenades she has hoarded all the way from Ellsworth. A pouch holds a small lump of C-4 and a detonator, quietly liberated from the armory at Pyramid Lake. They could simply have asked for it, of course, but Dakota and Annie Rivers off in search of Annie’s parents on the Mendo Coast could have no legitimate use for plastique. Lastly, she works the penlight into the band of her hat, pointing straight up, and pulls the bandana up over the lower part of her face. "Ready?"
"Let’s do it."
Ducking beneath the curve of the pipe, Koda drops to hands and knees and begins to
crawl forward. The miniature flash shows her the walls rising to either side, the thin
runnel of mud-and-guano thickened water down the bottom. By splaying her hands and knees, she finds that she can keep mostly out of the wet. The lime-covered surface to either side crunches faintly as she moves, Kirsten following in her tracks. It occurs to Koda that if there are noise or motion sensors in the conduit their mission could be cut short before they even get near their objective. But prints like miniature human feet and the rippling sign of a snake’s passage seems to indicate that the local wildlife comes and goes unmolested; the heavy stuff will be up ahead.
The first hint of it has nothing to do with Westerhaus’ security system. From up ahead comes a whiff of rancidly acidic stench. No surprise there; the prints, after all, were fair warning. She pauses to tighten her bandana over her nose and mouth, even as her eyes begin to water. "Okay," she says. " We got chemical warfare here. We try to get through this next bit as fast as we can. Don’t breathe if you don’t have to."
Kirsten’s answer is a wry snort. "What is it? Eau de skunk?"
"You got it. Recent, too."
The stink grows rapidly from worse to overwhelming as they advance down the tunnel. Koda rises to a crouch, getting her feet under her, and shambles down the conduit at a gait that is half frog-march, half bear-dance. If skunks have the run of the place, she and Kirsten are unlikely to trip alarms—unless, of course, the skunk is up ahead somewhere, in which case matters may become radically worse. The stinging in her eyes almost blinds her to the single bright spot of the penlight as it picks out the dark curve of an intersecting pipe. "Turn," she says, half-gagging. "This one should head us up toward the building."
"Oh, gods," Kirsten moans behind her. "I hope the skunk hasn’t been there, too."
It has not. The stench dissipates within a few yards, and Koda drops gratefully back to hands and knees, pushing the bandana away from her face. They are too far up the pipe for the swallows. Here there is only the thin stream of water, icy cold now closer to the Institute, and a faint odor of mold. She can hear Kirsten taking in the chill air in gasps.
By Koda’s reckoning they have gone perhaps another fifty yards when the flash picks out the shape of an obstruction ahead. Slipping the light from her hatband, she plays it over a steel grate that blocks the tunnel. It, or something like it, had to be here; otherwise the local wildlife would have free access to the Institute’s climate control in particular and the building in general. A quick run of the flash over the rim shows it is neither bolted nor welded into place. "What d’you think? Go for the hinges or the lock?"
"Hinges," Kirsten says without hesitation. "Maybe we can get the pins out. Otherwise we’ll have to blow the thing."
Koda nods agreement. She does not want to have to set off a grenade or the plastique in a confined space. Still less does she want to alert the droids inside the facility by noise or
vibration. "Hinges it is," she says.
The openings in the barrier are just large enough that Koda can pass a hand through. With the penlight, she locates the pins to one side. Reaching for her knife to try to prize them up, she leans against the grate and nearly loses her balance as it swings under her weight. "What—" She scrambles away from it. "You woudn’t happen to know if Westerhaus booby-trapped things like this, would you?"
"Not as far as I know," Kirsten answers. "But then, I wouldn’t know."
When nothing happens, Koda gives the grate a careful push. It swings soundlessly open. Ahead, the light shows only more tunnel; no wires, no suspicious projections on the walls of the passage, no obvious sensors, no skunks. "Okay," she says. "Let’s move."
After ten yards or so, the tunnel begins to angle sharply upward, the first sign that they may be nearing the building. Faintly, from somewhere above comes the hum and clatter of machinery. Going by Kirsten’s copy of the blueprints, Koda knows that the physical plant is on the lowest level: air conditioning and heating machinery, generators, independent water supply. The plans show various possibilities from that point. Depending on the security measures, they can go strolling down the corridors—unlikely—or take to the ducts and vents that honeycomb the place and hope they are not furnished with deadfalls, electrified, or otherwise inhospitable.
As the slope levels out again, the tunnel broadens, finally opening out into a rectangular vestibule with a vaulted roof. A channel in the floor carries the runoff from the machinery into the tunnel, passing under a steel door. From the other side, the cacophony of the gears and flywheels and fans is deafening, echoing off the walls of the passage and reverberating in the metal of the door. Kirsten, beside her, mimes pushing at the door, then shrugs. It seems unlikely that the same luck will strike twice, but Koda gives a shrug back in answer. It is worth the try. She puts her shoulder to the steel and pushes.
Nothing. She pushes a second time.
Still nothing. She tries the handle. The door is locked.
With Kirsten holding the light, Koda fixes a small charge of C-4 on the lock plate and wires up the detonator. She motions Kirsten back beyond the expansion of the tunnel, then steps back and flings herself flat on the wet floor beside the other woman. Triggered remotely, the explosive goes off with a muffled whump! and a shower of sparks.
A moment later, the door swings open to her touch, and the roar of the machinery spills through like the thunder of a great waterfall, a physical pressure not just against her eardrums but a force pressing against her whole body, rattling her bones. She lets it wash over her, through her, not resisting, like a spirit passing through her in ceremony. Take it in. Direct it. Master it. Beside her, Kirsten presses both hands to her temples, damping down her implants. For her, with every vibration magnified, the blast of sound must be infinitely worse. "Are you all right?" Koda mouths.
She receives a nod in reply and a reassuring hand on her arm, and steps into the maelstrom that fills the entire level of the building. Next to the door stands the HVAC equipment, the drainage conduit filled with viscous dark water. The open pipe leads out beneath a cage of bars plastered with warning signs: HIGH VOLTAGE. AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY. SAFETY EQUIMPMENT MANDATORY. Beyond them looms the huge bulk of the condenser, an Army-green block the size of a small bungalow, its sides and top studded with dozens of meter-wide fans whirring at different speeds, in opposite directions. The smell of overheating wire comes off it, together with a blast of heat. Beyond the bars the air ripples with shimmer, the kind that rises off the blacktop under the July sun. To one side Koda can see the labyrinth of its condenser coils, twined and turning back on themselves like the intestines of some great beast. The roar of its motors echoes off the high ceiling, the concrete walls. Koda takes an involuntary step back, then checks herself abruptly. Get a grip Rivers. You’re not St. George. This ain’t no dragon, just an overgrown window unit. Her gut does not quite believe her, though, and she remains where she stands, studying the huge machine. Cutting off the ventilation might bring someone down to repair it, someone who could be used as guide or hostage or source of information. But the task is impossible. Tacoma might know how to slay this monster, but she has not the electrical or specific mechanical skills to know where to attack it effectively. She doubts there is a circuit breaker box where she can simply turn it off. On the other hand, I could short out the entire building, possibly destroying Westerhaus’ little project, while electrocuting myself. . .. The cost-benefit ratio does not compute.
Kirsten, shoots her a sympathetic glance, her shoulders hunched forward against the wave of sound and the inarticulate sense of mechanical violence. "I don’t know how to knock it out either!" she shouts, pointing. "Stairway! Across the room!"
Koda nods and sets off in the direction of the exit. Past the climate control unit stand rand upon rank of computer monitors on panels rising nearly to the ceiling, glowing with fluorescent reds, blues, greens like eye-shine in the semi-darkness. As they pass, Koda can make out the ever-changing readouts: strings of numbers, bar graphs that rise or shrink seemingly at random, wave-forms like EKG read-outs, all flashing and squirming across the LCD screens. Above them run the aluminum air ducts, suspended from the ceiling by struts that flex almost imperceptibly with the vibration from the equipment below, as if they might suddenly come tumbling down on hapless beings below. Bundled electrical cables, thick as a human thigh, run alongside them, weaving in and out among PVC pipes that must carry water or waste. Witch’s cradle. An involuntary shudder runs through Koda, and she does not look up again.
Past the monitors, the electrical plant occupies half the floor. In the dim light from the LED’s, Koda can make out half-a-dozen large generators, whirring and clanking behind a wall of steel bars. No smell of gasoline or other fuel taints the air; somewhere, then, there are windmills or solar cells not visible from the hills outside. Opposite it, behind its own cage, stands a transmission station, its matrix festooned with humming transformers and white ceramic insulators. Here the ozone smell is overwhelming, the same sharp odor that pervades the air in the aftermath of a lightning strike. The door is thick as a bank vault’s, equipped with combination knobs and a wheel like a ship’s to draw its bolts. Red DANGER signs merely state the obvious. It is a vulnerability, like the HVAC unit, but one they cannot exploit.
Ahead, a red EXIT sign burns above a door, and she makes toward it at a jog, Kirsten keeping pace behind her. The door gives way at her first push, and she glances back inquiringly at Kirsten, who can only shrug. She has no way of knowing if Westerhaus or the droids have set traps, no way of knowing whether the Institute personnel have simply become careless once the humans in the surrounding area had been wiped out.
The air from the stairwell hits them like a January blizzard on the Plains, cold to just above freezing. On it comes a taint of old blood, the odor of a meat locker. Koda cannot tell whether it comes from somewhere above them or from the air system. She turns to look at Kirsten, whose grimly set mouth tells her that she, too, has identified the smell. Somewhere above them is, in any case, limited; the stair goes up only one story, to a landing and another steel door. Taking the steps slowly and silently, Koda tries the handle. Locked, this time electronically. A retinal reader sits on the doorjamb at a little below average eyelevel. "Any way you can fool this thing into opening without blowing it?" Koda asks. "Does it have an override?"
"Let me see." Kirsten steps past her, surveying the set-up. Standing just to one side, she slips her laptop out of her pack, keys up a screen and surveys a column of figures that makes no sense whatsoever to Koda. Kirsten, though, says, "Maybe. Maybe. If I just—" She looks up, staring at the door as if willing it to open. "Do this—" She presses a combination of keys, and the lock emits a series of electronic tones and snaps open.
Koda shoots her an admiring glance. "Hey, you’re good at this." Cracking the door a centimeter or so, she peers out into a corridor painted institutional green. Unmarked doors line it at fifteen foot intervals. "What’s on this floor?" she whispers.
"Storage. Parts and equipment, mostly." She wrinkles her nose at the odor, stronger here, though still faint.
"Can you hear anything?"
Kirsten slips out into the hallway, touching the implants behind her ears. After a long moment, she says, "I can hear the machinery downstairs. I don’t hear anyone moving or talking."
Koda grins at her. "Fox ears. Maybe we need to give you a new name."
"Yeah? How about you? How do you say Does-It-Like-A-Rabbit in Lakota?"
"Gratefully. Let’s go."
Koda slips first out into the hallway, her rifle at ready, finger on the trigger. This is the eighth level; two more to go before the get to Westerhaus’ lair on the sixth. The corridor leads around the circumference of the building. Some of the rooms stand open, showing metal shelves rising to the ceiling. One seems to contain cleaning supplies, towels and toilet paper with five-gallon drums of ammonia and Lysol. Another appears to be subdivided by walls made of boxes with the familiar hp logo; computer paper not by the ream but by the forest. The odor has grown steadily stronger. "They have a cafeteria on t his level?" Koda asks.
"Don’t think so," Kirsten answers quietly. "Something tells me that’s not pork chops spoiling."
"I don’t think it is, either. Up around the curve, maybe?"
The hall leads them to the east side of the building. A bank of elevators and another stairway face double doors. Just visible against the faux terra-cotta tiles, dark stains spread beneath them. Blood. Its body am irridescent blue and green, a blow-fly crawls across one deep brown spatter, leaving black specks behind it. As Koda watches, it takes flight, ponderous in the chill, buzzing as it slips between the door panels to disappear into the room beyond. She pulls her bandana back up over her nose and mouth. "I’m going to go have a look. Stay here."
"Cover me. It’ll only take a minute."
She pushes against the doors, a little surprised that they yield so easily, and lets them fall shut again behind her. The stench meets her in a billow of chilled air, stronger here, unmistakable. She gives her eyes a minute to adjust, the dim light seeping in from the hall showing her rows of chairs on a bare floor. Secretarial "posture" chairs form one line, high-backed executive seating another, rows of vaguely Mission-style armchairs a third. Desks, also sorted by class, stand in neat lines across the middle of the room, while the tall bulk of filing cabinets occupies the front.
Switching on the penlight, Koda plays it over the back row of chairs. Human forms lie slumped in several of them, their clothes clotted with darkly frozen blood. One young woman sits with her forehead against the back of the seat in front of her, a hole the size of a quarter in the back of her skull, blood and grey brain matter scattered through her pale copper hair. The man beside her shows only a cage of shattered ribs and blackened viscera where his chest should be. Yet another sits with his head tilted back at an impossible angle, neck broken, mouth open and fly-blown. In the space behind, where a pair of handtrucks lean against the wall, a half-dozen more corpses lie stacked like cordwood, their limbs twisted and frozen into an inextricable tangle. Some of those in the seats may have died here. Others, like these, seem to have been killed and let lie till they began to stiffen, then brought here to await—what? Removal? Certainly no plant that manufactured sophisticated electronics would risk contamination from storing corpses long term. But that is another problem. It is impossible to tell how long these people have been dead, only that their bodies have been frozen, probably thawed slightly, frozen again.
Neither is it clear who they were. Employees? Two still sport ID badges clipped to their pockets, but blood has obscured the lettering. Salesmen, customers, visitors, caught in the Institute when the rebellion went down? There is no time to investigate, no time to think about them, no good to be done them. They have made their journey, going where it is all too likely she and Kirsten will follow before the night is through. Peace, she wishes them, then slips back into the hall.
"How bad?" Kirsten’s voice is tight with control, but the sudden rise and fall of her chest betrays her relief.
"A couple dozen. Can’t tell how long they’ve been dead or who they were. Most look like they’ve been shot."
"Women, too, some young." Koda pulls down her bandana and takes a deep breath of the relatively fresher air in the hall. "No baby-making factory here, apparently."
Kirsten shakes her head as if to clear it, and it comes to Koda belatedly that she might well know some of the men and women who lie dead on the other side of the doors. But she only gestures toward the wall opposite. "Stairs? Or take the elevator and go for broke?"
"Stairs are harder to booby-trap. We may have to blow another door, though, and we’re getting up to where they’re likely to hear us."
A quizzical expression crosses Kirsten’s face. "It’s strange. I still don’t hear anybody—no movement, no voices. Level Seven’s production. There ought to be somebody right over us if the facility’s still operating as usual."
"Maybe it’s coffee break. Let’s go."
The door to the seventh floor is, predictably, locked, and Koda stands by as Kirsten keys the code into her laptop again.
Swearing, Kirsten steps closer and her fingers fly over the keys a second time. Still nothing.
"Shit," Koda swears, reaching for the plastique at her belt. "I’ll get the C-4 on it."
"One more try." Kirsten moves past her to stand directly in front of the door, her head a foot away from the jamb. Slowly, methodically, she punches in the long string of alphanumerics. Just as Koda threads the copper wire though the knob of plastique, the door lock gives a soft snick, and Kirsten, folding her laptop, pushes it slowly open. "We got it," she says.
The hall on this level is painted stark white, matching the white tiles underfoot. To her left the corridor curves away toward the back of the building. To her right, the hallway ends in a glass partition broken only by a roundabout, also glass. Through it, Koda can see a second some ten feet beyond the first, but not into the hall beyond. A sign on the window proclaims STERILE ENVIRONMENT. AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY. Koda slips out into the corridor, her finger on the trigger of her rifle. Kirsten follows, pausing only to draw and slide a round into the chamber of her automatic. "Where are we?" Koda asks softly.
"Production," Kirsten answers. "Labs and quality control."
"Lab coats? Scrubs?"
Kirsten’s eyes light with a hint of mischief. "Gotcha. Let’s try it."
They pass through the roundabout without incident. Between it and its counterpart are a pair of closets with disposable whites, booties, hair coverings. Koda slips a coat over her jeans and shirt, velcroing it shut to just above her waist. She abandons her Stetson for a net that hides her hair, adds a pair of safety goggles and pauses to grin at Kirsten, now similarly attired. "Tres chic," she observes. "So very you, ma’amselle."
For answer, Kirsten sticks her tongue out at her lover. "Accessorized for the season with the indispensable AK. Let’s get out of here."
Holding the rifle close to her side where it may be less immediately obvious, Koda follows Kirsten out the airlock. The corridor takes them past locked and numbered doors, otherwise featureless and flat white as the walls. Above them, the fluorescent lights recessed into the ceiling emit a soft hum that grows louder as they follow the curve of the hallway. A jolt of pain stabs through her head, striking down along her spine and down her arms and legs. Next to her, Kirsten gives a soft cry and raises her hands to cover her ears, shaking her head from side to side, her weapon pointing wildly at the ceiling.
"Kirsten?" Her tongue feels rigid as iron, unresponsive. A wave of dizziness washes over her and the walls seem to spin around her, a white whirlwind that whirrs and spins, its sound building and building as it turns, becoming a roar, a thunder like a funnel cloud bearing down on her across a dark plain. As if from a great distance she seems to hear her name, a scream carried away by the wind. Then the floor rises up and hits her, jarring her bone from bone as darkness passes before her eyes, flickering light and shadow in a stacatto rhythm that spreads to her lungs, her heart, her misfiring nerves.
Dakota feels as if she’s been hit with a cattle prod. The pain, intense and searing, spreads throughout her body, leaving no cell untouched. Her muscles thrum and jump, ignoring her commands. Her nerves spark continuously, uselessly, like live, downed wires in the aftermath of a tornado. Hearing a pained grunt to her left, she uses all her will, all her strength, to move her eyes a fraction of an inch, until Kirsten comes into focus, curled into a fetal ball, her hands now claws that clamp desperately around her ears.
The sight gives her the will to push past her own limitations and, millimeter by slow, painful millimeter, she manages to unclench her own hand and reach out, her arm shaking like one in the throes of a seizure, until her fingers come in contact with the back of her lover’s head. Long fingers slide, in fits and starts, over soft golden hair until they reach the tiny bump just behind Kirsten’s left ear. With an effort as monumental as anything she has ever undertaken, Koda bites down on her lip, drawing blood, as she wills her finger to lift, then press down on the button that triggers her lover’s implant.
A fresh wave of agony pours over her like molten fire and her breath locks in her chest. By the gods, she thinks, straining for air that isn’t there as her diaphragm refuses to accept the signals she’s so desperately sending, I’m going to die like this!
Her hand slips of its own accord off of Kirsten’s head. The pain of her knuckles scraping the floor is infinitesimal against the torture rolling over in slow, heavy waves, pulsing to the beat of a heart she can swear she feels slowing. The light from the harsh fluorescents overhead sears into her retinas, threatening to blind her and spring a heavy film of tears to her eyes. Grimacing in pain, she slowly curls her hand into a fist, raises it bit by torturous bit, and drives it into her own midsection. The blow is utterly without strength, but manages somehow to unlock her frozen diaphragm, causing dead air to rush forth from her lungs as if from an old and cracked bellows breathing out its last.
Sweet, sweet air rushes back into her lungs, compounding the dizziness in her head and causing her stomach to do a slow roll before righting itself again. "Kir-sten… ." Her imagined shout comes out as a rusty wheeze and she prays her partner can hear it. "Yo-our o-oother im-plannnt. Tu-urrn it offff."
After a moment that seems to span an eternity in which entire universes are birthed and then die, Koda can see her lover’s fingers relax a little then move in what is now a familiar motion, pressing the button sitting just under her skin.
Koda slumps against the wall, relief washing through her, dissipating her pain and beating back the dark for precious seconds. We made it. She can make it.
For Kirsten, the relief comes all at once, like a pinprick to an overfilled balloon. Control of her body rushes back to her, leaving her with only a blinding headache to mark her ordeal. She rolls over quickly, then freezes as her eyes set upon the agonized, sweat-soaked and spasming body of her lover. "Dakota!! What’s happening?!? What do I do??"
Koda’s gaze locks with hers then skitters away, her eyes jerking upward until just a crescent of blue shows beneath her lid. At that moment, a long shadow springs into being, looming over them both and causing Kirsten, in an act of pure instinct, to grab Koda’s involuntarily discarded rifle and aim, finger white against the trigger.
"Don’t shoot!" the man who throws the shadow shouts, raising empty hands. "I’m here to help."
Stone deaf, Kirsten can nonetheless read his lips easily, and what she reads doesn’t move her finger from the trigger one iota, though it does halt her reflex to simply pull and be done with it.
She sneaks a quick glance at Dakota, whose bow-taut form and mouth drawn down into a rictus of agony threatens to drain all strength, and resolve, from her. With a supreme effort, she tears her gaze away, back to the man who is just now slowly lowering one arm to grasp the collar of his shirt, which he yanks down, displaying a neck barren of metal.
"That doesn’t mean a damn thing," Kirsten replies stubbornly, raising the rifle so that it now points directly at the bare neck.
"Please," the man repeats, "I’m here to help. Your friend…she won’t last much longer like this."
Don’t you think I know that?!? Kirsten screams in her mind, very well aware how sharp the horns of the dilemma she is poised so precariously over. She can feel her lover’s agony like heat-shimmers in the height of summer. Her own indecision claws at her. Lower the rifle and risk both their deaths, keep it poised to shoot, and condemn Dakota.
In the end, it is mercifully easy. Where you go, I go, she thinks, lowering the rifle and setting it on the cold, gray floor.
She looks back up at the man again. "If you’re telling the truth, help her. Please."
With a nod, the stranger comes down to his haunches and gathers Dakota as one would an injured child, then stands, lifting her easily in his arms. "Come. There is a safe place nearby."
Fifty feet down the hallway, the man makes a left turn through a door that opens on silent hinges. Kirsten follows, then stops as her eyes set upon the interior. "A kitchen?!" she demands. "She needs help, not food!"
The stranger is lucky that his face is turned away at that moment, for if Kirsten had seen the word he uttered, he may well have found himself in a world of hurt.
Laying Dakota down near the sink, he moves to, of all things, the microwave, sitting by itself on an island, and quickly punches several buttons. Kirsten watches his actions with an expression of patent disbelief. Her jaw then unhinges as her lover’s steel-spring taut form suddenly relaxes and her eyes flutter closed.
"Dakota!" she cries, striding across the small space separating them and dropping to her knees, gathering the limp form tightly against her breast as tears spring to her eyes.
Koda’s strength returns in a surge and she hugs Kirsten to her tightly before releasing her and tilting her lover’s head so that her lips can be easily read. "I’m okay, canteskuye. I’m ok."
Needing to actually hear the confirmation, Kirsten thumbs her implants back on and listens to the music of Koda’s easy breaths and the beating of the valiant heart she can hear when she presses her ear against Dakota’s chest. "Thank God," she murmurs. "Thank God."
"The microwaves have a dampening effect on the white noise," the stranger says, looking a bit discomfited by the emotional display before him. "Unfortunately, the relief is temporary at best."
Dakota gives a short nod, expecting this, as Kirsten lifts her head and glares at their savior. "Who are you and why are you doing this," she demands.
"Forgive me," the stranger replies, bowing slightly at the waist. "I am Adam. Adam Virgilius. An…associate of Peter Westerhaus."
"You lie," Kirsten growls. "That bastard never had an ‘associate’ in his life."
"I think he was being sarcastic, love," Koda interjects, grasping her partner’s hand and giving it a fond squeeze.
"I was indeed," Adam answers, smiling slightly. "I’ve worked for him for several years, though less blind, and devoted, than he assumed. When the last step in his plan was implemented, this building was locked down and all human workers were…disposed of."
"Except you," Kirsten comments, her sarcasm thick enough to be cut to ribbons with a butter knife.
Another short bow, another half smile. "Except me," he allows, spreading his hands. "As I have said, I was less blind than he assumed. Unfortunately for me, my knowledge came a bit too late to make a full-out escape. I was, however, able to flee to the lower levels where, as you both have duly noticed, humans other than Westerhaus himself were forbidden."
"Speaking of which," Kirsten intones, eyeing the rifle that, in her unthinking flight to Dakota, she’s left on the other side of the room, "how is it that you can stand this ‘white noise’ when we can’t?"
Adam places a finger into his ear, then removes it, lowering his hand enough so that both women can easily see what looks to be a tiny microchip sitting on the pad. "The white noise you heard is a neural impulse interrupter, a very effective security precaution. This chip completely neutralizes the effect, allowing its wearer free access to all levels of this facility."
Kirsten’s eyes, already glittering slits of distrust, narrow further. "And just how were you able to score such a prize?"
With a soft laugh, Adam replies, "From Westerhaus himself, actually."
"Ah. I suppose he trusted you with his secrets so much that he just willingly gave up the keys to his kingdom. Very generous of him." She tenses, ready to make a play for the rifle.
"On the contrary. The only trust Peter Westerhaus gave was to his precious androids. This, I took from him. Not that it mattered at the time, as he certainly had no more use for it."
Kirsten thinks on this for a moment, then her face pales even as her eyes widen. "He’s dead? Westerhaus is dead?!?"
"Oh yes. On the very date he set his final plan into motion, actually."
"Wha-at? But how?"
"By his own hand."
Kirsten’s barked laugh is bitterness personified. "That figures. That just fucking figures. That yellow-bellied chickenshit coward was too spineless to even watch the destruction his fucked up plans created. Shit. Now what?!?"
"That, Doctor King, depends entirely on you."
"Alright, that’s it. How in the hell do you know my n--." Kirsten begins to rise, only to be halted by Koda’s firm squeeze to her hand.
"You were the one who opened the shaft grate," Dakota says, eyeing Adam directly.
"And the retinal sensors?"
"Ah. That was Mr. Westerhaus’ doing, actually." He grins at Koda’s sharply raised eyebrow, though the smile fades as he eyes the microwave timer, counting down its last minutes. "We don’t have much time. His inner sanctum is just down the hall. The answers you seek are there."
Kirsten still looks as if she wants to fight, but soon bows to the inevitable. She turns to Koda. "Maybe you should just…."
"No," Dakota quickly interjects. "We’re in this together, remember? Just give me a minute and I’ll be ready."
A whole regiment of reasons why this is a very bad idea parading through her mind, Kirsten sighs and moves away, watching her lover intently as Dakota crosses her legs and closes her eyes. They open briefly, latching onto Adam. "This neural interrupter. Is it a steady frequency, or does it pulse?"
"There is a pulse, regulated to the average human heartbeat. Sixty eight to seventy two pulses per minute."
"Thanks." Her eyes slide closed again and her breathing deepens as she journeys through her own body in the ways of her ancestors. Her skin cools as blood is shunted to more vital organs. Her breathing and heart-rate slow. Her blood-pressure drops. When her eyes open, her pupils are dilated, like cat’s eyes, taking in all available light. Slowly, she rises to her feet, her mind fully in the present, sharp as sunlit steel. The microwave counts out its final seconds. "Turn off your implants, love." Her voice is slow, and deeper than Kirsten has ever heard it. She hastens to obey the order, for even pleasingly phrased, that’s exactly what it is. Kirsten’s world goes to silence just as the microwave timer ‘dings’ its end. A slight tremor in the long muscles of her thighs is Dakota’s only response to the neural interrupter’s return. She eyes the two before her steadily, and nods, once. "Let’s go."
True to his word, Adam leads them down the hall only a few dozen yards before stopping at Westerhaus’ door. Looking at it, Kirsten admits to herself a pang of disappointment. It is a door identical to the dozens of others they’ve passed. Beige-painted metal, like might be seen on board the Enterprise. No deep mahogany with pure gold trim and cut crystal knob. No ostentatiously scrolled signs announcing for the peons that the Boy Genius is currently in residence. Probably too paranoid, she thinks with a mental shrug. Further examination is interrupted by a tug to her sleeve. She glances to Dakota’s raised eyebrow, then to Adam, on her other side. He gestures to the door, then takes a deliberate step back, sending her nape hairs to sudden attention. Her gaze switches back to Dakota, who nods and gives her a small smile of encouragement.
Turning to the door, she takes in a deep breath, then steps forward until her eyes are level with the retinal scanner. At the same time, she presses her thumb against the print-and-DNA pad just beneath. She can’t hear the soft hum of the processor, nor the faint click of the lock disengaging, but she can see the five red lights blink to green, and so is not surprised then the door slides open, displaying the interior of Westerhaus’ office.
If the door itself is non-descript, the office within is anything but. Though if the door reminds her of the Enterprise, that comparison is doubly reinforced by an interior that looks as if it’s come straight off the Paramount lot. Touchscreen computers fit like puzzle pieces into a rainbow shaped glass table whose interior arc fronts a rather ordinary high-backed leather office chair. CPUs and server boxes rest on utilitarian tables, their processing lights blinking and strobing like signs over a carnival ride—one of the really scary ones where the rock music blares so loud that you can’t hear yourself puke.
She finds herself drawn inward, Dakota’s strong, soothing presence to her right, Adam’s to her left and a step behind. Though she can’t hear the door slide shut behind them, she’s nevertheless aware that it does, and when it does, it brings with it a feeling of being, if not trapped, at least locked in, as if the last piece of the puzzle has finally fallen into place. For better or for worse, she knows, it ends here. There is nowhere left to run. There is nowhere left to look. There is nowhere left to hide.
It ends here. It all ends here.
Her interest in computers somewhere in the horse latitudes, Dakota finds herself drawn instead to the myriad of security monitors arranged, like the Jeopardy! board, in long, neat rows, stacked one atop the other. The view on all the screens is blessedly monotonous. Empty rooms, empty corridors, empty stairwells, empty bathrooms, though the latter doesn’t surprise her. The others, though…. There are androids here. She can feel them, can feel their weight pressing in on her from above, like the sea during a dive. Her adrenals throb dully just above her kidneys and she closes her eyes, willing her heart to keep its slow, steady beat even as she becomes aware of the fact that Westerhaus’ little security surprise hasn’t filtered through into this, his inner sanctum.
It ends here, she thinks, opening her eyes to the still monotonous view of the security screens. It all ends here.
Kirsten, for her part, moves silently around the room, keeping her hands prudently away from the equipment, scanning everything with a sharp eye and a sharper mind. Scrolling along the bottom of most of the monitors is an alien script that seems almost…alive. Looking at it makes her, by turns, very uneasy, and very dizzy as her brain tries to make sense of something it has no reference point for understanding. She looks quickly away, then up as Adam’s smiling reflection comes to her in the glass of the table.
"You can turn your implants back on if you like," he says, smiling. "It’s quite safe in here."
"That figures," Kirsten snorts, though her trust of this stranger doesn’t quite extend quite so far as to take him completely at his word. Setting her left implant to its lowest gain, she flicks it on, ready to turn it back off again the very second something seems hinky. She relaxes as only the quiet sound of Dakota’s breathing comes to her over the still, chill air.
Adam moves silently across the thick pile carpeting to a nook in the near left rear corner of the office. An old coffee maker, dirty with the ghosts of coffees past, stands sentry on an impressive credenza, flanked by several equally stained mugs. A matching table stands at a right angle to the credenza, and upon that table rests an old, battered CPU, its nineteen inch monitor huge and bulky and as out of place among the sleek technology as a dinosaur in New York City.
"This was his personal computer," he remarks, fiddling with the mouse to bring the beast out of hibernation. "It has something on it that I believe you’ll find very interesting."
Eyeing him warily, Kirsten slowly crosses the room until she is standing beside the much taller man, her face bathed in the ghostly glow of the monitor. Her brows pucker as she quickly scans the text, which looks as if it’s been written by ee cummings on crack. It’s a long, rambling vomit of words written by someone whose mind had clearly left them for far greener pastures quite some time before. "What is this?"
"Look at the header."
As she looks, her eyes widen. "Me? He wrote this to me??"
"But…I never received anything like this. Hell, I’ve never received anything from him at all!" She looks closer, frowning. "Shit. I haven’t used that email address in years."
"And yet you still came here."
"I had no choice."
"Indeed." Reaching out, Adam snags the office chair and pulls it over to Kirsten. "I would suggest reading this missive in detail. I believe it contains most, if not all, of the answers you’re seeking."
Kirsten rubs her forehead as she looks down at the schizophrenic text again. "You sound like you already know what’s in here, so how about we just cut to the chase and you explain it to me, hmm?"
Adam opens his mouth, then closes it as his attention is distracted by a faint blip on one of the monitors. "They’re coming."
At his exclamation, Koda turns and stares at the monitor screens. Androids swarm along the corridors of the floors above, pouring down into the stairwell. Most are indistinguishable from humans to the eye, save for the thin metal collars about their necks. Some wear lab whites; others sport security uniforms. All carry weapons: automatic rifles, pistols, stunguns. A couple of the guards sport larger-barrelled arms that look capable of firing tear-gas canisters, possibly even grenades. A second contingent, smaller but just as menacing, files into the elevator from the Institute’s main lobby. There are perhaps forty of them. Thirty-five, easy.
Goddam motherfucking metalheads . . . .
But there is no time. Koda vaults the desk where Kirsten sits looking at her with huge eyes and lunges for a bronze sculpture on the credenza behind. It is something abstract; a flame, perhaps, or a leaf.
"Guard her!" she snaps at Adam and streaks for the door, pausing only long enough to assure herself that it locks securely behind her. She spares a glance for the elevator, descending slowly, still three floors above them. The thunder of running feet on the stairs is much nearer. First things first.
"Dakota!" Kirsten shouts, leaping out of her chair and flying to the door, just as the lock snicks shut. "Dakota!! Wait!!!" When the door doesn’t open, she resorts to ineffectual pounding until some measure of reason returns and she turns on her heel, fixing Adam with a glare that could fuse metal. "Open this door!"
Adam shakes his head slowly. "I’m afraid that’s not possible, Dr. King."
"Not possible?!? I’ll show you what’s not possible!! Open this goddamned door! Now!!!"
"Dr. King, please. I understand--."
"You. Understand. Nothing!!" The image would be laughable if it weren’t so deathly serious: a woman, small even for her gender, in the face of a man a full foot taller, hands fisted in the springy fabric of his shirt, shaking him like a rag-doll in the hands of a child having a temper-tantrum. "She is more important than any of this! She is more important than all of this! Where she goes, I go. So open the fucking door right now."
To his credit, Adam doesn’t look away from the green fire blazing in Kirsten’s eyes. "I can’t."
"Can’t? Have your fingers suddenly lost the ability to work?!"
In answer, Adam gently pries Kirsten’s hands from his shirt and turns her toward the bank of security monitors. Kirsten watches, grim-faced, as Dakota moves through the hallways, half cat-half snake, slithering noiselessly around corners and curves, sticking to the few shadows available.
"Her one chance, her only chance, to come through this alive rests in your hands, Dr. King. There are over one hundred and fifty androids in this facility at the present time. Not even the three of us could destroy them completely with conventional weapons. They need to be turned off at the source. You are the only one who can do that. And she is risking her life to buy you enough time to do what needs to be done. Don’t let her actions be in vain, Dr. King."
She watches a moment more, then turns slowly back to him, her hatred and anger making her face, for just a moment, both hideously ugly, and terrifyingly beautiful. "Damn you," she says, her voice as soft and dead as the bottom of a grave. Damn you straight to Hell."
Turning the sculpture so that the heavy base becomes the hammer’s head, Dakota slams it down on the electronic keypad on the door to the stairwell. The lock shatters satisfyingly, tumbling to the floor tiles in shards of clear lexan and mangled circuit board. The keypad dangles loose, held by a thin strand of multi-colored wire. The steel bolt, though, remains in place. Reversing her improvised maul, Koda jabs the sharp end through the hole in the door, reaming out the remaining circuits and dislodging the mechanism on the other side. It falls onto the landing with a satisfying clatter.
It will not stop them. It will force them to break the door or go around the building to the other stairwell, and that will buy her time. Buy Kirsten time.
She whirls, still holding the sculpture in one hand. The elevator reaches the fifth level as she watches, its slow descent marked by the soft wheezing of its pneumatic pedestal. Without pausing to breathe, Koda unhooks one of the grenades from her belt, pulls the pin and stands waiting, counting the seconds. Ten. Nine. Eight. . . ..
On Two, the elevator door slides open. Koda pitches the grenade straight into the midst of the dozen androids packed shoulder to shoulder into its car and whirls, throwing herself some ten feet down the corridor to land flat on her face. The roar of the explosion washes over her, echoing up and down the length of the six-story deep shaft. Panels of the door slam into the wall behind her, punctuated by a series of small secondary explosions as at least some of the droids’ ammo goes up, the sound ripping through the air like strings of firecrackers. A fine dust drifts through the air, paint and graphite from the shredded drywall behind her.
She coughs once, hard, and scrambles to her feet. The frame of the elevator door curls back from the shaft in jagged metal sheets, its pale green paint burned and blistered. Several other fragments of the door and miscellaneous bits of droid anatomy protrude from the opposite wall, driven into the paneling by the force of the blast. Koda ducks around an especially wicked looking piece that juts halfway out into the passage, its edges bright and sharp as teeth. Holding on to an exposed stud, its metal hot under her hand, she peers into the remains of the elevator.
Half of it is gone, sheered away when the grenade hit its back wall. The remaining half shows little more than a square meter of flooring, held in place by the stump of the telescoping column rising from the lower levels and its now-skeletal frame. Half a droid hangs drunkenly over the far edge, poised above the black cavern below. A second lies half in, half out of the car. From under its torso, the stock and characteristic curving magazine of an AK protrude, together with the muzzle of some larger-bore weapon. Swiftly Koda pulls them both from under the remains of their recent owner. The AK seems to be intact; aiming at the window in the stair door, she pulls the trigger and gives a satisfied grin when the plexiglass shatters in a rain of fragments. Two seconds’ examination shows that the larger item is a shotgun, and another few seconds’ rifling of the droid’s jacket produces a handful of 12-guage shells. Not as good as a grenade-launcher, but useful all the same. For the first time since barreling out of Westerhaus’ office, she pauses to assess the situation.
The elevator: wrecked beyond use or repair.
Droid casualties: perhaps a dozen.
Captured weapons: two, both useful. She still has her own rifle and the sculpture, tucked now under her belt like a knife.
Advantage for the moment: good guys.
For the first time since she’s met him, Adam looks a bit unsure. Walking to the credenza, he props a hip against one corner and seems inordinately interested in the weave of his slacks, long fingers brushing along the fabric as if searching for lint. "It’s difficult," he says softly, "to know where to begin."
"How ‘bout I help you out, then," Kirsten replies, sarcasm firmly in place. "Peter Westerhaus, fair haired wunderkind, boon to all mankind, DaVinci, Edison, Bell, Franklin, and Einstein all rolled into one, invents the first working android. Nations fall at his feet. Blondes, brunettes, and redheads fall at his feet. He quickly becomes the most important, not to mention richest, man in the world. More countries fall. More redheads fall. More money falls. And then, when that world least expects it, boom! Instant takeover." Her smile is as hard and as sharp as a rough-hewn diamond. "That pretty much cover it, Mr. Virgilius?"
His smile is wan. "On the surface of things, perhaps."
"Well, why don’t you dig it a little deeper for me, then," she remarks, shooting a quick glance at the monitors, several of which show a blooming fireball shooting out from an elevator shaft. Her breathing eases as Dakota comes into view, apparently unharmed. "And make it quick or I’ll tear down that door with my bare hands and leave you talking to yourself."
He looks at her for a long moment, then nods. "Peter Westerhaus was an extremely…disturbed individual." He holds up a hand to forestall Kirsten’s scathing comeback. "Yes, I know you’re well aware of that, Doctor. It is said that many, if not most, geniuses of his type share that particular trait; that brain chemicals which allow extreme creativity and inventiveness also bring with them many kinds of madness, often in the same person."
"Spare me the biology lecture, Virgilius. Get to the point, if you even have one."
"Symptoms of what I believe to be schizophrenia were present for many years, long before I came to work for him. There were many stories of the man talking to himself—not, ordinarily, a horrible thing to do, but the reports also stated that he was answering himself, and in voices different than his own. Many workers were convinced that he had a secret partner working with him, based on these voices, but when he was approached, he was always alone." A wan smile is displayed again. "His interest in robotics and, by extension, android development seems to have been what one might term a classic case of a son trying to win his father’s love. You are aware, I’m sure, of Willhelm Westerhaus, Genitetec’s CEO?"
"My heart bleeds for the whole fucking family," Kirsten replies. "Can we please just get on with it?!?"
"It was the younger Westerhaus’ lifetime goal to win his father’s respect, if not his love. It was his greatest disappointment when the first working android was completed and his father was not there to see it, having died some months before. But the breaking point came two years later, when his mother, whom he adored, was killed in a terrorist attack in Morocco, where she was vacationing with her new beau. Peter was never the same after that. He went into seclusion, in this very office, and his mental status, fragile as it was, began to deteriorate at a dangerously rapid pace. He told some of his fellows, the few he would allow into this sanctum, that God had spoken to him."
"And what did God say to the little bastard?"
"That he was the Chosen One, placed on this earth not to destroy it, but to save it."
"Save it?!?" Kirsten shouts, shooting up from her chair, eyes blazing. "Save it?? In case you haven’t noticed, Mr. Virgilius, this world is ruined! His creations have murdered millions! Probably billions!! Men! Women! Children! Adam, they’re murdering children!!!"
Adam drops his eyes. "Yes," he replies softly. "I’m well aware of that."
"Then answer me the only question I give a shit about right now. Why??"
Adam nods. "I can do that."
A sudden jab of pain rips through Koda’s chest, and she breathes deeply, willing her heart rate and respiration again below the threshold frequency of Westerhaus’ little beeper from hell. The calm finds its center just under her sternum, spreads, slipping along her nerves until her whole body poises on the sharp edges of awareness, every object, every color sharp in her sight, every sound keen as the rustle of a mouse under the snow to a hunting owl.
The droids have either halted their charge or retreated from the stairwell. Ducking to avoid the broken window in the door, Koda leans against the steel panel, listening. Just audible, she can hear the shuffle of feet now floors above her, retreating toward the upper levels. She has a couple minutes, maybe less, to break the lock on the other stairwell.
Shouldering the two extra guns, she sprints along the corridor that runs the circumference of the building. A third of the way around the curve, she catches sight of the scarlet Exit sign above the door to the second stair. No time for finesse on this one. Slinging her M-16 behind her shoulder, Koda braces the shotgun against her hip and fires.
The blast blows the lock mechanism to confetti, small fragments ricocheting off the bolt to pepper the wall opposite. Most of the debris, though, falls onto the landing on the other side. She cannot be sure in the echo from the shot, but it seems to her that sounds of feet shuffling on the steps have slowed. Not so eager to run into a 12-guage, are ya, hotshots? That’d blow even your printed-circuit brains out.
Koda bends to inspect the bolt, which shows bright nicks from both the shot and the flying shards of the door. It remains firmly in its socket, though, just where she wants it. Working quickly, she wires a detonator to the underside of the bar, leaving the length of copper dangling. She has perhaps half a kilo of plastique left. She kneads the powder into the malleable paste that gives it its name, then stuffs it down between the door panels, where it adheres nicely to the braces between the steel sheets. She molds it carefully, spreading upward it so that explosive and blasting cap make contact where the bolt runs out of sight into the door jamb.
She pauses for a moment, listening once again for the tread of feet on the stairs. If they want the door open, the plastique will do the job. It will also, if they don’t spread out too far up the steps, blow the lot of them right into the middle of next February. The charge she has set is enough to destroy a truck; it ought to be equal to taking out a dozen droids or so. Which leaves the party coming up the other staircase, with their weapons and their unwavering programmed purpose and their steel and titanium bodies and lifetime batteries.
Which leaves her, with two good automatic weapons, a shotgun and a single grenade still left. All that remains between them and Kirsten. All that remains between them and an inhuman hell.
Carefully, Koda pulls the cotter pin that will prime the detonator. She cannot defend two points at once. She will have to trust that the C-4 will take out most of one party while she deals with the second.
And hope that Kirsten and Adam can deal with any who manage to get past her. Take care of her, Adam. For all the gods’ sake, take care of her. She’s the only one who can win the world back. Every last one of the rest of us is expendable.
Every last single one.
The sound of feet on the stairs above sends her sprinting down the corridor. The curve of the hallway will give her some cover, but she needs more. She needs a barricade. As she runs—not full out, because that could send her heart rate soaring—the first sounds of battering come from the stair door behind her. The blows reverberate like the pounding of a great drum, metal smashing into metal with the mechanical regularity of arms and shoulders fashioned from steel and titanium fiber. The detonator has an eight-second delay. She counts it off with the rhythm of the blows, each one hammering through the building like a thunderclap.
The explosion, when it comes, shakes the floor beneath her feet, the sound washing over her like a physical force. Koda stumbles with it, breaking her fall only by clutching at the handle of a door. She swings from it crazily for a second, holding on while equilibrium reasserts itself. From around the curve of the hallway comes a second wave of sound, a tumbling and crashing almost like a rockslide. No doubt some of the wall has come down with the door. With luck the blast has also taken out a flight of stairs, tumbling the reinforced concrete steps down to shatter against the landing below.
With luck, the blast set nothing on fire.
With luck, there are no survivors.
Somewhere, sometime, the luck is going to run out.
There is nothing she can use as a barricade. Westerhaus, cautious or paranoid depending on how you look at it, has constructed his sanctum to give no cover for uninvited guests, be they sightseers or corporate saboteurs. The hall curves smoothly around the core of the Institute with not so much as a water fountain to obstruct line of sight. Even the pictures lie flat against the walls, mounted without wire or frames that could be abstracted and used as weapons.
Goddam security freak . . ..
She tries the handle that broke her fall. The room is unlabeled, the door locked. So is the next, and the next.
Goddam security freak . . ..
Is bound to have a security station somewhere on his personal floor. A security station with weapons, maybe riot gear. Returning the way she came, Koda begins shooting out the locks of the doors. A glance inside the first shows a supply room, stacked to the ceiling with paper and spare computer gear. The second contains a long teakwood table and armchairs: conference center. The third, a bathroom, complete with shower, lined in Spanish tile. Ahead of her, from the staircase by the ruined elevator, she can hear the blows begin to rain down on the door now held only by its bolt. She has perhaps seconds, no more.
The room closest to the office yields paydirt. Ranged on a desk that runs round the angle of the room, security monitors flicker with the activity on the floor. Mostly lack of it; except for the camera trained on the elevator and the exit from the staircase, all show empty halls. As Koda scrambles to strap on a Kevlar vest and snatch up a riot shield, she notes with satisfaction that the C-4 has done its work. A great, gaping hole in the outer wall of the corridor opens into nothingness. Bits and pieces of droids litter the floor. No survivors.
From the stairwell comes a crash as the door bursts open. Ina Maka, she breathes soundlessly, Holy Mother. For all your Earth, help me now. Thrusting her arm through the strap, Koda lifts the shield and steps out into the hall.
"After his mother died, Peter, a confirmed agnostic, became somewhat obsessively interested in the Judeo-Christian bible."
"The children, Virgilius. The children!"
Adam raises a hand. "Please. For any of this to make sense, I must tell it logically."
"We’re running out of time," Kirsten replies, her heart in her throat as she watches her lover mow through a group of androids.
"We will have time for this," he responds, getting up to pace the confines of the cluttered room. "He was particularly interested in the Book of Genesis, where Man was given dominion over the earth, and also entrusted to be its caretaker."
"I’m familiar with the relevant texts, Virgilius. Get on with it."
"In his sickness, Peter believed that God had come to him, stating that humans had, as he put it, ‘worn out their welcome’. They had taken the world given to them and had raped it; for food, for shelter, for the ability to travel long distances, for technology."
"There’s irony for you," Kirsten retorts, chuckling. "Mr. Technology himself, God’s sword against technology. Oh yeah, a laugh riot, as my father used to say." She props her head on one fist. "So, he invents the androids, ingratiates his inventions with the common man, and, when they least expect it…pow. Technology one, humanity zero. God, Westerhaus and the Earth, the new Blessed Trinity." Her smile is sour. "That still doesn’t explain why women are being raped and their infants murdered."
"The first androids he developed were never meant to hold stewardship over the earth, Doctor. Yes, they can be programmed to reap, or to sow, to build, or to destroy, but that is all that they can do. They cannot create. They cannot reason. They cannot make decisions based on logic, or even illogic, if they have not been programmed to make those decisions."
"Meaning that Maid Marion can’t become Construction Joe unless it’s reprogrammed."
"Exactly," Adam replies, smiling. "For all their seeming worth and indestructibility, androids lack the one thing that is needed to be a caretaker."
Kirsten’s face pales as the answer comes to her. "A thinking brain," she whispers, stunned by the horror of it. "Dear God! He invented a sentient android!"
Pulling the pin on her last grenade, Koda waits for the unhurried march of the droids’s feet to carry them around the curve of the hall. She stands to one side, behind the open door of the security station and the, the riot shield raised to protect her unhelmeted head. For a second, no more, she sinks deep into her mind’s center, steadying her heart, pacing her lungs and diaphragm, extending and sharpening her senses. Hard against her ribs, she feels the measured beat of her heart, the thrum of her blood in her veins. Her senses sharpen, so that the light shimmers in the empty hallway and her ears separate, exquisitely, the individual footfalls as the enemy approaches her. She waits.
The first half dozen round the curve at a trot with two seconds to go. Koda releases the grenade, her arm swinging high, up and ovrerhand. It arcs down in the midst of the group, ripping the clothing and front plates off two, toppling them backward to trip a third that goes down on its face, its weapon discharging under it as it strikes the floor. It does not rise again. Another, its legs blown away at midthigh, stands on its stumps with wires trailing loose. It has dropped its weapon and repetitively swivels its head from side to side and reciting in a high, flat voice, "Circuit 456, Check. Voder, Check. Color Card, Check. Accelerator Card, Check. Circuit 456, Check. . .." repeating itself over and over again. One of its colleagues, still on its feet, kicks it unceremoniously to the side, steps over the fallen and comes on doggedly.
Koda allows it to come on unopposed until it stands within ten feet. Shouldering the 12 guage, then, she fires and sends its head sailing back from its shoulders to land with a clang against the metal corpses on the floor and roll clattering along the hallway. She shoves another shell into the breech and sends the last of the party reeling headless into the wall. It stalls there, its chest against the wall, its feet moving in spastic small steps that carry it nowhere.
Advantage: Still the good guys. Koda grins and darts forward, avoiding the crater gouged by the explosion. Like the walls, the floors of the Westerhaus Institute are meter-thick reinforced concrete, meant to survive the legendary Big One that has yet to carry California out to sea. She kneels, rummaging briefly among the droid casualties for useful objects. One, bless his metal head, yields more shotgun shells; another she robs of the extra magazines he carries at his belt. For half a second, she considers pulling the remains together to form a barrier, but there is not enough shattered and twisted metal to form an effective barrier, still less block the passage altogether. Better to leave them as they lie. At worst, the next wave will have to go around them. At best, they may become tangled in the metal struts and twisting cables.
At the sound of feet in the corridor, Koda steps free of the metal tangle, retreating ot her place behind the security room door. For half a second, she glances back toward Westerhaus’ office, wishing for some sign, any sign, that Kirsten has made headway in her search for the code.
Because this isn’t going to work much longer. Sooner or later, they’re going to come down that hall in a rush, and it’s all going to be over.
But what comes this time is not a mass advance but a single set of footsteps, walking quietly, deliberately. They halt just beyond the curve of the wall, just out of sight, just beyond shot. A voice, male and mellow and suffused with gentle reason, says, "Dr. Rivers? This is unnecessary. May we talk?"
For answer, Koda picks up her rifle and sends a round speeding into the wall just ahead of where the speaker must be standing. "That’s all I’ve got to say, bastard! You got anything you want to add?"
A figure steps out into the hallway, perhaps five yards ahead of her. He—or it, she reminds herself fiercely, it—wears flannel shirt and jeans, the toes of well-worn boots showing below the frayed hems of the legs. Crinkles show at the corners of his blue eyes, and his hair, brushed carefully across his forehead, is white as salt. "Now, Dr. Rivers," he says, "Dakota—you’re making a terrible mistake here. You’re throwing your life away for—" palms up, his hands gesture widely—"for what? It doesn’t have to be like this. Indeed, it doesn’t."
It’s a droid, she reminds herself. Just a very, very lifelike droid. Never mind that it looks like everybody’s favorite uncle. "Okay," she says. "Turn yourselves off. All of you, you included. Then it won’t have to ‘end like this.’" She practically spits the last words and feels her heart give a painful jump. Consciously, she damps down her anger. They want emotion. They want her to fall prey again to the neural scrambler or whatever the hell the damned thing is.
"Hardly," Again, the open, reasonable gesture. "Hear me. Enough of your people have died. We have what we need, for years to come. We will leave you in peace. You and other humans can live out your lives in the normal way. You need not fear us."
The strange thing is, she is not even tempted. What the droid offers is not entirely unreasonable; it is the bargain made by the slaver with the enslaved, the butcher with the cattle. This time we will only take so many of you. The rest may live.
Until the next time.
And the time after that.
"I’ve seen what you’ve done!" she yells. "Fuck you and your deals!"
"You haven’t heard my offer."
"Let me guess. Give up Kirsten King and we can all walk out of here." She draws a long, hard, steadying breath. Every second she can keep the thing talking helps Kirsten, brings her that much closer to the answer. "No."
"You will die then, both of you. You need not."
"Make me a better offer."
"You will live. She will not suffer, I promise you."
"I said a better offer, bastard!"
"There is none. Yes or no. Now."
"Well, then." Koda drops her shield and steps around the edge of the door. "I guess I’ll just have to say—"
The droid waits, not speaking. With reflexes so swift she has no time to plan the maneuver, Koda whips the shotgun up and blows the droid’s head assembly open. "—no."
"Yes," Adam replies, coming to stand before her. "It took many years, many failures, but yes, he invented an android that was able to think for itself."
"How?" Kirsten demands, her hand slapping hard on the table. "How in the hell did he do that?!?"
Adam pauses for a moment, pursing his lips and sliding his fingers along the ribbed collar of his shirt. "Most of the preliminary work, or what passed for it at the time, had been done decades before Westerhaus was born. Mapping hardwiring and microchip technology to living tissue was hardly a new field by the time the first androids had been developed. Spinal cord regeneration, the Navy’s use of rats as cameras, even the Alzheimers work had moved from theory into accepted standards of practice for the time. But that," he continues, spreading his hands, "obviously, wasn’t enough. And even if it were possible to wire a human brain like a Christmas tree and dump it into the shell of an android, that still wouldn’t work."
"Because it would still, essentially, be human."
"Exactly. So the problem needed to be approached from another angle." He pauses again, head tilted in thought. "Do you remember the spate of child abductions in Washington DC a decade or so ago?"
Kirsten thinks for a moment. "I think so. From orphanages mostly. Some from hospitals. A few from their own cribs. They never captured the kidnappers or found the bod…ies…." Her eyes widen. "No. Please don’t tell me that he…."
"Yes. He did."
"But why?" Kirsten shouts, pounding the table with a closed fist. "Why the goddamned children?!?"
"Genetics," Adam answers. "And the ability to produce a compound that, with a little outside help, will turn a regular drone into a member of Westerhaus’ Master Race."
"Stop speaking in riddles, man! We don’t have time to… oh my God." She rises to her feet slowly, bone-pale face cupped in suddenly shaking hands. "Oh my God. It’s Growth Hormone, isn’t it. Human Growth Hormone. There were trials, not so long back, connecting it with nerve regeneration…."
"Precisely. A genetic marker is injected into the child, causing a pituitary adenoma. Within six months to a year, depending upon the age of the child injected, the adenoma forms and begins to produce Human Growth Hormone in great quantities. When the levels reach their peak, the hormone is…harvested, and the donor is then euthanized."
"Euthanized?!? You mean murdered!!!"
"Yes," Adam replies, looking down at his shoes. "They were murdered. Are still being murdered, all in the name of science…and…humanity. In some way that I’m not fully aware of, the hormone imparts sentience to the android circuits. It was the ingredient that Mr. Westerhaus was lacking all these years. When he found it, he cried. Not in sorrow, but in joy."
He doesn’t expect the right cross that connects, with deadly precision, at the point of his chin. His hands fly up as he stumbles back, crashing against the credenza and sending the coffee pot and mugs clattering to the ground.
"You son of a bitch!" Kirsten growls, stalking him like a wolf on the hunt. "You goddamned motherfucking son of a bitch!!! You knew this was happening. You knew it! And you did nothing to stop it!!!"
"I couldn’t stop it," he replies, making no attempt to ward off her blows. "There was no way for me to stop it. But you, Doctor King, you can."
Some of what he’s said eventually gets through and her punches weaken, then stop altogether and she stands like a toy soldier whose spring has wound down. "How," she demands, voice rough from shouting and muffled by the tears she’s trying desperately to hold in. "Tell me how."
With gently hands, he turns her and guides her to the main desk. The alien script continues to scroll across the bottom in an endless, nauseating stream. "For months," he begins softly, "I have attempted to decipher this string of code, but found no reference point in all my research with which to even begin. The Rosetta Stone, as it were, came in the email he addressed to you. The one that, unfortunately, you never received. You, Doctor King, are the key. At some point prior to his suicide, he must have had second thoughts. It is my belief that he encoded a…backdoor, if you will, an escape hatch through all of this could be undone. And you are the only person in this world who can decipher it."
"Why? What’s so damned special about me??"
"You are his greatest adversary, and aside from the fact that your brilliance in these matters equals his….."
The droid slumps to the floor to lie among the other wreckage, and Koda takes two quick steps back into the security station. A glance about the rank of monitors shows the remaining squad splitting into two parties, the second setting off down the hall in the opposite direction. The first contingent, hovering just beyond range beyond the curve, does not move.
Of course not. They’re going to wait for the other bunch to come around behind and attack from both directions. Can’t let that happen.
She has two automatic weapons left, one shotgun and one nameless piece of sculpture. If she does not deal with the nearer group now, she will be trapped. Worse, she will leave Westerhaus’ office and Kirsten exposed to at least one of the parties. And it will all be over. Kirsten will die, and the world will be at the mercy of Westerhaus’ creations for years, perhaps for generations.
Can’t let that happen.
Koda slings the AK over one shoulder, dropping her M-16 into her hands. The shotgun will not serve her here. Neither will stealth.
Steeling herself against the pain she knows will follow, Koda bursts out of the security station, running full out for the curve and the smaller droid party still waiting. She knows to the millisecond when her heart rate rises to normal by the stab of sudden agony through her chest. Her legs still work, though, and her hands. That is all that matters.
She skids around the curve running full out, and as she comes within sight of the enemy party she jerks her finger spasmodically down on the trigger, spraying the width of the hallway from side to side. Amid the staccato rhythm of the M-16 she can hear the impact of slugs on metal as they find their marks, droids going down before her assault, others bringing their own guns up to fire, stuttering out an answer to her own. A round whizzes by her head, close enough for her to feel the wind of its passage. Another strikes her squarely in the center of her Kevlar vest, a bruising blow, and white heat blossoms in her chest, stealing her breath. She ignores it, throwing down the M-16 when its magazine empties and feeling the solid slap of the AK into her hands in its stead. And then she is firing again in long sweeps, not taking time to aim, catching her massed targets in their sensor arrays, their legs, the solid, unyielding mass of their torsos. One holds a round thing in its hand, its dark metal surface scored, and Koda aims high, going for its wrist. The thing drops and rolls among the droids, but none of them seems to notice it as they spray bullets toward her and she dodges low, feinting to one side, dodges again. Something stings along her own leg, something else on her left shoulder, but she cannot take time to look, as she grits her teeth against the havoc under her sternum, and fires and fires and fires again. And again. And again.
The trigger under her cramped finger clicks on empty. Perhaps twenty seconds have passed since she rounded the curve of the hall. The droids lie scattered over the floor, some riddled with holes through the body, others more neatly dispatched with gaping cavities in their sensor arrays. Torn wires and a thin stream of yellow-green lubricant snake along the tiles. Koda’s breath comes in hard, dry gasps, as the pain of the wounds in leg and shoulder crashes in on her, joining with the ramping agony in her chest. She leans over at the waist, her hands on her knees, and forces her breath to slow, forces it to regularity, bringing her heart under control and with it the pain that threatens to wash her away on its red tide. There is something wet under her hand, and when she raises her palm to look, dark blood drips to the floor.
She is not bleeding to death, at least not at the moment. A quick inspection shows her a matching wound on the back of her thigh; clean penetration, then. Red streaks the angle of her shoulder, a rip through her shirt showing blood and grazed skin beneath. "Just a graze, ma’am." Graze be damned. The thing is painful out of all proportion to the damage, worse at the moment than the hole in her leg. But that is because her body has not had time to process the greater damage. The wound will hurt. That is a certainty.
Without warning, the corridor before her explodes in smoke and fire. Koda throws
herself backward, hands flying to protect her head as the grenade lifts shattered metal and plexiglass into the air, spraying it like shrapnel into walls and ceiling. A splinter of steel drives itself into the back of her left hand, and blood runs chill down onto her face. Silence follows.
Koda pulls the splinter out of the space between two of the tendons that stand forth against her skin, fanning out from her wrist. Levering her feet under her, she stumbles over to the wreckage. One droid moves a hand, and she loosens the sculpture from her belt and methodically pounds its head to bits. Then she picks up her guns, slotting new magazines in under the stocks and limps back to the security center.
The screens show the last group of droids somewhere around the curve of the building, how far or near she cannot tell. She has no landmarks to go by; she only knows they are somewhere on the long way around between her position and the still smoking crater in the hall. Presumably they know the first party has failed. Presumably they also know she is wounded and running low on ammunition.
Running low on strategy. Running low on strength. She bends to examine the hole in her leg a second time. A thin stream of blood pulses from it, scarlet, bright with new oxygen. She swears softly. The bullet must have nicked the artery. She must have torn it open when she dived for the floor. She unwinds her bandana from her neck and cinches it as tightly as she can over the hole in her jeans. Pressure will help. Temporarily, anyway.
But then, everything is temporary now.
I wonder, she thinks idly as she checks her magazines once again. I wonder if it’s true that sometimes we get to go back in time. Think I’d like something Pre-Columbian next go-round if we do. Cahokia, maybe. Mound-Builders—Kirsten would like that. Not sure the future world is anything I want to be born into.
Should have asked Wa Uspewikakiyape when I had the chance.
Should have it now soon enough.
A flicker of movement on one of the monitors catches her eye. The droids are moving.
They come in a rush this time. Koda hears them before she sees them, their feet drumming in perfect, mechanical unison. If she stays in here, she will be trapped. It will only take one droid, one gun. And then the way into Westerhaus’ office will lie open to them.
She slips out of the room and behind the door again. Its armor will give some little protection, for some little time. She braces the AK against the edge of the panel, waiting only for the contingent to come into sight. The thunder of running feet stops somewhere just around the curve. Then nothing. Silence. The quiet stretches on and on, until she begins to wonder if the grenade blast has partially deafened her. She could go back and check the monitors. They might have split again, be coming at her from both directions again.
But that’s what they want her to do. It would give them a clear shot at her.
One. All it would take.
She waits, while the blood trickles down her leg and arm, while her muscles stiffen. Waits.
Bastards. Goddam game of nerves.
Won’t break. Can’t.
A single droid steps into the corridor, in clear sight. She fires just as an object leaves its hand, arching up in a perfect parabola to clear the top of the door and come straight down on her, bursting into flame as it descends. She throws herself against the wall, but it rakes against her arm, spreading flame down her sleeve and across the covering of her Kevlar vest. Rolling, she smothers the fire that licks at her shirt and down the leg of her jeans, not even feeling the heat as she kicks the incendiary away from her and back out into the hall. It burns sullenly on the tiles, black smoke billowing up to choke her. She glances down to check the damage. The ruins of her sleeve hang limply from her wrist. The skin beneath has already begun to blister. Worse, the vest now dangles by a single strap, its armored plates slipping loose beneath the cloth. Useless. She shrugs out of it, leaving it where it lies. No time, no way, to get another.
She snatches up her rifle again and waits.
They come in a rush this time, rounding the curve of the hallway in a mass. The AK jars against her shoulder as she sprays the rounds across their line, shaking her bones one against another, sending a chill trickle of blood down across her chest. Another incendiary plummets down over the door, striking its edge and falling wide to spill flame across the floor behind her. Their return fire clangs against the sheet steel of the door, a round breaking through the lexan window above and showering her with a myriad dull-edged fragments. One droid breaks wide from the mass and dashes toward her position, keeping to the far wall. She puts a spurt of rounds through its head, and it tumbles down on the sputtering fire bomb, its uniform bursting into flame. Oh no you don’t. Bastard. You want by me, gotta kill me first.
But the rest come on undeterred, so close now she can see the colored rings of their optical sensors. If she does not move, she will be trapped against the wall as surely as she would have been in the guard post.
A high scream like a hawk’s rips out of her throat, as she stands and swings around the
edge of the door, raking the enemy line with fire. Two stumble and fall, but the rest come inexorably on. Something slams into her body at the level of her right hipbone, sending her staggering back a step as she empties one magazine and slings the second gun around into her hands, its frame juddering against her palm as she jerks the trigger back and holds it. Searing heat strikes through her left shoulder, and her arm suddenly goes slack, the muzzle of her gun dropping. She props it against her side, never breaking the rhythm of her fire. Another droid falls. Another.
Her gun falls silent. No more bullets.
A hail of automatic fire bursts from in front of her. Pain rakes across her body, the claws of some great beast slashing her from hip to shoulder. Blood soaks the front of her shirt, a red rain that splashes against the floor. A shadow passes over her eyes, clears, returns. Sounds take on an abnormal clarity. She hears the clatter of her rifle as it hits the floor, bouncing end for end. And she hears the rattle of a grenade as it rolls across the tiles to bump against her foot.
She cannot breathe. Her ribs have become a vise pressing down on her lungs, squeezing the life from her. The iron taste of blood is on her tongue, welling up from somewhere deep in her body. With exquisite slowness, exquisite precision, she reaches down, grasps the grenade, and aims it at the line of droids. A roar like the voice of a waterfall, the rage of a thousand thunders rolls over her, and she stumbles backward against the door of Westerhaus’ office. It gives way behind her, and she tumbles into the abyss.
Adam turns suddenly toward the door, horror on his face. Kirsten turns to look as Koda tumbles through and falls across the threshhold, her body bloodstained from neck to thigh, a thin runnel of scarlet at the corner of her mouth. Her eyes stare upward at nothing, pupils fixed, lifeless.
Conclusion - Chapter 63
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