They waited until night. Suzie made cautious forays to get food while Auggie watched a game, falling into habit even in the strange situation.
Ed slept uneasily, hugging her bag with the tablet in it, partly to keep it safe, not quite trusting Suzie’s sudden change to ally, and partly because it was all the proof of Emma that she had.
When it was dark Suzie took them to a tech park at the edge of the under city. A handful of lit windows scattered across its face like stars. The buildings had created a windy vortex that Ed’s jacket was failing to protect her from. She hunched against it, hurriedly following Suzie and Auggie around to a side entrance. Suzie’s security card beeped them through, and they continued down a frigid staircase full of the sound of humming light and the echoes of their own boots.
They came to a large room full of tables and the incomprehensible tangle of boxes, wires, and tools that always seemed to congregate around tech, only to be left to collect dust when they moved into obsolescence. The only sound was a quiet rush from the ventilation, and rustling from a solitary form hunched over a work bench, tinkering as people like that tended to.
His head jerked up, banging into the light hovering close above him. It flew up a few inches before settling like a halo.
He was so much bigger than he seemed from a distance. Up close, Ed saw muscle straining his shirt, and ruining the hang of his pants. He even had the short, clean haircut. He looked like the grown up version of every football player she remembered bullying them in school.
This one was tame, and greeted them all politely.
“This is a bit weird, right?” He laughed. “For a minute I thought you might be making up for our date.”
She and Auggie looked at Suzie, who didn’t miss a beat.
He sighed. “You said you had something for me to look at?”
“Top secret though, Josh. I’m not joking.”
“You’re worried about a signal?”
“We don’t know. It could be. It might be nothing.”
“Intriguing. Come on. There’s a dead room back here.”
It didn’t look like much: just a small glass space that hissed closed behind them, with its own workbench and tools. He tapped a panel on the wall and the soft light switched from soft white to faintly red. When she looked at her own tablet there was no outside link showing at all.
“Ed. Give it to him.”
She looked up, fingers tightened around her bag.
“He won’t hurt it, Ed,” Auggie said. “Maybe it can help us figure out what’s going on.”
She handed it over. Joshua’s hands dwarfed what had seemed so large when Emma handled it.
“Aw, Suze, I thought you were bringing me a treat. This is just an old girl.” Even so, he carried it to the work bench carefully.
“It’s part of something serious. Be careful.”
“Well,” he said, turning to gather a little pile of gizmos, “whatever we do in this little room is just between us. It won’t be calling home.” He tried to power it on, and when it didn’t light he set it on a charger.
“Hmm. Something needs jiggering under the hood.”
“I didn’t know you cared.”
“You stood me up, Suze. The least you can do is banter.”
He brought over a hood of sorts that arched over the tablet. It hummed and plonked to itself. He looked at its display and frowned as it cycled through a series of screens.
“Hmm. What’s this, then?”
He started to pry carefully at the case, switching through various tools. Each time he did his attention sharpened.
“Don’t hide your light, you silly thing.”
“What’s going on?”
“It’s trying to look factory standard, but its hardware is locked down in a way I haven’t seen before.”
He tinkered away. Finally Ed heard something click and he made an approving noise. Fine arms descended from the hood, lifting the top of the case just slightly. The hood beeped suddenly, frantically.
“Shit.” He stooped down. “I see you, little thing.” He reached for a can. Some kind of liquid dripped into the tablet.
“What are you doing? Don’t hurt it!”
He glanced at Ed then waved her closer. “Look here. See that?”
She stooped down. A hair-fine wire still connected the top and the bottom, disappearing into a tiny silver tube.
“It’s a tripwire. I bet whatever is in that tube would have melted the whole thing. Definitely not factory work.”
The metal arms began to lift the top of the case, painstakingly slow, just enough to allow Joshua to start poking around. He kept up a steady stream of chatter even as his eyes remained glued to the display, explaining what he was doing as though they had the slightest idea of what he was talking about. He reminded her of Auggie when he talked about engines, full of enthusiasm completely detached from audience reaction.
“What the hell..?”
He leaned back suddenly, then ducked his head, picking up a light to shine into it, looking at the real thing instead of the hood display.
“This is…freeeeaky. Look.”
They all leaned forward. Ed could see what seemed like wet strands of clear gel clinging to the bits of computer.
“What is it?”
“I’ve never seen this shit before.”
“Can you hazard a guess?” Suzie asked. “What do you think it could be?”
“I think it’s goddamn weird. Look, all this, this is normal.” His probe pointed out the sorts of things that would come in sleek packaging in stores she would never venture through: odd metal boxes that looked featureless and made the magic of computers.
“It’s good stuff. Cutting edge. Nothing older than a few months, some of it is pre-release. Hiding in an old box.”
“Emma said that she had a program she was testing.”
“Could be that’s her job.” He adjusted the hood, and the image focused on a gleaming line.
“Ugh. It looks like the trail a snail would make,” Suzie said.
He grinned. “Yeah, it sort of does. That shit should not be here. It looks like it’s all this same substance. Who puts gooey jelly in a tablet? And it’s everywhere. But I don’t think it’s supposed to be.”
He pointed his probe at a small silver box made of the same material as the booby trap tube. The gel looked as though it had burst out through a nearly invisible seam. She could see how the edges were ragged.
“I think it started in there. It spread.”
“Like the box broke and contaminated it?”
“Maaaaybe. But look, see those lines? It’s not spattered around. It looks organized. Purposeful. Either it’s being controlled, or it decided to take over by itself.”
“You’re talking about…I mean, that sounds like Mimic stuff.” Auggie looked around, waiting for everyone to laugh at the idea. Hopefully.
“There’s the stuff they gave us that we engineer. It’s everywhere now, right? The Anti Settlement League likes to spread lies about how it’s all a conspiracy. It’s in our security systems and that kind of thing. Like they don’t all live surrounded by tech the Mimics gave us. It’s all bullshit.”
“Tech they left behind is different from…I mean, Ed’s bike doesn’t have snail snot in it.”
Ed took Auggie’s hand, giving it a little squeeze. Her heart felt like it was going to burst from her chest, and he still sounded worse off.
“There’s nothing weird about their tech. They were just way more advanced than we are, but we can understand the science behind it just fine. Enough that we can make it and bounce advances off of it. The stuff they gave us, it’s gotta be the dregs of what they know. Like someone leaving a bicycle for cave men. It was the stuff they thought we were mature enough to handle. Their real progress was in biomechanics. Semi-living machines. Scientists wanted to keep some of that stuff but both sides shut that down.
“But I’ve heard of people coming across exotic remnants in the wild. Probably just stuff so small that even the Mimics couldn’t remember. Only rumours though, so who knows. I’ve never seen any of it, myself.”
“You think this is alive.”
“I don’t know. It isn’t powering up. Maybe. Maybe it was but it’s dead now. Or maybe it just needs a bit more juice.” He looked at Suzie. “Do you want me to try to wake it up?”
“Yes,” Ed said. “Wake it up. I want to know what it is. I want to know what it was for.”
Joshua didn’t wait for Suzie to override her, eagerly fishing around for another arcane tool.
“This is just an educated guess,” he warned. “There’s nothing wrong with the hardware that I can detect, so I’m assuming that the…er…” he looked at Suzie, “snail stuff, might be the problem. I’m just going to give it a poke and see what it does.” He pointed to a screen on the wall. “If there’s any kick to it, it will show up on there.” He took a deep breath and touched his new probe to the jelly.
There was a sound, like the end of a scream, that made her clap her hands over her ears. She saw Suzie’s mouth moving. Joshua jerked the probe away, but the scream continued. The screen was white
Auggie lunged for the tablet. She pulled him back.
It cut off. The silence rang. The screen pulsed slowly.
“Where am I?”
A pleasant woman’s voice came from the tablet. There was a tremor in it. It sounded real. The uncertainty made it sound human.
“Who are you?” Ed asked. Her mouth was dry, and it came out as a croak instead of defiant.
“I can’t see. Where am I? Where is Emma?”
The screen flickered. The emblem from the van filled it, spinning slowly.
“Where is Emma?” she — it — asked again.
“She’s gone. Some men came and took her away. People with your symbol. That one on the screen.”
There was a long silence. The jelly inside the tablet writhed, giving off a faint glow. Lights danced over the hood’s display. Joshua watched them intently.
“I can’t access external systems. I can’t access security cameras. I can’t access city databases. Where am I? Why is my connection gone?”
“What are you? What do you do?”
“I look after her, and keep her safe.”
“Then why did those men come and drag her away?”
“I called Wyn to tend to her needs. She became confused. She became upset.”
“This Wyn, he hurt her?”
“She rejected him. She had never objected before. He became concerned. I tried to extricate her from the situation, and send Wyn away.”
The screen dimmed, the emblem flickering in and out. The lights in the room flickered.
“What the hell,” Joshua said. He rolled his chair over to a screen and started tapping at it.
“She was screaming. She was crying.”
“Ed…” Suzie warned.
“Everything was going well. It was normal again. She was safe.”
“She was scared.”
“Not when she was with me.”
“The baking instructor said she’d withdrawn. That was you, wasn’t it? You made her stay home. Alone. With you.”
“She has human contact, of course. It is essential for the development and maintenance of mental health.” The voice sounded briefly patronising, humouring her foolishness. “I encourage her to engage in situations in which her interactions are controlled. It is where she is most comfortable.”
“So you let her go to baking class.”
“Evening classes are an ideal situation.”
“They are short. Their parameters are clear. They’re ideal for her.”
“Instead of working.”
The screen was flickering again, growing brighter. It was trying to do something, she guessed. Joshua looked at the hood, where lights were flickering rapidly, then hunched over his screen again.
“Customers scared her. She didn’t understand them. She was distressed when she came home.”
“She said she was studying for an interview.”
It was silent. The jelly squirmed. The screen jumped and flickered. Auggie looked up at the ceiling lights nervously as they grew so bright she thought they’d burst.
“Her study and her interview were good learning opportunities.”
It was lying. Or half lying, anyway.
“She never had a chance, did she? It was a set up.” The thing was silent. “And the baking class? Did you want her to fail that, too?”
“Human contact is important.” There was the faintest crack in its certainty.
“But you took her out of it.”
“I thought it best. She was confused.”
“No, she wasn’t. She wasn’t at all.”
“Emma is perfectly normal. I saw to it. I kept her safe. I guided her. I summoned Wyn. Perhaps it was too soon, but she would remember. She enjoyed his company before.”
“Did she? Or did she lie to you, like you did her?”
“My Emma was not a liar!” The screen snapped and sparkled. “She never lied to me before.”
The light settled.
“Her exit forms were accepted. The tolerable amount of deviation from the norm among her cohort had been reached. I did not want to report her.”
“To who? Who came for her?”
“The Centre has taken her back.” Its voice was soft. “My Emma is gone.”
“Those who return are lost to the world. Those who failed.”
“Where is the Centre?”
“My Emma…failed. I failed.”
The voice cracked. There was a dull, grinding hum that grew into a sizzle. The screen brightened. Ed covered her eyes, the light still bleeding through. She smelled something burning. Joshua shouted. When the afterimages finally bled away Ed saw smoke pouring from the tablet.