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Jude shook his head. “You say you can help,” he told Auden. “Help.”
Despite his claims, Auden didn’t know much, and most of it we’d already figured out on our own. But there was one thing we hadn’t expected—and it was big enough for us to invite him into the house.
“I believed it at first,” Auden said, settling onto the couch, Riley’s couch, and walking us through it. “Savona hates BioMax even more than he hates the skinners; that’s what he always said. You can’t blame the abomination—you blame its maker.”
Jude frowned. “Charming.”
“But if they weren’t working together from the start, they are now,” Auden continued. “There are Brotherhood people working in Safe Haven—people loyal to Savona. And they wouldn’t be there unless BioMax wanted them to be.”
“How do you know?” I asked. “Have you been there?”
Auden shook his head. “They’ve got that place locked down. No one gets in without BioMax’s permission; no one gets out. Not just skinners—”
“Mechs,” Jude corrected him.
“—but staff, too. It’s almost impossible to get any information out either.”
“But this information somehow made its way to you,” Jude said, sounding skeptical.
“There are people still loyal to me. I know I’m right about this. BioMax brought the Brotherhood into Safe Haven. I don’t know what it means, but …”
If nothing else, it meant Safe Haven was anything but safe. It wasn’t news, but it was confirmation. BioMax and the Brotherhood were working together—working to get rid of the mechs. Presumably starting with the ones they had gathered in one convenient location “for their own protection.” There was no point in arguing anymore, since it was obvious what we needed to do, and if Jude didn’t agree, I’d go alone. I’d see for myself what BioMax was up to, and—whether by persuasion or force—I’d get the mechs out.
“We have to go in,” Jude said.
And when he did, much as I hated to admit it, I was relieved.
Auden promised to try to get someone in on the staff side, someone loyal to him who could help us all break out, if it proved as hard as he suspected it would be. I could tell Jude didn’t believe he’d follow through. I believed he would try.
We left him in the only safe place we could think of: Riley’s apartment.
He’s dead, I kept telling myself. He doesn’t need it anymore. That didn’t stop it from feeling like a betrayal. Whether Auden wanted to admit it or not, there’d been a time when he wanted us all dead, or at least was convinced we didn’t have the right to live. And now we were using Riley’s home to keep him safe.
Maybe this would finally make us even.
“You sure about this?” Auden asked, as we parted ways. He wasn’t talking to me.
“I have to,” Ani said. “You going to be okay here?”
Jude rolled his eyes. “He’ll be fine.”
“Yes, he will,” Auden agreed. “And if you need me, any of you—”
“Don’t hold your breath,” Jude said. “Or do, if that’s what gets you off. Your call.”
“Before you go …” Auden hesitated, watching me, as if measuring whether or not he should continue.
Apparently, I didn’t pass the test.
“Be safe,” he said, but he said it to Ani, and she was the one he put his arms around and hugged tightly. It was the happy ending to a modern parable: Skinner and org bond in the face of adversity, each learning a valuable lesson about the other’s humanity. And yet there was a time when Auden had known me better than anyone in the world. So why did he need Ani to teach him that mechs were more than heartless machines?
Why did I still care?
“It’s for your own protection.”
Like the machines BioMax designed, the operation was a well-oiled one. The corp had distributed a set of rendezvous coordinates to all mechs. From there we would be taken to the secure resettlement facility, its location and access well protected from the inquiring public. And from there … well, from there things got a bit hazy. Without knowing exactly what was going on inside Safe Haven, it was impossible to know how hard it would be to get everyone out, much less figure out exactly what BioMax and the Brotherhood intended to do if we failed. But even if we didn’t know what we were walking into, it felt good to be moving again. It felt right.
The coordinates took us to a vast concrete lot lined with rows of trucks and buses, each bearing a freshly painted BioMax logo. A thin trickle of cars pulled up to the registration point, disgorging their mech cargo, then driving away. Some were filled with concerned orgs who hesitated on the curb, drawing out the moment with embraces and farewells. But most mechs came alone and sent their cars away on autopilot. As we did, joining the procession of mechs, letting the BioMax reps take our names, scan our pupils, check the registration data embedded in our spinal columns. We shuffled down a line of intake staff, finally reaching a man with a white smock and a stiff smile. He had doctor written all over him, a game many of the techs liked to play, as if their machinations on our conduits and circuitry made them healers, when in fact they were nothing but plumbers, mechanics, engineers. “Welcome,” he said. Cue the mirthless grin. “I’m so pleased you’ve decided to take the prudent route and join us until this crisis is resolved.”
His hand flashed through the air, and then there was a sharp prick at the back of my neck, like something had sunk its fangs into my skin.
I slapped a hand over my neck. There was a rough patch at the tip of my spine, and a hard-edged lump that hadn’t been there before. “What the—”
Jude caught the doctor’s wrist as it swooped in his direction. “Not unless you tell me what the hell this is,” Jude said, glaring at the slim, silver injector that had been aimed at his neck.
“He’s nervous,” I said quickly. “You can understand that, right?” I tried to sound innocent and unsuspecting, a scared little girl who just wanted to be told what to do. “There are people trying to kill us! Maybe if you just explained … ?”
I doubt either of us expected him to. But after a pause he shrugged. “Just a precaution—it helps us keep track of your location,” he said. “If you don’t get one, we can’t let you into Safe Haven.”
Jude let go of the man’s wrist. “Just a precaution,” he repeated, bending his head forward.
“We’re not taking any chances,” the man said, jabbing the injector into Jude’s neck. I flinched, watching the tracking chip slide under his skin. Jude didn’t move.
The man slapped him on the back, then patted me on the shoulder. “All set.”
I tried to look grateful. Even though I felt like he’d stripped off my clothes and left me bare and helpless on the cement for any and all to see.
Jude looked blank. “I feel better already.”
They shoved twelve of us in the back of a truck. BioMax’s first step in keeping us safe involved an unpleasantly bumpy ride, the kind of lurching and slamming that in another life would have left me concussed and puking, but in this one just left me with a peculiar ringing in my ears after the sixth or seventh time my head slammed, hard, into the truck’s steel wall.
There were no windows.
There was, however, a projector that played a looped vid against the back wall. A familiar face with a soothing voice, telling us all how happy we would be once we arrived at our new home. (Temporary home, she was careful to say. Ours until the world was perfectly safe for us again. Like perfect safety was just within reach.) Kiri Napoor—who must have decided her principles weren’t worth her job—extolled the virtues of our secluded paradise as images of happy mechs frolicking in a bucolic pasture flickered across the screen.
“Looks better than where I live,” one of the other mechs mumbled. He was tall, with brown hair, broad shoulders, and a familiar face that made me suspect his body, like mine, was a generic model. The two girls with him, on the other hand, were strictly custom-made—the elaborate pattern
s of freckles on one and the deep dimples on the other were a dead giveaway, subtle org touches that BioMax never bothered with unless asked.
“Yeah, I’m sure it’s a nonstop party,” Ani said. Jude shot her a look. Riling up the crowd would be fine—mandatory, even—once we got inside. But first we had to get in. Which meant playing nice.
“I don’t care what it is,” the dimpled girl said, “as long as it’s safe.”
The mech next to her, who’d spent most of the ride with her head lowered, long blond hair covering her face, suddenly looked up. “Did you know anyone who … ?”
“Couple friends. You?”
“Yeah,” the girl said, and dropped her head again. “I knew someone.”
She didn’t say anything else. I wondered if she was regretting that she’d boarded the truck at all, instead of following in the footsteps of her someone, uploading with him, virus or not. Her confession got everyone else going, and soon the truck was buzzing with questions and details, the whos, whats, hows, where-were-you-whens of natural disaster.
“I said, what about you?” the guy next to me repeated, poking me like I hadn’t heard him the first two times.
Before I could answer, Jude’s hand was at his throat. “Don’t touch her.”
The guy looked alarmingly unintimidated. He grabbed Jude’s wrist and jerked it away, then began to rise unsteadily to his feet, lurching toward us.
“Please stop,” I said, though part of me wanted to push Jude away and knock this guy out myself.
You’re not invincible anymore, I reminded myself. None of us was.
“It’s fine,” I said, louder. “Please.”
“You should teach your boyfriend how to keep his mouth shut,” the lurcher grunted, but at least he sat down.
“I don’t need you protecting me,” Jude hissed.
“And I don’t need to watch you get the crap kicked out of you again.”
He opened his mouth, then shut it again, and I knew we were both thinking about the last time he’d gotten the crap kicked out of him.
I didn’t understand how Riley could be everywhere and nowhere at once.
It was quiet after that, for one hour, then two, the twelve of us scrabbling for purchase as the truck lurched over bumps and veered around corners. There was a long, straight coasting that seemed to go on forever, then a string of mini-quakes as the tires ground over a gravel road. The truck jerked to a stop, flinging me into Jude’s lap. We were there.
Safe Haven was a corp-town. It made sense. Parnassus and BioMax were sister corps, subsidiaries of the same bureaucratic overlords, which meant the Parnassus residence facility would be up for grabs. I hadn’t been back to a corp-town since the Synapsis attack, and I would have been happy enough to keep it that way.
Not that the two had anything in common. Where Synapsis had been all fake greenery and reflecting ponds, the Parnassus corp-town made no attempt to disguise its primary purpose, which was the mining and making of things that it could transform into piles of credit. The people who lived there were, presumably, secondary. So there were no playing fields, no botanical gardens, no gleaming glass residence cubes with pristine atriums at their hearts. Parnassus workers lived in steel, windowless domes.
There was nothing here to remind me of the Synapsis corp-town and the bloated bodies I’d stepped over in my escape. Nothing except the fact of the corp-town itself, and the claustrophobic feeling that descended as we stepped into steel dome number seven. Residence centers in every corp-town were designed along the same principles: maximum sleeping facilities, minimum means of escape. I’d seen how quickly the Synapsis steel shutters locked down the building at the first triggering of an alarm; this dome was nothing but one huge steel shutter. It locked behind us.
It was obvious we wouldn’t to be mingling with the orgs. Those had been cleared out. Way out, judging from the barbed-wire fence we’d passed on our way in. So it was just us. The communal space, an atrium of bare silver paths and sloping steel archways, was mostly empty. A few mechs in identical orange sweats wandered through the metallic park, looking like they had nowhere in particular to go but around and around on the circular walking track. The mechs we’d arrived with seemed equally purposeless, standing around, waiting to be told what to do. So we blended, waiting patiently by the entry checkpoint, neither asking questions of the orgs guarding the gate nor speculating among ourselves what might lie beyond it.
I pulled out my ViM, planning to pretend to check my zone while I snapped a few surreptitious pics for the network. But I couldn’t link in.
“I wouldn’t bother with that,” a woman in a BioMax uniform informed me. “You can’t link in from here.”
There was a chorus of confused complaints, mine included. I was proving better than I would have expected at blending in. Turned out it was easy to be a sheep.
The org woman cleared her throat. “It’s for your own protection. As you know, it’s crucial that the location of this resettlement community be known to a limited population, and while none of you would intentionally compromise the safety of your fellow download recipients, we’ve decided the safest course of action is to jam the network, for the time being.”
“But what about our families?” Jude said, sounding laughably alarmed. “It’s bad enough having to leave them behind. You’re telling me I can’t even talk to them?”
I worried he’d gone too far over the top, but the woman looked suitably sympathetic. “We have, of course, made accommodations for communication with friends and family. Those communications will be monitored, and all sanctioned correspondence will go through. A small price to pay for your security and peace of mind, wouldn’t you say?”
Disgruntled murmurings, all amounting to: Sure. I guess.
I couldn’t believe they were accepting it. But then, they’d come here voluntarily, giving themselves up to BioMax’s protection. There were mechs here that we knew, that we’d spoken to, that we’d begged to choose us over the corp, showing them the evidence we’d gathered of what BioMax had done, what the corp had stolen from us, because we were nothing but machines, to be pared down for parts. The mechs who’d come here were the ones who didn’t care. Someone was trying to kill them; BioMax was trying to save them. It was simple as that.
At this point, trusting anyone was starting to seem impossibly stupid—and now I understood what Jude must have thought of me all those months, watching me on the vids, preaching trust and goodwill as I held hands with the enemy.
Once it had been made clear that the outside world—and its rules and freedoms—no longer existed for us, the intake process could begin in earnest.
They took our clothes.
They made us stand there together, twelve strangers, and strip ourselves bare while they watched. We tried to turn our backs to one another, tried to cover up with hands and crossed legs and awkward contortions, keeping our heads down, our eyes slitted, as the BioMax personnel circulated, searching us for “contraband,” for anything that might challenge the safety of the safe haven: knives or ViMs or dreamers or bombs. I closed my eyes as the woman’s meaty hands swept my body, and played the game I’d played too many times before, the familiar mantra: This is just the body; this is not me. She can’t touch me.
When her hands fell away and I opened my eyes again, I met Jude’s gaze. Alone in the group he stood tall, head up, eyes open. When he saw me watching, his lips moved, and I imagined I could understand the words they formed, a message to me:
They gave us clothes, freshly laundered, branded with the BioMax insignia. Beige and orange, nothing I would ever have voluntarily worn in public, but decisions like that were no longer voluntary. We’d been in BioMax’s possession for less than a day, and it was already starting to feel inevitable, the outside world real enough but irrelevant. Every detail of Safe Haven was designed to remind us that this was our life now. Temporary, they said, again and again, to the outside world. But in here they hadn’t said it once. br />
I knew we’d made the right decision, not bringing any kind of weapon—there was no way we would have made it through the intake process without getting it confiscated, and probably getting ourselves thrown out along with it. But I would have felt a lot better knowing that when I needed it, I had a way to fight back.
They gave us rooms, narrow steel cylinders with bare walls, four beds, and no storage space, which hardly mattered, since our belongings had been confiscated along with our clothes. (Say it with me now: For our own protection.) No light switches, because the lights were all programmed around the corp-town’s three-shift working schedule. They would go on when it was deemed time for the workers in this wing to wake up, off again when the curfew hit and they obediently went to sleep. Alarms and strobes marked the beginning and end of each working shift. Small favors: At least they weren’t putting us to work.
They weren’t requiring anything from us but our obedience—it was quickly becoming clear that there was nothing here to fill the day beyond following orders. It gave us plenty of time to weigh our options and argue about what to do next… . Which is why I was lying on the narrow bunk-bed cot, my face inches from the ceiling, trying to catch my reflection in the dull steel, when Quinn Sharpe—exactly as she had when I’d first seen her—poked her head into the doorway and woke us all the hell up.
“This is … unexpected,” she said, giving each of us a slow, careful once-over, her gaze finally settling on Ani.
I sat up. “We’re here to—”
Quinn tapped her lips, then her ear, then pointed to the ceiling. Unmistakable code for Shut up, they’re listening. And of course they would have cameras in the walls. Corp-town life was predicated on absolute compliance—one slip and, within minutes, you could find yourself shipped out to a city. But all-pervasive fear worked only if you had some way of enforcing 24/7 obedience.
Jude knitted his eyebrows together, frowning. “No VM either,” he mumbled. “They must be jamming that, too.” BioMax wasn’t supposed to know about the Voice Mind Integrator that offered Jude and his hand-selected allies a means of silent communication—but apparently they’d figured it out.