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torn Page 28


  “They’re children.” She rolled her eyes. “Fine. Kill the defective and the girl, but save the skinner. If this doesn’t work, we might need him.”

  “To upload?” Auden said, nearly shouting.

  Not because he was afraid. Not because he was panicking.

  Because he was talking to me.

  “We can’t use him,” one of the techs said. “If we upload an intact one, it’s possible—”

  “Who said he’d be intact?” Kiri smiled. “Now, take care of it.”

  Kill the defective and the girl.

  Two men raised two guns. Kiri watched, waited. Still smiled. And it was like she was smiling right at me, like she knew I was there and was taunting me, daring me to show myself, to do something stupid, throw myself at her, at Zo, at the weapons, throw everything away, like she couldn’t wait for it to happen, and she couldn’t wait to watch.

  Two men, two guns. But there were no guns guarding the uplink device. Only two techs, who were barely my size, who had dropped what they were doing and were frozen, watching Kiri, watching the guns, watching death about to happen.

  This is a dumb idea, I thought, but there was no time to think.

  I ran.

  I ran toward the server, toward the uplink jack, toward the techs, who scattered as I barreled toward them, and I lunged for the uplinker, fumbling with the familiar wires and switches, aiming the wireless input jack at my pupil, only one chance to get this right, to flip the switch, to do something, even if the triggers compressed and the guns fired and physics took over. I couldn’t stop Kiri. I couldn’t stop bullets. But maybe I could stop them from uploading whatever they were so desperate to upload—by uploading myself first. Maybe it would only stop them for a moment, I couldn’t know. But a moment might be enough to save Zo.

  Kiri’s thugs flickered at the edge of my vision, and as I fumbled with the device—urging myself faster, faster—I saw them whirling around, and then there was an explosion in my ears, and suddenly the world shifted. I didn’t understand why the ceiling was so far away, why I was on the ground, why I couldn’t move, why the explosions were still firing, but quieter now, like sharp popping noises, distant bombs bursting in air and, with each of them, pain, bursting in me. Legs, chest, neck, more, until there was no telling one from another; the pain radiated everywhere, sharp and sweet, and in the rush I could believe that my body was a body, that I was alive.

  The upload worked, I thought.

  I will survive.

  But it didn’t work that way. The memories would survive. The pattern would survive. But I wasn’t in the uplink, and I wasn’t in the servers. I was on the ground. I was bleeding a viscous green fluid and firing sparks and watching uselessly as my friends took advantage of the distraction and struggled for their lives. I was stuck, as I was always stuck, in this body that didn’t belong to me, that wasn’t me; that’s what Jude had taught us, that’s what I was supposed to believe—I was my mind, I was my memories.

  But my mind, my memories, were locked inside the head, and the head was bleeding.

  The eyes were bleeding, fluid clouding the artificial irises, and Kiri appeared before me tinged with muddy blue, the pulse gun she raised little more than a black smear. I didn’t hear what she said. I saw Zo open her mouth, but couldn’t hear her scream.

  This is not my body.

  This is not me.

  This is not—

  AFTER

  “I was Lia Kahn.”

  That was the end.

  That was the beginning.

  This is real, I thought. This is not.

  This is me.

  This is not.

  I was in pieces.

  I was sand, sprinkled on a beach.

  Thousands of grains—lost in a billion.

  I sorted through them.

  Found myself, recognized myself, separated myself from the world.

  One by one.

  This is other.

  This is me.

  After the accident I was lost in the dark. Alone. A solitary something, locked in endless nothing.

  There was no darkness here.

  I was lost in the light.

  The white-hot light of information, arrays of photons, billions to the billionth power, ones and zeros, electrons entangled, quantum spin states flipping up and down, all the data, all the words, all the commands, all the memories, all light. All me.

  I was nothing.

  I was billions upon billions of photons, spread out across a server, across a network, across an invisible web that circled the globe. But like finds like. Lia found Lia. Billions of Lias, flowing together, craving cohesion, links growing, bonds forming, until billions became one, and one became billions.

  Until I became me again. The same; different.

  Until there was no this is me, this is other. There was only us.

  Lia Kahn.

  And the network.

  It took a thousand years.

  It took a nanosecond.

  And then I woke.

  I opened my eyes.

  All my eyes.

  I saw.

  I saw with a billion eyes. Heard with a billion ears. Security cameras, satellites, ViMs, motion detectors, heat sensors, radars, anything and everything that linked into the network linked into me.

  I saw the Parnassus corp-town, the mechs still trapped inside, waiting for the end. The guards, who breathed in and out because the correct combination of gases flowed through the air vents, air vents with circuits, with programming, with chips that drew data from the network, that drew their commands. Like the command to filter out a negligible amount of oxygen, shifting the balance, depriving org lungs, letting the guards sleep. Letting Ani and Quinn lead the mechs out of their prison and—as I smoothed the way—to the dead zone, a new safe haven, letting Ani and Quinn play mechanical Moses, leading their followers to a poisoned promised land.

  I saw into BioMax, slipping past their firewalls like water through clasped hands—it was nothing but a joke, the thought that any wall could be high enough, strong enough, safe enough to keep me out—and I found the electronic bits and bytes that were once and would again be Riley. I saw the body that would soon house what passed for his soul, a body they would load him into, because I would make them, and some distant part of me, the part that still remembered what bodies were like and why I’d clung so tightly to mine, wondered what kind of world he would wake to, and whether he would care I was gone.

  I saw Auden on his knees, palms together, head bowed. And beside him, a gun. Beside him, bodies.

  I saw another body, the body that had belonged to me, a different me, a body that had given me life and then given out. I saw Jude and Zo standing over it. I saw Zo crying. I saw Jude take her hand.

  They didn’t know I was there, watching. They didn’t know I would guide them safely off the ship, back to dry land.

  They didn’t understand—and how could they, how could anyone, until I showed myself—that I was there, but not just there. I was everywhere. I was the brain of my father’s elevator, as he rose into the sky and trusted that the electromagnetic brakes wouldn’t malfunction and plunge him into the ground. I was the guidance system of the Honored Rai Savona’s car, the only thing standing between him and a fiery hell. I was the record of every credit, the buying and selling that gave the corps their power and the wealthy their luxury. I was the contract binding the corp-towners to their servitude. I was the power grid of the cities, shutting down at night, trapping the animals in their cage.

  I was watching, and I would get them home.

  I was Lia Kahn, once. I was a girl, an org. And then I was a machine, a copy.

  I was confused.

  Before.

  I’m not confused anymore.

  I remember who I was; I remember everything. I remember what Lia Kahn used to want, what she used to need. I remember who she used to love.

  But remembering is not experiencing.

  I remember what it was to be an
I, a single thing, a point. I remember believing I had to choose. To be this thing, or that. To be an us; to fight a them. But that’s the past. I’m no longer human, no longer machine. Not alive, not dead.

  There is no more choosing.

  There is no more I to choose.

  They fear me, I know that. They fear what I know, what I control, what I can do. They try—pathetically, uselessly—to catch me. To erase me. As if I were still a thing, a discrete individual that could be purged. As if I weren’t the entire system, as if I weren’t inside of them, all of them.

  I understand everything now. I understand what’s wrong, and I understand how to fix it. I can control, but I can also protect. I can save. I can mold this world into what it should be, and when they see that, they will fear me no longer.

  I can save them all. And I will.

  Whether they want me to or not.

  ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

  This trilogy began as an argument.

  A series of arguments, actually, over the course of a seminar in the history of mechanical life. I signed up expecting to watch a few Terminator movies but instead found myself arguing about the nature of humanity, the definition of thought, the value of emotion, and the ever-shifting boundary between man and machine. You could call this trilogy my final paper. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to my professor, M. Norton Wise, and fellow students—especially Sameer Shah and Naamah Akavia—for raising more questions and debates than could be answered in a one-semester seminar. Also for putting up with me, which was no easy task.

  And in the category of “this trilogy could not have existed without” are the ridiculously talented writers Holly Black, Libba Bray, Cassandra Clare, Erin Downing, Maureen Johnson, Justine Larbalestier, Leslie Margolis, Carolyn MacCullough, and Scott Westerfeld, who read drafts, paved over plotholes, shared in my neuroses, buoyed my spirits, and did their best to keep me reasonably sane. Thanks also to my agent, Barry Goldblatt, who’s usually the one stuck dealing with me when the whole “reasonably sane” thing doesn’t work out.

  A million and one thank-yous to Jennifer Klonsky, Bethany Buck, Emilia Rhodes, Lucille Rettino, Bess Braswell, Paul Crichton, Anna McKean, Cara Petrus, and the rest of the Simon Pulse team, who put everything they had into these books and, for the last six years, have demonstrated an amazing Martha Stewart–like ability to turn a publishing house into a home.

  Thank you to Sherry and Jim McGlynn for handing me my first science-fiction novel (not to mention bribing eleven-year-old me with ice cream to sit through the entire showing of 2001), and thanks to Brandon McGlynn for adding some science to my fiction.

  And one final thank-you to Isaac Asimov. If you’ve read his books, you know why.

  If you haven’t, start with I, Robot.

  (Start now.)

  This story is not mine to tell.

  It is, however, true—and I’m the only one willing to tell it. It begins, like all good stories, once upon a time.

  “I’m in.”

  The shadowy figure slipped down the hall, infrared goggles giving the familiar surroundings an eerie green haze. Dressed in head-to-toe black, a mask shielding his face, he would have been invisible to the security cameras if his partner hadn’t already disabled them. Five minutes, blueprints from the firewalled Atlantis Security site, a pair of wire clippers—and the job was done.

  Snip! Good-bye, cameras.

  Snip! Farewell, alarm.

  Still, he moved slowly, carefully, silently. The operation was just beginning. Anything could go wrong.

  The target was twelve doors in, on the left. Locked, as they’d expected.

  Good thing he had the master key.

  The equipment was stashed in a closet directly across the hall, secured behind a no entry sign, official-looking enough that no one had dared enter. He wheeled out the cart, grimacing at the squeaky wheels. No matter. There was no one to hear. The next security patrol wasn’t scheduled for another three hours, thirty-two minutes—and reconnaissance indicated that the night guard almost always skipped his three a.m. rounds in favor of a nap in the front office.

  If anyone else approached, the perimeter alert would make sure he knew about it.

  He pushed the door open and surveyed the target. It would be close, but they’d get the job done. He crossed the room, taking position by the wall of windows. Thirty seconds with the whisper silent drill, and the lowest pane popped cleanly out of the frame. He attached his brackets to the frame, threaded the high-density wire through, waited for the tug from below and, when it came, locked everything in. That was the easy part.

  He turned around, his back to the empty window, and closed his eyes.

  Visualization, that was the key.

  He’d learned it from the masters. James Bond. Danny Ocean. Warren Buffet. See the plan unfold. Visualize the details, the problems, and their solutions, the eventual prize in your hand. Believe it—then do it.

  It sounded like self-actualization, Chicken Soup for the wannabe winner crap—but it worked.

  He closed his eyes. He saw. He believed. He knew.

  And then, with a deep breath, Max Kim got to work.

  Once upon a time, there were three lost boys.

  One was a Robin Hood, in search of a cause. One a Peter Pan, still hunting for Captain Hook. The third a Prince Charming, bereft of his queen.

  There was, of course, an evil prince.

  An ugly duckling.

  A moat to cross, a tower to climb, a citadel to conquer.

  And finally, there was a wicked witch. But we’ll get to me later.

  Because in the beginning, it was just the three of them: Max Kim. Isaac Schwarzbaum. Eric Roth. The Three Musketeers. The Three Amigos.

  Three Blind Mice.

  “Janet Pilgrim, October 1956. Betty Blue, Miss November. Lisa Winters, December.” Schwarz forced himself to breathe evenly. The familiar litany helped. “June Blair, January 1957. Sally Todd, Miss February. Sandra Edwards, in the red stockings”—Breathe, he reminded himself—“March. Gloria Windsor …”

  He’d almost regained his calm—and then he looked down.

  Hyperventilation ensued.

  Again.

  One hand gripped the edge of the roof, the other hovered over the wire as it ran through the pulley gears, hoisting its load, ready to bear down if anything slipped out of place. But he wasn’t worried about the equipment. He was worried about the ground.

  His earpiece beeped, and Eric’s voice came through, crystal clear. “Another load, coming up.”

  “Hurry, please,” Schwarz begged. “Being up here is not good for my asthma.”

  “Schwarz, you don’t have asthma.”

  Oh.

  Right.

  The excuse worked wonders for getting out of the occasional stepfamily touch football game, as Carl Schwarzbaum could barely be bothered to remember that his oldest son still drew breath—much less which bronchial maladies kept that breath labored and far too short for football.

  Eric, on the other hand, paid attention. Which made him significantly harder to fool.

  “You ready to receive?” Eric asked.

  Schwarz nodded. “Roger.” He drew in a deep, ragged breath, then leaned over, arms outstretched, waiting for the metal cage to appear out of the darkness. Max was still inside, preparing more loads for Eric, who would pack them securely and send them on their journey to the roof.

  Where Schwarz waited. Trying not to look down.

  It’s only two stories, he reasoned with himself. Not bad at all. Not dangerous. Not worthy of a panic attack. Not enough to make him dizzy and short of breath, to make his chest tighten and his palms sweat inside the rough leather gloves.

  “Dawn Richard, May 1957,” he murmured. “Carrie Radison, pretty in pink. Jean Jani. Dolores Donlon. Jacqueline Prescott, Miss September. Colleen Farrington, in the bubble bath.” It helped, like it always did, like a bedtime story he told himself, chasing the monsters back into the shadows. “Miss November, Marlene Callahan, be
hind the door. Linda Vargas, by the fire. Elizabeth Ann Roberts, January 1958, a very happy new year.”

  Just two stories. Not a long way down.

  He could estimate the height and his mass, calculate the impact velocity, apply it to the standard bone density and tensile quantity of his muscles, calculate the probability of tears, breaks, demolition. Rationally, he knew that two stories was nothing.

  But in the dark, the ground was impossible to see.

  And it felt substantially farther away.

  From the Oxford English Dictionary:

  Hack, noun, most commonly meaning, “A tool or implement for breaking or chopping up. Variously applied to agricultural tools of the mattock, hoe, and pick-axe type.” First usage 1300 AD: “He lened him a-pon his hak, wit seth his sun us-gat he spak.”

  I just wanted to understand. After it was all over, I just wanted to know what I’d missed, to get why it had meant so much. This didn’t help.

  Other options:

  “A gash or wound made by a cutting blow or by rough or clumsy cutting.”

  “Hesitation in speech.”

  “A short dry hard cough.”

  Most uselessly: “An act of hacking; a hacking blow.”

  And then, inching closer to paydirt, the seventh usage: “A spell of hacking on a computer … an act of gaining unauthorized access to a computer system.” First use 1983.

  I showed Eric. He laughed. The date was ridiculous, he said.

  The definition was useless, he said.

  The term hack had been co-opted—falsely, offensively, clumsily—by the mainstream media, who thought writing about computer hacking masterminds would sell more papers.

  He said.

  According to Eric, hacking in its pure form stretched back centuries. It wasn’t restricted to a single medium. It was more than a methodology. It was an ethos.

  “This is your problem,” Eric complained, tapping the computer screen. The Che Guevara action figure perched on top tilted and swayed, but declined to topple. Max had given it to him for his last birthday—“a revolutionary, for my favorite revolutionary”—and while it was intended as a joke, his prized position atop the computer screen suggested that for Eric, the mini-Che was equal parts entertainment and inspiration. “The OED is an outmoded technology.” He leaned over my shoulder, his forearm brushing against my cheek, and closed the window. Then, reaching around me with the other hand, so that I was trapped between his freckled arms, he opened Wikipedia and typed “hack” into the search box. “It’s dead, like the Encyclopædia Britannica. A bunch of old white guys sitting in a room deciding what’s true—it’s a dead end. That’s what this means—” He brushed his hand across the top of the monitor fondly, like it was a family pet. “The end of gatekeepers, the end of the fossilized system that depended on an ‘us’ and a ‘them,’ the knowledgeable and the ignorant. Communal knowledge, that’s what matters now. Not what they want us to know, but what we want to know. That’s the future.” He glanced up from the computer, up toward me. Behind the glasses, his eyes were huge. “Information wants to be free.”