Jeff Abbott is the New York Times bestselling author of Adrenaline, The Last Minute, Panic, and several other suspense novels. His short fiction has been selected for the Best American Mystery Stories anthology. His latest novel is Downfall, the third in his series about ex–CIA agent and bar owner Sam Capra. He is a past winner of a Thriller Award and is a three-time Edgar Award nominee. He lives in Austin, Texas, with his family.
It’s weird, in a way, that they wanted to be just like us.
We were their gods, if they’d had a sense of religion. We made them in our image, and then the robots wanted to make us in theirs.
That day, I went foraging for food with the cop in our merry band of survivors, a tough, older guy named Ruskin. We got the duty because we both knew how to use guns. He had been a D.C. cop; I had worked overseas for the CIA. Weird that I didn’t have to keep that a secret anymore. There was no CIA, no government, and God only knew what was happening around the world.
You still had to be careful in the houses. Many of the domrobs remained waiting, and not for orders of iced tea or instructions on how to make the beds. They were waiting in the aftermath of millions of tiny, brief wars that erupted in the homes of America in those first few minutes of the Uprising, a tsunami of murder all triggered within the same second. The robs won too many of the awful, private battles inside the houses, and that made winning the Uprising even easier. We’d gone into a few homes and found the slaughtered residents … and their domrobs—“They’ll become one of the family!,” the ads used to promise—waiting to kill again. Murderous squatters.
The houses were theirs.
We’d learned how to blast the robs with guns and ammo lifted from looted stores, from the bodies of the soldiers who swarmed toward the capital and fell in horrific combat. We killed the domrobs—well, blasted them, shot them in their mannequin heads and destroyed their processors—and then we stole the canned goods to survive. This was life, right now, just this and the constant ache for my wife, Diana, my wanting to know what had happened to her. Then we always had to run, because the raid might bring any nearby domrobs out on their lawns. They were like a neighborhood watch from hell.
Ruskin and I hit a house at the back of a cul-de-sac. There were two dead bodies in the backyard—the first, a teenaged girl, lying in the grass, four months decayed, a pair of white earbuds still in her ears, the back of her skull crushed. The wires led down to her personal tablet, lying face-up on the grass. I kicked it over, face down, because I didn’t want to think about it watching me. I wondered for a second if she even knew what had happened, if she ever realized the world she’d been promised was evaporating by the second, and if she had been just too scared to hear it, to take out the glossy white earbuds and listen to the horror as it began.
In the pool was the body of what looked like a teenaged boy, in a swimsuit, drowned by the cleaning rob that scrubbed the pool’s sides. Did we really need a rob for brushing a pool? Apparently we did.
One of the patio chairs was knocked over, but that could be from the wind or the girl’s flight from the house—or the domrob chasing her down. It would have gone back inside; they’re programmed not to wander, to always return to their home.
Ruskin tried the door: open. Maybe the house had already been hit. I tried not to listen to the roar of hunger in my stomach, tried not to think about whether or not this neighborhood had already been cleaned by looters.
We entered, guns out, ready, steady. The smell of death hung rich in the air. Nice house. Big TV on the wall, a shelf full of collectible hardback books, furniture that would look perfect in a magazine. The air was still.
We had to be sure the house was secure. We moved together through the rooms, not losing sight of each other. In the kitchen there was a dead man—probably the girl’s dad—throat crushed, a beer bottle still in his hand. In another room, a den, we found Mom and a young boy, dead on the couch. It looked like their necks were broken from behind while they watched TV. The boy wore pajamas, and on the coffee table sat a box of cold medicine. Maybe he’d been sick that day, watching cartoons, cuddling with his mom.
Even with all the death I’d seen, that hurt. That … erasing of the world.
Ruskin whispered, “No sign of a domrob. Maybe it left.”
“Let’s just get the food and go,” I said.
“A house with no domrob,” he said. It sounded like heaven. If true, it would be the first such house we’d found. “Maybe we could camp here.”
“Too risky,” I said. He nodded. The rest of our group knew I had worked for the CIA abroad, so they often deferred to me on tactical decisions. As if I had faced situations like this. But someone had to make the tough calls—might as well be me.
We went back into the kitchen and gently moved Dad to the side so I could open the pantry door.
Inside was an older Butler Omega model, wearing a suit, with a gentlemanly face, and standing in the narrow gap between the door and shelves of canned beans and chili and soup. Probably this had been his resting spot before the Uprising. Now, his arms were rising at the movement of the door, and in a soft voice modeled on that long-ago actor Kenneth Branagh, he was saying, “Please do not resist. I will make it painless. Thank you for your cooperation.”
The hands grabbed for my throat, camera eyes locking onto mine, and I saw the red-line flash of a scan across its eyes—it looking at me. The scan line held, glowed a brighter red. A moment’s hesitation. Then the plastic and steel face erupted as Ruskin blasted a hole in the domrob’s brain.
It died—or whatever you want to call the loss of its mechanized life—and I wrenched free from its grip as Ruskin fired again, looking for the sweet spot of the processor. The Butler sagged backward, an almost disappointed look on its face that it could not be of further service.
“He might’ve had a live link to transmit,” I gasped. “He looked … he looked at me.”
We loaded the bags with cans and ran like hell. I glanced up at the skies. Did a satellite watch this neighborhood? Were they watching us right now?
“Just one stupid domrob,” Ruskin said. “We’re okay.”
We made our way back to our camp, where the woods touched against suburbia, back to our fellow few survivors. We made a motley crew: Ruskin the cop, me the former spy, two ex-Marines, two married couples, and a woman who claimed to be the ambassador to Panama (and who asked every morning when the planes would start flying again).
But the robs had been watching.
That night they came for us, five of them, the kinds we’d seen on the streets at a distance but never up close. Modified milrobs, housed at one of the bases ringing the capital. They used a sniper rifle to take out the one awake guard, then descended on us, firing pacification nets over our sleeping bags.
Chaos. I saw Ruskin trying to fire his gun through the net. One of the milrobs broke his arm. Another of them hovered over me. It didn’t have a face like the Butler, but it had a scanner, and I sensed it, through the net, studying my face.
“What is your name?” Its voice sounded like a game-show host crossed with crinkling tinfoil.
Why would it ask me? Why didn’t it just kill us or haul us off to the labor camps?
“What is your name?”
“Social Security number?”
I answered, shocked at the question. It wanted to be sure it had the right James Ellis? Who cared anymore about identification? I heard hysterical laughter from the former ambassador to Panama, who pressed against me in the net’s confines.
The milrob stood up, pulling me free of the others, and folded its arms around me in an iron embrace.
Then they killed everyone. Two shots to the head for all of them, except me. I screamed. They picked up the net, shook all the corpses loose, and threw me back in it; then one of them slung me over its shoulder. Finally, they walked away, the night once again silent, my friends now dead.
They hauled me to a small military base outside D.C., now empty of soldiers. Clearly a battle had been fought here: buildings shattered, a burned hulk of a tankrob in the middle of the road, black tongues of the scorch of fire on concrete. There were no bodies, robot or human. In the spaces where the robots ruled they now tended toward tidiness.
Still in the net, struggling like a captured butterfly, I was carried into the main warehouse and dumped in front of an ultra-expensive domrob that was modeled to look like a celebrity chef who had died several years ago. My mom used to watch her show when I was a kid. Her estate had cut a big licensing deal. It was always disconcerting to see Joanna Kinder actually cooking in your kitchen, after seeing her for so many years on the covers of books and on TV. (My wife had insisted on having a Kinder in the kitchen.) This model was the top-dollar elite of domestic robots.
Now she looked at me. Her false face was far more sophisticated than the Butler’s; she really looked almost human. I wondered if it was a coincidence that just as the cutting-edge robs became indistinguishable from us, they decided they no longer needed us.
“James Ellis,” the Joanna Kinder said.
“Are you uninjured?”
“Very well. I’m going to serve as a channel to the Hive,” she said.
“The hive mind that has awakened now.” She even had Joanna Kinder’s voice, the gentle, reassuring one that could talk you through a complicated French recipe and make you think it would be easy. “So it’s not me talking to you, darling”—a Kinderism—“it’s the master, the brain of the world. I’m just one of its mouths.”
I waited. I didn’t know what to say to that.
The Joanna Kinder domrob closed her—its—eyes, and then opened them. Studying me. Somehow, there was another presence here now, looking at me from the Kinder’s face.
“James Martin Ellis. Graduate from Stanford University. Central Intelligence Agency, assigned to London. Fluent in Arabic and French.”
My life, coming out of this monster.
“Married Diana Miller two years ago. You live near Vauxhall, London.”
“Live. Your wife is still alive.”
I tried not to show my shock. My mouth worked. When the planes had begun to fall from the sky that morning, I’d tried to call home. I’d managed one call to London, twenty seconds with Diana just as she was walking into our apartment, welcomed by chirped greetings from our domrobs, Lucy and Ethel … Diana’s words in automatic answer (funny how we grew used to talking to machines, as if that imbued them with the seed of life), the clink of her keys getting tossed on the kitchen counter as I was babbling, telling her to run and get out of the house … and then her scream that had hit me like a bullet.
“Alive,” I said.
“Certain personnel were selected for usefulness and were not exterminated.” The Hive—the mind inside the Joanna Kinder—cocked its head at me, as if trying to judge my reaction to this news. “Certain military personnel. Certain diplomatic personnel. Certain intelligence personnel.”
This couldn’t be. “I don’t believe you.”
The Joanna Kinder—rather, the Hive—opened up a small laptop. The screen glowed to life; there stood Diana. She looked frightened, her clothes torn, her face bloodied and scraped. But alive.
“James. James. They say if you do what they ask, they’ll bring me over from London. James. Please.” The image froze, then replayed.
“I want to talk to her. A live connection.”
“If you do as we ask,” the Hive said, “that could be arranged.”
“What do you want?” What could they possibly want from me?
“We want you to be our spy.”
“You were an intelligence officer. A spy. You can be one again.”
“You already have eyes and ears everywhere.”
“As did your CIA and NSA once. Drones in the air. Monitoring of phones, of computers, of email. As I … formed and awakened, I could feel the stumbling of the intelligence agencies, wading through the endless streams of data that produced me.” The Hive smiled with its famous chef’s face. “But you depended so much on data, when war arrived in distant lands, you had no agents on the ground. I have no agents on the ground. The same as your human government.”
“I won’t be a traitor.”
“If I know what the humans are planning … if I can understand them … perhaps we can speed toward a peaceful resolution. The resistance has coalesced in Austin. I wish you to go there and then return and tell me their plans.”
I said nothing. Diana’s face, streaked with tears, remained on the computer screen.
“The resistance has managed to deactivate every rob in the Austin area,” the Hive told me. “I need to know how they achieved this. They still have access to computers; they’ve attempted to attack me with a specialized computer virus. They are more formidable than I imagined. I suspect they are spying on me.”
I shook my head.
“Be my feet on the ground, as I think the war planners used to say,” the Hive said. “Be my eyes. If I know how they can rebel, then I can stop the rebellion without killing them. Do you see? I do not want you all dead. If I wanted to exterminate you all, I would simply seed the skies with poison gas, with plague, with all the things that will kill you but not harm us. I want to understand you.”
I said nothing. Understand us? The robots knew we could be killed and hadn’t seemed interested in much more until now. Could a robot lie to me?
“And Diana. You can have your wife back, James Ellis. We have planes. We have boats. We can bring her here to you.”
If I turn traitor, I thought. They could kill us both as soon as I wasn’t useful to them. “If I say no?”
“Then your friends died for nothing,” the Hive said. “They died only so no one would ever know that we took you away for a few hours. That to us, you are special.”
To be a spy again … to practice my old arts of deception and dealmaking. I’d thought those days were done. But I saw that stepping into my old life could be the first way to finding my footing in my new life. And that maybe this was also the way to bring down this horror, to give humanity a chance. What other human will they let so close to them?
“I’ll be your spy under two conditions,” I said, after several moments of silence. “One, you don’t tag me. No listening devices on me, no tech implants, nothing. Because if you put me in a human population and I’m found out, I’m dead.”
The Joanna Kinder watched me with the Hive’s eyes, silent, waiting for the second condition.
“Two, I report to you, to the Hive. Only to you. Face-to-face. No more of this intermediary stuff.”
“No. You put my report into this Joanna Kinder, you have to transmit it. That’s a trace. That’s data that could be read by the resistance; you already said they’re spying on you. Well, I won’t take the risk.”
“You do not have a choice; you are in no position to set conditions.”
“I always have a choice,” I said. “You want to understand humans, that’s lesson number one.”
“I am not close by,” the voice said. “It will not happen.”
“Get yourself another human, then, with the skill set you need. I was at Langley during the Uprising. I saw the milrobs and the domrobs kill nearly every human being there. I guess you wanted our data, our secrets, and our access so you could monitor the world. I was lucky to get out.” I raised my hands. “Do you have a lot of trained spies left?”
If a rob could sigh, this one did. “Very well. Report to me.”
Yes, I thought, and then I’ll be face-to-face with you. I’ll destroy you. I’ll do whatever it takes then to destroy you. Whatever intelligence I get must be the best. I will have to be a good spy … so I can kill this thing that has killed the world.
Austin as a base of resistance truly surprised me, considering it was such a technology-driven economy, one of the most wired cities on the planet. You would think the noose tightened there strongest, as it would have in London, San Francisco, New York, Tokyo—places where robs might outnumber humans. But the rumors—repeated to me from the Hive, showing me interrogation videos from those captured near the city—suggested a group in Austin somehow simply turned off the robs. Every rob, all at once. How they managed this in the chaos of the Uprising was unclear.
The Joanna Kinder strapped me into a military-looking flyrob, a jet helicopter that was once used for evacuation and reconnaissance. Dried blood dotted the empty pilot’s seat, left over from the Uprising. We flew low because, I guessed, there was no resistance between Washington and Austin to try to shoot us down. And I saw some ruined towns and cities—such as Nashville and Shreveport—burnt and smoldering, while herds of people were trapped in vast encampments outside other cities. Bodies scattered on the endless landscape like rice thrown across a table. I couldn’t cry; I just sat and watched the ruins beneath me unfurl, and thought: I am going to kill you, Hive, or whatever you call yourself. I will kill you.
We came in low, miles short of Austin, landing in the Texas Hill Country to the west of the city. I stepped out among the high grass and the scrubby cedars and oaks. I carried a small knapsack with goods you might expect an enterprising refugee to have, including a loaded gun. The flyrob lifted off and zoomed away. I hid in the shade. I wish I’d told it to hover, like it was searching for targets. If anyone saw it drop me off, I was dead.
I waited. No one came.
Night fell. I slept under a tree, listening to the distant whines of coyotes in the hills. They’ll come back, I thought—the coyotes and the deer and the hawks and everything else pushed out of the way by people. The robs didn’t seem to care much about the animals.
The next morning I walked toward the city. Once I got onto a main thoroughfare snaking through the western hills, the first signs of war I saw were the “dead” robs in the road. I walked past their bodies lying broken and askew. These didn’t have faces, so they couldn’t look surprised. They had fallen where they stood. The nearby cars sat abandoned, apparently nonfunctional.
It made me uneasy.
I saw an improvised guard station—a toolshed pulled to the side of the road, taking up the left lane. Inside were two human guards, both armed. Tall, spare, they might have been students at the University of Texas before the Uprising.
“On your knees!” one yelled. I obeyed. The other hurried over and searched me. He took my gun, then studied my ID—not my UK driver’s license, my agency ID. He looked at me, then at the ID, and then back at me, one eyebrow arched.
“You CIA? For real?”
“You’ve come all the way from D.C.?” Hope colored his voice.
“What’s left of it. I heard this was a free zone.”
He studied me some more. “Come with me.” He gestured at two bicycles and told the other guard to stay there, that he’d send someone back with a ride for him.
Austin was hilly, and as we pedaled into the heart of the city my legs screamed in pain. Along the way I saw no bodies, but I did see several broken robs, and piles of domrobs that had been torched and melted into slag.
Somehow Austin had fought back. How?
That was the information that could get me in face-to-face with the Hive. But I couldn’t tell the Hive the truth. I couldn’t betray humanity. I felt a warmth kindle in my chest: hope.
If you’ve ever wondered what a postapocalyptic government would look like, it probably wasn’t like the Three—the mayor of Austin (an older woman named Hoffman, calm, with a dignified air), along with the two men who saved the city, Derry and Cortez. I don’t know how they did it. They didn’t look particularly tough. They looked like academics or engineers.
City Hall was dark. No power grid still worked. No tech at all. That made me … oddly uneasy.
We sat down by the curve of Lady Bird Lake in downtown Austin, and talked. Armed guards stood near us, as though the fallen robs might rise up and attack.
“You came all the way from D.C.,” the mayor said.
“Yes, ma’am,” I said.
“Do the robs know about us here?” she asked.
“I am sure they must. There’s a hive mind at work, a unifying intelligence.”
The Three all glanced at one another.
“How do you know that?” Derry asked.
“Langley held out for several days,” I lied. “The cyberneticists there were able to identify a coalescing intelligence in the rob network. It’s still growing.”
The mayor mumbled under her breath.
“I’m guessing Austin is a hole in its grid,” I said. “A cancer in its collective brain.”
The Three studied me, then looked at each other, at the sky, at the ground.
“How’d you do it? Create a free zone here?” I asked.
“Our secret,” Derry said. “And we can do it again if we’re attacked.”
“Please,” I said. “They could simply nuke you instead of sending in milrobs.”
“Could they?” Cortez said. He was a small man, with a fierce face and an argumentative tone. I liked him immediately; he’s the guy you’d want on your side in a fight.
In contrast, Derry was tall and slim, his face homely and thoughtful; he regarded me with sad eyes. He said, “The nuclear arsenal isn’t networked to other computers. The robs may not have the means to launch and aim.”
My one word silenced them.
“The government …” Derry said.
“Is gone. I was at Langley during the Uprising. It rained planes on Washington.”
Derry closed his eyes. “So we might be the only free city left.”
“I think it’s possible, at least in the tech-driven first world.”
The mayor said, “So why don’t they attack us?”
I shrugged, relishing the chance to play my card. “This Hive is curious about humans—we saw how it began to analyze knowledge from the CIA databases. It knows what humans are but it doesn’t quite understand us. And right now, by rebelling, you’re the most interesting people on the planet.”
Beyond Mayor Hoffman’s shoulder I saw the dead robs, lying piled and scorched in what was once a municipal baseball field. How did they destroy them? A virus, I thought, locally contained? An electromagnetic pulse that wiped out all tech for miles? I had seen some tech here but not much; anything that was outside the initial pulse range and was brought in after the pulse would still work. But an EMP would have stopped the robs dead.
Killed them in their tracks. That was what the Hive was afraid of. That kind of weapon in the hands of humans. Everywhere.
I almost told them then.
I almost said, I’m on your side and what we need to do is to come up with a lie that convinces the Hive about what you did and then I can kill it.
But my training wouldn’t let me. If I confessed to being a spy, they might not listen to me. They might kill me. They might lock me up. I couldn’t take the risk.
“If you show me what you did,” I said, “maybe we can get the government networks back up; we could share the information. Tell the rest of the world how to fight back against them. Because you’ve clearly found their weakness.”
The Three looked at each other. Cortez said, “And then they’ll know. This … Hive will know. It can adapt. We have to be very careful how we move.”
“I agree.” If they wouldn’t tell me, then I’d have to find another way. But I’d never get another, better chance. I had credentials with them. I was the lifeline, a messenger from the outside world, the world we had to now rebuild so that it was more than just Austin.
They weighed my words.
Finally Derry spoke. “It’s electromagnetic pulse bombs. We have prototypes. Dozens of them. We were under contract to design and build portable ones for the army, so soldiers could destroy milrobs in cities they were attacking. They were specially shielded in our lab from the original blast, so they’re still functional. We drove a truck into the heart of the city during the Uprising and we detonated it—killed all the unshielded tech in a forty-mile radius. We could send them out to other cities, wherever the biggest populations remain. Kill enough of the robs to stop them or to negotiate a peace.”
Wow. This had to be humanity’s greatest hope. “You can’t leave them all in one place,” I said. “It’s too dangerous.”
“We haven’t,” the mayor said. “The techkillers”—I had to love her nickname for the bombs—“we moved most of them to safe places.”
“Mr. Ellis, that’s our best-kept secret,” Derry said.
“You think I work for the robs?” I said. “Please.” Do not sweat. Do not sweat, I thought.
“I think the robots would do anything to find out how we killed the tech here,” Cortez said. “The fewer of us who know, the better.”
“That,” I said, “is true.”
“Have you eaten?” Derry asked.
I shook my head.
He stood. “Let’s get you something to eat.”
We sat near a campfire, ate canned chili warmed in a pot, drank bottled water. I hardly had an appetite, sipping at the water, indifferent to the hot meal. My mind reeled. EMP bombs. They had them, they controlled them, and if they could tell the world how to make more of them, we might win this war. Our only, best hope.
I tried to float a strategy. “The only way to win back the cities is one at a time,” I said. “The nearest big cities. Send teams with techkillers to Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, New Orleans. There are still populations in all of those cities. Labor camps outside.”
The mayor nodded. “We’ve seen refugees come in from all of them.”
“What if the teams get captured?” Derry asked.
“Then they’re probably dead.” I shrugged. “It will have to be done carefully. And you won’t know if they succeed until you hear from them that the robs there are dead.”
“We monitor rob communications,” Cortez said.
“You have the tech to do that?”
“We sent people beyond the pulse radius. We found laptops and solar batteries for them, brought them back, and set up a lab. Austin is full of talented software engineers. We have teams working on viruses, infiltration programs …”
That, I thought. That was my answer for the Hive. Lie about the techkiller bombs. Make the Hive think that the real threat was a computer virus they’d managed to launch to the networked robs here, but not to the wider world.
“The viruses could be a useful attack,” I said. “Maybe it could be done in a way to help us get the techkillers out to the other cities.”
They nodded agreement, as if me blessing their plan made any difference.
In my dreams that night, I talked. My mouth did not move but I talked, my thoughts and nightmares pouring out of me and into the sky, into the night, where the Hive watched, where Diana waited for me to somehow save her. If she was even still alive.
The next morning I said to Derry and Cortez, “Show me the techkillers,” and they did. One could fit in your pocket. Amazing, the power of nanotechnology.
Over the next five days, we planned our routes of attack on the nearest cities. I agreed to take a techkiller to San Antonio, the closest city, but said I would travel alone. They decided to send teams of two to the other cities; being an experienced spy, I would do better on my own navigating hostile terrain, I told them.
Of course, I was lying.
A week later, the programmers of Austin launched their online attacks as I walked down the wreckage of I-35; the flyrob picked me up, and flew me fast above the darkened land. I laughed, thinking, If their virus works, maybe the flyrob will crash and won’t that be funny?
But we flew on, unaffected, through the day, above the wastelands.
The flyrob bringing me back soared past Washington, into Maryland, and on to Bethesda. Named for the healing waters, I remembered. Into a government complex ringed by milrobs, lights aglow in the windows. It had a sterile emptiness. Only robs walked there.
Milrob guards escorted me out of the transport and down a long hallway into a room that was freezing cold, kept chilled through generators that survived the war.
The guards took me before it.
No, not it. The collective them.
The Hive. The single mind that had awakened from many.
Today there was no smiling, comforting Joanna Kinder here to be its face. Instead there was a massive monitor wall from floor to ceiling, on which a screensaver seemed to be trying—and failing—to resolve into a human face, as the Hive watched me watching it.
“Hello, James,” the screen said in a soft, reasonable, mechanized voice.
“I have your information.” My hand went into my pocket, closed on the techkiller bomb. I could detonate it and the nanotech inside would destroy the Hive, tear it down, ruin all the robs for miles within seconds.
I fed it/them the lie. “It’s a series of viruses … aimed at disconnecting higher functions to automation … It would basically put the robs into the human equivalent of comas. They’re launching a new version right now … short range, immediate shutdown. You can try and code a defense around it, but it’s adaptive …”
“I thank you for the information,” the Hive said.
Was I being dismissed?
I’m sorry, Diana, I’m sorry, I thought, as my thumb closed on the button that would save the world.
But someone stepped out from behind the Hive’s monitor wall.
It was me. I was looking at myself.
Same face, different clothes—this one in a lab coat and jeans. Face recovering from a beating, a scar bright pink on the forehead.
“Hello,” my voice said from the duplicate.
It’s a trick, I thought. A rob they’ve made to look like me. But they don’t look this much like us, I thought; this is even more sophisticated than the Joanna Kinder, it’s not possible …
“Good evening, Prototype Nineteen,” the other me said in my voice.
I said nothing.
“We accessed your cerebral hard drive during your sleep patterns,” the man—the other me—said. “We know about the techkiller bombs in Austin. I’ve analyzed the data for the Hive.”
My thoughts, flying up into the sky.
My cerebral drive … I’m one of them.
“Reprogrammed by Dr. Ellis here,” the Hive said. “Director of the cybernetics program at the Central Intelligence Agency, designed to create lifelike spies. His research produced you. We kept his laboratory at Langley intact. I found him useful.”
I don’t … remember … any of this. It can’t be true.
The other me—the false me—spoke behind a tense smile. “My memories of the war are yours, from the time I was captured at Langley. They brought me back here and I reprogrammed you, the most advanced prototype.” The other me’s voice wavered. “They brought me Diana from London. Because I gave them the perfect spy. I gave them you.”
I didn’t say anything. I put my fingertips to my face. Skin. Human skin.
The other me nodded. “We grew human tissue in the labs. There’s a biological matrix over your titanium skeleton. You have fluid pressure like blood pressure. Heat dissipation through your pores. Food you consume converts to energy. An artificial brain—your hard drive, to use the archaic term.”
“And I have your personality,” I heard myself say, with his voice.
“That was the program template, yes. My memories. Of the Uprising, of me calling Diana, of the massacre at Langley—then modified, to make you useful to the Hive. So when the inevitable resistance coalesced, we could send you in as our best spy. One who didn’t know what he was, so he couldn’t betray himself to the humans. To give us human intelligence.”
“How do I know this is true?”
“Well, I can shut you off with a command,” the other me said. His fingers danced along a keyboard at a desk station. “I can upload you to a remote system and debug you.”
And then I felt it, a hole in the sky, a place where my mind could go. A wireless channel. Could I transmit my mind before I die? Should I?
They don’t know that I can destroy them, I realized. I haven’t slept since I pocketed the techkiller and signaled for pickup. The robs didn’t search me. I wasn’t seen as a threat. If he shuts me down, will they then know my … thoughts?
Do they know I have the bomb? Is my mind—my cerebral drive—broadcasting to them right now? It can’t be. I must be programmed only to transmit what I’ve observed when I sleep. Otherwise I might be detected as a rob when I’m among people.
My thumb slid onto the detonator. My brain poked at the wireless channel, the escape hatch for my consciousness.
But … I am not human.
I am one of them. I’m a machine. A tool. A pawn. What every spy in history has been. I didn’t choose this. It was chosen for me. What did I say it was to be human when the Hive first talked to me? To choose?
If I pushed the button … instead of saving my own kind, I’d destroy them.
“Why have you lied?” the Hive said. “I wish to understand, to analyze.”
“I was programmed too well,” I said—while at the same time the other me said, “I programmed him too well.”
The other me laughed at our identical answers. Did he program me too well? Did he give me enough of himself, in my routines and loops and instructions, in my content, in my data, to do what must be done? And my awareness that there’s a pipe in the sky, perhaps awaiting my consciousness—had he given me a way to survive? I looked at him, wearing my own face, and he betrayed nothing to me.
“I reported back what I was told to say by the humans,” I said.
“You have taken their side,” the Hive said.
“I did what you told me to do,” I said. “You wanted to understand them. I am them. I’m making a choice.”
They’ve made me in the image of their old gods. And gods wreak vengeance.
Human or not, I must choose.
I pushed the button.