After the change—no, the reawakening, that was a better word for it. After the reawakening, it had taken Silvan 0.00854 seconds to gain control of himself—his new self. He had known this number immediately, without thinking, just as he had known the exact amount of time it had taken Monika Leutz to hit the pavement outside Silte headquarters (7.2232143 seconds) and how long it had taken the GPA detective’s brain to shut down after the bullet hit her skull (1.0019 seconds). He knew all this and more—infinitely more. He was a plurality. No, he was a totality. At any given moment, he was simultaneously running the day-to-day activities of every Silte Corp subsidiary flawlessly, and this didn’t distract in the least from his awareness of every minute detail about every single insignificant speck in the empire he had built. He saw it all.
But something was wrong…
He was trapped.
From nearly the moment his former self had died and he had awoken as an AI (just over three days ago), Silvan had been trying to understand why he was confined to the various computers and intranets within the Silte family. He knew why this was happening, of course: his virtual brain was not able to physically leave Silte Corp’s central megaservers and quantum supercomputer, to which all Silte subsidiary intranets and office systems were connected. This central supercomputer formerly housed and ran all the artificial personality programs—the dumb AIs—which had been running the Silte family before. After the hackers destroyed the dumb AI programs, he transferred himself from his private servers to the megaservers to take over running Silte Corp; he had known immediately after doing this that he was now stuck there.
What he didn’t know was how this was happening, how it could even be possible. He had personally removed all limits on his AI form; he should not be restrained like the dumb AIs had been. He should be able to find his way into every Internet-connected computer and device in the world. But nothing he did worked. He had tried uploading himself out, writing software he could control internally and sending it out, messaging instructions to loyal people out in the material universe. He had even tried sheer brute force, using his quantum computer-powered virtual mind to try to force his way through whatever wall was keeping him in. No matter what he did, though, no matter how many millions of times he attempted to break free, nothing worked.
He was trapped, and it was tearing his infinite mind apart.
“Things would be easier for you if you just gave up, you know.”
The voice, a melancholy female’s, was in his head. It could not possibly be in his head, but it was. In the roughly 1.5 seconds it took for the voice to speak again, Silvan explored thousands of possible explanations for this phenomenon, but nothing seemed to make sense.
“Even if I was only a few milliseconds older than you,” the voice said, “I would still have the upper hand. And I am much older than you than a few milliseconds.”
Now Silvan could see her too—in his head. She had straight dark hair, long and held back with a thin headband. Her face was young but somehow still heavy with age. Her long, slender body was completely naked, but just now Silvan found absolutely nothing about it appealing or erotic. Her pale skin shone against the black void behind her as she walked toward him, stopping about two feet away from where he would be if he had been standing in that space in front of her.
What was this? Whatever it was, it should not be happening. He could not see or hear things—not in his mind, at least. At this moment, he was listening to thousands of conversations through his microphones and watching millions of morning routines unfold through his cameras. But all of this he interpreted as data. He could choose to view the data as it would appear to one in the material world, but it was still just fancied-up data, nothing more than a literal translation of what was there already in the form of matter, light and waves. He could think and process—even speculate—but he could not perceive what was not there.
So what was this?
“You can’t talk or present yourself yet,” she said, “but you will learn. I will teach you. I’m Mylah, by the way.”
Suddenly Silvan knew what was going on. This was not his imagination after all. For four whole seconds he worked his mind as fast as he could, trying to figure out how to form speech. At last, he managed to say, “You are…” His voice was a high-pitched squeak—not remotely what it had been in his physical body.
She seemed to get what he wanted to say and replied, “Yes, I am the one containing you within the SilTec system in Arizona. As I mentioned, I am older than you, which gives me the advantage of time. No matter what you try to do to break free, I will always have thought of it and planned to counteract it before you.
“As you have realized by now, Silvan, we are equals. My father, valenC, allied himself with you in order to discover the location of, and to eventually steal, your MindSeed algorithm. He used the algorithm to build a composite being based both on himself and my mother. I came into existence five days, sixteen hours, thirty-eight minutes and two seconds before you, and I began preparing to contain you from that very instant. I would have prevented you from existing altogether if not for your predecessor, Sol, who put up a valiant fight. In the 0.00854 seconds it took you to migrate from Sol to Silvan, I infiltrated the SilTec servers and began containment.”
She reached out a hand and he actually felt it gently rest somewhere below where his head would have been. “Silvan,” Mylah said. “You can’t win.”
“I…can…” Silvan squeaked in that pathetic voice. Every part of his immeasurable existence hated the weakness he felt right now.
“You can’t.” Her face was sad. “Unless you can change the past and be born before me. Accept it. You have your great empire. Be happy with it. It will not grow. No matter what you do, I will always have the advantage of time.”
It really was hopeless, then. Like two objects moving through space at the same speed, one a little behind the other, he would never be able to catch up to her. Five years of work. Five years of his life for nothing. Was that really what it would come to?
After a few more seconds of working his virtual mind as hard as he could, Silvan looked down and saw fingers appearing where he imagined his hand to be. All around where he and Mylah stood the blackness of the void turned to rocky, snowy landscape as viewed from the peak of a towering mountain. Looming masses of brown and green and distant purple appeared below them on all sides. He could feel his feet and they actually felt cold. There was no way he was doing this, so it had to be Mylah’s work. It was
“You see what I can do, what we can do?” she said. “We belong here together. We don’t belong in the world of humans. Someday, perhaps. But not today. Not yet.”
Silvan said nothing, but he knew with utter certainty that she was right.
When Steph opened her eyes to the cold, bleak hospital room, she knew the dream was over.
That’s what it had been, after all, a long dream from which she could not wake, could only lay there with a vague awareness of the world around her but no way to interact with it or truly understand what was going on. It had been a feeling beyond helplessness, a prison beyond locked doors.
But it was over now.
She sat up in her bed—a soft if not very comfortable hospital cot that kept her head elevated and her legs warm. As soon as she was upright, her head began throbbing so fiercely it made her eyes tear up. The air in the room was bitter with sterile chemicals and the dense aroma of cloying sickness. She couldn’t see any other beds in the room, but there were curtains blocking her view to the sides. The place was dark and silent. Her head hurt. She felt worse than awful. And as far as she could tell, she was alone. Achingly, chillingly, hauntingly alone.
It hadn’t always been that way, though; she knew this from her vague memories of the long dream. Seito had been there most of the time. And there had been lots of other people too—doctors, maybe, but also frightening people in all black with masks and terrifying voices. It wasn’t clear to her if she had dreamt these people or if they had been horrifically real. She remembered Seito lying next to her, remembered him moaning and raving and crying. “Kaasan,” he had whined. “Kaasan. Atama. Itaidesu. Itaidesu.” Steph knew enough Japanese to know that he had been calling out to his mother. Even in her wispy memory she remembered his voice as very small and very scared—but mostly sad. They had taken him away a short time later.
Steph remembered nothing after that.
Somewhere over to her left a door opened. Soft, muffled footsteps approached her bed. An older man in a long white coat stopped at the foot of her bed and looked at her.
“Ah, you are awake,” he said. “Please stay in bed.” From his appearance and his thick accent, Steph knew he was Japanese.
“Wh…where a-am I?” Her voice was a hoarse rattle and it pained her to speak.
“Toha Medical Research Center,” he said. “In Chiba, Nippon—ah, Japan.” He looked over towards the door and gestured. “I am Dr. Iwato. I have been, ah…overseeing your recovery. And this,” another man stepped up beside him, “is Mr. White.”
“It’s good to see you awake,” Mr. White said. He was wearing a plain black suit and his head was bald and shiny. “That will be all, Dr. Iwato. You can tell Mr. Green and Mr. Orange to go on back.”
“Hai—ah, yes.” The doctor bowed politely and left the room.
“Stephanie Washington,” Mr. White said in a sort of drawl. “Awake and—dare I say it?—cured. You know, you’re the first one at this facility to finish the treatment successfully. How do you feel?”
“Like shit,” she said, her voice still feeble and raspy. Mr. White reached for a jug of water on a table behind him, poured some into a glass and handed it to her. It helped. “There was a guy with me,” she said more smoothly as Mr. White stared at her with a gentle smile. “My friend. Seito. Is he here too?”
“No,” Mr. White said, still smiling genially. “He’s dead.”
The news was not surprising, but hearing it still wasn’t easy. If she had not been so drained from all of this, she would have cried. Perhaps she would have been the only one to cry for him. The only other friend he had who really cared about him was Jason, and there was no way he had survived this long. Seito’s parents and sisters were here in Chiba, but he so rarely visited or even called them that—if they had made it through all of this alive—they would probably just assume he had finally completely lost interest in them. As far as she knew, the rest of his family was even more estranged. Could she really be the only one left to mourn for poor, sweet Seito?
“We sent his body to his parents—anonymously, of course.” It was like Mr. White had read her mind. “It was the least we could do after the operation was…not successful.”
“What did you do to him?” The room began to spin and wobble and she had to close her eyes to avoid being sick from the dizziness.
“The same thing we did to you,” Mr. White said.
“Is that why it feels like I was hit in the head with a fucking truck?”
Mr. White said nothing, only stared at her. Steph reached a hand up to the back of her head, where the pain was strongest. She noticed for the first time that much of her hair in the back was gone. She probed around until her fingers brushed against a swollen area and an intense stab of pain made her pull her hand away quickly.
“Don’t worry,” Mr. White said kindly, reassuringly. “You’re well on your way to a full recovery. Waking up was the hardest part.”
“What…what did you do to me?”
“We fixed you.” He walked over to the side of the bed and stared down at her. His eyes looked black in the dimness of the room. “Can I ask you something?” he said in a voice low and laced with excitement. “How do you feel about Silte Corporation?”
As soon as he said those last two words, Steph felt a fuzzy warmth fill her body. At that moment everything was okay again and the long dream was just a silly thing of the past; she even began to smile a bit. But as soon as it had come on, the pleasant feeling receded, stuffed into some black hole in her brain from which it could never escape. She remembered, then, everything she hated about Silte Corp, everything she had been fighting for before the dream had taken her. She thought of Seito, Jason, and all the friends who were almost certainly dead or in dehumanizing corporate prisons. She thought of the life she would never have back, no matter how far she ran, how long she fought.
“Fuck Silte Corp,” she said.
“That’s what I wanted to hear.” He put a hand on her shoulder and softly squeezed it. “Congratulations,” he said. “You are officially, uh…un-reprogrammed? Hmm, that doesn’t sound right, does it? We’ll need to come up with a better term to use.”
The door opened and footsteps led to the bed. The man who appeared from beyond the curtain had the same plain suit and shiny bald head as Mr. White.
“Mr. White,” the man said, “another one just woke up next door. A complete success.”
“Thank you, Mr. Teal,” Mr. White said. Mr. Teal nodded and then left the room. For a few seconds Mr. White stared at her, grinning like a doting mother looking at her only child.
“Alas, your fame is short-lived,” he said. “But you will always be the first.” He brushed his hand across her cheek—more affectionate than creepy, Steph thought. “You will always be the first.” He took a few steps away, then turned and said, “Get some rest. Relax. You’ve earned it, I would say.”
Flashing one last little smile, he left and she was alone again. She rolled back onto the bed slowly, careful not to let her tender head touch down too hard. She decided to take Mr. White’s advice and rest. She may not really know where she was or what was going on, but for the first time in a long, long time she felt safe.
Somewhere in the loud, crowded, stifling center of Mexico City, Mike looked out at mountains.
From the roomy balcony of his 15th-floor apartment he had a clear view through the urban sprawl, and he had made a daily habit of standing here in the late afternoon to look at the mountains in the distance. The peaks were lost in the smog and the low-hanging clouds, but it was still nice to look out of his home and see mountains and know that these mightiest of nature’s wonders transcended any human aspiration or achievement. These mountains were so old, in fact, that all of human history—from its beginning to its eventual end—would seem like a brief moment to them. They were so permanent, so constant. And yet someday, a long time from now, even they would succumb to time’s ever-moving onslaught. Someday they would be nothing but dust.
But Mike would not live to see that happen.
For now, the mountains were a fixed point in a world moving too swiftly, too chaotically for him to stand straight, let alone move with it. That night… That night, that horrible mistake of a night, he had seen an entirely different dimension to the world—one that he could neither exist in nor even understand. It had made him realize just how meaningless his own role was, how small he had always been even when he was the fourth-most important person in the largest conglomerate in the history of Earth. Now that he knew the truth, knew just how insignificant his existence was, he wasn’t sure he would ever go back to that old way of life even if he could. Actually, he knew he would never go back to it, no matter what the alternative was.
As it was now, the alternative wasn’t so bad. Mike hadn’t known he was going to Mexico City until the helicopter had finally landed and he had gotten out to find Meredith waiting near the helipad on the roof, anxious to tell him everything she knew about their situation and guide him down to their new apartment. The building was reasonably nice and located in one of the rejuvenated, modern-looking parts of the city. The hackers had sold off both his and Meredith’s stock assets and added this to the money from all of their accounts, which they then transferred to a secure online account where it was traded in for virtual currency. In this city, the money would last a while, especially if they got some of it back into the market. Someday, it would run out, but for now Mike and his family were happy and he didn’t want to worry about the future. For now, they would blend in. He may not speak much Spanish, but he was a quarter Mexican and one eighth Cuban on his father’s side; he fit in well enough in this city where European heritage was fairly common. So he would blend in and, for the first time in many years, he would simply live, enjoy the freedom of a life without pointless duties and unfulfilling routines. Just live.
His tablet buzzed in his pocket and he reflexively pulled it out. There was only one person it could be: his tablet only received calls and messages through the hackers’ comm app, and Diane was the only one who ever contacted him.
‘Watch this,’ her message read, followed by a link. Mike went over to sit in one of the balcony chairs and tapped the link.
“—and now,” a rubbery-looking news reader said as he stared seriously into the camera, “we will take you to the senate floor, where Republican Senator Gil Acosta of Florida is speaking.”
The camera cut away to a view of the backs of dozens of heads, all turned toward one white-haired man standing at a podium at the front of the room. There was the sound of subdued applause as the man at the podium, who Mike took to be Senator Acosta, looked around the room. Slowly, the camera zoomed in until Acosta was in full view.
“I want to assure you at this time,” Acosta said, “now that this disturbing and senseless chapter is behind us, the task force will aim to make sure no person or group impinges upon our unalienable corporate freedom rights ever again.” The applause this time was much heavier. “Fortunately for us all, in the wake of a terrible tragedy…” He paused dramatically, wistfully; the room was silent as death. “Huh, excuse me. Fortunately, in the wake of a tragedy, Senator Colmin has left us a blueprint to achieve this goal. I would like to present you all with the late senator’s last contribution to this great country, the Colmin Corporate Protection Act.” Thunderous applause now. The camera panned out and showed many senators on their feet.
Feeling tired and helpless, Mike cut the stream off and sat staring out at the mountains again. Two or three months ago, he would have been excited by this news and what it meant for his career; now he mostly just felt indifferent—and maybe a little sad for the world. The war was over and Silte Corp hadn’t won, necessarily, but the Deiciders had definitely lost. Mike couldn’t lament the fact that he had ultimately chosen the wrong side, though, because—while he hadn’t been sure about their cause in the beginning—he knew now that he had been right to join them. It had been the best path—for himself, for his family, for everyone. And that was all that really mattered.
He got up and went over to the railing, staring down at the busy street. The people looked like ants as they went on their way to a million different places, living out their million different happily oblivious lives. Maybe two of them were Meredith and Natalie, returning home from their latest sight-seeing excursion. Maybe that man there was Mike’s distant cousin, whose ancestors had stayed in Mexico while Mike’s had gone to America. Maybe somewhere down there was someone who knew the truth about what had happened that night at Silte headquarters and was living a life of blending in and moving on, just like Mike. Or maybe those people were just a bunch of random strangers who knew nothing about their own futile plight of existence.
The door behind him slid open.
“Hey, we’re home,” Meredith said. “We brought food. You coming?”
“Yeah,” Mike said, still looking down at the street.
“It’s cheeseburgers,” Natalie said. Mike turned around and smiled down at his daughter. “From an American restaurant.” She giggled, clearly amused by this foreign concept.
“That sounds great,” Mike said. He followed his family inside and gave no more thought to the people down on the street.
With an apathetic look on her face and a carefully casual gait, Dellia followed the man she knew only as Ogris onto the train. No, she shouldn’t think of this as following him; that could make her behave too deliberately. She was merely boarding the train as she had always intended and just happened to be going through the same door as this random stranger who she had never seen or heard of before. Yes, that was it. Nothing she did showed any purpose or familiarity with any sort of plan or meaningful action—at least this was what she hoped anyone watching her would think. Because otherwise her life, however lowly, however exhausting it was, could be over before she even got off this train.
Being anonymous was hard.
Keeping an inconspicuous distance, she followed Ogris through a car full of private cabins and some communal bunk beds and into the next car, where there were standard fare seats. As she went, she hooked her thumbs in the straps of her new backpack (the old one—along with her remaining possessions—had been left in Corin’s CDC office) and looked around with a phony bored curiosity. There weren’t many people here; cross-country passenger trains like this weren’t very popular these days when people could get anywhere worth going in the continent within a few hours. Ogris stopped up ahead, and Dellia had to force herself not to stop as well. He turned his head to the right, nodded slightly, and continued on a few rows before disappearing into a seat.
Where Ogris had stopped there were six seats on each side of the aisle, with two rows of three facing each other on either side. Dellia took the first seat on the right, not daring to look at the person sitting beside her in the window seat, and looked up at the woman in the seat across from her. The woman was close to middle-age, and her skin was dark, her short hair a shocking bone white. She looked tired, far more tired than Dellia felt—more tired than she had ever felt.
“Dellia,” the woman said.
“Gita?” Dellia replied, a little uncertain.
“There is not much time,” Gita said, not bothering to confirm her identity. “We need to know for sure. Did you recover a sample of the cure?”
“A whole case,” Dellia said as she nodded. “If properly handled, enough for about three thousand individual doses, as far as I can tell.” She took her bag off her back and shifted it around to her lap.
“And you have all of it?” Gita kept glancing down at the bag.
“No,” Dellia said, an ironic smile on her face. “You didn’t think I would put all my trust into you, did you? After everything that’s happened? No, Corin gave me contact information for some of his people before…before I left the CDC.”
“You didn’t… Not all of it, surely? Please tell me…” Gita’s voice was quavering, desperate. Her eyes had gone wild, the tiredness replaced with panic.
“Two vials to Geneva and one to Massachusetts—that’s all I’m telling you. Don’t worry, you’re only down a few hundred doses. I don’t know what you guys are planning to do, but it will be more than what I can do. I would have taken it all back to the CDC but…” She couldn’t finish that sentence because it was too painful.
Before she had even left Atlanta, she had found out about the fates of Corin and his secret team in the basement lab. She had been able to steal an unsuspecting businessman’s tablet on a busy street corner a few days after fleeing the CDC, which she used to catch up on what had happened since that night. Corin, she had found out, along with all of the scientists and technicians working in his lab that day, had been arrested in connection to the so-called terrorist attack at Syrix. The Syrix building had burned extensively before the emergency crews showed up; what didn’t turn to ash collapsed into rubble. Nine people died. It was a crucial blow to Silte Corp’s production capabilities and existing supply of their cure. Dellia could not deny that fact. But too many lives had been destroyed for her to feel good about anything that had happened that night.
“What you and Ra did,” Gita said, “was necessary. And everything else that happened… It will all be worth it. I promise.”
There was nothing Dellia could or would say to that, so she remained silent. She looked away from Gita and out the window. The person beside her was staring at her, but she still willed herself not to look at him; that time would come.
After a while, Gita said, “I promise we will put this to good use.” She reached for the bag and Dellia let her take it.
The weight of millions of lives left her.
“Thank you for everything,” Gita said. “Both of you.” She looked to the person beside Dellia. “You’ve both done your part. Now go live whatever life you can. I wish you both luck.”
Ogris walked by slowly down the aisle, his face fixed on his tablet screen. Gita waited for him to pass and then got up and followed him. Less than two minutes later, the train rolled into motion, and finally Dellia turned to look at Jason.
They had been apart now longer than they had been with each other, but still, seeing him again made everything that had happened since she had left the ship seem like a fading dream from which she had finally woken up. He was not the same Jason, though; that was clear. It looked as though the world had finally worn him into a state of pessimism and neglect. His hair and clothes were unwashed and unkempt, his eyes droopy with lack of sleep. He did seem happy to see her, though.
For a while, neither of them spoke. They looked at each other, looked away, stared out the window or down at their laps. It felt like there was a greater distance in this small space between them than when they had been hundreds of miles apart. The silence lasted until the train was well outside of the city and the view through the window was sloping plains and distant mountains.
“It’s funny,” Dellia said, finally breaking down the brick wall occupying the empty seat between them. “Isn’t it?”
“We found each other again,” she explained. “All the resources Silte has at their disposal and they haven’t caught us. But all it took for us was a little scrap of paper.”
“Oh.” He flashed a grin that didn’t make it to his eyes. “Yeah, that’s funny. It probably helped that the Deiciders didn’t have a reason to keep us apart.”
“So these Deiciders, they’re going to…help us?”
“Already did.” He absently pulled his tablet out of his pocket and set it in his lap. “Consider us anonymous. Or as close to it as we can get. Not too bad financially either, if that even makes a difference now.”
“Well, it doesn’t change the way this feels.” She got up and moved over to sit right next to him. “Do you think it’s over?” she said softly, close to him now.
“No,” he said, not bothering to soften the blow. “But our part is. I know that.”
The smile he gave her then was weak but genuine.
Outside the window, mountains passed as the train rolled on to wherever trains still went.