Authors: Robin Wasserman
“That night before we went to the temple,” Riley said. “We went over the plan one last time, then I uploaded, and then—it’s blank. But Lia filled me in on everything else.”
Jude’s smile had turned predatory. “I bet she did.”
“Something you want to say, Jude?” It popped out, though I knew better. That happened around him.
“Nothing I haven’t already said. Welcome.” He rubbed his hands together, disposing of the unseemly business. “Let me show you around.”
He guided us through the dark wonderland of gutted buildings and shattered glass; it made Riley’s city look like a paradise. Leave it to Jude to seek refuge in the midst of death and decay, a broken landscape that proved, with every step, exactly how much damage the orgs were willing to do to each other. So many
orgs these days liked to claim that organic life was sacred in the eyes of God. But it didn’t seem to stop them from killing whomever they liked, whenever they got the urge.
They’re no different from you,
I reminded myself.
Same mind, same memories. You used to be an org. Whatever they’re capable of, you’re capable of.
But nothing in me was capable of this.
“I’ve only been here for a few weeks, long enough to get the lay of the land and establish that it’ll serve our purposes.” Jude paused, then added, in a high, squeaky voice, “So where were you before that, Jude?”
“That supposed to be me?” I asked sourly.
“Glad to see you aren’t any less of an egomaniac than the last time I saw you.”
“Jude—,” Riley warned him.
“Kidding,” Jude said. He led us up a wide boulevard lined by rubble. There were no weeds poking from beneath the stones, no trees, no bushes, no green of any kind. “But since you asked: I spent most of the time in Chindia, honored guest of the Aikida Corp.”
Once a small Japanese pharmaceutical corp, Aikida was now the largest bio-and gen-tech corp in the world, with global headquarters in Chindia and a major presence in every developed country except the United States. BioMax, their primary rival, had made sure it would stay that way. That had been one of the primary conditions when the corps bailed out the government and turned it into their own quaint department of civil
engineering—preservation of our inviolable corporate boundaries. Since the Bailout no foreign corporation had done business on American soil unless approved by the corp consortium. “What would they want with you? Unless you got a PhD in gen-tech while I wasn’t looking.”
“I’ve got something more valuable than a PhD,” Jude said. When we looked blank, he rapped his knuckles against his forehead. “In here, geniuses. It’s worth millions—and trust me, there’s not a gen-tech corp in the world that wouldn’t pay.”
“So they’re trying to reverse-engineer the download process and you’re their guinea pig?” I asked, surprised Jude would let anyone experiment on him again, no matter the price. “And you’re still in one piece?”
“Funny, you sound disappointed.”
“Honesty über alles, right?” His stated policy, not mine.
“They didn’t touch me,” he said. “They’ve already tried that on other mechs. Stripping them bare—no luck. They wanted something else from me. So we’re going to get it for them.”
I glanced at Riley, who looked wary. Thankfully. At least I wouldn’t have to try to talk him out of whatever insane plan was coming next.
“They need the master code for the brain-scanning program, and the full specs for the neural matrix,” Jude said. “We get it from BioMax, sell it to Aikida, and live happily ever after.”
“What’s with ‘we’?” I asked. “You’ve got your own BioMax connection, as I recall. Get him to give you what you need and leave us out of it.”
at the temple, my connections have dried up,” Jude said. “I think I’ve managed to convince them that I’m harmless enough to drop their ridiculous vendetta against me, but I can’t get inside.
“But why would I? So you can get rich? What do you need money for when you have all this?” I gestured to the rubble.
“I have what I need,” Jude said. “This is bigger.”
“This is pathetic. Maybe you haven’t noticed, but BioMax isn’t out to get us—even you.”
“Now who’s willing to do anything for money?”
“They don’t pay me,” I told him. “I work with them because I want to help.”
“Right, the party line: mechs and orgs together, one big happy dysfunctional family.”
“At least I’m doing something, instead of just whining about how everyone’s out to get me.”
“And exactly what are
doing?” Jude snapped. “Letting them parade you around on the network like a trained monkey? You think playing at being some brainless slut on a vidlife is going to convince anyone of anything?”
“Jude!” Riley’s voice held an implied threat—one I was sure he dreaded carrying out.
“You’re not exactly the target demographic,” I said, evenly as I could.
Jude just laughed.
“Give her a break,” Riley said. “She’s doing what she thinks she has to.”
I didn’t need him to defend me. But I couldn’t help noticing it wasn’t much of a defense.
“Right,” Jude said. “Working
BioMax.” He laughed again.
“You think I’m working
them?” I said.
“I think working
someone implies payment. And the freedom to
working whenever you want. It implies
. You have none of that. What you have … call it indentured servitude. Call it slavery. Call it whatever you want, but the fact is, they
you. They gave you that body, and they can take it away.”
“I’m not going to argue.”
That caught him off guard. “That’s a first.”
“They own all of us,” I said. We were at their mercy; we depended on them to honor their contracts, and our existence. “That’s why we
to work with them. Because they’re all we’ve got.”
“No one owns me,” Jude said quietly.
“Sounds pretty. That doesn’t make it true.”
“As usual, your vision is severely lacking.”
“If you mean I lack the vision to see how selling corp secrets to Aikida is going to change anything, then I guess that’s another thing we agree on.”
“We’re not selling them for money,” Jude said.
“So what, then?”
“The only way we get free of BioMax is if
control the means to create new bodies and to download ourselves into
to make sure we store the uploaded memories on a server that no one but us has access to. Aikida is going to help us do that. We get them the specs they need; they supply us with our very own laboratory and production facilities, and a skeleton staff of scientists and engineers that can train us to do everything for ourselves. We sign a noncompete with them, to guarantee that we function only in this country, so we don’t interfere with Aikida operations—but beyond that we’re free.”
“And all of this is going to take place …” It was beginning to sink in. Why we were here. Why Jude was so proud of his ghost town.
“Right here,” Jude said. “Ground zero of our independence day. A country of our own, inside the one that doesn’t want us—let them stay on their side of the border, and we’ll stay on ours.”
I didn’t bother to ask about the benevolent dictator who would inevitably be
this imaginary country of his. Instead: “You’re insane.”
“You see it, don’t you?” Jude appealed to Riley. “We’ve got everything we need here. Space, privacy, an almost completely intact infrastructure. It could be what we’ve always wanted. A place to be left alone.”
Riley’s gaze swept the jagged skyline. He didn’t answer.
“Riley, I was thinking you could take a look at the generators?” Jude said. He’d led us to some kind of power plant. Scorch marks scraped its sides, and one wall had collapsed. “See if I’m wrong about their condition? You know this stuff so much better than I do.”
“Not so much better,” Riley said, obviously pleased by the compliment.
“So much,” Jude insisted. “Take a look?”
“He’s not going in there,” I said, surprised the building was still standing. “It looks like the roof might cave in.”
Riley squeezed my hand. “I’ll be back in a minute.” And then, like we’d traveled back in time six months and nothing had changed between them, he did exactly as Jude said, and stepped inside.
Which left me and Jude alone.
“So you’re lying to him,” Jude said. “Again.”
“None of your business.”
He raised his eyebrows.
“This is better for him,” I said. “If you care about that at all anymore, you’ll trust me.”
“And if I don’t?”
“Should I even bother saying please?”
“So you’re asking me for a favor,” Jude concluded. “I knew you finally grew a spine, but the balls must be new.”
“I’m asking for
,” I said. “He shouldn’t have to know what you forced him to do.”
forced him to shoot me? And set the secops on me?”
“Please,” I said again, hating that I had to beg. “You’re here, you’re fine, so—”
“Stop,” he said. “What did you think? That I dragged you here to mess with your pathetic little arrangement? Maybe you think I’m going to blackmail you into helping me with BioMax? I keep my mouth shut to Riley, and you do whatever I say?”
“You really think I’d do that?” he asked. He sounded hurt; he’d always been a good actor. “If you knew anything—” He stopped abruptly and changed course. “I really have been watching you on the network. I see what you’re trying to do. You might even have helped a bit, here and there. But you’ve got to think about the big picture. This is a waste of your time—and your rather ample talents. I’m not going to blackmail you into helping me. I don’t have to. Because once you think about it, you’ll see that I’m right. Anything else is just postponing the inevitable.”
“That’s your pitch? I’m going to help you because it’s the right thing to do?”
is my pitch: Korinne Lat. Mara Wells. Portia Bavanti. Tyler—”
“What’s your point?” But I knew. I knew those names as well as he did.
“Mechs who’ve been attacked,” he said. “Mechs who’ve been ambushed or lynched or kidnapped by orgs. And those are just the ones we know about, because why bother to report a crime that’s not a crime?” As I’d learned my first month at BioMax, org-on-mech violence increased by 230 percent when mech attacks were officially declared consequence-free. Kicking and punching and strangling a machine were deemed to be property damage, and the mechs had no owners who could sue. (As several corp-controlled courts had ruled; a machine could not own itself.)
“Jude, I know all about—”
“And I could keep going,” he said, loudly. “You want more names? How about the names of the mechs who’ve lost everything because the corps have confiscated their credit and shut down their zones? Because mechs are no longer officially living people under the law; we’re
. With no standing. No rights.”
“Like I don’t know that.”
“You know, but you still have somewhere to live. You have a father to buy you things. You don’t know what it’s like to—”
“You think I don’t know?” I shouted. “I know exactly how many mechs are getting hurt every damn day. That’s why I’m doing this. That’s
I’m working with BioMax. I’m trying to fix things.
trying to change them. So what are
doing? Hiding out like some kind of end-of-the-world nutcase, waiting for us to get so desperate that we throw ourselves on your mercy? Great plan, Jude. How could I ever have doubted you?”
He didn’t look at all surprised, or even disappointed. “Eventually you’ll see you’re fighting a losing battle.”
“Enjoy the wait.”
“Frankly, I don’t have time for it. So I’ve got something to speed along your comprehension. Or at least your willingness.”
“Finally.” Because clearly, everything else had been preamble, priming the pump.
, whatever it was, would be why we were really here. “Tell me why I’m going to help you.”
“Because it will hurt your father.”
“Maybe you should pay closer attention,” I said. “My father and I are fine. I have no interest in hurting him.”
Jude’s hand shot out and grabbed mine before I could pull away. He pressed something sharp into my palm. I assumed it was a dreamer, the tiny cubes that offered mechs a hallucinatory escape from the world. Jude had offered me my very first one in exactly this way. But the object was the wrong size and lacked the dreamer’s distinctive etchings along the edge.
Jude was still gripping my hand. “You may not want to hurt him yet,” he said. “But trust me, you will.”
You’d be a lot more tolerable if you’d just
your inner bitch.
t was a flash drive. Nearly archaic, used only for the kind of data you couldn’t trust to transmission over the network and so reserved for hand-to-hand exchange. The drive had Chinese ideograms scratched across its length, which I assumed meant that Jude had picked it up during his stint at Aikida. Or at least that he wanted me to think so. I slid it into my pocket before Riley could see, and resolved not to think about it again until I was alone.
Which came sooner than I expected. Nested in Riley’s arms, my head safely cradled on his shoulder as the car carried us through the pitch-black night, I didn’t watch the nav screen or chart the twisting roads as we swept past. We stopped in an empty lot, the Windows of Memory glowing in
the distance, the poisoned sea still a dark hole in the night. My car was waiting.
“You okay to drive home alone, or you want me to follow you?” Riley asked.
I had assumed we would go back to his place. Talk about what had happened.
Or not talk.
“I’m okay,” I said.
He’d been quiet the whole way back—uncharacteristically so, even for him. I couldn’t tell whether he was disappointed because reuniting with Jude hadn’t lived up to his hopes, disappointed in
for not sharing his enthusiasm, or just lost in thoughts that he’d decided weren’t fit for sharing.