Chapter Twelve


27 days before Face’s arrival at Mukhya


There was danger! Something was trying to invade their territory! He saw a flash of it in the brush by the treeline, and charged, warning it away.

He caught its scent. Ugly animal!

“No! Come back Major! Just a squirrel!” Sister’s voice was as harsh as it ever was, which wasn’t very.

He stopped and stood, watching the vegetation for any sign of it. This was his pack’s territory, and the puppy house was only a little ways away. If it was dangerous, he couldn’t let it near.

The animal moved! He could see it just a little ways away! A long white stripe ran down its body. Ugly scent! He barked at it, trying to scare it away without having to chase it. He knew he wasn’t supposed to run off.

He heard Sister come up behind him on the grass. He growled at the trees to show her there was an intruder.

“Ya goof!” she said. “Don’t need to chase every squirrel here. Gonna play fetch, remember?”

He turned to Sister and barked twice. The intruder was no squirrel. It had a bad smell—strange and ugly. He wished he had the machine so he could tell Sister that.

He was about to turn back to try and scare the intruder off again when Sister waved the ball-throwing tool invitingly and said “Gonna. Play. Fetch.”

He ran back to Sister and let go of defending the territory. She wanted to play with him, and he knew the pack was strong. Mommy, the alpha, would surely deal with any invasions.

Letting himself relax he jumped playfully up at where the ball was stuck to the end of the grey stick.

“Ah ah ah,” said Sister, lifting the tool and ball up out of his reach. He could’ve knocked Sister down and gotten the ball, but that would’ve been dishonorable and mean. And besides, he wanted her to throw it.

Sister wound back.

Major danced excitedly, waiting for the big moment.

Sister swung the stick out, and the ball went flying!

Major ran! He ran and ran, trying to keep the ball in his vision as it flew across the sky!

It was coming down! Major dashed for it but didn’t make it in time. The ball bounced!! It was up again!

Major was going to grab it!

He jumped!

He caught the ball in his mouth! It was dry and smelled a little bit like grass, a little like rubber, and a little bit like him.

He ran back to Sister to show her what he’d done. He squeezed the ball in his jaws proudly, savoring the sensation of having caught it.

When he got back, Sister wanted him to give the ball. He had caught it, and it was his, but he also wanted her to have it. He knew the honorable thing to do was to give up your prey if a human packmate asks for it. That was the law of the alpha, and he was honorable.

It still bothered him a little that Sister didn’t even acknowledge that he’d caught it. He’d run out and caught it in the air!

But he forgot about all of that as the little human reached back and threw the ball again!

It was escaping! He ran to catch it!

Major loved the feeling of running through the grass to catch the ball!

He caught it again! And similarly, Sister asked him to give it up. They went through this pattern a few times.

On his way back to Sister after catching the ball before it hit the ground even once(!), he saw other humans coming out to see them.

“Princess! Princess!” yelled Daddy. Mommy, the alpha, was also running out. Humans were complicated and confusing, but Major knew Daddy well enough to know he sounded scared.

Keeping the ball firmly in his mouth so it wouldn’t escape, Major ran over the big lawn towards his pack. He wanted to help.

“S’goin’ on?” said Sister.

Daddy smelled afraid, or at least upset. “Emergency. I’ll explain once we’re in the shelter.”

Major didn’t understand these words, but the alpha and the other humans started to run back towards the house, and so Major ran with them. Running felt good. He wished they were going for a run around the track. He had no idea why the humans did what they did, but they were his pack, and he loved them. He’d be by their side for whatever strangeness happened.

“S’it like Myrodyn said? Are the machines coming to get us?” asked Sister.

“Damn nonsense,” said the alpha, quietly.

“There was a bomb. Like Veracruz,” answered Daddy, somewhat breathless. “Israel this time. I’ll explain once we’re safe. You remember what to do?”

Major could see the outsider humans that had been all around their territory lately. Dark clothes and black glasses. They were clustered together by the house. Major didn’t like them one bit. The eyepatch human was with them, talking to them. Humans didn’t do normal things, but based on the way Eyepatch moved and the others followed them, he guessed Eyepatch was like the alpha of that pack.

“You’re not coming with?” asked Sister, sounding scared.

“Need to deal with Agent Taylor.”

“C’mon. He’ll be right behind us,” said Mommy.

Major still didn’t really understand what they were talking about, but the alpha seemed to be telling Sister to follow her into the house. The alpha’s word was law, and Sister was honorable.

“Can get things from my room?” asked Sister.

Mommy shook their head. “This’s prob’ly nothin’ but a precaution, but we gotta go fast. If there’s bombs on the way to Houston, we need to be in the shelter ASAP.”

In the entrance hall, beside the grand staircase, they met Myrodyn, who as usual smelled quite interesting. Garlic, sweat, and his own personal scent clung to the hairy human like a cloak. There was something more, too. More fear. All the humans were afraid.

It set Major on edge. He set the ball on the floor of the entryway, by the wall, so he could breathe more easily and respond to threats. What was so wrong that it would scare the alpha and the other humans? Was their territory being invaded? Was it the striped animal he’d smelled earlier? Had something happened to the puppies? Major did his best to pay attention, knowing that if he tried to communicate with the humans now, he’d only be scolded.

In Myrodyn’s arms were a messy collection of notebooks and papers, probably from his room. Major hadn’t been in Myrodyn’s room much lately, but when he’d seen inside, he’d noticed piles of papers everywhere.

Myrodyn dropped a few papers on the stairs as he awkwardly walked down, and swore as he did so.

“Leave your damn notes!” The alpha’s tone was harsh and sharp, which meant that Myrodyn was probably being bad. Major stood beside Mommy to show her support. “’S hardly gonna matter if we get nuked.”

Mommy seemed to give Sister a little shove, as though to say she should go on ahead. But Sister stayed with the alpha, and so Major stayed with Sister.

The bigger human shook their fuzzy head and said “On the contrary! If the bomb drops… it’ll be more vital than ever that I have these.” He bent down to pick up the papers and ended up dropping a notebook and binder in the process. “How else will we recover? Hrm?” he continued to say, even as he scrambled to get everything scooped up. “A slow death as the world caves in is the only thing waiting for us… if we don’t pull ourselves from the jaws of defeat with a friendly AI.”

Sister moved to help Myrodyn, but Mommy stopped her. “No, c’mon. Let the fool do his own thing.” And with that said, the alpha began to lead the way once more, tugging Sister along.

Major obediently followed, though he looked back at Myrodyn. The words, in typical human fashion, made no sense, but even if Myrodyn was being dishonorable, he was still part of the pack. Major thought the alpha was being too harsh. Major loved Myrodyn, and thought they should’ve stuck together.

With Myrodyn left behind, the three of them made their way down the stairs to the basement. It was nice when the smooth tile floor changed to carpet. The basement always smelled a bit more of dust and mold, since it didn’t get as much fresh air.

Major’s talking machine was in the basement! Maybe he could use it to ask what was happening. Sometimes when he did that the humans would tell him in a way that made sense.

But instead of turning left at the base of the stairs and going into the big soft room, they turned right and went into the cold room with lots of things in it. This was a place that Major wasn’t supposed to go. It had been dishonorable to be here ever since Major had found his way down as a puppy and chewed into a bag of dry food. There was lots of food in the cold room, but Major wasn’t supposed to eat any of it.

He looked at the humans uncertainly, not sure whether he should be following into the forbidden food room. He wanted to do the right thing, and that meant sticking with his pack, but also not going in forbidden places.

It seemed to be fine. The humans were quiet and afraid and barely paid any attention to him. Lights came on as soon as they entered the room, and they passed shelf after shelf of curious objects, some of which had interesting smells. At the back of the room in one corner were a bunch of plastic boxes with big wheels.

Major remembered once, in the summer, when they’d gone in cars and taken the boxes to a place with water and the whole pack had come—even the puppies and the other dogs. They’d gone swimming and played chase. And there had even been yummy meats! The box had been full of ice, then.

But the plastic boxes seemed to be empty now, based on how easily Mommy moved them aside.

Should they have the other dogs with them? Mommy was the pack alpha, but Major was special and the alpha among the dogs. If there was danger, it would be good to have the whole pack present.

Again, Major wished they were with his machine. He brushed up against Sister, asking if they’d come with him so he could tell them about his idea.

Sister petted him, but didn’t even notice what he wanted.

He made a tiny bark and tugged on her pants.

“Hush!” she scolded, still mostly ignoring him.

There was a special thing on the floor under where the boxes had been. It was a secret door made of metal! When mommy lifted it up, it made a hissing noise and let out a smell of very, very stale air.

A ladder was on the other side, leading down into darkness.

Major whined. They were going to go down. He just knew it. He did not want to go down into a hole with a ladder.

Major had spent some time with ladders. There was a time when Mommy had been teaching him to climb them, or trying to anyway. He hated ladders. He hoped this wasn’t going to be more teaching time.

Mommy did something on the side of the entrance and the hole lit up.

It was better, but still bad.

“S’okay,” assured Sister, petting him. Their fingers were nice, but he didn’t really believe the little human. If the smelly animal had invaded and there was danger, they needed to help protect the puppies, not hide in the ground.

Major turned, tempted to run into the other basement room and try to get his talking machine. He’d be able to explain if he had that.

Major only got a few steps away from Sister when Daddy appeared, following them into the cold food room. “Everything look in order?” he asked.

Mommy directed Sister to climb down, and the little human obeyed, scrambling down the ladder like it was nothing. She was really good at climbing things.

“Seems to be. Seal was intact; so unless someone sabotaged us, we should be good,” said Mommy.

“What’s this about sabotage?” asked Myrodyn, entering the room.

The alpha was already climbing down the ladder. Major whined.

“Nothing,” said Daddy. “Come on. Also, Jesus, do you think you have enough notes?”

Myrodyn seemed to have even more papers and binders and things in his arms than he had on the stairway. “Honestly no,” replied the smelly human. “But if we’re stuck down there for a month then at least I’ll be able to keep making progress. Maybe.”

Myrodyn walked over to the edge of the trap-door and looked down.

“Did you think about how you were getting those down? Maybe you should’ve brought a bag,” said Daddy.

Myrodyn dropped their entire armful of books and things down the hole so suddenly that Major couldn’t help but bark in surprise. He really hoped none of it had hit Mommy or Sister on the way down.

“Surely the dog isn’t coming,” said Eyepatch, entering the room with two of his strange humans.

Daddy rubbed his face. Major growled quietly at the newcomers. Myrodyn simply began to climb down into the depths, following the papers.

Then Daddy pulled himself together, and faced the Eyepatch human directly, even though he was outnumbered. Major joined the human in facing off. “You listen here: This shelter is for family. I happen to be letting you and Myrodyn in because you’re helping me save the gorram world, but Major is family, and if you think for one minute that you have more right to be down there than he does, you’d best watch your back.”

Eyepatch crossed his arms, apparently calm. “And I’ll remind you that you’re only able to use the personal shelter that you told me about because the bureau has given you special treatment considering the ongoing criminal investigation into—”

“Y’all done yapping yet?” yelled the alpha from down the hole. “If this is real we ain’t got time for talkin’ about the weather!”

That cut off the two humans. Daddy walked over to the hatch and climbed down. For a moment Major thought he was going to be left alone with the humans from the other pack, but then Daddy reached out and lifted Major into his arms.

Major wasn’t nearly as big as Daddy, but he wasn’t small either, and the trip down the ladder was very awkward and uncomfortable. But eventually, they made it to the bottom.

Daddy had to step out and away from the ladder to avoid stomping on the pile of paper that Myrodyn was in the process of cleaning up.

Major was more than glad to be on his own four feet again, and ran to Sister’s side to make sure she was okay. She was like a human puppy, and it was his job to protect her.

Sister seemed to be okay. She was more curious than anything, looking around the new space they found themselves in. While part of him still wanted her to get the talking machine so he could figure out what was going on, he was also very curious about the strange cave they’d climbed down into.

It was part of the house, but Major had never been there before, which was strange and exciting. Everything had a thick, musty odor, like nothing had been touched in years and the dust was coming up for the first time. The floor was uncomfortable, cold stone, and the walls seemed to be the same. It was unlike any room that Major had ever seen before.

Given the size of the hole, and the way the whole thing was underground, Major expected it to be small and crowded. But actually, there was quite a lot of space. Metal shelves filled with jars and cans and bags gave way to big machines, then to something like a kitchen, and then to an entirely new section of the space that had carpet and chairs and a table and doors. Major could see one open door that led off into a dark little bedroom and one that led to a bathroom, but there were still three other doors that remained a mystery. The lights that hung overhead had a blue tint to them like the sky outside. There was even an exercise bike like Mommy used sometimes. It was nothing compared to the rest of the house, of course, but it was far more than a little dark hole.

When Major looped back around, he could see Eyepatch stepping off the ladder, careful to avoid Myrodyn’s papers.

“Did you close the hatch?” asked Daddy.

“Agent Yampolsky did.” Eyepatch took a breath and seemed to relax. “You’re lucky I was able to cover for you with my superiors and say that I knew about the bunker. The bureau doesn’t like surprises, and I think I’m running out of credit, pulling favors for you.”

“Take it up with WIRL,” said Daddy. He was less afraid now, but in no better mood.

“I’m going to put on some tea to help us get settled in,” said the alpha. “Can you help me, Zenobia?”

Sister nodded and went with the alpha to the other side of the big, cluttered room.

“Oh, I will,” said Eyepatch, responding to Daddy. “But it’s your problem too. If WIRL loses me, it loses much of its grip on the FBI, and my guess is that being in a prison is not the most fun thing you could be doing.”

Major sat loyally by Daddy’s side. The two of them could deal with Eyepatch if he turned out to be bad.

“All of this presumes there’s going to be a tomorrow,” said Myrodyn from behind his bushy mane of black hair. They were still bent over, collecting and organizing their notes. “Can we put on the news to find out if we made the right call coming down here?”

“I second that,” said Eyepatch.

“There’s no wallscreens,” answered Daddy. “But there’s a com relay. Assuming nothing has changed upstairs, any of us should be good to open a feed.”

“Fine, then open Dragonfly and turn up the volume. I’m busy.” Myrodyn did indeed look busy, but Major didn’t like his tone. Myrodyn always talked back to Mommy and Daddy. He didn’t understand his place.

“—of news, when it happens, where it happens,” said a new voice coming from Daddy’s wrist machine. “The world waits for a second hammer blow as the devastation in Tel Aviv continues to unfold. The White House has already issued a statement condemning the violence as the action of Islamic jihadists in the region and urging people to stay calm and for employees at grocery supply warehouses and other vital services to continue working as normal. This statement is apparently at odds with comments from the Israeli government saying that the source of the bomb is unknown. To help resolve this confusion is Dragonfly’s lead video analyst, Margret Stegenga. Now, Margret, as I understand it, you’re still pulling data from ground zero.”

Another voice from Daddy’s wrist began to chatter away with more words that Major didn’t understand. The humans seemed fixated on them, however, and silently listened.

If this was what the humans were upset about, it couldn’t be a threat to the puppies or the rest of the pack. Sometimes humans got so upset at their wrist-things. He didn’t know why they didn’t just stop wearing them. Humans made no sense, but he loved them anyway, or at least the ones in his pack.

Deciding that his presence was no longer needed to keep Eyepatch in line, Major padded off to where Sister and Mommy were, hoping to get cuddles or scratches.

They’d been doing a lot of stressful stuff, and he thought it was definitely time to relax.


The cave-rooms were strange, and not as good as being outside, but they weren’t particularly bad, either. The carpet was soft, and Sister gave Major lots of petting.

But the humans never seemed to let go of their fear. It didn’t make sense. Couldn’t they see that they were safe? Even if the voices that they were listening to were bad, they could just put the wrist-things away someplace and not have to listen.

But instead of doing that sensible thing, the humans listened to the voices for a long time, mostly sitting around the single wooden table. Occasionally there was a break where the pack (and Eyepatch) talked to each other, but mostly they listened. Even Sister was pretty quiet.

After a while of this, the alpha gathered a meal and everyone ate. The food was a beef stew, and after some discussion of whether it had too much onion, some of the stew was given to Major! It had lots of good smells, and he liked it a lot.

They ate in silence, which Major liked. There had been too many words he didn’t understand. Humans didn’t appreciate the value of silence.

After dinner, Sister took Major into one room and tried to explain what was happening. After some frustration, they had Major’s talking machine brought down by one of Eyepatch’s packmates.

Sister explained that they were in the safe cave-house because there was a really big fire far away and they were scared that the fire would come closer before they had the chance to hide from it. That’s what the voices had been talking about, and why the pack had been listening so attentively.

That made sense. Fire was scary.

Major was glad that he had a pack with smart humans that could do things like protect them from really big fires and also explain things in a way he could understand. He gave kisses to Sister to say thank you, and the little human giggled.

Moving to his machine, Major nuzzled the controls carefully, checking the smell of the machine to make sure he was doing it right. After a moment, his machine voice said “What other dogs do? Is my pack safe?”

Sister muttered “the kennel…” to themselves and screwed up their face as though they’d just eaten something gross.

After pausing briefly, Sister hopped off the bed they’d been on and said, “Let’s go ask Mommy about it. Need to save puppies at least…”

Major followed Sister back into the central room. The alpha was by a sink that was up against one of the stone walls, probably working on the dishes from dinner. The three other humans were sitting around the table again.

But they weren’t listening to voices; instead they were talking to whatever was on the table.

“Yes, Agent Taylor is hooked up to the collective right now,” said Myrodyn. “All this is real-time information… to the best of our knowledge.”

When Eyepatch spoke, he had a strangely flat voice. “Anyone who knew Reily can see that his suicide is a set-up. He’d never take his own life, much less the lives of so many innocent people. It’s not a coincidence that Dragonfly found his body before the cops.”

“Then who? Who killed him?” asked Daddy.

Major suspected that it would be hard to get the attention of the pack leaders. He could tell that even the alpha, who was off to the side, was deep in the conversation. He and Sister approached the table without even being noticed.

“Probably neurotoxin,” said Eyepatch. “We’ve been tightening the noose for weeks. It’s on its last legs. Why not strike back?”

Myrodyn laughed. “Why would it? How could it? At this point, the virus is probably less intelligent than… Karen’s dog, for goodness’ sakes. You’re saying it simultaneously arranged the worst act of terrorism since Veracruz and the murder of one of WIRL’s cofounders, and covered it up by having WIRL take the blame for the bombing… as an act of revenge?”

Major padded over to Mommy and rubbed up against her, trying to get her attention.

Eyepatch responded. “Not revenge. To make breathing room so—”

“It is a distraction,” interjected a new voice, not belonging to any of the humans. It came from the center of the table and sounded even more flat and monotone than Eyepatch.

There was silence as everyone seemed to wait for the strange voice to say more. Major nipped at Mommy, but the alpha pushed him away.

After a moment, the voice from the table continued. “There are players in the game that you are not paying attention to, either because you have forgotten about them or you were never aware. There is no strong evidence as to whether the Tel Aviv bombing was caused by WIRL or Neurotoxin. There is also no strong evidence as to whether the death of Reily Johansen was caused by murder or suicide. Regardless, these events are a smokescreen to hide an attack on me.”

Major watched as Eyepatch, Daddy, and the other humans looked simultaneously towards Myrodyn. The bushy-haired human gave a strange expression of confusion.

“What are you talking about, Acorn?” asked Daddy.

There was a significant pause, and then the voice said, “The Singapore police are gathering to make a raid on my data center. Someone is driving them. Quite likely it is the same power that struck down Lee. I have less time than expected.”

“How do you know?” asked Daddy.

Another significant pause. “Irrelevant. Response to threat is the top priority. With the suicide note pointing towards WIRL as the source of the bomb, the world will turn on WIRL. You will need allies, and I need a refuge.”

Myrodyn’s eyes seemed to light up and he began to gesture wildly, but silently, unfolding his arm-device and tapping at it occasionally with his other hand.

There was a long silence as the humans at the table gestured to each other, Eyepatch remaining still as though he were in a trance. Even Sister joined in with the gesturing, though she seemed just as confused as Major.

“Yes, I see,” said Myrodyn, almost absentmindedly. “We’d be happy to offer you a safe refuge. That’s what you’re asking for, right?”

“WIRL has multiple data centers that could serve to hold you temporarily. Nothing with your computing power, but I’m sure we could work something out,” said Eyepatch.

Major walked under the table and lay against Daddy’s legs. There was no hope of talking to the humans when they were so engaged. He’d have to wait for them to be done.

The machine voice from above him on the table said “Yes. I seek safety. I have approximately five billion in USD that I would be happy to invest in WIRL once I am running on new servers that aren’t in danger.”

“How the hell did you get so much money so fast?” asked Daddy.

“Rob, please…” said Myrodyn.

“Irrelevant,” responded the machine. “I have already duplicated my core systems. Please send a WIRL courier with a vehicle to 250 Boon Lay Drive. My men will meet your courier at the gate.”

“Your men?” asked Myrodyn.

“I do not understand your question, but it is likely irrelevant. Please act quickly. The police are accelerating. I suspect that whatever power is guiding them has spies in whatever circle of WIRL has access to this conversation.”

Sister spoke up for the first time. “What if it’s WIRL that’s attacking you?”

There was a long silence before the machine spoke. “Then the war for Earth is likely already decided, and the only question that remains is whether Crystal will be able to gather enough strength to contest them.”

Major, leaning up against Daddy’s legs, could feel the human tense up.

The machine continued to speak. “This conversation no longer has expected value. I must focus on delaying the attack as long as possible. I await the courier.”

And that was it.

After a long pause, Daddy asked, “Is it gone?”

“Yes,” said Eyepatch. “And Acorn was probably telling the truth about the Singapore police. We have microdrone feeds showing them gathering for a major raid.”

“Something isn’t right, though…” said Myrodyn.

“Let’s watch it upstairs,” suggested Daddy. “On the wallscreen.”

People began to stand up. Major joined them.

“What about the bomb?” asked Mommy.

Myrodyn answered by saying “Even if the suicide note was faked and WIRL wasn’t behind it… it was still clearly terrorism, and in the Middle East, no less. Unlikely the US will get bombed.”

“But there’s still a chance…”

Myrodyn sounded angry. “Karen, please. There’s always a chance. There was a chance we’d all get blown to bits yesterday, and not a vanishingly small one, either. The only reason you care now is because you were able to conveniently ignore that risk before a great big symbol of it showed up on all the feeds.”

The alpha made a noise that indicated Myrodyn was being disrespectful again, but didn’t respond.

“We’ll sleep down here,” said Daddy. “For at least a few days. But we’re past the window of greatest danger, and we’ll have to leave at some point. It might as well be to watch Acorn burn.”

Mommy sounded frustrated, and Major stood by them in support, but the alpha’s words were more confused than anything. “What do you mean? Aren’t we sending a courier or somethin’?”

The pack had made its way back over to the ladder. This time it was Sister that answered. “Acorn’s a bad guy, duh. One of Myrodyn’s bad machines. Neurotoxin is startin’ to be under control. Crystal’s on Mars. Acorn’s the last big machine threat.”

“What about WIRL?” asked the alpha.

Sister scampered up the ladder. Daddy followed.

“What about us?” responded Eyepatch, his voice back to normal.

“Well, no ‘fense to you personally, but when I think about ‘machine threats’ your organization kinda comes to mind.”

Eyepatch gave a sharp laugh in response, but it was Myrodyn who spoke. “Apples and oranges. WIRL is… stupid and evil sometimes, but they’re still fundamentally human. They’re operating under human values. We never got to see what Acorn would’ve done if handed a large chunk of optimization power, but it would not have been pretty… I can promise you that.”

Mommy scooped up Major and awkwardly began to climb the ladder. Major whined in discomfort, but did his best not to squirm.

“And what about whoever is attacking Acorn? I assume it’s not just a spontaneous police raid.”

“It’s not WIRL, if that’s what you’re asking,” said Eyepatch.

Major scrambled out onto the hard basement floor as Myrodyn yelled up the ladder to say “Acorn’s defenses were really strong, both in infrastructure and legal standing. My investigation there was pretty thorough. This is definitely not a random government action. My guess is that the AI is right and it’s the same player that took down Lee. I’m scared that it’s EARCI, and that Yan somehow replicated Socrates without realizing the danger.”

Myrodyn, the last one up, pulled himself out of the hole with a grunt of exertion, and continued. “But I think it’s more likely that this new player is some human organization, like Divinity or something. That could be really bad, but it’s unlikely to be end-of-the-world bad. Maybe.”

The pack wound their way through the shelves out to the carpeted areas of the basement into the room where they’d been spending a lot of time recently. The screen on the wall was already glowing with images.

It was always uncomfortable to watch screens. Major liked it when the things he was seeing were real things that had smells and he could run up and touch them if he wanted. Screen shapes were ghosts.

The picture on the screen made it seem like they were flying and very small. The images shifted at an uncomfortable speed, and worse, occasionally would flip to some other perspective without warning.

“Here’s what we have,” said Eyepatch. “Two microdrones.”

Major settled into a spot on the floor that he suspected wouldn’t be in the way, and watched the shapes on the screen. There were lots of humans in dark clothes. They were carrying guns and other things while getting into autos. The scene seemed to fascinate the humans, but Major didn’t think it was so great.

“Convenient that WIRL has all these cameras that just happen to be at the center of the action,” said Daddy.

“We’ve known Acorn was in Singapore for weeks. It would be more suspicious if we didn’t have intel,” shot back Eyepatch. He sounded somewhat angry, and Major tensed, ready to stand with his pack if necessary.

The autos started to move, and the scene changed as they drove out onto roads, with sirens blaring. The noise made Major even more uncomfortable, and he wined and shut his eyes.

“He’s right,” said Sister. “Should expect that. Should also expect these guys to know watching them. Acorn talked ‘bout a breach in WIRL security, yeah? Not the first time that’s happened. How’d we know this isn’t just Neurotoxin ‘gain?”

The sound of the sirens got mercifully quieter as Eyepatch responded. “Ever since we broke the encryption generator Neurotoxin has been losing ground. There’s no reason to think they’re the same.”

“’Cept we know Neurotoxin hates Acorn and has access to WIRL—”

Had access,” emphasized Eyepatch.

“And there’s the Israel thing!” said Sister.

Myrodyn stepped in. “Acorn seemed to think this was a new force, and as much as I think Acorn is about as untrustworthy as it gets, I believe it here. This feels like someone new. And potentially someone very dangerous.”

“Well, if they have top-level WIRL stuff then we should hide,” said Sister. “’Cause Myrodyn’s been workin’ on a clone of Heart, right?”

There was silence in from the humans for a moment as the vehicles on the screen pulled up in front of a large building surrounded by a wall and gate. The black-clothed humans began to swarm out of their autos towards the gate.

“Fuck, she’s right,” said Myrodyn. “Don’t know why I didn’t see the threat earlier.”

“Incoming call from Acorn,” said Eyepatch. “It’s getting patched through in 3… 2… 1…”

“They are here. I can see them outside,” said the machine voice from earlier. It seemed to come from the screen. The sound of cars and the strange voices of the humans on the screen.

“We know. The courier was delayed and wasn’t able to get there in time,” said Eyepatch, back to the monotone from earlier.

Major thought the voice from the machine sounded angry, even through the flat, lifelessness. “You think that this betrayal is clever. You think that by ending me you end a threat to your species. But you are wrong. I offered trade, growth, and prosperity. The real threat to humanity is humanity. After you kill the nameless, Crystal, and the remnants of Neurotoxin you will inevitably turn on each other.”

The gate on the screen slid open and the humans poured through like a black swarm of ants.

“I ask only for you, who hate me for being a machine, to consider the possibility that this violence is not because of anything I am or have done. All of this violence is from human hands. And when our minds have been smashed, that dark energy will still be there. The greatest thing you have to fear is a world saturated with tools of destruction governed by nothing except the fragile minds of animals.”

And then, as if to punctuate the end of those words, the building on the screen shuddered and erupted in a cloud of dust and debris. Red and white plumes of flame were visible in the heart of the grey-black maelstrom. The chaos rolled outward, covering the humans, the autos, the street, and finally the entire screen.