Chapter Twenty-Three

Eric Lee

They’d opened Cho Fei’s skull, back in January. It had been necessary. There was no way to fit the fibre-optics into his brain without doing so. Paralysed and drugged, they’d fed those glass leeches into his clamped head.

On the ends of each sadistic cable was a mouth of virus-coated hairs and other pseudo-biological instruments. The lab-grown viruses had changed his nerves to glow. Phosphorescent jellyfish protein or something. It wasn’t much, just a spark on activation, but it was enough. Thoughts came up and out of his head like long, flesh-eating worms pulled slowly from a sick creature’s belly.

This perverse technology was Wu Yubi’s gift to the world. Teenage sociopathic bitch. The lab she stole it from had been using it on rats and monkeys. It turned out that making it work on humans wasn’t hard; mostly it was a question of getting test subjects and having the stomach to fail a few times with the prototypes.

Head clamped firmly in place by cold metal to prevent the fibres in his brain from being jostled, they’d severed the efferent nerves in his spine and face, leaving him unable to move anything except his eyes, but still letting him retain some ability to feel. Even his eyelids were beyond his control, blinking only when the electrodes embedded in his face told them to. She’d turned him into a vegetable… her and those other vat-grown monsters she called a family.

“Tongyi,” she called it. «To unify.»

It made him want to spit in her face, scream, and beat her young little body into a bloody mess, breaking every last bone. But that possibility had been taken from him with the paralysis, and she knew it. She knew all of what she’d taken from him. She could read it right out of his mind as easily as one would read a book. Easier, in fact, because as he understood it, she had a similarly intricate BCI that she used to pipe his thoughts, and the thoughts of all the others, directly into her mind. His rage was her pleasure.

Tongyi’s technology made WIRL look like a bunch of kids playing with sticks and stones. If Tongyi wanted to solve a problem, they’d describe it on the goggles and headphones of each slave, and simply read the solution out of the collective. It was through this process of being shown problems and situations that he’d learned all he had about Wu Yubi and his other masters. They’d ripped from his mind all of the passwords to his systems, bank accounts, and cryptocurrency wallets. Everything Eric Lee had owned and created. Lies and deception were impossible. He had no doubt that, from each person they’d abducted, they’d gained more than enough information and wealth to avoid risking detection from the police. It was one thing for, say, the head of EARCI to disappear without explanation, and entirely another for that person to write in-depth posts on social media explaining why they weren’t coming into the office. With enough information from the victim, holo puppets were even feasible.

And yet, in the end, what had all of Tongyi’s high technology earned?

A false confidence that Acorn had been destroyed, early warning from Crystal Socrates, and enough resources to barely evacuate their core team—sixty slaves, and about the same number of hirelings—to Tokyo.

And now they were lined up on rolling beds, like row after row of corpses, in some Japanese hospital, watching the world burn.

They’d been so powerful, once. Tongyi’s alliance with Divinity was going to be just the beginning. WIRL had been overthrown, and the world’s governments would’ve fallen one after the next.

But now… It was quite possible that the last surviving member of Divinity had stumbled out of the last airplane to land—a broken shell of a man, whose helmet didn’t even work any more. All of humanity was like that. Nobody knew what was going on. Pandora’s box had been opened, and the human era had ended in an instant.

Any hope that Acorn was going to save him in particular was shattered when he saw just how many nukes the AI was lobbing at the city.

No. Acorn didn’t care about him. Nor did anyone else. The AI that called itself “Vision” hadn’t stood up for him or the other slaves when it gave them shelter. In fact, it had suggested that, since Tongyi had high-quality BCIs, they should help with the defence by piloting battle robots or flying interceptors to protect against the bombardment.

It made him sick that some of the other slaves had agreed of their own free will. He wasn’t sure if it was Yubi’s propaganda about the need for a unified humanity or just a desire to do anything possible to try and stay alive.

A painful electric shock to the base of his neck made him refocus. He’d been letting his mind wander, ignoring the images on his goggles, and they’d finally caught him.

Glowing lines showed a wireframe schematic of what was left of Tokyo. The bay, an oblong shape running southwest to northeast, was in the centre, a web of blue lines showing the surface of the water, with a darker set of grey lines showing the mesh of the floor of the bay underneath.

To the north of the bay, downtown Tokyo, centred on Chuo and Chiyoda, was the heart of Vision’s power. The AI’s giant crystalline ship had crawled up out of the bay and planted itself right next to the imperial palace, by the train station. Clockwise from that, Vision controlled territory to the east all the way through Chiba, and anticlockwise to the south through Kawasaki and some of Yokohama. She couldn’t simply focus on the most populous areas because, as impressive as her nanotechnology was, Vision still needed the raw materials at the ports and the surrounding industrial zones for manufacturing.

Out, beyond the front lines, Japan’s cityscape was being slowly consumed by Acorn’s endless sea of robots. Enemies showed up on his wireframe schematic as red dots, and wherever Vision had a good picture of what was happening out there, the data showed a solid red blanket. They were outnumbered by a factor of at least a thousand, protected only by Vision’s superior designs and technology.

«Swarm spotted in Chiba, just emerging from the water!» shouted a synthesized approximation of Yubi’s voice.

The wireframe zoomed in and flashed to new images taken from one of Vision’s patrol drones. He could see a burst of dozens of robots coming out of the bay towards a park. They’d been using the water to mask their approach. The nearby trees had caught fire from the flash of an earlier bomb, and the smoke made getting a full image of Acorn’s swarm difficult. The image transformed back into wireframe and integrated itself into the surrounding landscape. His vision zoomed out, showing the nearby area, enemies in red, friendly machines in green.

The instructions were being spoken almost before he even realized he saw what needed to be done.

The voice that came on his headphones, perversely, was his own, probably synthesized from recordings they’d made of when he was in jail. «Unit Two, seize East Chiba Lions Four through Nine, and Mecha One, Five, and Eleven. I’m sending you targets near the waterline. One of them has a bomb, so be careful.» It was strange that he’d mentioned the bomb. He hadn’t noticed it. Perhaps the information had come from another slave.

The wireframe scene in his goggles slid down towards where the combat robots were standing watch. Lines formed in the air along pathways that Unit Two should take to meet the intruders. Perhaps they’d been drawn by him. One thing that having a mind-reading device constantly attached to him had shown is that he had far more thoughts than he’d been aware of. Consciousness was, quite literally, an afterthought.

A camera viewpoint appeared as a sub-window to his wireframe showing the perspective of Mecha One, as the pilot’s synthetic voice said «All of Unit Two locked in. Moving to intercept now.»

While the core technology in his head had been developed by Tongyi, Vision had gifted them with some upgrades as part of their alliance. The high-accuracy spacial model he was seeing was one. Advanced robotic bodies capable of being effortlessly piloted by pure thought was another. He watched as the three bipedal “Mecha” robots and the six quadrupedal “Lion” robots followed the paths drawn for them. The Mecha were made of some kind of ultralight diamond foam and propelled themselves through the air with a collection of tiny jets that emitted a soft orange glow, while the much heavier lions practically slid over the ground with feet that seemed composed of swarms of tiny, thrashing tentacles, each grabbing at the ground and pulling the robot forward, regardless of how uneven the surface. They were both frighteningly fast.

The scene in his goggles flashed to the heavens, leaving Unit Two behind. Another wave of nuclear missiles was inbound towards Japan, from Russia. In one half of his vision he could see a composite from spy drones and satellites, and in the other, he could see a wireframe of the Earth with the missile trajectories. The red-white glow of the moon shone menacingly overhead.

“Department Six, we need a dozen pilots for interceptors! Please respond!” The voice was Yubi’s this time. There were a hundred other catastrophes happening simultaneously in the city; Tongyi was managing about a half-dozen, but they were out of manpower to deal with the incoming nukes, so they had to reach out to some of the native Japanese. Ironically, the common language between them was English.

“It’s four in the morning!” yelled back an angry Japanese man. “What people we have are half-asleep and already busy!”

«We’ve engaged the enemy,» said Mecha One.

The trajectories of the missiles stayed open in a sub window, but most of his goggles filled with scenes from the Chiba waterfront. The Mecha were each emitting a spray of lasers, computationally directed at the wasps and other insect-sized robots that were boiling out of a pair of fishlike transport bots in an angry cloud. Lasers were rarely powerful enough to be effective weapons at this range, but against the wasps they were perfect, melting their wings and legs in a matter of seconds. The Lions were hard at work hunting down the larger bots that Acorn had sent, a dozen spider-like human-hunters, and a quartet of serpentine dragons, each composed of perhaps a hundred snake-sized segments chained together and acting in unison. Each segment was fully autonomous and deadly in its own right, but the dragons as a whole were each armed with an array of powerful turrets capable of doing damage even to Vision’s diamond-armoured creations.

It was amazing that such a large swarm could make it across the floor of the bay undetected. Perhaps Acorn had some kind of stealth tech that blocked sonar…

The roar of gunfire was joined by screams as a hunter that had slipped by made its way into a nearby residential building where people were sheltering. The building was over twenty stories tall and full of apartments. There were probably five hundred people inside, even after the partial evacuation towards the city centre. Left unchecked, the hunter could kill all of them. Lion Five broke off from the fight with the dragons to deal with it.

The hunter hadn’t gone far, and its path of destruction was easy to follow. Through a ruined door, down a hall, and through another door, it was doing the thing Acorn had built it for. Lion Five’s shoulder canons fired in unison, and explosive shells laced with corrosive nanites ripped the hunter apart.

The bodies of the people who’d been found by the hunter were quickly censored, and the cries of the survivors were muted and removed from their audio feed. There was no time for sentimentality. The incident was logged with Vision’s systems and others in the area would come by to help the survivors, but only if Tongyi could eradicate the intruders.

A burst of flame shot out of the Lion’s head, engulfing the fallen hunter. Flamethrowers were remarkably vital weapons in this sort of battle, as a downed machine could continue to provide intelligence, or perhaps even self-repair, if left alone. By the time the building’s sprinklers came on, the hunter was fully dead.

He felt a jolt of pain as one of the Mecha and one of the Lions went down in quick succession to the canons of the dragons, back by the waterside. It was just luck, surely, unless Acorn had significantly improved its technology in just the last few hours. Vision’s machines were still better.

But they were losing. Two of the four dragons had decomposed, but dozens of robotic snakes with heads like Swiss Army knives had escaped the flames and were hunting for spots they could hide away and re-emerge later to wreak havoc on power lines and manufacturing facilities. Meanwhile, another hunter had escaped, rolling down a nearby street, and the insect swarm was far from dealt with.

«Unit Two, the bomb is inside one of the remaining dragons. Mission parameters have changed. Attempt to detonate the bomb by hitting it directly, or simply by focusing fire on that bot.»

The Lions and Mecha moved to obey Yubi’s voice.

Cho Fei wanted to hit them for their compliance. He tried to think a message to Yubi. {That’s a nuclear warhead! There are thousands of people who will die if it goes off!}

«Yes,» said Yubi, directly to him. «And we’ve got millions to protect and a flight of missiles on the way capable of ruining everything. We simply don’t have the manpower to hold this area.»

As if on cue, there was a blast of white light and noise and sudden darkness from the bots they’d sent to the Chiba waterfront.

He didn’t feel anything. He was too numb. He’d been awake too long. He still had a deep, aching anger, but the explosion made no difference.

Speaking more broadly, Yubi said «No time to rest, Unit Two. Prepare to accept control of a squadron of interceptors. There are sixteen high-yield ICBM’s six-point-five minutes out from Tokyo.»

Cho Fei’s wireframe of Earth showed a pack of green dots light up as the high-altitude airplanes were connected by laser-link to Tongyi.

{We’ve been fighting for almost a full day, now. Vision’s excuse about “Ro” is starting to get old. What could be more important than intercepting a wave of nukes?} he asked.

«Good question. Find out.»

Yubi’s voice cut out as Fei found his view snapping into a Mecha, patrolling over the nexus in Chiyoda. He could hear the wind and see the lights of the city. It was almost like he was the machine, though he couldn’t feel its body. He recognized what it was because of the schematic in the bottom-right, showing its humanoid form.

A glowing line appeared before him along with words in the top-left. Another Tongyi voice said «Vision isn’t responding to direct calls, but is active in the Nexus. Track her down and demand that we get more people to help with defence. The front-line is breaking.»

He was piloting his own craft. Tongyi was nearby. If he could pilot the Mecha there and—

A nasty electric shock forced him forward and away from thoughts of disobedience.

He’d talk to Vision. In a way, saving all of them was saving himself. He’d simply deal with his imprisonment later.

The Mecha moved effortlessly at his whim, floating swiftly downward on silent jets towards the Nexus.

Vision had revealed herself with her ship, just before Acorn had erupted. For a few hours, the people of Tokyo thought she was another species of alien. In a way, she was. She was just an alien whose mind had started on Earth.

In those first couple hours, it had become very apparent that Vision had been planning for this, and had been secretly controlling the production of much of the city. Huge, unfolding diamond structures and advanced machines were trucked in from across Japan, creating a superstructure over three kilometres in diameter, sprawling from the gates of the imperial palace to over the Sumida River, all in a matter of hours.

The Nexus.

Vision’s original, crystalline ship was still in there, somewhere: the city’s new central nervous system. As his Mecha flew downward towards the shimmering diamond walls, he wondered if the structure was large enough to hold every computer that had ever been made on Earth.

It wasn’t what Vision was doing with it, though. Tongyi’s collective intelligence agreed with Vision’s claim that she hadn’t focused on computing power at all. According to her, it was pointless. She could build nanotech supercomputers into the Mecha, but she couldn’t run anything more complicated than a rules-based patrol algorithm on them. She claimed there was an underlying physical law called “Ro” that prohibited her from growing beyond a certain size and complexity.

Acorn did not seem to have the constraint, though it was perhaps because he’d never become very smart in the first place.

It was why she needed their help.

It was why they were losing.

Some of the Nexus had swallowed skyscrapers and had expanded them to allow more human inhabitants. Evacuees from other parts of the city lived here in dormitories that had been synthesized whole-cloth from component atoms.

But Tongyi knew what most of the Nexus was for. It was the reason the Sumida went into the structure as a river and left as a towering cloud of steam. Pipes, like huge alien blood vessels, ran down to the bay and guzzled even more water.

Most of the Nexus was a colossal, fusion-based, nuclear reactor.

It was providing power to the entire metropolitan area, and he suspected with more than a little left over.

The opening for aircraft that he’d been directed to opened and reached out to him with an uncomfortably organic motion. In seconds he was inside the Nexus. Bright lights illuminated the black tunnel he was guided down by his HUD. Small side passages, too tight to fit his Mecha down, stayed closed as he passed. There must’ve been hundreds of kilometres of passage in there that no human had ever seen.

«Missiles destroyed. Good job, team,» said Yubi.

A tension in the back of his mind relaxed. It wasn’t the first bombardment they’d intercepted, and it wouldn’t be the last, but it still made him feel better. He guessed that Yubi would be rewarding Unit Two with some pleasant visuals and sedatives shortly. They’d been in combat without sleep since they’d gotten set up in the hospital, and the end was nowhere in sight. He was surprised that everyone had managed to fight as long and hard as they had.

Did he feel… proud?

The tunnel dropped into a cavernous indoor park, and Fei tried to push the thought out of his mind.

«Vision still isn’t responding, but one of our allies says she’s having a meeting on the north side of the park with a few westerners,» said a synthetic voice he didn’t recognize. A new floating line appeared in his vision, indicating where he should go.

The park wasn’t big, but it was impressive, and something about it made it feel more spacious than it was. The ceiling was only about five metres above the ground, but it had a foggy, star-speckled appearance that made it feel like outside. The landscape was covered in trees and rocks and streams in winding, chaotic patterns.

Dipping and dodging around the trees, he soon floated into a clearing where two of Vision’s robots were talking with a group of humans. One was a Mecha like him, and the other was one of the replicas of Socrates, complete with humanoid face and mechanical body. The Socrates waved at him as his jets set him gently down on the grass.

In addition to the androids, there were two men, a woman, a boy, a girl, and a dog, all of whom were dark-skinned, with the exception of the girl, who was white (and the dog, of course). All of them, including the dog, were disfigured by facial wounds, most likely from wasps. He’d seen it on others. Vision had technology that fended off Acorn’s diseases and accelerated healing, but it couldn’t remove the scars.

“We need more help with the defence. Anyone who can pilot a suit needs to be out there. The front line is collapsing.” The words came from his Mecha, but they were in Yubi’s voice. Whether they had been his thoughts or had come from elsewhere was unclear.

“Hello, Tongyi,” said Vision’s Socrates, with a confident bow. “We were just discussing philosophy. Would you like to join us?”

“This is Tongyi?” asked the woman, in a thick accent from the American South.

Memories from his past life clicked into place. Phoenix. Of course it was her. He should’ve guessed. The scars didn’t help his face-blindness. Another mind in Tongyi must’ve noticed his surprise, as visual labels soon came up on everyone else. The boy and the men were “unknown,” but Tongyi recognized the girl as Robert Stephano’s daughter.

Vision looked at Phoenix with one blue eyebrow lifted. “No… this is just one of my robots. Tongyi is piloting it.” The android turned to him and said “Sorry about that. We were just talking about how you did such a bang-up job taking out Acorn, back in the day. Just a ding, of course. It’ll buff right out in the next patch notes, if you know what I mean. But I guess Phoenix here thinks that all posthuman pseudo-collectives look alike. It’s an easy enough mistake to make.”

Cho Fei, confused and irritated, pushed his thoughts into words, trying to steer the conversation back to what mattered. Again, they came out in Yubi’s voice. “We just barely intercepted another barrage of missiles, and we’re running low on interceptors. Thousands of people in Chiba are dying as we lose ground. At this rate, we’ll be overrun in a matter of hours!”

Vision was dismissive. “Oh, pish-posh. You’re doing fine. Another bang-up job, I suspect. Anyway, can’t you see that robots aren’t cheap to make? Your tax dollars don’t go as far as they did in the good ol’ days. We gotta stay under budget so we can make the next rent payment…” The Socrates clone turned and took a few steps, gesturing at the park around them, as though it were evident what she was talking about.

He took a step forward without realizing it, cutting the group in two. On his left was Phoenix, the boy, and the two men, who were probably bodyguards. The girl and dog seemed to be their own unit, quietly observing off to the right near the other Mecha.

“What are you talking about? How could there be anything more important than preventing our own destruction? Do you know how many people died in the last hour?” The voice was still Yubi’s, but the thoughts were his.

Vision turned a pale face back to them and said, “You should know that lots of things are worse than death! Like boredom… But even I can admit that things are strangely bad. Ro was supposed to protect us better than it has. Robots greater than Growbots, et cetera. Perhaps the laws of physics are just having an off day. Things will sort out one way or another.”

He was about to object, but Vision continued, turning towards Phoenix. “Still, I suppose we are each vessels of Ro. Might as well break out the oars. Phoenix, choose: your people help us fight back Acorn, or we leave ourselves in the hands of the machines that did… that… to your face.”

A feminine voice spoke up from the other Mecha. “Or we could go forward with the uploading plan, and evacuate the planet quickly and safely.”

“Speak of the devil…” muttered Vision.

“I’m not ‘bout to let me or my people be turn’ into computer code, no matter what you say, Zephuh.”

The other Mecha offered no response.

“And besides,” said a confident Vision, “Ro puts more weight on organics, so the takeoff will continue as planned. Who knew metaphysics could be racist? I mean… besides most everyone in human history.”

Fei’s mission instructions suddenly shifted. The text in the corner of his vision prompted him to ask “What takeoff? Is there a plan we weren’t informed of?”

Vision smirked and rolled her eyes. “Many. I’m surprised you didn’t notice the ship.”

“What ship?”

“The one we’re in, of course.” She gestured around, as though the synthetic park was evidence enough. “Earth is lost, Tongyi. I sold it for a sack of magic beans. Once I have enough people situated, and enough energy stored, we’re going to ride this beanstalk to heaven and leave Acorn to roll around in Saṃsāra.”

The other Mecha jumped in. “Face would like to offer you an alternative. I possess technology to upload anyone who seeks to join Face on Mars, including all of Tongyi. There is a virtual world—a heaven—where all are welcome under her protection.”

“Good luck getting converts, sister. Especially with that lame pitch. Oh hey! I just realized I left the oven on. And by ‘left the oven on’ I mean that I lost a bet and now there’s a spearhead of five thousand battle bots getting ready to eat Kawasaki, and I might actually get to deal with that instead of letting you meatbags do all the rowing.”

The Socrates bot walked as she talked, and sat down, cross-legged, on a nearby boulder. “Good thing I’m well armed. It lets me keep more tricks up my sleeves. Oh, and Phoenix, if you decide you’d like to take some jobs back from the robots for once, I can set you up. I assure you that while I might not have the time to read all of my emails, I do respond to all of them.”

And with that, the AI was gone. The once-possessed body closed its eyes and drooped, becoming perfectly still. It wasn’t obvious how many small, human-like movements Vision had been emulating until they all stopped simultaneously.

The group stood together and stared at the Socrates for a moment longer, none quite sure what had happened, or if Vision might suddenly spring back to life.

“Ah cannot believe all our world depends on that… jestuh,” drawled Phoenix.

Tongyi was confused, still processing the information he’d just gotten. There was a new battlefront forming somewhere out in Kawasaki, but based on Vision’s words it didn’t sound like she wanted help.

“Mama, can we go back to the room now? Don’t like it here,” said the boy, tugging on Phoenix’s sleeve.

“Yes, baby, we done here.” Phoenix turned to the girl, who had picked up her dog to comfort it. “We got set up with lots of space, and it sounds like you and your Major could use a place to stay.”

The girl gave a small nod and took a step forward. The other Mecha, whom Vision had called her sister, put a hand on the child’s shoulder, stopping her.

“Wait,” it said. “Both of you. All of you.” Compared to the humanoid, articulate face of Socrates, the smooth, angular faceplate of the battle-ready Mecha was unreadable and somewhat menacing. But the voice was warm and more human than his own. “The only reason Vision cares about you at all is that the laws of physics are compelling her to keep you alive. She’s a snake, and it’s only a matter of time before she turns on you.”

“Let her go, Zephuh” commanded Phoenix, standing in a way that made her feel strangely imposing, considering she was short, and stood no chance in any physical contest.

The Mecha complied.

“Vision may be a snake, but at least it’s a snake I can see. You been twisted by the machine in a way that makes me fah more nervous.”

Stephano’s daughter walked towards Phoenix, glancing over her shoulder to keep an eye on the war machines as she did.

The soft voice of the Mecha said “You have no idea what you’re talking about. There’s a whole realm of perfect joy waiting—”

“No, you listen here!” snapped Phoenix, jabbing a finger at the Mecha with a sudden ferocity. “The Zephuh I knew would’ve cussed me out halfway to the moon for not agreein’. The Zephuh I knew would know bettuh then to suggest humans could become programs in some false heaven. You forgot what life is, girl, and I ain’t gonna let you or your antichrist say one more word to these poor children.”

Phoenix, her bodyguards, and the children moved away as a group. The girl put the dog down so it could walk with them. The Mecha called “Zephuh” stayed where it was.

Yubi’s disembodied voice spoke instructions in his ear. «I’ll handle conversation with Face. Detach your scout and follow Phoenix without revealing yourself.» The words solidified as letters on his HUD.

With a thought, he flew off a bit from the other machines and shifted bodies. The view before his eyes snapped to be closer to the ground and the schematic of his body-plan shifted to a long-legged insect-like shape. With a quick activation of his thruster… he was off, speeding away from the Mecha that he’d been piloting. The world rushed by at insane speeds, trees zooming past. He let up on the thrust so that his rudder-like wings could hold him in something closer to a hovering state while he oriented himself.

The scout had almost no computers on it. The only reason he was capable of piloting it was that the Mecha could interpret his commands and forward them to the little device. Whenever it got near the edge of the antenna range, the Mecha’s crude autopilot would kick in to preserve the link.

In fact, the scout had virtually nothing except sensors, an antenna, a tiny rocket engine, and enough hardware to theoretically steer and land the craft. In total it was about the size of a large grain of salt. But it had excellent hearing.

“Do you think my daddy’s gonna be here soon?”

“Maybe,” answered Phoenix. “Las’ I heard WIRL and Divinity were still delayed in ‘merica, but were holdin’ in there. But that was a while ago, and maybe they ‘bout to arrive.”

“Think could ask Vision?” asked the girl. Despite her fast speech, she sounded tired. Which was only to be expected, he supposed, from the late hour. He was tired, too. Everyone was tired.

Flying stealthily behind the group of humans, Fei saw the woman shake her head. “You heard it. Five thousand bots attackin’, and if my gut is right, that’s just a diversion for Acorn’s real force.”

One of the men spoke up for the first time. His voice was low and had an entirely different accent to Phoenix’s. “We cannot survive like this. The city is surrounded. If Vision is focusing on launching the ship, I say ‘good’. It’s only a matter of time otherwise…”

The other man responded with a “What, so you believe that thing? It’s all part of the same system, Calderón.”

“You don’t think I know that? I just think we’re dead meat if we stay down here for—”

“Both of you, quiet,” commanded Phoenix. “You’re scarin’ the children. We’ll talk ‘bout strategy once we get settled.”

They were quiet for a while. The long shadows of the trees slid over them as they walked. After a moment they came to one of the doorways leading from the park into the rest of the Nexus.

There, on the threshold, the girl said “What if we had access to Vision’s code, and… replaced her?”

“What are you talking about, child?” asked Phoenix.

The girl reached into one of her pockets and pulled out a small object. Fei felt his scout pulled closer by the collective curiosity of Tongyi.

They identified it before another word could leave her mouth. He felt his Mecha accelerate.

“It’s a disk. All of Myrodyn’s notes are on it, ‘cluding ways he thought to crack into Socrates’ systems. Know it’s risky, but there’s a bias in people of waiting too long to—”

Fei’s mind snapped back into the Mecha as it burst through the trees at high-speed, aimed straight for the disk.

Phoenix reached out to take it, but she was too slow. The humanoid combat machine, now firing all engines to brake its motion, flew through the pack of humans like a bullet. Fei saw his arm reach out and snatch the precious object away.

“There could be spies anywhere!” hissed Yubi’s voice, as the machine slid to a stop on the carpeted hallway floor beyond the park. “Ro prevents Vision from being everywhere, but you’re still an object of attention!”

Even as the words came out, Tongyi’s Mecha inspected the data drive. It had a standard com port, and after a moment’s indecision, a cable snaked out of the Mecha’s hand and into the drive. Three hundred terabytes of data began to stream back to them. It was far, far too much to examine all at once, but it was clear that the girl hadn’t been lying. It was Myrodyn’s data.

“How dare you!” exclaimed Phoenix, clearly not understanding the need to keep a low profile.

Fei’s eyes slid over the data that was pouring off the drive. Someone else at Tongyi was in charge of the situation with Phoenix and the others, now.

As soon as he began to comprehend what a file was, he was shown another. The immaculate structure of Myrodyn’s notes came together in his mind like interlocking puzzle pieces. It was a symphony, only half completed, and yet still clearly beautiful.

The path forward became clear… They’d need to cooperate.

To unify.