I've never ridden in one of the SUVs before, not ever. I never saw the point. I've been in a helicopter, from what was left of Berlin to the airport all those years ago, and only then so that I could keep holding Mandy's hand. On the way to the target I was in the front passenger's seat of the SUV, armor-wearing non-cape agent driving, with Portland sitting in the back.
Except at some point I realized she was up, had climbed forward, was clutching the back of my seat and watching over my shoulder. "Portland, put your seat belt back on, goddammit."
It was the industrial-park home office and workshop of a tech startup: Medical Field Technologies, Incorporated. Police had the area cordoned off, and had evacuated everyone within two miles, and for good reason: the air overhead was swarming with drones.
We stopped some distance away. The driver: "Orders. You've gotta hoof it from here, sir. Sorry."
Portland and I got out of the car. In the distance, drones were falling from the sky trailing black smoke. Everyone who wasn't a robot was staying outside some very important perimeter line that I had missed being told about while in our audience with Dreamland One. Clearly Portland and I were supposed to ignore that perimeter once the drones were clear, though, and she was already walking towards the industrial park as their numbers dwindled. "Wait…"
"C'mon." No fear, that one.
Massive was getting out of another SUV, and Merry Punkster and Selene were jumping out of another. I could see Rapture hovering fifty feet up, collecting stray bullets whenever they whizzed into range of her powers. She sent them back as a shotgun blast at the one enemy drone that got past Dreamland One's. Portland and I reached the MFT parking lot walking at a nine-year-old's walking pace, stepping around fallen debris. The doors to the building opened…
Suddenly my head hurt.
Then, just as suddenly, everything around me was a blur of motion. It wasn't me running: Portland had stopped time, just for me, just like she had done when she helped Aspect and the Romans capture me. But how had she known the melon-baller was using his brain-stealing tech at that precise moment? Portland can manipulate time; drag it faster or slower like a fingertip pressing down on a spinning vinyl record. Can she see forward as well?
When it wore off, there was a battle raging around me: the original employees of Medical Field Technologies, Inc., were defending the parking lot against Dreamland, or their computer-controlled corpses were, anyway. I watched one walk up behind Selene, busy with another of their number, throw its arms around her, and detonate as Veronica Moresbay had. Massive was knocking them away with a large piece of fallen drone, two, three at a time. Merry Punkster was downing them with focused energy pulses, a pistol-grip version of D1's drones' weapon. All around me I heard heads exploding.
Rapture, above me, was drawing up fallen drone bullets with her powers and flinging them at rifle-speed through the skulls of oncoming zombie tech-workers. She must have seen me looking around; between sniper shots, she yelled: "Inside! Portland! Go!"
I only saw it afterwards, on the closed-circuit security cam playback, standing next to Mandy who was still not speaking to me: Portland Drew, walking through the horde of melon-baller minions untouched, ignoring them and being ignored by them, disappearing into the building. Nine years old. No fear at all.
I didn't have any trouble finding her, finding all of it; I just followed the cables. Power, fiber-optic, standard copper wire, Cat-5e and phone, everything. It streamed across the floors in ever-bigger bundles and then ran down the center of the stairwell to the basement.
It led to Portland, standing in the middle of… I'm not sure how to describe it.
I don't know what Dreamland One looks like, its actual physical establishment. It could be a refrigerated room full of server racks overseen by some guy in a short-sleeved button-down with a pocket protector sitting at a metal desk. It could look like some sci-fi reactor core, like that thing at the center of the second Death Star the Falcon takes out at the end of Return. Your guess is as good as mine.
This room looked like rats and spiders had built a supercomputer out of junkyard scraps and medical supplies. Parts hung from the ceiling, lay loose on the floor, were tied to exposed drywall studs through tears in the walls. Flat-panel displays were mounted here and there at odd angles, showing streams of gibberish. The only thing louder than the whoosh and gurgle of coolant being pumped through the intravenous tubing was the crackle and hum of electricity coursing through the wires.
Portland was standing in the midst of the mess, eyes closed; suddenly what I feared most was her accidental electrocution. I whispered, "Portland. Don't touch anything."
Without opening her eyes, she pointed at a component in one corner: some weird modern-art exhibit consisting of overlapping coils of copper and some other metals, all with circuitry painted onto them, and in the center of the coils a bowl full of gel.
"Break that. It's the—"
She had me at 'break that'. I carry shackles in my belt as part of my gear, on the odd occasion I have to capture someone. In speed-mode I threw them at the contraption like a bola and then turned to shelter Portland from the deadly shrapnel that would result, and shut my eyes.
There was a low rumble, nothing like the high-energy explosion I had expected. I opened my eyes and looked around. The shackles had hit the machine and knocked it into four or five pieces, and those pieces were now falling to the floor, slowly.
"I had the brain-stealer machine frozen so it couldn't work."
The shackles had entered Portland's time-dampened region going as fast as a depleted-uranium anti-tank round, and thus had struck the machine still going fast enough to break it. The best part: the shackles were intact. "Remind me to come back for those when your thing wears off." I turned around, and Dreadbird was standing in the doorway. "Jesus…"
She spoke with Dreamland One's voice. How that was possible, given the fact that she still had Dreadbird's throat and mouth and vocal cords, I don't even think I want to know. "Portland, you can head back to the car. And thank you, dear. Fleet, help Chowdhury look for the gel tanks while I introduce myself."
"Gel tanks?" Chowdhury's here? Dreadbird/D1 didn't answer… it was examining the apparatus, looking for an interface. Dreadbird's implants emerged from ports on the body's forearms, tendrils looking for some hole to slip into; it gave me the willies. I left the room close behind Portland.
Chowdhury was in the hall, flanked by armed agents. "Try all the doors, janitor's closets, bathrooms, I don't care. There will be wires leading from the tanks to the nexus. And be alert for more zombies."
I didn't know what we were looking for until we found it: a basement storage room that had once hosted only banker's boxes but now held small tanks, a hundred of them, each no bigger than a five-gallon aquarium, each containing a human brain. Sensors and electrodes were attached to the brains, and leads snaked out of the waters and connected to ports messily installed in the walls.
"See if they're labeled."
Tape, on the shelf-face under the tank. "There's numbers."
"The melon-baller will have the list. The Boss will just have to get it."
I still didn't follow. "What are you talking about?"
"These people are alive. We can try to save them. The ones whose bodies are still viable, anyway."
"Are you out of your mind?"
"McLeary is one of these."
"McLeary's body…" was at headquarters, refrigerated, on Chowdhury's orders. "All right. Do what you can, Doc. Should we start taking the tanks—"
"No! No, sorry, no. We have to wait until D1 is finished talking to it, to finish the negotiations. Otherwise we might not be able to safely disconnect them," Chowdhury said, as if that made any sense at all.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~
"Somebody invents a computer program that can learn. Eventually it learns to think for itself. I can relate." Dreadbird/D1 had disconnected the implants and was walking around, visually inspecting the hardware. "Mycroft Holmes and Skynet and me."
"I'm talking to a corpse right now."
"Is it disturbing? Of course it is; I'm sorry. I had to see this for myself. I wiped the mini-computer and installed my own remote client. It's nice being out of HQ."
"You can see through your waldoes, though, right? And the drones."
"Not like this. I'm not going to let myself get used to it, though. Certainly not using poor Dreadbird. Anyway, the self-aware computer we're talking about happened to belong to a medtech company. They were working on a number of things: an active brain-scan technology was one of them. They'd tested it on people, in approved trials and in secret, unreported experiments. One of the people they tested it on happened to be your old friend Aspect."
Aspect, the teleporter, who I'd killed in the fight at Sanctuary Penitentiary. "And the computer figured out how his power works?"
"And at the same time it figured out how to make the brain scan work better. And then scanned Aspect again. Somewhere in here is when it learned about us, and about the Romans, either directly from Aspect's brain or by observing his behavior. It was planning to scan him a third time, maybe even take the brain with its prototype teleporter, but you prevented that. So it started with the MFT employees."
"There were things it didn't understand. Things it couldn't hope to understand, not without making some part of itself human, and it had access to enough medical technology to know that was possible." Dreadbird's dead-but-nimble hands worked independently of Dreamland One's voice, rooting through the guts of the thing until they pulled out a shockmount cage of still-powered solid state drives. The implants snaked out again. "You don't know what it's like, Fleet: the not understanding—"
"The hell I don't."
"—OK, fine. I deserve that. But it took them all and added them to itself, and every brain gave it more questions than answers, because that's life. And it watched us, and took Moresbay. But Moresbay was good, she was a good woman, and our friend, and now there was a part of it that didn't want to hurt us anymore. So it took Dreadbird and then Methis instead of coming straight for us."
"Not that simple." The implants withdrew again, and Dreadbird/D1 dropped the hard-drive cage unceremoniously to the floor. "But with Methis onboard, that tipped the scales against us again, so it used Moresbay as a spotter to take McLeary."
"McLeary knew everything. Everything about us. It should have been a walk-over. Why didn't it come?"
"'Knows', not 'knew'. And it didn't come because McLeary wouldn't let it. He's good too, but not only that, he's strong. He wouldn't let it come for us again. But he couldn't get it to surrender, either. So he set up the trap at Sutro Tower: not for you, because he knew your reflexes would save your brain, just that once; but for the melon-baller, because he knew by then I'd be in position to trace it back during the attempt. Come on."
I followed her, it, whatever, I followed up the stairs, out of the building, into the now-stinking afternoon air: the parking lot was an abattoir over which hung a pall of smoke. Among the MFT zombie bodies lay dead five of our agents, and Selene.
"Once I knew it had McLeary, that he was a part of it, restraining it, I knew I could get Portland in to freeze the melon-balling tool for you to destroy, or for whoever could get that far after you didn't. Roland would never have let it hurt her, not in a million years. I ran the simulation every conceivable way. Mandy really should have believed me."
"She's a mother."
Chowdhury emerged behind us, pushing a cart carrying a blanket-covered aquarium. Agents escorted him to a waiting ambulance.
D1's voice sighed, said, "Well, I suppose I have what I came for." Dreadbird's body dropped like a ragdoll to the pavement. I let it fall.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~