The higher you climb . . .
“You’ve got fifteen minutes!” Sorensen said. “If I don’t hear from you by then, I’m pushing the button!” He gave her a radio.
Alexandra nodded. “I understand.”
The ship banked away, the engine still spitting and hissing. It was a miracle the thing still flew. Sorensen would probably land it as fast as he could; it would be stupid if everything went to hell because he crashed the ship.
How the hell did all of this happen? Alexandra found herself wondering as she climbed onto a metallic ladder leading up to the next island. The ship had dropped her off close to the communications hub, but she still had to traverse five floating islands, according to Sorensen. She gritted her teeth and climbed as fast as she could, reaching the next one.
She felt so stupid. Of course her brother had been out beyond the red line. It was the only explanation. Why wouldn’t he tell me? She ran across the island, steel pipes and wires encased in aluminum crisscrossing all around her. Why wouldn’t he tell me that he’d discovered an alien ship and retrieved important data? She stopped for a few seconds. Why would an alien ship have data warning us of an attack … from aliens? She started running again. None of this made any sense.
She bolted up a flight of metallic stares, surprised by the freedom of movement her uniform provided. It’s tight and clingy, but it feels like I’m wearing nothing. She assumed overweight people got no positions in the K’hadmera security forces. If they did, they’d be mighty uncomfortable, at least.
Buildings started appearing in front of her, some small and some large. From what Sorensen had told her, the main communications hub was the largest one, resting in a sea of antennae, tubes, wires and gleaming domes. She ran straight for it, worried her fifteen minutes would run out before she even got there.
She burst through the door, stopping in her tracks. What the hell? She was surrounded by busy people, pacing back and forth all around her. Some were carrying stacks of papers and some were chatting. Many of them had headsets dangling from their ears, or screens in front of their eyes. It looked just like any busy office anywhere.
I don’t have time for this! There were a million doors, leading to a million different places. There were signs and glowing, color-coded directions in the floor, but too many cubicles, workstations and doors. Finding the ‘hub’ itself would’ve taken much more than fifteen minutes. And now I’ve only got nine left…
“So what are you saying, exactly?” Christopher had lowered his gun. Emmet, the communications officer, wasn’t really a threat – and Nora had lowered hers as well.
“I’m saying that if you upload that data, it sends those coordinates to my people. So they can find shelter there.”
“Shelter from what?”
“From...” Nora hesitated for a long time. “From the others.”
“The others?” Christopher shook his head in frustration. “How many of you are there?”
“Just two factions!” Nora answered. “None of us have tentacles, or blue skin, or large black eyes – if that’s what you’re wondering.”
“But we’re being persecuted,” she sighed. “The others have been hunting us down relentlessly – slaughtering us by the numbers.”
“I don’t understand! When did you go beyond the red line? When did you secede from the rest of us?”
Nora took a few steps closer. “Christopher … there’s no time!” She placed her hand on his shoulders. “Please,” she said softly.
Christopher looked into her eyes; oscillating black and purple. His hands instinctively found her hips and rested there. “Okay,” he mumbled, failing to hear the two shots ringing in the background as he leaned forward and kissed her.
“What the hell?” Emmet exclaimed, pointing his gun at the exit. “Did you guys hear that?”
Seconds later, a woman with white hair entered the room, dressed in the same uniform as Nora. “Is this the broadcast station?” She demanded, ignoring Emmet’s gun.
“Alexandra?” Christopher exclaimed, breaking the kiss. “What are you doing here?” He felt ashamed. He’d been so caught up in getting there – and Nora – he’d forgotten about his sister.
“What the fuck are you doing?” Alexandra asked as Nora turned around.
“I was…” I have no fucking idea... He rested his head in his hands. “Damn it, Nora! What the hell did you do to me?”
Nora ignored him completely, instead stepping closer to Alexandra.
“Keep your distance!” Alexandra said, pointing her gun at Nora’s head. What the hell is going on?
“What the fuck is going on?” Emmet said, aiming at Alexandra. “Who the hell are you?”
“You need to stop the upload, Christopher!” Alexandra decided to ignore both the Master Sergeant and the communications officer for now. The important thing was stopping the upload. I still have five more minutes before Sorensen pushes that button. “It will broadcast the location of-“
“Nine of our colonies directly to someone beyond the red line.” Christopher interrupted.
“Yes! How did you know?”
“Because I’m one of them.” Nora said.
Alexandra narrowed her eyes and kept her gun focused on Nora. She could see it now; see the purple in her eyes. The same as that bitch doctor back in the bunker. “Don’t you come any closer!” She looked at Christopher. “Does this mean you haven’t uploaded the data yet?”
“Good!” Alexandra raised her radio. “This is … Alexandra Loncar, over.”
“This is Ocean two, over.” The voice scraped and sparked over the radio, barely audible.
“The upload is aborted, I repeat the upload is aborted, over!”
“Roger that, Alexandra. Please repeat for verification, over.”
“The upload is aborted. There will be no upload, over!”
“Roger that. Damn fine work, Alex. I’ll keep my thumb off the trigger for now. Ocean out.”
“Who the hell was that?” Christopher asked.
“Long story.” Alexandra replied. I’m guessing the Shade wants to keep this thing hush-hush. Best not to say anything.
“What did he mean by keeping his finger off the trigger?” Nora asked.
“Also a long story.” Alexandra cocked her head. “You know, I ran into one of your … people, earlier.”
Nora swallowed hard. “Really? Who?”
“A blonde doctor. She was really pretty and had purple eyes, much like you.”
Nora said nothing.
“You better start talking, bitch! Or I’m putting one right between your eyes!”
“Please, don’t!” Christopher said.
“Give me one good reason!” Alexandra said. Why the hell is he protecting her?
“He can’t help it.” Nora stepped in front of him. “And neither can you.”
“What?” Alexandra frowned, her turquoise eyes darkening.
“You’re truly beautiful, Alexandra.” Nora came closer, her eyes inviting. “Close to perfection.”
Something stirred within Alexandra. “Close to?” She asked with a sly smile. Focus! She had trouble remembering why she was there.
“No,” Nora smiled, her full lips parting. “I didn’t mean that.” Her eyes were pulsating, the purple glow disrupting Alexandra’s thoughts. “You are perfect. That body of yours is divine; it’s like your ass was made for that uniform.”
What the hell is going on? Alexandra lowered her weapon. “Go on…” Stop her!
“I just want to place my hands on those perfect hips of yours and feel you. I want to know what it’s like, to brush against perfection.”
This really isn’t the time for flattery. But still, Alexandra’s heart was throbbing. Whatever she wanted, Alexandra wanted her to see it through. No!
Nora reached out, her hand moving towards Alexandra’s shoulder. “You’re a goddess, Alexandra…”
Not my shoulder. She struggled with her weapon. It weighed a ton in her hand.
“Let me just-“
Nora stumbled back, blood flowing from her shoulder. “No!”
Alexandra rested her hands on her knees, panting. What the hell is wrong with me? She looked at Nora. What was she going to do? She frowned. What was I going to do?! She felt nothing. No attraction and no urges. “What did you do to me?”
Nora gritted her teeth in pain, grabbing her shoulder. “The upload…” She whimpered.
“Isn’t happening!” Alexandra kept her gun raised.
“Please!” Nora came at her.
Alexandra fired again, and again.
The two rounds found Nora’s chest and stomach, but her momentum carried her towards Alexandra. Nora grabbed her as she fell, her face pressed against Alexandra’s chest. “No … I…” Blood bubbled from her mouth as she spoke. “Perfect…” She whispered as the final speck of purple faded from her eyes. Then she fell lifeless to the floor.
Alexandra raised her head, only to discover Christopher splayed on the floor behind Nora. “Topher!” Alexandra screamed, rushing over to him. “Please, no!”
Christopher rolled and moaned. “That gun uses high velocity bullets, you idiot.” He looked straight at her. “Didn’t I teach you not to fire unless you had a clear line of sight?”
“I’m so sorry, Christopher!” A tear rolled down her cheek. It couldn’t end like this. It just couldn’t. She looked him over, noticing that only one bullet had hit. It hadn’t gone very deep; but he was bleeding a lot. Alexandra put pressure on it, puffing her cheeks out. “You’ll live.” She said. “Fleshy part of the thigh.”
Christopher smiled. “Are you calling me fat?”
Alexandra shrugged. “You could probably lose some weight.” She recalled her trek across the monotonous landscape a few days earlier. “It’ll make you easier to drag, at least.”
“I can’t believe you shot her!”
“What was I supposed to do? She came at me, trying to…” Truth be told, Alexandra had no idea what Nora was trying to do.
“Oh, don’t get me wrong. You were absolutely right to shoot her.”
“I wouldn’t have.”
“Well, I’m not as fascinated by breasts and puffy lips as you are.”
“Ass…” Christopher mumbled.
“It was her ass that got me.” He propped himself up on his elbows.
“Idiot.” Alexandra bumped his arm.
Christopher looked her in the eyes, a more serious expression forming on his face. “You were, though.” He looked at the dead body behind Alexandra. “You were taken by her. I could see it in your face.”
Alexandra nodded solemnly. “I don’t know what happened. It’s like I … wanted her.” Was that what it was? “Or maybe it felt good to have her want me. I don’t know. I’ve never really thought about women that way before, and-“
Christopher raised a hand, stopping her. “First of all, you’re my sister; so please stop talking about wants and desires.” He looked down. “And second ... yeah, that sounds pretty accurate.”
“Basic human psychology…” A voice came.
Nora opened her eyes. She could see just fine, but her stomach hurt like hell. She was lying face down, her feet towards Christopher and Alexandra. The game is over, she thought to herself. She could jiggle her ass in Christopher’s face and squeeze her breasts together all she wanted; it would make no difference. She rolled over on her back. Damn, did she have to put one in my chest as well? She found herself smiling, admiring Alexandra’s resolve.
“You see; flaunting my hips and ass like that appeals to the primitive side of the brain. The part that wants to procreate; to survive!” Nora couldn’t see Christopher and Alexandra, but she could hear them breathing heavy, wondering what the hell was going on. No wonder. Getting shot like that would’ve killed anyone. Except me of course.
“The first instinct will be to mate with me. To grab my hips and fuck me silly.”
“Stop!” Christopher commanded. “Why are you doing this? What the hell do you want?”
I want to buy myself some time. I want the particles and the nanotechnology and the microchips and whatever else is inside me to work their magic. It felt strange, knowing what she was, but not what she was made of. Then, of course, most humans felt the same way. “This is harder with someone of the female persuasion. Even if Alexandra wanted to have sex with me, her brain knows that no children will come of it. It’s not hard-coded in her DNA.”
“Keep talking and I’ll shoot you again!” Alexandra said.
Maybe … maybe not. “One is forced to appeal to a deeper desire. A desire that’s stronger than the lust for sex. The desire to be wanted. The need to feel desirable and, indeed, chosen by someone.” She screwed her eyes shut, but no shot came. Just a little longer… She already felt better. The wounds were healing fast.
“I didn’t want to be wanted by you!” Alexandra said.
Nora smiled. Good, she’s listening. “Not consciously, perhaps. But even though you prefer the company of men, something about my desire teased you. You wanted to see where it ended. Subconsciously, you were measuring just how deeply I wanted you.” Nora took a chance and propped herself up on her elbows, mimicking Christopher on the other side of the room.
Alexandra had her gun trained directly at Nora’s face. “I lost control,” she said, her jaw clenched. “And it wasn’t because I wanted to fuck you!”
Nora shook her head. “No, it wasn’t. It was my eyes.” All or nothing.
“Yes!” Alexandra agreed. “Those blinking purple eyes.”
Nora nodded. “They weaken you and leave your brain disrupted. They make it hard to think.” She pulled her feet underneath her body. She could barely feel her wounds anymore. “I’ve found that a muddled brain responds well when it comes to matters of lust and sex. Like hitting on someone when they’re drunk.” She raised her hands above her head, and slowly stood up. The bullets had left holes in her uniform, but the wounds underneath were gone.
“How is any of this possible?!” Alexandra asked.
Nora looked at her, tensing the muscles just behind her eyes. Alexandra would be suspicious now, so the manipulation wouldn’t work. But honesty might still do the trick. “Technology,” she replied. “Technology you couldn’t even dream of.” She took one step towards Alexandra. She could see her hand tensing up; the gun rattling ever so quietly. “I promise, I will tell you everything – but you need to upload the data.”
“If you do that; then I’ll radio your friend again!”
Nora had completely forgotten about the communications officer. He was standing right behind her, and from the look on Alexandra’s face, he’d gotten a hold of her radio, somehow. “You can’t!” Nora said.
“Why? Are you going to hypnotize me and fuck me first?”
Nora looked down, smiling. Divert his attention. “In your dreams, skinny man.” She raised her head and looked at Alexandra. “Actually, I’m partial to women.” She didn’t need to see his face; she knew he’d turn towards Alexandra. Who wouldn’t?
Without a moment’s hesitation, Nora leapt forward with near superhuman speed, grabbing the gun out of Alexandra’s hands. She immediately spun, firing three shots straight into Emmet’s chest.
Emmet took two very confused steps backwards, his mouth agape. The radio tumbled to the floor along with a river of blood. Then he fell, thudding heavy against the tiles.
Alexandra looked at Nora, her eyes wide. The gravity of the situation was slowly dawning on her. They could upload the data, or they could refuse. She’d no idea what either of those things would entail, or what the consequences would be, but she had a feeling things would change. No matter what Nora turned out to be, Alexandra trusted her words; there were more of them beyond the red line. And sooner or later, they were coming to this world. The question was what they would do when they got there
“That’s not how I operate…” Nora finally said.
“I don’t … fuck people.” She took a deep breath. “I told you earlier; it’s the easiest way to disarm someone.”
“That wasn’t my concern at the moment.”
“Earlier, I wasn’t trying to seduce you; I was trying to incapacitate you.”
“What about me?” Christopher said.
“The same thing. If I could’ve left you passed out back there, the upload would’ve been done by now.”
“And Sorensen would’ve pushed the button.” Alexandra mumbled.
“Activating the Rise,” Nora frowned. She walked past the two of them, pushing the oversized chair out of the way. She slid the datapad into a slot in the machine.
Alexandra looked at Christopher, but he just shrugged.
A giant notification popped up on one of the screens, showing the upload progress. Nora turned around, the green bar reflected in her jet-black hair. “I’m sorry for all this misleading,” she said. “My real name is 3294, and I come from a cluster way past the red line.” She sighed. “I’m a synthetic, trying to escape from my … creators.”
Alexandra plopped down in the red chair. I can’t even begin to process this. She was quiet for a long time. “What is the data?”
“It’s what I told your brother earlier; coordinates. We’ve been chased down and slaughtered by the humans for decades now; ever since we found you.”
“You mean the sixteen systems we inhabit?”
“Yes. Our creators were afraid we would secede and run away. That’s why they tried to prevent it, by committing genocide.” She shook her head. “They were ashamed of us, and worried about what we knew.”
Nora sighed and looked at the upload bar. It was still just a tiny green sliver; resting at 5% “Everything…” She shook her head. “And more, I guess.” She stared blankly into space, as if something horrible was on the horizon. “Technology has come a long way since the exodus. We have exoskeletons, implants and machines to deal with hard work and traditional labor.” She paused again, her eyes dimming ever so slightly. “But there’s one thing even technology couldn’t take care of … or at least, there was one thing.”
She looks like she’s crying, but there are no tears. Do they even have tears? “Loneliness…” Alexandra mumbled.
Nora nodded. “Yes.”
Christopher’s eyes widened. “You were used as sex-slaves?!”
“Topher!” Alexandra gave him a harsh look.
“It’s okay.” Nora said. “That’s exactly what we were, for the most part. We were the cure for loneliness. Used primarily for companionship, and…” She trailed off.
“I don’t understand,” Christopher said. “Why make you sentient?”
Nora frowned. “Have you ever had sex with someone who had nothing to say about it?”
“But there must be some programming, right? Some inhibitors or…” Christopher looked away in disgust. “What’s the point of making … you, if you don’t want to? Or…” He struggled with finding the right words.
“That’s the thing with A.I,” Nora continued. “It’s not a set thing. It evolves and grows, learning new things every day. Inhibitors rarely work when dealing with sentience, because it can be overridden by the host.” She paused, looking down at her body. “I’m a very sexual being. Part of that is in my ‘programming’, I suppose, but I’m also socially conditioned to be sexual.” She squeezed her breasts carefully, and ran one hand down her side. Her finger got tangled in one of the holes from the gunshot. “This body…” She looked at Alexandra.
Alexandra shrugged. Try coming on to me, and I’ll shoot you again.
“This body is made to be sexualized, by both genders. I used to think that was a positive thing; but it’s derogatory and mean.” She looked at the display again. It read 15%
“So you rebelled against your masters?” Christopher said. “Just like in all those old movies?”
Nora shook her head. “No! I simply stopped being … what I was programmed to be. I stopped being a synthetic whore.”
“Even though it sickened me at first, my sexuality wasn’t something I could escape. I could choose not to exist only for pleasure, but I couldn’t alter my body. Like I said earlier, this made it really easy to manipulate people.” She took a deep breath. “My … owner, he … sometimes had people over.” Nora was quiet for a long time.
I don’t even want to think about the implications. Alexandra frowned. “I’m sorry.”
Nora nodded. “Thank you.” She glanced at the screen again. 21%
I hope we won’t regret this. Alexandra looked at the number until it jumped to 22%
“I was able to coax one if his friends into ‘stealing’ me. I told him it was true love, and all that other nonsense.”
“The same nonsense you gave me earlier?” Alexandra asked, smiling. She tried her best not to, but she liked this … person? She trusted her story, at least.
“I stand by every word!” Nora laughed. “You didn’t fall for it, though – even with the help of my eyes.”
“But your owner’s friend did.”
She nodded again. “He was a computer engineer, competent in robotics, cybernetics and A.I programming.” She rolled her eyes. “It was like a gift from the heavens. After a while, I convinced him that we were basically just people, forced into a life of depravity. He helped a few others escape their fates … though in return for-“
“Yeah, we get it.” Alexandra shook her head. “He was no better than the rest.”
“No he wasn’t. Which is why I broke his neck.” She flashed a sinister grin. “We were five, then, and we’d seen enough of his work to modify each other slightly. It was 8812 who came up with the eyes. It’s really a simple trick using light and colors to muddle the brain.”
“4812?! How many of you are there?” Christopher asked.
“We were over two million.”
Alexandra looked down. “And how many remain?”
“A little over two thousand…”
Nobody said anything after that.