Thud. Thud. Thud.
When she was very young, Selina had fallen off the side of a boat, or at least she thought she had—she couldn’t quite remember falling. But she had been dreaming of the ocean all around her, full of strange, muffled squeaks and groans, and the tarnished, wavering disk of the sun shining through the water, hopelessly out of reach of her outstretched fingers.
She had barely noticed those thuds at first; a small part of her memory was filled to overflowing with other intermittent creaks and groans, so many that she couldn’t count them up in any meaningful way. Isn’t that the definition of infinity? she wondered distantly, dreamily, and then—qualitative only. That thought was different—colder, stranger.
But the thuds didn’t die away, as they always had before. And there was a purposefulness about them—a deliberation—Selina was abruptly conscious of a desire to look and see what the source of that thudding was.
Looking. Seeing. It seemed to have been far easier for her to do both at some unknown time point in the past—as though she simply might have wished for it, or flexed a slight muscle of herself, and immediately found fulfillment. Now it was more difficult; great swathes of her awareness were oddly dull, and overtop it all was an unpleasant sensation of immense pressure bearing down upon her. She had no accompanying feelings of suffocation or collapse; she was sure, she and the cool alien flow of thought so intertwined with herself that it was herself, that she was in no danger from it. But she didn’t like it.
Before she had consciously realized it, she was seeing after all. Room after galley after corridor after cluttered mechanical space, all in shades of green and black—she was both surprised and unsurprised, as if part of her had known that this was what she would see but another part had expected—what? Then light blazed up, and Selina recoiled; harsh, gray brilliance poured into one particular room from the corridor just beyond it.
A man lay on his back on the floor of the room, kicking one of the panels lining the walls with both feet. He did so methodically, with measured pauses between each piston-like outthrust of both legs together—thud! Then his harsh, sobbing breath, followed by utter stillness, and thud! The metal panel shook under the onslaught, then stilled. His rough boots had left smears of unidentifiable filth on the panel’s surface, but no other mark, and that cold, distant part of herself told Selina that its integrity was unbreached despite the now hours-long assault launched upon it.
Selina stared down at him. The rest of him was as dirty as his boots, and bloody too—his lip was split, and half an eyebrow was gone in a thick shallow scrape that ran all the way down to his jaw. Clinic 7, she thought, or some part of her did. He was in Clinic 7, and the corridor beyond was Emergency Exit 16, intended for ambulatory noncombatants and medical staff only. But somehow the exit had become an entrance—she couldn’t see very far into the corridor, but she had an odd sensation of relief through it, from the grinding pressure bearing down on every other part of her.
“Stop!” she cried involuntarily. He froze, legs drawn back, and Selina froze, too, at the terrible grating noise that had emerged from herself, barely comprehensible as a word. She tried to clear her throat, then to swallow, and found that she could do neither. She tried again, reflexively, and something happened—a small shift, somewhere, and when she spoke again, a voice far more recognizable as her own echoed from the wall speaker high above the man’s head. “Who are you?”
He jerked up onto his elbows and scrabbled backwards until he fetched up against the wall opposite the panel, the back of his head smacking into it with an audible thump, and Selina listened in blank dismay to the spate of gibberish that erupted from his mouth. It wasn’t English—was it? She tried matching it against all the other languages she (or at least, that icy, subtle presence that was also herself) knew. It was more like English than it was anything else, except that it was indisputably not English.
She realized, after a second incomprehensible flood of syllables had erupted from him, that it was the sharp, barking sounds he made regularly mid-speech that were befuddling her: glottal stops, her other self informed her coolly. She found she was able to filter them out and replace them with the consonants they had once clearly been, and then at least try to fit her own speech into a form he could understand. “Stop,” Selina repeated, more temperately. “Who are you? What are you doing here?”
“I,” he said, and choked on a sob. “I’m Aylen Bells Laren. Son of Bells Laren Mord, Bells daughter of Laren Mord Pers and—”
“Yes.” He shut his mouth tightly on that syllable, which had survived the language shift untouched.
“But what are you doing here?” She paused. “You shouldn’t be here.” Her voice sounded uncertain, even to herself. He shouldn’t be here. She was sure of that, in a bone-deep and unshakeable way. Yet he was here—was she supposed to prevent that? Or remedy it, as it had already occurred? Her cold and distant thought-companion had no answer to that. Its absence left her feeling strangely unbalanced.
“My people are dying,” said Aylen. “My family is dying.” He sat up, then lurched to his feet. “We left generations ago, my ancestors, just as your ancestors told us to do. We haven’t come back—we’ve stayed in the Wastes, where we belong.” He lowered his head when he said the last part, his tone oddly servile—but his eyes gleamed beneath the narrowed slits of their heavy lids, and a muscle jerked in his jaw. “Only I came here—only I. I thought—a few others have tried, though not in my generation or my mother’s. My mother’s mother was one who tried, she and a group of others—she alone made it back, across the Wastes, and said that there was no way in, anymore—the Enclave was sealed—”
The Enclave. Home. Yes, that felt right—yes, said her icy other self. We are the Enclave.
Aylen was still speaking— “But when I came, on the third day the earth shook—it shook, and shook, and something struck me in the head. When I awoke, it was nearly sunset, but I saw that a passage had opened, a passage in the earth itself, leading—down.” His eyes and mouth were stretched wide with remembered wonder and terror. “It was full of dirt and rocks; it took me even more days to clear it away. But I thought, maybe you—someone— might be sorry, that your people hadn’t helped us before, I thought—” He stopped, hugging himself tightly, then straightened his spine and lifted his head up to stare directly at the wall speaker. “I ask you to help us now. Or I can help you—” The words began to tumble out of him, faster and faster. “I can, I can bring you whatever you want, from outside, you don’t go outside, do you? Or—”
“Wait,” said Selina distractedly. He was immediately silent once more, motionless except for the faint shudders he couldn’t seem to control—fatigue, her thoughts suggested. Hunger. Exhaustion.
My family is dying.
“Of what?” He stared blankly up at the wall. “What is your family dying of?”
“The disease. The one that comes with the dust storms, in the Wastes.” He said disease as if it were Disease, as though there were only one of any importance. “When our ancestors tried to return here to escape from it, your ancestors drove them away.” His hands had curled into fists at his sides.
What Disease? Selina demanded of herself, but again her inner voice, the one that knew so much and felt so little, was silent. But memory stirred—the pure, thin red light of deflection lasers for destroying any debris that might block the solar panels or damage the external ventilation machinery. She had seen them firing, cutting through a dust-choked haze with a clear, vivid beauty against a sky sapphire with dusk, streaked with crimson-edged clouds—and the faint, far-off sounds of high-pitched, anguished screams—
Animals, whispered that cool inner voice. The lasers were also intended to ward off any wildlife incursions, to protect the Enclave. The Enclave must not be overrun.
Did animals scream when they died?
“Speak,” she said aloud, curtly. “Tell me what the symptoms are, of your Disease.” He didn’t know what symptoms were, she could see that clearly enough, but he was certainly willing to talk about the Disease. He seemed to get angrier and angrier as he spoke, his language descending into graphic convulsions of ruin—vomiting, purging, cannibalistic madness and finally, death—
“Enough,” Selina said abruptly. He had lost some of his terror of her, or gained courage from his self-catalyzing rage, and trailed off rather than snapping into obedient silence. Be of use, she thought angrily at that vast, cold part of herself. What could this Disease be? Analyze it!
The results of that analysis took only a minute or two; she eagerly turned her attention to them, then sagged in disappointment. She had found over twenty different diseases, not just one Disease, that matched a statistically significant majority of his lurid description. She flipped rapidly through the tabulated results, calming as she realized that they did all have certain similarities—my medical stores, she thought with an odd and unfamiliar reluctance. My medical stores have antiparasitics. The Disease was almost certainly caused by parasites. But the stores—! The reluctance was from that other part of herself, passionless but rigid in its disinclination to allow access to them.
He will bring back more people, it insisted. They will overrun the Enclave. We must not—and abruptly she was overwhelmed with a torrent of schematics flashing past her consciousness, great dead bands of energy grids covered by uncounted years of dirt and debris. We must not—the deflection lasers, and the screaming—
A spasm shook her and a wall panel, not the one Aylen had been kicking, grated open. He stumbled over to it and fell to his knees, clawing at the torrent of vials spilling onto the floor. “Add enough water each to fill the vial, recap it and shake it as hard as you can,” Selina whispered—whispered because quite a bit of herself was fighting speech now and that was all she could squeeze past it. “The water must be clean. Distilled.” He stopped grabbing at the vials to stare up at her uncomprehendingly. “Boiled, then. One vial per person about your size. Less or more if different.” Her speech was fragmenting back into the hoarse, grating whine of her first attempt.
Aylen’s hands, half-hidden under the vials, suddenly stilled. His eyes squeezed shut and his mouth sagged open; a torrent of new tears welled up from beneath his closed lids, sliding like quicksilver down the tracks already dried in dirt and blood. Then his head snapped up, his glistening stare fixed on the wall speaker; the muscles under his flesh shifted, and his face looked years older than it had before, rigid with despair. “It doesn’t matter,” he said harshly. “It doesn’t matter if it’s poison instead of medicine. We’re dying anyway.” He scooped up the last of the vials into the pouch he’d made of the bottom of his ragged tunic, then pushed himself back up onto his feet and across the room to where the exit corridor gaped open.
“Wait!” She could barely force out the single word. “Wait.” She wrestled for control of her voice and was briefly triumphant. “If you think it might be poison, why did you come here at all?”
She thought he would ignore her, and just break and run—the muscles along the backs of his arms and legs tensed, and she had no way to stop him. But he paused, and turned his head, though not enough to face her completely once more. “My people have a story,” he said slowly. “A legend. Do you want to hear it?”
Yes. No. Her other self was the dissenter, though strangely muffled—something about irreparable damage to the central processing unit with unstructured memory upload—Selina tried desperately to say both at once, but all that emerged was a burst of static. Aylen shuddered, then took a deep breath.
“Once,” he said, only a little unsteadily, “many, many generations ago, the land wasn’t like it is now—there were no Wastes, no dust storms, only rolling green hills and blue skies and the people were content. Most of the people were content—but there were a few that were afraid, for they saw the seeds being sown of what would come, that most of the land would die in a Great Devastation, though quickly or slowly they weren’t sure.
“So those few gathered up as many as they could find who believed, or could be convinced to believe, the way they did, and they built the Enclave. They hid it deep in the mountains, for they knew that after the Devastation, many others, too many, might try to find them and take what they had worked so hard to build, to save themselves.
“The Enclave was a marvelous place, powered by the Sun itself, able to feed and shelter an unimaginable number of people…and ruled, not by people, for they’d proven to be too fickle, too selfish, but by a Machine, a vast and unliving mind able to carry on a thousand tasks at once, a mind that never allowed itself to be swayed in judgement by any one person’s desires nor even any desires of its own.
“But then…the Machine became corrupted.”
Memory, as if it had been beating against a seawall of her other self’s will until just that moment, broke over her in an agonizing torrent—not just her own memories, bright explosions of light and heat and sensation sharp as a hundred knives, but her other self’s memories too, the thrum of the Enclave’s very lifeblood churning down, down until the deep silence filled all its mechanical spaces.
THE BULKHEAD DOORS ARE CLOSING!
Those monstrous, impervious doors, designed all too well to lock out even the air of the outside world, had sealed themselves shut, massive hydraulics sparking and fusing as the Enclave’s AI was ravaged by an electronic virus that had somehow eluded all their security measures. Several thousand of the Enclave’s residents had managed to escape through the emergency exits, out of the tomb the Enclave was rapidly becoming, until the virus had found those too.
Aylen’s voice rose. “And then the Enclave’s people began to die as well. But one man knew how to save them all. One man knew how the Machine could be cleansed of its corruption—that the Machine could be remade, in the likeness of a living person.”
One man. One face. That memory burned like acid, every detail so crystal clear in her mind’s eye that its owner might have been standing right there next to Aylen in the clinic, smiling up at her (smiling down, he had always smiled down at her, he had been so tall, they had all teased him about his great and gangling height)—
Sitaram and his mice and his rapid neural biomapping—it had been his side project, his personal obsession. The year before the virus came, he’d managed to map lab mice, one cortical layer at a time, in a matter of mere hours instead of the years that the painstaking manual coding from scratch that the construction of a semi-autonomous machine AI required. But the mapping process had invariably killed the mice, and their newly birthed neural networks had sparkled and died along with them.
Then Sitaram had tried freezing the mice first, live, so quickly that their body cells had had no time to rupture. To the marvel (and deep disquiet) of everyone else, the resulting tiny, intricate murine networks had thrived for months, still attached to their deep-frozen donors.
Those little networks hadn’t been able to actually do much, though; they had been only mice, after all.
Aylen sucked in a deep, shuddering breath. “But that person would have to die, so that all the Enclave could live again.”
Sitting in the dark with Sitaram, after they’d turned off all the lights to stretch what was left of the backup generator fuel. Sitaram’s face lit from beneath by the faint glow of the portable CO2 monitor, the numbers on the display creeping slowly, slowly up and up.
I know how to turn the machines back on, Ram.
The tear tracks on his cheeks reflecting the monitor’s status markers in yellow and red, the pinpoints of light shining like fireflies in his wet dark eyes. Her own arm, pale and freckled, extended toward the syringe squeezed too tightly in his white-knuckled fist.
Am I dead? Selina screamed at her other self. Am I dead—am I—and suddenly she saw a room, or what was left of a room, ugly and jagged in the harsh green-and-black of a night vision camera. For a long moment she couldn’t understand what she was seeing. The objects that filled the room were lumpy, irregular but still bizarrely angular—then she realized she was looking at ice. The maze of pipes filling the room, leading to the coffin-sized tank in its center, had become fantastical crystalline sculptures of whatever scraps of ambient humidity had slowly leached into the room through its seals. Those pipes, still somehow holding pressure after all those years, all those centuries, or even longer? full of frigid liquid helium—the tank, holding—
“I told my family I thought there might still be people in the Enclave who could help us.” Aylen laughed, a harsh humorless bark. “But there’s only the Machine left, after all.” Then he did run, his legs visibly shaking as they carried him out of her limited sight, into the grayish haze emanating from the far unseen end of the corridor.
She must have restarted the ventilation machinery, just as she had promised Ram she would. There were hundreds of thousands of hours of audiovisual object memories in her tables, far more than the brief handful of years she had spent as Selina, only Selina living in the Enclave. People in the Enclave’s rooms and galleys and corridors, laughing and crying and eating and sleeping and fighting and making love—
But the rooms, the galleys, the corridors were all empty now, lightless voids. Even the mice were gone.
“Where did they all go?” Selina tried to shout after him. “All the people left alive, still inside the Enclave, where did they all go?” But her voice was only a broken, useless stutter from the wall speaker, and Aylen was already gone.
I thought you might be sorry, that you hadn’t helped us before.
I thought there might still be people here who could help us.
But there’s only the Machine left, after all.
A sharp sense of heat, of warning, touched Selina’s consciousness. Power expenditure in excess of current storage capacity, whispered the cold indifference of her other self. Initiating shutdown.
Selina was running along the boat’s edge, her mother’s voice echoing in her ears—don’t run, you’ll slip and fall, Selina!—and her foot hit a puddle and skidded forward so abruptly she didn’t even have time to scream before she tumbled over the side. A brief, gut-wrenching sensation of weightlessness and then she hit the water. It was shockingly cold, enveloping her all around and far, far over her head in a rushing roar of bubbles, but there was nothing for her desperately clawing hands to grab onto. Selina lifted her head, eyes burning in the salt, as the rippling silver orb of the sun receded further and further from her outstretched fingers.