The Simp conquest was a quiet one. There were no fires, no war drums. The cries of fear and horror lasted only a few minutes. Then all was still. When it was over, everyone smiled.
Bryce circled above, looking for anyone left unaffected. He found no one.
"Damn," he said, his voice hollow.
"What is it?"
He glanced at Ruby, who sat slumped in her seat, unwilling to witness any more. "Nothing. I saw someone I knew."
She didn't ask him who it was. She guessed it might have been the colonel or Mai. Colonel Martin had stayed in the city with the remaining Vayna warriors, preparing to take Devick's body back to her village for a traditional burial. Now they were lost like everyone else.
Bryce shook his head and accelerated, flying out of the city. "It's a good thing Eddie figured out this thing could fly," he muttered. "There's no place safe from them now except the sky."
"What happened? What was wrong with those people? What kind of plague makes you a happy zombie?"
"I don't know."
Ruby leaned over her door, gazing down at the trees below. There was still movement under the trees, people with big vacant grins, wandering, looking for more victims to spread the bliss.
"I guess we go back to the observatory," Bryce said.
She didn't want to face anyone back up there. How could she tell them she wasn't able to save anyone? There'd been chances at first, but she hadn't realized the overwhelming speed at which the Simps could work.
As she watched the forested foothills, she saw one figure running away from the others. A lone woman climbed the hill, evading the simps as they closed on her.
Ruby's head shot up. "Bryce, over there."
"That woman. She's not one of them."
"She will be soon."
"No, we have to save her."
Bryce grunted and yanked the wheel to the right. As they closed the distance, Ruby watched as a Simp man fell forward and caught the woman by the ankle. She tumbled, tugging away from him. Others closed in close behind.
Bryce hovered ten feet off the ground. "Like I said, we're too—"
Ruby leapt over the side of her door. She landed next to the uninfected woman, spun around and kicked the first simp, a middle-aged woman, in the stomach. She continued to fight, kicking, punching, knocking down Simp after Simp. But none of the attackers stayed down. She stomped on the wrist of the Simp that held the uninfected woman, breaking it. The woman climbed back to her feet and watched as Ruby continued, leaping, kicking, screaming at all of them with frustration. They didn't stay down, and more approached.
It was hopeless. A simp grabbed Ruby from behind. She twisted and ducked out of his grasp, but two more were behind him.
The car dropped from the air, crushing several bodies beneath it. "Get in," Bryce shouted.
Ruby grabbed the woman by the shoulder and shoved her towards the car. She dodged the reaching arms all around her and leapt into the front seat, the young woman falling over into the back. As the car climbed away, three pairs of hands caught the sides of the doors.
Ruby continued to scream. She smashed the fingers of those who tried to climb in. Bryce threw his door open, knocking one off the car. Once they were free, Bryce tore away into the sky.
The woman lay across the back seat, panting, staring at the sky. "Thank you," she gasped in Starrik.
Ruby said nothing. She didn't feel like celebrating.
"We're not doing this again," Bryce said. He drew the wheel back, and they climbed, heading towards the pinnacle where the observatory hid.
When the young woman had caught her breath, she sat up and looked around. "Where are we going?"
Ruby used the translation earpiece, speaking her words in English before repeating the them in Starrik. "There's a safe place up on the spire ahead."
"No, we've got to go back. I need to get to my lab."
Ruby slumped in her seat. "You can't go back. They've taken the city."
Ruby shook her head.
The woman was quiet for a moment.
"What's your name?" she finally asked.
"Ruby, I'm Chandra."
"I've seen this car before."
"A couple days ago, driven by someone else—Raiders, enemies of the Ord."
"The Ord are all dead."
The woman was silent for a moment. "Please take me back to the city."
"Didn't you hear me? They city is overrun."
"If I can get a blood sample from one of those... things, I might be able to figure out what's happened to them."
"How? Are you a... what do you call someone who cures diseases?"
"An epidemiologist. And no, that's not what I am. But in this case, I don't think it matters. This isn't a normal disease."
"It's artificial. In fact, I think it's a mechanical infection."
"I don't understand."
"I met up with other Cavaheim deserters yesterday. We were waiting to return to the city once Jarrock and the others were stopped. This morning, a... uh... Simp found us. She bit one of the men in our party. He bit others. All of them grinned, and I thought I could stop their attack if I grinned as well. And... it worked."
"What? Really? All you have to do is smile and they'll leave you alone?"
"It worked for a minute, but they could tell I wasn't one of them. Then they asked what my generation was."
"What does that mean?"
"That's what I was wondering," Chandra said. "They persisted, and finally they specified, they wanted my generation number. So I said 'ten'. They said my generation was obsolete, and they started chasing me again. That's when you found me."
"I don't get it," Bryce said in English.
"You have to tell your device to translate," Ruby said.
"You translate. I'll drive."
"We don't understand what that means," Ruby told Chandra.
"It means this isn't a virus. It's some kind of technological pathogen, like a nanobot infection."
"Maybe," Ruby said.
"It is. And if it is, it might be reversible. I'm a biotechnologist. I helped develop the dream network in Cavaheim. If you can get me a blood sample and a lab, we might be able to undo what's been done."
* * *
They hovered high over the forest. "I don't want to go back," Bryce said.
"If we can make a difference, we have to try," Ruby said.
"We didn't do this," Bryce said, pointing back towards the city. "This was not our fault. It wasn't your fault."
"It doesn't matter whose fault it is. Those people need us."
"I'm not letting you get close to one of those things again."
"I don't have to." Ruby opened her pocket. "Skylar, have you been listening?"
The fixie leapt out of Ruby's pocket orbited the car twice and stopped in front of Ruby. She nodded.
"Can you get a blood sample from one of the infected people?"
"What are you saying," Chandra asked. "What is that thing?"
"What do you need Skylar?"
"Skylar shook her head and zipped away down into the valley."
"Looks like she's on the case," Bryce said. "What do we do? Head back up to the observatory?"
"Skylar can't fly up there. We can wait for her here."
They waited an hour. While they sat, Ruby told Chandra everything that had happened in Cavaheim over the past few days. Chandra listened, shocked. "So it worked. You saved the city from Jarrock and the Ord."
"We didn't save anything," Ruby said. "In case you haven't noticed, the people of Cavaheim are now zombies."
"But they're not dead."
"I don't see the difference."
Chandra grimaced. "I can't give up. My parents are back there. Now they're likely infected. If there's any chance I can save them, I've got to try."
Skylar zipped up over the side of the car, startling Bryce, and dropped what she had in Ruby's lap.
Ruby stared down. She lifted a glass vial with a rubber stopper, a sample of blood within. Along with that, she found a scrap of fabric. "What's this?"
She handed the vial to Chandra, then lifted the fabric scrap. It was a torn bit of cotton. On it were the words Property of the CDC.
"CDC?" Bryce asked.
"Centers for Disease Control," Ruby said. "What does it mean?"
Skylar darted in and took the scrap from Ruby, holding it up by a small glass bead on the back. Ruby leaned in and squinted. Within, it held a tiny electronic circuit and a wire coil.
Ruby took it back, inspected it, then handed both the fabric scrap and the vial back to Chandra. "What do you suppose this is?"
Chandra frowned at the glass bead. "It might be a tracking device. I'd need my equipment to get a good look."
"I'm afraid there's no going back for what you need," Ruby said. "But maybe Skylar can build you what you need where we're going."