Ruby woke up disoriented in an unfamiliar place. She lay on a cot in a tiny room, fluorescent light spilling through the doorway.
She wandered out to the lab. Chandra sat hunched over a microscope, transfixed.
"Were you up all night?" Ruby asked,
Chandra held up a finger, not turning from her work.
"Sorry. Is there anything you need?"
Chandra didn't look up. At length, she said, "Does a place like this have coffee?"
"I'm sure they do. How do you want it?"
"I'll take it black," Basha said.
Ruby turned, startled. Basha was also awake, hunched over a workstation at a desk.
"Any luck with the network?" Ruby asked.
"A little," he said with a weary smile. "I can log in, and I've got a Starrik translation program working. But the research database is locked up tight. I'm running a decryption program now."
"I need help with the calibration on this microscope," Chandra said. "Is your fixie available?"
Ruby found her coat folded on a table. She pulled the front pocket. "Skylar, are you awake?"
Skylar pretended to be asleep. She sat up and rubbed her eyes, then shot up out of the pocket.
"Chandra could use a hand," she said.
Ruby pulled the Ord ring on her hand and opened the lab door. "I'll go see about coffee."
She moved from room to room. As she did, she pulled her phone out of her pocket and dialed.
"Yo," came Bryce's voice from the other end.
"Are you kidding? This car isn't exactly a king-sized bed. I hovered above the city while I slept, in case of—you know—the smiley guys."
"Being stuck in a car is awful. I'm almost out of granola bars. And do you know how difficult it is to do my business when I'm up here."
"You don't need to tell me."
"Any sign of Tim?"
"Maybe we're worried over nothing."
"And maybe I should join you down there."
Ruby pushed a door open and peered inside. Another office. She moved on.
"I think for now it would be safer if you stay where you are. If you get hungry, there's a city full of abandoned houses. Tim doesn't seem interested in us, so go get yourself something, but don't stay away from the car for too long."
They said goodbyes, and Ruby continued her search. She found more offices, a couple of smaller labs, a janitor's closet, but no galley. The stairway door was jammed, and the elevator didn't respond. "There's got to be coffee somewhere," she muttered.
In the last office at the end of the hall, the floor hung at a sharp angle, the tile cracked and broken as it sloped down towards a room in the Gen-Corp building. Like the CDC, the other building had electric lights working. A conference table sat below her, ringed with leather seats, many of them toppled and covered with debris. A coffee pot sat on a tray in the middle of the table with a stack of cups.
She moved carefully along one wall. There were plenty of handholds in the cracked surface to prevent falling. At the bottom, the conference room had glass walls all the way around. Open offices and hallways in pristine condition lay beyond it. As she scanned the area, movement caught her eye—a doorway closing at the end of a hallway.
No one answered.
She moved cautiously, the coffee forgotten.
"Is anyone here?"
If it was a Simp, they'd come after her. If it was a soldier, they would have done the same. Whoever was in this building, they were as afraid as she was. She crept down the hall, the Ord ring held forward. She heard nothing as she reached the door that had moved.
"I'm not here to hurt you," she said, easing the door open. The room was dark, illuminated only by a bright square of light at the center of the room. Ruby switched on the light and scanned inside. A computer lab lay within, workstations stretched along two sides, windows lining the outer wall. At the center sat what appeared to be an overhead projector resting on a table, its flat illuminated surface aglow. A transparent sheet of film lay across the surface, red characters glowing against the white.
The projector was not aimed at a white screen as she would have expected. Instead, it faced a panel at the end of the room, its surface flat black, making it impossible to discern the projected image.
Ruby approached it when she heard running footsteps outside the door. She spun and threw the door open. She caught just a glimpse of an escaping figure, the back of a white lab coat, before the person fleeing ducked around a corner.
"Wait," she called as she ran. Around the corner, she found a darkened stairway leading down. She hesitated, listening. All was silent.
She waited for a moment. They were gone. Chasing them now would only get her lost.
They'd worn a lab coat. A surviving CDC researcher? Why would they be in this building? She backtracked and found the probable answer. The glass front of a vending machine lay shattered. Snickers bars littered the floor.
"They came here for the food," she muttered for herself. "Not a bad idea."
* * *
Ruby dropped a tray on a lab desk loaded with a coffee pot, cups, creamer and sugar packets and assorted vending machine treats. "You can do self-serve," she told Basha and Chandra. "Sorry there aren't pastries."
Chandra took a cup. Basha remained at his desk.
"Did you hear me?"
"I cracked the research database," Basha said, not looking up.
"Anything I can use?" Chandra asked.
"I'm reading a white paper on a proposal for containment of the Simp plague," Basha said. "It's not very detailed, but it gives a history. You were right about this being a nanobot problem. The Simp plague started as an experimental medical nanobot strain called Aeterna Storm. It is a..." he squinted at the screen. "...a synthetic bio-tech enhancement designed to promote longevity and boost the immune system. Basically, it's supposed to make you live forever. A private research firm engineered it, but the government declared their work illegal when test subjects committed suicide by the score."
"That doesn't sound like the Simps we saw," Ruby said.
"No, but see, this organization, led by a Doctor Faraday, continued their research in secret. They experimented with mood enhancement, augmented brain plasticity, altered perception, that kind of thing."
Chandra stared, incensed. "That's incredibly dangerous."
"Which is why it was a secret. Their test subjects were prisoners, usually sedated, subjected to generation after generation of nanobot firmware upgrades. There's a laundry list of side-effects associated with each generation. It went on for years, and it looks like Faraday got desperate, running out of funds and taking more and more radical approaches to his work.
"Generation thirty-five mellowed out his subjects and made them happy but unpredictable. By then Faraday worked alone. His team abandoned him, and someone leaked the truth about his experiments. The police marched in to shut him down. As they closed in on him, he saw his work about to be destroyed, so he injected his subjects with an upgrade he thought would guarantee that the work would survive."
"Upgrade?" Chandra said. "Let me guess. Was it self-replication?"
"That's the stuff," Basha agreed. "He'd played with it before but concluded it was too dangerous to keep contained. When he heard the sirens, he gave his subjects Aeterna Storm Generation 35.6. They shared the upgrade with each other. Then he set them free."
"So, that's how it started," Ruby said.
"Yes, and the Simp plague spread fast. The CDC worked with the military to contain the outbreak, but no one knew how to deal with a bio-tech attack."
"I do," Chandra said. "Or at least I might if I could get better equipment."
"What have you found?" Ruby asked.
"Oh, I can see the nanobots. They're all over in the blood sample that Skylar took. I'm getting an idea of how they work based on the configuration. Self-replicating. They take biological detritus in the bloodstream and turn it into organic replicas. They're equipped to attack pathogens, manipulate and stimulate glands, and I'm guessing they can channel impulses in the brain."
Chandra took a sip of coffee, winced, then dumped a sugar packet into it. "But that's all I can do from here. This lab is nice, but soon, I need to access their firmware."
"There's sourcecode here," Basha said, pointing at the laptop.
"That will help, but if we want to stop them, we need equipment to synthesize an upgrade." She pointed up at Skylar, who hovered near the ceiling. "She's helpful, but Skylar can't build the equipment I need. Not unless we want to wait a year."
"The CDC was working with a firmware interface," Basha said. "It's got to be somewhere here."
"Unless it disappeared with half of this building," Ruby said.
"Let's hope that's not the case," Chandra said. "We need to look for the equipment."
Basha and Chandra both turned to Ruby.
"I guess that means me," Ruby said. "Skylar, can you help me search?"