Ruby descended the stairs, watching the network bars on her phone tick down to none, then show the No Signal notification. She'd run up and down the stairs a dozen times since losing touch with Bryce. He still wasn't responding. Should she go find him? Was it too late?
Down in the lab, things hadn't changed.
"You're thinking like the idiots who used to work here," Basha complained. "You don't upgrade the nanobots. You eliminate them. You come up with an alternative nano-machine that will hunt down the nanobots in the blood stream and take them out."
"That's easy to say," Chandra almost shouted as she sat at a laptop next to him. "But how are you going to do it, huh?"
"Create a separate nanobot strain that's designed to target them."
"Hah! And how do you do that? I mean, yeah it's possible with an army of nano-technicians and twenty years of development.
"More like twenty days. I can do it."
"Really? You've got a plan to make a new strain of nanobots from scratch that can discern the Aeterna Storm from white blood cells, that can self replicate, spread through a human population and communicate using swarm coordination algorithms?"
"They don't need to communicate."
"Then how will they know when the host is cured? How will they know every single nanobot is..." Chandra threw her hands up. "You know what? We aren't going to discuss it. The nanobot swarms in place are all we need. We reprogram them to go dormant."
"And if they're dormant, you'll only cure a single victim. Are you going to inject an upgrade into each of the thousands of victims out there?"
"You seem distressed," said one of the Simps behind the plexiglass wall. "I can help you with that."
Chandra and Basha both turned to the Simp cage. "Shut up!" they both said in English. They'd said it enough now that they didn't need their translators.
"Jeez," Basha muttered. "Why did they put the Simp cage so close to the research area? I can see why Dr. Yocum went all shit-for-brains crazy."
"Did someone say my name?" asked Dr. Yocum, still strapped to his table.
"You shut up too," Basha shouted.
"I see things haven't changed here," Ruby said.
"Not true," Chandra said. "I've already produced an upgrade."
She turned to Skylar, who stood at a complex machine with tubes, wires and a spinning blood centrifuge at its top. Skylar watched a readout screen.
"Any luck?" Chandra asked.
Skylar stepped forward and pressed a button on the display. "It's ready to go," she said. She stopped the centrifuge, took a syringe and waited by a collection tube on one side.
"You mean you have the answer?" Ruby asked. She leaned down next to Skylar. "You can cure the Simps?"
"One Simp," Basha corrected. "Maybe."
Skylar plunged the syringe into the rubber stopper and extracted the liquid within. "This should do it," she said. "A few CC's of this stuff will blow their little nanobot minds."
"How are you going to give it to them?" Ruby asked. She turned to the Simp cage where ten men and women, some of them wearing lab coats, stood watching them, all smiling. "Can you isolate one of them without letting them all out?"
"No," Basha said. "I don't know how they got in there in the first place."
"I can give it to them," Skylar said. "In case you didn't notice, I'm immune."
She flew with the syringe towards the plexiglass wall, tucked her wings together with the needle aimed forward and darted through an air hole. The second she was through, she spread her wings, caught altitude and landed on a woman's shoulder.
"Be careful, Sky," Ruby said.
Skylar rolled her eyes. As the woman turned to investigate, Skylar plunged the needle into her neck. The woman tittered and flinched as if Skylar had tickled her. As Skylar pushed the plunger, the woman's smile slackened. Skylar drew the needle out and retreated through an air hole. She hovered outside and watched.
The woman stood still, frowning, staring off in the distance.
Ruby moved next to Skylar. "Ma'am, are you okay?"
The woman's eyes cleared. She looked at Ruby. "I... what did you do to me? I was so happy, and now... where am I?"
"Why aren't you smiling?" one of her cellmates asked. He stepped forward and looked in her eyes. "Why aren't you smiling?"
The woman looked up at him with horror. "I... Dr. VanSant? What are you—"
The man gripped her arm, leaned down and bit it. Blood ran down his chin. The woman appeared startled for only an instant. Then the grin reappeared on her face. She sighed with delight.
Ruby, and the others stared.
From the examination table, Dr. Yocum chuckled.
"What's so funny?" Basha demanded. He repeated his question in English.
"You see the problem, don't you?" Yocum said. "You can only cure one, and only partially."
"What do you mean, partially," Chandra asked in Starrik. She frowned. "Basha, give the man a translator."
"I only have one left."
"And there's only one person we need to talk to. Give it to him."
Basha pulled an ear nub from his pocket and shoved it in Yocum's ear. "Can you hear me now, asshole?"
Yocum's eyes went wide. "Extraordinary."
"Yeah, it's cool. What do you mean we can cure them only partially?"
The man stared at him as if he didn't understand. Basha was about to ask again when Yocum shook his head. "Sorry. This takes some getting used to. The nanobots are not all active at once. Each nanobot is operational only half of the time. They go dormant in cycles, recharging, taking their energy from nutrients in the blood stream. If you shut down the storm network, it will restart when the dormant nanobots come back online."
Basha frowned. "Well, yeah, we knew that."
"No we didn't," Chandra said.
"I'm impressed you were able to accomplish as much as you have in less than a day," Yocum said. "But you can't use such heavy-handed solutions for a problem this delicate."
"We'll figure something out," Basha said. "We're the best there is."
"Perhaps," Yocum said. "But even the best could use a little help. I know the history of the storm."
Basha shared a look with Ruby and Chandra. "What do you think?"
Ruby shrugged. Chandra said, "Can we trust him?"
Basha leaned over Yocum. "If we let you out, are you going to inject us with that shit?"
"No, of course not. Scouts honor."
"What the hell does that mean?"
"It means he's honest," Ruby said.
Basha loosened Yocum's wrist. "Well if you try to pull anything, I'll beat the crap out of you. Scout's honor."
* * *
They worked through the day. Arguments broke out frequently. Chandra and Basha both wanted to eradicate the storm completely. Yocum listed off all the reasons that was impossible. The storm was too well embedded. They couldn't stop it. They could only enhance it.
Ruby left them after sundown, making yet another attempt to reach Bryce. She stood outside the GenCorp glass doors and dialed. The phone rang three times. Then the line clicked.
"Bryce? Bryce, are you there?"
"Bryce, thank God you're all right. I thought the Simps had gotten you."
"No, nothing like that. I mean, yeah, they almost had me. Then Tim came along."
Ruby gasped. "What happened? What did he do? I saw him too, he wanted to know where Eddie was."
"Yeah, he asked me that too. But he was more curious about the car. After he killed all the Simps—"
"He killed them?"
"About twenty of them. It wasn't pretty."
"Bryce, there's a cure. I mean, not yet, but it's possible. Chandra and Skylar cured a woman for about twenty seconds."
"Huh. Yeah, well, no one will cure the ones Tim killed. He wanted me to take him for a ride."
"Yeah, weird, I know. He said he wanted to get a feel for physical anomalies. We were way out over the desert. He told me what he'd been doing. It's creepy, trying to resurrect the dead. I'll spare you the details. But I dropped my phone in the house where the Simps cornered me. I came back for it a few minutes ago."
"I'm glad you're okay."
"I wouldn't say that." Bryce was silent for a moment. "Ruby, Tim is scary. I mean, he's downright disturbing. He's got eight kinds of crazy behind his eyes, and while we were talking, that blue other-Tim rose up and leered at me. I don't know. I feel like we're here trying to exterminate insects in a house that's on fire."
"Hopefully Eddie can do something about Tim."
"Yeah. Listen, do you want me to come back there?"
"Stay close, but stay safe for now. If there's more Simps, we will need a way out of here."
"Fine. Now that I know you're still alive, I'm going to get some sleep. Hopefully I won't have nightmares about Tim."
* * *
"This is it!"
Ruby had been sleeping in a chair, slumped forward on a lab table. She jolted upright with a start. "Huh?"
Chandra stared at her computer screen. "We've got it. It's perfect. Like Yocum said. You can't stop them. You upgrade them. And that's just what we've done."
Basha sat bleary eyed at his own terminal, a cup of coffee in his hand. "Simulations all show the same thing. The nanobots will maintain their network, transmit the new version number, but with a much more simplified instruction set."
Ruby stood up and moved to his side. "So, it's not a cure?"
"Not exactly," Basha said. "It's more like a lobotomy for the nanobots. All they will be able to do is replicate and transmit their version number. It's a new major version, which means all existing strains of the storm will submit to the upgrade."
Ruby looked from Basha to Chandra. Then she spotted Dr. Yocum sitting at the end of a table, his arms folded, frowning.
"Don't you think it will work?" she asked him.
Yocum looked up and scowled. "Will it work? Of course it will. All of those people will return to their short, miserable lives."
"You'd rather they stay like they are? Joy zombies?"
He leaned forward and raised his hands. "I'd rather find a balance. The promise of the Aeterna Storm is that it would extend lives and enhance moods. Wouldn't it be better to return autonomy to these people but leave the improvements?"
Basha scoffed. "Are you kidding me? Screwing with people's brains and immune systems is what caused this mess. It needs to end."
"I disagree. Now that you two are here, the things we could accomplish—"
"We're accomplishing them," Chandra said. "We're stopping the storm now."
She turned back to her laptop. "Where's Skylar? She should be synthesizing the new nanobots?"
Ruby looked around. "Sky?"
Skylar didn't answer.
"That's weird. Maybe she's regenerating."
"She did that earlier," Chandra said. She moved the machine Skylar had operated and started the centrifuge spinning. Drops of clear liquid fell into the collection tube.
"That's it?" Ruby asked, leaning down and watching the tube fill.
"Yes. That's the upgrade. When we inject our subjects with this, they'll get cured and stay cured."
"Except they'll have tiny robots inside them."
"Yes. Except that."
"Why aren't you smiling?"
Chandra and Ruby both spun. Behind them, a Simp in a white lab coat stood grinning down at them. Before Ruby could react, He grabbed Chandra's hand, raised it to his mouth and bit hard.