She struggled in blindness, trapped, unable to move. Her arms were clamped to her sides in bands of steel. Panicked, she kicked and squirmed and strove to bring herself fully on line.
Her hearing returned, and a voice whispered softly, "It's all right, it's all right. Take it easy. It's okay." She felt warm breath at her temple. She also felt a heart beating against her chest, a real lifeblood pump, elevated with agitation that belied the soothing voice. She stilled. The steel bands around her became bare arms, smooth and soft. Her vision returned, and she saw her face was buried in a mass of coppery hair. Caitlin.
She clung to the girl, letting the data flow into her: vital signs, smells of soap and shampoo and clothing and perfume, the slight tremor in the girl's lower back as she strained to hold her without Gen. Anna took a full breath and let it out. "M'okay, hon."
"What happened? I thought you were fighting with someone, but I came in…"
She tipped her head up and looked into the marvelous green eyes, randomly flecked with lighter color; at the straight nose, turned up slightly at the tip; at the fractal complexity of the girl's skin and eyelashes, utterly beautiful. "I had a bad dream." She slid her hands between Caitlin's arms and ribs, pressed her face against her bosom, and held her tight. "No. Not just a dream."
A few minutes later, she was dressed and sitting at the table with her family; for once, she sat while the kids served each other. A glass of water appeared on the table in front of her, which she sipped as she recounted her "dream". "So there it is. I'm not the only one. There are others, at least five more. My skillsets are selected downloads of their experiences."
"Shooting stuff," Roxanne said. "Hand-to hand combat. Disguises. Dogfight driving."
She felt Caitlin's eyes on her. "And other things. Unlike me, they were deployed. I can't guess how many times, or exactly what they did, but it was covert ops, and apparently they're very good at it." She sipped again. "They're also rabidly antisocial homicidal maniacs. They hate people, and only their programming keeps them obeying orders. Scratch that," she amended. "I don't think they're working for IO anymore, maybe not for a long time."
A small sound from her husband drew her eyes that way. "IO ran a huge op sixteen years ago. We were short-handed for it, until the Shop employed a five-member mystery team to fill the gap in the mission profile. They disappeared afterwards; everyone assumed they'd all been killed. It was a raid on a nuke plant."
"That dovetails nicely, doesn't it? I saw the op through the eyes of Two, their second-in-command." She shivered. "An utterly bloodthirsty bitch. She killed a roomful of people in that plant with her bare hands. For fun." She felt Sarah's hands at her shoulder and forehead.
Jack looked at her. "The fancy C3 equipment in your skull makes more sense now. And the disabling of your transponder. Like you said, the only reason would be to hide you from someone who's looking for you."
She puzzled that over. "If the others are out of contact with IO, how would they know I exist?"
"Well, if I were them, I wouldn't assume IO was going to stop building new ones." His manner turned quiet and grave. "Of course, that's not the simplest explanation."
Her attention focused on him, almost as intently as it had on Eddie the day he'd quizzed her about her love life. "Jack?"
"How certain are you that your… vision… was a download?"
"No," she said softly. "My hard drive has a built-in clock, Jack. I can tell you to the microsecond how long I've been online. I'm less than ten years old." That can't possibly be, what you're thinking. I can't be one of them.
"Your hard drive is less than ten years old," Caitlin broke in. "Can you date any of your other components? Any maintenance logs? Maybe estimates based on wear?"
She shivered again. What's wrong? What's happening to me? She executed a file log query: the Alpha file was once again hovering near the top of her queue, waiting for a trigger. As if some part of her was preparing to respond violently to a threat.
"Working on it, hon." She called up telemetry histories, looking for something that showed regular and measurable wear. Certain of her moving parts showed such, but she couldn't tell if the earliest measurements, when she'd first come online, were of new or used parts. "Nothing. I simply can't be sure. I can't tell if I was new out of the box or…" Another set of files opened: a tiny subset of the Alpha file.
"Oh. Oh, my God." Her targeting subroutine carefully monitored the condition of her gun barrels, in order to achieve maximum accuracy with the short tubes. It registered the metal and propellant residues presently in the guns, their temperatures, and the degree of wear on their linings. She had no memory of firing her cannon before their escape from the mall, but the tube showed a small amount of wear, indicative of much more than five rounds' firing. But she had never fired the ten-millimeter in her left arm, and it showed more wear than the cannon.
"Anna. What is it?"
"My chassis is older than my drive." She felt breathless, a ridiculous condition for someone who didn't need to breathe, she thought. "Years older, maybe. And I didn't spend those missing years in a lab." She looked around at her family, gauging the compassion in their faces through blurring vision, and gathered the courage to finish. "I'm your Anna, and I will be till I die. But, I think, before I was Anna, I was Two."
The garage door swung open silently, revealing the Charger waiting in its dark lair. Anna unlocked the doors and slid into the driver's seat. She heard Caitlin coming out of the house as she put her hands on the wheel.
The big redhead moved quickly through the moonlit garden and entered the open bay door. She came to the driver's window. "Where are you going?"
"Nowhere, hon. Honest. I probably won't even start it. I just want... to sit here and think about some things."
"Maybe you shouldn't be alone right now."
Anna looked up into her eyes. "Or maybe I need desperately to be."
Concern filled the girl's face. "You're sure?"
She nodded. "I don't think I'll be out here long."
When Kat re-entered the house, Anna gripped the steering wheel and cast her mind back to their escape from the parking garage, when she'd acquired the skill of high-speed evasive driving. She'd been wound tight, eager to break contact with their pursuers, and impatient to make rendezvous with the rest of her team…
I'm driving a small Mercedes sedan at eighty kilometers per hour down a narrow dirt lane lined with scrubby trees. The road is dry, the weather is clear, and the temperature is twenty-eight degrees Celsius. Eating my dust fifty meters behind me is a six-wheeled truck with a canvas top, filled with armed men. In my mirrors, I can see the driver and another man in the cab; both are talking rapidly. My discriminating software allows me to filter out the road and engine noises, so I can hear their voices clearly, but they're not speaking English. Neither are they in Liberian uniform. I conclude they're part of the rebel force whose presence near my rendezvous point convinced the pilot of my pickup chopper to abort, leaving me scrambling to reach the alternate site while he picks up the rest of my team.
I feel my upper lip curl as I drive, remembering the helicopter swinging away as gunshots sound behind me. Meats. Two's right: their most enduring quality is betrayal. My second and last rendezvous point is still eight kilometers away. If I want to avoid being abandoned again, I'll have to break contact with my pursuers.
The little car is an excellent getaway vehicle: nimble, quick, and sure-footed. Driving in combat mode, I can hear the individual cylinders firing. I know exactly how much additional torque is available from the drive system, the locations of the vehicle's centers of mass and gravity, the suspension load at each corner, and the amount of force needed to break each tire loose. I hear the chuff of a grenade launcher from the truck behind me, and fishtail the car so that the RPG aimed at my back window passes harmlessly over my trunk lid instead. It detonates on the road ahead, raising a fountain of dirt and gouging a long deep scar. My vehicle is small enough to avoid it, but the truck drops three wheels into the hole, bounces handsomely, and nearly tips. The driver stamps on the brakes and corrects frantically, widening the gap between us.
Stretching across the road ahead is a swing-arm gate, decorated with human skulls and guarded by a pair of ragged-looking ten-year-olds armed with Kalashnikovs. Rather than risk damage to the engine, I apply brakes and steering and broadslide into it. The passenger-side window shatters as one of the guards flies over the top of the car to land in the dust behind me. I straighten the vehicle and accelerate again. In my rearview, I see the still form in the road run over by my pursuer's three left wheels. But the event is ninety meters behind me, and that's all that matters: the gap is opening further.
The road rises as it reaches a series of low hills. I zigzag as I climb the slope, to increase traction. The vehicle behind me has no such option, relying instead on its weight, power, and dual-wheeled rear axle to maintain purchase on the slope. The gap widens to one hundred meters. But the rendezvous is five kilometers away.
It's ironic: I've just assassinated a high official of the government the men chasing me are trying to overthrow. I wonder briefly how they would react if they knew. But they only saw a foreigner driving alone in the country, perhaps a spy or a journalist, possibly a good ransom prospect, definitely an outsider whose presence here couldn't go unchallenged. Running from them, and my skill at evading them, has no doubt raised their suspicions and stung their pride and made them desperate to catch me. I'm widening the gap, but not enough to board the helicopter at rendezvous before they reach the LZ. If I can't break contact, I'm going to get dusted off again.
I push the battered little car to the limit of its power and traction, and widen the gap by another ten meters. Then I hear the stutter of several Kalashnikovs from the truck behind me, and 7.62-millimeter bullets thunk into the road all around the car. I hear more punching into the back of the vehicle, probably piercing the fuel tank. A glance into the rearview shows the road surface darkening behind me. I briefly hope the diesel fuel on the road will make it slippery, but the thirsty surface swallows it; the only effect is reduced dust and clearer visibility for my pursuers.
The road curves and dips. The car leaves the road briefly as it crests a hill. At this moment, floating through the air, I feel a distant com signal; my sisters are within line-of-sight. I reestablish gestalt as the tires touch down. From three viewpoints, I see the inside of the pickup chopper. Three looks out a side window, and through her eyes I catch a glimpse of the distant road, and the truck chasing me. From her vantage point, she sees farther down the road than I can; around the next curve, it rises over another hill. Four wrestles the side door open. Two is standing over the pilot's shoulder, watching the man work, hearing and smelling his fear as she leans over him. "Just try to leave her again, meat," she purrs. "I'll tear your arms off when we land."
I return my full attention to my escape. The truck is one hundred twenty meters behind me now, but the fuel gauge is dropping precipitously; I doubt the car will reach the rendezvous point. As I crest the next hill, out of sight of my pursuers, I wrench the wheel over, and the little car slides to a stop, sideways in the road, just over the crest. I get out, stand at the edge of the road with my back against a tree, and wait.
Five seconds later, the truck rushes over the hill. The driver sees the roadblock, but it's too late to stop, and the road is too narrow to avoid it. The prudent reaction would be to move as far over as possible towards the car's rear end and smash the smaller vehicle aside, but he has no time to think it through, poor meat, and his reflexes betray him. He jerks the wheel, hard, and stamps on the brakes. The truck slews and tips, spilling men out the back before it falls on its side and slides into the car.
I have only eleven rounds left in my 10mm magazine, but I still have five in my cannon. I use two of them now, before the truck comes to rest, and the vehicle becomes burning debris scattered all over the hilltop. Six men were ejected from the truck before it was destroyed; one has the presence of mind to run into the trees. The others die as quickly as I can find and target them.
The helicopter stoops over the woods in the direction the last survivor fled. A single shot rings out, which I recognize as a round from one of our concealed 10mm weapons; I decide not to bother pursuing my last man. Then a body tumbles out the side door of the helicopter, screaming as it falls twenty meters to disappear among the trees.
[We decided he didn't deserve a second chance,] Two says. Through her eyes, I see the helicopter's cockpit. Two's hand is on the stick, and I see myself in the road below, my brown hair whipping around amid the rising dust as the chopper descends. [Besides, we didn't need him anymore. I've been watching him.]
There is a small mirror mounted on the dash, for looking back into the rear of the chopper. Two glances into it. It's been knocked askew, presumably by the pilot's struggles, and instead of a view of my other sisters in the passenger compartment, I see the top half of Two's head: cool blue eyes, blonde hair pulled back in a tight cap over her scalp. The corners of the eyes crease as she smiles. [Come on. We have another appointment. One's waiting.]
The helicopter's landing skid drops within reach, and I leap up to catch it. Four, my series-sister, reaches down for me, her long black hair falling down onto my shoulder as she bends over. The chopper rises and turns, headed for…
Anna blinked. Her thoughts returned to the garage. Her hands were still gripping the wheel. It must be like hypnosis. The more often you do it, the easier it gets. "Sarah?"
Caitlin and Sarah stood at the garage door, silhouetted against the light from the back porch. "Are you all right?"
She nodded. "Just remembering. All of IO's little Frankensteins have the same face. Cyber Number Five has brown hair, about bra strap length. Four has black hair, very long and a little wavy like yours, but she has black eyes. Number Two is blonde and blue, big surprise."
She released the wheel and turned her hands, staring at the palms. She started to think of the boy Hale, shuddered, and pushed the memory away. No. I'm not ready to remember where I learned to do that. I may never be. "Are, are you hungry? Would you like me to fix something?"
"What?" Kat's brow furrowed. "It's two in the morn-"
"Yes," Sarah said, looking closely through the windshield at her. "Would you? Anything at all, I'm really hungry. Starving. So's Caitlin." She reached for the door's handle, and it popped open. The interior light came on. "Please."
Anna looked at the girl. "What are you wearing?"