The Last Key (6/10)

“It’s a pathogen,” Jerome exclaimed, back at base, “and it’s going to infect us all unless we leave.”

“No, it won’t,” said Calum. “We just don’t know much about it—once we actually try to sit down and figure out what we’re dealing with, we’ll know what to do.”

“Don’t lock, Calum!” scoffed Jerome. “This isn’t science anymore, it’s survival. It zapped three of us cold, enslaved our droids, and kidnapped Alma—all from a city supposed to be dead! There’s something in there, I tell you, and now that it knows we’re here, we’re in danger.”

“We surely can’t be thinking of leaving Alma behind?” asked Kira.

“What can we do?” despaired Jerome. “Calum was right. We have no idea what we’re dealing with. If we don’t leave now, we might be next!”

The team looked to Calum for guidance, but he stared at the floor, still trembling at Alma’s capture. He had to maintain composure.

“Alma’s dead.” It was Tami. “Well, we’re all thinking it. And even if she isn’t dead yet, well, a billion people tried to survive in Shanghai and couldn’t…”

Jerome said, “We have no idea how to get in, where she is inside, who else in there. Do you really think we’re a match for all of—that?” He waved his hands toward the vague outside.

Calum shook his head. “This isn’t a battle, don’t make it one, Jerome. It’s a problem that needs a solution.”

“We aren’t the ones turning it into a battle.”

“How do you know?” Calum’s voice was low. “There’s somebody, or something, living in that city right now. Whoever it is, they’ve probably been here twenty thousand years without any contact with the Galaxy. Then we come flying in and start scraping at their walls?” Jerome glared at Calum’s implied suggestion that Alma was to blame.

Kira intervened. “Calum, Alma’s gone. She’s gone, but the rest of us are still here. I think… I think the gravity of this situation puts it out of our—out of your—control.”

Calum threw himself to his feet. “I’m not leaving Alma!” He glared from one researcher to another. Jerome stared back defiantly; Tami and Kira turned their faces away. With a shuddering breath, he sank back into his chair. “Alright! Give me something to say to the Commission, at least.”

Another moment’s quiet.

“It spreads through electricity,” offered Jerome. “At least, it felt like electric shock, and it would explain why Alma collapsed so quickly when she touched the metal.”

Tami added, “After the p-droid touched the hover-stretcher with Alma on it, I couldn’t control it anymore. It overrode the p-droid.”

“What I’m getting,” said Jerome, “is that somebody is still inside the city and has developed some method of hacking our technology without needing any more than physical contact.”

“I thought the city’s been dead for millennia?” Kira said. “No traces of organic activity?”

“According to information largely gathered by the Lunar Colony,” clarified Tami. “They’re outsiders—but we’ve never had any cause to doubt them.”

“Bastard Earthwatchers!” muttered Jerome. “Maybe they’re controlling the city remotely. The Galaxy hasn’t paid close attention to Earth or its moon for far too long.”

Calum considered this. He doubted this mystery had to do with Lunar involvement. The Lunar Colony was too small and insular to engage in this kind of project, and even if it had, they would not have acted aggressively toward an expected visit from a Galactic research team. The Lunar Colony had sought Galactic isolation for their entire history, and if they were behind the events of the last few hours, it seemed a pretty surefire way to incur the opposite.

Tami broke in for him. “I don’t feel it’s the Lunar Colony,” she said. “Our tech is pretty advanced—I’m not even sure that the best Galactic roboticists could figure out a way to take over droids like what we’ve just seen, with simple contact. That just doesn’t fit in our understanding of science.”

“Are we sure that this is sentience?” asked Kira.

“Well, it’s not spontaneous—just look at the way the p-droid was converted before actively pushing Alma through a gate that opened and closed just for them.”

Kira continued. “If it’s sentience, then, it must be one of three things: human, which we’ve just ruled out, apparently; some extraterrestrial life that colonized the planet after the Ancients left; or, I suppose, a sentient species that arose in the thirty thousand years since the Departure.”

“Alien life doesn’t fit the bill,” said Calum. “At least, not any alien life we know of within the galaxy—and it would be hard for sentience this advanced to fly under the Commission’s radar.”

“It’s also inconceivable,” said Tami, “for any form of sentience to materialize de novo in thirty thousand years. Humans took about a billion years to emerge, and that’s the generally accepted timeframe.”

“But there was still life on Earth even after the Ancients died,” countered Kira. “Life wasn’t starting over. You’re right—it still seems impossibly short for any sort of sentience to develop, but these were also nonstandard conditions: nuclear residues and the higher levels of radiation on Earth, post-humans, would have increased the frequency of mutation and thus the rate of evolution.”

“This isn’t just sentience, though,” Calum said; “it’s a particularly high level of technological advancement. With impossibly low levels of organic activity. We’re back at square one. I… I’d better go report this to the Commission.” He swiveled and headed toward his quarters.

At the door, he turned and looked at them. “Release the stabilizing bores. Send an order to all our probes still out, if they can’t return then sink them. Be ready to leave Earth.”

Tami, Kira, and Jerome were left in the ship’s central ring.

“We’re safe, right? I mean, that—consciousness, or whatever—has only been able to spread by physical touch?”

“I think so. I hope so. Base is two thousand kilometers away from Alma’s ship.”

“Maybe it’s just a residual computer program left by Shanghai’s occupants? Still carrying out its base directives? City defense or something?”

“Doesn’t explain the moss.”

“The moss is insulation. This consciousness—artificial intelligence, call it—functions with strong electric pulses through the city walls, right?”


“Well, if it’s strong enough, a few hundred thousand volts maybe—it would ionize the air, effectively short-circuiting itself.”

“Unless the moss is there, protecting it. So what does it get in return?”

“Energy? Plant life could have adapted to use electrical energy, right?”

“Would explain how dark it is. No longer needs much chlorophyll. Must have some insulating agent instead.”

“But this level of electronic intelligence? Could someone program that, Jerome?”

Jerome shook his head, “A singularity, maybe. A program constantly improving itself, the kind the Galactic Commission outlawed after—after Alpha Centauri. Alma would know better.”

Until now Jerome had been too frightened at the unknown menace—they’d all been—to fully process Alma’s disappearance, but as he initiated the bores-up sequence and the return-or-destroy order for the probes, the crushing reality of losing Alma for good began closing in over him. Alma was a protégé, a friend, and in her own creative, impulsive way. She was a reminder of Jerome himself, from his younger days of scientific exploration. Her intuition was exceptional; she was the best and finding things that weren’t quite right, where they could be improved, and she had that rare spark for pulling out the unexpected—

The comm-panel behind him buzzed and he spun in his chair to face it. “It’s a signal request from Alma’s ship!”

“It’s the consciousness! Reject it. Shut if off!” cried Tami. “If it electrically establishes contact, invades our base, we’re done for!”

“What if it’s Alma?” asked Kira.

“We can check,” said Jerome, beginning to pull up the feeds from the ship that was still grounded by Shanghai. He had barely done so before they flickered and disappeared.

“You have to reject it,” repeated Tami. “We’re being invaded. Full emergency reboot, if you can!”

“But if it’s Alma?” said Kira again. “She might be in deep trouble—”

The priority signal on the call increased: Important—Urgent! Jerome, pale with fear, turned to his two teammates imploringly.