Ava’s kiss carried a virus. Not anything like the common cold or influenza, but a digital virus, that leapt from her lips to his. He knew it should be outrageous, like something out of science fiction, but he could already feel it worming its way into his personal network of data, squirming around and changing things. Making his glasses show him things. Making his Aarm pulsate with activity. Making him look at the city lights under the thick haze of smog and, see them whirl around, and making him vomit again. not from the caffeine, but from the nausea at seeing everything at once.
She didn’t kiss him that time. Instead, she passed him a water bottle and a mint. “Relax; It’ll wear off when the virus fully takes over.”
“And why did I agree to this again?” he asked, head swimming with the combination of recent events.
“Because you’re our mole.” She smiled sweetly and clapped his shoulder. He wheezed, shook his head, shrugged her off. He needed time to think. There was a bit of anxiety about the situation that was at odds with her serene, bemused expression. Said expression turned sour. “So Nask, what else was in your stomach?”
“A whole night of cold water was in.”
“The caffeine stopped working.”
“And you discovered this… when?”
“Around the second gram or so.”
A sharp intake of air. “It’s a wonder that you’re not in worse shape.”
“I have been. I’ll be okay.”
“And you bought more caffeine, because…”
Nask scowled. “I’m not stupid. It’s for tomorrow, or thereabouts.”
The woman shook her head and tapped on her own Aarm; it flickered to life, and she opened a connection to Matther, her boss she’d mentioned. Meanwhile, Nask languished on the railing, cursing his stupidity and wishing he would get better sooner. He could always screw himself up, but fixing the effects was the harder part.
The connection finalized. “Matther is speaking.”
“It’s Avaleon. I have the kid.”
“Did you pass the virus?”
“Good.” Ava could hear him chuckling softly to himself. It was meant to be appreciative, and yet came off as ominous. “How is he managing?”
“He was already smashed when I found him, so it isn’t like he could get much worse.”
“Caffeine, at the least. He’s too young to drink.”
Matther sighed in relief. “That is good. When he can walk again, get him to your base. He can be trusted enough to have a more in-depth explanation.”
“Right; if he didn’t, we wouldn’t have to go through this trouble, right?”
“Come on, Ava, being flippant is not your thing; my words are circular enough without you. Take care.”
“…Right.” Ava rolled her eyes and pulled her hand from her face; the lowering of her Aarm, plus a finger movement, signaled the end of the call. She glanced at Nask, who was slumped on the pavement, nursing his shake. “Ready?”
“For what? Am I supposed to follow you home or something?” He wanted to retch, but his stomach was empty. It hurt.
“Well, you are. You made an agreement, you know.”
“And what’s stopping me from bolting right now?”
“Your wonderful sense of duty, right?” She grinned; he grimaced. How did she know about that? “Come on. You look well enough to walk.”
“And if I’m not?” Nask wasn’t joking; his head still throbbed painfully.
Avaleon sighed and produced a short, stocky cylinder from her night-pack. “If you aren’t, I press this to your neck, a sedative hits your brain, and I carry you to my motorcycle. Seeing as you, in your sedated state, wouldn’t be able to hold on, you’d probably fall off along the way and bang yourself up further. That’ll probably happen a few times.”
“I hate you.” He seethed under her bemused gaze with the realization that there was but one way out of his current situation.
A shrug. “You don’t know me. So what’s it gonna be?” She extended a gloved hand, as if repeating their meeting in the diner.
He took it again.
“Oh, and I’m not Molly, so don’t get any ideas.”
He followed her, as they circled back past the diner, past Shiannon’s, then up the road to a nearly empty parking lot. It would be full in a few hours, thanks to the active club district. Meanwhile, Ava was pulling her car door shut, with Nask stepping in beside her. She passed her hand over the wheel. The car read the chip inside and the dashboard flashed, then poured open. Light streamed over their faces from the various displays that filled the front, and then leveled off as Ava spoke to them. Apologetically, she shrugged her shoulders, and pulled out of the lot. A sound like gravel shifted around them, to protect anyone who couldn’t see the silent car. Once they hit the highway, the sound disappeared, replaced by the gentle whoosh of wind on metal and occasional whumps of expansion joints under tires. It was almost enough to ease Nask’s tension. Almost.
The drive to her base, as Matther called it, was mundane for Ava, but something like fun for Nask. He lived in the city, and rarely traveled far from it. Seeing the construction automatons on the edges of the industrial district, somewhat hidden by the smog, still set a sense of wonder off in his heart. When he really thought about it, the work was nothing short of marvelous: so many machines working towards a common goal, all controlled — no, influenced by — a common, central authority, but making independent decisions in real time. They weren’t alive, in the sense that they had sapience, but they sure did seem to be. They moved like people, with direction, and moved like robots, with precision. The best of both worlds, some said, but the majority felt they were more uncanny than anything.
It was probably fear, Nask mused. They’re afraid of something more powerful than themselves. Nask didn’t fear the machines. He loved them. He thought the world had gone too long without them. Yeah, but you’re too young to remember when they first came out, some said. It’s not like you know a time before them.
That much was true; Nask had grown up around them, so they were a part of life for him, if a little curious. He did feel, though, that if anything better came along, something more than just a patch or upgrade, he wouldn’t be afraid. He’d embrace the future with open arms. Or, at least, that’s how he felt.
He was jolted from his thoughts when Ava’s car jerked to a stop. They had arrived, at her base, in all it’s run-down glory. He had a moment to get his bearings, see how the combination of buildings fell into each other and built on each other like a miniature piece of the Growth. And then, he was extracted from the car by massive hands, carried inside, dropped into a hammock. Eyes adjusting to the bright lights, head reeling from the multiple changes in direction.
“This is him, right?” asked the tall, tall figure that had held him so easily. “He looked better on the screens.”
“Right. Everything looks better on screens.” Ava lightly shoved away Matther, who moved entirely of his own accord, and addressed her partner. “Nask!” He jumped. “This is Matther, my boss. And, effective immediately, yours, too. Welcome to the FilterNines.”
Nask looked between the two of them. Short, lithe Ava, and tall, wall-like Matther. “Just the two of you?”
“Of course not,” replied Matther. “We have more… operatives around the city. You will be meeting them later. But really, what were you expecting? A classroom full of men in dark suits?”
That was exactly what Nask was expecting, but he wasn’t going to say that.
Matther sensed it anyway, laughed, then clapped him on the same shoulder as Ava had before. “Relax, I will get you something for your head. Sit, and let Ava explain it all to you. Although, seeing as how active you are on the net, you probably know more about us then she does.”
Again, that sense that unease… except now, Nask knew where it was coming from. It felt like these people knew more about him than was necessary. It was like they had been watching him, or something. No, they had been, that much was certain. What Nask was dying to know, was for how long. If they knew about the work he was in, then probably knew about that project of his…
Ava pulled a plank from the wall, then unfolded it into a chair. She whirled it around, sat in it, its back to her front, and sighed deeply. “Well, Nask, we have a lot to talk about. A lot. So, where should I begin?”
It took him a moment to realize that the question wasn’t hypothetical. She had a way of making him pause like that, involuntarily and ashamedly. She also seemed to enjoy it. “Any kid with an Aarm, no, a laptop, knows how to transmit data. And there are scientists way smarter than me who know about biomemetics and this virus-making of yours. What do you really need me for? What do you really need my help with?”
“Loaded question,” called Matther from somewhere in the recesses of the house.
Ava rolled here eyes again. “I wasn’t lying about the data movement. Or the viruses. For that, I need your approach, not your knowledge. So, technically, that’s what we need you for, because my research benefits the rest of the FilterNines.”
Ava grinned. “Ah, so you do pick up on those kinds of things. Excellent. To be more straightforward, we need someone who works directly for one of the Big Four. You see where I’m going with this, right?” At his blank stare, Ava rolled her eyes. “Come on, Nask. Imagine that the real world really is a spy movie. Where does that put you?”
It hit him, then. And he almost laughed out loud. “You need a mole,” he said.
“No, we have a mole. And that mole is you.”