"Yeah, Dobe," I replied. "Start it up."
The portable generator chugged hollowly for a moment before finally rumbling into life, a brief green flicker from the computer bank announcing its success. A curl of exhaust issued forth, and to my nose seemed to fill the whole office block with its petroleum stench. Even this, however, was nothing compared to the sensation that accompanied it; subtle, but far more potent.
The computer had not been switched on for some time, and a number of scheduled tasks had accumulated. In my mind's eye, I perceived them, though the screen lay cracked and broken on the floor: toppled, no doubt, during the evacuation all those years ago. Nevertheless, though mute, though silent, the computer spoke, and I listened. Almost imperceptible beneath the heady drone of data streaming through the air, I could feel a faint whirr from within my ribcage and a dull warmth from the cable running up through my neck. The machine had begun its work even before I had.
"Anything?" Dobe asked.
"Not yet. It's just running maintenance at the moment. It'd take me twice as long to force a skip."
Dobe wandered over to the window, peering out into the street below. The generator was awfully loud, and would be sure to attract the attention of anybody nearby. It must have been calm outside, because Dobe spoke again.
"Grey?" she asked. "What's it like to be custom-made?"
It was not the first time she'd asked that question. It wasn't even the first time since the incident in the warehouse: she had been repeating herself a lot. Kevin and I hoped that it would pass when the neural packing finished knitting itself into place. Then again, for someone who'd been technically dead only a month ago, she was hardly doing badly. "Honestly?" I said, dragging my attention away from the computer's chatter for a moment. "It's not that great. Sure, I skipped all the controls and conditioning the company put you through, but because of that they'll never let me into their buildings. And look at me!" I lifted a scrawny arm, a quartet of thumbs where my fingers should have been. "Kevin's an alright guy, but he's..." just some punk with a gene lab? I looked up at Dobe, the thick clawed hands, the reinforced skull and its mouthful of teeth. Would a gentle insult be taken as a threat? It was not a risk I wanted to take. "Kevin's specialism is cybernetics," I finished, meekly. "The people who made you, they were experts."
Neither of us said anything for a while, but the noise of the generator persisted. The computer having finished its start-up routine, I began to sift through files. There were a few financial reports that might help us recover useful stock, but beyond that, nothing. Five-hundred exabytes of information and none of it relevant to the company's research. Most was just security footage.
"Alright," I said. "Let's double-check there isn't anything on paper and..." I felt the satellite connection in my chest before the signal was fed to my brain. This had never happened before, and yet, thanks to Kevin's forethought, I had no doubt as to what was happening.
"Kill the generator!" I hissed, though there was nobody but Dobe to hear it. In an instant, she had crossed the room and flicked the switch. The void left by the engine noise was intense: the void left by the sudden loss of power to the computer even more so.
"What is it?"
"There is a company employee within a hundred metres of us."
"How can you tell?"
"GPS implant. You've got one too." The satellite had begun to relay information from the company database, and its memory began to infiltrate my own. "Her name is Emma Chilcott. Her assignment began six years ago, but she hasn't uploaded any work for a few months. The last update reported that her bodyguard was..." though it had slipped into my mind quite calmly, I could not pass on the information with the same indifference. "Her bodyguard was decommissioned: the result of a deadfall trap. No replacement was sent. She..." what came next, I knew I could not tell Dobe, so I picked something from her profile. "She was originally stationed thirty miles West of our designated zone." I looked up at Dobe, not sure what she would make of even this much information.
"We were supposed to spread out," she said, after a pause.
"Keep your voice down," I pleaded, "please!" Though the GPS data was still leaching into my brain, though it told me that Emma was still seventy-two metres away, that very connection made it feel as though she was with us in that room. Wetware had never been meant to deal with sights out of sight or sounds out of earshot.
"Nobody is supposed to leave their area!" Dobe whispered, striding over to the window. "She must have had a good reason to come this far. Something must be wrong."
"Let's not assume things that we..."
"She would hardly have come all this way if things were going well."
"Please let's just go!" The numbers in my head were counting down. I could guess from the satellite that Emma would soon be on the road beneath the window. There was no telling what Dobe would do then.
"Are you thinking straight? We have to help her! Where is she now?"
I sat and waited. Dobe stood by the window, a hand resting on the pistol in her belt. Emma was close, now. Close enough to be seen, depending on the layout of the streets outside, though Dobe's inaction suggested that I still had a minute.
"Dobe?" I asked, gently. "Do you really think she could have made it all this way alone?"
"I sure hope so. The alternatives aren't...quiet!" She shrank back behind the window frame and drew the pistol.
I approached as quietly as I could.
"There are Purists out there," Dobe whispered. "She's been captured."
"She hasn't, Dobe." Though I would never be able to stop her from using the pistol, I closed a hand over her wrist just in case. "She defected. She's joined them."
For a moment, Dobe simply stared at me, her eyes bright and hollow in the dim window's light. "That's impossible," she muttered, finally. "They'd never take one of us."
"Not us, no. But Emmaand Kevin, for that matterthey aren't like us. They're legally human. One extra gene tagged onto a chromosome? Even if the Purists know, they probably don't care. 'Hate the sin, love the sinner.' We're monsters to them, Dobe, but she's just a convert."
I heard a ripple of laughter from a way down the street outside, and a few scraps of the Purists' chatter. There was a voice amongst them that might have been Emma's.
"What are you going to do?" I asked.
"What the situation demands." Dobe tugged my hand away effortlessly. "She knows too much."
I didn't bother trying to fight back. I wouldn't have been able to, and the noise would have done us no favours. Between the signal from the GPS and the noise from outside, I could guess even Emma's position within the group. Soon, she would pass just beneath the window.
"Dobe," I said, quickly. "Kevin's on his own now. We left him back at the lab, remember?"
"For now, yes. But look how many there are out there. If you shoot, there's a good chance they'll kill you."
"It'll be worthwhile."
"And Kevin will be stuck out here alone just like she was. How long do you think it would be before he joined them too?"
I was half relieved to see Dobe turn away from the window, half terrified to see her advance on me. Wordlessly, she grabbed the sleeve of my shirt and lifted me through the doorway, further into the office block. Once out into the corridor, she lowered me to the groundcrouching herselfbut did not let go.
"Do you really think he would do that?" she asked, quietly.
I hesitated for a moment. To question Kevin's loyalty would bring into question my own. As an employee, I would not have had to worry about this, but as a mere asset the consequences could be fatal. "If he were left without support," I said, carefully, "I think he might."
Immediately, Dobe stood. Involuntarily, I raised a hand to protect my face: with the group on the road outside, she would not risk the noise of the gun. It would not be that quick.
But to my surprise and horror, Dobe merely returned to the room.
"Wait!" I hissed, as loudly as I dared. "What are you doing?" Scrambling to my feet, I darted after her. As I passed through the doorway, the portable generator nearly knocked me to the ground.
"Picking up our stuff," Dobe replied, slipping the straps over her shoulders. "We're heading back."
As we hurried down the stairwell, I said nothing, afraid that it would give Dobe some reason to change her mind, but she spoke first.
"I still feel like I should do it," she said, "but there's no good reason besides company orders. She's had long enough to tell them what they want to know. Killing her now would be a pointless risk."
"Right. Let's just focus on getting back in one piece this time." I smiled, but Dobe was clearly not in the mood for humour. She stopped between staircases.
"I know you tried to protect that employee," she said. "Don't. If I can retire her without endangering Kevin or company property, I will."
That was the other problem with being custom-made, I considered. I did not belong to the company: I belonged to Kevin.