She was a young woman, with a wry smile that might have been teasing on a crueler face. Pretty features, but not remarkably so—the kind of face that put you instantly at ease.
The only problem was, Holden wasn’t sure if she was even there. The control room he’d been led to looked as if it hadn’t been occupied in centuries. When the young woman moved, Holden caught glimpses of dust motes floating around her and through her, like a flashlight beam shone through a dusty attic doorway.
Her smile turned serious. “We need to talk.”
“Who are you?” he asked.
“Where are you?” He gestured at the walls of screens around him. “I mean, you’re not in the room with me. This is some kind of hologram, right?”
The young woman, Arcadia, offered him a self-conscious shrug. “Literally speaking, I suppose I’m not in the room with you, no. It’s more that I am the room. And this tower. I’m this city’s central artificial intelligence, and you’re more or less standing in my brain.”
Even though he knew she was speaking figuratively, Holden shifted his feet uncomfortably.
Perhaps he should have been shocked, perhaps he should have run screaming, but he’d known when he’d followed that tiny wisp of light and gotten into the car without a driver that he was in for something unexpected.
A central computer running a city, keeping the lights on long after the people were gone? Fine. He could handle that, as long as he got what he was looking for.
He stepped closer. “I want answers.”
“Ask me questions.”
“Why are we here?”
Arcadia cocked her head. “To rest and recuperate.”
Holden didn’t like her sudden switch to speaking literally. It felt put on, like a game she was playing. “I was driving in a car . . . with a girl. A passing truck veered into our lane and—” He paused. The memory of that night stuck in his throat like a pit: Seyah smiling, wiping the smear of glitter paint off his neck. The small lie that started it all. “Then I woke up in space surrounded by those things, the caretakers. Why?”
“You were plucked from your place in the timeline and brought into this time. To you, it’s the far future.”
“One thousand years. As best as I can figure it.”
“As best as you can figure it. You mean you’re not responsible?”
“No. The caretakers were responsible for that. A small group of them, at least.”
“Because that’s what they were programmed to do.” Arcadia held up her hands as Holden started to interrupt. “We can keep talking, but I need you to do something for me first. I reached out to you alone because I’ve been watching you, Holden. Out of everyone, I knew you would be the most open to hearing what I have to say. But it’s not without consequences. Real consequences that will affect every one of you.”
For a moment, Arcadia flickered. There was static, then a jumble of images too brief to identify, like a TV channel switched over and then quickly back again. But whatever had happened, it passed, and she smiled again. “Those consequences will affect me, too. So before we talk any further, I want you to do something, please. I need you to bring someone to see me. She’ll never come on her own. And I really need to talk to the two of you together.”
“Hello, Holden? Out of the blue, that’s what it said?” Inez cocked her head to the side in her best you’re shitting me pose.
Inez. Why the fuck did the city want to talk to Inez?
Holden tried to not let his annoyance show. “Yeah, that’s what she said and not much else. Except she wants to talk to both of us about something important. Just you and me.”
Hyrum glanced around. “Wait, the city’s a she?”
“Cool,” said May.
“Totally not cool.” Loki looked up from cleaning his gun-thingy. He’d stationed himself in one of the windows so he could keep an eye on all the exits. They’d gathered together in the lobby of one of the hotels downtown. It had been designed like a classical atrium, and the tall windows and marble arches gave it a Roman-senate feel. The hotel was definitely one of the better-preserved structures, almost perfectly intact. They’d wondered about that—how the heart of the city could be in such good condition when all the people were long gone. Now they knew.
“You guys do realize this means we are basically living inside a giant AI?” said Loki. “Like a caretaker? Could be watching everything we do, planning with those other bots outside for the best time to wipe us all out.”
“I don’t see any cameras around,” said Hyrum.
“Yeah? Check the vents the next time you’re taking a piss.”
Hyrum’s cheeks blushed red as he crossed his legs.
The news that they were all living inside a sentient city had left them all shaken—and as far as Holden was concerned, that was a good thing. They’d become way too complacent in way too short a time. Soon their most pressing concerns would go from “What do we do about those caretakers outside?” to “Why does he get first pick of the penthouse suites...