By Patrick M. Fitzgerald
“What happened to this world?” Jake whispered, peering through the gateway.
Lila pulled a gizmo from her pack and stepped through. “That’s what we’re here to find out.”
Jake followed hesitantly, clutching his tranq gun. “It looks so… normal.”
Lila shot him a quizzical look. “Every world looks normal, more or less. Different circumstances, different choices, but it’s basically the same Earth.”
“I mean, it’s…” Jake spread his arms to indicate the city. “Intact.”
“Yeah.” Lila nodded slowly. “I noticed. It’s also quiet.”
Jake almost said it was too quiet. It was the obvious response. That didn’t really fit, though. There were sounds. Birds, insects, even the occasional rustling rodent.
There just weren’t any human sounds.
Jake peeked over Lila’s shoulder. “You getting anything?”
“Nothing.” Lila sighed and snapped her device shut. “If there’s any modern technology here, it’s all powered down.”
“We can always go low-tech.”
Lila glanced at him. “I don’t have anything lower tech than this.”
Jake pointed at his eyes. “I mean these things.”
She stared at her gadget a moment before putting it away. “I guess that’s an option.”
Under the overcast fall sky, the deceptively familiar shops and apartments of Chicago made the empty streets all the more disconcerting. “My home’s a few blocks from here in my world. Maybe there’s another Jake who could help us?”
“Nexus Corp policy discourages fraternizing with your conjugates.” She smirked at him. “Besides, I don’t think I could handle two of you.”
“I just think it’d be interesting to meet another version of myself.”
“Interesting, yes.” She grimaced as she met his eyes. “But it can be a little disconcerting to find out what you’d do under different circumstances.”
“Wait, is that a fire?” Jake pointed at a plume rising in the distance. From farther away, it must have been masked by the clouds.
“Looks more industrial than accidental.” Lila picked up her pace. “It means something’s there, though.”
“There was a hospital up there on my world.”
“Same on mine. It’s where I worked before joining Nexus.”
Jake stopped in his tracks when the building came into view. “That’s… not a hospital.”
“Not unless they have a very different understanding of healthcare here.”
The building—if it could be called that—stretched 20 floors up and filled the city block. More accurately, it resembled an antique computer. Pistons chugged, gears turned, and cascading lights flashed throughout. Massive cables extended into the adjacent buildings.
Jake glanced behind them. Now that he had seen these, he noticed that all the buildings were connected by similar cables, as though the whole city formed a network with this contraption as its hub.
Lila whistled appreciatively. “That’s certainly innovative.”
“This thing’s a computer, right?” Jake pointed to her pack. “Can you plug in to it?”
Lila raised an eyebrow and took out her scanner. After jabbing a few buttons, she shook her head. “It doesn’t even register as electronic. We’ll need to get inside.”
The closest thing to a door was a maintenance hatch along the side. The corridor headed straight for the center: a staircase extending downward.
Jake clicked on a flashlight and headed down, weaving carefully around the exposed machinery.
Lila followed close behind. As they delved deeper, the hum of machinery intensified. Eventually, the light brightened enough for Jake to put his flashlight away.
Over a dozen floors down, the stairs ended at a smaller hatch, barely large enough to crawl through. A rhythmic pulse echoed from within.
“That’s an air compressor.” Lila frowned and drew her tranq gun. “Wait here.”
She slipped into the chamber. Only a few seconds passed before she backed out. She turned slowly to Jake, her face drained of color.
“Is it safe?”
Lila nodded, not making eye contact. “Yeah, but you should talk to her.”
Jake crept inside. An array of tubes and wires connected the machinery to a woman suspended in the middle of the room. Her bloodshot gray eyes watched him above a steel breathing mask. She was so emaciated and pale, it took a moment for him to recognize her as Lila’s conjugate.
Jake’s voice came out in a ragged whisper. “Lila…?”
As though he’d said the magic word, the hum of the room intensified. Speakers in the walls crackled. “Lila 3.0 is active.” The mechanical voice had an eerily familiar sound to it.
“Good to meet you. I’m Jake Mercer.”
Rapid ticking echoed in the walls. “Jake Mercer is an invalid designation. That model was not successfully upgraded beyond 2.0.”
Jake’s brain did some ticking itself. Does that mean my local conjugate wasn’t upgraded, or… “Clarify Jake Mercer’s status.”
“Jake Mercer was discontinued due to upgrade errors.”
He winced. Guess I won’t be meeting another Jake here, after all. “How many people had ‘upgrade errors’?”
The speakers fell silent for a moment. Probably a very long moment for a computer. “Lila Sullivan was the only successful upgrade. All other models have been discontinued.”
Jake stared at her withered form. Was she really all that was left of humanity in this reality? How long could she survive like this without outside maintenance? The Lila he knew was definitely a technophile, but it was hard to imagine her going to this extreme, with barely a distinction between her organic and mechanical components. “Are you okay?”
“Lila 3.0 is fully functional.”
“I’m sure you are, but… do you need anything?”
“This upgrade is designed to be self-sustaining.”
“I’m glad to hear that, but what about company?”
Clicking echoed through the room as the machines slowed to their earlier pace. “Lila 3.0 is self-sustaining,” she said as the speakers cut off.
Jake found his squadmate on the stairs, dutifully taking notes with a blank expression. “Is that enough recon?”
“For now.” Lila put her tablet away and rubbed her eyes. “We should head back.”
Jake gave her a hand up. “Do you need anything?”
Lila glanced back as they climbed the stairs. “I could use some company.”