The Perion Spire glinted in the mid-morning sun. For a week now, the weather in the remote desert of Southern California had been cool and sunny, almost to the point of being enjoyable. In response, there had been a rash of impromptu stay-cations among the rank and file of Perion Synthetics; you could practically smell the burning of PTO from all corners of the city. While this had led to more pedestrian traffic on the streets, it had turned the Spire itself into a ghost town.
For Conner Overton, this was a welcome side effect. He didn’t have to fight the crowds in the main atrium of the Spire, nor crowd into the elevators and smell a dozen different types of colognes and perfumes as he rode up to his office the forty-eighth floor. He didn’t have to greet anyone on his walk to his office; even the floor secretary had been gone since Tuesday.
There was still a small bustle in the office: a few senior coders, the muted bass thump of techno-slop, and of course, the synthetic staff. Synnies were unavoidable in Perion City, and they never took vacations. They kept right on cleaning the offices, emptying the trash cans, and more or less submitting to whatever whim an organic human might throw at them.
There had been a time when some people looked on synnies as near-equals, as recently as a year before, but after the Collapse, after the recall, their psuedo-AI had been dialed back, leaving them capable of only the most menial jobs.
Conner stepped into his office and dropped his bag onto the desk. The curved window on the far side of the room was catching the sun; it had dimmed automatically to a soft gray that turned the desert landscape even more alien. His workstation chimed and came alive as he sat down in the room’s lone chair. Having only one place to sit discouraged visitors from staying too long, something Conner had learned early in his career.
A few pop-up notifications cluttered his main view, but he clicked them away with his mouse. They were just reminders for the multitude of meetings he had seemingly every day. Normally, he would leave them up, off to the side where he could watch the timers count down, showing him exactly when he needed to leave his desk to reach some remote conference room somewhere in the Spire. This week, however, most of the meetings had been informally canceled, which meant he could finally have a full day to concentrate on the task at hand.
The screen filled with multi-colored code on a black background. The syntax highlighting let him easily pick out variables, function names, and operators. Next to each line was either a blue circle or empty space indicating whether he had reviewed that line or not. Currently, he was on line 1,902 of some class file; he couldn’t immediately recall the name of it, only that it was one of thousands of class files making up just a minuscule part of a pseudo-AI.
That had been his job for the last year: review the code and figure out why every synthetic in Perion City had suddenly lost its mind, first at the death of James Perion, and second at the behest of Savannah Kessler. The process itself was mind-numbing, but a synny kept bringing him coffee and there were free sugary snacks in the break room, so overall it wasn’t a bad gig. Conner longed to work on something new again, but now was hardly the time to make waves.
Joseph Perion had been at the helm of the company for a little more than a year, and in that time, nearly two thousand employees had jumped ship. They were mostly from two ends of the spectrum, either entry-level noobs who couldn’t handle a little crisis, or hat-in-the-ring executive types who knew it would be their asses on the line when the Spire came crashing down.
For everyone else, it was just a job. The office was just where Conner went during the day before coming back home to his wife and two kids. The youngest, a boy name Curtis, had just started first grade at PC-2 on the north side of the city. Like all schools in Perion City, PC-2 had an unlimited budget, and after decommissioning dozens of synny teachers, had plucked the best and brightest educators from all over the country.
Conner glanced at the framed photo beside his terminal screen. Elizabeth worked in the legal department down on the fifteenth floor—her group nearly rivaled the engineering team—and had a nice, cozy office with a big desk and a pack-and-play where Curtis used to spend his mornings. His daughter, Etta, was currently in the third grade, had long blonde hair like her mother, and had no interest whatsoever in the professions of either of her parents. She mostly played immersive world-building games in Perion VR all day.
He was just about to start reading code when a meeting invite popped up on his screen, sent by a name he didn’t recognize: Jamie Levin. He almost dismissed it, thinking it to be spam, but realized if it were, it wouldn’t have come in through the company Exchange server. When he clicked the Open button, the invite filled the screen.
The subject was a terse but evocative Emergency Meeting, and the required attendees were listed as Conner Overton, Charles Huber, Dominic Franco, and Jamie Levin. The body of the invite read: Joseph Perion requests your attendance to discuss development at NTX installation. It was signed Jamie Levin, Assistant to Mr. Perion.
Conner looked over the invite again just to make sure he was reading everything correctly. Charles Huber—usually known as Chuck—was the lead architect for all synthetic projects at Perion Synthetics. Chief Franco led security in the city, and was responsible for keeping the bad people out. The body text didn’t make much sense. Development? Did they have a new coding project for him to take over? As a senior developer, he was one of the most qualified to helm new R&D. And what was the NTX installation? He’d never heard of NTX or how it was supposed to be installed.
The meeting was to be held on the —number—floor of the Spire, and the timer that usually counted down to when he needed to leave to make the appointment had already expired. Its sextuple zeroes flashed in alarm.
Conner hit the half-moon icon on his keyboard and put his computer to sleep. He finished off his cup of coffee in one long gulp. In the hallway, someone called to him as he passed, but he didn’t stop to talk. Big J had summoned him to the highest levels of the Spire, and when you got a call like that, you didn’t dally for idle chit-chat.
He looked longingly at the restrooms as he hurried down the hall to the elevator. The car accelerated skyward, and every vibration seemed to climb his legs and settle in his bladder. Why had he had so much coffee? Now he was going to look nervous and fidgety in front of Big J. Maybe there was a bathroom on —number—.
The doors opened into a reception area, and a bright-eyed guy with long brown hair pulled back into a bun looked up and smiled.
“Mr. Overton? They’re waiting for you in Mr. Perion’s conference room.” He stood and came around the desk. “If you’ll follow me…”
Conner glanced at the door to the right. Gold letters on dark hardwood spelled out the word RESTROOM. He gestured to the door. “Do I have time for a pit stop?”
“Not really,” said the receptionist, offering a weak smile. “This way, please.”
Conner followed him down a hall to the left and through a tall set of double doors. The conference room took up almost a quarter of the floor’s footprint, though this high up in the Spire, the total area wasn’t that impressive. It was big enough, however, for a large oak table and about a dozen high-backed chairs. To the right, in an alcove no bigger than his own office, were two sofas and two standalone chairs.
Chief Franco sat alone in one of the chairs with one leg crossed over the other. He’d shed his usual black sport coat with the Perion City Security logo on it. His white button-up was impeccably pressed.
On one of the couches, a frazzled and sour-faced Chuck Huber sat scratching his chin. His lab coat was stained with errant strokes from dry-erase markers. Next to him was the man himself, Joseph Perion, CEO and son of the company’s founder, James Kirkland Perion.
“Mr. Overton,” said Joe, without getting up, “thank you for coming so quickly.” He gestured to the empty chair. “Please, have a seat. We were just getting settled.”
“Thank you for inviting me,” said Conner. “How can I help?”
Chuck spoke first. “How much do you know about PSOS upgrades?”
“In general terms? I’m familiar with the process. There’s been some changes since last year. I know we can’t really do over-the-wire upgrades anymore.”
“That’s correct,” said Chuck. “We disabled remote upgrades for every synthetic in the city. Right now we’re doing updates on an ad-hoc basis when the synnies are hardwired into the network. Nothing over the air, nothing for people or a hacker to intercept and exploit.”
Had they really called him all the way up to —number— for a refresher on how upgrades worked? His bladder protested by sending a dull ache up into his stomach.
“Got it,” said Conner. “So what’s the issue?”
Joe gestured to Chief Franco. The law man grimaced, as if the explanation tasted foul coming out.
“They shut down upgrades for all the synthetics in the city. Not all of our synthetics are in the city.”
Conner shook his head, looked to Joe for confirmation. “That’s impossible. What about the Deadline? I didn’t think any synthetics were allowed to leave the city? Did they escape during the…” He trailed off, unsure if the topic was still sore for the CEO.
Joe waved his hand dismissively. “No, all of our inventory was rounded up within twenty-four hours of the breach. We only know of two prototype synthetics that managed to slip past. We tried to reacquire them but… that effort is still ongoing. No, what we’re talking about is a second, smaller deployment of synthetic humans, numbering around 75 units.”
“I always said it was a bad idea,” said Chuck, “but your father was so adamant about helping his so-called friends.”
“Did something happen?” I asked. “Something… bad?”
Chief Franco huffed, chuckled.
“Officially?” asked Joe, “No. I put in a call to NTX and spoke with Richard Lesner, an old friend of my father’s. He said everything was fine, but I don’t know the guy well enough to smell his bullshit. According to him, everything is five-by-five in NTX.”
Conner draped one of his legs over the other. He really had to go. Impatience slipped into his voice. “So what’s the problem?”
Joe lifted an eyebrow, looked to Chuck.
“The problem, Mr. Overton, is this.” He reached for a palette he had stashed between his leg and the arm of the couch. He unlocked it with his fingerprint and handed it over to Conner.
The text on the screen looked like garbage.
“What am I looking at?” he asked.
“Garbage,” said Chuck. “Or so we thought at first. It’s actually an encrypted message.”
“Not a who,” said Chuck. “A what. This is from a synthetic at the NTX installation. The synthetics there are still getting over-the-wire updates, and when we pushed a patch late last night, we got this in return. Normally, it’s just a boolean coming back, one or zero, pass or fail. Instead, we got this. Hit the button there at the bottom to run decryption on it.”
Conner tapped the button; the text morphed into words.
“All dead?” he asked. “What does that mean?”
“Well,” said Chuck, “it could mean that all of the human inhabitants of NTX are dead. But since Joe spoke to one of the residents this morning, that’s probably not the case.”
“More likely, one of the units is malfunctioning,” said Franco. “And if that’s the case, we have to be ready for another Collapse. It would be on a smaller scale, but it would be a hundred times more public.”
“We’ve already lost so much of the public’s trust,” said Joe. “If something happens in NTX, we’ll be done. That’s it. We’d have to go military to save the company and we’d lose all of our best people.”
“We’re not going military,” said Chuck. “We can handle a single malfunctioning synthetic without calling in the calvary.”
“So who are we calling?” asked Conner.
“We called you,” said Joe. “We need you to go to NTX and figure out what the problem is with this particular synthetic. If it’s malfunctioning, factory reset it to clear the problem. If that doesn’t work, bring it home so we can take a look at it.”
Conner shook his head, shifted in the chair. “I don’t do on-sites.”
“You do now,” said Franco.
Joe gestured to the Chief. “Alright, Dom. Relax. He’s not some augmented cyber stalker; he’s just a developer.” Then to Conner. “Look, I understand completely. We didn’t hire you to do on-sites. I know how it is with some people, preferring to stay holed up at home or in a single city, not wanting to go beyond the borders of their comfort zone. I’m not judging you, and I’m going to make sure you have all the synth you need to feel comfortable.”
“It’s not that…”
“Look, if there was anyone else, we’d send them, but you’re the most experienced.”
“What about my boss? McClain’s more senior than me, and I bet he has more experience using voice interface with synthetics.”
“Michelle McClain hasn’t worked here for six months. Nor has her boss, or his boss, or his boss.”
“What?” For a moment, Conner forgot about the discomfort in his groin. “I was just trading emails with her last…” He thought back. Had it really been six months?
“We’re hemorrhaging engineers,” said Joe. “So unless you’re ready to jump ship, you’re the most senior guy we have. No one else can do this except you.”
Conner imagined traveling. If by car, it wouldn’t be so bad, unless he was heading into a major metropolis. If by plane, it would be bad, crammed into a metal tube with all those other people. Crying kids. Rude flight attendants. It made him want to gag.
And what was this bullshit about no one else being able to do the job? Did they really expect him to believe he was the most qualified, out of the thousands of engineers at Perion Synthetics. Conner studied each of their faces, saw the restrained hope in Joe’s face, the restrained disdain in Franco’s, and the near bewilderment on Chuck’s.
“Do you mind if I use the restroom?” he asked.
Joe spread his hands as if to ask how could I stop you?
Conner stood and hurried out of the room. He nodded to the receptionist, gestured vaguely to the restroom, and mumbled something even he himself didn’t understand. The bathroom was opulent to the point of being distracting, with bright Perion silver adorning most surfaces. The sinks were translucent ceramic bowls sitting atop a quartz countertop. The two urinals were separated by a deep partition. Toward the back, an open door led to a private toilet.
He fumbled with his zipper as he stepped up to the urinal. As he relieved himself, he let out a long sigh.
“Heh,” said a voice. “And I thought you were just avoiding the question. Why didn’t you say something earlier?”
Conner watched Big J step up to the urinal next to him.
“I just needed to focus on one thing at a time,” said Conner.
“I hear ya.” Joe’s voice changed pitch as he tilted his head back. “Sometimes I wish I could take a step back and get a handle on everything. But it all just comes too fast, you know? My father dying, all that business with the Collapse. And VFeed’s been teasing an expose on my father for a year now. So many balls in the air. Too few hands to catch them.”
“And this is just one more thing?”
“Exactly. Normally I might send an account rep, someone to smooth everything over and make sure the customer is happy, but the thing is, NTX never should have been a customer.” Joe shook his head. “Perion Synthetics has no customers yet.”
Conner zipped up and walked over to the sinks. Joe’s voice echoed over the sound of running water.
“You’d really be helping me out here, Overton.”
In the mirror, Conner saw himself smirk. Of course Big J would try to use his charisma to close the deal. Did he really think that highly of himself?
Joe appeared at the sinks and washed his hands.
The two men couldn’t have looked more different. Joe had a professional cut, with long hair perfectly styled over short sides. His blue eyes beamed over a wide smile. Conner inventoried his own face, with hair that laid flat on his head and brown eyes that hadn’t sat atop a smile in a long time.
Conner stalled, rinsing his hands repeatedly. Joe dried his hands with a paper towel and then placed one on Conner’s shoulder.
“Do it for me. Do it for the company. Or money or a promotion, whatever you want. I just want this off my plate. I need someone onsite with the technical know-how to fix the problem quickly. Do this for me and I’ll give you Michelle’s job.”
Conner looked over his shoulder at Big J. “And her salary.”
“And her salary,” Joe agreed.
“And her office.”
“Don’t be greedy, Overton. Next thing you know you’ll be wanting your own private bathroom.” He gestured to the room. “Not even I have that.” He removed his hand, walked to the door. “Join us when you’ve made up your mind. I hope to hear good news.”
Conner watched the door swing shut. His eyes fell on the evacuation map hung on the back of the door, leading him with a bright red line to the stairwell.
No, he thought. There’s no escape route from this.
Big J had called. Conner had to answer.