Interphase: Exodus – Chapter 14

“I’m coming with you,” Don announced, shrugging out of his lab coat and pretending not to notice Mike turn slowly away from the elevator. Don’s stitches pulled uncomfortably from the rapid movement, but he steadfastly ignored that as well, looking around for where he’d set his overcoat.

“Don, what are you doing?” Mike asked blandly.

“You heard what I just said clearly, so I shouldn’t need to repeat it.”

The agent’s forehead wrinkled as he frowned. “It’s a bad idea. It’s dangerous, you’re untrained—”

“Which didn’t stop us the first time we walked into an unknown situation, did it?” Don demanded, a little sharper than he’d intended. He took a quick breath and put the coat on. “Sorry. Just… hear me out, please. My team and I are doing everything we can, but we’re hitting walls. If I can get a look at these things and how they’re made, that might give me an idea of how to put a stop to the damage they’re causing.” He caught Mike’s gaze and held it firmly. “This is how I get my results. By pushing farther. By doing the things that no one else is willing to do.”

Mike clenched his jaw a couple times, reflecting Don’s earnest look with displeasure. “Doing the things that no one else is crazy enough to do, you mean. In my line of work, that attitude can get you killed,” he said stiffly.

“Everything in life carries risk, Agent Charles,” Don replied, offering a shrug. “You have my word that I will follow your instructions, I will keep quiet, and if there’s trouble I will obey you without question.”

“And if I still say no, you’re just going to follow me anyway, aren’t you?” Mike added. He gave a snort, shook his head as if in exasperation and made for the elevator. Don trailed after him at a trot, one hand pressed against his side, but he slipped into the car before the doors shut. They spent the ride to the top floor in silence and passed through the lab’s security checkpoint without trouble. The quiet extended through climbing into Mike’s sedan, driving across the campus and turning onto the busy, cab-choked streets of the city. “I genuinely like you, Don,” Mike said at last, “so just be aware, if you do something that gets either of us killed, I’m gonna be pretty pissed off.”

“Duly noted,” Don replied, and watched the looming buildings roll by, idly wondering if Imperium had surveillance tracking their movements. Two weeks ago, such thoughts would have seemed like an insane level of paranoia, but now… he wasn’t sure. He’d never been less sure about anything, which was another reason—perhaps the principle reason—why he’d been so determined to go with Mike. He needed to be sure about something again, or he risked losing his grip on his own sanity. He needed to see the place where these machines were being created, needed to know who was doing it, and why. It was illogical, unreasonable, and perhaps more than a little reckless, but it was nonetheless true.

Amidst the neighborhoods and business parks of northern Brooklyn, Don was surprised at the number of dedicated manufacturing plants and facilities that still existed within the confines of New York. They drove past lengthy streets with nothing but row after row of gray, boxlike buildings with no cars or people in sight. As they drew closer, Mike switched the car to manual control and slowed their speed, scanning continuously. Don resisted the surge to ask him what he was watching for, not wanting to distract the agent needlessly.

“Right there,” Mike murmured, pointing to one of the concrete buildings and a number painted on the side of one wall. “Seven sixty-two. Let me check it out.”

He parked the car next to the curb across from the building, looked around and quickly crossed the street. Don watched him crouch near the chain-link fence. A minute passed, and Mike slipped through a narrow gap in the fence Don could only assume he’d just cut, crossing a gravel-lined walkway and disappearing around the corner.

Don waited, drumming his fingers against his knees and checking his watch every thirty seconds. Once ten minutes had passed, he got out of the car, frowning to himself. He wasn’t certain which was more nerve-wracking: the fact that he didn’t see another living soul around the buildings, or the thought that a security guard would suddenly appear and ask him what he was doing there.

Mike reappeared from around the building, returning to the car at a quick jog. “I thought you might’ve decided that making me watch the getaway vehicle fulfilled your obligation to bring me along,” Don remarked wryly.

Mike chuckled. “Hell no. You invited yourself here. That means you get to work for your supper.” He motioned for Don to follow and slipped back through the gap in the fence. Don found it more difficult to follow, as his stitches protested the bending needed to clear the opening, but he straightened and hurried after Mike. He stopped dead in his tracks when he came around the corner and saw the security camera pointed directly at him, but Mike shook his head. “Already disabled,” he explained, kneeling in front of a door, “along with the external alarm system.” He jammed a pronged tool into the keyhole in the doorknob, paused a moment, and gave the tool a sharp twist. The knob turned, but Mike only opened the door a crack and peered cautiously inside.

Don held his breath, expecting at any moment to hear a shout, but deep silence was all that emanated from within. Mike gestured for him to follow closely and stepped through the doorway. Don stayed with him and moved to one side.

The interior seemed to be divided into two rooms by a concrete wall, and banks of fluorescent lights gleamed off mechanical arms that stood at regular intervals across a winding conveyor belt. The machinery was unpowered, and the silence that filled the factory was eerie. Don glanced at Mike, who was scanning the contours of the room from top to bottom. “No security cameras here,” he muttered, gently easing the door closed.

Don followed Mike as he skirted around the conveyer. They reached the dividing wall, and Mike pressed himself against it, gesturing for Don to stay before he glanced through the doorway, one hand tucked under his jacket. He held that position for several moments before a frown etched into his features. “No alarm systems of any kind,” he said, still whispering despite the emptiness. “What the hell kind of place is this?”

Don checked the opposite room and found it a mirror to the first. He pointed to the conveyer. “Is it safe to check?” he asked.

Mike nodded, still appearing unnerved. “Just don’t touch anything.”

Withdrawing his phone and readying the camera as he approached the conveyor belt, Don took a second look at the tools on the ends of the robotic arms. They looked too big for constructing anything as tiny as the nanites. Small devices, about the size of his palm, littered the conveyor belt, all in varying stages of construction.

No nanites. Smartphones?

“This can’t be right,” Don said, shaking his head and turning back to Mike. “They aren’t building nanites here. Could Connor have gotten the coordinates wrong?”

“I don’t know, but something is seriously off about this place.” Mike waved his hand to take in the contents of the room. “All of this, and absolutely no internal security systems to guard it?” He sniffed loudly. “Something is wrong about the air in here too. It’s too fresh. This is an automated factory, no human involvement unless something breaks down. The air should be stale and the lights should definitely be off.”

Don looked at the floor beneath his feet and saw what Mike meant. Everything in the room looked like it had just been swept, and every piece of machinery on the assembly line was in pristine condition. Too pristine even to have been used.

The silence of the factory made the sound of a door opening seem abnormally loud. Don’s heart leapt into his throat, but Mike grabbed his arm and pulled him behind the heavy base of the one the robotic arms.

Footsteps sounded on the floor. They patrolled the length of the first room and drew closer, stopping just inside the doorway. Don closed his eyes and listened, ignoring the pain in his side as he pressed himself as low to the ground as possible. One of Mike’s hands was still on his arm, holding him firm.

Please, don’t come in here. You’ll just get killed if you get in the way.

The footsteps drew closer, their stride unhurried, and Don feared his furious pulse would give them away. The sound faded, giving way to a rustle of cloth and a low beep. He risked a look at Mike. The agent was perfectly still, his breathing silent and even. At some point he had drawn his gun and held it calmly, his gaze focused.

“Yes, sir,” a man’s voice said, lightly accented. “The work is finished at this location. The crews did their job thoroughly here as well.”

A phone call. Their visitor was speaking to someone on the phone.

“It looks the same as the others, as agreed, and the invoices are already backdated. Surely four inspections are enough—” The voice trailed off as the speaker listened to a reply at the other end. “I understand, and I take full responsibility for the misfire, but—” Another pause stretched on. “Of course, sir. Yes, I do understand.” A shorter pause. “Yes. Of course. I’ll see to the final inspection now. It will all be handled before the night is finished.” Another pause. “Yes, sir. Thank you.”

The footsteps receded, back through the doorway, across the first room, then echoing on the concrete. Mike risked a glance at the retreating figure before ducking down again. Don heard the doorknob turn, the door pulled open, and then shut again.

Mike straightened and put his gun back in its holster before reaching down to help Don to his feet. “Come on,” he said tightly. “We need to follow him.”

“Follow?” Don panted. “Are you nuts?”

“You wanted answers, Dr. Harris? That’s where we’ll get them.” Mike pointed toward the closed door. “I caught a glimpse of him as he was leaving. That’s Jun Huang, Imperium Tech’s CEO.”