“We’re in over our heads. There’s no denying it.”
That was how Jaspers started the conversation that evening, and it said something that he didn’t put in a single curse word. Just stated the fact, plain and simple, impossible to debate.
“So what do you think we should do?” I asked.
He shrugged one shoulder. “Hell if I know. I’m sure glad that I’m not the leader here, though. Be a bloody awful job to have sitting on my shoulders.”
“Shut it,” Corinne told him, although she didn’t put much heat behind the words. She cast a worried glance over her shoulder, at where Sara slumbered in a heap of sleeping bags and blankets. We’d gotten her fed, and she barely managed to get out half a protest about how she wasn’t tired at all before her eyes drooped shut.
The rest of us, however, didn’t feel that sleep would be arriving for us any time soon. Whenever I closed my eyes, I kept seeing visions of that spirit realm, or vision, or whatever it had been. I remembered the essence of each of my team members, their purest selves laid bare.
I remembered that monstrous evil that stood against us, casually crushed the scientists around us into nothingness and nearly did the same thing to us.
But why hadn’t it? It seemed as though, incredibly, it had been Sara that it didn’t want to hurt…
“Her father,” I said, speaking the thought out loud as I turned it over inside my head. “That’s what brought us here – but we didn’t get all the answers about it, I don’t think.”
“The angry man said that he was dead,” Sergei commented.
I shook my head. “No, he didn’t. Remember? He passed out before he could tell us what happened to Nathan. And when we asked one of the other scientists, that man claimed that Nathan vanished.”
“So?” Jaspers asked. “So did a couple billion other bloody people. Why should he be any different?”
“He vanished from inside that chamber, in with the computers, whatever they were trying to contain,” I said. “But none of the other scientists did. Did you notice that? The rest of the facility looked empty – no receptionist, security guard, anything like that – but all the scientists were still there.”
“So what?” Henry asked, more confused than upset. “So Nathan was the only one who vanished. Why’s that matter?”
“Because he was the one in there when it all went to hell,” I said, trying to remember exactly what the scientists had said. “And he modeled it after himself, they mentioned. So even before he went in there and vanished, it was acting under his orders. Or something like that.”
“Okay, I came in at the end,” Corinne said, holding up her hand like a student in a classroom. “Can you explain what we’re talking about, exactly?”
I tried to find the right words to describe it. “Blue Diamond was a research facility,” I said slowly, thinking through it. The slow mode of speaking emphasized my Southern drawl, but it couldn’t be helped. “They were trying to build a…” neural network, Orville had said, but there had to be a simpler term. “…an electronic version of a brain, I think. Like artificial intelligence. And it was Nathan Hobbson who figured out how to make it happen, and he modeled it after his own brain.”
Corinne bit her lip for a moment, considering this, and then nodded. “Okay. And it went wrong?”
“I’d bloody hope that it didn’t go right,” Jaspers muttered darkly to himself.
“I think it worked, at first,” I said reflectively. “But it wasn’t balanced, had something wrong with it, and that issue kept growing worse. They were trying to fix it, and Nathan went in to try and fix it from the source. Mainframe? I don’t know the right words.”
“And he vanished then,” Henry filled in.
“I think so. And from that point on, it kept on getting even worse, faster. Without Nathan, the other scientists didn’t know what they were doing, and they were trying to just keep it contained. Until we arrived.”
“It is not contained now,” Sergei said, stating the obvious. We all shared a shiver as we remembered the monstrous, unclear thing lurching away from the facility after smashing its way out.
“But what is it, now?” Corinne asked after another minute. “Because I understood before. It was a sort of computer program, yes? An artificial intelligence. But a computer cannot smash out of a building and walk away.”
“A computer can’t also bloody make billions of people just spontaneously vanish, either,” Jaspers countered.
“It’s…” I had nothing.
“It is dangerous,” Sergei finally finished the sentence that none of us could manage. “It is a zduhac.”
We all looked at him, not recognizing the guttural Russian word. “A dragon man,” he clarified, although this didn’t make the murky matter much better. “Some men are born with the spirits of demons inside them. They can release the spirit to go out and change the world.”
“So you think that Nathan was one of these…” I began.
He nodded. “A zduhac. He may not have known it, but the spirit might have given him his intelligence and ability. But when he created this mechanical mind, the spirit found a way to escape, into the machine. And when he confronted it, it did destroy him and set itself free.”
The rest of us just stared at Sergei for a minute. He shrugged, looking slightly uncomfortable. “There were many years of Sunday School,” he admitted, as if this was an explanation for his strange burst of knowledge.
Finally, I decided to just keep moving forward. Maybe “zduhac” wasn’t the right word, but it was as a good a name for this strange monster as any other. “Okay, how do we fight one of these zduhacs?”
“If the spirit is loose, it will be very strong,” Sergei said, sitting back and scratching his chin as if the question was actually reasonable! “And if Nathan is gone, we cannot force it back to its host. It will not want to leave this world.”
“I’m sorry, but has anyone else slipped into the bloody looney bin?” Jaspers cut in, glaring back and forth between Sergei and me. “You think this is a goddamn spirit of vengeance or something?”
“Demon spirit,” Sergei muttered.
I, however, met Jaspers’ hot glare. I knew him, trusted this hot-headed man with my life. “The point is that it’s dangerous,” I countered. “And at this point, we can either walk away and head back towards safety, or we can pursue it and try to stop it. We all had that vision, didn’t we?”
For a second, the other man’s eyes flickered away from mine. “Yeah,” he grunted. “And I don’t have an answer for that.”
“The zduhac pulled out our spirits from our bodies,” Sergei said, not helping matters.
I ignored that comment. “But we do need to make the decision, by tomorrow morning. We have answers, of a sort. We think we may know where this disaster started. We could go back with that information.” I looked around at their eyes. “We could get Sara to safety.”
There was silence for a minute. “Or?” Feng finally asked, quietly.
“Or we go after this thing,” I answered her. “Risk getting killed, but try to make sure that we put a stop to it, however we can. Stop it from causing any more destruction, maybe any more deaths.”
Several others started to speak, but I held up a hand. “Tomorrow,” I said. “We’ll decide tomorrow. Tonight, we just try to get some sleep.”
The others grunted their disapproval, but didn’t argue. The rest of them turned in as I took the first watch of the night. I sat there, gun in my hands and eyes gazing ahead, trying to push down disruptive memories of what I’d seen that afternoon.
To be continued…