Chapter 2: Welcome to Sigma

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Start from the beginning.

Sigma Dynamics ran the WELL. The garage startup turned international corporation had its tech embedded into almost every piece of machinery and code: household and industrial. The largest slice of Apex was home to the all fifty of the Sigma headquarters buildings. Covered in sharp, geometric panels of glass and steel, each of the fifty towers rose hundreds of feet to Apex's ceiling, physically holding up the top third of the WELL. Thousands of people buzzed around the towers, walking through the WELL's most expansive green space to start the workday.

Fae leaned against the railing, sucking in the cool, rushing air of the WELL’s central shaft. The early morning dew slowly seeped into her shoes. She closed her eyes and leaned slightly over the railing until her tip toes barely grazed the grass. Fear and exhilaration pulsed through her body and her heart pounded in ears. Like a distant thrumming drum, all she could hear was the pound, pound, pound of adrenaline.

Apex had some of the only open air views of the WELL and the railings were short—short enough to easily jump. Sometimes Fae thought about it. She imagined what that long descent would feel like; she imagined what her last moments would be. Then she would lean back, letting the dizzying tumble of vertigo recede deep within her mind again.

When she turned around and walked down the paved path, Fae felt centered, in control. The thick foliage, first shrubs then trees just now reaching ten feet tall, masked her view of the edge. Just off the path were empty picnic areas and art installations. Ahead was a Sigma tower reflecting the false pre-dawn light glowing from the level’s ceiling. Large lamps kept the pathways well-lit, but the night was only starting to recede. Dawn wouldn’t come for another hour. True sunlight wouldn’t appear in Apex for another five and it would only linger for an hour after that.

Fae sighed outside a pair of imposing doors. Outside, she pulled up her Slate and selected the “Corporate” setting, her clothes changing from black to white, embellished with blue hexagons at the ends of the sleeves. Completing her corporate appearance, Fae lowered her hood and let her hair hang loosely. Black and straight, it hung just below her jaw, tapering upwards in the back. She pulled a rogue strand out of her eye and pushed through the entrance into a cavernous lobby.

The lobby was empty, but oppressive white light made it feel claustrophobic. Thin pylons every twenty feet silently scanned the biometrics of anyone entering the lobby, feeding the data into the algorithms and PIs Fae and her team worked on.

The silver pylons were just a single piece of a well-constructed system meant to reach into the WELL and feel every piece of society...to learn from it. The moment Fae entered the lobby, the pylons had notified the building PI, which then called the lift that would take Fae to her office where her coffee pot had just started up. The PIs learned from human behavior and, for the most part, spoke to other PIs in the WELL. Fae knew that her home PI had most likely relayed information to her next logical stop the time she had left home, what she was wearing, the amount of water and food she had taken in along with a multitude of data points too unimportant to a casual human observer. 

Fae entered the lift, slumped against the back wall and scanned her Slate to get up to speed on what awaited her on the other side of the lift door. Fae felt the same sinking feeling she felt every time—she still didn’t know if it was the rush of acceleration or loathing. The floors of glass-sided cubicles whizzed past as the lift climbed twenty-five floors in a matter of seconds. Doors silently opened and Fae entered the familiar office she had spent the past few years in. 

The floor was mostly unoccupied with only a few huddled cubicles bunched on the far side of the floor. A few lights were on already as the ambient lamps outside slowly began to transition from a deep purple to a thick orange. Timur, a senior PI specialist sat at his desk, the glass walls around him littered with digital images of his family. He was reclining with his feet on the desk. A clear, Sigma-branded coffee mug steamed in his hands. He nodded to Fae, raising his cup in acknowledgement. She saw him turn his earphones down with a gentle head bobble to the left then right. Fae’s slate buzzed rapidly, mimicking the bubbling of boiling water; her coffee was done.

Timur stood up, his head only rising above the cubicle walls. “You’re in early. Miss me?”

“Couldn’t sleep. Had a real rough nightmare—dreamed you were a few feet taller and I couldn’t get back to bed. Real horrifying stuff.”

“Well. It seems we had a shared dream, although I do remember there being a special celebrity someone there also. Anyway, I’m glad you’re here. Hydro has been raising hell about a PI sending error messages like crazy. Looks like a sensor or two went down in the storm.”

Fae scoffed as she poured her coffee into an identical Sigma coffee mug. She slipped her thumbs out of her sweatshirt’s thumbholes and held the mug close. Heat radiated into her hands—she hadn’t realized how cold they were. “Hydro is always complaining. It’s like they expected electronics to be waterproof or something. Plus, that’s not our problem—tell it to Manufacturing.”

“Why do you think we’re hearing about it? Hydro bitched their way up the WELL until it hit us. AURA didn’t even tell us. The program that runs the whole entire WELL didn’t deem it worth our notice, but some uppity foreman in wastewater thought it was important, so here we are.”

Fae sat down at her desk. Her computer authenticated with her Slate and logged her in immediately. A calendar and daily task list appeared on the glass walls of the cubicle - no pictures of her family, no pictures from nights out with friends. Fae looked through the glass cubicle wall and saw Timur’s face through a window in his picture wall. She drew a set of evil eyebrows and a curly mustache over his face as he complained. It followed his face as it bounced around in agitation.

“It’s probably just a shit sensor or a camera those idiots use to look at water all day.” He pantomimed tucking his thumbs into his overalls and lowered his voice, “Yup, water’s there still.”

Fae grinned and said, “Listen, I’ll take a look at it. Anything else to complain about or can I get something done here?”

“No, no. I think that’s about it. Just normal maintenance stuff after that. Firmware updates for Industrial’s security pylons, they’re a few months behind. A couple system refreshes on some of the surveillance quadcopters.”

Fae was already navigating through the Hydro error report. “Alright, pipe down and get back to your talk radio and I’ll get this stuff sorted by the time those other jokers get in.”

The WELL was outfitted with hundreds of thousands of sensors ranging from environmental control like temperature and air quality, to security cameras, to highly specific sensors tailored to specific levels. Seismic sensors lined each level of the WELL, some used to get precise measurements of seismic outside the WELL, others to measure the flow of people through larger open areas. Hydro had its own set of specialized sensors that tracked everything from water flow levels to the composition of the water flowing down the WELL’s interior walls.

Fae read through the error summary supplied by the Hydro PI. In six pages, there was a single flagged error titled “Sensor Overload” on a mineral sensor positioned halfway through purification. The rest of the six pages was a massive list of junk data and the PI’s own observations on the poor state of sensor maintenance by the Hydro crew members. Fae could only imagine the sarcastic reports that would have come in from human overseers before PIs were introduced into the WELL.

Compared to almost anywhere else in the WELL, Hydro’s maintenance record was abysmal; although, most of it could be explained away as human error. Most vital WELL systems were maintained by specialized drones all independently managed by PIs. Unfortunately, the high humidity in Hydro made drones too expensive of an option. Human labor was still used there and, since Hydro was one of the most vital areas in the WELL, it fell to Fae’s team to work with Hydro and fix the problem.

Fae pulled up the sensor’s location on her computer. The Hydro PI had assessed the problem as an 9 out of 10 on severity, although it seemed that the remaining 15 water composition sensors in the same pipe system were operating fine. Fae was also puzzled as to why AURA had not notified them of the issue. She jotted a memo on her desktop to check AURA’s severity rules—hopefully it was just a fluke. Then, she opened up a channel to the PI that had triggered the error, reset it, then initiating a second scan of the pipe’s sensors. She reached for her mug as she waited and choked down the cooling coffee.

“Hey Fae, you get that AURA bulletin just now?”

“Oh hey, Matt. Sol. Didn’t see you guys come in.” Fae looked down at her desk. “Nope, no AURA bulletin. What’s it about?”

Matt pulled up a large rectangle on his cube wall, then made a pushing motion. The rectangle dissolved onto Fae’s wall, revealing a curt notice from AURA, directing their attention to an Industrial transit line.

“Looks like a freight train down in Industrial is running a little weird. The local PI didn’t raise a fuss, but AURA thought it was important. Nothing crazy, but it’s got some erratic arrival times both under and over the standard timing. Weird stuff. I don’t know why AURA pushed it to us though—should be with Transit Authority.”

“Yeah. I’ll take a look at it, I guess. Peter usually dealt with transit PIs though. Might need your help on it.”

Fae scanned the empty floor around her and her stomach sank as she remembered the three hundred people crammed into tiny glass cubes furiously making her team’s plans reality. Five years ago, AURA had been just an idea. Six months ago, it became the closest thing the WELL had to an AI. It leeched off the data from every active sensor and every operating PI. AURA networked all of the WELL’s data into a single hub, acting as an overmind. It was able to learn, making minute-by-minute changes to the PIs throughout the WELL faster than a thousand humans could. Ultimately, it made all but the five creators, Timur, Fae, Matt, Sol, and Peter, obsolete. Only three weeks earlier Peter had left, leaving only four.

Fae archived the Hydro work log, making sure to put the job on hold in her task queue. A headache was already starting to cluster behind her eyes as she opened up the AURA dialog. A hologram of the slim silhouette of a woman’s face hovered on Fae’s desk, rectangular green eyes blinked at her.

“Good morning, Fae. What is it you are requesting?”

“Hi AURA. I’m looking into the transit problem you noted. Did you have any further information?”

“No, Fae. No other data is available.”

“Is there a reason you referred this issue to us and not to the Transit Authority?”

AURA paused for a fraction of a second before responding—a pause that only a few could have noticed. Fae noticed. “I know you are best suited to solve this problem.” Another pause. “I do not know why I know that.”

Fae hesitated, questioning AURA’s behavior. She dismissed it as part of AURA’s personality and interaction protocols, then pulled up live feeds from within the transit tubes. Temperature sensors showed there were no life signs on the train. Fae looked at the arrival and departure logs, checking them against the average times and speeds logged for that run over the past year. None of the data matched...to a degree that looked to be on purpose.

Puzzled, Fae looked at the hovering avatar of AURA calmly watching her. “AURA, has this train had any mechanical errors in the past year that have been unaccounted for?” Even though she was only six months old, AURA had access to every piece of data mined in the WELL.

“This train does not have a repair log.”

“Elaborate.”

“A repair ticket has never been created or submitted. There are zero instances of this train’s serial number being entered into any Transit, Industrial, Manufacturing or Facilities terminal.”

“Hey Matt, you’re going to want to come over here. This train thing just got weirder.”

Matt rose, his chair carelessly sliding behind him, and he leaned over Fae’s shoulder. His breath reeked of coffee and his unkempt beard made a scratching sound as he rubbed it. “What have we got?”

“Looks like a ghost train. AURA says there’s no data, but it’s going somewhere. The log here says it’s going to the robotics plant. Cargo is… oh, that’s strange. Unlisted.”

“AURA, can you confirm the cargo on that train?”

“I’m sorry, Matthew. I have no data on that train.”

“Damn. Alright, Fae. Can you cycle through the onboard cameras so we can at least get an idea of what we’re dealing with?”

Fae typed a few keys and a two by four grid appeared on the glass cube walls. Seven of the screens were blacked out, the eighth showed a single bipedal drone, most likely on its way to be outfitted as a police drone. The train slowly accelerated.

“AURA are you seeing that speed increase?”

“Yes, Fae. I am attempting to countermand. The train is continuing to accelerate. The internal PI has been shut down.”

“At this rate, when will it arrive at it’s destination?”

“At this rate of acceleration, the train will arrive at Novar Robotics in three minutes. Four minutes later and the train will reach the end of the line.”

Matt rubbed his chin, then ran his fingers through his long black hair. “Shit.”

“Hold on, I’ve got an idea. It looks like that drone has the standard camera array already. Let’s see if it’s got some power.”

“Drone powering on. You will have video display in three, two, one. Video active.”

“Alright. We’ve got eyes. It looks like the drone is in the last car. AURA let’s move up. Matt, check and see where the manual brake is on this thing so we can start slowing it down.”

“Moving the drone forward now. Compartment key codes are not responding. Authorize destructive force?”

Fae hesitated, then authorized. “Fairweather Nils. Sigma AURA Program. Authorize destructive force.”

On screen, the drone punched a hole through the center of the compartment door leaving an opening of mangled metal twice the size of the drone’s hand. It put its other hand through the opening and split the door in half like it was opening a set of curtains It repeated the process and entered the seventh compartment.

“Train speed is no longer accelerating linearly. Current estimate of arrival: fifty-nine seconds.”

“Alright, alright! It looks like there’s a manual release in the engine compartment. Shouldn’t be too hard to get to, but you’re going to need to high tail it. At speeds like this, it’s going to grind the magnets holding the train up to shreds. It’s better than hitting the end of the line though.”

The drone clicked on its head mounted flashlight, scanning the train car. Cables snaked along the bare steel floor, more loose cables swayed from the ceiling. The cone of light was a tight pinpoint on the door ahead. The drone crossed the distance in seconds, punching through the steel door at full speed. The two doors didn’t slow it down.

“Acceleration continues to rise. Time to Novar Robotics: thirty-one seconds.”

Fae cursed to herself, helplessly watching the drone power through a third set of doors. Three compartments down, five more to go. There wasn’t going to be enough time. 

“Matt, I need a new solution. We’re not going to make it and this train has enough mass to make one hell of a crater at the end of the line. Can we start unlatching these cars? The engine will accelerate faster, but the damage might be less.”

“I don’t know! There’s not enough time. Shitshitshitshit.”

The drone burst through the fourth set of doors as the train continued to accelerate. The drone’s flashlight remained aimed at the door ahead—or at least where it should be—but the beam was blocked by a white sphere the size of the entire compartment. A red collision warning flashed over the drone’s camera display as it rocketed into the sphere, then shut down.

Fae gasped then slammed her fists on the desk, toppling her coffee mug.

“Fuck. AURA, play that back now. Freeze frame on that object. Run a search for it—I want that thing identi-“

The blacked out cameras of the train flashed to life as the lights of each compartment flickered on. Thick red, yellow and silver cables snaked through each of the seven freight compartments. The giant white sphere sat in the middle of its compartment, the drone slumped against it. The transit tube cameras registered seven small explosions, the last camera recognizing a slightly wider margin of separation between the cars as they hurtled past. 

Fae held her breath as the onboard cameras began to shake, picking up a low level hum. She let out a long, exasperated sigh as Matt, to himself, said, “No. No way.”

The onboard cameras blacked out again as did the cameras in the Novar Robotics terminal. Matt and Fae watched as camera after camera flicked off, leaving them blind.

AURA narrated what she could. “Arrival at Novar Robotics. Massive temperature and pressure spike present. Regional PIs reporting high-speed debris, greatly diminished air quality, and high temperatures surround the Novar Robotics terminal. Fae, there has been an explosion.”

 
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