Over the decades, the war had become more subtle. Counterware could keep the Stevelets at bay, for a while. The experts kept trying to subvert the Steveware, spreading modified Stevelets packed with propositions that aimed to cripple the swarms or, more ambitiously, make them believe that their job was done. In response, the Steveware had developed verification and encryption schemes that made it ever harder to corrupt or mislead. Some people still advocated cloning Steve from surviving pathology samples, but most experts doubted that the Steveware would be satisfied with that, or taken in by any misinformation that made the clone look like something more.
The Stevelets aspired to the impossible and would accept no substitutes, while humanity longed to be left unmolested, to get on with more useful tasks. Lincoln had known no other world, but until now he’d viewed the struggle from the sidelines, save shooting the odd rat and queuing up for his counterware shots.
So what was his role now? Traitor? Double agent? Prisoner of war? People talked about sleepwalkers and zombies, but in truth there was still no right word for what he had become.
Late in the afternoon, as they approached Atlanta, Lincoln felt his sense of the city’s geography warping, the significance of familiar landmarks shifting. New information coming through. He ran one hand over each of his forearms, where he’d heard the antennas often grew, but the polymer was probably too soft to feel beneath the skin. His parents could have wrapped his body in foil to mess with reception, and put him in a tent full of bottled air to keep out any of the chemical signals that the Stevelets also used, but none of that would have rid him of the basic urge.
As they passed the airport, then the tangle of overpasses where the highway from Macon merged with the one from Alabama, Lincoln couldn’t stop thinking about the baseball stadium up ahead. Had the Stevelets commandeered the home of the Braves? That would have made the news, surely, and ramped the war up a notch or two.
“Next exit,” he said. He gave directions that were half his own, half flowing from an eerie dream logic, until they turned a corner and the place where he knew he had to be came into view. It wasn’t the stadium itself; that had merely been the closest landmark in his head, a beacon the Stevelets had used to help guide him. “They booked a whole motel!” his grandmother exclaimed.
“Bought,” Lincoln guessed, judging from the amount of visible construction work. The Steveware controlled vast financial assets, some flat-out stolen from sleepwalkers but much of it honestly acquired by trading the products of the rat factories: everything from high-grade pharmaceuticals to immaculately faked designer shoes.
The original parking lot was full, but there were signs showing the way to an overflow area near what had once been the pool. As they headed for reception, Lincoln’s thoughts drifted weirdly to the time they’d come to Atlanta for one of Sam’s spelling competitions.
There were three uniformed government Stevologists in the lobby, seated at a small table with some equipment. Lincoln went first to the reception desk, where a smiling young woman handed him two room keys before he’d had a chance to say a word. “Enjoy the conclave,” she said. He didn’t know if she was a zombie like him or a former motel employee who’d been kept on, but she didn’t need to ask him anything.
The government people took longer to deal with. His grandmother sighed as they worked their way through a questionnaire, and then a woman called Dana took Lincoln’s blood. “They usually try to hide,” Dana said, “but sometimes your counterware can bring us useful fragments, even when it can’t stop the infection.”
As they ate their evening meal in the motel dining room, Lincoln tried to meet the eyes of the people around him. Some looked away nervously; others offered him encouraging smiles. He didn’t feel as if he was being inducted into a cult, and it wasn’t just the lack of pamphlets or speeches. He hadn’t been brainwashed into worshipping Steve; his opinion of the dead man was entirely unchanged. Like the desire to reach Atlanta in the first place, his task here would be far more focused and specific. To the Steveware he was a kind of machine, a machine it could instruct and tinker with the way Lincoln could control and customize his phone, but the Steveware no more expected him to share its final goal than he expected his own machines to enjoy his music, or respect his friends.
Lincoln knew that he dreamed that night, but when he woke he had trouble remembering the dream. He knocked on his grandmother’s door; she’d been up for hours. “I can’t sleep in this place,” she complained. “It’s quieter than the farm.”