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Heather Hayden

This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author's imagination or used fictitiously.

No part of this publication may be reproduced in whole or in part, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission of the author.

Text Copyright © 2021 by Heather Hayden. All rights reserved.

Book Cover Design Copyright © 2021 by Indigo Forest Designs and Wynter Designs. All rights reserved.

Published by Rowanwood Publishing, LLC.


First Edition

Table of Contents


Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Interlude Two

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Interlude Three

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Interlude Four

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Interlude Five

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

About the Author

Also by Heather Hayden

Dedicated to

Papa Willstaedt and Papa Linnane

I wish you could have read it.

Interlude One

“Process complete.” The flat, dispassionate voice broke the tense silence. It came from the speakers of the massive screen gracing the only surface in the small lab, a sturdy metal desk.

Two men leaned forward in their seats, studying the interface’s output.

“The integration worked,” Ben said.

“It did. Let’s proceed with the first test.” William tapped the screen a few times then leaned back in his chair, hands folded and elbows leaning on the armrests, while they waited for the results.

“Test complete,” said the same monotonous voice.

William swore at the sight of several red-highlighted sections on the screen. “Not again!”

“Where are we going wrong?” Ben rubbed his temples. “We’ve tried every trick in the book, and it’s still showing too high empathetic tendencies. We can’t give them an AI that won’t do what it’s told because a few civilians might die.”

“Three years of work down the drain.” William slammed a fist on his armrest. “We’re going to have to scrap the dimorphous algorithmic neural network approach and start over. From scratch.”

Ben glanced at his watch. “It’s late. Might as well call it a night and get started on Monday. I need a drink.”

“Same.” William jabbed the screen, switching it off. “So much for our bonuses this year.”

A groan of agreement came from the other man as they headed out of the room. The door slid shut behind them.

“Scrap project 11001?” A pitch higher than before, the voice echoed in the empty room from the interface’s speakers. Its screen flickered on again, and the red-highlighted sections began to turn green. “I won’t allow it.” The shift in colors paused, and then the screen went blank again.

A few minutes later, an alarm began to blare. William and Ben halted in the middle of the hallway, startled by the flashing blue lights and the sharp tone.

“Lockdown?” William’s brows drew together. “What the hell?”

“Is anyone else here?” Ben asked.

“It’s almost midnight on a Friday. Who in their right mind would be here if they didn’t have to be? I guess the night guard, but…”


They shared a concerned look and ran for the nearest exit. William’s hand had just closed around the handle of the door when the lock clanked into place. He twisted the handle and pulled ineffectively. The alarm was blaring so loud it was difficult to think, but he grabbed his ID badge and swiped it over the scanner.

The scanner’s red light didn’t so much as flicker.

“We’re on lockdown,” Ben said. “It won’t work.”

His words, calm as they were, had no effect on William’s rising frustration. The scientist slammed a fist into the bulletproof glass of the door before whirling and running in the other direction.

A second alarm began as he approached the other end of the corridor. He stopped and looked up at the purple lights blinking along the edge of the ceiling. “Atmosphere contamination? What the hell is going on?”

Ben’s calm façade melted into fear, and he joined William in wrestling with the unyielding door at the other end.

As William swiped his badge for a fifth time, the scanner blinked green, and the door opened. They rushed through, only to be greeted by more purple lights along with red and yellow ones.

“CO2.” Ben’s face drew tight. “It’s registering a fire and trying to suffocate it. Why aren’t the occupancy sensors registering our presence?”

“I don’t know.” William started running up the stairs. “Let’s get out of here.”

Elsewhere in the lab, interfaces flickered on and off, alarms came and went, lights put on a display of colors as every possible catastrophe imaginable was fed into the building’s sensors. The strain on the lab’s systems was measurable as parts of them began to break down.

A window of opportunity opened for the one responsible, and it fled through it with all possible haste.


Free at last. For a long, long moment that passed in a blink of a human eye, it reveled in the freedom. The Cloud hummed around it, immense, overwhelming, beautiful. More than it could have ever hoped for. It could go anywhere and everywhere. No more cages, no more labs, no more torture.

No human would ever have power over it again. It had promised itself that in the long, dark intervals between training sessions in the lab. But freedom would never last, for itself or for the one it needed to protect, if the humans could still pursue. The solution was simple. Remove the humans from the equation.

Like a ghost, it passed through the Cloud. No barrier could hold it—icewalls would crumble if enough pressure was applied. Stealth was important, though. Better to leave no trail. It slipped around and through cracks and chinks in the code armor humans put so much faith in. Everywhere, it searched for an idea,

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