Soft

“This doesn’t look like an office,” I say when he parks outside a bar, some two miles uphill from the Carriage Club. An armed drone flits by, followed by a pair of men in the yellow and black checkerboard jumpsuits of public works laborers. 

“I’m not taking you to my office. We’re going to sit down and have a chat over a beer. If I’m going to be working with you I need to know who you are.” 

“Fair enough, but you’re buying,” I say, eyeing the brassy trim and burnished oak walls through the broad glass window. The name of the bar, The Brass Still, is painted in gold leaf across the inside of the window.  

The laborers set their equipment down beneath the window and begin stretching a thin-film protective membrane over the window in preparation for the storm, watched over by the hovering drone. Other pedestrians walk past without a glance, accustomed to seeing laborers performing the sort of menial tasks that are too unpredictable for robots but too low paying for most people. That’s life in the city for you. Nobody has much use for prisons anymore. Most crimes are punished with fines or labor sentences. If somebody’s judged too dangerous to release back into society, the council just revokes their biometrics and drops them out in the mire, where nature and ravagers take care of the problem. 

The formerly concerned father pushes the car door shut gently and leans door frame as he shakes his head at me. “This deal just keep getting worse for me.”

“Hey, you want me to buy the drinks, take us to lowtown. I could probably stay drunk for a whole evening on the price of one drink in this place.”

“Fair enough.”

Inside, The Brass Still smells like pork barbecue and hops. Not unpleasant, but without the subtle undertone of aged urine and decaying peanut shells that provides much of the atmosphere in the bars I visit downtown, and distinctly lacking in the mingled scents of sanitizer and perfume that pervade Tamar’s. We settle into a booth and a woman with conservatively trimmed brown hair arrives promptly with a pair of printed menus. Yeah, I definitely can’t afford this place. Back at Tamar’s half the servers are offering services, but the house just pushes its limited menu into the tabletop. We want our customers to spend their credits entertainment and liquor, not food. I wonder what the printing budget for this place is.  

I get a double shot of bourbon on ice. He orders a beer and a basket of wedge fries and doesn’t blink as he thumbs away a bill the size of my usual budget for several days’ food, then throws a few more credits away to clear the tabletop of ads for the duration of our stay.

“How about a name?” I ask.

“You can call me Vakha,” he replies. 

Vakha. That’s definitely not a dad name. Frankly, it’s not much of a detective name either. Imagine if Sam Spade had been named Vakha Voracious. I greatly doubt that anyone would still remember that one a couple centuries later.

Still, if that’s what he wants to be called. 

Perhaps sensing my surprise Vakha offers me a wry smile. “It’s short for Dukvakha. I had a grandfather who came over from eastern Europe after the borders reopened. Much like you, I assume.”

“Right, Vakha, because everyone with a Chinese face must be an immigrant. My family’s been on the continent longer than yours.”

“Oh, and what family is that? You sure don’t look like any Talbot I’ve ever encountered.”

I push past the pleasantries and try to get back to the case. “Why don’t you tell me how you came to be looking for this girl. Like, do you know where she comes from?”

“That is classified.”

“Right. And you’re a Federal agent. Good to know. I was on track to become one of you, then Red Easter hit and I kind of lost it for a while.”

“What makes you think I’m not a Fed?”

“That interface for starters. Feds are more bland. Less prone to implants.”

“Got a lot of experience with Federal law enforcement, do you?”

I shrug. “If you can’t contribute anything to this case maybe I need to let you go back to hitting up every workhouse and brothel in the midden. Ought to keep you busy for a while.”

He studies me for a minute. I worry that I may have overplayed my hand, but eventually he nods and says, “Okay, maybe it’s not actually government classified, but I can’t tell you exactly where she comes from. Or who I work for. It’s what you might call a corporate trade secret.”

“Then what can you tell me?”

Vakha drums his fingers on the table for a minute, seemingly mulling that question. Eventually he looks up at me and says, “She’s not a little girl.”

“And I’m an alien.”

“I’m serious, Talbot.”

I pull the eper from my jacket and toss it on the table. The corner visible above the fold shows the upper left corner of the girl’s face. Her eye gazes up at Vakha accusingly. “You’re telling me that this kid is, what? A replicant? A Cylon? Some sort of evil clown that’s lost its makeup?”

“I didn’t say any of that. I’m telling you that she isn’t what she looks like.”

I unfold the eper and swipe at the control surfaces until it is displaying the vital statistics from the file that Ethie gave me. “According to this report from Youth Services she’s a prepubescent female. Four feet tall. Green eyes. Straight blonde hair. Caucasian face. No blood test results yet, some sort of lab glitch to blame, but that didn’t keep them from placing her with a foster mother.”

I look up at him, expectantly. It all seems pretty clear to me. 

“The blood tests were lost because she isn’t, strictly speaking, human. I’m told that there are compounds in her blood which are designed to react with the standard stabilizing and extraction reagents. They cause the DNA to unravel completely, preventing any nosey lab geek from gaining access to my employer’s proprietary genetic material.”

The drinks arrive then and we sit for a while, watching each other across the table as we sip on our preferred numbing agents. Outside, the miscreants have finished covering the windows and are beginning to pack up their supplies. Inside, the bourbon is good, but not so spectacularly better than my usual that it justifies the price. Two more of these and I could buy a whole bottle of my usual poison. 

“If the little girl isn’t a girl, then who is she?”

“A prototype.”

“Of?”

“I’ve already said too much, but she definitely is not a real person. Whoever that foster mom is, she got lucky having this kid leave her unharmed. I’ve seen, well…” 

I snort and roll my eyes, setting my glass down with a solid clunk on the antique hardwood tabletop. “Don’t play melodramatic with me. If you didn’t need help you would have left me there in the parking lot.”

“Unless I wanted to lure you into my territory.”

“Right,” I scoff, grabbing my drink and knocking it back. I raise the glass and catch a waiter’s eye, then look back to Vakha and say, “The tough guy act doesn’t work here. There are more monitoring devices in this district than there are people. Down where I’m from, a bit of muscle and a blade will go a long way. Up here…” I nod towards the receding backs of the laborers as they cross the street, moving to the next business that has paid for its windows to be protected from the storm. “Here you sneeze wrong and you can end up spending a week cleaning the gutters.” 

Our waiter takes my glass with a smile and I lean forward across the table, wagging a finger at Vakha as I speak. “You want to scare me, take me on a trip out into the mire. The intimidation might have some meaning when it’s  backed up by a band of rovers and there isn’t a camera or drone for miles around. Here,” I laugh bitterly and settle back into the bench seat, savoring the residual burn of the liquor on my gullet as I shake my head. “Here in the upper districts people are just as soft as they were before the deluge.”

“Try launching an evangelical religious outfit here and see how soft the people are.”

“Recent memories. Pent up frustrations. Hundred years back everyone was after the Muslims for bombing office towers, but did you see anyone lining up to close churches when Christian kids went on shooting sprees? It took a global massacre of unprecedented scale for people to wake up.”

He screws up his face and cocks his head to one side, questioningly. “You think the restrictions on faith groups are justified?”

“I think the Redemptors brought it on themselves. Too many years growing comfortable as the default culture. Too much association with oppressive social movements. Too many god damned years of playing the victim.” I lean forward, my elbows on the table. “A few generations back you couldn’t walk down a city street from October to January without seeing a Christmas decoration. A president couldn’t be elected without pandering to the religious voting block. And you know what my great grandpa used to say about it?”

“I’m dying to hear,” Vakha says, lifting his beer and saluting me. 

I open my mouth to reply, but just then the waiter arrives with my bourbon and Vakha’s fries. I smile my thanks at her, then sit upright, gripping the chilled glass in both hands and looking at Vakha from across the table. It’s been a while since I went off on anyone about religion and I’m suddenly feeling a bit drained, and more than a little embarrassed. 

I shrug, raise my glass to Vakha, then take a sip and set my glass on the table. “I’m not trying to start World War Four here. Sorry about that.”

“Touched a nerve?”

“You could say that.”

“So you don’t much care for organized religion?”

I take a long, slow breath in through my nose, centering myself before I reply. “I don’t care for exploitation. Way I see it, anyone who sacrifices to help people is good by me, while anyone who lives on the backs of other people is not worth my time.”

“And you don’t hurt people in your line of work?” Vakha says, punctuating his question by popping a fry into his mouth. 

“Yeah, that’s where it all starts to fall apart,” I reply. “Guess that’s where you get a rabbi who doesn’t rest on the sabbath and whips merchants after preaching peace.”

He screws up his face, then shakes his head. “I don’t know that story, but I guess you’re saying that people are complicated?”

“Yeah. Something like that.”

Vakha munches a few more fries and I nurse my bourbon in silence, each of us watching the other and wondering who will be the first to break the silence. 

“You’re an odd duck, Talbot,” he says, when the fry basket is empty and our drinks are gone. “What do you do when you’re not hunting down lost kids?”

“I help run a club in the seventeenth, edge of the midden. Dancers, mostly. Some manikins.”

That earns a hearty laugh from Vakha. He pushes the fry basket to one side and shakes his head, leaning forward with an incredulous look in his eye. “And you talk about not exploiting anyone?”

I shrug, then quack like the odd duck I am and drain my glass again. 

He tilts his head to one side, questioning.

“I don’t exploit anyone. Half our dancers have been at the club for years. It’s steady work and they prefer putting on a show to working twelve hour shifts in some data farm.”

“You know, Talbot, when we talked into this place I planned to get you drunk off your ass and leave you here. Now, I’m rethinking that.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah. I’m beginning to think that I should let you tag along after all. You might come in handy catching the girl and you make for some damn interesting conversation.”

I lift my glass and rattle the ice cubes at him, grinning. “I’d drink to that if it weren’t the middle of the day,” I say, grinning. 

“Two the limit, eh?” 

“When I’m working.”

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