Javier greets us in his clipped tone, eyes hardly flickering from the bank of monitors mounted around his articulated chair. “Took long enough for you to come.”
“We were busy. What’s so…” Schuster’s voice trails off as Javier’s monitor bank comes into view.
We both stand silently beside Javier’s chair, transfixed by the images spread across all of his screens. Schuster’s hand brushes my leg, then slips up and grasps my hand. I don’t pull away. Rather, I curl my fingers tightly around hers, wondering how I should react to the bizarre play unfolding on Javier’s display.
The monitors each show a different view of the same scene, the imagery ranging from dim color video, to crisp infrared, to a blue cast rainbow heat map. In the center of each, a girl of about ten years stands at the edge of the storm wall, looking out across the black swamp of the mire. Flashes of lighting burst across the scene, illuminating the girl in staccato still life as her flowery dress whips in the wind and rain. The back end of the hurricane has struck the city with its full might, but she seems unperturbed by the blasts of wind that should knock her off the storm wall.
Then I see why she isn’t moving: her legs have fractured, the skin flensed open to reveal black bone beneath. Still more unnerving, splinters of that bone extend out from her limbs, bracing her between the sides of two merlons as she stands, arms at her sides, in the heart of the hurricane.
“This the girl you were looking for?” Javier asks.
“Yeah, that’s her,” I reply, my mind reeling back to the last time I saw her, framed between the closing doors of the elevator, her orange dress soaked with Vakha’s blood. “How did you find her?”
“I managed to get back into the city surveillance network. This is a composite view from all of the cameras in the area.”
“What the hell is she doing out there?” Schuster breaths. She leans forward over Javiar’s chair and studies the image at the center of his screens. “And what’s wrong with her legs?”
“I don’t think Vakha told me the truth about this girl,” I venture.
Javier taps at his control surfaces and on three of the screens the image pulls in, focusing on the assemblage of black rods which sprout from the girl’s legs. “I can’t get a spectral read on her with this equipment, but from the look of it I’d guess some sort of carbon nano fiber.”
“I don’t give a damn about the material. I want to know why she’s got it sprouting from her legs.”
I shake my head, pieces of memory slotting together like a plastic puzzle. “She isn’t a clone. At least, not one designed for harvesting organs. He said something about being a prototype, but I figured he meant… I don’t know… maybe a companion for childless parents or a training dummy for surgeons. Not… this.”
“What is she?” Schuster asks, her eyes still riveted to the screens.
“If I have to guess, some sort of weapon platform. Maybe an infiltration unit of some sort, designed to monitor mire gangs or terrorist cells. Send in a little lost girl, let them take her in, then record every face and conversation in the cell.”
“And how would be controlled? Hell, Talbot, we’ve got cameras the size of a roach that can operate indefinitely and drones that can drop a thermobaric on the doorstep of anyone in the world within hours. What’s the point of creating a drone that mimics a human?”
“Assassination?” Javier ventures. “Some corps still think the Fed is too powerful. More likely to get a child close to the President than any micro drone.”
“Seems a stretch,” Schuster replies. “Tal, are you sure she’s not biological?”
“No. I’m not sure of anything much right now.” I watch in silence for a long moment as the wind continues to whip at the girl, streaming her hair out to one side like a banner, despite the sheets of rain which pound down upon her shoulders. “I’m just going off those weird legs, and the hand cannon she used on Vakha back in the hotel.”
“Hand cannon,” Javier mutters, his voice somehow appreciative, despite its mechanical tone.
I take it as a question. “Yeah. It was like her palm unfolded and a gun barrel of some sort popped out. That’s how she killed Vakha. And then…”
“Then?” Schuster prompts.
I’m probing at the edges of my memory, trying to bring back the details that refuse to let me go, even as I am cautious to skirt the edges of those memories which might trigger panic. I see the girl standing in the hotel room entryway, blades extended from her fingertips. I suppress the liquid crunch of her extracting the implant from Vakha’s neck. “There was something strange in how she talked. She didn’t sound like a little girl. More like an adult. Like she knew exactly what she was doing and I was just there for the ride.”
“Maybe she is a remote drone,” Schuster says. “Or some kind of AI. Like an android or something.”
“General purpose AI is impractical,” Javier growls.
“He’s not wrong,” I reply. “I remember it from training. Most of the reason that the Feds still use human analysts is that they need a human mind to collate results from restrillects. I don’t remember all of the mind theory, but there was something about any AI that was too general becoming disinterested in its task.”
“Essentially. The closer researchers have gotten to recreating the general cognition model of the human mind, the greater the AI’s tendency to develop irrational obsessions,” Javier says.
Schuster gestures toward the screen. “So if that thing is not an android, and it’s not a clone, and it’s not a little lost girl, then what the hell is it?”
“I guess that’s what I’ve got to find out,” I say.
Why? I’m a fixer, a businessman, a broken soul just trying to live another day in this dying world.
Maybe that’s the point. This girl is something new, a spark of light in a world fizzling towards a damp, dark end.
“You’re not thinking of going out there,” Schuster gasps, her eyes wide. “It’s a damned hurricane, Tal. If you don’t drown trying to get there you’ll get blown off the wall.”
It’s nice to know that somebody cares about me, but I’ve decided what I’m going to do and Schuster isn’t going to stop me. I’d like to pretend that this is why I’m not with her, that I am just to determined to be held back by any woman, but that’s about as far from the truth as any of the bets that Tamar’s manikins place on me. Fact is that I wish I could let someone like Schuster take care of me, but I’m not ready for that yet. I’ve got too many broken pieces and I don’t want to hurt her, or anyone else, with my sharp edges.
“Security have not moved on her yet. I can loop their feed to cover you.”
Javier rolls his eyes and doesn’t even bother to look at me. He is clearly disappointed in my insufferably dull intellect. “Make her disappear. Keep anyone from seeing you approach.”
“You can do all that?” I ask.
“And more. Told you, I’m back in the system again.”
“And what am I supposed to do while you’re out chasing killer robots in the storm?” Schuster demands, turning to stand toe to toe with me.
I look down into her gleaming eyes and wait for the anger to give way to frustration, then sadness. Finally she shakes her head and steps closer, wrapping her arms around me and pressing her head to my chest. I tense, reflexively, afraid that my daemon will awake and spoil this moment with memories of blood and necrotic flesh, but the beast remains in hiding. After a moment I relax and lower my chin to rest on her head, breathing her in for the first time, there in Javier’s den.
The scene is so incongruous that it’s almost romantic.
Eventually, Schuster squeezes me and whispers, “At least let me send you away with a new toy.”