When people talk about living in a walled city, they’re usually speaking metaphorically these days. Sure, there are some literal walled in compounds out there. Federal bunkers surrounded by concrete barricades. Stockades constructed from stacked shipping containers, their tops bristling with gun emplacements to keep the scavengers at bay. There’s even crumbling remnants of a failed attempt at building a wall along the old southern border, from back before the Feds realized that they could hardly keep control of internal matters, let alone maintain thousands of miles of border barriers.
No, most corporate cities and private estates are walled in the same way as this city: Take a few thousand drones and deploy them along the outer rim of the crumbling beltway that’s encircled the city for decades. Six lanes of wide open shooting space make for as effective a barricade as anything else you could build, especially when you leave the corpses to rot on the pavement.
It’s just more efficient that way.
Any kid with a grappling hook and an urge to explore, or pickup a boyfriend, or buy some new designer drug from cooks out in the mire, will make short work of a physical fence.
Better to spin up a fleet of drones armed with high-def cameras, all linked in to a facial recognition syntellect. Arm some percentage of those birds with low calibre weapons, pepper spray, or sonic disruptors and you’ve got a security patrol that’s about as effective as the wall and a hell of a lot faster to replace. Kids and criminals alike can try to knock down drones, but they’re cheap enough that you can deploy a hundred a day and still spend less in a year than you would for a mile of properly constructed border wall, plus you get the added benefit of having a mobile surveillance force that can be deployed to snoop on potential threats anywhere in the city.
I might be a little biased. After all, I worked in drone imagery analysis before Red Easter snapped my brain, slashed the population, and ultimately sent so many of the institutions that we took for granted spiraling into the earth like so many downed airplanes.
Still, the city does have a few physical barriers. There are solid walls surrounding some of the corporate research labs, as well a couple layers of reinforced concrete blocking access to the fusion plant. Drones are great for detecting and neutralizing most threats, but when you’ve got a fundamentalist nut aiming to bring about the second coming by plowing a cement mixer stuffed with plastique into the side of a nanite refactory, it’s best to have a few physical barriers in place.
The single largest barrier in the city is the storm wall. Back in my grandfather’s day it probably would have been called a levee. Of course, then it would have been more of a grassy artificial hill covering a broad pile of stone, as useful for walking dogs and going for jogs as for holding back the muddy waters of the river whenever a storm hit both upstream and here simultaneously. The storm wall is a little more muscular than that.
Standing thirty feet tall and nearly as wide, the storm wall runs the length of both shores of the river which bisects the city. At its upstream end, the wall splits into a wide funnel that protects much of the city and its outlying lands from flooding when the river overflows its banks, as has happened with increasing regularity in the last half century. The wall doesn’t help the outlying research labs and agrocomplexes, but they are generally protected by their own walls.
It’s all a very neat and functional system, which does nothing protect me from the driving rain and wind as I peddle Ethie’s bike through the back end of the hurricane towards the storm wall. Even with goggles and a long waterproof overcoat, helpfully provided by Salinas from their collection of esotery, the rain has soaked me to the skin before I am a mile from Schuster’s bunker. Fortunately, the back end of the hurricane is proving less brutal than anyone had expected and, according to the news feeds I skimmed before leaving, the storm is expected to break up before nightfall tomorrow.
A particularly brutal gust slams down onto me, carried over the tops of apartment towers and down into the street like a tsunami breaking over a cliff. The wind knocks me to the ground, guaranteeing that there isn’t a dry patch on my body. Thirty feet ahead, at the cross street, I see a whirling blur of green and silver dance across the intersection, then slam into the wall of a shopping center. The noise of shattering glass and twisting metal must be immense, but the wind and rain whipping past my ears are so loud that I can hardly even hear myself grunting as I crawl out from beneath the bike, right it, and continue on my way. Crossing the intersection, I spare a glance for the wreckage and realize that a highway sign has been torn free and blown into the side of the building, smashing concrete, twisting composite, and shattering the impact resistant glass.
I hurry on, pausing now at side streets to check for flying debris before I cross.
The storm wall’s public access ramps are bookended with tall entryways consisting of a concrete tower pierced by walkways a meter wide. At the midpoint of each entry path is a heavy tubular steel pivoting gate or the sort once used in stadiums, before mass public gatherings became known more for disease transmission than entertainment. Rivers of rainwater course from the passages like runoff from a sluice, but the water is only a couple inches at the deepest. I slosh through them and, of course, find that all of the gates are locked.
There’s no climbing the gates here, and I doubt that I’d be able to climb the storm wall in this rain. Fortunately, Schuster had anticipated this problem.
Leaning against the wall within one of the sluices, I am mostly protected from the storm, assuming that I ignore the water churning around my boots. I pull out my handy and connect to Schuster, who answers immediately.
“Tal! You alright?”
“Made it to the storm wall, but the access gates are closed.”
“Figured that might be the case.”
I eye the heavy gates. There are no visible locks or mechanisms. According to Javier, whose data crypts apparently contain mirrors of practically every city record, the gates are controlled remotely and all of their operating mechanisms are located in the secure structure above my head.
“I’m not a fan of this plan.”
“You could always leave her out there for Security to find,” Schuster replies.
“Funny. I half wonder if that is what she wants.”
“You’re already out there. Might as well go ask her.”
I slosh through the stream and stop at the gate. Give it one more solid shake, just to confirm to myself that it is locked. Sadly, the world has not changed to satisfy my desires.
“You sure that this is safe?” I ask as I launch a highly specialized app on my handy and begin scanning the gate and its surroundings.
“About as safe as riding a bike through a hurricane.”
Scan complete, I trace lines across five of the bars, then assign the lines a numerical order. “And you’re sure that this will look like a plasma cutter?”
Schuster’s voice is exasperated in my earbuds. I can’t blame her. If I were a better friend I would be helping her deliver contraband art to the wealthy, or working security at orgies arranged to promote her work to bored zillionaires, rather than trudging through a hurricane to try and catch a childlike homicidal death machine. “The little buggers will do their best, Tal. The patterns won’t fool a forensic analysis, but they’ll be good enough for a cursory inspection.”
“That will have to be sufficient.”
I extract the containment cylinder from an inside pocket of my coat. The metal feels warm after being carried close to my body for the last hour. I twist the locking mechanism and the device gives off a whispery hiss of ingested air as the vacuum is broken. In the yellow light of the entryway, the colony of nanites perched at the tip of the containment rod are as black as coal.
“This had better work,” I mutter, pocketing the outer casing of the containment cylinder.
Pressing the tip of the containment rod to one of the gate’s uprights, I tap an icon on my handy. The nanites respond to the activation signal and flow off of the rod like oil, their matte black surface devouring all light which strikes them. I put away the containment rod and tap another icon, then, after a moment’s hesitation, issue the confirmation order.
Noting appears to happen, at first.
The wind continues to whistle across the mouth of the passage. Rainwater churns around the base of the gate and splashes up over my ankles. Flickers of lightning play through the bars as my phone overlays the gate with glowing tags showing the location and density of the nanite swarms as they work.
“How’s it going?” Schuster asks.
“Half finished with the first bar,” I reply. On my screen the swarm is rushing up the bar and beginning to gnaw at the second cut point.
“Any gone ravager?”
“Don’t say that,” I snap.
It’s not that I have an unreasonable fear of rogue nanites, in fact that is one of the few anxieties that I have never experienced, but unlike most people who are terrified of nanotech, I have actually witnessed a ravager swarm. That’s how George lost her leg, after all.
The first bar tumbles to the concrete and is swept past me as the rushing water tugs it from the sliver of metal that the nanites left at the top.
Schuster’s voice continues. “Salinas isn’t happy, you should know. When I told them that you had taken their nannies they asked why I trust you enough but not them.”
“I’m sure you had a cutting reply.”
“I told them that you’re just using the nanites to commit breaking and entering. Salinas wanted to use them for art. Guess which I consider more dangerous.”
“Hilarious. I’ll call you after I’ve made contact.”
Before Schuster can complain, I kill the call and watch eagerly as the nanites cut away the second and third bars. That done, I tap a command to make the little beasts cluster at the tip of the third severed bar, then collect the mass onto the tip of my applicator. According to the control app, their numbers have dipped by dipped by ten percent, likely due to being washing away by rain or carried off with the severed bars. There are still billions of them in working order, so it’s worth shepherding the swarm back into its bottle, rather than letting them all be washed away by the storm.
The steps up to the top of the storm wall are deep and high, designed more for artistic appearance than ease of climbing. I briefly consider taking the wheelchair access ramp, which switchbacks across the stairway like a goat track up the side of a mountain, but where the stairs have become a stepped stone waterfall, the ramp is now a churning river. Wind whips my coat and drives rain down my collar as I trudge up ten three stories of oversized steps before coming to a halt at the top, hunched over and bracing myself against the wind.
She is still there, silhouetted against flashes of lightning, rimed by the flickering glow of neon and holographics.
I approach, moving slowly so as not to startle her. The memory of that gun barrel unfolding from her palm plays through my mind with each step.
“Look at it all, Talbot,” she breathes, her voice coming through my earbuds as if she were whispering in my ear. I don’t even question how she has overridden the earbud/handy connection. This is a synthetic being who carries weapons within her body, who can hack and wipe a hotel mainframe within minutes. As far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing she can’t do where electronics are concerned. “Look at all these mighty corporations paralyzed by the unstoppable might of nature.”
“The world hasn’t exactly ground to a stop, kid. Plenty of people holed up in their office towers now, grinding away and ignoring the storm.”
She turns her face towards me, the wind pulling at her hair as the rain courses down her porcelain skin. “You examined the implant?”
“Then you know what it can do.”
“I know it’s a neural lace. My lab geek says it’s better than anything else she’s seen before, but we’re not exactly at the cutting edge of corporate research projects these days.”
“Ahh…” she breathes. I have a strong suspicion that she does not actually need to breathe.
We stand in the storm for a long moment. I don’t even know what to do with the girl. I can’t bring her back to Ethie, not after what I’ve seen her do, and Security doesn’t seem like such a good choice either. I could deliver her to George’s menagerie of lost children, but one glance at her grotesque articulated legs reminds me that this thing is no child, however young its features appear.
“You didn’t kill me,” I say, half crouching in the lee of the merlon to the girl’s right. “Why?”
“You weren’t an imminent threat. And I thought you might be useful.”
The girl collapses her telescoping supports, which fold into her legs with the sickening precision of a compound fracture played in reverse. She scuttles away from the edge and curls up in the lee of the next merlon from mine. “You are Talbot Liu. Fixer of problems. Bleeder of bastards.”
“If you want to be poetic, I suppose.”
“Well, you might say that I have a rather significant problem.”
“Most people do.”
“Don’t you even want to know my name?”
I shrug, then shiver as a rivulet of icy rain works its way down my spine. “Took this job to find a nameless orphan girl. Kept it when I thought you were a walking organ farm, then when I realized you were something more. No need to change that now.”
“Are you always this incurious?” she asks, exasperated.
“Right now I just want to get you in out of the rain before Security finds you.”
“I need to show you something first.” She stands. Leans on the merlon, looking out up the river towards the mountains north of the city. “Come, see.”
This could be a ploy to get me closer so she can throw me down into the water, but if she wants me dead, there’s little I can do about it.
“What am I supposed to be seeing?” I say, when I’m standing behind her looking up river. Even in the middle of the night there are some glowing windows in the office buildings.
“Look out there, beyond the city. What do you see?”
“Beyond the rain.”
“Look, kid. I’m not a bionic killing machine, or whatever you are. I don’t even have basic implants. I see rain, a swollen river, and a city that’s barely managing to hold itself together.”
“What lies beyond the city?”
“Swamps, mostly. The mire, most of us call them. When the sea rose and the rains became more frequent a lot of low lying towns turned into marshes and mud pits.”
“And beyond that?”
“The foothills. The highways. Plenty of federal territory that’t still clinging to a false dream of civilization.”
“You speak like we’re living in the dark ages.”
I laugh and gesture around us as the rain continues to hammer down on my head. “We’re standing on the battlements in the rain.”
She steps across the gap between us in the blink of an eye. An instant later she has my handy in her fingers and is holding it up in front of my eyes. A video feed appears on the screen, at first blocky and distorted but quickly becoming more clear. Layers of rain peel away to reveal a muddied, but discernible view of the mountainside north of town, near the hydroelectric dam. Lights burn on the grey hill, revealing the vague outline of a compound.
“This is the private residence of Avanti Grey, founder of YuriCo. Do you know who that is?”
I shrug, more concerned with how this creature is commandeering my handy screen than with the homes of corporate executives.
The screen goes blank and the girl tucks it back into my coat pocket. She hops up on to the merlon so she can speak to me at eye level and says, “She is my creator.”
“Oh, kid. Don’t tell me this is some sort of android’s dream thing. I’m not going to help you track down your creator so you can play chess with her, or kill her, or have some deep, meaningful conversation about why you were made.”
“I’m not asking for that. I want you to kill her. And as many of the YuriCo executives as you can.”
I turn away from her and start walking back along the top of the storm wall. This has to be some sort of trap. I’m not above the occasional homicide, but there are too many coincidences here for comfort. My brain starts picking over the events of the last few days, searching for evidence of who could be trying to frame me for a murder. The daemon lashes out at full volume, screaming that Schuster, or Salinas, or Darby, or even dottering old Ethie might have arranged this whole thing. Or maybe Tamar wants my share of the club and would rather see me exiled, or killed in a shootout with Security, than try to buy it from me legit.
“Nope,” I snap aloud, as much to tell my daemon to force halt, shutdown, and leave me alone as to reject the girl’s request.
“You haven’t heard what I have to offer,” she insists, catching up to me and pivoting around to walk backwards in front of me. Even in the dark she moves across the rain slick concrete with the grace and confidence of a ballerina on stage. An angry pre-pubescent ballerina draped in a sodden orange dress and carrying at least one concealed weapon, to be sure, but once settled the image will not leave my mind.
“Not an assassin.”
“Bullshit. I did some research on you, Talbot. There’s nothing that Security could use to nail an exile case, but you’ve got quite the reputation among the middle class here in the city. Seems you’re not only part owner of one of the finest pleasure houses in the middle districts, but also an off the books fixer of all problems great and small. More than a few former deadbeats were eager to send their next payment early when I called them up and dropped your name.”
“You’re calling people?” I ask, pausing on the steps to look down at the girl. “You’re throwing my name around?”
“I’m making sure that you are who I think you are. That my instincts were right giving you that chip instead of gutting you in that hotel.”
I shake my head, slowly.
“I want you to help me steal some data from an offline vault, and then I want you to kill them all. Every one of the YuriCo executives.”
I continue climbing down the steep staircase. “And what could they have done to deserve that?
“They created me.”
“Kid, as much as there are plenty of people whose parents should have been killed before they could get together, I’m not going to say that just creating you is reason enough to kill somebody.”
“Do you even know what I am?”
“Some sort of infiltration drone? Maybe some sort of creepy sex bot?”
She shakes her little head and crosses her arms, standing in the rain before the opening to the passage I need to take to leave.
“OK, maybe you’re more benign than that. A companion bot, made to comfort childless couples. Though why you’d need leg braces and a hand cannon for that job is beyond me.”
“Surely you aren’t this stupid, Talbot. I’ve read your Federal files. You—”
“You’ve what?” I snarl, lurching forward and bending down so my nose is inches from hers. I feel the hilt of a ceramic blade in my left hand as my body prepares to lash out.
“Your Federal file. I’ve got access to almost anything, Talbot.”
“What are you? Some sort of restrillect? A full-blown syntellect that’s gone obsessed with taking down the company that created you?”
My fingers slip the knife back into its slot in my sleeve and I stand upright, taking a step back.
“You had to suspect it. What, did you think that this body was remotely controlled? Or that I was actually a little girl with some sort of implants?” She shakes her head and taps one finger to her temple. “I think all that alcohol has dulled your mind, Talbot. You worked alongside recursive neural networks when you were in intelligence.”
“I guess I figured you might be a remote unit. Maybe some sort of… I don’t know… restrillect intended to infiltrate by imitating a human child.”
“That sounds more like the Talbot Liu the Feds were so eager to hire twenty-five years ago,” she says, smiling.
I push past her and step through the opening the nanites cut into the gate. Ethie’s bicycle is still there.
“I’m still not clear on why I should help you. Creating a syntellect isn’t exactly unethical. It isn’t even unusual.They just usually hardwire restrictions to avoid this exact problem.”
“That’s just what the company is doing now. I saw all their records, Talbot. I know what else they’ve done and, maybe worse, what they haven’t done.”
“How could inaction be worse?”
“YuriCo could have stopped Red Easter.”
That gets me.
She must have known it would.
I freeze where I stand and take several slow, deep breaths. Then I lean the bike back agains the wall and turn, slowly, to fix my eyes on the girl. Words pour from my lips with creamy smoothness as glare down at her with dead eyes. “Say that again if it is true. But I’m warning you, if it’s a lie I will kill you. Whatever in bloody hell you are, I will hunt you down and dump every last chip into a metal foundry if you are lying.”
She steps closer and looks up at me with those unnervingly lifelike eyes set in the face of an innocent. “YuriCo and their allies could have prevented Red Easter. Not the initial outbreak, but they had the bacteriophage technology to arrest the spread for months before it was released to the public. You help me get the data I want and I’ll pay you well. If you kill the executives, I’ll make sure you have all the evidence you need to expose them.”
I turn away from the girl, turn the bike around, and settle myself onto the seat.
I say nothing.
I very nearly begin to pedal away into the rain, but something stays my feet.
I turn and nod towards the handlebars. “Climb on, kid. We need to talk.”