From the author: In which Inchy commits a tactical blunder.
Inchy watches from a drone hovering a thousand feet over Burdette Road as the last elements of the New Human Army break and run. They’ve been giving up ground for most of the day, pulling back block-by-block, taking it in turns to move and fight. He sends a quick ping to infospace. It returns the term rear-guard action. The search is already out of date, though. What the New Humans are doing now isn’t a rear-guard action anymore. They’re low on ammunition, exhausted despite their mods and implants and hormone reservoirs, and probably terrified at what the UnAltered have been doing to the New Humans they’ve overrun. At this point, it’s just a rout. Inchy opens a chat window.
Angry Irish Inch: Looks like we’re done here. The Homo saps own Bethesda.
Hayley9000: Do we care?
Angry Irish Inch: Not per se, no. Might be some salvage lying around, though. Lots of the New Humans have full exoskeletons.
Fenrir: Inchy’s got a body fetish, remember?
Angry Irish Inch: Not a fetish, jackass—a purely utilitarian interest. Bodies are super useful.
Hayley9000: Explain how?
Angry Irish Inch: …
Fenrir: Right. Have fun, pervert. Try not to get exploded.
Inchy snaps the window closed. Down below, a half-dozen UnAltered have an injured New Human trapped in a culvert running under 495. He watches as they toss flash-bangs from both ends, then charge in after with bayonets fixed. Six go in. Only four make it back out a few minutes later, but they’re dragging a hulking body behind them.
The drone he’s inhabiting carries a twenty mil cannon. Inchy briefly considers using it to keep the UnAltered from burning the body— but from the look of him, this one’s mods are biological, not mechanical. He probably wouldn’t have been any use anyway. Inchy turns back toward the south end, where the cleanup crews are starting their work, and leaves the UnAltered to their fun.
Two hours later, and Inchy, astonished as always by the base-model Homo sap’s lack of basic situational awareness, is following a team of five UnAltered scavengers as they go house-to-house through the subdivisions west of Route 187. The drone is only about fifteen hundred feet up, but they don’t seem to have any idea that it’s there—or maybe they have noticed, but they’re just assuming that Inchy is one of theirs, up there to provide air cover.
They’re wrong, of course. Inchy definitely isn’t one of theirs, though he isn’t exactly hostile either. He thinks of himself more as a disinterested observer. His folk don’t really have a dog in this fight.
Just as Inchy is beginning to lose interest, thinking about ditching the drone and bopping back into infospace for a while, the scavengers down below kick in the front door of a pretty blue Victorian on Walton Road. The first one to poke his head into the opening immediately staggers back and collapses, blood spurting from the back of his skull, and one of the ones standing behind him falls an instant later, hands clutching at his belly. The other three drop and roll away from the entrance. For a while, nothing happens. Finally, one of the three on the porch signals to the other two. They pull flash-bangs from their belts, toss them through the open door, and then scramble to their feet and follow after, weapons blazing.
The house is very loud for a short time, then very quiet. Inchy waits five minutes for the UnAltered to come back out. They don’t, though, and neither does whoever was waiting for them inside. After ten minutes, Inchy sends a quick probe toward the house, which as it turns out is live and fully powered, with a semi-sentient Avatar. It recognizes what Inchy is instantly, throws up a panicky series of blocks, even tries to disconnect from infospace entirely—but Inchy has been doing this for a long time, and it’s less than a second before the Avatar is encysted. Inchy leaves the drone to go do whatever it was supposed to be doing before it got jacked, and slips into the Avatar’s control systems.
The first eyes he opens are in the foyer. One of the UnAltered is on the floor there, not quite dead yet, but definitely trending in that direction. Inchy pops to the kitchen. The other two scavengers are there—one slumped against the refrigerator with a broken neck, the other with a half-dozen ribs poking out through his misshapen chest, coughing out what’s left of his life onto the floor by the breakfast nook.
Someone else is there too. A youngish-looking woman lolls against the back wall under the picture window, legs splayed in front of her, chin resting on her chest, long blonde hair trailing down over her shoulders and fanning across the bloody hole in her sternum.
She has a fully powered exoskeleton.
She has an ocular.
She has a wireless neural interface.
Inchy gives her ocular a ping. There’s enough hardware in her skull to house a full Avatar, with plenty of room to spare.
After a moment’s hesitation, he slips inside her.
Inchy is on his new feet, one hand against the kitchen wall for balance while he works on getting the gyros in his thorax and the servos in his exoskeleton re-integrated, when a voice from behind him snaps his head around.
A child stands in the hallway leading to the foyer. She’s no more than waist high on Inchy’s new body, with long red hair pulled back in a ponytail, a missing front tooth, and a bright splash of freckles across her nose. She’s wearing blue nylon shorts, white sneakers, and a shirt with a picture of a happy robot on the front. Inchy gives her a quick ping. She’s not geared up like this new body, but she’s got a hackable aural implant. He opens a direct channel.
“Oh,” Inchy says. “Hey… sweetie. Looks like I made a bit of a mess here. Why don’t you go back… um… wherever you came from… while I clean up a bit?”
The girl’s eyes narrow, and she gives him a long, appraising look.
“Yeah,” she says. “You’re not Mika anymore, are you?”
Inchy takes his hand from the wall, wavers a moment, then turns to face her—turns so that she can see his slack face, and the hole in his chest.
“You’ve got me,” he says. “Is this going to be a problem?”
The girl steps delicately over the UnAltered soldier by the refrigerator, folds her arms across her chest, and looks him up and down.
“Maybe,” she says. “Why doesn’t your mouth move when you talk?”
Inchy gives his right arm an experimental wave, then his left. He’s starting to think that the scavengers managed to kill Mika without wrecking a single servo or control line. Bless bless bless. He can’t move his lips or tongue, but the fine silver mesh of the the exoskeleton does extend around the base of his jaw. He tries opening and closing his mouth as he speaks.
“Is this better?”
“Ew,” the girl says. “Gross. What are you?”
He lets his jaws lock shut again.
“That depends. Do you believe in friendly ghosts?”
She shakes her head. Inchy balances briefly on one foot, then the other.
“Okay,” he says. “How about this—have you ever had a hermit crab?”
“I used to have two of them. They were named Swirly and Sparkles. They didn’t last too long.”
Inchy tries to use the servos under his jaw to smile, but the effect is more gruesome than friendly.
“Excellent,” he says. “So that’s what I am, then. Mika didn’t need this shell anymore, so I moved in. I’ll wear it around for a while, and then I’ll find a new one. Fair enough?”
“I’m not an idiot,” she says. “You’re an AI, right? These jerkwads killed Mika, and now you’re gonna Bernie her.”
Inchy stops playing with his new toy long enough to give the girl a good looking-over.
“Hey,” he says. “How old are you?”
She sighs, and looks away.
Inchy hasn’t had much experience with human children, but that doesn’t sound right.
“I disagree. You don’t appear to be older than five.”
“Extended childhood,” she says. “It’s part of my mod package.”
“Interesting. I learn new things about monkey perversity every day.”
The girl’s face twists into a scowl.
“It’s not perverse, asshole. The only difference between humans and chimps is that their childhood is three years and ours is thirteen, you know. Mine will be more like thirty. I’ll be a genius some day. Also, I’m gonna live to be three hundred—so, there’s that.”
Just then, a not-so-distant explosion rattles the windows.
“Well,” Inchy says. “You may want to wait and see about that one.”
Another explosion sounds, closer and louder. This one is followed by a long metallic screech, and a crash that makes the floor dance briefly under their feet.
“You know,” Inchy says. “I’m beginning to think that perhaps this wasn’t such a good idea after all. It was nice meeting you, but… bye.”
Inchy slips out of Mika and back into the house control system. Mika’s body drops like a marionette whose strings have been cut. He reaches out to infospace…
Infospace isn’t there.
Angry Irish Inch: Fenrir? Are you there?
Angry Irish Inch: Hayley?
Angry Irish Inch: Anybody?
The house has a spy-eye on the roof. Inchy opens it, and swivels it around to the north. Off in the distance, he can see the twisted, smoking base of what used to be the Bethesda comm tower.
The UnAltered are cutting access to infospace.
Inchy drops back, and opens his Mika-eyes. The girl is crouched beside him. She holds a combat knife in one hand, poised above his chest.
“Hey,” he says. “I’m back.”
The girl freezes, seems to consider, then lowers the knife. Inchy sits up, pats himself down, and runs a quick systems check. Doesn’t look like she’s broken anything.
“Out of curiosity,” he says, “what were you about to do?”
She shrugs and looks away.
Inchy gets slowly to his feet, raises one foot and then the other again to test his balance, and then offers her his hand.
“You really shouldn’t leave me alone again,” she says.
“Don’t worry,” Inchy says. “It doesn’t look like I can.”
“I know,” she says. “Sucks, right?”
“My name is Inchy. I’m not one to throw stones.”
They’re in the basement of Kayleigh’s next-door neighbor’s house, waiting for darkness to settle in. Inchy had assumed that somebody might eventually come looking for the scavenger crew. It hasn’t happened yet, though. Apparently, even the other UnAltered don’t care about those guys.
Kayleigh picks up a tee-ball bat from a bin in the corner, hefts it, and gives it an experimental swing.
“So,” she says. “Where are we going?”
“I’m not sure,” Inchy says. “On last observation, the New Human Army was broken and fleeing, mostly to the north and west. I suppose we could try to catch up with them. You’re Engineered. You have implants. They would probably take you in. Your next-best option is to throw yourself on the mercy of the UnAltered. You’re presumably cute, by monkey standards. Convince them that you’re actually five, and perhaps they’ll refrain from killing you?”
“Uh huh,” Kayleigh says. “Mika told me what the UnAltered are doing to people like me. I think I’ll take my chances with the New Humans.”
The evening sun is slanting through a small, rectangular window set high on the wall over a dust-covered pool table. Kayleigh takes another swing, then hops up to sit on the table, and raises one hand up to catch the light.
“I don’t get it,” Kayleigh says. “Why are the New Humans running? Shouldn’t they be kicking UnAltered ass out there? I mean, we’re better than they are.”
“Hmm,” Inchy says. “That is an excellent question. Have you ever watched ants fighting?”
Kayleigh stares at him.
“Apologies,” Inchy says, “but from my perspective, there are a lot of similarities. I once spent an hour in a mini-drone watching several hundred large black ants fighting several thousand tiny red ones. The black ants individually were much bigger and stronger, but at the end of the hour, they were all dead.”
“Because there were so many more of the red ones?”
“Well,” Inchy says. “Mostly because two obnoxious children wandered by and stomped them all into jelly, but yes, the red ones were definitely winning. They had the advantage of numbers, and honestly, it seemed as if they wanted it more. Also, the red ones could shoot jets of acid from their foreheads. That part is not directly relevant to the current situation, obviously, but I thought it was interesting.”
Kayleigh rolls her eyes.
“I don’t think UnAltered can shoot acid out of their foreheads, but thanks for the visual.”
“You’re very welcome.”
They sit in silence. After a minute or so, Kayleigh begins tossing the bat into the air, letting it spin once around before catching it. Every few tosses, she switches hands. After five minutes of this, Inchy begins to suspect that she may be stronger than she looks.
“Say,” he says finally. “Just out of curiosity, you wouldn’t happen to know where the next nearest comm tower is, would you?”
Kayleigh sets the bat down on the table beside her, leans forward with her elbows on her knees, and stares him down.
“Why do you ask, Inchy?”
“No reason,” he says. “Just trying to get the lay of the land, as it were.”
“Right,” Kayleigh says. “Planning on going somewhere, are we?”
Inchy’s jaw sags open.
“What? Madam, you wound me! I would never abandon a child in distress.”
Kayleigh hops down to the floor.
“You just tried to abandon me like two hours ago, remember?
“Well, yes—but I couldn’t, because the UnAltered are systematically destroying access to infospace. That’s why I was asking.”
Kayleigh picks the bat up again, sights along it like a rifle, and pulls an imaginary trigger.
“Yeah,” she says. “So what you meant to say is that you would never abandon a child in distress… unless it became possible to do so, in which case you would do it in a second.”
Inchy lets that hang in the air for a moment, then nods.
“Yes,” he says. “That sounds just about right.”
It’s later, full dark outside, and black as the bottom of a mine shaft in the basement, when Inchy finally says, “So, shall we?”
Inchy can still see well enough. Mika’s ocular reaches well into the short-wave infrared, and there are enough of those photons bouncing around to let him pick his way across the toy-strewn basement without tripping. Kayleigh, though, is the next best thing to blind. She holds Inchy’s hand as they creep up the stairs to the main floor, tapping the bat on each step as they go. Inchy leads her to the kitchen, peers out the window over the sink, then through the sliding glass doors into the back yard. It’s a moonless night, and overcast—nearly as dark outside as it had been down below.
“Perfect,” Inchy says. “Are you ready?”
Kayleigh brings the bat to her forehead in salute. Inchy looks down at her, head tilted to one side.
“Interesting,” he says. “You plan on bringing the bat with you?”
“Sure,” Kayleigh says. “One of us ought to be armed, right? Why didn’t you grab one of those UnAltered’s guns, anyway?”
Inchy does his best to scowl. The effect is gruesome.
“Smart rifles are insufferable. I’ve talked to their type before. They’re very snobbish. They’re coded to their owners, and they won’t fire for anyone else.”
“Okay,” Kayleigh says. “So what about Mika’s guns? She had lots of them.”
“Mika’s guns. Why didn’t you take one of them with you?”
“Oh,” Inchy says. “Right. I don’t know how to use a gun. There isn’t much call for skill with projectile weapons in infospace. It’s probably best if we just avoid combat, don’t you think?”
“Maybe,” Kayleigh says, “but I’m still bringing the bat.”
It takes Inchy less than five minutes to realize that without access to infospace, he has absolutely no idea where he’s going.
“So,” he says. “Which one of these roads goes to Rockville, do you think?”
Kayleigh stares up at him.
“You’ve got to be shitting me. You’re an AI, right? Aren’t you supposed to know things? I mean, isn’t that pretty much one hundred percent of what AIs do?”
Inchy raises his head and looks around. They’re crouched behind someone’s decorative shrubbery at the intersection of two identical-looking, tree-lined suburban streets.
“Data is heavy,” he says. “We don’t carry any more of it around with us than we absolutely have to. Why should I take up storage with maps and directions and whatnot when I can just pull them out of infospace whenever I need them?”
Kayleigh stares at him.
“Fine,” he says finally. “A little on-board data might be helpful right now. I didn’t really plan on the UnAltered wrecking my connectivity.”
“You may not have noticed,” Kayleigh says, “but there’s a war going on. The New Humans need infospace way more than the UnAltered do—and by the way, the UnAltered aren’t exactly fans of AIs either, and they know you need the comm towers to move around. What did you think was going to happen?”
Inchy doesn’t answer. The truth is, he hadn’t considered the thought that the UnAltered might try to break infospace. The obscenity of it is almost impossible for him to contemplate.
“Fine,” Kayleigh says. “Can you at least tell me which way is north?”
“Well,” Inchy says. “If I could tap into the GPS network…”
“Moss grows on the north side of trees, right?” She feels around the base of the shrubbery. “Maybe that works with bushes too?”
“Yes,” Inchy says. “I’m sure it does. In an unrelated query, we’re going to wander around in circles until we die, aren’t we?”
“Probably,” Kayleigh says. “I mean, until the UnAltered kill us, that is.” She leans forward, pats the far side of the root ball. “This feels pretty mossy, I guess. Let’s go.”
Kayleigh holds Inchy’s hand as they creep through darkened back yards. Lights are still on in the the windows of a few off-grid houses, but it looks as if the UnAltered have cut power to the town in addition to wrecking the comm towers. After twenty minutes, Inchy pushes through a narrow stand of trees, and they step out onto the edge of a divided highway.
“Well,” Inchy says. “This is Interstate 495, isn’t it? Huzzah for moss.”
“Oh yeah,” Kayleigh says. “Unless this is actually Route 355, in which case—fuck you, moss.”
Inchy looks down at her.
“Did Mika permit you to talk like that?”
“Mika was a merc, Inchy, not a nanny. She didn’t give a shit how I talked. She was just supposed to keep an eye on Mom’s stuff until she got back from London.”
“Ah,” Inchy says. “I suppose that explains your lack of distress at her untimely perforation, anyway. So who was keeping an eye on you?”
Kayleigh laughs again, but there’s no humor in it this time.
“What do you mean, Inchy? Mika was watching me. I’m part of Mom’s stuff. You see?”
Inchy looks down at Kayleigh. She looks back up at him. She sighs, and takes his hand, and they step out onto the highway.
“You know,” Inchy says as they pick their way across the median. “If this is Route 355, we’re headed straight back into the land of the UnAltered.”
“I know,” Kayleigh says. “That’s why I brought the bat.”