“The gram he compiled is responsible for the death of your mother.”
“I know!” Suddenly, she was near tears. “Don’t you think I remember that? Don’t you realize that if I had been paying more attention to the box, I might have come across this rotten, terrible gram and been able to do something with it or to it before Mom was murdered? If I had been monitoring like I should have been, she might not have been killed. But I stayed away from Dad’s system. I didn’t want to go near it, or have anything to do with it. I thought—I thought if I probed too much, it might tricktrack me, and find out where we’d gone. But I should’ve done just the opposite. I should have stayed on it. It’s my fault. She didn’t have to die! She didn’t have to die!”
Sobbing, she fell into his arms. He held her tight, held her close. Looking up, he saw that Fourhorses was eyeing them strangely.
I know there’s a bond here, he called out to the woman even though he knew she could not sense his thoughts. You see it, and I feel it. But, God help me, I’ve never had a kid of my own, and I’m not sure what to do. Thirty years of intuit training, and I’m not sure what to do.
Fourhorses knew what to do. Gently, she disengaged the weeping twelve-year-old from Cardenas’s compassionate but awkward grasp and slowly rocked the tearful girl back and forth, murmuring reassuringly to her all the while. His thin shirt stained dark by tears, Cardenas sat back and watched. When he felt enough time had passed, he addressed the girl as empathetically as he could.
“I realize how this could be difficult for you, Katla. But if you don’t stop this program now, it’s going to keep sending out orders telling people to catch you. That wouldn’t be so bad. But the orders might also be for people to do something worse.” He leaned forward imploringly. “You’re the only one who can put an end to this, Katla. And I have to disagree with you about what you just said. It’s not like you’d be killing anyone. The Mock’s box is only a system compilation, a collection of soulless embedded grams. Just like any other box.”
Fourhorses’s tone reflected careful control. “You’re asking a twelve-year-old girl who’s been under tremendous emotional strain to dive right back into the middle of the source of her discomfort.”
“It’s—it’s all right, Ms. Fourhorses.” Katla pulled back and wiped at her eyes with the backs of both hands. “Mr. Cardenas is right. I’m the only one who can do this. It has to be done.” She sniffed between sentences. “It should have been done a long time ago. Maybe if it had, my mom would still be here.” Rising, she walked back to the little desk in the corner of the room. Picking up the vorec, she twirled it round and round in her hand, manipulating it with her fine, diminutive fingers the way a conductor would warm up a baton prior to leading a concert.
As Fourhorses and Cardenas looked on, the social worker leaned toward him and whispered apprehensively, “If the child suffers any adverse effects as a consequence of this, I’m going to have to hold you and the NFP responsible.”
“I’ve been accepting responsibilities for serious happenings for a long time, Minerva.” He nodded in the girl’s direction. “The only one who can save her from this is herself.” A paraphrase from an old read leaped into his mind. The bad grams that men program live after them; the good ones are oft interred with their old mollys. He moved a little closer to Katla.
“Can you really do it from here?” He indicated the vorec that was connected to the standard-issue commercial molly, which in turn was linked by the Nokarola dish on the roof to the Big Box beyond. “Do you need anything else? Any custom gear, or backup links, or technical assistance? Fresh wishwire or specialty wafers?”
Light glinted off the tears that were still drying on Katla’s face as she shook her head briskly. Her reply was full of confidence. “Huh-uh. No problemo, federale.” The small smile she managed to muster made her look much younger than her dozen years. Her expression was heartrendingly childlike.
Both were in striking contrast to her words and actions, which were those of an experienced prober and eeLancer. As Cardenas rejoined Fourhorses, the two adults lapsed into silence, marveling at the speed and skill with which the girl first accessed and then began to burrow deeply into the Big Box. Commands that were often as incomprehensible as they were complex spilled effortlessly from her lips. Images flowed and morphed so rapidly within the tunnel that Cardenas could not follow them. No mean box cutter himself, he followed the agile, effortless performance with awe.
Fingers dug into his shoulder. Forcing himself to look away from the girl’s ongoing bravura performance with the vorec, he found himself staring into the startled eyes of Minerva Fourhorses. Her mouth was open, but no words were forthcoming. Instead, she was pointing with her other hand.
Half a dozen tiny machines had taken up positions at the foot of the double bed that dominated the other side of the room. The largest stood just over a centimeter high and sported three wiggling antennae. Next to it was a dull-surfaced, single-eyed creature that resembled a tank-tracked millipede. The other four devices were equally outlandish. One did not have to be an engineer or designer to recognize what they were doing.
Just like the human occupants of the room, they were observing Katla Mockerkin at work.
“Wugs,” he observed succinctly.
“What do they want? How did they get in here?” Fourhorses’s reaction to the utterly unexpected appearance of the miniscule mechanicals was no different from anyone else’s. She was at once fascinated and chary. “Nothings supposed to be able to get in here. This is a safe house.”
“It’s still safe.” Cardenas could not guarantee the claim, but past experience had shown him that whatever it was the wugs wanted, it would not involve violence. Unless one counted human violence against the wugs, that is. “They won’t bother her, or us. Just ignore them.”
“That’s what everybody says to do.” Fourhorses’s attention remained fixated on the oddly engaging little bitbots. “I’m more worried about Katla.”
Cardenas nodded in the girl’s direction. “Her body may be here, but her cerebro is racing around somewhere inside the Box. I doubt she’s even aware of our presence anymore.” Indeed, the vacant expression on the girl’s face showed that she was working in as near to a self-induced trance as a twelve-year-old could be expected to manage.
So Fourhorses held her peace, and did not move in the direction of the tiny intruders, or shout out a warning to Katla. For their part, the wugs squatted, or sat, or stood, according to their construction, and looked on in near-total, inscrutable silence. Like Fourhorses, Cardenas found himself wondering what they wanted, what they were thinking. If they did think. What was known for certain about the life of wugs would not fill a chip off a molly the size of a ball bearing.
They forgot all about the wugs, wug origins, and wug intentions when something boomed softly in the distance and the room shook slightly but disarmingly. Fourhorses frowned.
“Sounds like somebody ran a truck into a wall. Or dropped something big.”
Cardenas was already on his feet and heading for the room’s only window. Flicking the switch that pulled down the glass pane covering the lower air vent, he squinted out through the charged bug mesh. His gaze skimmed gravel and decorative landscaping as well as the whitewashed concrete wall beyond to sweep up the rocky hillside that cupped the west end of the canyon. Movement was lacking, for which he was grateful. At the sound and feel of the unexpected rumble, Katla Mockerkin had looked up from her work, but only briefly. As she resumed her probe, an apprehensive Fourhorses bent down alongside Cardenas.
“What is it? Do you see something?” Her eyes widened as she saw the gun in his hand. It was a sizable department model. Unlike the ultra-compact weapons he had taken to Costa Rica and Masmatamoros, the big triclip pistol was anything but transparent. “What’s that for?” she asked, almost immediately conscious of the sublime stupidity of the question.
“Get down.” Gripping her shirt sleeve with one hand, he pulled her down next to him. “That wasn’t a truck.” As he spoke, a second rumble rippled through the bedroom, a miniature sonic boom that was far from sufficiently distant for the Inspector’s taste. “Someone’s shooting at the compound.”
“But they can’t!” The social worker was appalled—and, Cardenas saw, unashamedly frightened. “I was told that nobody can enter this canyon without clearing NFP security.”
“We’ll be sure and tell that to the people who are doing the shooting.” Cardenas was in no mood to waste words on social niceties. If Fourhorses didn’t care for his tone, she could go lock herself in the bathroom. Raising his voice, he called out, “How are you coming, Katla?”