“Sure.” The girl eyed him curiously. “I’m game.”
Rising from the couch, he directed her to follow him to the far side of the den. Seating her in the chair that faced his desk, he stood next to her.
Picking up the vorec, he activated the tunnel and instructed the molly driver to accept open commands. Then he handed the verbal input device to her. She was looking at him expectantly, more at home inside a box than in someone’s apartment. Leaning down and putting his mouth close to her ear, he murmured something too low for Fourhorses to overhear. The social worker looked on uncertainly, her expression reflective of her bemusement.
Katla listened intently, made a face, but finally nodded. Bringing the vorec to her lips, she repeated to the waiting molly the command he had whispered to her.
“Enter Charliebo: dog.”
The holomage that built in the tunnel was so full of life and synthesized expression that a stranger walking into the room at that moment could have been forgiven for thinking it real. It could become more authentic still, Cardenas knew, but it would not do so without provocation of a specific, specialized kind that Katla soon-to-be-Harmony would hopefully never encounter. Leaning farther forward, he spoke into the vorec.
“Charliebo, the person next to me is Ms. Harmony Francis. She’s a good friend of mine. I’d like you to be her friend, too.”
The extraordinarily lifelike holomage of the big German shepherd gazed solemnly back at him. Then it turned its attention to the girl, glowing tongue lolling loosely from the left side of its mouth, tail of shimmering crunch wagging briskly, regarding her out of eyes composed of incalculable accumulations of intricately compiled ocular grams.
Katla was entranced. “What can he do?”
“You’d be surprised. I was surprised. I could tell you, but I’d rather let you experiment on your own. Charliebo’s very versatile.
He’ll play with you, and keep you company, and even watch over you.” He put a comforting, paternal hand on her shoulder. “And you can have him with you whenever you want, wherever you go. Wherever there’s access to the Big Box, that’s where you’ll find Charliebo.” He stepped back. “Why don’t you two get acquainted?”
Thoroughly spellbound, she lost herself in making friends with the canine gram. Leaving her to the screen, Cardenas and Fourhorses quietly made their way back to the sitting area that faced the wide phototropic window.
The social worker was beyond impressed. “That’s the most realistic animal program I’ve ever seen! Where did you buy it?”
“I didn’t buy it. It’s an outgrowth of some work I had to do a while ago, at GenDyne. Charliebo was a real dog. My dog. For a while, years ago, he was also my eyes. He died doing his job, but the essence of him got vacced and turned into an independent psychomorph. Don’t ask me to explain the technology. Better box designers than I are still trying to figure it out. But organic or grammatic, he’s still my dog. Now he’s Katla’s, too, even if he exists only as a morphological resonance haunting the deepest interstices of the Big Box.”
Fourhorses struggled to understand. “You said he could be her friend. That much I understand. But what did you mean when you said he could watch over her?”
Cardenas’s expression grew serious. “If the situation requires it, Charliebo can go fully tactile.”
Her jaw dropped. “No private gram can go tactile! That kind of technology is restricted to the military.” He said nothing; simply gazed back at her. She exhaled sharply and nodded slowly. “Okay, I’m impressed.” She glanced toward the girl, seated before the tunnel at the far end of the room. “You’re sure it can’t hurt her?”
“Charliebo won’t hurt anyone, or anything, that I’ve okayed. She’ll be fine. And even if she never needs to call on him for help, she’ll feel a lot safer knowing that he’s there. It’s like the imaginary gun your father put under your pillow when you were a kid for you to use against the night monsters.”
“Never mind. I’ve got two days off. What are you doing for dinner tonight?”
The look on her face revealed her surprise. Truth be told, he was a little stunned at the alacrity of the offer himself.
It was a month later, as he was sitting in front of the active tunnel in his office downtown, scrolling through the relevant background information on a case he and Hyaki had been assigned to investigate, when the declaration brazenly splashed itself across infovoid before him.
REVENGE FOR THE MOCK!
It startled him, and Angel Cardenas was not one to be easily startled. It sat there, glowing softly before his eyes, the letters floating in the darkness of the tunnel. His first reaction was that it was a joke, probably concocted by Hyaki or some of the boys in Records.
But a quick trace failed to identify the sender or the source, and a deeper probe quickly lost itself in the nether mists and mysteries of the Big Box. One thing he was able to determine: irregardless of who had sent it, it had not originated within the Department.
That did not preclude it being a gag perpetrated by a friend or colleague. Even so … He made a record of it and the relevant back-trail, as far as he was able to trace it. Could it have originated with one of The Mock’s subordinates? Most of them were incarcerated, awaiting trial or already serving time. But there was no guarantee that the sweep that had been carried out based on the detailed information supplied by Katla Mockerkin had caught absolutely everyone.
There was the hostile gram, of course. The one that had sought the capture or elimination of The Mock’s daughter. The one that had almost drowned him at the Mock’s underwater command center in Southeast Texas. That mollysphere had been dismantled and dissected, providing a rich lode of infocrunch to law enforcement authorities in ten countries.
Had the central molly spit out a last, vengeful command prior to being severed from its box and extracted? Retribution was not a quality that was usually attributed to inert boot grams. Suppose some last-minute, apostate permutation of The Mock’s main molly had escaped detection, and from its base in Belize or Barbados or Botswana was contemplating vengeance against the federale responsible for the termination of its core activities?
It was a thoroughly outrageous notion. Few would have granted it even a moment’s credence. But Cardenas had spent more time probing the Big Box than most, and had seen the worst of what it could do. It was a strange land, the Box. A place where no one, even those who added to it and maintained it and used it on a daily basis, entirely understood the nature of what they were working with. A place that was continuously evolving. Usually in concert with humankind—but sometimes, according to whom you chose to believe, without it. Who could say what was and was not possible within the mysterious, half-magical mathematical milieu that was the Box?
It did not matter whether someone had a gun pointed at him or a gram: he took any and all threats seriously. He would treat this one no differently. If it was a gag, he would have words with the perpetrators. If it was a gram, he would have input.
Picking up the vorec, he began to fight back.
The leaves of brown came tumbling down. Harmony Francis sat in the window seat of her second-floor Vermont bedroom watching them pile up on the lawn outside the house. It was a quiet September Sunday morning. Her adopted siblings were still asleep. They slept longer than she did because they were used to quiet Sunday mornings. Since she had enjoyed very few in her life, they were still a novelty to Harmony. As such, she did not want to miss or waste a single one of them.
Her Uncle Jim walked into view, powerake in hand, and proceeded to embark on the eternal New England early-fall outing known as mustering the leaves. Downstairs, she knew, Aunt Loise would be synthing batter for blueberry waffles to go with the eggs and bacon and chocolate whale milk.
A sound drew her attention away from the window. Looking down, she saw a six-legged machine the size of her thumb standing on the carpet next to her left foot. Four tiny lenses peered back up at her as the miniscule head cocked curiously to one side. A soft, continuous, and not unpleasant mechanical purr emanated from the device.
“Well,” she exclaimed in quiet surprise, “where did you come from? Out of that mouse hole in the attic?” A familiar child’s ditty sprang unbidden into her head. How many wugs would a wise wug whip if a wise wug would whip wugs?
Wugs watched, but did not interact. That was the commonly accepted wisdom. Instead of simply staring, or withdrawing, this one approached. Aunt Loise would panic if she saw it, Harmony knew, and Uncle Jim would probably take a swing at it with the nearest shovel or shoe. After a moment’s hesitation, she reached down. The wug immediately scuttled forward and into her palm. Lifting it up, she stared wonderingly into its quartet of miniature ruby-red lenses.