Saskia leaned into the darkness above the stage, only vaguely aware of the wood rail against her hips as she retied the left headstring on her marionette. On the stage below, the Snow Queen’s head eased into balance. The marionette telegraphed its stance back up the strings to the control in Saskia’s hands. She ran the Snow Queen across the set to check the repair, barely conscious of her own body on the bridge above the stage. It was almost like being immersed in an AR suit.
One of the techies called up. “Hey, Saskia? There’s a detective here for you.”
She stopped abruptly and the marionette continued its motion in a long pendulum swing. Detective? At the foot of the ladder, the techie stood next to a stocky man.
If she hadn’t taken her Specks off, she might have gotten an alert from her interface about who he was, but she’d caught the lenses once with a puppet control. You only needed to watch them hit the stage floor during a performance one time to swear never to wear them on a bridge again.
Even without the Specks, it was obvious he was a detective. Rather than the slimlines so hip these days, he wore full wraparound AI interface glasses, with an eBud in one ear. Above each eye, a camera provided the AI with stereoscopic vision. At his throat, where you’d usually see a collar stud, he wore another camera.
And that was just the hardware that she could see.
Saskia shivered; AI always made her edgy. They were like puppets in reverse — a soul without a body. She took her time hanging up her puppet before she descended the ladder.
“Ms. Dorlan? I’m Agent Jared Patel with the FBI, and I’m accompanied by the AI Metta G. FBI.” Patel’s eyes flashed over Saskia’s shoulder. She glanced back before realizing that he was looking at the AI in his interface glasses. It gave her the creeps. “Do you have an interface she could sync in on?”
“My fans are usually a little younger…” She tried to use humor to lighten the tension, but Patel’s lips barely curved in response.
“We need to talk to you about eDawg.”
Saskia had done the motion-capture for eDawg in the series eCity, but she could not, for the life of her, figure out why the FBI would be investigating the puppet. They hadn’t filmed a new episode in over a year.
Unless, holy crap, unless this was about one of the toys the series had spun off. Maybe one of their tiny terrier brains had gone rogue and killed some rich kid. It had to be a rich kid; they never investigated the deaths of poor ones.
“I realize this will seem like a strange request. Your producers agreed to loan us the eDawg puppet, but only if you oversee its care. They said the controls are customized to you and they didn’t want to risk it with someone else.”
“I’m stunned that they would let the puppet out of the studio at all. You must have a heck of an insurance waiver.”
“We’re the government.” He let that sit between them for a moment, then smiled. It was not comforting. “We’ll compensate you for your time, of course.”
The word compensate changed everything. He wasn’t investigating eDawg; he was offering her a gig. “So you want me to work the puppet?” She itched to get back into the suit again. She loved traditional puppetry, but nothing compared to motion-capture work.
“Our AI will handle that, don’t worry; you’re just there as a formality.”
“Look.” She caught herself before she could start a rant about AIs driving puppeteers out of film and video work. “Even if I were willing, it’s not going to look right.”
“What do you mean?”
“When you recognize someone from a distance, it’s not just their height and weight, it’s how they move. Give the same puppet to different puppeteers and it’ll look like different characters. That’s why they had me do the motion-capture work when they made the toy versions of eDawg.” She stopped suddenly, wondering why they needed the puppet at all. “Can’t you use one of the toys? They look just like eDawg and there are like, thousands of them.”
“We need to have more control of eDawg than a toy would provide.”
“You can have control, but you won’t have eDawg. Not unless it moves like me.”
Patel shifted his gaze to the spot over her shoulder. His jaw worked in silent conversation with his AI partner. Crazy machines had no idea how people thought or moved, yet they thought it could do the job.
Patel looked back at her. “Our agent feels confident that she’ll be able to match your movements.”
“Is this something you can force me to do?”
“Then I can’t see any reason to help someone else do my job.” She grabbed the ladder to climb back up.
Patel leaned forward. “Do you know Hamilton Cruise?”
“Personally? No. Seen him in the news, yeah.”
“His son, Wade, has been kidnapped. The kid’s toy eDawg was the only witness. We’ve got the thing torn apart trying to access its memory without wiping it, but the kidnappers just told us that they want the ransom delivered via eDawg. You say ‘no’ to this, we don’t get to use the puppet. You say ‘no’ and that kid’s life is thrown up in the air.”
Crap. A kid. Saskia stopped where she was on the ladder and rested her head against the rung. “Okay. Let me tell the stage manager where I’m going.”
At the FBI field office, the motion-capture rig dominated the space like a bizarre piece of gym equipment.
In the early days of motion-capture, the performer roamed the studio trailing wires, but the new technology used a universal treadmill floor to allow performers to simulate covering ground while remaining in a single location. In the center of the rig, almost obscured by cables and rods, was the carapace Saskia wore when she performed. It looked like a wire-frame rendering of eDawg. In addition to controls for eDawg’s ears and tail, the carapace had sensors built into it so that when Saskia moved, the system translated her movements via a wireless interface to the puppet’s limbs. Patel’s AI partner would hack into the signal and bypass the rig.
A holo of a woman’s head and shoulders materialized over a desktop interface. She smiled with almost Victorian purity. “I’m Metta. Sorry I couldn’t introduce myself earlier.”
“That’s fine.” Saskia had been in no hurry to meet the AI then, and would be more than happy to skip it now.
For the next fifteen minutes, she watched the smooth purple titanium dog spin through a series of movements, all of which looked indistinguishable from her performance. Even the bark sounded like her. It was uncanny, like the first time she had seen one of the toys activated. Except then she had been watching a three-dimensional recording of her performance. This was different; the AI could replace her. Heck, the AI could be her.
When Metta finished, she turned to Saskia and said, “Am I convincing as eDawg?”
She was convincing as a bitch, yes. But Saskia nodded. “That all looks really good.”
“Thank you.” The A.I. looked unsurprised at Saskia’s praise. “Would you watch us role-play the scenario for dropping the ransom money?”
Patel held the door open. “We’ll have eDawg start as if it were on the street outside the drop location.”
eDawg sniffed the air as it leaned forward, with its ears held upright and tail wagging. The movements looked familiar. They also looked wrong. Saskia said, “That’s from the episode with the eTreats, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” Metta said.
“eDawg was searching for treats then. She shouldn’t be excited here. Think ‘scared’.”
The sniffing changed instantly. eDawg crouched and shivered. She lifted her nose and sniffed twice. Saskia’s jaw dropped. It looked exactly like eDawg emerging from her doghouse in the thunderstorm episode. “Are you doing this by rote?”
“I’m mimicking your movement.”
Saskia glared at Metta. “You can’t just copy what I did in the episodes, you’ll make inappropriate choices.”
Patel pursed his lips and turned to Saskia. “Can you teach her?”
The taste of “no” filled her mouth, but a kid’s life was on the line. “How long do I have?”
They wanted her to teach fifteen years of experience in two hours. Not possible. She bit her lower lip and tried to focus on the problem at hand. “What’s your cue to enter?”
“The kidnapper gave us the address; Mr. Cruise is supposed to drop eDawg off a block away.”
“eDawg wouldn’t understand it if you told her to go to a specific address. You could point her in a direction or tell her to ‘go home,’ but that’s about it.” This was stupid. There was no way she could teach Metta everything she needed to know about the character in time.
Patel’s jaw worked subtly as he subvocalized. Metta gave no outward sign of having a private conversation with him, instead she said, “What sort of signals might eDawg look for?”
“A whistle, a trail of eTreats, a ball… someone familiar? I don’t know. Look —” Saskia caught herself before she could offer to perform eDawg for the ransom drop. She might know puppetry, but there was no way she should be involved in a kidnapping investigation. “You’ll have to hope it’s obvious.”
“Will you show me the correct response to each of those?”
Saskia’s neck stiffened like someone had shoved a control rod through her spine. There was not enough time. “Do you want me to just perform the puppet?” She wanted to call the words back as soon as they were out of her mouth, but she didn’t see a choice if they wanted to get this kid back.
Patel looked at her and smiled. “We were just talking about that.”
“And what have you decided?”
Metta raised her chin. “We’re still discussing it.”
“I think having Ms. Dorlan work the puppet may be our best option.” Patel tugged at the cuff of his shirt and avoided looking at Metta’s interface.
Metta’s nostrils flared, for all the world as if she’d taken a deep, angry breath. “I can learn this.”
“Look.” Saskia raised her hand. “It’s not that I don’t think you can, but it took me fifteen years to get to where I am—”
“With all due respect, I learn faster than you can.” Metta rocked eDawg back on her heels in a perfect match of Saskia’s movement. “I simply need the right instructions, which I am not getting.”
“Excuse me if I don’t offer to upload my brain for you. But, gosh. I can’t. You want to learn this. You have to practice it. And you have two hours. So do you want to practice or do you want me to work the puppet?”
Patel’s jaw moved but he said nothing that Saskia could hear. At her feet eDawg lay down and powered off.
Patel cleared his throat and turned to Saskia. “So you’re willing to work the puppet?”
Saskia ought to have felt vindicated that they recognized her skills, but there were still so many things that could go wrong with this role. But there was this kid, Wade, and underneath that… she loved working eDawg. She loved the purity of motivation in the character and the simple trust of being a dog. “What would I have to do?”
“Not much. You’d carry the money in saddlebags and wait for the kidnappers to send you back with instructions. We’ll use the cameras built into the puppet to map the location.” Patel seemed to sense Saskia’s unease. “It’s extremely unlikely that Wade will be there. Typically, the kidnappers keep the victim at a safe distance from the drop location.”
Thank God. The possibility that a mistake might get the kid killed had slowly been making its way to the front of her brain.
Patel gestured to the puppet. “Want to practice?”
“That’s okay.” Puppetry came as easily as breathing. Saskia frowned, remembering all the quirks of the rig. “I think you’ll have to put it in a truck.”
“What? Why?” Patel said. “I thought it was designed to work remotely.”
“It’s designed to work in a studio; the farther away I am, the more likely you are to have a delay or interference with the wireless signal.”
“Ah. What else do you need?”
“I need a picture of Wade.” The toy’s tiny brain would have learned to recognize Wade as its owner and part of eDawg’s character was all about strong loyalty. If she was going to do this part, she was going to do it right. Speaking of doing it right. “And you’ll need to talk to my agent.”
While Patel oversaw transferring the rig to a truck, Metta briefed Saskia on what they knew about Wade’s kidnapping, which was very little. Wade had disappeared from the family home two nights previously. The housekeeper had found Devon Taylor, Wade’s bodyguard, on the floor of Wade’s rec room, dead from a gunshot wound to the chest. Ballistics showed that he had been shot by his own weapon, but it had not been self-inflicted. The forensic evidence suggested that the gun had been fired while the assailant was trying to get it away from Taylor.
The security tapes were erased. There were no signs of forced entry.
The following day, a ransom e-mail had arrived from a free account.
If Wade’s father had carried a kidnapping policy on his insurance, they might have considered him as a suspect, but he didn’t, so he stood to gain nothing. Currently, they were expecting that Saskia would see someone related to a household staff member, but not one of the intimate family members.
“But,” Metta stressed, “I’m only telling you this so you can have appropriate reactions as eDawg. You are not here to investigate. We’ll monitor what you see and evaluate that.”
Saskia nodded and stared at the holo of Wade that Metta was projecting. According to the AI, the boy was thirteen years old. His black hair was slicked back in the latest style and looked like it had a week’s salary worth of styling products in it. But he smiled at the camera with remarkable openness and held eDawg in his lap.
Patel poked his head through the doorway. “We’re ready for you now.”
A thrill of butterflies tingled in her gut. It had been years since a show made her nervous. Not that this was really a show, not in the traditional sense.
From the outside, the truck looked like it belonged to UPS. Inside, it was a studio in miniature.
On a small table, the puppet lay waiting for Saskia’s manipulation to bring it to life. Metta’s virtual-head floated over a desktop interface in the corner of the truck. Boxes were stacked at the front of the rig to shield it from casual view through the truck’s windshield.
The act of strapping herself into the rig soothed Saskia the way she imagined others might feel about yoga. As much as she enjoyed traditional puppetry, motion-capture was the closest she got to actually being something else.
When she was suited up, with a sensor at each of her major joints, and the vowel capture next to her lips, she tweaked the carapace to get the right amount of resistance. A motion-capture rig had a higher level of articulation than a standard AR suit, but it required finer calibration. More importantly, it provided haptic feedback so that she could feel the floor under eDawg’s feet.
Saskia dropped the AR headset in place.
When the feed on the headset went live, Saskia had a moment of disorientation as she adjusted to looking through eDawg’s eyes. Inside the carapace, she flexed her left hand to activate the ears. With her right, she triggered the control that manipulated eDawg’s tail. Then, with each joint, she stretched, checking the range of movement. Saskia’s mind shifted as her consciousness of the puppet’s body became greater than her awareness of her own.
She stood on the table and Patel towered over her. Wagging her tail, she barked for attention.
He jumped, and then, as if he couldn’t help himself, Patel patted her on the head. The rig pushed against her head as it readjusted to the puppet’s new position. It felt as if her head were being patted.
She wagged her tail in a frenzy of pleasure.
Patel grinned sheepishly and looked over to the side. “I know it’s a puppet, but you’re really good.”
Saskia turned her head to follow his gaze and saw herself.
She looked away. The image of her body twitching in a web of cables and rods was not one she needed in her head while she was performing.
Another agent climbed into the truck with Hamilton Cruise behind him. Cruise was lean and sinewy. His eyes were red and his entire body leaned forward as if he wanted something badly.
He examined her, strapped into the rig. “What’s this?”
Patel said, “Ms. Dorlan is the original puppeteer for eDawg. She’s agreed to—”
“The kidnapper asked for Wade’s eDawg. I wasn’t informed about this.”
“It’s a decision we reached this morning.”
“I will not have you taking chances with my son’s life!” The veins in his neck stood out like control cables gone wrong.
Metta said, “Mr. Cruise, we believe that Ms. Dorlan’s participation is the best chance to bring your son out unharmed. She is a professional puppeteer and knows this character better than anyone.”
Saskia stopped fiddling with the sensor at her elbow and stared at Metta. That could not have been easy for the A.I. to say.
“I don’t care if she’s Lassie! I object to this in the strongest possible terms. I demand that you send in Wade’s toy.”
“Sir, even if that were advisable, the toy is currently disassembled as our technicians try to retrieve its memory without wiping it. It is not possible to send the toy in.”
Cruise’s face strobed through a spectrum of color — white, red, and ended in purple. “If anything happens to my boy, you’ll hear from my lawyers. This is gross incompetence.” Scowling, he thrust a pair of saddlebags at Patel. Saskia assumed they contained the ransom money.
Patel strapped the bulging bags to eDawg. As he did, the carapace pressed against Saskia, giving her a sense of the change in weight on the puppet. When he was finished, he patted her flank. “Break a leg.”
Metta whispered in her ear. “I’ll be riding your signal. If you need anything, subvee and I’ll have an agent take care of it.”
“Will do.” Saskia’s heart pounded like this was her first time on stage. “Let’s kick some puppet butt.”
Cruise carried her out to his car like she was covered with mange instead of plastic. As they drove to the rendezvous point, Saskia kept the puppet alive, looking around at the buildings, cars, and pedestrians with the random curiosity of a dog.
When the car stopped, Cruise opened the door to let her out. They were at a street corner in the industrial district. The interstate ran overhead and buildings hunched up against it, almost making a tunnel of the street.
eDawg would not know what to do. She looked up at Cruise and whined.
He pointed. “Go on.”
When he pointed again, angrily, as if she were a real dog, she trotted down the street. The buildings towered over her puppet body and made her feel very small.
The abandoned Masonic lodge where the drop was supposed to occur was at the end of the block, but she could think of no motivation for eDawg to go there. So she sniffed and explored the street, praying for a cue.
The door opened.
Out of the darkness, she heard a short whistle. Thank heavens. Cocking her head, she trotted to the door, pausing to peer inside. The door opened onto a broad, dark lobby.
Three doors spanned the far wall. They were heavy double-doors with amber stained glass in their upper panel. On her right, a fourth door opened on a flight of stairs.
Saskia knew someone had to be behind the front door, but it would never occur to eDawg to look. So she walked to the middle of the room, her hard paws clattering on the marble floor. When the door shut behind her, she yelped and spun.
Wade stood in the shadows.
She bounded toward him with her tail in full wag, fighting the urge to look for the kidnappers; eDawg would only care about her owner.
Wade’s mouth twisted in a smile. “Hello, Edie.”
Saskia’s heart skipped. eDawg had never had a nickname; she liked it.
As Wade stepped forward, the light from the dusty windows caught blood staining the side of his shirt.
Metta whispered in her ear. “Can you get closer to see if it’s his blood?”
As if that hadn’t occurred to her. But it never paid to argue with your stage manager, and that’s what Metta was for this gig, A.I. or no. Saskia sidled closer, begging Wade to pet her, so she could get a closer look. When he knelt without a trace of pain in his movements, she subvocalized back to Metta, “I don’t think it is.” It must belong to his bodyguard. She had a horrible vision of the bodyguard jumping in front of Wade to save him.
“Hey, girl.” Wade’s face was haggard and his hair hung in his eyes with all trace of style gone. He looked younger than his photo.
Her vision of the world swung crazily as Wade scooped her up. “I’ve been so scared, Edie.”
Where were the kidnappers?
She rested her head on Wade’s shoulder and looked around as discretely as she could. The lobby was empty.
He leaned his head against hers. “I’m sorry I left you, but it’s okay now. Right?”
“Right!” she barked, as her mind raced to figure out what he meant.
“That’s my girl.” Wade set her down and unstrapped the saddlebags from her side. “Dad sent it all, huh?”
“Aroo?” She cocked her head at him.
“It’s okay.” Wade peered inside one of the bags. Trotting closer, she stuck her head in the saddlebag to look. He laughed. “It’s just money. No eTreats.”
Sitting on her haunches, she raised her front paws and begged for one of the virtual treats.
“I’ll get you one later. Promise.” The corners of his mouth downturned and he pulled a reset key out of the saddlebag. “Man, I don’t want to do this.”
“What is he —” Metta broke off as the center door opened.
Three skate punks sauntered into the room. One had Day-Glo red hair in a perm like Ronald McDonald. Another was so skinny his elbows had worn holes in his green flannel shirt.
She had to protect her owner. Loyalty was the biggest part of eDawg’s character. Getting between Wade and the skate punks, she growled with all the ferocity an electronic terrier could muster.
Wade’s face paled and he clutched the saddlebags to his chest. “Come on, Edie.”
She backed away slowly, still growling at the punks.
The last punk through the door, a boy no older than Wade and with more piercings than eDawg had bolts, shook his head lazily. “I don’t think so, Wade.”
“Do I know you?” Wade’s voice cracked an octave higher.
“Doesn’t matter.” Piercing Boy leaned against the door.
Trying to keep herself between Wade and the punks, Saskia subveed Metta, “Are you getting this?”
“Yes,” Metta whispered. “We’re considering our options. The one on the left has a gun tucked in his waistband.”
She adjusted the view in Saskia’s AR glasses to highlight a slight bulge under the shirt of the kid who looked like McDonald. Saskia couldn’t see the gun, but MickyD’s body language was filled with confidence.
Taking Wade’s pant cuff in her mouth, she tugged toward the door. Got to get him out of there.
MickyD slipped his gun out and pointed it at Wade.
“What… what’s going on?” Wade retreated a step, making her dance to avoid getting stepped on.
Metta whispered, “When I tell you, get Wade on the ground.”
Saskia’s heart was pounding so hard that it had to be shaking the puppet. She weighed all of six pounds. How the heck was she supposed to get Wade on the floor?
“You’re coming with us.” Piercing Boy gestured to Skinny, who yanked the saddlebag out of Wade’s hands and slung it over his own shoulder. Piercing Boy stepped back through the doors leading deeper into the Masonic temple, as if absolutely certain Wade would follow. Almost before MickyD beckoned with his gun, Wade had already stumbled forward.
In Saskia’s ear, Metta whispered, “Stay with him.”
She trotted as close to Wade as she could, praying that the skate punks would let eDawg follow. They led her and Wade down a long hall flanked on the left by windows with the same amber glass as the lobby doors. As she passed each window, she tensed, expecting Metta’s command to come with a hail of bullets. But she passed through the flashes of light and shadow without hearing anything from the AI.
At the end of the hall, Piercing Boy jogged down a broad set of stairs. Crap. eDawg couldn’t handle steps. Saskia stopped at the top of the steps, whining. Wade, bless him, bent to pick her up.
“What do you think you’re doing?” MickyD held the gun in Wade’s face.
Wade stopped, held still by the gun. His face was pale. “Her legs are too short for the stairs.”
Saskia held her breath; she could see Wade think about snatching the gun. Bad plan. She barked at MickyD to distract both boys.
“Screw that.” MickyD swung his foot forward and kicked her.
Wade shouted, “No!”
Saskia yelped as the world twisted in her vision. The stairs. Wade. A light spun past. Saskia shut her eyes against the nausea, but her harness readjusted brutally, wrenching her limbs into the puppet’s new posture. Her eyes snapped open. This was not supposed to hurt.
eDawg lay on the landing of the stairs, in front of Piercing Boy. Behind him, MickyD and Skinny laughed like kids with a new toy. Piercing Boy kicked her twice, sliding her body to the edge of the steps and then sending her spinning through the air again.
She tried to stay limp as the carapace forced her into new positions, but when the movement stopped, she did not have to act to make eDawg shiver. She dragged herself back to all fours, wincing as her knee protested.
The boys clattered down the stairs, pushing Wade in front of them.
“See. It can go down steps by itself.” Piercing Boy slapped Wade on the back of the head, pushing him past eDawg’s shivering body. Wade looked at her with anguish written on his face; God in heaven, he really cared about Edie. His body tensed as if he were going to spin and punch Piercing Boy. She held his gaze and shook her head.
Wade did a double-take, but he didn’t try anything stupid.
Saskia limped after them, becoming more aware of the fatigue in her real body than she was of the puppet she manipulated. At the end of the hall, the boys disappeared around the corner; Wade’s face briefly shone like a ghost in the dark.
Something scraped across stone. She forced herself into a run, stretching her front legs out and thrusting with her hind legs.
By the time she reached the end of the hall, Skinny was dragging a piece of the wall closed behind him.
Metta said, “Keep it open!”
Saskia barked sharply, hurling herself at the crack. Dodging back and forth, she nipped at Skinny’s ankles. She had never wanted working teeth on eDawg as much as she did now.
“Want me to shoot it?” MickyD said.
“Nah.” Piercing Boy picked a flashlight off the floor. “We’ll just lock it up on this side of the wall.”
Fear trembled down her spine before Saskia remembered that she was in a truck above ground. For the time being, she just needed to keep eDawg close to Wade until the cavalry arrived. Without her, they had no way of knowing where these kids were taking Wade.
Against the far wall, Wade sat on the ground with his hands in his lap. MickyD stood over him, still holding the gun.
Wade raised his head and leaned slightly toward her. His hand twitched as if he wanted to reach out.
Skinny kicked her aside, pushing the stone wall shut. As the wall ground into place, eDawg missed a step. Great. The wall was blocking the signal. She jerked forward with an increasing delay in movement. Saskia slowed down, trying to mask her struggle to manipulate the puppet.
She subveed, “I’m losing the signal. Can you get the truck closer?”
“I’ll tell the driver.”
Saskia crept toward Wade, keeping her head down and her body language as submissive as possible. Expecting MickyD to stop her, she crawled into Wade’s lap and collapsed.
She could not feel the warmth of his body, but she could tell he was petting her by the way her harness shifted gently against her spine. “Shh. It’s okay. Good girl…”
What kind of boy tries to comfort a toy? She pressed her head into his side, wishing she could comfort her owner back, but the signal was too uncertain for specific movement.
Wade pulled her up so her head rested on his shoulder. He whispered, “Record mode, on.”
She pulled her head back to look at him. This close, she could see the circles under his eyes. And inside his eyes, she could see her own reflection — eDawg’s reflection. Wade whispered in her ear, as if he were Metta, “Tell my dad I’m sorry. It was an accident. The gun just went off. I shouldn’t have run away, I was just scared. I’m still scared…”
Saskia wanted to shush him, to tell him that other people were listening, but all she could do was stay in character. She pushed her snout against him, trying to nuzzle comfort into the boy.
MickyD dragged Wade to his feet, tumbling eDawg onto the floor. “Move it.”
Staggering after Wade, she followed the light, determined not to be left behind. She couldn’t leave Wade with these punks. He wasn’t safe. She wagged her tail to encourage him, not knowing if he could see her in the gloom. The corridor bent and twisted as if it were dodging other buildings or sewer pipes. She lost sight of her boy. After each step she took, she had to wait for the puppet to respond. The plodding pace made her want to scream.
They were getting away.
Her world went dark. The system locked, freezing her limbs in place.
Hands grabbed her, her real body, helping her sit. Saskia winced at the bright light in the truck as her AR headset was pulled off. Patel leaned over her and she flinched at the sight of him. Saskia had forgotten that anyone except Metta was with her.
“Are you all right?”
Saskia nodded. Nothing around her seemed real. The lights were too bright; the lines were too sharp. The truck seemed crowded with people after the confines of the tunnel.
Beyond the cables surrounding her, Cruise leaned toward Patel in a perfect aggressive line. “What is happening down there! Where is he?”
Patel held her gaze, as if he needed an anchor to hold his temper. “We’re working on that, sir.”
“Well, get her back online. Send her back!”
Saskia wanted to tear the motion capture gear off and hurl it at him. “They’re too far underground; I don’t have a signal.”
“So you’ve got no idea what’s happening down there!” Cruise virtually ignored her and continued to yell at Patel.
Metta said, “We are proceeding to the best of our abilities.”
“Bull. I’ll go in there myself.” Cruise strode to the door.
Patel pushed past the cables to follow him. “I don’t recommend that.”
“What do you recommend? Another puppet show?” He slammed out of the truck.
Patel hesitated for a moment. He glanced at Saskia. “Metta is going to have the driver try to get above eDawg’s last position.” Then he followed Cruise, cursing quietly under his breath.
As the truck rumbled forward, Metta let out an almost human sigh. “I’m sorry about that.”
“It’s all right.”
But, it wasn’t all right. Wade was missing, and even if she could get back to him, there was nothing she could do. The whole thing sucked. She had spent, what, twenty minutes with Wade? But she still felt her character’s loyalty to the boy as strongly as if she weren’t acting. She tried to relax as the truck rumbled forward, but the last half-hour kept replaying. None of it made sense.
The truck stopped moving and Metta said, “We have a clean signal now.”
The thought of dropping to all fours made her muscles ache. “You should take over.”
“I —” Metta shook her head. “I’m not used to being bad at something, but you were right. It has to be you.”
“Does it make a difference now?”
“There are too many new variables. I don’t want to change anything. Unless you don’t feel like you can continue.”
Saskia picked up the AR helmet. “Show must go on.” She pulled it down over her eyes.
eDawg was still in the dark, and the corridor was silent around her. Rolling onto eDawg’s belly, she gathered her legs under herself and started down the corridor. She subveed to Metta. “Do you have any idea where we are?”
“You’re under Burnside, close to the corner of NE 3rd. I think the kidnappers came out in the basement of a warehouse there. I’ve sent agents down, but they haven’t made visual contact, and the agents behind you are having difficulty getting through the wall.”
“What am I supposed to do?” And just like that, she realized that she trusted Metta the way she would trust a good director.
“Find Wade. Be ready to get him onto the ground.”
“Yeah. About that. I’m knee-high. How do I can knock the kid down?”
Saskia set off blindly down the hall, relying on her sense of balance.
“I would suggest tripping him.” She must be imagining it, but she thought she heard hesitation in Metta’s voice.
Saskia considered angle of impact and the physics of knocking Wade down, the way that she would run through a complicated piece of blocking. “Yeah. That could work. Good call.”
Walking in virtual darkness seemed to take forever. When she finally reached the end of the corridor, she found another false wall. This one was partially open.
She peeked around the corner. The ceiling sloped toward her, so that a human would have to walk bent over. A single light bulb hung halfway across the room, casting harsh shadows among the old brick columns supporting the ceiling.
She looked for some indication of where Wade might be. By instinct, she lowered her nose to the ground, which was beyond stupid, since she had no sense of smell and no audience.
Metta said, “Hold still.”
“The dust is scuffed here.” Metta highlighted the image on the screen, and a slight path in the dust on the ground showed. “Can you follow it?”
“Keep it highlighted.” Saskia kept eDawg’s nose to the ground, and Metta lit the trail up like a yellow brick road. It wound along the side of the room until she came to a low break in the wall.
“Ah…” Metta whispered. “That’s how they got out.”
Peering carefully through the hole, Saskia could not see any sign of the boys. “Do you want me to go through?”
“Yes, we’re parked just outside then entrance now. I’ll send the team in the truck down, but —”
Shouting and gunfire came at her from two places at once. Her mind reeled, caught between worlds. “That sounded —”
“Shh. Stop. Play dead.”
Saskia flattened eDawg against the dirty floor of the tunnel. In the distance, she could hear the boy’s voices. She waited, her heart pounding in her chest, for Metta to tell her what was happening. Lying down, she felt as if she were in two places at once. She heard the boys underground, but could also feel a vibration from the floor of the UPS truck, giving her a reminder of her real body.
Metta whispered, “Listen carefully, but do not move or react. They are in the truck.”
Saskia stopped breathing.
“They attacked the agent driving and are in the front.”
“How is that even possible? You’re the freaking FBI.”
Metta’s voice was pained. “I made an error. There were two sets of stairs and our agents were on the wrong one.”
“And you sent them all.”
A human’s breath would have hitched here. Metta was only silent.
Saskia closed her eyes and tried to become conscious of her real surroundings. The vibrations grew stronger, accompanied by a sense of motion. The truck was rolling forward again. It maddened her to lie on the ground without doing anything. She tried listening past her headset for sounds in the truck, but nothing was loud enough to be distinct. The truck was not that large, no bigger than a real UPS box truck, but her headset muffled everything. “I’m going to take off my AR headset.”
“I don’t advise that.”
Saskia tensed all of her muscles against the desire to move. “What should I do then, just lie here?”
“We are in pursuit.”
“They’re going to notice me eventually.”
“Not necessarily. Two of them are in the cab of the truck. Only one is in the back and if you don’t move, I am hoping they will not notice that you are embedded in the rig.” Metta paused. “Do you want me to feed the image from my interface to your AR headset?”
“Yeah, that’d be good.”
The image on her headset changed. She saw the truck as if she sat at Metta’s desktop interface in the corner. Creepy.
She could see why Metta hoped they wouldn’t notice her. The carapace of the rig masked her enough that it would be possible to think she was a modern art sculpture, all hard plastic and wires. From where MickyD leaned against the front wall of the truck, with his gun pointed loosely at Wade, it would be impossible to see the few points where her skin was exposed.
Wade sat on the floor of the truck, with his arms wrapped around himself. He was staring at her body as if seeing a ghost, as if he knew exactly what this rig did and who she was.
Her body, almost obscured by the rods and cables of the rig, lay on the floor like a marionette dog. She had a sudden urge to see if she could manipulate it like a puppet on a screen. Her left hand twitched before she could stifle the thought.
MickyD glanced at the rig, and for a moment Saskia thought he hadn’t noticed her in the tangle of cables. But like a cartoon character, he did a double-take and pointed the gun at her.
“Hey! There’s a chick back here.”
Piercing Boy leaned through the small door between the cab and cargo area. “What are you talking about?”
“Look.” He pointed the gun at her again, but the bulk of the rig was between her and Piercing Boy. Letting the gun drop for a moment, MickyD shoved a bunch of cables to the side.
Piercing Boy ducked under the cables. “Who the hell are you?”
Saskia sat up, watching herself move in third person. The rig shifted around her as if it were manipulating her. She pulled the AR headset off, and her point of view shifted violently.
Piercing Boy loomed over her, closer than she expected. “I said, who are you?”
“I’m Saskia Dorlan.” She paused, waiting for Metta to tell her what to do.
“I don’t care about your freaking name, what are you doing here? What is this?”
Shit. Without the AR headset, Metta could not secretly talk to her. She was cut off. Saskia’s stage instincts kicked in with adrenaline to spare. Spin it, girl. This is a stage show gone wrong, just find a way to end the scene. If you couldn’t hide a mistake, try to work it in. She didn’t even need to wholly convince them, just keep them off-balance long enough for Patel and the rest of the FBI to come to the rescue.
“I’m one of the puppeteers on the show.” She smiled. “You guys are doing a great job.”
“What are you talking about?”
Trying to mask her shaking fingers, Saskia started undoing the sensors on her arms. eDawg must be having a seizure. “Sorry. My bad. I just figured since the camera crew wasn’t here, you’d drop character.”
The words came out of her mouth as if a prompter were standing offstage. Saskia turned her attention to the buckles on the legs. “I hate these reality shows, but it’s a living, right, Wade?” She looked at the boy, willing him to go along with it.
He startled, visibly, but before either punk turned, Wade was nodding.
Piercing Boy said, “What do you mean, reality show?”
Saskia let her mouth drop. “Shit. You didn’t know? I thought you were actors, too.” She stood, dropping the leggings on the ground. Only her torso remained attached to the rig. “Oh hell no… you must be the contestants. The director is going to kill me. I just figured since you were here, he must… Look, if you could not say anything, I’d really appreciate it.” Without the AR headset on, she had no way of knowing if Metta would get the hint. Trying to keep her panic from showing, she glanced around. “Where’s the rest of the crew?”
Piercing Boy screamed at her. “I want to know what’s going on, and I want to know now!”
Saskia widened her eyes, leaning back to show apprehension. It took all her acting skill to keep from gibbering like an idiot. “Okay, okay. Just don’t say you got it from me. I don’t want to get fired. We’re shooting a new show called ‘To Catch a Thief’ and I didn’t realize you weren’t briefed beforehand. Wade and I only met last week. Say, Wade, can you undo the strap on this for me?”
She reached her arm behind her, as if there were a buckle there too. Wade levered himself off the ground, and slid past the cables. He was smaller than she thought. His every movement screamed of fear.
Saskia kept babbling to distract the two punks. “It’s a great concept, because they can use my puppet to do the filming when they can’t work in a camera crew. Although, man, when you kicked the dog down the stairs, I thought I’d never get a clean shot again.” She laughed, as if she were sharing a joke in the green room, and stepped forward so she was between them and Wade. “So where’d they find you guys?”
“Cruise hired —”
The truck slammed to a stop.
Saskia let the rig catch her, while MickyD and Piercing Boy tumbled backwards, tripping over cables. Wade slammed into her. She heard his breath wuff past her ear.
Skinny leaned through the little door at the front of the truck. “The road’s blocked! What do I do?”
Saskia’s breath caught in her throat; Piercing Boy had said, “Cruise hired…” Wade’s father had sent these punks? Why?
She looked over her shoulder at Wade, willing him to understand that help was on the way. “That’s the film crew.”
He nodded, almost imperceptibly.
“The director will probably want to reset for the last scene.”
Piercing Boy scrambled to his feet. “I don’t like it when people screw with me —”
The back door of the truck flew open. Patel bounded up the steps. His coat was gone and the sleeves of his shirt were rolled up. He held a clipboard in one hand, his other hand was poised behind it as if he held a pen. “Babe! What are you doing to me?”
She turned to face Patel, because that’s what she would do with a real director. But the thought of having a gun at her back made her scalp prickle with fear. Wade’s eyes were huge.
Patel nodded at Wade, “Doing great, kid. Head out to wardrobe.”
Patel’s back was too stiff; he didn’t have the relaxed confidence of a director. He moved like a cop.
She heard MickyD’s weight shift.
Saskia turned her head as MickyD leaned forward, raising the gun. She pushed Wade down, falling toward him as Metta yelled over the loudspeakers, “Get down!”
Patel dropped the clipboard, bringing his gun out to cover MickyD.
Wade hit the ground. The rig caught Saskia, suspending her.
A gun fired.
The sound ricocheted through the truck, and pain screamed through her back.
Despite Saskia’s notes, her understudy botched his first scene as he overplayed the moment. Saskia fidgeted in the auditorium seat. She shouldn’t be in the audience, but she couldn’t even climb the ladder to the bridge.
Her PDA vibrated in her pocket. Saskia eased out of her seat and slipped out the side door of the auditorium to answer it.
“Saskia? This is Metta.”
She sounded so human. It was easy to forget she was a machine. Heck, it was like talking to an old crew member long after a show wrapped. “The arraignment just ended. I figured you’d want to know.”
The thoughtfulness of the AI continued to stagger Saskia. The entire time she had been in the hospital, Metta had kept a small part of her consciousness keyed into the interface in Saskia’s room, just in case she needed anything. “Thanks. I’d been wondering.”
“The D.A. agreed to a plea bargain of involuntary manslaughter. In exchange, they won’t try Wade as an adult.”
Saskia closed her eyes with relief. The kid had been through enough. She had been terrified that they would go to trial and she would have to testify. “And his dad?”
“That was part of the plea bargain. His father is charged with obstruction of justice and conspiracy; he confessed to trying to cover up Wade’s involvement in the bodyguard’s death. After Wade ran away, Cruise erased the security tapes. When he realized that it was only a matter of time until we cracked the encryption on Wade’s eDawg — which would have shown exactly what happened — he made the ‘ransom demand’ to send in the toy so they could wipe the memory.”
“So that’s why Wade had a reset key.” Saskia remembered him pulling it out of the saddlebags.
“Did you crack the encryption?”
Metta laughed. “Puppets are hard, encryption is easy. Wade was trying to get Taylor to let him hold his gun. Taylor wouldn’t let him. They wrestled. The gun went off. If he’d reported it…”
“What about the skate punks?”
“Cruise hired them to make the kidnapping look good. Once they figured out how much money was involved, they decided that actually kidnapping Wade would be more profitable.” Metta paused. “How are you?”
“Getting better.” She used her good shoulder to shrug. The bullet had gone in her back at an angle, skating across her shoulder blade and ripping a hole through her trapezius. It wasn’t life-threatening, but played havoc with her ability to perform. “The deal you guys signed with my agent means the feds are paying my bills till I’m healed. It’s better than most theater contracts.”
“But it is healing, right?” There was a strange insistence in Metta’s voice.
“Yeah. I’ll be offline — so to speak,” Saskia winced at the turn of phrase, “for another couple of months.”
Metta cleared her throat, which was such a strange thing, when Saskia thought about it. “Patel is giving me no end of grief because of my sudden fascination with puppetry.”
“Well, you tell him that it’s an old and noble profession. And then make him buy you a puppet.”
Saskia nearly dropped the phone in her astonishment. “Really? A puppet?”
“I know it’s peculiar. I’ve never envied a flesh and blood person before, but riding your signal while you were controlling eDawg, I did. I could feel the puppet’s responses to you and watch how you manipulated it to give meaning to its movements. It’s the closest I’ve come to having a body. When I worked the puppet at headquarters, it was… it was an external thing. I mean, I can analyze body language and tell you exactly what it means, but I didn’t understand the visceral way character relates to movement. Which brings me to a question…” She took a breath, like a person steeling herself for disappointment. “Would you be willing to teach me?”
Saskia leaned against the wall and let it hold her up. Teach her? “You’ll have to practice, you know.”
“I know. I’m willing to learn this in real time. No uploads.”
Saskia smiled at the obvious, entreating enthusiasm in Metta’s voice. God, how familiar was that need to breathe life into a puppet.
“Absolutely,” she said. She stretched her shoulder a bit to test it. “I’d like that.”