Window-light woke Daniel up the next morning. He rolled away from the glare, felt too stiff to get up, and spent a minute sprawled out under the guise of stretching. There’d been thunder last night. Dusty was passed out under the table again. Daniel thought about picking him up, but the animal needed sleep as badly as he did, and one of them might as well get it. So he tried to stand up without knocking anything over. A challenge, when he’d caught only a few hours of shuteye.
He didn’t have the energy to cook right now. Thank goodness the auto-chef would always be there for him. Even if his eyes were too groggy to make out the holo-display, he could jam random buttons until the glorified microwave was convinced to turn out food. Today it spat out chocolate-chip waffles and orange juice. Well, a meal that unmistakably resembled chocolate-chip waffles and orange juice. What the auto-chef actually did with those packets of colored powder was one of the great mysteries of life. But it was good enough for a bum like Daniel. He found a spot to lie down, set the paper plate on his chest, and snapped his fingers to turn the TV on. He watched the morning news in the reflection of his screen off the living room window.
It was a slow news day. That suited him just fine. He’d tuned in to a press conference where, as far as he could tell, someone was trying to re-institute the unemployment check again. Daniel didn’t listen because the waffles were starting to burn his chest; he scalded his fingertips trying to scarf them down while lying on his back. That was what came of cooking for himself. If he hadn’t been out of practice at doing this, he’d have been able to eat the waffles with a packet’s worth of syrup on top.
He turned the volume up when something came on about AI technology. About time. The broadcast was filled with footage of motherboards being soldered on an assembly line, but mostly it was about the new electronics consumers could expect. Daniel didn’t care whether the matrices applied quantum computing to genetic algorithms. He wanted to hear about the engineers of the world.
Halfway through his orange juice, there was still no mention of human engineers. But breakfast was interrupted by the sound of a doorbell. Daniel didn’t bother getting dressed to answer it. His gym shorts and fuzzy slippers would be fine. He already had some idea who was there. Velvet was still in bed. And besides, he didn’t have a doorbell.
“Good morning! I am—Darry!—from the California Committee for Healthier Communities.”
A vaguely humanoid machine stood in the hall. It had treads instead of feet, and adorable oversized eyes that served no purpose. When Daniel opened the door, it ding-donged a second time, flashing the LEDs on its head. Someone had dressed it in a sailor’s cap to compliment the tray of glass milk bottles slung over its chest.
It sounded off in an unbearably cheery voice. “Would you like—two—bottles of free milk?”
Daniel narrowed his baggy eyes at the robot. Not robot, he corrected himself—the automatic milk-delivery system. Whatever the term was. Either way, none of these devices could be trusted anymore. What was the milk-bot thinking about Daniel as it stared unblinkingly into his apartment?
For that matter, what did the appliances inside the apartment think about him? Daniel had tried to tell his phone not to download any updates. But he feared it secretly ignored him on such matters.
“I’ll get by,” he said.
Velvet chose that exact moment to get up. Daniel heard the bedroom door swung open; it opened directly into the living room. So about two of Velvet’s unusually-silent footsteps would take her into direct view of the automatic. The automatic that was probably networked to the internet as well as corporate data stores regularly combed by the FBI.
“…But of course I’d like some free milk!” Daniel hopped forward, trying to the fill up the doorway and the automatic’s field of view. He seized the necks of two bottles with a faltering grin.
“Please authorize here.” A panel on Darry’s chest flipped over into a touchpad.
Daniel was pocket-digging for his phone when he heard bare feet on the kitchen tile. While Velvet poured herself a glass of water, Daniel crunched himself into the edge of the doorframe to keep himself between her and the automatic. He tried slumping to make the posture look natural, and tapped his phone against the Darry’s chest from there.
“Would you like me to store your—two—bottles in your refrigerator?”
“Oh! No,” Daniel chuckled nervously. “No really, it’s fine, please don’t come into my apartment.”
He had to swish back to the center of the doorway as Velvet walked out of the kitchen. Daniel couldn’t be sure where she went after she stepped onto the carpet, so he scooted a bit more uncomfortably close to Darry.
“Uh—it’s nice to see you again.” Daniel breathed fog on the automatic’s fake eyes. He raised his voice when he added, “We haven’t had automatics check up on us in quite some time.”
He waited for a sound of acknowledgement from Velvet. Nothing.
Daniel wiped a bead of sweat from his forehead. A little louder, “I said—”
“Gah!” Velvet shouted. But it sounded like she was yelling at the TV, not him. The volume of the news suddenly shot up, which meant she must have thrown her hands in the air.
“There are—two—members in this household!” said Darryl. “I will update our records. Would you like—one—additional bottle of free—”
“Nope!” Daniel smiled down at the automatic. His arms were thrown up to block Darry’s view. But he tried to make it look like he was just casually hanging from his doorframe by the tips of his straining fingers. “She’s a guest.”
“Hello!” Darry beeped loudly.
Sweat tricked over the edges of Daniel’s ears. Maybe this thing didn’t have an AI matrix. It didn’t act that smart. But where were its sensors—what if it was all a ruse? They were smart enough to do that, after all. To lull everyone into a false sense of security.
“Okay.” Daniel swallowed. “Listen. This is going to look really bad. But the truth is…in my apartment…”
Was it just in his head, or did everything drop suddenly quiet? Was Velvet frozen like a photograph, staring at his back? Or was the metal shing he thought he heard a silver canister opening?
Daniel swallowed again. The wider he grimaced, the wider loomed Darry’s unblinking eyes.
“—we don’t like robots here!” he blurted. “Please leave!”
Darry stared at him while he recovered his breath.
“Okay!” it said, sounding not entirely unlike Alvin the Chipmunk.
Daniel glared daggers at its back as it trundled down the hall. Hadn’t there been human milkmen once upon a time? Long ago, to be sure; Daniel didn’t imagine there were any out-of-work milkmen sulking about the apartment towers of Sacramento. Still, his heart went out to the delivery folk who once had been. That sounded like a lovely job to have—walking in the sunshine, bringing people cold beverages. He wished he lived in a time when people got paid to do that sort of thing.
He whirled around once he had decided it was safe. His room-temperature waffles were still there, but now Velvet was blocking the reflection of the TV. She was practically hunched over it.
Daniel stood over her shoulder to see what was so fascinating. Another press conference. This time, a man with a halo of platinum-grey hair was spreading his leathery hands onto a podium. Someone else was giving a long speech about his scientific achievements, but he wasn’t smiling. He looked bored more than anything.
Daniel looked between Velvet and the TV. “What? It’s just Doctor Smith.”
“You know him?”
Daniel staggered back from her twitching face. “I…I don’t know. Why shouldn’t I?”
Velvet jerked her head back to the broadcast. The announcer had worked his way through Dr. Smith’s career in the private sector and was moving onto his government work.
“Why don’t you know him?”
Velvet stayed glued to the screen. “I know him,” she muttered.
After a while Dr. Smith took the microphone and mumbled through a humble thanks to whoever was recognizing him that day. “In our continuing quest to reap the benefits of genetic science,” he added, “my team is currently engaged in experiments to develop an organism capable of replacing American soldiers in the most dangerous parts of the world. I’m proud to announce that the US Navy has agreed to a timetable for deploying this lifesaving technology abroad. In fact, the first field test of the project’s ability to navigate urban environments is underway…”
The screen cut to a suburban street. A towering red humanoid was taking a determined stroll down the center line, causing delivery drones to swerve off the pavement into lawn sprinklers. There was a road sign in the corner of the frame, but Daniel didn’t catch what town it was.
Velvet jumped. “It walked from Two Guns?”
Daniel winced, since he’d been leaning close to her. The broadcast cut back to Dr. Smith, who was finishing up by saying, “As these are early field tests, please do not interfere with its activities.”
Velvet was already blurring around the apartment by the time Daniel got the TV volume down. “What walked from where?” he said.
But he had to jump to the front door, because Velvet was already rushing into the hallway.
He looked both ways to see where she was running. “Hey, don’t go that way! The milk-bot went that way!”
She sprinted past him in the opposite direction as he started to say, “There’s an elevator in—okay, nevermind. You’ll find it.”
She found her contacts below Daniel’s forty-second story apartment—not quite low enough to be called the south side, but low enough to stink. That sweet spot in a city where people had a bit of actual money, but not so much that they could hole up in a home office or plug their VR kits into the Content Stream. The sweet spot where life was more or less about hoverbikes.
This park wasn’t very impressive to Velvet. It had a couple ramps, a tube, all rudely constructed out of recycled wood and concrete. The bikes were mostly opaque soccer-mom colors like dark blue and green—when there were actual bikes, instead of kids on skateboards and rollerblades. The park was hemmed in on three sides by windowless skyscraper walls, and roofed three stories overhead by the ductwork of a furniture assembly plant. That was about as inner-city as it got.
Even the kids here could have told her that these bikers were small fry; they tried too hard to distinguish themselves. Half were done up to the teeth in animated tattoos. One had even gone so far as to sport a loose shave and a grey fedora.
“Take it south,” Velvet said. She was smashing a parcel wrapped with duct tape into the seat compartment of a yellow bike. “You’ve got twelve hours to get it across the state border. Split up if you can.”
The one with the fedora whistled. “That bad, huh? You sure we don’t want to peek?”
She was bouncing on the seat, but it wouldn’t shut. A gangster with a model of the solar system inked on his back hooked it down with bungee cords.
It was a step down from dealing with Don. But they’d been easy to find, and they listened to her. Which was lucky, considering Daniel’s screw-up. Apparently dropping a reference to the Ninth Circle was enough to gloss over anything. One of them even offered her a Cuban cigar at that point. She’d had to make up a nicotine allergy because she couldn’t figure out which end went in her mouth.
The man in the fedora rubbed his fingers.
“Uh, I’ve got a man in Tuscon.” Velvet hopped down. “He’ll pay you when he gets it in one piece.”
“M’kay.” The guy whistled. “You heard it, Ringo. Get good goin’.”
Four of them straddled bikes and took off unevenly. After gliding out from under the furniture plant, they hunted for a lane of traffic in which to become dots.
The gangster in the grey hat watched them go. “His name’s not really Ringo,” he said when they were out of sight. “He just likes it when we call him that.”
The bikes dropped out of air lanes at the city outskirts. Past downtown, police paid more attention to a vehicle in the air, unless it was following the east-west traffic out of the state. And even the highways weren’t safe except for short stretches anymore. There were rumors about toll booths with x-ray scanners.
They preferred to take the trip in hover mode anyway. The bikes rode west of the Central Valley, a weaving helix powered by Led Zeppelin and the sleepless thrill of ramping off every roof in a suburban block. Together they streaked through countryside, rode roughshod over town roads, and prowled through the bottoms of cities.
Though musical, it didn’t always make for a scenic route. Depending on the off-ramps taken, every city put a different amount of effort into keeping its ground floor from looking like a wasteland. San Jose had gardens of palm trees growing under artificial sunlamps. Salinas had faux-neon signs. San Luis Obispo was dominated by sculptures, and it was actually pretty nice.
The bottom of Los Angeles was like the world’s largest parking garage. The bikes didn’t even pass a street sign until halfway across downtown. But there were no cameras on them here, unless the traffic copters visible through the fissure of sky peered this far down. It was hot, sticky. They hung a right around the next foundation.
A four-armed hulk dropped out of the sky. It landed on the front bike, snapping it in two at the spine. The next two bikes crashed into its open hands. It swung them around its back and into each other.
The explosions of their motors had barely when the last bike gunned it. The rider was leaning forward with an angry yell. Instead of getting out of the way, the creature grabbed the bullbars. They skidded. It tore up half a block of alleyway.
Then the creature shifted its weight. The biker’s fury-twisted face blanked for a moment as his machine buckled under him. But he fought back. His knuckles worked the dials. The engine roared and scrambled for purchase, trying to wrest control from the fleshy grip.
With one deft motion, the creature peeled back the bike’s front plate and excised the limiter which ran to the rear motor. The biker barely had time to yell. Suddenly, the motor he was gunning threw him into the sky as hard as it could. The creature merely had to guide his flight.
The bike became a burp of flame against a wall three stories overhead.
Velvet threw things into a duffel bag.
“L.A.,” she muttered. “Fucking L.A. Is every crook in Sacramento this incompetent?”
The bikers should have at least made it out of the state. L.A. was practically next door. She punctuated her packing with curses until all her clothes were in the bag, at which point she paused. “What else do I own?”
A quick search under the bed revealed squeak toys and comic books. “Right. Nothing.”
She tried to zip the bag, but it was overstuffed. Velvet jogged to the kitchen to grab a couple coffee packets, threw them into the duffel and tried again.
Someone knocked on the door. Velvet snorted. She’d thought Daniel was staying in today. She didn’t have time to deal with him now.
“I’m sending you out again,” she said as she crossed the apartment. “Get a dog this time.”
Since this put Velvet by the kitchen again, she decided to grab the last of the coffee. She scooped it off the shelf and yanked the door open on her way back.
As a result, she was standing to one side of the doorframe when a hail of bullets stomped through. The far wall was torn ragged, except for the window, which made it through with a hairline crack.
Velvet leaned slowly around the door. The man with the fedora was on the other side. He was listing to the right, along with the plastic assault rifle cradled in his arms. He saw Velvet and his eyes focused slowly in her direction.
“Damn you to hell,” he slurred. He took a step towards her. Velvet took two steps back. He lunged, and tumbled headfirst onto the carpet. It stifled his sobbing until he could pull himself up to his knees. After Velvet’s shadow fell on him, he reached for his gun with what seemed like the last of his strength.
Velvet picked him up by the collar. She wasn’t an expert, sadly, but whatever he was on had done less to dull his anguish than his motor skills. She could hold him against the wall with one hand, and press the unwieldy rifle into his chin with the other.
After glaring into his scintillating pupils for a moment, she paused. Frowned. Leaned back through the doorway to check the thickness of the wall. Then dragged him across the living room and held him up against the window instead.
That still wasn’t a great setup. If this window was really bulletproof, she didn’t want to be shooting it from a torso’s length away. If she could just pin him in place…
Hmm. It had been a while since she’d done that. It would be convenient though.
Velvet took a deep breath. Her belly tightened back and forth as she tried to find the right muscles to clench. She could tell when she got it. It felt like egg beaters mixing in her stomach. The gangster’s unfocused eyes were staring at that part of her body as his head lolled, so that was a little weird.
Getting it out was the hard part. Velvet tried not to think about the sensation. She just kept working the trickling nausea up her throat until it felt like it would burst. After just a little bit of gagging, slimy grey silk poked from the corner of her mouth. Velvet peeled it off her tongue, drawing it out hand over hand like a magician pulling out a really disgusting ribbon. It didn’t really look much like a web. Velvet had never been any good at that part. But it was adhesive, so she didn’t need to do anything fancy, just fling strands around the gangster until he was glued in place.
Velvet remembered now why she didn’t usually do that. Half her skin had turned green during the process. And she felt about as good as she looked.
She picked up the gun in both hands. “Now,” she said, pointing at the gangster from across the room, “about that attitude.”
Velvet noticed the sound of the shower when it turned off. She didn’t even have time to wipe loose strands of webbing from her lips before Daniel rushed out in a towel.
“Oh my God!”
Velvet grunted. “Thought you humans didn’t believe in that stuff anymore.”
He ran up to the gangster, tried a couple times to lift his head straight. “V-Velvet, what you do to him?”
“Yeah, that’s right,” she growled. “Worry about the guy who just shot up your apartment. I’m fine, thanks.”
“But he didn’t stand a chance!” Daniel recoiled even as he turned to face her. “Did he?”
“Well.” Velvet smirked. “No, not really, thank you for noticing—”
She was cut off by a thick white wall. Daniel had thrown his towel in her face.
She ripped it off and cocked the assault rifle. “Daniel! You want me to line you up too?”
“Yeah, show me how tough you are,” Daniel shouted. “Go ahead. I don’t give a fuck.”
He was up in her face now. A little brown criss-cross of chest hair right between her and the window.
She pursed her lips. With one swift motion, she yanked Daniel to the side.
Then she rolled her eyes. Put the rifle’s safety on.
“I wasn’t going to kill him anyway,” she growled.
She walked all the way back to the tenth story with the man’s limp body slung over her shoulders. It was slow going, but she found a good spot. A nice, grimy alley with a pile of half-burnt bins.
“Huh. Right with the rest of the dirt.” She dropped him on an ash-covered billiard table.
The pile of junk leaned up against a wooden safety rail. A roll in the wrong direction would send him off the edge of the tower. But he didn’t look like he was going anywhere. Whatever was in his system had only started to take its course. He didn’t even seem aware of her by this point; only gripped his face and moaned as Velvet walked away.