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Igms issue 15, p.2

IGMS - Issue 15, page 2


IGMS - Issue 15

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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 tell 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."

  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 A.I.

  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 was 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?" Mi
ckyD 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 thesekids 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 him.

  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 VR 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, drawing his gun as he went.

  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 Wade 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 VR helmet, saying "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 Third. 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, b
ut 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 VR 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 VR 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 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.

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