I robot to protect book.., p.35

I, Robot: To Protect Book 1, page 35

 

I, Robot: To Protect Book 1
 



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  A woman screamed. Cary shrieked and gibbered something about aliens stealing his liver, all the while pounding Kendall with hammer-like fists. Men rushed to the rescue, and Kendall found himself abruptly assaulted by more hands than he could count. The radiation detector clattered from his fingers, buzzing furiously against the concrete, and Kendall felt himself slipping.

  “Bomb!” Kendall yelled, for the first time hoping he was right. “He’s got a bomb!” Until that moment, he had worried Cary might panic and blow himself, Kendall, and the crowd to kingdom come. Now, Kendall worried more for getting beaten to a bloody pulp by would-be vigilantes. He caught the hem of Cary’s jacket and clung with all his might. He no longer felt the blows. The myriad separate pains fused into one intense, indecipherable agony.

  Rough hands jerked Kendall from Cary, who rolled free. Kendall’s fingers ached and burned, and he felt battered in every part, but he doggedly refused to release the material. He heard a loud rip; something metal clanged against concrete; then a gasp erupted from the crowd.

  The hands fell away from Kendall. He heard pounding footsteps, retreating, men and women screaming wildly, Voxes buzzing. Someone hauled Kendall gently to his feet while the mob fell upon Cary, pinning down his struggling hands, his flailing feet.

  Breathing heavily from exertion, Kendall stepped away from the mass. Someone shoved the still-quaking radiation detector into his hands. “What the hell is this thing?”

  “Bomb finder,” Kendall lied. “Made it myself.” He flicked off the switch, and it went quiet in his hands. “Did someone call the police?” he panted.

  The man studied him in the reflected silver light of the Chrysler Building. He made a broad gesture to indicate the entire block. “I think everyone did. Who are you, anyway?”

  Kendall had no intention of remaining to answer questions. “New superhero. Incredible-Guesser Man.” With that, he headed back the way he had come, tapping up Susan Calvin on his Vox.

  The three R-1s met up at a tram stop on the opposite end of the city. Kendall looked exhausted. His ginger hair, usually straight, now stuck up in random clumps. A bright red mark spread across his right cheek, clearly tender. His knuckles were abraded, his clothing torn, and his arms showed a parade of bruises just starting to turn from brilliant red to duller blue.

  Apparently noticing Susan’s stare, Kendall shrugged. “You should see the other guy.”

  As Susan and Remington already knew the story, they only smiled.

  The tram pulled up, and they boarded quickly. “So,” Kendall said as they squeezed into the same seat, Susan between them, “where are we going now, and what are the chances we’re all going to die?”

  Susan supposed Kendall needed to joke, but she wished he would use another defense mechanism to escape his anxiety. This time, his quip had struck too close to home. She and Remington had already surmised Cary English had had enough morality left in his diseased brain not to immediately trigger his explosive charge when jumped on the street. Sharicka would require a whole different approach. The risk of all of them dying, along with hundreds of innocent people, was not remote.

  Susan explained her choice of location. “We have ten different groups combing all the likely places. Then, it hit me. We can’t think like an adult, or even like a normal child. We have to think like Sharicka.”

  Remington took over, “Obviously, she can’t drive. The drivers of any type of public transportation will question an unaccompanied four-year-old. She can’t pay for a cab. Lawrence believes there’s no actual contact between the terrorists and the patients, that the bombs or components are left in a certain location and the means for using them is programmed. So, it’s unlikely the masterminds even realize one of their victims is a child.”

  Susan found it difficult to think of Sharicka as a victim. “I got hold of her parents, and we brainstormed places she might go. Based on what they told me, and the location of the bomb materials uncovered by USR, we’re almost certain she’ll strike the Knickerbocker Mall.”

  Kendall rubbed his cheek, then winced in pain. “I presume you’ve told everyone to converge on the mall.”

  Susan made an uncomfortable face. “I’ve told Lawrence about my theory, but we can’t put everyone in the same place without either alerting Sharicka or leaving too much unguarded. She’s bright, Kendall, probably a genius. And, unlike those of the other patients, her mind isn’t muddled; she’s just … mean,” she said, using Sharicka’s grandmother’s term.

  Remington surreptitiously passed a pistol across Susan to Kendall. Kendall made no move to take it, only studying it through widened eyes.

  “Take it,” Susan whispered, not mentioning she had refused the same proffering. She knew doing so might prove foolish, might even cost her her life, but she doubted she could pull the trigger under any circumstances.

  Kendall just stared at it, forcing Susan to cover it with her shirt. “Couldn’t you get something … less lethal?”

  Susan flinched. Remington had gone through all of this with her earlier, but his tone gave no indication of growing impatience. “There are no effective nonlethal alternatives.” He said it with such authority, Susan believed him without question. “Those all take time to work and require us to get real close. Sharicka only needs a split second to trigger a bomb.” He added something new. “We’re just lucky the SFH, or whoever, didn’t set them up with a deadman’s switch.”

  Susan had to ask. “What’s a deadman’s switch?”

  Remington didn’t miss a beat. “It’s a switch that’s activated by releasing the button rather than pressing it.”

  Susan made a strangled noise. It made sense for a professional assassin to use such a thing. If someone took him down, it would initiate, rather than stop, the blast. “It’s a good thing we’re not dealing with that level of expertise.”

  Remington brought his full gaze to bear on her. “Susan, we’re dealing with people who can reprogram nanorobots. How much more expertise do you need?”

  Susan could feel the hairs on the nape of her neck rising and sweat trickling down her spine. She had understood the danger of their mission but never so much as at this moment.

  “What about Tasers?” Kendall hissed.

  Susan had not thought of that, but Remington still had an answer. “Private Tasers have been illegal since 2017; unlike guns, they’re not protected by the Second Amendment. This isn’t ideal, but it’s better.” He shook the pistol slightly, bumping it against Susan’s leg. “I’d much rather have rifles, but I don’t own any small enough to sneak through the city. At least, this gains us a little more distance.”

  Kendall wore a bemused expression. He did not look wholly convinced.

  Remington glanced out the window, then back at Kendall. “Given Sharicka’s size, a Taser is still technically a lethal weapon. They also have a high rate of failure used against psychiatric patients, and a stray Taser barb could theoretically set off the bomb itself.”

  Kendall’s jaw set. He accepted the gun, shoving it into his pocket. “I don’t have … much experience.”

  “You don’t need much,” Remington whispered matter-of-factly. “It has a red dot optical site, so you barely have to aim. Flip off the safety. Point. Pull the trigger.”

  Susan knew Remington carried a pistol as well. She did not know enough about firearms to guess the type. “Let’s hope we don’t need it.”

  “And thank God we have it, if we do,” Remington added.

  Chapter 23

  By the time the tram drew up near Knickerbocker Mall, Remington had shoved the front of the radiation detector through the open window and was reporting on the strength of the signal. Driven to action, Susan glanced around restlessly, attuned to the change in the pitch of the brakes that would signal it was safe to leave the tram. “Are you sure she’s close? She’s definitely not there yet?”

  Remington pulled the device back in the window. “Of course, I’m not sure. I’ve got no more experience with this thing than you
do.”

  Although she could not feel the vibrations Remington did, Susan could hear the faint clicks suggesting someone with the proper radiation tags had come within range of detection.

  “It’s weak, but nothing else is supposed to set it off at all.”

  Susan caught sight of the mall, still standing, and relief flooded through her. We’re not too late.

  The brakes finally made the proper hissing tone. The seat belts clicked off. The doors flowed open automatically, and the three R-1s rushed out with the crowd. Once on the sidewalk, people scattered in all directions; and the three headed directly for the mall, half a block north. Four stories high and completely brick, it squatted between smaller, thinner shops like an ancient castle. It had three entrances, but the Ansons had steered Susan to the one facing North Atlantic Street. It was the closest to the bus stop, and Sharicka had always liked the gargoyles overlooking it.

  Remington grabbed Kendall’s arm. “Find a way up on the roof and use your detector. You know what she looks like. If you see her headed for an entrance, shoot her.” He released Kendall, leaving him sputtering, then took Susan’s arm and guided her swiftly toward the building.

  Only then, Susan could see the monitor going crazy. The clicks came fast and furiously, and the vibration of the thing shook Remington’s arm. “She’s here, Susan.”

  Susan’s chest squeezed shut. She could feel her pulse hammering in her temples, and a lump formed in her throat. She craned her neck toward the gargoyle-decorated entrance, but she found no sign of Sharicka Anson. “I don’t see her.” She looked frantically through and around the passing people. It only made sense the girl would act in broad daylight, with the mall full of shoppers; but the crowds drove Susan wild. Having to see around them made it difficult enough, but Sharicka’s small size only worsened the situation.

  Remington broke into a run, and Susan chased him. She saw uniforms near the door, and relief flooded her. “There’s security, Remy. They can intercept her. We just need to let them know —”

  Remington’s pace did not slow. “Let them know what? How are we going to convince them a four-year-old is armed and dangerous?”

  Susan understood the problem, but it did not seem insurmountable. “Once they detain her, we can show them the bomb.”

  Remington shook her off. “By the time we tell them, she’s that much farther. By the time we convince them …” He threw up his hands suddenly. “Boom!”

  Susan glared at him. “What the hell did you do that for?”

  They skidded to a stop in front of the entrance. Susan cast about madly, looking for Sharicka. She saw no sign of the little girl, but her Vox shuddered. Nerves frayed, Susan jumped at the sudden touch, then stabbed the button to answer. “What?”

  “It’s Kendall. I’m in position. I think she’s coming around the back.”

  Remington came to the same conclusion almost simultaneously. “She’s around the other side!” The radiation detector had grown calm in his hands, blocked by the building and the layers of stores between them. “Go! Go! Go!”

  Susan raced around a building that abruptly seemed enormously wide, hoping Kendall could stop Sharicka, by whatever means it took.

  On the rooftop, Kendall reluctantly pulled the gun from his pocket. His hands trembled on the grip, and the sight jumped recklessly. Worried it would slip from his grasp, he wiped his hands on his tattered khakis, one at a time, his gaze trained fanatically on the entrance below him. People swept in and out, some in a city-hurry, others pausing to tie a shoe, blow a nose, or wait for a friend or family member coming in or out behind them. It all looked so serene, so incredibly normal. This can’t be really happening.

  Then, Sharicka Anson came into sight from around the corner of the building. She was alone, dressed in the same pink frilly dress she had worn the night of her escape, now covered by a bulky sweater. Her dark, wavy hair was pulled into a frazzled ponytail. Her pudgy body made her look even younger, like a toddler who must have escaped her mother’s hand. Pressed against Kendall’s side, the radiation detector went haywire, just as it had when he found Cary English. He could not spare a hand to silence it. He let it flop around while he aimed the gun at Sharicka’s head and flipped off the safety.

  Sharicka made a beeline for the mall entrance. Remington’s suggestions on the tram flashed through Kendall’s mind. “Aim for the skull,” the neurosurgeon had said with cold matter-of-factness. “That’s not standard procedure, of course. Head’s too small a target compared with the body, but a random shot to the body might risk setting off the explosives. And, if you don’t kill her instantly, she can set them off on purpose. A professional sniper with a rifle could sever the brain from the spinal cord, so the bomber can’t press the button on a dying impulse. We’re going to have to count on an untrained four-year-old not having that kind of instinct.”

  An icy chill screwed through Kendall at the image. He could not believe a child, even one so horribly mentally ill, would have the wherewithal to set off an explosion with the agony of a bullet lodged in her abdomen.

  Sharicka stepped into range.

  Kendall hesitated, worried for a nearby shopper. He planted the red dot directly between her eyes, anxiety spearing through him. What if I hit a bystander? What if I miss completely? An image of splattered blood and brain filled his mind’s eye. Bile crawled up his throat, sour as poison, as he envisioned a little girl’s headless body flopping to the sidewalk.

  Sharicka stepped away from the shopper. It was now or never.

  Kendall’s finger cramped on the trigger, unable to defy the pictures in his mind. He had dedicated his life to saving lives, to curing the sick, to making even the last moments of life peaceful for everyone. He had pithed frogs, trapped mice, but the idea of ending a human life refused to enter the realm of possibility. He tried to focus on the loss of life Sharicka would cause to so many others, to rely on the realization he had no choice but to exchange one life for hundreds of others. Still, his finger refused to obey him. Tears rolled down his cheeks.

  Then, a rowdy gang of teenagers passed between him and his target, and Sharicka was out of range again.

  Susan Calvin rounded the building at a gallop, Remington Hawthorn at her side. She caught a glimpse of a familiar dress in elegant primrose with a lacy hem and bulky sweater disappearing, with a crowd of teenagers, into the mall entrance. Susan knew the only hope for keeping everyone alive was to immobilize both of Sharicka’s arms.

  “Stop!” Susan shouted, lunging for the small, brown hands. She seized Sharicka’s fingers with an abrupt violence that caught every eye in the vicinity, including the two security guards lounging near the entrance. Sharicka jerked in her grip, clearly startled. Susan’s mind raced. She could yell “Bomb!” but doubted anyone would believe her. Instead, she went for a ploy that might buy her enough time to reveal the truth. “Sharicka, honey! You’re too young to run off by yourself. You have to stay with Mommy.”

  Sharicka screamed and immediately started struggling.

  Susan tried to look appropriately embarrassed by her offspring’s behavior. Locking a death grip on Sharicka’s hands, she attempted to reveal the tell tale bulge beneath her sweater with a foot.

  Sharicka twisted madly in Susan’s grip, shrieking at the top of her lungs, “Let me go! Let me go!”

  Susan felt her hold slipping.

  A little hand squirmed free. Sharicka swung around and glared into Susan’s face with those same killer’s eyes Susan had seen on the unit. “This is not my mommy!” Sharicka hollered. “Help me! Help!”

  Susan lunged to recapture the hand as the guards moved in. Remington reached her first, seizing Sharicka’s other arm and using an exasperated parental voice. “This isn’t funny, Sharicka. Stop playing games with Mommy and Daddy.”

  Susan saw people staring. The teenagers had stopped, and the guards were coming closer. It occurred to Susan that Sharicka’s biracial features bore out her claim that these were not her parents. They’re goin
g to tear us apart, and we’re all going to die.

  Kendall appeared suddenly, racing into the mall, attempting to herd the teenagers. “Bomb!” he shouted. “Run! Evacuate!” He thundered past, into the mall. “Run! Run! Run!”

  All hell broke loose. Panicked people screamed and ran in all directions, some deeper into the stores, others out onto the roadways. Horns honked, brakes squealed, and the crash of collisions rang through the air. These sounded like distant background to Susan, lost beneath the ear-shattering shrieks of Sharicka Anson.

  In the commotion, Sharicka ripped her other hand from Susan’s hold and slammed it into the resident’s face with enough force to stagger her. Pain spiked through Susan’s skull accompanied by a flash of white light. For an instant, she thought the bomb had exploded. Then, Sharicka whipped her arm toward her own chest. Detonator! Susan realized she could not move fast enough to stop it.

  Remington flung himself on top of Sharicka, driving her to the floor with enough force to foil the movement. Sharicka fought like a tiger. To Susan, she looked like a dark and desperate swirl of limbs and teeth. She saw one of the security guards shouting into his Vox. The other slammed into Remington, trying to thrust him off Sharicka. Tipped sideways, Remington lost his hold. Sharicka gathered her legs beneath her and squirted free. Again, her hand raced toward her chest.

  “No!” Susan screamed again. She sprang for Sharicka, missing the girl but catching a handful of sweater. As the girl ran, the sweater slid down her arms, revealing the tangled coils of wires. Susan twisted, using the fabric to imprison Sharicka’s arms. “Bomb!” she shouted, certain the guards would turn their attention to the appropriate target.

 
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