Little bit of gore in this chapter.
For most of the bots, this will be their first time outside. Getting them neatly lined up and ready to go ought to run as smooth as clockwork, but it feels more like organising a family of twenty children, or a school trip. Perhaps this is just due to Bossman, who is highly stressed – fingers tapping away on his thigh – and keeps shouting things like “Where the fuck is S-17?” and “You, you’re supposed to be over there! Go stand between S-2 and S-4.” Em is still quiet, and there are shadows around her eyes as if she didn’t sleep last night.
Bossman turns to me and says “Seriously, where’s S-17? We have to go now, we can’t fuck about here.”
“Just breathe,” I say, even though he hates being told to breathe. He would probably stop breathing out of spite if it were physically possible. “We’re on schedule. Look, here he is.”
S-17, aka Bill, finally makes an appearance, stalking towards us with that gentle, hissing noise that his joints make when his limbs are in motion. Patty, for some reason, has hitched a ride on his shoulder, and the contrast between the two bots is almost comical – a rounded, squishy thing on a sleek, black robot. Like a toddler on a squaddie’s shoulders.
“Get down from there,” Bossman snaps at Patty.
Dark brown words appear on her body in response.
BUT I NEED
TO STOP YOU.”
I don’t understand what Patty does next. I hadn’t noticed her watching Bossman, listening to his plans for the world, counting his inadequacies and coming to her own conclusions. I didn’t know she was capable of any of that. So when Bill raises his hand, I think he is malfunctioning rather than being controlled by Patty.
I also don’t understand what Em does next. I knew she’d been a bodyguard, before working for Bossman. I knew she’d provided much-needed protection for everyone from MPs to foreign diplomats to some radical feminist who wrote a book that annoyed everyone. But I didn’t understand the intensity of her training, or how certain things were hardwired into her nerves and muscles. So when the barrel emerges from Bill’s hand and the bullet shoots quietly from the barrel, I am not expecting her to intercept it.
Her body jerks, arms wide like a dancer, or someone wanting a hug. The primitive part of my brain, which has always been the most reliable part, snaps into action before she hits the floor. I dart sideways at Bill, tackling him to the ground. Patty falls from his shoulder and tumbles across the floor, rolling like a football until she hits a wall. I pin Bill beneath me, holding his outstretched arm and checking that his hand – with the gun still engaged – can’t shoot anything but the ceiling.
“Em!” Behind me, Bossman’s voice sounds ragged with fear. “Em, can you hear me?”
Bill’s body lurches under me and I flatten myself against him, pressing my weight down desperately. A quick glance to my left shows Patty, climbing the wall she just hit with more speed than I knew she had.
“She’s hurt, Jay, she’s hurt badly. Oh Jesus.”
“Get her out of here.”
Still holding Bill’s arm with my right hand, I bring my left up to the join between his head and torso. I look down into his smooth, plastic, eyeless face.
“Be still,” I tell him, voice as clear as I can make it. It makes no difference.
His free arm strikes me in the side, catching my ribs and sending me sprawling. There is a mad scramble, and by the time Bossman yells “The front door won’t open! We’re locked down, we’re trapped!” I can’t answer because one of Bill’s hands is covering the lower half of my face while the other aims blows at my liver.
“I’m taking her to the panic room,” Bossman calls. I bring my arm up sharply and twist my hips, freeing myself from Bill’s grasp but catching a blow squarely in the back during the process. I catch a glimpse of Bossman, with Em’s arm around his skinny shoulders as she limps towards the panic room. There’s no visible blood – Em’s suit jacket is too dark to show it clearly – but she looks broken.
By the time I am on top of Bill and have control of his arms, anger is blazing inside me, burning away any lingering haze of shock and fear. I pull Bill’s shoulders up towards me then slam them down so that his sturdy plastic head bounces against the floor. This is the part where the organic processor (Brain. Sort of.) is, and the part I need to destroy.
I am not angry at him. Patty has clearly re-programmed him to attack us.
I slam his head against the floor again, and this time there is a cracking noise.
I am, surprisingly, not angry at Patty. Why wouldn’t she try to kill Bossman? Doubtless there are plenty of people who want to kill him, and it’s only human laws and morals and feelings stopping them.
Another collision of head and floor. A shard of black plastic comes loose.
This is all Bossman’s fault. His stupid fucking plans and his ridiculous creations have all lead to my best friend being shot, perhaps fatally. If he refers to this as “collateral damage” I will murder him.
I picture Bossman’s face in Bill’s featureless head, and slam it against the floor with all the strength I have. It smashes like an egg, and a dark fluid leaks out. Flakes of grey-brown matter swim in the liquid. Brains and oil.
When I am certain that Bill is now completely harmless, I stand up and turn a slow circle, looking for Patty. I can’t see her anywhere, and I can’t look for her effectively with the mental image of Em – her tall, strong body hunched over like an old woman’s – being dragged towards the panic room.
When I pound on the door, it takes far too long for Bossman to let me in. When he finally opens the door I push past him, almost knocking him over. Em is lying on the floor. Her jacket has been discarded and her shirt opened. There is a wound, the size and colour of a rose, in her abdomen. Blood oozes from it, pooling in her naval, dripping onto the floor. My own blood sinks into my feet and I go dizzy, dropping to my knees beside her.
“It’s the exit wound,” says Bossman, kneeling down beside me. “The bullet went straight through.
Em’s face is bone-white, and her eyes are wide. When she speaks, she sounds like someone trapped in a snowstorm. The words come shivering between teeth that clack together on every other word.
“You b-better give me a really f-f-fucking expensive f-funeral. Like … Alexander the Great’s b-b-boyfriend kind of expensive.”
“You’re not dying,” Bossman says, in a tone that suggests he will sack her if she disobeys him. He scrambles away from Em’s side, and I take her hand. It is clammy, and her fingers don’t curl around mine, even a little. Bossman returns, and kneels the other side of Em’s body, with a green box that I vaguely register as a first aid kit. I don’t notice what he is doing, because I am watching Em fade out of consciousness. I say her name, again and again, like a mantra. Like an idiot. She can’t hear me.
Bossman pulls on a pair of latex gloves, then takes something out of the first aid kit that looks like a cross between a syringe and a tube of sealant. He opens a pack of alcohol wipes and cleans the worst of the blood from Em’s belly. More of it wells up to replace the blood that he wipes away, but he works quickly. Then he presses the tip of the syringe/sealant tube thing into Em’s wound, and a bunch of cream-coloured paste comes out.
“What’s that?” I ask, alarmed.
“Don’t worry, it’s sterile.”
“But what is it?”
“A non-adherent wound filler with a time-release antimicrobial. My own formulation.”
I have no fucking clue what that means. I try to check Em’s pulse, but my fingertips are clumsy and slick with sweat. “If she dies, I’ll kill you,” I say, and I’m pretty sure I mean it. My voice sounds weirdly calm.
“Shut up and let me concentrate,” says Bossman. He sounds like he is on the verge of tears. I shut up and let him concentrate, because what choice do I have?