The streetwalker in the torn unitard and her potential John happened to be near the S-sar when it stood up and inclined its face to the sky. The hooker noted the motion in the corner of her eye at first; then did a double-take upon noticing the shiny bald head… then the rather featureless face. She gasped and stumbled backwards, collided with a parked car and triggered its alarm system. The John, interrupted from his fondling and proposition-considering, swung about crazily, like a deer spooked by a sudden noise; and upon seeing the S-sar, he stumbled away while trying to look as though he’d done nothing wrong.
The S-sar turned and took in their shocked reactions for less than a second, then turned skyward again. Tracking equipment in its systems located the signal from the responder. Simultaneously, artificial eyes quickly locked onto the flying drone, receding into the distance, as well as registering the presence of the two drones that Marcus was guiding after it. As it watched, it automatically calculated optimum routes to follow the drone.
Then the S-sar shrugged its shoulders, shedding the white coat and revealing a simple jogging suit covering most of its body. It started forward, breaking into a fast run as swiftly as a professional runner leaving the starting block. But within three steps, it was already covering more distance than any human runner, and its legs were churning faster than any human legs could run. In less than two seconds, it had reached the end of the block and become a blur of motion, eating up distance faster than any ground vehicle could hope to pursue.
Jess saw the S-sar take off, in the direction away from her, and quickly disappear down the street. “Christ,” she muttered as she realized how fast it was going. Then, in a louder voice, “Allen, are you doing that?”
Allen sat still in the control chair in the Superia Maxis lab, peripherally aware that Ed, Jay and Naomi were hovering nearby, Jay fiddling with the control console behind him, and Ed and Naomi monitoring him. But his attention was fixed upon controlling the S-sar, and the experience was already more than he could hope for. He fought to avoid grinning like a loon as he raced the S-sar down the street, directing it to follow the path that it, itself, determined would allow it to keep in sight of the drone.
“Christ. Allen, are you doing that?”
It was Jess, who sounded as incredulous as he felt. “Yeah… it’s incredible! It moves like lightning!” Allen found he could effortlessly check the route of the drone, his own route, projections of obstacles in his way and numerous ways in which to avoid them, all in an accelerated realtime that made him feel like he was high. “I can’t believe this!”
“Well, keep it up,” Jess replied as she turned and ran to the hotel entrance. “Don’t lose it!”
She ran into the lobby and headed for the elevator bay, eliciting surprised stares from those in the lobby as she charged by. But before she reached the elevator controls, one door began to open before her. Jess skidded to a stop as Savannah Saito stepped out of the elevator.
“Are you all right?” Jess demanded as she caught herself next to the elevator door.
“Yes,” Savannah replied. “He wasn’t there… just a note, and the drone… in this box.” She held up a small graphene box in one hand, and the note in the other. “Are they following the sample?”
“Yes,” Jess confirmed. “C’mon, let’s get you out of here.”
As she led Savannah outside and signaled for her car to meet them, Jess tried to imagine Allen chasing down the street—rather, controlling a robot as it chased down the street, and feeling like he was the robot—faster than any human could manage, after a drone that was by now further away than any human could easily see. Even after Allen had suggested the idea, and had contacted Cass Marlow of the Atlanta police to write a special request to “borrow” the S-sar for an SLEA—Sensitive Law Enforcement Action—operation, she had been amazed that Superia Maxis had gone for it. In fact, if it had been up to Guy Hobbes, it never would have happened. But though Hobbes thought it was a bad idea, he was obliged to send the request to Ben Singh, who promptly ordered Hobbes and Allen into his office for an hour-long confab.
When it had been over, Allen had told Jess: “Never underestimate the power of positive PR for a corporation vying for valuable government contracts.”
“But what about controlling it?” She’d asked. “How did you get them to let you drive it?”
“I convinced Singh that the S-sar was safer in my hands—as someone with previous sar experience, who also wanted to land a lucrative contract with Maxis—than with the Atlanta police.”
“Kind of convoluted,” Jess had said after a moment’s thought. “Only a man would buy that.”
As Allen spent more time controlling the S-sar, he was surprised at how fast it was becoming second-nature to do so. Jay had explained earlier that it was a result of the interface buffering system, which also fed him feedback on the S-sar’s actions and reactions at a much more detailed and metered rate than with older-model S-sars—and which was still being calibrated for the proper filtering levels, he’d admitted. Allen recalled the feeling he’d had with the earlier S-sars, and that controlling them was similar in feeling to putting on a robot-suit. But with this S-sar, the feeling was as if he’d donned a superior body… a sort of super-human suit.
The S-sar blazed down the street, flashing past pedestrians before they realized he was there. Allen had reached such an incredible velocity that he had been forced to move off of the sidewalk and run down the street, where even cars moved in slow motion next to him… but were in much less danger of becoming shocked or injured by his passing.
“I have a good track,” Allen reported. “The signal is strong. Marcus, do you still have the drone in sight?”
“I do,” Marcus reported. “It’s taking an evasion route… it might know it’s being followed. I’m practically at street level now, just to keep track.”
“Seriously? No wonder I can’t see it,” Allen commented. “Keep on it.” He reached a corner as he realized that the tracking signal was swinging westward; changing direction to compensate, he was quietly astonished as the S-sar managed an almost right-angle course change at full speed.
Despite the relative comfort of the Teal Agency office, Marcus was blinking and shaking her head to get the sweat out of her eyes. Her hands danced over a dual control panel, manually guiding both drones as they chased the delivery drone between buildings and through alleyways, under vehicles, along rooftops festooned with air conditioning equipment, solar panels and turbines, and even through an open window and out the window next to it.
“Jee-zus…” she muttered as the drone tried again to lose her, ducking through another alley full of communications and power cables running from building to building. The drone must have been aware that it was being followed, as it seemed to be zeroing in on the toughest pathways through the city and flying through them with incredible ease. Unfortunately, Marcus hadn’t had time to program such a tightly-controlled chasing program into her drones, and was left with no choice but to pilot them manually. She had started to leave one on full auto, high above the fray; but after the first highly-circuitous detours had almost caused her to lose the drone, she’d decided that two drones were better than one.
And now she was flying both of them manually, one with each hand, and she’d had far too many close calls to be happy about it.
“This atomically sucks—” she hissed, just as the screen on one of her drones was suddenly obscured by a wave of blackness. “What!” she spat out, realizing that the quarry had forced her into some kind of cloth… a flag or other obstruction. The drone hit it head-on, and its monitors indicated the cloth had fouled its flight pattern. “Agh!” She almost dropped the other drone as she fought to wrest control back to the fouled drone. But a split-second later, there was a flash on the fouled drone’s screen, and chaos of information flitting across the monitor board… then everything went black.
“Crap! Crashed one!” Marcus announced, and instantly switched her full attention to the other drone.
In a moment, Perry came into her office and was beside her, peering over her shoulder. “Anything I can do?”
“Wipe my face!” Marcus snapped. It took a moment for Perry to understand what she was asking, and quickly grabbed a cleaning cloth from a nearby workbench and brought it to her face. Marcus forcibly thrust her face down onto the cloth, doing most of the work of wiping the sweat from her face and brow, then snapped her head back to the screen.
“Thank you,” she said meekly.
“You still with it?” Allen asked.
“Yes, just.” Marcus chanced a glance at Perry, and nodded her head at the door. Perry, not needing more than the hint, got out of the way and left the room.
“How are you guys doing?” Jess asked. Allen could tell by the small-space echo of her mike that she was back in the car, presumably with Savannah. As the thought came to him, he saw an image in the periphery of his vision—or was that the corner of his mind?—of the inside of his car, Jess seated to the left, Savannah to the right, both of them watching the car’s screen. Other than noting it, he paid it little attention, as he was trying to close the distance between himself and Marcus’ remaining drone.
“Marcus lost a drone,” Allen reported. “I’m trying to close, in case she loses the other one.”
“Should we pursue?” Jess asked.
“Sure,” Allen replied, “but I don’t know where we’re going. I’m near Georgia Tech now, but we could end up in Smyrna when we’re done!”
“Agh!” That was Marcus again. “This thing’s giving me grey hairs…”
“Noted.” Allen made a tight left turn, following his tracking information, and for the first time in many minutes, he could see the scrambling drones ahead of him. They were snaking through a particularly tight alleyway, about four stories off the ground, dodging through a ridiculous nest of plumbing and mechanical lines running between the buildings.
As Allen watched, he became aware of information being fed to him… a sort of premonition or sixth-sense, but of a distinctly digital sort… a series of plans and layouts, mechanical devices, electrical details and maps of the buildings he was approaching, which were in the path of the drones. It was a backup power site. And he knew the drones shouldn’t go through there.
“Marcus,” Allen barked, “steer clear of that power plant in your path! The drone won’t make it!—”
But Marcus had gotten the warning far too late, and had inadvertently flown the drone right into the power site. “Already in it!” Marcus snapped back. “I can’t—”
She stopped speaking when she saw a labyrinth of tight spaces ahead, and had to devote all of her concentration to getting through it. The delivery drone took a tight upward left, and disappeared from her view, leaving her little choice but to take her drone in the same direction completely blind. The view on her monitor swung and spun crazily as she maneuvered the drone through it. Her eyes were wide and unblinking as her fingers jerked and spasmed over the control pad; her mouth gaped open as if she were about to scream in protest.
Abruptly, she saw a flash of light to the right, and steered towards it, and the monitor rewarded her with a view of open air ahead. But the view was marred by two large black globes, which looked ominously like electrodes, on either side of the opening… and far too close together. Marcus wheeled the drone over on one side, shouting, “Nooo!”
But there was nothing to be done. As the drone bridged the space between the two globes, a bright arc of electricity snapped out and pierced the drone’s body. The monitor blinked and went black, the readings turned instantly into gibberish before blanking out, and Marcus’ control pad emitted a loud snap that forced her to jump in her chair and yank her hands back, even as she knew the disaster that had just befallen her drone could not have reached her.
“Aahhh… sonofabitch! I’m out!” Marcus slammed her fists down on her control pad. “I lost it!”
But Allen had found a route around the power site, and had gotten the S-sar to the other side. As he came out of the adjacent alleyway and looked up, he heard the snap of unleashed energy, and saw the delivery drone exit the power site, followed by a stream of mechanical parts that could only be Marcus’ electrocuted drone.
“I’ve still got it,” Allen announced, and the S-sar charged on after the drone.
In the Superia Maxis lab, Allen’s body had completely relaxed as it piloted the S-sar. Naomi, who had been monitoring Allen’s physical state during his control of the robot, was at-ease nearby, nodding at his body readings in satisfaction. “He’s doing great,” she said more to herself than to Ed and Jay. “No stresses on his system.”
“Lucky him,” Jay muttered. He was busy on the control panel, studying readings and rapidly adjusting settings, and looked harried himself. He quickly adjusted certain settings, then used a pen to make notations on the small strips of white tape affixed to the control board near some control switches and panels. Ed looked over questioningly, and Jay replied to his silent question, “The feedback data is still more active than needed… it’s processing a lot more data from the operator than it needs to…”
“Dial back the feedback demands,” Ed advised him. “Increase filtering to the buffers.” He glanced at Allen, who appeared relaxed and unconcerned in the control helmet. “He’ll be fine.”
The roads were relatively clear of pedestrians and vehicles, and Allen ran the S-sar down the center of the road in pursuit of the drone high above. He passed cars as if they were parked in the middle of the road, and most pedestrians didn’t notice his passing. Allen let the S-sar’s tracking systems keep their lock on the drone, while he concentrated on the finer points of avoiding what traffic presented itself. Even Allen was amazed at how easy the task was; he vaguely understood that the S-sar’s processing systems were doing a great deal of his own thinking for him, and relaying to him the results, almost as if he had a telepathic assistant in his mind. If this is the future of sars, he thought, bring it on.
Abruptly, the drone arched downward, moving almost exactly in the opposite direction. Allen found himself forcing the S-sar to come to a complete halt in the middle of the road, as he interpreted the drone’s course change. It was now headed for the half-block-wide plaza in front of Atlanta’s Aqua Center complex… headed for the doorways.
“It’s flying into the Aqua Center!” Allen announced. “Jess, get down here pronto!”
“Aqua Center!” Jess acknowledged. “On our way!”
As Allen streaked for the Aqua Center, he watched the drone swoop low, skimming over the heads of surprised visitors waiting in line to enter. “Marcus,” Allen ordered, “tap into the Center’s interior security feeds!” Even as he spoke, he saw the drone rush by a group of patrons and a door usher and fly into an open door. As soon as it did, Allen registered a dimming of the responder signal. “It’s inside!”
Allen wasn’t keen on the prototype S-sar’s entering a public place; yet he had little choice. Almost instantaneously the S-sar calculated a path they would allow them to rush past the pedestrians without running into any of them (such a collision, at his speed, would surely kill them on impact), and Allen took it, dodging a few clots of visitors, vaulting past a group of children, and slipping through the same door the drone had flown through, before it could close. The Aqua Center was noticeably darker inside than it was outside. A normal person would have needed to wait a few seconds for their eyes to adjust to the light; for the S-sar, its eyes acclimated in a split-second.
Allen brought the S-sar to a halt, and scanned the complex, trying to regain the signal. The Aqua Center had a vast main room, full of information stations, featured displays, game and play areas, gift shops, eateries and communication stations… and, of course, people. Along the outer edges of the vast lobby were entrances to the various sections of the Aqua Center, each devoted to a different region of the globe. Unlike its earlier incarnation, the Aqua Center was not strictly aquatic anymore: Its many sections were miniature zoos, combining massive tanks filled with selected water species and spaces filled with animals from the land. As Allen thought of it, the S-sar presented a map of the layout… it was a maze of open and closed spaces, designed to allow visitors to meander about and discover all manner of creatures, on land, in the air and—
—and in the water. Suddenly, Allen realized the spot he was in.
“The tanks!” he cried, as he kicked the S-sar in gear and bolted for the nearest section, devoted to the Amazon basin. “The water will block the signal!”
“Dammit!” he heard Jess exclaim. “Perry, try to get ahold of Center security! Tell them to lock the place up!—”
As Allen entered the Amazon section, his worst fears came true: The internal communications gear lost the tracking signal. In fact, Allen’s connection with the S-sar dimmed, his vision switching to a lower-bandwidth black and white image, his hearing becoming muffled.
He was vaguely aware of Jay and Ed arguing about the state of the incoming data from the S-sar, and how to manage it. For his own part, he was more aware of a growing separation between him and the S-sar; they were becoming less of a single entity as their signal separation increased. He had to stop again, trying to maintain his control over the robot.
His sudden appearance alarmed a number of nearby visitors, and when they realized the sudden visitor was a robot, many of them screamed. Allen thought that was strange: Sars weren’t exactly walking on every street corner, but law enforcement officials and military units used them; they shouldn’t be subjects of surprise and alarm. Belatedly he realized that he was moving incredibly fast… to some, he probably seemed to be appearing out of nowhere, and that was what was probably spooking them. Unfortunately, he couldn’t afford to slow down just to preserve a few civilians’ state of calm.
“Excuse me, police emergency!” he barked instead, hoping that would clear his way. He rushed through the Amazon exhibit, ducking through visitors and occasionally rebounding off of walls and safety glass in his hurry. All the while, his eyes scanned the dark spaces around him, both the public areas, and the nooks and crannies designed for the animals, or for service personnel. Unfortunately, he’d lost a great deal of signal fidelity to the S-sar upon entering the water tank filled area, and now he found he had to slow his progress down lest he accidentally run into someone and do them serious harm.
He exited the Amazon section, and immediately Allen’s connection with the S-sar improved. But he couldn’t reestablish the tracking signal with the drone. He stopped and stared about helplessly, aware that the drone could be in any of the sections, either waiting for someone to recover it… or being recovered by one of these thousands of visitors, at that moment.
“I lost it,” he stated plainly, as he started for the next section and hoped for the best.
Sarcology is on sale now.