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the art of combot, a Cobra story

March 15, 2018 04:52PM
Cobra comes home to discover his landlady's niece waiting up for him; and she's smarter than he realised and knows how to use her brain

6 The art of combot

My landlady’s niece is one smart kid.
She came through the therapy for her involuntary addiction to Pleasure Dome ™, and started work right away to catch up on the schooling she had missed, to prepare her for university. Her plans are to study computer science with bio-interface, and I had every intention of putting her in contact with a ... colleague is too strong a word. Someone I know in the business, as you might say, whose services I hire from time to time, who knows things about computers they don’t like to teach in universities.
Yes, my contact is a gurfer, a guerrilla-surfer, and she can slick her way into any system and out like an enema. Sure, it’s illegal; so is what I do. And it was from my gurfer acquaintance that I learned enough to disconnect Willow from the Dream Helmet™ without damaging her neurones when doing so, and rewire it to punish the lowlife creep who put it on her. And you can never have too much knowledge.
Willow, that’s my landlady’s niece. She’s a nice kid, and pretty too, a fluff of dark hair like a halo around her head, and big dark blue eyes which still look too large in a face too thin and too pale. She’s working on that though. You don’t go through trauma like that without it touching you in a tangible way. But she was young enough, I thought, to keep her innocence and get over it.
Maybe that sort of trauma also builds insights. I don’t know; but I was surprised to see her waiting on the stairs for me when I came home from a job. It was 3 am and the kid was more than half asleep.
“Hello, Willow, you got a problem?” I asked. I told her, I’d always listen if she needed to talk, and if I felt that this was a time I’d regret making that promise, I’d given my word, however tired I was.
“Oh, Mr. Natter!” – that’s the name I go by, and it’s a joke on my field name if you know the right language – “I know you don’t like surprises, so I thought I’d better waylay you and warn you.”
Too right, I don’t like surprises; and I was awake now and alert.
“I’m not fond of surprises; what is it?” I asked, grimly.
“There was an engineer to service your cleaning bots,” she said. “It’s not scheduled for another month. Auntie let the engineer in because he had ID, and was polite, and I don’t think it occurred to her that engineers never reschedule early.”
I said she was a smart kid.
“Full marks for using your brain,” I said, approvingly.
She grinned at me, then sobered.
“I figured that in your profession it might not be all it seemed,” she said. “As simple as a bug, or maybe ... something more violent.”
I froze.
Auntie, or Miss Finnegan to give my landlady her real name, thought I was some kind of glorified undertaker, working at the morgue, on call at all hours.
“What do you mean about my profession?” I asked. My mouth was dry.
The kid shrugged.
“You do kill people, don’t you? Creeps and low life,” she said, with the sort of tone you might expect if she had tagged me as something mundane like a stockbroker.
“Who has told you this?” I asked, roughly.
She looked surprised.
“Oh, I worked it out; I thought it was obvious,” she said. “Of course it passed Auntie Fee by, but I wasn’t planning on enlightening her. She wouldn’t like it, and she’d probably worry about your safety.”
Ye gods, yes, and the idea of a worried Auntie ringing me up, or worse, haranguing the police, if she suspected I was in danger was truly scary.
“What did you plan to do with this wild guess?” I asked. I didn’t think Willow was the sort to blackmail me, especially as she owed me one, but ...
She blinked.
“I wasn’t planning on doing any more than I already do; check you aren’t too banged up when you come in, and warn you about things like this engineer.”
She checked on me when I came in? I hadn’t noticed?
“You check on me?”
“I have a webcam on the landing,” she said, calmly. “I installed it before you came to stay here, we had burglars, and it made me feel safer. Auntie wouldn’t let me have a web-controlled mini-gun next to it.”
Oh well, at least the girl had good instincts.
“I’ll see about a light machine pistol, which will be enough for most burglars,” I said. “And easier to conceal.”
It goes against the grain, but sometimes you have to actually trust people. And I really did trust Willow, even though she was a kid. Funnily enough, I also reckoned that if I was in serious trouble, I could trust Auntie as well, but I had never had any intention of involving either.
Willow produced coffee which had been keeping hot, and I drank it thankfully. With a warning and full of caffeine, I could handle whatever had been done to my room.
Thanks to Willow, instead of being taken by surprise when tired, I entered my rooms combat-ready, and was consequently able to handle the homicidal cleaning bots with minimal effort and only a couple of small wounds. Of course, this woke up Auntie, who came up to see her niece calmly applying elastoplasts in a scene of smoking carnage.
“Sorry about the noise and mess,” I said.
“Mr. Natter, whatever happened?”
I am not ashamed to admit to quaking before five foot nothing of one-time schoolmarm clad in a fluffy pale blue dressing gown. Miss Finnegan had been a headmistress in a tough neighbourhood when her little brother and his wife had died in a car crash and she had given up teaching to raise the orphaned Willow, using the money from the sale of their house and her own to set up a boarding house. I was in the privileged position of having rooms on the family side through having paid enough to get rooms when she was already full. It made life easier for me.
“I was attacked by the cleaning bots, of all things,” I said, making myself sound indignant. “They went berserk, and I had to shoot them to stop them belabouring me.”
And shooting me, but I wasn’t going to mention that.
“Good grief! And we only had the engineer in today,” said Miss Finnegan.
“Perhaps he fitted them with faulty modules,” suggested Willow.
“I will most certainly complain,” said Miss Finnegan.
That would not do.
“What was the engineer like?” I asked. “I don’t rule out a puerile practical joke; I knew someone in college who went into servicing cleaning bots ... he had it in for me, for some reason.”
“He was a few inches shorter than you, dear, and not such a good healthy figure, in fact he was a bit of a weed. Red hair and buck teeth.”
“That’s him,” I said.
I had a description now. One could discount the red hair and buck teeth, but the build was a start, and Willow would doubtless have him on her webcam. Appearances could change, but few people have the advantages I expended a year as an actor getting, and few people can change their gait. Whoever he was, I would find him; and if Auntie thought he was a stupid prankster, she would look no further.
“He should be fired,” she said, coldly.
“I was planning on making him cough up for some more up-to-date bots for you and me both,” I said. “On pain of me making a complaint. It’ll be better for him in the long run to learn not to be stupid.”
“Well ....”
She would agree, I would buy better bots, and find a small, private company to maintain them.
And I would seek out who had done this.
I did not want to have to move, but if more than one person knew where I lived, I would have to do so.
However, looking at Willow’s web cam would wait until tomorrow. I needed to sleep.

I did recognise the engineer when I looked over Willow’s recordings later. He was a sleazy little gurfer whom I had smacked about a bit but let go, when I found him gathering data on a mark. Sometimes if you make a point but don’t sanction the collateral you have someone glad not to be dead. This little creep probably had no idea how glad he should have been not to be dead. Possibly he was even unaware who I was.
I sighed.
I had no choice, really; I had to sanction him. I could not have some ignorant twerp wandering about who was likely to share information about where I lived with any Tom, Dick or Harriet, it brought too much risk on Auntie and Willow as well as me.
And that made me mad.
“Are you going to kill him?” asked Willow.
“I don’t have a choice,” I said. “I can’t have people putting you and your aunt at risk.”
She sighed.
“I have an idea,” she said.

I don’t use bots to do my jobs for me.
I tracked him down and I was waiting when he got home.
He recognised me and he looked as if he was going to pass out.
“Now we can do this the easy way or the hard way,” I said. “You found my address. I don’t like that. Who have you told?”
He told me all he knew; he had tracked me using street cameras because he resented being bundled out of my killing zone. Ironic that he had been caught with a webcam. I must have been less careful than usual that night, and it is a lesson to learn. I had changed clothes and appearance, but not my gait. And gait is distinctive if you know what to look for. He knew. It meant he had a valuable skill. However, he had not told anyone else; he had no idea that I was valuable to sell out, the idiot. And just as well.
I forced a version of the dream helmet, not a trademarked one at all, on his head, and erased the previous six weeks of his memory. He would resent that someone had done it, of course, being the kind of person who resents as a matter of course; but he had his life and he had his skills. It was a good idea of Willow’s.
He might still be for hire as a low level asset, after all, this way, if I needed him. I don’t actually like killing if I don’t have to. Life is too easy to snuff out to take killing as the way to solve a problem if it can be solved another way.

the art of combot, a Cobra story

Sarah WaldockMarch 15, 2018 04:52PM

Re: the art of combot, a Cobra story

EmelynMarch 18, 2018 04:45AM


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