Chapter 29:


Grime in the Gears: Create, Read, Update, Delete

She walked into Mr. Taito's office just as he was finishing a call. "Of course," he said. "I'm glad to hear that Mr. Conchobhar is back among the living, and your amendments to the agreement are more than reasonable." He listened to something then laughed. "Well, we'll probably save more by not paying his pension than we would have by retiring him. And don't worry about the other AI. Those things are liabilities whenever we acquire a new company."

She leaned against the wall and crossed her arms.

"I'll send the paperwork over right away. And let me be the first to welcome you to the Araiguma family." He listened again, smiling. "Goodbye now," he said before hanging up the phone.

He looked up and saw Sakerse standing there. "Please," he said, "be a dear and grab me the doll for Geomys. It's that rat one I was painting the other day."

She left the room and went to the wall of dolls. She grabbed the Geomys one, but she also grabbed the Bhagbot one. She carried them both into the office and handed him the rat.

"Thank you," he said. He took the doll from her and began to paint its other eye. Then he looked up again and saw her holding the tiger.

"I'd like you to tell me what's been going on," she said. She slid the tiger across the desk. "People are dying, and you're busy playing with dolls."

Mr. Taito's face was just as unreadable as hers. He sat there, looking at her for what felt like an uncomfortably long time. Then he spoke. "I see," he said. He set down the rat doll. "I was hoping you wouldn't pry into that particular matter." He set both his hands on the desk. "But you have, and now I owe you an explanation."

He hung his head and took a few deep breaths.

"Come here," he said in a quiet voice.

She stood up from leaning on the wall and walked over to stand next to him. "What?" she said.

He looked up at her. "I hope you understand that we cannot openly discuss this matter here," he said. He indicated the room, possibly the entire building, with the flick of his wrist. "Let's say we meet somewhere, tonight, and discuss it. I promise I'll tell you everything, and then it will all make sense."

She nodded.

He scribbled something on a sheet of paper and handed it to her. She picked it up and read it. It was in an elaborate kanji, but she knew enough to read it, especially with the help of her mods. It said to meet at the canal at midnight, and to be alone. She looked up from the note and nodded to him.

"Now," he said. "I won't be needing any sort of bodyguard for the rest of the day, paperwork and all. Why don't you take the rest of the day off, and I'll see you tomorrow?" He gave her a knowing wink.

She nodded. "Thank you," she said. She tossed the note into the recycler, where it vanished in a flash of light.

Once she was out of the office, a notice chirped to get her attention. It was an approval for time off for the rest of the day. She read it through twice before heading toward the elevator. She went through the exit scanner, only pausing long enough to show her authorization for early departure.

Out in the world, she walked through the streets. She visited the convenience store where she had gotten some of her mods. Shanks was there, polishing an eyeball before popping it into the hole he usually covered with an eyepatch.

"Hey kid," said Shanks. He remembered her, but didn't ask too many names. "What can I do for you?"

She pointed to the frozen drink machine. "Just one of those," she said.

Shanks handed her a cup. "It's on me," he said.

She shook her head and slid a bill across the counter. "Keep the change," she said. Shanks took the money and looked at it. Something about it made him raise an eyebrow, but before he could ask if she was all right, she was gone, walking down the street, sipping a frozen neon-green limeade.

She spent the rest of the afternoon sitting in the park, watching the pigeons chase after bits of popcorn and hotdogs. She thought about the note, trying to remember the exact wording. There was something in the way he handled it that wasn't sitting right with her.

She finished her limeade and tossed it into one of the meandering trashcans. She went home, changed her clothes, and spent the rest of the day running laps around the track at the nearby gym.

When it was getting on late, she cleaned up and returned home, getting a few things before her meeting. She made sure to check the charge on her swatloszalba before strapping it to her back.

She took a cab to the canals, paying electronically, and wondering if maybe she was doing it intentionally to leave a paper trail. She looked out over the water and wondered if there would be an unsolved police file about her that some future bodyguard will be poring over, adding to a collection of other fragments that formed a disturbing mosaic.

She walked along the edge of the canal. She peered in. It was meant to be a waterway to keep the town hydrated, but with all the crud that filled it, it was just a stream used to wash the hands of the evildoers before going off to get their hands dirty once more.

It was low tide, so you could see the junk littering the bottom, even in the pale neon light of the moon. Jagged bits of metal and tattered bits of cloth marked once great things, now garbage, lining the waterway.

She walked past a figure in a brown trench coat and fedora and wondered if that person was being a bit melodramatic. She stoically marched toward her fate.

There was Mr. Taito, standing on the edge of the canal. He saw her approach, and he smiled.

"I'm glad to see you made it," he said. He motioned for her to stand beside him. He looked out over the canal and breathed a sigh. "It's quite amazing," he said, "when you think about it."

She looked over to him. "You told me that you'd tell me everything."

Mr. Taito nodded. She noticed that he was wearing black leather gloves, but did not herself think the night was particularly cold.

"Are you familiar with the tardigrade?" he said after a moment. Sakerse shook her head. "They're also called water bears and moss piglets. You won't find them in zoos, or if you do, you probably won't actually see them. You see, they're microscopic creatures. You go down into that canal, and scoop up some of that water and whatever else lies at the bottom, and you'll probably have a whole colony in your hands."

Sakerse was about to interrupt.

"I'm getting there," Mr. Taito said. "One of the things that sets tardigrades apart from the rest is their absolute resilience. They can survive in some of the worst places imaginable: volcanoes, outer space, this city," he chuckled. "And they just keep going."

He looked out over the canal, the discarded shapes at the bottom blurring in the darkness.

He continued. "They are so resilient because they borrow DNA from other creatures. They alter themselves with the genetic code of viruses, bacteria, whatever they can get their little paws on. And that helps them survive." He turned to her. "Do you know what Araiguma means?"

Sakerse shrugged. "It means raccoon, right?"

Mr. Taito nodded. "Yes, but do you know what it literally means?"

She shrugged again.

"Washing bear," he said. "Raccoons look like little bears and tend to wash their food in water, at least, that's how the story goes. They're one of the more resilient mammals out there, because they can successfully live wherever humans live. Plus, they're cute. I suppose that's why, long ago, our company's founders adopted that name. The raccoon was charismatic and strong, and from that, we were able to capture the attention of the world. Our cartoons made it into everybody's home, our appliances followed after, making it easier for more of our content to be delivered straight to the consumers. The entertainment hand lifted the technology hand, and in turn was lifted itself, until we rose far above the competition. Do you know how many entertainment platforms we own?"

Sakerse shook her head.

He continued. "It would be far simpler to enumerate the ones we didn't own." He laughed again. "Our little raccoon has found his way into the lives of just about every man, woman, and child, and it doesn't have to dig through their garbage to do it."

He was quiet for a moment. Sakerse wondered if he was done speaking. 

Then, he spoke up again. "When I took over as head of acquisitions, I saw that the raccoon model was outdated. I turned our washing bear into a water bear, and decided the best way to retain the tactical advantage was to start acquiring more DNA. You've seen the dolls, and each one represents an acquisition that I myself oversaw. And as you may have noticed, I've been successful in all but one."

"Too many people died," Sakerse said. "There was nothing left to acquire."

Mr. Taito laughed again. "There was something to acquire," he said. "Just not a business." He turned to look at her. "But you've gotten to the heart of the matter, haven't you? People have been dying, haven't they?" He held out his gloved hands. "There is blood on these hands, and for what?"

"Just to stay ahead," she said.

"No," said Mr. Taito. "That is the cost of perfection." He placed his hands in the pockets of his vest. "We need the businesses, and we need them by any means possible."

Sakerse laughed. Mr. Taito raised an eyebrow, seeing her smile for the first time. "You've crossed a line," she said. "Nothing is worth what you've been doing."

His lips curled into a sneer. "And what are you going to do about it, Miss Yojimbo?"

She reached for her swatloszalba. "It's going to end here and now," she said. She activated the sword, and it's laser blade shot out from the hilt. "And what happens next depends on you." She pointed the tip of the blade at Mr. Taito.

He started laughing. He laughed so hard that he had to remove his glasses and wipe a tear from his eye. "At the risk of sounding placating," he said, "you're rather cute when you're threatening." He placed his glasses back on, and something gleamed in the palm of his hand. "You are right about one thing, Sakerse," he said. "It does end here, and it does end now, just not in the way you think."

The thing he held was his pocket watch. He pressed something on it, and Sakerse's swatloszalba went dead. A pain ran through her body, and error codes from all of her mods flashed before her eyes before disappearing completely. She dropped the sword, unable to even bear its weight any longer.

Mr. Taito pocketed the watch and looked at his bodyguard, no longer able to move her own muscles, every mod in her body fried. With one gloved finger, he pushed her back into the canal. "Farewell," he said as she rolled down the cement incline. "You were such a good employee. Let me know if you need a reference."

She landed in the crud at the bottom of the canal. If the water had been higher, she may have drowned. She took small comfort in that, considering her body ached terribly in several places. She figured bones were shattered, and looking over at the rusty piece of jagged metal poking through her leg, imagined that would be problematic as well.

She barely even noticed when, after what sounded like gunfire, another body fell down from the sky and landed next to her. And she was completely unconscious when a five-namero coin clanged against something large and metal before bouncing off her forehead.

Meanwhile, Akira was heading back home, filling out a form for a new bodyguard.

Business as usual.

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