“Players” by Curtis C. Chen

Dear Ba,

I’m writing this message on paper because it’s what Ma would have done. I remember all the old things she collected: books and scrolls and calligraphy, from the days before Tarkfair became mechanized. Many want to forget, but I don’t. I want to remember. I want us to remember the truth.

You wouldn’t approve of what I’m doing now, which is why I didn’t tell you. You still treat me like a child, even though I’m nearly seventeen. I understand more than you think. I’m old enough to take care of myself. And this is something I can only do without you.

I want something good to come from all the lies people have told about our family. They’re so eager to believe we’re traitors—fine. I’ll show them what a traitor looks like. And then I’ll show them what a patriot can do for her nation.

I’ve disabled Irwin’s locator beacon. Don’t try to find me. If I’m not back in a few—

“Miss Cringely?”

Amanda jumped. Whoever it was knocked on the closed door of the dressing room.

“I’m sorry to disturb you, Miss Cringely, but I need to come in.”

“Just a moment!” Amanda gestured at the other occupant of the room: Irwin, her android bodyguard. She folded up the unfinished letter and hid it inside her coat as Irwin lumbered over to the door and opened it.

A weary-looking stagehand stood in the hallway, one hand on the shoulder of a dark-haired boy with a stocky build and a sour expression. He looked vaguely familiar—another one of Dr. Webber’s music students, perhaps.

“My apologies, Miss Cringely,” the stagehand said, “but you’ll have to share this dressing room for a few minutes. I know there are security concerns, but we’ve cleared—”

Amanda stood and folded her arms across her chest. “I was promised a private dressing room. My father was promised—”

“I’m very sorry, Miss Cringely,” the stagehand said. Amanda seethed. She remembered a time when nobody would have dared interrupt the Defense Minister’s daughter when she spoke. “This boy’s been fighting with other students in the common room, and we have very limited space today.” The stagehand looked at his wristwatch. “It’s just a few minutes. If the brawler here tries to cause any more trouble, I’m sure your robot can keep the peace.”

“He’s not a robot—”

The stagehand pushed the boy inside and shut the door.

“He’s an android,” Amanda muttered, sitting back down.

The boy looked in the mirror, adjusting his striped shirt. “Model Q-75 Synthetic Attendant, right?”

Amanda blinked. “Why do you know so much about androids?”

The boy pointed at himself. “Bobby Atangan.”

Amanda blinked. “Of Atangan Automatons?”

“Automation, now. We’re branching out.”

Her heart raced. Despite being immigrants, the Atangan family had built most of Tarkfair’s military machines for decades, ever since the first Oceanic War. Robots allowed the island nation of Tarkfair to defend itself against more powerful neighbors, but in postwar peacetime, became something less noble when used by the government to police its own citizens.

Amanda didn’t want Bobby to pay too much attention to Irwin and possibly notice anything strange about the bodyguard’s behavior. She had to change the subject.

“So why were you fighting with the other kids?”

“I didn’t start it,” Bobby said. “Just to be clear.”

“Did you finish it?” Amanda asked, remembering one of her father’s mantras. It doesn’t matter who started the conflict, my dear. It only matters who can finish it.

“I would have, if the grown-ups hadn’t separated us. Stupid jazz piano kids. Anyone can just make up a solo, you dorks!” he shouted at the door.

Irwin swiveled toward Bobby. “Please keep your voice down, sir.”

The boy made a face at Amanda. “What the what?”

“Irwin’s programmed to react to loud noises,” Amanda said. “For my safety. Just don’t get excited and you’ll be fine.”

“Great.” Bobby backed away from the android. “Guess you need a bodyguard if your dad’s not here.”

“He couldn’t attend today. State business.”

“Does that happen a lot?”

Amanda didn’t want to talk about this. “Where’s your chaperone?”

Bobby produced a handheld device from his right trouser pocket. “Right here.”

“That’s your mobile phone.”

“I beg your pardon,” Bobby said. “This is an Atangan Automation T-301 advanced prototype multi-use communicator.”

“Your parents make you carry a tracker?”

“It’s less conspicuous than a giant robot. And I get to try out all the new games before they’re released. You want to see the latest High Tower Command?”

“No, thank you,” Amanda said. Muffled applause sounded through the wall.

“Ten minutes before you need to be backstage, miss,” Irwin said in his soft, even voice.

“So what piece are you performing?” Bobby asked.

Amanda smiled. “Rosen’s Twelfth.”

Bobby’s eyebrows shot up. “All three movements?”

“Of course.”

“Look like I’ll have time to finish another level, then.” Bobby sank into an armchair and fiddled with his phone.

Amanda stood, looked in the mirror, and smoothed the bottom of her dress. The last time she’d worn this outfit was at the Osigonian consulate ball where she’d met Pender Marsaly, son of the ambassador, newly promoted captain of an Osigonian navy corvette, and very handsome in his uniform—though not quite as handsome as she led him to believe.

She hoped Pender would remember. She hoped it would remind him of what she had been willing to do for him that night, on her knees in the coat closet, and what more she had promised to do later. She wanted him to be paying more attention to her than to Irwin when they met again.

A burst of sound interrupted her thoughts. She turned to frown at Bobby, who was playing music on his phone. The tune sounded very familiar—

“Stop!” Amanda said. “Turn that off!”

“What? It’s just the last movement of the Rosen,” Bobby said over the music. “There’s some kind of weird chord at the end, right? I just wanted to hear—”

Amanda took a step forward. “Stop it! Now!”

“I’ll turn it down.” Bobby lowered the volume.

“No! You have to stop it!” Amanda reached forward and grabbed the phone out of his hands just as the final, dissonant chord rang out.

Irwin stepped between Amanda and Bobby. “Please move away from Miss Cringely.”

Bobby leapt out of the armchair. “What the hell?”

Irwin extended one arm and clamped a hand on Bobby’s shoulder.

“Ow!” the boy protested. “Hey, call off your robot! Android! Whatever!”

“I can’t. I’m sorry,” Amanda said, “but you really should have stopped the music.”

* * *

Bobby flailed his arms, beating uselessly against Irwin’s molded ceramic shoulders. The android was holding Bobby down with one hand and choking him with the other. The good news was, having his windpipe squeezed by a metal vise made it impossible for Bobby to scream his entire vocabulary of curse words at Amanda, who seemed oddly unsurprised.

She stared at Bobby with a sad expression, sighed, and sat down on a nearby ottoman, still holding his phone. “He won’t kill you,” she said. “Just don’t struggle too much. You’ll lose consciousness soon.”

Wait, you actually planned this? Bobby’s mind raced, offering a welcome distraction from his imminent suffocation. Why would you program an android to respond to music? And why would you want your bodyguard to strangle people? Are you insane?f

His vision started to blur and darken at the edges. His stomach tightened, his feet felt cold, and his head started spinning. Bobby didn’t know how much longer he had before he passed out. Do something. Do anything, you idiot!

He shoved his left hand into his trouser pocket, felt around for his keychain, and found the multi-tool on the metal loop. He had used the gadget often enough that he knew all the sections and switches by touch. Need to disable robot. Use tool to disable. How?

The government required all robot manufacturers to include a standard override fail-safe somewhere… in the torso area… Where? Bobby grasped for the memory of the AA factory tech showing him the emergency-shutdown trick. What did the old guy say when he turned off the demo bot? “Smell you later.”

Armpit!

Irwin’s arms were already raised and extended. Bobby dialed the zapper up to maximum and started groping the android. They sure didn’t make the override easy to find.

Bobby was completely blind and feeling nauseated by the time he felt the probe end of the multi-tool click into the control port. He squeezed the activation switch and felt the familiar buzzing of current leaking from the sides of the probe, where the insulation had flaked off after being opened and closed repeatedly.

Irwin’s synthetic fingers levered open, and Bobby fell backwards into the armchair. He rolled out of it and face-first onto the floor, gasping for breath.

“Please move away from Miss Cringely,” he heard the android saying flatly.

Amanda was shouting something. Bobby thought her voice sounded hoarse. Had she been shouting for a long time?

He looked up and saw Irwin closing both hands around the girl’s neck.

Well, that’s not good.

Bobby didn’t think Amanda seemed suicidal, which meant the android was actually malfunctioning now. And Amanda obviously didn’t have any tools or weapons hidden inside that slinky dress.

Bobby checked his multi-tool. It would take at least another minute for the zapper to recharge. Amanda would probably suffocate before then. It wouldn’t be Bobby’s fault, strictly speaking, but he wasn’t going to just stand around while he might have a chance to save someone’s life. What else can I do to mess up this robot?

Bobby remembered another part of the factory demo. Pulling a robot’s diagnostic tab would trigger its self-test sequence, required by law so inspectors could verify that its programming met government standards. Bobby just had to find the tab on this model—and hope Irwin didn’t kill the girl before Bobby could pull the tab.

Bobby crouched behind Irwin and reached up under the android’s clothes to feel around its midsection. The torso covering felt disturbingly like actual human skin—why would they do that, there’s no need for androids to be naked unless EWWW don’t think about it—nothing there. Bobby lay prone on the floor and checked one ankle, then the other. He found the diagnostic port just above the heel of Irwin’s left foot, which had been molded to look like a shiny black loafer.

Bobby couldn’t get the port cover open with his hands, so he used the multi-tool to pry it off, then jammed the tool inside to get at the tab. The small plastic card popped out of its housing a split second before the multi-tool slipped farther into the open port and touched a live contact.

Bobby felt a familiar buzzing all through his body just before passing out.

* * *

Amanda paused to catch her breath in the stairwell, leaning against the wall to support the weight of Bobby’s unconscious body on her back. She knew this was a terrible plan, but she didn’t have many options at this point. She still had a rendezvous to make, and she couldn’t leave Bobby behind to tell anyone what had happened in the dressing room.

Everything would have gone off smoothly if he hadn’t interfered. Her reprogramming of Irwin had worked flawlessly; as soon as that final chord sounded, the android had attacked the nearest bystander. Not to kill—merely to cause a panic, during which confusion Amanda would have slipped away. Irwin would have rejoined her later, at the edge of the city. But now Bobby had disabled the android, and Amanda had to improvise.

She had removed Irwin’s core memory chip and wrestled Bobby onto her shoulders, then activated the panic button in her left earring and headed down the exit stairs. The black Defense Ministry sedan was waiting when she reached the basement car-park. Her driver, Lawrence, jumped out of the driver’s seat as soon as Amanda emerged from the stairwell door.

“Miss Amanda!” Lawrence ran up to her and took Bobby. “What happened?”

“No time to explain. My friend’s been hurt.” Amanda nodded at the backseat of the sedan, hoping she wasn’t trembling too much. “Get him inside, then get us out of here.”

Lawrence yanked open the door and hauled Bobby into the vehicle with annoying ease. “You can ride up front with me, miss.”

“I need to stay with him,” Amanda said, “and make sure he keeps breathing.”

“Of course, miss.”

Lawrence pulled a portable medkit out of the trunk and handed it to Amanda. She made a show of rummaging through the bag and checking Bobby’s vital signs while Lawrence drove out of the garage.

She waited until they emerged into daylight and the car’s windows automatically darkened to shield its passengers from outside view. Then she unwrapped two injectors from the medkit and filled both with a sedative solution.

Amanda placed one hand under Bobby’s chin, found the artery, and jabbed the first injector into his neck. Bobby shuddered and gurgled, then went still again.

She dropped the empty injector, paused, then searched Bobby’s pockets for his phone and pulled it apart, making sure to remove the battery and crack the screen. She tossed the parts onto the floor, then picked up the other injector and grabbed the back of Bobby’s shirt collar.

Amanda lifted Bobby with some effort and shoved him forward until his face pressed against the transparent privacy baffle behind the driver’s seat. She reached her other arm through the opening, holding the second injector.

“Lawrence! Look out!” she yelled at the same time she pressed the injector against the driver’s neck. He slumped forward onto the steering wheel, and Amanda slapped her panic button to stop the car.

* * *

Bobby woke up to the sight of his mobile phone in pieces, the screen clearly broken, vibrating on the floor of a car. It took him a moment to realize that the vehicle was in motion. They went over a bump, then around a curve, and the pieces of his phone slid around the floor.

It was another minute before he could move, and he took the time to reflect on the choices which had led him to this situation. Should have just left her there with her stupid android. And what the hell did she do to my phone?

Every muscle in his body complained as he reached down to collect the pieces of his phone and put them in his trouser pocket. He sat up, looked around, and confirmed his suspicions: the girl from the dressing room was driving the car.

A few seconds of observation gave him more bad news. They were in a forest, with no buildings anywhere in sight. Which meant they had passed through a checkpoint—no problem for an official Defense Ministry vehicle—and left the city. Which meant they were in the demilitarized zone surrounding Tarkfair.

Worst piano recital ever, Bobby thought. Of course, it was probably going to be an even worse day for Minister Cringely soon, when he learned that his only child had run away from home.

Bobby leaned forward to speak through the small opening in the privacy baffle separating him from the front seat.

“I’m not paying for this cab ride,” he said.

Amanda jumped, and the car swerved slightly. “You should have stopped the music when I told you to.”

“You know,” Bobby said, “I respect women. Which is why I don’t like to use certain epithets, but I’m going to make an exception in this case. Special occasion. Ready?”

“I don’t—”

What do you think you’re doing, you crazy bitch!” Bobby shouted.

“Be quiet!” Amanda yelled back. “Or—or I’ll gag you!”

“No, you won’t. You’re in too much of a hurry, otherwise you would have gagged me already. Isn’t that what kidnappers usually do?”

“I am not a kidnapper!”

“Right.” Bobby leaned an elbow against the transparent baffle. “Would you prefer ‘abductor?’ The more exotic ‘shanghaier’? Maybe if you tell me what’s going on, I can suggest more accurate terminology for your precise criminal act—”

You’re kidnapping me!” Amanda said.

Bobby frowned. “I think one of us is very confused.”

“Your family did something to my android,” Amanda said. “Used some sort of technology virus to turn Irwin against me. Fighting with the other students was just a ruse to get into my dressing room. You then fooled me into thinking you were helping me, when you really just wanted to lure me back to my car, where you incapacitated my driver and took me hostage.”

Bobby gaped at her. “Please tell me you’re in some kind of therapy,” he said. “Your father can’t possibly have missed all these symptoms of mental illness—”

“However,” Amanda continued, “once we arrived at your secret criminal hideout, your accomplices double-crossed you and beat you to within an inch of your life before absconding with me.”

Bobby gaped, feeling at an unusual loss for words.

“The last thing you heard me say, before I was taken away, is that I regretted not being able to perform Rosen’s Twelfth before these fateful events transpired.” Amanda raised one hand toward the sky, as if she were making some kind of public speech.

“Seriously?” Bobby stared at her in disbelief. “I mean, seriously! Can you hear yourself right now? Are you on medication? Did you forget to take it this morning?”

“You don’t have to shout,” Amanda said. “I can hear you just fine.”

Bobby cupped his hands around his mouth. “I was at a piano recital!” he shouted through the privacy baffle. “I was going to have lunch with my friends and then play some ball! And now I’m being driven into the Walford Wood, where I’ll probably be killed. So I’m sorry, but I’m going to spend my last hours doing whatever the hell I want!” He paused, then added, “You crazy bitch!”

“I am not crazy!” Amanda snapped. “And—and you’re wrong about where we’re going. So completely, utterly wrong! It’s sad, really, how wrong you are. We’re nowhere near Walford.”

Bobby sighed. “It’s ten-thirty in the morning. The sun’s ahead of us and to the left.” He pointed out the window at the trees surrounding them. “We’re heading due east. Another hour, maybe two, and we’ll be at the coast.”

Amanda didn’t respond. Bobby realized what he’d just said. We’re going to the coast.

“You’re getting on a ship,” he said. “You’re leaving the country.”

Amanda sputtered. “That’s ridiculous.”

“You’re the daughter of the Defense Minister,” Bobby said. “There’s nowhere in Tarkfair you could hide from his robots. Your only escape is overseas—”

The vehicle skidded to a halt on the narrow road, mashing Bobby’s face up against the privacy baffle. Amanda turned to face him with a deadly glare.

“I am not a traitor,” she spat. “Everything they printed about my mother was a lie.”

Bobby didn’t say anything. He knew the stories: how then-Colonel Cringely had brought back a war bride from the far shores of Parsay; how the military had accused her of selling Tarkfair state secrets during the second Oceanic War; how she had killed herself before they could put her on trial. Bobby never knew how much of the official news reports were true—the Atangan family also endured their share of lies spread by others—but he knew the effect those stories had on public opinion.

“I’m going to prove them wrong,” Amanda continued. “And you’re going to help me.”

“Okay, two things,” Bobby said. “One: how are you going to do that? And two: why should I help you?”

Amanda sat up straight. “I’m helping my country. And as daughter of the Defense Minister, I now invoke the Defense of the Realm Dictum. You have a legal obligation to assist me, Mr. Atangan.”

“Pretty sure that’s not how that works,” Bobby said. “Also, we’re not technically at war—”

“Do you love the Oceanics?” Amanda asked.

Bobby frowned. “Of course not.” He had lost several older cousins to the wars across the eastern sea.

“I am not defecting,” Amanda said. “I am pretending to defect. So I can lure a high-ranking Osigonian naval officer into the DMZ.”

“And why would you want to do that, exactly?”

“To capture him!” Amanda said this as if it should have been obvious. “The Oceanic Treaty states no military forces are allowed inside the Walford Wood. We would be fully within our rights to detain and interrogate this person.”

“Okay, look, if you’re trying to impress your father, I’m sure playing the piano really well would probably do the trick—”

“This is not about my father!” Amanda paused, and when she spoke again, her voice quavered. “This is for my mother.”

Bobby couldn’t stand it. He knew he was a sucker for weepy women, but knowing that about himself didn’t make it any less preventable.

“What do you need me to do?” he sighed.

* * *

Amanda welcomed the silence of the cottage after nearly an hour of driving uneven dirt paths, bumping over rocks and fallen branches. The peace and quiet didn’t last long.

“Stop that!” she called into the kitchen, where Bobby was making an unholy racket.

“Are you sure there’s no food here?” It sounded like he was yanking open every cabinet door and then slamming it shut. “I don’t know about you, but planning an ambush makes me hungry.”

“Come help me find the transceiver.”

“It might be hidden in the pantry.” She heard a scraping noise. “Hey! There’s a piano back here.”

“A piano?”

Amanda walked through the kitchen and found Bobby in a back room, pulling the tarp off a shiny black baby grand. He opened the cover, placed his hands on the keys, and pressed a few experimentally. The piano twanged horribly.

“Hasn’t been tuned in a while,” he muttered.

“Of course!” Amanda lifted the lid, pushed the prop into place to hold it open, then reached inside the piano and pulled out a metal suitcase from where it had been resting on the bass strings.

“Unusual,” Bobby said. He sat on the piano bench and tapped the keys again. This time something approaching a melody sounded through the room. “I’m just going to stretch my fingers while you fiddle with that.”

“Fine, but you’ll have to stop making noise when I start transmitting.”

Amanda opened the suitcase and powered on the transceiver. She punched the pre-arranged code sequence into the old-fashioned keypad. The tiny video screen lit up with a flashing signal meter.

“It’s connecting,” she said. “Be quiet!”

Bobby stopped playing. “Just when I was getting to the good part.”

A tinny male voice buzzed from the suitcase. “Amanda? Darling, is that you?”

Amanda leaned down, making sure her face—and her cleavage—were in view of the camera. “Yes, it’s me, dearest.” The screen showed a dark-haired young man wearing an Osigonian naval uniform. He smiled. Amanda smiled back, hoping she would be as persuasive by video as she had been at the ball. “Oh, Pender, it’s so good to see you.”

“And you, my beloved,” Pender said.

“Are you close?” Her mouth felt dry. “Where are you?”

“Very near, my darling. We couldn’t remain on land for fear of being discovered, so we’re circling just outside the border.” He grinned, and for a second Amanda could almost believe she actually wanted to run away. Almost. “Do you have what I asked for? My father thinks I’m on maneuvers. Presenting him with your android will lessen the sting of keeping our relationship a secret for so long.”

Amanda’s smile faltered. “I’m sorry, Pender. There were… complications.”

Pender’s face froze. “You do not have the android?”

“I wasn’t able to bring Irwin with me. But I have the files!” Amanda held up Irwin’s memory chip. There were no actual state secrets on the chip, but the simple act of decrypting the dummy files would trigger the virus she’d hidden inside to infect the Osigonian military computer network. “It’s all the information you wanted. Darling,” she added quickly.

“I wanted the android,” Pender said.

“And me, right? You wanted me to come away with you. That’s what I want, too.” Amanda hoped she didn’t sound as desperate as she felt.

Pender turned his head, looking at something offscreen. “I’m sorry, my love. It seems we have also run into… complications.”

No! “I can still join you,” Amanda said, willing her voice to stay even. “I have the car. Where are you?” She couldn’t let him get away.

“I am afraid we will not be able to keep our rendezvous.”

“We’ll try again!” Amanda blinked, refusing to let the tears escape her eyes. “I can hide in these woods for days. Just tell me when to contact you again!”

“That will not be possible.” Pender’s eyes were cold. “Good-bye.”

The screen went dark.

“Pender!” Amanda shook the transceiver. She stabbed the reset button with her finger. She re-entered the code sequence. The screen remained dark. “Pender!

She suddenly noticed Bobby kneeling on the floor beside her, tapping the side of the suitcase with some kind of metal probe. “What are you doing?”

* * *

Bobby noticed an odd smell coming from the suitcase while Amanda talked with Pender. She didn’t react. Maybe she didn’t know the scent. Bobby recognized it as an incendiary compound used in his family’s factories. And there was only one reason that substance would be inside the suitcase.

As soon as the video screen went dark, Bobby pulled out his multi-tool and extended the sensor probe. He fell to the floor while Amanda was pounding at the keypad and started testing the sides of the suitcase. They didn’t have much time.

What are you doing?” Amanda screeched.

“Looking for the detonator!” Bobby said. The sensor blinked red. He ripped open an access hatch on the back of the suitcase and yanked out a small metal cylinder. The exposed contacts sparked. He yelped and dropped it on the floor. A plume of white smoke wafted from the open hatch.

“It… was a bomb?” Amanda said.

“Yeah, you’re welcome,” Bobby said. “Nice boyfriend you have.”

“He’s not my boyfriend,” Amanda snapped. “We have to find him. Trace his transmission. There must be a way—”

“That thing was wired to explode. I’m pretty sure it doesn’t keep a geo-location log for debugging purposes.”

Amanda grabbed his shirt collar with both hands. “If we don’t get them—get something—I won’t be able to explain why I came out here. We have to find that ship!”

Bobby nodded. “So you’re proposing that the two of us—and let’s be clear, we are civilian teenagers with no military training—should attempt to locate and capture an enemy ship-of-the-line which is probably twenty kilometers away, in international waters. Is that what you’re saying we should do?”

Amanda loosened her grip. “Unless you have a better idea for how to avoid being jailed for treason.”

Bobby held up his phone. The screen was lit up and showed a healthy signal meter. “Maybe just wait for my mom to pick us up?”

Amanda’s eyes widened. “I disassembled that! To disable the tracker!”

“Yeah, funny story, this is a prototype self-repairing unit,” Bobby said. “Put the pieces back together, and as long as the power supply and memory core are intact, it can fix just about any damage. My favorite demo is when we drop it in an aquarium. Boy, do people freak out—”

Amanda grabbed his collar again. “You didn’t think it was important to mention this earlier? What if your family and Pender’s troops had arrived at the same time?”

“Well, that’s no longer an issue, is it?” Bobby said. “Besides, I didn’t want to show my hand before seeing how this was going to play out.”

Amanda released him and fell to the floor, wailing. For a few seconds, Bobby was afraid she might actually rend her garments in lamentation. But then she seemed to calm down, and after a few deep breaths, she stood and fixed him with a purposeful glare that made him shiver.

“I won’t be branded a traitor,” she said. “I’ll die first.”

Before Bobby could stop himself, he said, “Like your mother?”

* * *

Amanda had never slapped anyone before. She was surprised at how natural the action felt, and how much her hand hurt immediately afterward.

“I meant I wouldn’t give them a false confession,” she said. “They can torture me to death if they want. But I won’t lie for them.”

“Oh, yeah,” Bobby said, rubbing his face. “That does make more sense.”

She felt bad when she saw the red welt on his cheek. “I’m sorry I struck you.”

“No, that was fair. I’m an idiot.”

“We’re both idiots.”

Bobby snapped his fingers, startling Amanda. “Yes! That’s it. That’s how we get grounded instead of jailed. Clever girl.”

She frowned at him. “What in the world are you babbling about?”

* * *

Bobby was used to being searched by android security units, but these Defense Ministry bots were definitely rougher than the AA factory gatekeepers. And much more thorough. Amanda had been playing the piano when the ministerial convoy rumbled up to the cottage, but she had to stop to allow her father’s bodyguards to sweep the building, verify hers and Bobby’s identities, and check both of them for injuries before declaring the area safe. Bobby’s mother had arrived just as the Defense Minister stepped out of his car.

Amanda resumed playing, and Bobby watched through the windows and provided a play-by-play narration while his mother and her security detail argued with Amanda’s father and his military entourage. The adults’ voices were muffled by the thick walls and the rousing second movement of Rosen’s Twelfth Opus.

The final chord of the movement rang through the back room. Bobby applauded absently while continuing his eavesdropping efforts.

“Think we have time for the third movement?” Amanda asked.

Bobby shrugged and inclined his head toward the sounds of the adults bickering in the other room. “Better than listening to that.”

Amanda placed her hands on the keyboard. “This time don’t snap your fingers.”

“I was just keeping the beat—”

Amanda’s father stomped into the room, followed by Bobby’s mother. Defense Minister Julius Cringely’s deep scowl looked rather ridiculous right next to Mrs. Atangan’s broad smile, and Bobby had to bite his tongue to keep from laughing.

“Unbelievable,” Minister Cringely said. “What were you thinking, Amanda? What got into you? Running off in the middle of your recital! Stealing the car to go gallivanting around the forest with this—boy!”

Bobby resisted the urge to pump his fist in the air. It had taken only a few text messages to get his mother to swallow the tale of whimsical teenage mischief he and Amanda had fabricated, and clearly Mrs. Atangan had been able to convince the Defense Minister. It was almost as if parents didn’t want to believe their children were capable of more than frivolous pursuits.

“He’s not a boy,” Amanda said. “He’s a year older than me.”

“Thirteen months, actually,” Bobby said.

Amanda raised an eyebrow. “And I got bored waiting for my turn. Next time, see that I’m scheduled to perform before intermission.”

Minister Cringely directed his scowl toward Bobby. “And you! Do you have any idea how much damage you did to our robot?”

“Android,” Bobby said.

“With all due respect, Minister,” Mrs. Atangan said, “We’ve never certified the Q series for personal protection. My son acted using publicly available information. Anyone could have disabled that android.”

“But he’s the one who did tamper with government property,” Minister Cringely said. “And may I remind you, he’s old enough to be tried as an adult.”

“That’s true.” Mrs. Atangan folded her arms. “But do you really want those details discussed in open court?”

“You should be ashamed,” Minister Cringely growled. “Blackmailing your own government.”

“We’re providing a public service. Replacing your entire personal security force at wholesale prices? We’re practically giving away these new units.”

“Just remember that upgrade contract includes a non-disclosure agreement.”

“Of course,” Mrs. Atangan said brightly. “Our secrets are your secrets.”

Minister Cringely grumbled. “Come, Amanda. Let’s leave this wretched forest.”

“I’d like to finish playing this piece, Father.” Amanda nodded toward Bobby. “I didn’t get to perform it earlier.”

“That’s all right,” Bobby said. “I can wait until the next recital.”

Amanda wrinkled her nose. “I think you owe me, considering all the trouble you’ve caused today.”

“All the trouble I’ve—!”

“Robert!” Mrs. Atangan snapped. “Behave yourself.”

Minister Cringely snorted. “Go ahead, Amanda.”

Amanda’s gaze lingered on Bobby just a second longer. Then she turned back to the piano and began to play. He had to admit, she was pretty good at this.


Once a Silicon Valley software engineer, Curtis C. Chen (陳致宇) now writes speculative fiction and runs puzzle games near Portland, Oregon. His debut novel Waypoint Kangaroo (a 2017 Locus Awards Finalist and Endeavour Award Finalist) is a science fiction thriller about a superpowered spy facing his toughest mission yet: vacation. The sequel, Kangaroo Too, lands our hero on the Moon to confront long-buried secrets. Curtis’ short stories have appeared in Playboy Magazine, Daily Science Fiction, Mission: Tomorrow and Oregon Reads Aloud. He is a graduate of the Clarion West and Viable Paradise writers’ workshops.

You can find Curtis at Puzzled Pint Portland on the second Tuesday of most every month. And yes, there is a puzzle hidden in each of the Kangaroo book covers! Finding the rabbit holes is left as an exercise for the reader. Visit him online at curtischen.com.


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