I stared up at James’ enormous mansion. This place felt like home, and the notion struck me as odd. Despite having just left the grandiose hotel, the mansion’s grandeur remained undiminished. Was I really that accustomed to being here already? Multiple houses could fit inside this one with plenty of room to spare. Ai and Mai’s wing alone was easily over twice the size of my parents’ house, and that’s not counting any secret passages I didn’t know about. There probably were some.
I always liked the idea of hidden passages in walls, secret ways to get from room to room, but I never thought I’d actually see as many as I already had. There was a hidden theater, secret storeroom, and rooms with purposes which I could only guess at. The place was amazing… Even the garage was larger underground than on the surface.
Just walking inside, you had to pass two sets of double doors. I could easily imagine James standing on the balcony which overlooked the foyer and greeting us. That wasn’t his style at all, but he would look right there. This was the most incredible home I ever heard about, and my best friend owned it.
The technology inside still amazed me. I followed the others into the ballroom where little Aaliyah was already typing away with her secretary glasses firmly planted on her nose. She didn’t need glasses at all, but they were cute. To think someone so cute designed this tech-heavy room was amazing. There were eight, very large mirrors creating the walls. Each mirror could swing outwards, revealing either a passage or storage. The mirrors also served as giant screens.
I was certain Aaliyah had designed the chairs as well. The eight chairs, designed for luxury as much as gaming, seamlessly hid beneath the floor when the ballroom was to be used for something else. They could be controlled by a digitally displayed system far more advanced than any others I had seen. The speakers built into the chairs had excellent sound quality, but were virtually silent from even a foot away.
Aaliyah was far, far beyond me in so many ways. If she had only designed Ancient Tribes of Earth, I’d still have believed it. The game’s size, customization, and in-depth story were vastly superior to anything else I tried, but the game ran smoothly on every system I had seen, including those of clients with relatively old systems ― A surprising number of our clients played. Had James noticed?
The little girl’s choice not to engage in battle was amusing to me, knowing that her knowledge of combat was superior to my own as well. Every last move we used in the game had been coded by her, but she was also my teacher in real life. She taught me how to move when fighting but also how to think. I knew James didn’t entirely approve of it. He never wanted to hurt anyone, but breaking an arm or leg to end a fight quickly was sometimes for the best. We already lost one friend. I didn’t want to lose anyone else.
“I think I’ll go tell Marco that we’re back.” stated James as he took a step toward the door.
“Oh, master, Marco has known when you would be arriving for days now. The Princess is very organized. I can’t believe that you’d doubt her.” teased Mila through the room’s speakers.
“Must she really call you ‘master’ in that fashion, James? I don’t feel it’s appropriate.” insisted Alma, from her favorite of the room’s chairs.
“Thank you, Mila.” stated James. Then he faced Alma’s reflection and said, “She has a mind of her own, and I’ve found what I say has little bearing on what she does and doesn’t decide to do.”
I half-expected Mila to make some snappy quip, but she apparently didn’t feel the need. Which was harder between designing Mila and Ancient Tribes of Earth? I wasn’t certain. The game was massive and had fully interactive NPCs who would vocally respond to anyone addressing them, but I doubted any of them were actually conscious like Mila. Her mind was impressive to say the least, and her knowledge was as vast as the internet. I couldn’t have made the progress I did in my own designs without her input, at least not as quickly.
I took a seat to play Ancient Tribes of Earth with the others. Even after an entire convention where we had focused on this game, I was ready for more. Only a tiny fraction of the world had actually been explored, and the game was immersive enough to make you feel this was a second life. My friends in the game were every bit as real to me as those around me. I knew their quirks and capabilities in the game. We had talked enough that I knew significant amounts of their out-of-game lives as well. Even if the game somehow grew boring, I couldn’t imagine quitting because I’d miss them.
I was talking about the convention with them, since none of my lieutenant generals were able to make it in person. Something seemed off though, not with them, but… Maxine. Brandon had told me about meeting a cute girl who turned out to be some sort of criminal. She was trying to hack the game, but Brandon said she was blind. She couldn’t be…
“Sorry, guys, but I need to log already.” I told them.
“What? Come on…” complained Lake.
“It’s too early, and you haven’t even been on very long.” whined Jesse.
“I’m going to get some chicken wings.” stated Alec.
Typical Alec. I said, “Mmm… I haven’t had wings for a while. Catch everyone later!”, and logged off. James glanced back looking surprised as I made my way to the door. Partway to the garage, I asked “Mila, you were listening when James met a girl named Maxine, right?”
“Of course. I must always be prepared to help the master.” she replied, making “master” sound flirtatious as ever.
“What was her full name?” I asked.
“Maxine Marveille Montgomery.” she stated.
“Mind digging up everything you can on her?” I requested.
“Oh, I already started digging when the master met her. Want to see what I have or wait until I’ve finished investigating?” she asked.
“Wow. Over a day, and you’re not finished?” I questioned, surprised by the idea that Mila wouldn’t have someone’s whole life story in that time.
“She actually has very impressive security measures guarding her personal servers, and I wasn’t too focused on breaking into them. She was also very thorough in erasing all digital data regarding her parents and brother. I actually had to make some calls for inquiries and am still waiting on responses.” she informed me.
“I wish I could say I’m surprised.” I told her before breaking into a run.
“Is something troubling you?” asked Mila when I entered the garage.
“Have you compared the IP addresses between the Maxine from the convention and the one with whom I’ve been corresponding?” I asked.
“No. For your correspondence, I only went so far as to see that they were rerouted through several machines each time. I never bothered with a full trace, but I do see why you’re concerned. I believe you’re correct as well. The servers I’ve been casually poking are at her primary home address. I had checked the ISPs in the area to see which she used and retrieved her IP address from there. Given the scope of Maxine’s public holdings, she probably has access to numerous servers throughout the world and plenty of processing power to run all sorts of interesting software. Want me to shut her down?” she offered.
The idea was tempting, but I wanted to do a little more research first. Shaking my head, I said, “No, but thank you. She probably doesn’t have the data I’d want networked. Destroying the servers you’ve been ‘poking’ would only get her attention. I’m sure she could replace them easily enough, and I don’t want her calling in favors from her friends in Ai and Mai’s family. Mind opening the attachment on the email Maxine sent earlier today?”
“Here you are. She seemed most impressed with your actuators and sent you schematics for those servos you had discussed.” she replied.
Great. I’ve impressed an evil genius. After looking over the schematics, I started fiddling with my tablet. All of this was the result of a game of sorts Aaliyah had given me with the tablet. Would Aaliyah have helped me so much if she knew I’d inadvertently help a criminal mastermind? Being blind, I didn’t imagine Maxine would be doing much of the actual legwork herself, assuming there was legwork, but there had to be, otherwise she wouldn’t need the suit. Would she actually trust someone else using it? How could she use it if she were blind? Sensors? Even with a good audiofeed, reflexes would be slowed, but I already had a number of ideas for pulling it off. She’s been at this a while, so she surely had refined plenty of ideas.
All thoughts of Maxine left my mind as the next part in the game unlocked. There were detailed schematics of Dr. Conway’s work. His work wasn’t for an exoskeleton though. He had intended to replace bones, even organs, with machinery he had designed. The designs were brilliant, incredibly brilliant, but having them implanted would be dangerous and very painful, assuming you didn’t lose sensation entirely. I became lost for a time, puzzling over how the connections to the brain worked. I needed to study more biology, but I had the resources.
I started listening to Conway’s audio diary while reading. He actually did this procedure several years ago? These measurements though…
“Mila, mind displaying these pieces fitted together as a skeleton?” I asked.
Conway droned on as tears came to my eyes. He didn’t… He couldn’t have… Estimated height of the subject was just under thirty-five inches. What sort of monster would do this to a child? As I listened from the cold floor, Conway described the child and the procedure. He really was a monster. I needed to talk to James. He had to be told.
“Where’s James?” I asked.
“In his bedroom.” somberly stated Mila.
I left the garage, trying to compose myself as the lift carried me up. If anyone was awake, I didn’t want to bother them. I needed to talk with James first. How could a little girl do so very much with her day? She wasn’t human. She should have been. She should have grown. As I made my way up the stairs, I started running. I meant to knock gently, but I was pounding at the door from the start.
James was dressed for bed, staring at me in shock.
“We’ve gotta talk now. This is crazy. This is so, so crazy.” I told him.
He put his finger to his lips and waved for me to step inside. I did. Who would hear us on the third floor? Oh. Alma. She might. I started pacing, but James pulled a chair out, obviously wanting me to sit down. Could I sit still right now? No. I kept pacing. James sat on his bed and stared at me. He looked worried.
I opened my mouth to tell him what I just learned, but I felt like I might cry again. I stopped myself and decided to tell him the lesser bad news first.
“This is some heavy, heavy shit. First off, I screwed up, man. I think I really screwed up.” I admitted.
James raised his hand to get my attention and asked “What happened? Start from the beginning?”
I nodded, took a sec to reorganize my thoughts, and said, “Yeah-yeah. Okay, so Brandon was telling me about this cute girl you two met who went by Maxine. Well, I didn’t think anything of it at first, but as we were playing downstairs, some pieces started clicking together. You remember that tablet I got from Aaliyah for my birthday?”
“Well, there was a sort of game on there. The thing is that the game was actually instructions, walking me through the life’s work of some guy who was trying to make robotic parts to strengthen humans back in the sixties.” I explained.
“Sounds like an impressive guy if he made any progress, but I don’t see what the problem is.” replied James.
What? Oh, right. I needed to explain more. I told him “Just hear me out. To unlock the next part of the instructions, I had to answer questions about the workings of what I had seen so far. Some of that got pretty tough rather fast, since I don’t have the background to understand all of it. Well, I didn’t want to ask Aaliyah, because that seemed like cheating, since I felt she gave me the program to challenge me. I started browsing forums and talking with people about specific aspects of what I read. There was this one girl, Maxine, who was super knowledgeable. She was great to talk with, since she really seemed to understand me. We started talking through direct messages rather than on the forums where the others made stupid comments. No offense intended, but they did. Some of the stuff she said just seemed weird to me, like ‘imagine trying to design a servo blindfolded.’ That’d be crazy, right? Except that putting her comments together with you meeting a blind, intelligent girl named Maxine makes me believe that she did do it blindfolded.”
“Wait. Why are you assuming that the Maxine I met was that intelligent? We hardly talked, really. ‘Maxine’ can’t be that uncommon of a name.” argued James.
I stared at him a moment, trying to tell if he was being serious. He was? Feeling slightly exasperated, I said, “Really, dude? This blind girl’s attempting to hack Ancient Tribes of Earth according to Aaliyah. Then she’s working with part of Alma’s family. We’ve met the twins and Alma so far, and all three are very intelligent. How useful to them could Maxine be if she wasn’t bright?”
James seemed to consider it a moment before nodding and asking “Okay, so how did you goof?”
“She helped me with problems. I helped her with some. If she’s a criminal like Brandon made her sound, I just assisted a criminal in a robotics project. I really doubt she’s going to use whatever she’s working on for world peace.” I explained
“Look, you had no way of knowing that you were helping a possible criminal. You just have to be a bit more careful in the future.” he assured me.
I shook my head, knowing I needed to tell him about Aaliyah. I started by saying, “Yeah, I know. Just bothers me. That’s actually the lesser of what’s bothering me at the moment. As I was trying to figure out what harm she could do, I was reading through that program some more. Then something else clicked for me.” Then I looked him in the eye and said, “I think Aaliyah’s a cyborg.”
A dark cloud passed over James’ face. He looked worried, upset… Not surprised.
“Jarod, don’t say anything until I get a response. Not one word.” he ordered.
I did as I was told, feeling shocked. What was happening? He didn’t question me at all, just got upset. What was with him? Texting now of all things? He seemed to get a reply instantly, and I could see the tension leave his body.
“Dude, what was that about?” I demanded.
An eerie smile came to his face as he said, “You just stumbled across something dangerous to know. You can’t let anyone else find out that Aaliyah’s a cyborg. Ai, Mai, and Alma know as well. If you mention it around them, they’ll have you in a sealed room in a second.”
“You knew? Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked, feeling really confused now.
The smile was gone in an instant. James looked at me that way he does when he seemed to see straight through me. Then he said, “Aaliyah’s the assassin, Jarod, as in the only assassin. The twins explained to me that if you reveal her secret, whomever you tell dies. You die. Your family dies. Aaliyah apparently doesn’t make exceptions for friends. At least, I think she considers Ai and Mai her friends.”
Was he messing with me? “How could you know she’s the only assassin or an assassin at all for that matter?” I asked.
“I found out after she let me see her kill two people, though I can’t say I actually saw her even move. She told me afterward that she had killed off all other assassins years ago.” he claimed.
He wasn’t bluffing. James was dead serious. Aaliyah killed off every assassin!? I knew she could fight. She had been teaching me to do things I hadn’t thought possible, like breaking an egg inside a glass without touching it. I could actually do that now despite my lack of magic. Stopping a person’s heart would be easy. The speed James had claimed didn’t add up though. The numbers weren’t working in my head. Conway’s voice was playing through my head again. I couldn’t push it out.
“Okay, so I can see how she would be deadly given what was done to her. I don’t understand how she could be that fast though. It’s too much from what I saw.” I insisted. Conway’s description continued replaying as I said, I really feel sorry for her. It had to hurt so, so much. No one should have to go through that, much less a kid.”
“Go through what?” asked James, looking confused.
“The operation, James.” I told him.
He still looked confused.
“‘The subject was brought in with injuries all over her body, internal bleeding, and broken bones throughout both arms and legs. Her skull was fractured. I commenced with the operation, replacing her bones with those of my own design.’” I told him, regurgitating the words in my head. “‘The subject’s remarkable healing ability kept her alive, but her body burned through the anesthetic rapidly. The surgery was a success.’ is a somewhat rough summary of her doctor’s notes on the surgery.”
The poor, poor girl. Knowing Aaliyah was the test subject, I couldn’t keep the image of her crying out from my mind. That little girl should be smiling, always smiling… not tortured.
I forced myself to continue, saying, “She woke up countless times during the surgery, James. Her body healed rapidly, but she was in pain for at least a couple weeks while she recovered. I don’t know what they did to save her, but her body was outgrowing the implants after nearly a year, causing her constant pain. Aaliyah was a military test subject. The descriptions led me to believe it was her. The blonde hair and blue eyes. The dimensions of the implants given would put the test subject at around thirty-five inches tall.”
The tears were coming again. I couldn’t stop them. I couldn’t stop thinking about her being forced to go through that operation… There was no way the doctor just happened to have synthetic bones made for her lying around. All those injuries were done to her as an excuse to perform the surgery. The man was a monster!
The door opened and a blur was there and gone faster than I fully registered. Aaliyah was there on my lap, hugging me. She really was fast, incredibly fast. I couldn’t understand her speed.
“I’m so sorry, Aaliyah.” I told her, trying to hold back the tears. I didn’t want her to see me crying. The girl had enough tears of her own.
“Don’t cry, Jarod.” she insisted. “I’m fine now. Honest.”
She handed me something. A phone. My phone. I hadn’t even seen her pull it from my pocket. It was ringing. I answered it and put it to my ear.
“I have telepathy!” she exclaimed through the device without even moving her lips.
I laughed a little and said, “Yeah, I suppose that is like telepathy.” I hugged her again and told her “Still, I’m sorry that you went through that.”
“Just don’t tell, especially not my daddy.” she insisted.
I nodded and said, “I promise.”
I talked with her for a while, trying to make sense of the world. Aaliyah didn’t mind sharing some of her stories as an assassin with me, since some of the contracts were no longer valid. Most of her contracts included a “certain level of discretion”. As we talked, I thought again of how much I had been missing before Emma told us about magic. How much more was I still missing? Emma had only told us about magic as part of Alma’s grand plan. Was there a larger plan at work? I could imagine Aaliyah having one. The tiny girl was too incredible for belief.