Laura bent down and stared at the scattered remains of the cell phone. It had been dashed to the ground, taken apart and left to float in a puddle of dirty brown water. She plucked the battery and case up from the water, sprayed them with a solution that would clean off the worst of the mud and water, put in a gravity bag and sealed it. The RFID tags would send a signal up through Nirvana, her drone, so she could claim salvage rights.
Nirvana streamed data to her contact lenses, showing high thermal activity and action in the next set of buildings.
Fires and people around them.
‘Shall I activate pacification procedures?’
Laura shook her head.
‘It’s a little heavy-handed. Run scans, see what’s there and we’ll just take a look.’
She attributed emotion to Nirvana because it could not be programmed into it. Its loyalty and ability were hers by virtue of having built it, using a loan from the hedge fund when she was in college. She had two more payments to make.
Her physical needs were taken care of. Her stomach was packed with a nutrient-rich clay that delivered time-released nutrition. There were carbon composites in her bones and tendons reinforced with textiles grown from her own DNA.
Laura’s ability to explore had been engineered but her capacity for it had always been within her.
To come here where her people had come from.
It had been sealed off for a long time. The initial surge of mass evacuations made for some ironic and poignant images of white citizens pleading with foreign immigration officials. Laura’s grandmother had gotten her kids over to England, under circumstances that were considered being a scandal and not spoken of.
Grandma had been a strong advocate for returning and although she loved England, and the life she found there, she passed on that desire to return to her children and in turn, Laura.
She had signed up to REACT, the global rescue initiative and taken on a contract as a scout-responder. The alterations and surgeries had rearranged the feng shui of her head but it had proved vital in the field.
Population scans had shown some unusual growth spikes and REACT had gotten the gig to record what was going on, send it back to the rest of the world. Laura pressed the button on her collar activated the digital camouflage and started to move towards the signal.
Direct conflict was not permitted. You watched, you sent the data, bagged the salvage and got back to your extraction point. Nirvana was insurance, so that she could see what was coming and do something about it.
There was talk of reclamation. Doing the work of burying the dead and finding an accord with the survivors. The remains of the government, situated in Switzerland, had professed that vision to keep its disparate citizens together. They did not have the money to back it up until the Narcos came forward and offered to bankroll REACT as a gesture of good will.
She heard the rough, low signs of chanting. How it shook the air before it as it grew in volume.
The survivors of Potter’s Syndrome had suffered a change in their brain structure. They had emerged from hiding, finding one another and converging into large groups who spread out, building structures and planting things again.
Laura understood the need to come back, but it was not her country anymore. Her mother would not have recognised it. The sounds gained nuance as she drew closer.
The kind of hooting noise you made with your tongue against the roof of your mouth.
Primal, unmoored cries of rage and pain.
Unhinged spasms of ecstasy.
Children bawling in a language that made her temples throb.
Laura recorded all of it. It was streamed up to Nirvana for analysis by REACT. The world had always been interested in America, but this was not the same place anymore.
The camouflage changed as she moved forwards, mapped textures that helped her blend in perfectly with her environment. She felt safe within it, unseen so long as she was sure and careful where she walked.
Which was why the child staring directly at her came as a surprise.
He was around eight years old, lean in the way they all were with his hair stuck up in clotted, stiff spikes atop his head His face was streaked with something that shone in the evening light and yellow chalk.
He clutched a human femur in his right hand and grinned.
Laura sent a status alert to Nirvana.
‘Shit, it’s a kid.’
‘Pacification options are available but you would be in range.’
The child hooted and began to dance, waving the femur in the air as his callused feet beat up splatters of mud into the air.
A guttural cry went up and Laura watched a pack of men come forwards, naked and all the same leathery shade of brown from being out in the sun all day.
The child hooted and swung the femur in Laura’s direction. She scattered backwards as the men stopped around the child.
Nirvana sent an alert to the nearest outpost. It warned her that she would be in direct range of any ordnance deployed in her defence. She appreciated it asking, but she was too unnerved by the fact that they appeared to have seen her.
She moved backwards, drawing her spring pistol.
‘Nirv, fuck it, I think they’ve seen me.’
Nirvana was too far up to be heard. Laura imagined the click and whirr of its systems coming into play. It was a perfect burning lotus floating above her, devoted to her protection.
Especially when she had put herself in danger like this.
Nirvana deployed micro-munitions that exploded at a viable distance above the target. It rained down a non-lethal nerve agent called Purple Rain and also timed release bursts of aluminum and potassium nitrate, producing blinding lights that worked in conjunction with the agent to paralyse targets without killing them.
‘Protocol activated. Laura, get out of range.’
The men advanced, picking up rocks or sticks as the boy led them to her.
‘The suit’ll absorb the worst of it, right?’
Nirvana lapsed into silence.
‘Of course it will. If not, it will pass quicker for you. And if you despair, you need do only one thing.’
Laura closed her eyes as the sky burned and the rain fell. She would live, she vowed, if only to break the news to her grandmother.