by Mary Robinette Kowal
Saskia leaned into the darkness above the stage, only vaguely aware of the wood
rail against her hips as she retied the left headstring on her marionette. On the
stage below, the Snow Queen's head eased into balance. The marionette
telegraphed its stance back up the strings to the control in Saskia's hands. She ran
the Snow Queen across the set to check the repair, barely conscious of her own
body on the bridge above the stage. It was almost like being immersed in a VR
One of the techies called up. "Hey, Saskia? There's a detective here for you."
She stopped abruptly and the marionette continued its motion in a long pendulum
swing. Detective? At the foot of the ladder, the techie stood next to a stocky man,
maybe Indian, maybe South American. She'd never been good at guessing.
The man wore A.I. interface glasses.
Saskia shivered; A.I. always made her edgy. They were like puppets in reverse --
a soul without a body. She took her time hanging up her puppet before she
descended the ladder.
"Ms. Dorlan? I'm Agent Jared Patel with the FBI." Patel's eyes flashed over
Saskia's shoulder. She glanced back before realizing that he was looking at the
A.I. in his interface glasses. It gave her the creeps. "I need to talk to you about
"My fans are usually a little younger . . ." She tried to use humor to lighten the
tension, but Patel's lips barely curved in response. Saskia had done the motion-capture for eDawg in the series eCity, but she could not, for the life of her, figure
out why the FBI would be investigating the puppet. They hadn't filmed a new
episode in over a year.
Unless, holy crap, unless this was about one of the toys the series had spun off.
Maybe one of their tiny terrier brains had gone rogue and killed some rich kid. It
had to be a rich kid; they never investigated the deaths of poor ones.
"I realize this will seem like a strange request. Your producers agreed to loan us
the eDawg puppet, but only if you oversee its care. They said the controls are
customized to you and they didn't want to risk it with someone else."
"I'm stunned that they would let the puppet out of the studio at all. You must have
a heck of an insurance waiver."
"We're the government." He let that sit between them for a moment, then smiled.
It was not comforting. "We'll compensate you for your time, of course."
The word compensate changed everything. He wasn't investigating eDawg; he
was offering her a gig. "So you want me to work the puppet?" She itched to get
back into the suit again. She loved traditional puppetry, but nothing compared to
"Our A.I. will handle that, don't worry; you're just there as a formality."
"Look." She caught herself before she could start a rant about A.I. driving
puppeteers out of film and video work. "Even if I were willing, it's not going to
"What do you mean?"
"When you recognize someone from a distance, it's not just their height and
weight, it's how they move. Give the same puppet to different puppeteers and it'll
look like different characters. That's why they had me do the motion-capture work
when they made the toy versions of eDawg." She stopped suddenly, wondering
why they needed the puppet at all. "Can't you use one of the toys? They look just
like eDawg and there are like, thousands of them"
"We need to have more control of eDawg than a toy would provide."
"You can have control, but you won't have eDawg. Not unless it moves like me."
Patel shifted his gaze to the spot over her shoulder. His jaw worked in silent
conversation with his A.I. partner. Crazy machines had no idea how people thought
or moved, yet they thought it could do the job.
Patel looked back at her. "Our agent feels confident that she'll be able to match
"Is this something you can force me to do?"
"Then I can't see any reason to help someone else do my job." She grabbed the
ladder to climb back up.
Patel leaned forward. "Do you know Hamilton Cruise?"
"Personally? No. Seen him in the news, yeah."
"His son, Wade, has been kidnapped. The kid's toy eDawg was the only witness.
We've got the thing torn apart trying to access its memory without wiping it, but
the kidnappers just told us that they want the ransom delivered via eDawg. You
say 'no' to this, we don't get to use the puppet. You say 'no' and that kid's life is
thrown up in the air."