FOURTEEN MONTHS AGO
It was after 9:00 at night, and the DevLok offices were quiet except for the constant hiss of the air conditioning keeping the desert heat at bay. Smits was cleaning out his office with nobody but Pseudo for company.
Trey had pushed Smits off into a smaller office when he first had to cut down his work time and, as his diagnosis got worse, the offices had just gotten smaller and smaller. This last one was tiny, and he had long since stopped bothering to put up posters or photos. There were no screens in it, but he kept his protective glasses on to keep from getting a headache from the hallway fluorescents. Pseudo sat near the door, watching him with glowing eyes.
Smits had rescued Pseudo from a recycling bin at Boston Dynamics, modified the basic BigDog unit with a more realistic head piece and a tail, and programmed in some sounds and more natural movements. Now it cocked its head to watch him and thumped its tail as if hoping for a walk. He had no intention of leaving the dog behind to be junked. Pseudo was coming with him, wherever he ended up.
Now Smits scooped up the contents of his drawers, dumping it all into a cardboard box. He wasn’t keeping any of it, he just didn’t believe in leaving his crap around for other people to deal with. Worn wrist bracers, empty medication bottles, dark glasses that had failed to protect his eyes, a collection of mice and pads and supports and stands and different brands of stylus and all the things that were supposed to substitute for working tendons and cartilage. He should have known his time was limited when they hadn’t even provided momentary relief anymore.
Pseudo gave a warning bark and Smits looked up. Lakshmi stood in the doorway, her lips pressed together into a thin line. It was almost an expression of disapproval, but he knew her too well by now. She said, “Sorry, I got a security alert that someone was down here. It alerts on people who have every right to be here all the time, but I just thought I should check . . .”
“No problem.” Trey had disabled Smits’ access about ten seconds after reading his resignation letter and dismissing him with a fake-friendly clap on the back and an insincere that’s too bad speech. Even with his eye and hand pain, Smits could have destroyed Trey’s security in less than a minute, but he hadn’t bothered; he hadn’t thought anyone would be here but the night guards, who knew he was just cleaning out his office. He really hadn’t expected to run into Lakshmi and he honestly didn’t know if he was glad to see her or not. “You're working late.”
She shrugged a little. “Just trying to catch up.” Her gaze flicked around the office and its pointedly absent workstation. “I guess it’s easier for you, this late, with so many screens shut down.”
Smits let out a breath. “Nothing about this was going to be easy.”
Lakshmi winced. “I’m sorry. I can’t imagine . . . I’m just sorry.”
He rolled his stress ball collection into the box. “I am, too,” he said, and ignored the sudden thickness in his throat. He hadn’t chosen this time because most of the screens in the offices and hallways would be dark; that was just a side benefit. He’d really wanted to avoid a chorus of sympathy, pity, and goodbyes. And he wanted to avoid Lakshmi. Not because he didn’t want to see her; because seeing her hurt almost as much as typing.
He’d had a thing for her since meeting her in college, at first because she was beautiful. Then as he’d gotten to know her, her sharp intelligence had sealed the deal. Nothing had ever happened between them; she was only a few years older than him, but it had seemed like a bad idea to ask the teaching assistant for a date. Since then, it had never seemed the right time.
“This is such a waste,” she said, the words coming reluctantly, as if she knew this was the last thing he needed to hear, but she couldn’t help herself.
“Having you work compliance is a waste,” Smits said. Dismissing Lakshmi’s ability was another one of Trey’s ego-driven mistakes. “This is just equipment failure. And it’s not like I’m being abandoned on a desert island to die.”
Lakshmi’s grimace was wry. “Not that I think Trey is above that.”
She wasn’t wrong. Smits didn’t let his reaction show, though his jaw tightened. Trey had made it clear that Smits had been tossed on the discard pile. If he couldn’t do the job, then he was useless to Trey, and therefore useless to everybody. Smits just said, “Luckily no islands out here.”
“If there were, I know you could just swim to shore,” Lakshmi said. Then she winced...