Reading Time: 4 minutes

“So glad you could join me.”

Cara McHenry swallowed, her mouth dry, and tried not to tremble. The man had tan skin, manicured nails, glowing teeth, and a tangle of chest hair exposed to the coastal sun. He gestured to the chair across his table. Small white plate, folded napkin, sweating glass of ice water, waiting for Cara to sit down.

She blinked a few times. Her glasses beeped softly. The man’s smile remained pasted on his face like a portrait of a devil. The waft from aircars zooming over the cafe joined the sea breeze—salt and metal on the air.

“You want to see your sister again, no?” the man said. Something bit his ankle and he swatted it away without bothering to look.

Is that all I am? Cara thought. Less than a bother?

She sat.

“Good girl.”

Cara clenched her teeth so hard she thought they might crack. In her field, advanced nanorobotics, she was used to cocky assholes who viewed her small figure as a license to denigrate. People looked at her and thought, Lesser—less than five feet tall, less than one hundred pounds, less than capable. In high school, girls had called her Cara Micro. Each microaggression had added a bit of fuel to Cara’s anger, and now it was about to burn her up.

“Prove you have Darcy,” Cara said.

The man fished a phone from his jeans and found an image. Cara didn’t want to look, but she forced herself. Duct tape, rope, and red wrists, but otherwise Darcy was whole. The shoulder tattoo—a Spanish galleon firing its many cannons—left no doubt it was her.

The phone disappeared like a magic trick when the waitress approached. The man ordered for them both, but Cara didn’t hear it.

“You may call me Tomas,” the man said. “After today you will never see me again. If you try to contact the authorities, we will end Darcy’s life. If you delay our progress for any reason, we will end Darcy’s life. We will return her to you, unharmed and whole, only after we have the technology we want, and have left the country.”

He said all this with his easy, wicked grin in place; no one watching would think anything was amiss. Cara tried to keep her body calm, and almost failed. She wanted to cry. That image of Darcy, bound and helpless . . . it made her heart hurt to think it would be her last memory of her sister.

But of course, the image would have a location stamp.

“You are the expert in nanocopters, I’m told,” Tomas said.

Cara nodded.

“Ten years now in military R-and-D?” Tomas said. “Highest marks in your graduate program? Presented to the Joint Chiefs at the Pentagon three times? Designed the latest version yourself?”

Cara nodded after each question. In the top left quadrant of her vision, her glasses’ software analyzed his words and cycled through staff Cara worked with, cross-examining their files and displaying the probability of each being a leak. She ignored the report, for now.

“What exactly do you want from me?” Cara asked.

“The hackdrive,” Tomas said. Cara kept her face wooden. Her lack of reaction broadened Tomas’s grin. “We know where it is, but of course we can’t get in. Too much security, too many people, too much excitement. We don’t like loud noises, gunshots, ugh, all that bang! bang!

He slapped the table for emphasis. Cara’s plate jumped and settled with a clatter. Cara’s heart accelerated, and her skin flushed. Tomas showed yet more teeth. Cara dug her fingernails into her palms beneath the table.

The waitress arrived. Half a tuna sandwich each. Cara’s stomach twisted upside down. She ignored it, watched Tomas, noticed him wipe sweat from his brow.

“More sweet tea?” he asked. “I get so thirsty on hot days.” The waitress nodded. When she had left, Tomas said, “The only way in is nanocopters. Nothing else is large enough to open the doors from the inside while still being small enough to avoid detection. So, we need you to maneuver your nanocopters inside and let us in, so we can acquire the hackdrive.”

What he said was, technically, true. Unlike traditional nanobots, Cara’s copters could accrete and form a cloud in midair, and the aggregate weight could type, bend door handles, unplug wires, and all manner of other mischief. Cumulatively, they could even deliver a dose of poison.

“Here’s what I think,” Cara began.

“It doesn’t matter,” Tomas said. “There will be no negotiation. You will do as we say, or we will kill your sister.”

“You will kill her regardless,” Cara said. Tomas swallowed a bit of tuna, dabbed his lips. “I know your type. Your kind of group. You aren’t the kind who let people go.”

Tomas shifted his weight. A red splotch appeared on his tan throat, disappearing into the chest hair. He scratched at it, and coughed. “There are no groups like us,” he said. Cara heard scratchiness.

“I’d offer a trade,” Cara said. “Your life for hers. Only, like I said—your group doesn’t let people go. And, frankly, neither do I.”

A coughing fit took Tomas. Cara saw fear in his eyes, magnified when he glanced at his ankle and put it together.

“It’s over for Darcy,” Cara said. “I’ve accepted that. It’s over for you, too. Accept it.”

He shook his head. The splotch spread across his face now. A squeaking sound escaped his throat. People were looking, watching him cough and hack. He slumped out of his chair onto the concrete patio.

“He’s choking!” Cara cried, and ran around the table. She rolled Tomas onto his back. Foam fell from his lips. His fingers crawled at his throat. “Help!” Cara shouted.

A crowd appeared. Someone’s hands lifted Tomas to perform the Heimlich. Cara fell back. She saw heaving bodies. “What is it?” someone asked. “Tuna?”

Cara slipped away, her trembling hand in her pocket, fingers tight around Tomas’s phone. It would be password protected, but that wouldn’t stop her for long. She rounded a corner, and the chaos from the restaurant faded. Sirens sounded in the distance.

She let out a quivering breath. Not bad for her first field work. And despite what she’d said, she wasn’t ready to give up on Darcy. Something buzzed by her ear and landed on her glasses. Another design she’d built in—if swatted, they simply dissolved into their individual pieces and reassembled ten minutes later.

An air taxi waited at the curb. Cara got in, then pulled out the phone and got to work on her next destination.

Devin Miller's fiction has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Perihelion, Electric Spec, and many other magazines. His blog is at devinmillerwriting.blogspot.com and you can follow him on Twitter @dmmiller4000. For his day job, he puts patients to sleep for surgeries and procedures... though hopefully not with his fiction.