Skinner by Charlie Huston is a futuristic thriller about the intersection of spycraft, technology, and people (available July 9, 2013).
Aasif’s parents had a dream for him. Not so unlike millions of other parents around the world, they dreamed of something better for their son. So smart that they wanted him to have the chance to go to school, to study, to become more than they had the chance to be. But Aasif learned something besides engineering along the way. He learned that in this brave new globalism, those chances, those jobs and opportunities were disappearing, consolidating, contracting. And he met someone who wanted to help him change, not the world, but his corner of it.
So he took his new skills back to the slums, broke his mother’s heart, and taught his son as much as he could about the tangle of wires and pipes that will bring modern civilization to their home.
Outside the door, dirt packed hard against the hump of an enormous water main running half-buried down the middle of the narrow land between the shanties and their patchwork walls of cinderblock, corrugated steel, scrap wood, waddle, tin, and cardboard. At the far end, a scrum of filthy boys passing in and out of sight where the street opens onto a small square in front of the great shed that serves as shared factory space for the many industries of Dharavi Nagar in the heart of Dharavi slum.
…And this neighborhood of his, Dharavi Dharavi, a little more than six hectares of squalor and enterprise and shoddy construction and disease and color and filth and children playing in the streets and dirty water and bare feet and the stink that never goes away, Sector Six in the Redevelopment Project, home to more than two-hundred thousand people. Is it plan or chance that it is just north of Sector Five where the developers brought the first DRP contracts have already begun to clear shanties in preparation for building the first phase?
Meanwhile, Skinner—a man raised in a box, who once made a CIA career out of killing enough people to discourage the targeting of his assets—has been called out of the skies, out of a kind of mythical retirement in limbo, to protect a new asset.
“They have an asset for you.”
Skinner’s eyes crinkle at the corners, just that much, focusing and a vertical line creasing his forehead disappears.
Skinner touches the corner of his eye, rubs.
“I’ve been up in the sky a long time.”
Terrence reaches inside his jacket.
He takes out a slightly bulging envelope the size of a business card.
Skinner accepts it.
“Everyone is James Bond now.”
Terrence points at the envelope.
“Details. Flight numbers. Bank accounts. Frequent flier miles. Names. Dates. Details.”
He reaches across the counter.
“Her name is Jae. The Disaster Robot Lady. The USB is for her. Beyond the job details, there’s more. For her.”
And while Skinner’s focus is nearly singular: protect his asset no matter the cost or the method, Jae’s focus is disjointed, scattered. The robotocist is able to see the patterns others miss, a skill she mostly dulls with pills and peyote these days, hiding out in the desert waiting for the inevitable future. When she comes into the world, she sees, searches, assimilates:
Click-click-click. And the screen begins to unspool a seemingly unending list of files.
Text files in a dozen formats, spreadsheets, link dumps, ipegs, jpegs, gifs, the contents of several email account trash files, a seemingly unending document composed of cut-and-pastes from defense industry trade collateral, technical PDFs on mil spec office furniture, the entire Wikileaks State Department cable dump, more.
Jae points at Skinner’s briefcase, tucked under the seat in front of him.
“I’ll need your laptop.”
She’s begun to click open files, apparently at random, placing her phone on the tray table and opening a browser.
Skinner pulls out his laptop.
Jae waves fingers, vague, presence receding.
“Open a browser. Firefox if you have it. Anything if not.”
He opens Explorer, and she takes the laptop from him, rests it at an angle on her thigh.
“Terrance. What did you? Everything. Okay. X marks the spot. Show me.”
Clicking through files, hands dancing between phone and computers, surfing across the information, no longer, Skinner would swear, on the plane at all, silent other than the occasional grunt or mumble.
“Show me where.”
The two are fascinating characters, both born or bred as human anomalies. When lost or confused, Skinner retreats to his box, the one in his head that makes him feel invisible, that makes him feel safe. Jae retreats to her devices, other people’s devices, a never-ending stream of data and pictures, of tweets and satellite images and news feeds and Google searches. Out in the world, but not really in it.
Against them are all manner of defense and security consultants, contractors, those who want answers or want them not to find answers. People who want to control the asset just so no one else has it. People who suspect they know what’s going on. People hedging their bets. And their game of cat and mouse bounces around the globe from the deserts of the U.S. to the ash-dusted riots of Stockholm and the slums of Bombay.
“Nobody calls it that, Cross. Nobody who lives in Bombay calls it Mumbai.”
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Neliza Drew is a tofu-eating teacher and erratic reader with a soft spot for crime fiction. She lives in the heat and humidity of southern Florida with three cats and her adorable hubby. She listens to way too much music, writes often, and spends too much time on Twitter (@nelizadrew).
Read all posts by Neliza Drew on Criminal Element.