Daudi had another report on his news feed about a ghost girl living in the dump outside Bujumbura, so he put two Cokes in a hydrobag and hailed a taxi outside the offices. It was cool season now and the sky was rusty red. The weather probes were saying dust storm, dust storm, remember to shut the windows.
Daudi put his head back against the concrete wall and wondered how a ghost girl living by herself was not yet dismembered and smuggled out to Tanzania. Maybe some entrepreneur was cutting her hair to sell to fishermen. Maybe she was very lucky.
The graffitied hump of the taxi bullied its way through bicycles and bleating sheep. Daudi slung the hydrobag over his shoulder and pulled out his policense. This was not an emergency, not strictly, but Daudi did not pay for transit if it could be free. The taxi rumbled to a stop and when the door opened, it bisected a caricature of President Habarugira shitting on a rebel flag. He climbed inside and switched off the icy blast air conditioning.
“Bujumbura junkyard,” Daudi said, pressing his policense against the touchscreen.
“Calculating,” said the taxi.
* * *
The junkyard was a plastic mountain, any fence that might have once marked its boundaries long since buried. Bony goats wandered up and down the face, chewing on circuits, while scavengers with rakes and scanners stumped around the bottom, searching for usable parts or gold conductors.
Daudi had the taxi stop well away, before it gutted a tire on some hidden piece of razorwire. It didn’t want to wait, but he used the policense again and it reluctantly hunkered down.
There was a scavenger with no nose and no tag sitting in the sand. Stubble was white on his dark skull. A cigarette dangled from his lips. Daudi squatted across from him.
“Mwiriwe, policeman. My shit, all legal.” He waved off a fly. “You ask anyone.”
“I’m looking for the ghost girl,” Daudi said. “She lives here, yeah?”
The scavenger massaged his knobby calves. “Oh, yes.”
“How long here?”
“Aye, two weeks, three weeks since she show up. Her and her imfizi.” He spat into the sand. “She’s a little witch, like they say. She’s got the thing following her all around.”
Daudi squinted up the crest of the junkpile. “How does she survive?” he asked. He saw the scampering silhouettes of children and wondered if one was her.
The scavenger shrugged. “She finds good stuff. Me, I buy some. And nobody trouble her, or that damn imfizi take them to pieces.” He tapped ash off his cigarette, eyed the hydrobag on Daudi’s shoulder. “You here to decommission it? You look soldier.”
“I’m here for the girl,” Daudi said.
“Witch,” the scavenger corrected. “You say it’s genes, but it’s witch. I know. I see her.”
Daudi straightened up. He had speakaloud pamphlets in the taxi, ones that explained albino genetics in cheerful Kirundi and then French, ones he did not distribute as often as he was supposed to. But Daudi knew that by the time a man is old his mind is as hard as a stone.
* * *
He found the ghost girl rooting through electric cabling, feet agile on the shifting junk. Her sundress was shabby yellow and stained with gasoline. Her hands and feet were callused. Still, she was tagged: her tribal showed up Hutu and she was inoculated against na-virus. Not born in the street, then.
“Anything good?” Daudi asked.
She turned around and blinked rheumy pink eyes at him. “Who are you?”
“My name is Daudi. I work for the government.” He unslung the hydrobag and took out the first bottle. “You want a fanta?”
“Yes.” The girl rubbed her pale cheek. “Yes, I wanna.”
“Here.” Daudi opened the chilly Coke between his molars. Clack. Hiss. He held it out. “What’s your name?”
“Belise.” The ghost girl wound the cable carefully around herself, eyes on the sweating bottle. “Set it down, back up some,” she suggested. “I’ll get it.”
“You don’t need to be afraid of me,” Daudi said, wedging the drink in a nook of bent rebar. “I’m here to take you somewhere safe. Here, here isn’t safe for you.” He scooted back. “Belise, do you know what an albino hunter is?”
“It’s safe,” Belise said, patting a piece of rusty armor. “My dawe is here.” She clambered down to get the Coke and all at once something very large burrowed out from the junkpile. Motors whirred as it unfolded to its feet, shedding scrap metal. The robot was sized like a gorilla and skinned like a tank. The sensory suite glittered red at him. Daudi hadn’t seen an imfizi drone in many years and the sight jolted him.
“Shit,” Daudi said, as Belise skipped back up the pile, bottle cradled in her grimy hands. He realized the old man had been talking sense.
“My dawe,” the ghost girl said proudly. “My daddy is very strong.” She swigged from the Coke and grinned at him.
* * *
Daudi had retreated to the bottom to re-evaluate things. Clouds were still building crenellations in the sky, and now wind whistled in and out of the junk. He skyped the offices for a list of active combat drones, but of course it was classified, and the official line was still that they had all been smelted. He sat and drank his own Coke and watched Belise step nimbly across a car chassis while the drone lumbered behind her, puffing smoke.
There had been many of them, once. Daudi knew. He remembered seeing them stalk across open ground sponging up rebel fire like terrible gods while the flesh troops circled and sweated, lying in this ditch and then another, so fragile. He remembered the potent mix of envy and disdain they all felt for the piloting jackmen, cocooned safe in neural webbing a mile away.
He remembered best when one of the imfizi was hacked, taken over by some rebel with a signal cobbled together from a smartphone and a neural jack. People said later that it had been Rufykiri himself, the Razor, the hacker who sloughed off government security like snakeskin, but nobody really knew.
Daudi remembered mostly because that day was when half of his unit was suddenly gone in an eruption of blood and marrow.
Daudi did not trust drones.
“You see, now.” The old scavenger was back. He ran a dirty nail around the hollow of his nose. “Nobody troubles her. That thing, deadly. She has it bewitched.”
“It’s malfunctioning,” Daudi said. “Not all of them came back for decommissioning. Crude AIs, they get confused. Running an escort protocol or something like that.” He narrowed his eyes. “Not witchcraft.”
“Lucky malfunction for her,” the old man said. “Lucky, lucky. Else she would be chopped up, yeah? For eurocash, not francs. Much money for a ghost.” He smiled. “A rocket could do in that imfizi. Or an EMP. You have one?”
“I will chop you up, grandfather…” Daudi took a long pull at his drink. “… if you talk any more of muti. You live in a new time.”
“What, you don’t want to be rich?” The scavenger hacked up a laugh.
“Not for killing children,” Daudi said.
“Ah, but you were in the war.”
Daudi stood up.
“You were in the war,” the old man repeated. “You sowed the na-virus and burned the villages and used the big knife on the deserters. Didn’t you? Weren’t you in the war?”
Daudi wanted to wrap his fingers around the scavenger’s piped neck and squeeze until the esophagus buckled. Instead, he took his Coke and walked back up the junkpile to try again with the ghost girl.
* * *
The drone had been repairing itself, he could see it now. Swatches of hardfoam and crudely-welded panels covered its chassis. Spare cables hung like dead plants from its shoulders. It was hunched very still, only swiveling one camera to track Daudi’s approach.
Belise was sitting between its feet. “Dunna come any closer,” she said. “He might get mad at you.” Her brows shot up. “Is that fanta for me as well?”
“No,” Daudi said. He considered it. “Too much sugar is bad for you. You won’t grow.”
The imfizi shifted slightly and Daudi took a step back.
Belise laughed. “My dawe used to say that.”
“My mother used to say it,” Daudi said. “When I chewed too much sugarcane.” He watched the drone uneasily. It was hard to tell where it was looking. “Did you have a mama?” he asked her.
“I don’t remember,” Belise said. She rubbed at her nose, smeared snot on her dress.
“And your dawe?”
“He’s here.” Belise slapped the metal trunk behind her. “With me.”
“The imfizi keeps you safe, yes? Like a father.” Daudi maneuvered a rubber tire to sit on. Some of the scavengers down below were using a brazier for tea and the wind carried its bitter smoke. “But maybe it will not always be that way,” he said. “Drones are not so much like you and me, Belise. They can break.”
“They can fix,” Belise said, pointing to the patched carapace.
Daudi remembered much simpler jobs, where the men and women were frightened for their lives and wanted so badly to be tagged, to go to the safehouse, for the government to help them.
“If the drone decides its mission is over, it might leave,” Daudi said. “Or it might paint you.”
“Paint you as a target,” Daudi said. “So it can kill you.”
Belise shook her small white head, serene. “No, that won’t happen. He’s my dawe.”
Daudi sipped until his drink was gone. “I’ll take you to a place with so much food,” he said. “No more scrap-hunting. Nice beds and nice food. And other children.”
“I’ll stay.” Belise pointed and Daudi followed her finger. “Take those two. You can have them go with you. I don’t like them.”
Two small boys rummaging in the junk, insect-thin arms. One had a hernia peeking out from under his torn shirt. They cast nervous looks up every so often, for the leviathan drone and the albino girl and now for the policeman.
“They don’t need my help,” Daudi said. “My job is to help you. Many people would try to kill you. Cut off your limbs. The government is trying to make you safe.”
Daudi rubbed his forehead. “Because albino-killings are very publicized. President Habarugira is forging new Western relations, and the killings reflect badly, badly, badly on our country. And now that the war is over, and there are no more rebels to hunt, people who know only how to murder are finding the muti market.”
“And the government cares for the good of all its people,” Daudi added. He looked at the empty glass bottle between his palms, then hurled it off into the growing dusk. The shatter noise came faint.
Belise had followed the trajectory, lips pursed. Now she looked up. “Not what my dawe said.” She paused. “About the government. He said other things.”
“Your dawe is dead, Belise.”
Belise nodded, and for a moment Daudi thought they were making progress. “He died with the bleeding,” she said. “With the sickness. But he told me not to worry, because he had a plan. He made his soul go softly into the imfizi.” She smiled upward, and the pity in Daudi’s gut sharpened into something else. He stared at the array of red sensors, the scattered spider eyes.
“Your daddy, Belise.” Daudi put a finger up to his temple and twisted. “Was he a jackman?”
Belise winced. She stared at the ground. When she looked up, her raw pink eyes were defiant. “He was a rebel,” she said.
* * *
Back in the birdshit-caked taxi, there was a memo on misuse of government funds. Daudi tugged it off the screen and punched in his address instead. Through the window, he saw scavengers taking in their equipment. Some were pitching nylon tents around the brazier. The old noseless man was tearing open a package of disposable phones, but he looked up when the ignition rumbled. He waved.
Daudi’s fingers buzzed as he typed the word into Google: softcopy. A slew of articles in English and German fluttered up. He struggled through half a paragraph before switching over to a translation service. Daudi was not a hacker, but he’d heard the term used. Always between jackmen, usually in a hot argument.
The taxi began to rattle over loose-packed gravel, and Daudi had it read aloud to him. Softcopy, a theoretical transfer of human consciousness into an artificial brain. Ramifications for artificial intelligence. Softcopy claim in NKorea revealed to be a hoax. Increased use of neural webbing has led to new questions. Evolution of the human mind.
The taxi sent him an exposé on corruption in the Burundi police forces as a kicker, but Daudi hardly registered it as he swung himself out of the vehicle. He scanned himself through the door in the jagged-glass-topped wall, scattered the pigeons on his apartment’s stoop. The stairs went by three at a time, and then he was in front of his work tablet, working the policense like a bludgeon.
He pulled up reports from three years ago. Death reports. The list was long, long, long. He scrolled through it and they came to him in flashes, so many Jonathans and then so many Josephs, good Christian names for godless rebels, and then he found him: Joseph Rufykiri, the Razor. Responsible for the longest sustained information attack of the war, for the interception of encrypted troop movements, for the malicious reprogramming of military drones, farm equipment, wind turbines, and once a vibrator belonging to the general’s wife.
He was dead by na-virus, but survived by a daughter. Daudi stared at the data and only half-believed it, but half was enough. He found a rumpled rain jacket under the bed and threw it on, and into the deepest pocket he dropped his old service handgun. Useless, unless he put it right up to the drone’s gut, right where the armor had fallen away.
Daudi thought of the bloodspray and his comrades jerking and falling like cut puppets as the hacked drone spun its barrels. He thought of Joseph Rufykiri between blood-soaked sheets, whispering to his daughter that he had a plan and that she did not have to worry.
He had to know, so Daudi stepped back out under the swelling sky and hailed a new taxi, one with less graffiti, as it began to storm.
* * *
The dust felt like flying shrapnel by the time Daudi struggled out of the taxi, wrapped up to the eyes. It battered and bit his fingers. The sky was dark and its rusty clouds were surging now, attacking. It looked like the scavengers had packed away and found shelter elsewhere, or else their tents had been torn off the ground like great black scabs. Daudi hurried to where the junkpile could provide some shelter.
On his way a scavenger fled past, stumbling, and then Daudi saw the blurry shape of a jeep up ahead through the sand. Something besides the storm was happening. He crouched against the wheel-well and checked his gun where the dust couldn’t reach it. He checked it again. He breathed in, out, and craned his head around the edge of the vehicle.
Three muti hunters, swathed in combat black with scarves wrapped tight against the storm. Daudi counted three small-caliber guns but could hear nothing now over the howl of the dust. They ducked and swayed on their feet, and the imfizi drone clanked and churned and tried to track them as the grit assaulted its many joints. Bullets had cratered its front, and bled coolant was being sucked off into the wind. Belise was nowhere to be seen.
The drone was long since dry of ammunition, and the hunter was caught off-guard when it lunged, quicker than Daudi had ever seen a drone move, and pinioned him to the ground. The other two rounded on it, firing in rhythm. The imfizi buckled and twitched with the impacts, but then reared up with the hunter’s leg still mashed in its pincer. Reared higher. Higher. Blood spouted as the man tore silently in half.
The other hunters reversed now, moving clumsily in the wind, and one hauled a grenade from his back and lobbed. For a moment, Daudi thought it was a dud, but then a whine shivered in his teeth and the hair on his neck stood up on end and he realized it was an EMP. The drone shuddered once, twice. Froze. The hunters converged.
Something clutched onto Daudi’s calf. He looked down, and of course it was Belise, her translucent hands kneading his ankle, and she was crying something but Daudi could not read lips. He shook her off. He steadied himself. He ducked around the side of the vehicle, and fired twice.
The first hunter dropped, swinging on his heel, punched through the skull and nicked in the shoulder. Daudi had not forgotten how to kill.
Arm coming up, scarved head turning. Daudi made his body relax and snapped off another shot, feeling it into the chest but hitting belly instead. The hunter fired back but the retort was lost in the dust and Daudi had no idea how close he’d come to dying so he did not falter. The hunter’s scarf ripped free, oscillating wildly, as the next bullet splintered through throat and jaw.
Daudi stumbled to the bodies and scrabbled for their guns, but one had already been swallowed by the sand and the other was locked tight in a dead hand. He tried to throw up but only hurt his ribs. He crawled instead to the imfizi. Its red eyes were starting to blink back on. Daudi put a hand on either side of the carapace and leaned close. He stared hard into the cameras.
“Joseph Rufykiri,” he said, mouthing carefully.
The drone shuddered. The top half of the chassis rocked back. Rocked forward. Daudi mirrored the nod without really meaning to. He squinted back to where Belise was crouched, covering her eyes against the dust. Her skin was stark white against the black jeep. Tears were tracking through the grime on her face.
Daudi realized he had the gun pressed up against the rusty husk. “Do your penance,” he mumbled. “I do mine.” Then he stood up, almost bowled over in the wind, and turned to go.
The ghost girl said something to him but he still couldn’t hear. It might have been thanks. Daudi nodded her on, and she dashed towards her father, now getting to his iron feet. Daudi went to the jeep and found the two little boys on their bellies underneath. He put his head down.
“I have a taxi,” he said. “Come with me.” They exchanged looks with their dark eyes and shook dust from their dark heads. Then they wriggled out from under the vehicle and Daudi shielded them as best he could with the rain jacket.
He looked back only once. Belise was clambering into the drone’s arms, sheltered from the roaring wind, and then they were enveloped by the dust.
Rich Larson was born in Galmi, Niger, has lived in Spain and Czechia, and currently writes from Montreal, Canada. He is the author of Ymir and Annex, as well as the short story collection Tomorrow Factory. His short story “Ice” was recently adapted into an Emmy-winning episode of LOVE DEATH + ROBOTS. Besides writing, he enjoys traveling, learning languages, playing soccer, watching basketball, and dancing kiz. “Ghost Girl” originally appeared in War Stories, edited by Jaym Gates and Andrew Liptak.