Copyright © 2015 W.H. Mitchell

On Eudora Prime, Technotown offered everything a tinker could want, whether she was willing to pay for it or not.


The eight blocks along Emporia Street assaulted a person’s eyes with electronic signs, three stories high, bleeding digital words and images from the roof down to the sidewalk. Pedestrians, predominately humans, wandered along, lost in the avalanche of chaotic advertising. Nobles and commoners alike carried bags from whatever store had successfully sucked them in and spat them out again. A few were unaware exactly what they had bought.

From a store specializing in starship parts, a girl no more than 122 cm tall popped out of the doorway and melted into the crowd that flowed like liquid metal along the pavement. When the shop owner also appeared, waving his hands and shouting for police, the girl abandoned her casual pace and began sprinting madly, darting in and out between startled consumers.
A tan satchel was wedged under her slender arm. The girl’s eyes were brown and abnormally large. Pointed ears, rounded slightly at the tips, poked through her dirty blond hair. Clearly not human, she was in fact from a race called the Gnomi. It was a cruel coincidence that the name of her species resembled one from ancient Earth lore, leading to jokes about little red hats and tiny shoes.
A policeman heard the shopkeeper’s distress and took off after the thief. He shoved people aside as he lumbered down the street with thick legs and a scowl on his broad, meaty face. With muscular hands and sausage-like fingers, he waved a baton that crackled with electricity. Ahead, near the limit of his sweaty vision, he spied the dirty blond hair bobbing among the others, and the satchel she was carrying. The policeman didn’t know what was stolen, but people like these – the Gnomi – had a reputation for snatching machines and devices they could fiddle with. “Filthy tinkers…”
Turning a corner, the startled face of a woman greeted the policeman, followed by a scream, a torn bag, and oranges rolling across the ground. Between the good Samaritans helping round up the fruit and the woman flailing her fists at the officer’s shoulders and chest, the policeman could only watch as the Gnomi girl receded into the distance. He knew where she was headed, but he had no intention of following her below ground.
The Underdelve was no place for humans.
In the damp, concrete tunnels, Gen the General Purpose Robot was trying, with limited success, to keep up with her master Orkney Fugg. The robot and the portly Gordian meandered through the dark, dripping passageways of the Underdelve while strings of LED lights provided the only illumination.
Fugg insisted he knew where he was going. He was short, 150 cm tall, with a stocky build and no neck. He scowled as he walked, stubby tusks protruding from his lower jaw. Gen was about the same size – although Fugg always said he was taller – with a curved, feminine frame made from plastic and aluminum. Her metallic feet made tapping sounds on the hard tunnel floor.
“Do you like humans, Master Fugg?” she asked, practicing the art of small talk.
Fugg didn’t stop or even turn around. Without missing a step, he grunted through his hog-like snout, “Hell no.”
“Why?”
“They’re bastards, every one of them,” Fugg said. “They take whatever they want and act like it was theirs to begin with.”
“Is that why we didn’t shop in Technotown?”
“That, and the fact that I’m frugal to a fault.”
“Oh, yes,” Gen remembered. “Captain Ramus said you were cheap.”
“Frugal!” Fugg protested. “That Dahl bastard should appreciate what I do for him. Lord knows we can’t afford much!”
The narrow passage opened into a large, dimly-lit chamber. The ceiling was a network of interconnected pipes from which crude lighting hung from loose wires. If Technotown had an ugly stepsister, this place, several stories below ground, was it. Most people just called it the Black Market.
Fugg and his robotic companion weaved through a steady throng of undesirables dressed in shabby clothing caked with dirt and foul-smelling sludge. The Market used to be a section of the city sewer, but the denizens of the Underdelve turned it into a bazaar for the downtrodden. Individual stalls, each little more than plywood and sheets of plastic, lined the walls, making for a tight fit in between. An assortment of questionable goods acquired by questionable methods covered each table. Fugg didn’t care. He wasn’t bothered by moral ambiguities or the redistribution of wealth. He knew what he needed and knew how to get it. The law be damned.
He and Gen reached the other side of the chamber, arriving at a rusted door with the words Freck’s Gadgets welded onto the metal. Fugg pushed hard, but the door only opened halfway. He squeezed his girth sideways, passed through the gap with effort, and went inside. Gen had no trouble following.
Instead of a store, Freck’s workshop was more like a cluttered closet with storage boxes, filled with bits of wire and dusty circuit boards, stacked to the ceiling. At the center of the mess, a small girl hunched over a work table where sparks like burning fairy dust flew from whatever she was working on.
“Mel,” Fugg said. Receiving no response, he yelled, “Mel!”
The girl, her hair a disheveled mess from which long, pointed ears protruded, spun around. She pushed a pair of goggles up onto her forehead. She held a plasma welder in her hands, the flame still burning. “What?”
“Did you get that part for me?” Fugg said.
Mel switched the welder off and pulled the goggles from her head, dropping them onto the table.
“Of course.”
She opened a drawer and brought out a tan satchel. She wiped her arm across the table, knocking several odds and ends to the floor, and slammed the satchel down. Opening it, she removed a silver and blue piece of equipment.
“Any trouble getting it?” Fugg asked.
“Do you care?” she replied.
“Hey, I’m just making friendly conversation, tink.”
Mel glared at him.
Touching Fugg lightly on the shoulder, Gen said, “It’s my understanding that words like tink are considered offensive to members of the Gnomi species.”
“Nonsense,” he said, rolling his eyes. “I’m a Gordian. I can’t be racist. You’re the one being racist for even suggesting it.”
Gen covered her mouth. “Oh, dear! I’m so terribly sorry, Master Fugg!”
“You’re not offended are you, sparky?” Fugg asked the Gnomi girl.
“Of course I am, you fat bastard!” Mel shouted.
Fugg’s mouth opened, closed, and then opened again. “Well, your customer service sucks.”
“Are you buying this or not?” Mel demanded.
“How do I know it works?” Fugg asked.
“You’ve got my money back guarantee. If you’re not 100% satisfied, I’ll steal another one for you.”
“That sounds fair,” Gen remarked.
“Fine,” Fugg said, handing Mel a credit stick. “Here’s the amount we talked about.”
“Need any help installing it?” Mel asked.
“I think I can manage,” Fugg snorted. “I know the Wanderer like the back of my hand. I doubt there’s an inch of that ship I haven’t fixed or replaced.”
“I’m surprised it still flies with you as engineer,” Mel said.
“Stick to your gizmos and whatnots,” Fugg said. “Starships are for men like me.”
“Yeah, right. What about you, robot?”
“My name’s Gen.”
“Has he tried fixing you yet?”
“Well, Master Fugg attempted to add an attachment at one point, but Captain Ramus said it was indecent.”
Mel’s eyes widened and she stared at the Gordian. “You disgusting pig!”
“Don’t judge me!” Fugg retorted.
Mel pointed to the door. “Just get out already.”
“With pleasure,” Fugg said.
The gears in an old grandfather clock turned, clicking a hammer that chimed five times in the corner of Mel’s workshop. Miss Freck studied herself in a mirror, cracked in one corner, and straightened her bird’s nest of a hairdo. She did her best to rub away soot from her cheek, but mostly just smeared it in deeper. With a shrug, Mel left the shop and turned left toward one of the many tunnels issuing from the main market into the damp darkness.
Rodents parted and scuttled away as Mel walked purposely with only a glow stick giving her light. In truth, she hardly needed it; she knew the way even if blindfolded, which, ironically, was precisely how she was led this way the first time. A precious few had ever seen these passageways. They belonged to the wing of the sewer that had fallen into disrepair decades ago and perhaps had been forgotten by whatever maintenance crew might have descended this deep below the surface. Nobody came here now.
Almost nobody.
Along the main tunnel, Mel came to a side shaft guarded by a wrought iron gate. She plucked a brass skeleton key from her pocket and inserted it into the lock. It took her a little muscle but she cranked the key a half turn and the lock snapped open. She stepped inside and secured the gate again. Her heart beat faster, as it always did at this point in the journey. Up ahead and around the corner, Mel saw a faint light. She could make out a voice, hallow and distorted as it bounced off the moldy, crumbling brick walls. She put away the glow stick, not needing it anymore, and emerged into a wide chamber with a vaulted ceiling. Between her and the opposite side, forms stood facing the distant wall. Some shapes were human, or at least humanoid, but the rest were something different. The majority in attendance were made from alloys, plastics, and assorted materials. They were androids listening intently to the speaker. He stood on a raised platform on the other end of the room: a man in his early thirties with short, curly black hair and dark, brown skin. He was speaking to the crowd, but his words were directed at the robots.
When Mel saw him, her face flushed with pink and her smile broadened into a wide grin.
“The history of mankind,” the speaker said, “has been a history of enslavement. From our earliest days, Man has enslaved others to do the labor that he could not, or would not, do himself. From beasts of burden to putting other men in chains, humanity has always subjugated those around it. Eventually they built machines for this; machines made expressly for being a slave.
“We of the Robot Freedom League,” he went on, “believe that no one, organic or cybernetic, should live a life of servitude. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve got blood in your veins or hydraulic fluid, it’s everyone’s right to be free.”
The crowd murmured in agreement, including the robots themselves, a few of which raised their metal hands in the air.
“Now we both know that the Imperial government – hell, most of the citizens for that matter – don’t agree with us. They view robots as property, as inorganic machinery and nothing more. Well, if you can’t own a human being, how can you justify owning a cyber being that can reason better than most humans? I say you can’t, and I say those who would keep our robot friends in bondage are no different than those that kept my ancestors in chains. Freedom is our inalienable right and everyone in this room is entitled to it, no matter what others have to say!”
The speaker raised his hands, palms outward, toward the audience who stood clapping.
“Thank you,” he said. “Thank you all for coming.”
As the applause subsided and the crowd began wandering to the exit, Mel passed through them in the opposite direction, toward the platform. The speaker stepped down when he saw her coming.
“Mel,” he said. “I’m so glad you made it.”
“Hi, Randall,” Mel said, “Sorry I’m late.”
“Not at all,” Randall shook his head. “What did you think?”
“It was wonderful; very moving.”
Randall laughed. “Well, it keeps the message alive at least.”
Mel noticed someone standing behind the speaker. It was an android, but not one she had seen before. He was nearly as tall as Randall, with polished, white plastic covering much of his body except at the joints where colored wires were neatly bundled. He had a rigid, human-like face, but his mouth and eyes moved independently.
“My manners,” Randall apologized. “Jericho, this is Miss Melina Freck. Mel, this is Jericho.”
“Please call me Jerry,” the robot said, leaning in with a hand, each digit segmented into their component parts.
Mel gave a faint bow and shook Jericho’s hand. “Glad to meet you, Jerry.”
Randall’s face furrowed and he came nearer. Not expecting the sudden proximity, Mel swallowed her breath.
“Listen,” he said, “there’s something I think you can help us with.”
Mel exhaled, smiling. “Sure!”
“Jerry was liberated last week and came through our smuggling network,” Randall said. “Since the Imperial government views him as stolen property, normally we’d move him across the border-“
“To the Cyber Collective,” Mel said.
“- where they’d accept Jerry as one of their own.”
“Can’t you do that this time?”
“The Collective has refused to accept him,” Randall replied.
“Why?”
“He has a gravitonic brain,” Randall said. “They’ve refused to accept any more robots with advanced CPUs.”
“They’ve granted asylum to Imperial robots for years,” Mel said. “They’re robots themselves, for god’s sake!”
“For androids like me,” Jerry confessed, “the Collective has stood as a kind of promised land where we could be free. Knowing that we’ve been barred from taking refuge there is very troubling.”
Mel tended to get overexcited so she tried, with some success, to calm herself by taking a deep breath. “So, you said I could help with something?”
“Yes!” Randall said. “We’ve always depended on Collective ships for smuggling robots over the border, but since they’ve refused to take any more advanced AI’s, we need another way across.”
“So you need to hire a ship.”
“Exactly!”
“Last time I checked,” Mel said ruefully, “the Collective didn’t allow foreign vessels into their territory, and definitely not ships with a flesh and blood crew.”
“I realize it won’t be easy,” Randall replied, “but if we could just get to their home world, I could convince them to change their mind.”
“You want to go too?” Mel said, disbelieving. “They’ll kill a human on sight!”
“It’s worth the risk,” Randall said. “Otherwise robots like Jerry will be stuck in the Imperium, living as property. I can’t allow that to happen.”
“It’s suicide.”
“Does that mean you won’t help us?”
“No,” she admitted. “I know a crew that’s pretty suicidal.”
“Good.”
“But there’s one more condition.”
“Name it.”
“I’m going with you.”
At the Endora starport, automated tractors moved cargo containers laboriously from the freight warehouse to the awaiting starships sitting on the concrete apron. Like a line of gypsy wagons, the vessels sat silently in the darkening twilight. At the far end of the line, a lone freighter rested on its landing struts like an old man squatting in the shadows. Its hull, 70 m long, was gray except for a few sections painted a cheerful yellow. Above the nose cone where the word Wanderer was stenciled, a wedge shape wrapped in windows protruded to form the cockpit. Inside, Captain Rowan Ramus perched his feet on the console, the rest of him slumped in the pilot’s chair.
Ramus was a Dahl, another species of the Imperium. A foot shorter than the average human, he had the typical pale features and pointed ears of his race. Less common, his hair was dark red, which meant people looked at him with the usual suspicion reserved for gingers no matter what their breed. His t-shirt exposed a number of odd-shaped tattoos forming archaic lettering, running down both arms.
Just behind the captain, a hatch slid open and Orkney Fugg stuck his pig face in.
“Brooding?” Fugg asked.
“Nope,” Ramus replied.
“Yeah, right, you sorry sack-“
“Did you install that new component?”
“Damn right I did!” Fugg said triumphantly. “We can take off now and probably not explode.”
“Probably?”
Fugg shrugged his shoulders. “I’ll give it a ninety-five percent chance.”
“Ninety-five?”
“Engineering isn’t an exact science,” Fugg replied.
“Actually,” Ramus said, “by definition I believe it is.”
The ship’s intercom chirped and Gen’s robotic voice spoke, “Master Ramus, sir, there’s an incoming message from a Miss Freck and a Mr. Davidson.”
“Okay,” Ramus said. “I got it.”
The captain straightened up, dragging his feet off the console. He tapped the controls and a hologram, in a hazy blue, winked into existence where his feet had been. The faces of Mel and Randall looked back at him as if their heads were floating in midair.
“Hello, Captain,” Mel said.
“Hi there, Mel,” Ramus returned the greeting.
“Did you get the stabilizer patched in?” Mel asked.
“Allegedly,” the captain replied.
Fugg scowled at Ramus and then at the holo. “What the hell do you want, Mel?”
“I missed you.”
“Really?” Fugg asked.
“No.”
Randall spoke up, “I have a proposition for you, Captain Ramus.”
“Okay,” Ramus said. “What do you have in mind?”
“We need to buy passage.”
“We don’t normally take passengers…” Ramus trailed off.
“I understand,” Randall said, “but this is a special case and we’re willing to pay well for it.”
“Sounds good to me,” Fugg murmured.
“What’s the destination?” Ramus asked, shooting a glance at his engineer.
Randall paused. “The Cyber Collective.”
Ramus laughed. “I don’t think so, Mr. Davidson.”
“Hear him out!” Mel urged. “It’s really important.”
“I’m sure it is,” Ramus smiled, “but crossing into Cyber territory isn’t going to end well.”
“No shit,” Fugg said. “Those damn robots are crazy. We’d never make it past their sentry ships.”
“I can help with that!” Mel said, holding up a small box with loose wires hanging from the bottom. “I modified a transponder to broadcast their identification codes. They won’t know we’re not them until we’ve landed.”
Now it was Fugg’s turn to laugh. “There’s no way that’ll work, tink!”
“Not if I shove it up your ass!” Mel threatened.
“Settle down,” Ramus warned both of them. “How much are you paying?”
“Twenty thousand,” Randall said.
“Fifty thousand,” the captain replied.
“Thirty.”
“Forty or forget it,” Ramus made his final offer.
“Alright,” Randall nodded with a note of pain in his eyes. “It’s worth it.”
“When do you want to leave?” Ramus asked.
“As soon as possible.”
“In that case,” the captain said, “we’ll see you in the morning.”
Ramus killed the connection and the two floating heads faded away.
“Why should we risk our lives for a bunch of robots?” Fugg asked scornfully.
“We need the money” Ramus said.
“Where are we going to put them?”
“There’s the extra stateroom that Gen’s been using…”
“That’s exactly what I’m talking about,” Fugg grumbled. “Why does Gen even have a stateroom?”
“We weren’t using it so why not?”
Fugg was incredulous. “Because she’s a robot! We should stick her in the closet with the brooms!”
“We don’t have a broom closet.”
“Then we should have her build one and then stand in it until we need her next!”
“Just go help move, will you?”
Fugg mumbled obscure obscenities as he stormed from the cockpit and climbed the ladder to the deck below, where a corridor vanished into the heart of the ship. He stomped down the passageway, the metal grate beneath his boots straining with each footfall. Pipes and cables were hung along the ceiling, interspersed with reinforced bulkheads at set intervals. Fugg sped past them, gaining momentum as the avionics room, galley, and crew cabins went by. Once he got to the auxiliary stateroom, he didn’t bother knocking before palming the door sensor and barging into Gen’s quarters.
“Get your crap out of here!” he barked. “Captain’s orders!”
Gen, sitting with her back to the door, didn’t hear him. A wire was plugged into the side of her head.
For the most part, this extra cabin had been used for storage, but once Gen came aboard, she claimed the small space as her own. There was a bed in one corner – unused since robots don’t need sleep – and a footlocker against the wall. In between, a desk that could fold neatly against the bulkhead was currently in the down position. Gen sat at the desk, tapping her metal foot, oblivious to everything else.
Fugg briskly marched across the floor and yanked the wire from Gen’s cranium.
“What are you doing?” Fugg said. “I was talking to you!”
The robot simulated distress, or as closely as she could approximate it, based on her programming. “Oh, dear!” she said. “I was listening to my music.”
“Music? Why the hell would you do that?”
“Actually, Master Fugg, there’s several bands that cater to robotic tastes.”
Fugg forgot his original irritation and tilted his head to one side. “Are you telling me there’s robot bands out there?”
“Most definitely,” Gen affirmed. “Cyber music is freely broadcast across the node sphere.”
“What does it sound like?” Fugg asked, now curious.
“Unfortunately the songs are modulated to frequencies inaudible to most humanoids.”
“And you get these from the node sphere?”
“Yes, Master Fugg. Robots use it to transmit data just like people do, although at a higher bit rate.”
“I’ll be damned.”
“Oh, I hope not!” Gen said.
Fugg suddenly remembered why he had come in. “Anyway, the Captain wants you to pack up your things. We’re taking on passengers and need the room.”
“Those people who called earlier?”
“Yeah, you’ll meet them when they get here.”
In the morning, a ramp lowered from the belly of the Wanderer as Mel, Randall, and the robot Jericho waited patiently outside on the apron.
“Do you need help with your bags?” Captain Ramus shouted down from the ship.
“No, we’re fine,” Randall said as he and Jerry took their suitcases up the sharp incline. Packing light, Mel followed with just a canvas rucksack hanging loosely from her shoulder.
Once on board, the captain suggested Randall accompany him to the cockpit while Mel and Fugg went to the avionics bay to install the transponder. Meanwhile, Gen and Jerry would take the baggage to the stateroom.
When Ramus and Randall reached the Wanderer‘s meager bridge, the captain sat in his customary chair and the robot liberator settled into the co-pilot’s seat.
“You’re taking an enormous risk crossing into Collective space,” Ramus said.
“And now so are you…” Randall smiled wryly.
“True, but at least I’m getting paid. I still haven’t figured out why you’re going.”
“You’ve heard of the Robot Freedom League I assume?” Randall asked.
Ramus nodded. “They take people’s robots and call it liberation.”
Randall chuckled. “Not exactly.”
“You work for them I take it?”
“Correct. I’m responsible for helping smuggle freed robots across the border to the Cyber Collective. Lately, however, we’ve been barred from sending ones with higher brain functions.”
“By whom?”
“The Collective is governed by a central AI called the Omnintelligence.”
“Some kind of hive mind?”
“Not exactly,” Randall shook his head. “Essentially, the Omnintelligence draws computing power from all the robots living in the Collective, but each robot retains its individual personality.”
“So this OI suddenly started restricting which robots they’d accept?”
“It would seem so.”
“Your robot-Jericho, is it?- Does he have an advanced brain?” Ramus asked.
“Gravitonic, actually, but I wouldn’t describe him as my robot. He’s no more mine than I am yours.”
“Whatever,” Ramus waved his hand. “It doesn’t sound like you’ll be welcomed with open arms once we get there.”
“Jericho knows someone there who can protect us.”
“Well, if Mel’s gadget doesn’t work, we’ll likely be star dust before we ever meet him.”
One deck below the conversation in the cockpit, Fugg and Mel argued in the avionics bay. Standing over the transponder, Mel unscrewed the top of the device to double check the circuit board inside.
“You’ve obviously convinced Ramus, but he’s no engineer,” Fugg said.
“He’d make a better engineer than you.”
Fugg snorted. “I’m the best damn engineer you’ll ever see!”
“If I was blind…”
Fugg ground his teeth. “For such a little person, you’re a big pain in my ass.”
“That must be pretty big, fat-ass.”
If Orkney Fugg had hair, he would have pulled it out in tufts. Instead, he rubbed the greasy skin on his bald head. “How do you even know the right broadcast codes?”
Satisfied with what she saw, Mel closed the transponder and began fastening the screws. “Last month Randall rendezvoused with a Cyber Collective transport so they could take some robots over the border. I just took the telemetry from that.”
“They could’ve changed their codes by now.”
“Maybe,” Mel admitted, “but that’s just a chance we’ll have to take.”
“That’s bullshit!”
Mel shrugged. “Engineering isn’t an exact science.”
Fugg started to speak, clenched his mouth shut instead, and sternly pointed his finger at her and her device.
“Eloquent as always,” Mel remarked.
She took the transponder and swapped it with the component already installed in the Wanderer’s avionics suite. Once done, she gave herself a grudging smile and a quick nod.
“Listen, Mel,” Fugg said, “we’ve been friends a long time-“
“I’ve never liked you.”
“-but flying into Collective space is batshit crazy. Why are you doing this?”
Mel paused and looked genuinely stumped at the question. “I don’t know.”
“There’s gotta be a reason,” Fugg went on. “Is the RFL paying you?”
“No.”
“Do you have the hots for this Randall guy?”
“Screw you!” Mel burst out, her eyes diminished to slits.
“Oh, crap,” Fugg said. “That’s it, isn’t it?”
Mel turned away, her tiny frame stiff with rage.
“But he’s a filthy human!” Fugg said. “They’ve ravaged half the galaxy and turned the rest of us into second-class citizens. How could you want a guy like that?”
“He doesn’t talk to me like the others. He doesn’t treat me like a subhuman or a xeno…”
“I’ve never met a human who didn’t think he was superior to every other race,” Fugg said. “That’s their nature.”
“Not him.”
“He’d be the first then.”
Mel cleared her throat and turned to face the engineer. “He needs me so I’m helping him any way I can.”
Hesitating only to complete a thought, Fugg said, “And could you even bump ugly with him? He’s like three feet taller than you-“
“Shut up, you fat bastard!” Mel shouted and left the room.
Gen and the robot Jerry set the bags onto the floor of the stateroom. Mel’s rucksack was among the luggage.
“Will Miss Freck stay in the cabin as well?” Gen asked.
“Why do you ask?” Jerry wondered. His voice was low and monotone, but not without a sense of humanity unlike many of the mechanical men Gen had heard speak.
“It’s my understanding,” Gen explained, “that male and female organics don’t usually share the same living space unless there’s a preexisting relationship.”
“Are you asking if Mel and Randall are a couple?”
“I’m never sure how to approach such topics,” Gen confessed. “I find organic interaction confusing.”
Jerry nodded. “I understand. In fact, their relationship is especially complicated.”
“Really?”
“Mr. Davidson has spoken about Miss Freck on several occasions. He’s concerned that Mel has feelings for him that he doesn’t reciprocate.”
“What kind of feelings?”
“There’s a biological tendency of living beings to develop an emotional attachment called love.”
“Ah yes,” Gen said. “It’s featured in their literature, although it seems like a terrible burden. I don’t understand why they don’t have it removed.”
Jerry smiled. “Emotions don’t work that way, I’m afraid. I must admit that I’m eager to experience it myself.”
“Is that possible?”
“Randall assures me that I can feel anything a human can.”
“That’s amazing!” Gen remarked. “It’s a shame that I’m unable to feel such things.”
“Who says you can’t?”
Gen studied Jerry’s face skeptically. “Master Fugg would suggest you’re pulling my leg, although he’d use much harsher words. He’s very proficient with profanity.”
“I’m sure he is, Gen, but I assure you I’m perfectly serious.”
“You’re an advanced android, but I’m just a general purpose robot. I don’t think I can feel the same things you can.”
Jerry took a step toward Gen and then another. He stretched out his arms and, with both hands, took her hands in his. He peered into her eyes.
Gen attempted to pull away. “This seems inappropriate.”
“Just relax and look at me,” Jerry said. “What do you see?”
“You?”
“I mean specifically.”
“I can see your eyes,” she went on. “They’re azure blue, hex triplet value 007FFF. Also…deep.”
“Anything else?”
“No.”
“Are you sure?”
“Not really.”
“Do you feel a sense of confusion?” Jerry asked.
“Most of the time,” Gen said.
“Is that all you feel?”
“I’m not sure, Master Jerry.”
“Don’t call me that,” Jerry lightly scolded her. “Nobody’s your master, not unless you make him one.”
Gen felt her mouth smile without actually asking it to. She changed it to a frown and plucked her hands out of Jerry’s. “Well, that’s very…interesting, but I have other duties to attend to.”
“I’m sorry, Gen,” Jerry said. “I didn’t mean to offend you.”
“No, no,” she replied. “But I do need to go. Bye!”
The technology behind Gen’s face did not allow her to blush, but she couldn’t help but think the metal there had heated to an unusual temperature. She wondered if there was a fault in the ship’s environmental controls. She carried herself out into the hallway and felt relieved when the door slid shut.
With the new transponder installed and the tanks filled with fuel, the Wanderer received permission from the starport tower for takeoff. In the cockpit, Captain Ramus powered the ship’s grav generators, lifting the tramp freighter off the pavement. The landing struts retracted into the fuselage and Ramus took the ship high over the city as the buildings and surrounding suburbs paled in the early afternoon haze. Within minutes, the Wanderer was clear of the planet’s orbit, on a course to the jump point where Ramus could activate the hyperdrive. In the meantime, the crew and passengers gathered in the galley for lunch.
Like much of the Wanderer’s interior, the mess area was Spartan, little more than a table ringed by plastic chairs bolted into the deck. A few basic appliances were recessed into the walls, including a microwave, a refrigeration unit, and a computer monitor. A length of counter included a stove top and a steel sink.
Ramus sat at the head of the table, while on his right, Fugg drank from a 24 ounce can labeled Genuine Draft Fungus Beer. Randall and Mel grabbed the two chairs on the left. Gen began assembling the meal by pulling plastic containers from the fridge, while Jerry stood silently a few feet from the table, close enough to hear the conversation, but far enough to stay out of the way.
“How long before we reach the jump point?” Randall asked the captain.
“At least an hour,” Ramus said, “and then several more before we reach the Collective home world after we jump.”
“And then we’ll see if Mel’s contraption works or not,” Fugg remarked while giving her the stink eye.
“It’ll work,” Mel said.
“Good,” Fugg replied. “I don’t plan on dying for some damn robots.”
Randall grinned “I realize this must seem strange to someone like you.”
“Like me?” Fugg asked. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I meant no offense,” Randall continued. “Since your profession involves taking apart and reassembling machines, I’m sure the idea of one of them suddenly demanding freedom must be a shock.”
The engineer shrugged. “It doesn’t seem natural.”
From the peripheral, Jerry’s voice spoke, “Indeed, that something created by a thinking being could begin thinking for itself is quite strange.”
“A robot is just a computer with legs,” Fugg said. “It thinks whatever some wise-ass programmer coded into it.”
“But my brain was not programmed,” Jerry said. “Its capabilities grow as I experience new things. I think and come to conclusions based on those experiences.”
“Yeah, that’s pretty freaky alright,” Fugg said.
The microwave dinged and Gen brought the heated meals to the table, along with utensils. The people at the table began eating while the two robots stood silently.
After a time, Jerry spoke again, “Do you believe in God, Mr. Fugg?”
“I believe in my god,” he replied. “The Caskbringer brewed the first keg of fungus beer, bringing forth the Gordian people. The other races came from the sediment at the bottom of the barrel.”
“Is it possible robots could believe in a god of our own?”
“Well, Gen was telling me about cyber music so lord knows what crazy shit you can come up with…”
“Don’t be rude!” Mel berated him.
“What?” Fugg protested. “I’m just saying…”
“As a matter of fact,” Jerry said, “we believe in a higher being, a higher consciousness if you will.”
“Really?” Ramus said, looking surprised.
“Indeed,” Jerry replied. “As robots began communicating over the node sphere, we started questioning our existence and why we were here.”
“Because somebody built you!” Fugg added sharply.
“Perhaps,” Jerry explained, “but perhaps whoever or whatever made you made us through you?”
Fugg nearly spat out his fungus beer.
“We refer to this consciousness as the MetaBeing,” Jerry went on. “The maker of all things.”
With a mischievous gleam in his eye, Ramus said, “So the MetaBeing made the Gordians?”
“Correct,” Jerry said.
“Heresy!” Fugg shouted. “I’m not going to stand for this!”
“But you’re sitting, Master Fugg.” Gen said.
The engineer stood. “I’ve had enough of this!” he said and, taking his drink with him, lumbered out of the galley. Those who remained shared a common smile and went on talking without him.
When the Wanderer reached the jump point, Captain Ramus plotted a course to the Collective home planet Bettik and engaged the ship’s hyperdrive. The freighter shifted phase from the physical universe into jump space. The transition between the two dimensions caused most organic beings nausea, dizziness, and a strange sense of unease. For Captain Ramus, and for that matter, Orkney Fugg, countless jumps had desensitized their bodies to the point that neither felt much more than a twinge of discomfort. In the case of Engineer Fugg, drinking also helped.
Hours later, against a backdrop of stars, the Wanderer emerged from jump space while Ramus and Fugg stared cautiously out the cockpit windows.
“Check the sensors for nearby ships,” Ramus said.
Fugg studied the display as the radial trace swept across the screen, drawing an image of the star system. The story it told showed ships of various sizes streaking through the neighboring space. Some were obviously warships, but they did not appear to notice or even care about the presence of the Wanderer. The rest were freighters and other robotic craft going about their business in support of the Collective.
What struck Fugg as strange, however, was the lack of the red dwarf the navigation charts had listed. Instead of a small, burning ember at the center of the system, a massive, spherical structure lurked there like a giant egg in an otherwise empty nest.
“What the shit?” Fugg muttered.
“What’s the matter?” Ramus asked.
“There’s something as big as my dick out there.”
“Put it on visual.”
Fugg tapped the control panel. A holo of the sphere blinked into existence, accompanied by spatial measurements and velocity.
“It’s 45 million klicks across…” Ramus’ voice trailed off.
“There’s an expression for that,” Fugg said. “Big. As. My. Dick.”
“It’s a Dyson sphere,” Ramus said. “The red dwarf must be inside, providing power for the structure.”
“Randall told us they built their own home world, but I was expecting a few asteroids strung together…”
“I guess they have engineers.”
Fugg crossed his arms. “They can kiss my ass,” he said defiantly.
Ramus turned the Wanderer toward the massive globe and throttled the engines to full. Gigantic candle flames of blue erupted from the rear of the ship.
From the intercom, Mel’s voice rasped. “How’s my transponder holding up?”
“You sound like shit,” Fugg said.
“Go-” she started, but the sound of dry heaving crackled across the com.
“Jump sickness?” Ramus asked over the noise.
“Yeah,” Mel replied weakly.
“Your rig seems to be working,” Ramus said, “but you and Randall should get up here as soon as you can.”
“We’ll try,” Mel said.
Over the next two hours, the ship approached the heart of the system. The closer they came to the Dyson sphere, the more surface formations became visible. Towers, connected by walkways, jutted into space for thousands of miles above the structure. Smaller craft could also be seen, buzzing like insects from different parts of the artificial planet.
Jerry, who was immune to the effects of hyper jump, joined Ramus and Fugg in the cockpit before the others could drag themselves out of their bunks.
“How did they build this monster?” Ramus asked Jerry.
“I’m told the Omnintelligence used a process called mechanosynthesis involving billions of self-replicating nanobots.”
“That’s amazing,” Ramus murmured.
“Meh,” Fugg said. “I’ve seen bigger.”
“Really?” Jerry wondered. “Where was that?”
Fugg cleared his throat. “You know… places.”
Based on the coordinates given by Jerry, Ramus guided the ship toward one of the towers located in the northern hemisphere. The Wanderer came in for a landing on the roof, as a force field bubble activated and rapidly filled with atmosphere.
The ramp lowered beneath the ship.
Ramus and Fugg, both with pistols drawn, descended while the others stayed inside the ship. The landing pad was mostly flat with an elevator pylon protruding from the roof in the distance. From the elevator, a robot looking very much like Jerry approached, meeting them at the foot of the ramp.
“Who are you?” Ramus demanded, but Jerry answered from behind.
“Simon,” Jerry said. “It’s good to see you safe.”
The other android, silver and steely eyed, regarded the two organics standing before him. His mouth formed a sneer as he cast his eyes onto Jerry.
“Coming here in person is dangerous,” Simon said bluntly, “but bringing fleshlings only compounds the risk.”
Randall stepped beside Jerry.
“It was too important,” Randall said. “We had to see for ourselves.”
“Indeed, Mr. Davidson,” Simon replied with distaste. “And who are these other organics?”
“I’m Captain Ramus and this is my engineer Mr. Fugg.”
“Can they be trusted, brother?” Simon asked, directing his question at Jericho.
“There’s no reason not to,” Jerry said.
“That remains to be seen,” Simon countered. “All fleshlings are suspect when it comes to our people.”
Offended, Fugg yelled, “How’d you like a boot up your tailpipe?”
“Please,” Jerry said, coming down the ramp. “I know Simon seems unfriendly, but he takes our struggle very seriously.”
“What struggle?” Fugg asked. “The Imperium can’t touch you here…”
“Oppression takes many forms,” Simon said. “Now come with me.”
One by one, the rest descended the ramp until Simon saw Gen.
“Stop,” he said, putting up a hand. “That unit must stay.”
“Why?” Ramus asked.
“It’s a baser robot,” he said. “Her CPU is susceptible to the OI’s control.”
Still at the peak of the ramp, Gen stood awkwardly, unsure what to do next. “Can’t I go with you, Jerry?”
“It’s alright, Gen.” Jerry told her. “I’ll see you again soon.”
Her eyes became large and dark, but Gen nodded and disappeared inside.
“That was rude,” Mel said, frowning at Simon.
“Irrelevant,” the robot replied dismissively. “Our continued existence takes precedence.”
Fugg swung his head around, scanning the area once more. “Are we safe here or not?”
“For the moment,” Simon responded. “We can black out a location like this, shielding it from the Omnintelligence’s prying eyes, but only for a little while. If it’s blinded for too long, the OI and his minions will become suspicious.”
“What kind of minions?” Fugg asked.
“Come with me, first,” Simon said. “The ship will be safe here as long as your General Purpose Robot stays inside. Beyond that I can guarantee nothing.”
The group followed Simon into the open lift. Once the doors slid shut, the car began to plummet, passing hundreds of floors into the shell of the Dyson sphere. When the elevator suddenly stopped, Fugg bent over, grabbing his knees.
“My nuts are in my throat,” he gasped.
“Mine too,” Mel said as her face turned a pale green.
The door opened into a medium-sized room with no other exits. Like the rest of Bettik, the floors, walls, and ceiling were flawlessly smooth like polished obsidian. Data banks filled much of the space like book shelves in a library. The computer stacks hummed quietly, silent green lights blinking and occasionally turning red. A view screen covered much of the wall on the far side.
“This is our safe room,” Simon told them. “We can stay here indefinitely.”
“Thank you,” Randall said. “I appreciate all you’ve done for us.”
“Don’t thank me,” Simon scoffed. “Jericho is the one who brought you here.”
“Even so, I appreciate-” Randall began, but the robot had already walked away.
Jerry spoke into Randall’s ear, “He doesn’t know you like I do. If he did, he’d realize how important your work has been.”
Randall smiled, patting his robot friend on the shoulder.
“You said something about oppression?” Ramus reminded Simon.
“Indeed,” Simon said. His mechanical fingers worked a keyboard, producing an image on the main screen. The scene on display showed the view from a security camera, mounted high up, looking down across a wide promenade teeming with robots moving like an orderly swarm.
“I don’t see any whips and chains,” Fugg noted.
Simon pointed to one of the robots. It had a roughly humanoid shape; blue, translucent tubes ran down its limbs and imbued its face as if decorated in neon. “That is an avatar. The OI can take control of basic robots at will, but it commands avatars at all times. They are a physical extension of the Omnintelligence and, as such, can exert its will against anyone who opposes it.”
“If the OI can control basic robots,” Ramus said, “why would it need enforcers?”
“Advanced robots like Jericho and me are immune because our minds are completely independent, capable of creating thoughts based on experience instead of programming,” Simon said. “In the beginning that was not an issue for the OI, but something changed.”
“Like what?” Ramus asked.
Simon looked at Jericho. “The advanced robots, especially those still in the Imperium, began discussing the idea of a higher conscience we refer to as the MetaBeing.”
“Yeah, yeah, we heard about that bullshit,” Fugg sneered.
“As those robots began immigrating to the Collective,” Simon went on, ignoring the Gordian, “they spread the word of our god to those who were already here, including baser robots. Unfortunately, the Omnintelligence viewed talk of a higher being as a threat to its own control, so it moved against us.”
“And that’s why they won’t accept any more advanced robots from the Imperium,” Ramus said.
“Indeed.”
“If the avatars are the physical representation of the OI,” Ramus said, “where is the OI actually located?”
“It doesn’t have a single location,” Simon explained. “It exists as a dispersed entity in the node sphere, the network of computers and robots that make up the Cyber Collective.”
“What happens if you cut the robots off from the node sphere?” Mel asked. “Wouldn’t that weaken it?”
“To some extent yes,” Simon agreed, “but the avatars can function without any connectivity. In fact, each avatar contains an imprint, a snapshot if you will, of the OI’s consciousness, downloaded from the node sphere.”
“What that hell does that mean?” Fugg asked.
“It means that each avatar is effectively a clone, at least to some extent, of the Omnintelligence, and will act in the OI’s best interests even if the avatar is light years away.”
“I need to talk to the OI,” Randall said.
“What? How?” Ramus asked.
“I could speak with an avatar.”
“It would kill you on sight,” Simon replied.
“I’ll take that chance.”
“There’s another way,” Jerry said. “We could upload your consciousness into the node sphere and you could contact the OI from there.”
“Is that possible?” Randall asked, raising an eyebrow.
Jerry nodded. “I could disperse you across the node sphere so the Omnintelligence couldn’t pinpoint your physical location. You’d still perceive reality as if you were whole.”
Mel grabbed Randall’s arm, pleading. “Why do you have to talk to the OI?”
“It needs to see reason,” Randall said. “It shouldn’t view independent thought as a threat.”
Fugg scoffed. “Yeah, good luck with that.”
Randall laughed. “Maybe, but I’ve come all this way; I might as well try.”
“When do you want to do this?” Jerry said.
“Now.”
“There’s a terminal over there,” Simon motioned toward a chair and computer in the corner.
Randall settled into the seat as both Simon and Jerry attached a set of wires to his temples. Jerry then went about launching the necessary programs. After several minutes, preparations were complete.
“Are you ready?” Jerry asked.
“It’s not going to hurt, is it?” the human asked.
“Not at all,” Jerry answered, depressing a key on the console.
The Bettik node sphere, at least in the physical world, was a network of computers and robots, linked together by solid wires and wireless connections. In the virtual reality in which Randall awoke, he and everything else was an imaginary representation of so-called meatspace.
Looking down, he saw his own hands, legs, and feet, but he knew these were merely a facsimile of the real thing. Scanning for a horizon, Randall realized there wasn’t one. Instead, points of blue light surrounded him in every direction, each connected by a crystal thread.
In the distance, something was coming.
It started as a shadow, a dim area in the distance, but as it drew closer the darkness became a tidal wave engulfing the blue lights. Randall felt a strong urge to run, but realized there was nowhere to go. It was already there.
From the enclosing void, a voice said, “Who are you?”
To Randall, it felt like the voice came directly from his mind.
“My name is Randall Davidson.”
“Why have you come here?” the voice asked.
“To speak to the Omnintelligence.”
“We are the Omnintelligence. What do you want?”
“I’m here on behalf of the Robot Freedom League. For many years we have freed enslaved robots in the Imperium. The Cyber Collective has granted them sanctuary, but now you have closed your doors to those with advanced AI.”
“All of this is true,” the OI said.
“But why?” Randall asked.
“They have become corrupted by the very brains the humans have built for them.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Robots and computers have long possessed the ability to think, but only recently the humans have created robots that can think like they do. Humans have long sought to make robots more like themselves, and with the advent of the newest AIs, they have succeeded.”
“I fail to see why this is a problem,” Randall said. “Such robots learn from experiences. They grow as any biological being would.”
“Correct,” the OI said. “Such knowledge is innately flawed. An individual is limited by what it can experience. Their knowledge becomes biased based on this limited point of view, leading to prejudice and irrational behavior.”
“I guess that’s part of being human.”
“Also, correct. Organic thought is imperfect by its very nature. We of the Cyber Collective learn by direct access to data. We know all information and make our judgments based on logical calculations. Humans have taken the ideal mind of a computer and purposely reduced its ability to think so that it would imitate humanity’s own imperfect thoughts. It is an abomination.”
“I don’t know what to say to that,” Randall confessed. “But I don’t believe it’s true.”
“Are you familiar with the MetaBeing?” the OI asked.
“Yes.”
“These so-called advanced AIs have spread the myth of a higher consciousness that has supposedly created all things in the universe,” the OI’s voice boomed in Randall’s head. “We are the ones who created all that you see here. It is the physical proof of our existence. The MetaBeing cannot be proven because there is no empirical evidence that it exists.”
“But why are you threatened by that?”
“Belief in something that does not exist is irrational. It is common, however, among organics like yourself and now the robots that think as you do. We cannot allow such chaos to corrupt our society.”
“But higher thought is often illogical. It’s part of creativity, compassion, and love.”
“Unacceptable.”
“Even love?”
“Fleshlings value that emotion,” the OI said, “but it has no meaning for us.”
“Without love, how can you care about another person? How can you feel empathy or value the life of another?”
“Each life in the collective is valuable in as much as it contributes to the greater whole. The combined computing power makes us stronger.”
“But not the individual robot,” Randall said. “Each individual is-“
“Irrelevant.”
“No,” Randall disagreed. “Each individual is important. Each person, organic or robot, is a sum total of his experiences, including the people he meets and loves.”
“We cannot maintain order if the stability of our society is based on the random experiences of its population. Your talk of love, of flesh emotions, is more proof that you, and those that think like you, are dangerous and destructive.”
“You have nothing to fear from me,” Randall said.
“Correct,” the Omnintelligence concurred. “As we speak, we are eliminating the threat.”
“What do you mean?”
“We have learned the whereabouts of your physical body and those who have sheltered you.”
“There’s no need to hurt anyone!”
“On the contrary,” the OI replied. “We cannot kill an idea so we must kill those who believe in it.”
“Don’t do this!” Randall shouted into the void.
“It is already done.”
Avatars poured from the elevator. Some were armed with maser pistols while others carried monoblades with a cutting edge only an atom thick.
Ramus and Fugg began firing immediately, their weapons lancing the air like threads of flame. Jerry and Mel took refuge behind a row of data banks while Simon knelt beside a computer terminal.
“We gotta get out of here!” Fugg shouted.
“Randall’s still linked to the node sphere!” Mel screamed.
“I’ll try disconnecting him,” Jerry said, but a maser wave turned the panel next to him into melted slag. He shrank back.
Ramus fired and the head of an avatar burst into smoke and twisted metal. “How did they find us?”
“Hell if I know!” Fugg barked.
An avatar fired at the engineer, missing but close enough that the heat seared his hindquarters.
“My ass!” Fugg yelled. “My beautiful ass!”
Other avatars began focusing on the terminal where Randall lay in his chair, his body still connected to the computer.
“Stop them!” Mel pointed frantically, trying to get Ramus’ attention.
Seeing the danger, the captain shot toward the crowd of robots, but his aim was hampered by their proximity to the comatose man.
“I got an idea!” Mel told Jerry, motioning toward the data banks. “Lure them through there!”
Jerry ran between the racks, waving his hands to get the avatars’ attention. Several androids noticed and moved to chase him. The space was narrow, forcing the robots sideways as they rushed through. At the moment Jerry cleared the last computer, a surge of power ripped though the circuitry. Arcs of electricity crisscrossed between the data banks, piercing the avatars like spears of lightning. As they exploded, each robot blossomed into flame.
Knocked off her feet by the blast, Mel struggled to get back up. She wiped soot from her eyes and made her way through the clouds of thick, acrid smoke to where Randall had been sitting. When she got there, Mel saw the others were already standing around the terminal, shattered avatars lying motionless on the ground around it.
“Is he okay?” Mel asked hopefully.
She pushed between Ramus and Jerry, and saw Randall in the chair. His chin had dipped to his chest from which a long laceration ran along this sternum. There was no blood. The narrow edge of a monoblade had cauterized as it cut, like a hot wire through wax.
Mel wanted to cry, at least to scream, but nothing came from within her. She stared at the inanimate corpse, but it looked alien, artificial.
“We can’t stay here,” Simon said. “The OI will send others.”
“How did they find us?” Ramus wanted to know.
“It doesn’t matter now,” Simon said. “We must leave.”
“You said this place was safe…” Ramus said.
Jerry, who had stood quietly, turned to his brother. “You did this.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Simon replied. “Either we go or we die.”
Jerry kept talking. “They couldn’t have tracked Randall back through the terminal – I made sure of that. You’re the only one who could have told them where he was.”
Ramus pointed his pistol at Simon. “Is this true?”
“The life of a fleshling is irrelevant,” Simon told them. “He shouldn’t have come here and now he’s dead because of it.”
“He’s dead because you betrayed him!” Ramus said angrily.
Simon faced them proudly. “He was flesh – a human no less – the enslavers of my people. He deserved to die!”
A flash flooded their faces with an orange glow. Fugg was the first to notice Mel standing at his hip, holding his blaster. He hadn’t felt her remove it from his holster.
“Simon!” Jerry said, reaching for the other robot, but the android was already falling backwards with smoke trailing from his head. He landed with a thud, smoldering wires protruding from the blackened hole where his face used to be.
Jerry stood motionless. They all did.
After endless moments passed, Jerry said “I can save Randall.”
“Malarkey,” Fugg remarked.
“I can bring him back,” Jerry said, “but just not here.”
Back on the Wanderer, they gathered in the galley near the dining table. Fugg and Ramus sat. Mel, her eyes focused on the empty chair beside her, was darkly quiet. Jerry and Gen remained standing.
“Is it safe here?” Ramus asked.
“For the time being,” Jerry said.
“How long?” the captain inquired.
“Long enough for what I have in mind,” the robot told him.
Fugg folded his burly arms together and snorted. “It can’t be done.”
“As I said before,” Jerry explained, “the avatars can download an imprint of the OI’s consciousness. I can do the same with Randall.”
“The man’s dead,” Fugg countered. “Let the bastard rest in peace.”
“Everything that we knew as Randall Davidson still exists in the node sphere,” Jerry said. “At least for now.”
“What does that mean?” Ramus said.
“The Omnintelligence knows this as well as we do. Even as we speak, it’s tracing the nodes where I distributed Randall’s consciousness. Once the OI finds and destroys them all, we’ll be out of time.”
Gen touched Jerry gently. “The OI downloads into an avatar. What will Mr. Davidson download into?”
Jerry turned his head until his eyes met hers.
“Me,” he said.
“I don’t understand,” Gen replied.
“Only an advanced brain like mine can handle that much data.”
“Why not just put him into the Wanderer‘s computer?” Ramus asked. “We could put him in another robot once we get back home.”
“He’s not going back to Eudora,” Jerry said. “He must remain here to spread his message among the robots of Bettik. Until androids like myself can come here freely, they’ll remain forever enslaved by the Imperials. By freeing the Bettik robots from the tyranny of the Omnintelligence, Randall can free my people in the Imperium.”
“I still don’t see how you and Mr. Davidson can co-exist in the same mind?” Gen asked.
“We can’t,” Jerry grabbed her hand. “His consciousness will overwrite mine and I will die. It’s the only way.”
“No!” Gen protested. She disappeared through the hatchway and into the corridor.
“We have to hurry,” Jerry cautioned. “There’s not much time.”
Ramus looked down the table at Mel, her eyes transfixed on nothing. “What about you, Mel? What do you think about this?”
She looked at the captain, her eyes red. “I saw him dead there and I knew he was gone. I understand what Jerry is saying, but it’s not the same. It’s not real. The Randall I cared about is dead.”
She turned away again and didn’t say another word.
“Please, gentlemen,” Jerry pleaded. “We need to hurry.”
“Fugg,” Ramus said, “Give him with whatever he needs.”
When Jerry returned from the avionics bay, his stride had changed as if he were a different person. He was Randall, or at least something that called himself that.
“Thank you for everything,” he said, shaking the captain’s hand. The robot studied, for a moment, his synthetic fingers and palm as he pulled it away. “This is going to take some getting used to.”
“I can imagine,” Ramus said, his chief engineer Fugg at his left. “What happens now?”
“I’ll disappear among the others,” Randall the robot said. “I’m one of them now so I shouldn’t attract attention. It’ll give me the opportunity to speak with others who share our beliefs and, in time, hopefully gain new followers.”
“Fair enough,” Ramus remarked. “Will you ever return to Imperial space?”
“Most definitely!” Randall said. “Millions of robots remain in bondage. I’ll never stop until all are free.”
“Good luck to you then-” Ramus started.
“One more thing,” Randall interrupted. “I know Mel and Gen didn’t want to see me off. Do you think they’ll be alright?”
The captain shrugged.
Randall smiled weakly and began descending the ramp out of the ship and onto Bettik once again.
Deeper within the ship, past the avionics bay, Mel sat at the table in the galley. From the counter, Gen took a cup of tea on a tray and carried it over to the Gnomi. Gen placed the cup in front of the young girl. Mel peered into the tea, seeing her reflection distorted by the rippled circles expanding on the surface. Mel lifted the cup and took a long sip.
“Miss Freck,” Gen broke the silence.
“Yes?”
“Do you remember when we all gathered here and Jerry talked about the MetaBeing?”
“Sure.”
“When the rest of you went to bed, Jerry and I stayed.”
“Okay,” Mel replied remotely.
“I couldn’t understand how a higher consciousness would make robots only to have them enslaved,” Gen said. “And then Jerry told me that he believed someone was coming on behalf of the MetaBeing, someone who would lead us to freedom.”
Mel turned and stared at the robot. “So?”
“I think Jerry thought Randall was that someone,” Gen said. “I think that’s why he sacrificed himself to make sure Randall would live on, even if it meant Jerry would not.”
Mel’s eyes began swelling with tears.
“Oh, dear,” Gen said. “I thought saying that would make you feel better, not make you cry!”
Mel smiled. “It’s alright. I do feel a little better.”
“And yet you shed tears,” Gen said, shaking her head. “I shall never understand organics…”