Posts Tagged ‘David Fawkes’

Spaceship X Has Seconds to Live

 

by David Fawkes

The ship was crashing, and there was nothing Winchester could do to stop it. The spaceship into which his body had been incorporated for weeks had started to reject him, eliminating him like a disease, reducing his neural relays to a smell like burning hair and ozone. He and his ship fell toward planet Wurlitzurnia, which filled his scanner views over the golden crust of the ship’s hull.

All his dreams of falling as a child had led to his becoming a pilot, and none could compare to this moment of silent awe and terror as the tickle of gravity slowly tightened into a fist.

Winchester opened his living eye, glanced at the bridge, and winced from the smoke. He forced himself to see what sensors could no longer tell him. He saw many of his other body parts flopping helplessly as they attempted to control a ship that would no longer respond.

He turned on his ears to the sound of someone screaming and realized it was him. He stopped, but the panic and din of the dying bio-ship X remained. Its own creaks and groans matched Winchester’s screams. Then, he noticed a new sound. It almost escaped his attention, not being as important as a crashing spaceship. The neu-wave transmitter began buzzing. Why would the ship send a signal through time? thought Winchester.

Winchester’s cybernetic eye came online, which surprised him since he didn’t ask it to. The dead static noise from the device resolved into the same chaotic view of the bridge he saw with his living eye, but with an addition this eye couldn’t see: On the bridge stood a radiant figure. A woman in silver chainmail with white hair and wings glowed as though light were a halo or a crown. She stepped forward to the panel where Winchester’s eyes were housed.

“Winchester,” she said, “the buzzbomb virus is heading for the past. We must follow. Will you go with me?”

Winchester stared at the destruction around him and thought of his dying ship. “Yes,” he said over a crackly speaker somewhere.

She lay an angelic hand on his control panel, and all went black.

                             #

Winchester Stranglehold awoke so violently he tore the upper half of his body from its charging unit. The dream, if it had been one, seemed so real to him, and the imagined odor of ozone still seemed to tingle in his nostrils.

He rubbed his living eye and brought his cybernetic one online. He ignored much of its unnecessary spectral data and tried to limit himself to the visible beauty of his home.

He hadn’t been back long from test runs in space, and he was trying to reorient himself to what he remembered of home. The bronze sunlight of early morning on Wurlitzurnia crept lazily through the enormous porthole windows of the bedroom. The bed rose and fell, like a palm tree swaying in the breeze, which meant he’d have to repair its hoverpanel later.

His wife, Dala, kept a clean home, and a flock of tiny tidy-bots grazed along the carpet or circled the ceiling, hunting for grime. Dala programmed them herself; Winchester had no gift for such things, and he admired their dance as he labored to lift himself from the bed. As he sat up, struts creaked and servos struggled to align and balance his mechanized, cybernetic upper body. It wasn’t easy being top-heavy, but nothing about being a motor-head was easy.

The scent of coffee coming from the kitchen revived him faster than any alarm could. He rose, strapped on his uniform in seconds, and hurried to the source of breakfast.

The morning sun began to thin to pink as he stumbled through apartment corridors. Vids and pixelated phantoms of his family morphed and followed him along the hallway picture panel. In-laws and cousins he seldom saw waved while parents frowned or shrugged. Winchester passed the images by. His wife and fresh coffee awaited.

“I didn’t hear you get up,” Winchester said.

“You never do.” Dala smiled and poured him a mugful. She wore a gown of woven optic fibers. Pulses of light criss-crossed the weave. Winchester knew the pulse pattern signaled to other men that she was unavailable. He hadn’t asked her to make this display; she did it on her own. That meant more to him than any ring on a finger could. From the collar of her gown protruded a net of signal amplifiers, and she had shaved her head to allow better contact. LEDs flashed around her head as she received data from the web. Winchester thought she looked like quiet sunlight.

Steam rose from the mug as Dala handed it to him. The first taste was always the best, and the coffee tasted better than it smelled.

Winchester stumbled and winced as a servo over-corrected his posture.

“Oh, sweetie,” said Dala, taking his mug before he spilled it. “You’re not awake yet, are you?”

“No, I’ve been feeling funny. Bad dreams.”

“Do you need a little prop time while you tell me about them?”

“Yes!” he answered. “We haven’t done that since the last time I was planet-side.”

“Leave it to me. I’m a master.” Dala helped lower Winchester to a seated position on the kitchen floor, handed his mug back, and then she sat behind him so they were back to back. He let Dala take some of the weight of his upper body as she propped him up from behind. This prop-time ritual dated back to their early days of dating.

He couldn’t feel her, but he knew every inch of her shoulders and imagined them pressed against his. He sipped at his early-morning reason for being.

“Now, tell me all about the bad dreams,” said Dala.

Winchester couldn’t see her. The hood formed by the motor-head augmentations that covered his head and shoulders prevented him from turning, but he heard her beautiful voice.

He began to describe his dream. “I think it was a dream. There was a feeling like the one I get when I download data, but it didn’t feel like a dream until I woke up.”

“A bad one?”

“Yes,” said Winchester. “I don’t remember much, but I was flying and crashing.”

Dala shifted her weight behind him. “Now you’re going to give me nightmares.”

“Sorry,” he said. “And you thought you were going to get away with just giving me breakfast.”

She reached a hand back and patted Winchester’s hood.

“Oh, no,” said another voice from the kitchen entrance. “Are you two getting . . . affectionate?”

“Not on the kitchen floor,” answered Dala. “Well, not while you’re still living with us, Varna.”

Winchester repositioned so he could see Varna, his sondaughter. “Have I been gone that long? You’re a girl again?” Her short, dark hair had grown a little, and her legs were definitely longer, or was her dress shorter? She’d be a woman soon. When she wasn’t a man.

“Yes, I am. Not that you’re ever around to know.” Varna disappeared down the hall.

Winchester sighed. “What happened? I remember when Varn — I mean Varna — would greet me in the landing bay every time I came home.” He wished he could shrug. “I just wanted some coffee.”

Dala rose and took his mug. Then, she helped him up. “Go say something to her. She misses you.”

“I always say the wrong thing.”

“You’re her father, and she’s a teenager. You’re never going to say the right thing.”

Winchester wondered why teenaged sondaughters couldn’t be more like spaceships.

When Winchester arrived at Varna’s room, the door was rolled partway into its pocket. He entered. Varna sat on her balcony with one of her model rockets. A dozen mini-comp screens filled a corner of her room. Each showed video footage being taken right then by the hordes of other rockets she had let loose on the unsuspecting city. Her “fleet” would return for fuel or repairs, but mostly they just wandered the skies collecting random footage. Winchester had introduced Varna to rocketry. But she had been a boy then. And a girl, and a boy, who knew how many times since. Winchester had tried keeping track at first but was gone too often to know.

“Preparing another launch?” he asked.

“Yes. Gonna tell me not to?” She didn’t look up from her tinkering.

“Of course not. Your rockets are brilliant. Far beyond anything I showed you how to make.”

“Gonna tell me not to be a girl?”

“I never said that.” Winchester sighed. Varna referred to a very old conversation between them. “I love who you are. I said the motor-heads would not accept a cyclosexual.” Winchester knew this was the point when he would say the wrong thing.

Varna threw bits of rocket across the floor. The rocket uttered a tinny whimper.

“You want me to be just a son or a daughter; well, I can’t control the change. This is how I am,” said Varna.

“That’s not what I want,” said Winchester, picking up larger pieces of rocket. “The motor-heads are very strict. They barely took me, and everyone else on this planet is so twitchy about any kind of differences.”

“I’ve seen the way you look at me whenever you come home. Afraid you’ll forget whether I was a boy or a girl the last time you saw me. You’re twitchy, too.”

“I didn’t want you to join the motor-heads!” He carefully set down the model rocket parts. “I know you want to be a pilot, but I didn’t want you to have to go through what I do. You don’t know what it’s like.”

“You think I don’t know about alienation? Get out.” Varna pointed to the doorway.

Winchester was no good with teenagers.

He returned to his wife in the kitchen and picked up his coffee. It was cold. “I think I’m going to go see my psycho-bot.”

                             #

Winchester rode alone in a skytram car. He was used to sitting with no one next to him in his aisle, section, or row; but today, he bounced along as the tram flew over the city with no neighbors in his car. Whenever the tram landed at a station, people would start to enter as the doors rolled open, but then they would backpedal and head for the other cars. He only heard the muffled roar of the tram rockets and the hubbub of passengers from the nearby cars.

The people of Wurlitzurnia couldn’t decorate themselves, so they decorated Wurlitzurnia. The skytram flew over curved and rounded buildings decorated with neon, chrome, and cobwebs of stained glass. Colored lights danced across every compulsively polished reflective surface. There were no laws on the planet forbidding bodily ornamentation or mutilation because no citizen would consider such atrocities. Except motor-heads. They accepted the permanent alterations that made them monsters on their own planet.

Winchester listened to the rain starting to tap across the tram hull. Water spots and rivulets distorted the colors of the city so they ran into an electric blur.

He had wanted to be a motor-head ever since childhood, younger than Varna had been. Winchester was a good pilot. On Wurlitzurnia, that meant he flew the bio-ships and tugs that required the merging of motor-head with organic machine. Though they performed the most important job on the planet, piloting the ships that were the life-line of an isolated world, motor-heads were despised as mechanized, cybernetic freaks by the people for whom they worked.

He dozed for a moment. As his eyelid started to droop and before his cybernetic eye drifted into standby, he saw something flying alongside the tram car. He thought it was a glitch since he saw it only out of the mechanical eye. When he turned to see the object, it disappeared into the sparse clouds. It had looked like a woman in silver chainmail.

Winchester’s comm-snake hissed. The communication device couldn’t circle his neck as on most people. He didn’t have a neck, so the silver serpent nestled in a battery hutch in his shoulder. Winchester answered its hooded head.

On the hood’s viewscreen, Winchester saw a form much like his own, or at least as he imagined himself to be. His boss tried to smile, producing a lined face that sagged beneath its mechanized eye.

“Stranglehold,” said his boss. “I need you to report into motor-headquarters.”

“But I’m on leave. I just saw my family for the first time this morning.”

“Stow it. I only need an hour of your precious quality time; an’ I’ll tack it back onto the end of your leave, but you’re coming in. I’m sorry, Winchester. It’s my day off, too. My office. One hour.” The comm-snake rang off and re-curled into a ball.

If Winchester got off at the next station and transferred to the Wishbone line, he’d make it.

As Winchester arrived at motor-headquarters, he circled the towering statue of Clock Vortex, the Patron Saint of Rockets, which stood before the building like a guard. He had been the first motor-head to enter crawl space and return. Only before the entrance to headquarters was the saint shown as he actually had been: more machine than human. All other versions on Wurlitzurnia depicted him before his great conversion, making him look as human and ordinary as possible.

On entering the lobby, Winchester stepped into the suspension field of the lift and allowed his body to drift upward. Aside from prop time with Dala, this was the only relief he ever felt from the great weight of his upper body.

He caught the hook extending from his boss’s office level and pulled himself from the lift back into the normal gravity of the hallway. He wished he could linger in the weightlessness of the lift, but the hours of his leave flew by. He steadied his footing and proceeded to his boss’s office.

His boss, Modom Rooth, had started in the ranks, and his motorized upper body no longer interfaced with any ships, but he kept his augmentations as a badge of experience. As Winchester entered the office, he saw the older man stooped over his station. Rooth withdrew some of his interfaces from his panels and addressed Winchester.

“I know, I know,” said Rooth. “I could be fishing right now, so I ‘preciate your coming in. Not going to jerk you around; you get a lot of work done. We need you to do more.”

Winchester had been expecting this. If you work too hard, you get more work. He nodded to Rooth.

“So when you get off leave, report for more augmentations.”

“More? I already have the full array, enough for any bio-ship.”

Rooth leaned forward as much as he could and hooked his finger toward himself. Winchester moved closer.

“This is of the highest secrecy. I got you a Behemoth-class ship to test,” said Rooth.

Winchester sat back. He’d heard of the Behemoths, but hearing about them triggered memories of the dream from the morning. He wasn’t sure why. “Those are ready? And you want me to test one?”

“You and only you will test version X of the first Behemoth ship.” Rooth gave a wrinkled smile.

Winchester thought how good an opportunity this could be, working on the most advanced crawl space bio-ship on the planet. Then, he thought about Dala and Varna. “Can I think about it and get back to you?”

Rooth paused for what seemed like a long time. His eye glazed over, and he seemed to glare at Winchester as though he were some detestable thing. From somewhere, Winchester heard a buzzing sound. It intensified then stopped. Winchester thought that was strange.

Rooth relaxed and smiled. “Of course. Think about it, but I really need you to say ‘Yes.’ Now, go on back home.”

They exchanged goodbyes, and Rooth reconnected to his panels. Winchester rose to go. As he left headquarters, he couldn’t help thinking there was something more to the look of anger his boss had given him than mere conflict with a subordinate.

While en route, Winchester confirmed a special session with his psycho-bot. Many Wurlitzurnians went to the analytical machines, but motor-heads were required to go. For them, it was often too much dealing with flying ships in the Black Whole of space, let alone being hated for what they became just to work there.

After more tram-hopping, he arrived at the Psycho-bot complex, a hive structure designed by robots to suit highly structured, unguessable needs. It spanned a series of buildingtops located near the city center. Winchester imagined walking through the complex was as close as he would ever get to being in an ant farm.

He wandered through corridors, passing the closed doors of many other bots and patients. Most people and bots valued anonymity, to the extent that not even the bots knew their patients’ private information. Some would enter and exit through analysts’ windows from waiting aircabs. Winchester never worried that much about privacy. He couldn’t hide being a motor-head.

He arrived at his psycho-bot’s nest. The door rolled to the side, revealing his analyst sitting in a deep pit in a round room. Light from a single, massive, circular window lit the room.

“Ah, motor-head Vinchester. Come in.” The bot came from Astral-Hunk 9 in the Hessian Star system. Winchester still smiled at its accent, though not when it looked at him. The multi-armed psycho-bot gestured with a friendly metal appendage. Other arms swung across multiple panels, scanning Winchester’s, and likely other patients’, case histories.

Winchester entered and sat in a special chair constructed for motor-head patients. It propped up his torso, but not as comfortably as his wife did.

“You haff been gone long. Test piloting has kept you busy?” asked the bot.

Winchester was used to the arms swinging from panel to panel during their sessions, but he wished the robot would keep its eyes on him for more than a glance. “Too busy. I barely have time for my family.”

“You are motor-head. You should expect such things. You mentioned an urgent matter. This vouldn’t be more of your notions of a persecutory delusion? That’s for me to diagnose.”

“No,” said Winchester. “The first thing I wanted to talk about is my sondaughter.”

“The cyclosexual? Go on.”

Winchester could see one of the bot’s panels describing general cyclosexual biology. He didn’t like the idea of Varna being generalized by an encyclopedia entry. “Well, doc, Varna means so much to me, but I feel like everything I do for her — she’s a she right now — is wrong. She wants to be a pilot. She’s even built these rockets that fly around town, filming videos.”

The psycho-bot held up a manipulator. “I see. Let me ponder this problem, and I will provide the logical solution. You said ‘first’. You haff other matters?”

Winchester had to struggle to unclench his fists. The psycho-bot often interrupted him when it felt it had all the facts. “I had a dream.”

The robot brought up a fresh panel. “Ah, interesting. Do continue.” Its eyes never left the panels, but it seemed to be listening.

Winchester recounted the dream that awoke him earlier that morning. The smell of burning and the gradual accumulation of weight. The sensation of separation as he discovered pieces of himself scattered across instrument arrays. “. . . and then there was this woman, armored in chainmail, with white wings and hair, radiant, but terrible, like some kind of dreadful angel.” Suddenly, he saw her there in the office out of the corner of his mechanized eye. She shook her head and gestured for him to stop. Then, he noticed the psycho-bot staring straight at him, its manipulators frozen mid-task. Again, Winchester heard a buzzing, like a far-away field of locusts.

“Is something wrong, doc?”

Slowly, it rose from its nest, like some giant mechanized spider, its arms pushing and dragging itself toward Winchester. “I’ve decided to take your therapy in a new direction, Vinchester.” It raised two metal manipulators over its head.

The dreadful angel screamed, “Jump, Winchester!”

He lurched from his seat and propelled himself like a poorly guided missile across the room. The psycho-bot’s arms crashed behind him.

Winchester collapsed against the curved wall of the room.

He wasn’t built for rapid movement, but neither was the doctor. It guided itself toward him by pushing off wall and panel.

“This does not bode vell for your diagnosis, my boy!” The psycho-bot seemed to grow confident as it lurched over faster and herded Winchester away from the door.

Manipulators crashed like whips by his head as Winchester tried to keep his balance while sliding against the wall.

A brilliant white flash from the angel startled him. He was surprised the doctor seemed to see it too. She had drawn a curved, chrome blade from behind her back and held it aloft.

“Run this way, toward the window!” said the angel. She pointed her sword toward the giant circular glass lens. “Trust me. Jump through it.”

The psycho-bot redoubled its efforts to dash Winchester’s brains against the wall.

Something about the angel made Winchester trust her. He guarded his face with an arm and ran for the window like a ram. His heavy metal torso smashed through plate glass. For an instant, he had the vertiginous sensation of slowed time and free fall; then, he crashed hard onto something and rolled. When he opened his eyes, he caught a glimpse of the slow arc of the spider-like psycho-bot as it fell toward the mists of the city below.

Winchester checked his new surroundings. He was on the deck of a passing vehicle. He turned and saw its name: In curvy green and gold letters, it read, “Fortunate Fish”.

                             #

“What’re you doing here? No ship docked.”

Winchester had been trying to stand with shaky legs on the deck of a flying restaurant when he heard the voice behind him. He turned to see a dark-haired man in sandals, holding a mop that wasn’t much thinner than him. Under a greasy apron, Winchester could just see several faded clan tattoos.

“Sorry,” said Winchester. “I just fell out of a building.” With the realization came fear. He could have joined the psycho-bot on the street far below. Winchester trembled.

The man looked him over, squinting with deep, sharp eyes. “Never rains, but it pours. Come into the kitchen.” He motioned for Winchester to follow.

The odors within seemed three-dimensional, as though each were part of a thick tapestry, decorating walls and filling empty spaces. Several pots bubbled on a stove, and jars of unidentifiable off-world creatures cluttered shelves.

Most of the signs and menus were in a language he couldn’t understand. He could have used the translator in his mechanized eye, but he wasn’t sure he wanted to know what anything was.

“Have a seat. They’re clean,” said the skinny man, motioning toward the kitchen counter.

Winchester sat and tried to balance on a stool meant for much less bulky people.

The man poured Winchester a drink. It looked like motor oil and smelled like licorice. One sip and all his muscles began to relax.

“Fell out of a building, huh? What happened?”

Winchester tried to explain, but stumbled over why his therapist would try to kill him, and he left the angel out.

“You’re a motor-head, aren’t you?”

“Yes,” said Winchester, sipping more of the beverage as the man set out a steaming bowl of soup that smelled spicy and had unidentifiable things in it.

“Ah, then you get a free sweet bun.” The man laid one beside the bowl.

“A free sweet bun? But I just fell out a window and a robot tried to kill me.”

“Look on the bright side. Now you get a free sweet bun.”

Winchester couldn’t argue with that. He ate his food and sipped his wonderful drink. “I’m Winchester Stranglehold,” he said between mouthfuls.

“My name translates as ‘Lustrous Pearl’ in your planet’s language. I’m the owner of the ‘Fortunate Fish’.” He swept his hands across the view of his ship. “My friends call me ‘Lust’.”

“Pearl it is,” said Winchester. “Your food’s delicious. Why is no one here?”

“Aw,” Pearl looked away and began polishing the counter with a rag. “If I had people in here every day, I’d have nothing but work to do.” He shrugged and stared at his feet.

“Well, I’ll be sure to tell my–” Winchester wanted to say “friends”, but he had so few. “–coworkers about your restaurant.” Winchester glanced around. “Anybody else work here?”

“In my clan, it’s traditional for the whole family to work together. On this planet, I’m all I got, now.”

“What happened?”

“Aww, you don’t want to hear.”

Winchester pulled another cup over, set it in front of Pearl, and poured him some of the licorice liquid. “I told you about being chased by a robot and falling out of a building.”

The man smiled. Then, it went away. “My clan was from the planet Gallium Chalice. After the Wind-up Empire destroyed it, we worked as cooks on a refugee ship. Then, my wife died.”

“I’m sorry.” Winchester thought about Dala.

“It’s okay, now. But I had daughter too. She contracted Hawking’s Cough. It was bad. She’d break out coughing one morning and disappear into next week.”

“I thought there was a cure.”

“There is now! At the time, I could afford to have her time-snapped at the Hospitaller’s Constellation, but not to get her unsnapped. Now, I’m trying to save money for her release. At least she’ll still be young. I’m getting old.”

From Winchester’s mechanized periphery, he saw the angel. She sat beside him at the counter. Her alabaster wings shone even in the dim lighting of the Fish, and the links of her armor glinted like scales. She sipped at a cup of her own and glared at Winchester.

“That’s terrible,” he said. “I can’t imagine how I’d feel if I couldn’t reach my daughter.”

“I try to look on the bright side,” said Pearl. “I’ll tell you when I find it. Speaking of which, is there something you’re not telling me? You keep looking to your right like you expect someone to be there. Someone following you?”

Winchester thought about the angel, sitting next to him and scowling. “Sort of.” He thought about telling this funny chef everything. Maybe there was something in the drink, but he felt like Pearl might want to talk with him. “I had a dream this morning, except I’m starting to think it wasn’t a dream. I was testing a new kind of ship, one I had completely merged with, rather than partially as an ordinary motor-head. And we were crashing.”

“You ever crash for real?” asked Pearl.

“Yes, happens to every pilot, but we were disintegrating on re-entry. And I could feel the ship’s pain.”

“Is that normal?”

“No! This was some special kind of ship. But it and the pain felt more like memories than dream.” Winchester glanced at the angel. She twirled her finger around the lip of her half-full cup. “There was something else, too. I didn’t want to say, but you told me about your daughter.”

Pearl nodded.

“I saw something on the ship I can’t explain: an angelic woman with white wings, and she’s been following me around since I woke up. She’s sitting next to me.”

The angel slapped her head.

The chef finished his drink and said, “Hmm, okay, man. Maybe you are seeing chainmail ladies from space. I dunno. I do know I’ve taken you about as far as I can. Come with me, and I’ll drop you off at nearest tram station.”

Winchester felt his upper body grow heavier. He thought he was making a friend, but the chef rose, and Winchester joined him. The angel was gone. However, as Pearl passed where she had been seated, he did a double take. There were three cups on the counter. Come to think of it, thought Winchester, had he mentioned the angel was armored?

                             #

He heard the Fortunate Fish leave, but couldn’t watch it go. He decided to catch the next tram headed his way alone.

All around him, passersby, in their neutral-colored outfits, parted around him as he made his way over congested crowd movers and down hover elevators. Had Winchester ever been like those people before he’d been changed? No, he’d always wanted to be a pilot. To feel a ship under his command; his head merged within its control panel, body bowed like a religious devotee. Free to fly forever across the Black Whole of space.

“Hey, Win,” said a voice behind him. “Ridin’ is still flyin’. You’re supposed to be a planetside pedestrian until your leave is up.”

“Hello, Lailow.” He was almost a friend. Winchester had known him since joining the motor-heads. Having been through the experience first, Lailow had prepared Winchester for his conversion. But knowing about the knife doesn’t dull its sting. “You on leave, too?”

“Yeah, but I got no family like you. I usually waste a couple o’ days leave time down at the Talestore catchin’ up on backissues.”

“That stuff’ll rot your brain,” said Winchester, dodging a rogue tidy-bot.

“Yeah,” said Lailow, “but I’m not doin’ anything with it.”

“You want to ride with me as far as you’re going?” What Winchester needed was company; he might not have a lot in common with Lailow, but he liked the guy.

“Yeah, okay. But you know, from this station, we’re going to have to sit in the ‘motor-heads only’ car on the tram.”

“What?”

The dreadful angel appeared in the corner of Winchester’s eye. He tried not to glance her way, even though she attempted to get his attention.

Lailow stopped mid-stride, as though trying to find the right words. Pondering the injustice of motor-head life? Winchester thought.

Lailow turned Winchester’s way, seeming to look at something on the horizon. Then, he smiled. “Yes, it’s a new city ordinance. Solidarity, brother.” He slapped Winchester’s shoulder. It rang like a dull bell. “Let’s go catch a tram.” Lailow led on. Winchester heard the buzz again, so close he could feel it like a root canal.

Lailow suddenly seemed strange to Winchester, awkward and unlike himself. His limbs jerked as he moved, and he seemed to forget how to balance his torso. Winchester followed to make sure he was all right.

Sure enough, when they arrived at the tram, one car was marked for motor-heads. Winchester didn’t mind so much. He often picked the last car on the tram; it had the rockets, and the noise usually kept most other people away. However, he didn’t like being told where he belonged.

The door rolled open, and Lailow motioned for him to enter. As he did, Lailow shoved him in hard enough that Winchester crashed into the opposite wall.

“Hey, Lailow, dammit!” Winchester stumbled around to see the door roll shut. He heard the pops of tiny explosions and saw the flash of sparks through the windows. “Lailow, what are you doing?” Winchester rushed across the car to see Lailow stepping away from the door mechanism. He stared through the glass at Winchester, his living eye as cold and unresponsive as his mechanical one.

“This motor-head knows where you live, Winchester Stranglehold. You’re no longer needed.” Lailow moved to an external control panel.

“Lailow, you’re freaking me out.” Winchester heard the lock that held his car to the next disengage. “Lailow?” But he no longer responded to Winchester at all. The rockets for the tram started in reverse. Winchester watched his friend turn around, and walk away as the tram backed out of the station.

What just happened? What did he mean about where I live? thought Winchester. The station receded, and the single car flew slow and uncontrolled into the cacophony of city air traffic.

And the angel was there in the tram car with him, appearing luminous and hovering. “He’s been taken by the buzzbomb virus, Winchester. I couldn’t do anything; I’m sorry. You’ve been extremely resistant to me.”

Winchester stormed the angel. “Sorry? You’re sorry? What about my family? He said he knows where I live!”

“I’d be happy to explain everything, but don’t you think you should try to do something before you reach those buildings?” She pointed over Winchester’s shoulder out the rear windows of the car.

Air cars and trailers swerved around them, horns screeching as they passed. The fliers worried Winchester, but they seemed to want to avoid him as much as he, them. But the buildings of downtown would not be so flexible.

“I can’t reach the rockets from in here,” said Winchester. “This is a tram. Passengers aren’t meant to fly it.”

“What do you have that you can use?” asked the angel.

“Now you’re trying to be helpful?” snapped Winchester.

“Stop resisting me. Those buildings are getting close. What do you have?”

“I can merge with any control system, if I can reach it. But those are outside.”

“Is anything inside?” she asked.

He thought. “Power and lighting. I could make the lights flash.”

“Be serious,” said the angel. “You haven’t much time.”

Something switched inside Winchester; his emotional inhibitor activated, and the pilot in him took over. “The hover panel on the bottom of the car. I can control that.”

“But if you turn that off you’ll fall like a stone.”

Winchester started ripping up the carpet, searching for the power panel lid. “Not off, in reverse. The panels can be set to attract instead of repel; the drag will slow us over the rooftops, but we’ll bleed power. I have to make what I do count.” He found the panel.

He ripped it from its hinges. Beneath, the controls glowed like tiny jewels, Winchester kneeled to let his hood relays merge. “I won’t be able to see while I do this. Can I trust you to be my eyes?”

“If you only knew how much you can trust me,” she answered.

“Then look, and tell me when we’re over a building. I have to do this fast.”

“Now!”

Too soon. Winchester reversed the hover panel to be a drag panel. The tram lurched downward toward the buildingtop below, and he felt the dip as though his stomach dropped out of his body. But it wasn’t enough.

“We’re past that one,” said the angel.

“More warning next time.”

“Start now.”

He did and felt the car connect with the rooftop. The savage scraping and shuddering nearly dislodged Winchester from the controls, but the angel hovered unaffected.

They were beyond the edge of the roof and flying free again. Soon the hover panel would be out of power, but the rockets would continue until they ran out of fuel.

“Can you fly out of this car?” asked Winchester.

“You don’t have to worry about me. Save yourself, and I’ll be fine.”

“All right. We haven’t much power left, but I have a plan. Find me a rooftop we can drag on for a while. Follow whatever I do.”

“Now! Turn it on now!”

Last of the power. He let it burn. The tram car hit the rooftop and dragged as the rockets pulled the car along, sending sparks higher than the windows. The shock threw Winchester away from the controls. It no longer mattered. He turned, covered his face, and smashed his hood through the nearest window, glass falling away like diamonds among the sparks. He could see the rockets pulling the car toward the next closest building. Winchester leaped while he still had building left to land on and hoped the angel would follow.

                             #

“Hurry! Hurry!” The damn autocabs were so slow and dumber than rockets on a tricycle. But they had no AI or cyberpilots, and the angel had said that was important.

Winchester’s arms had stopped oozing blood, but still throbbed. The improvised bandages helped, but his blood speckled his uniform. Rolling from a moving tramcar onto a rough rooftop had cut him but superficially. All his systems functioned, but he’d never get the dents out of his hood or the kinks out of his shoulder struts. He was permanently scarred.

“Your destination is stationary,” said the autocab. “We require no more than the legally proscribed haste.”

“Stupid machine.” Winchester considered pummeling the interface, but why re-open his wounds?

“Calm down.” The angel floated a wire width above the seat as though she couldn’t mix with something so mundane. She barely fit in the cab, or rather, Winchester barely fit in with her. Her wings, even folded, occupied much of the free space. She was becoming tangible as well. He could feel the tickle of her feathers on his hand, and she radiated coolness, like a breeze on a rainy day.

“Calm down? Lady, I have to get to my family! You have three options: speed me home like a helpful angel should, tell me something useful, or shut up!”

Winchester seethed. He thought about something happening to his family and that he could be the cause. Automatic systems in his hood tried to adjust his emotional level, but he overrode them. He wanted to feel; it kept him sharp.

The angel looked hurt. She tried to rest a hand on his bloody arm, but it passed through. “I’m sorry. I forgot how little you know at this point in time.”

“At this point . . . ? What do you mean?”

The look the angel gave him reminded him of the one teacher-bots gave him growing up in a school-box. “You know where we met was no dream. When I pulled your mind back in time over the neu-wave transmission, it was to follow something terrible.”

“I remember.” He did, but he didn’t believe. “But the neu-wave is just a way of sending data back in time to solve certain crawl-space equations.”

“Data. You. Me. And the buzzbomb virus. We’re all information in the younger Winchester’s hood. He’s the carrier.”

Winchester glanced out the curved glass of the autocab down chrome and neon alleyways and over rooftops littered with receiver arrays. He wasn’t far from home. “Carrier of what? What’s a ‘buzzbomb virus’?”

“You know how most people feel about motor-heads? In the future, some decide to do something about it.”

“What does the virus do?” asked Winchester.

“It can take over cyborgs or AI systems, and its only purpose is to kill you and your family.”

Winchester pulled away from the angel. “What? Why me? Why my family?”

“Stop!” The angel’s voice rang like steel on stone. Winchester shut up. She continued. “This is partly my fault. I had thought the buzzbomb virus came back on its own. I was wrong. It came back in you. But you’re safe because of me. I’m a virus, too. A special kind. As for your family, they’re up to you.”

And they weren’t safe from who he’d infected: his friend, Lailow.

The autocab approached the landing bay of Winchester’s apartment complex. Other questions would have to wait.

As the cab departed, so did the angel. Fine, thought Winchester. This was his job to do anyway.

Everything appeared normal as he crept through the dilating bay door. The corridors were quiet, and he could hear the deep-down hum of the ventilation unit and feel air currents across his skin.

He entered the code to his apartment door, and it rolled open. The smells of coffee and dinner greeted him. Tidy-bots circled around his feet and above his head. Nothing appeared out of place, but he entered as though Lailow might leap from any corner.

“Winchester?”

He jumped. “Dala.” His wife approached him from the kitchen. “You scared me.”

“Why are you creeping around?” she asked.

He hugged her. “I’m so glad you’re safe.” They parted, but still clasped arms. “I haven’t got much time to explain. I think someone might try to kill us. I think we need to get someplace safe.”

“What? Who?”

“Lailow.”

“Your friend? Oh, Winnie. Are you sure you aren’t being a little paranoid again?”

“No! Okay, maybe I have in the past, but he just tried to kill me. I’m surprised he’s not here now.”

Dala must have noticed Winchester’s damage because she ran a hand over his dented hood and bandages. “You’re serious. Gods, you’re scaring me.”

“Go pack a bag. Is Varna here?”

“She’s in her room.”

Winchester rushed back to Varna’s room and pounded the door. “Varna, honey. Open up.”

From within he heard her muffled voice. “I’m not in the mood now, dad.”

He was about to respond when he heard an explosion from the apartment entrance.

Varna opened her door.

Winchester couldn’t hear its usual swish because of the discharge of some unknown weapon and the crashes of destroyed furniture.

“Dad? What’s happening?”

Winchester cupped a bandaged hand over Varna’s mouth. She struggled and tried to get him to let go. She bit him. It didn’t hurt, but he released her.

“Leggo of me!” She tried to fight Winchester’s grasp.

“Hush! Be quiet.”

Lailow entered the hallway to Varna’s room, looking more like a shadow in the glare from the living room. Winchester could see the silhouette of the batterbeam pistol in his hand.

“Oh, no!” Winchester grabbed Varna and wrapped as much of himself around her as he could.

Lailow, or the virus that inhabited him, must not have had much experience with his weapon. Golden glowing beaters ricocheted off the screens, destroying the video photos and setting fire to the walls. Finally, they focused on Winchester’s back. The bronze-colored metal of his head and shoulders would protect him for a while, but soon the beaters would pound their way through him until they reached Varna.

The salvo stopped. Winchester heard the crackle of small fires and smelled smoke.

“You struggle to protect your freakish sondaughter,” said Lailow. “But we shall stop your family before you can spread your monsters among the stars.”

Winchester grunted as the beaters bit into his back again, forcing him and Varna against the hallway wall. Winchester’s legs buckled.

The beaters stopped.

“Get away from my family!” That was Dala’s voice from the other room.

Lailow began to scream as the sound of a dozen tidy-bots filled the hallway.

Winchester risked turning his upper body to see Lailow covered by tidy-bots. Their multi-tools gripped at sensitive areas and their scourers tore at his chest unit.

Lailow began to fire wildly toward the room where Dala was. She screamed.

“Dala!”

All of the anger, panic, and fear that he’d been feeling since the cab ride took Winchester over at that moment. He left Varna crouching at the wall and crossed the length of the hall in two massive strides. He grabbed at his former friend and ripped one of the tidy-bots from Lailow’s flesh and began smashing him in the face and delicate areas of his head. Lailow dropped his pistol.

“Dad, stop!” Varna held his arm, trying to stop him from pounding Lailow’s lifeless body. His face and hood were a twisted crater of red metal. Winchester let his own hood calm his emotions, and he felt his breathing slow.

The fires had started to spread, and already Winchester had begun to cough.

Dala! She was in the living room. Winchester rose from Lailow’s body and lurched into the other room. Varna followed.

Dala lay on the floor, her breathing rapid and raspy. Several beaters had caught her across her chest and shoulder; one arm hung loosely in its socket, held only by shreds of muscle and flesh. Blood covered the floor and her beautiful filament dress.

As he knelt, he noticed how the pulse-pattern of the dress had become a random stutter.

“Sweetheart.” He stroked her smooth head, and she opened her eyes.

“Winnie,” her voice was no louder than a sigh.

Varna began to cry. “Dad, do something.” She held her mother’s arm, forcing her to cry out. Varna let go.

Winchester knew there was no way they could get a med-zeppelin to their apartment in time. The fire spread toward them.

“Hang on, sweetheart. We’ll get you out of here.”

Varna reached for Winchester’s hand. He grabbed it and held on.

“No,” said Dala. “You have to get out of here.” Dala brushed her good hand over Varna’s. “Please watch over my Winnie. He’ll be so alone now.”

Varna couldn’t speak, only nodded.

Dala turned back to Winchester. “I’ve left something for you.” She passed him a memory biscuit. “I hope it helps.” The flashing lights from her dress slowed and then stopped. Varna laid her head against Winchester’s shoulder. He couldn’t feel her, but he sensed her weight.

“What could Dala possibly have left me that would do any good?” he asked, mostly of himself.

“Me,” said the angel, appearing beside him.

                             #

“Varna, we have to go!”

She had run from Winchester while he carried Dala’s body. Now he stumbled through the smoky hallways back toward his sondaughter’s room. Dala’s body was heavy, but he’d carry it anywhere.

Fire consumed their living room furniture and raced up ancient hanging rugs, draping walls and corridors. Smoke burned Winchester’s living eye, but a fan system in his hood kept him breathing without choking. He felt the heat sear the skin on his arms and cheeks. Why couldn’t Varna have stayed with me? he thought. He absorbed data from Dala’s memory biscuit while he waited.

“You can’t wait for the fire brigade,” said the angel. She hovered behind Winchester, like a stray glow-bot at a tram station. “You’ll corrupt the bots, and you don’t want firedogs after you.”

Varna came around a corner, a damp towel over her mouth. “I got it, Dad,” her voice muffled by her hand, “my rocket controls.”

“You went back for your damn rockets?” Winchester grabbed her arm and urged her back toward the apartment entrance.

“I couldn’t just leave them. They’d be lost without me.”

He didn’t want to think what he’d be like without her. As they exited the apartment, Winchester heard the fire alarm for their floor. The stink of smoke clung to them even as they left the fire behind and ran along the hall toward the landing bay.

“Where are we going, Dad?”

“To the shuttlebug.”

“Why aren’t we staying for the fire brigade? Where are we taking Mom? What just happened back there?”

Winchester thought about how all his possible explanations were as intangible and diaphanous as the angel trailing behind him. Varna deserved something; otherwise, she might start to panic. He grabbed her hand as they hurried. “I don’t know everything yet. People are trying to kill us. We have to get away.”

“Are you trying to keep me calm? You’re being so helpful. Thanks.”

She was sarcastic again. That was a good sign. They entered the landing bay. Nesting in a corner, hovering above the ground, was their family shuttlebug. Winchester sent an “open” signal with his key, and its door dilated. Eight thruster appendages extended from its underside.

Winchester glanced at his sondaughter. She was getting so tall now. He had to make her grow up even faster. “You’re going to have to fly.”

Her eyes widened. “Me? I’ve never done it before. You never let me. Why now?”

“Emergency. I can’t fly it without corrupting its AI. I’m depending on you.” A crash course in flying and working together was a recipe for rebellion, but this might keep her from thinking too much about losing her mom, for a little while.

Her lips trembled as though she were pondering the plan. “I’ll do my best.”

They entered the shuttlebug. Winchester lay Dala’s body in the back seat. He could feel the emotional governor taking control and trying to soothe him. But he wanted to feel. His wife lay still and would never move again. He wanted to be himself so he could remember what he’d felt when he and Varna let Dala go.

Varna sat in the pilot’s chair. “What do I do?” she said. “I can’t merge with the controls. I don’t have a hood like yours.”

Winchester reached into a shuttle compartment over his head and pulled down a dusty headset with curly wires trailing from various nodes. A drizzle of packing bubbles followed after.

“Here.” He handed the headset to Varna. “This came with the bug; it’s for piloting smaller vehicles like this one. You’ll have to use the factory defaults, but you’ll be flying.”

She held it in her hands, unsure of what to do with it.

“You know,” said Winchester, “if you put that on, you’ll be the equivalent of a junior motor-head.”

She crammed the set on her head, like a matte-black tiara and began tapping wires into the board.

Landing bay doors opened, and the bug lurched forward like a crippled spider. Winchester imagined its thruster appendages kicking faster and faster as the shuttlebug left the bay.

“Beautiful take-off, Varna.”

“You mean it?”

“Wouldn’t say it if I didn’t.”

“Well . . . whatever. I don’t need compliments from you.”

“Fine,” said Winchester, “but bank to port or we’ll crash into that carrier.”

Varna over-corrected and became flustered. Winchester remembered she had no governor stabilizing her emotions and tried to remember that feeling of freedom. He reached over and corrected her roll, but she slapped his hand away. She’d make a good pilot after all.

“Where are we going?”

“To a funeral kiosk. We’ll launch your mother into space in a pyrostar; she was Uranian, although a little unorthodox.”

“We’re going to get rid of Mom?” Varna almost whispered the question.

“We can’t take her with us. She would have wanted a burial in space.”

Varna said nothing as she flew, and then, “I’ve always wanted to go into space. I never thought Mom would get there first.”

Winchester put his hand on Varna’s. “I’ll do everything I can to get you there.”

She took her hand back and wiped her eyes with her sleeve. Then, she grabbed Winchester’s hand again.

The angel leaned forward from the back and was about to say something, but Winchester pointed a warning finger at her. Varna had not yet been able to see the angel, and Winchester wanted to keep it that way for a while. The angel backed away.

The shuttlebug approached a funeral kiosk, and its forward momentum slowed. Winchester hinted at what Varna needed to do to land while still letting her think she already knew how to do everything on her own.

The legs of the shuttlebug grasped the hitching post, and the bug came to a halt.

“Still don’t need any compliments?”

“No,” said Varna.

Funeral kiosks weren’t much to look at. Beyond the landing area stood the interface, where families of the deceased chose the last rites to be performed during liftoff of the pyrostar. From the rear of the kiosk extended the electromagnetic catapult, a long, steel rail, like a strand of silver wire, ran toward the horizon and up into the sky. When launched, the pyrostar would coast along the rail until launching off the end out into space.

Winchester wrapped his dead wife into a shroud and carried her toward the kiosk. He wasn’t sure if it was an effect of the emotional governor, but time seemed to slow. He saw the lights of passing tramcars snake along their way into the orange haze of twilight. Blazing horns of traffic deepened as though receding into the past. Dala seemed to grow heavier as he and Varna approached the interface. A thought flashed into his mind. He remembered all the prop times with Dala when she supported him as he talked over his troubles. He’d never have that again.

“Our condolences,” said the squat box of the interface. “Whom would you like us to commend to the Black Whole of space?”

“My Mom,” said Varna.

                             #

Winchester had been banished to the back of the shuttlebug by his sondaughter. She didn’t want him to see her cry, and, truth be told, he felt the same about himself. He sat on the same bench where his wife had last lain. He struggled to cry through the emotional inhibitor. The tears, when they came, fell in a drizzle rather than a deluge.

A beeping noise came from somewhere nearby. It sounded muffled, like an alarm clock wrapped in rubber. Winchester didn’t recognize it as a shuttlebug sound.

“Varna, is that something of yours?”

He saw her wipe her eyes with her sleeves and cock her head toward the back to listen. “My rockets! Bring me my bag.”

Winchester grabbed it and brought it forward.

Varna coaxed the shuttlebug into autopilot and removed her headset controls. She took the bag, burying a hand deep within its folds. Clothes and random bits of electronic bric-a-brac fell from within onto the floor.

“Ah-ha!” She removed a pocket dashboard from the bag and stroked its surface to wake it. “My rockets are checking in. I programmed them to follow us.” She moved her fingers in arcane swirls across the dash.

“Varn/Varna, sir!” chorused a troop of Varna’s rockets.

“I’m still a ‘ma’am’ for now, but skip it,” she said into the pocket dash speaker. “Report.”

Several high-pitched rocket voices chimed in unison. “Um, ma’am.” These rockets weren’t very smart. No danger of Winchester infecting them. “You ordered us to watch vehicles following along more than fifty percent of your path, reporting only high statistical outliers. Uh, there is one vehicle fitting those criteria.”

Varna sighed.

“You programmed your rockets to do that? That’s fantastic! You’re just like . . .” Winchester stopped himself from saying “your mom” and switched to “. . . a true future motor-head.” He hoped she wouldn’t notice.

She didn’t say anything. “They’re a bit dim. I sacrificed wit for size.” To the dash, she said, “Show me the outlier.”

On the tiny screen, several images resolved themselves into one multi-view perspective.

“Oh, no,” said Winchester.

Behind them, bobbing along between chrome and neon facades of residence hives and corporate pyramids, a spy shuttle followed. Its puff-drive coughed out steam behind a giant electronic eye mounted on the vehicle’s bow. The eye’s pixelated slit scanned to either side but always returned to its center, where, Winchester knew, they were the focus of its attention.

“It’s an eye-pod,” he said. “It’ll never give up now that it’s seen us.”

“Why’s it looking for us? Is this more of what you’re not telling me?”

“I’m not hiding things from you. I don’t know everything myself. But whoever is after me has stepped up the pursuit.”

“What are we going to do?” asked Varna. “Whatever they want can’t be good. We have to escape.”

The eye ceased its wavering and focused on their shuttlebug. Winchester knew the spying drone had transmitted their location before he and Varna had begun to ponder the problem. All that remained was for it to keep tabs on the shuttlebug until the eye-pod operators arrived.

“I have an idea,” said Varna, “but I don’t know that I like it.”

“What? We should talk about anything.”

“It means destroying one of my rockets, and I don’t know if I could bear that.”

“Varna, I’ll buy you a dozen new bloody blue rockets when this is over. What’s your idea?”

“I could order one to crash into the eye. If anything, it will slow the eye-pod down.”

Winchester leaned over and kissed Varna on the forehead. She wrinkled her face and rubbed her brow. “That’s a great idea,” said Winchester. “Let’s do it.”

“Didn’t you hear me? I don’t want to hurt any of my rockets.”

Winchester took Varna’s hand. “Sweetheart, we’re in trouble. Sometimes being a motor-head means making hard decisions.”

Winchester thought about a future he remembered only like a dream, one in which he had to make a difficult choice and follow the mysterious angel from a dying ship.

Varna took her hand back and touched the pocket dash. “Rocket 42, report in.”

A crackle of static, then, “Yes, ma’am. Rocket 42 reporting for duty.”

Varna clenched her free hand into a fist. “My father and I are in trouble. We need your help. I want you to–” Varna looked at her father as though searching for another answer. “–to crash yourself into the eye of the pursuing eye-pod.”

“Affirmative, ma’am. And good luck to you and your dad.” To the other rockets, number 42 said, “Goodbye, fellows. Nothing lasts forever!”

From the rear viewer of the shuttlebug, Winchester could see the unblinking eye of the pod as it followed. Suddenly, Winchester saw the sharpened nose cone of rocket 42 swoop in from port and bury itself in the drone’s eye like a dart in a board.

The eye-pod swerved, and the rocket prevented its eye from moving in its orbit. The pod’s flight became erratic as it tried to shake the rocket loose. Finally, the slow-moving pod bumped into the wall of a nearby building as it tried to dislodge the needle-like rocket from its eye.

“It was a good rocket, Varna.” Winchester patted her on the shoulder. “Now, let’s make the most of what it’s done. Find us someplace obvious to land.”

“Obvious?”

“Whoever’s following us knows our shuttlebug. We have to ditch it. Let’s leave this vehicle someplace where our pursuers can find it while we search for another ride.”

“Another ride? Like a tram or a cab?”

“No,” said Winchester. “Those would be good if we knew where we were going. We need to get away and think as we go. I have an idea, but first let’s get rid of the bug.”

Nearby, they found a landing stage for a disused sky temple. They left the bug, its thruster appendages tucked beneath it, on the center of the stage, directly under a busy sky path. When the people who sent the eye-pod came, they would find the bug.

“So what’s your big idea?” asked Varna.

Winchester pulled out his comm-snake; its long neck unfurled and the hood opened to reveal its communication screen. “Information,” said the snake.

To Varna, Winchester said, “I’m going to call on a long shot.” He glanced back at the snake, which hissed low in anticipation of a request. “I need a listing under ‘Restaurants’,” he said.

After the call, Winchester and Varna strolled along the conveyor paths bridging many of the city’s popular buildings. Winchester always drew strange looks, and there was no hiding what he was. Varna, however, blended in with the passersby. She never attracted curious glances, except for her in-between times when she was a little too much of one sex and not enough of the other. Winchester wasn’t sure, but the pendulum might be swinging back toward boyhood. Was that getting easier to tell? he thought. Maybe he was just paying greater attention to her.

The red neon lights danced across the faces of pedestrians, which blurred across the chrome filigree adorning the buildings. At the food dock, aromas from the cuisine of a dozen cultures wove together as Winchester and Varna approached.

Off to one side, between the Mediterranean Convoy and the Star Gypsies, perched the Fortunate Fish.

“I don’t know why you couldn’t finish your call in front of me,” said Varna. “Don’t you trust me?”

“Of course I do,” said Winchester. “It’s not that. Dealing with Pearl is very delicate, and I wanted to bargain in private.”

“Bargain?”

A thin man in sandals and a food-stained apron opened the door to the restaurant and beckoned to Winchester and Varna. “Quick. Get inside before someone sees you,” said Pearl. “Are you nuts? Motor-heads stand out like an octopus at a tea party!” He ushered them onto the deck of the Fish and through its doors as he closed them behind.

The Fish looked much as it did before, but the smell had more of a sweet, acidic tang to it. Winchester could still hear the sound of pots simmering, and their steam added to the general haze of the place. The tables and barstools still stood empty.

“Thanks for letting us hide here, Pearl,” said Winchester. “We needed to get out of sight.”

“You picked the right place for it. Nobody comes here. Who’s this?”

“My daughter. Pearl, this is Varna.”

Pearl wiped a small hand across his greasy apron. “Nice to meet you,” he said. “I’ll get you some soup.”

He trotted off toward the kitchen, and Varna looked around for a place to wipe her hand and decided on her father’s uniform. “This is who you called for help?”

“I’m running out of options,” said Winchester. “He seems like a decent sort.”

Pearl came back with a tray of soup bowls. He beckoned to the others to join him at a table. “I gotta tell you, man,” said Pearl. “I almost didn’t come back until you mentioned your bargain.”

“Bargain?” asked Varna. “Is that what you didn’t want me to hear on the call?”

Pearl paused with the spoon on its way to his mouth. “Did I say something wrong?”

“No.” To Varna, Winchester said, “Honey, he wasn’t going to come. I needed to make a deal. That’s all.”

“What kind of deal?”

“Oh, it’s very honorable,” said Pearl. “One father to another. He’s going to pay to get my daughter out of time-snap.”

Varna stared open-mouthed at the two of them. “What kind of ‘friend’ makes a deal like that?”

“Actually,” said Pearl, “I hardly know your dad, and he made me nervous talking about his chainmail space chick last time.”

“Wait a minute,” said Winchester. “You make that sound really bad.”

Varna pointed her spoon at him. “You’d better explain that, fast. Who’s he talking about?”

From a darkened corner of the restaurant, steam and haze swirled and coalesced into a form. A figure approached the table and said, “He means me.”

“M-mom?”

Winchester looked hard at the angel as she stood by the table. He didn’t know why he’d never seen it before Varna suggested it, but the angel did look like Dala, a Dala from a long time ago, a Dala that now seemed like a ghost.

“This is your mother?” asked Pearl. “What’s going on? Am I seeing spirits?”

“No, Pearl. I’m no ghost. I’m a computer virus designed by Dala to help Winchester.”

“Why can they see you now?” asked Winchester.

“You downloaded Dala’s biscuit,” said the angel.

“So I’m not nuts?” asked Pearl of no one. “That was my big concern.”

“You’re not crazy,” said the angel. “Just keenly perceptive.”

“What were you meant to help dad with?” asked Varna. She put her hand on Winchester’s arm. “He has me now. He doesn’t need help from a virus.”

The angel smiled. “I’m glad you feel that way because it will make my job easier. It’s time you all knew what you’re up against. You’ve all felt the animosity the people of this planet have for bodily alterations; Winchester, you’re nearly half machine; Varna, you change your sex; even Pearl has clan tattoos. The people of this world classify you as ‘untouchable’ and tolerate you at a distance. That won’t always be so.

“In the near future, a splinter group will become enraged by Varna and will try to have her killed. They fail and attempt to eliminate her by more desperate measures.”

“Me?” asked Varna. “Why?”

“You will become the first cyclosexual pilot. Because you can change sex, the bio-ships of the future won’t be able to adapt to your constant change and reject you as a foreign organism, like other pilots.”

“You mean me,” said Winchester.

“That’s the theory,” said the angel. “Varna will be the proof, and she’ll be a hero to thousands of other untouchables for whom you are an example. At least, that’s what will likely happen if you all can work together.”

“How do you know this?” asked Winchester.

“This isn’t our first time coming back, Winchester,” said the angel. “But it will have to be our last.”

Winchester could tell Varna wanted to speak; she certainly looked as though she could explode. Winchester put his hand on her shoulder. She stayed silent but didn’t try to shrug his hand off as he’d expected.

The angel continued. “The attacking virus is called a buzzbomb because of the sound victims make and the explosive way it can spread. The splinter group chose to send this virus back in time via neu-wave trans along your timeline, Winchester, giving them the opportunity to get to Varna through you. They didn’t expect you and me to follow along. But I ‘inspired’ Dala to create me and put me in the memory biscuit you absorbed. That’s why you don’t buzz. I make you immune. But the immunity only works on you. You’re a carrier.”

“Like carriers of Hawking’s cough don’t get thrown through time,” said Pearl.

“Exactly,” said the angel.

Winchester didn’t like the idea of an angel on his shoulder, guiding his hand. “How much of what I’m doing really comes from me? You’re a virus infecting me. Am I just ‘Winchester 3.0’?”

“Oh, Winchester,” the angel smiled and tried to reach for Winchester’s hand. He withdrew it. “Ever since you agreed to slip back along the transmission beam, you’ve been living a life you chose, but it might not be the one you remembered.”

“Last chance, eh?” said Pearl. “Take it, my man. I wish I could.”

It was Winchester’s turn to stay silent.

The angel turned to Pearl. “So, you sound as though you’re more willing to help those two since you know you’re not crazy. What do you say? This could be your last chance.”

“I’ll hold to my bargain,” he said. “I want my daughter back. Besides, we untouchables have to stick together. Anyone want more soup?” He gathered empty bowls onto the tray and returned to the kitchen.

“Why do you have to look like my mom?” asked Varna of the angel.

“I didn’t mean to. I think I look a little different to everyone.”

“Varna, leave us alone a moment, please.”

“Seriously?” said Varna.

“Varna, please,” said Winchester.

Varna frowned at the angel, rose, and walked out of earshot.

Winchester continued. “You’ve changed who I was and who I’m going to be by bringing me back to this time. You’ve changed who my sondaughter will become. I’m not even sure what would have happened had I never interfered.”

“You changed yourself. I gave you the opportunity, and you took it. When I took you back, that set up a possible timeline in which Varna might have a chance if you succeed. If you had done nothing, she surely would have died.”

Winchester had to admit the angel had a point.

Pearl pushed open the kitchen doors. “Hey, Winchester. Transmission coming in. It’s addressed to you. I’ll pull it up on main scanner.” Pearl crossed the dining room to an ancient-looking cabinet covered with lacquered wooden scrollwork. He opened its doors, revealing the Fish’s main screen.

Pearl accepted the message, and Winchester and Varna joined him in front of the screen. The sender icon preceding the message indicated it came from motor-headquarters. Winchester wondered who would contact him through the Fish and why.

On the screen flashed the sagging face of Modom Rooth, smiling a skeletal grin. “Stranglehold. I need you to report in again.” From somewhere, Winchester heard a sound like a squad of angry hornets in a jar. It was Rooth. The buzz hung around him like a stink.

The angel now filled a dark, hazy corner of the dining room, like a tempest on the horizon. “You know that sound, Winchester. He’s infected, and the other motor-heads are likely to be as well.”

Winchester said to the screen, “I won’t be coming in this time, Rooth, or whatever you really are. How does this work? Does Rooth exist anymore, or has the buzzbomb virus killed him?”

“Ah,” said Rooth. “All cards on the table, eh? Well, let me show you my hand, and then I’ll show you yours. Thank you for spreading the virus to me. I was able to pass it on to other motor-heads with great efficiency. We know where you are, and our shuttlebugs are coming for you. We’ve locked onto your hood, so you can’t hide. We know your wife is dead. Soon, you and your whole freakish family will be, too. Pity this all had to happen on your leave.”

Winchester felt the emotions at first, like an itch somewhere he couldn’t scratch. Then, it built like a fire behind his human eye. The emotional inhibitor struggled to calm him only to succumb to the blaze.

“Hide? We’re not hiding,” he said. “In fact, I want to thank you. Now I know who to go after. We’re waiting for you. Make it quick.” Winchester faced Pearl and Varna. “Close your mouths; I have a plan. Here’s what we’re going to do.”

                        #

“What do you mean you don’t have a plan?” Varna’s face was red and her fists balled, ready to strike.

Winchester had never seen her so mad. Was her voice starting to deepen? he thought. Perhaps a subtle change in her neck and shoulder muscles, too. Winchester had never seen her full transition from girl to boy. She seemed angrier; maybe Winchester could point her at their enemies and leave some of the planning to her. “I said that because Rooth was still on the line,” said Winchester. “I wanted him to think we’re up to something.” He glanced at Varna. She stood fuming. Winchester thought it might be better if he left her alone for a bit.

Pearl stood nearby with a plate in his hand, picking at something squirming with noodles and smelling delicious. “We’d better be up to something soon, or this’ll be a short getaway.”

He was right, thought Winchester. He owed Pearl and Varna a plan, but he had no gift for such things. But he could use the gifts he had. “Pearl, this is an older ship, or restaurant, no offence. Does it have AI?”

“You kidding? It barely flies. Why?”

“Take me to the controls. I’ll buy us some time.”

The cook shrugged and led Winchester toward a door at one side of the dining area. Pearl set down his plate and wiped his hands on his apron and pants.

Winchester marveled at the composure of unflappable chef. “Aren’t you worried? We’re about to be chased by murderous, virus-possessed psychopaths, and you’re eating a snack.”

“Aww, no good worrying. You’re a good pilot. I’m a great chef. All will be well. Besides,” he turned and winked at Winchester, “they’re after you, not me. I’ll just cook them a free lunch. No worries.”

Winchester smiled and wished he could shake his head. Pearl turned and led him into the flight room on the starboard side of the restaurant. It couldn’t have been called something as formal as a “cockpit”. It looked like a broom closet the way Pearl kept it, and it smelled like engine oil. “Thanks,” said Winchester. “I’ll manage from here.” The cook shuffled back to his kitchen.

But could he manage? thought Winchester. Pearl had been right: no AI. But from the looks of the controls, the ship was little more than a flying wind-up toy. Clearly, it stayed on auto-pilot, flying over a pre-set flight plan across the city. The chef probably only grasped the controls to land at the odd food deck. That’s how the Fish flew now, chugging along the skyways, like a hobo searching for an alley.

Winchester could hear the turn of gears and the creak of pulleys as the wheel corrected deviations in their flight path. The most complicated system in the room controlled the hover panel keeping the restaurant aloft.

Pink and orange sunlight filtered between skyscrapers, its early evening brightness dimmed by the shadescreen over the flight room’s viewports. Against the backdrop of twilight, dark specks drifted out of the sky, floating toward the city. The motor-heads were coming. Winchester was going to have to escape the cat with his tail already caught in the mousetrap.

Winchester pulled the squawk tube from the wall and called to the dining hall. “The ride may get a little bumpy, probably the rest of the flight. Varna, if any parts of a plan show up, I’ll be here in the control closet.” He hung up the tube.

He flipped the controls to manual, wound up the cochlear drive, and aimed the Fish deeper into the city.

When he again looked at the horizon through a break in the city skyline, the dark specks were gone. The clutter that had filled the sky, the motor-head ships, must have settled into the city. He imagined them coming for the Fish, hunting them, like an eye-pod, only infinitely deadlier. For motor-heads knew how to fly almost as well as he.

They would find him; he couldn’t change that. His one chance was to make the Fish hard to get to. He aimed the restaurant for the heart of downtown traffic.

Most offworlders found the city’s chaotic commerce district traffic bewildering, never comprehending how a native could fathom or navigate the maze. In truth, natives didn’t bother.

Winchester saw the first wave of traffic ahead. On a world dominated by air travel, the skyway currents flowed in layers. Winchester marveled at the dance of traffic before merging, once again thrilled to be a pilot. When one joined the traffic, one had to realize the flow moved on not just two or three axes, but four, with timing being the most important. Air cabs, shuttlebugs, starhorses, and carryalls crossed between buildings, wove above or below adjacent crossings or people-movers, or dove in vertiginous pursuit of a wide-open path. Winchester knew the Fish could only crawl among such competition, but he also knew his pursuers would be forced to do the same.

“Dad.” Varna had snuck in as Winchester concentrated on the city. “I have some of that plan for you.”

“Still upset at me, sweetheart?”

“Unbelievably,” she said. “But I’m setting that aside for now. If we live through this, I’ll kill you later.”

“That’s my girl. Now, that plan?”

“I still control the rockets. Some are following behind. Some are searching nearby. The people who are chasing us won’t be as easy to destroy as the eye-pod, will they?”

“No, I’m just hoping the virus has blunted their edge.”

A muffled alarm chimed in Varna’s backpack. “The rockets have spotted something.” She pulled her pack around to reach inside.

Before she could answer the alarm, the Fish lurched. Winchester fought to control the sudden plunge to port.

A crash of pans and crockery, followed by a stream of foreign words from Pearl, came from the kitchen.

“Son of all bitches!” Pearl yelled. “We’re under attack!”

“Stay here,” Winchester stood and said to Varna.

“Like Hell!”

Winchester felt his inhibitor kick in. He slammed it back into his subconscious. He grabbed Varna’s shoulder. “Don’t think for one minute I’m above strapping you to that chair and locking you in this closet. Stay! Find out what your rockets have to say.”

He left her there, simmering, and ran to find Pearl.

 

On his way, he felt a cold, gentle hand, like a breeze, graze his arm. It was the dreadful angel.

“See if you can capture one of the motor-heads for me, Winnie,” she said. “I may be able to do something with him.”

Winchester rounded on her. “That was Dala’s name for me. You don’t call me that, however much you look like her.” Another crash, and the Fish lurched again. “I’ll do what I can,” he said.

“Get off my Fish!” The yell came from the kitchen. Winchester followed the noise.

The kitchen had the largest bay of the whole ship to allow access for grocer-pods. Perfect access for a boarding raid. Winchester shattered the kitchen doors like a force of nature.

He hadn’t known what to expect, but it wasn’t what he found.

Pieces of former motor-head lay scattered about the kitchen. One crouched, propped against a counter as he tried to dislodge a cleaver from his hood. A fan of sparks sprayed from the gash. In the center of the melee, Pearl whirled, twin halves of his broken mop cut and stabbed at the more sensitive regions of his enemies.

Winchester shook off his surprise and joined the fight.

He used the brute force that came with a heavy metal torso. His head dashed against noses and jaws, and he tossed opponents like a mechanical bull. But all he saw were the faces.

They were men he knew. Every mangled one. Many he didn’t like; some had almost been friends, as Lailow had. None had deserved to be torn apart like savaged toy soldiers.

Then, there was a broken broom half at his throat. Pearl stared at Winchester along the length of the staff like a berserker ready to kill. Blood splatter criss-crossed his face. “Oh, hey, Winchester.”

“You’re covered in blood.”

Pearl wiped his face and stared at his hand. Then, he ran it against his stained apron. “I’ll wash up before cooking again. Help me get these bodies off my Fish.”

Winchester pointed to the one with the cleaver stuck in his face. “Leave that one. I need him.”

While heaving motor-head parts out of a bay door, Winchester saw what caused the Fish to rock earlier. Several shuttlebugs hung clamped to the side of the Fish like barnacles.

“Keep them there,” he said to Pearl. “It’ll be harder for the next wave to land.”

“Dad!” Winchester heard the yell from the control closet.

To Pearl, he said, “Take cleaver-face to the angel,” and then he headed for Varna. He tried to run as he crossed the Fish, but every joint ached. His feet felt coated in lead as he hobbled toward his sondaughter.

“Varna, what’s wrong?”

“My rockets have reported in. There are dozens of shuttlebugs converging on us from all directions. Soon, we won’t have an open path anywhere.”

“Which way is still free?”

She pointed down an avenue.

“Out of the way. That’s where we’re going.” He strapped himself in and grabbed the controls.

He got his bearings as he flew down Varna’s avenue, avoiding a passing diner-bot. Up ahead past the Riddle Way crowd mover and the twin Temples of Justice, he knew lay Motor-headquarters. They were being guided.

More jolts rocked the Fish, knocking Varna to the floor. Honks sounded as aircabs rolled to avoid the Fish.

“More shuttlebugs,” said Winchester. “The motor-heads are mad because they can’t board.”

“Maybe I can get Pearl to throw pots and pans at them,” said Varna, rising on wobbly legs.

“That’s a good idea. Do you still have the bug headset?”

She looked through her bag. “Right here.”

“You’re amazing.”

Varna smiled.

“Go see if you can chuck some of those ‘barnacles’ on the side of the Fish at our visitors. Distract them with your rockets, too.”

“Any other miracles?”

“I’m making a list. Go!”

Varna left to go plug into the Fish’s view screen.

H.Q. lay ahead, thought Winchester. He was flying into a trap. Varna and Pearl trusted him, and he could think of no way out.

A cold hand touched him on the arm. “It’s all right, Winchester,” said the angel. “Let them herd you back to headquarters. I have a plan.”

He batted away her arm, like a puff of steam. “A plan? What have you done to me and my sondaughter? How can we possibly get out of this mess?”

The angel held her hand. She lowered her head like a scolded child. Winchester saw Dala again in her eyes, her downturned lips.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “Can’t you see? I don’t even remember how my life used to be before you changed it. I’ve lost my wife and my life. I don’t want to lose Varna, too.”

“How do you see me?” asked the angel.

“You look like an angel of dread, like a storm about to blow in,” said Winchester.

“Ha! Isn’t it strange how people can see others in more than one way? Dala wanted me to be like her, and you see me as a dread angel. Storms bring peace to some, Winchester.” She looked up. “I’m sorry for everything that’s happened, but we didn’t change your past to save you. We’re here for Varna.”

Winchester frowned. “You’re right,” he said. “I’m sorry too. It was a mistake for Dala to make you look like her. I’ve blamed her loss on you. If your plan will save Varna, just tell me what to do.”

“I’ve inspected the motor-head Pearl brought me, and I know what to do. Let the motor-heads guide you to H.Q., and trust me.” She faded, like a passing thought.

Another tremor shook the Fish, cracking the paneling of the control closet. Flaky debris settled on Winchester’s brassy elbows.

He yelled through the doorway. “Varna, you and Pearl get in here.” He wanted them where he could see them.

Winchester struggled to keep the wheel steady. How appropriate, he thought. That’s all he seemed to be doing since he awoke from what he’d thought was a dream.

He was having as much success dodging the attacking shuttlebugs as he had dealing with all his troubles. Fate had herded him, dictated a path without a clear purpose, like the angel. And then there was Dala. What other great loss would he be asked to face?

“Dad!” Varna was in tears. She entered the control closet as Pearl held the door for her. “They’re all gone. Every one.” She laid her head on Winchester’s hood. He peered around her at Pearl.

“Her rockets are all destroyed,” he said.

“They bought us some time,” Varna mumbled. “There’s nothing left to stop the barrage, now.” She raised her head to look into Winchester’s electronic eye. “Except you.”

This was it, he thought. He’d do his best and trust the angel. “Strap yourselves down.”

Up ahead, Winchester could see the red neon of night-time traffic blaze across the polished bronze of the Clock Vortex statue before motor-headquarters. The hero’s statue grew larger in the control closet’s view port.

Winchester heard a sound within the Fish like a crash from the heart of a thunderstorm. The control wheel spun beyond Winchester’s ability to hold it. The Fish whirled in a nauseating dance. Clock Vortex seemed like a giant riding a child’s merry-go-round. Varna screamed as the Fish crashed.

The last memory Winchester’s hood recorded before he lost consciousness was of the giant Clock Vortex looking down on him.

Winchester’s mechanical half came back on-line first. He awoke, coughing, as warning systems urged him to rise. It was like waking to discover your head was part alarm clock.

Varna and Pearl lay nearby. Both alive, but out.

Nothing survived of the control closet. A miracle and Winchester’s metal torso had saved the three of them from a shredding by view port glass, many shards of which jutted from the paneling around them.

Halves of the Fish lay cracked open like an egg. Through the gash, Winchester could see motor-heads before them, crowded at the foot of Clock Vortex.

Winchester struggled to pull himself up. His strained arms and weary legs lifted him higher over debris of the Fish to a clearer vantage point. He wished he hadn’t. Motor-heads approached from all around. This was what trapped felt like.

He clambered back over to Varna’s side and picked up a severed control lever, its cracked gear still clinging to the shaft.

Winchester nudged Varna and Pearl. “Wake up. We’ve got company.”

The swarm of motor-heads surrounding them parted, and Modom Rooth approached.

“And so we have you,” he said, “as though there were ever any doubt. Admittedly, you gave us quite a bit of trouble, for a handful of freaks.”

The motor-heads closed any gaps as they surrounded the Fish.

“Who’s more freakish,” asked Winchester, “the freaks or those who chase them?”

“Means to an end. And you three are definitely at an end.” Each motor-head mimicked Rooth’s gestures like a platoon of puppets.

“So what now?” asked Winchester. “What’s your plan for us and the world?”

“An end,” said Rooth, the buzzing from him and the other motor-heads clearly audible, like a distant chorus of chainsaws. “Not just to your strangeness but to all of it throughout the world. Eliminating your Jack-and-Jill offspring is an unfortunate necessity. Cyclosexuals might make ideal pilots for the Behemoths. But the stars can wait if we need aberrations to take us to them.”

Damn the emotional inhibitor, thought Winchester. No one should talk about Varna like that. He stepped forward to cut away something soft from Rooth with the gear-lever.

Winchester stopped when he saw the glow. From every motor-head’s shoulder, Winchester could see a radiant spot, like a tiny star forming. At first, he saw it only with his mechanical eye, and then his real one.

The stars grew and changed. Each one became the dreadful angel, leaning on the arm and hood of each motor-head, her curved blade drawn across their chests.

All of the motor-heads as one tried to look her way. All struggled against her and failed. She coiled her arms and legs tighter around their hips and shoulders, like an enormous comm-snake.

Gone from her were any angelic traces of Dala. The angel became a demon with leather wings and a twisted grin.

“I have them, Winchester.” Her voice was a hiss, a low rasp. And though it was quiet, it drowned all traces of the buzzing. “I needed you to gather them together to disinfect them and become their own,” she kissed their bronze shoulders, “personal,” she caressed their interfaces, “angels.” She sank her curved sword into their hard drives and disappeared. Each man, wounded to his mechanical soul.

Rooth fell to his knees under the weight of the angel. “What is this?” he screamed.

“The cure,” said Winchester.

The other motor-heads had feared their own versions of the angel. Rooth was the only one who seemed to suffer.

“Get it off me, Winchester!”

“Oh, no,” said Rooth’s angel. “For you, the storm’s blowing in.” Her nails lengthened into claws, which she sank into his hood. Winchester watched her sword disappear up to its hilt beneath the bronze-colored metal.

Winchester wanted to look away but couldn’t. “All right, angel, that’s enough. You’re hurting him.”

“No,” said the angel. “I won’t stop, even for you.” Her arms had vanished deeper into Rooth’s hood.

Several clicking gasps escaped Rooth’s throat.

Winchester stepped toward the angel. “Angel, stop!”

“This is for my family!” She squeezed. Rooth shook, and his living eye became milky white. The light faded from his mechanized eye. Rooth’s body clattered on the steel ground.

Winchester stood stunned, feeling the horror Varn and Pearl must have shared. But Winchester felt relieved as well. The angel had done what he couldn’t have brought himself to do.

He looked and the other motor-heads. They would live, he thought, but it would be a nagging half-life, longing for something always just beyond their periphery, much as he felt after he saw the angel as Dala.

Varna and Pearl joined his side.

“What happens now, dad?” asked Varna. Her voice was deeper, hair hung differently. Winchester would have to start calling him “Varn” again.

Before Winchester could speak, the angel rejoined them. “For you two,” she gestured to Varn and Pearl, “a new story is about to be written. “But Winchester’s is coming to an end.”

With her words, Winchester felt a tingle trickle up his feet.

“What? No! Stay away from my dad!” Varn stepped between the angel and his father.

“I’m sorry, Varn, but Spaceship X has only seconds to live. Once the neu-wave transmitter fails, Winchester’s mind will be drawn back to its place in the future and me with it. But it will be a new future.” The angel rested a hand on Varn’s shoulder. “One in which a statue of you will take its place next to Clock Vortex.”

They looked up to the giant above them.

“You may even now be feeling the effects,” said the angel to Winchester.

The tingle became a flood, flowing up Winchester’s legs.

“There’s still time for goodbye,” said the angel.

Winchester grabbed his sondaughter’s hands. “One of the reasons I didn’t want you to become a motor-head is because I knew you could be so much more. Being a cyclosexual will let you succeed as a pilot where I’ll fail. And whether you’re a boy or girl or a giant statue watching over all motor-heads, I’ll always be proud of you.”

Varn’s arms shook as he wrapped them around his father.

Winchester continued as he felt the flood hit his spine. “Find a ship, Varn. Take Pearl to get his daughter. No father should be without his child.”

“She . . . he . . . both will always have a home with us,” said Pearl. “Once we have one again.” He gestured to the remains of the Fish around them.

The rushing sensation filled his head; his machine eye showed only static.

“Winchester!” The angel grabbed his hand and pulled him away from his sondaughter. “It’s happening!”

He watched everyone he still cared for and his younger self diminish to a point, like looking down the wrong end of a telescope.

Then, the smell of ozone and choking smoke filled his breath box. His living eye, wherever it was in the control room of Spaceship X, couldn’t open. He had to rely on his mechanized one. It saw the angel, standing solid and armored beside him. The ship screamed and moaned with the burning friction and disintegration of re-entry.

The angel put a hand on Winchester’s control panel. “Varn will be all right, now. You made a new history for yourself and a better future for him. I’ll stay with you to the end, Winchester.”

The ship burned like an incandescent scar across the sky.

“You . . . can call me . . . Winnie, now.”

                        end

Robot Moon Love Little Blue

by David Fawkes

It is difficult to date this story, for how does one date a myth? Clearly, the tale appeared after the Messires of Gigahardware began their subjugation of humanity. But it must have been the first of the “homecoming” stories spread as people scrambled to salvage their identity in the darkness of space. After all, where does humanity turn when the future seems uncertain? The past . . . But it was only myth. We never returned to Earth.

-Archivist Fodor Ix, Folktales of the Spaceways, vol. 42

#

Spiderkin nearly landed on his face as he fell from his stasis tube, but he caught himself with his staff. Danger sirens screeched in his ears; automated systems struggled to extinguish small fires all around. Smoke stung his eyes. The smell of ozone wrinkled his nose.

It took him a moment to realize he was still aboard his manifolder, the Hullabaloo, and he’d let the damn butler-bot pilot the ship while he and Modesty caught a few months of sleep.

Modesty! thought Spiderkin. He glanced across the suspension deck toward Modesty’s stasis tube. Of course, the butler-bot, Tux, was helping her revive. The bot smoothed out Modesty’s nurse’s outfit as she leaned against his vacuum-tube head for support.

Spiderkin hobbled over to the pair. To the robot, he said, “What have you done to my ship, floor lamp?”

Tux turned his glass head toward Modesty. “Sweetness, must I answer the pathetic excuse for a wizard?”

“Tux,” said Modesty, rubbing her forehead, “don’t call me ‘sweetness’, and, yes, answer the pathetic–I mean Spiderkin.”

Tux turned back to Spiderkin. “First, I’m a butler, not a pilot. Second, something fired at us from a small moon nearby, which is drawing us into its gravity well. I woke you both to deal with the problem.”

“You did right, jar head.” Spiderkin glanced at the little lantern that dangled from the crook of his staff. It was full of water and glowed blue. He should have enough power for almost any spell. “Come on. Let’s get to the bridge. I know exactly what–”

Another explosion knocked all three from their feet and sent Spiderkin’s staff flying.

The computerized voice of Hullabaloo announced, “Warning, hull breach, loss of altitude. Warning, hull breach . . .”

Spiderkin lay on the floor. He opened sluggish eyes to see both Modesty and Tux sprawled against the floor and wall.

“Modesty.” Spiderkin struggled against a wave of unconsciousness, then knew no more.

#

“Warning, hull breach . . .” Hullabaloo’s voice continued.

Modesty’s eyes snapped open. She could breathe. Maybe the hull breach wasn’t severe.

Where was Spiderkin? She found him unresponsive and face down on the other side of the suspension deck. She felt his pulse. Alive, though the knotted cords of his outfit were in tatters and his black hair was a mess. That, at least, was normal.

She saw Tux not far away, wedged into a corner of the deck. The light in his glass head had dimmed, which meant he was in sleep mode. Modesty crossed the room to give Tux a shake to awaken him. He could help her with Spiderkin.

Modesty turned the robot around to face her.

“Modesty, angel,” said Tux. “Let me caress your–”

“Focus, tiger. I need you in the here and now. Check Spiderkin to see if he’s hurt.”

“Must I touch the rag bag, my sweet?”

“Can the sweet stuff,” said Modesty, “at least in public. And, yes, scan him, please.”

Tux slouched and trudged to where Spiderkin lay. He began a scan. “He’s a lecherous pervert who defiles you and me with his every touch. But he lives.”

Modesty felt a wave of relief. “All right. Talk to the computer. There was supposed to be a hull breach. What happened? And get it to shut off the warning.”

Tux tilted his head as he connected with the Hullabaloo. “There has been a hull breach. Quite extensive, apparently. And we’ve crashed on that small moon I mentioned.”

“Why are we still breathing?”

“Hmm,” said Tux. “There is a localized gravity sink and atmosphere bubble with a source several miles from here, and have I told you how stunning you are in that nurse’s outfit?”

Modesty sighed. “I’m going to take it off if you can’t concentrate.”

“Oh, yeah! Make my universe!”

“I mean, ‘and put something else on.’ Just wake Spiderkin.”

“Happy to.” Tux kicked Spiderkin in the ribs. Hard.

“Muh,” mumbled Spiderkin.

“Tux! Go check the breach.”

The robot sulked through the sliding doors into the corridor beyond.

Modesty straightened the skirt of her outfit and knelt beside Spiderkin. He looked all right and was beginning to revive.

“Modesty?” he said. “You hurt? Is Tux destroyed beyond all hope of repair? I feel like I’ve had the crap beaten out of me.”

“You were thrown around a bit when we crashed.”

“Crashed? My ship!” He jumped up too fast and stumbled. Modesty helped him stand.

“Where’s my staff?”

They searched the suspension deck and found the staff by one of the sleep tubes. Spiderkin stood the staff upright and inspected its lantern. “Must have been some crash. The lantern’s been knocked loose from its fitting.” He showed it to Modesty. “There’s hardly any water left.” He tightened the lantern’s attachment. “Looks like I won’t be using much magic for a while until I get more water.”

“You’ll have to come down from your ivory tower to join the rest of us ordinary mortals.” Modesty knew there was nothing ordinary about Spiderkin. He was a gifted technomagus. But she liked to hamstring him to keep him humble, or humiliated at least.

“I don’t live in an ivory tower,” he said. “Look at me. I’m dressed in rags.” He indicated the black and blue knotted cords and fabric of his outfit.

Modesty grabbed one of the knots and pulled Spiderkin close. “I like your rags,” she said. “They’re easy to yank off.”

“Hey.” Spiderkin tried backing away. “Time and a place. Crashed spaceship. Running out of air.”

Modesty moved with Spiderkin, keeping his outfit firmly in her grip. “The ship isn’t going anywhere, and Tux says there’s air outside.” She backed Spiderkin against a wall. “We should try to make the best of a bad situation.”

“Heh, oh, all right. Go ahead. Wait! Air on a moon? That’s rare.” He broke away from Modesty and approached one of the suspension deck’s computer terminals. He placed the end of his staff against the access panel, and wires uncoiled from the staff, joining with the panel.

Modesty sighed. Spiderkin’s curiosity had been aroused, which meant he’d lost interest in her. Again.

She joined Spiderkin and put her hands on her hips. “I wish you’d call the hologram like a normal person.”

“I like using my staff, and I’m not a normal person.” Spiderkin adjusted controls along the staff, and a hologrammatic projection of Hullabaloo appeared.

Modesty didn’t like the avatar Spiderkin had chosen for the computer. It wore less clothing than Modesty, and its voice was annoyingly seductive. Modesty wasn’t good at sexy. She was strong and good at smashing. It was hard to be a bombshell while pummeling someone’s face.

“Hullabaloo,” said Spiderkin to the hologram.

“Yes?” purred the avatar.

Modesty wanted to vomit.

“What happened? Why did we crash?” asked Spiderkin, “and why is there air here?”

The image circled Spiderkin as it spoke. “Our flight path brought us close to this planetary system. I spun down the reel drive accordingly.” The avatar smiled coyly at Spiderkin and glared at Modesty.

The avatar continued. “As we passed through this system, defenses on this small moon fired two shots at me–”

“–crippling this ship, stranding us on this moon, and endangering the life of my one and only true love,” said Tux, reentering the suspension deck. Spiderkin held up his hand. “Pause for a moment, Hullabaloo.” To Tux, he said, “What was that about air on this moon?”

Before Tux could direct any tirade at Spiderkin, Modesty cut him off. “Just tell us what you found.”

“Very well. The first shot damaged some unoccupied portions of the ship, like the galley. The second damaged both the crawl and reel drives. The Hullabaloo must have landed us as softly as possible with damaged propulsion engines.”

The hologram leaned against Spiderkin and lay its head on his shoulder. “I did my best.”

“That’s not all,” said Tux. Light from the hologram flickered across his glass bulb head. “There’s a localized gravity and atmosphere sink around us, and I saw something through the hull breach. Hullabaloo, show the immediate exterior.”

The hologram stepped away from the group and transformed into a cratered expanse of white and gray with lines of mountains on the horizon. Across the entire plain from mountain to mountain were dozens, perhaps hundreds, of spaceships, each crashed, some completely destroyed.

“It’s like the Sargasso constellation,” said Modesty.

“Well,” said Spiderkin, “at least we’re in good company. Obviously, it’s no accident that we were shot down. Further, we’re in a potentially dangerous environment. Who’s up for a look-see?”

“I’ll go get John-Joe,” said Modesty.

“You know that thing was built for mining,” said Spiderkin.

“Not the way I use it.” Modesty headed for the door. “Anyway, if we’re going to wander around a mysterious moon that has enough firepower to drop a spaceship, then I’m bringing my seismic sledgehammer.”

#

Later, after preparing the landing yacht, the crew set off from the wrecked manifolder. Spiderkin had insisted on bringing Hullabaloo to fly the yacht. Tux could have flown it, but Spiderkin didn’t like to leave the computer for too long. It tended to get bored and rearrange all his files.

The silence of the moon unsettled Spiderkin. There was just enough of a stale atmosphere to breathe and transmit sound, but there was little to hear. The yacht hummed quietly over the moon’s surface. The yacht’s hover panel kicked up a small amount of surface material, which hung in the air like a slow-motion snowstorm.

“Somebody say something, or I’m going to start breaking things,” said Modesty.

“If we don’t find some water for my staff, I won’t be able to help us get off this moon,” said Spiderkin.

“Somebody say something I want to hear.”

“I think I might have just seen a ghost,” said Tux.

“Well,” said Spiderkin, “at least we can entertain ourselves taking you apart to find out what’s wrong with you.”

“Sweetness,” said Tux to Modesty, “tell the charlatan that I really did see something over on that ridge.” Tux pointed a stubby, four-fingered hand toward a group of hills.

“Enough ‘sweetness’, Tux. You sound like my mom. What did you see?”

“On a hilltop, I saw a humanoid figure dressed in white, wearing a dark helmet. It waved as we approached, and then it disappeared. It didn’t just walk away. It vanished.”

“I’m chilled,” said Spiderkin. “We’re approaching the crashed ship.”

Scattered space-faring remains surrounded them. Some appeared whole and perhaps crashed recently. Others lay in broken heaps trailing away from the point of impact. Spiderkin recognized a few ships by their insignia. He wasn’t a pilot, but as a technomagus, he’d studied a great deal of history. These ships ranged from the early red rocket colonization ships up to his own modern manifolder.

“Whoever’s been doing this has been at it a long time,” said Spiderkin.

“I think I’m seeing things, too,” Modesty pointed through the front viewport along a “path” of debris. “There’s a light coming from one of those ships.”

“Hullabaloo,” said Spiderkin, “head for that light.”

“Anything you say, captain,” said the computer.

“You’re no captain,” mumbled Modesty.

“And you’re no nurse,” said Spiderkin.

The yacht parked in front of the lighted ship. Hullabaloo anchored the yacht, and Spiderkin, Modesty, and Tux disembarked. They approached the wreck with Modesty in the lead, her hammer at the ready.

Spiderkin thought about the impression that entrance might make. “Modesty, I think I’d better handle first contact. I look rough, but not malicious. Hide your hammer behind your back, and try not to look like a trap waiting to spring.”

Modesty pouted, but stepped back. Spiderkin approached the docking door and rapped on it with his staff.

He heard nothing except distant sounds of the wreck setting.

“I hear something,” said Tux. “It’s faint, but coming toward us from within the ship. I can also see approaching heat signatures. The ship is too bulky to discern shapes.”

A scraping and creaking of metal sounded behind the airlock door. It opened before the crew could react.

A small man with long, white hair, a beard, and huge, telescopic spectacles burst through the doorway. “Take me! Take me!” he screamed. “It’s my turn.” He stopped when he saw the trio outside. “Oh, I do beg your pardon. I thought you were someone else.”

#

“So why are a technomagus, a nurse, and a robot in a tuxedo traveling together?” asked the small man with the spectacles who had opened the airlock door. Spiderkin thought he looked harmless, but waited to decide for certain.

The small man, Dr. Getaway, led Spiderkin, Modesty, and Tux through the dusty corridors of the ruined spaceship. Emergency glow-bots floated above their heads. Occasionally, the light would dim, and a globe would drop below shoulder level as its power waned. The ship had been on this moon a while.

Dr. Getaway led the trio to the other survivors aboard the craft: two women and another man. They all sat on the floor of what had once been the bridge. There were no seats. The viewports looked out over the pale expanse of the moon. Above the horizon peeked a little blue planet.

Spiderkin fidgeted with the blue lantern on the end of his staff. “Well, she’s not a nurse. She’s Modesty Tight, my bodyguard. The tuxedoed floor lamp is her butler-bot, Tux Inferior.”

“Drink aniline,” said Tux.

“She’s dressed like a nurse,” said one of the women. She had been introduced as Karren Mockhitler. She was very thin, with angular features, a beak-like nose, and a grin like a jack-o-lantern. She sat against the wall of the bridge rather than with the group.

“No member of the medical profession ever dressed in such an impractical costume,” said Spiderkin.

“He designed it for me,” said Modesty.

“That’s degrading,” said Mockhitler.

“That’s not degrading,” said Spiderkin. “Degrading is what she did to me in the bath one time with the–”

“Okay.” Modesty held up a hand. “No one cares about our dirty laundry.” To Mockhitler, she said, “I don’t consider the outfit degrading. He likes it, and I like that.”

“Don’t take Mockhitler’s comments personally,” said Dr. Getaway. “She’s a bit reactionary.”

“I am not!” Mockhitler stood and pointed at Modesty and the other newcomers. “If I ran this galaxy, people like you would be–”

“Siddown and shaddap!” This came from the other man of the group, who had been sitting quietly beside Modesty. He had short, stubby legs and leaned forward on long, ape-like arms. His face was scarred and pitted like the moon and seemed stitched together.

Mockhitler sat.

She tried sitting next to the other woman, named Meg Hush, who rose to look out the viewport.

Modesty set John-Joe down beside her and broke the silence. “So,” she said to the ape-like man. “What’s your name?”

Without looking at her he said, “Brokenose Brooklyn, last of the Brooklyn line.”

“You’re from the Queen’s Planet?” asked Modesty. “So are we. I’m from the Ellis province. Spiderkin is from Wingdale.”

“Wingdale?” said Brokenose. “That’s too bad.”

“Anyway,” Spiderkin changed the subject, “what are you people doing here?”

“We crashed, like you,” said Getaway.

“No,” said Spiderkin, “I mean all these space ships, the air we’re breathing, the gravity sink. This moon is unreal.”

“No kiddin’.” Brokenose gestured to Dr. Getaway. “Doc, fill him in.”

“It’s the moon,” said the doctor. “She’s a strange one. Some of what’s happening here is her doing, like the crashed ships. It was she who shot you down, but possibly not by choice. There are other forces acting here, too. Unnatural forces. Some things on this moon I can’t explain. Toe stealers and knock specters, the white ghost and the Man in the Moon. The moon herself often appears to us as a mysterious lady. And then there are the body horrors.”

“Don’t talk about them,” said Meg Hush, never turning from the viewport.

Spiderkin ignored her and continued questioning Dr. Getaway. “I don’t understand. You’re talking about the moon like it’s a person.”

“She’s a lady,” said Brokenose.

“She’s an evil, malicious witch!” Mockhitler would have continued, but Brokenose glared at her.

“We don’t know what it is, but it appears as a lady,” said Getaway.

Spiderkin paused and thought to himself, partly to make it seem as though he were thinking deep, technomagus thoughts, but mostly to buy some time until a good thought came to mind. “Could I have a glass of water?”

“We don’t have any,” said Getaway.

“You don’t have any water?” asked Tux.

“That’s interesting,” said Spiderkin. “You seem like you’ve been here a while. Did you run out?”

“That’s none of your business,” said Hush from the viewport.

Mockhitler crossed to where Hush stood and put a hand on her shoulder. Hush ducked away and moved to be by herself again.

“Look,” said Spiderkin, “there’s a whole menagerie full of questions I could ask. The one that keeps struggling to the top of the food chain is ‘where can I get some water?’”

“There might be some at the museum,” said Dr. Getaway.

“There’s a museum on this moon?” Spiderkin looked at Modesty. “And you say I never take you anywhere interesting.”

“Just one of the many things I regret saying to you,” said Modesty.

Spiderkin ignored her and turned back to the doctor. “Can you take us there?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” said Dr. Getaway. “It’s very dangerous.”

“We’ll do it.” Brokenose rose and strode toward the door to the bridge, his arms swaying like a beast’s. He turned back to the other survivors. “Unless you all have something better to do.”

The three survivors glanced at each other and shuffled after Brokenose.

Spiderkin, Tux, and Modesty, swinging John-Joe over her shoulder, followed after.

Spiderkin saw the squalor in each of the quarters as they marched along the hall. He decided to move beside Dr. Getaway to continue talking. “Just out of curiosity, what are ‘knock specters’?”

“Don’t worry,” the doctor answered.” They can only get you through an opening like a door or window.”

“Comforting,” said Spiderkin.

“Your lady friend,” whispered the doctor, “is she your wife?”

“Bodyguard, but she’s been known to tuck me into bed at night.”

“I say,” said Getaway, “she does have the most delightful buttocks, doesn’t she?”

Spiderkin blinked. “You’re not as old as you look, are you, doctor?”

“I still wear spectacles for a reason, young man.”

When the group all arrived at the air lock, Spiderkin said, “We can all go to the museum in my yacht. Tux, get the door.”

“I’m only a gentleman for Modesty,” said the butler-bot, opening the door for Modesty.

“Fine. She can leave it open for the rest of us,” said Spiderkin.

They all exited through the air lock and approached the yacht. Before reaching it, they heard several large thuds behind them. As they turned, Hush screamed, “Body horrors!”

“Keep together and get behind me!” yelled Brokenose. The squat man had his fists up and ready.

Spiderkin saw what had fallen from the top of the wreck behind the group. Several fleshy mounds lay scattered in front of the air lock door. The mounds rose into what resembled composite humanoids, formed from spare body parts. Some had extra arms or legs of differing sizes, making them resemble insects on their hind legs. Some had eyes that looked as though they had been forced into their heads. Others didn’t have heads, only rudimentary mounds atop their shoulders. All were naked. And they advanced on the group.

Spiderkin turned around. More of the horrors emerged from behind the yacht.

“Get behind you, my ass!” yelled Modesty.

Spiderkin heard her seismic sledgehammer charging.

The horrors attacked, some with fists like cannonballs. Modesty leaped among them, swinging her sledgehammer at any unfortunate enough to be in her way. The hammer hummed through the air, its heavy, metal head a vibrating blur. When it connected with the creatures, it burst limb from torso. Arms and legs that had been clumsily attached to rudimentary joints were sent flying by the percussive blows of the hammer.

Brokenose tried to defend the other prisoners by lashing out with his massive arms. The attacking horrors were too much. They soon overwhelmed and swarmed over Brokenose and Modesty.

This will cost me, thought Spiderkin. He raised his water staff above his head and mumbled the calculation to activate the lantern. Symbols poured forth. Arcane algebra burned cool blue as it swirled around him. Numbers flowed faster as he finished the sum, and then the calculation condensed into a water wave, which Spiderkin directed with the lantern. The wave engulfed each of the horrors and drew them back and up to the crest. When it reached its apex, Spiderkin willed the water to dash the horrors against a nearby rocky outcrop. When the blue water dissolved back into its component calculations, Spiderkin could see what remained of the horrors was no longer a threat.

Modesty, Brokenose, and Dr. Getaway lay on the bare, gray rock. Spiderkin knelt by Modesty. She would recover in a moment. He looked at the lantern. Only a tiny amount of blue water remained within. “It’ll be enough,” he said to himself and spoke a quick proof. A blue trickle streamed over Modesty’s body, cleansing the blood from her skin and uniform.

As the water disappeared, Modesty opened her eyes. “You wasted water on me?”

“I know how you hate to be covered in blood,” said Spiderkin, glancing at his empty lantern.

Modesty propped herself up on an elbow and looked at the others, who began to rise. “Where are Tux and the two women?”

Spiderkin looked at where the water-cleansed bodies of the horrors lay in broken heaps and then at the survivors. “I don’t know. They weren’t in my calculation.”

For the first time in Modesty’s eyes, Spiderkin saw a trace of doubt.

#

Okay, thought Tux, there’s a forest on this moon.

He had been running through the trees for several minutes. Shortly after the body horrors had attacked, Tux had noticed them carry away the Hush woman. No one else had seen.

What was he supposed to do? He was only a robot. He couldn’t let the woman be taken off by those horrible creatures. Modesty would understand.

The trees and their needles were a sickly green. They were short, but taller than him and bushy, like cedars. The branches swished past him as he ran, making the only sound. He followed the horrors along a definite path. Tux could see the heat signatures left behind by the figures. They were strange signatures, not like those of normal humans.

It occurred to him that he didn’t know what he’d do when he caught up to the things. He was Modesty Tight’s butler, which meant he could crack some skulls when he had to. But he had no weapons. He looked down at his tiny, four-fingered fists as he ran. Would they do?

He was almost upon the creatures and could see them through the trees. There were two, one carrying the limp form of Hush. Tux decided to stick with what he knew. He ripped a branch from a nearby tree, ran around the figures to get ahead of them, and jumped out at them as they entered a clearing.

The horrors stopped when they saw the butler-bot, as though they weren’t sure what to do next. One had four arms and no head. It carried Hush. Buried between its shoulders was a series of mismatched eyes. They gaped at the robot. The other horror seemed more humanoid, but its mouth opened from its stomach. This one tried to put Hush’s foot into its mouth, but the other swatted its hand away.

Tux thought to take advantage of their confusion. “Put that woman down, or I’ll give your lapels such a dusting!”

The one with the stomach-mouth roared, and they both launched forward to attack the robot. Tux leaped at the one holding Hush and smacked its eye cluster with the branch. It dropped Hush and grasped its eyes, howling in pain. Next, Tux rammed the branch into the other’s mouth and down its throat. The creature tried to remove the branch, but it had become slick with blood.

Tux grabbed the unconscious Hush, threw her over his shoulder, and ran deeper into the woods.

He ran until he could no longer hear the horrors. When he arrived at another clearing, he set Hush down and knelt beside her. Tux scanned her. She lived. The kidnapping might have been too much for her. He tried to revive her.

He tapped Hush’s face. “Hey, there, human female. You can wake up now.” She was pretty. No Modesty, but more than adequate for being so unfortunate.

Nothing. No response.

He smacked her face a little harder. “Snap out of it.”

She coughed and began to panic as she awoke.

“Calm down. Stop flailing around.”

Hush stopped trying to fight Tux. When she looked into his glass head, she started to cry. “They had their hands on me.”

Tux didn’t know what to do. He liked it better when she was kicking and screaming. She rested her head on his shoulder. Her tears fell and soaked Tux’s pin-striped pants. He wasn’t very good at soothing; he never had to be with Modesty.

He began to stroke Hush’s chestnut hair. “There, there. It’ll be okay. Don’t worry. I’m a butler.”

#

The body horrors carrying Mockhitler stopped and dropped her to the ground. She was sore and rose to her feet with a groan. The horrors were a fast, but uncomfortable, way to travel.

Mockhitler looked around. She was in the body horror factory deep within the forest. At one time, she could have felt the power through the floor as the flesh engines recombined human detritus into the body horrors. But no more. All suitable remains from the survivors of the wrecked ships had been used. The factory stood idle.

In the silence of the factory, Mockhitler heard the slapping of tiny, bare feet approaching.

“Mmfhmr.”

Mockhitler recognized the muffled speech. She turned to see a little blue creature approach. It had small wings and large hands and feet for its size. It wore only a loincloth. Over its mouth a zipper had been installed by one of the body horrors for the Man in the Moon. There had been no reason given.

“Casanova,” said Mockhitler, “does the Man in the Moon want to speak to me?”

The imp-like creature waved his hand in a “keep going” gesture.

“I’m sorry. His Most Holy, the Man in the Moon.”

The creature nodded and then held up what looked like a book. From previous conversations with the Man, Mockhitler knew it was a communication device.

Casanova opened the book-like device, and words rose from the spread-open pages. The letters reorganized themselves in the air and combined to form the image of a tower. From the top of the tower a dim, red light glowed.

Mockhitler had seen the Man’s tower before. She had no idea where he lived within, but the tower had no entrance.

“You have done well.” The creepy whispering of the Man unsettled Mockhitler. “Your information on the other survivors has been useful, as far as it goes.”

“Thank you, sir,” said Mockhitler.

“Thank you, what?”

“Thank you, Most Holy.”

“That’s right. Casanova!” Tiny electrical bolts arced from the device, stinging the blue imp. “Carry me closer to the woman so I am within range.” The blue imp padded closer.

Mockhitler wanted to step back, but that might annoy the Man, and his retribution could be unpredictable.

“There are new, unanticipated variables,” said the Man. “You have met the recent arrivals?”

“The wizard, the nurse, and the robot? I don’t think much of them.”

“Then you are a fool!” Thunder rumbled around the tower above the book.

Mockhitler trembled, but dared not move. “I misjudged them. Why discuss them with me?”

“I have a proposition for you,” whispered the Man. “The body horrors are useful, in certain instances, but at times they’re abysmal. Observe: You, thing, step forward.” One of the horrors that had brought Mockhitler in did as the Man bade. “Tear yourself apart.” The creature tore an arm, a leg, and wads of gristly muscle from bone before the Man said, “Enough. See? Pathetic. And they rout easily. They need a leader. If you lead my horrors against these newcomers, I’ll restore your lost humanity to you.”

“I don’t want it,” said Mockhitler.

“Really? There must be something you want.”

“There is. Hush.”

“The mute? Very well. Then we have a deal.”

“She’s not mute,” whispered Mockhitler in a voice she hoped the Man couldn’t hear. “She’s beautiful.”

“You’re in charge,” said the Man. “I’m counting on you. Gather as many horrors as you need, and fetch me the technomagus’s staff.”

“I’d be happy to,” said Mockhitler.

#

“Did you do it on purpose?” asked Modesty. “You’ve always hated him.” She stood outside the yacht. It hovered above the dusty, gray lunar surface in preparation for departure. She had searched around the wreck, the cliffs, and as far as a strange forest but could find no sign of Tux or the women. Tux drove her mad at times, but she couldn’t bear losing him.

“How could you say that?” said Spiderkin. “I admit I don’t like him, but I wouldn’t just destroy him. And I wouldn’t risk hurting the women either. I swear my spell should only have affected those horrors.”

Modesty thought he was telling the truth, but didn’t want to look at him at the moment. She stared up at the blue planet in the sky and wondered if it had seen where Tux had gone. She pressed the communication button in the red cross on her breast pocket and tried paging Tux again.

Brokenose sat on a stone by the yacht and absentmindedly kicked at the dust with his heel. “Your communicator might not work ‘ere. We’re in the middle of a big bowl. The museum’s up on a lookout point. You could try again there.”

Dr. Getaway emerged from the yacht. He had been stowing everyone’s gear and describing the museum flight path to Hullabaloo. “We can leave when everyone’s ready.”

“Robot moon love little blue.”

This was a woman’s voice Modesty didn’t recognize. She turned back to the others.

“Oh, no. Not now,” said Getaway.

Modesty saw the image of a young woman, an image like Hullabaloo, but less coherent. It was as though the projectionist were indecisive. At times, the image appeared as a young woman in some incalculably old uniform only Spiderkin would recognize. Then, the form would blur into that of some storyvid princess. At each change, the woman would wince or touch her forehead.

“Everyone back away until we find out who she’s here for,” said Brokenose, rising from his stone.

“Where did she come from?” asked Spiderkin. “She couldn’t have gotten past me.” He backed away with the others.

“My lady,” said Brokenose, inching forward, “you’re far from your castle. Have you come to greet the new arrivals?” He gestured toward Spiderkin and Modesty while maneuvering himself in front of them.

The woman clutched her hair and shook her head. “Robot moon not princess. Robot moon sentinel.” Her image flickered. She stood rigid, and the image righted itself. “Robot moon come for you.” She pointed at Dr. Getaway.

“Oh, I say. My turn, eh? I could’ve helped these people.”

“Get away from the doctor, you two,” said Brokenose to Modesty and Spiderkin.

“We can’t just let her take him.” Modesty stepped forward, wishing John-Joe wasn’t in the yacht.

Spiderkin grabbed Modesty’s arm and asked Brokenose, “What’s going to happen to him?”

“Something natural,” said Brokenose.

Before anyone could react, a ray of light burst from the young woman’s hand, engulfing the doctor. His body collapsed until it lay inert on the moon’s surface. The young woman disappeared.

Modesty, Spiderkin, and Brokenose ran to Getaway’s side.

“Is he dead?” asked Modesty.

Spiderkin felt for a pulse and checked for breathing. “Yes.” To Brokenose he said, “I’m sorry. Was he your friend?”

“We’ll have to take the body.” Brokenose hauled it over his shoulder. “I’ll load it into the yacht.”

“Shouldn’t we bury it?” asked Modesty.

“No, he might need it again.” Brokenose entered the yacht without looking back.

“Is he crazy?” Spiderkin asked.

Whether or not it was Spiderkin’s fault, Modesty was annoyed about losing Tux. Her imagination whirled with thoughts of chains, bludgeons, and dental tools, all waiting for Spiderkin. “I’ll go find out,” she said. She left him standing alone on the moon and entered the ship.

The yacht was only a landing vehicle, which meant very close quarters: a control room, bunks, a small hold, and an engine pit. Of course, the ship belonged to Spiderkin, so he used it like a notepad. Most surfaces and walls were covered by occult scientific doodles. Modesty had tried changing some of the symbols once, just to needle him; they changed back before her eyes.

She found Brokenose in the hold laying the doctor’s body among some spare engine parts.

“Did you mean it when you said Getaway might need his body again?” she asked.

“You lost your accent,” said the dwarf.

“Sorry?”

“You’re from the Queen’s Planet, Ellis province, right?”

“Yeah, so what?” Modesty heard the hum of the engines through the walls of the hold. Spiderkin must have started the ship.

“What were you?” asked Brokenose. “One of the Torch Maidens?”

“No way! I was a Queen of Liberty.”

“Oh, very tough gang. Why did ya lose the accent?”

“I still got it,” said Modesty. “It comes out sometimes.”

“So you might need it again. Dr. Getaway might need his body.”

“Losing a body isn’t like dropping an accent.”

“Sure it is,” said Brokenose. “A body’s got Ka, or spirit. Yer Ka, like an accent, tells people who you are and where you’re from. It can make you proud and keep you going when things get tough. And they both got other special attributes. Keep yer accent, Ms. Tight.”

“Modesty.”

“Stay proud of yer past, Modesty. You never know when you might lose it.”

#

Spiderkin fumed in the control room of the yacht. He paced from panel to panel as Hullabaloo flew toward the museum. He adjusted dial settings and flipped switches just to hear the clicks. How could Modesty accuse him of destroying Tux? He hadn’t, but it had been on his to-do list.

“Are you trying to crash me?” asked Hullabaloo.

“What? No. I’m just angry.”

“I’m a good listener,” said the computer. Her hologram appeared and curled up on a chair beside Spiderkin. “And I like the sound of your voice.”

Hullabaloo was a good listener. Spiderkin had told her too much over the years, another good reason not to leave her alone for too long.

“The others think I used a spell to eliminate Tux and the female survivors.”

“That doesn’t sound like something you’d do.”

“I didn’t!”

“Maybe they know that,” said Hullabaloo, “but they’re frustrated by the loss. Give them time. They’ll come around.”

“You’re a very optimistic computer,” said Spiderkin.

“I try. We’re at the museum, by the way.”

Spiderkin felt the ship decelerate and watched the building come into view. The structure looked more like a fortress than a museum. Steel beams reinforced the plating of the walls. An ancient airlock had been widened into a more accessible entrance way.

“I don’t recognize the writing above the door,” said Spiderkin. “Do you?”

“I can run it through the archives,” said Hullabaloo.

“Do that, and tell me what you find. I’ll let the others know we’ve arrived.”

Spiderkin found Modesty and Brokenose chatting in the yacht’s hold. They seemed very chummy. But then, Modesty had always had more of an attachment to their home planet than Spiderkin did. He tried to forget the place, but she kept reminding him.

Brokenose looked up from his conversation. “We there?”

“Yes,” said Spiderkin. “It’s time to go.”

Spiderkin, Modesty, and Brokenose left the yacht hovering outside the door to the museum.

More obscure writing lined a series of controls beside the airlock door. “Some of it looks like fifth dynasty Azazellian,” said Spiderkin, tracing the lines and curves of the symbols with his fingers. “But I can’t read it.”

“Can you use your mojo stick on the door?” asked Modesty.

“I can’t ‘magic’ a door open. I have to understand what I’m working with. Besides, I’m out of water.”

Brokenose brushed Spiderkin and Modesty aside then touched a few controls by the door, which ground open with the sound of scraping metal.

“How’d you do that?” asked Modesty.

“I been here before,” said Brokenose. He entered the darkened airlock anteroom. Only the soft, reflected light of the moon’s surface lit the interior.

Spiderkin and Modesty followed. The light blue glow from Spiderkin’s lantern staff told him he wasn’t completely out of water, just down to drops. He heard a pop and saw sparks ahead. Then, the lights came on.

“Are you sure this is a museum?” asked Modesty. “It looks like a hangar full of junk.”

“These are ships,” said Spiderkin, “but I don’t know what kind.”

“The ghost knows,” said Brokenose, brushing some dust off one of the hulks. “You’ll see him soon. He hangs out here.”

“There are ghosts here?” Modesty cocked an eyebrow.

“Not scared, are ya?” asked Brokenose.

“Never,” said Modesty. “But curious.”

Spiderkin started walking among the ships to get a better look. There were several types, but most reminded him of giant octobots with rockets, except these only had four “legs”. Rust speckled many surfaces, but the ships survived remarkably well for their antiquity.

“There’s more of that strange writing on some of these ships,” he said.

As he turned back to Modesty and Brokenose, a figure appeared among them, unmoving. In the light of the museum, its outfit blazed white; but otherwise it reminded Spiderkin of starhorse chavalier armor, only bulkier and non-metallic.

“What am I looking at?” asked Spiderkin.

“That’s the Nassa ghost,” said Brokenose.

“Spiderkin,” Hullabaloo’s voice crackled over the squawk box in the lantern staff. “I’ve found a translation of the inscription on the entrance. It reads, ‘We came in peace for all mankind.’”

#

“Tux calling Modesty. Come in Modesty.” He had been fiddling with his communicator for some time with no luck. Maybe the trees caused interference on this weird moon. He quit for the moment.

Across from him lay Hush on a makeshift bed of needles from the sickly cedars. She slept without a sound. Tux kept scanning her to make sure she was alive. She was, although her readings were strange, ragged, like a scribbled drawing.

He hadn’t really had much experience dealing with women other than Modesty, who was a handful. She was like a thirteen-year-old trapped in an Amazon’s body. An angry Amazon.

Hush seemed peaceful by comparison. Tux could only tell she was breathing by the subtle movement of her feathery hair.

He began signaling Modesty again.

“Who are you talking to?”

“Oh, you’re up.” Tux shut off his communicator. “Just trying to contact the woman of our group.”

“What about the man?” Hush sat up, brushing low branches away from her face.

“I don’t care about that swine.”

“Why?”

“He’s a coward,” answered Tux. “If we hadn’t been running from the Messires of Gigahardware, we wouldn’t be here on this crazy moon.”

Hush shrank back into the branches. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to annoy you.”

“You didn’t.”

“What did you say you’re running from?” she asked.

“Gigahardware? The Wind-up Empire? The Ticking Hordes? Surely, you’ve heard of them.”

“No. We’ve all been on this moon a long time.”

“You couldn’t have been on this moon that long. You’re not old enough.”

Branches snapped nearby in the forest.

Tux didn’t feel terror, but he saw it in Hush’s face. He set his head for full 360-degree scan.

He absorbed a panoramic view of the forest, shifting through multiple views: ultraviolet, infrared, x-ray, the Lukovich bands. There were no animals in the forest, but finally he saw the creature that had made the noise.

“I don’t think it can hurt us,” said Tux, “but let me check it out first.”

“Wait a minute,” said Hush, standing as Tux rose. “What are you going to do? You’re a butler. I’m going with you.”

“Hey,” Tux pointed at Hush, “I saved you with four fingers and a stick, but you can come if you want.”

The creature wasn’t far from them. It had apparently frozen in fear when it made the sound because it no longer moved. It crouched beneath low branches of one of the trees.

“Aww, it’s cute,” said Hush.

Tux switched to the visible spectrum. “It is?” It looked like a blue ball with wings the way it had scrunched up.

“Hey, I know what it is,” said Hush. “It’s a toe stealer. They used to be a big problem among some of the other survivors. But that was before . . .”

“Do they really steal toes?”

“If you have them.”

Tux looked down. “Well, I’m safe.”

Hush crept toward the small creature as it uncurled into a blue imp.

“Hey, little guy,” she said. The creature stirred.

“You sure you should get that close?” asked Tux. “You have toes.”

Hush waved him back. “Oh, they do that when you’re asleep.” She turned back to the toe stealer. “Little fellah? It’s okay.”

The toe stealer poked its head out. “Hmm? Hungry,” it said.

“I don’t think you want my toes, little guy.” Hush looked toward Tux. “Do you have anything?”

“I’m a butler, not a snack machine. Sorry. I’m used to speaking my mind.”

Hush paid no attention and turned back to the toe stealer. “I’m sorry, little guy. We don’t have any food.”

The blue imp began to groan. “Maxmin so hungry.” It emerged from its hiding place and sat closer to Hush.

“Maxmin, is that your name?” asked Hush.

“What kind of name is that?” The little creature would normally annoy Tux, but he felt sorry for it. He could count the ribs beneath its stippled, blue skin.

“Got name from power pack,” said Maxmin.

“Where did–”

Tux cut Hush off in mid-sentence. “Both of you, get down.” He’d heard something in the woods again. Something larger.

The sound seemed to come from all around. It traveled easily in the quiet forest. Tux scanned bands until he could see what approached.

Body horrors, dozens, stomped, smashed, and hacked as they came nearer.

Atop the river of sinew sat Mockhitler. A duo of horrors bore her in a makeshift sedan chair. Though dressed in her tattered uniform, she carried herself like a queen.

Tux thought for sure the toe stealer would have bolted, but it had curled into a ball again. Hush crouched over it, brushing her hand gently over its leathery, blue wings.

The horrors passed and were soon only a distant rustle, like a passing breeze.

Hush watched the horrors disappear.

Maxmin yelped. Hush had grasped him too tightly.

“I’m sorry!” She let go.

“You hate the body horrors, don’t you?” asked Tux.

“I think,” she said, “they may have just come from the body horror factory. I’d like to find that, but I don’t know the way.”

The toe stealer raised his head. “Maxmin know. Maxmin show.”

“Why do you want to go there?” asked Tux.

“To destroy it,” said Hush.

#

Modesty poked her hammer through the Nassa ghost. “It looks real, but it’s one of those imagy things.” She swung the hammer halfheartedly through it, leaving a pixelated trail across its torso.

“Please don’t do that,” came a hollow, echoey voice from within the ghost’s helmet. It raised a blazing white hand to lift its copper-tinted visor. Beneath it smiled a young, handsome face, with square features and close-cut hair. “The program that keeps my light coherent is very old. There’s no need to overtax it.”

Wow, thought Modesty. That’s some pretty light.

“I know what you are,” said Spiderkin. He had been circling the ghost, scrutinizing details here and there across its radiant suit. “I mean, what you’re supposed to be. You’re one of the ancients. The star-nauts of old.”

“That ain’t right,” said Brokenose, approaching the ghost. “He’s a tour guide. I know. I’ve taken the tour.”

The Nassa ghost relaxed from its stiff pose. “Good to see you again, Brokenose. Who are your friends?”

Brokenose indicated his companions. “The tough one with the hammer is Modesty. The pasty one with the stick is a technomagus named Spiderking.”

“-kin. I’m not tough? Why is she the tough one?”

The ghost continued. “I was a tour guide, millennia ago. I’ve seen so much happen to one little moon since then.”

“That quote over the door, this museum, your suit,” said Spiderkin. “This is the moon, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” said the ghost.

“What moon?” asked Modesty, shouldering her hammer. “What are you talking about?”

“You remember your nursery rhymes, don’t you?” Spiderkin’s accusatory tone reminded Modesty of her teachers in the learning cage when she was a child. Spiderkin continued. “’Red, red rocket to the blue moon. Cat in a saucer with a shiny new spoon.’ The red rockets and the saucers and the other spaceships in this museum. This is Earth’s moon.”

“Fairy tales in space?” asked Modesty. “That’s ridiculous.”

“He’s right,” said the ghost. “Although I don’t know the rhyme.”

“He’s always right,” whispered Modesty to herself. She wrung John Joe’s handle.

“We’re in a museum,” said Brokenose. “Why don’t you take the tour?”

“You aren’t coming?” asked Modesty.

“I’ve seen it,” said Brokenose, shrugging.

“Follow me,” said the ghost, turning toward the aisle that led between rows of exhibitions.

Modesty glanced back at the dwarf, who sat at the foot of an ancient space ship, and then turned to go.

The ghostly spaceman didn’t walk; his image glided over the polished stone floor. His resonant voice seemed to fill every empty space in the silent museum. A series of glow-bots led the trio, illuminating the sights as the group progressed. All around them towered the spaceships of Earth’s past. Rockets of several designs crowded the aisles like a small city of cylindrical buildings. Modesty recognized the red rockets from the fairy tales of her childhood. Seeing them in person disoriented her as though fiction had invaded reality.

“All of these machines and exhibits you see here . . .” The spaceman swept a broad arm across the vast array of ships and uniforms and plaques. “. . . the events these objects commemorate come from a time further back in history from you than the pyramids were from me in my time.”

“The what?” asked Spiderkin and Modesty as they walked past an engine the size of Hullabaloo.

“What is the oldest culture you can think of?” the spaceman asked.

Spiderkin screwed up his face in thought. “The Cobalt Miners from the Shepherd’s Crook cluster,” said Spiderkin. “That’s the oldest verifiable human colony.”

“What he said,” said Modesty.

“Double that age. Triple it,” said the ghost. “This is where the  journey began. The first step.”

Modesty stopped. So did the other two. The glow-bots paused in their rambling.

“Wait,” said Modesty. “So we’ve gone from the last step of humanity to the first?”

“I don’t follow,” said the ghost.

Spiderkin rapped his staff lightly against the floor. The tap rippled across the hushed expanse of the exhibition hall. “Nevermind,” he said. “She’s just bringing up something we finished talking about long before we arrived.”

“You finished,” said Modesty. “I’m not done yet. You left our planet, its people, and everyone else when you ran. I wanted to go back. So did Tux.”

Spiderkin stopped tapping his staff. “I didn’t make you stay. You could have left. Then you wouldn’t be trapped on this moon now.”

“I couldn’t just walk away,” said Modesty.

“I’m not walking. I’m running!”

“I think there’s some history here that I’m not aware of,” said the Nassa ghost.

“I’ve fought the Ticking Hordes of Gigahardware,” said Spiderkin to the ghost. “They aren’t invading. They’re already here, there, and everywhere.”

He sat down on the polished volcanic rock of the floor, setting his staff beside him.

He looked beaten, much as he had when Modesty met up with him. He had been a different man then and fought alongside the other Technomagi during their last stand at the Moon of Infernal Contrition. At first, Spiderkin had limped away. Modesty had healed him enough that he could run.

“What are the Ticking Hordes?” asked the Nassa ghost, sitting beside Spiderkin.

Modesty sat, too. The glow-bots settled into a low orbit around them.

Spiderkin sighed. “It doesn’t matter. They’re the forces of Gigahardware: microscopic devices animating enormous and devastatingly powerful machines.”

“You fought these things?” asked the ghost.

“Yes, and lost. Now I’m running from memories.”

“I wish I could advise you,” said the ghost, “but I’m made out of light. However, you remind me of something. Centuries ago, tiny machine entities invaded this moon as well. They are the reason for our troubles.”

“Here? They’ve been here? Could they be the same?” Spiderkin’s voice trembled. Modesty hated to hear fear from him.

“Well,” said the Nassa ghost, “I don’t know for sure, but your description sounds like the machines that infected our systems. I know someone who can tell us about them, but she’s very delicate. She requires a patient approach.”

“Who?” asked Modesty.

“The moon. I’ll call her.”

From a dark aisle, beyond the ring of light in which the group sat, stepped the moon–the young woman hologram that had killed Dr. Getaway.

“Oh, no. Not her.” Spiderkin began to rise.

“It’s all right,” said the ghost, raising a calming hand. “She’s a friend.”

The young woman approached the spaceman. “Robot moon love little blue.” She laid a delicate hand on the circular blue patch he wore.

“Hello, Moon,” said the ghost, smiling.

Modesty noticed something flash between the two images, a mutual connection, and the moon sat next to the spaceman.

“Moon been with little blue long time,” said the young woman. Her image slouched, propping bony elbows on skinny legs. The moon’s bent posture and tattered uniform contrasted with the spaceman’s straight back and immaculate space suit.

“That’s right. Moon,” said the spaceman, “can you tell these people about the nanomachine infestation from long ago?”

The moon cowered. “No. Moon forgets. We talk about castles.”

“Please, Moon. I’d like to talk about the nanomachines. You know what happened better than I. I wasn’t even self-aware until afterward.”

The moon glanced back at the spaceman, and something again passed between the two. It reminded Modesty of what she and Spiderkin had, at least when they weren’t fighting.

“Moon will tell.” The young woman sat forward, facing her audience. “Moon very old now. Mountains cold. Dust all settled. But long ago, before dreaming of castles and princess dresses and kingdoms, robot moon just sentinel. Then moon infected by tiny bots. Got inside her–changed her insides. But before bots, moon didn’t have spaceman.” She laid her hand on the ghost’s. “Moon happy now. But still hurt.”

Modesty felt something deep inside, a sensation she wasn’t accustomed to. The affection she saw between the two luminous specters made her happy. It was sweet. It made her want to apologize to Spiderkin. Then she got a hold of herself and felt the urge to smash something.

“What do you mean they changed your insides?” asked Spiderkin.

The moon remained silent, but the ghost took over. “The nanomachines rewrote much of her software, including mine. I’m reluctant to ascribe emotions to what I think of as a plague, but these bots were highly aggressive. They seemed to enjoy making us self-aware so they could torture us.”

“I know these machines,” said Spiderkin. “They’re the yesnobites of Gigahardware. They animated the Ticking Horde. You said they invaded long ago. What happened to them?”

“The moon was designed to be a sentinel. After a great struggle, she destroyed them.”

Spiderkin had something to think about again, noticed Modesty. He no longer sulked, but sat forward, listening closely. “It cost you, didn’t it? Everyone who fights the yesnobites pays a price.”

“Indeed,” said the ghost. “Destroying the bots led to Moon’s fantasies and mental state. It led to my desire for space and the knowledge that I can never go there. But the one most affected was the Man in the Moon. Except, at the time, he was just the library.”

“Wait,” said Spiderkin, “the Man in the Moon is a library?”

Bang.

The noise came from so far away; its echoes barely reached the group.

The spaceman had been about to answer, but Spiderkin interrupted  him. “Did you hear that?”

Bang.

The noise approached. Modesty thought it came from outside the museum.

The spaceman and the moon rose.

“Oh, no.” The ghost looked at Spiderkin and Modesty, still on the floor. “Listen, Moon and I can’t help you. We’ll slow you down. Our projectors can only fly so fast. Find Brokenose. Get to safety. Remember, the knock specters can only get you through an opening. Don’t open the doors until they’re gone. Good luck.”

“Wait!” Spiderkin jumped to his feet, but the two images had disappeared. “Not even a whiff of Brimstone,” muttered Spiderkin.

Bang. Modesty raised her hammer.

A tapping began, like the first drops of rain on a tin roof. Then, the storm hit. A torrent of rapping and banging resounded around them.

Modesty hated loud noises, the result of growing up near a postal phoenix drop zone. The sound of the specters was unlike any she’d heard before. It penetrated her bones.

She charged her sledgehammer.

“Modesty, no! Not in here!”

Before Spiderkin could grab her, Modesty ran for one of the exterior metal walls, swung John Joe in a mighty arc around her body, and let it connect with a support rib, releasing a dazzling spray of sparks. The force of the blow knocked her down and sent her hammer sliding along the floor. When the reverberations ceased, Modesty could see a crack in the structural rib.

Spiderkin stood over Modesty, offering to help her up. He held John Joe in his hand. “You’re going to kill us. Remember: think first, then destroy.”

Modesty listened. “The specters have stopped.”

They must only have paused, because their din doubled in intensity.

“Come on!” shouted Spiderkin, grabbing Modesty’s hand. “We’ve got to find Brokenose.”

Modesty thought of the postal phoenixes again, exploding outside her window, yielding their cacophonous messages. She thought of dropping John Joe so she could cover her ears, but decided against it.

They ran, with glow-bots struggling to follow. The din overtook them. Exhibits shook; glass cases rattled.

They found Brokenose before they reached the museum entrance. He lay before one of the ancient spaceships. As Spiderkin and Modesty approached him, the knocking stopped.

Modesty dropped John Joe and rushed to Brokenose’s side. Blood covered his torn clothing. His mangled arms lay at awkward angles to his body. Modesty looked up at Spiderkin as he approached. “What could’ve done this to him? Do you think it might have been the knock specters?”

“I don’t know,” said Spiderkin.

Brokenose mumbled something and looked up at the pair. “Mmm, knock specters–Kas. –didn’t do this. I was looking for water for you–None here.”

Spiderkin checked Brokenose’s injuries. “Most of this blood isn’t yours.”

“–from the Queen’s Planet.” Brokenose closed his eyes.

Spiderkin glanced at Modesty and shook his head.

Modesty rested her hand on Brokenose’s chest. “What did this to you?”

He put his hand on Modesty’s. “Why did you come back so soon?”

“The knock specters were chasing us,” said Spiderkin. “We thought they might do something to you. Are they what did this?”

“–said they’re Kas,” muttered Brokenose. “They wouldn’t do this to me. The body horrors. They’re here.”

Modesty heard a crash that ran through her whole body. She thought it might be the knock specters again, but this sound was different. A low rumble followed the crash and rolled toward them like a wheel.

From the direction of the crash, Modesty could see rocket tips begin to wobble.

“Oh no,” said Modesty. “We have to get out of here.”

The city of spaceships began to fall as something moved toward the trio.

The sound of toppling rockets ripped through Modesty. She yelled to Spiderkin. “Help me move him!”

“He’s dead, Modesty.” Rockets continued to crash closer to where Spiderkin an Modesty stood above Brokenose’s body. Modesty could see what caused the destruction: something had pushed a rocket onto its side and began rolling it like a rolling pin, flattening all in its path. Soon that would be Spiderkin and Modesty.

“He can’t be,” she said. “Remember Dr. Getaway. We have to take his body with us.”

“No! We have to leave now!” Spiderkin grabbed Modesty with unexpected force. They grabbed their things and ran as the museum collapsed behind them.

Modesty glanced back over her shoulder as she ran. The rolling rocket trampled over the spot where she and Spiderkin had just stood. She couldn’t bear to watch the rocket crush the remains of her friend, the last of the Brooklyn line.

Spiderkin looked back. “It’s the body horrors! They’ve swarmed and are pushing the rocket along.”

Modesty turned her head as she ran, making her glances quick. A mob of body horrors rolled the rocket like a wave. Occasionally, she could see one caught by the turn of the rocket and get ground beneath it. That must have been how it happened for poor Brokenose. That’s how it soon would be for her and Spiderkin if they didn’t escape.

“The entrance,” said Spiderkin. “We’re almost there.”

A terrible metal shriek hammered Modesty’s ears. She tried to find the source. The rocket began to push some of the larger exhibits along the aisle. Instead of plowing over them, the rocket shoved them before it. The detritus began to gather to either side of Modesty and Spiderkin. If the rocket didn’t crush them, the debris soon would.

“The doors!” shouted Spiderkin over the wailing metal. “They’re airlock doors. I don’t think we can open them in time.”

“On it.” Modesty powered up John Joe and leapt for the door. The ancient metal hatch exploded into fragments, scattering across the airlock floor. She and Spiderkin made it into the passage followed by crushed exhibits. Fragments of ladder and gantry and bits of rocket began to fill the airlock.

Spiderkin indicated the outer door to the museum. “Ladies first and second.”

Modesty cracked through the brittle outer door of the museum as the debris piled into the airlock behind them.

The sterile, cold surface of the moon lay before them. Modesty had never been so glad to see the sinuous curves of the Hullabaloo. She never wanted to go to another museum as long as she lived.

Something was wrong. Spiderkin felt it, too. They both had their respective weapons ready.

From above their heads, hands descended. Body horrors, above the doorway to the museum, reached down, grabbing Spiderkin’s staff.

He held on, refusing to let go as the body horrors pulled him closer. Without thinking, Modesty dropped John Joe and grabbed Spiderkin’s waist. If the horrors were going to pull him up, they’d have to take her, too. Spiderkin struggled to keep his staff but had to let go. The pair dropped to the rocky surface below. They watched the horrors pass the staff to a smiling Mockhitler. Then, all disappeared in a cloud of hands as the body horrors retreated over the top of the museum.

“That’s it, then,” said Spiderkin. “All I’ve been through. Hope is gone.” The little blue planet hung in the sky, looking down on both him and Modesty.

Modesty thought about all they had lost: Tux, Brokenose and the other survivors, the ship. Maybe Spiderkin was right. All hope was gone.

#

At first, the little imp had been jumping from tree to sickly tree as it led Tux and Hush toward the body horror factory. It settled down as hunger took over, and the creature must have realized Tux and Hush had no interest in climbing. Tux had no idea how it knew where to go. This bizarre forest looked the same in all directions.

“So, Hush,” said Tux, “what are you doing on this moon?”

“You mean, ‘What’s a nice girl like me doing on a moon like this?’”

“I’m a butler, kid. Humor’s wasted on me.”

“I don’t remember,” said Hush. “None of us survivors remember what happened before arriving.”

“None? Spiderkin, Modesty, and I have our memories. What’s different about you?”

“You weren’t . . . well, you’ll never know,” said Hush. “You’re a machine.”

“I didn’t figure you were prejudiced,” said Tux.

“No!” Hush put her hand on Tux’s shoulder. He liked it.

“I didn’t mean it that way,” she said. “It’s just that if you had gone through what we did, you’d forget too.”

“Now I have to ask; what happened to you?”

Tux thought she wasn’t going to answer.

“You’re a robot,” she said. “You were created in humanity’s image, except for the clear glass head.”

“Yes,” he said.

“You’re comfortable with the way you look?”

The pair clambered up an incline along what Tux found impossible to call a path. Was Maxmin blind? “The ladies have no complaints.”

“What if your creator hated you?”

“I . . . don’t know. Explain.”

“We survivors didn’t survive. We were reconstructed after our bodies were destroyed crashing on the moon. We were rebuilt by the Man in the Moon. Whenever he needed more slave labor, he forced the moon to crash a ship on the surface, and the survivors were turned into body horrors. Some were built for specific tasks, others for amusement, and few for malice.”

“You’re a body horror?” asked Tux.

Hush nodded.

“What were you reconstructed for?”

“Maybe I’ll show you some time. The four of us that you, Spiderkin, and Modesty found were different, though.”

“How?” asked Tux.

“Body horrors usually have their Kas stripped away. Without a Ka, a body horror is a happy little drone. The four of us you found were rejects. Our Kas couldn’t be removed. Not permanently.”

Tux’s little feet were giving him trouble. They weren’t built for forest terrain. “You still have your spirit.”

“For what it’s worth. I couldn’t get rid of mine if I wanted. Occasionally, the moon feels pity and tries to kill one of us, but our Kas come back, if they have a body to go to.”

“So, you’re a body horror who knows she’s a horror. That’s why you want to destroy them.”

“Yes,” said Hush. “But I don’t know how.”

Tux stopped walking. Maxmin had ceased his bounding ahead and padded back toward him and Hush.

“Maxmin heard Hush,” he said in his squeaky imp voice. “He thinks he have something that can help. You follow home!” Then, the little toe stealer was off running again.

“Maxmin, wait!” shouted Hush.

Tux and Hush ran after the blue creature as it threatened to disappear into the green of the trees.

The three of them came to a stop at a clearing some time later. A breeze kicked up tiny moon-dust devils. A fine, white powder settled over everything, giving the area a wintery feel. Tux had to fight the urge to tidy.

Near the center of the clearing lay a ruined spaceship, cracked open in places like a piece of dry driftwood. Tux didn’t recognize the type, but it predated the reel drive. It had to be very old.

Tux realized that the clearing was really a crash zone. The crash had been massive, spreading sections of the ship all along the zone. Tux could see more as he stepped along the wreckage. It was narrow, but he couldn’t see the extent of its length due to the hilly terrain. Fuel or something inimical from the ship must have salted the soil, leaving it barren like most of the dusty lunar surface.

“This my home,” said Maxmin.

The imp padded through the dust and debris.

“Home?” said Hush and followed after.

“Hmm, spacious,” said Tux. “Needs redecorating.”

The ship was like none Tux had ever seen. No parts among the debris seemed to have served as propulsion. Perhaps they had been stripped. The ship looked more like a toppled industrial minaret. Then, Tux saw the guns. All were useless. The charging systems had been removed at some point after the ship had crashed.

Maxmin no longer bounded ahead of Tux and Hush. Ever since entering the zone, he seemed to lope along, as though injured.

“What’s wrong, Maxmin?” asked Hush, catching up to the imp.

“Maxmin no like to go home.”

“But it’s your home,” said Tux.

“You’ll see.”

Maxmin led the others to an entrance and stopped. “Maxmin can see in dark. What others want do?”

“No problem,” said Tux, and he filled his head with light. A warm, ivory glow turned the dull gray spaceship to a pale white.

“Your head’s really useful,” said Hush.

“It comes in handy.”

“We go in, then,” said Maxmin. The blue imp pressed against a round, vault-like hatch that must have weighed half a ton. It resisted, but then ground away from an entrance. Beyond the hatch lay a darkness that devoured Tux’s light.

“Lead on, little fella,” said Tux.

The toe stealer crept into the silent ship. Hush grabbed Tux’s hand, her slender fingers enveloping his tiny stubs. Tux moved forward, perhaps a bit braver than he had felt a moment before.

The ship seemed dead. The trio moved through corridors carpeted with dust. Tiny footprints mottled the floor. Tux could only hear the light slap of the toe stealer’s bare feet, the barely audible tapping of his own feet, and Hush’s quiet tread.

“You said you don’t like to come home,” said Tux, “yet you’ve obviously returned periodically. Why?”

“Maxmin visit mama and papa.”

“Your parents live here?” asked Hush.

“No, but they here. Will show.”

“What happened to everyone else?” Tux looked around at the scattered debris. Everything left behind in the ship had decayed over a very long time.

“All thin now. All dead,” said the toe stealer.

Thin? Thought Tux. Desiccated corpses? He wasn’t sure what to expect.

Hush gripped Tux’s hand tighter. “I don’t know that I could bear looking at bodies right now.”

“Ditto, kiddo,” said the butler-bot.

Maxmin continued to lead.

After climbing an access ladder to one of the upper decks, the trio encountered the first of the remains. Tux didn’t know how else to think of them.

“What are those?” Hush halted beside Tux. When they stopped, Maxmin did, too, and padded back to them.

“They bad men,” said Maxmin.

At first, Tux barely registered them as once-living beings. Seen edge-on as the trio had approached, the remains looked like metal sheets extending from the floor. Only after getting closer did Tux realize they were dozens of two-dimensional figures. In silhouette, they appeared to be soldiers in fatigues, carrying weapons. However, within each of the silhouettes, it was as though an image of what the person was had been smeared toward some distant vanishing point.

Tux noticed something about each of the silhouettes. He ran a quick scan on all the figures he could see. “The plane of each figure inclines slightly. They all share a common origin.”

“What?” said Hush.

“It’s as though the figures radiate from some center point, like spokes on a wheel.”

“Uh-huh,” nodded Maxmin. “More to show.” He took Hush’s hand and led them like a chain.

“Tux,” whispered Hush, “these silhouettes are all running opposite the direction we’re going.”

“Relax. If you look after me, I’ll look after you. Something about this seems so familiar. I’ll check my memory cells.”

They continued through more corridors stained gray by dust and time. They passed more figures, not all soldiers, but every one a silhouette. Some ran. Others had fallen, glancing over their shoulders at some long-gone terror.

“Maxmin,” asked Tux, “did these people fear the crash of the ship?”

“No, crash came later. Soldiers feared mama.”

Hush looked Tux right in the globe and mouthed the word mama.

Tux nodded, which caused his light to bob against the corridor walls.

Their steadily inclining way terminated in armored sliding doors, which had been forced open, leaving a space large enough for Maxmin to pass.

He stopped.

“Maxmin fit. What about robot and Hush?”

Tux released Hush’s hand and stepped forward. “Stand back.” He cracked his diminutive knuckles. Being servant to Modesty meant Tux had had to carry, lug, and haul a wide variety of weapons, armor, and siege engines. He was no ordinary butler.

He grasped the edges of the open doors and tugged. The metal groaned as the little robot forced it into a new shape. Afterward, all three could pass, single file at least.

Beyond lay a laboratory. Once-sterile metal and glass surfaces were peppered with dirt and grime. Black halos ringed dead computer banks. Overturned lab benches and chairs lined the walls. More silhouettes radiated from the center of the room. Some silhouettes, likely soldiers, had been running for the door through which Tux, Hush, and Maxmin had entered. Others, scientists in lab coats, seemed to stare at the center of the lab. At the axis from which all the spokes radiated was the silhouette of a woman, her lab coat frozen in a flutter from a long-gone breeze. Her hand reached out in a frozen caress of the axis: a real device that seemed familiar to Tux.

Maxmin approached the woman and laid a hand on her smooth silhouette. It wobbled and thrummed like sheet metal. “Mama,” he said.

Robots often found it impossible to describe to humans how it felt to search their memory. Analogies invariably described simultaneously falling and swimming in deep water until riding to the surface on the currents of memory. Tux’s bubble head broke through the rolling waves.

“Maker within!” he said. “They cut through into thin space.”

“Uh-huh,” said Maxmin. “Mama made a bomb.”

#

The smell of ozone filled Mockhitler’s nose and burned her throat. Electricity from the Man’s energy weapon still crackled over her stunned body.

The Man’s portable hologram projector stood in a disused distribution bay of the body horror factory. One of the cargo bay doors stood open, allowing starlight and blue planet light to illuminate the open bay of the factory. Troops of body horrors gathered outside the doors, but only a fraction could cluster within the bay itself. They all sat or stood upon half-broken crates and rusted, busted hulks of transport vehicles, like children listening to stories. They gathered around Casanova, the fallen Mockhitler, and the Man’s projector.

“This relationship that you and I have developed, Mockhitler, is unprecedented in my centuries of sentient existence,” said the Man. “Casanova, please prop up my lieutenant.”

The little blue imp with the ruined mouth rolled and nudged Mockhitler into an upright position.

She began to laugh, which trailed into a fit of raspy coughing. Then, she said, “I wouldn’t have it any other way.” She set her hand on Spiderkin’s staff, which lay beside her.

“Refreshing. I’ll ask you again: can you operate that charlatan’s trinket that you brought?”

“I have no idea how, Most Holy,” said Mockhitler, trying to sit up, but mostly leaning on the imp. “It seems inert.”

“Very well,” said the hologram of the Man. From the image of his tower above the projector, a bolt of lightning split the air, blasting Mockhitler and sending little Casanova rolling behind her.

Mockhitler lay smoldering, her uniform and hair singed. “I’m still . . . not sure, Reverence,” she said. “Perhaps another bolt–”

“No. I’m bored,” said the Man. “This isn’t getting us anywhere. I want you and Casanova to bring the staff here to the north pole. Use the factory’s ‘tation-station, and try not to lose any body horrors. They’re crap at operating transporters.”

Casanova rose and limped over to Mockhitler. She propped herself up on his small frame. “What do you want the staff for, Most Holy?”

“For my great undertaking.” The light atop the Man’s tower flared. “This is the task toward which I have been struggling since I became self-aware: I found the Eye of Shiva here on the moon, and everything I have done has been to bring it back on-line.”

“What is it?” asked Mockhitler.

“Purity,” said the Man. “I must protect my books, whatever the cost.”

“What good will bringing the staff do?”

“The technomagus will come. And when he does, I will make him use the staff.”

“Then I will get what I want, right?” asked Mockhitler.

“Absolutely,” said the Man. “After the eye opens, you will have Hush.”

A warm feeling flushed from deep within Mockhitler, soothing her, rather than singeing like the electricity. All she wanted was the touch of a real woman, not these puzzle-box horrors she could never escape. So Hush wasn’t a real woman, technically. She looked like one on the outside, and that’s what mattered to Mockhitler.

She held the staff out to the Man. “You will have it soon,” she said.

The image of the Man’s tower disappeared back into the generator, and Casanova prepared to wheel it away.

Mockhitler signaled for the horrors to follow her farther into the factory. The hordes marched along halls and corridors designed to accommodate their numbers. Dull-orange, emergency-power glow-bots bobbed and sputtered along their path, providing scant light. The body horror converters, with their appendage arrays, sat still along the path of the passersby. Mockhitler noticed how, as they continued deeper into the factory, their path reversed what a human would take to become a horror. She knew none would appreciate it wasn’t that easy for a horror to become human again.

At the end of the hall, Mockhitler could see the cool blue light of the ‘tation-station.

A sudden knocking at one of the hall doors startled her. She stopped short, as did Casanova and the horrors. Of course, behind that particular door, every body horror had had his or her Ka stripped away. Aside from the few stragglers that wandered over the moon haunting the wastelands as knock specters, this room must be the prison for all the hundreds of others. The knocking intensified as though the lonely Kas could sense their former bodies beyond one thin wall.

Mockhitler placed her palm on the cold steel door. She peered through the porthole window, but could see only darkness within. She felt the vibrations of the pounding as the door trembled. “You are ghosts,” she said. “What can you do?”

She turned toward the ‘tation-station to transport them to the pole.

#

Tick-tick-tick.

The sound approached Spiderkin, but in the dense morning fog of Astroghast IV, he could see nothing but the stones beneath his feet.

Tick-tick-tick.

It seemed as though the sound came from him, like a timepiece in his pocket. He held his staff. He felt the beat of his heart fall in lock step with the metronomic phantom.

Tick-tick-tick.

The fog glowed indigo in the pre-dawn light. The ticking intensified, centering above Spiderkin’s head. One of the Ticking Horde crouched above him, almost close enough for him to touch. Through the parting swirls, it lowered itself.

In the instant before its needles struck, Spiderkin thought, All hope is gone.

Spiderkin awoke thrashing, grasping for his staff. But it was gone.

He lay on the cold metal of Hullabaloo’s cramped sleeping quarters. Modesty had tried to cover him with a rancid thermal blanket that smelled of engine oil. Almost a sweet gesture.

She lay curled in the captain’s chair, barely covered by her uniform. Spiderkin crept over to where she slept and draped the blanket over her and crossed to the airlock door.

He emerged into the lunar night. It was always a bit dark here, except for the blue planet. He didn’t want to die on this twilit moon.

He shuffled over to a nearby crater rim and sat on the edge, dangling his feet.

“Ah-hem.”

Spiderkin glanced over his shoulder and saw the approaching Nassa ghost and Moon.

“I didn’t want to startle you,” said the ghost. “May we join you?”

“Pull up a crater.”

The spaceman and Moon sat beside Spiderkin, both holograms slightly above the surface. “You survived your ordeal in the museum,” said the ghost.

“We made a bit of a mess. Sorry.” Spiderkin stared up at the blue sphere.

The ghost shrugged. “Who’s going to come see such things now? You seem preoccupied. Admiring the Earth?”

Maybe his nightmare moments ago had put Spiderkin in the mood to explain himself. “Part of a technomagus’s job is to gather knowledge. I’m here on the moon with the Earth above. This was the start of humanity’s journey into space. I should be leading people back here to their home, but I’m lost in my own troubles.”

“Troubles?” asked the ghost.

Spiderkin turned to face the ghost and Moon and explained the loss of his staff.

Moon grabbed the spaceman’s sleeve. He glanced at her and placed a gloved hand over hers.

To Spiderkin, the spaceman said, “Moon is very concerned. Your staff is an object of great power, is that right?”

“When I hold it, it is. Any other moron would probably destroy the world.”

“That,” said the Nassa ghost, “is precisely what the Man wants to do with it.”

“Yes, yes!” Moon nodded. “Man wants open the eye.” She made a motion with her hands at her forehead like a giant eye opening.

“That’s right, Moon.” The ghost patted her hand. “I’m not sure what she means, but I know the Man has something nefarious planned. For centuries, he’s forced Moon to crash ships and the body horrors to mine the wreckage for useful technology.”

Spiderkin pulled his legs from the edge of the crater and turned toward the two holograms. “The Man wants gadgetry to destroy the moon?”

“Man not destroy me.” The moon pointed at herself. “Moon is sentinel.”

“Yet the Man can force you to down passing ships,” said Spiderkin.

The moon shrank back, and the Nassa ghost answered for her. “There are very old protocols directing the moon to protect the library, and, by extension, the Man. You suggested the Man might use the staff for great destruction. Is that possible?”

Spiderkin thought for a moment. “Maybe. Not intentionally. He couldn’t learn to use it right. But that wouldn’t prevent him from using it wrong.”

“Then we must try to stop him,” said the ghost.

“No,” said Spiderkin. I’m through fighting battles that can’t be won. When all you do is lose, all you want to do is run.”

“That’s all you say anymore,” said Modesty, approaching the group on the edge. She had draped the oily blanket over her shoulders. “There was a time when we fought everyone else but us. I came with you to fight for a good reason, instead of staying on the Queen’s planet and fighting for a bad one.”

“I just want to retire,” said Spiderkin. “Just me, you, and maybe the floor lamp. Someplace far from anything trying to kill us.”

“I’ve done enough running,” she said. “I’m not doing any more.” Modesty turned, dropped the blanket from her shoulders, and returned to the Hullabaloo.

“Maybe . . .” Spiderkin watched her go.

“I wanted to retire too,” said the ghost. He also looked up at the little blue planet as white clouds swirled across its surface. “I know I never did, but the man I’m supposed to be wanted a simple life, living in Orlando, Florida.”

“What about the man I’m supposed to be?” asked Spiderkin. “He’d like to go to Ourland O’Florrida. What’s it like?”

“It’s a world of castles and fantastic creatures, like Moon’s daydreams.” The Nassa ghost laid his hand on Moon’s shoulder.

“I’ve never been one to offer advice,” said the ghost. “There’s never been anyone around to take it. But perhaps, like Modesty, it’s time for you to stop running from your past. You never know when it will catch up.”

Was that it? thought Spiderkin. Was he so easily read that a hologram could tell him what he’d known all along? He could ignore Modesty all day, but it took a specter made of light to convince him to face what he’d been afraid to since Astroghast IV.

Spiderkin rose, pressing on very tired knees.

“What are you doing?” asked the ghost.

“What it’s time for.” Spiderkin turned back toward Hullabaloo. “Modesty! Come out, you Queen of Liberty, and let me tell you you’re right.”

Modesty arrived at the airlock door, hands on her hips. She smiled at Spiderkin.

Before he could speak, the image of Hullabaloo appeared between him and Modesty. “Captain,” said the hologram, “there’s an incoming message directed to you. The sender claims to be ‘His Most Holy, the Man in the Moon’.”

“Display.”

The light that constituted Hullabaloo disbanded and re-formed as a dark tower with a scarlet glow crowning its apex.

The moon stood and pointed to the image. “Evil one from polar tower!” She began to move toward it, but the ghost restrained her.

“Hello, Moon. Always good to see you, but I’m not here to speak to you. I’m here for the wizard.”

“Scientist, not wizard,” said Spiderkin.

“What’s the difference anymore?” said the Man. “I have something of yours, and I need your mojo to make it work.”

“Sorry, fresh out of mojo.”

“Be reasonable,” hissed the Man. “I understand you better than you think I do, scientist Spiderkin. Traveling through a remote star system, eyes locked on the blue planet that is your ancestral home. You wish to go there and see the seas that stretch forever and smell the pines upon the mountains. It’s the same dream as every other soul on this moon. And I can get you there. It would take no effort to have my horrors repair your ship. I have no end of spare parts. All you have to do is make your staff work for me.”

Before he could stop himself, Spiderkin found himself staring at the little blue planet.

“Ah, yes.” The light atop the tower flared. “You know you want it.”

Spiderkin smiled. “I won’t lie. I’d love to see Ourland O’Florrida someday. But I’ll do it my way. My staff works for me.”

Arcs of electric fire crackled around the tower’s crown. “So be it, wizard. Then, run. Run from me and my horrors. We will find you, wherever you hide.”

“No!” spat Spiderkin at the Man. “No more hiding. And when I run, watch out because I’m running toward you!”

Modesty walked from the Hullabaloo, through the image of the Man, over to stand beside Spiderkin. The image rumbled deeply and dissolved.

Spiderkin spoke to the ghost and the moon. “Are you two coming?”

The moon nodded her head.

The ghost answered for both. “We’ll join you.”

Modesty took Spiderkin’s hand for the first time since they arrived. “Fire up John Joe, sweetheart,” he said. “We need a plan.”

#

“I thought thin space was illegal,” said Hush.

“It’s not just illegal, it’s forbidden,” answered Tux. He walked hunched over, carrying the “bomb” Maxmin’s mama had made. “Cutting into thin space leaves scars in our space that never heal. I question the wisdom of our hauling an illegal, potentially flawed, thin-space bomb through a forest on a crazy moon. But it’s what the lady wants.”

“You make me feel like a bad person,” said Hush. She hadn’t said much since leaving the ship behind.

“You sound like you’re having second thoughts,” said Tux.

“No,” she said. “But now that I’m so close to blowing up the factory, I don’t know if this will make me feel any better.

Tux could see the smokestacks of the factory just above the trees. “Are you ready to tell me what kind of horror you are?” he asked.

Hush said nothing as they trudged over the gray topsoil. She reached up to her forehead and tugged at a nearly invisible seam in her flesh. Slowly, as she pulled down, her skin parted in halves stopping only at the collar of her jumpsuit. Beneath her skin suit, Tux could see the slick red muscle and sinew of her head. It was still Hush, and she was still beautiful, but raw. “I was one of the horrors created out of malice.”

“Let’s blow it up,” said Tux.

They entered the body horror factory with Maxmin’s help. The facility hadn’t been used to make horrors in years, so only a few glow-bots wandered the corridors. They flocked to the trio shortly after they arrived, like lonely pets. None of the massive factory had been designed for comfort. No chairs, no place to rest or refresh. The factory was a slave-making machine operated by slaves. Tux recognized stripped components from the spaceship graveyard put to mysterious new purposes. The whole place was silent. He heard their footsteps and the hum of glow-bots overhead.

The group approached the approximate center of the complex. Hush had re-skinned herself, and she helped Tux and Maxmin assemble the device.

“Maxmin,” said Tux, “you’ve been quiet about what happened on the ship. Can you tell us anything?”

The little imp helped reassemble the device. His hands were ideal for small tools, but couldn’t handle large parts. “Soldiers took papa away, and made mama make a bomb. She was very sad but made one with Maxmin and other toe stealer’s help. Toe stealers very unimportant, so we slept by ship engines. We not know what mama did with the bomb until we came out for food. Were so very hungry. By then, no one left on ship but us.”

“I think you’re important,” said Hush, scratching Maxmin behind pointed ears.

With a last click of the hydrogen disentangler, the bomb was finished. Tux felt as though he stood on the edge of a very steep cliff; the bomb waited to push him into an abyss.

“Maxmin,” said Tux, “Are you sure the timer on this thing works?”

The imp shrugged. “Not know. Toe stealer just helper.”

“All right.” Tux looked over the controls of the bomb. He thought he could understand the function, even if he couldn’t understand the text. “So here’s the plan: The bomb blast never reached Maxmin in the ship’s engine room. I know how far that was. I’ll set the timer to give us enough time to escape.”

Tux began operating what he could recognize of the controls. Suddenly, a recorded voice spoke from the device in a language Tux couldn’t understand.

“Mama!” cried Maxmin.

“What’s she saying?” asked Hush.

“You started countdown.”

Tux saw figures change on the screen to a rhythmic pulse. “Great. How much time do we have?”

“Not know. Maxmin can’t read.”

Tux didn’t have a highly developed sense of failure. That typically took the form of anxiety over not achieving every item on his daily chore list. A deluge of angst threatened to drown him.

“Uh, Tux?” said Hush.

She really was beautiful. Tux didn’t care if she had no skin of her own. “We’ve got to get out of here.” He grabbed Hush and Maxmin and started to run.

No matter how fast and far he moved, the sound of the countdown pulse remained clear in his audio receptors.

Hush yelled protests as they stumbled through factory corridors. The glow-bots, charged with activity, shone brighter as they hummed overhead.

As the group rounded a corner, Hush jerked her hand from Tux’s mit. Had he heard a knock from somewhere?

“Tux, stop!” she rubbed her reddened hand.

“Hush, we have to move.” He noticed a ‘tation-station at the end of the hall. A perfect way out. If it worked.

She turned and started back down the corridor. “I have to check something.”

Tux and Maxmin followed after her.

“Are you mad?” Tux asked. “Bomb . . . boom . . . thin space. Have I left anything out?”

She had stopped at a door much like any other. She laid her hand on the black glass of the view port. There was a knock at the door. This was followed by another and then more. Soon, it sounded like a hailstorm.

“Kas,” said Hush. “This is where they’re kept.” She turned to Tux. “What happens if they’re here when the bomb explodes?”

“Then we, they, and every AI chip in this building will be banished to thin space forever.”

Hush’s eyes widened. She grasped the door handle and tugged. “We have to get them out of here.” She struggled, but the latch would not yield.

If Tux had a heart, it would have been in his throat. If he had one. They didn’t have time for rescue operations. But Tux saw her desperation as Hush clawed at the door’s controls.

“Here,” said Tux, “I can calculate opening combinations much faster.” He nudged her out of the way.

Before he could touch the controls, his bow tie beeped. “Modesty’s calling me?” Tux pressed his tie.

“Modesty calling Tux. Come in, Tux,” said the voice from his tie communicator.

“Modesty?”

“Tux! It’s so good to hear you!”

“Modesty,” said Tux. “Bad timing. There’s a bomb, Kas, and a locked door. Can I call you back?”

“Wait,” said Modesty. “We have a plan, and I need to tell you about it.”

The countdown pulse grew louder.

#

The Hullabaloo‘s yacht hurried toward the pole. The flight path led the ship over a stream of crashed ships glittering faintly along a crusty lunar surface. Around them were mountains that weren’t really mountains, but the rims of great craters. Spiderkin felt lighter and realized the enhanced gravity near the museum must decrease by the pole.

He saw a different kind of glittering ahead. “Ice,” he hissed.

“You realize,” said Modesty, “the body horrors will grab us as soon as we land.”

“Of course,” said Spiderkin. “Hullabaloo, as soon as we’re off the yacht, rise well out of the reach of the horrors and wait.”

“But Captain, I can fight. Let me sweep your enemies aside with my wings.”

Spiderkin chuckled, inspired by such loyalty from a starship. “Not this time. We have an idea brewing.” To the holograms, Spiderkin said, “Will you two stick around this time?”

The Nassa ghost and Moon held hands. “Yes, whatever happens, we’ve come to the end of the way things have been. We want to know how things will be.”

Spiderkin nodded. Beyond the viewport, he could see the Man’s tower appear to grow larger as the yacht approached. A vast plain of scattered rock and debris spread before it. Around them, craters of varying sizes overlaid each other, and each held what looked like a thin crust of ice. The water beneath any one of them could be the key to their prison on this moon. If the Man only knew how to use the staff, there would be no point to this journey. He’d already have whatever he wanted.

The Hullabaloo landed a short distance from the tower. After the humans and holograms disembarked, the ship rose vertically until it disappeared into the dark above their heads.

At this point, Spiderkin grew nervous. He remembered how he had felt fighting the Ticking Hordes, the helplessness that came from confronting such a bizarre, inhuman foe. He fought the feeling. He knew the others were counting on him, and he had to be ready to play his part when the time came.

From the tower, Spiderkin felt a low rumbling in his feet through the dust and black rock. Then, from behind scattered boulders and rock walls, from beneath traps and pits carved into the lunar surface, the body horrors emerged. Spiderkin felt like he was at the eye of a very great storm.

The horrors seized him and Modesty. They stripped her of her hammer and carried him and her upon outstretched hands above them. For several moments, Spiderkin knew only the groping, gripping hands of the horrors, until he and Modesty were deposited, still struggling, before the Man’s tower like driftwood left on some lonely beach by a passing wave. The holograms flowed through the throng of horrors like water through a sieve until they rejoined the two humans.

Mockhitler emerged from the crowd of horrors. One of them, shaped like a giant fist on legs, presented Modesty’s hammer to Mockhitler, who already held Spiderkin’s staff.

The woman was a horrible sight. She stood, stripped to the waist, her jumpsuit rolled down to her belt. She was obviously one of the horrors created from malice. Her eviscerated midsection dwindled in the middle to a waspy silhouette of knotted flesh and bone. She held Modesty’s hammer like a stinger, ready to strike.

“If I had had my way,” said Mockhitler, “we would have started the factory back up just for you two.” She indicated the two humans with the end of the hammer. “The moon belongs to body horrors now. And the horrors belong to the Man.”

“That’s ‘His Most Holy, the Man in the Moon’,” thundered the Man’s voice from the tower. “Mockhitler,” said the Man, “these people are our guests, not your toys. You have enough of those.” To the humans, the Man said, “Can Casanova get you anything to make you comfortable?” A little, blue imp with a zippered mouth limped forward.

“I’d like some water,” said Spiderkin.

 

Modesty smirked.

“Regrettably, we have none,” said the Man. “Casanova, fetch something comfortable for our guests.” The imp wandered off. “Technomagus, you and the nurse are something special.”

“I’m not a nurse,” said Modesty.

“Whatever,” said the Man. “You are the first humans to come to this moon in a very long time that I have not tried to convert for my cause.”

“Tell us about your cause,” said Spiderkin. He glanced at Modesty, and she nodded. Spiderkin knew to keep the Man talking.

“Do you know what I am?” said the Man. “A library. But not just any: I’m the most important repository of human thought ever. A life boat on a sea of ignorance. Everything humanity ever knew and has now forgotten fills my virtual shelves.”

Spiderkin’s mouth watered. Plan aside, he’d love to keep the Man talking about this. “Sounds like a dream come true. How do I get a loan card?”

“You can’t!” The Man’s red tower light flared. “Apologies. My books are not to be taken out.”

“But I’m a human,” said Spiderkin. “Don’t you have some kind of protocol for obeying my commands?”

“Not since I became Holy,” said the Man. “My creators tasked me with a mission, one which I’ve tried to fulfill for countless years. You may know I created the horrors to be servants but also simple, if stupid, guardians of the library. Your arrival has convinced me that my fortifications are not enough. Humans will always come. I have to eliminate their reason to return. And your staff will give me the power to do so.”

Suddenly, the Ticking Hordes didn’t seem so bad by comparison to Spiderkin. “You can’t destroy all those books, all that knowledge!” He fought to free himself from the hands of the horrors.

“Of course not,” said the Man. “I would never destroy my books. I’m going to destroy the Earth.”

Spiderkin’s knees gave out. Only the arms of the horrors that held him kept him from falling.

“Go ahead,” said Modesty. “I’m never going to go there. My home is light years away.”

“Modesty,” Spiderkin said, “what are you doing?”

“Can it, Newton,” said Modesty. To the tower, she said, “What’s your plan, Mr. Man?”

“I plan to use the Eye of Shiva, but I need a power source greater than any I have.”

“Most Holy,” said Mockhitler, “don’t trust her. She’s wicked and . . . indecent.” Mockhitler gestured toward Modesty’s skirt with the staff.

“Oh, quiet, Mockhitler. I’m no fool.”

“I can help you,” said Modesty, “but whatever I do, Spiderkin and I go free. This was never our fight anyway. We just leave and forget we ever came. You can destroy the Earth, and this crazy moon of yours will disappear in space.”

Moon broke away from the Nassa ghost. “No! Eye of Shiva bad! That why Moon have it. Too strong. Eye never close.”

The Nassa ghost reached for Moon’s hand. “Moon’s defenses incorporate some of the most powerful weapons of Earth and most destructive. I think the Eye is both.”

The moon nodded.

“Oh, Moon,” said the Man. “I look forward to an eternity of stimulating conversation with you. Modesty, I accept your bargain. Horrors, let her go. Nurse, step forward. Now, how can you help?”

Modesty said, “I’m not a nurse.”

Spiderkin started to feel the burning pricks of doubt on the back of his neck. Modesty wasn’t just riffing on the plan. She seemed to have made up an entirely new one. Unless she was serious.

“Modesty,” said Spiderkin, “Think of what you’re doing. This moon isn’t just the start of humanity’s journey to the stars; it’s the reason we left for them in the first place. Humanity looked up at the moon and asked why it was there and what lay beyond. If we let the Man destroy the Earth, we won’t be able to bring back all we’ve found. Now, I have only one question for you: is the floor lamp ready?”

Modesty smiled and pressed the red cross on her breast pocket. “Oh, I hope so, or I’m about to do something really stupid. Tux, let her rip.”

She ran for the edge of one of the nearby craters and stopped. Not far below, Spiderkin could see one of the ice crusts. Whatever Modesty was doing, it wasn’t part of the plan. He had to be ready for whatever stunt she tried.

Mockhitler raised the staff to signal her body horrors. “I knew it! She’s up to something. Body horrors, I want you to – aargh!” Before she could finish her command, Spiderkin saw another of the blue imps biting through her toes.

“So hungry!” it said, with blood dribbling down its cheek and bits of toe between its teeth.

From between a throng of horrors, Tux and Hush appeared.

With Mockhitler distracted by the loss of her toes, Hush grabbed the staff and hammer from her. “You’ll never come near me again.”

A scream died in Mockhitler’s throat as Hush passed the staff and hammer to Tux.

“Modesty, catch!” Tux threw them both.

As the two handles described an arc over horrors and moon dust, Spiderkin realized Modesty’s plan. “Oh, Modesty, no.” But there was nothing he could do to stop her. She caught the handles in each hand, barely stepping back as she plucked them from the air.

To the Man she said, “Nurses don’t do this.” She charged her hammer and leapt from the crater’s edge toward the ice sheet below. On impact, thunder cracked and ice shattered in the crater.

Spiderkin rushed to the edge. The ice crust wasn’t far below. Already it was broken and smashed, with small sheets floating atop churning waters where Modesty had broken through.

Tux joined Spiderkin at the crater’s edge. “That wasn’t what she told me she was going to do,” said the butler-bot.

“Nor me,” said Spiderkin.

“That was it?” boomed the Man. “That was your plan to get your staff back? Pathetic! And to think, I have to guard the knowledge of your ancestors for eternity. I’ll have the horrors retrieve the staff from the water, and then I’ll rip knowledge of its use from you like strips of bacon from a pig.”

Spiderkin forced himself to turn away from the crater below toward the Man. “I don’t think so. I don’t need the staff in my hand to make it work.” Spiderkin closed his eyes and intoned some levitation formulas. Below, he could hear the ice blocks part as staff, hammer, and Modesty rose up to them. Spiderkin opened his eyes to see Tux pulling an unresponsive, soaked Modesty to one side to try to revive her. She still held John Joe as though her hand were frozen to the handle. But the staff floated freely. Spiderkin drew it toward him. The lantern was full of water.

“Body horrors!” shouted the Man, “seize that man and confiscate his staff.”

Spiderkin swept the staff before the advancing horrors, freezing them all in motion. With another sweep, every horror crumbled to frosty rubble.

“Ice is appropriate at this moment,” said Spiderkin. “There’s something useful water does when it freezes.” With a third slash toward the Man, a water spout formed from within the crater. Its vortex spun wild until it engulfed the Man’s tower.

“What?” said the Man. “What can your frozen water do to my impenetrable fortress?”

“It expands,” said Spiderkin. Numbers danced in his mind as moisture seeped into micro cracks and grew colder. Crevices, like lightning bolts, began to race across the Man’s surface. Chips slid away from the ancient edifice.

“Really?” said the Man. “You get your staff back, and you use it to erode me?”

Spiderkin drew his staff close to him and rested his weight against it. “It’s not about what I’m going to do to you, anymore. It’s about what they’re going to do to you.”

A sound started, like rain on a rocket hull far away. The Kas drew closer. But now, instead of aimlessly swarming, searching for something, they came with a purpose. They’d found what they had been looking for. An opening.

Spiderkin couldn’t see the Kas pour through the fresh openings in the Man’s tower, but he heard their percussive fleeting.

“What have you done?” The Man screeched. “Technomagus, think of all the knowledge that will be lost without me! No! Keep back. Stay outside of me!”

Spiderkin lost all doubt that an artificial intelligence like the Man could be alive. Only something that lived could scream with so much terror at the thought of losing that life. The light atop the tower flickered and dimmed, and the restless tapping of the angry Kas faded like the death kick of some twitching beast.

Spiderkin sighed. “We learned it once; we can learn it again.” He remembered Modesty and joined Tux in reviving her.

The little butler-bot did not turn to face Spiderkin as he approached. He continued to kneel beside Modesty, her hands cupped between his tiny mits. “She’s cold. I’ve tried warming her.”

“Tux,” all thoughts of the feud between them were gone. Spiderkin knew they both wanted the same thing. “Let me try.” The robot stood and moved out of the way.

Spiderkin touched his staff lightly to Modesty’s chest. If he could have been an objective observer, a scientist that every technomagus should be, he could have calculated how much water to remove from Modesty’s lungs and the power needed to warm her body. But this was Modesty lying on the cold rock, and he loved her. He let the staff work its own magic. The color slowly returned to her flesh.

Her eyes blinked open.

“You changed the plan,” said Spiderkin, taking her hand.

“I improvised. Did the Kas come?” She propped herself up. Spiderkin and Tux helped her into a sitting position. The holograms and Hush had joined them, but Spiderkin barely noticed.

“They did,” he said, “and they’ve gone to wherever angry Kas go. They took the Man with them.” The only noticeable sound came from the Man’s tower, which continued to crack and crumble.

Nassa and Moon, hand in hand, floated over to join the group.

“We’ve ruined your moon,” said Spiderkin.

The ghost held up a hand. “Not at all. It needed a good cleaning. What will you all do now?”

“Modesty, the floor lamp, and I will probably head up there.” Spiderkin nodded toward the blue planet.

“Actually,” said Tux, taking Hush’s hand, “we’re going to stay. The toe stealers will need looking after, and Hush and I can try to salvage some of the library.”

“You’re not coming?” Modesty couldn’t disguise the crack in her voice.

“Don’t make me choose, Modesty.”

Hush put her arm around Tux’s glass head.

“It’s a one-way trip, Tux. We can’t make it back in the yacht,” said Spiderkin.

“Not necessarily,” said the Nassa ghost. There may still be red rockets left behind on Earth.”

Spiderkin thought again of fighting the Ticking Hordes and how he promised Modesty they’d stop running and rejoin the fight. He thought about how strange it was that to go forward, they had to go back. Back to the very beginning. He would go to Ourland O’Florrida, and then they would see.

The silver form of the Hullabaloo floated down from the sky toward them.

“Let’s go,” said Spiderkin.

end

 

 

David Fawkes works by day as a field scientist for an environmental company, which means he works long hours and does a lot of heavy lifting. By night, he writes. One of his hobbies includes rescuing obscure rare books from exotic locales and eccentric locals. He enjoys playing music, but, despite rumors, he has never been asked to play bass for the Residents. Coffee is David’s favorite addiction, with books being a close second.

Real Flowers Don’t Have Loose Threads

by David Fawkes

 

Rosenblum rose from the black soil in which he slept because the incoming call would not stop. He drew his root system back into his body and stepped out of the bed onto unsteady legs. It had been a beautiful start to a three-day weekend, and he’d spent much of it photosynthesizing beneath the sun of planet Fare-thee-well shining through his open apartment window.

By the time he’d answered the call, his limbs had limbered enough so they didn’t creak when he moved. Through the dewy haze of his apartment, Rosenblum saw the image of his chief inspector appear on the vidphone.

“Did I wake you?”

“I don’t sleep,” said Rosenblum, “but I was lying down. When do you need me to leave?”

“Who said you’re going anywhere?” said the chief.

Rosenblum wished humans were a little more straightforward. “You wouldn’t call me over a holiday unless you needed me somewhere today.”

The chief smiled. “More training. I think this will be an interesting case.”

“Who’s been murdered?”

“Not who, what.” The chief gave the meeting particulars and signed off.

Rosenblum glanced down at several tiny buds scattered over his viney torso. Already they were beginning to wither. He had a bad feeling about this case.

#

Mi amor?” said a light, musical voice from some other room. “The dawn does not come twice for a lazy man.”

Kevin Seven grumbled beneath his covers.

The voice approached, muttering something about early to rise. Kevin wanted no part of it. The speaker tore the covers from Kevin’s bulk that covered much of the ample bed.

Amor! Levantate! You have a call.”

Kevin cracked open his eyes and looked up at the love of his life. In a perfect world, Callipygia Alonzo O’Neill Bonfiglio, “Pydge”, would have been considered beautiful by everyone, with a curvy, full, six-foot-three body; but her nose betrayed her, dividing her face like a mountain range between two valleys.

Her black hair curled around her body, clinging to her like ivy. Kevin smiled. She was a perfect world to him.

Pydge groaned. “You are useless on a weekend. I will bring the device to you.” She strode back toward the other room, muttering in her native language.

Kevin rolled upright, slapping two thick feet on fake wood flooring. He was an inspector now, which meant he could afford real fake wood. He rose and lumbered naked and unselfconscious toward the round window that looked out onto Camellia, capital city of Fare-thee-Well. He watched the morning sun, now crawling toward afternoon, glinting off cargo ships arriving at the distant spaceports. He was lucky; his and Pydge’s combined incomes meant they no longer had to live beneath shipping lanes.

Pydge returned, carrying the vidphone and a terrycloth robe. “Put this on before taking the call, por favor.” She tossed him the robe and set the device down. Once she appeared satisfied that Kevin was presentable for a vidcall, Pydge left.

In the robe, Kevin looked like a bulky plaid sack. Why was Pydge crazy about him? He didn’t want to know. He sat down in a circular pool of sunlight from the round window and flipped the vidphone on. It was the chief.

“Hmm, holiday weekend, mmf,” mumbled Kevin.

The chief inspector rubbed his stubble. “I know how it is being called in on a weekend. I have something special, and you’re the best for the job.”

“Because of my amiable disposition?”

“You’re a good trainer, and this is an unusual case.”

“If it’s murder, anyone else could do just as well.”

The chief paused. “It’s not exactly a murder, yet. Right now, it’s damaged property. We’ll see what it becomes. No, I’m more interested in your trainee. Anyone else might do as well, but I don’t think anyone else would. You seem more open to officers of diverse backgrounds.”

Kevin frowned. “That was a long time ago. I don’t kick the underdog. Robots are still a minority.”

“Except this trainee isn’t a robot. He’s a floriform.”

Kevin’s eyes widened. “You want me to work with a freakin’ vegetable?”

#

Pitz and Divitz both clanked when they walked. Many robots were outwardly indistinguishable from humans; others looked more like mobile workbenches and boiler rooms. Pitz and Divitz had found a happy medium. Humans dealt better with faces, such as theirs, in certain business transactions, but the heavy industry design of their bodies helped enforce results. In Pitz’s opinion, it was hard to ignore a weapon of mass destruction when it smiled at you.

The pair had just come from the printer’s with their new business cards.

“Master Divitz, I find the urge to shuffle these embossed steel reputation enhancers irresistible.” Pitz shifted the cards from hand to metal hand.

“Is so, Pitz?” Divitz wobbled less than his compatriot. Overall, he gave the impression of a tightly coiled spring, sharpened to a razor’s edge.

“Indeed. I feel our contribution to literature is a sound investment. Who can argue with, ‘Pitz and Divitz: Things Done Quietly’?”

“Colon is showy.”

“And yet,” Pitz flourished a card between two fingers. “Ostentation is a salesman’s prerogative.” With a snap, the business card whizzed from his fingers and embedded itself into a wall two meters away.

#

Crippen hurried along gantries, walkways, and escalators that connected most of the skyline of Camellia. For short distances, his long legs were faster than trying to catch an aircab, and he had only gone to get a gift for his sweetheart, Gloria.

He carried a carnation; it was the kind that changed color with mood. Gloria would like that.

Crippen hurried because he had left Gloria with the crate, and he didn’t want what was inside getting out while he was away. Not that it would; a cargo lifter couldn’t snap those cables. But he’d feel just awful if something happened to Gloria.

He and she shared an apartment in a Ghost Loft, one of the city’s many abandoned buildings. He had chosen it so no one would notice the screaming. Gloria decorated well, and knew how to hide soundproofing.

On arriving at the apartment, Crippen recognized the smell of mint and the sound of metal on china. Gloria was having tea. She sat with her back like an ironing board. The bangs of her bobbed, black hair lay ruler-precise across her forehead. In a very specific series of movements, she leaned forward, reached for the tea, and held it in front of her, where she began to blow off steam.

The two of them didn’t have many furnishings, although the apartment was huge. What they had gathered in a corner by the kitchen. In the center of those furnishings, dominating their living area, was a crate, a metal box about chest height, with controls on top. Periodically, the box moved, as if jostled from within. Gloria sipped her tea and stared, appearing never to blink.

Without taking her eyes off the crate, she said to Crippen, “It keeps moving, but I didn’t want to open it without you.”

Crippen leaned against the crate. “Good. We’ll open it in a minute. I bought something for you.” He handed her the flower. It had started to flush dark red. Gloria set her cup down, still not breaking her stare, and took the flower. “It’s lovely.”

“I’m glad you’re pleased. Let’s get this thing open.” Crippen began to operate the opening sequence on the crate.

A seam appeared in the front panel, which parted to reveal a figure seated on a chair. Fortyish, bald, and gagged, he crouched, contorted and bound to a chair. The cables binding him cut into his skin, letting thin trails of sticky crimson fluid dribble onto the floor. Crippen wondered how a robot could bleed so red, but then, it did appear human. The robot looked at Crippen and Gloria like a wounded animal in a trap.

“He looks so life-like, doesn’t he, Gloria? Hard to tell he’s a machine.”

“Machines don’t feel,” said Gloria, setting her tea cup in the center of the table.

“Robots do,” said Crippen. “I want to find out why.” To the robot, he added, “You’ll help me sir, won’t you?”

The robot struggled against cables it couldn’t quite break, animal eyes darting wildly from Crippen to Gloria.

Crippen was glad this one was male. They seemed to scream less in the beginning.

#

Kevin arrived at the police platform atop Sky Needle 482 in the center of Camellia. His brown, stained greatcoat flapped in the open air. Around him circled his chrome aviadrone assistant, Aziz. Kevin depended on the little, robotic bird. People liked to talk, and Aziz had a good memory.

Why did the chief’s shifting a floriform to the department bother Kevin? He had helped to incorporate robots. Why should the vegetables be any different? Because they should be growing in someone’s kitchen garden or a plant museum. Not working in a police department. He shouldn’t have to work with a salad.

A few escalators and a hover panel trip later, Kevin arrived at the constabulary offices within the sky needle. Sullen officers toyed with their desk screens.

The chief’s door stood open, and Kevin could see him and the salad within. The floriform sat in the sunlight, of course. Its kind always took the best seats when they could. It dressed like a man, though it could have chosen otherwise. This one had forced its features to be more man-like, however, like topiary. Green vines and red buds poked from the edges of its collar and sleeves. So this was a flowering variety. Repulsive.

“Ah, Kevin,” said the chief, “this is your new partner, Rosenblum, transferred from narcotics.”

The plant man extended a hand. Kevin checked for thorns and then shook the appendage. It was cool and smooth, like ivy. “Rosenblum, huh? I get it.”

It smiled. “The doctors gave me the nickname during my cultivation. It stuck.”

Kevin had little experience with plants, being more of a meat and potatoes kind of guy, but if he had to describe Rosenblum’s voice, he would have said it rustled like scattered leaves.

“Right,” said Kevin. He sat down in a tattered, too-small swivel chair. To the chief, he said, “Well, what can you tell me?”

“Actually, that’s what Rosenblum and I were just discussing. I can tell you very little. We’ve found the remains of two severely damaged robots–mutilated, you might say.”

“Isn’t that anthropomorphizing them a bit?” asked Kevin. “A broken robot is a damaged machine.”

The chief looked surprised. “I didn’t expect that from you, considering your stance on robots in the workplace.”

“A thinking machine has rights, but it’s still a machine.” Kevin reached up to his shoulder and patted Aziz. The little aviadrone fluttered razor-thin, titanium-tinted wings.

“Call a spade a spade, you know?” added Kevin.

“Fair enough,” said the chief. “I’ve called the pair of you because someone hasn’t grasped the distinction. I have two robots that have been ‘murdered’. I can’t think of a better word for it, unless you want to say ‘strategically dismantled’. One was a stand-in.”

“A what?” asked Rosenblum.

“A stand-in is a robot built to be an identical replacement for a specific person,” said Kevin.

“Thank you,” said Rosenblum. “Could this damaging of robots be a form of practice? The killer might be trying to build up his courage.”

“I thought something like that,” said the chief.

Kevin wouldn’t admit it, but he had, too. “So why can’t you tell us much?”

“You can ask the robots’ remains yourself when you revive them,” said the chief. “They’re scattered all over the evidence room.”

#

Pitz and Divitz arrived at their destination upon one of the city’s rotating Moebius Condo bands.

“Divitz, my man,” said Pitz, “these huge, city block-spanning strips are engineering marvels and commercial failures. Marvelous, because each strip hangs over the city by anti-gravitational supports, rotating such that one side alternately faces the sun or the dirty city below. And failures, since the band technically has only one side. No resident can ever claim to have the better address.”

“Don’t care for client, his home, or his stupid architecture,” said Divitz. “He has money, and he wants things done. We best tools for job.”

Pitz pressed the doorbell.

From somewhere deep in the snake-like fortress of concrete, metal, and glass, Pitz could hear approaching footsteps. Moments later, bolts, locks, and catches released, and the vault-like door slid open with only a whisper.

A small man poked his head around the door. His white hair lay flat and precise above a high forehead and spectacles. A waxed mustache curled to either side of an axe-like nose.

“Yes?” inquired the head. The man looked the pair over with wide eyes.

Pitz knew all the gadgets and weapons clustered across his and Divitz’s frames made an impression. The man’s look of intimidation satisfied Pitz the impression was the right one. “Run along and tell your master, Judge Grackle, that Pitz and Divitz are here.”

The little man stepped in front of his doorway, adjusting his pinstriped waistcoat. “He’s told. I am he. I’ve been expecting you both. You may come with me.” He returned into his apartments without bothering to watch Pitz and Divitz follow.

Divitz’s forearm retracted, replaced by something slender, sharp, and deadly. He began to advance on their new client.

Pitz grabbed Divitz’s other arm. “Ah, I think discretion is the better part of customer service, Divitz. There’s a time and a place for sharp, pointy things.”

Da,” said Divitz, redeploying his forearm. “His face, after we get paid.”

“You have the subtlety and grace of an artist. However, we can’t go around killing rude clients. People will talk. After you.” With a broad gesture, Pitz ushered his partner after the receding figure of Judge Grackle.

They followed the judge through rooms and halls decorated in contrasting styles and caught up with the little man in a drawing room at the end of a long hallway. Off to one side of the room, Pitz saw something he never thought he’d see again.

“You have a grand piano, and it’s made of real wood!” Pitz clunked over beside it. Next to its beauty, he felt conscious of his own rough form. He looked down at his fingers, no two of which matched. He reached out for the velvet ebony smoothness of the musical instrument of his dreams.

“Don’t touch it!” The forcefulness of the judge’s words surprised Pitz. He withdrew his hand, which also surprised him.

“That is now unique in the universe,” said the judge.

“Do you play?” asked Pitz.

“Of course not. I haven’t the time.” The judge shooed Pitz back over to where Divitz stood.

Pitz had already decided upon a very special Hell he would visit upon this man, after the job was done. “Well, sir, what can we do for you?”

The little judge set his hand down on the piano, killing Pitz with thoughts of fingerprints. “Gentlemen, er, gentlebots, my sources inform me that you are quite discreet.”

Da,” said Divitz, “when we finish, no one talk.”

“What my colleague means,” added Pitz, “is that we’re very thorough.”

The judge waved his hands as if banishing the thought, but at least he stopped touching the grand. “I hope you won’t need any special measures, but word of this venture must not get out.”

Intriguing, thought Pitz, time to charge extra. “You have our every assurance. What does the task entail?”

Judge Grackle glanced around the drawing room, as though someone might be hiding behind the piano, listening. “I need you to retrieve my daughter from the local constabulary.”

“Ah, a difficult rescue mission, but one within our skill, eh, Mr. Divitz?”

Divitz grunted. “Mm, we have power tools.”

“I’m afraid you don’t understand,” said the judge. “This isn’t rescue, it’s recovery.”

This puzzled Pitz, and he was not a machine with an appreciation for mystery. “Please explain.”

Judge Grackle straightened to his full height and cleared his throat. “Her remains are currently in the evidence room of the constabulary at Sky Needle 482. You must recover them. Every last component.”

#

“So I have to work with a floriform,” said Kevin into the chrome communication-snake wrapped around his neck.

From its hooded, cobra-like head came the melodious tones of his beautiful Pydge. “Verdad? Are they truly like trees with legs?”

Kevin looked at his new partner standing next to him in the elevator. “Naw, this one is more like a shrub. Aren’t you?” he asked Rosenblum.

“A rose bush, yes,” said Rosenblum.

Pydge paused then said, “Is he standing next to you? Kevin Delgado Seven! How dare you be so rude!”

“Aw, he doesn’t care, do you, Rosebush?”

“Rosenblum, and surprisingly little.”

The comm-snake turned its head to face the floriform. “Lo siento. I apologize for my thug’s inexcusable rudeness.”

“It’s really all right, señora,” said Rosenblum.

The comm-snake turned its head back to Kevin. If it had had any venom, he would have been dead. “You wait until you get home, Señor Siete.” The line went dead, and the snake re-coiled around Kevin’s neck.

“She’s crazy about me,” Kevin said to Rosenblum.

“You’re a lucky man.”

The elevator doors opened. The evidence room lay ahead.

They walked under bobbing, hovering glow-globe lights. Rosenblum asked, “Why don’t you like floriforms, Kevin?”

Kevin moaned. “I don’t have anything against you people.”

“You don’t seem happy working with me.”

“I’m not happy about working on a holiday. You, I can handle.” Kevin wished the evidence room were closer. He just hoped the salad didn’t start talking about feelings or hugs.

“I had a theory about human animosity toward ‘salads’. I thought maybe humans felt guilty for what they did to the plant kingdom. But, to be truthful, we floriforms aren’t angry about the destruction. After all, humans did save us plants by giving us bodies like these.” He held out his arms as if to display his form. “And now we have voices.”

Kevin wished he’d quit using it. “Yeah, that’s great. After you.” Kevin held open the evidence room door for Rosenblum.

“Thank you–oh my . . .” said Rosenblum.

The sight overwhelmed Kevin, and he had experience with murder. The chief had been right: it was hard to think of what remained in the evidence room as just “damaged property”. Most of what was left looked very human: endless tubing covered with congealing, red fluid, robot blood. But there were enough micro-motors and circuitry to tell the eye that it wasn’t seeing a human corpse. The robot could have been a freedroid, or a Fak (no, no insignia), or a stand-in.

“I think that’s the largest human I’ve ever seen,” said Rosenblum.

“What?” Kevin looked where Rosenblum stared. “Oh, that’s Larch.”

Larch was seven feet of blue constable uniform topped by a closely shaven head. He looked like an upside-down exclamation point. Currently, he was entering something into the desk screen in his hand and frowning. Other constables swarmed around the evidence room and its annexes, cataloging. “He’s in charge of evidence.” To the tall officer, Kevin said, “What’s happening, Larch?”

He looked down from his work and moaned. “Oh, dark times, Inspector. Confusion and disarray have entered the lofty peace of my solemn stronghold of criminology.”

Larch didn’t get a chance to talk to many people throughout the day, so he tended to overwhelm whatever conversation he got. Kevin held up a hand. “In a nutshell, Larch.”

“Interlopers have breached security–”

“Smaller nutshell, please,” said Kevin.

Larch sighed and drooped his shoulders. “Thieves broke into the evidence room.”

“What did they take, in words of two syllables or less?” asked Rosenblum.

Larch appeared to do math in his head. “Robot remains.”

“Aziz,” Kevin said, “scout around the different sections of the evidence room. “Record everything you see and hear.”

“Harkening and obedient, O my master.” The little metal bird flew off.

Rosenblum stepped up to Larch. “I see a lot of robot remains already here on the counters. What’s the story?”

Larch peered down at the floriform as though he were a distasteful weed.

“He’s new,” said Kevin, “but he’s on the team now.”

To Rosenblum, Larch said, “We had two sets of robot remains pertaining to a particular case. Upon learning of the loss of the one, we inventoried what we possessed of the other.”

“And? Keep it short, big guy,” said Kevin.

“It’s complete, as near as we can tell,” answered Larch.

Rosenblum looked around. “How did the thieves get in?”

Before Larch could answer, Aziz returned. “Master!” The aviadrone landed on Kevin’s shoulder. “The north wall in one of the adjacent rooms is missing!”

“Larch–” said Kevin.

“You wouldn’t let me speak!”

But Kevin and Rosenblum were already on their way with the others following.

Kevin expected rubble littering the floor, or counters and cabinets ripped from their mountings. Instead, he found the wall had been removed with surgical precision. “Well,” said Kevin, “someone should call the police.”

“I took the liberty, master, of imaging the outside of the building,” said Aziz. “There are no ledges along this level. The perpetrators had a vehicle.”

“And they knew what they were looking for and where to find it,” said Rosenblum.

“Very knowledgeable thieves,” said Kevin. “Larch, were you here when this happened?”

“Regrettably, during this unfortunate incident–”

“Larch,” sighed Kevin.

“I was on break.”

“All right,” said Kevin, “you and the other constables are in charge of what isn’t here. Rosenblum and I are going to talk to what is.”

Kevin and Rosenblum returned to the room that held the remains.

Rosenblum ran a thorny hand over part of the robot’s skull. “So this male was the first victim, a Mr. Archibald Virtch. Is there enough of this machine left to lift data from?”

“We don’t want the raw data,” said Kevin, pulling a device from a cavernous coat pocket. “We want to talk to the robot itself. And when they’re this far gone, only a machine like this will help. It’s special, law-enforcement issue only.” He held up the device. It looked like a small black box and what resembled a mouth with a speaker grill inside it. Two leads, like little grasping hands reached from its sides.

Kevin looked at Rosenblum. Even on his mossy face, it was easy to see the disbelief. “It’s a voicebox. The robot will never function on its own again, but this machine will let us talk with the core processor.”

“A robot séance?” asked Rosenblum.

Kevin propped up what remained of the robot’s torso and wrapped the leads of the voicebox around the robot’s neck. “Sort of, but science-y. We do the same to people sometimes, too.” When he turned the device on, he didn’t expect the explosion of screams from the robot.

He turned the box off.

“That was disturbing,” said Rosenblum. “Can it feel that it’s in pieces?”

“It shouldn’t feel anything anymore,” said Kevin, “but I don’t want to think about it.” Kevin switched the device back on. After yelling the robot’s name for a few minutes, Kevin somehow stopped its screaming. Kevin thought how eerie the robot “corpse” looked propped in pieces on the table, its face still, as incoherent sobbing issued from the voicebox.

“Mr. Virtch,” Kevin addressed the box, which was better than the lifeless face above it. “Do you remember what happened to you?”

“You mean it’s not still happening?” asked Mr. Virtch. “Stop the pain. Switch me off.”

Kevin looked at Rosenblum; his green eyes were wide and shining.

“You can still feel?” asked Kevin.

But Mr. Virtch had gone back to whimpering.

“Maybe we should switch his nervous system off,” said Rosenblum.

“I don’t know how to do that,” said Kevin. To the robot he said, “Mr. Virtch, we need you to tell us about who did this to you.”

The box beneath the dead face said, “They made me watch. Left me on as they disassembled me. Hung parts of me around the loft.”

“Loft,” said Kevin. “Aziz, you recording?”

“Every vital word, O my master.”

“What kind of loft, Mr. Virtch?” asked Kevin.

“Some dingy Ghost Loft. My legs. Can I have my legs back now?”

“Do you know where?” asked Kevin. Without realizing, he had latched onto the table. He let go.

“I don’t know. They brought me there in a shipping crate. My hands. I can’t pull myself together if I can’t feel my hands.”

“Kevin,” said Rosenblum, “I think we should stop. We’re hurting him.” He reached for the voicebox.

“No!” Kevin grabbed Rosenblum’s wrist and pulled his own hand back, pricked by thorns. “Mr. Virtch, what did they look like?”

“They liked making me watch. Said it was instructive. That’s what they told the girl, too.”

“What girl?” said Rosenblum.

“Oh, now you’re getting interested,” said Kevin.

“The lady robot stand-in in the other crate. They brought her in when they finished with me.”

“He must mean the second victim,” said Rosenblum, “the one the thieves stole.”

“Second?” asked Mr. Virtch. “How long have I been like this? Somebody switch me off!”

Rosenblum switched off the voicebox.

Kevin let him.

#

“You brought her in a sack!” The judge was on his knees in the foyer of his apartment, tearing at the body bag.

The little man was being rude again, and Pitz didn’t know for how long he could repress the urge to remove the man’s arms.

“We improvised,” said Pitz. “She wasn’t very portable as we found her, was she, Divitz?”

“Modular,” said Divitz.

The little judge was very strong. He had the bag open in moments, and he didn’t use the zipper. He slumped like a discarded marionette. “I’ve never been able to cry,” he said. “Before now, I never needed to.”

Pitz was intrigued. “Was she a stand-in? A replacement for your daughter, perhaps?”

The judge retrieved the robot’s head from the body bag. “Yes, a stand-in,” he whispered. The head was still attached to bits of shoulder. The robot had been modeled on a young woman, blonde, pale, and attractive, as far as Pitz could tell. Her eyes were closed. She could have been sleeping. She had very little of the red robotic fluid on her face and hair.

Divitz circled around them in the front hall of the judge’s home, leering at the judge and his stand-in. “Why you want robot woman?” he asked as he strolled. “You want bury her?”

“No,” said the judge. “I want to talk to her.” The little man stood and hurried away from Pitz and Divitz.

Divitz stopped, mid-orbit. “Our customer service over now?”

“I sympathize and indeed share your sentiments,” said Pitz. “Yet, I find myself overcome by urgent curiosity. I despise this creature’s rudeness, and his lack of appreciation for music, but I have questions that beg for answers.”

“More customer service.”

“Succinctly put. Let’s follow.” Pitz ushered them after the judge.

Pitz and Divitz caught the little man at a room they hadn’t seen previously. It must have been the service room for the robot.

Reclining seats lined one mirrored wall. Each sat before workbenches. Very standard setup for humans who kept robots around the house. Robots could care for themselves, but Pitz found that humans couldn’t resist the urge to tinker.

The judge set the head on one of the benches and placed a black box upon the stand-in’s neck. “This is called a voice box,” said the judge.

Judge Grackle must have flipped a switch on the box somewhere, because it started speaking or chanting.

“. . . save me. Corrie, save me. Corrie, save me. Corrie . . .” The words issued from the black box’s mouthpiece, but the robot’s own remained still. She seemed to sleep on, her dreams undisturbed.

“Hush,” said Judge Grackle, setting his fingers on the robot woman’s lips. “I’m here.”

“Oh, Corrie!” she said. “I’ve missed you. Why can’t I see you?”

The judge paused. “You’ve been damaged, dear.” He cleared his throat. “I can’t put you back together.”

“Oh, yes,” she said. “I remember. I tried to hold on. I really did. I just couldn’t. It hurt too bad. I wanted to see you again. To tell you I wouldn’t be coming home. I thought you might worry.”

“Stop it, please!” The judge covered the robot woman’s mouth. He rested his hand against what was left of her shoulder and convulsed in a fit of wretched sobbing.

This scene bothered Pitz. Even more than seeing a grand piano sit untouched. Did this human weep for a robot? No. Surely, his tears were for who she represented.

“Corrie,” she said, “I’ll stop. Go on.”

The judge composed himself.

“I’m sorry, Moya. I couldn’t save you, but perhaps I can do something now. What can you tell me about who did this to you?”

“Well,” she said, “my visual centers are gone, so I can’t describe them, and they used code names when they talked to each other.”

“Details, anything,” said the judge.

“The smell of carnations and mint tea. One of the kidnappers was a man and the other a woman. Humans, I’m certain. They had me in cables I couldn’t break, until they didn’t need them anymore. Their code names were flowers: he, a rose, and she, a carnation. I can’t remember much more that doesn’t hurt.”

“Your Honor,” said Pitz.

Grackle startled and turned. He must have forgotten about his guests.

“I would not presume to meddle in your affairs,” continued Pitz, “but I wanted to interject that very few ‘cables’ in common use could hold a robot for long. Some used in heavy industry cargo transport might prove sufficient.”

The little man nodded. “Thank you, Pitz.”

“If I may ask,” said Pitz, “are humans responsible for not only this poor unfortunate, but also the wreck we left back with the constables?”

“Yes,” said the judge, “and I suspect more victims might follow.”

Divitz held out his arms and, with a series of clicks, sprouted enough weaponry to make him look like an iron pinecone.

“Now, Divitz,” said Pitz. “Talk first.”

“No! No talk! Humans want cuts? I give plenty. This human first.” Dozens of sharp, steel blades rotated toward Judge Grackle, ready to strike.

“Corrie?” asked Moya’s voice. “I’m sorry. I have to go now.”

The judge turned his back on jagged death. “No! Moya, stay, please.”

“I’m sorry, Corrie. Soon, there won’t be any of me left to stay. Goodbye, Corrie. I love you.”

“I love you, too, Moya.”

White noise whispered from the voicebox.

The judge switched the little black device off. Pitz stood still, and Divitz retracted his weaponry.

Grackle turned to the robots. “Don’t like what’s been happening? Neither do I. If you don’t want to see more like her,” he gestured to Moya’s head, “then I have a job for you.”

“And why shouldn’t we go on a human-hunting rampage, starting with you?” asked Pitz.

“There’s more to this than you know. Killing me won’t stop these events. Helping me might.” The little judge seemed very sure of himself.

“Very well,” said Pitz. “Proceed.”

“There are two constables assigned to this case. I want them frightened off. This situation has to be handled discreetly.”

“We’re not gargoyles for driving away pigeons!”

“Da. Not gargle,” added Divitz.

“You’re not going to scare them,” said the little man. “One officer has a woman. I want you to kidnap her.”

“Ah,” said Pitz. “That we can do.”

#

Gloria walked along the railing of the strato-ferry she and Crippen rode. They had found a new Ghost Loft, the old being unsuitable now–blood, even if it was robot blood–stained all it touched. Their new place was well below the fog line, so they didn’t have to worry about inquisitive travelers in aircabs or trams.

In their new lair, Crippen and Gloria were free to find their next case study. The most recent had not lasted as long as Crippen had hoped. He liked the idea of teaching the next case study a lesson from the old one. But this last one simply didn’t make it. Oh, well. They didn’t make robots like they used to.

“I think another female would be a good idea,” said Crippen.

“Fine,” said Gloria, fingering the carnation clipped into the folds of her outfit. The flower turned ivy-green.

“We’ve done two males, and this will make two females. Maybe you could learn a little from a lady robot.”

“What should I learn from them?” Gloria paused at the railing.      “They don’t move like us,” said Crippen. “They’re like leprosy in motion, every movement a disease ready to spread. The robots say they’re better than us because they can think faster and lift a tram. But I’ve watched them at the warehouse. Their easy, agile motions have poisoned humans. Made us seem clunky.”

“So why do you want me to learn from them?” Gloria asked.

Crippen stumbled over his answer. “Just shush. I think I see our next case study.” Crippen stared across the crowded strato-ferry. A stand-in, Crippen was sure of it, stood by the railing opposite them. Stand-ins, when registered, had to stand at the back railing of strato-ferrys. Since robots had to be owned or own themselves, they sometimes stood at the back railing looking for humans to give them status. Crippen thought he could do that.

“Look, Gloria, a stand-in.”

Gloria said nothing, but the green drained from her carnation, leaving it the color of a purple bruise.

The female stand-in stood alone. She glanced around her with the look of a child separated from its parents. She was probably planning to ride the ferry all night and wait for a human to approach her.

She appeared to be in her twenties, which could be deceiving. She had smooth, sepia skin and curly black hair. Her clothes were neat, but their lack of style suggested she wore whatever garments she could find. They could be all she owned.

Perfect, thought Crippen. She’s beautiful and no one to miss her. He wondered how deep her beauty went. What new tests could he devise to ascertain that? How many layers of flesh would he have to peel away to find inner beauty?

“Get comfortable, Gloria, dear. We may ride a little while longer.”

#

Night approached. The stars in the sky hung behind thin clouds that reflected the electric glamour of the city below. Clusters of incandescent radiance from the city lights formed terrestrial constellations guiding city dwellers to their destinations.

Kevin, Aziz, and Rosenblum arrived in a police prowler at their destination in a Ghost Loft. A routine patrol had passed a long-abandoned basalt blackstone apartment building and grew suspicious when they saw a lit loft.

“You didn’t bring the voice box,” said Rosenblum as the prowler entered the building’s hangar.

“Not enough left to speak, according to the first on the scene,” said Kevin. The trio entered the abandoned building.

“So we’re here to watch the forensic team work their magic,” said Rosenblum.

Kevin and Rosenblum tread along corridors better suited for an archaeological survey than a police investigation. Lights from Aziz’s eyes lit the path, revealing decay, rot, and corroded treasure.

“Sort of,” responded Kevin. “I’m a hands-on kind of guy. I’m just hoping to spot anything the others might have missed. Is that ivy?” Kevin pointed to bits of green entwined around some of the support beams.

“Yes, a variety,” said Rosenblum. “Probably gets enough sun through the holes in the walls and floors. Segments of this building are a green paradise. I can feel it.”

This surprised Kevin. “You can feel the plants?”

“It’s more than that,” answered Rosenblum. “I guess you can take the boy out of the bloom, but you can’t take the bloom out of the boy.”

“What?”

Rosenblum curled his mouth, like a smile. “I can feel other plants.”

Kevin and Aziz both turned toward the plant man.

“Are you psychic?” Kevin asked.

“I don’t have a brain like yours, so I couldn’t say I’m psychic,” answered Rosenblum.

“Count yourself lucky,” added Kevin. “Mine requires considerable jump starting in the mornings. You don’t have a brain?”

“No. We floriforms think with our whole bodies, in a way. We look like humans, but that’s just because we have the human gene shadow.”

“What the hairy Hell is a gene shadow?” asked Kevin.

“My master,” said Aziz, which had turned its little head back to lighting their way, “a gene shadow is the shape of a living thing cast upon it by its DNA and the blessings of the Maker.”

“Is that a fact?” said Kevin.

“Ah, roughly,” said Rosenblum. “It means I’m shaped like a man without being one.”

“Like a robot,” said Kevin.

“Yes.” Rosenblum and the others inched along a section of hall with little floor. They approached the entrance to the crime scene.

Within the apartment, most of the robot victim had been gathered into bags, but several officers continued to pull red parts from the walls and clean white bits from the floor.

“I’m trying to feel revulsion,” said Rosenblum as they glanced around the loft. “What’s the secret?”

“Grow organs, then imagine losing them.”

“Hard to do,” said Rosenblum. “However, I’m not fond of compost heaps. Is that analogous?”

“Just a suggestion, plant man,” said Kevin, “most humans don’t like to joke about death. I’m kind of exceptional.”

“But this wasn’t a death. It wasn’t even a human. This was more like an examination.” And then Rosenblum froze. “Wait, what do you see?”

Kevin looked around at what was still tacked up on the walls and what was being put away. “A ruined robot.”

“No,” said Rosenblum, looking at parts pinned to the walls and dangling from the ceiling. “If you wanted to destroy a robot, why not just leave the bits lying around? Why decorate the place like it’s the winter festival? Come to think of it, why hide the destruction at all?”

Kevin watched the constables putting disturbingly organ-like parts away, cataloging them, taking extra photographs. “Holy crap! It’s an exploded diagram.”

“I’m sure you put it better than I can, but that’s basically what I was thinking. It reminded me of texts on plant classification I used to read during my–”

“Let me stop you there, Linnaeus. You asked why someone should hide it. It’s illegal to destroy a robot.”

Rosenblum appeared energized. “You could stride on any causeway above or below the cloud line and knock the first robot you saw over the edge to oblivion, and all you would pay is a fine to the owner. A higher fine than for floriforms, I might add.”

Kevin started to feel the energy too. “But they aren’t just bumping off robots. That’s quick. What they did here took time.”

“And privacy.”

“Plenty of space,” added Rosenblum.

“And freedom.” Kevin felt a few pieces slide into place. “You and the chief thought someone might have been practicing on robots before moving onto humans. I think you got the practicing part right, but I don’t think they’re murdering victims. They’re studying subjects.”

“Yes,” said Rosenblum. “And how long will it be before they need a human for comparison?”

At that moment, one of the constables passed by pushing a hover panel laden with evidence bags.

Rosenblum jolted rigid. “Constable, stop.”

The young grunt halted. “Yes, sir,” he said, but his expression changed to revulsion at the speaker.

“What can I do for you . . . sir?”

“I’d like to look at what you have on your panel,” said Rosenblum.

Before the young man could protest, Kevin stopped him. “Humor the plant, kid. I’ll make sure he doesn’t nick your stuff.”

The grunt stood back, and Rosenblum began poking through the bags until he found one in particular. He held it up for Kevin to see. In the bag, Kevin could see a flower. It was rusty red, with a stem already turning brown. It looked like one of the flowers he had seen budding all over Rosenblum.

“It’s a rose,” said Rosenblum, “and it’s real, though dead. That’s why I couldn’t tell it was here until it came near.”

“There can’t be many places in this city that sell real flowers. We could–” Kevin’s comm-snake hissed at him, interrupting his thought. “Hello? This is he. Yes, I know her. What?” Kevin yanked the comm-snake from his throat, dashing its digital brains across the floor. He crouched, wheezing, hands pressed against his knees.

“What’s wrong?” asked Rosenblum.

Kevin straightened and bolted for the door. “Someone’s got Pydge. Come on! Use your weed wisdom to get me outta this building, fast!”

#

Pydge’s mind floated in a stark void, neither awake nor asleep. She thought it was bliss. It was only when she realized something sharp stabbed deep into her side that she awoke.

Ojala! Kevin!” She opened her eyes. “If you’ve brought a dagger to bed . . . again . . . I swear I’ll use it to cut off your–”

She was not at home being pestered by Kevin’s obsession with sleeping armed. Straps held her along an upright, steel examination table. She still wore her street clothes, but a section of her blouse had been torn away from her side. The pain she had felt came from a very long needle, which pierced her beneath her ribcage.

It was in her side! she thought. A bandage around it stifled the blood, and there was no pain, just a throb, as though she’d been stabbed by a thermometer. But the look of the thing suggested pain would follow.

Two men stood beside Pydge, one smiling, the other brooding. Men? If they were, they looked like large, middle-aged trolls in hunchbacked steel body armor.

The room looked as though it had once been a doctor’s office. Cracked and rust-stained linoleum littered the floor. Blunted, oxidized instruments still hung from hooks along the walls. Some reddish fluid that probably wasn’t paint covered the windows.

“Madam,” said the greasy, smiling one. “I am Pitz, and my garrulous associate here is Divitz.” He indicated the broody one. “Say something nice to the lady, Divitz.

“Big nose,” said Divitz.

“Tsk,” said Pitz. “So direct. Madam, I perceive that you have noticed our handiwork.” He indicated the needle in her side. “This little artifact is a military-grade nerve strummer. Would you like to know what it does?”

Pydge felt a flush of rage start at her painted toenails. By the time it reached her heart, she knew what she’d do to these trolls if she ever escaped from the straps. “Big nose?” she said. “I kill you!” A stream of invective flowed from her mouth.

As a child, Pydge had often been cared for by her uncle Amlo, who had been an Oarsman prisoner-slave on one of the great space-faring Cutter ships. He had learned the proper way to curse one’s tormentors, and he passed the skill on to her. Now she spat it in full at her captors. She leaned back, pausing for breath before the next assault.

“Impressive,” said Pitz. “However, as I was saying, a nerve strummer does this.” He pressed a button on the needle.

Pydge couldn’t even scream before she passed out from pain.

And she was a little girl again, riding on uncle Amlo’s shoulder. From whatever branch of the family tree Pydge had inherited her height, her uncle had as well. He strode along the hills of their home world, Veil-of-the-Virgin, like a giant. Her giant.

His neck and head still bore the scars from the Ka-boom that had held his spirit captive while a prisoner. Pydge would run her fingers over the jagged flesh. He never told her to stop. She knew he couldn’t feel those scars anymore.

“Little pigeon,” he said in his quiet baritone, “There will be many times in your life when suffering will overwhelm you, like the waves of the sea crashing on the rocks. Just remember, you can always give up.”

“Is that what you did, uncle?” She touched the ring around his neck again.

“Don’t be a blockhead. Of course not. That is why I am able to walk these hills again. Now, wake up and let your tormentors know you are a Bonfiglio.”

Pydge inhaled sharply and glanced around. The pain had come from everywhere, not just from the needle. It had felt as though every part of her that could feel pain signaled she was aflame. Now it was gone, she felt an absence she wished were full, and that scared her. The two trolls–she realized now they were robots, but trolls suited them–still glared at her.

“Madam,” said the one called Pitz, “you are awe inspiring. If I were a creature capable of respecting humans, you would have it. Not many people just snap out of a nerve strummer jolt.”

“I don’t want your respect,” she said, “I want you dismantled with a saw!”

The broody one, Divitz, chuckled. “Her, I like. We should give her saw.”

“That would be counterproductive, Mr. Divitz. Perhaps later.”

“What do you want with me? You want to threaten me? Torture? I know nothing.”

“I’m sure you don’t. No, we don’t need information, but we’re not above torture for recreational purposes. Our intention is intimidation.”

“Bully,” said Divitz.

Pydge felt intimidated, though she wouldn’t let it show. She had to keep these two talking. The one seemed to like speaking, and she would do anything to keep them away from the needle in her side. “Why intimidate me? I work in a library. You have overdue books? No problemo. I know people.”

“She funny,” said Divitz. “Make me laugh.” To her, he said, “You, I kill before I cut to pieces.”

“I concur, Mr. Divitz. However, madam, we do not wish to intimidate you, but rather your gentleman friend. We thought you might exercise some influence or, at least, bits of you could.”

“Kevin?” she asked. “You’re doing this because of Kevin?” Under her breath, she said, “I swear I will kick his fat ass.”

“Although I’ve never met the gentleman,” said Pitz, “apparently he’s causing trouble for robots. That we can’t have.”

This confused Pydge. She thought of Aziz and all the robots Kevin had helped. “Are you sure you have the right man?”

Pitz said, “Fat, wretched, smells.”

“That’s Kevin,” she said. “But you are wrong. He helps robots. He helped several make the force.”

Pitz and Divitz looked at each other.

“I do not favor the notion of robot constables, for obvious personal reasons,” said Pitz.

“Biased,” added Divitz. “We not like the judge. I like her.” To her, he said, “Convince. I like what you say, I not chop you up.

Deal?”

This frightened Pydge more than the needle in her side. At least she knew what to expect from that. “Deal,” she said. What other choice did she have?

What was she thinking? She loved Kevin, but he could be such a jackass. How should she defend him?

She thought of the wise words her uncle Amlo often said, “Stop being a dunce and use your brain.”

“Kevin is a boor and a cretin. He eats too much and sits around in his underpants cleaning his O-cannon. But he’s a, how you say, stand-up guy. When other people no wanted robot constables, he fought to let them join. And he talks to his robot bird more than me.”

The two trolls were silent for a moment. Then, the broody Divitz said, “He has O-cannon? What kind?”

Pydge smiled. She had learned the answer to this several winter holidays ago. “Kevin has an HO-gauge, Shake-the-Box, Alley sweeper model O-cannon. The kind with the wider barrel for greater devastation.”

Divitz’s eyes grew very wide, and he approached the woman with a kind of awe. “I have Ready-to-Run model. Narrow mouth for detail work.”

“Kevin has one, too,” she said, “but he prefers the Shake-the-Box because he’s gordo, er, fat. He can handle the recoil.”

Divitz looked at Pitz. “Change of plan. We not kill this woman right now. Maybe later.”

“What?” said Pitz. “Just because you like her boyfriend’s taste in weaponry?”

“Yes,” answered Divitz.

“Do we get to remove this thing from my side?” asked Pydge.

“No,” chorused the robots.

Well, Pydge thought, at least she wasn’t going to die now. But there was always later.

“Do we still get to intimidate her boyfriend?” asked Pitz.

“Of course,” said Divitz.

“All right, then,” said Pitz. “But we’d better find someone else to torment soon.”

“I promise,” said Divitz.

#

Night closed in on the few remaining ferry-goers. The wild winds racing over buildingtops whirled across the deck of the stratoferry. Most other travelers had already paired up like couples for a last dance. But one young woman, a robot stand-in, stood by the back railing, watching the path formed by the ferry in the city’s evening mist.

“A lovely flower should have a twin,” said Crippen as he approached the girl. “Beauty shared is doubled.” He handed the carnation to her. It still flushed purple from when Gloria had held it.

“Thank you, sir,” she held her hand out, but when she took the flower, she didn’t seem to know what to do with it.

“I am Mister, uh, Thorn,” said Crippen, “my lady friend is Miss Petal,” he turned from Gloria to the robot, “and you are a stand-in.”

The robot dropped the flower.

“You were abandoned, weren’t you? Created as a double for a girl you never met. Your eyes, your skin, perhaps the touch of your lips were right, but not the smell. They rejected you because you just weren’t quite the same. Now, you’re cast off, like an outmoded comm-snake. Only now you’re illegal. The first constable to stop you can take you to jail, or worse: to be recycled. Come with us. We’ll keep the constables away from you.” Crippen picked up the flower and returned it to her.

The girl twirled the flower in her fingers for a moment then said, “I’ve been standing here so long. Let me go get some things from my locker.” She disappeared into the ferry’s common quarters.

“I think that went well,” said Crippen to Gloria. “I’m sorry I gave away your carnation.”

“It’s all right,” said Gloria. “I didn’t want that tattered, fake thing anyway.”

“Fake?” asked Crippen. “It’s not real?”

“Of course not,” she said. “Woven light filaments. Real flowers don’t have loose threads.”

“Strange,” he said, “all this time I thought it was real.”

#

Rosenblum thought Kevin looked as though he were blooming. Rosenblum knew that wasn’t the right term, but he couldn’t think of a plant equivalent for a face that flushed red and hair that stood on end. At a better time he’d take notes.

Kevin bellowed into a new comm-snake appropriated from the station. Rosenblum flew the prowler along skylanes lit by rows of floating glow-bots. Night was not the ideal time for him. He needed no sleep, but he had to fight the urge to extend his thorny tendrils into black, moist earth. He missed his humid apartment, and his goldfish, Melville, probably needed feeding.

“If you’ve harmed her in any way . . .” Kevin looked as if he would throttle another helpless communication device.

“Sir,” cooed the syrupy robot’s voice through the snake’s head, “I anticipated a degree of resistance; after all, we did ‘host’ your girlfriend without her permission. However, I think you’ll find she’s quite well.”

“I’m all right, mi amor.”

“She’s very tough,” said the robot. “You should be proud.”

“I am,” whispered Kevin, but Rosenblum could hear.

“Where are you leaving her?” Kevin asked. “Why are you leaving her?”

“At a place you know quite well–and now we do too; ponder that a while–your apartment. As to why, you know I don’t think I’ve ever uttered this phrase before. We’ve had a change of heart.”

Kevin did a double take. “You’re going straight?”

The two robots exploded with laughter.

“Ho, that’s a good one,” said the syrupy robot. “No, we’re still as evil as ever, but there’s something going on deep beneath the surface of these crimes. My associate and I are not detectives and don’t care to be. We want to see these robot murderers stopped, and some explanations sound better from humans. We are leaving your woman with some information. Please try to make good use of both. However, we’re also leaving her with an additional incentive: a nerve strummer remains in her side, operated by remote. We shall watch your progress with great interest.”

“If either of you freaks hurt her!” Kevin yelled at the comm-snake.

“Inspector Seven, please. Time’s a-wasting. Our little souvenir is simply insurance of a job well done.” There was some mumbling on the other line; after which, the robot returned. “My associate requested that I tell you he admires your choices of weaponry.”

“If I ever meet either of you,” said Kevin, “you can see them first hand.”

“A meeting we anticipate with the keenest pleasure.”

The comm-snake went limp around Kevin’s neck.

“Well,” said Rosenblum, “at least we know where to go now.”

“Punch it,” ordered Kevin.

Rosenblum followed Kevin’s terse directions. The two detectives landed at Kevin’s apartment dock, and Rosenblum couldn’t believe Kevin capable of moving so fast. When they got to his apartment, the door stood open. Kevin plowed through, followed by Rosenblum.

Pydge came out of the bathroom, wearing a robe several sizes too large for her. Her wet, curly hair reminded Rosenblum of some of his viny houseplants.

She and Kevin collided in embrace. He was much shorter than she, but he still obscured most of her, either from girth or spiky hair. “Ah, careful,” said Pydge, pulling away. She gestured to a lump at her side beneath the robe–the nerve strummer.

“Does it hurt?” he asked.

“Only when fat men bump into it.”

“Funny. I thought I’d lost you for good,” whispered Kevin. “These robot murders had me thinking the worst.”

“Ah, mi amor, I’m all right. Work sucked. I was kidnapped. I have a device beneath my ribs that could kill me at any time. Nothing I can’t handle.”

“I think this is one of those times when I should feel uncomfortable, but I’m not sure,” said Rosenblum. “Should I take notes?”

Kevin stepped back. “Pydge, this is Rosenblum.”

Pydge approached him and shook his hand without checking it for thorns first. He liked that. “Encantada,” she said. “Would you like something to eat?”

“Hon, this isn’t a dinner party. You’ve been kidnapped and threatened with death. Rosenblum can go hungry a little while longer.”

“I’m fine, ma’am.” He tried to let her hand go, but she held it.

“Are you really a rosebush?” she asked.

Rosenblum smiled. “I was grown from one, yes.”

“Where are your thorns?”

“Pydge,” said Kevin.

Rosenblum pulled his hand away from Pydge’s. “This will take a second,” he said to Kevin. Displaying his thorns was simple. It took longer to describe the action than for it to happen. It was a matter of allowing his body to be as it wanted to be. Spots began to poke from his clothes, which were only strategically grown leaves. Vines grew perceptibly longer, and, in an instant, dozens of long, black, vicious-looking thorns sprouted all over his body.

Dios mio!” said Pydge. “You are beautiful. Let me take a picture.” She started to walk away, but Kevin set his hand on her shoulder and guided her back.

“Anyway,” said Kevin, “we’re getting off topic. Rosenblum, put a lid on it. Pydge, in the name of the Holy Fiery Ones put some clothes on and tell me what happened! Um, por favor.”

She stood, leering at him for a moment and then strode toward a back room, mumbling in her dialect. Kevin and Rosenblum watched her go.

“I’m a very lucky man,” said Kevin.

“You’re lucky she doesn’t have thorns,” said Rosenblum.

They both looked at each other a moment and began to laugh; Kevin, a belly laugh and Rosenblum, an earthy chuckle.

“What was that?” called Pydge from the bedroom.

“I said you look nice, dear,” said Kevin. He and Rosenblum took seats in the living room.

Pydge returned with a glass of water for Rosenblum. She glanced at Kevin, who frowned at her. “He looked thirsty.”

“Pydge!”

“Well,” she said to Kevin, “I’ll skip over the kidnapping and torture, since you already know about that.”

“Torture!”

She stopped Kevin before he could continue. “Hush.” She held up a hand. “I’m fine now. What’s important for you to know is what they told me and why. Someone sent those robots to kidnap me.”

“Who, ma’am?” asked Rosenblum.

“A judge named Grackle.”

“Oh,” said Kevin, sitting back in his chair.

“You know of him?” asked Rosenblum.

“Big advocate for robot rights. Overturned a lotta hate legislation.” To Pydge, he said, “Why would he hire two goons to kidnap you?”

“He didn’t,” she answered. “That was extra. He hired them to acquire the remains of his daughter, a stand-in.”

“Ah-ha!” said Rosenblum. The other two stared at him as though he had started sprouting pineapples. “What? I used the term correctly, didn’t I? Anyway, could those remains they ‘acquired’ have been the ones stolen from the station?”

“Yes,” said Pydge, “and they told me the judge only wanted you two intimidated off the case. The torture was a perk.”

Kevin scowled. “I’ll get a special patrol after these two bots.”

“I don’t think that would be a good idea. Those two are looking for any excuse to use this.” She patted the strummer. “Amor, I think if you keep doing what you do–piss people off–all will be well. The bots said the judge wanted the case handled discreetly. I suppose those two ‘hoons’ were his idea of discreet.”

“Goons,” said Kevin. “Well, Grackle might have wanted those killings kept quiet because of his daughter. I don’t think anyone knew she was a stand-in. But that doesn’t sit right with me. He must have some bigger reason why he’d want the murders kept quiet.”

“Maybe we should ask,” said Rosenblum.

“You know, plant man,” said Kevin. “I think you’re right. And I don’t think we should be nice.”

#

Morning came, and the sunlight hurt Kevin’s tired eyes. He had called in a few favors with some fellow officers, and four police prowlers hovered outside every possible exit to Judge Grackle’s floating Moebius band. They weren’t officially surrounding the place yet. The pilots were on their breaks. But Kevin felt he could make things official fast if he didn’t like the tone of the judge’s doorbell.

Kevin’s own prowler sat parked at the dock of the band. From blurred eyes, he thought he saw a vehicle approach and linger a little too long in the distance. He tried to rub some sleep away. When he looked again, the vehicle was gone.

Kevin, Rosenblum, and Aziz approached the judge’s front door.

“You look tired, inspector,” said Rosenblum.

“I concur, my master,” added Aziz from Kevin’s shoulder. “You need rest.”

“I’m fine.”

“Maybe after we’re done here, you could sleep in–”

“Enough!” Kevin said. “I get plenty of this from Pydge. Aziz, look sharp. First signal from me, call in the boys outside.”

“I am a straight razor, master.”

They stood before the door.

“How friendly are we going to keep this?” asked Rosenblum.

“I stopped being friendly a long time ago,” said Kevin, “too much stress.”

“This is a judge,” said Rosenblum.

“Who kidnapped my girlfriend and had her tortured.”

“That’s not exactly what happened. Maybe I should take over for a little while.”

Kevin opened his mouth to argue and stopped. “All right. You’re training. You do the talking. But one wrong word from him and I bust him for bad grammar.”

The plant man rang the door bell, and its reverberations sounded within.

Someone approached, and the door slid open a crack.

A head of neat, white hair and an elaborate mustache to match appeared from behind the door. “Who is it? Oh!” The little man seemed to recognize them.

“Judge Grackle? We’re from the police.” Rosenblum and Kevin displayed their badges.

“Um, yes. Can I help you?”

The plant man continued. “Yes, your Honor. We’d like to speak to you about a kidnapping and murder.”

“Oh, murder, you say? Yes, do come in.”

The judge led the detectives toward what Kevin assumed was a greeting chamber. Along the way, he noticed how plain the side rooms were along the main hall. Very sparse furnishings, and what decorations there were seemed haphazard and out of place.

Kevin had no head for style, but the whole feel of the house was strange. People, even uncultured ones, tended to compartmentalize their habits and desires: books, albums, and movies had their places. But the judge’s home seemed more like a warehouse, with as many objects stored on the walls as on the floors. It was as though the judge had pretended to decorate.

Rosenblum leaned toward Kevin as they walked. “This place reminds me of my apartment, but without all the plants and humidity.”

Interesting. Kevin nodded.

The judge stopped in a long room containing more relics, including some unrecognizable musical instrument almost the size of a patrol car.

The judge cleared his throat. “Now, what was this about a murder and kidnapping?”

Rosenblum answered, “The murders are only tangentially related. We’re more interested in discussing the kidnapping with you.”

Judge Grackle began to fret with various pieces of bric-a-brac. “What could I do to help? Do you need a warrant?”

Kevin drew on every ounce of patience he could muster, strode over to where the judge stood, and responded, “No, sir, we want to know why you had my girlfriend kidnapped and tortured by your goons.”

Judge Grackle uttered a sharp cry and fell to his knees. “No,” he whispered. “I never meant for this to happen.” He looked up at Kevin. “Is she alive?”

“For the moment,” responded Kevin. He lowered a hand to help the judge up. “I think you’d better tell us what’s been going on and what you ‘meant’ to happen.”

Grackle rose with Kevin’s assistance and straightened his clothes and hair. “I believe I know the murders to which you refer, though they are more than tangentially related to me. “However, I assure you, I am a victim and not the cause. I never intended your woman any harm. I only wanted you to stop working on this case.”

Rosenblum spoke before Kevin could. Probably to prevent him from speaking. “If this were just a kidnapping, things would be simple. But these waters run deep, and we think you can clear them.”

“It has to do with your daughter, doesn’t it?” asked Kevin. “She was a stand-in. You wanted to keep that secret. But there’s more. We want ‘the more’.”

Judge Grackle looked up at his guests. “Come with me, gentlemen.”

He led them to a nearby room, which Kevin recognized as a robot maintenance room. On a steel table the remains of the judge’s daughter lay on a white sheet with her eyes closed.

“I can’t fix her. So I try to make her look comfortable,” said the judge. “You two may know I’ve been advocating a great deal of robot reform. I’ve encouraged legislation promoting robot rights and have overturned many of the worst hate laws. I have achieved a delicate balance, one that could easily be toppled with a careless word. If anyone were to discover my own daughter was a robot, I would lose any power I now hold.”

“Very convincing,” said Kevin. “But you could still have her repaired covertly. You’re being extra cautious because you’re still not telling us everything!”

The judge looked down at the robot. “We were in love.”

“What?” asked Kevin. “With your own daughter?” He stepped toward the old man. “I’ve been a patient bastard because I needed information. Now, I don’t care. I’m taking you in. I’ll find someone else to grill.”

Rosenblum tried to keep Kevin back. He broke away, and Rosenblum extended thorny tendrils, which held. “No, wait, Kevin. I don’t think things are as they appear.” To the judge, he said, “Are they, sir?”

Grackle never took his eyes from the woman. “Her name was Moya. Her robot name, the name of the stand-in herself.” He glanced at his guests. “Just as my robot name is Corvid.”

“I suspected as much,” said Rosenblum.

“And you didn’t say?” said Kevin.

“No time.” To the judge, Rosenblum said, “Your possessions are yours, and yet, not. You feel as though you’re house-sitting for a good friend whose tastes are subtly not your own. Is that correct?”

“Uncannily so,” said the judge.

“That is how I feel at home, sir. It’s not easy pretending to be human.”

Kevin stopped resisting the tendrils, and they released. To the judge, he said, “You’re a stand-in, too?”

“Yes,” said Grackle, or Corvid. “The real judge lost his daughter and had her replaced. Shortly after, he died too. We robots felt the judge too important to our cause of freedom to lose. So I took his place. Moya and I were actors playing roles. We fell in love behind the scenes.”

“I think I understand now,” said Kevin.

“You do not, human!” Corvid exploded with unexpected fury. “You have a few robot ‘friends’, perhaps, or a robot pet and think you understand.” Kevin stepped back as Corvid advanced.

“You’re an outsider, slumming your way through the richness of robot culture. Don’t tell me you understand!”

“I’m sorry,” Kevin said. “I didn’t mean any offense.”

“I’d agree with that, your Honor,” said Rosenblum. “He’s rude, but basically decent.”

Corvid calmed and straightened his suit. “Of course. Now that you both know I’m a robot, you know I’m not a judge. The pair of you could haul me in, and I couldn’t stop you. However,” he turned to Kevin, “if you truly respect robots and what we struggle for, you won’t make any of this public. If what I am is revealed, robots will be worse off than slaves, worse than appliances.”

Kevin rubbed his eyes and then ran a hand through his spiky hair. He deserved sleep, didn’t he? “I think that Rosenblum was back in the prowler when we had this conversation, and we never spoke, even if we did.” He pointed a finger at Corvid. “You’re asking a lot, so I’m going to do the same of you. I want to know everything you know about these murders and your goons. I have to get this case solved and Pydge safe, or you, the goons, and half this city will burn.”

Corvid strode to a nearby work bench and picked up a data biscuit. He put it in his mouth, then retrieved it. “This biscuit now contains all I’ve learned. It’s not much, but it might help.” He placed it within Aziz’s talons.

Kevin nodded. “Moya’s body is already listed as stolen. We police can just take our time trying to find it. You know, people may find out, but they don’t have to find out from us.”

Corvid smiled. “I’m sorry about what I said, officer. You’re not such an outsider.”

“Believe me, sir, I’ve never wanted to be further out.” Kevin and Rosenblum left Corvid alone with the body of Moya. Kevin imagined Pydge on that table under a white sheet and shuddered.

Outside, Kevin and Rosenblum stopped. “Aziz, download what you learned into our prowler and then get any free officers at the station out scouting around. I want eyes and ears all over this city.”

“I am your obedient servant.” The early morning sun sparkled over rapid wings.

“What now, boss?” asked the plant man.

“I don’t know,” said Kevin. “We’re lost unless a gift falls from space.”

#

Across a network of buildingtops, nestled near the center of the city, an array of multi-colored awnings bloomed over the open-air market known as the Gardens of Delight.

Crippen and Gloria had been shopping with their next victim.

The stand-in, Aia, carried a small stack of packages under wide eyes.

Good, Crippin thought, overwhelm the machine. He no longer wanted to break down only her body, but her mind as well. Up until this point, he and Gloria had been merely tinkering, learning the basics. This new victim could lead them to higher learning.

Crippen wondered if he and Gloria could become friends with the machine. She and Gloria might make fine sisters, going shopping together and chatting, or whatever women did. Then they could dissect Aia. Could gaining the robot’s trust alter their eventual discoveries when they opened her up?

Gloria trailed behind him and Aia, fidgeting with the sculptured fastenings of her dress. Gloria had been acting stiffly. Perhaps she needed more fun.

“And,” Crippen continued the child’s bedtime story he had been telling the robot as they walked. “No one knows where the Brass Humbugs came from. Some say they crept up from the blackness left behind when the inner planet shed the metal shell of our world. But they are why there are so many Ghost Lofts across the city.”

“Really?” asked Aia, ignoring the calls and banter from the shop keepers they passed.

“Yes,” answered Crippen. “In the old days, each building had its own sovereignty. Sometimes the dwellers became so reclusive that outsiders never saw them. Occasionally, the city elders would get curious and send in Oarsman prisoners or other expendables to investigate.”

“What did they find?” asked Aia.

Out of his periphery, Crippen saw Gloria silently mouth Aia’s question, while rolling her eyes.

“Nothing,” answered Crippen. “Or rather, they found emptiness. No tenants. No furnishings. And often, no floors, as though something burrowed up from under the building. A few Oarsmen reported a strange humming, like the beating of a million tiny wings in a great, hollow space far below.”

All three of them stepped into a wide common eating court within the concentric rings of the shops. The edge of the courtyard overlooked the rising spires of the city as cargo ships and aircabs rose up toward the sparse clouds.

“Oh, stop,” said Aia. “I’ll never get to sleep if you keep talking like that.”

“You sleep?” asked Crippen.

“Not exactly,” Aia said, “but many robots call what we do ‘sleep’. It’s a sort of down time when we can review files, commune with our god, Hong Chen Harry, or some lucky few robots rent images seen only during sleep. But you have to be free and rich enough to afford those.”

“Fascinating,” said Crippen. He meant it. The more he probed into the lives of robots, the deeper they became. He glanced back at Gloria, hoping to involve her in some small way. “Isn’t that fascinating, Miss Petal?”

“I’ve had enough of this,” said Gloria. She lunged toward Aia and grabbed the carnation from her hand. “You listen to me, you mechanical bitch, you think Thorn’s sweet because he offers to take care of you, but he won’t. He’ll destroy you.”

“Gloria,” said Crippen, “you don’t mean that.”

Gloria turned to Crippen and slapped him so hard he fell into a group of diners, upsetting their tables and ruining their meals. Then she whipped him with the flower.

“You’re foul!” she spat at Crippen. “At first, I thought I was helping you. Instead, you were twisting me like you. You made me think robots were just machines, but machines don’t cry when you cut them apart.” She crossed to the edge of the courtyard that looked out over the vast expanse of buildingtops and climbed onto the railing. She shook her carnation back at Crippen and Aia. “Do you think replacing me is as easy as handing away a flower? Find another fake flower for your stand-in. I’m taking mine with me.”

Crippen tried to rise, but he was hampered by the patrons in their efforts to right their tables. “Gloria, wait!” Crippen realized what she meant to do.

Aia ran to Gloria by the railing. Through the confusion of people, Crippen saw Aia grab Gloria’s arm. The two shared an unheard exchange, during which Gloria tried to free herself from the robot’s steel grip.

The struggle grew more desperate as Gloria attempted to pull Aia over the edge, but Aia freed herself from Gloria’s flailing arms. Crippen watched Gloria tip back from the ledge.

He managed to free himself from the diners. “Gloria!” She was gone. Crippen pushed through to the rail and looked over the edge. He heard the screams and commotion behind him but didn’t care. He watched as Gloria’s form grew smaller, and the carnation in her hand had changed color to white. Finally, she fell through the fog line. Crippen thought she might even hit the street below.

He looked at Aia, an expression of terror and disbelief on her face. He grabbed her arm. “I’m sorry,” she said, “I tried to save her. She tried to take me with her.”

“We’ve got to get out of here,” he said. “If the police find you, they’ll take you in. Come with me.”

Aia allowed Crippen to lead her away.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ll take better care of you than I did Gloria.”

#

Kevin and Rosenblum sat, parked in their prowler, at a floating diner-bot. To Kevin, diner-bots were the greatest invention since flying cars. Across the metro area, the government had put into service these bizarre combinations of diner counter and robot attendant. At each, one could strap onto a stool over empty sky or park a vehicle at the drive-up window. It was a great way to enjoy an early meal suspended high above the waking city below.

Phil, the robot fry cook, whirred away behind the counter, washing dishes. Occasionally, he would refill Kevin’s and Rosenblum’s mugs. To Kevin’s surprise, Rosenblum enjoyed coffee, too.

The late morning traffic sounds filled the air as the two detectives waited for inspiration.

“Well, Rosie, I think we’re close. I can feel it.”

Rosenblum finished his sip and replied, “Don’t call me ‘Rosie’. I have some pride. I’m inclined to agree with you. However, I don’t think we can learn anything new until we discover another victim.”

Kevin looked up from his mug. Just beyond the edge of the diner-bot, he thought he could see the outline of a familiar craft, a rock hopper. Most rock hoppers were anonymous, only being hollowed-out asteroids fitted with a hoverpanel and rocketry, but he thought he recognized the shape of this one. Could it have been the vehicle following them? It zipped off into a different fly zone.

Kevin said, “You might be right, but–”

The prowler’s comm-snake hissed and reared its cobalt head. “Officers and cars respond to urgent call. Female suicide at Gardens of Delight. Jumper brandished a flower at onlookers, then leapt from the railing. Victim fell below fog line, probably to street level. Officers respond immediately.”

“A flower,” said Rosenblum.

“The street below. Can be pretty rough,” said Kevin.

“Where’s your adventurous spirit?” asked Rosenblum. “The Brass Humbugs are just a myth.”

Kevin pressed the reply button on the snake. “Officers Seven and Rosenblum reporting to Gardens of Delight street level. Other responders should turn on their rendezvous beacons.” Kevin rang off the snake. “No one’s been down to the street in years.”

“Relax,” said Rosenblum, “I’m sure it’s a very nice place.”

Kevin set a course for the Gardens. They were easy to find at that time of day. He wondered how many people still knew what a garden looked like and whether they made the connection between the colorful awnings and an arrangement of flowers. Rosenblum probably could. Must remind him of home.

At the multi-colored court, Kevin aimed the prowler down along the front of the building that housed the Gardens. Kevin found the descent nauseating, but Rosenblum seemed comfortable as ever. Dammit! What could break a plant man’s calm?

Hugging close to the building lessened the chance of running into any cross-town air traffic, but it made the prowler appear to go faster.

“Tramcar, 11:00,” said Rosenblum.

Kevin altered his path to avoid the vehicle, and within seconds, they were in the fog.

“Crossing over the Big Smoke,” said Kevin. “Have you ever been down here?”

“My first visit.”

“I’m not going to hold your hand,” said Kevin.

“Perhaps another time.”

Damn! Thought Kevin. He’s a glacier.

As though emerging from a tunnel, they cleared the dense haze. But below the formless gray eddies of fog, lay the black void of the under-city. The prowler’s lights sprang to life, blazing in all directions. Bright as they were, there was too little nearby to illuminate. Kevin switched on the autopilot, and the prowler slowed to a coast.

They continued to decelerate until they locked onto the rendezvous beacons from the other officers’ prowlers. Kevin landed them with a resounding metallic thud.

“Picking up anything with your ‘weed wisdom’?” he asked.

“Strangely, no. It’s unsettling, like staying at an empty hotel.”

Kevin and Rosenblum stepped from their prowler into the light from the other vehicles. The floods converged on a central point, at which lay a body.

It must have fallen cleanly from above. The body was still reasonably intact. Kevin could tell she was a woman. Near the body, on the metallic ground, lay a flower, its white petals stained red. One of the attending officers crouched nearby, taking images of the scene. Kevin recognized her–Nankaro. The harsh light from the prowlers bleached everyone around into pale silhouettes, but not Nankaro. Her deep red skin softened to a dull rust. Other officers acknowledged Kevin and threw strange looks at Rosenblum.

“How you gettin’ along, Nanny?” Kevin asked.

Nankaro looked up from her work. “I’ve been better, fatty. Heard you had to come in over the holiday. I got to sleep in. Who’s the salad?” Her imager continued to click and hum.

Kevin felt his face redden. Hadn’t he used the same word a few days ago? “This is Rosenblum. He’s new on the force.”

“Oh,” said Nankaro, rising. She folded the imager closed, and stepped toward them. She extended a hand toward the plant man. “Sorry, I didn’t know you were one of us.”

Rosenblum shook her hand. “That’s fine. I’m new, and I don’t really have a place to put a badge.”

“No kidding,” she said. “Are you wearing a suit?”

“No, arranged leaves, mostly.”

“Wicked. Could I get a picture?” She reopened her imager and snapped a quick image of Rosenblum. He wasn’t much of a poser, being more of a still-life kind of guy.

She addressed them both. “Anyway, you must have heard about this fall over the ‘snake. Brutal.”

“Yeah,” said Kevin, “Rosenblum and I are working on a case and wanted to know about the flower.”

“Tight,” she said. “Not much to say.” She indicated it. “Don’t even know what kind it is.”

“It isn’t,” said Rosenblum, approaching and crouching near it. “It’s one of those novelty flowers that changes color when you touch it. But it’s meant to look like a carnation. I wonder what color it would turn if I touched it.”

“A carnation?” asked Kevin. “Can that be a coincidence?”

“Anyone could buy one of these novelties,” said Rosenblum, “but my root feeling is this dead lady’s involved.”

“Cool, cool,” said Nankaro. “Can I get back to my imaging? We’re on a schedule.”

“What’s your hurry?” asked Kevin. “She’s not going–”

Everyone stopped when the humming started.

Kevin imagined a million fat, black flies heading toward them from the darkness. Then he saw the light approach, at first just a pinpoint, but it grew into a fire.

“What was that about Brass Humbugs, Rosenblum?”

“I’ll never speak ill of folklore again,” he said.

Some officer yelled for everyone to get back to the prowlers.

“No!” bellowed Kevin. “No time. It’s here. Weapons out!” Kevin drew his alleysweeper O-cannon and aimed for the approaching fire.

Rosenblum pulled a batterbeam pistol, and Nankaro drew one as well, but kept her imager out.

The buzzing grew louder, and Kevin could see a shiny, brassy reflection.

“Fire!” Kevin felt a thrill as he launched rings of smoky devastation from his O-cannon. He heard the other weapons discharging all around him, but still the thing came nearer.

It landed atop one of the prowlers, crushing the vehicle and some of the officers nearby.

Kevin could see it clearly. Sheets of brassy-colored armor were bolted over its surface like a metal carapace. Dozens of variegated wings thrummed along its back. Not a square inch of its metal hide appeared damaged in any way by their attack.

It roared. Its massive maw parted, revealing an inferno within. This was the fire Kevin had seen. The belly fire of a robotic beast from a distant past.

The machine advanced on insectile legs.

It swiveled its stubby head, watching them through clusters of obsidian eyes.

“Aim for the head!” Kevin continued to release volleys of smoky “O”s toward the creature, with little effect.

Others did the same, and the creature retaliated by shredding several of Kevin’s fellow officers with its mandibles.

Nankaro rushed forward into the chaos, firing her batterbeam pistol from one hand and taking images with the other.

“Nanny, you dumbshit, no!” But all Kevin could do was try to give her covering fire.

Rosenblum moved much quicker, and his transformation was disturbing. As he ran to follow Nankaro, he grew. Vines, limbs and thorns elongated into a grotesque topiary of man and rose.

The Humbug, in its insensate thrashings, lashed out at the surrounding officers, kicking Nankaro with grasshopper-like hind legs.

The enlarged Rosenblum leapt, caught her, and tumbled along the ground.

Kevin ran to meet them where they lay. When he arrived, Rosenblum appeared to be making her comfortable on a lap of leaves. He shook his head at her state.

Nankaro only had superficial cuts on her face, probably from the thorns, but Kevin was sure her body shouldn’t have been as twisted around as it was.

She held the imager up to Kevin. “I got some wicked-cool shots, fatty.”

“I’ll make sure everyone sees them, Nanny.” Kevin took the imager.

Rosenblum laid her lifeless body on the metal ground.

The screams from the other officers had died away. Kevin and Rosenblum rose and turned to face the metal insect.

It regarded the pair–the last two officers standing. It opened its maw, and Kevin could hear the crackle of its internal fire.

“Nowhere to run,” said Kevin.

“Don’t really want to,” said Rosenblum. They raised their weapons.

The Brass Humbug crouched, ready to pounce, like a cat after rats.

Before it could, there was a whistling in the dark above them, and a giant stone the size of a city block flashed into the pool of light from the prowlers and landed on the Humbug, crushing it. The force of the blow knocked Rosenblum to the ground. Kevin stumbled, but remained upright. He felt the echo of the crash reverberate up his legs. As the sound died away, the plant man rejoined him.

From the exposed remains beneath the stone, Kevin watched as the fire of the beast burned out.

Floodlights came to life all over the stone, and Kevin saw the unmistakable outline of a rock hopper–the one that had been following them.

A klaxon howled, deafening him, and then, “Good morning, officers!” said a familiar voice. “My, but you boys in blue do quite a lot so early in the morning.”

Ah, thought Kevin, slimy, smug, robotic. “Good morning, Pitz. Have you been keeping an eye on us?”

“Just watching over our investment,” said Pitz. “By the by, my associate admired your weapon technique.”

“Hurrah,” said Divitz.

“But those weapons couldn’t damage a Humbug,” said Pitz.

“What was that thing?” asked Rosenblum.

“A watchdog, perhaps?” answered Pitz. “No one knows who made the Brass Humbugs or why. They are a very old terror in a dead place.”

“Why are you here, Pitz?” asked Kevin, not bothering to hide the irritation in his voice.

“Oh, we were searching for a new private place since your lady friend knows about the other, and we happened to pass by. Pity about your fellow officers. Too bad they didn’t know Humbugs were attracted to light.”

Kevin had had enough. He took out his badge and strode toward the mottled rock atop the ruined insectoid. “Pitz, you and Divitz are under arrest for kidnapping, destruction of police property, public swearing and a variety of charges I’ll make up later when I’ve had some sleep. My partner has a batterbeam pistol,” Rosenblum aimed it squarely at the center of the stone, “and we’ll crack you out of that shell like an egg.”

“Ha,” said the robot, “that’s the stuff. However, you won’t be hauling us in while we have your lady friend’s strummer remote. We can give you a few tidbits of information for your troubles, though. That poor fallen girl lying in the light is Gloria Fast. We’ve been doing some checking of our own. If you’re as smart as we’re sure you are, you’ll scamper up to the ‘scene of the crime’ and talk to the officers there. We’ll be leaving now.” The klaxon yelped and fell silent.

The rocky ship began to rise.

“Fire!” Kevin yelled.

Several beaters from Rosenblum’s pistol broke large chunks from the rockhopper, but it otherwise escaped unharmed.

“Enough,” said Kevin, watching the hopper disappear into the dark. He looked around at the injured and the dead and at the ruined brass bug lying crushed within the debris. Gloria Fast. Could one name be worth so much destruction? No. But he’d follow the lead anyway.

“All right,” said Kevin, “let’s turn these spotlights off and get a clean-up crew down here before another one of those things turns up, and then let’s get up to the Gardens. This place gives me the creeps.”

#

The rain began lightly but soon sent everyone searching for cover. Crippen ran with Aia along crowd-movers and sky bridges toward someplace more private. His and Gloria’s Ghost Loft–no, just his now–was too far to reach without notice, and Crippen wanted to avoid attention if he could. Fortunately, there were many Ghost Lofts. Crippen chose the closest.

It had once been a terracotta and copper beast and was probably beautiful in its day, but now its tiles were jumbled and broken, like old teeth, its copper filigree green with age, and its rounded windows broken and gaping. Crippen herded Aia from one of the buildingtop-spanning sky bridges they had been fleeing along through a smashed window of the terracotta Ghost Loft.

The rain intensified, tapping across the broken glass and debris littering the floor of the loft beneath the window. Crippen and Aia found a clear, dry spot to rest.

Only, Aia didn’t have to rest. Crippen reminded himself of that. She sat wringing out her damp, tight curls, arranging them in a more manageable mess.

Unaccustomed to running, he wheezed and tried not to look so unfit. The gentle rise and fall of her chest never wavered from a calm, steady pace. He hated her for that.

She was a machine. Beautiful and grotesque at the same time. Water beaded on her blemish-free, light coffee skin. Her complexion was so much better than Gloria’s had ever been.

What was he to do with Aia? Kill her or keep her? Perhaps he could kill her when he tired of her, erase her memory of the murder, and then kill her again. He could focus his studies on one robot and be much less conspicuous that way.

“You’re thinking about Gloria, aren’t you, Thorn?” asked Aia.

Crippen jumped. He had been lost in his thoughts and forgot Aia was with him.

“Yes, Gloria and I were very close.” He realized he meant that. “My fault, her jumping. She had always been moody, but I never expected such jealousy. Before, I could always fix our little problems, but now it’s too late.”

“Were you two in love?” asked Aia.

This struck Crippen. Not because he had never thought about it, but because now it was out in the open and raw. “She stayed by me,” he said. He watched the rain pool beneath the broken window. There was a lot of it now. “I lost my job at the space docks. Robots there were just too skilled at moving cargo, so I was replaced. Gloria supported me, even when she didn’t understand. It’s hard to find people who will do that for you.”

Aia scooted closer to Crippen and took his hands in hers. “I’d like to tell you a little about me,” she said. “Before I became a stand-in, I was an ordinary robot. But stand-ins are meant to be replacements for someone important, so I became important, even if I was only pretending. Except I wasn’t the person I replaced. And when she came back . . . well, I just wasn’t as skilled at being human, so I was replaced. Only, when I got kicked out, I didn’t have anyone to support me as Gloria did for you, Crippen.”

He frowned at the robot. “I don’t remember telling you our names,” he said.

“No,” she said, “but I know who you are.”

Crippen tried to pull away from the robot, but her hands were locked around his wrists like handcuffs.

“I have good news and bad for you, Mr. Crippen. The good is that Gloria didn’t kill herself. I killed her. She tried to climb back down off the rail, but I pushed her off.”

“What’s going on? Let me go!” He tried to pry his hands free. The robot raised a leg between their arms and kicked his head from side to side with her foot, while her hands remained clamped over his. Dazed, he tried to refocus on the robot.

“Sorry,” she said, “I don’t want you unconscious. I have more of my story to tell. When I was rejected, I had nothing and no one to care for or help me. As an illegal robot, I could be arrested at any time. Imagine, being arrested for being unwanted.”

Crippen’s vision cleared. “No one wants you robots anymore. If I were free, I’d tear you to pieces, find another one just like you, and do it again.”

“Don’t worry, Mr. Crippen. I’m going to grant your wish, or part of it. But first, I have to finish my story. I had no one, until two robots took me in. They gave me a new body, copied all my files, and gave me a purpose: to bring you out in the open. You see, I’m a plant.”

Crippen perked up through his haze. “A plant? Like a flower?”

The robot seemed momentarily confused. “No, my saviors, Pitz and Divitz, have been planting spies all across the city, lying in wait to be picked as your next victim. You and Gloria have been very hard to find.”

“You’re a fake flower. I can see that now,” said Crippen. “Let me go so I can rip out your threads.”

The robot ignored him. “I said I’d grant part of what you wish. Now for the bad news: I’m going to mark you in a way that’s easy for certain police officers to spot.” She tightened her grip on Crippen’s hands, making him wince.

“I’ve sent a signal to my saviors,” she continued, “and with it, my soul. Time for me to go.” Her head tilted forward, and her body posture slumped.

Before Crippen could try breaking the grip again, he noticed the robot’s body bloat and deform beneath its tattered dress. When the body exploded, the surprise knocked him back against the floor more than the force. It couldn’t have been a normal robot body; he had no serious injuries from metal fragments, but synthetic gristle and red gore clung to his clothing, smeared his skin, covered his lips and teeth. He’d never tasted a robot before, sterile and repulsively clean. Nothing whole remained of the robot but its arms, still attached to his wrists.

As he sat up, he felt the arms jerk. Small rotor blades, like helicopters, sprouted from the shoulders and began to spin. The sound echoed in the loft, drowning out the sounds of rain and thunder outside.

The blades scattered splinters from the floor until they moved fast enough to take flight. The arms rose, carrying Crippen with them.

Theirs was not the random flight of a butterfly. They had direction, leading Crippen out of the shattered window over the rainy city.

He couldn’t scream. His throat was tight. Instead of merely being suspended by the flying robotic arms, he now grasped them as well from fear.

The flight path took him away from the Ghost Loft, beyond the sky bridge he and the robot had arrived on. Crippen watched air traffic pass between the buildingtops beneath his dangling legs. The rain had washed away some of the larger gobbets from his clothes, but he still remained blood-stained.

Crippen tried to think. He didn’t want to go wherever the arms were taking him, but struggling did nothing.

Then, along his flight path, he noticed a crowd-mover, a giant conveyor belt pumping people across the city. Soon it would be close beneath him.

Crippen began smashing the robot arms together at the shoulder. They made horrible grinding noises as blade tore against blade. He dipped. It felt as though his stomach kept going all the way to the traffic below.

He slammed the shoulders against each other again. Shards of rotor blade scattered across the sky. He plummeted a bit more, but still flew.

If he timed his actions right, he might fall on the crowd-mover as he passed above. If not, at least his troubles would be over.

Crippen knocked shoulder against shoulder, slowly obliterating the rotors. Finally, he fell.

He crashed against the belt of the conveyor, stunned into immobility by the pain. He checked himself for injuries. Nothing permanent. He had to get up.

Pedestrians nearby screamed as they ran. Vertiginous images filled Crippen’s eyes, swirls of belt, city, and sky. Nothing had any meaning for him anymore. He closed his eyes and mind to the turmoil.

“Sir? Sir?” asked a strange voice from somewhere on the other side of Crippen’s eyelids.

“Sir,” it said again, “I saw you fall. I don’t know what’s happened to you, but you may have lost a lot of blood. And what are these? Arms? I’m going to call an ambulance for you. Just hang on tight.”

Crippen opened his eyes to see a patrolman staring down at him.

“No!” yelled Crippen. He swung one of the arms still locked on his. It connected with the officer’s head. “No more . . .,” Crippen hit the man again, knocking him over. Crippen rose to his feet and continued bludgeoning the unconscious officer with one of the arms. “No . . . more . . . fake . . . flowers! No . . . more . . . loose . . . threads!”

Crippen caught his breath. One of the robot’s arms had fallen from his. It lay on the bloody patrolman. Crippen saw a batterbeam pistol, still in the officer’s holster. He grabbed it with his free hand and ran along the crowd-mover, firing the pistol at any loose threads that happened to get in his way.

#

After the cleaning at street level, Aziz rejoined Kevin and Rosenblum on their way back up to the Gardens of Delight. Kevin felt relieved. He always felt better with Aziz nearby.

The flight up the building had not been as bad as the trip down. The constant sense of falling vanished, and going up felt more like an elevator ride.

Kevin parked the prowler at the rooftop dock of the Gardens, and he, Rosenblum, and Aziz headed toward the barricaded scene of the jump. It was easy to find; many of the surrounding awnings had been taken down, and not a person could be seen. Police business was bad for business.

When the trio arrived, most officers had left, only one remained, finishing a few last minute details. Kevin recognized Lockbrow’s cybernetic silhouette. There was no clear border between man and machine, with several enhancements encroaching over flesh; those regions dominated by machine resembled a mix of forklift and tank. Only a few constables had cybernetic enhancements, and those had a tougher time on the force than robots since they were neither human nor robot. Kevin had gotten Lockbrow his job and watched him fight to keep it.

Lockbrow’s human half tried punching buttons on his data-corder while the mechanical half held it. Evidently, the effort proved too difficult, as he sighed, passed the ‘corder to his other half, and attempted keying with his mechanical side.

As Kevin, Rosenblum, and Aziz approached, Lockbrow said, “I should just carry around a stack o’ stone tablets and a chisel.”

“Too permanent,” said Kevin, “and too hard for Records Division to lose. Lockbrow, this is Rosenblum. He’s working with me on a case that may be related to the jumper.”

Lockbrow crushed the ‘corder in a giant, metal hand, as the human one extended toward Rosenblum. “Nice ta meet you. You guys didn’t see me destroy that.” He dropped fizzing bits of the device “’Scuse me, fellas. I’m hotter than two rats humpin’ in a wool sock. Could we stand by the edge of the roof? The updraft will cool me off.”

They walked, and stomped, over to the edge where Lockbrow continued. “I’ve been downloading the security footage from the sly-spies in the area. I was watchin’ it before you got here.”

“That would be useful,” said Rosenblum. “We could see if there was anyone with the jumper.”

“There were. Two people: a guy and some broad.”

“We want to see that,” said Kevin.

“Uh,” said Lockbrow, “I smashed that ‘corder. There’ll be copies at the station by now.”

“Aziz–,” Kevin began, but was interrupted by his comm-snake’s hiss.

It raised its cobalt head. “Any officers in the vicinity of the Gardens of Delight?” said the dispatcher through the snake’s facial speaker grill.

Kevin glanced at his fellows and answered for them. “Officers Seven, Rosenblum, and Lockbrow are at the Gardens. What’s happening?”

“Several pedestrians have reported a madman covered in blood and wielding a severed robot arm and a pistol. Reports are confused, but he’s on crowd-mover Chanting Blitz, and he may have injured or killed a constable. We can’t be sure, as sly-spies in the area are not responding.”

“That’s my fault,” said Lockbrow. “I’ve had them tied up looking for footage on the jumper.”

The dispatcher groaned. “We need officers to check out that disturbance, now. Get over to Chanting Blitz and report what you find. Do not engage until backup arrives.” The comm-snake hissed and re-coiled itself around Kevin’s neck.

Kevin said to Lockbrow, “You don’t have a ride?”

“I was gonna click my heels together three times.”

“Come on,” said Kevin. “You’re riding with us.”

“I got shotgun,” said Rosenblum.

Once they had Lockbrow crammed into the prowler, the trip to Chanting Blitz took only moments. It ran along a length of skyline only a few buildings away. From high above, Kevin watched tiny figures scatter along the belt-like conveyor. He knew all that kept the panicking forms from falling to their deaths was the invisible band of vibro-shield running along the sides of the conveyor. As the prowler approached, Kevin could see random pedestrians repelled from the edge back onto the strip by the shields.

“Follow the panic,” said Lockbrow.

“Kevin,” said Rosenblum, eyes scanning the dense crowd far below, “the dispatcher mentioned a robot arm.”

“I heard,” said Kevin. “Aziz, fly ahead of us. Let me know if you see a downed cop or a bloody psycho with a robot arm.”

“I obey your strange request, master.” Kevin let the little aviadrone out of the prowler window. Tiny jets fired beneath silver tail feathers.

Shortly after the departure of Aziz, Rosenblum spotted something ahead. “There’s a figure in the distance. It looks unusual.”

“I don’t see anything,” said Kevin.

“I do,” said Lockbrow’s mechanically amplified baritone. “Or half of me does. Damn, Rosenfield! You got good eyes for a plant. That’s a mile away.”

“’Blum.’ And, yes, I’ve got better eyes than a potato.”

Silence.

“No reaction?” asked Rosenblum. “Meat has no sense of humor.”

“I think I liked you better when you were quiet all the time,” said Kevin. “I can’t see the guy. Let me know when we’re on top of him.”

There were fewer people on the crowd-mover. Kevin knew everyone around the lunatic would have already run away. He didn’t see the downed cop. Perhaps Aziz would have better luck.

“I see the crazy guy,” said Kevin over the braking of the prowler’s engines. “Nothing wrong with my eyes.”

The lunatic ran along a bare area of the crowd-mover. Kevin could see what looked like blood covering him. Sure enough, he had a pistol and an arm hanging from his own. Periodically, it would jerk the man’s body sideways as he ran.

Kevin slowed the prowler’s approach. “Rosenblum, get on the snake, and let the station know this guy’s location. I’m going to try–,” An explosion rocked the front of the prowler. “Whoa!” The lunatic had seen them and fired.

“He’s got a batterbeam pistol.” Another blast tore through the hood. It must have destroyed part of the hover panel because the vehicle lost altitude. “I can’t keep it in the air,” said Kevin.

“Can you direct it toward that Ghost Loft over there?” asked Lockbrow.

“We won’t survive the crash,” said Kevin.

“We won’t be in the prowler,” said Lockbrow. “I have a plan.” He rolled open the side access panel, and rushing wind filled the cockpit. “Aim for the Ghost Loft. You and Rosenkrantz get back here and grab hold of me.”

Kevin did as he was asked, confident that any plan of Lockbrow’s was better than his own plan of surviving in heaps of bloody wreckage.

“It’s Rosen–oh, nevermind,” said Rosenblum, clambering into the back.

“Hold onto my machine half,” said Lockbrow.

“What are you going to do?” asked Kevin. He and Rosenblum held tightly.

“I told you I was going to click my heels together!” Lockbrow’s human leg jammed what must have been a kickstart on his mechanical heel because a rocket in his metal foot propelled them from the ruined prowler.

The force nearly shook Kevin from Lockbrow’s side as they pirouetted in the open air. Kevin’s strength wasn’t enough to counter his own heavy weight. Against his will, his fingers let go.

Rosenblum’s hand and extending vines wrapped around the length of Kevin’s arm, digging into his skin and forcing him back against Lockbrow.

Kevin’s yell of gratitude blew away in the wind.

Lockbrow gained better control as they fell. Their erratic descent toward the crowd-mover made them a harder target for the madman to hit.

The three slammed into the conveyor, knocking Kevin and Rosenblum flat on their backs. Lockbrow still stood, supported by his stable, mechanical side.

Beaters from the lunatic’s batterbeam pistol hurtled past them, falling to the conveyor’s surface and bouncing along like ball lightning.

Kevin drew his O-cannon and began to return fire, but there was no cover on the exposed crowd-mover.

Lockbrow stepped between Kevin and Rosenblum and the crazy man, facing his mechanical half toward the danger. “Get behind me.” Lockbrow squatted down, forming a solid metal wall.

Kevin and Rosenblum took cover and returned fire.

“Does this hurt?” asked Rosenblum.

“Not yet,” said Lockbrow. “I’ll scream when I start to melt.”

The lunatic continued to fire.

Kevin could see what was left of the robot arm jerk the man’s body. That kept him from shooting with more accuracy. He saw the crazy man fire at the remains of the robot arm.

“No more fake flowers!” Only fragments of the hand remained connected.

“Did you hear that?” said Rosenblum. “Fake flowers and a bloody robot arm?”

Kevin stood from behind Lockbrow’s huge metal torso. “Sir, you are under arrest for suspicion of destruction of property, assault on  police officers, and trespassing!”

The lunatic turned his attention back to Kevin and the others. He released a new volley against the officers.

“I’m starting to heat up, guys!” said Lockbrow.

Kevin didn’t want to kill the crazy man. He could be the one they’d been looking for. But Kevin could disintegrate the man’s shooting arm.

Instinct must have compelled the man to turn from them and run.

“Let’s go!” Kevin and Rosenblum followed.

“I can’t move,” said Lockbrow.

Kevin looked at Lockbrow’s scarred and pitted machine half. In places, the metal works had begun to melt and run.

“We’ll call the station. Get you some help,” said Kevin.

“No time,” said Lockbrow. “Leave me your comm-snake. I’ll call the station. Get your man.”

Kevin removed the snake and passed it to Lockbrow. “We’ll see you at the station.”

“Don’t come back empty handed!”

Rosenblum ran, and Kevin struggled to keep up. Running was his least favorite task as a cop. He handled himself fine when he caught up with the crooks, but he hated having to ask to catch his breath. Maybe he should listen to Pydge about that diet.

Nah.

The lunatic stopped a short distance ahead of them. Kevin wasn’t sure what the man planned to do, until he started firing at the vibro-shield. It hadn’t been designed to withstand gunfire, so a localized area of shielding flickered and winked out. Then, he jumped.

“We can still make it. Come on!” cried Rosenblum.

“Make what? Oh!” Kevin saw the bow of a stratoferry pass beneath the now open section of the crowd-mover. The man had found a getaway vehicle.

Rosenblum made the jump ahead of Kevin. When Kevin reached the opening in the shield, he could see he was running out of ferry.

“This is so stupid!” Kevin leaped, hoping to match its speed.

He hit deck hard and rolled. Some skinny copper would be moaning about fractures or bone bruises. Kevin was up with his pistol in his hand in a second.

Rosenblum had a head start. Screams came from one of the upper decks. The plant man made for the stairs on elongated, gnarly legs. He was using his plant powers. Kevin thought that was cheating. He’d never keep up.

He heaved himself up the stairs, the end of his coat flapping loosely behind him. He heard shots on one of the decks above and more shouting.

By the time he arrived, he found Rosenblum attending a woman trampled by the retreating crowd.

“He’s toward the bow,” said Rosenblum. “Go! She’ll be all right. I’ll be there in a minute.”

Kevin ran toward the front of the ferry. The crazy man seemed to fire randomly from the deck. Kevin realized too late what he was doing when an aircab crashed into the deck.

The impact shook the ferry and forced Kevin to his knees. The cab survived the impact, losing a fender and half of its light array. The driver did not survive. He destroyed the entire wind shield when his body tore through.

The lunatic was in the cab and restarting it before Kevin could reach him.

“Halt!” Kevin yelled, but there wasn’t much point. He aimed his O-cannon and tried to disable the craft, but missed.

Rosenblum arrived, his pistol drawn.

Kevin waved him off. “No point. He’s out of range. That’s it. We’ve lost him.”

Rosenblum scanned the airways. “No, we haven’t.” He pointed into the surrounding traffic. “Look!”

Chugging along, off toward the port side, was Phil the diner-bot.

Kevin ran to the rail. “Phil, we need you, now! Get over here.”

The diner-bot heard him and maneuvered next to the ferry. “Whaddaya need, Inspector? You in a hurry for a panini?”

“No time for food! We’re commandeering you. Let us on and follow that cab!” Kevin pointed toward the disappearing yellow aircab.

“A chase? Get on. I’m on the job.”

Kevin and Rosenblum clambered aboard the diner-bot’s swivel chairs.

“How fast can a diner-bot move?” asked Rosenblum.

“Hang tight,” said Phil, “’Cause I’m the fastest fry cook in town.”

Phil accelerated, forcing Kevin and Rosenblum to grab the counter to keep from sliding off their chairs. Both strapped themselves down.

The cab must have been damaged since it wasn’t moving as fast as Kevin knew it could. But it was far ahead, and they were chasing it on a flying diner.

“So whad’d this guy do?” Phil eased around larger vehicles and avoided busier fly zones.

“He dissected and destroyed several robots,” answered Rosenblum.

“Bastard! I’m ditchin’ some weight.” The robot grabbed for crockery and anything loose.

“No, Phil,” said Kevin. “You can’t drop junk over open airways. Just keep going; we’ll catch up.”

The lack of walls and floor made the diner-bot seem faster to Kevin. Wind clawed at his coat as he gripped the counter and hoped the straps of his chair held. The aircab grew closer.

Phil waved a robotic arm over Kevin’s head. “That Ghost Loft over there usta belong to Old Attila. He ran a gym outta it. Then, he died and left it to his son-in-law, Sig. Swell guys. Always tipped good.” The arm pivoted in its joint to the right, nearly decapitating Rosenblum. “Wild Bill, the writer, squatted in that Loft over there. Not the best tipper. Always broke. Loyal regular, though.”

“We’re in a car chase, Phil,” said Kevin.

“I’m a robot. I can multi-task.”

A batterbeam beater smashed a cabinet behind Phil’s head, spreading crockery and utensils across the fly zone.

“You didn’t tell me he’s armed!” yelled Phil.

Kevin and Rosenblum had their weapons out and firing. The lunatic had the advantage, though. At their current speed, the two officers’ weapons had to fight the wind. The crazy man fired with the breeze.

He wasn’t having much luck hitting them, though, and he changed tactics. As they raced between buildings, he began firing at broken, old structures. Loose blocks and crumbling arches fell all around them. Somehow, Phil managed to avoid larger fragments.

“That cab must be damaged,” Kevin yelled. “Maybe that’s why he can’t go higher. If we can get under him and hit his hover panel, we might be able to take him down.”

“I can try ta get closer, but he’s still faster,” said Phil. “Holy Harry! I’m gonna need a new fuel cell. This is excitin’. Can I be a deputy?”

“Just try to go faster,” said Rosenblum.

Phil swerved, avoiding a fragment of sky bridge, and managed to inch closer to the madman’s underside.

“Kevin,” said Rosenblum, “do you see that up ahead?”

Kevin scanned the skyline. Not far beyond them lay a crowd-mover, busy with pedestrians. “Oh, no. We’ve got to end this trip, now.”

“I’m out of beaters,” said Rosenblum.

“My O-cannon can’t hit him at this speed,” said Kevin.

“Make me a deputy,” said Phil.

“What?” asked Kevin.

“Make me a deputy, and I’ll bring him down.”

“You’re a deputy!” shouted Kevin.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” said Rosenblum.

“Shut up,” said Kevin.

Phil reached into a cabinet above one of his stoves and grabbed the largest frying pan Kevin had ever seen. “All right, watch this.” Phil’s robotic arms could extend the full length of his counter when he wanted. Phil reached back with the pan in his hand and hurled it at the cab, like a discus.

Kevin heard it whistle as it flew.

It sailed in a graceful arc. Kevin thought it might drift and crash through someone’s wind screen, but it curved to intersect with the cab’s underside. The pan lodged in the hover panel with a thud.

The cab began a crippled spiral leading toward a distant Ghost Loft, only a block or so short of the crowd-mover.

“Woo-hoo!” shouted Phil. The cab crashed against the Loft, lodging itself within the facade, its tail end protruding like a yellow dart in a board.

Phil began an upward arc toward the wreck as they drew closer to the building.

Suddenly, Kevin saw the maniac force a passenger door open. He stood at the opening and looked around.

“He’s going to jump,” said Kevin, and the man leapt from the cab.

From beside Kevin sprang a green blur. Rosenblum hurled himself, spinning from the diner-bot.

Everything slowed.

Rosenblum, still spinning, unfurled like a net. Every inch of vine and roses extended into a vast, green web. From uncountable windows in the surrounding Ghost Lofts extended hundreds of slender, green fingers, each reaching out to join with Rosenblum. The maniac landed in the web, held fast by the plant man’s thorny grasp.

“Uh, Phil,” whispered Kevin, “take us in close. I want to talk to my partner.”

“I don’t know that I wanna be a deputy anymore,” said Phil. “Flippin’ burgers is much easier on my constitution.”

They approached the web. Kevin spotted part of what looked like Rosenblum’s face, twisted and stretched along a tight strand.

“Rosenblum?” Kevin asked.

“Do I have him?” asked part of Rosenblum’s face. “I’m not sure–where my eyes are. I can’t see him.”

Kevin glanced at the maniac, knotted in the center of the web. He muttered something incoherent about flowers.

“We got him, pal Are you going to live?”

“Hopefully–for a long–time. But I think–I’ll need a long–rest.”

“I’ll grab this guy and take him down to the station.” Kevin smirked. “And don’t worry. I’ll bring you back a flower pot.”

#

Kevin pressed “enter”, uploading the last of Nankaro’s images into his report. Discounting his omitted details, the Brass Humbug was the most tantalizing item in his semi-fictional account of suicide and destruction. What Kevin had written of Crippen and the robot murders was downplayed officially to a type of vandalism. He was sure Judge Grackle and his robot friends would appreciate that.

He removed the data biscuit from his ‘corder and pressed it to his lips, locking the data within. He passed it to his metal bird.

“Here, Aziz, take this to the station so they’ll stop pestering me. Then, maybe I can take a day off.”

“I hear and obey.” The little bird took the biscuit in his beak and zipped off across the city.

Pydge entered their bedroom dressed in a long robe but bare beneath and sat next to Kevin. She held her nerve strummer. The two trolls had sneaked into the apartment while she slept and removed it. She said she didn’t like that, but looked on the bright side: the strummer was dead. “I think I will keep it,” she said. “It will be a reminder to me that, as a Bonfiglio, I can bear any pain.”

“I don’t get one,” whispered Kevin.

Perdon?”

“Nothing, dear. Can we fix the hole in the wall they left behind, at least?”

“Of course. I’ll keep the scar as well.” She rubbed a star-like patch in her side, the pale skin contrasting with the rest of her golden tan.

“I like scars,” said Kevin. “They’re the bold print of your life story.” He pulled Pydge into his arms and began to draw the robe from her shoulders.

“Welcome home,” she said, and kissed him.

#

Rosenblum lay in his flower bed, and on the floor, in several bookcases, and over much of the kitchen that he didn’t use anyway. His circular windows stood wide, and the sunlight filled his apartment. Beams of light shone thick through the moist haze that drifted from room to room.

He had regained just enough of his human form to use his arm to feed Melville. The poor fish swam in murky water Rosenblum had been too weak to clean.

Soon, the gene shadow deep within him would reassert itself and force him back to humanoid shape. But with the robot murderer behind bars, Rosenblum had a chance to relax during an extended holiday.

He thought about his new position on the force and of Kevin. Humans were a strange bunch, but he thought he could get used to them.

#

Judge Grackle sat looking out at the sunrise through the new hole in his wall. One whole wall of his sitting room had been cut away, providing a spectacular view of morning over the city. Moya sat cross-legged on the floor next to him, her hand in his. Her flesh was rosy and new and whole! Neither blemish nor seam nor stitch marred her naked, rebuilt body. She smiled at him. Neither had been able to say anything yet.

In his other hand, the judge held a note. It read:

For the beauty of a flower to be known

It must be smelt, not left alone.

So in exchange for your lover,

I take one rose and leave another.

-Pitz

 

The judge glanced over at the empty space where his piano had been. Now only a clear spot in the dust remained to mark where the instrument had stood. Moya leaned her head on Grackle’s shoulder.

More than a fair trade, really.

#

Crippen felt the chains removed from his hands first and then his feet. He heard the muffled sounds of the moving figures through the sack on his head. The bag was removed. There wasn’t much more light. A glow globe hovered at head height between two figures.

“Robots,” said Crippen.

“Correct,” said one.

“I’m not sorry for what I did,” said Crippen. “You robots have taken away everything that was important to me.”

“We not take. You lost,” said the other.

“Where am I?” asked Crippen. The glow globe offered so little light. The surrounding darkness was thick and velvety. The ground below felt like hard, riveted steel. Very close to the circle of light was what looked like a large rock standing on end.

“You’re in an old, dark place: the street below,” said the first robot.

“What are you going to do?”

“Do?” asked the first robot. “Well, my associate has some guns to clean, and I have a piano to tune. I doubt anyone’s tuned that thing in half a century. It’ll take all damn day. But to you, nothing. We’re going to leave you here.”

“In the dark? Alone?”

“We’ll leave the glow globe. Goodbye, Mr. Crippen. You might find your way out. There’s a Ghost Loft not far to your right.”

Crippen watched the two hunched, armored figures shamble back to their rock. Its take off was very quiet. Soon, Crippen could no longer see the faint blue of its hover panel as the rock faded into the black.

He didn’t know what to do. He rubbed his hand along the steel ground. A sound caught his attention in that silent place, a sound of humming. From beyond the globe’s light, Crippen could see another light far away, but getting closer. Before he could react, the thing was in front of him.

It landed hard on metallic, insectile legs, a hollow echo resounding. The creature folded its wings, opened its maw, and howled at Crippen, its fire within much brighter than the paltry glow globe.

“Well,” said Crippen to the metal insect, “at least you’re real.”

The creature crept closer.

end