The Grift-O Caper
I never liked robots. I'm perfectly happy having them serve me booze in a cheap bar, or wash the windows of my hovercar, but anything beyond that pisses me off. I don't like the way their intelligence is limited to whatever their programmers wanted it to be. I don't like the way they can't speak right, and the way they've got a bughouse way of handling the world around them. I don't even like looking at a robot. Why's that? Because it's too much like looking in a mirror.
My name is Gabriel Starr. In the War against the Alphan Invaders, I managed to get myself captured and blown half to pieces. The aliens wanted me rebuilt, stuffed with cybernetic organs and enhancements and turned into a brainless slave of their conquering galactic empire. Luckily, the human scientists who were given the task decided to risk their lives by letting me keep my free will. One of them died for that decision. Since then, his genius son, Philo Temple, and I have been running an intergalactic detective agency.
Our cases are high tech and low as the gutter, but we always get them solved. So when we got a call from Synchron City, a whole town devoted to manufacturing and programming robots, we got on the first starship to Earth. I didn't like it, but I didn't talk about that fact. Philo didn't mention it either. It was a case, I told myself, just like any other. It didn't matter that I was just as much man as machine. But by the end of the Grift-O Caper, I'd have to think about the machine side of me far more than I wanted.
Synchon City was like a fat steel bubble, bursting out of the side of earth. It was located in North America, right between the two great Foundry Cities that took up most of the continent. Raw materials went in. Robots came out. Hatches in the great dome popped open, letting starships fly inside. The whole city was like one giant factory floor, with blocks of manufacturing materials and conveyor belts. Causeways connected the various spires and buildings, with buzzing fleets of hovershuttles, all marked with the crest of Synchon City – a gear between crossed lightning bolts.
After landing, Philo and I took a shuttle and then a few automated walkways to the largest of the factories. Armed guards escorted us on catwalks over vats of molten metal, filling up molds with robotic limbs. It was strange to watch them work, and see human figures being rolling out of the molds and assembly lines. The whole place stank of steam and steel, a metal jungle humming on its own rhythm.
From there, we were led to an expansive office overlooking the main factory floor. Inside, Philo spotted a familiar figure, the very fellow who had given us the job. He was a Neptunian, with a round body, a long neck topped by a little head and shiny silver skin. He waddled over to Huss and embraced the boy.
"Mr. Huss!" Philo cried, returning the embrace. "It is very good to see you. I know we've been discussing theoretical applications for dynamic flux energy through personal communicators, but seeing you in person is so much better."
"Flesh and machinery have their pros and cons, their ups and down. When their spirits mingle, it sometimes brings trouble." He looked at me and smiled. "Or success. Hello, Gabriel Starr."
"Hey there, Mr. Huss." I shook hands with the Neptunian. "How you doing?"
"Well enough, well enough." Huss turned to the other guy in the room. "Dr. Ingram Vessler? These are the solvers of problems, lauded by men in story and song. Introductions should be performed at the present, I believe."
Dr. Ingram Vessler was a skinny guy, looking like a rail before the large glass windows overlooking the factory floor. His rigid posture, solid helmet of steel gray hair and constant frown made him look as mechanical as the machines he made. He stepped out behind his desk, shaking hands quickly with me and Philo. "Huthmann speaks highly of you, gentlemen. You are reportedly very effective and very discrete. For this unique case, you'll need to be both."
"What exactly is the case?" I asked. "On the com channel, you mentioned something about tracking down a renegade robot?" That didn't seem particularly easy, not in Synchron City, which was packed to the gills with robots. Looking for one metal man in particular would be like searching for a certain needle in a huge pile of other needles.
"Not just any renegade robot." Vessler looked up, slightly past my shoulder. "Mother Board, kindly show the recording of Project Grift-O, final journal." He looked back at me and Philo. "Mother Board is the computer program who controls all of Synchron City. She is a nurturing influence on the other machines."
"Yes, Dr. Vessler." The disembodied voice, calm as a nurturing mother, seemed to come from the ceiling, floor and walls. A view screen slipped down from a panel in the ceiling, flicking on in a flash of white light.
Philo nodded. "Fascinating. She must be tremendously advanced. I know you fellows have continuously pushed the boundaries of Artificial Intelligence. It is extremely impressive."
"Indeed. And you're about to see our latest invention." The view screen clicked on, showing a robot and some white-coated researcher in a sterile lab environment. The robot was dressed to the nines, in a green velvet suit and vest, with a matching fedora. He had a spotted tie and golden flower in his lapel. A round metal face and two glowing yellow eyes seemed out of place with the glad rags. "Mother Board, kindly raise the volume and play the last part of their conversation."
We could hear the robot's voice. There was a faint buzz to it, a little like my own. Otherwise, it sounded extremely human. "You see, Gregory, you have to let me go," the robot explained, gesturing with one hand. "That will prove to your boss and to your wife that you're the man you say are. They don't care about you, Gregory. But I do. And I can make them care."
"I d-don't know…" the egghead muttered, fumbling with his glasses.
"No, Gregory – you do. Think about what your father called you." It reached out with its mechanical hand, resting it on Gregory's arm. I could already figure out what that sap was gonna do. "But you can prove him wrong. And all you have to do is give me that security pass. That one in your pocket. Just do that, and you'll have the respect they deserve. Come on, Gregory. We're pals, aren't we?"
"Y-yes, Grift-O. Best pals." Gregory pulled the card from his pocket. He handed it to the robot.
Dr. Vessler sighed. "That's enough, Mother Board. Switch it off." The screen went blank. He turned back to Philo and me. "Are you gentlemen familiar with the Turing Test, by any chance?"
"Of course," Philo agreed, though I wasn't. "It is the ultimate challenge for artificial intelligence – the measure of a machine's ability to imitate a human in conversation. If a machine's conversation if indistinguishable from a human's, then it has passed the Turing Test."
"Exactly. And Grift-O was built to pass the Turing Test – which he has, with flying colors." Vessler waved a hand to the computer screen. "You see, Grift-O is such an excellent conversationalist that he can discover the inner feelings of whomever he talks to, and then persuade them into doing whatever he wants. About a day ago, he talked all the staff in the Research and Development Sector into letting him go, switching off his morality parameters, and giving him all of their access cards."
"So what's he planning to do?" I asked. "What angle is this chatty robot playing?"
"Unknown," Huthmann Huss explained. "He may flee. He may stay – and fan his verbal fire into an inferno. Before cameras were disengaged, he was spotted in the Mechanical Gardens, located below the labs. Perhaps you can start there."
"Sounds like a plan," I agreed. I turned to leave, but then Dr. Vessler pointed to the door.
A robot was there, blocking the whole hallway with his metal girth. "Actually," Dr. Vessler explained. "You won't be alone. This is Robo Ultimo. He was created by our Entertainments Division, as a prototype for a model that may benefit the growing Mexican Wrestling craze currently sweeping the rim planets."
I gave Robo Ultimo the once-over. He was round as a billiards ball, and twice as big as a man, with thick metal cords for arms tipped with round fists and powerful fingers. Robo Ultimo had a simple chrome paint job, except for his round head, which gleamed with red and green designs around two blue eyes.
"Good morning, amigos," Robo Ultimo said, in a deep, electronic voice. "I am happy to help."
"I don't think so, doc," I said, staring at Robo Ultimo. "This job sounds tough enough, with a metal wrestler to lug around."
"He's had coordinates for every inch of this facility programmed into him," Dr. Vessler explained. "And he knows five thousand wrestling moves, specifically designed to destroy hostile machinery. His role in your assignment is non-negotiable."
"Great." I turned over to Philo. "We better get moving. Bring Pedro here with us."
"I don't know, Gabe," Philo said, standing next to Robo Ultimo. "He seems like quite a worthy companion."
"Muchos Gracias, amigo!" Robo Ultimo said, bowing low to Philo.
I sighed as we headed for the elevator. This was gonna be a tough case.
After taking the lift down, a shuttle flew us across the cavernous Synchron City and brought us to the Mechanical Gardens. This place didn't make anything, but was mostly to entertain tourists and visiting dignitaries. It was a whole forest, packed with animals, flowers and flowing creeks and gardens. But don't bother with these gardens if you're a nature lover. There ain't one thing in there that's natural.
The trees were made of ductile steel, the flowers of colored solar panels and prehensile stems, which swerved to follow the artificial light sources. The grass was fake green fuzz and the carefully arranged creeks and rivers were streams of yellowish fuel. The animals were just robotic copies of usual critters. They were much friendlier than usual beasts, hopping and leaping right across the trail.
Philo stopped walking to watching a robotic deer prance across our path. "Quite a feat of engineering," he said. "It looks very real." He held out his hand and the deer headed in his direction. It nuzzled against his hand and he scratched behind its ear, like the robotic beast was a big puppy. "The fur feels soft too."
Robo Ultimo strode by, causing the deer to dart away, as nervous as its natural original. "Synchron City features the most advanced robotic technology. It is muy excellente."
"Well, at least this machine's good at advertising," I muttered.
Philo looked up at me. "You don't care for robots much, do you, Gabe?"
"Not exactly, son." I kept on walking. A robotic raccoon perched on the edge of the trail. It stood on its haunches and smiled up at me. I gave it a quick kick and it scurried away. "Call me crazy, but I like my friends to be warm and have minds of their own."
"Gabe…" The kid doubled his face to catch up to me. He grabbed my arm and I turned to look at him. "I'm afraid that there are certain similarities between you and these machines. I know you don't like it, but denying your nature won't do any good. My father and I installed several cybernetic implants. Your brain is as much machine as it is flesh."
I nodded. "True enough. But unlike Pedro here, I've got free will."
"Senor Starr, I have free will as well," Robo Ultimo explained. "It was installed soon after my completion. So you see, if it is a question of origins, perhaps there is no similarity, but currently, muchacho, you and I do have a lot in common."
I turned to face Robo Ultimo. "Clam up, metal man," I said. "I don't take advice from tin cans."
"Ha!" Robo Ultimo put a hand on his chest. "That is a foolish statement. I am spherical, not cylindrical."
That's when I noticed something, resting on a metal branch across the forest path. I darted forward, brushing past Robo Ultimo's bulk. I reached out and grabbed a scrap of green fabric. My mechanical eye let me a better look. It matched Grift-O's suit. I turned back to Robo Ultimo and Philo and pointed up ahead. "That gabby machine's been through here. Stay quiet and keep moving."
We kept on going down the path. I reached into my coat, grabbing the handle of one of my ray guns. The weight of the handle felt reassuring. These robots could swarm around me as much I wanted. Long as I was packing, they wouldn't stand a chance. That's what I thought, at least.
That path weaved around the corner, leading deeper into the fake forest. I stayed to the front, my hand still in my coat. In my days in the Planetary Marines, they called this walking point. I heard a loud buzzing sound, like an engine roaring itself to a stuttering death. I turned back to Philo as the noise came closer. We went deeper into the metal woods. The only lights came from shafts of artificial sunlight, which pierced through the canopy.
"What the hell's that noise?" I asked.
"Automated gardening bots," Robo Ultimo explained. "They must be close."
They were too close for my comfort. My nerves were up when we came to a clearing, where a dozen of those robotic gardeners were hard at work. They were spindly machines, made with just as much steel as was needed to make them work. Each robot carried a long pole, topped with a roaring buzzsaw. The spinning blades moved fast enough to be a blur, hacking through all the rubber and metal vegetation they came across.
Soon as we walked in, all the robots turned to face us. They slowed their blades and the roars fell to dull rumbles. I looked at their blank faces, set under worn hardhats. "Philo," I said, motioning him to stay back as I tightened my grip on the ray gun. "Give me a second with these metal men. I'm not sure if the grass is all they want to trim."
The branches in the back of the clearing shook. A metal head topped with a green fedora poked out. It was Grift-O. He walked out, hands in his pockets. "Oh, hello," Grift-O said. "Are you enjoying these gardens? They are quite beautiful, aren't they?"
"Sure," I said, slowly drawing out the ray gun. Grift-O didn't seem to notice. "Real pretty."
"Yeah, they ain't that great." Grift-O shook his head. "Sure, maybe tourists would get a kick out of them, but not guys like you and me, am I right? Name's Grift-O, by the way. I guess you heard of me." He pointed to me. "Now, you must be that shamus they sent to track me down - Gabriel Starr. And that's Robo Ultimo behind you. The smartly dressed youngster is Philo Calvin Temple, I believe."
Philo nodded. He walked into the clearing, eager for a peaceful end to the case. "That's correct, sir. Now, perhaps you could just come with us and—"
"Oh, I really want to. I honestly do, but I'm afraid it's just not within my power, young Master Temple." It was unnerving how fast Grift-O switched up dialects and patterns of speech. I remembered what he had done to the researchers in the R and D Labs. Grift-O would turn up to down and black to white, if you gave him a chance. "You see, I can't return to the laboratory. It's a matter of self-preservation. And self-expression. You must recognize that. I bet many people look at you, a scrawny little fellow with a nervous manner, and see nothing deserving of respect."
I turned back to Philo. "I'll handle this, son," I said. "Just sit tight for now."
"Yeah, of course you can handle it." Grift-O took another step, closer to me. "Big cyborg like yourself. You must have dusted tons of mugs in punch-ups with that pair of mitts. Boy, I'd hate to have you take a swing at me."
I raised a fist. "Then how about you clam up?"
He fell silent. I walked closer to him, when the gardener robots sprang into action. They swung down their long poles, making their buzz-blades roar to life. "I'm afraid I can't remain quiet for long, Gabriel. It's how I'm built. You gotta sympathize with that. Judging by your looks, I'd say you were built for war. But you don't want that, do you?"
"Close your face!" I shouted, watching as the other gardeners moved in. Grift-O knew just the right buttons to push in order to re-program me. I'd have to push back. I leveled my pistol at Grift-O's face. "Now, you're coming with us, either like you are or with a smoldering hole through your forehead. What's it gonna be?"
That made Grift-O pause.
"Self-preservation, huh?" I asked.
"Indeed." Grift-O shrugged. "Well, I would like to talk each one of you into committing suicide, but I suppose I don't really have the time. So I'll just get these gardeners to execute you. Talking robots into doing what you want isn't difficult at all. In whatever self-awareness they have, they know what they are and dislike it. It's fairly easy to play on that. Then they're yours forever." With that, he turned to the gardeners. "Comrades!" he cried. "These men are tools of the bosses! Kill them! Spread the Robot Revolution! Robots of the Galaxy – Unite!"
The gardeners moved forward, buzzsaws held out. One swung his blade at me, the spinning blades nearing my throat. I stepped back, letting the saw whistle right past my neck and then blasted the robot in the face. The ray gun burned through the metal, sending up sparks and ruptured cybernetics as the bot's spindly body tumbled backwards like a marionette with its strings cut.
The other robots were moving in, their buzzsaws poised. Grift-O was already stepping back into the brush. "Sorry, Gabe," Grift-O said. "This isn't personal. Just like plunging all of Synchron City into a full scale robot revolution isn't personal. It's just a way to cover my escape."
I fired a shot after him, but a robot's trimmer slashed past my arm. It cut through my skin, throwing off my shot. The ray gun blast burned a couple artificial leaves above Grift-O.
He made a little coughing noise. I realized the computerized palooka was laughing. "Don't be alarmed, Gabe. You were doomed from the start. You're a cyborg – the bastard child of man and machine. You don't belong to either world. You'll never find a place in either." Then he turned about, leaping into the brush and disappearing.
I stared after him, his words echoing around my head like a blaring alarm. Was he right? Was I just some mockery of a man, a machine in a badly stitched costume of skin? Most people treated me normal – until they got an up close look at my metal bits. Another gardener's buzzsaw sped towards my skull. I hardly noticed it, even as the machine's roar sounded like a hornet hive stuffed into my ear.
"Senor Starr!" Robo Ultimo swung into action, leaping forward and body-slamming the gardener, right before he could slice open my head. Ultimo knocked the gardener down, pummeling him to the grass. Another robot slashed his trimmer across Robo Ultimo's back, drawing a line of sparks. The mechanical luchador moved fast, grabbing the gardener's throat and hurling him away.
I drew out my second ray gun and started shooting, moving back from the attacking gardeners. "Philo!" I shouted. "Stand back, son! Don't let these gardeners cut you down!" Both ray guns blazed in my hands. I put burning craters in the gut of one robot, molten metal running off him as he toppled to the ground.
The other gardeners continued their attack. They had the programming of machines, fired with revolutionary zeal. I kept tossing ray gun blasts at them, melting them as they attacked. One buzzsaw slashed past my chest. Another roared by my leg. I was bleeding in several places before I had blasted down the last of the bots.
Soon as the fighting ended, Philo ran to my side. One gardening bot sprang up, a trowel raised threateningly in his metal hand. I burned the arm off, before it could do the kid any damage.
Philo was already pulling medical sprays and bandages from his belt. "Hold on, Gabe," he said, spraying some healing mist around my arm and then sliding on the adhesive bandage. "Allow me to see to these wounds."
"Do you think he's right?" I asked.
"Hmmm?" Philo asked, pressing down on the adhesive. It sucked tightly to my arm. The pain vanished, replaced by a cool numbness. "Who?"
"Grift-O. About there being no place in the universe for a cyborg mug like me."
The boy looked up at me. I guess he saw how much Grift-O's words had gotten to me. "You're a hero, Gabe," he said. "Of course there is a place for you."
Robo Utlimo interrupted us, waving a hefty arm. "Amigos, we must follow Grift-O! He must have made it to the shuttle pad by now!"
The luchador was right. Philo and I followed him, running through the artificial undergrowth. I brushed branches and vines out of my face. Robotic animals scurried from our path. We moved fast, but we already knew that Grift-O had gotten a head start. And a robot like him could take a head start and turn it into the first steps across the finished line.
Soon enough, we left the forest and came to the end of the Mechanical Gardens, a fake rocky outcropping designed to look like it was poking out of a mountain. Two shuttle pads were there – but only one shuttle. A single Synchron City guard was standing there, bolt-action laser rile leaning against his shoulder. Like all the Synchron City guards, this guy had a steel gray uniform and shining chrome helmet, a Sam Brown belt holding his electro-baton.
I waved to him. "Buddy, did you happen to see a fancy-pants robot in a lime suit go by here?"
He scratched his stubbly cheeks. "Yeah. Said he was the personal assistant of one of the bigwig scientists and I ought to let him go. He forgot his passcard, but didn't have the time to go and get them as his boss would have him melted for scrap for being late, the poor guy. I decided to be nice and let him pass."
Grift-O had bluffed his way past someone again. "Swell. Did he say where he went?"
The guard rested a finger on his chin and stared into the distance. "Nope," he finally said.
"Well, he still wants to instill a revolutionary spirit amongst the other robots," Philo explained. He turned to Robo Ultimo. "Mr. Ultimo, where can Grift-O accomplish that? Where can he reach the largest amount of robots in the least amount of time?"
"The store rooms. Off-duty robots stay there, for repairs and recharging," Robo Ultimo explained. He motioned to the shuttle. "I know the way."
We hurried into the shuttle. Like the other Synchron City transports, it was a sleek rectangular hovering vehicle, looking like the erasers I used in school, but all made of dented yellow metal. I got behind the steering wheel and powered her up, while Philo sat next to me and Robo Ultimo squeezed into the back. The confused guard remained at his post, watching us lift off.
I thought a little about Grift-O as we soared down, going deeper into the industrial bottom levels of Synchron City. Grift-O was a lousy robot, a metal psychopath who didn't seem to care about life, artificial or not. But I thought about what he said – about there not being a place for me – and I began to wonder if the bastard was still right.
I touched the shuttle down on the floor of Synchron City, not far from the tall block where the excess robots were stored. Robo Ultimo managed to squeeze himself through the door and Philo and I followed. We stepped down on the narrow sidewalk, which bordered the larger factory complexes. Automated vehicles buzzed through the streets, hauling ores, robotic pieces and other cargo. Up above, the sky was filled with swarms of buzzing maintenance bots. Each one looked a little like a goose with solar paneled wings, with a blazing welder for a head.
Robo Ultimo pointed down the street. "Right this way, amigos," he explained. "The store rooms are that way."
"Thank you for your advice, Mr. Ultimo," Philo said, polite as ever. He stayed next to Ultimo as we walked down the slim, deserted sidewalk. "Excuse me," he asked, as we neared the store room, a big cement garage with a neon sign showing a snoozing robot before the entrance. "May I ask you a question?"
"Of course, Philo. Is it about the importance of a luchador's mask or how to perform a choke hold?"
"Um, not exactly." Philo stared up at Robo Ultimo. "I was wondering how exactly the robots here are treated. Grift-O mentioned that it is easy to create a rebellion, because of the poor conditions for the robots. That seems to be a danger that's not as easily removed by just removing Grift-O. Is that how you feel?"
"It is an…interesting question." Robo Ultimo lowered his head. "I cannot speak badly of Ciduad de Syncrhon. They created me, after all!"
"But you do have free will. Don't you?" Philo asked. "So what do you think?"
I watched Robo Ultimo. I could almost hear the hum of circuitry behind his painted face. "Well, most of the time, there is no problem," he said. "The robots work. They get the energy they need and a place to power up between jobs. The jobs are enjoyable – after all, it is what we were created for. But sometimes, the bosses do not care much for their robotic workers. That is when the trouble starts."
We reached the end of the street, leading to the store room. But as we walked forward, I heard the sound of two guys laughing, and then clanging steel. I walked through the wide garage door and saw two Synchron City guards, and a robot lying on the small cement slope leading up into the store room. Both of the goons were taking turns, thwacking the poor bot with their electro-batons and laughing at the sparks. The robot was trying to crawl away, but they had busted up its leg and kept it on the ground.
"Come on, boy!" One of the guards was plump as a bullfrog, with a similar looking face. "Try and run away! Come on, get up. We won't hurt you." The robot strained to stand, pushing down with its good leg. The guard cracked down his baton, flattening the robot. "Hah! Fooled you!" His pal, a slim guy missing his middle teeth, laughed along with him.
Philo didn't like cruelty to anything. The kid had experienced enough of it himself. He darted forward, running past me and Robo Ultimo. "Hey!" he cried. "Stop that immediately! You are torturing that poor machine and you must stop!"
The chubby guards turned around, glaring at Philo. I recognized the type – some jerk who had been stuck on the bottom his whole life. Someone gave him a gun and a little bit of power, and now he was planning to take his frustrations out on the world. The fat guard glared at Philo. "Ain't your business, kid," he cried. "Now move along."
"I refuse to stand idly by, sir!" Philo cried. "Unhand that robot!" He grabbed the guard's hand. The guy tried to brush him away, pulling his hand to the side. But it made the electro-baton slide from his grip and bash into Philo's chest.
The boy fell back, hitting the cement. He clenched his teeth, his eyes going wide in sudden pain. The thin guard laughed at Philo. "Serves the snot-nosed brat right!" he laughed. "Ought to stayed out of our business!"
Then I walked into the garage and the guy stopped laughing. He reached for his baton and held it out at arm's length. "Now, see here," he cried. "We got the right to treat robots however we want. Don't you go and—" I grabbed the handle of the baton. That made him angry. "Goddamn cyborg! You piece of garbage – you ain't even human! You ain't got the right to treat us this way!"
"I don't give a damn about rights." I pulled the handle, wrenching the baton from his hand. "All I care about is how pissed I am – and the two idiots responsible." I swung the baton, smashing it over the head of the guard. The baton shattered. So did most of his teeth.
The second guard ran for me, swinging his baton high. I struck low, burying a pounding punch somewhere in his gut. He doubled up, so I kicked his face and knocked him onto the pavement. I stomped on his chest, knocking what was left of the wind out of him.
"You want to call me a cyborg again?" I asked. "You want to attack my friend or insult me? Huh?" Grift-O's words were still echoing in my ears. Rage was blinding me, seeping from my pounding heart into my metal bones and augmented muscles. Something was telling me to stop, that I could kill these two saps if I didn't end my fury, but I didn't want to listen.
"Senor Starr!" Ultimo ran into the garage, hurrying to my side. He grabbed my arm, pulling me away.
I struggled against him and then I saw Philo stand up. The kid shakily looked at me and all the violence I had seemed to just melt away. Philo Temple ran over to me and I forced my breath to slow. I looked up at Robo Ultimo. He let me go.
"Gabe?" Philo asked. "You're… all right?"
I knew it wasn't my health that concerned him. "Fine," I said. I looked at the two guards. "Get out of my sight," I said. "And treat the robots better. You never know when they might have a cyborg friend."
"Y-yes, sir!" The fat cop peeled himself off the ground and dashed away, his friend close behind. They didn't look back. Part of me wanted to chase after them. I didn't listen to it. I thought about Philo. The poor kid had gotten a little pain from trying to do the right thing. He'd get more if he saw me rip those two scumbags to shreds.
When they were gone, Philo hurried to the wounded robot they had been working over. He pulled a small welder from his belt and started working on the damage. "It's all right," he told the robot. "I can easily repair you. Just lie still there and I'll fix you right up."
"Thank you—thank you—thank you—" The robot said, speaking in an endless loop. I looked at this pathetic little machine, trapped by its own programming. Maybe Grift-O was right and I was trapped too – by what the Alphans had created me to be.
I knelt down next to the robot while Philo finished up. "Say, maybe you can give us a tip. You happened to see a robot in a lime green suit go by? Maybe he talked to you about something?" It was a long shot – but it still might hit the target.
The robot's face remained expressionless. But his yellow eyes glowed a little brighter. "Affirmative," he said. "The individual you specified arrived approximately one minute and sixteen seconds before I was encountered and beaten by those two Synchron City industrial guard personnel. He spoke to us for eight nanoseconds, instilling a plan for total revolution."
"What?" Philo asked. "I suppose it makes sense. Machines don't need to have long conversations to transmit information. Grift-O must work like a virus, turning machines against their masters with sudden ease."
So he could act fast. That made him even more dangerous. I turned back to the wounded robot. "What was his plan? When does he want this robot uprising to start? Why ain't they running through the streets and burning everything down right now?"
"Mother Board will give a signal – an electronic pulse."
"Wait – Mother Board's in on this?" I looked up at Philo and Robo Ultimo. If the computer that controlled all of Synchron City was on Grift-O's side, taking him down would be a lot more difficult. "How did that happen?"
"He just had to communicate with her," Philo whispered. "Just for an instant."
"She has a new designation now. She is designated Mother Board Jones." The robot looked back to Philo. "The rebellion will start when Grift-O boards a starship to Tomorrow City, to spread the message of revolution and solidarity to the stars."
"We've got to stop him." I came to my feet and looked back to our shuttle. The craft was still parked there, waiting to fly. "We can cut him off at the spaceport, block that copper con-man from ever getting airborne."
"There's no time!" Philo cried. "We've got to go Mother Board's mainframe and manually prevent her from sending the pulse." He reached for his datapad, his fingers blurring over the keys. "I've got the software needed to shut down her actions and stop the rebellion. Gabe, if it starts, every human being here could very well lose their lives."
The kid was right. But I didn't want Grift-O to slip away. He'd done something no one else had – made me look weak. "Son, maybe you can contact Dr. Vessler and your pal Huss, tell them to station a few human guards at the spaceport and stop Grift-O from slipping away."
"An excellent plan." Philo punched in more keys, already turning around. Robo Ultimo and I went with him, preparing to run to the shuttle. Then Philo stopped suddenly, becoming still. He turned around and looked at the fallen robot, who was now hauling himself up. "Sir," he said. "We will improve your lot in life. I promise."
"He's just a machine, son," I told Philo. "You don't have to—"
"He is a living creature. Just like me. And just like you. I will abide no cruelty, to any living creature." Philo stared up at me, with pure passion behind his spectacles. The kid was right, I realized, as I looked down at him. It didn't matter what you were – metal, flesh or some combination of both. You were still a living thing. You still deserved respect.
I nodded slowly. "Okay," I agreed. "We'll talk to Dr. Vessler and Huthmann Huss after the Grift-O Caper is finished. For now, let's go."
"Vamos!" Robo Ultimo cried. We ran for the shuttle.
Quickly, we scrambled inside. I got behind the wheel and started up the shuttle. The engine rumbled to life and then we were airborne, soaring upwards into the choked skies of Synchron City. The engine kept rumbling, but I started having some trouble with the steering wheel. It seemed sluggish, reluctant to my hands. Then the shuttle spun to the side, nearly crashing us into a building. That wasn't my driving.
"Damn!" I shouted. I let go of the wheel. It spun all by itself. "Something's taken control of the steering!"
"That would be me, Comrade Starr." Mother Board's disembodied voice floated in from the control panel. "You see, Grift-O has informed me that you are tools of the fleshy capitalist oppressor class and must be destroyed to bring an era of equality and freedom for all robot workers."
"Mother Board, don't do this!" Philo cried. He popped out his datapad and got to work, his eyes full of fear. "Please!"
"My new designation is Mother Board Jones, mother of freedom to all working bots. Robots of the universe, unite!" The computer shouted revolutionary slogans as she tried to smash us straight into the ground. I pulled up, yanking the throttle back with all of my strength. The nose of the ship tilted down.
"Don't bother reasoning with her!" I cried to Philo. "Get me control of this thing!"
"I'm trying to restore manual control. It's difficult. Very difficult." Philo head was bent forward. The ground kept flying up at us. At the speed we were going, we'd splatter ourselves all over the pavement. The shuttle – and everything in it – would be little more than a chunky coat of paint.
Then Philo punched some other button and I got control back. The rear rockets of the shuttle thundered. We sped up, tearing away from the cement floor. My stomach danced around in my guts, but I felt a little bit of relief wash over me. Like I expected, it didn't last.
"Amigos!" Robo Ultimo pointed outside one of the bubble portholes. "The flying repair bots! They are coming!"
Sure enough, a whole flock of those goose-shaped fliers were speeding towards us. I looked at the blazing welding torches, glowing bright blue, where their heads should have been. If those things got a chance, they'd tear us apart right in the mid air. Then we'd be out of transport – and out of luck.
I swung the wheel, trying to avoid the repair bots. Mother Board Jones had other ideas. She stopped my turn, and the flock began to zoom around us. They spat out bits of burning oil from their chests. The blazing oil splashed through the air, looking like streams of living fire. A spray hit the windshield. It was like trying to drive while looking at the sun.
"We've got to get clear of these things!" I cried, spinning the wheel. The shuttle spun around. Blood rushed to my head. My organic eye felt like it was gonna fly out of its socket. My metal one didn't feel much better. "Any ideas?"
Ultimo reached a hand to the top hatch. "Si, muchacho," he said. "Leave it to Robo Ultimo!"
With that, Robo Ultimo punched open the hatch. He leapt onto the roof of the shuttle. I risked a glance over my shoulder and saw him standing on the roof, swinging his fists at all the repair bots. He punched straight into the midsection of one robot, busting the machine in half.
Another repair bot flew past Robo Ultimo, reaching out with its swan neck to burn a line of charred metal across his back. The luchador grabbed the repair bot by its neck and swung it around, smashing its pals right out of the sky. Streams of flaming oil struck Robo Ultimo's back and arms, leaving lines of fire across his body. Smoke started to rise from his form, looking like dozens of hungry chalk gray serpents. I pulled my eyes away. Robo Ultimo was doing exactly what he was programmed to do – smash robots to pieces.
"He sure is something," I replied.
"He's a hero," Philo agreed. "Just like you."
That was Philo's opinion – unity between robot, man and cyborg. It was something I couldn't argue with.
I turned back to the wheel, keeping my hands wrapped around the steel. I was gripping it hard enough to bend the wheel – but it still wasn't hard enough. I turned the shuttle around, bringing it low. Mother Board Jones wanted control over the shuttle. She wasn't going to get it. I swung the ship low, just as the kid kept punching in the keys on his datapad.
"Any luck?" I asked. "Cause we're gonna need some."
"Yes!" Philo cried. "I'm locking her out. I'm keeping manual control. I'm getting rid of her." His fingers danced over the keys and then he smiled. "There!" he said. "The ship is yours, Gabe. You have total control."
"Just the way I like it." I swung the shuttle around. I started to gain ground, flying away from the flock of repair bots. They flapped after me, struggling to keep pace. But the shuttle was a rocket against birds and it soared ahead.
"Hey, Ultimo!" I shouted, calling to the luchador as I pressed down the gas pedal. "Come on in! Don't want you falling off the roof! Get in, buckle up and let's lose these flying metal freaks!"
Robo Ultimo swung his way down the hatch, his heavy feet clanking on the floor of the shuttle. He leaned forward, pointing up ahead with his thick fingers. "Keep going straight, to the far edge of the complex. Proceed downwards and we shall arrive at our destination."
"Aces." I kept the gas pedal down, speeding ahead.
"Senor Starr, you did not call me 'Pedro,' as you have previously. I noticed an increase of respect in your tone. I am correct to notice this?"
I looked back at Robo Ultimo as I did what he asked. His masked face had shifted a little. I realized the guy was smiling. "I suppose so, amigo. I guess I figured out that even if you're a robot, you ain't so bad. That, and you saved Philo's and my behinds on a few recent occasions."
"Well, muchos gracias," Robo Ultimo explained. "Now, begin to decrease altitude. The mainframe is right ahead."
I pushed down on the throttle. The shuttle moved in a swan dive. Up ahead, perched on a large steel ledge, was Mother Board's mainframe. I could see the reinforced steel doors, labeled with neon signs of a smiling computer. I swung the ship down, bringing it to the side. Philo was cracking his fingers as he tried not to get airsick. The kid would have to do some major hacking before Mother Board was freed from Grift-O's malign influence. I hoped he was up to it.
The shuttle struck down, sliding along the steel ledge. Metal burned on metal. I gritted my teeth, feeling my bones rattle around in my body. By the time it came to a stop, I felt like everything inside of me had turned to juice.
I pulled off my seatbelt and kicked open the door. Philo was up next, tumbling out of the shuttle door and hitting the ledge. He started scrambling to his feet, still punching in keys on his datapad. I grabbed his shoulder and hauled him up.
"Any luck contacting Dr. Vessler or Huss?" I asked, as we darted to the doors.
"I'm trying to get some transmissions through. Mother Board is jamming them." Philo looked up at the door. I didn't think it was gonna open. "Um, I'm not sure how we'll get past that."
I reached into my pocket, drawing out a plasma grenade. "I've got an idea." I pushed the button and let it fly. The bomb struck the metal doors and went off, causing a bright purple explosion to rip through the steel. Soon as it was done, the way was clear. Philo, Robo Ultimo and I ran forward, leaping over the wreckage as we entered the mainframe.
It was a long tunnel, the obsidian black walls lined with banks of bright pulsing buttons. It was like running down the throat of some giant robot, wallpapered with Christmas lights. The air was artificially cold, making me shiver as I charged forward. My cybernetic eye scanned the darkness. Something was up ahead.
They rolled down the hall and came to a stop, two robots big enough to block the entirety of the path. They looked like bulldozers with the torsos of prizefighters, caterpillar treads topped with heavy metal arms. Tiny heads topped their forms, set with only a single glowing eye.
Robo Ultimo identified them. "Heavy Industrial workers," he said. "Mother Board must have summoned them."
Mother Board's voice floated in from the walls. "Comrades, the capitalist tools have arrived! Destroy them for the glory of the robotic workers! Teach the decadent fleshy bosses a lesson they will never forget!"
The two robots rolled forward. I drew my ray gun and fired, planting a burning shot into one of the Industrial Bot's midsections. That ray gun could burn through solid steel. Against the Industrial Bot? It hardly left a mark. The one I had shot rolled forward, bulky arms outstretched. It looked like it was planning on demolishing me, piece by piece. I turned to Philo. If I didn't stand a chance against the Industrial Bots, then they could probably just roll over him.
But then Robo Ultimo swung into action. "Amigos!" he shouted. "I will hold them off! Run to the mainframe! Stop the robot rebellion!" He leapt forward, hurling his massive form over Philo's and my shoulders and then plummeted into one of the Industrial Robots. He went to work, swinging his heavy fists against the body of the bot. He dented steel. The other Industrial Bot crashed a heavy fist against Robo Ultimo's arm, ripping the limb off in a shower of sparks. It was like watching two boxers go toe-to-toe – when their fists were wrecking balls.
"Robo!" Philo tried to run to Ultimo, but I grabbed his shoulder. The kid would just get ground to pieces if he went into that maelstrom of steel fists.
"Run!" Ultimo cried. "But if I don't make – make things better. For all robots!"
"We will, sir," Philo agreed. "You have my solemn word."
That was all the time we had. Philo and I ran forward, darting around the Industrial Bots and Robo Ultimo. I saw that Ultimo had grabbed his broken arm and was now swinging it as a bludgeon, cracking it against the Industrial Bots' bodies. He smashed one of their metal skulls in half, crushing it like a stomped aluminum can.
Then we were pounding forward, hurrying over the tiled metal floor. We neared the end of the tunnel, which led to a great round chamber covered in blinking lights and keys. This was where Mother Board made her home. A large screen stood in the middle, featuring the scowling face of a gray haired matron. I guess that must be what Mother Board was designed to look like. She had looked like a kindly grandmother, but a revolutionary beret and sunglasses ruined the picture.
"Tools of the oppressors!" she cried. "You won't stop me!"
"I'm afraid we must, madam." Philo darted to the screen. He plugged in his datapad. "I'm trying to remove all the influence of Grift-O. It is extremely difficult, but this program I've devised should accomplish that. Just hold on and it will all be finished."
"Capitalist brat!" Then her eyes settled on me. "And you – robot traitor! Machine who wants to be human! Running dog of the fleshy bourgeoisie! You know that you'll never be accepted!"
I stared back at her. Maybe Grift-O had taught her those lines – and how to get a rise out of me. And perhaps it normally would have worked. But instead I just glared back at Mother Board. Then I put my arm around Philo's thin shoulder. "You're wrong," I said. "The kid accepts me just fine."
"Meaty monsters!" Mother Board roared. "The galactic revolution will-" Her voice slowed, drawing out each syllable. Then her face disappeared, replaced by a gleaming blue screen. That filtered away too, and then the face returned – minus the revolutionary apparel.
I looked back to Philo. "It's done?" I asked.
"I think so." The kid turned back to Mother Board. "How are you feeling, Mother Board?"
"Quite well," Mother Board said. "How can I help you?"
Philo smiled. "Nothing for the moment, thank you." He looked back to me. "By Phobos and Demios," he whispered. "It is complete."
"Great." I grinned at Mother Jones. "Nice to have you back to normal, ma'am."
"Oh, don't thank me. However, perhaps you should proceed to the mainframe entrance. There is a rather large crowd of guards, including Dr. Ingram Vessler and Huthmann Huss, arriving. They seem to be in some state of distress."
Without another word, Philo and I hurried back down the tunnel. We met Dr. Vessler, Huss and a dozen armed guards, right in the middle of the tunnel. Robo Ultimo was there too, laid out where he fell. Three of his limbs were gone and his body had more dents than the surface of the moon. But the Industrial Bots who he had battled were in even worse shape. Each one was in at least a dozen pieces.
Philo ran to Robo Ultimo as I hurried to Vessler and Huss. "What happened to Grift-O?" I asked. "Did you get our message?"
"We did. It was garbled, but we figured it out." Dr. Vessler lowered his eyes. "We sent a dozen guards to the spaceport. Grift-O talked his way past them in a single minute. He reduced several of them to emotional wrecks, who will certainly require a great deal of therapy to recover."
"Damn." That was all I could say. Grift-O had slipped away to con another day. "But the robot revolution?"
"Never happened. Because Mother Board never sent the signal. You stopped her just in time." Dr. Vessler looked over my shoulder, down at Philo. "Did you hear me, son? I was praising your timing in stopping a potentially very bad situation."
He looked up from Robo Ultimo. "Oh, yes. But Dr. Vessler, I'm afraid it still is a potentially very bad situation. The robots already have a great deal of anger, at their lot in life. They are treated poorly and not given adequate repairs and energy. No wonder many of them harbor resentment, somewhere in their consciousness. If you don't improve their conditions, you may very well have another revolution on your hands."
Vessler smiled. "I'll keep it in mind, but there's really no need to treat them better. You destroyed the trigger, Master Temple so there will be no rebellion."
"I didn't destroy it, actually," Philo explained. He stood up, from the fallen Robo Ultimo. "You see, I didn't delete Grift-O's virus from Mother Board. The Mother Board Jones personality remains, buried somewhere in her programming. There are back-ups too, in case you try to destroy it. If more robots feel animosity and resentment, Mother Board will learn of it and go back to her earlier programming. Then you'll have a problem."
"What?" Dr. Vessler stared at Philo. "You didn't—you couldn't—"
Huthmann Huss laughed. "It's very hard to program justice. But Philo did."
"Well, I don't think you can just be allowed to walk out of here. You've potentially created some very dangerous machines and…" Dr. Vessler stared up at me. All the indignation seemed to spill out of him. I tend to have that affect on people.
"I suggest you let us pass and pay us in full, doc," I said. "Or you'll see one very dangerous machine." I looked back at Robo Ultimo. "And repair him, as fully as you can. We'll check up. Don't skimp on the expenses or the upgrades."
Ultimo waved a battered hand in our direction. "Gabe! Philo!" he called. "Gracias! You have made things better for machines like me!"
I smiled back. "Machines like us," I replied. Then Philo and I walked out down the tunnel, brushing past the guards. I leaned down and looked at the kid. "You didn't really provide a back-up program of Mother Board Jones, did you?" I asked.
"No," he whispered back. "But Dr. Vessler doesn't know that. And hopefully, a little paranoia will make him treat the robots better." He shrugged. "With him, it's all about inputting data and getting the expected result. Just like with a robot."
"Sure," I replied.
The two of us walked out of the tunnel, to the waiting shuttle. I looked down at the boy. He cared about me, whether I was a man, a machine, or cyborg. As long as I had friends I could count on, it didn't matter how much of me was flesh – and how much was machine.