by Cat Rambo
The bots were going to run Linus out of room soon, if they didn’t scavenge away some piece vital to the ship’s functioning and leave him choking on vacuum first. He didn’t think anyone else had these problems with their ship bots. Galina would say it was his own fault for encouraging them.
The toys were definitely where he had gone awry.
Three runs ago, Linus had acquired a cargo hold full of antique toys, some traveling exhibit going out to the colonies that someone had pilfered along the way. He’d taken them as payment for a poker debt, not realizing how difficult they would be to dispose of.
He’d finally given up trying to sell or swap them, and had stacked the boxes in the furnace hold the bots used for their workshop, reclaiming several spanners and a laser torch in trade. Most of the stuff they’d rendered down to its constituent parts but odd bits had showed up in the latest generation: beetle-bots spiked with yellow plastic dinosaurs; a spindle-legged spider that had used screws and interlocked plastic bits to construct multi-colored limbs; mannequin bots with doll faces and tiny hands.
He went down the corridor, passing two child-sized bots. One clicked out a memory card and handed it to the other, who slotted it into its chest between two gleaming silver stripes.
“That’s such a bad idea,” he said reflexively in passing. They paid him no attention. He‘d ask the ship to speak to them, to emphasize the problems of viruses and corrupted memory, he thought and sighed, using his fingers to comb his wispy hair away from his face.
He would have liked more gravity, but, well, fuel rods didn’t make themselves, so he kept the gravity down in brittle-bone territory, telling himself it was just for a little longer. He had more things to worry about than bots, though, if he ever wanted to weigh more than a few kilos ever again.
A beetle-bot scurried across the corridor and up the wall, vanishing into an air duct’s opening with a swish of its pink nylon tail.
That had looked like a new model. Fuel rods couldn’t regenerate themselves, but the bots could. He’d successfully persuaded them to stick to upgrades for a long time, but it seemed as though the urge to propagate was too strong.
Early on, he’d disabled their repli-chips but they’d reinstated them and started scavenging for supplies to create their offspring, solo projects and elaborate joint efforts. The rainbow spider was one such construction, the product of dozens of the several hundred bots on the ship.
A mannequin-bot clattered out of the kitchen and stamped towards him. A quarter of his height, it covered much less ground than he did, but its pace was quick and determined. He refused to step out of its way, and its head swiveled, showing him a red-eyed screen and a robot obscenity scrolling across it: 2 + 2 = 5.
“Screw you, too,” he muttered, and made his way into the galley to tab for some hot water to make tea.
“Your blood pressure is too high,” the ship said. “Let’s do a guided mediation.”
“Let’s let me get my drink and sit down!” he snarled over his shoulder. He wondered if Galina were still in range. Talking to her always calmed him. They tried to time their trips to the station, but Galina wanted profit, was always looking for the score that would let her move to work in a more settled system.
He thought, I’ve been out here too long. I’m talking to the ship, to the bots, as though they were old friends at the corner coffee shop. A dull throb behind his eyes pulsed in time with the irregularities of the ventilator fan, going high and low in a reverberating whine that seemed to drill into his skull’s center.
The last time he’d been in port, he’d seen Galina, but only in passing, not even a kiss traded before she was off and out again on a priority run and he was just starting to tick off the first items on his restock list: juice and seeds, something new to liven the growarium.
Breathing hard, he went into the growarium and stood there in the green-lit space amid the shelves of wheatgrass and algae. He crushed a tomato leaf between his fingers and sniffed, the smell taking him back to summers at his grandparents and the hammock beside the tubs of earth on their balcony, looking out over serried canyons of apartment buildings where pigeons wheeled.
Grandpop had fed the feral cats in the alley behind the building, taking down scraps and ziplock plastic bags bellied with kibble. The fat queans were similarly bellied, but with kittens. There were always wire-limbed, wary kittens that Linus would try, unsuccessfully, to coax near.
Dawn and dusk, that was when Grandpop had fed them. Sometimes he and Linus had sat out on the apartment building’s concrete back landing, watching the cats hunt rats and water beetles. In the evenings, bats swooped around the electric lights twenty feet overhead, through flittering insect swarms like glitter in the air.
He could feel his thoughts slowing as he contemplated those distant, dark evenings, the smell of his grandfather’s herbal cigarette.
Something clanked outside, re-jittering his nerves. He paused, listening. Somehow the silence was more ominous than sound would have been.
Linus would run into the station and see about a courier run. He’d just about break even on costs and he could keep an eye out for trading opportunities along the way. He hadn’t meant to. He’d thought he’d stay out here for another few weeks, looking for good salvage, asteroids full of ice and ore. But when he was talking to himself, he knew it was time to come from the fringes of human existence.
Even on Twicefar Station, though, he felt removed from the lives around him, as though he were watching them from far out in space, peering through camera lens or computer conduit.
He paused in front of “Akla’s Wares,” went so far as to go through the wide door to see if his friend Kallakak was there. He wasn’t, nor was it the surly robot who sometimes spelled him. Instead, two smaller Ballabel sat beside the front counter, weaving baskets of red and yellow reeds, ugly but authentic looking. Like Kallakak, they were reptilian in appearance, four-armed. Kallakak was a little taller than Linus, but these were substantially smaller. He wondered if they were Kallakak’s children.
Someone shouldered past him and he saw it was a third, even smaller Ballabel. He half-smiled at it – it reminded him of the toys somehow, but it turned and made a rude gesture at him.
“Do you intend to buy anything?” it demanded.
He blinked. “No,” he said. “Tell Kallakak Linus stopped by.”
“His friend Linus or his customer Linus or his tax collector Linus?”
“Friend,” he said. It straightened up a little from its slouch while the other two whispered behind it.
“We will convey the message,” it said.
He rode the escalator up the Midnight Stair and wandered through the massive food court for a half-hour before settling on spicy noodles and a fruit-colored drink.
He wondered what the bots were doing, back on the ship. It was one of the biggest taboos, infesting a port. But he’d told them of the possible cost. They’d had strict orders not to go outside the ship. Surely that would be enough. They were nothing if not rational. He chewed his noodles, which were undercooked and mealy.
Someone touched his shoulder and he jumped, startled as a child finding a midnight ghost.
Jasper Taitland, dressed in corpwear plastics, textured to look like gray wool.
“Linus,” the other man said and slid into a chair without asking. “Linus, do you still have those toys you got from me playing cards?”
Hope surged in Linus’s breast. Perhaps Jasper would buy his goods back at a profit to Linus. Or break-even costs at least. He reconsidered. How easy would it be to reclaim those toys from the bots? Probably not easy at all.
“Can’t really lay my hands on them anymore,” he said with regret.
Jasper reached out, took a fingerful of noodles, slurped them down. “Been people asking about them and they’ve been kinda persistent. Seems they were valuable, had some early AI chips, prototypes for intelligent toys. So where did the toys end up?”
Linus shrugged and pulled his bowl closer. He chased the last bite of noodle down with his fork.
“Sold ‘em? Gave ‘em away?” Jasper watched him closely.
Linus didn’t care much who was chasing Jasper. The man annoyed him. So he shrugged again, just to see the muscle under the corp-slave’s left eye twitch. “Lost ‘em.”
Jasper leaned forward. “Lost ‘em where?”
“If I knew that, would they be lost?” Linus crumpled his bowl into a damp ball and threw it into the nearest recycler, chased it with the utensil.
“This isn’t a good time to be farking around, Linus,” Jasper said.
Linus stood up. “Wouldn’t do that to ya, Jasper. Tell your friends the stuff’s gone. I need to head to the PO.”
But before he got as far as the exit to the food court, he bumped into Galina.
She beamed at him. She wore a bright turquoise scarf, printed with purple triangles and yellow stars, tied to confine her ginger-red hair. Her eyebrows were fine and downy as finch feathers. Maybe this time they’d snatch some hours together, for pleasure and sleep and pleasure again.
She pulled him into a swillery and ordered washes of beer and a basket of dry, multigrain pretzels.
“Long time no face to face,” she said.
“Been a while,” he agreed. He ate a pretzel, cracking it in his back teeth. He probably should visit a dentist while here, but it was just another bill.
He sighed and she laughed. “Are you listening to me?”
“No,” he said, guilt doubled, wondering if he’d screwed his chances at sex with her this trip. “No, sorry, Galina. There’s been a lot on my mind. Expenses. You know.”
“That’s what I’m trying to say. About those toys you had. Out here stuff like that isn’t worth much, but you get into the well-populated galaxies, where there’s lots of wealth, well, there you find collectors. People who want to pay a lot for something that is unique. Like antique toys. I’ve got a friend traveling hubward, someone you could trust to represent you, sell the toys for you.”
He frowned, trying to fit his head around this. He’d never seen the point of collections.
“Jasper said they had AI chips in them.”
“I don’t know anything about that,” she said. “I know you can get money for them. Good money. Enough to upgrade your ship, start making longer runs.”
His phone squealed. Kallakak.
Even as he started to answer, Galina said, “Think about it, ask me when you’re freed up.” She made a “gotta get going” signal, swung herself out of the booth. He waved to her as she left.
Moments later Kallakak slid into her still-warm seat, signaled for a bulb of juice.
“You look beat,” Linus said. Even though he didn’t know much about Ballabels, a weary slouch to the shopkeeper’s shoulders testified to lack of sleep and plenitude of stress.
“Akla’s cousins,” Kallkak said, and punctured the juice bulb with a vicious slice of an eye tooth. “Been staying with me.”
“The ones at the shop?”
“Yes. Worthless little shits, most of the time.”
“Why are you letting them stay then?”
“Pack of Jellidoos tried to claim the space, the little guys helped convince them it was haunted.”
Linus snorted. “Or could be you’re a soft touch.”
“Yeah, says the man running a bot orphanage and breeding factory.”
“Fair enough.” He punched an order for whiskey into the table’s surface. The draught’s heat washed through him.
Kallakak’s eyes were intent. The frill atop his head rose and fell as though in amusement. “If any of those bots get loose in the station and they’re traced back to you, you’ll be facing a big fine, you know.”
“They know better,” he said, but he kept his voice low. “Look, everyone wants these toys all of a sudden, you know much about them?”
Kallakak shrugged. “I don’t deal in antiquities, collectibles. I buy cheap. Curiosities and fall-apart souvenirs of the station. ” He fished in his apron pocket. “Like these.”
Half of the shards gleamed with color, the others were frosted white glass.
Kallakak nudged a frosted one over to him with the pointed top of a talon. “Take it. Hold it in your palm till it warms.”
He closed his fingers over it, felt it not quite thrill, not quite squirm against his skin. When it warmed, he uncurled his fingers. The white had taken on yellow and orange tracery, like a new autumn leaf.
“That’s prettier than I’d expected. The deeper, the purer the emotion, the more colorful the shards become. It’s hard to get a reliable source of good ones,” Kallakak said. He tapped two of the colored ones. “These are from the cousins. You’d think young things would be full of emotion. That’s what makes the best color. Instead, look at this.”
The shards in question were colored chestnut and taupe, with scatterings of teal freckles.
“Dull,” Kallakak said. “And I despair of teaching any of them decent taste, although Tedesla sometimes shows glimmerings.”
He pushed the colored shard back towards Kallakak but the adult Ballabel pushed it back to him along with two more frosted shards. “Take them. The school here uses them for exercises, I’ve been buying bits to sell for souvenirs.”
Linus slid them into an inner pocket and palmed the table table, paying for them both.
Outside in the hallway, the three cousins slouched against the wall. He wondered how off he was in considering them sullen teenagers. Were they Kallakak’s version of stray cats?
“Is that robot tending the shop?”
“Yeah,” Kallakak said. “He’s cheap.” He glared at the cousins. “And these three get into trouble if you leave them there too long.”
Sla wanted to say something back, Linus could tell, but it refrained, although not without a defiant bristle.
“We are walking Linus my friend back to his ship to look at some goods,” Kallakak told them.
“Is it far?” Sla asked. “We have walked a great deal today.”
“And you will walk farther yet before the day is done,” Kallakak retorted.
“I need to stop by the PO,” Linus said humbly. He and Kallakak ignored Sla’s huff of irritation.
A datasqueal: someone was trying to get into the ship.
“C’mon,” he said. Kallkak and the three cousins followed him.
By the time they made their way down two levels and through a set of decontamination corridors, the intruders were gone. They’d cut a hole in the side, and for a little while he obsessively checked the systems, looking for any infrared shadow that might betray an invader’s presence.
The bots clustered around him as though for reassurance. He didn’t notice any missing, but they changed so much on a daily basis, swapping bits and pieces, manufacturing others – mirrors were currently popular – that he had no idea.
One of the cousins, the smallest one, made a sound at the sight of the bots, a squeak of pure entrancement, stepping forward. The other two pushed after it.
“Those aren’t yours,” Kallakak said. “Fingers off.”
“They steal like little apes,” he told Linus. “No offense intended.”
The eldest gave him a disappointed look, but Sla turned to Linus. “Can we play with them?” it said.
“Sla,” Kallakak said, but Linus shook his head. “If they let you,” he told the little Ballabels.
“Look, that one’s sparkly,” Tesla said, and they all reached for the bot in question. Linus expected it to dart away, but instead it stretched like a snake and curled up the Ballabel’s arm as the three cousins cooed to it.
“Twicefar attracts opportunists,” Kallakak said. “People are chasing your toys, but they don’t want to outright steal them. When the government switches over – as it always does, eventually – they tend to make their moves.”
His phone buzzed as Galina called.
“Are you okay?” she demanded without preamble.
He felt vaguely embarrassed, caught himself hunching a shoulder, ducking away from the witnessing stares of the bots. “I’m with Kallakak and his kids.” (Kallakak made a half-strangled sound behind him.) “What’s up?”
“Look,” she said. “Do you have those toys?”
“There’s not much left of them,” he hedged.
She paused. “What have you been doing?” she asked finally. “Playing with them?”
“No,” he said. “The bots have been self-augmenting with them.”
She sighed. “Those ridiculous bots. I’ve told you before, they get loose in the station, you’re up for a big fine. Might even get banned for it. Look, you can kill two birds with one stone by disassembling some of them.”
He looked round. Disassemble them? A blue and red soldier strutted by, its bottom half a centaur cannon. Kallakak folded both sets of arms, regarding it with disapproval.
“Has Jasper talked to you?” she demanded.
“Yeah, but I had to duck out,” he said.
“You didn’t tell me that. I thought you’d only been in port a quarter hour or so. What did he want?”
“The same thing as you. The toys,” he said. “Presumably for the same reason, profit.” He felt a bit crass saying the last, but he might as well call them as he saw them. He didn’t want any of the little bots taken apart to serve Galina or Jasper’s aims. He’d sign onto a courier mission as fast as possible, restock, refuel, repair, go boomeranging back to the outer reaches of the system, where he and the bots would be safe.
She started to say something, but he hung up.
“Are you all here?” he asked the clustered bots.
They stared at him.
He couldn’t tell what they were thinking, whether or not they understood. Bots left to themselves developed screwed-up algorithms, weird logic twists caused by introverted generations.
A burly-shouldered bot flashed 3+3=7 at him and he half-smiled. “Yeah, I see you.”
He welded some odd steel over the hole from the inside and set bots to watching it with cutting lasers.
Other bots were showing the cousins the inner reaches of their construction. Linus said to Kallakak, “You watch over the ship, and when I get back, we’ll talk.”
“Okay,” Kallakak said. “I can tell you, though, you’re not going to get much, if anything for what’s left of those toys. They’re all spliced and melted and repurposed.”
“Back within an hour,” he said to the squat spider-bots, arms clustered around the laser grips, and clattered down the ladder. The air still smelled of hot steel.
“Where are you headed?” Kallakak asked.
“To see Jasper.”
One of the things Linus hated about the station was the noise. It was always there, a medley of machinery and conversation and a distant grinding, as of monstrous teeth. Ship noises you tuned out after a while, but station noise was changeable. Unpredictable.
Jasper lived in one of the pricier sections of Twicefar, apartments overlooking the space that yawned beside the Midnight Stairs. He didn’t answer his door. Behind another apartment door, a baby cried.
Linus looked up and down the empty corridor, palmed a screwdriver and set to work on the lock, easing it up with nimble twitches of the metal blade.
Inside, Jasper was sitting on the couch. His neck was oddly angled, broken like a straw.
Linus held perfectly still for a moment, listening. But the air was stale and undisturbed, and he relaxed his shoulders, stepped forward to stare at the corpse.
He held his breath as he went through Jasper’s pockets. Nothing.
He called Kallakak but hesitated, not sure what to say.
“I need to get back to the shop,” Kallakak said. “The cousins are there, said there’s nothing wrong in a tone that made me nervous. Can I just lock up here for you?”
“Yeah,” Linus said.
He searched, opening drawers to glance inside, trying to figure out what Jasper would have had that was worth killing him for. A jar in the kitchen had been smashed and something picked out of the flour. What, Linus wasn’t sure. The cameras throughout the apartment as well as along the corridor had been disabled.
Something invisible plucked at his sleeve.
His heart stopped for a minute before he realized it was a bot, unobtrusive, hovering in the air beside his elbow. Then he realized it was one of his bots, off the ship, doing God knows what, and this time his heart stopped again and a chill edged through his blood as he contemplated the size of the fine for infesting a station with self-aware, fully-replicating bots.
It tugged again as a distant alarm sounded and his stomach tensed. He decided to get out while the going was good.
Back at the ship, he went first to the galley, heated beef broth and bitter coffee.
A sense of presence gathered at his back and he spun to see a half dozen bots contemplating him, peering at him from the doorway of his room.
“What?” he snapped.
A turtle shaped robot rolled forward, extended a tentacle to tug at his fingers. He followed.
In the shadowy depths of the furnace room they had claimed as their own, excrescences and extrusions of metal and plastic and sparkling bits, a figure almost as tall as he was.
He stopped in front of it. Two figures worked on it, blond-haired dolls, a third of a meter high, each with multiple arms, six and eight.
The skin was made of brown plastic, but he recognized bits from the recycling bin, recast into the smooth surface: a glimmer of green vinegar bottle, the letters 1206 stretched thin and spidery as an old tattoo.
He stared. They had made something as human as they could, shaped and sized somewhat like him. They had understood breasts, and tried to create them in that sleek form. They had made her face like his, but more delicate, unbearded. The hair was strands of tinsel, combed carefully, falling like water. The eyes were very beautiful, colored like summer butterflies.
He looked at the watching bots and understood.
They had built him a bride.
They had sensed his loneliness. Did they think themselves Cupid, bots d’amor?
He stood and contemplated her as the two spider-limbed dolls fussed and fiddled like hairdressers, bridesmaids, a goddess’s attendants. She looked at him with her mirrored eyes flickering like wings opening and closing and he caught her secret amusement.
He wanted to give her a present. He fished in his pocket, held out the shards of emotion glass, his sunset-colored curve, the two un-impressed pieces as pale as moonlight.
As she touched them, they flared purple and green and peacock, deep underwater colors as beautiful as anything he’d ever seen.
The colors caught the breath from his lungs. They were reflected in her eyes. Emotions – from a robot. Deep and beautiful and complex. More complex than any human could manage.
From behind him, an amused voice. “Well, this is cozy, I must say.”
“Galina.” He spun.
“Where are the toys?” she said. As he stepped away from the cluster of robots, her eyes widened. “You have got to be kidding me. Do you know how much those old pieces were worth? A fortune!”
A thumping on the outside entrance. They made it to the lock. TwiceFar Port Authority. Holding a robot that he recognized, its arms pink and green as candy stripes.
But when the door irised open, the bot streaked to Galina held her about the shoulder.
“Ownership established,” one of the officials said with grim satisfaction even as she protested, “They’re not mine! Does this look like something I’d own?”
“The ownership chip has been wiped,” the other official said. “But it seems to identify with you, ma’am, as though it had recently come in contact with you.”
She struggled, but they held her by the arms. Her scarf drifted away, fell to the floor in a flutter of color.
She’d been the intruder, Linus realized. But how had the bots gotten off ship? How had they known she was a danger? Why had one been willing to sacrifice itself for the rest?
And for him, perhaps.
He looked at the robot they bots had made for him. Shyly, he extended a hand that trembled, just a little, as she reached for him in turn.
Kallakak studied the two shards of glass that Linus had placed before him. They were colored like midnight rainbows, arcs of color that tantalized and drew the eye into their depths.
“Have her imprint a few more dozen of these before you go,” he said. “If you think she won’t mind. You say they built her for you?”
“God only knows what they think of human sexuality,” Linus said. Still, a little grin tugged at the corner of his lip. “Where are the cousins?”
“Still working off their punishment for taking your bots and trying to reprogram them,” Kallakak said. “I know it all turned out all right, but do you know what that fine would have been like multiplied by three?”
They both shuddered and lifted their drinks as though to toast the absence of the hypothetical fine.
“One of them might be of great use to you on a run,” Kallakak said.
Back at the ship, he ran through the pre-flight checks. A quick mission, and well-paying, through a friend of Kallakak’s.
“You must never leave the ship again, even if other sentients say it is all right,” he told the bots watching him run the drill.
She was in the doorway. Her sparkling hair was bound back with Galina’s silk scarf. Linus eyed her shyly.
“Particularly you,” he told her.
This was crazy, this was, he thought, perhaps the first step towards madness.
He wondered if they’d build him robot children, great grandchildren with his dandelion fluff hair, lenses the color of his cloudy eyes. He wondered what the stray cats had thought, winding around Grandpop’s ankles. Had they built empires in their heads, there in the gathering darkness, while far away dogs barked in backyards beneath the early stars?
John Barth described Cat Rambo’s writings as “works of urban mythopoeia” — her stories take place in a universe where chickens aid the lovelorn, Death is just another face on the train, and Bigfoot gives interviews to the media on a daily basis. She has worked as a programmer-writer for Microsoft and a Tarot card reader, professions which, she claims, both involve a certain combination of technical knowledge and willingness to go with the flow. Among the places in which her stories have appeared are Asimov’s’, Weird Tales, Clarkesworld, and Strange Horizons, and her work has consistently garnered mentions and appearances in year’s best of anthologies. Her collection, Eyes Like Sky And Coal And Moonlight was an Endeavour Award finalist in 2010 and followed her collaboration with Jeff VanderMeer, The Surgeon’s Tale and Other Stories.
She has edited anthologies as well as the critically-acclaimed Fantasy Magazine, is a board member of feminist science fiction group Broad Universe, a member of the Codex Writers’ Group, and volunteers with Clarion West.