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I didn’t think about how Theo would react to the bots I lined up in front of the window. They had been cleaned up, well, hosed off, pretty thoroughly. The most comical scene I put together by carefully posing and balancing them was a scene where they were all fighting over a glazed donut that had so many preservatives in it that it hadn’t changed in all the time I spent in the cafeteria.
As soon as he saw them he froze, staring at the scene. “I know, I… uh didn’t really put them away,” I said. “I’m sorry man, I just didn’t think about what a good bot would feel like if I saw them this way.”
He rushed to them and looked at the hands of one of the female androids. “There’s blood. This is a killer, a diseased murderer.” He couldn’t have seemed more horrified if he were screaming. “They’re all infected, turned into killers. I can’t take parts from them. What if there is a data chip in a leg? Or a wireless receiver in a forearm? I don’t want to be sick like them, Noah. If I ever turned on people I don’t know what I’d do. I’d delete myself after I realized what I had done, I’d rather have the void than be a murder.”
Data storage could be a real pain to find. I remembered seeing wires that just looked like power feeds that had sensors and log memory chips build right in, you couldn’t see them until you stripped the insulation off. “Okay, all right, that makes sense, man. I’m sorry I suggested it, but where do we get spare parts then? I don’t want you to live on a few hours of juice at a time while you limp around.”
“You are kind,” he said, caressing the waitresses’ face. “I wonder what she was like before she caught the disease?”
I didn’t know what to do, it was as though I’d brought him to a graveyard after posing the corpses. In fact, I’m pretty sure that’s what I’d done. “I’m sorry man, we should clean this up or something.”
Theo seemed to snap out of it then, turning away and offering me an awkward smile. “No, their bodies don’t matter if their personalities are so corrupt that they’d kill their masters. I have a way to find parts. We have to go to the Control Core, it’s in this building.”
“I know where it is,” I told him. It was where I activated the electromagnetic blast, something I didn’t tell him I was responsible for. Who knows how he would have reacted? For all I knew, he would accuse me of genocide, and he would be right, in a way.
We left the scene behind and headed right down for the core. He led me to the emergency stairwell, and I gave him a piggyback all the way down. It felt like I was on those stairs for a couple hours, but it was barely one. My legs burned, my feet hurt. He presented a complex looking three tined key and passed right by the computer terminal I used to activate the pulse. There was no hole for the key until he approached a featureless metal wall and held it up.
The lock appeared. “There is a dense power cell in each of the main security keys, it can power the lock and the door, even provide a jump start to a critical system,” he said as he slipped the key into the lock. The wall slid aside. There was a control room with three terminals. The holographic displays were active, showing the whole complex on one, the upper hemisphere of the planet on another and the third seemed to scan communications frequencies and map signals globally. “Is that a working communication terminal?”
“Yes, it seems the antenna and sensors are online too,” Theo said. “I’ll find the location of the service rooms and spare parts storage. Do you know how to look for your people? Would they have a transponder?”
“I know how, though this is a lot more communications power than I’ve ever seen. It looks like I could reach out, big time.”
“This complex is connected to thirty-five quantum communications nodes across nine sectors. It is a critical part of the United Core Worlds economic stability maintenance system.”
“Q-Comms don’t work, not for long. They’re gimmicks, we used to sell paired modules all the time. Some lasted a day, some lasted a year, others just a few seconds,” I replied. “One of our best scams when we visited more remote worlds.”
“These use proprietary Oshod Industries technology to permanently stabilize the system, connections will last centuries unless there is damage. You won’t need that system to find your friends though.”
“Proprietary, like secret?” I didn’t know much about the science of instantaneous communication across hundreds of light years, or stabilizing quantum communications nodes so they didn’t lose sync, but I knew the tech could be worth a lot.
“Well yes, closely guarded. The largest corporations in the galaxy used to pay people in this complex to forward their messages, or to open instantaneous communications channels across vast distances. I don’t suppose that’s too important at the moment, though.”
“Think I could get a copy of this tech? You know, to save it just in case this place gets destroyed?”
“I’m sure the service documents are encrypted,” Theo said, sitting down and bringing up a directory list. “There, it’s encrypted. I don’t know the key.”
“Mind if I make a copy anyway? You never know,” I said, taking Lurk from my collar and putting him on the terminal.
“I don’t see the harm,” Theo said.
“Lurk, connect and download all the quantum communications system information,” I told him. His tongue lashed out and made contact with a small data port. One of my favourite things about that little lizard; his tongue was actually his main data and charging cable. I got to work on running a search for the Daring Dickenson and any other sign of my people. The remains of the Dickenson came up, it was still in low orbit, but the ship was shredded, in three big pieces that were blasted wide open. Scans said there was nothing alive there, and I pressed on.
There were other ships in our convoy, smaller ships that might have escaped. I entered the names one after another, bringing the information on them up in the database so the computer knew what type of ship to look for if the transponders were dead. The Cyr, The White Rabbit, The Lioness, The Red Jack and the Bag Train. The Cyr and the Lioness burned up in the atmosphere, while The Bag Train and The White Rabbit were obliterated shortly after I got away, their engines overloaded. The Red Jack survived and made an emergency landing. There were no recordings of the crew, just logs in text that I read over and over again. I have to admit that it was much more difficult to find more information without the help of an artificial intelligence, but the reason why those terminals still worked was probably because they didn’t have one.
After a frustrating manual search for more information I found out that The Red Jack landed in White Gull Spaceport. I tried to access video footage from their approach and landing but the system was so weird and technical that I had trouble finding my way through it.
“Aha! I found parts for my model, only one floor down in the secondary maintenance bay,” he said. “And there’s nothing active there. Nothing on.”
“Great, we’ll head there in a sec. Can you help me with this? The interface in this thing is made for eggheads and assholes,” I said, frustrated.
“You’re trying to find video of a ships arrival?” Theo said.
“Copying done,” Lurk announced. I tapped his head so he unplugged and retracted his tongue then stashed him in the collar of my suit.
“Yeah, I’m trying to see if the Red Jack made it down and if the crew are alive. I can get a scan on the ship’s location, but not much else.”
“Oh, the footage is in a security counter-invasion subdirectory. There it is,” Theo said, bringing up three holograms. One was the pad the Red Jack landed on, another was a robotic security guard’s point of view, and the third switched around to different recorders in the area.
The Red Jack set down in a hurry, but it was a graceful landing anyway. It wasn’t much, just an old gunship with most of its teeth pulled. There were four turrets left on the thing, and most of the inside was converted into quarters and cargo bays so we could get from one show to the next. I didn’t know the crew too well, they were mostly techs and setup, tear down guys.
“There’s Captain Beaufort,” I said as he and four of his crew descended the main ramp. The security bots rushed him so fast that it was a blur on the landing pad camera. They opened fire before anyone could close the ramp, slagging them hard.
Theo panicked and stopped the playback. “I’m sorry,” he said. “There’s more, but maybe you don’t want to see it?”
I knew John Beaufort and his wife, Martha, they were good people. I never found out where they came from or why they joined up to cart a bunch of carnies around, they joined before my time, but they were family. Martha was like the mother to everyone on that ship, John kept it flying. They didn’t deserve to get gunned down when they were only looking for a safe place to land and figure out what was going on. I must have looked like my world was falling apart all over again, because Theo had this sad and uncertain look on his face, at least the side that could still make expressions. “Just find out what happened to the rest,” I said, clearing my throat and wiping my eyes.
He looked through the log and nodded. “I’m sorry, Noah. They killed everyone aboard, cleaned the ship, sealed it and put it in their storage hangar.”
“There are ships there?” I asked. “They sealed the hatches after cleaning them?”
“Yes, that was their security procedure,” Theo said.
“Then some of those ships will probably still fly,” I said.
“You want to leave? You have everything you need here,” Theo said.
“Everything here is dead,” I said. “All my friends, everyone I cared about, my family is gone. This planet is a graveyard, not just for me, but for you too. The people you cared about are gone and the robots here are burned out. The ones that aren’t must be crazy, or diseased like you said. What’s this place again? Some kind of platinum reserve?”
“It’s the economic hub of this solar system, and it’s true, there are billions of credits worth in molecularly stamped platinum in the main vault and that’s only considering the amounts and accounts I am aware of.”
“Then someone is going to come for it. We have to go. They’ll kill me, they’ll wipe you clean or finish what the soldiers started.”
“The people you worked with were special, nice folks. Take it from me, Theo; most humans are assholes. I’ve seen it more than I want to admit, man. Travelling carnivals are welcome to entertain people, but when it comes to a carnie, one of the performers or workers, even a kid; people look down on you, like just because you travel and scrape by most times and don’t wear the most modern stuff, you’re not worth spitting on. The worst things I’ve seen people do have been over money, and the more money they’re fighting over, the worse it gets. Someone’s coming for that pile of plat, and they’ll make those soldiers look like nice ladies and gentlemen.”
“But the vault is hardened against any robbery, and we only have one of the two emergency keys. I doubt the second key is even on site.”
“If people think they can rob this place, even if it’ll take equipment that doesn’t even exist yet, they’re going to do it because there’s no one here guarding it. Do you understand?”
Theo sat there a moment, I could tell he was pondering, calculating, but to my relief he eventually nodded. “I understand. The soldiers who did this to me must have known the vault was secure, that’s why they left.”
“There’s other stuff here too: weapons, food, parts that survived the blast, information, working systems. We can’t defend this stuff against anyone. You can’t shoot, and that rifle scares the crap outta me. I’m afraid I’ll tear the whole place down while I’m missing whatever I’m shooting at.”
“You are a terrible shot,” Theo agreed. “I understand. Maybe you should leave. But if humans are assholes, then you will have to contend with them and robots that survived the electromagnetic pulse. Like White Gull, there are still twenty eight security robots there, active and patrolling. They seem to be guarding groups of humans, and if most humans are assholes, then that’s both kinds of trouble for you.”
“Well, not all humans are like those soldiers,” I told him. “Maybe we can find some good ones, get to that port and get away. We have to try. There has to be a place where we can be safe.”
“I’m taking you with me buddy, right after we get you fixed up.”