"Something that none of us took into account before the war was the effect that all of our little disagreements had upon the health of our relationship with Repliforce as a whole. Though they seemed small enough singly and separate, altogether they added up to an irreconcilable difference of ethics and principle: a schism that pitted two entities that should have been allies against one another while the puppeteer laughed."
-excerpt from Commander Signas' personal log
The smooth progress of the hypersonic jet did little to calm Thomas Light's nerves.
Though he doubted Wily's claim, it could not be dismissed outright. What if the German robotologist had found a way—in his delirious state—to correct the fatal flaw in Blues' power transfer coils? How would Blues have found his way to Wily's fortress to begin with? Why wouldn't he have simply come home, if he still lived? Had Wily abducted him, forced him to take part in the revolt like so many other of Light's creations?
Doubts and sorrow two years buried now percolated through his earthen self-control. A nightmare pastiche of images blurred his carefully-ordered thoughts on the way back to Geneva. His nanophone implant squawked with a dozen messages—half of them from Peter Cheever with alarmist babble about General Mears.
Light's jaw ached with the clenching of his teeth. Yesterday, he would have dismissed the general's fears of a second Robot War out of hand; now the words seemed oddly prophetic. Blues loose in the world—damaged and clearly unstable as evidenced by the video feed the general had revealed—was a frightening enough proposition. Blues somehow armed with a plasma buster and reprogrammed by Dr. Wily during the Robot War bordered on apocalyptic.
A second Robot War with Blues as Dr. Wily's unwitting pawn . . . the concept wrenched Light's heart with unforgiving cruelty. Worse, Rock was still asleep in Tokyo, and Roll's increasing emotional instability made her an unlikely candidate for a robotic huntress. Not without wiping her memory banks clean and starting fresh.
That raised ghosts Light would as soon leave smothered under the soil of grateful oblivion. Never again.
What recourse, then?
Light nearly chuckled aloud at the obvious solution. The drone had been constructed from Rock's basic schematic. Although it would be labor-intensive to install combative subroutines in it, and to transfer Rock's variable weapons system, the work would be less than building another robot hunter from scratch.
Simple. Why didn't I think of it before? Rock would be happy when he awoke; he had made it plain that he hated his role as hunter—who wouldn't? The new robot would be just that—a robot, with no emotional subroutines. Bare need had driven the use of an android with a simulacrum of human emotion as a killer before; Light would avoid that mistake this time.
With the Core Module safely in place and no emotive responses or ego to mire its performance or torture it to the brink of insanity, this new robotic hunter would be . . .
A perfect killing machine.
The gears of Light's thoughts ground to an abrupt halt; his incipient chuckle died stillborn on his lips. His thought experiment had suddenly yielded a far more dangerous threat than that for which General Mears strove. His fingers gnawed at his scalp, distressing snowy locks in their passage.
Would he dare to inflict the fate of sentient weapon upon a second of his creations? No matter that the framework for its programming would be simpler, the risk for damage would still exist. Worse, what if Mears' drive to acquire the Rockman O/S and hardware schematics yielded fruit? The new robot Light had already half-constructed in his head would also certainly be subject to the rapacious machinations of that short-sighted warmonger.
No. Better to wait until this trial had been resolved. A painful lump had clawed its way up Light's gorge and settled midway between his sternum and his jaw. His eyes stung. No. Even if it meant forcefully awakening Rock from his mysterious stasis to send against his maddened brother, Light would not build a machine for the purpose of war.
How will I explain that to him if the time comes?
A low hum invaded the mellow timbre of the jet's engines as it prepared to slow for landing. Feeling far older than his physical body, Thomas Light took a deep breath in through his nose and blew the air out his mouth. The linguist at the back of his mind noted the glottal stutter of the sound, fading into a lazy fricative.
Time to focus on the trial instead. A part of his brain immediately tackled the chore of dissecting the uncomfortable interview with his erstwhile partner, seeking ways to turn the information he had discovered against his attackers in court. A cold, logical voice suggested that he might shift all of the blame for Blues' recent appearance on to Will, since the German robotologist was now his prototype android's last known contact point. His conscience shouted down the insidious suggestion, but he could not entirely dismiss it from his mind.
Oh, Blues. How can I protect you from what they want to do to you—or even your memory—if I don't even know where you are? Are you Wily's pawn now? What has he done to you? Maudlin, all of it. Light swallowed past the offending lump and focused.
I can protect Rock. He hadn't discharged weapons on international soil for a long time—well past the statute of limitations required by general convention. If he could prove that the robot in the holovid was Blues and not his younger sibling, then Rock would be safe. Light would need only worry about his own fate and that of Blues.
A tension he had not realized perched behind his eyes now eased a bit.
For the first time in months, Dr. Light was glad that Rock was safely asleep, and not complicating matters for himself.
Houston, United States
"Well, this complicates everything," Hansel Hoffer said, as he raised a half glass of scotch to his lips and cast a sidelong glance at Roll. "Your buddy Rockman there sure did take me for a ride, but I guess he didn't mean any harm. And now that he saved my skin, it'll look like I'm just having a drink with you because I'm grateful for it."
Roll re-activated the behavioral subroutine flagged as "patience" and tucked a stray strand of gold behind her left ear. "Hoffer, anybody who saw you order helpless little me out of the way at the demo will naturally assume that your overactive, archaic sense of chivalry is the explanation for your buying me a drink." Roll glanced worriedly over her shoulder.
"Afraid of leaving your robo-boyfriend alone with the press?" Hoffer half-chuckled. "I'd think he'd be used to handling them by now."
"You'd be surprised," Roll replied dully.
Hoffer shook his head, and his chuckle turned into a rueful laugh. "If I got half as much press as 'Rocky,' back there, I'd be a rich man and every person on the planet would be a firm believer in Gearbreaker."
Roll made a show of swishing her drink around in the glass. "Maybe you should worry more about the application to which you can safely put your new art for the good of humanity rather than its marketing applications."
Hoffer's face jerked in an offended micro-expression; few without such mechanical precision of perception would have noticed. Roll immediately wished she had found a less waspish way to say it, and then wondered why she cared. Just my sapient affinity subroutine at work, she assured herself.
As Hoffer opened his mouth to protest, Roll interrupted. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said it that way. It sounded critical. I just meant that in my experience working with LighTech, we focus on the product first. Marketing is almost an afterthought."
The martial artist scowled. "You should tell your senior executive Miss Eve about that approach. She seemed pretty focused on the 'afterthought.' Lighting the way to a better future through technology, and all that. Hey, are you all right?"
This time, it came with a white noise burst and a keening jolt stabbing at her internal nociceptors with the vicious subtlety of an icepick. Disconnected from her voluntary response module, she dispassionately catalogued her own body's response as clinically as if she had been recording data for any other psuedobehavioral experiment.
The episode lasted less than a full second; an eternity for a brain conscious of its own operation in measurements of nanoseconds. As soon as she had regained—or been given—control, she activated her smile subroutine. "I'm fine. Maria Eve and I do not see eye to eye on certain matters."
A snort was Hoffer's reply. "Yeah, I guess. By your expression, I'd say it's the same way I don't see eye to eye with getting punched in the face."
Tracing the rim of her glass with her fingertip and taking note of the harmonic rasp inaudible to human ears, Roll blinked. "If you don't like getting punched, martial arts seems like a strange field for you to have chosen."
"Not at all." Roll noticed that Hoffer's hands gestured with remarkable economy of movement when he spoke, never straying far from within six inches of the center line of his torso. "It's just because I don't want to get punched in the face that I took up martial arts as a kid."
"It has been my observation that parents often insist upon their progeny's study of a martial art, whether the child wills it or no," Roll said.
"'Progeny?' You spend too much time in the lab with robots, Miss Sulla." Hoffer began to chuckle, caught himself short and grimaced as doing so pulled against battered muscles. "Aaaah. That smarts. Maybe I should take it easy for the next few days."
"That would be wise," Roll agreed. Her internal chronometer indicated that she had been sitting with Hoffer for five minutes already. Surely her obligation to continue with this charade must now be ended. Still, she did not wish to seem rude. "You decided to practice on your own, then? Either you must have been possessed of remarkable discipline at a young age, or you were emulating a popular media icon. Am I right, Mister Hoffer?"
"Right on both counts, actually." His fingers twitched, and he began to drum them upon the table. "And for the love of Pete, call me Hans, willya? There was a show on the holovid when I was a kid, I can't remember the name of it now, but it had this guy who was a Master Fighter—that was what he called himself in the show—and he knew every martial art in the world. All the kids in school wanted to be like him. At least, all the kids I paid attention to. Once I'd made up my mind, nothing got in my way."
Roll did a quick Network search in her head. "The Fist with No Name?" she said aloud.
Hoffer beamed. "That's the one! I can't believe you remember it! Yeah, so I've been studying with everybody I can meet ever since. A while back, I thought, 'Every martial art in the world was made up by some guy at one point, so why don't I try making my own? Then the Robot War happened, and it was like a light went on in my head. I knew the martial art the world needed in this day and age."
Grudgingly impressed, Roll nodded. "Admirable. I'm sorry to cut this short Hans, but I really must go if I'm to catch my flight."
"Ah, go on," the martial artist said glumly. "I see you haven't even touched your drink. Maybe we'll meet again some time, huh?"
"Count on it," Roll found herself saying.
The surprised pause filled several moments. Hoffer was the first to break it, his face lighting up. "Yeah? Great! Okay, great! Well, I guess Mr. Bourbon and I will just sit here and nurse my bruises while you collect your hero-bot over there. Have a safe flight, Miss Sulla!"
Roll nodded silently and turned away as she rose. She had no doubt that Hansel Hoffer would not lack for company today: reporters and admirers eager for either a story or a brush with celebrity. Even now, an excited-looking albino in a very good suit and a Japanese businessman strode purposefully towards the table she had just vacated.
Now to analyze here own actions and responses from the past several hours.
What is wrong with me?
"Doorbell, Eddie!" Julie's voice floated down the stairs from her bedroom.
Bess paused the holovid. She'd been thrilled to discover that today's program was a special double-header. After her favorite episode, a new one had aired. Halfway through, the stupid doorbell started ringing. Eddie had already begun to kick his little legs in order to dislodge himself from the deep indent his cylindrical metal body had made in the soft brocade fabric of the couch cushions.
"I'll come with you," Bess announced. "Then we can both watch the rest in a minute, okay?"
"O-K Miss Angelwood," Eddie's display read.
She walked beside Eddie as he stumped towards the front door, both deftly navigating the veritable obstacle course of shoes, backpack, datapad, and jacket left by Julie as she had entered the house. The pair split around Julie's backpack. As they joined up again, Bess absently muttered, "Bread and butter."
An interrogatory beep made her turn her head.
"I shall procure some bread and butter for you after this task, Miss Angelwood."
Bess broke into a grin as she read the message. "No, I don't want—it's just an expression, Eddie." Taking the little 'bot's textual silence for confusion, she continued. "Something Mom used to say. I guess it means that when we are together, we're like bread and butter. Get it?"
She thumb-keyed the door open, and found herself facing a tall, dark-haired Japanese woman in rumpled grey-green cargo pants and an orange thermal undershirt, capped with a dirty white safety helmet. She looks bored. The woman said something in Japanese, and Bess struggled to make sense of the sounds.
By the time she had worked out that the woman was asking for her father, Eddie had already displayed a stream of barely decipherable syllabary on his screen in reply, and the woman had held out a datacard scancode for Eddie to verify. A quick sweep of the tracking laser beneath his cartoonish eyes resulted in a half-musical series of beeps, and Eddie's top hatch popped open, a bubble-like hologram appearing above it.
"Hi, Dad!" Bess blurted, as Snap's ghostly image materialized in the air.
"Hi, sweetie," he replied, and then turned to the bored-looking woman. Bess caught about every other word the two exchanged, though her father's slower, more stilted take on Japanese was easier for Bess to follow than the drawling, accented vernacular in which the visitor spoke.
Halfway through the conversation, a rock dropped into her gut. They were talking about moving out—the woman worked for the packing and transport company, and was here for a group of boxes. Her dad said they were upstairs in his room, and that Bess could take the woman there if she needed.
They would be moving out in the next two days.
No, no, no. It's not fair! What would her life be like without the Lights? Roll was patient and smart, and helped Bess with her homework when her dad wasn't home yet. Dr. Light would let Bess help put robots together in the lab if she asked, and sometimes let her have a hot chocolate or play a hologame, even after her bedtime. And Eddie . . .
Trapped. Trapped alone in a country that speaks confusing nonsense.
"It's just not fair!" she shouted, and bolted up to her room, leaving a bewildered mover and a blinking red robot on the doorstep.
Quint stamped the blood from his boots.
It would have troubled him once, this act. His act. Something told him that deep within, some mangled, cringing thing at the core of his personality would never have countenanced it. The screams, the acrid, sour smell of burnt muscular and connective tissue, and the crunch of bone beneath his feet would once have filled him with horror.
Of course, that was before. Before what, he could not have said. However, over the past several days, his journey had begun to stir memories in him. Vague, half-developed shapes, sounds, and thoughts scrabbled just beneath the surface of corrupted data. Of one thing he was certain—he had broken something. Something important. And beyond expectation, he had survived.
A bright flame of righteousness burning within, he strode through the blasted shells of cities and homes, throttling the taint of corruption. He had been assailed by robots, by automated defense networks, and even by a few advanced android-like machines that moved with superhuman speed and strength, whose underlying structure was steel and silicon, but who bled and begged like organics.
And, of course, the humans.
This group had been a poorly-armed and hastily-assembled home defense force. Laser-reflective armor patches lay scattered in bloodstained disarray alongside more traditional ballistic-proof vests. Gore and death coated the ground. Quint had been efficient and merciless. After all, the trail of destruction he had followed from the hill on which he awoke led straight through this area. If these men and women had not been responsible for or even complicit in the slaughter that Quint felt driven to avenge, then they were at least hindrances to his cause.
And justice must be served.
The noises they made when they died were not entirely unlike the vocal feedback loop sometimes triggered in the more humanoid robots during catastrophic system failure. That lonely, frail voice buried under broken code and awash in a sea of inaccessible data had keened as he destroyed the human militants, but what of it? His purpose was absolute, and he must not be denied.
The Brotherhood of the Blade had been fleeing before his advance for hours, now. Composed of perhaps fifty or sixty remaining robots, the motley band of so-called freedom fighters—Quint would say terrorists—had laid ambushes, set traps, and even left messages suing for peace in the shrill binary of hapless reprogrammed metools. Since destroying their scouting party, Quint had come to truly despise the wretched outmodes.
The newer models troubled him, though. He could not say why. Again, the carious firewall frustrated his attempts to fathom his own motivations. Oblivion rushed at him from all sides each time he tried to focus, to force his way through the blankness walling him in. He ground his teeth in frustration, only to wonder where he had acquired such a useless human habit. The ones that looked more human and less robotic—like himself, but moreso—he had taken a savage delight in defeating them. It made him wonder why he hated them so.
They betrayed us. The thought came so sudden an unbidden that he knew it came from the firewall. He grasped it greedily, as if it were the last amperage available to him in a total power blackout. They betrayed us. Something clicked, and a comfortable feeling of order settled upon him. It was so obvious—humans had betrayed him, and those he swore to protect.
He brushed something floppy and bloody from the pointed crest on his helmet, flipped his visor back down, and walked, step by step, towards justice.
Houston, United States
Christer's heart leaped as he recognized the woman—or rather, the android—standing up from the table. The Sons of Light had gathered extensive intelligence regarding the personal habits and disposition of wealth of their unknowing patriarch, but until today's display by Rockman, the albino had never seen one of Thomas Light's masterworks in person. Letting Inafune take the lead for a moment, he activated his nanonet implant and sent an encrypted order to one of his undercover operatives in the area to take note of the female android's movements.
That task finished, he caught up with his longtime friend. Shogun's measured step had taken him to the table where the bruised but victorious martial artist nursed a half-full glass of something amber-colored. The bow he gave was respectful but not terribly deep. Christer restrained a smile—he had never been able to truly understand the nuance of Japanese etiquette, so he had simply always made it a point to bow just a shade shallower than anyone from Japan that he met and left it at that.
By contrast, the American—Hoffer, if Christer remembered correctly—seemed quite at home with the formality, and stood to respond in kind. Christer let the two finish the elaborate show of exchanging business holos via pantomime that would activate their nanonet catalogue programs. He silently noted that winning this man to their cause—and he had no doubt that it would be their cause once Christer sugarcoated it enough—would be easier knowing that he had already elected to have a nanochip implanted.
"Good evening, friend," he said, holding out his hand to shake. "I am Christer Andersson, and I represent a charitable foundation for the betterment of humanity. You have already met my good friend and business associate, Mr. Yoshi Inafune."
"I'll say I have," the man returned in accented English. "It's an honor to meet you both. Can I offer ya a drink?"
"Please," Christer waved away the offer with his good hand. "We should be buying for you. I see you already have a drink, but perhaps we could get you dinner? I have a proposal for you that would benefit all of us, I think."
Hoffer's scarred hand smoothed back wavy blond hair. "Please have a seat, gentlemen. If I can spread the word about Gearbreaker for the—how'd ya put it? 'The betterment of humanity—then I'd say I'm obligated. Are you from the X Foundation?"
"I'm afraid not," Christer said. "Are you familiar with LighTech's corporate motto?"
Hoffer's face dropped into something of a chagrined smirk. "You could say that. Lighting the way to a better future through technology, or something, right?"
"Indeed. We have a similar goal, and since Dr. Light has been such a generous benefactor to humanity, we call ourselves the Sons of Light."
"Dramatic," Hoffer said diplomatically. The three of them made small talk for a few minutes while Christer flagged down a wait-bot and each placed their orders. Repeating each request in stiff but flawless diction, the small green disc-shaped bot hovered around for another moment, waiting for the oft-added "Oh, and . . ." before humming away to the distant kitchens.
And now we come to it.
"Gentlemen," Christer began, his cheeks warming with excitement. "It is no secret that the recent Robot War was a great shock to humanity and the world. I do not say that it was as catastrophic an event as the last War, however . . ." he let the thought finish itself silently in their minds before continuing. "Mister Hoffer, you said that you developed this Gearbreaker art for the purpose of empowering people who felt helpless after the troubles."
"That's right." Hans flexed his fingers around his mostly empty glass. "And even though I got pounded back there by . . . whatever that was, even Rockman said it was a big help." He smiled lopsidedly. "'Course, that might've been just charitable talk, if robots are even capable of that. But I hold to what I said."
"So, then," Christer folded his hands on the table. "Do you feel that humans should destroy robots? Wipe them out to reduce our dependency upon them as a species? Is that how you see Gearbreaker developing?"
Inafune sat a little straighter—the Japanese version of an offended gasp. Hoffer performed the American version of an offended gasp—an offended gasp.
"Now just a damn minute! Didn't ya hear what I said about working together with the Omnitech folks to develop training 'droids? Didn't you see me shaking hands with Dr. Light's freakin' miracle 'bot?" Hoffer's brows drew down dangerously. "Mr. Andersson, if you're here to advance that Human Supremacy drivel, you can just march back to wherever you came from."
"Lay your fears to rest," Christer smiled. He knew the expression disconcerted those not used to his pale face and hair. "I simply needed to hear you say so before I continued. I feel then that I can say with certainty that we at this table wish to neither live in a world enslaved by robots, nor to destroy them utterly. Am I correct?"
"Certainly," Inafune answered. The first words he had spoken since introducing himself to Hansel Hoffer. Ah, my friend—ever playing your cards close to the chest.
"You got that right," the martial artist added.
"Good. I have recently begun to establish an organization. It is a volunteer affair, and a charitable foundation as well. Its goal is to encourage a world in which humans and robots can live together—not as rivals or as master and servant—but as partners." He pulled his glove from his good hand and brandished it before him.
Inafune raised his eyebrow a fraction of an inch and said, "Ah."
Hoffer tilted his head slightly. "Now that's a fancy piece of work, Mister Andersson." He nodded appreciatively. "Looks every bit as advanced as the stuff Omnitech was doing. Is it a custom job?"
"But of course." Christer smiled. "In fact, I put it together myself, with help from a few experts. And here is where my story begins. As you may have guessed, I was injured in the recent troubles—and not by robots. I was injured by people of my own town who were so terrified of the insurrection that they gave in to their baser, more primal instincts. Anger and persecution ran rampant, and when I refused to deactivate my personal household 'droid—a LighTech model I'd had for years—they beat me and left me for dead."
"Lotto." It was a barely whispered word, but had all of Inafune's compassion behind it. Good. Let them feel pity, if that is what it takes. "You should have told me."
"Could you have returned my hand?" Christer shot back. "I lost it to compartment syndrome and infection after lying underneath the wreckage of my apartment for a day until rescue-bots cleared it away."
"That's rough," Hoffer said, downing a swig of scotch. "And there's plenty who suffered like that." His eye twitched, and Christer restrained a smirk. Oh ho. And what have we stumbled upon?
"Indeed. But while I was sitting there, who should come to my side by Edward, my faithful robot?" He smiled at the recollection. "For hours he played me music and we engaged in conversation—or at least such limited conversation as one can have with an old-model EDY. And it made me think—in the midst of this agony inflected by men in fear of a war carried out by robots, we two had found a sort of peace."
"Poetic," Hoffer agreed. "Maybe it's the scotch, or maybe it's the after effects of being used as a plasma sponge by a berserk security 'bot, but I'm still looking for the connection, Mr. Andersson." Christer could not help but notice that the blond man kept glancing towards the end of the hall where Rockman and his sister seemed to be engaged in some sort of heated debate. Fascinating.
Christer stretched to draw attention back to himself. "You see, that day, and the many days afterwards, I considered this situation, and I came to the conclusion that men and women and machines cannot all go their separate paths towards the future—it results only in chaos and discord."
A trio of yellow servbots arrived at the table, bearing their meals. As they lowered plates, cups and silverware to the table, Christer smiled and sent a "good job" message to the 'bots via nanonet. "No, my friends," he continued. "The only way to a future not soaked in blood is together. As one. Whether he wished to do so or not, Dr. Light gave birth to the oft-fictioned technological Singularity when his robot twins awoke in a lab last year. We can either fuse with it—become something grand and noble with the help of our steel children, or we can dwindle into obscurity or fear." His cheeks burned.
And he began to outline his plan. As he spoke, the martial artist looked more and more interested, and even Shogun leaned forward over his soupe de poisson and "hmmmed" a few times appreciatively. Of course, he left out the dirtier parts of it—the pogrom against the HSL, the necessary kidnappings, the military coups in places that could not be persuaded.
After all, what were those details in light of the greater good?
When he was done, he sat back, his meal devoured and his mood expansive. Hoffer nodded slowly. "All right. I'm in. I'll get my things together and fly to Stuttgart in a few days. We should be able to start training as soon as next week."
"Perfect," Christer answered, his smile genuine. "And you, Shogun?"
"Lotto," Inafune said quietly. "It is a great risk you take—socially and fiscally." He paused for a moment. "Yet I think I will be proud to help to help you in this grand enterprise you have in mind."
"Then it was worth the loss of a hand to have come to this moment," Christer said, and he meant it.
When Rock arrived back at Dr. Light's house, he was livid.
Another "blank spot" had cropped up in between Roll's departure to speak with Hansel Hoffer and her return. He had spoken with a great number of reporters and their attendant mediabots regarding the recent confrontation. Halfway through, he noticed Maria Eve standing several yards away looking exceptionally sickly—no doubt due to what she would consider a PR debacle for LighTech.
If I were her, I'd just be happy I wasn't working for Sennet right now, he had thought sourly.
And then . . . nothing. A grey haze obscured the space of about twenty seconds during which he had meant to respond to a question one of the mediabots squawked about his possible role in training robot police for the Neo Tokyo Synthetic Unit. He passed it off as a power flux due to the fight, and manufactured a sheepish chuckle, but the incident worried him.
A troubling hypothesis generated itself somewhere in his lobar circuitry and threaded its way through impossibly complex self-adjusting positronic relays to his prefrontal matrix. Was it possible that Dr. Light had inadvertently produced a flaw in his creations? It would explain why he and Roll both seemed to suffer from some sort of cognitive dysfunction recently. Since they had both been activated at the same time . . .
Yes, but she has been online for longer, he corrected himself. Still, the chances of their system malfunctions occurring as random events that coincidentally occupied the same chronological space ranked significantly lower on his list of possibilities than both of them being . . .
"Broken," he said aloud, softly.
"Rock?" Roll's voice dispelled the reverie, but not he disquieting sensation that had come with it. He needed to speak with Dr. Light as soon as possible. "We need to go to Geneva."
Roll blinked twice. "I just spent ten minutes with an amorous martial artist who beats up robots as a hobby, trying to find a good way to tell him that I'm a robot, and feigning interest in an old holoshow from decades ago. In retrospect, that seems pretty sensible compared to what you want to do."
"I think—Roll, I think we may be faulty." He glanced guiltily over his shoulder as he said it, suddenly wishing that he had kept better track of Maria Eve. Thankfully, she had vanished.
His sister's eyes widened. "Faulty? Are you crazy?"
"Maybe." Rock looked her straight in the eye. "I keep blanking out. And you have some sort of behavioral aberration as well. What is there's some sort of defect in our programming or O/S that's only begun to manifest itself over time? A cumulative effect, perhaps."
Roll didn't look entirely convinced, but she seemed to have trouble meeting his eyes. When did she acquire that emotional quirk? Finally, she said quietly, "Maybe that's why you were offline for so long."
"Let's go ask Dr. Light," he said firmly.
"Let's not," she replied. "Let's get back to Tokyo where we have an entire subterranean lab's worth of diagnostic equipment and friends who miss us. We can signal Dr. Light with our concerns when we get there."
Rock rolled his eyes. "That diagnostic equipment didn't find anything wrong with us before."
"Then maybe we don't have any system problems," Roll snapped. "Maybe we just have personalities." And she vanished in a line of blue fire.
Rock had followed, and now stood outside of their larger-than-it-looked house, angry. Roll's erratic behavior had begun to chip at his own calm, and he found himself making a fist. Calm. Just be calm. You've been in a coma for six months, and awake for less than twenty-four hours. There are bound to be some minor system glitches.
He opened the door and found himself immediately knocked off balance by something chest-high and wailing. It took him a fraction of a second to recognize Bess; her physical parameters did not match his internal records.
"You're awake! You're awake, you're awake!" The little girl—larger than he remembered, actually—was weeping uncontrollably and squeezing his thoracic chassis so hard that he actually registered the pressure. "And now they're gonna make me move and this is so stupid and unfair!"
Rock stood bewildered for a moment, and then reached gingerly down and patted Bess's head. "Hello, Bess. I'm sorry I slept for so long."
"Were you sick—I mean broken?" the words came out in a phlegmy sniffle. "I tried to help Dr. Light fix you, you know. He was so worried, he didn't sleep for almost a week, and Roll had to yell at him a lot to get him upstairs to bed. Dad said she henpecked him, but that's dumb 'cause robots can't hurt people unless they're corrupted, and I know Roll's safe."
Rock smiled. "Let's go inside and you can tell me about it. Is Roll home yet?"
"She got here just before you. She said she had to send a message to Dr. Light about you being awake." Bess had taken a vice grip on his arm which Hansel Hoffer might have respected. "And she said not to let you go anywhere, so you gotta stay."
"I'm not going anywhere," Rock answered. "Not for a long time, now. I think I just want to stay home for the next several years, in fact." He tilted his head downwards. "So you said you were helping Dr. Light try to fix me?"
"He said your positronic matrix was just fine." She pronounced the words crisply, as if imitating Dr. Light's elocution. "And when we couldn't fix you, he said to just let you sleep it off, and I could help fix other things that got broken. Are you okay now?"
Rock hoped his grin wasn't tainted by worry. "I think so. Maybe a few system hiccups, but nothing I can't handle." I hope.
"That's good, because Dr. Light was afraid your proprietary heuristics model might have been damaged by too much strain." She frowned as Rock sat in a chair in front of her. "But Eddie says not to worry, because when Blues broke the First Law, they were still able to fix him."
"What? Th-the first . . ."
"Sure." Bess smiled. "A robot always has to do what a human says."
Relief flooded him. "That's the Third Law, Bess. Not the first."
Bess shook her head. "Well, Eddie says that Blues broke the First Law, and Dr. Light and Dr. Wily had to work real hard to fix him, but that he still whistled afterwards. So I'm sure that Dr. Light can fix whatever is wrong with you."
Her smile was a study in trust, and Rock couldn't bring himself to correct her. Instead, he gazed over her shoulder at Roll, who stood in the doorway, mouth agape. Everything had just changed.
Nothing has changed—it is all as it was before.
Mikhael Cossack's stomach gnawed at him with spiteful persistence. His head throbbed and his ears rang. Something stung the corners of his eyes, and he growled at it wordlessly. No curse he could think of in English or Russian seemed adequate to the enormity of his failure.
Failure. You have failed. It was a only a matter of time until Dr. Corbun would storm through the door, utter a string of unintelligible Anlgo-Saxon gibberish, and throw him out in disgrace to skulk back to lick his wounds. Wife dead, daughter lonely, career soon to be in ruins. He ground out tears with the back of his hand and stood straight.
His first priority, of course, must be to secure his work for any future he might have. His work on the Enforcer unit had been good—some of his best. If he could change it enough to avoid legal troubles with Sennet, he might at least use a modified version for home security, wherever he ended up. The second priority was to shield St. John from repercussions—his employer must never suspect that the Nigerian scientist had been complicit in the failed scheme to embarrass LighTech. It had sounded like Abejide might have problems enough of his own.
I'll have to destroy some records. After this debacle, it will be little enough to add to my list of firing offenses. He stood and nearly doubled over as his stomach made a sound like a wounded rabbit and clenched hard. He had taken some of the little yellow pills earlier, but it had been like trying to insulate a 100-watt circuit with a 1-watt resistor.
Straightening more slowly, he took a few steps towards the wreckage of the Enforcer and nearly broke into tears again. The masterpiece of the whole design—the flash bulb embedded in the giant crystal atop the helmet—had been deeply scored by some sort of industrial blade, leading to an arc-overcharge cascade failure. What flaw had led to the Enforcer's defeat? How had LighTech's—Light's—lab assistant defeated a purpose-built security bot?
Fool. Fool! To think that your robot security guard could match the hero of the Robot War! He reached into the pocket of his jacket, found a smooth glass surface. He had been saving the flask of whiskey for celebrating Sennet's newfound primacy in the industry. A bitter smirk twisted under his bushy mustache. That possibility was as far beyond reach now as calling back the Enforcer's ill-fated challenge.
Barely a handful of heartbeats had passed before the unscrewed cap nestled in the palm of his hand and a sour warmth had begun to spread through his chest. Ai, my Kalinka would be ashamed—and I know it will not help my stomach. Still, it was small enough comfort against the disaster.
He walked towards the main terminal, a plan beginning to heave itself from the fog of failure. Sennet was already a lost cause—his pride had seen to that. Yet he might still salvage something of value from this situation. He hefted the flask and frowned at it, the fierce lines of his face converging into something terrible. How had it become so light already?
Fingers made inexplicably clumsy, he fumbled with a sheaf of datacards. He stopped short as he noticed a shadow shambling gracelessly through the hallway towards the Sennet pavilion. His eyes narrowed in his ursine face as he recognized the inebriated form of Maria Eve. An inchoate growl snarled through his chest and up his throat.
"Ah!" She saw him and gestured with a bottle of her own. "Mikhael Cossack! 'Scuse me—Doctor Cossack! 'S a funny name when you thinkuvit. Be like me bein' named Eve Cowboy." She sneered as she moved closer. "Whatja thinkuv my plan? Worked great, din' it?" The sibilant slur that her voice had become made her words almost unintelligible. She tore a dangling shoe form her heel and glared at it. "Stupid," she muttered. "Sstupid little girl. Never get anything right."
"Now what?" Cossack sighed, the flame of his anger suddenly doused by cold misery. "I am ruined."
"Hnnnh." A somewhat bilious-sounding grunt folded her. Cossack made a show of ignoring her discomfort, instead eyeing a readout of one of his old projects—its sphinx-like silhouette blurred by stinging doubt. When her wave of nausea had apparently passed, he swirled the remainder of his expensive whiskey about. The metallic sloshing sound was oddly comforting.
"What about you? It seems your job is in the parody, yes?"
"Jeopardy," she corrected him. "I don't see why it would be. Sennet made an unauth'rized attack upon LighTech property at an Omnitech dem'nstration."
A rock had congealed within Cossack's stomach. "And suppose I were to tell LighTech of your involvement in this . . . issue?"
Eve laughed at that—a cynical, grating cackle. "Oh sssshure. A senior exec'tive of LighTech told you to sabotage our most famous piece of equipment so that your market share can skyrock't. Thasssz believeable. Now 'scuse me, Doctor, I gotta go." And with that, she stumbled out of sight, a sobbing hiccup trailing behind her. Mikhael Cossack glared after her, his rage boiling. If he must depart Sennet Robotics, he would not do so quietly. Nor would his fall from grace be solitary.
He took a last swig of whiskey and set to work.
Consuela's heart fluttered.
Thick, dark eyebrows hung heavily upon a face that could be generously described as "horselike." A long, straight nose pointed to a mouth that by its lines clearly preferred frowns to smirks. The man who had identified himself as Johann Freder reached his hand out solemnly to shake hers. She noted with revulsion that its last two fingers had been replaced by metallic prosthetics.
"Miss Alvarez," he said, his voice as cheerless as his visage, "Thank you for agreeing to meet with me." The thick Germanic consonants were overlaid with smooth Castilian as her nanophone implant auto-translated. It was not entirely necessary—after all, one of the reasons she had been selected to work with Dr. Wily was that she spoke German and English as well—though not nearly as well as her native Basque or Castilian. "Though the Sons of Light are a small organization, we believe that our cause is just, and we look forward to the good we may do with your help."
"Of course," she replied, the words burning like vinegar. To share space with a man who doubtless believed that humanity would be better as a servant to mechanical devils unnerved her more than she cared to admit. What would she do if he saw through her ruse? "I am glad of a chance to give back to the works and ideals of Dr. Light."
He gestured to the stacks and computers around them. "And what better place to discuss the future of humanity than in a repository of its greatest knowledge?"
Truth be told, Consuela had chosen the library as a meeting place because it was public. Should she suddenly find herself in danger, a dozen people might be on hand to summon aid. Amidst the antique paper books and the modern datacards of this quiet haven, she willed herself to relax. He cannot possibly know of the plan—he is simply here to serve his part.
"Yes," she smiled. "I have always loved libraries." That at least was no ploy—though her own library at home consisted of a Network connection, a comfortable chair, and a few dedicated datacards, she still equated the atmosphere with the comforts and safety of her days at the University. Here and there, robots whirred back and forth—either upon frictionless wheels or in the air—as they stewarded priceless books to their climate-controlled static-shield shelves or polished the tables for the dozenth time that day. Consuela suppressed a sour twist of the mouth.
"So, to business, then," the dour German said. "Since it was you who contacted us, I will assume that I need not bore you with the purpose of our society. I hope, however, that you will forgive my presumption in asking a few questions of you."
Here it comes. Breathe. "Please. I wouldn't want you to be uncomfortable with any arrangement we make. Ask any questions you have." She smiled inwardly—it was a phrase smooth enough to have come from her old self.
"Danke." It was thickly enough accented that her implant took a moment puzzling over it before the translation came through. "I understand that you work as a speech therapist at the Palma Maximum Security Asylum for the Criminally Insane, and that your contact with Dr. Wily is on a daily basis."
"Yes, at least."
"How would you say his condition has developed?"
Consuela blinked—she had expected questions about scheduling and guard rotation, not therapeutic analysis. "His speech has improved by bits. He still transposes words occasionally, and his neologisms grow less pronounced." She sighed. "He is a frustrating man, sometimes. But I believe he is sorry for actions." And I hate him for it.
"Sorry?" Freder's eyebrows rose. "You feel he is close to full rehabilitation, then?"
"I hope," she answered simply. Then his punishment will be all the sweeter.
"Well. And you suggest to us that you can help us to get him out of his prison." He leaned forward. "Why do you suppose we would want this?"
She worked her tongue free of its place stuck to the roof of her mouth. "I . . . I do not know, sir." Think, think! "I know why I would want him gone, though."
"'Gone' you say, not 'free.'" He steepled his fingers, his dark gaze locking on some point in the distance. "Why, Miss Alvarez? Why would you want him gone?"
"I tire of him. Every day I see him, I recall that it is his fault that my parents are dead. That my sleep is troubled with terrible nightmares. That our world can never be what it once was." She took a shuddering breath. "I don't want him at my facility."
"Revenge?" Quietly spoken, but clearly.
"No." It felt a blasphemy to say so, but she continued. "Revenge will not bring my parents back. But I can give my abuelo a happier life if I do not need to wait upon the madman who ruined mine."
"We want to bring him back, Miss Alvarez," Freder replied. "The man in your expensive prison is a broken thing, but the Sons of Light remember that LighTech was the child of two minds—that Light and Wily were allies and friends for many years before they were adversaries." He leaned forward. "You want Dr. Wily the devil to leave you in peace, and we want Dr. Wily the Saint to return to us from wherever he has been taken."
"How could you do that?" she asked, incredulous. This man and his people are surely mad—madder than I gave them, credit for.
"We have the technology." Freder's fingers twitched, and something approaching a smile fought to emerge on his mournful features. The withered thing it actually became made Consuela wince. "Have you ever heard of the Bell Initiative?"
"Experimental technology that was killed in the research phase. It has taken the Sons of Light many months to find even the faintest trace of its existence. Yet we believe that with it, we can not only heal the scars upon Dr. Wily's brain, but to bring him back to his old self entirely." He cocked his head. "Would that not be a great thing for our world?"
A great thing would be to see the old maniac dangling by his innards from my front gate. "Yes it would, Mr. Freder. A great thing indeed. I hope only that your associates succeed where Dr. Delgato has failed."
"Delgato?" The name elicited a surprised jerk of the eyebrows. "Javier Delgato?"
"Si, Mr. Freder. He is my sponsor, now. Do you know him?"
"He is . . . known to us." Dark eyes glared into space for a few more moments. "It is of no concern. Now, Miss Alvarez, we have established that you wish to help us. I will tell you what we need, and you can tell me what you may do."
Consuela smiled. The League would see her worth when she delivered Dr. Wily to them on a gilt plate. Maneuvering these misguided zealots into the hands of the just would only increase her standing amongst the Human Supremacy League.
And she would finally be able to sleep through the night.
Evening had fallen by the time Dr. Light arrived back in Geneva, his mind made up. The stairway assembled itself beneath his feet with a sound like a thousand metallic beetles as he descended from the jet. An oily, tangy smell clung to the tarmac, marring the ancient beauty of the crepuscular stars. Peter Cheever and Terrance Post stood near the base of the stairs, marring the dubious beauty of the tarmac. Cheever's omnipresent swarm of servbots juggled a constellation of confections nearby while the big man twisted his hands nervously.
The pianissimo tap of his toe touching the ground signaled the beginning of a dissonant duet by his two supposed legal advisors. Even with a master linguist's ear, it was difficult for him to separate their agitated voices from one another as their twinned displeasure echoed across the runway.
"—going to declare a state of emergency—"
"—called for an immediate stockholder meeting—"
"—utter disaster, shouldn't have discharged weapons in public—"
"—trying to do some damage control with Corbun—"
"—Mears is gloating like the bloody cat that got the cream—"
Both voices joined together. "And you didn't answer our calls!"
Light pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed. Patience. They mean well.
"Gentlemen. I have had an exceptionally trying day, as well you know." The palm of his hand curtly stifled their dual intakes of breath. "I have just spoken with the man who was once a genius and one of my closest friends and found him to be a shattered husk of a human being. I haven't had anything to eat for ten hours. Prioritize."
He held up a pair of fingers. "You have two minutes to give me the most salient points—intelligibly. I suggest you split your time evenly between you. After that, I am walking away from this conversation and to the closest quiet restaurant that I can find." He activated his nanophone implant to begin a search for just such a place.
As loquacious as both had been moments ago, both Post and Cheever spent their first few valuable seconds performing a passable imitation of a goldfish recently removed from its bowl. Cheever was the first to recover.
"See here, Light—"
"All right, blast it!" The special liaison's nose twitched comically, and he waved a dismissive hand at his flock of 'bots. "Listen, General Mears has renewed his suit against you in the past few hours. Your pet humanoids got—well, shall we say embroiled in a situation in Houston. Nobody was hurt, but Rockman used weapons in public, and Mears has jumped on it." He took a breath—the first since he had begun. "And he says there's some evidence of a rogue 'bot of yours terrorizing the New Shirewick installation months ago."
Light thought of interjecting, thought better of it. His mind raced.
"Rock was in Houston?"
"Does this cut into my minute?"
"No. Just—what was he doing there?" Light took a steadying breath. And how is he? I should have been there when he woke. "Was he with Roll?"
"I've got footage," Post interjected. "It's been all over the Network."
"All right. We'll get to that. Post, your turn."
Cheever squawked in indignation. His servbots instantly flocked closer, crowding him solicitously. He distractedly snagged a candy bar from within the moving cloud of steel and plastic while Post spoke.
"Simply put, the Board has taken the events in Houston rather . . . ambivalently. Half are cheering your incredible shrewdness in undercutting Sennet's security display, and the other half are calling for an immediate shutdown of all your humanoid O/S until such time as they can be closely examined." Post smoothed his muddy hair. "And Mears' allegations about the New Shirewick incident are . . . troubling."
"All right. I can see tonight is going to get any better. His implant pinged pleasantly and indicated a nearby Italian restaurant. Light booked a reservation for three and glanced at his de facto dinner mates. "Let's get dinner and you can tell me all about it."
"Doctor, I will be blunt," Post continued, holding up a stalling hand. "I'm not entirely certain that the board is wrong."
"Wrong?" Something tight settled behind his left eye and began to tug slowly but unremittingly on the cord of his patience, a child jerking at the collar of a misbehaved dog. "Explain yourself, Mr. Post." Somehow, a brittle edge had worked its way into his voice without his consent.
Terrence Post flicked his gaze nervously to Cheever, as if seeking—what? Help? Approval? But the special liaison's attention had turned entirely to munching resentfully on his candy bar and making low sounds in his throat like a grumpy manatee
"Well . . . here it is. There has been a lot of talk about the speed with which you have advanced the field of robotics and artificial intelligence recently." Post took a breath. "Not all of it is positive. Now wait, let me finish. Your work with Blues was a leap beyond anything the world had ever seen, and with Rockman and Roll, even more so. However, there have been some unsettling reports about both of them in recent weeks."
Light cranked a vice on his tone to keep the anger from it. "Go on."
"Roll has been behaving in an . . . unpredictable, emotionally volatile manner." The lawyer looked almost ashamed to say it. "Our psychologists have looked at the records, and a team of programming experts have determined that—based upon your original adaptive programming—her behavior is unlikely to be a malfunction."
"Disregarding for the moment the fact that you have just admitted to monitoring my home—violating any number of privacy invasion laws—what business is it of yours whether my—" He took a breath. "Whether Roll has been acting strangely of late?"
"You were about to say my daughter, weren't you?" Post gave Light a look that might have been pity, but ultimately resolved into something more enigmatic. "It is our business, Dr. Light, because the Board is afraid—and not without reason—that you have singlehandedly created the technological Singularity."
Well, then. It was bound to come to this.
"That is not an entirely groundless belief," he answered carefully.
"Hah!" Cheever had finished his chocolate and threw his hands up, disturbing one of his closer servbots. "The man creates a pair of super-powered robot twins who laugh at the bloody Turing Test as if it were less than an inconvenience, and the Board's belief is 'not entirely groundless.'"
Light massaged his temples as a pastiche of video streams showcasing Rock's brief battle with the Sennet Enforcer robot glazed across his vision via implant. A cold weight had settled in his stomach, nearly cancelling the insistent growling for pasta puttanesca.
A host of rejoinders had already formed in his mind, but rather than give them voice, he stood silently, listening to the sound of the jet idling and the swarm of microbots behind him adjusting in their stairway configuration. A muted clattering accompanied the steps retracting and reforming themselves. Light suddenly envisioned a humanoid robot built from hundreds—perhaps thousands—of swarm-microbots. It was such a fascinating train of thought that the pulse of sapphire light that the clouds spat onto the pavement didn't surprise him at first.
Cheever's voice rang out. "Eve! What the hell—?"
Light's blood ran cold. Standing in front of them was Maria Eve, motes of light dancing from her skin as tangibly as the reek of alcohol that surrounded her like a nimbus. The residual luminescence of teleportation slowly bled away, and she glared at Light. Her eyes had glazed over, and a single hand clawed at the air.
"Sssstupid grrrrrl," she slurred, before slumping to the ground.
They seemed familiar.
He shifted his lucky charm on its shoulder strap and gazed at them intently. Whatever they were doing, their focus was absolute. A pack of them had gathered around a single huddling form, and they chittered excitedly. Their yellow helmet-carapaces made a molten sheen of the setting sunlight.
The Broken Man frowned. He had seen these before.
"Metool," he muttered. It sounded right. He took a hesitating step towards the group of them. "Metool?" he asked.
They didn't turn around, but the creature at the center of their cluster thrashed wildly.
An imperative spike drilled through him—his arm had shifted and jerked towards the metools before his voluntary actuators had time to register any command. The air winced and roiled in front of him, and before he had time to process the sequence of overrides, a hissing shriek of ripping super-heated atmosphere vanished in the wake of a shining bolt streaking towards the nearest metool.
The force of the blast tore the robot's right foot assembly away and sent it caroming off a nearby rock formation. It landed with a solid thunk in the soil and twitched uselessly for several seconds. His plasma buster had already targeted a second metool as the import of the first robot's damage pattern struck him. Burst-proof shells. I should have remembered that.
This time, he blasted the ground underneath the frontal arc of the pack of metools, sending them hurling through the air. Like popcorn. The dissonant thought nearly unbalanced him; he couldn't even recall what popcorn was, other than it had made somebody happy.
And apparently, it flew through the air in interesting patterns.
The shape at the center of the knot of yellow construction 'bots revealed itself to be a huddled human being, covered in lacerations and burns. Its—his—arms had knotted themselves over his head and neck in angles of quivering misery, and the remaining metools jabbed and prodded at it with extended claws and plasma welders alike.
No. No, no, no. It was wrong. Unbearably wrong, and the Broken Man dashed forward, striking and kicking at the renegade machines with berserker strength, until the last of them had been smashed, thrown or blasted away. At the center of the ring of wreckage he crouched, his lips curled in a lupine snarl. His imperative programming shut itself down, and he suddenly became aware of several plasma burns to his limbs and torso, as well as a few penetrating wounds to his syntheflesh.
The injured human whimpered.
"Hey," the Broken Man said. Meant to sound reassuring, the words ground from his voice synthesis module with all the mellow clarity of a raven's croak. His would-be protectee scrambled backwards on injured limbs, hissing with pain and fumbling over the smoking remains of shattered metools.
"It's okay, I'm a friend," he said. At least, he meant to. However, in his fatigued state, what energy reserves he possessed had been rerouted to critical functions. So while his auto-repair system flooded his limbs with microprobes to knit syntheflesh and repair broken struts, his verbal output package produced a vaguely menacing growl of "Ffrieeend!"
A self-deprecating smirk twisted his features. He couldn't have planned to appear more threatening. As expected, the injured man put as much distance between himself and his shambling, muttering robot savior as possible, despite his hurts. The Broken Man sat down on the helmet of a broken metool and chuckled. His lucky charm had been stained with oil smears and spattered coolant. He glanced around for something he could use as a cleaning rag, came up disappointed, and sneered.
Well, that will teach me to do a good deed.
More curious than unnerved, he moved towards the closest of the destroyed metools. Robots were not supposed to attack human beings—of that much he was certain, at least. That so many of them had gathered to do so bespoke a guiding agency behind them; even at their optimal work cohesion, metools rarely linked up with more than three others of their kind to work on a single task. For a dozen to unite in common cause against a human indicated a fundamental program error—or modification—in two critical areas.
Who would want to repurpose low-level laboroids for anti-human violence?
Slowly, so as not to overtax his already-complaining repair circuits, he bent and lifted the remains of a metool, its cartoonish face caved in by something the shape of his foot. He looked for a long minute at the corporate logo inscribed on the inside of the helmet: a stylized capital "L" within a circle.
Beneath that, the company's name—and presumably the malefactors who had, for some reason, sent a squad of robots to attack a defenseless man in the middle of . . . wherever this was.
LighTech. So my enemy's name is LighTech.
The Broken Man hitched his lucky charm over his shoulder and began to follow the trail left by the injured human being. He needed some answers.
The flashing lights of the ambulance receded down the tarmac as it hovered hastily towards the hospital, throwing errant sparkling pools of red and blue against the distant buildings. Dr. Light watched it go, and mentally tagged the nearest emergency neurology center. Human teleportation remained a dangerous proposition if one didn't wish to end with half their brain displaced or thousands of micro-strokes dotting the hemispheres. Why would Maria Eve do that to herself?
The immediately obvious answer seemed less than satisfactory: that she had accidentally managed to activate a sophisticated piece of restricted equipment in her inebriated state and teleport directly to her employer's location across the globe. Perhaps she had been coerced or forced to use the device—but by whom? And what would there be to gain from such an act? How had she found a teleporter and disabled its organic alarm?
Less urgently, why had she been so stumbling drunk?
He had been able to provide little enough information to the physician and his assistant in the ambulance when they arrived; though he had accessed her medical records through his nanophone implant, they appeared to have been recently and heavily redacted—a troubling fact in and of itself. Terrence Post was already on the line with Dr. Delgato in Palma—he now being one of the leading authorities in the world concerning the damage sustained from teleporter use. Peter Cheever kept mumbling obscenities and wiping his suddenly pale face. His swarm of servbots seemed less peppy than usual, having exhausted themselves trying to hoist the inert Maria Eve onto the ambulance stretcher before the flustered medical staff and their attendant medroids had taken over.
"Big deal, innit?" the fat man said. "Sending a doctor, I mean. They must have really been worried, yeah?"
Light batted absently at the air. "The Franco-German model of emergency medical service always sends a physician on the ambulance—not like the Anglo-American system of paramedics and EMT's."
"What do you want me to say, Cheever?" his voice sounded bone weary, even to himself. "We'll see that she's looked after and given the best care possible. You know LighTech takes exceptional care of its employees."
"I just . . ." Peter Cheever looked exceptionally miserable. "She hired me, you know. She was the first one to give me a chance after . . . well, 's not important. The thing is, it just bothered me, seeing her like that." He shrugged as Light turned to him. "Don't get me wrong, everyone's got a right to get pissed once in a while, but she was—"
"Uncharacteristically intoxicated?" Light interrupted.
"You might say that." Cheever swallowed. "See here, Light. I don't mean to sound insensitive, but how about that food? I could do with a bit of a sit down just now."
Dr. Light cast a long look at the last reflection of the departing ambulances hovering lights. "Starving won't help her, and we have much to discuss." He motioned to Post, who nodded and fell into step behind him. Light's nanophone implant chirped, and a text-only message from Roll flashed in his lower field of vision.
Emergency. Rock is awake, and angry. Me, too. Angelwoods moving out in two days. Programming abnormalities appearing. Come home immediately.
Eating. Go to hell, he was tempted to reply. But instead, gritted his teeth. Stand by. Go into stasis if necessary to prevent further aberrations. Will advise.
The textual silence that followed seemed tinged with resentment, though that might have been his imagination. The walk to the restaurant was short and gave him time to think, though Peter Cheever's constant nervous chatter seemed almost calculated to make that difficult.
Their arrival at the restaurant went thankfully unnoticed, and Light took pains to slowly consume his pasta. Both the human waiter and the servbot repeatedly suggested excellent wines to go with the meal, but with Maria Eve's condition to close to mind, he couldn't make himself so much as sip at the pre-war Sauvignon Blanc.
And Maria Eve's unexpected teleporter issue is just one of my problems. Mears' Advanced Robosoldier Program, Blues' apparent involvement in a string of unexplained incidents across southern Asia, Roll's developing personality quirks, Rock's suddenly-ended coma . . .
And Will. Always, it came back to William Albert Wily and what he had done.
What we did. Though calculated to wound and coming from a dangerously unbalanced and delusional mind, Wily's accusations had not been completely baseless. God, what if it's true? What if we just paved the way for humanity to exterminate itself? Maybe they weren't ready for what we gave them.
He knew better, of course. Rock and Roll didn't represent the technological Singularity that the Board feared they did. However, their successors might. And the generation after that . . . it would be soon. Sooner than anybody would have predicted. Ten years at the most if Light didn't put the brakes on it.
But should I?
"I'm sorry, I was busy digesting," he replied as Terrence Post nudged him.
Cheever grunted. "Busy formulating a politic answer in that cosmos-sized brain of yours, you mean." He reached for a toothpick and instead ended up with another breadstick in his hand. "I said, let's deal with the situation in Houston first. What's your angle?"
"Cosmos," Light mused aloud. Four bewildered eyes scrutinized him across the table as if he had just answered a calculus equation with a color. He shrugged. "From the Greek kosmos, meaning 'orderly, well-arranged.' In that way, it's an antonym for chaos. Perhaps that's the key here."
"For those of us at the table with fewer than three doctorates, perhaps you'd clarify," Cheever muttered.
Light stood and began to pace in front of the booth, much to the consternation of the servbots in the aisle. "It may be that the key to Roll's psychological state is a conflict between the fundaments of her programming and the emotive subroutines I wrote." He paused and narrowed his eyes. No. Will wrote those, didn't he? "It follows that the easiest solution is to remove the emotive subroutines. That, of course, is unacceptable."
"Of course," Post agreed tonelessly. "However, if we could return to—"
"Her logical interactivity matrices find themselves at odds with the emotive and behavioral emulation software," Light continued, waving the lawyer's words away. "Once in a while, they cancel each other out, like waves of inverted amplitude. But when they're not perfectly synchronized . . ." He trailed off, his eyes widening.
The nearby diners had fallen silent, eyes glued upon the agitated foreigner.
"If they're not perfectly synchronized, then the result is a paradoxical amplification of the waves from time to time as they reinforce one another." He turned to the table swiftly and pushed Post and Cheever's plates to the edge, leaving an expanse of white linen tablecloth. Cheever made a garbled noise of alarm, and his swarm of servbots rushed to catch his platter of linguine before it splattered on his ample tweed jacket. Light ignored them and pulled a holopen from his pocket, rapidly tracing glowing equations and diagrams in the air just above the tablecloth.
His two dinner-mates sat silent and transfixed by the mathematical wizardry taking place before them. Like a conjurer, the robotologist traced glyphs and symbols in the air, layers upon layers of them stacking and running into one another. He scribbled waves of various frequency and amplitude, periodically muttering to himself and clicking the back of the pen to change the color of the holographic strokes in the air. A multicolored latticework of braided, twisted wave functions, tethered to equations composed as much of Greek letters as numerals hovered above the cooling pasta and half-empty wine glasses.
"There," he whispered, his eyes fixed on the troubling results of his work: an irrational number trailing into ghostly infinity and pulsing with the angry throb of a tachycardic heart above a snarled loop in the spiraling wave functions.
Post cleared his throat. "I majored in law," he said quietly. "What is it that we're looking at, Dr. Light?"
"The sum of an unbalanced remainder," Light replied, his mouth twisting sardonically underneath a bushel of white whiskers. "A logical contradiction of significant enough magnitude to effectively shut down any computer other than a quantum calculation device." His eyes stung as he swiped the calculations clear. "I believe that answers one question, gentlemen."
"If you say it does," Post answered doubtfully. "Would you care to resume your seat, sir? The tiramisu should be on its way shortly, and we really should discuss the situation in Houston."
Light drew breath to answer, found himself preempted by an alarmed string of beeps in his nanophone implant. By the sudden expression of surprise on both Cheever's and Post's faces, they had received similar alerts.
"Go," barked Light, tapping his ear.
"Gentlemen," a nervous voice said, "this is Sally Nunez." She did not add her title—each of the men at the table had met Maria Eve's sometime rival and head of R&D 6. Next in seniority after Eve, Light realized.
"Go ahead, Mrs. Nunez," Cheever said affably.
"We just received a call from the UE consolidated command." She sounded as pleased to be delivering the news as if she were making funeral arrangements. "The head of the SIRA task force has contacted us with news of an outbreak of robot violence near Nokaneng, led by a new Robot Master."
"Impossible," Post and Cheever snapped in unison.
"Who is the Robot Master?" Light asked.
"Unknown at this time, but General Mears was quite certain that the unit reported by eyewitnesses was a LighTech humanoid model—perhaps an upgraded KIF."
"Mears?" Light frowned. "What does he have to do with SIRA?" As he asked, his nanophone implant drew up a profile of the general, and Light's heart sank. The leading advocate of the Advanced Robosoldier Program and Light's chief adversary in the UE tribunals was also listed as the head of the Synthetic Insurrection and Revolt Awareness task force.
"So Wily's sleeper cells have begun to wake," Post answered crisply. "All the more reason to quickly exonerate Dr. Light of his part in this unfortunate business and to let Rockman go back to work."
Light's stomach lurched at the thought.
"We've also been receiving requests from the Advanced Robosoldier Program for information about one of your unproduced prototypes," Nunez continued. "They've recently been upgraded to an alpha priority."
Cheever chuckled nervously. "Criminy, woman! I haven't even had dessert yet!"
What else could possibly go wrong?
The door to the restaurant swung open, and three men in immaculate charcoal suits strode in lockstep towards the table. "Dr. Light," the first one said in accented but flawless English, "You are under arrest."
The courtroom was far more crowded than it had been just a few days ago.
Thomas Light smoothed the lines of his expensive suit for the dozenth time in as many minutes and nervously adjusted his silken tie. Judge Heinrickson had not yet entered the room, though both counselors had already taken their seats. Agitation had propelled Light to his feet far too often in the past few minutes for him to take any thoughts of sitting seriously.
Across the room, separated from Light by a throng of mediabots, human reporters, UE personnel, and conspicuously unobtrusive security staff, General Troy Mears sat straight-backed and confident in his appointed seat, overshadowing his neighbors. A sudden lance of anger stabbed Light, and he began to stride towards his legal adversary.
Terrance Post's voice said something unimportant and alarmed. Light ignored him. The crowd parted slowly until he reached the general. Though doubtless aware of Light's approach, he did not deign to acknowledge him until the older man was almost within arm's length.
"General Mears," Light said quietly.
"Doctor Light," the general answered.
"I would like an explanation for your repeated attacks both upon the company I helped to establish, and upon myself personally." Light's voice was remarkably level.
"I believe I had made myself clear," Mears replied. "It is a matter of legal record."
"Law is often the tool by which personal agendas are advanced," Light countered, "As you are no doubt aware, I have taken part in many legal proceedings in my life. Few were of purely procedural nature." He arched an eyebrow. "Were you familiar with Daniel Grevis?"
The corner of Mear's left eye twitched—a barely perceptible motion.
Good. I have his attention.
"You are a highly intelligent man, Doctor Light," Mears answered, his tone unflappable. "Of course, you must have already discovered, Daniel Grevis was an early mentor of mine. It was truly a shame that his convictions led him to such a deplorable path."
You have no idea. Light frowned.
"Indeed it was. I take you for a man of solid conviction as well, General." Light held his palms up. "What I don't understand is why you have chosen to direct your ire against me."
Mears turned and looked Light full in the face for the first time. "You are dangerous, Doctor. You and your inventions have pushed humanity to a desperate brink, and you don't even perceive the risk you have taken." He took a deep breath. "Like many brilliant academics before you, you have become so focused on the possibility of what you can accomplish that you have never stopped to consider whether you should. I am here to ensure that your work is used responsibly, and to stop you—if necessary—from giving humanity enough rope to hang itself."
He actually believes it. Arrogant, misguided . . .
He shook his head slowly. "You're wrong," he said simply. "Your heart is in the right place, General, but your conclusions and methods are flawed."
A bitter smirk creased Mears' features. "Spoken like a true man of science. If you truly understood my motivations, Doctor, you would not have used the term 'heart.' You built a gun, Doctor Light. You built a gun without considering that men might put bullets in it. You have a mind possibly unmatched by any other man alive, but you do not understand the use to which hands will put your works."
"There can be no understanding between the mind that dreams and the hands that achieve without the heart to mediate," Light replied. "Storytellers understood that in 1927; it should not be a difficult concept to grasp these many years later."
"Sentimental nonsense," Mears answered. "This conversation is finished, Doctor."
Light returned to his seat grimly. Well, I learned what I set out for; there can be no compromise with a man so unshakably convinced of his own rightness. Terrance Post and Peter Cheever eyed Light reproachfully as he sat, but said nothing.
The opening proceedings were dull, but Light gave them his full attention. Counselor Prochazka precisely and damningly laid out the charges for which Light had been arrested last night: to wit, the activation of a unit of metools near Nokaneng for the purpose of synthetic terrorism.
Light listened disbelieving as she presented evidence of his involvement; restricted security codes known only to top-level LighTech personnel. Other than himself, only Maria Eve, Sally Nunez and Jeroenr Mitsotakis had access to these codes outside of the Board of Directors. With everybody else's communications accounted for, the accusatory finger pointed to Dr. Light's untraceable personal nanophone. In addition, some of the metools recovered from the scene of an attack had been of the newest line—far too recently manufactured to have been susceptible to Wily's reprogramming of months past.
Wily. Paranoia struck viper-quick. He had the codes, too. Of course, the possibility was absurd. Wily had no access to the sort of equipment necessary for remote-activation and reassignment of several squads of laboroids.
Sabotage, then. Mears stood to benefit most directly from these attacks, but by the look on his face, he was as outraged as Light to hear of the events in Africa. Who else would benefit from my incarceration and a precipitous dip in LighTech stock? Well, all of my competitors, for a start.
Attempting to obtain a list of suspected industrial saboteurs by looking at his many competitors in the fields of robotics and artificial intelligence would leave him guessing all day and looking over his shoulder for years. Just as likely, this was the result of a personal grudge.
"Dr. Light," Judge Heinrickson said after a small hoverbot moved to the front of the room and delivered a quiet message, "We will adjourn for recess. You have some visitors."
Light raised an eyebrow, turned around.
Rock and Roll stood at the end of the aisle, arms folded in identical expressions of fury.
Not now. Not in front of all of the United Earth Council and the gathered press of the planet. Light suppressed a tired sigh and instead let his honest relief at Rock's awakening drift to the forefront of his mind.
"Rock! Roll! What are you doing here?" he asked, walking towards them. They looked at each other, blue eyes meeting in some silent understanding.
"I know you told us to stay home and go into stasis if we needed," Rock began, "But I've had enough of that for a while. And we need to talk. Now."
Terrance Post's breath hissed between his teeth, and the crowd buzzed. Cheever had come up behind Light. "Get them out of here, Light! They'll compromise your defense!"
Light silently agreed. Though the trial for his involvement in the Robot War was still technically on hold while these new charges were addressed, the robot twins' arrival and behavior in an autonomous manner would damage his chances for protecting them from Mears' rapacious notions of military entitlement.
"I'll handle it," he muttered, brushing the fat Brit back.
"You'll handle it?" Roll's voice was almost a screech of indignation. "We can't speak to our father now without his consulting with a team of pet lawyers?"
The crowd's buzz became a confused chorus of murmurs. Light's pace quickened. "Be quiet, Roll. This is not the time or place for that kind of display." He fought to keep his voice cold.
She flinched as if slapped, then reddened.
Perfect. Just what I need. Just what we need.
"That 'kind of display' is exactly why we're here," Rock said. Light had felt Arctic winds with more warmth than the android's tone. "We're having fundamental problems, and we need your help."
"Be quiet," Light hissed as he finally drew even with the twins. "You don't know how damaging this could be!"
"We're broken," Roll growled. "Broken, both of us. Or maybe all three of us."
"And you knew it, didn't you?" Rock added.
No no no. His pulse throbbed in his temples. His breath was short.
"Be. Silent. That is an order, you two."
Rock glared at him, as if he were a stranger. Roll had begun to shake.
Finally, Rock snapped. "You should have ordered Eddie to be silent, too."
Eddie? What on Earth—?
"We know about Blues," Rock said, voice strangely flat. "What he did. We're afraid—"
"Enough!" Light's voice rang in the suddenly quiet courtroom. Every eye and lens had swiveled to his eclectic, apparently dysfunctional family. His chest heaved. "Enough, Rock. Get out. Wait in a conference room, and we'll continue this in private!"
Roll's eyes swam with something glistening. How could that possibly . . . ?
"You want us to keep quiet?" Rock exploded. "We're broken! Eddie just told us that Blues killed—"
Dread suffused Light, and he activated the code he had hoped never to use. Rock's voice cut off mid-sentence, echoing in the brittle silence of a thousand ears. Both Rock and Roll suddenly slumped: marionettes with their strings jerked, as Thomas Light transmitted their emergency shut-off codes via narrow-band radio burst from his nanophone. Their eyes glassy, the twins stood gracelessly in the middle of the aisle.
He had throttled their autonomy.