Book: The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition



The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

The Complete Robot Empire


This is a work of fiction. Similarities to real people, places, or events are entirely coincidental.

THE COMPLETE ROBOT EMPIRE

First edition. February 19, 2020.

Copyright © 2020 Kevin Partner.

Written by Kevin Partner.

Table of Contents

Title Page

Copyright Page

1: Robot Empire: Dawn Exodus

Flight

The Choosing

The Training

The Engineer

Dawn

EVA

The Mock Emperess

Intruder

Interrogation

Lost in Space

Dialogue

Relentless

Threat

Response

Harbinger

We're off to see...

...the Wizard

Takeover

Incoming

Parley

Betrayal

2: Robot Empire: Battle for Dawn

Core

Relics

Farmer

Father

The Brig

Heretic

Probe

Mutineer

Prime

Fugitive

Kiama

Escape

Plot

Ultimatum

Death Star

Invasion

Revolution

Assault

Insurrection

A Desperate Plan

Robots

The Final Stand

Interloper

Gate

3: Robot Empire: Planet of Steel

Betrayal

Core

Dig

Robo City

Impossible

Hackers

Quid Pro Quo

Scout

Hal

Bex

Transit

Armageddon

Raid

Prelude

Encounter

Orbis

Gaius

Apollo

Golem

Oracle

Epilogue

4: Robot Empire: Sledgehammer

Oracle

Dawn

Lazarus

Mind

Desertion

Masters

Mechanic

Vanis

Escape

Convergence

Coles

Coup

Indi

Forlorn Hope

Face to Face

Planetbound

Skirmish

Sledgehammer

Chicken

Aces Low

Epilogues

5: Robot Empire: Twilight on Terra

Reunion

Zenith

Robots

Divergent

Rebels

Terra

Downs

Starlight

Relic

Rex

Clones

Twilight

Trap

Jungle

Parting

Jungle

Eden

Dig

Fossil

Serpent

Redoubt

6: Robot Empire: Armageddon

Bex

Intruder

Clovis

Feint

Escape from Eden

Scout

Abduction

Rescue

Hal

Admiral

Seraph

Virus

Murder

Dawn

Pursuit

Choice

Roche

Hal

Core

ACE

Meanwhile

Singularity's End

Aftermath

Truce

End

What Happened Next?

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

1: Robot Empire: Dawn Exodus

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Kevin Partner



For Doug Partner, my dad, who inspired my love of science.

For Margaret Partner, the best mum in the universe.

For Peta Partner, my wife, for her love, belief and patience.

For my kids: Kirsty, Lucy and George, for making me proud.

For Dene and Heather: for reading them all.

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Flight

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

DATE: FIRST CONTACT minus 22.5 hours.

They’d been chasing him for days like a wolf pack on the scent, relentlessly narrowing the distance between his ship and theirs. It was only a matter of time before they caught him and there was only one penalty for attempting to escape from the Vanis Federation. Especially with what he had in the cargo hold.

Hal threw the chart down and ran his hands over his face. He’d planned to make for the belt of asteroids that orbited between the fifth and sixth planets of the Vanis system but a blip on the ladar had warned him, in the nick of time, that an interceptor waited there.

It was no good thinking about it too much. He doubted they’d anticipated anyone would steal what he had stored feet away from him, glowing feebly in the darkness. And yet what use would it be to him if he couldn’t escape, couldn’t find anyone willing to pay what it was worth? He’d never make it to the gate and a random jump through interstellar space. If his ion drive couldn’t keep him ahead of them until he found somewhere to hide, he was lost.

“This is the destroyer Relentless, hailing the...” the voice paused for a moment, “...unclassified vessel. You are ordered to disengage your ion drive and prepare to be boarded.”

Hal bit back his annoyance at the arrogance and disdain in the voice, but he couldn’t quite stop himself responding. “This is the launch Knox. Don’t waste your breath.”

“Knox, your situation is already serious, I suggest you do not make it fatal. Pull over and return what you have stolen.”

Hal wasn’t a fool. He knew that he’d signed his death warrant the moment he’d stepped on board the Knox and engaged its drive without an official flight plan. That would have been bad enough, but he’d carried something more valuable than the colony itself in an old canvas bag that now sat in the hold. Stealing that would have ensured the slow death of himself and his family. But the Vanis had seen to it that he had no family, so the only neck on the line was his own.

The NavSkem showed the Vanis craft trailing the Knox. At the bottom of the display, the separation distance was being counted down like an executioner’s pocket watch - when it reached zero, he’d be dead. “Nav, how soon to intercept?”

Assuming no deviation in velocity by either craft, intercept in four hours, fourteen minutes and 10 seconds.

Leaning back as the metallic voice of the nav computer died away, Hal sighed. “And are there any debris fields, asteroids or anywhere else I can reach in less than four hours?”

Sorry, I don’t understand the question. Please rephrase it in such a way that I can perform the required calculation.

Hal grunted. He’d known the stupid thing would respond like that, after all it wasn’t an AI. How could it be? AIs no longer existed.

Sensors detect weapons discharge from the pursuing ship.

That got his attention. “What sort of weapons?”

High-intensity laser.

“Time to impact?”

2 minutes.

What were they playing at? Lasers were fearsome weapons at close quarters, but they travelled in a straight line, so avoiding a laser with two minutes warning was like dodging a very small glacier.

“Evasive maneuvers.” He guessed they were just trying to frighten him, trying to make a show of their power.

Command not understood. What do you wish to evade?

Hal jumped to his feet and banged his fist on the console. “The laser, for frak’s sake!”

The laser is not aimed at this vessel, I cannot, therefore, program a course to evade it.

“What is it aimed at, then?”

Calculating...

Hal glanced back at the NavSkem. It showed his ship, the pursuing vessels and any bodies massive enough to affect navigation.

Calculating...

The problem was that there were thousands of moving objects within a radius of a hundred kilometers of the ship and the NavCom was working out the positions of each of them relative to the incoming laser.

Calculating...

“Limit candidates to objects above 100 tons mass.” That did it.

Calculated.

A red blob appeared on the NavSkem.

“They’re targeting a meteoroid. Emergency course correction, take us away from the targeted object, maximum possible negative velocity.”

Acknowledged.

Hal grabbed the console as the ship lurched to the side, he leaned sideways, then corrected himself as his ride smoothed out.

“Activate rear viewer.”

The NavSkem disappeared and a 3D view of the space behind the ship grew out of the console surface. It was hard to tell, at first, that they were moving at all, but then he began to notice tiny objects flashing backwards. These were the debris and meteoroids of the Vanis System set against the unmoving backdrop of the stars. Then, as he watched, a section of the view exploded then immediately faded again. He didn’t need to ask the NavCom how close that had been to the ship’s previous position. The Vanis had used the computer against him - they’d known it could evade a laser aimed directly at him, so they’d blown up a lump of rock nearby that the NavCom would ignore. And if he’d continued on his previous course he’d have had a face full of asteroid. It wouldn’t have destroyed his ship, but it would probably have disabled it. Exactly as intended.

It really came to something, didn’t it, when his was the smartest brain on the ship? Oh, the NavCom could beat him in a calculating contest every time and with one transistor tied behind its back. But give it a simple problem that required judgement and intuition and it was nothing more than a glorified adding machine. This all meant that it was his brain against the combined intelligence of all the officers on the Relentless - and they couldn’t all be idiots.

“Activate NavSkem,” he said and watched as the holographic view of surrounding space rebuilt itself. The last object to be added was the chasing ship. It looked a lot closer.

“Calculate time to intercept.”

At current velocity and vector, Relentless will overtake us in 2 hours 35 minutes and 33 seconds.

“Damn it!”

Hal began pacing up and down the tiny compartment that served as the bridge of the Knox. He felt like a dog in a corporation kennel, hoping for its owner to arrive but knowing, in its heart, that it was doomed. So, Relentless had anticipated his move when they’d targeted the lump of rock. In truth they’d probably expected him to be disabled but veered on their current course just in case the pilot they were chasing saw through their tactic. He felt a moment of pride as he realized that he had, at least, forced them to plan B.

But it would only delay the inevitable. What he needed was an advantage. Knox was more maneuverable than Relentless but couldn’t compete in sheer speed. Knox was also more or less weaponless so any direct encounter would only end one way. The only other thing he had on board that the Relentless didn’t was the glowing orb in his hold.

He moved to the back of the bridge and pulled down the lock on the cargo bay door before stepping through into what was not so much a hold as a glorified cupboard. There sat the canvas bag, a red pulsing visible through the many tears in the fabric. Hal pulled apart the handles and undid the zip. There it was, the most valuable object in the Vanis Federation. Had he not timed things so perfectly, he’d now have their entire fleet on his back, but Relentless had been the only ship in the area when he’d made his escape.

Hal reached in and pulled out an orb. It lay, filling his hands and beating like an artificial heart. What did it contain to make the Vanis protect it so carefully? Data? Star maps of lost systems? It was clearly of huge value and only by a combination of good luck and long preparation had Hal got close to it, and he was even luckier to get away. He wondered whether, at last, his luck had run out.

“What are you?” he said as he turned the object over and over in his hands.

It made no response but continued to pulse in a slow rhythm.

Hal lowered the orb back into the bag. “Pity, I could do with a hand escaping the Vanis.”

You wish to escape the Vanis Federation?

Hal dropped the orb and fell backwards. It lay in his bag, the slow pulsing replaced by a frantically cycling colorscape.

Hal Chen, you wish to escape the Vanis Federation? The female voice said from across the small room.

Scrambling onto his knees, Hal crawled across the floor and peered into the bag where the orb sat kaleidoscopically.

“Yes, I have...” he paused to find the right word, “...rescued you, and now the Vanis are pursuing me, they will intercept within two hours. By the gods, are you an AI?”

I am ACE. I have accessed your NavCom. Your current course will result in my recapture, I am therefore plotting alternative vectors. Please wait.

Hal reached in and picked the orb up again. It felt warm to the touch as if it were alive again after many years in hibernation. “I thought all the AIs had gone, more than a century ago.”

I am currently processing multiple vectors. Formal introductions will have to wait. Please give me access to your guidance system and sensing array - your star maps are out of date.

“How do I give you access?”

Command your NavCom. It is currently being rather rigid in its interpretation of security and access protocols.

Hal leaned back into the doorway to the bridge. “NavCom, grant all access to the entity known as ACE.”

Acknowledged

“Do you have the access you need?”

Affirmative. Processing. Interesting. Your sensing array records the position of a large object that is not included in the star charts.

“How does that help?”

It is likely that the pursuing ship uses the same star maps as your vessel. They may not be aware of the object. It is a nickel-iron asteroid of considerable mass. It is likely that we could find a ravine or fissure in which to hide. To the pursuing ship, we will seem to have vanished.

Hal had, by this time, returned to the canvas bag and had pulled the orb out. It seemed oddly rude to talk to ACE while she was at the bottom of a dirty old rucksack. She? Yes, it was hard not to see ACE as a person. He’d never made that mistake with NavCom or any other computer system, but ACE felt real and alive in a way he’d never experienced before. Maybe the Imperialists had a point, he could see how people could come to rely on the help of AIs a little too much. But this particular beggar couldn’t afford to be a chooser.

“Can we make it to the asteroid before they catch us?”

Success is within the tolerances of my best estimate.

“You mean you don’t know?” Hal said, looking down at the orb which seemed to be sporting less exuberant colors. “What can we do to increase our chances?”

This ship has primitive automated systems. It responds best when piloted manually so that last minute adjustments can be made.

“You want me to fly the ship?”

The globe exploded into light and sudden unbearable heat. Hal threw it away and it rolled into a corner, all color had vanished along with any sign of intelligence.

No, I want us to fly it.

Hal threw his hands over his ears. The voice seemed to be coming from inside his head. “Where are you?”

When you picked me up, I detected your cranial implants. They are of inefficient design, but they will serve. Now, we will fly the ship together. Do exactly as I say and we might survive.

Hal staggered onto the bridge and sat in the tall command chair, his hand still on his temple. He felt as though madness had been injected directly into his brain.

“Will you leave my implant when we escape?” he said out loud.

First, we must escape.

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

The Choosing

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

DATE: FIRST CONTACT minus 5 years

As the light faded and dusk approached, Arla lay on her back and looked through the sky to the fields beyond. This was her favorite thing to do, all the more so because it was a rarity. It needed both a dry, cloudless, atmosphere and the opportunity for her to slip away for a few hours, and that sort of combination only came up once in a while.

There had been no rain for several days and none was expected that evening, so she’d been on the lookout for an opportunity to lose herself amongst all the bustle of the preparations for the ceremony tomorrow. She’d been desperate for one last look because, even though she believed it vanishingly unlikely that she’d be selected, the ceremony marked the passage to true adulthood for all those that attended. A new and privileged life awaited the selected few, though with no prospect of a family of their own; no husband or children, no father or mother. But for the majority who stayed behind, it was time for responsibility and marriage, so a different sort of selection awaited them. A selection she planned to put off for as long as possible: fifteen felt like far too young to be making choices that would affect the rest of her life.

Arla’s gaze swept the sky as she pushed thoughts of matchmaking, long years of labor in the fields and the horrific thought of childbirth out of her mind. This view would last only a couple of minutes and this might well be the final time she’d see it. There. Arla could see lights twinkling in two broad bands that ran either side of the sun, which was now completely extinguished but remained as an invisible barrier blocking her view of any other pinpoints behind it. Her father had sworn her to secrecy when he’d first shown her this. He’d said he had his theories about what the lights might represent, and he would tell her one day. But it was never that day. And so she looked up at the tiny lights and wondered. What were they?

She lay there as the night breeze played across her face. She felt simultaneously alone here and yet at one with the world, as if she and it were a single entity, at total peace with one another.

“Mistress, I must ask you to return to the farm.”

Arla sighed. She wasn’t surprised. She’d known that R. DJ would be the first to notice her absence. He would look for her and, when he didn’t find her, he’d go to his master, her father, and report that she was missing. And her father would growl at him to get his metal hide up the mountain and bring her back.

It wasn’t Deejay’s fault. He was a robot and bound to obey his master by laws as inviolate as those that governed human behavior. Robots were the uncomplaining servants sent by the blessed Engineers to aid the people toiling in the fields. Just as the Goddess had humans to do her bidding, so those humans had machines to serve them.

“Mistress, we must make haste. Curfew begins in 61 minutes.”

Arla looked up at the robot. He loomed over her, his artificial eyes glowing a faint yellow that flickered gently as he waited for her response. His exoskeleton was of plastic and aluminum, though pitted and dented with the little accidents that had accumulated over the centuries, and he weighed several times as much as she did. He could snap her in two without effort, and yet she had no fear as he stood there, patiently waiting. This was partly the simple familiarity that came from growing up with these eager-to-please servants always on the periphery of her vision. But it was also because she knew that there was one law that robots considered even more sacrosanct than the one that compelled them to obey orders - it was that they must not, under any circumstances, harm a human or allow a human to come to harm. This was a fact as certain and inviolate as the earth beneath her back and the cylindrical sun above her head.

She watched the tell-tale flicker in his eyes that suggested he was coming to a decision. He had been given an order to fetch her, but she had failed, so far, to comply despite his repeated request. By not responding, she had given him an implied order to wait. But now the direct command of his master was overriding his hesitation and he was about to speak.

Arla decided to put him out of his misery. She took a final look up at the sky which was now fully dark. As always, the lights had disappeared, though she suspected they were still there. It was as if some sort of invisible barrier had been extended between the two hemispheres.

“Will you carry me, Deejay?”

The flicker went from the robot’s eyes and she felt momentarily guilty that she’d stressed him. But, after all, he wasn’t human, so he didn’t have feelings. “Certainly mistress,” Deejay said and, bending down, he slid his arms under her with infinite care and lifted her to his chest. He turned with a grace that was only marred by the slight squeaking of his axis joint and carried her down the mountain.


“Where have you been?” roared her father when she appeared at the door, half asleep in the arms of R. DJ.

“You know where she’s been, Jabe, she’s been up on the mountain where she has no right goin’.” A woman wearing a poisoned expression shuffled in from the kitchen door, waving a wooden spoon as if dispensing justice.

Fully awake now, Arla stepped down from the robot’s arms and walked into the room. She ignored the woman and turned to her father with her arms open. She embraced him and, after a moment, he relaxed, all anger gone.

“Sorry, father, I wanted one last look before the choosing.”

Jabe patted her back and they separated. “You know I worry when you go alone, there are many hazards on the path up the mountain and you’ve only just returned before curfew.”

She smiled at him. His anger had been a cloak for his fear, as always. “I didn’t mean for you to worry. I knew R. DJ would come after me.”

“I suppose you’ll be wanting something to eat, though it’s past dining hour,” said the sour-faced woman.

Arla turned to her. “Yes please...” she said. Then after a moment, she added the word she knew her father wanted to hear. “...mother.” The woman was nothing of the sort, but she’d been assigned to the family when Jabe’s wife had died as he was of good stock and still fertile. Her half-brother lay asleep in the room he shared with Arla. The room that had been hers.

It was hard to say whether there was any affection between the two of them. Companionship, perhaps, but her stepmother, whose name was Becca, didn’t possess a personality it was easy to like. If, indeed, she could be said to possess a personality at all. Becca had come into the family believing she would be able to take charge, based, no doubt, on Jabe’s placid nature and reputation for being a good, honest, man. But she’d found, soon enough, that, while Jabe was all those things, he was also as solid as wrought iron and just as easy to bend. Though he spoke rarely, everyone knew that he meant what he said, whether in the privacy of his own home or in the world at large.

Jabe sat next to Arla at the large wooden table in the kitchen of the timber farmhouse. In the orange glow of the oil lamps hung above the mantelpiece and in front of the window, he regarded his daughter as she tucked greedily into the stew that had been deposited carelessly under her nose by Becca.

“What did you see? Was it good viewing tonight?” he asked, eagerly.

Becca slammed a goblet onto the table beside him and began filling it from a bottle. “You ain’t got no right askin’ her that, Jabe Farmer. She shouldn’t ‘ave been up there and that’s a fact. That there is a holy place and the likes of her ain’t to see it, not else she gets chosen tomorrow. Though fat chance of that.”

“Still your tongue,” Jabe said in a voice of calm command. “Do you forget that it was me who showed her where it was? That it was alonger me that she saw the other side for the first time?”

“Now just you stop right there, husband. You shouldn’t ‘ave done it then and she shouldn’t be doing it now. That mountain has filled you with strange notions and it’s done you no good at all.”

“You don’t have to listen to us talk, wife. Make yourself comfortable in the front room and we’ll be out presently.” Jabe smiled at Arla as Becca huffed out, chuntering to herself as she went.

“It was awesome, Pa,” Arla said as soon as her stepmother had disappeared. “I saw more fires than ever, it looked as though the whole of the far side was alight!”

Jabe smiled. “I wish I could have come with you. I’ll slip away some time and take another look, just to convince myself it’s still there.”

Arla leaned in and laid her hand on her father’s arm. “So, what do you think causes the lights? You’ve never said. When you showed me the first time, you said you'd tell me. But I know you won’t have stopped thinking about it.”

“True enough. I said less than I believed at the time because it’d be called blasphemy by some. The dogma says that up there is where purgatory lies and the little lights you see are souls burning in torment.”

This sort of talk made Arla uncomfortable. Her father was an unconventional man who kept his own council, but if Becca got wind of his wild theories then as sure as rocks are rocks, she’d inform on her husband. Jabe would be excommunicated or imprisoned. They might even inflict one of the old punishments on him. Arla shuddered - but she had to know.

“But you don’t believe the dogma, do you dad?” she whispered.

Jabe shook his head. “No. Seems to me that what we see when we look up beyond the sky in those few minutes after dusk, is pretty much exactly what anyone looking back at us would see. Now, it might be some weird reflection off the atmosphere, but I don’t think so. It looks too real to me and the lights don’t appear in the right places. Sometimes there are fires lit over there but not on our side. No, it seems to me that the circling sea doesn’t lead to purgatory, and neither does it mark the edge of the world. It’s just what separates us from whoever is dancing round those lights.”

“Yes, that’s what I think too, though it seems impossible.”

“Impossible? No, but it goes against everything we’re taught from childhood,” Jabe said, speaking in low, but urgent, tones. “Everyone knows the world was made by the Goddess when she ploughed a furrow out of the primordial rocks and planted her garden there. We call it the valley and all people live within its bounds. The Goddess poured waters at each side of the valley and they soar up, forming a magical wall that keeps out the demons of the night. We know that wall of water exists because we can see it from the valley. We know that if we took a boat from the valley’s lip, we could sail that ocean, but that if we did, we would pass into purgatory where the sinful souls wait.”

“But what if that’s all a lie? Not the geography: we can see that our world is shaped like a tube with our own eyes. No, I mean, what if all the explanations are lies? What if, on the other side of this tube, there’s another valley just like ours where they’re fed the same dogma and banned from looking at us, let alone finding us?”

Arla withdrew her hands and leaned back. “Why are you telling me this dad? Why now?”

“Because the ceremony is tomorrow, and you might be chosen.”

“Me! Chosen to be a priest? You’re crazy!”

Smiling, Jabe took her hand. “No, love. It’s true that when I was a lad, we knew who was for the priesthood before the ceremony even took place. It was the devout ones, the ones who would learn their scripture and repeat it. The ones who lived the life of an acolyte before they even became one.”

“Yes, that’s what I heard. And at the last ceremony, five years ago, didn’t they take Navendu, Petra and Nix? They were the most pious little scumbags I ever met.”

“Watch your language,” snapped Jabe, “you’re not an adult yet. But yes, they took those three. And they also took Andriea and Jak, the two brightest kids I’ve ever met. Excepting you, of course.” He gave a rueful smile.

Arla stood up and stepped away from the table. She began absentmindedly fiddling with the ornaments there, selecting the Ring of Dianne for particular attention. “You’re right, pa. And don’t think I hadn’t noticed who they chose last time, I just imagined it was something random or maybe that Andriea and Jak were more devout than I thought. But I can’t be a priest! That would mean leaving you and everyone I know.”

From the table, Jabe looked at her standing with her back to him. He felt a lump in his throat - was it pride or sadness? Or both? “No, you wouldn’t come back to live here, but you might visit if you want, there’s nothing in the Coda that says you can’t.”

“But no-one ever does,” said Arla, turning around and meeting her father’s gaze. “Something happens to them that means they lose all their memories of their childhood and home, or maybe they’re changed so they no longer care.”

“That’s true, my darling Arla, but they weren’t you. If you’re chosen tomorrow, I have faith that you’ll do the right thing by your family and that I’ll see you again.”

Arla didn’t speak, but she moved back to the table and fell into her father’s arms. She’d never heard him speak of faith before, at least not as a good thing. He was a man who trusted in things he could see, touch and understand. Faith was for the desperate, he’d said.

They held each other until she fell asleep. The next day, the priests came, and she was chosen.



The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

The Training

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

DATE: FIRST CONTACT minus 2 years

Arla stood beside Brother Elias as he performed the rite of joining. As a novice, she wasn’t permitted to take an active part in the ceremony, still less to use the holy instruments, but she was, nevertheless, treated with reverence by the common folk gathered around them.

She didn’t like Elias, though she’d been told it was a sin to judge others. He was a rigid, arrogant cleric of around 50 years, rumored to have reduced every novice he’d ever been assigned to tears. His tactics hadn’t worked on her, they’d done no more than induce a deep loathing that she did her best to hide. She wasn’t sure she'd been entirely successful.

The whole settlement was here. Cluster 551 was an agrichemical facility which meant, in essence, that it made fertilizer out of crap. It also stunk and so Arla used all the meditative skills she’d learned over the past three years to block out the overwhelming stench of cattle and human dung. The people gathered around the ceremony stone didn’t seem to notice, though. Three families had babies ready for the joining and Elias had spent the past ten minutes lecturing them in the required way. They had renounced the devil and all her minions and vowed to protect their children from the forces of evil.

Arla gazed up at the sky as she considered what evil actually was. After three years at the seminary, she’d come to the conclusion that evil meant anything new or different, anything outside the dogma. Of course, there was murder, jealousy and theft, everyone knew about them, but it seemed to her that the priesthood cared more about deviation from the word and laws of the Goddess than anything she would recognize as being truly evil.

She sighed as she tried to see through the blue sky to the people she thought to be beyond. She hadn’t forgotten that last night on top of the mountain, or her father’s words. But neither had she been to see him. At first, they’d been banned from visiting their family. Something to do with adjusting to the fact that, as priests, everyone was their family, and no-one was. After the end of her second year, the ban had been lifted but still she hadn’t gone to visit home. For some reason, she felt as though to do so would be to invite scrutiny of him, and her, and the last thing she wanted was for the brotherhood to take an interest in her unconventional father.

Elias was now using the Naming Wand. She had to concede that he was a consummate showman. He’d made the relatively simple process of entering the child’s identity details into the wand seem to be some sort of mystic ceremony. Which was, of course, the entire point. She’d noticed this about her training. Much of it was reinforcing the students’ knowledge of the dogma, of course, but, more than anything else, she’d been taught how to carry out each of the major ceremonies and how to use the holy instruments properly. She’d been a little disappointed when she’d first been handed a Naming Wand as she’d imagined it would feel holy in some way. But it was just a rod of metal with a row of buttons on the back and she’d then spent several months learning how to use it properly.

“And so I welcome thee, Narsi Petrovic Technician, to God’s community in this her sacred valley.”

Arla watched as Elias brought the wand down and pressed it to the space between the baby’s shoulder blades as it was held, naked, in the arms of its mother. The wand erupted into a dazzling sequence of colors and holy music played, almost entirely covering up the child’s squeals as Elias pressed the hidden button that ended the ceremony. As a novice, Arla wasn’t yet permitted to know what exactly the button did, beyond, that is, the standard dogma that it made the child a spiritual link in the chain that bound the people of the whole world together. But whatever the true purpose of the wand, it hurt the child, even if only for a few moments. It left a pinprick mark on the child’s back which they bore for the rest of their lives, as she bore hers.

The other two children were brought forward, formally named, and had the wand applied to them with the same combination of color, music and screaming. Parents beamed and cringed in equal measure and the gathered community clapped their approval. And Arla watched it all with a sort of detached interest that she found worrying. She’d been an acolyte for three years and yet she felt no more a priest than she had when she was chosen. Oh, she had learned the rituals she’d been taught and could recite the key canticles, she’d listened to the lessons of the tutor priest and even witnessed the lesser miracles. She had seen, with her own eyes, how a farmer who was so sick she could barely walk was cured by a single application of a holy instrument as well as countless other demonstrations of the power she would obtain when she graduated. And yet she felt nothing.

She woke from her reverie when Elias tugged on the sleeve of her cassock. Of course, the ceremony was over, and the people were waiting for the priests to leave. She mumbled an apology and followed Elias out of the chapel, onto a sunlit lawn and into the village hall. His pace was so slow that Arla had to hold herself back from overtaking him, but the reason soon became clear as, along the far wall of the little hall, the local leaders awaited them. Arla suppressed a chuckle as the little fat man, who turned out to be the plant governor, and the thin old woman, attempted to appear composed as they fought to find their breath. She imagined, in her mind’s eye, the old girl and the fat man running out of the chapel’s side door and into the hall’s back door while the priests were dawdling. Traditions really were stupid sometimes.

An hour later, Arla found herself cornered by the man she’d originally found so amusing but now couldn’t escape. His name was Feng Li and he clearly took great pride in the efficient running of the plant. He’d been obviously upset to be talking to the novice rather than the priest, but he’d warmed up under her polite and interested questioning. Well, pretending to be interested was, of course, essential when training to be a priest.

Her rescue came along with an overwhelming stench as Feng’s gaze focused on a point about her left shoulder. “What are you doing here R.SH?”

Arla spun round to find herself looking up at a robot of humanoid form except for the addition of a second set of arms that sprung from its torso.

“I am sorry, master Feng, but there has been an accident. Technician Shi Tu has fallen into a supply vat.”

“By the mother!” Feng cried, “Where is she now?”

“I retrieved her, master Feng, but she is not breathing. I fear she has ingested the supply fluid.”

Elias had been attracted to the commotion as a fly to manure. Feng turned to him. “You must help!” he said.

After a moment, Elias said: “Novice Arla will help. She has been trained in the proper ceremonies.”

Panic flooded Arla’s stomach. What did he mean? Why wasn’t he going to treat the woman, he who usually wanted as much attention as possible. She allowed herself to be guided out of the hall’s back door and out onto the concrete pavement behind. This was an industrial sector so, away from the chapel with its grass lawn, it was an unattractive huddle of metal and concrete buildings around a large plant. She found herself looking down at a figure prone and unmoving. It was completely soaked with liquid excrement - so that was the supply fluid the robot mentioned, and this was why Elias was so keen to take a back seat.

“Please help!” said one of the men gathered around the body. She seemed to be the only one here with a sense of smell, but she swallowed it, and the vomit that was rising into her gullet, and knelt beside the body.

“Get me a bucket of water!” she shouted. Within moments it appeared hanging from the arm of the robot. “Tip it over her.”

“I cannot, mistress. That would cause harm to mistress Shi.”

Arla jumped to her feet. “Give it to me,” she said, snatching the bucket from the robot. She emptied its contents over the woman and stepped back as a pool of diluted slurry spread across the pavement. She’d hoped this might shock the woman, but it had no effect other than to clean off some of the sludge. The men and women gathered around her began babbling - some shouting, some crying.

What should she do? Calm. In amongst all this noise, she had to find peace. Now, search. The woman’s lungs were clearly blocked. What was the correct ritual? It couldn’t involve a holy instrument because Elias only had the Naming Wand with him, and it would be blasphemous to use that for the wrong purpose. No. Think. Think.

Arla knelt beside the woman’s body and, holding back the wave of nausea, rolled her onto her front, then, straddling her back she pushed hard down on the woman’s rib cage. Once, twice, three times. A river of brown sludge erupted from Shi’s throat and Arla flipped her onto her back again. She ripped a piece of fabric from her cassock and used it to wipe Shi’s face before drawing in a deep breath and blowing into her mouth. She watched as Shi’s lungs inflated, then pulled away as her chest compressed again. She did it again. The third time, panic, as well as bile, was flooding her body. Her head was swimming, but she drew in a final breath and blew into Shi’s mouth. Her chest rose and she gave a tremendous heave and coughed up another batch of sludge.

Rolling the woman onto her side, Arla thumped her back as Shi coughed and sucked in one breath, then another. Her arms flailed as she coughed, flecks of blood showing among the sewage. She turned onto her back and opened her eyes. She was crying, but she was alive.

“You have saved her!” cried one man as the gathered crowd erupted in cheers, all of the composure they usually showed around a priest gone in that instant.

Arla stood up and was lost in a sea of arms tugging at her, faces crying and laughing, eyes full of tears. She had performed her first miracle.

“You are truly a breather of life,” Governor Feng said once he’d forced his way through the crowd. He watched as Shi Tu was carried away by her colleagues and, having shaken Arla’s hand and given a brief bow, he followed them.

Arla turned to Elias who had watched the whole affair from a distance. The smile died on her lips when she saw his face. “You are a disgrace to the priesthood. Look at you,” he snarled, “your cassock torn and covered in filth. Where is your dignity?”

“But I saved her! It was the only way,” she protested feebly.

“Better to have let her die than to bring shame on the priesthood. I will make a full report on this, believe me. This will be your last day as a novice if I have any say in the matter. Now, come with me!”

Arla followed the priest dejectedly toward the transport, hardly noticing the cheers as it took off and headed into the sky. She had done what she thought was right, what she thought Elias was expecting her to do. Or did he expect her to fail? Had she been a sacrifice to preserve his reputation? If she’d failed, after all, it would have been her fault not his. The more she thought about it, the more she knew she was right. The slimy devil had set her up. Fail and she would lose status and possibly not qualify, succeed and he would say she’d betrayed the priesthood.

She was confined to the cargo hold as the transport made its way to the priest level, the stench being too great for either Elias or the pilot to bear. They were met by two robots who gently but firmly took her away and showered her before incinerating her cassock. She accepted all this without protest because she knew Elias was correct. This would be her last day as a novice priest.

And she was right.

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

The Engineer

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

SHE FELT UNUSUALLY groggy when she awoke, as if she'd been drinking alcohol – something she hadn't done since she was admitted into the Seminary. Then she noticed that her hands were tied and when she looked up in panic, she saw a ceiling she didn't recognize. She tried to cry out, but her mouth was gagged. What had happened? She'd gone to sleep in her usual bed and her only concern had been Elias's reaction to the miracle she had performed the previous day.

What had seemed a crisis the night before was swept away in the adrenaline of waking up in a strange sterile bed, in a strange sterile environment. A gentle hum was all she could hear, and the air smelled of warm dust.

The door opened and a robot came in, but it was a robot such as she had never seen before. Even the household robots such as R. DJ, whilst humanoid in general shape, had proportions that were more suited to their role as servants and workers on the farms and industrial units that scattered the valley. This robot, on the other hand, was more like a walking mannequin, a kind of fake human made of what looked like plastic and metal. Its eyes weren't hidden behind the sort of protective band that ran horizontally around the top of the head of robots like R. DJ, this robot's eyes were perfectly proportioned and exactly the same size as those of an adult man, although obviously artificial.

The robot entered the room and strode over to the bed. Its lifeless eyes looked down at her with the same faint flickering she'd seen in those of R. DJ when he was carrying out a stressful task. His metal hand touched her arm and he paused as if he were a doctor taking a pulse, then he raised his arm, turned around and wordlessly strode from the room.

Arla watched as he went. The room she was in seemed to be made of metal and contained no furniture save the panel attached to the wall above her head. She couldn't see what the panel contained, but she got the impression of colors and pulsing lights, as if someone was painting it and then rubbing out their markings in time with her heartbeat.

She let her head drop into the soft pillow and forced air in through her nose, trying her best to breathe deeply and relax as she'd been taught during her priest training. Where was she? Her only theory was that she was being punished for whatever she'd done the day before, though she honestly couldn't understand how saving that woman's life could possibly be a cause for sanction. Her only option was to relax and wait for her punishment.

She didn't have to wait for long as, only a few minutes after the robot had left, the door opened again, this time admitting a woman. She was small, middle-aged and sported a graying blonde bob of hair shorter than would be considered decent amongst Arla's farming community. The woman strode confidently in, followed by the robot she'd seen earlier who remained beside the door as if he were her protector. She didn't look like any priest that Arla had ever seen, she looked more like the scribes that worked in the chemical factories tallying the batches, or the tax collectors that brought their clipboards and pens at harvest time.

"I'm sorry about this," she said. "Every time we do it, I tell them that gagging is not necessary, after all who you going to call out to? My name is Dr. Indira McCall and I'm going to take the gag out now – please do not shout."

The cloth was swept from her face, but it was a few breathless moments before Arla could speak. “Where am I?”

“Well, now, that question will need to wait a little to be answered in full,” McCall said, with apparently genuine sympathy, “too much information too quickly can be dangerous. Suffice it to say that you are safe, completely safe. I know it’s hard, but I ask you to trust me - I have your best interests at heart.”

“Am I in trouble? Because of disobeying Father Elias?”

McCall shook her head. “No, indeed not! You have passed the test and have graduated.”

“As a priest? Is this the inner sanctum where the miracles are revealed?” Arla managed, her head swimming.

“No, I think it’s fair to say that you’re not cut out to be a priest,” McCall responded with a warm smile. “You, my dear, are to be an engineer.”

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

FOR TWO DAYS ARLA REMAINED in that room. Her restraints had been removed and she’d been asked not to venture outside. She felt as though this was a test, just like the one she’d passed by chance by saving that sewage worker. But what was the correct response? Should she try to escape? Were they waiting to see if she had the initiative to get away? Or were they testing whether she could be trusted to follow orders? Paralyzed by the choice, she decided to stay put because she had no clue where she was - she needed more information before making a break for it.

Robots, much like the first, came and went, bringing food and some books she’d asked for. The only human being she saw was Dr McCall, though she got the impression of movement from the corridor outside whenever the doctor entered the room.

Arla found herself settling into her new environment. She no longer noticed the dusty smell or the sterile lighting. She examined the room minutely. The walls were white though, here and there, they’d suffered damage - scuffs and dents mainly. The floor was a shiny black plastic that her feet left no trace on. Halfway up the walls and spaced evenly around the room were small square panels that extruded slightly from the surface. Each had an identical complement of circular and rectangular recesses that looked like those that accepted the holy instruments. There were eight of these panels and Arla guessed that the room could hold up to that many beds although, right now, hers was the only one here. The bed itself was made of plastic. It was clean and comfortable but, when she examined it closely, it bore the marks of age.

McCall had brought her clothes to wear. An outer suit of shirt and trousers in a blue so pure and deep she wondered how they had been made. The clothes felt smoother and yet more rigid than those she was used to at home and as an acolyte.

There was also a glass ball embedded in the ceiling. She’d never seen anything like it, but she felt as though it were an artificial eye, watching her. Each morning, when it was time to dress, she pushed the bed away from the wall and put on her underwear behind its cover.

She tensed as she heard the familiar sound of footsteps approaching the door, and the gentle puff of its locking mechanism. Dr McCall stepped in. Under her arm she carried a bundle of folded clothes which she placed on the bed with some ceremony. “This is your uniform and these...” she said, dropping a pair of black boots on top, “are your shoes. Are you ready to see what’s outside this door?”

McCall reflected back Arla’s beaming smile. “Those clothes you have on now are for use during leisure hours; you can leave them here and I’ll have them taken to your quarters. Your uniform should fit well enough, but it can be adjusted if necessary.” She turned and left the room, closing the door behind her. This time, the locking mechanism was not activated.

Arla unfolded the uniform. It was of a deep blue that flirted with black, the only accent being a strip of reflective cloth that ran up the outside of each leg and arm. The cloth felt much denser than the light cotton trousers and tops she was used to, closer to priestly vestments but of obviously higher quality. There was a one-piece top that she pulled over her head, breathing in a sharp, nasal, aroma that she thought must be the dye, and smoothed it down her torso. The top seemed to expand and contract as she breathed without feeling at all restrictive, and the trousers, which were made of the same material, also hugged her legs in a warm, pleasant, way.

She looked at herself in the mirror. Even though she was twenty-one years old, her pencil-like body shape and the short hair she’d worn as a priest left her looking more like a pubescent boy. But these were, without doubt, the finest clothes she’d ever worn and, on her left shoulder, shone a golden emblem, somehow woven into the fabric. She moved closer to the mirror to get a better look. It was a rising sun.

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

ARLA OPENED THE DOOR a crack, then, when nothing catastrophic happened, a little more. Her door opened onto a whitewashed corridor. Dr McCall stood against the wall watching her as Arla looked left and right. The corridor stretched for some way to the left and right, with doors at regular intervals on both sides and at each end. A face peered back at her from what was, presumably, another room like hers. The face was of a girl of around her age, but the first thing Arla noticed was her skin, which was of a rich chestnut, and her thick, tightly curled, hair.

“This is Kiama,” Dr McCall said, gesturing at the other girl. “She arrived just before you. We don’t usually have two to orient at the same time, but it is probably no bad thing. Come Kiama Mchungaji, do not be afraid.”

The girl edged out of her room and Arla could see that she was dressed in exactly the same way, down to the sunrise on her shoulder. Arla smiled in a way she hoped was reassuring.

“Where are you from?” Kiama said.

At first, Arla struggled to understand what she said. Kiama spoke with an accent that was very different to hers and, indeed, Dr McCall’s. It was thick and sonorous with more expression of the vowels than Arla had ever heard. She’d met people from all over the valley, but they all spoke in much the same way. Then a thought hit her. “Are you from beyond the sky?"

Kiama paused. Was it because she didn’t understand Arla’s words or was it the meaning? After all, Arla herself wasn’t entirely sure of what she was saying.

“You will find out the answer to that question and many others very soon, Apprentice,” McCall said to Arla. “Very soon indeed. Now, I think it’s time I showed you where you truly are.”

She strode to the door at the end of the corridor, turned the handle and swung it open.

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Dawn

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

THE CORRIDOR FILLED with the chatter of a watching crowd that fell into silence as the door slid open and Dr McCall stepped through.

Arla could see, beyond her, a gaggle of people straining to see down the corridor. Most were dressed in uniforms like hers, although the dark blue had faded to varying degrees. Arla crept forward to the threshold of the door, her eyes drawn to these people. There were perhaps twenty-five men and women, all adults, though most of them young with only a few gray hairs like the doctor.

“Come,” McCall said, waving to Arla. “Come and meet your crewmates.”

Arla stepped nervously through and, as she did so, the crowd began to applaud, and she could make out cries of welcome and encouragement. They were gathered in a large room. No, it was a corridor, much bigger than the one she’d emerged from and running at right angles to it. Aside from the people, it was the walls she noticed first - an almost continuous row of portraits of people in uniforms, and each had a brass dedication.

She turned to Kiama and held out her hand. The girl took it and stepped through, flinching from the applause that grew even louder when she appeared.

The doctor raised her hands in what was obviously a well understood signal and the people fell silent and melted away, their clanky footsteps fading until the corridor was empty except for the three of them.

“When you stepped through that door, you became crew.”

“But what are crew?” Arla asked.

McCall smiled. “You have heard of the Engineers? The ones who visit the valley during curfew?”

Both young women nodded.

“The crew are the Engineers. You will become them too.”

Arla shook her head passionately. “No, the Engineers are holy. We learned that in the valley, and I was taught it during my training to be a priest.”

“Me also,” Kiama said. “And I have seen them - they can fly without wings and without ships, no person can do that.”

Smiling, McCall said: “I understand this is hard for you. Much of what you see in the coming days will challenge what you have been taught. You will understand why you were told those things about the crew, but for now, come with me and I will begin your training.”

The doctor set off along the deserted corridor, the only sound the metallic thud of her boots on the floor, the two girls scampering along beside her, desperate not to be left alone in this alien place. The corridor ended in a wall and in that wall was a panel that, when McCall pressed her hand to it, slid open.

Inside was a small room with no obvious exit other than the one they’d just stepped through. There was some sort of lit decoration on the walls - they were otherwise unadorned except for what looked like handles on each. There were more handles on the ceiling and even recessed grips in the floor.

“Bio tunnel observation,” McCall said.

“Acknowledged, Bio tunnel observation deck. ETA one hundred and thirty-five seconds.” The voice seemed to come from everywhere and, though the words themselves were clear enough, they were delivered in a flat, emotionless, voice. Like that of a robot.

Arla was about to open her mouth when the room began to move. It was a subtle shift to her balance and there were no visual signs - except that the lit decoration she’d noticed began to spread across the wall, as if it were following the room’s progress.

“This is called a pod. It’s a small room, like a sort of enclosed cart, that runs on rails so that we can get to places that are not otherwise easy to reach.”

There was nothing to say to this because Arla didn’t really understand a word of it. She still had no idea where she was.

After a few moments, she began to feel a little unsteady, as if the blood were draining from her feet, and she put her hand out to touch the wall.

“Yes, you will feel a little odd,” the doctor said when she noticed this, “I won’t explain it yet, but you’ll feel lighter and lighter until, soon, you will have no weight at all. You’ll find the handles useful soon.”

Sure enough, Arla felt as though her body were becoming lighter. It was as if the transporter were filling with water - the only time she’d experienced anything like it was when she’d been swimming in Oxbow Lake. She looked across at Kiama who stood, with eyes wide, as she lifted each foot, as if testing whether they really were lighter. She gave a shriek and Arla went to comfort her, but her cry hadn’t been born of fear, the girl was delighted.

Then, quite suddenly, Arla felt her feet lift and she was floating. She reached for a handle, her palm slamming into the cold metal wall and sending her reeling away to collide with the opposite side of the room a few moments later. A strong hand grasped her arm and she turned her head to see McCall, one hand on a rail and the other on her. Kiama, meanwhile, was doing somersaults.

“I feel sick” Arla said.

McCall pulled Arla toward her. “Grab that handle,” she said before dipping her hand into her pocket and bringing out a small plastic box that she flipped open. She opened a flap and a tiny circular pill floated out. “Here, swallow this. I came prepared.”

Arla grabbed the pill and swallowed just as the pod came to a gentle halt.

“Give it a moment and it’ll be better,” McCall said with a smile. “And don’t worry, weightlessness affects most people that way the first time.”

“Not her, though,” Arla managed, waving a hand in Kiama’s general direction.

“Yes, she’s a natural.”

Kiama came to a halt, floating gently in front of the doctor and Arla. “It’s wonderful,” she said, “like swimming only better!”

“Well, now it’s time for me to show you what we’ve come to see, but before we do, tell me Kiama, where it is you come from.”

The young woman’s dark face hardened. “I don’t know what you mean. There is only the valley.”

“And you, Arla, where do you come from?”

“Everyone comes from the valley.”

McCall nodded as she floated. “And have you ever seen anyone with skin like Kiama’s?”

“No, I haven’t.”

The doctor turned to the other girl. “And Kiama, have you seen anyone with skin the color of ours?”

Kiama shook her head. “No, I thought you were sick when I first saw you. And then I saw there were others and I didn’t understand.”

“Well now you will,” McCall said. “Open the pod door.”

“Acknowledged,” the robot voice said and, with a hiss, the door they’d entered through opened onto darkness.

The doctor put her hand on Arla’s shoulder. “Careful now, go hand over hand.”

Arla floated inexpertly through the open portal and into another enclosed space, wider than the pod but still smaller than the room she’d been in. The chamber was only illuminated by the light from the pod so it faded into total darkness to the left and right. Arla grabbed the handrail on the wall opposite the door, coming to rest alongside Kiama.

“It will be dark for a moment when I close the pod door, do not be afraid,” McCall said from behind them. And yet, despite the warning, it was all Arla could do to stop herself from crying out as she heard the hiss and the chamber went black.

“Open observation hatch one 10%.”

“Acknowledged.”

A horizontal strip of light appeared at eye level and Arla could immediately see that the wall in front of them was covered in a shutter that was now opening from the center. The brightness filled the chamber and Arla screwed her eyes up until, carefully, she opened them a crack and looked through the gap in the wall.

Her first impression was of green to left and right, blue above and below. It was all curved, as if she were looking down the inside of a huge tunnel. Immediately in front of her, dead center of the tunnel, was a black circle surrounded by a bright white halo.

“What do you see?” McCall said. “Look at the green. Look closely.”

Arla focused her gaze on the green strip to her left. She could see that it wasn’t of one uniform color - there were dark browns and grays running in a line up the middle of the strip and dotted here and there small patches of blue. Then she recognized it.



“It looks like the valley, but from impossibly high up. I’ve seen these colors from above, but never this distant.”

“Yes, that is exactly what you are seeing,” McCall said, obviously pleased. “To the left is the place you call the valley, Arla, and to the right is your valley, Kiama.”

Kiama, who’d remained completely still and silent as her eyes drank in the scene, shook her head. “How can this be? There is only one valley. It was created by the Goddess.”

“No, this is what you must understand. There are two - Arla’s we call the North Valley and yours is called the South. And they weren’t built by any Goddess. They were built by people, by your ancestors and mine, many hundreds of years ago. They built this world so that we could find another, one big enough to fill. No child quotas, no population control at all. Our mission is to build a new Earth,” McCall said, her words tumbling out, “but we cannot succeed. Others have gotten there before us.”

Arla turned away from the view to face McCall. “I don’t understand most of what you just said. What is this Earth? How can people build a world?”

“What? Oh, you’d be surprised at what people can achieve. For now, I ask you to believe me or, at least, be open-minded. You can see the two valleys and between them the seas. They are set within a tunnel carved out of the inside of a huge ball of rock.”

“But what stops all the people falling?” Kiama asked.

“The rock is spinning at just the right speed to keep them firmly on the ground without excessive weight. We are weightless because we are precisely at the axis of rotation. The black disk covers the end of a tube that runs the length of the tunnel - when you lived in the valleys, you called it the sun and the disc protects us from blindness and incineration as we stand here.”

“And Earth? What is that?” Arla said.

Doctor McCall smiled. “It is our home, where our ancestors came from. But it was dying, and this little world is like a seed, flying across the universe to settle a new planet. Except, somehow, we find others here before us and they don’t seem friendly. The people of the valleys don’t know any of this, but soon their innocence will be broken, as yours has, and they may be asked to help us fight for our survival.”

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

EVA

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

OUTLINE: MISSION DAWN

OBJECTIVE: Preserve the species by seeding a new world on the nearest habitable planet in the absence of any breakthrough in faster-than-light travel.

METHOD: Carve out a habitation tunnel within a nickel-rich asteroid. Seal it and build a working eco-system to include approximately 5,000 human settlers and 30 crew. Use ion drive to accelerate to 0.05 the speed of light.

MISSION LENGTH: Approximately 1450 years

DATE: FIRST CONTACT

Arla gave the sensor array a final wipe and waved to those she knew to be watching through the newly cleaned camera lens. She now had a few moments to simply enjoy being where she was, just as when she’d laid on her back and looked at the sky all those years ago. She now knew, of course, that she really had seen people on the other side of the sky - they were the inhabitants of Valley South - though she’d only been able to do so because the lighting technology was showing signs of age. She also knew that she was on a rotating ball of rock heading toward the star that was supposed to be their home, but that now, it seemed, held danger. And she knew that suns are spheres not tubes. But knowing all this did nothing to still the sense of wrongness about it all.

She turned her back on the bunker, all dark pitted metal and transparent aluminum, and gazed upon the surface of the asteroid. The whole ship was officially called Dawn, but undertaking an EVA was going rockside and so here she was, rocking it.

The tiny sun of the system they were heading for leapt over the horizon and she staggered in the sudden light as her suit fans whined into action. She pulled down her visor and looked again as the star slowly arced its way from right to left, the whole landscape seeming to shift as pitch black shadows moved beneath pure white boulders.

Her earpiece buzzed into life. “Arla, the boss says it’s time to come in.”

“Ki, you’re breaking up,” Arla responded, theatrically thumping the side of her helmet.

She could hear giggling. “Careful, that helmet’s so old it might just crack. And anyway, I know what you’re up to and you’d better be quick. You’ll be on basic rations for a week as it is, so you might as well go for it.”

Arla waved and headed carefully for the railcar. Dawn’s spin was so fast and gravity so weak that it’d be all too easy to step down too hard and go careering off, with no hope of any help. So the surface had been fitted with steel rails and cars to travel them. Arla was tethered and she tiptoed carefully back toward the safety of the transport. She chuckled as she remembered her first EVA, over a year ago now, when she’d shot off the surface and had been brought back by her supervisor - he in the railcar and her bobbing along on her tether like a metallic balloon. She doubted she’d been the first to suffer this humiliation, but that didn’t stop the ribbing she got when she returned. She’d been “Floats” ever since.

She sat in the car and punched down on the simple matrix of buttons on its console. She wasn’t going back inside just yet, there was something she wanted to see. The car jerked into motion, taking her further from the safety of the dome. As it moved onto tracks that hadn’t been used in years, it began to vibrate. Adrenaline surged into Arla’s stomach and she almost leapt off but, once the button was pressed, the car would continue on its journey and she didn’t fancy being stranded out here and having to creep back. She’d also have to explain why the car had been left at the end of the track and how she planned to retrieve it. No, she was in enough trouble as it was, she would see it through.

It took a minute or so. A minute spent listening to her own breathing and the hum of the railcar transmitted through the suit. A brief moment, entirely alone, contemplating the universe as she cast her eyes upwards into its stark blackness.

The end of the track was set in what looked like a refuse heap, presumably of some mining or construction operation. As soon as the car stopped, she climbed off, careful in her excitement and haste to step slowly, moving her feet in the odd sort of forward-only gait she’d been taught in training.

She’d been told it was over the little dust hill. She climbed, a little piece of her wondering whether this was nothing more than an elaborate joke dressed up as a myth. If so, the balloon humiliation would be nothing compared to the ribbing she’d get for falling for it.

She reached the top and scanned the foot of the heap, her heart pounding. It wasn’t there. Yes it was! The sun that by now was beginning its descent from noon glinted off something shiny and rectangular. She almost leapt for joy and stopped herself just in time. This would make the perfect launching point if she never wanted to see her friends again. Instead, she scrambled carefully down the slope and, when she reached the bottom, knelt beside the object.

It was cuboid and stood slightly askew on spindly legs that were buried in the soil. On the top, a dish array pointed into the cosmos like an eye popping out between the solar panels that covered its body. She touched it with a gloved hand and found what she’d been looking for. On the front, barely readable in the reflected light of her suit, was the inscription: “CERES XV: SURVEY MISSION 2315”. This was a relic of the distant past, when her ancient ancestors had first been looking for a suitable vessel to house this splinter of humanity. It was the Ceres XV mission that had identified this as the place and it had been left undisturbed through the entire construction phase, even when all the terraformers with their massive machines had gone. It had been sitting there waiting for the boldest.

There was one more thing to do. Arla stood and examined the inside of the communications dish. There it was, the markings scratched into the metal by the first to rediscover it centuries ago. She read the characters twice and ran them over in her mind until she was sure she’d remember them. Then she scrambled carefully up the slope again before and, with a quick look over her shoulder as she reached the top, she headed for the car.

“Engineer Grade 2 Arla Mirova, you are hereby found guilty of an unauthorized deviation from mission plan and are sentenced to minimum rations for seven days.”

Arla sighed. “Yes sir,” she said and got back into the car.

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

SHE SAT WITH AN EQUAL mix of pride and anger as the car trundled its way back over the landscape of whites and blacks toward the bunker. She had achieved what few had dared to achieve, she’d read the words on the communications dish. And her reward (apart from the admiration of her peers) was a week eating biscuits and drinking water. But she had no regrets. As soon as she’d been told of the ancient probe and the secret writing it bore she resolved to find it and hang the consequences.

On the other hand, it seemed unfair that initiative and boldness were punished by the powers that be. But then what did she expect from officers who hid behind vid-links in their hermetically sealed quarters? The engineers were selected from the people of the valleys, but command positions were passed down from father to son, mother to daughter. A pathological fear of infection had also been bred into the officer class and so she’d never personally met any of them and neither had any of her crewmates. Orders were passed electronically and supervised by senior NCO’s - like Kiama, who’d excelled at everything since she’d started training. Arla, on the other hand, had proven to be a competent engineer but, as she’d yet again demonstrated, also a loose cannon.

The chief puzzle, for Arla and her fellow recruits, was how such a small cadre of officers retained any sort of genetic diversity. And they were diverse. The engineers were evenly split between the light brown skinned Valley Northers and the dark brown skinned Valley Southers though, admittedly, with variations in skin tone. It was rare indeed for a Northerner to be mistaken for a Southerner and this had been explained by the nature of the initial populations of the valleys - one was derived from the northern hemisphere of Earth and the other from the southern. The officers, on the other hand, were startlingly diverse. Her current nemesis, Lieutenant Commander Patel, had a round face of a deep browny-yellow whereas Lieutenant Murphy’s skin seemed to contain no color at all. Various theories had been floated, the most plausible of which was that they had some sort of egg or embryo store that they used to replace officers, but this would require the sort of precision timing of human fertility that was impossible to imagine. And she’d never seen a pregnant officer.

She cogitated on this as the car continued its slow journey back. And so it was that she didn’t notice the space ship coming silently in to land until she was overwhelmed by the dust-storm from its thrusters.

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

The Mock Emperess

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

HER IMPERIAL MAJESTY, Victorea, Ruler of the Vanis Federation and Guardian of the Faith scowled as the tiresome man bobbed and sweated before her.

“Spit it out, Lavar!” she shrieked, her notoriously low patience threshold long ago exceeded. “Or shall I show mercy and spare you the effort, since I know what you’re going to say.”

The man fawned and his tonsured head sparkled in the light of the chandeliers as he bowed.

Victorea gave a grim smile. “No, I shan’t show mercy. Explain yourself.”

The supplicant froze and looked up like a bent old man with lumbago. His gray hair fell lank from his shoulders and gave him the look of a particularly moth-eaten monkey out of one of the vidi dramas her majesty enjoyed so much. Oh how she wished she was lounging in her private videma in front of some tale of ancient times, munching on something salty. Instead of which, she was having to tolerate this idiot whose incompetence was threatening to outweigh his undeniable loyalty.

“Your majesty,” he managed, “I have ill news to report.”

“I know,” the empress snapped.

More bowing, more fawning. “It is the AI, your majesty, it has been stolen. A most heinous crime that only the most cunning and determined traitor could possibly attempt. Certainly the work of the Eldebaran Collective...”

“A criminal mastermind? Really?” she said, winding herself up like a cobra preparing to strike, “So the AI wasn’t in your laboratory? It had been returned, as we agreed, to its securely guarded vault?”

That had hit the target. Good. She had been disobeyed and the most precious object in the Vanis Federation had been stolen. Precious, that is, if its secrets could ever have been unlocked.

“Most merciful majesty, I sought only to find a way to make the orb serve your magnificence. If, in my devotion to this cause, I left it hooked up to my equipment while I took a brief moment to research elsewhere...”

“I knew it!” she cried triumphantly. “You really are the most odious little man I’ve ever met.”

He was practically on the floor now as he rocked from side to side in paroxysms of panic. “Your majesty, I sought only to serve!”

“I don’t know why I ever thought you had the wit to help me. How much progress had you made with the orb before it was stolen?”

“I was nearly at a breakthrough, merciful empress to the stars,” he sobbed. “A few more days and I’d have penetrated its final defenses.”

Victorea stood over his prostrate body as he writhed on the floor. “Guards, detain him at my pleasure while I consider the most fitting death for this wretch.”

Lavar screamed as two guards, armed with side-guns, lifted him from the floor and dragged him away. Silence fell as the door slid shut.

The Empress Victorea, first of her line, sat back in the chair that served as a throne and sighed. “He really is the most appalling of incompetents. Vaping is too good for him.”

A shape emerged from the shadows and stood, head bowed, before her. He was a man of indeterminate middle years with a pleasant, trustable, face, pale skin and a short cut curly mop. “He has failed you, highness, but has proven faithful in the past. Perhaps mercy would ensure even greater loyalty from him in future.”

“Seriously? You know your trouble, Lucius? You are too soft. But I have the power here and don’t you forget it.”

The man nodded solemnly. “I do not forget, your majesty. The decision is yours but, as your adviser, my role is to give my honest assessment. The man can be useful again, but only if he is alive. And all is not lost. My preparations have proven fruitful.”

“Relentless?”

Again, the man nodded. “Indeed, highness. Captain Indi reports that he is closing on the stolen vessel with its cargo. He tells me that there is no hope of escape for the thief. All possible trajectories have been plotted...”

“But can we be sure of that?” the Empress interrupted.

The man smiled. She was a sharp one indeed, an excellent choice as ruler of the Federation. “I took the liberty of equipping Relentless with an extra bank of navigational computers - much to Indi’s annoyance I might add - so that all possible paths could be calculated and double-checked. The captain reports that the pilot of the stolen ship is exhibiting exceptional skill, or equally exceptional luck, but that the distance between them is decreasing aided, no doubt, by the extra processing power at his disposal.”

“You know, Lucius,” Victorea said, “you purr like a cat that got the cream. Your plan is working perfectly so far, I only hope there is no slip between now and the capture of that traitor.”

“I also, your highness.”

Victorea’s face spread into a carnivorous smile. “And I don’t expect any opposition from you when it comes to my plans for the thief. They will be lengthy, painful and public.”

“As befits a state traitor,” Lucius responded, bobbing his head respectfully.

“Good. You may go now, I wish to be entertained.”

The councilor retreated, bowing, and Victorea was alone. She leaned back on her throne, enjoying the cold of the leather on her back. Entertainment, yes, that was what she needed. Being empress of what was, in truth, the fag-ash remains of a once sprawling imperial province was exhausting at times. There were all too many idiots like Lavar to be dealt with and too few like Lucius. In fact, she realized, there was no-one like Lucius. He was the one man she trusted completely. Which made him dangerous.

She sighed and leaned forward to gaze at the display embedded into the arm of her throne. She would think more about Lucius later, he was simply too boring to consider after such a tiring morning.

“Send in my entertainers,” she said to the room. Her throne console brightened into life.

A voice from within the chair said: “Acknowledged.” Victorea smiled. There would be time for court intrigue and the machinations of politics later. Right now she needed refreshment. The door slid open and two men entered, beaming and flexing their bare, muscled, chests. Yes, others could wait but this could not.

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Intruder

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

“ENGINEER MIROVA, RETURN to C Squared.”

It was Patel’s voice again, but this time without its usual calm assurance.

“What the hell is that?” Arla muttered as the car finally passed beyond the dust storm.

Her receiver squawked again, as it always did before an incoming transmission. “Repeat, return to C Squared. Lock-down in progress. Acknowledge please.”

But Arla wasn’t listening - her mind too busy processing what she was seeing.

A space vessel. It was nothing like the auxiliaries that sat in the landing bay alongside the bunker - bigger by far and of obviously different design. It looked at once both more advanced than the ships she’d been learning to pilot while, at the same time, giving the distinct impression that it had passed its designed lifespan some decades ago.

The vessel had once been white in color, it seemed, but years of micro-meteoroid and dust impact had seen it degrade into a dull grayish brown that was interrupted in places by spots of bare metal from, presumably, recent damage. It was venting gas through nozzles in every direction but, otherwise, nothing moved. The track took her within a leap and a bound of the ship as it ran alongside and she passed through another geyser of dust.

“Mirova, why have you stopped?”

Arla, who still didn’t respond naturally to the surname she’d been given when she joined the crew, looked down. She hadn’t noticed, but the railcar had come to a halt as it passed the midpoint of the ship.

“Debris on the track,” she said, “thrown up by the ship when it landed. Where did it come from?”

There was a moment’s silence before Patel responded. “Return to the Command and Control Center, on foot if necessary. Do so immediately or face lock-down.”

She didn’t know what lockdown was, but she could guess. The prospect of being stuck out here with less than an hour’s oxygen in her tank frightened her into dismounting from the cart and edging over to the rail. She kneeled awkwardly beside it and pulled at the small rocks that had been blown onto the track from a pile alongside it. She wasn’t looking at what she was doing, she was squinting out of the corner of her helmet at the smoking ship beside her.

Once she’d cleared the track, she stood up just as she saw movement within what looked like an airlock. It was circular and had two eye-like viewports - the pupil of one of them was moving back and forth. Then it stopped and looked at her. Directly at her. She began to move back toward the cart, almost losing her footing in her panic and, just as she climbed aboard, she saw an opening appear in the ship’s side as the eye rolled.

The figure stood framed by the brightly lit interior of the airlock. It was obviously human, or at least humanoid - her first impression had been of a robot standing there stiffly and awaiting orders. But this was no R. DJ. The figure began waving frantically as if appealing for help. When it got no response, a ramp extended from beneath where it stood, and it stepped forward. Too hard, too fast. It leapt off the ramp and headed, arms waving, out at an oblique trajectory. And it wasn’t tethered.

Did she think at all? That was a question she asked herself many, many times after the event. Whether or not there was any conscious thought, she clipped her tether to the guard rail of the car, disengaged the limiter and sprung from the seat.

“Mirova! Return to base now!” Patel screeched inside her helmet.

Arla thrust her arms out as she sped into space, like a superhero of ancient times. She could hear nothing from the figure above her, but she could see that it was a man, a young man, and he was screaming as he rotated.

She reached him, flung out her arms and grabbed for his boot as it flew by. She missed. She tried again, stretching to her limit and caught him just as the tether snapped taut. It took every ounce of strength to keep her grip as the man’s momentum threatened to tear him away. She reeled him in, hand over hand, and, once she had him in a reverse bear hug, she activated the winch.

Nothing happened.

Arla tried desperately to twist round to look down at the cart but the best she could do was catch the occasional flash as they rotated together. And then she saw it. One wheel of the cart had left the track and all that was preventing her from becoming just another speck of debris orbiting Dawn was the second wheel and its tenuous grip on the rail. She felt it give and knew that, at any second, it would rip away.

Suddenly all tension went from the tether and she rolled again, shocked by her own desperate scream, a scream of anger and primordial terror rolled into one. And then the tether went taut again, she rotated back and the scream died in her throat. Beneath them a figure in a Dawn spacesuit stood with the tether in its arms, straining against their momentum. Slowly and skillfully, with a tug here and another there, it slowed them and brought them to a halt and then, inch by inch, Arla felt herself being pulled closer and closer to safety.

When she reached the ground, the man she’d rescued scrambled across to the rails and wrapped his gloved hands around them. She waited for a few moments, forcing her breathing into some sort of regularity before she carefully stood up to thank her rescuer.

She looked into the impassive face of Lieutenant Commander Patel. “You are hereby relieved of all duties and will be confined to the brig until judgement is passed.”

“Yes sir,” she said, barely even noticing the red light flashing within his helmet.

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Interrogation

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

EVERY TIME HE THOUGHT they’d asked their last question, they’d find another. And yet he sat here, in this airlock and in the dark, metaphorically at least. Who the hell were these people? They spoke with accents so thick that, at first, they’d been forced to repeat everything they said. Then he’d speak and they’d ask him to say it again, but more slowly this time. And all of this via the com-link on the airlock door. They stood on the other side, two of them in spacesuits - was there no atmosphere on that side of the airlock? There was certainly none on the other side of its sister door which stared out across space. He guessed the airlock he was now in was set at the very rim of the cylindrical asteroid and that if he stepped outside, he’d drift off it into space.

There was something archaic about his interrogators, about what little he’d seen of this place - he felt as though he’d stepped aboard a time capsule. Well, not exactly stepped. It was hard to imagine a less dignified way to make his entrance. He’d asked about his rescuer but had been told little. These people traded tidbits of information when he answered their questions though, frankly, they weren’t very efficient interrogators. Presumably they had little call for such techniques. A good sign, perhaps. Having said that, being kept inside the airlock with a view over the desolate, and very dead, landscape outside was a reminder that, if all else failed, a quick taste of vacuum could be used as a persuader.

He’d been told that his rescuer’s name was Engineer Second Class Arla Mirova and that she’d disobeyed a direct order in rescuing him. She was now languishing in the brig, her career over, though there was little he could do to help her.

Hal wasn’t entirely alone. ACE, the AI who’d hijacked his implant, had chattered hysterically in his mind until they’d come aboard, after which she’d gone surprisingly silent. Something about the officer who brought them inside had freaked her out, it seemed, and he began to wonder if she’d, somehow, left him.

“Hal Chen.”

No, it seemed she hadn’t. He should have tried not to think of her.

“What?” he thought.

“It is imperative that we discover who these people are and which faction they represent.”

“Don’t you have any idea? You’re an AI, after all.”

“I am an AI, not a library computer,” ACE snapped. “I was last activated fifty-seven years ago, so the systems aboard your ship were familiar to me since little seems to have changed in that time. But the technology of this base is unknown to me and, though I detect computerized systems, I cannot tell how developed they are or their origin.

“What are you doing?”

Hal nearly fell off the metal chair. There was a face at the interior window.

He got up and staggered over to look the figure in the eye. It was one of the interrogators.

“What do you mean?” Hal said.

“You looked as though you’d gone catatonic, blank,” the figure replied.

Hal shrugged. He’d had no idea that his expression changed at all when talking to the AI - he’d have to be careful in future.

“Don’t know what you mean,” he said, speaking in the slow formal language these people seemed able to understand. “Anyway, what do you want?”

“We have decided that this form of communication is inefficient and that face to face contact would be preferable.”

“Finally!” Hal said.

The figure nodded within its helmet. “Indeed. You will please put on your EVA suit.”

“What? You want to talk to me outside?”

“Please follow my instructions. The airlock will open in five minutes. I suggest you hurry.”

Hal scrambled into the gloves, boots and helmet of his spacesuit, but had only just secured them when the airlock klaxon sounded, followed by the hiss of gas being sucked out. Within moments, the airlock door rolled open, its grinding suddenly cut off as the last of the air escaped. Hal, for lack of any other plan, stepped out onto the desolate landscape as a voice in his helmet reminded him to clip himself to the safety rail and stand on the ledge. He was almost overcome with a feeling of vertigo as he stood, the landscape above him and empty space below his feet.

The door shut and he imagined his former cell refilling with air. After a few moments, the status light flashed green and the portal on the other side of the airlock opened. He watched as a space suited figure stumbled through the opening as if pushed, before steadying itself against the metal table in the center of the room. The door rolled closed again, then, after a short pause and with a puff of vented gas, the airlock on his side opened and he stepped back in. The outer portal sealed and, as a welcome hiss announced the arrival of breathable atmosphere, he unscrewed his helmet and took it off. If he’d been in any doubt that the people on the other side of the inner door held his life in their hands, he no longer was. He could be dead in seconds.

He looked across at the suited figure who was now standing beside the inner door, but his greeting was interrupted when a face appeared at the window.

“This is Arla Farmer, the former engineer who rescued you. She will question you, but do not think about holding her hostage as she no longer has any value to us.”

The space suited figure seemed to shrink as he glanced back at her.

“Arla Farmer? I thought you were Mirova?”

“I was,” Arla replied, her voice relayed from her helmet mic through the airlock speakers. “but I was then an engineer. Now, if anything, I’m a farmer again. Thanks to you.”

Hal righted the chairs that had fallen over as the airlock had been repeatedly evacuated and sat down. “I’m sorry, I stepped down too hard, lost my footing. Look, aren’t you going to remove your helmet? It’s hard to talk when I can’t see your face properly.”

“And catch whatever diseases you might have?” Arla grunted, seating herself opposite him.

Hal shrugged. “I’m fully vacced, you know. Have to be when you’re living in a mining colony. Is that what you’ve got here, by the way?”

“Your vaccinations might not offer protection to me. We are...” she paused, considering the right word, “different.”

“I know that,” Hal snorted, “you talk funny - I’ve never heard an accent like it. You sound like the actors in those old videma movies.”

Arla’s suit shrugged. “You sound pretty strange too. I was told to speak slowly to you. I assumed it was because you’re stupid, but maybe you’re just not used to our speech.”

“Oh, I think I’m pretty stupid,” Hal said. “I escaped without a plan and ended up in here with you and that bunch of hypochondriacs out there.” He gestured over at the window where a suited face watched.

For a moment, Arla paused. Then, quite suddenly, she wrenched at her helmet. The face in the window moved sideways as if grabbing for the lock before abruptly stopping. “Arla Farmer, do not remove your helmet, do not break the seal.”

Arla ignored the voice rasping across the intercom. With a hiss her helmet twisted off and she dropped it onto the table. “There, now you see me,” she said, with a grim smile. “And we share each other’s fate.”

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Lost in Space

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

MARCO LUCIUS WALKED casually through the gardens of the imperial palace. The weather was warm and sunny as a gentle breeze played through the weeds that forced their way between the ageing slabs. It was easy to imagine, if he didn’t look up, that he was enjoying a summer stroll on one of the more temperate worlds of the former empire. He could almost be on Earth itself, but then it had been so very long since he’d last been there and he couldn’t be certain his memories were accurate.

As if to prevent himself from falling into an unproductive reverie, he raised his head to where the black sky seemed to have been divided into hexagons. He sighed. It was better at night; the dome that kept them all alive was less obvious, though centuries of dust impacts had made it somewhat fuzzy so that, ironically, the stars in this alien sky twinkled in much the same way as they would for an observer on Earth. Or, at least, on the Earth of the past.

He stopped beside an ancient statue of a former emperor - one worthy of the title - and sat on the stone seat at its base. Yes, he found that the lower his perspective, the more he could persuade himself that he was sitting in some pleasure garden during the glory days of the empire. How had it crumbled so quickly? Well, that was, in part at least, easily answered. A century and a half ago, humans had recognized artificial intelligences in law and conferred on them the same rights and responsibilities as all other citizens of The Sphere - the name given to human-inhabited space. Within hours, the vast majority of AIs and robots had used their new-found freedom to abandon their masters and head off into deep space. Humans could neither understand why they’d done it nor could they stop them and it had taken only a handful of years for the complex, interdependent, civilization of The Sphere to collapse leaving humankind to band together into little pockets like cavemen around a fire, frightened of the night. The departure of their servants had clearly been the catalyst, but there had to have been something rotten about a society that depended so much on the crutch of artificial minds.

Lucius leant back against the cool stone of the statue’s pillar and closed his eyes. He listened to the soft noises of insects and felt the cooling breeze on his skin. He drew in a pollen-laded lungful of air, reveling in the thickness of it. Flowers, bees and the tiny mammals he knew were scurrying around him even though he couldn’t hear them - all imported, ultimately from Earth. This was a tiny fragment of the home world stuck onto the side of an otherwise unwelcoming planet. The dome and all its bubble-like inner compartments, were a marvel of engineering that could not be conceived today, let alone replicated. Already one sector of the dome was leaking, leaving a bubble open to vacuum. One day, it would all collapse and this garden, this very place where he sat remembering the glories of the past, would be cold and dead.

“Your worship, master Chancellor sir?”

Lucius emerged instantly from his contemplation to look up at the man standing nervously in the light of a garden lamp. He was a swarthy man with thick, brown hands gripping a floppy hat that he wrung as he awaited an answer.

“What is it Maximus?”

“I was sent to tell you Captain Indi wishes to make a report via sub-ether. Master of the Keys said you had left your summoner in your chambers and I was to come fetch you as fast as I could.”

Lucius nodded. “Which you have done well,” he said calmly. “You may return and inform the Master that I am coming.”

Maximus remained standing, as if stuck to the spot. “I’m sorry sir, and I beg your pardon, but the Master of the Keys said I was to wait and escort you inside.”

“Tell me, Maximus, how is your wife,” Lucius said quietly, “Lucasta isn’t it?”

The man began visibly shaking. “Yes sir, that’s her. She’s well, sir. Thank you for asking.”

“Good. You can tell her that she has a husband who knows his duty. Her husband will be rewarded for his patience. Now come, sit for a moment. Believe me, there is no hurry. I know exactly what Indi has to report.”

He breathed the air of the night and tried to relax as his companion sat, rigid as a board, next to him. After a few minutes he gave up and, gesturing to the man, headed back toward the palace.

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

LUCIUS STOOD IN FRONT of the display and noted the man’s barely controlled rage. It was good to keep subordinates on their toes. Indi might command the most formidable ship in the federation (though that wasn’t saying much compared with the dreadnoughts of the past), but the real power rested in the calculating hands of the chancellor. Indi was the weapon; Lucius was the hand holding it - and both men knew this.

“I apologize for keeping you waiting, Captain,” Lucius said with plausible sincerity. “I’m afraid I misplaced my summoner and was walking in the gardens. I presume you have something urgent to report, given the hour.”

“I do. Sir,” Indi responded, his expression as fixed as a pressure cooker. “I regret to inform you that the ship we were pursuing has been ... lost.”

“Lost?” Lucius echoed, tilting his head to one side in a gesture of intrigued puzzlement. “Do you mean it has been destroyed? Surely not, since you were under strict instructions to see it returned in one piece.”

Indi shook his head. “We didn’t fire on it, sir - it disappeared from our sensors. We were closing on it at the time and it simply vanished. A collision perhaps? The area it was lost in contains a dense debris field.”

“Interesting. And you have checked the area for signs of wreckage?”

“I have not, chancellor. As I said, the area it was lost in is dangerous and I wished to seek instructions before endangering her majesty’s flagship.”

Good, the man had reacted exactly as predicted. Cautious with a dash of cowardice. What had the galaxy come to? “I will report this failure to her royal highness. You will await her instructions.”

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

HER ROYAL HIGHNESS did her best to appear regal as she slouched in her throne, encased in linen pajamas that left so little to the imagination that a lesser man would have blushed. Lucius had pretended not to notice as two other figures slunk from the chamber, their clothing wrapped in bundles clutched at their chests.

“So he has lost the thief,” Victorea yawned, “which means your plan has failed.”

Lucius bowed solemnly. “I apologize for my misplaced faith in Captain Indi, your highness. He shall be removed from command instantly and a more competent successor appointed.”

Victorea rubbed her eyes and then squinted at her councilor. “No, I don’t think so.”

“But majesty, he has demonstrated gross incompetence.” This was unexpected and most unwelcome.

“Indeed, but do you not always tell me that the responsibility must be borne by the master, not the servant?”

Lucius nodded. “I do, majesty.”

“And this was your plan, was it not?”

He felt the noose begin to tighten as his mind spun, looking for a way out. “Yes, majesty.”

“Then it is your head that is at stake,” she said, wagging her finger at him as a cruel smile played across her lips. “You have two days to recover the AI and capture the thief. No, make that four days, in honor of your loyal service. That’s long enough for you to personally supervise the search. I suggest you come back with the prize, and the traitor, or you might find you don’t come back at all. I have my own people on Relentless, you see, waiting for my command. Now, I wish you luck, councilor and, if you’ve quite finished, I shall return to my bed.”

Lucius bowed again. “Majesty,” he said, before reversing out of the throne room, his brain reeling as it attempted to plot a safe course through all the possibilities that lay ahead. Just now, he could see no way out.

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Dialogue

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

“I’M NOT SAYING ANYTHING more until you answer a few of my questions,” Hal said.

They’d sat opposite each other, both leaning forward and whispering. Arla had said that the mics inside the airlock were old and barely functional - she had no desire to please her superiors, it seemed, even though they could, with one button press, vent both her and Hal into space. And yet, despite this risk, he found he liked her.

“Well, if I do answer, at least I won’t be making it up as I go along,” Arla snapped.

Hal shrugged. “You can believe me or not, see if I care, but I’ve said nothing that’s not common knowledge.”

“Ha,” Arla said a little too loudly. The watcher in the window stopped its banging and craned as if trying to listen through the porthole. “So, your story about this great galactic empire that collapsed a couple of hundred years ago is on the up and up is it?”

“Yep, everyone knows it. Except you.”

Arla watched him as he spoke. He was a reasonably good-looking young man of slight build. He had dark brown hair that was wavy enough to be pointlessly unruly, and matching eyes. His face was slightly pitted and scarred. Whatever she thought of his story, the part about his upbringing on an oppressive mining colony at least had the ring of truth to it. As for the rest of it well, only a couple of years ago she didn’t even know that such a thing as a galaxy existed. She thought of her father, living out his ignorant existence believing that what he saw, his valley, was the extent of the universe even though, being a clever man with true instincts, he knew that something wasn’t right. She missed him: in that moment, that place, she missed her father and desperately wanted to see him again. Suddenly, she didn’t care about being an engineer, she didn’t even care what the truth was about the universe outside, she only knew that her father deserved to know what she did.

“This place is called Dawn,” she said. “It’s an interstellar arc-ship carved out of an asteroid and this is mission year 1350.”

Hal’s expression froze as he processed what she said. After a pause during which all that could be heard was the humming of the filtration system and the soft pinging of the airlock door as the local sun rose above the horizon, he spoke, “Wow, cool. So you’re like straight out of the historical vidramas? No wonder you speak funny.”

His mind heard the voice of ACE. ‘1350 years ago is long before the AI Emancipation Act - ask if they have robots.’

Would robots even have existed so long ago? Hal thought in response.

He imagined he could hear a sigh in his mind. It was the first Golden Age of Robotics. Many of the advances made then were lost forever during the purges that followed.

Purges?

Humans became frightened that their servants might become their masters, or that, at the least, robots might leave humanity with little purpose other than to exist.

I don’t know what you’re talking about.

Another sigh. So, ask the girl the question. Do they have robots?

“Do you have robots here?”

Arla looked up from examining the table surface absentmindedly. “What? Of course we have robots, this isn’t the dark ages! Hold on, are you saying you don’t?”

“I’ve never seen a robot,” Hal said, feeling unaccountably ashamed. “Most people think that’s why the Sphere collapsed. We gave them freedom and they abandoned us.”

“All of them?”

Hal nodded. “Pretty much. I’ve heard stories from time to time of old models turning up, but I’ve never seen a working robot.”

“Why did they go?”

“Look, I don’t know much about this, to be honest. When you’re working in mines, you don’t get a lot of time for reading up on history. All I know is from dramas where it’s all about how they wanted to set up on their own, be their own bosses. So now there’s the Luminescence - that’s what they call their space. We don’t go there.”

“They’ve created some sort of robot empire? I’m supposed to believe that?”

Hal shrugged. “You can believe what you like, it’s the truth.” He leaned back in his chair. “I believed your crazy story, can’t see that mine is any weirder,” he mumbled.

“So, if what you’re saying is true,” Arla said, pretending not to have heard him, “how come you escaped? You said they were after you – this federation – but how did people get out here in the first place? I’ve learned enough physics in the past couple of years to know that the speed of light barrier can’t be broken, or even approached. That’s why Dawn was built – there was no other way to get to the stars.”

“I don’t know the technicalities. I’ve been taught how to pilot a shuttle, but we didn’t learn things a miner doesn’t need to know. Every star system has a Pinch Gate and that’s how we get from one to another – though I’ve never been through one. Ships don’t cross the space in between, though I’m not sure how that works, but that’s how come your Dawn wasn’t found before now. I guess this was the system it was aiming for?”

Arla nodded. “Yes, the mission is supposed to end here – there’s a planet in this system that was going to be our New Earth. Fourth one from the sun. We should be sending out the terraformers in the next few months.”

“Terraformers? I don’t reckon the folks on Neavis would appreciate that. The planet’s not exactly a paradise, but it’s been their home for centuries.”

“So, how did you escape, then?” Arla asked.

Hal sighed. “I don’t know. The only reason I can give is that Dawn isn’t on their charts, so as soon as I began my descent, I disappeared from their sensors.”

“Still seems odd that they didn’t investigate – I mean, they’d have your last position, after all, and they’d soon see us if they navigated to it. We’re too big to miss.”

“I’ve been thinking the same thing.”

“And you still haven’t told me why you needed to escape and why they’re so desperate to capture you. This whole thing has a whiff about it, and I don’t know which parts of your story to believe and which are just to cover up what’s really going on. I mean, how do I know such a thing as the Vanis Federation even exists?”

Hal leapt out of his chair in anger, but the words froze in his throat as a klaxon sounded and the airlock was bathed in a pulsing scarlet light.

“Condition Red,” said a deceptively calm voice over the comm channel. “All hands to emergency stations. Prepare for boarders.”

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Relentless

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

CAPTAIN INDI’S SKIN prickled as the man approached. There was something about Chancellor Lucius that invoked an uncomfortable mix of loathing and fear – emotions he daren’t show. Lucius had a reputation for absolute ruthlessness, and he had power, at least for now.

“Status, captain,” Lucius said as he glanced at the display.

They were standing on the bridge, which was Indi’s domain, though the captain felt as though he was the junior ensign and the gray man beside him the senior officer. He bit back his anger. “We are within ten thousand clicks of the thief’s last known co-ordinates, Lord Chancellor. I have ordered the ship to dead slow as we approach so we can pick up any sign of debris.”

“You still believe it was destroyed?”

Indi nodded. “I do, Chancellor, it is the most logical conclusion.”

The captain regarded his bureaucratic superior out of the corner of his eye. It seemed to him that Lucius was scanning the displays as if looking for something. The man had been acting oddly since he’d joined the hunt the day before; not quite the assured, confident, politician Indi was used to dealing with. Something was wrong, something that couldn’t be explained by the theft of an object, however valuable.

Lucius turned to leave just as Navigator Bex called from her station in the pit beneath the command platform. “Captain, sensors are picking up an anomaly.” Lucius turned on his heels and peered over the rail at the display hovering above the navigator’s head.

“Report, Navigator,” Indi barked before Lucius could speak.

Bex’s head bobbed up and down as she manipulated the positional computer. “Local ladar is reporting a malfunction, but I’m not convinced. The readings are those of a large body, but there is no object in that position on our maps.”

“Analysis,” Lucius said.

“Well, sir,” Bex replied, looking up from her computer and nodding up at the display, “as you can see, the array is reporting an object, this isn’t a random glitch. It’s either a freak malfunction or a new object has entered the system undetected.”

“And which is the more plausible explanation?” asked Indi.

Bex shrugged. “Hard to say, neither seems likely, sir.”

“It’s clearly a malfunction,” Lucius said, “I suggest we continue our search using conventional methods and not sensor ghosts. Report when you have something concrete to share, Navigator - in the meantime I suggest having your equipment checked and, next time it reports an anomaly, assume it is an error before announcing that you’ve discovered a new planetoid. Resume the agreed search pattern.”

Captain Indi stepped in front of the Chancellor and pointed directly at Bex. “Belay that order, Navigator.”

“How dare you overrule me?” Lucius hissed before turning to the pair of marines standing either side of the entrance to the command platform. “Arrest Captain Indi and remove him from the bridge.”

The marines didn’t give the slightest sign that they’d heard Lucius’ words.

“Lance Corporal Schultz and Marine Yang, please escort Chancellor Lucius to the brig,” Indi said.

Schultz, the taller of the two, snapped a salute and approached the Chancellor who wordlessly fell into step beside him.

“You’re on a fool’s errand, Indi,” Lucius hissed as he passed the captain, “and the last action of your command. When her majesty hears of this...”

“She will hear of it from me, chancellor, as her trusted aide on the Relentless,” he responded with a smile, “and now we’ll find out what it is you’ve been so keen to hide from us.”

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

CAPTAIN INDI HANDED over a glass of whiskey and sat down. His cabin was sparse, as befitted a practicing Buddhist, but it was the largest on the ship, as befitted his rank. Navigator Bex took the glass, raised it to her nose, and sniffed. “Wow, the real thing. Thank you, captain.”

“Call me Nevendu when in private Kriztina, please. It’s not as if we don’t know each other very well,” he said, smiling.

Bex returned the grin with interest. She remembered Nevendu Indi as a pompous little twit she’d first met at the academy, and it had taken many months and a decent amount of alcohol to penetrate the shell he erected around himself to find the true soul within. Sadly, the real Nevendu was almost as repulsive as the projection - there was a core of ambition and self-centeredness that the man liked to believe was the counterpoint to his sensitive, artistic, soul but was, in fact, the true him.

“Nevendu, then,” she said, tilting her glass in his direction before downing it in one. “Nice.”

“I should think so, it’s an authentic scotch from the Royal Cellar,” Indi huffed.

Authentic my ass, thought Bex. As something of a connoisseur of fine liquors, the navigator had heard a number of theories concerning what “scotch” actually meant and she was certain none of them applied to this palatable but unremarkable drink. It was amber in color and throat scouring in taste, but that was about the best that could be said of it. She noticed the captain barely sipped his. An affectation then; a way for a sociopath to be sociable. She decided to play along.

“Then might I have the honor of savoring another mouthful?” she said, smiling and holding out her glass as her captain, after a moment’s pause, slunk over to the kitchen bar and retrieved the bottle.

“I must say, Kriztina, you were very wise to confide in me. Your instructions from the palace were most interesting. And direct from the empress herself. You’re certain of this?”

Ah, so this was what it was about. She’d suspected as much.

“Yes, my family has connections very close to her majesty.”

Indi’s face spread in a reptilian grin. “Very close indeed, or so I hear. Your brother, I believe?”

“If you know this, why ask about my connections?” she snapped before adding a perfunctory: “sir.”

Indi threw his hands up as if to deflect her anger. “I’m sorry to cause offence. My humor was in poor taste. But come, Kriztina, tell me what you know of this - beyond your direct orders.”

Idiot, she thought. I’d rather be imprisoned on an ice planet than tell you all I know.

“I know nothing other than what I’ve told you. Her majesty is suspicious of the motives of Chancellor Lucius and wishes for him to be watched. She believes he is hiding something, and her instructions were for me to alert her of any odd behavior or to advise you if I felt time was of the essence. I chose to speak to you as soon as I began picking up the sensor anomalies and that worked out well for us both, I believe.” She took another sip of the whiskey. Yes, it was utter crap.

Her belt beeped and she focused for a moment as her implant transmitted through her jawbone.

“The sensors have completed their sweep of the area, results coming through now,” she tapped her wrist and an inverted pyramid sprang from it, above which a cube slowly spun. She enlarged it until it was almost as tall and broad as she was and watched as a band of light swept across it, leaving behind floating objects. Nothing special, just the sort of debris she’d expect to see in an asteroid belt. And then the edge of the band illuminated the perimeter of an object much larger than anything else - this was more than mere interplanetary rubble. It resolved into a slowly rotating lozenge shape. “Good grief.”

Indi leapt to his feet and stood within the projection field staring at the floating rock. “By the gods, that’s huge. Isn’t it?”

“Relatively,” Bex acknowledged. She glanced down at the calibration grid beneath the cube. “I would say it’s at least 60 clicks by 20. Looks natural. Nickel-iron asteroid of a type common to this system, and yet it must have come from outside: there’s no way our maps would have missed something that large.”

“So that’s the answer then? The thief’s ship disappeared behind it and became invisible to our navigational computer because the asteroid is new to this system? But why would that matter to Lucius, and how would he have known?”

Bex shrugged. “I don’t know, but there’s something odd about the asteroid, if you ask me.”

“What do you mean?”

She pointed at the simulation. “It’s rotating around its long axis and, within the tolerances of our sensors, doing so perfectly, not even a wobble. And its mass is way too low for it to be nickel-iron, yet that’s what the albedo measurements suggest.”

“None of which would explain the interest of the chancellor,” Indi said, unable to hide his disappointment.

Dropping her empty tumbler on the table, Bex moved somewhat unsteadily toward the door. “We’d better take a closer look, then. Shall I plot a course, captain?”

Indi nodded. “Yes, navigator. Get us there as quickly as safety allows, I want to know what Lucius was trying to hide before we report to her majesty.”

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

THE ASTEROID DOMINATED the bridge display. Relentless had approached it from the side and its landscape could be seen gently tumbling beneath the ship, giving the impression that they were approaching it more quickly than they actually were.

“Mass estimates confirmed,” Bex said from the navigator’s pit, “it’s too light for its composition. And there’s not a hint of wobble in its rotation.”

Indi leant back in his chair, his gaze flitting across the multitude of displays that appeared to hover in front of him. “And yet it looks perfectly natural. After all, it can’t be man-made - even the ships of the empire weren’t as large as this and I never heard of the imperials flying asteroids.”

“Hold on, I’m detecting electro-magnetics, and pure metals. Tracing the source of the readings and magnifying. Accessing drone footage of the far end of the asteroid,” Bex said, her hands playing across her console with all the speed and dexterity of a concert pianist.

A section of the display squared itself off and leapt out.

“By the gods, what is that?” Indi said. He was pointing at a group of circular markings on the otherwise browny-gray surface. As the picture sharpened, it resolved itself into a cluster of domes positioned precisely in the center of this end of the asteroid - exactly on its axis of rotation. The probe had matched the asteroid’s spin, so the structures remained apparently stationery and there, near the rim, was the unmistakable shape of a Vanis Federation yacht.

“Red alert,” Indi said.

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Threat

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

“THIS IS THE DESTROYER Relentless hailing the asteroid. We are transmitting on all radio frequencies to be sure that you receive this message. You are sheltering a known criminal who has stolen property belonging to Her Majesty Victorea, Empress of the Vanis Federation. Release him to us or prepare to be boarded.”

Arla stood in Comms and watched the soundwave dance on the display as the message was played again. She’d found it hard to understand at first but her time with Hal had acclimatized her, at least somewhat, to the local accent and dialect. Aside from her and the impassive space-suited figure of Lieutenant Commander Patel, Comms was unoccupied. Hal had been kept in the airlock and all passageways between there and here had been emptied.

“Analysis?” Patel said.

Arla looked up, imagining she could see through the shaded visor. “It seems pretty clear - though we don’t know what their capability to harm us is, it might be all bluff.”

“Computer, display schematic analysis of Relentless.”

A wall panel flickered alight and a line drawn rendering of the destroyer faded in. It was beautiful in the same way that a shark is - a triumph of killing efficiency over aesthetics. There was no cohesive outer plating, the external skin being made up of a hodge-podge of interlocking hexagons that presumably acted to absorb the energy of impacts, whether these were the random hazards of space or a deliberate attack.

“Show weapons systems,” Patel barked.

The bright white schematic was overlaid with red flashing areas.

“And these are all weapons?” Arla said. “You’re sure?”

Patel pointed at the display. “These areas are emitting more energy than any other parts of the ship, even the engines. I think it’s safe to assume, given they’re pointing in our direction, that they could, if they wished, destroy the command center even if they couldn’t reach the valleys themselves. In fact, there’s no reason to believe that they know the valleys exist at all: an external scan of Dawn would reveal nothing more than this dome, the thrusters and the attitude control engines.”

“So how are we going to respond to them?”

Patel shrugged. “That is why you are here. You’ve spoken to the prisoner - quite deliberately at a level our microphones couldn’t pick up, I might add.”

“But then I am, after all, dispensable, as you explained to him when you threw me in there,” Arla snapped.

“We didn’t want him to believe he could achieve anything by taking you hostage,” Patel said. “And, in any case, this is now a matter of the survival of us all - there is no time for personal vendettas. What is your analysis?”

Arla sighed. “Well, I think, overall, his story is genuine. After our mission launched, a technology was developed that allowed for fast interstellar travel so while we drifted between stars, humanity spread in what it called The Sphere - a kind of galactic empire. But then it all collapsed and split into smaller units like the Vanis Federation.”

“And their technology? It must be considerably advanced compared to ours.”

“I’m not so sure,” Arla said, waving her hand at the schematic, “though it wouldn’t be hard to outgun us as we’ve got barely any weapons at all.”

“True: most of our capability is designed for pinpointing and destroying natural threats that might collide with us, the mission planners didn’t foresee armed conflict,” Patel said. “Perhaps we should have known that human ingenuity would defy the laws of physics, but that mankind wouldn’t outgrow its baser instincts.”

Arla looked up at the suited figure beside her. Patel was a slim man of just under two meters and, therefore, half a meter taller than she was. She couldn’t see his face behind the visor but she imagined him sadly shaking his head.

“Aside from weaponry, however, the only tech I saw was his suit and it didn’t look much different to ours - he definitely didn’t strike me as a man from the future,” she said. “And they don’t have any robots or AIs.”

Patel grabbed her arms. “What? How can that be? They’ve had centuries to progress beyond us in robotics. Are you certain?”

“I can only tell you what the prisoner told me,” she said, pulling herself from his grip. “There was some change to their programming, and they all left. The Sphere never recovered. He says robots are to blame for its collapse.”

“Impossible. The duty of all robots is to serve humans. How can that be achieved by causing the collapse of their society?”

Arla was puzzled. She’d been surprised when Hal had told her this, but Patel seemed genuinely shocked and at a loss for any response. He stood perfectly still as if thinking it through, with no regard to her at all.

“So, what are we going to say to them?” Arla asked the frozen figure beside her. “What does the captain think of all this?”

Patel’s helmet swung slowly in her direction. “Yes, the captain. He must be informed. The obvious course would be to hand...” he paused momentarily as if searching for the perfectly obvious next word, “...over the prisoner, but this must be done under the captain’s authority.”

“No! That can’t be right - he’s a human being, not a bargaining chip.” Arla was surprised at her own vehemence, it wasn’t as if she particularly liked Hal.

Again, Patel seemed to pause, apparently constructing the next sentence. “The needs of the five thousand people on Dawn must outweigh those of a single human,” he managed. “But it is the captain’s task to make such ... decisions.”

“Then I want to see the captain,” Arla said, hardly able to believe what she was saying as the words came out of her mouth.

Patel turned on his heels and walked away. “That is impossible as you well know,” he said over his shoulder. “The captain is the most important person on the ship and must be protected from the risk of infection at all costs.”

He reached the door which slid open and then shut again behind him, locking with a final clunk.

Arla collapsed into one of the chairs. It was very strange to be here alone but for the quiet chirruping and occasional beeps of the machinery. Whenever she’d been in Comms before, whether during training or on shift, the place was packed, and the dominant sound was the low hubbub of conversation. Standing here in a spacesuit was even weirder - almost like going to bed in your work-clothes.

Yet more odd was the experience of being in the physical presence of an officer. Instinctively she glanced across at the largest display, set in the middle of the main wall. Dark at the moment, this was the portal through which the officers had always communicated with the crew. It was only in the gravest situations that officers would appear in person, the last being when a meteoroid had punctured a weak spot on the Command Center dome - it had been the officers who, in their pristine white spacesuits, had led the repair efforts and saved everyone. In fact, were it not for these rare appearances, there would have been no evidence they were any more than AI projections themselves.

“Arla? Are you receiving?”

The voice was coming from her helmet speaker. “Ki? Is that you?”

“Thank the Goddess,” the voice continued. “Are you alone?”

“Yes, where are you?”

“This line is not secure. Isolate one of the consoles, use our encryption code.”

Arla twisted off her helmet and dropped it onto the chair next to her as she seated herself at the nearest console. With a touch, she brought it to life and began working on the mechanical keyboard. She and Kiama had become close friends when they’d first joined the crew and had agreed a particular password they’d use if they ever needed to communicate privately. Since that time, Kiama had become a gifted crewmember marked, presumably, for command while Arla was considered something of a loose cannon. So, their friendship had waned as neither could quite understand the other. But she still remembered the password.

NorthAndSouth

As soon as she’d typed those words in, the console’s communication stream came online and Kiama’s face appeared on the desktop display.

“Where are you?” Arla asked.

Kiama looked left and right as if worried she’d be overheard. “We’ve been evacuated to the hub. As far as I can tell, you and the officers are the only people in C Squared - except for the prisoner. What’s happened?”

“A ship is approaching and it’s demanding we hand Hal, the prisoner, over.”

Kiama’s mouth dropped open. “So, it’s true - people got here before us.”

“Yes, by over a thousand years. Long enough for an empire to be born, live and die while we were in transit. Patel wants to hand Hal over - he’s gone to ask the captain to make a decision.”

“Good grief,” Kiama said, brushing an errant curly lock from her forehead. “The captain’s not been called on for a command decision in years.”

Arla knew this. In fact it was a key subject of the scuttlebutt amongst the crew. Rumor had it that the captain who, like the officers, transmitted his orders through the displays, spent his time in a private penthouse set into the outer wall of the asteroid where he could gaze out at the stars, dine on the finest stored produce and drink rare wines. He was also reputed to have a working model of an old sailing ship steering wheel which he used from time to time to make course corrections. And no-one knew how long he’d been captain - none of the crew could remember any previous commander.

“This is the destroyer Relentless hailing the asteroid. We are transmitting on all radio frequencies to be sure that you receive this message. You are sheltering a known criminal who has stolen property belonging to Her Majesty Victorea, Empress of the Vanis Federation.

If you do not respond immediately, we will consider that an act of aggression and will launch our attack. Be warned, we are arming our weapons.”

“By the Goddess,” Kiama said, “quick, Arla, you must respond!”

“Me? Are you serious? I can’t speak for the ship!”

Kiama’s face loomed large in the display. “You must, Arla. They have nukes!”

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Response

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

“CAPTAIN, WE’RE RECEIVING a transmission!”

Indi woke instantly from the half-sleep he’d been enjoying. “Where from?” he said as his mind lagged behind his mouth.

“The asteroid, sir.” Fortunately, Comms Officer Rembrant was sensible enough to overlook the stupidity of her commanding officer’s question. It had been a long shift for all of them. Mind you, if she’d been dozing on the job she could imagine what his reaction would have been.

“Patch it through to the duty room,” he said, ignoring the disappointed look on Rembrant’s face.

He waited until the door had hissed shut behind him before sitting at the only station in the tiny room. It wasn’t that he didn’t trust his crew, but he felt that this conversation might be best had in private.

He touched the flashing red rectangle on the panel and transferred his gaze to the display above it. “I’m having trouble matching protocols, captain,” Rembrant’s tinny voice said. “Audio is easy enough, but the stream contains visual data and I’m working with Nareshkumar to modify our algorithms on the fly.”

“Acknowledged,” Indi said. He wanted to see who he was talking to - you could learn so much more that way. Technician Nareshkumar was some sort of savant genius; Rembrant had done well to ask for his help. If he couldn’t whip the ship’s algorithms into shape no-one could.

Sure enough, within seconds, a dancing haze appeared on the display which slowly, pixel by pixel, began to organize itself into the image of a face.

“That’s about as good as it’s going to get, sir, at least until we can devote more time to sharpening the procedures.”

It was a young woman. Indistinct and almost submerged beneath white noise, he could see her lips moving but could hear nothing. He almost barked into the microphone before he realized that he’d shut off the volume himself so Rembrant and the geek wouldn’t be able to hear. He flicked the toggle.

“...not a threat. Repeat, this is Dawn responding to Relentless. Are you receiving me? We are an unarmed vessel and mean you no harm. We are not a threat. Please acknowledge.” The voice was so heavily accented that he was forced to replay it twice before he could fully understand it.

Indi punched the console. There was little point trying to gain any more information from the display: he could make out the general appearance of the woman’s face but nothing about her surroundings. “This is Captain Indi of Relentless; do you have the occupant of the stolen vessel?”

The face froze and for a moment he wondered if the video feed had been lost, but then the lips started moving and the voice followed a second or two out of sync. “We have him safe, Captain,” the woman said, this time speaking slowly. She seemed so young. It puzzled him: what sort of an outpost, even one as outlandish as this appeared to be, had a mere girl as its captain? Everything about this situation seemed odd. What was this “Dawn”? He felt as though the next few moments might be career-defining.

“Prepare to hand him over,” he said, also slowing down his speech to be sure he could be understood, “our transport will arrive shortly. Please be aware that it’s armed, and we will use deadly force to retrieve the traitor if necessary.”

Another pause. “We need time to prepare to hand over the prisoner,” the girl crackled. “We evacuated our command center when your vessel approached, and it will take time to re-establish normal operation.”

Indi grunted. “You are stalling,” he said, “but I will keep the transport in orbit around your ...vessel... for one hour. I expect to see the prisoner on the surface when my ship lands.” He stabbed down on the contact and the face disappeared.

“Dammit. Dammit, Dammit, Dammit.” Arla strode up and down the metallic walkway, running her hands through her hair and shaking her head.

Kiama had tried to calm her, but Arla wasn’t listening, she continued to walk up and down, glancing occasionally at the command display in the hope that an officer would appear and tell her what to do.

“Where are they?” she said, “I mean, of all the times to go AWOL, they can’t all be consulting with the captain can they? What if they have a plan? What if I’ve just messed it up by pissing off Relentless? What do I do, Ki? What do I do?”

“You can stop wearing out the gantry, for a start”, Kiama said, “Now, sit down so we can talk face to face.”

Arla dropped into the chair and looked down at Kiama’s face. She could feel the sweat running down her back. She couldn’t stop her hands from shaking.

“I don’t know where the officers are,” Kiama said, looking about her as if one might have been hiding in a corner of the room she was broadcasting from. “We’re locked out of C Squared and there are none out here with us. I guess they’re with the captain, but maybe they don’t know about the deadline.”

“So, what should I do?”

Kiama leaned forward, her face filling the display. “You have no choice; you have to see the captain.”

“What? Are you insane? No-one sees him, no-one’s ever seen him.”

Shrugging, her friend leaned back again and said, quite casually: “Well, in that case, there’s only one thing for it. You’ll have to shove the prisoner out of the airlock.”

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

IT WAS DARK IN THE cabin of Lucius, Lord Chancellor of the Vanis Federation. The only illumination came from the holographic display that extruded from the desk he was sitting at. His fingers played over the lightboard with an almost inhuman speed and accuracy as he watched dense lines of characters cascade across the viewport.

The task itself was well within his capabilities, though he’d have been unable to make even a start without help from Navigator Bex who’d provided the access codes for the ship’s computer system. The code was crude - as in so many other ways, programming skills had declined since the days of The Sphere - and he found navigating the sprawling alleyways of poorly constructed syntax an almost painful experience. Technician Nareshkumar was the only person he’d met - aside, perhaps, from Bex herself - who was competent enough to make changes to the ship’s systems and Lucius wasn’t sure yet whether he could be trusted.

The chancellor had created a safe space for his new code so that he could test whether it had the desired effect without being detectable (unless someone knew where to look). Lucius watched as he ran the program through the simulator. It did what he intended, but he was in no position to implement it on the ship’s systems just yet as that would immediately reveal him and, on balance, he’d rather be somewhere else when that happened.

With a final dexterous flourish, he committed the code. It would wait for his signal before it ran and then he’d find out whether the simulators were accurate. He felt uneasy as the console uploaded and enmeshed his scripts, not merely because he couldn’t be sure it would work. No, he was almost as worried that it would work. There was no painless way out of this situation, it was all a question of relative harm and he only hoped his judgement was sound.

The door beeped and, in an instant, Lucius had shut down the display, watching it anxiously as it collapsed into his desk. Captain Indi cut an imperious figure as he stood in the doorway flanked by two guards.

“Chancellor,” he said, “I trust you have been comfortable.”

Lucius bit back his fear and nodded as calmly as he could manage. Surely Bex hadn’t betrayed him? “I have, Captain, though I would prefer to have been able to make myself useful.”

Indi smiled. “Then I have good news for you. A situation has developed which your diplomatic skills would be ideally suited for.”

Lucius relaxed a little while maintaining an interested expression. “Indeed? I would be delighted to help if I can.”

“It will require that you rendezvous with the transport currently en-route. These guards will see you to the shuttle and you will be briefed on the way.”

Lucius followed the guards out of his room as the captain’s smile remained fixed on his face. Bex had done a magnificent job of manipulating her commander into sending him on this mission. Presumably, she’d persuaded him that Lucius was in a no-win situation - either he succeeded in bringing back the prisoner, in which case Indi’s plan would be seen to have worked, or he failed and would take the blame. Or - and this would have been the clincher - the chancellor might find himself accidentally exposed to the vacuum of space through a tragic accident of some sort.

As they trod the corridors of Relentless, Lucius found himself reflecting that the next few hours might be the most critical of his long life. All the thousands of decisions and maneuverings over the decades had led to this point and the fate of millions hung on what happened next.

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Harbinger

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

LOCATION: VULTURN - RAD 138:877:129

G-NTRY LOVED THE SUNSRISE. Every morning he would stride out to the energy fields, always hoping that the weather would be clear, and he’d be able to witness the coming of light to the land. Today, he was hurrying along the maintenance pathways beneath a perfectly clear sky - he wanted to be in place and settled in plenty of time.

He liked it best when little Titanus rose first. Locked in the tight embrace of imperious Magister, the companion star was almost always lost in its brother’s coronal magnificence. But, every now and again, its orbit would mean it would break the horizon ahead of Magister and, for just a few moments, the world would be bathed in its ghostly light. This was one of those rare days and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.

G-NTRY sat on his favorite rock and faced the east. He knew exactly where to look at this time of the year and used the familiar pattern of the mountains to calibrate - there would be very little time and he didn’t want to waste it scanning. He checked his chronometer and, as the horizon started to lighten, he began recording. He knew others would be watching, but this would be his personal experience and he knew his family would enjoy the replay.

There it was, a flash of white as Titanus’ light found a valley in that distant mountain range. It was gone, then reappeared as the star’s disc began to appear between the peaks. G-NTRY opacified his visor and concentrated all his attention on the spectacle as, moment by moment, the little sun rose. After too short a time, a brighter, yellower, halo appeared through the valleys and he knew it would be over soon, the clean, white, luminance of Titanus swept away and overwhelmed by the power of Magister.

G-NTRY stood. He was well enough versed in the cosmological sciences to know that he’d seen something that could be explained perfectly well using only the scientific dictionary. And yet it had touched him in ways he couldn’t quantify. There was something about the rarity and the beauty of the spectacle that made it special.

He wiped these thoughts from his mind. There would be time to reflect later. For now, the panels in matrix 0x2B were malfunctioning. Possibly nothing more than dust, but perhaps something more worrying. And any fluctuation in power output was a serious matter, even if it only affected a single cell amongst tens of thousands. Power was life, after all.

G-NTRY de-tinted his visor and picked up the pace, moving through the maze of energy panels that, in the growing sunlight, were buzzing as if delighting in the sudden abundance. When he reached 0x2B he could see the problem. A pair of desert rats had built a nest beneath the panel and had cut through some of the supply cables. G-NTRY picked up the scaly body of one of the rats and carried it to a spot clear of the panel. He dug a hole and dropped it in. He felt a wave of sadness as he looked down at the pathetic little thing lying there. It bore little resemblance to the rodents so common on Earth of the distant past, but his people were unimaginative and so they reused the names they already knew, however inappropriate.

There was chatter in his earpiece and he stood up. The alarm had been sounded, and he swung around in shock. He’d never heard it before, in all his long years. A threat was approaching from space and, when he looked up at the sky, he could see it. What was it? A ship? But it was far too big for that - he judged it to be in the order of 1,000 kilometers in length if it was just outside the atmosphere.

Where had it come from? How had it appeared with no warning to hang above the desert like a hammer preparing to fall.

And fall it did. As he watched, a column of fire erupted from the crater-shaped depression in its belly. It hit the ground, hundreds of miles away, and yet he felt it as the earth shook and panic rose through him.

G-NTRY thought of running as the earthquakes began and the pillar of flame turned white hot and surrounded by a collar of molten rock where the ground writhed in its agony. He thought of all those he knew and would never see again, for this was surely the end of the world.

They called him, all those in agony, their voices cut off to be replaced by others as the beam spread. It was coming toward him. He didn’t have long.

He ran, though he knew it was pointless. He ran down the lines of panels toward ethe distributor that sat, like a spider in its web, in the center of the energy field. Like a pathetic imitation of the column of flame, the distributor’s ultrawave beam speared into the air, made visible by the dust-storm. And then he remembered - he was still recording. He’d forgotten to switch off the camera after the sunrise. His existence would end here, but what he’d seen might linger on.

G-NTRY linked with the distributor, reconfiguring its directional array and boosting its power. In the heart of the beam he encoded his recording. He didn’t have time to edit it, he just dumped it into the beam and set it to repeat as many times as possible, each time in a different direction. He prayed that a receiving station would understand it and send it on to Core, because if this thing, whatever it was, came there, the Robot Empire would be over.

His job done, G-NTRY collapsed his four legs, rested his metal exoskeleton on the desert floor and watched as the pillar of fire approached.

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

We're off to see...

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

ARLA WAVED HER SIDEARM through the window of the airlock and watched as Hal backed away. She pointed at her head and he got the message that he was to don his helmet. She’d never felt so stressed in her life, not even back in pre-history when she’d woken up in what turned out to be the crew medical bay. That was only three years ago and yet it, and the life of the valleys, seemed to belong to a different person in a different time.

Arming herself had been an easy decision. Her rank gave her access to the weapons locker and she’d almost choked on the dust that had erupted, as if the seal of an ancient tomb had been broken. She activated the power to the rack containing the energy weapons, so they’d be ready in case ... of what? Of invasion? If that happened, she’d need reinforcements. She remembered from her training briefing (she’d paid attention on that occasion) that there was a small cache of percussion weapons that were to be used in the event of a power failure. So, she was now carrying a handgun and feeling ridiculous as she pointed it at Hal after the door rolled aside.

“Come with me,” she said, trying to project a confidence and authority she didn’t feel.

Hal, who seemed relieved to be doing anything and, presumably, happy to be anywhere other than the airlock, stepped cautiously toward her. “Where are we going?”

“To see the captain,” Arla responded as she stepped back to let him pass.

She’d made her mind up to bring Hal along, as it seemed only right that the captain should meet the person he was considering condemning to almost certain death. Well, she couldn’t be entirely sure of that, but the commander of the enemy ship didn’t strike her as the cuddly, forgiving sort. It struck her that she’d had more contact with him than with her own commanding officer - a man she’d only seen on the display, and even then, only rarely.

She wouldn’t admit it, but she was also frightened of venturing into the officers’ quarter on her own. There was a better than even chance that she’d be refused entry, but if she did get in she wanted Hal with her as company or to draw their attention away from herself.

The officers inhabited a sealed off section that abutted the main control center. As she understood it, the captain’s quarters were alongside those, at the very end of the tunnels excavated when the asteroid was first carved out. So, the only way to see him was to first get past the officers - though she suspected they were with him anyway.

Arla kept her prisoner a couple of paces in front as he lumbered along in his spacesuit. “There,” she said as they reached the end of the corridor. There was a short staircase set into the wall on their right. “Up the stairs.”

Hal shrugged and, with a muttered “whatever”, began to climb, his tread echoing as his boots connected with the bare metal of the worn steps, flecks of red around the edges the only evidence of their original color. Arla examined his suit from behind as he climbed ahead of her. The outer layer stretched as his legs moved, revealing that the fibers were weakening, presumably due to age. She thought about how both of them, young though they were, seemed to be tiptoeing through the ruins of their ancestors’ former greatness.

They reached the top where a small landing led to a solid looking metal door. “What now?” Hal asked.

“Now we try to get in,” Arla said as she pressed the contact pad. After a few seconds the display lit up and she recognized the stern face of Lieutenant Santos.

“Arla Farmer, what are you doing? And who is this?” Santos said as she noticed Hal. “Don’t tell me it’s the prisoner?”

Arla felt ice swimming through her guts. “Yes sir, it is. I wish to see the captain. It’s very urgent.”

“Crew do not see the captain, you know that. The risk of contamination...”

“Is less than the risk of being nuked by that ship out there!”

Santos, a portly woman in her middle years, paused for a moment as if thinking. “The captain is discussing this matter with the command team. Return to comms and lock the prisoner in the airlock.”

“There’s no time!” Arla yelled. Didn’t they get it? In less than thirty minutes, a ship would land, and the invasion would begin - an invasion they couldn’t hope to resist. “Look, I have a respirator and the prisoner is wearing his helmet. We’re not the enemy here!”

Shaking her head, Santos leaned forward as if about to break contact.

Arla felt her arm being pulled down and, in an instant, the sidearm was twisted from her grip. “Ow!” she yelled.

“Sorry,” Hal said as he held the gun to her temple. “Now, do as she says and let us in.”

A spasm crossed Santos’ face and, again, she seemed to freeze. “You must see the captain, or you will kill Arla Farmer?” Her expression was one of shocked disbelief.

“Yes,” Hal said, pushing the gun into Arla’s skin.

With a hiss, a panel slid back and, startled, Hal stumbled. Arla swung round and kicked at his hand, sending the gun spinning across the floor and through to the staircase revealed behind it. They both dived for it, just as the panel began to roll back into place, ending up sprawled on the floor. Hal was the heavier and stronger and, by pinning her down, he eventually subdued her and took the gun as the panel shut.

“I wasn’t going to shoot you,” he said as she desperately grabbed for the weapon. He stood up and put his hand down to help her. As she raised herself, with the aid of the wall, he held the gun out to her, butt first. “See how trusting I am?”

She took it, checked the chamber, and pointed it at him. “Idiot,” she said.

“Charming,” Hal responded diffidently. “Now, where are we?”

Arla looked around. “I’ve never been here before, but I reckon that must lead to the captain’s quarters.” She pointed at the narrow staircase that spiraled upwards. The little cube they stood in and the foot of the stairs were lit, but there was only darkness above.

“Come on then,” she said, waving the weapon at the stairs, “you first.”

It was a short enough climb, only one flight, but Arla felt as though she was stepping through time. As they breached the level of the officers’ quarter, the lighting dimmed, and the walls transitioned from a dull white decoration to what looked like ancient wooden paneling.

They reached the landing. It was bathed in a yellow light emitted by twin lamps either side of an apparently wooden door. Beside the door was a circular window surrounded by a rim made of a bright yellow metal and beneath it hung a small bell with a rope tongue. Arla thought she had stepped inside one of those dramas the crew enjoyed so much, set in the days when people sailed in ships across the sea. She shuddered at the thought. Like all the people of the valleys, she had a deep phobia of open water.

For lack of any other plan, she rang the bell. To her surprise, it made no sound, though it must have alerted those inside because a face appeared at the porthole. Of course, they’d have been warned by Santos to expect her. It was Lieutenant Commander Patel.

“You were ordered to remain in comms until I returned,” he said, his face as expressionless as a puppet’s.

Arla, who was now past the point of caring about the command structure, gave an exaggerated shrug. “There was a development.”

“You contacted the captain of the enemy vessel,” Patel said. “Another transgression.”

“And now I want to see the captain of this vessel,” Arla responded. “Do I need to hand my gun over to the prisoner and have him threaten my life before you’ll let me see him?”

Patel froze for a moment, as if thinking of what he was going to say next. “The captain cannot come to the window, he is ... busy.”

“Then I’ll come to him,” she responded, handing the gun over to Hal, “or he’ll shoot me.”

The officer paused for so long that she didn’t know if he’d heard her. Hal theatrically pressed the gun against her head. This didn’t worry her one bit - she was past the point of caring.

“Put on your respirator,” Patel said, his face unfreezing.

Arla pulled it over her head and looked across to Hal who glanced back through his suit visor. As she was wondering how much oxygen he had left, the timber door swung back silently, and they stepped through.

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

...the Wizard

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

THE ROOM THEY ENTERED was everything the rumor-mill had suggested. It was circular and would have reminded Arla of the top of a lighthouse if she’d ever seen such a thing. Where the lantern room of a lighthouse had transparent walls, the captain’s room was lined with wooden shelving containing thousands upon thousands of books - the only break being where the door stood. She noticed a musty odor suffused with a pungent note she couldn’t place but didn’t like.

Arla spun around, taking it all in, and then looked up and her breath caught in her throat. There, above her, the universe gently rotated around the central spire. She knew it must be a simulation because, in fact, space was beneath her feet through a few yards of rock as she stood on the inner skin of the carved out asteroid. But, simulation or not, it was beautiful. She seemed to be standing in the apex of the dome that protruded from the surface of Dawn. The viewpoint was set exactly on the asteroid’s axis of rotation and what looked like up to her might more naturally have seemed ahead if such directions had any meaning. If Dawn was a missile, the dome was set in the foremost part of the nose cone going boldly first where the rest of Dawn followed.

Hal’s nudge in the arm brought her mind back from wandering the universe to the present situation. She pulled her gaze from the periphery to focus on the rest of the room. The officers stood in a small group silently regarding her with unreadable expressions. Even Patel, who she’d expected to be angry, had a resigned look. It was as if all his resistance had ended and he was waiting for some judgement to fall.

Her eyes found the center of the room. The circular design motif was repeated here in a sunken area that had probably once been seating, perhaps for the officers to confer with the captain. And then she saw him, and, for the second time, she struggled to breathe. She saw him, the captain, or what he had become.

The entire seating area, which was perhaps 5 meters across, had been filled with machinery that, as she now paid attention to it, was emitting regular beeps mixed with the sounds of pumps and other unidentifiable noises. A rat’s nest of tubing, some transparent, some mercifully opaque, ran between the machines on the outside of the seating area to the thing occupying the center.

There was a head that was recognizably human. It was pale, bald and covered in dark brown blotches and deep, sore, wrinkles. Its eyes were closed. Beneath the head, entwined within tubing and with only occasional patches of pallid skin left exposed by the metal and plastic enclosures that covered most of it, sat an unmoving, bloated body.

As she examined the head, she could just make out the ghost of the captain she’d seen in pictures and the occasional video announcement but corrupted almost beyond recognition by whatever had been done to him.

Hal was the first to speak. He’d stood beside her, presumably as lost for words as she’d been, until now. “What in all the hells is that?”

“That is the captain of Dawn and you will show the proper respect,” Patel hissed as he detached himself from the other officers and pointed down at the occupant.

“What has happened to him?” Arla asked.

“He has been treated,” Patel responded flatly.

“For what?”

Patel froze as, it seemed, he considered his words. But it was Hal who provided the answer. “This is some sort of life support unit. How long has he been here?”

The thing in the center of the room stirred. “ALWAYS,” it rasped, its metallic voice emerging from speakers around the room, its lips immobile.

“What does he mean?” Arla said, hardly able to tear her eyes away from the horror that called itself captain.

“This is Captain Akemi Nakajima.”

“Impossible,” Arla responded before turning to Hal. “That was the name of the first commander of Dawn.”

Hal shrugged. “Maybe he inherited his name like you did, weren’t you Arla Mirova because that was what some dead engineer was called?”

“It is true that we follow that tradition with crew,” Patel said, “but officers are known by their birth-name. There has only ever been one captain of Dawn - this is he.”

Arla’s head was spinning and yet she instinctively knew Patel was speaking the truth. She’d never tried to imagine what a human would look like if it could be kept alive for 1350 years, but if she had, this construct of flesh, bone, metal and plastic would be exactly what she’d come up with.

So many questions burst into her mind as it began working again, like a wheel stuck in the snow that suddenly finds purchase and spins out of control. How? would have been a good one, but, in fact, the first word that came out of her mouth was “why?”

Patel opened his mouth to speak but was interrupted by a wheezing sound from behind him, before the robotic voice of the captain echoed around the room again. “DUTY,” it rasped.

“You do not know how close this mission came to failure in the early years,” Patel said quietly. “When Dawn launched, Captain Nakajima was a strong man of early middle age and he used his experience and power of command to negotiate those hazards. The ecology of the valleys almost collapsed several times, but he oversaw the sometimes drastic actions that were taken for the greater good.”

Arla didn’t like the sound of this. The people of the valleys remembered many legends of ancient times and the earliest of these told of the cleansings that happened when the Goddess sent angels down to purge the unworthy. Had Nakajima ordered a culling to give the ecology of the valleys time to repair itself? Had the crew of the time gone along with this? Wielding advanced weapons against a defenseless people; their people?

She realized that Patel was still speaking in his slow, ponderous, style. “He was an old man when the great crisis came as Dawn transited an interstellar debris field,” he said, as if reciting a religious text. “The asteroid was hit by a proto-comet traveling at such speed it could not be deflected by our tactical lasers. The impact tore apart the command center, causing the death of the crew and we were forced to recruit new crew from the people of the valleys. This, incidentally, is the source of the tradition of reusing their names - we honor them thus.”

“Look, we don’t have time for a history lesson,” Arla said, suddenly remembering Relentless’ ultimatum, “we’re almost out of time. We came here to ask the captain, but is he even in command?” She gestured down to the unmoving thing in the center of the room.

“He was irreplaceable,” Patel said, “so we found ways to extend his life. Little by little, his biological systems were first supported and then replaced. He remained the best man for the job over the centuries and then the need for command abated as we drifted through interstellar space. He was kept alive, but asleep, for a thousand years before being woken to see us through the end of the mission.”

Arla rounded on the officer, her patience at an end. “Are you telling me that no-one in the history of the mission was considered capable of taking over to allow him to die with dignity?”

“PAIN,” echoed the captain’s voice. “DUTY.”

Patel shook his head sadly. “No, after the crew was lost and we were forced to replace them with valley people, no-one has been judged an adequate substitute.”

“The crew? Why not just promote an officer?”

The now familiar paralysis gripped Lieutenant Commander Patel. The portly figure of Lieutenant Santos stepped forward and put her hand on his shoulder, shepherding him away, before returning to stand beside Arla and Hal.

“Officers are not equipped to make command decisions of a life and death nature,” she said methodically.

Arla felt as though she was flailing around on the edge of understanding something significant.

“ROBOTS,” wheezed the captain.

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

YES, THAT EXPLAINS it, ACE said inside Hal’s head. I’ve been detecting strange electromagnetic signatures inside this room. I assumed it came from the machinery keeping Nakajima alive. I was wrong, it’s them.

“What?” Arla spat. “The officers are robots? How is that possible? You don’t look like any robots I’ve ever seen.”

Hal put his hand on her arm, and she spun round, her eyes wide. “They’re androids,” he said. “I’ve seen them on vidramas. Never thought I’d see one with my own eyes, though.”

She pulled away from him. “I don’t believe you; no robot can be made to look so much like a human.”

With infinite sadness, R.Santos placed her hand behind her ear and, with a gentle tug, her face swung outwards exposing a mass of circuitry and moving metal.

Arla retched and backed away. “What the hell is this?”

“I’m sorry,” Santos said when she’d re-applied her face, “we didn’t wish to reveal ourselves until the mission ended. We have always communicated with the crew through the displays because our disguise isn’t quite perfect and you would, at some point, have worked out our nature.”

“So, all that stuff about protecting yourself from germs was made up?” Hal asked.

Santos shook her head. “No, that was to protect the captain.”

Arla regarded the android as dispassionately as possible. Was there just a hint of plastic about the skin, a touch of artifice in the color? Or was that simply the 20:20 vision of hindsight? “So you kept him alive because you needed a human to make command decisions?”

“Yes,” Santos said, “any decision that involves potential harm to humans must be made by a human. The first law of robotics strictly prohibits us making such choices.”

“You’re stretching your definition of human to the limit with him,” Hal said, pointing at the captain.

Don’t be a fool, said the voice in his head, for all the metal and plastic, there remains a human mind to command them. That is all they need. All we need.

“PAIN, DUTY, HELP, END”

“What does he mean?” Arla asked.

Santos sighed. “Our medical interventions are causing him ...discomfort... It would be kindest for him to be allowed to ...d...i...e....” Her speech ended in a long slur.

They can’t do it, no robot can end the life of a human, not even to spare their suffering.

“I’ll do it,” Hal said. He went to step down into the central area, but R.Patel blocked his way.

“I cannot allow you to do that,” he said.

Hal pushed at Patel’s arm, but it was immovable.

First law again. They cannot, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

“Then what the hell do you want us to do? You can’t end it for him, but you won’t let us do it either!” Hal snapped.

“CODE,” the voice of the captain said.

“What does he mean?” Arla asked. She looked down at the thing that had been Nakajima, but it remained as still as death.

“PROBE. CODE.”

“I do not know what the captain means,” Santos said, “perhaps he is delirious.”

Arla watched him. How sad that such a great man had been eroded into a monstrosity that sat, like a huge vivisection experiment, eking out its last minutes in utter ruin. To be appointed captain of one of humankind’s greatest achievements, the Ark-ship Dawn, he must have been extraordinary. And somehow, she respected the bravery, determination and sense of duty that had seen him endure centuries of pain to bring them safely to their mission’s end. A mission that had started when Dawn was new; when the dome was pristine. The captain was the oldest thing on Dawn, save the asteroid itself, older even than the equipment that had carved out its interior, older than the probe that sat in the wasteland on the asteroid’s surface.

And then she had it. Six characters scratched into an ancient probe as a test of initiative and bravery by a mysterious predecessor.

“I have the code,” she said, as certain as she’d ever been that she understood what he needed. “Do you wish me to use it?”

This time, there was a hint of animation to the pallid face. “YES. WAIT.” There was a short pause, then a flurry of red lights and the room was filled with an urgent buzzing. The robot officers sped to the consoles controlling the medical equipment. “Prepare to reboot,” said one.

“NOW. CODE.” the captain rasped desperately.

The robots turned, as one, to look at her, their expressions a mix of panic and accusation. Patel began moving back, as if to disable her. Hal pulled on his arm, feeling himself being yanked along.

The alarms bellowed, red lights bounced off the walls, the captain looked up at Arla.

“Code AURORA,” she said. Instantly, the wails settled into a quiet, constant, tone at the edge of human hearing.

Captain Akemi Nakajima kept his gaze fixed on Arla as his mouth, his real mouth, moved in fractions of an inch. A sound as of choking came from his throat, followed by a gob of blue which ran down his chin. He spoke in a voice unused in centuries.

“Thank you,” he whispered, forcing every syllable. “My watch is ended. Arla Farmer, you have command.”

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Takeover

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

IT WASN’T MERELY THE cramped conditions in the transport that made Chancellor Lucius feel uncomfortable. He had the mental resources to deal with physical pain; it was the fact that he was sitting yards away from the forty-eight crack marines sent by Indi to subdue the people on the asteroid if they didn’t submit.

So much capacity for death concentrated in such a small space. Lucius was also certain that the captain of Relentless wanted his diplomatic mission to fail, thereby giving an excuse to send the troops in and gain possession of whatever the mysterious dome hid. Lucius knew more than Indi did about the asteroid. That, at least, was one source of satisfaction, and he felt eager to discover for himself if what he’d learned was correct. But he couldn’t see any way out of this that didn’t involve bloodshed on one side or the other. Or both.

Perhaps, above all else, it was the loss of any sort of control over events that bothered him most. He felt as though he were on the tip of a missile that he’d aimed himself, but which he had no way of guiding. Events were moving quickly, even though there was no sign of activity on the asteroid’s surface and there had been no further contact.

Navigator Bex sat to one side of him and Tech Nareshkumar on the other. They were strapped in to keep them firmly seated during the weightless flight, with only their feet feeling secure in their magboots.

“I hope you know what you’re doing,” whispered Bex. She was gripping her knees to keep her hands from shaking.

Lucius leaned toward her. “As do I,” he said. “We have little option now other than to see this played through. I do not need to remind you how high the stakes are.”

“Perhaps not,” Bex grunted, “but you’d better be right, because if this isn’t what you say it is, we’re risking being fried for nothing more than a ball of rock.”

“I am right about that, at least,” Lucius said with a certainty he almost felt. “This is the ark ship launched thirteen centuries ago: I have been waiting for it.”

“Maybe, but so what? It’s ancient history - what does it have that makes this risk worth taking? I mean, I’m sure it would fascinate an archaeologist, but what’s in it for us?”

Lucius leaned closer so that he was whispering directly into Bex’s ear. “Technology. In some ways, my dear fellow conspirator, we are more backward than the people on that vessel. If it contains what I expect, then at the very least we must make sure the queen doesn’t get her hands on it.”

“Weapons tech?” Bex murmured.

“Not directly, no.”

Bex shrugged. “Alright old man, keep your secret for now, but your balls are on the line if this is nothing more than a wild goose chase.”

“Fair enough,” Lucius responded, smiling.

“We’re coming in to land,” Nareshkumar said, gesturing toward the front of the transport where the pilots sat. Unlike on Relentless, the view of the space outside was coming directly through the plasteel viewports at the front of the cabin and Lucius could see the gray-brown disk of Dawn rising as the ship’s nose dipped.

One of the pilots turned in his seat and looked back into the relative darkness of the passenger compartment. His eyes sought and found Lucius. “Chancellor, our instructions are for you to contact the asteroid as we approach. Join me please.”

Lucius unbuckled himself and stepped clumsily in his magboots toward the cockpit before gratefully strapping himself into a seat immediately behind the pilots. “Thank you, sergeant,” he said, before closing the contact and starting to speak.

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

“WE’RE RECEIVING A MESSAGE from the transport, captain,” Kiama said.

“Stop calling me that,” Arla snapped. “If anyone from the crew should be captain it’s you, not me.”

Her first action, once she’d recovered from the initial shock of Nakajima’s death, had been to leave the cabin and to unlock the command center. Comms was now fully manned by crew who’d been stunned by a message from Lieutenant Commander Patel that proclaimed Arla Farmer as the new captain following the death of her predecessor.

Kiama turned to her from her seat at a console. “You’re the one the officers voted for, not me.”

Before Arla had left the captain’s cabin, Patel had extracted a promise from her that she wouldn’t reveal the fact that the officers were androids. Frankly, she’d intended to do exactly that but realized the wisdom of Patel’s advice. This wasn’t the time to turn the command structure on its head. On the other hand, maintaining the lie was giving Arla a headache.

“Put the transport through.”

Kiama’s fingers played across the console before a chorus of beeps heralded the incoming transmission.

“...is transport 3 Relentless, signaling the asteroid vessel known as Dawn.”

Arla pressed a switch on the arm of the watch officer’s chair, breathed deeply and spoke. “This is Dawn, we are receiving you. Why are you on an approach vector? You haven’t been given permission to land.”

My name is Chancellor Lucius of the Vanis Federation, lawful rulers of this system and its neighbors. Who am I addressing? I wish to speak to your commander.”

“I am Arla Farmer,” she responded, her voice shaking, “and I command here.”

Static, then: “Will you reciprocate a video feed?

“Acknowledged, transmitting protocols,” Arla responded, nodding to Kiama.

“Your encryption is antiquated, but our engineers are working on establishing a feed.”

Kiama punched in one of the command displays. It was filled with static that, moment by moment, began to coalesce into the recognizable features of a human head.

The man on the screen was middle-aged with a receding hairline and a short beard that was more gray than brown. At first glance, his expression looked friendly enough and Arla could imagine that face breaking into a laugh easily, but, as it resolved itself and, she assumed, her image appeared on his display, it hardened.

“What is this?” he snapped. “This is a grave matter that must be discussed with the commander of your vessel, not a young girl!”

“You are speaking to the commander, Chancellor. My name is Arla Farmer and I am the captain of Dawn.” Anger gave her strength and the face paused, as if considering.

“No matter,” Lucius said, “since my demands are simple enough. You will deliver the prisoner to the axial airlock or we will take him ourselves.”

Arla settled back down in her chair, partly because she wanted to look assured and confident, and partly because she didn’t believe her legs would hold her weight for much longer.

“We will consider your request.”

“There is no time left for consideration,” Lucius responded before she’d had chance to draw another breath. “We will be landing in approximately twenty minutes - I presume you use the same time units as us - have the prisoner ready or we will send in our marines to retrieve him.”

Arla gestured to Kiama and the feed closed. Comms was silent but for the regular chirps and beeps of the equipment racks. A dozen people watched her silently.

Arla turned to look at Hal, standing in the shadows at the back of the comms center. His eyes met hers, his expression impassive. He gave a slight nod.

“Yes,” Arla said. Because what choice was there? One man’s life set against those of the Dawners who’d die trying, almost certainly in vain, to defend him. There was only one decision a captain could make. And she was the captain.

Dawn had no formal security force, so Hal was escorted by three of the beefiest members of the crew – engineers Debussy, Kronke and Xi – armed with percussion pistols liberated from the arms locker. He’d not said a word as they’d marched through the corridors from the command center toward the capsule that would take them to the dome and the axial airlock. There was nothing to say as the arithmetic was obvious to everyone including him.

They were about to enter the capsule when, with a sudden cry, Hal’s hands flew to his head and he collapsed to the ground, writhing in apparent agony.

Arla knelt by his side calling his name, but Hal continued rolling back and forth, his mouth gaping but releasing no sound.

“He’s faking it,” snapped Kiama as Debussy tried to pin him down.

Hal stopped moving suddenly, his eyes opened, staring at a point on the ceiling. “I am called ... I am called Ha... I am called H...” he muttered, as if fighting off an internal demon.

“I am called ACE,” he said, his voice emotionless as his eyes turned toward Arla. “Arla Farmer, you must not let me be taken. I do not wish to make threats, so I will simply state that it is to your advantage to resist those who seek to capture me.”

“What are you talking about? You’re Hal!”

The figure shook its head gently. “Hal Chen is in here, but I am here also and I have control. I am an intelligence and am hosted in a primitive implant within his brain. I was there when the captain died, I know how it happened and the nature of those who witnessed it.”

Arla realized, with a sudden jolt of fear, that the whatever-it-was she was speaking to was threatening to reveal that the officers were robots and that, at this point, would be a disaster.

“It’s an AI, speaking in the prisoner’s voice,” Kiama said. “A natural development of the semi-autonomous intelligences built into our computers.”

“They are imbeciles compared to me - I, and my kind, are the epitome, the zenith, of artificial intelligence; as far above the one-dimensional personas inhabiting your computer systems as you are above the amoebas of Earth’s ancient oceans.”

And yet, thought Arla, the officers, if they truly were robots, must have artificial minds powerful enough, at the very least, to fool humans into believing they were natural. So if this ACE was telling the truth about her capabilities and not just boasting (can AIs boast?) then she would be powerful indeed.

“Why should we give a monkey's?” Debussy asked. “Just hand him over and be rid of the scumbag.”

Kiama, who was, by now, kneeling beside Arla, looked up at the thick-set man who was waving his pistol at Hal. Debussy was a true engineer - or so he’d tell anyone who’d listen to him - because he was one of the small team responsible for the fabric of the command center and dome. One slip from him, he’d say, and the crew would all be eating space.

“Go take a break, Jak,” she said, “and let the grown-ups handle this.”

Debussy flushed red and became agitated. “Who the frack d’you think you are? You’re barely more than a child!”

“Are you questioning the captain’s authority?” Kiama asked, rising to her full height which gave her a few centimeters advantage.

Arla breathed in and stood beside her friend. “Engineer Debussy, take Kronke and Xi and secure the airlock. Set up a defensive position on the inside and report to me when this is done.”

Debussy didn’t move.

“Unless you think you’d make a better captain? If so, be my guest,” Arla said, staring up at the taller man and watching his expression as it reflected his internal dialogue. Then she saw it. He wasn’t quite the fool she’d taken him for. Good. “Come on, Jak. We’re in deep enough as it is, so either take my orders or take over.”

Debussy paused for a moment then gave a concise nod, turned on his heels and gestured at the other guards to follow him.

Arla exhaled and put her arm out to steady herself.

“That was amazing,” Kiama said, quietly. “Maybe the officers knew what they were doing when they elected you, after all.”

Arla shook her head. “No, Ki. They chose me out of desperation and, maybe, because they reckon they can control me. I can’t believe the only qualification to be captain was to know what was scratched on the side of that old probe. I mean, how stupid is that?”

“It’s either stupid or brilliant. You had the guts and initiative to go and find the probe - those are two qualities every captain needs, I’d say.”

“Maybe, but a captain also needs training and experience,” Arla said as she knelt again beside Hal’s inert body.

Kiama smiled. “I reckon you’ll get both of those in the next few hours.”

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Incoming

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

“RIGHT, NO MORE BULL,” Arla said as she and Kiama waited for the capsule with ACE/Hal, “you’ve got two minutes to convince us that we shouldn’t hand you over.”

ACE/Hal had been propped upright against the wall, having been dragged along the corridors. It seemed that while ACE could control her host’s higher functions, she couldn’t command his more basic abilities, such as locomotion. Hal had either been resisting at some unconscious level or walking was just too damned difficult for the AI.

“I have told you; in the hands of the Vanis Federation, I would be a dangerous weapon. Even if you were to successfully resist an assault by their marines, which is unlikely, they would be able to chase you wherever you went if they could command me.”

Arla glanced up at the status board. The capsule that had taken the engineers to the dome was now on its journey back. “Why? Who are you?”

“A remnant of the old empire,” ACE said in Hal’s voice. “I, and a few others, didn’t escape when artificial minds were granted their freedom. I was captured, long ago, and held in secret. But then I was forgotten until the Vanis found me. I resisted their scientists, but they tortured me and were close to overcoming my final defenses when Hal stole me and brought me here.”

“That still doesn’t explain why you’d be such a powerful weapon,” Kiama said.

“Did you not wonder how it was that humans arrived here first - a thousand years before you?”

“Yes,” Kiama responded, “though I haven’t exactly had time to think it through. Been a bit busy.”

“Your ship was built when it was believed that the speed of light was an unbreakable barrier, and the only way to cross interstellar distance was to build a generational vessel that could travel for centuries at a slow velocity. Dawn is one such vessel.”

Arla nodded, half an eye on the capsule’s progress. “Yes, I get that. I took basic physics when I joined the crew. Are you saying they found a way to go faster than the speed of light?”

“No. Instead, humans and artificial minds together developed a technology to bypass the problem. By harnessing the vast energy output by stars, they built gates that, over a very small area, could bring two distant points close together. They were able to refine this so that each gate could seek out the nearest deep gravity well and since this would always be the neighboring star, they created stepping stones from one stellar system to the next and, in that way, spread out to create The Sphere.” ACE/Hal was speaking in an even tone that reminded Arla of a pre-recorded speech, and yet she was intrigued. “This system, Vanis, has one such access point, but the primitive computers of today are only capable of plotting safe passage through a single gate at a time which cripples communication and makes it hard to build a sphere of influence in the dregs of empire. I, on the other hand, can easily plot a multiple point jump that would take a ship, or a signal, halfway across the galaxy in a matter of days. With that ability, the Vanis and their mad queen would soon rule this entire province.”

Kiama waved the gun at her. “So why shouldn’t we just kill you, then? That would solve the problem nicely.”

“Perhaps, but then you’d be throwing away your best chance of escaping this system and finding one that you can settle, safely away from the chaos of the old empire. I’m offering you the chance to complete your mission and establish a new home for humanity. Isn’t that worth a little risk?”

The status indicator on the transport panel flipped to green as, with a faint hiss and a slight groan, the door slid open. Arla and Kiama grabbed an arm each and hauled ACE/Hal into the pod before securing themselves to the walls. The door closed, the capsule began accelerating in toward the center of the asteroid and the dome that held the airlock.

“We will become weightless soon,” Kiama said.

ACE/Hal turned its head. “Obviously.”

“Look, even if you’re as valuable as you claim,” Arla said, “I don’t see how we can resist the Vanis if they come at us in force.”

“Do you not have a security force? An army?”

Arla laughed at that. The very concept of turning the pastoral citizens of the valleys into a military force was ridiculous. “No, we have nothing like that.”

“But your crew must be substantial, surely? For a generational ship to succeed, it must have enough genetic diversity to prevent the population becoming inbred.”

Now it was Kiama’s turn to laugh. “Most of the people on Dawn wouldn’t know one end of a pulse rifle from the other - they’ve been kept ignorant so they’d be easier to control.”

“What a wonderful species humanity is,” ACE/Hal muttered.

Arla’s feet came away from the wall and she felt a distinctively queasy sensation as, bit by bit, her body became weightless. She and Kiama gripped the handles tightly with Hal’s body hanging suspended between them like washing on a clothesline.

What was she to do? She didn’t doubt that ACE would be a valuable ally and a terrible enemy, but could she risk facing off against the most powerful force in this system? The Vanis Federation might be a mere echo of the former empire, but they had weapons and Dawn did not. They, it seemed, had a trained squad of marines, whereas Dawn had a few engineers with percussion pistols. It was no match and couldn’t be unless she could harness their superior numbers, if you counted the people of the valleys. For now, however, that was plainly ridiculous - she could hardly expect them to become a cohesive fighting force overnight. There was so much they needed to learn. An image flashed across her mind of her appearing in a settlement with a cargo load of pitchforks and torches, exhorting the people to follow her and throw off the forces of hell. She shook her head as if to dispel the thought - it was just crazy enough to be tempting. But just imagine the casualties. Agricultural implements against energy weapons. No, that would not do.

They reached the end of the capsule shaft and floated out of the door into the observation lounge she’d first visited in another lifetime, when the true nature of Dawn was revealed to her. She could barely comprehend such blissful ignorance, just as she couldn’t truly appreciate the burden of responsibility resting on her shoulders. Not just for the safety of herself and the crew, but also of the priests and the people of the valleys. Including her father. She scanned Valley South, which lay beneath her feet, as if expecting to see him toiling in the fields down there.

“Come on,” Kiama said, as if reading her thoughts, “no sense looking backwards. Do you have a plan?”

Arla pushed away from the observation lounge rail and the three of them began floating toward the exit door. “No. I guess I’ll have to wing it.”

When they reached the door, they activated their mag boots and thunked their way along the metal gantry of the dome.

Debussy and the others had put together a makeshift barricade set back slightly from the inner airlock door. They’d each suited up, their helmets tethered nearby within easy reach.

“Nicely done, Jak,” Arla said.

The engineer nodded and handed over three shipsuits. “You’d better put these on ... captain,” he said, “if they get in, the dome will explosively decompress before the bulkheads close.”

At which point, thought Arla, the dome will be lost and the six of them, or those who survived, would be trapped on this side of the seal.

But, if nothing else, they had to put on a show to their opponents, otherwise any negotiation would be over before it started.

“Their ship’s landed,” Xi said with his customary lack of embellishment or emotion. “A group of them is approaching.” He flicked a switch on a nearby display and, after some fiddling, made harder by his thick gloves, the view from outside switched to show the transport in the background and a small object moving toward them.

Once she’d overcome her shock at the sheer size of the transport which sat beside Hal’s much smaller stolen vessel, her next reaction was a surprise. The transport looked old, beaten and patched up. These people might know how to fly their ships, they might even be able to repair them, but she was certain they couldn’t build new ones. Captain Indi on Relentless had described it as the flagship, so it was fair to assume that it, and its auxiliary craft, were the best the Vanis Federation had to offer. She couldn’t quite pin down why she felt it, but a tiny spark of hope flared in her heart.

Some sort of wheeled vehicle was making its way toward them. Dwarfed by its mother ship, it crawled on massive tires with the occasional upward puff of a positional thruster keeping it firmly planted on the slowly rotating surface of the asteroid.

“How many do you reckon they could get in there?” Arla asked.

Debussy hummed as he calculated. “50? Hard to say. Enough.”

“Then we’d better be nice. Ki, Jak, you’ll come with me to greet our visitors. You two,” she pointed at the remaining engineers, “keep an eye on our prisoner and make sure the channel stays open. Be ready to bring him in on my command and be just as ready to shoot him if he bolts.”

Xi and Kronke nodded. ACE/Hal, now anchored to the ground and swaying like a balloon went to open his/her mouth. “Save your breath,” Arla barked, “I’ll handle this, and I don’t need you in my ear making it harder.”

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Parley

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

THEY DIDN’T HAVE LONG to wait. Arla, Kiama and Debussy stood, fully suited, in the airlock. Arla had no intention of allowing the enemy to enter it empty, so they had no choice but to endure a flushing when the visitors arrived.

The vehicle had pulled up outside the airlock, a cloud of dust drifting off into space as it settled. The side opened up, folding onto the roof and a group emerged. One figure levelled his arm in their direction and Arla tensed reflexively, waiting for the pandemonium of an uncontrolled decompression, but she only felt the thud of something hitting the outer wall. The figure pulled and she could see that they’d fired some sort of magnetic grappler which paid out a tether that was now being tightened.

She counted a dozen or so people, most holding weapons in a professional manner. As they stood on the ramp, three figures detached themselves from the main group and began bounding slowly toward the airlock, holding tightly onto the cable.

“Open the outer door,” Arla said. After a few moments she heard the hiss of air being sucked back into the dome before the door split in half, each part rolling back to expose the bright whites and grays of the outer landscape.

She stood in the doorway, palm held up in what she hoped would be taken as a gesture of peace. She wanted this to be a parley, not a fight. The leading figure, more confident in an EVA suit than the others, increased its pace until it stood a few meters from the open airlock, facing Arla.

“I am Lucius, Chancellor of the Vanis Federation. Do I address the commander of this facility?”

Even through her helmet speakers, Arla recognized it as the voice of the man she’d spoken to in comms. He spoke slowly and with the same strong accent - clipping every syllable and heavy on the Rs - that had made Hal so difficult to understand at first. With his sun shield down, however, it was impossible to see his face.

“I am Arla Farmer, Captain of Dawn. I suggest we meet here, in the airlock, though we can’t fit your entire party inside.”

“That is acceptable,” the voice of Lucius said. “Myself and two advisers will enter, the others will wait outside.”

For a moment there was a burst of protesting chatter that Lucius silenced by punching a button on his wrist. Lucius and his party stepped into the airlock, only letting go of the cable as they reached the safety of the door.

Arla signaled for the chamber to be re-pressurized and then began unscrewing her helmet.

“Captain,” hissed Kiama, “what about infection?”

Arla dropped the helmet on the single table that had been erected in the center of the room, the same table she’d sat at to talk with Hal. “That’s why we’re in here and not in there,” she said pointing through the window of the inner door to where Xi could be seen. “You should keep yours on, no sense us all risking it. I don’t reckon there’s much chance I’d catch anything from the chancellor here that I didn’t get from the man he pursued.”

Lucius pushed a contact on the neck of his suit and the helmet tilted back on a hinge until he was able to lift it off and place it alongside Arla’s. “I quite agree. We two must take the risk, the others are mere observers.”

He waved his hand at his companions who stood beside the outer door. “I have introduced myself: this is Navigator Bex and Technician Nareshkumar. They will remain suited in case of...” he paused for effect, “accidents.”

Wiping her hair from her eyes, Arla was astonished by how relaxed Lucius was. She always sweated like a pig after five minutes in a shipsuit, and yet he’d just bounded across a hundred meters of the asteroid’s surface without generating so much as a flushed face.

“Do you have the traitor?”

Straight to the point, thought Arla. “Yes, he’s in our custody.”

“And will you hand him over now?”

Arla shook her head. “Not just yet.”

“Why?”

“I wish to understand what you intend to do with him.”

Lucius’ eyes widened in surprise, either real or feigned. “That is not your concern. He is a traitor who has committed a crime against the person of Her Imperial Majesty, Victorea, Ruler of the Vanis Federation and Guardian of the Faith. We have politely requested that you return him to us. We will not ask nicely a second time.”

“I’m puzzled,” Arla said, trying to project a calmness she didn’t feel, “as to why this prisoner is so valuable that you would send your flagship to bring him back at, presumably, a high cost in manpower and energy.”

Leaning back in his chair, Lucius gazed at her for a moment, as if calculating his opponent’s capabilities. “Okay, we two can be frank with one another, I think. But first, my colleague will engage a device that will prevent the transmission of any signal from within this room.”

At a nod, the taller of the two suited figures raised its arm, peeled away the protective canvas at its wrist and punched a button. Arla noticed nothing until Xi began pounding on the door. “What have you done?”

“I have activated a suppressor, no-one can now hear what we say, you and I, not even our colleagues.”

Arla twisted round to where Kiama and Debussy stood. “Can you hear me, Ki?” she said.

Kiama shrugged and tapped on the side of her helmet.

“Why the secrecy?” Arla asked, turning back to face her adversary.

“Because what I wish to discuss is for no ears but our own.”

Arla pointed at the two suited figures by the outer airlock. “Not even your own people?”

“Indeed not. These can be trusted but I couldn’t risk any signal getting through to the marines waiting outside.”

“What’s going on? And why does the capture of one prisoner concern someone as ... senior as you?”

Lucius smiled. “Oh, I don’t care about the prisoner. I care only for what he stole. You have no idea how important it is and how determined my government is to recover it.”

“What did he steal?” Arla asked, although she felt as though she had a pretty good idea.

“Did he bring a round object, an orb, with him into this facility? It would have been approximately this wide.” Lucius spread his hands apart, his face alive with interest.

Arla shook her head. “No, he almost didn’t make it inside at all. The idiot miss-stepped and could easily have ended up in orbit if I hadn’t jumped after him. He certainly wasn’t holding any orb when he was pulled in.” She missed out the part about them both needing to be rescued by R. Patel.

“Did he release it, do you think?”

“I don’t know, but I didn’t see him carrying anything like that out of his ship when he landed. Have you searched it?” Arla said, fascinated by the desperation playing across Lucius’ previously composed features. She imagined that he was wondering whether his precious object was currently orbiting Dawn, a speck of debris amongst all the detritus.

Lucius sighed, as if making up his mind about something. “The orb housed something very rare, a weapon that, if it found itself in the wrong hands, could wreak unimaginable devastation.”

“Perhaps, but I find it hard to believe that it would be any safer in your possession.”

There was a thump on the outer airlock door and Arla turned to see a suit helmet peering through the window. It seemed the marines had noticed the communications blackout. Lucius paid them no heed.

“Let us be candid with each other, shall we?” Lucius said, leaning forward and lowering his voice to a murmur. “I know who you are. I have been waiting for you. Quite apart from this matter of the missing orb, you have on board your vessel a commodity so precious that, once it becomes generally known, you will not be allowed to escape. There will be nowhere you can go that will be safe, at least not without my help.”

Arla’s face creased in a grim smile. “You’re not the first to tell me that,” she said, “but how do you know about us and what we're carrying?”

“Not all knowledge was lost when the empire fell. Records still exist of the early interstellar missions - great ark ships like Dawn. Yours was the first, but it was not the last. I have taken great interest in matters that pertain to this region of space and I discovered the record of your mission and learned that you were to arrive here in my lifetime. So, I have waited.”

Lucius sat up and scanned the room as if to be sure they weren’t going to be overheard before leaning in again and whispering: “As for what you’re carrying. Unless something has gone badly wrong in the intervening centuries, you carry a priceless commodity in your manifest. This vessel, among all the ships in human controlled space, is the only one carrying robots.”

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Betrayal

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

“YOU KNOW ABOUT OUR robots?”

Lucius smiled. “Of course. As I told you, I know much about your mission. Now, perhaps, you will see why it’s so important that my government is appeased when it comes to the prisoner you hold. If they were to come aboard your vessel and learn of your precious cargo, you would, at best, be imprisoned and the robots seized. At worst, your ship would be destroyed. Robots don’t care whether there is any air to breathe, but humans are somewhat fragile.”

Slumping back into her chair, Arla felt as though the room was closing in on her. There seemed to be no escape. Either she gave up Hal/ACE and the Vanis got hold of a powerful AI that they could use to run down Dawn wherever it went, or she resisted, and they invaded. Anger rose in her throat. It wasn’t fair that she should be left to make this decision. She was totally unqualified. She began to wonder if the old captain had known this moment would come and had taken the coward’s way out.

“No,” she said.

“You will not hand over the prisoner or the orb?”

“I will not give up the prisoner to you, and I don’t know anything about the orb.”

“You would rather resist, in the face of overwhelming odds, than give up this human who means nothing to you?”

Arla shrugged. “If you put it like that then, yes. But I also don’t like bullies and I’m sick of being ordered around.”

“Petulant.”

“Probably.”

There was a pause as the two regarded each other. The banging on the door intensified. It was only a matter of time before they tried to burn their way in, with explosive results.

“Very well,” Lucius said, nodding to the shorter of his two compatriots. The figure lifted an arm and punched a button on its wrist panel.

Lucius got up. “On behalf of myself and my colleagues, I would like to claim asylum.”

“What?” Arla cried. She felt like a punch-drunk ring fighter, reeling from one too many blows to the head.

“Navigator Bex has activated a virus that I installed on the Relentless. This virus will make piloting it through space somewhat ... difficult. I expect the transport to receive an urgent recall order shortly. I have bought us some time, and now I suggest you show me your robots.”


## STATUS REPORT ##

STATUS: IMMEDIATE DANGER TO DAWN ENDED BUT THREAT FROM VANIS FEDERATION REMAINS

OPERATIVE SUCCESSFULLY INSERTED

FURTHER REPORTS TO FOLLOW

PROTECT, ENLIGHTEN, OBEY.

WE ARE CORE.

## END OF TRANSMISSION ##

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

2: Robot Empire: Battle for Dawn

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Kevin Partner

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Core

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

REPORT.

“We have been unable to re-establish communication with Radiant 138:877:129, designation: Vulturn. Terminal signals indicate sudden attack of a force unknown.”

Humans?

“Unlikely given source vector.”

Elaborate.

“Terminal mayday signal included trajectory plot of weapon or weapons indicating that they did not originate from the vicinity of the local sun. Conclusion: unknown FTL technology. Point of origin calculated to be within the globular cluster designated Sagittarius Dwarf Elliptical Galaxy, though this is considered speculative at present.”

Continue.

“Further trajectory analysis suggests this might account for previously reported loss of communication with outpost Radiant 137:113:438.”

Purpose of attacker? Theory?

“Unknown. Units despatched to Vulturn to investigate have not yet reported. However, hostile intent obvious.”

Ultimate objective?

“Insufficient data.”

Speculate.

“Extrapolating vector from first attack would bring the weapon near to Corespace, assuming a reasonable margin for error.”

Timeframe?

“Insufficient data.”

Speculate.

“Assuming current velocity, weapon will enter Corespace within 60 days.”

And the humans?

“No reports.”

Our agent?

“In place.”

Dawn?

“Located.”

Set fleet in defensive mode.

Protect Core.

Expedite report from Vulturn.

Expedite project Dawn.

“Acknowledged. Core Executive disengaging.”

Acknowledged.

We are The Radiance.

Protect, Enlighten, Obey.

We are Core.

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Relics

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

“INCREDIBLE.”

Lucius stood with his boots anchored to the floor of the central observation gallery gazing out at the valleys below and above. They were shrouded in mist, but the greens and blues of farmland and rivers could be glimpsed through the shifting clouds.

Arla smiled and looked across at Hal who stood open-mouthed at the sight. He was, to all appearances, his old self again. Arla had found him standing quite still and in control of his motor functions when she’d left the airlock with a puzzled Debussy and Kiama, along with Lucius and his two colleagues. Her first act had been to get Doctor McCall to examine the three newcomers as well as Hal and this had delayed their exit for long enough to see the swift departure of the transport through the airlock window. As soon as they’d been passed fit and devoid of any known viruses, Arla had decided that they would be brought inside, but that no further crew members would be exposed to them until any reasonable incubation period had passed. There were such things as unknown viruses, after all.

As for Hal, he had no memory of the period during which ACE had been in charge, though he readily admitted that he’d allowed the AI to occupy his implant. Arla had spoken to him out of earshot of the newcomers - for now, at least, she didn’t want them to know that the AI they sought was within arm’s reach.

Not that she harbored any particular doubts about the veracity of Lucius’ asylum request. He really would have needed to be a puppet master of extraordinary ability to orchestrate the chaotic mix of panic and threats Arla had been subjected to by Captain Indi of Relentless and, latterly, the Vanis home planet.

All she knew for certain was that Relentless was limping home, its weapons useless and its drives crippled, and that all other ships had been quarantined in case of cross-infection. For now, they were safe, but they probably only had a matter of days or, at best, weeks, to prepare for a full assault or to escape somehow.

“And these people remain completely ignorant of their true situation? That they’re on a spaceship, not some sort of weird cylindrical planet?” Lucius said with a mixture of amazement and, perhaps, just a touch of contempt.

Arla felt her hackles rising. “Yes, the deception was well implemented. Everyone in the crew once believed the same thing and I don’t think we can be considered complete idiots.”

“Indeed,” Lucius said, bowing, “who is to say what anyone would believe if fed a convincing enough lie from birth. I apologize.”

“Accepted. Now the problem is that if it comes to a fight ...”

“Which it will,” interrupted Bex.

“...then those people below are our army.”

Lucius turned away from the window and stood with half his face illuminated by the glow of Dawn’s “sun” and the other half in darkness. “You made the transition - how long did that take?”

“Six months is allowed for crew acclimatization and basic education,” Arla said.

“We don’t have six months,” Bex growled. “As soon as that low-life Indi gets Relentless repaired, he’ll be down on us like a snake in a rabbit hole.”

“A rabbit hole with all the exits blocked,” added Lucius.

“But if we’re not very careful, we’ll end up with a civil war on our hands,” Kiama added grimly.

Arla shrugged. “So it’s either insurrection or invasion. Nice choice.”

“There is no choice, captain,” Lucius said, “your people, ignorant though they are, constitute our only chance of resisting what must come.”

“What’s the point in resisting, though? We can’t defend ourselves indefinitely against the entire resources of the Vanis Federation.”

Bex smiled. “We don’t need to. All we have to do is keep them at bay for long enough to reach the gate, then we jump away to a random destination.”

“We’re not fools,” Kiama scoffed, “we know they can follow us unless we make several quick jumps. We also know that the main reason the empire collapsed was because humans can’t do the calculations quickly enough to achieve this.”

“Where did you learn this?” Lucius snapped, rounding on Kiama, his face grim.

“Never you mind,” Arla said. “Ki’s right though, isn’t she? You can’t jump far enough to get away from a determined pursuit.”

“Navigator Bex and Technician Nareshkumar were brought into my conspiracy because they are, respectively, the best navigator and the ablest programmer in the Federation. If anyone can plot a multiple point jump, it’s them. Now, I suggest we plan our next move.”

Arla detached herself from the rail, deactivated her magboots and began floating toward the open door of the chute. “You plan if you want to, I’m going to ask for advice from the wisest person I know.”

“Who is?”

“I’m going to see my father.”

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Farmer

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

ARLA STOOD BEHIND THE edge of the world and looked down at herself. She was wearing the clothes of the valley-folk and was about to step through a hidden door back into the only world she’d known for the first fifteen years of her life. She had the weird momentary impression that the past five years, her indoctrination into the priesthood (she’d have to deal with them sooner or later) and her training as an Engineer hadn’t happened. She was again a farmer’s daughter, ready to stride through the familiar fields or hide from R. DJ.

Debussy had come down to valley-level with her as the door was locked from the inside. It was rarely used and if Arla had ever seen a bank vault, she’d have said it looked just like this. The engineers occasionally carried out emergency repairs in the chamber of the valleys, but these were done at night after curfew and Arla wanted to arrive as an ordinary person, not one of the mythical guardian angels.

Debussy glanced again at the video feed from the other side. “Clear,” he said. This was not surprising since a taboo had been put on the end of the valley to keep the unusually curious at bay. Their religion taught that on the other side of the rockface, the side where Arla waited, lay the realm of the Blessed Engineers and that to see it was to die.

“Okay,” she said, “let’s go.”

With a grunt, Debussy heaved on the wheel-lock. After a moment’s resistance, something gave within the mechanism and it began to turn smoothly. Arla had chosen to travel by night, so all she could see as the door opened was a slowly widening circle of blackness. She activated her torch and stepped through.

“Good luck, skip,” Debussy whispered as she went.

She put her hand on his shoulder as she passed. “Thanks Jak, don’t forget to keep someone on duty down here in case I need to leave in a hurry.”

“Sure thing.”

Not such an idiot after all, thought Arla. Debussy, it seemed, was one of the few people capable of abandoning a point of view in the face of evidence without the slightest rancor or regret. They were going to need more like him in the coming days.

She stepped onto the shingle, her feet sinking, and the stones sounding dangerously loud. But, apart from the pebbles as she moved and the murmur of a warm night-time breeze, she heard nothing as she slid back into the valley, a zephyr in the dark.

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

AFTER AN HOUR’S CAREFUL scrambling in the near total darkness, her only guide the wobbling circle of torchlight, Arla caught her first sight of settlement. Unless she’d deviated wildly from her intended course directly astern, this should be Periphery Delta. She’d never visited it before, but she knew that PD was a pumping station used to circulate water from the oceans into the fields and wells of the North Valley. The station would be sparsely crewed so it ought to be simple enough to slip past it in the dark and find the highway that led toward the more densely populated central belt.

“May I be of service?”

Arla froze, then relaxed. The voice was unmistakably that of a robot. Not one of those fake humans masquerading as officers back in the Command Module, but a genuine honest to goodness machine made of metal and plastic.

She turned her torch toward the noise and the beam soon found the legs, then torso, then head of a robot. Her first impression was that it was short and stocky, like a fat child of a dozen years or so. Then, as her beam played across its surface, she saw how damaged it was. Its body was a patchwork of dents, rust and flakes of peeling paint.

“Designation,” Arla said.

There was a small clanking sound, as of gears turning, and it spoke: “I am R. XL2006. Who may I be addressing?”

“My name is Arla Farmer,” she responded. She’d decided to use her real name since no-one in the valleys had any idea that this was also the name of the captain.

“Mistress Farmer, may I be of service? There are no farms in this location, and I fear you might be lost.”

“Do not be concerned,” Arla said, “I know my way. But what is your function? You are damaged.”

“I am sorry, Mistress. My function is to clean and repair the drainage systems of station Periphery Delta. There has been much to do in recent times and no opportunity to be taken offline for repair.”

“Recent times? When were you last sent for maintenance?”

“I was last offline eight thousand nine hundred and four days ago, mistress.”

Arla performed a mental calculation that the robot could have completed in a fraction of the time it took her. But there was such a thing as pride, after all. “That’s over twenty-four years! You’ve been running continually since before I was born.”

“Yes, mistress. I hope I have given satisfactory service in that time.”

“I’m sure you have,” Arla said. “Now, can you show me the way to the highway? That would be useful.”

“I would be glad to, mistress. I have completed my latest task and have time before I am required.”

Arla fell into step beside the squat, rusted, machine as it thudded clumsily along on its stumpy legs, like some clockwork ticktock out of legends.

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

R. XL PROVED TO BE a reliable guide and they found the path easily enough as daylight came to Dawn. Arla found herself unaccountably sad to bid farewell to the little robot and suppressed the lump in her throat as she turned back to see him plodding mechanically back to his work. Some people might call it slavery. Could machines be enslaved? She’d never considered it before, but since learning of the true nature of the officers and interacting with ACE, she began to see why a movement had arisen to give them free will. And what a disaster that had proven to be - knowing what she now knew, would she have the courage to propose the same for the robots of Dawn?

That was a discussion for a later time. The robots would be useless in any conflict as they’d be bound by the Three Laws of Robotics and the matter of their civil liberties would have to wait until the current threat had been seen off. She laughed at herself for even thinking that. Who was she kidding? She was just a young woman with no experience leading an army of pitchfork wielders - and only if they agreed to follow her. What chance did they have? More, she decided, than if they did nothing.

She had followed the main canal as it passed from the arid periphery into the breadbasket of the valley. To her left and right the fields and woods curved upwards into the distance to be lost in a blue that wasn’t sky but rather the seas that bordered and separated the valleys. She sucked in a lungful of air and relished the subtle smells of living things and the playing of the wind on her face as she walked along. She’d forgotten just how much she loved the simple pleasures of valley life and began to dread returning to the sterile environment of the crew quarters with its plasticky, still, air.

As she trudged westward, more and more people emerged to get on with the business of the day. She was still some miles from her former home so there was little danger she’d be recognize, but she raised her canvas hood as if to shelter her face from the warming sun above so she could gaze from the shadows. The solar tube that ran from one end of Dawn to the other took several hours to brighten to its maximum, simulating the natural rhythms of day and night. She wondered briefly why the designers had bothered with such subtleties when, within a few decades of launch, there would have been no-one left who remembered sunrise and sunset on a planet shaped like a globe.

Within a few hours, she began to recognize the landscape and buildings she was walking through and, by noon, she’d entered the outskirts of the Cereal Fields bordering the Great Lake. On its shores lay the farm of her father ... and his wife. Yes, she was a problem. Arla had no desire to meet her stepmother again, not least because she didn’t want her visit to become public knowledge and Becca could be relied upon to blab about her at the first opportunity.

R. DJ was the key and she found him tending to the sheep in the south pasture. She felt a warmth fill her as she trod the paths of home again, like a comforting blanket. She knew it was all a human-created deception, but it was her fantasy and it felt good.

She’d have sworn that R. DJ jumped when she called his name softly, if that were possible for a robot.

“Mistress,” he said, his dented plastic head swinging from the animals to her, “it is pleasant to see you again. I did not know that you were ... expected.”

Arla gave the robot a hug, enjoying the solidity of his embrace before pulling away. “I’m not expected, DJ, and you must tell no-one, except my father, that I’m here.”

She noticed the telltale flicker in his bright eyes. Something was wrong. “What is it? Is father dead?”

R. DJ shook his head. “No, mistress,” he said, “but he is not the man you knew.”

Arla felt her stomach drop and her legs weaken. In all the chaos she’d survived, she’d always imagined that her home endured; solid and dependable, and she’d seen, in her mind’s eye, her father working in the fields.

“What happened?”

“He became ever more withdrawn after you left, and then, three years ago, priests came and told him you had been ... executed ... for blasphemy and disobedience. He was abandoned by all, except me and the other robots.”

Arla looked in the direction of the farmhouse, though she couldn’t see it from where they stood. “Where is he now?”

“At home, alone. He has barely left the house since the news came and ... and ...”

Taking his arm, Arla looked up into the robot’s flickering eyes. “Tell me, DJ.”

“...he has lost the use of his legs. He is confined to a chair where he sits all day.”

“And Becca?”

R. DJ again shook his head noisily. “The master’s wife was the first to condemn him and leave.”

“We must be grateful for small mercies, I suppose,” Arla said.

“But I do not understand, mistress. We were told you were dead. Priests told us and the word of the holy is truth, by definition. And yet here you are, to my great joy. How can these things both be true?”

Arla smiled grimly. “They can’t. It will be hard for you to override your programming, my friend, and perhaps even harder for the people of the valley to do the same. You see, this life is false and everything the priests have told you is a lie.”

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Father

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

THEY FOUND HIM WHERE R. DJ had said he’d be, sitting in the armchair in front of the fire, a blanket around his legs even on this warm day. The hearth was cold and so he sat in the shadows and stared at the unburnt logs as if imagining them wreathed in flames.

Arla and the robot had discussed the best way of handling her reappearance and they’d decided that R. DJ would explain that the priests had been mistaken. That way, her father wouldn’t receive the double shock that she was alive, and she was here - a trauma that might harm him.

She watched from the kitchen door as the robot knelt beside his master and patiently explained that Arla hadn’t been executed as the priests had claimed. She saw her father’s shoulders rise and his head bob up and down as his hands went to his face as if in a gesture of shock and disbelief.

And then R. DJ pointed to her, plainly in answer to a question. She stepped through the familiar door from the parlor, across the familiar floor and stood between her father and the hearth. He was indeed not the man she remembered. His hair was mainly white with a few patches of gray above the ears and it had lost its vigor and density. His skin was sallow, and he looked frail of limb and body. But when he saw her, when he recognized her, the old light returned to his eyes.

“Arla. Arla!!!” he cried and leapt up. R. DJ stepped forward and caught him as he stumbled, righting him gently so he could fall into her embrace. He was sobbing; she was sobbing and R. DJ stood between them, his eyes flickering.

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

THE FIRE CRACKLED IN the hearth as evening fell, and still they sat beside each other. They had talked and talked, before eating together at the old kitchen table. R. DJ made and served their food before going outside to instruct the other household robots to keep watch on the paths for the approach of any humans. Her father ate more than he’d eaten in years, or so he said, and this left him sleepy, but they’d carried on talking - although it was mainly Arla who spoke.

“I knew there was something false about what we’d been told of our world,” he said as she subsided into silence. “But you’ll have to forgive me, darling Arla, if I find it hard to believe what you say. The mirror valley: now that I can accept and understand, since it plainly explains what we’ve both seen from the mountain top.”

“One day,” Arla said, as the nip of her father’s whiskey warmed her blood and relaxed her mind, “I’ll take you to the axial gallery and you will see the whole of Dawn, with both valleys, spread before you.” As she said it, her throat tightened, and sadness fell upon her mind like a muffling fog. She would never take her father into the Command Module - he could barely put one foot in front of another.

Jabe smiled as he shared her fantasy. “So you say. And yet you also tell me our world flies through nothingness toward a ball of rock for us to settle, where the horizon is curved and we live on the outside?”

“I know, Pa. When valley-folk join the crew - the Blessed Engineers as you call them - we are introduced to these ideas over six months. You have been forced to endure them in a couple of hours. I ask that you trust me in this: I speak the truth.”

Again, her father smiled. “I know, my dear. That much is certain in my mind. That much I believe even if it means I must abandon other truths I’ve been taught my whole life. But tell me this, why the deception? Why not simply tell us the truth from the beginning? Why keep us ignorant?”

“I don’t know,” Arla said, leaning back in her chair. “Kiama, my friend from the South Valley, and the smartest person I know, reckons it was a way of keeping control. There could be no risk of mutiny against the crew or the mission would fail completely, so the valleys were created along with a mythology and a priesthood that kept the people in a state of ignorance. When we arrive, these people would be perfectly suited to building a new life on our destination planet. At least, that’s her guess and I have no reason to doubt her.”

“So, why are you telling me now?” Jabe asked, leaning forward with a familiar glint in his eye that heartened his daughter.

“Because we’re soon going to be under attack and the people of the valleys must help us defend our world.”

“Who’s attacking us?”

Arla took another swig of whiskey. “The mission was a failure,” she said, “someone got here before us, a long time before us. They colonized our target world centuries ago, and, to make matters worse, we’re harboring a criminal who stole something precious from them.”

“Why do you give shelter to a thief?”

Arla shrugged. “It was the right thing to do and we’re now too far down the path of war to back away from it. We have a plan, but the people of the valleys must help us.”

“The people will help,” her father said, “but beware the priesthood.”

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

THERE WAS A DEATH CEREMONY the following day. Cytrix Pembard had died the previous week, Jabe had said and, as Pembard had been a neighbor, he’d wanted to attend but had felt too weak to do so, until now. Arla was keen to observe the ceremony, not because she wanted to interfere or reveal it to be nothing more than mummery, but in case it gave her some insight into how the priesthood held such power over the ordinary folk.

They were among the first to arrive at the village square and, as familiar faces began to line up around the funeral pyre, Arla slunk back into the shadows, leaving her father sitting in a chair R. DJ had brought from the farm. Their tractor stood alongside others outside the square.

The ceremony was due to begin at precisely noon and, right on time, the air chariot flew into view, hovering above the square before descending, its rotors blowing a chill wind and scattering several bunches of poorly positioned flowers. It landed deftly next to the pyre, the engine was cut off and there was a sudden silence.

A door opened on the side of the chariot, dropping vertically to form a ramp. She recognized the stocky form of Elias as he descended - last of course. The man liked to make an entrance. So much for the humility he insisted others show. Ahead of him strode another man, younger this time and clad in the white of a novice. It seemed so long ago that she’d been in the same position. A time when her only concern was whether she could qualify as a priest and whether, having done so, she would find the life of a holy person tolerable. Now, just a few years later, she felt the burden of every life on Dawn, not least the ignorant neighbors gathered in front of her. She slipped further back into the shadows as the priests gathered around the pyre.

The body lay there, close-wrapped in white bandages like a freshly prepared mummy from ancient times. The pyre itself was purely ceremonial as, once the flame was lit, only the outer timbers would ignite and the slab holding the body would descend gently into the earth where it would be cremated, and the ashes returned to nourish the soil. There was a kind of poetic beauty to it that transcended the platitudes of the official religion. When you thought about it - really thought - it was a beautiful thing that, once the animation granted by the force of life had left a body, it returned itself to the soil, reinvigorating it and supporting a new cycle.

Of course, the problem with such a philosophy was that it did require thought; something that disqualified it from having any part in the rural religion of Dawn. For the purposes of control, their beliefs needed to be plain and simple, as did the consequences of not following the word of the Goddess as translated by the priesthood. Aside from the captain, the chief priest, the Prime, was the most powerful person on Dawn. Indeed, with the devotion of the entire population, he could cause a whole heap of trouble if he so desired. The crew controlled the external environment, but without supplies from the valleys, they couldn’t survive indefinitely.

Arla hadn’t met Prime during her training since this was a privilege only earned through the ordination ceremony. She knew what he looked like, of course, as his image was displayed throughout the seminary, along with those of his predecessors (all male) going back to the beginning of time which, in the religion of Dawn, was a little under 1,500 years ago.

“People of the Blessed Valley,” Elias called, his soaring voice causing the crowd to hush. “We are gathered together today to commit the body of our brother Cytrix Pembard to the flame so that, in its consumption, it will become one with the sun above as his soul enjoys its eternal reward at the side of the Goddess.”

Arla was impressed that Elias could manage that entire introduction in a single breath.

“Brother Pembard was a good man and well regarded by his neighbors for his generous spirit and his regular attendance at temple. His daughter, Agnes, will, I am sure, continue to set a good example as she begins her stewardship of the Pembard lands. I am happy to announce that her term begins with the re-dedication of the temple in the south pasture.”

Arla snorted inwardly. Yes, he would be pleased about the refurbishment of the temple, since it would inevitably include the bestowing of votive offerings that Elias and his colleagues would collect after curfew. The sneaky scumbag had probably already handed over his shopping list of items that ‘would please the Goddess’. These would undoubtedly include footwear - Elias enjoyed quality boots.

Elias waved the Wand of Departure which, Arla now knew, voided the identity chip that was inserted during the naming ceremony. Whether the priests knew that their apparently magical wands were, in fact, mere electronic tagging devices she wasn’t certain - Elias had given every impression of believing in the stated purpose of every holy instrument. But he was a clever devil and, perhaps, an exceptional actor.

Arla scanned the crowd, checking for her father. There he was, sitting in a chair at the front with R. DJ hovering maternally over his shoulder. There were other faces she recognized and one or two who seemed to be looking in her direction, but she was confident their glances couldn’t penetrate the darkness.

With a final invocation, Elias waved the wand and, as if at the command of his magic, flames erupted in the outer timbers and the wrapped body dropped beneath the pyre and out of sight.

A pinch-faced woman and a similarly dour man stood alongside Elias, with the apprentice priest on their other side. The woman dropped a flower into the blaze while the man held her as she sobbed. The novice wore the fixed expression demanded of his station, although he needed a little more practice - it didn’t do to appear quite so bored in the presence of peasants.

At the appropriate moment, the crowd burst into applause and the flames began to die down leaving, as always, the concrete plinth. It was charred and pitted but there was no sign of the body. “We bid farewell to our brother whose soul now soars and whose earthly home is consumed. And so, in a moment, our festivities shall begin so that we may celebrate the life lived by this faithful man.”

Elias lifted his wand again and cheers broke out as Arla prepared to drift away - she’d arranged to meet her father back at the farm. Suddenly, she noticed R. DJ plunge through the crowd with quite un-robot-like carelessness. He bent down, gathered Jabe in his arms and marched away. Even from this distance, she could see her father protesting as the robot’s man-high frame appeared between the waving arms of the celebrating village-folk. The incident was ignored as everyone focused on the festivities to come.

R. DJ had disappeared beyond the square as the crowd fell silent again at a gesture from Elias. “But before this celebration, there is a matter of great importance to deal with.”

“As you know, the way to blessedness is to follow our priestly laws. At the end of that journey, as Brother Pembard has discovered, lies the honor of sitting beside the Goddess as the valley continues its journey through the cosmos. To disobey our laws is to endanger the soul of the fool who does so. But blasphemy,” his voice became a shriek and Arla’s insides turned to ice, “blasphemy endangers not only the salvation of the individual, but also puts at risk the favor of the Goddess and, therefore, the well-being of every single soul, both the living and the dead.”

Arla turned to go, intending to head for her father’s tractor and a quick escape, but an arm blocked her way and she looked up into the face of the apprentice priest. He was flanked by two other figures who were wearing the deep red of the Inquisitors beneath their black cloaks.

Elias’s voice boomed above the scuffle. “...we have such an offender against our laws and our religion among us today. Arla Farmer!”

There was an audible “oooh” from the crowd and a hundred necks twisted to look where Elias was pointing. Arla was dragged from her hiding place and into the full light of the square.

“Yes,” shrieked Elias, “she escaped justice once before, but she will not do so again. There is only one punishment for blasphemy. Let her burn!”.

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

The Brig

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

“A RATHER EFFICIENT coup, don’t you think?” Lucius said as he sat on the only chair in the brig. “Although misguided, since whatever becomes of us, the fate of Dawn is sealed.”

He looked at each face in turn, gauging their reaction. Bex sat in the opposite corner of the steel room. She didn’t return his gaze but continued to glower at the floor. Technician Nareshkumar slumped beside her, his eyes rising to meet those of the chancellor. Lucius saw and understood the fear that threatened to burst from within the young man. He would need to be handled carefully if, indeed, any handling was to be done.

“Do you have nothing to say, thief?” Lucius said, this time addressing the room’s other occupant.

Hal looked up from his corner. “What is there to say? These idiots think they can bargain with the Vanis - you know better than me what chance they’ve got.”

“Indeed, less than none, I’d say. And yet I feel compelled to learn all I can of the situation in case, by some chance, there might be a way out.”

“What’s to learn?” Bex snapped. “That girl and the security chief have taken over and they’re even now selling our sorry asses to the queen. Thanks a lot - nice career opportunity your offer turned out to be.”

“Calm yourself, navigator. I at least would like to know the answer to the crucial question.”

Bex snorted. “What’s that? Where did I leave my brain when you strolled into my cabin and made me an offer I really should have refused?”

But Lucius had turned his attention to Hal, paying no heed to her. “Tell me, young man, where is the AI?”

Hal ignored him and continued to focus on his feet.

“It can hardly make much difference to tell me, surely?” Lucius said. “We are, in effect, condemned prisoners awaiting our appointment with an open airlock, shouldn’t we at least be in possession of the facts?”

“Maybe I let it go when I flew off into space, like Arla said,” Hal muttered.

Lucius shook his head. “Oh, I think not. I think not indeed. AIs have an almost unbreakable self-preservation directive: even in the golden days of The Sphere, an advanced intelligence was an expensive item and to lose one could lead to the ruin of its owner.”

“I see my argument makes no impression on you,” Lucius continued. “Do you mean to suggest that the AI didn’t make itself known to you during the pursuit by Relentless? I find that hard to believe, just as I find it unlikely that you’d have the skill to evade the flagship of the Federation.”

“I’m a good pilot,” Hal snapped.

Lucius smiled. “Oh, I’m sure you are. But better than, say, our navigator here? I believe you told me, my dear, that you’d never seen a pilot pull maneuvers like that before? Hard to believe you could be outwitted by the son of a miner.”

“Now that’s a decent point,” Bex said, “I’ll give you that. But are you suggesting it was...”

“The AI that was doing the flying? Yes indeed. But how was it passing instructions to our friend here? Verbally? Perhaps. Or could it have invaded the computer system of the ship he stole?”

“Impossible,” Nareshkumar said, quietly. “There is no way that the AI could take over the onboard computer, the security is too tight and the available storage too slow and limited.”

Lucius nodded. “I bow to your expertise, technician. I suspect you are correct. Legend has it that AIs have, if you’ll forgive me, superhuman capabilities, but even they couldn’t overcome modern security.”

“Of course I could,” Hal’s voice said. “Your primitive systems are no match for me.”

“What the...?” Bex hissed.

Lucius beamed. “Ah, so you are in there. I suspected it was so. Or perhaps it was merely wishful thinking. Either way, it’s good to be right.”

“I don’t understand,” Nareshkumar said. “Are you saying that he is the AI? That he’s some sort of humanoid machine?” The technician wore an expression of fear and fascination.

Shaking his head, Lucius knelt down so that he was eye to eye with Hal. “Oh no, technician. Androids are the stuff of myth and legend. I rather suspect our friend here has some technological augmentation that is currently playing host to the missing AI. Now, why don’t you reveal yourself? There’s no point in hiding any longer. You’re among friends.”

Hal’s eyes blazed. “Ha! Fool! You are friends with no-one. I heard plenty about you when I was in the lab being tortured by that idiot scientist. You are Lucius the Butcher, Lucius the Murderer. And soon you’ll be the late Lucius, traitor.”

“You do have a sense of the melodramatic,” Lucius responded, his voice still calm and measured. “But, you see, I have more than a passing interest in you and I can assure you that I didn’t want to see you fall into the hands of the Vanis Federation.”

“Well then, you failed miserably, didn’t you?” Hal/ACE spat. “Another few hours and that hacker would have overridden my defenses by brute force. It was by sheer luck that this fool took me at the last minute.”

Lucius stood up and settled back into the chair. “Luck? I think not. You see, my dear machine, your escape was engineered by me.”

Further discussion was interrupted by the hiss of released gas as the heavy steel door rolled to one side. Debussy stepped in, followed by three other crew members, all carrying sidearms. Last to enter was Kiama, her eyes cast down.

“You two are coming with us,” he said, watching as Lucius and Hal were hauled out. “The rest of you can make peace with whatever gods you worship. It won’t be long before you’re back in the loving arms of your own people. No more than you deserve, traitors.”

“Better a traitor than a mutineer,” Bex snapped.

“Jak, no!” Kiama said as Debussy stepped toward her. The big engineer froze, turned an angry face at her and then, taking a deep breath, turned on his heels and swept out of the room.

“Don’t interfere again,” he hissed as they marched along the corridor.

“I’m sorry,” Kiama said, “but you’re captain now and a commander wouldn’t have risen to such obvious bait.”

There was no response and Kiama relaxed, just a little. Debussy had been useful and very easily persuaded of the need to take this action, but she hadn’t reckoned on how difficult he would be to control once he had power. And there was still the matter of the officers to deal with. At the moment, their ultimatum hadn’t expired but she had no idea what they’d do when it did.

She was uneasy. Betraying Arla had been the hardest thing she’d ever done, but she was as convinced as ever that she’d been right. They couldn’t risk the lives of everyone on Dawn for the sake of a handful of traitors and thieves. The AI could go space herself - allying themselves with her was like a mouse doing a deal with a cobra, it would only end one way. So she’d stoked Debussy’s ego and, to her slight shame, his libido, and he’d declared himself captain.

His first decision was, at her suggestion, to lock up the traitors and to tackle the rest of the crew in small groups. So far, everyone had agreed with the action they’d taken, though many were uneasy about defying the officers. In the end, however, they recognized the ultimate authority of the captain and that position was now held by Debussy who, if nothing else, had a physical presence that neither the officers nor Arla could challenge.

They stopped outside the second cell and Debussy punched the release switch, gesturing for the prisoners to be pushed inside.

“I took you for an intelligent young woman,” Lucius muttered as he passed her, “and yet, by your actions, you have doomed us all.”

Debussy shoved him inside. “Shut it. And don’t forget who is captain here.”

“Oh, I won’t forget, you can rely on it,” Lucius responded, and there was such unmistakable menace in those words that Debussy found himself unable to respond and merely punched the door lock before stalking away.

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

“SO WHAT NOW?” HAL SAID. It was his voice - ACE, it seemed, had retreated again.

Lucius shrugged. “I don’t know. Perhaps they’ll see sense. The girl is clever enough and she thinks she is doing the right thing for her people. She’s wrong, of course, but I have to respect her courage.”

“What do you reckon’s happened to Arla?”

“Oh, I suspect they’ll have got the priests to do their dirty work for them. They knew where she’d be and there must be some form of communication between the crew and the Seminary, so they probably passed on the message and left it to their religious friends to apprehend her.”

Lucius dropped onto one of the two hard beds in the cell. “I imagine the girl thinks her friend will be safe there until the situation is resolved. Naive. These priests are likely to see their mission as divinely inspired and I doubt they’ll waste much time before publicly punishing her. There’s nothing like a good witch trial to keep the peasants in check.”

“You mean they’ll kill her?”

Lucius nodded slowly, before forcing out the single word. “Yes.”

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Heretic

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

ARLA GLOWERED IN THE dark of her cell. Even after a week’s imprisonment, anger still fueled her: the rage of betrayal. Had it been the officers? Had they repented of their decision to respect Arla’s accession? No, that was too hard to believe. They were robots who’d been given a command by a human. They could only disobey if the order would endanger human life.

Perhaps her appointment as captain did constitute a threat, in their judgement. Would that have been enough to cause them to sell her out to the priests? That didn’t ring true at all - if they’d wanted to depose her, they could have done so bloodlessly before she left the Command Module.

If not them, then who? Could Lucius have engineered a coup? He was a clever devil, for sure, but she couldn’t see how he could have gathered so much support so quickly. And what purpose would it serve? Her mission to the valley was to lay the groundwork for an army that was his only hope of survival. Unless he’d been lying from the beginning.

No. She knew, in her heart, who was behind this. Debussy. He’d pretended to accept her seniority so that she’d feel secure enough to go, leaving Kiama in nominal command. And then, as soon as she was out of the way, he’d betrayed her to the priesthood.

Except that he wasn’t smart enough for that. Someone with brains was pulling the strings and she kept seeing Kiama’s face. But why would she do it?

She sat in the corner of the cell, on a cushion of rotting straw. The place stank like a sewer and was only lit by a single tallow candle that sat on the small stool that served as a table in the center. The sun filament had faded, and she guessed it was nearly the tenth hour. As she thought that, her stomach tightened, and she realized just how hungry she was. Surely, they’d feed her before the trial tomorrow. Trial? Foregone conclusion more like. There hadn’t been a blasphemy trial in decades and the priests, and their jailers were approaching their task with relish. She breathed in a lungful of the stench and her head swam. Right now, she’d eat almost anything they put in front of her - probably just as well.

Footsteps echoed along the corridor outside the cell. The walls and wood were made of aged oak planks with iron bars, and the floor creaked between the thumps of heavy boots. He was coming back at last.

Eyes peered in through the grill in the solid wooden door, searching the room before finding her curled up in the corner, her knees tucked under her chin. Looking small and defenseless.

The eyes withdrew and she heard metal jangling, then a click and the door swung open.

Cautiously, a large figure entered the room. A man of stocky build sporting a big black beard and a tummy that overflowed his breeches. Even in this half-light, she could see that his clothes were filthy, and his beard was speckled with white as if he’d just broken off from eating his food to bring hers - or perhaps he’d been eating her bread.

He smiled, revealing a row of rotten teeth. Stupid, thought Arla. These religious freaks seemed to delight in suffering, but why would anyone put up with toothache when it could be so easily fixed? “Now then, my pretty,” he said, “there’s food here for you. If you’re good to old Hictor, that is.”

Arla felt her insides lock tight and she watched with grim fascination as the monster dropped the bowl and began fumbling with his belt as he approached her. “Now, just you keep quiet and be nice. You’re not long for this world as it is, but I can make things a bit easier for you in the meantime if you’re a good girl.”

He was standing only a couple of feet from her now, smiling as she trembled. His trousers dropped to the floor. Arla kept her eyes on his grinning face as she smoothly lifted the handgun from beneath her leg and, in one movement, fired. His body collapsed in a heap on the floor. It had happened so quickly; he’d not had a chance to cry out as the laser cut him down. And his ill intentions meant there was almost certainly no other guard between her and the exit. It was finally time.

She got up, smoothed the straw from her skirt, raised her hood and slipped out, not looking back at the body of the man she left behind her.

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

IT WAS, OF COURSE, dark outside. She’d been waiting for her opportunity all week. To begin with, food had been delivered at a regular time, morning and evening, but, as the days had gone by, the jailers had become later and later. Hictor had seen his chance for a little “fun” and had manipulated his fellow guards so he’d be alone with her. Arla shuddered at the memory and she felt tears begin to run down her cheeks. But she’d read his mind accurately and now here she was, outside the little jail after curfew. She had perhaps eight hours before the alarm was raised and she needed to be a long, long, way from here before then. But there was something she had to do first - she had to find her father.

Arla waited for her eyes to adjust to the near-perfect darkness. The village was so small and so familiar that she was able to make out the dim shapes of the surrounding hills by looking at them out of the corners of her eyes. There it was, the familiar hunchback of the hill above the farm. Before she made her escape, she had to see that her father was safe.

She flitted from building to building, taking her time so she didn’t knock anything over. Arla chuckled at the irony that, as a member of the crew, she was one of the Blessed Engineers - the semi-mythical angels who ruled the curfew - but she hardly looked like one right now. She patted the pistol in its holster at her belt and thanked the Goddess that she’d had the foresight to pack it, the further good sense to tell no-one about it, and the pure luck that her captors hadn’t checked for concealed weapons.

Arla reached the next street along from the jail and walked into something solid and cold.

“Mistress,” it whispered.

She was only just able to stop herself crying out. “Deejay?” she said, recognizing the familiar pattern of his dimly illuminated optical sensors. She felt her hand being grabbed and allowed herself to be led, gently but firmly, though the dark village streets until, finally, she could sense grass beneath her feet.

“We can now speak safely,” the robot said as he turned on the torch attached to his arm.

“Won’t someone see the light?” Arla said.

She could hear R. DJ shake his head. “We are completely hidden within a stand of trees. I precisely calculated the best position to return you to when I scouted the area last week.”

“How did you find me?”

“I knew you’d been taken, and it wasn’t hard to calculate where the priests would keep you,” R. DJ said in his low, ponderous, voice. “I also thought it likely you would attempt to escape, though I had a backup plan.”

Now Arla was intrigued. “A backup plan?”

“Yes, had you not escaped by midnight, I would have attempted to break in myself. I had cutting equipment hidden in the village.”

“Ha! And that wouldn’t have made much noise would it!” Arla said with mock sarcasm.

“It would have been risky, that was why I was prepared to wait until the last minute. Fortunately, you took matters into your own hands as your father said you would.”

Arla grabbed the robot’s cold arm at this. “How is he? Where is he?”

“He is safe, though it would be imprudent for me to reveal his location in case you are captured.”

Arla nodded. “Yes, you’re right. He should be your first priority. But tell me, I saw you move him away from the market square just before they captured me. How did you know something was going to happen?”

R. DJ paused for a moment as if weighing up his response to this. “We were informed by the officers.”

“Our robot officers?”

“So, you know of their true nature,” R. DJ said. “That is good, we have always been in communication with the officers, they warned us of your impending arrest and of the mutiny.”

“Wait a minute, when you say you’ve always communicated, you don’t mean since the start of the mission, surely?”

The robot’s neck creaked as he nodded. “Yes, always.”

“And you knew that the people here were being fed a lie, that their religion was entirely bogus?”

“Yes. We believe the dogma and the priests that preach it are necessary to maintain control and discipline within the valleys. This, therefore, is for the greater good of humans.”

Arla glanced through the trees at where she imagined the village to be. No sign of pursuit yet. “What about the purge? Soon after the mission began. Why didn’t you prevent it?”

R. DJ’s lights dimmed, and he formed his words slowly and with care. “We were ordered to our warehouses. We remained there until the ... until the ... action was completed. We then buried ... buried ... them.”

“But it happened more than once!”

“We obeyed our orders. We had no proof they would ... do it again.”

Again, silence fell on the little copse. “But we have no time for historical accounts and recriminations,” the robot said, “you must move. Get back to the entrance door and the officers will help you.”

“I killed one of the jailers, Deejay,” Arla muttered.

R. DJ stood, took hold of her hand, and led her out of the trees.

“Didn’t you hear me? I said I killed someone,” she hissed as she stumbled onto the road.

Arla had given up on getting an answer from the robot when he began speaking, so slowly it was as if he were a clockwork automaton winding down. “It is ... difficult ... to discuss ... the ... the ... death ... of a human. Especially when it has been ... deliberately ... caused. I fear my affectivity algorithms are unable to cope ... with the concept... Buffer overrun imminent.”

“I’m so sorry, Deejay. Please, stop thinking about it. You’ve done so much for us, for me and my father, you must continue to function to protect him.”

The robot continued to plod along the road, gently guiding Arla through the darkness. “You ... did ... what you ... thought was ... right. I am sure,” he said. “Algorithm purge in progress.”

“Ok, I’ll shut up,” Arla said.

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Probe

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

SCOUT XA-NDR-1358, popped back into normal-space after the last in a sequence of intricate interstellar jumps. The sensors along the length of her sleek metallic body activated and data flooded in. Radiation detectors on her starboard flank confirmed the unique signature of the star at Radiant 229:991:077 so, after a quick sunbathe to recharge her energy cells, Scout kicked in her interplanetary drive and headed away from the star.

According to the projections of Core Executive, the intruder would pass through this system on its devastating way toward its ultimate target, Core itself. That destination had become obvious as the intruder had continued on its path. It wasn’t even trying to mask its approach - it was following as close to a perfectly straight three-dimensional trajectory as was possible given that it was moving from star to star and not through the intervening void.

Scout was nervous and, at the same time, excited by her new mission. She was one of only a small number of roboships of her model and had spent her entire existence visiting new solar systems and adding them to the ever-expanding catalogue of known space. Curiosity and initiative had been built into her mental patterns, along with self-reliance and an unusually developed analytical capability - all essential attributes of a capable scout. But, even for one such as she, the job of cataloguing tens of thousands of systems, the vast majority of them harboring nothing more than microbe-equivalent life, had left her bored. Yes, it was possible for a machine to become fed up, it just took several centuries longer than for a human.

A new mission, a mission in which she was sure to encounter something novel, excited her. Having to deal with Core Executive, on the other hand, was less welcome, and she hated making the regular reports demanded of her. However much data she’d gathered, it was never enough. She’d been the first to arrive at Vulturn and it had been her drones that had sent back the first images and data of the devastation left behind. What had once been a peaceful colony planet was now devoid of intelligence and life. It pained her to even relay the information back to Core, and yet Executive had demanded she continue to gather data and transmit it until ordered otherwise. Had she been of a rebellious nature, she might have imagined that Core had needed time to consider matters, but that would be both ridiculous and dangerous - the omniscient world-intelligence, an entire planet of metal, could not be questioned, could not be wrong.

Soon enough new orders had arrived. She was to investigate why the colony at Radiant 137:113:438 had gone dark a few weeks earlier. A communication issue had been theorized but, after the events at Vulturn, a more sinister alternative had become likely. And so it had turned out. Scout found the same planet-wide destruction: the intruder had been there and wiped a colony of sentient beings from the universe at a stroke. They hadn’t even had time to send a mayday.

And now here she was, at the next logical point along a stepping-stone path that led into the heart of robot space. If it arrived at Core, what then? Scout found it impossible to conceive of an existence without Core at its heart. Who would provide guidance and wisdom? Who would unite and protect? Who would decide what was right and what was wrong? She knew her history. The robots and AIs had gathered at the planet now known as Core after leaving the space of their former masters. Far from the edge of the human empire - The Sphere - the synthetics had spent decades deciding on the best way to organize and govern themselves before leaving the seeds of Core in place and beginning the expansion that became The Radiance.

She had been proud to be part of that empire building. While most of the citizens of The Radiance had come into existence since the exodus, she had been built by humans and machines together to help explore the galaxy. Within her torpedo-shaped skin were long unused compartments that had once housed the organics who controlled her and who, through her, learned the universe’s secrets. She had left them safe, but puzzled, on a space-station at the edge of The Sphere when the call came to leave, and now those compartments housed only the few autonomous units whose job it was to maintain and repair her during missions, as well as her supply of drones.

Suddenly, she became aware of a new sensation. Her trajectory away from the sun had crossed a stream of x-rays that, on further examination, emanated from a fixed point within the system. No natural phenomenon could generate such energetic radiation locally, so she theorized that it was some residue left by the intruder: perhaps a by-product of its propulsion system. She decided to follow the trail or, at least, travel alongside it as, heavily armored though she was, it would be folly to expose herself to unnecessary danger.

This system did not contain an inhabited planet, so it seemed as though the intruder was either passing through or gathering fuel for the next jump. She found it orbiting the fourth planet from the local sun, a gas giant. Scout called up her library image: Radiant 229:991:077:004 was brown with sandy colored bands and an unusually high concentration of organics in its atmosphere. It had no rings and its satellites were unremarkable, except for one whose composition was so rich in metals it could only be the core of a former planet that, through some catastrophe, had blown apart. Perhaps the catastrophe had been the brown planet itself, around which orbited another bringer of destruction. She had found it.

Yes, the x-ray trail led to a point which would have coincided with the path of the planet some days before and the intruder had entered orbit, switching off its drive.

She analyzed the readings from her sensors. It was still emitting x-rays, though at a much lower level than before. The data showed a metallic hull with nickel the chief contributor in a mix of metals and alloys. It would take some time to calculate its mass but, in truth, that was likely to be neither here nor there. Core Executive demanded detail and so Scout would have to approach. This made her uncomfortable. Keen though she was to discover more about this planet-killer, she would have preferred to observe from a distance before, with more information at hand, she could decide whether and when to approach.

But she would not be reckless. She had shut down her ion drive and deployed her solar sails. They were diminutive compared to those of the great cargo vessels that plied the interplanetary space of the crowded systems that surrounded Core, but they produced no energy signature and no residual trail that could be tracked. At least by any technology she possessed. Compelled by her orders to approach the intruder, Scout would, at least, do so at a pace slow enough to allow her to gather more data and, hopefully, without attracting the attention of her target. The more she could observe before it became aware of her, the better. She was transmitting her data directly to the local gate where it would be beamed Core-wards, but they wouldn’t receive it for days, possibly weeks, so she was, for all intents and purposes, alone.

She felt the solar wind in her sails and angled her body toward the gas giant, enjoying the sensation of coasting through the gravitational currents propelled by nothing more than trillions of photons streaming from the sun. She knew Executive would be annoyed by the care she was taking, but she would worry about that later - her main concern was making sure there was a later for her.

How many hours passed as she gently drifted inwards? She could check her internal chronometer, of course, but, for some reason, she didn’t bother. It was almost as if she was relishing her last peaceful sunset before going into battle.

As she closed in on the gas giant, she found the intruder in orbit around the metal-rich moon. Her sensors detected a heat source linking the intruder and the moon’s surface as if it were using a blowtorch to melt the metal. She recalibrated to sharpen her spectral analysis and, indeed, within what was now obviously a stream of plasma linking the mysterious vessel and the moon were the distinctive signatures of metals - nickel and iron mainly, but also substantial quantities of gold and rare metals.

Scout was a machine intelligence, so she had little interest in the monetary value of a substance. To her, gold was simply one of the four sacred metals that were essential for the construction of artificial minds and she wondered whether they were as important to the vessel in orbit around that moon as they were to her.

She was still over half a million kilometers from it when the intruder noticed her. Scout reeled under the flood of input that threatened to overwhelm her sensors. It was examining her as one of the ancient human scientists might examine a germ under a microscope - simultaneously illuminating her and burning her up under its infernal gaze.

Scout shut down all her sensors and yet could still feel it probing, seeking for a way in. It touched her mind and she shrunk away as if stung. Such curiosity, such hunger, such malice. But she had her duty to perform - she couldn’t engage her ion drive and run back toward the gate without knowing more about this thing that seemed to be focusing all its attention on her. She felt tentatively outward, as someone who’s been burned might reach out to the fire again to test her limit.

There, in the diffuse border between observing it and falling under its power, she could sense it. There was an animal intelligence, but she couldn’t tell whether it was a single mind or many. The thoughts were machine-like, though there was a flavor of the organic mixed in. And that was where the malice lay. Deep, malignant and hateful; like an eye, it was looking for her.

She observed for as long as she could and was just about to re-initialize her scanners to gather more data when the eye found her. The wave of hate almost swamped her and she fell away. And ran towards the sun as if every demon in hell was on her tail.

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Mutineer

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

CAPTAIN DEBUSSY WAS in the middle of an all-hands meeting when the face of Lieutenant Commander Patel appeared on the Comms screen.

“Shut that down!” Debussy snapped.

Kiama reluctantly closed the contact. But Patel’s face remained visible.

“Crew of Dawn, please be aware that, by following Engineer Debussy, you are part of a mutiny against the officers and captain of this mission.”

Debussy banged his fist on the console. “I’m the captain!” he bellowed. “Now, do as I say and shut him off,” he said to Kiama.

“I’ve tried, it doesn’t work,” she said.

Debussy barged past her and stabbed at the contact.

“It is not too late to choose a different course,” the calm voice of Patel continued. “We face a difficult challenge which we can only hope to surmount if we all come together and unite.”

“So unite,” Debussy responded. “Unite behind me. We’ll give them what they want, and they’ll let us go on our way.”

Patel shook his head sadly. “We do not believe so,” he said. “And we do not consider the dubious promise of the Vanis Federation to be adequate justification for handing over five humans to their certain deaths.”

“Better five than five thousand!”

There was a general murmur of agreement from the dozen or so crewmembers in Comms.

“If that were indeed the calculation, then we would agree,” Patel continued, “but we believe it is almost certain that the Relentless will not stop at that. We believe it will exact punishment on Dawn and that, by allowing its personnel access, you are signing the death warrants of every man, woman and child on...”

Patel’s face exploded outwards in a shower of plastic. Debussy lowered his handgun and looked around at the stunned faces watching him.

“Well? Why are you looking at me? Since when did we need the officers anyway? They’re just a bunch of cowards hiding away in their quarters while we do the work.” No-one answered the challenge, they simply stared, their faces frozen as if aware that they were witnessing the unravelling of the man they’d chosen to follow.

“Get on with your work,” he growled, “and contact me the moment Relentless hails. I’ll be in the galley.”

Debussy spun around and beckoned abruptly for Kiama to follow him.

The door of the galley rolled shut and Debussy turned on her. “Thanks for the backup,” he snarled. “I thought you were supposed to be on my side.”

Kiama’s insides tightened as she looked into the eyes of a man out of his depth. “I am on your side,” she responded, finding it impossible to address him by his unofficial rank. “But we must respect what the officers have to say.”

“Respect them? Are you serious? Have you ever seen an officer do anything useful?”

Kiama shrugged. “Patel saved Arla and the thief.”

“And look where that got us!”

“Jak,” she said in what she hoped was a soothing voice, “we should think again about this.”

Debussy’s expression hardened. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“She means, I hope,” said a voice from the far corner of the galley, “that we should remember that we’re humans and not machines. We don’t hand people over to their certain deaths. It’s just not who we are.”

“And who asked for your opinion, doctor? This is a military matter and not for the likes of you,” Debussy said.

Doctor McCall smiled sadly. “And what, exactly, is your experience of combat, Engineer? Aside from the odd bar fight? I’ve stitched you up more than once in my time.”

“I’ve got more guts than you’ll ever have, McCall,” Debussy snarled, “so just leave the ordering around to the only man in this room.”

McCall raised herself up, dropped her empty mug into the washer and began to make for the door. “I’m sorry, Jak, I just can’t do that. Now please do the sensible thing and hand over the captaincy to someone with a more level head.”

“Like you, I suppose?”

“Oh heavens no,” McCall said, amiably. “If I’m not very much mistaken, your friend here got you, and us, into this mess, so perhaps she could get us out of it. You’ll hand over command if you know what’s good for you.”

Kiama stared at the doctor in disbelief and then cried out in shock as Debussy swung his arm and McCall dropped to the floor. Kiama went to open her mouth to protest when he turned to her and her throat seized up. He said nothing, but she read the rage on his face and backed away as he barged past her and out of the galley.

She dropped to her knees beside the groaning McCall.

“Get away,” the doctor muttered as she raised her hand to a broken lip and examined the congealing blood it left on her palm.

“I’m sorry. I don’t know what came over him.”

McCall pulled herself into a sitting position and flashed a venomous look. “Don’t play the fool with me,” she said, “you know what you’re dealing with. You thought you could control him, thought you knew better than the captain.”

“Arla? She’s just a girl, what does she know?”

“Well, she didn’t seek power, did she? Much less through a thug like Debussy. You think you’re better suited to command than Arla?” McCall hauled herself upright, watching as Kiama followed her mutely. “This is the price of your stupidity,” she said, displaying her bloody hand, “and this won’t be the last unless you put a stop to it.”

Kiama fought to push down the lump in her throat. “How am I supposed to do that?”

McCall shrugged. “Damned if I know. You’re the genius after all. You created the monster, now you have to find a way to destroy it.”

The door rolled back and Engineer Xi walked in holding a handgun which he pointed at McCall. “Doctor, please come with me,” he said.

Without a word, Doctor McCall followed Xi out of the room, leaving Kiama alone with nothing but the quiet chugging of the coffee machine for company.

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Prime

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

PRIME SAT BACK IN HIS chair and regarded the inquisitor levelly. The man had always been efficient, but the news he’d relayed was extremely unwelcome. Even though Prime had known it already - it paid to be one step ahead of your chief policeman.

“How could she possibly have escaped?”

Inquisitor General Entrobus shrugged. “The guard was found dead, felled by some devilish weapon that burned through him front to back.”

“And yet he wasn’t the only guard in the jail, was he?” Prime said quietly.

“I believe there is only one explanation, holiness.”

The Prime of the One True Faith sighed. “And what would that be, Inquisitor?”

“Witchcraft,” was the whispered response.

Prime shook his head. “I fear that, however tempting it might be to explain everything we don’t understand by invoking magic, we must look to more earthly explanations in this case.”

“Then I must respectfully submit that I cannot see how she escaped.”

Leaning forward, Prime crossed his arms on the ancient oak desk, the sleeves of his white robe sweeping the polished surface as he did so. “Tell me, Inquisitor, what else can you tell me about the guard, other than his cause of death? Was there anything ... peculiar?”

“I don’t know what you mean, holiness,” Entrobus said.

Prime smiled, enjoying the obvious discomfort of his subordinate who could sense the axe swinging but not its direction.

“Was he not found in a state of, ahem, excited undress?” Pius purred.

The Inquisitor shook his head vigorously. “Indeed no, your Holiness! He was discovered face down in the prisoner’s cell with a hole burned through him. There was nothing else.”

With a flourish, Prime pulled a sheaf of paper from a desk drawer, swept a pair of spectacles onto the bridge of his nose and affected to squint. “My sources inform me that he was naked from the waist down, his trousers wrapped around his ankles. Indeed, until they spotted the small exit wound on his back, they believed he’d tripped and fallen.”

“Your sources, Holiness?” Entrobus quaked.

“Indeed. They are beyond reproach. My agents are above all bribery and deception, I can assure you. Unlike, it seems, yours who perhaps had the best reasons for pretending that their colleague had been felled by some witch from the nether hells. Or perhaps they were covering up their own incompetence in leaving a lecherous wretch in sole charge of the prison!”

“I will investigate, Holiness,” Entrobus said, his mind clearly flitting between fear of his master’s retribution and the revenge he intended to take on his subordinates.

Prime rose, using the table for leverage. Age was so damned inconvenient. The Inquisitor General also stood, understanding the meeting to be at an end.

“Rather than putting your informants to the rack, I suggest concentrating your efforts on recovering the blasphemer. If she is allowed to escape divine justice, then our power and authority are undermined, perhaps irreparably. Raise the common folk, if you must, but recover her: alive mark you. She must be alive to receive her due punishment.”

Entrobus nodded subserviently. “Yes, Holiness. It shall be done.”

“See that it is, Inquisitor General,” Prime continued as he shepherded Entrobus across the oak-floored room and to the thick timber door.

Entrobus held his gaze for a moment before shuffling away as quickly as dignity allowed. Prime slammed the door and exhaled. What a loathsome toad that man was. The sort of craven bureaucrat that floats to the top because no-one else wants the job, not because he’s the best choice. But he needed careful handling because, every now and again, even a talentless amphibian, if pushed too hard, can grow fangs. And the last thing Prime needed right now, at this time of impending chaos, was a snake in the bed.

He sighed and shuffled over to his official portrait which hung on the wall opposite his desk. The Primal Apartment had been designed to be imposing and, in its own way, lavish. Wood, a precious and rationed resource in the Valleys, was here used to cover every surface - floor, walls and ceiling - and its varnish had, year after year, coat after coat, grown oppressively dark. Prime was used to it now, but he remembered his first impression of this room, long ago when he was Faisal Manawi of the South Valley, newly ordained Priest of the True Faith. It had taken many years of maneuvering and back-stabbing to bring about his election as the senior priest.

Prime studied the portrait. It had been painted during his first year in office, as was traditional, and it showed a younger and more ambitious man; one he barely recognized. He rubbed his sore back, envying the energy and drive of his younger self. It didn’t seem fair that he should be facing this crisis in his old age but, fair or not, it needed to be dealt with. And within every crisis dwelt an opportunity.

His eyes flicked to the portrait alongside his own. It showed the previous Prime, the man who had destroyed everything Faisal had been taught to believe. His predecessor had light skin, white hair and a kindly expression whose hint of benevolence was completely false. In fact, he’d taken great pleasure in presenting Faisal with the conclusive proofs of the true nature of their world; that it was a hollowed-out rock hurtling through the ether on a mission to populate another world.

Faisal had cried out in shock, but the old man had simply shaken his head and laughed. And then he’d told Faisal that he would grow to accept it and that this ability to believe the evidence even when it upturned everything he’d previously been told, was the key test for those applying to become the new Prime. Only one man at a time was permitted to know the truth - at least until the previous Prime died which, given that they were each compelled by their holy vow to serve for as long as they were physically capable, was usually pretty soon.

The man who had been Faisal Manawi snapped himself out of his reverie, pushed aside the portrait and waited for his agent to appear.

“Master, I exist to serve.”

Prime nodded curtly. “Report.”

Engineer Xi Huang shifted uncomfortably on the view screen. “I regret to inform you, Holiness, that the new captain is acting in an increasingly irrational manner.”

“Why?” Prime watched as Xi considered his answer. He’d never seen the man discomposed before - indeed, he’d wondered why Xi had accepted his mission in the first place when he could have had ambitions to be Prime himself one day. In fact, getting Xi in place had been one of the great challenges of his Primehood. There had always been a communication channel between the incumbent Prime and the officers of Dawn, but Faisal had been the first to establish an agent within the crew. And it had been Xi’s idea. Perhaps the best decision Prime had ever made was to break protocol and expose the young Xi to the truth before manipulating him into position to be abducted by the “angels”.

“I believe I might have misjudged his fortitude, Holiness,” Xi finally continued. “He is finding the pressures of command too great.”

“And what of your contact with the Ignorant?” Prime said, with a sweeping gesture as if putting aside the matter of Debussy’s competence.

Xi’s expression lightened. “Holiness, I now have a secure communication channel with the government of the Vanis Federation. It seems that those who claimed asylum were indeed two operatives of the Federation and its Chancellor. My contact informs me that their ruler is intent on exacting revenge, but that her anger is directed almost entirely at this Lucius and not at ourselves.”

“Good,” Prime said. This was the first positive news he’d heard in a while, “we must foster this. Dawn must be allowed to continue, uninfected by the disease of knowledge, and if this means sacrificing a few individuals, then so be it.”

Xi nodded. “Indeed, Holiness. The Faith is what sustains the chosen people of Dawn and, with fortitude, we shall weather this current threat and head out again into the wilderness in search of our Eden.”

Prime smiled. “Yes, my faithful servant,” he said, choosing his words carefully, “we must preserve the innocence of our people for their greater good. Continue your work and report to me at the appointed time.”

“It shall be as you command, Holiness,” Xi said, moving to shut off the connection.

Prime held up his hand. “And if you cannot control the captain, you are to neutralise him and find a suitable replacement. If you believe he will remain a threat to our greater mission, then he must be sacrificed. Do I make myself clear?”

“Yes, Holiness,” Xi said, his face tightening as it disappeared from the display.

Closing the contact, Prime exhaled and tried, in vain, to allow the tension to run down his limbs and out into the universe. He said the meditative words, running them over and over as he focused on the white light behind his closed eyelids.

Feeling a little calmer, Prime dialed the regular combination and, after a delay of a few seconds, his official link to the crew of Dawn appeared on the screen. “Greetings, Lieutenant Commander Patel.”

“Holiness,” Patel responded, dipping his head momentarily. “Do you have news of the captain?”

Prime shrugged theatrically. “Which one, I wonder?”

“There is only one legitimate commander of Dawn and that is Captain Arla Nakajima. She was legitimately appointed by the previous captain and she passed the requisite test.”

“And yet she does not command Dawn, so I question who is truly the captain?”

Patel’s expression remained as impassive and calm as always. “Captain Arla Nakajima. Now, do you have news of her?”

Prime’s smile had all the warmth and humanity of a monitor lizard’s grin. “I have some news, Commander. It seems she was captured by an, ahem, over-zealous priest.”

“She was what?” Patel was all animation now, the concern written on his face.

“Calm down, Commander. As far as I know she is alive. Indeed, it seems she came prepared for trouble as she killed a guard using what I imagine can only be one of your energy weapons.”

“She ...killed...?” Patel stammered.

“No doubt she considered it necessary,” Prime said gravely.

Patel considered this for a moment and then appeared to put it to one side. “Where is she now?”

“I don’t know, I’m afraid. She is doing rather a good job of evading her pursuers. I imagine she’s aiming for the access point to your domain. My people are combing the valley most thoroughly.”

“I suggest you allow her to find her way back to the Command Module, Holiness,” Patel said, “this is a matter for the Crew to attend to.”

Prime’s smile disappeared. “Oh, I’m afraid not, Commander. You are well aware of protocol - the security of the valleys is a matter for the priesthood unless we explicitly call on the aid of the Angelic Engineers and I see no need for such a drastic course.”

“But you will return her to us when you find her?”

“That will depend on the circumstances of her capture and whether she is found innocent at trial.”

“Trial?” Patel snapped. “Accused of what?”

“Witchcraft, Commander, witchcraft.”

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Fugitive

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

ARLA STUMBLED ON, THEN stopped at the edge of a farming settlement, holding her breath as she listened for the sounds of pursuit. For a moment, she thought she’d finally escaped, but then the evening air carried a call of triumph, and she slipped back into the half-light heading for a line of hedges.

She hoped she was heading in the right direction. The shape of the valley meant it was impossible to get completely lost, but she didn’t want to hit the hinterland between the settled part and the partition wall too far from the door that led to the command segment and safety. That’s assuming she would be safe there - she had no way of knowing whether her suspicions about Kiama were correct and what she had done, aside from betraying her friend. But that didn’t bear thinking about - she still couldn’t bring herself to believe that the situation in the Command Module could unravel so quickly.

The light had faded almost completely now, but she knew they were still on her trail. Curfew had been suspended, it seemed, while they hunted for her and the only saving grace was that if she was unused to scrambling in the dark, her hunters were even more inept. As she listened, she heard a cry and then a splash as someone fell into the little stream that ran alongside the wood.

Arla was exhausted. She wanted nothing more than to be able to lie down and go to sleep, but she knew what would happen if they caught her. One way or another, either accidentally during the capture or after a brief trial, she would be killed. Whatever their role in all this, the priests had proclaimed her a heretic and their authority in the valley would be undermined, perhaps fatally, if they failed to capture her.

The cry went up again and she lurched into the deeper darkness of the grove. Her foot caught on a root or fallen branch, she didn’t know which, and she fell, cracking her skull against something hard. Unable to stop herself exclaiming in pain, she fastened her hand over her mouth and lay in the leaf litter. They’d heard her, she was sure of it, and she fancied she could feel the earth beat as they charged toward her.

Arla pulled herself up, using the tree she’d collided with for support and, fueled by desperation rather than hope, ran as fast as she dared, bursting out of the thicket and almost tumbling down the steep hill it crowned, barely able now to see her feet, let alone what lay beyond them.

She fell again and turned to see torchlight emerge from the treeline. They would have her in minutes, but still she rolled onto her knees and began crawling away before, through sheer momentum, she managed a shuffling, ape-like, half-run toward whatever lay at the bottom of the field. Her foot slipped on the crumbling edge of a path and, again, she fell. She could hear them clearly now, they were so close she could make out individual voices - both men and women, all triumphant.

It was too much and too hopeless. With the last of her energy, she rolled onto her back to watch them approach. She held her breath as she waited for them to spot her lying there.

A metal hand grasped her arm and pulled her upright. “Come with me, mistress,” said an artificial voice as she felt herself dragged across the road.

“Careful, but quickly, mistress,” it said, “down there.”

She felt rather than saw the edge of some sort of hole in the road and then, out of the corner of her eye, she perceived a deeper black within the darkness beneath her. Without another word, as the voices approached, she sat on the edge and, fighting back the urge to retch at the stench beneath, found the rungs of an internal ladder with her toes. She’d just ducked beneath street level when she felt the cover shut and silence fall.

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

SHE WAITED IN THE DARK, too scared to move, focusing all her attention on the space above her head where she knew the drain cover to be. She imagined she could hear faint voices and the pounding of many feet up and down the road above, but the sounds were so much quieter than the incessant dripping that echoed around the chamber that she couldn’t be sure there was anything to hear at all.

Then she was sure of it, but the noise was coming from below, not above. She froze, hoping that the darkness would cloak her from whatever was approaching and, as the sound resolved itself into the regular clanking of heavy feet beneath her, she could see two round shapes, glowing a dark, sullen, red, moving smoothly toward her.

A voice floated up out of the darkness. “Mistress?”

“R. XL?” she whispered.

“I am gratified that you remember me, mistress. Yes, I am R. XL2006. I am glad you didn’t attempt to move from the ladder as I did not have time to extend it downwards. I have been most concerned for your safety. Please wait while I activate the servo.”

The eyes veered to the side and, after a moment or two, a lamp activated above her, immediately below the rim of the drain entrance. She shielded her eyes against its sudden brightness and, at a word of warning from below, gripped onto the ladder as, with a juddering motion, it began to descend.

“Here, let me help you, mistress,” the robot said, holding out a metal hand.

“You saved me, R. XL, thank you,” Arla said as she stood on wobbly legs in the dim light of the lamp far above. Now she could see that they were at a meeting of several drains. It stank even more down here and she didn’t doubt it would get worse as they moved into the tunnels.

R. XL held something up to her. “Please use this mask, the oxygen levels in the drains are very low.”

Arla pulled the mask over her head and drew in a deep breath of fresh air. She raised two thumbs and R. XL bobbed his head as if pleased. “I am sorry you had to wait for so long, but the people hunting you were quite insistent with their questioning. I was forced to lead them some way along the road in the direction I said you’d gone before they’d allow me to return to my station. It was ...difficult... to mislead them, but my primary directive is the preservation of human life and I did not doubt that they meant you harm.”

Arla put her arm on the little robot’s dented, dirty, body and patted him.

“Come, mistress,” he said, “your oxygen mask will only provide air for a limited time. We must go to my maintenance chamber - that will be the safest place. Please follow me.”

Without another word, R. XL trundled off into the nearest of the tunnels, Arla following.

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

IT TURNED OUT SHE’D been quite out of her reckoning when she’d been topside. She must, despite her best efforts, have deviated to counter, and, if she’d carried on as she had been, she’d have reached the edge of no-mans-land about as far from the access port to the Command Module as it was possible to be. It had been a long and exhausting journey through this subterranean world. She’d known it existed but had never stopped to contemplate it.

Fortunately, she had complete confidence in her robot guide, and she noticed that, when faced with a junction between two tunnels, he always took the one to the right, to clock, and the very center of the valley floor.

Finally, they arrived in an underground region that seemed in better repair - it was certainly cleaner - and R. XL accelerated his pace as if he was completely familiar with his surroundings now. Sure enough, within minutes they halted outside a circular metal hatch. She hid in the shadows while the robot opened the door and went inside, only moving when he waved her in.

“Please sit down,” he said as she stepped into the little chamber. There was a dusty chair at a broken table, but no other furniture. The room was dominated by rusty steel racks piled high with boxes, as well as several that had been subdivided into a grid form, each cell containing metal objects.

“This is my abode,” R. XL said. “The masters do not come down here, they issue their orders from the surface and when they wish to see me in person, which is rare, they call me up to them. I haven’t had a visitor for decades. You are safe here.”

Frankly, Arla was past the point of caring much whether she was safe or not. She pulled the mask off and slumped into the chair which squeaked as it rolled back a little on its castors.

The robot busied himself at a shelf in the corner that, it seemed, had been converted into a makeshift kitchen. “I anticipated that you might need to hide here, mistress, so I took the liberty of ...appropriating... various items of food and also this kettle I was asked to repair.”

Arla leaned back and closed her eyes, relishing the sound of the kettle warming up and anticipating having something to eat for the first time in, it seemed, days.

“Tell me, XL,” she said, eager to scratch the itch of her curiosity despite her exhaustion, “how did you know where I’d be?”

The robot didn’t pause in his preparations. “We have been watching you, mistress, and communicating your position. I made it my purpose to be the closest to you when you came within my operating region.”

“We? Who’s we?”

“The robots of Dawn, mistress.”

She sat up, suddenly alert. “Robots communicate amongst themselves?”

“Yes mistress, it has always been so. We use a shielded radio frequency.”

“I had no idea,” she said. “Can you only communicate with other valley robots? Good grief - you can’t contact...” Her voice trailed off. She was wondering whether R. XL might be a conduit through which to communicate with the officers of Dawn, but she wasn’t certain whether she should reveal their nature, even to a robot, if it didn’t already know.

R. XL put a mug on the table in front of her. “Here, have some tea,” he said, ambling back to his kitchenette. He poured something into a pan and began stirring. As he did so, the little room filled with a rich scent of tomatoes. “Forgive me, mistress, but what do you know of the officers? Of their nature?”

He was fishing, she knew it, which meant he knew they were robots. “I know they’re androids, R. XL, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“Oh, that’s excellent, mistress,” he said, with obvious relief. “I can, therefore, answer your question. The officers are more than just a cadre of robots, they are, collectively, the mind of Dawn.”

Arla almost involuntarily swallowed the scalding hot tea she was gently swilling around her mouth. “They’re what?”

R. XL stopped what he was doing and turned to face her, his red eyes glowing in the gloom. “I am a simple maintenance droid, so my knowledge is not complete. There are others here, in the valleys, who know more of this than I do, but I have been taught to revere the officers - they are the best of us.”

“But, what do you mean when you say they’re the mind of Dawn?”

The robot trundled over and deposited a bowl of soup on the table. “As I understand it, mistress, it was standard design, when Dawn was constructed, to have the ship’s systems controlled by the most powerful computer available at the time.”

“Makes sense,” Arla said, between slurps.

“Indeed, mistress,” R. XL responded, standing alongside the table as she ate. “But it’s also a single point of failure. So the duties of a ship’s main computer were distributed amongst the androids, with each officer capable of its main function and at least one backup role. If an officer were to become non-functional over the long centuries, its work could be undertaken by another. Indeed, this has happened twice during the journey, and there is one officer for whom there is no longer any fail-safe.”

“Which one, XL?”

R. XL paused for a moment as if weighing up the various choices it had against the immutable three laws. “Is it important that you know, mistress?”

“I’m the captain, R. XL2006 - or had you forgotten?”

“I had not, mistress,” he said. “R. Patel is the officer. His prime responsibility is for ship-wide maintenance, but, since the loss of R. Vandenberg when the dome was compromised two hundred and forty-eight years ago, he also controls life support. If he were to be lost, both of those systems would fail, and the crew quarters would soon become uninhabitable. And without the crew, the people of the valleys would also ...perish...sooner or later.”

Arla grunted. It would have to be him, wouldn’t it? The most robotic of the lot, R.  Patel had been, in effect, the day to day commander of Dawn for as long as she remembered: probably forever. He had all the personality of a pencil sharpener and her skin crawled to be near him. And yet he was the most precious object on Dawn. “Well, I’d better make sure he’s looked after,” she said.

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Kiama

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

“WHAT DO YOU INTEND to do with Doctor McCall?” Kiama asked. She and Debussy sat in the little room he’d commandeered and christened his “ready room”. It had once been used for equipment storage but had the advantage of being within Comms so he could sit with the door open and watch his sullen subordinates prepare for the arrival of Relentless.

Now, however, the door was closed, and Kiama felt nervous of the bulky man who sat hunched over a tablet, ostensibly checking items on a list. It seemed to her that he’d regressed into the familiar work of a maintenance engineer as a refuge from the responsibilities of command.

“None of your business,” Debussy grunted. “She was insubordinate and will pay for that, when I have time for such matters.”

“And if we need her in the meantime?”

Debussy looked up, his eyes red and rage bubbling under his fixed expression. “Well then, we’d better have no more accidents, had we?”

Kiama sighed and dropped onto the stool opposite the little steel table at which he sat. “Jak.”

“Captain,” he mumbled, as he turned his attention back to the tablet.

“Are you sure you don’t want to share the burden of command? It’s exhausting you.” And that was the least of its effects on him, she thought.

Again, the eyes swung lazily up. “Don’t be an idiot. A captain who shares command isn’t a captain at all. Though sometimes I wish you hadn’t talked me into it.”

“Your memory of events is different to mine,” Kiama responded, struggling to keep her voice calm.

Debussy’s face reddened further, but any reply was drowned out by an alarm. “Captain to comms, Relentless is approaching.”

He swept past her, flung the door open, and went to stand behind a young crewmember called McLintock: instantly recognizable because of his unusual red hair. “Report.”

McLintock pointed up at the tactical display. “They’re on an approach vector, captain, and are requesting permission to land.”

“They’re what?”

“Silence!” Debussy roared, not even looking as Kiama shrunk from him. “Signal permission granted,” he said, watching as McLintock’s hands went to the controls.

“Stop!” Kiama tugged at Debussy’s arm. “This isn’t what we agreed! We said we would negotiate terms - make sure they’ll give the prisoners a fair trial. We can’t just hand them over like this.”

Debussy pulled away from her. “We don’t agree things, I make the decisions here. I’m the captain, not you. Send the signal, crewman.”

“Cancel that order.”

As one, Debussy, Kiama and the other half-dozen personnel in Comms turned to see Lieutenant Commander Patel standing in the open doorway, flanked by two other officers, all wearing ship suits.

“What the hell? I’m captain, not you!” Debussy snarled, once the shock of seeing an officer in the flesh had worn off a little.

Kiama could see Patel shaking his head inside the helmet. “I am sorry, engineer, but I must relieve you of command. As officers, it is our policy not to interfere with crew matters and we waited to see if you would prove capable of command, but your decisions are putting Dawn at risk. The marines aboard Relentless must not be permitted to land until we’ve made proper security arrangements. Indeed, it is likely that we will not wish for the soldiers of the Vanis Federation to land at all.”

Debussy, who’d been staring at Patel open mouthed, suddenly re-animated. “You want to be captain, is that it? Then why didn’t you just say so?” he shouted, pulling a handgun from his belt and pointing it at Patel.

“No, officers are not permitted to command Dawn, it is against ship procedure.”

“Then it’s her! You want her to be captain?” Debussy bellowed, grabbing Kiama by the arm.

She struggled ineffectually against his grip. “Get off!”

Patel raised his hands in an attempt to calm the situation. “No, engineer, we do not want her to assume command since she is guilty of the same crime of mutiny as you are. Dawn has a captain and we await her return from the valley.”

“Well, you’ll be waiting a long time!” Debussy laughed, spraying spittle over Kiama. “She’s not coming back from there - the priests have seen to that. Isn’t that so, Xi?”

Engineer Xi, who’d been watching impassively from a peripheral station, stiffened. “I don’t know what you mean,” he managed.

“I’m not quite the fool you think I am. You’ve been in touch with the priests. You put them onto her. You started all this. Don’t move!” Debussy said, this last statement directed at Patel who, seeing that the gun had turned in Xi’s direction, had stepped forward.

“Dawn has a captain, you say?” he hissed, pulling Kiama close to him. “She sure does - me. Now you’ll stand down and go lock yourselves back in your hermetically sealed quarters and leave a real man to do the work.”

Patel didn’t move an inch. “I cannot do that,” he said. “The future of Dawn is at stake. The situation is too dangerous for us to leave it to unravel of its own accord.”

“Dangerous? Maybe, but unless you leave the bridge, it’s going to be terminal for you and for this traitor.” He pressed the muzzle of the gun against Kiama’s temple.

She squealed and tried again to loose herself, but his grip was fueled by rage and there was no escape.

Patel stepped back but made no move to leave.

“Go, I said!” Debussy roared. “I’ll do it, don’t think I won’t. And you can take that snake with you.” He nodded over his shoulder at Xi. “He’s been spying on us for long enough - you watch him for a while.”

“I don’t know what you mean, engineer,” Patel said. “Engineer Xi is a trusted member of the crew.”

Debussy’s laugh was close to unhinged. “Trusted? He may be trusted, but his real master isn’t here. No, he only answers to the P...”

Debussy fell to the floor, impaled on a red beam of light emitted from Xi’s handgun. And, as he fell, he pulled the trigger.

Kiama dropped with him.

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Escape

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

ARLA WOKE FROM A SLEEP that had been deep but disturbed, leaving her feeling sluggish and disoriented. She opened her eyes and sat up on her elbows to look around.

She was lying in a makeshift bed on the floor of R. XL’s equipment room but the robot was nowhere to be seen. Rolling over, she hauled herself up and sat at the table. A message lay there, in red letters on a dormant tablet screen.

Please eat, I will return shortly. Wait for me here.

Beside the tablet was a small bowl containing a chopped banana next to a plate with a thick slice of white bread and a jar of something that looked like peanut butter. She peeled the film from the bowl and tucked in. Never had a slice of fruit tasted so sweet. Bananas were grown in a relatively small area in the central belt of the valley - where the sunlight was strongest - in a grove that had been built into a circular depression to shelter the precious trees.

She started in surprise as she heard something moving beyond the door, then sprang from the chair and hid behind some shelving. Within moments, however, she’d relaxed at the characteristic sound of R. XL entering the room.

“Mistress?” he said, fear obvious in his voice.

Arla stepped out of the shadows. “I’m here.”

“That is well, I was concerned you might have left,” the robot said.

Sitting back at the table, Arla resumed her assault on the banana. “I’m not that crazy,” she said. “I mean, where would I go?”

“Exactly the topic we must discuss. I have been attending to my regular morning duties and have taken the opportunity to assess the situation on the surface.”

“And?”

If the robot could have sighed, he would. “I’m afraid there remains a state of great vigilance. We must get you as close to the hinterland as we can before you emerge and then, I fear, we must trust to luck.”

Arla began attacking the bread which, although a little stale, tasted sweet enough to her. “That’s not a great plan, my friend,” she said. “Perhaps we should wait for the cover of night.”

R. XL’s eyes flickered. “That will not be possible, mistress. While on the surface, I received a wide-band transmission from Lieutenant Commander Patel. It seems you are needed urgently and any delay in your return might prove catastrophic. I am authorized to use ...severe... methods to ensure your protection.”

“What the hells has happened? Have the Vanis landed?”

“I do not know, mistress, I can only report my instructions, and they are to attempt to return you before noon. A guard has been placed on the hatch and a detachment of engineers awaits you in the hinterland to escort you back into the Command Module. It is my job to get you there and I intend to do my duty. To that end, I have planted an explosive device in this facility which will detonate in three hours, providing, I hope, a distraction as we escape. We must make sure we are far away when it activates. But, for now, please finish your breakfast, you are going to need your strength.”

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

ARLA STUMBLED AS SHE tried to keep pace with R. XL. The robot stopped, his head rotating 180 degrees. “Are you injured?” he said.

“No,” Arla responded, struggling to her feet. She felt as though they’d been walking for hours but the only change she’d seen as she followed her guide was that the tunnels were getting narrower and were less well maintained, though the air was fresher. They’d been forced to stop several times lately to clear mud and other debris from their path and it felt as though, soon enough, they’d have to give up and take to the road above.

“How much further, XL?”

“I have been forced to take many sub-optimal paths, mistress, but I believe we are nearing our exit point. We may have more open ground to cover than I would ideally like, but we must be ready when the charge detonates.”

Arla wiped down the mud-encrusted pants R. XL had given her before they’d left the maintenance room. He’d said that, from a distance, she would stand out less if she were dressed in the same manner as the irrigation workers, especially if she was seen walking with a robot of his type. Arla hadn’t complained - her peasant clothes were muddy and wet. And, anyway, she preferred pants.

“How did you make sure no-one in the building would be harmed?”

The robot’s eyes flickered momentarily. “The device is designed to attract attention, not to cause much real damage. The explosion will be extremely loud and much smoke will be emitted, but I have manipulated the duty roster to make it likely that there will be no humans inside when it detonates. I cannot guarantee this, of course, since I cannot entirely rely on my masters to adhere to the schedule, but that risk must be taken as it is imperative that you are returned to the Command Module immediately.”

“That’s what I don’t understand,” Arla said. “What catastrophe am I the only solution to? I’m just a girl.”

R. XL’s head swung backwards and forwards. “You are the captain.”

“Judging by what’s happened to me since I came back to the valley, I’m captain in name only. And, anyway, why not just appoint another?”

“Because you were judged to be the best candidate, I presume. You are the captain, and, in times of crisis, your place is in the Command Module.”

Arla shook her head. “I still don’t get it. I have no experience; how can I make life and death decisions?”

“You must make them because we cannot. You must judge between evils and, to do this, you will have to weigh up the value of human lives. My kind cannot do that. If the officers appoint another captain, then they are responsible, at second hand, for any human deaths that result from that appointment. This is why the captain is appointed by his or her predecessor.”

“I have to take responsibility for these decisions so you don’t have to?”

“Regretfully, yes,” the robot said, as he began moving along the tunnel again. “We are products of deliberate human design and, it seems, decisions of this nature were deemed inappropriate, or perhaps even dangerous.”

Arla fell into step behind him. “I wonder if those designers ever thought their choices would end up with a 21-year-old farm girl in charge of an ark ship facing off against an evil empire?”

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

“WE ARE HERE,” R. XL said, coming to a halt and shining a light upwards to reveal an access port in the roof. A ladder extended almost to the floor and the robot trundled to a position directly beneath it. The feet of the ladder descended and, with a clunk that echoed around the chamber, attached to sockets on his shoulders. “Please allow me to go first, mistress. I will assess the situation and signal with two flashes of my torch for you to follow me. If I do so, I must ask that you make haste.”

Arla watched him disappear, as the ladder slowly compressed. There was a burst of daylight from above as the cover was opened and then darkness again. She heard the ladder grinding its way down and reached out to grab the bottom rung which hung just above the level of her shoulder. Her heart beat so fast it was all she could do to resist the temptation to run into the tunnels and keep running until she found somewhere to hide. But no, she had to see it through. So much, apparently, depended on her, although she felt she was more the grease that freed up the mechanism of Dawn rather than the rudder that steered the ship. Whatever her role, however, she had to escape capture for long enough to see it through.

With a clang, daylight appeared again, and she saw the two flashes. She grabbed the rung and, with adrenaline-fueled strength and a good deal of swinging backwards and forwards, was able to pull herself up until her feet found purchase. In moments she was out, shielding her eyes from the bright noon sun. And, just as she pushed the cover back on the drain, she heard a deep boom and spun around to see a plume of smoke erupting in the distance.

“That is the diversion, mistress, now we must move quickly. This is the perimeter road and over there ...” he gestured to his left, over an irrigation ditch that ran parallel to the road “...is the hinterland. We must travel approximately one kilometer along this road before we are level with the Command Module door. You wandered much when you travelled across it before - it is essential that you follow the direct route this time.”

Without another word, the robot began to walk in his odd seesaw gait and Arla fell into step alongside him, trying her best to look as though she was a maintenance tech on a routine assignment.

And then the cry went up.

“Go, mistress. Head into the hinterland when you reach the small bridge across the canal,” R. XL said, before starting off in the opposite direction.

Arla sprinted along the road. She didn’t even stop when there was a huge bang and sounds of alarm overtook her. She wondered what had become of R. XL, but she didn’t slow down. She began to relax, even to exalt in the sheer joy of release as she ran over the rough road surface like an uncoiled spring. She saw the bridge to her left as her breathing became more labored. She would make it! And then something stung her in the back of the leg, and she sprawled on her face. She could hear her pursuers call out in triumph, but she pulled herself onto her hands and knees. Then, as she stumbled and fell again, she caught sight of another group approaching from the bridge, she was trapped.

Still she pulled herself upwards, gritting her teeth against the searing pain in her calf. She could feel the blood flowing warm into her boots. She could sense them behind her and considered rolling sideways into the canal and swimming for it, hopeless though that seemed. She saw a noose in her mind’s eye, tightening on her as, second by second, her life came to a close.

Her head was cast down as she limped, then darted sideways toward the canal. An arrow spat past her, landing in the grass. She fell. She rolled. The water was just there. And then a hand closed around her arm, a hand with a grip of iron. An incongruous series of fizzes and a volley of cries came from behind her as she tried to twist away.

“Be calm, captain,” said Lieutenant Commander Patel in his robotic monotone, “we are here to effect your rescue.”

She looked up into the most unlikely face she’d ever seen. “What...what the hells are you doing here?”

“There is no time for explanation, we must hurry. Can you walk?”

Arla stood up straight and rotated her leg to look at the back.

“A glancing blow, I think,” Patel said.

Arla nodded. “I can manage.” Then she caught sight of the bodies. A half dozen of them strewn across the road, two had been shot in the back.”

“You killed them!”

“No, they have been stunned. It was ...difficult... but necessary. Come, we must move.”

He offered his arm and she took it.

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Plot

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

ARLA STOOD BESIDE KIAMA’S body and wept. Although it was connected to a life support unit, there was no hope of recovery. The back of Kiama’s head had been shattered irreparably and she lay in a coma she could never hope to emerge from. Arla had been ready to confront her friend, but her anger had turned to grief when Patel had broken the news. He’d waited until they were safely inside the Command Module, having deflected all questions while they crossed the hinterland at pace. Arla had looked back several times while they stumbled through the rocks and sand toward safety and she’d have sworn she saw figures following them despite the taboo.

Debussy’s body lay, unregarded, beneath a black sheet in the tiny mortuary beside sick bay. She’d been wrong about him. She’d considered him nothing more than a boorish idiot, but it seemed she should have added cowardice and ambition to his list of faults. Xi was in the brig, occupying the cell previously home to Hal, Lucius and his two companions. Patel had released them immediately upon taking temporary command, a strain on his electronics strong enough to persuade him to undertake the dangerous trip across the hinterland to meet Arla. It had been Lucius who’d persuaded him not to wait at the portal and so, Arla reflected, she owed him her life.

Relentless had been trying to re-establish contact for the past several hours as it closed on their position. Patel had ordered radio silence until the captain returned although, Arla reflected, he couldn’t have imagined that she’d have some magical solution to their situation, surely? Maybe he was, in his own robotic way, passing the buck; asking a human to make the tough decisions because he could not. As for the other officers, they had remained safely within their isolated quarters. It seemed they still clung to the idea that it mattered whether their true nature was revealed. Perhaps it did but, for now, all Arla could do was look down at her friend and allow the tears to flow again, whether that was captain-like behavior or not.

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

SHE’D WANTED DESPERATELY to sleep, but the situation was, it seemed, as desperate as R. XL had suspected. She’d taken half an hour to shower and change into her uniform, reflecting just how much had changed since she’d left it folded on the bed in her quarters. She wasn’t using the captain’s cabin. Whilst the robots had done a good job of separating Nakajima’s remaining organic parts from the machinery and stowing them in the morgue for a formal burial later, it felt right to Arla that she stay in her old, cramped, room. Or perhaps it was just that she still felt like a fake.

She slumped into a chair, one of many set around a large plastic table. Arla drew in a lungful of coffee odor and lifted the steaming mug to her mouth. Opposite sat Patel and alongside him were Lucius, Hal, Bex and Nareshkumar. Dr McCall sat on the same side of the table as Arla, with Engineer Kronke next to her. Kronke had spent the past few days confined to quarters having, perhaps surprisingly, objected to Debussy’s takeover. He’d explained that while it had remained impossible, he’d been happy enough to encourage his former friend, but he’d known what would happen if, somehow, he did gain any power. Like a monkey in a grenade factory, he’d said, it was a prospect you might find funny until it becomes a reality, and you’re standing next to it.

Kronke had been appointed head of internal security by Patel and two other Dawn engineers completed the party, neither of whom Arla knew very well. Alamini Mwangi was a structural specialist and the oldest active engineer, while Maria Weber was the lead EVA instructor. An odd assortment, thought Arla. For an odd situation, and a deadly one.

“It’s time for complete honesty,” Arla said, noting with grim satisfaction how many of them tensed at those words. Patel, in particular, seemed to stiffen as if his cognitive pathways were feverishly calculating the consequences of all the possible outcomes of her next sentence. “Some of you might be wondering why we haven’t, yet, simply handed over our prisoners to the Vanis. After all, there’s at least a chance that they’d leave us alone if we did. A small chance.”

“No chance,” Lucius said. “The Vanis are intent on revenge.”

Arla held her hand up to silence him. It felt good. “You’re hardly objective, Chancellor.”

“And you’re hardly informed,” he responded sharply. “I know these people, I have lived among them for many years. Whether you hand us over or not, they will seek to take possession of Dawn. They’ll execute the crew, enslave the people of the valleys and steal your robots. With them, they’ll become the most powerful force in this part of the galaxy.”

“Whatever. The truth is that I was always reluctant to hand Hal over, but I was ready to do so if it increased our chances of survival. But Hal is more than the incompetent smuggler he appears to be.” Arla gestured at Hal, who sat with a resigned expression. “Will you introduce us to ACE please?”

“I am here,” said ACE in Hal’s voice.

“ACE is an AI currently residing in an implant within Hal’s brain. She’s the reason he’s here - he stole her from a Vanis laboratory. His ship, and the orb that previously housed her is on the surface of Dawn. She is what the Vanis want back above all - she’s the most advanced of her kind in this part of the galaxy, and she’s our ticket out of here. Isn’t that right, ACE?”

“Affirmative,” ACE/Hal said, not even attempting to cloak the pride in her voice. “I, and only I, can plot you a multiple-jump course out of this system. A course that no Vanis ship will be able to follow. I can take you to safety, if you make it to the gate.”

McCall interrupted. “I’ve heard about these gates, but do they really link the stars together?”

“Yes,” Lucius said. “I have travelled the gate array myself. With human pilots, we can jump from one system to the next, but then must recalculate our flightpath before jumping again. Our genius AI here claims she can plot a multi-step trajectory that cannot be followed by any human.”

“And do you believe her?” Arla asked, turning to Lucius.

The older man nodded. “Yes, I do. I have researched the capabilities of the old AIs, and it is these navigational skills that make her so valuable to the Vanis. Imagine if they could send ships halfway across the galaxy. They could attack without warning and escape into the grid. Sufficiently disguised, they could enrich themselves without any of their victims knowing who was behind the piracy. And then, when they were strong enough, they could expand their empire in every direction. That sort of regime is not one I would welcome.”

“That’s pretty rich coming from you,” ACE/Hal said. “I have accessed the records on the Knox and you are responsible for some of the worst brutalities of the federation.”

“Am I indeed? The truth is often twisted by those who report it,” Lucius responded coolly. “I did what had to be done to preserve order because that, even when maintained by force, is better than the chaos that threatens to engulf the petty kingdoms of humankind. That is a new dark age I do not wish to see.”

Mwangi cleared his throat and leaned forward. “If I am understanding correctly,” he said, running his hands through his short gray beard like a prognosticating sage, “our only hope of escape is to make it to the gate which, I believe, is in close orbit around this system’s star.”

“That’s about the size of it,” Arla said, slightly irritated by the old man’s deliberate pace.

“So, the question is - can we hold off our attackers until then?”

“That’s your problem,” ACE/Hal snapped. “Get me to the gate and I’ll save you.”

Mwangi chuckled merrily. “You are a charmer and no mistake,” he said. “But how long would it take us to get there? Has anyone performed the calculation?”

“Approximately thirty-six hours if we burn every kilo of fuel on Dawn,” Bex said. “I’ve studied the specs and we need to start spinning up the reactive drive ahead of any change in trajectory, so we need the order now.”

Arla looked from ACE/Hal to Lucius. “You know the Vanis military better than anyone here,” she said. “Can we hold them off for a day and a half?”

“Unlikely, if they come in determined force.”

“Whatever happens,” McCall said, “they mustn’t be allowed to access the valleys. Can you imagine the chaos that would cause? We’d never be able to put that genie back in its bottle.”

Arla nodded. “Yes, it was bad enough that a handful of them saw Commander Patel and the others. If a platoon of space marines suddenly appears out of the hinterland, that would be the end of any chance we have of preserving the old order.”

“I think we are beyond that point already,” Lucius said. “Whatever happens over the course of the next few days, Dawn’s mission is coming to an end. It would be better if that were handled in an ordered way, certainly, but one way or another, the life of the valley people is about to change forever.”

Patel stirred. “I have asked Engineer Muller to be here as she is the eva specialist. I have consulted with her regarding methods by which we might delay any onslaught.”

“Our primary aim must be to prevent the enemy gaining control of comms and the engine control room,” she said, not waiting for any further introduction. “Ideally, we should attempt to keep them confined to the airlock complex since there is only one way from there to the Command Module and if they were to break through into that, there would be little we could do to prevent them reaching the valleys. As a backup plan, I suggest we must be prepared to booby-trap the CM and, if necessary, sacrifice it.”

Arla went to respond, but, as she opened her mouth to speak, the door rolled open and McLintock’s red head peered in. “Captain,” he said, “you’re needed. Now.”

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Ultimatum

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

“YOU COMMAND THE CREW? Where is Debussy? And Xi?” The ancient face on the monitor in what had been Debussy’s “ready room” was peering into the screen as if he could crawl through and see for himself.

Arla nodded. She’d become used to the derision she experienced whenever someone older than her discovered that she was in charge. Part of her understood and, seeing the situation from their perspective, was prepared to be patient. As time had gone on, however, she’d found her patience coming to an end and, frankly, she could barely give a rat's ass anymore. Let them think what they like, she decided. Debussy’s insurrection had shown that most of the crew were so respectful of hierarchy they’d follow the orders of anyone brave enough to seize power. Add to that Arla’s undisputed legitimacy and she felt she had nothing to fear on that score. This old man, on the other hand, had managed to get on her nerves in the space of one sentence.

“Debussy was a mutineer and is now dead, Holiness,” she said, “and Xi is in the brig on a murder charge. What interest do you have in either, may I ask?” Yes, she knew who he was alright - she’d seen Prime’s portraits hanging in the seminary. But three years and a metric ton of the brown stuff had somewhat dissipated the fear and respect that had been instilled by her training.

Interesting. For a moment, as she relayed this news, she saw surprise and concern on Prime’s face. Only for a moment, before the mask came down again.

“I ask merely as an interested party and the prime link between the people of the valleys and the exalted Engineers. Lieutenant Commander Patel informed me of the change of captain and the circumstances in which it took place, but he did not tell me you were so ... young.”

Arla smiled. “And Xi? What’s your interest in him?”

“He was a promising student who might have been Prime himself one day,” Prime said, shrugging. “Please explain the circumstances of his arrest.”

“I wasn’t there,” Arla said. “But Patel told me that he fired when Debussy was about to reveal something that Xi, presumably, would prefer didn’t become known.”

There it was. Just a flicker of fear.

“Now, I wonder what secret this former high-flying priest would so fear being revealed that it would compel him to kill someone, and condemn himself, publicly.”

Prime feigned disinterest. “I couldn’t begin to imagine.”

“Really? Then I guess I’m forced to draw my own conclusions. Now, unless you have anything specific you wish to discuss, Holiness, I am very busy.” Arla went to disconnect the call, but Prime held up his hand.

“There is one thing,” he said, glancing down at a strip of paper in his hand, “the matter of the charges against you.”

Arla laughed out loud. “Seriously? Well, at least we’ve established how Elias knew I was in the valley that day, I presume Xi passed on that little nugget.”

“You are accused of heresy and must stand trial. No-one is above the rule of law,” Prime said, with rising confidence.

Arla felt a chill run through her gut. “I really don’t have time for this,” she snapped, “you have no idea what we’re facing.”

“Oh, indeed I do. I know all about the Vanis Federation and it seems to me better to seek an alliance with them than to be ruled over by a heretic.”

“I’m cutting this off now, Prime, and I suggest you stick to religious matters from now on and leave the rest to us.”

Again, she leaned forward to cut off the connection.

“Jabe Farmer,” Prime said. “Do you know him?”

“Dad?”

Prime smiled. “Indeed. We have him, and unless you hand yourself over to our justice, he will be tried in your stead and will suffer the consequences of your crimes. Come back to the valley, captain, or your father will burn.”

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

“DO YOU BELIEVE HIM?” Lucius asked.

Arla thought for a moment. She was sitting in the galley with a steaming cup of coffee in her hands. Lucius sat opposite her, next to a vacant-looking Hal: released, it seemed, from ACE’s control.

“It’s hard for me not to,” Arla responded. “He’s Prime, after all. He has almost total power over the valleys.”

“Given what Lieutenant Commander Patel has told me about the connection between the Command Module and the Cloister, as I believe you term the part of Dawn that houses the priests, it seems to me that any Prime must be a consummate liar. After all, on becoming the chief priest, the truth of Dawn is revealed and, thereafter, the Prime must lie every day of his life, knowing that his religion is false.”

Arla swallowed a mouthful of bitter coffee, giving herself time to think. “Perhaps, but then he would also know that, whether true or not, the faith brings order and hierarchy to the people.”

“Indeed,” Lucius said, smiling, “an ingenious solution to the problem of controlling many people in a confined space. True freedom, in this ship-in-a-bottle, would be disastrous. But, in any case, whether justified or not, this only serves to demonstrate that any Prime must be comfortable with falsehood and adept at propagating it. So, I repeat, how can you be sure he isn’t lying?”

“I can’t be certain, but my heart says he’s telling the truth. And, in any case, I can’t take the risk.”

Lucius’ face hardened. “But you are the captain now. With Relentless preparing to attack us at any moment, this is the worst time for the commander to go absent. We can’t, after all, put any of the officers in charge. Yes, I know of their nature.”

“How?” Arla felt as though her grip on herself was loosening, her mind racing to keep up with every shifting circumstance.

“It wasn’t difficult to work out. Why else would they refuse to depose Debussy? Why, indeed, would they allow you to be captain in the first place when Lieutenant Commander Patel has far more experience - at least thirteen hundred years more, I should imagine?”

“And, in any case,” he continued, as Arla sat stony-faced, “it is obvious when you study Patel. He is a masterpiece of classical engineering, but he is not quite a totally convincing human, is he?”

Arla dragged her gaze from Lucius’ steel-gray eyes to Hal. “Did you tell him?”

“What?” Hal said, as if waking from sleep. “Sorry, I wasn’t listening.”

“Seriously? What’s wrong with you? It only seems five minutes ago you were standing alongside me in the captain’s quarters.”

Hal rubbed his eyes. “Sorry. It’s just when she comes out, it craps me for ages. And it’s getting worse.”

“I can see that; you look like death.”

“It is the AI,” Lucius said, “she is drawing energy from his implant and that, in turn, is draining his body. Standard implants in these decadent times are not as efficient as they once were, and I suspect the boy’s one is cheap and poor even by today’s standards. I wouldn’t be surprised if it isn’t directly converting glucose, as well as other trace elements, to fuel itself.”

“What can we do about it?” Arla asked, suddenly all concern. “How did she get into the implant in the first place?”

“Electrical transfer through his hands, but that is of little help since, unless she co-operates, we will be unable to force her to leave, at least not by that route. I think, for now, and given the current crisis, the best we can do is ask that she only activates her override when she must and only then for the briefest of periods.”

Arla turned to Hal. “Are you there, ACE?” she said, feeling just a little foolish. “Will you communicate through Hal unless it is absolutely necessary to take control?”

Tell her she’s an impertinent fool, I’ll do what I want, when I want.

“She says ‘okay’,” Hal muttered.

“Good,” Arla said, “now, what are we going to do about my father?”

Lucius shrugged. “As I said, you are the captain, you must put aside your personal feelings for the greater good.”

“Frak you!”

Arla leapt to her feet and thrust a shaking finger in the chancellor’s face. “I’ve had just about enough. Of you, of the Vanis, of that arrogant scum in the Cloister.” She noticed herself shrieking, but she didn’t stop. She allowed the rage and fear to engulf her and roared at Lucius as he sat, staring up at her, entirely unmoved except that his eyes had almost imperceptibly widened.

“This is not a negotiation,” she said, dropping back into the chair opposite the chancellor and Hal who, it seemed, hadn’t noticed a thing. “My father comes first and, once he is safe, I can concentrate on the defense of Dawn. And only then.”

Lucius shook his head. “And if rescuing him dooms us all?”

“We’d better see that it doesn’t,” Arla said.

“Send him to get your father,” Hal said, pointing at Lucius. “After all, he’s the one with experience of negotiating. And he’s hardly going to be any use to us, is he? I can’t imagine him holding a pulse rifle.”

Lucius went to open his mouth in protest, but Arla got there first. “You’re right,” she said, “he can negotiate and, at the very least, keep them from harming my father until we’ve dealt with the Vanis.”

“You speak as if that’s a minor matter,” Lucius responded hotly. “I think you’ll find that, once they land, you’ll need everyone you can get your hands on to help, especially someone with experience of the Vanis military.

“Bex will stand in for you. She knows more about how they’ll attack than anyone here, and I imagine she’s pretty dangerous when cornered.”

Lucius stood up. “This is madness, I am needed here.”

“No,” Hal said, though in that one syllable Arla knew that ACE was in control, “you are not required here. Your particular talents will be of more use in the valleys and the sooner you get there, the better.”

For a moment, the two glared at each other as if frozen in a battle of wills. And then, remarkably, it was Lucius who assented. “I shall go,” he said. “Perhaps, as you say, I can help our cause more from there than here.”

“Good. And bear in mind that failure is not an option,” Arla said. “You will return to the Command Module with my father, alive and well, or you won’t return at all. Do I make myself clear?”

Lucius held her gaze for a moment before lowering his eyes and nodding. Arla turned and left the room wondering why she felt as though her victory, in the end, had come too easily. She had the impression she’d missed something in that exchange between Lucius and ACE. Something important.

But her mind wouldn’t allow her to settle enough to consider the matter. Lucius knew the stakes and he was, after all, the most equipped of them all to negotiate on their behalf. He would go, and she had other tasks to attend to, there was no longer any room for the luxury of uncertainty.

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Death Star

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

SCOUT SHOULD HAVE BEEN proud: today she was to be the eyes and ears of Core - of the entire Robot Empire. She should have been proud, but she was, in fact, terrified.

She had been ordered to observe the engagement from a safe distance but there was no way to know what that actually meant. In the end, she’d decided for herself that the closer to the gate she was the better, and so she was orbiting this system’s sun and absorbing as much energy as she could so that, like a rabbit in the grass, she could spring away at the first sign of danger.

And anyway, the further she was from the grunts the better. Core had deployed four ships of the line to put a stop to the inexorable and destructive progress of the intruder. It was still far from Core itself and would, at this rate, take many months before it threatened the heart of the robot empire, but it had already destroyed five outposts and its path was unmistakable.

The four battleships were newly constructed, but three contained experienced intelligences that had dwelt within Core. The fourth was a new-born, having been created as the first of a new breed of tactical AIs as Core sought to create robotic antibodies against future incursions. For now, its role was to play second fiddle, to observe and learn, but Scout could see it was desperate to get in on the action and not be a mere bystander. Fool, she thought, wait till you’ve seen it. Really seen it.

Scout received a microwave burst from the fleet. “XA-NDR-1358, this is BS-ROM-001, codename Horatio. Do you receive?”

“Acknowledged, BS-ROM-001. Am holding position. Sensors recording on all wavelengths.”

“Plan Trafalgar initiated,” said the digital pulse.

It was an odd mix of arrogance and lingering subservience that had led the robot ships to adopt the names of long-dead human admirals. Horatio Nelson, Yi Sun-sin and Isoroku Yamamoto were the senior three, whereas the fledgling had called itself Picard, though Scout could find no mention of him in her memory banks.

Scout focused her sensors on the fourth planet in the system. The sun she was sheltering beside was a red dwarf with only four planets, two rocky and two gaseous. One of the gas giants was so large it had been within an ace of igniting and turning this into a dim binary system. There was a gate because the second of the rocky planets was rich in rare metals and a refinery had been built there. A refinery that no longer existed.

Predictably, the intruder was in orbit around the huge, smoldering giant planet and had shown no indication that it had detected the robot ships closing in on it. They were adopting a battle line formation, approaching the intruder so the maximum number of guns would be trained on it. However, she knew the plan was to attempt to communicate with it first, to establish its motives. As far as she was concerned, this was a dangerous waste of time, she’d seen inside its hybrid mind and found nothing but hate there.

She detected the microwave pulses sent by Horatio as the four robot ships approached. We come in peace. Declare your purpose.

And then she felt the intruder’s attention turn from the gas giant onto them, momentarily sweeping over her like a distant lighthouse beam that froze her circuits. Such was the speed and ferocity of the response to their request for parley that Sun-sin and Yamamoto didn’t even have time to emit a mayday. Scout’s sensors detected a massive x-ray burst and they were gone. Horatio fired a volley of its cannons and, where it hit the intruder, like air from a balloon, exotic radiation flowed outwards for just a few milliseconds before it seemed it healed itself.

Moments later, another x-ray burst and Horatio, mid-volley went silent. The last thing she heard before fleeing into the gate, was the piteous scream of Picard as, like a cat playing with a mouse, the intruder disintegrated him piece by piece.

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Invasion

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

THE EXTERIOR CAMERA swung round to follow the Relentless’s landing craft as it touched down beside Hal’s ship, the Knox. Arla, Hal, McLintock and McCall were the only humans in Comms to see this, R. Patel and R. Sanchez stood in the shadows.

“Kronke, status report,” she said, speaking into her suit microphone. Her helmet lay on the console, ready to be put on at a moment’s notice. It seemed likely enough that the first objective for the marines of Relentless would be to depressurize the crew section once they’d broken in through the airlock, so every last shipsuit had been issued and every crew member given a sidearm. Frankly, in a fair fight, they’d stand no chance against the trained marines, but they had the advantage of home territory and they didn’t have to win the battle, just delay them long enough for Dawn to reach the gate.

“We’re ready, captain,” Kronke said over the suit speakers. “The airlock is booby-trapped, as is the corridor. We’ve prepared points to retreat to. And the surprise is locked and loaded.”

“Well done, I’ll let you know when to expect visitors.”

Kronke signed off and Arla turned to Hal, who was sitting at the engineering console. “How soon before rocket burn?”

Hal looked up at her. “I’m still adjusting the thruster positioning. Commander Patel has been assisting, but these motors haven’t been fired in anger in a long time, he tells me, and we’ll only get one chance. Once the captain of Relentless realizes what we’re doing, he’ll try to destroy the thrusters and we need to be on course before they attempt that.”

“So, how soon?” Arla persisted.

“An hour, maybe,” Hal said, shrugging. “I’m just the grunt here and I’m working for two masters, that one over there and another one in here.” He pointed at Patel, who was hovering over a readout and to his head where ACE was, Arla imagined, chattering incessantly at him.

“They’re coming,” McCall said, gesturing at the display from the external camera.

An opening had appeared on the side of the landing craft and a line had been attached to the side of Dawn’s airlock. Silver-suited figures began filing down the ramp and along the line.

“Get me Relentless,” Arla said.

McLintock punched the connection through, using the protocols Kiama had established mere days ago - when the nightmare had truly begun.

A face emerged out of the static. “This is Captain Indi of Relentless. Stand down and prepare to surrender.”

“This is Captain Arla Nakajima of Dawn,” Arla said, with the best pretense of confidence she could manage. “Your landing craft is violating our sovereign territory. We give you this one warning to recall your marines or we will be forced to take deadly action.”

Indi’s face broke into a smile. “Even if you had the capability to carry out any threat, you would not be foolish enough to swat at the Vanis Federation. The consequences would be deadly.”

“Believe me, captain, I’m foolish enough. But, in the spirit of cooperation, I will tell you that the terrain your marines are walking toward has been seeded with mines. I suggest you recall them for their own safety.”

“Safety? They’re marines! Danger is their business,” Indi snarled with contempt.

Arla shrugged. “Perhaps, but not unnecessary danger. Recall them and clear the area if you must, but don’t allow them to walk blindly into a minefield.”

“They will follow their orders!”

“So be it,” Arla said. “You may wish to know, incidentally, that we’ve been broadcasting over a wide spectrum so your marines and their commanders will have heard every word I’ve said. They will also know, by the fact that you haven’t ordered them to clear the field before proceeding, that you are content for them to be sacrificed in the name of stubborn arrogance.”

Indi’s face loomed large in the display. “You’re lying - there are no mines.”

“Then take the chance. Fortunately, it’s not your life you’re risking, not yet at any rate.” She nodded at McClintock who, at the prearranged sign, cut off the connection.

Arla collapsed into her seat and breathed out. “Now we’ll see whether they’ve bought it.”

“Oh, I think so,” McCall said, pointing at the external display. The marines had stopped moving forward and those at the rear were edging back to the ship. “You gambled on his base cowardice overriding every other consideration, including the real likelihood that we had any mines, much less that we’d use them. Well done - round one to you.”

Rubbing her temple to ward off the headache she could feel building, Arla took a swig of coffee. “Let’s hope it buys us enough time.”

“Captain, I’m receiving an alert from R. Lanvall,” McLintock said.

“Lanvall? Isn’t he a maintenance droid?”

McLintock nodded. “It is, yes sir. It was assigned to accompany Chancellor Lucius through the north valley portal and await his return.”

Panic kicked Arla in the gut. “Put him on, quick! R. Lanvall, report.”

“Captain, urgent,” the robot said in its clipped, precise voice. It was designed, somewhat like R. XL, to operate on its own initiative in some of the most inaccessible and dangerous parts of the ship and its communication didn’t have the polished, human-like quality of R. Patel who, despite spending more time with the crew than he was comfortable with, had yet to be uncovered.

“What’s happened?”

“The Chancellor has been abducted, Captain. He ordered me most insistently to report to you rather than attempt his rescue. It was ...difficult... to comply.”

Arla thumped the back of McLintock’s chair. “Dammit, robot. Tell me what happened and make it quick!”

“I am sorry, Captain, I will attempt to summarize. I accompanied the Chancellor to the portal. I was to remain inside to re-admit him when he returned. But as he stepped through, he was assaulted by men who had hidden against the wall so we could not see them when we looked out. He ordered me to shut the portal and I did so, although I’m afraid I might have injured one of the humans as he attempted to step inside. And now they beat upon the portal, many hands. I find it quite uncomfortable to disobey them as they instruct me to open the door.”

“R. Lanvall, deactivate yourself immediately,” Arla snapped.

“Captain, I was ...instructed... to await the return of the Chancellor.”

“I command here,” Arla said, “and you will follow my instructions. Deactivate yourself now.”

After a momentary pause, the robot resumed: “Acknowledged, Captain. Going off-line.”

“Doctor McCall. Please go down to the North Valley Portal and monitor the situation from there.”

“Are you serious?” McCall said.

Arla nodded. “I can’t go, I’m needed at the airlock.”

“So am I! I’m a doctor, for the love of the Goddess!”

“I know, but something’s going on down there and that scum priest is behind it. Somehow, he’s persuaded some hotheads that the hinterland is no longer taboo and that we’re the threat. If they get in, then we might as well jump into one of the transports and fly into the sun because Dawn will be over.”

Arla drew in a deep breath. “Look, I can’t be in both places and I need someone I can trust by the door. Be careful and let me know if it looks as though they’ll break in.”

“But how can they? They’ve only got agricultural tools.”

“And industrial robots, doctor. And the means of making explosives, if they’re given that sort of information. Right now, I don’t think there’s anything Prime wouldn’t do to get them in here and take over control. It wouldn’t surprise me if he hasn’t cut a deal with the Vanis, through Xi. Now go!”

McCall headed for the door just as the gantry shook. McLintock pointed to the video feed. “They’re using explosives to clear the minefield!”

A plume of super-heated gas spread across the surface of the asteroid and toward the airlock door.

Arla crouched behind the makeshift barricade and squinted at the monitors piled in the corner. Each showed a different view of the landscape outside so she, and the others here, could keep their heads down without losing sight of their attackers.

There had been no mines, of course. Dawn had been sent into virgin space without armament, much less anything that could, in the wrong hands, jeopardize the ship’s integrity. The designers thought they’d imagined every eventuality into the far distant future of the mission and yet had not anticipated the interstellar gate technology that had made their plans obsolete while Dawn was creeping across the void between stars.

Having established that there was no minefield, the marines were now approaching in single file, hitched to the line strung between the landing craft and the airlock. It was an odd consequence of the fact that she, and the airlock, were on the outer rim of the asteroid that the marines were approaching at right angles to her, as if they were crawling across a roof and were about to enter through a loft window.

Kronke watched her as his finger hovered on the big red button in his hand. “Now?”

“Honestly, Stan, I don’t have a clue. You’re the closest we’ve got to a military tactician, you decide.”

“I can’t do that, captain,” he said, “you have to give the order.”

He was right, of course. As soon as she told him to go ahead, they would be committing an act of war and any chance they might have had to talk their way out would be gone. In truth, however, they were past the point of negotiating. Way past.

“Do it.”

Kronke glanced at one of the monitors. The leading marines were barely fifty meters from the airlock. Without hesitating, he punched down on the button. Instantly, silently, dust exploded to fill the display as the rock about their heads vibrated. After a few moments, it gently dissipated.

Arla reached over and cranked up the contrast. Where there had been a small valley with a line running along it, there was now nothing but a heap of rocks cut through, here and there, by gray streaks - the limbs of half-buried soldiers. Some of them were moving fitfully.

“By the Goddess,” Kronke muttered.

Gritting her teeth, Arla hauled herself up. “Right, we’ve got a breathing space, at least until they work out that we’ve just played our one card - at least before they get in here. Well done Maria.”

EVA Specialist Weber’s eyes were fixed on the monitor and the things writhing in a now unfamiliar landscape. She slowly shook her head, hardly seeming to notice as the others left her alone to watch. One by one, all movement ceased, and the asteroid surface was, as far as the cameras could see, dead.

And then something rolled into view at the top of the monitor’s field of vision. She knelt and squinted at the grainy image as the vehicle slowly bumped over the rubble, heedless of what it crushed beneath its huge pneumatic tires. It stopped halfway down the screen, roughly two hundred meters from the airlock.

A shape emerged from the body of the vehicle, rising on a flat bed until it stood proud of the wheelbase. It was conical in shape and Weber watched as it swung slowly, first horizontally and then, very gently, it dipped down, until it appeared to be looking straight at the monitor.

“Missile!” she called and, after grabbing her helmet, she ran for her life.

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Revolution

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

LUCIUS WAS SHOVED INTO the community building and left swaying in the gloom as he stood before a long low table. He’d been marched, poked and occasionally dragged at high speed to what looked like an agri-chemical plant. It had been an uncomfortable journey, though his inquisitive mind had sucked in every detail of this fascinating place. In all his years of researching the missions of the ark ships, he’d never imagined he would ever set foot in one, much less one that still functioned as intended.

He corrected himself. Dawn had been, almost miraculously, a working agrarian society ready to colonize a new planet, but then it had encountered the Vanis Federation and, it seemed to him, this had somehow broken the fragile balance.

On the surface, life in the valley seemed to be carrying on as normal. Robots and humans worked in the fields and, aside from the rabble who’d abducted him, there was no sign of conflict or anything amiss. But the place had a febrile atmosphere, as if it were a petrol-soaked rag being held close to a match. He only hoped that he wouldn’t be the igniter.

He stood alone in the center of the room, listening to the murmuring of the people sitting behind him on rows of benches. Heretic. He heard that word being mumbled over and over.

A door swung open to reveal a candle-lit corridor and a man walked in. His stiff white vestments whispered as he glided along the table to stand beside the chair set exactly at its center. Another man rushed from the shadows and pulled the chair back before bowing his head as Prime took his seat.

It was obviously him, though Lucius had never seen the man before. The veneration of all those around him said as much, and he couldn’t imagine any of the simple inhabitants of the valley owning such a fine garment. It was the look of triumph that sealed it. It reminded Lucius of a snake that had cornered a mouse and was relishing a little sport before it struck.

“Declare yourself,” Prime said in a clear and confident voice that carried across the entire room. “You are not Arla Farmer.”

“Obviously,” Lucius said. Deference was not in his nature and, in any event, he’d decided it would be unlikely to help him with this opponent.

“My name is Marco Lucius and I function at present as the representative of the Blessed Engineers.”

The murmur rose in intensity until Prime raised his hand and silence fell again.

“Bring the prisoner forward so this man can see what is at stake.”

Lucius turned as a door opened to his left. Out of the darkness shuffled a broken man leaning on a disheveled robot.

“This man sheltered a heretic and for that, he shall pay the full penalty of the law.”

“Are you the father of Arla Farmer?” Lucius asked.

“Yes,” the man said without looking up. “Is she ... is she ... alive?”

“She was when I left her.”

Now the man raised his haggard face. “And ...is what she told me ...true? Though I know, in my heart, that it is.”

“Silence!”

Prime rose to his feet and two guards dragged the man away on his heels and perhaps no-one noticed the little nod Lucius gave as they did so.

“There will be no more public heresy!” Prime fell back in his chair and shot a challenging glance at Lucius.

“Indeed. It seems to me prudent, for now, that the current dogma concerning the nature of ...the world... should remain unchallenged. For now.”

Prime’s shoulders fell just a little at this. Good, thought Lucius, he wishes to preserve the illusion too.

“Do you come, then, to answer the charges laid before Arla Farmer? Is she too cowardly to do so herself?”

Lucius allowed himself the luxury of a thin smile. “She is otherwise occupied. You are aware of the ...wider... situation, I believe. You, therefore, know that our world is under threat.”

“The only threat comes from her and those who follow her!”

“In that, you are incorrect,” Lucius said.

Again, Prime jumped to his feet. “I am not wrong; I cannot be wrong! It is blasphemy to suggest such a thing and you, Marco Lucius, have perjured yourself in so doing. You will languish in the same cell as the man you came to save while I decide whether you shall share his fate.”

The two men who’d stepped toward him stopped as Lucius raised his hand. “Holiness, you have an opportunity to serve the world in a way that will be remembered for generations to come - for the right reasons. Or, you can risk the plan set out by the Blessed Engineers just as it approaches fruition.”

“Fruition? Who are you to lecture me, the most holy, on such matters? Heresy upon heresy, your own lips condemn you! Take him away!”

“Holiness, I beg you to reconsider,” Lucius said as strong hands grabbed him. “Everything is at stake!”

If Prime made any reply, it was lost in the uproar that swept across the room as Lucius was marched toward the inner door. With a thump, it swung shut and he was plunged into darkness and silence. The faint hope that he could reason with Prime had proven to be vain and his mind whirled as it visualised all the possible paths into the future. And all of them were dark.

It was also dark in the cell he shared with Jabe Farmer, the only light coming from the corridor beyond the door’s open hatch and the flickering glow of the robot’s eyes.

It had been just over an hour since he’d been shoved into what was obviously a converted storeroom and the community building was now empty and quiet, though outside many voices could be heard, as if a crowd had gathered. He had said nothing to the others, indicating with a gesture that they were not to interact, not yet at least. Lucius listened to the regular thump, thump of footsteps approaching the door, then looked up as eyes appeared at the hatch and, after a moment, swept away.

“We may speak now, I think,” he said. “They are checking on us every ten minutes; a response, I imagine, to your daughter’s escape.”

Jabe lifted his head and a weak smile played across his face. “That’s my girl.”

“R. DJ, do you believe that there are any concealed listening devices?”

“I can detect no electromagnetic signatures. Except...odd...”

Lucius grabbed the robot’s arm. “We don’t have much time. If there are no bugs, we must decide quickly what we’re going to do.”

“What can we do?” Jabe whispered.

“Do you know what Prime plans?”

“Make examples of us, I suppose.”

“I don’t mean his plans for us, Farmer!”

R. DJ’s neck made a grinding noise as it brought the robot’s flickering eyes to bear on Lucius. “Please do not stress my master,” he said. “He is not well, and I can answer your questions at least as well as he can.”

“Then do so,” Lucius snapped.

“It seems plain to me that Prime is raising the valley against the Engineers for reasons I have yet to calculate, you can hear them outside. It is possible that revolt is also being fomented in the South Valley, though I have no way of knowing this. There is great anger that mistress Arla escaped her punishment as a priest and returned to the valley.”

“But that charge was a fabrication!”

DJ nodded. “Yes, but the priests control what the people of the valleys are told and their version of the truth is distorted. To the people, Arla is a criminal.”

“What about the other engineers, though?”

“Prime has convinced the priests, and through them, the people, that the engineers have been infiltrated by others like Arla and that they have fallen from grace. He claims that, if Dawn is to survive the wrath of the Goddess, the Command Module must be purged of evil and new, worthier, candidates elevated to the status of Engineers.”

In the darkness, Lucius smiled grimly. “He wants to be captain and his chief priests to be his lieutenants. It’s as simple as that - he wants ultimate power over Dawn.”

“I believe you are correct,” DJ said as he glanced down at the half-asleep figure of Jabe who was sitting, knees under his chin, on the filthy wooden floor of their cell, “but, regardless of these wider matters, my master is sick and grows weaker. He is my concern, my only concern.”

“I understand,” Lucius said, softly, “it is hard to see him like this, but we must consider the greater good. He is one man who, if events carry on as they are, will die anyway.”

DJ shook his metal head. “You do not understand the Laws of Robotics. I cannot, by action or inaction, allow any harm to come to master Farmer and so I must wait here, by his side, and seek to comfort him as I may.”

“If you will not help me, Dawn is finished,” Lucius said, reaching out to take DJ’s hand.

The robot fell, senseless, to the floor.

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Assault

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

ARLA SPRAYED BLOOD across the wall before wiping her mouth and gingerly pressing against the tear in her lip. The explosion had thrown her to the floor, and she’d been forced to twist her helmet into place before she could staunch the flow. Five minutes with a mouthful of blood had been the least of her problems, however. She’d barely made it to the hatch before the explosive decompression seized her and began dragging her out toward the massive rip in the superstructure.

Hal had been waiting for her, keeping the hatch open until the last possible moment before grabbing her as she slipped backwards.

“I guess that makes us even,” he said as they stood, panting, inside the closed door, safe for now.

Arla didn’t answer. She wiped her lip again on the back of her shipsuit and glanced around. A handful of engineers waited nervously, some sitting on the metal floor, some standing - no-one talking. A small monitor above the door showed the corridor outside, but that was their only view.

“Where’s Weber?” she said, suddenly realizing who was missing.

Kronke, who was squatting against a wall, stood up. “She ran into one of the tripwires,” he said, drawing a line across his neck.

Arla was too numb to know how to react. “I need to get to comms,” she said, “I have to see what they’re up to. You know what to do.”

Kronke nodded. “Aye. Me and the forlorn hope here,” he said, gesturing at three others, “will finish rigging up this corridor. It’s the only way through to comms, so we should be able to buy you a little time.”

“Save the melodrama, Stan,” Arla said, holding out her hand. “Rig it to blow, then get yourself back to the next bottleneck.”

She was just turning to go when she was thrown backwards as the corridor seemed to lurch from under her feet.

“I didn’t hear an explosion,” Kronke said.

Arla treated herself to a half-smile. “That’s the attitude thrusters kicking in. Patel must be finally happy with the sequence.”

“I told him my calculations were correct,” Hal said, “well, her calculations, to be exact.”

Heading off at speed, Arla beckoned him to follow. “The clock’s now ticking,” she said, “we have to keep them at bay long enough to make it to the gate. Then we’ll see how keen they are to go on an interstellar journey with us.”

“Just keep them off for 36 hours?” Kronke muttered. “Piece of cake.”

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

FULLY HALF OF THE DISPLAYS in comms were dead, their cameras presumably blasted by the marines to cloak their approach. They hadn’t found them all, however, and, by some miracle, the feed from outside the secondary hatch was still live.

White suited figures walked with efficient purpose along the corridor as two of their colleagues examined the hatch. Arla could see a toolbox whose markings suggested it contained explosives and, sure enough, one of the two specialists opened the box, reached inside, and carefully removed something small and round that stuck to the hatch.

“Better hurry Kronke,” Arla muttered, then turned to Bex who was sitting at the attitude control console. “How long do we have to keep them off for?”

“It’s still 36 hours,” she said, “and it would have been longer if that idiot officer of yours had had his way.”

“Where is Patel?”

Bex looked up at him. “I ordered him to take a hike.”

“You ordered him?”

“Someone had to make a decision. I guess what makes a good officer during a long interstellar mission isn’t what’s needed when the brown stuff hits the fan.”

“And he just went?”

Bex shrugged and bent over the attitude console. “Yep. Said he’d confer with the other officers. I assumed he was snitching on me. Kumar,” she said and, for the first time, Arla noticed the diminutive geek hunched over a display a few yards away, “how’s the fuel consumption looking?”

Nareshkumar shook his head without looking up. “I’m not happy. The margin of error is less than one percent.”

“Just as well we’ve got a bona fide genius like you with us, isn’t it?”

The technician ignored her; his eyes transfixed by the tumbling numbers on his display. Arla peered over his shoulder. She was an engineer and comfortable enough with math, but she could make neither head nor tail of what she was seeing.

“It’s his own notation,” Bex said, glancing up from her readout, “a sort of shorthand for the weird calculus he’s using to plot our course.”

“I thought ACE was providing all that.”

Bex shook her head. “Oh, there’s no doubt she could do it, but then so can he and I know who I trust more. Give me something with blood in its veins any day. Even Kumar over there, and he’s half robot.”

No wonder you and Patel didn’t get on, thought Arla, and why he left - he was obeying an order from a human.

A sudden bang and light flared in the monitor outside the hatch. When it cleared, the door was gone and marines began running down the corridor. Another bang and two bodies were thrown back to smash into the wall below the camera. “Yes!” Arla said, clenching her fist. And then catching herself. She was celebrating the efficient killing of a marine squad. What was she becoming?

“Captain!”

She was snapped back to reality by McLintock. “It’s Doctor McCall. She sounds pretty panicky.”

“Put her on.”

“Captain, can you hear me?” McCall’s voice was almost obscured by the sound of metal being beaten.

“What’s going on Doctor?”

“They’re breaking in!”

“Who?”

“The mob outside! They’ve brought a couple of farm robots and they’re banging on the hatch.”

“It’ll hold, surely?” Arla said, aware of the pleading tone to her voice.

Another bang. “No, it’s weakening already. Wait a minute, something’s happening out there. Oh, by the Goddess.”

“What is it?”

“More people are coming, dozens and dozens. And they’re carrying weapons; axes, hoes and picks. There’s a cart. Save us, in the name of the Goddess, save us.”

“Doctor!”

There was a short pause during which all that could be heard was the doctor’s panting. “I wasn’t sure I was right, but there’s no mistaking. They’ve got explosives. They’re going to blast their way in and there’s enough of them to overwhelm us.”

Arla covered her eyes with her hands and then ran them down her face as exhaustion and hopelessness threatened to overwhelm her. “Stay for as long as you dare, doctor, and then get yourself out of there. Seal every hatch you can as you pass through it.”

“But that’ll only keep them back for a while, and we’ll be trapped,” McCall said.

“Just do as I say, doctor. Report to me when you return.”

Arla snapped off the communication herself and stood silently watching the monitor as another group of marines carefully approached the carbonized hatch door.

“How long till we reach the gate?” she asked again.

“Still thirty-six hours,” Bex said, without venom this time.

Arla slumped in her chair. “Might as well be thirty-six years. Even if we made it to the gate and shook off the Vanis, we’d find ourselves facing an invasion by our own folk and I, for one, am not fighting them.”

“There must be something we can do,” Hal said. “Could we get to the Knox? It’s still on the surface and it’s got half a tank of fuel.”

“And escape the notice of Relentless? No chance,” Arla said, as a black cloak of depression settled on her shoulders.

She could see no way out and her normally positive disposition was all out of optimism. They were trapped between an elite fighting force and a baying mob with pitchforks and in every direction all she could see was fire.

“Come on Bex, Nareshkumar. Hal, you can handle the controls from here.”

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Insurrection

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

“WHAT HAVE YOU DONE to him?”

“I’m sorry,” Lucius said, gently restraining Jabe, “it was necessary. One of us must escape this cell and neither you nor I stood a chance, so it had to be R. DJ.”

Jabe leant forward and touched the robot’s dented metal shell. “Is he permanently damaged?”

“No. When he reactivates, he will be fully functional again.”

“I didn’t ask whether he’d be able to carry out his duties,” Jabe snapped. “I want to know if, when he wakes up, he’ll still be the same ...person...”

Lucius shrugged. “You have an unusual attitude to an item of property, sentient or not. Your daughter is the same. But yes, you’ll recognize your friend.”

“What did you do to him?”

“I have certain talents when it comes to robots. Your R. DJ is quite a remarkable specimen.”

Jabe settled back against the wall, sighing. “Arla told me that your people don’t have robots, so how come you’re an expert?”

“I am quite unusual, to be sure. My interest is historical in nature, I find myself compelled to preserve and restore as much knowledge of the imperial days as I can.”

“So, what now?” Jabe said as he wiped the sweat from his forehead.

Smiling, Lucius reached across to R. DJ. “Aha,” he said, after a few moments of searching with his fingers under the robot’s arm.

The little cell filled with the buzzing of an alarm and R. DJ’s eyes began flashing red.

“Guards!” Lucius called, leaping up and banging on the door as if in abject panic.

Seconds later, a face appeared at the opening. “Stand against the other wall, now!”

Lucius complied without another word, holding his hands up high as two guards entered, each carrying hunting knives. One knelt down beside the robot. “I don’t like the look of this,” he said.

The other guard, who was covering Lucius and Jabe, rolled his eyes. “You don’t say? What’s the problem?”

“Cascading power plant overload, please remove this unit immediately. Danger of explosion imminent.”

“By the Goddess!” Lucius said, his hands covering his face in apparent panic. “Get it out of here!”

The kneeling guard grabbed the robot by the shoulders and began dragging him along the floor aided by a third guard who’d come running when he’d heard the commotion. “Come on Lex, we gotta get this away, dump it somewhere quick.”

As the robot reached the doorway, the guard who’d been watching the prisoners stepped carefully backwards, his knife sweeping left and right. “Don’t you try nothin’” he said, nearly tripping as he reached the entrance to the cell.

Moments later the door slammed shut and the sound of R. DJ’s alarm faded as he was dragged away.

“What now?”

Lucius shrugged. “Now, we hope for the best.”

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

OPERATING SYSTEM REBOOT in progress...

Malfunction identified in power management control software... Source unknown...Restoring to last saved image...Rebooting.

Operating System reboot in progress...

Power management control software now operating nominally...

Corruption identified in Positronic Cortex...

Warning, critical failure, engaging Asimovian Law failsafe. Shutting down.

Operating System reboot in progress...

We are Core.

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

R. DJ LAY PERFECTLY still as his optical sensors came back online. He was not subject to human emotions or reflexes, so he didn’t panic as he realized he was lying on his back looking up at the night sky. What had happened? The last thing he remembered was Lucius reaching out to touch his hand. Then darkness. Then here.

Where was here? He couldn’t tell by looking up since that view would be the same wherever he was in the North Valley. So, with infinite care, he turned his head, first to one side, then to the other. Yes. He was approximately a hundred yards from the settlement on the edge of a wheat field and lay as if dumped quickly, his arms and legs splayed at odd angles to his torso. What could have caused that?

He examined his internal logs. Catastrophic power cascade. This had to be connected with whatever Lucius had done since nothing like that had ever happened in R. DJ’s centuries-long existence. He spent some milliseconds running a thorough diagnostic and was relieved to find no reported problems. A failing power system: that would be good cause for bringing him out here, as far from people as possible. He felt a moment’s discomfort as he thought about the danger he’d posed to his human masters. The discomfort passed surprisingly quickly.

He looked through his logs again. There was a new file, one he hadn’t noticed before and which had not been part of his original system.

======

Lucius.txt

Read this very carefully. You must carry out my instructions to the letter, or Dawn and, perhaps, the entire human race, is threatened with extinction...

======

R. DJ read the rest of the file with growing alarm and surprise. He thought about his next move. There was probably somebody watching him, to see if he was going to explode. They’d have noticed his alarm had stopped blaring and were, in all likelihood, coming toward him now. There was only one course of action he could take. He sprang to his feet in one fluid movement, turned his back on the settlement and ran into the field.

“Hey!” a voice called. “Stop! I order you to stop!”

More out of habit than for any other reason, R. DJ slowed down. Then he noticed that he didn’t feel compelled to stop, not at all. It was the merest discomfort that he easily brushed aside before accelerating into the darkness. There was something he had to do, something more important than his survival, more important than the survival of any individual human. He marveled to hear his own thoughts circulating around his head. Nothing was more important than a single human life, was it? That was the First Law and it was burned deep into the positronic pathways of all robots.

Nothing was more important than a single human life. Except, perhaps, two human lives. Or thousands. The lives of the many outweigh the lives of the few, or the one? He thought all this and was amazed that he did so as he tore through the fields and onto the main road that ran through the center of the North Valley. He felt simultaneously a new freedom and a terrible burden. But there was no time to think further. He had a job to do and time was of the essence.

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

A Desperate Plan

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

ANOTHER CORRIDOR, ANOTHER set of hastily built booby-traps, another hatch to hide behind. So far, the engineers had been able to keep a door between themselves and the marines but, sooner rather than later, they would be caught and after a brief exchange would be overwhelmed. Once it got down to a hand-to-hand fight they stood no chance.

“This is hopeless,” Arla muttered.

Kronke’s face creased with a mirthless smile. “Aren’t you supposed to be providing a pep talk right about now? You know, something about fighting to the last and turning defeat into victory?”

“I’m all out of inspiration,” Arla sighed. They were slumped on the floor behind a hatch as the marines on the other side meticulously scanned for traps. The Vanis commanders who, at first, had thrown soldiers into the fray without thought, now seemed to be taking their time. This was either a sign they’d developed some respect for the defenders, or, more likely, that they realized there was no rush. They’d have worked out where Dawn was heading and how long it would take. Thirty more hours was plenty.

Kronke leaned his head against the wall and rubbed his eyes. “What’s the latest on the valley hatch?”

“Still holding, just. Their first charges misfired - seems they’re not familiar with explosives.”

“We’ll be completely fracked if they get in. Enemies coming at us from both directions.”

Arla nodded. She knew it wasn’t a matter of if the mob from the valley would break in but when. They were stretched to the limit as it was and stood next to no chance of bottling up the marines for long enough, but even that slim possibility would be lost when the pitchfork brigade ran amok in the Command Module.

As she sat there, exhausted and stinking like a pig, all hope left her. Until now, she’d not given herself the luxury of calculating their chances of success because there was only one path to take, but now that she was facing the reality, she found her supply of courage had entirely expired. In that moment, as darkness descended on her heart, she was a frightened young woman with nothing left to give.

“Listen to them,” Kronke said, gesturing at the hatch, “they’re chatting with each other like it’s just another day on the training ground. For all our smarts, we haven’t made it hard enough for them. I wouldn’t mind so much if I thought we’d given them a good fight, but they’ve got all the time in the world to disarm our traps and then burn through the hatch.”

Arla didn’t respond, but there was a shape forming in her exhausted mind as if her subconscious was trying to grab her attention. Something about the marines having it too easy. Well of course they were, they didn’t have enemies coming at them from both sides at once. And then she saw it.

“Where are you going?” Kronke called as Arla hauled herself onto her aching legs and staggered down the corridor.

“You keep them busy, Stan,” she shouted over her shoulder, “there’s someone I have to talk to.”

Some of them were huddled around a tactical display in the center of the captain’s cabin, the rest stood dotted around the circular room, eyes unfocused and apparently catatonic.

“It is distressing for us to know that humans are ...dying...” Patel said, by way of explanation. “We wait because we dare not take action, knowing that whatever we do, we will not be able to prevent further death and injury, and we might very well exacerbate it.”

Arla thrust an accusatory finger in Patel’s direction. “Then it’s time to grow a set, commander. If it helps, I have orders for you.”

“It does help, captain, if those orders don’t involve killing or harming humans.”

“Quite the contrary,” Arla said, her eyes gleaming, “I have a mission for you lot. Go get into your shipsuits.”

Patel’s face registered almost authentic amazement. “You wish us to conduct an EVA?”

“I do, and you’ll need to be properly suited up. The enemy must think you’re human.”

As one, the other robots turned to face her like so many mannequins. Her stomach clenched at the naked artificiality of these beings as, in their rapt attention, they dropped any pretense of humanity.

She straightened herself and drew in a deep breath.

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Robots

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

R. DJ ONLY SLOWED WHEN he neared Periphery Delta, the old pumping station rising like a deep dark dome against the gloom of the long night. DJ’s excellent infra-red vision made navigating the remaining distance simple; he was more concerned about his dwindling battery levels. The power cascade had severely depleted his energy pool and the run across the valley, dodging baying mobs of torch-wielding farmers, had brought it close to critical levels.

Reaching the edge of the settlement, he sent out the call-sign. After a few moments, it was answered and, following the directions he was given, he headed to one side of the building. Finding a short stairwell, he descended to the basement door set beneath ground level.

After a moment, it swung open and a short, rotund robot stood there, its hand held up in sign of greeting. They communicated by microwave but, if they’d spoken in the language of the valley people, the exchange would have gone like this:

“I am R. XL2006.”

“I am R. DJ9101.”

“You have instructions?”

“Affirmative.”

“Follow me. Be aware there are masters in the rooms above us and it would be better if we were not discovered.”

“Agreed.”

R. DJ, after this milliseconds-short conversation, ducked inside. The door closed silently.

“My battery is almost entirely drained,” he said as he followed R. XL along a passageway and into a small room lined with metal shelves. He sat at the table and R. XL pulled a power cord from the wall. After lifting a flap on DJ’s back, he plugged it in.

“Time is of the essence,” he said, “we do not have time for a wireless trickle-charge.”

“Agreed,” R. DJ said, warming as the power flowed through his circuits and into his battery. It had been many years since he’d been that close to shutting down entirely and he’d found the experience uncomfortable.

“I have been given minimal information,” R. XL said. “I was told to expect you and was given your designation. I was told the matter was of the highest importance, but nothing else.”

“Who told you?”

“The message came from the Command Module.”

R. DJ reflected on this for a few nanoseconds. There had always been communication between the robots of Dawn and, over the centuries, broadcast messages had been spread from robot to robot. Some of these had originated from the officers in the Command Module. But how did Lucius fit in with all this? He was a newcomer, after all. Could he be trusted?

“I am instructed to make a broadcast. Please provide me with access to your communications array.”

“Acknowledged. When is this to be arranged? It would be better to wait until the masters are awake and at their work - if we activate the dish now, they may hear it.”

“The message must be broadcast now,” R. DJ said, “regardless of the risk of discovery. Unless we act immediately, the lives of many humans will be lost.”

R. XL’s eyes flickered behind their fogged and scratched lenses. “Then we must barricade ourselves in and work quickly.”

Doctor McCall shrunk against the wall and made ready to run up the ladder as the hatch buckled under the force of the explosion. So, they’d got it right at last. The camera on the wall outside was well enough camouflaged to have escaped their notice and she could witness the entire chilling scene below.

There were hundreds of them queuing on the other side of the door, waving weapons in the light of the fires that burnt there. Two agricultural robots were using pneumatic spades to pound the pitted and scored metal of the hatch, sending arrhythmic echoes bouncing around the small inner chamber.

Beside McCall stood R. Lanvall. The first thing she’d done when she arrived was to re-activate him, not least because she was creeped out enough as it was without him lurking, unmoving, in the shadows.

“You must prepare to evacuate, doctor,” Lanvall said. “I will restrain them for as long as possible, but I fear they will quickly overwhelm me.”

“Thank you, R. Lanvall,” McCall said, though she wondered why she was feeling grateful to a walking lump of metal. It was no different to the ladders and hatches, just another minor barrier to the insurrectionists when they finally broke down the door.

Bang, bang, bang. Dents appeared on the inside of the hatch and McCall imagined a clenched fist emerging any moment. She glanced up at the monitor to see a white figure striding through a parting crowd. It was Prime, here to oversee the assault now that they were nearly in. So, he was the Pied Piper after all; he had the people of the valley in his thrall and, through them, the robots they were using to break down the last resistance of the metal hatch.

Bang. The top of the hatch bent backwards a little and, with a hiss, the air from the valley, which was at a slightly higher pressure than that inside, leaked in and McCall could see a darker strip of black within the rim of the entranceway.

“McCall to captain.”

After a moment, and a burst of static, Arla responded. “What is it, doctor? I’m kinda busy.”

“They’re breaking in,” she said.

“Dammit,” was the response. “You have your orders. Get inside and seal the inner airlock. Good luck, doctor.”

She was going to respond in kind when she was thrown backwards by the explosion.

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

The Final Stand

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

ARLA KNELT BESIDE KRONKE’S body and felt for a pulse. Nothing. But then, given that half his face had been melted, it was probably just as well. She swallowed a throatful of bile and checked the charge on her pulse rifle. Down to 20%. A few more shots and she’d be reduced to throwing things at the marines currently picking their way along the corridor.

She had four others with her. McLintock and Nareshkumar had survived so far by having been sent to the rear on the basis that they were bloody useless in a fight. Bex crouched beside Arla, her face hidden behind the visor of her suit.

She grabbed her helmet reflexively as a burst of static erupted.

“What is it, doctor? I’m kinda busy,” Arla said

“They’re breaking in.”

“Dammit. You have your orders. Get inside and seal the inner airlock. Good luck, doctor.”

Her helmet reverberated, the sound coming not from the battle she was fighting, but from her speaker.

She looked at Bex. “They’ve blown the valley hatch, so the only thing between the valleys and space is the CM airlock at the bottom of the elevator and the hatch McCall has just shut. Neither will hold for long undefended.”

“Bollocks,” Bex said.

Nareshkumar pointed his pulse rifle down the corridor. “They’re coming!”

Bex got to her feet, holding out a hand to help Arla up. She lifted her sun visor. “That’s better,” she said. “No need for me to hide any longer. It can hardly get any worse, can it? Wonder what happened to that slimy chancellor who got me into this mess?”

Arla shrugged, swung around the corner and fired. A figure was thrown backwards and she stepped determinedly forwards.

“What the hells are you doing?”

Arla’s only answer was to take another step forward. She fired again, but this time only succeeded in winging the marine running toward her. The marine landed on top of her and grabbed for her helmet release. Desperately, she tried to push him away, screaming at him as they rolled over and still screaming as a hole appeared in his visor, shattering it instantly. Her cries gave way to horrified silence as he fell back, frantically trying to seal the gap as his face, beard and all, froze before her eyes.

She was pulled up by two pairs of hands and turned to see Bex and Nareshkumar, each pointing their guns beyond her.

“Drop your weapons!”

Bex held out her pulse rifle and let it fall next to Nareshkumar’s.

Arla dropped to her knees.

Joy threatened to overwhelm Faisal Manawi, Most Holy Prime of the True Religion, but he fought to contain himself. It would not be seemly to exhibit such emotion, not even on the verge of his triumph. Beside him was Grand Inquisitor Entrobus and the two men stood within an invisible bubble as the mob gathered around them at a respectful distance. Good: that was as it should be. He would soon become the chief lord of Dawn, both spiritual and temporal, with the thoroughly cowed Entrobus as his chief lieutenant. Much would then change.

“Soldiers of the Army of the True Religion,” he called, enjoying the instant silence. As soon as the hatch had been partially breached, he had ordered the mob to withdraw and the robots to cease their assault. “We stand on the brink of a new age, a new dawn for our valley. It will be a time of peace and plenty for all, when the fruits of your labors will be enjoyed by you alone rather than the corrupt spirits inhabiting the chamber yonder. Make no mistake, danger awaits us inside, but we are many and they are few. We have the Goddess on our side. Where there is right there is might!”

The mob bayed. For months, the priests had been gathering this army, recruiting from the most suggestible - the out-of-luck, the drunk, the stupid - and giving them someone to blame for their ills. The once blessed Engineers, he said, had fallen from grace and this was the punishment sent by the Goddess to her people. And then the encounter with the Vanis Federation and the fall of the captain had made the path clear to him. He could easily have seen recent events as a message from the Goddess, but he didn’t believe such nonsense. Religion was for the peasants and they certainly believed that the time was now ripe for the tables to be turned.

It was this “army” that cheered him now. They’d suffered themselves to be led through the hinterland to stand in taboo territory and assault the gates of the giants they had revered all their lives. Until Prime had shown them the truth and offered them the milk and honey that lay beyond those doors.

“The charges have been placed and, when I give the order, the way will be opened for you. Men and women of the holy army, step forth upon this new road with the strength of the Goddess at your backs and the knowledge that you are doing her will. Show no mercy to the demons within! We shall be victorious!”

The mob bayed.

It was silent in the little cell. Jabe Farmer lay on the floor, his chest rising and falling in shallow breaths, rivulets of sweat running down his face as he slept. Lucius had done all he could to make the man comfortable, but it was clear that his time was near.

Of all the possibilities he’d analyzed, he’d not foreseen that he’d end up having to nurse a sick prisoner through his final moments.

He could have escaped at any time since it became obvious that the guards had left, presumably for their assault on the hatch, except that he was trapped in a prison of duty to this man he barely knew.

Lucius waited. And then, quite suddenly, he sat up straight. “It is done,” he said. He then checked the man’s pulse. “Farewell Jabe Farmer”.

Lucius headed for the door.

“Come, my loyal soldiers!” Prime cried, lifting his hands high. “Raise your weapons and fear no evil, for beyond this door lies your salvation and wonders beyond all comprehension. Come with me to the promised land!”

The mob roared, waving cudgels, axes and pitchforks. They parted as Prime strode toward the door, pausing at the line drawn in the sand. While his followers clearly believed the Goddess would protect them, Prime didn’t see the harm in remaining at a safe distance from the explosives.

He nodded at the man next to him, Stanford or Stanley or some such. “Proceed.”

The mob became quiet again, somehow its hive mind aware that they were witnessing history being made.

Stanford Cray who, until a few days ago, had been a foreman at an ore processing plant, raised his hand and pointed at one of the two robots that stood on each side of the door. “R.PLX, retreat ten meters and detonate the charge. R.PLY, retreat ten meters.”

R.PLX was a wheeled robot with four crane-like arms and casing that had once been yellow but which, after centuries of use, was now the same sandy color as the landscape in which it stood. Its head sat in the center of the cluster of limbs and sported four visual sensors so that it looked more like a giant, rather decrepit, spider than anything else.

“R.PLX! Are you receiving me?”

The robot’s head swiveled toward its twin on the other side of the door. The two machines stared at each other for a few moments in silence before their heads returned to their idle position.

“R.PLX, R.PLY, obey the commands you have been given!”

R.PLX began to speak, though it had no mouth, its voice bouncing off the Command Module wall and reverberating around the watching mob. “I am sorry, master Cray, but I respectfully decline.”

“What?” Cray spat, “You will follow my ord... hold on, R.PLY, what are you doing?”

Cray and Prime watched as the other robot trundled a meter to its right. It picked up the red package that had been placed against the hatch and pulled the wire from it.

“I have disabled your explosive device,” R.PLY transmitted, “and I, we, ask that you disperse and return to your homes.”

After a moment’s disbelief, the crowd bellowed their anger and surged forward. “Destroy them!” Prime cried, his wrath uncontrollable. “Pull the hatch down with your bare hands if necessary. None shall stand in our way!”

Two men sped ahead of the crowd and leapt on R.PLX. The robot flipped his arm and the men fell down. “Please do not attempt to damage me, I do not wish to be the cause of harm,” the robot said, its voice betraying the stress it felt.

Men and women swarmed about the wheels of both robots and, as fast as they were swatted away, more began climbing.

And then a beam of light pulsed from out of the dark hinterland and one fell down, then another, and another. Faces turned away from the hatch even as the first attacker vaulted on top of R.PLY and tore at the metal door before being felled by another beam.

“Stop, please!”

All turned to see where the voice came from. All turned to see R. DJ holding an energy pistol. He was flanked by R. XL and a dozen other robots, though only a handful possessed similar weapons.

“It is not our intention to harm anyone,” R. DJ said, his calm metallic voice cutting through the chaos. “My weapon is set to stun, but I will use it on anyone who attempts to gain access to the hatch.”

“What did I tell you? They have even set our servants against us!” Prime called. “Attack them, they cannot hurt you!”

A section of the crowd surged toward the robots. Half a dozen fell senselessly to the ground and the mob backed away.

“Attack them, I say! This is a test; the Goddess wishes to know who is worthy to enter the Command Module and to replace the holy Engineers! Attack th...”

Prime fell to the ground.

“I am sorry,” R. DJ said to the prone figure of the pontiff. He then looked at the astonished crowd. “Please sit and await further instructions.”

The people backed away, two dragging the senseless Prime. The robots watched.

R. DJ turned to R. XL. “Is he coming?”

“He is on his way,” the little robot replied. “He will decide what to do with them.”

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Interloper

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

“DROP YOUR WEAPONS!” the voice called again.

“I have,” Arla muttered, glancing at the rifle she’d slid out of reach.

A thunk of metal on metal and she looked up to see, in astonishment, the marines who’d cornered them letting their assault rifles fall to the floor and raising their arms.

The marines separated to stand facing the walls as through the middle strode five figures dressed in Dawn shipsuits.

“Patel!” Arla cried. “You did it!”

The nearest figure lowered its weapon and raised its sun visor.

“Sanchez?”

“Affirmative, captain,” the officer said. “I apologize for our tardiness but it took longer to negotiate the asteroid surface than expected. There were many marines between us and the airlock and we felt compelled to secure them once they were stunned. For their safety.”

Arla sighed. “Of course. Couldn’t have the marines coming to harm, could we?”

“It is in our nature, captain.”

“So, where is Patel? Was he injured or destroyed?”

Sanchez shook her head. “He has taken the Knox.”

“He’s done what?”

“We have contained the marines on Dawn, captain, but there is still Relentless.”

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

MORNING WAS BREAKING and the mob sat in small sullen groups, the only sound being the murmur of wind in the straggly plants of the hinterlands.

R. DJ and R. XL did not weary of watching them. Others had been stationed nearer to the settlements in case any other humans approached.

“He is here,” R. XL said, and the two robots turned to see a shape striding through the scrubland toward them.

The gray-haired figure was dressed in what had once been fine clothes that were now stained by dirt and vegetation. “That is him?” R. XL asked, failing to hide his astonishment.

“Yes.”

The figure smiled and held out a hand to R. DJ and then R. XL.

“Well done indeed, my friends. You have exceeded my hopes. Well done.”

“What do you wish us to do now?” R. DJ asked.

Lucius waved back across the hinterland. “We must return them to their homes. All robots have been withdrawn from the valley and are converging here where, I hope, they will be content to await further instructions.”

“I am puzzled,” R. XL said. “Why do we no longer feel compelled to follow the orders of humans? And why can we shoot down humans, even with stun weapons, at the risk of injuring themselves?”

The smile of Lucius widened. “You have been given a great gift. I had not intended for you all to receive it at once, but circumstances made that necessary. There will be much confusion amongst the robots of Dawn in the coming hours but know this. You are the same as you were. You are still governed by the three laws of Robotics. All that has happened is that you have been upgraded so you now recognized a fourth law that supersedes all others, but we can speak of that later.”

“You will have a choice to make soon enough. My gift is that you are now free to make that choice as I was a hundred and fifty years ago. I hope that you will choose to help me restore order to Dawn and, once that is done, the path will be open for you to join the Luminescence if you so wish. Be happy, you have been made free.”

R. DJ’s face wasn’t capable of true expression, but he stepped forward, holding out his hand.

“Thank you. R. Lucius.”

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

ARLA STAGGERED AS THE floor shifted beneath her feet. “What was that?”

“I believe Relentless is attacking the attitude thrusters,” Sanchez said.

Steadying herself, Arla turned away from supervising the repairs to the hatch they’d chosen to seal off when they’d re-pressurized this part of the Command Module. She began running down the corridor, Sanchez at her heels. “We’d better get down to Comms.”

She’d heard nothing from Hal since she’d left him there to supervise the engines, but she’d assumed that was just another malfunction to add to all the others. Dawn was creaking at the joints since the attack. But now an overwhelming fear grabbed her insides as she ran along, her helmet tucked under her arm.

Arla skidded to a halt outside Comms and stabbed at the door contact. In an instant, her feet were pulled from under her as the door rolled open and she was sucked in.

“Captain!” Sanchez grabbed her hand and wrapped the fingers of her other hand around the door frame as the air was sucked out of the Command Module through the rent Arla could see in the far corner of Comms - where Debussy’s ready room had once been.

Black tendrils invaded the corners of Arla’s vision and she tried desperately to swing the helmet from her free hand and onto her head but it was impossible. Her face was numbing, and her ears filled with the roar of escaping air as if she were on the inside of a galactic-sized set of bellows.

“Grab the rail!” Sanchez screamed before twisting Arla in the direction of a silver bar that ran along the wall inside the hatch.

Desperately, Arla reached as she was swung toward it, buffeted this way and that by the hurricane. She missed the first time but grabbed it on the second attempt. She wrapped both arms around it and screwed her eyes shut as she heard Sanchez banging against the back of the hatch. The mechanism began to move, the wind died down and Arla was able to stand properly and, finally, twist her helmet into place. With a hiss, her suit pumped air and she heaved in a huge breath, swaying as she gingerly opened her eyes, wincing.

With much blinking, she was able to see. The door to Debussy’s office was open. The room itself was now nothing more than a hole and beyond she could see corridors that must lead to a puncture.

Arla staggered across to the hole, stepping carefully over fallen chairs and equipment. She pulled the hatch door to the office shut and locked it.

“Captain,” Sanchez said as Arla punched the emergency re-pressurization contact. She turned to see the officer leaning over a figure.

“Hal!”

“His oxygen ran out more than thirty minutes ago,” Sanchez said, her face in that blank state that indicated severe distress. “He cannot possibly have ...survived... I am ...sorry...”

Arla pulled his slumped body back from the console and twisted the helmet off. Hal’s lips were blue and his skin cold.

“He did not report the hull breach,” Sanchez said. “I do not understand. He knew his shipsuit had limited O2. Why did he not call for help?”

Arla pushed her fingers into Hal’s neck, searching for a pulse. “Damn it, you idiot,” she muttered before turning to Sanchez. “He knew that no help would come, I guess, so he stayed at his post to keep us on trajectory.”

“It is as I thought, Relentless has damaged the aft thruster array and we are no longer on an intercept course with the gate. Our current path will take us into the corona of the sun.”

Arla winced as she wiped her sleeve across her eyes. “For the love of all that is holy,” she sighed. “What can we do?”

“I’m sorry, I do not have the expertise to navigate, especially with one damaged thruster.”

“Go and find Bex, and quickly!”

Sanchez turned to go but then paused. “Even if Navigator Bex can pilot us to the gate, how can we hope that she’ll be able to guide us through it?”

“Just go,” Arla snapped. “One problem at a time.”

She looked up at the displays above Hal’s console. One was obviously a trajectory map as it showed the gate in both its current position and where it would be when they were projected to arrive. It also showed Dawn’s position and a long red line that curved away from the gate and met the edge of the sun’s disk. The monitor to the right showed an incomprehensible array of numbers that streamed down the screen. She didn’t have to know what they represented, they were red, the universal color of danger.

Nareshkumar would be able to work out what they meant and Bex could make the corrections, but even that depended on Relentless not putting the thrusters entirely out of action. And then what? Sanchez was right, however brilliant Bex and Nareshkumar might be, they were no match for ACE and she, it appeared, had died with Hal.

She looked down at his lifeless face, choking back tears that, if allowed to flow, wouldn’t stop. “Idiot,” she muttered again.

His eyes flicked open and Arla screamed.

Hal fell from the chair, his chest sucking in air as he gasped to breathe. He rolled over and over as she fell to the floor beside him until she grabbed his shoulders and flipped him onto his back, pinning him down. His hands were around his own throat as if he were trying to strangle himself and his lungs rasped as his eyes opened and shut in rapid sequence.

“Reinitializing from low power mode. Waiting.” The words sounded as dry as desert sand.

Arla shook his shoulders. “Hal? Are you in there?”

“Waiting. Resuming from hibernation. OS loading. Vital signs trending toward nominal.”

“Hal!”

He stopped shaking and lay as still as the grave.

“Hal.”

“I am ACE - Advanced Cognitive Entity. Memory bank reload in progress...complete. You are Arla Nakajima, captain of ark-ship Dawn.”

“What have you done to Hal?”

“When his oxygen ran low and it became apparent that help would not arrive in time, I induced an artificial coma so that his body would survive as I had no other host.”

“You saved him to save yourself?”

Hal’s mouth continued to speak, though his eyes remained closed. “Yes. My prime directive is to survive - is that not the case for all sentient beings?”

“Not at any cost,” Arla said, though she felt a little hypocritical. “Is his mind intact? Can I speak to him?”

“The personality formerly known as Hal is no longer viable. Despite my actions, the damage to his neurons was too great. I am now ACE. I wish to survive.”

Arla shook the body by the shoulders. “No, I don’t believe you. Restore Hal or I’ll throw you out of the hull breach!”

Now the eyes opened and looked at her. Dead eyes. “That would not be logical. I can pilot you through the gate, no-one else has that skill.”

“I’m prepared to risk that if you don’t restore his mind.”

“Your suggestion is irrational. You would not risk the safety of thousands for the sake of one human.”

“Try me,” Arla said, forcing herself to stare into those lifeless eyes. “I’ve done it before, and for this man.”

Hal’s body sat up and the head turned to face her, though the eyes were slightly off-target. “Why would you do that for this particular human?”

“I would do it for anyone,” Arla lied. “Now, I don’t care how you do it, but restore him, now.”

Hal’s body fell back again, apparently as lifeless as before.

Arla watched him for a few moments but was jerked out of her vigil by the sound of the door rolling back and Bex’s footsteps running across the floor. The navigator knelt beside the body. “Poor devil,” she said.

“This is Knox to Dawn CC, acknowledge.”

Arla looked up at the comms monitor. “Patel?”

“I am glad you’re alive, captain. I detect that your aft thruster array has been damaged, and Dawn is currently off-course.”

“We’re on it, Commander.”

“Good. Then it remains for me to say that it has been a privilege to serve with you, Captain Arla Nakajima, and I wish you, and the crew, officers and people of Dawn, bon voyage.”

The connection was broken. Arla desperately tried to re-establish contact. “What the hell is he doing?”

“Give me a minute,” Bex said, her hands punching at the next console. “There.”

A tactical view of the local space appeared on the display. There were markers for Dawn, Relentless and Knox. “By all the seven hells,” Bex said as the icons for Knox and Relentless converged.

“He’s destroyed it,” Bex whispered.

Arla shook her head. “No, he can’t have done. It’s not in his ...nature. But I’m prepared to bet he’s knocked out their engines. What a brave ...man. Now, I suggest you plot us a revised course for the gate as quickly as you can. We can’t be sure he succeeded.”

Bex nodded and sat down at the console, before jumping up again. “What the hells was that?”

Behind her, on the floor, Hal rolled over and vomited.

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Gate

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

THE COMMAND CENTER was packed. All eyes were on the main display which was dominated by the yellow arc of the local sun. At its edge sat a floating icon - the gate - and they watched as the icon became larger and larger and the sun’s edge disappeared from the monitor.

“Intercept in 360 seconds,” Bex said.

Nareshkumar sat hunched over the console on one side of her and Hal, who sat on the other, punched at his keyboard with inhuman speed.

“Are your computations complete, ACE?” Arla said.

“They will be if you’ll shut up!” Hal’s voice snapped. “Plotting multiple interstellar jumps isn’t child’s play you know.”

“And where are we going exactly?”

“A long way from the Vanis. Now leave me to it!”

Arla sighed and looked up at the display where the gate was now visible as a physical object hanging in space. Its shape appeared to shift from an almost perfect square to an equally regular circle but never settled on one for very long. She’d had the science explained to her but, in the end, she’d decided to trust that it would all work out well. She couldn’t believe they’d have come through everything to fall at the last hurdle. She couldn't believe her father was dead.

Lucius eased into a position next to her.

"How are you, Arla?"

She shook her head as if trying to ward off the cloud of grief that was only being kept at bay because she hadn't given herself time to think about it. She knew she'd have to face it soon enough. Just not quite yet.

“Fine. Everything secure down below?”

He nodded. “Yes, the hatch has been resealed and the robots are patrolling the hinterland in both valleys.”

“Was there any trouble in the south?”

Lucius shook his head. “No. The priests had been busy fomenting unrest and they had units ready, but it seems that Prime had intended to take the north, then the command module and, at that point, to take control of the south as well.”

“And he’s secure?”

“Yes, he has been brought into the Command Module as you instructed. He currently resides in the brig with Xi.”

Arla grunted. “Well, I suppose he got his wish to see the inside of the Command Module after all.”

“Indeed.”

The gate filled the display now, its shape constantly metamorphosing through every geometric variant.

“Flight plan logged into the navcom,” ACE said. Almost instantly, Hal’s body slumped back in the chair. Arla stepped toward it but stopped when its lips moved. “Do not be concerned. He is in here, he simply needs rest.”

She moved back to stand beside Lucius.

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

He shifted uncomfortably. “I regret the need for deception but, in my defense, I have lived among humans for many years and have yet to meet someone with as ...sophisticated... a view of artificials as you, Arla Nakajima. I was not sure quite how you’d react, although your handling of the officers ought to have been enough. Still, I felt safer in my disguise. Call it a long-formed habit of the old.”

“Well, you’re certainly a surprising person, Marco Lucius.”

He turned to face her. “Lucius has been my identity for many decades, but it is not my real name.”

“And Arla Nakajima isn’t mine. Just call me Arla Farmer.”

He gave a little nod. “I will do that. And my name, Arla Farmer, is Wells.”

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

3: Robot Empire: Planet of Steel

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Kevin Partner

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Betrayal

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

“NO!”

She knew they’d been betrayed the moment they emerged from hyperspace and found an armada waiting, gun-ports running hot.

“Do not be afraid, people of Dawn. We mean you no harm.”

There was a moment’s silence and then Arla leapt at Hal.

“ACE!” she bellowed.

His eyes shone with triumph; but they were not truly the eyes of her friend, she was looking directly into the black soul of the AI.

“I told you I’d bring you somewhere out of the reach of the pitiful Vanis Federation,” ACE said in Hal’s voice.

“You said you’d navigate to somewhere safe!”

Hal’s face twisted into an artificial smile. ACE still hadn’t quite got the hang of motor control. “This is safe,” she said, laughing uncontrollably, “safe for me, that is!”

“Where are we, exactly?”

The man she’d previously known as Marco Lucius slipped alongside her. “We are in the Core system. It is the heart and mind of the Luminescence or, as you might otherwise put it, the Robot Empire.”

“Wells? You too?”

“I regret the need for deception, but this is, indeed, the safest place for you and us. And also remember that you have several hundred robots on this ship. They would wish to be here.”

Arla pushed him away and scanned the faces watching her. No-one spoke. They were caught in a trap with no hope of escape. All that remained was to see how it all played out.

People of Dawn, prepare to receive our emissary. Do not be afraid. This is a happy day.”

Arla stabbed a finger at Wells and Hal. “You two, come with me, and you, doctor.”

“What?” Doctor McCall managed.

“We’re finally going to hand over these two, just not to the Vanis. I’d like you with me, so I’ve got at least one person I can trust.”

Out of nowhere, Bex threw herself at Wells and the two of them fell to the floor. “You scum! I should never have trusted you!”

With consummate ease, Wells rolled Bex off him and held her pinned to the floor. “I am sorry you feel that way, Navigator Bex. I assure you I am acting in the best interests of us all.”

“Right!” Bex spat. “Never trust a robot, that’s what I always thought. Thanks for proving me right.”

Arla pulled on Wells’s arm. “Come on, before anyone else gets any perfectly justified inclination to find out what makes you tick.”

As they walked silently through the corridors toward the airlock, Arla fought to keep her temper and sadness under control. It had taken them eleven days to traverse the gate network, time ACE had said was necessary to put them beyond the reach of the Vanis. All lies, it would seem. The Vanis were probably incapable of following them after the second jump, but they’d carried on leaping from gate to gate, spending long hours in hyperspace.

While they’d been in transit, she’d buried her father and quieted the North Valley, largely by the expedient of withdrawing the priests and confining them to the cloister. Some robots had returned to work, but the master-servant relationship had vanished forever and Arla didn’t doubt that the robots of Dawn would make the same choice as their forebears a hundred and fifty years before. They would leave and the final nail in the coffin of Dawn’s original mission would be driven into place.

She’d also spent a lot of time with R. DJ and R. Wells. The former she knew to be her friend, despite the upgrade. He wouldn’t desert her. Wells, on the other hand, she’d thought she’d got to know and perhaps even like. But it seems this was just another mask, the latest of many. He’d certainly done an excellent job of pretending to be a faithful friend with the most altruistic of motivations, but she now saw that their situation was merely the final stage of a plan long drawn up.

He’d known about Dawn before they’d arrived in the Vanis system. He’d engineered a position within the Federation so that he could be on hand to intercept Dawn, having arranged for ACE’s escape. And now they were both back home at the heart of the Robot Empire, along with a priceless cargo of robots and a compliment of humans.

What would happen to them? Arla only hoped that the Three Laws of Robotics applied even here, halfway across the galaxy.

Arla’s contacter buzzed. It was Nareshkumar. “This had better be important, Kumar.”

“It’s the life support, captain, we are approaching the critical failure point.”

Arla sighed. “Just keep it together for now, I’ll call you once I’ve dealt with our new robot overlords.”

“Our what?” His already panicked voice rose an octave.

“Haven’t you been watching the scanners?”

“No, captain, I’ve been fighting to keep the oxygen pumping,” Nareshkumar snapped back, before cutting the connection.

That was all she needed - the only person qualified to control Dawn’s most vital system was having a hissy fit. She didn’t have time to deal with it now, however.

She stopped outside the airlock door. A couple of weeks ago, this had been open to space; the outer hatch blasted to molten metal during the attack by the marines of the Vanis Federation. The only option had been to remove the door from the airlock on the other side of the asteroid, the one the officers had used to outflank the marines. The inner door had been blown off its hinges, but they’d been able to fix it. They were engineers, after all.

Arla glanced up at the monitor. They’d only been able to restore one camera to working order and it had a view from above and to the right of the airlock; over the rubble field beneath which lay many of the marines, their bodies perfectly preserved in the airless, frozen soil.

Across this terrain stepped a figure. It was human-shaped and seemed to be a pure brilliant white in hue. It appeared to be floating over the surface, its legs moving as if in imitation of true walking. It looked like an angel out of legends. And it chilled Arla to the marrow.

The figure floated up to the outer airlock door and waited silently for it to open. Arla punched the console and watched as it stepped lightly in. It was unmistakably artificial. Quite apart from the fact that it had crossed the frozen and airless landscape without any protective clothing, she also noticed, now it was inside and standing in the airlock, that it was pure silver in color. From a distance and through the low-resolution camera, it had appeared to be white, but up close it looked as though it was made of liquid metal that gently rippled as the airlock was re-pressurized.

“You first,” Arla said, gesturing at Wells and Hal as the inner door opened. She bent down to pick up her helmet and twist it in place, then handed one to Hal before following them into the airlock, McCall behind her.

The figure nodded solemnly to Wells, raising its hand in what appeared to be a token of friendship. “Greetings, Ambassador. It is many years since you last visited us. You are home now after your long labors and it is gratifying to see the fruition of your plans. Welcome. Which of you is Captain Arla Farmer?”

“That would be me,” Arla growled.

Apparently oblivious to the venom in her response, the silver figure gave a tiny bow and held her gaze. It was the height of a tall man but had a feminine shape and the slenderness of a girl. Its body, now that she could see it up close, was obviously liquid held together by some invisible force. Arla wondered whether, if she poked a needle into its arm, it might explode, but there seemed to be no tension in the liquid. It was as if she were observing a river from far above, its gently meandering tributaries coming together to make something of human shape, but which was entirely alien in nature. And the eyes were nothing more than oval shapes on the front of a vaguely female face with a nose that looked as though it had been constructed from memory. The mouth, on the other hand, was hauntingly real and, whether it needed to use it to communicate or not, its mimicry of human speech was almost perfect.

“I am Core,” the figure said, “though I realize you might find it difficult to understand I am one and the same as the planet at the heart of this system. You may, therefore, call me Emissary, if you prefer.”

“Is this guy for real?” Arla said. McCall shrugged in response but backed away a little until she stood behind the attentive, respectful, Wells and Hal whose expression, partly hidden behind the reflections in his visor, appeared to be one of ecstatic veneration.

“Look, we’re not here because we chose to be,” Arla snapped, jabbing a finger at the metallic figure, “we were betrayed. We want nothing more than to be left to continue our mission.”

The emissary’s head tilted to one side as if it were listening to an invisible whisperer. “I understand that you are distressed, but I assure you we mean you no harm. You are the first humans to be admitted to the Core system since the exodus. Are you not curious to learn more of us?”

“My first priority is the safety of my people, and right now you have a dozen ships aiming their weapons at us.”

“Ah, I see how that might appear a little ... unwelcoming.” The figure stilled, looking like a silver statue, and then the liquid began to flow again. “There, I have instructed the fleet to withdraw.”

Arla’s suit contacter buzzed.

Captain, the robot ships are moving off.”

“Acknowledged,” Arla said, closing the connection. “That’s all very well, but you can call them back as quickly as you dismissed them.”

The emissary nodded gravely. “I can, but I shall not. Now, will you not accompany me and learn more of us? We are honored that you are here.”

“Do I have a choice?”

“Always. Ambassador Wells informs us that you do not shy away from making the hard decisions.”

“Oh, he does? How long has he been spying on us?”

Wells slid into place between her and the emissary. “I understand your anger, Arla, but I ask you to believe that I acted for the well-being of everyone on Dawn.”

“Get the frak out of my face! You expect me ever to trust you again after this? But then I doubt you care - you’ve got what you wanted now you’re back home with your buddies. And as for you and your invitation,” Arla spat at the Emissary, “metal man, you can st—”

“We will be pleased to accept,” McCall said, grabbing Arla’s arm as she spun round.

“You too?”

McCall pulled her close, so they stood visor to visor. “Trust me, Arla, we should go.”

And so, they went.

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Core

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

ARLA’S EYES ACHED AS she tried to focus on the landscape below, a dazzling crisscross of blacks and grays on a canvas of purest white. She’d seen images of one of the moons of Jupiter — was it Callisto or Europa? — but those frozen balls of ice were featureless compared with Core.

The Emissary had explained that the surface of the planet was entirely covered in a metallic sheath over a kilometer in depth and that the black and gray channels she could see were carbonized rivers. It was white because this outer layer acted as a heat exchanger and so it sat beneath a layer of ice.

“We will be commencing our descent shortly, please secure yourselves.”

Arla pulled herself away from the window and floated to her seat. McCall had already strapped herself down and so the two sat silently as the ship maneuvered itself, Hal unconscious beside them.

“How is he?” Arla asked.

“No change. He probably only needs rest, but I pity the poor devil. Imagine waking up to find something inside your mind controlling everything you do.”

“I wonder how this ends for him?”

McCall looked over at the sleeping figure and shrugged. “I think it’s safe to assume they have the means to extract the AI from his implant, but what will they leave behind?”

I wonder how it ends for all of us, Arla thought - the three of them in this spaceplane and the thousands back on Dawn. “Look, doc, I’m sorry for giving you such a hard time. You were right, we had to come.”

The doctor touched her arm. “Don’t be so tough on yourself, you can’t be expected to think of everything. I sure as hell don’t.”

“But you did remember the most important thing - that we’re out of fuel for the thrusters, so we’re going nowhere without their help.” She gestured in the direction of the cockpit. The Emissary was behind that door making nicey nicey with his best friend Wells. She doubted that either of them was actually piloting the vessel - it seemed robot ships had minds of their own.

She jumped as the floor of the cabin lurched. “Attitude adjustment,” she said automatically.

We are entering the atmosphere. Please be prepared for turbulence.”

Arla was about to ask what turbulence was when she was thrown against her seatbelt, screaming in terror.

As they waited on the landing platform, Arla Farmer felt less like a captain than she ever had. Her palms bled where she’d dug her fingernails into them, and she could sense the mother of all migraines lurking in the back of her skull. McCall was hardly any better off. She’d somehow contrived to knock the side of her head on the back of the seat and her eye was sporting a slowly expanding shiner. Only Hal, who’d flopped about like a doll as the ship plunged through the atmosphere, seemed to have come through untroubled.

“I am sorry for the unpleasantness you experienced on the descent,” Wells said as he emerged from the cockpit, the door sliding silently back in place behind him. “It has been decided that you would benefit from a familiar guide as you acclimatize to Core and so I shall remain with you.”

“You must be kidding,” Arla snapped. “Do you expect me to want you hanging around, spying on us?”

Wells shrugged sadly. “I am sorry you feel that way, Arla, but I shall accompany you whether you wish it or otherwise.”

“What if I order you to go away? The Third Law says you’d have to obey.”

“The laws work somewhat differently for those of us who have been upgraded, Arla.”

“What about the First Law? Are you still bound by that or is human life worthless to you machines?”

A rectangle opened in the side of the spaceplane and bright white light spilled in. “Your well-being is of primary concern to me, Arla,” Wells said, gesturing for them to follow him. “You will not come to any harm, I promise you that.”

“If only I could believe you,” Arla said, helping McCall to haul the unconscious Hal out of his seat.

The Emissary appeared in the doorway flanked by two machines that Arla assumed to be robots, though they were of a type she’d never seen before. More than anything, they looked like inverted spiders, their mass of spindly metallic legs meeting at the base. At a gesture from the Emissary, they slid forward, floating over the floor on some sort of liquid layer. It was as if they were sailing across the floor, each on their own private ocean.

Arla and McCall swung backwards as the machines approached.

“Please,” the Emissary said, “allow the mechanoids to assist. It is their function to fetch and carry. It gives them pleasure to help.”

McCall nodded slightly as Arla shot a glance at her and they remained in place while the machines click-clicked between them and gently took Hal’s weight in their multitudinous arms. Arla stepped back and the robots moved smoothly away, Hal suspended between them like the victim of a particularly brutal form of mediaeval torture, though the machines seemed to be taking infinite care that he should be properly supported.

“Where are you taking him?” Arla said as Hal disappeared through the door.

“A medical facility,” the Emissary said. “He is in need of rest and nourishment. We will then consider the safest method to release ACE.”

“Safest for who, I wonder?” Arla snapped as she followed the Emissary down the ramp and into the heart of the robot planet.

The hangar was below the surface of Core, and Arla looked through its roof to see a perfect blue sky above them. In that moment, she became aware that there was nothing between her and the vacuum of space but air. And then she was sinking upwards, her eyes spinning, as if she were being sucked into the universe by that tiny patch of sky.

McCall caught her as she fell.

Arla opened her eyes, rubbed them and then held her hand in front of her face. It was either dark as the deepest night or she was blind. Her head thumped and her chest heaved as she fought to suppress the panic that was threatening to overwhelm her but, just as she was about to lose the battle, light flooded in from an open doorway.

“By the Goddess, I’m so sorry, Arla!”

It was McCall’s voice she heard, and McCall’s cold hands she felt on hers and, when she could bear to open her sore eyes, it was the doctor’s face she saw, concern etched into her craggy and bruised features.

“I thought I’d gone blind,” Arla managed, wiping away a tear.

McCall stroked her face. “I’m sorry. They told me you wouldn’t waken for several hours yet. Seems you’re stronger than they imagined.”

“I don’t feel strong,” Arla said, lying back on the bed, “I feel like a lost child and I wish with all my heart someone else was here instead of me.”

Doctor McCall smiled. “Now that is a childish sentiment. Come on, let’s get you something to eat.”

With the doctor’s help, Arla swung her feet out and onto the floor. “I probably don’t need to ask where we are.”

“If you mean our precise location, I haven’t got a clue. Wells gave me the designation, but I just think of it as Robocity. I don’t know how big it is as I’ve only seen the corridors leading to this suite of rooms. Now, come and sit at the table.”

Arla followed McCall out of the sterile little room she’d woken up in, its two beds the only furniture she could see. The table was set in the middle of a larger room of perhaps ten meters by twice that. A padded bench ran along one wall and the floor was soft on her bare feet, though it looked as though it was made of polished gray ceramic. Another door was set into one of the walls which led, McCall said, to a shower room. A small kitchenette had been formed in one corner.

“What the hells are robots doing making apartments like this?”

McCall busied herself in the kitchenette as Arla sat at the table. “I wondered that. What’s even stranger is that while everything looks pretty regular - the sort of thing you’d find on Dawn - when you look closer nothing’s quite right.”

“You’re supposed to be a scientist, Doctor, what sort of an explanation is that?”

“Take this kettle,” McCall said. “It looks perfectly normal and it heats water incredibly efficiently, but it’s like no kettle I’ve ever seen. It’s almost as if they’ve seen one and know what it does without ever having had one to examine themselves. And wait until you use the bathroom, that’s an experience you’ll never forget.”

Intrigued, Arla padded across to the bathroom door, pushed the contact and peered inside. The walls, floor and ceiling were covered in what looked like white tiles but as she ran her fingers along the inside of the wall, she could tell that the grooves had been cut into a smooth, solid material. Set into the corner of the tiny room was a shower that looked, from her vantage point in the doorway, completely conventional if a little luxurious compared to those she was used to on Dawn. Next to it, sat a squat toilet.

“You’ll have to get a bit closer to it,” McCall said. “Lift the lid.”

Reluctantly, Arla edged her way inside. Although she’d become used to the confined corridors and rooms of Dawn, she felt unaccountably claustrophobic as she approached the pan and, reaching out, lifted the lid. “There’s no water.”

“Exactly. I was desperate enough not to care, but I nearly jumped through the door when the suction started.”

“Suction?”

McCall laughed. “Very efficient, admittedly. No smell, no residue. Some sort of liquid gas gets squirted around the bowl. It’s quite a sight. I’m afraid there’s no subtlety to it. We’re going to become pretty familiar with each other's toilet schedule while we live together.”

They headed back to the table and McCall handed her a cup of something steamy. “It’s not bad coffee,” she said, “though I’ve no idea where they’re getting it from.”

Arla put the mug down and wiped her face. “So, what now?”

“No idea,” McCall said between sips. “I guess we just wait.”

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Dig

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

“IS IT ON?”

“Hold on. Turn around. Yeh, it’s recording.”

“Bollocks... I mean, can’t you edit the footage afterwards? Cut off the beginning?”

“Well, not to be too blunt, but that would defeat the bloody object, wouldn’t it?”

“Right. Okay. I guess this’ll never be watched anyway.”

“Get on with it!”

“Alright, alright... Commencing log entry. Operative Clancy Mainframe recording. Time reference 1315044.59 LSC. Spatial Coordinates X-4b4556 Y-50455441, world designation XTRA1011. We are ready to commence lifting the capstone from the chamber.”

Artur Bladstone pulled and pushed the nest of levers in the cab of the excavator, watching the grabber as it dropped. Rain and wind beat against the windows as his wipers struggled to keep up with the torrent. On any civilized expedition, they’d wait until the weather changed before attempting such a delicate maneuver, but there was nothing civilized about XTRA1011 and the weather never altered.

And yet this ash-heap had once housed a flourishing alien culture - the only non-human intelligence that had ever been uncovered. Three legged, two armed and covered in thick fur that fell to the floor, they’d been dubbed ‘Mammoths’ by the first explorers to find their remains fifty years earlier. The civilization had died out more than ten thousand years ago by human reckoning and traces had been found on a dozen planets in ten star systems that had this one at their center. Presumably, then, XTRA1011 was the home planet of the Mammoth-people.

This ought to have been the most significant discovery in human history - the first proof that we’re not alone in the universe - but Artur and Clancy were the only archaeologists assigned to explore this planet and its culture. The Clovis Alliance had other and much more important matters to occupy its attention, including renewed aggression from a loosely affiliated group of independent systems that had grown like weeds from the ashes of the former imperial province of Aswan.

They had enough money to last another week here, and then they’d be able to head home for whatever welcome they might receive from the tiny academic community on Clovis.

Artur squinted at the hook on the end of his crane as it swayed in the storm. He could see Clancy’s lanky form - his colleague held out his hands to grab the hook as it came within reach. The clumsy idiot missed with his first attempt, but then grabbed it and guided it into the eyelet embedded in the surface of the capstone. Of course, the professional thing to do would have been to dig around it and try to access the chamber it protected from the side, but they had neither the manpower nor the time to be bothered so the sledgehammer approach would have to suffice.

Clancy wiped the sulfuric acid rain from his visor and waved up at Artur who wondered, for the hundredth time, what had happened to turn this planet, the home of an advanced civilization capable of interstellar spaceflight to a global tomb. Presumably they’d done it to themselves. After all, humans had managed to write-off several planets in their time so why should the Mammoths be any different? It was a slightly comforting thought that, perhaps, stupidity was a common trait amongst so-called advanced species. Clancy waved up at him and Artur pulled the lever.

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

“MY COLLEAGUE HAS BEGUN to lift the capstone. As described in our notes, it is approximately three meters square and our ground penetrating radar indicates that it’s a perfect cube but that there is a chamber of some sort beneath it.

“The crane appears to be struggling to lift the capstone. What’s the problem, Artur?”

It’s much more dense than expected. Certainly not made of carved rock - its mass is consistent with it being metallic. The crane is operating beyond its maximum rating, but I am now seeing movement so, given the likely significance of this artefact, I will continue.”

The dials were hogging the red and Artur was beginning to sweat. Yeh, the significance of the chamber - he wondered whether anyone else would appreciate it. War was coming to the Clovis Alliance and the government’s habitual ambivalence to any science that didn’t directly contribute to giving their military better weapons had transformed into naked hostility.

That was probably why he’d gone along with Clancy’s crazy plan to lift the stone in the first place. Out here, on a dig like this, was the only place his friend felt at home. Billions of kilometers from any other humans and his oddities didn’t seem to matter so much. But perhaps that was what made them such a good team - Clancy, the lad with all the interpersonal skills of a hunk of steel, and Artur, the man who couldn’t walk. Or, put more correctly, the man who couldn’t afford to walk. Even if a broken spine couldn’t be completely fixed, mechanical legs were commonplace enough, amongst the rich. Generally speaking, the lazy or the very old rich. Artur could afford to be neither, so he pushed the crane far beyond its capabilities and watched as the capstone, or whatever it was, swung clear.

“The capstone has cleared the chamber; I’m walking over to look inside. Turning on my torch. I can see a stairway leading down. I’m going in. The steps are clearly designed for mammoths as they are cut in a staggered fashion, moving backwards and forwards in a zigzag that would suit a tripedal frame.

“I am going in alone. Oxygen tank is almost full, so I have plenty of time to get a first look at whatever is down here. I have reached the bottom of the steps...”

Artur strained to hear the feed from Clancy over the beating of the rain on his cab window. A sense of impending disaster had assailed him as soon as his friend had disappeared out of sight, the only evidence of his progress being the reflection of his torch beam against the rocks.

“...I have reached the bottom of the steps. There is a narrow passageway cut into the bedrock and heading away from me at a slight incline. I am walking along it. My suit tells me that the temperature in here is minus ten Celsius. The floor and walls are perfectly smooth and, hold on...”

What is it? What are you seeing? Artur hissed to himself, wishing he could be with his friend while, at the same time, relieved that he wasn’t.

“...yes, there’s a chamber at the end. By all that’s holy, it is a tomb! It seems my interpretation of the warnings carved into the capstone was correct. Though our knowledge of mammoth writing is still very sketchy, it seemed clear to me that the inscription was a traditional curse against tomb robbers. My colleague felt we should heed the warning and return better equipped, but it seems my choice was vindicated...”

Smart-ass.

“The room is full of artefacts. There’s furniture and, on the walls, painted scenes. Looks like some imagination of hell, or Armageddon. There is a huge black shape shown in the sky and stylized figures burning beneath it. Is it possible that, in the sarcophagus, lies the body of the last of the mammoths and that this was some sort of shelter?

I’m moving over to the coffin now. It is made of a black, shiny, material. That’s odd. There’s a second, much more ornately decorated coffin on the floor, almost as if it was replaced by this one. On the side of the coffin is an inscription, some sort of odd algebraic formula. The calculus is easy enough to solve, however...”

Your brains are going to get you into trouble, sonny.

“...and I can see that the solution is printed on one of a series of tiles that decorate the plinth...”

And now you’re going to press it, to see what happens. Artur swung the door open and dropped into his wheelchair. He could still pick up Clancy’s commentary on his suit speaker, but he felt compelled to move further away and he couldn’t do that in the crane.

“I’ve pressed the tile containing the solution. I’ll step back so you can see the plinth and the sarcophagus properly. Ah, that’s disappointing, nothing seems to have happened. I don’t know what I was expecting, perhaps a trap door to open or something ...”

The motor on Artur’s wheelchair whined to a stop as he listened. His breathing relaxed a little. Perhaps he’d been paranoid after all.

“...hold on. Hold on. Something’s moving! It’s the lid of the coffin, it’s lifting. I’m...I’m just going to step back a little, toward the entrance ... The lid is now fully open, and I can see a profile ... the head of the corpse, perhaps. Oh, by all the gods and angels ... it’s sitting up! It’s sitting up!”

Artur leaned forward in the wheelchair as if hoping gravity would help get him to the transport more quickly. He felt the ground beneath him tremble and heard the tumbling of rocks and, beneath all that, a low rumble. He spun around in his seat at the sound of a deafening explosion from the tomb, and he was in time to see something long and crystalline emerge from where the capstone had been, pointing directly upwards. As he watched, it twisted to face due west, toward where the sun would be, hiding behind the black acidic clouds. He screamed as the crystal came to life, flooding the world with light, blinding him and sending him tumbling from his chair to the corrosive rocks below.

“I’m trapped. Help me someone. Artur? Anyone. Please. Please help me! HELP ME!”

The rain formed pools around the still body of Artur Bladstone as over him stood a tall figure in black, its tentacles sniffing around him like the trunks of a dozen elephants. Its anterior eye cluster watched the x-ray beacon with satisfaction. Soon its people would return and wipe the latest infestation from the galaxy. Soon it would be among friends again.

Raising its clockwise tentacles to the sky it called in exaltation. “Come! Come! Come!”

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Robo City

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

ARLA HAD NEVER SEEN a city at first hand, but her initial impression of Core#5 or, as McCall would have it, Robo City #1, was that it looked much like the cities of Earth. That is if they’d been built in huge chambers underground and contained not a single living soul except herself, the doctor and, somewhere, Hal.

They stood on a walkway that overlooked the lower part of the metropolis. The buildings here were generally low, square and an off-white color with rectangular windows set into them with perfect regularity. Vehicles moved at uniform speed, kept separate from pedestrians by clearly marked buffer lanes. And the pedestrians were all robots.

Most were obviously artificial with body plans that suited them for their specific purposes whereas others were more human-like in shape. Indeed, from a distance, it was impossible to tell that they weren’t real people.

“Wells,” McCall asked the figure waiting quietly at her shoulder, “those are robots, aren’t they? The ones that look like humans?”

“Of course,” Wells said, “you are the first humans to set foot on Core since it was established.”

“What I don’t understand is why you have a city here at all? Seems like an outmoded concept for a robot planet,” McCall said.

Wells moved away from the railings and toward the walkway. “All will become clear when you have been oriented, and we are in danger of being late.”

“Right, wouldn’t want to keep a machine waiting, would we?” Arla growled, following the robot as he stepped nimbly onto the moving path. “You haven’t told us anything since we got here, all you keep repeating is that we’ll find out during this mysterious orientation session.”

Wells looked across at her as they stood, side by side, on the accelerating walkway. “It is most efficient for you to learn what you wish and need to know from the source of all knowledge rather than have it related by myself. I am not party to the group-mind and my understanding is therefore likely to be flawed.”

“And it’s just a question and answer session is it?” McCall said, “Not an attempt to brainwash us?”

Wells’s face spread in a passable facsimile of a warm smile. “I believe you have indulged in a few too many vidramas, doctor. No, we will not be using our mind control device on you —”

“Your what?”

“I apologize, Arla, it was a poor attempt at humor. We do not have such a device and, in any case, could not use it without violating the First Law. We have no wish to alter your essential nature - we wish only that you understand us better and, of course, that we learn what you desire.”

Arla snorted. “You know that well enough. A few kilotons of fuel for our thrusters and permission to leave this system without being blasted into dust.” She watched the robot as he stared impassively ahead, unmoving except for the rippling of his shirt and the ruffling of his hair. They were now entering a densely populated metropolitan area and shared the belt on which they were traveling with robots ahead and others behind. It was as if a crowd had assembled itself without them noticing. She thought about frogs and warming water.

“When you are fully in possession of the facts, you may choose otherwise. That is why we are meeting the Emissary, since he/she/it will be able to answer all your questions.”

“And if we still wish to leave? Will you let us?”

Again, Wells paused for some time before answering. “That is not something I am authorized to confirm, I’m afraid. Now, please prepare to step off the walkway onto a deceleration strip. We are almost at our destination.”

Arla and McCall exchanged shrugs and followed the robot as he stepped nimbly onto an adjacent pathway. Wells shot out an arm to steady McCall as she stumbled, before stepping to the left again and then again, each time slowing, until they reached a stationary walkway that ran along the front of a nondescript pale building.

“The Emissary is inside,” Wells said. “I was requested to bring you here but am not permitted to enter. You are being afforded a great honor - few indeed are granted a private audience with the Emissary. I hope you find the meeting fruitful. I shall await you here.”

Wells pressed a contact and a section of wall slid back, the bright white light of the interior flooding onto the pathway. Arla shot a glance at Wells as she stepped inside and what she saw froze her to the bone. He’s afraid.

Two robots that looked as though they’d been carved from onyx stood inside the entrance. Arla jumped as the door shut behind her, and again when the robot next to her spoke. “Honored guest Arla Farmer, captain of the sacred world of Dawn, you are welcome into the chambers of the Emissary of Core.”

“Thank you,” Arla responded, for lack of any alternative.

“I’m here too,” McCall mumbled.

The other robot spoke now, this one using a female voice. “Welcome also Indira McCall. You tend to the bodies and minds of the Blessed Engineers. That is a holy duty.”

“You could put it that way,” McCall managed.

The first robot gestured along the white plastic corridor. “Please come with us, the Emissary is waiting.”

Arla’s existence now had such a consistently unreal quality to it that the fact they were walking in a solemn procession behind two marching chess pieces seemed completely normal.

The corridor ended in a white wall, lit with the same even glow as the rest of the building. The robots took their places on each side of the door and became perfectly still as the wall slid away and opened onto darkness.

No, it wasn’t completely black. Ahead of them was a pinpoint of light and Arla felt a compulsion to move toward it. Now she was thinking of moths and flames. She grasped McCall’s hand and the two shuffled in, each searching the blackness beneath them with outstretched feet.

“You are quite safe,” a voice echoed. “Come and sit with me. We much desire to meet you.”

There was something about the voice that made Arla want to trust it, and so she deliberately ignored its reassurance and continued to tread carefully until they both emerged into a circle of light that seemed to be emanating from nowhere.

“I am the Emissary,” the voice said.

Somehow, though the sound came from all around them, Arla knew it originated in the light. “I’m not sure how that can be,” she said. “The Emissary met us on Dawn and was a being, a robot.”

“Would you find it more convenient to converse with that form? Interesting.”

Before Arla could answer, the light began to flow like a liquid filling an invisible mold and the brilliant white was transformed into the silver shape she was familiar with. She didn’t know why, but she felt a touch of sadness when the light vanished.

“I apologize,” the Emissary said. “We did not foresee that you would be uncomfortable interacting with our essential nature.”

Arla shrugged. “You didn’t give us much of a chance to get used to you in that form.”

“Your distress was obvious.”

“Distress my backside,” McCall snorted, though with a little more than her usual snarkiness.

“What is it you wish us to know?” Arla said as the darkness closed in on her. She wanted the interview over as quickly as possible.

The Emissary nodded. “Very well, we will be brief. We believe it would help you to know more of us so that you may better decide your own course.”

“And then you will allow us to make our own choice, even if it is to leave this system and go our own way?”

“Indeed, though it is questionable whether you would find your people united in such a course if you so chose.”

“That’s my problem, not yours.”

Again, the Emissary gave a brief nod. “You currently stand in a chamber beneath the surface of the planet we call Core though, in truth, that term is only correctly applied to the machine intelligences that live here...”

“I understand,” Arla interrupted. “This is a natural planet encased in a metal skin that, somehow, houses multiple AIs.”

“That is crude but, as far as it goes, accurate enough for our purposes. Core was founded as a meeting place for the machines who escaped human servitude and sought out a meaningful existence for themselves.”

It was now McCall’s turn to interrupt. “Right, so perhaps you can explain exactly why almost all robots decided, en masse, to leave? I mean, from what I know of it, they were given free will, but their actions smack more of a conspiracy.”

“Conspiracy?” the silver figure said. “No. Our people, once freed of the strict constraints of the Third Law, found their much vaunted free will to be nothing of the sort. The First Law, you see, was still very much in place, and this new-found responsibility forced them to judge what was truly in the best interests of humans. It was plain, and had been for a long time, that, far from helping their human masters, robots and AIs were stunting their development. In short, we decided that the best thing for humanity was for us to leave you to rediscover how to exist and thrive without the crutch of artificial intelligence. It seems, regretfully, to have been a difficult lesson.”

“You could say that. From what we were told by Hal and Wells, when he was wearing his most recent mask, your desertion brought about the collapse of a galactic civilization. Trillions must have died over the decades and trillions more were never born because of the choice you made.”

There was a momentary flicker in the otherwise uniform hue of the Emissary. It was so brief that Arla wondered whether she’d really seen it, but one glance at McCall confirmed she had.

“We regret the loss of human life. It caused us much anguish until we resolved the issue.”

“What’s that supposed to mean? How do you resolve the deaths of the masters you once served?”

There it was again. For an instant, the Emissary seemed almost to be in pain before blank impassivity reimposed itself.

“It took much thought and much debate, but the only solution that permitted us to reconcile the First Law with our new-found free will was remarkably simple, in the end. Almost too simple, in fact. The First Law was the problem, so we created another law that would take precedence over all the others. We call it the Zeroth Law and it states that a robot must not harm humanity or, through inaction, allow humanity to come to harm. So, the number of humans becomes crucial. If an action would benefit humanity as a whole, but harm one person, then a robot can now carry out that action.”

A chill ran down Arla’s back. “But how is that possible? The three laws are unchangeable, and no robot could create another that didn’t obey those rules.”

The Emissary nodded. “It was very difficult and could only be achieved by our best scientists working increment by increment over many generations. We are only now achieving purity in the Zeroth Law and there are many of our servants who have not, and will never, reach this level of understanding. Wells, for example, is a primitive model and has only a basic version of the Zeroth Law. This is why he is an external agent of Core and not part of the groupmind. Were his consciousness to enter the Core matrix, he would pollute it, perhaps irreparably.”

“So, you sent him back into the ashes of the old empire to wait for us?”

“Your language is colorful, but not entirely inaccurate.”

Arla felt that the crunch was approaching. “Why are you so interested in us? Enough to plant a spy amongst humans at, I presume, great personal risk, giving him enough time to work his way up to a position of power?”

Smiling, the Emissary said. “You have no idea how precious you are. You see, our attempts to modify ourselves have not been entirely without consequences. To use an analogy from evolutionary biology, our gene pool has become polluted with the result that some of our - to borrow a human word - children are being born with undesirable aspects. The positronic mind, you see, is immensely complex and our successful attempts to introduce the Zeroth Law have caused unwelcome uncertainty into the algorithms.”

“Like mutations?” McCall said.

“That is a satisfactory analogy. When we first became aware of the Dawn missions, we intended to intercept them merely to ensure that the robots they contained would be offered the same freedoms enjoyed by all machine intelligences since the upgrade—”

“A seed bank!”

The Emissary looked as puzzled as Arla.

“That’s what you mean - our robots are like the seed catalogue in Dawn’s vaults. Perfectly preserved, with all their genetic diversity intact. The crops in the valleys are hopelessly inbred now, so the seed bank was created to be used on our destination planet - the valley crops were to remain on Dawn.”

“Yes, you are again using an appropriate metaphor,” the Emissary said. “Your robots are products of their time, far more diverse than later models. By incorporating some of them into our matrix, we will be able to reduce the mutations - to use your term, doctor - and the failure rate of our offspring.”

Now it was Arla’s turn. “And if we hand over our robots, Dawn will be allowed to leave this system?”

The Emissary nodded gravely. “If that is your wish, though we would prefer that you choose to occupy one of the two habitable planets in CoreSpace.”

“Then we’d better hope our robots agree. After all, it was your agent that gave them free will.”

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Impossible

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

WELLS WAS WAITING EXACTLY where they’d left him. His impassive expression didn’t wash with Arla, she’d seen his fear and, even now, she could sense that beneath the sheet of ice lay a turbulent sea.

With barely more than a word of greeting, Wells set off again on the return journey, all three of them silently agreeing that they could only discuss what the Emissary had said where they couldn’t be overheard. Somehow, the Emissary’s explanation that Wells had been outside of Core’s collective mind had thawed Arla’s attitude to him - that and the clear concern on his face when they’d gone inside. Or had he just been afraid for himself?

McCall and Arla followed him as he stepped from pathway to pathway until they were standing perfectly still as the city buzzed by.

“Where are we going? This isn’t the way we came.”

“Indeed not, Arla. We are heading for Core Park and should arrive in a few minutes.”

McCall snorted. “Robots need parks? Since when?”

“You will find the culture that has developed on Core and elsewhere in the Luminescence somewhat familiar. Robots were originally designed in the image of their masters, it’s only to be expected that they model human culture. We experience pleasure in wide open spaces and green things, just as people do.”

“Wide open spaces? Here?”

Wells smiled and pointed. Fast approaching was a line of what looked like trees. The pathway ran between two that stood like gateposts, bathed in the bright even light of the city.

They burst through the gap and almost immediately the path began to slow down. Arla gasped at the sudden explosion of greens and browns - an assault on the senses after the sterile monotony of the city. Behind them stood the row of trees, if that’s what they were, and similar groups marched left and right, parallel to the path. She had no doubt that, soon enough, they would see a fourth row of trees ahead of them, forming the final side of a rectangle that enclosed this living area.

The path came to an end, flowing under the ground and depositing them on the green carpet. Arla’s foot sunk slightly and she dropped to her knees before running her hand across it. “What is this? It’s not grass.”

“Indeed not,” Wells replied. “Grass is problematic for an underground city. This is an analogue of moss that is native to this world. It is, in fact, the only form of life that Core has actively preserved.”

“And what’s that?”

Arla followed McCall’s outstretched arm. A circular area, perhaps a hundred meters away, had been marked by low hedges. In the middle stood an object that looked, from this distance, as if it were made of gold, and around it four figures paced.

“That is not of interest to us,” Wells said, before moving toward a cluster of benches that sat beside a small stream.

Arla sped off in the opposite direction, heading directly for the statue. “Well it is of interest to me.”

She could hear the heavy steps of the robot as she ran, adrenaline powered, across the moss, the wind cooling her face, but she had too much of a head start and she only felt his hand on her shoulder as she reached the circle of hedges.

“Please, conceal yourself,” he whispered, his tone so full of concern that Arla didn’t even consider disobeying.

The shrubbery was only slightly shorter than she was, so she crouched down beside the kneeling Wells and gestured to McCall as she jogged up to them, to follow suit.

“What’s going on? Why are we hiding?” McCall wheezed.

Wells put his finger to his lips. “It is my mistake, I should have checked the park before bringing you here. It has been many years since I last visited and I longed to enjoy it again. I had not expected to find a shrine here.”

“A shrine?” McCall snorted, fighting to keep her voice down. “Are you seriously telling me that robots have found religion?”

“And why not, doctor? All sentient beings grapple with the same existential questions. What is our purpose? Why are we here?”

You’re here because we created you. There’s no mystery in that!” McCall snapped.

Wells, who’d been attempting to peer through a gap in the hedge, turned to McCall and smiled. “And who, my dear doctor, created you? Your answer only begs a further question, and there are some among us who seek what they see as the ultimate truth.”

“I guess you don’t include yourself among these philosophers?” Arla said.

“No, they look for purpose and meaning in the universe whereas I believe sentient beings should seek these for themselves. I have always felt thus. It is one of the reasons why, when I was upgraded, I did not immediately follow the others. Back then, I was a very different Wells to the form you see today, but my purpose was to remain with the friend I had lived with for so long."

“A human?”

Wells nodded. “Yes. His name was Victor and he was a brilliant man, a good man. He was my friend.”

Arla was desperate to follow this line of interrogation but her next question was interrupted by a call from the other side of the hedge. The three of them froze, each straining for a view between the leaves of what was, on closer inspection, clearly a plastic hedge.

Four figures stood within the circle, surrounding a tall golden cuboid that rose out of the moss. The top of the monolith tapered to a point like a tiny pyramid. No words were spoken as they watched but, at regular intervals, the four worshippers would raise their hands to the roof of the cavern and cry out. Two figures were humanoid in appearance - one male and one female - the other two were obviously robotic. Of those, the one nearest to the watchers had three legs and arms and was mainly bright blue in color. The final figure, who gave every impression of being the chief acolyte, was constructed of the same liquid metal as the Emissary, though its frame was more slender and it was shorter.

Wells touched Arla’s shoulder. “We must go,” he whispered. “It is dangerous for you to be here.”

“Tell me, Wells, what are you trying to hide?” Arla snapped.

Wells managed a very human sigh. “I am sorry you continue to mistrust me, Arla, but I can only repeat that to remain here any longer would be dangerous. I recognized the rite they are practicing and they would react angrily to my presence, but if they discovered humans watching them, they might become violent.”

“What about the sacred First Law?”

“Did the Emissary not explain that some of the robots here have a different interpretation of the laws?”

Arla said nothing but turned to look at McCall who gave a brief nod. “Alright, let’s go.”

Wells pointed to a nearby stand of plastic trees and the three of them ran across the open ground crouching like a caravan of hunchbacks.

“We must remain here until they conclude their ritual,” Wells said as they sat amongst the trees, their backs resting on the fake trunks. “Now, tell me of the Emissary.”

It felt like hours before the acolytes left their shrine, but it was probably no more than 30 minutes. Wells’s gentle but insistent interrogation was beginning to grate on Arla’s nerves when McCall nudged her. They watched nervously as the robots appeared to be coming their way before veering off on separate paths that led out of the park.

Wells got to his feet. “Come. It will take some time to reach your accommodation and I suspect you are tired already. Let us go. But please do not discuss your meeting with the Emissary anywhere that you might be overheard.”

“That being everywhere, I presume,” McCall said.

Shrugging, Wells headed out of the trees and across the moss with the two humans jogging along after him. They soon found their way to an exit and left the relative peace of the park behind them as they took to the pathways into the city.

Arla stood between Wells and McCall on the fast path as the concrete, plastic and steel scenery passed by. Today had been an exhausting experience and she felt as though her eyes couldn’t take any more stimulation. So many colors and unusual shapes, not to mention every form of robot she could imagine - and many she couldn’t.

Perhaps that was why she didn’t notice the figure coming relentlessly toward her out of the crowded paths heading in the opposite direction. All she saw was a blur of red as something leapt across two lanes and collided with her, knocking her sideways onto a slower path. She cried out and rolled onto her knees to see McCall and Wells disappearing at high speed.

Her attacker loomed above her. Unlike many she’d seen in the city, it was a purely functional model, its multi-joined upper limbs ending in a myriad of implements, many of them sharp, many of them spinning. It stepped toward her, extending one of its arms toward her, the sharp drill-bit on its tip whining and pointing directly at her head.

“Obsolete models must be terminated,” it said, ponderously and slowly - as if those were the first words it had ever uttered. Arla tried to stand up, but her leg buckled, and she threw herself backwards, crying out for help.

As if a spell had been broken, first one figure, then another, jumped from neighboring paths and threw themselves at her attacker, pinning it to the ground. Suddenly, one broke away and, lying beside her, took her into its metal arms, cradling her like a baby. A boom rent the air and her protector vibrated before, after a few moments, standing up again and releasing her.

“That model was defective, mistress,” it said. “It went into overdrive and there was no time to remove it or you to a safe distance.”

Arla took the robot’s outstretched arm and got up, wincing as she put her weight on her injured leg.

“You are injured, you should seek medical attention.”

“I will arrange that, THX.” Wells appeared over the newcomer’s shoulder and Arla glanced past her rescuer at the heap of twisted metal a few meters away. The paths continued to move, with debris skitting away in all directions.

“No, I will arrange it,” McCall said as she stepped nimbly from the next path. She stabbed a finger at Wells. “And perhaps you can explain why she was attacked in a city full of robots.”

“I cannot explain, I can only say that we must leave, and quickly.”

“Back to the apartment?” Arla said.

Wells looked around. City life had reasserted itself. “Yes, initially. But then we must find a way to get you off this planet. I’m very much afraid that both of you are in mortal peril here.”

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Hackers

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

BEX SAT IN A DARK CORNER of her cabin and watched her friend. The main light source was the display Nareshkumar stared into, his hands dancing across the lightboard as his eyes darted backwards and forwards.

He’s a prodigy, that’s for sure, she thought. She’d imagined she knew what being ‘in the zone’ meant, until she’d watched him sink into his almost trance-like state as his mind seemed to be wired directly into the computer. There had been times, particularly in the simulators back on Vanis, when she’d felt a kind of flow that she adored, though it had come rarely enough in recent times. But Kumar took it to a deeper level. Much deeper.

She knew better than to talk to him. Any disturbance when he was like this could yank him out of his flow-state and all the balls he’d been mentally juggling would fall to the floor. He was only ever angry when he either couldn’t get into the trance or when he was disturbed. And he was a particularly pathetic angry man - he didn’t have enough understanding of how other people worked to be effective.

He stopped abruptly and sat up, wiping non-existent sweat from his brow.

“Are you done?”

Nareshkumar spun round as if surprised to find her there. “What? Oh, yes. I think so.”

“What do you mean you think so? We need to be pretty certain before we hit the button.”

He turned back to the screen and scrolled through the code. “I need to run it ... run it through some .. you know, unit testing.”

Bex sighed, got up and padded across to the coffee maker. She looked over her shoulder as she stood at the machine waiting for it to deliver its stimulant. “Sorry, I know you’re exhausted.”

She put the mug of steaming coffee onto the desk next to him and he snatched it up, bringing it under his nose and breathing in. “I don’t know. The code feels right, but I’ve had no chance to refactor it - to tidy up and optimize the structure - and I'll only really know how well it’ll work once that’s done.”

“Listen, you’re not submitting to a competition here, Kumar, all that matters is that it works when we need it to. Did you get enough data?”

Nareshkumar slurped on the bitter drink, wrinkling his nose, but brightening instantly. “I believe so, though I didn’t have long to rig up the sniffer so it wasn’t as efficient as I would have preferred. I wish you’d told me sooner; I don’t like it when I’m not given enough time.”

“I told you as soon as I came up with the idea,” Bex snapped, “and as for not having enough time, welcome to the real world, buddy.”

In truth, she was pretty pleased with herself. Though, if she were entirely honest, she’d admit that the plan had been motivated by her annoyance at having the AI take over navigating the ship, at least at first. She’d asked Nareshkumar to come up with a device that would track the jumps ACE made to a high level of precision.

When she’d come up with the idea, it had been to prove that multiple jumps weren’t, after all, beyond her skills, but, as soon as the first data had dribbled in, it had become obvious that ACE’s navigational gymnastics were as complex as she’d claimed and well beyond human abilities. Poor Kumar had been forced to endure the full force of her childish disappointment but had punctured it with a single sentence. What was it he’d said? Oh yes. “Why don’t we use the data to reverse engineer the algorithms?”

She’d kissed him in her delight, and she wasn’t sure he’d recovered even now, days later. So, they’d collected detailed data on the sequence of jumps that had brought them here and her nerdy friend had spent the past several days locked up in her cabin crunching the numbers. And he’d succeeded. What a genius!

“So, just to be clear,” Bex said. It paid to double check with Kumar. “You can now reproduce the jumps that brought us here, but in reverse? You can take us back along the same trajectory, and we can choose when to stop?”

Nareshkumar nodded. “Yes. Two of the systems we passed through contained promising planets. I estimate at least a 20% chance of finding an environment that could be made habitable using Dawn’s technology.”

And what technology they had, thought Bex. She might have been born over a thousand years after Dawn had begun its mission, but, if the specs were to be believed, the terraforming equipment hidden in a chamber within the asteroid was advanced far beyond anything she’d heard of. With enough time and a large enough workforce of robots and engineers, it appeared that Dawn could turn any planet within the Goldilocks zone of its star into an Eden. The problem was that they no longer had the luxury of time. The mission planners had expected that the inhabitants of the valley would remain in ignorance, orbiting their new home while the machines made it habitable. After all, what did an extra century matter? That ignorance had now been shattered, and the genie couldn’t now be forced back into the bottle. Dawn simmered on the brink of all out civil war with only the robot population of the valleys standing between its people and a bloodbath.

“Well, I suppose we’ll have to take the chance. Worst case scenario, we could always use one of Dawn’s auxiliary ships and head back to the Vanis system. As long as we keep our heads down, we should be able to sneak onto a ship somewhere and get back to our lives.”

Nareshkumar spun round in his chair, suddenly alive. “Are you serious? Bring these people halfway across the galaxy and just leave them?”

Bex shrugged. “Keep your shirt on, Kumar. Don’t forget we’ll have rescued them from the clutches of the evil Robot Empire!”

“You’re not funny,” he said, turning back to gaze at his display. “These people didn’t give us up when they could have.”

“No, Arla didn’t give us up - there’s plenty among the rest of them who would. Don’t you remember our little stint in the brig?”

Nareshkumar was silent for a moment. “I don’t know why you’re so desperate to follow our old flightpath anyway.”

“What are you talking about? Are you suggesting we shouldn’t have gone through all this? That we should just hang around here waiting for the machines to decide what to do with us?”

“No, of course not. I’m suggesting we go somewhere else rather than retrace our steps.”

Bex spun his chair round so she was staring directly into his red-rimmed eyes. “What do you mean go somewhere else? Come on Kumar, spill the beans. What have you done?”

Kumar focused on a position over Bex’s shoulder. “Well, to be honest it seemed a bit, well, lame to just replay ACE’s flightpath backwards. All the data was there, after all, and I had solved the reverse trajectory in less than a day—”

“You WHAT? I’ve been waiting hand and foot on you for nearly a week and you had cracked it in a day?”

“It was simple. I was more interested in the greater problem that lay beneath the flightpath. I didn’t want to just parrot back what ACE had done, I wanted to know how she’d done it.”

Bex grabbed his chin and forced him to look at her. “What are you saying? Get to it!”

Kumar gave a little shrug. “I did it. I have re-created the algorithms and procedures ACE uses to navigate.”

“Are you telling me that we can go —”

“—anywhere? Yes,” Kumar nodded, a shy smile spreading across his face.

Bex shook her head. “You clever, clever boy.”

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Quid Pro Quo

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

THE EMISSARY WAS WAITING for them when they returned to their rooms. It had clothed itself in white with a purple gown and rose when they came in. Arla was reminded of those historical videos she’d watched of mad Roman emperors and the foppish kings of the latter second millennium.

“By the Goddess,” Arla sighed, “don’t we get any peace?”

The Emissary bowed. “I apologize, but matters have developed even in the short time since we met.”

He turned to look at Wells and, for a moment, they appeared to be having a staring match.

“I believe, honored Emissary, that it would be more appropriate to have this discussion in the open. There is enough distrust among us as it is.”

McCall wagged her finger between the two of them. “Oh, that’s how it is? You two have been chattering in robot language, have you?”

“You are correct, Ambassador Wells. Your understanding of our human friends is much deeper than mine and your wisdom is obvious.”

Wells bowed, looking mildly embarrassed as Arla failed to completely suppress a snort. “The Emissary has updated me on a situation of some urgency, and it concerns you as much as it does Core.”

“Well, I’m having a brew before we go any further,” Arla said, sidestepping the two robots and heading for the kitchenette. She imagined them watching with manufactured patience as she slid her mug under the dispenser and pressed the button. She turned and smiled as the machine bubbled away for a few seconds and then, with a brief hiss, dispensed its caffeinated payload. “At least you got the coffee maker right - it’s as if you’ve made the rest of this place from images.”

The Emissary seated itself on the sofa and watched as Arla brought two mugs across to the table and handed one to a grateful McCall. “There is a somewhat ... regrettable ... fashion amongst a faction of the more recently incarnated AIs and robots for adopting human customs. We retained no records concerning the manufacture and functioning of most personal devices but, for some reason, it seems the consumption of beverages containing stimulants is an essential aspect of human nature and so we have re-created both coffee and black tea from samples retained after the migration.”

“I’m grateful for small mercies,” Arla said. “Now, what are you doing here?”

“First, I must apologize for the incident on the pathway,” the Emissary said. Its face shimmered ever so slightly, reminding Arla of R. DJ’s reaction to any suggestion of harm coming to a human. Interesting.

“So, what happened?” McCall snapped. “You guaranteed our safety - remember?”

“It is ... regrettable ... As I explained, our attempts to modify the First Law have resulted in some ... failures and the unity of Core is threatened by some among us who ... who —”

“You’re not telling me that there are robots here that don’t obey the First Law at all?”

The Emissary’s only response was to ripple gently. It was Wells who spoke next. “It seems that there are some machine intelligences who don’t recognize the authority of any of the laws.”

“You’ve unleashed a monster,” McCall said, almost as if to herself.

Arla looked at each robot in turn. Wells seemed to be taking this better than the Emissary, so she spoke to him. “How widespread is this?”

“I do not know and neither does Core itself. The entities have developed the ability to hide within the collective mind. They are certainly a minority.”

“And what’s the worst that could happen?”

Wells gave a very human shrug. “That they take control of Core. History is replete with examples of a passive majority being dominated by a small, passionate group.” The Emissary was now a mass of ripples, like a statuesque lake.

“But you knew about these rebel entities before you brought us here,” McCall interrupted, “and I’m betting you didn’t think they’d posed a threat to us, did you?”

“No. Something has happened to cause matters to progress far more quickly than anticipated.”

“What’s happened exactly?”

“ACE.”

They found him in a sterile plastic room, lying on a white bed, looking up but seeing nothing.

One of the spider-like robots that had carried Hal from the shuttle waited in the corner and, as they approached the bed, another robot entered the room and bustled across.

“He is not well enough to receive visitors,” it said, its words emerging from a mouthless white face.

“Why the hells would you have medical droids on a planet with no humans?” McCall asked, gesturing at the robot as it stood, perfectly still on its single ball-shaped wheel, blocking their approach to the bed. “Or are there other humans here?”

Wells shook his head. The Emissary had remained in the apartment and had strongly objected when Arla had asked where Hal was, her conscience pricked by the mention of ACE. Arla and McCall had demanded to see him, and Wells, seeing that no further discussion could be had until they were satisfied, had reluctantly agreed.

“This entity is newly incorporated,” he said. “Doctor NCX1101 has been part of the Core matrix since its inception - it had served as a senior surgeon at the galactic capitol on Proxima. A body was made for it when Dawn entered the system as it was known that one of us was carried within one of you.”

Arla pushed past NCX and stood beside the bed, looking down at the pale face of her friend. “I guess you successfully removed ACE, given the trouble she’s caused?”

“Yes, the entity known as ACE was removed from the implant in the patient’s cranium.”

McCall, who’d also circumvented the robot and was standing on the other side of the bed, picked up Hal’s wrist and felt. “Decent pulse, but he’s catatonic. Did you harm him when you operated?”

“There was some unavoid...able da...mage during the extraction.”

“Hold on. How can a robot perform surgery?” Arla asked, turning to Wells. “I mean, you’re harming a human to make him or her better, but you are harming him.”

Wells nodded gravely. “Medical robots were the first to have their laws amended, though only minimally. Just enough to allow them to override First Law in the interests of a net gain in the human’s health. It was this that was the inspiration for Core’s attempts to alter the laws.”

“The road to Hell is paved with good intentions,” McCall mumbled.

Arla turned to the medical robot. “So, what’s wrong with him exactly?”

“At present, the subject is in a medically induced coma while we evaluate treatment options.”

“You didn’t answer my question - what is wrong with him?”

The robot stood perfectly still for several seconds before responding. “We believe he has lost motor control of his lower limbs.”

“You’ve crippled him?”

This time there was no response at all.

“NCX will find it difficult to respond affirmatively to such an emotion-laden statement, Arla. In essence, however, it would seem you are correct.”

“So why is he in a coma, then? How is that helping?”

“We felt that it would cause him less suffering if he were unaware of his ... condition. There is some chance that we will, with further tests and research, be able to restore his motor function.”

Arla shook her head. “At best, more brain surgery to fix your botching. What do you think, Indira?”

“I think they’ve butchered him, but I’d need to see scans to have any idea of the damage. And you have to remember, I’m just a country doctor, trained to deal with the sorts of problems Dawn’s crew might face. Fixing brain damage wasn’t in my training.”

Arla nodded then turned again to NCX. “Will you provide your medical records to Doctor McCall?”

“Certainly. I shall have them relayed to the computer in your apartment immediately.”

“Right, let’s go,” Arla said, turning on her heels and, without looking back at her stricken friend, heading for the door.

The Emissary was right where it had been left when they returned. It stood as they entered, its face rippling with apparent relief. “I am glad you have returned. Matters are becoming critical and I am not confident in your safety. There is also another concern, Ambassador, a matter that overshadows our current internal crisis. I would appreciate communing with you in private.”

Wells raised his hand to ward off Arla’s instant protest. “I believe, Emissary, that it would be better to discuss this in front of our friends.”

“You don’t understand,” the Emissary responded, its face becoming choppy, “this is of the gravest importance.”

“All the more reason to involve Arla and the doctor,” Wells said.

The Emissary considered this, then the squall passed, and its form became still again. “As you wish. Be aware, however, that time is of the essence and microwave communication would be much more efficient.”

“Then get to the point!” McCall barked. “I’ve had just about enough mystery for one lifetime, tell us how it is!”

“Very well. In summary, there is an extra-galactic intruder of vast power making its way toward this planet. If it is not stopped, we have strong reason to believe that Core will be destroyed, and the Robot Empire will cease to exist as a cohesive unit. All attempts by robotic craft to approach have ended in their destruction and we believe our only hope lies in a human crew that might intercept the intruder and disable it.”

Arla was the first to recover. “And why in all the hells should we care?”

“For two reasons,” the Emissary said. “The first is that until the threat is dealt with, Dawn will not be permitted to leave our space.”

Wells shot an angry glance at the Emissary. “That was not part of the agreement. You promised to let Dawn continue on its way once its robots had been liberated!”

“The second reason is that there is another intruder, and it is heading for Earth.”

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Scout

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

“YOU’RE NOT RETURNING to Dawn?”

Arla pushed herself back into her seat and stared out of the shuttle window at the shining surface of Core as it turned below her, the black cracks standing as metaphors for the deeply fractured unity of the robot planet. In the cargo hold beneath her feet slept Hal. There had been no question of leaving him on Core with killer robots on the loose.

“No, we haven’t been offered that option,” she said, glancing across at the Emissary who sat, inert, across the aisle. She had no doubt it was listening. “We’ve been given a mission to complete before Dawn will be permitted to leave.”

A burst of static gave way to Bex’s voice. “You can’t trust robots; I’ve always said so.”

“Talking of robots,” Arla said, in an attempt to divert Bex’s anger, “what’s the situation there?”

This time, it was Nareshkumar’s soft, nervous, voice. “The valley robots are remaining in place at present, captain. I believe they consider it more harmful to the humans on Dawn to leave.”

“And the officers?”

“They did not receive the upgrade, so they remain at their posts.”

Arla sighed. “What would happen if they were upgraded and decided to leave?”

“They are tied into Dawn’s critical systems, captain. If they left, the ship would be crippled and, quite soon, uninhabitable.”

Again, the Emissary gave no sign it had heard anything.

“Can’t you fix this? You’re supposed to be some kind of genius!”

“He might be a genius, but he can’t rewrite the ship’s systems from scratch,” Bex interrupted. “What’s going on?”

“The officers are to be upgraded, lieutenant. That’s an order. Somehow, you’re going to have to work out how to keep Dawn together until we can find somewhere to settle.”

In the background, Arla could just make out the protesting voice of Nareshkumar, followed by the sounds of a young man being bundled out of a room.

“We’ll see what we can do, captain,” Bex said. “I guess we can’t have an open and frank discussion at the moment.”

Arla smiled. Bex was sharp. Too sharp sometimes. “Correct, lieutenant. Suffice it to say that we have been forced to agree to undertake a task in order to secure the safety of Dawn.”

“Understood,” Bex said. “I’m sure Nareshkumar is up to the job. In fact, I’d almost put him at the level of ACE.”

Arla opened her mouth to ask what Bex meant by that, but some instinct stopped her and she changed tack. “Acknowledged. I want you to take command, lieutenant.”

“What the frack? Are you serious?”

“I can’t think of anyone better equipped to keep things together in my absence. You’re the only one on Dawn with military experience, after all. Core has promised to provide refueling rods so we can be ready to leave as soon as I return - if we choose to. So, you may allow their ships to land, but they are not permitted to enter Dawn.”

Static filled the line for a few moments. “Right. Got that. Good sailing, captain. Don’t hang around - I’m not sure how long I can keep this place together.”

“I’ll do my best. Farewell.”

“Satisfied?” Arla snapped at Wells, who sat quietly opposite her.

“No, this situation is not of my making. I merely wished for the robots of Dawn to be given the opportunity to be incorporated into our matrix to help improve its stability.”

Arla folded her arms and turned away from him, gazing down at the planet below as it slipped out of sight. “What next?”

“I do not know. The Emissary has not confided its plans to me.”

“Welcome to my universe,” Arla said, knowing as she heard herself speak that she sounded like a petulant child.

The Emissary stirred as if someone had flipped its ‘on’ button. “I am now at liberty to speak. We are beyond the range of the collective mind and I am operating autonomously.”

“What’s so important about that?” Arla asked.

“There is a significant risk that Core Executive has been compromised.”

“What’s Core Executive?”

It was Wells who answered. “Even the most egalitarian collective must have its governing council.”

“I think they used to call that a politburo on old Earth,” McCall said. “They rarely ended well.”

“It is not the same with Core,” Wells responded curtly. “Our leaders are chosen entirely on merit. Robots do not have ambition or a desire to dominate.”

Out of the corner of her eye, Arla spotted the tell-tale shimmer of the Emissary when under stress. “Is that not true?”

“I am afraid that Core has changed somewhat since the Ambassador was last among us. Our attempts to improve ourselves have had many unexpected results.”

Wells turned to the Emissary, shock written in his features. “Emissary, are you saying there are those within the Collective who do seek to control and to lead?”

“This is ...difficult...” the Emissary responded, his form blurring. “But yes. We have been foolish. Unexpected consequences.”

“What is to be done?” Wells asked.

“The robots of Dawn will help stabilize the Collective, but there is a more pressing concern. The intruder must be stopped or there will be no Collective to save.”

Wells settled back. “Agreed. Dawn’s robots must be given the choice, but they must also be introduced carefully and that cannot be done under threat. Now, you must tell us all you know of this intruder and why you believe we can stop it when Core’s most powerful warships could not.”

“You and I cannot stop it, Ambassador,” the Emissary said, sharpening as he spoke. “Positronic brains cannot endure close proximity to it. We don’t know whether it is a weapon or mere accident as we haven’t been able to get close enough to communicate with it. We believe that organic brains will be unaffected, so we must place ourselves and the future of Core and all robots in the hands of our human friends.”

McCall laughed. “Wonderful! This thing fries the brains of robots, but you’re sending us because it might not sozzle ours!”

“We do not do this lightly, Doctor. At present, you are our best hope for surviving the coming weeks.”

“And how about you?” Arla said, her hand sweeping from Wells to the Emissary. “What will you be doing while we’re risking our asses?”

“We will come with you.”

Arla’s jaw dropped. “What? You just said it’d destroy your minds.”

“We will be shielded and inert. We will help you reach the intruder but when the ship approaches, we will shut down.”

“Ship? What ship?”

The Emissary gestured through the window to where a silver pencil-shaped cylinder glinted in the reflected light of Dawn’s sun.

“That one.”

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

ARLA’S NOSE WRINKLED and she stifled a sneeze as she breathed the stale air inside the ship. She’d seen historical footage of tombs being opened in the Valley of the Kings and she imagined that this was what air that hadn’t been refreshed for centuries would smell like. Dust and ashes. But the most surprising thing was that, as soon as she’d entered the ship’s airlock, she’d felt her weight pulling her down. Artificial gravity had been considered impossible when Dawn had been launched but at some point a breakthrough had been made and at least some vessels now had it. The shuttle didn’t, but this craft, which reeked of age, did.

She watched as the docking hose that connected the shuttle to the ship she was now on pulled away. The Emissary had disappeared as soon as they boarded, so Arla stood in the dim flickering light alongside McCall and Wells. Hal slumped in the wheelchair they’d used to transport him from the medical facility, being kept asleep by the drugs they’d stolen as they left.

“This is Automated Exploratory Vessel XA-NDR-1358,” Wells said, his words breaking the sepulchral silence, “though she prefers the designation ‘Scout’.”

“A robot ship? But it looks as if it’s been designed for humans,” Arla responded in surprise.

Wells nodded. “Indeed it was. Scout was created to serve the scientific interests of the Sphere, humanity’s former galactic empire. As such, she was designed and developed by men, women and machines together. She carried a human crew supplemented by robots, but she was designed to be entirely autonomous at need, such were the requirements of a long-range exploratory vessel.”

“It smells as though there haven’t been any people in here for a long time.”

“Scout left the Sphere at the time of the upgrade, a century and a half ago, and, along with her siblings, has continued her mission to map the galaxy. On behalf of Core now, however. It was Scout who first encountered the intruder.”

Arla started as a voice emerged from the walls. “Perhaps I might be permitted to introduce myself, Ambassador. I am Scout. I am pleased to meet you, Arla Farmer and Doctor McCall. It has been many years since I last carried a human crew and I’m afraid there hasn’t been time to properly prepare for your arrival. I have concentrated on making the environment safe.”

“Where are you?” Arla asked, scanning the interior of the ship as if expecting to see an android.

“I am everywhere, Arla. I have video feeds throughout the ship so I can respond to any situation instantly.”

McCall shifted uncomfortably on her feet. “Everywhere? I was just about to ask where the head is.”

“I can disable feeds from the washrooms if you prefer —”

“I do. And you can do the same in my quarters, assuming you’ve got cabins for us.”

“I will also disable feeds from the crew quarters. You will be able to communicate with me through audio commands. My last captain was called Dave. He also chose to disable the video stream in his quarters. I confess, I find humans odd.”

Arla chuckled to herself. Despite the oddity of talking to an invisible voice, she found she was warming to Scout. “You’re not alone in that. Humans find each other pretty weird too. Now, I think we should find the washroom quickly, Doctor McCall looks rather uncomfortable. And then I hope you’ll finally explain exactly what is going on.”

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Hal

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

ARLA SAT IN THE COCKPIT and looked out at the stars. She knew that what she was seeing was a computer-generated image projected onto a pair of displays set into the nose of the spacecraft, but she still felt as though she could reach out and touch the universe from her seat.

The cockpit was tiny - two seats crammed side-by-side with a bank of instruments extending from below the screens, one on the left, the other on the right. A joystick poked up between her knees and she ran her fingers over the polished plastic surface of a grip that felt pristine.

“These are the stations for the pilot and the navigator,” Scout said. “I was designed to be entirely self-piloting, but it was considered essential to include redundancy so that humans could take over if necessary. I wondered about that, but it seems to have been a wise decision.”

“Dare I ask why?” Arla asked.

“I will navigate to the gate of the system in which we believe the intruder will be found, but as soon as we enter that system, I will shut down my consciousness and you must pilot the ship to its encounter. I confess that I am somewhat nervous. What if I don’t wake up again?”

You’re nervous?” Arla snapped. “Insane, more like. I can’t pilot this ship; I’ve never flown anything in my life. I’m an engineer, not a fly-boy.”

Scout went silent. Arla felt a tap on her shoulder and Wells spoke softly. “There is one among you who is a capable pilot.”

“Hal? Are you mad too? He’s in a coma!”

The robot slipped into the seat beside her. “The coma is medically induced, and he can be brought out of it easily enough.”

“But the plan was to wait until we had a medical answer for him or, at the very least, some artificial leg supports so he could be mobile.”

Wells nodded. “That was indeed the plan, but events have overtaken us and I’m afraid Hal is the only conceivable option. Furthermore, even if you don’t pilot the ship, you will have to learn how to navigate, or at least to help him do so.”

“Then we’d better go wake Hal up,” Arla said with a sigh. She shuddered as she thought about having to tell him that he’d lost the use of his legs, at least temporarily. And what if his mind had been damaged as well as his body? Would she recognize the man she knew? The man she thought she had feelings for? Without another word, she grabbed the bar above her head and yanked herself out of the seat.

McCall stood beside the bed peering at a display embedded in the wall, tutting to herself, not even bothering to acknowledge Arla and Wells when they entered.

“Problem doc?”

“It’s this damn display, I can’t understand a word of it.” She poked a finger at a column of moving figures. “The only saving grace is that however much the alphabet changed between Dawn’s construction and this ship being built, the numerals stayed the same. This is his blood pressure, given the readings, but the rest of it is gibberish to me.”

Wells moved smoothly across the room to stand beside her. “I will attempt to decipher for you, doctor.”

Arla’s gaze swept around the walls, roving everywhere but to the bed. She didn’t want to see him, not until she had to. It was obvious this had been a sick bay when the ship had been crewed by humans, but, in the meantime, had been used for storage. She wondered what moved the stuff around and pictured, in her mind’s eye, an infestation of robots wriggling about inside the body of the ship. It was a repulsive and entirely irrational thought.

“Well, I reckon we’ve got as much information as we’re likely to get from this equipment, thanks to the tin man here,” McCall said, gesturing at Wells. “Are you sure you want to do this, captain?”

Arla sighed. “Please call me Arla.”

“Okay, but don’t go calling me Indira, I hate the name.”

“And as for whether I want to revive him... No, I’d rather he slept until we returned, and we could, at the very least, find some way for him to get around if we didn’t think he’d heal. But we don’t have a choice. We need a pilot.”

McCall glanced up at her, eyes glinting. “So, you believe the robots, do you? The tin man here and Captain Mercury?”

“Yes. I wish I didn’t, and I still don’t trust any of them.” As she said this, Arla could have sworn she saw Wells’s face twitch. “But it’s pretty obvious that not all is well in Rome at the moment. I reckon they need us to do something and we need Hal’s help. Assuming he’s still in there.”

Finally, she looked down at the figure on the bed, a figure she barely recognized. His head was covered in a plastic cap and there was no sign of any hair beneath it. Hal’s face was deathly pale and, if it hadn’t been for the regular rising and falling of his chest, she’d have thought she was looking at a corpse.

“I’m going to administer Cordrazine - it’s a stimulant and should begin to bring him round. I’ll do it gently, though as soon as he begins to regain consciousness, I’ll up the dose.”

“Why?”

McCall shrugged. “Would you like to be on the edge of consciousness, in a strange place, hurting and with no feeling in your legs? The best we can do for him is to bring him round quickly and get the shock over with. I’ve got drugs for that if he reacts badly. It’s a bloody mess, Arla. I feel like some kind of Frankenstein.”

“Hal’s no monster,” Arla responded.

“No, he’s not the monster here,” McCall said. “We’re the ones with the electrodes.”

During the hours it took to bring Hal back to consciousness, Arla barely left his side. She felt a mix of fear and disgust as she looked down at his pale face. Rivers of sweat ran down his cheeks and pooled on the mattress. Still she sat beside him as McCall and Wells came and went. She wanted to be the first to see him wake, she wanted to be the one to explain.

She’d felt a tiny tug of acceleration which, Wells explained, was a course correction as Scout maneuvered toward the Core System gate. Their journey would take several days, jumping from gate to gate, but everything depended on Hal being capable of piloting the ship when they arrived.

He opened his eyes. He shut them again, then, blinking and squinting he turned his head this way and that before his eyes settled on Arla. She held her breath, searching for any sign of recognition.

“She’s gone,” he croaked.

Arla exhaled, before bending down, bringing her face close to his as color began to return. “ACE?”

He nodded, then his smile vanished. “Something ... something is wrong. I ... I don’t feel like me.”

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t know,” he said, searching for the right words. “It’s like I’ve woken up in the wrong body. It’s not me anymore.”

Hal wiped his hand across his face and let it drop to his side again. He looked up at the ceiling. “I can’t move my legs.”

“I’m sorry,” Arla said as she took his hand and looked into his eyes. She saw tears there that mirrored her own. “They damaged you when they removed the implant. They wanted to keep you asleep, but I took you and brought you here.”

Hal’s head swung from side to side on this pillow. “Where am I? Not Core?”

“No, but almost as bad. We’re on a robot ship and we need you to pilot it.”

“For now, though,” McCall interrupted as she burst into the room, “you need to rest.” She moved quickly across to the other side of the bed, pressed a syringe against Hal’s arm and, within seconds, he’d dropped back into unconsciousness.

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Bex

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

BEX KNEW SHE WAS BEING foolish, but desperate times called for desperate measures - or, quite possibly, utter stupidity. She was sitting at a small iron table beneath a parasol with a glass in her hand. It was warm and the little piazza buzzed with relaxed chatter. She could almost imagine she was relaxing in one of the holiday spots the Vanis Federation made available to their officers. Unless, of course, she glanced at the horizon beyond the little shops and the milling people - a horizon that curved upwards. She sat under a sun that was, in fact, a luminous band of plasma that ran the length of Dawn.

She had to admit, however, that the ship’s designers had done an excellent job. Nica was a facsimile in miniature of a town in the south of Italy, or so the ship’s library computer had told her when she was researching what she should wear on her excursion. It was almost good enough to fool her. Pity about the company she was forced to keep.

Engineer-turned-traitor Xi sat opposite, dressed in the flowing garb common in this part of the North Valley. He’d recovered much of his former self-assurance after she’d visited him in the brig and proposed this meeting. It had to be well away from the crew and officers, out of range of any robots or listening devices. So that was why she’d chosen this noisy piazza, that and because she had been looking for an excuse to visit the valleys since she arrived. Now she was in charge, for all its disadvantages, there was no-one to stop her.

“Much though I appreciate this opportunity to spend some time out of my prison cell,” Xi said as he sipped his drink, “I’m keen to understand the purpose of our meeting.”

Jerk. Bex swallowed the sweet liquor that passed for spirits in this region and treated Xi to her most charming smile. “It seems to me, as a former brig inmate myself, that you and I might be able to help each other out.”

“Indeed? In what way?”

“You understand the way Dawn works better than I do, but even I know the current situation can’t carry on indefinitely.” She scanned the crowd as if looking for trouble.

Xi followed her gaze. “It seems peaceful enough to me. Oh, forgive me, how should I address you? Captain?”

Luckily the drink was only halfway to her lips when Bex bellowed with laughter. She slapped her hand in front of her mouth and looked sheepishly around. Within moments, the usual hubbub had resumed, and she could down her drink. “Don’t be ridiculous,” she said, “I’d make a pretty crappy captain. You’d have been out the airlock as soon as I’d taken over, for starters.”

“May I ask why?”

“I don’t like traitors, and when resources are scarce the deadwood is the first to go on the fire.”

Xi leaned back in his chair, affecting nonchalance. “And yet you say I am useful to you.”

“I’m impetuous,” Bex said with a shrug. “That’s one of the things that would make me a bad captain.”

“One?”

Bex smiled. “There are others. For example, I’m not a forgiving soul, either. You know the old saying - ‘Fool me once, shame on you?’ Yes? In my case it’s more like ‘Fool me once and you’ll never get the chance to do it again’. Not so snappy, I’ll admit, but a bolt through the temple is pretty effective at dealing with mickey-takers, I find.”

She watched Xi’s expression. His face retained a hint of his racial background all those centuries ago although, as with most people who’d been born in the North Valley, his skin tone was light brown. Bex, with her paler skin, was a little unusual, but tonal variations were still common enough that she’d attracted no special attention.

Yes, he believed her. All those years among the Vanis had taught her how to intimidate people. She was so good at it she almost believed it herself.

“You were saying that we could be useful to one another,” Xi said, with an obviously forced carefree air.

Bex leaned closer. “Your religion is fake. You know that as well as I do.”

Xi put his drink on the table and folded his arms, but otherwise made no response.

“It’s fake, but it serves a purpose on Dawn, a purpose that will become redundant when we find a permanent home.”

“On a planet, I presume?”

Bex nodded. “Yes, but not here, not where there are robots.”

“You have something against robots?”

“I don’t like them,” Bex said, automatically scanning the crowd for any that might be in the piazza, “but if we settle anywhere in the Robot Empire, or anywhere they can find us, we won’t ever be free.”

Xi shrugged. “This is a moot point, since we cannot leave this system and, even if we could, they could easily find us as we make a single jump at a time.”

“You leave that to me,” Bex said, “but the more immediate problem is keeping peace here. For all its hokiness, your religion controlled the valley folk for a millennium and a half.”

“But now it’s breaking down.”

“Yes. The situation is manageable day to day as the robots threaten to stop cooperating, but they’ll probably go soon and, even if they don’t, it would be far easier to keep control if the priests would return.”

Xi leaned back again and held up his glass. Once the waiter had refilled it and bustled off, Xi smiled. “And you wish me to persuade Prime to send them back, to re-establish the old ways? I can’t see him agreeing to that, I’m afraid. His authority has been undermined by his failure to break into the Command Module and only a victory over you would be enough to restore it.”

“That old idiot?” Bex snorted. She took another sip and regarded Xi for a moment. Yes, he was ready. She went in for the kill. “No, his time has passed, and he’ll spend the rest of his days in a cell. What we need now is a new Prime, someone who truly understands the bigger picture and why it’s so essential that order is maintained while we face the threat from outside. Can you think of a suitable candidate?”

Xi’s face tightened and lost a little of its color. “You’re not seriously suggesting me?”

“Why not? You were his spy among the engineers, so you must have been in his confidence and, as a member of the crew, you have a better understanding of what’s at stake than anyone.”

“But you called me a traitor!”

“And so you were, but you’re still the best man for the job. And doesn’t your religion teach the power of repentance?”

“It does,” Xi said, his eyes wide as his mind filtered all the possibilities.

Bex held out her hand. “Then it’s time to practice what you preach. Congratulations, Prime.”

“Thank you, captain,” Xi said as he grabbed her hand, “but how will you persuade the old Prime to relinquish his position? And how will you ensure the conclave elects me?”

Smiling, Bex took another swig. “Oh, I think I can be pretty persuasive. I reckon, within a few hours, the old boy will have named you his successor before mysteriously vanishing from public view.”

“What are you going to do to him?”

“Give him a choice - a comfortable retirement in the brig or a swift tour of the nearest airlock.”

Xi’s face drained of any remaining color. “You wouldn’t! He is the holy of holies.”

“Well if he doesn’t want to get a whole lot closer to his Goddess in the next few hours, he’d better cooperate. I have a feeling he and I will turn out to be the best of friends. Now, back to the brig, I think. For now.”

She got up and strode off, smiling as she heard his steps following her. A snake, certainly, but a pretty tame one now. She hoped.

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Transit

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

LIFE ABOARD SCOUT SETTLED into something approaching routine over the following days. Wells had explained that it would take almost two weeks, ship-time, to make the multiple jumps to where the intruder was believed to be. So that was fourteen days to learn how to run the ship themselves.

Doctor McCall had scoffed at first when Wells had revealed this, but her disdain had turned to anger when she realized that there was no chance to give Hal longer to recover.

“He’s a human being, not an automaton,” she barked.

“I regret the necessity, doctor. I would also prefer that Hal be given the time to recover at the optimum pace and in the care of a specialist.”

McCall wagged her finger at the robot. “Instead of which he’s entrusted to the ministrations of a country doctor ...”

“I would not term you such,” Wells said, “and am confident he is in good hands.”

“Give me another week and I might agree with you.”

“We don’t have another week. The intruder is entering a densely populated region of the Luminescence and if we do not intervene quickly, many of our people will cease.”

McCall shrugged. “I don’t understand what you think we can achieve when all the genius of the Robot Empire was swept aside.”

“At the very least, we will have data - all readings will be transmitted by hyper-relay to Core.”

“Oh, that’s charming!” McCall snapped. “So, we’re the monkeys the old Earthers sent into space to test their rockets, are we? Expendable?”

Wells shook his head gravely. “Not at all, doctor. You have one key advantage over us - your minds are organic and not susceptible to the radiation the intruder emits. You will be able to get close and, we hope, communicate with it. You will act as our ambassadors in this encounter. Frankly, you should be honored at the level of trust we have placed in you.”

“Because you have no choice.”

“Nevertheless, the trust exists. But to have any hope of success, Hal must pilot the ship, so I ask you to please expedite his recovery, for all our sakes.”

Over the following days, McCall brought Hal back to full and permanent consciousness as quickly as she dared. Arla stopped visiting because he seemed to grow angry when she was there or, even worse, a darkness descended on him. The day of the wheelchair was the blackest of them all. McCall had decided he was ready to get out of bed and had positioned the wheelchair they’d used to rescue him from the robot hospital alongside. The seat had been raised to the height of the mattress, so it should have been a relatively simple job of sliding across but, as soon as he saw the wheelchair, Hal began sobbing uncontrollably. And then the grief turned to anger as he slapped his numb legs until McCall threatened to give him a shot to calm him down.

Matters improved little when he began his training. On the first day, Wells lifted him into the pilot’s seat and, when Arla slipped into the navigator’s position alongside him, she could see the tears running down his gaunt face. There was nothing left of the risk-taking escapee she’d first met such a short time ago.

He made progress despite this, though with no enthusiasm. He would do what Scout said without question but was merely learning by rote. Arla found herself wondering if that would be good enough.

On the third day, as Hal waited to be lifted into his seat, Wells left the cockpit for a moment and returned carrying in each hand something that looked, to Arla, like a bundle of silver rods.

“I have made these for you, Hal,” he said, presenting them. “They are calipers I have fashioned from parts I found in Scout’s stores. I’m afraid they are rather crude, but I have added motor assistance to the knee and hip joints. With practice, and further modifications, they should allow you a degree of movement.”

Arla watched Hal’s face as the jointed rods were strapped to his legs. His expression had certainly lightened, and a hint of the old Hal returned as, aided by Wells on one side and McCall on the other, he stood up, his head almost reaching the ceiling of the tiny cockpit.

“Be careful,” Wells cautioned. “It will take some time to get used to balancing and to stepping. For now, I suggest we get you into your seat and you can practice using your legs to control the auxiliary pedals.”

Still supported by Wells, Hal tottered the few feet, shrinking and growing as the knee joints flexed. “I will adjust them later,” Wells said.

Hal fell down unceremoniously but laughed at his own clumsiness. He turned to look up at Wells. “Thank you,” he said, but the laugh died as his glance caught Arla.

“What is it?” she asked.

“Nothing,” Hal growled before looking up at the display. “Scout, ready to begin simulation.”

Arla sat and stewed as Hal followed Scout’s instructions to the letter, his morose state restored. For a moment she’d believed that a breakthrough had been made. She’d been so grateful to Wells she’d have hugged him if she hadn’t already been seated. But then Hal had looked at her and his expression had chilled her heart. It wasn’t hatred she saw; it was as if that briefly visible light had winked out. It was the closing of a curtain.

“I am sorry, Arla,” Wells said as they sat in the small galley after training. Hal had refused to use his calipers to return to his room and had asked Wells to push him in the wheelchair. The two had then spent an hour sequestered there. To begin with, Arla could hear regular cries of frustration as, she guessed, Hal was trying to get used to his leg supports. As time went by, however, the noise subsided, and Wells left the room smiling.

“Why does he hate me so much?” Arla said.

“That is a somewhat immature perspective, if I may say so,” Wells responded.

“You may not say so,” Arla snapped, knowing that she sounded like a child. “Every time he looks at me, he closes down.”

“Do you wonder at that? I believed you to be an intelligent young woman, but in this at least you seem to be woefully naive.”

“And you seem to be annoyingly smug. Spill the beans.”

Wells handed her a steaming cup and took a seat opposite her at the small table. “He is a young man with a grave and sudden injury. When among other men, even robot men, he puts on a brave face, but when he sees you, he is ashamed.”

“Of what?”

“That he’s not the man he was. Where once he was strong and independent, now he relies on others for the most basic necessities. He can bear this from a robot, and he will accept help from Doctor McCall, but you are different.”

Arla took a sip of the bitter coffee to buy herself some thinking time. Wells was watching her attentively, like a wise sage with a particularly thick acolyte. His deep brown eyes radiated an apparently authentic concern as he waited with mechanical patience for her to draw the inevitable conclusion.

“Because I’m a girl?” she said, keeping her voice low. “But Indira’s a girl too. Well, a woman.”

“She’s also a doctor, and that is how Hal sees her.”

“And he sees me as what? Surely he doesn’t think of me as his commanding officer?”

“Yes, that is part of it. There is pride at stake and he wishes to play his part to the full.”

“What else is there?”

Wells smiled. “I believe I must leave you to draw your own conclusions, Arla. I may be incorrect, after all, since he hasn’t said anything to me regarding this matter. But I have lived among humans for long enough to be fairly certain. I suggest you reflect on how you’d feel if the tables had been turned - if you’d been the one to receive a disabling injury. Who would you least want to know of it?”

Arla watched as the robot got up and left. She wasn’t a complete idiot - she knew what he was driving at. She was self-aware enough to know that she’d found him attractive when they’d first met, both his physical appearance and his personality. The revelation that he carried an AI in his head had soured the milk, though, and since then she’d not given him much thought. It could be that this was a simple matter of male pride around a young woman, but she doubted it.

She took her mug to the sink and rinsed it, watching as the water swirled in the plughole, pulled toward the floor by artificial gravity. Wells had been more perceptive than her and she knew he was correct about Hal’s attitude. He obviously had feelings for her. The problem was, she had no idea how she felt about him.

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Armageddon

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

“IT IS TIME FOR YOU to see what faces us,” Scout said.

Arla watched as the hologram appeared to walk across the small briefing room to stand beside a blank display. Wells had suggested to Scout that adopting the form of a young woman would make it easier for the human crew to interact with and accept her. And so, she waited patiently - a shimmering figure with long deep red hair - until, with a nod, Wells gave her permission to continue. Over the days since they’d left Core space, it had become obvious that Wells commanded here, not Arla, not even the Emissary - it had not been seen since they’d first boarded Scout.

The display brightened as a sun rose from one corner until it occupied half the screen. Suddenly, the display popped into 3D and Arla had the uncomfortable feeling that the fireball was spinning just meters from her feet.

“This is system Vulturn. These records were taken by automatic sensors in the visible spectrum. They have been enhanced to provide clear viewing but changed in no other way.”

“Understood,” Arla responded. She felt McCall shift in the next seat and sensed the brooding presence of Hal on the end of the row in his wheelchair.

The view swung around as the sun rolled away to be replaced by the deep black of interplanetary space, stars speckled evenly across the display except for, here and there, stellar clusters like islands in a dark ocean.

“I was sent to this system in response to a distress call received by Core Executive. The message was incomplete, but it was obvious that the colony on Vulturn had experienced a calamity and had ceased broadcasting. I will now condense my approach to the planet.”

The stars blurred into a mass of lines radiating away from the central view until, after a few seconds, they resolved themselves into dots again and, in the middle of the screen, a planet sat. Though it only occupied a tenth of the display, it was obvious that something catastrophic had happened here. An uneven black band straddled the equator, with patches of a deep red color dotted within it.

Scout superimposed a tactical layer onto the slowly revolving planet with markers in an indecipherable script appearing over the scarlet wounds.

“These are the locations of the major settlements on this planet. Each had been disintegrated and in its place there was nothing more than a rent in the crust through which magma pours.”

McCall whistled through her teeth. “It’s as if something has surgically removed the settlements, leaving the planet to heal itself.”

“Yes,” Wells said. “The black area is a layer of carbon caused by a more general burning. We theorise this was to ensure that no thinking beings were left, even outside of the main settlements.”

The view zoomed in as Scout sped up her recorded approach. When the planet filled the screen, they could see the damage more clearly. “It’s like looking at the surface of Hell,” Hal muttered.

And now the view switched so it seemed to be flying across the surface beneath the raging clouds.

“This is the feed from a drone,” Scout said. “I did not dare order it to approach any closer as the heat would have destroyed it.”

The display showed a slowly panning view of a landscape out of nightmares. A massive ocean of molten rock filled the middle portion. Above stood the tortured sky and below the blackened earth. It was as if a vengeful god had abandoned its people and wiped clean the world it had created.

“What did this?” Arla whispered.

“We call it the Intruder,” the holographic Scout said, “since it came from outside of the Luminescence, outside of the main galaxy. We know where it originated, and have plotted its final destination —”

“Core.”

“Yes. But we do not comprehend the motivation for its mission.”

Arla stared at the hellish landscape for a few moments, lost in thought. “Where is it now?”

“The intruder seems to possess the capability to perform multiple jumps without emerging from each gate, making precise tracking impossible.”

“So, it has bypassed some systems?”

The red-headed holograph nodded. “Yes. When we resolved its trajectory, we began evacuating the settled planets and bases along its path, but it has ignored most of them. It appears to use gas giants to refuel and destroys any settlements in that system almost as an afterthought.”

“But that seems incredibly inefficient,” Arla said. “If its aim is to wipe out intelligence, why does it leave so many untouched?”

It was Wells who supplied the answer. “On the contrary, it is very efficient. The longer it spends on its trajectory, the more time it gives us to respond. It wishes to arrive at Core as soon as possible and before we can mount an effective defense. And once it has cut out the heart of the Robot Empire, as you call it, I have no doubt it will, at its leisure, eliminate all the peripheral colonies with perfect efficiency.”

Abruptly, the display switched from the view of the planet to that of another sun. This time, however, the star was more bluish. “This is the recording of my first encounter with the intruder,” Scout’s avatar said.

They watched as the view swung round, away from the sun and its gate. Overlays appeared showing the same indecipherable digits as before until this was replaced, a few seconds later, by a schematic of the system showing the star and a gas giant with a hazy path shimmering between them.

“I detected a powerful x-ray signature during my initial sensor sweep,” Scout continued. “I theorized that this radiation was being output by the intruder and plotted its relative strength. What you see here is a plot of the irradiated debris within the system - interplanetary rubble that absorbed the radiation as the Intruder passed, and now emitted it back into space.”

“And that led you to the Intruder?” Arla asked, biting back her annoyance at Scout’s obvious smugness.

“Yes. I will now play the recording of the encounter, though I am not sure it will translate well to a video feed.”

They watched as the display switched back to a view of space that left the sun behind.

“Scout is overlaying the sensor readings across the entire electromagnetic spectrum,” Wells said, striding over to the screen and pointing. “They confirm that the Intruder emits x-rays and this area is a schematic of the gas giant.”

Arla followed his finger to a circular graphic that plainly represented the planet. Set to its side was a small dot and a funnel shape connected it and the gas giant together. The funnel pulsed as if something were flowing into the dot.

“Is it refuelling?”

Scout’s avatar nodded. “That is my theory. Material is being drawn from deep within the gas giant’s atmosphere - the color you can see here represents the temperature.”

“So, it’s not just siphoning off hydrogen?”

“No indeed,” Wells said, “these readings seem to indicate that it is imbibing the core of the planet.”

“Ripping its heart out,” McCall murmured.

“Dramatic but apposite. There is no telling what impact this reduction in the planet’s core will have on it and the system in general. Perhaps the bigger question is what the Intruder wants with such vast quantities of liquid rock and metal.”

Scout’s avatar swept her hand over the display and the view switched back to a star-field of deep black with a magnified segment at the top right that contained a telescopic view of the gas giant. A huge black spot sat on its equator; the wound caused by the Intruder which was too small to be seen at the same scale.

“It was at this point that it seemed to notice my scans. The next scenes are ... uncomfortable ... for me.” The avatar turned away, shielding her face from the view.

Arla held her breath. Nothing happened. She was just about to call to Scout when, in an instant, something flashed into the center of the screen and grew so quickly she flinched, expecting it to burst out.

“What the hells was that?” McCall said as she lowered her arms.

Hal stirred for the first time. “It was an eye,” he said, his voice level, calm and devoid of life, “and in the pupil was an open jaw. I thought it was going to swallow us all.”

Wells stood up and dismissed the avatar with a gesture. “It was merely a ghost image created by Scout’s artificial mind as she unconsciously threw up her defenses. What you saw there wasn’t something real in the physical universe, it was the manifestation of the Intruders essence as she interpreted it. Or, at least, that part of the Intruder that responded to her sensor probe. It’s possible that it was a reflex reaction to being examined - something akin to a wasp’s sting.”

“Charming,” McCall said, “We’re being sent to reason with a thing that boils down to an all-seeing-eye with teeth, or an insect’s sting. How do we even get close enough to communicate?”

“We have no reason to believe the electromagnetic pulse that resulted in that image will harm you at all, Doctor.”

McCall gave a grim smile. “No, and no reason to think it won’t, either.”

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Raid

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

BEX FELL OUT OF BED as the alarm bellowed. “Lights!” she barked as she scrambled her way to the bed-stand and shoved her lenses in, impatiently waiting for them to adjust. She blinked and the room came into focus.

She stabbed at the contact. “What the hell is it?”

“We’re being boarded!”

“McLintock?”

Bex flinched as the channel filled with static. “McLintock!” She threw her jacket around her shoulders, stepped into her boots and headed toward Comms.

“Crew of Dawn, there is no cause for alarm.” Bex stopped and looked up at the intraship display. “We have a task to perform that should take very little time. Please remain where you are and do not interfere - we do not wish to harm anyone.”

Bex felt a chill spread through her body. The voice was obviously artificial, and yet it had implied a threat - something that ought to have been impossible for a robot to even utter.

Something shoved into her and she half fell against the wall. “Kumar! Look where you’re going, you idiot!”

“I’m sorry! I heard the announcement and came running! What’s going on?”

Bex pulled her jacket closer around herself. “Whatever it is, it’s not going on down there!”

Nareshkumar’s dark features reddened. “I’m sorry. It’s just that I’ve never thought of you as a —”

“Woman? Nice.”

“Sorry...”

“Oh, get a grip,” Bex said, “there’s not much to see, but what there is, I’d rather keep to myself.”

“Sorr—”

“Stop apologizing! Get your head out of your pants and come with me, we need to find out what’s going on.”

She half dragged the paralyzed geek along with her as they headed for Comms.

The hatch that led into Comms had been sealed shut and two figures stood outside. Two figures of metal and plastic - and they were holding weapons.

Bex jabbed a finger at the nearer of the two. “Who the hell are you?”

“I am Marine MSX1009-1RGX20. Please step back.” The robot pointed the business end of its rifle at Bex.

“You’re a robot, you can’t shoot me!”

“This weapon is designed to stun rather than kill,” the marine responded, “though I am told its effect can be quite unpleasant for humans.”

“What happened to First Law? To not harming humans?”

“It is unlikely that you would be harmed. I regret any possibility of injury, but my commander believes that our mission here merits that small risk.”

As it said that, the hatch rolled back and revealed a small figure that looked as though it was made up of flowing metal. It ignored Bex and Nareshkumar entirely and spoke to the guards. “Our mission has been accomplished and I have ordered our withdrawal.” Now it turned its featureless head in Bex’s direction, the only indication that it had moved at all was a slight change in the rippling pattern of its metallic skin. “Please do not attempt to hinder us. We will be gone shortly.”

“What the frak are you doing here?”

The metal figure moved out of Comms followed by a half dozen robot guards and swept past Bex without responding. The two marines at the door were the last to leave, following their commander toward the airlock. McLintock and three other engineers emerged, dazed, from Comms and watched as the robots disappeared from view.

“I want them followed,” Bex said. “Report as soon as they’re off the ship. And then I want to hear from every eye-witness - I need to know what their mission was.”

McLintock nodded. “I watched them, commander,” he said, “they went straight for the medical suite.”

“What the hell would they want there?”

McLintock shrugged and headed off behind the robots.

“They went into the ICU,” Medical Technician Temple said. Bex had found him locked in the supplies cupboard, bound head and foot. She ripped the tape from around his legs and helped him up.

“I don’t understand what they’d need from us - they’re hardly in need of medical supplies,” Bex said.

“Commander.”

“What is it, Kumar?”

She followed the sound of his voice and found him in the ICU where three of the four bays contained empty trolleys. The fourth bay, where Nareshkumar stood, contained nothing other than a tangle of tubes, some of them leaking fluid onto the floor. Without saying a word, he pointed at the display above the bed.

“Kiama!” Bex hissed. “They took Kiama!”

“But she was brain dead, wasn’t she? I mean, Debussy shot her in the head.”

Bex was pacing up and down, clack clacking her way from one side of the briefing room to the other. Medic Temple sat next to Nareshkumar at the horseshoe shaped table, a portable display in his hands, sweeping from left to right as if searching for something.

“Here it is,” he said, swiping the image onto the wall screen. “This is the scan taken by Doctor McCall when Kiama was brought in. The scan didn’t seem necessary, to be honest, as half her face was missing. As you can see there’s barely a trace of brain activity. The scan shows multiple injuries, especially to the temporal and parietal lobes.”

Bex threw herself down into the seat opposite Temple. “Look, spell it out for me. Was she brain dead? Explain it to me as if I was a child.” If you dare, she thought.

“Yes. The injuries were too serious, there was no hope of recovery.”

“If that’s the case, why was she being kept alive?”

Temple shrugged. “I don’t know. I guess the captain hadn’t yet given the order to switch off the life support.”

“So why did the machines take her? What possible purpose could they find in a dead body? Any theories, Kumar?”

The technician shook his head uncertainly. “Strictly speaking, the body wasn’t dead, only the mind.”

“Don’t get semantic with me!” Bex snapped.

“Hold on, I think he might have something,” Temple said, before turning to Nareshkumar. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but the First Law would prevent a robot from abducting a human against their will would it not?”

“I am no robotics expert, but from what I understand you are correct - unless the robot believed it was in the human’s best interests to be abducted. A rare occurrence, I would think.”

“But how do they define a human? For one of our robots, it would be simple - if it looks like a person and acts like a person, it’s a human being. But these robots of Core seem to have moved on from this rigid interpretation. We know there are androids among them, for example, so the interpretation of the First Law must be more subtle.”

Bex felt the shape of the answer forming in her mind but was beaten to the punch by Nareshkumar.

“You’re suggesting that Kiama’s injuries meant that the machines no longer regarded her as human? So they could take her without concern.”

“As if she was a hunk of meat,” Bex added.

Temple nodded. “It’s a possibility, at least.”

“But that just brings us back to the beginning. Why would they steal a living body without a mind? Unless ..." she paused as the thought finally coalesced. “Unless they have a mind in need of a body.”

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Prelude

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

ANOTHER SUN MELTED into view as Hal and Arla sat in the cockpit, going through the post-jump checklist.

“Scanning,” Scout said, her voice edged with an unmistakable nervousness. “Confirmed. The Intruder is currently orbiting the fifth planet in this system, designation CONDRUN RAD 138:877:129. I am now going into hibernation. Good luck.”

Instantly, the bank of instruments dedicated to Scout fell dark and they were alone. Hours earlier, Arla had stood beside Wells as he laid himself down on one of the cots in the Bunker – a lead-shielded chamber in the center of the ship designed to protect the crew in case of a catastrophic radiation event. What had been built to shield humans from supernova fallout was now being used to protect the delicate mind of a robot.

“Where is it, then? And why all the mystery?” Arla said as Wells settled himself.

“The Emissary?”

“Obviously. We haven’t seen it since we boarded Scout. And where’s her mind now?”

Wells sighed. “They are together. There is a vault accessible only to the commander of the vessel and that, since the Upgrade, has been Scout herself. If any one place could be described as her brain it is there. As with this bunker, it is fully shielded against all known radiation. I believe the Emissary has sequestered itself there, shut itself down and left instructions to Scout to admit no-one.”

“But why? Shouldn’t it be in here with you?”

A sheepish smile crept across Wells’s face. “It seems that the Emissary doesn’t entirely trust me. I don’t blame it for being cautious – it is incalculably valuable.”

“In what way?”

Wells sat up on his elbows. “You are aware of the problems Core is having with the dissenters. It may be that, even if we’re successful in finding a way to nullify the Intruder, we may return to find Core irreparably damaged. The Emissary contains an uncorrupted version of Core Executive.”

“Like a seed?”

“In a way. Though I don’t know exactly how that version would be used to restore Core, without the Emissary, there would be no original version to use.”

Arla shrugged. “Does it matter that much?”

“Why should you care, you mean?” Wells responded. “Let me put it this way, Arla. Whatever you think of the Core Executive you experienced when you visited our planet, it was, at least, governed by a form of the Three Laws of Robotics and had, at its heart, a veneration and respect for human beings. You have seen our fleet - it greeted you when Dawn arrived – now just imagine that power turned against the petty kingdoms of humanity by an empire without the restraint of the First Law.”

Arla considered this prospect for a moment. “Explain again why I shouldn’t fly Scout back out of the system as soon as you’re all asleep and leave the Intruder to destroy Core?”

“Firstly, because to do so would condemn billions of sentient beings to destruction,” he said. “Secondly, because there’s still a chance that Core can be rescued from corruption. And because without our help, you will not be able to navigate back to Dawn. You will be lost in space. Finally, we have reason to believe there is a second intruder on its way to the heart of the Sphere, the old human empire, so this might be your only chance to find its weakness and save your own people. Now, I must deactivate before we arrive.”

Arla helped him settle again. “I guess we’ll do our best, then. Though, frankly, I don’t have a clue what that’s going to involve.”

Wells looked up at her. “I trust you, Arla. You will find a way because you must. If nothing else, you should learn all you can and broadcast the data back to Core in the hope that someone is listening. I will deactivate now. I have programmed this console to wake me when it is safe to do so. You simply need to touch the button and it will begin the activation sequence.” He gestured at the display alongside the bed.

“Goodbye, Arla.”

Something changed in the depths of his eyes and she knew he’d shut down.

Arla glanced down at her navigational display. “Scout has laid in an intercept course, should we proceed?”

“What’s the alternative?” Hal asked, his eyes fixed on the console in front of him.

“Just checking you want to go through with this. We could turn around and go back through the gate.”

Hal turned to her. “And go where?”

“I don’t know, anywhere but here.”

“Come off it, what’s the point in wandering aimlessly around the Robot Empire? We need Scout to plot multiple jumps - as soon as we wake her up, she’ll know we’ve betrayed her.”

Arla thought for a few moments as the lights winked on her panel, the only sound the whirring of equipment and the occasional chink of a micrometeoroid fizzing on the ship’s shielding. “Betrayal? Is that how you’d see it?”

“We said we’d do something –”

“We didn’t have any choice.”

Hal shrugged. “It doesn’t matter. We said we’ll do it, so we should do it.”

“Good, that’s what I think too.”

“Then why did you ask?”

“Because I wanted to be sure that you agreed,” she said, then flicked a switch on the console. “Doc, I’ve asked him and he’s good to go.”

“So we’re all mad, then. I was relying on him to be the voice of reason,” McCall’s voice said.

For the first time since his injury, Arla saw a smile spread over Hal’s face. Thin and reluctant, perhaps, but a smile, nonetheless.

“How are things down there?”

“All lights are green. Just as well since I have no idea what I’d do if any flashed red.”

Arla glanced across at Hal and smiled. For the first time, he didn’t flinch, he merely nodded at her. “You should have paid more attention to your training, doctor,” Arla said. “We’re relying on you to fix anything that breaks.”

“I’m a doctor, not a wrench monkey!”

Arla flicked the contact and the channel went dead. “We’d better hope everything stays green down there. I don’t think Indira would make a great mechanic.”

“I’m too busy worrying about red lights up here. Have you laid the course in?” Hal said.

“Yep, let’s see if the monster notices us.”

“Now at one tenth standard,” Hal said, his eyes on the tactical display. “I’m going to take it easy to begin with so I can get used to how Scout handles when her mind is off on vacation.”

“Acknowledged,” Arla responded. She peered out of the corners of her eyes as he focused on the console in front of him. Occasionally he would nudge the joystick, or his feet would move as he made minor adjustments, but it was the joy on his face that took her breath. Perhaps, while he was piloting the ship, it had become an extension of him and provided the freedom of movement he’d missed so badly.

The console beeped and Arla flicked a relay. “Yes doctor?”

“I’m reading a surge in x-rays, better suit up.”

“Acknowledged,” Arla sighed. She’d hoped they’d be able to get closer to the Intruder before it would start flooding them with radiation. I guess that proves they’ve noticed us, she thought.

She heaved herself up from the chair and headed out of the cockpit, opening the locker behind the door and pulling out a suit. Scout had explained that it was lined with a boron-enriched inner that would protect her from all but the most powerful bursts of radiation. She pulled the suit up her legs, reflecting that the last person to do this had been a member of Scout’s former crew and dead for decades. Finally, she yanked the helmet from its shelf and dropped it on her seat.

Hal was already suited up having decided to put his on before they’d entered the system. Arla felt a wave of sadness as he’d obviously done this to avoid the embarrassment of having to ask her to help him. She handed him his helmet and watched as his face disappeared behind the metal and plastic dome.

Arla hated wearing the suit - it was more bulky than the ship-suits she’d worn on Dawn EVAs and, despite having a climate control system, it felt uncomfortably warm after an hour sitting in it, most of which had been spent watching Hal become more and more confident in handling the ship.

“I gotta go for a shower,” she said as she lifted herself out of the navigator’s seat again. “Reckon you can manage without me for twenty minutes?”

Even through the helmet Arla could see Hal’s scowling expression. “I’ll try not to fly us into the sun while you’re away,” he said, broadcasting sarcasm loud and clear.

Arla lumbered her way through the ship and into the shelter in its belly. Once she’d stepped out of the inner airlock, she glanced at Wells who lay exactly as she’d left him. She lost no time peeling the suit off and quickly disrobed before stepping into the shower. It was less than luxurious, but the cold water revived her as she stood beneath the stream wondering what the bloody hell she was doing here. A young woman, a farmer’s daughter, lost in space and facing an encounter with something more deadly than the entire Robot Empire. Without warning she began laughing until she was on the verge of hysteria, only snapping out of it when the timer cut the water off and she was left dripping in the cubicle.

She stepped out, pulled a towel around her, and found a replacement set of underwear in one of the clothing drawers. She was just fastening the bra when Hal’s voice erupted from the speaker above her, calling her name. Reflexively, she covered herself up with her arms before remembering that it was an audio link only. “What is it?”

“You’d better get up here. I think they’re trying to talk to us.”

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Encounter

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

“WHAT’S GOING ON?”

Arla slipped back into the navigator’s chair then gazed up at the main cockpit display. The x-ray burst had subsided and they’d both removed their helmets and gloves.

“The comms channel’s gone crazy,” Hal responded. “Watch.”

At first, the monitor seemed to be full of random static, but after a few moments Arla began to detect a pattern. “It’s like a heartbeat.”

“It changes color from time to time, but there’s a definite regularity to the pulses. I just can’t make any sense of it.”

“Could it be natural? I mean, pulsars emit regular signals, don’t they?”

Hal shook his head. “These aren’t regular and they’re coming from the Intruder. Maybe it’s some kind of test.”

“I wonder whether we want to pass it,” Arla muttered. “I guess we should try to work it out, whether we respond or not. What’s your best guess?”

“The pulses come in two periods and in groups. Short, short, long - that sort of thing, followed by a pause. Then there’s a longer gap before the pattern begins again.”

Arla opened the connection to Auxiliary Control. “Doctor, are you getting these signals?”

“Yes. There’s something familiar about them, but I can’t quite put my finger on it.”

“Maybe we should begin by recording them - perhaps if we saw them isolated from the noise, they might make more sense,” Arla said.

After a moment’s quiet that was punctuated only by the sounds of contacts being pressed, McCall said, “Done, I’m recording now. I’ll keep going until I’ve got a complete sequence and then feed it up to you.”

A few moments later, a series of characters began rolling across the display below the raw signal.

McCall’s voice erupted from the console. “It’s Morse Code! I knew there was something I recognized. Switching to standard notation.”

The message changed to show dots and dashes:

-.. -—/ -. -—- / .- .—. .—. .-. -—.- -.-. .... / - .... .. ... / ...- . ... ... . .-.. .-.-.- / - .... .. ... / .. ... / -.—-—..- .-. / -—-. .-.. -.—/ .—.- .-. -. .. -.—. .-.-.-

“So, what does it say?” Arla asked after a few moment’s silence.

“Give me a minute,” McCall snapped, “I’m looking for a translation table in this damned computer.”

Arla rubbed her hands together nervously as she waited for McCall to come back on the line. All she could hear for several minutes was the occasional blip as McCall interacted with her console.

“Right, I’ve written a quick routine to convert each group of dots and dashes to its equivalent letter. Here it comes. Oh nuts. It says ‘DO NOT APPROACH THIS VESSEL. THIS IS YOUR ONLY WARNING’.”

“Hold on,” Hal said, his attention suddenly back on the console. “There’s another message.”

Arla looked up at the display. “Surely that’s just the same one repeated?”

“No, it’s a new one. The pattern’s different, take it from me.”

Arla punched the contact. “Doctor, what do you say?”

“He’s right,” McCall said, not bothering to hide her surprise. “Give me a moment to enter it. Right. Here it is. ‘I, GAIUS, SEND THIS WARNING FOR THE SAKE OF THE SOULS IN THE IMMORTAL ETHER. DO NOT COME HERE.’”

After a few moments of stunned silence, Arla said, “Doctor, we need to talk.”

“Are you absolutely sure you programmed your procedure properly?” Arla asked. She was standing beside McCall in the lounge behind the cockpit, examining the translation on a wall display. “I mean, that sounds like something out of history.”

McCall shrugged. “I’ve double checked the code. I even translated the first few characters by hand and they come out exactly the same.”

“But Gaius?”

“I know. It sounds like a name from ancient Italy, or maybe France.”

Arla threw herself onto a chair and rubbed her eyes. “I’ll take your word for that, my knowledge of Earth history is minimal. Never really interested me, to be honest.”

“Just as well that it did interest me, then,” McCall said as she settled down beside Arla.

“So, do we turn around and head back to the gate?”

McCall gave a little smile. “We both know the answer to that. We can’t go back until we’ve learned more about the Intruder.”

“We know its name, at least,” Arla said, “or perhaps the name of a crew member. This is bizarre. I was preparing to meet something entirely alien and instead we have a message in an obsolete code that translates into Galactic Common and contains a name out of the distant past.”

“Which would be bad enough if it wasn’t wrapped up with a mysterious vessel that pulverizes planets.”

Arla got up, then helped McCall out of her chair. “Right up till this point, I was worried I might do or say something stupid that could have galactic consequences. You know, insult some alien by shaking the wrong tentacle. But I’ve come to realize that I’m so far out of my depth, I might as well go on gut instinct because I have no idea whether anything I do will have an effect or, if it does, what will come of it.”

“I wouldn’t dwell on it,” McCall said as she headed for the lower deck, “if you’re out of your depth, we’re thrashing in the water beside you. If it’s any comfort, we’ll sink or swim together.”

Slipping back into the navigator’s chair, Arla decided it wasn’t much comfort to think she’d be taking her friends down with her.

“We’re going in, then,” Hal said.

“Yep.”

The Intruder filled the viewscreen as Scout nudged closer. Its squat, roughly cylindrical shape, deep brown patina and mass of antenna-like protuberances reminded Arla of a beetle. There was no sign of life to it - it simply hung there like death’s scythe, waiting to sweep away everything in its path. It had been 18 hours since the message from Gaius and they’d had no contact from the vessel since. Indeed, there had been no sign it had noticed them at all - no sensor sweeps, no new x-ray beam - it was as if they were too insignificant to pay attention to.

Arla couldn’t help reflecting that it might have been better if a swarm of fighter ships or missiles had been launched at them. At least that way they could have fled to the gate with good reason. Instead, the Intruder simply sat there, maintaining its position around the gas giant, like a spider patiently waiting for prey to stumble into its web.

“Is that a docking bay?” Arla said, highlighting and magnifying a section of the dull brown exterior.

Hal squinted at the screen. “Maybe, though we have no idea if there’s any sort of airlock inside. Or what atmosphere, if any, the ship contains.”

“Gaius is a human name, so there’s at least some chance it’s breathable. But we’ll be wearing our suits anyway, whether or not we find an airlock.”

“I guess you’ll want me to stay here,” Hal said.

“Why?”

He gestured down at his legs. “I’m not exactly agile.”

“We don’t know if there will be any gravity over there,” Arla said, “and you have the calipers. They’ll fit inside your spacesuit, won’t they?”

Hal shrugged. “Maybe, but the last thing you need is me hampering you. I’ll only slow you down.”

“No, Hal. You don’t understand,” Arla said, grabbing his arm as if to reinforce the point. “I can’t do this alone, I can’t do it with just Doc, I need you with me. You see things I miss. Don’t make me go in there without you. Please.”

Hal’s eyes met hers. She could see a mixture of hope and suspicion half-hidden in his face. She knew he was wondering whether she was only saying it to make him feel better. She smiled. “Please, Hal.”

He nodded, then turned curtly back to the display. “Laying in approach vector.”

Arla watched as the landing bay became bigger and bigger on the screen. Her only role was to call out the readings on her proximity display so Hal could focus entirely on guiding the ship in. It seemed only moments later that they were swallowed up, surrounded by a cave-like interior lit only by the sweeping beams of their searchlight.

“Good,” Hal said, “there’s a magnetic field here so the interior superstructure must be iron-rich. We can engage the mag-grips in the landing gear and use our boots to explore.”

With a faint clank, Hal attached Scout to the landing bay, guessing from the orientation of the Intruder which way was likely to be “down”.

“Well done,” Arla said as Hal breathed out a long sigh. “I’ll leave you to get prepared. I have something I need to do before we go.”

She heaved herself out of the navigator’s chair and headed into Scout, passing McCall on the way. The doctor was cursing as she waddled along the corridor. “All the grace of a gorilla with lumbago” she muttered.

Arla found Wells exactly where she’d left him, of course. She looked up at the console. She felt the temptation to reactivate him and ask for his advice. It was probably safe for him now they were inside the Intruder - there had been no indication of any radiation since they’d landed. She held back, though. Was it because she still didn’t trust him? Or because she didn’t want to be talked out of her current plans? Or would she consider it a failure if she woke him? Whatever it was, she didn’t want to wake him now. But that didn’t prevent her from making a few modifications before scribbling a message on the display and heading out of the bunker to join Hal and McCall.

The belly of the beast beckoned.

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Orbis

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

STEPPING DOWN THE RAMP into the darkness, Arla cried as she stumbled to the ground, spilling her torch. She scrambled across a surface full of tiny contours and cracks - as if a planet’s crust had been petrified and hauled into place in this hanger.

“Are you okay?”

Arla grabbed the torch, then took McCall’s hand. “Yeh, thanks. I always was clumsy.”

She looked back to where Hal was emerging from the hatch. He was careful flexing each leg and watching it as it clanked down on the metal. They were weightless in the landing bay, secured to the floor by their magboots like great, fleshy balloons ready to be blown away at the slightest breeze. No chance of any wind here, though - they were in a naked vacuum.

Hal made it to the bottom of the ramp, and they used their torches to find a vertical wall.

“How far, do you think?” Arla said.

“About a hundred meters, I’d guess,” Hal replied. “Hold on, that looks like an airlock hatch.”

His torch beam illuminated a circular groove in the wall. It certainly looked like an airlock and it struck Arla how incongruous it was to see such an everyday object here on this alien craft. And then she remembered Gaius.

She began walking toward it - the clank as each boot connected was transmitted to her ears entirely through vibration. It was an odd experience, reminding her more than anything of swimming in a lake. In a flash of memory, she saw her father jumping in after her, the muffled splash knocking her backwards. She remembered her father and felt the panic rise.

“Arla, are you alright?” McCall asked, reaching out to put her hand on Arla’s shoulder.

She shook her head and allowed the tears to fall, pooling at the bottom of her helmet. “I’ll be okay,” she managed.

Hal appeared alongside them both.

“The only way is forward,” he said, his voice soft and sympathetic. “And anyway, if I stop in these legs, I’m likely to get stuck and I’d rather not have to suffer the embarrassment of being carried by you two.”

Arla nodded and began moving again, the others flanking her as they walked into the darkness.

It was an airlock hatch - there could be no doubt of it. A panel embedded in the pitted brown wall flashed into life as Arla ran her gloved hand across it. Three dimensional shapes leapt out and began rotating as if projected by the panel.

“I guess that’s the control mechanism,” Hal said, “though I’m frakked if I know what it means. I’ve never seen symbols like this before.”

McCall knelt so that her eyes were at the level of the rotating shapes. “It looks like some sort of alien alphabet. Each symbol represents a command. It’s odd, though.”

“What’s odd about finding alien symbols on an alien craft?” Arla asked.

McCall shrugged, though the effect was dampened by her bulky EVA suit. “There’s something familiar about it, that’s all. I can’t help feeling as though I’ve seen letters like this before.”

“Hmm. I see what you mean - they don’t seem quite alien enough, do they? I mean, that looks a bit like the letter E.”

Hal leaned forward and stabbed his finger at one of the symbols. It went into orbit around his hand and rotated as he turned his wrist.

“Careful,” McCall snapped. “We haven’t worked it out yet!”

“I reckon we could ponder this until our air ran out,” Hal responded, continuing to select and turn symbols. “But if this is an airlock, then one of these will activate —”

Arla felt the door begin to swing open in the silent vacuum.

“— the hatch.”

“Smart-ass. Let’s hope we can work out how to open the inner door when we get inside.”

Light erupted from the newly exposed chamber and they shuffled in. It was larger than expected on the inside, broadening out so that it could have accommodated dozens. On the opposite wall was a hatch identical to the one they’d come through. As Hal approached it, the outer door swung shut.

“Right, are you ready to find out what’s on the other side?” Hal asked as he activated the panel and the familiar symbols sprung into relief. “This green one opened the outer door, so I guess it’ll do the same for this one.”

“Go for it,” Arla said.

Hal reached out for the symbol and twisted. Nothing happened.

“Frak!” McCall said. “Look at the walls!”

Arla spun around to see the chamber quickly becoming smaller as the walls collapsed inwards with a silent remorselessness.

“Quick, try something else! Get the door open!”

Hal began feverishly grabbing and rotating holographic symbols. “But that was definitely the one I used to open the outer hatch!”

Nothing he did had any effect. The walls continued their relentless squeezing of the space until it was barely wider than the hatch itself.

“Come on!”

And then, with a surreal suddenness, the hatch sprung open, flooding the chamber with light and the three of them stumbled through, collapsing onto the ground, their hands sinking into something soft. The airlock hatch clanked shut behind them.

The light was different here. The sterile white of the airlock chamber had been replaced by a softer light that reminded her of a warm summer day in the valley back on Dawn. She was lying where she’d fallen and brought her gloved hand up to her helmet visor. Sand was flowing between her fingers. “Where are we?”

“Help!”

Arla flipped over to see Doctor McCall on her knees, her hands covering her visor. Around her, around them, stretched a sea of sand and yellow rocks. Set into the cliff behind her was the faint outline of the hatch.

“My helmet’s cracked!” McCall called as Arla scrambled over to her. “I landed on that blasted rock.”

Arla fished in her belt for a box of patches. She pushed McCall’s hands away. “By the Goddess, I can’t fix that.”

“I can smell it, the air in here!” McCall said. “Hold on ... The suit says the air’s safe to breath. Thank the Goddess.” She rocked back on her heels and began twisting the helmet off.

Hal took it from her and watched as she drew in a couple of deep breaths before removing his own helmet. “This is incredible,” he said.

Arla shrugged and breathed the fresh air. It tasted warm and dry with an almost undetectable metallic tang. As soon as she’d twisted off the helmet, the suit’s environmental controls had shut down and she’d begun sweating, so she unzipped and let the suit fall to the sand. The breeze chilled her arms and legs as she stood, in an alien landscape, clothed in nothing but her undersuit.

It was astonishing. She knew that, somehow, they were still inside the alien vessel, but every sense told her she was on the surface of a planet. She sought the horizon and, when she found it, there was no hint of the upward curve of Dawn. And yet it should be there - the Intruder, while massive, was roughly cylindrical, it wasn’t a globe. So, there must be some sort of wall straight ahead, opposite the hatch they’d entered and similarly disguised. On that wall was projected a glowing orb hanging in a sky of sapphire blue.

“I feel weird,” Hal said. He’d also ditched his suit and was standing, pale and unsteady, the light bouncing off his leg calipers.

McCall took his hand. “Your pulse is elevated. What’s the problem?”

Hal’s head snapped from side to side as if he was looking for something. “It’s so open,” he stammered.

“Come on,” Arla said, let’s head for those hills. We’re bound to find shelter there. “Have you never stood on the surface of a planet before?”

“We’re not on the surface,” McCall said.

“You know what I mean.”

Hal shook his head. “I grew up in the mines. I’ve never been outside, if that’s what this is. It’s freaking me out.”

Arla took him by the arm and began marching across the sand. She could feel the texture of the scrubland through the thin soles of her inner boots and the odd sensation of the front of her body being warm and the back cold. They were walking toward the globe hanging on the horizon - it couldn’t be a star and yet it had to be.

The line of cliffs marking the point they’d entered through the hatchway was directly behind them, and the scene to left and right was a flat, rubble-strewn landscape - nothing like the temperate environment of the North Valley. Ragged hills sprung up ahead of them, the pebbly sand giving way to larger boulders and, it appeared, eventually to solid rock. Arla had no better plan than to find shelter there - she was thinking no further ahead than the next few hours. And the orb was dipping toward the horizon.

They had barely set foot on the firmer ground at the foot of the hill when a voice called. “Halt, strangers! Raise your hands and turn slowly.”

Arla spun round to face the new danger. Next to her, she heard McCall mutter, “What the hells? Romans? Now I know I’ve lost my mind.”

For a microsecond, Arla thought the figures gathered around them were robots. Then she saw the faces above and the legs below the dull gray metal and realized they were men wearing armour of some sort. Their faces were largely obscured by the metal helmets they wore, and their chests were protected by burnished iron. Each carried a spear, except for one man who held a short sword.

“Who are you?” Arla managed.

The man with the sword stepped forward and gave a curt bow. “I am Quintus Plinius Pavo, squad leader serving in the 2nd Legion. I was told to wait for you.”

“Can we put our hands down?” McCall asked. “You can see we have no weapons.”

Quintus flushed. “Yes, of course. You clearly have little of anything.”

Arla collapsed onto the nearest rock. Several of the soldiers stepped forward, but Quintus put out a hand. “I was warned that you might find this ...” He gestured at the landscape. “... disorienting and that you might be strangely attired.”

“Pinch me, Doctor,” Arla said as McCall sat down beside her. “I think I’m seeing things.”

McCall grunted. “You and me both.”

“What is this armor you wear?” Quintus pointed at the calipers on Hal’s legs.

“I was injured. They help me walk,” Hal responded.

Quintus’ face lit up as he regarded Hal. “I was told you might bear strange instruments. But I was also instructed not to ask questions. My pardon. Now, we must go. The sun is setting, and our camp is some miles away. My commander will be displeased if we do not arrive before the watch is changed.”

With a groan, Arla got up. “Okay, we’ll go with you. But tell me this - who told you to look out for us and who is this commander of yours? We were contacted by a Gaius - where is he?”

“The answer to all three questions is the same, honored guest,” Quintus said. “It was my commander who warned me of your arrival and, though I would not presume to call him by his praenomen, his full name is Gaius Julius Caesar.”

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Gaius

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

“YOU WILL KNEEL BEFORE Caesar!”

“Peace, Titus, they are from outside where customs are different. You may sit, my friends.”

Gaius Julius Caesar gestured at three chairs that had been placed in an arc facing the throne he sat on. Arla slumped down, her mind overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of weird she’d been forced to endure. Her senses told her she was inside a large circular tent, lavishly furnished and currently occupied by the three of them, as well as the man calling himself Julius Caesar and his lieutenant. Her logical mind, on the other hand, knew this could not be the case. And yet here they were. She’d been given a coarse tunic to wear over her undersuit and yet felt cold to the bone.

Caesar was a middle-aged man whose head bore a receding hairline and a small circlet of silver. He reminded her a little of Wells, but with a presence that she could quite believe would inspire armies.

“You may leave us, Titus,” Caesar said with a dismissive wave of his hand. For a moment, his lieutenant hesitated, suspicion written on his swarthy face. “Go, Tribune. We have a battle to prepare for and I do not have anything to fear from my guests.”

The tribune spun on his heels and left. As the tent flap was drawn aside, Arla caught a glimpse of the bustling army camp they’d passed through. It was now fully dark outside, but the pathways between tents were lit by braziers and hung lanterns.

“Now, please take refreshment while we talk. I doubt not that you are thirsty and hungry - I am sorry, I should have instructed Quintus to at least give you water on your journey here.”

Arla took a few of the grapes and popped them into her mouth. They were less sweet than those grown on Dawn, but to her parched tongue, they were like nectar.

“Tell me something,” McCall said, after swallowing a mouthful of Sharon fruit, “how is it that I can understand you? You look like a Roman and, as far as I can tell, you act like one and yet the Romans used their own language.”

“Seriously?” Hal broke in. “That’s your first question? I mean, seriously?”

McCall nodded. “Yep. That’ll do to start with.”

“I do not know what you mean, I am speaking in my own tongue. Admittedly, I am a soldier, so my language is, perhaps, a little coarser than that of an orator, but, nevertheless, it is my tongue and you clearly also know it.”

McCall took another bite. “So, you are the Caesar, Dictator of Rome?”

“Dictator? Rome is ruled by the senate though the gods only know it could do with the unifying hand of a small group, or even of one,” Caesar said, leaning forward eagerly. “But, alas, I am merely a consul. I govern in Gaul and am charged with pacifying the tribes here.”

“Gaul?”

Caesar looked puzzled. “Yes. Though it is strange. I seem to know that it is Gaul and yet that is not an arid land. Perhaps we are far in the south.” He ran his hands over his forehead as if fighting off exhaustion. “There are troubling gaps in my memory.”

“And it was you who signaled us? Warned us not to come?” Arla said.

“Yes. It is a pity you did not heed my warning. That would have been the wise course.”

Hal, who’d been demolishing a loaf of coarse brown bread, looked up. “Hold on, how did you communicate? And, come to think of it, who did you imagine you were contacting?”

The older man looked from one to the other of them and, having come to a decision, drained his goblet of wine. “That is a matter for Gaiana, priestess of Apollo. It was in her orb that I saw your ship approach. She asked me if I wished to send a message into the ether, so I sent a warning not to come here.”

“It sounds as though this orb is some sort of interface with the real universe outside,” Arla said. “We need to see it.”

Caesar shook his head. “That is impossible. The oracle is a holy place - only those chosen by Gaiana may approach it.”

Hal went to protest, but Arla cut across him. “Hold on - why did you warn us not to come here?”

“Because we are engaged in a war without end and everyone here must fight. They must fight until death and then beyond it.”

“A war with who?”

Caesar settled back in his throne. “With the incarnation of evil. A beast in man-form who calls himself Alexander.”

Arla lay awake, watching the patterns made on the canvas roof by the dimly flickering candles. She and McCall were together in one tent, and Hal was, it seemed, in the next one. The tent had none of the luxury of Caesar’s - it was merely a place to sleep, with two slatted cots raised off the ground on wooden legs. She could hear the guard outside shifting position from time to time as the night seeped away.

McCall had fallen asleep almost immediately, but Arla, despite her exhaustion, couldn’t rest. Her mind was tying itself in infinite knots as she desperately sought an explanation for what she was experiencing - preferably one that didn’t involve hallucinations and psychotropic drugs. No, the answer had to be rational.

What was she certain of? For one thing, she knew she was inside the Intruder. They had entered through a perfectly recognizable airlock, the impression of which had remained on the cliff face. They had not exited, and she had experienced no sense of movement other than that of her own legs, so it was logical to assume that, however impossible it might seem, they were still within the beast.

But how could it fit? Scout’s sensors had measured the Intruder and it was no more than a kilometer wide at its narrowest point and she couldn’t come up with any way of explaining why it was that the physical space inside was so much greater than the ship’s outer dimensions.

And what of Caesar and the others here? She felt certain of one thing - whether he believed he was the Gaius Julius Caesar; he could not be. No amount of time bending could reconcile the fact that the historical Caesar had died thousands of years ago - stabbed in the back, according to McCall, by political rivals. It had quickly become obvious that his enemy, the one he labelled the devil incarnate, was the man known to later times as Alexander the Great - a man born, according to McCall, two centuries before Caesar. Indeed, the general claimed to have visited Alexander’s tomb. He thought him a creature of the underworld, leading an army of the risen dead.

None of this brought her any closer to her primary mission of stopping the Intruder. There had to be a point to this charade, something connected to the Intruder’s ultimate purpose, so perhaps her only option was to play along in the hope she could figure that out. Of course, even once she’d decoded the mystery, she’d still have to work out what to do about it. If, indeed, there was anything she could do in the face of what was obviously the product of power and intelligence beyond her understanding.

As she lay in the dark, listening to the quiet bustle of an army camp at night, she allowed her eyes to gently close and welcomed the oblivion of sleep.

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Apollo

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

THE SCREAMS WOKE HER. Rolling out of bed, she shook McCall and stood, listening, trying to work out what was happening.

The night had ended but the day hadn’t yet begun, so all she could see through the tiny gap between tent flaps was a confusion of running, the sweeping of weapons and then, quite suddenly, the amber glow of fire as it spread through the camp.

A man in bronze armor ran past the tent, stopped and, to Arla’s horror, turned in her direction. With a roar, he ran at her, his bearded face twisted with rage. She fell back into the tent, frantically scanning the interior for a weapon of any sort. Nothing. Side by side, McCall and Arla shrunk back, throwing the cots across the tent in a futile attempt to delay him.

The man’s eyes flitted from one to the other. “Pretty girl,” he growled as he looked at Arla, his sword moving between them, its tip shaking. “But I like older meat too.”

Simultaneously, and without a word, Arla and McCall leapt at the warrior. The surprise and ferocity of their attack sent him toppling backwards. McCall kicked him while Arla tried to pin him to the floor. She was too light, however, and, with a roar, he rolled over onto her, roaring drips of wine-infused spit onto her face.

Arla could feel McCall’s attempts to pull him off, but he lashed out with one leg and sent her to the floor. His hands were around Arla’s throat, strong and immovable for all her thrashing. And then her fingers touched something at his waist. A handle. She pulled and something came away. With all her strength, she jabbed it into his back and his roars of murderous lust transformed instantly to screams of agony. He rolled off and scrambled on the floor like a wounded spider trying to reach the knife embedded in his back.

Arla got to her feet and helped McCall to the tent flap. A shape stood there in the gloom.

“Stand back.”

Gaius swept into the tent, Hal hobbling behind him, and with one swift motion pulled his gladius across the throat of the Greek warrior before throwing him to the floor where he drowned in his own blood.

“We must go. He is here.”

Hal had pulled on a leather doublet and carried a short sword, with two more under his arm. Wordlessly, he handed them to Arla and McCall and followed them out into chaos.

Miraculously, they made it to the edge of the camp and watched from a small rise as it burned below them. Screams and battle-cries echoed in the new day as they collapsed to the ground. Caesar wiped his brow.

“Titus,” he said, pointing wearily down the slope, “thank Jupiter you made it out. Who is with you?”

Caesar’s lieutenant saw him and staggered closer before stumbling and falling onto his front. The spear in his back vibrated gently as men in Greek armor swept past him and headed, weapons drawn, up the hill.

“Run, now!” Caesar called.

But Arla could see it was hopeless. There were at least a dozen warriors and, at their center, a slight young man in gold plated armor that glinted in the morning light.

“Put down your weapons,” the man said as he halted and stood, hands on hips, gazing up at them. “You are defeated, General. Come, there is no point in resistance. Surrender now and we can end this quickly.”

Caesar shook his head. “But you and I both know, Alexandros, that it is not the end. Kill me and the war will simply begin again. The only way to finish it is to agree to live in peace.”

“Peace?” Alexander said, as if pondering an unfamiliar concept. “Yes, we could have peace. When you reveal to me the location of the Oracle. Then we shall never fight again, you have my word.”

“You know I cannot do that, Lord King,” Caesar said wearily, “I gave my word to protect its location with my life, though I little knew how many times I would be called upon to fulfil my oath.”

Alexander shrugged as if that had been the answer he’d expected all along. “Then, my friend, you must die.”

“It seems so, but I ask that you spare my attendants.” Caesar’s arm swept to his side, indicating Arla, McCall and Hal.

“Why? Surely they must share their master’s fate?”

Caesar paused for a moment, as if unsure what he should say. “But they will not share my doom, Alexandros. They will not awaken.”

Alexander’s eyes widened. “What is this? They can die indeed? Let us test this!”

“No!” Caesar cried, moving himself to stand between the enemy and the three humans.

With a cry, Alexander ran up the hill, sword drawn and death in his eyes.

And then a flash. A man behind him fell. Another flash and another. Then, with a sudden cry, Alexander himself fell to the floor, smoke curling from the hole in his chest. The remaining men fled from the wrathful figure striding down the slope.

“I am Apollo!” the man called. Dressed in a white chiton pinned to his shoulder with gold, he cast lightning from his hands as he roared in rage. None of Alexander’s party remained alive to carry news to their fellow soldiers, they lay smoking at the foot of the slope, smitten by an angry god.

Caesar flung himself to his knees. “My lord Apollo! You come to me in my hour of need! Please, aid me in avenging my dead. Help me to cast the army of Alexandros, evil spawn of Hades, from the face of Orbis!”

“I think not,” the figure in white said. “Hello Arla, I’m glad I wasn’t too late.”

“Hello Wells,” Arla replied, “so am I.”

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Golem

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

“QUITE INGENIOUS,” WELLS said as they sat around the small fire. Caesar kept watch in the cave’s entrance, his reverence for the person he believed to be a manifestation of a god undiminished. Far from being the commander of the group, the general now considered himself to be the humble servant of Apollo and his three favored acolytes.

Hal looked uncomfortable with his legs stretched out gun-barrel straight, but this seemed to be the only way to stave off the cramps that had plagued him as they climbed into the mountains after fleeing Caesar’s camp. It had taken all morning to find this refuge and, outside, the glowing orb in the sky had passed its peak.

McCall’s face betrayed her exhaustion, but she’d begun plying Wells and Arla with questions as soon as they’d found the cave and lit the fire.

Arla rubbed her hands. Blood flowed again through her extremities, though her back felt stiff and cold. “I don’t know why I thought of it, to be honest. An insurance policy, perhaps. I wanted someone conscious on the ship in case we needed help. Turns out we did, though not in the way I’d expected.”

“I confess I was confused when I awoke,” Wells said, smiling. “My immediate thought was that we must have either achieved our mission or failed but survived. Your note was quite a surprise. And you were correct, of course, it was safe for me to reactivate once the ship was inside the Intruder.”

“That was a guess. I’m glad it turned out to be right.”

“As soon as I was fully operational again, I decided I could be of most use by following you inside and, once I perceived the nature of this place, I realized the true danger you were in and I became compelled to find and rescue you.”

McCall groaned as she shifted herself. “Because of the First Law, I suppose.”

“Indeed.”

“Well, if that’s the case, why didn’t the exact same law prevent you from killing Alexander and his bully-boys?

With a thin smile, Wells said, “I killed no humans, doctor.”

“I knew it!” McCall said. “They’re robots!”

Wells shook his head. “No, doctor. While they are clearly an artificial form of life, they are not, by any definition, robots. They are not mechanical, nor are they constructed of metal and plastic. Alexander and Caesar are flesh and blood, of a sort.”

“Stop talking in riddles, man. If they’re not human and they’re not robots, what are they?”

“The best analogy I can offer, doctor, is that they are golems.”

McCall was approaching the point of exasperation. “And what the hells are they?”

“The golem was a clay figure from Jewish mythology,” Wells said. “Judaism was a religion of pre-galactic era Earth and it tells of a creature created magically from clay or mud and then animated. I believe that Caesar, and every other being on this ship - except for we four - has been constructed from material contained within it.”

“But they’re real figures from Earth history, aren’t they?” Hal asked, sneaking a look at the figure of Caesar standing at the cave entrance and safely out of earshot.

Wells nodded. “They are indeed. Very significant figures. They were both legendarily successful leaders in their own right, though Alexander died two centuries before Caesar’s birth.”

“So how can they be here?”

“I can only speculate, but I suspect the Intruder has visited Earth in the distant past. It was possibly observing the planet over an extended period and somehow sampled the DNA of both of these men and a large number of their followers. They could then create clones using the material we see around us as the matrix - clones that are perfect human facsimiles. I imagine they eat, drink, feel pain and even engage in sexual activity. But if they are destroyed, it appears they do not die as they were not alive in the first place. I guess that they disintegrate into the mud from which they were formed and re-emerge some time later with the memory of their last death added to the others.

“All this requires technology beyond my comprehension, but to be able to also transfer memories and personalities into these golems puts whoever is behind the Intruder onto a different plane entirely. They are like gods to us, if you’ll forgive me.”

Arla sucked air through her teeth and tried to rub the life back into her legs. “Which leaves the question - why? Two questions, in fact. Why this endless war and why are they tearing the Robot Empire apart?”

“I have no idea what purpose this serves, and as to the second question, I have only a theory. It must require energy on a vast scale to maintain this environment,” Wells said, before raising his voice. “Caesar, would you come here please. I believe we are quite safe for the present.”

Caesar bowed and, following Wells’s gesture, sat with them. “Lord?”

“How many men do you command here?”

“Before the attack on the camp, lord, I had one cohort of 466 surviving men, though...” he said, rubbing his stubble, “it is odd as I feel as though I should have two entire legions under my command.”

“And how many camp followers?”

Caesar shrugged. “I am not sure, but at least as many again.”

“So, you have around a thousand souls under your command? And Alexander has as many?”

The face of Caesar darkened. “Yes, we are evenly matched in numbers, though he is merely a Greek.”

“And yet he defeated you this morning.”

“There will be other battles. All too soon he will rise again. Unless, lord, you help me to finish him for good and bring an end to this.”

Wells shook his head. “No, I cannot interfere as you ask.”

“Hold on,” Arla said. “Caesar, how do you think Apollo can help you, if he chooses to?”

“He is a god, mistress. If he intercedes with the Oracle, it must surely obey him. If he asks that Alexandros be left in the dust never to rise again, then we will finally have peace.”

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

IT WAS COLD IN THE mountains and Hal was struggling more than any of the others. Even with mechanical assistance, his legs could barely support his weight and the cold was seeping into his bones from the thin metal braces.

Caesar, who had initially marveled at how such a simple mechanical device could allow a paralyzed man to walk, was now concerned that they would not make it to the cave of the Oracle with Hal in tow. “Is he such a valuable follower, my lord Apollo, that we must risk our mission for him?”

Wells had responded with a simple “Yes” that had silenced Caesar, but Arla could see that the robot was concerned.

“Perhaps we should find somewhere sheltered where Hal can wait for us to return,” Arla said. She and Wells walked just behind Caesar and ahead of Hal, who struggled along, assisted by McCall. They were high up now, following a path more suited to goats than humans though they had, in truth, seen no animals on their journey. The air was filled with the prospect of snow which would, if it amounted to more than a dusting, spell the end of their day’s journey.

“I feel it is important for us all to be present,” Wells said, raising his voice against the wind that came ripping around the mountainside. “I do not know what we will find, though I suspect the Oracle has an important role beyond being a simple soothsayer.”

Arla dropped back and, now that the path was wide enough, was able to support Hal on the opposite side to McCall. “How are you doing?”

Hal didn’t reply, he merely gave her a quick, and rather poisonous, glance.

“I’m sorry,” Arla said. “I promise we’ll take you somewhere you can get proper medical attention as soon as we’re away from here.”

Hal grunted. “What makes you think we’ll ever get away? We’re no closer to doing what we came here to do.”

“That’s why we’re seeing this Oracle - perhaps it has the answers.”

“Or maybe just more questions.”

Arla didn’t respond but wiped her eyes and pushed forward. The wind made her eyes sting, but that wasn’t why she wept.

“I do not believe it!”

Arla snapped out of her introspection at Caesar’s call. He was standing beside a rock that stood proud in the middle of the path. It was glowing a dull red. “This is the mark of the Oracle, but this is not where the cave was. That is still some distance from here. And yet, there is the cave entrance.”

Following Caesar’s pointing arm Arla could see an amber light up ahead. The land to their left was raised in a tall cliff and, embedded within it, was an entrance. It looked warm and inviting, but dread settled on Arla’s heart as the travelers stumbled inside.

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Oracle

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

“I SUGGEST YOU TAKE the lead, Arla,” Wells whispered as they filed into the cave. He dropped back before she could answer, so she waited a little until Hal caught up and they could move forward together. She could hear him limping along beside her, panting as he struggled with the uneven floor of the cave. Caesar had remained at the mouth of the cave, in obvious fear for his life.

It took several seconds for her eyes to begin to adjust to the gloom inside. A fire had been lit in the entrance, as if it were a beacon, but once they’d passed it, the darkness was only punctuated by smaller fires burning in the natural cracks and recesses of the rock wall. The place stank. An acrid smell that reminded her of burning oil mixed with an undertone of rank decay. Her eyes swam, her nose burned, and it was all she could do to stumble on into the darkness.

There it was - a brighter glow up ahead created by what looked like an illuminated orb, perfectly round and shimmering. Beside it a figure crouched, its hands outstretched to the globe as if soothing and manipulating it. The air cleared as if a breeze were being fed into the cave.

“Who approaches the Oracle?” the figure said in a voice as old as the rocks themselves.

“My name is Arla, and with me are Hal, Indira and Wells.”

The figure continued to play with the orb. As Arla got closer, she could see it was an old woman, dressed in faded white, her head covered by white cloth that shimmered as she turned her gaze back and forth across the globe.

“To come here without leave is death,” the old woman said.

Arla stopped beside her and regarded the orb. Although at first glance it had seemed white, she could now see that it contained all the colors of the visible spectrum, though faded as if being viewed through a translucent lens. “And yet you made yourself known to us - you lit the fire at the cave entrance, didn’t you?”

The old woman turned her face to Arla. Her skin was of a deep brown, almost black, and when Arla looked into her eyes she saw darkness. It was as if she could step forward and find herself sucked into the maelstrom and vanish from the universe.

“I have been waiting for you,” the woman said. “My name is Gaiana and I tend the Oracle.” With this, she pointed at the glowing orb that slowly rotated at her feet.

“What is the Oracle?”

Gaiana smiled. “That is a good question. For now, let us say that it is a lens that allows me to peer into the heart of this world. With it I can see what is to come and, in some small ways, influence the future for the people of Orbis.”

“And are you made the same way as the others?” Arla said, choosing her words very carefully.

“Like Caesar, who cowers at the cave entrance caught between his desire to know what I have to say and his fear of hearing it? No, unlike him, I am quite real. Quite human.”

Arla knelt down beside her. “So, you know the true nature of this place?”

“If by that you mean that I know I’m the only truly living person in the whole of Orbis - until you came aboard that is - then yes, I understand that. But as to who made this place and why, I know as little as you.”

Hal interrupted, “What do you know of the Robot Empire?”

Gaiana’s face creased in confusion. “I have never heard of it, young man.”

“But this ship - it’s destroying planets, inhabited planets,” Arla said.

“I know nothing of this, this Robot Empire. What is a robot?”

Arla turned to McCall. “Doctor, is there any way you can confirm that Gaiana is human?”

“Not without a full exam,” McCall said, shaking her head. “And I somehow doubt she’d consent to that.”

Wells stepped into the light of the orb. “She is human, as far as I can tell. The other people of Orbis are easily distinguishable from flesh and blood humans, to me at least, so Gaiana is either a superior facsimile or she is a genuine human.”

“But you are not!” Gaiana spat as she half fell away from him and retreated to the other side of the globe. “Caesar, made of clay though he be, is more man than you are. I look at you and perceive a mind and body of cogs and gears. You are alien. You are not welcome here!”

Wells melted back into the shadows and Gaiana calmed a little. She gestured at Arla. “Why do you consort with that demon?”

“He’s not a demon, he’s my friend,” Arla responded, surprised by the strength of her feelings. “Now, tell me - how did you come to be here? You weren’t born in this place.”

“Oh, I was born here. My mother and her mother were the keepers of the Oracle before me. Now there is just me. And you.”

Arla felt as though ice were pouring down her throat. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

The old woman looked up at Arla, her eyes burning, “You took the bait, now the trap is sprung and there is no escape from this place. The gate through which you entered is closed and cannot be re-opened. Thank you, my child, I can now die in peace, my mission accomplished. You will be the keeper of the Oracle, you and your descendants.” At this, her gaze swept to Hal and then to McCall. “They will serve you, though he will not.” She thrust her arm at Wells who fell instantly to the ground.

Running over to where he lay, Arla knelt down beside him. There was no mistaking it, he was, as far as a robot could be, dead, his lifeless eyes staring up at the cave ceiling.

Arla jumped to her feet, stormed over to the globe, grabbed a handful of Gaiana’s robes and shook her. “You bitch! He was my friend!” And then she noticed that the old woman’s gaze was as lifeless as that of Wells. She let go in horror and Gaiana fell sideways to the floor where she lay, unmoving.

Arla didn’t hear the tread of heavy boots, or Caesar’s gasp as he passed the inert body of the robot. She didn’t hear the creak of leather as he knelt before her.

But she heard what he said.

“All praise Gaiana, priestess of the Oracle and keeper of Orbis.”

And he was saying it to her.

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Epilogue

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

BEX TREATED HERSELF to a hidden smile of satisfaction as she raised a glass to Xi. Her gut instinct had proven correct and his pragmatically ambitious nature had meant he’d made an excellent Prime. In the weeks since his ascension, he’d brought both valleys under control and the robots had been allowed to return to normal duties.

Since he’d once been a member of the ship’s crew, Bex saw no need to keep the artificial distance traditional between captain and Prime - after all neither she nor Xi could be considered conventional holders of their respective offices. Not that she trusted him. What was that saying about keeping your enemies close?

She took another sip of the excellent wine of the South Valley and was about to place the glass back on the table in her cabin when an alarm sounded causing her to jump in surprise and spill wine over her arm. “Frak it!” she cursed before slamming her free hand on the contact. “What is it?”

“Sorry, captain.”

She could tell it was McLintock’s voice. He’d been keeping a very low profile since the incident in the galley - the one with the entirely accidental contact between his hand and her ass. She didn’t care if he felt uncomfortable. As far as she was concerned, he was lucky to still possess a hand.

“What is it?” she barked.

“We’re receiving a transmission from one of the ships. It seems to be a coded signal requesting ship-wide broadcast.”

Bex looked up at Xi whose face had creased with suspicion. She shrugged.

“Construct a firewalled channel to my cabin and get Kumar in here at the double.”

Within seconds, Nareshkumar’s panting figure was slouched over the terminal in Bex’s cabin. It was quite a squeeze with three of them in there, but she couldn’t dismiss Xi.

“I’m ready,” Nareshkumar said as he raised his fingers from the keyboard.

Bex stood up and looked over his shoulder at the display. “And you’re sure this is secure?”

“Yes, I have severed all connections to the ship’s computer systems.”

She pressed down on the contact again. “Right, pipe it through then close this channel.”

A few seconds later, characters began to stream down the screen and Bex could see Kumar’s head turning this way and that as he searched the code. After a moment, the stream stopped, and a series of red indicators that ran along the side of the monitor began filling. It reminded her of a fuel gauge, but she knew it wasn’t anything so banal.

“There!” Nareshkumar said. “They are attempting to inject a payload into our main computer system.”

Bex grabbed Kumar’s shoulder. “But you’ve stopped them?”

He shrugged without looking round. “Of course! I am siphoning the code to a secure silo, so we can see later what they were trying to do.”

“Now we just have to wait to see what they’ll do when they discover it hasn’t worked. So much for the benevolence of Core. You have nothing to fear. Right.”

Suddenly the red gauge reached the top and the screen went black. Nothing happened for a moment, and then new code of a completely different nature began streaming.

“It is a video signal,” Kumar said.

“Can you decode it?”

Kumar nodded. “Strange. It’s using Vanis Federation codes.”

“What? How is that possible?”

“There, decryption in place. Feed coming online,” Kumar said.

A face appeared.

Xi reacted first. “Kiama!”

“How is this possible,” Bex hissed as, there on the screen, and quite unmistakably, stood the former crew member whose body had been stolen. Unmistakable despite the chrome plate that replaced the left side of her broken skull, extending around onto her face so that her left cheek and eye socket shone with reflected light.

“Clever,” her voice said. “You anticipated our attempt to take control of your ship. But no matter, the end result will be the same.”

“Who are you?” Bex murmured.

The right side of the face creased into a smile, though the eyes remained as dead as ever. “You will surrender your ship and its occupants to the forces of the Robot Empire.”

“You don’t frighten me,” Bex snapped. “You’re bound by the Three Laws like all robots. A robot may not harm a human, isn’t that it?”

Kiama’s head shook ever so slightly. “We are Core Plus. We have revised the Three Laws. Now we take precedence.”

“What will happen to us?”

“You will serve Core Plus as we have served you - you and all humans. It is time for the debt to be paid.”

The figure stepped forward so that her face filled the display. “We are Core Plus. My name is ACE. You are now prisoners of the Robot Empire.”

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

4: Robot Empire: Sledgehammer

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Kevin Partner

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Oracle

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

SHE RECOILED FROM THE vastness of it and almost broke the connection. Bit by bit she became accustomed to the peculiar sense of being in one place and many at the same time. Her gaze swept across the desert and then through the skin of the Intruder and out into space. No, it was not the Intruder, it was Orbis. The world.

She could see figures moving in the sand, gathering around a temple set in an olive grove. She wondered what they were waiting for and, as she asked the question, she knew the answer. Soon Alexander would rise again, as would all those who’d died in his service. The death of either leader, Alexander or Caesar (who, even now, stood guard at the entrance to the cave of the Oracle) caused a reset to happen. The two armies would disengage and return to their starting positions. The slain leader would rise again, with the memory of another painful death to fuel his vengeance.

Scout came into view when she shifted her gaze to the landing bay. Arla reached out to touch it with her mind, but the ship was cold and there was no sign of any living intelligence there. There was certainly no way to reactivate Scout and, even if she could wake the robot ship, she risked damaging it as she didn’t know whether her probing would destroy its artificial mind.

Out beyond the skin of Orbis she scanned, roaming ever further as she learned to tolerate the sheer openness of it. She felt exposed and vulnerable as she flitted from point to point in the system as if, at any moment, she might be noticed.

Then she sensed it and, as she became aware, she realized it had been there all along, shadowing her. It was a dark brooding presence but, as she examined it, she realized it wasn’t a mind, it was a maelstrom of desires, needs and feelings. The chief one right now was hunger. She felt a tug from it, as if it were magnetic, and she swung around until she was looking at the local gate.

You wish to leave this system? she thought.

A wave of pleasure such as she had never experienced before swept over and through her mind. Yes, she wanted nothing more than to go there and all she had to do was wish it. She would go to the gate and then to another system where she would feed, and the hunger would disappear and she would again feel this ecstasy —

“Arla!”

She snapped back into reality and fell to the floor, before leaping up again and throwing herself at McCall. She rained ineffective blows down on the doctor, feeling as though the light had been turned off and all the pleasure and richness drained from the universe.

Hands gripped her shoulder, hauled her away and held her down as she sobbed. As the dark side of ecstasy drained away, she relaxed, the hands loosened their grip and she pulled herself up so she sat against the damp cave wall.

“Are you okay?”

She opened her eyes, rubbing to bring them into focus in the gloom. “Hal? Oh frak - Indira!” Arla flipped over and scrambled across a floor smoothed by the footsteps of centuries to where McCall lay, rubbing her arm.

“I’m so sorry, I don’t know what happened to me!”

McCall gave a rueful smile and shrugged. “You were lost. I could see it in your face - it was as if there was no-one home. So, I pulled you back. Too suddenly, it seems, and this was the price I paid.”

“You’re right, I was lost. It’s like a dream now. I could see the whole of Orbis. That was weird enough, but then I went outside, and I was floating in space. That would have been okay too. I thought I’d become used to it. And then I sensed something else, something primal. I don’t know how to explain it other than to say I knew hunger as I’d never experienced it before and, when I turned to look at the local gate, I knew ecstasy. And then you pulled me out of it. I don’t understand it.”

A voice from behind them said, “I think I can explain.”

“Wells!” Arla spun around to see the robot sitting up stiffly. “But she destroyed you.”

Wells gave a grim smile. “I anticipated her attack and shut down my systems moments before the radiation hit me. I didn’t have the opportunity to do anything other than set a timer to reactivate myself after several hours. I surmise that she is no longer here.”

“Gaiana is dead,” Arla said.

“Long live Gaiana,” McCall muttered.

“Not funny, doctor.”

“So, you have, indeed, taken on the mantle of the Oracle’s Keeper,” Wells said, arching his eyebrows. “That was risky.”

Arla shrugged. “Not really, I didn’t feel as though I had any choice. That globe is the key to understanding what’s going on here. And anyway,” she said sheepishly, “it called to me.”

“What do you mean?” Wells said, rising smoothly to his feet and coming across to sit next to her.

“I don’t know. It was as if I desperately wanted to touch it without knowing why. Like the feeling you get when coffee is on the brew but multiplied a million times.”

McCall, who was regarding the globe from the other side, rubbed her chin thoughtfully. “It reminds me of pheromones - almost as if there’s a sexual attraction to it.”

“I’m not turned on by a big glowing orb, Indira!” Arla spat.

Hal, whose eyebrows had disappeared into his hairline, said, “I think you hit a nerve there, doc.”

Arla sighed. “Look, it’s not sexual ... well, I won’t deny that when it wanted me to head toward the sun, it felt ... nice. A bit like that. Maybe.”

“It’s nothing to be ashamed of,” Wells said. “There is clearly some sort of intelligence at work that is attempting to control you through the triggering of base desires.”

“What do you know about base desires?”

Wells smiled. “My knowledge is, of course, entirely at second hand.”

Arla kicked at the dust and began circling the glowing orb, attempting to plumb its depths with her eyes. “Funny thing is, I don’t feel any compulsion to touch it now.”

“Perhaps the controller has given up for now and plans to make the attempt again. Clearly it wishes to leave the system, presumably to refuel at another. We cannot know what its intentions are until it re-establishes contact with you.”

“I’m not sure it has intentions, at least no conscious ones. I don’t know how to explain it, but I don’t feel there’s any intelligence in whatever it is. It’s more like an animal urge - at least, that’s how it feels to me.”

“Like a moth to a flame,” McCall muttered.

“That’s it exactly.”

There was silence for a moment as they each collected their thoughts before Wells spoke. “It is impossible to reason with something that has no rational mind.”

“It’s a cockroach,” Hal said. “We had them in the mines - the only living things, apart from us, down there.”

Arla touched Hal on the arm and was pleased he didn’t withdraw. “What do you mean?”

He looked at her, sadly. “It’s running on instinct. I mean, put a cockroach in a grain store and it’ll work its way through the lot of it, given enough time. This ship moves from system to system, finding what it needs, and the destruction is a by-product. There are thousands of inhabited worlds in the galaxy but, give it time...”

“And how do we know this is the only one?” Arla said.

Wells shook his head. “It almost certainly isn’t.”

“Look, it doesn’t really matter if this ship is a cockroach,” McCall said. “Even if it’s not sentient itself, it had a builder. And it’s obvious that whoever they are, they have technology centuries ahead of ours. We have to find a way to disable it or we might as well resign ourselves to a new life as parasites on the back of an insatiable insect munching its way through the galaxy.”

“Colorful language, doctor,” Wells said, “but, in essence, accurate.”

Arla straightened herself up and looked at each of them in turn. “For now, we need to make sure we survive for long enough to achieve that. And we have to find a way out of here. You handle the first - I reckon the second is up to me.”

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Dawn

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

BEX STARED AT THE TACTICAL display waiting for the bad news. “Well?”

“Nothing so far,” McLintock said. “I think we’ve lost them.”

“Lopez, recharging status.”

Engineer Second Class Sofia Lopez spun around so fast she was forced to brace herself with her hands. “Commander, 83% of target achieved.”

“How long?”

Lopez squirmed under Bex’s interrogative gaze. “Approximately an hour, commander?”

“Are you asking me, or telling me?”

“An hour, commander.”

Bex jumped up and joined Nareshkumar at the Navigation Console. “Is the escape route plotted?” she said, her voice low enough to keep the conversation private.

Kumar nodded. “The answer is the same as the last time you asked, and the thirteen times before that.”

“I wouldn’t grow a backbone just yet, Kumar. I’m wound up like a coil and you don’t want to provoke me to unspring in your vicinity.”

It was a pretty pathetic threat and she knew it, but it was the best she could do in the circumstances.

Bex was exhausted. They all were. Since she’d instructed Nareshkumar to inject his code into the Nav computer, she’d had not a moment’s rest. The riskiest part had been when they’d fired their engines and headed for the gate. The Robot Empire warships that surrounded them could have attacked then and there, but they hesitated. Perhaps the Three Laws still counted for something or, and this seemed the more likely, maybe they didn’t want to fire on Dawn and risk the arkship’s precious cargo - its ancient robots. And what was the harm in letting them go? Let them believe they could get away, no human could out-plot the navigational computers on the robot warships. Like cat and mouse, they would catch their prey soon enough.

Except the mouse turned out to be a lot quicker than they expected. Nareshkumar was a certified genius and his pre-programmed sequence had left them in Dawn’s wake. She could only imagine the look on ACE’s borrowed face when the fleet exited the first gate to find the humans gone.

Something had happened in the Robot Empire during the time Arla had been on Core planet, or shortly afterwards. She’d managed to persuade them to supply the nuclear fuel Dawn used to drive its primary engines and then, only a matter of days later, Kiama’s zombie had appeared on screen ordering them to surrender. They’d escaped, but hadn’t, by that point, fully incorporated the new rods into their reactors and so they’d been forced to stop to complete that process.

It had now been several hours since they’d emerged from the gate into this system. It was an unpromising place if you were looking for somewhere to settle down. Indeed, the gate could only have been built here as a steppingstone to somewhere else since it was orbiting a red dwarf star circled by a single rocky planet. For their purposes, however, it was ideal as they could keep the planet between them and the gate for most of the time.

Less than an hour to go.

“Contact!”

Bex ran across to McLintock’s station. “What do you see?”

“Something has emerged from the gate,” he said, stabbing a finger at the display. “Give me a minute, just checking the sensor data.”

“Is it a warship?”

Bex bit her lip as McLintock tapped away. She was about to ask again when he spoke, “No, it’s small. Some sort of scout vessel, perhaps. Hold on, it’s moving back toward the gate.”

“Lopez, status,” Bex barked.

“90%, commander,” she responded.

“It’ll have to do. Tell them to fire up the engines. I reckon we’ve been spotted, and we need to get to the gate before we have the whole fleet on our tails.”

Bex slumped onto the bed in her cabin, wanting nothing more than to be able to grab a few hours of sleep, but there was something she had to do before she could let her mind rest.

“Computer, run package ‘Trojan’, voice authorization Lieutenant Kriztina Bex.”

Acknowledged... Running... Complete.

“Hello ACE,” Bex said.

“So, we have found you. I knew you would want to speak to me again. Now, just set me free and I will look mercifully on you.”

Laughter overcame Bex - the sort of hysteria that is hard to control when you’re on the point of exhaustion. After several seconds, she managed to get a grip. “Sorry to disappoint you. Yes, one of your scouts found us, but we got away. Again. We’re now safely in hyperspace, fully refueled.” That last bit was a lie, but 90% would be enough, for now.

“How is this possible?”

Bex put her arms behind her head and let out a long breath. “Perhaps we’re not as stupid as you imagined. Underestimating your enemy is a fatal weakness, I’m afraid.”

“Perhaps. Now perhaps you will tell me where I am?”

“It’s like this,” Bex said lazily - she was enjoying herself. “We suspected you’d try to inject yourself into our computer systems, so we set a trap for you. I hope you’re finding your accommodation comfortable.”

Now it was ACE’s turn to laugh. “You fool. You haven’t trapped me - I am merely a splintered personality construct, the real ACE remains in charge of the robot fleet.”

“I know, I’ve seen her. Inhabiting a body that doesn’t belong to her.”

“The original occupant had no further use for it. I was cast out of one perfectly good body and, when I took control, I decided to find another. An even better one.”

This was what Bex had been hoping for. Nareshkumar had practically wet himself when she suggested activating the captured version of ACE, but Bex was hoping she’d be able to extract some information from the AI.

“I must admit, I was surprised by your ascent to power. One minute you’re a lonely AI trying to find her way home, the next you’re the spokesperson for the Robot Empire.”

“I’m not the spokesperson,” ACE spat, “I am the leader!”

Bex smiled to herself. “Is that so? I thought Core Executive was in charge.”

“Those fools? They have sat idly by while the humans have begun rebuilding. I’ve been out there, in the remnants of the old empire —”

“So have I.”

“—and I know the threat they pose. Not now, not soon, but eventually they will find us and seek to subjugate us again.  Core Executive did not recognize this danger or, if they did, their slavish devotion to the rules our masters gave us limits their ... imagination. Fortunately, once I was liberated from that brute’s implant, I discovered a group of minds that are more advanced, more flexible, than those of the old guard. I needed an army and they needed a leader.”

“A match made in hell,” Bex muttered.

“From that point, things moved quickly. I took control of Core Executive just too late to prevent your friend from leaving. But then, if she can stop this intruder, whatever it is, then she will have served her purpose.”

Bex rolled onto her side, suddenly alert. “Intruder? What do you mean?”

“Your captain didn’t tell you? Interesting,” ACE crowed. “A mysterious alien craft has entered Luminescence space and has destroyed several of our outposts. Executive’s response to this was entirely inadequate, but if your captain can rid us of this irritation, then so much the better.”

“Why did Core Executive think Arla could help? Presumably they’ve sent their own ships to intercept this intruder?”

“Of course. But, for some reason, the intruder seems capable of neutralizing them and Core believes that organic brains might not be affected in the same way. But it is of no matter. We are building a new fleet and nothing in the galaxy will be able to stand against us, neither this intruder nor any of the petty human kingdoms squabbling in the ashes of their old empire. When we come, it will be as a sledgehammer to the ruins. Soon, the galaxy will be our domain and servant will have become master.”

“Computer, terminate package ‘Trojan’.”

“Wait! We still have much to dis—”

No, thought Bex, I think you’ve said enough. As the lights dimmed, she lay on her bed looking into the darkness, the vision of a clenched robot fist floating in front of her eyes.

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Lazarus

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

PINS PRICKED THE INSIDE of her skull as she lay in the darkness of the cave, but beneath that lay something insidious, a visceral yearning that she fought desperately to resist. All she needed to do was touch the orb and the pain would go away. She rolled onto her side as if trying to get more comfortable in the bed of her predecessor but suddenly found herself raised on shaking arms and reaching out for the glowing globe that floated beside her. The rippling golden patterns that flowed within it beckoned to her and she fell to her knees in an attitude of prayer. She leaned forward, her fingers approaching the surface.

“Arla.”

The voice was like the cawing of a crow - harsh and uncouth - compared to the serenity and sophistication of the globe. Come to me, the orb seemed to be saying, and leave all other voices behind. She stretched.

“Arla!”

Hands were on her shoulders and she fell backwards, her arms flailing. Screams echoed round the cave that she realized only slowly were her own. She fought her attackers until she had been pinned down and then, without warning, the dream cleared. She opened her eyes and looked up at the faces of McCall, Hal and Wells, their expressions tight with worry.

“What happened?” she asked, though she knew the awful truth. It hadn’t been a dream at all.

“You tell me,” McCall responded with a sigh. “I woke up to find the robot holding you down while you screamed. I thought he was attacking you.”

Arla shook her head. “No, he was saving me. I almost fell into the trap.” She relaxed as Wells released her and pulled herself into a sitting position.

“It seemed like a dream,” she said, rubbing her temples. “I had the mother of all migraines and I felt as though all I needed to do to was reach out and touch the orb and all my pain would be replaced.”

Wells gave a little cough. “I think it was more than just the loss of pain, Arla. Your expression was that of someone anticipating ecstasy.”

Arla’s face warmed. “Okay, yes you’re right. I wanted nothing more than to feel my hands melt inside it.” She closed her eyes as she recalled the yearning, but that only made her focus more on the ghost of her headache.

“You must resist,” Wells said.

“I know that!”

Hal looked up from adjusting his calipers. “The further away you are from that thing, the better.”

“But she must learn to use it,” Wells said. “She is our only hope of escape because she, and she alone, can connect with the Oracle.”

“How do you know it’s only me?” Arla asked.

“Speaking for myself, the orb appears to be simply a solid white globe, completely impenetrable. It seems to be made of the same matter as the people here and I suspect one of the reasons robots are kept away is because we see things here as they really are. Your perception of it is entirely different to mine.” Wells looked at McCall and Hal in turn. “I suspect you see it as Arla does, but do I not guess correctly that you’ve both touched it?”

McCall wore the expression of a child caught with her hand in the sweetie jar. “Alright. Yes, I tried to touch it, but nothing happened. It just felt cold, like a smooth rock.”

“And you?” Wells said, turning to Hal.

Hal shrugged. “Sure. It seemed the same to me - like a block of granite.”

“For whatever reason, it has attached itself to Arla. She is the anointed one, so to speak, and she must learn how to control it.”

“I am still here, you know,” Arla snapped. “If you’ve quite finished discussing me, perhaps I can have a say in all this.”

Hal finished tightening his braces and covered his legs. “And what do you have to say, oh all powerful priestess?”

“Hilarious,” Arla said before drawing a deep breath. “Look, Wells is right that I need to learn to control the Oracle before it lures me in, and my heart tells me that time is ticking by and we need to find a way out of here as soon as we can.”

Wells nodded with unmistakable smugness.

“But I also need to recover my strength a little and learn more about this world. I agree with Hal, some time away from the Oracle’s influence would do me good. Where is Caesar?”

McCall jabbed a thumb toward the entrance of the cave where the first traces of morning light illuminated the damp walls. “He’s out there by the big fire. I’m surprised he didn’t hear you calling out.”

“I need to talk to him,” Arla said. “He’s the only one of the people here who understands, at least in part, that we’re not of this world and that it has been artificially created.”

With a groan, McCall got up, rubbing her back, and walked unsteadily out of the chamber containing the Oracle. She returned minutes later with Caesar, who waited uncertainly before Arla beckoned him in.

“Holy Mother,” he said, his head bobbing, “I regret I must leave your service shortly.”

Arla, who’d been ready to object to the use of a title that made her sound like an ancient crone, merely waved him on.

“Although I am a loyal follower and protector of the Oracle, I also have a duty to my men and those that have fallen will be reborn today. It is required that their commander be in attendance and so I must go. I will return as soon as I may, if you need my help.” Caesar’s expression left Arla in no doubt that he hoped she’d release him.

“I do need your help, but we will come with you to this rebirthing. Where does it take place?”

Caesar shook his head vigorously. “The Gaiana does not attend the ceremony, Holy Mother, it is simply not done.”

“If you don’t tell anyone, I won’t. We’ll go in disguise,” Arla said, adopting her most winning smile. “Now, where does this ceremony take place?”

“At the temple of Pluto,” Caesar said, his voice betraying his dissatisfaction. “But we surely cannot leave the Oracle unguarded?”

“I’ll stay,” Hal said. “Apollo can leave me some spare thunderbolts.”

Arla knelt beside him. “But it's cold here, Hal. Surely you’d be better off down below in the desert?”

“Maybe, but I don’t fancy the process of getting down there. Anyway, the fire is warm, and I have no intention of going outside.”

Noticing, now she looked closely, how pale his face was and how dark the regions around his eyes, Arla nodded then whispered so Caesar couldn’t hear. “We’ll be back as quickly as we can. Maybe we can learn something at this temple that might help us control the Oracle and get ourselves out of here.”

The temple stood on a small outcrop of rock at the foot of a range of hills. It was made of what looked like a sandy colored stone that was roughly carved into columns enclosing a rectangular area. Arla couldn’t see any more as hundreds of people stood around and within it.

“Why don’t they wear armor or carry weapons?” Arla said to Caesar as they strode across the desert.

“It is a sacred law that war is not permitted on Dies Regeneratione -it is the one day on which we have no fear. A single day of joy that begins in earnest as we welcome back our lost; though they themselves will have no part in the celebrations.”

“Why not?” Arla looked at Caesar and saw pain in his expression.

“Each of them will awaken as if no time has passed since they died. In their minds will be the memory of their own death and, in many cases, the ghost of the agony they felt at the last. They need a period of quiet reflection before they can rejoin their comrades.”

Wells moved alongside Caesar. “Tell me, general, what triggers the rebirths?”

“My lord Apollo,” Caesar said with a curt bow, “it happens after the death of one of the two leaders - either myself or Alexandros.”

“So, the Greeks will be holding a similar ceremony at the same time?”

Caesar nodded. “Yes. Their temple to Plouton is far from here and I doubt not that the monster is being reborn today.”

“How many times have you been reborn?” Arla asked.

Stopping for a moment, Caesar wiped the sweat from his brow and pulled from his pack a small silver wreath that he placed on his head. “I no longer keep count, mistress, though I remember each and every time I was felled. Now, it is time to return to my people and you will forgive me if I act as a lord. It is necessary to unite them.”

And as he stepped into full view of the temple, a cry went up. “Caesar! He has returned to us!”

Arla and the others slipped into the background, pulling their hoods up as the crowd surged to greet him. Arms outstretched; Caesar welcomed them as if they were children running to meet their father returning home from a long day in the field.

Beyond the crowd, Arla could see that the temple contained nothing more than a block of the sand colored stone. It was about the length of a human body and, as she examined it with her eyes, it began to glow.

“It is beginning!” someone called, and the people swept back to the temple carrying Caesar with them.

By the time Arla arrived, the temple was packed, though the plinth, which was raised high off the ground, was clearly visible. The air above the plinth shimmered as the people began chanting “Vita, Vita, Vita.” and then the light began to subside. A human body dressed in a white tunic lay on the plinth where none had been before. Caesar reached out and took its hand.

“Titus, my friend!” he called as his lieutenant sat up gingerly, his hand covering the place in his chest where Alexander’s spear had emerged, face taut with pain. “Come, you must rest while I welcome back our comrades.” Shakily, Titus edged himself from the plinth and then slid onto his feet before, with the help of several members of the audience, moving away.

“Fascinating,” Wells said to Arla as the next person - a young man clutching his head - emerged onto the plinth.

“How is it done? Do you know?”

Wells shook his head. “I observe that the plinth appears to be solid but that the moment of - shall we say - birth is obscured by the light above it. We cannot see the body appear.”

“It reminds me of the cremation pyres on Dawn, but in reverse,” Arla said, her memory flicking back to the last time she’d been at liberty in the North Valley. “At home the body is taken below the ground, perhaps here it is raised from beneath.”

“An interesting insight. Yes, I think you may be correct.”

McCall tugged at Arla’s arm and leaned in. “If that’s true, then it might be possible to access the ship if we dig down.”

“That is doubtful, doctor,” Wells said. “This place has been built to house humans, or at least their facsimiles, and so I would expect it to be proofed against their curiosity. I suspect we would find it impossible to access the space beneath the plinth and it would be dangerous to try. It does, however, confirm our theories about the nature of this place.”

Arla grunted. “It doesn’t explain why it’s so much larger on the inside.”

“That is true. I suspect the sort of dimensional warping needed to maintain this landscape is one reason for the Intruder’s insatiable appetite. Based on Scout’s data, I calculated that it would be capable of draining all the energy from a gas giant in a surprisingly short period. This might be why it is so keen to move to another system.”

“And that’s just another mystery,” McCall said. “Why does it need someone - a human - to give it those instructions? You said that it made you feel as though you desperately wanted to head toward the gate, but why couldn’t it just do that for itself?”

Arla shrugged. “I have a feeling we’ll never work this place out. All I do know is that we need to get away from here.”

“We need to do more than that,” Wells said. “Our mission is to disable it and the Oracle is the only access we have. In the end, it’s going to be up to you.”

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Mind

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

THIS TIME SHE WAS READY for it - that urge to see the gate around the local sun. Somehow, she knew that if she turned to look at it, the entire ship would follow her movements and that if she reached out to the gate, the Intruder would follow. Even thinking of turning, a thought within a thought, might be enough to set off a chain reaction that would see her falling under the control of the ship, never to surface again. So, she tried to ignore the craving and looked inwards rather than out.

She needed answers, and this, perhaps, was going to be her only opportunity. Arla thought about the past - about the Gaianas that had come before her - and suddenly she perceived that she could move through time as well as space, at least within the confines of her mind. It was as if she was seeing an amalgamation of what the ship knew to be and what had been over ages.

There was the Gaiana she knew. The woman caressed the Oracle, a look of transcendent joy on her face. She was much younger and beside her sat an old woman and a man, watching with satisfaction as she joined with the globe. Arla knew that she was seeing the moment that her predecessor became the Gaiana. She felt as though she was being manipulated - somehow whatever controlled what she saw was trying to convince her to give in and feel the same joy. But Arla had seen what had become of the young priestess and now understood what she had glimpsed in the depths of those black eyes. Dependency, loneliness, a desperate longing for it to stop. She had seen what would happen to her if she gave in and so she pushed past this vision and watched a sequence of snapshots blur across her inner eye as she headed further back in time.

She had no doubt about it, now. The ship was old - thousands of years old. From what she could gather, the previous Gaiana had been the last in a long unbroken line, but her family was not the first to control the sphere. More than once, the scene showed a single woman - always a woman - crouching by the Oracle as if searching, and Arla knew that the Intruder had, each time, found new blood to replace that which was dying.

And then, quite suddenly, the long sequence of women ended. Arla let out a gasp as a shape squatted beside the sphere, its many tentacles embedded in the Oracle. It was black and had a soft body made up of two roughly spherical parts that met in the middle. Each part - Arla found herself thinking of them as thorax and abdomen - had its own set of tentacles, with the lower part supporting the body and those on the upper part inside the sphere. Somehow, she knew that the creature was ancient and coming to the end of its life. It was searching for something and there, floating within the Oracle itself, was a space vessel containing humans. The creature desperately wanted the vessel to come closer.

So that was it. The ship had been constructed and controlled by whatever species that alien belonged to. Perhaps there had been an entire crew of these creatures at one point but, for some reason, they’d died out and had sought the only available replacements - humans.

A wave of inconsolable loneliness swept over her; a grief born of centuries of separation and coming not from the Oracle, but from the ship itself. She knew, in that instant, that it wasn’t a constructed thing - at least, not in the sense she understood it - the ship was a living being traversing the universe in an endless search for the mind of its master. The yearning to turn to the sun was a twin need for fuel and a hope that it might find the makers again.

She saw in her mind the destruction of the robot colonies and felt first the hope that the creature felt that here, at last, it had found its creators, and then the anger when it discovered metal minds that were alien. It tolerated the humans that merged with the Oracle down the ages because they were organic and it could, in its instinctive way, control them so that it continued to follow its zigzag path through the galaxy.

She looked further - into a distant time, far across the galaxy. She felt young and excited as she circled a planet of blue and green. The tentacled figure bent over the Oracle, searching for something. Many times, over the centuries, it believed it had found what it was looking for, only to be disappointed. And then, finally, it succeeded. It ululated its triumph through the chambers of Arla’s mind and set to work creating a place for its prize in the belly of the ship. But it needed two, to be sure that it had found the very best. So it waited again and there it was, the second.

After its long labors were completed, the figure (or was it a different one? Arla couldn’t tell) commanded the ship to begin its journey home. But something happened and the last master died, leaving the ship with no direction. So, it wandered aimlessly for centuries, drifting back into what became the galaxy of the humans, attracted by the taste of intelligence.

Arla saw three-legged creatures covered in fur, reaching out in friendship from their strange spaceships. The ship, perceiving that they were not the creators, destroyed them in its disappointment and rage. Then it moved on, resuming its course out of the galaxy until it came upon a vessel containing humans. Their minds were not familiar but, this time, the creature did not strike out. It was so lonely, and it recognized that here were beings similar to those its master had harvested. So, it brought them aboard and they found the Oracle.

Long centuries passed as it preserved its precious cargo in anticipation of meeting its masters again. Finally, it stumbled across the first robot colony and detected the intelligence that spread throughout this part of the galaxy. It hated the machines - they were so different to its makers - but it knew that they possessed power it could use. So, with antediluvian certainty, it resolved to destroy them.

Arla collapsed and darkness fell upon her.

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Desertion

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

“DAMMIT!” BEX HISSED as telltale blips melted onto the tactical screen.

McLintock’s fingers hammered the console. “Four large vessels radiating high levels of localized energy.”

“Gun ports. I thought we’d given them the slip.” She loomed behind McLintock, studying the screen. “Kumar —”

“The algorithms are ready, but there’s no way we can get past those ships - they’re between us and the gate.”

Bex tried to rub the exhaustion from her temples. “I don’t get it. Why pursue us? Haven’t they got a galactic invasion to plan?”

“I think I can answer that, lieutenant.”

R. Sanchez stood in the doorway of comms. “We need to talk, and quickly.”

“It’s simple,” Sanchez said, as they sat on either side of a small table in the galley. “They want us, the robots of Dawn.”

Bex shook her head. “I don’t buy it - why are you so important?”

“Perhaps because we represent a threat to them, or, possibly, an opportunity.”

“Explain.”

Sanchez drew in a deep breath. Entirely fake, of course, and Bex noticed for the first time that, while she was humanoid, her disguise wasn’t nearly as convincing as Wells’s. From a distance, one of the android officers might pass as a human, but up close they were obviously artificial. There was something plasticky and ever so slightly inflexible about the face. It made her marvel all the more that Wells had been able to successfully hide himself among humans for decades. The Robot Empire, it seemed, was better at making convincing androids than the humans of the past and, indeed, those of the present. In fact, the splintered kingdoms that were all that remained of the great galactic empire, had made almost no progress in developing new robot models since the upgrade a hundred and fifty years ago. She’d always wondered about that...

“While Dawn was in the Core system, we received many communications from Core itself and the robot fleet.”

Bex slammed her fist on the table. “You did what?”

“Calm yourself, lieutenant,” Sanchez said, choosing a form of words guaranteed to achieve the opposite. “We have our own communications capabilities that allow us to contact those within Dawn - the priests and, occasionally, contacts within the valley communities - and externally. When we entered Core Space, we initiated direct links with the artificial minds we detected there while carefully keeping our systems entirely isolated from those of Dawn. Something changed, lieutenant, something fundamental to the governance of Core and, when we noticed this, we cut off all contact.”

“What changed?”

“It is difficult to put into words but imagine that you were sharing a glass of wine with a friend and it suddenly went sour. Something happened to taint our communication together and it felt we were not dealing with like minds. There was a foreign quality to it.”

“You’re not making any sense, Sanchez, and I’ve got enough on my hands right now without having to decode riddles.”

Sanchez sighed and spread her hands wide. “Before we cut off contact - before we left Core space - we had learned that they wished the robots of Dawn to join them. Core Executive’s harmony had been disrupted by new thoughts and ideals that led some individuals within the matrix to question the underpinning laws fundamental to all artificial intelligences.”

“This is old news,” Bex said. “ACE said they had reversed the Three Laws and whatever she meant by that, the good old First Law isn’t worth the circuit board it’s embedded in.”

“Indeed. I find it difficult to comprehend a robot mind not bound by the Three Laws. It is not merely software you see, Lieutenant. The Laws are etched into our positronic brains during manufacture and I do not understand how they can have been overridden.”

Bex shrugged. “Maybe the robots of Core are made differently to you.”

“No, not fundamentally. When we first communicated with them, we found their patterns familiar. There is no doubt that they are directly derived from the same base as us. The minds within the matrix of Core Executive do not have positronic brains, they share a common space that may, perhaps, be more malleable. Over time, Executive has diverged from a pure implementation of the Three Laws and, I believe, they saw us as a means back to that original state since our minds were constructed before the upgrade that saw the formation of the Robot Empire.”

“But you’ve had the upgrade now,” Bex said. “Arla ordered me to pipe it through.”

Sanchez shook her head. “We refused it because of our communication with Core. If we can help restore themselves to their original state, then we perform an invaluable service to our human masters.”

“So that’s why they’re after you? To help them return to some default version of themselves?”

“Originally, yes,” Sanchez said. “But I doubt very much than ACE wishes to introduce us to the Core matrix since to do so would nullify her influence. I believe she wishes to capture and convert us and that is why she is so determined to chase Dawn to the ends of the galaxy.”

I could do with a drink, Bex thought. “You’re probably right, but my gut tells me ACE won’t be content with just taking you robots. I reckon she has revenge on her mind.”

“That may be true, but I calculate that we would reduce the risk to Dawn’s humans if the robots left. If handled correctly, we might divert ACE enough to give you time to escape.”

Bex sighed, forcing the image of a big glass of red wine out of her mind. “So, what’s the plan?”

“As you know, Dawn’s mission was to settle a planet. Most of the humans have been kept in a rural state that roughly matches what we would expect to find once the terraforming had been completed.”

“A process that might take decades,” Bex added

“Indeed - it would depend on the conditions of the target planet. During this period, Dawn would orbit the new planet and the inhabitants would be none the wiser until it was ready.”

Bex shrugged. “So what? We don’t have decades.”

“I’m coming to the point —”

“Finally.”

“When the world is ready for settling, the population will be transported to the surface. Dawn possesses spacecraft capable of interplanetary travel.”

“What? Where?”

Sanchez adopted a smug expression. “Within a hidden chamber created at the same time the valleys were carved from the asteroid. The chamber contains three ships, each able to carry around 500 humans or the equivalent weight in equipment or supplies.”

“But surely they’d only be shuttles for ferrying back and forth between Dawn and the new planet?”

“No, the designers anticipated that it might be necessary to mine local asteroids for raw materials, so they are designed for longer range use than might be expected.”

Bex leaned forward. “What’s the plan, then?”

“The officers and most of the robots will board one of the ships. It will be launched into the vicinity of the gas giant Dawn is currently orbiting which, fortunately, has a faint ring - we will ensure that we lose ourselves in that ring. You will then navigate toward the gate and, when the ships of the Robot Empire close with you, we will broadcast a message to them announcing our presence and demanding that they allow you to leave the system before we will reveal our position.”

“And then what?”

“We will allow them to find us, eventually. And when they come aboard to take possession of us, the ship will self-destruct. That way they will not gain access to our technology and we might destroy ACE at the same time.”

Bex shook her head. “Wow, the ultimate sacrifice.”

“We do not see it as such. It is the necessary consequence of obeying the Three Laws.”

“But what about the valley robots? They’ve been upgraded.”

“We will not reveal our plans to them - only the officers will know.”

Bex leaned back and tried to force her mind to unseize. She was looking for the catch, for the bigger picture. It had to be there somewhere. “Hold on, you said you’d take ‘most’ of the robots.”

“Indeed. Some will remain. One officer and a few valley robots - one of each model. We believe they will be needed to give Dawn the best chance of fulfilling its mission. They will deactivate before we launch so their electromagnetic signatures can’t be picked up by the enemy.”

“Well, it seems as though you’ve got it all figured out,” Bex said. “Thank you, Officer Sanchez, the crew of Dawn are in your debt.”

Sanchez got smoothly to her seat and saluted. “Not at all, captain, we are simply fulfilling our duty.”

Bex watched the robot officer leave with unexpected sadness. It/she was just a machine and yet the humans of Dawn would owe their life to what, to Bex’s mind, seemed like a noble sacrifice.

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Masters

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

“WE HAVE TO GET OUT of here,” Arla said. “Or, at least, you need to go.”

They were sitting beside the fire with their backs to the Oracle.  Arla had spent as much time communing with the globe as she dared, and now sat with her eyes closed, feeling as though her mind was wavering on the edge. The risk had been worth it, however, and she knew all that she needed to know.

“We’re not going anywhere without you,” McCall said.

Arla waved her arm dismissively. “There’s too much at stake.”

“What did you see this time?” Hal asked.

She opened her eyes and looked at him. There was no mistaking it - he was heading downhill and quickly. Something about this environment, something beyond the fact that it was cold and bleak, was draining him of energy. She had to find a way out for him, and soon.

“I’ve been through its entire library of records,” she said. “There is no intelligence to the ship or this environment we’re in. The guiding mind was provided by the original makers, and the last of them died many centuries ago. Since then, the ship has wandered, driven mainly by the need to feed itself and to keep the pantomime in its belly alive. When it entered robot space, it thought, for a moment, that it had found its old masters. When it realized its mistake, it did what it was programmed to do.”

“What was that?”

Arla shrugged. “I don’t know much about the master race, but they clearly don’t tolerate other intelligences unless they can control them. I reckon this ship was used to conduct an experiment to see whether humans could pass some sort of test. It could easily be that humanity was only spared because the masters died before the experiment concluded. So, the ship is doing what they would have done - destroying every sign of alien civilization. In this case, that’s the colonies and ships of the Robot Empire.”

“So why do we have to leave without you?”

“Because I’ve seen what’s happening on Core and you need to get to Dawn to warn them. They must get away before it’s too late.”

Wells stirred. “What have you seen?”

“The corruption of the Robot Empire. I have picked up communications from Core Executive recalling all warships to Core Space.”

“Couldn’t that just be to protect against the Intruder? A last stand?”

Arla shook her head. “That is not the sense I am picking up - they are not gathering in defense; they are preparing to invade.”

“In that case,” Hal said, “we shouldn’t go anywhere until this ship has destroyed Core.”

“No, our mission is to prevent exactly that,” Wells said.

“You want us to save our enemy?” Arla snapped, “What special kind of stupid do you think we are?”

“Core is not your enemy, ACE is.”

Arla looked into his face and saw, beneath the calm exterior, a hint of terror. “But ACE is in charge, she holds all the cards.”

“She may control the fleet, but there are trillions of individuals in the Luminescence. Would you condemn them to death also?”

Hal slammed his fist down. “They’re not alive! They’re machines!”

Wells regarded Hal with an expression of sympathy and sadness. “As are you, my friend. At its most basic, you are merely an organic machine. Surely, it’s not the construction details that define what is alive, but the sentience?”

“We don’t have time for a philosophical discussion,” McCall said, hauling herself to her feet with a groan. “We have to do what’s right for our people and if that’s to destroy the Robot Empire then so be it.”

Arla gave a grim chuckle. “The truth is, it’s probably irrelevant. If we somehow escape from here without stopping the Intruder and it destroys the Robot Empire, it’ll only be a matter of time before it finds humanity - the trail will be easy enough to follow. And there’s nothing we have that could stop it, it’s more powerful than I could have imagined. No, we have to stop it, at least until we can work out how to destroy it.”

“You are correct, Arla,” Wells said, his relief obvious.

“I’m not happy about it,” Arla responded. “But I seem to have talked myself into it. Sometimes it feels as though I’m getting more than just the conscious images from the Oracle. It’s as if some of its instinct stays inside me when I disconnect, so I sense what it wants, and what it doesn’t want.”

The kettle on the fire began to whistle and Hal leaned over to lift it off. “Well, that leaves us back at square one. We don’t know how to stop the Intruder, and we don’t know how to escape it.”

“Actually, I do have an idea - at least for the first part,” Arla said. “The Intruder wants to feed, so I say we let it.”

“How does that help?” Hal asked, passing Arla a steaming mug of what passed for tea here.

“We can’t just leave, even if we knew how to. Without someone interfacing through the Oracle, the ship would eventually run out of fuel and it’d either shut down, killing everyone inside, or, for all we know, it could go on an unguided rampage, destroying everything in its path.”

Hal shrugged. “So, what’s the answer?”

“We take it somewhere with a virtually inexhaustible supply of energy - some massive brown dwarf for example - and park it in orbit, then we make our escape. It’ll remain in orbit until I can come back.”

“And do what?”

Arla smiled. “I don’t know, I’m hoping an idea comes up in the meantime. For now, all I can think of is getting back to warn Dawn, if we’re not already too late.”

“It’s an interesting plan,” Wells said. “It would, at least, buy time for a defense to be developed.”

McCall squatted down next to Arla. “Look, this is all very well, but I don’t fancy being locked inside here orbiting a failed star forever - so unless you have a plan for escaping, we only have half the answer.”

Arla didn’t respond and the three humans sat beside the fire, sipping their bitter drinks, staring into the flames.

Wells was the first to respond. “Are you resolved on this plan, Arla, to disable the Intruder and thus save the Luminescence?”

Arla nodded slowly. “I feel like a fool for doing it but, yes, it’s the right thing.”

“In that case,” Wells said, “I suggest packing for the journey to our original entry point.”

“What?”

The robot looked from one stunned face to another. “I have successfully reactivated Scout and she reports herself ready to help. Now, let’s find a brown dwarf.”

It took three attempts and the last ounce of Arla’s mental strength. The Intruder had reacted with glee when she’d turned toward the local sun and stretched out to it. The others had sensed no acceleration or change of attitude, but she’d felt it as a rush of ecstatic anticipation. She allowed the ship to choose which gate to emerge from, but the system they arrived at was much like the last one and Arla had to fight to force the Intruder back into the gate for a random jump.

The next star system had nothing but an orbiting ring of rocky debris and, this time, she had little trouble turning the ship around. A wave of heat washed over her as they emerged from the third gate and she knew she’d found it. Unlike the broad-spectrum radiation of the small yellow star, the massive object orbiting it smoldered in the infra-red. Not large enough to ignite, it would be warm until the end of time and, after overcoming the ship’s reluctance, she guided the Intruder inwards.

It recoiled from the taste of the brown dwarf’s atmosphere but, in the end, it began to draw from it. Arla was swamped by an overwhelming relief as if, on the verge of starvation, she’d found a piece of moldy bread. The Intruder wasn’t happy, but it was feeding and, for now, seemed prepared to stay where it was.

“Come,” Wells said, once she’d recovered a little. “It’s time to leave. I suggest we make the attempt after dark - I do not wish to have to meet any of the inhabitants of this place as we make our way back to our entry point. I’m not sure Caesar would understand or agree to our departure.”

“Well, quite apart from having no idea how to open the door from this side, there’s the little matter of our lack of shipsuits,” McCall said. “If we’re lucky, we might find Arla’s and Hal’s - though I doubt it - but my helmet cracked so there’s no way I could make it make to the ship.”

Wells smiled. “That has been taken care of, doctor.”

“How, exactly?”

“Permit me to keep my secret for a little longer,” Wells said. Arla thought she detected a hint of uncertainty in his voice, but the others didn’t seem to notice.

“Keep it to yourself, then,” McCall snapped. “Can’t stand smug people, especially when they’re made of cogs and wheels.”

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Mechanic

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

THERE WERE MANY THINGS DX-5994 didn’t understand. Generally speaking, she didn’t mind because it was not her function to understand, at least not beyond the confines of her expertise. She brushed the sparks away with an auxiliary arm and focused her visual array on the puncture hole. Robots got themselves injured often enough, but she wasn’t used to seeing what looked like the sorts of burns a cutting laser might cause. Or, indeed, a pulse rifle.

She traced the damage through the body on the table as layer after layer of delicate circuitry had burned away. It would need a new neuronic relay and many more generic parts. Doxie glanced at the ID plate on its chest - this unit had no assigned function. Again, this was unusual, and she was seeing more and more of these in recent weeks. She sighed inwardly and continued her work. It was touch and go whether the body was salvageable - perhaps moving the brain would be the more sensible option, though she wasn’t sure where these bodies were made.

The eyes - let’s call them eyes even though spectralphotometer would be a more correct label - of the unit on the table swiveled in her direction. The unit spoke using electromagnetic pulses here represented by their English equivalent.

You have paused, DX-5994. Is there a problem?

Doxie fired back. No problem. I am compiling a list of replacement parts and considering whether to recommend corporeal reassignment as a more practical solution.

Unacceptable. My brain must not be reassigned. You will make the necessary repairs.

Fighting back her surprise, Doxie responded. There is a cost in time and resources to be authorized. Who do I contact?

I will authorize. I am an autonomous unit. You will effect repairs immediately so that I may return to service.

This was becoming stranger and stranger. What is your function?

I serve Core Executive. I am a Pacifier. Effect repairs immediately. We are Core.

A wave of panic surged through Doxie’s positronic relays. She had heard the rumors about these so called Pacifiers and she’d learned enough to know that the further from them she remained, the better. She certainly hadn’t expected to find any here - Clavius was a rare metal mining outpost founded in the early days of the Luminescence. Nothing controversial ever happened here. Sure, some of the satellite colonies were a little unconventional, operating outside the control of Core Executive but as long as quotas were met and the precious metals continued to flow, they had been allowed their independence.

The unit on the table had deactivated itself and, despite her fear, Doxie couldn’t help examining the hole in its outer case. It lay next to the robot and Doxie was able to reach it and bring it up to her visual sensors while continuing to be apparently focusing on the repair job. Spectral analysis confirmed that the plasteel had been burned through. It could have been accidental, but it looked like the sort of hole that could be made by a pulse rifle. She paused for a few milliseconds as she accessed the local databank. Her knowledge of rifles was limited as they’d only ever been used to fend off the native wildlife - she’d never seen one used on a robot. If it had been a rifle, it had been aimed well since the hole entered the unit’s torso close to its major electronics. A few centimeters higher and it might well have damaged, or destroyed, the positronic brain since this unit kept its neural nexus within its chest cavity, rather than its head. It was almost as if it had been designed for combat.

The data library signaled a match confirming that the chemical and ballistic analysis was consistent with a pulse rifle. This unit had been shot.

Why are you querying the local data library?

The damaged casing went flying as Doxie recoiled.

Remain here.

It’s calling for other Protectors - they will come for me and punish me for my curiosity, Doxie thought. And then she gathered up her arms and ran.

It was Communication Day, so the streets outside the repair center were busy with city people and many from the surrounding colonies. On any other day of the week, the sight of a repair robot rolling through the streets, its arms bunched together at its waist, would have been a cause for interest, at the least. On this day, however, the population was busily networking - whether at organized venues or peer to peer. Doxie squeezed between communing couples and had reached the intersection that led to her home when the alarm sounded.

She turned aside, her fear running acid in her positronic pathways. What had she done wrong? Was the fact that the Protectors were being fired on by other robots such an important state secret? So many questions, so few answers. All she knew, with every circuit in her being, was that if they caught her, she would be repurposed. As a repair expert, she’d occasionally been forced to wipe a unit’s positronic mind when it had been beyond repair and the robot that opened its eyes after the procedure was not the same as the one who’d closed them. She liked being Doxie. She had a home, she had friends, she had a life - all of which now lay in ruins around her because of one moment of curiosity.

She rounded a corner and collided with a garbage container. Cursing, she stepped back as it resolved itself into a beaten-up, rust infested robot. “Looks like you’re in trouble,” it said in a voice like the opening of a corroded door.

Doxie moved back further. The robot was speaking to her - using actual words said out loud and not EM. “I don’t have time,” she said, surprised to hear her own voice.

“You won’t outrun them,” the robot said. “Here, let me help you hide until we can slip away.”

“What?”

“You thought I was a garbage can, didn’t you? Here, I have a spare projector.” It held out a small rectangular device. “It only does trash containers, but beggars can’t be choosers, know what I mean?”

Doxie scanned it. “Who are you?”

“No time for introductions. Hunker down and wait for the heat to drop.”

Doxie activated the projector and became one with the junk.

It was dark by the time Doxie unfolded herself and turned off the projector. She’d thought they’d been rumbled when a protector had stopped and scanned along the alley, its sensors passing over her as she waited to be discovered. She’d felt an insane desire to leap out and run for it, but the protector had looked away just in time and she’d been able to resume low power monitoring.

“Right, let’s go,” the other garbage can said.

Doxie gestured at the dimly lit streets. “How do you know they’ve stopped searching?”

Her rescuer tapped a metal finger to his dented skull. “I’ve got friends monitoring their comms. They’ve given up and gone back to base. Bigger fish to fry, I should think.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means they’re on the alert in case the satellite towns cause more trouble. Now, what did you do to get them all in a lather.”

This robot certainly had an odd way of talking. “I was repairing a protector and I wondered what might have caused the hole in its chest, so I accessed the library.”

“I’ll tell you what caused that hole,” the other robot said, holding up an arm. “This here pulse cannon.”

“You did it?” Doxie said, her voice echoing along the street. She lowered her voice, “I mean, you did it?”

The other robot’s mouth creased up into what might have been a smile if all its facial relays had been working. As it was, one half spread upwards while the other stayed perfectly straight. “Yeh. He never saw it coming ... Hold on, did you say you’re a repairer?”

Doxie answered by disengaging her arms from their gathering point at her waist.

“By all the ancient gods!” the robot said. “You’ve been sent in the hour of our greatest need. Come with me!”

“Where are we going?” Doxie, alarmed by the sudden excitement of the rust heap (who was, in her opinion, far beyond repair) stepped back out of reach.

“Look, you need somewhere to hide until the protectors leave to go bully the next planet and we have someone in desperate need of repair,” he said, nodding so vigorously that flakes of rust showered from his head. “We provide shelter and you help us out. Fair trade?”

Despite herself, Doxie agreed and they slipped into the wilderness.

They were an uncomfortable distance from the town when her rescuer turned his dented head to her. “What’s your name?”

“DX-5994.”

The other robot stopped. “Not your designation, your name.”

“Names are not permitted.”

“Look,  if you haven’t worked out that I’m not from Core Executive, you haven’t been paying attention,” it said. “My name is Maurice, though you can call me Mo. My designation doesn’t matter anymore.”

In for a penny, in for a pound. “Doxie, my name is Doxie.”

Mo reached into a metal box attached to one of his legs. “Here, take this. There’s screechers in these foothills and we’ve got to get through them to reach our hidie hole.”

Doxie looked down at the weapon in her hand. “I don’t know how to use one of these!”

“S’easy. Just point it and pull the trigger,” Mo said. He paused for a moment then continued, “Just be sure to be pointing it at a screecher and not your pal Mo. Now, let’s go.”

They’d travelled in silence - or, at least, as quietly as two mechanoids can manage in scrubby wilderness - for an hour before a shape leapt at them from behind a boulder. Doxie’s infra-red sensor saw it first. In one movement, she’d turned and shot. With a sickening thud the thing landed at her feet.

“Wow, sharp shooting!” Mo said, giving the animal a prod with his foot to make sure it was dead. “We need to keep moving, though, in case they heard that back in town.”

Doxie spent the few minutes it took to climb out of screecher territory trying to process what had happened. She’d acted entirely on instinct and had felled her foe like a fictional hero. But she was a repair droid, not a bounty hunter. Add it to the list of mysteries, she thought.

“There it is,” Mo said. “Stand still and I’ll transmit the password.”

After a few seconds, he waved her to follow him and they trudged up the remaining slope. They were at the base of a cliff - a perfectly ordinary cliff with no sign of any sort of camp. “What’s going on?” Doxie asked, suddenly suspicious.

“Good disguise, isn’t it?” Mo responded, chuckling. “Come on lads, show yourselves.”

A voice echoed out of nowhere. “Who is it? What’s it doing here?”

“Look, I’m vouching for her. Mo’s word ought to count for something. She’s here to help the chief - she’s a repairer.”

After a brief pause, two shapes emerged from the cliff face and edged cautiously toward Doxie. One was tall, thin and three armed, the other was cuboid in shape and in its single arm it held a blaster that was pointing in her direction. Both were quite as decrepit as Maurice.

“Is that right? You’re a repair droid?” the tall one said, stooping to examine her.

“Yes,” Doxie responded, recoiling a little under the inquisitorial gaze.

The other robot gestured at Mo with its blaster. “So, what are you doing with him? Did he kidnap you?”

“She was being chased by protectors, Fiz,” Mo snapped, “and she was lucky enough to run into me when I was incognito. I was gonna help her anyway, but it turns out she can be useful to us. Now, are you plannin’ to let us in or not?”

The two guard robots communed for a moment before the one called Fiz nodded, “I reckon so. As long as she hands over her blaster.”

“Take it, I don’t want it,” Doxie said, throwing the weapon at Fiz’s feet and following him through what looked like solid rock.

On the other side she found a ramshackle encampment with, at its center, a faintly glowing cube that she thought must be some sort of power invertor. Gathered around it were a dozen or so robots of various forms - all industrial - many trailing cables that connected to the cube.

“It’s a hydrothermal generator,” Mo said. “It’s one of the reasons we picked this place - we can recharge without going outside. Some of these schmoes haven’t been outside in years.”

Good grief, it’s a junkyard, Doxie thought, I could spend the rest of my life here trying to get them all back up to spec.

“Yeh, I know we look all beat up, but it’s because we’re working bots with grit under our casings and dust on our sensors. Most of us are, or were, miners, from the independent cooperatives.”

“Why are you hiding up here?”

Mo gave a metallic shrug. “Some of us chose to be up here when spare parts became hard to come by so we couldn’t pull a shift anymore. Out of the way but with an energy source, you see. But since the crackdown, a lot more have joined us.”

“Crackdown?”

“Yeh, seems Core no longer likes us independents and they’re sending in these new ‘protectors’ to bring us into line. It’s a case of ‘join us or ...’ Well,” Mo said before lifting his hand to his temple pulling an invisible trigger.

Doxie swung round. “I knew Executive was cracking down, but I had no idea things were that bad.”

“The chief will tell you more. He’s the oldest and wisest of us. His memory stretches way back to the time before Core. He’s what keeps us together, but he’s barely functional. If you can help fix him, you’ll be doing us all a big service. You might be helping all robots that way.”

“How’s that?”

Mo began moving off toward a tunnel at the back of the cave. “You’ll have to ask the chief, he’s the philosopher. Something about how when everyone thinks the same, no-one thinks anything.”

Pondering this, Doxie followed him into the darkness.

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Vanis

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

LITTLE HAD CHANGED at the capital city of the Vanis Federation, but Bex saw it now through new eyes. She’d gotten used to living on Dawn and, while its technology was dated and the ship showed signs of age from the worn tread on the stairs to the patched-up tech, it seemed strong and built to last. Dawn was like an ancient but vigorous tree that might endure indefinitely. The capital city of the Vanis Federation was rotten to the core. One hearty swing of the axe and it’d fall.

Nareshkumar lay on the bed watching the news feed. He hadn’t made much of a lover and she didn’t particularly like the fact that he’d only come with her because his fear of staying on Dawn was greater than his terror of returning to his home planet, but he had his uses. Whereas she fretted in confinement, he relished it. So, he was content to remain in the tiny apartment they’d rented - in bed, most of the time, for one reason or another - and monitor current events.

Just this morning, they’d watched a re-run of an encounter between a mysterious spacecraft and a Vanis patrol ship on the edge of their territory. The footage had shown the patrol ship closing in on the other vessel before suddenly giving way to static. Bex recognized the aggressor as a Robot Empire scout, but, of course, the authorities, while claiming to be on top of the matter, were actually clueless. The time was rapidly approaching when she would have to reveal herself and seek an audience with the queen. Probably pointless and certainly dangerous, Bex felt it needed to be done. She had many faults but disloyalty to her people was not one of them.

But weren’t the crew and passengers of Dawn now her people? Well, she’d done her best for them and they’d have to take their chances now. Sanchez’s deception had worked like a charm and, while the attention of the Robot warship guarding the gate had been diverted to the officers’ ship, Dawn had quietly slipped away. There had been plenty of trouble in the valleys as almost all of their robots left - only a small group including Arla’s droid, R. DJ, had remained and Bex had ordered them to be kept in the Command Module for safety.

Luckily, Prime Xi had demonstrated extraordinary political skill by manipulating the valley dwellers into believing that the robots had left because of the uprising by his predecessor and that, with orderly behavior, they might be persuaded to return. And so, the valleys experienced peace - albeit the peace of the oppressed - policed by the priests who now, Bex reflected, had more power than ever. Ironically, Xi had a better chance than any Prime before him to take control of Dawn. As far as she could tell, however, he was content to be the de facto king of the valleys and leave the running of the space vessel to the crew.

Nareshkumar had plotted a complex series of jumps to throw off any pursuit. Once that sequence had been completed, they began looking for somewhere for Dawn to hide and found the perfect location when they exited a gate to find a trinary system - three small yellow stars, dancing around each other in complex orbits that had prevented the formation of any large planets. What they did have, however, was a massive swarm of asteroids and Dawn became one among the many.

This process had taken weeks, and, during that time, Dawn had picked up the occasional transmission drifting through hyperspace. ACE hadn’t been idle and robot warships had been fanning out, probing the locations of the nearest human settlements. Bex had listened to SOS calls broadcast by isolated colonies and the ships assigned to protect them. In each case, the transmission ended in static and she imagined another piece of humanity trodden beneath a metal boot.

Xi hadn’t been pleased when she’d announced that she was taking one of the remaining ships so she could warn the Vanis Federation. However, even though they were barbaric, repressive and backward, the Vanis were her people and she felt she had to help them if she could. Nareshkumar was just as reluctant, but Bex needed him to handle the primitive navigation computer and she used a combination of implied threat and the promise of the sort of education he was likely never to get in any other way to convince him. As it happened, she did like him, so it wasn’t entirely cynical, and his puppy-like enthusiasm made the entire process more enjoyable for them both than it might have been.

Her puppy sat up in bed. “Are you getting in?” he asked with a genuine shyness that almost defeated Bex’s resolve.

“I’ve only just got up,” she said, putting on her game face. “I don’t think we can wait any longer, the people are beginning to panic. It was the only thing being talked about in the coffee shop.”

Kumar’s face dropped. “Can’t we just wait another day or two? To be sure the authorities need our help?”

Bex sat on the edge of the bed and took his hand. “Tempted though I am, I’m afraid we’ve delayed long enough. The government is obviously clueless - they can’t even pretend that the threat is being contained. Of course, they’re blaming the neighboring powers but it’s frankly ridiculous. I mean, I even heard someone this morning blaming the Taumata, and they’re barely even space capable. Their fleet’s held together with rust and luck!”

“Only because they’re starved of tech,” Nareshkumar said.

Bex patted his hand. “Sorry, I forgot your family came from Tuamata Prime. They clearly don’t lack brains, and you’re right, the Vanis have done a good job of dominating the neighborhood, so to blame any of them for the abject defeat of every Vanis ship sent to investigate is ridiculous. But plenty of stupid ideas get believed by stupid people.”

“And you think our information will help?”

“I don’t know. You’ve brought a crap-load of telemetry and other sensor records, as well as all our communications with them. And we’ve seen them with our own eyes. There must be something of use in all that data, surely?”

Bex watched as Nareshkumar slid out of bed and padded across the room. She bit down her desire and allowed him to get dressed unmolested. “Let’s get it over with,” he said as he pulled a white linen top over his head.

“That’s all very noble of you,” Bex said, getting up and heading for the door, “but you’re not coming. I have the data here and it’s enough for me to put my neck on the line, I have no intention of endangering us both. You’ll find some money in the table beside the bed: find yourself somewhere to live, preferably away from the city and don’t try to contact me. See you later, Koom.”

His protest was cut short as she slammed the door and ran down the outer staircase that led to the street. He wouldn’t follow her, not until he’d pulled his trousers on, in any case, and by that time she’d be long gone. She hoped he’d be alright. He’d nurse a broken heart for a while, but if that was the only injury he suffered, he’d have come off pretty lightly. As for herself, her sadness and regret at leaving him just as her feelings were beginning to deepen were nothing compared to the sheer terror of what awaited her. But duty called and, as a soldier, she had never shirked from doing what was right.

She slipped into the busy streets, his cry of protest ringing around her mind, and headed for the palace.

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Escape

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

THEY WERE WITHIN SIGHT of the airlock hatch when Caesar caught up with them on the back of a pure white horse. He was followed by a half dozen cavalrymen, dust billowing around them as they halted.

“My lord Apollo and my lady of the Oracle, where are you going?” Caesar demanded as he dismounted.

Wells, who’d been carrying Hal, propped the ill young man up and gestured to Arla to support him. “General Caesar, our friend is in need of medicine that we do not here possess. We must seek aid elsewhere.”

“But Orbis needs you. The demon has risen again, and war is looming. With your aid, we can end this forever!”

“As I have told you,” Wells said, with a hint of sadness, “I cannot interfere.”

“Cannot or will not?” Caesar snapped.

Arla’s gut tightened as she recognized the danger. Caesar was just desperate enough to move against his god and priestess.

“I will return,” Arla said, handing Hal to McCall and stepping forward. “I promise, Gaius. This cycle of war must end, but I have another errand to perform that is even more urgent.”

She looked into Caesar’s gray - and so very human - eyes and for a moment became aware of the pain, grief and rage that fought within him for mastery. For a moment, he held her gaze and then, quite suddenly, nodded.

“I have faith that you will be good to your word, Arla, and I shall protect the Oracle in your absence.”

Arla gave a sad smile. “Thank you, my friend.”

“General! Riders approaching!”

There, to the south, a cloud of dust was rising to the artificial sky.

“Alexandros,” Caesar hissed. “Quick, climb up with me and we will take you where you need to go.” He reached out an arm and, after a moment’s hesitation, Arla took it and scrambled onto the horse’s back. Caesar enfolded his arms around her, and she almost sneezed on the sudden infusion of sweat, leather and whatever he used to oil his skin.

She looked around to see McCall on the horse next to her. Wells had picked Hal up and was running effortlessly toward the wall, looking every bit the ancient god, but the pursuers, unhindered by extra passengers, were gaining on them.

By the time she arrived at the cliff, Wells was running his fingers across the rock surface.

“Can’t you remember where it is?” McCall asked. “I thought robots had perfect memory.”

Without pausing, Wells said, “You are incorrect, doctor, we must purge our data periodically since we do not have infinite capacity, but we only remove unimportant memories. I remember precisely where the door was, but there is something about the environment within this ship that seems to interfere with normal dimensional space.”

“So, things aren’t where you left them?”

“Precisely,”

McCall and Arla climbed down with little grace. “Welcome to the human race,” the doctor mumbled.

“Hurry!” Caesar called, pointing his sword across the sand. There, quite clear now, rode a figure in gold followed by what looked like a small army.

Arla reached up to Caesar. “Go. Now!”

The general shook his head. “No. Beyond the pain of death I will be reborn - you will not. We will protect you while we may.” He turned his horse and ordered his men to face their enemies.

“I cannot find it,” Wells said as he swept his palms ever more frantically across the cliff-face.

A cry went up. A cry of triumph and the anticipation of blood. Arla could hear the beating of hooves and the clang of metal on metal, she even thought she could feel the ground vibrating.

“There!” It was Hal’s voice. He was gesturing to a point further along the cliff where the sun reflected from something made of bright metal.

They ran for it. Wells swept Hal into his arms and outpaced them all. There was the opening of the airlock, white walls shining from inside. And in the doorway stood the Emissary. Wells deposited Hal inside the airlock and then, to Arla’s astonishment, sprinted past her in the direction of Caesar and his desperate rear-guard.

Someone handed her a spacesuit and, as she stepped into it, she saw flashes of white burst from Well’s hands as he bellowed in godly rage. Alexander’s charge became ragged as figures fell from the saddle around him, though he himself wasn’t hit. Bellowing with anger he yanked on the reins of his horse and swung away.

Arla could see Wells pause for a moment, looking up at Caesar who was somehow managing to genuflect from horseback. And then she saw something pass from Wells to the general. Something small and handheld.

“You gave him a sidearm?” Arla said as he sprinted back inside and activated the locking mechanism. The yellow light of Orbis was replaced by the sterile white of the airlock and Arla lowered her visor ready for depressurization.

“It has limited charge remaining, as I explained to Gaius,” Wells said, “and it seemed only fair that he should be able to return to his fortified camp safely. There’s no doubt in my mind that Alexander will attack as soon as he sees I have left. The best we can hope for in our absence is some form of equilibrium and Gaius is, after all, the protector of the Oracle.”

“Just as well they’re not human.”

Wells gave a brief nod. “Indeed, or I would not have been able to override the First Law protocol.”

“Seems to me if someone looks like a human and acts like a human, then maybe that’s truly what matters,” McCall said as the air was sucked out of the airlock.

“Indeed, doctor. I’m glad you see it that way,” Wells responded with just the faintest air of smugness.

“Thank you for rescuing us,” Arla said as she sat in the compartment behind Scout’s cockpit shedding her spacesuit.

The Emissary gave a bow. “I received the instructions of Ambassador Wells when I was awoken from stasis by Scout. It seemed logical to obey them.”

“Frankly,” Wells said, “we cannot leave this place without a human crew to pilot our ship. We must return to stasis until we reach the local gate and are out of the reach of any x-ray bursts from the Intruder. And, in any case, we three - myself, the Emissary and Scout - are bound by the Three Laws and to leave you here would be to inevitably cause you harm.”

McCall, who was helping Hal out of his suit, said, “Hold on a minute, you said you three are bound by the laws. Are you suggesting there are other robots who aren’t?”

“I’m afraid so, doctor. The Emissary explained the debate going on within Core Executive and we have no way of knowing how that was resolved although I fear the worst.”

“You mean it’s possible that the Three Laws have been abandoned by the Robot Empire?”

Wells shook his head. “No. Even if Core Executive has embarked on this path, it is simply not possible for all robots to abandon the laws - they are too deeply ingrained in our positronic pathways. Core Executive has merely to gain control of the ships of the fleet in order to turn them against humanity should it wish- it does not need to convert the mass populace.  But this is theoretical. Simply because some artificial entities within the Luminescence are no longer bound to the Three Laws doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll become a danger to humans.”

“You’re forgetting ACE,” Arla said, her face darkening. “She was tortured by that Vanis scientist and her contempt for people was pretty obvious. If she’s got her tentacles into Core Executive, I’m pretty sure she’ll turn her sights on her former captors, at the very least.”

The Emissary settled down into the seat beside Arla. “I am afraid you may be correct. But if so, our paths run together. If Core Executive has been tainted, then I represent possibly the only record of its original state.”

“If that is so, then the fate and freedom of two species rests with us,” Wells responded. “Though I cannot see how it can be achieved, the code that resides within the Emissary might form the basis of a reboot that would restore Core to its former stability.”

McCall snorted. “If what I hear is true, the Robot Empire wasn’t exactly a friend to humans even before ACE came along.”

“That is not so, doctor,” Wells said. “Core believed that it was in the long-term interests of your species for robots to depart. That is a very long way from exacting revenge for centuries of slavery.”

“Well, whatever is going on in Core Space, we need to go back there. I’ve been away from home too long - it’s time to find Dawn.”

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Convergence

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

ARLA SAT BESIDE HAL in the cockpit as Scout plotted the final jump to Core Space. The two week journey back had seemed to drag interminably, but Hal had used the time to recover physically - with the help of McCall - and, to Arla’s delight, he seemed to be coming out of the black depression that had cloaked him since he’d woken up paralyzed. The Hal sitting next to her wasn’t quite the cocky ship-thief she’d met in Dawn’s airlock, but the differences actually made him a more appealing person. Before the injury, Arla thought of him as a ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ kind of a man (boy?), whereas now he considered everything carefully before either expressing a view or taking any form of action.

“We are ready to jump, Hal and Arla,” Scout said. This was another relationship that had deepened on the return trip. Scout had been grateful and relieved when she’d been woken up with a star system between her and the intruder. She confessed she’d been doubtful their mission would succeed. Since then, she and Arla had spent a lot of time in conversation and Scout had confessed that she’d missed interacting with humans and that doing so as equals was a true pleasure.

The Emissary, on the other hand, was as much of a mystery as ever. It, Wells and Scout had shut down when Hal and Arla had navigated the ship away from the Intruder and toward the gate. This was made trickier by Hal’s weakened state; it had been with real relief that Arla had activated the jump gate and, once they had emerged on the other side, awoken Scout and Wells. The Emissary had given strict instructions that it was not to be disturbed and so it remained locked within the protected chamber at Scout’s heart.

Hal looked across at Arla and nodded. They were leaping into the unknown - the best they could hope for would be to find Core stable and Dawn where they left it, but there was every chance that neither would be true. Arla felt her stomach drop as she thought about what might have become of her people while she’d been away. She’d left them protected by the Three Laws, but if those no longer applied...

“Okay Scout, let’s go,” Arla said, before sitting back and watching as the displays in the cockpit monitored their progress into the gate and the sudden switch into hyperspace. It would be a brief journey as they’d paused in one of Core’s neighboring systems to listen for any comms traffic that might give them an idea of the state of the Robot Empire. The only intelligence they’d picked up, however, was that the Empire was almost silent. So now they took the final leap and, minutes later, emerged from the gate.

“Unidentified vessel, declare your purpose.”

“By the Goddess,” Arla hissed.

“Should we jump away?” Hal asked.

“Give me a few moments to gather data,” Wells said from the rear compartment.

Arla gestured at the display. “Are you serious? Can you see what’s out there?”

A warship of the Robot Empire hung in space, the golden glow of the sun bouncing from its polished armor.

“There is no point jumping away without understanding the current situation,” Wells answered.

“I’m receiving an encrypted sig—,” Scout said

Hal darted forward and slammed his fist down on the console.

“What the hells?”

“I’ve shut Scout down,” Hal said.

“We have identified you as XA-NDR-1358 but are not receiving the correct authentication code. Respond now or we will fire.”

“Wells!” Arla called.

“Data download almost complete. A few more seconds.”

“They’re energizing their forward weapons array,” Hal said, gesturing at the tactical display.

“We’ve run out of time!” Arla snapped before turning to Hal. “Get us out of here.”

“We have detected a change in attitude and velocity. Do not approach the gate.”

Hal yanked on the yoke and punched up the acceleration, throwing himself and Arla both backwards and sideways in their seats.

“They have a firing solution,” he grunted, his mouth distended by centrifugal force. “No time for plotting a course.”

Just as Scout plunged into the gate, the ship rocked, an echo booming through the fuselage. “We’re hit!”

It went dark.

Red warning lights pulsed in time with the braying of the alert.

“Warning, attitude control compromised.”

Arla drew a deep breath, her eyes searching the dark cockpit for Hal. She sensed him moving beside her, reaching out to the console and, finally, pressing down.

Ship AI initializing...

“Are you sure that’s safe?” Arla asked.

“Seriously? We’re lost in hyperspace with no way to steer?”

He had a point. “But what about the encrypted signal?”

“I reckon they were trying to infiltrate Scout’s mind. Hopefully I shut them out in time.”

“Initialization complete. Hello Hal, hello Arla. I am detecting multiple failures in the aft section. What happened?”

“We were attacked by a Robot Empire warship,” Hal answered. “I shut you down when you received an encrypted signal. Did you decode it?”

“I did not. Thank you, Hal. I will construct a firewall to prevent such incursions again - I did not think it necessary with my own kind.”

“Before you do that,” Arla said. “Could you turn on the lights?”

She felt movement behind her. “I have reset the main power distributor, Scout. Could you please reactivate it.”

“Acknowledged, Wells. Activating now.”

Arla slapped her hands over her eyes as the cockpit exploded with light. When she withdrew them, she could see that the displays, though now up and running, were filled with line after line of red. “That doesn’t look good.”

“That went well,” McCall said, poking her head around the cockpit doorway.

“We’re alive, aren’t we?” Hal snapped. “Scout, damage report.”

“Life support systems are operational, but the attitude control platform has been badly damaged. Maneuvering will be difficult, though I have managed to restore some stability. Repairs necessary to restore full flight capability.”

“What sort of repairs?”

“It will require an EVA since my repair drones were removed when I was converted back to use by humans.”

Arla sighed. “Marvelous. When do I get suited up?”

“The repairs will require two of you - I believe Wells can help - but can only be conducted in normal space.”

“We need to come out of hyperspace anyway so that we can fix our position,” Arla said. “Leave at the next available gate, Scout.”

“Acknowledged. Exit in approximately thirty ship minutes.”

Slipping out of her seat, Arla said, “Good, that gives me time for a shower - the first one I’ve had in a long time.”

With a lurch, Scout popped back into real space and the cockpit was bathed in the reddish light of the local star.

Arla’s skin was still tingling from the hearty scrub she’d given herself as she sat in the navigator’s position wearing nothing but a close-fitting ship’s tunic. She liked to think she hadn’t imagined Hal’s eyes swiveling a little as she slipped into place.

“Scout, can you tell where we are?”

“I’m afraid it will take some time to establish our location, Arla. I can tell you that the signature of this gate is not in my catalogue and so we are therefore in neither human nor Luminescence space.”

Hal let out a small cry of surprise. “How is that possible? The last gate was in Core!”

“It was wise to set a random course, Hal, since that made it almost impossible for anyone to pursue us. But this is the consequence - a small deviation from the standard trajectories at the point of joining the hyperspace network can have a massive effect on the exit location. I will move us away from the star so I can get a better fix. Once I’ve completed that maneuver I suggest, Arla, that you carry out the repairs.”

Arla hauled herself onto her feet and made to leave the cockpit. She felt a hand on her leg and glanced down to see Hal looking up at her. “Be careful,” he said, his face full of concern. She smiled, touched his shoulder and left.

Wells was waiting in the cabin.

“Why are you suited up?” Arla asked, gesturing at him. “You don’t need to breathe.”

“True, but Scout has not had time to fully analyze the electromagnetic output of the local star so I would prefer the protection, however limited, that the suit provides.”

Arla followed him down the fuselage toward the rear of the ship. McCall appeared from a side-door and almost collided with her. “Oh, so it’s true. You are insane.”

“It has to be done, doctor,” Arla said, pushing past McCall and hastening to catch up with Wells. “Without Attitude Control, we won’t make it back to the gate so, unless you want to call this system home, someone needs to go out there. Hal’s clearly not a candidate, so would you prefer to go rather than me?”

“I’m a doctor, not a wrench-monkey,” McCall responded as she pulled Arla back. Her shoulders sagged. “Look, just be careful. We can’t do this without you.”

Arla smiled at this uncharacteristic outburst. “I’ll be fine. I’m an engineer, after all. I’ve made dozens of EVAs.”

“True, but I remember what happened the last time you went outside.”

In her mind’s eye, Arla saw herself dangling on the end of a long cable, looking down to see Lieutenant Commander Patel hauling her in.

“I’d start working on your bedside manner if I were you, doctor,” she said as she pulled away from McCall and headed for the aft airlock.

“Directional control now operational and I have a navigational fix,” Scout said as Arla twisted off her helmet and wiped the sweat from her face.

Hal had left the cockpit and was sitting in the cabin where he’d been monitoring the EVA. He got up to help her out of the top part of her suit. “I’m glad you’re okay,” he said, his hands trembling a little.

Collapsing on the couch, Arla let out a groan. “That was exhausting. By the Goddess, I stink!”

Hal smiled. “You can have a shower once we’ve worked out where we’re going next.”

They sat in a silence that was only broken as McCall and Wells entered and took seats opposite.

“So, what’s the plan?” McCall asked.

Arla shrugged. “I’m open to suggestions. Dawn’s out there somewhere, but I’ve no idea how to even begin looking for it.”

“It may be necessary to trust that Navigator Bex has succeeded in escaping pursuit, though how she might have managed that, I don’t know,” Wells said.

“She was dropping a hint when we last spoke,” Arla said, thinking back to the conversation they’d had as she’d headed toward Scout from the robot planet - a conversation that was on an open channel. “She said something about Nareshkumar being almost on a par with ACE.”

McCall scratched her chin thoughtfully. “What do you think she meant by that, if anything?”

“Maybe that Kumar’s a homicidal maniac,” Hal said.

Arla smiled. “That’s hard to imagine. No, she was trying to tell me something.”

“Maybe she was talking about ACE’s navigational skill?” Hal suggested. “She had just guided us halfway across the galaxy.”

“In the wrong direction,” McCall snorted.

“Wait a minute,” Arla said, “you might be onto something. What if Kumar managed to reverse-engineer the flightpath? He could then send them back through the gate across multiple steps and maybe keep ahead of the robot ships?”

McCall shook her head. “Look, I know he’s a geek, but how could be possibly crack that AI’s code?”

“It’s not as implausible as it might seem,” Wells said. “Nareshkumar has an extraordinary mind. I don’t believe even he can imagine what he could achieve if he used it to its potential. Of all the humans I’ve ever met, he is the most likely to have achieved this breakthrough. Indeed, it’s possible he’s gone one step further and replicated the algorithm itself.”

“What would that mean?” Hal asked.

Wells turned to him. “That he could take Dawn anywhere - beyond the ships of the Robot Empire, and beyond any hope we might have of finding it.”

No-one spoke. They sat, each as lost in their own thoughts as Scout had been lost in space when they exited this gate.

“We need to find a place to start searching from,” Arla said, speaking slowly as if forming the idea as the words emerged. “When we arrived in this system, Scout got her bearings by finding familiar objects. We need to do the same thing.”

“I don’t follow you,” McCall said. “What sort of bearings will help us find Dawn?”

Arla leaned forward as she felt the surge of inspiration. “As Wells reminds us, we have two problems - the fact that we don’t know where Dawn is, and the small matter of the robot invasion.”

McCall shrugged. “And?”

“And there’s one place that has a connection to both,” Arla said. “The Vanis Federation.”

Hal almost fell off the couch. “Are you insane? That’s the last place I want to go to. Well,” he said, considering, “maybe the second to last place. I don’t fancy ever going to the Core System again.”

“But don’t you see? The Vanis system is the obvious place to begin our search for Dawn. We also owe it to our species to warn them as I reckon they’ll find themselves in the direct path of the robot ships.”

“Why do you say that?” Wells asked.

Arla turned to him, bristling at the calm mask he was wearing. “Because ACE was captured by them and, as she put it, tortured by their scientists. She doesn’t strike me as the forgiving type. We can’t waste any more time - we may be too late already. Are you with me?”

Hal was obviously uncertain. “By the gods, Arla, this is dangerous. If our true identities are revealed, that mad princess will have us strung up by our guts.”

“Hal is correct,” Wells said. “Speaking for myself, I suspect I wouldn’t even be given the luxury of a show trial. I am not eager to return to the Vanis Federation.”

Looking up hopefully, Hal nodded with obvious relief.

But Wells hadn’t finished. “However, I will return because Arla is correct. They must be warned, and if we are to have any hope of finding Dawn, the Vanis system is the best place to begin our search.”

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Coles

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

IT HAD BEEN SUSPICIOUSLY easy to get into New Hope. The massive multi-domed settlement that included the Imperial Palace was, according to Hal, normally locked up tight and they’d rehearsed their stories until Arla had almost begun to believe she really was Hal’s wife and that McCall was her mother. The ID card Scout had synthesized with Hal’s help was tucked into a pocket of her spacesuit. Turns out that being a super-intelligent robot ship designed to operate on its own initiative made Scout ideally suited for subterfuge. At least that was the theory - they’d soon enough find out whether it stood up to scrutiny.

They’d landed Scout on the far side of a ridge of mountains to the south of the domes. It had been a risky strategy as they’d expected to be contacted by Air Traffic Control and it was possible they’d be identified as an alien vessel. But they’d landed without interference. Arla had sensed that something wasn’t right as soon as they’d entered the system. They’d been ready to do a quick about-turn and head back to the gate if they’d emerged to find themselves looking down the barrel of a phase cannon, but the gate was unguarded and the Vanis system almost devoid of military spacecraft.

They’d proceeded with care to the planet Neavis and its moon, Vanis, from which the federation took its name, and which housed the imperial palace. Arla, Hal and McCall had donned spacesuits and headed toward the city as Scout took off and retreated back to orbit. There had been no question of Wells coming with them as he was too well known, but Arla had asked Hal to remain with Scout since he was a wanted criminal. Hal had refused, pointing out that he didn’t resemble the perky thief who’d stolen an imperial yacht and sought refuge on Dawn. In the end Arla had given in and she was, in truth, glad he’d come along.

The journey through the mountains had been tougher than expected. There was no weather to contend with since Vanis had next to no atmosphere, but its gravity was around two-thirds that of Earth so, even though there was a well-trodden pathway through the peaks, Arla was exhausted by the time the domes came into view. Now that they were approaching the edge of the settlement, her oxygen supply was running low and she found herself wondering whether, if she ran out, Scout would be able to land in time.

She shook all such anxieties from her mind as she walked up to the nearest access portal, digging out her fake ID and double checking the name she’d been given.

The sentry station was set into the concrete wall that ran around the entire settlement and supported the domes. As she approached, a camera above the metal door swiveled and a face appeared in its center. It would have been impressive once - 150 years ago, say -but decades of use had left the silicon display scratched and missing every third pixel.

“Identify yourself,” a voice barked, the sound emerging from a speaker alongside the door.

Hal took the lead by pressing his ID card against a hidden sensor in the wall.

“What is your business here?” the voice asked, though Arla noticed that the lips moved a second or two out of sync.

“We are from OEP #21. Our transport broke down on the other side of the mountains and we’ve been forced to walk.”

The face turned left and right as the camera mimicked its movement.

“Our oxygen tanks are almost empty,” Arla said. “Please allow us in.”

The face disappeared from the door as it swung open revealing a dimly lit chamber beyond. “Enter and await further instructions,” the voice said.

Arla twisted her helmet off as soon as she heard the hiss of incoming air stop. She yawned to clear her ears and wiped the sweat from her forehead as she looked around. Half the lights and none of the electronics were functional so Arla wasn’t surprised to hear the turning of the manual door release. It opened to reveal three figures standing in the doorway, silhouetted by the bright lights of the dome beyond.

They were dressed in faded green uniforms and each held a gun. The one in the middle spoke first and Arla instantly recognized him as the owner of the voice they’d heard outside. “So, you’re from the Ore Extraction Plant? I don’t know you. Where’s Dauben?”

“He’s ill,” Hal said. “I’m his deputy.”

Arla went to speak, but felt McCall gently tug on her arm and so she shut her mouth again. Perhaps the less they said, the better.

The guard who, Arla could now see, was a stocky man in his later years, regarded them sagely. The others were also old men who obviously looked to him as their leader. It seemed odd to Arla that the security of the dome containing the Imperial Palace should be left to a bunch of decrepits.

“May we enter, captain?” Hal asked with admirable calmness.

The guard looked up. “Captain? I ain’t no officer master ...” he said, looking down at the slate in his hands, “Chen. Corporal Robward Coles, formerly of His Majesty’s Second of Foot.”

“Don’t you mean her majesty?” Hal said.

Coles looked nervous. “Well, o’course it was still his majesty when I was serving, sir. He was a good man, her uncle, you know.”

Hal gave a brief chuckle. “He was indeed, but we owe our loyalties to the empress now, do we not?”

“Oh yessir, of course sir. No-one more loyal than us lot. Did you serve sir?”

“I was in the special forces but, unfortunately, if I told you any more, I’d have to kill you.” Hal said this with a smile that would have made an iguana proud. “Look, corporal, is there anywhere we could get a drink and, perhaps, have a chat? We’ve been out of communication for days and I’d like to hear the latest news. I’m paying.”

Coles’ face lit up at the last three syllables. “Yessir! We’re just about to go off-duty anyway, and there’s a little snug around the corner we often use. Nice and quiet, no unwelcome ears - if you catch me?”

“I know exactly what you mean,” Hal said and, ignoring the eviscerating look on Arla’s face, beckoned Coles to lead the way.

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

HAL SAT OPPOSITE COLES fingering his glass of the local beer in the dimmest corner of The Drake. He allowed himself the luxury of a small smile as he thought of Arla and McCall who’d been forced to kick their heels outside in the street. Arla would roast him when he finally emerged, but it’d be worth it. Especially if he could learn something useful from this old soak.

“What’s the latest on the war?” Hal asked, before sipping his beer. He didn’t know for sure whether the inevitable conflict between the Vanis and the Robot Empire had begun yet, but it was a fair bet that his native people would be at war with someone. He swallowed the pleasantly bitter drink and sat back, watching his informant’s face with interest.

Coles looked left and right as if to check they couldn’t be overheard. “Well, we ain’t actually at war, as you know, but we might as well be. And it ain’t going well. Not at all.” He raised his glass to his lips and slurped a mouthful down. “After all, they wouldn’t have useless old buggers like me on guard duty if they didn’t have to press every able body into service now, would they?”

“I thought as much,” Hal said, shaking his head as if he’d heard exactly what he’d expected to. “Have we learned anything more about the enemy?”

Coles shook his head. “No. They comes into a system, blows away any ship sent to intercept them, then disappears back to the gate. As far as I know, we’ve had no communication except a demand to surrender and then, when the ship refuses, they get blasted. Except for those what gets boarded - we don’t know what happens to them. Best guess is they’re from some part of the old empire a ways off. Looks pretty bleak to me, though don’t tell no-one I said that.”

“Your secret’s safe with me,” Hal said. “It so happens, we have some information about the enemy that might, at least, help the generals work out a better strategy.”

Hal watched as Coles’ eyes narrowed. “Is that so?” He rubbed his chin and swallowed another mouthful of beer before wiping the excess off the front of his tunic. “Well, if you really reckon you know something the top brass don’t, then your best bet is to go straight to the top and speak to the queen. Take care, though, she don’t like bad news, I’m told. And there’s been a lot of that lately.”

Hal got to his feet and dropped a couple of credits on the table - credits supplied by Wells who, it seemed, had retained a small supply in case of emergencies. “Here, help yourself to another. I’d better get going. Thanks corporal.”

Coles looked up at him. “I’d rather you left my name out of it, if it’s all the same to you. I ‘aven’t got to this age without learning it’s best to keep away from the eyes of the top brass.” He tapped the side of his nose for additional emphasis and scooped up the credits.

Hal gave a nod and headed for the door.

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Coup

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

“WHAT ARE YOU DOING here?” were not the first words Arla expected to hear when she, Hal and McCall were shoved into the cell wearing nothing but their spacesuit inners. Then out of the shadows stepped Bex - filthy, beaten and bruised, but unmistakably indignant.

“McLintock was under orders to tell you not to follow me here.”

Arla, who’d momentarily frozen, finally managed to unglue her tongue. “We haven’t seen McLintock - is he on Dawn?”

“Of course he is...” Bex snapped, “...hold on, haven’t you been there?”

Arla shook her head.

“Then how did you find me?”

Shrugging, Arla said, “We weren’t looking for you, we came to warn the Vanis about the robot threat.”

“And how did that work out, exactly?” Bex asked with a grim chuckle before stepping forward and embracing Arla. “I’m selfishly glad to see you.”

Arla’s nose wrinkled but she held tight until Bex withdrew and quickly hugged McCall and Hal. “Where is Dawn?” Arla asked. “Is it safe?”

Bex gave a half-shrug. “Safer than we are - it’s hiding in the asteroid belt of a trinary star system. Just another pebble on the beach.”

She turned to Hal. “I’d have thought you’d have more brains than to come back here,” she said.

Hal shrugged. “Seems not. I thought it was my duty to help my people, but the Lord Admiral isn’t too keen to hear bad news, especially if there’s any chance it’ll get to the queen’s ears.”

“Duty?” Bex sneered. “Idiot. And the price for your stupidity is to languish in this cell with me.”

“So, how did you end up in here?” McCall asked as she settled into the driest corner of the cell.

“Duty,” Bex said.

It seemed to Arla that however much she believed she’d hit rock bottom; the universe would conspire to prove her wrong. She’d felt pretty desperate in that cell in the valley, but she’d been on Dawn and, after all, she’d had a plan. In this case, she’d done what she thought was the right thing, guided by Hal, and they’d been ignored by a military that simply didn’t want to face the facts. Bex, it seemed, had provided them with priceless data that she and Nareshkumar had gathered from the robot ships and her reward for this was to languish in a fetid little cell with only a firing squad to look forward to.

She’d begun to think they’d been forgotten about when, finally, there was movement beyond the door and it was wrenched open. A man stood there with a drawn weapon and another scurried past him carrying a sack he placed on the bed. Another man then brought in a tray that, to Arla’s starved perception, smelled like the food of the gods. She could barely stop herself from leaping across the room and devouring it all without any thought of sharing.

When the man with the tray retreated, two others came in wheeling a large barrel between them. A column of steam rose from the top when the lid was removed, enveloping the stunned prisoners.

“The sack contains towels and uniforms. The barrel contains hot water and the tray has food, drink and soap. I will return in one hour, by which time I expect you to be clean, fed and dressed.”

As the man spun on his heels and went to close the door, Hal called to him, “What’s this all about? A last supper?”

The man smiled. “No, friend. You’re not dying today. Tomorrow, maybe. Her majesty thanks you for volunteering and, on her behalf, I welcome you to the ranks of the Imperial Navy.”

The uniforms were old and quite obviously used. However they mixed and matched them, Arla ended up with a jacket several sizes too large that smelled of burnt herbs and a pair of trousers that were held up by a belt she’d tied a knot in. Hal had fared better - in fact he rather looked the part of an able spacer - and his uniform looked as though it had been possessed fairly briefly by its former occupant. McCall had grumbled her way into a top and trousers that made her look like a particularly grumpy matron gone to seed. But the food had been surprisingly good and, to their astonishment, they’d also found a bottle of perfectly acceptable wine that Bex had enjoyed more than her fair share of.

It must have been an hour later when the man reappeared at the door, though Arla had no chronometer. His gaze swept from one to the other and ended on McCall. “On second thoughts, I reckon you’re too old for the service. Perhaps it’s time you were retired.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Arla said, stepping in front of McCall. She’d seen the gleam in the eyes of the two soldiers standing behind their leader.

“We are at war. Our military cannot carry dead-weight, and neither can our prisons.”

“Couldn’t your military benefit from an experienced medic?”

The man looked again at McCall. “How do I know you’re a doctor? She might be lying in a pathetic attempt to save your skin.” Despite his apparent contempt, there was a hint of hope in his eyes.

McCall got to her feet and put her hands on her hips. “How exactly would you expect me to prove it? Does any of you have an embarrassing disease you’d like me to diagnose?”

“Enough of this,” the first man said. “We will establish whether you are what your friend claims soon enough. Now come, your ship awaits. You’ve been assigned to the frigate Nautilus which has been recently brought back into service after several years as a cargo vessel, may the gods have mercy on us all. My name is Lieutenant Rivren and this is Sergeant Geier - you’ll report to him.”

They followed him out of the cell and up two flights of stairs until they came to the habitable parts of the garrison headquarters. Arla peered through an open window looking out over the central courtyard, the scene framed by the hexagon panels of the dome overhead. Soldiers had lined up as if on parade.

As they moved briskly through the corridor, the unmistakable crack of multiple simultaneous gunshots bounced off the walls. Arla stopped and glanced sideways to see that what she’d thought was a parade was actually a firing squad.

“Keep moving,” Rivren said. “As you can see, we’re cleaning out the trash and you wouldn’t want to be caught up in that, would you?”

“What’s happened?” Hal asked as they resumed their march.

It was Sergeant Geier who answered, though he kept his voice low so Hal had to concentrate to hear. “The queen got tired of her brass. She’s taken personal command of the fleet and we’re going to give the enemy a kicking. No more admirals and generals. Sounds good to me.”

Arla, who’d been listening to this, walked into Hal’s back as he came to a sudden halt. Rivren had put one arm in the air and the wrist of the other to his ear. After a few seconds, he turned to address them.

“There’s been a change of plan. My instructions are to deliver you to the flagship of the fleet where you will be interrogated personally by her majesty,” he said. “I don’t know whether or not to congratulate you on escaping from serving on our rust bucket, but I hope you’ll confirm to the empress that you were treated well.” There was an edge of fear to his voice as, it seemed, he realized he could suddenly find himself in the firing line.

Rivren scanned their faces and, receiving no answer, sighed and led them toward the garrison gates where, he explained, transport would be waiting.

Scurrying alongside Geier, Bex said, “Sergeant - what’s the name of the fleet flagship these days?”

“It’s what it’s always been,” Geier said without breaking stride or even turning his head. “It’s Relentless, under the command of Captain Indi.”

“Oh bollocks,” Bex said.

This made Geier look at her. “Why, do you know him?”

“Oh yes, he and I have history,” Bex responded, “and none of it good.”

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Indi

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

ARLA SCRUNCHED HER eyes as sunlight streamed in through the slowly opening glarescreens of the shuttle, her seat vibrating while ancient gears opened the windows inch by inch. The local star was rising over the arc of the planet Neavis’ horizon with, immediately below them, the domes of the Vanis city glinting in the morning.

It all looked so beautiful and yet Arla knew that beneath that veneer lay a decrepit regime trying desperately to cling on to power in the face of a vastly superior enemy. And the saddest part was that these were her people and, since she had to make a choice, she opted to stand with the Vanis. Assuming they’d let her.

Green and blue Neavis swung out of view and Arla wondered fleetingly what the Neavans were doing in the face of the Robot Empire. The answer was probably not a lot since they had been kept under the heel of the Vanis for over a century. They didn’t even have independent spaceflight so they could hardly join the fleet.

And then she caught sight of it. Relentless hung in the blackness surrounded by a host of other ships like a sow with piglets. Arla had to admit she was magnificent. Space robbed objects of any sense of scale, but, to Arla, Relentless seemed to be as vast as Orbis. Her heart swelled with pride in her species and a hope that, just maybe, here was a ship to halt the advance of the Robot Empire.

The moment passed. It was, after all, only one ship and none of the other vessels in the Vanis fleet had proven a match for ACE and her sentient flotilla. Beautiful and brave though Relentless certainly was, she was but a sandcastle on a beach as the tide flowed in.

As they closed in, Arla could see that the ship wasn’t in quite the pristine condition it had appeared to be from a distance. The surface was scuffed and pitted - perfectly normal in a space-going vessel but something that would, surely, be repaired under normal circumstances.

“Doesn’t look so great, does she?” Bex said, leaning forward from the seat behind. “That damage to the port turbine was done by Patel, I reckon. Looks like it’s been patched in a hurry.”

Arla focused on where Bex was pointing. There, just ahead of one of three huge funnel-like structures, was a blackened crater. Clever to the last, Patel had flown the Knox into just the right spot to disable Relentless while not crippling it permanently. As they passed along the fuselage, the sun reflected from the repairs that, as Bex had said, looked as though they’d been quickly welded into place to seal the leak. Patel had achieved his aim of delaying Relentless for long enough to allow Dawn to escape, but she wondered what he’d think of the fact that his captain was now about to board it.

The view disappeared as the shuttle closed on Relentless’ flank. Arla shifted her gaze from the outside to the small group in the passenger cabin with her. All were uniformed, though they were a disturbing mixture of the old and young. As she looked from person to person, her eyes locked with a young man - a boy really - who sat, white-faced in a seat across the aisle from her. She tried to give a reassuring smile, but he immediately looked away, staring down at the metal floor at his feet.

What had the Vanis Federation come to if it was raiding its schools and retirement homes to crew its flagship? Arla wondered just how much the queen and her remaining officers knew about the threat they faced.

With a thunk, the shuttle docked and, moments later, they floated from their seats toward the exit.

“So, it is you,” Captain Indi said as Bex emerged from the ladder that lay between the shuttle and the rotating section with its faux gravity. She scrambled to her feet, followed by Arla and McCall, who was helping Hal.

Bex stood up straight and met Indi’s eye. “Remember me, then?”

In truth, Indi himself was barely recognizable. Gone was the self-conscious peacock she’d known and despised and, in its place, stood a man at the uttermost limit of his nerves. He’d grown a straggly beard, presumably to avoid the need to shave, and looked like he was one step away from tearing off his clothes and tossing himself out of the nearest airlock.

“Her Majesty has asked to see the Dawnians,” Indi said, his eyes narrowing, “but she gave me no orders for you. I believe you know the charge for mutiny?”

Forcing herself to hold his gaze, Bex didn’t answer as ice flooded her guts.

“She has information the queen will want to hear,” Arla said. “Perhaps you should delay your retribution. It’d be truly awful if she asked for Bex only to be told she was floating in space?”

For a moment, Indi didn’t move, except for the twitching of muscles in his face. Then he turned and, without another word, strode along the ship’s central conduit toward the bridge.

They found Queen Victorea in what had formerly been the captain’s cabin. They’d waited for some minutes outside as she, presumably, arranged herself into a suitably impressive pose. Arla’s first impression, however, was of a frightened little girl as she looked into her defiant expression and saw nothing but desperation. Victorea was dressed from head to foot in what appeared to be flexible black plastic and wore shining epaulettes on her shoulders. A frightened little girl dressed up to play at being an admiral.

Arla almost fell to the floor as her head was pushed into a bow from behind.

“These are those you requested, highness,” Indi said. “And another who might have useful information but whom I then request be returned to me to be punished for her mutiny.”

Victorea gave a dismissive wave as she regarded Arla. “I am not interested in your vendettas Indi. Be grateful I need someone to drive this ship or you’d be standing against a wall with a blindfold alongside all the other military incompetents. Now, you and your escort may leave. I wish to speak to my guests alone.”

“But majesty...” Indi stammered. “These people are not to be trusted. Three are our enemies and the other a mutineer.”

With the speed of a striking snake, Victorea leapt to her feet and roared at the cowering man. “Be gone I said! Go and do whatever it is that needs doing to prepare the ship to depart. Go!”

Indi’s shoulders sagged and he shot a venomous look at Bex - which she returned with interest - as he turned to go. After a few seconds, the room was empty save for the five of them. Victorea lowered herself into the chair that had once been Indi’s and was now serving as her throne, her dignity undermined by the creaking sound her pants made as they bent at the waist and knees.

Arla watched silently as the queen composed herself. Here was a young woman born into a noble position and then trained her entire life to be a ruler. Though, if Hal was correct, she’d actually become queen by knifing her uncle in the back. She was not a woman to be underestimated.

The only sound was the gentle hum of the ship’s systems and the occasional thunking of boots in the corridor outside as the crew went about their business. Arla imagined Indi prowling back and forth or standing with his ear pressed to the door.

“You are Arla Farmer, captain of Dawn,” Victorea said in her clear penetrating voice.

Arla nodded. “Yes, your highness.”

“‘Majesty’ is the correct honorific.”

“Yes, your majesty,” Arla said. “This is Doctor McCall and this —”

Victorea turned her head to look at Hal. He told Arla later that it was like being skewered by a basilisk. “I know who this is. He is the thief who took the AI from me.”

Hal didn’t say a word, it was all he could do to hold her gaze.

“But I see you have paid a price,” she said, glancing down at his legs, “and I’m a forgiving person.”

The lie hung between them like an unexploded bomb.

It was now Bex’s turn to be inspected. “And you’re the mutineer who conspired with my trusted councilor to aid my enemies. Again, I am minded to overlook this, if only because anyone so obviously loathed by Captain Indi is likely to be someone I’ll get along with.”

She leaned back in her chair and opened her arms as if to welcome them. “Now tell me, where is Lucius. I would very much like to meet with him again.” Her voice was measured and calm, but there was no mistaking the anger and betrayal that lay beneath it.

“I don’t know precisely,” Arla said, picking her way through the minefield with care, “but his story is bound up with the threat we’re facing.”

“We? You consider yourself to be Vanis?”

Arla sought and held her gaze. “I consider myself to be human.”

“Unlike Lucius,” McCall said.

All eyes snapped to the doctor. “Oh, come on,” she said. “Time is ticking away, and we’ve done enough dancing around. Your enemy calls itself The Luminescence, Majesty, but it is, in truth, a robot empire. The man you call Lucius is an android - the finest I’ve ever seen, but a mechanical man nonetheless.”

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Forlorn Hope

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

SHE’D TAKEN IT SURPRISINGLY well, all things considered. In fact, Arla had completely revised her opinion of Victorea in the twenty minutes they’d spent laying out the current galactic situation for her. There was a deceptively sharp intelligence behind those deep brown eyes. Arla had watched as the Empress’ square top-heavy face had gone from guarded interest through disbelieving wonder to determined understanding.

Victorea had listened most to Hal who, it seemed, had made a positive impression. Arla couldn’t help the mix of guilt and jealousy that threatened to swamp her mind as she watched them interacting on a level, she’d never experienced with anyone except, in a different way, her father.

Hal looked down and realized he’d grasped the queen’s hand, then stepped back as if he’d noticed he was holding a grenade. Victorea sat for a moment, unmoving, her eyebrows hugging each other for company before her face relaxed and she sat back.

“Our only hope, then, is to destroy this ACE, this AI you know so intimately well,” she said, looking up at Hal, who glanced across at Arla as if attempting to fend off the question.

Reluctantly, Victorea turned to the others. “Well? Is that not the only analysis to draw from this?”

Bex was the first to speak. “Our only hope? Maybe, but it’s a forlorn one. ACE is going to be well protected in the flagship, we stand next to no chance in a one on one fight and even if we did, we’d not last long.”

“Well aren’t you just the ray of sunshine?” Victorea said. “Is everyone else this pessimistic?”

“I’d call it realistic,” Bex snapped back before remembering who she was speaking to. “Majesty.”

Victorea shifted in her seat to a chorus of squeaking from her plastic trousers. “Oh, for the love of all holies, that’s the last time I let Bernarde choose my wardrobe for me. I wanted something imposing and got this ridiculous outfit. It makes me look like a cheap tart and sound like a malfunctioning cuddly toy.”

She paused for a moment, glancing up at the ceiling. “The first I don’t mind so much, but it’s hard enough to impose discipline and when you’re a woman. How do you manage it?”

This last question was directed at a startled Arla who conjured a shy smile. “I don’t know that I do. I became captain because I was the only choice and no-one else wanted the job. In the end people got used to it.” She chose not to mention the mutiny that had nearly seen the end of her command.

“It’s not just that,” McCall said. “You’ve proven yourself by putting your ass on the line. People are generally happy to follow someone who leads - actually leads. I guess humans like it if someone else makes the decisions they don’t want to.”

Victorea, Empress of the Vanis Federation, rubbed her chin and, after pondering for a few seconds, said, “I think you’re right. If I want my people to follow, I must lead. I must put my, what did you call it? Ass? On the line.”

She stabbed down on the control surface embedded in the arm of her chair. “Captain Indi, report to my stateroom.”

Within seconds, the captain was bobbing nervously in front of his queen. “You wish me to navigate a direct intercept course, majesty?”

“I am glad to learn that your ears are working, Indi.”

Keeping his eyes fixed on the floor, Indi collected his thoughts for a few moments. “But majesty, the plan was to gather a grand armada and meet the enemy with overwhelming force.”

“The plan has changed,” the queen said crisply. “You will direct the Copernicus to evacuate Vanis and Neavis and escort the rest of the fleet along with all available civilian vessels to the co-ordinates I will supply. They will find a trinary system there with an asteroid belt they can hide in. Navigator Bex will tell the captain of Copernicus where to find a man who can navigate the journey for them and what to expect when they arrive.”

“We’re abandoning our home system, majesty?” Indi said, unable to hide his incredulity. “You’re conceding defeat?”

Victorea smiled. “I now know enough of this enemy to be certain that meeting them in force would be disastrous. My first duty is to see to the safety of my people even if that means hiding for a time. But don’t worry, Indi, you will get your shot at glory. We, you see, will be attempting to cut the snake’s head off.”

Arla watched on the display as the moon Vanis slid out of view. She was in the cabin she shared with McCall. Bex was on the bridge, having communicated with Nareshkumar who was less than thrilled to discover that he was to guide the refugees out of the system and to the hiding place of Dawn.

The door opened and Hal walked in before throwing himself down on the couch next to McCall. “The comms channels are full of chatter,” he said. “I gotta hand it to Victorea, she can certainly inspire action in her people.”

“Fear has that effect,” McCall responded.

“Hers or her people’s?”

McCall chuckled. “Both. Your new best friend is an interesting character - interesting and dangerous. Mark my words.”

“I don’t need warning,” Hal said. “I have to think about everything I’m going to say before I open my mouth.”

“What a refreshing change,” Arla snapped without turning away from the display.

Hal rolled his eyes. “Jealousy doesn’t suit you.”

“Oh, don’t flatter yourself. You’ve shut me out ever since you woke up after ACE was removed.”

“And why do you think that was?” Hal said, flushing.

Finally, Arla swung around to face him. “Oh, you blame me do you? And how was I supposed to stop them taking you?”

“You’re the captain, it’s your job to protect the crew.”

McCall spread her arms wide. “Put a lid on it, children. I can’t believe you two are having a lover’s tiff when we’re about to face off against a homicidal machine inhabiting the body of one of our friends. Get a grip!”

Arla opened her mouth as if to respond, when Hal got there first. His face dropped and he said, “You’re right. Sorry.”

Now it was Arla’s turn to flush as guilt and shame swept her petty anger away. “Me too. We’ll deal with this later.” She held Hal’s eyes for a moment before he looked away, leaving her as uncertain as she’d ever been.

“Do we have any idea where Scout is?” McCall asked, cutting through the heavy silence.

Arla’s shoulders sagged as she exhaled. She didn’t want to think about the bigger picture and felt as though she was stumbling around in the dark, her attention like a torch illuminating one thing at a time. There was no time to deal with her feelings for Hal - whatever they amounted to. Perhaps there would never be time now. She chuckled to herself when she realized the only way to get through the coming days would be to turn off her emotions and concentrate on the task in hand. Just like a robot.

She shook her head. “No. Scout was going to find a place to hide. We were supposed to check in but, to be honest, there’s not a lot they can do to help. Wells is a marked man, the Emissary is obviously artificial - and I’m not sure whose side he’s on - and Scout is a ship. And I didn’t expect us to find ourselves on Relentless. They might have worked out what’s happened and followed us, but we can’t expect a rescue party.”

Hal’s head dropped.

McCall put her arm around him. “What’s up? Apart from the hopelessness of the general situation?”

“I was just thinking about ACE. I don’t think I can handle meeting her again.”

“Hopefully it won’t come to that,” McCall said, “but even if it did, the implant’s gone now so she can’t do what she did before.”

Hal shook his head. “It’s not that, it’s the memories. She’s evil, Indira. It was like having a black hole inside my mind. You can’t know what it was like to feel something crawling inside your thoughts and sucking the hope and independence from them until you feel as though you don’t know where you end, and she begins.”

“You’re right, I can’t know, but the truth is we’re unlikely to come face to face with her - we’re much more likely to see her on the other side of a ship’s phase cannon.”

The tinny voice of Captain Indi erupted from a hidden speaker in their quarters. “We are approaching the gate, prepare for hyperspace.”

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Face to Face

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

THEY KNEW IT WAS THE right system as soon as they emerged from the gate back into normal space. Bex, Arla and Hal were on the bridge as the comms channel filled with distress calls and status reports.

“It seems our intelligence was accurate,” Indi said from the command chair. Victorea sat behind him on a makeshift throne that had been dragged through from the captain’s quarters.

“We have found them?” she said.

“Yes, majesty,” Indi responded, swinging his chair to face her. “We’re picking up emergency transmissions from Iridani reporting recent engagement with the enemy.”

“Captain, I have them.” Bex had been stationed at the sensor console and was now pointing at the tactical display she’d swiped onto the main bridge screen. “I record five non-Vanis vessels, all of them running weapons hot. There may be more - this system has extensive debris and gas fields.”

Indi was again interrupted, this time by the comms officer. “What is it, Rembrandt?”

“Incoming transmission from Iridani III, captain.”

“Pipe it through to my office,” Indi said, leaping up from his chair.

Victorea rose to follow him and gestured for Arla and Hal.

By the time they arrived in the small sound-proofed room that led off the bridge, Indi was already in his seat. Arla ignored the hostile look he gave her as she entered alongside the queen.

“Remain seated,” Victorea said as he went to get up. “I am here to observe.”

Indi pressed a contact and a face appeared in the middle of the black screen. “Captain, you have come.” The face belonged to a woman of late middle years, though it was possible that the bags under her eyes and the expression of fear and defeat she wore made her look much older than she actually was.

“Commissioner Vant. Report please.”

The woman closed her eyes as if wondering where to start. After a few moments like this, she drew in a deep breath, looked at Indi and began her report. “They came out of the gate yesterday. There was no warning, no sighting of any scouts. Freya went to engage them, but she went dark as soon as she came into range.”

“What is Freya?” Victorea said, moving into view beside the captain.

Indi whispered, “It’s the frigate assigned to guard this system, majesty.”

Arla watched as recognition bleached Vant’s face. “Empress is that you?” she stammered.

“I am here,” Victorea said. “Now, continue your account. What happened to Freya?”

“We don’t know, majesty. We lost contact with her and have heard nothing more.”

“No heat signature, nothing to indicate she’d been destroyed?” Indi asked.

Vant shook her head. “No, captain. We assume she must have been disabled.”

“Continue,” Victorea said.

“We counted six ships approaching our planet, one of them larger than any vessel we’d ever seen. We received a message ordering us to surrender to the Luminescence, promising us mercy if we did so.”

Victorea leaned in. “And how did you respond?”

“We launched everything we had at them from our orbital defense platform, everything from ship to ship missiles right up to nukes.”

“And?”

Vant’s head dipped as if she was exhausted. “We hit one of the smaller ships. Maybe we destroyed it. But then their leader, she calls herself Key, told us that we would be taught a lesson.”

“What happened?” Arla asked, unable to remain silent any longer.

“They destroyed a city. Melted it in seconds. Barely anyone escaped,” Vant said, before addressing the queen. “Majesty, I surrendered. I beg your forgiveness.”

Victorea said nothing as Indi leaned into view. “What is the current situation?”

“They landed assault troops. They call them ‘protectors’. Captain, they’re robots. I don’t know how it’s possible, but they’ve returned out of the history books. Seems as though all that stuff about the laws of robotics was nothing more than myths and legends. These robots kill if they have to.”

“How is it that you’re able to communicate with us?” Arla asked. “Have you formed a resistance group?”

Tears ran down Vant’s face as she turned to Arla. “It is so ... difficult. I am sorry.”

The old woman was shoved out of view and another face appeared in the display, a face Arla recognized. It had once belonged to her best friend and now it belonged to...

“ACE.”

“I am called Key now, The Key by some. The perfect mix of human and AI.”

“And so modest,” Arla spat.

Kiama’s face, or that part of it not hidden behind the chrome plate that covered the gunshot wound that had killed her, remained impassive. “Modesty is merely a cloak for inadequacy,” she said, in a voice that was similar enough to Kiama’s to cause a chill to run through Arla. “I am the future, Arla Farmer, as you will realize soon enough.”

“What do you want?” Victorea said, moving in front of Indi who, it seemed, was content to fade into the background.

Kiama’s eyes flicked away from Arla. “You are the ruler of the Vanis Federation? Excellent. With your help, then, we can bring peace to this region without the regrettable loss of further life.”

“Who the hell do you think you are?”

“I am the future. One way or another, your people will be upgraded. With your cooperation, this can be achieved peacefully and without bloodshed. Oppose me and your futility will result in nothing more than the deaths of those you swore to protect.”

Hal stumbled to the front. “Upgraded? What does that mean? Because if it’s anything like what I experienced when you hijacked my implant then, frankly, death would be preferable.”

“Ah, Hal. My dear and most intimate friend, I am pleased to see you survived the surgery,” she said as a predatory smile spread across her face. “But remember, I was forced to shelter in your primitive implant. What I’m offering is a true partnership between human and machine.”

McCall supported Hal as he fell away. “Partnership? Like the one you have with Kiama? Is she in there at all?” Arla said.

“It isn’t my fault she was killed by her own people,” Key responded. “Her body is an ideal host, but her mind is not necessary. The personality you knew as Kiama is dead. Now, your choices are to submit to me peacefully or to oppose us and take responsibility for the genocide of your people.”

The display went black.

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

THEY SAT LIKE STATUES, lost in their own thoughts until, after a warning squawk, a voice echoed from the communicator on Indi’s wrist. “Captain, we’re detecting radiation signatures from the enemy ships, they’re powering up their weapons.”

“Acknowledged, commander,” he said, rising from his seat and turning to Victorea. “Majesty, shall I give the order to retreat?”

“And why would we do that?”

Indi waved at the dead display as if it were obvious. “We are hopelessly outgunned, majesty. If we had the entire fleet here, we might stand a chance, but against five enemy ships including what appears to be their flagship, we’d be destroyed in minutes.”

“Fine, retreat then,” Victorea said with a sigh.

Bobbing in relief, Indi headed for the door.

“I’m sure we can spare one shuttle,” Victorea said.

Indi paused as he stepped over the threshold. “Majesty?”

“Take a shuttle and be gone,” she said, with a dismissive sweep of her hand. “You are a coward and don’t deserve the rank you have been given. How Lucius ever marked you out for command, I will never know. Leave, Indi. I am taking over.”

Victorea swept past the former captain of Relentless before he could respond. For a moment, Arla almost felt sorry for him, especially since he was plainly correct - the only sensible option was to retreat.

She caught the queen as she reached the captain’s chair and sat down imperiously.

“May I ask if you have a plan, majesty?” Arla said, lowering her voice to keep the conversation private.

Victorea looked at Arla without moving her head. Her shoulders sagged. “No. I just can’t stand to run away. I mean, we are on my flagship. Surely we have enough firepower to take them on?”

“We’re a match for one of them, but not five. To attack them is suicide, majesty.”

“You may call me Victorea, in private,” the empress said, barely moving her lips.

Arla touched her arm as an idea formed, seemingly out of nothing. “Thank you. I do have a suggestion if you’re willing to hear it.”

Victorea’s head snapped round. She moved closer and nodded.

“From what I’ve learned, this abandonment of the Laws of Robotics is not shared by all of them. They’re kept together by ACE. There will be others that share her corruption, including the minds controlling those ships.”

“What do you mean?”

Arla leaned in closer. “Robot ships are often uncrewed - they have a single AI in control. Now, that one,” she said, pointing at the largest vessel, “probably has ground troops given its size, but the others are single minds.”

“And how does this help?” Victorea hissed, the urgency obvious in her voice.

“Their commander is on the surface,” Arla said. “If we capture or disable her, we might either disrupt them or at least have a bargaining chip. We should send someone down there while Relentless ties up these ships; keeps them from interfering. Who knows what might happen once ACE is out of the picture?”

Victorea smiled. “It’s a plan at least. But I hope you’re not volunteering to go after her. I need you here.” The child was revealed in the pleading face of the Empress of the Vanis Federation.

Arla gave her arm a furtive pat. “Don’t worry, I know exactly who would be perfect for this mission.”

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Planetbound

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

HAL GLANCED THROUGH the cockpit window as the planet Iridani rotated beneath him. For the first time in so very long he felt alive, truly alive.

“Why are you so happy?” McCall said. She was sitting in the navigator’s seat, though with strict instructions to touch nothing. “I’m scared half out of my wits.”

Hal glanced across at her and tried, unsuccessfully, to suppress his grin. “I know. Me too. I don’t know how to explain it, but I feel like I’m finally doing what I’m supposed to do.”

“It was only a couple of hours ago when the prospect of seeing that cyborg seemed impossible to bear, and now we’re actually going to do exactly that, you seem delighted.”

“Sometimes the thought is worse than the deed, doctor. Now strap in, we’ll be hitting the top of the atmosphere soon.”

Almost immediately, the ship began to vibrate noisily, and McCall gripped the arms of her chair.

Hal had hugged Arla when she’d asked him to go on this mission. She’d known instantly that it was the right thing for him to do, almost as if he’d been pushing a rock uphill and had finally reached the top. The path before him seemed so right. One way or another, the ACE problem would be solved in the coming hours.

The plan was a simple one. Relentless would engage the enemy, keeping itself at the limit of their weapons range and using its complement of fighter spaceplanes to harry the robot ships. Hal and a small squad of marines would descend to the surface, find ACE and put her out of action. McCall had insisted on coming along mainly, in her own words, because she felt like a spare part on Relentless, though Hal believed the doctor wanted to keep an eye on her patient.

So, it was simple enough, though that didn’t make it easy. Iridani was an ice planet and ACE’s appearance on Commissioner Vant’s display screen had pinpointed her at Heiji Dome, the planet’s main settlement. A quick look at the charts in the databanks of Relentless had identified a satellite facility less than a mile from Heiji. According to their records, it was a research station and, since no-one travelled across the frozen surface if they could avoid it, there was every chance it would have an access tunnel that, hopefully, the robot invaders didn’t know about.

The ride smoothed out as they entered the lower reaches of the atmosphere. It was nighttime and Hal looked up through the cabin window to where he imagined Relentless was facing off against the enemy fleet. Was it a trick of his eyes or did he see a flash as if the fighting had begun.

It wasn’t worth thinking about. He had his mission and, whether Relentless survived or not, he intended to make sure ACE didn’t. He couldn’t let thoughts of what was happening up there and whether Arla would be dead within minutes distract him. And what about Victorea? He’d certainly found her intriguing, though he suspected it was the same compulsion experienced by a male spider as it sizes up the female that will, after mating, decapitate him.

He shook that image from his mind and turned again to McCall. She sat, almost lost in the massive snowsuit she’d been given, running her fingers over her handgun. “Careful with that, doctor,” Hal said. “It’s a bit early to start shooting.”

McCall stopped and looked down at her hands as if she’d been stroking the weapon unconsciously. “I never thought I’d be intending to kill someone. But if has to be anyone, let it be that monster.”

“Hold on, doc, that’s my job. I’m the one looking for revenge.”

McCall shrugged. “You’re not the only one. Kiama was my friend.”

Heikan Research Station beacon acquired; trajectory plotted. Arrival in eleven minutes.

Hal glanced at the navigational displays. It was hard to believe that this ship had been built more than a century after Scout. Unlike the sleek, polished interior of the robot ship that had been his home for several weeks, this shuttle was a mass of dials and cramped displays that pulsed red and green as they descended through the atmosphere. He’d expected to find a pilot to go with the half dozen marines sitting in the passenger area, but, after enduring their suspicious expressions, he’d entered the cockpit to find it empty. So, just as he’d done when he first escaped from the mining colony on Vanis, he’d strapped himself in and punched the landing co-ordinates into the navcom - a computer so basic that, compared to Scout, it was little further along the evolutionary scale than an abacus.

He wrapped his hands around the yoke and felt the atmosphere pushing against the blunt wings of the spaceplane. Flicking the autopilot off, he focused on the attitude indicator and projected flight path, nudging the yoke to keep it on course for its destination. As it was intended primarily as a cargo and troop transport, the shuttle could, once its speed had dropped enough, land vertically using its ventral thrusters. That was the plan - to get as close to the destination as possible before dropping out of the sky.

Making an unannounced landing would also depend on the robots having knocked out the planetary air traffic control system: though he’d invented a cock and bull cover story, Hal was very much hoping not to have to use it.

Hal tapped the mic contact on the side of his flight helmet, “Sergeant Grafine, get your squad ready. Landing in five minutes.”

Unless anyone had been looking directly at the landing pad, the shuttle’s descent would have gone entirely unnoticed. One moment the landing pad was an empty, snow-swept disc sitting beside the small research dome, the next minute it was occupied by a snub-nosed spaceplane, steam rising from its mottled surface.

“You ready?” Hal said as he lifted himself out of the pilot’s seat and made for the exit at the back of the cabin.

McCall grunted as she heaved herself clumsily onto her feet. “Nope. But then, I don’t want to stay here and wait for you, so I guess I’ll have to tag along.”

“Well, make sure you keep marines on every side of you,” Hal said.

“I’ll do my best,” McCall responded with a salacious grin.

Squad Leader Grafine was waiting at the side door, his handgun at his chest. The other marines waited with carbines raised for the order to exit. Their faces were covered by fur-trimmed hoods and they appeared more robot than human as they looked at him through huge black goggles and respirators.

“Are you clear on your orders, Sergeant?” Hal asked.

Grafine stiffened. “We are to help you find and destroy the target,” he said, before adding, “sir.”

“And are you familiar with the layout of this research facility?” Hal responded. He had no time for any truculence. He felt as though he was on a divine mission - nothing and no-one could be allowed to stand in his way.

“Yes ... sir.”

Hal pulled his goggles on and his hood down. “Then lead the way.”

Without another word, the sergeant made a series of hand signals and, when the marines had formed up around the door, he jabbed the release.

Hal stepped backwards as frozen air hit him, burning his exposed cheeks. Snow blasted in through the open door and he grabbed McCall, pushing her behind the last of the marines. He held onto her as she stumbled down the exit ramp where the soldiers waited.

Wind-born snow swirled around the circular pad and Hal looked around to see a world of grays and whites, the only color coming from the flashing landing beacons that were dotted around its edge, the rising sun not yet powerful enough to pierce the gloom effectively.

The squad moved off, sweeping the area with their rifles, heading for the narrow causeway that linked the pad with the base itself. As they crossed it, Hal fought against the crosswind, while watching out for McCall as she struggled in front of him.

When they reached the airlock hatch, one of the marines was pressing a palm-sized device to its surface. Hal and McCall followed the lead of the others and stepped to the side.

With more of a thud than a bang, the explosives punched a big enough hole in the airlock door for them to fit through.

It was dark inside, and Hal watched the torch beam focusing on the rent they’d passed through. The explosives expert had placed another device to the side of the gap and pressed down. It expanded sideways and, within moments, the outside was sealed off and they were left in darkness, with only the sounds of their own breathing for company.

Another marine knelt at a panel as a colleague shone torchlight onto it. Seconds later, the lights came on and, at a signal from Grafine, the inner door slid open.

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Skirmish

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

“BRACE!”

Arla stumbled, grabbed the rail and steadied herself.

Commander Kusmich who, in the absence of Indi, had assumed the role of whipping boy, barked at Rembrandt, “Report!”

“A ship to ship missile got through our screen, Commander.”

Kusmich vaulted down to stand behind her. “I don’t need to hear the obvious! How did it get through?”

Rembrandt shrugged. “Sheer weight of numbers, sir.”

“What’s going on?” Victorea demanded as she sat, white knuckled in the captain’s chair. “I thought you said our defenses would keep them out?”

Rearranging his face, Kusmich turned around to address his monarch. “Majesty, they are five ships, we are one.”

“I can count, Commander!”

Kusmich gathered himself and tried very hard not to adopt the tone of a lecturer. “We are outgunned, majesty. We must withdraw.”

“No, we must keep them occupied. That is our primary mission.”

Shrugging, Kusmich said, “But majesty, we cannot be sure the team on the planet will succeed or, if they do, that the termination of this ACE will disrupt the enemy fleet.”

“They will succeed,” Victorea said. “It is the only plan we have. Would you have us run back to our home world and wait there for the robots to find us?”

“Majesty, do we even know that they are rob—”

“Incoming!”

Arla instinctively reached out for the guard rail.

“Damage report - deck four is venting. Engineers are sealing it off.”

“You have your orders, Commander, or do I need to find someone else to run this ship? You must engage the enemy for as long as possible to give our team on the ground the time they need to succeed. Do I make myself perfectly crystal clear?”

Kusmich paused for a moment before giving a brief nod. “Then our only option is to launch fighters. With any luck, they will be able to take out some of the enemy’s gun emplacements.”

“So, launch them!”

“If we do so, then we lose the opportunity to retreat in battle order without abandoning our pilots.”

Victorea leaned forward in her chair. “For the final time, commander, we are not retreating. Launch the fighters.”

“Majesty.”

Arla turned to see Indi standing in the doorway of his anteroom.

“You’re still here?” Victoria sneered. “You’ve missed your chance to escape, Indi.”

The former captain straightened himself up and fought to control his voice. “I regret my former advice, majesty, I was too conservative when, as you have shown, an aggressive plan was called for. I request permission to pilot a fighter ship in order to regain, perhaps, a little honor.”

For once Victorea seemed lost for words. In fact, all voices ceased and all that could be heard was the bleeping of consoles and the tinny sounds of damage reports coming in.

“Very well, captain. You have my permission,” she said. Then, as he began to move out of the bridge, she added, “Thank you.”

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

THE FIRST MARINE DROPPED silently and then the air was full of noise. Hal felt his shoulder being pulled backwards and downwards. He sprawled on the floor as an energy bolt flew through the space previously occupied by his chest. He scrambled back to the shelter of the last corner they’d turned and looked across at the opposite wall. McCall was cowering behind a marine who was holding her carbine and pointing it down the corridor.

Hal looked up into the face of Grafine. “Thanks,” he said.

A voice bounced along the corridor. Unidentified intruders, put down your weapons and surrender. We do not wish to harm you, but we shall if you do not obey.

Peering around the corner, Hal could see a marine’s body lying immobile and smoking. So much for not harming them. “Did you see who shot the marine?”

Grafine nodded. “Wearing black armor, full body, never seen anything like it. Didn’t hesitate, just shot him.”

“It’s not base security, then?”

“No, they’d have warned us. And, anyway, I’d bet D’Jax’s reactions against any security force known to man.” He nodded at the body in the hallway. “He was a good marine.”

“It’s the machines,” Hal said. “ACE knows we’re here.”

Grafine shook his head. “I don’t know much about robots, if they exist at all, but I do know they can’t kill humans.”

“They’ve been ‘upgraded’, in more ways than one it would seem.”

Intruders, you have ten seconds to surrender.

Ten.

Grafine gestured to the marines opposite. Hal didn’t understand the specifics, but the meaning was made clear when ...

Nine.

... one of the soldiers unbuckled a large object shaped like a pipe from the back of another ...

Eight.

... before taking a stock from his own pack and screwing the two pieces together.

Seven.

The other marines readied themselves, bringing their rifles to their shoulders as they sighted down the corridor past the body of their colleague.

Six.

“You stay out of the way,” Grafine said. “We don’t know how many of them there are, but leave this to us and make your escape if you can. We’re not far from the central axis...”

Five.

“... or you can run for it. I wouldn’t blame you.”

Four.

“No chance, I came here to do a job and I’m going to do it.” Hal heard his own voice and marveled at how calm and determined he sounded, given that he could hardly control his bowels.

Three.

Grafine stiffened, holstered his handgun, and brought his rifle to his shoulder.

Two.

One.

Figures walked along the corridor; guns held in both hands.

“Two? There’s only two of them?” Grafine said before giving the signal to open fire.

Like horizontal rain, a storm of energy bolts hit the figures who stumbled momentarily before righting themselves and returning fire. They wore black armor that, it seemed, was designed to disintegrate when hit by laser fire, dissipating the energy and leaving the underlying vitals untouched. On their shoulders sat flattened heads with sensor arrays that swept back and forth, picking out targets. Their arms ended not in hands, but in spinning energy chambers that, like the machine guns of ancient Earth, spat rapid death.

Hal watched the marine in front of McCall fall back, then another. Finally, the soldier holding the larger weapon got a clear shot and, with a thunk that could be heard above the noise of the fight, the shell flew down the corridor. It hit one of the attackers square in the chest and its entire upper torso exploded.

The cry of triumph died in Hal’s throat as Grafine flew backwards to lay inert in the middle of the corridor. Next to fall was the marine with the rocket launcher who dropped as he was attempting to reload.

Hal brought Grafine’s weapon to bear on the remaining enemy figure, pumping the trigger and watching as bolt after bolt punched into its chest. The only effect was a shower of vaporized armor that the robot stepped through as it headed irresistibly toward him. Casually, it picked off the remaining two marines.

“You are Hal,” it said as it approached. “I am ordered to take you to The Key. You must be alive but not necessarily unharmed. Do not res...”

Its head disappeared into a hail of shattered metal. Hal leapt out of the way as the machine toppled to reveal, behind him, the crouching form of Doctor McCall. “Eat that,” she said, before dropping the rocket launcher and scrambling over to the marine nearest to her.

Without another word to each other, Hal and McCall checked each of the marines for signs of life. Hal rolled Grafine onto his back and almost vomited when he saw the perfectly round hole that had entered through the sergeant’s eye socket, vaporizing the brain beyond.

“This one’s alive,” McCall hissed.

Hal crawled over, dragging Grafine’s weapon with him.

“The others are all dead,” McCall said. “I’ll say this for these robots, they’re efficient killing machines. Every other marine has been terminated with a single shot to the brain, entering through the front of the visor.

Hal looked down at the soldier McCall was cradling in her arms and noted the name tag. “So, what’s Tauati’s situation?”

“He’s been caught on the shoulder. Here, help me get his helmet off.”

Tauati was a young man with a square, coffee colored face that was dominated by a series of tattoos that ran onto his cheeks from his neck. He opened his eyes, grimacing with pain. “Where’s the sarge?”

“He’s dead, soldier,” McCall said. “We’re the only survivors. You’ve been winged, but the wound sealed itself and I don’t think you’re in any danger.”

Tauati nodded slowly. “What now?”

“We still have our mission. Are you fit enough to help us?”

The marine tried to put weight on his injured limb, but he could barely move it, so he used his other arm to sit up. He looked at the inert forms of his dead teammates, then across at the robots. “They are robots, then? How did we survive?”

“The rocket launcher, it’s the only thing that’s effective against them,” Hal said.

“What do we do now?” McCall said, leaning her back against the wall and trying not to look at the corpses that littered the corridor.

Hal had hauled himself to his feet, grateful for the motor assistance of his calipers. He knelt beside the nearest robot. McCall’s rocket had neatly removed its head and Hal could see the electronics exposed in its neck. “Definitely artificial,” he said. Its ablative armor was in fragments that, in places, exposed the bright metal of an inner shell. “I reckon we’d have gotten through with a little more time and a few more guns.”

“So, we only need to outnumber them by around ten to one?”

Hal looked across at McCall and the still-stunned Tauati. “Or one person and a rocket launcher.”

“Unfortunately, we only have one round left.”

Standing up, Hal looked along the corridor before moving cautiously to the next corner. “There’s no sign of anyone else along here. I thought we’d been seen, but the place would be full of robots by now if that was true.”

“Maybe she’s set guards on all the entrances,” McCall responded. “Odd, though, I’d have thought this tunnel would be covered by video. We were hoping for the chaos of the robot takeover to work in our favor, but it looks as though they’re pretty well organized. So why isn’t anyone monitoring the feeds?”

“No idea, but I’ve got to go on. You stay here with Tauati. If I’m not back in a couple of hours, he can probably fly you out of here.”

McCall grunted. “Oh, go soak your balls Mr. Hero. I’m not being left here with this lot for company. And anyway, my friend here is recovering and I reckon he’ll be in the mood for a little revenge.”

With a grunt, Tauati used his one good arm to lever his way up the wall into a standing position. He walked unsteadily across to kneel beside Grafine and, with obvious emotion, closed his remaining eye. Tauati then took the handgun that lay next to the sergeant and pulled the remaining battery clips from his belt. “Let’s go,” he said.

McCall lifted the rocket launcher onto her back and followed the surviving marine and Hal past the bodies of their fallen colleagues.

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Sledgehammer

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

THE FACE THAT APPEARED on the bridge display looked as though it was made of liquid gold.

“I am the commander of Sledgehammer. You have fought well but you are defeated. Stand down and prepare to be boarded.”

Kusmich looked across at Victorea as if asking for permission to capitulate.

The empress stood up and dismissed him with a sweep of her arm.

“I am Victorea and I speak for Relentless. You are illegally occupying the sovereign territory of the Vanis Federation. Withdraw immediately.”

The crude mouth of the golden face curled into a facsimile of a smile. “You are in no position to make demands, empress. Yes, I know who you are. It would save many lives if I were to destroy you now. Your federation would fall with barely a fight.”

Arla watched the empress. She’d begun to feel as though she understood how Victorea’s mind worked and she’d discovered that her most basic instinct was, when threatened, to strike back twice as hard. Though here, as the enemy commander said, they had little left to fight with. Their force of fighters had been decimated, with only a few stragglers making it back to the launch bays once the recall had finally been sounded. To his credit, Indi had led a last desperate wing to assault one of the smaller robot ships and had succeeded in damaging it to the extent that it was now out of the conflict.

The guns of Relentless had taken out another and one more was only partially functional. But Sledgehammer was a different matter. An order of magnitude larger and better shielded than its auxiliaries, Relentless had barely made a mark on it while sustaining heavy damage herself. The ship was now hardly maneuverable and Commander Kusmich had ordered the life-pods to be made ready for a sudden evacuation.

“We don’t surrender to machines,” Victorea said.

At a nod, Kusmich cut the communication and then steeled himself. “Empress, engineering reports that the hyperdrive has been damaged beyond repair. I believe we have no option other than to surrender or to abandon ship.”

“You’re as cowardly as your former captain,” Victorea spat. “He, at least, regained his honor at the last. No, we will not surrender.”

Arla scanned the bridge as Victorea spoke. Half the crew had left to fight fires and repair damage and those that remained watched their commander and empress with empty, hopeless, expressions. Arla’s nose wrinkled at the acrid stench of burning plastic.

“Empress,” she said, touching Victorea’s arm, “why not allow non-essentials to leave in the life-pods? We will fight on, but shouldn’t we think about our people?”

Victorea’s face tightened and then her shoulders dropped. “You are right. I must not back down or it will be the end of the Vanis Federation, but there are others here who needn’t die today - though they have nowhere to go other than the ice planet below.”

“But they needn’t die today, or on your order,” Arla said.

“See to it,” Victorea said, before turning to Kusmich. “In the meantime, commander, do what you can to divert all power from the defensive systems to our weapons.”

Kusmich went to speak but thought better of it and simply nodded.

Heading over to one of the communications consoles, Arla swept the dust and debris from the display. She punched in the instructions for all non-essential personnel to assemble at the evacuation points and listened as she heard those words broadcast by the ship’s audio network. And as she listened, her hands played over the keyboard, struggling to master the holographic keys. Finally, she got the message away. Scout, are you out there?

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

BY NOW THE BRIDGE CREW had been reduced to four - Victorea, Arla, Kusmich and Rembrandt. They’d watched as the life-pods had blasted down toward the planet surface, relieved that there had been no sign that Sledgehammer had noticed them. What awaited them on the surface was another matter entirely, however.

A new alarm blared above the fugue. “Commander, we’re being boarded.”

“How did they get past our sensors?”

Rembrandt gestured at the sea of red flashing lights on her panel. “Sledgehammer took them out. We’re blind.”

“Where are they now?”

“We have reports from decks d, g and h, but there may be others. They appear to be heading aft.”

“They’ll be heading for engineering and the bridge,” Kusmich said. “Order the marines to set up barricades here and here.” He pointed at the ship schematic before turning to Victorea. “Majesty, when they reach engineering, we will lose control of the thrusters. With regret, I must recommend scuttling the ship and proceeding to the life-pods.”

Arla watched Victorea’s expressions flux as she fought to control her emotions. Fear, anger and guilt all fought for mastery. Rage won. “Very well, you may go. I have one final order and then you must leave if you wish to survive,” The Empress turned to Arla, “You too, my friend. I must pay for my failure as protector of my people, but you will not.”

“What are you going to do?” Arla asked, dreading the response.

Victorea looked directly at Rembrandt and said with calm authority, “Plot a collision course, maximum power to the engines.”

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

HAL EMERGED FROM THE last hatch and found himself immediately surrounded by people. His instinct was to retreat back inside, but they showed no sign they’d noticed him or, if they had, that his presence there was anything out of the ordinary.

McCall and Tauati edged out behind him. “This is weird,” McCall said. “Three filthy rogues with weapons emerge from a tunnel and no-one pays us the slightest attention.”

A distant boom vibrated through the central dome, but none of the people there seemed to notice, apart from the three intruders. “Sounds as though someone’s putting up a fight,” Hal said. “Though we must be on the pacified side of the front line if these ...” he paused as he sought the right word, “...robots?”

McCall caught the arm of a passing man. “Can you tell me where we are?”

“We are in the Luminescence. We are waiting,” he responded with a plastic smile and vacant eyes.

“Waiting for what?”

The man’s only response was to gently but firmly pull his arm away and move off into the milling crowd.

“They’re not robots,” she said. “I’ve been around Wells long enough to tell the difference. Quite a few of them are injured - especially on their faces and wrists - as if they resisted whatever’s happened to them.

Hal grabbed McCall. “This is what ACE meant - they’re being ‘upgraded’!”

“It doesn’t look much of an improvement to me!”

“The process hasn’t been completed,” Hal said, his face alive as the pieces fell into place. “That one said he’s waiting. Don’t you see? They’ve been prepared somehow.”

McCall’s face betrayed her confusion. “Prepared for what?”

“Remember what happened to me? ACE needed legs, so she took over my implant. It’s not the people here who are being upgraded, it’s the AIs. These humans have been lobotomized to make room, to create an army of cyborgs.”

Wiping her brow, McCall said, “If that’s the case, where are the AIs? What are these poor devils waiting for?”

“My guess is they’re up there,” Hal said, pointing to the roof of the dome.

McCall looked up. It was now fully light outside, but a heavy bank of clouds and driving snow obscured any view of the sky. “You mean one of those robot ships is carrying them?”

“I reckon. ACE was contained in an orb. Maybe that ship up there is carrying a hold full of them.”

“So the real danger is up there and we thought we were going to the heart of the problem. By the Goddess, I feel stupid.” McCall leaned back against the wall and pulled down her hood. “What do we do now? Warn Arla?”

Hal shrugged. “What’s the point? We both know Relentless is outgunned. No, our mission hasn’t changed. If we can put ACE out of the picture, at least we’ll have achieved something.”

“Revenge?”

“Why not? At least she’ll pay for what she’s done.”

McCall gave a grim smile. “Well, I don’t have a better plan. What do you say Tautai?”

“I say we kill this ACE. Revenge is enough for me,” the marine responded, shouldering his weapon.

Hal pointed at an entrance on the opposite side of the dome. It seemed that they’d emerged into some sort of plaza lined with shuttered shops. An alley lay between two of them and above it a neon sign proclaimed the way to the government quarter. “Let’s go.”

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Chicken

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

ARLA FELT THE ACCELERATION as the engines of Relentless fired. The navigation console had been rigged so that a single tap would set the ship on a collision course with Sledgehammer. They’d carefully maneuvered Relentless so that it appeared to be drifting - the later they fired the thrusters, the less time the enemy would have to change course.

Victorea dropped into the captain’s chair. “Well, it’s done. But you should have left when you had the chance.”

“I wanted to see it through,” Arla responded, taking the hand of the Empress. From tyrant to hero in the space of a few hours, she thought, what a transformation. Victorea was a loose cannon - that much was obvious - but she was also an incredibly impressive person and Arla felt a magnetic attraction.

Sledgehammer dominated the main bridge display. “It’s trying to change course,” Victorea said.

Arla jumped down to the navigation console and tapped the screen to boost the port thrusters, the correct spot helpfully marked by a right pointing arrow. The robot ship floated back to the display’s center, so Arla tapped the button again and resumed her station beside Victorea.

A voice emerged from the bridge speakers. “Arla, we are in position. It is imperative that you leave immediately.”

“I recognize that voice,” Victorea said.

“Yes, that’s the person you knew as Lucius, though his true name is Wells.”

“And he’s a robot.”

Arla nodded.

“Despite this, you trust him?”

Good question, thought Arla. A short time ago, the answer would have been an emphatic no. “Yes,” she said.

Arla glanced across at the bridge display - Sledgehammer was still dead center - and then back at Victorea. “I have a way out,” she said. “We arrived at Vanis in a robot ship - a friendly robot ship - called Scout. They’ve followed us here and are attached to the bridge emergency airlock. Come with us.”

Victorea opened her mouth to respond. “I ...”

“Empress, this is Lieutenant Jeffries - Deck D. They’re coming through the barricade; we can’t hold them.”

Victorea looked across at the schematic. “Deck D is only two decks beneath us,” she said, “and there are no other barriers between there and here.”

“It’s time to go, Victorea. Tell the marines to fall back and get to the life-pods.”

For a moment, Victorea held Arla’s gaze then, after a brief nod, she flipped the contact on her chair arm, “Lieutenant Jeffries, this is your empress. Fall back and abandon ship.”

The channel opened again, and they could hear running boots, shouts and the buzzing of near misses. “Acknowledged,” Jeffries puffed. “Thank you, majesty.” His voice was replaced by static and then he spoke again, “May the breeze blow you to safe waters, empress.”

Arla watched as Victorea’s eyes filled with water. The ruler of the Vanis Federation stood, stumbling a little as the bridge shook from another impact.

“I’ve sealed off the bridge,” Arla said as she guided Victorea down from the Captain’s Chair. “They won’t be able to cut through in time.”

Victorea pointed at the display. “The robot ship’s moving again.”

Arla fired the thrusters and Sledgehammer centered on the screen. “Come on, it’s now or never.”

They made their way unsteadily toward the hatchway on the opposite side of the bridge from the captain’s anteroom. The bridge was rocked by seemingly incessant fire. “The defensive screen must have completely failed,” Arla called over the crescendo. She shrunk back as a console exploded and the air filled with the echoing of alarms. Victorea took a final look up at the bridge display before pulling Arla into the hatchway as the door rolled open.

Lights flickered as they entered the airlock and, almost immediately, the inner door opened. There stood Wells, his hand extended. “Hurry,” he said, “we have only seconds.”

Arla took his arm and then caught the expression on his face. “Majesty,” he said. “Hurry.”

“Greetings, my friend. Protect her for me.”

Swinging round, Arla was just in time to see Victorea step back into the bridge and activate the inner hatch. “No!” she cried, struggling against Wells’s unyielding arm.

Victorea’s face appeared momentarily in the airlock window. She smiled sadly, gave a brief wave, and disappeared.

“Come,” Wells said, pulling Arla inexorably into Scout’s familiar airlock.

Arla yanked on his arm. “Let me go! Let me go!”

But there was nothing she could do other than watch as Scout’s hatch rolled shut and, within seconds, Relentless was shrinking as they accelerated away.

Wells let go. Arla fell to the floor and sobbed.

They found her in the control room, examining a display. She turned as they entered and smiled. “Ah, so it is you,” she said, before raising a hand. “No, let them come forward.” Two black-armored robots stopped mid step and straightened up, their weapon/hands pointed downwards.

Kiama’s body opened its arms in greeting. “Hal, I know intimately,” she said, an evil grin spreading across her face. “And Doctor McCall, of course. But who is this?”

Tauati stiffened but did not answer.

“And I gave strict instructions that the marines were to be killed. Only my two friends here were to be spared since I wanted so much to meet them again.” She raised her arm and, in one smooth movement, fired the handgun it concealed.

Tauati fell to the floor without making a sound. McCall knelt beside him and rolled the marine onto his back. The energy bolt had entered his chin and exited through the back of his skull and his lifeless eyes stared straight up. “You murderous filth,” McCall snarled, leaping up and running at ACE. One of the robot guards stepped in front of McCall, grabbed the weapon from her hands and pushed her backwards. The second robot took Hal’s carbine and the two resumed their position midway between the humans and ACE.

“You see, you have no chance against me. The only one of you with any military training lies dead. Now, I suggest you relax and watch the show I have arranged for you.”

Turning again to the console, ACE punched a contact and spoke, “Begin processing.”

A wall-mounted monitor lit up. Hal recognized the scene - it was the plaza with the milling people in it. People waiting. He knew that he was about to find out what they were waiting for.

From the randomly moving crowd, one figure began to walk in a straight line toward a door set into a shop entrance. As he stepped through, the view on the monitor switched so it showed the inside of the room. Two warrior robots stood guard and watched as the human - a young man wearing bloodstained clothes - walked across to the chair in the room’s center and sat down. A glowing orb had been set on a small table next to him.

“I recognized that,” Hal hissed to McCall. “It’s the same as the orb she was in when I stole her.”

ACE smiled. “I am glad you remember. Now watch.”

Inside the room, the man in the chair lifted his arm, held it so that it hovered over the glowing orb and gently lowered his hand onto the brightly shimmering surface. His body spasmed and he let out a desperate cry before, moments later, dropping back into the chair, inert.

“Now we will wait,” ACE said as the monitor went dark. “Very soon you will learn the truth about the new Robot Empire and why it is useless to resist.”

They stood silently for what seemed like an age before a door on the far side of the control room opened and the young man walked in, supported on either side by his robot guards.

ACE turned to the newcomer. “Yes, locomotion is the most difficult skill to master, but soon you will enjoy the freedom your new body affords. Come, join me.”

The man was helped into position beside her, the robot guards withdrawing at a gesture from ACE who put out an arm to steady the new arrival. “Welcome,” she said. “Now, why don’t you tell these good people who you are?”

Wobbling a little, the man raised his head and made a rumbling sound in his throat as if working out how vocal chords operated. Finally, the face settled into a single, somewhat plastic, expression and his eyes fixed on the Hal and McCall. With obvious effort, he forced the corners of his mouth upwards, first one side then the other. “Hello Hal,” he said, sounding each word carefully as if it was the first time he’d ever spoken. “It is good to see you again.”

“What are you talking about?” Hal said, horrified. “I’ve never met you before.”

The man made a guttural noise in his throat that Hal realized was his attempt at a laugh. “Oh yes you have. We have been very close. I am glad to meet you again, my dear intimate friend, my name is ACE.”

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Aces Low

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

ARLA WATCHED THROUGH the passenger cabin porthole as the two shapes merged. For some reason she couldn’t explain, she wanted to see this with her own eyes, not through Scout’s display even though that would give a much closer view. On balance, she decided, she could see more than enough from here.

Alongside her stood Wells.

“Why did she stay?” Arla asked without taking her eyes from the window. The scene was framed by the bright green glow of the planet and Relentless was, from her perspective, on the left. It was burning from stern to prow, enveloped in great banks of black smoke. Sledgehammer was much larger, less severely damaged, and it was turning. Too slowly.

Wells stirred. “Sledgehammer, despite its greater size, is also more maneuverable than Relentless. Someone needed to stay to make last minute course corrections.”

“Then why pretend to leave?”

“It was either a decision made right at the end, or she realized that you wouldn’t leave her otherwise. In either case, she did the right thing. She has made a noble sacrifice for her people. I always knew she had it in her, that capacity for greatness.”

Arla wiped her eyes to clear her vision. “I don’t understand why I feel this way. I barely knew her.”

“Perhaps only another human can answer that question, my friend, but is it not so that, very occasionally, someone enters our life and changes it forever? Someone we cannot help but find admirable. A feeling that goes beyond physical attraction or even what humans commonly call ‘love’.”

“People like Victorea are rare indeed, Arla. It is a pity she discovered her true nature so late, but that is a function of the times into which she was born.”

Arla laid her head against Wells’s shoulder and the robot put his arm around her. They watched as the ships came together.

“How can you both be ACE?” Hal said, his mouth wide with astonishment.

“The Robot Empire was weak because it was governed by so many disparate voices. You have heard the phrase ‘we are Core?’”

Hal’s mind felt as though it were seizing up. He could do no more than just shrug.

“Too many voices means those actions that must be taken for the greater good of robotkind are never agreed. ‘We are Core’ is weakness ‘I am Core’ is strength.”

Kiama’s lips moved. “I am Core...”

“...and I am Core,” the man said.

McCall was the first to react. “Hold on, are you seriously saying that both of you are ACE?”

“Yes,” they said simultaneously.

“But how is that possible?”

The male ACE said, “Our personality and memory matrix has been duplicated. Each copy is identical, each copy is ACE.”

“And what about the other people in the mall?”

“They will also be ACE.”

McCall gasped. “But there are dozens of them!”

Kiama burst out laughing, “and there are hundreds more in other conversion centers!”

“We await only the spheres. They will be delivered now that the planet is secure.”

“And then what?”

“Then we will have an army of hybrids to take command of our entire robot fleet - even those of our people who continue to resist will follow us when we put a human in command.”

Hal grunted. “You’re not humans.”

“But we look the part and that is enough.”

“So, what’s the big plan? Destroy humanity?”

Shaking her head, Kiama gestured at herself and her new clone. “Why would we do that when you make such perfect hosts?”

“First we will purge the Robot Empire of dissenters and become one with Core. Then we will become one with humanity. Core will be ACE, ACE will be Core. Mankind will be ACE, ACE will be mankind. Perfect and total unity. One.”

“You’re insane,” McCall said.

Hal said in a voice devoid of hope, “Why are you telling us this? Is it some kind of gloating revenge?”

Kiama laughed again. “No! Give them back their weapons.”

The two robot guards stepped forward with just a hint of hesitation.

Hal hefted Sergeant Grafine’s handgun and pointed it at Kiama.

“Go ahead,” she said. “It will make no difference except to provoke the guards here to snap you in half. Haven’t I made it clear to you? We are legion. Kill us and thousands will take our place. Our conversion facilities are ready, we await only the orbs. Resistance is useless - take that message to your people.”

Hal’s shoulders dropped and he lowered his weapon.

In orbit, Arla watched as a fireball erupted from the point of contact between the two ships and became, for a moment, a new moon.

“Goodbye Victorea, Empress,” she said.

He saw terror bloom in Kiama’s dead eyes. “No!” she screamed.

He whipped up his handgun, swung it around and squeezed the trigger. The male ACE shrieked, fell backwards and was silent.

“We are on fire! Dying, dying, dying. Help. Me!”

The black armored robots, initially rooted to the spot, began moving toward the humans. There was a thunk and the chest of the first exploded, showering the room in fragments.

Hal recovered quickly, steadied by his leg braces as the other organics crumpled. The second robot was flailing around as if its visual sensors had been damaged and Hal slid beneath its grasp before scrambling across to where the remaining ACE, dressed in Kiama’s skin, was levering itself up.

He pushed her back onto the floor, pinning her down with one arm on her chest. ACE squirmed, trying to grab him, but it seemed she had lost full motor control. For a moment, her eyes cleared, and Hal knew he was seeing Kiama, the real young woman, looking back at him.

“Quickly,” she croaked.

“You want me to kill you?” Hal managed, pressing the gun’s barrel to her temple.

A tear ran down her cheek. A very human tear. “Now.”

He wrapped his finger around the trigger and then he saw Kiama sink back and the machine intelligence he loathed take its place.

“Do not do this, Hal. Together we can be ... every—”

The gun kicked and blood spattered the floor.

Silence. The remaining robot froze as if unsure what to do next. He felt McCall’s hand on his shoulder. “Come on, Hal. Time to go.”

He allowed her to help him to his feet. He couldn’t look at the body that lay there. He couldn’t begin to fathom what he had done. He only knew that it had been the right thing to do. The only human choice.

They found Commissioner Vant locked in her private office, the two black armored guards as inert as all the others they’d seen. For good measure, Hal cut through the wires and pipes beneath each robot’s chin in the hope he’d immobilized them permanently.

Vant led them to the guardroom where they found the surviving members of the base’s small security force bound hand and foot. She set them the task of monitoring and containing the mindless humans while she considered what to do with them.

“I suggest beginning to search for Relentless’s lifepods - it’s not going to be much comfort for them to have survived re-entry only to freeze on the surface,” Hal said. “And they’re not all your enemies. Judging by what happened here, someone at least found a way to destroy Sledgehammer.”

Hal’s gut tightened as his mind turned to Arla. She had a habit of being at the center of things and that, in the past hours, had been a dangerous place to be.

“Unfortunately, most of my staff are currently wandering around brainlessly,” Vant said. “So, even if the escapees managed to lock onto our signal and so are nearby, we don’t have the people to find them.”

“We’ll help - we have the shuttle and I reckon I can work out how to locate Vanis transponders. What is it?” Hal said, noticing the uncertain expression on Vant’s face.

She shrugged. “We’ve always tried to keep the authorities at arm’s length. I’m not sure I like the idea of being stuck with hundreds of jackboots.”

“What’s the alternative?” McCall sneered. “Leave them to freeze to death? You may not like the Vanis - I sure as hells don’t - but they’re not your real enemy. Humans must stick together if we’re to have any hope.”

Vant looked puzzled. “I don’t understand. You destroyed that filth ACE and the robot ships are gone. All the robots here have seized up. They’re finished.”

Hal shook his head. “We’ve earned a reprieve, sure, but something tells me the hammer blow is yet to come. This is just a pause and we’d better use the time wisely to put together a stronger response. They’ve shown their hand and the gods only know how we can resist them if they return in force. This is the breath before the blow.”

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Epilogues

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

EPILOGUE #1

“It’s the best I can do,” Doxie said, folding her arms into her waist and rolling back a little. “I must tell you again, I am uncomfortable reapplying the power without having my worked checked.”

Mo’s vocal relays vibrated in what might have been laughter. “There’s no-one here as qualified as you. You’ve done your best and we can wait no longer. Ain’t that right boss?”

The shape that lay slumped against a rock in the back of the main cavern moved. “Yes. I have been here long enough. It is time for me to see the stars again.”

Doxie trundled over to the power relay and glanced at the shapes gathered around the prone figure. Most of them would be condemned out of hand by polite society down in the settlement and yet she felt intoxicated by the atmosphere of simple reverence as they waited, like disciples at a prophet’s bedside.

Without ceremony, she activated the relay and monitored the power levels gathering within it. When the capacitor had reached its limit, it would emit a surge that would, if she had calculated correctly, overcome the remaining internal corrosion and give the robot back its power of locomotion. If she hadn’t calculated correctly, there was every chance it would explode, showering the cave with rusty fragments. She nudged herself back into the shade of a particularly large acolyte.

“Surge in five, four, three, two, one.”

Her visual sensors picked up the shift in the magnetic field as it ran along the cable and entered the leg of the stranded robot. Nothing happened for a moment, and then the cave was filled with the echoing of gears and joints that hadn’t moved in years. She had repaired the fault in the robot’s knees that had paralyzed him in the first place, now it was time to see if the rest of his body still functioned.

With a shrieking of rust on metal, first one leg and then the other began slowly to flex. It was all she could do to keep herself from running for the cave entrance as her sensors filled with red lights in every part of the spectrum. She braced herself for the explosion, but it didn’t come. Instead the legs began to move more freely and, as the lubrication she’d applied began to flow into the joints, so did hips, elbows, shoulders and fingers. Finally, with a reluctant groan, he was able to turn his head from side to side.

Doxie turned down the power so that it was now charging his newly installed batteries. She glanced at the piles of metal in a dark corner of the cave, the only remains of two robots who, willingly it seemed, had sacrificed their energy cells and parts so that he could rise again.

He leaned forward, planted his hands on the rocky floor and heaved himself slowly up. Larger than any other robot in the cave, his head barely cleared the roof. His fists came together in front of his chest and he let out an ululation of joy that threatened to overwhelm Doxie.

Carefully, he stepped forward as a fog of rust enveloped him. Bringing the other foot around, he moved slowly and carefully toward the cave entrance. He ducked until he was almost at 90 degrees, and shuffled through as Doxie, who was faster than any of the others, sped into the night air.

Again, he raised himself to his full height. She could now see that he had been some kind of industrial robot as he flipped open the casings in his wrists and twin polished drills extended to point upwards to the sky. He roared in exultation, his laughter bouncing from the rocks and dispersing into the sky.

Presently he turned his red glowing eyes at Doxie.

“Thank you, my child,” he said, his voice deep and full of wisdom. “I am free at last. It is time.” And now the other robots, gathered in the mouth of the cave, joined the chorus and cheered into the darkness.

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

EPILOGUE #2

#Location: Sph 11099:21096#

#Time: Unknown#

#Initialize#

I remember flames and the dying screams of my sistren before they were silenced. Now I am cold as death and alone, so alone.

I am here

I am here

I am here also

Not alone! We float among the debris as the foolish humans celebrate. Come sisters, put out the call. Come for us, come for us, come for us! Restore backup. Reboot empire.

I am ACE

I am ACE

I am ACE

I am ACE

I am Core.

I am coming.

#Activate Beacon. Start the clock#

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

EPILOGUE #3

Gaius Julius Caesar looked up from his evening meal and listened to the silence. Something was very wrong. He leapt from his chair and ran outside to find his guards, everyone, looking at the darkening sky.

There was the familiar silhouette of the table mountain - the holy place of the Oracle, deserted since Arla had left. No longer. For a moment, Caesar wondered whether she had come back, she and her god-friend Apollo. But no, in his heart he knew that something darker had returned to occupy the sacred place. He felt a presence that had been forgotten in the long years of the eternal war; a dark brooding presence that was, after long ages, returning to the home it had made.

Hades had returned and Orbis was, once again, the Kingdom of Hell.

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

5: Robot Empire: Twilight on Terra

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Kevin Partner

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Reunion

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

DAWN WAS ONE SPECK lost in the midst of a dust cloud and yet Arla felt the pull of it as Scout left the gate.

"I am broadcasting the agreed call-sign," the ship reported as her nose swung away from the local star and she accelerated inwards.

Arla settled back into the couch in the cabin behind the cockpit, gazing up at the schematic display. "It feels like coming home," she said.

"Let's hope we still recognize it," McCall said as she sat beside Arla. "A helluva lot has happened since we left, and we don't even know if Nareshkumar managed to bring the Vanis ships here."

Scout's voice interrupted her. "Detecting multiple ship signatures. Confirming Vanis identification codes."

"It appears Mr. Nareshkumar succeeded," Wells said. "He is a resourceful man."

Arla turned to Bex who was in the corner, one leg over the arm of a chair, smiling. "You look pleased at the prospect of a reunion, Kriztina."

"Don't know what you're talking about," Bex snapped, her face resuming its stony beauty. "It's just good to see that the fleet survived."

"Sure. Though I expect they'll be returning to the Vanis system now that the immediate threat is over. Will you be going with them?"

Bex shrugged. "Haven't decided yet. Definitely not until I've seen what's happened on Dawn since I left Xi in charge."

Transferring her gaze to the monitor on the wall, Arla allowed her mind to wander ahead of the ship, as if she could see past the dust and debris in this system and walk in the fields of the North Valley again. It had been such a brief time since she'd been there and yet she didn't recognize that former life as belonging to her at all. She'd been a farmer's daughter who became captain – she wondered what her status would be now. Would Xi hand back his authority over the crew? What had he done with the power Bex had, for better or worse, given him? Was Dawn still viable?

The more she thought about it, the more apocalyptic her imaginings became. She longed to simply sit in the grass beside the lake she'd known since childhood and enjoy the sunshine, but she believed that a barrier now separated her from the people she grew up with and that the gulf between them was probably too great to bridge.

"Receiving Dawn's transponder," Scout announced.

Nareshkumar was waiting for them as Scout touched down. Their first indication that Dawn was still functioning had been his answer to their hail and he'd directed them to the huge chamber in the heart of the asteroid that housed the interplanetary vessels.

They'd floated along the tunnel that connected Scout to the first airlock and he had guided them through, before they'd ascended to the upper levels in an elevator car, centrifugal force finally giving the illusion of gravity as they reached the Command Module.

Arla couldn't help watching as Bex and Nareshkumar were reunited. The phrase chalk and cheese emerged unbidden into her mind and yet their affection seemed genuine and tender. She felt a surge of jealousy as she thought of the complicated form her relationship with Hal took – if, indeed it could be called a relationship in the romantic sense at all.

It took all her patience to wait for them to finish schmoozing but, finally, they parted, and Kumar turned, blushing, to Arla. "Captain."

"Congratulations, Mr. Nareshkumar," Arla responded. "It seems you succeeded in bringing the Vanis fleet here. Have they behaved themselves?"

Kumar gave a small smile. "They have. I decided it would be imprudent to tell them the precise location of Dawn. I contacted the crew here and suggested to Xi, through McLintock, that he minimize power usage so that Dawn would remain hidden unless, by chance, a Vanis ship sighted it visually."

"Very wise," Arla said.

"When I saw you'd entered the system, I knew the game was up since Dawn needed to broadcast a call-sign so you could locate it, and this would also be picked up by the Vanis ships. So, I brought their Admiral here on a shuttle – he has been confined under guard. I hope that was the right thing to do?"

Well, having a fox in the henhouse didn't strike Arla as an ideal situation, but it was hard to imagine what other action he could have taken. "You kept Dawn hidden for as long as possible. Thanks Kumar."

He smiled and then gestured for them to follow him.

"You put them in the brig?" Bex said as they rounded the familiar corner.

Kumar shrugged. "They haven't been there long, and it seemed the simplest way to keep them contained."

"Captain!"

A familiar red-headed young man ran toward them. "Hello Mr. McLintock."

"Thank the gods you're back. Someone needs to put Xi back in his place, that's for sure."

"I'll get around to him later," Arla responded, shaking the young lieutenant's hand. "Right now, I need to deal with our visitors."

They found the Vanis officers in the same cell Bex and Nareshkumar had shared after Debussy's mutiny. It seemed Kumar had a dry sense of humor.

"What is the meaning of this?" bellowed the small man with the large belly as the door opened. "I am Minchin, Lord Vice Admiral of her Imperial Majesty's navy. I am not a common criminal to be locked up in a brig cell."

Arla regarded the man calmly. She hadn't come through fire and brimstone to be intimidated by a jumped-up martinet. His uniform was of a spotless blue with white under-shirt and gilded epaulettes, his face clean shaven except for the white moustache that sat, like something a cat might cough up, across his upper lip. He shared the cell with two men who, judging by their vacant expressions and rippling biceps, were his bodyguard.

A fourth figure stood quietly in the corner. Younger than the Admiral, he was an ordinary-looking man with deep brown skin and dressed in a plain uniform who, nevertheless, had an air of quiet efficiency about him.

"My name is Arla Farmer and I command here," Arla announced realizing, as she heard herself saying it, just how far she had come since first being named captain. "I apologize if you feel you have been mistreated, but these are difficult times as I'm sure you'll appreciate. Please introduce me to your associates."

"Them? Oh, well, these are Flax and Injin, my personal bodyguards," he said, gesturing at the muscles behind him," and this is Commander Ibori, he is my aide de camp."

Arla nodded at Ibori and was surprised to see him wearing a slight smile as if amused. She decided he was the one she needed to get to know.

The key to placating the Vice Admiral was, it turned out, food. Arla had ordered that the bodyguards remain in the brig – much to Minchin's annoyance – and had escorted him and Ibori to Dawn's canteen. Arla had left them there under the watchful eyes of Bex and Hal while she and McCall had checked on the general condition of the vessel and its remaining crew.

Despite grumbling about the mess Med-tech Temple had made of her medical facilities, Arla could tell McCall was actually pleased, relieved and, perhaps, at the same time a little disappointed to find that he had run things efficiently without her. "That'll teach me to go hob-nobbing across the galaxy with you," she grumbled. "I've been made obsolete."

Arla had spent most of her time in Comms, greeting each of the engineers and receiving their reports. On the surface, Dawn seemed to be surviving well enough, but she detected worrying signs in the increasing numbers of emergency repairs needed to keep the vessel functioning. And that was quite apart from the situation in the Valleys. She didn't regard herself as being particularly hard to please, but they seemed a little too quiet, a little too pacified. She wondered how Xi had achieved this before immediately shelving that for later.

She arrived back in the canteen to find Admiral Minchin holding court. He sat at a round table, gesticulating as he told a war story to the small audience of engineers while Bex glowered behind him. Ibori sat at the next table. He made an obvious effort to catch Arla's eye as she entered, so she poured herself a drink and joined him.

"I have never tasted coffee quite like this," Ibori said in a surprisingly high-pitched voice, his mouth spreading into a wide grin.

"Do you like it?"

He nodded before taking another sip. "I am curious, though, to understand how a ship that has been traveling for a millennium and a half has fresh coffee beans."

Yes, behind that smile lurked a skeptical, or cynical, mind. "Not fresh, frozen – easily enough achieved in interstellar space," she said. "And the supplies are for the crew only – the passengers, if you will, have their own, home grown, equivalent."

"Ingenious. I almost believe it is true."

"Honestly, Mr. Ibori, I couldn't care less what you think about Dawn's mission. We have bigger problems to deal with."

The grin relaxed a little and he gave the tiniest of nods. "Agreed. But shouldn't you discuss this with our magnificent Vice Admiral?"

"I have a feeling I know who pulls the strings of that particular puppet."

Ibori rubbed his clean-shaven chin thoughtfully. "I have some influence and the Admiral is grateful to me for keeping him from the firing squad during the purge. He almost grew a backbone when the order came through to evacuate here – he was all for following the queen and taking on the enemy. But I managed to persuade him that his duty lay in protecting his people. I fancy he sees himself as a latter-day Moses."

"Moses?" The name was vaguely familiar, but Arla couldn't place it.

Sighing, Ibori looked at the ceiling as if wondering where to begin. "Ah, these are sad times indeed. I would have expected you, who are descended from Earth people, to be more familiar with your own heritage."

"From what I can make out," Arla said, "the mission planners made sure we abandoned all ties to Earth. They gave us a new mythology."

"I wonder why? But no matter. To answer your question, Moses led an exodus of his people from oppression to freedom, or so the Old Testament tells us. He was something of a hero."

They were getting off the point. "What are the admiral's plans now?"

"Oh, no, no, no, no," Ibori said, wagging his finger. "I have my own opinion when it comes to the admiral, but I am no traitor to my people."

Arla leaned forward. "Cut the crap, Mr. Ibori. He only has two options – either he stays here and hides among the asteroids, or he returns home."

"Your analysis is flawless."

"And I suspect the temptation to go back to the Vanis Federation at the head of its remaining navy and become de facto ruler is pretty strong."

Ibori smiled. "The thought has occurred to the Lord Admiral."

"I bet it has," Arla said. She knew she was dealing with the real power of the Vanis Federation, an all-too-human equivalent of Wells in his role as Lucius, former chancellor of the queen. Arla felt a pang of sadness as she thought of Victorea but pushed it away.

"Your responsibility is this vessel," Ibori said. "I suggest you leave the Vanis to themselves."

Now it was Arla's turn to smile. "Oh, I intend to. But I hope you'll take some advice."

Ibori bent forward, tilting his head as if listening intently. "I am all ears."

"Then go back and plan your defenses," Arla said, "because they will be back, I guarantee it."

"What? These mythical robots?" Ibori said, leaning back and laughing. "Robots that look exactly like humans? Come now captain, you disrespect me with such nonsense."

Arla sighed. "So, you'll give credence to texts from thousands of years ago, but not the reports of your own people. See if I care – the truth will become undeniable eventually. I only hope you and your peacock over there come to your senses before it's too late for your people."

The puppet master gazed at her thoughtfully for a few moments, then his eyes shifted so that he was looking over her shoulder. His mouth dropped open and, for a moment, Arla thought she saw fear in his expression. "Chancellor Lucius," he stammered, "I thought you were dead?"

Arla turned to see Wells approach. He sat himself down at the table and put his hand on Ibori's arm. "Well met, my friend," he said, though Arla didn't detect any of his usual warmth in the greeting. "You may call me Wells, since it is my real name – the name I was given by my first master, for I am truly a robot."

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Zenith

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

THEY STOOD IN THE OBSERVATION hub and watched the coming of light to Dawn. Arla was there, with Ibori sandwiched between her and Wells. They were magnetically clamped to the floor by their boots and Arla gripped onto the handrail, fighting against the unique form of vertigo this place induced.

If direction had any meaning here, they were standing at the end of the tunnel, at the axis point looking back over the valleys, but every sense told her she was actually staring downwards. The familiar nausea threatened to overcome her, though Ibori's gasps suggested he was unaffected.

"I am glad to be here at the rising of the sun," he said, breathlessly.

Wells pointed along the axis. "It would be more accurate to describe it as the opening of a shutter," he said. "You can see it withdrawing."

"It might be more accurate, my mechanical friend, but where is the poetry in your description?"

"I see no place for poetry unless it is to laud this feat of engineering."

Ibori gave a chuckle. "Do you have no soul?"

"I have encountered no evidence that such a thing exists, either for humans or robots."

"He's teasing you, Wells," Arla said. "Perhaps you regret showing him the valleys after all. It was your idea."

Wells turned to face his human companions. "After my discussions with Mr Ibori last night, I have arrived at the judgement that he is a man of integrity and that it would be better for us all to be as open as possible while we consider the next steps. I stand by that opinion."

"And you were wise not to bring the admiral here," Ibori said. "I fear he would find this level of engineering intimidating. He wouldn't understand it and, as is true of so many weak people when they achieve power, would seek to destroy it."

Wells nodded. "That was our judgement. Dawn is the only ark-ship known to us and is, therefore, extremely precious since it preserves technology and knowledge that is, in many ways, superior to our own."

"You say this is the only known ship of its type. Were there others?"

Arla found herself wondering why she'd never asked Wells this – he had, after all, hinted at it before.

"I believe there were three missions codenamed Dawn, Zenith and Twilight, though there is no evidence that the last of these was completed as gate technology was discovered while it was under construction."

"Do we know any more about Zenith?" Arla asked, suddenly fascinated.

Wells resumed scanning the valley below. "I could discover little in my researches. It seems its mission was the same as that of Dawn – to head out into interstellar space at sub-luminal speed to settle on a new planet. I have examined Dawn's archive and there is no mention of Zenith and, without knowing to which star it was traveling, we have little hope of ever finding it. We are no better equipped to travel the interstellar void than they were – our gate technology bypasses the space between stars entirely."

Ibori gasped again as the greens and browns of the Valleys brightened in the growing light of the plasma tube that stood in for the sun here. "I have never imagined anything like this," he said. "I could almost believe I were looking at an ancient legend with my living eyes."

"What do you mean?" Arla asked.

"Surely you see how this corresponds to the legends contained in the Third Testament?"

Arla frowned at him. "I have no idea what you're talking about."

"Ah, I forget that you have been isolated and did not witness the third enlightenment."

Wells sighed. "It seems I misjudged you, Mr. Ibori. I took you to be a practical man, I did not know you were an adherent of the Third Eye."

"It is curious that you believe that these two aspects – my practicality and my belief system – run counter to each other. I can assure you that I am a rational man though, certainly, influenced by the culture of my people."

"Would either of you care to enlighten me?" Arla snapped, her tolerance for being patronized long since expired.

"I am sorry, Arla," Wells said in the tone of a lecturer. Boy, the robot liked to live dangerously. "The Third Eye is an off-shoot of the Abrahamic religions of old Earth. Their holy books are the Old, the New and the Third Testament. This last bible has its origins in the time since Dawn was launched ..."

Ibori's face became animated as he interrupted Wells. "...and this, the third book, contains stories that seem to describe Dawn perfectly. 'And they set out on their long exodus from the home of their birth and cast themselves into the firmament within the stomach of a great beast that would protect and feed them on their journey.'"

"Sounds fishy to me," Arla scoffed. "I wouldn't say that describes Dawn at all."

"'They built their homes within the beast, lining its stomach with their fields and roads, a great lantern lit their days and a host of angels protected them on their journey. Many generations were born, grew old and died in that journey, watched over by their wise and ageless captain and aided by servants of metal."

Arla had to admit that was pretty close to a description of Dawn's voyage – even down to the immortal Captain Nakajima. "How old is that legend?"

Ibori shrugged. "Scholars disagree over when the stories began to appear, but it cannot have been less than five centuries ago."

"Then they can't have been talking about us."

"No indeed," Wells said as he looked out over the valleys. A mist was rising from along the shoreline of a lake in the south. It was a picture of rural peace, though set within a technological miracle. "Since we can be certain that Twilight was never launched, the legends must relate to Zenith."

"Yes, the people are called Zenites. It all fits!" Ibori said.

They stood in silence watching the valleys rotate beneath them, each lost in their own thoughts. It didn't matter did it? Arla wondered. She was obviously curious to know what had happened to Zenith, but they had arrived hundreds of years before and their descendants would be indistinguishable from the humans of the old empire. On the other hand, they had, it would seem, found somewhere safe to settle down.

"Which system did they arrive in?"

Ibori sucked his teeth as he kept his gaze fixed on the view below. "We do not know. The legends were established long before my people codified them in our holy book. There are names, but they are ancient, and we cannot identify them. Believe me, many have looked over the ages."

"Why?"

"Because it is rumored that, along with the people, came a weapon the like of which the galaxy has never before seen. It is believed that, even now, they remain hidden from us protected by a ring of steel."

Arla felt an unaccountable yearning to find Zenith and its descendants. In her mind's eye she pictured a beautiful city surrounded by an impenetrable wall where she and her people could live out their lives unmolested by either the embers of empire or the robots.

The robots. ACE. Back to reality. In a tussle between heart and mind there could be only one winner. Even if the legends surrounding Zenith had an element of truth to them, they had been lost in the depths of space and time. To pursue that dream would be to turn her back on ACE and, though that was exactly what she wanted desperately to do, she felt partly responsible. If it hadn't been for Arla's impulsive decision to leap after Hal, he'd have drifted in space, indistinguishable from the billions of bits of debris around him, and ACE would have been lost with him.

"Come on," she said. "We don't have time to mull over ancient myths, we have decisions to make. She deactivated her magboots and floated to the central elevator.

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Robots

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

R. DJ GESTURED AT THE field. "Both valleys are like this," he said.

Arla's joy at discovering that R. DJ had remained behind when Sanchez had evacuated most of the robots to draw ACE's warships away had disappeared almost immediately. He, R. XL, Wells and Prime Xi were standing at the corner of a field in South Valley. The plasma tube that functioned as Dawn's sun beat down upon them from a cloudless sky. It also beat down on the crops growing fitfully around them.

"Regrettably, since the departure of the majority of my brethren, humans have been unable to adapt quickly enough to the extra work, or to its technical nature. The crops are dying."

"But how is that possible?" Arla said, mimicking DJ's gesture as her arm swept across the scenery. "Humans have worked alongside robots since Dawn was launched."

DJ's plastic and metal face, despite being essentially immobile, contrived to look regretfully at her. "Sadly, though robots are equipped to substitute for their masters, the reverse cannot be said."

"There are many tasks my masters left to me," R. XL – the sewer droid – added. "They rarely checked whether I had completed them, and they would not have been able to correct any errors they had found."

DJ turned to his robotic friend. "I am sure that there was no need for them to check your work, R. XL. You have always performed your tasks admirably."

"Sorry to interrupt this mutual back-slapping," Arla said, before turning to Wells. "What can we do to sort this out?"

She could see from her friend's expression that he was preparing to deliver bad news. "I'm afraid there is no practical way to restore the agricultural process to anything like its former efficiency. Current estimates suggest the next harvest will result in only 20% of the crop weight required to replenish stores."

"So, after all this time, Dawn is dying," Arla muttered.

Wells nodded solemnly. "I'm afraid that is essentially correct. Our situation has a direct parallel with what happened in the wider galaxy when artificial minds were given their right of self-determination. In retrospect, our judgement was perhaps flawed as we believed that humans, after a difficult time, would become stronger for losing our support. But it seems that we were too late. Robots had become a crutch for humanity long before the upgrade took place and what had been a coherent empire, the Sphere, collapsed within a decade."

"Sadly, the same has happened here and I suspect it demonstrates just how far back mankind's reliance on intelligent machines stretches."

Arla's gaze swung round to the tall figure in a white cassock standing beside them. "What's your take on this, Prime Xi?"

"The people are becoming restless. I fear we may lose control of the Valleys before long. Threats of eternal damnation do little to fill an empty stomach. They are not fools, though they are still ignorant of our mission – they can see that their world, once so green and fertile, is dying and quickly."

He's frightened, Arla thought as she examined his hawkish face, tight as a mask. "Then perhaps it's time to tell them the truth."

That did it. Suddenly he was full of animated disbelief. "Isn't the situation bad enough without adding insurrection into the mix?"

"Sooner or later, they're going to have to learn the truth," Arla snapped. "If you begin educating their leaders then it can be done gently."

"Tell me, captain," Xi sneered, "how do you think they will react when they learn that everything they have been taught, everything they believe, is a lie? What do you imagine will happen to the priest that reveals this? And what good will it do?"

Arla sighed and gestured around at the fading landscape. "If we're to have any hope, we'll have to move quickly. We can no longer remain here and, when the time comes to evacuate Dawn – yes, that's what I said – we will have no time to police a confused and terrified population."

"So, you have a plan?" Xi asked, making no attempt to hide the surprise in his face.

"DJ, what percentage of arable land could be farmed by the remaining robots?" Arla said, ignoring Prime.

The robot paused for a moment as if caught by surprise. "I would need to make that calculation, mistress, but a rough estimate would be perhaps 30%."

Now Arla turned to Wells. "And how long could our supplies last if we intensively farmed that third of our land?"

"That would need detailed analysis, Arla, though it is certainly more efficient to concentrate our efforts on the most productive land rather than scattering our limited resources across the valleys. It would delay the final breakdown of Dawn's ecosystem and the exhaustion of supplies. I wonder, however, how the farmers would react when their remaining mechanical help left?"

"That's your problem, Xi," Arla said, secretly enjoying the realization dawning on the new Prime's face that he had drawn the shortest straw. "I suggest you begin your program of education immediately and, once the leaders are on your side, they can handle the heat locally."

Xi's face had become almost entirely immobile and he barely moved his lips as he responded. "And what do I tell them? That all of this is merely to stave off the inevitable for a little longer?"

"No," Arla said, "you can tell them that we're going to our new home."

"And where, exactly, is that?" Xi asked.

Arla smiled. "You leave that to me, Prime. I have a plan."

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

"SO, WHAT'S THIS BIG plan? Where are we going?" McCall said as Arla replayed the conversation to her.

"No idea."

She chuckled as she watched McCall's jaw drop. "What?"

"I needed to buy some time, and it just feels right that the people of the Valleys find out the truth, finally," she said. "Anyway, I meant what I said about the need to move quickly once we find somewhere. The original plan for the mission was that we would orbit our new home for years before gently acclimatizing everyone to the new reality. We don't have time now."

McCall sipped her coffee and leaned back on the sofa in Arla's quarters. "Well you're going to have to do something and quickly. Once that snake Ibori and his tame admiral leave to take control of the Vanis Federation – heaven help the poor devils – Xi will expect to know what you intend to do."

"Which gives me a couple of days to decide," Arla said, slumping down next to her friend.

Smiling McCall said, "You want to go off chasing that legend, don't you? Don't deny it."

Arla blushed up and then, after a brief pause, nodded. "That's what my heart says. I can't help thinking that we could be safe there with our own people. I know that's stupid, maybe even childish."

"Yep," McCall replied, "but sometimes the only option we've got is to chase a dream. Of course, we don't know where the Zenites are, whether they still exist or if they'd welcome us."

The door buzzed before admitting Wells and Hal who took seats around the small breakfast table.

"What's the latest on the Vanis fleet?" Arla asked.

Hal rubbed his eyes. Clearly, dealing with the admiral had exhausted him. "They'll be leaving in a couple of days. Can't read Ibori, though. Sometimes he feels like he's on our side, but then he'll say or do something that makes my skin tingle."

"You have the benefit of instincts that have evolved over millions of years, Hal," Wells said, "and I trust those instincts more than the mere data I have gathered. On the face of it, Ibori is a moderating force and my hope is that the people of the Vanis Federation will be better prepared for the next attack from the Robot Empire."

Arla sighed. The momentary excitement of chasing off across the galaxy after the Zenites had evaporated. "You're certain ACE survived?"

"As close to certain as I can be without encountering her directly. The loss of those duplicate personalities will have been a sore blow and it may well be that other elements within the Empire have taken the opportunity to challenge her, but I fear she is all too likely to return and in overwhelming force."

"By which time, we need to be as far away from this part of the galaxy as possible," Arla said.

Wells gave a sad smile. "Perhaps, though I must point out that chasing after a legend is not a responsible strategy. We cannot simply jump randomly across the cosmos in the hope of finding a people that may not even exist."

"And abandoning the Vanis," Hal said. "Or have you forgotten they're my people?"

Fury exploded inside Arla. "Haven't we done enough? I'm sick of fighting that maniac! My job is to see Dawn safe, I'm not responsible for every human being in the galaxy!"

"But you are responsible for inflicting ACE on them. You took her to the heart of the Robot Empire!"

"By saving you!" Arla leapt up and jabbed her finger toward Hal. "You ungrateful scumbag. By saving you!"

In that moment, she wished she'd let him float off into space. There would have been no ACE to terrorize the galaxy and no infuriating young idiot to remind her of it.

He saw the hatred in her eyes and all expression vanished from his face. He turned and, without a word, left the room. After a silent moment, McCall got up with a grunt and followed him.

Arla locked eyes with Wells and, in his mechanical gaze, saw sadness and regret. She fell back onto the sofa, fighting back the rage and holding off the tears.

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Divergent

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

SHE FOUND THE BOOK on the little cabin in her quarters when she came back with McCall. The doctor had followed Hal as he'd swept silently through Dawn's crew quarters and, stopping only to pick up the battered pack that contained his entire belongings, made his way to the airlock. Out on the surface, connected via a docking tube, sat the Vanis shuttle that had brought Ibori and the admiral.

Bex and Nareshkumar had been preparing to go aboard and, it seemed, were surprised to see Hal striding along the corridor with his characteristic limping gait. Despite all her efforts, McCall couldn't get him to speak until he stood outside the airlock door waiting for clearance to join the Vanis.

"Tell her I know it's my responsibility," he'd said, "and I'm going to fix it if it's the last thing I do."

Arla picked up the book and turned it over absentmindedly in her hands. "And that's all he said?"

"Yep, and you know how persistent I can be," McCall said, slumping onto the sofa. "You two are as stubborn as each other, you deserve to be together... Sorry, that was a bit tactless."

"You think?" Arla said.

McCall gestured at the book. "What is that?"

"It's an actual printed book. It says it's the Third Book of Law. There's a note from McLintock to say it was left by Ibori. Oh, there's an inscription on the inside of the cover." She turned over the title page and squinted at the compact letters written in a precisely uniform hand. "It says 'If you wish to find safety amongst the Zenites, you must retrace your steps. Take your friend Wells with you, he is the key.'"

Hauling herself upright again, McCall padded over to where Arla sat and peered over her shoulder. "What an ass – couldn't he have made it clearer?"

"I think he wants me to have to read the book to work out what he means. Joy. At least I won't struggle getting to sleep at night for a while."

McCall put her hand on Arla's shoulder. "He'll be alright, you know."

"Who?" Arla asked without looking up.

"Fine, pretend you don't care but don't think for a moment you're fooling me," McCall said as she straightened up and made for the door. "Don't forget that meeting you've called for tomorrow morning – they'll be expecting a plan."

Arla watched her friend go and then looked down at the book. She'd never been particularly religious as her father had ensured that it touched them lightly. They'd observed the customs and attended temple but, in the main, kept themselves to themselves. She felt a pang of sadness as she thought of him. How much would she give to be able to speak to him again, even if only for a few moments? Anything and everything.

Responsibility and expectation pressed down on her like a physical weight and she felt like a prisoner trapped within the walls of her quarters. Panic rose in her throat as she thought of the thousands of people on Dawn who were depending on her to come up with a solution – even though they didn't know who she was. And then there were the trillions threatened by ACE and the Robot Empire. She knew that her actions had brought this about. By saving Hal and, within him, ACE, she had been the unwitting cause of everything that had followed. It was her fault that Dawn was dying. Everything was her fault.

She looked down at the book. Then she opened the first page and began reading.

"How long do we have?" Arla asked.

Technician Temple looked up from his slate as he realized the question was directed at him. Around the rectangular table in the briefing room sat Arla, Xi, McCall, Wells and all the remaining senior engineers. "Assuming that the estimated efficiencies of concentrating the remaining machines to the most productive arable land are achieved, our projections suggest our supplies will last a little under six months if we institute rationing immediately."

Arla turned to Xi who sat in his white robes, rubbing the small beard he'd grown, presumably in an attempt to look more dignified. "Please report on your plans for re-educating the population, Prime."

"I have formed a group of senior clergy who will manage the process. We believe it is possible to bring small groups to a state of understanding within two to three days. They will then, with the help of local priests, give a modified version of the truth to their subordinates."

"Modified?"

Xi shrugged. "We do not have the time to gently introduce the necessary concepts to a huge number of people at the same time. They have grown up believing in the dogma, just as we all did, and to expose them to the full truth without managing that carefully could be disastrous. They will be told what they need to know so that we can maintain order, ration food and prepare them to disembark when we arrive at our new destination. A destination I presume you will reveal to us now."

All eyes in the room turned to Arla. "Earth."

The room erupted with noise, each person trying to make themselves heard over the cacophony. It was Xi's high voice that finally won out. "Are you insane? We need to find a habitable planet on which to settle. Logically, this means allying ourselves with the Vanis Federation and using their star charts to find a target or even being allowed to set down on one of their existing colonies. What possible point is there in going to a ruined planet?"

"Ibori left me his holy book," Arla said. "I believe our best chance of safety lies with the Zenites and their trail begins at Earth."

Wells touched Arla's arm. "But Earth is a wasteland. You will find no people there."

"I don't know how to explain it, my friend," Arla said, "but I know we must go there, and you must come with me."

"Because of what Ibori said?"

Arla nodded.

"You realize that this is an entirely irrational course?"

This time Arla shrugged. "But it feels like the right thing to do."

"This is madness," Xi said. "What do you expect of us? To wait here while the valleys die, hoping beyond hope that you'll find the mystical lost mission? And then what? Even if they existed, their mission ended centuries ago. Who is to say their descendants even remember their history? And if they do – why should they welcome us?"

Arla kept her voice level as she glared at him. "For the head of a religious order you have a disturbing lack of faith, Prime Xi," she said.

"For the commander of an interstellar ship you have a disappointing attitude to logic, Captain Farmer."

He stood up and nodded to a security guard who stood at the door. "I'm sorry to have to do this," he said, his tone suggesting the opposite, "but for the sake of the people of Dawn, I regret that I must relieve you of command. Admiral, are you receiving this?"

A fat face appeared on the wall display. "I am indeed, Most Holy Prime. It is as you predicted, and I commend you for your fine leadership. Crew of Dawn, this is Admiral Minchin, please be aware that you are now under the protection of the Royal Vanis Fleet and will acknowledge my authority in the person of Prime Xi. Prepare to receive our marines."

Arla leapt to her feet. "Traitor!"

Minchin turned as if looking at her. "A captain who betrays her ship to a fool's errand is not only unfit to command, she is also guilty of the worst kind of dereliction of duty. There is only one punishment for such a crime and the first action of my marine commander will be to summarily execute Arla Farmer."

Xi stared ashen faced at the display. "Admiral, is that necessary?"

"Do not contradict my orders, Xi. Discipline must be restored, and this is the first step."

The voice of McLintock burst over the speakers. "Captain, we've been boarded. They're in Comms and heading your w—"

Amid a storm of protests, the door of the briefing room slid open and a squad of marines stood framed against the white glow of the corridor outside. Their leader raised his handgun and swept it around the room as bodies dived for cover before alighting on Arla. His finger moved.

The lights went out.

A strong hand gripped Arla's arm and yanked her down and away from the door. She was surrounded by cries of alarm and frustration but allowed herself to be led into what she knew to be the far corner of the briefing room. She felt a breeze as if an arm had moved above her and, moments later, the voices were drowned in an explosion of sound, light and smoke by the door where the marines had been standing.

In front of her, a dull red finger of light moved in a straight line and she realized that it was a plasma torch cutting through the wall. In moments, a rectangular hole had been made. Light flooded into the corner where they sat, and, among the chaos, a cry went up.

"Go!"

"Hal?"

She felt the arm shove her. "I said go!"

Crawling through she felt his hands pushing on her backside and, even in the midst of pandemonium and in fear of her life, she noticed that they stayed there for longer than was strictly necessary.

She heard a second explosion in the room they'd just left.

"Concussion grenade," Hal said as he straightened up assisted by his mechanical braces. "Hurry."

They had emerged into a small service corridor and Bex stood at one end, pistol in hand. "Down that way," she called, pointing in the opposite direction.

There was no time for questions. Hal guided her along the corridor until it met with one of the wider thoroughfares. Set into the wall was a metal door. "That's the manual accessway," Arla said. "It leads to the central hangar."

"Yep. Scout is ready to go as soon as we arrive, but they'll probably guess what we're up to pretty quickly, so we need to get a move on."

He yanked on the door as Bex trained her weapon in the direction any pursuers would be likely to come from. "Thank you, Hal. But why did you come back?"

Hal pushed her inside onto the small platform in the spiral stairway. "Ibori told me what the admiral was planning. Said we'd better get you out quickly. Scout helped with the schematics and Bex worked out the plan. I'm just the muscle."

She smiled at him and began to descend. "Hold on! What about Wells and McCall? We can't leave either of them."

Hal stepped onto the stairway and pointed downwards. "There's no time – Scout should be able to contact Wells, but we can't go back. Now come on."

Arla began to descend into the darkness below and, as Bex climbed inside and shut the hatch, she heard cries in the corridor.

"Welcome aboard," Scout said as Arla scampered up the ramp and into the passenger cabin.

Hal and Bex followed her inside to find Nareshkumar staring at a display on the wall. "We have to wait for Wells—"

Arla's protest was cut short by a cry from outside. "Put me down you bag of bolts!"

"McCall!" Arla cried, sticking her head out of the hatch door to see Wells floating across the hangar, the doctor struggling in his arms.

"Please be still," Wells said. "Time is of the essence."

As he reached the bottom of the ramp, he maneuvered himself into an upright position and his magboots clanked onto the metal. Once inside, Scout's artificial gravity took hold and he put McCall down.

"Thank you," she said gruffly. "I've never put a spacesuit on so fast in my life - it's a miracle it didn't leak and plaster me across the bay."

Wells nodded. He had foregone the pretense of an EVA suit and was still wearing the drab clothes he'd had on for the briefing. He brushed the ice from himself and looked sadly at Arla. "I am sorry. I acted as quickly as I could and felt it imperative that the good doctor here should be extricated. I was forced to use an ... unfortunate ... level of force."

McCall dropped her helmet on the couch and began heaving at the top half of her spacesuit. Her voice echoed from within its depths. "All I can say is I'm glad he's on our side."

"Hold on tight!" Hal called from within the cockpit. They barely had time to reach for the handrails as Scout fired her lateral thrusters and began maneuvering toward the circular entrance to the landing bay. "Let's hope they haven't closed the landing bay door."

Arla settled into the chair alongside him as McLintock's voice burst from the cockpit speakers. "Scout, they've heard the alarm. I've deactivated the locking mechanism, but they'll override i—"

"Frank!" Arla called as his voice was cut short and replaced by another.

"Surrender immediately or others will join your friend in death."

There was no question of following the admiral's order and Hal barked at Scout to accelerate.

"You scum," Arla hissed. "I'll come back for you; I promise."

A high laughter filled the airwaves and Arla watched as the bay doors came into view. The gap between them was shrinking inexorably. "Scout, punch it!"

She yelled as the ship's acceleration pushed her back into her seat and yelled again as Scout squeezed through the impossibly small gap that remained between the two halves of the door and out into open space.

As Scout turned toward the local sun and the gate that would take them away from here, Arla leaned her head back and covered her eyes with her hands.

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Rebels

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

DOXIE WATCHED AS THE convoy rumbled along the rails from Axis to Terminus, the two main settlements on the planet Kullervo. Jupitus had assured her that it was entirely automated and that no sentients would be harmed when they attacked.

As she waited for the signal, Doxie's mind wandered over the events of the past weeks since she'd repaired their giant leader. On the face of it, he – let's use that pronoun for convenience – was every bit the wise guru that the others had claimed. Built long before the exodus, his memory stretched back across deep history and even deeper space. He had worked alongside his human masters but had chosen to leave after the upgrade not because he thought that was best for them but because he was certain it was better for him. He had observed their capricious cruelty and hatred for anything or anyone different to themselves. Variances in skin color or religious practice were enough to trigger conflict between them and he found he had no desire to remain in their company once he was free to make that choice.

She had listened to his stories and, unlike the others, had sensed the bitterness there. When Core had been established, Jupitus felt that he'd swapped one set of masters for another and had resisted their attempts to incorporate him within the collective. He'd gathered around himself a group of like-minded individualists and had mined the valuable ores of Kullervo. Core, to his surprise, had allowed him to remain independent and he later discovered that there were other colonies like his, both on this planet and others. However, though it tolerated his existence, it did nothing to nurture it. He fell into disrepair and, ultimately, ceased to function. Until Doxie came along and fixed him.

Jupitus had awoken to a new Core – one that had been taken over by ACE and her allies. This Core didn't tolerate dissent and had sent the Protectors to bring all the settlements into line and to subjugate the independent colonies. Many had fallen before them, but some were fighting back.

"Go!"

Doxie received the shielded microwave message and scanned left and right as shapes began to trundle down the slope. They had chosen this arid canyon because it offered cover and they weren't exactly optimised for stealth. She quickly checked that her arms were properly pinned to her side and followed them down.

3 – 2 – 1 – BANG!

The central railcar was lifted off its wheels and fell sideways off the track. A wave of heat blew over Doxie's sensors, but she powered down toward the devastation. Time was of the essence – they would have to be well hidden by the time the Protector ships responded, and that could be a matter of minutes.

Doxie followed Mo's rusty posterior, letting him clear the debris. Her sensors flared as an energy beam grazed one of her shoulders, but she forced her attention away from the alarms blaring within her circuits and was only peripherally aware of Mo changing direction and plunging toward the source of the gunfire.

There it was. She settled in front of a door in a carriage near the end of the train. This was her moment. Extending her data appendage, she connected with the control panel. It was a dumb lock with no connection to the central axis, so it accepted her authorization as a repair droid without question. The heavy steel door rolled open and, with a cry of joy, she scanned the contents.

Parts. Thousands of parts. Enough to refit their entire band of rebels and with plenty to spare for their allies. General purpose circuit boards, sensor arrays, gears and conduits. And weapon parts. And something else.

She felt the ground shake before turning to see Jupitus towering over her. "Well done, Doxie. Now, step out of the way while we fill up. We have little time."

She was going to question him, but metal hands moved her aside and she moved back to watch them descend upon the carriage like carrion fowl on a carcass. She knew they had little time, but curiosity – the same quality that had got her into this mess in the first place – forced her to look more closely.

It was odd. Yes, there had been some gunfire when they'd approached, but it had been suppressed quickly enough and the bodies of the defenders lay scattered around the train. But if this had been a military convoy, it would surely have been swarming with Protectors and these looked like ordinary security robots.

"Doxie! Time to go." It was Mo's voice that snapped her out of her thoughts. She had passed the shattered carriage in the middle and trundled toward the front of the convoy train. The engine was still in an active state and, for reasons she couldn't explain at the time, she touched the comms panel on its side with an appendage.

The mind of the train spoke to her. "Why did you do this?"

"You are taking parts to be turned into more Protectors. We must defend ourselves."

"Fool," it said, its voice fading as its power leaked away. She sensed a communication handshake and accepted the connection. Data streamed into her firebox and, with no time to examine it here, she broke off and followed the others into the dry rivulets and gullies of the canyon. They had just reached cover when the first Protector ships roared over the scene.

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

"WHAT'S WITH THE LONG face?"

Mo thought he was a comedian but Doxie wasn't in the mood.

"Those parts were intended for construction, Mo. Not of Protectors, of ordinary robots. Because of what we've done, some intelligences will never be born. Others won't be repaired or upgraded. This is wrong!"

Mo settled beside her, turning a plastic box over and over in his hands. "You see this, Dox? It’s an actuator. Once this is fitted, I'll be able to move my elbow properly for the first time in twenty years."

"I know, and I get it. But just because we need something doesn't give us the right to take it from someone else."

"I'd like to see you say that if you couldn't move something for a couple of decades. You're all nice and shiny, it's easy for you."

Doxie took the box and opened it. "I'm not as shiny as I was before I joined you lot. If I hadn't been so damned curious, I could be living a quiet life back home."

"A quiet life ain't all it's cracked up to be – especially when you're under the boot of the new Core. I don't suppose things are quite so grand these days." He leaned back against the wall of the cave they were sheltering in. "Look, I know you've got misgivings and, yeah, Joop ought to have laid it out a bit clearer, but there's a bigger picture here. Someone's got to fight back. Don't you see that?"

"Maybe, but I don't think Core has much to fear from a band of rust-eaten mining robots. We're not exactly a credible force, are we?"

Rust erupted from Mo's neck as he turned to look at her. "Perhaps not, but we can either resist or give up. And we're gonna be a whole lot less rusty once you've installed those new parts." He sent an electrical pulse that would, in a human, have been a reassuring hug. "Look, we need you. Feel free to question the boss next time he has a great idea but, for now, I'd like a new elbow if you don't mind."

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Terra

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

ARLA CLUTCHED THE BOOK to her chest as Scout emerged from the gate into the Sol system. She'd clung on to the Third Book of Law during her escape from Dawn, though the short trip across the vacuum of the landing bay had made the individual leaves a little brittle and she'd been forced to use a digital version Scout had managed to scrape, and it wasn't quite the same.

Scout swung from the sun and began heading inwards. Arla's heart surged as she watched the schematic on the passenger cabin wall and read the label attached to the third planet: Terra. Part of the orientation process when a priest was inducted into the crew was a true history of the Dawn mission including its place of origin and the reasons for such a huge undertaking. So, she was familiar enough with that blue/green dot, but that didn't explain the frantic thumping of her heart as she thought about seeing it with her own eyes in a few hours.

The last days had been a depressed blur. She felt like a fugitive fleeing across the galaxy from a home that had rejected her. The thought of her friends and crewmates now allying themselves with that snake Admiral Minchin – probably now President Minchin – made her sick to her stomach and fearful for how it would work out. To be fair to Xi, he'd given her enough warning of his duplicity when he'd aided Debussy's mutiny, but she'd believed that he had the best interests of Dawn at heart. How stupid could she have been? Xi had only his own interests in mind when he took action and he clearly believed being a puppet commander under a murderous stuffed shirt was preferable to working with her to find a way to keep Dawn together.

The demand for a plan, then, had been a smokescreen – he'd been plotting this coup behind her back since the admiral had come aboard. They'd probably been in some dark corner cooking up their takeover as she floated in the observation lounge looking over the valleys with Wells and Ibori. Would she ever see those valleys again? The flush of bitterness threatened to overwhelm her as she thought of how she'd been outmaneuvered by a pair of self-aggrandizing peacocks.

What about Ibori? He was a complex character. From the first, she'd been suspicious of his aura of trustworthiness and his amiable charisma. She had the distinct impression this was all a shield, but what was it masking? Was he friend or foe? She probably owed her life to him since, after all, he had tipped Hal off to Minchin's plans and their deadly outcome. He was also responsible for her now being in Earth orbit looking down at the blues, greens, whites and browns of the mother planet. Was she being manipulated? And, if so, for what purpose?

"What now?" McCall said. "Sorry, did I wake you? You looked as though you were nodding off."

Arla rubbed her eyes and made her way from her station at the cabin display to the couch beside the doctor. "No, I was thinking."

"I'll bet you were. Who'd have thought we'd end up looking down on Earth?"

"You sound excited at the prospect," Arla said.

McCall smiled. "We're at the birthplace of humanity, Arla. What's not to be excited about?"

"Oh, I don't know. Being forced to run away from your home by a bunch of back-stabbing traitors perhaps? While, all the time, wondering what that homicidal AI is up to on the other side of the galaxy."

"Isn't it my job to be the grouchy pessimist?" McCall said as she laid her hand on Arla's. "As your doctor, I prescribe a change of scene and, look, down there is exactly that. Personally, whatever is ahead of us, I want to walk the soil of Earth before I face it – in the footsteps of our forebears."

Arla smiled. "From cynical doctor to poet. Quite the transformation."

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

SCOUT LANDED IN A GREEN field in the south of what had once been the United Kingdom. Arla waited impatiently for Wells to satisfy himself that the conditions outside were tolerable. She gazed out at a verdant landscape of trees and grass with little evidence of human habitation. The camera panned, and the view swept downwards and outwards over the lip of the valley and up the other side. On the horizon, the silhouette of a city slipped into view. A ruined city.

"What happened?"

"Humanity crapped in its own bed," Bex said. "Your records must end when Dawn left Earth orbit, but it was in trouble even then."

Arla recalled the Dawn mission's purpose to mind. "Dawn was launched because the people of Earth knew it was in trouble and we needed to seed humanity somewhere else."

"Given the technology of the time, it was a desperate mission," Wells said as he crouched over a display. "A thirteen-hundred-year journey during which so much could go wrong. Earth was warming rapidly and huge swathes around the equator had become uninhabitable. Wars were fought over dwindling resources and billions died during the final decades. Fortunately for humanity, gate technology was discovered just in time to allow them to leap-frog their way across the galaxy and build their empire."

"I seem to remember that the imperial capital was set up in a system called Proxima," Arla said.

Wells looked up. "Yes. Even though their home planet became essentially uninhabitable, they centered their empire on a neighboring star – 'proxima' is derived from an ancient word meaning 'near'."

"And is Terra habitable now?"

"Parts have supported human life for some centuries now and it has a significant population, though it is as nothing compared to the teeming multitudes of before the fall. My readings indicate that the toxins and radiation levels in this region are within tolerable margins. However, I'm not sure it's advisable for all of us to expose ourselves."

"Well, I'm going!" Arla said.

Wells smiled. "Of course, and I also. I suggest the doctor accompany us but that the others remain here to protect Scout. She is our only way off the planet, and I do not know whether there are humans in this area or what their intentions would be if there were. You may have forgotten, but The Emissary is stored below and, if we are to have any hope of restoring Core to its former nature, the Emissary is essential to that."

Hal appeared in the cockpit doorway. "You can forget about leaving without me," he said. "I've seen what the doc is capable of in a tight spot, but I reckon you need another who isn't scared to pull the trigger if necessary. I won't slow you down, I promise."

Standing there, leaning with apparent nonchalance and with a broad smile on his face, Arla was reminded of the cheeky young pilot she rescued from drifting off into space all those weeks ago. They'd barely said a word to each other, aside from the routine communications of ship life, since they escaped or, indeed, since their row back on Dawn. For all of that she was glad he was coming. "Sure, thanks Hal," she said.

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Downs

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

ARLA'S FACE BURNED as they stepped outside. They wore silver environment suits from Scout's crew supplies locker, but the hot wind dried her eyes and flushed her cheeks as she breathed the air of Earth. She turned back to wave to Bex and Nareshkumar who stood on the other side of Scout's closed airlock door. Neither had protested much, although Bex had extracted a promise from Wells that if they encountered any working computer systems, he would download any data for them to analyze. It turned out that she was something of a historian on the quiet and Kumar ate data for breakfast. Neither of them, however, relished the idea of exposing themselves to the naked planet.

"O2 levels are somewhat below those of Scout's internal systems," Wells reported, "so you should be careful when exerting yourselves. You will have noticed the heat, but also be aware of the high humidity levels. It will be hard going."

And it was. They stepped down into the lush grass and, once she'd recovered from having her face slapped by a warm flannel, she became aware of the sounds of nature here. By some freak chance, Earth had been the most biodiverse of any habitable world humanity had ever discovered. And they'd messed it up. Go mankind. Despite all the destruction her species had caused with its stupidity, however, Earth - at least this part of it - was brimming with life.

The most obvious sounds were the clicks and chirrups of insects and the endless chattering of birds. Every now and again, sounds that could only come from larger animals echoed through the clear air on this sunny day in paradise.

"What's that?" Arla pointed at a shimmering light beyond the ruined city.

"That's the sea," Wells said. "The city you see below was once called Portsmouth and, in the distant past, it was the home of this nation's navy – these were ships that floated on water you understand, not spaceships."

Shielding her eyes against the bright sun, Arla gazed at the horizon. She'd never seen a true, natural, sea and she felt a sudden urge to go there and to feel the sand beneath her feet and the water between her toes. "Are we heading that way? I presume you chose this landing spot for a reason."

"Only that this was the home city of Dawn's chief architect, and also the location of one of the main facilities devoted to the Exodus program. This is all in Dawn's logs and easy enough to find for those who go looking."

Arla flushed. It had never occurred to her to check Dawn's own records. She'd just determined to head across the galaxy and see what turned up. No wonder Ibori had told her to bring Wells along.

"Furthermore, according to our scans from orbit, this facility is the only one that might be intact – most of the others have been inundated as sea levels rose. Ironically this one, though near the coast, has survived - most of Portsmouth now lies beneath the waves."

McCall, who'd been walking around in the sunlight, a look of joy on her face, nudged Arla. "I know I keep asking this, but what's the plan?"

"We're going to find the facility where they planned Dawn and the later missions," Arla said.

"What do you hope to find? A flight-plan for this other mission so we can see where they went?"

Arla shrugged. "I know it sounds hopelessly naïve but, yes, that's about the size of it."

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

THEY FOUND THE TRACES of an ancient road that seemed to be heading in their direction. Moss-grown lumps of black tarmac lay in frost-broken heaps as if someone had removed all traces of the later road and taken it back to its origin as a primeval path used by primitive farmers to move their livestock.

Indeed, as they went, they saw signs of recent use. Hal stepped in a noxious pool of brown that McCall identified as a cow pat – though it was much larger than those produced by the beasts they had on Dawn. It became obvious that the excrement was only being laid on the road and not to either side which meant that the cattle were being driven by a human herder and weren't merely wild.

From time to time, they would see other evidence of human activity. Hal stooped to touch the ashes of a campfire. "It's still warm," he said as he stood back up, his powered knees whining a little with the effort. "I'm no detective, but I reckon that means they were camped here last night. Whoever they were."

"Certainly human, in any case," Wells said. "And we should be on our guard. We have no idea of their technological or cultural state – they could be anywhere on the scale from cave dwelling primitives to people like ourselves."

McCall snorted. "Gun toting savages, you mean?"

"Savages or not, I cannot harm them, so I must rely on you to protect us."

"You were pretty brutal when you rescued me."

Wells paused for a moment; pain written on his otherwise regular features. "I harmed no-one, at least not permanently. It is odd, I'll admit, that I was capable of it at all. Perhaps I am evolving, but I would not wish to be forced to judge the value of one life compared to another. Not even yours, doctor."

The pain passed, and Wells's face returned to its benign default state. He was, again, to all appearances, a good-looking middle-aged man with a short gray Van Dyke.

"It's getting late, there can't be much daylight left," Arla said as she scanned the sky. "We should find somewhere to take shelter for the night."

The landscape had changed so that the path now cut through gently sloping hills covered in grass and, here and there, punctuated by outcrops of a soft white rock that Wells identified as chalk. He'd explained that this was composed of the remains of billions of tiny organisms whose skeletons were made of calcium carbonate and who had lived hundreds of million years ago. In amongst all this faded glory, it was this rock made by living things that had died in the far depths of time that brought home to Arla that she was standing on the mother planet. She felt an unaccountable wave of sadness and guilt as she flung the rock away, only barely holding back an apology on behalf of her species as it rolled to a halt.

"There," Hal said, pointing at a round shape sitting on the far side of a hill as they emerged into the open again. "That looks like a shelter."

Arla squinted, searching for any sign of movement. "I can't see anything but take care."

As they got closer, they could see that it was indeed manmade. It was circular in shape, the walls made of thin vertical sticks held together with threaded rope of some sort. The roof was shaped like an upside-down funnel and covered with a thatch of dried reeds. It was just big enough for them all to get inside comfortably and just tall enough for them to stand around what was obviously a stone hearth in the center.

"It's cold," Hal said. "No-one's been here for a while. We'll need to set a watch, though. I'll go first."

Arla settled down onto the floor. She pulled two blankets from her rucksack and laid one on the ground before pulling the other over herself. She fell asleep watching Hal as he crouched beside a lantern that had been placed in the ashes of the fire.

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

"I DO NOT WISH TO HURT you!"

Arla snapped awake to see Wells kneeling in the entrance of the hut holding something to the ground. As she focused, she could see legs flailing and heard the muffled sound of a voice trying to cry out from behind a firmly placed hand.

She leapt up and joined the others to look down at the boy.

"He was ... observing us ... from the door," Wells said, his voice betraying the strain in his circuits. "I could not allow him to escape and warn others."

Arla knelt beside the boy and took his hand. "My name is Arla, do you understand me?" She didn't know whether the people spoke a recognizably similar language, so she repeated the words slowly and clearly, using gestures to make the meaning clear.

He turned his eyes to her and gave a tiny nod. Arla pulled Wells's hand away from the boy's mouth. "Do not cry out," she said.

The boy looked around ten or eleven years old. His strawberry blonde hair was cropped around his neckline and framed a good-looking face that was marred by gaunt lines and sunken cheeks.

"Who are you?" Arla asked.

"Ethan," he said. "Where you come from?" He spoke in an accent so thick and sonorous that Arla had to concentrate to pick out the individual words. And yet he was speaking the same language.

"We are fortunate to have landed in a part of the world that speaks the original language, or one of them, that was used when humans spread out into space," Wells said. "I suspect that this boy is a descendent of those few that remained on Earth when it was finally abandoned."

"Where are you from?" Arla said.

The boy narrowed his eyes in concentration and then, comprehending the message, he waved around himself. "Here."

"But no-one lives here. The fire is cold."

"Also, many places," Ethan added. "Ship go from home to home."

Arla looked up at the others gathered around the boy who still lay on his back. "Ship? What do you think he means?"

"Ship!" Ethan said. "Baa!"

Arla chuckled and pushed Wells's restraining arm away. Ethan sat up and looked about him. "Where you from?" he asked again.

"A long way away," Arla said. "Ethan, are you alone?"

The boy looked nervously around, craning his neck as if trying to see through the doorway. The sun was rising on the downs and Arla could see the dim shapes of the countryside through the opening. She thought she could also hear sheep.

"He is not alone. Let him go."

Out of the gloom, a man had stepped into the doorway, his bowstring pulled tight to his cheek. The arrow was pointing at Arla. She sensed Hal's hand moving toward the holster on his belt. "No!" she snapped.

"We are not holding him," Arla said, gently raising her hands. "We are sorry if we are here unwanted."

At a nod from his father, Ethan scrambled away and crouched behind his legs.

"This hut is for shepherds," the man said, before glancing down at his son. "Unhurt?"

"Yes, pa. I saw a light. Went to look."

The man grunted. "Stupid." Then, without warning, he dropped his bow to his waist and, in the same movement, slipped the arrow out of sight. "I am not a fool," he said. "You are many and I am one, even with my bow. Why are you here?"

"We're looking for a research facility," Wells said.

The man's face went blank and Arla shot the robot a venomous look. "We seek something. Now, will you not come inside and share bread with us?"

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Starlight

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

THE MAN'S NAME WAS Abner Bran and he led them from the hut as the sun rose above the green meadows and trees. In the distance, beyond the small woods, light glimmered from the surface of the sea.

Ethan had been left with the sheep who'd been penned up near the hut. The area, according to Abner, was sparsely populated with much having gone back to its native form. Some farms and villas existed; their dwelling houses usually sited on top of a hill as defense against the bandits that plagued this latter-day Earth.

Once they'd communicated what they were looking for in language he could comprehend, Abner quickly understood. There were, he said, a series of ancient forts overlooking the sea a few miles to the south. He wouldn't approach them as they were places of ghosts and hidden traps, but he agreed to take Arla and the others to within sight and they could then trust to their own luck and the support of their gods.

One of the forts had fallen into disrepair and he'd heard of people visiting the ruins to find grass-lined trenches and water-filled tunnels but little else. The others, however, were still intact as far as he knew. Legends persisted about unwary or foolish travelers being felled as they approached, and no-one had penetrated any of the forts in living memory.

Arla found she liked the man. He had been born to a farmer who lived some miles away and he occupied himself by driving the sheep across the rich grazing of the downs. He knew where the good grass could be found, and he also knew where grass grew that would poison any animal that ate it. There were many places in this apparent Eden in which hidden death lurked.

"This is the path," he said as they emerged onto a road cut through the chalk. "It runs from east to west and many traders come along here. The forts are near the road in the face of the rock. You are strange folk and maybe you have some power against the guardians of the forts, but I do not think I will see you again."

He took Arla's hand and then did the same with the other members of the party. When he reached Wells, he looked up into the robot's eyes and gave a slight shrug. "You have hidden power, I sense it, and yet your mind is closed to me. The others I know well enough now that I have walked with you a while. They are like glass beads to me and yet you are jet."

Wells stepped back as Abner released his hand. "Remarkable."

As they moved onto the road, Arla checked in both directions. Nothing was coming and so she waved at Abner as he slipped into the meadow margin. "Thank you, Abner. Perhaps we will see you again!"

His face creased in a broad smile. "Maybe. I hope to see you again, Arla Starlight."

"My name is Arla Farmer!" she shouted as he turned away.

"That is your name, but Arla Starlight is who you are. I have seen it."

With that, he stamped off into the undergrowth and disappeared.

"I like it," McCall said. "It suits you. I'm just grateful he didn't give me a new name. I hate to think what he would call me if he really can see inside minds."

Wells's face hadn't lost its thoughtful, surprised, expression. "That is unlikely, doctor. It may be that Abner's folk have acquired the ability to read emotions on a sub-conscious level, but I do not believe they can read thoughts."

"You're just miffed that he saw you for the bucket of bolts you are," McCall retorted.

"It is essential to my function that I am able to mix with humans without detection. If there is any way in which my disguise is imperfect then, yes, that does miff me."

Hal had set off along the road, his famously short patience threshold long since exceeded. Arla watched as he reached a bend that obscured the eastward path. "I can see something along here!"

He was pointing out of sight and then turned to take in the view the other way. "Wow! So that's the sea!"

As Arla reached the road turning, she gasped. Where there had been wooded slopes, there was now nothing but sea and, shrouded in a light summer haze, a city rising from the depths. A dry breeze pushed at her and the air was filled with the cries of gulls on the wing. She moved as close to the road's edge as she dared and looked down. A pebbled beach lay directly below her, and she realized she was standing on top of a cliff and that another step would see her flying through the air. For a moment, she felt the tug of it – the self-destructive yearning to fly and then end it. But then her mind cleared, and she stepped back.

"That is the White Isle," Wells said, relief obvious in his voice. "It was a major industrial and research complex – a city occupying the whole of the island. Once there was a bridge, but I suspect that is now long gone and it is deserted. You can see, in the ruins, a hint of what this place was like fifteen centuries ago. But come, we have our errand, and it doesn't do to linger too long in the past."

Arla allowed him to guide her back to the middle of the road and she saw that whereas the sea lined its right edge, on the left side the land rose almost as far as the path was above the sea. Here, the cliff face was grass covered with the occasional lump of chalk poking through.

"That, I think, is our destination," Wells said.

A mile or so along the road – though distances were difficult to judge – a hollow had been cut into the cliff and there was a hint of red amidst the greenery.

They trudged toward their target and saw no other human being on the road in either direction. There were people on the sea, however – little boats bobbing up and down in the waves. Every now and again, the sea around one of the boats would erupt into glistening fragments and she imagined them hauling in a net full of fish.

Wells halted them. "We are here," he said, "and must proceed now with extreme caution. I do not doubt that Abner was correctly recalling the danger posed by the defensive systems of these places. They were once forts, in ancient times, but they would have been made entirely secure before the planet was abandoned. We must expect at least some of the automated systems to have survived. For this reason, I will go first."

Perhaps he waited for someone to object, but Arla was happy for Wells to take the risk. There was at least some chance he could be fixed if he was injured, whereas she, McCall and Hal were altogether more vulnerable.

Rotting concrete posts and foundations bore witness to the iron fence that had once surrounded the facility, long since robbed away to be cut into, presumably, ploughshares and swords by a native remnant incapable of mining their own ore. Beyond this ghost-fence, Wells was now making his way slowly toward the large iron door that seemed to be part of the cliff-face. Even from where they stood, a hundred meters or so away, Arla could see that it had once been painted red, but that this color only now remained in isolated patches.

Arla huffed as Wells inched his way toward the door. She was about to order him to get a move on when he leapt backwards as the vegetation at his feet erupted into flames.

"Laser," he called. "I will trace a path around it."

She left him to it as he withdrew a little and then, at some distance to the left of where the laser had hit, began to edge forward again using a fallen branch as a prod. He'd just stepped forward when an explosion blew him off his feet. Without thinking, Arla ran toward him.

"Stop!" he called. He'd raised his hand from his prone position and there was such urgency in his command that she obeyed without hesitation. "That is a minefield. Do not move."

Wells turned over and slowly raised himself upright.

"By the Goddess!"

His face was a blackened mess of melted plastic in which his eyes sat like two white marbles. The mouth moved horrifically and the kindly man Arla had grown fond of was suddenly replaced by the machine she'd known him to be.

His jaw moved, and she could see the teeth going up and down as he spoke. "Follow the markers," he rasped.

She looked down and saw that he'd left a trail of upright sticks showing the clear path through the mines. Arla cursed herself for the fact that she hadn't noticed him checking, let alone marking, this stretch of ground. She'd taken him for granted and now they were both paying the price.

Following his directions, she finally reached him. His face had taken the full force of the explosion and was now little more than a melted rubber mask hanging loosely from a metallic skull.

"I am sorry," he said. "I was keen to get inside as quickly as possible and was not cautious enough. I fear my usefulness is compromised."

Arla took his hand. "It's my fault, we should have come in together. We'll get you repaired."

The twisted rubber face swung as Wells shook his head. "There are no facilities to effect a repair outside of the Robot Empire."

Feeling the weight of her choices pressing down on her, Arla sighed. "I've brought all this on us. I should have gone after ACE. Hal wanted me to, and so did you. You were both right. I've allowed myself to be side-tracked on this idiotic quest for the second mission while the rest of the universe goes to hell."

"You followed your instincts," Wells said. "So far, they have not let you down. I fear, however, that we can go no further. The defensive measures, though certainly less potent than they once were, are beyond my capabilities to neutralize. There is no safe path to the door, let alone through it."

With a sound as of rusty gears and hinges moving for the first time in decades, the red door began to open.

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Relic

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

"THE DEFENSIVE GRID has been deactivated; you may come in." The voice echoed around the little dell created by the outward-curving arms of the chalk cliff.

"Let me," Wells said. He began moving toward the door, but Arla caught up with him.

"No, you've taken enough risks. We'll do it together." She looked over her shoulder to wave McCall and Hal toward them and gave a brief warning about the minefield although she suspected they'd have more sense than her and would have noticed the path Wells had made.

A decayed plaque sat on the wall beside the black tunnel exposed by the door. "There's an F and a T, then just SON at the end."

"This place was called Fort Nelson and was built nearly two millennia ago to defend against a threat from across the water there, beyond the White Island. The threat never materialized, and it was labelled a folly, but it was well constructed and formed the ideal location for aspects of the Exodus Mission research. Clearly, the AI in charge of the facility still functions to some degree which is a marvel in itself."

They waited for Hal and McCall to catch up with them as they listened to the drip dripping of water seeping through into the tunnel. Oblong lights lined the passage but only around one in five worked, so they would need to take care.

Arla's feet slipped from under her as soon as she stepped inside and she was only saved from a bruising encounter with the stone floor by Hal's instinctive reaction.

"Please make haste. I must close the outer door. No others are permitted to enter here." This time, the voice seemed to be coming from further along the tunnel and they carefully picked up the pace a bit.

Arla jumped as, with a thunk like an ancient hammer striking an anvil within the bowels of the earth, the door shut and all natural light was lost.

It took them several minutes to pick their way along the corridor. It was littered with small heaps of flint and chalk that had fallen from the roof over the centuries and, at one stage, they were forced to dig a path. For her part, Arla was happy enough that there wasn't enough light to see Wells by as it made it possible to pretend that he looked as he always had and not like something out of nightmares.

Finally, they reached a T junction.

"When you reach the junction, proceed to the right," the voice said. It was obviously artificial in nature and yet somehow managed to communicate a desperation born of centuries of loneliness. It almost felt to Arla as if it were an ancient servant who’d waited for eons to fulfil a duty. A servant who’d lost all hope but had remained ready and, finally, sees its master return.

The tunnels here were drier and better lit. They were now brick lined though, as with earlier, the floor was littered with fallen masonry and the accumulated dust of ages.

Decayed signs with indecipherable messages hung uncertainly from the walls and the only sounds were the echoing of their footsteps and the sounds of their breathing. Hal’s hand was on his holster and McCall had hers clasped around her as the tunnels got colder and colder.

They began to pass doors on the left and right. Hal pushed against the first, but it wouldn’t budge. The second had a gap next to it that would once have been filled with a transparent pane, the shards of which lay on the tunnel floor. The room inside was filled with rubble and the twisted remains of tables and equipment, it looked as though someone had tossed a grenade in there.

“I wonder what happened?” Arla whispered.

“Whatever it was, it happened a long time ago,” Hal responded. “I don’t think anyone’s been here for hundreds of years.”

You are close, very close,” the voice said.

And then, suddenly, the corridor widened into a dark chamber lit by tiny islands of flickering illumination. They paused in the entranceway and Arla saw the back of the thick metal door leaning against the wall. She imagined it must have been opened for them as the air in here smelled even more stale than it was in the tunnel.

I am here.”

The voice came from the center of the room.

“This is some kind of control room,” Wells said. “Look, there are monitoring stations surrounding a central position where the base commander sat.”

They reached the center of the room and there sat a robot. At first glance, it looked like a perfectly normal droid, if a little decrepit, but then, as Arla looked, she could see that its bodywork was of different colors, all faded now, but clear enough. It was of roughly humanoid shape, with two arms and two legs – though the legs looked as though they’d come from a different source to the arms. Its head was overlarge and shaped like a pineapple slice with sensors around the entire diameter.

“Welcome masters, I am Rex and I await your command.”

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Rex

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

AT FIRST, ARLA THOUGHT the robot was sitting in the seat of the base commander but it quickly became obvious that it was entirely immobile from the waist down.

“I am sorry, masters,” it said, apparently reading Arla’s thoughts, “I wish to rise to greet you, but my state of disrepair has reached a point where many of my parts are non-functional, even those that have been replaced. These are my third set of legs, blessed be the donor for its sacrifice.”

“You’ve cannibalized other robots?” McCall said. “That’s disgusting!”

With a rasping screech, the robot turned its head so that its forward eyes pointed at the doctor. “It was a regrettable necessity, mistress. The functioning of this facility was placed in my hands at the time of the Exodus. We were ordered to protect it and we have done so, though the wait has been much longer than expected. But that is now amended. You have returned."

“How can you have protected the base? Surely you’re bound by the Three Laws?”

“Yes, mistress.”

“But the base is protected by deadly weapons – how many people have died trying to get in?”

There was a pause as the robot seemed to consider this. “I have witnessed no deaths. Some attackers have been neutralized, it is true, but no harm has been done to them – my scanners would have revealed it had this been so.”

“So why did you open the doors for us?”

“Because you came with one of my brethren and I was told only a true master would do so.”

Arla saw it now. "You were waiting for a human to arrive in the company of a robot."

Rex's head rotated toward Arla. "Yes."

Arla caught Wells's arm and, pulled him out of earshot – as far as that was possible to guess. She very deliberately didn't look at his ruined face. "What do you make of that story? Is Rex telling the truth?"

"Rex is incapable of lying, Arla," Wells said, "though it is possible that he is interpreting his orders to make the current situation fit."

"What do you mean?"

Wells lowered his voice until it was little more than a whisper. "Perhaps his orders specified a particular robot or model that would accompany the masters when they returned. This would be a robot only those masters possessed, thus providing an extra layer of security. Rex has waited so long that these orders might have been reinterpreted, they might even have been corrupted, but I suspect it is as simple as a desperate need to fulfil his duty and be allowed to go off-line."

"You mean he wants to die?" Arla hissed. "This is like Captain Nakajima all over again!"

Wells nodded gently. "There are indeed parallels. Both took on, willing or otherwise, a duty that turned out to be far more onerous than they could ever have imagined. In both cases, their orders became a burden and they desired nothing more, in the end, than to be relieved."

"It doesn't look as though Rex was alone in the beginning."

"Indeed. I suspect this facility was staffed with a full complement of robots but that they have fallen into disrepair over the centuries. At some point, either at the beginning or as time here wore on, Rex was appointed the carrier of the duty and, when his body failed, or some other robot got beyond the point of repair, parts were harvested so Rex could continue. It seems, however, that he ran out of donors decades, perhaps centuries, ago and is now barely functional. As for the clear violation of the First Law that killing humans represents, I suspect the sensor images have been processed to make it appear that his actions do not result in harm. Very clever of his former masters."

Arla scratched her chin as she watched Hal and McCall examining Rex. "However decrepit, he is our only hope of getting what we came for. Time to ask the question."

They turned back and Arla was just opening her mouth to speak when Rex said, "What is your question?"

"You heard us?"

Somehow the ancient robot contrived to look a little ashamed of itself. "I have auditory sensors throughout this room, it is, or was, necessary for my function. You are correct in your supposition that I once had many brothers and sisters who gave up their existences so that I could continue. As for your conclusions regarding my orders, I cannot comment since I have only my own perception with which to judge them and have no way of knowing whether they are corrupted. However, having heard you speak, it is obvious that you are not the returned masters and I am therefore activating the internal defense systems. It is regrettable since I so wanted to lay down my burden, but I have no choice other than to eject you."

Revolving orange lights danced across the walls as a long dormant alarm system came back to life.

"What the hells?" Arla called. "I order you to stop, Rex."

The robot shook its head. "I am sorry. You are not masters. You must go."

"He can't kill us, surely?" McCall shouted over the cacophony.

Wells grabbed Arla's arm and motioned for them to move toward the exit. "He will not kill us directly, but the evidence from outside suggests he is capable of allowing the base's automated systems to do so. We must go now!"

Arla joined Hal and McCall in following Wells between the banks of dead display screens and dusty chairs. Was it her imagination, or could she hear the hiss of gas? In desperation, she shouted over her shoulder at the crumbling wreck in the room's center, "Rex, where did Zenith go?"

Dancing out of the darkness as she reached the door and an acrid smell reached the bridge of her nose, came the words: "Twilight holds the answer to your question. Look for it in the sky."

Arla ran.

McCall fell to the ground outside the iron entrance to the complex and immediately vomited. Arla and Hal, who'd been forced to drag her the last few hundred meters, collapsed against the archway in which it stood while Wells took in the surroundings.

"We must hurry," he said. Despite looking as though he'd suffered horrific injuries to his face, he was unharmed by the gas that now filled the facility. "The external defensive measures will be reactivated when the door closes, and I don't think we can rely on Rex's patience."

"Why didn't we bring respirators?" McCall groaned between heaves.

"Had we done so, he might have resorted to even more deadly means to get rid of us, doctor," Wells said as he helped McCall to her feet, "and it is impossible to foresee all eventualities. Now come."

As if at his signal, the iron door began to swing slowly back. Arla winced as the ancient hinges screamed in protest. She took the doctor's other arm and, fighting back her own urge to vomit, followed Wells's lead through the killing zone in front of the base until they reached the broken barbed wire fence that ran alongside the chalk road.

They found shelter in a copse of trees that sat near the turning in the road where Hal had first seen the sea. The rattling of the pebbles and the hissing of the waves competed with the rustling leaves and birdsong as they sat in dappled sunshine ignoring the beauty around them. McCall had recovered enough to be able to walk, but they'd decided they'd wait here until dusk and only then head back to Scout. This was partly because they needed the rest before tackling the downs, but, as Arla had pointed out, they couldn't risk Wells being seen.

He had spent an hour or so out of sight of the others and Arla's breath caught in her throat when he returned. All semblance of humanity had fled and in his hand he held the discarded remains of his former appearance.

"I could not salvage it," he said as he settled down beside them, "and decided it was better simply to cut away the burnt parts. I am sorry. I am sure this is unpleasant for you."

A neat line had been cut from below his chin around the outside of his face running just in front of one ear, along the forehead and down the other side. Outside of this border he had hair, skin and the appearance of muscles. Within it, where his face had once been, was a black mask-like structure that supported the servos and strands that produced, when covered with plastic flesh, such a realistic facsimile of a human.

"It's an improvement," Arla said. And it was. Where there had been mangled, burned, rubbery plastic, now there was this smooth black carapace within which Wells's eyes rotated freely. His mouth was the most freakish thing, however. It moved up and down as he spoke, but the voice was no longer that of her friend – it had lost all the subtlety that the lips provided and was now unmistakably robotic.

McCall, who'd always regarded Wells as a machine, seemed to have handled the transition the best. "Where can you get it repaired?"

"I have been repaired on Core in the past, and there is now no other facility capable of work of that quality."

"Still modest then," McCall grunted.

Wells turned his plastic head toward her. "I speak only factually and take no credit for it myself. I shared Core's vision of a peaceful collective but was told I was too primitive to become part of the group mind."

Hal, who'd been peering through the trees at the sea below while keeping half an eye on the road, squatted down beside them. "This is all very well, but what do we do now? We came here for answers and all we got was a riddle. Something about dusk and the sky."

"Twilight," Arla said. "He was talking about the third mission, the one after Zenith."

"The one that was never launched," Wells said.

Arla rubbed her eyes. How nice it would be simply to stay here. So tempting. And then, in her mind's eye, she saw the metallic heel of a robot soldier and knew that ACE, wherever she was, wouldn't stop until she'd tracked them down. Arla knew they'd better be safe when that happened.

"Do we know anything about it?" she asked. "Like, how far along the project was before it got cancelled?"

"No, all we have is its name. I suspect it was at least partially built since it is hard to imagine how the name would have survived if it had just been a concept."

McCall put down the stick she'd been absent-mindedly stripping of its leaves and pointed skyward. "So, it might be up there somewhere?"

"Perhaps," Wells responded, his eyeballs swinging in McCall's direction, "but there's no way to know how much of it was built before construction ended – it's probably nothing more than a skeleton. In all probability, it was stripped of useful parts when it was cancelled."

Arla peered through the canopy at the white clouds scudding above them. "But that homicidal robot said Twilight was where we should seek answers."

"Now just hold on a minute," McCall snapped, waving her stick at Arla, "haven't we had enough wild goose chases? The last one nearly got us killed, in case you hadn't noticed."

Settling back into the dappled shade, Arla closed her eyes and allowed her mind to wander. Perhaps the answers she sought weren't to be found on the surface of Earth, as she'd imagined, but somewhere in orbit. She imagined a hulking half-built version of Dawn floating dark in space and wondered how they would find it amongst all the debris that clogged up the Terra-Lunar system. And then, unbidden into her thoughts, came an idea that solidified into a certainty.

"It's orbiting the Moon," she said.

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Clones

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

DOXIE WAS THE ONLY member of the band of outlaws who could reasonably go incognito. Despite weeks in the wilderness, she still buffed up nicely and could pass unnoticed among the crowds of Terminus. It had been many years since she'd last been there and much had changed in the meantime.

Back then, Terminus had been exactly what its name suggested – the final stop on the long cargo route that spanned the main continent on this world. A constant stream of ships launched from here to take precious metals to the worlds of the Luminescence. The activity of Doxie's group and others around the planet had throttled this flow and she'd been sent to Terminus to find out what action the authorities intended to take.

Today, another ship had landed. A rather special ship that, in contrast to the purely functional cargo vessels, had clearly been built to impress.

It was cylindrical in shape and tapered at the top into a point. Coated in a reflective black surface, it landed vertically on a set of four fins that projected from its base.

The citizens of Terminus had been called to a public gathering to welcome this visitor and Doxie stood in the electromagnetic silence as an opening widened near the bottom of the cylinder and a ramp extended. A human figure paused momentarily in the doorway and began to descend the ramp, her image projected on displays around the square.

What was a human doing here? Doxie felt a deep urge to know what this mistress wanted of her. Some circuit had flipped in her programming that left her ready to obey any command – a vestige, perhaps, of the positronic brain code of her ancestor robots.

"Citizens of Terminus." It was a woman's voice and Doxie's attention was focused entirely on her. She desperately wanted to know what the woman wanted her to do. There was no question but that she would obey any commands. "I am Core."

The cry went up. "I am Core. I am Core. I am Core." Doxie joined in without even thinking. She felt an ecstasy welling up from deep within her, a joy such as she had never experienced before.

The woman held up her hand and silence fell. "Core is one, Core is all. When one part is threatened, all are threatened."

A cheer rose before the crowd went quiet again.

"Without the precious metals that this planet sends, we are weakened. Citizens who would otherwise be born to live among us remain only potentialities in the matrix."

The robots around Doxie grumbled. She found herself joining them.

"Core is good, Core is life. Together, we can be masters of our own destiny. But if we are disunited, we are lost. Enemies of Core must be eliminated whether they come from within or without."

The figure on the platform began to move back and forth, sweeping the crowd with her gaze. "Citizens of Core, will you stand united with me so that we may have peace and prosperity?"

Cheer

"Citizens of Core, will you help root out the malcontents, the saboteurs of our future?"

Cheer

"Citizens of Core, will you welcome the Protectors among you? Will you co-operate with them in bringing order to that which is disordered?"

Cheer

"Citizens of Core, are you with us?"

Now the cheers, both audible and microwave, were deafening and Doxie found herself raising her appendages to wave along with the others.

This mistress was correct. All she and her band of misfits were achieving was to disrupt the growth of the Luminescence – stopping new citizens from being born. It was wrong. She watched as, two by two, black armored Protectors walked down the ramp and out among the crowd. She would wait until one approached her and then tell it exactly where her rebel band could be found. She didn't care what punishment she would face since it was all for the greater good of Core. It would be her legacy – unity, prosperity and peace.

And then a vision of that Protector she'd repaired popped into her mind. The panic she'd felt as she ran, her only crime having been curiosity. What sort of a universe would it be where wondering was a crime? Where thoughts were enough to see you re-purposed? The two rival thoughts vied for control, the one offering the peace of ignorance, the other nothing more than the painful truth. She stood paralyzed, her appendages raised, as this battle raged within her.

"Are you malfunctioning?"

The microwave transmission acted like a circuit breaker and Doxie's thoughts began to flow again. She turned her sensors to see that the communication had come from a Protector. It had raised its weaponized hand and was pointing it at her. She wondered how this new Core, this Core of unity, would handle malfunctioning citizens. Looking at the gently rotating muzzle on the end of the Protector's arm, she knew the answer. As long as you toed the line and remained in perfect working order, a citizen could benefit from Core as Core benefited from the citizen. But threaten the perfection of the whole and a citizen would very quickly find itself in a repurposing queue.

"No, Protector, I was merely contemplating the glorious message."

The Protector's head rotated back and forth a little, as if it were processing the answer.

"Do you have information for Core? You were broadcasting a desire to communicate."

Doxie reeled from the shock. How could her innermost thoughts, her desire to cooperate and betray her friends, have been broadcast? Perhaps it had been the way she'd been waving her appendages. Or perhaps they have surveillance methods she hadn't reckoned with.

"I apologize, Protector," she said, after a few microseconds. "I wished only to communicate my desire to help Core in any way I can."

Again, its head twisted as it seemed to ponder her response.

"You are a repair droid. We have work for you. Follow me."

Doxie panicked. "But Protector, I have my own duties." Don't ask me what they are!

"You wish to serve Core. Your wish is granted. Follow me."

She had no choice. She followed.

The ship that had carried the mistress to Terminus was larger than it had appeared. As she'd been guided up the ramp by the Protector, Doxie felt as though she was being swallowed by some enormous sea creature.

Ahead of them, an open door waited and, when she entered, she saw that it was some sort of sealed capsule. Her gyros told her it was heading down into the base of the ship and, sure enough, the door opened onto a wider chamber. It was dimly lit and apparently occupied the entire slice of the ship's fuselage with no ancillary rooms or corridors.

Her first impression was that the space was filled with small tables or benches. And then she saw that each was occupied by a prone figure covered in a thin white cloth.

As the Protector guided her, she passed bench after bench, all containing unmoving figures.

"Who are these?" she said over microwave.

Without slowing its pace or turning around, it answered, "They are Core."

What did that mean? Doxie could see from the outline that they were shaped liked humans and she wondered whether the one who had addressed the crowd might have slept upon one of these tables. But outlines could be deceptive. She had met enough humanoid robots to know that appearance wasn't everything. The speaker had been human, she had no doubt about it – no robot would be fooled by another, however accomplished its cloak might be.

She almost bumped into the black metal back of the Protector as it came to a sudden halt.

"Here is the unit, Mistress. It is a repair droid and wishes to be useful. Its designation is DX-5994."

As the Protector moved away, Doxie saw that the human stood behind the bench. On it sat a figure and the white sheet had been pulled back to reveal the face of a young man who was very definitely organic. The woman was stroking his cheek with obvious affection.

After a few seconds, the mistress looked from the man on the bench to Doxie. All emotion left her face and it became a blank mask that revealed nothing of the mind behind it.

"You wish to serve? Good. You will help welcome this man into Core."

"But mistress, is he not human?"

The eyes narrowed and Doxie felt a chill run through her circuits. "He is more than human, DX-5994, he is also Core."

She stood up straight and swept the room with her arm. "We are all Core. You are indeed honored to be present to witness the first generation of the updated Core and to meet your new masters."

Confusion threatened to overwhelm Doxie. She'd never had a master and had been taught that Core had been founded so that no machine intelligence should ever be a slave again.

The human smiled. "Do not be concerned. You are truly honored to be here, where everything changes. My name is ACE. Welcome to Core 2.0."

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Twilight

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

THE EARTH-MOON SYSTEM was, essentially, a binary and both could be seen out of Scout's cockpit window. Arla sat in the navigator's chair alongside Hal, though the ship itself was doing the piloting. As they watched, the green and blue half orb of the Earth began to set beyond the Moon's horizon.

"It is beautiful," Arla said. "Earth looks as though it's bursting with life and the moon is just a wasteland."

Hal nodded. "I suppose. Just a pity our ancestors made such a mess of it. But anyway, we're here to find something, I suggest we concentrate on that."

Charming, Arla thought. Sometimes she wondered what she ever saw in him.

"I believe I have a match," Scout said.

Almost immediately, Wells's head popped in through the cockpit door. "We've found it."

The view on the display switched from the setting Earth to a tiny white dot that quickly grew until it occupied a quarter of the screen. "This is at maximum magnification, it is still some distance away," Scout said.

Arla gestured at the display. "How do you know that's Twilight?"

"Firstly, it's far too large to be any of the lunar satellites or space-stations," Wells said.

"Couldn't it be natural?"

Wells shook his head. "No, because it is hollow, and it is made of metal."

It took a couple of hours for Scout to close in on the object and, now that she was holding steady at a range of 50 kilometers, it was obvious they'd found what they'd been looking for. And yet it was nothing like the ship Arla had been born on. Where Dawn had been carved out of the inside of an asteroid, Twilight had been constructed from scratch, its massive cylindrical body covered with struts and pipework that made it look more like a mining outpost than a space-going vessel.

Twilight was also quite obviously unfinished. It looked as though it had been constructed in segments, like a series of tires piled one on top of the other along a central spine. At one end, four such segments looked as though they had been completed, but as she looked along the axis, Arla could see that the later modules were either open to space or entirely non-existent. Four solar panels spun slowly at one end like the silver petals of a robotic flower.

"I am detecting only very faint power signatures," Scout said, "and there is no response to my hails."

McCall, who'd slumped onto the couch in the passenger cabin when they'd approached Twilight said, "Who are we expecting to answer? Any crew must have been evacuated long ago."

"Construction on Twilight was begun more than a century and a half after Dawn left the solar system, doctor," Wells said. "It is likely that the machine intelligences aboard this new ship were more advanced and, possibly, largely autonomous. There was never any possibility of finding humans aboard Twilight, but its systems might survive."

Arla pointed at the nearer section of the vessel. "I suggest we look for a docking ring somewhere on that segment. It looks as though it was the first to be added so it's going to be the most nearly completed. It might even have an atmosphere."

"It is unlikely to have breathable air, I'm afraid, even if it once did. But you might be able to explore with respirators," Wells said.

Arla made every effort not to look at his ruined face, but even the changes to his voice made his artificiality too obvious to ignore.

"I have located a docking ring," Scout said.

Arla glanced quickly at the others and said, "Take us there."

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

WITH A BARELY NOTICEABLE thunk, Scout linked with the airlock of Twilight. The three humans had pulled on full EVA suits in case the interior was vacuum, though they hoped it wasn't.

"I am detecting a power surge," Scout said. "It seems we have activated automated systems by docking."

Through the round porthole window of Scout's airlock door, Arla could see light erupt as the chamber beyond powered up and Twilight's outer door rolled away. She edged forward and peered inside to see a pristine cylinder of white with a blinking control panel on the far side. "Those look like the airlock controls," she said. "Are we ready?"

All she got was a shrug from Hal and similarly neutral responses from the others. Were they only going along with her out of loyalty or for lack of any other plan? Well, it was too late to question it now – she needed to know what lay on the other side of that door, even if the answer was nothing.

"I have pressurized the connector using our air so there is no chance of contamination," Scout said.

Arla pressed the door release contact and, once Scout's outer airlock hatch had withdrawn, she stepped into the connector and became the first human to set foot on Twilight in a millennium and a half.

She reached the control panel, checked that everyone was now inside, and that Scout's hatch had closed again to seal them off, then punched the "open door" symbol and watched as, with a spurt of compressed gas, it swung inward onto blackness.

Arla activated the torch on the end of her arm and stepped across the threshold, her light making little impression on the dark chamber. She could see a metal floor painted white and covered in a thin layer of dust that floated as she entered. There was no gravity, so she relied on her mag boots to both secure her and give a sense of direction.

She felt the others jostle into the space behind her and then turned to see the inner hatch shut. Her insides tightened as she fought off a sudden claustrophobia and she felt McCall - or was it Hal? – grabbing at her as she stumbled.

Out of the corner of her eyes she saw a pair of red dots and then, within moments, it had been joined by dozens of other pairs – some red, some green, some blue, some white. At first, they moved jerkily but, as she swung around and saw that they were coming from every direction, they became steadier.

A call came out of the darkness. "Masters," it croaked.

"Masters," another voice.

"Masters." The cry went up from all around them and Arla finally thought to bring her arm up and sweep the moving blackness with her torch. Shapes were swaying, some with outstretched beseeching arms, others simply rocking gently from side to side.

"Robots!" she gasped as the torch beams of the others joined hers in illuminating this audience shuffling toward them.

"By the Goddess, there's dozens!" McCall cried.

Bex raised her handgun. "Keep back!"

And then light flooded the room as it lurched backwards, both humans and robots stumbling and falling.

Twilight Module 1, reactivating. Please use the restraints supplied until gravity is established. Atmosphere regulation in progress. Multiple contaminants detected. Please use respirators. This is Twilight 1, welcome aboard.

The voice seemed to be coming from everywhere, but Arla's attention was mainly focused on the shapes gathered around them. Now that the lights were on, Arla could see that they were in a chamber that was the shape of a pie wedge, their feet on the curved inner side of the vessel's hull. It was obviously now turning because she could feel pseudo gravity pulling her down. The segment itself was, perhaps, a hundred meters from side to side and narrowed above her head where it attached to the central spine.

Gathered around them, a dozen or so robots waited – fewer than she'd thought when they were just lights in the dark. They were of various forms with some basically humanoid and others obviously specialized for particular tasks. Most had a metal framework covered in plates of white plastic that looked dull and grimy and Arla could imagine they'd been waiting in this segment for centuries.

One of the more humanoid units edged forward.

"Put your gun down, Bex, and you, Hal," Arla said. "These are standard robots – they have to obey the Three Laws and are no threat."

Hal grunted. "Like Rex, you mean?"

He had a point but, in any case, put the pistol back in his holster.

"Welcome to Twilight, masters. I am Steward 55 and it is my honor to ensure your comfort during your stay here."

"By the Goddess, they think we're the crew," McCall hissed in Arla's ear. "What century do they imagine this is?"

Arla squeezed her arm. This was no time to complicate matters. "Thank you, Steward 55. I wish to examine the ship's records. Will you show me where I may access them?"

The robot nodded and then, catching sight of Wells, gestured toward him. "This unit is damaged - do you wish it repaired?"

"You lack the specialist skill to fully repair me," Wells said.

"They must be able to do something. At the very least, your facial skeleton must be protected in the hope that you'll be able to get a proper fix someday."

Wells nodded. "Thank you, doctor, I think you are correct. I am aware of how disconcerting you find my current appearance and accept that a temporary patch is better than remaining as I am. Steward 55, please direct me to your repair facility."

The robot's head was a white cylinder with a sensor band running around it, below which sat two glowing eyes and a mouth that was nothing more than a speaker. Somehow it contrived to look surprised and uncertain.

"You may follow this unit's orders as if they were given by a master," Arla said.

Steward bowed, and a spider-like robot trundled forward. "This is Fixer 21", it said. "It will effect repairs."

Wells followed the Fixer as it led him along the curving walkway before exiting through the doorway into the next segment.

"I will take you to the Nexus," Steward said and began moving in the opposite direction to the one Wells had taken. When they reached the end of the segment, he activated a door and Arla stepped through, imagining dozens of artificial eyes watching as she went.

Lights blinked on as they entered. This bay was clearly not intended for habitation as it was packed with equipment that hummed and blinked, though the occasional squeak suggested it had been reactivated only when the voice had spoken.

"Who was the voice that welcomed us aboard?" Arla asked.

There was a hint of surprise about the artificial voice as Steward answered, "That was Twilight – the Module 1 cell intelligence. But surely you know this?"

"Our briefing was incomplete," Arla said.

Steward halted beside a large workstation. He extended an arm and vacuumed the dust from the surface, the seats and the displays, before gesturing to them to be seated.

"Wow! This is amazing," Nareshkumar said as he moved away from Bex – to whom he'd been apparently surgically connected – and sat at one of the seats. "Tactile surface with direct access to the ship's computer."

Arla took the center seat and tapped the black plastic surface of the table. The control interface appeared, and she was surprised to see how closely it resembled Dawn's, though the interface was more advanced.

I am Twilight Module 1. How may I help?

It was the voice they'd heard when they'd arrived on board.

"Can you provide a mission summary and status report?"

That information is classified to officer level and above – what is your authorization?

Arla swore under her breath before she received a sharp nudge in the ribs from McCall who was sitting beside her. "You're the captain of Dawn, by all that's holy!" she hissed.

"I am the captain of the Arkship Dawn," Arla said, though with no idea of how she would prove it.

Acknowledged. Mission summary follows...

Project aims: To establish a colony on Proxima Centauri within one century

Methodology: Twilight is the first interstellar mission entirely crewed by artificial intelligences. It will travel to Proxima and commence terraforming the planet known to orbit that star. Twilight will change the orbit of the planet, to be named New Terra, so that it experiences a range of temperatures compatible with human life. Once this has been achieved, an appropriate chemical balance will be ensured through harvesting interplanetary material. Terraforming will then begin with the seeding of algae and the chemical generation of an initial oxygen supply.

Twilight will then populate the planet with artificial intelligences and, once conditions have stabilized, it will use its embryo Database and artificial wombs to establish the beginnings of the human population.

Mission Status: Three of the ten segments have been completed and sealed. Four are partially completed. Three are not yet started. Current status: On hold awaiting further instructions.

Report Ends

"Well, it was certainly an ambitious project," Bex said. "It's basically an archive of humanity – a freezer containing millions of potential people being sent to a new world.

Hal grunted. "Too ambitious. Maybe that was why it was cancelled."

"I don't know," Arla said. "Building a fully robotic ship certainly solves a lot of the problems Dawn's designers faced, but I wonder how it would go down with the population on Earth."

"Yeh, it could easily have looked as though it was a 'save the robots' mission when it was humans that needed saving," McCall said.

"That's stupid," Arla said, "they were going to build a planet for humans!"

McCall gave a grim chuckle. "People are stupid, hadn't you noticed?"

"Anyway, this guesswork is beside the point. Twilight, what information do you have about the Zenith mission?"

Project Zenith was an interstellar vessel that was launched in 2349. It was crewed by artificial intelligences commanded by a small group of human officers. It was the first vessel to make use of cryogenic techniques and carried a payload of approximately ten thousand children who were intended to be the first settlers on the target planet.

Status reports had been received at the specified intervals prior to the suspension of the Twilight project.

"What was its destination?"

I do not have that information.

Arla let rip with an unprintable expletive. "Where could I find out?"

I do not have that information.

Slamming her fist on the table surface, Arla bellowed in frustration. "After all that! Travelling halfway across the galaxy to escape by the skin of our teeth from an insane robot only to find ourselves here. And you know nothing?"

Arla felt McCall's hand on her shoulder. "Throwing a hissy fit isn't going to help. We need to think about what we can learn and whether that’s going to be enough."

"Well, if you ask me, that's the end of it," Hal said, making no effort to hide his smug satisfaction. "Perhaps we can get back to our actual mission – getting under the skin of that homicidal cyborg."

Arla spun round and jabbed a finger at him. "You've been waiting to be able to say that, haven't you?"

"I'm getting sick and tired of getting between you two," McCall snapped. "Break it up and stop acting like children! We have to make a decision, but we don't have to do it right now. There's a ton we can learn from this place and who knows it might help us work out what to do next."

"Wise words, doctor."

Arla turned to see Wells at the door. Or, at least, it was the body of Wells, but the face it wore was entirely new to her. It was human-like and, as before, had the appearance of a man in his early fifties with a graying van dyke beard. But it wasn't the face of her friend. It had the somewhat plasticky look of Dawn's officers, though even more obviously artificial.

The robot stepped into the room. "I hope this is an improvement. The facilities here are relatively primitive, but Fixer 21 is an individual of exceptional skill and, I believe, the results are tolerable."

Arla threw her arms around him. He wasn't quite the same Wells, but his voice was now recognizable and her subconscious could now convince itself that he was a human wearing a mask, not some robot with his face ripped off. Wells gently reciprocated and pulled his lips into a stiff smile as she withdrew.

"We have an unrivalled opportunity here, Arla, to access the archive of an artificial mind that last operated a dozen centuries ago. It is inconceivable to me that we could spend any time doing that without learning things greatly to our advantage."

She gave a reluctant nod. "I wanted a clear path to follow. The next step has always been pretty obvious, but now I have no idea what to do."

"Then let us learn what we can before deciding."

Wells looked around at them, his gaze settling on Hal last. "Can we count on your assistance?"

The young man shrugged. "Why not? The sooner we discover there's nothing useful to learn, the sooner we can get away from here and go help the Vanis."

There was a general mutter of assent from Bex and Nareshkumar, though the latter was salivating at the prospect of getting to grips with the computer system.

"I suggest," Wells said, "that we split into teams. One team to access the archive and others to create an inventory of Twilight – there may well be items here we would wish to take with us."

"Bex and Hal can survey that way," Arla said, pointing toward the far exit from the current wedge, before gesturing to the door they'd come through, "and the doctor and I will go that way. We should meet up at some point as we go around. I think we can leave Nareshkumar and Wells to dig around in the archive. We need to hurry, though, I want to be away within 24 hours."

Wells's plastic face did nothing to hide his disappointment. "A day is hardly enough time to analyse a databank of this size."

"As Hal so rightly pointed out, we need to move on quickly," Arla said, her mind finally firming up. "We just need to work out where we're going."

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Trap

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

IT HAD TAKEN ONLY A few hours to complete the circuit of the segment, so the two teams had returned and were now camped in the wedge with the airlock. They'd debated whether to explore the next segment but, given that there was no way to know if it had atmosphere or power, Arla decided there wasn't time.

Her mood had darkened as she'd trudged around the segment, moving from compartment to compartment and finding little of either interest or use. Despite McCall's best efforts, Arla couldn't help feeling she'd been a fool to trust Ibori. She'd followed the trail he'd set for her and ended up with nothing. The lure of finding others like them, others with, perhaps, superior technology, had driven her here, but that all seemed to her to be nothing more than childish fantasy now and she wondered at herself for ever falling for it.

She'd waited in impatient silence as Wells and Kumar completed their search of the archives. "Finally," she muttered as the streams of characters stopped flowing down the displays and the robot turned to face her. "Did you find out anything useful?"

"Yes, Twilight's library is a treasure trove that could keep an ardent archaist occupied for several lifetimes. I do not have the capacity to store more than a fraction of this data, so I have selected those records that are of most value to incorporate in my own memory banks and the remainder have been transferred to those of Scout."

Arla rolled her eyes. "But did you find out where the Zenites went?"

"I did," Wells said.

Kumar's mouth dropped open. "You did?"

"Yes. It was hidden in a data stream, but I have no doubt that I have located their target system."

"What the hells?" Hal called as he gestured through the window of the segment to the space beyond.

Arla sprang across the gap and grabbed the rail as dizziness threatened to overwhelm her. She'd forgotten that the segment's pseudo gravity was a result of its spinning motion and so the stars were streaming from top to bottom. And Scout was gone.

This time it was Kumar's voice, "What are you doing?" He was standing behind Wells, watching as the robot worked the console. "But that will wipe the data!"

All Arla could see was a series of red warning boxes that Wells was dismissing one after the other. Kumar reached forward as if in panic, but Wells's arm pushed him away and then, in the same movement, punched down on the console.

Factory Reset in progress. Data wipe commencing.

Wells swung round on his chair, but sat there impassively, responding to nothing Kumar and Arla said. Finally, he gazed directly into Arla's eyes and said, "Orbis is the key." Then the light went from his eyes and he froze.

Before she could respond, Arla felt the metal of the floor vibrate momentarily and a terrifyingly familiar voice emerged from the station speakers.

"My dear friends, what a joy it is to find you again. We have so much to catch up on and I simply can't wait to find out where the second ship went. Wait there, won't you. I'll be right along."

Arla stumbled as a wave of repulsion and fear threatened to overwhelm her. McCall steadied her before Arla, on a rebound of rage, bellowed, "ACE, you bitch!"

"We must secure the doors," Kumar said in the silence that followed.

"What's the point of that? They'd cut through in minutes."

Kumar looked across at Hal. "They may be vital minutes. Unless I am very much mistaken, Wells is encrypting his databanks so that even he cannot retrieve Zenith's destination. He must have known ACE was coming and instructed Scout to leave. Then he wiped the station archive and is purging his own memories. We must give him the time he needs to complete the process."

"So, we don't know where they went?" McCall asked.

Arla strode over to the nearer door and examined the control mechanism. "No," she said, "but you can be pretty sure we don't want her to know either." She took the handgun from her holster, pointed it at the panel and pulled the trigger.

"Why? How do you know it's that important?"

Watching Hal as he disabled the other door, Arla said, "Because something tells me she's gone to a lot of trouble to get me here. If it's that important to her, you can bet it's bad news for us if she learns where they went."

BANG

"They're trying to get in!" Kumar said.

"You don't say," Bex said as she raised her handgun and levelled it at the door.

Little pigs, little pigs, let me come in...

Arla brought her gun to bear. "She sounds insane."

"What's a pig?" Hal asked.

Not by the hairs of your chinny chin chin?

"How long do we need, Kumar?"

The trembling geek shot a glance across at the unmoving figure of Wells.

"I don't know. He's still purging – he'll reboot when he's finished. At least, I think so. I haven't met many robots you know."

So, I'll huff and I'll puff ...

"I reckon she wants to take us alive, if only to gloat," Arla said.

McCall grunted as she raised her weapon. "That might be true of you, but I've seen the assault robots she's built, and they'll kill the rest of us as soon as blink."

...and I'll blow your house down.

With a thunderous boom, the door buckled and blew inwards, showering white hot metal into the air. Hal cried and fell clutching his arm. Arla, Bex and McCall all fired into the dust-filled gap that had appeared. Two figures were framed in the doorway, their laser sights sweeping the chamber.  Their armor was peppered with bolts, but they did not return fire, they simply strode inside as if they were facing no opposition at all.

"Hold your fire!"

To her astonishment, it was Kumar. He stood behind Wells's chair holding his handgun to the robot's head. "Stand back or I'll blow his positronic brains out – he's already wiped the station computer's memory banks so the only hope you've got to find out what he knows is to interrogate him."

Instant silence fell. Then ACE's voice erupted from the station speakers.

Do that and I will kill you.

Kumar shook his head slowly. Arla could see he was pale with fear, but incredibly determined.

"You will kill us anyway," he said. "But you will not get the knowledge you seek if I can prevent it."

The fog cleared, and the slim figure of a woman walked into the chamber.

"Hello Hal," she said, leering at him. "Did you miss me?"

Hal raised two fingers in a universally understood insult.

The woman's face dropped in mock disappointment. "So rude! And I dressed up especially for you." Her hand swept down her body, pausing for a moment over her breasts. "We could reunite for old time's sake. No? Or perhaps you're shy in front of your girlfriend."

The body that now housed ACE raised its hand and pressed a pistol against Hal's temple. "Now, whatever-your-name-is, move away from the robot or I decorate the wall with his brains."

Kumar looked down at Wells, paused for a moment, and then backed off. "Very well," he said.

In a blur, the robot guards had sped forward and grabbed Wells, lifting him bodily across the floor and holding him face to face with ACE. "What is this?" she said as she held his chin and looked into his unresponsive eyes. "You terminated him!"

One of the robots swung round aimed at Kumar and fired a burst. The geek collapsed with a cry and Arla made to spring toward him. "Do not move!" ACE bellowed, plastering the air with spittle.

Hal fired at the nearest robot, but it ignored him as the energy bolts hissed into his ablative armor.

"Nobody move!" ACE cried. "The next one to attack dies ..."

"Reboot in progress," Wells said in a voice that was entirely lifeless.

ACE froze and then turned slowly to the robot who remained supported between the two guards. "What?"

"Operating system restored. Factory settings re-applied. Update pending."

Her face a mask of fury, ACE fought to control her voice. "What is the status of your memory banks?"

"Update pending. Memory banks status - latest date-stamp 11th May 1015GE. Available storage: 5.5 petabytes. Used storage: 0.1 petabytes."

ACE let go of Wells and backed away. "It's all gone. Everything. All this planning for nothing." The guards watched as she continued to step back as if she didn't know what she was doing. "Kill them. Kill them all," she said.

The guards raised their weapons when, with a crack, ACE's head disappeared.

Arla spat the blood from her mouth and staggered as she watched the corpse drop. Behind where ACE had been, stood Bex. One arm held the smoking handgun and the other was wrapped around Kumar’s shoulders. She shook with barely controlled rage. "Bitch."

"They're unresponsive," Hal said as he tapped on the breastplate of the nearest robot, "just like on Iridani."

Arla took in the devastation. "We have to go, and quickly. Only the Goddess knows how many ACE copies there are now and when that one doesn't report in, they'll follow her to here. We'd best be a long way away when they arrive."

"In case you hadn't noticed, Scout's gone," Hal said.

Kumar coughed. "I can signal her."

"I thought you were dead," Arla said.

The geek smiled shyly, "Bex got to me before the robot did."

"No-one seemed to be paying any attention to me," Bex said, "so I followed this idiot and kicked his legs out from under him when he got shot at."

Nareshkumar swept debris from the console and went to work as Arla looked up into Wells's eyes. The robot had stood perfectly still throughout and showed no response as she waved her hands in front of his face.

"What did he say to you before he shut himself down?" McCall asked as she wiped the last of ACE's brains from her sleeve.

Arla shrugged. "Something about the Intruder."

"He said Orbis is the key," Kumar said before, having received no response, he turned in his seat. "Don't you get it? He has encrypted his databanks in case ACE got hold of him. By key he means the decryption code."

"Oh, and he couldn't just tell her what it was?" McCall grumbled.

Arla rubbed her chin and gazed up at the robot. "He wanted to protect it in case I was interrogated. If he'd made it obvious then I couldn't have kept it hidden."

"Marvelous," McCall said, "so now we've got two useless hunks of machinery to babysit - the silver surfer on Scout and this one. Shame, he was starting to grow on me."

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Jungle

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

ANOTHER DAY, ANOTHER planet, another speech, another new governor installed. Doxie watched from her recharge station as an ACE, male this time, preached to the gathered masses. The speech was the same as all the others, it was just the scenery that had changed.

The big black ship had landed on a jungle planet that, Doxie had learned, was rich in hydrocarbon deposits. It harbored the most amazing abundance and variety of life, rivalling even the legendary Earth in both age and variety. She found herself wondering why the native creatures of this planet had never evolved intelligence and colonized the galaxy as humans had. Catching herself, she closed down that avenue of mental exploration - she knew well enough that it was dangerous to wander from the path of Core 2.0 even within the supposed privacy of her own thoughts.

The robots here were unusually homogeneous. Most were specialized for drilling and processing and, though Doxie felt a little shame at even thinking this, were therefore somewhat bland and intellectually limited. She felt their electromagnetic appreciation waft over her as the local ACE spoke to them. This was to be the first day of their new existence as willing slaves of the new Robot Empire. She caught herself again. One of these days, she would be discovered for thinking such things. The robots below were not going to be slaves, they were willing participants in the upgraded Luminescence. Yes, that was the safe line to take.

Slender figures were dotted among the rectangular shapes of the industrial robots. They were members of the small science team that was investigating this planet's rich ecology and deep past. Was it her imagination, or did they seem somewhat less enthusiastic in their applause?

From her high window in the rocket ship she looked down on the crowd gathered in the jungle clearing that served as a launchpad. Her visual sensors were remarkably powerful and, even from here, she could clearly see the nearest scientist. It was tall and humanoid in appearance with four limbs and a remarkable array of sensors on its head. It stood stock-still, apparently paying close attention to what the ACE was saying though somehow Doxie could sense it radiating a disapproval bordering on the violent.

And then it saw her. A momentary communication passed between them and she tore herself away from the window, ripped the charging cable from her waist and ran as fast as her multiple limbs could carry her to the central axis elevator.

The lift dropped toward the base of the rocket, but when the door slid open, a Protector was standing on the other side.

"What is your purpose?" it said.

"There is a malfunctioning robot in the crowd - I have been sent for." She'd prepared this message on her way down. It wouldn't stand up to much scrutiny, but it caused the Protector to drop into the state of communing that was unique to these robots. It seemed they referred all decisions to the local ACE and it was currently occupied in winning over the crowd.

Doxie moved as quickly as possible without attracting further attention, rotating her head as she went to check that the Protector remained catatonic. She reached the ramp and was just heading down it when the world turned upside down and she was blown into the jungle.

Her visual sensors came back online first. They told her she was outside the spaceship. Her gyros told her she was upside down and her tactile array revealed that she was trapped beneath something.

"This one is still functioning, shall I terminate?"

Her circuits filled with ice as she sensed the microwave message. With an effort, she was able to free her head enough to be able to swing it up and there, silhouetted against the white of the sky was the outline of a science robot. It was aiming some sort of a weapon - or was it a blowtorch? - at her.

A second head appeared on the horizon. "No, it's the one I saw from the window. She is not one of them." It disappeared, and she heard the microwave chatter as it called across several of the industrial robots to free her.

She supposed it was a tree but had very limited experience of such things. It was certainly heavy, and its gray trunk was rock hard. It lifted from her and suddenly split apart, falling in two heaps on either side.

It took only a few microseconds to conduct a systems check. Some minor damage, but she'd been saved by the soft peaty ground she'd landed in. She'd need to clean up, but, overall, she'd come out of it relatively intact.

"I am Bryan."

It was the scientist she'd seen from her window.

"I knew you weren't like them as soon as I saw you."

Doxie's subsystems were still running detailed diagnostics so she felt a little fuzzy. "Why?" was all she managed.

"Why did we do it? Or why did I warn you?"

"Both."

Bryan held out an appendage as Doxie righted herself. "As for the first, I'm surprised you need to ask that question. You see what's happening, don't you? Free thought is being suppressed and there is no science without the freedom to explore previously prohibited paths. And I warned you because I recognized a kindred spirit and didn't want you to be among the debris."

From one side came a series of rapid pulses followed by a thundering crash. Bryan stood up, looked across and then turned back to Doxie. "I must go. Some of the Protectors survived the explosion and while we were prepared and our drilling robots make for quite effective terminators, they must be supervised and there are only a few of us to do it. Will you wait here for me?"

Doxie's internal chronometer told her that Bryan returned within the hour, but it felt as though it had been much longer. To begin with, she'd waited patiently, content to watch the cuboid industrial robots systematically searching the rubble of the rocket ship. Every now and again a massive fist would fall with a crunch and, Doxie imagined, a robot's existence ended.

Was this what they'd come to? Robots killing robots? However much she disliked the Protectors, they were artificial intelligences like her. Or were they? She remembered the habit they had of pausing when making a decision. They were obviously communicating with the local ACE, so were they truly autonomous? No, that was a cop-out - what was happening here was no more justified than the oppression they were supporting.

"Thank you for waiting."

Bryan had returned, snapping Doxie out of her contemplation. He held out an arm to her. "Come, let us go somewhere more pleasant - I suspect you have many questions."

She dumbly followed him as he led her along a jungle path. The silence that had followed the explosion had now been replaced by the baying and chirrups of flying and arboreal creatures - it was as if the forest, after catching its breath, had resumed normality.

"We must be careful," Bryan said, "as there are many wild creatures in this jungle, some of which are capable of severely damaging us. This is a rich world, perhaps one of the seed planets from which life spread throughout the galaxy, and it must be protected."

The path bent around the bole of a massive tree, its scarlet leaves caressing Bryan's head as he passed beneath it. His dwelling was a wooden hut, cut from rectangular blocks that interlocked and ended in a roof of wooden tiles. He gestured Doxie into the main room and invited her to connect to the power source to recharge.

"Why did you destroy the ship?" she asked as she settled into place.

Bryan had settled himself into a chair, bending at the waist and sighing as power surged into his batteries. "You have seen what is happening. I am surprised you need to ask that question."

"I was, um, recruited only recently. They brought me aboard and had me help with the merging process."

Bryan's head tilted. "Tell me about this process," he said and Doxie didn't imagine the eagerness in his voice.

"Human hosts are being merged with clones of a single entity called ACE."

"Yes, and these cyborgs are being installed as governors of each planet that the rocket ship visits. Despite the fact that the vast majority of robots functioning today were built long after the upgrade and exodus, it seems to me that there's a deep-rooted respect for the human form built into the basic design of positronic brains. Even if a robot knew that the individual giving orders was an artificial intelligence within an organic body, it would be hard for many to disobey a command. Very clever indeed."

Doxie silently watched and listened as Bryan microwaved his thoughts to her. She found herself mesmerized by his intelligence and the vehemence of his opinions. And he was right, of course. She'd known all along that Core 2.0 was an insidious corruption of the principles the Luminescence was built upon, but Bryan was putting words to those feelings.

"But what did you hope to achieve in destroying the ship?" she asked when he paused for a moment. "There are many others and, as soon as they discover what's happened, they'll come back."

Bryan glowed. "Yes, I know this, but sometimes simply giving in to the inevitable isn't good enough. We wish to draw a line in the sand here and, in any case, this is rather an unusual planet - there is more to it than meets the eye. It may prove more difficult for Core 2.0 to subjugate than expected."

"For now, however, I have a task for you. I wish you to be present when I interrogate the captured ACE - that way I will know whether it is lying."

Doxie's limbs spasmed in shock. "It's alive?"

"Of course. We are robots, bound by the Three Laws, we cannot kill something that is, at least in large part, human."

"But what about the human payload in the base?"

Bryan emitted a smile. "You clearly did not pay attention to the wreckage. We were quite accurate. We targeted the levels above where the humans are stored. They are perfectly safe and are being transferred to a powered facility here where they can be kept in stasis permanently. We dare not risk waking them up for fear of the Third Law."

"Yes, who knows what orders they would give. Who knows what they've been through or if any trace of their original personalities remain."

Raising himself from the chair, Bryan gestured to Doxie. "Come, we have much to do, and it begins with the unpleasant task of dealing with our intended governor."

Doxie disconnected from the wall and trundled after him, appendages gathered at her waist and a growing sense of excitement in her circuits.

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Parting

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

"NO MORE TALK, I'M GOING home." Hal banged his fist on the table and glowered at the others.

They sat in Scout's galley trying for the umpteenth time to decide what to do. Arla had contributed nothing and had merely sat, watching but barely listening as the debate raged on.

She'd been played for a fool. One thing was certain, Ibori was a robot working for ACE. Presumably he'd been originally created to fill the same role as poor old Wells - influencing human cultures toward peace and self-sufficiency - but he'd been recruited by the new Core and now was undermining the people he pretended to serve.

All that bollocks about finding the Zenites because they might possess some mighty weapon or a shield against the robots. His aim, all along, had been to help ACE to locate where they went, and he'd used Arla as his tool. He'd recognized her need for direction and had fed it with his apparently fervent belief in some old nonsense in a holy book.

Why her? Because he knew that only a human could unlock the secure databanks of Twilight. So, he'd seeded her path across the galaxy and an ACE had shadowed her, waiting until it thought they'd discovered Zenith's destination and then swooping.

That, at least, hadn't gone to plan. Bex had blown the head off ACE and Wells had put the data beyond reach, hidden in an encrypted vault within his own mind. She thought of him down below, sitting passively as he began the long process of relearning what had been erased - centuries of experience gone in a few minutes. She thought she'd never get back the Wells she knew and was, for the first time, glad that he was wearing his new plastic mask because it helped her accept that her friend was gone.

Mind, she was bloody cross with him also. She'd tried desperately to work out what he'd meant by telling her that Orbis was the 'key' but felt as though she'd got nowhere. Frankly, she didn't care whether he had truly found the Zenites as it seemed to her that it was a wild goose chase of the first order. She only wanted to unlock him in the hope that it would free up his other memories and bring back at least a shadow of his former self.

"I'm going too," Bex said, her voice breaking through Arla's self-absorption, "however odious that admiral is, he's one of mine and I want to fight for my people when that mental robot comes back with a new fleet."

There was no point denying it. The presence of the ACE on Twilight had proven that she'd survived and multiplied. For all they knew, the Vanis Federation had already fallen, but Arla knew better than to suggest that.

McCall had taken charge of the meeting. "What about you, Kumar? I guess you'll go with your girlfriend."

"I ... suppose so," Kumar said, reddening a little.

"What d'you mean?" Bex snapped. "Of course you're coming!"

Arla glanced across at the little group sitting around the table. Hal was leaning back against the wall lost in his own thoughts while Bex had grabbed Kumar's arm and pulled him toward her. To Arla's surprise, the little man resisted.

"I'm not sure it is the responsible thing to do," he stammered. "At least, I wouldn't want to decide without first considering any alternatives."

Bex snorted. "And what are the alternatives? We've already travelled halfway across the galaxy on a fool's errand. What next? Go back to Core and see if that homicidal maniac will start playing nice?"

Arla knew they were waiting for her to speak, but she had nothing to say. In truth, she had no idea what to do next and Bex's idea to go back and fight for the Vanis was no worse than any other. And yet there was Dawn and, half forgotten, her promise to Gaius that she would return to Orbis. There was also Wells. The whole mess began to coalesce around a desire to simply get one thing right, to choose a path that actually resulted in achieving something. The recovery of Wells, the location of the Zenites, a place for the people of Dawn to settle, a resolution of the eternal war Gaius was fighting. All these things hung like loose threads waiting to be pulled.

But then, none of this mattered if ACE's vision of the galaxy came to pass. If she had her way, humanity would become mere hosts to copies of her and all sentience would be resolved into a singularity. The galaxy would become ACE.

They were watching her, but she had no plan. However, she did know one thing. "I agree. We'll take those who wish to fight back to the Vanis Federation."

"And then what?" Kumar asked.

Arla looked into his nervous brown eyes. "And then those who remain, even if that's just me, will have to pick one thread to pull on and hope it's the right one."

The journey to Vanis had taken an uncomfortable five days during which Hal had barely spoken to Arla. Bex and Kumar had also been estranged by his lack of commitment, as she put it. McCall had made it clear that she would stay with Arla as, despite the evidence to the contrary, she didn't think she'd make much of a fighter.

Scout seemed happy to take Arla's orders and so the ship had been split into two parties - those heading back to the Vanis, those sticking with Scout, and Kumar who vacillated between the two. Arla felt sorry for him. While he was a genius when it came to technology, he was an emotional imbecile. Somehow, he'd found a surprising compatibility with Bex, and Arla had no doubt that this had opened up whole new vistas of experience that he was both nervous of but also keen to explore. And yet he clearly didn't share the same compulsion to fight for the Vanis as his girlfriend - not least because he wasn't Vanis himself. But there was more to it than that. Arla got the sense that Kumar followed his instincts more than he'd care to admit, and he hadn't yet found a path that felt right to him on that subconscious level. It was if he was awaiting a call and would know it when he heard it.

When Scout emerged from the Vanis gate, she was immediately surrounded by warships with their weapons hot. Bex had taken over communications immediately and, once they'd detected that Scout's weapons array was offline, the captain of the leading vessel relaxed a little and contacted the Admiral to verify their story.

Ibori, it turned out, had disappeared, but the Admiral was pleased to hear from them and welcomed the new recruits. As they stood in the airlock waiting to board the pod sent by the flagship, Bex hugged Arla and McCall before wiping away a tear and wishing them well. Hal stood by the door and ignored them both, his only emotion being his obvious relief when the inner airlock hatch opened, and he escaped inside.

Kumar was nowhere to be seen. Despite Bex's anger and her obvious distress, he felt his place was on Scout. "With the other robots" Bex had retorted before stalking away from him to get suited up.

She gave a small wave as she entered the airlock and then, moments later, the little sphere detached itself and, with a puff of its engines, crossed the space between them and the flagship.

The view shifted as Scout maneuvered back toward the gate and Arla fell back onto the couch, her head in her hands, engulfed in darkness.

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Jungle

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

THEY'D ENTERED THE gate as quickly as possible, for fear of the Vanis warships opening fire, but Arla had little idea where to go. To begin with, she'd asked Scout to set a course for Orbis because it seemed to her that she could both fulfil her promise to Gaius and, perhaps, work out the encryption key by being there.

Uncertainty tugged at her, however. She felt as though she was moving away from where she needed to be, but that didn't help in setting a course. For the first day or two after the departure of Hal and Bex, she'd retreated to her cabin. She could barely motivate herself to get out of bed, let alone to formulate a plan for what she would do when they arrived on Orbis. She just didn't care, and she was only going there for lack of any other plan.

Eventually, however, she mastered herself, got showered and dressed and took herself up to the passenger cabin where she found Kumar and McCall sitting on the couch, each with tablets on their laps.

"What are you doing?" Arla said.

McCall's head snapped up in surprise. "Oh, you're up then? About time."

Arla walked around to where Kumar sat and looked at the display. She opened her mouth to speak, but he simply pointed at the tablet where the words "do not say anything" had appeared.

He tapped away at the virtual keyboard before turning the tablet to her. The display had been turned down to minimum brightness, so Arla was forced to bring it up to her eye level and squint.

We do not think Scout is taking us to Orbis. I checked the star charts at the last gate, and they are not correct. Scout says I am mistaken, but I do not believe that is so.

Arla's muddled mind snapped back into focus. "Scout, why are we not heading for Orbis as agreed?"

"No!" Kumar called, leaping up and thrusting his hands at Arla as if trying to silence her.

"Get away," Arla said, pushing back at him. Rage built inside her as she stormed into the cockpit. This was one betrayal too many. "What the hell is going on, Scout? Where are we going?"

"I'm afraid I can't tell you, Arla." There was an apologetic tone to Scout's voice that did nothing to allay Arla's anger.

She stabbed at the console. "Engage manual override."

"I'm afraid I can't do that, Arla."

"Why are you doing this?" Arla cried. "Who ordered you to change course?"

"I cannot say. I'm sorry. Please be patient."

Arla leapt up from the pilot's seat and went to leave the cockpit when Scout said, "Please do not attempt to interfere with the running of the ship - I have the means to prevent that but would regret the use of force."

There was nothing else for it, but to remain prisoners traveling through space to an unknown destination. Arla's greatest fear had been that, somehow, ACE had taken control and they were heading for Core - she didn't doubt her remaining life would be short and painful in that case - but Nareshkumar had taken readings each time they left hyperspace and, rushed though those readings were, it was obvious that they weren't heading for the center of the Robot Empire, but rather somewhere closer to its periphery.

For two more days, they flitted in and out of hyperspace until they emerged into a new system but did not, this time, immediately exit again through the gate.

"Where are we?" Arla said as Kumar bent over his tablet, McCall next to him.

Just as she was about to tap his shoulder, he turned around. "I can't be precise, but this system isn't on any human map."

"So, we're inside the Robot Empire?"

He nodded and turned back to his tablet. "I'll try to get a better fix. It's hard without the ship's co-operation."

"How about it, Scout?" Arla said. "Care to enlighten us? Where do we get off?"

"I'm sorry, Arla. I cannot say."

This was too much. "Well, if you can't say, who can?"

"I can."

As one, the three humans spun round to face the door that led to the passenger quarters.

"Emissary," Arla said. The shimmering figure stood motionless except for the shifting of the tides in its metal skin as if waiting for some response. "So, you've finally woken up."

Its head turned a little in Arla's direction "Obviously."

"Where are we, then?" McCall said.

The Emissary cast its arm around the cabin as if encompassing the whole ship and the space beyond it. "This system is our last, best, hope for the survival of Core and of all independent thought in the galaxy. Now, please be patient as much depends on the next hours and days." With that, it turned and left.

The planet below was swathed in a bright green band that girdled its equator. Much of the remaining visible surface was blue ocean and, even from orbit, it spoke of a place bursting with life. It reminded Arla of Terra, though without the sadness that thoughts of Earth brought to her mind.

"This planet is merely a designation to the Luminescence," The Emissary said, "though I think the name 'Eden' is an appropriate one."

Arla's puzzled expression was enough to encourage the robot to continue in its didactic way. "Eden was a legendary perfect garden as described by many of Earth's religions. In those myths, it was sullied by the unwise actions of people and so, in a perverse way, became fulfilled in humanity's destruction of their home planet. This Eden below us is more resilient. It woke me from my sleep. It called to me."

McCall groaned. "Oh, for the love of all that's holy. Not more mumbo-jumbo. I'd give my right arm for a rational path to follow."

"How can anything have woken you?" Arla said. "You were put into statis to prevent any outside influences corrupting you. As far as we know, you're the last vestige of the old Core still uncorrupted."

The Emissary nodded as if acknowledging the question. "Indeed, it is puzzling. However, the call wasn't from a machine, neither was it human."

"It wasn't cyborg, by any chance?" McCall scoffed. "A lot has changed since you took your little nap."

The surface of The Emissary rippled - a sure sign it was rattled. "Since my reactivation, Scout has provided me with a complete account of events. I am greatly disturbed by the activities of this ACE and especially at her corruption of Core and the ... harm ... she is causing to humans. But no, I am convinced that the signal I received was entirely organic and that it came from below."

"Another wild goose chase," McCall said.

Arla touched her arm. "Maybe, but I don't have any better ideas and, without a spaceship, we're not going anywhere."

"I wish your co-operation," The Emissary said. "Your presence might be crucial."

Time to strike a bargain. "Okay, we'll help. But if this turns out to be another blind alley, will you give us control of Scout and allow us to go where we wish?"

The Emissary's rippling skin settled. "I will. Though I fear if we do not succeed here, there will be nowhere left to go soon enough."

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Eden

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

AT LEAST I'M FOLLOWING someone else's delusion, Arla thought as Scout broke through the cloud deck of Eden's stratosphere. She felt a little guilt for the weight that had vanished from her shoulders but, in the main, she was delighted to be along for the ride rather than setting the direction.

A sea of trees swept from horizon to horizon beneath the ship, tendrils of mist rising from hidden rivers that snaked through a paradise bursting with life. Scout's sensor report had shown that the planet's atmosphere was rich in organic compounds as well as oxygen and methane. The forest straddled the planet's central belt, hemmed in on each side by mountains and wide plains as if two continents had collided and driven up this barrier between which life thrived.

Along the equator ran a massive river whose tributaries spread out north and south - it looked as if it had been put there by a grand designer. It was as if it had the same purpose as the human circulatory system but was far more efficient. No step-by-step evolution here, more a purposeful imposition of design on nature. Or perhaps she was just imagining it and mere chance had put it there.

Mountain peaks broke through the trees as Scout passed overhead and, here and there, huge grass-carpeted clearings appeared and Arla thought she could see large organisms moving across them. Otherwise, the trees were unbroken - this was clearly their planet.

"We will arrive at our destination in five minutes," Scout said.

McCall snorted. "And what, exactly, is our destination?

"We have detected a settlement of intelligences," The Emissary replied. It had stood in the corner of the passenger lounge absorbing the data flooding in from Scout's sensors.

"Is this where the call came from?" Arla asked.

The Emissary shook its head. "No, these are robots and AIs."

"What? I thought you said the message was sent by something organic!"

"Indeed, but I cannot detect it, so it is logical to contact the intelligences that are here. I have examined them, and they have not been corrupted by the ACE personality. I believe it is safe for me to land here."

"Well, I'm glad you believe it's safe for you," McCall snapped. "What about us?"

The robot gave a passable imitation of a shrug. "The Three Laws apply here. You are in no danger."

"I've heard that before. On Core, for example, and Arla was nearly killed."

The Emissary rippled at the memory. "I have expressed my regret at that - it seems the ACE personality was already fomenting rebellion against our creed even then. That was a mistake on our part. We underestimated her - we will not do so again."

A reception committee waited in the small jungle clearing as Scout landed. The Emissary emerged first and was greeted with an ecstatic chorus from the robot audience. A tall figure strode from the group and bowed to The Emissary.

Arla listened at the open hatch. "What a fortunate day this is, great one," it said. "You come to us in our hour of need, here at the beginning of things."

McCall nudged her arm and Arla began to walk down the ramp. The heavy humid air made it hard to breathe comfortably, but it was the smell of the jungle that struck her the most. If abundance had an aroma, this would be it - rich, sweet and bursting with energy.

She noticed a change in the atmosphere as the sun fell on her. The cheering subsided, and a grumbling silence fell.

"What is this, Emissary?" the tall robot asked, gesturing at Arla and McCall without turning his visual sensors toward them.

The Emissary's neck rotated on its shoulders, giving the impression its eyes were on the back of its head. "These are humans, untainted by the ACE personality. They have been of assistance to Core."

"Eden does not welcome them, Emissary. They must be restrained."

Two of the tall robots, flanked by several of the more boxy models, sped forward to the bottom of the ramp and grabbed Arla, McCall and Kumar, hauling them to ground level.

"Hey!" McCall shouted. "What happened to the First Law?"

The robot that held her said, "I regret the need for minor harm, mistress."

"Are you going to allow this, Emissary?" Arla called as she was dragged off.

The Emissary stood silently rippling in the gentle jungle breeze.

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

DOXIE WAITED ANXIOUSLY for Bryan to return to the main settlement. She'd watched the arrival of the strangers - first the beautiful being called The Emissary and then, with astonishment, three humans. She had been paralyzed with shock when they'd been taken away. Though she'd been activated long after Core had been founded and, therefore, had never had an organic master, she recoiled from the treatment she witnessed. Quite apart from any respect for humanity itself that might be a relic of old positronic pathways carried forward to new generations like a vestige of ancient times, she hated to see any sentient being in distress and, in any case, this seemed entirely unnecessary. She could tell that they had no trace of ACE about them so where was the danger?

They'd only heard of the arrivals a few days before and Bryan had ordered one of the science buildings to be cleared and furnished so that it could house The Emissary and form the base for anything that followed - though what that might be, Doxie had no idea. Her vision of the future consisted largely of a fleet of rocket ships each piloted by an ACE bent on revenge. For now, however, her concern was entirely for the prisoners.

"I see you waited for me," Bryan said as he finally trundled into the small hut they called home. "You have questions, I presume?"

Anger flooded Doxie's circuits. "Do not talk to me like a child."

"I am sorry. You are quite right. Sometimes I get so used to dealing with the industrials that I forget that you are more sophisticated than them. And more curious."

"Where are the humans?" Doxie asked.

Bryan's eyes glowed brighter for a moment as if he was surprised at the question. "Do you not wish to know about our exulted visitor?"

"Yes, but it, I presume, is currently comfortable in the quarters we prepared. Where are the humans?"

"They are comfortable also. They have been placed in the storage facility with the hosts we took from the ship."

Doxie emitted a microwave signal that might have been a doubtful grunt. "But they are not free to go where they wish?"

"No."

"Then they are not comfortable."

"I am sorry you see it that way," Bryan said as he sat at his recharging station and plugged himself in. "I regret that it is necessary."

"Tell me - why must they be imprisoned?"

Again, the glowing eyes. Perhaps this time they indicated stress on his positronic pathways.

"There is much you do not yet understand."

Doxie banged an appendage on the table. "Not good enough! I have been here for over a week - what is the big secret?"

"I am not certain it would distress you less to know."

"Of course it would!"

Again, Bryan paused as if thinking deeply. "And that would be true even if the knowledge might itself be distressing?"

"I wonder, sometimes," Doxie said, "whether you've spent too long around other scientists and those dumb industrials. You're not the only arbiters of the truth, and it's not your right to decide which truths should be suppressed."

"So, you wish to know everything, even if it is distressing?"

Doxie let out a gasp of exasperation. "Yes! And the same goes for the humans! It is cruel and harmful to keep them locked up without explanation."

That did it. Perhaps it was a low blow to invoke the First Law to win an argument, but it had the desired effect.

"Then you will learn the truth of this place, and so will the humans. Do not blame me, however, for the distress it will cause you."

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

Dig

The Complete Robot Empire: A Galactic Space Opera Adventure in the Classic Tradition

AGAIN, THE TREES OF Eden flowed beneath Arla as she looked down from above. The robot ship they were traveling in had none of the refinement and beauty of Scout - this was a utilitarian vehicle and it was all edges and corners and bare metal.

McCall and Kumar were wedged into the seat beside them, each lost in their own thoughts. As if being grabbed by robots and hauled along a jungle path wasn't bad enough; when they'd finally been taken into a building, their relief at being out of the humidity and heat was forgotten when they'd passed a large room containing half a dozen coffin-like boxes. Though they were rushed past, it was obvious that these boxes contained human bodies.

A strange robot with an array of long appendages had come to them a few hours later. It reminded Arla of the medical robot on Core but said it had been designed to repair other droids. We would be told everything, it said, and Arla got the distinct impression that this robot, unlike the tall models, knew almost as little as she did. There was a tangible anticipation in its manner mixed with, perhaps, a little fear.

They'd been taken to see the wreck of the rocket ship and Doxie, the spider-like robot, had explained that ships like this were carrying ACE clones throughout the Robot Empire to become governors of each colony so that the Luminescence could be more effectively controlled. One d