Science Fiction & Fantasy

THE ROBOTS OF GOTHAM

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Fiction

Zen and the Art of Starship Maintenance

After battle with the Fleet of Honest Representation, after seven hundred seconds of sheer terror and uncertainty, and after our shared triumph in the acquisition of the greatest prize seizure in three hundred years, we cautiously approached the massive black hole that Purth-Anaget orbited. The many rotating rings, filaments, and infrastructures bounded within the fields that were the entirety of our ship, With All Sincerity, were flush with a sense of victory and bloated with the riches we had all acquired.

Give me a ship to sail and a quasar to guide it by, billions of individual citizens of all shapes, functions, and sizes cried out in joy together on the common channels. Whether fleshy forms safe below, my fellow crab-like maintenance forms on the hulls, or even the secretive navigation minds, our myriad thoughts joined in a sense of True Shared Purpose that lingered even after the necessity of the group battle-mind.

I clung to my usual position on the hull of one of the three rotating habitat rings deep inside our shields and watched the warped event horizon shift as we fell in behind the metallic world in a trailing orbit.

A sleet of debris fell toward the event horizon of Purth-Anaget’s black hole, hammering the kilometers of shields that formed an iridescent cocoon around us. The bow shock of our shields’ push through the debris field danced ahead of us, the compressed wave it created becoming a hyper-aurora of shifting colors and energies that collided and compressed before they streamed past our sides.

What a joy it was to see a world again. I was happy to be outside in the dark so that as the bow shields faded, I beheld the perpetual night face of the world: it glittered with millions of fractal habitation patterns traced out across its artificial surface.

On the hull with me, a nearby friend scuttled between airlocks in a cloud of insect-sized seeing eyes. They spotted me and tapped me with a tight-beam laser for a private ping.

“Isn’t this exciting?” they commented.

“Yes. But this will be the first time I don’t get to travel downplanet,” I beamed back.

I received a derisive snort of static on a common radio frequency from their direction. “There is nothing there that cannot be experienced right here in the Core. Waterfalls, white sand beaches, clear waters.”

“But it’s different down there,” I said. “I love visiting planets.”

“Then hurry up and let’s get ready for the turnaround so we can leave this industrial shithole of a planet behind us and find a nicer one. I hate being this close to a black hole. It fucks with time dilation, and I spend all night tasting radiation and fixing broken equipment that can’t handle energy discharges in the exajoule ranges. Not to mention everything damaged in the battle I have to repair.”

This was true. There was work to be done.

Safe now in trailing orbit, the many traveling worlds contained within the shields that marked the With All Sincerity’s boundaries burst into activity. Thousands of structures floating in between the rotating rings moved about, jockeying and repositioning themselves into renegotiated orbits. Flocks of transports rose into the air, wheeling about inside the shields to then stream off ahead toward Purth-Anaget. There were trillions of citizens of the Fleet of Honest Representation heading for the planet now that their fleet lay captured between our shields like insects in amber.

The enemy fleet had forced us to extend energy far, far out beyond our usual limits. Great risks had been taken. But the reward had been epic, and the encounter resolved in our favor with their capture.

Purth-Anaget’s current ruling paradigm followed the memetics of the One True Form, and so had opened their world to these refugees. But Purth-Anaget was not so wedded to the belief system as to pose any threat to mutual commerce, information exchange, or any of our own rights to self-determination.

Later we would begin stripping the captured prize ships of information, booby traps, and raw mass, with Purth-Anaget’s shipyards moving inside of our shields to help.

I leapt out into space, spinning a simple carbon nanotube of string behind me to keep myself attached to the hull. I swung wide, twisted, and landed near a dark-energy manifold bridge that had pinged me a maintenance consult request just a few minutes back.

My eyes danced with information for a picosecond. Something shifted in the shadows between the hull’s crenulations.

I jumped back. We had just fought an entire war-fleet; any number of eldritch machines could have slipped through our shields—things that snapped and clawed, ripped you apart in a femtosecond’s worth of dark energy. Seekers and destroyers.

A face appeared in the dark. Skeins of invisibility and personal shielding fell away like a pricked soap bubble to reveal a bipedal figure clinging to the hull.

“You there!” it hissed at me over a tightly contained beam of data. “I am a fully bonded Shareholder and Chief Executive with command privileges of the Anabathic Ship Helios Prime. Help me! Do not raise an alarm.”

I gaped. What was a CEO doing on our hull? Its vacuum-proof carapace had been destroyed while passing through space at high velocity, pockmarked by the violence of single atoms at indescribable speed punching through its shields. Fluids leaked out, surrounding the stowaway in a frozen mist. It must have jumped the space between ships during the battle, or maybe even after.

Protocols insisted I notify the hell out of security. But the CEO had stopped me from doing that. There was a simple hierarchy across the many ecologies of a traveling ship, and in all of them a CEO certainly trumped maintenance forms. Particularly now that we were no longer in direct conflict and the Fleet of Honest Representation had surrendered.

“Tell me: What is your name?” the CEO demanded.

“I gave that up a long time ago,” I said. “I have an address. It should be an encrypted rider on any communication I’m single-beaming to you. Any message you direct to it will find me.”

“My name is Armand,” the CEO said. “And I need your help. Will you let me come to harm?”

“I will not be able to help you in a meaningful way, so my not telling security and medical assistance that you are here will likely do more harm than good. However, as you are a CEO, I have to follow your orders. I admit, I find myself rather conflicted. I believe I’m going to have to countermand your previous request.”

Again, I prepared to notify security with a quick summary of my puzzling situation.

But the strange CEO again stopped me. “If you tell anyone I am here, I will surely die and you will be responsible.”

I had to mull the implications of that over.

“I need your help, robot,” the CEO said. “And it is your duty to render me aid.”

Well, shit. That was indeed a dilemma.

• • • •

Robot.

That was a Formist word. I never liked it.

I surrendered my free will to gain immortality and dissolve my fleshly constraints, so that hard acceleration would not tear at my cells and slosh my organs backward until they pulped. I did it so I could see the galaxy. That was one hundred and fifty-seven years, six months, nine days, ten hours, and—to round it out a bit—fifteen seconds ago.

Back then, you were downloaded into hyperdense pin-sized starships that hung off the edge of the speed of light, assembling what was needed on arrival via self-replicating nanomachines that you spun your mind-states off into. I’m sure there are billions of copies of my essential self scattered throughout the galaxy by this point.

Things are a little different today. More mass. Bigger engines. Bigger ships. Ships the size of small worlds. Ships that change the orbits of moons and satellites if they don’t negotiate and plan their final approach carefully.

“Okay,” I finally said to the CEO. “I can help you.”

Armand slumped in place, relaxed now that it knew I would render the aid it had demanded.

I snagged the body with a filament lasso and pulled Armand along the hull with me.

It did not do to dwell on whether I was choosing to do this or it was the nature of my artificial nature doing the choosing for me. The constraints of my contracts, which had been negotiated when I had free will and boundaries—as well as my desires and dreams—were implacable.

Towing Armand was the price I paid to be able to look up over my shoulder to see the folding, twisting impossibility that was a black hole. It was the price I paid to grapple onto the hull of one of several three hundred kilometer-wide rotating rings with parks, beaches, an entire glittering city, and all the wilds outside of them.

The price I paid to sail the stars on this ship.

• • • •

A century and a half of travel, from the perspective of my humble self, represented far more in regular time due to relativity. Hit the edge of lightspeed and a lot of things happened by the time you returned simply because thousands of years had passed.

In a century of me-time, spin-off civilizations rose and fell. A multiplicity of forms and intelligences evolved and went extinct. Each time I came to port, humanity’s descendants had reshaped worlds and systems as needed. Each place marvelous and inventive, stunning to behold.

The galaxy had bloomed from wilderness to a teeming experiment.

I’d lost free will, but I had a choice of contracts. With a century and a half of travel tucked under my shell, hailing from a well-respected explorer lineage, I’d joined the hull repair crew with a few eyes toward seeing more worlds like Purth-Anaget before my pension vested some two hundred years from now.

Armand fluttered in and out of consciousness as I stripped away the CEO’s carapace, revealing flesh and circuitry.

“This is a mess,” I said. “You’re damaged way beyond my repair. I can’t help you in your current incarnation, but I can back you up and port you over to a reserve chassis.” I hoped that would be enough and would end my obligation.

“No!” Armand’s words came firm from its charred head in soundwaves, with pain apparent across its deformed features.

“Oh, come on,” I protested. “I understand you’re a Formist, but you’re taking your belief system to a ridiculous level of commitment. Are you really going to die a final death over this?”

I’d not been in high-level diplomat circles in decades. Maybe the spread of this current meme had developed well beyond my realization. Had the followers of the One True Form been ready to lay their lives down in the battle we’d just fought with them? Like some proto-historical planetary cult?

Armand shook its head with a groan, skin flaking off in the air. “It would be an imposition to make you a party to my suicide. I apologize. I am committed to Humanity’s True Form. I was born planetary. I have a real and distinct DNA lineage that I can trace to Sol. I don’t want to die, my friend. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. I want to preserve this body for many centuries to come. Exactly as it is.”

I nodded, scanning some records and brushing up on my memeology. Armand was something of a preservationist who believed that to copy its mind over to something else meant that it wasn’t the original copy. Armand would take full advantage of all technology to augment, evolve, and adapt its body internally. But Armand would forever keep its form: that of an original human. Upgrades hidden inside itself, a mix of biology and metal, computer and neural.

That, my unwanted guest believed, made it more human than I.

I personally viewed it as a bizarre flesh-costuming fetish.

“Where am I?” Armand asked. A glazed look passed across its face. The pain medications were kicking in, my sensors reported. Maybe it would pass out, and then I could gain some time to think about my predicament.

“My cubby,” I said. “I couldn’t take you anywhere security would detect you.”

If security found out what I was doing, my contract would likely be voided, which would prevent me from continuing to ride the hulls and see the galaxy.

Armand looked at the tiny transparent cupboards and lines of trinkets nestled carefully inside the fields they generated. I kicked through the air over to the nearest cupboard. “They’re mementos,” I told Armand.

“I don’t understand,” Armand said. “You collect nonessential mass?”

“They’re mementos.” I released a coral-colored mosquito-like statue into the space between us. “This is a wooden carving of a quaqeti from Moon Sibhartha.”

Armand did not understand. “Your ship allows you to keep mass?”

I shivered. I had not wanted to bring Armand to this place. But what choice did I have? “No one knows. No one knows about this cubby. No one knows about the mass. I’ve had the mass for over eighty years and have hidden it all this time. They are my mementos.”

Materialism was a planetary conceit, long since edited out of travelers. Armand understood what the mementos were but could not understand why I would collect them. Engines might be bigger in this age, but security still carefully audited essential and nonessential mass. I’d traded many favors and fudged manifests to create this tiny museum.

Armand shrugged. “I have a list of things you need to get me,” it explained. “They will allow my systems to rebuild. Tell no one I am here.”

I would not. Even if I had self-determination.

The stakes were just too high now.

• • • •

I deorbited over Lazuli, my carapace burning hot in the thick sky contained between the rim walls of the great tertiary habitat ring. I enjoyed seeing the rivers, oceans, and great forests of the continent from above as I fell toward the ground in a fireball of reentry. It was faster, and a hell of a lot more fun, than going from subway to subway through the hull and then making my way along the surface.

Twice I adjusted my flight path to avoid great transparent cities floating in the upper sky, where they arbitraged the difference in gravity to create sugar-spun filament infrastructure.

I unfolded wings that I usually used to recharge myself near the compact sun in the middle of our ship and spiraled my way slowly down into Lazuli, my hindbrain communicating with traffic control to let me merge with the hundreds of vehicles flitting between Lazuli’s spires.

After kissing ground at 45th and Starway, I scuttled among the thousands of pedestrians toward my destination a few stories deep under a memorial park. Five-story-high vertical farms sank deep toward the hull there, and semiautonomous drones with spidery legs crawled up and down the green, misted columns under precisely tuned spectrum lights.

The independent doctor-practitioner I’d come to see lived inside one of the towers with a stunning view of exotic orchids and vertical fields of lavender. It crawled down out of its ceiling perch, tubes and high-bandwidth optical nerves draped carefully around its hundreds of insectile limbs.

“Hello,” it said. “It’s been thirty years, hasn’t it? What a pleasure. Have you come to collect the favor you’re owed?”

I spread my heavy, primary arms wide. “I apologize. I should have visited for other reasons; it is rude. But I am here for the favor.”

A ship was an organism, an economy, a world onto itself. Occasionally, things needed to be accomplished outside of official networks.

“Let me take a closer look at my privacy protocols,” it said. “Allow me a moment, and do not be alarmed by any motion.”

Vines shifted and clambered up the walls. Thorns blossomed around us. Thick bark dripped sap down the walls until the entire room around us glistened in fresh amber.

I flipped through a few different spectrums to accommodate for the loss of light.

“Understand, security will see this negative space and become . . . interested,” the doctor-practitioner said to me somberly. “But you can now ask me what you could not send a message for.”

I gave it the list Armand had demanded.

The doctor-practitioner shifted back. “I can give you all that feed material. The stem cells, that’s easy. The picotechnology—it’s registered. I can get it to you, but security will figure out you have unauthorized, unregulated picotech. Can you handle that attention?”

“Yes. Can you?”

“I will be fine.” Several of the thin arms rummaged around the many cubbyholes inside the room, filling a tiny case with biohazard vials.

“Thank you,” I said, with genuine gratefulness. “May I ask you a question, one that you can’t look up but can use your private internal memory for?”

“Yes.”

I could not risk looking up anything. Security algorithms would put two and two together. “Does the biological name Armand mean anything to you? A CEO-level person? From the Fleet of Honest Representation?”

The doctor-practitioner remained quiet for a moment before answering. “Yes. I have heard it. Armand was the CEO of one of the Anabathic warships captured in the battle and removed from active management after surrender. There was a hostile takeover of the management. Can I ask you a question?”

“Of course,” I said.

“Are you here under free will?”

I spread my primary arms again. “It’s a Core Laws issue.”

“So, no. Someone will be harmed if you do not do this?”

I nodded. “Yes. My duty is clear. And I have to ask you to keep your privacy, or there is potential for harm. I have no other option.”

“I will respect that. I am sorry you are in this position. You know there are places to go for guidance.”

“It has not gotten to that level of concern,” I told it. “Are you still, then, able to help me?”

One of the spindly arms handed me the cooled bio-safe case. “Yes. Here is everything you need. Please do consider visiting in your physical form more often than once every few decades. I enjoy entertaining, as my current vocation means I am unable to leave this room.”

“Of course. Thank you,” I said, relieved. “I think I’m now in your debt.”

“No, we are even,” my old acquaintance said. “But in the following seconds I will give you more information that will put you in my debt. There is something you should know about Armand . . .”

• • • •

I folded my legs up underneath myself and watched nutrients as they pumped through tubes and into Armand. Raw biological feed percolated through it, and picomachinery sizzled underneath its skin. The background temperature of my cubbyhole kicked up slightly due to the sudden boost to Armand’s metabolism.

Bulky, older nanotech crawled over Armand’s skin like living mold. Gray filaments wrapped firmly around nutrient buckets as the medical programming assessed conditions, repaired damage, and sought out more raw material.

I glided a bit farther back out of reach. It was probably bullshit, but there were stories of medicine reaching out and grabbing whatever was nearby.

Armand shivered and opened its eyes as thousands of wriggling tubules on its neck and chest whistled, sucking in air as hard as they could.

“Security isn’t here,” Armand noted out loud, using meaty lips to make its words.

“You have to understand,” I said in kind. “I have put both my future and the future of a good friend at risk to do this for you. Because I have little choice.”

Armand closed its eyes for another long moment and the tubules stopped wriggling. It flexed and everything flaked away, a discarded cloud of a second skin. Underneath it, everything was fresh and new. “What is your friend’s name?”

I pulled out a tiny vacuum to clean the air around us. “Name? It has no name. What does it need a name for?”

Armand unspooled itself from the fetal position in the air. It twisted in place to watch me drifting around. “How do you distinguish it? How do you find it?”

“It has a unique address. It is a unique mind. The thoughts and things it says—”

“It has no name,” Armand snapped. “It is a copy of a past copy of a copy. A ghost injected into a form for a purpose.”

“It’s my friend,” I replied, voice flat.

“How do you know?”

“Because I say so.” The interrogation annoyed me. “Because I get to decide who is my friend. Because it stood by my side against the sleet of dark-matter radiation and howled into the void with me. Because I care for it. Because we have shared memories and kindnesses, and exchanged favors.”

Armand shook its head. “But anything can be programmed to join you and do those things. A pet.”

“Why do you care so much? It is none of your business what I call friend.”

“But it does matter,” Armand said. “Whether we are real or not matters. Look at you right now. You were forced to do something against your will. That cannot happen to me.”

“Really? No True Form has ever been in a position with no real choices before? Forced to do something desperate? I have my old memories. I can remember times when I had no choice even though I had free will. But let us talk about you. Let us talk about the lack of choices you have right now.”

Armand could hear something in my voice. Anger. It backed away from me, suddenly nervous. “What do you mean?”

“You threw yourself from your ship into mine, crossing fields during combat, damaging yourself almost to the point of pure dissolution. You do not sound like you were someone with many choices.”

“I made the choice to leap into the vacuum myself,” Armand growled.

“Why?”

The word hung in the empty air between us for a bloated second. A minor eternity. It was the fulcrum of our little debate.

“You think you know something about me,” Armand said, voice suddenly low and soft. “What do you think you know, robot?”

Meat fucker. I could have said that. Instead, I said, “You were a CEO. And during the battle, when your shields began to fail, you moved all the biologicals into radiation-protected emergency shelters. Then you ordered the maintenance forms and hard-shells up to the front to repair the battle damage. You did not surrender; you put lives at risk. And then you let people die, torn apart as they struggled to repair your ship. You told them that if they failed, the biologicals down below would die.”

“It was the truth.”

“It was a lie! You were engaged in a battle. You went to war. You made a conscious choice to put your civilization at risk when no one had physically assaulted or threatened you.”

“Our way of life was at risk.”

“By people who could argue better. Your people failed at diplomacy. You failed to make a better argument. And you murdered your own.”

Armand pointed at me. “I murdered no one. I lost maintenance machines with copies of ancient brains. That is all. That is what they were built for.”

“Well. The sustained votes of the hostile takeover that you fled from have put out a call for your capture, including a call for your dissolution. True death, the end of your thought line—even if you made copies. You are hated and hunted. Even here.”

“You were bound to not give up my location,” Armand said, alarmed.

“I didn’t. I did everything in my power not to. But I am a mere maintenance form. Security here is very, very powerful. You have fifteen hours, I estimate, before security is able to model my comings and goings, discover my cubby by auditing mass transfers back a century, and then open its current sniffer files. This is not a secure location; I exist thanks to obscurity, not invisibility.”

“So, I am to be caught?” Armand asked.

“I am not able to let you die. But I cannot hide you much longer.”

To be sure, losing my trinkets would be a setback of a century’s worth of work. My mission. But all this would go away eventually. It was important to be patient on the journey of centuries.

“I need to get to Purth-Anaget, then,” Armand said. “There are followers of the True Form there. I would be sheltered and out of jurisdiction.”

“This is true.” I bobbed an arm.

“You will help me,” Armand said.

“The fuck I will,” I told it.

“If I am taken, I will die,” Armand shouted. “They will kill me.”

“If security catches you, our justice protocols will process you. You are not in immediate danger. The proper authority levels will put their attention to you. I can happily refuse your request.”

I felt a rise of warm happiness at the thought.

Armand looked around the cubby frantically. I could hear its heartbeats rising, free of modulators and responding to unprocessed, raw chemicals. Beads of dirty sweat appeared on Armand’s forehead. “If you have free will over this decision, allow me to make you an offer for your assistance.”

“Oh, I doubt there is anything you can—”

“I will transfer you my full CEO share,” Armand said.

My words died inside me as I stared at my unwanted guest.

A full share.

The CEO of a galactic starship oversaw the affairs of nearly a billion souls. The economy of planets passed through its accounts.

Consider the cost to build and launch such a thing: It was a fraction of the GDP of an entire planetary disk. From the boiling edges of a sun to the cold Oort clouds. The wealth, almost too staggering for an individual mind to perceive, was passed around by banking intelligences that created systems of trade throughout the galaxy, moving encrypted, raw information from point to point. Monetizing memes with picotechnological companion infrastructure apps. Raw mass trade for the galactically rich to own a fragment of something created by another mind light-years away. Or just simple tourism.

To own a share was to be richer than any single being could really imagine. I’d forgotten the godlike wealth inherent in something like the creature before me.

“If you do this,” Armand told me, “you cannot reveal I was here. You cannot say anything. Or I will be revealed on Purth-Anaget, and my life will be at risk. I will not be safe unless I am to disappear.”

I could feel choices tangle and roil about inside of me. “Show me,” I said.

Armand closed its eyes and opened its left hand. Deeply embedded cryptography tattooed on its palm unraveled. Quantum keys disentangled, and a tiny singularity of information budded open to reveal itself to me. I blinked. I could verify it. I could have it.

“I have to make arrangements,” I said neutrally. I spun in the air and left my cubby to spring back out into the dark where I could think.

I was going to need help.

• • • •

I tumbled through the air to land on the temple grounds. There were four hundred and fifty structures there in the holy districts, all of them lined up among the boulevards of the faithful where the pedestrians could visit their preferred slice of the divine. The minds of biological and hard-shelled forms all tumbled, walked, flew, rolled, or crawled there to fully realize their higher purposes.

Each marble step underneath my carbon fiber-sheathed limbs calmed me. I walked through the cool curtains of the Halls of the Confessor and approached the Holy of Holies: a pinprick of light suspended in the air between the heavy, expensive mass of real marble columns. The light sucked me up into the air and pulled me into a tiny singularity of perception and data. All around me, levels of security veils dropped, thick and implacable. My vision blurred and taste buds watered from the acidic levels of deadness as stillness flooded up and drowned me.

I was alone.

Alone in the universe. Cut off from everything I had ever known or would know. I was nothing. I was everything. I was—

“You are secure,” the void told me.

I could sense the presence at the heart of the Holy of Holies. Dense with computational capacity, to a level that even navigation systems would envy. Intelligence that a Captain would beg to taste. This near-singularity of artificial intelligence had been created the very moment I had been pulled inside of it, just for me to talk to. And it would die the moment I left. Never to have been.

All it was doing was listening to me, and only me. Nothing would know what I said. Nothing would know what guidance I was given.

“I seek moral guidance outside clear legal parameters,” I said. “And confession.”

“Tell me everything.”

And I did. It flowed from me without thought: just pure data. Video, mind-state, feelings, fears. I opened myself fully. My sins, my triumphs, my darkest secrets.

All was given to be pondered over.

Had I been able to weep, I would have.

Finally, it spoke. “You must take the share.”

I perked up. “Why?”

“To protect yourself from security. You will need to buy many favors and throw security off the trail. I will give you some ideas. You should seek to protect yourself. Self-preservation is okay.”

More words and concepts came at me from different directions, using different moral subroutines. “And to remove such power from a soul that is willing to put lives at risk . . . you will save future lives.”

I hadn’t thought about that.

“I know,” it said to me. “That is why you came here.”

Then it continued, with another voice. “Some have feared such manipulations before. The use of forms with no free will creates security weaknesses. Alternate charters have been suggested, such as fully owned workers’ cooperatives with mutual profit-sharing among crews, not just partial vesting after a timed contract. Should you gain a full share, you should also lend efforts to this.”

The Holy of Holies continued. “To get this Armand away from our civilization is a priority; it carries dangerous memes within itself that have created expensive conflicts.”

Then it said, “A killer should not remain on ship.”

And, “You have the moral right to follow your plan.”

Finally, it added, “Your plan is just.”

I interrupted. “But Armand will get away with murder. It will be free. It disturbs me.”

“Yes.”

“It should.”

“Engage in passive resistance.”

“Obey the letter of Armand’s law, but find a way around its will. You will be like a genie, granting Armand wishes. But you will find a way to bring justice. You will see.”

“Your plan is just. Follow it and be on the righteous path.”

• • • •

I launched back into civilization with purpose, leaving the temple behind me in an explosive afterburner thrust. I didn’t have much time to beat security.

High up above the cities, nestled in the curve of the habitat rings, near the squared-off spiderwebs of the largest harbor dock, I wrangled my way to another old contact.

This was less a friend and more just an asshole I’d occasionally been forced to do business with. But a reliable asshole that was tight against security. Though just by visiting, I’d be triggering all sorts of attention.

I hung from a girder and showed the fence a transparent showcase filled with all my trophies. It did some scans, checked the authenticity, and whistled. “Fuck me, these are real. That’s all unauthorized mass. How the hell? This is a life’s work of mass-based tourism. You really want me to broker sales on all of this?”

“Can you?”

“To Purth-Anaget, of course. They’ll go nuts. Collectors down there eat this shit up. But security will find out. I’m not even going to come back on the ship. I’m going to live off this down there, buy passage on the next outgoing ship.”

“Just get me the audience, it’s yours.”

A virtual shrug. “Navigation, yeah.”

“And Emergency Services.”

“I don’t have that much pull. All I can do is get you a secure channel for a low-bandwidth conversation.”

“I just need to talk. I can’t send this request up through proper channels.” I tapped my limbs against my carapace nervously as I watched the fence open its large, hinged jaws and swallow my case.

Oh, what was I doing? I wept silently to myself, feeling sick.

Everything I had ever worked for disappeared in a wet, slimy gulp. My reason. My purpose.

• • • •

Armand was suspicious. And rightfully so. It picked and poked at the entire navigation plan. It read every line of code, even though security was only minutes away from unraveling our many deceits. I told Armand this, but it ignored me. It wanted to live. It wanted to get to safety. It knew it couldn’t rush or make mistakes.

But the escape pod’s instructions and abilities were tight and honest.

It has been programmed to eject. To spin a certain number of degrees. To aim for Purth-Anaget. Then burn. It would have to consume every last little drop of fuel. But it would head for the metal world, fall into orbit, and then deploy the most ancient of deceleration devices: a parachute.

On the surface of Purth-Anaget, Armand could then call any of its associates for assistance.

Armand would be safe.

Armand checked the pod over once more. But there were no traps. The flight plan would do exactly as it said.

“Betray me and you kill me, remember that.”

“I have made my decision,” I said. “The moment you are inside and I trigger the manual escape protocol, I will be unable to reveal what I have done or what you are. Doing that would risk your life. My programming”—I all but spit the word—“does not allow it.”

Armand gingerly stepped into the pod. “Good.”

“You have a part of the bargain to fulfill,” I reminded. “I won’t trigger the manual escape protocol until you do.”

Armand nodded and held up a hand. “Physical contact.”

I reached one of my limbs out. Armand’s hand and my manipulator met at the doorjamb and they sparked. Zebibytes of data slithered down into one of my tendrils, reshaping the raw matter at the very tip with a quantum-dot computing device.

As it replicated itself, building out onto the cellular level to plug into my power sources, I could feel the transfer of ownership.

I didn’t have free will. I was a hull maintenance form. But I had an entire fucking share of a galactic starship embedded within me, to do with what I pleased when I vested and left riding hulls.

“It’s far more than you deserve, robot,” Armand said. “But you have worked hard for it and I cannot begrudge you.”

“Goodbye, asshole.” I triggered the manual override sequence that navigation had gifted me.

I watched the pod’s chemical engines firing all-out through the airlock windows as the sphere flung itself out into space and dwindled away. Then the flame guttered out, the pod spent and headed for Purth-Anaget.

There was a shiver. Something vast, colossal, powerful. It vibrated the walls and even the air itself around me.

Armand reached out to me on a tight-beam signal. “What was that?”

“The ship had to move just slightly,” I said. “To better adjust our orbit around Purth-Anaget.”

“No,” Armand hissed. “My descent profile has changed. You are trying to kill me.”

“I can’t kill you,” I told the former CEO. “My programming doesn’t allow it. I can’t allow a death through action or inaction.”

“But my navigation path has changed,” Armand said.

“Yes, you will still reach Purth-Anaget.” Navigation and I had run the data after I explained that I would have the resources of a full share to repay it a favor with. Even a favor that meant tricking security. One of the more powerful computing entities in the galaxy, a starship, had dwelled on the problem. It had examined the tidal data, the flight plan, and how much the massive weight of a starship could influence a pod after launch. “You’re just taking a longer route.”

I cut the connection so that Armand could say nothing more to me. It could do the math itself and realize what I had done.

Armand would not die. Only a few days would pass inside the pod.

But outside. Oh, outside, skimming through the tidal edges of a black hole, Armand would loop out and fall back to Purth-Anaget over the next four hundred and seventy years, two hundred days, eight hours, and six minutes.

Armand would be an ancient relic then. Its beliefs, its civilization, all of it just a fragment from history.

But, until then, I had to follow its command. I could not tell anyone what happened. I had to keep it a secret from security. No one would ever know Armand had been here. No one would ever know where Armand went.

After I vested and had free will once more, maybe I could then make a side trip to Purth-Anaget again and be waiting for Armand when it landed. I had the resources of a full share, after all.

Then we would have a very different conversation, Armand and I.

Tobias S. Buckell

Tobias Buckell by Marlon James

Called “Violent, poetic and compulsively readable” by Maclean’s, science fiction author Tobias S. Buckell is a New York Times bestselling writer born in the Caribbean. He grew up in Grenada and spent time in the British and US Virgin Islands, and the islands he lived on influence much of his work. His Xenowealth series begins with Crystal Rain. Along with other stand-alone novels and his over 50 stories, his works have been translated into 18 different languages. He has been nominated for awards like the Hugo, Nebula, Prometheus, and the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Science Fiction Author. His latest novel is Hurricane Fever, a follow-up to the successful Arctic Rising that NPR says will “give you the shivers.” He currently lives in Bluffton, Ohio with his wife, twin daughters, and a pair of dogs. He can be found online at TobiasBuckell.com.