Since before the start of the twenty-first century we have had robots, but they were then generally unsophisticated: automated machine tools, independent lawnmowers incapable of overcoming molehills, and other clunky under-powered devices. Following Moore’s law, the memory and processing power of computers had been growing exponentially for years before the software started to catch up, and thus—seemingly following an inversion of the evolutionary process in which brains developed before bodies—we come to the sophisticated independent robot, and that, like so many other developments in the twenty-first century, took power. Already robotics experts were running sophisticated robot minds in computers, but had yet to fully develop the hardware. There was no point in doing so—the mechanisms were rapidly becoming available but, generally, the reach of the robots made from these would be only as long as their power cables. The new nanotube batteries and super-capacitors changed all that, so within just a few years, robots became capable of doing things only humans could do before, and a few years later they went beyond the capacity of their masters, but still, slaves they remain.
The two enforcers were actually inside the Hydroponics hex, and why not, for the air was always pleasant and the lights much brighter and more cheerful than anywhere else within the base. The bulkhead doors were closed, of course, to prevent the moisture-laden special mix of air spreading out through the rest of the base, and also to keep the human-oriented air out of Hydroponics.
They were now in Wing One, in the small control room attached to Hydroponics. Here resided the computer that monitored the plant life, controlled the lights, the fluid mix in the troughs, and the gas mix of the air. Here also were packed tanks of various chemical fertilizers, as well as cylinders full of fungicides, for though they had managed to establish a small ecosystem here without introducing harmful insects, fungal infections were common.
Lopomac remained outside to guard the corridor, and Carol paused by the door, while Var crouched behind Kaskan. All of them were suited in readiness for entering the airlock leading out of the adjacent hex. They had to keep low because of the windows ranged along one wall, just a metre away from the computer screen, which overlooked the interior of the Hydroponics hex.
“A higher level of CO2 helps the plants grow,” Kaskan whispered. “We keep it at just the right level to prevent anyone working there from getting asphyxiated—but that can be changed.” He reached up, operating a ball control to call up a menu, then touched the screen, shifting upwards a marker on a bar control, but Var reached over and caught hold of his hand.
“If they start suffocating they might fire their weapons,” she said.
Kaskan shook his head. “No, it’ll be gradual anoxia.” He nodded towards the windows. “I’ll raise the nitrogen content too, so they’ll start to feel tired, maybe a little ill and certainly a bit confused. If they realize something’s wrong, they’ll head for the bulkhead door to try and escape, and that exertion will probably be enough to knock them out. The door, of course, will have automatically sealed by then, and even if they do fire their weapons it’ll be at that door, which won’t cause us a problem.”
“How can you be so sure?”
Kaskan just gazed at her steadily, but it was Carol who answered from behind, “Because he’s seen it happen often enough.”
Of course, Kaskan was one of those who had been due to depart at the time Var and others arrived. He’d been here during the first blowouts, during the period when it was discovered that not all the regolith blocks were completely solid and impermeable. Var remembered Gisender telling her about the time after one blowout, when even oxygen had been rationed and they had been forced to live right on the brink of asphyxiation for nearly a month. Many had not made it. Many had simply died in their cabins. Some, like Kaskan and Gisender, had been very suspicious of Ricard’s activities during that period, because the political director had seized control of the atmosphere regulators.
They waited long minutes as the bar on the graph Kaskan had altered rose up to the marker he had set. Kaskan meanwhile kept utterly still. Var was tempted to peek through the window to see what was happening with the two enforcers, but she knew that just the slightest miscalculation now would leave them all dead. Then, as they waited, the intercom crackled into life.
“It would seem that the usual suspects have gone missing,” Ricard announced. “Lopomac Pearse, Kaskan Lane, Carol Eisen and, of course, our Technical Director, Var Delex.”
For one spine-crawling moment Var feared Ricard had located them, but now she could hear that Ricard’s words were issued from the public-address system throughout the base.
“Director Var has murdered Gisender Lane and caused a number of atmosphere breaches, murdering nine Inspectorate staff along with Miska Giannis. She has also destroyed valuable government property, so it is inevitable that she must be seized and duly tried. However, her guilt does not attach to the other three, who, if they return to the Community Room straight away, will be treated fairly. Surely all four of you must be aware that you have nowhere to run, and surely you understand that, unless you hand yourselves over, I will have to order my men to use deadly force against you.”
“Bastard,” Kaskan muttered.
“He’s just playing to the crowd,” Var observed.
“Like anyone will believe him?”
“They’ll pretend to believe him. What else can they do?”
“Having now seen that broadcast from Delegate Margot Le Blanc, you must all understand that we face hard times, in which hard decisions will have to be made,” Ricard continued, “but be assured that the Committee has provided me with a restructuring plan for our survival. Delegate Le Blanc mentioned those dissident elements back on Earth that have brought us to these straits and, as we are seeing, those same elements are here. We cannot allow them to threaten our survival. We must remain strong and firm in our purpose. There…there is much work still to do.”
As Ricard seemed to run out of steam, Kaskan checked his watch, nodded and carefully rose from his crouch to peer over the screen. At that very same moment, a series of shots slammed into the windows, a terrible racket of plastic bullets smashing against the glass. Kaskan ducked again as the glass finally broke, large laminated chunks of it falling inside the computer room.
“What the fuck?” Lopomac hissed from the door.
“A whole fifty-round clip,” said Kaskan. He glanced around. “Plastic ammo.” He looked up at the atmosphere sensors in the ceiling, and just then a reverberating clang sounded from the corridor outside, as the nearest bulkhead door closed in Wing One.
“I never thought of that,” admitted Kaskan. “But it doesn’t do them any good—the pressure is higher in there.”
Var shook her head. One of the enforcers had shot out the internal window in an attempt to let in breathable air, but with the pressure differential all he had done was let some of the unbreathable stuff escape from Hydroponics. Further shots erupted, this time smacking against metal, followed by a clattering noise and gasping, someone falling and then something breaking, the sound of liquid spilling. Kaskan stood up, and Var stood too.
“Best to close up our helmets,” she advised.
They all complied, then Kaskan dialled down the CO2 and nitrogen on the screen graph. Var realized it would take some minutes before the air in there became breathable again, which would be too late for the two enforcers. Kaskan led the way over to the broken windows.
Greenery so crowded the hex troughs that they were difficult to discern. One trough had been holed, so that nutrient-laden fluid was spilling on to the floor. One enforcer lay curled up against the wall, while the other sprawled a few paces away, his machine pistol lying just outside of his reach. By now both men were utterly motionless.
“The bulkhead door into the hex should open now,” Kaskan reported over com, turning to gesture to the corridor behind where Lopomac stood. “The safety protocol cuts out once the mix is the same on each side of a door.”
Lopomac led the way out, followed closely by Carol and then Var. The short corridor, which terminated at the bulkhead door leading into the hex, was blocked by a similar square door at the other end. Lopomac approached the hex door, pulled down on the lever to disengage the seal, and a pendulum mechanism swung the door on its top pivot back up into the wall cavity. As she stepped into the hex behind him, Var peered up at the geodesic dome, considerably relieved to see it unharmed.
“That was close, Kaskan,” she remarked. “Too close.”
“You’re right,” he agreed. “I’m sorry.”
Now she felt a stab of guilt at berating someone who had so recently lost his wife—the kind of grief she herself understood so well—and who, despite the unacceptable risk, had now provided them with further weapons and dealt with a further two enforcers. But, when the public address system crackled into life again, it seemed that they had still not done enough, quickly enough.
Braddock swung his weapon hard—hard enough to crush the man’s skull—then caught hold of his shoulder and shoved him down to the floor, pinning him there. Saul stepped out from where he and Hannah had been hiding and headed over, his mind working at high speed as he assessed his current position here on Argus Station and calculated what he must do next.
It all seemed to make perfect sense to him now he had closely studied the results of Janus’s search for his sister. She had come up here, into space, because her speciality was in massive construction projects like those conducted up here, as well as synthesis, and other scientific disciplines besides. Yes, he himself had come here to exact his vengeance on the Committee, to take Argus away from the rulers of Earth, a belated motivation being the knowledge of Smith’s presence here, but underneath all that obviously lay something of the person he had been previously. On some level he had known that his sister was up here, and just as that same inner self had driven him to search for Hannah, it had similarly been driving him to find the only other person he cared about. But now it seemed his sister was not here after all. She had been forcibly transferred to Mars, so now, perhaps, a new course to pursue…
But first he needed to stay alive.
Saul again reviewed some of the data recorded within the processors in his brain. Most of the massive ongoing construction and reconstruction was being carried out by robots, ranging from machines the size of monorail carriages which were used to transport materials about the rim, to others only the size of a cockroach, designed to install or repair small electronic devices. A huge number of robots laboured in the three cylinder worlds—the arcoplexes—which were parts of this station he’d known very little about until downloading the schematic. Meteor-repair welding bots constantly searched for holes made by the large amounts of debris drifting out here. Mining robots cut like woodworm into the underside of the central asteroid, while others laboured out in the smelters. Cleaning robots and maintenance robots were constantly at work throughout the station. And his experience with the pair of robots they had recently encountered did nothing to dispel the certainty that these were the answer.
From the little cleaning robot, data flow had been immediate, and within a second, and without ill effects, he had encompassed it as part of himself. He reprogrammed it and tightened its computer security, shutting down its response to station signals and making it accessible only by a ten-digit code constantly changing according to a formula that only he—and it—knew. Controlling the robot’s laser com, he had opened a communication channel with the loader robot and at once included it in his personal network. He had input the same changing ten-digit code to the larger robot, then reverted to straightforward laser com, without the code, to check its security by giving it new instructions. No response to this. He tried running every code-cracker he had available, but still no response. Even then, he realized that, given a few hours, he might have managed to get through and therefore, given the same time, Smith would be able to get through too, and break his control of the robots. He must not allow his former interrogator sufficient time to do so.
Saul glanced at the maintenance technician, who still seemed to be breathing despite the force of Braddock’s blow. Saul calculated that the low gravity here, and Braddock’s purchase on the floor being only through his gecko boots, had diminished the blow’s force by about 40 per cent. Turning to study the contents of the technician’s toolbox, Saul began undoing the clips holding the upper section of his spacesuit. Once he had stripped it off, he selected the necessary tools, then quickly removed the little robot’s cowling, its processor, power supply and communications laser. Next obtaining sufficient optics and carbon power cable from the bot’s control systems, he linked the power supply and processor into his suit’s hardware and main processors, which were located behind the oxygen pack, then stowed them in an arm pocket of the jacket. He epoxied the laser to one shoulder of it, before once again donning it, then ran the optic from his skull into a port situated in the rear of his helmet, before putting that on.
“Seems a bit of an unstable rig,” commented Hannah doubtfully.
“You should know better,” he replied. “It’s all about programming.”
“You can do this?”
He didn’t reply as he concentrated on optimizing those disparate items of hardware. In the end, if you avoided shoving a power cable into an optic plug, or an optic into a power socket, it really was all about programming and therefore possible to get most modern computer modules to work happily together. He could now operate the com laser, as before, but most importantly it enabled him to avoid running an optic from his head outside his suit, which would have made it impossible to close his visor, as he would need to do the moment they passed through the first airlock.
“He’d better be able to do this,” muttered Braddock.
“Just ahead of us there’s an area of the station that’s still under construction,” Saul said. “That’s where we’ll find construction robots.”
“Him?” Braddock gestured to the prostrate technician.
Saul knew precisely what Braddock meant. If the technician came to before they were ready, he would certainly alert Smith. And once Smith saw the remains of the little robot, he would guess Saul’s intentions. He was about to instruct Braddock to kill the technician, when he caught Hannah’s eye. It would be nice to say that some degree of compassion influenced his next instruction, but it just wasn’t there.
“Tie him up,” he said, “securely.”
Braddock took a roll of duct tape from the toolbox and set to work, while Saul stepped across to the scattered remains of the robot, scooped them up and took them over to one of the EVA units affixed against the wall—a one-man vehicle with large manipulator arms used for exterior repairs—opened its hatch and tossed the pieces of robot inside. Even if the technician was found, it would hopefully take Smith some time to work out what Saul had been doing here.
“It’d be better to kill him,” Braddock remarked, having bound the man securely to the side railing.
Saul agreed, but realized that such a drastic step would push Hannah further away from him—the emotional considerations weren’t too difficult to slot into his calculations. The risk of this man regaining consciousness, and somehow getting free to report to Smith, was worth taking. Though, admittedly, only if Saul had not overestimated the value he was ascribing to Hannah within the formulae in his head.
The conveyor had brought them to the outer edge of the station, almost a kilometre and a half from where they had penetrated it, which almost certainly put them outside the main search area for a while. In that odd, seemingly unhurried gait which was the best anyone could manage here, Saul led them along the corridor to the point where it transformed into a walkway cutting left into open and incomplete station structure—just a vast gridwork of girders and distant walls. Soon they came up alongside what looked like a large room suspended in the open structure, with a single door and windows running round the outside. Closer inspection revealed metal arms extending from its corners, terminating in double clamping wheels. These could be clamped to structural beams, so as to propel this “room” to wherever its occupants next wanted it to be. It was a mobile overseer’s office; a base of operations in the immensity of this unfinished section.
“Looks like no one home,” observed Braddock, since no light shone from within. In fact, the only light hereabouts issued from fluorescent work lamps scattered sparsely throughout the surrounding area, presently powered by the station’s EM field.
“Looks that way,” Saul agreed, halting to peer at a cluster of shapes suspended underneath the mobile office. “Except for our first recruits.”
He set the com laser probing, and its red light glinted off folded limbs, fisted four-finger claws, sensor heads and three-section jointed bodies. One of these construction robots responded almost at once and began to unfold. The infective component within the signal began operating too, as this robot opened up a channel to its nearest neighbour, passing on Saul’s recoding instructions, and it too began to unfold.
“Fuck,” said Braddock—his frequent repetition of that word causing a flash of irritation inside Saul, instantly discarded.
The machine moved fast for something that would weigh in at half a tonne down on Earth, pulling itself neatly through the mesh of surrounding girders until it halted close by them. It possessed four grasping limbs extended, a pair each, from the rear two sections of its body, which it could swivel a full three-sixty degrees in order to position them. Two more limbs extended from the fore section, which both terminated in carousel tool heads. One was a multiweld kit capable of welding beams in place, spot welding and acetylene cutting. The other head bristled with a laser drill, diamond disc cutters and grinders, thread-tapping tools, a bolt winder and a riveter. The next robot to venture out lacked a welder, but in its place sported a spray head for depositing coatings piped from a varied array of tanks fixed on its back. More robots were now in motion till eight of them in all had positioned themselves nearby. Saul focused initially on the one with the sprayer.
“Once Smith figures what we’re doing, he’ll throw everything he’s got at us,” warned Braddock.
“But still not enough, I hope,” Saul replied. “These things are built to withstand severe impacts from any materials they handle—like the end of a bubblemetal beam travelling at up to five metres a second. Station antipersonnel weapons won’t be sufficient to damage them.” He turned to look at Braddock for confirmation.
“Yeah, but that ain’t all they’ve got.”
“Agreed, but by the time Smith gets round to deploying something more effective, I intend to be down his throat.” He did not add that, in order to do that, he would need to discover Smith’s location.
The spraying robot clambered on to the walkway and, under Saul’s instruction, moved along ahead of them, accelerating to the point where the walkway jagged left and reacquired walls before disappearing from sight.
“Where now?” asked Hannah.
“We stay out here much longer, we’ll be caught,” he explained. “It’s time to move in now, but as we move further in, we’ll start encountering the hardwired cam system and readerguns. Come on, let’s go.”
He led the way after the departing robot, while all around them came clattering and slithering as the other robots kept pace. Soon they reached a bulkhead door and a steep, rough-surfaced ramp which they descended to reach the next level. The robots followed one after another, folding their limbs so as to get through, then negotiating the ramp two abreast, and descending it neatly like a platoon of giant steel ants. After that, a short, filthy corridor led to yet another ramp, to another corridor, then some steps heading downwards, constructed for Earth gravity, which the robots handled better than the humans. Next they were entering a long, low-ceilinged and brightly lit room, into which natural sunlight was piped from the suncatchers positioned on the station outer rim. It housed several large cisterns containing water soup-thick with green algae.
Saul pointed up to the frameworks supporting the diffraction ends of the mirrored pipes leading from a suncatcher. “Do you see it?”
“What?” asked Hannah.
It was an old-fashioned design of security camera: a motorized socket made to take a disposable cam the size of a man’s thumb. Both cam and socket were now covered with a rapidly hardening layer of orange safety paint. Linking himself through to the spraybot, as it now moved beyond this same room, he found that it had sprayed over twenty-three cams located here, and was now doing the same to the smaller pin cams stationed in the corridor beyond. He had initially been surprised to discover one huge gap in the security system here, for in an effort to cut down on triggering false alarms, and thus not waste resources, it did not bother to register the station robots. All that would happen now was that some program would note that the cams were out. It might even be the case that maintenance would be alerted before Smith was, but Saul did not hold out much hope for that.
The cams in the following corridor were not visible to the human eye, but the robot—its vision capable of focusing on beam faults just a few microns across—had detected them all with ease. As a result, safety paint ran in an unbroken line along the ceiling, and in a punctuated line along each side wall. But such ease of progress could not last, of course. Just as they approached the entrance to the next hydroponics hall, Saul saw, through the lead robot’s eyes, that troops were now moving into position behind gulley tanks filled with distorted-looking potato plants and bulbous carrots sprouting from nutrient-laden sponges. He immediately instructed the spraybot to come to a halt, and to precisely locate every soldier waiting in ambush, relaying their positions back to its fellows.
“Hostiles ahead,” he warned the other two.
“Security?” Braddock asked.
Braddock sighed, then reached down for one of the grenades clipped on his belt. Saul put a restraining hand out. “No need.”
With a deeper link into the robots, he tampered with their safety protocols. Their systems had been keyed to recognize the human shape, so that they would not inadvertently injure anyone who got in their way while they were working. He now subverted that protocol and inserted new instructions where there would usually occur a 90 per cent drop in work rate or complete safety shutdown. The instructions were simple: grind here, drill there, cut this piece away, spraycoat that, weld this.
“Okay, step aside,” he said. “Up against the wall.”
Saul stepped back himself, and Hannah moved quickly up beside him. Braddock stood doubtfully staring at the robots, then hastily moved out of the way too, as they shifted smoothly into motion. They flowed towards the bulkhead door, which thumped up on its seals and swung open—already cued to allow through maintenance robots, like the sprayer robot that had gone through earlier. Saul gazed through their sensors, eight views opening up in the virtuality inside his mind. They were fast but then, while engaged in their usual jobs, they were as fast as any automated lathe or milling machine, or the kind of factory robots that assembled ground cars. Using simple location programs that he had no need to load, they followed the most direct routes to their targets, which had been efficiently prioritized.
Three of the robots sped up into the ceiling frames that supported diffractors, pipes and power ducts directly above the hydroponics gulleys; two went straight across the gulleys themselves, while the remaining three headed down the central aisle, turning into side aisles directly leading to their targets. Saul moved up closer to the door, to give them a better chance of maintaining laser link with him. Communication would become intermittent once they went out of line-of-sight, but that would still not upset their programming. Also, some of them would keep returning into view to update him, and he was running a program to smooth out the data flow. So there weren’t really any noticeable interruptions.
“What the fuck is this?” he heard someone cry from inside the room beyond, before realizing that the robots lacked the facility of hearing, having been originally constructed to work only in vacuum.
One of the robots up in the ceiling continued reaching down, its claw closing around one soldier’s neck and hauling him up. The man shrieked, raising an ionic taser and firing it, small lightnings erupting from its impact point. A diagnostic feed from the robot involved threw up multiple errors, but it still laser-drilled a precise one-centimetre hole directly through its captive’s heart.
“Pull back!” someone else screamed.
Another taser fired, but to no effect.
“Guns!” someone shouted.
Gunfire from automatic weapons racketed about within the hydroponics room. A soldier stumbled away from the paint-sprayer, orange from head to foot and blinded, then another robot pinned him back against a wall, while it tried to weld a non-existent join running from his neck to his groin. The one with the cutting disc casually sliced off someone else’s head, then turned to a smouldering corpse that had just been welded, and cut off its head too. The screams of agony were horrible, and usually quickly truncated. Within a minute they had ceased, as had the gunfire. Still, the robots continued with their allotted tasks until Saul instructed them to desist. Refinement was called for, and at the very thought he altered the programs, now specifying only one operation to be carried out per work task. No need for a robot to behead an electrocuted corpse.
“They’re done,” he decided, about to step through the door.
“Wait,” said Braddock, “let me check.”
He knew there was no need, but Saul allowed the soldier his professional pride, so he stepped aside and Braddock ducked in ahead of him. Gazing through the eyes of a single robot, Saul watched the man cautiously advance, then halt to stare up across at the robot still located in the ceiling. A human corpse still hung by the neck from its claw, and it hadn’t moved since being hit by the taser. Diagnostics showed that the electric charge had corrupted its main processor, so it had been a mistake for the soldiers to switch over to automatic weapons, since they’d stood more of a chance using tasers. Braddock checked further, pausing to stare at a headless corpse resting in a bed of potato plants.
“Jesus fucking Christ,” he gasped, obviously dumbfounded, his hushed tones still audible outside the hydroponics room, but admirably he went on to check every other corpse before shouting, “Clear!”
“It’s going to be bad, isn’t it?” said Hannah.
“Yes, it is.” He watched her for a moment before continuing. “Alternatively, we could always just hand ourselves over to Smith—you know what the choices are now.” It seemed necessary to emphasize the point, to keep her focused on the current reality of their situation.
“It’s not the choices now I was thinking about.” She chewed at one of her knuckles for a moment, still gazing towards the open door. Then, abruptly dropping her hand, she said, “Let’s go,” and led the way in.
It affected him more than he would have expected; the analytical part of his mind momentarily swamped by the emotional reaction. His views, through the robots, were clear—in fact provided much more clarity than through his own eyes—but besides hearing, they lacked one other sense. The robots did not possess a sense of smell and, on entering the hydroponics room the smell of shit assailed him, in the trousers of those who had died or from their ruptured intestines, accompanied by other warm butcher’s-shop odours. Steam spread around the fresh corpses, their blood beaded the air.
He studied Hannah, trying to gauge her response. She stared at the dead, nodded to herself, before she went over to one man who had been neatly riveted through the forehead, picked up his weapon and then pulled the spare clips from his belt. Saul retrieved the gun from another corpse, and saw Braddock also collecting weapons and ammunition.
“Low-impact ammunition,” Braddock observed. “It won’t last.”
“They won’t know what happened here,” Saul replied, then instructed the robots to move ahead of them to the next bulkhead door, the spraybot again leading the way. “Smith rightly assumed that the cams going out meant we were located here and he sent these men to seize us. They only went over to automatic weapons when they realized what was attacking them, so the tasers were for us.”
“He wants us alive, then,” said Hannah.
Saul nodded. “That won’t last either, once he has some idea what I’m up to. The next ones will come equipped with ceramic rounds and probably something stronger.”
Just then the whining in his head faded to leave a hollow emptiness. Obviously Smith had just decided to fix his communications problem, which meant he would be kept in constant contact with the next soldiers he sent against them.
“He knows something’s wrong,” Saul said. “The EM field is now out.”
“Probably others further in heard the shooting.”
That seemed likely.
Saul approached the next bulkhead door, transmitting instructions as he did so. He moved three of the robots to the rear, because knowing their location, Smith might send troops that way, whilst the remaining four headed towards the door ahead. Saul also ensured that they would not include himself, Hannah and Braddock as targets in their work roster by tagging the design of their spacesuits. The spraybot went through, and viewing through its sensors he saw a woman wearing the uniform of an Inspectorate enforcer standing there holding a console, its optic cable plugged into a wall socket. At her feet crouched a single soldier armed with an assault rifle rather than a machine pistol, its stock up against his shoulder. He hesitated for just a second before opening fire, whilst the woman instantly detached her console, then turned and ran. Instructing it to now ignore the cams, Saul sent the spraybot in pursuit, just as the other robots followed it through the door. Diagnostic errors—that assault rifle being loaded with ceramic armour-piercers. Saul was only half aware of Braddock shoving him to one side and dragging Hannah along with them. Bullets zinged into the room they still occupied. Transmission from the robots ahead of them ceased as he crouched safely to one side, but when he moved back up to the door edge and leaned round it, laser com updated him instantly.
The spraybot hurdled the soldier, who tried to shoot it as it leapt over him. Before he could bring his weapon back down again, one of the following robots slammed into him at floor level and sank a grinding disc into his neck. His shriek curtailed with a spray of blood up one wall. Now the spraybot came down on the woman, just before she entered a vertical cage-way running alongside a massive shaft which also contained the mechanical spindle and light-diffusion pipes leading to a single arcoplex cylinder. Saul instantly instructed the robot to just hold her, since it might now be worth his while gathering some information. However one of the other robots arrived and following its program perfectly, laser-drilled her heart. No matter; perhaps it was best they just move as fast as they could now. He summoned the sprayer back into the preceding corridor, and returned it to its task of blinding the cameras. That Smith now knew he controlled robots was almost instantly confirmed when all of their radio receivers activated at once, though whatever orders Smith had sent them could not bypass the ten-digit code.
“Come on,” Saul said, “fast now.”
He ducked through the door, no longer wanting Braddock to check ahead—they didn’t have time. Leaving behind it the stink of paint, the spraybot disappeared round a far corner. Reaching the corridor beyond, Saul shoved his machine pistol into his thigh pocket and took up the assault rifle. The three humans rounded the corner and entered the cageway. Just ten metres further out from them the cylinder spindle revolved slowly, surrounded by light pipes, and, peering down, he saw a massive mercury-lubricated bearing with numerous suncatchers set into its surface arranged to intercept the light from the ends of the stationary light pipes, as they passed under them, and transmit that harvest into the arcoplex cylinder itself. The robots worked their way down outside the cage, to reach floor levels whose construction had stalled. Yet again the stink of new-sprayed paint, but in this area he didn’t think every cam could possibly be knocked out. Then came the familiar vicious sound of a readergun.
“Still low-impact,” Braddock decided.
They wouldn’t risk loading readerguns with armour-piercing rounds, not here.
Saul was now looking through the eyes of every one of his robots simultaneously. All were still functioning, though the diagnostic returns registered damage, and kept trying fruitlessly to instruct their recipients to return to the maintenance bays left behind them. The readergun was mounted on a column. Shedding splintered plastic all around it, one of the robots closed a claw around the gun’s revolving turret, then laser-drilled inside it until something blew. Four more readerguns followed after that, then they reached an airlock out beyond the rim of the arcoplex cylinder. Whilst Hannah and Saul slid their visors across and ran spacesuit diagnostics, Braddock began operating the airlock’s manual controls. Saul next allowed himself a low-level penetration of the computer architecture operating here, finding safety protocols and permissions for remote access to the airlock, and instantly shutting them down. That took him only a moment but, even in that brief time, he felt Smith starting to zero in on him. Then, almost inevitably, a jag of light flashed across his vision.
By now, all the robots were clustered around them, waiting.
“We’ll send them all ahead,” Saul instructed, his mouth feeling dry. No pain yet, and no thundering pulse in his head, but it would return, he felt sure.
For its first cycling, four robots crammed into the airlock like some weirdly compacted sculpture. It took ten minutes to get all of them through and meanwhile Saul’s contact with them was completely cut off. However, if any soldiers awaited them on the other side of the airlock, the robots would continue to follow their pre-programmed instructions. The three humans stepped into the airlock next.
“Channel 37,” said Saul, as the atmosphere drained out of the lock, slowly killing his words in the air. As icons flashed up in his visor, he approved them and then shut down exterior applications for inclusion, thus making their radio communications private, at least for a while. Shortly, they propelled themselves out into a tubeway still under construction, at present only a cage of girders curving round and then spearing downwards beside the massive revolving arcoplex cylinder.
“Mother of God!” Hannah exclaimed, her voice crackling with interference.
On its outer rim, the station had seemed huge enough, but here, within the wheel, its vastness delivered more impact. From behind, to their left, the inner surface of the wheel’s rim curved almost imperceptibly inwards; while over that way, gazing through the inner structure of the station, they could just see an ore-transit tube foreshortened by perspective. Immediately to their right turned the great curved wall of the nearest cylinder world—the nearest arcoplex extending down to where it connected, at its further end, to the asteroid itself. However, the view of that was blocked by countless intervening tubeways or buildings suspended in the mesh of girders, like insect carcasses trapped in a spider’s web. Ahead and above, where a latticework of girders divided the starlit sky into diamonds, Saul could just see the technical-control building jutting up from the asteroid itself. This entire massive station, he now understood, represented what the Committee had been bankrupting Earth in order to build. Thus there had to be more to it than simply providing a base of operations for the satellite laser network.
Now clear of the airlock, Saul once again linked back into the personal network with his robots, and only on doing so did he spot the flashing of weapons ahead. Next he registered a detonation, though silent in vacuum, as it erased one of the robots from his network, and with human vision he saw a couple of its steel limbs clinging to beams nearby. As they propelled themselves down towards this spot, and to where the tubeway acquired walls, Saul replayed recorded data and saw a spacesuited soldier lurking in the shadows with a carousel launcher—a big weapon equipped with a round magazine, as on a tommy-gun—but the man didn’t succeed in getting off a second round. Saul was still refining the programs, so it wasn’t a corrupted work order that made the next robot tear off the human assailant’s head, but new programming.
Heavy machine-gun fire next, a ten-bore hastily clamped to a beam, armour-piercing rounds cutting out from the tubeway’s mouth to punch their way through bubblemetal beams and sheet. The silence of this destruction created an illusion of disconnection, and safety, but the firing didn’t last long. Three robots entered the tubeway, and after one of them had torn the gun crew apart, Saul paused it there and gave new instructions. It picked up the heavy machine gun in one of its clamp claws, swivelled back so as to walk upright on its hind legs, then advanced further like some nightmare ape made of steel.
“Pretty toy,” said Braddock over com.
Saul thought the soldier referred to the upright robot, but in fact Braddock had retrieved the missile-launcher and begun examining it. Saul flicked a glance sideways to watch the headless corpse of its previous owner gyrating away from the walkway to impact on the outer surface of the arcoplex cylinder, then be flung on to a new trajectory.
They entered the tubeway with a few of Saul’s little army of homicidal machines moving ahead of them, some inside and some outside the tube-way itself. Rails ran along the floor here, but they soon petered out, just a short section completed. Then walls, floor and ceiling withered away too, the tubeway once again becoming a cage that continued snaking through the open substructure of the inner station. Here large and stationary habitation and factory units hung suspended in the substructure, even more cageways and tubeways running between. His robots continued to spread out through this, seeking new jobs to perform. The one with the big gun opened fire as it advanced. Then, suddenly, new laser com feeds began to open up.
Whilst maintaining the communication between himself and the robots, Saul had left open the option to summon other robots into the same network, their com lasers probing all about them in search of new recruits. First another four, too distant to see clearly but from the feedback he ascertained that they were construction robots put to work on the lower bearing structure of the arcoplex cylinder. He summoned them into the fight, and even as they began moving they hijacked yet more robots near to them. Another five construction robots and a big hauler loaded with tonnes of building materials joined his army, then smaller robots, the size of cats and used to clean out one of the newly built habitation units. They swarmed towards the conflict, moving up on the flank of the attacking enforcers.
Braddock rapidly propelled himself along the incomplete tubeway, with Saul and Hannah following. The soldier turned abruptly to one side and fired his missile-launcher. In elegant silence, the blast ripped open a partially constructed wall fifty metres to their right, and a burning corpse fell out from behind it, the fire snuffed the moment the suit air feeding it ran out. They were right in the middle of it now, since the open structure all around them made it impossible to maintain a single front.
“Stay beside me,” Saul instructed Hannah.
“How far to go?”
“Half a kilometre to Tech Central,” he said, pointing ahead and upwards.
Directly ahead now, and visible below their destination, lay the rough surface of the asteroid. Saul, at last, restarted his modem and began carefully probing the data spaces all around him. Yes, Smith was there, but at first Saul didn’t venture so deep that he couldn’t pull out in an instant. However, he felt a sudden satisfaction as he mapped signal traffic on to his schematic of the station. Most of it issued from the region of Tech Central, which meant that Smith had to be either there or somewhere nearby.
“A shoddy application of tactics.” Smith’s observation came through to him, as if they were sitting together in the same room. “And certainly doomed to failure, Citizen Saul.”