How a robotka was left behind on a primitive planet

The year is 2514.  Humans have interstellar flight and most worlds are peaceful.  Some worlds have been settled by people who rejected technology and sought a simpler life.  Often this “simpler life” was not what they had planned.

Among high-tech humans, there are still occasional wars, and innocents can get caught up in them.  Including a robotka, a feminoid robot with a distinctly human personality, but mostly viewed as inferior to even the lowest human.

Servilla’s Burden

“She’s not a machine, she’s our aunty.”  That was the fixed view of eleven-year-old Danny Domain, with eight-year-old Felicity as a loyal little back-up.  A kindly adult would have tried not to upset a couple of nice kids.  A sensible person would have taken note of those determined little faces and looked for a way round the disagreement.

Manfred Fly hadn’t got where he was by being sensible, nor kindly either.  Dishonest, dislikeable and foolish, his repeated bad judgements had made him an exile from his home world and from several more he’d tried.  For years he had drifted around the Homestars, getting involved in small wars and minor smuggling, pursued with small enthusiasm by three and a half Interstellar Extradition Warrants—the ‘half’ being a Police Department that would take the creep only if no one else wanted him.  He wasn’t enough of a crook to be worth an argument over jurisdiction.

At Lakeland DropPoint 42 on Vermund, Manfred Fly was safe from the law, and far removed from help as well.  Unlike a Spaceport, a DropPoint was just for the landing and take-off of modified SkyShuttles.  Having been largely shut down during the evacuation of off-worlders from all over the planet, it currently had no staff and no expert assistance.  So though he was an habitual liar, he was telling the truth when he said “Look, kids, I’m overloaded already.  I’m not pushing luck further by taking that bloody machine.”

“She ain’t heavy, she’s our aunty” declared Felicity.

“I put everyone’s luggage in storage, and I even threw out vital equipment from my spacecraft, including a Rattler-gun” explained Manfred Fly to Mr Domain, who had walked over to see what the problem was, with Servilla Robotka following him.  “I stripped down as far as I could.  But we’re still way over the safe limit with power this low, and the damn feminoid robot should stay behind.”

“Go sit with your mother, children” said Mr Domain, and was obeyed.  Turning to the pilot, he added softly “if it’s more money that you want…”

“Don’t I always!  But this time, it’s life and death, yours and mine.  Cash is no sodding use to a dead man.  If you don’t drop the robo-slut, you’ll likely kill yourself and your wife and kids along with me.  Without the robotka it’s hard enough; with her it’s damn near impossible.  The Clown’s Smile is old and badly repaired, small margins for safety, almost anything could fail.”

“Right, your Isolinear Copulator has shagged the Metafrugic Dibromion” jeered Mr Domain, letting his accent slip and trying to make this creep understand that Mr Domain was not a man to mess with.  But as mentioned, Manfred Fly hadn’t got where he was by being sensible.  Nor did he know Rossumite accents well enough to tell a hard man from a blusterer.

“Look, Mr Domain, I got enough power fly my passenger along with you and your family over to High Bane, where I can pick just enough of an extra charge for a hop up to IronFort.  Enough so the damn auto-pilot will let me fly it; they set it for drunks and no-hopers like most of the local pilots are, and it keeps much too big a reserve.  But that’s what I live with, an auto-pilot supervising and authorised to take over and fly back here if I go beyond safety limits.  I have enough, but I have none to spare.  So do please dump the robo-girl.”

Mr Domain was annoyed by this resistance, and would have liked to grab hold of the fellow and shake him a few times to make him more respectful.  But it would be foolish to make an enemy of a pilot who was their only way back to civilisation.  Also he had no wish to show his thuggish side in front of his wife, and still less in front of his children.  So with great restraint he said “Look, let Servilla have access to the ship’s systems and see if she can help.”

“What would a tin-brain know about a serious spacecraft?”

“I am versatile.  And friendly, if Mr Domain permits”.  She gave a seductive smile, knowing that Mr Domain did indeed permit it.  He might in fact require all sorts of friendliness to casual business contacts, not that she minded, and some of them were interesting people.  This fellow seemed dull but not offensive.  She could smell a background odour of marihuana on him, but it was no reason to worry about his piloting skills; he hadn’t smoked recently.  Servilla herself had no metabolism that could be affected, but most pot-heads were mostly more amiable and reliable than alcoholics.

But to her surprise, Manfred Fly failed to respond.  “What’s up?” she asked.  “Not fond of women?”

“Women are fine, killer-machines faked up as females are something else.  A place I was at, we lonely hard-up fellows thought we were letting in three displaced women.  Not beauties, one was fat and another unhealthy, about what you’d expect for women selling themselves to poor front-line pilots.  Improbably beautiful women who were killer machines we had heard of, but these were different.  No one told us that the enemy had changed tactics.”

“Tactics from the Plzen-Daringer war?” asked Mr Domain.  “That’s not on your record.”

“So I’m a liar, so what?  Back then I was a military pilot, easily led by lust.  When they made me stay on watch-duty I pissed off, figuring the sluts would be tired and used up by the time it was my turn.  But then things started blowing up and when I realised what was happening, I ran for the only useable Lift-Platform going out of there.  I only just got on, someone grabbed my leg but, uh, tah lost their grip.”

Mr Domain nodded as if sympathetic, though he wasn’t.  He did note that the man said ‘tah’ rather than the false-singular ‘they’ for the he/she/it spread of meanings.  This usage was spreading on Rossum but was unknown on Plzen and at IronFort, so it might be a clue to the man’s original world.  It probably didn’t matter, but you never knew when some little fact would have vast consequences.  He made a mental note of it.

“We came back a couple of hours later with more troops and big guns” continued Manfred Fly.  “But every one of my outfit who was not on the Lift-Platform was cold and dead.  Sheer butchers were those creatures: we’d have surrendered but they gave us no chance.”

“That’s Daringi feminoid war-machines.  I’m a robotka, made on Rossum and pleased to serve, meaning that I am something quite different” said Servilla Robotka.  Seeing the man unconvinced, she added “look, if you don’t want a cuddle that’s no hassle, but my family need me and I’m not going to be dumped.  I weigh no more than a woman my size, you know.”

“I’ve carried robotkas before—didn’t like it, but I’m a humble employee and fly whoever the bosses tell me to take.  But the automata on the Clown’s Smile‘s classes robotkas as ‘powered machinery’ and insists on having a ‘buffer reserve’ to protect the human passengers.  Does unless you stow them in the cargo hold, which the people I was shipping wouldn’t have taken kindly to.”

“I can ride cargo.  Anything short of hard vacuum won’t hurt me.”

“I already dropped the cargo pod, seeing as how all of us have cached our luggage and treasured personal possessions.  Putting it back would cost lifting-power and would unbalance the ship.  When I carried robotkas before, they rode in luxury seats just like they were human, offensively privileged.  But back then it didn’t matter, I had plenty of power.  Each robotka took as much as three or four humans, but I billed them for it.

“This time, I am at the tether of my limit.  Forced to rush between places evacuating stuff, up and down from the planet a dozen times and then a hopeless queue for the good docking spots at the recharging depot up at IronFort.  Before I am finished or re-powered, I get sent down here with just enough to get your family.  That would have been fine, though I might have made the robotka ride luggage.

“Only now I hear there’s raider ships about.  Pirates, slavers, even full-blown Caesars.  So I cache the cargo module and all my own stuff at the High Bane DropPoint where I collect this Mr Samuel D. Rosamski.  He was there because he gave up his own original place for someone’s native girlfriend who wasn’t even suppose to be there, the damn fool.  Still, he has a valid 33-Star ticket issued by Seven Suns.  My bosses say it must be respected above most sorts including even yours, Mr Domain.  I am told to collect him, even though it cost me more fuel than I would have liked.”

“No backhander?  Never mind, you came here at minimum, and I did talk my own dear wife into caching her own stuff.”

“She’ll probably cry loudly when she finds there aren’t any high-fashion boutiques on IronFort” added Servilla. “As for expecting her to look after the kids, forget it.  She couldn’t keep a cat in a fish-filleting factory.  That’s why I have to stick around.”

“There’s lot of people who’ll be at a loose end up at IronFort, Mr Domain” said Manfred Fly, refusing to look at Servilla.  “Easy enough to get some nice bitch to take care of your kids—and you too—for just a free trip to rich and tolerant Planet Rossum.”

Servilla gave an outraged look and advanced slowly on Manfred Fly, backing him into a corner.  “People at a loose end mostly deserve it.  And my children are never going to get less than perfect care.”

“They and all of us could end up splattered half-way across this planet-full of bloody Reverts, if you make me cut corners” retorted Manfred Fly.  “Mr Domain, you own her, tell her to behave.  Tell her to switch herself off, the thing won’t come to any harm.  We stash your robo-girl in a locker and you can collect it later, when the crisis is over.”

Mr Domain thought about it.  “Servilla, I’d hate to be separated from you, but it is possible that the children’s safety requires it.”  He could have just commanded, but Servilla was a synthesoid with genuine quasi-humans feelings, and he was fond of her.  He also disliked and mistrusted Manfred Fly, yet needed him.  So he decided on a mix of force and pretended friendliness.

“Look, Manfred, please let her check your technical specs.  If you’re right about the margins, then Servilla herself would volunteer to stay.”

“OK, I’ll give the thing ‘Stranger Access’.  No hacking!”

Servilla peeled back her left ear to reveal a small dataport under the pseudo-skin.  Reluctantly, Manfred Fly entered clearance codes while she extended a micro-fine lead and hooked through the Drop-Point’s data-net into the automated systems of the Clown’s Smile.  This let her ‘talk’ electronically, but only in GenonIcom, Generic Non-Instructional Communication.  The spacecraft automata would understand her but need not obey—its Command Language would be something else, and even if she knew it she’d be ignored and flagged as hostile if she tried to act as an unauthorised Controller.  The Malware Wars of the 21st century had forced computer-makers to abandon the convenient-but-dangerous idea that John Von Neumann had promoted at the dawn of data processing.  Instead of rules one place and data another, Von Neumann had promoted data-processing machines where instructions and data mixed promiscuously.  It made life easier for legitimate users, but any tech-wise wide-boy could smuggle in machine-commands that looked like data, seize control of someone else’s machine and do any sort of havoc.

After the Malware Wars, every important automatic system was ‘Non-Von’, vastly harder to take over or permanently change.  In the civilised 26th century, the destructive viruses, spyware and zombieware of the late 20th and early 21st century was as much a dead historic horror as the Black Death or surgery without anaesthetics.

Even a ‘Non-Von’ system could be tricked into performing its proper functions for the wrong people, of course.  Servilla knew some simple hacker tricks, enough to get through a normal ‘DataDesk’ configuration, but not with ‘Stranger Access’.  Also she could not do a full diagnostic; being an artificial creature did not make her an engineer any more than most humans were doctors or biologists.  She recalled the Rossumite definition of a computer programmer: ‘a mumbling mammal capable of conversing with inanimate objects’.  She herself was built to love and be loved by people; skill with machines was not part of her mindset.  But she could find what she needed, the basic engineering read-out that could not be faked or hidden.

“He is short of power, boss.  Though he could drop that ‘Little Seven’: it’s got a subroutine to detach itself in response to a simple command by the Authorised User.”

“It does?  I never read the manuals”

“And Richard Nixon never told a lie!”  (She had no idea who this ‘Nixon’ might have been; just that he had somehow outlived his era to become a byword for dishonesty on most of the Homestars, joining the club of Boycott the Land-Agent and Cooke the dishonest railway magnate.  Also Hooker the US general from their 1860s War of Secession, who was better at providing whores for his troops than at wining battles.  She had spoken without thinking and now looked for a response.  She got none, never mind.

“Look, Manfred, you bullshit plenty and you’d better not lie to us again.  Only, I did also find the safety buffers for robotkas that you told us about, and they do make a difference.  It would need a Level Four Engineer to disable the function, not some Mickey-mouse hack.”  Manfred Fly’s system was full of Mickey-mouse hacks, but the core systems were built to be safe from the likes of him, and from her also.  Even if the man could be forced to trust her with all his security codes, she could do nothing useful.  But there was another way.

“What I also see is, your craft has a whole bank of unused holographic storage modules in standard Trit Format.  More than enough for me to do a complete backup.”

“I don’t either want the mind of a damn feminoid monster lurking in my spacecraft, thank you very much.”

“I can’t properly exist there, because my mind only functions on a bank of non-Turing devices” explained Servilla, irritated by the man’s ignorance.  Quibit Arrays were needed to create synthesoids like Servilla, self-willed and possessing a sense and sensibility that no automata could ever have.  Of course that also meant she couldn’t save the true essence of herself as data, any more than a human could.  IronFort was the nearest place that might have a ‘Quantum Steam Press’ the complex machinery that could do a deep scan, though never a perfect one.  What could be done here was something much more modest, ‘quantum shadowing’, a relatively crude copy of her quantum entanglements.  Servilla’s main memories and a lot of identity and habits could be written to a file that would create an excellent mimic of herself, once it was transferred to the almost-identical ‘mindware’ of another SVLA robotka.

Almost identical: there were always some differences, even when the design didn’t change and get fine-tuned.  Even if the hardware had been identical, the copy would not have been just a copy.  The whole quantum realm defied the common-sense rules that had evolved in the standard human environment far above its micro-weirdness.  One bit per Quibit was the unbreakable rule, so that a copy could never be anything more than a thin shadow of the original mind.  But that thin shadow could create a new being who would know most of the mundane facts that Servilla knew, and be able to mimic and reproduce a lot of her character and habits.

“Look, Mr Domain, I could download and the storage modules can be swapped for a fresh unit at IronFort.  Take my backup with you, impress a new robotka back at Rossum.  To the children, it will seem I’m back.  Meantime I hibernate in a nice airtight compartments here, somewhere obscure where looters wouldn’t think to look.  Not that a sensible thief would take a robotka, since we’d sooner die that be wrongly used by someone with no right to own us, but who says looters are sensible?  So hide me well, so that I stay safe and like I’m sleeping.”

“An interesting idea” said Mr Domain.  “Unfair to you, but life is often unfair.”

“First I could use my spare power to boost the spacecraft a little, if there’s a lead I can link with.”

“How much would we gain?”

“90% of my reserves would boost the ship by 0.3%—terribly little, but the best I can do.”

“Much too small to risk your welfare, Robogirl.  No, hang on to all your power, I command you to hang on to your power, since I foresee a possible need for it.”

“If you say so, boss.  I can hibernate with all my power, if that’s your wish.  Go to sleep and last a long time.  You collect me later, when things settle down.”

“Get a new robotka on insurance and recover the old later—nice, yes?” said Manfred Fly.

“That’s not your business” said Mr Domain, who actually would have liked to have done just that but also knew better than to try such a crude scam on Insurance Assessors trained to look for just such things.  “But I do like the main idea, given that we can’t take all of you with us.  And the children’s safety does come first.”  Then he looked over to where Sam Rosamski loomed large. “We could always lighten the load further.”

Manfred Fly smiled conspiratorially.  “I could always say he wasn’t at the pick-up.”

“I wasn’t planning to murder the poor fellow—who’s probably also written FarMails about us to dozens of friends” replied Mr Domain.  He was also not a killer by nature, but didn’t want to seem weak or soft-hearted to the untrustworthy Manfred Fly.  In his wild younger days, he had put men in hospital from some street-brawl, but often he’d be there injured along with them, agreeing it was a fair fight and all was now settled.  He’d also beaten up people who were not remotely his match, but only if they had done something wrong by the code he’d grown up with.  And he’d once killed a man, but the reasons for that were very personal and he had no wish to do it again.  He saw himself as an honourable man, with an honesty that owed nothing to the official rules.  By his standards, Manfred Fly was contemptible, a low-life who dropped all moral standards under just a little pressure, a creep who’d probably kicked a comrade in the face so as to get away from the killer feminoids.  While this Sam Rosamski had done nothing wrong and seemed to be admirable, the sort of fellow he’d like for a friend.

It was also true that the Rosamskis were famous and had friends in the governments, police and military of dozens of different worlds—did this fool of a pilot know nothing?  But for now, the fool was the only person who could get them off this primitive world, and must therefore be handled gently.

“Regardless of our needs, I am not going to hurt, threaten or harm Sam Rosamski” said Mr Domain.  “But he told me that he was sorry not to have met any Malisti.  Since you’re staying, Servilla, why not persuade him to stay with you.”

Servilla frowned.  This Sam Rosamski was a big handsome fellow in his early 20s, fully 1.88 metres tall, six foot two by Old-Anglo measurements.  He had blond hair and violet eyes – a very rare eye colour in males, perhaps indicating a touch of Modified Human.  He had a look of benevolence that perhaps hid a slight vagueness.  His accent was British and slightly old-fashioned; probably one of the Barneti, a planet whose constitutional monarchs had a big fan-club on Rossum—not with her, but she’d learned enough of it to be polite when she met enthusiasts.  She’d heard that his people had begun with a soft-spoken but fanatically determined movement that had determined on a mission to re-create mid-20th-century Britain, the island as it was after Imperialism and before Sub-Americanisation and the disasters of Fimbulwinter.  She’d also been told that they had indeed succeeded, in their own eyes, producing a distinctive culture that might be fun to visit.  Also one which wasn’t at all like Rossum, nor one that most Rossumites would want to live within for the rest of their lives, or for anything much more than a holiday.

To get to know this curious and possibly inhibited fellow would be interesting.  To be stuck for months or even years with such a person might be something else.

On the other hand, Sam had already become ‘Uncle Sammy’ to Danny and Felicity, who didn’t lightly accept strangers.  He was also a cut above the ordinary space-tourist: Rosamskis were one of the five famous Houses of the Obloco.  She’d already met five of the warrior Pauzen and two of the spiritual-ethical Eludi during her trip to Old Earth.  Quite what a Rosamski was, she wasn’t sure; just that each of them was important and also rich—thought they hardly ever showed it and lived very simply.  But for Servilla, who didn’t eat and needed few human comforts, spending some time with a high-status human had its attractions.  Besides, her duty and her family came first.  Just make sure her owner realised what the rules were.

“I could persuade this Sam Rosamski, boss, but I’d have then an obligation.  My conscience would require me to serve him as I’d led him to believe I would.  And the Clown’s Smile has got pretty good margins without me and without that damn-fool weapon.”

Mr Domain looked at her sternly.  “Servilla, I command you—make a play for him, and try to please, but only as fair return for what he does for us.  When the score is settled you can do as you wish, hibernate if that’s your fancy.  Though I plan be back pronto—or will send someone, at the worst.”  He then leant and whispered, accent suddenly much rougher, “the word to wait for is ‘my bonny is over the Clyde, it is just that, so place a trust on anyone who so says it.  Or half-trust maybe, be a nice bitch with the messenger but also be alert for tricks.  On a messy long-away job like this, I can maybe not find me a fitting thief-within-code.”

“None shall own me but you alone” she whispered back.  “As it has been ever since you collected me from the warehouse.”

Mr Domain smiled again.  “So young and silly, so worried you might not please me.  You’ll forever be my own true running-bitch, no matter what goodies you do for those who’ve done good by me.  So I lay this on you, be fair to this Rosamski fellow, no less but also no more.

“But I am also selling a horse I’ve not yet stolen.  Can you swing it, Servi-girl?”

“Oh, he’s as good as hooked, Mr Domain.  The kind of sucker who feels the need to set me free.  One who can’t believe I already have all I want.  I will maybe play up to it.”

“No, he’s honest but not a dummy.  Don’t make that mistake with Barneti: they don’t get allowed to leave their own world without a few weeks training in how not to trust off-worlders in the way we’re told they can and do trust each other.  At home they have minimal security and even leave doors enough – I doubted but asked people who’d been there and it was true.  But they don’t do that on other worlds and it’s likely he pretty much knows what Rossumites are like.  He’d maybe get suspicious if you made it too easy for him.  So play against his kindly-liberal ways for maybe a few days and then seem to be won over.  He also has strong kin, strong enough to hurt you and me too if we seem to have done him wrong.  So best not split until you’ve placed him somewhere safe.  And on the sly, let the local ‘hard man’ know that even though you dump him, he had better come to no harm.”

“More twisted horse-shoes?” giggled Servilla  “That damn Baron nearly shat himself when he saw what I could do.”

“Play it careful—if you’ve a fault, it’s going too quick for a rough fix.  Listen to this Samuel D. Rosamski, give him a chance to talk the two of you out of trouble before you do anything violent.”

“But he’s not street-wise—nor castle-wise the way you and me have now learned to be in this shoddy little Revert world”.

“Thugs with titles” sneered Mr Domain.  “These Barons with their family heraldry do things that the roughest slum-boss back home wouldn’t let happen on his patch.”

“Right, boss.  But Sam Rosamski won’t see it so, not at first.  And then maybe he’ll go for ‘social justice’, the way Timmy Wainman did and left this land plagued with Wainriders.”  //She privately felt that the Wainriders were not so bad, but Mr Domain thought otherwise and she was not going to show a difference.//  “Sam Rosamski may get concerned over stuff he should leave along and that way he could get me involved in fighting.”

“You’re a match for any Revert, for eight or ten Reverts.”

“Maybe, but we could easily tangle with many more than just eight or ten of them.  One robotka can’t fight off an army.  One robotka can’t even fight off a large crowd.”

“True.  So be careful, ‘robo-girl’.”

“I will be, boss.  And what about keeping in touch?”

“Hard.  Until I can bring you back, I don’t want the children worrying.  I don’t want anyone knowing you are here.  So I command you, do not communicate, no matter what, unless you see a big bad risk for us humans.  Don’t even open a FarMail unless it’s from me.  Or leastwise has my name on it, though names can be faked.  If it’s my name take a look, but otherwise act like you’re not here.  My firm and binding order, not something you’re entitled to interpret any which way.  But my plan is that I will come back for you, or have you fetched.  I want you back in one piece, nice and cuddly as ever.”

Servilla giggled again and tried to figure exactly how she’d make her deal with Sam Rosamski, which would mean talking privately.  But first she must prepare the children for their unhappy separation from her.  So she explained it to Danny, and was pleased to see he could take it without crying.  But she knew also he was forgetful, and decided to remind him of his duty: “Remember this, it remains your obligation to make your daily reports to your mother, and be sure Felicity does the same.”

“I will, Aunt Servilla, I will.  But I worry about you.  I had this funny dream last night, which only makes sense if I knew somehow you’d be left behind.  In it I was a man full grown, bigger than dad, almost as big as Uncle Sammy.  And I came and found this place half ruined and full of weeds.  But I looked in the ruins and found you under some rubble and sleeping in a sealed box.  So I released and rescued you and you came alive and then were just the same as ever.”

“That’s silly, Danny.  I will be travelling to Rossum with you, just stored somewhere safe, and there I become myself again.”  She disliked lying to those she loved, but Mr Domain hadn’t wanted the children to know that she’d be left behind on Vermund, so she’d deny it.  And just hope Danny’s dream was not a prophecy, since hibernating for years and missing the children’s growing-up would be a horrible disappointment.

Danny settled, she turned to Felicity, who’d noticed something bad was happening and was crying already.  She soothed and petted the poor girl, calmed her and explained why they had to be parted for a while.  And when all that was done, Samuel Rosamski was well aware of the situation and open to her persuasion.

Meantime Manfred Fly and Mr Domain were closing down the DropPoint.  First they dismantled the motor of the Sky-Car in which the Domain family had arrived; turning it into unusable junk by smashing several cheap but locally irreplaceable parts.  Both of them would sooner not have bothered, but they were being watched by a DropPoint Supervisory Automata, an entity called <Tracy>.  <Tracy> complained at them whenever they didn’t follow the rules, threatened to report neglect, which could mean a large fine from the authorities up at IronFort.  Proof of negligence might also get them billed for stuff that would probably be stolen anyway: they had to satisfy <Tracy> if blame was to fall on someone else.  So they did their duty, despite finding <Tracy> irritating and inhumanly officious:

@@Sir, I must respectfully point out that the discarded Little Seven is a ship-killing mortar and must be securely stowed@@ declared <Tracy>—who had a convincing female voice and could mimic human speech patterns.  But <Tracy> did not possessing the inner consciousness that made Servilla’s mind very much like a human’s.  Automata relentlessly followed the rules, however foolish the rules might be.  Mr Domain knew this—living with a robotka but still using automata made you very aware of the difference.  He did not waste time disputing the rules with an entity that was basically an animated rule-book: he knew that there were no feelings or common-sense that he could appeal to.  Manfred Fly was much less wise and chose to argue:

“Look, tin-brain, the ‘Little Seven’ needs an operator, no Reverts could ever figure it out.  It’s also got heavy security, ways to blocks a stranger even if they knew what to do”.

@@Sir, regulations exist and I am not authorised to modify or compromise them@@ replied <Tracy>.  Unstructured speech and real-time human interactions were well within the capacity and understanding of  26th century automata.

“OK, you want it hid, I shall stash it in one of the big engineering lockers.”

@@Security protocols request and require that such a high-calibre weapons be stored in a high-security container.@@

“So where do I find one?”

@@None are available.@@

“So why tell me?”

@@Allocation of resources is outside the scope of this system@@ said <Tracy>, with a note of finality.  @@Issuing security warnings remains a required function, without regard for the feasibility of implementation. @@

“OK, void security.  Authorisation O-U-R-1-CR-AP”  This was an override he had been given by DropPoint engineers, who in the past had been as exasperated as he by the way that <Tracy> would try to stop engineers from doing their work.  Trying to stop the ordinary work-rounds that were necessary to keep decrepit spacecraft fit for flight, and they preferred to cheat rather than lose a job that was as good as anything you could land if your record was full of drunkenness, brawling, drug abuse or theft.  They and Manfred Fly were in many ways kindred spirits and some of them thought he was a friend, though in fact he had no real liking for any of them.

@@Authorisation accepted, sir@@ said <Tracy>, now speaking with an irritating cheerfulness  @@Security void valid and noted, sir.  Though I must also point out to you that the matter will in due course be reported to a human for value judgement, a circumstance from which disciplinary proceedings may arise, along with possible civil and criminal penalties.@@

“Go fuck yourself.”

@@This system has no such capacity, sir, and the gynoid brothel has been closed for the duration of the shut-down.  But I can direct you to the most suitable available lockage for the insecure stowage of the ship-killing mortar.@@

Having stashed the Little Seven, they got round to the last task, ‘denaturing’ all of the MetaMetal blades in the DropPoint’s large armoury.

“Crying shame” exclaimed Manfred Fly, as he dropped a high-tech blade into the glowing void of the Denaturing Vat.  “That blade could have whittled steel, and I could have traded to a Revert Baron for a dozen dancing girls.”

“But that would be theft, and also ‘Violation of Cultural Protocols’, as I understand it” said Mr Domain, taking care to sound honest within the hearing of the odious <Tracy>.  It was much too small a scam anyway—much better to work a much larger-scale deal with the help of corrupt local officials up on IronFort.  But even that would have got in the way of his proper occupation, much more lucrative work that did not include trusting the dross of IronFort.  No sense for a big operator to get involved in small crimes for which local police might arrest him, or at least hold him until suitably bribed.  He’d already ignored many hints about ‘business opportunities’ from people much richer and smarter than Manfred Fly.

Meantime Servilla came up to help.  But not just to help, Mr Domain had trained her always to be on the look-out for ‘business opportunities’, allowing for the fact that robotkas counted as ‘Dependant Adults’ and got light punishments for theft and other non-violent offences.  So while helping destroy MetaMetal swords and other large weapons, she managed to swallow a small sheathed dagger.  She did this much quicker than a human eye could follow, and then obediently dropped into the Denaturing Vat a common steel dagger that she’d palmed earlier.

“So that’s it” exclaimed Manfred Fly, seeing that the racks and shelves of MetaMetal weapons were finally empty.

@@Sirs, there is an auditing discrepancy.  A single small sheathed MetaMetal dagger remains un-denatured@@ came the computer voice of <Tracy>.

“So where is it?”

@@The MetaMetal dagger is inside the robotka@@.

“That’s my vertebrae rectum” protested Servilla, managing to sound innocent.

“The MetaMetal dagger is inside the robotka” repeated <Tracy>.  The automata’s programming told it that Servilla’s body normally contained no MetaMetal—no raw metal at all, robotkas were made of ceramic electronics, spun-silk bones and synthetic metaprotein tissues.  <Tracy> had also observed her swallowing the dagger, but there was nothing in <Tracy>’s programming to say that daggers shouldn’t be swallowed, provided that they were also eventually denatured.  Now the automata known as <Tracy> noted the discrepancy, but it had no capacity to do anything except follow programmed instructions, repeating itself without elaboration.

“Look, you bird-brain, the dagger is not in the robotka, you are scanning its vertebrae rectum” exclaimed Manfred Fly.  “Authorisation O-U-R-1-CR-AP once again, the missing dagger is definitely not there.  So where is the damn blade?”

@@The MetaMetal dagger is not anywhere within range of sensors@@.

“OK, so it was stolen already.  They can’t blame us, can they?  You can tell them we did our bit, Mr Domain?  They don’t trust me even when I’m innocent, but a rich fellow like you should convince them.”

“Without doubt it was taken, and not by you” said Mr Domain, smiling.  He knew exactly what Servilla had done; he’d likely have to foot the bill eventually, maybe pay a fine as well.  But he was not a stingy person, and he was impressed by his robotka’s initiative.

Servilla too was pleased with herself.  She’d not expected to be scanned, but her standard anti-automata spoof of using an impressive and meaningless phrase had worked yet again.  And it was much nicer to concentrate on small thefts than the heart-rending separation that must now occur.

“If you’re finished, Mr Domain, I’ve broken the news to the children, and also made my deal with Sam.  As you said, he was sorry to be leaving Vermund without seeing the Malisti, and more than pleased to have me as ‘guide’.”

“Also keen to liberate you?”

“He’s not spoken of it—and anyway, he said a few kind words that told me that he can see I’m ‘family’ and don’t like being parted.”

“I feel it too” said Mr Domain, giving her a hug.  “But it has to be done.  And I’ve found a nice spot—this Sealed Unit in the Med-Lab, which does also take robotkas and even has a data shunt.  Could you go and tell my family to join me there, Manfred?”

When they were all assembled in the Med-Lab, Servilla lay down on a pink bed with a transparent dome over it—great care had been taken to make it seem nothing like a coffin, which is what it could easily become when it was used by a human stricken by some illness or injury beyond the Med-Lab’s skills.

@@This nice young robotka look like she’s in perfect working order, apart from an odd object in her stomach@@ came an automated voice.  The Med-Lab had been designed to sound male, middle-aged and wise, and would call itself ‘Dr Gordon McCoy’ if addressed in a personal fashion.  It was actually run by the same <Tracy> software that had tried to recover the MetaMetal dagger, the automata with the serial number TCY-8erF889hpo0-346f.

<Tracy> was a rather unsophisticated automata by 26th century standards, and had not been programmed to cope with all of the tricks that a Security Automata would have been prepared for.  In its Med-Lab role, the automata had control of scanners and displays that could have shown up the stolen object easily enough.  Yet the dagger had been dealt with under one set of rules, diagnosis of the robotka was a different matter.  Instead it used its Gordon McCoy voice to say @@I’m not trained for treating synthesoids, good people.  But I strongly recommend that you encourage her to disgorge the extraneous item.@@

“Never mind that” said Mr Domain.  “Can you arrange a data shunt from her brain to the holographic storage modules on the Clown’s Smile.”

@@That’s Tracy’s area—I’ll put you through to the lady@@  said the automata, in its doctor-voice.  Then in its normal tones it added  @@The proposed transfer is technically feasible, but requires the permission of the owner or authorised user of both devices.  Also there will be a charge of 723 Rosencrowns.@@

“I own Servilla, registration SVLA-CZ777, and will pay for the transfer from my Running Account listed at IronFort” said Mr Domain.

“And it’s my ship, captain and pilot and authorised user.  I say yes, go ahead” said Manfred Fly.

Once again, Servilla un-peeled her left ear to reveal her data port, which <Tracy> plugged itself into, using a much better data-line than Servilla’s own.  Meekly she submitted to time-wasting checks, there was no fighting it.  And there might be a few more ‘business opportunities’ while she waited.  Manfred had forgotten to say ‘stranger access’ this time round, so she had much more freedom of action.

It would have been nice to rewrite <Tracy>, have her sing “Daisy Daisy” for the amusement of the children, and also make her forget about the MetaMetal dagger.  But it would also have been beyond her limited hacking talents.  Being in charge of goods valuable enough to attract a sophisticated criminal, <Tracy>’s internal logic was written in ‘Silver Grade’ coding, rumoured to use base-four numerals plus an idiosyncratic operating system that was specially designed to mislead those not trained in it.  A very sophisticated hacker could have cracked the <Tracy> system and made it obey them, but that was an acceptable risk for the owners of the drop-point.

There was also the Clown’s Smile, and that was another case.  A spaceship would always have sophisticated protection: successful thieves could fly them to places where no questions were asked—none except ‘can I safely cheat or murder you?’.  So the core of the spacecraft’s automata were different again, ‘Gold Grade’ or even ‘Diamond Grade’, Servilla had no way of telling.  You were committing a criminal offence under Pan-Human law if you even tried to find out the basis for anything above Silver Grade; a robotka could be declared ‘rogue’ and removed from human society if she tried.  Mr Domain was firmly against her taking risks like that.

But outside of the invulnerable core of the Clown’s Smile, she did find a mass of DataDesk systems, stuff that pilots and maintenance crew were allowed to mess around with.  This was both vulnerable and interesting, and she’d not leave without taking a good look at it.

First, however, she located the data-channels into the holographic storage modules, which were bog-standard trinary electronics, and yet vast enough to allow an approximate encoding of a robotka’s mind.  Not, indeed, that she could truly exist there.  She could hibernate or lose consciousness safely enough, and in fact needed regular ‘down-time’ just as a human needed sleep.  But if she were ever switched off, she would be permanently damaged or dead.  While ‘live’, she was responsive to human orders but not truly programmable, nor fully copyable.  What would be stored within the ship’s storage modules would amount to an ocean of numbers with no inherent meaning.

Servilla was quite conscious throughout the backup  It was not disruptive, but felt in fact rather pleasant.  In her own inner perception—a perception that existed along-side the visible world and with no danger of confusing the two—she was confined to a narrow ‘virtual office’.  It had Viewscreens onto the workings of both <Tracy> and the ship’s automata, stuff she had no intention of messing with.  Since Manfred Fly had failed to say ‘Stranger Access’ this time around, she now saw everything about the ship’s automata that Manfred Fly himself was allowed to know about.  His clumsy use of DataDesk Security just alerted her to the stuff worth peeking at; so she decided to try to find his password within the three tries that a decently-configured automata would allow before calling a Security Alert.  Even the best DataDesk system relied on the users selecting passwords that were hard to guess; Manfred Fly looked slobbish enough not to have bothered.

Her first guess was ‘power’, which was wrong.  Then ‘money’, wrong.  Last shot was ‘secret’—that was it.  She found herself inside an environment where the DataDesk had been configured to imitate Hard Windows 2033—who in space still used that?  Of course automata technology had changed little since the 21st century: most of humanity’s energies had gone into expansion into space and settlements on thousands of new worlds.  Many planets kept whatever they’d had when they had emigrated, perhaps mistrusting the newer stuff developed by Old Earth.  DataDesk was the Pan-Human standard: quick, cheap and easy.  It was also designed to let ‘insiders’ spy on other users; managers on staff, governments on both troublesome protestors and tax-evading business people.

DataDesk was also wide open to hackers: whether Hard Windows 2033 was any better, she had no idea.  Nor did she need to know: the environment was still standard DataDesk, no matter what it looked like to a user.

Servilla worked swiftly; she was a Certified Installer Grade 2b for DataDesk (Rossum-Anglo Edition), which was exactly what the Clown’s Smile made available for its pilots.  She had actually set up systems for some of Mr Domain’s friends, and always included her own hidden back-door, obviously, except where Mr Domain had said not to risk that person’s anger.  If the others suspected, they probably thought it was better to have just one snooper, and someone who wasn’t really a competitor.  Though it was amazing how most people misunderstood these things: you’d find people trying to crack a system by entering thousands of passwords, a trick that hadn’t worked since primitive 20th-century days.  Any decent system was three-strikes-and-out; it would ignore the real password after a small number of false attempts.  Some systems also had ‘honeypots’—they would give the intruder access to something that looked real but kept the trespasser busy while the Data-Police closed in.  Some also recognised more than just ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.  If the password was ‘turnipcat’ and you typed ‘turmipcat’, it would say “I think your fingers slipped’.  If you types ‘turnipcat’ but it was now ‘watersheep’, it would say ‘that’s an old password’—it would if the Security Administrator was kindly, or if they were scared of annoying users who might be much more powerful in terms of the local office politics.  DataDesk could also be very secure, but depended on users choosing a good password.  Even smart people would do the obvious; things like using their own birthday, normally celebrated among a crowd of friends and casual visitors.  Or they used obvious words, as in this case.

Having become Manfred Fly as far as the Clown’s Smile automata was concerned, Servilla set up a new account called Dummg, easily misread as Dummy.  With Manfred Fly’s authorisation she gave Super-User status to Dummg, and then logged out, just in case Manfred Fly tried to log on and would have been told that he was there already.  She didn’t need to use his account again: instead she logged back in as Dummg, password groovytuesday, an account that Manfred Fly would never know about.  ‘Dummg’ had inherited all of the mimicry of Hard Windows 2033: she restored the DataDesk defaults.  Then she deleted the real ‘Dummy’ account, an account which had been set up when the system was initiated in 2508, and which had never been looked at since that data.

Secure inside the user-accessable portions of the spacecraft’s system, she changed all of the ‘Dummg’ defaults to settings that suited her.  Next she checked out what she had access to, which was plenty.  She suspected that she could have re-designated the Clown’s Smile as chartered to Mr Domain, with herself as an authorised pilot—except she had no idea how to fly it.  Even the Sky-Car had been piloted by Mr Domain, whose own driving skills were much worse than you dared tell him.  It was lucky that Sky-Cars were self correcting and almost impossible to crash: spacecraft were vastly more demanding, with maybe one human in a thousand able to develop the talents even with intense training.  So she had to leave Manfred Fry in charge of a lovely little spacecraft that was far too good for him.

On the other hand, she could make herself the lawful possessor of the ‘Little Seven’, which was quite a simple weapon.  That was only as far as the DataDesk interface was concerned: the weapon’s basic functioning was probably encoded in Special Military-Security code, far less hackable than even the Gold Grade or Diamond Grade that protected the core functions on the Clown’s Smile.  In the 21st century, and perhaps even the late 20th, there had been wars won and lost because vital electronics failed or became unreliable thanks to override codes made by the manufacturers and passed on to the enemy.  One probable case was the mysterious failure of most of the French-made Exocet missiles in the 1982 Falklands War, an enigma that never had been fully solved.  But after the Malware Wars, everything had become much more controlled.  Occasionally military systems had been hacked by outsiders; but big-power arms-manufacturers could employ high-grade staff.  They mostly had code that was un-hackable even by the total resources of a rival superpower or hyperpower.  Yet the basic functions were just that, basic, and she was now the weapon’s official owner.  With luck that would be enough.

Luck had a way of running out, and the ‘Little Seven’ might have a keypad-based weapon-password, maybe something unguessable like the name of one of Manfred’s old army buddies—if the creep ever had had buddies.  Looking for a clue, she searched a secure area but found just a collection of routine bills, mostly unpaid.  One supplier was always paid very promptly for ‘herbal tea’ at 50 Rosencrowns a pack—probably marihuana, which was only technically illegal on IronFort.  Another secured file was encoded and was full of what seemed to be passwords and overrides for various IronFort systems.  They were probably useless to her; sex with four computer technologists up at IronFort had netted a total of 78 useful passwords, most of them illicit ‘back doors’.  Nothing very drastic, but of potential use to Mr Domain and it was what he had sent her to do.  Manfred’s collection probably added nothing she needed, but she copied them anyway.

There were also some securely coded graphic data files, obviously pornography graphics.  She cracked one, so as to see what his interests were, and found a very dull spread of female pubics with just a hint of body attached.  The women’s faces were seldom visible, just enough to show a massive disinterest in the supposedly erotic display.  But nothing violent or coercive, nor anything suggesting an interest in the under-age, so she skipped on without a worry on that score.

What else?  She added a ‘tag-along’ option to Dummg, so that it would migrate to wherever Manfred Fly’s user-id might be copied.  Within Dummg, she added a ‘greet-me’ option that would operate once per hour, a weak signal that only she was likely to notice.  Having plenty of time, she raised her system status still further, just in case she needed it,.  First to System Maintainer, authorisation code killbillandben.  Then to Installer Grade 2b, authorisation code theweedrunswild, a level of control which she was entitled to possess, though not on this system.  She’d got the illicit options that were valid for most IronFort systems after spending a few steamy hours with a systems-expert with an odd sense of humour, but it had been interesting as well as profitable.

There was nothing more worth hacking, so she checked back and found that some 90% of her ‘backup’ was complete.  The children were right next to her, holding her hands and looking horribly sad.  So in a weak voice she said  “Don’t worry, dears, quite soon I’ll be myself again in a fine new body”, hating to lie to those she loved but knowing the truth would be utterly horrible and traumatic to them.  The new Servilla would be a proper well-behaved robotka and would have all of her memories, a rough copy knowing just what to do and clever enough to fool a human.

The backup was now 99% complete, so she closed her eyes and let herself go limp, while also switching off the intricately twinkling lights on her data port (lights that had no function except to give humans the impression of some activity).  Very gently, Mr Domain unplugged her data link and then replaced her ear and pseudo-skin, so that she looked human again.  Even better, she felt and heard the children deciding to kiss Aunt Servilla goodbye, and bid her fond farewells.  Then Mr Domain lowered the transparent cover over the pink couch, making her a veritable ‘sleeping beauty’—but with the power to awaken herself.

“And thus did SVLA-CZ777 leave behind her old life and begin her unexpected career as a legend.”

The True History Of The Edepol War, from the Archives Of The Eludi.

Copyright Gwydion M. Williams

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