Read an Excerpt
By William C. Dietz
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1998 William C. Dietz
All rights reserved.
an' droid / n / an automaton made to resemble a human being
A section of the Pilgrim's hull, or what remained of it, curved up and away from the trading plaza. There were holes where plates had been cut away, lights flickered through gaps between the ship's durasteel ribs, and shadows went about their business.
The calendar in the android's head said it was summer, but the sky was dark, and sleet drove in from the north. Just one of the many miseries that resulted from the volcanic eruptions and the world-spanning dust cloud that blocked the sun.
Horlo's Outback Outfitter's shop had been looted months ago—but the broken-out display window made an excellent place to wait. Doon shared the space with some frosty shards of glass, the remains of an old campfire, and a wall full of Antitechnic graffiti.
Thousands of tiny micromachines inhabited his body and worked to maintain it. One of them exited through the synthetic's left nostril, dashed across his cheek, and entered his ear. The android wrapped his remaining arm around his knees in an effort to look smaller and less threatening. No small task for a rather large android.
People walked by but kept their distance from the figure in the window. Partly from fear, but partly because the passersby assumed he wanted something, and they had nothing left to give. Food, medicine, ammo. Those were the things people needed and never gave away.
Doon had been waiting fifteen hours by then. Not that it made much difference, since he had nothing better to do. He knew Sojo would arrive when there was a reason to arrive and not a moment before. Androids were like that. A human might go in search of music, a mate, or a thousand other nonessential things. Synthetics had better sense.
"Serve and protect." "Strive to survive." Both imperatives played important roles in his motivational subroutines. Had Doon been an alpha class robot, and a slave to his programming, one would have overridden the other.
But such was not the case ... and that led to a dilemma: Doon's right arm was missing. The synthetic named Sojo had one. Should Doon take what he needed? Or allow Sojo to keep that which was rightfully his? He was sentient. The decision was his. Sleet stabbed through the sickly green light and formed a carpet at the android's feet.
The room had been part of a large undifferentiated cargo hold prior to the Cleansing. The contents had been looted during the food riots—making room for the refugees that took up residence in the cavernous holds. The size and quality of their walled-off apartments varied according to when they had taken up residence, how mean they were, and what sort of weapons they possessed.
Sojo was the single exception. He occupied a large but somewhat crowded corner of the hold in spite of the fact that he was crippled and, outside of a rather sophisticated electronic alarm system, had no weapons whatsoever. The walls of his apartment were hung with mismatched shelving. The boards sagged under the weight of components and tools. Power flowed, not just to his apartment, but to the entire area from an illegal tap that he had established.
The outer bulkhead was made of durasteel and still bore numbers that corresponded with long-vanished cargo modules. A work table made from salvaged ceiling panels occupied the center of the space and stood only a foot off the floor.
Sojo's legs had been missing for some time now, and he scooted around the table on what had been an equipment dolly. Two handles, both of which mounted a piece of rubber, were his sole means of propulsion. He didn't want to leave the relative safety of his nest but knew it was necessary. The software had to be sent, and, because large sections of the ship's com system had been destroyed during the quakes, there was no choice but to venture outside.
Sojo had traded his right leg for the HoloTech miniframe. He slipped the jack into his temple, loaded the folder called Sunshine, and sent a backup to the RAM hidden in his right biceps. Once that was accomplished, the android took one last look around. The room was warm and messy—just the way he liked it.
The black watch cap and chopped-down parka lay in a pile against one wall. He pulled them on, found the remote, and aimed it at the low, torso-sized door. The panel opened and closed as the android passed through. A yellow arrow pointed back toward his quarters. Sojo ignored it. The passageway zigzagged back and forth.
"Safety First," "Electrical Access Panel," and "Emergency Air Supply" decals testified to a more orderly past. Wires, all of which had been stripped out of some other part of the ship, had been draped across beams and strung to feed glow rods that dangled every twenty feet.
Emaciated men, women, and children, most dressed in rags, greeted the android as he rolled past, called the name they knew him by, and wished him well. And no wonder ... since Sojo had helped each of them at one time or another.
The man called Fags was no exception. He smiled at Sojo, waved at the android's back, and returned to his closet-sized cubicle. The com unit was hidden beneath the flat, gray-white pillow. The air was cold, and Fags could see his breath as he blew on his fingers and thumbed the power switch. A green light appeared, static hissed, and he pressed "send."
The better part of a minute passed before an answer came. The voice sounded bored. "Yeah? So what's up?"
"The crip left his cube."
There was a pause, as if the other man was speaking to someone else, followed by the words Fags had been waiting for. "You done good, Fags. You like ham?"
"I love ham."
"Good. You got one coming."
Fags thought about tender pink meat spitting in a pan. Saliva filled his mouth, and his stomach growled. "Thanks. Thanks a lot."
"You bet," the voice said. "And, Fags ..."
"Spend the rest of the day somewhere else. It'll be safer that way."
Fags hurried out into the cold. Mount Purlow had been the first to explode. Others followed. Aftershocks were so common that Fags barely noticed the one that shook the ground beneath his feet. Zuul was restless.
Doon felt his aggressor systems come on-line as a unicycle rumbled by. Both the riders wore visored helmets. The passenger carried a Crowley IV submachine gun. Standard wear these days. Assuming you had the ammo to feed one. The unicycle vanished as quickly as it had appeared. A stray radio signal bounced in from somewhere, pushed a burst of static through channel seven, and signified nothing.
He'd spent weeks looking for Sojo and acquired all sorts of trivia during that time. Sojo had functioned as one of Dr. Gene Garrison's assistants on the trip out, and Garrison, better known to artificial sentients as "the Creator," had employed the synthetic's services after the landing as well.
Years passed, and while Doon spent his time chasing criminals, Sojo absorbed everything Garrison was willing to teach, and then, in what the Creator called the final measure of his work, took self-directed programming to a whole new level, and pursued projects that only he and his mentor could understand.
Then, before whatever it was they were working on could be realized, the quakes brought everything to a halt.
The humans, who had been led to expect something verging on paradise, had arrived only to find that Zuul had been inhabited for hundreds of thousands of years. First by the Forerunners, whose ruins still dotted the surface of the planet, then by members of a religious cult that the rest of the Zid race found so repugnant that they forced the entire membership into sleep capsules, and sent them to a then-unpopulated planet.
Though not exactly pleased about the incumbent population, which also included a colony of the beetlelike Mothri, the humans were extremely adaptable, and eager to take advantage of the planet's considerable resources and wide-open spaces. Unlike the other races, who avoided each other to whatever extent they could, the humans mixed with both groups. Settlements were established in and around the Zid-controlled "holy lands," and an uneasy peace ensued.
As a result of this mixing, a substantial number of humans became interested in the Zid religion, made the necessary commitment, and were integrated into primitive agricultural communes. Thus encouraged, the Zid leadership foresaw the day when all humans would become ardent members of the Antitechnic Church, and thereby fulfill God's plan. That being the case, a limited number of humans were allowed to enter the priesthood.
So, when the quakes hit and the volcanos began to erupt, the Zid interpreted the geological upheaval as a sign that the great Cleansing had begun, that all machines were to be swept off the surface of the planet, and behaved accordingly.
There were Zid-inspired demonstrations, pray-ins, and machine riots. The Artificial Intelligence Lab was forced into hiding, and, for reasons not apparent, Sojo remained behind. Sympathetic humans protected the android during the Cleansing and the days immediately there after.
Eventually Sojo had wandered into Zid-held territory, where he had passed for human, and joined an all-droid commune. By living together, they hoped to escape detection. The Zid had a talent for penetrating such schemes, however, and attacked the farm. Four droids were killed, one was wired into a living altar, and Sojo escaped.
He traveled at night, walked cross country, and made it into the Human Zone also known as the HZ, where machines stood a fighting chance.
Sojo went to ground after that, and did a fairly good job of it, until Doon heard rumors. Not too surprising, since Sojo had been programmed to teach rather than hunt.
There were 21,248 synthetics prior to the Cleansing. Sojo had serial number 18567 and Doon's was 20872. An almost meaningless detail where humans were concerned—but critical to synthetics. Production records were the closest thing they had to an official genealogy—and serial numbers said a lot about who and what they were.
Eighteens had more memory than the seventeens, nineteens suffered from memory dropouts, and twenties, those who opted for Law Package 2.1, were known to be ruthless. Was it true? Doon considered where he was—and what he planned to do. The answer was obvious.
The light was fading fast. Something moved on the far side of the mall. It was a man—or half a man, because his body ended at the waist. The platform had been a furniture dolly, and he used handles to push himself along.
The half-man didn't like open spaces and crossed them as quickly as he could. He hadn't been out for long, judging by the thin layer of sleet that covered his shoulders.
It wasn't until the half-man arrived in a pool of light that Doon recognized him. Sojo possessed holo-star looks, a powerful frame, and two good arms.
Doon had spent a lot of processing time trying to decide if he had emotions, and if he did, how they compared to those experienced by humans. The Creator claimed they were identical. But how would he know? Subjectivity being what it is. In any case, Doon processed what he knew to be a sense of satisfaction as Sojo rattled past.
The bloom from Doon's IR signature was a dead giveaway for any sort of police unit, even nonsentient models, but Sojo didn't look twice.
Doon smiled. The tracker loved bean counters, pencil pushers and med units. Ninety-six percent of their parts were identical to his, but they couldn't find their butts with a metal detector.
Doon could have taken Sojo then—there weren't many that could stop him—but he hated to salvage a synthetic in public. It might give the bio bods ideas, and what with the Zid, not to mention bounty hunters, there were too many scrappers already. The tracker followed Sojo around the corner and south onto one of the Committee's arrow-straight heat-fused streets. Sojo's castors made intertwining lines through a thin layer of slush.
Doon followed. He didn't really need the long black duster he wore, other than to conceal the fact that he didn't need it—and to hide the weapons he wore. His processor considered the facts. Sojo was out and about. Why now? It must have been urgent, because Sojo was pushing hard. The castors clicked as the platform crossed ridges in the sidewalk.
Doon liked the look of the other synthetic's arms. He could imagine how the right one would hang. Long and comfortable, like the original had, before the jackers blew it off.
Sojo turned to the right and disappeared behind a prefab store. Doon hurried to catch up, peeked around the corner, and saw his target halfway down the block. His destination, and the reason for his trip, were obvious now. The com booth, one of hundreds established during the Committee's reign, was intact. Many—hell, most—pay sets had been damaged in the quakes or destroyed during the machine riots. All of which meant that communication with outposts such as Riftwall, Norley's Knob, and Mound City were uncertain at the best. The only sure way to deliver a message was to hire a runner—or take it yourself, which was not an option for someone like Sojo.
Doon had slowed to a walk by then, and was a hundred feet away when Sojo approached the com booth. The synthetic took one look at the attendant and sped away. The guard yelled, "Stop!" and the droid went faster. Two figures in black raincoats materialized out of the shadows and took up the chase. The attendant followed.
Doon saw the real attendant's body slumped in a doorway, swore, and started to run. Just his frigging luck! Wait all day only to have some good-for-nothing bio bods salvage his mark. Besides, who the hell were they to pick on the robotic equivalent of a nerd?
Doon knew his thinking was inconsistent but didn't care. He followed Sojo's pursuers down another ruler-straight street toward the point where it ran into the Pilgrim's frosty white hull.
Sojo had a lead on them by then—but paused as one of the Guild's heavily armed convoys approached. It was similar to an Earth-style train in that an enormous tractor unit supplied the motive power, while a long string of trailers followed behind.
Doon knew that a steady stream of such convoys crossed High Hand Pass every week carrying tools, weapons, and ammo to those brave enough to live outside the HZ, and bringing whatever food the subsurface farmers could spare back across the mountains.
The train bristled with pod-mounted automatic weapons. Many of them tracked Sojo and his pursuers as they drew near.
The synthetic looked back over his shoulder, realized his pursuers were gaining, and launched himself into the street. Doon wanted to warn him, wanted to help, but knew it was too late. The half-man skittered toward the convoy and disappeared under a trailer.
Doon assumed Sojo was dead, as did his pursuers, until the last trailer rattled by. The droid nearly made it, nearly escaped, but wasn't fast enough. His silhouette showed as he entered the ship. The scavs followed at a trot. Doon brought up the rear.
The Junkman paused just long enough to let his assistants take the lead. The bounty hunter had employed more than a dozen of them over the last couple of years. He had a preference for those who were young and had something to prove.
The boy named Jak fit the profile to a T. He stepped in front of the girl and slipped through the gap.
Old lady Cramby was waiting inside the ship. She had only one shell in the black-market smoothbore, but that was enough. She squeezed the trigger, staggered under the recoil, and cackled as the ball bearings tore Jak apart.
The girl stepped forward, sprayed the woman with 9mm bullets, and waited for backup. None appeared.
The Junkman shook his head, bent over, and got blood on his hands as he sorted through Jak's possessions. Those worth keeping went into the pockets that lined the inside of his raincoat. Girls lasted longer than boys did, or so the Junkman had concluded, because they placed a higher priority on survival. All of which explained why he hired boys.
The girl kept her back to the walls as she moved up the corridor, painfully aware of how thin they were, and the fact that it would be easy to fire through them.
Excerpted from Steelheart by William C. Dietz. Copyright © 1998 William C. Dietz. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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