Category Archives: Twisted Metal

Four Blind Horses

STORIES FROM THE NORTHERN ROAD features four interlinked stories set in the Penrose Universe.

The following is the first of those four stories.

Four Blind Horses

John Bull came walking into town, advice leading four blind horses, and all the robots came out from the forge to see him.

“Ho, there stranger,” said Smith, taking in the worn brass of the other man’s hands and feet, the tin solder at his seams. There was a faint squeaking of joints as John Bull turned to the leading horse, and Smith thought that at the very least this man would be in want of lubrication. “Come into the forge, traveller, and let us see what we can do to make good your tired body.” And though his words were full of welcome, both Beth and Nel noted the way he looked at Reynold as he spoke.

Now, John Bull did not answer straight away, rather he turned and whispered something into the leading horse’s ear. The assembled robots listened hard to hear what he said, but the words they could not hear. Still, the lead horse halted, as did those that followed behind, and their metal heads were lowered as they rested, and finally John Bull turned to greet them.

“Well met, good fellow,” he called. “My name is John Bull, and I’m looking for a robot who can service these four fine animals!”

At that he stood aside and invited the robots of the forge to come forward and inspect the beasts. This they did, running their hands over the fine metal of the horses’ bodies.

“I can service these horses,” said Smith, thoughtfully, “but my work will not come cheaply.”

“There is a fine line to these creatures,” interrupted young Nel, running his hand down a steel flank. “Who built them?”

“I did,” said John Bull.

“Did you now?” said Reynold, who had never amounted to much himself, and so was always willing to believe as little possible of others. He gazed tellingly at the poor quality of John Bull’s panelling, at the sloppy beading of the solder that held the mismatched metal of his body together. “And yet you present yourself to us dressed in this way?”

John Bull shrugged; the metal at his shoulders squeaked and scraped as he did so.

“It would be a poor master who put his own needs before that of his animals,” he said.

At that the other robots laughed loudly.

“Caught you out there, didn’t he?” laughed Midge, who didn’t like Reynold. “Caught you out good and proper!”

Reynold scowled, and as he did so Beth noticed what they all had missed. She leant closer to the animals’ heads and asked the significant question.

“Why are they all blind?”

“They are,” said Nel, “They are, an’ all.”

The assembled robots pushed closer to examine the horses’ eyes for themselves.

“Blind,” said Midge. “No glow to them at all! Why?”

“Ah,” said John Bull. “There lies a tale. Perhaps if you could see fit to service these animals, and maybe offer some meagre repairs to my body, I could tell that story? For I cannot pay by any other means, as I have no money. The only possessions I have are these horses.”

The robots looked at Smith, who made a show of inspecting the lead horse. It was taller than him, made of good grey iron plates that slid smoothly over each other as the animal moved. He placed a hand on a flank and felt the pulse of the electromuscle beneath. Truth be told, these creatures were built with a skill that surpassed his own, yet he would not admit that to the townsfolk. He looked again at John Bull and the cheap plating of that robot’s body and doubted very much his claim that he had built these beasts. Stolen, he guessed. Well, he wouldn’t be the first to fall under the spell of well engineered metal.

Or the last.

“Well?” said Beth. The young woman couldn’t keep the excitement from her voice. Smith shook his head.

“Service these four fine horses for a story?” he said. “That is too low a price, when a smith must pay for coal for the fire and metal for the forge. It would ill serve my reputation, or my self respect to grant my services for such a fee. But I am a charitable man and this forge has ever been a welcome place to the traveller. So for the price of a story I will fix the solder on your joints and I will darn the knots in your electromuscle.”

And at these words, he looked significantly at Reynold and Maggs, who smiled and gave him a slow nod in return.

“A fair price!” agreed Reynold loudly. He held out an arm in welcome. “Come into the forge, John Bull, and sit down! The day is spent, and night is on, and the ghosts roam the land. Come in here where it is safe and the metal is warm and ready to pour.”

John Bull looked to his four fine horses.

“I’ll look after them,” said Beth, eagerly. “They’ll be safe with me.”

“Very well,” he said, though he hesitated before he answered. He whispered something into the lead horse’s ear that none of them caught, and then stepped from the deepening twilight into the red glow of the forge. The other robots closed in around him from behind, and it was as if he were being shepherded through the gates into the final forge of life itself.

Alone outside, Beth admired the four blind animals.

 

John Bull sat down on a stone chair and watched as Smith drew a glowing iron from the fire and used it to melt away the tin solder from his body. He lifted his arms and legs as Smith and Reynold removed the cheap iron plating and laid it on the ground. The assembled robots looked with wonder at the electromuscles revealed beneath.

“Whew,” whistled Nel. “Maybe you did build those horses yourself!”

“That’s good work there,” said Smith, now feeling a little unnerved at the thought of what John Bull would think of his own workmanship. Then he remembered that it wouldn’t matter in the end anyway. He looked up at Reynold and Maggs who gave him a slow smile, then he turned back to the stranger.

“Well, John Bull, I’ve begun my part of the bargain. What about you? Where is this story of yours? Why are those four fine horses blind?”

John Bull settled back in the stone seat as Smith set to work. He began to tell his story.

 

“A long time ago, when this land was still untouched by robot and the trees and the plants still grew in profusion across the honest stone, a man walked through the wilderness. And this man sensed that there was iron beneath the ground, for this man’s father knew the way to build a son, and had built a compass into his son’s body and taught him how to use it.

Now, this man sensed the iron in the ground, and he wondered what to do with it. For he was too mean to share it; he was too scared to share it; for he feared that other robots would rob him of his claim, and maybe he was right, for in those days, robots would rob and even kill each other for the metal to make their children. And it is so even now.”

John Bull didn’t notice the look Smith and Reynold and Maggs gave each other at his words. He continued his story.

“But the man was mean, and meanness does not only make one hoard what one has, but it infests the spirit and causes one to resent the hoards of others. And so that man thought long and hard on what to do with this bounty, until he decided upon a plan.

That night, he fashioned his hands into shovels. And he began to dig, down through the soil and down through the rock. Day after day he laboured; shifting pebbles and stones until eventually he reached the lode. Iron, almost pure, red and rusting, a dark slug sleeping beneath the earth.

He peeled away the iron and made himself two bodies thereof, to someday be a son and a daughter.

But only when he looked at those two bodies did he realise what will have been obvious to you all, that he could not make children alone. For it was only then, such was the hold that that lust for iron had over him, that he remembered that he would need a woman to twist the wire for his children’s minds.

And so he crept back to the places where other robots lived and worked, and he lay in wait for a woman to come walking past. And a women came walking by, and he captured her, and he brought her back to the wilderness where he kept her as his prisoner.

He chose well in his captive, for the woman was weak and mean, just as he was weak and mean, and she too fell under the spell of the great lode of iron. Soon she began to think like the man, and so they both sacrificed their lives to wealth that they could never spend.

The woman twisted the man’s wire and made minds for the children. And then they dug down into the earth again, and left those two children alone in the dark.

“Listen to what I say, good robots, that you can understand the true horror of what those two parents had done! That they left those children to grow up alone in the dark, where they would know each other and no others. And what of the parents? They crept away, leaving their children forgotten, leaving their precious lode forgotten, for they could not get it themselves and they could not bear to see it spent by others.

“Now listen to my story: the boy and the girl grew in darkness, knowing nothing but the feel of soil and the heat of the underground, and above all else, they felt the rich tang of the iron. It was a constant presence as they grew until the day came when the urge to reproduce was upon them. And so the maiden knelt and twisted the wire of the boy and they made children, only they made them without the ability to see. And why not, for what reason could one have for seeing, who lives their life in darkness?

Now they were man and woman. And they raised their children in that plentiful world of darkness, and their children had children of their own.

This is the way they reproduced in the dark, using up the iron from the great iron slug, until it was all gone. But still the race lives down there, building robots out of dead robots. And they are down there still, having adopted themselves to their unnatural life, with their smaller arms and legs, and no eyes, but with larger hands so they can feel. And their minds are stunted, because a mind made only from iron is not a healthy mind nor a full mind, and the life force cannot be magnified by such a mind.

And someday, someone will turn the soil and dig down, and disturb that dark nest and they will come boiling out into our world, black and stunted and ugly.

And this is the story of the cripples under the world.”

 

John Bull smiled as he finished his story and held his hands out wide.

Smith looked up from where knelt at John Bull’s feet, pretending to tune the stranger’s body. Truth be told, the weave of the stranger’s electromuscle was beyond his skill to repair, so he lubricated and tightened, tuned and greased what he could.

“I don’t get it!” said Nel. “Is that why the horses are blind? Are you saying they came from that underground world?”

“Not at all,” said John Bull. “Listen on. For some say that this story is but a parable, and that really it reveals a truth about us who live above ground. Perhaps we, who walk in the sun, have long forgotten the real world, and when we build our bodies we unwittingly cripple ourselves. We make our arms to reach a few feet when perhaps once we reached to the top of the trees, or maybe to the mountains, or even to the stars. We build our eyes to see in the day, but we have forgotten how to see at night. And, just as the cripples under the world had only iron for their minds, perhaps we too are lacking the true metals and so our minds are dim and the life force has grown weak inside us.”

“The lifeforce is strong enough in me!” laughed Reynold.

“Aye! And me,” agreed Maggs.

“I’m sure it is,” said John Bull, “But I do not intend to insult you. Rather, I say this, that maybe someday we will see a true robot. It will descend from the stars and walk among us, and we shall see once again how a true robot is shaped, and we shall learn to build ourselves anew.”

“Never!”

“Or maybe we will see a true robot and we will turn on it, and destroy it out of fear or jealousy.”

“Why should we do that?”

“And some say there is no true robot, there are only robots.”

At this Reynold grew angry, and why should he not? Because Reynold was preparing great to do great harm to John Bull, and when robots do evil, they seek excuses to justify their actions.

“John Bull!” he declared in disgust. “You have come here into our forge and accepted our hospitality in return for a story, and this is all you give us?”

John Bull looked down at where Smith was failing to read the pattern of the weave in the electromuscle of his calves.

“This is poor hospitality indeed,” he announced to the forge at large. “This man is a poor smith, who cannot mend my legs.”

“Mend your legs? What sort of a man are you? I have never seen such work before! And as for your horses!” Smith rose to his feet. This was a signal for Reynold and Maggs to do the same, the latter sliding a black awl from within his body, and holding it tight in his palm. The three of them moved towards the stranger, who did not seem to realise the danger he was in.

“Where did you find those horses, stranger? Did you steal them or make them yourself?”

“I made them.” John Bull remained seated, seemingly unconcerned by his nakedness.

“Hey,” said Nel, seeing the awl in Maggs’s hand, jet black with wickedness. “Hey, what are you doing, Maggs? Leave him alone! I want to know about the horses!”

Smith looked at Maggs. He wanted to know about the horses, too. There was something about John Bull and the way he had spoken to the lead animal that unnerved him. He gestured for his partner to hold off for the moment.

“Okay stranger. Maybe you don’t like my work, but I’ve lead and iron and copper to forge. Aye, and even a little silver and gold. I can’t fix your electromuscle but I will melt two buckets of lead and hammer out your panelling and seal up your body well against the winter rain. That should be ample payment for the tale you promised us. Is that not fair?”

“That is fair.”

“Good. So, tell me then, why did you build those horses, if it was you that built them?”

John Bull settled himself back into the stone chair. The forge was untidy, full of broken metal and clinker. He stirred a rusty piece of wire with his foot.

“Why would anyone make a horse?” he asked. He tapped at his head. “The wire in a robot’s mind can think, it has strength of its own, but sometimes more strength is required, so a robot will twist metal that is strong but can think only poorly, and so he will make an animal. This is what I did, for I heard the story of the cripples under the world, and I wondered that if any robot was to find those robots, then why should that robot not be me? And so I travelled, and I asked questions, and eventually I found a place where the plants and trees grew in profusion across the honest stone, and I placed my ear to the ground. And what did you think I heard?”

“What did you hear?” asked Nel.

John Bull lowered his voice.

“Shouting. Crying. Screaming. Terrible, terrible screaming. I heard voices below the ground and the sound of fighting. I heard the sound of people locked in war.”

“What was happening down there?” asked Nel, horrorstruck.

“How long would it take a group of robots to mine all that metal?” asked John Bull. “Fifty years? A hundred? And then, what would they do? Living in a world surrounded by stone, knowing no better? They fought! They were fighting each other for metal! Tearing each other apart to make their own bodies!”

“That’s horrible!” said Nel.

“The imagination magnifies what it cannot see,” said John Bull. “There I squatted, my ear to the ground, and such pictures arose in my mind. What was I to do? Well, back then I only had one fine horse. It took us a week to clear a way into that world. There were rocks so large that it tore the electromuscles in the legs of the animal as it fought to move them. My horse struggled in the harness under a blazing sun, the metal of its back so hot that the plastic on my fingers melted to touch it.”

Nel looked at John Bull’s bare copper fingers, the plastic from the tips long gone.

“I spent the nights under the glow of Zuse, the night moon, doing what I could to repair that horse of mine, but metal was scarce out there. Still, I comforted myself with the thought of what I would find when I broke into that underground world. Metal enough to mend my horses. Metal to make me rich! Metal to make a thousand children! But I was a fool. I didn’t know the hell that I was about to enter.”

John Bull looked across at the old and badly maintained forge, where two buckets of lead solder were now bubbling, silvery patterns dancing on the surface of the molten metal.

“The solder is ready, Smith. Will you begin your work?”

With bad grace, Smith picked John Bull’s chest panel and took it to the anvil. He began to beat out some of the dents with a hammer. The clang of metal on metal filled the forge with a homely sound.

“And so, finally, on the eighth day, I made an entrance to that world. Drove a spike into the rock and heaved with all my strength. Gradually I forced a hole wider and wider, and for the first time, I let sunlight into that underground place. A single yellow shaft, fallen unnoticed into that blind kingdom. Can you imagine it? A widening band of yellow light, a circle on that forsaken crowd, and not one of them knowing it?”

“I can imagine it!” said Nel.

“I worked to widen the hole. Smashing away yellow rock around the lip with a hammer, and then I fell prey to my own foolishness.”

“What? What?”

“Those robots may have been blind. They were not deaf! Hands came reaching up from the rock. Not silver grey polished hands, such as you and I may wear. These hands were red and rough, metal and stone mixed together. There was no smelting done, down there in that dark and fireless world. Such metal as they had was crushed and squeezed directly from the rock. And now those horrible red hands were reaching out into the sunlight, reaching for me and my horse, seeking to drag us down! The horse was screaming, panicking! Two red hands grabbed my legs, you can see the dents on the panelling still…”

The robots in the forge all looked down at the battered half tubes that lay on the floor, their imagination filling in the details.

“…and those hands began to drag me down, down, into the world without light. Fresh metal to be torn apart and woven to make their children. The horse was backing away, terrified. I only just managed to grab onto its hobbles, I held on tight as it backed away, kicking as I did so, managing to shake myself free as I was dragged clear. And so I found myself fetched up at the top of the pit that me and my fine horse had dug, looking down at those red hands, watching them, fearful at what was about to emerge from that world.

“And what came?”

John Bull looked slowly around the forge, meeting the eyes of each of the robots in their turn.

“Nothing!” he said. “Nothing. The hands withdrew. I waited and I waited, and then it gradually came to me what I was seeing… Rocks and stones were being slotted into place from beneath. And I understood. Those robots were sealing themselves up again! They wanted no part of our world!”

He looked around the dirty, squalid forge again.

“I waited, watching to be sure, and night fell. Night fell and the moon arose, and I brooded. I had not come so far, sacrificed so much, to go home empty handed. I needed to enter that world again. That world where red robots who had never seen fire spitefully fought each other. Aye! Selfish and spiteful and cowardly they were, because I realised now that they knew of the world outside, but they preferred to stay locked in their tiny world where they felt strong.”

At this John Bull looked deliberately around the forge. Looked at Smith and Reynold and Maggs.

“But why?” asked Nel. “I can’t believe they would do such a thing! Not when they knew there was a world outside!”

“Ah, but there’s more,” said John Bull. “Remember, they were blind! Have you not noticed, that when a wicked deed that passes unseen, the perpetrator is emboldened? A robot may sell shoddy goods, or perform second rate repairs, or exploit his fellow robots in mines deep beneath the world, if he thinks his deeds pass unnoticed by his peers. And he will go on doing so, as long as no one comments upon what he does.”

He paused, but if Smith and Reynold and Maggs looked at each other for even a moment, if they took their hands from their weapons or they felt a moment’s shame at their thoughts, then no one noticed.

“Consider my fine horse,” said John Bull. “I tried to lead it back into that pit, but it refused. It screamed and pulled and panicked and refused to take but one step forward. But after I had blinded it, it allowed itself to be led.”

“How did you blind it?” asked Nel.

“With an awl. I stuck it into its eyes and ground the glass and the electric cells behind them with the hard tip. I could have unscrewed the eyes, but it was panicking. This was the quickest way.

“And so I harnessed my fine horse and unhobbled it and I led it further along the ground, listening all the time, trying to find another suitable point to enter that underground kingdom.”

At that he fell silent, lost in thought.

“What happened then?” prompted Nel.

Smith had finished hammering away John Bull’s panelling. He brought it back to the robot, fitted it close around him. Maggs brought the bucket of hot lead solder from the fire.

“What happened?” asked Nel again.

Reynold gave a thin laugh. “And then he broke his way back into that kingdom with his blind horse and he stole away the people, one by one. Ain’t that right, John Bull?”

“But I don’t understand,” said Nel, suddenly. “Where did the other horses come from? And why are they all blind?”

“Oh, that’s easy,” said John Bull. “Because animals and robots prefer not see the truth. When a horse is blind as to where you are truly leading it, it will follow you anywhere. Is that not right, Smith?”

At that moment, on the signal from Smith, Maggs tipped the bucket of molten lead, sending it running down the criss-crossing electromuscle in John Bull’s legs. The robot screamed as the heat surged through his electromuscle, but now Smith and Reynold pinned his arms, and Maggs was running the stone bucket back and forth over the other leg, sending silver grey lead running down inside the woven metal of his thigh electromuscle, to burn it and short it and to harden it so that he could not move.

John Bull screamed, and he struggled, tried to pull his arms free, but Smith and Reynold held on too tightly. Maggs dropped the first bucket on the floor and headed back to the fire to retrieve the second one.

John Bull tried to kick his legs, to shake out the lead that was poured inside them, but the metal was already tacky, gumming up his works, pouring its heat into him.

“Not so clever are you now, John Bull?” hissed Smith in his ear, holding onto the stricken robot’s arm with all his considerable strength. “All that rust about robots under the earth and blind horses. That sort of thing may play well out on the Zernike Plain, it may get you a bit of free lead or tin in those mined out parts, but not here. This is Stark. We know about good machinery in this State. Well, those four fine horses outside are good machinery, and we’re going to have them.”

Maggs had taken the second bucket of lead from the fire, and he was bringing it up to John Bull.

“A head full of lead,” said Smith. “Pour it over the twisted wire of his mind!”

“No!” called Nel. “You’ll kill him!”

“Quiet Nel. This does not concern you!”

“But he’s done you no harm!”

“Get outside, Nel! And if you speak of this to any robot, it will be you next in the stone chair!”

The young robot looked at John Bull, and then at Smith, and then he ran from the forge, leaving the wide door slightly ajar.

“All fine,” said Smith. “Now Maggs, pour the lead, and then we’ll take those horses, thank you very much.” Smith grinned. “I’ll fit them with eyes and sell them off at a fine profit.”

John Bull laughed. And it was such an unexpected sound in that dim untidy space that everyone held still for a moment.

“Fit eyes if you want, Smith,” laughed John Bull, “But you’ll never see them again if you do. They’ll run away, back to the places where I found them. You heard what I said. People will follow you quite happily as long as you don’t let them see the truth. People don’t want to know where they’re going!”

Maggs hesitated, the heavy stone bucket swaying in the tongs.

“Don’t just stand there!” called Smith. “Get the skull off him. Pour the lead in his brain!”

“Can’t you hear this out there?” John Bull shouted. “How will you ever get home without me to lead you?”

“No one to hear you out there,” said Reynold, with grim satisfaction, and then he froze. There was a banging on the door. The sound of hooves on metal. It came again.

“In you come!” called John Bull. “In you come, my four fine horses.”

The four blind horses came stamping into the room, their metal hooves ringing on the stone floor. They skidded on the rusty scraps of old metal that littered the forge, they tipped over the racks of tongs and hammers. They whinnied and reared, and sent hot colas scattering across the room.

Maggs dropped the bucket on the floor, sent hot lead splashing in a silver grey stream across the floor that set as it ran. Smith and Reynold let go of John Bull, they seized hammers from nearby to defend themselves against the horses that set about wrecking the forge.

And in the confusion John Bull pulled an awl from inside his casing and stabbed Reynold in the skull. Stabbed up under the chin, deep into the brain where he twisted the awl around the wire of his mind and then pulled it out in long blue loops, stretching his thoughts and robbing him of his life, his empty body falling to the floor in a clatter of metal. Then John Bull turned to Smith, cowering in the corner, trapped by the horses. John Bull’s legs didn’t work. He had to drag himself towards him by his hands.

“Now them,” he said, as Smith turned towards him, face split with fear. “Let me tell you about the horses.”

As for Maggs, he cowered in the far corner, waiting his turn

***

 

Beth and Nel waited outside the forge that night, listening to the ringing of the hammers coming from inside.

“You go in,” said Nel. “They’re killing him! They’re killing poor John Bull.”

Beth shook her head, too afraid at what was going on in the Forge. Smith had a quick temper. He was swift to attack those that criticised his work and, shoddy and second rate though it was, he was still the only smith in these parts. You didn’t cross Smith the cruel and spiteful.

And so they turned their ears right down and sat outside in the night, the cold stars passing above them, the dark clouds making bars across the night moon, until the dawn approached and the dew began to condense on the metal shells of their bodies.

And with the dawn, as the first yellow of the sun melted its way into the iron dark night, the hammering finally ceased. They stood up as the heavy iron doors of the forge were swung slowly open.

And into the morning they heard the ringing of metal hooves on the ground, and first one, then two, then three, then four and then five fine horses came walking into the breaking day. And following them all was jolly old John Bull, walking stiffly on newly woven electromuscle.

Beth and Nel looked at each other.

“You ask,” said Nel. Beth climbed to her feet, the dew running down her chest plating as she did so.

“Hey John Bull. Where’s Smith?”

“Oh, he’s still here,” said John Bull, and he leant forward and spoke in the ear of the last horse, this time just loud enough for Beth and Nel to hear.

“Come on there, my fine horse,” he said. “Follow me, and maybe some day there will be a body for you once more.”

The horse made a noise, a little like a whinny, a little like a voice. It turned its blind head towards Beth and Nel.

“Come along,” said John Bull, and he hit the horses flank with a clang, sending it trotting off along the street, its shadow stretching out before it.

 

The above story appears in the collection STORIES FROM THE NORTHERN ROAD by Tony Ballantyne

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stories from the Northern Road (Penrose 2.5)

StryNthRdMidThe first ever collection from one of the UK’s finest SF authors: Tony Ballantyne, who has been a finalist for the Philip K Dick award and whose short fiction has featured regularly in Years Best SF anthologies.

A quartet of brand new stories set on the world of Penrose (introduced in the novels Twisted Metal and Blood and Iron) join five stories set in the Recursion universe to produce Stories from the Northern Road. This is Tony Ballantyne at his best.

 

Released September 2012, and as a Signed Hardback Edition, limited to 125 copies: £19.99

  Contents:

  1. Introduction

Stories from the Northern Road

  1. A Note from the Author
  2. Four Blind Horses
  3. Janet Verdigris
  4. Isabel and the Outlandish Robots
  5. The Robot Behind Me

Recursive Tales

  1. LDA ADD STA JMP JIZ END
  2. Restoring the Balance 1
  3. Restoring the Balance 2
  4. Seeds
  5. The Sixth VNM

 

Blood and Iron

Appointed Commander of the Emperor’s Army of Sangrel, Wa-Ka-Mo-Do of Ko tries to establish relations between the existing robot population and the humans who have recently arrived on Yukawa.

On the continent of Shull, Kavan finds himself embroiled with the Uncertain Army and marching towards Artemis City.  But does he march as the army’s prisoner, or as its leader?  And will his arrival result in the City’s destruction, or his own?

Meanwhile, Karel is heading South, hoping to be reunited with Susan, his wife.  As he walks, he hears more of the stories of the robots and begins to understand something about his place on the world of Penrose.

But, with limited resources and tensions growing between robot and human, it’s only a matter of time before problems arise.  And it ‘s becoming more and more apparent that the humans are a lot more powerful than the robots first expected…

Buy Blood and Iron on Amazon UK | Buy Blood and Iron on Amazon US

Extract

Wa-Ka-Mo-Do

How beautiful stand the plants in the Emperor’s garden.

Wa-Ka-Mo-Do, self built robot; warrior of Ko of the state of Ekrano in the High Spires; one of the Eleven, displayed none of the wonder he felt at standing here in the heart of the Silent City. His expression was still, for the mothers of Ko believed in this as they knelt to twist the wire that would form the minds of the next generation: that a robot should have the aspect of a warrior, but the soul of a poet.

So Wa-Ka-Mo-Do’s body was still and silent. Unlike the other robots here in the Silent City, his panelling was painted. The metal had been dipped in scarlet paint and then left to dry smooth. Gloss paint, polished to a shine, easy to chip, easily damaged in a fight. Did the robots of the Silent City understand that? Did they understand that the chrome beading around the eyes, the mouth, the joints in his arms and legs would easily mark? That keeping himself unscratched was an advertisement of his skill?

The red joints of his fingers and feet would move like beetle backs, but for now he was motionless, blending into brightly coloured surroundings. Seen from a distance he was a collection of fragments sharp amidst the dappled sunlight, hard blades and glossy red painted metal; mind fixed in contemplation of the poetry arranged before him.

Poems written in the medium of organic life: a folio compiled by the robots who the Emperor had sent out across the planet Penrose, commanding them to seek beauty in every form, whether it be the glow of iron, pulled hot from the forge, or the curve of the body of some young robot in her newly built adult form.

But the Emperor’s vision was wider than this, for he also commanded that his robots look for poetry amongst the lewd profusion of organic life that flourishes in the most unlikely corners of the continents of Yukawa: maybe in the curl of a plant or the arrangement of petals on a flower or the spreading canopy of a tree.

And so those robots, those poets of another age, had travelled the length and breadth of the continent, taking an insect or a seed here, a piece of plating or a cutting there, and had brought them back to be placed in the garden of the Emperor.

And, oh, what vision the Emperor had displayed when he had his stately garden decreed.

A pit, three miles across, long mined of porphyry copper, had been filled with gravel and soil and then surrounded by a wall of burnished iron, bound in brass, inlaid with copper. Stone paths had been laid through the virgin soil, along which robot gardeners walked, sowing seeds, planting roots, watering and weeding, pruning and tending, raising the plants and trees and ferns that were brought to them. Silver insects scuttled across the floor, metal shells flashing brightly. Larger animals paced their gilded cages or pulled disconsolately at feet welded to metal platforms.

In the midst of this, Wa-Ka-Mo-Do finally collected his thoughts and began to walk towards the Silver Circle, the heart of the garden. His iron feet pressed dents into the green turf, his polished scarlet body danced in yellow and gold, the reflections of the cloud of butterflies that burst from the grass with each step. Pollen fell from the scarlet flowers that sprouted in obscene profusion amongst the canopy of the fuchsia trees, it dusted his body, worked its way into his joints and seams to be trapped in the delicate thread of his electromuscle. White pom-poms nodded their heads in the breeze, a stream of pink blossom wound its lazy way down from the tree tops, it wound its way through the golden butterflies, a widening stream of blossom, a river, a wave of pink petals, a tsunami…

From the swirl of colour, a figure materialised. A tall robot, clad in intricately worked metal. He had no arms.

Wa-Ka-Mo-Do lowered his head in submission.

The tall robot spoke.

“When you meet the Emperor, don’t speak of the world outside of the Garden.”

“I thought you were the Emperor,” said Wa-Ka-Mo-Do, looking up.

“No, I am O, his spokesrobot. The Emperor is too busy to attend to all the details of the State of Yukawa. Your audience, however brief, will be sufficient to grant the seal of approval on your mission.”

“So I am still to see the Emperor?” Wa-Ka-Mo-Do could not quite conceal the edge of hope in his voice.

“Yes. The importance of your mission is such that an audience is necessary. Now, it would be appropriate to remain silent until we are within the Silver Circle. A wise robot would enjoy the delights of the garden.”

And indeed now they were passing two tall trees that seemed to have lifted themselves from the ground, their roots standing in a lily pond, the trunks well clear of the water. Wa-Ka-Mo-Do eyed the two creatures trapped in the cages of roots. One of them reached out a metal hand in supplication, eyes glowing pale green, and Wa-Ka-Mo-Do looked away.

They approached the Silver Circle. A loop of silver filigree that wove its way through the garden in a circle half a mile across. Wa-Ka-Mo-Do could cut easily through it with one of the blades in his hands, but he knew he would be dead even as he approached it. The loop of silver rose up in an arch, flanked by two more robots without arms.

They gazed straight ahead as O led Wa-Ka-Mo-Do past them, into the garden beyond, Wa-Ka-Mo-Do struggling not to betray the excitement he felt at being here.

O turned to him. “Now we are within the Silver Circle, I will speak freely. You will have heard that Yukawa has been visited by creatures from beyond our shores?”

“I had heard that they come from beyond even our world, my master.”

“You would do well not to speak of such things to the Emperor,” replied the armless robot dryly. “You may also have heard that the visitors are not robots?”

Wa-Ka –Mo-Do said nothing.

“You are wise to remain silent. You learn quickly. So I will tell you that the rumours are true.”

Wa-Ka-Mo-Do paced on. The sound of birds singing from tiny barbed cages covered the increased hum of current in his electromuscles.

“The visitors are animals,” continued O. “Naturally, this does not worry the Emperor. The Emperor is wise and all powerful, and his rule of the continent of Yukawa is just and proper. Those who perpetuate the myth of the Book of Robots are hunted down and destroyed, because it is beyond doubt that Robots evolved here on Penrose. There is no possibility that they were originally constructed by others, for whatever reason. Certainly, we could not have been constructed by animals such as those that are now visiting us.”

“Indeed,” agreed Wa-Ka-Mo-Do, his face devoid of expression.

“Your silence speaks volumes, Wa-Ka –Mo-Do. There are many within the Emperor’s court who would feel it odd that one such as yourself, a half-caste from the far North, a near Tokvah should be welcomed at court…”

“Ekrano has long been a part of the Empire,” answered Wa-Ka –Mo-Do, “the right to send eleven warriors to serve the Emperor is a long cherished tradition.”

“The eleven have a duty to replace the Emperor if he fails the Empire,” observed O drily. “They warriors of Ko have done so in the past.”

“A responsibility that has long been remembered in tradition, though rarely in practice,” said Wa-Ka-Mo-Do. “I hope, rather, that it is remembered here in the Silent City how well the eleven have served the Emperor.”

“Indeed. And today you will have the chance to prove yourself equal to your predecessors.”

Wa-Ka-Mo-Do felt unnerved by the armless robot. It was known by all that the Emperor had no arms, this way others must serve him. But Wa-Ka-Mo-Do hadn’t realised that others within the Silent City also went armless. Oddly, even though he was trained in the arts of war, even though his arms and legs contained tempered blades, hard and sharp, it was he who felt at a disadvantage. But what could this robot do to harm him?

“It pleases the Emperor to deal with the animals, Wa-Ka-Mo-Do,” continued O. “He has established trading areas in designated areas of the Empire. Whilst, naturally, the animals do not have the same grasp of culture or society as the Empire, it amuses the Emperor to speak with them, to trade examples of their technology and thus to educate them in our ways.”

“The Emperor is indeed generous.”

“He is indeed. He has established an Embassy for the animals in the city of Sangrel. You are to travel there as his Special Commander.”

“Commander of Sangrel? That is indeed an honour!”

“A warrior may rejoice at such an honour, Wa-Ka-Mo-Do, for in Sangrel he may prove himself worthy of the Emperor’s trust in upholding the ways of the Empire. For the Emperor could not lose face by having his subjects attack the animals through a mistaken sense of grievance. A feeling that, perhaps, the interests of the Emperor’s subjects have been placed below those of the animals.

Now Wa-Ka –Mo-Do began to understand the nature of his mission. He needed to be diplomatic in his questioning.

“I’m sure that it is inconceivable that the Emperor’s subjects would shame him so. But, my Master, suppose that such a circumstance was to arise?”

“Then I am sure that the Commander of Sangrel would make it plain that, in the long run, all favours granted to the animals would be repaid tenfold by them to the Empire.”

The armless robot smiled as he spoke these words.

“Of course,” said Wa-Ka-Mo-Do. “But suppose, for example, that some robots found themselves driven from land that they and their family had occupied for many generations. Suppose that they found themselves in the grip of an unreasonable desire for reparations and found themselves, unjustly of course, in conflict with the Emperor’s appointed officials. What course would the commander of Sangrel be wise to adopt in such a case?”

O smiled.

“You are wise in the manners of court, Wa-Ka –Mo-Do, despite your origin. You ask my advice, as is right in these circumstances. I would say that it would be appropriate, if not desirable, for the commander to destroy all those robots, and their families, and their villages, as an expression of the sorrow of the Emperor, and his wish to demonstrate his authority.”

“I understand,” replied Wa-Ka –Mo-Do, and, true to his mother’s weave, his face betrayed no expression of the discomfort he felt at these words.

“And let me say furthermore, Wa-Ka-Mo-Do ,” continued O, “that I’m sure the Emperor would wish the same attention to be paid to those who were to perpetuate the myth that our creators have returned to rule us. The idea is, of course, ridiculous. “

“Of course.”

“Now, silence. We are approaching the Emperor.”

The Emperor wore no metal panelling: his body was plated with sheets of nephrite jade, carved in exquisite shells that encased him in a creamy green that contrasted with the emerald of the sunlight glade in which he stood. Four members of the Imperial Guard stood to the north, south, east and west of him, their bodies thin and curved, built of katana metal. They looked like living blades, curved under tension, ready to spring out in one slicing movement.

None of them wore ears or eyes. At need, they would pull them from their bodies and push them into place.

“Emperor , this is Wa-Ka-Mo-Do.”

Wa-Ka-Mo-Do found himself standing in the middle of the sunny glade just inches from his Emperor. He lowered his eyes and found himself gazing at the carvings on his jade feet, pale and exquisite.

The Emperor spoke.

“Wa-Ka-Mo-Do, warrior of Ekrano. It pleases us to speak to you.”

“Thank you, oh my Emperor.”

“The High Spires are a long way from the Silent City, Wa-Ka-Mo-Do.”

“Indeed,” he replied, thinking on how O had told him not mention the world beyond the garden.

“The land of the Sirens. Did you ever see those fortunate robots, Wa-Ka-Mo-Do?”

“No man may see the Sirens and live, my Emperor.”

There was a long silence.

“Do you mean to correct your Emperor? Are you suggesting that we were unaware of the nature of the Sirens?”

Wa-Ka-Mo-Do looked at the Emperor, and in a sudden moment of clarity, saw how ridiculous his armless body was. The thought was treachery. Unconsciously he shifted to a fighting position. Surely the guards would know what he was thinking? Surely even now they would be attacking?

But nothing happened. The Emperor was waiting for an answer.

“My Emperor, not for a moment would I think such a thing. The wisdom of the Emperor is known by all his subjects.”

“Our wisdom is respected, you would say? Yet you come before me still standing?”

Wa-Ka-Mo-Do fell to his knees at this point. Nobody had mentioned this to him. He was under the impression that subjects remained standing in the presence of the Emperor, ready to serve him.

“You kneel before us?”

Now Wa-Ka-Mo-Do fell forward, the grass all around his metal face

He heard a thin keening above him. Gradually it occurred to him that the Emperor was laughing.

“It would appear that ignorance is still the norm in Ekrano! No one kneels before the Emperor, Wa-Ka-Mo-Do. We are not barbarians in Yukawa!”

He climbed to his feet.

“Wa-Ka-Mo-Do,” said the Emperor. “You will have heard of the Book of Robots?”

Again, Wa-Ka-Mo-Do, remembered the words of the aide that had led him here. “No, my master.”

“We think you are lying. It is well known that the heresy of the Book of Robots is woven deep into the metal of those of the High Spires. We would expect that you, too, have this heresy woven into your mind.”

Wa-Ka-Mo-Do’s gaze was still, his current was calm, and yet the Emperor’s words were accurate. Wa-Ka-Mo-Do believed in the Book. Of course he did.

The Emperor spoke.

“Even so, it must be understood that there are conventions for the lesser subjects, and there are conventions for those who follow a higher calling. We know of the Book of Robots.”

“Have you read the book, my Emperor?”

That same thin keening laughter.

“Our subject is as lacking in guile as he is in intelligence, for not only does he forget that he has claimed not to have heard of the book, but he has also forgotten that no robot is known to have read it, if indeed the book ever existed.”

“My Emperor is indeed wise to point this out to me,” answered Wa-Ka-Mo-Do, and again the treacherous thoughts arose inside him. Did the Emperor, wise above all, think himself clever by employing tricks that were only effective when others could not answer back?

“Your Emperor is wise indeed. Wa-Ka-Mo-Do, in Sangrel you will meet the animals that have travelled to our world. And you will look at them and you will wonder how any robot could believe that creatures such as they could claim to have had us built. And yet some do. We trust that our subject will remember his duty, should he encounter such robots.”

“You may be sure that he will, my Emperor.”

“Good, good.”

The Emperor smiled. “We are pleased with our subject. Now, Wa-Ka-Mo-Do, we do not need to mention that our people place great faith in the Empire. It has stood unchanging for centuries, built on the rule of the Emperor and its queens. It has met new ideas in the past, and woven them into the rich tapestry that is the Empire. Is my garden not eloquent testament to this?”

A golden butterfly fluttered by, as if to confirm this.

“Indeed, my master,” said Wa-Ka-Mo-Do.

“And yet some ideas are not to be completed. They throw the weave out of balance, and so they shall not be tolerated. Does our subject understand this?”

“I do, my Emperor.”

“So our subject will be thankful that Vestal Virgins are already in Sangrel. They will watch our subject, and ensure that his mind is on his task. Do you understand, Wa-Ka-Mo-Do?”

Wa-Ka-Mo-Do felt his gyros spinning just a little faster. He forced them to slow.

“I understand, my master.”

Something caught his attention: the butterfly. It fluttered past Wa-Ka-Mo-Do’s face, turned to the right, and then changed direction again, heading to settle on the Emperor himself.

There was a flicker of silver, and the butterfly fell to the ground in two parts. An Imperial Guard slowly replaced her sword in her sheath. Wa-Ka-Mo-Do was impressed to note she had not inserted her eyes.

The Emperor did not seem to notice.

“Very well,” he said. “The audience is at an end. We wish you every luck in your endeavour. You may leave by the Road of Reflection.” He turned to indicate the path that Wa-Ka-Mo-Do had entered by.

For the first time, Wa-Ka-Mo-Do noticed the remains of two robots lying at the edge of the clearing, the metal of their minds twisted around their bodies in blue filigree. He saw the lifeforce flickering around them, and realised the warped creatures were still alive, frozen there in agony. The Vestal Virgins, he thought, as he walked by. The Vestal Virgins did that.

He wondered if someday his body would lie there too.

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Twisted Metal

TwistedMetalMidOn a world of intelligent robots who seem to have forgotten their own distant past, ailment it is a time of war as the soldiers of Artemis City set out to conquer everything within range on the continent of Shull, viagra sale killing or converting every robot they capture to their philosophy, see while viewing their own wire-based minds as nothing but metal to be used or recycled for the cause.

Elsewhere, the more individualistic robots of Turing City believe they are something more than metal, but when the Artemisian robot Kavan sets out on a determined crusade to prove himself, even Turing City can’t stand against him.

Increasingly tied up with Kavan’s destiny is Karel, a Turing robot with elements of Artemis’ philosophy already woven into his mind …as well as Karel’s wife Susan, and their recently created child. Following the inevitable violence and destruction, Artemisian ambition focuses elsewhere and a journey begins towards the frozen kingdoms of the north …and towards the truth about the legendary “Book of Robots”, a text which may finally explain the real history of this strange world.

In a completely alien but brilliantly realized landscape, here is a powerful story of superb action, barbaric cruelty and intense emotional impact.

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Background to Twisted Metal…

Extract

Liza

Two robots were making love in the middle of an electrical storm. Crouching in an old shell hole, searing white lightning arcing above them as the charged night sought release, Liza paused in the act of twisting wire and gazed up at her husband.

‘Is everything all right?’ Kurtz asked. The sky flared, and gravel tipped from the rim and rolled to the base of their shelter. It was a night of changes: far across the dark plain, Artemis was on the march; attacking the distant city state of Stark.

‘Are you worried by the fighting?’ pressed Kurtz. ‘Shall we go back to Turing City?’

‘No,’ she smiled at him. ‘Stark is a long way from here. What sort of a child would we make if we were to run at the slightest disturbance?’

His eyes glowed soft yellow, a gentle contrast to the raw power tearing the night apart above them. As she spoke again, her voice crackled with the static of the storm. ‘I have reached the point. Have you decided?’

‘Yes,’ whispered Kurtz. ‘A boy.’

Liza nodded and returned to her work, her hands moving in the feminine manner as she wove a mind from the twisted wire that Kurtz made for her.

‘Thank you,’ said Kurtz, watching her movements with fascination.

‘Thank you for what?’

‘For giving me the choice.’

Buy on Amazon UK | Buy on Amazon US‘It’s tradition,’ Liza replied simply, her hands ever moving.

‘Thank you,’ she murmured.

‘For what?’

‘For trusting me. For not asking if I am really weaving what you asked for.’

‘It’s tradition,’ said Kurtz.

There was a sizzling crash, and several lightning bolts arced down, earthing themselves through crude plugs of raw iron that had thrust themselves up from the stone plain. Glowing plasma formed an arch in the sky, burning its way into the electrocells of Kurtz’s and Liza’s eyes.

‘That came from Stark,’ observed Kurtz, the purple lines of lightning slowly fading from their vision. ‘Their Tesla towers are too powerful. Artemis won’t defeat them tonight.’

‘Good,’ murmured Liza, still weaving busily. ‘Good.’

‘It only means that they’ll attack again,’ said Kurtz despondently.

‘And they’ll keep attacking until they have defeated Stark, and then Segre, and then Bethe. And then it will be our turn.’

‘Shhh . . .’ said Liza. ‘Not tonight. Let them sort out their own problems. Just concentrate on us . . .’

‘Yes,’ said Kurtz, and he relaxed, allowed his electromuscles to discharge a little.

Liza worked carefully on, twisting Kurtz’s wire into a mind. The little body that would house that mind lay at their feet. A smart little body, lovingly built by Kurtz out of steel and brass, the whole then painted in black and gold stripes by Liza. A beautiful little body, its skull gaping open, ready for the mind she was twisting to be inserted. It already had a name: Liza and Kurtz’s little boy would be called Karel. Karel. A lovely name for a lovely child, due to be born in the midst of less than lovely times.

Liza and Kurtz crouched together in an old shell hole, the remnant of a long-spent war, making their own little expression of peace while electric bolts fanned across the sky, painting themselves on the canvas provided by Zuse, the night moon.

Meanwhile, a low rumbling spread across the stone plain. Artemis machinery being destroyed: they had attacked Stark too soon. The rhythm of Liza’s movements had changed.

‘What are you weaving now?’ asked Kurtz.

‘His sense of self,’ said Liza. ‘His sense of otherness. Isn’t it obvious?’

‘No, I see your hands move and all I see is twisting. It has no order or meaning to me.’

Liza smiled. ‘Now I am giving him your stubbornness.’ Her hands danced lightly, tweaking, turning, teasing.

‘I’m not stubborn,’ he protested.

‘You’ll stand your ground, even when you suspect you’re wrong. You’d rather see a bad argument through to the end than change your opinion. It’s not your most attractive characteristic, but,’ she shrugged, ‘there are worse things to be ashamed of.’

‘But I don’t want my child to be stubborn. Take it out!’

‘The weave must balance.’

Kurtz said nothing, and Liza knew he understood. He would have seen children who walked and talked and performed simple tasks and nothing more, seen the way other mothers would look at them with sympathy or disapproval. The mother tried too hard, they would say. The weave doesn’t balance.

The electrical storm was rising in intensity: an incredible tearing sound ripping across the world. White light poured down from the sky to the east, a waterfall of light increasing in flux. A curtain of electricity was fast being drawn across the horizon, a flood of light that blasted the plain; the squat iron plugs firing ultra-black shadows westwards. The reddish stones kicked across the plain by the metal feet of so many robots drew long lines of darkness towards Turing City itself.

‘What is going on out there?’ wondered Kurtz aloud. ‘Is that the battle or the elements?’

‘Shhh,’ said Liza. ‘Let the rest of the world take care of itself. We have our own child to attend to.’

‘Artemis,’ reflected Kurtz. ‘If we were Artemisians, we would be making this child very differently . . .’

‘Do you want that?’ teased Liza. ‘I could make Karel think only of the glory of the Artemisian state. Is that really what you want?’

To her surprise, Kurtz did not answer straight away.

‘I don’t know,’ he said, slowly. ‘There’s no denying how successful Artemis is. Their forges grow larger every month.’ He lowered his voice.

‘Is that what you really want?’ asked Liza, soft yellow eyes glowing, hands never ceasing their manipulation of the warm, pliable metal. ‘Tell me now, Kurtz. We are of Turing City State. We can make our child share its values, respect itself and others as individuals, or we can make our child strong and empty, just like an Artemisian. What do you really believe in?’

‘Liza, I don’t know. I know we agreed, but are we sure we are right to do this? Turing City will only succeed if all the children really believe in what we stand for. If just a few of them turn and run, the rest of us will fall. All it takes is a few children. Do we want to condemn our own child to be the one remaining while others are running?’

‘But if we all stand together we will have a better life. After all, we want what’s best for our boy.’

‘But which is the best?’

Liza couldn’t stop moving her hands: she couldn’t allow the pliable wire to set.

‘You choose,’ urged Kurtz.

‘No. You choose.’

‘But it’s such a huge responsibility. Choices like this could change the world.’

‘Never mind the rest of the world,’ said Liza. ‘This is just about us. Come on, individual or drone, which is it to be? Turing City or Artemis?’

The world seemed to pause. The wall of lightning held its breath, just hanging in the air in a blaze of white. The rumble of explosions to the east ceased. In that moment of stillness, Kurtz told her, and she nodded, and began the final part of the weave.

‘Almost done,’ she said.

The tearing noise stopped abruptly. The storm died, the wash of light fading, the stones and iron plugs of the plain inhaling their long shadows. And the world changed.

Kurtz groaned, and Liza looked up, saw the green glow fading from his eyes.

‘Kurtz?’ she said. Slowly his body rocked forward and fell to the ground, just a collection of jointed metal.

‘Kurtz!’ called Liza. ‘Oh Zuse no.’ She stood up, the blue wire trailing from her hands to where it emerged from Kurtz’s body.

She looked around, barely comprehending what had happened. Had it been the lightning, she wondered; had it hit her husband? But the sky was now so still and dark. Then she heard the sound of metal on bare rock. Footsteps? Someone loomed out of the darkness. A metal body, dented and scarred. Red eyes glowing in infrared, iron hands gripping a projectile weapon. The dull grey paintwork of an Artemisian soldier. He walked easily towards her, rifle pointing loosely in her direction.

‘You killed him,’ said Liza.

‘I killed him.’ The soldier looked down at the warm wire, still being twisted in Liza’s hands.

‘You can let go now,’ he said. ‘There isn’t enough metal left there to complete your child.’

‘How do you know?’ asked Liza. ‘What would any man know about that?’

The soldier ignored her question. ‘I heard you both talking,’ he said. ‘Even through the storm.’ He tapped one of the overlarge directional microphones on the side of his head. Then he pointed at poor Kurtz’s dead body. ‘Do you really think he made the right choice?’

‘Of course I do.’ she said quietly. She was looking at the remaining length of wire, calculating.

The Artemisian robot shrugged. ‘You would say that, I suppose.’

‘What are you doing here?’ asked Liza. ‘Why are Artemis trespassing into Turing City State?’

‘Haven’t you heard? Bethe has just fallen. Artemis is the largest forge on this plain now.’

‘Bethe?’ said Liza. ‘I thought you were attacking Stark!’

‘Stark?’ laughed the robot. ‘Not likely. Not with their Tesla towers to defend them. No, that was just a little misdirection. Bethe first, then Segre. Then we’ll be right on Stark’s doorstep. And then we’ll see.’

Liza wasn’t listening. Kurtz lay dead at her feet, his wire still twisted around her hands, cooling, dying. She felt as if something was dying within herself too, leaving nothing but a cold emptiness inside her metal shell.

‘Kurtz,’ she whispered. ‘Kurtz, what am I to do?’

There was no reply. She was on her own now. A cold determination began to rise up within her. ‘Kurtz made his choice,’ she murmured to herself. ‘Kurtz was right.’

She had forgotten about those overlarge ears on the Artemisian robot. He picked up what she had muttered. He laughed.

‘That’s easy for you to say now,’ he said, ‘not that you will ever know. I saved you the choice. There is not enough wire for the child to be born.’

Again, Liza looked at the wire that trailed from her hands, recalculating.

‘There is just enough,’ she decided.

The dull grey robot’s hands tightened around his rifle. ‘I should dash that wire from your hands now; make you lose your place.’

Liza’s voice trembled. ‘But you haven’t.’ She clutched the wire tighter.

‘Go on,’ said the soldier. ‘Finish the mind. Finish it the way he said.’

Liza did nothing. With a low whirr, the soldier brought his gun to bear on her.

‘Do it, or, so help me, I will shoot you too. I have one charge left.’ He laughed.

‘Hey, you can be just like Nyro. You’ve heard of Nyro, haven’t you?’

The lightning flared again, and, just for a moment, Liza could have sworn that the robot flinched and looked up to the sky.

‘Yes, I’ve heard of Nyro,’ she said.

Liza began to twist wire once more. She rolled her eyes up to meet those of the soldier, her metal face taking on an odd expression.

‘You’re doing it,’ said the soldier, in surprise. ‘Or are you? I find it hard to believe you’re really making that child his way. Not after I killed him. Not with me standing here with a gun like this, raping you. You don’t really believe that he made the right choice, do you? I can’t believe you would really do what he said.’

Liza continued weaving. She was almost done.

‘Well?’ said the soldier.

‘I’m not telling you,’ said Liza. ‘You’ll never know.’

It was so quiet on the plain now, so quiet and dark. The climax of the battle had passed, and Bethe had fallen. Even now Artemisian soldiers would be penetrating its streets, ripping it apart, remaking it in the image of Artemis itself.

And look what’s happening here, thought Liza, staring at the red eyes of the man opposite, the dark aperture of his rifle’s muzzle fixed upon her head. She concentrated again on the wire. There was life in that forming mind already. She could feel it begin to pulse. All that remained was to tie it off and bring the mind into existence. She made to start the knot, and hesitated, remembering what her mother had told her: it wasn’t until this point that you truly understood what life was about.

Liza had never really understood until now, but here it was, staring her in the face. Should Liza now tie the knot as a seal and wake a simple, mechanical mind that would live indefinitely? Or should she tie it the other way, in the fuse, to create a living, thinking being, and, in doing so, condemn it to death in thirty or forty years’ time?

In the end she did as her mother had done, and her mother before her. She tied the fuse. Something came to life.

‘Hello Karel,’ she murmured. She looked over at the dead body of her husband. ‘Here he is, Kurtz. We did it. Here’s our little boy.’

Carefully she placed the mind into the tiny body and snicked the skull shut.

‘All finished,’ she said to the soldier.

The soldier looked from her to the child. ‘Did you really do it?’ he asked.

‘I’m not telling you,’ replied Liza.

‘Then I shall say goodbye, Tokvah.’

He raised his rifle once more, pointing it at her head. Her gyros were wobbling, but she held herself steady.

‘Then shoot me,’ she said. ‘But you’ll never know.’

The robot stared at her, his red eyes glowing. Liza held his gaze, determined not to flinch, even here at the end. She was ready to die.

And then the robot lowered his gun.

‘There is a way to find out . . .’ he said.

 

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