On a world of intelligent robots who seem to have forgotten their own distant past, it is a time of war as the soldiers of Artemis City set out to conquer everything within range on the continent of Shull, killing or converting every robot they capture to their philosophy, 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.
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.’
‘It’s tradition,’ Liza replied simply, her hands ever moving.
‘Thank you,’ she murmured.
‘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 tha⁴ 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.