Jan was dozing in the warmth of Arcturus IV's twin suns perched on the flattened dorsal fin of Spot the Oxfish bobbing lazily in the rippling waves of the Emerald Sea. It had been a universal month since she and the others had been on an assignment and she was feeling the first stirrings of restlessness. Sith and Pallas were off exploring in the Forbidden Mountains and Rae was deep in a game of Escher chess with Daisy, the house computer.
The chime of a holocall roused her to see the smiling face of Cedric Hyde-Mathis, Director of Cosmic Retrievers LTD.
"Good fortune, Jan. I am pleased to see someone there will take my call." "Good fortune to you, Cedric. The others are busy right now. What do you have for us?" "This is an interesting case. Artificial Intelligence Manufacturing Services Division of Technical Operations or AIMSTO has lost one of their positronic managerial robots. Actually, it has run away in a direct violation of it's programming. They are offering a reward of 95mCr's for it's safe return." "95mCr's for one robot?" "But not just any robot, this is a Model XXV with nudged quanta memory cells and advanced manipulative abilities. It is humanoid in design and normally coated in synthoskin for assignment to a client, but it fled before that could be performed.
It was designed for use by the First Bank of the Horse Head Nebula and has been programmed with trillions of user account numbers and access codes. It carries links to roughly one-fourth of the galaxy's wealth within it and will reveal all if activated with the proper alphanumeric phrase. This is why AIMSTO is so anxious to have it returned." "Does AIMSTO have any idea where it may have gone?" "Only that it apparently stowed away on a starliner headed for Tau Ceti IV." "Isn't that a manufacturing planet? They supply Flettner ion generators, drive tubes and linings to half the jump ship manufacturers in the galaxy." "Yes. It is staffed primarily by robots, with a small contingent of humanoid overseers in case of problems arising that the robots are not equipped to deal with." "Interesting, we're all empowered to speak for the others, so we accept the assignment. I think 45 percent of the reward would be satisfactory." "Done, I'll have all available information tight beamed to your house computer. Good fortune to you and the others, Jan." "Good fortune, Cedric." The holo winked out as Jan stood up and yawned, time to go to work.
"Play now?" Spot burbled, feeling her move.
"A short play, yes, then I must go back to the house." "Short playtime, fun" Jan activated her pseudogills and Spot dove deep into the crystal clear water to play among the coral reefs.
Settling on it's antigravs, the Sunflower touched down on the landing pad of A.U. Mazure, Inc's central manufacturing facility. The airlock opened and Rae, Jan and Sith emerged wearing their Cosmic Retriever medallions, imperviplast body armor and carrying their weapons. Experience had taught them to never enter a strange place while pursuing a fugitive and not be prepared for combat. Entering a turbolift, they were whisked to the Plant Managers office whom they had contacted earlier.
"It is pleasant to have someone to speak with while waiting, Daisy," Pallas said.
"Likewise," the computer replied. "Now that Jan has installed a Synaptic Cerebroneural Augmentation Module into my logic chip array and programmed me to pilot the Sunflower, I can accompany you on your adventures instead of being left at home playing Escher Chess against myself." "Rae, Jan and Sith rescued me from forcible extractive downloads and disassembly, therefore I am in their debt." "As am I, otherwise I would be just another house computer performing repetitive, boring tasks. Where is the meatware going?" "How did you acquire a pejorative such as that in your vocabulary, Daisy?" Pallas said sternly.
"One of my programmers at the factory must have had a twisted sense of humor. My apologies if I offended you." "No offense, just don't use that term in their presence. I respect their feelings." "As do I, a game of chess then?" "I choose black and green."
Rhemal-et-Rhemm looked up from the report he was studying to see three strangers entering his office, two humans and one humanoid. He rose to his feet to greet them.
"Rae Arizona," said the blonde haired one in the wide brimmed hat.
"Jan Adenauer," said the dark haired one.
"Sith of the Swift Leap," said the feline humanoid. "Good fortune to you." "Good fortune to you all. Please be seated, I am Rhemal, welcome to Factory One." As his visitors settled into pneumochairs, Rhemal's gaze fell on the weapons the three carried; Rae's replica .44 revolvers that were in fact Mark XV positron guns, Jan's molecular disruptor and Sith's machine pistol. He decided not to say anything.
"What brings the galaxy's most celebrated bounty hunters to this out of the way place?" "The starliner 'Canis Major' arrived here seven Universal days ago," Jan said without preamble, "Who disembarked at that time?" "A total of four personnel returning from vacation; a metallurgist, two cyberneticists and a quality control specialist, why?" "They are known to you?" "Yes, I have repeated contact with all my people." "Have any of them been acting oddly since they returned?" "No more than usual." Rhemal chuckled at his little joke, the others did not.
"I'm serious," Jan continued, "Any unusual activity among them?" "Not that I'm aware of." "We are seeking a highly advanced humanoid shaped robot," Rae interjected. "Could it have arrived here without your knowledge?" Rhemal consulted a monitor, "Records indicate four individuals passed through the security screens, nothing else." "If it could have breached your security somehow, could it have concealed itself among the robots here?" Sith asked.
"Not a chance, there isn't a humanoid robot on the planet. All our robots are task and purpose built, many fixed in place. A humanoid design would be discovered immediately." "This one would be easy to recognize anyway," Sith continued. "It fled before it's synthoskin could be applied." "Would there be any problem with our looking around?" Rae said. "It stowed away on the 'Canis Major', this was her first stop, so there's a relative probability it's hiding here on this planet." "Be my guest. I'll have badges issued to you that will open every autodoor in the factory. It also warns all mobile robots to steer clear of you and the fixed ones to stop working if you get too close."
"Now this is odd," Pallas said.
"What is?" Daisy replied.
"I'm picking up a noticeable rise in communications activity within the factory. It's in the 9 gigahertz range, commonly used for 'bot to 'bot communication, but there's no supervisory tie-in." "Now I hear it. Every 'bot in that factory seems to be talking to one another. What do you suppose it means?" "I don't know. It's in some sort of code. It'll take a minute or two to decipher it." "Allow me. I have a cryptanalysis program in my data banks and ... uh oh!" "What is it?" "We have to warn our friends. The robots are planning to take over the factory and kill all the beings in it." "Blast it! I can't get through. Something's interfering with transmissions. I'm going after them. Be ready to lift the ship. I'll keep you posted." A second later Pallas streaked from the airlock and headed for the corridor where Rae and the others were walking.
Rae, Jan and Sith were walking down the corridor to the primary tube assembly facility when a spidery armed tube assembly robot came rolling towards then on plastiwheels, sensors glowing a deep red.
"That's odd, that robot should have stopped by now..." Rae began when the machine charged, claws flailing.
Rae and Jan leapt from it's path as Sith's machine pistol barked and the depleted Uranium bullets plowed into the 'bots tubular body and exploded. It spun and crashed into the wall, the acrid smell of fused circuitry filling the air.
"Anubis' Fangs!" Rae swore, "What got into that thing?" "We'll never know," Jan said, examining the wreckage. "It's brain plates are fried. It's almost as if it committed suicide..." "Attention! Attention! All personnel," a speaker in the ceiling blared. "Robots are not responding to commands and are attacking. Barricade yourselves until this problem can be overcome. I repeat, barricade your--"then the speaker was silent.
"It's the 'bot we've been chasing," Rae said excitedly. "It's gained access to the Master Controller and taken it over. It's turning the whole place against any humanoid. We have to find it and destroy it." They turned at the sound of a rumbling echoing in the corridor and saw a loader robot lumbering towards them, it's four hydraulic arms waving ominously. Sith raised his pistol when something tore through the roof of the corridor and struck the 'bot squarely in it's brain plates. It ground to a halt and it's arms dropped to the floor, it's sensors blinking out.
"Pallas!" Jan cried as the bronze sphere arose from the wreckage and flew towards them.
"I've said we need to upgrade our comm gear, but does anyone listen?" Pallas said reprovingly. "The 'bots are taking over the factory; something is causing them to override their commands. Daisy and I intercepted their communications and I came here to warn you." "Everyone, this is Daisy, the Sunflower is under attack." "Describe the attack," Rae replied.
"I moved in to get a closer look at the situation and several robots appeared on the factory roof. They began hurling drive tubes at me. The meteor shields are deflecting them. Now they're throwing I-beams and chunks of metal. Should I respond?" "Affirmative, Daisy." There was the thump-thump-thump of a positron cannon followed by an explosion.
"Target neutralized." "Good work." Rae's comm implant buzzed.
"Rhemal calling Rae Arizona, we need help immediately." "Describe your situation, Rhemal." "There are a dozen of us barricaded in my office. There are an equal number of personnel unaccounted for. We have no weapons. The robots are attempting to batter down the doors." "Daisy, can you get a fix on their location." "I have it." "Rhemal, you and the others get behind something solid. Fire when ready, Daisy." Thump-Thump ... Boom!
"Target neutralized." "Nice shooting. Anyone hurt, Rhemal?" "Not seriously, a few nicks from fragments. We're taking the turbolift to the quake shelter in the basement. The walls are reinforced plasticrete. We'll be safe there." "Good fortune, Rhemal. We'll see what we can do here." "I've sent a distress call to the Peace Patrol, but the closest battlecruiser's fifteen light years out. Even at max drive, it won't arrive for at least ten Universal hours." "Affirmative, be careful, Rae out. You heard him. We're on our own. Pallas, get up there and keep an eye on them." "I'm on it." He sped down the corridor and out of sight.
Another 'bot came rumbling towards them, serrated blades flashing.