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There she was, hunched over a mangled pile of metal, sparks flying everywhere. Steel and glass rods lay scattered throughout the fighter bay, as well as tubes filled with a strange clear jelly. I studied her for a moment, her slender mysterious form lit up by the arc welder. Some of that mysterious green slime that plagued the ship had fallen onto her hand. When I looked again, it was gone. Maybe it was simply a trick of the light. She carefully put the welder to one side and picked up what looked like a metal rib cage. Was she trying to reproduce? “Renata, we’ve arrived at the bazaar. You said that you wanted to join us?” I stepped forward and pushed out my words with that cheerful craftiness that Daphne hated so much. “Yes. Thank you Allan.” She simply got up and walked out. “I noticed you seemed to be building something back there.” I walked beside her; I’ve learned through the years that this is the best way to appear non-threatening. “I am.” “Companions perhaps?” “I am preparing tactical alternatives should the occasion force a unique solution.” “I’m not sure I follow you.” “Then don’t.”
The bazaar was a hodge-podge of stalls, tables, booths, and displays. Heph-Ush-Nansa (or “Dreams Forgotten”) was a dark world with a distant, uncaring sun. There were copper pipes sticking
up out of the ground everywhere, as if this was some sort of vast plumbing graveyard. Overhead, expansive fields of ice crystals floated silently, helpless spectators to the rampant greed below. “Crazy…just plain crazy.” Uranium tapped on a nearby pipe. “Crazy prices too! Would you look at this?” Titanium held up a lunchbox. “8 million credits for a lunchbox? Unreal.” Uranium straightened his tie. We walked along, picking our way through the odds and ends, hoping to find something we could actually use. The constant murmur of a dozen different alien languages created an exotic backdrop to our scavenger hunt. The multitude of sweet, tangy odors only added to the ambiance. “How much for the robots?” A Chromantium trader called out as we passed by. He shoved his speaker gauntlet in my face. “How much? Let’s trade.” I felt like it was a stupid joke. “We’re sentient beings. We’re not for sale.” “Not you! The robots with the ties!” The Chromantium’s words were like the barrage of angry guns. “Sorry…not for sale.” Titanium adjusted his fedora. “You two,” the trader pointed his speaker at one Blues Bot then the other, “collector’s items.” “How about an autograph?” Uranium offered. “No autograph! You are valuable! MARI first edition robots.” The trader would not take “no” for an answer. “I’m sorry. The Blues Bots are valuable members of our crew.” Renata drew her P-50. As we slowly backed away, we got a lot of awfully nasty stares. Obviously they had never negotiated at gun point before. There was a long whistle and then a rumbling sound. A troop of baboons was bearing down upon us. They had brilliant red fur and a crest of yellow feathers around their neck. But what was most unusual about them was the chaotic crown of copper wire that seemed to be growing from their very skull. Each creature had to be at least twenty feet in length. As we ran, Titanium looked behind us. “What did he mean by ‘MARI first edition’?” “He must have been smokin’ some crazy cosmic hookah. Let’s make sure we aren’t part of his collection!” Uranium replied. “I don’t suppose you have some ‘tactical alternatives’ for this situation?” I was wishing I had brought a gun as well. “There are none available at the moment.” Renata answered while firing her P-50.
By this time, we had caught the attention of the local warlord - Nath’Vulcha. He looked all too familiar, though I wasn’t sure if we had actually met. As he stood on the crest of a nearby hill, I could see the red glow of his “V” shaped vents. He and his merry band descended upon us from the left, as the red ogres pursued us from behind. I was actually quite surprised; we spent a good deal of time ducking and diving. However, we were finally outflanked, out gunned, and out of hope. The jail cell was not comfy or cozy (not that it mattered to my plastic skin) but the dank, dark shadows had a way of forcing themselves on you. Centipedes thirty feet long crawled in and out of the crevices in the moss covered stone walls. The acidic water dripping down from the stalactites above us was a constant danger. Titanium pulled out his harmonica and started to play. “Been a long time since I was impounded.” He chuckled. “They’re jamming my signals. Or is it all this copper pipe?” I looked out through the tiny window above us and thanked my lucky stars that Daphne was still aboard the Hain. “Access your signal modulator.” Renata spoke up. “My signal modulator?” I was dumbfounded. “Access your signal modulator. All PPIPs are equipped with a signal modulator.” I felt less than human. I thought about my signals; their frequency, their wavelength, and their origin. Then I felt something in my head; it was quite unnerving since I never knew it was there. “Alright, I’ve got it. I’m adjusting the signal….no not that…maybe this? No…that won’t work…ahhh!” “Are you in contact with the Hain?” Renata asked. “Yes. I’m explaining to Manfred that we’re in a bit of a bind, all because people ‘love’ us so much.” I made an extra effort to smile; not only to assert my humanity, but to bring some cheer to our dismal circumstances. “So – what’s the plan?” Uranium watched as a centipede crawled over his shoe. “Ummm….not sure at this point….there’s a lot of yelling…lots of screaming….oh! That certainly doesn’t sound pleasant. Thamphor says he will be with us momentarily….some assembly required? Not sure I get you.” “That one!” The Chromantium trader pointed at Titanium. Nath’Vulcha’s henchmen came and dragged him away. “Hey! That ain’t right! That’s my partner!” Uranium shouted as his lifelong friend disappeared into the shadows. “You two were the prototypes for the PPIP program….the first prototypes that lived.” The trader’s low chuckle was sinister and sickening. “You were stitched together from the first batch of
PPIPs that MARI churned out. Poor little people - couldn’t handle being a person locked up in a robot’s plastic skin.” “What you are saying is false.” Renata asserted. “What I am saying is not in your official database, drone. This was done years before your empire’s pathetic ‘robot revolution’. MARI hides its secrets well, but not from the Chromantium.” “You got it all wrong! I am Uranium Albertson the 3rd! I am a human being!” Uranium banged against the prison bars. “On the surface, you are a marvel of artificial intelligence. This is something beyond even what the famous Akhila Jain could accomplish. No, you owe your soul to the Orrise!” The trader’s laughter bombarded us like rocks. “Underneath, you are simply an intricate collection of silicon, metal, and plastic; an incredible amalgam of hardware and software.” “No!” Uranium banged on the bars even harder. “Yes! You are a patchwork of dead robots – nothing more than a successful experiment.” “No! Logic parameter exceeded.” Uranium started to twitch. “Stop it!” I demanded. “This is cruel and untrue!” “It is all true. Wait here…I will give you proof.” The Chromantium disappeared into the darkness.
The door at the end of the hall came crashing down. Thamphor strode down the corridor with a sack over his shoulder. There was something in his eyes that bothered me. He smiled that fatalistic, hellish smile that had been on his face the last few months. “Thamphor! Glad to see you!” Uranium sprang up from the old stone bench. “Aye.” He started unpacking the contents of the sack. “Thamphor, that technology is prohibited.” Renata pointed out. The old Nethasian General carefully placed the fission globes and triangles in the hall. “New orders.” That was all he would say to us. Then he took out a small black box, covered with levers and dials. He adjusted the settings on the mysterious cube until I heard an awful screeching. “What kind of mojo are you conjurin’ up?” Uranium took a step back. “Thispa is in charge now.” Thamphor had a faraway look in his eyes. “Thamphor are you trying to release the dark entity?” Even Renata seemed worried.
A tentacle curled out of the darkness and the General lovingly caressed it. “She was always in charge. She was simply biding her time, waiting for the right moment to assert herself. She is an incredible strategist, a relentless warrior. The queen has returned to claim her own.” The shrieks and screams of the pirates were unearthly and nightmarish. Thispa’s hellish feast lasted for over an hour and we huddled together for safety. Even Thamphor, her devoted disciple, seemed to squirm uneasily at times. When it was over, the tentacle returned and gently curled around Thamphor’s waist. He seemed to go into a trance and was uttering something very peculiar. I had the opportunity to pick up several new language chips over the past few weeks and I was now fluent in over 80 languages; I had no idea what was coming out of the old Nethasian’s mouth.
I sat with a disassembled Titanium in the robotics lab of the Samuel Hain. His head was on a cold, metal table, staring blankly out into space. His body and limbs had been recovered and were lovingly placed around him. In the dismal, flickering light, he spoke: “Define
human. Define human. What is
“We’ve been trying to come up with that answer for millennia, my friend. I wish I knew.” Sadness overwhelmed me and I quietly exited the room. When I stepped onto the bridge, Dip-Dip was gone. The crew was busy making sure that everything was proceeding as normal, but my gut told me that there was a dread underneath. I was about to discreetly ask someone what had happened in our absence, but Daphne subtly stopped me. “Orders General Thamphor?” Sardonia looked up from her computer console. She was dressed in Nethasian battle armor and had a battle staff slung across her back. “Head for this sector.” He pointed to a part of the Rouge’s Triangle studded with planets. “Thispa must regain her strength before she can fulfill her promises.”
© 2013 Benjamin F. Kaye
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