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n.o.body said anything for whiles.
"Where's the package?" I was getting impatient. "An my fee."
The inbetweener gestured to Ser Emeth. He reached into his furs-slow, so I wouldn't shoot him-an brought out a fist. He opened it.
There's three things you can take off Riis. This was gems. Five ice-diamonds, big as my thumb-joint an clear as water. Enough to make up for losing Fortune's Girl. Enough to buy her twin sister stock out of High Mikasa.
"This is the package."
Sera Emeth unveiled the short bundle. It was a girl, blond, undecided in the looks department. Maybe a little younger than I'd been when I ran away t'see the wicked city. Frail.
There's always people who ain't happy with the bennies a Closed World status, an kiotes who, for a fee, will show'em the stars. Looked like Elory'd been running kiote off Riis. I wondered how that fit in with either a his other lives, but not very much.
"I don't run live freight."
Possible for Elory, in Fortune's Girl. Not for me, in Firecat with Paladin.
"You have to take her!" Sera Emeth pushed her at me like she was offering her up for sale. The kinchin goggled an clung to her mam, which made her smarter nor anyone else here.
Ser Emeth took a step toward me. I discouraged him some with my blaster. He stopped.
"You can't be serious," he said.
"My ship. My rules. Ja'i kinchin. Think about it."
"But... we had a deal." He looked at the inbetweener. He shrugged.
"She has the right to refuse the cargo."
"But you can't!" Ser Emeth wanted to argue, him being a citizen what thought talking could change facts. I wanted to get out a there without fuss. I figured he'd wind down sooner if I let him air his lungs.
"Captain... you don't understand what life is like here, on a Closed World. Captain Dace said he could arrange things. We're not Interdicted. I have sponsors waiting for her outside. All I have to do is get her there. I want to give Helwys a chance at a better life."
I had a better idea than he knew. There's plenty of Imperial tech available on a Closed World if you're willing to pay darktrade prices for it, and from the look of the Emeths, they could afford to pay for plenty.
"Give her a chance, then. Keep her here. There's ninety-nine ways t'die out there." An his "sponsors" might be slavers or organleggers, depending on what deal Elory was working. But I didn't want any part a it. I'd been a slave. I knew.
"You don't understand. She's dying now! She needs medical treatment-the Empire-"
The Empire wouldn't care. I knew that for certain truth. They'd throw her away, less'n keeping her livealive bought them something they wanted.
"Everybody dies. Find someone else." I slid along the wall, heading for the door.
"Do you want more money?" Sera Emeth sounded shrill. "We'll get it! We'll-"
Helwys started to cry, clinging to her mam.
I pointed my blaster at her. That shut them all up.
"Sera Emeth. I give you one word for free. No matter what you think, yon kinchin's better off dying here than going out there. Whatever your friend there told you ain't true-tell. Maybe there's a sponsor. Maybe Helwys gets sent up contract warmgoods to pay her freight. One way an another she don't come home again for ever."
I reached the door an got out.
I thought they might be fool enough to drop the whistle on me, like gigging my hull would buy them something they wanted to keep, nevermind I could do them more harm than they could do me, by what they knew. But I got no trouble the whole way back to the Port, aside of the snow.
It used to snow that way back home, sometimes, in the winter. Probably still does.
Paladin was waiting for me when I got back to Firecat. Where else would he be? He had the heat turned up full. I peeled out of my gear and went looking for something hot.
"We have the first available clearance, b.u.t.terfly, but it won't be for some hours," Paladin said.
"I couldn't take her. Not even as far as Coldwater." Not in a ship barely big enough for one, with an Old Fed Library blackboxed into the hull.
"We'll be gone by honizonfall."
"Only inventories for one. And say to Oob true-tell? Probably wasn't n.o.body on Kiareth neither, forbye." Or if there was, could be they'd bring rude questions t'ask about the late Elory Dace.
"Undoubtedly the Emeths will not heed your good advice, though with Elory Dace's disappearance, Chenling Elm's scope of operations will become severely limited. They will almost certainly try again, and almost certainly fail."
"The diamonds would'a been nice, though."
"b.u.t.terfly, are you listening to me?"
I looked up from my hotbox. "We're kyting at horizonfall." And Helwys Emeth was going to die, but maybe, if she was lucky, without knowing about all the worse ways there was t'go outta life. "Wake me when it's time."
I got up and started pegging out my sleep-sling.
Was quiet tik home. I'd backtrailed Elory Dace far as needful. No profits, but no losses neither. With what I took outten his hull, I was covered for the Riis Run. I could bring Oob Elory's head, collect my headprice, an tell him no more but what he needed to hear. Why Elory'd been running kiote weren't my problem. A man's darktrade bidness is his own, specially if he's dead.
But I didn't think I'd ever come back to Riis, not for any money.
And I was starting to get tired of snow.
BIDDING THE WALRUS.
Lawrence M. Schoen
Eggplant Jackson warned me about Clarkesons, back on the first day of my apprenticeship. I remember him sitting me down and saying his best mentoring tones, "Gideon, never take a contract from a Clarkeson. They might look mostly human, but they're not. Every one of them is a colony creature, a ma.s.s of self aware micro organisms walking around and talking like an individual. They don't think the way we do, chaos can erupt around them when you least expect it." Okay, maybe thirty years of memory has prettied it up some. Mentoring really never was Eggplant's strong suit. What he probably really said was that a deal with a Clarkeson had a way of coming back and biting you in the a.s.s. Like many lessons from my youth, I remembered Eggplant's warning too late.
Randolv Greyce walked into the front office of Gideon Cybernetics within a minute of my opening the door for business. He asked to speak with the Walrus, p.r.o.nouncing it with the clipped Hindu vowels I a.s.sociated with tourist sleep learning. He held up a credit voucher with enough digits to lure back all three of my ex wives. That was my undoing. Money, especially large sums of money, has that effect on me.
"I'm Walrus," I said, and raised a hand to quickly groom my mustache. I tore my eyes from the voucher to give him a quick study. He was dressed in a striped jumpsuit riddled with polka dots. Raspberry hair stuck out from his head like a wreath, made brighter by the contrast with his dead fishbelly complexion. He looked more like a clown than a customer, except that the clown suit wasn't clothing but a decorative sheddable skin produced by an epidermal committee. Randolv Greyce wasn't an individual, he was a colony being. He was a Clarkeson.
I hadn't yet checked the morning mail from the station's bid board, but the Clarkeson had. He handed me his copy of a bidding contract naming Gideon Cybernetics as the second party. Miraculously I'd managed the winning bid on a customized micro bot job, undercutting my compet.i.tion throughout the rest of Loophole Station by a good five percent of the cost and promising delivery in a tenth of the time. I remembered the contract from earlier in the week; I'd put in a bid at the start of the five day window. I always bid, but a small operation like mine rarely wins. I manage to snag enough jobs to keep the business afloat. Barely. I hadn't known from the bid board that Greyce was a Clarkeson, only that he managed a matrix of industrial properties. He leased short and long term manufacturing shafts on a Jovian moon back in Sol system and needed a flexible and discrete means of handling industrial sabotage to keep his tenants happy. The bid was for writing and producing tiny smart bots armed with EMP pellet launchers and a typicality feature matching expert system-something far short of a true Al to keep it within the regs for Sol system-with enough smarts to disable invading spy bots without harming authorized hardware.
I'd written a similar decision package for a Tunisian agribiz before coming to Loophole, my masterpiece which ended my apprenticeship to Eggplant Jackson. I had the source code in archival storage. Instead of writing fresh code, I could just adapt it to the current particulars, graft a pellet launcher to the standard mini bot blueprints, and give Greyce what he wanted faster than anyone else on station.
I took the Clarkeson's voucher and told him to come back in two days. Then I transmitted acknowledgment of the bid win to the station board. Seconds later my balance statement reflected a hefty deposit. I pulled the old design from the archives, slapped it onto a flim, and stepped into the second of GC's three rooms. Weird Tommy, my sole employee, sat at his console, humming to himself while he played some game involving fibonacci sequences and countable infinities with a color palette that would make an A.I. sweat. I cut the console's power to get his attention and gave him the good news. He beamed like a happy puppy, took the flim, and immediately set to splicing in the specs Greyce required. I could have done a cleaner job of it myself, but not as quickly as Tommy. I had some business with a couple angry creditors that morning and left him to work. I came back hours later with an armload of Tommy's favorite nutrient bevs and flavor impregnated soys. He hadn't budged; Weird Tommy's entire world had become the code I'd given him. I doubt he even knew I had been gone or come back. I watched him for a bit, the bright and broken son I never had. I couldn't help but wonder if Eggplant had ever felt a similar affection for me. Then I simply left the food within arm's reach. Once Tommy's blood sugar dropped low enough, his subconscious would make a grab for the goods.
The next morning he'd finished the code, streamlined it, and patched the thing into an idiot savant breed bot. Gideon Cybernetics had two breed bots, out of the seventeen on all of Loophole Station. They were the reason I managed to win the few contracts that kept me in business.
Most bids come down to materials, talent, and time. On Loophole, all the contractors have the same costs for materials, so that falls out of the equation except for the really big Jobs. Talent I've got, and so does Weird Tommy; we're the tops at program and design. The snag is always time, combining the talent and materials quickly enough to give the customer what he wants. I built our breed bots myself, and there's nothing better when it comes to small scale manufacture. They could throw together anything I could design, adapting their own programming on the fly. Any breed bot is intelligent, but I prided myself on the quality I'd built into the twins. Even so, Loophole officials came by to check them, as they did all the station's breed bots, every two weeks. I couldn't fault them for wanting to verify that the savants were still idiots, fragmented personalities with tightly defined expertise and little else. Not even station law would allow full capacity A.I.s in human s.p.a.ce.
My breed bots finished a gross of Greyce's smart bots by late afternoon and the Clarkeson showed up to claim them himself. He signed the paperwork and a union dock worker carted the hardware away to his ship while Greyce made the balance of his payment in genuine solar dollars. Even with the conversion fees I'd come out well ahead.
The Clarkeson beamed at me. "Walrus Gideon, we must celebrate," he said.
"Celebrate?" I'd never had a customer pay me and then ask for a party.
"Absolutely, to commemorate our successful transaction. Come, I have time before I need to depart this station; permit me to purchase beverages of joy to commemorate our mutual satisfaction. Is that not the custom?"
"For some, I suppose. I don't mind having a drink or two with you. Give me a minute." I triggered the palmlock on my office safe and stowed the solars. Moments later we were catching the station rail in search of libation.
We ended up halfway around Loophole, near to his docking port, and sat in the bar of the station's second fanciest restaurant. Greyce was buying. The actual number of drinks rose from two to something closer to eight. Eggplant had never mentioned the Clarkeson tolerance for alcohol, or maybe Greyce was just a special case. By the fifth gla.s.s of hydroponic corn squeezings I had dropped my guard. Greyce and I were old buddies now. I spent the better part of an hour trying to explain what a walrus was, and he drew pictures on several dozen c.o.c.ktail napkins attempting to depict similar mammals unique to Clarkeson worlds. When we finally staggered out of the bar, we were arm in arm, laughing and singing.
We found our way to his docking tube. A stationmaster's sticker on the panel confirmed his shipment bad been stowed and he was cleared for lift. The Clarkeson fumbled with the keypad and almost fell inside as the hatch retracted, but I caught him at the last moment.
"Walsie,'' he said staring up at me like some infatuated mooncalf, "I can't thank you enough. I thought I'd have to spend a month waiting for someone to custom build those smart bots."
I propped him up and shook my head. "Randolv, don't give it another thought. Your payment is all the thanks I need." And I meant it. The two day job had brought in more than I'd made in the last six months. Who needed more thanks than that?
"No, no, you've really come through for me. Let me give you something. Hold on." He stumbled inside and out of sight. I waited on the gantry, leaning against the dock wall and thinking of all the ways I could spend those solars."
Greyce returned carrying, what looked like a chrome puppet under one arm. He shoved a k.n.o.bby control ring at me, all angular crystal and interlacing microcircuitry. I was so drunk I immediately slipped it on my right index finger without hesitation. I twitched once as it zapped me with a micro voltage jolt and implemented its calibration sequence. Human tech had nothing like it. I recognized it, a wearable one way interface. I'd worn one once before, while supervising the initial run of a salvage module I'd scripted for asteroid scavengers. That ring had given me telefactor supervision over a dozen spidery robots carrying out the routines I had written.
"Randolv, I can't accept this," I said. "Even unlinked a control ring is way outside anything I could afford. It's worth half again what you already paid me."
The Clarkeson waved away my objection. "It's not unlinked," he said and handed me the metal puppet. "It's linked to this, which is why I can't take it into Sol system. So you might as well have it."
The puppet's burnished surface felt cool to the touch. I held it up and found myself squinting into cobalt colored lenses. Biomagnetics pulsed through the ring and the puppet's eyes flared briefly. "What is it?" I asked. "And why can't you bring it into Sol Sys?"
"It's an Arconi homunculus with a personality index slaved to the control ring."
The words. .h.i.t me with a jolt. "Personality index? You mean it's got an A.I.?"
"No, no, not really, only a limited A.I." He gave my arm a rea.s.suring pat. "The Arconi go a bit further than humans with their idiot savant A.I.s, but even they won't make one that's autonomous."
I frowned. I'd heard of Arconi devices but never seen one. "So this isn't independent?"
Greyce shook his head. "It's as harmless as a human bemg," he said, "as safe as anyone wearing the ring. Limited, like I said, but just try explaining that to Sol customs! Those agents won't care about the limitations, they'll hear 'A.I.' and turn me right around. I'd planned on selling it before I left station, put it up on the bidnet here. Even with the five day wait I thought I'd have plenty of time. But you were too fast, Walsie, and between the port charges and the money I'll save getting to Sol system sooner than expected, it's cheaper to just give it to you and be on my way. Think of it as a bonus."
"But what does it do?"
Greyce laughed at that and stepped back into the tube. "Anything you'd do," he said, and waved at me as the hatch slid shut again.
I shook my head and stared at the puppet. It resembled a miniature Arcon, a meter tall rendering of an attenuated, hairless human. I shrugged, tucked it under my arm, and wove my way to the rail station. Ten minutes later I was back at Gideon Cybernetics. In the middle room Weird Tommy was curled into a ball on his cot, eyes darting furiously with some of the fastest REM cycles known to man. I dropped the puppet on the workbench, and breezed on through to the backroom which I euphemistically referred to as my apartment, and aimed myself for the bed. I felt exhausted but sleep eluded me. I lay there in the near dark and stared at the control ring on my finger. Intermittent microbolts of neural lightning coursed through the lump of crystal as I imagined the possibilities the addition of a limited A.I. would have for Gideon Cybernetics and the additional contracts I could bid on. Visions of sugarplums and solar dollars danced in my head and somewhere in the process I fell into a deep and dreamless sleep.
Next thing I knew it was noon and my head was pounding out a message to remind me that alcohol, despite all its seductive ways, remained a potent toxin. I'd already lost the morning, but resolved to salvage something of the day despite my hangover. I slathered my head, cheeks, and chin with a thick dollop of peeler gel and wiped myself free of the stubble, leaving only my trademark bristle brush mustache and gleaming scalp. A fresh shave always makes me feel like a new man, and I stepped into the middle room whistling like a happy capitalist on his way to market.
Weird Tommy sat in his s...o...b..e chair, humming tunelessly. Both his arms plunged deep into the rests on either side. A pair of micro waldoes rose from the front of the chair and tinkered in the guts of some shiny silver bot on the desk in front of him.
A year ago I'd been desperate for help and pulled Tommy out of the psych pool. His coronal tattoo had branded him as a borderline-functional schizophrenic with an obsessive-compulsive component that made him a natural problem solver. The station saw him as a potential hazard. I saw a scared kid with other kinds of potential, and he's been working for me ever since. Even with medication the schiz w.a.n.ks his attentional filters, and I knew he wouldn't notice me in the room until I interrupted whatever he was concentrating on and made him shift his focus to me. I came up behind him to see what he had the waldoes into. It wasn't a bot; it was the Clarkeson puppet. Or maybe not. Two other identical looking chrome figures were strewn across the desk as well. I placed a hand on the armrest's override pad and made myself known to his closed off world. Tommy jerked up with a start. His eyes focused on me, and I felt the gaze of his absolute attention.
"Boss," he said, "we got a problem."
My mustache twitched at the remark. It took a lot to worry Tommy. Most times, only the dead are more laid-back.
I slapped a remote on the wall and the office bot scuttled into activity, flash-brewed a cup of coffee and brought it to me. I peered more closely into the guts of the thing Tommy was tinkering with.
"What's the problem?"
"When I woke up this morning the number two breed-bot was churning these things out."
"Churning?" I said. "How many is churning?"
"Half a dozen at least. They were in the front room, working all the terminals. They'd opened up the outer door and were running the shop."
I sipped my coffee, trying to make sense of this. I saw the control ring on my hand and it all fell into place.
"Son of a b.i.t.c.h," I said. "Those bots think they're me."
Weird Tommy blinked back at me. "Boss?"
I held up the ring for him to see and he stared into its depths. "That's Arconi tech, boss. No wonder I can't find an imprinted source module in this thing. You're the source."
I nodded. The Clarkeson had said the puppet was a homunculus. An odd word, and in my inebriation I hadn't thought about it. Now it was clear, the homunculus's personality was slaved all right, slaved to the personality of whoever wore the control ring. While I'd slept it had integrated its new persona and awoken as a miniature version of me, Walrus Gideon, eager entrepreneur.
I laughed. "Don't worry, Tommy. It's not really a problem. The thing's just trying to help our business, doing the things I'd do, boosting our efficiency."
Tommy considered this and nodded, "Right, so it fed its own specs into the breed-bot to replicate itself and crank things further."
"Makes sense in its own way," I said. "Give me a hand rounding them up. One of me is more than enough for this station."
"We can't, boss. They're not here any more."
"Not here? Where are they? Why'd they leave? Where'd they go?"
Tommy swallowed hard and pointed toward the front room. "Like I said, I found them using the terminals. They were hooking into the bidboard, just the way you do every morning. They were putting out bids on jobs."
That stopped me. "They were bidding? How? The board wouldn't let them on without a contractor's code."
"They used yours," said Tommy. "They logged on with your codes and started putting out bids on different jobs. When I tried to stop them they scattered. I grabbed a launcher from the job we just did, and managed to zap three of them with EMP pellets, but the rest got out."