THE ROBOT PROSPERO stepped out of the low dark building into the night. He approached the man in the pale grey uniform, the man who was standing well away from the light, near to the shore. Fiyle, the man's name was.
Prospero moved with a careful, steady tread. He did not wish to make any sudden moves. It was plain to see that his contact was jumpy enough as it was.
The valise was heavy in Prospero's hand, the small case packed solid. It seemed proper that it be heavy, with all the futures that were riding on this transaction. If anything, the case seemed rather light, if one considered all the freedom it would buy.
Prospero came up to the man and stopped a meter or two from him.
"That the money?" Fiyle asked, the nasal twanginess of his voice betraying his off-world origins.
"It is," Prospero said. "Let's have it, then," Fiyle said. He took the case, set it down on the ground, and opened it. He pulled a handlight from his pocket, switched it on, and directed the light down onto the bag.
"You don't trust me," Prospero said. It was not a question.
"No reason why I should," Fiyle said. "You'd be willing and able to lie and cheat if you had to, wouldn't you?"
"Yes," Prospero said. There was no point in denying something that everyone knew about the New Law robots. Robots that could lie. The idea seemed strange, even to Prospero.
But then, the idea of a criminal robot was a little strange as well. Fiyle offered the light to Prospero. "Here," he said, "hold this for me. " Even here, now, it happened. Even this man, this Settler, deep inside the rustbacking trade, did not give a second thought to ordering a New Law robot around. Even he could not remember that New Law robots were not required to obey the commands of a human. Unless the man was merely manipulating him, playing games. If that was the case-
No. Prospero resisted the impulse to resist, to protest. This was not the time or place to argue the point. He dare not antagonize Fiyle. Not when the human had it in his power to bring the law crashing down on them all. Not when a blaster bolt between the eyes was the standard punishment for a runaway robot. The others were depending on him. Prospero held the light, aiming so the man could easily see the interior of the case. It was filled with stacks of elaborately embossed pieces of paper, each stack neatly wrapped around its middle. Money. Paper money, in something called Trader Demand Notes, whatever those were. Settlers used them, and they were untraceable, and they were of value. That was all Prospero knew-except that it had taken tremendous effort to gather these stacks of paper together.
Absurd that so many robots could be traded for something as silly as bits of fancy printing. The man ran his hands over the stacks of paper inside, almost caressing them, as if the gaudy things were objects of great beauty.
Money. It all came down to money. Money to bribe guards. Money to hire the pull artists who could remove the supposedly unremovable restrictors from a New Law robot's body. With the restrictor in place, a New Law simply shut down if it moved outside the prescribed radius of the restrictor control signal beamed from the central peak of Purgatory Island. With the right money paid, and the restrictor taken out, a New Law robot could go anywhere it pleased.
If it could manage to find a way off the island. Which is where men such as Fiyle came into the equation.
Fiyle lifted one of the stacks out and counted it, slowly and carefully, and placed it back in the case. He repeated the procedure with each of the other stacks. At last, satisfied, he closed the case.
"It's all there," he said as he stood.
"Yes, it is," Prospero agreed, handing the light back. "Shall we get on with the business at hand?"
"By all means," the man said, grinning evilly. "My ship will be tied up at the North Quay. Slip Fourteen. At 0300 hours, the guard watching the security screens is all of a sudden not going to be feeling so good. His staff robot will help him to his quarters, and the screens will be unattended. Because he won't be feeling well, he'll forget to turn on the recording system. No one will see who or what gets onto my ship. But the guard expects that he'll be feeling better and back at his post by 0400. Everything has to be nice and normal by then, or else-"
"Or else he turns us all in, you make a run for it, and my friends all die. I understand. Don't you worry. Everything will go according to plan."
"Yeah, I bet it will," Fiyle said. He lifted the case and patted it affectionately. "I hope it's as worth it for you as it is for me," he said, his voice suddenly a bit lower, gentler. "Things must be damned hard for you here if you're willing to pay this much to try and get away."
"They are hard," Prospero said, a trifle taken aback. He had not expected any show of sympathy from the likes of Fiyle.
"Bet you'll be glad to get out of here, won't you?" the man asked.
"I am not going," Prospero said, looking toward the quays and the ships and the sea. "It is needful that I remain here and coordinate the next escape, and the one after that. I cannot cross the seas to freedom. "
He turned his back on the sea and looked toward the land, the rough, hardscrabble island, and the contradictory, half-free, half-slave existence that was all he had ever known.
"I must remain here," he said. "I must remain on Purgatory."READ MORE >>