Inferno (Isaac Asimov's Caliban #2)

Chapter 7

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DONALD 111 ARRIVED in the Governor's bedroom a few seconds after Alvar Kresh, and saw his master standing over the grisly tableaux. But Donald was barely aware of his master. His attention was riveted on Governor Chanto Grieg. The dead man.

It was far from the first corpse Donald had seen, and was the second one he had seen in as many hours-and yet the sight of the Governor's dead body had a more profound effect on him than any of the others. Donald had known this man. Worse, not more that eight hours ago, Donald had told the Governor that he would be safe, that the precautions Alvar Kresh had suggested would be enough to protect him. He, Donald, had threatened to prevent this man from attending the party, but had allowed it in the end because fifty SPR security robots would be enough.

And now the man was dead. Dead. Dead. Donald's vision began to dim. The world was growing darker.

"Donald! Stop it!" Alvar Kresh's voice seemed to come from a long way away, far off and unimportant. "Come out of it. I order you to stop it! You had no part in Grieg's death. You could have done nothing to stop it. You did nothing to cause it."

Perhaps no other voice could have brought Donald back, but Kresh's voice, his master's voice, strong, brimming with authority, did so. His vision cleared and he came to himself with a start. "Tha-tha-thank you, sir," he said.

"This damn planet sets First Law potential too damn high," Kresh growled. "Donald, listen to me. There were fifty security robots on duty in this house, and Grieg died anyway. One more robot could not have done any good. "

Donald took hold of that thought, focused on it. Yes, yes, it was true. What could he have done that they could not?

But why hadn't the security robots prevented this disaster? Donald turned away, not wishing to look on the horrifying sight of the dead Governor anymore. And, in turning around, he got his answer. There, lined up against the wall, still in their wall niches, were three of the SPRs, the Security, Patrol, and Rescue Sapper security robots-each with a blaster shot through the chest. That is what would have happened to me, Donald thought. Had I remained, I would have been nothing more than another robot uselessly destroyed. He found a strange sort of comfort in the idea.

"Sir," he said, "if I could call your attention to this side of the room."

"Hmm?" Kresh turned around and saw the three destroyed robots. "Burning hells. Donald. How fast would someone have to be to get into this room, blast three specialized security robots before any of them could react, and then kill a man who would appear to have been sitting up in bed? Kill him before he could even set his book down?"

"It would be impossible," Donald said, feeling quite sure of himself. He sensed, somehow, that he and Sheriff Kresh were, in a strange way, each doing the same thing-struggling to be professional, looking for the parts of this disaster they could deal with, putting up a wall against the parts that were unbearable. "Sir, your point is well taken. Things cannot be as they seem. But there are more urgent points to consider at the moment. This is not mere murder-this is assassination."

"You're right, Donald. By all the devils in hell, you're right. This could just be the start of who knows what. " Alvar Kresh stood there, staring at nothing, clearly still more than a little bit in shock. "Escape," he said at last. "We have to cut off their escape. Relay emergency orders, Donald. All-and I mean all-transport between the island of Purgatory and the mainland is to be shut down, effective immediately. All outbound sea and aircraft currently in transit are to return with all passengers on-board. No exceptions. All spacecraft grounded. No one leaves the island. Everyone who has left the island since the Governor was last seen alive returns and stays here until they can be questioned."

"Sir, I must remind you that much of the transport on this island is under Settler control, and thus not within your jurisdiction. "

"The hell with that," Kresh said. "Issue the orders. The Settlers had damned well not protest, unless they want this to get completely out of control."

"Yes, sir," Donald said. The Sheriff had given him standing orders long ago, instructing Donald to advise him whenever Kresh issued orders that exceeded his authority. Donald of course followed the order, but there were occasions when he didn't understand why Kresh bothered to have himself told such things-Kresh almost never reversed or revised an extralegal command. But orders were orders, and so Donald always reminded him, and the Sheriff always overruled him.

Donald activated his hyperwave system and began contacting the various traffic control centers on the emergency override bands, relaying the Sheriff s instructions. He could not help but notice that Kresh had not ordered him to offer any explanation for his actions. Had that been deliberate? After a moment's hesitation, he decided not to bring the omission to Kresh's attention. There might well be good reasons for keeping silent on the catastrophic news. All sorts of chaos might spring up if news of the assassination spread too fast.

Of course, all sorts of chaos were going to spring up in any event, but there was nothing Donald could do about that.

Think, man, think. Alvar Kresh did not know what to do. The clear, logical choice was to call someone, tell everyone. The world had to know. There was no hope of keeping this quiet more than an hour or two. But someone had done this. Someone capable of an elaborate plot, capable of getting through the tightest security and acting with terrible ruthlessness.

Someone with a reason. Someone with a motive. Someone who might well not be finished yet. He had to assume that this was not an attack on the man, Chanto Grieg, but an attack on the Governor, the leader of the planet. He had to assume this was a coup.

But if that was so, who could he call? Not the Rangers. Not when he was unsure why the devil Justen Devray had been acting so strangely, not when the Rangers had been so determined, for no clear reason, to insert themselves into the security arrangements. Certainly he could not call the SSS. Even if he trusted them, it would be politically impossible to bring them in as the lead agency to investigate the Governor's murder.

With a shock, he realized that he already suspected both of the other law enforcement agencies of complicity in this crime.

But he trusted his own people. He had just been down here as window dressing, part of the Governor's entourage, but it was just about time for that to change. Yes. That was it. Of course. Totally illegal, no doubt, and a flagrant violation of jurisdiction. But the hell with that. "Donald, contact our headquarters in Hades. I want a full operations team down here, on the spot, in control of this crime scene. I want the first team here in three hours, and a full deployment of a Major Crime Team in eight."

"Sir, the first team may not be able to arrive here that quickly. The normal flying time from Hades is just over two and one-half hours."

"I do not regard this as a normal circumstance," Kresh said. "Get them here, authorize use of emergency speed overrides-and don't bother telling me what laws and agreements I'm violating. By the time the Rangers and the SSS get to this crime scene, the Sheriff of Hades is going to own it-is that clear?"

"Yes, sir. Might I ask how we are going to prevent them from corning here on their own?"

"We aren't going to tell them what's happened, that's how. Not until my people and my robots are here, and we've started an investigation I can trust. We can use the room where we met with Tonya Welton for our command post. " Alvar Kresh considered the risks he was running. The decisions he had made already, in the last ninety seconds, might well be enough to force his resignation before very long. Maybe enough to get him arrested and thrown in jail.

But that didn't matter. If he could sit on this thing long enough, even just two or three hours, that would be enough to protect the investigation, get his deputies well enough entrenched and in charge so that the SSS or the Rangers would not be able to kick them out.

They solved the most minor part of the mystery first, a question so minor that it could barely be dignified by the name mystery. Still, it was nice to know how Grieg had managed to answer the phone after he was dead, and the details of the answer might lead them somewhere. Kresh found a miniature Settler-made image box, a rather sophisticated one, hooked into the comm system. It was sitting on a side table in the bedroom, plugged into the room's comm jack. The fact that it was Settler-made meant nothing, of course. Image processors and sim units were in common use for many legitimate purposes. If anything, the use of a Settler unit suggested a Spacer involvement in the case, an attempt to throw off the scent. Actually, it was more likely the plotters had chosen that model because it was a cube about ten centimeters square, small enough to be easily smuggled into the Residence.

Kresh was tempted to examine the box himself, but he knew that was a job for the lab techs. They might well be able to tell something from the way it was programmed-and they would be better able than he to overcome any booby-trapping in the software. He left it alone. It occurred to him that it might even prove useful to leave it in place. If anyone called, and it managed to fool them, that could be all to the good, if it kept the Rangers and SSS out of here a bit longer.

Was he right to suspect them? What was it that he suspected them of? Conspiracy to kill the Governor? It seemed outlandish, but the night had already been full of suspicious incidents. It had to be that the staged attack on Welton had something to do with it, that Huthwitz had been killed as part of the same plot, but Kresh could see no way to thread them all together.

And if not the SSS or Rangers, then who had done it? Kresh could come up with any number of suspects, starting with the Ironheads, or some lunatic faction of Ironheads, down to practically any fed-up robot owner.

Who knew who else's toes the Governor might have stepped on? Even if you kept to Grieg's known enemies, you still ended up with half the planet as suspects.

Time. It was turning into a question of time. What could he do in the time left to them before the deputies arrived, or before the Rangers or the SSS or the Governor's first morning appointment arrived? The victim. Take a good hard took at the victim. Kresh went over to the bed and knelt down next to the Governor's corpse, careful not to touch it or disturb anything. No sense making the Crime Scene robots work harder.

Grieg had been sitting up reading in bed, by the looks of it, and reading an old-fashioned print book at that. It had fallen forward into his lap, still open to the page he had been reading. The tops of the pages had been singed by the blaster shot.

Grieg was still sitting up, his head slumped forward, eyes shut, his hands fallen into his lap with the book on top of them. There was no sign that he had reacted at all, or struggled to get out of the way. He hadn't tried to duck away from the blast or jump out of bed. Either he had been taken utterly by surprise, or he had known his attacker, perhaps even been expecting him-or her. There was a thought, and one of some delicacy, to put it mildly. Had the Governor arranged some sort of after-hours assignation? Could he have been killed by an assassin posing as a lover-or could he have been killed by, say, lover A in a jealous rage over lover B? Kresh realized he knew less about the Governor's sex life than he should have. That to one side, it would be wise to bear in mind there were other motives for murder besides political ones.

But there was another question-the security robots. Why had they failed? How did the assassin overcome them? For that matter, how the devil had the assassin gotten into the bedroom? Kresh stepped out into the dimly lit hallway and looked down it both ways. Where had the rest of the robots gone?

Kresh walked back the way he had come, and soon had his answer. There was a slumped-over shape he had not paid much mind when he had first rushed down the hallway. It was another SPR security robot, this one blasted out as well. Except this one had not been killed with a single neat shot through the chest. It had been scorched on the left arm, had its head half-melted off, and then taken a final bum hole through the chest. Three shots at least, from increasingly close range. It looked as if this robot had been on the move, trying to react, and had nearly reached its attacker before it finally went down. Kresh felt more certain than ever that there was something suspicious about the ease with which the robots in the bedroom had died. He went farther down the hall and saw two more SPR robots, both shot through the head and the chest. The one in front of the entrance to Grieg's office had been shot the same way.

He stepped back into the bedroom where Donald was waiting for him. "Donald," he said, "who manufactured these security robots?"

"The models used here are manufactured by Rholand Scientific, " Donald said-

"Good, " Kresh said. "Then Fredda Leving can examine them without a biased opinion. Hand me the voicephone and connect me. "

"Sir, in terms of security, may I remind you that Fredda Leving was present last night and may well have had the opportunity to tamper with the robots-"

"In terms of security we will be utterly paralyzed if we are too careful. Fredda Leving was not part of this, I can tell you that straight out. "

"I agree that the balance of probabilities weighs heavily against suspecting her," Donald said. "However, these robots have clearly been tampered with, and she was perhaps the only person who was present who had the expertise for that job. My First Law potential does extend to preventing you doing professional harm to yourself, and to the potential harm to others if an investigation this serious and dangerous were suborned. I must therefore point out there is no logical basis upon which she can be excluded absolutely."

Kresh took a deep breath and forced himself not to explode. Handling robots could be a damned nuisance, but it was only made doubly hard by losing one's patience. Of course the same thing was true of people: You were forced to deal with unreasonable demands by being excessively reasonable. "Donald," he said in a calm, slow voice. "I agree with you that there is no logical basis for excluding Fredda Leving as a suspect. However, I can assure you that there are reasons, outside of logic, that make me utterly certain she had nothing to do with this."

"Sir, you have said yourself, many times, that any human being is capable of murder."

"But I have also said that no one human is capable of every murder. Fredda Leving might kill to defend herself, or in a fit of passion, but she is incapable of involving herself in this level of brutality. Nor is she much good as a conspirator, and this was clearly a conspiracy. Fredda Leving was not capable of this killing, and she would have no motive for it. Indeed, I cannot think of anyone with a better motive for keeping the Governor alive. Listen in and monitor her voice-stress if you like, but give me the phone and make the connection. That is a direct and absolute order. "

Donald hesitated a full half second before responding. Kresh thought he could almost see the First and Second Law potentials battling it out with each other. "Yes, sir," he said at last, and handed over the phone.

It was a sign of just how rattled Donald was that he would kick up such a fuss over such a minor point. The sight of the Governor's corpse had upset man and robot. Both of them knew that was not merely a dead man-it was, in all probability, a whole planet suddenly thrown into peril.

With a beep and a click-tone the phone line connected. "Um-um-hello?"

Kresh recognized Fredda's voice, sleepy and a bit muddled. "Dr. Leving, this is Sheriff Kresh. I'm afraid I must ask you to return to the Residence immediately, and to bring whatever technical equipment you have with you. I need you to examine some, ah-damaged robots. " It was a clumsy way to put it, but Kresh couldn't think of anything else he could say on an unsecured line.

"What?" Fredda asked. "I'm sorry, what did you say?"

"Damaged robots," Kresh repeated. "I need you to perform a fast discreet examination. It is a matter of some urgency. "

"Well' all right, I suppose, if you say it's urgent. It will take me a while to get to the Limbo Depot robotics lab and collect some examination gear. I didn't bring anything with me. I'll get there as fast as I can."

"Thank you, Doctor. " Kresh handed the handset back to Donald. "Well?" he asked.

"Sir, I withdraw my objections. You were indeed correct. My voice-stress monitoring indicated no undue reaction to a call from you from the Residence at this hour. Either she has no idea whatsoever of what has happened, or she is a superb actress-an accomplishment of which I am unaware in Dr. Leving."

"Once in a while, Donald," Kresh said, "you might try taking my word on questions of human behavior."

"Sir, with all due respect, I have found no topic of importance wherein questions so utterly outnumber the answers. " Kresh gave the robot a good hard look. Had Donald just made a joke?

Prospero, Fredda told herself as she hurried to get ready. It had to be something to do with Prospero. Why else would Kresh be there at this hour, and calling her in? Something must have gone wrong with Prospero. Fredda Leving had hand-built the New Law robot, and programmed his gravitonic brain herself. She remembered how much of a pleasure it had been to work on the empty canvas of a gravitonic unit, with the chance to make bold strokes, work out whole new solutions, rather than being strait-jacketed by the limitations and conventions and excessive safety features of the positronic brain.

Ever since the long-forgotten day when true robots had first been invented, every robot ever built had been given a positronic brain. All the endless millions and billions of robots made in all those thousands of years had relied upon the same basic technology. Nothing else would ever do. The positronic brain quite literally defined the robot. No one would consider any mechanical being to be a robot unless it had a positronic brain-and, contrariwise, anything that contained a positronic brain was considered to be a robot. The two were seen as inseparable. Robots were trusted because they had positronic brains, and positronic brains were trusted because they went into robots. Trust in robots and in positronic brains were articles of faith.

The Three Laws were at the base of that faith. Positronic brains-and thus robots built with such brains-had the Three Laws built into them. More than built in: They had the Laws woven into them. Microcopies of the Laws were everywhere inside a positronic brain, strewn across every pathway, so that every action, every thought, every external event or internal calculation moved down pathways shaped and built by the Laws.

Every design formula for the positronic brain, every testing system, every manufacturing process, was built with the Three Laws in mind. In short, the positronic brain was inseparable from the Three Laws-and therein lay the problem.

Fredda Leving had once calculated that thirty percent of the volume of the average positronic brain was given over to pathing linked to the Three Laws, with roughly a hundred million microcopies of the Laws embedded in the structure of the average positronic brain, before any programming at all was done. As roughly thirty percent of positronic programming was also given over to the Three Laws, the case could be made that every one of those hundred million microcopies was completely superfluous. Fredda's rough estimate was that fifty percent of the average robot's nonconscious and preconscious autonomous processing dealt with the Laws and their application.

The needless, excessive, and redundant Three-Law processing resulted in a positronic brain that was hopelessly cluttered up with nonproductive processing and a marked reduction of capacity. It was, as Fredda liked to put it, like a woman forced to interrupt her thoughts on the matter at hand a thousand times a second in order to see if the room were on fire. The excessive caution did not enhance safety, but did produce drastically reduced efficiency.

But everything in the positronic brain was tied to the Three Laws. Remove or disable even one of those hundred million microcopies, and the brain would react. Disable more than a handful, and the brain would fail altogether. Try and produce positronic programming that did not include endless redundant checks for First, Second, and Third Law adherence, and the hardwired, built-in copies of the Three Laws would cause the positronic brain to refuse the programming and shut down.

Unless you threw out millennia of development work and started from scratch with a lump of sponge palladium and a hand calculator, there was no way to step clear of the ancient technology and produce a more efficient robot brain.

Then Gubber Anshaw invented the gravitonic brain. It was light-years ahead of the positronic in processing speed and capacity. Better still, it did not have the Three Laws burned into its every molecule, cluttering things up. The Three Laws could be programmed into the gravitonic brain, as deeply as you liked, but with only a few hundred copies placed in the key processing nodes. In theory, it was more liable to failure than the millions of copies in a standard positronic brain. In practice, the difference between ten billion to one and ten trillion to one was meaningless. Gravitonic Three-Law brains were, for all purposes, as safe as positronic ones.

But, because the Three Laws were not implicit in every aspect of the gravitonic brain's design and construction, the other robotics laboratories had refused to deal with Gubber Anshaw or his work. Building a robot that did not have a positronic brain was about as socially acceptable as cannibalism, and no appeal to logic or common sense could make the slightest difference.

Fredda Leving, however, had been more than eager to experiment with the gravitonic brain-but not because she had any interest in improved efficiency. Long before Gubber Anshaw had come to her, she had been brooding over much deeper issues regarding the Three Laws, and the effects they had on human-robot relations-and therefore on humans themselves.

Fredda had concluded, among other things, that the Three Laws stole all human initiative and served to discourage risk to an unhealthy degree by treating the least of risks of minor injury exactly the same as an immediate danger to life and limb. Humans learned to fear all danger, and eschew all activity that had the slightest spice of hazard about it.

Fredda had, therefore, formulated the four New Laws of Robotics, as a matter of mere theory, little realizing that Gubber Anshaw would come along and give her a chance to put it all into practice. Fredda had built the first New Law robots. Tonya Welton had gotten wind of the New Law project, and insisted that New Law robots be used on Purgatory. Welton had liked the idea of robots that were neither slaves nor in control over their masters' lives. And, perhaps, the fact that she was sleeping with Gubber Anshaw had something to do with it.

By the time Tonya Welton had her bright idea, Fredda was already working on a new theory, precisely because the gravitonic brain made it possible to move past theory into practice. Because the gravitonic brain did not have a law structure embedded in itself, it was possible to program a brain-and thus create a robot-with no Laws at all, a robot capable of creating its own rules for living. Caliban, the No Law robot, had been the ultimate result of the experiment, and Fredda had found herself in a world of trouble when Caliban escaped. But all that had been sorted out quite some time ago, thank goodness, with the result of Fredda Leving owing Sheriff Kresh at least a favor or two, to put it mildly.

But Prospero. She had hand built Prospero, the most highly refined and sophisticated of all the New Law robots, and constructed him to have the most flexible, far-ranging mind that the gravitonic brain made possible. She had not been out to do anything more than construct a robot that would be best able to think for itself. She had not intended to manufacture a robot philosopher-but that was what she had done. And some of what Prospero had come up with in his philosophy had given Fredda a major headache. As Prospero often pointed out, the New Laws allowed a New Law robot to be a far freer being than a conventional robot-but New Law robots were far more aware of their servitude than normal robots. Clearly there were new balances to be struck, new ways of thinking about robots and for robots if New Law robots were ever going to be able to deal with the real world. Prospero had set himself the goal of finding those new ways.

But if Prospero's expressed goal was to find the proper way for New Law robots to deal with the world, what Prospero excelled at was finding new ways around the New Laws, finding ways to bend them and twist them to his own convenience. Bend them far enough that it might be quite understandable if Kresh thought he was damaged.

As best Fredda could see, Prospero was clever enough to find ways to let the New Laws let him do anything.

Anything.

She grabbed her diagnostic kit and got moving.

The minutes and the hours had been dragging on, but now things started to move fast.

The first deputies-a Fast Response Crime Scene team-arrived from Hades and set to work with admirable speed, considering the shock of seeing the Governor with a hole in his chest. All of them were a bit edgy and unsettled, and Kresh could not blame them. Even the most stolid and unimaginative person could not help but realize just how dangerous this murder was-and Kresh did not assign stolid or unimaginative people to the Fast Response teams.

It was strange, disconcerting, and even unseemly to see them ministering to the corpse of the man he had been speaking with only hours before. There was a disturbing tenderness to the deputies and the Crime Scene robots as they hovered about, measuring, making images and scans, moving gently about the Governor's ruined body.

But this was no time for poetry. This was the time for plots and counterplots, schemes and conspiracy. Kresh was already playing the game. In the crudest and most basic way, he was just a minute fraction ahead. He had gotten here first, turned this crime scene into Kresh's turf. Kresh had won the first tiny engagement of what was likely to be a long and costly battle.

Arrival of the deputies pushed Kresh off to one side-and that perhaps was no bad thing. They needed time to find clues and evidence, but Kresh needed to think about the other aspects of this case.

Someone had killed the Governor, and presumably had a reason for doing so. Several someones. It was a conspiracy. The diversionary attack on Welton, the phony SSS men, the murder of the Ranger, the impossibility of getting past a whole squad of security robots-it all had to fit together, somehow.

But whose conspiracy, and why? Assume the killers had a motive. What was it? Leaving the unreasoning reason of lunacy out of it for the moment, Kresh could come up with any number of motives for killing Chanto Grieg-but very few of them coincided with the normal motives for murder.

This is not a murder, Kresh told himself. Not in any normal sense of the word. Murder was about passion, or jealousy, or greed, or personal ambition. It was a fatal assault on a person. This was an assault on the state. Will it be fatal? Kresh asked himself.

There was a terrifying idea, and not at all an implausible one. Though weakened and maligned, Grieg had been the glue that had held Infernal politics together. Even if it was merely that everyone hated him, albeit for different reasons, at least he drew people's emotions together. And even if people had hated him, and differed about his motives, they could at least understand the rational basis for what he was doing.

People might be angry over the robot shortage, or get fed up with the Settlers, but they could see the necessity of it all, even if they didn't like it. Part of that grudging acceptance came from the knowledge that Grieg was not a fanatic, not an ideologue, not someone chasing a harebrained theory, but a realist muddling through a bad situation as best he could.

Would any of that be true for a new Governor? Would the people take it on faith that a new Governor would be struggling to do what was best? Who was going to be the new Governor?

Or, to cut away all the polite tiptoeing around the central issue-who had cleared the field in order to take over? Who was going to seize the Governorship? Or was this merely and quite literally the opening gun in a new, forceful, and direct Settler attempt to take over the planet? Was there a Settler invasion fleet headed this way, right now? Not that it would take that much. All the Settlers had to do was step back and wait. Without Settler help, Inferno would collapse in a few years. It was galling to admit that fact, but Kresh had never been much for denying reality.

So why would the Settlers bother to conspire and assassinate at all? Maybe it was one of the local movers and shakers, some bullyboy like Simcor Beddle eager to seize power? Would someone announce in a few hours that he or she had saved the planet from Grieg's maladministration? Had some maniac decided on a coup to save the Spacer way of life-or had some cynical plotter realized that motive would provide a good cover story?

Who was running this coup, anyway?

Two thousand kilometers to the east of Purgatory Island, Sergeant Toth Resato, of the Governor's Rangers, stood in the darkness just before dawn, looking out over the Great Bay.

He was waiting.

Watching.

He stood at the base of the low cliffs that formed the shore of the bay. A cold wind blew at his back, gusting down through the East Crack and the inlet that formed the mouth of the River Lethe, a kilometer or two north of his position.

The surf was an endless roar of sound, and the sky was black and hard, with no sign yet of the coming day. The stars were not so much shining as piercing the dark, so sharp and bright they seemed to cut into him. Far down and off in the western sky the lights of the Limbo atmospheric force field generator gleamed and glistened, a bit of rippling green on the horizon, so dim they were hard to see, but even that little trace of warmth and color seemed quite out of place in such a time and place as this.

Sergeant Toth Resato was uncomfortable. He was out of uniform, for one thing, and, worse still, wearing Settler-style civilian clothes. He felt like a damned fool in the gaudy things, but the boat for which he was waiting was not likely to come into shore if anyone aboard spotted a Ranger's uniform.

But there were lots of things about this assignment that Toth liked less than the dress code. He was sworn to uphold the law, and he would do his duty. He was sworn to keep the peace, and he would do that too. But what of those times when the law itself was what broke the peace? What was he to do when the world turned upside-down and a fellow could be arrested for what had been legal-even honorable-the day or the week before?

How could Spacers-Spacers-make it illegal to obtain a robot? Settlers were the ones who wanted to ban robots. It didn't make sense to him. And yet, here he was, freezing to death in the darkness, lying in wait because he had gotten a tip that a smuggler was making a run tonight, bringing in contraband New Law robots-rustbacks.

That was the part Toth just could not get through his head. How could having a robot be a crime? It just didn't make sense. It was as if breathing or eating had been declared illegal.

Toth tended to exaggerate, even to himself. It wasn't, he admitted to himself, exactly illegal to own a robot-but it was getting close to that point. It didn't help matters that he had never done a rustbacking arrest before, or even dealt with New Law robots. He did not feel confident, or ready, for the task ahead.

In theory, any private robots taken for use in the terraforming project remained the property of the original owner. However, ownership didn't count for much when your former valet was suddenly fifteen thousand kilometers away on the other side of the planet, operating a prairie breeding center. People were not happy. And they wanted robots.

There was more about economics and shortages and so forth that was supposed to explain it all, but it didn't seem to make a great deal of sense to Toth. After all, if there were a shortage of something, why not just make more of it? And how could there be a shortage of robots in the first place? Why not just build more? The government had all sorts of complicated explanations, all about scarcity of resources and investing productive capacity in the planet's future, but no one could understand the numbers.

The people were being asked to take it on faith that they had to make sacrifices in the name of a better future-but a lot of people did not have much faith. All they knew, and all they cared about, was that there were not enough robots, and everyday life on Inferno had been thrown into turmoil. Even if, as everyone kept saying, there were a hundred times more robots than people on the planet, there were still too few robots.

The whole rustback phenomenon, the enormous criminal enterprise that went with them, was merely an expression of the fact that people wanted robots, and were willing to do anything-even commit crimes-in order to get them.

The detector at his belt beeped. Toth Resato looked down at the display screen and then lifted his night vision farviewers to his eyes. Yes, there they were. Out on the sea, in an open boat, headed this way. There would be a larger craft out there somewhere, the rest of the cargo of rustbacks aboard it, waiting for the human pilot to shuttle them into shore.

Rustbacks. Outlaw New Law robots, escaping from Purgatory, heading off into the wilderness of Terra Grande to what the Settler economists called "indentured servitude. " They would work off the price of what it cost to smuggle them out of Purgatory, then work for a wage if and when they paid the debt. Or, that is, they would have done all that if Toth had not been waiting for them.

Toth had sat through the training sessions that were supposed to explain the basis of economic crime, so that the Rangers would be able to deal with it better. He had dozed through most of them, but he remembered the Settler economists and how they had blathered on about supply and demand, how no Spacer world had experienced a labor shortage in thousands of years. How unlimited free labor had in turn eroded the value of raw materials down to nothing. The lecturers had said something about the law of supply and demand. and how with supply of everything essentially infinite, demand-and price-had dropped to zero.

Robots completely overturned any concept of a market economy. The use, and even the concept, of money had evaporated away almost entirely.

But now, suddenly, the robots weren't there to do things and make things for free. Now there was a shortage of labor, and therefore labor-and materials obtained by labor-had a meaningful value.

For the first time in living memory, everything had a price. The catch was none of the incredibly wealthy Spacers had any money-only possessions. They were more or less forced to trade what they owned to get the products or services that had been essentially free. Inferno had dropped back into a semibarter economy. Toth had followed most of the lecture, if not all, but it was clear to him the people lecturing him were missing the point.

The economists seemed fascinated by their charts and graphs and markets, but they never seemed to understand that people, real people, were hurting.

The capital city of Hades had seemed deserted, dingy, the last time Toth had been there for a visit. Nothing seemed bright or alive there. A fine layer of dust had settled on everything, blown from the deserts.

Without the hordes of cleaning robots bustling about downtown, everything had seemed a little worn, a little threadbare and sad. as if the buildings and streets knew that the desert sands were edging just a trifle closer to town.

With the robots gone, the city-its human population intact-seemed almost a ghost town. That irony was not lost even on Toth, and Toth knew there was not much of the poet in his soul. What could you say about a city that seemed halfdead because the machines had left and the people had stayed?

And the people were desperate. There were plenty of sharp operators ready, willing, and able to take advantage of that desperation. The Settler traders were bad enough, buying up works of art and family heirlooms for a pittance in Settler credits, but at least those were legal transactions.

The rustback trade was not. The whole rustback industry had sprung up as if by magic the moment the Governor made his pronouncement impressing "surplus" robots into the terraforming service. It had grown since, in size and sophistication, until now it was a huge and sophisticated enterprise.

There were the restrictor strip shops on Purgatory, where, for a fee, a pull artist would remove the range restrictors from a New Law robot. There were the brokers, charging horrifying amounts of money or making ruinous barters to the Spacers who needed robots, any robots. There were the smugglers ready to get a boatful of N. L. robots off Purgatory, or else fly an aircar full of them, risking detection by the traffic control nets.

And then there were the New Law robots themselves. They were the real mystery. The humans Toth could understand. After all, they were not much different from other criminals willing to risk harsh punishment for the sake of massive profit. But the New Law robots were a mystery to him.

Were New Law robots really robots in the first place? They only had half a First Law, after all. They were enjoined from harming a human being, but they could, if they chose, stand by and let a human being be killed. One of the primordial protections of Spacer existence was no longer there. How could anyone feel safe around them? New Law robots were not required to obey the orders of a human, either. They were required to "cooperate" with humans. No one seemed to be quite sure what "cooperate" meant to a robot. And what if there were two groups of humans with different ideas? With which would a New Law robot "cooperate"?

Cooperating meant running away, at least to some N. L. s, and Toth could not understand why. A rustback had to work just as hard, if not harder, than a New Law that stayed where it belonged. Some of the New Law robots talked about having at least the hope of being free someday, but what could freedom mean to a robot? And yet, he was here waiting on another boatload of New Law robots, risking their very existence in hope of freedom.

And they were heading his way right now. A boatload of runaway robots. Runaway robots. It was almost a contradiction in terms.

Toth watched in the farviewers as they got closer. He saw the signal light blink from the bow of the boat. Three long blinks, then three shorts.

Toth just happened to know that the man on the boat was named Norlan Fiyle, and that Fiyle was expecting a rather hard-edged woman named Floria Wentle to signal back. Toth had recently made Wentle's acquaintance, and provided her with a rather more permanent accommodation than she might have preferred. It had taken merely the slightest mention of the Psychic Probe to make her reveal all concerning Fiyle and his plans for the shipment tonight. It seemed there wasn't much to the idea of honor among thieves.

Toth lifted his own signal light and signaled back-two longs, three shorts, four longs. He watched for a moment and got the proper signal in reply, three more longs and three more shorts.

Toth glanced to his left and then to his right, needlessly and pointlessly checking to make sure his robots were in position. Needless because he knew they were there, and pointless because they were all very well hidden indeed.

The boat was close enough now that there was no need for the farviewers. Toth felt his heart starting to race. Here they came.

Now he could hear the high-pitched humming of the engine over the roar of the surf. He could see the robots sitting, stockstill, in their seats, and one human figure-Fiyle, it had to be Fiyle-standing at the stern, operating the controls.

Act like his friend, Toth told himself. Act like you're the one he's supposed to meet. Toth raised his arm and waved. Toth knew damned well he was silhouetted against the night sky, and that Fiyle had to be using night-vision gear at least as good as his own, and, no doubt, had a blaster more powerful than the Ranger-issue model Toth had. Toth walked toward the point on the shore the boat was making for, trying to move casually, calmly, in his damn-fool civilian clothes, as if everything were normal and fine.

At least the civvies were bulky enough that it was hard to get an idea of body shape from them. With luck, and in the dark, Fiyle would not notice that Toth was not a woman.

One half of a pair of handcuffs was already locked on to Toth's wrist, likewise hidden by the bulky clothes. The empty cuff would be around Fiyle's wrist in short order.

Toth paused, looking for a way down to the rocky shore at the base of the low cliffs. He knelt, turned around so he was facing the cliff, and started to climb down, painfully aware that he had just put his back to Fiyle. He forced himself not to think about it, and concentrated on finding handholds.

It wasn't much of a climb down to the shoreline. Toth was glad to reach the bottom and turn around.

There was the boat, only a hundred meters away, just about to beach itself on a small patch of sandy shoreline. Toth could see Fiyle in the stern, see that he was watching the shore, not Toth. Even with a night-vision helmet covering half of his face, it was easy to see his anxious expression as he struggled to guide the little craft through the surging waves, thread it around rocks and ledges. Closer, closer.

At last, with a final burst of power from the engine, Fiyle gunned the boat forward on the crest of an incoming wave, surfing the boat to land gently on the shore, not twenty meters from where Toth stood.

It was immediately obvious that the robots in the bow of the boat had been well briefed on what to do upon landing. Three of them jumped out and held the bow. Another then jumped ashore, the end of a rope in its hand. It headed up to the base of the cliff, snubbed the rope around an outcropping of rock, and tied it off. Then the rest of the robots started to disembark in orderly fashion.

Fiyle shut down his engine, peeled off his night-vision helmet, and rubbed his face with both hands. He stretched his arms and flexed his back, working out the kinks. Then, with one graceful motion, he set one hand on the gunwale and jumped over the side of the boat. He landed feetfirst in the surf, showing a sailor's lack of concern for getting his feet wet.

Toth smiled at him, stepped toward him, and offered the man his hand as Fiyle sloshed through the surf toward dry land. It was not until Fiyle was within less than a meter of Toth that the rustbacker realized something was wrong. Toth stepped forward into the cold surf, took him by the hand-and had the cuff on him before he could react.

Fiyle cried out and yanked his arm back, pulling Toth forward, slamming into him. Both of them toppled over into the water, but Fiyle managed to heave himself over on top of Toth. The rustbacker grabbed the Ranger by the throat and shoved his head down into the frigid water.

Toth opened his eyes underwater, but the dark night and the cloudy seawater rendered him as good as blind. He struggled, clawing at the man's face with his free right hand. He pulled back on his left hand, with the cuff on it, trying to dislodge Fiyle's grip on his throat.

Toth tried desperately to lever himself up far enough to get his face above water, to reach the air. He made a fist of his free hand and tried to punch Fiyle in the side of the head. He missed completely and landed a glancing blow on his shoulder. He pulled back his arm to try again.

But then, suddenly, it didn't matter. Fiyle wasn't on him anymore, and strong arms were fishing him out of the water. Toth coughed and spluttered as the robot-his robot, a Gerald, a GRD unit, one of his arrest team-carried him to shore. The GRD cradled Toth like a baby, Toth's arm with the cuff on it dangling out in midair, still connected to Fiyle.

Another GRD was carrying Fiyle, holding him in a tight restraint position.

"Let me down!" Fiyle bellowed. "I order you to let me down!"

The robot was unmoved. "I regret, sir, that both First Law and preexisting orders prevent me from doing so. Please do not attempt to escape, as that might entail injury to yourself or Ranger Toth."

Toth had to smile to himself, in spite of the beating he had taken. Say what you might about Three Law robots. You couldn't fault them for being impolite.

Toth had learned a thing or two about Settlers-or at least the sort of Settler who got picked up by the cops. It seemed to Toth that they broke into two groups. On the one hand there was the snarling sort, who denied everything, accused the arresting officer of planting evidence, who threatened and sniveled and sneered. On the other hand, there were some who seemed to regard it all as something of a game, complete with winners and losers. Once he was safely back in Toth's mobile Ranger Station, locked into its archaic-looking barred cell, where it was plain to see he was caught and there was nothing he could do about it, Norlan Fiyle immediately demonstrated that he was a member of the second category.

By the time the GRD robots handed Fiyle dry clothes through the bars of the cell, all the aggression seemed to have drained out of the man. He was big and burly, in the vigorous health of an active man in his middle years. He was a roundfaced, dark-skinned man, with a thin fringe of snow-white hair. He seemed quite unconcerned by the fact that he was under arrest, or that a trio of rather intimidating GRD robots were standing outside the cell, watching his every move.

Fiyle sat down on the cell's narrow cot and pulled on the dry prison-issue clothes. "So," he asked, "how did you nail me?"

Toth was not in a good mood. His head hurt, and he was fairly certain that he was going to have a black eye and a stiff back in the morning. "Let's just say you trusted the wrong people," he said, not wanting to give too much away. He sat down at his desk chair, facing the prisoner, and made a show of doing some work. Not that he was in any shape to make a coherent report.

"That so?" Fiyle asked. "I should have known better than to count on Floria Wentle," he said in a calm, conversational tone as he pulled on a pair of prison slippers. "Hmmph. Not a bad fit," he said, standing and taking a step or two.

"Glad you like them," Toth said, a little annoyed that Fiyle had guessed it in one try. "But I didn't say who it was who gave you away."

Fiyle looked up at him and smiled. "Oh, it had to be Floria. She talked just a little bit too good a game. I should have known she was the kind to get caught. By the way, can you tell me what happened to my New Laws? Any of them manage to get away?"

"About half of the ones in the boat escaped, " Toth said. "My robots caught the rest on the beach. We'll pick up the ones waiting on the ship in the morning."

"Don't count on that," Fiyle said. "Those robots are no fools. Once I don't make it back to the ship for the second load, they'll all hightail it. They'll take over the ship and try for a landing someplace else. "

"Think so?" Toth said, a trifle defiantly. If Fiyle knew so much, then how had he gotten caught? "They're just robots. They'll be sitting out there when we go to get 'em."

"If you want to bet on that, you're on," Fiyle said. "They're New Law robots. One of them's got more initiative than a whole herd of those Three-Law jobs-and believe me, this crowd knows they have a real incentive for getting away. You know what happens to New Law robots caught trying to escape?"

Toth shrugged. "Not really. " Fiyle gave him an odd look. "For a cop, you don't have much curiosity. N. L. s caught trying to escape are destroyed. A blaster shot to the head. Once they start running, they damned well know they don't dare stop. No way back."

"But they wouldn't know how to run your ship," Toth objected.

"They're smart, and they'd sure as hell have the incentive to learn," Fiyle said. "If they decide they can't handle it, they might even just jump overboard, let themselves sink, and walk to shore on the bottom. I doubt it, though. They weren't made waterproof, on purpose, to keep 'em on Purgatory. Besides, even a robot would get disoriented underwater around here. Bad visibility, strong currents, uneven seafloor. But they're your problem now. "

Fiyle leaned back on the cot and grinned. "That's something, anyway," he said. " At least now I won't have a shipload of New Law know-it-alls driving me crazy. Now you have to deal with them. But I am glad at least some of them got away."

"Why should you care?" Toth asked. Somehow, he was the one ill at ease. Fiyle wasn't acting like a man caught in the act and looking at a world of trouble.

"Oh, don't get me wrong. I'm in this for the money. But I still like seeing someone getting away once in a while. Even if it is just a bunch of robots. " Fiyle grinned at Toth and winked, just to lay the sarcasm on a bit thicker.

"I think that's just about enough lip out of you, Settler," Toth said.

"And why is that enough?" Fiyle asked, losing nothing of his easy manner.

"Take a look around yourself. You're in a Spacer jail and I've got you dead to rights on a very serious charge."

"True enough," Fiyle said. "Or at least true as far as it goes. Because you're just about to trade up, Ranger Resato."

"Trade up to what?"

"No, no, trade up for what. We talk about that first. We talk about the deal first. I'm going to give you a name, a name that you are going to love to have, and hate to have. And you are going to give me a ticket home, off this Spacer rathole and back to a decent life. "

Toth looked carefully at his prisoner. The man was serious-and somehow he knew that Fiyle was not the sort of man who made an offer he could not back up.

"It's got to be a hell of a big name to rate that kind of deal," Toth said. "Someone higher up?"

"Higher up, yes. But that's not why you'll want to know who it is. This name belongs to you. And it belongs to someone way deep into 'backing."

Suddenly Toth felt a little unsteady. He understood. A Ranger. A Ranger involved in rustbacking. He pressed a button on his desk. "Gerald Four," he said.

A somewhat mechanical voice answered, corning from the comm panel. "Yes, sir?"

"Bring me two blank witness boxes. "

"One moment."

There was silence in the room, and Toth found himself staring straight into Fiyle's eyes. All the bantering humor had drained out of the Settler, and now Toth could see the tenseness, the intensity that the surface jocularity had hidden.

Gerald Four stepped into the room, carrying two small sealed containers. Toth took the boxes from the robot, undid the seals, and opened them up. Inside each container was a small black cube, about three centimeters on a side. Each had a single button on it. Press the button and the box would record for one hour, with no way to stop it or rewind it or erase the recording. Whenever the button was pressed thereafter, the recording would play back, with no way to stop it or modify it.

Toth took the boxes from their containers. He held one of the witness boxes in his hand, looked at them for a moment, and then set both of them down on his desk. He pressed the buttons and looked back at Fiyle. "This is Ranger Toth Resato," he said. "The Settler Norlan Fiyle is my prisoner, arrested this night in connection with various charges of rustbacking. He has offered to provide the name of a Governor's Ranger substantially involved in the rustbacking trade, in exchange for the dropping of all charges against him and transport to his home planet. I hereby agree to this bargain, contingent on confirmation of his information. " Toth handed the witness boxes to the robot. "Give them to him," he said.

Gerald Four carried the boxes to the cell and handed them through the bars.

"You keep one cube, and I get the other back," Toth said. "We each get a guarantee. Now talk."

Fiyle held one cube in each hand and looked up toward Toth. The Settler swallowed hard, and Toth could see a sheen of sweat that had suddenly appeared on the man's brow. The games were over now. This was for real-

"There is a Ranger: ' he said. " A Ranger that's doing a lot of looking the wrong way when the rustbackers are working. He tips the 'backers off whenever there's a raid."

Moving carefully, Fiyle set the witness boxes down on the table inside his cell. He walked around the table and sat down on his cot, facing Toth. "There is a Ranger," he said again,, And his name is Sergeant Emoch Huthwitz. "

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