VIRGINIA

See the mechs dance, see the mechs play, Virginia thought moodily, halfway through a reprogramming. God, I wish they’d go away.

It had been hours on hours now and the jobs were getting harder. She lay stretched out, physically comfortable but vexed and irritated by the unending demands. She tried out a new subroutine on a mech filling her center screen. It turned, approached a phosphor panel. Careful, careful, she thought—but she did not interfere. A mistake of a mere centimeter would send the mech’s arm poking through the phosphor paint, breaking the conductivity path in that thin film, dimming the panel. The virtue of phosphors lay in the ease of setup—just slap on a coat of the stuff, attach low-voltage leads at the corners. and you had a cheap source of cold light. The disadvantages were that they had little mechanical strength and tended to develop spotty dim patches where the current flowed unevenly. A mech could bang one up with a casual brush.

Which this one proceeded to do, as she watched. It tried to spot the growing green gunk and wipe it away with a suction sponge. Partway across the panel, though, the arm swiveled in its socket and dug into the phosphor with a crisp crunch. The radiance flickered, dimmed.

Damn. Virginia backed the mech away and froze it. Then she plunged back into the subroutine she had just written, trying to find the bug that made the mech arm screw up at that crucial step.

—Virginia ! I need five more in Shaft Four, pronto! —Carl’s voice broke in.

She grimaced. “Can’t have them! All full up.” She kept moving logic units around in a 3D array, not wanting to let the structure of the subprogram slip away. Just a touch here, a minor adjustment there, and—

—Hey, I need them now!

“Shove off, Carl. I’m busy.”

—And I’m not? Come on, the gunk is eating us alive out here.—

“We’re overextended already.”

—I’ve got to have them. Now!—

It was hopeless. She punched in a last alteration and triggered the editing sequence. On a separate channel she sent, “JonVon, take a look at this. What’s the problem? I’m too dumb to see it.”

PERMISSION TO INTERROGATE MECH AND ADJUST ONBOARD SOFTWARE?

That was a little risky; JonVon was great at analysis, but had not had much experience working directly with mechs. What the hell, this is a crisis. “Sure.”

—Virginia ? Don’t duck out on me.—

“I’m here. I feel like a short-order cook, trying to switch these mechs around. Between you and Lani and Jim, there’s no time to reprogram these surface mechs for tunnel work.”

Carl’s voice muted slightly. —Well, sorry, but I’m facing a bad situation here. This stuff is spreading fast—must be more moisture in the air here. We may have to clean them out in vac. That’s tougher.—

“I know, I know” Carl always patiently explained why he needed help, as if she simply didn’t understand.

She switched to another channel, surveyed the situation near Lock 3, and issued a quick burst of override orders directly through her neural tap to stop an overheating valve from melting a hole in the vac-wall. Then back to Carl: “Look, I can’t do it right now.”

—How come?—Was that a petulant, irritated tone? Well, the hell with him.

“Because I’m up to my ass in alligators!” she shouted, and broke the connection.

It felt good.

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