Mia dropped to a crouch under the sound of the blasts. Bright bursts of light and thick roiling smoke erupted all around the perimeter of the gallery. The constant noise of the crowd turned to a cacophony of screams and panicked shouts. Mia could not hear her link over the onslaught of noise. She searched the front ranks of spectators as they alternately dropped to the floor or tried to rush for the exits. The station robots stood motionless as if suddenly switched off.
Security-everyone’s-ordered the assembled dignitaries to get to the floor. As Mia turned, she could not immediately locate Eliton. He had been clasping hands with Ambassador Humadros, who now stood right there, looking around, confused.
Mattu rushed toward her, waving his arms like great wings. “Down! Down! Down!”
Mia flinched at the sharp percussive sounds of projectile weapons fire. As she began to wheel around once more she saw several people on the platform jerk and dance in a macabre ballet, their clothes erupting in splotches of red. She continued turning, dropping to one knee, blaster coming to bear. She saw people in black standing in the thick of the crowd, aiming weapons at the platform, the barrels jerking spasmodically. She heard the highpitched whine of projectiles cutting the air around her, to left and right.
Mia aimed automatically, picking one target after another, partly hypnotized by her own efficiency as they fell.
But there were so many…
And some did not fall, even though she knew she had hit them…
“We have total penetration!” she heard Mattu yell through the link. “Total-!”
Silence. More explosions. The mob was in full terrified retreat, jamming itself against the exits, bottling itself in its mindless haste. The immobile station robots fell, trampled by the stampede.
All comlinks had been routed through the RI, but it seemed now that the RI had shut down.
“Bogard, switch to team link,” she shouted, hoping the robot could hear her over the noise. “Do you have Parcel?”
Bogard did not answer immediately, and a swift brush of fear trailed down Mia’s spine.
“Agent Daventri. I require assistance.” Bogard’s voice came through clearly, deceptively calm, on the team channel.
Mia risked a glance over her shoulder. Bogard stared back at her, shorter now, its torso flared out into an encircling shield, and she knew Eliton was in the center of that small but impenetrable enclosure of amalloy.
“Ambassador Humadros,” Bogard said. “Senator Eliton is demanding I protect her.”
Mia scanned the crowd around them and found the ambassador, huddling about five meters to Bogard’s right, her hands hovering uselessly about her head. She looked completely abandoned by reason, eyes wide and staring, unseeing. Mia started toward her.
A body collided with her and she staggered back, bringing her free hand up defensively to fend off an attack. But it was no assault, only one of the unfortunate dead, caught by gunfire, his falling, lifeless body torn up and bleeding.
In that moment, she saw Bogard retract its shield from around Eliton. The Senator staggered away from it, redfaced and shouting, pointing at Ambassador Humadros.
That should have been impossible, she knew. Eliton was Bogard’s primary concern, and only a specifically coded command could change that. Nevertheless, Bogard moved away from Eliton, toward the Spacers. It moved slowly, uncertainly, as if resisting the instruction.
But now, Eliton was exposed. Mia moved toward him, turning around to face the assault. Her heel suddenly caught on something and she raised her leg to step over it, then glanced down at the obstruction; the body of one of the Aurorans. It surprised her; the woman looked like she was sleeping, eyes closed easily, lips slightly parted. Mia shuddered and forced her attention back on the edge of the platform.
Black-masked gunmen leaned against it now, spraying the assembly. Mia began taking them out, one by one, down the line, walking backward as she did, waiting for the inevitable projectile that would stop her.
When it did, she stumbled, falling over, and found herself staring up at the ceiling arching high above.
I’m hit, she thought. I’m dying…
Then she rolled over. She pressed a hand against the soreness spreading across her left side. Her ribs ached, but her hand came away from the bruised ‘area dry. She blinked and looked around and found that another body had struck her, its head still in her lap, eyes staring emptily upward. She shoved it away and scooted back.
Far more people than seemed possible still stood, huddling against each other. As she watched, a few more fell, bodies twitching under the deafening gunfire. Mia had never seen anything like this. Training simulations covered lone target situations, energy weapons, area-wide toxins-
Why hasn’t the tranq gas been released? she wondered.
The points along the rib supports for the walls and ceiling that housed the nonlethal gas dispensers appeared unopened. The gallery security system had failed; Union Station’s positronic Resident Intelligence apparently was not functioning.
“One!” Mia yelled. “Wing Three here! We have systems failure, we have-“.
Her earpiece remained dully silent. All com was down. Then she remembered that it also had been routed through the RI for convenience, so the positronic brain could manage all the coordination without the complications of competing com systems. The only com she had was the direct link to Bogard and it, too, had been linked to the RI.
Mia recovered her blaster and got to her feet. She looked for Eliton.
She found him lying in a heap, blood spattered across his chest. Bogard stood over him, immobile. Nearby, she saw Ambassador Humadros, also dead.
She tried the com anyway, scanning the massacre for her teammates. “Wing Two, Wing One, this is Wing Three. Parcel is down! Repeat, Parcel is down!”
All she heard was the faint hiss of a disconnected link.
“Wing One, Wing Two,” she called. Nothing. “Bogard, respond.”
There was a click. Then: “I-I-I-“
The staccato skipping in the link added to the fear rising in her.
“Bogard, reestablish,” she commanded. “Local parameter, Mia respond. Confirm.”
“Bogard, new priority, on me. Omega-five catalogue reset. Respond.”
“Discontinue uplink to Union Station Resident Intelligence.”
“Uplinking-up-uplink incomplete. Protocol rejected. Discontinued.”
Abruptly, the assassins began to retreat. Mia watched, dismayed, as they backed from the edge of the platform. It seemed to her that some of them vanished even as she stared directly at them. They fired their weapons over their heads, driving people away from them, opening paths. She saw one of them grab a man by the arm and toss him against several others, using him as a ram to force his way through. The mound of people crushed together near her still comprised many survivors, the dead sprawled around the perimeter of the huddle as though discarded from its midst.
“What the-?” she muttered. “Bogard, with me. Track assailants. Locate likeliest apprehension.”
She felt Bogard alongside her before she saw it move. It towered over her and she could feel its attention directed at the retreating forms.
“Three confirmed.” A bright red tracer beam reached out over the heads of the still rippling crowd to identify three figures in black.
“With me,” she repeated and jumped to the floor. Her ribcage throbbed.
She struck the edge of the mob and began shoving. It was like trying to do sculpture in water. Panicked faces stared at her, brief glimpses of the hidden parts of strangers that she might never have seen, might never see again, stripped of their calm civility and complacent sophistication. She thought she understood. Their systems had failed them, the world that coddled and protected them now showed them how much they depended on what they could not do for themselves. They were vulnerable, probably for the first time in any of their lives, and there were no rules to follow, no plan, no direction. Hands reached for her, eyes begged her-she seemed the only one acting in all this chaos, able to choose, to decide-but Mia batted and brushed them all aside and forced her way through.
In truth, these people had nowhere to go. They were packed together. As she neared the far wall she saw why. The doors were sealed. The preparatory phase for pacification had occurred and all the exits had been closed, waiting for phase two, the release of the gas.
Suddenly, people simply backed away from her, jamming themselves against each other in renewed hysteria. She glanced back and saw Bogard, right at her heels, its shoulders stretching wide, presenting a visible though false menace.
“Still have them, Bogard?”
Finally, Mia broke free of the press. Before her rose an expanse of wall mottled by the rich veining of blue marble. Off to the right, another wall stood away from the main wall, making a passage which gave access to the service warrens.
The door was open.
“Through here, Bogard?”
Mia hesitated at the service door and peered around. Bogard touched her shoulder gently and drew her back, then moved through the access.
She rounded the edge, weapon ready.
To her immediate right were office cubicles; to the left, storage lockers. Directly ahead, a conveyor ran from a large turntable deeper into a sporadically-lit maze down a short corridor. A confusing jumble of conduit, cable, and assemblages filled the space, hanging from the ceiling or rising from the floor, creating mosaics of light and shadow.
The sound of many feet marching in quicktime echoed around the labyrinth. Mia pressed against the short wall of the first cubicle and waited.
A column of maintenance robots filed by, in almost comic imitation of a military drill. They pivoted precisely at the turntable and continued on into the depths.
“Bogard, do you still have a track on our targets?”
“Faint IR trace on the floor. Clear but fading.”
The robot seemed to flow across the floor, its torso leaning forward into a streamline profile, feet appearing to glide as if on rollers. Soundless. In the mottling illumination, it seemed to alter its shape, and as she fell in behind it, she saw that its angle and configuration could cover her own silhouette.
It turned left down a narrower passage, along a line of ready niches for robots. Many were vacant, but several still contained robots, stiffly cradled like corpses, giving no outward sign of activity.
Bogard stopped. Mia squeezed alongside it, crouching low.
Tables and cargo cubes had been shoved together to open up a fairly large area of floor. Within the loose ring formed, several robots moved in and out of patterns that resembled fighting in progress. They swung their limbs, kicked, ducked, jabbed, rushed and retreated-but none of them ever connected with a blow. Like a dance set to no rhythm, highly-choreographed, they weaved through the mock combat with machine precision.
“Bogard, what’s happening?”
“I still cannot access the Resident Intelligence. I have no explanation.”
Bogard started again, skirting the edge of the scene. Abruptly, two robots broke away from the fight and blocked its way.
“Halt,” one demanded. “Stand and declare-“
In a single, fluid motion, Bogard brushed one robot into its companion and hurled them back into the dance. Mia saw several others move deftly to avoid them as they clattered across the floor.
At the next junction, Bogard hesitated again.
“They have divided,” it said. “One went that direction” it indicated a twisting path through a canyon of machine housings to the left “-two went this way.” The right-hand trail led down a short flight of stairs to another service corridor. “Just a moment. I have com traffic which I presume is between our targets.”
“Let me hear.”
The receiver in her ear snapped sharply to life.
“-lost in the service section. We don’t have an egress.”
“Your orders were to stay off com until outside the facility.”
“Fine, but we can’t get outside the damn facility if we can’t find a way out!”
A few seconds later, a new voice came on.
“This is Platoon One. What’s the problem?”
“Platoon One, this is Lemus. We got separated from the main body, we’re in the service section-no egress. We lost Wollins, and the tinheads are dancing like crazies back here”
“You stay off com from this point,” Platoon One ordered. “You find a corridor marked ‘EXD’ and follow it without deviation. Do you copy?”
“And stop using names on the com. No further communications will be accepted until we link up. Platoon One out.”
The receiver went dead.
Mia indicated the service corridor. “Bogard, find them. Apprehend and subdue. Can you locate that corridor?”
“Yes.” It took only a moment for Bogard to weigh the command against its First Law imperative. “You will go after the remaining target?”
“I will. I will exercise extreme caution. We want them alive, Bogard.”
“You risk injury.”
“Personal prerogative, acceptable level of risk. They are dangerous.” personal prerogative, acceptable level of risk, they are dangerous, assignation of priority levels to establish response protocols as follows: assertion of personal prerogative indicates acceptance of possible harm in lieu of protections necessitated per First and Second Law parameters, access file Daventri, Mia, level of competence involving personal risk, assign acceptability algorithms to assess potential for failure under circumstances where injury is likely, experiential indicators sufficient, acceptable level of risk within personal prerogative parameters, alleviation of immediate requirements, applied against level of danger indicated by permitting target to escape, indicate accurate assessment of potentials, First and Second Law requirements shift locus then to hypothetical threats posed by failure to accept revised protocols, necessitate risk accommodation, temporary and contingent upon verification of status, Daventri Mia Mia waited less than a second for Bogard to prioritize the instruction.
“I understand,” it said. “You will indicate changed risk status.”
It flowed down the stairs, into the service corridor, and disappeared.
Mia sighed, relieved. Bogard processed situations according to a complex set of risk protocols that allowed it to function more creatively than its more rigidly structured cousins, but she still expected it to be a Three Law purist when it had to allow a human to take a personal risk. This time it had to be assured that if she got into trouble she would call for help.
Pulse beating insistently in her ears, she entered the claustrophobic pathway. If these three had split up, then everything was not going as smoothly as they had probably planned.
The passage seemed to be a space between large ventilator funnels and bundles of communication threads-part of the ubiquitous Resident Intelligence system which supposedly oversaw all aspects of facility operation-and the bulkier conveyor system that transported all nonliving material throughout the complex.
She passed a skinny opening that led into the wider main passage, then came to a cluster of machine forms-spheres, boxes, conduit, braces-impossible to slip through. She backed up to the opening and eased through.
Across from her, the kitchen that served the entire complex ran the width of the space, from the wall of the main gallery to the outer shell. Bright, mirrored surfaces reflected color coding and the geometries of cookery, a fully automated food processing plant with only a few robots to supervise and troubleshoot the occasional problem. At the moment, nothing within the kitchen area moved. Mia spotted a robot, frozen in place before a flickering monitor.
She sprinted across the floor and dropped to one knee by the low wall that marked the kitchen’s boundary. If the Resident Intelligence were functioning, she could have used it to track her target. But the com in her ear remained silent, a thick empty nonsound.
Mia glanced over the top of the wall, then scurried to the nearest access and around the edge. The air smelled of yeast and oil and warm flour. She crept along to the robot she had seen and looked up at the monitor it stared into.
Manifests scrolled over it, one after another, too fast for her to read, but she caught references to food stuffs, medical supplies, and clothing, in enormous quantities. As she watched, the monitor went blank. Then the bright green words PLEASE WAIT appeared and a few seconds later, a request form for several lunch items filled the screen. The robot seemed to waver, then stepped back.
“-report now! We have people down!” broke in her ear. Mia winced, startled.
“This is a restricted area,” the robot said, turning to face her. “Humans are not-“
A burst of gunfire ricochetted around them, staggering the robot. Mia spun away, but her right arm suddenly snapped back, taking her with it, knocking her to the floor. Two more impacts caught her in the right leg and ribs; the wind left her lungs painfully.
Is this when I should call for help…? She dragged herself across the floor with her uninjured arm till she came to a space beneath a food preparation table, and pulled herself under the metal expanse.
She touched her earpiece and reduced the volume of her link. She heard feet running toward her.
“Sir, this is a restricted area-” another drone began to say.
Mia craned her head and saw the base of a small transport drone. Then booted, human feet. The drone shifted to block the human and repeated its message.
Mia still held her pistol, limply, and managed to shift it to her left hand. She pushed herself close to the edge of the crawlspace, next to one of the support legs. She set the pistol down and took hold of the metal shaft.
“Back away!” the human ordered the drone.
The human bolted around the robot and started forward. Mia braced, then swung her legs out from beneath her cover. She caught him across the shins and he tumbled, arms spread wide, and slapped the floor.
She snatched her pistol and wriggled out, coming up on her knees, weapon leveled. Her right leg burned hideously, the muscle trembling. Black pinpoints seemed to pulse at the periphery of her vision.
The man also recovered, turning toward her with a short, black weapon cradled in both hands.
“Stop!” she shouted.
He brought his weapon up.
Mia fired. The bolt of energy smacked against his head, kicking him backward. His weapon rattled across the floor.
Mia slumped against the cabinet, her right arm a length of agony, each breath like the pinch of giant fingers. She felt clammy, and the bright black and silver pinpoints danced more frantically, growing in number.
“Ma’am, do you require assistance?”
The transport drone had rolled alongside her. She blinked at it, wondering at the slight panic she heard in its voice, and wondered why a drone would panic. Then she remembered that it was being run by the RI, which was positronic. But the RI was not responding, had gone off line for some reason. Was it back now, along with everything else that no longer made sense?
“Ma’am, do you require assistance?” the drone repeated.
“Yes, I-” She dropped her pistol and touched fingertips to her arm; they came away damp. She swallowed hard and looked at the bright red liquid on them. A chill scraped down her neck, across her back. When did that happen? She tried to catalogue her injuries, struggling for consciousness, but she kept forgetting where she started. Leg, ribs, arm, ribs, arm, leg…
The renewed com chattered in her ear insistently.
“-ambulances right now! We’ve got at least twenty down! Get us priority-“
She touched the button, changing the channel.
“Both targets apprehended and subdued. Returning to your position.”
She had never passed out before, and it came as a surprise and a frustration and a peculiar anger that she was losing control so fast.
The transport robot asked again, “Ma’am, do you require assistance? Ma’am…?”