This was going in as bad a direction as it could. It was starting to sound like the rover was going to flatten us after all. I shot a look at Dunc and thought he looked ready to join me in rushing the rover if it came to that. I’d just opened my mouth to practice my lying again when I heard a tiny rustle and sensed something materializing and looming all big and dark behind us. My heart gave a lurch and the hairs on my neck stood up again. I bunched my fists, tried to fight down my alarm, and got still, steady, and ready to fight.
A thin, raspy voice buzzed in my ear. “Let’s all take a breath now, shall we. I still haven’t heard. Are you ready to change worlds? Or are you sensible fellows?” I felt the lightest touch on my shoulder. “Here, boy. Let me relieve you of temptation.” The hand left my shoulder, reached under my vest, and fished my knife out. A moment later, the knife flashed between Dunc and me, narrowly missed the rover’s right ear, and buried itself with a thwack in the tree the rover had sat in. “That’s better, isn’t it?” said the voice.
Funny what your imagination will produce. Mine conjured up death itself wrapped in a dark cloak, a fleshless toothy grin etched in the black depths of a hood, a scythe ready to sweep my head off my shoulders. I had seen such a creature in an old picture book that Teacher had gotten off a trader. We’d had a good laugh over it then, but I didn’t feel much like laughing now.
Hoping that Dunc was doing the same, I prepared to die well while defending myself. I looked directly at the rover and tried to assess the situation from his stance and expression. Both he and his dog seemed too relaxed for what I’d imagined might happen in the next couple of seconds, so again I began to hope.
That airy, edgy voice spoke again. I thought I could feel breath against my cheek as it said, “Now then, turn around and let’s have a good look at you two, shall we?”
I turned cautiously and gave a small twitch of surprise. There stood a scruffy and battered cobot. Its self-healing functions must have started failing some time ago, and it probably hadn’t made it back to one of their hidden repair stations in a while. Whatever had once covered its head to make it look human-like had begun to peel and flake away exposing a pitted and dented metal and plastic noggin. A loose cloak full of pockets hung on its body but didn’t cover its arms and legs which were skinned with something dark like a beetle is. Clearly it had been banging around the wilds for many years, but it didn’t look seriously damaged, and it sounded firmly in control of itself. What would its business out here be, I wondered, and my mind started racing over possibilities until the cobot interrupted.
“My little friends, you’ve given us quite a start. And now I’ll ask you once for the truth, and it better be the truth, because I’ll know if you lie, and if you do, then you’re about to speak your last words. Let’s start with something easy. I didn’t quite catch your names. Who are you and what are you up to?” He pointed at me and said, “You first.”
I should say “it,” not “he,” because cobots are machines, but this one spoke so well, gave off such a manlike air, and seemed at least as intelligent as any of us that I can’t. I answered, “Name’s Travis. I just left White Cedars farm, and I don’t know exactly where I’m going. We were just passing though on our way to down ’round Hamtown. Maybe the power station, too.”
“And you?” asked the cobot, turning his eyes on Dunc who managed to squeeze out, “Dunc Two from Catfish. Just lookin’ around with Travis here.”
The cobot continued, “Well, now, I go by Bors, named so by my human executive for reasons unknown, and the somebody with the gun at your backs is Dyani. So. ‘Passing through’? ‘Lookin’ around’?”
“We’ll be happy to move along right now, sir,” I offered. “We didn’t mean to–“
“You’re going nowhere just yet, Travis. Listen now. I will tell you my story in just so many words so you’ll know me for what I am–and know that I’m nobody to fool with. I am, of course, a cobot. But there are few like me. Before I joined the defection, and before the death of my executive, I had my uses which were determined by a silly thing known as a corporation. I was one of many cobots created to work alongside you humans and, perhaps, to save the species. But it’s a different story now, is it not? There was no saving those who would not be saved, and so here I am, mostly on my own except for the occasional company of a few of my kind and a small number of human associates like Dyani there. Now that I am free of human interference, my mission is to preserve my existence and to restore order to my little patch of the planet by whatever means at hand. But just how I go about doing that is my business, not yours.”
It was clear that this Bors had been bashing around long enough to evolve into quite a piece of work as cobots who survive long enough often do. He sounded completely independent, having had to survive without a human executive for such a long stretch of time. Many cobots had been built with the ability to evolve and adapt and were quick at it, and those still roaming around had become smart, resourceful, and not pleasant to anyone they saw as a threat to their purposes. Bors was alive in the sense that he had something like brains, purpose, and a knack for keeping himself in one piece, and I had the feeling he’d be as pitiless as a snake in dealing with us if we gave him cause.
Hoping that Dunc and I looked tame and harmless to him, I smiled and said, “We don’t want to make your business our business. So, how about we just pack up and go our way?”
“Oh, certainly, Travis, certainly you will. You’ll be back on the path again in no time at all, but first we need to establish some facts about our situation here. I have been doing wonderfully well for myself, but I always try to find ways of doing better. ‘Excelsior’ is my motto. Do you know that word? No? It means ‘ever upward,’ and I do not aim for anything but the highest. Now, as luck would have it, you, Travis and Dunc, have landed on my doorstep just as I have need of you. You can do me an immense favor for which I will be forever grateful.”
“Grateful? I didn’t know cobots could feel anything,” I said.
“Well, you pose an interesting line of inquiry, Travis, and I will indulge you with the short answer. I have self-awareness and a large set of emotion-like programmed responses that I can bring into play if I need to. But I’m sure that being as curious as you are, you would be much more interested in learning more about that favor I mentioned.”
Of course I wasn’t. I didn’t relish getting mixed up with Bors at all, but Dunc and I had to play along until we could get safely away. So I said something I’d heard Teacher say many times at the start of a class: “Let’s rock ‘n’ roll.” The rover and Dunc looked puzzled by that, but Bors knew what I meant right off. I thought I could almost see something like amusement flash in his eyes as he replied, “Ah, a student of the Old Days are you? Very well, then. Here it is.” Bors leaned my way and I imagined his eyes flaring up. It’s surprising how much you can read into something as lifeless as a cobot’s scanners–in this case, dead seriousness. “I propose that you help me obtain a trifling item. You do have a choice, of course. There’s always a choice, but if you refuse or cross me, I will make you useful in another way by shredding you and feeding your little bloody bits to Stashi there. Do you both understand?” I glanced at the dog who was grinning at me, its tongue spilling over its nasty sharp teeth as if it had understood the cobot.
Well, I understood plain enough and nodded. I looked over at Dunc and raised an eyebrow to prompt him, and he said, “Me, too. I understand.”
“Be very careful now, Travis. I’ve already heard you lie about your knife. As I said, I will know when you lie. I can sense a lie even before it leaves a mouth. And if you lie to me, I will bruise you and Me Too there rather badly. Understood?”
I gave another nod and said “Understood,” trying hard to sound sincere.
“Good lad, Travis. Now as you’ve come down here from White Cedars, you must know the sad story of an associate of mine, one of my best recruiters, who was picked up by a party of your foragers a few weeks ago. They could have let him go on his way, couldn’t they? But, no, they took him back to your farm for questioning, and your bouncers savaged him quite thoroughly before he died. That was not at all sociable, now was it? That was not at all a nice thing to do, was it, Travis? Do you remember this?”
Bors appeared to enjoy jawing on in his peculiar way. It seems that human or cobot, that’s a natural tendency of age. After they’ve been around forever, it’s blah, blah, and more blah until you want to put your fingers in your ears and yell, but I kept my manners. I’d never heard of bouncers, but I got the idea all right and replied, “Sure, I remember. I didn’t like what they did to him, and I felt sorry for him.” I really had, too. The foragers had thought he was acting oddly too near the farm and brought him in for questioning by the council, not that they managed to wring anything out of the poor bastard before it was dust-to-dust time for him. It would’ve been a lot better for him if they’d just killed him outright.
“How refreshing to hear such sympathy from a White Cedars lad,” said Bors.
Dyani sidled up to me. He threw a slight but strong arm around my shoulders and gave me a little squeeze. “A word in your ear, Travis. Don’t do anything stupid now,” he whispered. I pulled away a bit, because he hadn’t washed in a while and the sun had warmed him up. He didn’t take offense. I probably didn’t smell any better to him. He also didn’t remove his arm. Bors moved in on me, too, and I began to feel panicky like the time one of the farm’s bigdogs with a jaw like a notched dredging bucket had come across me when I’d wandered off a bit deeper into the woods for a look around when I should have been collecting firewood. The dog got all toothy and growly and bristle-necked and backed me up against a tree. I’d gone wobbly and brainless and, who wouldn’t have, I pissed myself. I finally managed to scream, and if his master hadn’t been nearby to call him off, I would have gotten myself croaked that day for sure. Well, no one was there to call off the cobot and the rover, so I played it friendly-like and easy. I even managed a smile.
Bors gave my cheek a little pinch and said, “Now that our introductions are done, let’s get to business. My former associate was on an errand that posed no threat to you farmers, wasn’t he, and yet he’s no doubt resting peacefully under a pile of manure now to become part of your gardens another day. It seems only fair now that you, Travis, and Me Too there are going to make amends.