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A Background Nuisance

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The door to Kiy Uvanov’s office at Company Central was immune to his charms.

“This is ridiculous,” said Uvanov as he kicked the jammed door in anger.

“Call for a robot to break the door down,” suggested Iago, who was the only other person in the corridor.

“It’ll be a robot’s fault it’s stuck. There is something blocking the door and it doesn’t take a Tarenist to work out what it is. It’s only a door and getting a robot to force it open would be an inappropriate use of force,” said Uvanov, testily.

“The lumbering human equivalent of a dum will hardly be able to shift it either.”

“Can’t you blast it open?”

“I don’t carry any firearms that powerful on my person.”

“Why not? You are my personal bodyguard.”

“Security consultant,” corrected Iago.

“Bodyguard,” said Uvanov, who thought he’d been right the first time. “What if a crazed fanatic was to jump out and attack me?”

“I’d shoot them with a less powerful firearm. Look, there’s some material caught underneath the door.”

“So there is,” said Uvanov.

Iago crouched down to examine the cloth and pulled a knife out of his boot. Sometimes the old ways were the best. “It appears to be jamming the door.” Iago used his knife to cut the cloth away. “There.” Iago stood and tapped at the door’s keypad. The door smoothly slid open. Neither of them were surprised to find the material came from the clothing of a dead man and he wasn’t the only corpse in the office. Four days ago one cadaver was found on the flyer pad at Company Central. Since then dead bodies had been left in and around Company Central, going up by one extra victim each day.

“Oh, they’ve been having fun today, haven’t they? More than one body again,” said Uvanov, stepping over the corpse into his office. He picked his way around the corpses to his desk. “I see the killer has made it up to five today. If they were clever they would’ve gone for a different amount. I’ll tell Rull to check for six bodies tomorrow. Why do these sick bastards insist on using my office as a mortuary? Look at the blood on the desk! It’s an antique, you know. I’m tired of having to change rooms to keep all these homicidal maniacs guessing where I'm going to be working. I used to have a nice view, now it’s industrial heating ducts - it’s not suitable for the Chairholder of the Board, is it?” Uvanov sighed, before continuing, “Let’s see how they were murdered, shall we?”

Iago leaned down to examine the nearest body to him. “There‘s bruising around the throat and the mouth. The killer must have grabbed the victim from behind and put his hand round their mouth to keep them quiet.”

“I can see the marks from over here. Whoever did it must have been very strong.”

“The bruising is too heavy to have been made by most human hands. So we’ve either got a superhuman in the building and the only person of the right proportions is Rull and he’s pure lard or…” Iago tailed off.

“Robots! Why can’t we tell everyone that robots aren’t one hundred percent safe? If I can live with the knowledge, I don’t see why the rest of the population can’t. Isn’t it the “in” thing to have human servants instead of robots, anyway?” said Uvanov.

“Only for the very rich who can afford to pay a regular salary,” replied Iago.

“There are plenty of sewerpit scum with nothing to do - it’ll give them a purpose in life.”

“I can’t see Night-stalkers giving up the thrill of hunting down citizens to clean toilets.”

“Maybe not.” Uvanov crouched next to a victim and squinted at the others. “Hey! The body next to this one has the same features as the woman over by the window. They must be cyborg-class clones. Great - more intelligent than your average supervoc and they look completely human. Try to think up a security measure against them, Iago. You can’t!” Uvanov rocked back on his feet and grabbed the edge of the table to steady himself.

“Calm down, these aren’t robot clones.”

“Oh, and you would know, would you? You weren’t here when that little experiment ran amuck.”

“They’re not clones, they’re twins.”

Uvanov stood up. “Same difference: clone, twin, look-a-like, all identical, all the same. I expect the cyborgs were programmed to stop working once their grisly task was complete.”

“No, they’re real human twins and they’re not identical,” stated Iago.

“They look very identical from where I am standing.”

Iago smiled. “One of them has a mole on her inner thigh, while her sister has one next to her navel.”

“How do you - Oh. I was wondering why I felt so calm. These killings are all for your benefit. It’s a jealous lover after you, not me!”

Iago had thought that, after going on for hours yesterday on how everyone had it in for him, even Uvanov had run out of the energy needed to constantly churn out paranoid variations on a theme. He’d been wrong, of course.

“Unlikely, as they were both single, and it was their friend, Petra, who invited me to spend a night with her and the twins. If Petra had plotted this, then she wouldn’t be lying dead in the corner.”

“Petra! Not Petra my replacement executive assistant?”

“Yes.”

“That’ll shut Justina up. She won’t whine about me making her take her annual leave early again. It could have been her lying there. I wish you’d stop screwing my staff, Iago. I’m tempted to take on a supervoc as a secretary, but I don‘t want to know where you would get electrocuted. Not that it takes much imagination to guess where. What about the others?”

“Others?”

“Slept with any of them?”

“No, nor the previous days victims. But they’re all staff I’ve met around Company Central.”

“You, me and the rest of the Board. That is hardly helpful. I can’t do any work here - I’ll use the conference room before the rest of the Board turn up for this afternoon’s meeting. Get it cleaned up in here and my office furniture moved back to the executive level. I can’t remember which rooms have had murders committed in them and which haven’t, so it seems pointless staying here, and I miss having a view.”

“I’m not your P.A.”

“You will be until I get a temp to replace the temp - I pay you enough. All you have to do to is find someone to order around. Meet me back at the conference room once you’ve finished. After that we’ve got a day to stop six more corpses falling out of a cupboard and most importantly make sure I’m not one of them.”

With that, Uvanov swept out of the office.

****

Uvanov kicked the ornate double doors to the conference room open. He wasn’t in the best of moods. Avoiding assassination, and having to hush up the actions of robotic killers to ensure society did not collapse, was not what Uvanov had thought his main challenges of being the Chairholder of the Board would be.

“What are you doing here? The meeting isn’t for hours,” exclaimed Uvanov on seeing Landerchild directly in front of him.

“Really, Firstmaster Chairholder, six good Company members, including three of my staff, have been murdered and deposited in this room and all you can think about is criticising your brother Firstmaster’s devotion to Board duty by coming in early,” said Landerchild.

“My mind was momentarily stunned by the scene,” retorted Uvanov.

Looking beyond Landerchild, he saw six corpses sat in chairs around a large, oval table. One was in his place. Unbelievable!

On one side of the room were two young women, who were, for a change, alive. One was Izza Martinque, a new member of the Board. She was comforting her assistant, Liburra Bajpai. Get used to it, girl, if you want to get involved with the Board, thought Uvanov.

“Stunned you say? I am surprised. You must be used to the murder and mayhem that has dogged the Board since you became Chairholder by now. It’s a shame my fellow Board members prefer to vote on who can increase their profits, rather than provide security,” said Landerchild.

“Profits provide security,” replied Uvanov.

Bajpai spoke through sobs, “What kind of monster could do such a terrible thing?”

“Monster? It’s robots!” snapped Uvanov. Two piles of bodies in one morning were a bit much, even for Uvanov. Was the killer arranging seven more cadavers in the lift as he spoke?

“Robots? But robots don’t kill - their programming prevents it,” said Martinque, incredulous.

“No, robots don’t kill,” echoed Bajpai.

Uvanov stomped up to the nearest corpse. “Look - this is strangulation done by a robot. The bruises are more livid, because a robot is far more powerful than any human. The finger marks are a giveaway.” He pointed at the dead man’s neck.

“People in extreme emotional states have superhuman strength. I know - I did my dissertation on it,” said Martinque, knowledgably.

“Steroids, it’s steroids,” stuttered Bajpai.

“What? Speak up,” snapped Uvanov.

Bajpai babbled incomprehensibly before she managed to get some words out, “…did it. He was on steroids. They made him ripped. He’d fly off the handle at the littlest thing and smash stuff.”

“Who did it? If you’re going to cry, try to be comprehensible when you talk,” said Uvanov.

“Don’t speak to my personal assistant like that,” said Martinque, sharply.

“Tears are a waste of time. By the time you have started sobbing it’s all too late. Be rational. Look at the way the bodies are arranged. This isn’t the work of a beefed-up psycho suddenly flipping his lid. Someone has planned this,” said Uvanov.

“Whereas the idea of a robot on the rampage is an entirely commonsense notion, especially when you have been given sensible explanations for the kind of person who would commit these depraved acts. I fear you’re coming down with Grimwade’s Syndrome, Firstmaster Chairholder,” said Landerchild.

“Robophobia,” said Martinque and Bajpai together, in alarm.

Landerchild smirked as a voc pushing a refreshments trolley entered the room. It was oblivious to the cadavers surrounding it. “Didn’t your storm miner crews have a higher than normal rate of robophobics amongst them, Uvanov? Perhaps you’re suffering from a delayed reaction, caused by the stress of being Chairholder.”

“I am not coming down with Grimwade’s. I’ll call that voc over to prove it. Voc get me a drink,” said Uvanov and snapped his fingers.

You bastard. You are not getting rid of me that way. I would remind you of your part in allowing robots to be modified as assassins, if I didn’t think you would deny it and get the two wets to call the medvocs in white coats to take me away, fumed Uvanov internally.

“What would you like, Firstmaster?” said the robot smoothly, in its singsong voice.

“Just water will do.”

“Certainly, Firstmaster. Would you like mineral, sparkling, mountain dew, volcanic spa, desert well…?”

Uvanov cut in impatiently, “Give me a glass of plain mineral and be quick about it.”

The voc poured a bottle of water into a glass, put it on a tray and brought it over.

“Hand me the glass then,” said Uvanov, to the robot waiting for him to take the glass off the tray. He didn’t want anyone to suggest he should go and live in the hills, where it was twenty-five miles to the nearest robot, like Lish Toos.

“Certainly, Firstmaster.”

Uvanov took the glass from the voc and his fingertips brushed against the robot’s hand. Normally, he could tolerate robots, often he was so caught up in his latest scheme he forgot what they could do, but the cool touch of the voc reminded him of the time robots had attacked him and his crew. He quickly glanced down to check for telltale bloodstains on the mechanical man’s fingers. To his relief he saw none, but it didn’t stop him from hearing Poul’s screams in his head. The rescue team had brought a medvoc to examine the unlucky mover, when they came off Storm Mine Four.

Perhaps a life in the mountains of Zone 12 wouldn’t be so bad, thought Uvanov, but then he would have to relinquish power and at least his mansion was robot free.

Uvanov lifted his glass and although his nerves were telling him to run, he kept perfectly calm on the surface. “Cheers. Didn’t run out of the room screaming, did I?” he said, sarcastically.

Did Landerchild really think by mentioning Grimwade’s Uvanov would have a nervous collapse? He had easily outwitted Landerchild’s attempt to humiliate him, so why did he feel like he hadn‘t?

“It’s not our job to chase down murderers - we need a Company detective. Out of respect for the dead, this afternoon’s meeting will have to be cancelled,” said Martinque.

Landerchild and Uvanov had to agree it was the best course of action.

****

On the way back to his, soon to be former, office, Uvanov walked faster than normal. It was partly in an attempt to dispel the adrenaline that had surged through his veins. After accidentally touching the voc, he had had to control his emotions, which he didn’t do very often. Now he badly wanted someone to take his temper out on, but the corridor was empty. Anger and hatred swept over him. Hatred of robots, hatred of Taren Capel for showing him robots were to be feared.

He took that feeling out on an innocent ornamental fern, kicking over its pot as he passed. He felt a little better for ruining Company Central’s brand new carpet.

If he could act as if he was unafraid of robots, why hadn’t his unease gone away? He didn’t twitch like Poul. What was the weakness that stopped him jumping that final hurdle into full immunity from fear?

The fact that it wasn’t an illogical fear. He knew robots were murderous children and there was no way to tell they‘d been tinkered with until it was too late.

Uvanov decided he didn’t want to be unafraid - it was safer that way. If you were scared then you must still be alive. Stick your head in the clouds and you don’t know a stun-kill has been fired until you see your knees flying across to the other side of the desert, as the old saying went. He kicked what he thought was a stunted bush in bloom over. In actuality, it was a bin with a discarded bunch of flowers dumped in it. If he hadn’t been less than satisfied at the bin’s trajectory, Uvanov would have noticed a scrunched-up piece of paper roll out from inside the bin. The paper contained information he could have used to blackmail Landerchild.

What annoyed Uvanov most of all was that someone had put a body in his seat around the Board’s table. He wouldn’t be surprised if Landerchild had done it just to spite him. Why his chair? There were plenty of other spaces. He hoped he found out who the culprit was. He would enjoy having them flayed alive - if it was legal. If not, he would find a forgotten clause in the law.

The next plant that received his attentions was a large Swiss Cheese Plant. As it fell, he had to jump back to avoid being crushed by it. The sound of the plant crashing to the ground jolted him out of his thoughts.

Watching from the other side of the felled greenery was Iago.

Uvanov strode over the foliage as if it wasn‘t there. “Iago, where have you been? You are my personal bodyguard remember,” he said, irritably.

“Security consultant,” said Iago, automatically.

“The murderer is picking up speed. There are six bodies in the conference room. Bloody Landerchild was there, and one of the new children and her PA. They want to get a Company detective to investigate. I don’t see the point as they’ve rejected the idea a robot could have done it.”

“The robot will be under someone’s control. Commissioning a detective to investigate is the most sensible course of action.”

“I’m not having some nosy Company half-wit questioning me about my affairs, while I‘m trying to work.”

Iago raised an eyebrow - Uvanov didn’t have any affairs to investigate.

“As you know all my political affairs -”

Ah, those sorts of affairs, thought Iago.

“Who have I pissed off the most out of the Company members who are still alive?”

Iago didn’t answer.

“Well?” demanded Uvanov.

“I’d need to go out and print a list from a terminal. I don’t have a photographic memory for that amount of data.”

“Is that humour?” said Uvanov.

While Uvanov was talking three men had come out of a lift further on up the corridor. Two of the men wore overalls and carried a tool box between them. The other man was dressed smartly, in a sober grey tunic and trousers. The trio walked down to where Uvanov and Iago were standing outside Uvanov’s office. Two of the men started looking at the sliding door and taking tools out of the workbox. The other turned to Uvanov and inclined his head in greeting, “I’m Svenk Toft, your temporary executive assistant.”

Uvanov gave Toft the once over. Toft was coming up to retirement age, egg-shaped, with a chin receding as far back as his hairline and watery eyes. “Tough luck, Iago, unless you prefer convenience to looks?”

“Was thinking about my private life the reason that you came down the corridor looking like you were going to have a stroke?”

“You’d like to think that, wouldn’t you? Hey, you two: stop messing with the door and move my desk. I’m changing office.”

“It’s not in our contract to shift things. We haven’t received training on how to move office furniture. Get a robot to do it,” said one of the workers.

“If you don’t want to read your contract from the sewer pits, you’ll move my desk now. Is that clear?” ordered Uvanov.

The workers remembered that they’d said they were good team players at their interview and went to get the desk.

“Where to, Firstmaster Chairholder?” asked one of the men.

“Level 24 Southside. Get a move on - I haven‘t got all day,” said Uvanov, impatiently.

The men were having trouble getting the desk to fit through the doorway, and because they hadn’t taken the course on moving large objects, tipped the desk drawer-side down to get it into the hallway. Consequently the drawers and their contents spilled on to the carpet.

“Cretins! You and your families are for the pits!” said Uvanov. He picked some of the contents of the drawers off the floor, before he remembered he hadn’t become a Firstmaster to do things for himself.

“New boy, yes you, pick up my stuff and put it back in the drawers. Do it carefully or you will be more temporary than you can ever imagine,” said Uvanov to Toft.

Uvanov started putting the items he had picked up back into the drawers. One of the objects he held triggered a memory. It was a small, clear box with a button on top and circuit board inside. He turned to Iago, who had been observing the chaotic removals. “I had forgotten about this, Iago. It’s for you. It’s not a bomb; I had it scanned.”

Iago was briefly puzzled as Uvanov passed the box over. “Where did you get this?” he asked, slowly.

“I was asked to pass it on to you at a party. Dull, isn’t it? No wonder I forgot to give it to you, but the giver was memorable. Is it a pet brick? There was a craze for them years ago, has it come around again? It’s hard to keep track of the facile trends of the younger members of the Families.”

“It’s a switch.”

“Yes, I can see it on a wall now.”

“You said the giver was unforgettable.”

“Unusual woman - striking. Can‘t remember her name. She had short, cropped dark hair, going against the current trend for long and feathered. It suited her - they’ll all be copying her next season and her dress was different too.”

“How so?”

“Tight, not following the latest fashion for loose gowns with bell sleeves. The dress looked expensive, with a snake picked out in garnets up one side.” Uvanov illustrated this by undulating an arm, although Iago wasn’t sure if he was alluding to the shape of the snake or the woman. “Her smile was like a crocodile’s. Does the description jog any memories?”

“I’ve met a lot of crocodiles.”

“She remembered you. If you hadn’t been visiting your sick mother, you could have met her. Usually when I have the misfortune to go to a party and mingle, before guests get to what they really want to talk about, they try to impress me with their family lives you know, how marvellous their life partner is, the uncommon cleverness of their rosy-cheeked brats and the whiteness of their picket fence. Like it counts for anything. I didn’t get to be Firstmaster Chairholder of the Company Board with a picket fence, did I?” said Uvanov, starting to rant off topic.

“That could be arranged,” replied Iago.

“What?” Uvanov was confused.

“A picket fence. I know the exact model that would be ideal. Four foot high with a titanium core. White during the day, black at night so it’s invisible. When it goes dark, it lies flat on the ground. If any intruder steps on it, it springs up and impales them. I can get one cheap for fifteen thousand. I don’t know why I haven’t thought of it before - you can’t really be certain of your home security without one.”

Uvanov wasn’t sure that Iago wasn’t having him on half the time and made his security measures up on the spot, to squeeze money out of him. His paranoia, however, made him pay out for protection every time. “I’ll think about it.”

“I don’t think you can afford to - eleven deaths today. You don’t want to be number twelve, do you?”

“All right, I’ll sort it out in the new office. What was I talking about before?”

“You managed to go to a party on your own and talk to a woman.”

“She came to talk to me. She saw me across the room and her eyes lit up.”

“Definitely unusual,” said Iago, under his breath.

“What was that?” said Uvanov. He couldn’t make out what Iago had said, but was immediately suspicious that it was something derogatory.

“I was clearing my throat.”

“I wish you’d get something for that catarrh of yours.” Uvanov mentally made a note to dock Iago’s pay anyway. He was costing him enough in security measures. Iago had failed to mention the expensive, rubber swimming pool, impervious to terrorist attack, that he had recently installed, was also unusable. When Uvanov had jumped in it, he’d bounced straight back out.

Uvanov continued, “Anyway, she made a beeline for me and started talking about you. I couldn’t believe it. Occasionally a Family’s adolescent nuisance will ask if they can hire you out, before falling over a pot plant after one too many alco-pops, but she launched straight into asking where my “decorative” personal bodyguard-”

“Security consultant.”

“-bodyguard was, and gushing on the subject of your extraordinary beauty.” As he spoke, Uvanov scrutinized Iago closely, searching for what he had missed in Iago’s features that everyone else apparently saw. “Amazing.”

“Is that a compliment?”

“Amazing - as in the way she was going on was unbelievable, not your visage,” Uvanov scowled and worried that Iago had noticed how he had been staring at him. “After she had finished going into rhapsodies about your looks and brains, she wanted to know where I hired you from and were they any others like you. I don’t need to pay you a whoring allowance, do I? Then she gave me the box to pass on. A poor gift, if you ask me. I thought it was going to be encrusted with jewels.”

“Was there a card?” asked Iago.

“No, just the box. Odd, isn’t it?” said Uvanov, hoping to get a reaction out of his cool employee.

“Perhaps.” Iago pocketed the box without a glance.

“Is that it?”

“Is that it what?”

“An alluring, mystery woman sends you a gift and you’re not curious?”

“Attractive, anonymous ladies regularly send me tokens of affection. I don’t let it distract me from my work,” said Iago, with a grin.

“How very noble of you.” Uvanov was disgruntled; Iago knew more than he was telling. “Don’t expect me to pass on any more messages for you - I‘m your boss not your errand boy. And try not to miss any more parties. I could‘ve sent you in my absence twice this year, which is two too many. I can‘t remember the last time I had a halfway decent conversation at one. When it comes to it, I can‘t remember the last time I had a decent conversation full stop. Unless you count the internal dialogue in my head, which is hardly any substitute is it? Are you listening to me?”

“You were talking to yourself,” said Iago, as they heard the crash of drawers falling out of the desk, further on up the corridor.

****

The next morning, Uvanov was eating a piece of toast on the way to his home office. Toft and Iago were already there. Iago sat at Uvanov’s desk sorting out his mail and Toft was familiarising himself with Uvanov’s schedule. When Uvanov came in, he ignored Toft and went straight up to Iago.

“Right, have any bodies turned up yet, Iago? If I don’t get any answers soon I will have to pay Carnell an extortionate amount to tell me very little to get to the bottom of this. Well?” he said, through a mouthful of toast.

“No corpses so far,” replied Iago.

“Good. I want you to investigate Martinque.”

“She’s not the type. After a few years on the Board maybe,” said Iago.

“Why because of all the charity work she does, helping the poor on the outskirts of the ‘Pits?” said Uvanov.

“No, because I’ve read her biograph.”

“Profiles can be wrong. Anyone openly doing good deeds is highly suspicious - what is she feeling guilty for?” said Uvanov, skeptically.

Toft spoke up, “There’s no hidden agenda with Matinque. I’ve worked in her office - she doesn’t have enough spare time to get involved in anything underhand. What you see is what you get.”

Uvanov frowned. Was Toft a spy from Matinque, or could he be persuaded to inform on her, once Justina came back and Toft returned to the typing pool? “Have you worked for her for long?”

“Only a couple of months. I was Firstmaster Uy’s executive assistant originally, but she met with an unfortunate accident.”

“I remember. It was very tragic. She was a great lady - we all felt her loss. A rare creature, - we won‘t see her like again,” said Uvanov, his voice thick with fake sincerity.

“Could the Tarenists be behind the deaths?” asked Toft.

“Tarenists may be crazed fanatics, but they are hardly likely to be using a robot assassin, are they? It is entirely possible there is a new band of terrorist lunatics who have decided we need more robots. They‘d probably call themselves The Real Tarenists. Oh God, it’s not Taren Capel, is it?” Uvanov panicked, spinning round as if he expected Capel to appear. Last night, he‘d had a very realistic dream featuring Capel. Was he awake or still asleep? “No, no, dead men don’t come back to life.” Uvanov sat down on the edge of his desk in relief as his momentary confusion dissipated. “Why does it always have to happen to me?”

“If the woman at the party is who I think she is, she will have had a hand in the murders,” said Iago.

Uvanov furrowed his brow. “That box thing - it’s not the equivalent of a corpse marker, is it? This isn’t to do with Zoner gang warfare?”

“No,” said Iago.

“Then why do you think your mysterious fan is sending a robot to lay my tables with victims?”

“She’s ruthless, scheming and not afraid to do anything to get what she wants.”

“I’ll invite her onto the Board next time there’s a vacancy. I want more specific reasons than that, though, before wasting resources checking your exes,” said Uvanov, unimpressed.

“She’s not my ex. She’s…” Iago thought for a moment, “a smuggler. She’s been receiving signals from off-worlders, and wants to make a trade contact against Company policy.”

“It’s not logical for a smuggler to draw attention to their activities. Still, the Company can’t have traders in Zone 5 avoiding duties and taxes. I’ll propose to the Board that the Company should take a closer interest in the outer Zones. They could do with catching up with the technologies available in Kaldor City. Of course, there would be a levy on the Zones to bring them up to date. I can’t see the Board voting against it. It would mean increased power and money in the bank.” Uvanov clapped his hands together and smiled. Today could only go from strength to strength from here.

“If you would like to read your schedule for today, I could type up a draft proposal, Firstmaster Chairholder,” suggested Toft.

Uvanov picked his data pad off the desk, and Iago stood and came round the desk to read the details over Uvanov’s shoulder. “Let’s see what I have to pretend I give a damn about today. Oh look, a visit to a derelict factory for redevelopment - how exciting. What’s it for then?” said Uvanov as he read.

“It’s an initiative put forward by a new charity: The Robophobia Action Charity. They want to develop the building as a centre for the rehabilitation of robophobics. You’ll have to start your own charity, Uvanov. It’s the new trend,” said Iago.

“I would if I could get a massive factory complex rent-free for the first five years, which is what they’re angling for. I doubt they will get an unanimous vote from the Board for that. If they can set up their proposed Lucanol research department in the block in time, then they may get a year, if the Board are in a generous mood.”

“The trustees listed have strong links to the Founding Families,” said Iago.

“Ah yes, I’m forgetting how all the Family members stick together. It’s not charity at all. They are only involved because of the shame afflicted relatives bring to their family‘s good name. They couldn’t give a toss about Grimwade’s in the rest of the population.”

“Apart from exceptionally talented scientists, who refuse to come out of their rooms and finish their top-secret inventions after becoming robophobic,” said Iago.

“Mmm,” agreed Uvanov. “There’s a blurb too. What’s the sob story then? ‘Over the last two decades in Kaldor there has been an inexplicable’ - inexplicable! ‘rise in diagnoses of Grimwade’s Syndrome.’ I can’t think why that might be, can you? And I‘d say the rise has occurred in a shorter period than twenty years, but if they can forget being spooked by robots two years ago then I don‘t suppose we can trust their dating system either. Then again when I was on off on mining tours, robots could have destroyed and rebuilt the whole of Kaldor, for all I know. What other drivel is there? ‘We must work to find a cure before Grimwade’s becomes an epidemic that paralyses society as we know it.’ Very melodramatic. I quite agree with them - the fewer easily deluded idiots there are the harder my job becomes. Why all the fuss now?” wondered Uvanov.

“Specialists have become more adept at identifying the symptoms,” Iago informed him.

“Really?”

“Yes, the main characteristic they look out for is a sucker who has a robot’s hands around their throat.”

“And ends up dead in my bloody office,” finished Uvanov. “If I’d received this memo earlier, I could’ve passed this over to Matinque, as she’s so keen on charity work. I bet she is only helping the poor as a cover to dig up dirt on me in my old neighbourhood. She’ll be lucky.” The movement of guards, across the grounds outside, distracted Uvanov’s attention. “What’s going on outside?”

Iago went to the window for a closer look. “The picket fence has proved its worth.”

“That was quick. I only OK-ed it yesterday,” said Uvanov, in surprise.

“Your security is of paramount importance to me,” said Iago, deadpan.

“What’s the damage?”

“Guess.”

“Seven bodies?”

“Correct.”

“Doesn’t it make it my fault if they’ve been spiked?” said Uvanov, peeved.

“No, they didn’t get that far. Whatever brought the bodies here couldn’t pass the fence.”

“Oh marvellous. It’s still not making me look good, is it?” said Uvanov, fed up.

****

Uvanov walked along with the group of trustees for The Robophobia Action Charity. He was in one of the long corridors inside the deserted factory. Iago was outside with a guard unit, checking for signs of terrorists or other undesirables.

Uvanov had thought the group had wanted the Firstmaster Chairholder to view their proposed site because he was the most powerful man on the planet, but instead they were questioning him about his ill-fated tour on Storm Mine Four. Why wouldn’t people let it go? He was getting irritated at having to go over the details again. They wanted to know what he thought had caused Chief Mover Poul to go doolally. Hadn’t he had a robophobic crewmember on an earlier tour as well? Uvanov mumbled something on how mentally taxing it was being stuck with a group you couldn’t escape from. Some of the party nodded and said they thought it was the trauma of the ore-raiders attack that had broken the Chief Mover’s mind.

At the end of a corridor was a door. The group passed through it and onto the top of a steel staircase. The staircase was interspersed with a series of landings and clung to the wall of a vast, white, warehouse-sized room. Along the other walls ran variously sized industrial pipes and tubes. Once the space had a large amount of bulky machinery installed in it, but it was now stripped bare, apart from the odd fitting sticking up through the floor.

As they clanked down the stairs, shots rang out from below. The group tried to run, but they were too slow. One by one, they fell, including Uvanov.

Chapter Text

When the expert shooter had finished firing from the floor, he casually swaggered up the staircase to check his handiwork. The man was tall enough to be cast as a romantic hero, and he had dark brown hair. He was dressed simply in a plain, dark jumpsuit, with the zipper undone to the navel. Reaching the lifeless bodies, he bent down to inspect Uvanov. He smiled and mentally congratulated himself on the accuracy of his shooting. Putting away his laser gun, he picked up Uvanov and threw him over his shoulder.

“You can stop playing dead now - I can feel your heart hammering against your ribs,” said the man, as he went back down to the factory floor.

Uvanov swore, hit, and kicked at the man, but the man was strong and Uvanov’s attempts to free himself failed.

The man came to a stop somewhere in the middle of the floor. Uvanov heard footsteps come out from under the stairs and cross over to them. “Here is the man you wanted, although he is hardly worthy of the title.” He then unceremoniously dumped Uvanov on the floor.

After Uvanov got his breath back and righted himself, he said, “What’s the meaning of this? You will be begging to be sent to the ‘Pits by the time I have finished with you if you think you can subject me to a primitive and degrading act like that! Are you listening?”

Uvanov was not happy. The man took no notice - he was passionately kissing a woman. Uvanov took in his surroundings instead. Along with the amorous couple, there were six deathly pale women with plasma rifles on either side of them. When the man moved away from his partner, he could see she wore a tight, black evening gown, slit to the thigh, with a frill of net and diamante adorning one shoulder.

“It’s you, the smuggler!” proclaimed Uvanov.

“It’s delightful to see you again too, Uvanov. I am Servalan, as you clearly have no memory for important facts, and my expert gunman here is Jarvik. I have no idea why you’d think I was a smugger.”

“My personal bodyguard told me. He said you were trying to contact off-worlders. You didn‘t need to go to all this trouble if you want an introduction to the Company Board. This week‘s meeting has been rescheduled. If you‘d like to attend, I’m convinced you will be able to persuade the Board to make off-world trade links a priority,” said Uvanov, and silently added in his mind, If you wear that dress.

Servalan smiled at how he‘d been misinformed. “I’m not here to trade, and I am an off-worlder, as you put it.”

“Oh,” said Uvanov, as he processed this information. “Then what are you here for? Are you the one who has been leaving bodies everywhere I go?”

“Yes. I ordered the removal of certain Company staff-members.”

“Why?”

“That would be telling. You will simply have to wait.”

“Wait for what?”

“A special guest.”

“We’re not waiting for Landerchild to come and gloat are we? Or Martinque. She couldn’t find any skeletons in my closet, so she’s given up and paid you to do her dirty work.”

“You’re not even close. Try closer to home,” Servalan said, with a yawn.

Uvanov looked up at the staircase, thought for a moment, and looked down again. “There are seven bodies laid out on my grounds and eight up there. You’re not keeping me to make up numbers, are you?”

“An interesting theory.”

“You need me as a witness for a stun-kill wedding then? So that’s why Iago left Zone 5,” Uvanov mused.

“You are starting to bore me,” said Servalan.

“It is to be expected, woman,” said Jarvik “If the men in this degenerate society choose to paint their faces like women and dress as frivolously, it is hardly surprising they should prattle on like idle wives do. If they weren’t so enfeebled by relying on machines, they could have turned their desert into fertile pasture by working it bare-chested, with the sun on their backs, instead of hiding indoors with their mechanical servants.”

“Expose your back in The Blind Heart and a sand storm with strip the flesh from your spine,” said Uvanov, scathingly.

Jarvik gave a shrug. “If you were a real man, you would not make excuses and instead challenge me to unarmed combat. I’m surprised a woman isn’t ruling this city.”

“Your boss is a woman, in case you hadn’t noticed,” said Uvanov.

“She is my woman.”

Uvanov didn’t think that was any kind of answer. “Why are you so concerned about how “real” men should behave? Oh, I get it! I used to have a friend like you - not exactly, he was the other way around. He was born in a female body. He was the most feminine woman you could ever meet. He thought if he put on an act it would “cure” him somehow, but it didn’t. Whatever Servalan is paying you I can double it and get you the best medvoc surgeons. You don’t want any rusty backstreet vocs operating on you, do you? It was odd at first, but I got used to the change. Someone being happy all the time, that is - it was weird. He was the last person whose death I genuinely mourned.”

When he had finished speaking, Uvanov stared off into the middle distance, like he was searching for something he had lost.

Jarvik stared at Uvanov as if he had gone mad.

Uvanov broke the mood by adding, “Apart from Board members I had removed only to have their replacements vote against me. A waste of a watertight conspiracy and a giant blancmange. Do you know how hard it is to find a good quality digestible explosive?”

Before Jarvik could reply, one of the large double doors that opened onto the courtyard was pulled open. Uvanov turned around to see Iago enter flanked by seven guards.

“Iago!” cried Uvanov, joyfully. He was saved.

The guards and Servalan’s troopers began firing at each other. Iago drew his gun from its holster, but it was knocked out of his hand by a slain guard as he fell. The female troopers shot the rest of the squad until there was only Iago left. Two of Servalan’s group were also killed.

Uvanov said something else - it wasn’t joyful.

Once the gun battle was over, Iago spoke, “Servalan - I thought you had to turn up at some point. I hope I haven’t kept you waiting.”

“Not at all - I shall discipline you later. It’s Iago now, isn’t it? I was beginning to wonder what I would have to do to get your attention,” replied Servalan.

“So you are responsible for the killing spree?” said Iago.

“Correct,” said Servalan.

“It was all about you, Iago,” accused Uvanov, feeling scandalised. “I thought I had got used to maniacs trying to unsettle me by leaving corpses in my office. I must have a sixth sense that tells me if I’m in danger of assassination.”

“How is your extra-sensory perception now?” said Servalan, gesturing for Jarvik to move forward. She wanted to talk to Iago not him. Jarvik pointed his gun at Uvanov. Uvanov responded by inching nearer to Iago.

As Jarvik moved closer, Iago furrowed his brow. “I’ve met you somewhere before. Aren‘t you dead?”

“Well done, Iago,” said Servalan. “The original Jarvik is dead, but I had a renegade clone master make a copy. I felt I hadn’t had time to have the pleasure of the full Jarvik experience. It‘s what he would have wanted.”

“How touching,” said Iago.

“A clone? Now I know why cloning was banned. This one has gone bad. He keeps going on about men, women and machines,” grumbled Uvanov.

“Ah,” said Iago, with a smile. “Then the clone is an entirely accurate copy.”

“Good grief!” exclaimed Uvanov.

“Is that why you are here, Servalan, to make me jealous with your pet clone?” asked Iago.

“I would have thought Orac’s switch key would have given you a clue and brought you running, but it didn‘t.”

“Uvanov forgot. I didn’t receive your gift until yesterday.”

“If only you had turned up at parties when you were supposed to, then I wouldn’t have had to think up something more eye-catching. From what I’ve heard, in Kaldor City, nobody takes any notice of a couple of strategically placed murders, so I decided to target people you came into regular contact with.”

Uvanov was surprised to hear that - some of the dead included Landerchild’s staff.

“A note would have done, but then you always did have a taste for excess. You have my full attention now - what do you want?” said Iago.

“I want your full co-operation in my future plans or I’ll destroy the thing you hold most dear.”

“Not Orac - you bitch!” cried Iago.

“No, not the superannuated fish-tank, but your lover Kiy Uvanov!” said Servalan, flinging an arm out.

“What!” exclaimed Iago and Uvanov in unison. They turned to look at each other in horror and took a couple of steps away from each other. This was not the reaction Servalan had been expecting. A cool denial, certainly, or a grim acknowledgement that she had a hold over Iago.

Uvanov recovered quicker than Iago and said incredulously, “What dum for brains idiot told you that? I‘ll feed them to the Night-Stalkers, if there’s anything left of them after I’ve let Rull and Cotton practice their over-enthusiastic suspect subduing skills on them.”

“Carnell - he’s a pyschostrategist,” said Servalan, who was busy rethinking her plans to coerce Iago into working for her.

“Yes, we know who he is. He’s been playing you,” said Uvanov, scornfully. “Can I go now? There’s clearly some unfinished business between you and Iago that I’m obviously not part of.”

“Stay where you are,” ordered Servalan and Jarvik refocused his gun.

“What did Carnell say to you that convinced you that Uvanov and I were -,” Iago hesitated, as if it hurt to spit the words out, “An item?”

“He was very plausible. He said Uvanov was special to you, that you treated him in a way you have never treated anyone else. And I know how loyal you are. The security you have installed is most impressive.”

Iago turned his head away from Servalan and stared at Uvanov. “Like I never treated anyone else.” He was trying to work out what Carnell could have meant.

Uvanov scowled at Iago and folded his arms before addressing Servalan. “Carnell was making a joke, at all our expenses. I’m ‘special’ because I’m the only person Iago has spent the night in a room with and not slept with. Incidentally, for your information, I was in bed and Iago was hiding behind the curtains watching out for assassins. I doubt Iago was holding himself back because he wanted to build up a meaningful relationship before screwing me. If that was what had happened, then he wouldn’t have just turned the same shade as your pasty troopers when you suggested it.”

Servalan regained her equilibrium - she could still persuade Iago to do what she wanted. “It is of no matter. I thought if I had something over you, Iago, then I could beak your spirit, but as I have been grossly misinformed I have two options of what to do with you.”

“Which are?” said Iago.

“One is to kill you and collect the considerable bounty on your head, the other is to get you to use your computer skills to repair Orac. It was found on Gauda Prime, but was damaged by the elements. My experts have failed in their attempts to repair Orac. If you can mend Orac, I will personally see to it that your previous misdemeanours are wiped from the Federation database. I’m tired of playing Commissioner. Orac’s computing power will be instrumental in my plans to return me to where I belong in the Federation’s firmament.”

Jarvik interrupted. “You told me we were capturing a renegade from Federation justice, not finding an expert to fix your infernal machine.”

“Oh Jarvik, you wouldn’t deny a lady her baubles, would you?” Servalan gave Iago an admiring glance. She was beginning to tire of Jarvik’s charms. His usefulness was at an end. “Orac flashes so prettily when he’s lit up. Surely your primitive brain can appreciate that?”

“I wouldn’t worry, Jarvik. She will try to kill me eventually - Servalan and I have a long history. I accept your offer to restore Orac, Servalan. I can hardly refuse with your mutoids pointing their plasma rifles at me.”

“I knew you would see sense. I’ve wasted enough time on this planet hunting for you. Now it is time to leave. Mutoids to the ship,” said Servalan. She strode off followed by the others apart from Uvanov. When she turned to wait for the mutoids to shift the dead bodies out of her path, she noticed he hadn’t moved. “You appear reluctant to join us, Uvanov.”

“You came here for Iago, not me. I’m staying here to try to explain what happened. I’ll blame the Tarenists. If I say visitors from outer space were the culprits I’d be laughed out of Kaldor City.”

“That’s very honourable of you. Sadly we are in need of a donor, as our supplies of blood serum are running low, so we can‘t leave you behind. Mutoids bring him.” Servalan pointed at two mutoids to carry out her order. They slung their plasma rifles over their shoulders and grabbed Uvanov by the arms.

“Blood what? What are you doing? You two look even paler close up. Mutoid isn’t off-worlder for leper is it? I hope it’s not catching,” said Uvanov, alarmed.

“Mutoids are modified humans. Despite the best efforts of the Federation, some repeatedly refuse to behave. By wiping delinquents’ memories we can make them into mutoids. The perfect slaves. They are loyal, obedience and resilient. The only flaw is they require blood to function at a higher physical capacity,” Servalan informed him.

“Vampires! They are not having my blood.” Uvanov froze in horror. The mutoids pulled at him to make him go forward and their hands slid down his sleeves on to his skin. They felt unnaturally clammy. Glancing at one of the mutoids face, he found it devoid of emotion. Cold, blank and almost human. People who saw nothing in making humans into living robots were trying to kidnap him. He tried to wrest himself out of their grip. “This can’t be happening. That drinks voc must have set something off in me. Get off - don’t touch me,” he said, with a hysterical edge to his voice.

“What’s wrong with you?” said Servalan, irritated.

“Human robots - it‘s sick,” answered Uvanov, too disturbed to elaborate.

“You are pathetic. Mutoids let him go. If he starts being troublesome again shoot him.” One of the mutoids used her rifle to prod Uvanov forward.

Iago was now alongside Servalan. With Jarvik and the mutoids close behind her, she wasn’t afraid of Iago trying anything. “I thought this Uvanov must have some intelligence to have survived the many attempts on his life, but now I assume he simply has you to thank for his continued existence, Iago.”

As they went into the courtyard, Iago replied, “Uvanov has an uncanny instinct for survival, fuelled by paranoia. The robots here have a design fault that causes them to try and kill him every so often. He’s agitated by the mutoids because he views them as living robots. It’s understandable.”

“What is understandable - his fear or the robots wanting to kill him?”

Iago gave a broad grin. “Well now, as his personal security consultant I can hardly say the latter.”

“If I’m feeling generous, I’ll offload him on to Jarriere. He’s the new manager of the Big Wheel in Freedom City. He may be more personable than Krantor, but he lacks his flair. The Kaldorian style would offer the kind of visual novelty the clientele expects to see on display. Reproductions of old Earth costumes lost their appeal long ago.”

“Freedom City? I thought it had been burnt out.”

“It was re-built by the Federation, after my time. The new administration felt that, with a guiding hand, Freedom City could be used to monitor the debauched activities of certain members of the population to their advantage.”

“And, of course, calling in gambling debts and using blackmail is a cheaper form of control than using pylene-50.”

Servalan waved away Iago’s comment. “If you can restore Orac back to full working order, I plan to visit there, with my team.”

“Won’t doping the population, in your role as Commissioner of the pacification programme, ruin the atmosphere?” asked Iago.

“I thought I would trial Orac on The Big Wheel. The most powerful anti-gambling technology should easily be overcome by Orac.”

“I wouldn’t know about such things. Incidentally, why did you go to all the trouble of using a robot assassin - why not use Jarvik’s talents?”

“It was no trouble. On route to this backwater, my ship picked up a distress call from a rogue cybernetics expert. She had been in hiding for fifteen years and her base was about to be consumed by a volcanic eruption.”

“How convenient.”

“So my choice of assassin was the happy by-product of an entirely altruistic action,” responded Servalan.

“Of course.”

“She found it simple to re-programme a voc to do the killings. As is typical with robot-based societies, nobody takes any notice of a robot. They are invisible. Where as at Company Central, they would be curious about a new human face in the building.”

Jarvik walked behind Servalan and Iago across the courtyard into to another part of the factory. He had assumed Iago would be weak, the same as the other men he had met in Kaldor City. Looking at the way Servalan and Iago talked to each other he felt left out and jealous. Once his woman’s machine had been fixed, he would challenge Iago to a fight.

He moodily pondered this until their group came out of the complex and rounded the corner to the flyer pad. There they ran into a guard squad headed by Stenton Rull. The oversized Security chief was so surprised he lobbed his half-eaten hot dog at the intruders and it bounced off Uvanov’s head.

In reaction to being struck, Uvanov yelled, “Rull, you idiot, I’m being kidnapped. Stop them!”

When the shooting started, Uvanov dropped to the floor to avoid being hit by anything else. As he fell, he noted the incongruous sight of a woman dressed in a gold lame bikini, with matching kaftan and sandals, accompanying the black-clad squad.

A few minutes later, it was all over. Uvanov stood up and rubbed the gravel out of his palms. There were bodies scatted across the grounds. The survivors were checking the state of their weapons, these included Rull, Cotton, Iago and the beach babe. She turned in Uvanov’s direction.

“Justina!” Uvanov gasped.

“Are you all right?” asked Justina, concerned. She put her hand to his forehead and withdrew it quickly when she realised it was ketchup from the hot dog bun.

“I’ll be fine eventually - I’m not so sure about my personal bodyguard,” said Uvanov, pointedly at Iago.

“Would you have refused the woman’s requests if you had several plasma rifles trained on you?”

Uvanov grimaced. “Don’t say ‘woman’ again. Use the wo- use the bitch’s name, or another description. I don’t want to hear any more man-woman nonsense today. Tell me, Justina, why are you wearing a bikini? Not that I’m extremely grateful for your timely appearance.”

“Last night, I was chatting to Iago, over a talk-link, about what he was doing tomorrow and he mentioned a trip with a charity for robophobics,” Justina explained. “I didn’t think anything more of it, until I was on the sun-lounger this morning and suddenly it struck me the charity jaunt should never have been put on your schedule. The factory visit would have been passed on to Martinque, as charity work is her kind of thing. I smelt a rat. I knew if I paused to change my outfit it could be too late, so I rushed back as I was and got Rull to get a squad here as quickly as possible.”

“Well done, Justina! I will have to have that talk with you about your salary that you’ve been angling for these past few months ASAP,” said Uvanov.

“Do I get a raise too?” asked Rull.

“I’ll waive those discrepancies in your expenses,” said Uvanov. He felt disinclined to reward Rull too much, since Rull had lobbed his mid-morning snack at him.

“Me and the lads and lasses gave up our break to dash over here in time,” added Cotton.

What was this a free for all? Wasn’t Cotton only doing what he was paid to do? The mutoids weren’t the only bloodsuckers.

“I’ll review the guidelines on restraining prisoners to allow bone crunching,” Uvanov said.

“Terrific!” Cotton hadn’t felt this happy since the mother of all bust ups at Sick-Note ‘Arris’s wedding reception.

“Now, if you are all finished - did any of them escape?” said Uvanov, testily.

“Yes, two escaped: Servalan and a mutoid in a flyer,” replied Iago.

“Never to be seen on Kaldorian soil again – we hope. Is the macho weirdo in a boiler suit dead?” enquired Uvanov.

“The, er, male is. He came at me and I thought, ‘This is it,’ but he looked me up and down and said, ‘Woman you are beautiful. Come away with me - you can’t hope to beat me.’ I think he was going to take me in his arms, but I shot him,” said Justina.

“At least something good has come out of today,” said Uvanov.

“He was a special sort of man,” said Iago.

Uvanov and Justina stared at him.

“My mistake. Organic life form,” said Iago, with a twisted grin.

“I’m glad I don’t share your sense of humour,” said Uvanov.

“Who are we blaming for this?” asked Justina.

“It has to be the Tarenists. The RAC wanted to cure robophobics. From the Tarenists point of view they had to be stopped from making sufferers into robot lovers,” replied Uvanov.

“Reminds me of a girl I went to training camp with. She decided to experiment with a voc - she was electrocuted in-” began Cotton.

“Yes, we can imagine,” cut in Uvanov. “It’s the remaining mutoid I feel sorry for. If Taren Capel had met one when he was younger the experience would have extinguished his dreams of becoming at one with robots.” Uvanov shuddered. “I’m getting out of here. What I need now is to visit someone who has it in for me personally - I find it comforting. Justina arrange a press conference at Company Central for me.”

The end.