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Just A Servo Robot

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The door bell jingles as he enters, walking from the cool station air outside and into what feels like a wall of tropical heat. The Venusian behind the desk does not stir, lethargic in the relative cold needed to keep its customers from leaving and its merchandise from rusting, just opens a single, vertical-slitted eye to keep track of its potential customer as he starts to wander among the aisles.

There's a basket in the corner, half-full of mechanical hearts, chrome and stainless steel and drops of condensation slippery beneath his fingertips as he picks one up to inspect it. Hardly state of the art, but then, what can you expect from "Buy One, Get Two For Free"? At least they're meant for the hot, wet insides of a living being - the rainforest atmosphere of the shop has left them untouched.

They'll do. He'll need to make adjustments, of course, but they'll do. After all, even in a good year he goes through far too many hearts to be choosy.

As he approaches the desk, the Venusian pushes itself into an upright position, all three eyes opening and pupils turning to horizontal as it shakes itself fully awake and the tiny shop is filled with the sound of empty vocal sacs slapping against each other. His programming recognizes the rearrangement of facial muscles as the Venusian version of a polite shopkeeper's smile, and he can hear the tiny engine inside his jaw wirring as his own face is automatically pulled into a corresponding grimace.

"I'll take these, please. And a bottle of RoboSuperGalacticForceFive Oil."

***

Space Girl Secures Peace On Mars!

Today at noon (Terra GMT) the UN Secretary of Extra-planetary Affairs Jane McManus and the First Officer Dong Xiading of the Martian Colonial Administration met with First Rider Xyztkxy of the Leaping Horde (representing the secular authorities of the red planet) and High Warden of the Canals Kliplityk (representing the spiritual authorities of the same) to sign the first official treaty, dubbed the Aeolis Palus Treaty, between the Terran authorities and the native Martians.

The official signing took place amidst much pomp and ceremony at the ancient and sacred Face of Mnls Oaia, with classic jazz and hip-hop played by the Colonial Marching Band and native chants and dances performed by a trio of natives dressed in ceremonial costumes of silvery cloth and feathers from the great Swzizz birds, commonly considered to be omens of good fortune.

After the music and dancing, the actual signing took place, and the audience could enjoy the sight of the honorable First Rider fumbling with a pen in his primary pincers as he set his mark on the treaty copies in English and Chinese, while the UN Secretary had to make three attempts before successfully tying a proper name-knot on the copy in Martian singing string.

Among other things, the treaty specifies locations for the first three space ports on Martian soil and the colonial administration headquarters, in exchange for Terran assistance in the execution of a great project to restore the legendary canals of Mars, which will involve gathering a number of comets, which will have to be transported safely to the Martian surface and melted with heat from the planet’s greatest volcanoes, thus refreshing the scant supplies of water and taking the first step towards turning the red planet green once more. Several megacorps are already putting together bids for what looks to be some highly profitable contracts.

The Aeolis Palus Treaty has been hailed by political commentators from all three sides of the political spectrum as a massive step forward in the process towards securing peaceful and profitable co-existence between humanity and the other sentient species of the solar system. And yet, it was brought about by the most unlikely and most charming person imaginable.

Stella Astra, age 18, native of the minor province of Kansas in the Eurasian protectorate of the Northern Hemispheric Americas, was visiting Mars as one of its very first tourists, having hitched a ride aboard one of the great rockets that supply the Embassy Township of Mars proper as well as the mining facilities on Phobos and Deimos with food and extra oxygen. Having made her way to the red planet, the adventurous young girl embarked upon a solo hike through the Martian wilds.

It was during this solitary adventure that young Miss Astra succeeded in doing what both the official Terran authorities and several highly respected xeno-anthropologists have failed at during the last 30 years, since the first humans arrived on the red planet. Wandering alone in the wilderness, she encountered and managed to befriend a young Martian, Ztylop, leading directly to the establishment of official diplomatic channels and the signing of the Aeolis Palus Treaty.

“It was merely a question of seeing beyond the surface,” the adventurous girl informed this official correspondent, showing wisdom beyond her years. “Just as sometimes someone might look like a completely human, gorgeous guy saying all the right things, only to turn out to be just a servo robot, so someone might look like a funny cross between a lizard and a spider, but underneath he might be a perfectly ordinary person, just like you or me.”

After the official signing of the Aeolis Palus Treaty, traditional Martian dishes and traditional Terran cocktails were served by circulating waiters, while our young heroine signed copies of her new book, “My 70 Days in a Martian Cave-Camp”, available now from all bookstores at the modest price of only 70 Standard Credit Vouchers.

(Excerpt from: Sea of Silence Gazette, 21-08-2190)

***

"Hey, Joe. Want to go out for a cold one tonight? Me and the boys want to check out that new joint, McArthur's Rest."

"Yes," he nods. "I'd like that." Then he returns his focus to the work before him, hands buried deep inside a bio-mechanical stratosphere runner's engine-guts, slippery with oil and gore as he searches for the part that needs patching. It's dirty work, unpleasant and unpopular and therefore his to do - his or Marvin the Martian apprentice the boss took on three weeks ago, and Marvin won't have the skill for this sort of surgery-repair work for another year or two.

He rests his forehead against the warm flank of the sedated stratosphere runner, closes his eyes and searches for the leak by touch, searches until he finds the tear, microscopic, yet fatal, oil seeping into blood - finds and twists and it's done and he can put the micro-laser back in its charger.

A shower and a change into something not a work-jumpsuit and he's walking with the boys - Marvin and Benny and Xiang and Line - from the workshop and down along station passageways lit by glowing blue lights every few feet. His colleagues are boisterous - it's friday and weekend and payday on top of that.

Xiang hesitates in the doorway of McArthur's Rest, turns back to look at him, still standing in the passageway.

"Aren't you coming, Joe?"

"You know what, I think I'll better call it a night. See you guys Monday."

Xiang hesitates for a moment longer, then shrugs and heads inside.

Joe takes one last look at the sign in the window of McArthur's Rest, small and handwritten and easy to hide if station cops drop by to chat about anti-discrimination laws that nobody really believe in anyway. He takes one last look at "No Mechs Allowed", then leaves the way he came.

***

Latest Tourist Mega-Hit: Saturnian Safaris

Don't know where to spend the vacation this year? Have you tired of wallowing in Venusian mud-spas, of hyper-skiing with the kids down the Martian mountain slopes, of touring the same set of primordial Mercurian ruins as everyone else? Does the thought of a week at a Lunar casino-sport facility strike you as boring beyond belief or does the idea of zero-grav wellness on Alpha Hab Station simply not appeal to you?

Come to Saturn!

"Saturn?!", I hear you cry. "But what is there for the tourist to do on Saturn?" And yes, Saturn used to have little to offer the civilized tourist from Terra or Mars or Venus, as all visitors were restricted to the permanent low-grav camps with limited opportunities to actually see anything except a planet-side view of the Saturnian "Rings of the Sky Spirits". Possible entertainments were further limited when the daredevil tours of the great rings were closed by the authorities last year following three accidents with fatalities in a single month. In short, Saturn used to be the least happening tourist spot in the entire solar system.

But no more!

Having only just returned from her year-long retreat at the Venusian Bok-Tok-Tell Monastery, media darling Stella Astra, affectionately known as Space Girl in the media, has arrived on the giant planet to open a new business venture in juncture with the locals.

Saturnian Safaris!

Have you ever wanted to wander the largest inhabited planet of the solar system at will? Now you can! Equipped with latest in anti-grav technology integrated in accessories appropriate to the latest fashion, you are now free to wander the Saturnian megapoli, visiting the museums and grand guignolian theaters and lecture-restaurants of the locals - if you have children, we especially recommend the Museum of Clockwork Creatures, where you can experience being eaten by a giant clockwork beast of your choice, and the Self-Serve Diner, where the competent staff will cook and serve whichever of the free-ranging animals on the premises you bring down with your complimentary set of throwing knives.

Tired of the city? Go to the countryside!

But of course the real attraction of Space Girl's Saturnian Safaries are the safaris themselves. Flying on speedy anti-grav scooters to cover the vast distances and escorted by competent, blaster-armed guides, you'll be free to venture forth and explore the huge expanses of wilderness and experience the local wildlife in all its glory. For a modest extra fee, your guides will ensure that you are given the opportunity to shoot some of the most exhilarating and dangerous prey in the solar system.

The Saturnian Big Five!

From the Slokslok with its towering 400 feet of height to the tiny Trillllll, which thanks to its proportionally huge inflatable air-sacs is able to make extraordinary leaps on this world were nothing flies. From the volcano-dwelling Szzzzzzzz of the thousand tentacles to the aquatic Plishtishtosh of the thousand-and-one gaping mouths, to the miles-vast, bug-eyed Troktroktuk, largest animal species found in the entire solar system. Some critics have questioned the morality of bringing back the on Terra long-outlawed big game hunts, but as the local authorities explain, all these animals are locally classified as vermin and already heavily regulated to limit their destruction of crop lands and tower hamlets, and so safari goers need not have any compunctions about enjoying their vacation to the fullest.

So come to Saturn! See the sights! Impress your friends!

(Infomercial run on "Travel Channel 27 - Extra-planetary Adventures" in early 2202 A.D.)

***

His apartment is small - one narrow room. Space is at a premium aboard the station. If he had a bed, it would take up more than half the available space. As is, the legally required shower/toilet cubicle takes up a third of it, even though he could easily make do with showering at the workshop.

What space he does have, he has tried to use well - a table covered in parts, a chair - just the one, it's not as if he's ever going to have a guest here - some shelves. His old uniform from back in the day hangs in the corner, little more than decoration these days, gold tassels gleaming in the reflected lamplight. On one of the shelves, he keeps books - engine manuals with semi-illegal pamphlets from the Servo Liberation Front and the Cyborg-Utopianists stashed between the pages, used engineering textbooks at least ten years out of date, and at the very edge of the shelf a novel, one of those philosophical mysteries that were popular two years ago, when his workmates gave it to him as an Amalgamated Midwinter Holiday present.

As he sinks into his chair, springs unwinding and pistons slowing to a halt with a sigh as he settles, he supposes he must have caused a vibration - not much, just enough of a tremor to dislodge the precariously placed volume - because next thing he knows, it's landed in his lap, upside down.

Do Servo Robots Dream of Mechanical Sheep? He wants to snort at that, at the cover image of a figure in chrome holding a gorgeous femme fatale in red in his arms, but the designer probably never thought his product would need such an undignified noise. The spirits know, there were a lot of other things he never thought it would need either. Like tears, like genitalia, like taste buds.

Like dreams.

Do servo robots dream? No. They can't. He can't. But he can remember, pictures and sounds unspooling from his memory banks as they do now, images of a different time, of a girl in red who had laughed and kissed him and told him she loved him - at least for a little while, at least until sometime suspended in the dark between Terra and Mars, when there had been screams and shouts and pointy-heeled shoes hurled at him and he hadn't understood, not then. Was he not glamorous? Was he not a rocket pilot? Was he not a fine figure of a man in his fine uniform?

What else could she possibly want from him?

Looking back, he thinks perhaps that that was the time - as he watched her back as she stalked into the Martian landscape - that was the first time he had an inkling that yes, he was glamorous, his life was glamorous - but glamorous slavery is still slavery, and things withheld without thought or malice can still be bleeding wounds.

Sometimes people tell him that he ought to be grateful - after all, the rocket company could have had him melted down for scrap metal, recycled into new parts for a new generation, or they could have sold him and his brothers to the re-programmers. They didn't have to file the emancipation paperwork. He should be grateful, but honestly, he doubts the altruism on the part of his former owners, doubts it was anything but expediency when closing down a suddenly unprofitable business, and besides, he has a hard time feeling gratitude for being graciously gifted with what every last one of his current workmates would consider not having so impossible as to be beyond ridiculous.

He wonders why, out of all the things that long-ago designer might have chosen to give him, why did he give him such capacity for bitterness and regret?

***

First Class Graduates from the Hyperpilot Academy

Yesterday the first thirty young men and women completed their third year of studies at the Hyperpilot Academy on Jupiter's moon Europa, and are now the first generation of professionally trained and certified hyperpilots.

The graduation ceremony was held in the Academy's Great Hall, festively decorated with banners in gold and midnight blue - the school colours - and multicoloured crystal flowers from Europa's cave gardens. The graduates themselves were dressed in their new uniforms upon which the principal - Vice Admiral Albertine Gustavus III - pinned the insignia of lieutenant in the Solar League Space Navy during the ceremony.

Guests speakers during the ceremony included the new UN Secretary of Extra-planetary Affairs Yolande Ngomo, Venusian S%&/'lllll of the Dreams, and Ms. Stella Astra, hyperspace pioneer and one of only three humans to have so far visited the Barrier, commonly held to be the very end of hyperspace itself. While both Mr. Ngomo and Ms.Mr. S%&/'lllll chose to focus on the promising future of hyperspace travel and its positive implications for the Solar League, such as providing stable lines of contact with the shy Neptunians and the Plutonian Ice Wraiths, Ms. Astra chose instead to focus on the pilots themselves and the sacrifices they, especially the women, have been willing to make for the sake of progress and all civilized species.

"I admire your choice, my ladies. I admire your bravery in making it. I never made it. I don't think I could have. But I was the first woman to pilot a superdrive ship, the first woman to fly through hyperspace, and so the choice was made for me. The price was dear, very dear, and I admire each and every one of you for being willing to make it. Ladies, I salute you."

Legislation to ban women under 40 from hyperspace travel has been shot down, though from next year women (as well as Martian tri-females and all Venusians) boarding a superdrive vessel will have to sign a legally binding document attesting to their familiarity with the known hazards to fertility caused by hyperspace travel.

(Excerpt from: New New Jersey Times, 08-07-2214)

***

Humans need to eat, need to sleep, need to rest and recharge and relax and bond with fellow humans. As do Martians, Venusians, Saturnians - presumably even the long-gone Mercurians shared those needs. And so there are laws - maximum number of work hours in a row, rotating days off, mandatory vacation time.

All to meet basic human needs.

He works long hours day after day. Most of his spare time he spends at home, making small repairs and standard maintenance, recording his text books onto his memory spools. He's been considering signing up for a digital class, get a proper education. But more often than not at any given time, he can be found at the workshop.

The boss grasps him by the shoulder one day, tells him "Joe, you're a damn fine worker, better work ethic than this whole bunch of layabouts combined - but you're not coming into work for the next two weeks and that's that. The way they've been raising the fines as of late, it'd be cheeper to let you go completely and hired two other guys than to not make you take your damn vacation."

Two weeks stretch out before him, a yawning abyss.

Other people leave for vacations - they leave for the amusement satellite Disney-Sat Uranus 5, or they go planetside, or they just go - somewhere, anywhere but here. But he doesn't really have anywhere to go.

He takes the time to go through each and every shop selling mechanical gadgets and spare parts on the station, collecting hearts and joints and a bio-grown face, second grade, but still, better than what he's been making do with. It floats in a box of nutri-fluid, closed eyes giving an eerie impression of someone asleep.

He attends a meeting of the Front for the first time in months - a couple of cogs he remembers from last time asks him to stay and chat, stutter-motion grace and geniality, but he excuses himself and hurries past the demonstration of the Unironically Luddite outside in the main thoroughfare with his collar turned up and his face turned away.

He visits the station museum, automatically getting in the longer line behind a Gene-Ripped girl with whiskers and a slashing tail. He shuffles forward slowly, watching as the two other lines swiftly leads inside. Finally he gets to wave his credit-token at the ticket-machine and walk through the doors. Inside he wanders the halls, looks at the statue of the engineer in charge of the station's design and construction, looks as the haphazard collection of old Terra objects and the Martian objet d'arts. But mostly, he looks at the people, wandering the narrow halls, a young man sitting in front of an old Terra painting, painting his own copy, school classes wandering bored in their teacher's wake, one girl falling behind to gaze avidly at an antique freezer gun, an old lady shuffling slowly forward in her anti-grav supporter. And eventually, when the bell rings to announce that "The museum will close in ten minutes," he heads for the exit.

As he leaves, he spots a poster hanging ascew on the picturesque morris column outside the exit, the words Space Girl Extravaganza Exhibition splashed garishly across, sparkling with stars. It has a date three days from now.

***

The Fourth Dimension Has Been Conquered!!!

Today exactly at noon (Terra GMT) celebrity hyperspace pioneer Ms. Stella Astra took off in the Psycho Plan, the revolutionary brain wave guided vessel constructed by Dr. Odd Afrodite Merkwürdigliebe and Professor Tryphon Tournesol with one and only one purpose: to finally give humanity and all other civilized species the ability to conquer time.

Before the disbelieving eyes of more than a hundred dignitaries - representatives from the Solar League Member Planets' authorities as well as individuals of scientific and naval background - and dozens of press representatives - the Psycho Plan (named by Dr. Merkwürdeligliebe to associate it with and yet distance it from other known forms of transport) vanished!

Five minutes later the still gathered crowd could witness the vessel fade back into existence, the formerly pristine surface pockmarked as if the plan had dived straight through a meteorite shower. The door dilated and out stepped Ms. Astra, her suddenly long hair covering the improvised patches on the shoulders of her clearly worn uniform, and raised one fist in triumph!

Time had been conquered!

Taking only a short hour to refresh herself and change into a fresh uniform, Ms. Astra came back to satisfy the curiosity of the universe about things to come. She spoke to her amazed and respectful audience of her temporal voyage to the distant future of the 3300s, where the planets of the solar system are woven together by crystalline webways across space, allowing almost instant transport between even Mercury and Pluto. She spoke of the great vessels of that age, venturing as far as the colonies on Alpha Centauri, Barnard's Star and Wolf 359, leaping through both time and space to cover the vast distances of empty space between stars. She spoke of a world of peace and coexistence and marvels of science beyond dreams.

"And in that distant land that is the future, where everything was strange and new - I realized that something was familiar to me. Something that had been mine for the briefest of moments in my all too impetuous youth. I realized that thanks to the Psycho Plan I had been given a second chance - that we had all been given a second chance."

As she spoke, the Psycho Plan door dilated once more - and out stepped a man, tall, with a regal bearing and a wise look, as befitted a man from the future, a man who could gaze on us and know all the mistakes we had yet to make. A man who could help us survive them and help to bring about the very future from which he came.

"Allow me to present to you all someone very dear to me - Space Engineer Joseph Automaton of the Order of Star Wanderers."

(Excerpt from: Scientific News Today, 02-11-2222)

***

It feels strange, getting into the single line at the entrance to the Space Girl Extravaganza Exhibition when most places have at least two. He feels uncomfortable as the tiny slip of a girl child in front of him, her father's hand wrapped firmly around hers, turns to gaze at him, curiously. Tugs at her father's hand, whispers into his ear as he bends down, and the father looks at him too, then, and he wonders which one of them feels more ill at ease. But nobody says anything and the line moves and they're inside and free to escape each other's presence.

He wanders the Exhibition, taking in the sights and sounds of it, the carnival atmosphere. Food carts stand at every corner, hawkers selling delicacies from Mars and Venus and Saturn. Music plays from speakers as laser pictures dance across the far-off hangar ceiling, drawing a tale of a girl travelling into space. He looks at old inspirational posters and stuffed Saturnian wildlife and a small library of translations of seven different autobiographies filled with contradictory stories. Then he turns a corner.

The vessels are many and varied - skimmers and runners and jumpers, gleaming in the light of carefully positioned projectors. Small children are climbing some of them. A young man is having a turn at the controls of an old-fashioned anti-grav walker. There's a shriek and someone runs by, brushing against him with cotton candy, leaving sticky trails of pink and blue and neon green suspended from his arm for a moment before slowly falling and staining the fabric with melting sugar stuff.

He returns from the bathroom a little less sticky and chooses to start at the other end this time, where the newer ships are placed. He slides a hand appreciatively over the gleaming side of an old superdrive ship, patting the old girl as if she was a dog.

Next is the Psycho Plan, the pride of the Exhibition, its angles defying logic and mere Euclidian geometry. He wants to touch it, to sneak aboard and stow away, but there's a fence around it and a guard at each corner, and so he has to settle for looking and dreaming.

As he turns to leave he notices a man standing on a balcony jutting out from the hangar wall, overlooking the Exhibition, and he thinks he must be imagining it, but it seems as if the man is looking right at him, and there's something oddly, something naggingly - familiar about him. Something he can't quite place. And it feels as if the man is trying to tell him something, something important, something that would make it all make sense, make it all alright - but then the horns blare and a voice announces that an artistic fireworks display will begin in 15 minutes, and when he turns back the man is gone.

Walking towards the exit, he thinks he sees him again out of the corner of his eye and whirls around - except it's just an old poster, Ms. Astra in her wedding dress and her groom kneeling in front of her, offering her his heart. The heartbeat is quite a neat little mechanical trick, he thinks, before turning and heading home with the urgency of a man who just broke his heart and needs to go home to replace it. Again.

***

Space Girl Tops Hit Lists On Every Planet

Media darling Ms. Stella Astra, having recently returned from her stay at the Re-Youthification Hotel, has once again changed her career - and has, with her usual style and charm, been an instant success. Looking not a day over 20, the business owner and hyperspace and temporal voyage pioneer is now making a name for herself in music, as her hit single Space Girl has landed firmly at the top of the hit lists of popular music across the Solar League.

Ms. Astra has so far declined several offers to host a live concert, citing her need to focus on her and Space Engineer Joseph Automaton's newborn twins, Nova and Pulsar - solar celebrities in their own right, as they are the first children to gestate in a uterine replicator, one of many wondrous and beneficial technologies the time travelling couple has brought to our time.

When asked about her plans for the near future, Ms. Astra expressed a desire to visit the planet of her birth. "I haven't been back to Terra since I left it, not even once. At the time I thought I had my reasons and that they were good reasons, but - well, I suppose we all have to grow up sooner or later. Besides, I think it's about time my mother met her grandchildren."

(Excerpt from: King of Graceland: Journal of Music and Musical News, 06-12-2239)