Duncan Long CompuServe ID# 72707,3525 Copyright (C) 1993 by Duncan Long. All rights reserv

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Skeptic Tank!

Duncan Long CompuServe ID# 72707,3525 Copyright (C) 1993 by Duncan Long. All rights reserved. ADAM'S OFFSPRING In the future, The structure of the human body will change. Human beings will exist in many forms. A person may be formed of recombinant genes-- Or even molded from stainless steel and plastics. Part I It's probably a trap, Drognir thought, his two yellow cat eyes glowing in the dim illumination. He stepped away from the controls of the stargate and entered the shimmering surface of its archway. There was a momentary flash of nausea, and resistance, as if he were frozen in a congealing wall of black amber, and then he broke through the energy field, striding across light years, his iridescent skin shimmering in the dim light. Within a minute he had traveled halfway across his galaxy, within the warped space inside the stargate. Drognir was a fixer, one of the rare human beings that was often called upon to help the artificial intelligence overlords ruling the 23rd Century. His job entailed unraveling puzzles the robotic problem solvers found too minor, or too messy, to handle. But today's task was different from the others he'd been called upon to solve. "All our reasoning says it should be impossible," Nishdare 2654, Drognir's overlord had told him during the hastily called audience in the being's sanctuary only an hour before. "Your acquaintance seems to have invented a readily transportable disassemblier that doesn't produce excess energy when breaking molecules. He has twice used the device to completely destroy the guard bots sent to take him. Now he has told us we have one last chance to obtain his secret--if we pay his price and send a courier to Yelreb III." Drognir said nothing, mulling over the ramifications of such a weapon if it really existed. "This device suggests a whole new line of physics," the overlord continued, his voice echoing in the dimly lit hall, which was totally devoid of furniture. His holographic image shimmered as he seemed to uncomfortably shift its position where it hung, seeming to sit in mid-air. "It would mark the first real human innovation since AI systems were initiated nearly two centuries ago." The fixer said nothing, trying to control his emotions so his anger wouldn't register on the monitors that lined the sanctuary. While he knew Nishdare was only stating the facts and meant no slight, the thought that humanity had invented nothing of value in two centuries stung Drognir deeply. Finally he spoke, his voice emotionless. "But Gar is an immortal. How could he use such a weapon without his circuitry being affected?" "Another mystery that our physics says is impossible--unless it is remote controlled. Such a narrow band of energy, so focused... And his background suggests no talent in the area of physics--we have examined his records. Of course intelligence is cheap to purchase these days, there's almost no limit to the expansion that he might have snapped into his skull. But even so-- it appears to be a total breakthrough in technology. "One faction of our projection banks thinks he must have stumbled onto some alien technology," the AI added. Drognir knew speculation was something the machines were good at and could do endlessly; so he decided to cut off his master before he reeled off any more theories. "And my job is to meet Gar on Yelreb III and take the device?" "Correct," the machine answered, its unblinking eyes regarding its servant. "You may destroy Gar if you wish and keep the gem, in addition to your wage. Or you may pay off his ransom demand in exchange for his secret. All we need is his secret or the device; the cost is paltry for such technology and we would be glad to obtain it either way. No doubt you would find the latter more agreeable than destroying an old friend." No doubt, Drognir thought. He knew that AIs never joked; they regarded humor as a human weakness. How out of touch with humanity the AI overlords are, he reflected. Of course Gar wasn't really the friend the fixer once knew; the real Gar had committed suicide. His personality continued on as an "immortal"--an android with an AI brain copied from the deceased human being's memories, rapidly removed from his dying brain. The immortal was a good copy, impossible to distinguish from the original. His skin felt warm and all his reactions and words were Gar's; but Drognir had never been able to forget the body of the original Gar, unceremoniously dumped into a disposal chute. So perhaps the AI isn't so wrong after all, the fixer had thought, turning and leaving the sanctuary, since it was obvious the meeting was over. Perhaps he would kill his old friend. Perhaps it would be easy to exterminate the bogus Gar, knowing that he was only a machine that pretended to be a man. Or was there still too much of the ghost of the man in the machine that impersonated him? "That's a good question," Drognir muttered, nearing the end of the stargate's passage. He shoved through the syrupy force field and strode from the portal, shifting his vision into the infrared region for better coverage as he carefully studied his surroundings for any sign of danger. His scan revealed no warm-blooded creature nearby except for a small rat-like animal that scampered away at the man's approach. No other living thing in sight. Yelreb III, as always, was nearly deserted without even a sightseer about. Only an experimental station occupied by hobbyists lay some ninety kilometers to the south, near the rim of the shadows. He was alone with the ruins of the once-great civilization resting silently around him, painted in shades of gray and black. He glanced upward toward the giant black planet that eternally eclipsed the nearby star, shrouding Yelreb III with only the faint corona and light from a nearby gas nebula, keeping the outer planet from being plunged into total darkness. Drognir had visited Yelreb III's lone city before and had never had any desire to come back. His AI masters had ordered him to wipe out a coven of pukers engaged in more than the usual joy crimes, serious enough to spur the overlords to order the fixer's actions. Now he had returned to meet with Gar, to steal or buy the immortal's secret, killing him if necessary. He strode out of the pool of electric light surrounding the stargate, the thick muscles of his genetically altered two-meter frame rippling as he crept along the terraced courtyard. The paved thoroughfare stretched into the distance like a narrow canyon in a mountain range of buildings, his footsteps echoing off the rough granite walls. A moaning wind sweeping through the spiraling towers high above him. As another of the tiny rodents scurried into the deeper shadows, Drognir realized he couldn't recall having seen any such animal during his previous visit. Probably sneaked through the stargate, he decided. Dandelions and rats seemed to inhabit the known universe, thanks to their abilities to smuggle themselves through the gates. There was no sign of Gar. Had the rendezvous been a trick? It was very likely; the mechanicals had tried to ambush the immortal twice before and, both times, all twenty of the guards had disappeared without a trace. The burst messages Gar had sent to the overlords boasted of the effects of his new invention. The bots had completely disappeared, but it seemed to Drognir that something didn't ring true. The fixer neared the Tower of Nothingness, a windowless building that stretched upward out of sight, the jewel of the Yelreb III civilization. Like mankind, the alien culture that had built the structure had been totally disrupted by their contact with the AI overlords following the arrival of the first human explorers reaching the planet's surface. Within a decade, the worm-like Yelrebs were dispersed across the galaxy, absorbed into the fabric of the Federation, seduced by the AI's promise of a long, carefree existence. And now Yelreb III was unoccupied. Drognir shifted his vision into the infrared and checked for the heat signature of living beings. He perceived nothing but more of the rodent-like animals retreating into the shadows. Knowing he might have a long wait ahead of him, he lowered his metabolism to conserve energy. The overlords would expect him to linger if Gar didn't show immediately and the fixer hadn't eaten or slept for several days. He hunkered down in the shadows and waited. The planet's radio bands were empty except for the telemetry from the research station. The fixer reviewed the mem-chip library in his head, but nothing really interested him. Boredom reigned; time ticked away: Ten minutes, half an hour, finally an hour, universal time. Then there was a fluttering to his left. Drognir tensed, reflexively switching on his electronics so his enhanced vision, targeting, and ID template systems were online. He whirled around, his pistol snaking into his hand from its hidden wrist holster. There was nothing in the infrared spectrum. A mechanical? Or perhaps Gar had found a way to mask his body heat. There! His vision zeroed in on a plasfax sheet tumbling end over end down the courtyard and into the blackness behind a low wall. The pistol retracted from his hand into its holster as he sighed grimly to himself. I just witnessed a major event on this lifeless planet, he told himself. He tried to relax, realizing his environment was oppressive and definitely had him spooked. Toggling on his clock, it displayed the time in his right eye. Five minutes and I'm leaving, he promised himself as he leaned back against the rough gray wall of the building, leaving all his systems activated. Gar should have been there an hour ago. Something must have gone wrong. Or perhaps it had simply been a test to see if the overlords were going to try to trap the immortal. And how many such tests would be needed before Drognir would actually meet with Gar? Hell, if I were Gar I'd be on the other side of the galaxy, trying to buy new ID, the fixer thought. The AIs wouldn't quit until they had the secret if it led to some new technology. And how had Gar created such a device? His hobbies had included magic and biochemistry--not physics. None of it made sense. An animal howled in the distance and the rodents scurried into the shadows. A yellowed paper, abandoned by a thoughtless tourist tumbled across the courtyard. The five minutes were up. Drognir quick-scanned the area once more, his footsteps echoing from the courtyard walls as he crept back toward the brightly-lit gate. He activated the charge ID in the end of his finger as he approached the archway. He touched his finger to the control slot. And nothing happened. Drognir attempted activating it again, but the unit in his finger refused to energize the gate. Acutely aware that he stood in the open, exposed by the bright lamp above the gate, he tried a third time and then ran a quick check to be sure the ID circuits in his finger were working. The ID circuits weren't malfunctioning. Deactivating his finger chip, he thumbed the emergency button on the stargate itself. The unit blinked once and went out. Slowly he surveyed the area around him once again for any sign of life. Nothing but more of the scurrying, rodent-like animals. Glancing back at the stargate, he suppressed the urge to kick the controls, knowing that damaging them would just add to the delay. He'd have a long enough wait. Even if a repair crew had been sent when he'd activated the emergency button, they would have to fly over land from the nearest stargate--probably at the experimental station. He checked his info bits--yes, he was right. Ninety-four point three kilometers. It would be a wait of at least a half hour at best. A noise. He amplified his hearing and filtered out the extraneous noise, capturing the thin whine of a flitter. Coming closer, judging by the doppler. Realizing he was standing out in the open, Drognir raced across the courtyard, returning to his previous location, hiding once more in the shadows. Soon, the silver, dish-shaped craft hummed into sight. Four meters across, it had a flat passenger deck surrounded by a guard rail, its top open to the elements. Its curved side was emblazoned with the repair logo and two figures sat in the seat of the old flitter; the aircraft circled once and then settled with a rough landing, close to the stargate. Were they really repairmen? Drognir thought they surely must be; it seemed unlikely that Gar go to such an elaborate scheme to trick him when Drognir might easily have been ambushed as he came through the gate. Or ambushed me almost anytime afterward as far as that goes, the fixer thought, cautiously walking out of the shadows across the courtyard. For a fleeting moment, he wondered if that were Gar's secret: a carefully laid ambush rather than any type of break- through technology. Now there's a thought. That would be just like Gar; he always liked hoaxes. His attention returned to the two figures who jumped from the flitter without bothering to lower its ladder. They stood in the brightly-lit area surrounding the stargate, apparently unaware of the fixer. The man had to be a hobbyist since robotics had brought an end to human work, now outlawed except for humans engaged in non- dangerous not-for-profit work--like repairing stargates. The hobbyist was a stocky man with dirty gray hair and a soiled uniform. The mechanical was a chromed, badly dented bot in the old humanoid configuration. Oddly enough, it wore an equally dirty jumpsuit. "Bloddy 'ell," the man swore in a gruff voice as he removed the plate from the stargate's controls. "Retinoid's burned out. An' damn if we just used are last replacement last week." "Retinoid?" the mechanical said as it cocked its head to one side and gazed over the man's shoulder. "I believe you're right." "Course I'm right," the gruff-voiced man said, throwing a tool back into the red tool box lying beside the gate. "Give me some room, will ya?" The bot noticed Drognir and swiveled its head around to glare at him. it asked over datalink, its body rotating fluidly under its head so the whole mechanism faced the approaching fixer. Drognir explained through the transponder in his throat, communicating with the machine via an invisible, modulated laser beam. With the rash of joy crimes and Neo-Luddites attacks, the fixer knew the bot would be cautious at the approach of a stranger. He rapidly exchanged codes with the machine, letting it know he worked for the AI overlords and establishing that it did as well. "So what brought you two here?" Drognir finally asked aloud, drawing the human checking out the stargate into the conversation after the being satisfied the two figures in front of him posed no danger. "'Ot?" the gruff-voiced man said, unaware of the silent exchange that had taken place between his robotic companion and the fixer. He glanced up and noticed Drognir for the first time. The fixer steeled himself for the scorn most humans heaped upon him. As a recombinant "vatter" rather than a "true blood" and a servant of the overlords as well, he was hated on sight by most of the humans he met. "'ello, there," the man said without any trace of animosity. "Hearin's goin'. Didn't 'ear ya come up." He faced the mechanical. "You weren't interrogatin' this man over datalink behind my back was ya?" he admonished the bot. The machine didn't answer but cocked its head to one side. The man turned back to Drognir. "As to yer question, we jist 'appened ta be in 'e area and caught the emergency signal before it dropped off the air." "How soon can you have the gate repaired?" Drognir asked, surprised at the man's friendly attitude. "You're lucky we were comin' back from Jursa when you 'it 'e 'mergency button," the man replied. "O'erwise you'd 'ave been 'ere for a bit." "Can you get the gate back up?" Drognir persisted. The mechanical spoke, "We don't have a spare--" "I'll do 'uh talkin'," the hobbyist interrupted. "We don't 'ave uh spare retinoid. But you can 'itch uh ride with us. We'll 'ave you back to the post's gate in no time." He scrutinized the courtyard as he spoke. Drognir saw the flicker of movement that had attracted the hobbyist's attention. A pack of the rodent-like creatures loped across the courtyard and dived into the shadows along the wall near the stargate. "Bloody 'ell," the man shouted, his eyes darting wildly toward the pack of animals. "'Ey're 'oogies 'round 'ere." Oogies? Drognir thought as he watched another pack of the animals come scurrying toward them. A rapid search of his data chips revealed no definition for the word. "What are oogies?" the bot asked, equally baffled. "'Oogies! 'Oogies!" the Telee screamed. "Come on, git into uh flitter." He drew a worn needle pistol out of the belt on his jumpsuit and fired a wild shot into the shadows where the creatures had vanished. The mechanical swiveled in a blur of speed and bounded across the space toward the flitter and scampered up the slippery side of the craft. Not sure of the danger, the fixer rushed toward the flitter, the hobbyist coming behind him, firing his pistol into the shadows. The bot supply draped itself back over the railing to give Drognir a hand. The man hesitated a moment. "Get up here," the bot ordered him. The fixer grabbed the steel and plastic appendage. The machine's grip was strong yet gentle, rapidly lifting him upward. One of the creatures sprang up onto the flitter's guard rail as Drognir scrambled over; the mechanical released the man's hand and swiveled gracefully, crushing the beast with its fist and yelling, "Hurry up, Telee." The man jumped upward with muscles that Drognir realized must have been strengthened by a life on a plus-G planet. Telee slung his arms over the edge of the flitter and scrambled up almost effortlessly, just ahead of the pack of animals now swarming after him. "Bloddy 'ell," the man swore, dropping to his knees on the deck behind the driver's seat. "I t'ink one of 'em 'oogies got under my skin." And then Drognir knew what the animals were, even without consulting his memory chips. Hoogies. He hadn't understood what the man had been saying because of his thick accent. Drognir had never seen any of the creatures, but he'd heard stories and knew how dangerous they were. Out of the corner of his eye, the fixer saw the shadow of one of the animals as it dropped over the edge of the flitter to the floor beside him. Tearing his vibraknife from its sheath, Drognir flicked on the ceramic blade of his weapon, its edge vanishing in a blur of motion as he faced the creature. The hairless green hoogie was small, about the size of a man's hand and was covered with slime-matted fur. Its six tiny eyes gleamed in the dim light and it stood on large, grasshopper-like legs, poised to leap. Without warning, it sprang into the air, flying at the fixer. The vibrating blade slashed in front of Drognir, blocking the animal's jump and impaling the squealing creature on the knife, its green blood spurting into the air. With disgust, Drognir flicked the animal over the railing and it tumbled to the pavement below. "Help us," the mechanical screamed behind Drognir. Drognir turned to see the bot ripping its partner's jumpsuit apart. "One of the creatures is in Telee!" "'e's in my gut!" the Telee cried. "I can feel 'im clawing in my gut! Never mind me, git the flitter started or we'll never get out of here." Drognir studied the controls. "What's the activation key code?" he yelled, beaming the message via datalink at the same time. Hell, I don't even see a keypad on this old crate. "Damn," Telee screamed, writhing as the lump under the skin over his belly lurched upward. "The flitter 'as a mechanical key. It's in my pocket." "Get back," Drognir shouted to the mechanical, crowding by the bot and kneeling on the floor of the flitter by Telee. "You take care of the hoogies," he ordered the bot as he searched in the man's two pockets. No key. Frantically, he scrutinized the jumpsuit for other pockets. There were none. The lump on Telee's belly lurched upward again and then vanished under the man's rib cage. The hobbyist yelped in pain and coughed up a ribbon of frothy blood. Search for the key later, Drognir told himself. There was no time to waste if the man was going to survive. "Watch what you're doing," the fixer ordered the mechanical who twirled at superhuman speed to hammer a hoogie into meat, barely missing the Drognir's scalp in the process. The fixer turned back toward the human and ripped Telee's suit apart to expose his whole abdomen. On the white flesh was a bloody hole where the creature had chewed through the man's skin near his navel. A large bump again appeared on the man's belly. That's good, Drognir thought. It's headed away from his heart and lungs. If it had continued to claw toward upward... Now the lump showed exactly where the hoogie was, the skin convoluting as the animal shifted to tunnel deeper. "Oh, nedek!" Telee screamed as he gripped Drognir's arm in pain, then settled back, sinking into shock. Have to keep him conscious, the Drognir thought. He'd be less apt to go into shock if he didn't pass out. "Stay awake," he yelled at Telee. "Okay," the hobbyist whispered through ashen lips, his eyes fluttering open. The bot hammered two more of the animals in rapid succession sending a spray of green slime splatter onto the back of Drognir's hands and neck. Ignoring the mess, the fixer thumbed his vibraknife to its lowest setting. No time to sterilize it, he decided as he centered its point over the bump which was again moving toward the man's rib cage. Antibiotics would do the job later. Switching to a higher lens setting in his eyes, the fixer ignored the sweat streaming down his forehead and sliced into Telee's leathery skin, cutting a long, precise incision over the location of the animal. The creature inside Telee peeked out of the fleshy hole and hissed at the fixer who struck at the same instant with the blade, severing the animal's head. He then quickly extracted the rest of the twitching body from Telee's belly and cast the bloody animal carcass over the side of the flitter. Drognir switched off the vibraknife and unconsciously wiped the blood and viscera off the blade onto the edge of one of the flitter's seats while he fought not to vomit. He resheathed his knife. He'd gotten the hoogie, but he could see it had done terrible damage to its victim and there was little doubt that Telee was bleeding severely internally. "How is he?" the bot asked, popping out a screwdriver-like appendage on its left hand. It lanced the blade of the tool through a group of the animals that were clawing their way over the edge of the flitter in front of him, then shook them off. "He'll be fine," Drognir said, tearing large strips of material from Telee's jump suit for an improvised bandage. The animal had chewed and burrowed a large track inside Telee, but--provided he didn't go into shock and they got help soon--he should survive. If we can escape these damned animals, Drognir added, rising and squashing a red-eyed hoogie under his heel as it scurried across the floor of the flitter. "Here comes another pack of them!" the mechanical shouted as it speared one of the animals on the screwdriver in its left hand. With its other hand it shattered a hoogie that scrambled onto the fuselage beside it. Drognir dragged Telee across the slick deck and leaned him against the back of the pilot's seat. "How're you doing?" he asked the man as he knelt and searched his pockets again, trying to locate the key. "Been better," the old man said with a forced grin. "Kajyar!" the mechanical swore. "There must be thousands of them below us now." Drognir stood and viewed the stream of animals scuttling in the courtyard below the flitter. "Telee," the fixer called to the wounded man on the deck. The gray-haired man's eyes fluttered. "Telee, the key isn't in either of your pockets. Think. Where else could it be?" "Not in me pockets?" his eyes glazed over and then focused. "The tool chest," he muttered. "In the tool chest." And where is that? Drognir thought as he glanced around the bare flitter. Nowhere in the craft. He slapped at three of the hoogies that peeked over the edge of the flitter. The creatures plummeted off the craft. The fixer leaned over the guard rail to inspect the ground below. The ground teemed with a carpet of the hoogies, jumping and milling, trying to discover a way to climb up the slick surface of the flitter struts. Only a few managed to scramble up. But slowly the mass of churning creatures were forming a slimy chain, piling atop one another, gradually nearing the open deck of the flitter. If I had been stranded on the ground... Drognir didn't finish the thought; Gar had nearly trapped him. But there wasn't any time to waste thinking about what might have happened. Drognir looked beyond the hoogies. A few meters away, near the stargate, sat the red tool box. The box with the key in it. He turned back toward the mechanical. "We've got to get the tool chest." The mechanical slashed with its blade to chop another squealing animal, knocking pieces of it back into the courtyard. "They can't bother me." Before Drognir could say anything, the bot climbed over the handrail of the flitter. "They're only after flesh and blood, right?" "Normally," Telee said in a low voice. "But these things're in a frenzy. Don't let 'em chew into your control cables. 'Ey have chromium teeth." "I was feeling quite sure of myself until you said that," the mechanical cracked, its green eyes flashing. What seemed to be a metallic laugh echoed from its throat, startling Drognir with the human-like noise. "Wait a second," Drognir said, his Ruger 4000 pistol slipping into his hand with the activation of the targeting system in his skull. "Let me see if I can clear a path for you. There aren't enough projectiles to kill many of them, but we might cut a path." "There's no time to waste," the bot said. "Don't slip in the slime," the fixer warned the bot as it climbed onto the railing, balancing perfectly on the thin metal pipe. The mechanical jumped into the writhing mass of animals below him, raising a wail of squeals as he flattened the hoogies on which he landed. Drognir fired his pistol, clearing a bloody path ahead of the mechanical who waded through the animals that nipped at his legs as he plowed toward the tool box. He shook his legs as he plodded ahead, throwing the angry, crying animals to and fro in his wake. Another mass of the animals swarmed from the shadows of the nearest building. Drognir swore under his breath and discharged his weapon into the hoogies that raced toward the bot. Seeing his shots had no apparent effect, he swiveled back toward the bot and loosed another salvo, getting as close to the mechanical as he dared even with the precise aiming system that coupled his gun to his brain and eyes. The machine below him continued its struggle toward the tool box and then, without warning, slipped in the slime, falling with a jarring crash. A wave of the creatures swept over the bot and it vanished beneath them. The mass of flesh swelled, and the bot rose to its feet, shivering the animals off its body the way a dog shakes off water. Drognir spotted two points of infrared light along the railing near Telee out of the corner of his eye. Spinning on his heel, the fixer discharged a volley at the five hoogies that squeezed through the rungs of the railing. The needles struck, turning the creatures into a green mist. Damn things seem to understand how to keep out of sight, he thought. Better keep better watch. And the man has lost consciousness. The fixer bent down. "Telee! Wake up." "'At?" the man asked, with a wild expression on his face. "Oh. Okay." The hobbyist picked up the old pistol that still lay next to him and fired, hitting a hoogie peeking over the edge of the deck. Drognir checked the bot's progress. The mechanical knelt in a sea of hoogies, nearly covered by them, as he groped for the tool box. Locating it, the mechanical straightened, rising above the slimy, hissing animals. "I'm out of ammo," Telee gasped behind Drognir. "He's headed back," Drognir said, his eyes riveted on the mechanical. "Keep a lookout and holler if you see any more of these things behind me." "Okay." The bot forced its way back through the mass, dragging its left leg. The hoogies have managed to cut through one of its control cables, Drognir thought as he fired another volley just ahead of the mechanical. One more cut like that and the mechanical will be down. Drognir continued to snipe at the animals below him, trying to clear a path in front of the bot until it was directly under him. "Here!" Drognir yelled, reflexively retracting his pistol into its wrist holster and leaning down over the side of the guard rail. He offered his hand to the mechanical, realizing the bot would be unable to climb up the side of the craft with its damaged leg while holding the tool box. Flesh and metal fingertips briefly touched, but neither could gain a handhold. Drognir leaned farther forward, balanced precariously on the rail, nearly falling into the seething mass below him. Locking his leg under the seat of the flitter and praying that the bench would hold their combined weights, he yelled "Try again!", ordering the mechanical which twirled below him, trying to kick and brush away the whirlpool of hoogies that threatened to severe other of his control cords. The bot lifted his hand and grasped Drognir's. The fixer strained against the guard rail of the flitter, marshalling his strength to lift the heavy mechanical. The seat groaned and creaked, a pinging marking the loss of one of the screws holding it to the deck. The muscle in his leg answered with a snap. The bot rose inches into the air until it's good foot grazed a ring on the side of the craft. Then it gained a toe hold and kicked off. Suddenly the machine was clear of the railing, tumbling onto the deck beside Drognir. "We can't go on meeting like this," the mechanical whispered as he tore two wiggling hoogies from Drognir's shoulder. He squeezed them into pulps and threw them over the side. "Behind you!" Telee warned. Drognir rolled over, drew his pistol, and fired a rapid volley of shots which killed three of the hoogies peeking through the rungs of the flitter's railing. He shot another hoogie near the pilot's chair. The bot pawed through the chest it had carried aboard; tools clattered onto the deck. "Here it is!" he shouted, at the same time squashing a hoogie with the edge of his free metal hand. "I can start it," the bot said, throwing a wrench as he stood. The heavy tool clattered across the metal deck and neatly pinned a hoogie against a rung of the guard rail. The bot limped over to the pilot's chair, slid behind the craft's control console, and inserted the key into the lock of the controls. Drognir turned from the bot, firing a last shot before his pistol beeped a warning that the firearm was empty. He retracted the weapon into its holster and tore out his vibraknife with one quick motion. Dropping to one knee, he speared the hoogie lunging toward him. The flitter engine hummed a moment and then became silent leaving only the sounds of thousands of scrapping claws and the whimpering squeals of the animals climbing up the side of the ship. Then there a clanging filled the air as Telee beat at the hoogies with a wrench from the tool box. "I need some help!" the mechanical called. Rising, Drognir saw that the bot was trying to swipe a mass of snarling hoogies away from the controls of the flitter while smashing others under his good foot. "Hang on," Drognir said, running forward to stand beside the pilot's seat. He slashed with his vibraknife to the right and then the left, carving the animals running over the controls into shivering masses of flesh. "By Sheeti's fourteen genitals!" the mechanical swore in disgust as he shoved away the green slime and crushed, oozing bodies plastering the flitter's controls. "Can't see the instrument panel." He rubbed the sleeve of his tattered jumpsuit over the display, clearing it of viscera. The bot initiated the start sequence and the flitter hummed, shuddered a moment threatening to stop, and then lurched from the ground. Drognir lost his balance for a second, then regained his footing and swept five of the hoogies off the guard rail with his knife and pulverized another under the heel of his boot. He felt a tickling at his stomach but thought nothing of it, skewering another of the little demons. "'Ere's one on you!" Telee screamed. Drognir felt a burning pain and gaped down at the rear half of a wiggling hoogie sticking out of his belly. With horror, he realized the creature had snapped its way into his skin so rapidly that only its long hind legs and tail remained in view, encircled by a ring of blood that soaked into his jumpsuit. The fixer grabbed the animal, barely able to hold onto its blood-soaked hind legs as it tried to borrow under his skin. He dropped the vibraknife which clattered to the deck, and grasped the animal's legs with both hands, jerking at it and feeling the animal tug at his intestines in return. Nearly losing his grasp on the slippery creature for a moment, Drognir continued to clutch it, grimacing in pain. One of the animal's clawed feet snapped off in his left hand but the fixer continued to grasp its other leg and dug his left-hand fingers under his skin to get a hold on the animal. In the sticky blood and green ooze he felt the creature's spinal column. The man pinched hard with his fingers. The animal's small bones snapped and it loosened its hold. The fixer extracted the creature from his belly with a cry of pain. Straightening up, he clutched the limp animal in his hand and squeezed its snapping head with his free hand, ringing its snout off. He fought not to throw up as he tossed the disgusting carcass over the side of the speeding flitter. Wiping the blood and slime from his hands onto the front of his clothing, Drognir leaned against the handrail and checked around the deck for other of the creatures. Seeing none, he ripped off the sleeve of his jumpsuit, not daring to glance at the wound in his belly for a moment. He folded the sleeve into a large pressure bandage and pressed it over the red loop of his small intestine which hung through the skin where the animal had ripped into his flesh. Struggling to keep from fainting from the pain, he shoved on the bandage, forcing the loop of organ back under his skin. The fixer scanned the deck once more. There didn't appear to be any more. He sat down on the floor beside Telee, who seemed to have regained some of his color. "We'll be there in about an hour and a half," the bot said from the pilot's seat. "I've called ahead; a medical bot will be meeting us half way." The mechanical set the controls for automatic flight and then carefully stepped back to tower over the two humans. "I'll keep watch for any hoogies that might have managed to hang on." Drognir closed his eyes for a moment. He glanced back toward Telee who had passed out again. But his color was back; he wasn't in shock. "Thanks," the fixer said, relaxing. "Thank you," the mechanical replied in a low voice. "What?" Drognir asked, confused at the bot's response. Normally mechanicals didn't thank human beings. The fixer couldn't remember when he'd ever heard one do such a thing. He looked questioningly at the machine, for a moment wondering if it was malfunctioning. "Telee and I are very..." the mechanical started, revolving his head in a full circle until it again faced Drognir. "We are very close. He's the only friend I have." Drognir grunted and closed his eyes again. A bot with a human friends? Or perhaps even a lover? Machines were becoming almost--what? Human, the man decided as he lay back and shivered in the cold. And no doubt my AI overlords look at the chips and electronics embedded in me and think I'm almost a mechanical, he told himself, smirking at the irony of the thought. His mind wondered a moment and then he realized he knew what Gar's secret was. And won't the AIs be surprised when they find out? ***** "I'm sorry," Gar whimpered, suspended above the ground by his shirt collar. "You nearly killed me," Drognir replied, lowering the man to the ground. "I thought they'd send another band of mechanical goons," the immortal said, his voice returning to normal as he smoothed his pink and purple plaid shirt. Like the original Gar, the android enjoyed bright color combinations. That had made him easier to locate in the crowd. "And my hoogies wouldn't have attacked you if you hadn't gotten close to that mechanical. They have trouble telling the difference between flesh and metal once they get into their frenzy--that's why I always scheduled meets in nearly uninhabited areas." Drognir said nothing. "I never would have unleashed my modified hoogies if I'd known you--of all people--were in the area," Gar added. "Don't you see-- it was the ultimate hoax." "You have to admit," Gar continued, "I had the AIs fooled. I bet they nearly melted down trying to figure out how my new disrupter worked." The immortal grew suddenly quiet, his smile vanishing. "So are you going to kill me or what?" "The overlords said I could," Drognir replied, inching closer to Gar's frightened face. Suddenly the fixer extended his hand toward the immortal. "Here." "What?" Gar asked, taking the packet and then realizing what it was. "The Infirneo gem?" "None other--the price you requested in exchange for your secret." "But I don't really have a secret. The hoogies I bred simply disassembled the bots, piece by piece, after I'd sabotaged the stargates so they couldn't escape. A simple deception. Do one thing while you tell your audience you're doing something else." "My orders were to obtain your secret," Drognir replied. "Killing you is an option I'm not going to exercise--against my better judgement." "Be seeing you then," Gar replied, clutching the packet in his hand and backing away as if fearful the fixer might change his mind. Drognir watched the short man leave. For a while I felt as if I were talking to Gar,he mused. Certainly the android behaved just the way the original would have, given the same circumstances. Where did the man leave off and the machine begin? One thing was sure, Drognir thought, turning back toward the nearest stargate. The immortal was home free. The emotionless overlords never felt any need for revenge; they'd simply absorb the information, incorporating it into their vast cannon of knowledge, preventing the same mistake from being repeated in the future. A priceless gem was a worthless bauble as far as they were concerned. The fixer shook his head. It wasn't often that a human being, albeit an immortal, got the better of the AI overlords. And just with skillful misdirection, he mused. ***** Some maintained the AI overlords were the next step up in the evolutionary line; mechanicals, though originally conceived by man, were superior to their creators and were the new inheritor's of Adam and Eve's legacy. As Drognir turned to leave, recalling the ransom he'd just paid for Gar's worthless information, a grin flickered across his features. ================================================================= Duncan Long is a freelance writer with nearly fifty books in print including the science fiction novel, ANTI-GRAV UNLIMITED, with Avon books and the hi-tech, action/adventure Night Stalkers series with HarperCollins. Long is a regular user of CompuServe. Currently Long is looking for a publisher one of his novels which is based on the characters in this story.

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