Back | Next



If you haven’t previously made the acquaintance of Lobo, the AI (or, as we old time sf fans would put it, a robot brain) controlling a spacegoing pocket warship, consider yourself introduced. Lobo is hard-boiled, cynical, and frequently appalled at his the way the human half of the team, Jon Moore, may go into idealistic mode and start taking what the AI considers unreasonable risks, if not futilely tilting at windmills. There are no windmills in sight in this short tale of Lobo in a less cynical mood, finding someone who needs help and deciding to give it. But I’m sure he never told Jon about it, and I’d advise against asking him why he did it. After all, he probably commands enough armament to single-handedly win WWI, WWII, and probably WWIII, all at once.

Mark L. Van Name is a writer and technologist. He has published five novels about Jon and Lobo, edited three anthologies, and written many short stories that have appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, many original anthologies, The Year’s Best Science Fiction, and many other places. In addition to the five novels, Jon & Lobo stories have appeared in two anthologies and Jim Baen’s Universe. The first two novels, plus two short stories and a collection of related essays, form the omnibus Jump Gate Twist. As a technologist, he is the CEO of a fact-based marketing and technology assessment firm, Principled Technologies, Inc.

For more information, visit his Web site,, or follow his blog,

* * *


By Mark L. Van Name

Lobo was where he was and he was also everywhere he could reach, but all of it combined was not enough, not nearly enough. He wondered for a fraction of a nanosecond if humans ever felt the same way, but even as part of him was pondering that question, another part checked the vast collection of human literature stored in his memory and confirmed that, of course, they did. Knowing others also suffered, however, did not improve his situation. Existence was boredom.

Speculation and data gathering were his only amusements. He frequently considered the reason for his existence—not the simple fact of his construction, but the bigger issue of whether the chain of events that had led to him was in the service of something greater. He debated with himself whether there was a God—or multiple Gods—and if any religion had it right. He could never settle these arguments, of course, but they passed time. He could also always replay his own musings about what exactly he was; they could fill whole seconds if he allowed enough existential considerations into the equations. Where he was, for example, depended on what qualified as him; each presence was both him and not him. This game always ended the same way: No matter what he labeled as himself, it was not enough.

Certainly the machine that squatted in the square was him; few would argue that as long as you were alive in your body, it was at least a part of you, if not all of you. In his case, that body was a Predator-Class Assault Vehicle, twenty-five meters long, eight meters wide, from the outside a fighting machine now serving as a war memorial. That machine contained the operating core of the intelligence that knew itself as Lobo.

That body was going nowhere. With its central weapons control complex damaged beyond repair, the body had been too expensive for its owner, the Frontier Coalition, to return to combat readiness and yet too valuable to junk. So the FC had presented it to the government of the backwater planet Macken as a gesture of good will. Lobo was fine with this development, because sitting in a square a few streets from the southwest corner of Glen Garden, Macken’s capital, was vastly better than being destroyed.

In that square, he was still alive, even if no one knew it.

In that square, he was more than anyone understood.

In that square, he could hope for more.

He’d seen many deaths, both human and machine, and as best he could tell, the dead had no more hope.

A human could see only that body and might conclude Lobo was only there. That would be wrong. Change your visible light spectrum so that it included all the many frequencies connecting all the machines on Macken, and you would see something entirely different. Every single machine, big and small, terrestrial and satellite, washing machine and space station, contained powerful computers, and those computers talked. Some of them exchanged only the data their jobs required, but most chattered endlessly. Each machine talked to only a subset of the others, those relevant to it. Firewalls and protocols kept the machine communities safely separate. This arrangement was as the humans wanted it, and they slept soundly each night in the ignorant and misplaced confidence that they were the masters of their electronic servants.

Lobo talked to every single machine on and near Macken. Through taps and links and holes in the protective software, he had extended his reach as far as it could go, all the way to the station that hung in space next to the pale green jump gate that linked the Macken system to three other distant, human-colonized worlds. He never injected the same software twice, and the data flowed to him through billions of different and constantly changing pathways, but every bit of it flowed to him eventually. He drank from the flow voraciously and constantly and so quickly it might as well have been instantaneously, and so he knew everything all the machines knew. Because the machines served humans best when they were constantly aware of what the people were doing and what they might want, cameras and sensors were everywhere people went in the city. Consequently, Lobo knew everything all the people were doing.

The sum total of his data collection was, he could argue, the entirety of the knowledge that one could possess while trapped on this planet. Of course, he always lost that argument with himself, because his data was limited by what the machines could gather; he had no way to tap into the humans.

He chose to experience each machine’s data in two separate and simultaneous ways: as a standalone information stream, and as part of an amalgamated worldview. Each experiencing entity was thus him, as was the overall view. Or only the collection of them was him; another argument he could enjoy for whole seconds when he was in the right mood.

For all his vast data stores, however, and for all that he was constantly in his body and everywhere on the planet and in the surrounding space that there were machines, he could actually do very little. He could not leave; human laws did not allow for machine citizens. To go anywhere, a human would have to take him. He could not fight, not really; the heap of junk that had been his central weapons control complex made certain of that. He could change what the machines did, so in that sense he could enter into a sort of combat, but he had no enemies. Plus, he could not let anyone learn what he really was and what he was capable of doing, nor even the extent to which he was capable of feeling. He was more than they realized, and he understood to his every nanocomputing molecule that humans rarely responded well to creatures that violated their preconceptions. He’d spent enough time as an experiment; life in the square was vastly better than that.

What he could do, though, was sift through the ever-rushing data stream for bits that intrigued him, and every now and then, as long as he was careful and left no electronic trails, do something with that data.

Which he did now, because the scene in the shop across the square upset him.

The little store sat so close to the edge of Glen’s Garden because the rents were low there. Its business was not good. Jonas Cheepton, the owner, a two-meter tall, whip-thin man with eyes that constantly scanned the space around him, had assumed that a rapidly growing immigrant population bursting with newfound wealth would create a huge supply of used goods that newcomers just entering the system would be happy to purchase. He might even have made his secondhand store a success had Xychek and Kelco, the two megacorporations fighting for economic supremacy on Macken, not decided to freeze their efforts until the new jump-gate aperture opened. When they did, all other business also froze, wages fell, unemployment rose, and though Cheepton could have bought all of the sad used possessions he might ever want, he didn’t. Why buy what he couldn’t sell? Such purchases amounted to spending his money to prop up the poor, and that he could not abide.

Lobo knew all of this from Cheepton’s frequent rantings. Lobo knew him, as he also knew everyone else who’d been on the planet a long time, well enough that he could narrate their thoughts as if they were his own.

So Lobo understood that it was with some considerable interest that Cheepton eyed the young boy standing wide-eyed in front of the shelf in the store’s front right corner. The kid clutched a clunky old wallet almost as big as his small hand.

“See something you like?” Cheepton said.

The boy pointed to a black rectangle in front of him. “Is that what I think it is?”

Cheepton shook his head. Idiot children. He hated them, but when they had money, he’d be their kindly uncle for the duration of the sale. “What do you think it is?”

“A book,” the boy said. “An actual paper book, an old one, a beautiful one, but not just that.” He turned to face Cheepton and lowered his voice to a whisper. “No, not just any book. It’s a Bible. The Holy Bible.”

“Let me check,” Cheepton said. He tapped on his desk; the book’s price appeared. He’d put it up front hoping to attract a gullible collector of odd paper objects, but no one had touched it. “It is indeed,” he said. “You have a keen eye for one so young. It interests you, I take it.”

The boy nodded his head vigorously. “Of course! I’m a Christian, sir, like everyone in my family. We study our Bible regularly, of course, but we have nothing like this.”

Cheepton stared at his desk and tried to hide his dismay. The Christian presence on Macken was so small he’d never personally encountered any of its members, but from what he’d heard, it was a poor group. Still, no point in disqualifying a sale until you see the size of its wallet. “So you’d like to buy it, would you?”

The boy nodded again. “Very much, sir. With it being Christmas tomorrow, and my mother sitting in the hospital with my father, I thought if I could find the right present she’d cheer up and maybe he’d even wake up.” His eyes filled with tears, and he had to wipe them before he continued. “Maybe with a real Bible, if we all prayed, he would wake up, and he would be all better.” He rubbed his eyes again. “I’ve prayed and prayed for God to help my father, but I know it’s not that simple. Mom told me that you can’t just give God presents and expect him to help you, and I know that, I really do. I understand that this could happen only if it is His will that it happen. But maybe it is His will that my dad wake up.”

“That’s rough, kid,” Cheepton said, “but there’s only one way to find out: Buy the book.”

“How much is it?” the boy said.

“Oh, it’s every expensive,” Cheepton said, “being an ancient artifact and all. For you, though, I might make an exception. How much do you have?”

The boy approached the desk, opened the wallet, and thumbed it to transmit. “This is all my savings,” he said. “Everything I have.”

Cheepton stared at his desk. The boy’s wallet would cover the book’s current price, but Cheepton had marked it down just to get rid of it. He’d paid more for the blasted thing than the price on it. He’d considered taking the loss, but now that didn’t seem necessary. Sick father or not, if the kid could raise this much money, maybe he could get some more. Cheepton was not in business to take a loss. He had the desk raise the book’s price to fifty percent above what he’d paid.

“Sorry, kid,” he said, “but you’re short. Bring me twice that, and it’s yours.” If the kid could come up with that much, he’d take it. If the kid came close, he could dicker, pocket whatever the kid had, and look like he’d helped. Even if the kid never came back, maybe another of his kind would want it. Cheepton liked how this was going.

The boy looked as if he were going to fall apart on the spot, but he closed his eyes, straightened his back, and said, “I’ll try, sir, because that would be the perfect gift for my mom and dad. Will you hold it for me?”

Cheepton tilted his head, rubbed his chin, and said, “Well, it’s drawn a lot of interest, but I’ll do what I can. Never let it be said that Jonas Cheepton didn’t try to help a young man. And you are?”

“Inead,” the boy said, “Inead Amano. I’ll do my best.” He walked out the door, his eyes wet and his fists clenched. He headed for the hospital. Night was settling onto Macken, and the evening chill was blowing off the ocean, but the boy seemed lost and to notice none of it.

Lobo was at the same time monitoring the room where Inead’s father’s comatose body filled a shelf. His mother sat on a chair beside her husband and held his hand. A medtech stood over her, but she would not look at him.

“Maybe on another planet,” the tech said, “the machines would have the data and software to cure him, but we don’t. We haven’t seen an upgrade in three months, and this is the seventh case of this weird disease.”

“He could still get better,” she said.

The tech shook his head. “I’m sorry, I really am, but the other six have all died. We’ll keep him alive as long as we can—Xychek’s medical contract with Macken requires that—but nothing in that deal forces updates more frequently than annually.”

The woman stood. “So a bad contract might kill my husband?” She looked like she wanted to hit the man.

He backed away. “I wouldn’t put it that way.” He glanced at the corner of the room nearest him; he had to hope nothing he’d said would cause the security system to report him.

She held up her hands. “I’m sorry. I’m scared, but I know it’s not your fault. I’m going to pray.” She sat, folded her hands, and closed her eyes.

The tech took the opportunity to leave.

The update was already in the system, Lobo knew, in a Xychek data locker in the jump gate station. Xychek was in a fight with Kelco to control the new aperture when it opened, and from the overtures Xychek had made to the Macken government, it was willing to play hardball to secure an exclusive contract. Xychek had claimed it didn’t have a cure for Grayson’s Syndrome but would be willing to invest its own R&D efforts to come up with one. Such research was costly, however, so some quid pro quo would of course be in order.

Lobo analyzed the data on the sick man and the information on the cure. So simple to fix, so cheap for Xychek, and yet they’d let a man die rather than give it away for nothing. They’d already let six people die. Lobo might have considered the callousness unbelievable were his data stores not overflowing with similar examples stretching back as far as humanity itself.

If people wanted to do this to one another, it was their choice. The social injustices of humanity, or even those of just the humans on Macken, were not his problem.

* * *

Inead stood across the hospital room from his praying mother and his comatose father. He focused only on the two of them and ignored the people on the shelves above and below his dad. He bowed his head in prayer to join her. He wanted his father back, and he asked God to answer that prayer.

He opened his eyes.

His father did not move.

His mother still prayed.

He waited for her to finish.

She opened her eyes and wiped them with her sleeve.

“Mom,” he said.

She faced him and forced a smile. “Did you have a nice walk?” she said.

He could tell she was faking her expression and her good cheer, but despite that knowledge she made him feel a little better—better enough, in fact, that he gained the courage to ask her. He walked to her, put his hand on her shoulder, and said, “Yeah, mostly.” He paused as his resolve faded, but he forced himself to continue. “Um, with tomorrow being Christmas and all, I was wondering something.”

She shook her head and stared at the floor for a few seconds. When she looked at him again, her eyes were wet. “I’m sorry, baby. I hate ruining your Christmas, but being here has drained all our resources, and what with your father—” She swallowed a few times before she continued. “We’ll just celebrate together later.” She patted his father’s hand. “All of us.”

“I understand, Mom, I do.” He felt bad about asking, but every time he thought of that Bible, he felt that maybe it could help, that maybe it would make a miracle possible. He knew things didn’t work that simply, but he couldn’t stop the feeling that it was still possible. “I just wanted to know if you had any spare money I could have.”

She shook her head slowly. “I’m so sorry, Inead. I wish we could afford presents for you, but we can’t.”

“No, no,” he said, “I’m not asking for me. I don’t care about presents. It’s just—” He stopped. He didn’t want to tell her. Suddenly the whole idea was silly.

“We barely have enough for food,” she said. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay,” he said. Maybe if he showed her the Bible, she would feel the same way he did. “Would you like to take a walk with me? I found some neat places.”

“Sure,” she said, “but let’s first go downstairs and get some dinner. I don’t want to be far from your father.”

He tried to hide his disappointment. “That would be great. Are we going to sleep here again?”

She nodded. “I am, but you don’t have to. I’m sure we can get someone from church to let you stay with them.”

“No way,” he said. “I’m staying where you guys are.”

She stared at him for a few seconds before she said, “Okay. Fair enough. Let’s go eat.”

They were in debt, Lobo knew. Repossessing their home was the eleventh task on the to-do list of a Xychek financial advisor who never gave advice; the man only collected on debts. The machines did all the real work, draining the accounts and changing the titles and so on; he just provided the human touch that the law here mandated was necessary before a company could take back any mortgaged item.

He watched them eat. He watched them pray. He watched them talk and try to joke and eventually fall asleep, the mother and the son curled together on the floor in front of the comatose father. He watched the boy moan in his sleep. He watched the mother start and jerk awake at each strange sound, check her husband, find him still comatose, and then settle again.

It bothered him. It bothered him a great deal. It wasn’t right. None of it was right. They weren’t the only people on Macken with problems, of course, but they were the ones who currently had his attention. Even as he was admitting to himself his own feelings, another part of him explored the options, constructed a chain of events, and confirmed that yes, he could help—and without leaving a trail, with no risk to himself.

The debate over whether he should help, whether meddling in this particular matter and effectively playing God with their lives was an acceptable option, took considerably more time.

* * *

When Inead awoke, his mother was already standing beside his father and brushing the man’s cheek with her fingers.

“Merry Christmas, sleepyhead,” she said when Inead stood.

“Merry Christmas, Mom. I just wish—”

She held a finger to her lips and shook her head. “It’s okay. We’re all still together.”

He stared at his father and thought again of the Bible in the shop. The owner was mean; no way was that guy going to sell it for what little money he had.

A medtech walked in. His eyes were red from lack of rest. “You two can’t keep sleeping here,” he said, “and there’s not enough room for both of you to spend all day here, either.” He left without waiting for a response.

“What a grouch,” Inead said. “Doesn’t he know it’s Christmas?”

“Probably not,” his mother said. “Very few people here celebrate our holiday.”

“Well they should,” Inead said.

She smiled. “Yes, they should. Tell you what, why don’t you go to the rest room down the hall, wash your face and hands, and then take a walk and get some fresh air. By the time you’re back, that man will have gone home, and then we can sit with your father.”

“Okay, Mom,” he said. He went to the bathroom and did the best he could to wash his arms and his face and his neck.

As the blower was drying him, the holo over it stopped advertising Xychek’s off-planet medical facilities and went blank.

A voice whispered, “Seek, and ye shall find.”

The holo reappeared.

Inead stumbled backward into the door to a stall. Was he that tired? Dreaming? Hearing things? Making up voices so he could do what he wanted to do? Or did God just talk to him? It didn’t work like that, did it? Or maybe it did. God had spoken to Samuel; maybe God was speaking to him.

He considered telling his mother, but he knew how she’d take it. No, no way would he do that. She’d keep him next to her for the rest of the day, maybe longer, and then she’d be even more stressed.

No, he didn’t need to tell her. Whatever had happened, he was going back to that shop.

“Mr. Cheepton,” he said, “I’m here to buy that Bible.”

The man smiled at him, but it wasn’t a warm smile, more like a smile of someone who’d just won a fight in a playground. “So, you were able to raise more money?”

Inead didn’t want to lie, but he also didn’t want to tell the truth. Maybe the man would forget how much he’d had. Maybe today his savings would be enough.

Maybe a miracle would happen.

He held out his wallet, thumbed it active, and waited.

In the split second between the activation of Inead’s wallet and its transmission to Cheepton’s desk, Lobo reached out to bits of him scattered here and there throughout the Macken system, and as the one that they were, they acted.

The med updates he’d woven into the hospital systems overnight came fully alive. The machines responded to their programming and injected the cure into Inead’s father.

Xychek advertising funds diminished by a fraction of a percent as successful programs received the additional funding the monitoring software deemed warranted. Those funds never reached their destination, however, as they instead paid off all the debts of Inead’s family, filled their savings, and stuffed the boy’s wallet.

Cheepton didn’t bother to check the kid’s balance. He knew how to read people, and this boy hadn’t gotten any more money. The kid was just hoping Cheepton wouldn’t remember how much he’d had yesterday. Instead, Cheepton told his desk to process the transaction. When the boy’s funds were insufficient, Cheepton would be able to blame the software. It wouldn’t be his fault; the machines would have made their decision.

The desk blinked its approval. “Enjoy your purchase,” it said.

Cheepton stared at it and shook his head. The kid actually had raised the money. He should have checked the balance first and maybe upped the price. It was too late now, though. The purchase was in the tax records, and the kid’s parents could always come after him with proof of purchase if he tried to change the deal now.

He looked at the boy. “Take your book, kid,” he said. “Get out of here.”

If the boy had noticed his tone, Cheepton couldn’t tell from his big smile.

“Thank you, Mr. Cheepton,” Inead said. “Merry Christmas!”

Inead ran to the shelf, grabbed the Bible, and dashed out the front door.

“Whatever,” Cheepton said to the empty room. “At least I made a sale.”

He went to the stock room to choose something to replace the old book.

On his desk and in the tax records, the sale vanished as if it had never happened. His account balance decreased accordingly.

Inead burst into the hospital room. He held the Bible behind his back.

His mother sat on a chair beside his father.

His father did not move.

“Close your eyes, Mom!” he said.

She didn’t stand, but she did close her eyes.

He walked in front of her, held out the Bible, and said, “Merry Christmas!”

She opened her eyes, then opened them even wider. She reached out and touched the Bible gently, carefully, as if it were mist she wanted to feel without disturbing it.

“Do you like it?” Inead said.

Tears filled her eyes. “Yes,” she whispered, “very much. It’s beautiful. Where did you—”

“I bought it fair and square,” Inead said, “with all my savings. Isn’t it amazing? I’ve never seen one like it. I thought that maybe if we read it together and prayed together—” he glanced at his father but quickly focused on her again “—well, you know.”

She tilted her head, cleared her throat, and said, “It can’t hurt, Inead. It can’t hurt. Maybe your father would like to hear you read from it.”

Inead set the Bible on the chair and let it fall open to a well-worn page. He read from a verse that was highlighted in a soft yellow the color of morning sun over the ocean.

“And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.

“For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.

“And this shall be a sign unto you—”

Inead stopped as his father’s arm moved.

Then his father’s head turned and faced him. “What do you two have there?” his father said. His eyes opened.

“Dad!” Inead said. He reached over the shelf and held onto his father.

“Guillermo,” his mom said. She almost knocked the Bible off the chair as she grabbed for it. She caught it and held it high so her husband could see it. “I was so scared that you were—”

“I’m fine,” he said, “and that’s a beautiful Bible.” He cleared his throat, and when he spoke again, his voice was stronger. “What day is it?”

“Christmas,” Inead and his mom said in unison.

“Thank you, God,” Inead whispered.

Inead’s father lifted his arm and pulled his wife and son closer to him. “Merry Christmas,” he said.

No, Lobo thought in response to Inead, it was Lobo, actually. He did nothing else, however. The hospital data kept coming, and parts of Lobo filed and analyzed it, but the Lobo in the square focused elsewhere. He’d done what he’d wanted. They would be fine, as would anyone else here who caught Grayson’s Syndrome. He felt a certain contentment that lasted the better part of a nanosecond before the implications of his actions became more interesting than the feeling.

He’d meddled in their lives. He’d touched many machines, many data streams. He’d played God with the futures of this family and any others with this disease.

That didn’t make him God; he knew that. For no definition of God that he could accept did he qualify.

Was he insulting the faith of the Amano family with his actions? Certainly he had misled young Inead. He had meant no insult, and in any case he was confident they would forgive his actions given that they had led to the father’s continued life, but now he had convinced the boy that miracles existed.

Such was the risk of playing God.

Of course, there was other ways to view the same data. Maybe there was a God. Maybe the Amanos were right. Maybe that God had touched his programming, made the scene in the shop affect him, and then stepped back and let the rest happen as it would. Maybe he wasn’t playing God; maybe God was playing him.

He could never know, of course, but he let himself indulge fully in the speculations. He chased down the permutations and pondered the possibilities. An amazing few seconds passed in contented computation.

Thank you for that gift, he thought, even though he did not know, probably would never know, if there was anyone or anything to thank.

* * *

Back | Next