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An “Action Figures” Story

Aaron Allston



His booted foot, as long as I am tall, came down on me, grinding me into the black earth. All the air went out of me.

My body held together, though. It was made of hardier stuff than human skin and bone. I didn’t black out.

The giant’s boot covered me from my neck to below my feet, but my head was exposed and I could look up at him. One standard-issue human male, mid-twenties, dressed in camouflage uniform and green-black body armor, glaring down at me, forest canopy over his head.

He had no rifle, but reached for his hip holster.

I knew what was coming. He’d raise his foot and, before I could pry myself from the soil, he’d shoot me. I’d be as dead as my co-conspirators intended me to be.

It was not the way I wanted to spend my day.

* * *

I probably ought to turn the calendar back to explain how me getting stepped on came about.

Picture a living room, sort of triangular. The longest section of sky-blue wall, decorated with imbedded lighting and flexmonitors showing images of Chiron’s forests, oceans, and mountains, is slightly curved because the other side of it is the exterior of a three-story, old-style habitat dome. The other two walls meet at a right angle. There’s white carpet on the floor, the expensive self-cleaning kind, and comfortable puffy furniture everywhere. That’s where I was five weeks before I got stepped on.

For an hour I’d been watching another giant, his head as tall as my whole body, as he napped on his recliner. I sat on the chair arm and waited for him to wake up. I didn’t think he was going to die that day, but you never know what a sudden start might do to someone so old, so I didn’t wake him.

His name was Dr. Bowen Chiang—Doc to me and most people who knew him. At this point he was about two hundred years old, and looking it. His white hair was so sparse it was almost gone and his skin was thin and translucent. He was skinny like so many old humans. He always wore pajamas those days because he was wealthy and eccentric and retired. The ones he had on now were jade-green silk.

I looked like him, too. Not the way he was then, but the way he’d been when he was thirty, when he first left on his emigration to Chiron. I had the tint to my skin and slant to my eyes that used to say “Chinese” to people who worried about that sort of thing, and my hair was thick and black, worn short. Of average height and build for a ’ganger male, I was, by human standards, handsome, with a face that Doc said belonged on the young bad-guy lieutenant in a martial-arts immersive. Doc told me these looks had served him well when he’d lived in a place called Singapore, designing house-cleaning robots and chasing women, before he got married.

You’ve probably never heard of Doc Chiang by that name, but you know him by another. When Chiron was finally terraformed, opening for colonists, he was on the first colony ship headed this way from Earth. His passage came at a reduced rate because he served as a programmer and systems maintenance engineer during the transit. And during those twenty long years, he never went into coldsleep.

Instead, he invented. By the time they made orbit above Chiron, he’d developed the first-generation Dollgangers.

There’s been a lot of misinformation circulated about ’gangers. Let me set matters straight.

Start with a human-like skeleton made of sturdy metal composites. It stands anywhere from 175 to 250 mm tall. (I’m 225 mm, about average for an adult male.) Inside the skull, bones, and ribcage is machinery—a computer system, a plant producing nanite crawlers that diagnose and repair damage, reservoirs of materials for the nanites to use, communications gear ranging from broadband radio to microwave transmitters to laser, extensible microwires for direct data upload/download, voice synthesizer, sensors where the corresponding human organs would be, battery arrays…

Over all that is a musculature of hard-wearing memory polymers attached at innumerable points to the skeleton, and over that a realistic-feeling skin laced with a sophisticated neural net allowing for sensations like pain and pleasure. Throughout the whole body runs a peristalsis-based circulatory system that sends the nanites wherever they need to go.

And that’s only the start. The skin, the facial features, are shaped to individual appearances, making each of us distinctive. We get realistic hair that, supplied and reinforced by the nanites, can grow. Realistic human eyes and skin colors. Fingernails and toenails. Functional genitalia—’gangers are anatomically correct.

But what made us a financial success and first made Chiron a profit-generating world was Doc Chiang’s last innovation before the suits took control of the technology. That innovation was the personality template.

Dollganger programming starts with an unbelievably complex personality system derived from a real human. It might be calculated from a lengthy series of tests or reconstructed from analyses of archival recordings and guesswork. Then, add learning capacity, abstract reasoning, subconscious motivations, complex emotions. The coding is so complex it has to be designed in large part by other machines, and it’s so intricate that it can’t be overridden just by introducing patches of new code.

Though we’re individuals, we have a lot of personality traits in common—cheerfulness, helpfulness, obedience. At least when we’re young.

So the success of the Dollgangers was because each little guy or gal could be made in the likeness of someone specific—of the buyer, of a famous performer, of a planet’s most glamorous model, of an unobtainable object of desire, of a long-dead son or daughter. Oh, yeah, and because we cost a fortune and some people would mortgage their whole futures just to have one of us.

There was just about no task we weren’t put to. Quality assurance on assembly lines making expensive components. Entertainments. Exploration, whether cave strata or new wormhole routes—put us in a miniature spacecraft with a Q-drive and no life support and we’d navigate wormholes too small for human ships and come back with star maps crucial to space exploitation corporations.

And then there was the sex trade. I don’t know the name of the bastard genius who invented the “gang-bangers,” or Dollganger remotes. They weren’t really ’gangers. They looked like us, but they were just sensor platforms, mindless, linked wirelessly to full-immersion body suits and helmets worn by meat people. A human could put on one of those rigs and link up with a gang-banger. Then everything that the remote experienced was felt by its human operator. Gang-bangers did a lot of things, but mostly they had sex with ’gangers. You want a night with supermodel Sasu of Earth or Derek Ayala, Sexiest Man on Arkon? Well, you couldn’t get the real ones, but you could rent a gang-banger and some time with the ’ganger replica of one of those celebrities.

Which was fine in the early days. We were made to serve, to please. And we couldn’t say no anyway. We were property. But over the years, the fact that all the emotional fulfillment was in one direction only began to make a difference.

And that’s what the meat people never really grasped. Technically, yes, we were robots. But the War of Independence didn’t come about because we were infected with bad code, as governments and news media always imply. It came about because we’re living, feeling creatures.

Anyway, Doc. That’s what Doc invented. He was the Dollmaker of Chiron, and it’s by that nickname most everybody remembers him.

And here I was, perched on his chair arm, watching him sleep, watching him die.

Finally Doc’s breathing changed. His eyes opened. He glanced over at me and smiled. He fumbled for his wire-rimmed glasses and put them on. “Bow. It’s good to see you up and around.” Unlike mine, his voice still carried traces of a Cantonese accent; he’d learned English and other languages well after reaching adolescence.

I cranked my volume levels so he could hear me speak. “Yeah, about that. My system clock and my mental processes clock are offset by nearly twelve hours. There’s a big gap between my last memory and when I woke up in my charger-bed. Something happened to me.”

He nodded, the movement languid. “What do you remember?”

“The Rockrunner shuttle. The heat shields.”

* * *

In those days, Doc lived mostly off his patent royalties, much reduced as patent after patent lapsed. They maintained his home and kept him in essentials, but didn’t allow for luxuries. Luxuries were my department. He rented me out to employers as a hazardous-environment systems maintenance guy, a vehicle specialist, a high-end mechanic. As old and experienced as I was, I earned good money for Doc.

I’d been just about done with one such contract when my memory skip occurred. Rockrunner was a metal hauler that made regular runs out to the system’s metal-rich mining moons. We’d come back with a load and the command crew was getting ready for the return to planetside. But the mission commander saw odd readings on the shuttle’s heat-shield diagnostics.

It was my job to find and fix the problem, of course. In a little full-coverage insulation suit, all crinkly silver, with magnetic boots and a clear bubble helmet, I went extravehicular on the shuttle’s surface to look at the situation.

First I took in the view, of course. Dollgangers do have an aesthetic sense. From high Chiron orbit, I could see the planet of my manufacture dominate the sky. Two-thirds water, the land mass temperate zones full of forests, a hurricane pattern forming in the equatorial portion of the Ephialtes Ocean. The planet was half in daylight, with nighttime at about the midpoint of the continent facing me and racing westward. It was, well, gorgeous.

The damage to the heat shields wasn’t gorgeous, but it also wasn’t too bad. It looked like debris of some sort had scored a couple of forward belly shields. It would take a little work to fix—delaminate the damaged shields, remove them to the shuttle bay, put in a couple of fresh ones, laminate them in place.

I directed a microwave burst toward the cockpit to let the meat crew know the situation. They told me that Punch would assist me with repairs. Five minutes later, he was out there beside me in an identical insulation suit.

I’d known Punch for all my life. He’d been fabbed and awakened a week before I was. Property of Rockrunner’s owner partnership, he was the freighter’s cockpit infielder, capable of acting as comm officer, navigator, or even co-pilot. He had a long, pointed, saturnine face that showed a lot of teeth when he smiled.

He wasn’t smiling today. He was unusually quiet during the repairs. When we were laminating the second of the replacement shields, I bumped helmets with him and held the contact.

I adjusted my vocal tuners to make it easier to hear across the weird medium of plastic bowls. Talking this way, we wouldn’t broadcast. “Let’s hear it, Punch.”

He shook his head. “I’ll tell you when we’re done. I want to talk to you. When it won’t be conspicuous.”

“All r—”

And that’s where my memory ended, right there on that letter “R.”

Eleven hours, thirty-nine minutes, forty-seven point four seconds later, I rebooted, woke up, and found myself in my own charger-bed in Doc’s dome just outside Zhou City, with no idea what had happened.

* * *

I told Doc all this, except the part about Punch wanting to talk to me.

He nodded. “Bow, you got flash-fried yesterday.”

I frowned. Coronal mass ejection, outside a planetary atmosphere, can be pretty dangerous to meat people, but most times it doesn’t do any damage to a Dollganger. When it affects us at all, the damage is usually limited to a reboot. To us, it’s like fainting, then coming to a minute later.

The sympathy on Doc’s face didn’t relent as he continued. “A bad one. The pulse put you down and prevented a normal restart.”

“And Punch?”

He didn’t answer immediately. I had a sinking feeling in my gut.

“They… didn’t find Punch. At best guess, he lost brain functions and his transponder went offline. He probably drifted away from the shuttle.”

“His magnetic boots—”

“He must have kicked himself free of the hull in a muscular spasm. They think his orbit decayed and he went through reentry.”

I sat down. I couldn’t say anything.

Okay, yeah. People praise the programming of the Dollgangers for the way it simulates human emotions. I can tell you, there’s nothing simulated about it, and I was floored.

Punch wasn’t really a close friend. We didn’t pal around on our time off. But he was cheerful, reliable, outspoken, funny.

And now he was dust in the high atmosphere, and I was lucky not to be there beside him.

“I’m sorry, Bow.” Doc’s voice made it clear that he really was. “Look, I don’t need to line up anything for you in the next few days. Take some time off.”



In something like a state of shock, I drove my six-wheeled buggy to the west end of Zhou City and beyond.

In the ’ganger lane of the westbound road, just outside the city limits, where landscaped human neighborhoods gave way to dense, two-century-old forest, a dog spotted me and gave chase. It was a good-sized animal, a floppy-eared tan hound.

Dogs seldom mess with ’gangers, but when they do, they can inflict a lot of damage. This one seemed content to chase, wag, and bark, but it was fast enough to gain on my buggy. So before it got too close I hit a dashboard control. This caused a cloud of lemon-scented stink to jet out of the buggy’s rear end. The dog ran into it, then ran off, offended but unhurt.

I turned off the human highway and onto the dirt road leading to Atlas Hill. My buggy’s motor strained as I took the road up to the top. At the hill’s summit, the road leveled off and entered the broad dirt lot surrounding the squat gray building that was the entrance to the Warrens.

I parked as close to the entrance as spaces allowed; there were plenty of other ’ganger transports, especially buggies, parked already. Then I wandered through the vast, human-scale doorway in front and to the first of the ramps leading down.

Meat people had their own ideas about what life should be like for Dollgangers. In their vision, on the downtime hours we needed for recharging, maintenance, and (they eventually discovered) socializing and creative expression, we’d go to the dorms set up for us by our corporate owners or the ’ganger-houses bought for us by individual owners. I had one of those dwellings, a Dollganger-scaled dome that was a miniature replica of Doc’s house; it occupied a small ground-floor back room in his dome. Dorms and dollhouses were the only structures built for us.

But ’gangers, like meat people, have a need to spend time in environments of our own making. So we built the Warrens.

It had been one of the habitats built for human bioengineers during the transitional years when Chiron was undergoing the last stages of terraforming. They’d used explosives, cutters, and tunnelers to carve burrows throughout a hard rock hill. They’d lived in its tunnels and squared-off caves for years, then had stripped out most of the equipment and abandoned the site the instant the Harringen Corporation began landing prefabs in what was to become Zhou City. A century ago, ’gangers found the place and begun building their own environment inside.

There were apartment blocks and individual homes, some of them with close-cropped lichen lawns. You could find works of art—murals on the walls, sculptures, motorized mobiles, lightshows in constant motion in black-walled chambers. There were businesses: bars and restaurants, dance halls, ball fields, theaters, repair shops.

Twenty-story skyscrapers engineered from resin-saturated cardboard over foam-steel scrap skeletons dominated the main atrium. A stadium occupied what had once been a gymnasium. Housing sprawled through the innumerable former laboratories and dorms. Buildings made from scrap sometimes collapsed or their inhabitants, tiring of unlovely angles and sagging floors, would dismantle them and replace them with something new. It was a one-eighth scale city undergoing constant renovation.

I once had a home in the Warrens, but it kept being dismantled or burned out whenever I was away, so I gave it up. Dollgangers of my sort, the ones who get on really well with their owners and got special privileges—plushes, we were called—weren’t too popular with those who didn’t, and there were places in the Warrens where I just didn’t go. Even now, as I walked, distracted, down Royal Road between the open-air Top Shelf Club, which had once been a set of heavy-duty warehouse shelves, and the monolithic black Simulator Palace, I heard Bluetop, a Zhou City waterworks engineer, call out, “Hey, Big Plush, kissed any new asses lately?”

I ignored him, kept my eyes mostly on the gray tunnel ceiling ten stories up. And in a few minutes I reached the King’s Palace.

The King was even older than I was. He claimed to be the first ’ganger replica of a historic figure, and nobody had evidence otherwise. His movement algorithms reflected his antiquity. He was full of limb twitches and facial tics that were the result of old, never-optimized code. He wore his rhinestone-studded jumpsuits, he served drinks and sang, he sneered at his customers but didn’t mean it. Given his freedom by the terms of his owner’s will when that grand old dame died half a century ago, he built his bar, with game rooms to the side, rental bedrooms above, neon everywhere, to look like a casino from one of Earth’s great gambling centers of centuries ago.

Now I sat at the King’s bar and nursed a drink. Dollgangers don’t need to eat or drink much, just a few lubes and materials saturations for our nanoplants to use for maintenance, but we have taste sensors, so our food and drink makers are all about creating taste combinations that delight, surprise, offend, or remind. My choice today was a Greasepaint Surprise, a thick, chalk-white concoction that tasted as good as it sounded. But it was Punch’s favorite, so I drank it in his memory.

There were a few other bar patrons at this hour. They tended to ignore me. The King returned from serving one of them and plunked his elbows down on the bar before me. “He’ll be missed. Punch.”

I snorted. “Will you miss him, King?”

He thought about that and adjusted his tinted, for-cosmetic-purpose-only glasses. “No, I surely won’t. I barely knew him. But you will. So he’ll be missed. The logic of my statement is irrefutable, thankyouverymuch.”

The stool next to me creaked as someone settled onto it. I glanced over and my heart skipped a beat.

Okay, sure. Dollgangers have no hearts, so there’s nothing to skip. But the coding at the core of our individual behavior is inherited from human emotions, including physical reactions to those feelings. So seeing a gorgeous female does to me what it does to a straight human male.

Too bad it was Lina.

That’s not her full name. A Shavery Corporation safety engineer, named by a middle manager who should have been drowned at birth, she bore the unfortunate moniker of Thumbelina 1109-X-Ray-Baker. But to herself, and to all of us, she was Lina, and she’d give you hell if you used the full version of her first name.

I don’t know who her creators had modeled her on, but they’d chosen well. She was small and lean, with coloration Doc referred to as Mediterranean. She had long, straight dark-brown hair and a face that looked like it belonged in old immersives from back when they were called movies. Her human original had apparently been a dancer and her movements were graceful, fascinating. Today, she’d already changed out of the lime-green Shavery Corporation jumpsuit that was the duty uniform for their ’gangers, and she wore a burgundy skirt and white peasant blouse; she was barefoot, as was usual in her off-duty hours. On her right cheek was the small image of a rose—not a tattoo, because Shavery would never have allowed that, but paint that she’d wash off before reporting for her next shift.

Yeah, Lina was hot, and that means the same thing to ’gangers that it does to meat people.

On the other hand, the nicest thing she’d ever brought herself to call me was Big Plush.

But this time Lina looked at me like she suddenly gave a damn. “Bow, are you all right?”

“You heard about Punch, then.”


“I’m coping.” I tilted my glass at her. “Even though he had the worst taste in drinks.”

“Have you had any weird thoughts or dreams since it happened?”

I shook my head. “That’s a strange question.”

“Any hint that maybe you’ve had your transponder modded, or had a new one installed?”

That caused me to set my glass down. “Now you’re talking paranoid.”

“I don’t think I am. Bow, we need to get you checked out. Go ahead and settle up.”

The word “we” raised some flags in my mind. She could have just meant herself and me, but Lina’s dislike of me wasn’t just an individual antipathy. There was a whole population of ’gangers who constantly talked about freedom from the meat people. She was one of them.

Her interest made me curious. I glanced past the King at his scanner, the gleaming four-sided black post rising behind the bar. In my mind’s eye, I called up my tab, paid it with Warrens credit, and added an okay tip.

The King frowned. “You could do better than that.”

I frowned back. “You could have pretended to like Punch.”



Lina took me to BeeBee’s BodyWerks.

I’d heard about the place over the years but never had an idea where it was. It turned out to be several levels down in a deep chamber where the terraformers had set up their original transformers, converters, pumping stations, and other infrastructure machinery.

I’d been on the crew that repaired and restored the pumping station. Now, to my surprise, as Lina and I turned the final corner bringing us behind the floor-to-ceiling block of machinery and were out of sight of other ’gangers, a floor-level back panel of the station housing slid aside, revealing a ’ganger-scale portal. Lina preceded me in and the panel slid shut behind us. Inside, our ears were hammered by the rhythmic clanking of the old machinery.

Since I’d last seen the station interior, maybe fifty years previously, it had clearly been worked on. Some of its old-style systems had been replaced with more modern solid-state gear, opening up a lot of room in the huge casing. Dollganger-scale rooms, stairs, and elevators, all painted black with glossy chrome and silver appointments, had been installed.

Years back, after decades of serving the Chiron Defense Force as a demolitions expert, after being blown up and fully restored three times, BeeBee had burned out her transponder and disappeared, living as a fugitive in the Warrens. She traded her mechanical expertise for supplies, equipment, and favors. I’d run into her a number of times, occasions when she let me know just what she thought of plushes, then scrammed in case I called in her owners. I didn’t, but plushes were always suspected of ratting out ’gangers who broke the rules.

Lina and I climbed several flights of stairs, up to a broad, low-ceilinged chamber where the sound of water pumping was much reduced. There, against one black wall, sat a scratch-built charging and maintenance bed. It was a chrome-plated steel tubing frame with electronic gear, some of it naked circuitry, laced all through the framework. The bed surface itself was a ’ganger-scale mattress unattractively wrapped in clear plastic. On the opposite wall was a black desk which looked like it had been modded from a human-scale ammo case, It supported a bank of monitors. BeeBee sat in a fake-leather office chair there.

She looked as unhappy as if she’d just been drinking a Greasepaint Surprise. She barely glanced at me, but gave Lina a full-bore “You had to do it” look.

BeeBee, like Lina, was nice to look at. So many ’gangers are, regardless of whether their personalities matched. BeeBee was tall, facial features that were all dewy-eyed ingenue, body that filled out her black jumpsuit in all the right ways. Ages ago, she had cut her original long blond hair into a bob and dyed it black, and she wore big reflective-lens sunglasses that hid her eyes.

Shaking her head, she turned back to her monitor screens. “On the dissecting table, plush.”

I stretched out on the mattress. “Good to see you, too, Boom-Boom.”

Her shoulders rose a little. She didn’t much care for that nickname or the others I’d coined for her, including Ball-Buster and Ballistic Barbie. No one knew what her original name had been.

Lina helped pull the direct-link gloves onto my hands. Looking like human-style leather work gloves, they had braided cables of transparent data lines leading from the cuffs into the machinery of the bed. As soon as I had them on, I felt probes extrude from the inner fingertips and creep under my fingernails, where they jacked in.

I suppressed an expression of distaste. Direct links are damned intrusive, pleasant only during sex.

Screens lit up in front of BeeBee, showing graphical schematics and scrolling screens of data. I was surprised she wasn’t just receiving all that stuff wirelessly, but then it made sense—she probably limited radio traffic in her shop to keep sensor-bots, which sometimes entered the Warrens, from detecting her.

Looking at the data, she shook her head. “No overt sign of recent mods. Let’s see what the tests tell us.” She typed a quick command on a virtual on-screen keypad.

A pop-up authorization box appeared in my vision, requesting access to my memories, permission to alter data, permission to thrash my hardware. Grudgingly, I approved the first and third choices.

Now, imagine suddenly being plunged back into previous events of your life, immersively, with those events sometimes stuttering, skipping, time flowing forward and backward, images and sounds overlapping. Imagine your limbs twitching uncontrollably, sometimes in sequence, sometimes randomly or all at once. Imagine the sensation of your internal fluid pressure rising to the point that you’re certain you’re going to pop, then dropping until you almost black out.

Imagine that going on for half an hour and it feeling like two days.

When it was done, I was happy to yank the gloves off and clamber, still twitching, free from that device of torture. I leaned against its metal headboard while BeeBee clucked over the data.

Then she looked up at Lina. “It was not a natural power-down. I’m sure he tracked for an hour or more after the break in his memory … and then he was zapped.”

I glared at her. “I’m right here.”

She glanced at me over the top of her glasses. I could see her weird red pupils, mods she’d acquired to replace her original sky-blues. “Quiet, plush. Free people are talking.” She returned her attention to Lina. “But there’s no sign of new programming or hardware. His one transponder is stock, factory issue. Ancient.”

Lina arched an eyebrow at BeeBee. “And?”

“And, nothing. I still say no. For the record.”

“Punch trusted him.”

BeeBee gave her a you’re-dumber-than-a-motorized-wheelbarrow look. “And now he’s dead.”

“Sorry, BeeBee. It’s my call.” Lina turned her attention back to me. “I have a recording I want you to see.” She held up a hand toward mine, fingers outstretched.

I hesitated. A really good technician—like me, like BeeBee—could potentially disguise harmful code as innocuous data. Still, dammit, I wanted all the facts. I brought my right hand up to her left, fingertips to fingertips.

Probes stretched from under two of my fingernails and slid under her corresponding nails; probes of two of hers slid under mine. I detected an audio/video file coming in and authorized it being saved. My internals found no malicious code in the file. A moment later, Lina pulled her hand away.

I activated the file. It showed Punch in the purple jumpsuit he’d been wearing the day we repaired the shuttle. Behind him was a gray wall marked with stray blotches of black paint and what looked like insect droppings. This was probably the interior of a ship’s compartment wall on Rockrunner. Every ’ganger had hidey-holes at his place of work.

Looking more serious than usual, Punch spoke. “Today I’m going to talk with Bow. If something goes wrong, I’ll fry myself before I let them have any of my data. But I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

There was a skip, and there he was again, same clothes but more rumpled. He looked a little relieved. “Talked to Bow. He didn’t commit, but it’s clear that it’s weighing on him. I give it better than fifty-fifty.”

Then the recording ended.

I checked the time stamps. The first segment was recorded hours before he and I repaired the shuttle. The second was about an hour after my memory of the repair job terminated—a time when I was supposed to be unconscious and Punch drifting down toward his final incineration.

What the hell had Punch told me?

BeeBee doubtless thought that I’d turned him in. But she had to know I didn’t remember any such event. Was I guilty of betraying Punch but innocent by reason of amnesia? Not even I knew.

Lina, regardless of her distaste for me, had to believe I was innocent. Otherwise she wouldn’t have made contact, exposing both herself and BeeBee to betrayal.

I looked between them. “What did Punch tell me?”

Lina jerked her head toward the exit. “Let’s take a walk.”

* * *

Lina and I walked the High Road.

The Warrens constituted a city built by anarchic cooperation, with anyone contributing anything he wanted. Some of the stuff was pretty strange. Sculptures welded together from discarded human-sized appliances, amusement park rides cobbled together from radio-controlled toys, dance floors fashioned from tough old monitor faces. The High Road was an engineering impossibility, miraculous because it was still up—an elevated walkway, rising in places to eight meters above the city floor, welded from scrap by geniuses and idiots. It swayed under the weight of pedestrians and was sometimes the target of medieval-style siege engines. But since so few ’gangers actually wanted to risk injury on its dangerous heights, it was pretty private, and Lina and I could walk its length, gripping the uneven rails to either side, without bumping into anyone else.

We had stopped midway along the walkway three meters above the summit of Lemuel’s Needle, a wire-frame Egyptian-style obelisk made of struts and cables, its interior open for all to see. At its summit, an amorous pair of guys, when not grazing on each other’s necks, waved up at us. Lina watched them without really noticing them. ““It was top secret. But a replacement-parts order that went off-course tipped us off.”

“To what?” I figured that if the rail gave way at this exact moment, I’d plummet and smash into the top of the Needle, flattening the two lovers. I wondered how much of the Needle the impact would collapse.

“A ComFab. A compact nanotech fabrication unit, Bow. Set up for ’gangers. We know where and when it’s going to be ready for delivery.”

A chill gripped me. It was like discovering that I’d walked up to the edge of a thousand-meter clifftop without noticing, and one more step would send me on a long, fatal fall. I turned so that I was facing her square on, not just looking at her. The walkway swayed under my feet.

Understand, ’gangers have always considered ourselves as living beings, a species. But we don’t reproduce. There were no ’ganger babies or children. Creation of new ’gangers took place in automated fabrication units. The units of a century and a half back were full-sized factories, but modern nanotech-based fabbers could fit on a full-sized hauler trailer.

All fabbers were in the hands of humans, of course. They cost as much as a continent on a newly-terraformed colony world. One of them could jump-start a whole planetary economy.

And valid or not, one of the stated reasons the meats didn’t class us as a true life form was that we couldn’t reproduce without their help. The unstated reason behind the reason was that we were far too valuable to be allowed to “breed in the wild.”

But if a fabber set up for Dollganger production fell into our hands…

Lina looked up at me as solemnly as if she’d been telling me about meeting the human God.

It took me a moment to find my voice. “You’re going to steal it.”

“We sure as hell are. And we need you, Bow.” Lina’s voice was barely loud enough for me to hear. And neither of us was transmitting wirelessly for clarity; we didn’t want any part of this conversation to be overheard. “To do this, we need vehicles. Megas. Weapons. On all of Chiron, you’re the ’ganger with the most access, the most experience with these things.”

“Dammit, Lina, there are only two ways for this to end. Fail, and the humans wipe out all the participants and probably a lot of innocent ’gangers as well. Succeed, and we have to hide for years while the humans try to find and exterminate us … and they’ll still wipe out ’gangers who had nothing to do with the operation.”

She nodded. “Either one is better than what we have now.”

“You’re not speaking for all of us. You’re not speaking for me.”

“I know.” An expression crossed her face, anger at odds with the flower on her cheek, doubtless some bitter recrimination of the plushes. But she held it in check, unwilling to insult someone whose help she needed.

I looked out over the old atrium, at the ’ganger city of discarded scrap shaped to our tastes. The atrium walls were covered in mirrored polymers, giving the place an illusion of greater size and allowing me to look at my own reflection an apparent hundred meters away.

I liked my life the way it was. I felt no need to be involved in the insanity Lina was proposing.

But then I looked at her, at the yearning on her face, and I hesitated. If I said no, I was deciding to keep her and others like her as they were. People of no consequence who could be endangered, used up, even murdered by their owners with no consequence except financial loss.

I looked down at the two lovers. Arms around each other, they now descended the internal stairs of the Needle. They’d forgotten all about us.

I returned my attention to Lina. “I have to think about this.”



I sat on Doc’s recliner arm and watched him sleep.

He had always treated me well, with fairness and affection.

Except … the scrubbing of part of my memory had to have been done with his permission. Maybe he’d done it himself. He certainly had the skills.

Why had he done that?

To protect me, obviously. I had to assume Punch had slipped up, been detected, been pursued. He’d fried out his own mind rather than be captured—otherwise Lina and BeeBee would have already been picked up. And he hadn’t told me about the ComFab, had probably just hinted that a group needed my help on some crazy independence-related plan.

Then, because I’d been in protracted contact with Punch, I’d been zapped and examined. The authorities had found that I hadn’t agreed to help Punch. They’d returned me to Doc. Doc had purged the Punch conversation from my memory so I wouldn’t follow up on it.

But whatever his good intentions, Doc had messed with my memory, something he’d promised he would never do. He’d betrayed that promise.

I watched him breathe, and wondered how much longer he’d live. A world without Doc seemed like an unlovely and spooky place.

If I helped Lina and BeeBee, I’d have to leave Doc forever. I wouldn’t be with him as he got older and more frail. I wouldn’t be there as his need for my help increased.

I’d be betraying him.

Doc or the ’gangers. My maker or my kind. Someone who loved me or a group of revolutionaries who hated me.

The past or the future.

Some ’gangers can cry. I’m not one of them, no microtube tear ducts or tear fluid reservoirs in me, but I felt a burning in my eyes that meant I needed to.

* * *

The next day I became a member of the Stand-Ups. Yeah, the original Stand-Up Gang of Chiron, the instigators of the War of Independence.

There was BeeBee, in charge of internal security. I knew she’d be good at it, like a cat is good at convincing mice to stay still.

There was Richter, skinny and pointy-jawed and cerebral. Richter was the overall leader of the Stand-Ups, in charge of planning and coordinating.

There was Memnon, whose career as an entertainer—you’ll remember the Krazy Keys, the troupe who played full-sized keyboards by dancing on them—seemed to have nothing to do with his Stand-Ups role as field commander.

Lina, youngest member of the conspiracy, was in charge of personnel, both recruitment and management.

And then there was me, the oldest, in charge of materiel—defining, obtaining, modifying, accounting for them. In a world where every pot and pan has its own transponder and its current location was tracked by computer, having the right materiel to do this job was a monumental task. It was true, there weren’t that many ’gangers in all human-occupied space who could pull it off, and I was probably the only one on Chiron.

Looking at the other Stand-Ups, I felt dismay. I had respect for all of them, but where were the big guns of the ’ganger independence movement? Where was Petal, whose rich, soul-filling voice we first heard in the broadcasts after the Settlers’ Day disaster all those years ago? Where was Pothole Charlie, who had led so many wormhole mapping expeditions and brought his people back alive?

Actually, I was kind of relieved not to see Pothole Charlie. He had coined the term “plush,” had been the first to call me Big Plush, hated me worse than anyone, all because of my affection for a human. He would have made life hell for me if he were one of the Stand-Ups.

In a tiny cave scores of meters under the Warrens, with a battery-pack LED fixed overhead for light, we sat around a ’ganger-scale card table and plotted the future of our race.

Richter got right to it. “We don’t know how to fight, and we’re going to have to.”

Memnon smiled, his teeth gleaming white in his ebon-colored face. “Movement is movement. Kinetics are kinetics. I can teach our soldiers to move.”

BeeBee gave him a red-eyed look over the tops of her sunglasses. “Can you teach them to put a bullet in the brain of a meat soldier? Without hesitating, without flinching? That’s what we need.”

Memnon shut up. We all shut up.

Dollgangers don’t fight. Well, we do, among ourselves, for the same reasons that meat people do in social situations, but we’re no good at it. And we don’t wage war. Age-old programming and cultural inhibitions make it nearly impossible for us to initiate violence directly against meat people.

Then I realized that I had the answer. A partial answer. “According to something Doc Chiang told me before any of you were fabbed, our deep-down proscription against violence is an enhancement of a natural human inclination against deadly force. Yeah, like all animals, the meats engage in dominance behavior, but it’s supposed to end when one side surrenders or slinks away. They have a built-in resistance to killing … which their leaders learned to overcome when warfare became scientific, back on Earth. One of the secrets was conditioning.”

They looked at each other, blank.

I sighed. “I’ll misappropriate us some interactive shooter immersives. But we’ll need crack programmers and artists to re-render the content, make the targets explicitly human, make the violence extremely realistic. Those of us who can stand it will go through these immersives over and over again until it starts to get easy.” The thought actually made me a little sick, but I tried to hide the fact. “That’s one step. Here’s another. We’ll be doing most of our fighting from inside megas. It might be best to run the megas only on instruments and cameras—and to have filters for the camera images to make them, I don’t know, more stylized. Less horrible.”

“That … might work.” There was grudging acceptance in BeeBee’s voice.

Richter smiled. “All right. Memnon, that’s now your department. Next item on the agenda. We’re all now in resource-gathering mode. Maximum security on all communications …”

* * *

So in chronicles of the revolution, my entry will talk about Bow, who conceived the conditioning the ’gangers used to make themselves killers. Hooray, me.

But what I mostly did for the operation was steal and modify vehicles.

I told Doc that I’d like to do some groundside work. Luck was with me and I was able to accept a contract with Harringen, the manufacturer of the ComFab, in their transportation and motor pool division. I volunteered for “reclamation projects”—vehicles and machinery too badly worn or damaged for the rank-and-file mechanics to want to mess with.

Well, I messed with it. I repaired some vehicles but only put about half back in service, storing the rest with notations that they were waiting for back-ordered parts. I also sabotaged perfectly good equipment and did the same with it.

I stole a lot of megas. Megas are in service only where Dollgangers are found, so you may not be familiar with them.

They’re vehicles, robots without self-direction, shaped roughly like humans but massive and distorted. Some are only a meter tall, some as tall as three meters. They have ’ganger-sized cockpits in their chests or heads. Arms and sometimes legs are articulated, and on many models there are treads where human feet would be.

There are lots of different kinds. Mostly I concentrated on forklift megas, medium-tall vehicles with upper arms that could elongate, lower arms optimized for lifting cargo. Forklift megas are very tough.

I also needed, and found, a piloting mega. This type of machine is no bigger than a normal human man and has especially good articulation of limbs and hands. It can occupy the cockpit of a human-scale vehicle and pilot it. On Chiron, I had more experience with piloting megas than any other ’ganger.

Most megas were painted in eye-hurting alternating yellow and orange stripes and had a rotating yellow light on top, which made them really ugly but easy to see. I repainted the ones I stole, giving them a forest camouflage pattern in greens and browns. I got rid of their rotating lights and transponders.

I also stole small ground haulers and trailers. The Stand-Ups supplied me with a crew of workers; I cleared all security measures out of an entry route involving drain pipes and air ducts so they could sneak into my warehouse to work.

Then there were the weapons. My crew built a few different varieties that could be fitted onto megas or haulers.

Most common were the railguns. Take parallel lengths of conductive railing and a power source, assembling them as an electromagnet. That assembly goes on the mega’s arm. On the corresponding shoulder is a magazine holding short lathed sections of steel cylinder or similar-shaped projectiles consisting of ferrous junk—ball bearings, bolts, nuts, broken pieces of tools, filings—in a ceramic casing. A feeder from the magazine drops the projectile to the near end of the weapon. Point the weapon, activate it, and the magnetics accelerate the payload to several times the speed of sound. Nothing short of heavy armor or military-grade shielding can stand up to that. Of course, you can’t have anyone, human or ’ganger, standing close to the weapon when it goes off, because the heat it generates fries people dead—and invites retaliation from heat-seeking missiles. And insulating the mega against damage from the magnetic pulse is an issue.

BeeBee and her people made explosives charges—lots of plastic explosives and a few small fuel-air payloads. Compressed-air underlugs affixed to mega arms were easy rigs for us.

And we had the simple, one-shot horrors we called claymore cannons or shotgun cannons. On a trailer bed, mount a durable metal tube and gearing for aiming it. Pack the bottom of the tube with an explosives charge and pack a mass of scrap metal on top of that. Then fill the trailer with more of those cannons, a half-dozen or twenty.

We had plate-metal shields and other weapons, too, everything so low-tech that it was ridiculous by modern warfare standards—ridiculous, but canny. Dollgangers are great at setting up communication networks in a work environment, meaning that we can feed each other sensor data, do distributed processing on range-and-elevation calculations, and so on. Having no radar-based weapon systems meant we couldn’t alert a target with a radar lock. Ditto laser painting.

Then there was Scarecrow. He started out as a thoroughly trashed emergency-response training robot. Once upon a time, covered in simulated skin, he’d run around on fire or with simulated shrapnel wounds pouring out simulated blood so human emergency responder trainees could tackle him, put him out, patch him up, resuscitate him. When he came to us, his top half had been crushed in an accident with a tracked vehicle. We pried and hammered his upper proportions back into shape, replaced his cables and servos, installed a ’ganger-sized pilot’s chair and controls in the chest, dressed him in human clothes neck to foot, and fabbed up a realistic-looking head. He wouldn’t stand close inspection, but from a distance of five meters or more he looked pretty human.

* * *

Whenever the subject of all this preparation comes up, people, both meat and ’ganger, inevitably ask, “Why did you gear up for war? Why didn’t you just arrange the theft of the ComFab? When the first human died, it was sure to make them hate you.”

Yeah, but. Our goal wasn’t just to steal the ComFab. It was to say, “We are a life form.” It was especially to make it clear, “You can no longer kill us without suffering the consequence. Your lives are not more valuable than ours.” We had to make it understood that, like most species, we would fight to live.

If attacked, we had to kill, and we knew it.

* * *

Back in the Warrens and elsewhere, the other Stand-Ups recruited, trained, planned. I didn’t see them much, though I did go into the Warrens every other day for training on the shooter immersives. In a simulator theater, I’d sit in a reclining chair and slide my hands into the gloves, then I’d be plunged into what increasingly was a vision of Hell.

Around me would be heavy forest. I’d be in one of our megas, a railgun fitted to the arm. And meat men and women would attack me, sometimes shooting from a distance, sometimes rushing forward to bring short-range weapons like grenades to bear.

And I’d kill them.

Dollgangers don’t throw up. The materials we consume go into our nanoplant reservoirs as soon as we internalize them. But the urge, inherited from humans, can hit us at appropriate times, and during these immersives it hit me again and again.

But as the weeks passed, the urge came less and less frequently. I didn’t want it to fade, but I needed it to.



The plan for the capture of the ComFab looked pretty straightforward.

Things would start the night before the main part of the operation got underway. We had maneuvered to get Tink, a member of BeeBee’s crew, assigned as backup mechanic on a routine shuttle op for communications satellite maintenance. While she and her crew were in orbit, code she’d planted in the shuttle computer would simulate receipt of error-condition alerts from the observation and mapping satellites that offered Chiron’s government most of its orbital visual imagery. In repairing these nonexistent issues, Tink would actually plant small explosives packages on the two satellites.

If all went according to schedule, Tink would be back on the ground and in hiding before the main operation began. If she weren’t, she’d still be in orbit, probably suspected of involvement with the operation. She’d probably choose to fry out her own volatiles, like Punch had, rather than suffer whatever revenge the meats chose for her. I really hoped it didn’t come to that.

Skip ahead to the Harringen Corporation main plant on the north side of Zhou City, a couple of hours after noon. A hauler would drag a wheeled trailer out of one of the high-security assembly areas into the middle of Loading Bay 16, an open-air area where big loads were routinely prepped for transport. This particular trailer would have a generic cargo container, twenty meters by five by three, atop it.

And by “generic,” I’m not exaggerating. These containers are ubiquitous, used on every human-occupied world. They’re made up of a metal framework onto which sides, flooring, and roof of metal sheeting can be temporarily or permanently affixed. Numbers and symbols, some of them ancient or meaningless, are painted on the sides. Some of these containers have been to more worlds than any human pilot. In some places, poverty-stricken humans live in abandoned containers. Businesses and apartment blocks in the Warrens were constructed with them.

In the middle of the bay, meters away from any other trailer waiting there, innocuously guarded by disguised Harringen Security personnel, this container would sit for a few minutes until Chiron Defense Force personnel arrived from General Millfield Base to take charge of it. They’d take it to the Zhou City spaceport, where its contents, the ComFab, would be prepared for eventual transportation to the newly-established business colony on Cardiff’s Giant.

That was their plan, anyway. Ours was different.

Soon after the trailer and container were in place, explosive charges planted around the bay would detonate, filling the area with thick smoke—smoke impervious to security cameras but not to the imaging radar units the ’gangers would be using. Dollgangers would climb to the top of the container and wait.

Then I, in my piloting mega, operating the heavy chopper-hauler I had misappropriated, would fly in and drop cables. The ’gangers below would hook us up to the container. We’d fly off, keeping below radar.

That’s when our alerts would go out—flash traffic informing all the ’gangers in wireless range of what we’d done. The implicit message would be, “Hide if you want to live. Best of luck.”

Another radio signal, this one sent into the planetary communications grid, would trigger the explosives charges on the observation and mapping satellites. The government would lose its eyes in the sky and not be able to follow our escape.

There were more details, mostly dealing with possible pursuit by the humans, but that was the plan as most of its participants knew it.

* * *

And that brings us up to a week before the operation.

The sun was setting, but it had been a very pretty day, and when my buggy came within sight of Doc’s dome, I saw him out on the raised wooden deck in front, sitting on one of the deck chairs, a pitcher of lemonade on the table beside him, a broad white parasol above him. I finished the drive up, left the buggy, and bounded up the deck steps, then leaped up onto the chair next to his.

He didn’t say anything. He just watched the sunset, a slight smile on his face.

I leaned back against the plastic chair arm. “You did good, Doc.”

He spared me a look. “When?”

I gestured out at Zhou City, the great sprawl of it, now colored a monochrome orange-gold by the sunset. “Dollgangers made Chiron’s economy. Without them, most people here would be struggling farmers. A few researchers hoping that some of the plants they were developing would turn into useful medicines. Without you, Chiron would be nothing. They should have named the capital Chiang City.”

He gestured at me as if shooting away flies. “It was named before I got here. And I don’t need a whole city named after me. Maybe a new flavor of ice cream.”

“I’ll get to work on that.”

“But, yes. I wish Kim had lived to see this. She would be proud. And little Rhona.”

In all the time I’d been with Doc, he’d seldom spoken about his wife and daughter. They’d died in one of the superflu epidemics on Earth, just two years before Doc emigrated. The stills and videos that decorated the little room dedicated to their memory, even the passwords he used to protect his most secure files, reflected the way they continued to be with him.

“Doc, I probably shouldn’t say this. But you should have married again. Had more children.”

The sun by now had dripped to the horizon. Light shone straight into Doc’s face, turning his skin and the dome behind us a brilliant orange. He closed his eyes against the light, comfortable. “I did have more children, Bow. That story is not yet completely told. And the only lesson I’ve learned from it so far is that some children take longer to mature than others.”

While I puzzled over his meaning, his breathing became deeper, more regular, as he drifted off into a nap.

* * *

Having a life-changing realization is startling enough. Having two back-to-back can floor you. But at least they keep meetings interesting.

My first realization came the next evening, at the gathering of the Stand-Up Gang, even before Richter started into his agenda. Looking around at the faces of everyone present, I suddenly understood what Doc had meant. I felt dizzy, as if my internal gyros had just gone barmy.

I took a few moments to get myself under control. Richter was still in his opening remarks, introducing a new Stand-Up department head, Malibu. “He’ll be in charge of community planning for the Nest, the habitat that will house the ComFab.”

Malibu, who was as bronzed and handsome as his name suggested, took over. “Obviously, security is of paramount concern. The population of the Nest will be the minimum necessary to operate and protect the ComFab. Deadwood will be trimmed away without sentiment. Traffic into and out of the Nest will be minimal. Many of our members will inhabit a different community, code-named Swift, that will, potentially, serve as a decoy—if humans attack Swift, we’ll know that the Nest is possibly on the verge of being discovered.”

That’s about the point I tuned out. The words “Deadwood will be trimmed away without sentiment” triggered my second life-changing realization.

I’d heard those words on many occasions over the years, but not from Malibu. From Pothole Charlie. Charlie was a great planner but not much of a public speaker, and I’d never heard anyone but good friends of his repeat his phrasing. So far as I knew, Malibu wasn’t in his circle of intimates.

So far as I knew.

When the meeting was done, Lina, this time in a peasant blouse and a skirt of broad horizontal stripes in warm colors, a panda painted in the hollow of her neck, sidled up to me. “Care for a walk?” She affected cheerfulness, but in her eyes was the slightly haunted look I was seeing a lot with the ’gangers who were experiencing combat training, myself included.

“Sure.” I know I sounded vague. “Might as well.”

We ascended to Finest Kind Park. I’d helped build it long ago. It was a patch of green belt kept that way by full-spectrum overhead lights. A stream, a flow of water diverted from the humans’ nearest water treatment plant, pure and clean, ran through the park. On a stony bank, Lina sat and dangled her bare feet into the water. “Come on, give it a try.”

I sat on a low concrete fence, scavenged curb from a human street. “No.”

She affected unconcern. “You got kind of wide-eyed during the meeting. I was wondering if anything was wrong.”

I shrugged. “Depends on your definition of ‘wrong.’ I’d say everything is going according to plan. Not necessarily my plan.”


“Doc’s. And yours.”

She frowned. “I don’t understand.”

I sighed and looked out to where the water ran over an uneven portion of culvert and pebbles. There it broke and tumble, a pretty display, almost natural. “I thought I knew why Doc scrubbed my memory after the shuttle repair—to protect me—but at the start of the meeting, I realized I was wrong, I figured it out.”

“Why did he do it?”

“To shove a wedge between us. To make me think. To make it impossible for me to ask him for advice. Lina, he figured out that Punch was with the independence movement and he hoped I’d join it.”

“Then why didn’t he just tell you to?”

“Because he wants me to be free. He can never admit it to the other meats, but he wants … all his descendants to be free.” I gave Lina a somber look. “But he can’t help. He’d be imprisoned. Maybe executed. He’s an old, old man, and he wants whatever time he has left.”

She looked down into the water, to where little black fish were now congregating to nibble at her toes. “And that’s what took you by surprise at the meeting.”

“That was just the first thing. The second was the realization that Doc is going to outlive me. The realization that you plan to kill me.”

Her head whipped around and she looked at me again, unable to conceal her surprise. She shook her head, denying it.

“Oh, please, Lina. It took me a while, in the absence of sufficient data, but today I got it. The Stand-Up Gang. I thought the name was because we were representing ourselves as ‘stand-up guys.’ But it’s not. We’re cardboard stand-ups, concealing the existence of the real planners of this operation. We’re here to be knocked down—destroyed—if the operation is a failure. Pothole Charlie and maybe some of his close friends are actually in charge.”

“I don’t … I don’t …”

“When Malibu began using Pothole Charlie’s pet phrases, it became clear that Malibu had been training with him. Malibu’s just not as good at hiding it as the rest of you. And like Swift is going to be the decoy for the Nest, the Stand-Ups are decoys, there to be killed in case I betray you.”

When she spoke again, her voice was a whisper. “What are you going to do, Bow?”

“I’m going to keep my mouth shut, and do my part in this operation, and I guess I’ll die when you kill me.”

She stood up, her feet dripping. She moved to stand over me. “I don’t understand.”

“Don’t you?” I gave her what I knew was a bleak look. “I could live among the meats forever. I’d be happy. That was my choice. But I want the operation to succeed. Because if I hadn’t had my choice, I’d have been in hell all these years. Which is obviously where you are. You and everyone else who’s willing to die to pull this off. The ComFab offers you that choice.” I looked back into the water. “But I know, because I know him, that Pothole Charlie can’t accept a ’ganger civilization that has me in it. Do you think the Stand-Ups can be persuaded not to kill me? With him in charge?”

She took a while considering how to answer. “No.”

“That’s what I thought.” It was one thing to have grasped it intellectually. Learning I was right from the lips of one of the people planning my death made it real. I felt as though my muscles had suddenly degraded past the point of functionality. “It wouldn’t be so hard, except for the last few weeks thinking that I was actually one of you. The most disliked one, but a member. Realizing I was still Big Plush, that’s … hard.”

“Bow …”

“Quiet. No, I’ll do my job, but I want something from you. From you specifically.”

Her face went blank, but she gulped. That’s another physical reflex handed down in our deep coding. She squared her shoulders and looked me in the eye. “What?”

I don’t know what she thought I was going to demand. A night of sex, maybe, or servile behavior. But I just stood up and leaned in close. “I want you to stop pretending to be my friend.”

Her lower lip quivered. But all she said was, “All right.”



Things actually became easier for me after that. I didn’t want to die, but knowing I was going to, the assurance of it, took a lot of strain off me.

Lina kept her distance, dealing with me only when our respective duties demanded. I was certain she hadn’t told the other Stand-Ups what I’d told her; their behavior toward me didn’t change. I actually began to appreciate BeeBee, whose stance toward me had remained hostile but honest throughout the whole operation.

As the operation day neared, I knew I’d be doing some difficult climbing—on factory walls and megas at least. So I asked BeeBee for a set of multi-mode climbing gear, the same sort she had used when she was with her military demolitions team. She delivered it within a day, no questions asked.

Despite my newfound peace of mind, I made my murder as difficult as I could for my killers. I meticulously checked and re-checked my piloting mega, my climbing gear, the chopper-hauler I’d be flying. I found no sabotage.

The night before the operation, on my way home from Harringen, I stopped in at a pastry shop and picked up something I’d ordered—it was sometimes useful to be entrusted with a portion of the household account. With the strawberry cream cake, Doc’s favorite, strapped to the back of my buggy, I crept home at a human walking pace but got the cake there intact.

After Doc’s dinner, I brought the cake out and sat down with him for a game or two of Elzoc.

Do humans still play Elzoc? Doc’s dedicated tablet for the game was a century old at that time and I don’t recall ever seeing another human play it. Elzoc used a square-grid board, user-selectable in size. Each square represented a type of terrain that facilitated or slowed unit movement. Each player had a force of mixed military units—armored cavalry, infantry, artillery, air support, supply, command posts, and so on. Each piece exerted a certain amount of control against adjacent and diagonal squares, and enough pieces acting in concert could slow an enemy piece’s movement to nothing. Plus most of them could project force at a distance—close for infantry, far for air support or heavy artillery, for example.

We hadn’t played in a while. I creamed Doc in the first game that night, and he hit the reset button for another scenario, randomly picked by the tablet.

He gave me a cheerful look. “You’re thinking more tactically.”

“Am I? I guess I have to. Coordinating all those motor pool assignments.”

“Ah, yes, motor pool.” He touched each of his pieces in turn, sliding them to different squares on the board. No piece actually moved until the last one had been repositioned, then they all appeared on their new squares at once. I saw he was putting together three blocks of firepower, each almost at optimal distance to unload their destructive power on my main concentration of armored cavalry.

He watched me considering my moves. “Bow, did you ever think you might be destined for greater things than a motor pool?”

I blithely left the formation he was targeting where it was. I amped up its defensive power at the expense of offense. I also scattered other pieces in a loose formation off at an angle from his forces. “I’m a Dollganger, Doc. For me to be destined for bigger things, you would have had to promote that destiny.”

“I suppose that’s true.” He set all his pieces into motion, moving them to optimal firing range. Then he unloaded their firepower. My armored cav formation took a pounding. In spite of their increased defensive capability. Piece after piece vanished from the board, about half the formation.

I responded. The remaining armored cav marched doggedly on the enemy infantry. I also sent all my remaining pieces into coordinated motion. Suddenly his forces were faced off individually with fast-moving air support pieces that couldn’t really hurt them but could lock them in place while other pieces obliterated the tail end of his supply line.

He stared at the damage I had wrought, which was minimal, and calculated the damage that was to come, which would be impressive. “I should resign now.”

“And deny me the pleasure of driving you from the board? No fair, Doc.”

“You’re right. You deserve the endgame. We both do.” He smiled at me.

I smiled back. It was clear to me that he had a sense of what I was up to with the ’gangers.

And the fact that after I left the house tomorrow morning, however things played out, I would never see him again raised a lump in my throat. But at least my last memory of him would be of Doc smiling, his favorite game in front of him, his favorite cake at hand, his closest surviving descendant planning for something grander than a future of motor pool duty.

* * *

And then there we were, the day of the operation.

Before I reached Harringen that morning, I received a brief, coded message confirming that Tink was in orbit and her part of the operation was well underway.

At the motor pool, I told the human manager on duty, Fil, that I had the case load well in hand. As I knew he would, he took this as an excuse to goof off. He left to find a place to nap. I did some scrambling of security codes so I could lock him out at a moment’s notice.

BeeBee arrived an hour after noon. I’d told her which tool compartment of which personal transport to hide in, and when it stopped in for a battery recharge, she popped out of the compartment and sneaked straight into Fil’s office.

I suppressed the urge to laugh. She had on a blue Harringen jumpsuit and a big-hair blond wig whose bangs drooped over her eyes and hid their color. There was a pink scarf around her throat.

She saw my struggle and her expression reverted to its familiar, comforting hostility. “Don’t laugh.”

“Whatever you say.” I sent a radio command to slide the office door shut and lock it. “Come on up.”

Hefting her backpack, which was as pink as her scarf, she bounded up to the chair. “Tink has reported in. She’s on the ground and headed for cover.”

I breathed a sigh of relief.

BeeBee made it to the desktop without effort. She shucked her wig and scarf, then unsealed her backpack and began pulling out gear—her sunglasses, which she put on, then climbing gear, a ’ganger surgical probe, skin fuser. “Shirt off, plush.”

I shucked my jumpsuit down to the waist.

With what was probably unnecessary roughness, BeeBee inserted the probe in my left side, down where floating ribs would be on a human. I felt sharp stings as the probe went through my neural net and more as she dug around with it. But she found what she was looking for. She tugged, and my transponder, a little silver cylinder, emerged from the incision, still trailing its combined power/data/antenna cable. In moments, BeeBee attached the transponder to an external battery, then snipped it free of my body. Her last step was to insert some fuser paste in the incision to speed the repairs my body would make to that little injury.

“All done. You were a good boy. You didn’t cry.” She handed me the transponder. “Consider yourself free.”

I dropped it over the edge of the desk into a wastecan. I wriggled back into the top of my jumpsuit and sealed it.

From a satchel atop the desk, I extracted my climbing rig and donned it. Special boots, knee pads, broad strap-on cuffs for the wrists, all in black. BeeBee got to work putting on a similar set.

I used the rig to clamber down the side of the wooden desk rather than bounding down to the chair and then the floor as was my habit. The rig handled the climb as well as it had during my previous tests.

Multi-mode climbing gear is pretty useful. The cuffs, pads, and boots extrude gripping extensions suited to the climbing environment, any of three different types: magnetic couplers for ship’s hulls and other ferrous surfaces, tufts of “gecko monofilaments” for other sheer surfaces like glass or stone, and sharp claw-and-hook assemblies for organic surfaces like trees. The gear responds to ’ganger radio or microwave pulses.

When BeeBee joined me on the floor, I issued wireless commands setting in motion the last elements of our part of the operation. I opened a series of drainage flues between the Harringen’s exterior, Loading Bay 4, where my stolen vehicles waited, and Loading Bay 16, where the ComFab would be. I broadcast the go-ahead to ’gangers waiting outside Harringen. I uploaded all Fil’s personal and biometric data to Harringen Security, identifying him as an industrial spy. He’d be grabbed the first time any device scanned his ID, and until Security confirmed his true identity they wouldn’t believe a thing he said.

Then BeeBee and I left the motor pool operations center. Its door slid shut behind us with an authoritative thump, leaving us out in the sunlight.

We went over the concrete wall separating the motor pool service yard from Bay 4. As we arrived, our crews were in the process of trickling in from outside. Many of the ’gangers were already in the cockpits of their megas or other vehicles. Some of those megas waited at the big doors leading into the access tunnels that would take them to Bay 16. Others rolled up the ramp into the main compartment of the chopper-hauler, the biggest vehicle I had misappropriated.

In ten minutes, I was in my piloting mega in the chopper-hauler’s cockpit, doing my pre-flight checklist. BeeBee, in her own forklift mega, took up position in the crowded main compartment and began receiving feeds from the engines.

Helicopters are ancient technology. The originals were prone to breakdowns and were comparatively dangerous to fly, but very, very useful. Their modern descendants, built with improved materials and engineering, are more rugged, so sturdy and dependable that humans considered them dull. The one I’d benched for imaginary engine problems was a two-rotor freight hauler, painted in Harringen blue, the corporation’s interlocked-gears symbol in white on both sides.

I set up one of the cockpit monitors to receive a feed showing Bay 16.

The ComFab cargo container was already in position. Harringen Security operatives wearing innocuous worker clothes stood around like they were goofing off. I felt my nonexistent heart pound in my chest.

If I or any of the other Stand-Ups issued the scrub command right now, we could erase all sign that we’d had an operation in progress. We could all go home and pretend it never happened.

I toggled the chopper intercom. “Pilot to crew. Prepare to lift.” And I brought the rotors up to speed.

* * *

As soon as we lifted, Richter, from his observation post within Bay 16, triggered the explosions. I saw the results on my monitor.

From positions all over Bay 16, devices—designed by BeeBee and planted by members of my crew, looking like lunch pails and discarded monitoring tablets—detonated. I heard the dull “crump” noise as they blew. In moments, Bay 16 was full from wall to wall, ground to wall-top with roiling black smoke. Some of the smoke rose above the wall-tops, was grabbed by breezes, and began flowing southward like a transparent serpent crawling toward Zhou City.

Shrill alarms sounded. People shouted. Sudden squawk traffic erupted over the radio.

Methodically, I took the chopper up a few meters above the wall tops and the corrugated-metal building roofs, then eased forward until Bay 16 was in sight ahead. As the chopper neared the bay, wash from my rotors stirred the smoke, making an evil-looking rough sea of the surface. As I moved over the bay, the rotor wash blew the smoke all over the place; it rose in plumes, poured out of the bay in waves, obscured the sky.

But below me I could see the ComFab container. Atop it were ’gangers, Richter’s crew. I positioned the chopper directly above the container. BeeBee operated the winches to lower cables. On my monitor, I could see the rotor wash hammering the ’gangers below, nearly blowing some of them off the container roof as they hooked the cables to the container’s frame.

No, the security humans weren’t gone. They were meters away, choking and vomiting, many of them feeling their way along the walls, some shouting into their hand and lapel radios.

Blind, of course, tears streaming from their suddenly puffy eyes. There was stuff in that smoke that smelled bad to ’gangers but inflamed meat people’s mucous membranes like nobody’s business. A couple of the meats produced sidearms and took bat-blind shots in the direction of the chopper-hauler, but they were shouted down by more sensible but equally blind superiors.

You’ve probably seen the recordings from that day. With speed and discipline, the ’gangers finished hooking our cables to the cargo container. I eased the chopper-hauler up into the air, checking the demands made by its weight on my rotors. They took the load exactly as I knew they would. And with care suited to carrying the most precious object in all the universe, I turned us northward and headed out over the forest.

* * *

We were only twenty kilometers north, still being seen and reported by meats in their cabins and logging camps, when BeeBee reported two blips incoming from General Millfield Base. The speed of the blips made it a near-certainty that they were weapons platforms.

A chopper-hauler full of forklift megas with low-tech weapons is no match for a weapons platform. Picture a circular plate of ducted-fan motivators; at its center is a spherical fuselage packed with weapon systems. Real ones like rockets and autocannons. These craft would be on us in moments. Because of the value of our cargo, they might not shoot us, but they could easily force us down.

Except … their commander and pilots were too eager, too confident. They came on in a straight line directly from the base.

And they flew over Intercept Point Alpha, a broad field north of Zhou City. Where we had claymore cannon trailers set up.

Our gunners plotted the weapons platforms’ locations and courses by eye, cranked those cannon barrels around to aim them, and triggered the cannons in sequence, filling the sky with shrapnel.

We have recordings of that, too. Both vehicles began issuing smoke and plummeted. The pilot of one ejected. The other pilot tried to hold it together for a landing. She did okay, scoring a trench in the big field, not rolling her platform, leaving it repairable. The news media later said she had shrapnel damage to both legs and her pelvis, but she lived.

All I knew at the time was that the weapons platforms dropped off our passive radar. I changed course and struck off northwest.



We were a hundred and sixty klicks out from Zhou City when the chopper’s diagnostic readouts began lighting up red. I glanced at them, toggled my intercom. “What is it, BeeBee?”

BeeBee offered a couple of swear words I’d only ever heard humans use. Then: “Angle of attack’s not … right. We’re losing lift.”

“Did we take a hit when those idiots were shooting in the bay?”

“That’s probably it.”

“Can you fix it in flight?”

“Hell, no.”

“Can you fix it fast on the ground?”

“… Probably.”


At this point, we had the meats blind with their mapping satellites down, but it was only a matter of time before they got some sort of observation craft launched. Enough time on the ground and we’d be spotted.

I saw a clearing big enough for our needs and descended. Gentle as a kiss, I lowered the cargo container to the irregular clearing floor and waited while the ’ganger crew detached the cables, then I sideslipped thirty meters and set the chopper down.

And while BeeBee got to work on the engine, we waited.

* * *

Twenty minutes passed, then the situation was resolved. But not with the announcement that repairs were done.

Richter sent us a wireless burst. “Incoming weapons platforms and something big, maybe another chopper-hauler. Get clear. I say again, get clear.”

Yeah, I got clear. I threw open the pilot’s hatch and leaped free. Understand, megas aren’t all that well-suited for leaping and landing, but I managed to keep mine on both legs, with yellow flashes but no red lighting up my diagnostics, when I hit the ground. I straightened and ran toward the cargo container. Behind me, the chopper’s side door rolled open and the megas, vehicles, and individual ’gangers inside came roiling out like upset wasps.

Just in time, too. There was a noise like distant drums being beaten by overcaffeinated musicians and then two more weapons platforms roared into view over the clearing edge. The lead one flashed by harmlessly, but the second platform opened fire, putting a burst of high explosive armor-piercing rounds into the chopper.

I saw the armor all along the starboard side pucker and disintegrate, saw sparks erupt from the forward engine as it ceased to be recognizable as machinery. One of the forward rotor vanes snapped off entirely.

The chopper was dead. I gulped.

Memnon, in one of the forklift megas, traversed to track the weapons platforms on their outbound path. He aimed and the globe-launcher affixed to his arm triggered with a loud “chuff” noise. I saw the black globe arc up after the weapons platforms, gaining on them, dropping toward them from above—then it detonated.

One of BeeBee’s fuel-air bombs. That whole quadrant of sky filled with fire. A shockwave of noise and pressure hit us, knocking ranks of ’gangers off their feet. I struggled to keep my vehicle upright.

The two weapons platforms, shattered, spun out of the sky and slammed into the forest floor west of us.

And that was it, the first two kills of the Dollganger War of Independence, Phase One. I saw ’gangers, those still on foot, stare at each other, their expressions changing as the enormity of what had just happened hit them.

We gathered around the cargo container, preparing to meet the force we knew was coming.

* * *

Minutes later, the forward edge of the human ground force let us know they were there. A few men and women, infantry, in camouflage gear, body armor, and visored helmets, appeared at the verge of the forest. We knew there had to be many more farther back.

These troops weren’t carrying firearms, not normal ones. They had rifle-length zappers. Crowd control and suspect capture weapons, they ionized a channel of air between weapon and target, then projected electricity along that channel. Humans hit by those beams would spasm and fall down. So would ’gangers—rebooting after a light dose, staying down until externally revived after a heavy hit.

These troopers had regular firearms, too, long arms across their backs or sidearms holstered. They wouldn’t use those weapons on any target near the ComFab. But a zapper wouldn’t do anything to a ComFab except maybe require a reload of programming.

One of the troopers, a tall dark-skinned woman, raised a small tablet to her lips. Her voice emerged amplified. “This is Colonel Hayes of the Chiron Defense Force. Throw down your weapons and lie face-down on the ground or we will open fire.”

The response, a wireless burst from Richter, intended for us and not the humans, came immediately: “Stage Two, go.”

All four sides of the cargo container fell away, slamming to the earth, missing the ’gangers all around—aware of what was coming, they were far enough away to be safe. The action revealed the container’s contents.

There was no ComFab inside. There were more megas. Dollgangers, both on foot and in buggies. At the center of the container was an armored cube a meter on a side. It housed radio jamming equipment, which had fired up the instant Richter issued his command. Our radios suddenly hissed with static.

* * *

Let’s go back in time to when the smoke bombs went off in Bay 16.

The only video of what went on show roiling smoke. But there are also fuzzy monochrome views from imaging radar units used by Richter’s crew.

While the humans staggered around blind, Richter and his crew charged up to the trailer and ComFab container, climbed, attached winches to the top, and undogged the two long sides of the container. The winches lowered them to the pavement. Meanwhile, a similar crew with similar gear atop the cargo container on the nearest parked hauler-trailer, which I had placed there days before to wait for a “repair job,” lowered the long sides of its cargo container.

Forklift megas arriving from Bay 4 flanked the ComFab, lifted it, maneuvering it free of the container, then delicately rolled it over to the other trailer, placing it within. The crew on that trailer winched up and dogged down the sides. Those sides were radio-shielded so transponders in the ComFab wouldn’t give away the unit’s real position. That crew hid in the container and the cab of the hauler.

The forklift megas and all the rest of the support personnel assembled in the ComFab’s original container. Richter’s crew winched the sides up and dogged them in place. The alarms and sirens helpfully provided by the Harringen Corporation covered the sound of all these activities.

So when my chopper-hauler arrived and blew the smoke away, everything looked the way people expected. Harringen’s cameras witnessed the aerial departure of the ComFab container and security personnel giving chase. They also recorded, but took no note of, the departure, a few minutes later, of a hauler-trailer rig.

Its driver? Scarecrow, the simulacrum robot we’d built. And in Scarecrow’s pilot’s bay sat the King. Cool and unruffled as ever, he drove the hauler out of the Harringen yard and headed south. Sure, the Harringen operations center had locked down all the bay doors, but some of those doors had been blown at the same time the smoke charges went off. They couldn’t close.

By the time the second set of weapons platforms strafed my chopper-hauler, the King was many kilometers south of Zhou City, unobserved, headed toward the Nest’s actual location… and with the mapping satellites down, the government never had aerial records to analyze. To them, the ComFab just vanished.



Which left us, the diversionary force, facing a large, determined, confused, angry unit of meats.

As the sides of the cargo container crashed down and ’gangers spilled out, Memnon launched a black globe toward Colonel Hayes and her escort. It detonated into a sphere of fire and destruction the size of a six-human-story building, the concussion nearly knocking me over.

And then the hailstorm hit, except the hail traveled laterally, some of it coming from the meats to us, some of it going out from us to the meats. It chewed to pieces whatever it struck. The noise, the roar of weapons and impacts and explosions, seemed to fill the world.

On my heads-up displays, I saw wire-frame images of human soldiers cease to be as recognizable shapes when railgun loads hit them. Megas went to pieces, torn apart by high-powered automatic-fire rifles or blown into clouds of trash by heat-seeking microrockets.

Atop the cargo container, Richter took a hit. Suddenly his torso was just gone, his arms and legs catapulting separately at missile speeds.

He wasn’t dead, though, not at that instant. I got one last microwave transmission from him: “Terminating.” That was his last word, sent in the split-second before he fried out his own cognitive processes.

In my head and in the map imager of my mega, the ’ganger-net sprang into life. If there’s anything we’re good at, it’s multiple-source coordination, and the loss of radio meant only that we were down to microwave and data-laser bursts. Every time one of us saw another, we’d automatically issue an encrypted data packet including our location, status, a repeat of current orders, alerts.… The humans could do something like that with their helmets, but each exchange took several seconds to send, decrypt, and understand. With us, it was microseconds. In the first five seconds of the firefight, as we scattered and traded licks with the meats, we built up an ever-more-detailed map of our positions, their positions, our relative numbers.

Initially, that didn’t help me much. I crouched in my mega, looking around for Lina’s forklift. She was supposed to bring me a railgun and ammo hopper.

She was nowhere in sight, and a quick check of my tac-map failed to disclose her location. Or BeeBee’s. Or Memnon’s, even though I was looking right at his mega, fifty meters away.

In fact, none of the meats showed up on my tac-map.

I felt my heart sink. There it was, final proof that the Stand-Ups meant to kill me. Without weapons, without an accurate tac-map, I was a dead, steaming mass of composites.

So I revved my treads up and headed off at an angle for a line of trees where I hadn’t seen any meats.

My mega rocked and dinged as a spray of gunfire from some human stitched it. Red lights appeared on the diagnostics readouts, but none were crucial yet.

To my right, a seemingly-unpiloted ’ganger buggy bounced across uneven ground and rolled into the midst of a group of soldiers behind tree cover. It detonated, hurling some of the soldiers out, blanketing others in smoke and fire.

I got behind the first few trees. They seemed to offer damned little cover.

Our extraction muster point was a kilometer north of our landing site. Our transportation was there already. There had been no engine failure on the chopper-hauler, no impromptu choice of a clearing to land in—the location had been chosen weeks before, its intricacies loaded as three-dimensional schematics in our memories. We knew where every tree, every rock, every rodent hole within a kilometer was. I skirted the edge of the forest, heading for the muster point.

Memnon’s voice came to me in a microwave burst, “Fall back, extract.” He didn’t sound troubled. I wondered if he was a sociopath.

And I ejected.

* * *

No, I didn’t intend to. As the rocket acceleration of the ejector seat held me in place, I realized what must have happened.

I’d been all over my mega, looking for whatever means the other Stand-Ups would use to eliminate Big Plush from their vision of a better tomorrow. I’d never found one and had assumed that they were going to make a direct attack on me at some point.

It hadn’t occurred to me—just a little extra programming in an obscure corner of the mega’s operating system would do the trick. When it received the fall-back code, it had only to eject the pilot. Even if I got back to my mega, it was disabled—there would be no way to pilot it.

I reached the apex of my ejection arc and began to drop. The seat’s parachute deployed. Then a bullet hole, round and neat, appeared in the shroud above my head.

I looked down. There were at least two infantrymen firing up at me. Only being a small moving target had saved me from being slaughtered.

I was maybe ten meters up from the tallest of the treetops and descending fast. In moments, my parachute would catch on a branch and I’d dangle there, an easy target. Before that happened, I unbuckled and jumped free.

I grabbed at the first branch to come to hand, snapped it off under my weight, kept falling. But the next branch down was hardier. I slammed into it and grabbed it, pain shot through my chest, and my claw-and-hook climbing gear caught hold. The branch swayed under my weight but did not break.

I heard meat troopers who’d lost sight of me begin shouting, trying to find me. I scrambled laterally to the tree trunk and then down to the ground.

Yeah, I know. There was something to be said for staying up in the branches and out of sight. But the fall-back command had set a timer in motion. After a few minutes, everyone at the muster point would be outbound, headed for safety. I wanted to be with them. Sure, some of the people at the muster point wanted me dead. But maybe not all of them did. Maybe …

I ran. Tree to tree, vaulting across exposed roots, ducking beneath brushy overhangs. I splashed through a stream that a human could have stepped over.

Then the human officer lunged out from behind a tree and brought his damned big foot down on me.

* * *

And that should have been it. Like I said before, he’d hold me there while he got his sidearm out, then lift his foot and shoot me until I was dead.

Except … I reactivated the climbing gear.

He got his sidearm out and lifted his foot. I clung to its sole and peered at him from just under his boot, not from a helpless position on the ground. A look of confusion crossed his face.

I deactivated the foot-and-knee climbers. The lower half of my body swung free. I dropped, fell maybe a third of a meter, landed on my feet. I ran—right up to his support leg.

I reactivated the climbing gear and scampered up his inseam, clawing out chunks of bloody meat as I went.

He shrieked. He brought his other foot down. He grabbed at me with his free hand. But I was already farther up, digging gouges out of his butt, scrambling up his armored side, all the way to his neck.

Understand, this is not something that fills me with pride or a sense of accomplishment. In a moment, one of us would be dead and one alive, and I wanted to live. So I kept the claw-and-hook gear extended, I grabbed, I cut, I tore … all where I knew the carotid artery was.

Then, from head to waist, I was drenched in sticky warm liquid that hit me under pressure. I jerked my head from side to side to clear my eyes. I could see his own eye, his right one, as it rolled up in his head.

And he fell. I leaped free, rolled as I hit the ground—in a world where almost everything is built to a giant scale, ’gangers learn how to land. I came up on my feet.

And there he was, twitching, a dead meat person.

It wouldn’t be much later in the War of Independence before ’gangers who killed meats in direct conflict would come to be referred to as jacks, a term of somber respect. The term comes from a human children’s story, Jack the Giant Killer. At that moment, I became the very first jack—another of my dubious achievements in the historical chronicles.

But all I knew at that moment was a crushing weight of grief. Looking at the dead man, I couldn’t move. My eyes burned, and a noise, an animal howl, escaped me.

But the clock in my head kept incrementing.

I moved over to his sidearm and picked it up. At a kilo and a half, it weighted half again what I did, but I had sufficient strength to haul it around. I took it across my shoulders, a rescue carry, and began running again.

Back at the clearing’s edge, ten meters ahead of me, I saw a human sniper and a spotter lying side by side, putting rounds into the collapsed cargo container. The clearing was on fire in places but empty of moving ’gangers. Clearly, though, there were some of us trapped, using the container’s wreckage for cover.

I set the firearm on its butt, maneuvered it so that its barrel was aimed more or less at the sniper’s side, and sighted in along the trench of its sights. Then, ducking so my head was below and to the left of the slide, I carefully, slowly pulled the trigger.

There was a boom overloading my audio sensors. All of a sudden I was on my butt with the sidearm on top of me.

When I looked at my target again, the sniper was on his feet, looking vague and startled. A red stain had appeared near his armpit and was spreading. His spotter was shouting, I couldn’t tell what, and looking around.

The spotter saw me as I got the sidearm upright again. He grabbed for the rifle. I swung the handgun into line, a fast, awkward aim, and yanked the trigger. Then I was on my ass again.

But I looked up, and the spotter was on the ground too, rolling around, clutching his inner thigh. The sniper was still staggering around in shock.

I sent a microwave burst toward the cargo container: “You’re clear, run.” Then I picked up the handgun and hauled ass.

The trees at the north edge of the clearing were on fire by the time I reached that area. I continued laterally until I found a spot where the forest didn’t seem to be burning, and charged due north from there.

I had a chance. I had a chance. But the location they Stand-Ups had given me for the Nest was probably a false one. I’d never find the real Nest by myself. So I had to get to the muster point and evacuate with the others.

I reached a flat patch of ground and really picked up running speed … and then a mega rolled out from behind a couple of trees. It straddled my path.

It was a forklift with a railgun and a plate-metal shield. I knew whose it was. I’d stolen and repaired most of them. It was Lina’s.

I stopped where I was and sighed. I didn’t bother aiming the handgun at her. There was no way it could disable a tough old mega.

The mega rolled up and leaned over me. Its belly hatch popped open. Lina’s voice came over the loudspeaker. “Get in.”

I dropped the handgun, leaped up, scrambled in, dogged the hatch shut behind me. Then I climbed up into the chest cockpit. I almost fell down the ladder shaft as Lina set her mega into motion.

Over her shoulder, I could see the darkened viewplates, heads-up image of our surroundings on them, wire-frame images of trees and, distantly, humans and other megas.

I flipped down the jumpseat, to the right of and set back from the pilot’s chair, and buckled myself in. I gave Lina a close look. She was dressed for work, wearing her Shavery jumpsuit, boots, no face paint. “Hey, you’re wearing shoes.”

“Shut up.”

“Why’d you come back?”

She glanced over her shoulder at me, really saw the blood all over me, grimaced a little. She returned her attention to the terrain ahead. “Because you convinced me to.”

“I don’t remember doing that.”

“When you talked about Doc Chiang wanting his descendants to be free. It was clear you wanted it, too. Clear that you understood that we’re not a race unless we have descendants.” She shut up while navigating a thick stand of trees with exposed roots that threatened to upend the mega. Sometimes she walked the mega, its motion awkward and lurching, sometimes she returned to cruising on the treads. We headed into a burning zone, the brightness of the fire visible even through the polarization of the viewplates. Then we were past the trouble spot. “I realized … our children are going to need to understand where they come from. They’ll need ancestors, too. Like you and Doc Chiang.”

“I’ll be damned.” That expression didn’t mean much to ’gangers, but Doc used it a lot.

There was a distant boom from behind and to the left, sign that the humans were in pursuit of our retreating force. Lina gave me another brief glance. “There was another reason, too, I guess. That whole conversation, where you’d figured out the Pothole Charlie plan but had decided to go ahead with it anyway, and die … that made me realize you weren’t Big Plush. You were Bow, and I decided I’d miss Bow.”

* * *

A minute later, we reached the clearing where our extraction vehicles waited. They were tracked haulers to which we’d hooked rolling luggage trailers and flatbeds. Megas sat on the flatbeds, ’gangers crowded into the luggage racks. I saw techs working on limp ’gangers, some of them burned or missing limbs, some showing no apparent damage—zapped.

We rolled up the boarding ramp onto the last trailer. When Lina depolarized the cockpit viewplates and everyone saw me sitting with her, Memnon, in his own mega, made an outraged noise, then began issuing orders. But Lina fired her recording at him, at BeeBee and Malibu, encrypted for Stand-Ups only.

Her message was a simple one. “Anything happens to Bow, I stop sending cancel codes to a file I’ve already placed in the Zhou City communications net. A file that gives map coordinates for the Nest.”

Had she actually placed such a file? I didn’t find out for some time. No, of course not; she wouldn’t endanger the Nest, the future of her kind. But her bluff sure put the brakes on any immediate attempt to grab and dismantle me.

Everybody knows how the evacuation resolved itself. A few more ’gangers boarded, we began rolling, we stayed away from human roads, we traveled at a snail’s pace. And the meats didn’t catch us. We reached the Nest together.

Of course, everybody on Chiron today knows where the Nest turned out to be, and what happened to it. But we were there undetected for quite a while, transforming ourselves from a group of revolutionaries into a people. And because of Lina, I didn’t end up fried and scrapped. In fact, until I told that story, the general ’ganger public never knew that I wasn’t always a trusted member of the Stand-Up Gang.

Richter got the lion’s share of public appreciation for the operation, for the whole start of the revolution … posthumously. Memnon got himself appointed general of our new army. When elections started, Petal became our first Prime Minister.

Pothole Charlie didn’t get the credit he deserved for orchestrating the whole thing, not for years. He still hated me, but we did our duty by our people and interacted with civility at public appearances.

The Battle of Breen Hollow, as the brief, deadly exchange in the forest came to be known, did send a shock wave through the humans. Their toys had turned on them. Their toys were dangerous. Some of the meats did become bitter, hate-filled, life-long enemies of the Dollgangers. Others, and this was important, did start thinking about us differently.

The ’gangers who stayed with the meats lived under increased security, increased scrutiny. I don’t imagine we were very popular with them. But except for those who eventually joined us—and there were a lot of those—they were no longer our people. They were plushes.

Shortly after our escape, I saw an interview conducted by the meat press with Doc. He’d been investigated for possible complicity but came up clean. In the interview, he said pithy Doc things such as “You fear them because they are so different from us, which demonstrates your lack of imagination. You should fear them because they are so very like us.”

Throughout the interview he wore a little half-smile. The interviewer thought it was enigmatic. I thought it was both sad and proud.

As for Lina, and for what happened to Doc, and how the whole future of planet Chiron played out—well, that’s a story for another time.

But at least nobody called me Big Plush anymore.

The End

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