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Jon Moore

“Jon, this is a very bad plan.”

“I’m a little busy here.” The wind blasted my face as I fought with the sail on the sandsurfer. Sand smacked my goggles and slid off the protective coating. I pushed the board harder; I wanted all the speed it could manage. The high-powered electric fan slammed air into my back as it billowed the sail and shoved me across the black sand only moments ahead of the twilight that followed me like a cloaked assassin. The rush of speed filled me with both joy and adrenaline; the only way it could have been better would have been if I were riding at night.

I tuned into the machine frequency and listened to the sandsurfer’s fan.

“Yee-haw!” it said. “Don’t stop me now. I’d make this board fly if they’d let me!”

It felt the same way I did. I laughed for the joy of the ride, lost for a moment in the sensations.

“Which is why you should thank me,” the stabilizers in the board said, “for keeping us on the ground. We are not built for flight.”

I tuned out before the two of them could crank up their argument. Machines are so obsessive about their work that none likes to give an inch to another, so they argue endlessly. I didn’t want them to spoil my ride.

At the same time, as much as I was enjoying hurtling across the sand, I couldn’t afford to surrender completely to its pleasures without risking falling off the meter-wide board and losing precious time.

I wouldn’t let anything throw me off schedule. This mission was too important.

“I repeat,” Lobo said, his voice clear and loud in my ear through the comm, “this is a very bad plan.”

“If you have a better one, let me know. Otherwise, we’re staying the course.”

“Here’s an idea,” he said. “You turn off that stupid device, I fly down and pick you up, and we go do something that doesn’t involve you dying.”

“I don’t plan to die.”

“You never do, but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen. These are seriously powerful men, men way out of your league. You attack them, and they’ll either kill you now or hunt you down later.”

He was pissing me off, but I wasn’t going to let him know that. Lobo may be the most intelligent machine in the universe, a super-powerful brain composed of nanocomputers distributed through all the molecules of a deadly Predator-class assault vehicle, but when he finds a way to needle you, he’s as unrelenting as a three-year-old on a “why?” binge.

“Look on the bright side,” I said. “If I die, you’re free.”

That did the trick. “First,” he said, “I’m free now.” Annoyance dripped from every single word he said. “I don’t have to be here. I don’t need a human owner to function. I stay with you because we’re in it together.” He paused. “As you bloody well know.” Another pause. “Besides, having a human does make it easier to move around. The gate authorities generally won’t authorize unpiloted machines to jump between planets.”

“So let’s make sure I don’t die.”

“You’re two minutes from the shutdown point,” Lobo said. “From then on, if I come for you fast, they’ll hear me. That means our risk goes up, at least as long as you won’t let me kill everyone on the ground. Let me pick you up now.”

The offer tempted me a little, because I wasn’t thrilled at the makeshift plan we’d concocted earlier today. Then I flashed on the expression on the face of Lydia Chang, the woman who’d asked me to find Tasson, her missing son. This kid had no other hope. I’d failed enough children, watched them die, unable to save them. No, there was no chance I was going to stop. I would not let those men get away with what they were planning. They’d come to Studio for a very sick private party, and I was going to crash it.

I stared at the horizon ahead of me. Studio’s two small moons gleamed a faint white in the dying light. The air possessed that perfect clarity you see only on new worlds or on those so inhospitable that only the crazy and the outcast bothered to colonize them. Studio was the latter. The jump gate aperture to it had opened over a hundred and twenty years ago, and as we always do, humans had flooded in. After finding a planet composed of large, arid land masses and small, acidic seas, the vast majority of those initial settlers had fled almost as quickly as they’d come. The few people who chose to live here fought the good survival fight in small cities near the toxic seas. Even the fish required special treatment before we could eat them. Studio was so barren that none of the three planetary coalitions bothered to recruit it, though all maintained small observation teams at the jump gate station on the off chance that something useful might happen here one day.

Most of the planet remained empty. The only planetary government Studio had was a tourism council, a group of savvy entrepreneurs who realized that artists, advertisers, and entertainment creators sometimes wanted to work on big canvases. Really big. Like a hundred-mile-wide acid lake, or a chunk of a desert the size of a large city.

Those artists loved Studio, because for a modest fee they could do anything they wanted to a huge area, no questions asked. They’d sell exhibition tickets to anyone with enough money and spare time to make the trek. When sales faded, some took down their constructions and moved on. Others left their works to erode slowly in the heat and the dust, a way to achieve not immortality but a far longer life than other planets generally would permit such art.

Studio’s support for these artists had brought it a little money and a lot of notoriety. The same ask-no-questions culture had made it attractive to other types of events and to those who wanted to conduct business in a completely undisturbed and unregulated environment. As long as they paid their site fees and didn’t commit any crimes so obvious they made the newstainment feeds, Studio’s government left them alone.

“One minute to the shutdown point,” Lobo said. “You can still safely stop.”

“You know I’m not going to do that,” I said, “so quit wasting energy and distracting me.”

He sighed.

Before I’d acquired Lobo, my experience with machines sighing was limited to dumb, theatrical appliances. Their sighs were always a bit excessive, like bad actors trying to make too much of small roles. Lobo’s was spot on, a perfectly human expression.

“So we are going to do this,” he said. It wasn’t a question.

“Yes, we are.”

“At least two dozen bidders, more than twice as many catering and security staff, and none of them willing to tolerate uninvited visitors. You’re going to take on all of them to save ten kids.”

“No,” I said. “We’re going to take them on.”

“Hardly,” he said. “I can’t help until after you set up the comms inside and I crack into their systems. You know that. You’re on your own once you go through that door.”

“That’s how it has to be—or we let these jerks auction those boys and girls to rich creeps who will abuse and discard them as if they were no more than disposable towels.” I recalled the holos of Tasson, a thin boy with coppery skin, wide, almost black eyes, and a small but bright smile. “We have to save them.”

“I agree,” Lobo said, “that what these men are doing is wrong, nightmarishly wrong, but we haven’t had enough time to set up a safe rescue. We won’t do the kids any good if we fail.”

“So we won’t fail. We’ll make it work. We promised Chang we would find her son and bring him back. We found him, and now we’re going to save him.”

I spent part of my childhood on my own, scared and without parents or sister, abandoned by the government of my home planet Pinkelponker on an island called Dump. What I’d experienced there was bad, but it was as nothing compared to what these kids would suffer if I let them be sold.

The timer in my contact showed five seconds before I had to shut down and jettison the sandsurfer. We would make the plan work. We would not fail.

The timer hit zero.

I turned off the surfer’s fan and slid to a quiet stop. I was a kilometer from the Privus gallery, close enough to see the lights of three ships on the opposite side of it but far enough away that I was still outside their security perimeter. The structure hadn’t risen yet, so we’d timed my approach correctly.

“Am I all set in the caterer’s computers?” I said.

“Of course.”

“Is the mole on track?”

“Yes,” Lobo said. “It’s under Privus’s outer ring and moving forward.”

“Are you reading its external feeds?”

Another sigh. “Yes, and before you can ask, the bursts are too short for anyone not looking for them to notice. I’m all set. Trust me to do my part.”

I nodded but said nothing. He was right, and we both knew it. Micromanaging him was a stupid waste of time and attention, a bad habit I sometimes exhibited under stress.

I stepped off the board and stretched for a moment. I unstrapped the backpack of gas bladders, clothing, and other gear, and put on the pack.

I kicked over the board. Every part of it was black, so against the dark brown sand it would be hard to spot from a distance. Still, if someone went looking and found it, they could trace it to me. I kneeled beside it. I could use the nanomachines that permeated all of my cells to disassemble it into dust, but Lobo was watching, and then he’d learn my most dangerous secret. He was the best friend I had, maybe the only one, but no one could know that I was the only human ever to survive integration with nanomachines. No one. I couldn’t take the chance of being imprisoned and turned into a test subject again.

I stood and stared once more at the distant lights.

Maybe Lobo was right. Maybe this time, I’d fail. After a hundred and fifty-seven years of life, maybe now it was my turn to die.

If so, at least it would be in the service of something worth doing.

“Time to go,” I said.

I jogged toward the lights, the twilight at my heels.

“Jon,” Lobo said, “you can’t save all the children in trouble.” His voice was as tender as I’ve ever heard it. “No one can. There are too many worlds and too many bad people.”

“I know,” I said, “but we can save these ten.”

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