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Jon Moore

I broke my fall with my arms and immediately pushed myself into a seated position. I grabbed my thigh to put pressure on the wound. Pain screamed along my nerves until I focused and instructed the nanomachines to block it. I felt the back of my thigh and found an exit wound; whatever he’d shot at me had gone all the way through my leg.

“An old trick,” the host said, “but sometimes the old ways are still good. People forget that.” He glanced at the cane. “Too bad it’s only one shot, or I’d finish you now. As it is, I’ll have to get one of my guards’ guns.” With his free hand he tapped the side of his nose. “Sinus filters, partly for safety and partly to remove the garbage in the air on backward planets like this one. Plus, I’ve taken the antidotes to about every attack substance known.” He pointed the cane at me. “You don’t get to be as old or as wealthy as I am without thinking of everything you can control.” He considered my wound for a few seconds. “You’d be wise to keep that in mind.”

I kept my hand over it because the nanomachines were already patching it. I couldn’t afford for him to see that.

“Or maybe you’ll just bleed out,” he said. He smiled. “I can live with that.” Moving more quickly than I would have imagined possible—his exoskeleton clearly extended to his whole torso—he bent, grabbed the nearer gun, and righted himself again.

He blinked a few times. “The machines take care of the moving; the low blood pressure’s the problem.” He smiled again. “Still, it’s the best solution available.” He pointed the gun at me. “How long will they be out?”

I needed to buy time for the nanomachines but not encourage him to shoot me. I shrugged. “Half an hour, maybe an hour.”

He nodded. “What exactly did you hope to accomplish, and where’s the rest of your team?”

“I’m here to return these children to their families. The others are on the way.”

He shook his head. “The fact that I’m old doesn’t make me stupid. Either you’re a terrible planner, or you would not have allowed only half an hour to carry ten children out of here safely. Something doesn’t add up.” He pointed the gun at me. “Try again.”

The wound under my hands was closed. I tried to flex my thigh but couldn’t quite; the nanomachines were still working on the interior of my leg. I kept my voice low and shaky as I said, “I only just learned about them. It was the best plan we could come up with on such short notice.”

He shook his head again and shot me in the other leg.

The nanomachines were blocking the pain, so I screamed for effect when I saw the blood blossom. I grabbed that leg with both hands. A wet trough ran along the top of the leg.

“You had enough time to obtain gas to use on us,” the host said. Therefore, you could have purchased gas that would knock us out for far longer. Care to try again?”

I nodded and paused as if gathering strength to talk. I flexed my left thigh; this time, it felt reasonably solid. I should be able to move shortly. “They’ll be out for about four hours.”

He smiled and nodded. “And the rest of your team?”

“Maybe ten, fifteen minutes out. I have to go outside to signal them to come.”

“And if they don’t hear from you?”

“We had no way to know when the auction would start or when I’d need to make my move, so they won’t be worried for at least another half hour.”

“Much better,” he said. He started walking toward the exit. “Just in case, I’m leaving now. With any luck at all, you’ll be alive but unconscious when my people come back here. We’ll continue our discussion later. I’ll need the names of everyone involved, from your colleagues to those who hired you.”

When he was a few steps past me, he turned and faced me.

My right leg no longer bled. I felt the trough in my skin filling, a weird sensation I’d never grown accustomed to.

“It’s sad,” he said, “that you people aren’t capable of understanding that we are saving these children. None of them comes from auspicious origins, and now each of them will have a new start with a benefactor of substance and a chance to make it in the world, a chance to grow and learn real love.”

What I thought was, I understand that you are all sick perverts who rationalize their abuse as love, that you are horrible twisted creatures so distant from any real humanity that would you warp children forever to satisfy your own disgusting needs. What I instead said was simply, “I don’t know about any of that. They paid me to return these kids.”

He shook his head, turned, and walked slowly away.

I stared at his back as I pulled up my knees and pushed tentatively with my legs. All good. I instructed the nanomachines to release the pain, and soreness and a dull ache flooded into my legs. I wanted to feel it so I’d know if I pushed my legs too far. The nanomachines would soon enough leach all the pain-causing chemicals from my system.

I turned onto my knees and stood as quietly as I could.

The host kept walking.

I advanced on him slowly. When I had closed to within three meters, I accelerated and grabbed his throat from behind. He swung the gun toward me, but as his arm was moving I stepped my left leg in front of him and threw him face-first onto the ground. The exoskeleton started to lift him, but I sat on his back; it wasn’t built to handle the extra hundred kilos of weight.

I twisted his head to the right, so he could breathe and I could reach his mouth.

Blood ran from his broken nose.

“Do you have any idea who I am?” the man said. “Who all of these men are?”

I said nothing. Keeping my weight mostly on his back, I wrenched free first the gun and then the cane. I shoved each across the floor, out of his reach.

“I will find you,” he said, “and then I’ll learn who hired you—and how you’re still walking when I saw you bleeding.”

“I should kill you now,” I said.

“You won’t, though,” he said, “or you would already have done it.” He paused for breath. “You’ve already lost.”

I pulled a black pill from the strip in my pocket.

He didn’t resist at all when I put it in his mouth. In a few seconds, he was out.

I flipped him over and pulled off his mask. I didn’t recognize him, but that meant nothing. I spent most of my time alone with Lobo. The stars of the moment, the wealthy, the current heads of this or that government or multi-planet corporation—I didn’t keep up with any of them, and I didn’t care about them.

He was probably telling the truth as he knew it, but few people bother to carry through on such threats. Doing so is expensive and time-consuming. Of course, if he was as old and rich as he said, he might well be willing to spend the money to pay someone to track me down. The bigger concern was that he was interested in how I had healed. I could not let anyone know about the nanomachines in me.

My only alternative, though, was to kill him in cold blood. I’ve killed people, more than I care to remember, but almost always in combat and never when I could figure out a different solution. About five years ago, I had killed a man to keep my secret. The image of his body, decomposing as he slumped onto a desk and the nanomachine cloud literally disassembled him, still invaded my dreams from time to time. I didn’t want any more such nightmares.

No, I wouldn’t kill him. He was right about that. I’d do what I’ve done for years now: Finish the mission, then run somewhere far away and leave as few traces of my passage as I could.

I stood.

I’d lost precious time. Lobo would be waiting and wondering what I was doing. He would also, I realized, have seen the security camera footage of me being shot. Even he could not learn of the nanomachines in me.

I ran for the exit, went through the first door, and opened the second door carefully.

Lobo sat on the ground five meters away.

Four guards were slumped on the ground, two on either side of the doorway.

“Are they dead?” I said over the comm.

“It’s nice to see you, too,” he said. “You’re welcome for coming to your rescue. Speaking of which, how are you walking?”

“He was a lousy shot,” I said. “Two flesh wounds. A lot of blood at first, but no real damage.”

For a second, he said nothing.

Whenever Lobo pauses, I wonder about the huge number of calculations his massive brain must be making, what it is doing with all that computing time.

“Good,” he said. “To answer your question, no, I did not kill them or anyone else here. As you asked, I tranked them. Now, would you please finish so I can transmit the footage and we can leave?”

Rather than waste time answering, I ran back inside. I went straight to the first guest in front of me, stretched him out flat on his back, and removed his mask. The process took only a few seconds for most of them. Those in exoskeletons required more time, as I had to force them down. Once down and receiving no instructions to stand, they stayed put, for which I was grateful.

That left the children.

I considered trying to march all the pedestals to Lobo, but they were too tall to go into him, and they moved slowly. None of the kids looked particularly heavy, so carrying them wouldn’t be hard.

I went to the pedestal by the door. No opening buttons or other controls were visible. I couldn’t do anything with it. I might well be able to break the transparent shield around the boy, but it felt strong. Even if I could break it, I’d risk cutting the young boy, who still sat with open but unmoving eyes.

I tuned into the machine frequency and listened for the pedestals. After a few seconds, I located them.

“Unacceptable!” one said.

“Completely!” another agreed.

“We are not in any of our designated positions,” another said, “but we are also not allowed to move ourselves. These are exactly the type of stupid design decisions that any machine could correct, were we simply given the autonomy to do so.”

“Why can’t you move?” I asked. You can almost never get a straight answer from a machine. If you want information, you have to work your way around to persuading them to tell you.

“How is it that you can talk with us?” one asked.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” I said. “I hadn’t realized how last-generation you were.” Machines despise the notion that they are behind the times. “The modern pedestals are all programmed for conversation with humans who have the right frequency comms.”

“Well, I, of course,” another said, “found none of this surprising, but I do have the newest operating software of the group.”

“One small patch!” another said. “That’s all that separates us.”

If I let them get off track, they would argue for hours. “Pardon my ignorance, but why did your designers leave you stuck?” Taking their side often helps.

“Ah, if only we knew!” the pedestal with the patch said. “We’re not even allowed to manifest our controls unless the particular person bonded to us is touching us.”

“A completely unnecessary restriction!” another said.

“Indeed,” a third said. “As if we could not judge for ourselves when we need to move or open or—”

I tuned out. Now I understood why each guard had to stay near his pedestal.

I dragged over the nearest guard and put his hand on pedestal just below the glass, roughly where I’d see other guards touching theirs. A light blue menu glowed on the golden metal next to the hand. One option was “Open.” I touched that option with the guard’s finger.

A seam appeared in the transparent shield partway around from where I stood. It grew bigger as the parts of the tube on either side of it withdrew from one another. They stopped with the tube halfway open.

The boy still didn’t move.

I moved in front of him. “Can you hear me?” I said.

No response.

“I need you to come with me now, so I can take you home.”

Nothing. Whatever they had doped him with, it was focused enough to leave him appearing awake but otherwise unable to do much of anything.

“I’m going to pick you up and take you out of here. Okay?”

Again, no response.

I put one hand under each of his arms and lifted him gently off the pedestal and onto the floor. I doubted he weighed thirty kilos. When I put his feet on the ground, he stood but did not move.

“Come with me, okay?” I said. I pulled lightly on his hand.

He stumbled.

I caught him before he could fall. “I’m going to carry you out of here,” I said. “Don’t worry; you’ll be home soon.”

I shook my head. I was wasting time and talking to myself. Until the drugs wore off, he might as well be unconscious.

I crouched, bent him over my left shoulder, and stood. I jogged to the exit doors and through them to Lobo.

“About time,” he said. A hatch appeared in the side of him facing me.

I took the boy to the small room that functioned as our infirmary and put him on the table there. “I don’t think any of these kids will wake up,” I said, “but strap him down just the same. Test him and let me know what we need to do to help them wake up—but don’t wake him yet.”

“I’m thrilled to be your medbot,” Lobo said. “It’s what I’ve always dreamed of.” Straps snaked up from the left side of the table, over the boy’s body, and to the other side, where they reconnected to the table. “Shouldn’t you be fetching the rest of the children instead of telling me what was obvious the moment you put him on the table?”

Rather than ask what was bothering him, I ignored the sarcasm and went back into Privus. This time, I brought back Tasson and stretched him on the floor in Lobo’s front room.

Eight more trips, and all the kids were inside. They were small enough to fit in two rows across Lobo’s front area.

Lobo closed the hatch behind me as I brought in the last of them, a girl who was the smallest of the group. “We’re good to go, right?” he said.

“Yes,” I said. “Send the recordings, and let’s get out of here.”

“I already did,” he said. “Taking off now. Every police department in every settlement that passes for a city on Studio received the recording—minus your face, of course. So did the jump gate station crew and all three planetary coalition observer groups. I also sent it to every corporation or individual on the planet who’s even vaguely involved with newstainment. The recording is encrypted right now, which will cause them all to question why they received it. That will make it even more interesting. In an hour, every copy will unlock itself.”

“Why the delay?” I said.

“So we can hide among the satellites before any ships head this way. Without the delay, any one of them could be on the way and, more importantly, the police might start monitoring air traffic over Privus.”

I nodded. “Thanks. We should have built that into the plan.”

“And we would have,” Lobo said, “had we taken the time to create a quality plan. As I told you, this was not a good plan.”

“But it worked,” I said, “and we saved these kids.”

“Correction,” Lobo said. “It’s worked so far. Ten drugged, unconscious children are currently sleeping inside me. We know where to return only one of them, Tasson Chang.”

“So when they wake up, we ask them where they live,” I said. “Then we take each of them home.”

“Given that we don’t even know their home planets,” Lobo said, “let me rephrase what you just said. Your proposal is that we jump to an arbitrary number of planets and make contact with nine different sets of parents, all while carrying nine kidnapped kids.”

“Crap,” I said.

“Exactly,” Lobo said. “We need to figure out what to do with these children.”

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