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THREE LAWS OF
A robot may not inure a human being, or through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
A robot must protect its own existence, as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.
MARK W. TIEDEMANN
Mark W. Tiedemann’s love for science fiction and writing started at an early age, although it was momentarily sidetracked--for over twenty years--by his career as a professional photographer. After attending a Clarion Science Fiction Et Fantasy Writers Workshop held at Michigan State University in 1988, he rediscovered his lost love and focused his talents once more on attaining his dream of becoming a professional writer. With the publication of “Targets” in the December 1990 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, he began selling short stories to various markets; his work has since appeared in Magazine of Fantasy a Science Fiction, Science Fiction Age, Tomorrow SF, and a number of anthologies. His bestselling novel Mirage, the first entry in the Isaac Asimov’s Robot Mysteries series, was released in April 2000. Currently, Tiedemann is working on the third book in the series, to be published in 2002; his next completed novel (working title: Felony of Conscience) is scheduled for release by ibooks in October 2001. Tiedemann lives in St. Louis, Missouri, with his companion, Donna, and their resident alien life form--a dog named Kory.
Isaac Asimov was the author of over 400 books--including three Hugo Award-winners--and numerous bestsellers, as well as countless stories and scientific essays. He was awarded the Grand Master of Science Fiction by the Science Fiction Writers of America in 1985, and he was the man who coined the words robotics, positronic, and psychohistory. He died in 1992.
MARK W. TIEDEMANN
For Donna and Henry Tiedemann
Mom and Dad
with love, respect, and thanks
...brief touch, contact with the data port, numbers names dates prognoses, all flow from the brief touch, a tiny surge that feels the way nerves should feel, the stimulation of a hair drawn lightly along a fingertip, but inside, along a conduit less than a hundredth a hair’s width, to a smaller place where it grows and explicates and becomes meaningful in translation, revealing location disposition architecture security, an excess of data that gives access, all from a brief touch...
irector Ortalf stopped complaining about the lateness of the hour the instant he saw the hole cut in the wall of the cafeteria at the Seth Canobil Hospice Center, where he worked. His irritation turned quickly to confusion, then embarrassment, and finally fear. He walked up to the opening and reached out to touch the edge, but withdrew his fingers centimeters from brushing the too-smooth cut. In the flat light it shone mirror bright.
“Ah...” he said, looking around. The police officers who had brought him here stood impassively, their faces professionally expressionless. Director Ortalf looked around at the people milling about the area. They moved in groups of threes and fours, some in uniform, most in civilian clothes. Ortalf started at the sight of a drone moving slowly across the floor, its sensors inspecting every centimeter of the tiles.
“Forensic,” explained a deep, male voice nearby.
Ortalf looked around. A tall man in somber gray was watching him, his face as ambivalent as everyone else’s--except for his eyes, which glistened expectantly.
“Ah,” Ortalf said again. “Are you...?”
“Mr. Ortalf, “ the man said, ignoring the question. “Director Ortalf.”
“You run this facility?”
Ortalf nodded sharply. “What is going on? Who--?”
“A routine maintenance monitor detected a power outage here,” the man explained. “According to its logs, this was listed as a class-B primary site. It attempted to restore the lines, but found irregularities. It then alerted the local authorities. “
“Power outage...but we have a back-up.”
“How many people work here, Director Ortalf?” The man--who must be some sort of inspector, Ortalf surmised--walked away, forcing Ortalf to catch up and walk with him.
“Um...six permanent staff,” he said.
The man paused briefly, then continued walking. “I understand you have nearly three thousand wards here. “
Ortalf tried to think. “Your people got me out of bed not even half an hour ago, Inspector. I haven’t had time to shower, to get breakfast, to--three thousand? Yes, that sounds about right.”
“And only six staff.”
“Six permanent staff, I said. We have several interns and part-time volunteers, but even so, almost everything is automated.”
They left the cafeteria and started down a long corridor. Emergency lights glowed dimly along the floor and ceiling, even though the regular lights were on.
“Who was on call tonight?” the inspector asked.
“I don’t--please, Inspector, what is going on?”
At the end of the corridor a short set of stairs led down into a nurse’s station. Banks of screens showed a bright orange STAND BY flashing on them. Ortalf’s gnawing apprehension worsened. He moved toward the main console, but the inspector gripped his upper arm tightly.
“Please don’t touch anything. Who was on call tonight?”
“I don’t remember. Joquil, I think. Yes, Kilif Joquil.”
The inspector gestured toward a door that opened at the rear of the station. Ortalf pushed it wide open. Sprawled over the cot that hugged one wall of the cubicle lay a large body, face down.
Ortalf thought for a moment that the man was dead. But a sudden, labored breath heaved through the torso. Dread gave way to impatience.
“What is going on?” the director demanded.
The inspector nodded toward the sleeping male nurse. “Did you know Kilif Joquil used Brethe?”
“What? Now look--”
The inspector aimed a long finger at the nightstand at the head of the cot. Ortalf stared at its contents for a long time before he recognized the inhaler and an unlabeled vial.
“We screen our people carefully,” he said weakly.
“I’m sure you do. “
Ortalf looked at the inspector. “Habits can start any time. We scan every six months. “
The nurse shifted in the cot again, then lay still. Ortalf turned and left. The inspector said nothing, just followed, as the director headed for the door to the first ward.
Ortalf stopped at the entrance. The room stretched, nearly a hundred meters on a side, dwarfing the half-dozen or so strangers now wandering the aisles of matreches. Ortalf searched the field of metal and plastic, looking for the telltale difference: a flaw, damage, a sign of disruption. His pulse raced.
“Not this one,” the inspector said quietly, just behind him. “Number Five.”
Ward Five was two levels down. Ortalf’s breathing came hard when he reached it. Twice the size of the first-level wards, it contained the same number of matreches. These, however, were larger, more complex. More was demanded of them; the lives within required special care.
Ortalf spotted the damaged units at once. He staggered toward them, dodging down a jagged path between the intact incubators, till he reached the first one.
Sticky fluid covered the floor around it. The shell had been removed and the sac within punctured. Ortalf expected to see an asphyxiated, dehydrated corpse in the bed, but the cradle was empty. The tubes of the support system lay severed and useless on the cushions, a couple of them still oozing liquids. Ortalf made to reach in, but hesitated--touch would tell him the same as sight, that the child was gone. He looked around, confused and close to panic. Nearby he saw two more violated matreches.
“But...but...” He stopped when he found the inspector watching him. “I don’t understand,” Ortalf said finally.
The inspector came to a conclusion. Concerning what, Ortalf could not be sure, but he recognized the change in the inspector’s face, from glassy hardness to near pity. The inspector nodded and gestured for them to return to the administration level.
Ortalf let himself be escorted back, dazed. He barely noticed the people and machines that roamed through his facility. Police, forensic units, specialists--insurance adjustors, too, for all he knew, and within hours the lawyers would be calling.
The inspector brought him to his own office and closed the door.
“What’s happened?” Ortalf asked. He had wanted to make it a demand, but it came out as a pale, exhausted gasp.
“I’d frankly hoped you might be able to tell me, Director Ortalf. But...” He sat on the edge of Ortalf’s desk and gazed down at him. Some of the hardness had returned, but mixed now with sympathy.
“From what we’ve been able to reconstruct so far, the entire clinic was severed from outside communications. There was one independent oversight program with a direct line to your maintenance chief, but after ten minutes even that was cut. Most of it went down with the power. You may well have a number of fatalities to deal with. I’m not sure how critical these systems are to each unit--”
“Each matreche has its own power unit to protect from a complete outage. “
“So I gathered from the manufacturer’s specs. Are they all up to par?”
“So far as I know. You’d have to ask our maintenance supervisor, Kromis--”
“We’d love to, but we can’t find her.”
“She...have you been to her apartment?”
“Police are there now. I’d like to have her employment file when you get a moment. In fact, we’ll want the employment files on all your people, even the consultants, interns, and part-timers.”
“Do you really think it could have been one of my people?”
“Not alone, no. But it’s clear that whoever it was had a thorough knowledge of your systems.”
“Of course. Um...do you know how they broke in?”
“Once the power was down and the security net with it,” the inspector explained, “a hole was cut through the point where there would least likely be a back-up alarm they could know nothing about--nobody alarms cafeterias--and from there they went through the clinic, cutting the rest of the power and finally deactivating even your passive monitoring systems.”
Ortalf blinked. “It could take days to get everything back up.” He stared off toward a wall, his thoughts an anxious jumble. “How many are missing?” he asked.
“Twenty-four, I think. All from Ward Five.”
The inspector nodded. “Who were they?”
“I don’t...you mean, who do we maintain in Ward Five? A special group, I’m afraid. Very special.”
“Isn’t everyone in your facility special?”
Ortalf studied the inspector, unsure if he heard sarcasm in the man’s voice. The face, though, remained impassive.
“Some more than others,” Ortalf said. “Those--Ward Five--have the most severe situations.”
“UPDs, aren’t they?”
“Yes. Untreatable Physiological Dysfunctions.”
Ortalf started. “I’m sorry?”
“Nothing.” Impatience flashed across the inspector’s face. “Ancient reference. It’s not important. Tell me, can you think of any reason someone would want to kidnap them?”
“I doubt any of them will live long enough outside their matreches to be of any use in that regard. “
“Why is that?”
“The matreches--each one is specifically modified to its occupant. They’re unique, like the individuals they support. They change over time, with the condition of their charge. It would be nearly impossible to duplicate those specifications in another unit quickly enough to save a removed occupant. I have no doubt that a number of them are dead already.”
“I see. That leaves revenge. Who were they?”
“Revenge?” Ortalf stood. “You’re joking! What could any of these children have done--”
“Not them,” the inspector said calmly. “Their parents.”
“Their histories are completely confidential. Inaccessible. “
“Really? You do that as efficiently as your employee background checks?”
“I’m the only one who can access those records.”
“And will you inform the parents when you’ve done so, to let them know that their children have been lost?”
Ortalf, uncomfortable, sat down and shook his head. “That’s not the arrangement we have.”
“They don’t want to know, do they? That’s why you have them in the first place. “
“You have to understand, a lot of them have no family to begin with. “
“I’d be willing to wager that many of those whose records are so carefully sealed are children with families.”
The inspector stood, and for a moment Ortalf expected to be struck. He closed his eyes and waited, but the blow never came. When he looked up, the inspector stood in the doorway, his back to the director.
“The records will be required,” the inspector said. “Please make yourself available for further questioning.”
Ortalf watched the man walk away. Nearly a minute passed before he realized that he still did not know the inspector’s name. At that moment, he was just as glad not to.
TWENTY-FIVE YEARS LATER…
oren Lanra watched from behind a grime-encrusted refuse bin in the recess of an old, unused loading dock. A sneeze threatened, teased by sharp odors and the chill air. Across the wide alley, members of a third-shift crew emerged from an unmarked door. Even if they saw him they would pass him off as one of the ubiquitous warren ghosts, homeless and destitute, that haunted the districts surrounding Petrabor Spaceport. Coren wore a shabby, ankle-length gray-black coat over worn coveralls; four days’ beard darkened his pale face beneath oily, unwashed hair. He itched.
Three hours still remained in the third shift. Coren counted fifteen people through the door--all but one of the full crew compliment of the largely automated warehouse. They were unlikely to get into trouble--Coren recognized their supervisor among them, marked by the thick silver rings around his upper arms. They strode noisily up the alley, boots crunching on scattered debris, laughter echoing off the walls, heading for a home kitchen or a bar. They rounded a corner. Coren listened till their voices came as whispers in the distance.
He dropped from the lip of the bay and hurried to their exit door, propped open by a thin sheet of plastic he’d stuck there earlier to jam the lock and disable the tracking sensor that kept a log of when the door was ‘used. Just inside, he found an ID reader set in a heavy inner door. He slipped his forged card into the slot and waited to see if he had gotten what he had paid for.
The light on the reader winked green and he slipped through into a locker room. Forty-eight lockers, sixteen per shift. Coren wondered where the last worker was inside the mammoth complex.
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