I have a message from another time...
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Features Future Imperfect
Symphony of the Sword No. 1
Das Lied von der Erde
Prelude I: Duet for Robots in E
by Benjamin D. Hutchins
© 2008 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
It was all Leonard's fault.
That might have seemed like the usual sort of defensive statement that someone in as tight a spot as Corwin Ravenhair would come up with at the age of not-quite-eleven, but in Corwin's case, it had the advantage of being true, and even verifiable. Leonard Hutchins himself, if confronted with this assertion, would have had to admit that, yes, it was all his fault.
Leonard was the one who was bored. Leonard was the one who suggested they hop the N over to New Avalon International Spaceport and watch the starships come and go. Leonard was the one, furthermore, who had mentioned the new automated baggage handling system that had been installed at this, the busiest of New Avalon's three spaceport facilities.
That Corwin had then insisted on investigating said system could not be held on his account, as any rational sapient lifeform should accept that, Len having mentioned it, Corwin was obliged to check it out.
That they subsequently got baggage-handled and wound up on the 11:40 Federated Express metaspace run to Kane's World is mainly the fault of the somewhat inattentive gentleman who programmed the new system.
Fortunately, cargo runners are pressurized.
"OK," said Len, hands in his pockets, calm and collected. He leaned against the concrete post holding up the ceiling of the New Gotham Transit Authority's City Center station and composed himself for thought. "We managed to get out of the spaceport without getting arrested. That's a start."
"Not much of one, though," Corwin replied. He sat down on the floor, rummaged through his battered black leather satchel, and sighed. "How much money have you got on you?"
"Ten credits and some change," Len replied. "You?"
"Um... two fifty. And some folding money from Vanaheim."
"That probably won't do us much good here."
"No," Corwin agreed glumly. He got up, slung the satchel by its shoulder strap, and, lacking anything else to do, the brothers went upstairs.
Corwin was the elder, by about an hour, but Len looked the part. He was slightly taller, slightly slimmer, the lines of his face a bit more mature-looking below his jagged rust-orange bangs. The rest of his coarse, heavy hair was gathered into a thick sheaf that trailed off down his back. Corwin was shorter, a bit wider, and overall the more boyish- looking of the two. His coal-black hair was short but thick, jumbled in an unruly crest atop his head, with one thumb-thick forelock sticking out in front that he could never seem to do anything with.
Both were dressed for a day's exploration, in simple, sturdy clothes, Corwin in jeans, button-front canvas shirt and Army jacket, Len in military cargo pants, a sweatshirt and gray trenchcoat. Both wore good, strong boots, Corwin's black and buckled, Len's brown and laced. Neither had a hat. Fortunately, it wasn't raining. By the feel of the air as they reached the street level, it was either spring or fall, cool but not cold. Impossible to tell which, though, for this was New Gotham City, and there were no trees around to give them a hint.
They walked down the street, not paying much attention to their surroundings. Which isn't to say they were oblivious to them - neither boy was careless in such matters - but they were a bit preoccupied, and so only paying subliminal attention, stepping around other people on the crowded sidewalks and avoiding lampposts and parking meters. As they walked, they discussed in quiet tones their predicament and what to do about it.
"We're not really in that much of a fix," Len observed calmly. "All we have to do is call home and admit what we did. Dad will come get us."
"Oh sure, that's a great idea," Corwin pretended to agree. "And then we get to hear about how dangerous it was for the rest of the year, and we never get to go anywhere near the spaceport again without a tracking implant."
"Well, then why don't we find a mirror and you can call your Aunt Bell? She won't scold us too badly."
"No, but she might tell Aunt Urd, and then I'd never hear the end of it. 'Hey, Corwin, tell me again about your trip to New Gotham!' 'Will you be flying out with your dad for New Year's, or will you just ship yourself?'"
Len looked a little rueful. "Yeah, you've got a point. I suppose your mom's out of the question, then."
Corwin rolled his eyes. "She'd be torn. On the one hand, it was a wicked neat hack. On the other hand, it was a stupid thing to do. Her maternal instinct would conflict with her hacker imperative. She might short out or something."
"Hm," said Len, nodding. "Maybe Hiroshi could - " He stopped, both speaking and walking, just then, and held out his hand, palm flat against Corwin's chest, to stop him too.
"What?" Corwin murmured.
"Trouble," Len replied. "See that guy in the black coat?"
Corwin saw him. "The one walking behind the girl in the green dress?"
"He's not walking behind her. He has a gun in her back. He's forcing her into that car."
Corwin looked, and indeed the two were approaching a car - an outstandingly ugly one, as it happened, that would have caught his eye sooner under less preoccupying circumstances. It was a SEAT Grandee, a truly regrettable executive blingmobile built on nearby Nueva Castilla, easily distinguished by its bulging (but somehow not sporty) fenders, its ten-foot-long coffin hood, and its hugely ostentatious hood ornament, which was a chunk of synthetic crystal about the size of a baseball that was supposed to, but did not, put the viewer in mind of a brilliant-cut diamond. They seemed weirdly popular with some segment of New Gotham's population; Corwin had noticed, in a detached sort of way, that nearly every car in this part of the city that wasn't an S-class Mercedes-Benz seemed to be a Grandee.
Corwin didn't ask his brother how he was so sure about the significance of the car and the man in the black coat. Len just seemed to know these things. Instead he merely tightened up a little, readying for action, and asked, "So what's the plan?"
There was no question as to whether they should get involved. Of course they shouldn't get involved. They were strangers to this city and had literally no idea who they might be messing with.
Of course they were going to get involved. There was a lady in trouble.
"No time to plan," said Len. "Just follow my lead."
If he'd had time, Corwin might have expressed his theoretical appreciation for a little more advance notice than that, but he didn't have any, since Len had already started running.
Stifling the kind of curse that would get him smacked on the head in Valkyrie training, Corwin followed. For the first couple of steps, his plan, inasmuch as he had one, was to follow Len in and hit the gunman low while Len hit him high. As they approached the car, though, he noticed something that changed the picture entirely. Fortunately, he was trained to handle contingencies like this, and by the time he'd taken two more steps, he'd adjusted his strategy accordingly.
Lacking a proper weapon, Len made do with the only one available to him and hit the gunman with a solid shoulder block. Unprepared for the sudden broadside attack, the man was flung against the side of the car, his jaw bouncing off the corner of the roof with a painful noise. He lost his grip on his pistol, dropping it to the pavement.
Corwin, meanwhile, detoured around the girl and the open car door she was standing next to, sparing a moment to glance at her as he passed. She was pretty, with neatly bobbed auburn hair, very pale skin, and the darkest eyes he'd ever seen - he thought, as he made fleeting eye contact with her, that they were genuinely black. Either that or her pupils were massively dilated. Her affect was surely a bit flat for someone who was in the middle of being forced into a car at gunpoint. Maybe they'd drugged her? Though if that were the case, why the gun?
No time to consider that now. The car's driver had emerged from his seat and pulled out his own gun, which he was aiming over the roof at Len as the redheaded boy stepped back and kicked the dropped pistol under the car.
Corwin put a hand on the fender and vaulted the Grandee's vast hood, his draconic warstaff appearing in his hand as he slid across the slickly polished metal. He swung the weapon hard, adding the force of his arms to the momentum of his slide, and clobbered the driver in the face as he came off the other side of the hood. Swearing, the driver recoiled, raising his free hand to his bloodied nose. Corwin planted his feet, pivoted, and hit the driver again from the opposite direction.
The two men, both stunned by the sudden violence that had invaded their peaceful little kidnapping, were clearly in disbelief about who was attacking them as they gathered their wits and tried to mount some kind of counterattack. Len's dance partner produced a tactical baton from inside his heavy black coat and, with a grunt of mingled effort and rage, took a swing that would have taken Len's head off had it connected.
It was so badly telegraphed, however, that there was no realistic chance of that. Len moved out of his way with a Katsujinkenryuu empty- hand counter, grabbed his arm, and twisted. Yelling in pain, the man dropped the baton. Len caught it, released him with a shove that sent him stumbling back against the side of the car, and then gave him a quick, precise blow to the side of the neck with the baton. He crumpled to the ground without another sound.
As for the driver, he still had hold of his gun, and now that he had some of his wits collected he intended to use it. He raised it and aimed. Just as he fired, Corwin smacked it aside with his staff, using a whirling strike that added more energy to the blow. The bullet tore through the hood of the gunman's own car, raising a small geyser of steam as it punctured a coolant line. The recoil, added to the impact, tore the weapon from the gunman's smarting hand and sent it bouncing across the hood, out of sight.
"Nice shot," Corwin told him.
Bigger and stronger than the man who'd been herding the girl into the car, the driver wasn't about to be taunted by a kid who looked like he should've been sitting final exams in the sixth grade. His face purpled with rage and he lunged forward, seizing Corwin's shoulders with big, meaty hands and leaning over him like an avalanche about to fall.
"You little bastard," he snarled, his breath - weirdly minty, Corwin thought, like he'd only just brushed his teeth - palpable on the young demigod's tattooed forehead. "You need to learn to mind your own god damn business."
"Never been very good at that," Corwin agreed.
Then he lunged forward and rammed the top of his head into the underside of the man's jaw. That hurt more than he was expecting, enough to make him see stars, but it hurt the driver even more; he had been just about to make some other profound statement, and the sudden, violent closure of his jaw had made him nearly bite off part of his tongue. He reeled, roaring with pain, and Corwin staggered back, shaking his head and trying to clear it before his opponent could renew hostilities.
He needn't have worried. The driver wasn't going to be making another offensive anytime soon. The baton formerly possessed by his colleague made certain of that by belting him solidly in the back of the head and laying him out next to the Grandee like a felled tree.
"Corwin? You OK?" Len asked as he scrambled down from the top of the car.
"Whu - yeah. Yeah." Corwin blinked, shook his head once more, and nodded. "'mOK."
"We better get out of here," said Len. He collapsed the baton and stuck it in his trenchcoat's inside pocket. "These guys might have backup."
"Good idea." Corwin rounded the front of the car and saw the girl in the green dress still standing in the same spot, looking around at the chaos surrounding them with a look of faint surprise. "Come on," he said to her, taking hold of her wrist. "Let's get - whoa."
The last came because, when he tugged on her arm to add emphasis to "come on," she didn't move. At all. It was like trying to catch the arm of a bronze statue. Slowly, she looked down at his hand on her wrist, then raised her eyes to meet his again. Her movements were very precise and accompanied by very faint sounds - very faint, but instantly recognizable to Corwin.
He blinked. "Oh hey," he said. "You're a robot."
The girl tilted her head very slightly.
"That's correct," she said. Her voice was a clear alto and perfectly lifelike, devoid of any mechanical overtones, though her diction, like her movements, was unnaturally precise.
"Are we about to feel really stupid," Len asked, "or were those guys kidnapping you?"
"Technically, I cannot be kidnapped," she said. "Kidnapping is the unlawful abduction of one person by another. I am not a person."
"Let's split the legal hairs later," said Len. "Were they taking you against your will?"
Knowing the robotic mind better than Len, Corwin shook his head and put in before she could reply, "Were they entitled to take you?"
"No," she said, and then added in a perfectly calm, matter-of-fact way, "Also, I believe they intend me harm."
"OK. Now we're getting someplace," Corwin said. "Come with us, we'll protect you."
The girl considered this for a moment, then inclined her head very slightly. "Very well," she said, and permitted Corwin to lead her away from the scene.
They moved deeper into the city, heading toward the tallest buildings, which Corwin and Len assumed would be downtown.
"I think we're in over our heads," Len observed. "Like it or not, we have to call someone now."
Corwin sighed. "Yeah, you're probably right. Though I'd rather not do that until I know more about what's going on." He looked back over his shoulder. "I don't think anyone's following us. We ought to find a place to hole up and get as much information as we can before we make the call."
Len looked at the expressionless young woman with them. "Miss? Are you from around here?"
She slowly turned to look at him. "I've never been outside New Gotham," she confirmed.
"We need to find somewhere public, where we can use a crowd as cover, but less exposed than out on the street," Len explained. "Someplace where, if anyone else comes looking for you, we can see them coming."
She thought about that for a second, then nodded. "This way," she said.
A few minutes later, they were on the top floor of a building on the edge of downtown, of modest height compared to the towers a few blocks further toward the center, but tall enough to have a commanding view back the way they had come. Most of the building was offices, but the top two floors seemed to be a sort of shopping mall, complete with a food court in one corner. They went to the table in the far corner and tried to be as inconspicuous as possible.
"Let's start at the beginning," said Len while Corwin hunted in his satchel for his mobilecomm unit. "What's your name?"
The girl regarded him with her very dark eyes for a moment, then said, "R. Dorothy Wayneright."
"Who were those men that were trying to ki - ... er, steal you?"
"I don't know specifically," Dorothy said. "They work for a local crime boss. His name would have no meaning to you. He believes my creator owes him a great deal of money. I was being... collected as payment for that debt."
"Where's your creator?" Corwin asked. "Didn't he object?"
"Of course he did," Dorothy replied, and then, flatly, "Presumably that's why they murdered him."
Corwin looked up from his search. "... Oh. I'm sorry."
"It wasn't your doing," Dorothy said. She seemed ever-so-faintly puzzled, as if unsure what this complete stranger had to apologize for.
"Does he have any heirs? Your creator? Anyone who will have... uh... inherited you now?" Len asked.
Dorothy shook her head. "He was alone. That's why he built me."
"We're up," said Corwin, having found the subether booster antenna and affixed it to his mobilecomm. "OK, let's see if I can get on the local network so I don't have to set up a subether tunnel clear back to - ... that's weird."
"What's weird?" Len asked.
Corwin peered at the comm unit's status display, fiddled with a knob, and then switched to a different screen. "That's really weird. I'm picking up some kind of subetheric signal. It's not on any of the regular bands, I just ran across it doing a band search." He held the unit up and moved it from side to side, as if it were a tricorder, then pointed it at Dorothy. "And it seems to be coming from you."
"A homing signal?" Len asked.
"I don't think so," Corwin said. "Looks more sophisticated than that. Some kind of automation system command signal, maybe." He raised an eyebrow at Dorothy, inviting comment. She looked back at him, stonily silent. With a shrug, he started adjusting some of the unit's finer settings. "Let me see if I can figure out what it's supposed to do... "
Len turned to look out the window, then stiffened, blinking. "Uh... Corwin?" he said, reaching across the table to tap on Corwin's arm.
"Not now, Len, I'm busy."
Len changed from tapping to tugging his brother's sleeve. " Corwin."
Exasperated, Corwin looked up from the comm unit's screen. "Look, do you want me to trace this signal or noooohhhh crap."
Around them, other people started noticing, and within a few seconds, panic gripped the food court as everyone reacted to the giant, vaguely- woman-shaped robot that was approaching the building, presumably without proper authorization from the City of New Gotham.
"That's going to be a problem," Corwin mused.
"Why's it headed this way?" Len wondered.
Dorothy rose slowly to her feet, her face even blanker than usual, and when she spoke it was in a low, completely uninflected murmur.
"Dorothy-Two," she said. "Search priority alpha. Override one one one."
"What does that mean?" Corwin asked. Getting no response, he rose, put a hand on her shoulder, and said in a more forceful tone, " Dorothy. Situation report."
Dorothy seemed to come back from some distance away, her eyes refocusing, and she turned to look at him with some signs of effort. "Part of her command circuitry is built into me," she said. "That's what the men you took me from wanted. To remove it from me so that they would have complete control over her."
Len eyed her sidelong. "For the record, it would've been helpful if you had mentioned that before," he said dryly.
"I didn't know it could broadcast a signal," Dorothy said. "No one ever explained its workings to me. I was only intended to... carry it."
Corwin turned to look at the approaching robot. "That's a Big Fire terrormech. I'd bet anything on it." He shook his head. "That explains a lot."
Len blinked. "It does?"
"Well, how many other criminal organizations do you know of that have a use for giant robots? It's not like they offer any particular advantage to bank robbers or drug smugglers. And Big Fire's always fooling around with hopelessly baroque control systems." He turned to Dorothy. "Do you know if that has a pilot on board?"
"No," Dorothy said. "If her control system were complete, she'd be autonomous. There's no place for a cockpit."
Corwin turned and put his hand against the window, gazing intently at the approaching robot and shutting out the chaos and panic behind him.
"Think, Corwin," he muttered to himself. "Reason it out. If its control system is incomplete, someone must be operating it with a manual proxy system. That means short range." He turned, picked up his mobilecomm, and consulted its display again. "I'm not seeing any other anomalous subether activity or unaccountable radio traffic, so they're probably using a laser link. That means line-of-sight." Turning to the window again, he scanned the immediate area around the building they were in. "They need it to be mobile. That means a vehicle. Probably a van or something like."
Len pointed. "There."
Corwin looked and saw what he was pointing at: a multi-story parking garage, catercornered off the square in front of their building, with each deck open at the sides.
"Yeah," he agreed. "That looks likely."
"I'll check it out."
Corwin nodded. "Look for a van with a laser array on the roof. I'll see what I can do from this end."
Len made for the fire stairs at a dead run and disappeared through the door. The food court was nearly deserted now; down below, Corwin could see people streaming from the building into the square. A few moments later, a phalanx of black vans appeared from side streets, blocking the exits from the square, and men in black jumpsuits and matching pointed hoods started piling out and rounding up the civilians.
Well, that confirms that, Corwin thought, his fist clenching. Big Fire.
He turned to Dorothy, who stood next to him watching the proceedings down below. Only a slight narrowing of her eyes betrayed any state of mind other than total impassivity.
"This bit of the giant robot's control circuitry you have in you," he asked. "Is it a module, or is it integrated in your own systems?"
"It's a separate part. I saw it before Fa... my creator installed it."
"Where is it?"
Dorothy turned to face him fully. "Why?"
"I can't remove it if I don't know where it is, can I?" Corwin asked rhetorically.
"Why would you do that?"
"Simple. You don't have it any more, they stop chasing you. Right?"
"My internal mechanisms are very delicate," said Dorothy. "A blind attempt to remove the device could do a great deal of damage."
"Well... " Corwin tilted his head toward the window. "I can guarantee that I care about that more than they do."
Dorothy hesitated, a very faintly fearful look edging onto her face. "You have a point."
I should have asked, Len remarked to himself as he entered the parking garage, what it is I'm supposed to do when I find this van. Ah, well.
Avoiding the Black Hoods who swept in to surround the office building had been surprisingly simple, given that he wasn't equipped for any kind of stealth. Once inside the garage, he had a decision to make: start from the top or the bottom? Reasoning that the upper levels would provide better lines of sight, he climbed the stairs to the uppermost deck and started his search there.
Up in the now-empty food court, Corwin swept the dishes from one of the larger tables, then took off his jacket and began rolling up his sleeves as Dorothy climbed onto the table. As she arranged herself (to the faint sounds of gunfire and police sirens from outside, and the steady crashing tread of the approaching giant robot), she glanced sideways at Corwin, the fear on her face making her seem fully human to him for the first time.
He smiled and smoothed her auburn hair with one hand.
"Relax," he said, propping his satchel open. "I won't let anything happen to you."
He expected her to form some objection regarding his age, but instead, she gazed intently into his eyes for a few seconds, then lay back, closed her eyes, and shut down, becoming very, very still.
Corwin dug in his satchel, found his sonic screwdriver, and stood for a couple of seconds in silent conference with himself before setting to work.
Len found the van on the second-from-the-top level of the parking garage, backed into a space about halfway along the side facing the square. Like the ones down below, it was black with heavily tinted windows, but, just as Corwin had predicted, it had a laser communications emitter on its roof, tracking slowly southwestward as it maintained its lock on the advancing robot. Len looked and saw that the robot was within two or three giant strides of the building where Corwin and Dorothy still were.
As he watched, it drew back its arm, preparing to deal a gigantic punch to the uppermost level of that building. Plainly, then, these guys didn't care about capturing Dorothy intact; they figured they'd just fish what they needed out of her wreckage.
Once again there was no time to plan; once again Len's instincts carried him through. He broke into a run, sprinting past the noses of parked cars and trucks. About halfway to the van, he passed the front of yet another SEAT Grandee. Without slackening his pace, he reached out and wrenched the hood ornament from its mountings, setting off the car's alarm. Taking two more strides, he wound up and hurled the chunk of mock diamond as hard as he could.
Len's aim was true. The Grandee's hood ornament smashed the van's delicate laser array to tangled scrap; even if the laser had kept working, it would have been impossible to aim. It lost lock with the giant robot's receiver instantly.
Aboard the robot, safety protocols kicked in, disengaging the partial control system and shutting the machine down to prevent it from running wild in the absence of a proper command signal. It ground to a halt, freezing in position with its knockout punch half-delivered.
Len didn't stick around to admire his handiwork. As soon as the hood ornament hit the laser, he skidded to a halt, reversed course, and beat it for the stairs. By the time the startled Big Fire robot controller and his engineer/driver had extracted themselves from the control rig in the back of the van and emerged to see what had cut them off, he was gone.
Dorothy's internal mechanisms were delicate, though that had mainly to do with their complexity and the fineness of their interrelation with one another. She was built to standards of tolerance well beyond anything Corwin had ever seen before, a multitude of fragile parts that interlocked, when properly assembled, into a robust and durable whole, like some twenty-fifth-century descendant of a Harrison marine chronometer. Once he had her outer casing open, he felt somewhat less bold than he had when he proposed this operation.
Also, the continuing firefight outside and the giant robot advancing steadily toward him were not what he would call aids to his concentration. All in all, he was looking at a tall order for a fully qualified adult robot mechanic, let alone a nearly-eleven-year-old boy.
He pushed it all out of his head and went to work. The look in Dorothy's eyes just before she shut herself down remained always in the back of his mind. He knew without doubt that, despite their muted presentation, she had emotions. The trust she showed by shutting down like that, placing herself completely in his hands, touched him clean through. The worst possible thing he could do was fail that trust, no matter what the outside circumstances.
But far from compounding the pressure on him, that thought held it at bay, keeping his eye clear and his hand steady as he delved into Dorothy's fantastically sophisticated inner structure in search of the item that didn't belong. It wasn't hard to find; the trick was in removing it without disturbing the systems around it, then clearing away all trace of its passage and restoring her to full working order.
It may have been a tall order for an adult roboticist, but Corwin Ravenhair happened to be the son of Skuld Ravenhair, the Norse goddess of technology. He'd grown up playing with the most sophisticated inventions in the universe the way other kids had chemistry sets. He had what his own mother had once called a weapons-grade aptitude for hardware. He was famous in his family circle for having been able to say "multiprocessor" before he could say "mommy".
The rest of the world disappeared. Time ceased to have meaning. There was only this task, only these fantastically advanced systems, only the glow of this synthetic but no less genuine life, sleeping while his hands extracted this ugly anomaly from within it.
Only when he had it out, and Dorothy's casing closed, did he realize that the giant robot was standing right outside, its fist raised, but had for some reason neglected to smash him to bits.
"Hm," he said, and then, because there was nothing he could do about the giant robot either way, he put his tools away, re-composed Dorothy's clothing - only now, with the technical considerations dealt with, did it occur to him, slightly red-faced, how completely lifelike her construction was beneath them - and leaned down to speak her name quietly into her ear.
She opened her eyes and sat up, looking at him with a very mildly curious expression.
"How do you feel?" Corwin asked.
After a moment's pause, Dorothy replied, "Diagnostics complete. No faults detected." Cocking her head slightly, she added, "You did it."
Corwin smiled and held up the item he'd removed, a small black rectangle that was completely at odds with the elegant precision of everything else he'd found inside her. He opened his mouth to say something, but before he could, the fire doors banged open and Black Hoods swarmed into the food court, brandishing their submachineguns and generally being as fearsome as possible.
Corwin kept himself between them and Dorothy, telling her quietly, "Stay behind me," as she got down from the table.
"This is what you're looking for," he said, holding up the little black module. "Let's make a deal."
The Black Hoods' Q-Boss, distinctive in his red hood and blazer over white dress trousers, made his way to the front and coughed discreetly.
"I don't think you're really in a position to negotiate, kid," he said. "Here's the deal: Hand over the gadget and the girl and maybe you'll walk out of here alive."
Corwin shook his head. "Not good enough," he said. "You see, I promised her that I wouldn't let anything happen to her." He waggled the device. "This is all you really want anyway. It's the rest of the control system for your terrormech there. Plug it in and embarrassing things like that stop happening to it," he added, gesturing with his head toward its curious immobility.
"He's bluffing," one of the Black Hoods sneered. "Wayneright said he wasn't sure he could get that thing out of the girl without wrecking her. There's no way a friggin' fifth-grader pulled it off in a food court."
"You got a multiband comm unit? Scan us," Corwin said. "This device is producing the command signal you followed here. Not the girl."
Q-Boss snapped his fingers. One of the other Black Hoods put up his submachinegun and produced a scanning device instead. He played it over first Corwin, then Dorothy, then turned to his boss and nodded.
"He's telling the truth. The signal's coming from him."
"Let me get this straight," Q-Boss said. "You're proposing that you give me the widget, we take our robot and leave, and you walk away with the girl?"
Corwin shrugged. "Why not? You get what you really came for."
Q-Boss looked around as if he couldn't quite believe that Corwin hadn't fully grasped the situation, then said, "I'm not really seeing why you think you're in any position to make a deal here, to be honest. I got 30 guys with guns here, and you got... a sonic screwdriver. What's to stop me just blowing you away and taking everything?"
"You'd be amazed what a sonic screwdriver can do in the right hands," Corwin said.
He and the Big Fire boss stared each other down for a few tense, brittle seconds.
Then Q-Boss laughed and said, "You got balls, kid. I can't help but admire that. OK, you got a deal. Gimme the gadget and you and the girl walk."
"Well-bargained and done," said Corwin, tossing the module across. Q-Boss caught it and tucked it into his inside coat pocket.
Now he decides to kill me anyway, Corwin thought, and I have to get real creative, but to his surprise, Q-Boss turned to go, gesturing to his men.
"C'mon, boys. Let's jet before the Bat - "
The elevator doors opened, revealing a tall man clad from head to toe in black armor.
"... shows... up... hell!" Q-Boss snarled.
Corwin had heard of Gotham City's costumed champion, the notorious Batman, before. He knew, in fact, that this particular one was the third (or possibly fourth) man to hold the title, and that he'd been active for a little more than four years at this point. He hadn't really expected to see him here, though he'd certainly been hoping he'd show up.
And now he had a front-row seat as the Batman stepped out of the elevator into a crowd of 30 heavily armed Big Fire Black Hoods and, without saying a word, quickly and efficiently beat them all right the hell up.
Once he'd finished with that, the black-clad man turned and walked across the food court to Corwin, who still stood with Dorothy behind him.
"Are you all right?" he asked, his voice low and just slightly raspy - very similar to what Corwin's father's neighbor Marty Rose called his "work voice".
"Fine," Corwin said. "The Q-Boss has a black electronic module in his inside pocket. It's part of the control system for that terrormech outside. And it doesn't work," he added.
"How do you know that?" Batman asked.
"Because I broke it," Corwin replied, holding up his sonic screwdriver with a grin.
An hour later, Corwin and Len were standing, along with Dorothy, out by the still-frozen terrormech's feet, waiting to sign transcripts of their statements to the police while New Gotham Public Works Department personnel tried to figure out how they were going to remove the giant robot from the middle of Sloane Square.
"Uh-oh," Len said, leaning toward his brother.
"What?" Corwin asked.
"Here comes trouble," said Len, pointing.
"Uh-oh," Corwin agreed, for passing through the police cordon, clearing her way with a flash of her Lens, came Leonard's mother - Kei Morgan, the Red Lensman, one of the principal Experts of Justice.
"Gentlemen," said Kei as she approached. "I believe you're supposed to be in New Avalon."
"Uh, well... that's true," Len allowed.
"Imagine, therefore, my surprise when I learn that you are instead in the Conroy sector, screwing with the local Big Fire operations." Kei folded her arms. "That happens to be my job."
"I - " Corwin began.
"It - " said Len.
Kei silenced them both with a glare that could've split concrete.
Which she was able to maintain for about three-quarters of a second before breaking into a huge grin.
"I can't wait to find out how you managed to get into this," she said. "Come on, Batman and I cleared your statements with the cops. Let's get the hell outta here before your father finds out what's going on."
Corwin and Len exchanged guarded looks of surprised glee - lucky! - and moved to follow her as she walked away. Then Corwin paused and turned back to see Dorothy hanging back, looking uncertain.
"What's the matter?" he asked.
Looking around at the various preoccupied cops, she said hesitantly, "I suppose I'm... evidence."
"Nah," Corwin told her. "The widget's evidence. And I took it out."
"You... you did," she agreed.
"Do you have anywhere to go?" he asked.
"No," she said.
"Well... you can come with me if you want," Corwin offered, holding out a hand.
Dorothy looked at it for a moment, then raised her eyes to look into his.
Then she said, "All right," and took his hand.
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Features Future Imperfect
Symphony of the Sword No. 1
Das Lied von der Erde
Prelude I: Duet for Robots in E
by Benjamin D. Hutchins
E P U (colour) 2008