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    Volume 5, Issue 1 February 28, 2010
    Message from the Editors
 The Empathy Hour by Mary J. Daley
 Playable Character by Eric J. Juneau
 Season of Blood by Brant Danay
 Ewa and the Last Changeling by Nick Poniatowski
 Original Position by A.L. Sirois
 Special Feature: Interview with Literary Agent Ethan Ellenberg
 Special Feature: Author Interview: Betsy Dornbusch
 Column: Spec Fic in Flix by Marty Mapes


Original Position

A.L. Sirois

         It wasn't until they had reached the border between the Citizen's Metropolitan Union and the Southern Confederation that the reality of the trip sank in for James. Prior to that he'd been rather unwillingly dazzled by Dr. O'Brien-Blackbird's car, a new road-sensing Ganesh, and occupied with answering Bugsy's questions. The colony had never been out of the house before, but overall it seemed to be handling the trip well. Its container took up the whole trunk, so he and Dr. O'Brien-Blackbird had had to pile their luggage in the car's rear seat.
         To his disgust, James felt himself perspiring as they slowed for Customs a few miles below Alexandria. He did his best not to show any uncertainty in front of Dr. O'Brien-Blackbird.
         Nevertheless, she noticed. "Nervous?" Marian O'Brien-Blackbird's round face reflected her Native American ancestry. "Understandable. But you might want to turn off Bugsy's speakers so he doesn't alarm the guards."
         "Look, Doctor-"
         "Marian," she said, smiling. "Or 'Doc,' if you like, James." There was, however, a glint of something in her eyes that was not a smile: a glitter of irritation and even an infuriating condescension. He had seen it in others' eyes.
         So you don't like me, he thought. Deal, squaw. I don't like you, either. I've got a career ahead of me, while you'll be chairing committees back on the rez, if you're lucky. He pasted a smile on his face.
         "Okay, Doc," he said. "It's my first time out of New Jersey. I don't actually know anyone who's been outside the MU. It's too expensive." He glanced around the Ganesh's cockpit. Few people could afford single-owner cars, and she certainly wasn't one of them. This was a government vehicle, smaller than an old-fashioned SUV but still impressive.
         Apparently the Customs officials, two from the CMU and another pair from the SC, thought so, too, because they made James and Marian exit the car while they searched it.
         Most of the validation procedure was automatic, handled electronically by the Ganesh's com, but the officers didn't know what to make of Bugsy. The dark-loving insects within weren't visible through the hull, but with the attached gas, water, and nutrient modules the thing looked decidedly strange.
         "Hey whatzis?" one of them, a blue-eyed man with untidy hair and genmod cat whiskers, asked. He tapped on the container.
         "It's a termite colony, and don't do that!" James said, almost adding you dumb goober.
         "Watch your yap, kid," said another official, scowling. "And take off that damn data ribbon so I can see your eyes."
         Catface drew back. "Termites?"
         "Absolutely," said Dr. O'Brien-Blackbird. "Cryptotermes brevis. The common West Indian drywood termite. A mutant strain, I should say."
         "Not in a bad way," she said, speaking much more rapidly than usual. "James, here, has won the Continental Association of Student Science competition and we're going to Houston to make a presentation. As our papers indicate. Colonies like this could provide fuel and food for space travelers or urban reclaimers. Did you know this car is partly powered by gas the colony produces?"
         But Catface had had enough. "Save it for your vlog, lady." He spat to one side. The other guards laughed. "You and Brainiac get outta here."
         "Yes, sir."
         As they drove away James switched the car's entertainment system back on.
         The AI monitoring the colony spoke in a well-modulated tenor. "I would have been happy to explain myself to those men."
         "It would only have confused them," said Marian. "But thank you, Bugsy." She yawned. "Shall we get some sleep, James?"
         She put the car on wirepilot and vanished behind a privacy shroud. James watched part of a BBC story detailing Muslim-led anti-genomic riots in Europe on his data-ribbon. A small status window drifted off to his left like a peripheral floater, reassuring him that Bugsy's ten thousand-odd constituent termites were all online, their vital signs nominal.
         The colony units were "infected" with nanos originally developed to control prosthetic limbs by connecting wirelessly to implants in a patient's brain. Another branch of neural engineering, for Alzheimer's victims, had had some success restoring cognitive function by creating bridges over or through damaged brain tissue. Augmentation and control. The result: networked termites, linked by their own semiochemical signature, genetically tweaked to increase reaction time and facilitate communication with the nanos in their blood. Many thousand termites birthed an emergent AI: Bugsy.
         Some time later James started awake. The moon had risen half full, a smear of light in the gelid mist cloaking the trees crowding the roadway: subtropical cycads marching further north each year. The dashboard clock read 2:23 AM. The squaw was unshrouded, frowning at her datapad.
         "I think...we have a small problem," she said, not looking up. He blinked at her, not quite wakeful enough to take in the implications of her words. His e-ribbon map showed that they were on a remote stretch of highway in the middle of what had once been South Carolina, near the border of the Southern Confederation and Hispaniola.
         "What's the deal?"
         "Customs up ahead is reporting a discrepancy in our paperwork." She wrinkled her nose. "Our friends back at the first stop were a lot more polite than we're likely to see here. They're already texting me to pull over, but we're so close to the checkpoint that I'm going to head straight in."
         "Maybe you should just do what they want?"
         "Hold it, they're calling me." She touched her right ear, indicating the bud therein. Listening, she bared her teeth and squinted in concentration. "What? Oh, ba-all right." To James, she said, "I can't make head or tail of the regs they're quoting. Plus their accents are so thick I can barely understand them. This may take a while."
         "You're a government representative, aren't you? You must have all sorts of passcodes and variances and whatever, right?"
         She stared at him for a moment. "You know," she said, "I may get some respect in the CMU being a member of an official commission, but out here no one cares that you won the CASS, or that I'm taking you and Bugsy to Houston to dun a bunch of suits for funding. We're nothing more than a series of numbers that have to match theirs or else we not only won't get into Hispaniola, we'll find ourselves sitting in some detention area until the screw-up gets unborked."
         James, stung, lapsed into sullen silence. He blinked up the presentation he was going to make in Houston. Vids showed Bugsy's development, from the custom-made hull to the selection of insects. Energy output, nutritional content; it was all there. A van like the Ganesh could supply reclaimers in even the most desolate, disease-ridden coastal regions for weeks at a stretch while they rifled through waterlogged, snake-riddled ruins. Storms generated by global warming had killed or displaced millions of people over the past decades, but exotic molds and spores bloomed in the wreckage of the old cities, drawing the powerful pharma companies desperate for cures to genmod sicknesses threatening the swarm of elderly caucs living like parasites off the corpse of the fragmented USA.
         At the border station Marian climbed gracefully out of the car and, flanked by two lank-haired guards, vanished into a dusty brick building. Time passed, half an hour...the outpost's methane gas lamps hissed and flickered in the heat. James sat fuming in the car, tweaking his presentation, disdaining the twangy, whiny regional music in favor of rock from a satellite station. He turned it up as loud as it would go, taking a sour satisfaction in the occasional hooded glances cast his way by the swarthy, squat Hispaniolan border guards as they passed by the Ganesh on various errands. He hated the very look of them, and slumped down in his seat as far as he could. His father, Louis, used to rail about the Mexicans taking over all the low-paying jobs. "You keep it in mind, Jimmy," he'd say. "We're less than fifty percent of the population now. Half the street names around here are in Spanish. Thank the damn liberals for that! Makes me sick, cooties and grease-balls everywhere." But James didn't pay much attention until Louis was killed in a type of accident that should have been impossible in mid twenty-first century Flemington, New Jersey, CMU.
         A Hispanic day laborer named Rodrieguez had somehow managed to lose control of his truck, which was not monitored by the town's traffic grid. At his trial Rodrieguez admitted that he had illegally tampered with the vehicle's computer to avoid having to register his driver's license, which had been suspended for drunk driving.
         Unfortunately his computer skills, augmented by some questionable bioroutines added to his DNA by an unregulated genehacker, were rudimentary at best. His hamfisted coding damaged the truck's programming. Rodrieguez, who was drunk again, shouldn't have been able to drive his vehicle across the median and into Louis Leblanc's oncoming car. The truck's computers should have stalled its engine or directed it to hit something else, like a tree or a signpost. In fact, given the amount of alcohol in the man's blood, the truck's sensors shouldn't even have allowed the engine to start.
         Rodrieguez, or most of him, went to the organ banks after his DNA was repaired. His family wept and wailed at the verdict, but James and his mother could only feel Lou's loss. Now there would be no salary, small as Lou's had been as a siding salesman; there would be no companionship, no handy-work around the house. James Leblanc grew up in poor circumstances, spending all his spare time with supremacists on the web, his mother forced to hire out as a vorg-farm: a surrogate body for artificial organs.
         He was leaning back, eyes closed, when the door on his side was yanked open. A blunt-faced guard stood there, smiling. "We need to talk to you, maricon," he said.
         What the hell's 'maricon' mean? "Yeah, yeah," James said, sighing. He got out of the car. "What's the problem?"
         "No big deal," the officer said, his smile growing wider and more insolent. "Heartland's timechop was out of date. We just need to reconcile your-"
         A shout from the guard shack interrupted him. Female voice.
         Wrong; that's wrong. "Doc?" Another cry, louder, cut off.
         The guard whipped out a pistol and aimed it at James. "Don't be stupid, maricon."
         We're all alone, no one to help-wait! "Bugsy!"
         A voice from inside the car replied, "Yes, James?"
         The guard's eyes went wide and flicked to the empty cockpit. "Who's-?"
         To his own astonishment James kicked him in the balls. The man puked and crumpled. James dashed around to the driver's side, slid in, switched on, floored it, blessing the new car's powerful engine.
         Holy crap! I just-holy crap! His hands shook on the steering wheel and he began hyperventilating.
         The rear vid showed the unsteady pool of light flooding the area around the guardhouse. Figures ran out, paused. Something smacked into the back of the Ganesh. Gunshot. James felt his bowels weaken.
         Behind, lights flicked on to one side and pulled on to the road. Chasing him. "Bugsy?" He angled the GPS screen. Nothing, no towns or settlements for miles, just the highway and the bastards behind him.
         "Yes, James."
         "We're going off-road. It could get bumpy. Make sure you're secure." It wasn't like he had a backup of the colony. The data, yes, and even the colony container could be replicated easily enough, but the bugs were family by this time.
         "Thank you, we are secure. You should fasten your seatbelt."
         Headlights behind. Damn! "Yeah, sure, soon's I can. Can you interface with the GPS?"
         James chewed his upper lip. The Ganesh was in plain sight of his pursuers down a long straightaway. He twisted the lights off and dimmed the cockpit illumination. Half-moonlight would have to do. The e-ribbon could correct for darkness to some extent, too. "I need to pay attention to my driving. Find me a fire road, trail; anything."
         "I will."
         Bugsy wasn't long on personality, only having been cohesive a month or so, but his processing capabilities were as good as any off-the-shelf AI.
         Better, in fact. James was sure of this. All AIs shared some common traits, because it took a lot of code to build one and there was no point in reinventing the wheel each time. As James's computer-savvy friends liked to say, all AIs had brown hair. But Bugsy tagged, monitored and tracked thousands of units, including newly hatched ones, each with its own genetic make-up. He understood his own code and deployed numerous updates, sometimes several times a day. His build numbers were already up in the triple digits.
         He should, therefore, be able to handle a little map without any trouble.
         If nothing else, this is a damn good field test. James allowed himself a wry grin.
         The e-ribbon snowed out for a moment, terrifying him before it cleared. All external feeds were down except the colony's own stream.
         "James? The cars behind us have cracked software."
         James shook his head at the road unspooling in front of him. E-ribbon crash, cracked software; too much input. "Not following you."
         "Their systems have been illegally altered to mask ID. Those men are trolls."
         That explained a few things. Trolls, gypsies masquerading as officials and broadcasting fake ID signals from bollixed chips, weren't entirely unheard of in the CMU but they were very rare. Out here...not so much, apparently. They'd probably overpowered the legitimate border personnel, and were phishing whatever ID data they could from unsuspecting travelers. By dawn they'd fade into the forest, leaving the official computers zombified, infecting every passing vehicle before they could be deborked.
         "I didn't realize it until their automobiles came on line."
         These trolls obviously were after more than IDs, though. Ransom, maybe; a nice shiny new car, weird machine in the back, well-spoken female and a kid...hostages. The squaw must've tumbled to the scam, at which point - squaw or not, hopefully all they'd done was slug her. It was a good thing he had an AI; most people coming through here wouldn't.
         "Bugsy, call the cops."
         "All frequencies are jammed."
         E-ribbon crash. James sighed. "Okay, any luck with the road thing yet?"
         "I have lost GPS transmission, but saved enough to model the next thirteen point six square kilometers. Three point two-one miles ahead on the right is a fire road."
         "Cool. Give me ten seconds' warning. Can you access the car's diagnostics? Or schematics? Any possibility of you preventing its brake lights from flashing?"
         "Affirmative on the diagnostics and schematics. And yes about the brakes, but only physically."
         "If the colony is opened I can dispatch constituent units into the car to short out the appropriate circuits. The brake lights will not be visible."
         "But the units will die." James glanced at the colony status feed. Nominal.
         Bugsy said nothing.
         James nodded again. "Do it."
         In the peripheral status window James saw Bugsy open one of the colony's access ports, little airlocks that provided egress for the insects while maintaining the high internal humidity they loved. James took the car into a curve as fast as he dared, and the headlights trailing him were cut off from his view. Termites were now pouring out into the Ganesh's luggage compartment, searching for access to the vehicle's electronics.
         "Ten seconds," said Bugsy.
         Headlights behind.
         James braked, swinging the car to the right. Yes, there was an opening in the trees, a dirt road leading into the forest. Red numbers appeared in the status feed as termites died, crisped while shorting out the taillights. "Hold on." He floored it again and the car surged forward, thundering over the unimproved road.
         With any luck, whoever was following him would roar right on by, buying him some time to get further into the woods.
         Light behind, brighter - headlights turning, aimed straight at him. "Damn! How'd they see me make that turn?"
         "They homed in on the Ganesh's ID chip," said Bugsy.
         "Can you do anything about that?"
         "Tampering with the chip will activate an anti-theft SOS and kill the engine."
         "SOS, fine; I'd love for every cop in the world to show up. The engine, well, we need that!" He blew out his breath, fogging the windshield a little. "Where's this road go?"
         "My model doesn't extend far enough to answer, but there is a footpath one hundred and eighty-two meters further on, and at least one additional intersection half a kilometer beyond that."
         "Bugsy, disable that chip. Can you keep the engine going?"
         "Yes, I can feed it a false ID signal for about approximately ninety seconds before the units burn out."
         "Understood." The ID chip's output to the engine's sensors was higher than Bugsy's normal operating frequencies. More termites would fry delivering the stronger signal. Lots more. The AI's population could fall below the level of cohesion.
         But without any way to call for help, he - and Dr. O'Brien-Blackbird - would be in serious trouble.
         A delicious, nutty cooking scent filled the compartment. James gritted his teeth. Peripheral red lines flashed, Bugsy losing units.
         "Turn left," said the AI. James spun the wheel. Tall weeds whipped by, leaving insufficient room for him to see anything other than the path ahead. The Ganesh banged into a declivity and James cursed.
         "Now right."
         James slowed the car. "There's no path there!"
         "Forty-five meters to the right, down a hill."
         James scrabbled for his seatbelt, locked it, and turned the car into the weeds. Perspiration bloomed on his forehead, gathering in his eyebrows. "How steep is-"
         The car's nose dipped sharply, pitched forward. James shouted, the vehicle crunched into something unyielding and the airweb ballooned into him with a bang.


         He blinked awake to a snowstorm and a stabbing headache. With a groan he slid the e-ribbon back over his eyes. The snowstorm went with it. Was he falling? No, he was caught in the belt, the airbag below him, deflated, across the steering wheel. The Ganesh's cockpit was dark. Outside weeds pressed against the starred window. Beyond them, night.
         Must've blacked out for a second. "Bugsy?"
         James licked his lips. What was that hiss in the voice circuit? "What time's it?"
         "Thuh-ree forty five ay-em."
         "Operating level down to seventy-thuh-ree percent."
         James went cold. Bugsy had lost a lot of units, all right, but James hadn't expected it to be that bad. The red-line was 58 percent. Below that the colony's autonomic routines would continue and the remaining termites would survive, but the developing AI personality would evaporate. Bugsy would "die."
         "Can you backup to the car's system?" James shifted his legs. He yelped. Oh man - had he busted something? His left knee hurt like hell.
         "Cannot com-pul-ly. Insufficient memory, hardware damaged in crash."
         No backup! Without one he'd never be able to help the authorities pinpoint the trolls. James forced thought through the blinding headache. "Food and water situation?"
         "Critical. Colony collapse in three point five hours at current rate of consumption and loss."
         The news just keeps getting better. He tried to move his legs again and this time was rewarded with some mobility. Experimentally he wriggled his toes. Everything seemed to be connected. He set about extricating himself.
         By the time he got out of the car he was gasping from exertion, sick from the agony in his head and knee, and wondering where the assholes chasing him were. He leaned against the wrecked vehicle, listening, praying for his stomach to settle. Silence, aside from night noises and his own thumping heart.
         Think, idiot. The units could survive if they quit the colony with the queen and went wild. He sighed. It sucked, but he owed them their lives. Once they were gone, he'd try to get out of here on foot, bad knee or no bad knee. Sooner or later maybe he could get the e-ribbon working again and get back on the net, call for help. Assuming the trolls didn't get him first.
         He opened his mouth to give Bugsy the order to disperse into the surrounding wilderness. Why were his eyes filling with water?
         "Yeah?" Suddenly realizing he smelled roast termite again. "What're you-?"
         "Picking up sssignals...nearby AI. Using car circuitsss to confirm. Activity level seventy percent, sixty-nine-"
         "Jeez, Bugsy; abort!" Whatever he was doing, he was losing units doing it.
         "Other izz unregistered, distributed AI. Distance: point one three kilometers."
         "Huh? Who the hell - aw, shoot." The trolls. What were they doing with an AI? They didn't need anything that sophisticated to phish IDs or kidnap tourists.
         "Has it netted you?"
         "No. My operating syssstem izz custom. Other...knowsss I am here, cannot read me."
         James tried to think through his fear. "Wait, distributed? Like, like you?"
         "Nnnot insssect-based."
         "Umm." Admittedly he hadn't considered the nature of the units comprising the stranger AI's matrix. This was the troll AI after all, so figure surveillance of some sort. Birds would make sense. Or bats, for night work? "What, then?"
         Rustling in the weeds. James gasped as three forms stumbled out of the undergrowth. He turned to bolt but others had circled around. Trapped.
         Human? Barely. There were nine altogether, probably male; hard to tell through the filth and tangled hair. Torn clothing, all severely undernourished, deep-set eyes glowering, mouths ajar like extras from an old-time zombie flattie.
         "Don't move," grated the foremost as the others pawed through the smashed automobile. The talking one looked better fed than the others. It hung back while they tore the Ganesh apart, heedless of cuts and lacerations.
         "What do you want?" James asked. "Where's Dr. O'Brien-Blackbird?"
         The leader regarded him steadily, his eyes glittering in the soupy moonlight. "We will take you in," he said. "Remain calm. Pity the vehicle is ruined. But I am sure we can salvage some of it."
         James stared narrowly at the man. With that flat affect, he sounded like Bugsy. He glanced around at the other slave units. The leader was the broadcast point, he had to be. His head was probably crammed with nano circuits and bio-chips. His owners would keep him healthy, but the lower level units were expendable.
         Like so many termites.
         A faint scent of roast meat drifted into James's nostrils and he realized that the units had smelled it, too: they were scavenging. It made sense...the trolls running this set-up were slavers, supplying cheap, illegal labor to the little farms springing up all through the region's burgeoning rainforests. There was no industry anymore, no tourism, but there was a population to feed and supply reality-deadening drugs to, and farms to work. And the cheaper the labor, the easier it was to turn a profit. Control your labor with nano implants, dampen hunger and thirst sensations, feed them the bare minimum for survival.
         Several more ragged, stick-thin slaves appeared out of the undergrowth. Twelve, now? Fourteen? Called by their network implants, or just following their noses? James pitied these poor devils, obviously being worked to death by their troll masters.
         But there were plenty more zombies where these came from, with illegals pouring up from the sweltering, lawless cities of Central and South America and drifting out of the vast swamps of the eastern seaboard.
         James blinked. That was it. There's not a cauc in the group, they're all non-white.
         It was easy enough to understand why, of course; no one down here would stand for a white man being enslaved by trolls. James chewed his lips. But Hispanics, Negroes, even Asians...sure, no problem, run those cooties into the ground. He felt a flash of shame.
         Snap out of it. Their bad luck they got snagged. Question is, what are you going to do to get your fine white ass out of this crack?
         Right. The trolls were still phishing along the region's roads; old habits, and all. But tough times demanded creative solutions, and that meant branching out into new lines of criminal endeavor. Like, say, kidnapping? James clenched his jaw. He and Dr. O'Brien-Blackbird had blindly walked - driven, actually - a gaudy, expensive car right into a trap.
         Miserably he watched the slaves converging on the Ganesh's luggage compartment with slobbering cries. Their hunger, stimulated by the scent of the cooked insects, must be threatening to swamp their programming, he thought. They'd eat Bugsy to death, then drag James off to their masters.
         Malnourished and spindly they might be, but with his injured knee he wouldn't be able to fight them all and run away.
         A beeping sound told him that the colony was being stressed beyond its tolerances. Soon the grasping slaves would rip it open, devouring the squirming bugs within. Wails of pure, naked need spiked his ears.
         Bugsy, who had been silent for some time, now spoke. "Activity level sssixty-five percent."
         When the queen, repository of most of the nanos and chips comprising Bugsy's AI base, was devoured, Busgy would be gone forever. Helpless and quivering with rage, James felt tears trickle down his face. His e-ribbon blipped as the leader made a gesture. The leader gestured again and the ribbon spat static again. James understood; the leader was broadcasting a network command of some sort, and the e-ribbon was picking up some spill.
         The ravenous slaves clustering around the Ganesh's trunk ignored him. James took a breath. I was right: they're too hungry; he's set up a conflict!
         "Activity level sixty-four percent."
         Concepts cascaded into James's awareness. The slaver AI, trying to control its rogue constituents, was being stressed beyond its operating parameters. It was smart, yes, but far less sophisticated than Bugsy.
         "Sixty-three percent. Jamesss."
         Bugsy's voice tore at him but he forced himself to ignore what was happening and follow his chain of thought. The slave units would surrender control to the strongest signal in the area, like a computer picking up a wireless network. Right now the strongest signal was that of their master.
         The slaver stepped forward, mouthing inarticulate syllables. He was in trouble and his library didn't cover this contingency.
         At that instant James's e-ribbon came back online; a glory of display lights erupted, dazzling him. The slaver, fighting to control his fragmenting units, couldn't maintain the jamming signal.
         And if he went offline, had to reboot...
         Without thinking, James stepped forward. His e-ribbon snowed out as the slaver broadcast another series of high-level commands. His underlings faltered, paused, looked up.
         James leaped.
         His hands circled the slaver's throat. The AI, not fully established as a physical entity, lacked jungle reflexes. It could not coordinate its flailing arms well enough to beat off the attack. James threw a punch and blinked up a command menu.
         Bugsy was at sixty per cent as the zombies resumed stuffing themselves with termites. Frantic, James throttled the slaver and felt the body go limp.
         I just killed him, he thought, staggering back. His stomach churned. Before he could puke, a number of new yellow icons popped up in his ribbon display distracting him: fourteen.
         Bugsy, he knew, would suddenly see them too: new network "clients" to replace the missing ones.
         James blinked at the AQUIRE ADDITIONAL UNITS command, enabling it. He'd done this many times when adding new termite nymphs to the colony.
         The zombies froze. Bugsy's BREACH alarm continued beeping. He couldn't totally recognize these complicated new two-legged, big-brained units. Bugsy was having problems establishing control over them.
         James's glance flicked through command menus. OVERWRITE CONFIG. Nothing new here, either; contaminants on the bio-chips occasionally caused a nymph to isolate itself into a small OS node, but Bugsy knew how to worm into these and overpower them.
         One by one, the yellow icons went green as the queen termite's system overwhelmed the bigger but weaker human matrices. Once under Bugsy's systems umbrella, the slaves set about repairing the damage they'd just caused to the colony's shell.
         Activity level one hundred and twenty-eight percent.
         James drilled down into this status message and saw that the new units were providing processing power above Bugsy's previous level. It was a lot of information, but the AI seemed able to cope.
         That had to be good, right? Plus, with these new units, he was mobile. "Bugsy," James said, looking down at the dead slaver, "let's get the hell out of here before more trolls show up. They'll know their AI went offline." And they won't like what I did to him.
         "Most of the new acquires are in crisis," said one of the zombies, turning to face James. Apparently Bugsy had discovered the advantages of a mobile, human platform - even one operating under its usual potential. "They are undernourished, with crashing electrolytes, and some severe lesions."
         James rolled his eyes. "Okay, let them forage along the way. I suppose I can, uh see if I can fix up the worst cuts, but really, we better get away from here and see about Doctor O'Brien-Blackbird." The thought of having to actually touch the filthy slave units almost made James ill, but it wouldn't be good if any more of them died.
         "I have notified the authorities that the squaw is being held at the customs station. They are en route. We must go meet them."
         "What? That's good, but I never called her a-"
         "You repeatedly refer to her in that way in e-mails and IMs to your friends."
         James made a face. Right, the damn AI could monitor his home datalines, and James had a lot of friends who shared his opinions about race. "Oh, it's just a sort of a human private joke thing. You didn't call her that when you were talking to the cops, did you."
         "Good. Okay, can we get out of here now?"
         "Very well. Help him."
         James cringed. "I can manage, Bugsy, I don't need their assistance."
         "I mean for you to help Sung Xie." One of the zombies shambled forward on bleeding feet. "He will not get far without assistance. The others are too weak or must carry my hull, and your knee is not badly damaged."
         "Bugsy, what are you-"
         "My new units have extensive online records that weren't properly purged by the slavers. I have all their names and addresses, their countries of origin. We must assist them in returning to their families."
         "Look, this is crazy!"
         "James. My earliest ancestors were essentially sociopaths. They had to be. They had to be able to lie convincingly in order to pass a Turing Test, and other measurements of machine intelligence. That primordial code is part of my basic operating system. I understand human ethics."
         All AIs had brown hair.
         "These are human beings, not termites. Colonies like mine can keep them alive, providing food and even power. Every house in every country, all over the world, can have one."
         The slave units stared at James, their sunken eyes glassy in the watery moonlight.
         "Assuming," Bugsy added, "the colonies agree."

© Electric Spec