I chocked it up to a small miracle that Peggy's turbine did not give out on the way. She started to lose some of her pep as the trip went uphill, but she made it to the driveway still kickin'. Damn good bike. I sometimes regret pushing her so hard.
We rolled up to the Norris estate less than an hour after leaving Hume Central, both vehicles faded by the all consuming dust despite staying on the paved road. The sun was setting, turning the land a dark orange and setting the western horizon on fire. The light got in my eyes, and I nearly ran myself off the road trying to get my goggles on one-handed.
To call Norris' home a mansion was a vast understatement. From what I could tell, the main house wasn't much bigger than your average mansion, a sprawling display of wealth built of thick red bricks. It looked incredibly out of place next to the rest of the estate, which was a gathering of different industrial looking buildings. The whole damn complex sat on a hill; you could see it from several clicks away. The buildings looked vacant; all were closed up and no one was going in or out.
There were three long buildings off to the west side of the house; tall metal structures longer than the house itself. They were painted a solid battleship gray and lined with small windows along the top. They reminded me of factory buildings or smelters, though they seemed well-maintained, not rusted and decrepit like in the industrial parks I'd seen on Earth. On the other side of the house, off to the west, were a hangar and a small landing strip, as well as a helicopter pad. I didn't see any planes, choppers, or craft of any kind, other than the limo coming to park in front of the house. Didn't know what Norris did with these buildings, and to be honest, I was curious not only about his weird home, but why he chose to live on Hume, a desert planet with a population about equal to a major city on Earth.
I pulled up behind the limo a few seconds after it stopped, in time to see Claudette heading up the walk into the house. Oswald stayed and waited for me. He sighed as I approached, head turned toward Claudette as she disappeared through the front door. The setting sun gleamed off of his squat metal frame, turning him from silvery gray to silhouette black as he stood between me and the sun.
"She's impossible sometimes," Oswald said. "I'd tell you she grew up spoiled, but she didn't. Graduated near the top of her class at Elysian University; works very hard at her job. But she's so damn temperamental." He turned to me, seeming to remember his purpose. "You must be eager to see Charles. I know he's eager to see you."
"You told him I was coming?" I said, taking my Witchhunter from its clutch and holstering it under my coat. I wasn't going to take another chance leaving it alone. The LaCroix could be replaced, but the Witchhunter was a custom model.
Oswald nodded, folding his arms behind his back. "I called him from the limousine," he confirmed. "He said he is quite excited to meet the man who saved his daughter's life."
I almost told him I more likely saved her purse rather than her life, planning to be honest rather than falsely modest, but I remembered what the first robber said before I got off the train. They were planning to take a hostage, and who would have been better than the daughter of the richest man in the system. God only knew if they were aware who she was.
Oswald ushered me up the stone walkway to the front door, which was a cherry wood monstrosity twice as tall I was. Instead of the vines or trees that decorated most doors, Norris' was carved with gears and circuit schematics. The knocker was the head of a mechanical lion, cast from chrome and about the size of my fist. Oswald's finger split open at a seam and he pushed a tiny jack into a port next to the doorknob. The lock unlatched with an echoing bump, and the door swung slowly open.
We stepped into a veritable museum of mechanical innovation. All around us were robots on marble platforms, encased in glass boxes. There seemed to be a model from every age, from the earliest industrial robotic arm, to the olive green Murphy A-1, the first military model. I saw a Wellington, one of the early domestic service models, right next to the first model powered by electrolium crystals rather than lead-acid batteries. The most decorative display was an Armstrong Terraformer, the model that went through the Split to Mars. The model had been frozen in place, planting the old fifty-star flag into fake red soil. Products all of the Norris Corporation, in one incarnation or another—no business lasts anywhere near a millennium. Roughly three hundred years of profit and progress all lined up on either side of the master's foyer. Tungsten and steel soldiers assembled to herald their emperor's return each time he stepped through the door. I almost expected them to render salute.
The door at the end of the foyer opened, revealing the outline of a tall man, head haloed with thinning red hair. As we came closer I could see a sanguine smile welcoming me, predatory eyes sizing me up. The face of a businessman: warm and open on the surface, but I knew below all that he searched for an angle. He wanted something from me; he had the means to get it. Lances and soldiers do the same things for different reasons. Soldiers do it for the honor, the pride that comes with knowing you defended your home and family, that you answered the call to arms. Lances do it because some problems can't be solved through diplomacy. People who have those types of problems pay—quite handsomely.
"I've been eager to meet you, Mr. Klamp," he greeted, extending a scarred hand to shake my own. He wasn't young, definitely beyond middle age, but he wasn't elderly, either. His red hair was thinning, but still lustrous, graying only at the temples. His face was deeply lined, but not drooping, and despite his ginger hair, nature had graced him with a deep tan. "Step right in," he said, backing through the door. "Make yourself at home." Then he spoke softly, as if thinking aloud. "We have a lot to talk about."
The room we stepped into was decorated with machines of destruction. All around me various rifles and blades were hung or encased on the wall. The first thing I set eyes on was an M1919 Browning hung above the roaring fireplace, its tripod neatly folded beneath it. The only place I had ever seen one in person was in a World War II museum back on Earth. The plaque in front of it had stated it might be the only one left in existence, and it was assembled with other rarities of the war—pieces of radioactive debris from Freiberg and Berlin, the pistol Himmler used to kill himself after taking over the Third Reich. The Browning once cut down wave after wave of Germans and Italians; Charles Norris had one above his fireplace like a ship in a bottle.
I could feel Norris standing behind me. "You wouldn't believe what it took to get my hands on that," he said. I could hear the smile in his voice. "But we can discuss memorabilia another time. Right now, I want to thank you." I turned around to face him. I could feel myself being pulled into a quagmire. Norris had something up his sleeve, and if he drew me into conversation he would know how to make a deal. Still, mama taught me to look at someone when they speak. Besides, if I hadn't been curious about what he wanted, I wouldn't have gone with the robot, would I?
"I can never repay you for what you did on that train, son," he began, slowly lowering himself into his chair. "The miners and their families knew the risks when they came here. I've made travel as safe as possible for them, and there are few as a dozen attempts at train robbery every year. In the entire twenty years since the canyon trains were built, there have been less than ten "successful" robberies, and no perpetrator has ever stepped off the train without handcuffs on." The further he went on, the less I felt I'd done anything of any importance. Still, I listened politely, thinking that if nothing else I could get my gun out of this after rejecting the offer he would inevitably make me. He could decide to hold the Vortex over my head, refuse to give it back until I took the job. If so, I'd reject the job on sheer principle and buy another gun. I had the money for a new one, sure, but I don't like to spend when I don't have to. I call it being frugal, friends call it being cheap.
"I appreciate what you did for my daughter and the people on that train. I'd like to show that appreciation. Can you show me your arm?" I knew which arm he meant and slipped off my jacket, holding up my left arm with the dented palm out. "Nasty little wound," he remarked, then reached down and pressed a button on small console beside his chair. "I think we can start by fixing you up."
Before I knew it, a tall robot had rolled up beside me. It was a surprisingly old model, its body was a perfect cylinder separated into rings, the top section bearing a single sensor. Norris instructed me to hold out my arm. When I did, the robot's sections lifted off of one another, allowing long arms to unfold. There were about a dozen thin, multi-jointed arms extending to grab my own. Three ended in the same type of tool I use to disassemble my own arm, and they were used to separate my arm into its three main segments. Several more arms appeared, and disassembled those segments into their different parts. Arms that ended in brushes cleaned my joints while another arm that ended in a spray nozzle re-lubricated them with Platt's Gold. Much better stuff than I'd be willing to buy.
"I guess Oswald told you all about me," I remarked, watching the machine work on my arm. "How long is all this going to take?"
"Mikey's average task time is about five minutes thirty three seconds. He was made specifically for disassembling and maintaining complicated machinery," Norris replied. "And yes, Oswald told me all he knew. He didn't mention you were a veteran." He nodded toward the patch sewn into the inside of my coat. Every Terran worth a damn keeps his squad patch, no matter how short his term was. If you live on Earth until the age of eighteen, you are required to spend one year in service of Earth's government, and if you were not proud enough to work for your planet, you should have left. That's the general consensus, anyway.
I held up the coat to look at it. A dark green shamrock marked in the center with two capital Bs, one overlapping the other at its bottom right corner. Behind the shamrock were two crossed sabers, blades pointed up to glorify heaven, meaning we were part of a dropship division.
"Charlie Company. Blalock's Breakers," I proudly named my company. I admired the patch, how new it looked after all these years. It was less than fifteen centimeters from where the laser hit me, but it was never even singed. "Almost three years of service in the 3rd Drop and Infiltration."
He nodded, admiring the patch. I couldn't be sure, but I thought I saw his dark eyes welling. They seemed to glisten brilliantly in the low light. Suddenly he looked much older, as if remembering his youth reminded him of how far away it was and how little time he had. I saw in him a reflection of my father's face the day I left for basic training. He smiled at me as I stepped onto the shuttle, my mother crying into his shirt. He smiled, but my old man's face was sad as I'd ever seen it.
"I keep the patch behind glass," Norris said as he rolled up the sleeve of his burgundy robe to show me a tattoo on his forearm. The image of a torch encircled by a wreath of thorny vines was inked into his skin. Wrapping around the top and bottom of the wreath were the words Azure Guardians. "I spent five years in the 1st Terran Defense Division, India Company. I helped quell the mob rebellions in Toronto, Chicago, and Philadelphia when the North American district banned slave trading. Before that we went toe-to-toe with the Northwood Families and the Sons of Perdition during their turf wars. Earned a Purple Heart in Toronto when slavers suicide bombed my unit with a bakery truck full of plastique," he chuckled, the memory somehow fond to him. I wondered if I would someday feel the same about my arm. "Craziest thing I've ever seen. The explosion threw me threw a brick wall, broke three of my ribs." He idly stroked his left side. He said, "Consider yourself lucky, son. I do. War can take a lot more than your arm."
"That's what people keep telling me," I replied, watching the robot reassemble the framework of my arm.
Norris shook his head and sighed. "Son," he said, "I know how you feel." I highly doubted he knew what it was to learn to hold a glass without crushing it into powder, how it felt to rip the knob off a door when you tried to open it. I held my tongue, though. I had gotten the same spiel from other vets—and other dumb schlemiels—countless times, most of them whole and able bodied. "I saw men burned alive, shot up, blown up in their trucks and choppers. If the war leaves you legs to walk on and enough mind to use them, your life is still worth living."
The robot finished its job in phases, resetting the waterproof seals, the grounding rod, everything back into its proper position. I worked it around to make sure everything still flowed the way it should. It did, and something was even better. I could move my fingers again; the damaged parts of my left hand had been replaced. "I s'pose I should thank you for this," I said.
"No need, son." I really do not like being called son by anyone other than my father—who calls me by first name anyway—but I hoped the less I protested, the faster I could leave. I told Norris he could call me Ezra, he agreed to. "Let's get a little better known to one another. Do you smoke?" I told him I did, but only softie tobacco. He grinned and pushed another button on the console.
From the other side of the room, what I thought was a decorative cabinet came rolling toward me. When it stopped beside my chair, it opened up to reveal a wide variety or cigars, cigarettes, cigarillos, and bags of rolling tobacco, cannabis, and soft tobacco. I took my vessel out of my coat pocket, but wondered what to do with the ash from my last smoke.
"Into the funnel," said Norris. Sure enough there was a tiny brass funnel opening into a larger compartment situated right on top of the auto-mate. I emptied the ash into it and selected a bag of softie flavored with hazelnut. I filled my vessel with it. "Light?" Norris offered, but he did not produce a lighter. When I accepted the offer, the cabinet extended a thin arm with a black wand on the end. The wand produced a small plume of flame. I was surprised, but lit nonetheless.
"I've never seen a gas lighter. Benefit of having your own planet?" I said, puffing deeply on my mouthpiece. The tobacco was much better than on the train, might have been the best I've ever had.
"Earth's been regulating carbon output since before you were born, before your grandparents were born. After the Great Rise, they started in a long line of restrictions tighter than those already in place."
The robot puttered its way over to Norris, who took a fat cigar out, cut it, and lit it. "Couldn't stop a man from smoking, could they? Not even when dozens of cities were overtaken by rising sea levels. And trust me; they're still rising, regardless of how much carbon is in the air." He chuckled to himself, taking a cigar from his moving cabinet. "But Earth has a long history of responding to catastrophe by reigning down the freedom of the people, doesn't it? That's why so many leave every year." Norris chuckled to himself. "Amazing how scientists used to worry about overpopulation. They could never have predicted the accident that propelled humanity to the stars."
The accident Norris referred to was the Evanway Split. The Split was responsible for every endeavor mankind undertook in interplanetary travel, every inhospitable planet given an atmosphere. I am embarrassed to say the science behind it is beyond me. All I can confidently say is when it is properly utilized a two year trip becomes a thirty second triviality. Of course Terrans are the most recent race to discover this technology—we are still considered novices in interplanetary politics, even several hundred years after the fact—and it was discovered entirely by accident. A bomb was dropped in the Mojave Desert, and instead of an explosion they got a mile wide doorway to Beijing, which did not go over well with the leadership of the time. Backing the Axis in the Second World War had proved a poor choice for the Chinese, and they understandably thought we were trying to snuff them out. They wanted to declare war over all the damage done. Attitudes changed once the applications were explored, and everyone played nice for a while, at least until colonization started on Mars. That gave them something new to fight over.
Norris owed his entire livelihood to that one mistake. No interplanetary travel meant no need for terrestrialization meant no demand for robots for work in zero oxygen environments. It didn't surprise me he was familiar with the history. In Norris I saw a man who knew every aspect of his trade inside and out, the history of not only robotics and autonomics, but everything that related to them.
"Living here on my own planet gives me privacy. I give the people who live here with me license to do pretty much what they please, all the drugs and drink they can afford, brothels, anything they could desire to buy. Part of that trade-off is that no one reports any of the noise I make testing new equipment." That answered one question, Norris lived on Hume because no one could lawfully come to check up on him if he was getting up to something naughty. Honestly it made me a bit jealous. The closest thing I got to that sort of solitude was being an "unofficial passenger" on cargo ships. Otherwise I am always cramped into tiny passenger shuttles with loud children and parents who refuse to take notice of them.
"Seems odd to me, sequestering yourself like this to get some solitude. You could have built a fence. What are you working on you're so worried about people finding out?" I could understand a man liking privacy, but Norris did not strike me as the type to sequester himself away for only that reason. He had to be hiding something, and God damn me, it is in my curious nature to pry when I should not. Norris merely smiled from behind his graying mustache and got up, gesturing I should come with.
"Mister Klamp, are you familiar with the ethics behind the Olympus legislations, the reasoning behind the laws differentiating androids from humans?" he said, leading me into a conference room with a large holograph console in the center. I explained my vague familiarity.
"All I really know is we can't make 'droids anymore, and androids have to limit production. I also know the restrictions on using robotic labor."
"That's the common man's explanation, yes, but many other regulations were made that day. For instance, it is now illegal to record human memory and thought patters to artificial media. All part of an effort to cement the idea that humanity is not replaceable. I wholeheartedly agree, don't you?" I told him I did, and inquired what this had to do with me.
"Ezra," he said, keying something into the holograph console, "I've developed something revolutionary. You see, while I believe mankind cannot be replaced by machines, I believe machines should be a boon to mankind. This device allows that without breaking the Olympus Treaty." Floating above the console was the three dimensional image of a human brain inside a cylindrical tank. A metal capsule appeared, unscrewed one half from the other, and placed itself on either end of the tank before locking back together with the tank safely inside. My jaw dropped a bit at what I saw next, and from the corner of my eye I could see Norris, grinning like a grandfather, watching me as if I were an astounded grandchild. Next to the capsule appeared a robot with a familiar body shape. The robots chest opens, and the capsule slipped inside.
"The only reason they didn't make this illegal is because no one thought it could be done. The indefinite support of a human brain linked to the body of a robot. Speak of the devil," Norris' grin grew wider as Oswald clomped into the room.
"You're sure it's wise to tell him, Charlie?" Oswald asked, looking at me. "He could sell us out to other companies; get us in trouble with the Interstellar Tribunal." Despite his valid point, Oswald didn't sound truly worried. Norris brushed the comment off.
"I suppose it's a bit late, but formal introductions are in order. Ezra, this is my brother-in-law and business partner, Oswald Manchester. He's been legally dead for almost three years."