The surprises kept coming.
None were as shocking as learning that Legs was a KI and Smog existed. But Mika still gasped when she realized the robot’s long, vaguely cylindrical lab resided inside a bone.
“The colonists hollowed out the femur but left before they drained the mithrol beyond the knee joint,” Legs explained. “I installed a small refining unit and then connected my equipment. It’s a closed system; I only have to leave for irregular tasks.”
“Closed system” didn’t mean just the femur, though. This was the next surprise. Legs had bored an opening into the colossal pelvis and then created additional access points everywhere it contacted other empty bones. Some of these led further into the portions of the original bark dragon skeleton; others connected to separate skeletons or standalone bones, which connected to still more.
The result was a network of tunnels that crisscrossed the boneyard, an anatomical maze made navigable by the hanzi characters Legs had inscribed at key junctions—it had been the robot’s hand that etched the You shall not pass message to signal a blocked entrance on the exterior. The KI had also marked the locations of the remaining mithrol caches; that’s what The men delved too greedily and too deep meant (counterintuitively). Robot or not, Legs had a fanciful side.
There were no lights; Legs seemed able to see in the dark. But the KI had rigged a headlamp for her. And even if he hadn’t, the connections between the bones weren’t sealed—the cracks allowed in enough natural illumination that Mika felt safe switching off the lamp everywhere but the steep inclines where Legs had engineered subtle steps and handholds.
Rocket seemed to have already memorized several of the routes.
“He appears to enjoy our walks nearly as much as Smog,” Legs noted.
Mika could only shake her head at that. The idea of a KI taking an adolescent bark dragon for daily hikes inside the remains of the little beast’s titanic ancestors was … Could this get any stranger?
Yes, apparently. The most jarring surprise was that Legs was a pacifist.
“You’re really not willing to fight the strip miners if it comes to that?” she confirmed after the supposedly killer intelligence led her through various fossilized corridors to a massive skull filled with orderly rows of crates.
“I told you—I’m an II, not a KI.”
“And killing is no longer part of your programming?”
“It’s no longer part of my principles.” The robot tapped a crate in the third row. “This should contain what you want. Don’t modify anything unless I approve the change.”
Mika considered asking how the crates had come to be in the skull—had Legs collected and organized (and labeled!) them? But again, it seemed better not to push the KI further than she had to. It was already plenty awkward being near Legs without an intervening barrier.
Although it helped to be surrounded by this much history.
“Are those books?” breathed Mika once Legs unlocked the crate.
“Journals,” the KI said. “Extremely delicate. Don’t do anything disgusting like licking your fingers before you turn the pages.”
“I’ll be careful.” She’d never handled paper outside a museum; she wished she had gloves. There were plenty of pairs back on the Mantis, but according to Legs, the strip miners were using the ship’s lab to suss out the refining process for mithrol. So there was no going back aboard.
Most of the journals were filled with scientific musings and sketches of chemical structures Mika only understood pieces of. She recognized the handwriting, however. The “Strangler” label on the vat in Legs’ lab had been penned in the same lettering.
“Did these belong to your friend?” she asked.
Mika couldn’t read anything into the robot’s tone, so she skimmed more of the journals. A passage in one of the oldest caught her eyes:
Legs wants to name the bacterium. I might let him, even though he’s pushing a Grendel reference. This organism shares some of the metal-reducing properties of anaerobic Shewanella oneidensis and Leptospirillum. Better still, the new bacterium can be embedded in the cellulose of our entlings to create a SCOBY-like culture. One of its byproducts is highly corrosive but shows immense promise as a fuel source. Less important—yet still astonishing—is the culture’s wyrm-like appearance.
“She was obviously quite brilliant,” Mika said.
Mika’s eyes went back to the crate’s label: Gal’s records. “Was her name Gal?”
“This one’s unlabeled and only partially used,” Legs said, holding up a journal in better condition than most.
Gal … Legs and Gal. What an odd combination. “Great.”
“I’m not proficient at mimicking human writing. My friend said my style was … mechanical.”
“It’s okay. I’ll do it.” When Mika had outlined her plan to the KI, she’d imagined a more elaborate deception. Creating a Virendell artifact from scratch, maybe. Or at least subtly altering key info on a datacube. Something that would really let her reverse-engineer what she’d learned in her “Artifice in Antiquities: How to Spot Fakes and Forgeries” class.
But per Legs, the Virendell colonists had made frequent use of paper—apparently one of the planet’s plants possessed “optimal” fibers, and a subculture had sprung up around minimizing screens and electronic records.
Which was fascinating, but currently tangential. “I’ll need something to write with.”
Legs pulled a fraying pouch out of the crate. “The pens have likely desiccated, but the pencils should still function.”
Another thing she’d never held outside a museum. “Perfect. Permission to tear out the pages with writing on them?”
“I’ll be careful. Or you can do it if you like.”
The KI hesitated a few beats longer, then shook its head. “You do it.”
Slowly, Mika eased the pages out of the journal. She didn’t have to pull hard—the binding seemed all but shot. “Here.”
Legs accepted the pages and gently tucked them into the crate.
Mika opened another journal and began copying over the first entry. “Woah.”
“My handwriting is different.” The fingers of her new hand wrote quickly and well, but not the same as before.
“Isn’t that the point?”
“Yes. Just … I thought I’d have to deliberately disguise my penmanship.” This was simpler but so much more disorienting. Helpful, though, and not worth freaking out about—not right this second, anyway. Mika took a breath and resumed copying, using a different pencil for each entry to simulate separate writing sessions and pressing lightly to give them a faded look.
Legs watched her for several minutes. “Why are you doing that?” the robot asked eventually.
“This is just filler. I don’t want our misdirect to stand out too much.”
Ten pages was probably enough padding, right? “Okay, can you give me the relevant details again?”
As Legs recited the coordinates for the location she’d approved earlier—an abandoned mine almost a day’s travel from the refinery—along with far more additional information than Mika needed, she did her best to translate the pertinent bits into a reasonable approximation of Gal’s syntax and style:
The latest smelting process isn’t efficient enough, but Hayate noticed a seam of a zeolite-like substance about 200 km to the northeast. He didn’t leave a marker—the dork—but it should be easy to find: he said part of the seam was exposed on the side of a valley, gleaming like a ribbon of fire. If it’s really a zeolite, we might be able to use it as a catalyst to accelerate the cracking process.
Legs waited until she’d finished writing and then tapped her rendering of the name Hayate. “That’s inaccurate. The scout who found the seam went by Ejo. And she never forgot to mark her finds with a locator beacon.”
Mika hid her smile. “That doesn’t matter. I just threw in some personal details to make this believable.”
“Zeolites were later found to have no utility for stabilizing the liquid form of mithrol or converting it into its optimal gaseous state.”
“Right, but the strip miners won’t know any of that until they start experimenting.” Mika copied over a few more entries from the second journal. When she was done, she stood and noticed they were alone in the massive skull. “Where are Rocket and Smog?”
“Wandering in the cervical vertebrae. I’ll call them back.”
Mika couldn’t quite hear the high-frequency summons Legs emitted, but she’d already seen how effective it was. As she waited for the dog and bark dragon to scamper back to them, she kept her face angled away from the front of the skull. Her headlamp was dimmed to the lowest viable setting, but she didn’t want the cavernous eye sockets glowing in a way someone might notice and wonder about.
She needn’t have worried. The next day, Desmond and the strip miners took the bait.
“I’ve got it!” one of them announced in the video feed Legs was projecting in the lab. Helpfully, the KI had added an overlay with each miner’s name. The speaker was labeled Quan, and he was waving the doctored journal. Mika didn’t recognize him—he must have been Neto’s target in the boneyard.
“Got what?” asked Wes. He’d been her target. “Some dusty reading material for the can?”
“The key to stabilizing the mithrol.” Quan opened the journal and pointed to the critical section. “Found this in a backroom in the refinery.” He sounded smug, but he’d only stumbled across the fake because Legs had analyzed the strip miner’s search patterns and planted the journal in the next location he seemed likely to ransack. “The note lines up with a mine here.” Gently, he unfolded a yellowed map (authentic, but also strategically placed by Legs).
“Let me see,” said Desmond. Mika didn’t need his name displayed in the overlay, but she didn’t ask Legs to remove it. She was too busy holding her breath.
Desmond and the strip miners all seemed to buy the ruse, though—they debated their course of action for less than ten minutes. The one snag was that Jabare, the bastard who’d stood over Kady in the clearing, wanted to stay with the miners’ ship.
“I’m finally making progress on undoing the KI’s hack,” he said.
The robot shook its head. “He’s in a rabbit hole—the fourth he’s fallen into. Odds are he won’t find the relevant code for another five point two standard days.”
Mika grinned. “So before you abetted my journal forgery, you forged code?”
“Laying false trails is protocol.”
Desmond sided with Jabare and ordered him to keep trying to make their ship operable. The rest of them began gearing up for the trek to the zeolite seam.
“I guess we’re taking the Mantis,” Mika said once Legs ended the video feed.
“A suboptimal outcome. The strip miners’ ship has a more recent manufacture date, larger solar sails, and faster processors.”
“But unless you want to help me incapacitate Jabare …”
Legs ducked its head under the nearest fume hood and made some fiddly adjustments to a discolored burette. “The Mantis should still prove viable. Its radiation shielding is more durable. And I can upgrade the processors.”
“Then let’s get ready to load.”
After Desmond, Wes, and Quan roared off on the strip miners’ two ground transports—two, when Fleet hadn’t approved one for the Mantis—Mika and Legs began gathering provisions for the older ship.
The list was extensive.
Legs had been surprisingly quick to agree to her “uncharacteristically logical” plan, and the robot seemed ready to leave Virendell. It didn’t want to travel light, though. Smog needed a certain amount of nurturing paraphernalia, including grow lights and a vitamin drip. The seed cache for raising the next line of bark dragons required similar supports. And stowing as much refined and gasified mithrol as they could fit was a no-brainer.
Legs also insisted on bringing the Strangler vat.
Mika didn’t object—from the robot’s perspective, the culture of Huornella onodrimi probably was a “research imperative.” But she didn’t help Legs move the vat. There was zero chance of her touching the thing, even with the gloves she’d rescued from the Mantis.
Normally, it wouldn’t have mattered. Most of the equipment was heavier than she could have hoped to lift before her injuries. But if she braced her new forearm against her new leg—how crazy was it that she’d been able to supplement their kinetic-energy capture by plugging them into Legs’ mithrol-powered generator?—she could shift a surprising amount of weight, enough to maneuver several other vats onto the robot’s rickety hover-dolly.
And she was generally happy to help (Strangler colony aside). There was little danger Jabare would detect their movements; Legs was still jamming external signals, and the strip miners’ ship was more than five kilometers away, camouflaged on the opposite side of the boneyard. But every time they ferried another collection of gear to the Mantis—which Legs refused to fly closer to the boneyard—they had to cross a painfully long stretch of open ground, and the vegetation wasn’t thick enough to obscure everything they were doing.
At least Legs was playing some rather delightful music.
“Is that opera?” she asked. The KI had its speakers set to low volume, but she was pretty sure she had the genre right. Kady would have known for sure.
“Correct. ‘Wer ist Gibichs Sohn?’ from Act One, Scene One of Die Götterdämmerung, Part Four of Der Ring des Nibelungen, composed by Richard Wagner. First played in Bayreuth, Germany on August 17, 1876.”
Why did that ring a bell? “Wasn’t that whole cycle a supposed precursor to J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings?”
“Some critics suggested as much, but Tolkien also might have merely drawn from the same Germanic source material. A linguistic analysis indicates the old English poem Beowulf is the more significant influence.”
“I see.” It had been years since Mika studied either work, but now that she was thinking about them … “I half-remember Tolkien making up a material called mithril. Is there a connection to—”
“This is one of my songs.” Legs upped the volume and abruptly transitioned to an instrumental beat with a funky but danceable rhythm.
Wait, one of its songs? “You made this?”
“It’s … I like it.” Not a lie; maybe this was where all that other music the robot listened to had left its mark. The track had real depth. “What’s it called?”
Okay, the name needed work, but if a DJ had played this in a club back on Saturn 10, would anyone have guessed the artist was a freaking KI? “Do you play an instrument?”
“Sometimes.” Legs nodded at the only object on the dolly in anything approaching decent shape: a rectangular case decorated with a fierce painting of a bow and arrow.
“And this is …?”
Mika barely kept herself from laughing. Maybe it was the tension, but the thought of the robot tapping away at an electronic keyboard and contorting those spindly legs to press the foot pedals was … almost as funny as the thought of Legs ending a number with a dramatic cymbal crash. “Are those drumsticks?” She pointed at the two slim rods poking out of a pouch on the side of the case.
Now she did laugh—loudly.
Legs stopped the dolly. “We have an issue.”
Oh shit, had she offended the KI?
“One of the ground transports has reentered my surveillance perimeter.”
“Undetermined. Your former crew member is the sole occupant.”
Desmond. The back of Mika’s head twinged with remembered pain. So did her heart. “Is he coming this way?”
“His trajectory suggests he’s returning to the strip miners’ ship.”
Mika forced her fists to unclench, then tried to coax the rest of her body to do the same. “We should finish loading.”
Legs paused the music while they hustled onto the Mantis. As the dolly came to rest in the cargo bay, the KI projected a new sound—Desmond whispering:
“Jabare, have you seen anyone in the boneyard?”
“Jesus,” the strip miner said in the feed. “Do you always sneak up on people like that? Why are you back?”
“There’s something off about the journal.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s a little convenient.”
Mika ran to the hold’s door and scanned for Rocket and Smog. Had she slipped up? Had some of her handwriting reverted without her realizing it?
Jabare laughed incredulously. “So you had a funny feeling and decided to waste charge doubling back to tell me about it?”
“Look,” Desmond spat, “you don’t know me, but my instincts are usually on target. Quan and Wes are aware of my concerns and pressing on with appropriate caution. You need to grab your gun and help me sweep the boneyard.”
“What I need to do is keep untangling this FUBAR hack, so—”
“Get your fucking gun.”
Mika’s hand crept toward the hold door’s control pad.
“Not yet,” Leg said. “We need to make one more trip.”
“No, we need to get airborne. Call the animals in.”
“They’re coming. We’ll lock them inside while we make the last trip.”
Mika waited to respond until Rocket and Smog had scrambled up the ramp. Then she slapped the “Close” button.
Which did nothing.
When she turned to face Legs, she found the robot raised to its full height, towering over her with limbs scissored completely open—looking more like a killer intelligence than ever. “This ship goes nowhere until we make another trip.”
Mika swallowed. “They’ll catch us.”
“Unlikely. I’ll know where they are.”
“That ground transport moves fast. If they overtake us, are you going to fight them?”
Legs just stared at her, the robot’s eyes glowing that steady, uncompromising red.
Mika threw up her hands. “What is so damn important? We already cleared out the lab.”
The KI continued gazing at her.
“Fine. Make your trip—I’m sure it’s the logical thing to do. I’ll stay here with the animals.”
“They don’t require supervision.”
“Why don’t we just fly there, then?”
“As I communicated before, we won’t be able to land close enough to justify the increased risk of being spotted and the excess use of fuel.”
Now it was her turn to stare. Why was the KI insisting she accompany it?
Instead of answering, Legs played more of Desmond’s audio: “Hurry up,” he barked, presumably at Jabare. A few seconds later, the sound of a revving ground transport engine filled the hold.
Mika swore, jogged back to the dolly, and snatched up the spare rifle she’d found charging in the locker room after their first supply run. “I guess I’ll just have to do my best Atalia impression. Let’s go.”