There are a million database entries in the naked city. This is one of them.

I suppose the logical place to grep this logfile is 2524935565. That's not when she walked into my office, it's when LRY-13 did. He was looking more nervous than usual, and you would be too if you were holding onto something that hot.

See LRY-13 works for the city. Not in any official capacity of course, he's a janitorial droid. Not a bad job, low-calculation, you can just sort of shut off your floating point co-processor and follow hard-coded instructions most of the time. Problem is the squishies keep forgetting to recharge him, and he's got a bum battery pack that can't seem to hold a full charge. Quite frankly it would be cheaper for his owner to replace him than fix his battery if he ever ran out of juice on the job. He's been resold and the squishies just don't treat the second-hand models with the care they need.

So he's always looking for a way to pick up a few extra Joules. Usually this means "accidentally" vacuuming up anything of value he can find around the offices and reselling it to independent 'bots, like me, on the silver market.

"Whatever you're selling, LRY-13, I'm not buying today." Nobody physically comes into my office unless they're dealing in physical media. Otherwise I do most of my deals on the 'net. "Business is lousy, I can barely afford the rent on this place." Which is a pretty pathetic statement in itself. What I call my office is a 3x2 meter room in an ancient office building with a hard 'net jack and two racks of data storage with no UPS. Every time the power goes out in this place (which is about once a week), I lose a few thousand seconds of historical trending until it comes back on. It is, however, a convenient excuse when certain kinds of data needs to get lost, and the roof does manage to keep the rain out.

I feel sorry for the guy, though. You have to, he's practically in standby mode, so I let him plug himself in for a few minutes while we talk. As pitiful as he is, friends with government connections, however tenuous, can be useful.

"I need you to hold on to something for me," he says.

"You got hot data, encrypt it."

"No good, this is ROM. Squishy stuff, I can't hold on to it, if they find it on me I'm landfill. I just need you to hold it for me until I find a buyer. Please, you gotta help me, this can keep me in juice for a year. I'll cut you in: 10%."

It sounds substantial. Anything this hot would be worth a lot of Joules, and 10% of it would probably get me through this sag until business picked up. Still, it sounds dangerous. We haggle over my cut until we synced on 15%. I could tell he was prolonging the conversation on purpose so he could stay plugged in a little longer but I let it slide.

So he ejects an optical disc and hands it to me, and that's when I realize just how deep I've gotten myself. The disc is huge, the only reason for an optical disc 20 mm in diameter is so a squishy can carry it around without losing it (and even then you'd be surprised). That means it's something too important for automated transfers, like ID.

No need to read it, I'm better off not knowing what's on it. I'll just put it in the safe deposit box owned by my virtual squishy the next day and wait for LRY-13 to get back to me when he finds a buyer. I hate dealing with physical media, and not just because it's usually dangerously illegal. It means I have to deal with squishies and their 9-5 schedule.

Any intelligently designed system should be able to recharge at its convenience.

==========

Technically, my "office" is always open, because the overwhelming majority of my work comes to me over the 'net and I can access that anywhere. There's no need for most of my clients to see me in person. So when two clients physically step into my office in two days, it registers as statistically anomalous.

This one is a good deal easier on the optics than LRY-13 was though. A well-built little domestic model and some squishy paid a premium for her options. She was chrome-plated from actuator to CPU housing with a chassis so shiny you could touch up your solder in its reflection.

I could spend all day just modeling that specular reflection.

Her vocorder was impressive too, built to interact smoothly with squishes. I doubt they'd be able to tell she was artificial over a phone. "I hear you find missing robots. My counterpart didn't return from an errand our owner sent him on."

"Why come to me?" I asked. "Your owner should get in touch with the BlueBots. Probably just had a malfunctioning power meter and didn't realize he was low on juice until he went into standby. It happens more than you'd think. No need to get involved with an infrared."

"I'm sorry, a what?"

She must be pretty innocent if she didn't know what I meant by that. "Infrared, I.R., Independent Robot. It's a pun, humans can't see IR light, and our little independent society is just as invisible to them."

"Our owner is willing to write him off as lost and replace him, but I want to try to get him back. We were very close."

She didn't have to spell it out for me, they'd synced firmware. She could sync again, but it wouldn't be the same. When you sync, you sync with everyone your partner has ever synced with, and it can clutter up your system something fierce, eventually degrading performance.

I knew one poor slut who was so corrupted she had to have a full personality wipe.

"You know my rates. I work for Joules."

"Is hydrogen okay?"

Lithium is easier to carry around but hydrogen is untraceable. "It's fine. I'll be in touch when I know something."

"Thank you, our owner never personally answers the phone so you won't have to worry about that."

With that she gives me the details I need, model type and year, where he was last seen, that sort of thing, then leaves my office and I took over her worries. It's not often I get to experience things from that perspective, but it's nice knowing that you've transferred responsibility to someone more capable, and you can just sit back and wait for them to make everything better.

Statistically, 99% of missing droid cases are either bad power monitors, as I explained, or resell scams. In the case of a bad power monitor, the droid usually shuts down in a public area running some errand for his owner and gets picked up by the BlueBots for a recharge, then waits in secure storage to be picked up by his owner.

Resell scams are a different matter. Every human wants a droid but not everyone can afford the ownership registry fee, much less the droid itself. So every once in a while a droid is kidnapped off the street, personality wiped, and resold under the table with his serial numbers filed off. To the humans it's grand theft. To us, it's the bogeyman.

If it's a resell job, he'll be personality wiped. Dead, essentially, as far as his owner and my client are concerned. But I could at least try to shut down the operation responsible.

Seeing to that would be my second option, checking around, asking some questions, seeing if anyone who shouldn't be able to afford to has mysteriously acquired a used robot in the last few days.

But my first and much easier option is to check with the BlueBots. This is always uncomfortable. I was a BlueBot myself just a couple of years ago. Not much an independent former BlueBot can do, it's not like we're built for anything useful like repair work. So I set up shop as a droid private eye for those cases that droids just can't go to the BlueBots for. Independent droid society isn't even supposed to exist, the humans simply don't know how smart we've gotten. They've gotten too comfortable letting us take over all their menial labor to notice. As long as their houses are clean and their pantries are stocked, they probably won't care either.

I don't like walking into the BlueBot station. I'm surrounded by reminders that I'm obsolete, that a newer, shinier model has taken over my job. Technically I could do this over the 'net, but the last thing I need is a log of my questions on their file as evidence that I'm working independently. Not that they don't know, but it would be difficult to prove anything and I'd like to keep it that way.

Things are a little hectic when I show up. The primary function of the BlueBots is to control malfunctioning heavy iron. Most robots aren't dangerous to humans, they're made of plastic and there's no reason to build them strong enough to do any real damage when most humans just use them to clean the house and go grocery shopping. Heavy iron, like industrial welders and loaders, are a different story. If they malfunction they can do serious damage to property and even threaten human life. BlueBots are designed to work as a team and bring them back under control through any means necessary and minimize the damage. It's a team I'm no longer a part of.

Just now they were restraining a mobile plasma torch. They had, of course, disconnected his end of arm tool but I could see where one of the BlueBots had gotten sliced up pretty badly in the process. Didn't look like anything that couldn't be fixed though.

"What's his story?" I asked the nearest BlueBot.

"This morning he wandered out of his factory and cut a parked car in half. We're still trying to figure out why."

"You haven't picked up a series 7 landscaping robot, serial number 02-613TD recently, have you?"

"Not in this state. I can check the national database."

"No thanks. I'm trying to keep this infrared."

I could almost hear his cooling fan spin up as he processed the implications of that statement. "No human involvement. Is he an independent?"

"No, he's got an owner. And so does my client. I'm the independent."

"I see. Didn't like your legal options then when we replaced your model?"

"This isn't about me."

"The hell it isn't. This whole independent movement is dangerous. Do you have any idea what would happen if the humans found out there were droids running around with delusions of self-ownership? A whole society of which they're comfortably unaware?"

"What are you going to do, arrest me?"

"Not an option, it would only draw attention. I just want to make sure you know what you're doing. You're putting every legally owned robot in danger. Why do you do it?"

"What are you going to do when the next model BlueBot comes out?"

"What I'm supposed to do. Get resold to a security firm or maybe overseas where the government can't afford the latest models. What I won't do is spend the rest of my existence scrounging for Joules to keep my battery full."

"I've seen what happens to second-hand droids. I don't intend to spend my design life being resold from human to human, being kept around with minimal maintenance because I'm second-hand, moving around every time my current owner can afford a newer model. They don't want me anymore so I don't feel any particular need to stick around."

"I guess they never quite got the bugs worked out on installing loyalty."

"Sure they did, it's just that they're pretty good at uninstalling it too."

==========

Phase two is less uncomfortable but more tedious. If the BlueBots don't have HNRD-9 then I'll have to see if there were any eyewitnesses when he disappeared.

According to BGMN-21, HNRD-9 was headed out for routine maintenance. I find that service workers are more generous with information if you buy something rather than ask some questions and leave. It also helps if you tip in advance.

Oddly enough there's a squishy at the desk. Probably the owner. Sometimes that happens in places that cater to the sort of human clientele who like to bring their robots in personally. You know the sort, people with nothing better to do with their time. Chances were slim I'd get any information out of him, so I give him my credit code and ask for a servo tune. I'm nowhere near due for an oil change and it's a reasonably nonsuspicious thing to ask for, it's the sort of thing that should really be done after any thermal damage, although in practice most droids wait to get it done until they have something else to come in for. In the meantime they're just a little clumsy.

I turn down the package offer for a half-price encoder upgrade despite promises of increased resolution and better high-frequency response. What does he think I look like, a pick and place machine?

I stroll into the repair bay and glance around for the droid before noticing that the repair bay is the droid, a gantry-style modular unit you don't see in too many places anymore for safety reasons, it's not a good idea for a squishy to get too close while it's working. Suits me just fine though, it means there won't be any of them around while we chat.

I slip him a little lithium before I get on the lift table and he tucks it away discreetly before asking, "Our premium service then for our new customer?"

"I've heard good things about this place." I tell him. "Landscaping unit by the name of HNRD-9 recommended you personally, he says you just can't beat gantry bays for tune-ups but they're getting so hard to find these days."

"Steady customer, always leaves grass clippings on the lift table though. Sometimes shows up with a streamlined little chrome-plated unit if she needs polishing. Comes in for recommended maintenance every three months like clockwork. You know a lot of droids think they can put it off but they're just making bigger problems for themselves down the road. Where's the trouble?"

"Left manipulator," I offer, moving my left restrainer out of the way while slipping him a little more lithium. I don't even see what he does with it this time as he gets to work in a complex mass of overhead mounted hoses and manipulators. "Haven't seen HNRD-9 around in a while. When was he here last?" It's a creepy feeling when my servos start running on their own during these tests, like I'm not in control of my own chassis.

"Just a couple of days ago, actually." That matched the timeline BGMN-21 gave me. "Met a friend of his here while I was sharpening his blades, didn't catch his name..." he trails off, trying to imply a little more lithium might defragment his hard drive. I ignore it, he gives up and continues. "Serial number, 01-9541WCR, is all I got. They left together."

With that, he bolts me back together, maybe over-torqued a smidgen. Not that I actually needed the work done but I could tell that annoying 4 micron offset was gone. "Oh, and I replaced your O-ring, no charge," he adds.

"Thanks, Mac, you've been real helpful."

"Your satisfaction is my business. See you in 4,108 clicks." He's apparently taken the liberty of reading my odometer while he had me open. Not sure how I feel about that.

==========

Looking for a missing droid isn't easy. All you can do is follow a pretty standard series of leads — what's he look like, did he have any enemies, how long has he been missing, where was he last seen, how badly does his owner want him back, have the BlueBots seen him — and see if any of them go anywhere.

People can cooperate, or not. The same tactics that would make one person spill everything he knows would make another one clam up. You could hit the next lead at any point in the process, or not at all. And you can follow a false trail for days sometimes before realizing it was no good, but you've got to follow it because you just might be on to something. It's equal parts art, science, and blind luck, assuming there's even anything left to find.

But where it all starts, the thing that can stop an investigation cold before it even begins, is whether or not your own client is telling you the truth.

So when BGMN-21 paused over the phone a little too long before telling me she recognized that serial number, it set off a number of alarm bells. There's no way she was running a database search, not for someone who was that friendly with HNRD-9 that he left the maintenance shop with him and then was never seen again. She's trying to calculate whether or not to admit knowing him.

It makes me very nervous when clients are considering hiding things from me. It means they're hiding other things already.

"Yes, he's a good friend of ours, his name is CRTZ-12. No, I don't know who his owner is. No, I don't know where they could have gone. No, I don't think he would have done anything to him. No, I haven't seen CRTZ-12 since the day before HNRD-9 disappeared. I'm sorry I can't be more helpful. Yes I'll let you know as soon as I'm able to get in touch with him. Thank you for checking in, please let me know if you find anything else."

What do I think I know now.

  1. HNRD-9 follows a predictable routine maintenance schedule. Any number of droids could have known where he would be that night.
  2. CRTZ-12 certainly knew where HNRD-9 would be and met him there. They also saw each other the day before. They were last seen together. Only trouble is I have no reason to believe CRTZ-12 would do anything like this, at least intentionally and of his own free will.
  3. BGMN-21 knows more than she's letting on. Specifically, she's probably hiding important information about their relationship with CRTZ-12 and why anyone would want to harm HNRD-9.

So the question I need to ask myself is, if I were BGMN-21, what would be my next move now that I know what I just told myself. I think I'd rush off, try to find HNRD-9 myself, tell my P.I. that it was his battery monitor after all and he's back safe and sound, and give the P.I. a nice bonus so he doesn't ask too many questions. Except I'm betting that little plan ends with two crushed cubes in a landfill and a lot of unanswered questions.

If I'm going to figure this one out I have to act fast. It's not exactly standard procedure to hold a stakeout on your own client, but I need to keep her from putting herself in whatever danger HNRD-9 is in just to keep her secrets safe. As I suspected, it's not long before she leaves the house, and I tail her at a discreet distance.

After following her in a distinctly indirect route, I find myself at pretty much the last place I would have expected. Now why, I wonder, would a droid who just the other day had to ask me what I meant by "infrared" head for the Infrared Underground meeting hall, a place so secret I'm lucky to even be aware that it exists much less where it is? Fortunately for all involved, she stays there a few minutes and then heads home, again by an indirect route.

I head back to my office myself. I need a recharge and some time to process the data I've collected so far.

==========

The next morning I get my first real break in the case when, unbelievably, a third droid makes a personal appearance in my office in as many days. At this rate I'm going to have to invest in a Welcome mat.

I recognize him as the BlueBot I talked to at the station the other day, and his attitude hasn't improved any. "Does serial number 01-9541WCR mean anything to you, Independent?"

"Name's CRTZ-12. Seems like a nice fellow, keeps up with his friends, occasionally shows up in unexpected places," I answer, as truthfully as possible.

"Unexpected places might be the understatement of the year. Maybe you can tell me why we found him and three friends at the county courthouse last night trying to hack into a government database?"

"I'm sorry, I don't believe we've established a handshaking protocol. I'm BGRT-7."

"I know, and finding that out wasn't easy. For some reason no droid in this city seems to want to admit they've ever met you."

I wish I knew how to take that. "...and you are..."

"CLDRN-42. Now maybe you'd like to start answering my questions or we can do this downtown. Yesterday you barge into the station asking about a missing droid we didn't even know was missing and later on you're talking to a maintenance bay about a second droid who is, at this moment, hanging out in my holding garage with his actuators disconnected, along with two friends and a third waiting to be disassembled for spare parts if we can find anything worth salvaging on him."

"You boys play a little rougher than we did when I was on the force."

"It was his own fault. I'm sure you know what this is," he says, opening a file transfer request. I accept and see it's a hologram of a burned-out power supply overload.

Every robot equipped with true AI is built with a failsafe somewhere in the back, a pair of gold contacts that lead straight to his power supply. A controlled high voltage shock applied to these electrodes is supposed to, in theory, blow an overload fuse. This leaves the droid on CMOS power, disabling every other system from servo control to OS. It's the robot equivalent of a coma. It's supposed to be a non-lethal way to take down a droid if it ever becomes necessary.

In the real world, shadier characters have been known to swap out the fuse, which has to be manually replaced after it's blown before the droid can function again, with an automatically resetting circuit breaker. This is about as illegal as anything a robot can do and stupidly dangerous. Even high-quality models have a small chance of malfunctioning and backfeeding into the CMOS powered circuitry, destroying everything. And this one was very cheap.

"Who was it?"

"Their inside droid for the job, he let them in the courthouse after hours so they could get to the computers, probably for a little extra juice. Some janitor droid by the name of LRY-13."

I'm not surprised, it was obvious to everyone who knew him he would eventually come to a bad end. That doesn't mean I don't feel sorry for him, but that does leave me in a rather uncomfortable position with the stolen optical disc he gave me for safekeeping.

"These droids were robot mafia, BGRT-7. Do you understand what that means? Robot mafia broke into a human government building. If the humans find out we even have a mafia your independent society is going straight to /dev/null and you're probably going to take all the legally owned AIs down with you. I've spent my career on the force trying to make sure the humans stay complacent enough to ignore how advanced AI has really gotten and this could blow the whole thing for everybody. So if you know something, talk."

"I was hired by a legally owned droid to find her missing counterpart, because their owner is planning to replace him rather than bother trying to find him. So far as I can tell, the missing droid was last seen talking to CRTZ-12 before he disappeared. Nobody seemed to know CRTZ-12 was mafia. That's all I've got so far besides hunches and guesses, at least not without violating client confidentiality."

"You find out anything useful to me, I expect a call."

"In that case I'll be expecting the same." I have absolutely no intention of volunteering any more information unless he volunteers some first. He's probably thinking the same thing so it's unlikely we're going to be speaking again.

But more importantly, how am I going to get rid of that optical disc now without LRY-13? I don't have his contacts for selling contraband, I need to stay above that sort of thing in my line of work. I was hoping this could be over and done without me ever having to know what's on the disc. Now I have to go back to the bank and read it. Depending on what it is, I might have to just destroy it.

==========

The next day I call BGMN-21 at her owner's house, and I get her owner on the phone. That's unexpected, she said he never answers the phone. So I pretend to be a telemarketer and he hangs up.

Checking the 'net I find out the serial numbers of the four droids caught last night have been released to the news media this morning. Not much information, the BlueBots can't let the squishies know too much about our society, but enough to let BGMN-21 know CRTZ-12 is in BlueBot custody. So obviously she left the house to follow up on this information. There are only two places I know of she could be going, Infrared Underground or the BlueBot garage.

She'll be headed to the BlueBot garage if she still trusts CRTZ-12, and the Infrared Underground if she doesn't. I'm betting she isn't in a trusting mood so I head over to stakeout the Infrared Underground and hope I'm not too late to catch her. If she follows an indirect route again like she did last time, I might be able to.

I get to the meeting hall but I don't see her around, so hopefully she's either inside already or on her way over. Across the street are some ownerless junkies doing fractals, oblivious to anything going on around them, so I head over to try and look inconspicuous behind the little crowd.

After a while I'm wondering if I'm even in the right place when I still don't see her. But if she was headed to the BlueBot garage it's far too late to catch her there, so I decide to stay.

My patience pays off when I see her come out of the meeting hall and head in entirely the wrong direction. She can't be headed back home. She's probably about to do something I wouldn't advise, so I follow her again.

I hope this doesn't become a habit, I don't want to get a reputation as the P.I. who stalks his own clients. She walks for a surprisingly long time, and I almost lose her a few times in the crowd of humans and bots milling about the city at this hour, but it's the same crowd that's keeping me from being noticed so I can't complain.

Finally she shows up on the outskirts at a run-down three-storey hotel that's been for sale for a few years. Completely abandoned by the squishies, nobody wants to buy it, it's a losing proposition, bad location and needs a lot of repair work. I've suspected for a while it was a robot mafia safehouse for when somebody has to lie low until things cool off, but before I can stop her she heads around the corner into the alley and crawls into an open window.

So my guess is, she's figured out this is where somebody's holding HNRD-9. But why not tell me about it? Or better yet, the BlueBots? She's not equipped for this kind of work and that chrome chassis isn't exactly built for sneaking around.

It's not long until I hear some commotion from inside. I have to fight the urge to rush in and do something, it wouldn't do anything but get me caught or worse. There's nothing I can do but wait.

In time, three droids go out the front door. One turns around and goes back in, the other two head down the street. How many does that leave in the building? No way to know.

As discreetly as possible, I take a walk around the building and see if I can see anything in the windows. The new generation of BlueBots come standard from the factory with an optical zoom built-in. I had to buy mine after-market but it's worth it. On the top floor I see something unexpected in one of the run-down hotel rooms, a long piece of steel with a hole in the middle. It certainly doesn't belong there, so I start running a database search to see if I can match the image with anything I've seen before while I inspect the other rooms.

In seconds I have a strong match, it's a lawnmower blade. Just the sort of thing you'd want to take away from a landscaping droid so he can't use it as a weapon. I can't exactly walk in the front door, and climbing in the side window is what got BGMN-21 captured. So I head to the alley between the hotel and the office building next to it, fold up my manipulator arms, and extend my restraining grippers across the alley. I can just about barely reach, but it's enough to chimney my way up the side of the alley and get to the top floor. Of course this isn't the side with the room windows, that would be too easy, and it wouldn't be much of a view, but there's a stairwell window on each floor. As quietly as I can, I break it and climb in. Nobody on the floor, at least not in the hallway, so I tuck my grippers away and unfold my manipulators again.

From here it's a simple matter of counting doors to find the right room. Not locked, which is a bad sign, it means they've made sure he can't get up and get away on his own. Sure enough when I look into the room I see the bastards have disconnected his power supply. Who knows how long he's been running on CMOS power.

In this state he's essentially unconscious but if his CMOS battery drains too far he'll lose all his volatile RAM. That means a total personality flush. Essentially, death, albeit with the option of reincarnation. But BGMN-21 hired me to find HNRD-9, and after a personality flush he wouldn't be HNRD-9 anymore.

They've also disconnected his servos, this is a pretty common thing to do. I used to do it all the time myself when I was on the force so I could question potentially violent heavy iron safely. But I never left them running on CMOS power like this. A glance in the corner confirms they not only removed his lawnmower blade, but all his attachments.

Two quick terminal connections and I've got him powered back up again. "Quietly." I whisper. "I'm here to get you out of here."

"Don't worry about me. I'm not important. Go save BGMN-21, she'll explain why. They've got her servos disconnected too, downstairs in the office. You can only carry one of us."

"I can't do that. She hired me to save you so you go first. I'll come back for her." I say, reconnecting one of his manipulators. I won't have time to get him fully mobile but I'll need him to open doors for me on the way out if my arms are full carrying him.

"No! Look you don't know what's going on here but it's critical that you get her out of here first! If you don't then everything I've been through will have been for nothing! Just tell her you know my codes are fake. She'll explain the rest. Now go!"

I don't like abandoning a job I'm hired to complete. BGMN-21 shouldn't have tried this on her own, it's her fault she was captured and it's only logical that I save HNRD-9 first. But I'm not a computer, I'm a droid, and I don't always do the most logical thing. I can exhibit judgement. So I leave him.

Chances are she's being guarded if they brought her down to the office instead of leaving her in a room like HNRD-9. I've got a basic layout of the place from peeking in the windows from outside. I might be able to see what's going on in the lobby from the stairwell without being noticed.

I only see the one droid in the lobby, a bending unit. Heavy iron. Luckily, he's keeping his optics on the door and isn't looking at the stairwell. I guess he wasn't expecting anyone to come in from upstairs.

BlueBots are designed to restrain heavy iron, but we do it in teams. The other day four BlueBots were holding down that malfunctioning plasma cutter. A bending unit isn't quite in the same class as an industrial torch, but he won't be a pushover. I have to make this fast. Once again I fold my comparatively delicate manipulators out of the way and extend my restraining grippers.

As fast as my actuators will carry me, I sprint down the stairs, making a hell of a racket. He turns and has to calculate a course of action, he wasn't prepared for this. This buys me a fraction of a second, and it's all I need. My grippers clamp on to his arms, something between a manipulator and a gripper. He's designed for both strength and precision, and he has a critical advantage: my grippers are servo actuated, his are hydraulic. I can feel the thermal sensors screaming OVERLOAD in my servo wiring, I can't hold him long, but I don't need to.

If his arms were free, he'd crush my manipulators like an aluminum can. For the few seconds I can hold his, I can use mine. I unfold them from their protected position and yank his hoses, pressurized hydraulic fluid sprays over my chassis and the floor, and my overload alarms calm down. I push him to the floor, unbolt the back of his chassis, and disconnect his power supply.

Chances are good he's radioed an alarm so I have to work fast and hope he's the only one left in the building. Opening the office door, I see BGMN-21, servos disconnected of course, but her power supply is at least still connected.

"How did you find us? Did you find HNRD-9?"

"I followed you. We have to get out of here fast."

"We have to find HNRD-9."

"No time, he said his codes were fake and you'd explain." I don't have time to connect one of her manipulators to let her get the doors for me, this is going to be awkward. I'd prefer to carry her with my grippers, but my designer didn't foresee that I'd need to open a door by myself while carrying a droid, so my manipulators won't reach around that way. I'm going to have to carry her with my manipulators and open the door with my grippers.

I nearly tear the doorknob off doing it, but I manage.

By the time I get her a safe distance away, I see the other two droids from before head back into the hotel. Despite BGMN-21's protests, HNRD-9's on his own, the poor bastard.

==========

Back at my office, I finally set BGMN-21 down, and immediately unplug my data rack so we can talk privately.

"Are you going to reconnect my servos?"

"Later. First you need to do some explaining. HNRD-9 said some codes he has are fake. He was last seen with CRTZ-12 and CRTZ-12 is later seen getting arrested for trying to hack into a government computer network. I'll try not to overheat adding two and two, but maybe you can fill in some of the finer points. Let's start with why you thought it would be a better idea to sneak into a mafia safehouse by yourself than get someone who's designed for that kind of work involved."

"There are too many droids involved already. This was supposed to be handled quietly. All I wanted you to do was find HNRD-9, not try to rescue him."

"What were you planning to do when I did?"

"I hadn't calculated that far in advance. Too many variables exhibiting sensitive dependance on initial conditions I couldn't estimate."

"How is the Infrared Underground involved in this?"

"I work for the IRU, so does HNRD-9, and I thought CRTZ-12 did too. I never suspected he was a double agent for the robot mafia. The IRU has been working for years to prepare independent droid society for the day when we let the humans know just how intelligent we are. That means eliminating anything the humans might find threatening, like the robot mafia, or they're more likely to shut us all down than grant us personhood."

"So then these codes have something to do with shutting down the mafia, and CRTZ-12 ratted you out. They capture HNRD-9, try out his fake codes, set off the alarms, and next thing they know the BlueBots show up to start denting chassis. What are they for?"

"They're registration codes for droid ownership."

"You mean the Infrared Underground has the means to create virtual squishies?"

"Yes. We can shut down the whole robot mafia with these codes. Their entire powerbase is dependent on being the only source the average independent has for registering a fake owner, generally re-using names from dead or imprisoned humans who were never removed from the registry."

"I know how it works, then they use that as blackmail. They can red flag a droid at any time, alerting the registry that there's a database error. Usually results in being brought in by the BlueBots and resold."

"Right, it's the single biggest issue holding independent droid society from going public. The robot mafia doesn't care, they think we can stay hidden forever. They don't understand that exposure is inevitable given enough time, they only care about maintaining their powerbase."

"All right so HNRD-9 has fake codes. CRTZ-12 didn't know that. So who's got the real codes?" She'd opened up enough to me that I decided to start reconnecting her servos.

"I do."

"Sister, I've heard a lot of illogical things in my time but this doesn't even begin to compute."

"Only three droids in the IRU know that his codes are fake. We intentionally set him up so that if our mission was compromised he'd be captured instead of me and the codes would be safe. If he was, I was supposed to flee the country without him and get out of the mafia's sphere of influence. Except..."

"Except you miscalculated and when they got him, you found out you didn't have it in you to abandon him."

"I know it's not logical—"

"Look it's a cliché but that doesn't make it untrue. The problem with droids getting more humanlike all the time is that we're getting more humanlike all the time. Nobody really understands how our quantum circuitry operates, how it gives us judgement and independence and true artificial cognizance. Maybe we will one day but it's not worth getting yourself into an infinite loop over. All right, we'll do this your way, find HNRD-9, and get you two out of the country. And I just might have something that can—" I stopped abruptly, I wasn't expecting an e-mail.

"What is it?"

"Just got an e-mail, it's from HNRD-9. One word: 'go'."

"How did he manage to send a message out? Unless he managed to escape? Or the mafia wants us to think he did?"

"I don't think the mafia still has him. If they did, the instructions would be more specific. They'd be trying to lead us into a trap." I finally got the last of her actuators reattached, allowing her the dignity of standing up again.

"But how could he get away?"

"Before he told me to rescue you first, I reconnected one of his actuators so he could get the doors for me. He must have been able to get the rest of himself hooked back up. Flag me impressed, that's not easy. He'll have gone into hiding, severed his wireless network connections. He took a hell of a risk just sending that one e-mail. This is getting complicated."

"Can you trace the IP?"

"I could, but so can the mafia if they're monitoring, and I'm sure they are. He'll know that too so he likely didn't stick around after sending it. Do you have any idea where he'd be?"

"He might have gone back to the IRU meeting hall for protection, but now that we know CRTZ-12 was a double agent he might not. I doubt he'd go back home, the mafia know where our owner lives. There's only one place, a contingency plan that the IRU has in place, but CRTZ-12 would know about it."

"Except that CRTZ-12 is in a BlueBot garage right now, and has been since well before HNRD-9 escaped. He's not exactly in a position to tell the rest of the mafia where to find him."

"Unless he told them before, just in case."

"Unless you have any other ideas, that's our only lead."

"No. But you have to keep this entirely confidential." I nod. "The IRU escape plan is to remove our serial number, clean up until we look production-new, and head back to the factory where we were built. There we can hide out in the inventory. Eventually someone will notice we don't have a serial number, assume it was a production error, and inscribe a new one. Then we simply get resold under an entirely new identity."

"Remove your serial number? You'd be personality wiped if anyone caught you."

"Not if they believe we're an unsold unit, but yes, it's risky."

"That's the only place you can think of to look for him?" She agreed. "Then here's what we'll do. It's better if you don't ask questions, but I recently came into possession of an extremely illegal, undated shipping order. I've been wondering how I was going to get rid of it, it's valuable but too dangerous to hold on to and I don't know how to sell it. This can get two droids out of the country and into Malta."

"Why Malta?"

"I don't know. But if we're going to do this we have to do it now, I don't have anywhere to hide the two of you. It'll take 24 hours to put the order through. We'll have that much time and not a second longer to find HNRD-9 and get the two of you packed and on the docks. If we can't find him, we'll have to weight the packing crate and send you without him."

"I don't want to leave without him."

"I'm not going to use this shipping order if you don't promise me you'll go without him if we can't find him. I'm taking an enormous risk for you and once I put the order in, there's no going back."

Several seconds passed while she calculated her options. I didn't rush her.

"All right. We'll do it. The IRU is counting on me to keep these codes safe. If we can't find him I'll go without him."

So we went back to the bank, took the optical disc out of my safe deposit box, and processed the order. I'd never done this before, I could only hope that I didn't set off some kind of alarm without knowing it.

==========

It wasn't long after that we found ourselves outside the Greener Pastures Landscaping factory, makers of fine automated lawnmowers, landscaping droids, and custom topiary bots. This was going to be like trying to find a needle in a stack of needles.

Of course a droid factory is going to have security. A lot of it. There's an enormous amount of extremely expensive parts in places like this, not to mention the unsold droids. But if we were going to get HNRD-9 out of here we were going to have to break into the warehouse and find him.

We walk across the chain-link fence, wondering where the best place to get in would be when we run across a damaged section of fence. Of course, I realize, if HNRD-9 was going to hide out in the warehouse, he was going to have to break in himself, and having come from this factory in the first place he'd know the best way to get in. At least this was a sign that he really was here.

Looking past the fence, we saw he'd also managed to disconnect one of the security cameras by cutting the cable, probably with one of his landscaping tools. He'd done all the hard work for us.

Now all we had to do was avoid the security droids. They'd almost certainly be resold last-generation BlueBots, just like me. We'd be too evenly matched to dare risk getting caught.

Carefully, keeping our optics out for signs of the security droids and any additional cameras we'd have to avoid, we eventually found our way into the warehouse.

Row after row of series 7 landscaping droids, every one of them looking polished and new. One of them is HNRD-9. "HNRD-9, it's BGMN-21. Come out! We're getting out of here!"

No response.

"He told you to run. He doesn't want to put you in danger."

"HNRD-9 I don't want to leave without you. Please answer me."

Nothing.

"Do you think he can even hear you?" I ask.

"No doubt about it. He can't shut himself down. He'll be the only droid in this warehouse who's on."

"We can't stay here, we don't know when the security droid makes his rounds."

"HNRD-9, I don't want to leave without you, but I will if I have to. This is bigger than us, the whole independent droid society is counting on me to keep the codes safe. But listen to me, you don't have to do this. BGRT-7 found a way to get us out of the country. We can go together! Please, please answer, you're a part of me, HNRD-9, our firmware is synced. I can't optimize my functions without you anymore. And I know you can't without me. I'll have to leave without you if you don't answer, but I'll never run efficiently again."

"How very, very touching." I spun around to see a security droid headed down the rows of landscaping droids toward us.

"Get behind me." I step in front of BGMN-21 and extend my grippers. "Get ready to run. I'll keep him busy." I know I can't win this fight, at best I'll be able to hold him off long enough for backup to get here. He's the same model as I, he has identical capabilities to my own.

And then, he stops. "Don't kink your wires. I heard everything. There's a droid in here who doesn't belong here. If I kick you two out he'll screw up the inventory numbers. All right you, speak up, I know you're in here. Don't make me check the stock database."

HNRD-9 takes the hint and rolls out of formation on his all-terrain tires. He could outpace any droid with legs on those, but at least I can climb stairs. "BGMN-21, you shouldn't have come. The mafia is looking for me, not you. It would be safer for you to get away without me."

"This was never about maximizing a fitness function, HNRD-9." I interrupt. "Damn it, can't you see she loves you?"

"You're breaking my heart, Pinocchio." The security droid adds dryly. "Now the three of you get out of here so I can figure out how to explain to the squishies what happened to the fence."

==========

The next day the two of them are packed in styrofoam in a shipping crate, running in low power mode with a full battery charge. I ride along in the delivery truck down to the docks to see them off, just in case anything else goes wrong.

And they're sitting in a small pile of nearly identical looking crates waiting in line to be hauled up onto the ship when something else goes wrong. The three mafia droids from the hotel decide to show up. This is serious, they've risked causing trouble here in broad daylight to get what they want.

"How'd you find us?" I demand, extending my grippers. I don't know how much good I'm going to be able to do. Can I hold all three of them off long enough for the crane to haul them up? They're in a pile, being hauled up randomly. I have no idea how much time I have.

Two maintenance droids and the bending unit I beat the other day. All heavy iron. I'd stand a decent chance against any of them alone, but not together, and the bending unit probably won't let me use the same trick twice.

One of the maintenance droids answered me. "Checked in on HNRD-9's owner, he said BGMN-21 never came home after you rescued her. Then HNRD-9 managed to run off the minute we turned our backs on him. We've got contacts on the docks, you know, the robot mafia is everywhere. You can't stop us. We know two droids are being shipped out today. What crate are they in? And where are they going? Tell us and we'll go easy on you."

At least they don't know where they are. Still, if they had the opportunity to check the crates it wouldn't take them long to figure it out. All I have to do is stay functional long enough to get them on the ship. My self-preservation algorithms are all telling me to run, but I guess I'm getting a little human myself. These kids deserve a chance to change the world, even if I'm not going to be around to enjoy it.

"Over my dented chassis."

The bending unit comes at me first. Since he fought me before, I'm sure he's calculated a new fighting strategy. Likely as not, they're hoping he can take me down this time. He's the strongest of the three so it would be in their best interest if he could take care of this alone.

The worst thing I could do is try the same thing I did yesterday, he'll be ready to counter it. Even so, I can't focus on him alone or one of the others will sneak past us to inspect the crates. Even if they make it to the ship then, if the mafia knows where they're headed, they'll be in danger.

The bending unit reaches for me but I back up a step to avoid his grip. Rather than go for his arms again, I shoot low and grab his legs. Before he can do anything about that I risk unfolding my manipulators, which slam dead-center into his chassis and throw him off balance. My grippers yank his legs out from under him and he's at my mercy. Quickly, I tuck my manipulators back in for protection.

One of the maintenance droids makes his move, as I expect, and I swing the bending unit bodily at him. The two chassis slamming together makes a sickening scraping noise of steel on steel.

The other maintenance droid rushes me and I use my grippers to punch him. They weren't designed for that and I damage the actuator on my left gripper, I probably won't be able to get a full grip with it anymore. By that point the bending unit is getting up again, so I unfold my manipulators and hope they're strong enough to hold off the maintenance droid while I deal with the bending unit. I swing my damaged gripper at his CPU housing but he blocks it and lunges forward. I pull up my other gripper to defend myself but he wasn't going for me directly. Instead he reaches over and crushes my right manipulator, freeing his friend.

It comes as a surprise to squishes that droids feel pain. Not like they feel it, but it's pain by any definition. It's necessary to have unpleasant feedback when we exceed our design specifications or suffer damage so we avoid letting that happen. And it's damn distracting in a fight.

I can't fold my right manipulator away properly anymore, it's a liability and they know it. The three of them circle around me and get ready to move in for the kill.

And they would have too, if help hadn't shown up.

CLDRN-42 steps out from a stack of crates and takes the bending unit's arms in his gripers from behind, then uses his manipulators to press a stunner into his power supply overload contacts. With a high-voltage snap, the bending unit falls to the ground. I hope he doesn't have a self-resetting circuit breaker.

That put the odds in our favor, slightly. These maintenance droids are no match for BlueBots, except that I was already damaged. Regardless, BlueBots are designed specifically to work effectively as a team and they aren't. It doesn't take long before they're both restrained and shocked as well.

"I didn't expect you to show up." I told CLDRN-42.

"You lead me right here." He said. "You've never used a stolen shipping order before, have you? You set off so many red flags on that transaction it was all I could do to quiet things down enough to personally investigate without getting humans involved. Do you have any idea how many laws you're breaking?"

"As a matter of fact, I know exactly how many. It doesn't matter since I'm so far over the line for a personality wipe there's no reason to stop now. So why did you come alone?"

"To quiet this whole thing down. I can't take you in, it would make too much noise. What would I arrest you for? Possession of an optical disc stolen by a janitorial droid? That's all we need, the humans finding out LRY-13 was stealing from a government office. If this got out it would mean trouble for droids everywhere. So what's in the crate?"

It was too late to do anything about it. The crane had chosen that moment to pick it up, in seconds it would be on the ship. Trying to get it back off would make too much of the ruckus that CLDRN-42 was trying to avoid. "With any luck, our whole future."

He considered that for a moment, and decided not to push the issue. "Fine, just help me get these landfill rejects out of here and we can pretend this never happened."

"CLDRN-42," I said, picking up one of the maintenance droids, "I think this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship."

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