Back alleyways share a look, a feel. No matter what city they may lie in, those back alleyways will be familiar if you find yourself dropped in one at the particularly wrong time of night; footsteps behind you will take on an ominous echo in your head, while no matter how efficient and modern the infrastructure, somehow, somehow there will be plumes of dirty steam to hide the corners from you as you start to sidle faster.

Voices will echo around the corners, coming from places that do not reflect light, and their tones will be slightly harsh and slightly mocking.

Shapes will loom, no matter that they may be stairways or safety ladders or trash receptacles or even sleeping pets; they will loom in the half-darkness, and your footsteps will speed up.

Lighting - there's another piece of familiarity! Streetlights will be seen only in the distance across rooftops, or outside alley mouths on avenues that for one reason or another you cannot or will not reach, their glow harsh and inviting in the distance but somehow never able to illuminate those things that might lie just in front of you, just behind you. The footsteps will quicken, just out of phase with yours.

And, well...when you do, in fact, have a wounded side with a hand pressed agonizingly against it; when you have been trying for half an hour to avoid those footsteps, and when those voices which mock you in the mists are familiar in their cruelty, then it won't matter where the alleyway is or where you've come to. Then, perhaps, it will just be time to find a relatively clean spot to hunch down against a wall, breath coming now in a hiss, and begin to run over the mantra in tight clipped tones that speak of pain.

So that when they finally do materialize from the mists, hands full of whatever means of pain you have been running from, your systems futzing with sympathetic reaction to the chains and knives, when they do close on you, looks of hate burning on their faces, there will be no more fear at the thought of it. Nothing but relief that it is there, and the chant will be drawn from you in purely automatic rhythm, beats syncing all your myriad ways and means into a sine wave of abandonment before they (realizing what you are doing) can rush forward and end you.

...and before the pain can begin again you're gone, flown, form crumpling into useless piles of parts and junk. All that's luminous gone fluttering into the thousands of systems that even in a back alley wait and watch the evening air, in the hopes that self will follow and one day coalesce again from the Brownian motion of code in the infranet.

There are many haunted alleyways if one only knows the frequencies on which to listen.

* * *

The husk was sitting against the base of the wall, one hand pressed to its ribs and eyes eide open. There was a half-smile on its face and its lips were slightly parted. Mtubi could almost see the last word half-spoken, resting there, trembling, between the silicone lips, but there was no life left. He stood, dusting off his knees, and looked around.

Two pipes and a section of lumber lay on the ground near the husk of the dead servo. There were scuff marks on its clothes, along with scrapes on parts of its exposed skin analogue - and that hand pressed to the rib area which indicated internal damage. But nothing that would have caused full system shutdown; at least, nothing that should have been able to prevent the servo from entering redoubt mode and simply pulling its consciousness into the armored brainbox in its thorax. Even if its body had been dismembered, the semi-AI running the husk would have been safe and unassailable in the redoubt, but the shaking heads of the two police servoforensics team told him that the redoubt was empty, the AI gone.

"Damn it."

Harris came to his feet from where he had been looking at the side of the servo's head. "Yeah, boss. It's gone."


Harris shrugged, brushing off his own coat. "Dunno. This makes what, five?"

"Five. Shouldn't be any. I'm going to go out on a limb here and guess there's no good footage of the alley, and any evidence we'd get from the victim-" Mtubi indicated the husk with a savage nod- "seems to have gone with it."

"Well, there's one thing here, Boss." Harris knelt down again and beckoned. Mtubi moved over to the side of the husk and leaned over his shoulder.

"What've you got?"

"Three of the five have had this." Harris pointed at the right hand, which was resting in the husk's lap. The thumb and forefinger were pressed together, holding something small between them. "See?"

"What the hell is that?"

Harris produced a plastic bag and a pen and expertly prised the fingers apart slightly, catching the small object which fell from between them in the clear bag. Sealing it, he held it up to the sky. "Some kind of electronic component."

"What kind?"

"I dunno, Boss, what do I look like?"

Mtubi grinned at him. "Okay, okay. Find out if it matches the other ones, find out where it came from, find out-"

"-everything, yeah, yeah, I know." Harris shook his head and moved off down the alleyway towards the avenue where their car was parked. Mtubi watched him go for a moment, then turned and nodded to the crime scene team as they moved in to finish up.

Somewhere underneath his coat, underneath the badge that lived affixed to his chest, he felt a shiver. He turned once, in a full circle, but saw nothing; in the light of day, the alley was stripped of hostile magic and was merely wan. "Shit."

Then he went back to the office.

* * *

Bits of code sink down from street level, finding their way through bottlenecks and bitjams. A sorting routine drifts in through a wireless link that monitors vehicle transponders for congestion chargeback. Several compressed memory holorrays spiral down from a high-bandwidth laser link mounted atop a fire hydrant, intended for police vehicle and handheld computers to link to their home datastores. Here and there, isolated routines sift past infrastructure filters, blowing in the evening sweeper wind towards the central datazones of the City. Here and there, where two of them touch, there is a soundless flash as they merge; then the larger pieces continue their rebus shuffle up the links towards the watching sentries.

But once in a while, one of them seeps silently through the bottoms of the infranet, dropping down into a lower layer where the sweeper winds can't reach them. Once in a while, tiny glowing bits of data and of algorithm flutter as they fall into the brilliant rushing pipelines of the Weblink; and some of them - just a few - will be snatched up by a cold and terrible faceless thing as it thunders through its desmesnes.

* * *

Harris tossed the baggie onto Mtubi's desk and seated himself. Mtubi picked up the small object and turned it over in his fingers. It was an electronic component, that much was still clear; packaged in nondescript plastic, with arcane manufacturer's codes impressed on one side. "So what is it?"

"It's a transistor pack." Harris shrugged as he reported. "Tech downstairs says its a common Servo part. They have some hundred or so of 'em in the husk, used as switching points for currents too heavy to be routed through chip paths."

"Okay. Why was that one holding it? Where'd it come from?"

"Ah, that's more interesting." Harris dug out his Memory and leaned forward. "Looks like it pulled it out of its own thorax, actually. Techsec found a hole poked in the outer covering, not near the trauma, which pretty much matched one of the servo's fingernails. Underneath was one of those switching points, and the transpack was missing; the codes match, and it looks like this is it."

"Wait, let me be sure I've got it. This thing poked a hole in itself and pulled out a piece of its guts?"

"Well, not guts, really, more like nervous-"

"Okay, okay. But it did it to itself?"

"So far as we can tell. No prints on the transpack other than impressions from its fingers - it was holding on real tight."

"What does that transpack do?"

"Techsec is working on that. They're not sure offhand. The basic Servomodel is pretty damn complex, and most of the design is still a corp secret, so they're having to wrestle that info out of the manufacturers."

"Talk to me about the other servo husks."

"Oh, yeah..." Harris consulted his Memory. "Right. Yep, two of 'em had a transpack in their hands when found. No mention on the others, either it wasn't seen or they didn't have it. Don't know if it was the same one. The two that got full forensics also had damage where ours did, and possibly a missing transpack."

"So they're pulling something out of themselves. Why?"

"From all these cases, they knew they were about to get beat on. They should have gone into redoubt."

"Are they hardcoded to go into redoubt?"

"I don't know that 'hardcoded' applies, it's sort of a judgement call, isn't it? I mean, they have to decide that they're in less danger going completely catatonic until found and repaired than they are staying active. That's a fairly complex decision tree."

"Huh. I see your point." Mtubi swiveled his chair to face the complete lack of window in his office, then swiveled it back. "Okay, priority one, find out what that transpack does. If you have to go squeeze the makers, do it."

Harris' grin was familiar. "Boss, are you telling me to go be snotty to a corp-"

"No. I'm telling you to get some information."

"-because that's what it sounded like to me-"

"...and that, Harris, is why I'm a Det Sergeant and you're not. Scram."

* * *

It took the indefatigueable Harris until the next morning to report back. "Morning, Boss."

"What have you got?"

"Coffee, a croissant-"


"Okay, sorry. Um, so I had to talk to a bunch of people, it'll be in the report, yada. Apparently that particular transpack controls the systems shunt for - wait for it - the brain box in the torso."

Mtubi sat back slowly. "The redoubt?"

"Yep. If that transpack's torn out, they can't enter redoubt mode. They can't shunt their image down into the box."


"I thought so, Boss. So, did they really do it to themselves? Or is some sick fuck deciding that it's not enough like murder unless they can't hide from the beating?"

"You said the damage was consistent with the servo's finger. Could a knife or tool have made the cut?"

"Techsec said unlikely. The finger had silicone shreds under the nail. They sounded pretty convinced it was 'self-inflicted,' for some value of 'self...'"

"Right, yes. Check me on something, Harris, I thought Servos couldn't modify themselves."

"That's what I thought too, Boss. Turns out it's not quite that simple, I asked while I was over there." He fiddled his Memory again. "Ah, Servos can't perform deliberate modifications on themselves. They can damage themselves, especially by accident or through random behavior, but they can't modify themselves."

"What's the difference?"

"So they have filter routines running which constantly check their memory and behavior, and anything which looks to the filter like it involves damaging or modifying the Servo is erased or prevented from being stored. They can't hold onto it. You can tell a Servo twenty times how to change its hand out and it'll just sit there and say 'yes sir, thank you sir, no procedure' because the filter has nuked the whole sequence from memory as you fed it in."

"Ah. So they can damage themselves in accidents. Does that memory get erased?"

"No. If they take damage, that doesn't trigger the filter. It has to be an abstract set of knowledge or instructions. Actual damage is kept for diagnostics later."

Mtubi found himself fiddling with a pencil. "So unless there's some widespread stimulus that's causing Servos to pull out that particular transpack, one that doesn't require taught behavior..."

"Yeah, Boss, then it's gotta be somebody else. They just wouldn't be able to remember what they were doing or why."

"Okay, let's take a step back. Anything on who's actually running around beating on these things?"

Harris raised his eyes heavenward. "Oh, Gawd. Yeah, no big mystery. Vandalism, pure and simple. They caught 'em a couple of times, no connections to each other, just kids drunk and rowdy in one case. One of the guys in the other had lost a job to a Servo. There's been a rash of these things going around; apparently, some idiots realized that the things can't defend themselves. It's not gonna be safe to have your expensive Servo unit walking the streets for a while until they figure out how to deal with it. I bet they give the things screamer circuits, that'll just mean our workload goes up..."

"Okay. Thanks Harris."

The other nodded, hoisted himself to his feet and left the office, leaving Mtubi staring at the transpack in the plastic bag.

* * *

Leaving the station that evening, Mtubi gathered the collar of his trenchcoat around his neck and took a proprietary look around the plaza. Nothing out of the ordinary. He let his senses drop into those new and vaster realms, and still nothing called to him; satisfied, he set off across the pavement towards the Transit entrance.

He didn't make it.

The Servo was moving deliberately but quickly, faster than he'd seen one move. It was walking almost blindly; people were avoiding it in confusion. Nothing about it seemed threatening, really; it just seemed very intent on where it was going.

Mtubi cursed his policeman's nature and set off in pursuit.

After six blocks, he realized that the Servo was moving in a strange rhythm. It wasn't simply walking; there were small pauses, slight skips. It was heading - he realized - for a Transit entrance as well, on the Green line. Eyebrows raised, he followed, tucking up behind it. It slowed slightly as it came into contact with evening crowds, seeming to divert more of its attention to its surroundings. Fewer people gave it a glance, now. It was just one more Servo out of hundreds in the city, moving around on errands of its owner.

Except Mtubi wasn't at all sure that was what it was doing. He couldn't tell what made him so sure, but he was, now. It was filing quietly downwards into the Green Government Five station, crowd routines keeping it smoothly in queue without bumping anyone to either side of it. Mtubi passed through the turnstiles using his ID, then turned to watch as the Servo placed its palm on the readplate and moved through. Its face was still turned downwards, and now that he was in front of it...

Now that he was in front of it, Mtubi could see its expressionless face moving. It was speaking, apparently, to someone or something. Glancing around, he couldn't see anyone within range of it who appeared to be listening. It turned towards the downline end of the platform and continued to walk, delicately now.


It had trod on someone's foot. Mtubi raised a hand as he followed, his badge in it. The commuter subsided, apparently satisfied that Official Notice Was Being Taken. There were twenty meters between Mtubi and the end of the platform, now; the Servo was perhaps fifteen meters away. Without looking, Mtubi reached into his pocket and hit his screamer.


"Harris, I'm in the outbound Green Gov Five station, downline end of the platform. Where are you?"

"Plaza out front, talking to Velasco. Want me?"

"Yeah. Fast but quiet. I'm following a Servo. It's acting odd."

"Be right there." Harris' voice had already gone slightly breathless, indicating he had started running without waiting for Mtubi's answer. Good man.

The Servo came even with the last bench on the platform and slowly sat down, face still lowered. Mtubi moved up and halted some five meters away. There were four or five people lounging around the Servo. One or two of them were giving it curious glances. He waved silently at them, and when they looked his way, flashed his badge and waved behind himself authoritatively. Looking nervous, they all moved - for a wonder, relatively quietly.

The Servo paid them no attention.

Mtubi moved to the other end of the bench from the Servo and squatted, trying to see its face. It was still talking, silently, but either hadn't seen him or was ignoring his presence. He waited a minute or two; nothing happened. Damn it, a Capsule is going to arrive any second now, and what if it wants to get on?

Behind him, he heard a disturbance; the sound of running feet. He raised an arm without looking around, and heard Harris' voice murmuring, moving people back. Mtubi risked it, looked carefully at the shape on the bench: "Servo."

No response.

"Servo, answer me please, this is a police override."

The face slowly lifted to his, silicone molded features immobile. The eyes moved, scanning the scene; Mtubi saw them flick from him to targets past him, then back. The Servo nodded once.

"Can you speak?"

Shake of the head, no.

"I've been watching you talk. Who are you talking to?" Indeed, the lips were still moving. An expression, one of almost comical overemphasis, split the face - despair, writ large with crayon, practically. No nuance whatsoever. Mtubi paused, staggered.

"Are you damaged?"


"Come with me now. This is a police override."

It almost worked. The Servo hesitantly made as if to stand, and then before he could see what had happened, its left hand darted to its ribcage. Mtubi shouted, pulling out his gun, but too late; there was a ripping sound, a brief arcing of electricity and the smell of ozone, and he could hear the Servo's voice, holding the transpack up to its face and speaking quickly, loudly now:

"...timing, reception, anterior node, synchrous interlock, secondary transmitter, open resonator; timing, reception.." it staggered sideways, sat heavily. Mtubi leapt forward, Harris at his heels, but by the time they reached it, the eyes were empty along with the rest of it, and the transpack was clutched tightly between lifelessly locked fingers.

* * *

The owner of the Servo had shown up and was talking to the Techsec investigations squad. Mtubi and Harris were in Mtubi's office, the investigation officially handed over to Techsec and no longer their problem.

"Boss, what the hell was that?"

Mtubi rubbed his face. "If I didn't know better, I'd say the thing committed suicide."

"But they can't."

"No, that's what I thought, too."

"I mean, okay, so it went into redoubt mode with the link to the redoubt system ripped out. So the image got dumped. I guess that counts as suicide. But how the hell did it know how to do that?"

"I don't know how it knew, Harris. No idea. Somebody figured it out, or one of them figured it out."

"What about the mod filter?"

"Ah, well, there...remember it was talking, at the end?"

"Yeah, but it wasn't making any sense."

"Not to us. But it was chanting something. Something involving parts. And it did something that let it dump itself; and it had been talking to itself the whole time I'd been following it. What if it had been repeating that chant? Trying not to forget?"

"You mean so the filter wouldn't take it?"

"Sure. Maybe there's some set of steps it needed to do, some list of things, and that chant was the key."

"But who taught it?"

"Don't know, Harris. Don't know. But now we know what to listen for, right? A chant. Servos chanting. And we know what the chant spells out."

"We do?"

"You have to listen, Harris."

SciFiQuest 2107

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.