Further adventures of Matty and the Mandroid in this follow-up story to The Clone-Wrangler’s Bride — ed, N.E. Lilly

For the last fifty miles of plodding across the rusty pebbled dunes of Mars, the Echo 3000 had dragged his limbs beneath the weight of failure. The slight, crumpled form of the girl he carried on his back weighed as nothing, but her exhaustion, her helplessness, her vulnerability dragged at him like anvils strapped to his chestbox.

Ahead of him, starlight glanced off the curved surface of one of the twelve Domed Cities of Mars. From his vantage up on the mesa overlooking the plain, Dometown IX glowed in the glittery darkness like the huge gelatinous body of a bioluminescent Earthside jellyfish. With slight adjustments to his ocular calibration he could make out the peeling planks of synthawood, the wide rutted Main Street bisecting the town, the tall false fronts of angular buildings. Gaudily painted signs nailed above entryways announced such establishments as Carbon Lil’s Cyber Saloon and Doc Janglebits: Surgeon, Barber, Cryofreezer and Clanker & Sons Drygoods (Clones Not Welcome).

His receptors crackled as the girl shifted, her spherical helmet rubbing the back of his cylindrical torso. Her voice, slurred with sleep, came across the open transmission line: “Echo, we almost there?”

The Echo 3000 shifted the angle of his appendages slightly, so the sling they formed adjusted, conforming to the girl’s movements as she snuggled closer against his back. “Yes, Matty Johnson,” he said in his flat monotone.

Faint, her voice murmured in his head as she sank back into dreaming. “Good. I’m so hungry, I could eat a ding-danged purple-cloned mule. With a cherry on top...an’ maybe some whipcream...an’ just a dollop of that maple syrup ol’ Granny Miller used to make. You know what I mean?”

The Echo 3000 returned his ocular calibration to desert travel mode and clanked lightly toward the passable incline down the mesa’s edge to their left. “Yes, Matty Johnson,” he said.

The food the clone wrangler had given them back at Dometown IV was almost gone. It had been clone rations, dry and flavorless. Only dimly could the Echo 3000 understand what that meant to the girl he carried. She’d spent the entirety of her most recent meal trying to describe to him the taste of an orange, and of her Granny Oompa’s corn fritters back home. The mandroid was well-versed in branch-lineal human ancestry recording, and while he wasn’t certain why Matilda Johnson seemed to have as many Grannies as she had offshoot digits on her appendages, he said nothing. Perhaps there were advancements in human gene modification not yet downloaded into his information systems.

He stopped before the Dome’s only entry. By his calculations, the girl’s oxygen admixture had sunk to dangerously low quality levels, barely adequate for the retention of human consciousness. He was surprised when she came awake with a startled snort and slid from his back to stand unsteadily of her own lower appendages.

Matty banged her silver-gloved fist on the glittering barrier field covering the portal. “Hello? Hello, Dometown—” she glanced at the looming IX stenciled above the entry’s synthawood lintel “—Dometown Icks? This is Matty Johnson, from Earthside Farmstead Number 31122440? My air recirculators ain’t working so good, and we—me and Echo here—we’d be awful grateful if you’d open up so’s we can come in.”

After a brief pause and a slight whirring, an image winked onto the screen beside the portal. A man, heavy-jowled, with large muttonchop sideburns, squinted at them, his teeth clamped deeply into the soggy end of an unlit cigar. “Carpetbaggers not welcome,” he said.

The Echo 3000 rolled one golden ocular orb toward the girl by his side as she drew herself up and threw back her shoulders. “Dang it all! I ain’t no flea-bit carpetbagger!”

The heavyset man leaned back in his synthawood chair. The worn brocade of his waistcoat stretched across his ample middle, bulging at the buttons and the shallow watch pockets. “No bluestockings, neither,” he said.

“Bluestocking! Why, I oughtta....”

The mandroid slipped his upper appendage into the satchel slung across his chestbox. The distinctive clink of hard credits in the envelope he withdrew caught the man’s attention and he leaned forward in his chair, as though it would bring him closer to the pair standing on the other side of the screen.

For the first time, the man looked more closely at the mandroid than at the girl. His eyes narrowed. “Credits. Well, that does change things somewhat. I suppose it’d be all right to let y’all in.”

He leaned forward suddenly, causing the girl to flinch, though his image remained flat on the two-dimensional screen. He pulled the cigar from his mouth and stabbed the air with it, punctuating his words. “But we don’t need no flesh-selling here, girl,” he said. “This is a droidtown. We don’t need no scrawny, freckled, redheaded bonebag fem stealing none of our regular flesh customers away from honest hardworking cancandroids, y’hear?”

The Echo 3000 watched the girl’s face turn from a reddish shade to one approaching purple. He wondered if her air had finally given out, if he’d failed the mission programmed into him by the girl’s father. He watched her silvery suit gauntlets curl into fists, then loose again. His audio pickups barely registered her voice as she counted under her breath from one to ten.

With relief, the mandroid watched her color fade. If anything, the girl seemed even paler than before, her freckles sharp and pronounced across the bridge of her nose. Softly, articulating one word at a time with uncharacteristic clarity, she said: “I won’t be selling my flesh, Mister. Not to nobody.”

Everything went unnaturally quiet. The man on the screen sat as though frozen. The girl at the mandroid’s side stood still as a cryochamber. The flat reddish plain behind them was motionless, the landscape empty but for the sun hanging distant and solitary in the pale sky.

Though the mandroid’s chronometer registered only a few seconds’ passing, it seemed an eon before the man in the straining waistcoat broke into a wide grin, slipping the cigar again between his exposed teeth and leaning back, his chair creaking as though for mercy beneath his weight.

“Well then,” he said, “welcome to Dometown Nine.”

The glittering barrier dropped into nothing on the red sand, and the airlock hatch swung open.

The Echo 3000 held the girl’s spherical breathing helmet tucked under one upper appendage and her long red braids in the other, keeping both clear of the spew from her mouth as she vomited behind a clonemule trough off Main Street. When she was done, she wiped her silver-clad fist across her mouth and spat a couple times into the trampled ruts of red dust.

“Sorry, Echo. You know what recirculated air does to me.”

She stood straight as she could, her small shoulders squared, her pointed silver boots planted firmly on the pebbled ground. The mandroid tucked her braids behind her ears one at a time and said, “Yes, Matty Johnson.”

She reached up and patted him on the juncture where his upper left appendage met his chestbox. “Thanks, Echo. Say: you hungry? You need you some of that oily stuff they feed you people down at the factory at Luna Colony?”

The mandroid clicked his golden ocular orbs. “No, Matty Johnson.”

The girl scratched her head. “Well, just say so if you change your mind. Looks like we might be able to wrestle up some good grub for you ’round here. There’s a bunch of your kind.” She gestured into the wide gritty avenue of Main Street, at the passing mailmandroid with his bulging satchel of letters; at a deliverymandroid clattering down the street behind his clonemule, his rear appendages supporting the cab of his truck, wheels at the ends of their telescoping lengths. “What do they call you metal folks these days in the cities? ’Tin Persons’?”

The mandroid swiveled his ocular orbs and telescoped an upper appendage to dust off the knees of the girl’s suit where she’d knelt on the ground. “No, Matty Johnson.”

“Well. Okay, then.” She reached to wrap her fingers around the end of the dusting appendage.

At the light grip of her little silver-gauntleted fingers, a small tight spot fluttered in the Echo 3000’s chestbox, right where his main cylinders fired. As she led him out into Main Street, he scheduled himself an afterhours all-systems maintenance check and reboot. He hadn’t run one since their crash on Martian soil. He’d been afraid to shut himself down before they’d reached their original goal of Dometown IV, but doubly so after they’d been turned away, unwelcome. The mere thought of leaving the girl unguarded at night on the Martian desert left him restless, uncomfortable. She was so soft, so fragile; her parts so easily broken and so difficult to replace.

“Echo, you listening? I said: do you think that’s a good idea?”

He realized with something near alarm that he’d not registered the girl’s most recent verbal datastream. She often articulated arcane human concepts and, to him, unfathomable queries and propositions, the totality of which he’d assimilated into his view of her as a unique construct of flesh and bone and organic synapses. But rarely did he completely fail to attend her articulations. “Yes Matty Johnson,” he said, hoping it was what she wanted to hear.

She wrinkled her nose and scratched at the root of one red braid. “Well. All right then. If you really think so,” she said, veering sharply to their left, tugging him behind her, clomping as much as was possible in light gravity up the wide synthetic planks of the mockwood steps.

The mandroid, having spent time on Luna Colony and on the farmsteads of Earth, was impressed by the genuine look of the synthetic products beneath them; by the realistic sag to the center of the steps, the weathered grey splintering edges, the small, star-like marks where countless spurs had gouged the planks. As he passed beneath the gaudy banner, drooping and nailed off-kilter above the door, he decoded the data printed there in binary. Droid Pair-a-Dice, it read, Fun With All Pistons Firing (clone entrance in rear alley).

The girl leading him didn’t even slow when she reached the slatted, swinging saloon doors at the top of the stairs. She thrust one palm flat to the front and marched through the entryway as the half-doors banged wide.

The mandroid tumbled after her into a chaos of smoke and noise, a riot of color.

Data overload...Data overload, blinked the warning in the upper left corner of his metal brainpan. He swiveled and clicked his ocular orbs, trying to recalibrate his assaulted systems. Slowly his sensors regained equilibrium. He filtered out the low, heavy haze hanging in the room, rising from cigars, spiraling outward from rings wreathing the brainpans of dozens of mandroid varietals reclining at scattered tables. A clatter and jangle of notes from a piandroid in one corner coalesced into a lively dance number as the Echo 3000’s aural sensors auto-switched to music mode. The jarring hues—orb-stabbing purples; pinks hotter than a tin cowshed roof; greens more poisonous than a millipede’s bite—sifted, filtered down into a readable map of waistcoats stretched across hollow cylindrical middles; of wide, curly-brimmed hats sliding off perfectly spherical brainpans; of flounces and ruffles of multicolored petticoats swinging about the lower torsos of the dozen cancandroids up on the room’s long stage.

He’d never seen so many droids assembled in one place. He supposed he must have once stood in a factory row of fellow series-members, but he’d come to consciousness in the small drab parlor of Mister and Missus Johnny Johnson, with its spindly-legged, well-polished furniture; with its oldfashioned wallpaper printed with drooping heads of massive cabbage flowers. The first action the Echo 3000 had taken upon gaining awareness was to analyze the impurities in the air: human sweat, and minute particles of cow manure, and an intriguing combination of condensed animal fats and dissembled grains and heated iron he later understood had been pancakes and butter, frying in a pan in the nearby kitchen. And Matilda Johnson: the sweet, subtle tinge of scent which always rode near her in the air, the scent the mandroid had never allowed himself to fully break down into its composite parts. Matty.

Matty seemed to have shrunk. Her eyes were enormous in her thin pale face. Her mouth hung slightly open as she looked around the narrow dancehall of the saloon. She licked her lips, gripped a little tighter the Echo 3000’s upper appendage.

The barmandroid, a hover model, whisked over the top of the counter. The faint hum from beneath his apron reverberated even through the crash of music, past the jangle of jewelry on metal, cutting through the stomp and swirl of the completely synchronized cancandroids on stage, each one turning with identical jerky motions to expose the backsides of their torso boxes, then bending at their hip joints, flipping as one their full, flouncy skirts to display the delicate lace ruffles of bloomers beneath. Painful purple, hot pink, poisonous green.

“Welcome, sir!” boomed the barmandroid above the din, wiping his two appendages on his bar apron. “Augustus P. Roach, at your service!”

The Echo 3000 swiveled both ocular orbs toward the droid and moved closer to the girl.

“Sir!” the barmandroid broadcast from the slot beneath his bristly metallic mustachio, “Would you like your clone serviced out back while you relax?” he gestured toward Matty without looking at her. “The Pair-a-Dice Saloon offers a full range of hard oils and soft greases, games of true chance, and the loveliest cancandroids this side of Dometown Prime! Everything a discerning gentlemandroid like yerself might require for gen-u-wine relaxation, recuperation, and recalibration!”

As if on cue, two cancandroids whirred up on hoverjets, air pulses sending their skirts ruffling upward in suggestive swirls. The haze of oily cigar smoke hanging about them in great cloying clouds rolled away in roiling puffs. Matty huddled even closer to the mandroid, her eyes slotted against the artificial wind, her braids streaming out behind her like red ribbons from the tail of a kite. “I’m not a clone,” she said, her unamplified human voice nearly inaudible in the smoky hall.

The music clanged louder. The cancandroids blasted their jets in synchronized rhythm, circling with hypnotic gyrations their jointed lower torsos, so unlike the Echo 3000’s own solid cylinder. Someone thrust a tumbler of hard-oil whiskey into the end of his appendage wrapped around the girl, and suddenly the lights seemed brighter, more garish, more disorienting to his fatigued ocular components.

“I’m not a clone!” Matty repeated, to no visible effect. She then yelled at the top of her lungs: “I...am...not...a...clone!”

Every mechanical being in the saloon went silent. The nearby hoverjet cancandroids fell to the floor with two simultaneous clanks. The piandroid halted its raucous key-banging mid note, and the click and drone and murmur murmur murmur of dozens of other droids ceased abruptly, as if the saloon had been struck by an electric pulse.

Matty’s braids fluttered down against her head. They swung slightly at the ends, their diminishing momentum the only lingering proof of their recent motion.

Slowly she straightened. She released her crushing grip on the mandroid’s appendage, which felt as light to his alloys as a butterfly landing. She cleared her throat, and reached with a habitual gesture to straighten the hat she’d lost in their crash landing only days before. Finding nothing atop her head, her fingers moved to slick back loose tendrils curling about her forehead in a soft red halo.

Ignoring the beady orbs of silver and obsidian and malachite trained on her from around the room, she patted the mandroid’s chestbox. She cleared her throat. “Echo,” she said, “I need to do some scouting, see if there’s anything a girl can do to earn an honest living around here. You stay. Get a little relaxation, recuperation, and...recalibration? That’s it. You get those things and I’ll come back, tell you what I find out.”

She tugged her helmet from the crook of his appendage. She gave a decisive nod, then stepped around the barmandroid and made for the door. Not a single droid moved: nothing but their ocular orbs, which swiveled to follow her like sentient marbles.

Something inside the mandroid snapped like a faulty belt. He lurched past the two grounded cancandroids and lightly whipped his telescoping appendage, a gentle lasso, barely encircling the girl’s wrist.

She turned. Her brown eyes were soft, liquid and warm like puddles of pure motor oil. She smiled at him, tugging her digits from his appendage after a slight squeeze. “I mean it, Echo. You just stay here and wait for me, okay?”

His transmitter whirred inside, but he said nothing.

“Okay, Echo?”

The mandroid drew his appendage back to standard travel length, defeated by her soft human wishes. “Yes, Matty Johnson.”

The slatted doors had not even ceased swinging behind her before the music cranked to life. The hoverjets blasted, the greasy cigar haze thickened, and the flounces and ruffles flounced and ruffled all the colors of a garish artificial rainbow.

And underneath the hum and whirr and clangity-clang clang, the mandroid heard a single word murmured, staccatoed, and binary-clicked with all the loathing mechanical hearts could muster. Over and over and over again: bonebag. Bonebag, bonebag, bonebag.

Bonebag.

Not even one standard hour had passed since Matty left, but there was definitely something wrong with the Echo 3000’s interior systems.

His chestbox pistons fired wildly, erratically. His ocular orbs canted off in opposite directions, seemingly without his conscious impulse or control. His appendages felt rubbery and feeble, his aural pathways clogged with glass shards.

And still they plied him with drink after drink; tumblers of dark viscous oil, dank, with a hint of vegetable decay. He’d been aware such substances existed but had never experienced them: substances deliberately engineered to cause disorienting effects not easily flushed from the systems.

At first he’d barely noticed. He’d paid only meager attention to his surroundings, waiting. The cancandroids lowered him into a chair at a gaming table. They’d pressed their curvaceous torsos against him, their metal hot to the touch, the scent they exuded a heady mixture of electricity and copper. The laces of their corsets crisscrossed their smooth silvery surfaces, and their skirts rustled with the ceaseless motions of their jets.

He allowed them to pull the credit envelope from his satchel and convert it to chips for the dice table. He kept one eye on the door, always; waiting, hoping for Matty’s return. Failure, failure, failure, he chided himself with a low thrum like a faulty engine. The thought spun continually through his brainpan, and the room with it. Failure.

Do you like us? The cancandroids clicked and whirred and hummed all around him, pressing their corseted surfaces against his chestbox. Do you like us do you like us do you like us?

Yes, he thought. No. Yesno. But what came out of his vocalizer box was: “So.”

They laughed, delighted, and plucked it from his vocal slot and made a game of it. So, they laughed. And spun and sang and twirled. So so so so.... So.

When the pile of chips on the table before him had dwindled to zero, the mandroid stood to go. He’d been too long away from the girl. Everything felt wrong.

“So,” he said, pushing his chair from the table. He fought the twirling in his brainpan, fearing he’d go reeling, crazed like an off-course gyroscope. “So,” he said again, and took a step toward the door.

The room tilted. The floor seemed to scurry away from him like a furry biological creature and he found himself flat on his back, ocular orbs trained on the smoke-stained ceiling. He’d never before seen droids smoke, but here they were, drawing acrid inhalations from oil-soaked cigars into their ventilation systems, expelling from the same vents. He’d also never before seen droids wear human-styled garments, though his experience in the wider universe had been limited. During the course of the evening, one of the cancandroids at the gaming table had slid his appendages into a short fringed jacket. He’d never felt half-naked before he’d been partially clothed.

Lying on his back, orbs clicking, reclicking as they tried to calculate his exact distance from the saloon’s ceiling, the mandroid thought of the Johnson kitchen, and of the smell of browning pancakes, and of the feathery softness of red braids as they glinted in gentle Earthside sunlight.

Just before he experienced total involuntary system failure, he managed to sigh a single word.

“So.”

Auto-reboot attempt #4.

Auto-reboot attempt #5.

Diagnostic running. Errors detected. Corruption detected. Corruption isolated.

Auto-reboot attempt #6.

The Echo 3000’s brainpan felt stuffed with sand and his vocalizer circuits coated in metal shavings.

For a moment he thought he suffered complete ocular malfunction, but with a small click and swivel, the large golden orbs shifted to pitch-black mode and he dimly recognized the slightly darker edges of a door frame, two chairs, the slab-like table on which he lay. The fringed garment he’d worn in the saloon had disappeared. His satchel was gone, and with it the remnants of Matty’s food and money credits.

Some of his sensory systems seemed wholly inactive: his thermal detectors, his audio capacity, his joint and appendage mechanicals—all damaged or temporarily unavailable. When he tried to read the composition of the components in the air, all he detected was smoke. Thick, cloying, greasy ash particles from oil-soaked cigars.

The room’s air pressure changed. Even past the ringing and static of his audio pickups he made out the verbal datastream of a droid in the hall, and the corresponding human response.

“An Echo 3000, boss! Good for parts. Real good for parts, though expensive for the likes of those around here. Maybe we sell it offworld? Maybe get more money from one of them pressgangs? Outer-rim ships always need conscripts.”

“Your Pinkerton programming is failing you, Augustus. No; this Echo’s too good for conscription. Too good for most anything here on Mars.”

The hoverjet hum of the Pinkerton Model 427, known to the public as barmandroid Augustus P. Roach, shifted into an obsequious whirr. “Oh no, Mister Cantrell. Nothing too good for you, boss. Nothing but the best for the oldest son of the youngest son of the richest man in the twelve Domed Cities of Mars. Oh no, sir! Oh—”

“Enough.”

“Oh yessir, sir!”

The Echo 3000 dimmed all his systems. He allowed his ocular orbs to swivel in random directions and opaqued them as though in shutdown mode. As best he could with his damaged audio pickups, he tracked the approach of the beings in the hall. The door opened. Though the Echo 3000 couldn’t actually see the bulging waistcoat, the straining buttons, the muttonchops or the sagging chins of the man who’d granted them entry at the gate, he recognized the wet slap and chomp of chewing on the end of a damp, unlit cigar.

The man rapped his knuckles against the Echo’s chestbox. “And you say this came across the desert from brother Cantrell’s place over at Dometown Four? I’m surprised he didn’t keep it. A clone wrangler can’t afford to be picky when it comes to mechanicals.”

“Yessir, Mister Cantrell; nosir.”

“And it carried the bonebag with it the entire way?”

“A genuine human fem, sir: no clone at all. It seems she arrived on-planet with a delivery for Dometown Four, but with the misunderstanding that she’d find permanent residence with your brother. He turned her away with a few credits and a satchel of clone rations.”

The large man snorted. A small fleck of sodden, oil-and saliva-soaked tobacco hit the curve of the mandroid’s chestbox with a tiny ping. “A flesh-and-blood fem at Dometown Four, the biggest clone ranch on Mars. That’s rich.”

The Pinkerton 427 tried to join in the large man’s laugher, but its efforts rang hollow and sycophantic.

“Enough!” barked the man.

The barmandroid’s tinny laughter ceased instantaneously. “Yessir. Once she’s located, shall I arrange her deportation?”

The large man took the cigar from his mouth and with the hand that held it, wrapped again on the chestbox of the prone mandroid. “Now that’s the Pinkerton model I hired! But no, Augustus. Deportation’s unnecessary. Let’s just invite her to leave Dometown Nine.”

“Yessir, sir.” The Pinkerton 427 spun on its hoverjets to leave.

Without turning, the man, one knuckle still resting on the Echo’s cylindrical torso, said, “And Augustus?”

The Pinkerton 427’s hoverjets stilled just past the doorway. “Yes, Mister Cantrell?”

“Invite her to leave...without her breathing helmet.”

There was only a slight pause. “Yes, sir, Mister Cantrell. Sir.”

His chronometer was functioning erratically. The Echo 3000 was certain that had Matty been there she would have described his time spent in near-total darkness as forever. He knew, even with his continuing malfunctions, that the elapsed time was closer to twelve standard hours.

The hours passed with an odd and excruciating slowness, not in small part because they were filled with his contemplation of his absolute, crushing failure to protect the girl. Perhaps, and his pistons fluttered slightly at the thought, she was waiting for him, trying to find him. Possibly, she was even counting on him.

He tried again to bend his lower left appendage. He tried the lower right. Nothing and nothing.

Run diagnostic again.

Run auto-repair sequence. Again.

Again.

Again.

Yes, sir; Jacob Tinker will transport your cargo to Dometown Eleven. There its parts will be disassembled and prepared for off-world auction.”

Thick smacking. The odor of wet, unlit cigar. “And the bonebag fem?”

The Pinkerton model’s jets switched to their low whine. “Not located yet, Mister Cantrell. But close. We’ve found scraps of food detritus, stolen from an outbound shipment of clone rations, and...” its voice dropped a few decibels, “...droppings.”

The Echo 3000, lying as though helpless, hoped the leap of his chest pistons wasn’t detectible to the Pinkerton model.

“A thief, eh?” said the man. “Good. No jury on Mars, be it man, clone, or droid, would convict a fella for inviting a food thief to leave. With or without her helmet.”

“No, sir. No they wouldn’t.”

“Is Tinker here?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And the mandroid’s ready for shipment?”

“Yes, sir. All operating systems shut down by the nano-whiskey from Dometown Eight.”

“Good. Box it.”

“Yes, Mr. Cantrell. Sir.”

His ocular orbs opaqued to feign shutdown, the Echo 3000 didn’t see the entry of the labor droids. But he heard their approach; heard the awkward shuffle of low-sentient creatures. With autonomy and intelligence registering scarcely above a pneumatic hammer’s, they shambled into the room, four of them, and proceeded to assemble a synthawood crate around him where he lay. Shaped like a human coffin to accommodate the wider breadth across his chestbox, the box snapped together one pre-fitted plank at a time. Even the synthawood’s scent was engineered to resemble pine. It was the first time since he’d entered Dometown IX that the mandroid remembered detecting any odor in the air other than cigar.

He practically ached to spring into action; to eject from the sheaths at the ends of his appendages the whirling blades which could slice through plastic, through flesh, through rubber, through metal. He wanted to explode from the pine-scented planks, to shatter every low-grade joint and empty brainpan of the labor droids.

Oh, how he’d wanted to smash the obsequious hoverjets of the mustachioed Pinkerton model, and though it was against his programming he didn’t think he’d have grieved if, during his rampage, a shard of Augustus P. Roach had lodged in some small fleshy bit of the man in the waistcoat. Preferably somewhere painful, and difficult to repair.

But he bided his time. Had his systems been fully functional he would have taken on an entire town of Pinkerton models. An entire army. A planetful. To save Matilda Johnson he’d have done anything. At the moment, anything meant lying low, feigning droid-death, and counting the minutes until he could slice through the side of his coffin crate. Also, presumably, he’d slice through the bottom of Jacob Tinker’s wagon and eventually, as soon as he’d found Matty, through the very shields of Dometown IX itself.

The last board of his crate snapped into place. His stabilzers accommodated for the uneven hoist of his box to the shoulder joins of the four labor droids. The Echo 3000 allowed himself to roll as if deactivated, though it bruised his pride to loll and bang about the inside of a box like a piece of mining equipment or a non-sentient motor part. He repeated to himself, in the hollows of his brainpan: I am a drill bit. I am a core sampler. I am an eggbeater. I am nothing.

The stilted, unrefined gait of the labor droids carried him, rolling and thumping, out of the building. Even from within the crate he detected the change in air pressure and the sonic alteration which indicated they were beneath the dome rather than a low synthawood ceiling. His sensors, energized by the increase in stimuli, sharpened one by one. Fine-tuning, questing past the planks of his crate, he detected the decrease in temperature which indicated Martian night; the grease and salt odors of low-grade labor droids; the molecular particles in the air of manure from gen-modified clonemules, of hover-axle grease, of human sweat.

His box hit the ground with a clumsy clunk. He listened for the sounds of droids moving away, but the night remained quiet. Labor droids were so low-grade, they made no sounds in the darkness; their systems simply weren’t sophisticated enough to require constantly moving parts.

He increased the sensitivity of his audio receivers. He heard distant clinketings of rival piandroids from various saloons lining Main Street, their clangity-clang-clang even less meaningless when taken together. He heard the soft breathing of napping clonemules, and the periodic gentle jangle of the wagon team’s harness. But still he heard no sounds of retreat from the labor droids.

He could wait no longer. With a low snick, his blades slid from the ends of his upper appendages. A deft flick, a double whiplike motion faster than human eyes could follow, and the top and sides of his synthawood crate fell away in pine-scented slivers. He sprang forward into a tight crouch, sensing the perimeters of the canvas sheathing arching overhead, covering the Conestoga-style wagon.

Four labor droids stood at the foot of the wagon like fenceposts dressed in overalls. Their smooth ovoid faces were featureless, their stubby limbs sprouting from their denim-clad torsos like nubs from a cactus.

The Echo 3000 hesitated only a moment before lashing out, gathering the droids by the neck joins—two in each whipping appendage. If he acted quickly, while the sounds of escalated nighttime revelry filled the dome as thickly as clinging cigar smoke, he might silence all four labor droids at once and for good. He couldn’t risk them triggering automated alarms, and every moment that passed was another moment Matty might be discovered and put out for permanent deactivation.

He tensed his appendages, the droids limp in his grip as rag dolls. He was about to crush all four of them together into a compacted bundle of broken circuitry and scorched denim, when—

“Stop! Echo, Don’t!”

The Echo 3000 froze.

Matty scrambled from beneath the wagon. “They’re friends, Echo. They’re helping us outta this turd-blasted town. They kept me alive, hooked up with Granpappy Tinker. Helped me find you, Echo. Friends.”

She placed a hand, tiny and pink without its silver gauntlet, on his chestbox. At her touch the Echo 3000 thought he’d melt. He felt as though all his metal surfaces and all his complex interior components would puddle into a small pool of mercury at her feet. He thought if that happened, and he knew she’d be all right, he’d be glad to reside there forever.

He slackened his grip on the neck joins of the labor droids and they toppled to the ground as one, their primitive mechanisms too crude to reestablish equilibrium. Matty stooped to assist them to their stumpy lower appendages one at a time, dusting them each off and bending to kiss each smooth ovoid top as she did. “Thank you, Ld-5272,” she said. “You’ve been real sweet, Ld-6197. You’re just the best, Ld-9813; don’t you let that no-good barmandroid tell you otherwise, y’hear? Thank you, Ld-1312. You take care of these others now, a’right? They need a good leader like you.”

The Echo 3000 recorded her verbal datastream for later analysis. For the moment, it was all he could do not to crush her to his chestbox in what would probably have been a grip detrimental to the delicate inner workings of a human girl. She waved to each labor droid as it shambled off into the noisy, smoke-laden darkness. When the last droid was gone she turned to him. She dusted off his chestbox, though he detected no particulate matter on the smooth metal, and stood on the tips of her toes to kiss the flat metal beneath his ocular orb.

“Good to see you, Echo. Real good. Now let’s get back in ol’ Granpappy Tinker’s wagon and hide ourselves under that synthetic hay like he told me to. He’ll see us through the gate. Nobody likes that cigar-chomping Mister Cantrell. Nobody.”

The mandroid felt his torso cylinder swell with relief, and with what approached gratitude to the infinite randomness of the universe. “Yes, Matty Johnson,” he said.

She stepped into the circle of his upper appendages and he lifted her gently—gently as a brush from a hen’s nesting feather, gently as a bumble bee landing on a gen-modified flower—into the back of the covered wagon. Together they nestled under the synthetic hay, the mandroid curved as best he could about the soft body of the girl, every sensor set to maximum protection levels, his sheathed blades unlocked and on alert.

A human, which the mandroid deduced from Matty’s lack of alarm was her grandsire Tinker—he scheduled himself to update his human genealogical understanding at the earliest opportunity—approached the wagon. He spoke in low soothing tones to the sleepy clonemules, the wagon dipping slightly as he swung up into the driver’s seat. Slowly the wagon rolled forward, accompanied by the soft clop-clop of modified mule hooves on the hard red clay of Dometown IX’s Main Street.

A night watchmandroid halted them at the airlock and the Echo 3000 tensed. He allowed just the tips of his blades to emerge from their metal sheaths....

But Jacob Tinker’s papers seemed to be in order. He had a delivery commission to Dometown VIII signed and stamped by the droidtown Boss himself: Mister Cantrell, the oldest son of the youngest son of the richest man on Mars.

They rolled into the airlock. The Echo 3000 heard the thrum and hum of the wagon’s atmosphere barriers activating, and felt the electrical charge in the air as the mobile shield lowered around them, covering the wagon, its driver, its mules and its occupants like a large transparent blanket of dancing sparkles. The mandroid felt the energy of the field skitter along the back of his torso cylinder. It reminded him of the feeling he’d had back at the droidtown, the moment he’d realized Matilda Johnson was alive and safe and had come for him.

It was a long time, rolling with the gentle gait of clonemules as they plodded in the dark across the desert—in some direction unknown to the mandroid; toward some unknown destination, with no certain future—before the Echo 3000 vocalized.

“So,” he said into the dark, which was redolent with the scents of sweet hay and redheaded girl. He could think of no better place to be, could imagine no higher attainment of purpose or directive. “So.”

The girl curled against his chestbox murmured sleepily, “What’d you say, Echo?”

“So.”

She lifted her head. Even in Martian darkness, under the cover of canvas and atmosphere shield, he could see her white teeth as her lips parted in a drowsy smile. “Why, Mister 3000, I think you did learn something in that stinky ol’ droidtown after all! I think you’ve done gone and expanded your—let’s be honest here—kinda limited vocabulary. So....”

She nestled back into him. After a few minutes he allowed his blades to retract all the way and lock into peace mode.

“So,” he said into the night, answered only by the soft snores of the sleeping girl. “So.”

Camille Alexa Camille Alexa is a full member of Broad Universe and writes for The Green Man Review. Her fiction is forthcoming in Ruins (Hadley-Rille books), Black Box (Brimstone Press), Sporty Spec: Games of the Fantastic (Raven Electrick Ink), and the Machine of Death anthology. Her poetry will be appearing in the March 2008 Humor issue of Star*Line.

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