In a Small Room by Barrdwing
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Training wheels

All copyrights belong to the original creators . . . but I own up to Teresa and Keefer


My voice echoed faintly off the claustrophobic walls of Nerve Center Control. I looked around the main room curiously, feeling as if I'd stepped onto some kind of movie set. Everything in here was sized to NCC's short master. Glassteel viewports looked out into the waters around Center Neptune, a very nice view if you happened to be precisely one meter tall, or didn't mind stooping. The keyboards jutted at mid-thigh, perfect for inducing back strain in a human. Not a single chair, of course: the master wasn't designed to be able to sit. Even the comscreen, although set decently high in the curving wall, had been angled to suit eyes a lot closer to the ground than mine; I was willing to bet my chances of promotion that the pickups were biased too. Unless I squatted down to robot-level, anyone who happened to call in was going to find themselves addressing my hips. Not a flattering prospect, and, supposing that that hailer was Chief Anderson--perish the thought--not one that boded well for my future at Center Neptune either.

Well, hell. The place was deserted. One other place to check. I stepped back into the lift and punched for one level up.

One long level up . . . yeah, it looked like a storage room, just what the base's schematic listed it as being. Some "personal quarters". Of course, maybe a robot liked spending its off time in a cramped little room full of old machinery. I turned a slow circle, scanning the dark hulks of silent computer banks. "Hey! Anybody in here?"

A faint hsshing was all the answer I received. I scowled. It was more than a little strange for NCC to be empty. While the Tin Can had his little eccentricities, I would have thought him too much of a worrywart to leave the systems unattended. He. I snorted. The Tin Can really beat all. Then again, all of those Quanto-Tobor productions were weird. Supposedly the unit out on Pluto was of the same stamp as ours. Two of Chief Anderson's bigger misjudgements, those robots: why he had opted to put so much of our Early Warning and Mission Monitoring programs into their funny little hands was beyond me.

"Baii! Baii-baii-baii!"

I jumped about eight inches, came down hard on one ankle, and very nearly toppled right back onto the thing which had snuck up behind me. Wincing, swearing, I faced about. "Hell and blast it, 1-Rover-1! I've got clearance!"

"Baii." The little yellow robot lowered its ridiculous head, wide muzzle fixed on me. Bug-style multilensed eyes glowed redly. I groaned and picked up the leg with the twisted ankle, rubbing the joint resentfully. It felt like somebody had doused the thing in lab alcohol, and I knew from experience that it wouldn't be long before the pain set in like a gouge. One of the many good reasons I'd been assigned to a chair-warming job up here with the Lollipop Gang.

"Rover?" called a voice from a doorway half-hidden behind a large recording unit. "Who's out there?"

"Baii baii-baii baii," 1-Rover-1 shot back, shuffling on its short legs to block me from moving forward. I glared at it and raised my own voice.

"7-Zark-7, it's just me. Teresa Sukya-ti, your new assistant . . . they sent you a memo yesterday."

"Oh! Doctor Sukya-ti, welcome, please make yourself at home. Ahem. If you'll just excuse me for a minute longer . . . Rover, stay."

What was going on in there? I folded my arms and glanced about the room again, ostensibly ignoring the open door where Rover squatted. At least the ceilings in here were human-height. Then again-- if I'd cracked my skull in that jump instead of my ankle, I might have been able to get out on a Medical. Let Eileen come up here. She liked robots.

"There! Rover, good boy." Silent on his coasters, the Tin Can appeared. I unfolded my arms and bowed politely, then tried not to giggle as the awkward metal body tilted in what was evidently the Can's idea of a bow. Pleasantries dispensed with, the Can leaned back a little to meet me eye-to-compound eye. "I hope you weren't kept waiting too long, Doctor Sukya-ti. I was . . . er, in the shower. Rover always guards the door for me." One four-digit metal hand reached out to pat Rover ringingly on the carapace; Rover leaned into its master's leg but its eyes continued to glow warningly at me. "Come to think of it," the Can continued, " I believe I forgot to inform him that you were coming, Doctor. Rover, this is our new assistant, Dr. Teresa Sukya-ti. She'll be spending lots of time up here, so I want you to be on your best behavior."

The red glow faded from the robot dog's eyes but that was the extent of its attitude change. I was trying not to grimace at the "our new assistant". And that business about the shower: what on Earth did a robot have to be prudish about? This self-programming kick of his was getting way out of hand.

"Well, now." The Can dusted his hands together, setting up a distracting clatter. "I'm sure you have already received an orientation to Nerve Center Control's systems, Doctor. Let's go down and run through it just one more time, in case you have any questions."

The rest of the day continued in a similar vein, with me hobbling around after the Tin Can nodding at everything he said and tripping over 1-Rover-1. I did pick up a lot that I needed to know . . . only because they'd thrown me into Orientation about five minutes after informing me that I'd been reassigned. In the middle of the morning, no less: hello, there you are, your skills are needed up in NCC, don't worry we'll manage without you. The Can had known about the reassignment before I had. I fumed all through the training tape, racking my brains for a way out. But now that there was no chance of Dr. Gast's reversing his decision--I'd had that proven to me last night; it had only taken about three minutes for him to make his attitude perfectly clear--the only thing left to do was to swallow my opinions and set the Can's lecture to memory as best I could. Whether I wanted to be here or not, whether I liked my new superior or not . . . whether he'd actually needed an assistant, or if this was just a convenient place to store deadwood . . . no, I couldn't take that chance. Nerve Center Control's functions were too critical to treat lightly.

"On these monitors we have the views from the cameras on board the Phoenix," the Tin Can said, waving an arm. As it happened, I did remember these from the tape. The bank of screens took up most of one end of the oval main chamber. All were dark at the moment: the Phoenix was resting quietly in its cradle far below, in the upper level of Space Center. During a mission they would show views from both inside and outside the ship, with some redundancy on the bridge. Here in NCC their images would be recorded, to be dutifully labelled and placed in storage. It had always seemed a waste of tape to me, and I asked why we bothered to save them.

"They are data," the Tin Can said in surprise. "Goodness, we couldn't just throw them away. Why, the Team often uses them for reference. They can't always get a good look at the ship they're fighting, or at what's going on around them. My records permit them to go back and learn more about the encounter afterwards."

I sealed my lips and nodded dutifully, not making any mention of the Tin Can's special additions to those tapes. A recorder ran in NCC at all times, visual and voice: 7-Zark-7 was famous for keeping up a running commentary during missions, mostly verbal dribble about how worried he was. While that was perhaps understandable, given his programming, his habit of inserting snippets of voice-over into the Master Copy--or even little video segments of himself and 1-Rover-1 potzing around the NCC--was not. I couldn't imagine how that stuff furthered the knowledge of G-force.

"Double copies are kept of each mission, for security reasons," the Can went on. He didn't even have the grace to sound a little abashed. Yes indeed two copies were kept . . . especially after that lovely incident several years ago in which some eighty or ninety of the tapes stored in Memory One had been inexplicably lost. The Can had claimed full responsibility, but his story was ridiculous. He claimed that he had been working with one of the theories regarding time travel, using Memory One to test out his model, when all of a sudden something had gone wrong and the entire program had vanished, along with some of the other files. The Can insisted that they had been sent back in time. Whether he had somehow managed to override his truth programming or simply flipped his lid was still a topic of conversation in the cafeteria.

"Now, Doctor, over here are the fuseboxes for Nerve Center Control itself." The robot gestured politely. As I sidled around his big footpads, I stumbled over 1-Rover-1 again, eliciting a curse and a nasal yelp.

"Rover!" The Tin Can placed his fists on the large swivels connecting his legs to his body. "I'm sorry, but you will simply have to stay out from underfoot. Dr. Sukya-ti did not mean to step on you."

The smaller robot cocked its head, then stuck its heavy muzzle in the air and waddled off. I glared after its flat oval rear, rubbing stubbed toes against the back of my other leg.

"I am sorry, Doctor," the Can said solicitously. "I'm sure that hurt you more than it did him. Our metal bodies are much more resistant to impact than a human's tissues."

"You got that right," I grumbled.

"Rover will learn how to behave." Now 7-Zark-7 sounded anxious. "He isn't used to having a human up here."

"Really?" I eyed him. "G-force comes up to visit you two." It was hard to keep the envy out of my voice. Most of us never saw the team our efforts supported: the ultra-ultra-secret protections surrounding them kept the contacts to a certain select group. High security clearance and all that. It'd be years before I reached that kind of level: me, one of the team's biggest fans. And here this little metal gremlin was one of those who got to talk to the team on a regular basis. Of course, there was no problem with his Security clearance.

But the Tin Can was silent for a few seconds; to my surprise his bobble-tipped antennae began to droop. Finally he sighed. "They come up when they can," he said in a jollying tone which trailed off unconvincingly. "Really, they're so busy, I can't blame them. They never stay for more than a few minutes . . . ."

I wanted to get mad at him. He sounded just like some little old granny tucked away in a rest home, moaning about how she never got any visits: I could feel sorry for the grannies of the world, but this was a robot! Everything was programmed in; he couldn't actually feel anything. Yet the Tin Can was such a screw-up, he'd been messing with his programming for so long trying to make himself more humanlike. Could he have convinced himself that he did have feelings? Because if he believed he did, then maybe the point was moot. And he looked so sad. I grimaced. Tin Can or not, I hated to remember Gam'ma Ruth.

"Yeah . . . that's right. They come up whenever they can, 7- Zark-7."

"Thank you, Doctor." The robot's antennae perked up a little. "It's kind of you to try to make me feel better. But we really shouldn't waste time. The fuseboxes." He shuffled for the wall, all business once more. I trailed after, wondering if I'd just been taken on a conversational snipe hunt.

Dinner that night was a trial of a different sort.

"Hey! Treese!"

I flinched and buried my face in a glass of ice water, feeling the bench settle slightly as Keefer plopped down at my elbow. A finger prodded me in the ribs, bringing the glass down with a splutter. I swallowed hard, feeling air go down with the liquid.

"So Treese," Keefer grinned broadly. "How's your new boss?"

I swiped at the trickle of water running off my nose. "Could be worse."

"Really?" Keefer rocked on the bench, most of his teeth on display. Did you go to a finishing school for chimpanzees? I thought irritably. "Now isn't that sweet?" Keefer went on. "Jusâ you and he, up there all alone." He batted his eyelashes.

"And the dog," I grumbled. Keefer would quite happily get worse if not given a different topic. He'd been one of the ones passed over for the post, and although I didn't think he'd wanted it in the first place, it gave him an excuse to rattle my cage.

"Oh, you like the dog?" Keefer leered.

"Get real." I stabbed a slice of carrot and waved the loaded fork around, drawing his eyes off me for a moment. "I tripped over the damn thing a dozen times today. Catches you right across the shins and wham! Down on the floor."

"How convenient. Good teamwork."

"Get real."

Keefer grabbed my wrist, stopping it long enough to snatch the carrot off the fork with his teeth. He was quick about it: one of these days, I vowed, I was going to anticipate that little habit of his and ram the fork right up his nose. Chewing noisily, he leaned against the table and stared off into space. I took advantage of the calm to dribble some water on my napkin and scour the fork clean.

"I heard the report on that mess down in Weapons Production," Keefer said at length, no trace of humor in his voice now.

"Bad?" I murmured. The one thing Keefer and I see eye-to-eye on is keeping our parts of Center Neptune running at peak. There's a lot of sweat and sleepless hours already run up every time the Phoenix blasts out of here, team and ship all ready and raring for another fight. People see the finished product zooming around blowing up Spectran ships and don't think about how much work goes into supporting G-force and the Phoenix. That includes manufacture of weaponry, my previous assignment thank you very much, and the demand on that department is extremely high. Especially with G2 and his tendency to stab or blow up everything that moves.

"Missile line," Keefer said shortly, and I swore. Great. A hitch in production of the ship's missiles meant rationing them out if we didn't get it fixed soon. Wouldn't G-force be thrilled about this.

"What's our tally right now?"

"Thirty Birds and four Spurs." Scowling, Keefer re-crossed his legs. "It's another bloody damn short circuit. They should've thought, dammit: if they'd replaced the wiring and the fittings, we wouldn't be seeing all this microscopic corrosion getting in and screwing things up!"

It was easy for him to say, I thought, pushing synth chicken around on my plate. He hadn't even been out of junior school when Zoltar had managed to sink Center Neptune, sending it to the lip of the trench with enough holes to turn it into a death trap. The one good thing those missiles had done for the Center had been to sever the waist connecting Space Center to the smaller Research Center above. Research Center had toppled into the chasm and been lost, but Space Center by some miracle had remained above. In the interests of rapid restoration, Chief Anderson (himself darn lucky to be alive) had ordered the hulk salvaged, drained, and repaired: a new Research Center and camouflage "island" had been built and welded onto the old Space Center. Of course, sea water had penetrated virtually every inch of Space Center and the electronics were doomed. Anderson had had them torn out, but he'd been in too much of a hurry to rip out the casings and brackets as well: they were more resistant to water damage, so the repair crews had settled for scrubbing the things out before installing the new wiring. Of course no cleaning could get 100% of the salt out. Funding was such these days that a full replacement of the fittings had been delayed: unless the damage was obvious, complaints such as Keefer's were put down as witch-hunting ("Show us this Îmicroscopic corrosionâ. Then we'll talk."). So . . . things failed in Space Center, now and again, and just often enough to make working down there pure hell at times.

"The problem is," Keefer expounded, snatching a sliver of chicken off my plate, "these ivory tower types just don't understand the real world. It's not some computer model or a book where none of the laws of physics ever get bent." He bit down savagely on the pirated chicken. "Laws get twisted around all the time, Treese. About the only one you can count on is Murphy's."

"So I've noticed." I moved my glass out of reach of his hand.

"Yeah, you have had more'n your fair share lately, haven't you?" Oh rat ears. Guess who shouldn't have given who an opening. Keefer's muddy-green eyes gleamed at me as he shook his head in mock sorrow. "First the lab spot goes bad, then you lose your project data, and then they get picky on your physical. Just goes to show nice gals don't always finish first."

I never expected to finish first, you jerk. Just to be given a fair chance. And I'm not feeling at all nice right now. "Thanks so much for rubbing the salt in nice and deep, Keefer. You even made a special trip over here just to give it the personal touch. Aw, you shouldn't have."

Keefer blinked and looked at me quickly. "Whew! Somebody's touchy today." I grunted and shoveled one last bite into my mouth, chewing stolidly while Keefer sat in uncomfortable and uncharacteristic silence. Finally he raised a hand.

"Look, Treese, you don't have to get mad at me about it. None of your getting reassigned was my fault."

I stood. "Reassignment I can handle. People making jokes about it is just a little too raw at the moment. It's only been six hours." And with that I left him, slamming my tray into the recycler on the way out.

The next few days dragged. Once I knew where everything was and what everything did, it was painfully obvious that 7-Zark-7 needed an assistant like the Phoenix needed a roulette wheel. I learned plenty about robot domestic affairs, there being nothing else to do but sit on the floor and watch. (A chair had been requisitioned, but for some reason was not getting delivered. I was beginning to consider snaking one from the lounge down on R-2.) One thing I had to admit about Nerve Center Control, though: it was definitely a more laid-back atmosphere than Weapons Production. Without realizing it, I had begun to enjoy the quiet. Relative quiet. The Tin Can still believed that if it moved, you engaged it in conversation.

"Doctor, I can't tell you how nice it is just to have some extra company up here," he was saying now. Seventh or eighth time; I'd lost count.

"Glad I'm accomplishing something," I sighed, shifting my weight. Sitting cross-legged for too long gives you interesting numb spots. Another one of the fascinating facts I'd never expected to learn up here.

"Oh, You're bored. I'm sorry." The Can's head section rotated nearly a full one-eighty to observe me gravely while his hands went on poking about the keyboard without missing a beat. "Really, this lull is unusual. You'll find that things pick up considerably around here the moment an Early Warning comes in." One arm rotated in a disconcerting fashion, elbow and wrist bending backwards, and the Can rubbed thoughtfully beneath his voxbox lights. "Or will Spectra be launching an Earthside attack this time? They do like to vary their approaches, you know, and the last three have all been space-borne."

"Beats me." Gods. This was starting to sound like one of his kiddie lessons. Somebody had said that the Can had gone and stuck some of those into the mission tapes as well: horrifying thought. Surely even the Tin Can would have had the good judgement to keep his wanna-be-a-teacher notions out of the official records.

Something clunked in the back room, followed by a rattling. Then 1-Rover-1 trundled through the doorway, on foot, with a large wrench in its mouth.

"Oh, dear," 7-Zark-7 murmured. "1-Rover-1, your timing is not particularly good. I'm right in the middle of adjusting the Mars satellite linkups, and you know that's not something I can just put on hold."

1-Rover-1 stopped in its tracks, planting its flat rear on the floor.

" You're willing to wait? Very well." The Can swivelled his head back around to his work. "Fifteen minutes."

1-Rover-1's eyes flickered in acknowledgement and dimmed. This was a pretty common turn of events. Out of the dozen games of Fetch the Wrench I'd witnessed so far, they'd gotten in a maximum of four consecutive throws before 7-Zark-7 would have to go check up on something. Rover would just switch itself over into Standby and wait it out, sitting there like a small yellow statue with the wrench gripped pathetically in its mouth.

Ah what the hell. "Hey, 1-Rover-1." The dog-bot's eyes brightened a fraction; I beckoned. "C'mere. I'll play."

1-Rover-1 tilted its head as if thinking it over, then lurched to its feet and headed for me.

"Why, thank you, Doctor," 7-Zark-7 said in a grateful tone, swivelling his head around again. "Please do be careful, though. That wrench is heavy enough to do damage if it hits any of the instrument panels."

Rover reached my knee and spat out the wrench. It hit the floor plates with a loud clatter, as if the dog-bot intended to underline its master's warning. I scooped it up with a small grimace. "Don't worry, I'll be careful. Any one of the boards in here is worth a lot more than I am."

"Oh, I wouldn't say that." The Tin Can turned back to his keyboard, leaving me blinking. 1-Rover-1 baii'd softly, tail thwacking against the floor. With a shrug, I sent the wrench sliding across the floor plates and Rover shuffled in pursuit.

It was something to do, after all.

Later on, I learned that robots can have speech impediments too.

"No, 1-Rover-1, that's not right," I heard the Tin Can admonish in an undertone. "Her name is Dr. Teresa Sukya-ti."

I raised my chin from my hands. "What's up?"

7-Zark-7's head pivoted quickly in my direction. "Just a little point of confusion, Doctor. 1-Rover-1seems to have an error in his language programming."

If you can call "baii baii baii" a language, I thought wryly. "So what's he saying?" I pressed. At this point I was getting desperate for conversation: if an intelligent-looking fish had swum by outside, I probably would have flagged it down.

"I hate to say it," the Tin Can muttered, "but it's your name. He keeps calling you ÎDr. Traceâ."

"Oh." I blinked. It wasn't as bad as some of the things I'd been called. I particularly hated Keefer's "Treese". This was pretty close, but . . . .

7-Zark-7 evidently misunderstood my pause. "Well, it won't do," he said stoutly, plunking his hands on his sort-of hips. "Rover, I'll have to find that error and correct it. Dr. Sukya-ti doesn't like that name."

Oh for . . . "What's it really matter? I can't understand what he says anyway--let him call me what he likes. So long as it's not obscene." I grinned, trying to make a joke of it, but 7-Zark-7's antennae shot up with a horrified sproing.

"Oh, no! Rover would never . . . he's not programmed for . . . oh, my!"

"Forget it, forget it." I cut my hands back and forth in a quelling gesture, sure that any moment now I was going to burst out laughing. "Joke, all right? Just a joke."

"I see." The Can's antennae recovered slowly. "You'll have to forgive me, Doctor. My programming is deficient in terms of humor."

"Most robots are," I shrugged. "Like I said, it doesn't bother me. At least I know Rover's not making fun of me with that name."

"Of course not." 7-Zark-7 drew himself up, blank eyes somehow managing to look severe. "We are programmed to serve."

And that was all, I realized--unlike humans, with their complex agendas and miniature personality wars. Robots served humans. It was their version of the Meaning of Life. But I wondered how much the Tin Can might have corrupted that directive in his self-reprogramming. I frowned. At one time his efforts to humanize his speech and mannerisms had been funny, like a cat trying to learn ice-skating: why would he want to? Now it seemed a risky endeavor at best. Humans carried around a lot of emotional baggage that affected every aspect of their daily lives; gave us individual personalities but chewed away at logic and rational behavior. Center Neptune needed a cool, capable head running Nerve Center Control during an attack. If the Tin Can ever lost his, would anyone realize in time?

I watched him work for a very long time.

Things finally did "pick up considerably". Unfortunately, they opted to do so at 0400.

The first I knew of it was the shattering of a weird dream by the yowl of the Yellow Alert siren above my bed. I clawed my way back to consciousness, sitting up fast and wide-eyed with the bedclothes tangled tightly around my middle, trying to shake the dregs of the dream out of my head. The flashing yellow light overhead clued me to something wrong in the real world; blinking savagely to clear sleep-haze from my eyes, I read off the message hovering on the instruction screen:

Dr. Sukya-ti, please report to Nerve Center Control. The

Early Warning System has picked up a ship heading out

from Spectra. Neat, tidy phrasing, complete sentences . . . only a robot could be polite and grammatically correct at a time like this. And only the Tin Can would care.

Ye gods. It's started. I kicked futilely at the sheets, then swung my legs over the edge of the bunk and stood, dragging everything off after me. I left it in a heap on the floor and stumbled for the closet. Clothes first. Then we find out what this job is really about.

"Ah, Doctor." 7-Zark-7's voice floated out to me as I charged out of the lift, yanking my hair out of the collar of my uniform. "Very good time, I must say."

"Thanks. You got a rubber band?" Raking the mess back from my face, I stepped into the Nerve Center . . . and tripped over the threshold.

"I'm afraid I don't," the Tin Can said, swinging to face me. "Is it important that you obtain one?"

"Nur," I managed. I'd seen the Tin Can in uniform before, on the viewscreen. Somehow it was a lot worse face-to-face.

"Good. I do apologize for disturbing your sleep. Planet Spectra, however, just isn't in orbital sync with Planet Earth. A lot of our Early Warnings come in at awkward hours." He lifted a hand in a shrug. "I never really took note of it before, since I don't need sleep."

"A definite advantage." A yawn caught me unawares. I rode it out, scowling. "Despite appearances, I will not doze off. Now what's the scoop?"

Swivelling about, 7-Zark-7 gestured towards the brightly lit quad- screen before him. "As you can see, there was a launch from the Crab Nebula fifteen minutes ago. They have since entered time warp and are probably following the course outlined here." One metal finger tapped the lower left screen.

"Hold it." I raised a hand myself. "Outlined in which language?"

"Oh!" The Tin Can looked sharply from me to where his finger rested, midway down a display of flashing checkerboard squares, alternating colors every second or so. "Why, I quite forgot. Sorry, Doctor." He began typing quickly at a small triangular keyboard set off to the side. "Your eyes simply aren't designed for colorpoint code. I prefer it; it's very efficient . . . . A pity you can't follow it. There." The two left-hand screens blanked, came up white-on-black. Text lined the top screen; the bottom showed a navigator's display with the Spectran course outlined in red. Meanwhile the right screens split to accomodate the evicted colorpoint data. The effect of all that shifting color jammed together was enough to unsettle last night's stuffed peppers. I focused on the left screens, trying to tune the others out.

Huh. Heading straight in this time? Always supposing that EWS had extrapolated correctly and our good neighbors hadn't decided to throw in a mid-jump decel and re-vectoring, Spectra looked due to hit Sol System at a 60-degree angle to the ecliptic, arrowing in on a course that would avoid every other planet and major space installation except Mars. And--I squinted at the diagram--some little speck out in the asteroid belt. I tapped it.

"What's this?"

7-Zark-7 ah'd. "That is Mining Station 83. Not much comes out of there these days, I'm afraid. There used to be a zone of asteroid gravel in that area which contained a high proportion of molybdenum. Station 83 was a fueling and refitting base for scoop drones and ore haulers."

"Not even a refinery?" 7-Zark-7 shook his head. "Huh." Spectra went after some weird stuff, but I couldn't imagine what they could use Station 83 for. Must be a coincidence. Mars, now, that had more possibilities.

"It's far more likely that Zoltar has designs on the Mars colony." 7-Zark-7 seemed to be paralleling my line of thought. A few touches at the keyboard banished the nav display and replaced it with a homolosine projection of Mars. 7-Zark-7 eyeballed it, humming softly, then zoomed in on the Junction region. "Now what is the likely purpose of this mission?" he mused to himself. "If Zoltar's purpose is terrorism, he might try to blow up the water reclamation facility . . . but it's fairly well protected. Or he might launch a surprise attack on Ares Base and remove their local defense capability. There are eight Alpha Centauri freighters sitting at the port right now; he could be interested in hijacking them while they're all gathered together under atmosphere." He started to drum his fingers noisily on the rim of the keyboard. "Of course, there's always the mines, or the lichen crop, or the Fuel Research facility, or . . . ."

I tuned him out. Obviously there was no way to tell what Spectra's aim was, not until they gave us some kind of clue. Fortunately, if they were homing in on Mars, there weren't too many places they could go. The terraforming project was in its fifty-seventh year by now; still, only the major settlement had attained any size. Marsholm, sitting at the junction of the rivers Alpha and Beta (how original), had its spaceport, its industry, and the nearby spread of Space Force Base Ares to draw Zoltar's attention. The remainder of the planet was just a lot of red sand, red rock, and sunburned nut cases who found the desert and isolation irresistible. In a hundred years or so they'd be folk legends: Johnny Saltbush and Deimos Bill, Pioneers of the Red Frontier. At this point they were still crazy as bedbugs and should Zoltar pick one of them up and pump him for information, we'd probably never have to worry about Spectra again.

"So what do we do now?" I asked when the Tin Can finally ran down.

"Now? We double-check our data." Metal hands flew across the boards. His typing style was two-fingered--which made no sense--but when you factored in group-function keys and a robot's faster reflexes, the Tin Can could get away with it. Numbers fountained across the left screens; the idiot checkerboards and wavy bands on the right jolted and began flashing madly. 7-Zark-7's buggy red eyes took it all in, monofocused on the screens. His voxbox lights flickered faintly. I got the oddest impression that he was, in his own way, muttering under his breath as the data poured past too quickly for me to follow.

"Well, I don't see any discrepancies in this set," the robot announced at last. "But it never hurts to check. One time a glitch in the binary indexing system had the attack coming from a hundred different sectors all at once. I nearly melted my transformers!" He snickered, an almost falsetto sound. I eyed him sidewise, wondering where he'd scanned that pattern: it was the sort of noise that implied pink feather boas.

Now that was a frightening picture.

All business, the Tin Can swung away and reached out to a different keyboard. "The next step is to alert Space Force Base Ares. And the Civil Defense and United Nations forces, naturally."

"Huh?" "Oh yes," the Tin Can assured me. "I'm afraid they won't thank us for calling a world-wide Yellow Alert, but Spectra could be aiming for Mars as a feint. Our two planets are in close enough conjunction for that to work quite well, and it never pays to assume that they aren't planning a strike at Earth after all. We've gotten burned, doing that."

"I see." So paranoia was a job requirement for NCC. I couldn't help but wonder if CD and the UN ever got inured to alerts like this one-- Center Neptune crying wolf, as it were. Spectra could enter the system and pay absolutely no attention to Earth--apart from trying to evade the Early Warning System--aiming to get in and out on whatever slash-and- snatch errand they had in mind. Sol System had plenty of resources that Spectra needed, and they weren't all located on Earth. But . . . . I crossed the room to lean against the glassteel drop tube leading down from the Can's personal quarters overhead . . . well, OK. Earth being the source world and still the highest concentration of civilization in- system, it did draw the lion's share of attacks.

Frankly the Tin Can looked ready to beat Zoltar off with his bare hands. Nobody seemed to know for sure who had designed his duty uniform, but it was a pretty safe bet that the Can himself was the culprit. He must have spent several oil breaks flipping through those Neo-Paleo fashion mags to come up with something like this. The enamelled plates draped across his upper thorax were bad enough, but flaring epaulettes and a cape really did the outfit in. It was Ben Hur on Schedule 1 drugs. At least he'd lost the helmet: seeing his insectile eyes peering out from behind the hooked visor of a G-force helm, complete with holes on top for antennal freedom, had been downright dangerous for anyone with a heart condition.

He still carried the boomerang ‡ la G1, though. I wondered if he'd ever learned how to control the thing. There'd been quite a run on cracked screens and gashed boards in NCC for a while and 1-Rover-1 reportedly had had to be extracted from the small cubby underneath Climate Control more than once.

"There," the Tin Can said in a satisfied tone. "They've affirmed that they will cooperate. What a polite com officer the UN HQ has."

"Courtesy keeps that crew from demagnetizing," I muttered to my chest. "So now what?"

"The most difficult part," the Can sighed. "We wait. Spectra should be entering Sol System in another three-point-eight-five hours if they maintain their observed course. If they alter their approach then . . ." his hands rose in a shrug, "they could get here as early as three and a half hours from now, or as late as they see fit. We really won't know until they drop out of timewarp."

Then why did you drag me out of bed, dammit? I drew a deep breath. "So is there anything we should be doing in the meantime?"

The Tin Can shrugged again, then brightened. "I know! You can take a nap. The regulations state that all Nerve Center Control personnel must be at their stations during an alert: since the entire area is your station, technically, there should be no problem with your catching up on your sleep in the back room."

Taken aback, I stammered for a few seconds before finding my tongue. "That's pretty nice of you, 7-Zark-7. Thanks!"

"It's no problem," the robot repeated, shooing me towards the doorway. "Just watch your step. I believe 1-Rover-1 left his wrench out again."
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