Chapter 1. Parades
It was sunset in the city of robots, and it was snowing paper.
The sun was a yellow one and the atmosphere, mostly nitrogen/oxygen blue, was flush with the veins of iron oxides that traced through it, making the whole twilight sky glow bright orange like a forest fire.
The one who called himself Derec marveled at the sunset from the back of the huge earthmover as it slowly made its way through the city streets, crowds of robots lining the avenue to watch him and his companions make this tour of the city. The tiny shards of paper floated down from the upper stories of the crystal-like buildings, thrown (for reasons that escaped Derec) by the robots that crowded the windows to watch him.
Derec took it all in, sure that it must have significance or the robots wouldn’t do it. And that was the only thing he was sure of-for Derec was a person without memory, without notion of who he was. Worse still, he had come to this impossible world, unpopulated by humans, by means that still astounded him; and he had no idea, no idea, of where in the universe he was.
He was young, the cape of manhood still new on his shoulders, and he only knew that by observing himself in a mirror. Even his name-Derec-wasn’t really his. It was a borrowed name, a convenient thing to call himself because not having a name was like not existing. And he desperately wanted to exist, to know who, to know what he was.
Beside him sat a young woman called Katherine Burgess, who had said she’d known him, briefly, when he’d had a name. But he wasn’t sure of her, of her truth or her motivations. She had told him his real name was David and that he’d crewed on a Settler ship, but neither the name nor the classification seemed to fit as well as the identity he’d already been building for himself; so he continued to call himself by his chosen name, Derec, until he had solid proof of his other existence.
Flanking the humans on either side were two robots of advanced sophistication (Derec knew that, but didn’t know how he knew it). One was named Euler, the other Rydberg, and they couldn’t, or wouldn’t, tell him any more than he already knew-nothing. The robots wanted information from him, however. They wanted to know why he was a murderer.
The First Law of Robotics made it impossible for robots to harm human beings, so when the only other human inhabitant of Robot City turned up dead, Derec and Katherine were the only suspects. Derec’s brief past had not included killing, but convincing Euler and Rydberg of that was not an easy task. They were being held, but treated with respect-innocent, perhaps, until proven guilty.
Both robots had shiny silver heads molded roughly to human equivalent. Both had glowing photocells where eyes would be. But where Euler had a round mesh screen in place of a human mouth, Rydberg had a small loudspeaker mounted atop his dome.
“Do you enjoy this, Friend Derec?” Euler asked him, indicating the falling paper and the seemingly endless stream of robots that lined the route of their drive.
Derec had no idea of what he was supposed to enjoy about this demonstration, but he didn’t want to offend his hosts, who were being very polite despite their accusations. “It’s really… very nice,” he replied, brushing a piece of paper off his lips.
“Nice?” Katherine said from beside him, angry. “Nice?” She ran fingers through her long black hair. “I’ll be a week getting all this junk out of my hair.”
“Surely it won’t take you that length of time,” Rydberg said, the speaker on his head crackling. “Perhaps there’s something I don’t understand, but it seems from a cursory examination that it shouldn’t take you any longer than… ”
“All right,” Katherine said. “All right.”
“… one or two hours. Unless of course you’re speaking microscopically, in which case… ”
“Please,” she said. “No more. I was mistaken about the time.”
“Our studies of human culture,” Euler told Derec, “indicate that the parade is indigenous to all human civilizations. We very much want to make you feel at home here, our differences notwithstanding.”
Derec looked out on both sides of the huge, open-air, V-shaped mover. The robots lining the streets stood quite still, their variegated bodies giving no hint of curiosity, though Derec felt it quite possible that he and Katherine were the first humans many of them had ever seen. Knowing nothing, Derec knew nothing of parades, but it seemed to be a friendly enough ritual, except for the paper, and it made him feel good that they should want him to feel at home.
“Is it not customary to wave?” Euler asked.
“What?” Derec replied.
“To wave your arm to the crowd,” Euler explained. “Is it no customary?”
“Of course,” Derec said, and waved on both sides of the machine that clanked steadily down the wide street, the robots returning the gesture with more nonreadable silence.
“Don’t you feel like a proper fool?” Katherine asked, scrunching up her nose at his antics.
“They’re just trying to be hospitable,” Derec replied. “With the trouble we’re in here, I don’t think it hurts to return a friendly gesture.”
“Is there some problem, Friend Katherine?” Euler asked.
“Only with her mouth,” Derec replied.
Rydberg leaned forward to stare intently at Katherine’s face. “Is there something we can do?”
“Yeah,” the girl answered. “Get me something to eat. I’m starving.”
Rydberg swiveled his head toward Euler. “Another untruth,” he said. “This is very discouraging.”
“What do you mean?” Derec asked.
“Our hypotheses concerning the philosophical nature of humanics,” Rydberg said, “must have their foundation in truth among species. Twice Katherine has said things that aren’t true… ”
“I am starving!” Katherine complained.
“… and how can any postulate be universally self-evident if the postulators do not adhere to the same truths? Perhaps this is the mark of a murderer.”
“Now wait a minute,” Derec said. “All humans make… creative use of the language. It’s no proof of anything.”
Rydberg examined Katherine’s face closely. Then he pressed a pincer to her bare arm, the place turning white for a second before resuming its natural color. “You say you are starving, but your color is good, your pulse rate strong and even, and you have no signs of physical deterioration. I must conclude, reluctantly, that you are not starving.”
“We are hungry, though,” Derec said. “Please take us where we might eat.”
Katherine fixed him with a sidelong glance. “And do it quickly.”
“Of course,” Euler said. “You will find that we are fully equipped to deal with any human emergency here. This is to be the perfect human world.”
“But there are no humans here,” Derec said.
“Are you expecting any?”
“We have no expectations.”
Euler directed the spider-like robot guiding the mover, and the machine turned dutifully at the next corner, taking them down a double-width street that was bisected by a large aqueduct, whose waters had turned dark under the ever-deepening twilight.
Derec sat back and stole a glance at Katherine, but she was busily pulling bits of paper from her hair and didn’t notice him. He had a million questions, but they seemed better left for later. As it was, he had conflicting emotions to analyze and react to within himself.
He was a nonperson whose life had begun scant weeks before, when he’d awakened without past or memory to find himself in a life-support pod, stranded upon an asteroid that was being mined by robots. They had been searching for something, something he had accidentally stumbled upon-the Key to Perihelion, at least one of the seven Keys to Perihelion. It had seemed of incredible import to the robots on the asteroid. Unfortunately, he had had no idea of what the Keys to Perihelion were or what to do with them.
After that was the bad time. The asteroid was destroyed by Aranimas, an alien space raider, who captured Derec and tortured him for information about the Key, information that Derec could not supply. There he had met Katherine, just before the destruction of Aranimas’s vessel and their dubious salvation at the hands of the Spacers’ robots.
The Spacers also wanted the Key, though their means of attaining it seemed slightly more civilized and bureaucratic than Aranimas’s. Katherine and Derec were polite prisoners of bureaucracy for a time on Rockliffe Station, their personalities clashing until they were forced to form an alliance with Wolruf, another alien from Aranimas’s ship, to escape their gentle captivity with the Key.
They found that if they pressed the corners of the silver slab and thought themselves away from the Spacer station, they were whisked bodily to a dark gray void that they assumed to be Perihelion. Pressing the corners again, another thought brought them to Robot City. And then their thinking took them no farther, stranding them in a world populated by nothing but robots.
And that was it, the sum total of Derec’s conscious life. He had reached several conclusions, though, scant as his reserve of information was: First, he had an innate knowledge of robots and their workings, though he had no idea from where his knowledge emanated; next, Katherine knew more about him than she was willing to tell; finally, he couldn’t escape the feeling that he was here for a purpose, that this was all some elaborate test designed especially for him.
But why? Why?
It was worlds that were being turned here, physical and spatial laws that were being forced upside down-all for him? Nothing made sense.
And then there was the Key, the object that everyone wanted, the object that was safely hidden by the person who couldn’t control it. The robots here didn’t know he had it. Were they looking for it, too? He’d have to find out. The Key seemed to be the one strain that held everything else together.
Keeping that in mind, he determined to move slowly, to try always to get more in the way of information than he gave. He’d been at a disadvantage for the entire length of his memory. From this point, he wanted to keep the upper hand as far as possible.
But there was, of course, the murder.
Derec stood on the balcony of the apartment given to him and Katherine by the robots, looking out over the night city. A stiff, cold wind had come up, the starfield totally obscured by dark, angry clouds that seemed to boil up out of nowhere. Lightning flashed in the distance, electrons seeking partner protons on the surface. It was a beautiful sight, and frightening. Derec watched the distant buildings light to near daytime before plunging once more into darkness.
“There,” he said, pointing to a distant tower. “It wasn’t there a centad ago.”
Katherine walked up beside him, leaning against the balcony rail. “Where was it?” she asked, mocking.
“It wasn’t anywhere,” he replied, turning to take her by the shoulders. “It didn’t exist.”
“That’s impossible,” she replied, then turned and walked back into the large, airy apartment that sat at the top of another tower like the one Derec said had sprung from nowhere. “I wish they’d get here with our food.”
“They’re probably fixing us something extra special,” Derec said, joining her in the living room. “And impossible seems to be the way of our lives right now, doesn’t it? I’m telling you, Katherine, that along with everything else that doesn’t make sense, this… city is growing, changing right before our eyes.”
“How can that be?” she asked, and looked around uneasily. “I mean… cities are built, aren’t they? They don’t just grow.”
Derec stared a circle around the room. It was hexagonal, like standing on the inside of a crystal, with no visible line of demarcation for the ceilings and floor. The furniture seemed to flow from the walls, as the table seemed to flow upward from the floor. Light concentrated from the ceiling and lit the room comfortably, but it seemed the ceiling itself that was alight, with no external apparatus to make it happen.
“Look around you,” Derec said. “Everything’s connected to everything else, and connected seamlessly. And it all seems to be made from the same material.” He walked to a sofa that flowed out of the wall and sat on the cushion that formed its base. “Comfortable,” he said, “but I think it’s made from the same material as the harder stuff-some kind of steel and plastic alloy-just in different measure.”
Katherine had walked to the table and was staring at it. “If you look closely,” she said, “you can see a pattern to the material.”
Derec stood and walked up beside her, leaning down on the table to get a close look. The pattern was faint, but readable. The table was made up of a collection of trapezoidal shapes, interwoven and repeated over and over.
“Interesting,” Derec said.
“Is the shape familiar to you?” She narrowed her brows in concentration for a moment, then looked at him with wide eyes. “The same shape as the Key,” she said.
Katherine left him standing there and hurried back out to the balcony.
“It’s almost like individual pieces stuck together,” he called to her. “I wonder how they connect… ”
“It’s gone!” she shrieked, and Derec hurried onto the balcony. “Your tower from before, it’s gone!”
“No it’s not,” he said, pointing farther to the east.”
He shook his head. “I don’t think so.” He pointed to the huge, pyramidal structure that dominated the landscape to the west. It was at the top of that place where they were first brought by the Key. “That’s the only building I think doesn’t change. And we couldn’t see it from the balcony a moment ago.”
“You mean, we’ve changed?”
“Something like that.”
She put a hand to her head. “I didn’t see… feel, I… ”
“It’s kind of like watching clouds,” he said. “If you stare at them from moment to moment, they seem to be solid and stationary, but once you turn away and then look back, they’ve changed. It’s almost like some sort of evolutionary growth… ”
“In a building?”
“If you stay out there much longer, you will probably get wet,” came a voice from behind them. They turned to see Euler’s glowing eyes staring at them in the darkness.
“We’ve gotten wet before,” Katherine returned, looking past Euler to the food being set out on their table. “Ah, a last meal for the condemned.”
“The rain here is particularly cool,” the robot said, and watched as Katherine shoved past him and ran into the dining area, “perhaps uncomfortably cool for the human body temperature.”
Thunder rumbled loudly in the distance, a brilliant shaft of lightning striking the top of the towering pyramid. Derec turned from the spectacle and moved toward the doorway, Euler stepping aside to let him pass.
He walked to the table, sitting across from Katherine, who was already piling food from a large golden bowl onto her plate, also gold-colored. The food seemed to be of a uniform, paste-like consistency, its color drifting somewhere between blue and gray. Golden cups filled with water sat beside the plates.
“Are these utensils made of gold?” Derec asked, clanging a spoon melodiously against his plate.
“Correct,” Rydberg said. “It’s a relatively useless soft metal that is a by-product of our mining operations. Its one major virtue besides its use as a conductor is the fact that it doesn’t tarnish, making it ideal for human eating utensils. We made these things for David’s visit.”
Derec watched the serving spoon slip from Katherine’s grasp to clang loudly against her plate. And for just a second her face turned white.
“That’s what you told me my name was,” Derec said, finding the coincidence a little too close for his comfort.
She fixed him with unfocused eyes, then shrugged, looking normal again. “It’s a common enough name on Spacer worlds,” she said, returning her attention to her plate.
She picked up the spoon and went back to the job at hand. Derec looked up at the robots who stood beside the table and the small servo Type-I:5 robot waiting patiently near the door for the return of the utensils.
“Would you care to sit with us while we eat?” Derec asked, and felt Katherine kick him under the table.
“Delighted,” Euler said without hesitation, and the two robots sat at table attentively, apparently enjoying in their way the human familiarity.
Derec took the serving spoon and began filling his own plate. “I take it that David was the other human who came here?” he asked.
“That is correct,” Rydberg said.
“Then he came in a ship?” Derec pressed.
“No,” Euler said. “He simply walked into the city one day.”
“I don’t know.”
“Aaaahhh!” Katherine yelled, spitting out food and grabbing for the glass of water, drinking furiously. The robots swiveled their heads to watch, then exchanged glances. “Are you trying to feed us or kill us?” she demanded.
“Our programming would never allow us to kill you,” Rydberg said. “That would be quite impossible.”
Derec tentatively dipped his spoon into the porridge-like mixture, taking a small bite. Not sour, not sweet, it simply had a strange, alien taste accompanied by a slight noxious odor, one he was also uncomfortable with.
“This stuff stinks!” Katherine said loudly, the robots looking at her, then turning expectantly toward Derec.
“She’s right,” Derec replied. “What is this?”
“A perfect, nontoxic mixture of local plant matter, high in protein and balanced carbohydrates,” Rydberg said. “It’s good for you.”
“The other human ate this?” Derec asked.
“Quite enthusiastically,” Euler said.
“No wonder he’s dead,” Katherine muttered. “This is simply unacceptable. You’re going to have to find us something else, something that tastes good.”
Derec took another bite, this time holding his nose. Disassociating the smell from the food helped some, but not too much. The gruel left an unpleasant aftertaste. How could the other man have eaten it and not complained? Less made sense all the time.
“How long before you can get us something else?” Derec asked.
“Tomorrow?” Rydberg suggested. “Although they were proud of this in food services. Finding something of equal nutritional value will be difficult.”
“Forget nutritional value to a degree,” Derec said. “Study other human foods and see how well those can be duplicated exactly with the know-how you have here.” He looked at Katherine. “We should probably try and choke some of this down to keep our strength.”
She nodded grimly. “I’d already figured that,” she said, and looked at Rydberg. “Bring me lots of water.”
The robot hurried to comply, fetching a gold pitcher from the servo-cart and refilling her cup.
“When did he die, this David?” Derec asked, holding his nose and taking another bite.
“Seven days ago,” Rydberg said, sitting again and carefully positioning the pitcher within everyone’s easy reach on the table.
“Well, that rules us out as suspect then,” Derec said happily. “We didn’t arrive here until last night.”
“You’ll have to excuse me,” Rydberg said politely, “but Katherine has already exhibited a penchant for speaking less than honestly-”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Katherine said angrily.
“No disrespect intended,” Rydberg said. “It is simply the case that your veracity must be in question in light of our conversations of this afternoon. At this point, we don’t know if we can trust anything either of you says.”
“We don’t even know where this place is,” Derec said.
“Then how did you get here?” Euler asked, swiveling his head to stare directly at Derec.
“I… ” Derec began, then stopped himself. He wasn’t ready to admit any knowledge of the Key. It was their only weapon, their only potential salvation; he couldn’t give it over so early in the game. “I don’t know.”
Rydberg stared for several seconds before saying, “To believe you means that you either materialized out of the ether or were somehow brought here totally without your knowledge or consent.”
Derec responded by taking the conversation away from the robot’s control. “You say this David also seemed to appear out of nowhere. Did you ever question him about his origins?”
“Yes,” Euler said simply.
“And you know nothing about his background,” Derec said, trying to keep his mind off the food by concentrating on the investigation. Across from him, Katherine was swallowing her food whole and washing it down with large gulps of water. “How was he dressed?”
“He was naked,” Euler said. “And he stayed naked.”
The two humans shared a look. Nudity was common and casual on many Spacer worlds, but the climate here would hardly recommend it. “When can we see the body?” Derec asked.
“That’s not possible,” Euler told her.
“I cannot tell you why.”
“Cannot or will not?” Derec asked, exasperated.
“Cannot and will not,” Euler replied.
“Then how do you expect us to investigate the cause of death?” Kate asked.
“If either or both of you are the murderers,” Euler said, “you already know the cause of death.”
“You’ve already decided our guilt,” Derec said, pointing. “That’s not fair or just.”
“There are no other possibilities,” Rydberg said.
“When the possible has been exhausted,” Derec replied, “it is time to examine the impossible. We are innocent, and you can’t prove that we aren’t. It only follows that the death was caused by something else.”
“Humans can murder,” Euler said, as thunder crashed loudly outside. “Humans can lie. You are the only humans here, and murder has been done.”
“We came out of nowhere,” Derec returned. “So did David. Others could also have come out of nowhere, others you haven’t discovered yet. Why, had we committed a murder, would we stay around for you to catch?”
The robots looked at one another again. “You raised logical questions that must be answered,” Euler said. “We certainly sanction your investigation.”
“How can we investigate without full access?”
“With all the other resources at your command,” Rydberg said, then stood. “Are you finished eating?”
“For now,” Derec said. “We’ll want real food tomorrow, though.”
“We will do our best,” Euler said, and he, also, stood. “Until then, you will stay here.”
“I thought I might go out,” Derec said.
“The rains will come. It’s too dangerous. For your own safety, you will stay here tonight. We have found that we cannot be certain if what you tell us is correct, so we’re leaving a robot at the door to make certain you stay in.”
“You don’t know that we’ve done anything wrong. You can’t treat us like prisoners,” Katherine said.
“And we shall not,” Rydberg said, moving toward the door; the servo whirred up to the table, its metal talons pulling the bowls and plates into its innards.
“There are many things we need to talk with you about,” Derec said.
“Tomorrow will be the time,” Euler said. “We will have a long interview at a prescribed time, where many issues will be discussed. Until then, we cannot fit it into our schedule. We are currently quite busy.” The robots turned to go.
“A couple of questions first,” Derec said, hurrying to put himself between the door and the robots. “You say we aren’t prisoners, yet you have locked us up. How long do we have to stay in this place?”
“Until it is safe,” Rydberg said.
“Then if you do let us out,” Derec persisted, “how can you be sure we won’t try to escape?”
“We will have to keep a very close watch on you,” Euler replied.
With that, the robot firmly, but gently, pushed Derec aside and moved out the door, the servo following quickly behind. Derec tried to follow them out, but a squared-off utility robot blocked his path, its body streaked with random bands of different colored paints like the colors on an artist’s pallet.
“Stand aside,” Derec told the machine.
“It is dangerous for you outside. I am to keep you inside where it is safe, and have no more conversation with you lest you try and deceive me.”
“Me?” Derec said. “Deceive?”
The robot pushed the door stud and the unit slid closed. Derec turned to Katherine. “What do you make of it?”
She moved to sit on the sofa, then stretched out, looking tired. “We’re being held prisoner by a bunch of robots with no one in charge,” she said, sighing deeply. “The dead man was an exhibitionist who could, apparently, eat anything. They want us to prove our innocence, but refuse to let us see the body or investigate.” She sat up abruptly, eyes narrowing. “Derec, we’ve got to get out of here.”
“They won’t do anything to us without proof of our guilt,” Derec replied. “It’s not in their nature. We’ll stay around and get this straightened out. Then they’ll be happy to send us on our way. Besides, this place has got me really curious. How does it work… why does it work?”
She lay down again, staring at the ceiling. “I’m not so sure they’d really let us leave,” she said, voice distant. “I think we’ve stumbled into something completely crazy. A robot world without humans could take any sort of bizarre turn.”
“But not a… what did you say… completely crazy turn,” he replied. “They can’t be crazy; there’s no logic to crazy. Besides, what makes you think we’ve stumbled into anything? We were brought here, plain and simple, for a reason that hasn’t been made clear yet. Maybe a little time here will help us ferret it out.”
“You ferret it out,” she said. “I’m tired.”
“Well, I’m not.” He moved to the balcony, feeling the stiff wind on his face as the light show continued to rage outside. “I’m going out tonight and do a little poking around.”
She was up from the couch, moving toward him. “They said it was dangerous,” she said quietly, a hand going to his forearm. “Go out tomorrow.”
“Under their watchful eye?” he said, then shook his head. “We need to get around on our own, and this is the time. Besides, a little rain can’t hurt me.”
“Stay,” she said. “I’m afraid,”
“You?” He laughed. “Afraid?”
She pulled her hand away. “All right,” she said. “Go out and get yourself killed. I’m tired of looking out for you anyway.”
“And you’re an idiot.” She turned from him and stared out across the magnificent city, realizing that its beauty was for them alone to appreciate. There was something unutterably sad about that. “How will you get past the door guard?”
“We’ll take his advice and deceive him,” Derec said.
“Will you help me?”
She turned and walked back into the apartment. “Anything to get you out of my hair,” she said over her shoulder.
Derec’s plan was simple enough, but it was one he could use only once. The robots learned quickly enough of human duplicity, arming themselves with the knowledge as a protection. But just this once, it might work.
He crouched beside the sofa, knotting into a tight ball. Just as soon as he was well out of sight of the door, Kate took a deep breath and tried to open it-locked.
She shrugged once in Derec’s direction, then began screaming in terror. A second later the door slid open, the utility robot blocking the entry.
“It’s Derec!” she cried, pointing. “He fell from the balcony!”
Without hesitation, the robot rolled into the room, ready to check her story for lies and deceit. He quickly moved toward the balcony, leaning way over the edge to get a look into the night.
Derec jumped up from behind the couch and hurried quietly out the door and into the elevator that took him all the way to the ground and his first positive step in uncovering the mystery of Robot City. He was free, but what that meant here he could only guess.