QSFer Mary E. Lowd has a new queer space opera out (ace, lesbian, trans ftm): “Entanglement Bound.”
Clarity’s home is her spaceship. Living on the move. Planet to planet.
When money trouble forces Clarity and her traveling companion, Irohann, to take on passengers, Irohann worries his secret identity will be revealed. He’s a canine alien on the run from an empire of sentient plants, and their queen has a personal vendetta against him.
But Clarity believes his fears are unfounded and the Doraspians gave up on him long ago.
Heartsick at the idea of losing their ship, Clarity accepts an offer that’s clearly too good to be true, and they find themselves swept up in the crazy schemes of a rogue AI in a stolen robot body and her haphazardly assembled team of disparate aliens, including a hive-minded swarm, a giant insect, a rabbit-like alien, and a living spaceship who loves bunnies. Together the team must break into an abandoned science station, mangled by an entangled particle trying to destroy the universe.
When disaster strikes, Clarity steps up to pull the team together, but it may come at the cost of the very home and friendship she was trying to save.
The doors to Maradia’s Robot Emporium slid open with the kind of satisfying kathunk-woosh that was completely unnecessary but reminded the listener they were on a space station. In space. In the 24th century. With robots. It was not a bad noise to hear on the way into a robot emporium.
Inside the storefront, there was a computer on a desk and several simple but comfortable-looking chairs. A diploma with honors from Wespirtech hung on the wall behind the desk, displayed proudly. Clarity was impressed. If she’d attended the premier science and technical institute in the western spiral arm of the galaxy, she’d display the diploma too.
Screens covered most of the rest of the walls, showing the roboticist’s work in looping videos. Words streamed across the bottom of the videos, explaining all the features of Maradia’s robots. She’d certainly made a lot of them. They ranged all the way from maintenance robots that looked more like flying trash cans with tool belts soldered to them—designed to roam through the station’s crawlspaces and ducts, or sometimes fly around outside the station, fixing broken electrical connections—all the way to fully humanoid androids, nearly indistinguishable from whichever alien species they were designed to mimic.
In fact, Clarity recognized one of the robots in the videos—blue with six arms. It was the storytelling robot from The All Alien Cafe. She watched the video for a few minutes and learned a heart-wrenching story about a robot named Archive. He’d been so committed to telling stories that he’d erased his own long-term memory to make space for more fictional inventions.
Clarity wondered if the bartender had known the real story behind Archive. Maybe it was just easier to play along with Archive’s version.
A human woman with her hair tied back in a messy knot poked her head around a door in the back. “Hello?” she said. “Can I help you?”
“I’d… uh… like to buy a robot,” Clarity stumbled.
The woman’s face brightened. “I’d be happy to design a robot for you!” She came through the door and offered Clarity her hand. “I’m Maradia.”
Clarity shook it, feeling silly.
“Now,” Maradia said, sitting down at the desk and gesturing for Clarity to join her. “What do you need the robot to do?” She pulled out an electronic stylus and looked like she was all ready to start designing a personalized robotic assistant for Clarity.
Clarity felt terrible letting her down. “Actually,” she said. “I have a specific robot in mind already.”
“Really?” Maradia asked, twiddling the stylus between her fingers. “That’s odd, because all of my robots are made on commission. If you’re looking for something pre-made, there’s—”
“I’m looking for the…” Clarity pulled her pocket computer back out and read, “…Orion 23958.”
Now, Maradia looked really suspicious. She laid down the stylus, pushed her chair back, and beckoned for Clarity to follow her to the back door.
On the other side was a room filled with workbenches, each of them strewn with loose wires, electronic equipment, and random pieces of robot bodies—detached mechanical arms and legs everywhere. Three of the walls were filled with computer banks; text streamed across many of the screens. Along the final wall, straight back, stood a row of robots in various states of being finished. A bright gold one was missing an arm; a copper-and-green one was missing a head. Some of them were shaped bizarrely enough that Clarity couldn’t tell if they were completed.
Of the robots that looked finished, Clarity was most drawn to a hulking jet-black construction with fold-out panels on its sides,like wings. It was like a robotic dragon. Super cool. Clarity hoped she was here to buy that one. Although, it might feel a little cramped traveling on The Serendipity.
“So, which one are you here for?” Maradia asked, gesturing at the row of robots.
“The, uh, Orion…” Clarity stumbled over the idea of repeating the long number. “You know, the Orion one.”
“Sure, I know,” Maradia said. “But if you want to buy it, you must know which one it is.”
Clarity had never had a roboticist glare at her before, but Maradia was definitely glaring. Even so, Clarity had gone far enough down this rabbit hole that she wanted to see where it led. Before she could argue though, she caught a slight motion out of the corner of her eye.
One of the robots at the end of the line—an anemic blue-and-silver one with a mechanical body like a skeleton—winked at her by constricting a metal iris over its eye. Clarity would have sworn to it. She pointed at it. “That one,” she said with a degree of confidence surprising even herself.
Maradia looked downright startled. She went over to the robot and touched a cord connecting its skull to the closest computer bank. “This one?” she said. “I haven’t even uploaded an AI into this one yet. It’s just empty hardware.” Though she looked uncertain and kept touching the cord as if she could read the electrons flowing through it with her fingertips.
“I’ll pay 5,000 credits for it.”
Maradia laughed, and the robot, behind her, narrowed its eyes by constricting the metal irises again. It didn’t have the most expressive face, but Clarity could tell it wasn’t pleased with her improvisation. Hey, it was worth a try. But if her employer was secretly watching her performance, Clarity supposed she should get back on script. “I have 15,000 credits to offer.”
Maradia’s expression sobered, but her fingers still traced the line of the cord, dangling from the side of the robot’s skull. She wrapped her hand around the middle of the cord, tight like a fist, and yanked it out.
Clarity winced. The robot didn’t move, didn’t even bat an eye. It probably couldn’t feel pain. Or at least, it probably wasn’t designed to feel pain when unplugged. But Maradia’s motion had been sudden, violent, and very painful-looking.
Mary E. Lowd is a prolific science-fiction and furry writer in Oregon. She’s had more than 180 short stories and a half dozen novels published, always with more on the way. Her work has won numerous awards, and she’s been nominated for the Ursa Major Awards more than any other individual. She is also the founder and editor of Zooscape. Learn more at www.marylowd.com or read more stories at www.deepskyanchor.com.