by Mary E. Lowd

Originally published in Galactic Goddesses, July 2019

“Rononia’s ultranet connection had gone out, and she couldn’t telepathically call the robot dog over its wireless connection.”

Annie squeezed the mechanical hand of her robo-nanny.  The hand was cool and silvery like metal, but the smooth surface had a soft give to it like real flesh.  Annie felt safe when she held Rononia’s hand.

“I need to take you home,” Rononia said, her voice low and even, but not mechanical.  For all of the metallic gears visibly built into her elbows, shoulders, and anywhere else that hinged, Rononia had been given a deeply feeling, emotion-laden voice.  And she was programmed to love the child she cared for.  “We can’t go looking for Sparky.”

It had been a mistake for Rononia to try taking Annie to the library downtown today, but her statistical prediction algorithms had suggested there was less than a point one percent chance that the news was right.  Surely, the president of Earth and the queen of the moon would find a way to settle their differences without unleashing armies of bio-modified monster-soldiers on the contested land of Cloud City 54.

But less than point one percent is more than zero.

And here the monsters were, climbing all over the outside of the building.  Rononia could see them through the windows.

Snarling tiger faces on armored alligator bodies, sporting black bat wings, stretching out to block out the sky from both above and below.  The soldiers flew between the floating buildings, seeking out independent citizens — humans and robots who hadn’t submitted to the president’s program to install trackers with registered serial numbers in every person’s left heel — like sharks following trails of blood in the ocean.  They were ruthless.  If you didn’t submit to the installation of a tracker — one that labelled you permanently as a dissident — the chimeric soldiers ripped your foot off.

If you still didn’t submit, they ripped off the other one.

After that?  Well, Rononia couldn’t keep watching.  She had younger, more innocent eyes to worry about, and Annie had grown restless tucked away in a corner of the library with a stack of children’s books.  Regardless, even the library wouldn’t stay safe much longer.

“Sparky isn’t back from getting us lunch!” Annie chimed in her piping five-year-old voice.

The robotic dog had been sent to fetch a packet of nutri-candy burritos for the girl and energ-supp bars for himself and Rononia.  He wasn’t a fully sentient robot like the nanny, but he was more useful than a well-trained hunting dog.  And Annie had grown very attached to him.

“Sparky will meet us at home.”  Rononia used every ounce of simulated emotion to make her voice sound convincing.  She needed the child to cooperate if they were going to sneak down to the bottom floor of the library and take one of the hyper-tubes back to her home.  The floating house looked like a pinecone and was built like a fortress.  She and Annie would be safe there until this battle between the Earth and the moon was over.  And then, maybe it would be time to convince Annie’s parents to move to the gaseous oceans of Jupiter.

Rononia pulled lightly on Annie’s hand, dragging the obstinate kindergartener between the rows and rows of bookshelves.

“Sparky doesn’t know the way home!”

Rononia’s ultranet connection had gone out, and she couldn’t telepathically call the robot dog over its wireless connection.  But Annie didn’t know that.  And Rononia wasn’t above lying to save her little ward’s life.  There was nothing in her programming to stop her.  “I’ve contacted Sparky over the ultranet and am guiding him home.  If you don’t hurry, he’ll beat us there, and your burrito will get cold.”

Annie dug her heels into the floor and narrowed her eyes.  “You’re being weird, and where did everybody go?”  The little girl had been too absorbed in her picture books to notice as the rest of the library patrons had filed out.

In spite of Annie’s obstinance, Rononia dragged her down two levels; only one level more until they could climb into the hyper-tube.  But suddenly a tiger-faced warrior appeared between the bookshelves, wielding a terrifyingly sharp axe between its armored-green arms, bulging with scaly muscles.

“All dissidents must comply with the registry!” the warrior spat through its whiskers.  Bat wings flapped menacingly, devilishly behind it.  A tiger-striped tail swung from behind; the tail was tipped with a tiger’s paw, clutching a hypodermic needle.  “Submit or die.”

Rononia spread her arms wide and stood in front of Annie.  “We live free!  And I will not let you touch this little girl!”  Her words were brave, but she was designed with no physical defenses beyond those of a normal human.

“Sparky!” Annie cried.

The robotic dog stood behind the sneering genetic monstrosity.  A bag of burritos and bars swung from the dog’s metal jaw, but Sparky dropped it, opened its mouth, and barked at the tiger-gator warrior.  The warrior turned around as light and sound emanated from the robo-dog’s mouth, bright and piercing, super-sonic and blinding.

Rononia shielded Annie with her metal body; her own senses were instantly shielded by sound-cancelling and vision-blocking organs.

When Rononia’s senses came back online, the warrior had dropped its axe and was clutching its face — blind and deaf — as it hollered inarticulately, clearly in immense pain.

Sparky picked up the bag of burritos, and Rononia swooped Annie up in her arms.  Terrified of the monster and reunited with her dog, the little girl no longer struggled.

“Good boy, Sparky,” Rononia said.  Apparently, Annie had been right to insist on finding him after all.

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