Sta-Hi didn't answer right away. The dark mechanical-man remote stopped some ten meters off and turned to stare at him. He could hear his breathing more distinctly than usual. Muzak seemed to be playing faintly in the deep background somewhere. All over the factory, dark remotes had come out of hiding and were straightening up ... dismantling the dead boppers and remotes, lining the work-tools back up, soldering loose wires back in place.
"You're not leaving here alive," GAX's voice said smoothly. "Not in your present form."
"Fuck that," Sta-Hi exclaimed. "I push this button and you're gone. I'm the one in charge here."
A high-pitched synthetic chuckle. "Yes ... but my remotes are programmable for up to four days of independent activity. On their own they lack a certain intelligence... spirituality if you will. But they obey. I suggest that you reassess your situation."
Sta-Hi realized then that there was a loose ring of perhaps fifty remotes around him. All were seemingly at work, but all were acutely aware of his presence. He was hopelessly outnumbered.
"You see," Gax gloated. "We enjoy a situation of mutual assured destruction. Game-theoretically interesting, but by no means unprecedented. Your move." The ring of robots around Sta-Hi tightened a bit ... a step here, a turn there... something was crawling towards the wires!
"Freeze!" Sta-Hi screamed, gripping the trigger-cell. "Anything else in here moves and I'm blowing the whole goddamn ..."
Abruptly the factory fell silent. There were no more sidling movements, no more vibrations except for a deep, steady grinding somewhere underfoot. Sta-Hi finished screaming. There was a little blue light blinking on his wrist. Air warning. He checked the reading. Two hours left. He was going to have to stop breathing so hard.
"You should have gone with Ralph Numbers and Dr. Anderson," GAX said quietly. "To join the ranks of the immortal. As it is, you may become damaged too badly for effective taping."
"Why, GAX? Why do you cut people up and tape their brains?" Surges of mortal fear kept gripping Sta-Hi's guts. Why weren't there any pills inside the suit? He sucked greedily at the drinking nipple by his right cheek.
"We value information, Sta-Hi. Nothing is so densely packed with logically deep information as a human brain. This is the primary reason. MEX compares our activities to those American industrialists called... culture-vultures. Who ransacked the museums of the Old World for works of art. And there are higher, more spiritual reasons. The merging of all ..."
"Why can't you just use EEG's?" Sta-Hi asked. The grinding vibration underfoot was getting stronger. A trap? He moved back a few meters. "Why do you have to chew up our brains?"
"So much of your information storage is chemical or mechanical rather than electrical," GAX explained. "A careful electron-microscopic mapping of the memory RNA strands is necessary. And by cutting the brain into thin slices we can learn which neurons connect to which. But this has gone on long enough, Sta-Hi. Drop the trigger-cell and we will tape you. Join us. You can be our third Earth-based robot-bodied agent. You'll see that..."
"You're not getting me," Sta-Hi interrupted. He was standing now and his voice had risen. "Soul-snatchers! Puppet-masters! I'd rather die clean, you goddamn ..."
Without quite meaning to, Sta-Hi had pushed the button on the trigger-cell. The flash of light was blinding. Pieces of things flew past on hard, flat trajectories. There was no air to carry a Shockwave, but the ground underfoot jerked and knocked him off his feet. Clumsy again, but numerous, the pre-programmed remotes moved in for the kill.
The whole time he had been talking with GAX there had been that steady grinding vibration coming through the floor. Now, as Sta-Hi stood up again, the vibration broke into a chunky mutter and something burst through the floor behind him. A blue and silver nose-cone studded with black drill-bits ... a digger!
It twittered something oily. A wrench flew by. The remotes were closing in. Without a second thought, Sta-Hi followed the digger back down the tunnel it had made, crawling on his stomach like a shiny white worm.
It's a bad feeling not to be able to see your feet when you're expecting steel claws to sink into them. Sta-Hi crawled very fast. Before long, the thin tube they were in punched through the wall of a big tunnel, and Sta-Hi followed the digger out.
He got to his feet and brushed himself off. No punctures in his suit. An hour's worth of air left. He was going to have to stop getting excited and breathing so hard.
The digger was examining Sta-Hi curiously... circling him, and reaching out to touch him with a thin and flexible probe.
A small rock came rolling out of the shaft they had come down. The killer-robots were coming. "Uuuuunnh!" Sta-Hi said, pointing.
"To be rresstfulll," the digger said. He humped himself up like the numeral "2" and applied his digging head to the tunnel wall near the hole they'd crawled out of. Sta-Hi stepped back. Moments later a few tons of rock came loose, burying the digger and the hole he'd made.
A moment later the digger slid effortlessly out of the heap of rubble, leaving no exit behind him. "To commme withh mme," he said, wriggling past Sta-Hi. "I willl showw you thinngs of innteresst."
Sta-Hi followed along. Once again he was breathing hard. "Do you have any air?" he asked.
"Whatt iss airr?"
Sta-Hi controlled his voice with difficulty. "It's a... gas. With oxygen. Humans breathe it."
Sta-Hi's radio warbled strangely in his ear. Laughter? "Of courrsse. Aairr. There iss plennty in the pinnk-houses. Do yyou needd aairr in the presennt tensse?"
"In half an hour." The tunnel was unlit, and Sta-Hi had to guide himself by following the blue-white glow of the digger's body. Not too far ahead was a spot of pinkish light in the side of the tunnel.
"To be resstfull. In hallf a kilometerr iss a pinkk-housse with nno nurrsies. But Hook innto thiss one firrsstt." The digger stopped by a pink-lit window.
Sta-Hi peered in. Ralph Numbers was in there with a portable refrigeration unit plugged into his side. Warm in there. Ralph was standing over a thing like a floppy bathtub, and in it ...
"Doctorr Annderssonn iss inn the nurssie," the digger said softly.
The nursie was a big moist pod shaped something like a soldier's cap, but two meters long. A big cunt-cap, with six articulated metal arms on each side. The arms were busy... horribly busy.
They had already flayed Cobb's torso. His chest was split down the sternum. Two arms held the ribcage open, while two others extracted the heart, and then the lungs. At the same time, Ralph Numbers was easing Cobb's brain out of the top of the opened-up skull. He disconnected the EEG wires from the brain, and then dropped the brain into something that looked like a bread-slicer connected to an X-ray machine.
The nursie flicked the switch on the brain-analyzer and waddled away from the window, towards the far end of the room.
"Nnow to pllannt," the digger whispered.
At the other end of the pink-lit room was a large tank of murky fluid. The nursie moved down the tank, sowing. Lungs here, kidneys there... squares of skin, eyeballs, testicles... each part of Cobb's body found its place in the organ tank. Except for the heart. After examining the second-hand heart critically, the nursie threw it down a disposal chute.
"What about the brain?" Sta-Hi whispered. He struggled to understand. Cobb feared death above all else. And the old man had known what he was in for here. But he had chosen it anyhow. Why?
"The brainn patterns will be annalyzzed. Doctorr Annderssonn's ssoftwarre will alll be preserrrved, but ..."
"Ssome of uss feel thiss is nnott rright. Especially in those much morre frequennt cases where nno nnew harrdware iss issuedd to the donorr. The bigg bopperrss wannt to do thiss to alll the flesherrs and all the little bopperrs, too. They wannt to mellt us all togetherr. We arre fightinng backk, annd you havve hellped uss verry much by killinng GAX."
Inside the room the nursie had finished. On its short legs it waddled back to Ralph Numbers, standing there with misery written all over his flicker-cladding. The nursie came up next to Ralph, as if to say something. But then, with a motion too fast to follow, it sprang up and plastered itself to Ralph's body-box.
The red robot's manipulators struggled briefly and then were still. "Yyou ssee!" the digger hissed. "Nnow it iss stealinng Rallph's sofftware too! No onne iss safe. The warr musst conntinue till all the biggg bopperrs havve ..."
A thickness was growing in Sta-Hi's throat. Nausea? He turned away from the window, took a step and stumbled to his knees. The blue light on his wrist glared in his eyes. He was suffocating!
"Air," Sta-Hi gasped. The digger lifted him onto its back and wriggled furiously down the tunnel to a safe pink-house, an air-filled room with nothing but some unattended organ-tanks.