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       Return to Mech City, p.1

          Brian Bakos / Fantasy / Science Fiction
Return to Mech City
RETURN TO MECH CITY

Where Life Is No Longer Human

Book 1, Robot Horizon series



by Brian Bakos



Copyright 2009, 2016 Brian Bakos







Graphic Art: Othoniel Ortiz & Rob Jones Photos: Brian Bakos





Table of Contents

Prelude: How it Was

One: The Prodigal Returns

Two: Big Changes in Mech City

Three: The New Order

Four: The Quest Begins

Five: At the Imperial Court

Six: Counter Coup

Reading Group Guide

Next Book in the Series

Connect with the Author

Brian’s Other Books





Prelude: How It Was





The Walking Library of Alexandria

Winston was so absorbed in the humans’ conversation that he did not notice his power supply running down. His internal monitor displayed a low-energy alert, but it did not register in his conscious brain.

Extraordinary, he thought, they speak of the end times as if it were a mere philosophical abstraction!

He could no longer move or talk, but he could still observe the two humans sitting across from each other in the living room with alcohol beverages in their hands.

“You can’t be serious, Anna,” Professor Syms was saying. “With things the way they are, you still plan to traipse around the country studying religious cults?”

Syms placed an arm over the sofa back. His tweed jacket draped open revealing his Che Guevara T-shirt and an automatic pistol holstered under his arm pit.

“And why shouldn’t I ‘traipse around the country,’ as you put it?” Dr. Horvath said.

Little Charles, bored from being cooped up indoors, couldn’t have cared less what the adults were saying – and he’d seen so many guns before that he scarcely noticed them anymore. He did notice the robot’s predicament, though.

“Don’t worry, Uncle Winston,” he said, “I’ll switch your power cell for you.”

Winston managed a slight smile, though he lacked the energy to turn his head toward the boy.

Professor Syms was talking again:

“Didn’t all those cults invent phony ‘end of the world’ scenarios to keep their members in line?” he said. “I mean, with the real thing staring us in the face, what’s the point anymore?”

“I’ll have to disagree with you on that,” Dr. Horvath said. “You always were something of a pessimist.”

She cast a worried glance toward Charles who had opened Winston’s abdominal compartment and was pulling out the spent power cell. Her facial expression conveyed relief that the little boy had not been listening to Syms’s dire remark.

Professor Syms shrugged and quaffed his drink.

“Ah, hope springs eternal,” he said. “And I always thought you East Europeans were the natural pessimists.”

“Can I refresh your drink, Conrad?” Dr. Horvath said, rather stiffly.

“No thanks,” Syms replied, “I’ve got a departmental dinner to attend. A ‘socialist supper’ as you call it.”

They made an interesting pair, Winston thought. The Master – Dr. Anna Horvath – tall, gray-haired and rather severe with her old-fashioned eye glasses perched on her nose. Professor Conrad Syms, around 40 with a slight paunch and dark, probably dyed, coiffure. The Master spoke with a cultured Hungarian accent, Professor Syms’s accent bore a veneer of affected British Isle.

Charles completed the power cell switch and Winston surged into full active mode.

“Thank you, Charles,” he said.

“Sure thing, Uncle Winston,” Charles said.

Professor Syms looked toward the corner desk where Winston was sitting.

“Our robotic friend is back online!” he exclaimed.

He turned toward Dr. Horvath. “You really ought to reconsider my ‘Walking Library of Alexandria’ project, Anna.”

“Please, not that again,” Dr. Horvath said.

“Why not?” Syms replied. “Your robot already has the necessary intelligence. It’s just a matter of augmenting its memory capacity and uploading the files.”

“Beginning with the complete works of Marx and Lenin, I suppose?” Dr. Horvath said.

“Well ... that, too,” Syms said.

Dr. Horvath made a dismissive gesture with one, long-fingered hand. She looked toward the robot.

“Do a power cell change before you absolutely need it, Winston,” she scolded. “These forced inactivations don’t help your programming any.”

“Of course, Master,” Winston said. “I shall be more careful in future.”

“I’ll watch out for you, Uncle Winston,” Charles said.

Syms stood up and adjusted his jacket, the pistol disappeared from view again.

“Let me know if you change your mind, Anna,” he said. “Winston is an amazing piece of technology, it’s a shame not to develop its full potential. I’m certain we could get University funding.”

“Thank you, Conrad,” Dr. Horvath said, “I’ll take it under consideration.”

Syms replied with an amused, unconvinced nod.

“Well, I’ve got to go,” he said. “Thanks for the drink.”

He and Dr. Horvath left through the front door, followed by Charles. Winston stood and watched them go.

“War and rumors of war,” he muttered.

Charles soon returned and ran across the room, leaping into Winston’s arms.

“Let’s play rocket ship!” he cried.

“Very well, Charles.”

Winston spun Charles around, lifting him up toward the ceiling then back down near the floor. Winston’s movements were rather slow and awkward, not up to human standards, but Charles giggled with delight.

Dr. Horvath returned to the living room and, with a single disapproving glance, ended the fun. Winston set Charles down on his feet.

“Aw, we were just playing, Auntie,” Charles protested.

Dr. Horvath moved to the picture window and gazed out at Dr. Syms entering his car.

“I like Conrad,” she said, “but he can be such a left wing gas bag sometimes.”

“That term is not in my dictionary,” Winston said. “How is ‘left wing gas bag’ defined?”

Dr. Horvath gave Winston an indulgent gaze over her eyeglasses; she looked back outside.

“See that fancy car he’s got?” she said. “Right, socialism – for everybody else, that is.”

She turned toward Winston.

“My people know very well how that works,” she said. “We had forty five years of communist rule, and before that the stinking fascists. Why – ”

A huge explosion shook the house.

Flying debris struck the window, shattering its erstwhile ‘bullet proof’ pane. Everyone hit the floor. Dr. Horvath pressed herself against the wall; across the room, Winston shielded Charles with his body.

Stunned moments of disjointed time staggered past. Winston’s auditory circuits whined, his pressure sensors registered bits of plasti-glass embedded in his exterior surfaces. Then brutal reality began to fill the vacuum.

“Are you hurt, Charles?” the Master said, fear quavering in her voice.

“I’m OK, Auntie,” came Charles’ muffled voice from beneath the robot.

“Winston?”

“I seem to have evaded major damage,” Winston said.

He rolled away from Charles and helped the little boy up.

“You are also well, Master?” Winston inquired.

Dr. Horvath regained her feet and brushed herself off. Her quaint eyeglasses had somehow remained perched on her nose, though the lenses were coated with plaster dust.

“Yes, I’m quite well,” she said, “thank you.”

Approaching sirens wailed through the demolished window. Dr. Horvath strode to the front door and exited. As always, Winston was impressed by her decisiveness under pressure.

“Come on, Uncle Winston, I want to see,” Charles said.

“We should stay in here – ”

But the little boy was already gone. Winston followed him out to the porch.

The smoking ruin of Professor Syms’s car sprawled in front of the house like some massacred beast. The police sirens were closer now, and a crowd was starting to gather. A terrible smell of destruction polluted the air.

“Wow!” Charles cried. “That’s ... wow!”

Dr. Horvath drew him protectively against her.

“We need to get away for a while,” she said.





The Rush of Life

Winston’s mechanical feet could not handle the slippery rocks very well, and he started to go down. Dr. Horvath seized his arm.

“Be careful, Winston!” she said. “You’re too expensive to get busted up.”

“Yes, Master,” Winston replied.

“And drop the ‘master’ routine, already,” Dr. Horvath said. “It makes me feel like an old lady. God knows, I’m almost there as it is.”

“Yes, Ma ... ‘am,” Winston said.

They approached the base of a narrow waterfall cascading down a cliff from the lush forest above. Temperature sensors on Winston’s face detected coolness where water drops struck. A low, melodious roar filled his auditory units.

“The rush of life!” Dr. Horvath said above the roar. “I wanted you to experience it while it’s still here.”

“It’s lovely,” Winston said, “truly inspiring.”

“Are those just words from your dictionary, Winston, or do you really feel something?”

“I think ... perhaps ...”

“Pow-pa-pa-pa-pow!”

Charles ran up, pointing a stick at Winston, machine gun style.

“Teach me more about World War Two, Uncle Winston,” he said.

“Certainly, Charles,” Winston said, “as soon as we get back to the hotel.”

A burst of real gunfire sounded in the woods above. Everybody cringed, as if under assault from a hail storm.

“Stay close Charles!” Dr. Horvath cried.

She whipped a machine pistol out of her bag and cocked it expertly. She scanned the woods through hard, slitted eyes. Then looked toward Winston.

“It’s happening everywhere now,” she said. “Let’s go.”

They departed quickly. Winston swiveled his head 180 degrees to kept watch behind them while Dr. Horvath held his arm to guide his steps.

After several minutes of rapid walking, the roar of the waterfall faded into the distance; the danger seemed to lessen with it. Winston ventured a change of subject.

“How was the site visit today?” he asked.

“The usual religious addicts,” Dr. Horvath said, “you didn’t miss anything.”

Winston detected a tone of bitterness in the master’s voice that he’d never heard before, but he did not comment upon it. He swiveled his head back to standard position.

“It was more important that I remain with Charles,” he said. “The hotel guards require observation.”

“Yes, good security is getting hard to find,” Dr. Horvath said.

They walked in silence for some minutes. Winston sensed that the master wished to say something more, but he knew better than to prompt her.

Finally, as they exited the nature trail, Dr. Horvath spoke.

“I wonder if I’ve wasted my time doing these cult researches,” she said. “A lot of people are asking themselves similar questions these days.”

“Your studies will certainly prove significant – even in ways which are not perceptible at this time,” Winston said.

Dr. Horvath sighed. “I kept hoping that reason could shed some light onto these “messiah” psychopaths. They’ve caused so much harm throughout history. If I could just expose them for what they really are, I thought, people would wise up ... but I haven’t accomplished a damn thing!”

“Perhaps you are being too hard on yourself,” Winston said. “Such a task seems beyond the resources of any one individual.”

“It’s like David against Goliath,” Dr. Horvath said, “but all I’ve got is a cream puff to throw at him.”

She stopped walking abruptly.

“You don’t suppose I’m regarding myself as some sort of half-baked messiah, do you?” she said. “As if I’ve got this ‘holy mission’ to save people from themselves?”

Winston smiled politely. “Your ability to perceive such a threat would argue against your being influenced by it.”

Dr. Horvath barked a sarcastic laugh. “Always the diplomat, aren’t you, Winston?”

“I am only drawing the logical conclusion,” Winston said.

They resumed walking.

“Your point is well taken,” Dr. Horvath said, “but supposing I did have a messiah complex. That would explain a lot of things about me, wouldn’t it?”

“Conceivably,” Winston said, “however, such a theoretical framework would leave many other questions unanswered. Perhaps, over time, you can decide on a more comprehensive explanation for your life’s work.”

“Ah, Winston,” Dr. Horvath said, “you have such a way with words.”

She glanced down at Charles, who was busy with his machine gun stick.

“I have decided on one thing already,” she said in a lowered voice.

“What’s that?” Winston said, also in a lowered voice.

“Conrad was right. It’s time we started boosting your memory banks and filling them up with the history of human thought.”

Winston became silent. A chill, foreboding wind seemed to blow over his temperature sensors. They turned up a paved walk to the hotel – the tall, gray-haired woman; the 7-year-old boy; and the blue Humanite robot the dimensions of an average human male.





One: The Prodigal Returns





1: Silent Morning

Several months passed before death entered the house.

The Intuitive certainty of its presence jolted Winston out of inactive mode and sent him tumbling off his sofa. He scrambled to his feet and wrenched open his bedroom door, nearly tearing it off the hinges.

Then he froze.

The door across from his stood white and blank, like a marble tombstone ready for the chisel. A muffled ticking penetrated it from inside the Master’s chamber.

Winston dared not approach.

Instead, he rotated his body ninety degrees left and began creeping down the hallway – along the thick carpet, past the staircase and the humans’ bathroom – heading for the chamber with the Gorzo the Adventure Robot poster taped on its door.

Never had the walk been this long. The carpet seemed to grip his feet, trying to hold him back.

“Don’t go, Winston ...” it pleaded.

He gripped the banister and pulled himself along, one hesitant pace after another. Finally, he reached the bedroom at the far end of the corridor. He peered inside.

Little Charles lay on his bed – inert, unbreathing. His skin displayed the blotchy greenish cast of a plague victim. Winston struggled to process the terrible new data.

“Charles?” he said at minimum volume.

He shuffled to the bed and poked the child. No reaction. The body was cold. Biological life had undeniably terminated.

Chaos shot through every circuit like an electrical storm. Winston’s whole mechanism began to shake violently. He barely managed to exit the death chamber when all of his systems crashed. He pitched forward, striking his face on the banister ...



He lay still on the thick carpet for an undetermined period. When consciousness returned, a damage report displayed on his internal monitor:

olfactory unit – negative function / left optical sensor – 2 degree displacement

He managed to rise and close the door to Charles’ room.

“Farewell, young master,” he said.

A flood of religious data gushed from his library banks: continued life after biological death ... salvation for the immortal soul ... heaven ... unity with the great human god ... Anything to fend off a return of the lethal shakes.

He began moving back toward the tombstone door. He must discover what lay behind it, but with every step the corridor appeared to lengthen until his goal was receding down an infinite tunnel.

Winston closed his eyes and continued onward, running his hand along the wall. His pressure / temp sensors gauged the warmth of wooden paneling, then the cool gap of the bathroom entrance, paneling again. Then his own bedroom doorway.

He stopped, rotated 90 degrees left, and opened his eyes.

“Master ... Dr. Horvath?” he called through the white door.

A gentle push, and the door creaked open. The Master lay on her bed with the same greenish complexion as little Charles had displayed – the discoloration that had steadily worsened during the past week. It reached spidery tendrils into the scalp under her gray hair. Fresh turmoil jolted through Winston’s circuits, and he gripped the door hard to keep himself from falling again.

At least the master looked peaceful, lying with the quilt pulled up under her chin like a fluffy white cloud – back when the sky still contained fluffy clouds. On the bedside table, a little pendulum clock ticked under its glass dome, as if all was still right with the world. Each tick seemed unnaturally loud. Then it stopped.

Winston closed the door. He told himself that the great human God would be watching over the Master and little Charles now.





2: Fateful Decision

Winston sat brooding on his couch. During the past hour he’d managed to restrain his chaotic thought patterns until his mind was functioning smoothly and inexorably down a slope of implacable logic.

Wasn’t there a song about a clock that stopped on the day of its owner’s death? The Master would have ridiculed such a notion.

“I just forgot to wind the damn thing,” she’d say.

Clocks as the measurers of time ... time as the enemy of life ...

So, why was Winston still here? Those who had cared for him were no more, his familiar world had vanished like a burst soap bubble, he himself had no useful functions to perform. And he was running down fast, like the clock.

Every circuit throbbed, his self-preservation programming went into a hopeless feedback loop. Only one course seemed open to him, crystalline and pure in its ruthless logic.
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