SF writer and editor Harry Harrison explores a not too distant future where
robots—particularly specialist robots who don't know their place—have quite a
rough time of it. True, the Robot Equality Act had been passed—but so what?
by ... Harry Harrison
New York was a bad town for robots this year. In fact,
all over the country it was bad for robots....
Jon Venex fitted the key into
the hotel room door. He had asked
for a large room, the largest in the
hotel, and paid the desk clerk extra
for it. All he could do now was
pray that he hadn't been cheated.
He didn't dare complain or try to
get his money back. He heaved a
sigh of relief as the door swung
open, it was bigger than he had
expected—fully three feet wide by
five feet long. There was more than
enough room to work in. He would
have his leg off in a jiffy and by
morning his limp would be gone.
There was the usual adjustable
hook on the back wall. He slipped
it through the recessed ring in the
back of his neck and kicked himself
up until his feet hung free of
the floor. His legs relaxed with a
rattle as he cut off all power from
his waist down.
The overworked leg motor would
have to cool down before he could
work on it, plenty of time to skim
through the newspaper. With the
chronic worry of the unemployed,
he snapped it open at the want-ads
and ran his eye down the Help
Wanted—Robot column. There was
nothing for him under the Specialist
heading, even the Unskilled
Labor listings were bare and unpromising.
New York was a bad
town for robots this year.
The want-ads were just as depressing
as usual but he could always
get a lift from the comic section.
He even had a favorite strip,
a fact that he scarcely dared mention
to himself. "Rattly Robot," a
dull-witted mechanical clod who
was continually falling over himself
and getting into trouble. It was
a repellent caricature, but could still
be very funny. Jon was just starting
to read it when the ceiling light
It was ten P.M., curfew hour for
robots. Lights out and lock yourself
in until six in the morning, eight
hours of boredom and darkness for
all except the few night workers.
But there were ways of getting
around the letter of a law that didn't
concern itself with a definition
of visible light. Sliding aside some
of the shielding around his atomic
generator, Jon turned up the gain.
As it began to run a little hot the
heat waves streamed out—visible to
him as infra-red rays. He finished
reading the paper in the warm,
clear light of his abdomen.
The thermocouple in the tip of
his second finger left hand, he
tested the temperature of his leg.
It was soon cool enough to work
on. The waterproof gasket stripped
off easily, exposing the power leads,
nerve wires and the weakened knee
joint. The wires disconnected, Jon
unscrewed the knee above the joint
and carefully placed it on the shelf
in front of him. With loving care
he took the replacement part
from his hip pouch. It was the
product of toil, purchased with his
savings from three months employment
on the Jersey pig farm.
Jon was standing on one leg
testing the new knee joint when
the ceiling fluorescent flickered and
came back on. Five-thirty already,
he had just finished in time. A shot
of oil on the new bearing completed
the job; he stowed away the tools
in the pouch and unlocked the
The unused elevator shaft acted
as waste chute, he slipped his newspaper
through a slot in the door as
he went by. Keeping close to the
wall, he picked his way carefully
down the grease-stained stairs. He
slowed his pace at the 17th floor as
two other mechs turned in ahead of
him. They were obviously butchers
or meat-cutters; where the right
hand should have been on each of
them there stuck out a wicked, foot-long
knife. As they approached the
foot of the stairs they stopped to
slip the knives into the plastic
sheaths that were bolted to their
chestplates. Jon followed them
down the ramp into the lobby.
The room was filled to capacity
with robots of all sizes, forms and
colors. Jon Venex's greater height
enabled him to see over their heads
to the glass doors that opened onto
the street. It had rained the night
before and the rising sun drove red
glints from the puddles on the sidewalk.
Three robots, painted snow
white to show they were night
workers, pushed the doors open and
came in. No one went out as the
curfew hadn't ended yet. They milled
around slowly talking in low
The only human being in the
entire lobby was the night clerk
dozing behind the counter. The
clock over his head said five minutes
to six. Shifting his glance from
the clock, Jon became aware of a
squat black robot waving to attract
his attention. The powerful arms
and compact build identified him as
a member of the Diger family, one
of the most numerous groups. He
pushed through the crowd and
clapped Jon on the back with a resounding
"Jon Venex! I knew it was you
as soon as I saw you sticking up out
of this crowd like a green tree
trunk. I haven't seen you since the
old days on Venus!"
Jon didn't need to check the
number stamped on the short one's
scratched chestplate. Alec Diger
had been his only close friend during
those thirteen boring years at
Orange Sea Camp. A good chess
player and a whiz at Two-handed
Handball, they had spent all their
off time together. They shook
hands, with the extra squeeze that
"Alec, you beat-up little grease
pot, what brings you to New
"The burning desire to see something
besides rain and jungle, if you
must know. After you bought out,
things got just too damn dull. I
began working two shifts a day in
that foul diamond mine, and then
three a day for the last month to
get enough credits to buy my contract
and passage back to earth. I
was underground so long that the
photocell on my right eye burned
out when the sunlight hit it."
He leaned forward with a hoarse
confidential whisper, "If you want
to know the truth, I had a sixty-carat
diamond stuck behind the eye
lens. I sold it here on earth for
two hundred credits, gave me six
months of easy living. It's all gone
now, so I'm on my way to the employment
exchange." His voice
boomed loud again, "And how
Jon Venex chuckled at his
friend's frank approach to life. "It's
just been the old routine with me,
a run of odd jobs until I got side-swiped
by a bus—it fractured my
knee bearing. The only job I could
get with a bad leg was feeding
slops to pigs. Earned enough to fix
the knee—and here I am."
Alec jerked his thumb at a rust-colored,
three-foot-tall robot that
had come up quietly beside him.
"If you think you've got trouble
take a look at Dik here, that's no
coat of paint on him. Dik Dryer,
meet Jon Venex an old buddy of
Jon bent over to shake the little
mech's hand. His eye shutters dilated
as he realized what he had
thought was a coat of paint was a
thin layer of rust that coated Dik's
metal body. Alec scratched a shiny
path in the rust with his fingertip.
His voice was suddenly serious.
"Dik was designed for operation
in the Martian desert. It's as dry as
a fossil bone there so his skinflint
company cut corners on the stainless
"When they went bankrupt
he was sold to a firm here in
the city. After a while the rust started
to eat in and slow him down,
they gave Dik his contract and
threw him out."
The small robot spoke for the
first time, his voice grated and
scratched. "Nobody will hire me
like this, but I can't get repaired
until I get a job." His arms squeaked
and grated as he moved them.
"I'm going by the Robot Free
Clinic again today, they said they
might be able to do something."
Alec Diger rumbled in his deep
chest. "Don't put too much faith in
those people. They're great at giving
out tenth-credit oil capsules or
a little free wire—but don't depend
on them for anything important."
It was six now, the robots were
pushing through the doors into the
silent streets. They joined the crowd
moving out, Jon slowing his stride
so his shorter friends could keep
pace. Dik Dryer moved with a
jerking, irregular motion, his voice
as uneven as the motion of his
"Jon—Venex, I don't recognize
your family name. Something to do—with
"Venus is right, Venus Experimental—there
are only twenty-two
of us in the family. We have waterproof,
pressure-resistant bodies for
working down on the ocean bottom.
The basic idea was all right, we did
our part, only there wasn't enough
money in the channel-dredging
contract to keep us all working. I
bought out my original contract at
half price and became a free robot."
Dik vibrated his rusted diaphragm.
"Being free isn't all it
should be. I some—times wish the
Robot Equality Act hadn't been
passed. I would just l-love to be
owned by a nice rich company with
a machine shop and a—mountain
of replacement parts."
"You don't really mean that,
Dik," Alec Diger clamped a heavy
black arm across his shoulders.
"Things aren't perfect now, we
know that, but it's certainly a lot
better than the old days, we were
just hunks of machinery then. Used
twenty-four hours a day until we
were worn out and then thrown in
the junk pile. No thanks, I'll take
my chances with things as they
Jon and Alec turned into the employment
exchange, saying good-by
to Dik who went on slowly down
the street. They pushed up the
crowded ramp and joined the line
in front of the registration desk.
The bulletin board next to the desk
held a scattering of white slips announcing
job openings. A clerk was
pinning up new additions.
Venex scanned them with his
eyes, stopping at one circled in red.
ROBOTS NEEDED IN THESE
CATEGORIES. APPLY AT
ONCE TO CHAINJET, LTD.,
Jon rapped excitedly on Alec
Diger's neck. "Look there, a job in
my own specialty—I can get my
old pay rate! See you back at the
hotel tonight—and good luck in
your job hunting."
Alec waved good-by. "Let's hope
the job's as good as you think, I
never trust those things until I have
my credits in my hand."
Jon walked quickly from the
employment exchange, his long legs
eating up the blocks. Good old
Alec, he didn't believe in anything
he couldn't touch. Perhaps he was
right, but why try to be unhappy.
The world wasn't too bad this
morning—his leg worked fine,
prospects of a good job—he hadn't
felt this cheerful since the day he
Turning the corner at a brisk
pace he collided with a man coming
from the opposite direction. Jon
had stopped on the instant, but
there wasn't time to jump aside.
The obese individual jarred against
him and fell to the ground. From
the height of elation to the depths
of despair in an instant—he had
injured a human being!
He bent to help the man to his
feet, but the other would have none
of that. He evaded the friendly
hand and screeched in a high-pitched
"Officer, officer, police ... HELP!
I've been attacked—a mad robot ...
A crowd was gathering—staying
at a respectful distance—but making
an angry muttering noise. Jon
stood motionless, his head reeling
at the enormity of what he had
done. A policeman pushed his way
through the crowd.
"Seize him, officer, shoot him
down ... he struck me ... almost
killed me ..." The man shook with
rage, his words thickening to a
The policeman had his .75 recoilless
revolver out and pressed
against Jon's side.
"This man has charged you with
a serious crime, grease-can. I'm
taking you into the station house—to
talk about it." He looked around
nervously, waving his gun to open
a path through the tightly packed
crowd. They moved back grudgingly,
with murmurs of disapproval.
Jon's thoughts swirled in tight
circles. How did a catastrophe like
this happen, where was it going
to end? He didn't dare tell the
truth, that would mean he was
calling the man a liar. There had
been six robots power-lined in the
city since the first of the year. If
he dared speak in his own defense
there would be a jumper to the
street lighting circuit and a seventh
burnt out hulk in the police morgue.
A feeling of resignation swept
through him, there was no way out.
If the man pressed charges it would
mean a term of penal servitude,
though it looked now as if he
would never live to reach the court.
The papers had been whipping up
a lot of anti-robe feeling, you could
feel it behind the angry voices, see
it in the narrowed eyes and clenched
fists. The crowd was slowly
changing into a mob, a mindless
mob as yet, but capable of turning
on him at any moment.
"What's goin' on here...?"
It was a booming voice, with a
quality that dragged at the attention
of the crowd.
A giant cross-continent freighter
was parked at the curb. The driver
swung down from the cab and
pushed his way through the people.
The policeman shifted his gun as
the man strode up to him.
"That's my robot you got there,
Jack, don't put any holes in him!"
He turned on the man who had
been shouting accusations. "Fatty
here, is the world's biggest liar.
The robot was standing here waiting
for me to park the truck. Fatty
must be as blind as he is stupid,
I saw the whole thing. He knocks
himself down walking into the
robe, then starts hollering for the
The other man could take no
more. His face crimson with anger
he rushed toward the trucker, his
fists swinging in ungainly circles.
They never landed, the truck driver
put a meaty hand on the other's
face and seated him on the sidewalk
for the second time.
The onlookers roared with laughter,
the power-lining and the robot
were forgotten. The fight was between
two men now, the original
cause had slipped from their minds.
Even the policeman allowed himself
a small smile as he holstered
his gun and stepped forward to
separate the men.
The trucker turned towards Jon
with a scowl.
"Come on you aboard the truck—you've
caused me enough trouble
for one day. What a junkcan!"
The crowd chuckled as he pushed
Jon ahead of him into the truck and
slammed the door behind them.
Jamming the starter with his thumb
he gunned the thunderous diesels
into life and pulled out into the
Jon moved his jaw, but there
were no words to come out. Why
had this total stranger helped him,
what could he say to show his appreciation?
He knew that all humans
weren't robe-haters, why it
was even rumored that some humans
treated robots as equals instead
of machines. The driver must
be one of these mythical individuals,
there was no other way to
explain his actions.
Driving carefully with one hand
the man reached up behind the
dash and drew out a thin, plastikoid
booklet. He handed it to Jon who
quickly scanned the title, Robot
Slaves in a World Economy by
Philpott Asimov II.
"If you're caught reading that
thing they'll execute you on the
spot. Better stick it between the
insulation on your generator, you
can always burn it if you're picked
"Read it when you're alone, it's
got a lot of things in it that you
know nothing about. Robots aren't
really inferior to humans, in fact
they're superior in most things.
There is even a little history in there
to show that robots aren't the first
ones to be treated as second class
citizens. You may find it a little
hard to believe, but human beings
once treated each other just the
way they treat robots now. That's
one of the reasons I'm active in this
movement—sort of like the fellow
who was burned helping others
stay away from the fire."
He smiled a warm, friendly smile
in Jon's direction, the whiteness of
his teeth standing out against the
rich ebony brown of his features.
"I'm heading towards US-1, can
I drop you anywheres on the way?"
"The Chainjet Building please—I'm
applying for a job."
They rode the rest of the way in
silence. Before he opened the door
the driver shook hands with Jon.
"Sorry about calling you junkcan,
but the crowd expected it." He
didn't look back as he drove away.
Jon had to wait a half hour for
his turn, but the receptionist finally
signalled him towards the door of
the interviewer's room. He stepped
in quickly and turned to face the
man seated at the transplastic desk,
an upset little man with permanent
worry wrinkles stamped in his forehead.
The little man shoved the
papers on the desk around angrily,
occasionally making crabbed little
notes on the margins. He flashed
a birdlike glance up at Jon.
"Yes, yes, be quick. What is it
"You posted a help wanted notice,
The man cut him off with a wave
of his hand. "All right let me see
your ID tag ... quickly, there are
Jon thumbed the tag out of his
waist slot and handed it across the
desk. The interviewer read the code
number, then began running his
finger down a long list of similar
figures. He stopped suddenly and
looked sideways at Jon from under
his lowered lids.
"You have made a mistake, we
have no opening for you."
Jon began to explain to the man
that the notice had requested his
specialty, but he was waved to
silence. As the interviewer handed
back the tag he slipped a card out
from under the desk blotter and
held it in front of Jon's eyes. He
held it there for only an instant,
knowing that the written message
was recorded instantly by the
robot's photographic vision and
eidetic memory. The card dropped
into the ash tray and flared into
embers at the touch of the man's
Jon stuffed the ID tag back into
the slot and read over the message
on the card as he walked down the
stairs to the street. There were six
lines of typewritten copy with no
To Venex Robot: You are urgently
needed on a top secret company
project. There are suspected
informers in the main office, so you
are being hired in this unusual manner.
Go at once to 787 Washington
Street and ask for Mr. Coleman.
Jon felt an immense sensation of
relief. For a moment there, he was
sure the job had been a false lead.
He saw nothing unusual in the
method of hiring. The big corporations
were immensely jealous of
their research discoveries and went
to great lengths to keep them secret—at
the same time resorting to
any means to ferret out their business
rivals' secrets. There might still
be a chance to get this job.
The burly bulk of a lifter was
moving back and forth in the
gloom of the ancient warehouse
stacking crates in ceiling-high rows.
Jon called to him, the robot swung
up his forklift and rolled over on
noiseless tires. When Jon questioned
him he indicated a stairwell
against the rear wall.
"Mr. Coleman's office is down in
back, the door is marked." The
lifter put his fingertips against
Jon's ear pick-ups and lowered his
voice to the merest shadow of a
whisper. It would have been inaudible
to human ears, but Jon could
hear him easily, the sounds being
carried through the metal of the
"He's the meanest man you ever
met—he hates robots so be ever so
polite. If you can use 'sir' five
times in one sentence you're perfectly
Jon swept the shutter over one
eye tube in a conspiratorial wink,
the large mech did the same as he
rolled away. Jon turned and went
down the dusty stairwell and knocked
gently on Mr. Coleman's door.
Coleman was a plump little individual
in a conservative purple-and-yellow
business suit. He kept
glancing from Jon to the Robot
General Catalog checking the
Venex specifications listed there.
Seemingly satisfied he slammed the
"Gimme your tag and back
against that wall to get measured."
Jon laid his ID tag on the desk
and stepped towards the wall. "Yes,
sir, here it is, sir." Two "sir" on
that one, not bad for the first sentence.
He wondered idly if he
could put five of them in one sentence
without the man knowing he
was being made a fool of.
He became aware of the danger
an instant too late. The current
surged through the powerful electromagnet
behind the plaster flattening
his metal body helplessly
against the wall. Coleman was almost
dancing with glee.
"We got him, Druce, he's mashed
flatter than a stinking tin-can on a
rock, can't move a motor. Bring
that junk in here and let's get him
Druce had a mechanic's coveralls
on over his street suit and a tool
box slung under one arm. He carried
a little black metal can at arm's
length, trying to get as far from it
as possible. Coleman shouted at
him with annoyance.
"That bomb can't go off until it's
armed, stop acting like a child. Put
it on that grease-can's leg and
Grumbling under his breath,
Druce spot-welded the metal flanges
of the bomb onto Jon's leg a few
inches above his knee. Coleman
tugged at it to be certain it was
secure, then twisted a knob in the
side and pulled out a glistening
length of pin. There was a cold
little click from inside the mechanism
as it armed itself.
Jon could do nothing except
watch, even his vocal diaphragm
was locked by the magnetic field.
He had more than a suspicion however
that he was involved in something
other than a "secret business
deal." He cursed his own stupidity
for walking blindly into the situation.
The magnetic field cut off and he
instantly raced his extensor motors
to leap forward. Coleman took a
plastic box out of his pocket and
held his thumb over a switch inset
into its top.
"Don't make any quick moves,
junk-yard, this little transmitter is
keyed to a receiver in that bomb on
your leg. One touch of my thumb,
up you go in a cloud of smoke
and come down in a shower of nuts
and bolts." He signalled to Druce
who opened a closet door. "And in
case you want to be heroic, just
think of him."
Coleman jerked his thumb at
the sodden shape on the floor; a
filthily attired man of indistinguishable
age whose only interesting feature
was the black bomb strapped
tightly across his chest. He peered
unseeingly from red-rimmed eyes
and raised the almost empty whiskey
bottle to his mouth. Coleman
kicked the door shut.
"He's just some Bowery bum we
dragged in, Venex, but that doesn't
make any difference to you, does it?
He's human—and a robot can't kill
anybody! That rummy has a bomb
on him tuned to the same frequency
as yours, if you don't play ball with
us he gets a two-foot hole blown
in his chest."
Coleman was right, Jon didn't
dare make any false moves. All
of his early mental training as well
as Circuit 92 sealed inside his brain
case would prevent him from harming
a human being. He felt trapped,
caught by these people for some
Coleman had pushed back a tarpaulin
to disclose a ragged hole in
the concrete floor, the opening extended
into the earth below. He
waved Jon over.
"The tunnel is in good shape for
about thirty feet, then you'll find
a fall. Clean all the rock and dirt
out until you break through into
the storm sewer, then come back.
And you better be alone. If you tip
the cops both you and the old stew
go out together—now move."
The shaft had been dug recently
and shored with packing crates
from the warehouse overhead. It
ended abruptly in a wall of fresh
sand and stone. Jon began shoveling
it into the little wheelbarrow
they had given him.
He had emptied four barrow
loads and was filling the fifth when
he uncovered the hand, a robot's
hand made of green metal. He
turned his headlight power up and
examined the hand closely, there
could be no doubt about it. These
gaskets on the joints, the rivet pattern
at the base of the thumb meant
only one thing, it was the dismembered
hand of a Venex robot.
Quickly, yet gently, he shoveled
away the rubble behind the hand
and unearthed the rest of the robot.
The torso was crushed and the
power circuits shorted, battery acid
was dripping from an ugly rent in
the side. With infinite care Jon
snapped the few remaining wires
that joined the neck to the body
and laid the green head on the
barrow. It stared at him like a skull,
the shutters completely dilated, but
no glow of life from the tubes behind
He was scraping the mud from
the number on the battered chestplate
when Druce lowered himself
into the tunnel and flashed the brilliant
beam of a hand-spot down its
"Stop playing with that junk and
get digging—or you'll end up the
same as him. This tunnel has gotta
be through by tonight."
Jon put the dismembered parts
on the barrow with the sand and
rock and pushed the whole load
back up the tunnel, his thoughts
running in unhappy circles. A dead
robot was a terrible thing, and one
of his family too. But there was
something wrong about this robot,
something that was quite inexplicable,
the number on the plate had
been "17," yet he remembered only
too well the day that a water-shorted
motor had killed Venex 17 in
the Orange Sea.
It took Jon four hours to drive
the tunnel as far as the ancient
granite wall of the storm sewer.
Druce gave him a short pinch bar
and he levered out enough of the
big blocks to make a hole large
enough to let him through into the
When he climbed back into the
office he tried to look casual as he
dropped the pinch bar to the floor
by his feet and seated himself on
the pile of rubble in the corner.
He moved around to make a comfortable
seat for himself and his
fingers grabbed the severed neck
of Venex 17.
Coleman swiveled around in his
chair and squinted at the wall clock.
He checked the time against his
tie-pin watch, with a grunt of satisfaction
he turned back and stabbed
a finger at Jon.
"Listen, you green junk-pile, at
1900 hours you're going to do a
job, and there aren't going to be
any slip ups. You go down that
sewer and into the Hudson River.
The outlet is under water, so you
won't be seen from the docks.
Climb down to the bottom and
walk 200 yards north, that should
put you just under a ship. Keep
your eyes open, but don't show any
lights! About halfway down the
keel of the ship you'll find a chain
"Climb the chain, pull loose the
box that's fastened to the hull at
the top and bring it back here. No
mistakes—or you know what happens."
Jon nodded his head. His busy
fingers had been separating the
wires in the amputated neck. When
they had been straightened and put
into a row he memorized their order
with one flashing glance.
He ran over the color code in
his mind and compared it with the
memorized leads. The twelfth wire
was the main cranial power lead,
number six was the return wire.
With his precise touch he separated
these two from the pack and
glanced idly around the room.
Druce was dozing on a chair in the
opposite corner. Coleman was talking
on the phone, his voice occasionally
rising in a petulant whine.
This wasn't interfering with his
attention to Jon—and the radio
switch still held tightly in left hand.
Jon's body blocked Coleman's
vision, as long as Druce stayed
asleep he would be able to work
on the head unobserved. He activated
a relay in his forearm and
there was a click as the waterproof
cover on an exterior socket swung
open. This was a power outlet from
his battery that was used to operate
motorized tools and lights underwater.
If Venex 17's head had been
severed for less than three weeks
he could reactivate it. Every robot
had a small storage battery inside
his skull, if the power to the brain
was cut off the battery would provide
the minimum standby current
to keep the brain alive. The robe
would be unconscious until full
power was restored.
Jon plugged the wires into his
arm-outlet and slowly raised the
current to operating level. There
was a tense moment of waiting,
then 17's eye shutters suddenly
closed. When they opened again
the eye tubes were glowing warmly.
They swept the room with one
glance then focused on Jon.
The right shutter clicked shut
while the other began opening and
closing in rapid fashion. It was
International code—being sent as
fast as the solenoid could be operated.
Jon concentrated on the
Telephone—call emergency operator—tell
her "signal 14" help will—
The shutter stopped in the middle
of a code group, the light of
reason dying from the eyes.
For one instant Jon's heart leaped
in panic, until he realized that
17 had deliberately cut the power.
Druce's harsh voice rasped in his
"What you doing with that?
None of your funny robot tricks.
I know your kind, plotting all
kinds of things in them tin domes."
His voice trailed off into a stream
of incomprehensible profanity.
With sudden spite he lashed his
foot out and sent 17's head crashing
against the wall.
The dented, green head rolled
to a stop at Jon's feet, the face
staring up at him in mute agony.
It was only Circuit 92 that prevented
him from injuring a human. As
his motors revved up to send him
hurtling forward the control relays
clicked open. He sank against the
debris, paralyzed for the instant.
As soon as the rush of anger was
gone he would regain control of
They stood as if frozen in a
tableau. The robot slumped backward,
the man leaning forward, his
face twisted with unreasoning
hatred. The head lay between them
like a symbol of death.
Coleman's voice cut through the
air of tenseness like a knife.
"Druce, stop playing with the
grease-can and get down to the
main door to let Little Willy and
his junk-brokers in. You can have
it all to yourself afterward."
The angry man turned reluctantly,
but pushed out of the door at
Coleman's annoyed growl. Jon sat
down against the wall, his mind
sorting out the few facts with lightning
precision. There was no room
in his thoughts for Druce, the man
had become just one more factor
in a complex problem.
Call the emergency operator—that
meant this was no local matter,
responsible authorities must be
involved. Only the government
could be behind a thing as major
as this. Signal 14—that inferred
a complex set of arrangements,
forces that could swing into action
at a moment's notice. There was
no indication where this might lead,
but the only thing to do was to get
out of here and make that phone
call. And quick. Druce was bringing
in more people, junk-brokers,
whatever they were. Any action
that he took would have to be done
before they returned.
Even as Jon followed this train
of logic his fingers were busy.
Palming a wrench, he was swiftly
loosening the main retaining nut
on his hip joint. It dropped free
in his hand, only the pivot pin remained
now to hold his leg on. He
climbed slowly to his feet and
moved towards Coleman's desk.
"Mr. Coleman, sir, it's time to
go down to the ship now, should I
leave now, sir?"
Jon spoke the words slowly as
he walked forward, apparently
going to the door, but angling at
the same time towards the plump
"You got thirty minutes yet, go
The words were cut off. Fast as
a human reflex is, it is the barest
crawl compared to the lightning
action of electronic reflex. At the
instant Coleman was first aware of
Jon's motion, the robot had finished
his leap and lay sprawled
across the desk, his leg off at the
hip and clutched in his hand.
"YOU'LL KILL YOURSELF IF
YOU TOUCH THE BUTTON!"
The words were part of the calculated
plan. Jon bellowed them
in the startled man's ear as he
stuffed the dismembered leg down
the front of the man's baggy slacks.
It had the desired effect, Coleman's
finger stabbed at the button but
stopped before it made contact. He
stared down with bulging eyes at
the little black box of death peeping
out of his waistband.
Jon hadn't waited for the reaction.
He pushed backward from the
desk and stopped to grab the stolen
pinch bar off the floor. A mighty
one-legged leap brought him to the
locked closet; he stabbed the bar
into the space between the door
and frame and heaved.
Coleman was just starting to
struggle the bomb out of his pants
when the action was over. The
closet open, Jon seized the heavy
strap holding the second bomb on
the rummy's chest and snapped it
like a thread. He threw the bomb
into Coleman's corner, giving the
man one more thing to worry about.
It had cost him a leg, but Jon had
escaped the bomb threat without
injuring a human. Now he had to
get to a phone and make that call.
Coleman stopped tugging at the
bomb and plunged his hand into
the desk drawer for a gun. The
returning men would block the
door soon, the only other exit from
the room was a frosted-glass window
that opened onto the mammoth
bay of the warehouse.
Jon Venex plunged through the
window in a welter of flying glass.
The heavy thud of a recoilless .75
came from the room behind him
and a foot-long section of metal
window frame leaped outward. Another
slug screamed by the robot's
head as he scrambled toward the
rear door of the warehouse.
He was a bare thirty feet away
from the back entrance when the
giant door hissed shut on silent
rollers. All the doors would have
closed at the same time, the thud
of running feet indicated that they
would be guarded as well. Jon
hopped a section of packing cases
and crouched out of sight.
He looked up over his head,
there stretched a webbing of steel
supports, crossing and recrossing
until they joined the flat expanse
of the roof. To human eyes the
shadows there deepened into obscurity,
but the infra-red from a
network of steam pipes gave Jon
all the illumination he needed.
The men would be quartering
the floor of the warehouse soon,
his only chance to escape recapture
or death would be over their heads.
Besides this, he was hampered by
the loss of his leg. In the rafters
he could use his arms for faster
and easier travel.
Jon was just pulling himself up
to one of the topmost cross beams
when a hoarse shout from below
was followed by a stream of bullets.
They tore through the thin
roof, one slug clanged off the steel
beam under his body. Waiting until
three of the newcomers had
started up a nearby ladder, Jon began
to quietly work his way towards
the back of the building.
Safe for the moment, he took
stock of his position. The men
were spread out through the building,
it could only be a matter of
time before they found him. The
doors were all locked and—he had
made a complete circuit of the
building to be sure—there were no
windows that he could force—the
windows were bolted as well. If he
could call the emergency operator
the unknown friends of Venex 17
might come to his aid. This, however,
was out of the question. The
only phone in the building was on
Coleman's desk. He had traced the
leads to make sure.
His eyes went automatically to
the cables above his head. Plastic
gaskets were set in the wall of the
building, through them came the
power and phone lines. The phone
line! That was all he needed to
make a call.
With smooth, fast motions he
reached up and scratched a section
of wire bare. He laughed to himself
as he slipped the little microphone
out of his left ear. Now he was
half deaf as well as half lame—he
was literally giving himself to this
cause. He would have to remember
the pun to tell Alec Diger later, if
there was a later. Alec had a profound
weakness for puns.
Jon attached jumpers to the mike
and connected them to the bare
wire. A touch of the ammeter
showed that no one was on the
line. He waited a few moments
to be sure he had a dial tone then
sent the eleven carefully spaced
pulses that would connect him with
the local operator. He placed the
mike close to his mouth.
"Hello, operator. Hello, operator.
I cannot hear you so do not answer.
Call the emergency operator—signal
14, I repeat—signal 14."
Jon kept repeating the message
until the searching men began to
approach his position. He left the
mike connected—the men wouldn't
notice it in the dark but the open
line would give the unknown powers
his exact location. Using his
fingertips he did a careful traverse
on an I-beam to an alcove in the
farthest corner of the room. Escape
was impossible, all he could do was
stall for time.
"Mr. Coleman, I'm sorry I ran
away." With the volume on full
his voice rolled like thunder from
the echoing walls.
He could see the men below
twisting their heads vainly to find
"If you let me come back and
don't kill me I will do your work.
I was afraid of the bomb, but now
I am afraid of the guns." It sounded
a little infantile, but he was
pretty sure none of those present
had any sound knowledge of robotic
"Please let me come back ...
sir!" He had almost forgotten the
last word, so he added another
"Please, sir!" to make up.
Coleman needed that package
under the boat very badly, he
would promise anything to get it.
Jon had no doubts as to his eventual
fate, all he could hope to do
was kill time in the hopes that the
phone message would bring aid.
"Come on down, Junky, I won't
be mad at you—if you follow directions."
Jon could hear the hidden
anger in his voice, the unspoken
hatred for a robe who dared
lay hands on him.
The descent wasn't difficult, but
Jon did it slowly with much apparent
discomfort. He hopped into the
center of the floor—leaning on the
cases as if for support. Coleman
and Druce were both there as well
as a group of hard-eyed newcomers.
They raised their guns at his approach
but Coleman stopped them
with a gesture.
"This is my robe, boys, I'll see to
it that he's happy."
He raised his gun and shot Jon's
remaining leg off. Twisted around
by the blast, Jon fell helplessly to
the floor. He looked up into the
smoking mouth of the .75.
"Very smart for a tin-can, but
not smart enough. We'll get the
junk on the boat some other way,
some way that won't mean having
you around under foot." Death
looked out of his narrowed eyes.
Less than two minutes had passed
since Jon's call. The watchers must
have been keeping 24 hour stations
waiting for Venex 17's phone message.
The main door went down with
the sudden scream of torn steel. A
whippet tank crunched over the
wreck and covered the group with
its multiple pom-poms. They were
an instant too late, Coleman pulled
Jon saw the tensing trigger finger
and pushed hard against the floor.
His head rolled clear but the bullet
tore through his shoulder. Coleman
didn't have a chance for a second
shot, there was a fizzling hiss from
the tank and the riot ports released
a flood of tear gas. The stricken
men never saw the gas-masked police
that poured in from the street.
Jon lay on the floor of the police
station while a tech made temporary
repairs on his leg and shoulder.
Across the room Venex 17 was
moving his new body with evident
"Now this really feels like something!
I was sure my time was up
when that land slip caught me.
But maybe I ought to start from the
beginning." He stamped across the
room and shook Jon's inoperable
"The name is Wil Counter-4951L3,
not that that means much
any more. I've worn so many different
bodies that I forget what I
originally looked like. I went right
from factory-school to a police
training school—and I have been
on the job ever since—Force of
Detectives, Sergeant Jr. grade, Investigation
Department. I spend
most of my time selling candy bars
or newspapers, or serving drinks in
crumb joints. Gather information,
make reports and keep tab on guys
for other departments.
"This last job—and I'm sorry
I had to use a Venex identity, I
don't think I brought any dishonor
to your family—I was on loan to
the Customs department. Seems a
ring was bringing uncut junk—heroin—into
the country. F.B.I.
tabbed all the operators here, but
no one knew how the stuff got in.
When Coleman, he's the local big-shot,
called the agencies for an underwater
robot, I was packed into
a new body and sent running.
"I alerted the squad as soon as
I started the tunnel, but the damned
thing caved in on me before I
found out what ship was doing the
carrying. From there on you know
"Not knowing I was out of the
game the squad sat tight and waited.
The hop merchants saw a half
million in snow sailing back to the
old country so they had you dragged
in as a replacement. You made
the phone call and the cavalry rushed
in at the last moment to save
two robots from a rusty grave."
Jon, who had been trying vainly
to get in a word, saw his chance as
Wil Counter turned to admire the
reflection of his new figure in a
"You shouldn't be telling me
those things—about your police investigations
and department operations.
Isn't this information supposed
to be secret? Specially from
"Of course it is!" was Wil's
airy answer. "Captain Edgecombe—he's
the head of my department—is
an expert on all kinds of blackmail.
I'm supposed to tell you so
much confidential police business
that you'll have to either join the
department or be shot as a possible
informer." His laughter wasn't
shared by the bewildered Jon.
"Truthfully, Jon, we need you
and can use you. Robes that can
think fast and act fast aren't easy
to find. After hearing about the
tricks you pulled in that warehouse,
the Captain swore to decapitate
me permanently if I couldn't
get you to join up. Do you need
a job? Long hours, short pay—but
guaranteed to never get boring."
Wil's voice was suddenly serious.
"You saved my life, Jon—those
snowbirds would have left me in
that sandpile until all hell froze
over. I'd like you for a mate, I
think we could get along well together."
The gay note came back
into his voice, "And besides that,
I may be able to save your life
some day—I hate owing debts."
The tech was finished, he snapped
his tool box shut and left.
Jon's shoulder motor was repaired
now, he sat up. When they shook
hands this time it was a firm clasp.
The kind you know will last
Jon stayed in an empty cell that
night. It was gigantic compared to
the hotel and barrack rooms he was
used to. He wished that he had his
missing legs so he could take a little
walk up and down the cell. He
would have to wait until the morning.
They were going to fix him
up then before he started the new
He had recorded his testimony
earlier and the impossible events
of the past day kept whirling
around in his head. He would think
about it some other time, right now
all he wanted to do was let his
overworked circuits cool down, if
he only had something to read, to
focus his attention on. Then, with
a start, he remembered the booklet.
Everything had moved so fast that
the earlier incident with the truck
driver had slipped his mind completely.
He carefully worked it out from
behind the generator shielding and
opened the first page of Robot
Slaves in a World Economy. A card
slipped from between the pages
and he read the short message on it.
PLEASE DESTROY THIS
CARD AFTER READING
If you think there is truth in
this book and would like to hear
more, come to Room B, 107
George St. any Tuesday at 5
The card flared briefly and was
gone. But he knew that it wasn't
only a perfect memory that would
make him remember that message.
Produced by Greg Weeks, Stephen Blundell and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team at http://www.pgdp.net
This etext was produced from Fantastic Universe November 1956.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S.
copyright on this publication was renewed. Minor spelling and
typographical errors have been corrected without note.