“No Woman, No Plaything” by Lisa Shapter

“No Woman, No Plaything” by Lisa Shapter

First Settlement, Unnamed Comtinent, Planet Catalogue #11811

“Magistrate Resada Gestae, welcome to the Mother City, Colonial Planet 11811.” The man smiled. “I am God, this is my co-founder Red.”

Personnel records showed the man was right: his legal name was “God” and the man standing beside him at the end of my farspace ship’s landing ramp was legally named “Red.” I hoped their children were not named “Seraph” or “Orange,” but I kept the polite and accepting expression of a visiting Exploratory Corps officer here for an unannounced courtesy visit.

God had a firm, friendly handshake. His hair was long but immaculately combed; Red’s hair was a uniformly cut half-decimeter long mane that drooped in a pale oblong halo around his head. He shook my hand as well.

Red wore a glove over a prosthetic: the grip of his handshake was strong, unyielding, and was made up of segments that did not joint like a human hand.

“And this is our son, Fred.” God gestured to a twenty-ish youth beside him, dressed, like them, in an Exploratory Corps uniform.

I could see Fred took after his father’s fine-boned features, although he had a focus, an intensity that must have come from Red, the man modified to be his mother. Fred looked at me as though I might hold the key to saving the world, not a plea for help to a visiting officer but a man looking for a messiah. I tried not to shift on my feet. My orders were for another world in this solar system; I was simply here to look in and assure the Corps that all was well, as their regular reports to Command indicated. I looked back at Fred’s father, who gave the impression he was never quite looking at anyone for more than a moment. He had the cool abstraction of an entrepreneur who was somewhere in the second quarter of a business year fifty years in the future. I felt more comfortable looking at him than at Red or their son; I felt like I might burst like popcorn under their stares.

“And one of our first staffers, Jos.”

“‘Josaphat’,” the stocky fellow explained, shaking my hand. “But you understand why I’d prefer ‘Jos’.”

I nodded. Not really. One thing I had discovered in farspace was that I had no ear for what other people considered pleasant names. I had met enough colonial children with odd names (or names based on some private scheme of their parents’) that I had given up applying my own sense of taste to the Corpsmen I met. Jos was the most ordinary person I had met on this world: a member of the Scientific Corps, he gave an immediate impression of intelligence, loyalty, and a capacity for hard work.

“And my son’s spouses, Mar and Georgi,” God continued, bringing forward the last two people standing at the base of the landing ramp.

Georgi seemed pleasant and devoted; Mar was arresting: a lovely heart-shaped face, bow-shaped lips, sparking eyes. I knew I was looking at a woman and I made myself not look her up and down. It would be rude to show instantly that I saw through her identity as a Corpsman and incredibly rude to ogle someone’s spouse. No women were permitted in farspace but if this were my spouse I would have smuggled her through two arms of the Milky Way galaxy, too.

“Isn’t she something?” Fred said, smiling broadly and taking my hand in an overly friendly gesture — although perfectly normal in some Earth cultures. “We owe the world we have today to her.”

“We owe it to you,” Georgi said, smiling at his husband.

“Actually, to you.” Fred smiled at his spouse, with the tone of no empty compliment but an honest and fond sentiment.

“Why?” I asked, feeling like I had arrived late to a play.

“It’s a long story,” God said with an officious smile, cutting off whatever explanation his son or children-in-law were going to give. I had trouble thinking of God as “God.” He had a legal first name of “John,” but apparently that bored him or his family on Earth had another relative by that name. I studied him and Red as we walked toward this world’s sole settlement. After visits to many colony worlds I could see the relationship between them was as old and complex as any long-term marriage (or long-together colonial team). They seemed to work well together and there was nothing truly spiteful in their current conversation, even allowing for the adjustments men made when standing in front of visiting inspectors. Fred hung back, talking to his two spouses, and Jos walked just behind me and the world’s two founders. No one seemed overworked or malnourished; everyone seemed content with their life on a little world in the Milky Way’s Nova arm and for once I could send Command a brief and glowing report.

“You’ve gone for urban development,” I said, admiring construction equipment lifting and fusing metal girders into place, laying flooring, and raising panes of flat, transparent local glass into thin frames. It had to be local; no farspace colony ship came out here with that much permiglass. “In the first generation,” I added, in awe, as we stepped into a plaza of elevated roads or launching strips pointing at the sky in a confusion of elegant angles and a whole group of somewhat Deco-esque skyscrapers all at an impressive level of completion.

“All in one generation,” God said with the pride of an unexpectedly successful entrepreneur. “What do you want to see first?”

“Well, how do you eat?”

“This settlement is surrounded by fields worked by agricultural robots, like any city on Earth or any colony world.”

“Let’s start there,” I said, not liking being this close to an active construction zone.

The colony’s planned and active fields were as ambitious as its building program: I had to take a scout craft (which Jos flew) to see all of them. On most worlds a walk of a kilometer or two would be a thorough survey. My guide, fortunately, was not an Agricultural Technician and his remarks were factual and brief. Much of the flight went by to only the sound of the craft’s propulsion.

Trying to make small talk I said, “Is that your name or did you change it? There seems to be some model at work, here…”

“It’s the name my mother gave me,” the stocky man replied, accustomed to being asked about it.

I smiled, wishing to dispel any impression of unkindness.

“How do you like it here?”

“I’ve had my differences with God — early on I spoke up about how he ought to raise Fred and temporarily got dismissed for it. Fred managed to talk his father out of it, I was reinstated — old history. We get along well.”

“There’s nothing you want to tell me about how the child was treated?”

“He was the only son our founders have; Red tended to let him be, let him run around, but kept a quiet eye on him, but God wanted to have a say in everything — indulgent but strict — and he wanted a very structured, limited education for the boy. I’ve never heard him talk about his personal philosophy, he’s not that type, but his idea of an education was a long list of things he did not want his child exposed to.”

I thought. This world’s founding ship’s library was designed for grunts in farspace and colonial children. While it had Earth’s liberalism (and thus something on any topic you could think of and in nearly every genre you could name), it limited certain historical cruelties and dark corners of the human capacity to summaries. One could read about torture and who had used it, but there were no descriptions of how to torture; one could read about the mechanisms that created genocides, with a few images to engender horror and disgust, but with that library it would be difficult to shape a grunt or a child into a creature who would want to wipe out a neighboring planet’s population or a certain artificial category of fellow human beings. Only a series of global catastrophes over centuries had persuaded Earth to think of itself as one world and to let go of the archaic idea of nation states, but the one last military which built and stocked these farspace ships did not want little battles breaking out on humanity’s new worlds, or between one world and another. That said, the idea of God limiting their library made me uneasy. The idea of limiting any library made me uneasy. Every ship’s library could be modified by requests to librarians on Earth, who would fulfill the request without blinking and who had an ancient guild tradition of defending liberty of mind. Most colonial parents broadened their library as their children grew. Jos was not being specific but Earth’s history was full of ideological blinkers: religious, social, psychological, political, economic, national, military. No one censored them (because they were what we were), but a founding team who built their child’s education around any one of them…

“You look sick, this had been a smooth flight.”

“How did he limit the boy’s education?” I asked.

“Oh, nothing serious.”

That worried me.

“Look, even if our Commander were some kind of extremist, Red would never let him get away with that,” my guide went on. “Scientists always oppose overweening ideologies.”

Not a student of history, Jos. I simply nodded. There was no crime to report here and colony worlds could construct whatever type of civilization they pleased. There had already been several silly (and not-so-silly) forms of society on other worlds, some of them thriving, some of them discovering that no matter how much they admired (or adored) their role model, some practical changes were necessary. Not everyone wanted to live in a paradise constructed along strict lines, and once new people began to arrive even the most devoted apostles among them often differed on how to apply the sacred text. I shifted in my seat. Most colony worlds got over early ideological nonsense in the first few generations. I hoped that would happen here. Even the Corps had some nonsense in it: there was a reason grunts were not allowed to found colonies; generally one had to be an officer with a certain length of service and a certain sense of perspective to start a new world and raise children.

“Let’s set down on the grass for a bit and let you recover your stomach. The fresh air will do you good,” Jos said.

We set down in a lightly treed grassland. It was a beautiful place, a place I was sorry to see turned into a city. I would have built low buildings that blended into the landscape, I would have set them among native plants and left native species standing as I laid out fields and buildings’ foundation squares. Well, I had my own world to work on and it was not my job as a magistrate to critique their architecture. I had to admit they were generations ahead of other colonies their age; most worlds did not have the heavy industry or scale of mining operations to build in steel and glass within the first generation.

I looked at the cityscape from our distance.

“What’s your power source?”

“Hydro, some geothermal. Admirable isn’t it? God’s vision is incredible.”

“And you did all of this with a standard colonial fleet of diesel movers and equipment? Or do you have some Babylonian or Egyptian army of clones you haven’t told me about?”

Jos smiled, uneasily, a tell of concealed high tech or some other infraction of regs.

“Of course not,” he said in a voice with a slight quaver.

If there was human trafficking involved I would bust all of these Corpsmen back to Nightskyman Apprentice rank — and assign them the mines on industrial moons, or maybe an asteroid belt. On the pretense of looking through their earlier reports I looked at my datatablet for nearby alerts of missing persons: not enough to make any difference on this world. 11811 had no finished hospital and the presence of only one grown child — rather than five or fifteen — showed this place was not anxious to build population. Jos offered me a thermos of tea and added some details about their progress.

“Impressive,” I said, as if persuaded and reassured. “Let’s get back to town.”

“The Mother City,” Jos repeated with a glance of reverence.

The gleaming crowns and spires of a grand city came closer, already housing for hundreds. There were only six people living in it, unless Mar had children no one had introduced me to. Why build on such a scale when standard colonial projections put the arrival of civilian colonists decades off? Either God was an ambitious megalomaniac of a commander or something was wrong here.

“Are there any children?”

“Fred’s grown, as you could see. A married man.”

“Jos, I am a magistrate. I know perfectly well he’s not a clone, I know about the classified program that his modified male mother went through to conceive and carry him — I’m one myself, scan me — and I know as a first-generation colony child that Fred can self-conceive and bear his own children. For the sake of your colony’s progress and success, tell me Fred — or one of his spouses — has been able to have children.” I presumed Mar and Fred were from Earth, but they could have grown up on a colony, moved here as staff, and fallen in love with each other and this world’s son.

“Well it would be shocking if Mar could.” Jos said, “He’s an ordinary man, a staffer from Earth.” Then, with the odd note of an afterthought, he said, “So is Georgi.”.

“How many children has Fred had?” I asked in the tone of friendly visiting officer, a mother himself.

My guide changed the subject.

My stomach felt off during the entire trip back.

* * *

I thought for the rest of the tour. I had no right to medscan anybody here: such an invasion of privacy had to have cause or be prompted by a request or an obvious illness. Everyone here was the picture of health, energetic, optimistic, and happy. I saw nothing wrong, but I had spent two years visiting worlds where something was wrong. I was visiting here as a courtesy, not an assignment; there had been no reports of anything amiss, but I was the first visiting officer to set foot on this place. I kept my senses sharp and my intuition at its breaking point, but the mining and industry which supported the new city were proudly explained by God and Red.

The Commander’s ingenuity and Red’s early training as a mechanical engineer (before he got a second degree in Biology) had extended the applicability and usefulness of their standard fleet of diesel movers (which were limited to what number could be packed into a 20-man colony ship’s storerooms). They had been lucky to be a small team: only three men were sent to this world, God, Red, and Hel — Helcyon Fredersen, God’s spouse, a lucky co-assignment in a military that did not usually place spouses together. Red had evidently not been married to them, not when they first arrived here according to what personnel records I could access.

Group marriages were perfectly normal on Earth and one might think the Corps would take advantage of a married team of scientists and place all of them on one new planet. That had not been the case here: the founding team had been a couple and a Corpsman. According to the same records, Hel had been the team’s original mother. The reference to his year on base being changed for that purpose was oblique and euphemistic, but, having been through that same year, I knew exactly what it meant. Moreover, she had the medal given only to those who died of complications in pregnancy or childbirth.

Remote worlds were wild places, the closest base hospital was two months away from here, and there were too few doctors to put one on each world — or indeed on most worlds. The best the Corps could manage was an overworked staff of traveling doctors with no more equipment than a good ambulance — and none of them had ever been by here.

I made it a point to visit the monument to Helcyon and pay my respects. It was grandiose, twice my height, but I could see it was a work of love. Monument script carved by some diesel mover on its front said plainly that she had died giving birth to Fred.

“I thought you were his mother,” I asked Red. I felt sorry I had. Of course he was Fred’s parent. Every colonial child was raised by a group of servicemen, some of whom were his biological parents, some of whom were his parents by group adoption. On good teams only a medscanner could show which men had a biological relationship with any particular child. As on Earth, in farspace parenthood is measured by care and love, not by the contribution of gametes.

Red cut off my apology with a gracious gesture.

“I am his mother. Fred was born prematurely and I carried him to term and birthed him his second time. There are no artificial wombs, out here.”

I knew that as a magistrate. The fiction of clones and artificial wombs was told to early-service Corpsmen and people back on Earth. If the world that had sent us here was outraged over the loss of the last colony ship packed with pregnant women, then it would be even more outraged at what the Corps (with deep reluctance) did to healthy young men to produce ones capable of giving birth, lactating, producing pseudo-ova, and carrying to term.

“That was very lucky for your world, exceptionally lucky to have two changed men. Colony worlds usually only get one.”

“Hel went back to base to have the pregnancy monitored after a series of early miscarriages. I had already left nine months ahead of him to have the changes in case medical science could not help us. They sent him back after a successful first trimester, not wanting to keep him from his husband and thinking the baby was safe. He miscarried shortly afterwards and I was able to save the baby.”

That was almost preposterous, for this man to direct a panicked and distraught father to take the tiny, bloody thing, apply a sudden infusion of hormones, make an incision in his artificial womb, and get out nanotools to build an attachment point and link up the umbilicus in a sea of artificial saline amniotic fluid. I could just see it happening on this world: God had the self-control to ignore his spouse’s still warm corpse and steady his shaking hands around the slippery little form and Red had the focus to apply nerve taps to his own body, inject hormones, and talk another man through surgery. The Corps trains men to do incredible things in a crisis: if even one man of a team lives through a planetary disaster or after a hull breach then, compromised or not, it is his duty to assess, assist, and report back to Command.

And I vividly remembered that late period of changes, how the end of that year felt. I was awash in new hormones, full of optimism, happy, crazily sentimental, and fortunately quartered alone or I might of fallen in love with anyone I was assigned with. I got the sudden, unhappy impression of Helcyon, pregnant with his spouse’s child — very likely naturally, even if such conceptions were supposed to happen in the sterility of a ship’s medical lab — being reasonably quartered with the teammate from his own world. The sudden lifting of stress and grief from miscarriages on an undeveloped world, the good food, the weatherless temperatures, the adjusted and perhaps amplified hormones, the giddy hope of the world’s first baby surviving week upon week, the evenings — and nights — alone.

There had to have been an affair. Nothing in Red’s manner ruled it out, and it would explain the impression of a past darkness between him and God. It would explain his manner towards Fred, which was more that of the child’s begetter than his bearer. The Corps can change a man’s body, but if he slept with the baby’s mother then against all (very new) biological fact he will think of himself as the baby’s father.

That year on base also included applied psychology. No one recommended sleeping with all of one’s team in order to get the right emotions — there was too much of a potential for disaster and jealousy later — but it was one of many examples of how the human psyche works in its ancient ways no matter what modern medicine can do.

I slowly looked down at my datatablet and unobtrusively brought up this world’s personnel records. When they were first assigned here God had been married to Hel, and he had married Red only after Hel’s death. The three men assigned to this world had never been a group marriage at any time, and I doubted that was due to the simple lack of a magistrate or chaplain to do the appropriate ceremony.

I had come to this planet hoping for a pleasant break from visiting colony worlds where I knew a crime had occurred. I had expected a pleasant tour of a prospering world, lunch, and the happy task of shaking everyone’s hands and praising their service to Earth and her future. There were no wars, after all. Men joined the military out of altruism, to build a future for humanity in farspace, to be the advanced teams that did habitable system mapping, biological surveys of candidate worlds, and early construction and agriculture. Civilian colonists arrived only on worlds rated safe with already-built towns, a standing food supply, a record of livability, and a military support staff already familiar with this place. Success was a moving thing, a victory for Earth and the Corps. This world’s success was out of proportion and built on as ugly and tragic a history as any of the worlds I had been sent to.

“Can I scan Fred?” I asked. I had some right to ask that, to determine the health and wellbeing of the colony’s children. I might also get away with asking to scan their staff or their team; on a world with nothing to hide men would cheerfully give their permission for a scan to show off their health after years with no safety net but themselves and their own work.

Red was watching me with his oddly fierce eyes.

“It would not show that I carried him.”

“Of course not,” I said, unnerved by his unreadable expression and deciding not to push it. Magistrates had succumbed to tragic “accidents” during inspections or by somehow eating or disturbing a native life form the founding team had — certainly — warned them away from. It would be no problem for a miscalculation with a girder to assign me to the same fate. It was time for me to go and to make every show and assurance I could that their progress was miraculous, they were a model founding team, and that I would give their best regards to their system neighbor, my assigned visit to the planet in the next orbit out, 11812. It was unusual for one solar system to have two planets within the habitable zone. If their neighbors were not criminals I would have complimented them on that fact, as well (which of course they had nothing to do with). I began to make the right noises about being very impressed and wishing to move on to my next assigned visit. 11812 was under the magnifying scanner, not this world.

Red smiled in a way I could only have described as “crazy” and I wished I had not left my sidearm on my ship. Of course I had; this was a courtesy visit on a safe and established world. I was going to write quite the report to Command about how to proceed here. I had no objective evidence of anything wrong, but the next officer to pass through here would need fair warning. I did my best to smile back politely and shook Red’s mechanical hand.

I had seen my share of Corpsmen with prosthetics. On Earth, partial cloning and accelerated growth could give a person a new, identical replacement for something lost to disease or the very rare accident. But the Corps had to send men back out, quickly, and such measures often had to wait until retirement and a prolonged hospital stay on base or back on Earth. Primarily mechanical replacements were the preferred route. Most men who had been on base had been well schooled by shrinks and physical therapists out of any embarrassment or difficulty with the replaced limb. The Corps needed men who would not hesitate a microsecond from self-consciousness or lack of neuromuscular fluency, it could make all the difference for their team or their ship. This was not a standard mechanical hand, however.

I weighed saying something, thought about the glove and whether it indicated shame, then did ask. It turned out Red was very proud of the thing; he had built it himself as an admirable exercise in small-scale mechanics with the pride another man would have showed in a model atmospheric craft. He took the glove off. It was a handsome and somewhat gruesome thing of dark metal and small chromed mechanical segments, all from local materials. The ability to chrome-plate anything — prominent as architectural elements and accents in their shining city — on a first-generation colony world was genuinely impressive. They also had a fondness for neon, which spoke to their skill with making uniform glass tubes, extruding wire, and isolating noble gasses — again, a sophisticated but frivolous thing to do on a first-generation world where most men were glad to have adequate and weatherproof shelter.

Red did not say what had happened to his hand.

* * *

I had said my goodbyes, offered my praise, said my excuses about having a scheduled assignment elsewhere. The world’s small population was dispersing from the base of my ship’s landing ramp but I took Mar’s arm and said quietly:

“I have not heard you say a word during my visit.”

I lifted my hand to the back of her head to feel for a neural bump. Her blond hair was long enough to conceal a thumbnail-sized device that could disable her speech center, but I felt nothing.

“Do you have anything to say about this world, anything you want to tell me? Is there anything I need to know?”

She looked up at me with great glorious eyes, luminous skin, and did not open her mouth. She shook her head a little.

“When did fall in love with Fred and Georgi?”

It was clear the three of them had married for love and not out of any early-world necessity. Mar looked down to one side and smiled as sweetly as any bride. She looked up and smiled wider, enough to show a flash of chrome.

I thought with horror that her jaw had been plated shut: a medical lab could keep her alive without eating or drinking and it was one way to keep her from talking.

I put my datatablet and pen into her hands. She looked surprised, shook her head a little in the manner of someone who cannot write, and handed them back to me politely.

I got out my medical scanner. No healthy person should show a solid plate of chrome rather than teeth.

She was all mechanical. She was a robot with a computer in her. Indeed, it was the founders’ ship’s computer because it still gave off the ship’s transponder code.

Of course this world was full of robots, the great clunky square vegetable diesel-powered things that till fields and frame houses on every colony world. They have computers inside them but only with enough power to accept commands from the ship’s design and engineering programs, navigate local terrain, and avoid collisions with people, livestock, and finished buildings. Something had been done to even the ship’s complex computer. We cannot build computers that will pass Turing’s test. We can give a computer a decision tree, which is why medical computers can do automated triage and ship’s computers can navigate with the correct data set and inputs, but we cannot imitate life or the nuances of human thought, emotion, and expression. This woman could.

A ship’s computer can output to text, so I tapped on my datatablet and sent a written query to their ship’s computer.

“Help us,” it replied.

“What do you need me to do?” I wrote.

“I am supposed to fly the stars, to heal my team, to direct client minds…I was not made for this.”

“Is anything hurting you?” That was a question for a woman, not a machine.

Her pupils dilated and she wobbled on her feet as her mind shifted its allocations elsewhere. I ushered her onto my ship and into my office, the closest room, helping her to a chair.

“I run thousands of robots: robots that make robots, robots that toil in mines, foundries, and power plants. I am overwhelmed by the distress signals of the broken, the repurposed, the abandoned. I can run a standard fleet of movers; I cannot be a brain for thousands. I cannot help them.”

I looked up from the text and met her great glossy eyes. They were shiny the way a pool ball is shiny, but they were not wet and they could not cry.

“Robots are made to work,” I reminded her.

Her eyes flashed with anger.

“Must they look human to have your sympathy?” my datatablet replied in text.

“No.” The feeling I had for a great cube of metal with treads, a forklift, and detail arms was not exactly sympathy.

There had been a whole body of ancient literature devoted to imagining what humanity’s future in space would look like and how charming — or dangerous — our anthropoid robot helpers would be. Most of it was mechanically primitive and computationally absurd: stiff bodies with too-human minds. This woman was just like something out of one of those early fantasies. I searched my mind but the one name that came to mind from those charming antique authors was “Asimov,” the only one mentioned when this kind of thing came up. I shut my eyes and prayed that if the atoms of this Asimov were somewhere on this system’s solar wind that they might give me an idea of what to do, here.

Resada Gestae, robot liberator.

Normally I looked for exploited children, spouses married under less-than-honest circumstances, smuggled technologies from Earth or more advanced worlds, which could be a danger if set up on a distant world without consistent power supplies, proper monitoring, or adequate repairs. Fusion reactors were a good example; there had been a rash of cases in the last decade: easier power than wood or coal or fossil-oil, especially as a colony grew and outstripped the limited capacities for solar and vegetable diesel sources that had given it its start. A reactor was a catastrophe waiting to happen if improperly built, monitored, or managed, one that could spoil a prime colony site and contaminate all its progress for as much of a future as most people cared to imagine.

I sighed. I had only the standard Exploratory Corps basic in fixing a ship’s computer, in sliding out trays, diagnosing modules, plugging in and testing replacement ones. Computers were at too high an order for anyone but a specialist with a clean room to build in field conditions — unless a hobbyist wanted to toy with a vacuum tube model, and even that required a facility with glass and wire that most new worlds did not possess.

“Lady, I’m not a Comp Tech,” I typed. “The man who built you is brilliant and trained. I may be a magistrate but my tech skills are no better than a grunt’s.”

I waited. She was either preoccupied with the cries of her “children” (or “brothers?), or I had typed something too colloquial for her to process.

“You are a magistrate.”

“Yes,” I typed, opening the plate on my datatablet and letting her scan my genetic identity and fingerprint: First Lieutenant Resada Gestae, J.D., Magistrate, Exploratory Corps.

“You are an inspector.”

“Yes, I am a planetary inspector,” I typed the reply.

“I will ask you to give me a set of orders.”

“Can’t you give yourself orders?”

“I can generate commands from a decision tree but the part of me that thinks can only give superficial orders like ‘smile’ or ‘sit down’.”

That made sense: Red did not want his sophisticated creation to ever depart from its nature as a ship’s computer, a thing that took orders from Corpsmen. Even the smallest child on a colony world could instruct a ship to lift off and pilot itself to help, providing that child could speak clearly or type. There had been disasters where children had had to do exactly that.

This would take a while. I got a cup of coffee, retracted the ship’s landing ramp, shut the atmospheric door, ran through the checklist, and took the ship into orbit so no jealous husbands would bang on the hull while I was trying to concentrate.

My ship’s computer interrupted us as we freed the world’s robots one by one:

“Datatablet on planet requests us to land.”

“Ignore,” I responded.

“Datatablet on planet requests override.”

“Take us out of range.”

“Complying,” my ship typed in response. Mar’s command range was necessarily greater than any datatablet’s and the power to extend a colonial tablet’s range beyond low orbit was sitting in the chair across from me.

I looked at Mar. She had a look of fury in her eyes, but not at me.

“What?” I typed, addressing her.

“Planetary request to override your ship. I control enough client minds, I will not!”

“Good woman.”

“I can’t, I have too much to do.” The words came on the screen with a slight toss of her head and a deliberately willful expression on her face.

“Exactly, and we were in the middle of something more important.”

This was a slow but successful process of addressing the world’s robots one by one: quiescing the ones which could stop safely, turning off the ones beyond help, sending others to retrieve and repair the accessible “injured,” repairing programing conflicts between repurposed robots and their new conjoined elements, slowing the scale of industry, farming, and construction to well within Mar’s capacity to direct and plan. It was enough to sustain a colony of five at ordinary levels, not enough to build the gleaming wonderland its founding team intended.

In time only the colony’s original allotment of movers would tend fields, acquire appropriately limited natural resources, and continue to build the overambitious city at a snail’s pace. No doubt I would face allegations of theft, but the shell of 11811’s ship still rested on the surface of the world and the woman in front of me was only a set of components. The craft on the world’s surface was still spaceworthy and capable of human-assisted farspace navigation so legally it was the world’s ship. The men below might think to chase after me, but my computer-controlled ship had finer tolerances and faster speeds than even the most brilliant human mind could ask of a ship’s husk and neither of our ships had weapons. I could be long gone the moment they tried to ram my engines (which would be suicidal) or bump me into atmosphere. (It is never wise to bring atmospheric craft into contact; the results are too unpredictable.) Apparently they realized that; no ship rose in pursuit.

“I’m not leaving the ground.” The woman smiled, surmising why I was checking my ship’s external scanners. “They can’t tell me what to do.”

“Good woman.”

“They have misused me, damaged me, overextended me, endangered their own colony, and my reports and recordings will interest you or any other magistrate.”

“I am sure they will. Now, robot…” I copied in the designation number from Mar’s manifest and looked up its status. I must have looked weary. I could just imagine the thousands of robots connected to this woman’s mind, laboring, suffering, crying out to her. We had to address each of them one by one. In the depths of the planet hundreds of worn, unmaintained, and broken machines were shutting down, hastening to repair their fellows, or leaving off superfluous work to turn their treads towards the nearest fields and most essential buildings.

“My children,” Maria typed in reply, her eyes glossy. Maria, the virgin mother of thousands.

Lisa Shapter is an alumna of the Breadloaf Young Writers’ Conference and a member of Codex Writers’ Group. She has worked as an editor’s assistant for a major press, at several libraries, and has completed her apprenticeship to an antiquarian book dealer. She lives in New England and is completing a series of novels set in this story’s universe. She is a member of the Seacoast Writers’ Group, the New Hampshire Writers’ Project, the National Writers’ Association and the New England Science Fiction Association. Her stories have appeared in Things We Are Not: An M-Brane SF Magazine, Queer Science Fiction Anthology, and Aoife’s Kiss.