Raymund Eich

Five From the Borderlands

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“So far from God, so close to the United States.”

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“”

From both sides of the border, five stories of science fiction about Mexicans and Americans.

 

LA RUBIA

How far will Francisca go to protect her colony of Mexican refugees from pirates roving the asteroid belt?

PASE DE UN DÍA

Chalo could teleport to the U.S. every day and work for a better life for his family—if he keeps his day pass.

MIKE FINK GOES TO BIG BEND

Characters from American, Mexican, and Native folklore meet in west Texas in the 21st century.

THE THIRTIETH AMENDMENT

Gonzalo must pass the test of English fluency to prove himself a U.S. citizen. So must others who are willing to cheat.

AFFECTIVE DISORDER

Texas PI Albert Jimenez finds more than the usual when he investigates an heiress’ “suicide.”

Sample of “Five From the Borderlands”

FIVE FROM THE BORDERLANDS

Raymund Eich

##

CV-2 Books ● Houston

La Rubia

The house looked like home. Four stucco walls ringed the courtyard. The sky was the same deep blue as the sky over the hills above Guadalajara. But this sky was the inside of a dome barely larger than the house, papered over with an array of light-emitting fluorophores. A fountain gently shot water drops in arcs that took ten minutes to land. At its best, her house gave Francisca pleasant dreams of flying through the original back on Earth, with her husband and her children nearby; but at times it only reminded her of all she had lost.

Francisca floated a few meters from the gate. Mist from the fountain had condensed on her strap-on plastic wings. Next to her hovered her assistant, José, and her daughter, Annamaria.

“They’re crossing the plaza,” José said. “They’ll be here in—”

“I have eyes in my head.” Francisca glared at José. His obsolete interface looked like pale warts—three around each eyesocket, one on each ear, one under his nose—on his broad bronzed Indio face. Over his shoulder, in her mind’s eye, she saw Mauricio, her other assistant, lead the European and his killer arēs to the mouth of her corridor.

“I’m sorry, Señora,” José said.

—Mama,— came Annamaria’s voice direct to her brain. —Don’t be so harsh with him.—

Her daughter was only sixteen; too young to remember how accursedly lazy the lower orders could be. But Francisca was young enough to remember her own teenage idealism during the 2020s boom, an idealism that chafed at the weary cynicism of her parents. Annamaria would learn soon enough. —My nerves are on edge,— Francisca said.

—I know. But Mauricio and José are right. It’s become too dangerous. You know that, Mama. We need protection.—

—But a European! His arēs may have killed your brother!—

Annamaria rolled her eyes. Why did her brother’s memory mean so little? A chime rang from outside the courtyard and brought Francisca’s attention around. She looked through the gate. Mauricio drifted with his foot hooked in a rayon loop on the corridor floor. The European and his arēs wore zero-gee jetvests.

Mother of God, she wished it hadn’t come to this. With time, José could have rigged more weapons, and the next pirate ship raiding for iron and nickel would have been blown apart. But the European’s arēs carried the blueprints for better weapons in er soulless machine brain. A quarter-million euros for three months of arming and training might turn out to be money well spent on hiring the two.

“Señora,” José said. “Should we admit them?”

Francisca nodded. —Open,— she told the gate. Its halves folded in. Mauricio withdrew his foot from the loop, and flapped in like an overfed bird. This was the first time she’d seen the other two in person. The European—his name was Dietrich; she might as well refer to him by it—stood about one-meter-sixty-five. Was he short, or had he neglected his bone density while living in the asteroid belt? Dietrich had a wiry figure, ragged blond hair, and a scar over his left eye. A laser pistol sat holstered on his hip. He reminded Francisca of venal policemen back home in Mexico; tell them you knew the state governor, or someone high up in Mexico City, and they would slink away.

The arēs looked like a child’s mannequin with stubby wings on er back. E had eyes, ears, nose, mouth; and a collection of levers underneath er beige polymer skin to distort er face in mimicry of emotions. Francisca had seen civilian intelligent robots, commonly known as athenas, once or twice, but never before an arēs, an intelligent robot whose neural network brain had been selected for military use. E should look evil, monstrous, or at the very least, aged beyond er years by er time in combat. Instead e looked like a well-behaved child.

Mauricio stopped his flight with careful flaps. Dietrich and his arēs puffed air from their vests’ front vents into the faces of Fransica and the others. Mauricio cleared his throat. “Señora Jünger, may I introduce Major Dietrich, formerly of the European Rapid Response Force?”

He glanced at her hand. She didn’t lift it. He bowed. “At your service, Señora.” He spoke lisping Continental Spanish, probably through a translation computer wired into his ears and voice. “And at that of your sister.” Dietrich began to bow at Annamaria, but instead she held out her hand, palm down. He bent and kissed it.

Flattering unction. “My daughter, Annamaria.”

“Daughter? I would never have guessed. You look so alike, both your hair is so white-blonde—”

“Some Mexicans are of pure European descent,” Francisca said. Her people called her la rubia, the blonde, and had called her that for the decade since she’d gathered them in the ruins of Mexico and led them to the Brazilian space elevator and a new life in the asteroid belt. They called Annamaria la rubicita, and the respect they gave Francisca they transferred to her daughter. No one needed to know she’d tinted Annamaria’s hair with gene-therapy colorizer when her daughter was two years old.

“Pardon me,” Dietrich said. “Señora, Señorita, may I introduce Marlborough?”

The arēs bowed to Francisca, then Annamaria. E opened er mouth, and words came from a speaker where er tongue should be. “I am honored to meet you,” e said with a sexless tenor voice.

Francisca didn’t look at er. “Why is it speaking to me?”

Dietrich lifted his chin. “Marlborough is my subordinate. E is not my pet. E speaks for erself.”

“Perhaps Señora Jünger is discomfited by the EU’s invasion of Mexico during the North Atlantic War,” Malborough said to Dietrich.

Shut up.

“You have told her? About our deployment to Mexico from August 2047 through May 20—”

“Shut up!” Francisca shouted. “If I want you to speak I’ll ask!” For this thing to be moving, talking, pretending to be alive while her son was dead, perhaps even at this machine’s hand—!

“Your pardons, Señora,” Marlborough said. Er vest puffed and e drifted a few dozen centimeters back.

Francisca glared at Dietrich, while rapid breaths flared out her narrow nose. He avoided her gaze and cast a sidelong glance at his arēs. “Tell us about your deployment to Mexico, Major,” she said.

Dietrich blinked and bobbed his head. “Yes, well, we had our orders, and it was better for the world we opened a second front on the Americans and brought the war to a close more quickly….”

Francisca returned her gaze to the arēs. At least e seemed willing to talk. “Tell me.”

“I directed a battery of robotic rocket artillery. We landed at Tampico, and moved west to Ciudad Valles, San Luis Potosi, Lagos de Moreno, and Guadalajara…. Señora?”

Her estate had lain along the road from Lagos de Moreno. During the army’s retreat, Oskar, her son, drove up to the house and told them to shelter in the basement. Why had they listened? They should have fled with him. They should have shared his fate.

“Señora,” Marlborough said, “I regret any damage to your property and any physical or emotional pain my actions may have caused you and those close to you.” E sounded sincere, and er face drooped in contrition.

Francisca shut her eyes. Who was this damned machine to pity her with er neural network emotions?

Dietrich cleared his throat. “I think we’d do better to leave the past in the past. Now, as we had discussed, over the next three months we will arm your settlement and train your citizens—”

“No. No! We don’t need you, we don’t need your killer arēs. Get out!”

“Señora?” said José.

—Mama, what are you doing?—

—They destroyed our farm! Our country! We can’t work with them!—

“We had agreed,” Dietrich said. “The terms are fair.”

“That’s before we knew what you had done to us.” Francisca folded her arms.

—To you and I, Mama.— Annamaria leaned forward. “Señor, would the two of you please wait outside?”

Dietrich opened his mouth to protest, but his expression showed he thought better of it. “Gladly, Señorita.” He and Marlborough rotated toward each other, then flew toward the gate.

Francisca turned her back on the European with a few flaps of her wings. She sent her next words not just to Annamaria’s brain, but also to José and Mauricio’s earbud speakers. —Everyone lost something to the Europeans, if not to that one and his arēs. It’s beneath our dignity to accept their offer.— Across the courtyard, the gate’s halves folded shut. One hinge crackled. A camera showed Dietrich and the machine in the corridor, heads together, doubtless speaking mind-to-mind.

Mauricio turned his head and breathed heavily, and José’s mouth puckered. “You don’t agree,” Francisca said.

Mauricio exhaled sharply, then looked up. “We lost everything once. If we don’t learn from Dietrich how to defend ourselves, we’ll lose everything again.”

“Some pirates will want more than the refined metal in the warehouse,” José said. “We couldn’t stop someone from conquering us. We need him and his arēs.”

“José,” Francisca said gently, “they killed your wife. How can you overlook that?”

He narrowed his eyes. “The Aztecs ate the heart of Doña Malinche’s brother, but she still should have taken their side against Cortes. We have greater enemies than that man.”

“It’s only three months,” Mauricio added. “Only a quarter-million euros. If the new platinum vein we found is as pure and extensive as it seems, that quarter-million will be only a few percent of our income.”

“If we’ll have so much money we can hire a defense consultant who isn’t European. There must be Americans in the belt providing the same service.”

José nodded sadly. “If we can find one, and sell enough platinum to pay him, before the next pirate raid. We shouldn’t risk so much.”

Mauricio cleared his throat. “I’ve never heard of any Americans with their own arēs, either.”

Francisca lifted her gaze to meet her daughter’s. If Annamaria took her side, the two men would yield. “What do you think?”

She raised her wings in a gesture encompassing the two men. “I agree with them.”

“But that machine killed your brother—”

“—who was a saint among men and the flower of Mexican manhood! By the Virgin! The government failed! It gave Oskar scared men with old rifles and told him to stop a horde of war machines remote-controlled by a mind a thousand times faster than his! Think of the living, Mama.”

The weight of the consensus against Francisca sunk in. They wanted Dietrich and his arēs. They’d rather sleep easier than maintain their dignity. “Very well. We’ll hire them. But no one mentions the new platinum vein to them, and we hide its operations as best we can.”

Dietrich and Marlborough started well. They slept and Dietrich took meals on their ship, but they worked twelve-hour days among the asteroid’s people. The first week, the arēs labored in the settlement’s assemblery, floating at vat number four’s control panel with a data cable plugged into a socket on er chest. Once Marlborough copied er instruction files into the vat’s volatile memory, the vat’s hundred-quadrillion carbon nanotube fingers did the rest. They pulled atoms from storage, moved them into place, and used heat and electron flows to add them to the growing structures. Infrared scopes and radars to better see pirates coming. Missiles and gamma-ray lasers to cripple pirate ships before they docked. Demo charges, shrapnel mines, and genomically-tailored paralytic gas, against pirates who did dock. Hardened and wireless communication links, triply redundant, to put their defenses together.

Francisca hosted a dinner on Thursdays for Mauricio, José, and the settlement’s other leaders, to discuss events. This week, they drifted in the courtyard among squeezebulb martinis, sushi assembled in rice-paper wraps, and the sounds of twelve-tone pieces by Schoenberg. Her people needed their cultural horizons broadened beyond tortillas and mezcal.

“Señora,” José said, “we should hack vat four when the arēs uses it, and copy the files for the weapons.”

Mauricio’s eyes widened. “Fool! They’ll stop building them if we try.”

“If they find out. If we’re lucky, they won’t.”

Francisca’s eyebrows rose in pleasant surprise at José’s idea. “Would it matter so much if they stopped building weapons? They’ve already assembled many.”

“No.” Annamaria flung an empty squeezebulb at a trashbird robot. The trashbird craned its neck but missed, and the bulb sailed past the fountain. “They’ve tamper-proofed the weapons they’ve already assembled. They’ll all melt if we try reverse-engineering even one of them.”

“So, rubicita?” José asked.

“They’re smart enough to do the same thing if we try stealing the weapon instruction files. If we try to cheat them, they’ll punish us. I’ve talked to Dietrich a bit, and that’s the sense I have of him.”

Francisca frowned, but nodded. Information wasn’t power. Proprietary information was power. Of course Dietrich and the arēs knew that; they came from a culture that dominated Earth by keeping its most important secrets.

A bit? How many times had Annamaria spoken with the European? Francisca checked her daughter’s movements a few times after that, but her visits with Dietrich were brief and took place in public during the asteroid’s day.

As Marlborough assembled the sensors and weapons, Dietrich emplaced them. Francisca went along once, with a spray canister of vacuumset on her back, to see what it required. Two trashbirds clutched a gamma-ray laser in their claws, one by the barrel and the other by the capacitor slot. José flew awkwardly with pieces of the laser’s mounting brace slung over his chest, and when the trashbirds ignored his shouted commands he used his interface to jolt the robots’ neural nets with pleasure or pain. Children flew after them, or darted from handhold to handhold along the walls, until they reached the active mineheads and José warned the children away. Dietrich jetted slowly, unreeling data and power lines; one of his mindless robots, the size of a bat, slithered along the cables, licked adhesive over them, and wrestled them to the wall. They went up a narrow corridor off the active nickel minehead, where they suited up, went out a new airlock, and tethered themselves. They floated at the bottom of a hole three meters wide and five deep. The sun hung over them, small and dim but brighter than any other of the many stars, and Francisca realized she hadn’t seen the sun in years. Soon, the hole’s rim clipped the sun, and shortly after, shadow filled the entire hole.

The men spent three hours mounting the laser, charging the capacitors, and topping off the lasing dye. The asteroid had just rotated them back into sunlight when Dietrich tested the laser on a rock Marlborough had put into orbit two hundred meters away. Three bursts of the laser started the rock melting and spewing vapor. Francisca handed José the vacuumset canister, and he sprayed shut the hole.

After the equipment had been assembled and emplaced, Dietrich and Marlborough set up a training schedule. Dietrich drilled everyone—men, women, older teenagers—on scrambling out to the lasers and firing them manually. Marlborough trained people to operate the lasers from the command computers distributed through the settlement, and worked to set up everyone’s interfaces to allow firing by thought.

For three weeks, Francisca found excuses to avoid training under Marlborough. Two teenage boys had a fistfight, and she had to call in the boys, their parents, and the girl of whom both boys were enamored; an encrypted message came in from one of their metals buyers, he’d be drifting by in a few weeks; she had a new household robot assembled and had to train it… she couldn’t hide the truth from herself any longer. Her hatred of Marlborough was why she avoided training. She turned back to her new robot, and when it put her underwear in her sock bag she jolted its pain center with a glee which quickly shamed her. “There, there,” she said, as the robot clung to her ankle and she, through her interface, sent it a mild but long wave of pleasure.

Francisca woke that night around two. She’d soaked her sleeping bag’s lining with sweat, in some bad dream that faded when she woke. She looked around the room, in the hope that some new angle would remind her what her dream had been; but all she saw was the courtyard lit by the false stars in the ceiling. Her household robots shuffled on their perch, nervous over something. She thought of the shocks she’d given the new one, and wondered if it had bad dreams as well.

After a few minutes, she realized she wouldn’t fall back asleep. She crawled out of her sleeping bag—the sweat on her skin chilled her—and jumped to her wardrobe. She pulled on a long-sleeved shirt, cargo pants, and her wings, and went through the courtyard and into the dim corridor. Dietrich had installed a new gun emplacement a few hundred meters away across the asteroid; if she couldn’t sleep, she could at least be productive and take a look.

On her return she flapped carefully, winding through a section where the corridor had followed a twisting nickel vein and mineheads gaped in the darkness. The platinum vein, so pure it was almost as blond as her hair, lay down one of them. She flew on, and as she rounded one corner, Marlborough said, “Señora?”

She twisted around and lifted her knees toward her torso. “Mother of God!” She flapped to stabilize herself, but ended up spinning.

Marlborough jetted a puff of air from er suit, gripped her wrist, and stopped their motion. “My apologies.” E spoke an upper-class Mexico City Spanish dialect. Er skin was cold and too smooth.

“What do you want?” Francisca asked.

“I would like to speak with you, if I may.”

“I’m sorry I haven’t attended any of your training sessions yet, but I’ve been busy.”

Marlborough shook er head. “I understand. However, I sought you to speak of another matter.”

How had e known she was here? Was e spying on her? Worse, was e spying on their platinum mining operation? “I don’t want to talk now. I’m tired.”

“Judging by your heartrate and breathing, you are unlikely to fall asleep. However, I understand if now is not a good time.”

Why did e want to talk? Oskar? Did e know more about his fate? She buried the thought. She refused to lose her dignity by letting this machine see her hope. Francisca straightened and glared at Marlborough. “Tell me what you have to tell, and then I’m going to bed.”

“Thank you, Señora.” E shut er mouth for a second. “Before you, I had never met someone whom my service to Europe had harmed.”

Anger bloomed in Francisca, like a fire when a log rolled. Her gaze pored over the arēs’ face in search of a reason to stifle her rage, but found none on the smooth bland plastic. “You want me to unburden your guilt? To forgive you for destroying my livelihood and killing my son? I don’t know what your emotions are, but if you feel something like guilt I want you to be stained with it forever.”

Marlborough widened er brown eyes, but er tenor voice remained even. “I appreciate your candor, Señora. However, I do not expect your forgiveness. I only wish to clarify my motivations, and those of the other arēs who participated in the invasion of Mexico.”

“Whether you viewed us with hatred or contempt? Do you think I want to know the answer?”

“We weren’t bred to look down on Mexicans, or non-Europeans in general. We were bred to serve our European masters, and bred in how to serve: to direct fire and movement, advance and retreat, for hundreds of robots; to work with our peers and our superiors; to be brave and efficient; to feel joy in our service.”

Francisca sniffed out a breath. “It was in your nature to destroy Mexico. That’s an even better defense than following orders. A higher level of moral absolution.” She shut her eyes, and the moment she learned of Oskar’s death came back to her. The survivor services officer hadn’t yet left the house. Fernando’s strong arms protected her while she cried, and his baritone voice murmured. War throws dice to claim its victims. She squeezed her eyes shut harder. She would not show this machine her tears.

“I do not seek moral absolution,” Marlborough said. “I do not deny my responsibility for the suffering I caused.”

Her eyes snapped open. “Then what do you want from me?”

“I want you to know that, for the first time in my existence, I feel guilt for treating someone other than my masters improperly. It is not pleasant, but it is what I feel and what I deserve, and I do not doubt I will be stained with it forever.”

Francisca clenched her fists. The damned arēs and er imperturbable airs. Would it be worse if e had no guilt, or if e had nothing but? An attack came to mind, and she used it. “Your guilt is why your masters discarded you.”

“Señora?” Er tone showed er weakness.

“What good is an arēs that feels qualms about its job? You failed the evolutionary fitness test, didn’t you? None of Europe’s new arēs have brains modelled on your brain, do they?” The aress were bred to serve. Although they were born in an assemblery vat instead of a stall at a stud farm, the same principle applied. Only the ones whose traits most pleased humans would be the parents of the next generation.

Marlborough nodded. “Señora, true, my masters studied my performance, and decided my brain was not suitable as a template for future offspring.”

Francisca leaned forward, and her facial muscles were firm. “How does it feel to know you’re sterile?” Like an intelligent steer? No, like an intelligent bull with no access to cows.

Marlborough blinked twice. “I want to be reproduced, yes. I was very disappointed when the ERRF declined to reproduce me. But Dietrich has told me that someday it will happen, if I continue my good work for him.”

“So you’ll have offspring someday? arēs sharing most of your mental traits?”

“Yes. Dietrich told me so.”

Francisca’s chest swelled with a deep breath. “If you do, I hope you see them die.” She turned and flapped her wings for home. The arēs could have caught her with er jetvest, and she expected er to do so. When e didn’t, she smiled a gloating smile. She’d shown er who was master.

She soon reached the settlement’s central plaza, a nearly cubic room about twenty meters on a side. A few meters to the left was the mouth of the corridor leading home. The other main residential corridor emerged on the plaza’s opposite face, and the mouth of the corridor leading to the warehouse and the docking facility was on the face that could, just barely in the asteroid’s faint gravity, be defined as up. A few other doors lead from the plaza to the assemblery, the infirmary, the chapel, the bone density maintenance lab, and other public spaces. No one was about at this hour, and only a few dim lights glowed. She turned to her corridor, and had gone a few meters in when she heard a couple’s voices from the service corridor.

Was that Annamaria? But her daughter was home in bed; so Francisca’s interface said. And Dietrich? Francisca spun around, and flapped quietly to the corridor mouth. She took a handhold along the upper wall and peered around the corner at the couple.

Annamaria’s hair looked white in the pale light, and the lean arms and puffing jetsuit indicated Dietrich floated next to her. “Why do I have to be so quiet?” he asked, louder than before but with a playing-along tone.

“Because there are only 300 people on this rock,” Annamaria said quietly. “Because the one time I let a local boy run his hand up my shirt, Mama glared at me for a month.”

Dietrich lowered his voice. “She thinks you’re—”

“A virgin? What she doesn’t know won’t hurt her.”

Of course Francisca had suspected. At least, if she was speaking truthfully, Annamaria had only been with visitors—the son of the travelling American physician, Tung, probably, or maybe the smooth-faced Australian nickel hauler. Francisca remembered her own teenage years, thinking she’d hidden her own adventures from her mother’s eyes. The memory didn’t make it any more pleasant to hear, though. Then Annamaria spoke again. “Sorry?”

“I said, so you weren’t?”

“Wasn’t it obvious?”

“Well, that, yes,” Dietrich said.

Annamaria’s voice grew more firm. “Is that a problem?”

“No. Of course not. You’re a healthy teenage girl doing what’s natural.”

Annamaria said nothing for a moment, then leaned over and kissed him. “I need to get home, and fix my hack of the house’s security before I go to bed.” They kissed again, several times, their lips wet. Francisca pushed off her handhold back down the corridor. Her own daughter, with the monster’s master?

A few seconds later, Annamaria swooped into the corridor. She hunched her shoulders. “Mama, what are you doing awake?”

They were in public. Someone might hear them. “We will discuss it at home,” Francisca said, her tone pinched and cool. She wanted her daughter to know she’d been caught.

Annamaria lifted her chin. “No, let’s discuss it here.”

“This is a public space.”

“If you know, there’s no one else I need to keep it secret from.”

Francisca covered her mouth with her clenched fist. “How many times?”

“With Dietrich?” Annamaria shrugged. “Five or six.”

“Why?”

“Why? Because he’s a man. He’s not like the boys from here, or even the young travelers. He’s seen so much. Much more than you. He was born in Leipzig. He’s seen Berlin and Paris. The ruins of Delhi and Moscow. Every major settlement in the asteroid belt. He’s sophisticated and wise.”

Francisca laughed coldly. “Do you think you mean anything to him? When he’s done he’ll take his pay to the brothels near the Ceres spaceport—”

“Do you think I’m a little girl playing Barbie and Ken?” Annamaria’s face was red. “I’ve had enough of boys who think a hidden tryst means love. Dietrich’s too mature to believe in that.”

“Too old.”

Annamaria smirked. “Old enough to be my brother.”

Francisca’s open palm slapped hard against her daughter’s cheek. “You will not mock his memory!”

One door, then another, creaked open along the corridor. Annamaria kept her gaze on her mother, and absently rubbed her cheek. “Go home to your ghost son and your ghost husband and leave me alone.”

“Where do you think you’re going?”

“To Dietrich. He doesn’t have to take me very far; just off this damn rock.”

“”

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Ebook

Writer

Raymund Eich

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