After Europe’s army of war robots overran Mexico, Francisca and her daughter gathered refugees from the ruins and fled to a new home in the asteroid belt.
But the rogues and pirates roving the belt threatened her colony, poised to plunder the vein of nearly-pure blond—rubia—platinum in their asteroid’s core.
Now help comes. Help proud Francisca loathes to ask for. A renegade European and his war robot.
The war robot that might have killed her son.
Sample of “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 Fransisca 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.
“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.”