Sample Chapter (All These Worlds)

Face-Off

 

Bob

March 2224

Delta Eridani

 

The pigoid erupted from its lair with an angry squeal. It displayed startling speed for something with such short legs. The two rock throwers sprinted to the side, fur erect along their spines and ears sticking straight out in excitement. The rest of us set the butts of our spears into the ground and braced them with a foot. And waited.

This time, I wasn’t an observer. If I had been nervous before, I was terrified now. I could feel the fur standing up along my spine and all the way up to the top of my head. I kept telling myself that I was actually ten thousand miles away, in orbit. Didn’t help. My eyes told me the pigoid was ten meters away, charging at me at what appeared to be about half light speed.

Then the animal ran into the spear points. Still not breeding for intelligence, apparently. The spears bowed but held, and the animal slammed to the ground with a final squawk.

Bernie sidled up to it and poked it in the face a few times. Getting no response, he waved his spear in the air and yelled, “Whooo!”

The rest of us raised a fist and responded, “Hah!”

Well, that’s how the translation routine handled it. Deltan speech sounded more like pigs loudly wallowing. But the software converted everything to human equivalents for me, including names and colloquialisms.

Donald slapped me on the shoulder. “Come on, Robert, help me string it up.”

I tied the back legs of the pigoid, while Donald tossed the other end of the rope over a tree branch. He looked down to check my work before starting to haul and did a double take. “Whoa! That looks like one of Archimedes’ weird knots. Where’d you learn that?”

Oops. “Uh, from Archimedes, of course. He’s got hands and hands of different knots. I’ve picked up a few.”

Donald nodded, only mildly interested. We hauled on the rope until the pigoid was suspended—I made sure to use only normal Deltan-level strength and let Donald do most of the work—then he drew a flint knife and bled the animal. The other hunters started the Giving-Thanks chant.

When it was done, we trussed the carcass onto a couple of spears and started back to Camelot. There would be a feast tonight, and I loved barbecued pigoid. Still no barbecue sauce, though. I wondered idly if I should invent some.

We were singing a victory chant, and I guess our guard was down. So the group of Deltans that stepped into the path in front of us took us completely by surprise. We came to a ragged halt as they tilted their spears in our direction. It wasn’t quite a threat, more like the promise of one.

I heard a rustling behind me, and realized that we’d been surrounded. I took a quick look around. The other party outnumbered us by two. Not insurmountable, but definitely a concern. Very likely they were depending on getting the drop on us, and us not being able to organize a defense.

There had been reports of groups from Caerleon bushwhacking hunting parties, and taking all or part of their kills. It appeared we were the target du jour.

The spokesman for the group—I recognized him as an unpleasant character from Caerleon whose name translated as Fred—gave us an evil smile. “Nice catch, Donald. You’ve got a lot of pigoid there. I doubt you’d miss a haunch or two.”

Donald, unintimidated, raised his spear to readiness. “There are lots of pigoids out there, Fred. What’s the matter, not having any luck?” Fred reflexively started to take a step back, then caught himself. Donald wasn’t quite as big as his father, but that still left a lot of room for big. People rarely challenged him directly.

Unfortunately for me, I was standing up front with Donald, and I had designed my android to be as nondescript as possible—average height, average build, average looks—Joe Forgettable, pretty much. So, no surprise that Fred decided to use me as an example. He looked at me. “So what about you, kuzzi? You think you’d like to share the wealth?” He looked at his friends, smiling. They returned the expressions and moved in.

“Tell you what, Fred,” I answered. “Why don’t you bend way over, stick your head up your own butthole, and keep pushing until you disappear completely.” I smiled at him as innocently as I could. Snickers and guffaws from our group—and a few from the other group—showed that I’d scored. Of course, I had gigabytes of Earth literature and movies to pull my insults from. In a war of words, the Deltans would be virtually unarmed.

Donald gave me a quick, surprised glance. I guess he hadn’t been expecting the support. He showed his teeth. “Your move, pigoid-dropping.”

Fred glared at Donald, at me, then turned as if to leave.

Oh, you have got to be kidding. Cliché, much?

And, sure enough, he suddenly turned back and swung at me. I could have stopped and had afternoon tea, and still reacted in time. Okay, I’m a computer, but still…

I leaned back slightly and the clenched fist passed right by my face. As Fred continued the rotation, I placed a short jab in—well, in a human it would be the solar plexus. Same effect, though. Fred said oof and dropped to his knees.

Now their advantage was down to one, and we had Donald. Our guys grinned and started waving spear points.

Donald and I moved forward, and the other group stepped aside. As I passed Fred, he glared at me. I said, “Any time, kuzzi.” He didn’t respond, but then he was still trying to breathe.

There was a huge component of surrogate vengeance in my behavior, of course. I had a lot of years of being on the wrong end of bullying to look back on. But a rational part of my mind told me that I would have to watch out for Fred, now.

Donald slapped me on the back again. I made a point of staggering. I didn’t want him to decide we were competing.

We finished our hike to the village on high alert. No singing, no joking around. A couple of the guys took the kill to an agreed-upon fire pit to be divvied up. I turned to head back to Archimedes’ tent, but Donald put a hand on my shoulder and motioned me to come with him. I realized within moments that we were heading for the Council Circle.

One of the many universals that I’d discovered while studying the Deltans was that politicians and leaders always reserved the best for themselves. The Council Circle location got full sun first thing in the morning, and was in the shade by late afternoon. A few Council members were always at the circle, no doubt trying to look official and stay comfortable.

Donald walked up to Jeffrey, the current Council leader, and waited to be acknowledged. Jeffrey was a bit of a dick, and liked to keep people waiting, just to show how important he was. Donald accidentally stood in Jeffrey’s sun and began cleaning his spear while he waited, the dried pieces of blood and hide landing all around Jeffrey. I looked around and tried to keep a straight face.

Finally, Jeffrey accepted the fact that he was being out-ignored. He looked up and gestured for us to sit. We made ourselves comfortable and Donald explained about our encounter with the Caerleon gang.

When we were done, Jeffrey made a face. “That’s now almost a hand of encounters in the last three hands of days. A couple of people were stabbed when they refused to give up their kill. I’m going to have to bring this up with the full Council. Something has to be done.”

“All by people from Caerleon?” I asked.

“Yes, it looks that way. Leave it with me. I’ll get the Council started on it.”

Donald nodded to Jeffrey, and we got to our feet. As we walked away, I said to Donald, “Do you think it’s the one gang, or different ones?”

“Fred’s been mentioned more than once. There might be others involved, but it’s mostly him and his group.”

“And all lately? What’s changed?”

Donald stared into space for a moment. “Um, I don’t think it’s a case of something changing. It’s more likely that Fred just saw a way to take advantage of something that’s been brewing for a while. We’re just not sure what’s behind it.”

We walked in silence for a few moments while I thought through an idea. I looked up to Donald. “I have a plan. Can we get an extra dozen people or so? People who won’t mind some close-up action?”

Donald grinned. “Yeah, I think I can scrape that together.”

I grinned back. Time for some dirty tricks, Earth-style.