IRON PRIVATEERS • by Alexander Burns

Antideuterium tablets flashed as they tumbled from Yuri’s shovel into the Theresa’s furnace. Exhausted, he staggered to the water bucket. Water poured down his chest and splashed to the floor, curling into steam around his boots. On a viewscreen he saw the pursuing ship, a dark blot against bright stars.

Of course robots would be better for shoveling fuel. Of course. The pirates’ first boarding party had disabled the mechanized crew before it was repelled, though, so here stood Yuri, pressed into service as a boilerman.

Yuri’s shovel broke. Allan the cabin boy pointed wordlessly and Yuri ran to the supply closet. He had to step past the useless metal box of a shovelbot that would normally be doing this work. The viewscreen image shifted as the pirates pulled amidships. He could make out the skull and bones, see the zeroes and ones that composed the dread image. AI pirates. The bane of free traders throughout the fifteen worlds.

AI pirates particularly hated AI slave ships. Yuri’s fingers closed around the keybadge in his pocket, lifted from the first mate just a few hours ago. Months of work about to go to waste.

Cannons lit up, and Yuri braced against one of the shovelbot’s drooping arms. The ship rattled. Allan fell into the furnace. The other men scattered, screaming.

Theresa shook again with another volley, and the condition lights flickered from green to red. The electronic countermeasures were completely down. Yuri scrambled away from the robot. The freighter itself was a crude object, too simple for AI to make use of. Mechanical crew, however, were another matter.

Shipwide speakers crackled. “This is the captain. Prepare for digital boarding parties.”

The formerly friendly shovelbot rose on its treads, eyes glowing a menacing green instead of friendly blue. Yuri and the other engine men backed away. The machine could easily crush them, but it had other goals. Too big to leave the engine bay, shovelbot was nonetheless in a unique position to cripple the ship. With a clang, it lifted its heavy scoop and crushed the furnace. Molten antideuterium spilled free, splashing across both robot and deck. The robot was instantly slagged, a sacrifice necessary to complete its mission. Theresa shuddered as her engines lost power, and she listed, helpless.

The other engine men moved to contain the damage, perhaps bring the back-up generators online. At best, those would keep the life support running. Yuri ran for the exit, leaping over puddles of antideuterium and the remains of crewmen unfortunate enough to get splashed. He skidded into the corridor and dashed aft, toward the cargo bay. Gunfire zapped throughout the ship.

Shovelbot wasn’t the only unshielded robot aboard. The docking autopilot would be storming the bridge, but the rest would make for the cargo hold. What was closest to the hold? Fire control? Medical bay?

Galley.

The six-armed, green-eyed chefbot burst into the corridor behind Yuri, blood dripping from assorted utensils. Chefbot was much the opposite of shovelbot, all spindly and delicate, floating several feet above the deck on a hover generator. It wasn’t built for speed, but had plenty of hands to help pull itself along the wall. Someone had duct-taped a toque to its tiny, spherical head, and the chef’s hat flopped madly as the possessed machine scuttle-flew clanking behind Yuri.

Yuri sprinted around the last corner and slammed into the heavy cargo bay doors. They were sealed shut, guarded with extra shielding that stymied the digital boarding parties, even in catastrophic power loss. Slavers had to protect their investment above all. A janitorbot lay in smoking ruins to one side.

Four guards, heavily armed and armored, stared as Yuri fumbled in his pockets for the keybadge.

“Chef’s coming!” Yuri said. “Look lively!”

“What’re you doin’ here?” demanded Alise, head of security. Paranoid even for a slaver. Yuri had avoided her since coming on.

Then chefbot was on them, a whirring slash of cutlery as it rounded the corner. Distracted, most of the guards’ first few shots went wide, but Yuri saw a bread-knife-wielding arm seared off as he turned back toward the cargo doors. He slammed the stolen keybadge into the lock and lights flashed. The heavy doors parted.

Stacks of robot citizenry lay on deck, torsos encased in black inhibitor boxes that prevented their motors from powering up. Bound for the outer planets, their destiny to work in antimatter mines and solar plasma collectors. Registry numbers had been carved out and replaced with auctioneer bar codes. Yuri had been trying to reach this room since he came aboard. There was evidence enough here to put the entire network away.

Yuri ducked and rolled aside as a meat tenderizer smashed the door controls. He flattened against the far wall of the corridor and pulled out his real badge. The holographic insignia of the West Kuiper Squadron sprang to life between himself and the robot.

“Yuri Collier, Lieutenant of HMS Actaeon,” he said, the words tripping over each other as he rushed to get them out. “Under authority of the Automaton Slave Trade Act of 2109, these machines are hereby free of any and all forced servitude — ”

“God-damned narc!” Alise coughed and spat blood in Yuri’s direction, a paring knife wedged between the plates of her armor. Her men were already dead.

Chefbot dragged itself into the cargo bay with a single remaining arm, to a control panel inside. Automatic protocols closed the doors. Yuri stood to watch through a porthole.

The loading doors at the far end of the bay swung open. Hundreds of robots tumbled out into space, gleaming against the waiting silhouette of the abolitionist ship that had freed them. Yuri smiled as chefbot, eyes shifting from green to blue, soared behind them, free at last.


Alexander Burns lives in Denton, Texas, and writes because he doesn’t have a basement in which to build robots or time machines. His work has appeared at Every Day Fiction, The Future Fire, Big Pulp, and other fine online journals.


Rate this story:
 average 5 stars • 1 reader(s) rated this

Every Day Fiction

  • Paul A. Freeman

    I got a bit lost here and there, but an engaging and thought-provoking read.

  • Paul A. Freeman

    I got a bit lost here and there, but an engaging and thought-provoking read.

  • Kathy

    I also got lost in a few place but loved the quality of your show don’t tell throughout the story. Excellent work.

  • Kathy

    I also got lost in a few place but loved the quality of your show don’t tell throughout the story. Excellent work.

  • After reading a couple times to find out “who’s on first” I got the gist. I think a brief intro statement about what is going on would have helped me. I realize one of the tenants of flash fiction is to start in the middle of the action, and that is a must in short writes, but on longer 1000 word projects with a more complicated story that is more like a really short traditional short story the reader needs a bit of grease to get into the story.

    What is the significance of AI in AI Pirates?

    The introduction of Alise was jarring especially after the dialogue, “Chef’s coming!” Yuri said. “Look lively!” which made me think the chef’s name was Alise.

    I didn’t understand at first the concept of digital boarding parties overpowering machines or how they were initially rapelled but eventually decided they were in reality the “good guys” coming from the abolitionist ship which reprogrammed the robots.

    The introduction of ” waiting silhouette of the abolitionist ship that had freed them.” was confusing. At which point were we to know about this ship and when did its actions free the slaves?

    When did Alise take the paring knife to her chest? Are we to assume it was from the chef?

    The writing was intense, lots of action, but confusing, at least to me.

    • MPmcgurty
      Isn't "AI" = Artificial Intelligence? Hope I'm not showing my sci fi ignorance. I love the genre but frequently have to google some terms.
      • Camille Gooderham Campbell
        You are correct: AI is Artificial Intelligence.
      • Thanks MP and Camille as well. I never found a fondness for SciFi (except for Serling and Princess Leia ;) ) but in spite of my questions/comments, I gave it a better score than the current 3.5
    • Joseph Kaufman
      "When did Alise take the paring knife to her chest? Are we to assume it was from the chef?" I'm not sure who else, robot or otherwise, would have been wielding kitchen-based weaponry. So, I think it can be assumed Alise was taken down by Chefbot without it being explicitly stated (in my opinion). I'm not sure how Chef took out four armored guards, but it did lose five out of six arms in doing so -- one arm for each kill plus a floater. That made it plausible for me.
      • Yeah, we don't see Alise and the other doomed guards getting butchered because Yuri didn't see it. He was focused on getting the door open before he himself was robot-murdered. I probably could have transitioned some of those paragraphs a little better, though.
    • It honestly never occurred to me that someone wouldn't know what AI was. I can definitely see how missing that would throw the entire rest of the story into disarray. It can be hard to account for every genre convention I guess.
  • After reading a couple times to find out “who’s on first” I got the gist. I think a brief intro statement about what is going on would have helped me. I realize one of the tenants of flash fiction is to start in the middle of the action, and that is a must in short writes, but on longer 1000 word projects with a more complicated story that is more like a really short traditional short story the reader needs a bit of grease to get into the story.

    What is the significance of AI in AI Pirates?

    The introduction of Alise was jarring especially after the dialogue, “Chef’s coming!” Yuri said. “Look lively!” which made me think the chef’s name was Alise.

    I didn’t understand at first the concept of digital boarding parties overpowering machines or how they were initially rapelled but eventually decided they were in reality the “good guys” coming from the abolitionist ship which reprogrammed the robots.

    The introduction of ” waiting silhouette of the abolitionist ship that had freed them.” was confusing. At which point were we to know about this ship and when did its actions free the slaves?

    When did Alise take the paring knife to her chest? Are we to assume it was from the chef?

    The writing was intense, lots of action, but confusing, at least to me.

    • MPmcgurty
      Isn't "AI" = Artificial Intelligence? Hope I'm not showing my sci fi ignorance. I love the genre but frequently have to google some terms.
      • Camille Gooderham Campbell
        You are correct: AI is Artificial Intelligence.
      • Thanks MP and Camille as well. I never found a fondness for SciFi (except for Serling and Princess Leia ;) ) but in spite of my questions/comments, I gave it a better score than the current 3.5
    • Joseph Kaufman
      "When did Alise take the paring knife to her chest? Are we to assume it was from the chef?" I'm not sure who else, robot or otherwise, would have been wielding kitchen-based weaponry. So, I think it can be assumed Alise was taken down by Chefbot without it being explicitly stated (in my opinion). I'm not sure how Chef took out four armored guards, but it did lose five out of six arms in doing so -- one arm for each kill plus a floater. That made it plausible for me.
      • Yeah, we don't see Alise and the other doomed guards getting butchered because Yuri didn't see it. He was focused on getting the door open before he himself was robot-murdered. I probably could have transitioned some of those paragraphs a little better, though.
    • It honestly never occurred to me that someone wouldn't know what AI was. I can definitely see how missing that would throw the entire rest of the story into disarray. It can be hard to account for every genre convention I guess.
  • Carl Steiger

    ARRRR! Just plain good fun, so I’m not even going to speculate on the likely health hazards of shoveling antideuterium.into a boiler.

    • MPmcgurty
      I absolutely loved the story, but I did have a small question you might have answered. Since it turns out Yuri is a good guy, was he trying to sabotage the ship when he was shoveling antideuterium into the furnace, or just putting on a good show for poor Allen the cabin boy?
      • Carl Steiger
        I'm sure that's how this steampunk spaceship is powered -- manually stoking the furnace with anti-deuterium.
        • MPmcgurty
          But why would Yuri want to keep it powered? I thought the idea was to let the pirates do their thing. Uh-oh, did I miss something?
          • Joseph Kaufman
            I sort of had the same question, wondering why Yuri didn't play his hand sooner, but at that point I think he was still playing along. After all, he HAD to play along until the point where he could get the First Mate's authentication badge to open that huge bay door. Why he didn't immediately go to that door right after securing the badge, I'm not sure. Perhaps he didn't want to reveal himself just yet...
          • I'm enjoying the discussion! I thought I'd pitch in a little here: Yuri is in a tough spot - he wants to help the robots in the hold, but at the same time they represent an opportunity to take down a much larger slaver ring ("enough evidence to put the whole network away"). Also, he was "pressed into service" in the engine room - he had to wait until the other crew were sufficiently distracted to get away.
          • MPmcgurty
            Okay, that makes sense. I'm not suggesting it, because I love this, but most likely in a longer short story, we would probably get more of Yuri's thoughts. Great job, Alexander.
  • Carl Steiger

    ARRRR! Just plain good fun, so I’m not even going to speculate on the likely health hazards of shoveling antideuterium.into a boiler.

    • MPmcgurty
      I absolutely loved the story, but I did have a small question you might have answered. Since it turns out Yuri is a good guy, was he trying to sabotage the ship when he was shoveling antideuterium into the furnace, or just putting on a good show for poor Allen the cabin boy?
      • Carl Steiger
        I'm sure that's how this steampunk spaceship is powered -- manually stoking the furnace with anti-deuterium.
        • MPmcgurty
          But why would Yuri want to keep it powered? I thought the idea was to let the pirates do their thing. Uh-oh, did I miss something?
          • Joseph Kaufman
            I sort of had the same question, wondering why Yuri didn't play his hand sooner, but at that point I think he was still playing along. After all, he HAD to play along until the point where he could get the First Mate's authentication badge to open that huge bay door. Why he didn't immediately go to that door right after securing the badge, I'm not sure. Perhaps he didn't want to reveal himself just yet...
          • I'm enjoying the discussion! I thought I'd pitch in a little here: Yuri is in a tough spot - he wants to help the robots in the hold, but at the same time they represent an opportunity to take down a much larger slaver ring ("enough evidence to put the whole network away"). Also, he was "pressed into service" in the engine room - he had to wait until the other crew were sufficiently distracted to get away.
          • MPmcgurty
            Okay, that makes sense. I'm not suggesting it, because I love this, but most likely in a longer short story, we would probably get more of Yuri's thoughts. Great job, Alexander.
  • I enjoyed this because it was a fast-paced adventure story. It also creates a world – or a universe perhaps – in a few words.

  • I enjoyed this because it was a fast-paced adventure story. It also creates a world – or a universe perhaps – in a few words.

  • Pingback: Ironed | Meanwhile…()

  • MPmcgurty

    I so enjoyed this tale. There were a few bumps along the way, but for me they seemed to smooth out quickly. Wonderful twist, letting us think that Yuri was part of a slave transport operation, while stating the pirates hated slave ships. I loved some of the action phrases like “skidded into the corridor and dashed aft”. My favorite thing here, though, is Chefbot and how the author described it and its actions.

    Final paragraphs rarely satisfy me, but this one is marvelous.

    I would be pleased to read more adventures of Yuri, the pirates, and the bots.

  • MPmcgurty

    I so enjoyed this tale. There were a few bumps along the way, but for me they seemed to smooth out quickly. Wonderful twist, letting us think that Yuri was part of a slave transport operation, while stating the pirates hated slave ships. I loved some of the action phrases like “skidded into the corridor and dashed aft”. My favorite thing here, though, is Chefbot and how the author described it and its actions.

    Final paragraphs rarely satisfy me, but this one is marvelous.

    I’m off to read more stories from Alexander!

  • S Conroy

    I’m wondering now about my PC here. Am I a slave driver? I like the writing style, but am not in general a star wars fan, so hard to rate.

  • S Conroy

    I’m wondering now about my PC here. Am I a slave driver? I like the writing style, but am not in general a star wars fan, so hard to rate.

  • terrytvgal

    So the story is about freeing the robots from slavery. Is that right? I’m not sure what to think about the ending. Is being ejected into space being set free, or a form of ‘mercy-killing’? I am thinking it’s seen as a good thing by the robots since the chefbot’s eyes went from green to blue. It’s nice to read a story with a more action adventure plot. Thanks, Alexander.

    • Re: "gleaming against the waiting silhouette of the abolitionist ship" I took it to mean they were going to be picked up by the ship.
    • Joseph Kaufman
      I think the robots will be fine in deep space. If the pirate ship doesn't pick them up, someone from Yuri's group likely will. They could drift for months and still be picked up and saved -- an advantage of being inorganic!
  • terrytvgal

    So the story is about freeing the robots from slavery. Is that right? I’m not sure what to think about the ending. Is being ejected into space being set free, or a form of ‘mercy-killing’? I am thinking it’s seen as a good thing by the robots since the chefbot’s eyes went from green to blue. It’s nice to read a story with a more action adventure plot. Thanks, Alexander.

    • Re: "gleaming against the waiting silhouette of the abolitionist ship" I took it to mean they were going to be picked up by the ship.
    • Joseph Kaufman
      I think the robots will be fine in deep space. If the pirate ship doesn't pick them up, someone from Yuri's group likely will. They could drift for months and still be picked up and saved -- an advantage of being inorganic!
  • Danielle Thorne

    Needed a bit of editing, but great story. I loved it!

  • Danielle Thorne

    Needed a bit of editing, but great story. I loved it!

  • Jeremy J Szal

    Fantastic story here! Very engaging read.

  • Jeremy J Szal

    Fantastic story here! Very engaging read.