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?
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.