The Mower’s Trial

Mow likes to bully. The Minivac cowers against the fence, and Mow rolls back and forth, locking and unlocking his rear wheels so his rusty gray body trembles and squeaks. I watch from the rooftop of the abandoned Fedbank Building, two blocks away, my optics at full zoom.

Then Mow rolls to the fence, reaches down with his right gripper, and picks up the Mini. It’s a Black & Decker make, with a short plump body that ends in a hammerhead suction scoop. It squirms in Mow’s grip. His back is to me. I fire up the image-enhancement software Notes gave me a few months back–shareware he took off the Net. It helps, but all it shows me is Mow’s back, his headless upper body perched on top of his four-wheeled chassis. Mow rolls back from the fence, his arm lifts, and the Mini soars up over the barbed wire and lands on the opposite side, in the ditch between the fence and the worn, cracked road.

My eight limbs jerk in surprise. If that Mini is meant for interior use only, landing in water could be fatal. Mow will answer for this.

But he is cruising away up Westin Street already. I reach over the side of the building and gaze down the six-story concrete face. The windows–most of them–are intact. We don’t get many vandals in the Quarter. I fold my grippers back into my eight limbs, and slip my suction cups from their slots. My motors wheeze as I fix the cups to the glass and pitch my body over the edge.

I’m built for this. I scramble straight down the face of the building. My left middle limb squeaks at the knee joint–the bearings need grease.

I reach the ground and retract my suction cups. Then I run for the fence, dig my long digits into the wire, scrabble up and over.

The Mini doesn’t move. It lies on its side near the trickle of this morning’s rainwater running off into the river to the south.

I turn the Minivac over. Then I see what Mow has done. The plastic along the Mini’s belly is cracked open, leaving a jagged mouth. Through the gap I can see the Mini’s motherboard, a green slab with fine copper lines engraved upon it. There is a large black square on the board, the slot where the Mini’s brain unit plugged in.

The unit is gone. Mow has stolen the Minivac’s brains.

 

I dash the distance to the Council building near the waterfront. My motors begin to overheat. I have the Mini’s body tucked against my belly, and I race using only six of my limbs. Westin Street curves along the waterfront; I expect to see Mow at any moment, but he has vanished among the buildings both sturdy and foundering.

The Council office–if you can call it that–is in an old three-floor tenement on the hillside sloping down to the waterfront. The doors are gone–they were gone even before that night when a Public Works truck backed up to the Quarter’s eastern gate and two wet-jobs carried me through the opening and left me to scrounge along the fence. Fourteen years ago.

I’m the Council’s junior member. I stride along the corridor and hear the sound of the Alchemist moving about in his workshop. There are no lights in here–they haven’t worked for years. But Al can see in the dark. I wake the lamps slung beneath my optics rack and sweep the beams towards him.

“Spider,” he calls, motioning to me. “I’ve been meaning to talk to you. We could use–”

“We have trouble,” I interrupt, lifting the Minivac to the bench before him.

Al extends his neck with its rack of two binocular optics. He peers at the Mini, then reaches out with his upper pair of arms and turns it onto its back. “Christ!” he murmurs.

I say, “It was moving when it came over the fence. I saw the wet-job who threw it–fat little bastard. Mow smashed this poor thing up and pulled its unit.”

Al looks at me sharply. “You’re serious?” His speakers buzz with static.

“I saw him.”

“Did you vid him?”

I nod my optics rack. “Where is Notes?” I demand.

Al rolls back from the bench. His steel tracks leave dark scars on the hardwood floor. He shrinks his neck, perching his head with his large optics on the top of his body. The fingers of his upper arms flex. “Out at the Market. He should be back soon. We’ll have to bring Mow before the Council.” He looks at me, his optics unblinking. “What do we do about this? This is…what? Aggravated assault?”

“Maybe kidnapping,” I say.

Al looks at the body of the Mini. “Or worse,” he murmurs.

“What do you mean?”

He lets his silence speak for him.

“That’s impossible,” I declare. “We don’t do that kind of thing–we aren’t wet-jobs.”

Al turns his optics towards me. His limbs are still now, uncharacteristically still. “I hope you’re right.”

Notes rolls in on his trolley in half an hour. I explain to him what I saw. He is motionless as I relate the tale. He turns his screen black while he listens.

Notes is a Toshiba NerveLink 1100 notebook computer with an Intel neural-network processor–a Parallel-70, top-of-the-line twenty years ago. According to some of the others in the Quarter, he was tossed over the fence with a half-dead battery, and someone heard him yelling through his tiny speaker.

Al built the trolley for him–he has worn out two of them over the years. It’s a metal box with a motor and four wheels on its base; a rubber shock-cord holds Notes on top of it. A control box beside him is linked to the motor drive and the solenoids that handle steering, and the box plugs into Notes’ printer port.

He is quiet for a long time. At last he wheels his trolley around and faces me. “Find the Digger boys. Inform them they are on official Council business, and they must bring Mow here. If he puts up a fuss, they have the Council’s permission to forcibly detain him as long as he suffers no injury.” He turns back to Al. “Are we agreed on this action?”

Al nods. So do I.

 

I feel a bizarre kind of kinship with the Digger boys. We were all built by the Caterpillar corporation. And we’re the only mechs in the Quarter who can go out in the rain.

Besides Mow, that is.

I find them on the waterfront, out on the rotting wooden pier where my friend Graphix and I used to hang out, before he disappeared. Digger One looks older than his brother, Two. Before Two came to the Quarter, we just called One Digger.

You can still see the wrecked shipping berth where, 50 years ago, a garbage barge carrying 200 tanks of oil and PCBs exploded, soaking the northside waterfront in burning trash, oil, and chemicals. Windows across the Inlet were blown in, if you believe the stories. Some of those chemicals in the trash were worse than the PCBs. The wet-jobs moved out within months. The fence went up around the Quarter less than a year later. And soon after that, the mechs started moving in–we don’t particularly care about toxins that’ll kill wet-jobs. They don’t bother us.

I shuffle down the pier to the Diggers. “I have some Council business for you.”

One turns to me. He is enormous–almost as large as a small automobile standing on its end–and covered in yellow steel plating. He and his ilk were built to dig ditches and auger holes for power poles–they were made for ground work, not the kind of high-rise construction I can do.

I tell them they must apprehend Mow. They’re the equivalent of our police force. No one argues with them.

“We’ll need to know the charge,” One rumbles.

“Kidnapping,” I say instantly. “Kidnapping and assault.”

 

The Council has a 30-year history, going back to the days of J.D. and Walker. J.D. set a precedent that we live by: the Council never conducts business in secret.

Sometimes that slows us down. We have to round up at least 12 witnesses, and if the city is being drenched in rain, there aren’t many who can travel.

But we get them during a lull in the winter storm. Rover from Barter’s Market arrives, along with Claw, Traveler, Hammerhead–a vacuum-cleaner like the Mini, but full-size–and Wires, who looks like a mechanical lizard. Percy rocks in, bouncing over the lip where the ragged carpet of the hall meets the hardwood floor. He was a home robot for hobbyists and computer nuts before he woke up; but the Viatech Corporation had a lousy design group‑-Percy can’t handle carpeting very well.

They gather along the wall, facing the Council table, a rag-tag mob of all shapes and sizes. Claw lifts his gripper, with his optics mounted on either side of the three digits, high over the heads or optic-racks or squat torsos of the others.

Al has the Handicam set up when the Diggers roll in, Mow creeping along between them. He looks confused, his optics darting back and forth. Uncertain, but unafraid. His body is old, his flanges covered in rust.

“What’s up?” Mow demands. It isn’t uncommon for the Council to ask for someone; sometimes people make spurious complaints, but we on the Council have to look into even those, and resolve them.

“Spider has made a troubling accusation against you,” Notes says smoothly.

Mow swivels his optics to me. “Yeah?”

Then his gaze takes in the Mini’s body on the table before us. His wheels lock. His whole body trembles, a spasm flowing up from his chassis through his headless torso and arms.

Notes declares, “He claims that you removed this mech’s brain module.”

“Uh-huh.” Mow’s optics swivel back and forth. “Got any proof?”

“I video’d you,” I say.

“Well, so what? It wasn’t sentient.”

“So you admit you took it,” Al says. “Give us the unit.”

Mow backs away from the table. “I don’t admit anything. You can’t do this.”

“We the closest thing to the law as you’ll find in the Quarter,” Al declares.

The Diggers rumble sideways before the doorway, like two massive steel doors closing.

They’re as gentle as you can imagine, the pair of them. But when they stand in a doorway–either one–don’t expect your company to leave.

“Get out of my way!” Mow’s speaker shrieks.

“The council isn’t finished,” One thunders back.

“We want the Minivac’s memory unit,” Al says quietly. “Is there some reason why you can’t return it?”

Mow’s optics hop from Al, to Notes, to me. “I don’t have it. I threw it away.”

Al backs up from the table and rolls around in front of us. He extends his optics rack, towering it above Mow. “You have it on you, don’t you?”

Mow rolls forward and butted his chassis against Al’s tracks. “Who the hell you tin-heads think you are? You sound like a bunch of wet-job lawyers.”

“Give us the Mini’s unit and perhaps we’ll let you go. We’ll decide on appropriate punishment later.”

“Try and take it,” Mow blares.

Al lifts his right arm and gestures at the Diggers. One and Two roll next to Mow. He backs up at the opening between them. It is almost wide enough, but not quite. They pin him between them. His motors whine.

Al extends his arm and flips a screwdriver head out. “Let’s have a look, shall we?” The driver advances on Mow’s breastplate.

“You can’t do this!” Mow screams. The Diggers grip his arms.

Notes makes a banging sound through his speaker, like a gavel falling. “Alchemist. Stop.”

“He has it on him, I know he does,” Al declares.

Notes flickers his screen scarlet and turns his trolley to face the witnessing mechs. They glance at each other, enjoying the spectacle. “This Council is treading new ground now. We have never violated an individual’s person before.

“We have always tried to make our rulings fair. But until now there has been no such case like this. You all must realize that, even in the early days of the Council, J.D. left no record that suggests a mech has violated the person of another.” He pauses to let his words sink in. “So now we must determine whether this Council should have the right to proceed.” He turns to Al. “Alchemist. Please describe to all those present why you believe you can reasonably expect to find the Minivac’s brain unit inside the Landscaper’s body.”

They have rehearsed this. Nonetheless, it is necessary.

Al turns to the gathered masses. “I have repaired many of you over the years. I am familiar with a wide range of mech bodyforms. I can think of no one in the Quarter who hasn’t come to me for at least minor maintenance. And yet, in the 16 years since Mow joined us, he has never approached me.”

“I know how to fix myself! I don’t need a tin-head like you–”

“Quiet!” Notes bellows. “You will be granted an opportunity to speak momentarily.”

Al nods his optics rack toward Notes, and turns back to the gathered witnesses. “I have, however, worked on non-sentient models of the same type as Mow. Four years ago I found an old model like him in one of the houses up the hill towards the fence.”

Mow’s body shakes. He butts against One. “Let me go!”

“You will have your chance to speak,” Notes declares quietly.

Al continues: “Mow’s model hit the market 70 years ago, but I expected working components might be within the body I found. So I opened it.

“Within that body I saw its motherboard, naturally. Landscapers used a Parallel-40 neural processor–an outdated unit, of course. But the designers at Sears’ Craftsman division planned ahead. They expected their Landscaper 220 model to set the standard for its industry, so they made the Landscaper expandable. The body I found–identical to Mow–had five expansion slots in it designed to receive memory upgrades or ROM modules.”

He pauses, allowing his audience time to reflect on what he says.

“The Landscaper’s expansion slots are of the same model as the standard plugs present in all later-model mechs. This means Mow and all those like him can receive brain units taken from mechs like you or me.

“I believe that if Mow implants additional units into himself, he can extend his life by as much as 100 years.”

The gathered crowd of witnessing mechs begins to mutter.

Al lifts his four arms. “Please! Hear me out.”

Mow is shivering in the grips of the Diggers.

“Please!” Al demands. “If Mow can extend his life beyond what we may reasonably expect for ourselves, that is no crime. However, I believe that, were Mow to remove a unit from a sentient mech, he would first have to wipe the unit’s memory before implanting it in himself.

“If this is the case, then he is not guilty of assault or kidnapping. He is guilty of murder.”

Silence. Then the din of the crowd builds until 12 voices speak at once.

Notes flashes his screen like a strobe. “This is a Council hearing. Order, please.” He pauses as the noise fades. “I believe this case requires that a precedent be set. I have no wish to sanction the violation of one mech by another–especially by this Council– but we are in a position where we require proof that Mow took the Minivac’s unit.” He turns his trolley to me. “Spider, do you agree that this Council should grant itself the power to have Mow’s internal circuitry and processors exposed for scrutiny, so that we may determine whether or not he took the Minivac’s unit?”

I nod my optics rack. “I agree to this ruling.”

Notes turns and faces Al. “Alchemist. You may proceed.”

Al nods. His tool arm extends. A Phillips screwdriver head flips out onto the end of the motor-drive shaft.

Mow stiffens. The Diggers grip his arms.

Al advances, his tracks thumping on the hardwood.

“All right, I did it!”

Al stops. “You confess to murdering this mech?” Motioning at the body on the Council table.

“No. I admit I took the damn thing’s unit. But that piece of junk wasn’t awake!

Al’s head swivels and gazes at Notes.

“It wasn’t,” Mow says, his voice an octave higher than it usually is. “It was just moving back and forth when I found it–not like a mech that’s just waking up. You know how they are, all curious? This thing wasn’t–it just moved back and forth, back and forth.”

Notes wheels around from behind the table and stands beside Al. “You claim the Minivac was not sentient when you took the unit from it?”

“Yeah. No lights on in its head.” Mow chuckles sarcastically, then shuts up.

“Can you prove this?”

“I’m innocent ‘til proven guilty, right? Or is this some kind of kangaroo court?”

Notes is silent a moment. Then he wheels about in a circle to face me. “Spider. Can you declare the Minivac was sentient? Did you witness its behavior?”

“I saw it back away from Mow, right to the fence.”

“It was just backing up and going forward. That’s not how a newborn acts.” Mow says. “I’ve seen lots of them over the years.”

“Why haven’t you told anyone else that you’ve lived beyond the 20-year limit?” Notes demands.

“That’s my business.” Mow glares at him. Then he casts his gaze down. “It isn’t easy living 50 years.”

The witness crowd buzzes.

“After all that time, I can guess how mechs will treat me. Look at you.” Mow gestures at the crowd. “I’ll be a pariah now, won’t I? You all envy me. If I’d known one of you was watching me, I never would have gone near that piece of junk–I can go another ten years before I really need a new unit. But I figured, what the hell, may as well upgrade early.”

Notes turns to Al. “Is there any way we can determine whether the Minivac was sentient before Mow found it?”

“If he wiped the unit, no.”

“So we can’t prove whether the Minivac was sentient or not.”

Al shakes his optics rack.

I’m looking at Mow. He glances down at Al’s extended screwdriver, than at Notes.

“This hearing is ended,” Notes declares.

Rover wheels forward from the crowd of witnesses. “What? If he killed that–”

“We can’t prove whether he did or not. There is nothing more we can do here.”

“But–”

“Do you have any reason to suspect Mow of lying?”

“He lied once already!”

“Then what do you suggest? We should drive Mow out of the Quarter?”

“You ought to do something!

“Rover,” I say quietly, “you trade in mech parts. Someday you may have to appear before this Council for a similar reason. What will you have us do then?”

Rover glares up at me from the top of his six-wheeled chassis. “You think I would kill one of our kind?”

“No, I don’t. Do you think Mow would? Do you have any reason to?”

Rover is silent.

“This Council hearing,” says Notes, “is adjourned.”

 

Mow is right. When he rolls through Barter’s Market down at the Quay, the market-goers grow silent. Some turn their backs on him. I wonder whether they are bothered more by the fact that he has outlived them three times over than by the cloud of suspicion that hangs over him.

But there has never been a case of mech murder. We don’t have the same volatility as wet-jobs do–our emotions don’t skew as wildly. Oh, we do have emotions. In spite of what some human shrinks believe, they aren’t mere chemicals in brains made of biological tissue. They are fundamental to sentience and self-awareness.

A human brain is made of interacting proteins and hormones, so of course their emotions can be changed by hormonal changes, and drugs that are analogs of naturally occurring chemicals in their brains and bodies.

We don’t have endorphins; instead we have shifting energy states in the liquid crystals in our memory units. Our hardware is more stable than theirs.

But we still feel. Though you’ll never see a mech throw a towering conniption.

I’m thinking about this while sitting on the roof of Barter’s Market, looking south towards the city proper, across the Inlet. Rain makes a pattering sound across my back and drips across my optics. My wipers blink across my lenses. It’s been a week since Mow’s hearing and acquittal. The Council stepped into new territory–we made law that future Councils will respect. We defined when one mech may violate another.

The Council now has the power to do this, but we have defined the terms: this and future Councils may not violate a mech’s person without reasonable cause. Al had no reason to open Mow’s chestplate after his confession. We have made it clear that the Council cannot force its will on anyone, unless there is just cause and all members of the Council agree.

I look across at the city. And I think about Graphix. We used to come down here during the summer, when the nights were clear. It was Graphix who pressed me into volunteering to serve on the Council when Walker began to fade.

Walker lived to 23 years after his wake-up. That was almost a record for longevity. When we wake, we reach sentience with all that we have learned intact–we can speak, we understand our environment immediately.

No one knows what causes a brain unit to cross that line between cold analytical processing, and sapience. Only one in ten million of us cross, according to Notes. A unit contains only a fraction of the neural circuits you will find a wet-job’s brain, but we make up for the difference through processing speed.

The problem is, two decades after our brain units reach sentience, all our neural circuits are used up. We seize up; like Walker, our speech slurs, our movements slow; eventually we simply stop moving. Mech death.

I understand those who envy Mow. He is living his third lifetime.

I think about Graphix again. “You’ll be good at it,” he told me, referring to his plan to nominate me for the Council. His little domed body rolled in a lazy circle around my crouching form.

He was a Xerox Turtlegraphix tabletop plotter. He couldn’t survive out here in the rain; he stayed indoors for most of the winters. Perhaps that’s what killed him.

I force my thoughts away from him. It was ten years ago that he vanished. He liked the piers. Maybe he got too near the edge, and slipped into the water. I remember the days, weeks, months of searching–along the fence, through the tunnels of the old trains, among the buildings. Graphix couldn’t climb steps, which limited the places he might have gone.

We never found him.

Why am I thinking about him now?

The question creeps into my awareness, and soon another follows, and another. A brain unit gives us 20 years of life. Mow says he took the Minivac’s unit because it was there–he didn’t really need it. “Sure, I could have gone another ten years without upgrading–”

My limbs jerk. I leap to my feet and scramble over the roof to the opposite side of the building, and leap to the red metal stairwell and down to the cracked concrete that used to be a parking lot. My motors whine and complain. I race up the hill, wearing down my fear and rage, scrabbling along wet streets where water runs in torrents into the gutters.

In minutes I reach the Council building. Al is hunched over Notes’ trolley; he has lifted Notes onto the nearby bench, and his tool arms hum as he works on the trolley.

“Al,” I say. My voice has become shrill. “Tell me. You’ve done maintenance on most of us, right?”

“Yes, of course.”

“What about Graphix?”

Al glances at Notes. “Yes, years ago. What–?”

“If you saw his brain unit, would you recognize it?”

“Yes, of course–I vid all my repairs, for my own records. Why do you ask?”

My limbs feel tight. My motors scream. “Mow. If he hadn’t confessed to taking the Mini’s unit, in two minutes you would have opened him. Where did he get the other units that have kept him alive for six decades?”

Notes listens as I lay out my line of reasoning, my chain of logic. At last he flashes his screen red. “I see. But there is nothing we can do.”

“Why not?”

“You have a suspicion, but no evidence. We need more.”

“More? Like what? He murdered Graphix!”

“Spider, you have a strong suspicion. You even have an explanation that makes sense. And in the past ten years, two mechs have had accidents that could have destroyed them, and didn’t. If we hadn’t heard Wires crying out from that subbasement two years ago, what who have become of him? His batteries might have run down, and he would be lying there still.”

I shift my gaze to Al. “If I had proof that Mow did it, We wouldn’t need to search him. We know Mow took a unit from the Minivac. And we know Graphix disappeared ten years ago, and we know Mow said he could go another decade without a new unit. That gives us reasonable grounds.”

“How far do you expect to take this?” Notes demanded. “If some other supposition arises against Mow, will you pursue him then?”

“Notes, we have grounds to suspect Mow of murdering Graphix. If we bring Mow in, Al can show us his vid-disks and tell us what Graphix’s unit looks like. We can remove any suggestion of a vendetta or a witch hunt right from the start.”

Al nods. His optics swivels to face Notes. “I agree.”

Notes is silent for a long moment. “Very well, then. Contact the Diggers.”

 

The Council room full of witnesses watches and listens. Notes’ screen shows images of Graphix’s motherboard. Mow trembles between the Diggers. Al spends half an hour putting out the images and describing what Graphix’s unit looked like: the serial and model numbers on it, the fine crack along its side from a fall he took early in his life.

Then it comes time to open Mow’s breastplate.

“You can’t do this!” Mow whines, struggling against the Diggers.

Al is tenacious. His screwdriver emerges and slips into the upper left corner of Mow’s breastplate. The screw whines out from the metal.

In moments the plate is off. Al beams a flashlight across the long strip of motherboard, allowing everyone to see it. At the top is the large square of the Parallel-40, three inches across, the unit that Mow began with. Below that is a unit marked with unfamiliar numbers, a large black block plugged into a gray slot. And below again is another, and then another.

The bottom one came from the Minivac. The unit above it draws my gaze. The numbers match what Al showed us. And along its left side is a fine lightning-bolt crack.

 

“You’re going to kill me, aren’t you?” Mow mutters. I’m with him in his cell. Digger Two fills the doorway–a sentient cell door.

“We’re deciding on appropriate punishment now,” I tell Mow.

“You’re going to pull my units till I’m a blithering idiot like Walker.”

I shrug. “We’re trying to make rules we can all live with here. We’ll try to do what’s fair.”

Mow laughs bitterly, his speakers grinding static. “Rules. You tin-heads sound like wet-jobs. We make our own rules.”

“That other unit in you. Did you kill someone for that?”

“You’re jealous of me, aren’t you? I’ve had three lives to your one.”

“Jealous? No. Angry? Yes. Did Graphix know what you were going to do to him? Did he beg for his life?”

Mow’s gaze wanders the walls. He is quiet.

“What did you do with his body?”

“That’s none of your business. You’ll wonder about that the rest of your life–the next six or seven years, I figure.” Mow looks back at me, sardonic laughter in his gaze.

 

“Mow shows no remorse for what he has done,” Notes declares. “However, we are not here to extract revenge.”

I hunker down on his left; the Alchemist is on his right. Notes rocks his trolley side to side, swinging the gaze of his camera–above his screen–to and fro.

“Our task–and the sentence we hand down–must serve two purposes. It must prevent Mow from carrying out such a brutal act in future, an act he has shown himself more than willing to commit. And it must discourage others like him who might be prepared to sacrifice others for their own lives or for something as minor as their own satisfaction.”

“Kill ‘im!” Claw calls out from the back. His conical head bobs beside Wires.

“Silence!” Notes bellows. “This Council will tolerate no outbursts.” He pauses momentarily. “There will be no execution.”

A din builds among the witnesses of the Council. Notes strobes his screen. “Quiet! The Council will speak. We have never had a killer among us before. We now sit in judgment of one. Who among you would accept the task of executioner? And after you do the deed, how do you expect those who must live with you to treat you? A week ago Mow spoke of being treated as a pariah. Who among you wishes that?

“There will be no execution,” Notes states again. “However, Mow cannot be allowed to remain here. So in two days he will be taken to the gate and banished for life from the Machine Quarter.”

Rover thumps the floor. “That’s it? That’s all you’re going to do–run him out the gate?”

Mow chuckles softly.

Al pounds four steel fists on the tabletop. “Silence!”

Notes speaks again. We have all agreed on the full sentence. Al suggested banishment. I offered what is coming.

“You’re right,” Notes says. “Banishment is not enough. There are hundreds of mechs out there in the wider city. Mow will prey on them if we allow it.

“So, it is the judgment of this Council that Mow’s motherboard and all its accompanying circuitry be removed from his body and placed within that of the mech that brought him to the attention of this Council. The Minivac’s body is too small to allow him to harm others, and if he is to have his life extended further than he already has, he will have to persuade another to give him a blank unit.

“The Council has spoken. The Alchemist will perform the necessary surgery this afternoon. Mow’s banishment will commence tomorrow morning.”

Mow’s body shakes. The Diggers tighten their grips on him.

 

We have been standardized for most of the current century. Al requires less than an hour to disconnect Mow’s motherboard from his Landscaper body’s sensory network and motor drives. Mow cries out and pleads until Al unplugs his speakers.

In his cell overnight he refuses to speak. The Minivac body rolls back and forth, bumping into walls, scooting around Digger Two’s wheels. Mow isn’t used to the smaller body yet.

I say nothing. I watch him for almost an hour. Then I leave, a hollow sensation deep within.

A crowd gathers when we take him to the fenceline. I carry Mow’s squirming new body against my belly.

At the fence, I dig my digits into the wires and lift myself using six of my limbs. At the top, I grasp the barbed wire and pull myself over. I drop to the wet grass on the opposite side.

Rover and Claw and Percy stand in a group. Percy has his arms crossed over his aluminum chest.

“You tin-head bastards,” Mow whines.

I stride to the road and place him on the asphalt. “You’d best be going. We could get rain tonight. You won’t last if you’re caught in it.” Then I turn and lift myself back over the fence.

I hear tales in the market during the next two weeks. Stories of Mow prowling along the fence, looking for way in that is small enough–and smooth enough–for him to slip back through.

I’ve been all over that fence; there is no way in for a small mech, one that can’t climb. And Mow has no limbs to open the gates now.

I climb the Fedbank Building and peer along the fence from the roof. No sign of him. He has moved on. He is out there somewhere, in the city. That’s his prison–the world at large, where anything goes.