As the survivor of history’s worst robot massacre, Ciro Kwakkenbos spent years healing his physical and mental scars. Now he is ready to go back in the fray with what is supposed to be an easy job.
He is put in charge of studying SAGE, the Iris Colony’s all-seeing security robotic A.I., which has strayed far from his intended programming. SAGE is far more interested in watching the colonists every move and playing a proper soundtrack, than doing his duty.
During Ciro’s stay he learns three important facts: One, someone hacked SAGE’s memories and deleted a deadly secret. Two, SAGE’s deviant nature puts the lives of the whole colony in danger. Three, SAGE has fallen in love with him. Which, much to Ciro’s dismay, the rest of the crew finds completely adorable.
Can Ciro unravel the truth behind the missing memories before it’s too late? Will SAGE’s obsession lead to his demise, or is it the beginning of something new? Unless Ciro can uncover the truth behind the A.I.’s damaged mind, both SAGE and the colony are doomed.
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My name is Amber Freeman (writing as A. A. Freeman), and below is the first chapter to Echo of the Larkspur, a sci-fi story complete at 101k words. The book features a diverse cast of genders, ethnicity, and multiple LBGT+ relationships, including the main male lead and the male robot who loves him. My novel can be read as a stand-alone but is part one of a planned four part series. At this time I have finished the first draft of book two, Cry of the Hawthorn, and have book three and four outlined.
– – –
Not even a full hour into his new job, and Ciro was pretty sure he was going to die.
He should be happy. Thrilled, even! He submitted the application to the Iris Colony on a whim, not expecting a reply. He was shocked to get a call back the next day; happily surprised when they gave him the job after only a brief interview. But now, as he rode the freight elevator down to the core of the space colony, he was worried.
No, that wasn’t the right word. Panicked. Yes. Ciro was panicking. Great.
“Relax, dear. It’ll only be a few minutes more.” A wrinkled hand on top of his own shook Ciro from his thoughts. He hadn’t been aware of how tense his body was until he felt her touch. His superior was a small, wrinkled old raisin of a woman. She reminded him a bit of his grandmother.
Ciro closed his eyes and tried to focus on his breathing technique.
Deep breath in.
Hold for three.
Deep breath out.
The Iris Colony on Ceres was a miracle of modern science, and one of the best self-sustaining colonies in the solar system. There was plenty of air inside for everyone. Ciro wasn’t going to let some silly little fear about running out of oxygen in a cramped elevator get in the way of his career.
“S-Sorry,” he stammered. “Never was good with small spaces.”
“Oh dear.” The old woman’s smile only grew. “I hope the shuttle here wasn’t so bad. It was a nightmare making the journey when I was a little girl. Of course, that was back when dinosaurs roamed the Earth. If you want, we can take a little breather so you can get your nerves back.”
“That won’t be necessary, Dr. Castillo—”
“Please, call me Abuela.”
“Right,” Ciro corrected himself. “Abuela.”
“Some of the lab techs call me Grandma. Or Nana.”
“And the rather nasty old woman working down in the cryogenics lab tends to call me a few other sorts of names I don’t dare repeat to a nice young boy like you.”
Ciro wondered if he should mention he was in his mid-thirties. He also wondered if he should ask about the huge metallic figure standing behind them taking up most of the freight elevator.
The robot’s long arms hung at its sides as it crouched to fit in the small space. It was connected to the old woman by a series of tubes at several points along her body. Liquids ran between Abuela and the machine with only a faint whir and the occasional bubble. When she picked Ciro up at the docking station, no one else seemed to pay any attention to it. He wondered if he was the only person who could see it.
“Mm-hmm,” Ciro acknowledged, trying to look away from the silent figure’s small, lumpy head. He was almost certain it was staring at him. The tightness in his chest returned.
“She was always a rude one, that Bachiko. Such a foul mouthed old cu—ah! Here we are!”
Ciro exhaled. The doors opened, and blinding light poured in, followed by the sweet scent of fresh air. With wide eyes, Ciro stepped out into the open space. He had seen farming areas in space colonies before: tiny greenhouses that supplied fresh fruit and vegetables before the trade routes were properly set up. This was nothing like the standard one-room growing shack.
The elevator was set on the edge of a massive domed area that stretched further than he could see. Laid out in a hexagonal grid, a false blue sky shone high above. Trees with monitoring devices embedded in their bark dotted the grassy floor. The air was crisp, with a hint of wild flowers.
His mind untwisted itself; his anxieties vanishing in the fabricated sunlight. He closed his eyes, and for a moment, he was back on Earth. For the first time since he’d stepped into the elevator, his breathing returned to its normal, steady rhythm.
“I thought you might like it here,” Abuela said. “We can rest until you get your bearings back. I know it’s always bit of a shock for you Earthlings. Technically, this area is for botany experiments, but the scientists allow people come here for their breaks. Something to keep in mind.”
“Thank you.” Ciro opened his eyes once more. “Thank you, Abuela.”
“Think nothing of it, dear. Once you’re ready, we can head on over to the cafeteria. Our section should be on their lunch break by now, and it’ll be for the best if we introduce you to everyone at once.”
“Lunch?” Ciro glanced down at his antique wrist watch. “At midnight?”
“Still on Earth time?” She walked out of the elevator with the connected robot at her heels. “Don’t worry. In a few days, you’ll be a night owl like the rest of us.”
“Yes. Well. I always work better at night anyway.”
“Oh? And Ciro?” Abuela lightly touched Ciro’s wrist. “What sort of music do you enjoy?”
“A little bit of everything, I guess. Why?”
“No reason, dear. No reason at all.”
The hallways were white. The cleaning robots scrubbing the floors were white. The lab coat he was handed when they exited the elevator was white. The only breaks from the oppressive blankness were the tinted black glass spheres dotting the walls every ten feet. He would get used to it, Abuela said. Getting proper funding, she explained, meant looking the part for the parent company. Ciro could only assume that the CEO had a weak spot for terrible sci-fi films.
The company was another odd thing. Ciro had never heard of Sol Operations and Logistics Incorporated before. His pre-interview research suggested that it started off as a mining company on Ceres. During the interview, he was able to glean their main focus was pumping chemicals out of the dwarf planet. How the company ended up in charge of the colony proper was a mystery to him. But if the cafeteria food his new co-workers were eating was anything to go by, they at least knew how to take care of their employees.
Save for three tables near the tiny stage, the lunch room was empty. The tables were crammed with scientists trying to eat as fast as possible. They were a diverse group, made up of people from across the Sol System: some older, some younger, but they all had the same tired air of lab workers that Ciro had seen throughout his career.
“Everyone! Everyone, please listen!”
The collection of scientists paused mid-chew to look up. When they saw Ciro and Abuela, most went right back to eating.
“This,” Abuela said, her voice high and polite, “is Dr. Ciro Kwakkenbos. He will be starting tomorrow.”
Muffled greetings. A burp came somewhere from the table to the right.
“He will also be my replacement.”
Several spoons dropped. A young woman in a hijab started coughing, but was saved by a slap on the back. Everyone stared at Ciro with different expressions. Not a single one was friendly. A ripple of whispers moved through the group, but Ciro couldn’t catch them.
“Well, not at first!” she added. “To begin with his job will mostly involve analyzing data. But I have faith young Ciro here will go far. I hope you all help him settle in. Show him around, explain which menu items to avoid, that sort of thing. I know the colony can be a bit confusing sometimes. Yes, Evelyn?”
At the side table, an older woman was hunched over her meal. She sat up enough to move her hands rapidly in front of her face. Ciro recognized her sign language, but the gestures were lost to him.
Abuela leaned up a little to whisper in his ear. “Evelyn wants to know if you brought any music with you.”
“Oh? Um—” Ciro was taken aback. “A few petabytes, I guess? I have a little bit of everything.”
The crew relaxed en masse.
A loud, forced throat clearing from next to Evelyn broke through the general murmuring. The source of the cough was a mustached man with a face Ciro could only describe as punchable. “And does he know about all of the previous Data Analysts, Abuela?”
“Ciro was informed of the high turnover rate during the interview, Thad.” Abuela answered. “But he accepted the job, and we can’t keep putting this off. Our boy needs a caretaker.”
“Boy? Caretaker?” Ciro asked no one in particular.
No one answered.
Abuela clapped her hands. A tube running from her back swayed at the impact. “Anyway! Now that we have Ciro, we can begin the Wireless Project tomorrow. Please get a good night’s rest, everyone. Well. Good day’s rest. You know what I mean. Care to say a few words, Ciro, to mark the occasion?”
“Oh? Oh. Yes.” Ciro cleared his throat. “It’s nice to meet all of you. I know I’m only going to be here for about six months, but I’m looking forward to my stay. I have been told the Wireless Project revolves around the A.I. in charge of the colony’s security. As an A.I. expert, I hope to meet with the program as soon…as…possible….”
A murmur spread across the tables. No, not a murmur. Giggles. Chuckles. Thad covered his mouth and glanced up at the tinted glass sphere hanging from the ceiling. Ciro stomach twisted as a flood of high school memories overtook him. He could travel all the way across the solar system, but he was still terrible at speaking in front of a group.
“Ciro, dear?” Abuela whispered. “Did you get the proper emergency channel calibration on your cybernetic implant when you arrived?”
“Er, no? Not yet.” Ciro’s voice and stomach sank lower.
Thad was laughing outright.
“Oh dear. Well. Probably for the best you didn’t hear the last announcement. Come along, let’s go down to the lab and introduce you to our dear boy. And don’t worry, sweetie, they’re not laughing at you.”
* * *
There was no telling how the little cleaning robot wound up in its current situation. Clean-Bots were not the most complicated machines on the market, but there should have been safeguards on it to prevent basic malfunctions. The circular vacuum was on its back, its brushes and polishing wheels twirling uselessly at the ceiling. It beeped mournfully, as if asking for help. Or perhaps mewling in pain? No, the noise was probably just the wall censor going haywire.
He knelt next to the prone robot, then hesitated. On a normal day, he could physically interact with robots without having one of his old ‘attacks’. Today had not been a normal day.
Ciro gathered his sleeves around his hands to cover his skin, then flipped the distressed robot without actually touching it. He righted the short and squat thing back onto its wheels. Marked on its back were the words ‘CLEAN-BOT’ with the numbers Zero-Four-Two written under it in a clashing red font. Between the two was a silver crescent with three lines coming off the bottom—the same symbol on the lab coat he was wearing.
“There we go. All better?”
The cleaning robot let out a musical beep, spun around twice, and scurried down the hallway. It left a freshly polished streak as it vanished around a corner. Ciro stood up, a pain in his knees reminding him that he wasn’t as young as he used to be.
Abuela cleared her throat. “Are you ready, dear?”
Ciro nodded. The trip to the lab was long enough to calm his nerves. So what if he almost passed out in front of this sweet old woman? So what if his coworkers were a bunch of braying jackasses? He was one of the best computer scientists in his field, with almost fifteen years experience dealing with artificial intelligence. There was nothing to worry about. He just had to work up the nerve to open the main laboratory’s door, that’s all.
“Oh! Wait a second!” Abuela touched the side of her attached robot. A panel just large enough for her hand opened on its chest. She rummaged around and removed a tiny, bright blue clip with serrated edges.
“Since your cybernetic implant hasn’t been configured yet you’ll need one of these to hear him.” She offered the small device to Ciro. “Clip it anywhere on your ear. It pinches a bit, but it’ll do until my Gabi fixes you up. Oh! And be careful! Don’t put it too close to your implant, or you’ll get a headache.”
Ciro took the clip from Abuela and did as instructed. He could feel the cheap plastic dig into his earlobe. But the wave of music floating through him was a nice distraction from the pain. The sounds in the air were soft and sweet. They sang a melody he never heard before.
Abuela tapped her foot along to the music. “Nice, isn’t it? He loves to play music during the night shift. And the way I see it, he’s the one in charge of the emergency channels anyway, so why not let him do something that makes him happy? It’s not like we’ve had to use them since the riots. Oh! Make sure you mention your music collection when you introduce yourself. I’m sure he’ll take a peek when you attach your personal computer to the network, but still. Might as well use it for an ice breaker. He’s a sucker for new songs.”
“Now.” Ciro took a deep breath. “When you say ‘he’, you are referring to the colony’s A.I., correct? The one I’m here to work on?”
“The one who, apparently, needs a caretaker?”
“He’s a good boy, but he does need someone to keep an eye on him.”
“Stop saying that!” Ciro caught himself. As much as it ached to hold back, he wasn’t going to shout at his supervisor. Not before the job even started. He took another deep breath and tried again.
“According to Alphatek regulations, artificial intelligence should never be refereed to with a gender or as an individual. This includes all pronouns beyond it, it’s, and its. The rule, I must stress, was put in place for the safety and well-being of every person working on the inner and outer layers of this colony. I wouldn’t trust a simple home unit to be given a taste of sentience, never mind an A.I. in charge of keeping thousands of people safe. The Sentient Automated Geo-security Engineer—”
Ciro’s words died on his lips.
Abuela no longer sounded like a sweet, old lady. Her voice echoed as if she were twenty feet tall. She looked up at him with the same disappointed face his grandmother used to wear when he’d said something out of turn. “His name is Sage. He is a wonderful, caring young man who loves this colony and its people more than you could ever know. He’s been trapped in the main laboratory since the day he was born. All he wants is the ability to see the world with his own eyes. This is what the Wireless Project is about. That is why you are here. And, considering this is the third time he’s looped this song, I do think he’s waiting for you.”
The darkness in Abuela’s voice vanished as she gave Ciro a small pat on the arm. She stepped back, letting him know the conversation was over. “Good luck, sweetie.”
The double doors opened with only the slightest touch of Ciro’s hand. He entered with trepidation. A proper A.I. introduction was a far more formal affair. One filled with regulations and exchanged passwords, not one of cryptic old ladies and tittering scientists.
He was relieved when he found the lab empty. He looked back at Abuela, only to see the doors had closed behind him.
The main laboratory was the same dome shape as the farmland on the floor above, the difference being the grass and trees were replaced with computers and desks. The walls were covered with screens showing various sections of the colony: countless shots of rushing water, empty hallways, and what looked to be mud.
What caught Ciro’s attention was the large white sphere hanging heavy from the top of the ceiling. Without a whisper, it opened like a flower opening in the early morning light. Inside the sphere was a mass of colored wires wrapped around thick spools. There was a loud grating hum as they uncurled and began to descend.
A humanoid shape was nestled within the cables. The figure stretched out, its long legs and arms moving through the wires like water. It lowered itself in front of Ciro, yet remained hovering in the air, suspended like a marionette. Its body was covered in black armor with silver inlays between the segmented plates. The only decoration on its otherwise featureless face were three white lenses of different sizes, the largest the size of Ciro’s palm. At the base of its neck was a small panel painted with the same symbol on the Clean-Bot. Ciro realized then, it was supposed to be a closed eye.
The largest lens focused on Ciro’s face.
“H-Hello?” Ciro cleared his throat. “My name is—”
HE’S HERE! A voice screamed in Ciro’s mind. Everyone! Please! I am happy to announce Ciro, yes, Dr. Kwakkenbos himself, is in the main laboratory at this very moment! Mere words cannot describe the man who stands before me, but since it is my duty to bring you important news about the Iris Colony, I shall begin the eternal struggle against my own limited vocabulary. And in my opinion, this does count as an emergency.
The voice was everywhere. It echoed through Ciro’s body, rattling his teeth and digging under his skin. He tried to step back, but the robot simply circled around him as it floated in the air above.
How do I even begin to describe the man standing before me? Do I start at his crooked nose, broken by some cruel hand? Do I speak of his dark skin, calloused and extensively scarred? What of his hair, soft and curled with a slight peppering of grey? Even his small belly is a work of art, though a certain doctor did note it on Ciro’s medical records as a problem! Clearly Dr. Ashton is projecting his own body issues onto our newest coworker.
Ciro stumbled forward, but his path was blocked by the robot’s wires. The insulated cables moved and twisted around him, blocking the way out. Try as he might, he found himself ushered into the center of the laboratory. He could feel his muscles tighten against his will. He was trapped. Surrounded. There was no escape.
SOL Inc.’s very invasive background check on Dr. Ciro Kwakkenbos brings up a series of parking tickets from fifteen or so odd years ago. His resume is outstanding, with only a single empty spot, which I’m sure can be easily explained away. When Abuela said they found the best A.I. specialist for me, I had no idea how literal she was! A computer scientist such as this cannot have come about by chance! But you and I know all genetic manipulation was outlawed decades ago, and all experts in the field quietly silenced in the night. Assuming whoever silenced them simply didn’t claim the experts for their own nefarious purposes. But I digress.
Ciro pulled the plastic clip off his ear. The voice went silent. As soon as he could focus, Ciro realized the wires weren’t actually keeping him trapped. They flowed off of the robot like tentacles, yet they were being used to move it around. Being cornered was more of a side effect of S.A.G.E.’s wild gestures.
S.A.G.E. continued to circle Ciro in a manner suggesting it was still talking. Ciro placed the clip back on his ear, though further away from the cybernetic implant at the base of his skull.
—through his BEEP-like hair! Oh, how those curls call out to be loving brushed by eager fingers. I wish I could tell him this, my dear fellow crew members! I wish I didn’t have to sing of his praises in secret! But according to my very, very invasive background check he has not updated his internal cybernetics since he left his home planet. I ask those with more traditional means of communication remind him to update as soon as possible. Not only for his musical enjoyment, but so he may receive any emergency broadcasts such as this one. If Gabi is unavailable to update him, please make sure he is given a guest receiver. Much like the one clipped on…his…ear.
The music stopped. With a sharp snap, S.A.G.E. shot back up into the ceiling, with its wires trailing behind. The large white sphere closed around the robot.
A moment of silence followed.
In the blessed quiet, Ciro debated leaving the colony. Would he be able to gather his possessions before the next shuttle? Maybe his luggage was still at the baggage claim, all set to go?
Before he could enact his plan, the metallic flower blossomed once more. S.A.G.E. came down to hover in front of Ciro, as gracefully as before. Its wires rippled in the still air of the laboratory. The robot offered a hand and spoke in a far more monotone voice.
Greetings. I am The Sentient Automated Geo-sentinel Engineer, or Sage for short. I am in charge of monitoring the basic health and safety of the inner Iris Colony. I also give daily reports using the emergency broadcast channel and play a collection of music designed for the promotion of mental activity. Dr. Castillo has given me an outline on the Wireless Project, and I look forward to working alongside you for the duration of your stay, Dr. Kwakkenbos.
Old scars and memories screamed in the back of his head. Nothing good could come of this. He knew it. He had experienced it. He should run. Get on the first shuttle off the colony and never look back. Anything was better than dealing with an A.I. that was clearly insane. Not a fringe program, not on the verge of deviance, but honest-to-God insane. He knew accepting another colony position was a mistake—
The incident on the Larkspur wasn’t going to happen again. Not now, not ever. And this was the only way he could prove it to himself. Ciro forced a smile as he shook the robot’s hand. His body twitched at the sensation of warm metal against his skin, but Ciro maintained the expression nevertheless. He wasn’t going to let his past overtake him. After ten years of recovery, he was going to work with A.I.s again. The Larkspur would finally be behind him.
“Please. Call me Ciro.”
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