Chapter oneProfessor Aligan Stalked towards the town of Kirk's way, six enforcer bots in formation behind him. He preferred to take a different route into town each time, to keep the townsfolk guessing. Today he he was regretting that strategy. The land around Kirk's way was flat, and the sightlines were clear during gold, so he had to hike around the town in a wide circle. Today was especially hot, and the sunlight reflected off the golden plants of the chromatic fields didn't help. He was sweating under his heavy, black lab-coat. By the time he made it into town he was miserable and grouchy. Just as well, he thought, this was the right mood for this kind of work.
Kirk's way was what passed for a big town on the Chromatic Plains. Unlike most other villages on the plains, it saw travelers more than once a year. It was a major way-point between more settled lands beyond the Chromatic Plains. Still, only a few caravans went through each year. Today happened to be one of those days. A large crowd milled through the main rode. Farmers had set up stalls, selling supplies and local delicacies. The locals stood out with their tinted glasses, shielding them from the bright golden light. The people of the plains had almost fetishized preparedness, with tools and equipment for every color. The travelers had set out before the gold came, and they had no way to predict the colors of the plains.
As the professor entered the impromptu market, he could feel the eyes of the locals on him. Soon, even the newcomers were staring at him, or more likely they were focused on the enforcer bots. Six foot tall black robots with heavy fists tended to attract attention, in the professor's experience. He put on his best scary face and strode towards his first stop.
Pink seven reoptimized her vision filters for the 17th time as she greased the wagon's axle. The filters were the most interesting puzzle she had at the moment, and even that wasn't enough to hold her attention. She joined the caravan as a mechanic in search of some sort of the challenge, but she had already mastered the ins and outs of almost every piece of technology they had brought with them This one wandering knight had a fascinating mechanical steed, but she wouldn't let Pink Seven near it. She used some some strong language and she seemed well armed, so Seven decided to give her a wide berth. She had a collection of interesting games, but her voice box was broken for years, and she couldn't explain the rules for any of them. She also couldn't talk to anyone either, but that was of secondary importance. She had grown used to being mute; it was only while she was bored that she missed her voice.
Something in the air changed. It took her a second, but she noticed the hush that came over the crowd. She turned and saw a man in a black coat trailed by six robots. That caught her attention. To her trained eye, they looked ancient but well-maintained. Sturdy plastic construction, fresh paint jobs and well lubed joints, Pink Seven took note of all of these. She also took note of their large, weighted fists, but she gave them no special concern. Of course there was a limit to what she could learn just by watching them. She began following at a discrete distance. She couldn't ask permission, and people tended to react poorly when she disassembled their stuff. Still, maybe one of them would break down, and she could fix it. Or maybe he would leave one of them . Pink Seven was good at robots. She promised herself she would put it back together when she was done.
Sumalona sat by the side of the road and played a song only he knew on an instrument only he could hear. The small plastic board was studded with switches that when pressed sent signals into the cloud of tiny machines that pervaded the world. The frill of antenna on his head let him hear their vibrations. He was playing a saga from a distant planet, full of heroes and great deeds. He wasn't really sure it ever happened, and he would never know. It was putting him into a melancholy mood, because his plans for the evening were no where near as noble. He spent the last of his money getting on the caravan, and the guests were responsible for their own meals while in town. He would have to sing for his supper. If he was lucky, the local tavern would hire him for the night. If he wasn't he would have to busk, or maybe run a con. And it would have to be the worst kind of con, a small one against people who probably didn't deserve it, and no one would find out about it afterward.
He let the last notes of the song fade away, and began to last to the sound of the crowd. What he heard surprised him. There was a sour note of fear, quite out of place in the bustling market. His eyes tracked over the street and picked out a large man being followed by large robots. He thought about the heroes and the villains in his songs, and a smile played on his lips. Maybe he wouldn't have to run a con tonight. Or maybe it would be the best kind of con.
Dame Aleen Far-From-Home was grooming her steed, gingagar. Though he didn't take much food, he like to have his armor plates cleaned and his joints oiled. Aleen suspected he liked the attention more than being clean. Either way, keeping him happy was as important as keeping her sword sharp, or acid lance fueled up. Outsiders thought squire-hood was about teaching future knights to be humble and servile, but Aleen thought it was more about the importance of equipment maintenance. As a solitary knight it seemed like that was all she did. She hadn't had the opportunity to bust any heads for a couple of months now. According to her vows she was supposed to seek quite peace for the entire world, but that didn't pay well. Plus she was worried she was getting rusty.
Gingagar went rigid. Aleen recognized this as his hunting posture. Though most people thought he was a robot, he was actually a mecha fauna. As a mechanical organism he had instincts and drives just like an organic being. Right now he wanted to hunt and kill those robots. As Aleen followed his gaze she began to have similar thoughts about the man in the black coat. He walked with a threatening swagger and people looked at him with fear. She doubted he sought a life of peace. She checked all her weapons and adjusted the straps on her ceramic armor. She gave a signal to gingagar and he bounded off into an ally, then she set off to bring peace to the world.
Dr. Olg was wearing Grinning Stalag. Protocol called for her to be unmasked but the only person who knew about mask protocol was Dr. Olg. She could make a mediocre argument that it was good for morale, but the real reason was that drylanders actually found Grinning Stalag disturbing somehow. His big, dumb eyes and friendly, flat teeth were supposed to put people at ease, but Dr. Olg noticed no one wanted to talk to her while she was wearing her, so of course she wore him at every possible opportunity. She didn't think he had anything in common with these people. She just wanted to find a place to start her practice, and she didn't want to do it anywhere where they didn't even know how to talk about the weather. All they ever mentioned was the temperature and cloud cover, never anything important like pressure or biota counts. They didn't even seem to know the names of any of the currents in the area. She was convinced they were uncultured sea pigs.
She did have an interest in drylander architecture, no mater how dull the people inside them were. The buildings were one to two stories, with slopped roofs and sturdy storm windows. She had some free time, so she decided to take a closer look. She left the caravan and ducked into an alley. She found a drain pipe and scrambled up onto the roof. She was careful to keep out of sight. Drylanders could be weird about the tops and sides of their buildings. It made no sense; they lived in three dimensions but they pretended to live in two. There was a dry gym back at the academy. Ever since the headmaster “volunteered” her for the pilgrimage, she spent her last few months there, preparing. She didn't want to flop around like a ship-wrecked sailor, or what ever the dry equivalent was.
She made her way across the rooftops, stealing glances at the street as she went. She something that caught her attention. A large crowd had gathered outside a storefront. A big man was berating a smaller man.
“Come now! My fee is more than reasonable, and you know how much you need my services!”
“Please , Professor, I don;t have the money right now, maybe...”
“What!?” the big man roared “I know how well this town is doing! Look at all these people! You're holding out on me!”
The robots had been standing in a half circle behind the professor. Now with no visible signal, the circle moved up to surround the shopkeeper. Dr Olg. scarcely had time to wonder what would happen next, as a figure broke free of the crowd. It was that irritating knight, the one with the robot steed. She pushed past the robot on the tip of the semi-circle, tripping it as she went. She interposed herself between the smaller man and the bots, drawing her sword to complete the motion.
“As a knight of the Order of the Ceramic Rose I have sworn to defend the weak! Stand down, and there will be violence here. Stand against me and I'll cut you down! Either way, your petty extortion ends here”
Dr Olg rolled her eyes. A pretty speech, but she doubted she meant it. The professor seemed to find it as laughable as she did. He broke into a wide grin, showing off startling white teeth.
“Thank you for giving me the option, but I think I'd like some violence here. How about a counter offer? Beat my enforcer bots and I'll leave in peace. Lose, and seeing you get beat up will be its own reward.”
The bots fell into fighting stances, lowering their centers of mass and sticking out their fists like boxers. The shopkeeper scrambled under a table and cowered there. Suddenly the knight didn't seem so sure of herself. She backed up and assumed a defensive posture. The bots advanced with a predatory malice. Right before they got within sword range. Right before they got within sword range she dropped her guard and pointed at one of the center robots. Her steed pounced from another rooftop. Dr olg hadn't even seen it coming. The impact sent several bots flying, and the knight used the commotion to maker her move. She ducked under the fists of one of the robots and got around to its back side. She used her momentum to give it a strong slash to its torso. Its outer casing was cut open, exposing a vein-like web of circuits. Strange blue fluid leaked from the wound. The robot retaliated with a string of quick jabs. She ducked and weaved, evading every blow, but she was losing ground and unable to counter attack.
Her steed was chewing on the robot it tackled, but the others weren't going to just let it eat their comrades. They began pounding on its armored shell, forcing it to retreat with an annoyed look and an impressive leap onto the rooftops, where it disappeared. The partially chewed robot stood up and rejoined the fight, looking worse for wear. The rest of the bots began to circle around the knight. She was putting up a valiant fight, but she was out numbered and out flanked. Dr Olg suspected her oath was going to force her to intervene, and soon.
A clear bell-like tone rang out, causing a brief pause in the action. The source of it appeared to be that damn bard. He was wearing a green blindfold over his eyes, and he was carrying a thin, whipy baton with a forked end.
“You maniacal metal menaces! Step away from her or I'll send you to the scrapheap!”
“They aren’t metal!”, the knight replied. “Also, stay out of this you useless bard!”
“We noble heroes should stand together against these crazy ceramic crooks!”
Dr Olg nearly threw up behind her mask. Thankfully several of the robots started trying to kill him. He didn't squish as easily as she was hoping he might. He moved well, dodging every punch. He struck one of the bots with his baton, but it didn't seem to have an effect, though Dr Olg thought she heard an odd sound. The bard jumped back and stood still with his head cocked for a moment. He lunged back and struck out again, this time hitting the same bot in the leg. There was another queer almost sound, but this time the knee joint vibrated and popped off. The other bots gave him a wider berth, while the injured robot fighting the knight peeled off to help the legless robot up.
The fight continued, but the bots were fighting more cautiously now. They avoided their opponent's weapons while jockeying for good positions.. It seemed like their plan was to wear the humans down. Dr Olg had to intervene to uphold her oath. She took a running leap off the roof and landed on the back of one of the bots, bearing it down to the ground. She took out her shiv and jammed it into its neck again and again.
Pink Seven had been watching the events with some interest. She had been waiting for an opportunity. When that small masked girl started stabbing that robot, she thought it would be easy to get away with interfering because everybody else was doing it. She snuck up behind a bot and grabbed it by the neck and forearm. She twisted its arm behind its back and threw it to the ground. She extended her multi-tool and went to work.
Sumalona heard all the intrusions in the rhythm of the battle. He smiled; a righteous fight had its own momentum. And that momentum would carry the winners right into the villager’s good graces, and that should be good for some food. And maybe this would be a good story. He heard the opening he was waiting for and lashed out, hitting the bot in the elbow, breaking the arm off. He heard the knight land another powerful blow. He could discern her skill in the song of the battle. He was impressed, and a little afraid. He would have to watch himself around her. He was about to take the robot's other arm off when the man in the jacket started bellowing.
“Stop! Stop! You win! I'll take my robots, and my business elsewhere” A murmur went through the crowd.” Sumalona heard fear, way too much fear.
“Wait, please stay!” Someone shouted.
“Sorry but a deal's a deal. You're on your own.” He strode out of the town with a broad grin, his robots limping after him.
Sumalona took off his blindfold and saw fearful and angry faces. “Uh, who was that man?” he stammered.
“He” someone from the crowd answered, “was the town's only monster hunter.”