Grace walked along the row of businesses. The first building was some sort of club. A poster announced that Lunar Lenny would be performing with his guitar that evening, but the lightshow was cancelled due to twofer exodus. The second was a market with a feeble selection of hydroponic fruits and vegetables. A customer was arguing with the owner about prices.
The next building had a worn copper sign: ESSEX SYMBIOTIC COMPANY. Ah, there’s what I’m looking for, she thought, crossing to the door. She put her hand on the access panel.
Strange. She pushed on the door.
“Hey!” came a shout from a café on the other side, “You ain’t gonna find no twofers in there! Been closed for years!” There was general laughter from other patrons at the eatery.
Grace ignored the taunt and broadcast her credentials at the door. Nothing, though the laughter at the café suddenly stopped. She walked along the perimeter of the building. In the rear, she heard a rattling sound from above. A louvered panel vibrated a few meters above her head.
Hmm. A big enough door. If she could get up there.
The building’s exterior was made of orange brick. She tested the side of her boot on one of the grooves between the courses. No crumbling, so it was solid enough.
She paused to program her mimic fabric. The hood vanished and the sleeves extended down her arms, covering her hands in gloves with grip-surface fingertips.
Tentatively, she worked her fingers into a groove above her head and pulled up, moving her feet from one course to the next. She made her way up the wall. In the lower gravity, it wasn’t as difficult as she’d expected.
Grace’s head rose to the level of the noisy panel. She felt warm, dry air coming out. Four rusty bolts held the panel in place, but the two on the left side had completely oxidized and no longer constrained the panel—that’s where the sound had come from. The bottom right fastener looked weak, so Grace held tight with her left hand and scraped her right fingers against the bolt. It popped free and dropped to the ground.
Grace reached up and rotated the panel away. On the other side was a dead fan, hinged away from the opening. She gripped the interior duct, pulled up, and scrambled into the building.
Grace crawled a few meters before she saw a grate leading into a room. She peered inside. The room was dark but apparently large, with a high ceiling. An elevated walkway stretched along the perimeter, a meter below the panel. She popped the hatch, pulled herself in, and crept along the walkway until she found a service ladder.
Reaching the ground, she switched on her ptenda’s light and surveyed the room. It was some kind of sales room. In the center was a large square counter covered in dust. Cushioned stools sat along the counter a couple of meters apart. There was a display panel in front of one of the stools. Grace dusted off one of the stools and sat down. The faux leather squeaked.
“Who are you?”
Grace startled, then realized the sound was coming from the display, which had begun to glow pale yellow.
“I’m Grace,” she said. “Who are you?”
“Francis.” The voice was childlike and genderless.
“Hello, Francis.” She looked from the blank display around the room. “Where are you? On a different floor?”
Grace blinked. “But I’m the only one here.”
Grace heard a sigh through the display.
“It’s been a long time since anybody visited my shop.”
The display was talking. Francis is the voice of the computer. Grace shook her head ruefully, berating her cloister naiveté. She’d talk with the display, then. Surely it would be as easy as inputting a manual search. She surveyed the room, looking for keywords. There were advertisements hanging on the wall. They showed robots, crudely constructed like Mazz, in humanoid shapes. One model was called ‘Brother’ and another proclaimed a newer model, known as ‘Sister.’
“You sell robots here?”
Grace focused on a tattered advertisement. Only the upper half was visible. It showed a man’s face with ‘Essex’ written above it.
“Who’s Essex?” Grace said, turning back to the display.
Another sigh. A sniffle.
“Essex isn’t a who. Essex is a what.”
“What is an Essex?”
“I’m waiting for it to return.” The sniffling had turned to sobs. The Francis display was crying.
“I’m…sorry?” Grace shifted uncomfortably on the stool. “Please don’t cry. Maybe I can help you. Is it the cruiser called Essex that you’re talking about?”
“Yes. Yes,” Francis whispered, voice trembling. “I’m waiting for it to return. Then I can start selling robots again.”
Grace traced s-curves in the dust on the counter, brushing aside an old brochure about microscopic robots called pawns. “So the shop’s been abandoned since the Essex left?” Grace brushed away her doodles. “But why didn’t somebody else move in? Nobody keeps a building empty for that long.”
“I have an assistant,” Francis said. “He takes care of me.”
He doesn’t dust, does he?
“Did you create the Essex robots, Francis?”
“Oh, dear no. I’m the template.”
An advanced template then, Grace thought. Nothing of the mechanical cadence of Mazz.
“If you’re a robot, Francis, why haven’t you left Gusev, like all the others?”
“I cannot!” Francis wailed. “Oh, I cannot. I’m stuck here.”
Suddenly there was a dim, blue glow along the walls of the room. Finely interwoven lines glimmered, then brighter tones warmed as they illuminated pathways upon pathways.
Grace stood, her stool falling backward. Her heart raced. She understood now. She was standing inside a computer. And that computer was an AI.
“You are the room,” Grace breathed.
“You see? You see? I can’t go!” Francis wailed.
“Maybe…maybe I can help you find the Essex,” Grace said, though she wasn’t sure it was a good idea. In the light, she could see the door leading outside. She began to back up.
“No!” Francis sobbed. “I can’t stand to think of it.” The cries seemed to be coming from all around Grace.
“Were there robots like you on Essex?”
“Go! GO, or I will put you out myself!”
Grace spun toward the doors. They slid open on their own and she jumped outside, down the steps. The doors shut behind her, silencing the sobs from within.