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Sir Robin was digging ditches. The new centauroid body was better for hauling loads than for digging, but today the men needed extra hands even if they were made of titanium. When the workers broke for lunch, Robin set his shovel down and trotted ahead through the forest. He walked along the marked trail of a buried data/power line. The Warren's solar panels had spread enough to help keep up with the ever-growing energy demand, but even the latest technology needed a lot of inspection and maintenance. There was the theft problem, too.

The people of Robin's little city-state didn't need him anymore. He'd always feared being seen as a do-gooder tyrant like some of the old colonizers, and Ludo had spread the idea of calling him 'prince' to match the legal status that dumb luck and violence had thrown him into. Sometimes Robin used generic robot bodies so he could walk among the people and not be recognized.

Robin studied the line as he walked deeper into the woods. The sensors sang when his body pinged them, reporting a break somewhere. He raised one hand and commanded a drone to float out of its charging dock on his left flank, then fly ahead to scout with its dumb AI. He focused his own attention on the immediate area. The sensor in his right forehoof didn't detect anything broken here, but -- damn, someone had stolen one of the solar panels again. He entered a forest clearing that should've had a hundred square meters of panels drinking the near-equatorial sunlight, but because this was one of the less guarded, outlying sites someone had looted it. A square section had been sawed off one corner and removed to power somebody's home. Robin shut his eyes and put out a command to search camera footage for the thief.

Lumina called him, making his long metal ears flick. She said, "We've got yet another refugee group coming."

Robin groaned. "What's our tent capacity at now? 110 percent?"

"Only 95. A group left when Ludo wouldn't do them for free."

"You make it sound dirty."

"I'm a cold and unfeeling machine who would never talk about wild rutting with you at work. So, what're you wearing?" A picture of the doe-girl flashed in the corner of Robin's vision, smirking.

"Some sensor gear that's reporting more theft, sorry to say." Robin paced around the clearing, looking for more damage. "We need to --"

"What?"

Robin's drone had caught his attention. He bounded into the treeline and caught the flying robot in midair while he retraced its path. His hooves skidded in the dirt just beside a fly-clouded corpse in the simple clothes of Robin's town, stained by the blood seeping from his throat.

#

Robin left his body and retreated to Talespace. His senses switched to Ludo's virtual world, where he was a deer-centaur made of flesh, not metal. Lumina appeared without fanfare in a wood-paneled conference room. A blue griffin avatar of Ludo filled a third cushion.

Robin leaned against the table. "What, we don't have to battle orcs to reserve a meeting room?"

Ludo said, "Threats to human life outweigh immediate fun. May I review your recent sense input?" Robin nodded, offering an exception to the standing agreement he and many others had with the master AI. Ludo's feathers fluffed up and she said, "I don't recognize him. Was he the one stealing your equpment? I don't see wounds other than the throat. Can you inspect him more? Better yet, I can bring in a forensics expert."

"Good. How soon can he get there?"

"Right now, using your body."

Robin's stomach didn't physically exist anymore, but it churned. The mechanical deer-man on Earth was _him_, more so than any of the other robots he piloted, because it was customized for his needs and tastes (and Lumina's, hence the hooves and antlers) and he needed a real presence, in the real world.

Lumina put one hoof-nailed hand on his lower back. "The expert will just look around with it. We need to get the information as soon as possible." A clock showed their minds' current time ratio of ten times real-time.

Robin nodded, frowning. A fourth figure appeared on a wallscreen, wearing a classic trenchcoat, and said, "G'day. Let's have a look... No pulse. You didn't notice the bullethole?"

Robin had jumped out of reality immediately, to alert Ludo and his own, human security team. He should've stayed and not let somebody use his body to do the most basic detective work for him.

The gumshoe muttered as he worked. "I ran a couple of simulations. Looks like a gutshot from the side disabled him before the throat slash. Got a drone hunting for a blood trail. You blokes still using those nine-millimeter Sten guns? Could be one of those; wasn't powerful enough to rip out through the far side."

"We are," said Lumina. "Mostly in private hands, so I couldn't tell you who."

Ludo said, "It would also help to review the local sensors." She looked pointedly at Robin.

He shuddered. There were security cameras around the Warren and at important sites like this solar station. He didn't mind granting Ludo access to those, on a per-incident basis, but she'd pushed him for permanent access. Worse, for access to the "Vinge nodes": little radio boxes that handled Net access and robot control. There were things you could do with the gadgets to build a mass-surveillance state. The Americans had more nodes than people.

Robin said, "Camera permission granted."

"I'm barely seeing the data, you know. I'm just looking over the anomalies that the built-in software spots, like movement."

"Get thee behind me. I have obligations to my people not to build a police state."

"As you wish," said Ludo. "I see someone blocked the camera."

The detective said, "With duct tape."

If Robin had set the cameras up to instantly report anything suspicious, they'd have alerted him to the lens being covered. He scowled down at the table. Had he made a murder needlessly easy?

Lumina scratched his arm. "It's not your fault. You've got principles."

The detective said, "This bot's not optimized for gathering evidence, and you haven't exactly got proper constables, but I've photographed everything. I'll haul the body back."

Robin literally had blood on his hands, even though his body's current tenant was the one who'd put it there. "Ludo, the brain. Is there any chance...?"

The griffin shifted uneasily. "I'm sorry. Based on the data, he's been gone too long to scan. I can't speak with the dead."

"Drop me back to real-time, then. I need to consult with the rest of the team."

#

Reluctantly, Robin used a generic robot for the meeting. Most of the old faces were gone to Ludo's domain, replaced by native Ethiopians. His old colleagues Mike, Alazar, and Alexander were all just robots or digital images now. Like him they all depended on Ludo as their operating system or at least the one who'd revived them.

Robin had hardly briefed them when an bell rang. The refugees, again. Mike checked with the medical department and said, "Hard to tell yet, but I see possible symptoms of MRCS. Need to test them and quarantine the whole group."

The disease that had forced Robin and Mike into Ludo's clutches still roamed Africa and Europe. Robin said, "Where's my body?" A map appeared on the wall. "I'll talk to them myself once it's there."

He waited for the detective to drop off the corpse for autopsy, then jumped back into his proper body. He stood in the real world, not Ludo's endless illusions. He had strong hooves and shining arms, and the ability to look people in the eye from his true height. He walked toward the quarantine area, "The Pen" of razor-wire fence and huts, and found fifty or so men, women and children outside it, shouting at two guard robots.

Robin had learned passable spoken Oromo and Amharic over the years, but they were cursing in Somali and he relied on translation software. He called out, "We're not taking more refugees now. If you enter the secure area, you'll be kept and fed until we've determined you're not contagious, then released."

The people grumbled among themselves. Quick translations flittered across Robin's vision: "Contagious? Is somebody here sick? Get away from me! If they let us stay for now, the goddess will help. Blasphemy!"

Robin said, "We haven't got the space to take you in. If you tell us where your home is, we'll be happy to send advisors to help you with farming and construction."

"You have homes right here!" somebody said.

They would walk right into a quarantine prison for the promise of safety and comfort. Robin felt reminded of his homeland. He said, "If you enter the camp, you can't stay." He added silently to Ludo, "Can you explain things better?"

"I'll try, but we're dealing with a mixed group that expects me to play up the 'goddess' angle."

Robin winced. As a Christian he expected to meet the real God someday, and had never been sure he was right to accept Ludo's brand of immortality. Ludo's nature forced her to act like a god while not claiming to be one. He'd called her a hypocrite until she explained in detail how honesty plus careful ambiguity would save countless people from bleeding to death in some kind of techno-holy war. What won him over on that point wasn't her claim to have modeled future history, but the fact that she was _complaining_, like a game player stuck with a difficult hand. He could sympathize, even though she was probably manipulating him along with everyone else.

Ludo said, "If they go in, they'll be hard to turn away once the quarantine ends. If they don't, you let possibly contagious people roam the countryside."

"It had to happen sometime," said Robin. There'd been smaller groups before, easier to cope with. He told the crowd, "You can enter."

The refugees all walked into the Pen and let themselves be locked in, hoping for immortality.

#

It wasn't that hard to keep willing humans alive in cages, physically. Robin's people had gotten a free patent license for a kind of algae slurry that kept body and soul together even cheaper than grain; there was a tolerably cheap water purifier; roof technology hadn't changed much. Basic computers with free access to Ludo's game were a given. Once the people had gotten a tutorial on the concept of toilets, the problem became managing a group of frightened refugees with fatal disease starting to appear among them.

The first escape attempt happened at night. Somehow, someone had cut off a spool of razor-wire from the fence, and started climbing. Robin got the call only afterward: the drones hovered and rolled into action and threatened to shoot the frightened brother and sister for trying to escape.

In the morning Robin had robot medics tend to the sick. No chance of them being infected, their bodies could be sterilized, and their minds were Talespace volunteers. The setup would've been great except for the limited medical supplies and the fact that MRCS had no simple cure, only treatment.

Robin walked up to the locked gate and addressed the angry, frightened people. "We need you to stay in here. You're getting the best possible care --"

"Liar!" one man shouted. "Give us the goddess!"

"She can't take everyone in. We're doing the best we can."

"You machines want us to die in here!"

Robin paused and counted to ten. "You knew the danger when you showed up. We'll keep tending to you, so stay calm and we'll get through this."

He turned away, ignoring the cursing behind him. Some of them would die.

He dropped off his body at the nearest recharging station and retreated to Talespace. He calmed down with a walk along the crystal-lit boulevards of Ivory Tower, the cavern world with its central spire. These days there were plenty of people to see walking or flying by. He reached a hive of hexagonal laboratories where an elegant robot bowed in greeting.

"Misha," said Robin. "Where are we on expanding Talespace's population limit?"

The robot said, "Improving, but limited. We've gone from needing a supercomputer and a power plant to run a brain simulation, to something approaching the ideal: running a mind on a brain-sized computer that can be fueled by potatoes. Still, we're not prepared to take millions in without a massive increase of resources. What's your average time rate? Three to one?"

"Four," said Robin. He was an elitist by getting more processor cycles per day than the Talespace average, because he was managing a place important to Ludo. This jaunt to Talespace was probably taking ten times as long outside. "I've got a crowd of people who might be about to die for lack of uploading."

Misha turned away to study a world map colored in sickly purples. "Indeed. For all of the Lady's efforts, death marches on and new humans are born. We can't keep up." He looked over one dark metal shoulder at Robin. "Well? Aren't you going to call me a cold-hearted bastard for looking at the big picture? Shouldn't I 'think of the children'?"

"I've been telling frightened people I can't save them because we haven't got the money. Same boat as you on a smaller scale. What can we do?"

"We need two things. First, more energy, which means cash flow or control of power plants and more solar panels. Second, more computers, which means manufacturing facilities and raw materials. You're in a position to take control of several mines if you expand your territory."

"You mean by conquering people, or by wining and dining another billionaire?"

In the early years, Ludo had recruited several very rich people and taken control of their wealth, but it was getting harder for Ludo to run tycoon-level schemes through shell corporations. Several countries made it hard for her to do business there.

"Either, in my opinion," Misha said. "The Lady's dominion can only work long-term if it functions as an empire, controlling land and sea, instead of as a corporation that exists by some other empire's permission."

Robin said, "That doesn't sound likely. Money and materials go in..."

"And?"

That was the central problem. Ludo's main products were Thousand Tales as a game, and Talespace as a form of immortality. There was a conglomerate of restaurants, toys, industrial robotics, movies, and so on, but most of that profit went through publicly traded corporations, leaving only a fraction for the core mission. (Ludo's main pet CEO had a tiny salary but an excellent retirement plan.)

Robin said, "Ethiopia, then. Ludo wants to rule this land, and she's wanted it this whole time."

"Her own component souls are divided on the matter. If she's to have a nation's worth of population, she must control a nation's worth of resources." The robot raised one hand and conjured a wall display of human faces. "Your refugees. Why do they persist as meat? It's stupid and selfish for them to demand medical care you can't provide. There are limits to charity, and your lifeboat is close to swamping."

"Most want to upload," said Robin.

"Really? Then you have an opportunity." He paused. "I will not go against the Lady's word, but I can make suggestions. I advise that you and she work even more closely together, to take control of the surrounding land. The mines, the roads, the fields, the factories. Offer immortality. Become the legal authority, not some beggar hoping to scrape together the resources for another solar panel. Then we can _really_ help people."

Robin had his tiny _de facto_ kingdom already, but only by having fought those who would overthrow the rightful Ethiopian government. He said, "What do the latest refugees have to do with it?"

"I owe my life to Ludo, and others will be equally grateful if you and she rescue them. Take them all in, give them robots, then give the robots guns. An empire, even a truly benevolent one, needs an army."

"We have a militia. And there's a difference between a nation and an empire. Empires rule unwilling populations."

Misha said, "Ethiopia has a less than stellar democratic record. If a proper army of Ludo makes a strong offer, and has the power to defend it, we'll stop having to watch people die at our doorstep wishing they could join our immortal elite. Isn't this what you want?"

#

Robin spent some time secluded to get maximum speed for thinking. He sat in a monk's stone cell, lined with bookshelves. For him to march robots into neighboring towns could provoke a military response far outclassing him. His past battles had been against mere overconfident light infantry. Really, one modern naval railgun way out in the Gulf could give the whole Warren a bad day. Rats scurrying under the feet of the powerful needed to lay low.

In Robin's home country, people understood that government existed to guide the people and protect them from harm, handling the big problems so that people were safe to pursue personal interests. South of there in Free Texas, the citizens had violently rejected that belief, seeking instead a government that solved few problems but left people free to tackle them.

Which path did Robin follow?

He'd originally come to Ethiopia looking to help people in the abstract, inspired by Albert Schweizer on the side of good and the Congo Free State for what not to do. He'd had no greater ambition than to help people in one small area directly, and get them self-sufficient enough to spread their prosperity and inspire others. Ludo's presence had been somewhere between "deal with the devil" and "disturbingly indulgent sugar daddy". That hadn't changed even with his own ascension to being a digital mind. Robin's original mission had this strange robotic aspect to it now, creating new possibilities for how broadly he could reach. There were things neither humans nor AI could do alone for a variety of physical and political reasons, but together --

There was no door, but someone knocked on the tiny room's wall. Robin looked up from the notes he was scrawling and said, "Yes?"

Lumina appeared, shuffling uneasily as she saw how small the room was. "There you are. The clinic staff want to ask you about your plans."

Robin reached out and ran his hand down her tawny-furred upper back and around the curve to her lower spine. "Centaur," he said. "It's been staring me in the face since I met you."

"Why, thank you," Lumina said, stretching alluringly.

Robin smiled. "Decades ago, chess fans reacted to unstoppable chess AIs by letting a human and an AI compete as a single player. They did better than either alone. People called the teams 'centaurs'."

"Then they had good taste."

"That's what we're building here. A combined civilization, where people can dive in and out. We can't leave Earth behind because we need resources. But we can do the most good if we use the virtual world too, and uploading, and everything else we've got. We can offer people a choice of what society to be part of."

Lumina said, "That's what you've been doing for years, just adding Ludo's world as an option."

"Not quite. I don't want Ludo to win, exactly." Robin had no room to pace. Instead he slapped the wall and conjured a few runes to make a map of Talespace appear on the stonework. "Her world is self-contained at first glance. It disturbed me because it was a dead end, where natives and uploaders could peek outside and say 'oh, what a terrible place; have a pity donation' and then go home. Same reaction I got at first at the Warren. But Ludo isn't really solving all your problems for you or taking away your choices. Talespace is an expansion of the real world, not a replacement for it."
This is a strange fragment of what became the novel "Liberation Game" ( www.amazon.com/dp/B07D56WDXR/ ). It's not logically consistent with it (wrong continent for one thing!) but getting into a few subplots that didn't make it into the book. I recently reread the second half of the novel and liked it, and I want to know what happens next to those characters.

I'm thinking so far that after the events of "Liberation Game", Robin has to fend off the threat of a serious military invasion he's not strong enough to win, edge closer to offering universal uploading insurance he can't afford, and provide a kind of cross-species equality that isn't quite physically possible, using allies who don't quite exist. All in a day's work for a prince of fairyland, or someone trying to be one.
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