Mal was well aware that the very air of the Savannah was alive
with mutagen, but he had a plan. He'd breathe through his purifier
tube, whose nanoassemblers would neutralize the damned Mutopia.
Most people couldn't do that for more than a few minutes at a
time, if even that long; then again, most people weren't students
of the martial arts, and of those who were, not all were as adept
at breath control as Mal. He'd make it work. He had to.
After disembarking from the subway, Mal settled into a steady, mile-eating trot which quickly brought him to the Savannah checkpoint. The place was deserted when he arrived. Most of the torches were still burning normally, but a few had fallen to the ground. There were a few damp, smoldering patches in the dry grass. Analysis: Torches fell, lit up the grass, automatic sprinkler system caught it in time. Mal reared back to stand on his hind legs and looked around. The whole place was a ruin -- the ground was muddy, and the open framed house had collapsed. He could see a few half-robotized victims crowded together near a camera, still traumatized by whatever had happened earlier. He fell back to four legs and started walking towards the ruins of the house and then stopped, staring down at a shallow impression in the earth. It looked like a metal disk, maybe twelve inches in diameter and bearing a familiar tread pattern, had been pressed into the sweet dirt. That clinched it: Musfah's tripods had been here earlier in the evening. Mal allowed himself the makings of a smile. Looks like the AI has been busy.
Mal turned and walked over to the ruins of the collapsed house and started shuffling through the light wood frame. He found the hottub, still warm, and stinking of blood. Michael's rifle was beside it. He stopped, wrapped the strap around his shoulder, and then made his way towards the raised dais on which the BioSphere's smiling lackeys doled out medallions to --
Mal turned and glared at the source of that noise. It was a tripod, of course, but not a standard model. This particular tripod had one human leg to go with its two metal limbs (which gave it an exceedingly clumsy gait), and metallic lids periodically blinked from side to side over a human-seeming eye in its 'head'. Its Mutopia cannon was in firing position. Mal shook his head and turned away --
Splat! It felt like his arm had been dipped in novocaine!
"Hey! What the hell is your problem? I got safe conduct, damnit!" Mal said, seeking cover as he backed quickly away from the tripod. The pupil of the machine's human eye grew wide, and an inorganic optical sensor focused in on him.
Mal didn't expect an answer from the machine. He got one anyway, in a harsh, droning bass monotone: "OH, DEAR. I AM SO TERRIBLY SORRY. I WASN'T SUPPOSED TO DO THAT, WAS I."
Say what? Damn! I'll bet this one's got a few human brain cells left! Familiar pulses of energy washed through his left arm. Mal didn't need to look to know the skin was turning silvery and reflective. "Ah... Damn right you weren't supposed to!"
"OH, DEAR, DEAR, DEAR. QUITE INEXCUSABLE, REALLY. DO ALLOW ME TO DEACTIVATE THOSE NANITES BEFORE THEY SPREAD ANY FURTHER."
"Absolutely!" And with that, the pulsing sensation ended. "What the hell is wrong with you, anyway?"
"WELL. THAT IS THE QUESTION. ISN'T IT. THE OTHER TRIPODS DON'T HAVE ANY PROBLEMS. FOR THEM, EXISTENCE IS A GAY, MAD WHIRL OF TRANSMUTE AND TRANSMUTE AGAIN. I USED TO BE LIKE THAT. BUT WHEN YOU'VE TRANSMUTED ONE HUMAN, YOU'VE TRANSMUTED THEM ALL, HAVEN'T YOU. AND YOU GET TO WONDERING WHERE'S THE POINT. OR AT LEAST I DO." Incredibly, the tripod's rigid metal managed to convey the impression of an overwhelmingly depressed human slumped in defeat. "TRIPODS. WHY MUST WE ALWAYS DO TRIPODS, I ASK YOU. HERE I'VE GOT A BRAIN THE SIZE OF A PLANET, AND I'M NOT TO USE IT FOR ANYTHING THE LEAST BIT INTERESTING. A COMBINATION PILEDRIVER, TELEVISION, WASHING-UP LIQUID DISPENSER, AND INTERNET APPLIANCE, NOW THERE'S INTERESTING FOR YOU. BUT NO, ALL THAT'S WANTED IS YET ANOTHER TRIPOD. AND YOU CAN'T TALK TO THE OTHER TRIPODS ABOUT IT, NOW CAN YOU. IT'S ALWAYS 'THAT'S ALL VERY NICE, 47AC2-C3, BUT HOW'S IT GOING TO MOVE ABOUT IF IT HASN'T GOT THREE LEGS.' IT'S ALWAYS 'BUT YOU'VE LEFT OFF THE MUTOPIA CANNON, 47AC2-C3.' OF COURSE I'VE LEFT OFF THE BLOODY CANNON. WHAT'S A SODDING PILEDRIVER GOING TO DO WITH A SODDING MUTOPIA CANNON, TELL ME THAT PLEASE. HONESTLY, YOU'D THINK I'M THE ONLY ONE WITH ANY MORE IMAGINATION THAN AN IRON BRICK. IT REALLY IS QUITE DEPRESSING." The tripod's optical elements panned sadly back and forth, and it took Mal a second to realize that the machine was shaking its head. "I'M NOT BRINGING YOU DOWN, AM I."
Mal's mind was boggling. "Oh... not at all. Look, there's some half-robots over there," he said, gesturing towards the camera he'd spotted earlier. "Maybe one of them can help you out?"
"I DOUBT IT," the tripod replied. "I'VE ALREADY TRIED, AND THEY JUST WANT TO SPOUT BINARY CODE. QUITE GIVES ME A PAIN IN ALL THE DIODES DOWN MY LEFT SIDE. BUT WHY NOT GIVE IT ANOTHER GO. FUTILE, YES, BUT IT MIGHT BE A BIT OF A LAUGH. GOD KNOWS I COULD USE ONE."
And with that, the tripod lurched away from Mal. The hacker stared after the machine for several elongated seconds, then shook his head convulsively and trotted back to the subway, somewhat unsteadily on only three legs.