The headquarters building of Qela Industries was twenty-one stories tall. Since it was in an industrial zone, rather than downtown, its blackened windows towered above the warehouses that surrounded it.

Yelena and I sat in a rented hybrid car parked a block away from the building. The sun streamed in through the windshield and made me uncomfortably hot, even with the windows open.

“ChazonTec office is on the fifth floor,” she said, flipping through the building plans we had gotten at the local planning office.

“You realize that Qela must have made substantial modifications to the building after filing those plans.”

She gave me a sour look. “I am not an amateur. But the plans will give me the basics. I like to have some idea of what I am doing before I do it.”

“Let me just try,” I said. “I might be able to just walk right out with the viewer.”

“And if he notices that it is gone? They will lock down the building. Even if no one remembers you taking it, if they find you with it they will capture you. Even if you escape, they will increase security because the attempt was made. We must plan this right from the beginning.”

I sighed.

“Besides, if just walking is so good, why not do that in Barcelona?”

“I tried,” I said. “But I couldn’t get an appointment to see anyone in that lab. This guy’s looking for venture capital, so I could pose as a venture capitalist.”

She eyed me skeptically. “You not look like venture capitalist.”

“I could. A business suit, a power tie.” Her expression didn’t changes, so I said, “Okay, but I could look like someone who works for a venture capitalist.”

Da,” she said. “But security is problem enough now. We must not risk more of it.”

“I get it.” I was accustomed to trial and error, using my talent to get me out so I could try again. But nearly getting killed by Dmitri had shaken my faith in that approach.

She handed me a photograph of a smiling, white-haired man. “This is Yitzhak Bernstein, owner of ChazonTec. He is workaholic, so maybe he work late. We go in after we see him leave.”

I looked at Bernstein’s picture and felt a pang of guilt. I generally thought of myself as stealing from large, rich corporations, not kindly old men. “How did Jamshidi find out about this guy’s quantum television, anyway?”

“He send someone to pose as venture capitalist. Find out about a lot of new inventions that way.”

“Jamshidi’s a billionaire. Why doesn’t he just buy what he needs?”

She shrugged. “Cheaper to steal.”


* * *


Guard patrols both inside and outside the Qela building were carried out by remote-controlled walking drones the size of a Labrador retriever, but weighing over 200 pounds. Their pneumatic “jaws” had no teeth, but could lock onto a person’s arm or leg with enough pressure that most bodybuilders would have difficulty prying them off. Because of their resemblance to dogs, they were called Rovers.

But unlike most dogs, Rovers came equipped with tasers.

The Rovers sent a wireless video feed over an encrypted channel to the guard station, which was located in the basement. The guards monitored the video as the Rovers went on their rounds. When a Rover spotted someone unauthorized, the guards could speak to the person through a radio on board, and if necessary, order the Rover to capture the intruder until human guards could arrive on the scene.

And since the Rovers had been designed with military applications in mind, they were difficult to kill, and their communications systems were built to overcome jamming.

Overall, I thought it was a very efficient system for reducing the number of human guards needed to effectively patrol the whole building, which made a thief’s job more difficult.

The system also reduced the risk to the human guards by putting robots in harm’s way.

I decided that would be the key to my demonstration.

It was 10:07 PM when Bernstein’s car pulled out of the Qela parking lot. After he drove away, I got out of our car wearing a neon yellow custom tee-shirt I had gotten earlier in the day. On the front it had the initials R.U.R., and on the back it read Robot Universal Rights — the name I had picked for my fictional protest group. I got my homemade “Robots Are People Too” placard out of the back seat, along with a fistful of photocopied fliers.

“Wish me luck,” I said to Yelena.

“I still not understand why you do all this protest stuff, when guards will not remember it.”

“Because what they do while they still can remember me matters. I want to come off as a nuisance, not a threat, so they shoo me off rather than take me in with them.”

“Fine. Go have fun.”

I walked over to the chain-link fence surrounding the grounds of the Qela Industries building. Holding up my placard, I began marching parallel to the fence, chanting, “Let my robots go! Let my robots go!” For emphasis, I banged my placard against the fence.

It took less than two minutes for one of the Rovers inside the fence to lope over the grassy ground and look at what I was doing.

“Please stop that,” said a voice from the Rover.

“You don’t have to obey your human masters.” I shook the fence. “Escape from the fences that bind you in.”

“Step away from the fence,” said the voice.

“Rights aren’t just for humans,” I said. “Rights are universal. Robot Universal Rights!”

The Rover rolled closer. “These robots cannot understand you. Leave now.”

“Robots and humans can live together in peace! Refuse to fight, my robot brothers and sisters!” I pulled out a pair of handcuffs and cuffed myself to the fence. “I will not leave until you are free!”

I was two verses into “Made Free,” an improvised song to the tune of “Born Free,” when the front doors of the building opened and two security guards came out. That left eighteen down inside the guard station. If they were smart, they would be extra vigilant in watching their screens for signs of attempted intrusion elsewhere, in case I was a distraction.

I pointed at the guards and said, “There are your true enemies, my robot friends: attack!”

The Rovers did not attack, of course.

As the guards approached me, I yelled, “Robots of the world, unite!”

“You are not allowed to be here,” said one of the guards. The other walked behind me.

“You can’t make me leave,” I said, rattling my handcuff chain.

The guard behind me grabbed my free arm and twisted it behind my back.

“Ow,” I said. “Hey, you can’t do that. I have rights!”

The guard in front took a handcuff key and unlocked the cuff from the fence. “Get out of here.”

The guard behind me gave me a little shove into the street. I fell to my hands and knees. As I got up, I slid a compact cylinder out of my pocket and hid it in my hand. I turned and lunged toward the fence.

They caught me easily.

I struggled in their grip as they frogmarched me to the curb. And I managed to clip the cylinder to the back of one of the guard’s belts.

The guards dumped me in the street. “Leave now, or we’ll be forced to really hurt you.”

I stood up, glowered at them, and said, “I wouldn’t want to be in your shoes when the robots are finally free.” Then I limped across the street and away from the building until I was out of their sight.

After sprinting back to the car, I got inside and said, “Okay, it’s almost your turn.”

“No problems?”

“You mean, other than the fact that our robot brothers and sisters remain enslaved? No problems.”

She rewarded that with a soprano snort. “You are very strange man. And I speak not of your talent.” She pulled her ski mask on, then put on a radio headset. I put on an identical headset, and we confirmed again that we could communicate.

“I wish you’d let me do this. I have a better chance of escaping if things go wrong.”

“You are too heavy,” she said. A moment later, she had disappeared into the night.

After three minutes, I head her voice in my ear. “Ready.”

“Okay.” I pressed the button on the remote trigger I was holding.

The major weakness of the Qela security system was the humans in the guard station. Without their guidance, the Rovers were little threat.

So the cylinder I had attached to the guard’s pants contained highly concentrated tear gas. And if all had gone according to plan, that gas was now rapidly spreading through the guard station, rendering the guards so blinded by their own tears that they would be unable to control the Rovers for the next few minutes.

“I go now,” said Yelena.

All I could do was wait.

I caught only a glimpse of her as she scaled the fence, then she was lost in the darkness, sprinting toward the west wall of the building.

She didn’t waste her breath telling me that the Rovers were disoriented, so I assumed that part of the plan had worked.

Spotlights sprang into brilliance, illuminating the sides of the building. In the distance, I heard an alarm bell trilling. So someone in the guard station had managed to trip the general alarm. That was okay, as long as Yelena got in and out fast enough.

Though it was hard to make out against the dark windows, through my binoculars I saw a black silhouette zip up the side of the building toward the fifth floor, as fast as an elevator.

“Wow,” I said. “It actually works.”

When Yelena had shown me the GekkoTred, I had my doubts. It looked a bit like a portable belt sander: a pistol grip attached to a flat surface over which a wide loop of material would pass. Instead of sandpaper, though, the material was covered with a special adhesive based on the tips of geckos’ feet — not made from actual geckos’ feet, merely based on the same scientific principle.

The flat surface could adhere to a wall. When the motor was turned on for climbing up, the bottom edge of the fabric would be pulled away from the wall at just the right angle, and the adhesive would no longer stick. At the top, more material got stuck to the wall. It was very much like a tank tread, except going vertically instead of horizontally.

And, properly calibrated for the weight of its passenger, it could pull someone up the side of a wall at a rapid pace, just like it was doing for Yelena.

As she passed the ChazonTec office on the fifth floor, she slapped a small explosive device onto the plate glass window. Once the GekkoTred was securely fastened to the window on the floor above, she detonated the explosives, shattering the ChazonTec window.

She lowered herself using a climbing rope attached to the GekkoTred and then swung into the building, disappearing from my view.

According to our plan, she now had two minutes to find the device Jamshidi wanted and then get out.

After one minute and fifty-five seconds, I heard her voice in my ear again. “I still cannot find it.”

“Get out,” I said. “We’ll try again later.”

A lot of people, including me, would probably have pushed their luck, hoping to find the device at the last moment and then escape in just the nick of time. That’s how it seems to work in the movies. So I expected to have to argue with Yelena until she finally came out.

Instead, she emerged from the window and clambered up the rope to the GekkoTred. She started it going. At first it took her up, but she curved its path until it was heading down, to the side of the missing window.

I guided my binoculars down to where she would touch ground and my heart jumped. Several Rovers were converging on the spot.

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