mike, mac and barbarian, along with thirty-one other human male unfortunates picked up in the morning sweeps, were lined up on benches in a holding area above garage 533.
"no sense trying anything now," barbarian told mike and mac. "wait until they move us a little farther along, when they figure we don't know where we are. then they'll take the cuffs off to feed us and they'll be busy feeding us, that's when we make our move."
"you got it all figured out," said mac.
"i've been here before, that's all. i know a few tricks."
"how old are your tricks?" mike asked.
"they are old but they are good. they worked in atlantis, they worked in gondwana, they will work here."
"why don't you speak up?" mac asked. "there might be some deaf people here that can't hear you."
"secrecy is overrated in these situations," barbarian answered. "you want good mates. all you can get. so you should advertise your intentions."
"if you say so."
"this place is probably wired anyway." mike said. "so it doesn't matter how loud you talk."
"no, take a look at the construction of the walls. they're old. it wouldn't be cost effective to wire them."
"you've really got it all figured out," mike said.
""you've got to be prepared, brother."
"brother is wrong usage," a voice came from the wall behind them, startling them. "use sibling."
mac laughed, and so did a few other prisoners to their left.
"i'm glad these walls are too old to be wired," mike said.
barbarian shrugged. "i'm trying. you got to test the waters."
one of the robots reappeared with his clipboard. "one more time, prisoners. this is the last time i will ask. do any of you have any information on the two prisoners that escaped after entry to building 533?"
no one answered. "thank you, prisoners," said the robot. he turned and went back down the ramp.
"that's one old robot," said mac. "i think i like the new kind better, the ones that give you some lip."
"like the one that arrested us," said mike.
"they just take after their human partners," said barbarian. "that little fat sergeant had a big mouth, so he did too."
"these speculations are improper," said the voice from the wall.
again, a few of the prisoners down the line laughed. "quit while you're behind, big guy," one of them yelled.
"just testing the waters," said barbarian. he leaned back against the wall, and they all fell silent.
after a while the two robots came back, this time accompanied by old sarge.
old sarge looked around the room. "this doesn't look like a very good group," he announced. he started walking around, occasionally stopping to glance at an individual prisoner.
he stopped and looked down at barbarian. "here is a halfway healthy looking specimen. how about it, soldier, care to sign up for the imperial army?"
"imperial army?," barbarian answered. "there's no imperial army these days, are you serious?"
"imperial?" said mike."i thought that was a bad word."
old sarge ignored mike. "no questions," he told barbarian. "do you want to join up or not?"
"i'm getting too old for that stuff. i'll pass."
"suit yourself." he moved on and stopped in front of a tall rawboned fellow with a beard down to his waist. "how about you, preacher man? care to join the imperial army?"
the man hesitated, then said, "you got me."
"ok, follow me." old sarge gave one more glance around the room and left, followed by the bearded man and the two robots. as they were going out the door one of the robots stopped the bearded man and took his cuffs off.
a buzz went through the holding area.
mac turned to the prisoner on his right, a chubby fellow who had been dozing most of time in the room. a few traces of clown makeup were visible near his receding hairline. "what do you think," mac asked him, "what do they need an army for these days?"
"what do they need an army for these days? maybe to guard us when we are breaking rocks on jupiter."
"robots can do that," mac answered. "besides, we aren't going to break rocks on jupiter because there aren't any rocks on jupiter. jupiter is just gas."
"who knows?" the chubby man answered. "maybe they put the rocks on jupiter just for us to break."
"i know that voice," barbarian said. he leaned over across mac. "chubbles the clown! how are you, br- i mean sib?"
chubbles laughed. "it took you long enough to recognize me. you used to be halfway sharp."
"you don't have your clown face on. so how's the clown business these days?"
"you see how the clown business is these days."
"you know what i meant. i mean before this morning."
"not too good. nobody laughs at clowns any more. not for a long time. any more than they thrill to the exploits of mighty barbarians."
"right. so what have you been up to?"
"i get a show job here and there. but the clown is always just in the background, looking sinister, you know. never talks." chubbles shrugged. " i get other jobs here and there. sweeping up, stuff like that."
"then you got swept up this morning," said mac.
chubbles just stared at him.
"i can hear you breathing," said mac. "i'm trying. you got to test the waters."
chubbles made no reply.
"where did they pick you up?" barbarian asked him.
"outside the biltmore hotel. that's where i live - outside the biltmore hotel."
mac and barbarian actually laughed. "seriously," said barbarian. "how did they get you?"
"'i'm glad you asked that question," said chubbles, but before he could continue, the two robots returned with their clipboards and led them all out another door and up another ramp. a long windowless bus was waiting for them and they were guided on to it by the robots. it was now mid afternoon.
"they still haven't asked us for our numbers or names," said mike.
"that could be good or bad," barbarian answered.
"at least they are taking the cuffs off," mac noted.
as they filed on their handcuffs were taken off by one of the robots. the bus had seats, not benches, and they were directed wordlessly to seats by the second robot. when they were all seated, the two robots sat down in the rear and the driver, a large newer model robot, turned to face them.
"we have been kind enough to take the bonds of you, " he said. "any trouble from any one and there will be problems. big problems. for you, not us." he turned and started the bus.
they drove for hours.
"they must be driving us to jupiter," said mike.
"we aren't going to jupiter," mac answered. "there's no rocks on jupiter. it's just gas."