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Low, black, and menacing, its angular metallic surfaces bristling with sensors and protuberances, the robot resembled, if anything, a walking warship.

It moved on six multiply-articulated legs projecting outward and downward from its underside in pairs, like sprung arches. Its front consisted of a blunt, turret-like head, flanked by a pair of rotary-jointed grasping appendages terminating in four-point, independently movable claws.

Emerging soundlessly from a steep-sided valley of depths lost in blackness, it climbed a hill of regularly spaced ridges alternating with darker furrows. A fibrous growth, like coarse, springy grass, covered the surface, which yielded slightly under the robot’s weight. It reached the top of the rise and paused to survey a landscape of peculiarly rounded mounds and folds, picked out bloodred in the gloom by the glow of a distant light. The red "moon" illuminating the nocturnal landscape formed the numerals 3:17:04.

The device was no bigger than a cockroach. It stood atop the highest of a chain of wrinkles formed where the bedspread was pulled around the figure lying asleep. After checking its direction, the mechanical insect resumed moving, following an ascending fold onto the slowly breathing form, higher to the shoulder, and from there onto the smoother expanse of sheet. At the edge of the sheet, inches from the sleeping man’s ear, the device halted again to identify its target, gauging angles and distances.

Then it moved fast for the area beneath the ear lobe, where even in an autopsy a small puncture would easily be overlooked. The claws had anchored to the epidermis and the tiny needle discharged before the alarm message registered in the sluggishly responding brain.

The figure stirred, turning its head. "Uh . . . Huh? . . ." An arm freed itself and slapped. "Wassat?" But the tiny assailant had already disengaged and jumped two feet back down the bed.

The man lay puzzled in the darkness, rubbing his neck as his faculties returned. For a moment he was restored fully to wakefulness; and then a heavy, muggy feeling came over him. He sat up, fumbled for the light-switch in the red glow cast by the hotel room’s clock, but couldn’t coordinate sufficiently to find it. He swung his legs out and grabbed for the phone, but crashed instead into the bedside unit, upsetting the tray with the coffee pot and chinaware from his room-service meal.

He put a hand to his head. "Oh Christ . . ."

His legs buckled, and he slumped down onto the edge of the bed again. For a few seconds he tried futilely to resist whatever was happening to him; then he slid down and crumpled to a sitting position on the floor. His body went limp and keeled over.

At the foot of the bed, the tiny robot dropped to the floor. It crossed to the protruding corner formed by the bathroom, from there to the small vestibule area, and exited to the corridor via the gap beneath the door.

The eyes staring sightlessly upward slowly glazed over in the dim red glow from the clock, obliviously counting away the seconds.

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