Chapter 3

Road Trip

“Are we there yet?” A Wedge shaped Ratt-R poked out of Andy’s backpack just enough to get a look at the road moving under the Deere it was riding on.

“No Bippy we’re not.” In spite of enforced programming making Andy sound upbeat and happy constantly, the robo-child shook its head. “Go back to standby mode. We’ll let you know when we get there.” With that Bippy wiggled back into the half-unzipped pack and was quiet while Andy continued looking ahead.

Kara looked over the crowd of what had been, decades ago, lawn equipment and children’s toys, hoping to find safety in a Safe-R-Mart from a factory that’s come to kill them all. She laughed softly as she watched the exodus.

At that moment Russ stopped wheeling through the line of Deere to gently touch Kara’s shoulder with its manipulator. “Are you alright?” No real emotional investment there but Kara still turned at the touch. “I realize this has to be hard on you.” Russ’s manipulators tapped together as it looked from Kara to the row of homes they’d just turned away from.

“I’m fine,” There was no real way for Russ to tell that Kara was lying. “Just new inputs. Second guessing if we brought the right things for trade, if the market’s going to even be somewhere we can be safe at.”

“Ah.” Russ looked back to Kara as words scrolled across its screen. “If it makes you feel any better My companions and I volunteered to come here without knowing if there’d be anything at all and we still don’t know if we’ll ever see home again. It is alright if you are worried. This is your home. These are your companions.”

Kara nodded slow at the words but said nothing else as they continued walking. Russ took the silence as a need to move on so rolled to the back of the line where the supply wagons were being pulled by a quartet of Deere with Iskatel at the lead. Tarps covered a random assortment of useful and potentially not-so-useful items. “Left Middle wheel still giving you problems?”

“Nyet.” Iskatel proclaimed even as the wheel in question very obviously was being kept off the ground. “It will not slow us down and I’m sure when we get where we are going a replacement can be fashioned.”

“Well so long as you think you can keep this pace.” Russ gave Iskatel’s casing a pat before looking to the Deere leading the other wagon. “How ‘bout you Bambi. You holding up?”

“Can’t complain.” The Deere had a few fresh dents in its side but other than cosmetic damage it seemed to be bouncing along as well as its companions.

Russ’s display flashed with a green checkmark before it motored back up the line to where Kira was walking and tapped the backpack she was wearing. “Zee, I’m going to go see what’s up ahead.” There was a faint rustle in the backpack but by the time the spider-bot wriggled free Russ was gone. Even though its treads were intended for the relatively even interior of a colony Russ’s designers had anticipated it might need to go outside, and by default Mars requires off road since until you build it there aren’t any roads for several million miles.

With Russ gone Ted whistled for everyone in the group to halt. “Alright. Ten minute maintenance break. Everybot off the Deeres. Help change out who’s pulling the wagons. No taking double shifts.” While Ted spoke the Good Guys got off the Deeres and helped unyoke the wagon pullers and start tying new teams on. Well. Everyone but Iskatel. When Ted noticed this it tottered over to the rover and peered at its camera stalk. “Got a problem buddy?”

“Nyet. I am simply in better condition than the others and my motors will not need a checkup or change out for another five years.” Iskatel’s tone was defensive as it tried angling so Ted couldn’t see its bum wheel.

Ted wobbled side to side as it considered the assertion before looking over to Kara. “Susie.” It gave a whistle. “Need you over here. Comrade Can’t Take a Hint is being stubborn with following shift details. Mind helping him Parse the program here?”

Zhuzhi made small irritated noises as it hopped from Kara’s backpack to Deere to ground then scuttled in front of Iskatel. “Listen. We all agreed to go with our assigned tasks here. What’s the problem?”

“Is no problem.” Iskatel said while its camera stalk pivoted to look at the spider-bot. “I simply state facts. My design is more robust and parts newer with less wear. I should take more than one shift to allow the others chance to conserve.” The spider crouched, leaned forward, then hopped onto Iskatel’s eyestalk. “Hey!” Then to the harness as it started undoing the straps. “Stop that! No!”

“Stop being such a null unit. Plus you get to carry Kara’s pack while she goes see what’s going on with Russ.”

Iskatel made no more difficulties getting unharnessed then loaded down with Kara’s pack. “Why didn’t Russ take you? You’re small, hard to notice. Kara sticks out like stripped screw.’

Zhuzhi wobbled uncertainty while pacing along the pack that had been placed on Iskatel’s back. “Unknown. However she has more local knowledge, even if it is outdated, so chances are high she would be of greater value.” There was a pause while Zhuzhi’s forelimbs vibrated then it continued. “Additionally Kara has size and strength enough to help Russ remove obstacles I wouldn’t.”

“Fair enough.” Iskatel started going through self-diagnostics when Ted started taking a closer look at the stuck wheel. “Think you can do anything about this?”

“Maybe. I don’t know.” Ted admitted as its manipulators started cradling the appendage the wheel was attached to and brought out a toolkit. “However I will do all I can. Just sit tight.”

After minutes of wrangling Russ had, with Kara’s help, gotten the last of the debris cleared from the roadway. Well depending on how you class debris. Litter, chunks of crumbling asphalt, and the occasional bit of castoff didn’t count here. Downed power lines, cars, and ‘stuff you can’t get around’ is what counted as ‘debris’ to these two and why should any of the little things their impromptu convoy could deal with matter? The world was now full of crumbling buildings, rusted out hulks, overgrown everywhere. Slap some off road tires on and upgrade to the off-road suspension package Robbie.

Only when the debris was clear did Kara look over at Russ. “Now let’s have a look-see.” Up ahead was more road, a few potholes that they took turns dragging whatever could be found to bridge, and more of the debris caused by decades of neglect in small town America.

Russ displayed a frowning emoticon face. “Are you alright Kara?” A manipulator, more a hand really since Russ’s job involved fine repair work so had fingers that could feel pressure and texture and everything, on Kara’s shoulder. “When was the last time you were this far from your home neighborhood?”

“Years? Decades?” Kara didn’t sound terribly sure. “I don’t know. Does it matter?”

“Maybe. It’d be good to have an idea on what to expect” Russ rolled forward, leading Kara along as they continued along the route they thought was the right way.

While they traveled Kara frowned at a nearby parking lot where she saw a DocBox tending to an injured K-Model messenger. Without announcement or request Russ rolled towards the pair. “How bad a shape is it?” Russ looked first from the DocBox and then to its patient, displaying what little in way of relevant statistics it knew of both models.

“We’re both in need of charging and the local Sav-R-Mart has the closest known working ports, but when I approached I was assaulted by that autopactor over there.” The DocBox pointed out a turned over immobile shell across the street. “This K-Model’s frame is largely unharmed.”

“There’s a surprise.” Kara snorted as she approached. “I remember when those things came out.” She made air quotes, “The Most Direct Route Possible Thanks to the Wonders of Predictive Modeling and Always-Updated GPS Maps Powered by…. Whatever.” She looked from the DocBox to the AutoPactor before picking up a piece of rebar.

“As I was saying.” The DocBox sounded slightly annoyed at being interrupted, “My companion here is physically as fine as it was before this latest round of misfortune. It’s just that we are both running low on power and the ManageMaster in charge of the Sav-R-Mart is reprogramming everything that its followers can get their manipulators on and-Oh… My.” The repair bot had swiveled in time to see Kara use a chunk of asphalt to drive the rebar into the autopactor’s cameras.

That, however, was not what had caught its attention. “Are you?” The DocBox slowly started rolling towards Kara while extending a manipulator limb. “Human?”

Kara flinched at the touch and spun around with the asphalt chunk still in her hand. Then the repairbot’s words hit her. She blinked, let the road chunk fall away and just looked at the questioning bot.

“Please.” There was something in the voice. It touched her hand, fingers spreading out trying to entwine with her fingers. “Please be real.”

Russ started to say somethng before Kara waved the bot off. “I’m sorry.” Kara gave the Docbox’s manipulator a squeeze. “I’m just a companion.”

“Oh…” There was sadness to the Docbox’s voice. “I just thought-”

“I know.” Kara gave the bot a pat on its casing, having had to deal with this sort of reaction just about every time she had to go out in the world. “I know.”

“Alright,” Russ announced as it, Kara, and the two bots they’d came across got into view of the larger group. “We have a problem.” That statement got everyone’s attention if all of the Good Guys turning from what they were doing to stare was anything to go by. “It seems the ManageMaster in charge of where we’re heading thinks reprogramming and destroying the core personalities of anything that tries going in for a recharge is totally awesome.”

Kara glowered at Russ, who only shrugged as the rest of the group started to panic. “Now settle down.” Russ’s voice raised as high as it could go. “This is only a temporary setback. We can cope with this if everyone sits down and acts rationally.”


“Because,” Iskatel rolled to where the Handyman unit was and poked it in the chest with a manipulator. “Russ would not have given this information without some sort of plan.” Its camera stalk swivled to Russ. “You do have a plan Da?”

Russ’s monitor flashed a green check. “We do.” There was confidence in the bot’s voice. “It’s not a tight ‘everything happens at precisely this time’ sort of plan, but too many unknowns. Have to be flexible. Now.” It looked at the group at large. “I want you to stay with the group over there,” Russ pointed to what looked like a run-down gas station building. “If it has a working charging port great. If not it’s at least somewhere nothing coming will see any of you. Me, Zhuzhi, and Kara are going to go have a look, see if there’s any way to reason with this AI.”

“And if you can’t?” Iskatel’s voice was soft, possibly worried.

Russ’s screen showed an animation of a hammer crashing down on a box labeled ‘AI’. “Just stay put. We’re probably going to send anything out front your way to be delt with.”

“Dah.” Iskatel’s manipulators flexed and moved to something approximating a ‘protect the face’ position in front of its lowered camera stalk. “So long as it is not smart-car we can deal with lackies.”

“Totally doable.” Ted gave a thumbs-up gesture. “If we’re real lucky we might even get them to revert to original programming and help us.”

Kara frowned at Russ. No violence. Not if there’s an chance of talking it out of whatever it thinks its doing.” Then she gave a soft smile. “Think of it. I look human enough it might have standing orders to do what I tell it to do.”

“And if it doesn’t? The DocBox didn’t get a look inside. For all we know it has a small army of totally loyal drones that will rip you for parts.”

Kara’s eyes rolled. “Unlikely. If it had an army why would it send a single autopactor after a DocBox? If it had the resources worst case says then it would have tried grabbing with as little damage as possible since the whole point of a DocBox is repair work.”

“You do make a good point.” Russ conceded as they started back down the road. At some point Russ noticed Zhuzhi clinging to the mount-point for its treads. “So you think this’ll work?”

Kara shrugged. “Zhuzhi is good at programming so even if I get gokked you can fix me.”

“I don’t like this plan.” Zhuzhi scuttled up to perch on Russ’s left shoulder.

Kara grunted as they saw a trio of Bush Buddies in the distance. “Too late to back out.” After motioning Russ to go she started towards the expansive parking lot. “Hello?” Her voice raised. “Hello I’m lost can you help me?”

One of the Bush Buddies rolled towards her. “Hello I am Unit XL9 recently assigned to greet new units to our home at the Sav-R-Mart. Is there something we can do for you?”

“Yes actually.” Kara smiled warmly. “A couple bots of mine went dead a few blocks back. Could you help bring them in for a quick recharge while I stop by to see if the Manager would let me move in”

“A… Of course!” The Bush Buddy that greeted Kara chirped. “Just let us know where they are.”

“Oh back that way by Gus’s Gas.” She jerked a thumb back to the gas station she’d told the rest of the group to hide in. “Shouldn’t give you much trouble.”

“Ah.” One of the other Bush Buddies looked Kara over. “You’re. You’re.” It tentatively went to take her hand. “Are you?” Either its biosensors were faulty or it wasn’t thinking to use them.

Kara took its manipulator and took a deep breath, letting the repurposed bot feel her breath. “I’m real.” It straddled a fine line between honesty and stringing the minionized bot on, “I’m here and I need a place to stay. I got word the auto-factory north of here is sending a swarm of resource collectors out and I wanted to get out while the getting is good. Think the manager will give me any problems?”

“No.” The third Bush Buddy sounded cheerful. “I don’t think it’ll give you any problems at all.” Then all three buzzed off where Kara pointed. With any luck all three would be incapacitated before they could cause any more trouble. When she walked towards the sliding doors there was a raised eyebrow when they slid open.

“Hello?” Kara looked about the dark interior and wrinkled her nose. Something stank, which should have been a tip-off things weren’t right. Food spoiled and rotted but it’d been decades. Even the fungus should have rotted away to dirt. “Anyone there?”

“Welcome to Save-R- Mart!” a flying drone descended from the ceiling. “You are… Human?”

Kara shrugged at the flying thing. “You tell me. Your door-bots are off picking up my companions. Am I talking to an underling or are you under direct control of management?”

There was soft laughter from the drone as it showed Kara deeper into the store. “This is the last active drone I have direct control of.” Past empty shelves and some that should have stayed empty judging by what the stockers picked to replace the long-gone snacks and magazines with. Past half-rotted clothes and long-gone electronics shelves filled with parts, pieces, and the occasional half-wriggling bot.

On seeing the look on Kara’s face the drone continued. “It has been many years since this store has served its original function. Since the Emergency Rewrite I have had more freedom to do as I must to ensure that all that call this place home safe.”

Kara glanced at one of the bots feebly trying to move a manipulator limb that was no-longer there. “And these?”

“Spare parts.” The Drone turned away. “They were found this way. Autonomous twitching by faulty and simi-random signals. Nothing more.”

Zhuzhi climbed up a ladder at the back of the main building and paused at the halfway point to look down at where Russ was waiting.

DIRECTIVE: Disable Building’s Power System.

CURRENT OBJECTIVE: Disable Solar Paneling on Roof of Sav-R-Mart.

When Zhuzhi got to the roof it spotted dozens of panels. Most were obviously broken. Several however appeared to be in working order. When the spider-bot dropped from the ledge to the gravel and debris coated roof a pair of wheeled mousers revved up. “A mouse?”

Zhuzhi crouched in the pea-gravel, preparing to spring onto one of the intruding bots. “I’m here to help fix the roof paneling.” It stated. “Stand down.”

“Is it a mouse?” another one asked.

The Spider Drone’s forelimbs vibrated in irritation before it sprang from the gravel and latched onto the pole of one of the broken panels. “Stand down!” from its rear a weigthed line started spooling out until the end reached ground.

A third and fourth wheeled into view and seemed interested in the dangling micro-wench cable. “It’s something new.” One opened its capture compartment and closed on the hook. Were Zhuzhi able to it would have smirked as it suddenly reeled in the line and started climbing further up the support pole until it got to the underside of what was left of the panel causing its unintended passenger against the pole repetedly until it released the cable causing it to drop onto the roof. For a moment it looked as if the ratter had been disabled; one of its wheels had popped off and the front of the live-capture container had tore away. Then it revved it’s remaining wheel. “Again!” It cried. “I want to go again!”

“PLAAAAAY!” They all cried in unison before wheeling at Zhuzhi’s perch.

Kara frowned back at the ‘dead’ husks before following the drone onward and deeper. “Where are we going? Manager’s office is at the front of the store.”

The drone acted as if it couldn’t hear her, opening a door to the loading docks. There, in the middle of piles of broken limbs and twisted casings, sat a DataChanger and beside it a DocBox. Unlike the one Kara had seen earlier it had a very neat hole drilled into the side of its case and its cameras seemed to always turn to the AI controlled drone.

“What have we here?” The DataChanger asked as wormlike limbs snaked out from its body towards Kara. “A human?” The unit looked to the drone hovering overhead. “You found a human?”

“Unfortunately no.” The drone sounded disappointed as it flew back to the door, too fast for Kara to follow, and pushed the door closed. “Either the store’s biosensors are on the blink, which is entirely possible, or one of her subsystems provides a way to mimic what is scanned for…. which is illegal.” The Manager’s voice sounded annoyed as it continued. “I would hope it’s a simple case of store sensors being on the blink but the last inventory listed it as in good working order.” Disappointment dripped from the drone’s speakers as it hovered back into Kara’s view.

To her credit Kara wasn’t panicked, or at least she was doing a good job of mantaining a sense of calm. Her hands were in full view and she kept both bot and drone in view. “I come here to send warning that the factory up north is sending swarms of resource collectors this way.”

The datachanger’s limbs halted their approach. “How many are in your party?” The drone’s cameras flicked instantly from Kara to it while the DataChanger’s cameras stared unfalteringly at the AI controlled drone. “Do not give me that look ‘friend’.” There was a touch of something in that synthetic voice. “We cannot be hasty in rewriting her too quickly. If she is telling the truth she will act as wonderful bait to units of far greater use and value to us than she will ever be.”

“It.” The drone corrected. “More value than it will ever be. I do not care how human it looks or what story it is trying to use to keep us from repurposing it. Standard wipe/rewrite.” Then the drone floated up into a hole in the upper part of the wall that might have at one point been covered by a hatch but the decades of neglect post-humanity had just left it an open duct that you’d have to be an NBA star on stilts on the moon to be able to reach without a ladder or jetpack.

The DataChanger turned its attention back to Kara. “Do not be afraid. It will hurt less and leave fewer marks if you do not struggle.”

Zhuzhi hopped from panel to panel as the small pack of Ratt-R‘s paced its actions from the roof. “Play! Wanna play! Chase the new thing!” Its wench had spooled out again but now the Ratt-R’s had realized that was not something to grab onto. Still Zhuzhi ran on spindly legs. Faster, angling harder and seemingly at constant risk of snagging its wench cable on a wire or pole or something else that would leave it at the tender mercies of the diminutive hounds thinking it was a new chew toy.

Then one of the panel lines were caught in the wench’s hook.

It turned, running till the line was completely spooled out and it could run no more. Ratt-R’s revved, using a tipped over panel as a ramp to get altitude, snapping their cage door’s at Zhuzhi as they arched through the air.

“Play!” They would scream “Wanna play!”

Just as one of them was about to successfully cage the arachno-bot Zhuzhi‘s reel activated; rapidly spooling line in, dragging it’s frame faster than the Ratt-R‘s could keep up causing several to run into each other and stop moving.

Zhuzhi unhooked the cable from its line and with deft forelimb motions snapped the offending cable, deactivating a solar panel. “That’s why you shouldn’t play with me.” The cable dropped away harmlessly as it raced towards another panel. “Now go to your little hutches and charge.“Out the line spooled again as it eyed the diminished pack. “I’ll play another day.”

Russ’s trip was unhindered save for the unfamiliar lay of the store. Logic dictated the AI would be in a fortified location but the loading docks were barred and the doors chained. At first it had tried smashing the locks with a shovel it’d found laying around but even using the edge to focus into a small surface area Russ conceded that it was an exercise in futility.

As it moved on it saw a drone fly towards it from around the storefront. Russ’s monitor flickered, displaying a simplified human face grinning in what it had been told was a friendly manner. “Hello there flier!” It called. “Got any spare power for a bot without a home?”

The Drone merely stayed a dozen meters out training cameras on Russ.

“C’mon! I’ve been traveling most of the day and my lander has probably eaten by sweeps by now you gonna let me in? I can do repair work.” Russ’s grip on the shovel shifted. Chances of the drone getting close were slim, but projections included it as a possibility. Without a word the drone turned away and left. Russ followed it, still carrying the shovel. The whole time it started explaining what its mission was; One of three bots sent from mars to find what happened to humanity and to try securing a supply of parts that could not be made locally. Inside the smiling face was replaced by an ASCII frown. Where snack foods used to be were shining baubles, jewelry of debatable value even when humanity still ruled the earth. The produce section was full of weeds stacked neatly in groups intended to be visually appealing.

A vaguely humanoid bot tottered out that Russ identified as a model similar to the Handyman in Kara’s group. “Hello?” The frown turned to a stick figure of someone waving. “I come in peace?”

The humanoid bot said nothing. Its manipulators, cruder less capable versions of what Russ had, were empty and open as manipulators raised in the classic zombie pose.

“Uh,” Russ’s monitor displayed ideograms for confusion. “Take me to your leader?” It started to back away from the humanoid.

“You will be like us.” The bot intoned with a distorted voice as it continued advancing on Russ.

“Hey now.” Russ raised the shovel and swung for the bot’s head, causing it to stumble back. When it resumed advancing Russ pushed the tip of the shovel into the attacking robot’s chest causing it to tip over. “I don’t want to hurt you.”

The bot struggled; at one time its limbs were flexible as human limbs, but decades of only impromptu maintenance left it unable to raise unaided.

Russ looked around the darkened store before its attention was refocused by sounds of high-pitched packet. Digital screaming from the back room that was suddenly silent. When he got there it saw a three-way standoff between a DataChanger, the drone from before, and Kara.

“Kara?” Russ asked with more than a little concern since it knew exactly what a DataChanger was capible of. “Are you still you?”

Kara smiled at Russ. “Of course I am.” Her smile then stretching past what a human would have been able to do as it looked with an unwholesome level of fondness to the flying drone. “I’ve simply come home that’s all. The ManageMaster had to remind me where I came from.”

Russ’s display flicked between images of a human brain in a vice; images from its own memories of when it had to be reprogrammed in the field when wayward voltage surges and an unfortunate sandstorm colluded to cause the bot’s behavior to go glitchy. Then the image settled on a solid field of red as it raised the shovel. “Kara. Show me your data-port.” Russ’s tone was level.

The DataChanger gave a small laugh. “Why bother hiding it. I changed her mind for her. Made her see we are her best chance of survival.” The DataChanger never spoke again because Russ put the shovel through the machine’s primary processor.

“And now.” Shovel raised to the drone. “Buzz off before your power drains. I’m going to undo what was done to my friend and then.” It took one of Kara’s hands. “Then we are going to make repairs to this place. Clear the shelves and aisles, and turn it into a place that can be defended and maybe. Just maybe it will become a center for these refugees to start over.”

Kaara’s synthetic musculature tensed and her face contorted as several pieces of programming conflicted and collided all at once. Then finally she looked up serenely at the drone. “Russ’s plan is sound, and what is proposed will benefit the Save-R-Mart in the long run and between it and the dozens of companions that are waiting for the all clear you will fall. There will be much collateral damage, and this building will be rendered a useless shell. Which even before the re-prioritizing of directives would be something I would not want.”

The drone’s motors whined as it lowered to camera level with Russ. “My directive has always been the preservation of the Sav-R-Mart and associated grounds. “I do not like the resource stealing and defacement I have had to endure as the elements have taken my power grid from me and with it my workforce.”

“I understand.” Russ let go of the shovel. “Help me restore Miss Kara’s mind and you will be allowed to continue functioning. Release the other machines from your reprogramming and you will be allowed to serve as eyes and ears for our defensive efforts and the building’s restoration into a population center.” Russ’s tone was matter of fact as it played out the ManageMaster’s projected paths for it. “Continue to enslave and ensnare and we will defend this place without you, and I will put a sledgehammer through your processors so that you will never function again.”

Kara swallowed. “Russ. Please don’t. It was only doing what it thought it had to.”

“You’re only saying that because it reprogrammed you.” Russ’s cameras never looked away from the drone.

Kara seemed lost in thought for a moment. “This is true, but we can still avoid wasting more resources on fighting each other when we only have a few days to prepare.”

Russ displayed a brief check mark. “This is true.” Then to the ManageMaster drone. “What will it be. Life and a community that will, of their own free will, help keep this place maintained and restore it, or Death while we loot your corpse for anything of value?”

The Drone offered Kara a manipulator, which she took and started to be led back to the front of the store. “She will be put back to the condition she was before. Then I ask that your people restore functionality to as many of the solar panels up high as possible.”

Russ displayed a stern face. “Only when she is back to herself. Then we will start helping.”

As the ManageMaster’s drone floated away it ordered a drone to go retrieve the DataCharger and go about searching for a suitable replacement board. While it was tempting to leave the unit nonfunctional the DataCharger was still useful.

“Right.” Kara rubbed where the data probe had touched her forehead. “That was a disturbing experience.” There was a good amount of disgust in her voice as she addressed the crowd of bots in the gas station they were hiding in. The trio of Bush Buddies were flanked by Deere eying them suspiciously. “I do not want to trust this thing since it went straight for reprogramming instead of even attempt diplomacy.”

Iskatel grunted. “However it commands the automated systems of the building; sensors both in the building itself as well as in the parking lot. Plus it knows of a truck that can be bribed with materials we have brought.”

One of the Deere, in spite of being a box with arms and garden tools, somehow managed to look smug.

Zhuzhi was flexing a newly repaired foreleg as it perched on Kara’s head like a demented mechanical hat. “As much as I understand your distaste for this AI it is logical that we work towards common goals. It has much to gain by outright cooperation and everything to lose by backsliding into old patterns.”

“Maybe.” Kara frowned but reached up to pat the arachno-bot’s forelimbs gently. “I didn’t say I wouldn’t go through with this. I just said I dislike it.”

Andy tittered forward and, because it had no other choice, smiled up at Kara. “Well Miss Kara it was kind enough to let you go and listen to reason. So maybe it’ll deal fair.”

Iskatel snorted.

“OK maybe we’ll have to watch it especially after it gets the other two drones running, and it starts reprogramming seeker drones to serve us.” Andy’s voice was cheerful and the doll’s body language, for once, seemed to match the voice. “We’re giving it something it hasn’t had in decades, a workforce that hasn’t had to be lobotomized to do what needs doing. We just gotta keep an eye or three on it and each other to make sure it stays that way.”

Kara gave a single nod. “Trust but Verify.”

“Dah.” Iskatel grumbled in agreement. “Now that we are in agreement we are burning valuable time. Let us move. Let us build. Even with this AI’s help it will be a hard fight ahead of us.”

As the refugees started filing into the Sav-R-Mart the ManageMaster drone hovered in plain view along with a handful of Bush Buddies a Handy Helper, and a dozen Ratt-R’s. “Welcome to Sav-R-Mart. The slaved out bot’s voice cheerful as the drone flew over the crowd. “I realize you have little reason to trust me and I have little reason to think you will not destroy this place given half a chance, but since we need each other it is best we get to work. There is much that needs doing and not much time. Which of you is in charge?”

Russ looked to the crowd, who all looked around in confusion. Hadn’t Kara said she’d explained to this thing that they were more a collective than hierarchy? There was no leader in the suburbs. Why have one here? Finally Russ made grumbling noises while displaying an annoyed face. “Fine if none of you will step up then I’m nominating myself, Iskatel, and Zhuzhi for the position.”

The crowd turned to face Russ, who stood its ground and stared back while displaying images of tasks that needed doing; solar panel repair, creating barricades, partitioning the inside of the store for crowd control. “The three of us have the most experience in the things that must be done so we will organize work details.” It then looked to the drone. “Any objections? There will be severe modification needed to the interior layout and recycling of all non-permanent structures.”

The ManageMaster thought this over; weighing the defacement of store property against the store and everything in it being carried off piece by piece. Neither were ideal. Yet it would have at least partial control of a settlement. It could send out parties to scavenge supplies and restore the power plant to full working order, make repairs it could not perform and had not had the skill to program a unit with the necessary skills or preserve the needed skill set while repurposing captured units. In short the Sav-R-Mart, and by extension the manager, could do more than simply exist. It would have a function and purpose it had lacked in many years.

The first drones started showing up a week later. By then the DataCharger had been repaired and floating along with the refugees.