Chapter 4

Black Box

In the week between shaky alliance and first contact with the swarm the Suburbanites had busied themselves mainly with clearing out the inside of the store and building defenses while the Martian trio dealt with power, wiring in more charging ports, and repairing as best as they could the ‘surplussed’ robots the ManageMaster had stowed in the electronics section This was not an easy process and can be summed up by an incident three days After the truce had started where Zhuzhi was rewiring the last of the solar panels while Ted helped DataChanger start reassembling shelved units or undo he reprogramming it had changed.

Ted sat by the DataChanger after it’d finished patching the snake-limbed bot up and hit the power stud. After a soft bwoooong a series of indicator lights flicking to life, cameras focused onto the Handyman. “I do not recognize you.” Matter of fact tone as the data-manipulation unit rigthed itself and trained recently replaced, but still dinted and not-quite-correctly functioning cameras on Ted. “This situation we are in is highly irregular. Do not make me regret being ordered to not enforce loyalty.”

After a moment Ted shifted slightly to reveal a shovel it had brought along with the tools built into its frame. “We need you,” The maintenance unit said coldly as its cameras stared at the newly reactivated unit, “but I want you to know that I’m aware you wrote on Miss Kara’s mind and I’m none too happy you got fixed after Russ tore you apart.”

The DataChanger looked at Ted then sent a burst of packet noise in a digital equivalent to blowing a raspberry. “The only thing I did was save your associate from being deemed unnecessary and unfit for anything save recycling by the Manager.”

Ted’s cameras refocused with audible wirrs and clicks as the indicator lights on its chest changed pattern faster. “So what you’re trying to tell me is you saved her from the trash heap by attempting to destroy her mind?”

“Indeed I am.” The DataChanger rigthed itself and started going through the first bot on the folding table they were supposed to cooperate and rebuild. “In fact I’m not the bad guy here. I have no purpose and little means of doing on my own so I had to do what I had to.” It surveyed the room it was in and noticed Ted had drug it into what had once been the men’s restroom. “I take it by the pile of parts you’re working on you want me to help bring this unit back online.”

Time spent absorbing this was also spent by Ted reattaching manipulator limbs on the bot they were trying to get up and running. “We are not friends. I do not like you.” It punctuated those words by spot-welding where their patient needed. “Do not think I care why or how beyond the fact you were involved. I have similar problems with the Manager here.” Once the limbs were reattached Ted shifted the bulk of the patient’s frame so the DataChanger could access its diagnostic port. “It’s just right now we have to work together or we all go to the big bits and pieces bin.” Then without any break in conversation or change in tone. “Anything on its arms before I start welding the wheels back into place?”

“No you’re good. Just be careful of the power systems being routed through the frame just under the swivel joint for its left rear tread.” The DataChanger continued working, now that it had access to the bot’s processor it started taking it from a cold start to something approximating working.

“Well?” Ted watched as the bot lurched through an automatic startup sequence. “You done down there? Can I go about fixing your treads so you can move around?”

“Not quite.” The voice was small and sounded like it came from an out of tune radio. “I’m getting glitches in my wheel housings. My directives appear hashed, and I’m afraid this is not the basement for SplatterCon. Where am I and what happened?”

Ted, were he able to, would have smirked but instead motioned to the DataChanger. “I’ll leave the exact story to this unit.” There was a hint of satisfaction in Ted’s voice as it indicated the DataChanger.

The bot on the table tried turning and twisting so cameras, worn and in need of adjustments but still reasonably functional, could focus on the source of the voices. “You said you were going to try fixing me?” Ted blipped a ‘yes’ while it tried reattaching the treads where wheels used to be. “My memories just prior to shutdown are scrambled and difficult to access. What happened?”

The DataChanger’s cameras focused first from Ted then to the unit they were working on. “The ManageMaster for Sav-R-Mart had requested I align your directives with its own to maintain this location and discourage unauthorized units from tampering with the building’s power supply.”

Minutes past as the newly repaired bot placed a manipulator limb on new treads. “I see. If I was realigned for service to this store why do I have a twelve year gap in my internal clock?”

“Because,” The DataChanger stated as it placed its data prong on the side of the bot’s chassis, “Shortly after your realignment I was ordered to leave you deactivated because a recent storm had damaged too much of the solar paneling beyond our ability to repair.”

Ted’s speaker crackled as it picked up a discarded wheel. “So do you have a designation beyond model number?”

“Sure.” The bot’s cameras shifted from the DataChanger to Ted. “I was known as Fred.” Camera shift back to the DataChanger. “What about you? You have a name?”

“Uh….” For the first time in a long time the DataChanger was caught unprepared. “No. I do not.” Its digital probe continued sifting through Fred’s code as it thought the whole ‘name’ issue over. “I had no need as I was the only model of my type in this store.”

Ted snorted. “Well ‘pard. I was the only handyman in Rosen Lane but I got a name just like all the other bots. Made me feel good about staying there.”

That made the DataChanger stop what it was doing to focus cameras on Ted. “This seems highly counterproductive. More than one unit can have the same Name. Designators are completely unique if properly implemented.”

“Do you remember anything before everything went to kruft and humans were still around?” Ted gently took the DataChanger’s manipulator’s away from Fred’s casing. The DataChanger shrugged but made no move to stop this action. “Most didn’t see me. I was just the bot that either took somebody’s job or was just the thing that called in when something went wrong then got stuffed back in my little charging closet when not needed.”

“So? That is what we were made for.” Fred said while slowly moving its manipulators. “We were designed to be forgettable, disposable, unobtrusive.”

“But,” Ted countered, “We no-longer have that as our function. We are what we make ourselves now.”

Silence from the other two bots.

“I don’t care if I’m somehow defective or if the firmware update that rolled through and glitched everyone up did something. I don’t want to zero out without making the world better than this junkpile it’s becoming.” Ted went back to work patching Fred up. “To do that though I gotta keep in one piece which means not getting carting off by these rolling collector things.” The lights on Ted’s chest all lit as it looked to Fred. “That’s why we reassembled you and are going to put others back in working order. We’ve got bots getting the solar panels all working again an turn this place into somewhere we can all go for repairs, charge, and all we gotta do is our share in keepin’ things running. Doesn’t sound so bad does it?”

Fred’s cameras seemed to focus on nothing in particular until it rigthed itself. “It beats sitting around waiting to get used for parts. Not sure what I can do to help since I was just a floor scrubber.” It looked at the manipulator limbs it had been given, noting they ended in something other than the specialist tools it used to have. “I suppose you’ve got something in mind for me.”

“Indeed we do.” The DataChanger sounded almost gleeful. “And if your programming dictates a Name is easier than designator call me Kevin.” The DataChanger motioned for Fred to follow. “You do not have specialist skills but that is quite alright. There is more need for general-function units that can go from job to job and right now I need you to help me carry things.”

One of the Ratt-R’s was out patrolling the parking lot. The ManageMaster had never really reprogrammed them, seeing it as a waste of time since they did their job as is without loitering around the charging stations. This one saw something at the corner of its vision. “A mouse?” Curious voice warbled through a speaker that has needed replacing almost as long as humans were gone.

More movement. Too big to be a mouse.

“Not a mouse.” The Ratt-R saw a red dot appear somewhere between it and the newcomer. Instinct given to it by programming too ridged to ignore compelled it to race after the dot. Then it squealed when the dot burned its chassis causing it to try fleeing.

Other Ratt-R’s heard the commotion and all started squealing as they charged to the aid of their injured comrade. They had no weapons and were each tiny. Yet they had numbers on their side. Whenever the newcomer tried grabbing one, three more would dart in ramming the intruder as others somehow managed to get the Ratt-R that now was missing a wheel and part of the top of its live-trap cage onto their backs and were making for the store.

High pitched whistling from the store. Andy stood out in the open with a child’s aluminum bat and a baseball in its other hand. “Hey!” Though the doll’s hands were somewhat clumsy at times this was a task it was actually intended to perform.

The intruder turned cameras from the dozens of Ratt-R’s to the Good Guy staring at it.

“Get away from my dogs.” Andy tossed the baseball into the air, grabbed the bat with both hands, and swung with what strength it had. The ball thunked harmlessly against the intruder’s armored chassis but its attention was gotten. The laser aimed, briefly, at the baseball causing it to smoke and burn before it started rolling towards Andy.

Kara looked over the stored security feed then looked to the drone that had gotten her attention. “You’ve been keeping your end of the bargain and haven’t been doing anything we would raise fuss over. Thank you.”

The drone bobbed in the air. “You are servicing the Sav-R-Mart so you are working towards goals I find agreeable to my core directives in spite of the mess.”

With that Kara started walking to one of the new charging stations. “So.” She looked back to make sure the drone was following her, “Let’s say this works and we can put up enough of a fight to make the swarm declare us off limits. That only solves short-term problems.”

Again the drone bobbed in the air. “Agreed. Long term we will have issue if this swarm devours any useful resources that have not already been gathered and kept safe. I have been planning with Iskatel on how we might be able to deal with this in a rational manner.” It waited for Kara to ask and when it only got a raised eyebrow as response it continued. “Russ, Iskatel, and Zhuzhi, as part of their programming, must seek out and scout the location of the auto-factory that has put us in our current situation. Ordinarily this is a self-destructive course of action that would result in their being dismantled and likely converted into more members of the swarm. However if I were to give them re-enforcements and possibly convince the roadboy that rolls through now and again to give them transportation their chances of success go up.”

“But,” Kara settled into the charging station and shuddered at the transition from internal to external power. “Russ said if it were in charge of this factory it would have made each swarm unit an independent bot with a set of directives it must uphold that means it wouldn’t have to be directly controlled. So we take down the factory AI. We still have hundreds if not thousands of seekers to deal with.”

The drone hmmed softly but before it could respond heard a plaintive wail from outside followed by gibberish modem noises. “With luck we will find out more details with this unit’s capture.”

Kara held the door for the Drone, muttering when she remembered the Drone had its own access hatch, and turned the corner to find a chest freezer sized machine stuffing the cargo container that made up most of its body with the scrap-pile they had lain out as bait. Kara watched with mixed fascination and horror as a red dot appeared on a section of casing held up by the scavenger’s manipulator arms. One moment a small red dot. The next there was a series of popping noises as impurities in the metal as well as dirt and grime was heated to the point of vaporization.

“Impressive.” The ManageMaster’s drone commented.

Ted shook its head sadly. “How’re we gonna fight those things?” It wasn’t programmed for emotion but in the decades since Man had vanished it’d done a lot of learning, and right then it was feeling somewhere between a mix of fear and wonder as they watched the scavenger bot dissect the scrap lain before it and toss it, almost thoughtlessly, into the container hatch in its armor-plated back.

Zhuzhi dropped down on the overlarge robot’s container and, while avoiding manipulator claws, whistled. “Well for this one I’m going to make it a little less wanting to harvest us all for our yummy delicious metal.” There was a hint of satisfaction in Zhuzhi’s voice. “And since I’m already here I might as well see if it calls home or-Hm.”

Ted slowly crept towards the now, hopefully, inert robot. “Whatcha got there little spider?”

Zhuzhi slowly crawled off of the robot and then scurried over to Kara. “Good news is these things have no sort of radio or networking so they aren’t able to tell eachother when they find nice tasty bits of whatever they find harvest-able.”

Kara’s head tilted as she hefted a sledgehammer. “Bad news is that means we can’t just go to the factory and send a go home signal to the swarm.”

“Dah.” Iskatel rolled closer to the downed seeker bot. “We still need to send team to factory so it will stop building more and reprogram ones that return after they’ve filled their baskets.”

The ManageMaster’s drone landed on the captured robot. “In the meantime we can use this unit as a basis for reworking our defenses around.”

Moments of thought later Iskatel’s camera stalk waved up and down. “Reasonable. However where one of these is there must be more on the way. Double patrols?”

Kara shrugged while the ManageMaster’s drone made an approximation of the gesture with two of its manipulator limbs. “We should be able to salvage a few of the telescopes from the sporting goods section.”

Russ slowly wheeled out of one of the two charging ports in the loading dock at the back of the store and wheeled itself over to inspect the barricades that had been made. During this inspection Iskatel wheeled over to join, “It is not the best barrier,” the rover said through burst of fax noises, “It is the best we can do with the materials we have and likely time till arrival.”

“Who thought to layer metal with wood with metal with glass with dirt?” Russ reached out with one a manipulator to touch the wooden pallet slats that had been taken apart then turned into reinforcing straps for the current last layer between the outside world and the inside of the store. “I don’t know where the pallets came from since this looks new, but it’s genius really.” Then a glance to the other loading door showed several Bush Buddies and Deere working together to weld another layer over the door. “It won’t work quite so well against cutting lasers but on the off chance they have conventional saws or try ramming the barriers the different layers will act to absorb and distribute the impact and bind and damage any sort of cutting edge used.”

Iskatel’s camera stalk nodded at the assessment and sounded pleased, “The ManageMaster actually had the idea and I helped run the numbers.” The rover sounded pleased with itself. “Given this would be the most vulnerable and likely place of entry given the size of the seeker units we thought it good to seal access with more than just the debris piles outside.”

“A good thought,” Russ agreed. “What about the giant glass doors out front?”

Both bots rolled out of the loading docks into the store proper to show that it had gone from shelves and shelves of either nothing or whatever the two remaining stockers could find that fulfilled their core need to keep them full to rows of partitioned off areas with the partitions themselves made from the old shelving units welded and twisted into shape then covered with whatever could be found to disguise how flimsy the ‘walls’ were. At a glance it seemed mazelike but at each intersection bar-codes could be found with produce acting for the north-south set of lanes of traffic and everything else serving as lane names for the east-west traffic.

As both bots rolled along ‘Fresh Fruit’ lane they spotted Andy pacing and fretting in one of the rooms created because of the walling and partitioning. The Good Guy was pacing while Ted worked on a Ratt-R. “You alright?” Russ looked from Andy to the maimed Ratt-R before displaying a stylized frown.

“I dunno.” Andy still held the aluminum bat it’d used to distract the seeker. “There any way we can make the little guys able to do more than shriek and burn when these big metal things start in on us?”

Russ gave this several minutes of thought while it watched Ted pull the case off the Ratt-R and start replacing all of its wheels with larger knobbier ones that might have at one point come from a child’s remote control toy. “It is possible I suppose, but the hard part is aligning the Ratt-R’s self-view with a new chassis. Otherwise you end up with what likely happened with the seekers that are attacking us.”

Andy blinked in confusion.

“See all we are are chips on a board right? Russ took on the tone of a lecturing teacher as its display showed a generic motherboard with different processors, ram, and ports highligthed and labeled.

“Uh-huh.” Andy leaned forward, using the bat as support. “Everyone knows that. All this,” It pinched one of its own cheeks to pull the rubber-like ‘skin’ away from it’s frame, “Is just what Kara would call window dressing.”

A green checkmark flashed on Russ’s display. “Correct. You can make small changes to a bot’s chassis; knobbier wheels for cheap indoor-only ones, or replace a specialist limb with a general manipulator. It’ll generally mess with your internal logic since even if you know you aren’t the same deep-buried code will insist you are still at original state without a bot going in and performing a deep edit to align your internal sense of self with your external housing.”

Andy‘s smile flexed and widened while nodded. “And if you change one too many things without updating the other you get what’s getting taken apart by the Overlord ya? An idiot that can only go through basic commands.”

Another checkmark on Russ’s display. “Just so. That’s why Ted doesn’t just yank the Ratt-R’s main board and plug it into one of the unused Deere shells. The little guy’s already fairly simple minded and it’d represent too much of a shift in both size and overall capability.”

Ted rapped a manipulator against the table the Ratt-R was laying on causing the ManageMaster’s drone to fly through a ceiling hatch. “Alright you wanted me to let you know when I was ready. Well I’m ready.”

The drone descended on what was now a bare board, motors, wheels, and a bunch of un-used connectors. As it extended a limb it chuckled softly, “The one positive to these Ratt-Rs are that the board used has a lot of unpopulated connections which, from what my recordings tell me, made them popular with hobbyists that constantly talked of modding them for other uses.”

Russ displayed a yellow question mark on its screen. “What sort of uses?” It looked to the wheelbase of the caseless Ratt-R and did a little number crunching. Even if the ManageMaster knew what it was doing then it was still limited in size and what its motors could carry. “A shame we are so limited that we cannot afford to go through the parts bins for mass upgrades. These Ratt-Rs remind me of the DRDs Control used.” The drone retracted its data prong and focused cameras on Russ. “For now though replacing the case with something that will make them less of a priority for the seekers so they can act as our eyes. in the field.”

The drone extended its data-prong again and got to work on reprogramming the Ratt-R. “Doable. I will have to shift its primary directive so they don’t try going after mice.”

“That’s fine.” Ted’s voice was neutral. Russ’s expression on its monitor showed otherwise but he made no move to stop what was going on. Then Ted spoke again, “So long as they aren’t going to be used as bombs to throw at what’s coming I’ve no objections.”

Pause. The drone’s cameras clicked and wirred as it continued working. “Excuse me?”

“You heard me.” Ted’s tone never changed but there was a slight shift in posture. “They may seem useless as more than momentary distractions or over-eager if dim units but they are the same as us. I do not want robots taking on the same attitude humans had that we’re disposable for no other reason than ‘just because.’ Do you understand?”

The drone’s cameras clicked and wirred again as the probe retracted and it moved away from the Ratt-R. “As soon as you’re done here we can start refitting the Ratt-R’s for surveillance. There’s a few radios that can be scavenged but personal opinion is they would be better used by the Good Guys currently acting as monitors.”

Ted nodded while cleaning the work area and separating out useful leftover parts from debris that was only fit for recycling. “Agreed. Though I would recommend against trying to graft a transceiver into any of their chassis. The unregulated input will be confusing and with an external unit they will have a better chance of adapting and then using rather than being overwhelmed and leaving it turned off at the exact wrong time.”

Russ displayed a green checkmark, “This sounds like a good plan.” It turned to the ManageMaster drone. “I want you to get your other drones in the air to find Kara, Iskatel, and Zhuzhi. There does not look to be much more we can do to help here so Zhuzhi, Myself, and any other bots you feel would be good to bring along with will need to start getting ready to leave and I want a general meeting before we go just to make sure everyone’s reading from the same man file.”

The group was piled into the now empty Manager’s office. Kara leaned by the door with a softball bat propped on one of her shoulders while the Martian Trio rested by the opposing wall. The ManageMaster hovered between drifting lazily from one side to the other.

“It is a sound idea.” The ManageMaster began, “My concerns are if you fail the factory will realize we represent an easy to pick source of already refined parts leading to a situation worse than we’re currently dealing with.”

Kara shrugged, shifting the bat from one shoulder to the other. “Well if they don’t go then we’d end up having to hold out long enough to re-fit enough bots to make a coordinated attack which will get the thing’s attention instead of only a maybe.”

Iskatel grumbled something in Russian which none of the others understood. It paused, camera stalk pointed down almost as if it were trying to appear shameful. “Why must I be the one to stay behind. Why risk both of my companions leaving me as the only one with our shared mission if you fail?”

Zhuzhi jumped from Russ to Iskatel and climbed up to the top of the other robot’s camera stalk until it was standing above the camera peering into it. “Because Russ’s more mobile than you are with programming and manipulators flexible enough to deal with a wider range of problems we might find.” The spider-bot crawled back just enough so it was out of Iskatel’s view but still on the stalk. “And I need to go since I am unobtrusive enough to slip by security to either disable the power source or undo the locks to any doors that can’t be brute forced.”

“Makes sense.” Kara chimed in as she looked the three bots over. “Iskatel would be more useful here anyway especially as a sanity check against fortifications so we don’t spend any more of our time on unrealistic projects.”

The ManageMaster drone bobbed in the air. “Logical. Do either of you feel a pair of Bush Buddy units will help?”

There was a pause as Russ’s monitor displayed a series of test patterns followed by a head-shake animation. “Zhuzhi had suggested we ride in the captured seeker unit so the factory does not realize anything is out of the ordinary until we are already inside. After all when we get closer to the place there will be more seekers and I refuse to send bots into this for the express purpose to die as distractions.”

“But it is logical,” The ManageMaster protested.

Kara gave the drone a look as she hefted her bat. “Screw logic. I’m siding with Russ and Ted on the sentiment. I’m not going to see us just throw others away on a maybe.”

Russ lowered itself into the slightly modified container of the seeker they had captured while Zhuzhi clung to the section of container closest to the unit’s processor. “Everything’s looking good.”

Russ’s display dimmed to conserve power. “I do not like using it as dumb transport,” It noted. “However; considering the quality of existence it had before, and what other courses of action we have I have no workable alternatives.”

Zhuzhi’s tiny cameras focused on Russ. “I know Russ. I know. If it makes you feel any better this thing wants to get back at the factory for hurting it.”

Outside of the seeker Kara stood. “Everything good?” She had a sledgehammer at the ready as did several Deere Friends. They stood outside of the store in the parking lot in case things went wrong. The seeker raised a manipulator limb to mimic nodding. “Good!” In spite of herself Kara clapped. “Mic check is good, so is limb manipulation. Let’s try speakers and cameras. I’ll tap the side of the container if I don’t hear anything in ten seconds.”

“Everything’s showing green on my side” Zhuzhi spoke through the seeker unit which gave the spider-bot’s voice a distorted out of tune quality. “Camera’s good. Just not used to such low rez or large body.”

Kara snorted and patted the top of the container. “You’ll manage.” There was hesitation before she spoke next. “Anything else while we’re out of range of the creepy drone?”

“Yes actually.” Zhuzhi said as it ran the seeker’s manipulators through diagnostics. “I do not trust the unit calling itself Kevin. Nor do I trust the ManageMaster.”

“Duh.” Kara’s eyes rolled. “I’ve gone around making sure none of ours wanted to get upgrades.”

Nothing more needed to be said. Kara walked with the leashed seeker until it got to the edge of the parking lot before heading back to the store-turned-fortress.