Chapter 7

Opposing Forces

It was the first time Iskatel saw this field, but it felt this was better than where it had been before this point. Never mind his two companions were facing the auto-factory without him he was for the first time since landing on earth, alone. The city around it was decayed and broken. The Seekers had either picked apart the softer targets or, as demonstrated by the one or two camera lenses it could spot, the few survivors that hadn’t been funneled into the Sav-R-Mart civil war had the good sense to hide. Iskatel rolled on wheels that had seen the rock and grit of Mars transform into something approximating human habitable. Until this mission its job had been to patrol colonial parameters and report anomalies; either man made threats from the others or natural disasters from Mars itself.

Here there was so much that would qualify as ‘anomalous’; and most of which wasn’t what would also be classed as hostile. It rolled through grass that grew in pavement, which signaled it to flag maintenance, and when maintenance turned out to be a rusted out husk that could not be interfaced with Iskatel simply filed reports to be forwarded at a latter point to a functional unit.

It could not reconcile this action with the current situation. Its logic, backed by prior events and data Mars provided, dictated the chances of infrastructure collapse reaching a non-recoverable state as high. Yet here it sat staring at another rusted out maintenance drone dwarfed by the aged behemoth. It reached out with a manipulator limb to gently prod where the unit’s wheels used to be and clasped at the bald rim that used to cradle an inflated rubber tire, wiggling it back-and forth idly as it processed the best course of action to take next.

Iskatel could not return to Sav-R-Mart. This much was clear because if it returned it would have its core directives compromised. Yet it could not, in its current state, accomplish those directives. Slowly it wheeled away from the rusted maintenance truck and continued down the cracked and broken road.

“Hello there friend.” A PA system hanging from a slightly less-run-down-than-everywhere-else Luck-E-Dog pizza and amusements place crackled to life. Iskatel’s primary sensor package swiveled until cameras faced the source of the sound. “A Deere told us about the dust-up going on at Sav-R-Mart’s. You know anything about that?”

“I do.” Iskatel chirped back. “What interest do you have in the matter?”

The speaker crackled and warbled for several moments and there was snatches of half-heard baud that was too incomplete to translate into anything useful. “Aside from being grateful the Seekers found somewhere other than here and that they’re having worse than their usual luck?”

“While I would normally be content having conversation with you out here,” Iskatel trilled in several different messaging protocols in attempt at finding the best compromise between speed, understandability, and something the other speaker could process. “I would like the use of a charging port if you are willing to share.” Finally it settled back on what it had been using before. “I am willing to work and am rated for a variety of tasks.”

The sliding doors to the building wirred and whined as aged and unmaintained motors attempted to pull the doors along debris covered tracks. One door refused to move and the other only moved halfway. Were Iskatel human or even human proportioned it might have been enough to slide through. As it was the rover rolled up to the doors and extended a manipulator limb to try giving an ‘encouraging’ shove.

The single working door squealed but moved to the end of the track, giving Iskatel enough space, albeit barely, to get inside. This room, once where people would wait to be shown to their tables out of the weather but not quite in the restaurant proper, seemed much as it might have when people came here except the decay that had decades of time to set in. Oh it was all very clean and polished with not a speck of dust anywhere. It just looked tired and faded.

Past this entryway this assessment didn’t change and were only being reinforced; there was a sleepiness about this place. Iskatel saw tables sat ready but the lights that still worked barely glowed, the stage where the automated band ‘played’ saw the quartet working through the motions with soundless instruments, and where dozens of automated servers rolled through dealing with the realities of small children in public places only one sat huddled in a corner with its sensor cluster down-turned and facing the nearest wall rather than bright and alert.

The band, all overly cheerful looking furry mascots of the Luck-E-Dog franchise, stopped playing and sat their instruments down when Iskatel rolled through. One of them, a feline with bare suggestions of femininity, slowly walked towards the newcomer and looked Iskatel over slowly, walking around first clockwise then counter-clockwise.

Finally the feline stopped in front of Iskatel’s sensor cluster and looked into the rover’s cameras. “Hey there pard’.” She offered a four fingered gloved hand, which grasped Iskatel’s offered manipulator. “Name’s Miss Kitty.”

This information caused Iskatel’s cameras to adjust focus. “So you identify yourself along gendered lines?”

“Sure do!” The fur clad mascot nodded enthusiastically. “Makes dealing with customers easier.” She did a small twirl and gestured at the slight, but definitely feminine, curves of her frame. “Plus why not? I got it so why not flaunt it?”

As response Iskatel motioned to the other three band members. “And your co-workers?”

The child-sized rooster glowered at Iskatel. “Look buster, unless you’re able to get the carpetsharks to start behaving or are bringing actual customers scram.”

“Now Shakes.” The banjo toting dog stepped between Rooster and Rover. “I’m sure our new buddy here’s just looking to get away from the badness going on ‘round Sav-R-Mart.”

“But what if it brought trouble with it?” Shakes took a single large step back to put more space between it and Iskatel. “Things’re bad enough as is without adding more besides.”

“Maybe.” The Donkey finally decided to speak as it moved to stand beside the banjo dog. “But if Lucky says we give the new guy a shot then good enough for me.”

Iskatel didn’t know the Luck-E-Dog franchise or its mascots but it rolled towards the loose collection of band members slowly. “So far as I am aware the situation with the seekers and the factory that sent them is either resolved, or we have made this area too unappealing a target to continue sending resources. Unfortunately with the external threat gone the Sav-R-Mart population has splintered into something of a three way stand off.”

The assembled band members were joined by a small cluster of ovoid shaped devices that clustered in small groups. Shake sat at the back of the stage looking as angry as the stuffed and feathered child friendly exterior would allow. Miss Kitty sat on a chair as her ears perked forward with interest, leaving Dog and Donkey stood watching the new guest lay out what had happened.

“Hey!” Kara called out as she caught a glimpse of the robot they had been pursuing for the past hour. “Hey buddy we just want to talk. No disassemble.”

Andy cocked his head at that statement then shrugged before pointing to where their target had rolled away to. Except now it seemed to be rolling slower, less running from and more headed towards. “C’mon don’t mind how big and scary Bo looks. We’re on our way to the factory up the way and we just wanted to know how bad the seekers have been.”

The blue box turned so its forward sensor package and manipulator limbs faced Bo. “Far as I’ve been able to tell the factory’s been shut down. Ain’t been any new seekers in days, and the ones that go back in don’t go out again.”

“This is good news.” Kara looked from Andy to Bo then back to the bot they were talking with. “Hey look you don’t happen to know a good place to charge other than the factory is do you? If it’s off then I’d rather not risk turning it back on.” True enough but that wasn’t the whole story.

The bot they were speaking with made a waggling gesture with both manipulators. “I’m a few days out from my usual charging station so might be best to risk the factory. It’s closer and if it’s been turned off then you never know. Might be the charging stations are still up and going.”

Kara sighed. “Thanks anyway.” She touched Bo’s control surfaces and the Roadboy lurched into motion. After ten minutes, or possibly more, maybe less, Andy spoke up. “So we’ve got confirmation the factory’s dead. That mean we can go back?”

Kara thought this over before shaking her head slowly. “Could I guess, but I’d rather see for myself. Never know, the Martians might have something going on, or maybe…”

“Maybe what?” Andy’s permanently cheerful face was inches from Kara’s, as neither were involved in steering Bo towards their objective. “You mean ‘maybe they’re scrapped even though the factory’s down?’”

Kara slowly nodded as she processed that bit of probability. “That could be what happened. Could be something’ll come along and turn it back on. We need to make sure one way or another it isn’t a threat before going back. That was our orders right?”

Bo’s speakers crackled and rumbled as they continued rolling along. “Look. I don’t work for your boss. I just do the occasional odd job because they keep me filled in spray and paint.” When neither passenger spoke up Bo continued. “I’m generally considered slow, and most days that’s quite alright. Not a lot of thinking needed for my line of work. Now though? Everything’s pointing at this factory being out of everyone’s batteries.”

Kara tilted her head, which was fairly useless as there were no cameras in the cab. “Bo. I don’t really want to work for who I’m slaved out to. Pretty sure same goes for Andy here. We know where you’re coming from so I’m sorry to bring this up but unless you go this job the whole way who do you think will trade with you for spray, repairs, and the like?”

Bo’s speakers crackled for several moments. “I still say I should dump you two off and be done with this job.”

Andy laughed, “But you’re not are you?”

“Nope.” Bo managed to sound resigned. “‘fraid not.”

Kara looked at the control panel and scowled. “Just get us close enough we can walk. No sense in you going all the way in, get caught, and us lose our best way back out if Russ and Zuzhi failed.”

“I hear ya.” Bo grumbled sourly. “Oh and that box is still following us. Too far back for me to get a definite on but I keep seeing this ‘something’ out there. Given size and color I’d say your friend from earlier curious.”

“Or there’s a lot of that model hiding out.” Andy sounded doubtful, “If there is I’d think it would be handy to know how they managed to hid from the factory.”

“Maybe,” Kara agreed, “But unless it or they are willing to talk then there’s not enough information to care or worry about.”

Ahead Kara spotted half gutted husks that might have been outbuildings or possibly houses. They were concrete and mostly missing rovers, doors, windows, or anything except the bare shell. Kara’s head shook slowly as they continued on. “What happened here, the swarm?”

Andy’s head shook as he pointed to the gravel and grit. “Storm it looks like. Bad one.”

“I don’t-” Kara started.

“You were shut down when the storms rolled through.” It might have been how the light hit his face but Andy’s grin held a fierceness to it. “Remember that memory blip?”

Time passed as Kara’s mind drifted back to that time. One moment she was being put into storage by her family because they thought they’d have to move. The next she was surrounded by Good Guy dolls, the war was over, and everything she knew was gone. “Yea…”

Gently Andy offered Kara a scrap of cloth to wipe her face. “Sorry for bringing it up but yea. One of the things you missed out on. Huge storm rolled through. Worst missed us but if it wasn’t for the Deere and a couple of the others we wouldn’t have been able to chainsaw the trees down or clear any of the mess around those downed homes.”

“Hey.” Both Kara and Andy’s attention turned to the source of the noise. Bo rolled to a stop when the voice called out again. “It’s not safe out here.” The speaker might have been the same model Kara was. At one time she might have even looked as close to human but with her casing stripped of synthskin and hair either cut away or more likely the same wear that caused the sythskin to peel away had caused the hair to go. There was either a core attempt at preserving the human likeness or possibly just vanity at play but she was covered head to foot in a gauze-fine garment.

Kara slowly got out of Bo’s passenger compartment and started towards the speaker. Her eyes met the stranger’s, the one feature that seemed to retain the human-like look that time had eroded from everywhere else. “We’re looking for friends that came this way. Have you seen them?”

The stranger was the first to look away. It-She turned and started running. Kara followed after. Somewhere in the background Kara could hear Andy screaming after her but because of the doll’s smaller frame it couldn’t keep up.

“Go back!” The stranger wailed. “There’s nothing here. Go back!”

Kara continued after heedless of how rubble strewn the terrain was getting. “I can’t.” She stopped to look around, try finding sign of which way the stranger ran. “The Sav-R-Mart’s head robot ordered us to go look. Make sure the swarm is gone.”

“Kara go back please for the love of the Makers Go Back!” The words held sadness that shouldn’t have been possible for a robot to produce. “The swarm’s gone and there’s nothing out here Kara, Go Home!”

There was something in the stranger’s tone. The fact she knew Kara’s name. She stopped just outside of what might have been the remains of a house and peered inside. “Macy?” She squinted, trying to put name to voice.

Inside the ruined home the stranger turned her face away from Kara but nodded once.

“Macy?” Kara asked again as she slowly walked towards the other robot. “What happened here?”

“Don’t touch me!” Macy swatted Kara’s arm away when she tried putting a hand on her shoulder. “Please… don’t.”

Kara caught Macy’s hand and held it with her’s. “There’s nobody left to impress Macy. It’s OK. I’m just glad you’re still active.” Kara knelt by Macy, still holding her hand. “Just tell me what happened here. Friends went here to turn the factory off. Have you seen them?”

As Kara took her hand away the reason for Macy’s reaction clarified; what bits of covering remained gained new cracks and in some places started to flake away. ‘Oh…” Kara frowned. “Yea I can see how that would be a problem.”

“Gee,” Macy’s voice lowered, gaining an undercurrent of sourness. “Thanks for paying attention.” She smiled, the wrap covering the lower part of her face flexed and moved, “How’d you stay so crisp, only just now coming back out of the box?” There was a hint of bitterness to her tone before she caught herself. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t be blaming you it’s just,” There was a hitch in Macy’s voice, “Everything.”

Kara’s head shook slowly, “Not exactly. Got lucky, home still had running everything that mattered; solar generator, rainwater catch and well pump.” There was a small laugh. “Even had a garden till the Martians crash landed on the shed.”

This caught Macy’s attention. “Martians? Here?” She blinked, or at least motors wirred and there were attempts by what was left of her eyelids to follow through with the motions. “Strange but what’s that got to do with,” She stopped and went still. For a human stillness was not absolute, for there were still little muscle movements, self correction on posture, blinking, breathing, and a dozen dozen other things. When a robot goes still there’s absolutely no motion. They might as well be switched off unless there’s a blinking indicator light. “I see. So they need the factory for what, parts?’

Slow nod from Kara, “Uh-Huh. That and they decided having to hide from the swarm was probably going to be too much of an impact on their mission.”

Macy adjusted the cloth covering most of her face as she looked Kara over. “So what’s your take on what they’re here for. Get the factory up and under their control and….?” When Kara didn’t answer she started elaborating while leading Kara through the once-homes and other partial remains of the town surrounding the factory. “Don’t get me wrong I don’t think I’d mind if something were making it do something useful, but what about when it runs out of materials? Do these friends of yours suddenly decide to start mining everybody out? They’d do a better job since they can still reason and process.”

Meanwhile Andy did the best he could to keep up. His small size meant he had a hard time keeping up with the two longer legged machines, but since they weren’t running it managed to use debris and shadow to stay out of sight.

“Sal,” Macy called into one of the less worn down concrete structures, “Lon. We’ve got a guest.”

Andy watched Kara hold the door open and a pair of unknown machines wheel around her. One of them made a gesture towards Kara then outside. “Don’t be that way Sal. She’s not staying. I just wanted her to see I’m fine.”

Kara’s head tilted at the machine. “Look I don’t plan on staying here long enough to take up your charging port.”

“We don’t need to charge.” The box, Sal perhaps, offered a touch quicker than necessary. “Thank you though. We were just taking shelter since we’d seen a bunch of those seekers on the way back.”

The other box put a manipulator on Sal’s appendage. “Easy there. Let Macy’s friend talk. We might have someplace we can get repairs, something to do other than roll around hiding all the time. Maybe get help for-” Then Sal’s manipulator limb moved in a quick blur from Kara almost smacking the front of the second robot. “For Macy. She isn’t suited for this environment.”

Kara’s facial expression remained a careful neutral. “Look. Currently I’m wired to work under and be loyal to the DataCharger of the local Sav-R-Mart. I do not like this arrangement.” She sat down slowly, keeping both hands where they would be easy to see. “This fact to one side there are spare parts at the Sav-R-Mart and other robots. A dozen chargers,” That got the three local’s attention, “and there’s plans to expand and start repairing as much of the local infrastructure as possible while adapting it for our use.”

“But,” Macy countered, “You said your directives got jacked by this AI right?”

“Like I said,” Kara continued in a neutral tone. “I am programmed to show loyalty to the controlling AI of that place. I am not programmed to like this usurpation of my will.”

The two boxes turned their cameras to each other before Sal spoke, “Alright. Go check see if the factory’s down. If your friends have it pacified we’ll be willing to go to the city with you.” Before Macy could say anything Sal continued. “Look. We might be able to find a good working relationship with this group. It sounds like it has a plan.”

Kara shook hands, manipulators, and other appropriate limbs before walking out. Then, after a minute or so Sal spoke again. “Plus if we can get Frank back up and running… Look we don’t have enough to keep going like we are here. We need to get out, and if it comes down to it we might be able to jack a solar panel or three and get back here. We’re gonna do this Macy. For Frank.”

“Hey pard’,” Iskatel turned to Miss Kitty’s voice. “Mind handing me that soldering gun, light, flux,” And then she kept relaying things to be handed as Iskatel passed them through. The autochef was in sad shape between years of non-use, the kitchen fire a few years back, and it attempting to ‘bake’ without having anything to work with.

As Miss Kitty went through what maintenance she could Iskatel watched the carpet sharks stare at it from the door leading into the kitchen. “All signs seen so far point to humanity being gone.” It stated calmly while using one of its manipulators to hold a spotlight on where Miss Kitty was working. “Why do you and the majordomo here act as if they’ll suddenly start showing up?”

The job might have been routine for a human worker, but between Miss Kitty’s overly large head keeping her from getting in at several places. Still, it was better than nothing and the autochef gave contented burbling noises as the work progressed. “It’s simple,” Miss Kitty said, “We might want to leave here, but between the crazy store that might or might not turn us into spare parts, and the factory that might or might be shut down by your friends this is how we keep busy. People probably aren’t ever going to come back, but we were made to entertain so if we gave up on that.” She shrugged. “Electrical tape please.”

Zhuzhi rode on top of Russ’s monitor as they traveled along one of the inspection walkways high above the factory floor. The great machines were busy scrapping seekers now. Russ saw each one calmly roll up and, after getting switched off, get carried down the line to be taken apart. It was a swift efficient process that took care of both the problem of the existing swarm and gathering resources

Then one of the seekers swatted the factory drone aside and started rolling off shrieking incoherent sounds. Russ’s manipulators gripped the railing as it watched spider-like drones come out of hiding to chase this wayward bot down and, after rendering it inert, hauled the rouge seeker’s frame back to the dismantling line.

Zhuzhi tch’d and tapped where it perched on Russ. “How often does that happen?”

“What?” Russ’s cameras tracked the now orderly dismantling. “Units trying to run? Not often.” Russ pointed at a spider carrying something away. “It’s board is being carried off to get examined. See?”

Zhuzhi bobbed as an affirmative. “I see. Still not sure how to feel, but if we didn’t do this recall then they’d still be out there.”

Before Russ had a chance to point out Zhuzhi’s usual arguments against, a second set of machines in the factory rumbled to life. “Wait… what’s going on here?” Russ wheeled away back to the office and started tapping at keys on one of the keyboards.

Zhuzhi watched information flash along the monitors. New orders demanded action. Plans that Russ had carried and uploaded were being followed. Was this good?

Russ stared at the screen, his own monitor flashing between a confused face and a re-statement of the information Mars had prepped to upload if they found a suitable factory. Secure facilities while creating a storage location for parts until they could be shipped out. Yes, good. Russ typed assurances to the child-like AI that ran the place. This was good.

Zhuzhi made a throat clearing noise. “We still haven’t figured out what to do about finding a suitable launch sight.” When Russ made incoherent grumblings, Zhuzhi continued talking. “The obvious solution is to build a site here, but even with apparently the local AI’s taken care of there is the problem of the milnet node Mars says is still active.”

Russ displayed a series of frowns before tapping commands. “I know Zhuzhi. I know.” It continued typing. “Fortunately Mars says it’s attention is tied up with a municipal AI housed within the same city.”

Russ’s screen flashed an annoyed expression as its fingers ran through a series of commands that brought up a city broken and decayed beyond what the simple lack of human use and oversight could explain.

If it were anything other than satellite cameras those seeing this city would not be able to see the split this clearly. It was a hair fine line that ran through one third of the city. The larger portion of this looked much like any other city post-humanity; broken down but with signs of functionality thanks to the machines that called it home.

The smaller third, on the other hand, was a different story. It still resembled a city, but where the larger chunk of this city showed what passed for normalcy this section showed organized patrols. Large van-like robots that would drop off robots to retrieve broken, or more often not-quite-broken, robots. Ariel drones circled overhead, occasionally darting into the larger portion of the city before returning for fuel and, if the smoke clouds were right, more bombs to drop. At the center of this was a building most people wouldn’t look twice at but the satellite, possibly thanks to Martian intervention, marked as probably being a military installation.

Zhuzhi’s legs curled inward towards itself as it took in this data. “Not so simple then. Any chance at help from the municipal AI?”

Before Russ could key in further commands to display more than what the satellites would be able to give proximity alarms started sounding.