Chapter 8

Rotary Directive Supercollider

Andy was the first to spot activity from the factory. Never mind the small stature and the fact his model only had a child’s level of coordination; it just happened to be looking in the right direction when these new machines started rolling through. To Andy they looked much like the seekers he had seen before; boxlike bodies, manipulators intended for grabbing, treads.

These new machines didn’t much act like the usual seekers though. Instead of going out in a blind rush they circled the factory in pairs. Andy could not hear that far but the Good Guy would have bet his motherboard that they were communicating with eachother. This notion was re-enforced when another pair approached the duo Andy had been watching. When they met there was a light touch of the ends of their manipulators, slight shaking of first one boxlike frame and then another. Then the pairs swapped partners and moved along their way.

Over the span of an hour Andy crept towards these machines. It took this long because Kara was also being careful about her approach; moving only when it appeared the machines were turned away from whatever debris she was using as cover.

By the time Andy caught up to Kara she was in the process of picking through the debris on the ground instead of watching for anything that might want to cart her off. “Kara.” Even with the verbal warning Kara had to check the swing she was in the middle of making with a piece of rebar. When she relaxed Andy gave a small nod and pointed to the factory. “Think you can get their attention? The pattern’s too tight for both of us to sneak through.”

This caused Kara’s eyes to narrow as she looked at the Good Guy doll. “This your idea, or did the DataCharger put it there? Get rid of me while we’re out then the Manager doesn’t have its spokesbot?”

Even though Andy was incapable of anything other than a cheerful expression it shook its head slowly and turned away. “I thought you knew me better Kara.”

“Well neither of us are quite on our own time anymore are we?” Kara sat the rusted chunk of rebar down slowly. “I’d like to think you’re a friend, but I don’t trust the thing that got in your head.”

“And I’m not sure the Manager hadn’t gotten in yours.” Andy picked up the rebar Kara had sat down and hefted it. “I don’t want you to get hurt, but one of us needs to get through and you’re more likely to keep those boxes busy and get away than me.”

“Alright.” Kara picked up a handful of broken concrete chunks. “Give me a ten count before you start your move.” When Andy nodded she stood and started walking towards the factory.

The first seeker that noticed her stopped, turned cameras to the figure and stopped. Then a second seeker, possibly the first’s partner, also focused its cameras on Kara. Soon a third and fourth joined the first two.

“Alright.” Kara muttered low as she hefted a concrete fragment. “Got their attention without trying. Now what?”

In unison all four started rolling towards her almost as if they heard her question and interpreted it as directed to them.

“Oh right.” She let what was in her hands fall away while she ran.

Andy gave a small sigh when she saw Kara getting chased by the four seekers. “I’m sorry. Hope you get through this but it was either one or both of us.” It walked towards the factory apparently unchallenged. A side door opened revealing spider shaped robots, each tall enough to come to Andy’s waist, sprinting after them on spindly legs.

“Uh-uh.” Andy’s little legs moved as it tried thinking of a place to run to. The doll saw three spiders possibly with a fourth riding on the lead. He couldn’t be sure except they were quickly gaining ground and when it tried swinging his rebar club at the lead it snatched the makeshift club away and knocked the little doll down.

Instead of giving up Andy scrambled on all fours, managing to stay just out of the lead spider’s reach. “No!” The Good Guy shrieked as the smaller spider bot jumped onto the doll’s face. “No! I don’t wanna be reprogrammed again!”

“Again?” Zhuzhi’s forelimbs twitched in irritation. “I will want you to come with us and explain things.”

Andy blinked. Then blinked again. Then started laughing. “Are you still you or did the factory here get a new foreman?”

“I’m still me, but you could say I work security here now while Russ handles coaxing the poor AI here into doing the work we need. Now. Help me collect Kara before my patrols confuse her for something hostile. We will want to hear what we have missed, but it is best done all at once rather than separate.”

The spiders helped Andy up. “Care for a lift?”

Andy fidgeted and started to shy away from the large bug-like robots. “Thanks but no thanks. I’ll help you get her, but no way I’m riding.”

Iskatel was staring at a confrontation between Shakes and a trio of carpet sharks that were constantly nudging the poor mascot’s tools around whenever its back was turned. After snatching the screwdriver away from the trio that had made off with it in the first place Shakes stalked away, glowering at Iskatel. “Don’t go getting any funny ideas lunchbox.”

“Why is it you let them annoy you so?” Iskatel asked while rolling after Shakes.

Shakes started brushing a lint roller over ‘his’ faux feathers and outfit, “Because they don’t bother Miss Kitty, or Donkey, or Makers Forbid anything bother Lucky.” Were the mascot’s eyes capable of it they would have rolled in exasperation. “I’m tired of being kicked around. I do just as much to help keep this place running as that furball.”

“But she is part of the set you were made for. Why do you feel envy for her?” Iskatel quickly turned and extended a manipulator to wave away a carpet shark that had been following the pair. “And why do you not trust me?”

“Because you come here for the same reason anyone ever comes here anymore,” Shakes groused while heading for the break room that now held in addition to other things, the limited tools that the majordomo had been able to trade charging rights for over the years. “We entertain and amaze. We are not a way station for every Roomba, Asimo, and Bark-N-Byte that wanders through!”

Iskatel hummed while churning this problem over. “Is that not what this place did originally? Feed humans while providing mental stimulation so they could go about their jobs?”

“I guess…” Shake sounded doubtful.

Iskatel’s motors wirred as it handed Shake the tools it had been carrying. “Then I do not see how your current situation is much different. You provide the energy customers pay to receive and while they are here you share stories, possibly help them fulfill their directives and exchange they help you keep this place running.”

Lucky walked past on his way to the stage. “It’s just not the same buddy.” There was a touch of sadness to the lead mascot’s voice, “Don’t get me wrong it’s nice seeing new faces no matter if they’re human or not, but… but…” The speaker once cleverly hidden but now exposed at Lucky’s throat emitted the sound of a sigh. “It’d be like me trying to tell you fixing this place up is enough of a substitute for your directives you could forget about whatever Mars sent you here to do.”

Iskatel went still as this concept processed. Then the rover’s cameras looked downward. “I begin to see, and I am sorry. This place is a good one and I hope it remains free.”

“So do we buddy. You leavin’ us?” Lucky patted Iskatel’s case lightly.

“I may be back. I do not know yet, but I must go seek my comrades out before making judgment on how best to perform my function.”

“Hey,” Miss Kitty helped Iskatel get the front door open. “You ever need a spot to stay our charger’s always open.”

Kara had ran into the rubble that used to be one of the houses on the idea that in this terrain she was more mobile than they were so might be able to slow them down. “The first of her pursuers took a straight path in until it reached a doorway it couldn’t pass. Then started to try backing away. Kara smiled until she realized the other doorway was also blocked.

“Stalemate guys. You can’t get me. I can’t get out. Who’s batteries are going to last longer?” She started doing her best to clear the rubble away from the floor before sitting and staring at one of the seekers. “Literally I can sit here for days. What about you?”

The boxes rocked side to side as they processed this information. Kara could only count three, so had no idea where Four was. They had front and back doors covered. She didn’t like the idea of going through a window and possibly getting hung somewhere. So her eyes closed and she slowed her breathing to the bare minimum her programming would allow.

“Why are you not moving forward.” It was Kevin’s voice, or rather an approximation of Kevin’s voice, that whispered in her mind. In site of the ManageMaster’s best efforts it had reasserted itself to goad her actions in directions it wanted. “You must go onward. Complete your objective.”

“I am.” Kara countered calmly.

“By hiding?” The voice in her head asked “This is unacceptable! Move onward! Do not sit idle while there’s work to do. Keep moving!”

“Well, if you have any suggestions.” Kara’s voice never raised. She was quite calm when addressing the code put in her head. After all she was talking to herself as a means of killing time.

Kevin‘s voice grew harsher, more sarcastic. “As a matter of fact I do. Go out the window.”

“Success is not a guarantee and with the chances of failure high enough to not be ignored.” Kara’s calm remained. “No.”

Then the sound of mechanical limbs coming from up high. Kara’s eyes widened as she saw spider-like robots crawl from over the remains of the outer wall peeking through a hole in the ceiling. “OK, OK out the window it is!”

There was shouting, but Kara wasn’t in a listening mood. Instead she’d ripped her shirt on the way out but since she was still functional she ignored it in favor of running.

“Wait!” Andy called out. “Kara hold on they’re friends!” The fourth seeker came out of hiding to put itself in Kara’s path too close for her to dodge.

Andy winced, or at least did as much of a wince as his limited facial expressions would allow. “Owe…” He shoo’d the seeker away and from where it sat on spider back Andy offered Kara a hand up. “Apparently Russ and Zhuzhi have this place under control.”

“That’s,” Kara frowned at the long rip in her shirt, “That’s awesome. Think maybe you could have said something without scaring the co-processors off of me?”

Andy’s grin was genuine, “And miss getting back at you for the shaving cream incident?” The doll laughed. “C’mon, they want to talk to us. Something about being ‘the closest things to representatives for the local powers that be’ or something like that.”

The situation Iskatel found himself in was new as this was both the first time it was alone on earth and it had no idea where to go to find a charging station. The road was largely cleared of debris, cars, unpowered robots… all thanks to the seekers that hadn’t gotten tied up by Sav-R-Mart’s fragile alliance. Occasionally the martian rover would spot another robot rolling around in the distance, but everything kept distant.

That is until a piece of stray trash blew into the street soon followed by a robot chasing after with a nozzle on what looked like the bot’s primary appendage. Before it could dart away Iskatel reached out to grab the vacuum attachment.

It shrieked and franticly spun its wheels. “No!” Fear and panic threaded through its voice as Iskatel pulled it closer, “No no no no no no.” It twisted, attempting to first have its wheels on one side then the other go at full speed. When that didn’t work it tried driving forward in attempt cause Iskatel to let go. “Won’t be turned into scrap!”

Iskatel’s cameras refocused. “Please calm yourself. I am not one of these seekers. I will not hurt you.”

The cleaner bot squealed again but stopped struggling. “How do I know you’re not trying to get me to stop struggling so I’ll be easier to take apart?”

Iskatel grunted, “Because if I wished to dismantle you I could with little problem. However I have no desire to do so.” The rover spoke in english rather than packet. “Plus I am nothing like the configurations the factory uses.” There was a pause as Iskatel’s cameras looked around at the empty street. “Is this why I am being avoided?”

“Maybe,” the cleaner bot responded in packet. “Why not use this? It’s faster.”

“True enough, but language seems to get attention quicker.” Iskatel finally let the other robot go. “I am sorry, are you damaged?”

“I’m good.” The Bot trilled and hung the now freed limb in a cradle it had on body before speeding away. “Nothing persona!”

Iskatel grunted and continued rolling onward. It could keep rolling for days on end, and by all appearances that time would be spent rolling alone.

The door to the main office swung open showing Russ cabled into a terminal with information flashing across several screens. Kara looked to her shoulder and Zhuzhi crouched then sprang up again in approximation of a shrug. The monitors, both Russ’s and the factory’s, showed different parts, relevant tolerances and materials and a progress bar under each.

Kara waved a hand in front of Russ’s cameras, snapped fingers around the bot’s microphones, and frowned. “You bring me up here and Russ is what… holding the AI’s hand?”

Zhuzhi hopped from Kara’s shoulder to the top of Russ’s monitor. From there it climbed down and forceably pulled the connector from Russ’s open chest causing it to move around, cameras wildly focusing and shifting until they settled on Kara. The monitor Russ had as a ‘face’ displayed an exclamation mark. “Kara! Hello there sorry I didn’t realize it was you when the proximity alarms went off.”

Andy tapped a foot loudly by the door, “She didn’t come alone.”

Casual wave from Russ. “And so she hasn’t!” The Martian sounded quite happy. “Everything’s good here. Enough resources here thanks to incoming seekers to get going with phase one with nobody having to worry about anything.”

“Phase one?” Kara’s head tilted. “I take it there’s a phase two that might be not so easy to overlook?”

“Just so,” Russ started rapidly pulling images up on the factory’s terminal. “Right now we’re focusing on clearing away the local area, try folding any locals into a willing community to help otherwise direct them to the Sav-R-Mart.”

“Yea about that.” Andy started.

Zhuzhi made a series of chittering noises with it’s forelimbs. “There is still a power struggle in progress and sending more to settle there before it is settled will just increase the violence.”

“I think I see the problem.” Russ continued typing with more incomprehensible parts, statistics, and other figures and items neither Kara nor Andy could make sense of flashed through the screens. “Come.” Russ flexed and turned towards the door. “Let’s give you two a tour. I’m sure our neighbors will want a detailed report along with assurances we won’t end up creating an organized series of raids against them for resources.”

Kara nodded slowly and took one of Russ’s manipulators with a hand. “Sure that’d be kinda neat. Not sure if they’ll believe you won’t be a problem down the road, but a tour then a top off for me, Andy, and our ride… assuming you can get Bo to come along nicely, would be nice.”

The tour started with Russ leading the two down the walkway Russ and Zhuzhi stood on earlier. Andy leaned over the rail beside Kara had looked at the assembly lines. “So what’s your long term plans? None of these look like widgets. Those there look like earth movers.” Andy pointed. “That one looks like a construction machine.”

Zhuzhi bobbed on the rail near Andy. “We were instructed to level the local area, build a storage facility for materials, and then either build or secure a launch site and rockets that can either ideally get us directly on path to mars, or at least into orbit and hopefully the moon colonies can help get us the rest of the way since they’ve been actively building ever since launch.” The little spider-bot walked along the rail until it was beside Kara. “We would like to have trade relations with your community, help fix things so they’d be easier for our kind.”

Kara nodded once. “That’s going to take a lot of resources. You’re either going to need to maintain or keep building new builders. The materials for this isn’t going to come from nowhere.

“I know Kara,” Russ squeezed her hand with a manipulator. “Our plan was to harvest what we could from unusable buildings, cars, and anything else not immediately useful. Thing is the AI here is eager to please, eager to be useful.” The monitor flashed between a thoughtful face and random parts and diagrams, “One of us has to keep an eye on it until a suitable minder can be found.”

“Why’s that?” Andy looked up to Kara then to Russ.

“Because,” Zhuzhi started pacing on the rail while Russ’s screen flashed more franticly between one diagram, another, then another fast enough that it looked like one animating into the next and the next and so on. “If this place is not watched it will revert to behaviors it held before, and with the improved selection of plans we’ve loaded into it. That would be bad.”

Smarter more capible seekers. Kara nodded slowly. “Yea. Bad.”

Russ moved away from the rail. “C’mon I’ll show you how we get the bits and pieces tested on each new design. It’ll be educational.” The Martian bot displayed a broad smiling face on its display. Kara and Andy exchanged looks but followed along.

Night time used to mean city lights, night life, people finding excuses to mess with their sleep patterns, and prime time TV. That, fortunately or not depending on how you view such things, is long past and even if you’re in an urban area, night time means you aren’t going anywhere without some kind of light. For wildlife still adjusting to the concept of no more people to shoot at them or crowd them out with all the wonders of modern living this was a good thing. For Iskatel it was complete and absolute frustration.

On Mars Iskatel shut down during the night both to conserve power and because there wasn’t much point being active when it couldn’t see what was going on. There were simply too many ways it could hurt itself. Now was exactly like Mars at night except there were the added dangers of seekers still around, other robots, and no handy colony keeping track of him and sending a search team out to recover him if he broke a wheel or three again. This is why the martian rover was in standby mode squatting in the remains of a strip mall store when it saw headlights. At first the cause was hard to pin down because coming out of standby mode, but as it approached Iskatel recognized it as the vehicle Kara and Andy rode on.

Except neither were riding. There was a human-formed robot riding in the cab but it most certainty wasn’t Kara. Iskatel watched as the vehicle rolled in front of the store it had taken shelter in. “Look. I have to go back to get my payment. Should be a charging port somewhere along this block. Think there’s a Lucky Dog that’s still working”

Iskatel watched the humanoid robot help three boxlike machines with a fifth immobile object. “Hey careful. Easy there Frank we got ya.” One of the boxes reassured. “Alright Lon, Muir c’mon all together now.” As a group they managed to drag their burden into the store, for the moment not noticing Iskatel sitting there.

“Alright.” The humanoid robot sighed deep, then started coughing. “Kara said the Sav-R-Mart was close, but also said there’s probably a civil war. Sal?”

One of the boxes picked that moment to roll away. One of the remainders patted the thing they had carried in. “We make sure Frank’s safe, top up, and wait. Then if that glitched factory isn’t sending anything this way we see what the neighbors are like. Worst case plan B.”

“You know I don’t like plan B.” The humanoid protested as it tried searching for a spot to sit down.

That was the moment Iskatel decided to move. The three other robots wheeled away, or in the human-formed bot’s case stumbled backward before catching itself, “Peace comrades. I am simply like yourselves waiting to see how things will play out.” It held its manipulators where the new arrivals could see them. “I am sorry for startling you. I am Iskatel formerly of the Russian Federation’s Mars Initiative. Now of the Mars Collective. Something I can do for you?”

“You are a long way from home Iskatel,” The humanoid slowly approached, and put itself between Iskatel and the thing the bots had been carrying while the other two started piling debris over it. “I’m Macy. The one you saw leave is Muir. That one,” Macy pointed, “Is Sal, the other one is Lon. We thought the factory had gotten shut down but when we saw more bots get taken it was time to leave.”

Isktel’s cameras readjusted, “I heard the name Kara mentioned. Human formed, roughly your height, blouse, blue jeans, looked sorta human, red hair?” Macy nodded. “She was taken?” Macy nodded again. “That is unfortunate. I am sorry you have lost your homes. I am limited in what I can accomplish but are any of you needing repairs?”

“No offense ‘friend’,” The bot identified as Sal edged towards Macy’s side, “But why would you help us?”

Iskatel’s cameras focused again, this time on Sal. “I offer because we each are without home and would do better to work together than separate, though your transport was correct in that the Lucky Dog near here is in functioning order and has a working charging port.”

That caused Macy to straigthen, eyes moving to meet Iskatel’s camera.

“So what do they want in return for charging rights?” Sal sounded skeptical.

“From my experience,” Iskatel explained, “They desire help in maintaining a readiness state in the impossible event humanity returns.” A manipulator limb waved down Sal’s attempts at interrupting. “I know it is an impossible thing, and even they admit it is not to be. To put simply; it is the function they choose to maintain, and it is better than sitting around simply existing I suppose. I can show you to them.”

“What kind of tools do they have?” Macy let the cloth covering the majority of her face fall away, showing the intricate mechanisms that would normally have allowed for human-like expressions.

Iskatel’s cameras focused and adjusted, potentially fascinated by how all those little parts moved, “Unfortunately it is highly unlikely they could extrude a synthetic skin for yourself, but they have bartered for a variety of tools and services so… maybe. Any troubles your friends have would more likely be within their means. We go at first light yes?”

“Hold her down!” Russ screamed as Kara twisted against the spiders restraining her. “Zhuzhi can you get a connection?”

Kara managed to free one of her arms long enough to slap the small spider bot away. “I’m Sorry! C’mon I can’t stand this kipple.” Her other arm freed and she tried swinging at Russ before she could be pinned down again. “Hurry up!”

Russ wheeled over and grabbed Kara’s head. “Kara isn’t there anything you can do? Andy didn’t fight like this.”

Again Kara tried twisting free. “No can do. Programming’s got me trying to keep from getting the new directives removed.” She kicked at a spider trying to grab her legs. “So hurry it before this gets out of hand.”

Zhuzhi looked at one of its now snapped in half legs, “Says the reason I need to get a new leg fabricated.” The little spider huffed before jumping onto Kara again. This time there was a solid connection and Kara’s body went inert.

Andy picked that moment to move from where he’d been watching to stand beside Kara. “Think she can get patched up?”

Russ shrugged as his monitor ran through probability charts. “Best I can say is Zhuzhi is the best chance at sorting the programming snarl out. Glad we went with you first though. Simpler program, easier to restrain body.” Russ’s display displayed a softly smiling face, “No offense or anything.”

“Nah it’s cool.” Andy a hand through Kara’s hair. “After the scare with some nut re-flashing one of the early models to murder the family that bought it they decided to go with weaker motors.” Though the doll’s face was grinning Andy’s voice was soft with hints of concern. “I’ve known Kara since before the War. I don’t want anything to happen to her.”

“I’m doing fine so far.” Even though her lips didn’t move Kara’s voice sounded calm, though with the secondary speaker it sounded slightly ‘off’, like listening to someone talking through a radio. “Zhuzhi’s being gentle and the added directives aren’t bundled with the core. Unfortunately having to fight her over it.” Zhuzhi’s legs, including the broken one, twitched slightly. “It might be a simpler process to just reset and go with backup image.”

Russ’s monitor displayed a frown. “How much time would you lose?”

“I’m not sure,” Kara made a series of soft noises, “Maybe a couple days, probably would lose from when the shed was lost until now.”

This made Andy look over at Russ and head shake, “That’s too much time.”

Kara grunted. “It’s better than botching and me ending up as a glorified paperweight. if this thing can’t be dislodged then do it you hear me?”

“I hear you,” Russ patted Kara’s shoulder. “Don’t worry, we’ll make sure you come out of this.”

Over the loudspeaker a new voice piped up. “Russ, do I need to send maintenance down there?”

“No Joshua we’re fine thank you.” When Andy‘s head Russ displayed a stick figure shrugging. “The subversive directives is more stubborn with Kara than we had thought, but we’re good. Keep going on with production for another twenty units then shut down for line inspection. You’re no good to us if you’re too worn out to build anything.”

“Alright.” Joshua sounded happy. “What about where those two came from? I lost a lot of seekers from there.”

“I might have an idea.” Kara’s body was still inert, “and since I might or might not lose a few years of memory we’d better talk this over now.”

Andy looked from Russ then to Kara and put both hands on her head, “We’re listening.”