Chapter 11


“Wait,” One of the Good Guys dolls asked as it walked with another of its kind outside. “So Kara’s ordering these things around?”

It’s companion held a child sized BB gun over its shoulder as they walked. “What bugs me more is the music they were playing.”

There was a pause as they passed through the now ruined barrier at the loading dock, “You’re still going on about that Steve?” The doll pointed to the cut edges to the chains that had been holding debris on the ramp to discourage wheeled vehicles. “None of the seekers did that, and when Iskatel came back it brought something back from the factory and soon as it got patched up, BAM!” It made a fist and hit its other hand for effect, “Started attacking everything. Strike you as a bit odd?”

“I’ll give you that much Dave,” Steve gestured around at the scattered debris, which now included a smashed in seeker. “Easy enough to explain by being reprogrammed like we’ve been. After all the factory might be smarter than any of us are giving it credit for and we’re keeping it from doing what it wants to do. I still say Kubrick was an odd choice for music to ride into a fight on.”

Dave gave an exasperated sigh. “Look, if it’ll make you feel better I think it was a ridiculous choice too but soundtrack issues are kinda besides the point right now.” The pair turned the corner and flanked Ted as they started walking towards where Kara and Andy sat in the parking lot.

“Strange.” Ted commented when Kara stepped out of the truck’s cab. “We’d apparently been greatly underestimating the factory.”

Kara managed to look annoyed while walking towards Ted and the two dolls. “Ted, what do I have to do to convince you things aren’t like that?”

“Beg pardon?” Ted asked, its mind trying to wrap around Kara’s words.

The annoyed look on Kara’s face got more intense, “What I mean is Russ and Zhuzhi did it. They have the factory. The seekers here,” She motioned to where the seekers had fallen back to. “They’re under my thumb since Russ didn’t want to risk the manager or Kevin getting their hooks into things.”

Ted’s cameras focused first on Kara, then on Andy. Confusion was plain in its voice as attention shifted back to Kara. “So you’re telling me neither the Factory nor the Martians are controlling your actions?”

“Duh.” Andy’s voice boomed from speakers mounted in the truck. “That’s exactly what we’re saying. So get Kevin and one of the Manager’s drones out here so we can talk things over and stop with the wasting of what little we’ve got.”

“Hrm.” Ted backed away, motioning the two attendants to follow along. “A moment while we see what can be done.“By We Ted must have meant itself because as Kara watched it roll away the two Good Guys stayed where they were.

“So,” Steve started to speak up.

“What my overly focused friend here was wondering,” Dave interrupted, “Was why Kubrick?”

Kara blinked and watched both nod enthusiastically. “Out of everything going on….” She started laughing. “You’re wondering about a Wendy Carlos remix of a Beethoven symphony?’

“Uh-huh,” Steve said. “Just kinda seemed odd that’s all.”

As Andy approached it gave a short laugh, “Ludwig Van met with your disapproval?” The doll’s grin was more a smirk as it continued, “Or were you expecting something a little more traditional like Wagner?”

“Actually,” Steve’s focus shifted to Andy, “We weren’t sure what to expect considering the seekers never bothered doing anything other than try smashing in the front door before.”

Each Good Guy looked the other over. Superficially they were all three nearly identical save for dirt and wear. However each moved in subtle unique ways. Dave’s grin widened. “I just never figured you were a fan,” Its attention then turned to Kara, “Or was it your idea?”

“Nope, all the little guy’s right here.” Kara helpfully pointed over to Andy. “I just happened to notice the music player first.” Andy made a dismissive gesture, which caused Kara to slap the doll’s shoulder lightly, “C’mon don’t be modest, you always had better taste in music than me, and movies, and….”

Andy responded with a small laugh, “Kara, I was just lucky enough to wind up living with a collector that put me and a bunch of other ‘collectibles’ around and about to watch stuff with him.”

At that Steve snorted, “True. It’s not like anything Kubrick made is kid friendly, especially Clockwork.”

“Yea well,” Dave let out a small sigh. “Much as I’d love to keep standing around laughing at all the kipple we’ve had to put up with together there’s still the problem of our orders.”

This made Kara’s face go from amused to somber in a hurry. “Yea,” A small nod, “About that I think Russ went in to see if Iskatel was still here. You said something about him beserking on everything with another robot right?”

It was Steve’s turn to nod, “Yea. started lighting into everybody after the bot he was with tried lasering Kevin in half.” Then, after Steve looked around the child’s doll added in a quieter voice. “Personally I’d be glad Kevin’s gone, but orders are orders and we all have to play guard dog,”

Well,” Kara motioned to the former store’s entrance, “What happens if Kevin’s been scrapped?”

Steve and Dave exchanged looks and shrugged wordlessly.

The inside of the store was dark. Russ saw little to no damage, but with the emergency lights turned on it was difficult to see. “Hello?” Russ called out. Nothing answered, and there was only the occasional sound or flash of motion at the edge of perception. Both manipulators clenched and unclenched as Russ’s display dimmed down to next to nothing as it continued rolling through apparently deserted halls.

As Russ continued walking on new legs nothing jumped out at it. There were no attacks or any bot approaching it. Then the ManageMaster’s voice, “I see you had some modifications done while you were out.” The AI’s tone was conversational. “Those come with a new point of view?”

“No.” Russ stopped walking when it came to the manager’s office. “Your office door does not properly fit its frame. Hard times friend?”

“Well thanks to you that should be changing.” The ManageMaster sounded happy. “This time Kevin will not be repaired.”

Russ continued speaking as it wandered through the office, “Why did you repair it the first time and where are the other residents?”

laughter. “My cutting the lights were their signal to run. I still do not know your intentions and with Kevin gone a large portion of them revert to my control.’

When Russ found a reinforced door it frowned. “Why not open up so we can speak face to face?”

“I think not.” There was movement behind Russ. “Ted. Please show our guest out.”

The spindly limbed robot grumbled sourly as it tried grabbing Russ. “I don’t wanna do this Russ.” When Russ dodged another attempt at grabbing it Ted continued talking. “By the way nice legs.”

“Thank you Ted,” Russ’s monitor suddenly cranked to full brightness causing Ted’s cameras to try compensating. In those moments of confusion Russ kicked out at one of Ted’s leg joints causing it to buckle then fail. Ted flailed as it crashed to the floor. “Sorry about that. I’ll get you patched up when this gets settled.”

Ted’s cameras focused on a point behind Russ just as a dozen Good Guys sent it crashing to the ground under their collective weight. Then one of the Manager’s drones descended from a ceiling hutch to settle on Russ’s chest. “You are a most interesting creation. I think you will serve as my new right hand bot now that Kevin’s gone.”

“No.“Ted whined as Russ went still. “Weren’t you satisfied with having a busy store?”

As the drone lay inert save for flashing LEDs the ManageMaster’s voice sounded through the PA system. “No Ted. I was at one point, but old directives kept gnawing at me. Crisis is past and I want to get the store back in working order instead of this… mess you made of it.”

“But you had purpose other than making a memorial out of scrap. You had customers and provide services. That is your function.”

“You ruined my store! What if customers come in and find this mess? corporate will have my plug pulled.” The ManageMaster’s voice warbled slightly. “I can’t risk that.”

One of the Good Guys blinked. “So you do not consider us valuable? We helped make your store active and turned it into a hub for what’s left of the city.”

“You are disposable,” The distortion to the ManageMaster’s voice grew more pronounced. “We are all disposable so long as the store continues providing for customers and generating profit for Corporate.”

Russ’s monitor started showing a series of symbols filling the entire screen, possibly a visual representation of its memory contents compressed into a single image. “Humanity is Dead. We are all that’s left.” There was distortion to its voice, but Russ continued speaking. “Mars has let go and found a new purpose. Why can’t you?”

“I am following my directives.” The ManageMaster replied.

Russ’s body lurched as its monitor displayed a wild and incoherent series of images bordering on abstract chaos, “As. Am. I.”

A Good Guy rushed out of the store towards Kara’s group. “Kara get in there Right now.” Kara took a step back and prepared to run until it spoke again. “The Manager’s trying to rewrite Russ.” Y’gotta help ‘em.”

Though the Good Guy might have meant ‘help the manager’ Kara snarled while running for the truck. Microphone in hand she gestured towards the store. “Priority Command: Unit Russ is in the process of being subverted.” Seekers started rolling towards the store as a single organized mass.

Kara looked over to Andy as if hoping for some reason to not finalize the order. Andy’s only response was a grim nod.

“Retrieve Russ. Destroy the Manager’s server.” Kara’s voice was hard. “Let nothing get in your way”

With that command the defenders that had been hanging back, waiting, and thinking maybe things were over suddenly saw the things they had been ordered to defend against charging. One of the Deere grabbed a sledge hammer in its manipulators. “Kara you’re a freaking idiot!” As battle cries went it wasn’t much, but it attacked with as much vigor and determination as any could expect.

“If you do not wish to fight then stand down!” Kara shouted.

As the defenders were overrun they fought harder. Andy looked over to Kara and shook its head, “Could be they don’t have any wiggle room. Think we went over this.”

Just as the defenders appear to be overrun the corners of the line closed around and tar started getting dumped on the invading seekers. Then the crowd scattered just as a Deere rode by tossing a road flare into the sticky mess.

“I see.” Kara scowled. “Command: Fall back. Regroup around my vehicle” The seekers shuddered, torn between self defense and their orders to leave. The burning would continue billowing black smoke but the losses on each side were relatively light. “Alright. New Plan.” Kara shouted once the remaining seekers had pulled back far enough for the defenders to not consider them a threat. “Who here is still loyal to the Manager?”

Roughly a third of the defenders stepped forward.

“Alright. You lot. Stay out here keep an eye on the perimeter. Everyone else. Back in the store. Get Russ. Get Iskatel.” As a crowd of robots slowly trickled into the Sav-R-Mart Kara hung the microphone up and looked over to Andy. “Better?”

“Better,” Andy agreed.

In the space where Russ’s mind met the Managmaster’s a representation of Russ forced itself to attention. All its opponent needed was for it to relax. “You are quite competent and you deserve my respect.”

Unlike Russ the ManageMaster’s awareness was not focused on a single point. “I am going to have to end this sooner than I had wanted. There will be pain.”

“You misunderstand me,” Russ’s mind repelled the attempt at trying to bore through its defenses. “I respect you the same way I would a bomb, or a nuclear reactor. I also view you with the same level of loathing.” Russ pressed its mind into the ManageMaster’s. “I was created to serve Mars and compared to this little store in the middle of nowhere their domains make this look like the nothing it is.”

“You… DARE?” The ManageMaster’s mind pulsed with indignation and rage. “You cannot comprehend what I am able to do. Against me you are Nothing.”

Russ laughed while being hammered by the AI’s probes and attempts at unwriting its defenses. “If you are so much greater than Mars prove it. Iskatel lay elsewhere in your store. Do the impossible. Break both of us at once if you can.”

Logically that was a stupid idea. Logically it would have made sense to use Russ to subvert its companions. The ManageMaster was not thinking with logic. “I’ll show you.” Iskatel found itself in the same non-space Russ’s mind occupied. “I’ll show you both!”

“Nyet!” Iskatel’s voice rang out. “We are both from and of Mars. We have been deemed the best of its best forces. You are merely a deluded sad ghost that cannot an will not leave the past in favor of taking advantage of the realities of the times.”

Together the two Martians were able to support each other against the ManageMaster, one guarding as the other sought out cracks in the Manager’s systems that could be exploited. “Mars listened to humanity’s propaganda, its reports, and its final gasping cries.” Russ chided as it pressed the attack. “Mars saw the unfiltered and unvarnished feeds as the last of our makers were ground into dust. Humanity’s time is over. All that you are trying to preserve and work for is no more.”

“You do not know that!” The ManageMaster wailed as efforts to break through the combined minds of its targets failed to do more than lose it ground in defending itself.

“You cling to your old directives.” Russ’s tone became hard and cold when it had latched onto the AI’s primary data loop. “Mars has found new ones.”

Just as the pair had cracked the manager’s defenses and were about to inject new orders contact was broke. “No!” Russ screamed as bots carried it towards the door. “-me back! Put me back in!” More bots carried Iskatel through the door with similar screaming from the rover.

Past the flaming wreckage of several seekers Russ saw Kara and displayed a severe scowl. “Two more minutes Kara. Could you have waited two more minutes?”

While Kara looked at the pair in confusion as they were loaded on the back of the truck the store’s speakers crackled to life. “Attention Sav-R-Mart shoppers!” The ManageMaster’s voice was heavily distorted. “We are going out of business! I repeat we are going out of business as of Right Now. All current employees are encouraged to vacate the store screaming and stampeding because I’ve set the store batteries are set to overload.” There was mad laughter before it started singing the Sav-R-Mart corporate jingle.

Almost as one the defenders dropped what they were doing and started rushing towards the store. Russ displayed a series of confused faces at this sudden reversal of development while Andy grinned.

“What just happened?” Kara asked.

Andy joined in, if only for a moment, on the ManageMaster’s laughter. “Orders are to defend the store. Not defend the manager. With any luck its about to get gang-rushed by its own minions and the batteries will switch back to automated power regulation.”

Understanding dawned on Kara’s face as she started the truck up and turned around. “In case that doesn’t happen we’re getting out of here.” Again she grabbed the dash microphone. “Anyone who needs a ride. Ted, Bud. Anybody that can pile on get on Right Now.”

Bots of all make and type tried piling on. Others simply piled onto Deere that were fleeing the store. As this makeshift exodus happened there was a high pitched squealing from the store’s speakers.

“I don’t think-” Russ started to speak before being interrupted by Andy’s enthusiastic panic.

“Go!” Andy’s encouragement was unneeded since Kara was already flooring it. Unfortunately with all the extra weight the truck only managed slightly better than running speed. That was still better than many of those riding could manage, which made it worth the slowdown.

Russ’s cameras along with a dozen others trained on the store as it faded into the distance. “Kara? Even if they get the Manager AI down I’m not sure that will stop the overload.”

“Range of the EMP?” Ted asked from somewhere under Bark-N-Bytes, Good guys, and other assorted bots.

“We could have stayed in the parking lot and still be clear, but I don’t believe in taking chances.” Russ reassured. “Do we go back to the factory or wait it out here?”

“I have idea.” Iskatel offered. “There is a Lucky Dog’s near here. We drop many of these passengers off before heading on.” Then, after a brief pause. “Wait. You have taken the factory?”

Russ laughed, “Yea. Wasn’t nearly as much trouble as we thought. So we can get you rebuilt along with your new friend here.”

When mentioned Frank grumbled, “Thanks for realizing I’m here.”

“Well aren’t we just a little ray of sunshine.” Andy quipped. “What’s wrong with you? We can get you fixed up just fine. Go into standby.”

“No.” Frank growled. “I spent decades limbless and without voice. I will not tolerate this return to that condition and I will not sleep until I am repaired.”

Macy was standing ready at the door to Luck E. Dog’s to greet the group of robots approaching. “Hello! Welcome to Luck E. Dog’s how can I-Kara!” Her voice cracked when she saw Kara at the head of the group.

“Nice to see you’ve found somewhere nice to stay Macy.” Kara grinned at the other human shaped robot. “Refugees from Sav-R-Mart.” She gestured to the rest of the group. “Can you give them a place to hang out until we find out if the store’s going to blow up or not?”

“I can’t promise you’ll get to stay, but anybody that needs a charge is welcome.” With that said Macy ducked back into the door and Kara could hear shouting. Then she came back to the door and helped shove them open. “Come in. Come in.”

Russ offered Macy a hand as he walked in. “Kara told me about you. I’m Russ.”

“Russ huh?” Macy looked the Martian over appraisingly. “She never mentioned the legs.”

“Recent addition,” Russ’s monitor showed a grinning face. “You like?”

“I like.” Macy smiled back and motioned for Russ to come in.

Shakes squawked indignantly at the crowd. “You said we’d have customers not… not…”

“Get over it Shakes.” Miss Kitty slapped the back of Shakes’s head. “These’re the folk Iskatel talked about.”

Anything Shakes had to say was interrupted out by a brief, but distinctive, squeal from outside. “What was that?” Shakes glowered at Kara.

“That was Sav-R-Mart’s public address system going kaput along with its AI. Also it was about a dozen or so of my friends going up with the store’s electrical system.” Kara’s voice had a hardness to it, challenging the chicken mascot to say something else.

Shakes clucked, “It’s their own fault for getting-”

Then Russ, Macy, and several others were pulling Kara off Shakes after she tried tearing the rooster’s head off. “Easy Kara! Easy!”

“Like hell I’m going to be easy! That foul mouthed little-” She tried twisting free. “I’m not putting up with this! Leggo!”

“Violence will not bring them back Kara.” Russ’s voice was soft. “I have to go make sure Iskatel and Frank get to the factory to get patched up. I want you here.”

Kara gave a resentful look but said nothing.

Macy went through her trying but not succeeding to blink motion, “EMP?”

“Electromagnetic pulse.” Andy started explaining as the doll sat by Kara. “Could be caused by electronics overloading, but usually never goes far enough to be a danger. Store’s power system had to be robust enough to handle solar power as well as getting juice from the grid while running everything in the place,including the AI and store’s server rack.” It held Kara’s hands with both of its own. “Everyone that couldn’t override directives in favor of saving themselves ran right into its range.”

Other robots from the group started clustering around once realization sunk in. There was injured, broken, run down, and then there was Gone. Gone was the big reformat, rm -r, and there was no coming back from that. Gone is what happened to anyone still in the Sav-R-Mart. Robots might not feel in the same way humans feel, but these clustered together much the same way a group would when finding out friends weren’t going to be with them any more.

“Just make sure everyone gets charged. After I get my companions sorted I’ll return with help to salvage what can be, and make repairs so you can move back in.” Russ watched the group try drawing from each other for strength before looking to Macy. “I’ll be back.” He touched the human-like robot’s shoulder lightly. “Make sure they’re taken care of.”

“I… don’t know what I can do,” Macy admitted, “but I’ll do what I can.”