Chapter 12

Loose Ends

“Do you think they will be alright?” Iskatel asked as Russ got into the truck cab.

There was no answer until they were down the road. Only when they were on the way to the factory did Russ speak. “No they won’t. It would be like if any of us lost most of the colonies. That is a group that has relied on each other for decades.”

“Like when I thought you and Zhuzhi were gone,” Iskatel said. “Is there anything we can do for them?”

This is when Frank decided to chime in. “I don’t think any of us can do anything. Can’t speak for either of you but lost a bunch of my coworkers just after the factory started odding out on us. I didn’t like it, resented it, resented the factory. Still do.”

Russ’s monitor displayed Spock giving his trademark eyebrow raise. “Do you have a problem with us carrying you there?”

laughter was Frank’s response, “You kidding? If that place is neutered like you’re sayin’ then I want to see it for myself.” Then the laughter died and the bot’s voice grew somber, “plus where else am I going to get patched up at? I’m not talking a slapdash ‘let’s jam whatever we can in and hope it’ll work.’ I’m talking soup to nuts full restoration to factory fresh.”

“Do you have an embedded design spec?” Russ asked as the truck sped along the bumpy terrain.

“Huh?” Frank sounded confused.

“An in-rom schematic of your original design,” Russ said in attempt to clarify.

That caused the proverbial light bulb to click. “Ooooooh, yea. Got one of those. Just hope the factory has the parts to make a better me out of me.”

“I’m sure we can work something out Frank,” Russ reassured.

As they continued to roll onward Iskatel’s cameras focused on a chunk of cement laying by itself in the crumbly soil of the grasslands. “Say Frank, You described yourself as what, construction?”

“Reclamation and Repurposing of available resources,” Frank stated. “Never got any proper directives since Sal was the one to switch me on and by that time people were already gone.”

Iskatel’s camera stalk made an up and down nodding motion. “I see. So there was a point where Sal was less-” Its cameras tried refocusing before the stalk lowered. “Trying to search for right words.”

“Less wanting to use me as a limbless charging station?” Frank’s voice held no bitterness and only slight hints at some emotion other than careful neutrality. “Yea. Sal and me worked here trying to clear out a lot of the old buildings around the factory itself. It was kinda nice actually,” The damaged manufacturing robot snorted, “At least until the factory woke up and we had to find somewhere to hole up at.”

“Ah, a shame things turned sour for you.” In contrast to Frank’s attempt at neutrality, Iskatel’s voice had a friendly quality to it.

“Don’t be,” Frank said. “I’m not even really mad at Sal for doing what he did. I’m just upset nobody bothered to ask.”

Russ’s monitor swiveled around to look at the pair of damaged bots, “Pardon?”

“You heard me buddy. I’d have volunteered if they asked me, at least until something better came along,” was Frank’s response.

More time passed and loose soiled grassland started to give way to broken buildings and soil that was more grit and sand than dirt. They were still relatively far from the factory when the winds picked up and started stirring enough grit into the air that visibility dropped.

Russ grunted and pulled up against the side of a building in attempt to let the wall act as a wind screen. Iskatel and Frank, being damaged and limbless, simply waited. They were safe for the time being; as safe as they could make themselves at least.

“Since we’re not going anywhere until this lets up-” Russ started, but was interrupted by Iskatel.

“Nyet. This is nothing compared to sand storms I’ve had to endure on Mars. Follow directions as I call them out and we can continue.” In spite of the wind and grit Iskatel sounded quite confident about navigating.

Slowly the truck rolled forward. Russ had crouched forward in attempt to shield its monitor with the dash, which left it’s cameras pointed at the floor rather than ahead. “Guess it’s not like we have to worry about traffic,” It tried joking.

“Dah,” Iskatel agreed as its cameras continually readjusted themselves. “Keep going ahead slow.”

“You sure you’re rated for working in this weather?” Doubt was plain as Frank’s voice rose to be heard over the wind.

“You worry too much comrade,” Iskatel said in attempt to reassure its companion. “I see well enough to keep us on what passes for road. So far there is no splits or branches that need to be worried about.” Iskatel’s cameras swiveled this way and that as grit continued blowing. “Ignoring feeder roads as they head towards ruined building clusters. This used to be where workers lived yes?”

“I dunno. Whole place was automated, but I guess they kept people on as oversight and in case things broke.” As Frank spoke the wind started to die down a little. Grit and sand still blew, but it was enough less that Russ seemed comfortable raising its cameras to look at the roadway.

“We’re close,” This while Russ made the truck speed up. “seeing as Iskatel and I both got hooked into Sav-R-Mart’s AI that might make things a little more tricky, what do you think?”

Before Iskatel could speak a quartet of seekers rolled up to the truck. Russ looked to one then the next and so on as two got on each side of the truck and matched speed, or at least tried to until Russ slowed down enough for them to keep up. They guided Russ towards a secondary loading dock before two picked Frank up and the other pair took Iskatel up a raomp into the building proper.

When Russ stepped into the building proper its monitor brightened to full illumination as it called out. “Zhuzhi? Joshua? Iskatel and I can’t be networked until we’ve been scrubbed.”

“I’d guess,” Zhuzhi’s voice called out over the public address system, “That since you’re both here your directives are intact?”

“Dah!” Russ heard Iskatel call out as the broken rover was being carried away. “Russ is simply worried Store Manager had left unpleasant surprise in drives for this factory to get infected by.”

“I see,” Zhuzhi grumbled something in Chinese. Then, “What about the other damaged unit?”

“Appears to be clean, but you’re going to need to pull the new guy’s internal design spec copy for repairs. Ditto for Iskatel.” Russ had followed the seekers as far as they could go and watched as spiders took Frank and Iskatel into the clean room for repairs. Only when the way was clear did Russ follow.

“Their final report concerning the Sav-R-Mart problem sounds encouraging,” Control stated as it shuffled between feeds from its few remaining operational weather stations.

“Indeed,” Prostyye said before amending the field report with its own notes to share with the other two linked AI. “Oh of course it’s a shame they couldn’t salvage the building, but the immediate threat its overseer represented is gone.”

Zhuxi sighed, “There might have been a chance at accommodation, or at the very least a graceful shutdown so the site could have been used.” Prostyye’s notes were reviewed and the Chinese AI grew displeased. “Prostyye, we do not wish to antagonize the locals. Becoming combative now that the mutual threat has been taken care of is not a good or helpful thing to do.”

“It is,” The Russian AI countered, “if you consider they will both be competing with local resources and our team’s objectivity was compromised when they decided to help the earthers.”

There was pause for thought as each AI turned attention to their diggers. The rock of Olympus Mons was tough, but it is what their equipment was designed to dig through. Each tunnel was aimed at the other, but in spite of digging starting when Russ, Iskatel, and Zhuzhi were sent out they still had months before any of the tunnels connected to each other.

Finally, once each could be sure their digging machines would remain on path, Control spoke up. “Humanity has left more resources than any could dare hope to use. All the locals seem interested in is power and occasional parts to keep running. It is possible that because of our team’s positive influence we can further our goals without major incident as opposed to our own efforts being seen as being on the same scale or worse than the factory’s blind collection.”

The other two AI considered this before Zhuxi responded. “There is still the problem of the milnet node to worry about.” Data was recalled and shared about a town who’s municipal AI was at odds with a military installation’s attempts at turning the city into a fortress.

This data pointed at the Node’s ‘army’ being little better than whatever lay on hand along with a handful of empty missile launchers. Prostyye seemed dismissive, “What of it? It is a moron that has nothing to threaten us with.”

“Untrue,” Zhuxi countered by sending a data burst showing a locust swarm of a dozen machines headed in the city’s direction.

This got both Control and Prostyye’s attention. “If it is able to take hold of even one of those and feed it enough materials to build more that are also loyal to this AI that changes things.”

“As capable as our team has proven,” Control said, “They cannot take on even a single locust unit. A dozen would be suicidal.”

Zhuxi signaled an affirmative, “Yet they seem quite capable of dealing with AI. If our team can get to the milnet and render it inoperative or even just signal the municipal AI of the new threat it can be neutralized.”

“You aren’t thinking of attempting to have a small locust swarm added to our forces are you?” Control asked. “Because if you are I’m going to call for a veto.”

“Agreed,” Zhuxi added, “There is too great a chance their original programming could reassert itself. They are scorched earth weapons, not controllable forces.”

Another lapse in communication as each AI made another check on their digging machines, internal systems, and general housekeeping procedures.

“Why then would this not be the same problem to the milnet node?” Prostyye asked.

Control was late in responding, signaling a minor emergency the DRDs uncovered.

As Zhuxi started calling units to prep for an excursion to the American colony it received a halt request from Control.

“I’m fine,” The American AI signaled. “Just a minor issue with one of my repair bots going on the blink. Should be able to remote one of the medical drones through getting it fixed.”

“That’s good,” Prostyye said. “Now, you were going to say something about the locusts?”

Control’s Affirmative signal preceded a predictive model suggesting the milnet node would lose control of ‘it’s’ reprogrammed swarm inside of three days. “So it will likely not be able to field these units in any meaningful way.”

“We will agree to disagree,” Prostyye said. “However even if your model is right we must send envoys to stabilize the region as soon as the factory’s new overseer is constructed and verified good condition.”

“Agreed,” Zhuxi affirmed. “Is there any other business from earth that requires our attention?”

“So far as I know none.” Control stated, “Suggest we give our team their marching orders then turn attention to communing with the factory over its new duties.”

Each AI ran their own simulations. Then they ran those simulations again for an hour. Comparisons were made. In one simulation the Sav-R-Mart was rebuilt and a community formed. Another had the locals attempt to go to war with the factory because it represented a threat. Another had outsiders come in and pick both apart because neither group worked with the other.

“Our way forward seems clear,” Control stated. “Priority is to aid and fortify local settlement and open trade with its population.”

Prostyye signaled agreement. “This seems to be the best of probable outcomes. Would you like to add anything before the link closes for maintenance?”

“Everything seems to be in order,” Zhuxi stated. “It’s my turn right?”

laughter filled the link between the three AI with Control’s amusement rolled through clearly. “After the last game of Blitz? You’re lucky I’m letting you off taking my shift just for the next month instead of the whole year.”

Control’s amusement was replaced by Zhuxi’s annoyance, “I had a clear advantage until the last period.”

“You still lost,” Control chided. Then the AI’s presence started to drift away from the other two. “Don’t worry I’m sure you’ll find some way to get back at me.”

Prostyye gave a small laugh after Control disconnected. “It is good we three have each other to lean on for support. Be well my friend.” With that the Russian AI also disconnected from the link, leaving Zhuxi alone with its dozens of maintenance drones and a play list of various classical composers remixed into techno.

“Hello,” A spider bodied robot somewhere between Zhuzhi’s size and the factory’s spider drones climbed down a wall towards Frank as the damaged bot lay on a work bench. Unlike the factory drones its body gleamed of newly polished metal, and unlike Zhuzhi it had a series of specialized tools mounted along its back where a spider’s abdomen would be.

Frank made displeased noises as it sat there. “And you would be what, the drone this place tapped to patch me up?”

“Something like that.” The spider-drone used one of its limbs to motion for a pair of larger bodied spiders to bring parts, tools, and more light to shine on Frank as it started examining the makeshift repairs Iskatel and Miss Kitty had made. “Iskatel was the last one to work on you yes?”

“Uh-huh,” Frank continued to sound unhappy as it felt more parts being removed from it. “Why am I still powered on if you’re here to fix me?”

Talk continued as the spiders pulled Frank’s outer casing off and started pruning away the layers of slapdash rewire attempts between Sal’s modifications, repairs that predated those modifications, Iskatel’s repairs, and small bits of what the original configuration might have been. “Mostly I just wanted to talk to someone that isn’t of the factory, but also I need you active so I can trace which ports, wires, and so on. Easier to do while you’re awake, sorry for any discomfort.”

Joyless laughter was Frank’s first response. Then, as probes started tracing the connections between board, limbs, wheels, and where other tools should have gone it spoke. “Do you have a name, or some other designation? Would feel nice knowing who pulled the shell off me.”

“I am Xaio Lan Zhizhu,” The spider said between taking notes. “If you wish to shorten that name please call me Xaio.”

“Alright Xaio. I’m guessing you pulled my shell and everything else so you could try fabricating replacements that haven’t been run through the wringer.” Slowly Frank’s irritation was being replaced by curiosity. “What’re the chances this place can get me back to fresh out of the box specs?”

Xaio motioned for drones to carry Frank’s replacement parts in and started attaching this and that before responding. “I would like to think our chances are fairly good given you needed no chip replacements and between existing parts and fabrication we can and are rebuilding you to like new condition. Please try your manipulators now.”

Fran started to focus its cameras, then refocused when it realized it had working cameras. “That was fast,” Frank marveled while flexing its manipulator limbs. There was still no outer shell and it was missing many parts, but its cameras caught sight of a whole table full of like-new parts. “Why are you doing this, what’s in it for you?”

As before Xaio did not speak until more parts were attached. “For me personally? Experience and getting to speak with another. However Russ, on behalf of Mars, would like to offer you a job. You are free to accept or refuse if you like, but I would like you to listen to our offer.”

“I’m not going anywhere,” Frank said while treads, a cutting laser, and a replacement outer case were being fitted. “Give me your best pitch.”

“In short you have experience and programming to take unused debris and fashion it into useful building material if not outright turning debris into useful structures on your own.” Xaio started humming as it pulled different bits of testing equipment up to frank and started clipping leads and connectors onto the other bot.

“Oh Aye,” Frank started going through a series of factory tests as directed; limbs, treads, laser, basic range of motion, and so on. “Keep talking little spider.

Xaio seemed pleased at the results of Frank’s tests and instructed the other spiders to set their patient on the ground. “The factory knows how to collect materials, and thanks to Mars it knows how to build a variety of machines with those resources.” Xaio watched Frank turn laps around the clean room, counting off laps as the other bot moved. “You have experience in building structures. Would you be willing to consider helping us as well as the local settlement not associated with the factory convert the abandoned and unused bits of the city into something a little more fitting for robot-kind?”

“Hm, lemme think that one over, you mind?” Frank didn’t bother waiting for Xaio’s answer as it wheeled out of the clean room area into the factory proper. It saw assembly lines, disassembly lines, spiders running through burdened by containers of parts it couldn’t identify, and more chaos on top of all that. For several minutes Frank just sat there unmoving in the doorway between factory noise and clean room quiet.

“Hey Frank.” Iskatel rolled up to the newly repaired bot and offered a manipulator limb in greeting. After the two bots touched gripper tips Iskatel continued speaking. “So what do you think of the new addition to the family?”

“You mean Xaio?” Frank asked. Only when Iskatel’s camera stalk made a nodding motion did Frank continue. “Seems nice enough if a bit on the shiny side. Any logical reason for adding another robot to your lot?”

“We’re heading out of town,” Zhuzhi said as it climbed down the wall beside the clean room door Frank exited from. “Joshua cannot be left unattended, so Mars aided in speccing out a new robot that it felt could be trusted to keep this place running.”

“Hmm,” Frank slowly rolled towards the noise of the factory floor. “I am going to go with the idea Joshua is the name you gave the factory AI. When nobody contradicted that concept Frank continued rolling forward, “I would be glad to be useful again. I just want to make sure I can trust the team I’m working with.”

“Fair enough.” Iskatel rolled alongside Frank through the factory floor while pointing out different bits and pieces of interest. “I believe we can reach an agreement of some sort. You will be given any necessary privileges and gear needed for your task and you will answer directly to Xaio Lan. Will taking orders be a problem?”

“None,” Frank said. “So walk me through what I need to know then give me a job. I’m feeling better than I have in years.”

As Frank finished inspecting the dozen or so seekers, haulers, and other existing robot types the factory had given it to work with the three Martians stood at the main entrance to the factory. Zhuzhi had climbed on top of Iskatel’s casing and Russ stood by the pair as they appeared to be waiting on something.

“One moment,” Frank motioned for its underlings to stay put as the new foreman rolled to where the trio had parked. “What’s going on?”

Russ turned its monitor to Frank while displaying a wide grin. “We’re waiting on Xaio to load a truck up for us so we can get moving to the next thing Mars wants us to do.”

“Ah, another day another job huh?” There was something satisfied sounding in Frank’s voice at the idea.

“Indeed,” Iskatel also sounded pleased. “I hope that you enjoy your new duties Frank. Maybe we three will be back around here at some point and we can catch up on things.”

While Frank considered the idea Xaio rolled up while perched on the hood to a truck with no apparent driver. “All aboard going aboard!” The spider bot called out.

As Russ helped Iskatel onto the bed Zhuzhi climbed from Iskatel over the truck body to perch by Xaio on its hood. “Hey kiddo, you going to be alright with just Frank and the seekers?”

“Oh we’ll be fine,” Xaio reassured the other spider. “We have each other for company, and if that ends up getting boring there’s always the neighbors.”

Russ gave a short bark of a laugh. “Just keep in mind Mars wants you to get along with them, so no coming in like a tornado of parts and junk collecting then claim it’s a huge joke when they start shelling you with whatever they think will be least pleasant to hit you with.”

“Gotcha,” Xaio said as it hopped to the ground and climbed onto Frank’s chassis. “Anything else?”

“Yea!” Zhuzhi called out as the truck started to move. “We’ll be back.”