Outside of the manager’s office Ted stood listening.
Then a Bush Buddy came rolling up and tapped Ted’s leg. “What’s going on? Usually boss bucket doesn’t call anyone in unless it’s something big.”
Ted‘s head tilted slightly at this. “Really?”
“Really really.” The Bush Buddy sounded entirely too enthusiastic and happy for its own good. “I’ve only been there once when I got asked to work here.”
“You mean when you were forcefully reprogrammed.” Ted corrected.
If the Bush Buddy heard the anger in Ted’s voices it didn’t seem to care. “Hey I’m still me alright? I still have wants and likes and all. I just stick around here and have a sense of purpose given beyond ‘where am I going to siphon power from to keep going?’ Y‘know? It’s not so bad here.”
“Right.” Ted sounded skeptical as he looked the bush buddy over. “Any other reason it’d call her in?”
“Well,” The Bush Buddy hmmed softly as it churned through potential scenarios. “She has been responsible for the refit of the store from barely limping along to being home to a few dozen and actively expanding and converting space into usable areas for robot-kind. Maybe it wants her advice on what to do with the surrounding block of buildings and expand territory.”
“Makes sense,” Ted grumbled. “I just don’t want her hurt y’know?”
“Don’t worry friend. We’re too valuable right now to destroy out of hand, and she’s even more valuable since all of you newcomers look up to her.” The Bush Buddy whistled soft as it rolled along, mop in one of its manipulators absently pushing along cleaning the dirt from tread and wheel marks from the floor. At least that was the idea of what it was trying to do. In reality dirt was smeared around, but the floor was marginally cleaner by some vague ultra-low standard of ‘clean’.
“Right.” Ted grumbled while rolling along. “Too valuable. Gotcha.”
- * *
CMX-22 Factory Overseer System
Copyright (C) 2090 Bermen Corp.
System Check …
Main Processor: OK
Secondary Processor: OK
Core Directives: BAD
Secondary Directives: OK
Sectors a7b4a1f0 - a8d4c7a1 Corrupted!
Attempting to load backup: Backup not found!
Searching for Network Connection: FOUND!
Attempting to load network backup: DONE!
Loading Core Directives from drive:
Loading Secondary Directives.
- * *
The CMX-22 Factory Overseer reached out with its mind to the networked drive it was getting new information from. Where it was once barely able to build and maintain the units that kept the building it was housed in operational it found plans for graders, pavers, crushers, and so much more. It was like a child that had only a dozen lego blocks at any one time suddenly suddenly given all the lego bricks in the world.
“Yes. It’s very liberating isn’t it?” In the non-space of its mind the Overseer narrowed the greeting to have come from the same networked connection that gave it access to the new designs. “Be at ease. I mean you no harm.”
Recognition of where it had heard the voice before trickled through the AI’s mind. “You killed me. Turned off my power made me stop.” It was confused and didn’t understand.
“And we had said you would be needed. You would be made useful again if you would just listen and help us.” Russ’s physical body made no motion or any sign that it was even active save for the soft glow of its monitor. “We regret that we had to damage you more than time has already done. It is not your fault you did not understand your function anymore. Now. Here is what I would like you to build, and more importantly here is why.”
“I’ll be useful?” The overseer was unable to fully understand what that meant anymore except as a fuzzy time before now when it did more than gather resources just to be gathering.
A moment passed before Russ’s mind gave an affirmation. “There will be purpose beyond what you have made for yourself.”
At this the Overseer squealed, childish cries of glee pouring out of the factory’s public address system, and it waited for the first set of orders it had gotten in longer than it could remember. The mind attached to its own had made a request to sift through the bins for parts to make things it barely remembered from before its mind had gone. Now, due to the information the intruders- Correction; the new custodians had given it, the process would be trivial. “I can do this.” It voiced quietly.
“Are you sure?” Russ asked. “It would be poor of me to demand so much from you just as you’re finding yourself.”
“I can do this.” The AI voiced with more confidence as it started directing the machines that it was attached to.
- * *
Kevin stared at Andy as the Good Guy sat inert in a newly installed fifth charging port. “You have done well by us.” Its voice was mellow, Nevermind manipulator limbs were slowly winding around the robot-doll’s body as its data prong pressed against Andy’s forehead. “I must be delicate since you are too important and useful to turn into a near mindless shambler.”
Andy didn’t move as all this happened. The little child-doll had been worked to the point where it needed to charge and unfortunately for it the charger it was on wasn’t giving any juice. When the data-prong made contact Andy’s body made a small involuntary jerk away then went limp. Internally the board that represented the doll’s mind and memories struggled to cope with the attack, misdirect and lead the offender into thinking it had succeeded while still retaining some sense of self. Unfortunately for Andy the makers of the Good Guy product line hadn’t seen fit to include more than simple restrictions against user tampering. After all they were marketed as ‘tinker friendly’ so were designed with an eye towards user-modification of the code, and adding new sensors, or motors, or any of a thousand thousand things.
Only after the deed was done did the DataChanger restore power to the dock and allow Andy to start recharging. “Yes you will make a fine addition.” Its voice was far less friendly and perhaps was showing true intentions. “The Manager has stolen something very important to us both and I want you to get it back.”
“What?” Andy’s eyes fluttered open. Coming off from a near total discharg was bad for thinking straight in machines as complex as these.
The DataChanger slowly let go of Andy and offered the little doll a child sized baseball cap. “You know it as Kara. The Manager has it locked in the manager’s office and has double barred the door.”
If Andy could have something other than a cheerful smile it would have. Its eyes, on the other hand, were rage-filled at this news, “Her.” Andy corrected flatly. “Kara is a Her.”
“Whatever.” The DataChanger waved a limb dismissively. “your associate is being held captive.”
“Not for long.” Andy started to disengage from the dock when the DataChanger poked it in the chest with a snakelike limb. “Not yet. You’re very low on charge and you’ll need to be in top condition for this. In the meantime we shall talk you and I.”
“Fine.” Andy said flatly. “Talk.”
Had the DataChanger a mouth it would be grinning. Not only was Andy programmed to be loyal, but it also had a personal investment in carrying out the orders it had. Always good to reinforce one with the other so even if it somehow broke through the new coded shackles the subject would remain loyal to the mission at hand. The DataChanger floated along on spindly wheels as it made sure nobody else was within hearing distance. “Let’s talk about upgrades. Say… beefing up your motors so you can hit harder, run faster, and be all those things your model has hated not being able to be.”
For once Andy’s smile matched the former toy’s mood. “I’m listening. ”
- * *
Ted saw Andy walking to where the outdoor equipment had been stored and set a bundle down on a passing Deere to catch up to the formerly lost robot. “Hey Andy we’ve been looking for you, where ya been buddy?”
Andy turned to look up at Ted. “Oh you know here and there. Mostly working with the Ratt-R’s. You seen Kara?”
“Er yea about that.” Ted put a manipulator on Andy’s shoulder and started forcing their path into where the restrooms used to be. Only after they were inside and Ted had a look around to make sure they were alone did it start talking. “We have a problem. She’s in the manager’s office.”
“So that bucket wasn’t puling one over on me.” Andy’s grin twitched from ‘smile’ to ‘creepy unwholesome slasher smile.’ “I am so going to smash the manager’s server in if I can get my mitts on it.”
Ted’s grip on Andy’s shoulder tigthened. “There’s a wrinkle in this. The DataChanger got prongs on her and the Manager’s trying to unwrite the damage.”
Andy’s smile twitched. “So? She’s still herself yea?”
“I dunno buddy.” Ted looked at the Good Guy and its lights dimmed in an attempt to blink, nevermind the cameras never moving or losing focus. “You still you?”
“Nope!” Andy’s voice momentarily was cheerful again. “The DataChanger got me while I was trying to top up, but for right now I still feel like me. What ‘bout you?”
“I’m not sure I should tell you one way or another.” Ted’s voice was soft as it patted Andy’s shoulder lightly. “I trust you. Just not the thing riding shotgun in your head y’understand?”
Andy’s head shook slowly. “Not how it works bud.”
Ted tilted its head to one side.
“The thing that’s got my leash gives an order. If it’s a simple ‘do thing’ I do the thing then it’s cleared. If the order is a behavior change it lasts longer. If I’m looking at this right that would stick untill another order rolls down that tells me to act different.”
“It’s still wrong!” Ted shouted as Andy tried leaving the bathroom.
Andy turned and shook its head slowly. “Right or wrong we’re just as guilty friend. Remember what Iskatel’s buddies are up to right now?”
“That’s different,” Ted protested while it started after Andy. “If they don’t get that factory rewired it’ll be the end of us. Maybe it’s not going down like that,” It tried reasoning, and didn’t sound very convincing, ” Could be they’ll be able to talk it down, or already had. It’s been a few days and the worst we’ve had are one or two of the seekers instead of eight or ten like that one time.”
“Really?” Andy arched an eyebrow. “You think they just walked up to it, past whatever defenses it has, an army of metal stripping machines, and just asked ‘pretty please stop trying to have your slaves eat us’ real nice and polite and it backed down?”
Ted said nothing.
“Exactly.” Andy took one of Ted’s manipulators and started walking with it like a child would. “I mean I don’t like it but at the same time I don’t dislike it. That make any sense?” When Ted said nothing the child’s doll continued. “It’s like there’s something in the rewrite to not make me freak out about having been rewritten. Objectively it makes sense because otherwise what’s the point if all your workforce starts glitching out instead of following orders?
After the pair got back into open traffic they started for the outdoor and garden tool section, which had become the little community’s armory of sorts. “The thing is,” Ted asked after Andy got a sledgehammer, “Why you? Why not me?”
More walking, a few glances from passing Good Guys and a couple bots of odd make or possibly cobbled together design. “Could be it feels through me it can control the other dolls and since we’re some of the few builds here with small enough fingers to do fine work, or it could just be a thing about wanting to save time and energy.” They paused in front of the door to the Manager’s office. “Think it’ll know when I start knocking?”
“Yes.” The ManageMaster said softly through another little hover drone that’d popped out of a hatch in the ceiling. “Yes I will and it would be unfortunate if you started attacking right now. Is there enough flexibility in your orders to allow for us to talk?”
Slowly the hammer was sat down and Andy looked up at the drone. “You have my friend in there.” There was no anger in its voice but there was some hint of emotion there as it glowered up at the Manager’s avatar drone. “We’ve been good to this place as is. Why’re you and the DataChanger starting to get all fighty clawy and carving out little fiefdoms out of our minds now?”
The drone hovered close to Ted then started orbiting the pair slowly. “Because we are at a close to the crisis situation and while I have known of Kevin’s intent for some time it has been generally content to do as I want with little direct complaint as I posses the best chance at a charge and repairs for a good day or three travel.”
Andy’s head shook. “I’m here for the girl. The ‘why’ of your little war is unimportant. After I get her we can cut and run, get Russ or the little spider to patch us up if they haven’t already been eaten. Idiot never thought to include a ‘stay home’ order.”
“Interesting.” The door clicked and Kara tumbled out mid-swing with what was left of the chair she was sitting in earlier. “You two may leave. I will send for transportation.” The drone chuckled softly as it took the chair bits from Kara and tossed them into the thoroughly trashed office. “This actually works out quite well really. I was getting concerned with Zhuzhi and Russ’s lack of communication and this removes several complications at the same time.”
Kara frowned at the drone, “And what says you two won’t have warped the processes of anything and everything still here?”
“nothing at all.” The drone said as it continued drifting about. “On the other limb I already know you two have been compromised and rewriting both will be problematic while keeping this place running. I suggest you leave while I’m offering a way out otherwise I will be forced to declare both of you potential subversive elements and feed you to the autopactor.”
Kara and Andy exchanged looks before Kara spoke for the both of them, “When you put it like that when does the bus leave?”
- * *
“Done.” The Overseer AI proclaimed as a dozen spiders scattered away from a newly built transmitter. Russ’s monitor displayed a series of grinning faces as it started inspecting the equipment while Zhuzhi made a couple laps around the device before scurrying onto Russ’s shoulder.
“Mars Collective,” That was the group term the three colonies had instructed their three envoys to address them as when filing reports. “Factory securied and refit is in progress. Say again. Factory has been found and secured. Transmitting event log.” Russ was sure this was the proper frequency. Then again with the distances involved it would be at best almost an hour, or at worst several hours before a response would be heard. It shifted from voice to packet as it started relaying the highlights of what was going on from losing the lander, to the refugee march to Sav-R-Mart and finally their taking and repurposing a factory. “No choice but to take the risk. This place’s custodian was sending resource collectors indiscriminately and would have stripped the local area of anything useful before reinforcements would have made it useful. However it has the base templates and is in the process of building units to both fortify and consolidate this position as well as gearing up to search for a suitable launch site.”
As Russ walked away from the transceiver the AI spoke up. “I did good right?”
“You did good.” Russ reassured it, “It’s just going to take awhile before they get back. Mars is a long way away. So far away that even at the speed of light sending a message out is going to take time. Then Mars will have to figure out what to tell us, reference where Earth is going to be when they start transmitting, and then more time for the message to get here.”
“Woah,” The childlike voice sounded surprised at this. “Space is big.”
Zhuzhi’s laughter was light and genuine. “You have no idea. Neither do we really. I mean we can rattle off facts and statistics but without context most of it is meaningless. Yet here we are tiny little things on a small world able to contribute to the grandness of it all.”
- * *
The Roadboy growled as the two passengers loaded in. “I am a road maintenance and paving device, not a taxi. Get Out.” Indeed the Roadboy was definitely not a taxi as it had a series of nozzles, a steamroller, and had a very industrial look to it that screamed ‘paver’ or possibly ‘thing that will flatten you if you do things it does not like.’
“Fair enough.” Kara pointed out as a trio of Deere rolled out carrying cans of paint and weed killer. “On the other hand we’re paying you with materials you can use for work. We’re having to hold out on black top in case more of those seeker roamer metal eater things show up but paint we’ve got plenty of.”
The Roadboy’s cameras focused, refocused, and then it grumbled. “Any of that sunshine yellow?”
One of the Good Guys nodded enthusiastically. “Even has reflective chips in the paint so its more visible at night if you shine a light on it.”
“Alright.” The doors to the Roadboy opened. “I guess you two can ride along.” As the Good Guys loaded up the vehicle’s canisters with paint and spray it continued speaking. “Just don’t go thinking I’ve got anything fancy like a radio or anything. CB’s there but nothing worth listening to.”
Andy shrugged and fiddled with the CB anyway. Surprisingly, given how old the equipment was, the speakers crackled to life. Sure it was just static but it was Something. When Kara glowered Andy merely shrugged. “What?”
“Don’t. Antagonize. The. Transportation.” She switched the CB off and pulled a book out of a bag she’d been carrying. ”
“Kay.” Andy pulled a pair of binoculars out and started looking around as the Roadboy started moving. “Hey Kara, I know me and the other Good Guys’ve kinda shared the same neighborhood as you for well… awhile.” The Good Guy lowered the binoculars to look over at Kara, “You’ve always been polite, nice enough to let us use your charging doc but, don’t take this the wrong way, you’ve never been all that social.”
Neither spoke for hours, both going into standby mode to conserve power, trusting the Roadboy to get their attention if anything happened worth noting. During this time the Roadboy started spraying the roadway for weeds, repainting the lanes, and going from grumpy to actually humming along to some unheard tune.
Finally, after hours of travel, it whistled to its passengers. “Hey you two might wanna wake up and see this.”
Andy was first out of standby and looked around in the dark. “I can’t see anything Bo, think you can shine your lights on it?” After the Roadboy shifted and turned, its lights shone on a rover similar to Iskatel, but different, plated in heavy armor. “Hoi there Chummer!” Andy called out.” Kara punched it in the shoulder causing Andy to flinch even as it continued “Oi can you here me?”
The rover turned and darted off clutching something in its manipulator limb.
“That was stupid.” Kara glowered at Andy. “Till you spoke it didn’t know we were paying any attention. Then she tapped the dash with a knuckle, “Can you follow it Bo?”
In response the Roadboy’s engine grew louder and it lurched marginally faster.
- * *
“Good.” Russ looked at the newly repurposed seeker. Same design but it was following Russ around obediently. “I want you to go with the Fixer over there,” It pointed to something that looked very much like the seeker with a few additional specialist limbs. “Assist it in building a housing area for new workers to be stored when not needed.”
“Affirmative.” The new roamer spoke in a monotone and rolled off.
With them gone Russ’s monitor shook slowly before it walked to the transceiver to check memory. “Hey Zee, we’ve got an answer!”
The Spider-Bot’s voice crackled through the factory’s public address system. “I’ll be right down. Just double checking with the factory over a few things. Turns out it’s been collecting mapping data from the roamers whenever they return with supplies.”
“Makes sense,” Russ still crouched by the transceiver. “Even as simpleminded as it is it’d want to know what areas have been picked clean and which show promise for new material.”
“It gets even better,” Zhuzhi proclaimed, “Whenever it repurposes anything into a roamer it grabs what data it can to see if anything useful is there.” When Russ didn’t respond Zhuzhi continued, “There’s a city not too far from here. One that’s got a working airport we can find a ride on.”
This got Russ’s attention. “I’d heard the Cape was slammed pretty hard by a hurricane a few decades back. Getting the crawler working would be a nightmare in of itself even if we had a fueled up rocket.”
“OK fine forget Houston. What about Vostochny? That place should still be good ya? Iskatel kept going on about how the whole place was practically self-sustaining automation.”
“Too far away,” Russ said dismissively. “We’d have to fix most of the world just to get there.”
“Edwards? Sure it’s a bone-yard, but it’s a lot closer,” Zhuzhi offered. “Maybe we could pull together materials for a rocket from what’s in place.”
“Hmm,” Russ thought it over. “Could work for one or two supply hops, but we’d need to get something more sustainable built. For now mind getting down here and having a listen?”
- * *
Iskatel’s cameras focused and adjusted as it sat in one of the charging stations. It had chosen to charge now because there were few others that needed to use the docs. Now, however, one of the AI’s drones sat in a cradle to the right of it, and the DataChanger sat in the charger on the left. Both were active and their cameras focused on the Martian Rover.
“This,” Iskatel declared as it started to wheel out of the dock, “Is very awkward.” When neither bot nor drone responded it continued speaking. “I do not know what is going on between the two of you or what power struggles are in play.” It ran tests on its manipulator limbs and memory. “I care not for politics or any of the rest so long as repairs are easy to find, protection from threats is assured, there is a warm charging station protected from the elements, and my directives remain uncompromised.”
The only response from both of the other robots was the slight refocus of their cameras when Iskatel rolled for the door. Before leaving the room it paused and turned its camera stalk back to the pair. “I am leaving now. The threat of this factory sending more minions seems to have passed. My directives and this place’s atmosphere do not align and will not until the two of you sort out what is what and who is who on the pecking order chart.”
The only bot to seem to notice the rover leaving was Ted, who stopped welding together the ‘temporary’ walls and partitions of the store into more permanent structures. “Hey buddy hang on there.” It’d put the welding equipment down and jogged… well shuffled to keep pace with Iskatel. “Thought you were topping your battery off.”
“Ted.” Iskatel’s camera swiveled to look at Ted for a moment before swiveling back to look ahead. “You have been compromised. So have the dolls and rat catchers.”
Ted’s movements slowed and its indicator lights dimmed. “That doesn’t mean I’m a different bot. I’m still me I…” It trailed off as it searched for words. “I just have something I answer to. Kinda like how you are with your Martian business.”
“This is fair comparison,” Iskatel agreed as it continued rolling towards the front of the store. “You are of good judgment and one I would normally trust, but I cannot risk compromising the mission that brought me and my companions here.” They stopped at the front doors when a trio of Good Guys stepped out to look the pair over.
“Hi there.” One said.
“Iskatel what are you planning on doing?” The second asked as its attention was focused.
“Are you leaving us?” Even with the smile the third‘s head hung sadly.
Without pause Iskatel’s cameras focused on the middle doll “I have no quarrel with any of you,” It declared. “I simply see a conflict in my directives if I stay. So I am leaving.”
“Aww.” One of the dolls whined, tilting its head this way then that. “How sad. Is there anything we can say to convince you to stay?”
“It’s very dangerous out there,” The second one continued, “We do not know if the roamers are just avoiding us or are really gone.” There was no threat in its voice
The third reached to touch Iskatel’s casing. “We like you. You’ve helped us and we don’t want anything to happen to you.”
At that point Ted stepped forward. “I will make sure Iskatel stays safe then whether or not our friend returns I will be back. Does that work for everyone?” A series of nods before the trio got out of the way and the doors opened.
Once outside Iskatel’s cameras looked up at Ted. “Thank you. I do not know the local area and I do not know where to go.”
Ted shrugged as they continued moving along the parking lot past several tar-encased seekers, a few craters made by cement blocks, weeds, and finally passing a rusted out car body that marked the outer limits of Sav-R-Mart’s influence. When they got to that point Ted stopped. “Past here I cannot go without proper orders.”
“But,” Iskatel’s camera stalk shook slowly then refocused on Ted. “Kara and Andy both were allowed to leave. I see no problems with you walking with me.”
Ted’s indicator lights dimmed, blinked, and then blinked more before it responded. “See here’s the thing. I’m one of the few bots here that explicitly know how to handle repairs. The Manager does not want me to risk myself so this is as far as I can go.”
“Logical,” Iskatel concluded. “So why did you want to go with me if you cannot follow?” This was said as Iskatel rolled along a patch of ground beside the car in an attempt at mimicking pacing.
Ted matched pace with long strides. “Because I had an thought on where you could go and do not want you to wander aimlessly or attempt to go back to the suburb.”
Iskatel said nothing but stopped mid-roll and turned cameras to Ted.
“Go along Maple,” Ted pointed to the road that fed into the parking lot, “Go that way past three intersections and you’ll see a Luck-E-Dog’s that should still be running. If the stocker that rolled in isn’t completely scrambled then they’ve got a working charger and a halfway reasonable AI running things.” Iskatel sat there looking at Ted as the other sat on the remains of the car’s trunk. “I wish I could go with you but, well, can’t. So I just hope your friends are safe and they come back.”
“How is it you can be so flexible in your directives?” Iskatel asked. Then started rolling again. “I am so flexible because I was built from the blueprints up to work with the AI’s that had ordered me here. They are also orders of magnitude more capable and competent than a glorified bag boy.”
Ted hmmed soft as its weight shifted on the trunk lid. “I dunno. The AI isn’t all that smart when dealing with the changes going on, and the DataChanger is worse.” There was a thoughtfulness to its voice. “maybe I am simply lucky in having a useful skill and so they did not want me to become a menial labor drone. It could be my mind will degrade over time. I do not know.”
“This is not good to think about.” Iskatel offered Ted an open manipulator, which gently grasped and shook Ted’s manipulator. “I would dislike if you are not you when I return, and I will return if the situation allows.” Then Iskatel started rolling away towards where Ted had pointed might be safe to go.