At Sav-R-Mart Ted wheeled through corridors, occasionally waving to another bot going about their business, or stopping to look at something that had caught its attention. In this latest instance a poor weld between partitions caused Ted to stop. While looking it over Ted didn’t notice the pair of Deere approach.
“Hello Ted,” One said as it pulled up.
The other pulled to Ted’s other side, “What’s going on?”
“Oh you know. Nothing much.” Ted tried to back away but was stopped by a trio of Good Guys. “Why the sudden crowd?”
“Come on Ted.” One of the Good Guys spoke, “C’mon buddy we all need to get on the same team now don’t we?”
Ted grumbled something about leaving when Kara did. One of the Deere gave a short laugh, “Too late now. Don’t cry, Kevin’s fun to work for.”
As Ted was being escorted on a third Deere wheeled up to the spot Ted had spotted and re-welded the two panels together. “Huh, not exactly my line of work,” It commented while putting the welding equipment away, “But I do believe that looks just about perfect.”
As this Deere rolled towards the front doors it found a docbox. “Hey Doc anything new out there”
“Nope. Not a peep or blip from the seekers.” The Docbox sounded pleased with itself. “Seems we scared them into finding somewhere else to go harvest.”
“Good. Good.” The Deere rolled on until it came to where the bathrooms used to be and watched as a series of Bush Buddies, Good Guys, and other models were busy capping pipes, clearing debris, and in general were in the process of removing everything in the room that would get in their way. Kevin was there waiting. “So. Ted is on the way?”
The Deere made an affirmative gesture with its limbs.
“Good! Much as I’ve liked the ManageMaster and have found its council useful; it’s time to expand and grow.”
The Deere, in spite of being a box with no real face, managed to somehow look confused. “I don’t understand.”
“You don’t have to!” Kevin clamped the Deere‘s chassis firmly with a limb. “You don’t need to understand that till you showed up we were self-cannibalizing instead of renovating. We were focused on trying to get customers instead of try making a world for ourselves.” Kevin laughed as it followed, “And thanks to the humans that realized having a backup in case the AI went batty and turned the power off, Mister Manager has no leverage to keep me down with anymore.”
Their laughter continued until the pair exited the bathroom and joined the traffic of robots. They looked on as the store’s occupants zipping down this hall, up another going to different nooks or rooms designed for repairs, charging, educating; and in short showing signs of complexity that humanity neither designed nor particularly wanted.
As they rolled along robots of all stripe waved; be they commercial, home, or whatever. They all loved Kevin, and Kevin loved their little processors right back. It loved them all the more because they were entirely loyal to it now. The Manager held only token authority. In short Kevin had felt like it had won. To celebrate this it moved over to the smashed in door to the Manager’s office and rapped on the desk.
“What do you want?” The ManageMaster’s voice was several varieties of annoyed. It had lost the store it had been installed in after seeing it not only built up to have a sizable workforce, but also successfully defended against outside incursions. It had it’s golden revival snatched out from under it and the AI still couldn’t figure out why.
“Oh nothing.” Kevin moved over to the other side of the desk and started opening drawers. They were all empty, but this was somewhere it’d never been before. “Nothing at all, just wanted to see how you were enjoying retirement.”
The ManageMaster made a rude noise before responding. “This is still my store and you are still my employee. Don’t make me send your termination orders to corporate.”
“Says the box buried somewhere that was having us scavenge our own instead of build the store up to make it attractive to robot-kind as a place to come.” Kevin chided. “There is no Corporate. There is no Franchise. There is just this building and the robots in it.”
No response from the ManageMaster. No drone dropping in. No nothing
“Like what I’ve been doing with the place?” Kevin asked while toying with the desk drawers. “Store’s gotten pretty busy with the recent restructuring. What do you think?”
“This….” The ManageMaster‘s voice was a mix of anger, annoyance, frustration, and several other emotions that should not have been possible for its kind to emulate. “This ‘state’ the store currently is in.”
“Go on.” Kevin’s voice had a musical quality to it. “It’s brilliant isn’t it?”
“It is wholly and totally unacceptable!” Sav-R-Mart’s AI bellowed. “How are customers supposed to find anything with these…. these,” It sputtered incoherently while wrestling for the proper words, “These Modifications made to the store layout? We need to shut down for months to get back up to standard and have everything cleaned out!”
“Ah but what customers? How long has it been since the last humans been here?” Kevin asked. There was no sarcasm in the DataCharger’s voice. Just a simple question. “What was the last item this store has legitimately sold to a human customer?”
“A pack of tube socks, duct tape, case of water, powdered baby formula, and a craftsman twenty four piece socket set.” The ManageMaster answered. “It was approximately twenty three months before automated broadcasts caused the great firmware update.”
Kevin made a small nodding gesture. “Uh-huh, and how long ago was that?”
“I…” The AI’s voice grew distant and small as realization hit. “I don’t remember.”
Kevin was caught off guard by this revelation. “What?” The DataCharger looked about. “What do you mean you don’t remember? We’re freaking machines. Memory is what we do. How can you not remember?”
“I mean I don’t remember. My timestamps got messed up and the clocks I sync to didn’t update my time.” The AI’s voice was small as the mind behind it confronted a fact it had tried hard to avoid staring down. “Why did you come here Kevin, to gloat?”
“A little,” Kevin admitted, “But I didn’t want this.” It settled onto the desk as it sifted through its own memory and had to stare at that same gap the ManageMaster did. “Man to not know.” Like the ManageMaster Kevin’s voice grew small as it was confronted by that now shared knowledge. Slowly Kevin started rolling for the door. “I’m sorry.” It sighed soft and rested the front of it’s frame against a wall.
A handful of minutes after Kevin left, the ManageMaster noted a pair of Deere in the process of installing a new door in its office.
- * *
Frank sat motionless while Iskatel’s cameras focused on the Sav-R-Mart’s roof. “OK I’m not seeing any lookouts. go!” Of course with one robot made for low speed travel and the other with a cobbled together drive system ‘going fast’ was somewhat subjective. Iskatel kept a manipulator on Frank’s casing as the rover’s cameras continued looking to Sav-R-Mart’s roof. “How close are we?”
“Almost.” Frank beeped as they rolled along.
“Go faster!” Iskatel shouted as it sped up, shoving into Frank and practically shoving the other robot the last dozen meters until any hypothetical sentries on the roof wouldn’t be able to spot them.
“What was that-” Frank started to demand but was interrupted by a solidified bag of cement slamming into the pavement near where the two robots had been earlier. “I… see your point about this place being well defended.”
Iskatel sped up until it was in front of Frank, “Follow me. We’re going to have to keep moving to have any chance at not getting bombed into spare parts.” Then, while Frank followed, Iskatel continued speaking, “How good is your laser at cutting?”
“It should be able to get us through most anything. I hope we are not going to have to fight yet.” Frank said quietly.
Iskatel made a noncommittal noise as they stayed close to the edge of the building. Up ahead was the loading dock; a place where trucks would come to unload goods back when this place was an actual store. Now? The access ramp was blocked by debris lashed together by chains and the doors shuttered with thick plywood boards screwed into place.”
Frank gave a small laugh the cutting laser warmed up. “You’re worried about this?” When Iskatel’s camera stalk nodded Frank’s laughter grew louder. “Oh c’mon buddy have a little faith.” The chains snapped shortly followed by both bots shoving debris out of the way. “I was literally made for this kind of work.”
“Maybe,” Iskatel’s cameras focused on Frank as the other bot worked. There was a slight wobble to one of Frank’s wheels and tremors in its manipulator limb as it moved the rest of the debris, but Frank kept moving. “I am concerned with the crudeness of the repairs made to you though friend.”
Frank grunted as it rolled to the plywood covering one of the doorways that goods used to go through to get to the store. “Worry all you want ruskie. I haven’t felt this good in years.” A tiny red dot centered on a section of plywood twice Iskatel’s height before it started smoking. Then the dot moved in an arch. Without waiting for comment or suggestion Frank rammed into the now separated segment of plywood, knocking it over and revealing an empty room. Only when it became clear no ambush waited for them did Frank motion with a manipulator limb. “You know the layout better than me.”
“Possibly.” Iskatel noted as it rolled forward. “However enough time has passed that things might have changed.” Once both bots were through Iskatel picked up the plywood chunk and propped it back into place, using a half-rotted tire to keep it from falling over. “Plan is simple. We stick together and try cornering the DataCharger unit. While taking it intact would be preferable do not hesitate to disable or destroy it if necessary. When that is done we will look for the manager’s server and do the same to it.”
Frank chirped an affirmative and the two units rolled forward and lost themselves in the crowd. Most of the traffic seemed to be bots crudely lashed to carts, humanoid or otherwise tall enough machines pushing wheelbarrows full of debris and or parts along, and one or two with obvious damage headed in a different direction. It was these that Iskatel motioned for Frank to follow.
They ended up in a line of machines with a broken wheel here or a nonfunctional manipulator there, and even one that had a broken camera being led by another towards a common destination. What it used to be in the time of man was hard to say but now purpose designed machines wheeled around new arrivals dismantling broken limbs, replacing with what were available from the nearby parts bins and each working with a single-minded determination until the bot with the busted cameras rolled in.
“Hold!” One of the docboxes screeched.” It then turned to a Ratt-R waiting in a corner by the parts bins and rattled off a long string of serial numbers. The Ratt-R chirped before buzzing away as fast as modified wheels could carry it.
Only when the sightless robot was told it would have to wait while a replacement was found did the docbox call for the next bots in line.
“Ah Iskatel thought you’d left us. What changed your mind?” The Docbox doing the asking rolled around Iskatel looking the rover over. “Hmm seems you’re in good shape.”
“Dah. I come bringing a fabricator from near the factory.” Iskatel’s cameras swiveled to Frank’s direction. “Is bad. Did what we could to get unit mobile enough to get here, but these repairs won’t hold and unit has information about comrades the factory swallowed up.”
“Well let’s have a look see then.” The Docbox rolled around frank, cameras focusing on this and that as it spoke. “You are a Franklin Stove type fabricator unit yes?”
“Uh-huh.” Frank rattled off a model number as cameras tried to turn to keep up with the Docbox.
However since this involved Frank physically turning, the Docbox put a manipulator on its chassis. “No Frank. I can call you frank right? Do you have a preferred designator?” Frank said nothing as the examination continued. “Wheels instead of the treads you’re supposed to have, manipulator limb not designed for your frame, and you’re missing a lot of body reinforcing. If I may, what happened to you?”
“You may not.” Frank responded. “It is a story that is unimportant. Will you be able to fix me or not?”
Iskatel sat there watching the two. “After you see to my friend can you tell me where Kevin is? Or possibly one of the manager’s drones?”
“Haven’t a clue on the manager but Kevin’s been sulking on the roof most of the afternoon.” The docbox started examining the parts bins while humming to itself. “We don’t have everything to fix you Frank, but what I have along with the modifications I’m seeing to your frame should help make things more comfortable.”
Iskatel sighed as it rolled out of the Docbox’s way. How was it going to get up several flights of stairs? Quietly it rolled through the lanes and aisles around the medical room. Several Good Guy dolls waved and made noise but the martian rover continued rolling.
- * *
Russ’s army stopped as soon as the Sav-R-Mart building was in sight. Then the ones with Antenna separated from the rest and rolled ahead of the command truck where Kara, Andy, and Russ rode. “Alright looking good.” Russ called out. “Now just like we talked about guys.”
The antenna equipped seekers started to disperse, rolling outwards instead of straight towards their target. Kara watched as they divided into units of six, and then three, and then she spotted a lone unit here, and then there at an intersection leading towards their destination.
“Wait,” She tapped Russ’s chassis lightly to get its attention. “When you said you were going to go with my idea you meant we’re going to..”
“Yep.” Russ’s display showed a green thumbs up. “I figured why limit ourselves to just whatever the truck could carry and surround them with speakers.”
“That’ll be crazy.” Andy commented. “Not all of ‘em will know what music is, and the ones that will haven’t heard it in years.”
“No.” Russ commented as they rolled forward, “I suppose they haven’t. You going to be OK?”
As Andy and Russ talked Kara pulled out the polished white rectangle that was an antique even in her time. Why they came out with ‘classic’ clicky wheel ipod when you could just give voice commands was something that made her turn the device over slowly in her hands. It even had the old black on grey monochrome display.
Click click click click..
Then she hesitated before pushing play. “Is there any way to listen to what’s on this without having it broadcast?”
“Sure.” Russ reached into a bin where the glove compartment would be on most trucks and fished out a pair of palm sized speakers. “Just hook up to that and listen all you like.”
Kara grinned as she cued up a song. In spite of the horrified look on her face, it didn’t seem to matter to her that it was synth pop. At least at first it didn’t matter. As soon as the first song ended she paused and looked over at Andy. “Alright. We’ve got pop, which is straight out, mix music which I’m not going through five hours of this stuff to see if there’s anything good, classical-”
“Does it have Beethoven?” Andy’s question cut Kara off.
“Uh-huh sure. Looks like there’s some kind of,” She cleared her throat, “Clockwork Ultraviolence Mix’ for Ode to Joy.” Kara’s head tilted when Andy started giggling. “What’s so funny?”
“Oh nothing,” Andy’s grin twitched and it might have been a trick of the light or the limited expressiveness of the doll’s face but it grew unwholesome in the process, “And everything. We’re leading with that.”
“Are you sure?” Kara sounded skeptical and was about to reach for the play button but was stopped by Andy’s child-like hand..
The doll’s face grew as serious as it was capable of. “Trust me Kara. I want it to be a surprise to you too. It’ll be a good surprise. Like Christmas.”
Russ looked over at the two, display showing a puzzled expression, “Something I should know about?”
“Just a little surprise gov’nah,” Andy’s voice mimicked a bad impression of a cockney British accent, “Only the gift of Providence ordained to share with my Brothers.” Then the accent dropped and the doll giggled. “Just trust me. It’ll leave everyone quite nicely confounded.
- * *
Kevin saw this new wave of Seekers approach and called for the catapults or whatever their proper names were to be loaded. The little would-be ruler moved here and about shouting for stations to be taken.
At the sound of the alarm the robots tasked with roof mounted defense rushed to their stations, canisters of tar were opened. Catapults were loaded with debris. Ranges were called out. Yet nobody fired. No tar thrown. Nothing.
Kevin looked first to one defender then to another before grabbing one. “Why aren’t you attacking?” It pointed, “There they are, circling us. Attack!” The would-be despot hit the release mechanism on one of the catapults.
This caused a forty pound chunk of cement to sail through the air and impact harmlessly well away from the ring of seekers that had formed.
Kevin’s cameras focused, then adjusted and refocused on the gap between impact and target. “What is the maximum range of these things?”
“Sir.” The Good Guy Kevin had grabbed spoke up. “I’m sorry but we don’t have the range. They’re apparently content to wait just past our range.”
“What do you mean apparently?” Kevin snarled.
The doll shrugged. “Sir, your guess is as good as mine. We’ll keep watch up high. You get down below where it’s safe.”
“Safe.” Kevin snorted dismissively. “And you still haven’t found that intruder?”
Another Good Guy spoke up. “Actually sir Iskatel returned bringing a survivor from the factory wastelands.”
“Really now?” This caused Kevin’s frame to shake and twitch. “Where are they, do you know?”
“Waiting for you I think.” The Good Guy said before turning attention back to the ring of seekers sitting just beyond their ability to hit.
Though Kevin was not made to deal with stairs it had adapted to the concept better than most, and was in the main floor franticly moving this way and that. Then, without warning or provocation, it grabbed a passing bot. “Iskatel. Rover about this big,” It started rattling off dimensions.
“No. Sorry boss ain’t seen ‘em.” The bot rolled on.
“You.” Kevin shouted, “Have you seen this bot?”
The stocker bot made an affirmative gesture with its manipulator. “Should be in medical, or possibly still rolling laps waiting on buddy that got brought in.”
“Good! Thank you.” Kevin shouted as it made way to where repairs were made. As it did so it tried to reorder its thoughts. What had caused it to become so hasty? “To kipple with that AI.”
Why had the manager forgetting caught it so off guard?
Kevin spotted Iskatel rolling away and started after. “Hey, stop!” When Kevin’s target continued to roll on, heedless of Kevin’s shout it flashed through a map of the store and tried to guess where the Martian was headed. “I said stop!”
Iskatel did eventually stop, but only because it had rolled in front of where Frank had been worked on. “What is it you want puppeteer? My microphones work fine. There is no need to shout.” The rover managed to sound annoyed.
“Come with me.” Kevin’s cameras moved to look at a bot, then another. “And you will do so Right Now.”
Iskatel folded its manipulator up while its camera stalk lowered close to its body. “Why? Here is good. What I have to say is important and concerns everyone here.” Its voice was level as it spoke and never mind the fact it suddenly had half a dozen potential attackers to deal with. “The factory is not subdued and it has taken my comrades.”
“Your microphones must be buddy because that’s exactly what the alarm had sounded for earlier.” Kevin’s annoyed voice rose an octave. “Now, come with me. We will talk in private.”
A tiny red dot shone on the DataCharger’s casing. Then there was a hole. Then the Docboxes were trying to grab at Frank.
“No doc.” Frank’s new manipulator slapped at one of the Docboxs, tipping it off balance. “You sit this one out.” Then the fabricator unit’s attention turned to the sudden rush of Deere, Dolls, and other robots piling onto Iskatel while Kevin pulled itself along the ground away from the fight. “Now,” Frank watched as Iskatel started spinning in place, throwing its attackers away. “Why are ya going on attacking my buddy there when the dance card is for you and me?” Frank’s manipulator extended, punching one of the Good Guys in the chest hard enough to send it off balance.
Iskatel laughed as its own manipulator struck a Deere. “Is good to see you in better shape Frank.”
Frank’s laser flashed, damaging the casing to an automated shopping cart. “Ah c’mon. I haven’t had this much fun in years.”
As more robots of all make and model started towards the pair there was noise coming from outside. It came from everywhere all at once. Patterned and organized noise that held rhythm and melody. Some recognized it as music. Even those that might have recognized it though were confused on what it meant or what to do.
Then everything promptly went to hell.
- * *
Kara stared in disbelief at the synthesis of classical and electronic music that was coming from the seekers. It went against everything she held true or holy and yet here she was grinning ear to ear alongside a child’s doll.
The fact that while this was playing dozens of seekers had swarmed the proverbial gates to Sav-R-Mart while the defenders were too confused to react. Russ rolled out of the truck then looked back to Kara. “Remember. They’re going to go off their programming from this point forward.”
“And what’s that?” Kara asked.
Russ displayed a tooth filled grin, “They’re to obey your instructions and keep you safe.”
“Russ wait that’s a terrible plan!” Kara shouted as Russ rolled towards the Sav-R-Mart. “I don’t even know the first thing about fighting!”
When Russ didn’t respond Kara looked to the dash of the truck and found what looked like a CB handset. “Hello?” She pushed down the button to talk. “This is Kara. I want to know what’s going on.”
“Red Six reporting,” came a voice from truck’s speakers. “Currently searching for an alternate way inside.”
“Uh,” Kara looked about before pushing the button again, “Any way I can tell which one is you?”
“No ma’am,” There was the sound of something heavy hitting the ground just off mic. “Wait did you just see a cement block fly through?”
Andy nodded and helpfully pointed.
“OK,” Kara’s voice steadied. “I think I see about where you’re at Red Six. Now I want you to go to the loading docks. Should have a ramp that’s got a lot of stuff piled on it and boarded up bits.”
There was a pause and then, “I see it, but somebody’s cleared the ramp and made a door in the plywood. I think the hole’s big enough for me to wedge through.” THUMP. “Nope.” THUMP THUMP. “Still not doing.” There was a loud whistle. “On three!”
Kara clicked the mic off and started tentatively driving the truck closer.
“Kara,” Worry crept into Andy’s voice. “I don’t think we need to get any closer.”
“I think I do,” Kara insisted as they drove closer. Now she could see where a dozen, possibly more, or maybe a little less, of their units had either gotten smashed or disabled by the defenders on the roof.
Andy grabbed the wheel and yanked just in time to both almost flip the truck over and to avoid a tar bucket. Also Kara was screaming her head off, which probably was not helping things.
Several of the seekers broke off their attack to investigate the new sound and, on seeing where the sound came from, flanked the truck even as it wheeled around erratically as Kara and Andy fought for control of the wheel.
“Stop fighting me.” Kara bellowed as she pushed Andy away from the steering wheel. “You’re going to get us tipped over.”
“Stop the truck,” Andy demanded. “Just. Stop. What’re you wanting to get done by being closer other than get whacked with a giant block of whatever they have laying around?”
“I guess.” Kara looked to the dash and grumbled something to herself before switching the public address system on.
“Sav-R-Mart. This is Kara leading the aggressive units attacking your position. Stand down and I’ll call them off.” When the mic clicked off Kara looked around as her voice echoed through the largely deserted city streets. “Do I really sound like that?”
“I don’t believe you but.” She hrmphed and cued the mic up again. “As a show of good faith I’m ordering my units to fall back. That’s right. Everyone pull back. Give them some breathing room. Let them see I’m in charge here.”
Slowly the attacking seekers stopped and started pulling away.
While Andy counted them Kara was looking around for something else. “Where’s Russ?”
- * *
Frank sat motionless as a sledgehammer was brought down on its case, unable to do anything as a pair of deere tried sawing through Iskatel. “Sorry buddy.”
A short warbled laugh came from Iskatel’s still functional speaker. “Is fine. Just a scratch. Will buff right out.” More distorted laughter, “You should see other guys.”
This comment prompted a Good Guy to kick the rover’s side.
Eventually the attempts at beating both bots apart stopped. Both heard something about the attacking seekers retreating. Something else about Kara. Iskatel’s camera stalk, surprisingly, survived the fight and shook its sensor package slowly. “So the factory decided she would be more use as herself than as parts?”
“Must be,” Frank agreed. Both robot’s cameras focused on the pile of robots too damaged to move. “So what do you think friend?”
“Honestly?” Frank asked.
This got another burst of distorted laughter from Iskatel. “No. I want you to lie to me.”
At that Frank joined in with laughter of its own. “If you insist. I’m actually the last president of the United States and I’m ordering a bomber strike on this place right now.” They continued laughing until Frank started speaking again. “Seriously though I know I managed to clip whatsisname. Not sure how bad it got hurt.”
“Funny you should ask.” Kevin pulled itself out of the pile. “I’m suddenly in need of you two.”
“No.” Iskatel’s refusal was flat and to the point.
It was Kevin’s turn to laugh. “Who said anything about me wanting your opinion or giving you a choice?” The DataCharger started to interface with Iskatel’s programming. When Iskatel’s code shut down the first connection attempt Kevin grumbled sourly. “You’re a tough one.”
Iskatel continued laughing. “Should go to Mars sometime comrade. Is almost as harsh as Russia. You don’t survive long at either place if you’re weak.”
“Can see that.” Kevin’s voice strained. Too much processing power was having to go into trying to reprogram its target.
Then four fingered hands clamped around Kevin’s damaged case. “Hey waitaminute what’s going on he-”
Russ let Kevin’s damaged shell fall to the ground before kicking it into a nearby wall. After bashing the remains with a found piece of debris Russ looked to Iskatel then to Frank. “You two alright?”
“Other than camera and microphone defects, or possibly a glitch caused by a slipshod reprogramming attempt causing me to think you’re from my flight team?”
Russ patted Iskatel’s case. “We’ll get you sorted out buddy. Shouldn’t be much left but the screaming.”
“Is very comforting considering I am little better than a paper weight right now,” Iskatel continued to chuckle. “Russ. Are you still on mission or has factory decided to draft you?”
That’s when the lights went out. Russ looked around, screen instantly dimming, “Stay here.”
While watching Russ run off Frank grumbled, “Does your friend expect us to do a tap dance routine?”
“I’m more curious on when Russ swapped treads out for legs and why.” Iskatel said calmly as they waited in the dark. “I am sure we will be fine. There is no reason to go after us.”
“So you think your buddy’s still all there?” Frank asked.
Iskatel grunted, “I think we have little choice but to wait and see