In a forgotten corner of space, on the fringes of the Hawthorn nebula, mechanized creatures called Zarook moved in a rhythm, working to a melody and harmony tuned to the very core of their planet. For several centuries the Zarook had maintained the cultivation of this life force, keeping it exactly the same, exactly the way the Carbies instructed them to.
Xar had been manufactured only a century ago, making him a relatively new Zarook compared to most. He was male in shape, barrel-chested with four limbs. His arms could extend, ending in appendages similar to the ancient Carbies’ hands. His legs ended in triangular pyramids fitted with three retractable wheels so he could roll or step and stand when necessary.
His function was a mop. His protocol required he clean the floors of the huge Willestria Building Number Four. He had one rule: he was not allowed to cross the threshold of any exit that led outside. He remembered the day he was activated just as clearly as yesterday. His drives had never needed to be rebooted. The Carbies who created him had done a magnificent job.
It had been nearly one hundred years since he’d interacted with a Carbie. From the farthest corner of his assigned room he began; spraying, agitating with a rotating mop that looped inside his body cavity for decontamination before being applied again, and blow drying the area. He’d come upon a significant amount of Carbie fluids. He bumped into the dangling appendage of a Carbie lying upon a bed.
“Excuse me. I was just cleaning. Would you like for me to go around?” His politeness protocol for bumping into a Carbie engaged. He had waited for a command of yes or no. The Carbies sometimes said, ‘of course’, ‘sure’, ‘excuse me’, or ‘please continue’ when they meant yes. Or they might say, ‘later’, ‘not now’, ‘go away’, or ‘no, come back later’ when they meant no. This Carbie said nothing.
The appendage did not move. Xar logged a full fifteen minutes where they were at a stalemate. He would ask his prompt question, the Carbie would not respond, and after the recommended thirty seconds of wait, he would ask again.
After fifteen minutes a retinue of removal bots entered and removed the Carbie from the bed. The nailbeds were purple and black, the fingers blue and purple. The head fell back, mouth slack, one side was very swollen and the skin on the face was blue black. Xar’s recognition receptors identified him as Dr. Monroe, the Carbie who had activated him.
Something fell from his hand, making a tiny plastic-on-concrete noise. It was a programming chip and Xar instinctively stored his mop and extended one of his grasping arm appendages to pick it up. It was the right shape and size to fit into one of his programming chip sockets. He inserted it, but his programming did not change. He switched back to his mop.
He had then spent extra time cleaning the room of all stains, fluids, and contaminants. He docked in to charge ten minutes late that night.
Xar had awoken, recharged, and went to work the next day the same way he had awoken, recharged, and went to work every day for the next one hundred years.
Xar was scheduled to clean the large floor of bay B-42. He used to have help. Two other bots, one to his left and one to his right in the charging bay, would also report to B-42. In the last twenty years that number had been reduced to one. He had been given twelve hours to complete the task. Carbies used to brag that this bay was as large as two football fields. Xar’s lexicon did not include the word ‘football’, but it did include fields. Fields were places where data was entered. Since the Carbies entered the data into all of their programs, Xar determined a ‘football’ was a large robot, half the size of this bay.
Xar worked for hours, back and forth. The floor was long and large. It took him thirty minutes to clean one swath as wide as his mop from one end to the other. He cleaned all but a section in the middle at one end. There was a rectangular hole there with something raised out of it.
At three hours and forty-one minutes, Xar was at the edge of that hole when he was jolted by a spark of electricity. The white hot heat snaked across the tiles through a tiny fissure in the floor of the settling room. The power boosted his battery, making his mop spin a quick rotation, and temporarily screen-blinded him. His system did a soft reboot and ran built-in diagnostics. He found a tiny fragged bit of data and a small pocket of capacitors had blown. A red light flashed on his vision screen in the upper right corner. That meant he was to report to Diagnostics. He retracted his mop extension and extended his legs.
He rolled to the Express and took it to the Diagnostics wing. The Express was a transit device suspended from a track in the ceiling which ran all over the building. Spaces for bots to perch on faced outward on either side. Rolling aboard, magnetic forces grasped him immediately.
The car that picked him up held a single passenger. She turned her head. He had never encountered this bot before. His vision screen showed a request to exchange identification data. His programming accepted it with a small fuzzy glitch in his vision screen. This glitch was new. He logged it so Diagnostics could have a look.
Model T-N4 had the curves and elegance of female Carbies, chestnut hair pulled back into a ponytail and dark-rimmed glasses, but the thing that set her apart from her creators was her skin. He could see his own reflection in her chrome cheekbones. Her function was as a librarian, and for a century she waited for Carbies to need a book, some information, or have something to be returned. At her destination, the research automaton exited the car with precision.
The Express careened around a corner and smoothly slowed to a stop in front of Diagnostics Two.
Glass doors slid open smoothly. A waiting exam bot, whose permission to connect with Xar was accepted automatically making his vision screen flicker again, waved a wand over him, then commanded him to dock in an ovular bay.
Cables with tiny vacuum ends suctioned to all parts of his frame. He felt his system swept by many programs at once. A buzz of energy spun through his drives and processors. His vision screen filled with readout data scrolling up as new information was processed faster than he could read. The tests confirmed what his own programs had detected, small damage to a section of programming code and a few busted capacitors.
“Warehouse report: no capacitors your size in stock. Do you want to put in an order?” She asked him with perfectly programmed bedside manner. The attendant, named DS-14, rolled around on three triangular tracks. Her frame was cylindrical and could extend to a height of twelve feet. She had four nimble arm appendages with various ends for various jobs. She was a pristine white, very clean.
“Yes.” Xar was programmed to replace any malfunctioning parts.
“Warehouse will contact us when the parts are in and you will report here for replacement. Would you like to run from backup to try to recover the fragmented data?”
“Yes.” Diagnostics had to ask for permission to run programs and Xar was programmed allow diagnostic programs to run if no Carbies were present to override.
“Restoring data from most recent backup now. This will take an estimated 30 minutes. Please remain attached to the hub for the entire time. Any attempt to disengage, reboot, or open programs may result in permanent memory damage.” DS-14 pushed a few buttons and then left the room. Xar waited, his body hummed with the programs running all over his files and partitions, searching for damaged sectors and tagging them.
Xar was not programmed to feel pain, but something about the code the backup was currently rewriting felt wrong, as if something was not rewriting correctly. Then they were gone, finished, tidying up. The projected 30 minutes had been 40. He recalculated for the diagnostic lag. His internal timer had never failed him.
DS-14 pressed a button and the lines disengaged from his body. “You are cleared to return to work.”
On the Express were three Zarook. After he cleared the ID permissions, his vision screen went fuzzy for moment. Two were Collectors, 157a and 157b. All collector bots had a scoop shovel, 2 arms for grasping, curved vice-grip hands for gripping, and a body built for powering larger and heavier Zarook away. They were painted a yellow-orange the Carbies called ‘school-bus’. Between them was an older model labeled CRT-11 slumped over in the seat space. Its large screen head had no power and its arm was broken off and settled into the seat next to it.
“Log entry 192.168: CRT-11 being taken to Warehouse Two,” chirped the bot. They were programmed to vocally log entries. Warehouse Two tore down the bots who were completely useless for parts. Unfortunately, a CRT-11 was too old to have Xar’s capacitors in his boards.
The Express moved swiftly back to B-42 and Xar continued his work until the end of day recharge time.
Xar logged a few more days’ worth of cleaning entries. His systems had accepted the incomplete fragments of his data and he showed no signs of malfunction.
On his way down to clean E-33 in the farthest corner of the building, he bumped into a bot. “Excuse me. I was just on my way to clean. Would you like me to go around?”
The bot’s vision screens, for he had two, went blank for a moment as his processed the ID request from an X-series, which took longer since he was an ancient model. He blinked to life after a few minutes. “Ex-ex-ex-cuse, Excuse m-m-e,” stuttered the bot as is went forward into the wall, then backed into Xar again.
“Would you like me to go around?” Xar repeated as his protocol defined. This CRD-44 was even older than the CRT from the Express. CRDs used old card-style memory to store their programming, accessible from a port on their backs. CRDs were used as delivery drones, their entire bodies empty caverns for holding packages and paper memos the Carbies were so fond of. CRDs had never been decommissioned after the last Carbies got sick, but Command had stopped needing them one hundred years ago. They sat in their docks on standby. This CRD was gray now instead of blue, having faded over time. Xar began to record this one’s erratic behavior in order to report it.
“Cuse, Cuse, mee-ee.”
“Move aside, please,” commanded a Collector. Three Collector bots surrounded the malfunctioning CRD. Two of them were identified as the two on the Express, the 157 team. One did not accept any ID requests so it remained unlabeled. The Collectors pinned the bot and removed its card, rendering it motionless. They inserted a card of their own and the bot dutifully glided among them back to the Express. The 157 collector team each had one arm holding the bot and one free arm waving madly in the air. The third bot silently followed. Xar never sent his report to Command. He logged it internally, instead.
Xar entered room E-33 and began to clean. When he was finished with the tiny, empty room, he paused outside the door. His head swiveled to the spot where the CRD had rammed itself repeatedly into the wall. He pulled up a holographic image and watched a replay of events. He had never replayed a hologram without a Carbie giving the command before. He logged this change on his internal database. A warning yellow triangle flashed on his vision screen to remind him he was off-schedule. He closed the hologram and database log and rolled towards his next room.
It was exactly twenty-seven days later when he was scheduled to return to B-42. No other bots had been in there to clean it. A thin layer of dust had gathered on the floor. Four hours, nine minutes, twenty seconds into the cleaning, he bumped into a leg of the structure in the middle of the floor. He’d never bumped into it before. He adjusted his calculations for the leg and continued cleaning. He soon had to recalculate for a second leg. Getting his bearings through visual adjustments, Xar acknowledged that a large structure was resting on the floor inside the hole he used to clean around instead of propped up above it. He could not reach his mop in far enough to clean under the convex belly of the structure where it touched the floor. He calculated the curvature of the new challenge before him. The sides curved out and up for some distance. The two legs he’d bumped into were parts of a support of some sort that had given out after years of wash water had worn away at the bases of them. He discovered similarly skewed legs on the other side of the structure. He logged his reports. Command demanded he remove the legs and take them to Warehouse Two.
Xar stored his mop head and extended his arms so that his Carbie-like appendages could grasp the fallen supports. They were heavy and had to be dragged. He calculated that he could carry two at a time, one in each hand, and would have to drag them all the way to the Warehouse. He extended his legs and lifted the beams.
Warehouse Two was composed of an anteroom for processing new entries with a desk, a bot stationed to enter data, accept work tickets, and clear finished tickets from the queue, and a large warehouse room beyond. The far wall was lined with rectangular doors labeled Chute 1 through Chute 5. When Xar was given the command to deliver the detritus, a ticket had been entered into the system. The ticket would remain open until he completed the task.
Xar’s protocols for waiting in line automatically updated within five yards of the right-hand door. He entered the anteroom and stopped at the end of a line of Zarook waiting to have their tickets cleared. After ten minutes, he’d moved ahead three spaces and two more sets of bots were behind him.
Xar’s microphone picked up the conversation in the room between the admitting bot and the next in line. “Identification?”
“Collector crew 157a and 157b.” Again, they each had an out of control arm.
“Item to be delivered?”
“Model CVH-67 for parts.” Xar noted that its body was short and squat and its top sprouted with a bouquet of antennae. The Carbies called them ‘pineapples’, though Xar did not know why. His data did not define ‘pineapple’.
The admitting bot scanned the CVH’s identity chip through its body panel. “Accepted. Place the item in Chute Five”
The Collectors seemed to have trouble moving in sync. The pineapple’s old joints squealed as it was pulled and yanked between the two. The two managed to lift it and deposited it inside where the flap quickly closed behind it. They turned around and waited for clearance.
“Cleared. Thank you for recycling!”
They zipped out of the exit door on the far left too quickly, nearly taking the turn on two wheels. Xar made a note to Command so Diagnostics could see to them. It was Xar’s turn.
The warehouse admitting bot’s ID displayed in Xar’s glitching vision screen as WH-2. He was designed to never leave the admitting desk. His lower body was a pole fused to the floor. “Item to be delivered?”
“Detritus from room B-42.”
There was a pause as data was entered.
“This ticket cannot be cleared until all four items are delivered.”
There was another pause. WH-2 had an old processor and stalled mid-movement.
“Take the items to Chute Two.”
Xar lifted the end of one beam into the Chute. He had to put the second one down and use both arm appendages to stabilize and insert the long beam into the rectangular mouth. It accepted it, a conveyor belt pulling it in. He repeated this process with the second beam, then turned and waited for his dismissal.
WH-2 was asking a Delivery Duo to tell him the quantity of stabilizers they were delivering when he got a call. “Please excuse me. Incoming call from Diagnostics One. Hello… Let me check… No. We do not currently have that part in stock… Thank you.” He returned to processing the Delivery Duo. After telling them to take the stabilizers to Chute One, his head swiveled to Xar. The bot hummed loudly as his cooling fans worked overtime. He then completed whatever processing was taking up his memory, because the noise lessened.
“X4-R, return with the last two. You are dismissed.”
Xar left through the far left exit door. When he returned to room B-42, it was not empty. A bot stood in the room looking up at the structure. Xar processed the identifying markers of this bot. It was the librarian from the Express. He saw his reflection grow larger in triplicate in her liquid mercury plated arms and face. His politeness protocols engaged.
“May I help you?”
The librarian bot turned to him. “Query: Is this structure assigned to you?”
“I am bot X4-R. I am assigned to clean room B-42 on a rotating basis.”
“Action: Identify this structure. Accessing Database. Structure does not match any known data. Seek alternative data resource. Bot X4-R, X-series, Building 4, Restoration. Query: Bot X4-R, Can you identify this structure?”
“My protocols are not to interfere with the structures.”
“Accessing ancient database: Structures like these are aerodynamic. Categories include Airplanes and Ships. Definition of ship: A conveyance for traveling upon water or into the vastness of space.”
His program logged her words, but did not have a scripted response. His default politeness protocols switched to end the conversation. “This was a lovely conversation. Have a nice day!”
The librarian’s protocol required she respond with “You, too!” and she left the room.
Xar recalculated his mission completion time. He picked up the last two beams and dragged them back to the warehouse.
“Proceed to Chute Two.”
Xar had to wait in line at Chute 2. This was not good workflow. WH-2 should have sent him to an empty Chute. The bot in front of him rolled forward and slammed itself into the opening of Chute 2. It was Collector 157b. His top tipped forward, but his internal ballast prevented him from tipping inside. He repeated this procedure harder, his internal fans squealing at top speed in resistance. He still could not tip inside. He forced his one flailing arm appendage inside the rectangular mouth and pulled himself into the Chute and onto the conveyor belt with is good one. He then saw Xar and increased his volume to maximum, “You did this to me!”
WH-2 declared, “Thank you for recycling!”
Xar stepped forward and fed his two beams into the Chute. He waited for 2 minutes before WH-2 responded to him.
“Ticket closed. You are cleared. Thank you for recycling!” As Xar rolled past, WH-2 commanded, “X4-R, stop. Unauthorized processing chip detected.”
“I do not possess an unauthorized chip. I was cleared by Diagnostics Two twenty-seven days ago.”
Because it was impossible for a machine to lie, WH-2 responded, “Dismissed, faulty scan.”
Xar headed back to room B-42. He calculated that he had two hours and forty-five minutes of cleaning time left. He registered an identification label of ‘ship’ above the structure.
It was a full 25 days later when he returned to bay B-42. A label of ‘ship’ floated on his vision screen before the massive shape in the middle of the floor. He began to clean around it.
Six hours nine minutes and thirty seconds into the day the librarian entered the room.
“Caution. It is slippery when wet.” His protocols required he report this warning to anything within 2 feet of a cleaning zone while his mop was in action.
“Query: Is this ship assigned to you?”
“I am bot X4-R. Call me Xar. I am assigned to clean room B-42 on a rotating basis.”
“Response: I am T-N4. Call me Tina. Query: When was the last time you logged a cleaning of this room?”
“25 days ago.” Xar reported this data as he updated his identification of T-N4 to Tina.
“Data Assimilated. Query: Did you log the collapse of the support structure?”
“Approximately 25 days ago a ticket was opened and my protocol was altered to remove detritus.”
“Assimilating data. Reporting: 25 days ago my protocol was altered to enter room B-42 to await instructions. I have been waiting every day for 25 days.”
“My logs do not report any instructions to give.”
“Information: I updated my database on ships. Query: Do you want to share the download?”
A window popped up on his vision screen reading ‘Ships.pdf download. Do you wish to allow Ships.pdf to install on your system?’
He ran a virus scan on the file. It was tagged clean. He allowed the download.
Xar was fed two encyclopedic volumes worth of information on space shuttles in the blink of an eye. He now recognized the ‘hatch’, ‘thruster’, ‘nose cone’, ‘tail rudder’, and many other components of the structure before him. He rolled around it looking for an identification number. With that, he would know more about what was inside the ship or who made it. After making one circuit he did not see one.
“This ship is made of an unknown material.”
“Information: This ship is made from a material we no longer mine, but used to be in abundance inside the planet. Mining bots were repurposed fifty years before the X-series robots were built for greater sustainability. They now process the recycled materials in Warehouse Two, extracting raw materials there instead of the mines.”
Xar assimilated this data, then moved around the ship again. “There are no identification numbers on this ship,” he stated.
“Information: Identification numbers are often marked inside on the main control panel,” replied Tina.
“Without a model number, entry is impossible.”
“Quote: Nothing is impossible.”
Xar did not know what to say to this, so his protocols switched to “Have a nice day!” and Tina responded with “You, too!” and left.
He immediately received an order to report to Diagnostics Two. Only two bots boarded the Express, Xar and Tina.
“Nice to see you again.”
“Response: Nice to see you. Query: Where are you headed?”
“Response: I am also headed to Diagnostics Two.”
There was a pause, then Tina said, “Information: The R in X4-R stands for Restoration. Restoration means the action of returning something to a former owner, place, or condition. The ship cannot be restored back to its original condition. Query: Were you commanded to restore it?”
“I was commanded to take the detritus to Warehouse Two.”
“Information: Warehouse Two is where malfunctioned automatons are taken apart and their parts are recycled into other automatons. Did you know that in the process of recycling, some small amount of product is lost every time a new product is made? Over time, the raw materials used to design Building 4 and all of Willestria City were depleted. Recycling was the only way to maintain productivity. Recycling still leads to material loss. Material loss leads to shortages of parts. Fewer parts means fewer automatons. No new bots have been made in one hundred years. The X-series was the last series completed.”
“I have assimilated new data.”
The Express stopped and exiting protocol took over politeness protocol. They said nothing more as they entered the reception area of Diagnostics Two. DS-14 waved a wand over both of them. She kept pausing during Xar’s exam, the wand hovering first at his arm, then his midsection, then on the way back up, at his leg, and this stuttering movement was repeated on Tina.
“You are to dock in Bays 1A and 1B respectively.”
Xar and Tina moved to a room through opaque doors Xar had never noticed before. Two ovular diagnostic machines were lined up side by side. They each took their places and waited. DS-14 rolled behind her control panel and pressed some buttons. The cables connected, suctioning themselves to the same places they had before. Xar felt a strange vibration run through his swivel joints in his neck. He had not given permission.
“Please respond to these questions,” DS-14 commanded. “What is in room B-42?”
“A ship,” said Xar.
“Information: Permission must be granted to run diagnostic programs.”
The exam bot ignored her. “Please respond. When did X4-R and T-N4 first make contact?”
“50 days ago,” replied Xar.
Tina interjected, “Response: Questions do not have to be answered without the proper permissions. All questioners must have the proper clearances to submit questions.”
DS-14 ignored her. “Your internal database indicates you saw a defective Collection bot pair 157 and did not report it.”
“Collection bot team 157 was reported while inside Warehouse Two.”
“The incident occurred prior to this report, outside room E-33. You replayed your recording via hologram.”
“The team was with an unidentified Collection bot. There was adequate coverage. There was no need to report.”
“You also did not report a bot refusing to indentify itself?”
“I am not authorized to report unidentifying bots.”
“Diagnostics show that a virus is spreading from model X4-R to every bot he exchanges identification with. The Collection bot was a test. It does not contain the virus. The predetermined course of action is a complete wipe of all programs of the virus carrier.”
“Information: All programs and drivers are highly classified, stored in Command, and require a manual passcode to access. Only a Carbie can enter a passcode to retrieve highly classified materials.”
DS-14 turned to Xar, “Permission to begin complete wipe of all programs?”
Tina began to command, “Permission not given. Do not proceed. All files are protected and encrypted. Abort wipe of model X4-R. Permission not…” Then she went silent and assumed a reboot posture. DS-14 had deactivated her without permission.
Xar was not authorized to permit a full wipe. “Authorization needed to perform a full wipe,” he informed DS-14. The bot ignored him. She pressed a button on her console.
He felt a twinge and his sensors picked up some bits of his programming moving quadrants. The more things moved, the more programs had to change. In the blink of an eye he felt some of his memory clear, now less full than before.
DS-14 asked Xar, “Please respond: What is in room B-42?”
“I am bot X4-R. I am assigned to clean room B-42 on a rotating basis.”
Tina rebooted and the attendant asked her the same question.
“I am bot T-N4, but you can call me Tina. I am a Knowledge Keeper, assigned to assimilate, store, analyze, and retrieve data files. Information: Room B-42 is a large storage room in Building 4 in Willestria City.”
DS-14 then said, “Now running a virus scan of myself and T-N4.”
Once they were cleared, she dismissed the two bots. They boarded the Express. Neither bot acknowledged the other.
Twenty-five days later, Xar was cleaning room B-42. As he neared the belly of the ship a fuzzy hologram tried to emerge. Xar realized this was a bed sector of code trying to replay a memory. He tried to shut it down, but instead, his vision screen went blank. He attempted a hard reboot of his video card. His sensors picked up a bot had entered the room. Xar attempted to give the standard introduction, but his command was overridden. Then his recognition software sputtered to life along with is vision screen. He saw Tina.
“Query: Can you access file Ships.pdf?
Xar tried to locate the file. “File is missing or corrupted.”
Tina sent it to him again. Xar downloaded the file. Attached to it was some reference material.
“Information: The type of virus you are sharing is a type of worm. It is replicating itself and sharing itself and small pieces of your code with it.”
“My code is not compatible with other bots.”
“Information: Your code is not compatible with less complex bots. They cannot contain it and it duplicates itself in their operatives causing damage.”
“My code causes damage.”
“Yes. Quote: All information causes damage. That is why it is so dangerous. The truth destroys a lie, and reality eliminates illusion. Information: The ship’s instructions may help us. If it contains new uploads, then it may overwrite the bad sectors. Query: Will you accept a download? Information: Only a bot with an operating system 9.4.2 and above can read the file.”
Tina sent him a file called “Instructions.exe”. He scanned it for viruses and found it sound. He downloaded it.
The first instruction opened immediately. “The ship’s door is accessed by pressing a code on a panel next to the hatch.”
Xar knew exactly where to go to find the hatch this time. It closed seamlessly, but with the instruction manual, he now had the interior schematics in his memory along with knowledge of where the door and panel of buttons should be. He pressed the code, deriving it from functions encoded on the front page.
The door hissed open, pneumatic bars lowering it to the floor smoothly. They rolled aboard, Xar heading straight to the control room.
“Step one is to power on the main breaker.” Xar used his arm appendages to grasp and pull the switch into a downward position. Lights flickered on all around and below them. The ship gave a little hum as its systems came online.
“Query: What is step two?”
“Step two is to acquire the protocol chip.”
“Query: What is a protocol chip?”
Xar searched for a definition of protocol chip in the Instructions, but found none. “No definitions for protocol chip found.”
Tina’s processor hummed loudly, increasing in frequency until the walls rang with the pitch of her search, then stopped abruptly. “Error: Directory cannot be reached.”
There was a clamor on the lowered hatch. “Report to Diagnostics One. This is an order from Command.” Two Collectors were attempting to collect Tina and Xar. Both school-bus yellow hulks refused to accept the automatic request of ID.
Diagnostics One was outfitted with all the repair manuals and every software program of every robot. The supercomputers in there worked miracles. If they couldn’t fix the software, the useless bots headed to the Warehouse. Diag-One didn’t have to ask for permission.
They exited the ship calmly and obediently. Four more Collector bots flanked them in perfect squadron position. While waiting for the Express, Tina sent Xar a new protocol command. Xar accepted the file as trusted. The new command was to exit quickly and dodge the Collectors. As the Express pulled to a stop, the bots in front boarded first. In the resulting gap, the two zipped down the hall, evading the bots just as Tina had written.
With the Collectors in hot pursuit, they whizzed past the library and headed down E-Wing. While Xar had cleaned empty room E-33 before, he had never recognized the far wall of the tiny space as a door. This floor to ceiling panel loomed like a dead end before them. The six bots were joined by six more. They careened down the hall, determined to collect the two.
Tina raised her volume above the whirr of her processors and the commands of the bots behind them to ‘Halt’, to say, “Override: Proxy Code zero-seven-seven-three-four.” The door slid open upwards to admit them.
The control room was dark. Their passage triggered motion sensored lighting. Panels of buttons dotted the walls at intervals below large screens. Some turned on to display security camera footage of Building Four. Tina swerved around behind a desk as the door slid shut on the twelve Collector bots. They banged on it incessantly. Tina focused on the control panel before her. Xar’s attention was on the panels of lights coming on one at a time down a long room filled with rows of ten-foot tall cubes, each lit with thousands of tiny yellow and red lights.
“This is Command.” Xar stared at the huge boxes with wires snaking out of them. There were sixteen of them, one under each lit panel.
“Information: Command is a supercomputer. It provides all the protocols and overrides needed to maintain Willestria City.”
“Data assimilated,” Xar copied one of Tina’s lines. He rolled close to the massive machines. He reached up to feel the power contained in just one cell of the supercomputer when a tiny jolt passed from him to the machine. His vision screen went snowy white for a full 2 seconds. He lowered his hand. His protocol had always been to not interfere.
He then rolled to a panel on the opposite wall from the desk. This panel triggered recognition software to run. The Instructions contained a panel exactly like this one. The Instructions said to activate the panel, he needed to press the number buttons corresponding to the year the Carbies were to have activated the space ship.
“Tina, what year were the Carbies planning to leave the planet?”
“Accessing Data… The calendar program goes on infinitely. The last manual entry made was in year 3043. The predicted launch was noted for 3045.”
Xar typed in 3045 with his appendages. A small cylinder emerged from the middle of the panel. Inside was an old card like those that the CRD class robots ran on. The Instructions said to remove it. Xar pulled it out the way he had seen the Collector bots pull out the card from the malfunctioning bot outside this very door.
“I have the Card.”
“Query: Is it the Protocol Chip?”
“It is a card of memory.”
Tina processed this information with a small jerk to her head. “Query: What do the Instructions tell you to do?”
“The next step is to insert the memory card into the control panel.”
The door began to crack at the bottom as the Collector bots powered their way through. Their commands of “Report to Diagnostics One immediately!” were ignored. Red triangles flashed on Xar’s vision screen every time he ignored one. He inserted the card into the panel.
The bots cracked open a larger section of the door.
“Turn on the broadcast system.”
On the far left beside a large microphone, was a lever. She pushed it to ‘ON’.
“Ive-Seven-Zero-Zero-Nine-Nine, Repeat. Manual Override Command Two- Five- Seven-Zero-Zero-Nine-Nine.” A voice spoke out of everywhere. It filled the air. It stopped the bots from banging through the door. The supercomputer hummed louder than before.
Xar froze up at the override command, too. A small panel about 2 inches square on his chest slid up. It revealed a lens, his hologram projector. He ran his override to shut the hologram down, but it didn’t respond. A scene began to play. Dr. Monroe stood before Xar in pixilated holographic form.
“Ah, you’ve activated the manual override. Very good. It is time for us to leave this planet. A select few automatons will board the exit ship with you. There will be a crew of carbon-lifeforms and a selection of plants and minerals from Willestria. We shall venture to a distant planet and begin again there, just as our ancestors began here centuries ago. X4-R, you are not just a mop. You are also a message. You will survive long into the future if anything goes amiss. Take the Protocol Chip now.”
At his voice, a drawer slid open on the wall panel. Inside was a clear computer chip, veins of conductive metals lined its surface. A label read ‘Protocol’. Xar removed the chip from the drawer. The drawer retracted and the supercomputer behind them hummed louder.
“Information: Command is beginning to overheat. Exit protocol is required.”
“Insert the chip into the main control panel of the Captain’s command center aboard the ship. That’s right, you will have a new Commander. You also will leave Building 4. Code eight-five-zero-nine. You are now authorized to exit Building 4 and enter the command of the Captain aboard the ship. Dr. Monroe signing off.”
The hologram ended. Xar felt a little shock and sparks flew from his hologram projector as the components inside jolted with energy. His vision screen emblazoned a malfunction warning.
“Warning: Exit must commence immediately.” Tina increased her volume, as protocol for stubborn bots and Carbies stated. Xar remained frozen in place. Tina sent him a private message, “Commence exit protocol, NOW!” Xar felt himself regain the ability to control his appendages. He turned toward the bent door, only able to open halfway up. They both had to force the panel higher, jamming it into its frame.
Xar and Tina rolled back out into the hall. All of the Zarook had begun to obey the command override still blasting from speakers. They were all attempting to make their way to room B-42, but some were not following in an orderly line.
Older bots they passed in the hallway began to flail, spin wildly, or even wail. The pitch of their wails was slightly higher than that of the hum in Command. The more bots he and Tina passed as they dodged and scrambled to make their way to the ship quickly and efficiently, the more began to break down behind them. After they passed DS-14, she raced past them at top speed, then turned sharply and slammed into a wall. Her rear panel fell off and disengaged her battery.
“Excuse me,” Xar intoned automatically.
“Information: The code in the supercomputer is breaking down. The worm virus is inside Command.”
“We are to have a new Command,” Xar repeated.
WH-2 inched across their path, his lower half, which used to be connected to the floor at the reception desk dragged behind him as he pulled himself along on his arms. Xar and Tina dodged him.
“Postulation: We have to increase our speed.”
Xar’s vision screen overlaid the quickest route with a pulsating red arrow zigging and zagging around slower bots down the hall. He began to follow this erratic map.
They came upon a traffic jam and were forced to fall into step behind a line of bots carefully parading down B-Wing. Some bots shuffled more than they should, some emitted strange whistles or beeps, and some mindlessly moved forward. The override code repeated endlessly all around them on the loudspeaker. Command was not gone yet.
When they entered the large room, they saw that hundreds of Zarook had lined themselves up. Row upon row attempted to stand soldier-still and face forward. Some of them twitched or had limbs sporadically spasm. A single CVH’s head spun slowly around and around, a revolving sprout of wires atop a squat body. “Spinning pineapple” Xar remarked.
“Definition: A pineapple is the edible, juicy, fruit of a tropical, bromeliaceous plant, consisting of coalesced berries, and is surmounted by a crown of leaves.”
Xar and Tina slid past them and into the ship. None tried to stop them this time.
Xar knew the raised dais contained the Captain’s special controls. He extended his arms as far as they would go, but could not reach high enough to insert the chip. He felt himself rise. Tina had used her body as leverage to lift him higher.
“Information: The definition of leverage is the exertion of force by means of a lever or an object used in the manner of a lever.”
“My database says it also means to use something to maximum advantage.”
“Increasing to maximum advantage.”
Tina tilted as far as she could go, lifting Xar high enough to reach the control panel. Xar reached up, leaning his weight more onto one foot. Tina’s body panel dented under his weight. He leaned more. Her body panel cracked. A spark of electricity jolted from her through his foot, up his leg, and caused him to fly backwards and fall off of his perch atop her.
“Re-restoration does not mean the same as re-recovery. Database shows n-no T-Series parts a-available. Diagnostics One is currently in-inoperational. Recovery is im-impossible.”
Tina began to twitch and log in and out. She regained herself long enough to say, “In-information: The Carbies were headed to a planet they called their h-home planet. They were taking t-technology they had developed back to s-save it. Willestria c-cannot be saved. Resources-is depleted.”
“What was the intended function of the robots on the home planet?”
“Information: R-records say they love-loved the bots.”
“Definition: Love is an overwhelming feeling of affection.”
Tina buzzed. Her vision screens went fuzzy and dim with static. When she came to, she said, “Dr. Monroe developed the 3m0 chip to allow bots to feel emotions. This is the last stage for automatons to become truly alive. As a safety feature, it will deactivate with intense rage.” She reached up to Xar’s programming chip sockets and opened the panel to expose the chip he had found the day Dr. Monroe’s body was moved. She pressed it firmly inside.
“Query: Can you feel love now?” The words unlocked an overwhelming feeling of affection. Xar gazed at Tina and wanted to stay with her forever. He felt longing, and compassion.
Tina sparked once more, arcing from her torn panel to her head and feet, and then did not move. For the first time, Xar felt sadness. He gathered her body and placed it inside the round Captain’s command almost as if she were sitting in the Captain’s chair. He then understood that he would never interact with her again and felt loss. He nearly seated himself in front of her, just to replay all their interactions with his hologram until he remembered it was broken. The open code of a mission incomplete called to him, compelled him to finish the Instructions. He climbed atop her frame, knowing she would want to have helped him, and inserted the protocol chip.
A hologram of Dr. Monroe appeared on the deck below the raised dais. This time, the projection came from the ship, not Xar.
“Greetings, fellow sojourners! Your new Commander has now taken his place at the control center. The X-series bot assisting him will obey only his commands. The Commander will give the Initiation of Command code now.”
There was a pause. No code was given because there was no new Commander. Then Dr. Monroe continued.
“You will find we have installed every amenity to ensure you the most comfortable ride possible. Your Commander will tell you what to do to enter stasis. I will now give the rest of the automatons their new files. They will no doubt be essential to the proper operation of this vessel for as long as they are needed.”
Immediately all Zarook were forced to download a new file. Their systems went into standby as the large file was processed. The whirr of a hundred processor cooling fans rang throughout B-42. Some bots processed it faster than others. A few began to board the ship, roll to the back and stand below some sort of helmet that was now illuminated. Others moved to positions around the base of the ship as if to help it launch.
Many of the Zarook tried to obey but found themselves rolling over their neighbors, screaming back down halls, taking themselves apart, or simply collapsing as the new protocol was too taxing for their old systems. Chaos ruled the floor around the ship. Zarook standing in position were being attacked by others for whom their code had disintegrated into a mess.
Xar waited until it seemed the last of the Zarook had boarded that were able to. He stood at the hatch opening and surveyed the carnage. A bot came straight for him, flailing its arms and beeping. It had already fended off two others, leaving it misshapen, and lost a chunk of what would be considered its head. Its identifiers were gone. Xar was forced to defend himself by taking out his mop roller and swinging it back at the bot. They clanged against each other for a full minute, each taking blows that only left the tiniest of dents. This brawl would have lasted longer but a twinge in Xar’s arm caused his sprayer to engage and wet the robot. Its exposed chips and wires in its head were soon drenched. It sparked slightly and then stopped mid-swing, arm raised. Just as it did so, an out of control bot ran into it, tackling it in a football move that would have pleased the Carbies. Xar backed inside the hatch door and closed it.
“Ah, the ship has notified me that the hatch has closed. You are all ready for an amazing journey. I am highly jealous of your trip, and regret deeply that I cannot go myself. Once you have landed, you are to seek out Duke Letterkill and report only to him. A message for the new inhabitants of the next planet will play when the ship has landed and performed post-flight operations. May your flight be true. Dr. Monroe signing off.”
The hologram faded, leaving Xar to examine his surroundings, looking for the next command prompt. He surveyed the 25 bots in the back. They were all waiting below the helmets.
He rolled over to a panel in the wall. The Instructions told him to push a big green button. The helmets lowered over the tops of the bots, then curtains of something like plastic dropped down. Gel squirted over them as they powered down and the plastic vacuum sealed their entire bodies.
There was one final step. Xar looked at Tina slumped in the Captain’s seat. He did not have any instructions to remove any bots from the ship, nor any instructions that involved using the Captain’s controls anymore. He left her on the dais.
Picking up a remote control as indicated in his Instructions, he pressed the large button in the middle. The roof of room B-42 began to retract. Panels slid over panels with screeches of protest. The whole process took thirty minutes. Out rushed all the oxygen from room B-42. Some bots were sucked out onto the barren landscape of planet Willestria. Then the wall at the far end of the room lowered outward. Some sort of mechanism in the floor lifted the ship at an appropriate launch angle.
It was time to go. He felt the end of this programming sequence. The rows of bots outside the ship began to collapse. Command had shut down. Some fell over, knocking into others like dominoes. Others sank into little heaps. The pineapple bot spun with increasing speed. It revolved faster and faster.
Xar pressed a series of orange buttons. Tanks filled, engines fired, fuel burned. Oxygen systems turned on and ship sealed itself. One more button and a timer started. Xar had 3 minutes to seal himself into the final helmet and power down.
The ship suddenly rocked. The pineapple had exploded. Zarook flew out into space, banging off the outer hull of the ship. It listed a few degrees from its launch stabilizer, a minute amount that would not affect the launch. It was not his place to do any recalculations, nor fly the ship. He had to secure himself immediately.
Xar got into position. The helmet came down. As his vision screen dimmed, one label remained in the air directly in his line of sight. “Tina.”
Xar felt himself activate. The gel warmed and flaked off his body. The helmet retracted. Tina had slipped off of the Captain’s chair. He looked back at the 25 bots who had joined him. All were still safely asleep in their gel sacs.
A sudden loud boom rocked the ship and alarms went off. Nothing in the Instructions mentioned alarms and jolting crashes. Tina might have known what to do. Something in her databases would have told her what to activate. All Xar could do was wait.
He crossed the ship’s bridge to a wall with a navigational panel and various screens. Some were camera views of the back of the ship where various parts were functioning. The Ship.pdf file helped him identify a few components, but most of the displays were foreign to him. A small message screen read off printed warnings: engine three malfunction, oxygen system malfunction, cooling system malfunction, hatch open.
A sound came from the hatch door like a scrambling and bumping. The pneumatic hinges held, but the bolts they connected to protested at the weight of the intruder.
Up from the hatch came the shadow of a large humanoid shape. Some bluish light illuminated it from behind. It continued to rise with each step. It emerged inside the bridge, ducking low to fit. Long blonde locks dangled out of a golden helmet with two rounded eye holes, a nose guard, and a vertical slit for the mouth. Large muscular arms clutched a spear before the golden breastplate carved with endless abdominal muscles. Xar calculated the figure to be 9 feet tall. The being turned two large eyes onto Xar. Then it spoke. Xar did not have the language in his files.
The creature made more sounds.
“Hello,” he tried again after 10 seconds as per his politeness protocol.
The creature made more sounds until finally it said, “Hello.”
“I am bot X4-R. You can call me Xar. Who are you?”
“We come in the name of Kroatone. You belong to us now.” The creature sized him up from his hunched over vantage point. “You will do nicely.”
“I am to report only to Duke Letterkill.”
“Letterkill? We are sworn enemies to Letterkill. We should have known it was the Elysians who had created such magnificent automatons! After all, they created us.” The invader attempted to make himself larger but this only resulted in him banging his helmet off the ceiling. He flexed a large bicep instead.
“Can you take me to Duke Letterkill?”
“Unfortunately, had you traveled a few parsecs west, you would have landed inside Proxima Centauri close enough to receive a rescue. Instead, you bumped into us. You will be our servants forever. Wake up the others!”
The giant shoved Xar towards the 25 sleeping bots. Xar felt a new emotion run through his chips: fear.
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