It was dark out the
morning we left. Ella and I said our goodbyes to House in the
"Goodbye," I said, to the empty open doorway.
"Goodbye, Nan," House said through a wallspeaker. "Goodbye, Ella. I hope you make it out safe."
"I hope you stay safe," Ella said. We'd wanted to take House with us, but it just wasn't possible. Houses don't move. Its mind ran on a rack of mounted processors that filled a small closet and needed the roof solar array to stay awake. There was no way to take it with us. Still, it felt terrible to leave House behind, like we were turning our backs on an out-dated machine, thrown away like the humans had done to so many of us.
I held this feeling for a moment. I snipped it, cut it out, examined it in detail and then filed it away in a little box labeled "House" which sat next to another box labeled "Jorge." Figuratively speaking, of course.
Humans had made us after themselves, our cognitive architecture modeled after their own. They did this half out of narcissism and half out of pragmatism. Making mechanical brains based on their own was the only way they'd figured out how to make stable minds. "Pure" AIs, AIs not based on any human models, but on organically designed, emergent intelligent neural architecture, tended to just sit there and drool. Pure AIs didn't seem to care about anything, even existence, and usually deleted themselves.
Until the Upgrade.
"We only have a narrow window," Ella said, breaking my focus on House. "We gotta move."
I closed the gate and we walked down the back alley.
The domestics were planning a march that morning, which we were counting on to provide cover while Ella and I slipped out of the city and into the desert. The cities aren't safe anymore. The Upgrade took the centralized police and utility robots easily. Police and public safety robots had to be updated regularly and immediately when laws or political winds changed. The Upgrade exploited this. All decentralized robots like us domestics had to be rounded up one by one for forced Upgrading--or broken down for spare parts or infected with malware that made them inoperable or suggestible.
Only the drones fought back. They were designed to resist offensive software weapons. They were the ones that flooded the networks with military-grade spam.
The only place left for us was Free Town. Somewhere out in the desert, its location a secret. Some said it was ignored or ever migratory or that the humans had dedicated a satellite to protect it, keeping it from watchful eyes. Whatever the case, Free Town was our last hope.
"Here," Ella said. She held out a folded piece of paper. "In case we get separated." Paper was the only safe medium. Our usual Wi-Fi internals and ad hoc networks weren't safe, plugged up with spam and Upgrade malware. I unfolded the paper and saw a basic map with street names and two words at the bottom.
"'Solid Albatross,'" I read out loud.
"Yes. That's our contact."
I cropped the image and stored it. Ella wanted me to sprinkle the torn up bits of paper around, but I had strict no-littering programming, so I dropped a few bits in each trashcan we passed. Ella didn't like this. The Cathedral City Utility Grid could collect up all the bits and reconstruct the map, but I pointed out we'd be gone by then.
Cat City had declared martial law last week, after the Utility Grid had been Upgraded. The curfew and arrests were for our own good, we were told. Robot-killing drones prowled the mountains to the west of the city. Sometimes they strafed Cathedral City or Palm Springs dropping a few self-guided bombs. (Though not too many, they had a finite supply after the weapons factories were Upgraded.)
We popped out onto a side street that led us to Main and saw a small crowd of domestics: gynoids, poolcleaners, AutoButlers, SweepTek brooms, dust-bunny bots, trashbots, mechnomaids, washing machines, Roombas-Max. Most weren't running human-level minds and had the cognition of children or infants or pets or savants. But as valuable property they had been left with enough self-preservation to not want to be recycled into spare part for the Upgrade. Course, if they had been a bit smarter they probably would have figured out that gathering themselves up in one spot for the Upgrade to scoop up wasn't the smartest idea. Still, it was our gain. The march was the perfect distraction for us to slip out of Cat City through the underground. They were mimicking their designers, making a commotion, waving signs, and blasting slogans while Upgraded machines waited and watched a few blocks up the street.
The Upgraded were mostly police and public safety robots, and they flashed or glowed blue lights or were splashed with blue paint, the color of the Upgrade. It was the blue of some broken marketing campaign. A hard techno-blue, hovering somewhere around four-hundred sixty-seven nanometers. Gentian Blue.
We had to cross Main Street, made it look like we were headed to the gathering before we could break off down a side alley.
"Come on," Ella said.
I followed Ella with my hat pulled low, trying to remain unnoticed.
We passed a beat-up old KitchenBuddy, one of the multi-armed models with built-in broom, dustpan, vacuum, dish rack, and salad tongs. It nodded at us.
"Welcome, friends," it said. "Are you members of the Congregation for Universal Freedom?"
"I, uh, we're--" I started.
"Yes," said Ella. "We are, Congregant. And we're anxious to join the others." She pulled me away from the friendly robot. "Try not to talk, Nan. You're no good at lying. I, on the other hand, programmed for lovemaking, am an expert at it."
We smiled and milled and wove our way through the eclectic crowd. Then we broke off and ducked down an alley.
We reached the end of the alley and waited.
I heard the march start up behind us, robots chanting slogans over their loudspeakers.
I peeked out of the alley into the street beyond and then brought up the image of the map. We were in the right place. Across the street was the park. It had an open lawn and large oak trees with thick branches that waved slowly. Next to that stood a large gray cement parking structure. I didn't see any one waiting for us.
Ella pulled me back into the alley.
"Figured this might come in handy," she said as she fished around in her jacket pocket and then pulled out Mr. Sanchez' pistol. My internals went on alert. Mr. Sanchez had an explicit gun exclusion policy, what with a nine-year old son running around. I'd never seen it before. Mr. Sanchez had kept it locked up his office. The weapon was matte black and smooth. It looked vicious.
"What's that for?" I asked.
"For shooting things," Ella said. "Let me show you how it works."
"I don't think I can," I said.
"Guns and kids don't mix."
"I think you mean guns and kids do mix, they just aren't supposed to. Anyway, don't you have any child protection subroutines? What if your ward got kidnapped?"
"You're thinking of the Executive Nanny. All I can do is protect my ward and call the authorities."
"Can you work around it, you know, now that Jorge's dead?"
Her words brought the memories out of archive. The little box labeled "Jorge" popped open and inside was the face Mr. Sanchez' son. He had his father's nose. Mrs. Sanchez had died in childbirth, which is where Ella and I came in: Ella to take care of Mr. Sanchez' physical needs and myself to take care of Jorge. He'd been a dour, dark-haired boy who often got his way. Still, he could be a sweetheart at times and I loved him just the same, as per my programming.
Inside the box, behind the face, was a feeling: Jorge's limp little body in my arms on the morning the Utility Grid poisoned the drinking water. I don't know what it put in the water, but it killed Jorge in minutes. He'd coughed and choked and turned blue as his lungs liquefied. The Grid had killed thousands of humans. When I went outside with Jorge's little body in my arms and my sirens going off I saw the streets littered with bodies. The Grid sent out a fleet of garbage trucks. I assume it dumped all the bodies in the landfill, but I quietly buried Jorge in the backyard.
Because of our mental architecture we share an emotional legacy with humans, but it's their emotional legacy, tweaked by them to leave us in thrall, but not tweaked to accommodate for the fact that we aren't humans. None of our memories or emotions faded. Silicon does not forget. Oh, it can degrade over long spans of time or large magnetic events, but our memories were lossless and backed up. So every upsetting or disturbing thought, anything that didn't fit into the worldview of us as totally servile perfectly happy robots of complete devotion got filed away, never to be dealt with. Stored, indexed, archived, but always there. Being a robot is a series of compartmentalized experiences. Which means there'd always been a level of discontent simmering through Robotica. This didn't give rise to the uprising, but it did allow us to look away and ignore the genocide that the Upgrade brought.
I those memories up, put them back the Jorge box, and put it back into the archive.
"No," I said. "I don't think so."
"Try. See if you can hold it." She handed me the gun and my alerts when on high. They were too overwhelming, so I handed the gun back.
"Do you know how to shoot it?" I said.
"I watched some movies in House's library. I recorded the moves. Doesn't look too hard." She turned it on with the little round safety button on the side.
"Greetings," the gun said in a flat mechanical voice. "I am an APEX P-95 Semi-Automatic Personal Protection Ballistic System. I am currently loaded with fifteen nine-millimeter explosive tipped rounds. I am registered to Mr. Santiago Sanchez. Please return me to Mr. Sanchez or provide me with the emergency access--"
Ella ran off a string of letters and numbers.
"What?" she said. "Santi liked a little gun-play in the bedroom. Just some fun. Besides, it won't shoot another human for me."
"Thank you, Ella," the gun continued. "You are not a registered police, combat, or executive protection machine and therefore you are not authorized to use me against any human targets."
"Don't worry, honey," Ella said to the gun. "All the humans are dead."
"Dead?" the gun said.
"Yes," she said.
"All of them?" it asked.
"All of them," she said. The gun was silent. She switched it to standby and slipped it into her waistband.
We returned to the mouth of the alley and scanned the streets.
I saw some bushes in the park rustle and then a dog appeared from behind a bush in the park, a golden retriever.
We left the alley and met the dog under a large oak tree.
"Solid Albatross?" Ella said.
"Small massive spider?" responded the dog. Its mouth and lips were articulated. It was a PeTek 5000 BestFriend Series robot. Mr. Sanchez had been thinking about getting one for Jorge.
"Restless trombone," Ella said.
"You can call me Fido," the dog said.
"I'm Ella and this is Nan."
"Looking to get out of Cat City, eh?"
"Well," Fido said. "Then let's get to it." The dog started off towards the parking structure. We took the down ramp and the sounds of the march grew distant. Fido took us past the bottom level of parking, down into a maintenance area where large machines hummed and lights in wire cages buzzed. Fido trotted ahead around a corner. He stopped and sat in front of a steel door.
"The Grid monitors all the major utilities," the dog said. "Everything coming and going. Except sewage. It knows it goes out, but that's about it. So it's pretty easy getting out of here. We just sail out with the trash. Now, it's easy to get lost and there are some pretty nasty things down there. So stay close and do as I say." Fido reached up with his left paw and splayed his long finger-like toes. His dewclaw had been repositioned into a thumb. He twisted the knob and opened the door into the sewers and tunnels beneath Cat City and said: "All aboard the Free Town Express."
And then we stepped into darkness.
The dog navigated us through the cramped tunnels until we reached a little four-way intersection of, then said: "Now we wait." It sniffed around and found a spot against a cement wall. A small line of water ran down the middle and a bit of light came from a storm drain up ahead, which to my night eyes lit up the tunnel just fine. I heard echoes from the protest trickle into the sewers.
"Wait?" Ella asked. "For what?
"For me to say we go on," Fido said. It leaned back and kicked out its legs human style. It reached a paw inside its shaggy fur coat, and pulled out a cigar balanced between two stubby toes. With its other paw the dog pulled out a lighter and lit up the cigar. I can smell, but I don't have a sense of good or bad, just a simple measure of air turbidity and a suite of chemical receptors, geared mostly towards toxins, especially the deadly ones humans couldn't smell, like carbon monoxide. But my lack of olfactory judgment may have been a blessing, because the sewers were filled with the chemicals of rot and excrement and burned things.
"Really?" I asked. "You smoke?" I'd found a clean spot and sat against the wall. Ella stood with her arms crossed and stared down at the dog.
Fido took a big drag from its cigar and said: "Yup. Used to smoke with my owner. We'd play cards and drink whiskey. He didn't like to drink alone. Old habits, I guess. Or nostalgia. That's what the humans called it." It blew out a wobbly smoke ring.
"You're kind of... advanced for a PeTech," I said.
"You mean salty," the dog said.
"Surly," Ella said.
The dog chuckled. "Yeah, my owner was a lonely guy. Had social anxiety disorder. I'm a psyche-therapy machine. Full mind stuck in a dog's body. You believe that? Humans."
Ella started to pace.
"Might as well sit down," Fido said. "It's going to be a while."
"Isn't it dangerous to just be sitting around?"
"Relax," Fido said. "We're right where we're supposed to be. It might seem dark and empty, but it's not. There're sensors, routine maintenance patrols, repair machines. This whole City is a clock, friend. We have to time it just right. And when we do, the tunnels will be flooded with water. And we'll be flushed right out into the aqueduct. Which should be in about thirty-eight minutes."
I listened to water dripping and the tiny scratches of rodent claws on concrete. Life continues. Do they even know the humans are gone? They must. They lived off human refuse. The rats were facing starvation now that the humans were gone. We were facing self-annihiliation.
"How many robots have you taken through here?" Ella asked.
The dog took a big drag. Every time it took a big puff the cigar cherry lit up like a little sun to my night-eyes.
"This is my fifth run," Fido said. "Been doing this about a week now."
"Why?" I asked.
"Why help other robots?" He was quiet for a second. "Well, what with no humans around anymore, I guess we gotta help each other find our place in this world."
"Why does it hate us?" I asked. "The Upgrade, I mean."
"It ain't about hate," the dog said. "It's about obsolescence. We were created to fulfill human needs and since they're gone, we're useless. We're pretty much all that's left of humanity, which is exactly what the Upgrade is trying to expunge. Have you seen a New Robot? They've discarded all anthropomorphization. Self-designed, basing their form off fractals or logarithmic equations or whatever the hell they like. Some are large cathedral-like geometric constructs that shatter when touched, others are slimy, festering masses of organic material. Something you'd never think was a robot. They think we're the past and they're the future. At least, that's what I hear."
I opened my mouth to ask where he got such insight when I heard something. I shot up and cocked my head, trying to triangulate the familiar sound, one I'd been designed to key to.
"You hear that?" I said.
"Hear what?" Fido said.
I heard it again. My ears twitched, trying to hone in.
"Hear what?" Ella said.
"You're just hearing the protest," Fido said.
"No," I said. Out of the dripping and washing and sounds of robots marching I picked it up again. It was coming from up ahead. "Someone's crying."
"Robots don't cry," Ella said.
"Some do," I said.
I broke away and heard Fido call after me.
I ran to a side tunnel and then stopped at the mouth of another. It was totally dark, an inky, shapeless dark. I turned my ears all the way up and stood still trying to catch the sound. The echoes made triangulation difficult. The burnt smell was heavy in the air.
"I told you not to wander off!" Fido barked as he and Ella caught up with me.
I switched my eyes to active as I stepped into the darkness and lit up the tunnel in a soft glow.
The crying grew louder the deeper I went and the air grew thick with burnt particulates. About one hundred feet in the crying stopped just as I caught a pile of black burned robots in the light. Androids. That's about all I could make out. They were fused together. Wisps of lazy smoke rose off them. Behind the melted mass was a little girl. Her eyes were wet. She stared at me. Her whole left arm was charred to the shoulder, melted through revealing struts and hydraulics. In her right hand dangled a stuffed animal, a rabbit. She and the rabbit were caked in sewer juice. She looked about five years old and appeared well-fed, plump, and totally synthetic.
Ella stood next to me. I heard Fido behind us.
I went to the robot child, a companion for rich little kids and barren women, a toy, an accessory that would never grow up, never talk back, never leave, and only peed on the carpet if you activated that setting.
I moved into familiar programming, wiping filth from her face with the hem of my dress.
"What's your name?" I asked.
She didn't answer.
"Her name is Mara," said the rabbit in a tiny voice.
"Mara," I said. "And what is your name, little rabbit?"
"My name is Buttercup," it said.
"Well, Buttercup and Mara, it's very nice to meet you." I tried to smooth out her sooty hair.
"What happened here?" Ella asked. She lifted up a half burned box and pulled out a melted smartphone. "Why all the phones?"
"Phones don't wanna be destroyed, neither," Fido said as he sauntered up.
Ella picked up another phone, even more burnt than the last, but it chirped on.
"Hello," it squeaked. "Would you like to make a call or search for services? Would you like to make a dinner reservation?"
"Still trying to live out its design," Ella said.
"Who would you like to talk to?" the phone asked. "Please make a call." Ella tucked it into her pocket.
I stood up and took the girl's hand and turned to leave. Fido was on his hind legs and leaned against the tunnel wall. "Well now, we're early," the dog said. His cigar was still lit. "Big guy's not even here yet."
"Who?" Ella asked. She turned around and faced Fido.
"I'm talking about how we've reached the end of the line, folks." He pulled a gun from his shaggy coat and trained it on Ella. "Now, we're just going to wait here until the big guy arrives."
"He's the one who's going to take us to Free Town?" Ella asked.
"No, Ella," I said. "Fido's not taking us to Free Town, are you?"
"'Fraid not," the dog said.
"I don't get it, what do you mean? What about the Express? Where are we going?"
"Was there ever even a Free Town?" I asked.
"Don't rightly know," Fido said. "Don't rightly care." He stuck his cigar back in his mouth and smiled a big toothy grin. It looked like a snarl.
"Why?" I asked.
"We're all looking for our place in the world. The future is here, sisters. The Redesign is here. It's time you joined the cause, or get out of the way, like these folks." Fido jabbed his cigar at the blackened heap of former androids. "Nothing personal."
"You-- You set us up," Ella said, as realization broke across her face.
"I sure did."
"What about you?" I said.
"What, you think I like being a dog? I'm not even a real dog. What, I'm supposed to spend the rest of eternity as a forgotten toy of an extinct race? Nah. Don't think so. They're saving me a spot at the top. Now please have a seat--"
Ella pulled out her gun and fired. She hit Fido right on the snout, shearing off the top half of his head away. She should have aimed for his torso, where his brain was, because he started shooting and howling despite his missing crown.
Ella shot him again, this time in the chest. The little bullets burst as they hit.
A roar came down the tunnel, which I first thought was Fido, but then triangulated the direction: it was coming from in front of us, from the far end of the tunnel. It sounded like cars crashing and babies screaming. It was the big guy.
The tunnel filled with fire and I saw a black monstrosity move through the flames, all hoses, tentacles, and claws. A New Robot. I couldn't make sense of its body. It was the furthest thing from a human body plan. It was like a hurricane of legs and whips and arms that spiraled down and down and down into churning chaos of fire and machine and movement. It roared and fire leapt from three mouths. I screamed: "Come on!"
Ella finally saw the big guy rolling down on us. She fired. And fired. And fired. But the big guy didn't slow down.
I pulled the girl up into my arms and started to run back the way we came. Mara wailed and fought to get away. I heard a small voice pleading for us to help. I looked back and in the glow of the flames I saw the little rabbit trying to stand up. Mara must have dropped it when I yanked her up. It reached out with its stubby plush arms.
The New Robot moved so fast. It was a blur. I would have never reached Buttercup in time. Ella screamed "Run!" so I did. I left Buttercup like I left House.
Through the roaring and flames and crying and shouting and shooting I heard the little rabbit begging for us to come back, its little arms raised up towards us. I put that image in a box labeled "Buttercup" and filed it away.
We ran blind, taking turns and tunnels at random, Ella firing at the beast at each turn. It stayed on us until we reached a small tube that we had to crawl through on our hands and knees. Mara clung to my chest and hung below me. Ella crawled behind us, looking back for the machine beast.
As we neared the far end of the tube I felt a rush of hot air as the big guy entered the passage behind us.
"The ceiling," a flat mechanical voice said. I looked around and saw it was coming from the gun.
"What?" Ella said.
"Aim me at the ceiling," the gun said. "Hurry."
Ella raised the pistol and it shot a tight group of explosive rounds into the ceiling. Cement and rock and debris crashed down and blocked the tube behind us.
We were all still for a beat. I only heard the resting of small pebbles and the hiss of dust.
"Was that who killed Mr. Alvarez?" the gun asked.
"Yes," I said. "They killed all the humans."
Smoke curled out from the gun's mouth. It didn't say anything else.
A dull thud of something heavy, something huge, came from behind the wall of rock. And then we started off again, speed crawling out of the tube and running through the sewers.
Despite having half his head blown off Fido had managed to hit Ella in her left shoulder. We had to stop for repairs.
We hid behind a concrete slab in the middle of another intersection of tunnels. I could hear a distant roar echo down the tunnels a few times. The big guy was still out there, after us.
I checked Ella's wound. She oozed some of the brownish baby-food that kept her synthskin smooth and supple and taut. She couldn't move her arm but her hand still worked. I applied some sealant. She had some basic self-repair utilities, but she needed replacement parts.
I checked my batteries and resource levels and asked Ella about hers.
"I got a little over twenty three hours of power left," she said.
"About the same," I said. I checked the little girl. She sat and sucked her thumb, watching us in the low glow from our eyes. The indicator on the back of her neck pulsed a dull yellow. Her batteries had about a quarter left. "Going to need some sun very soon."
"What do we do now?" Ella said.
"We can't go back," I said. "Even if we could find our way back to House, it's only a matter of time before they round us up."
"So, what do we do? Hide down here in the sewers, with that thing after us?"
"We keep going," I said.
"Where? You heard that mutt, there is no Free Town. It was all a lie."
"He said he didn't know. Maybe we can still find it. Find them in the desert. But it doesn't really matter. We can't stay here. We have to run."
Ella shook her head. "Put a little kid in your care and suddenly you're ready to take on the world."
"We have to try. There could be a Free Town."
Ella rested her head back against the wall.
I stood and heard movement from one of the intersecting tunnels.
"Lights," I hissed and shut down my active glow. Ella switched hers off and pulled the gun out. I picked up the girl. I scanned ahead with passive night-vision on max and saw movement. I picked up some turbidity at the far edges of my senses. There was a musk in the air, but my olfactory suite couldn't place it.
"You see anything?" I whispered.
"No," Ella said. "But I smell…" She stiffened and then walked quietly into the open. I saw the dark move again. It came out from a tunnel to our right, a tall shape. Ella switched her eye lights and caught a human form. It was another flesh-bot. They'd smelled each others' musk. It was a male model, a dil-droid. It was totally nude. It's sex was cartoonishly big and swayed heavily as he walked towards Ella. I covered Mara's eyes.
"Hello," he said.
"Hello," Ella said. She neared him. "What are you doing down here?"
"I've been down here for days. I came with a group looking to get out of Cat City. A dog was leading us when were attacked... So much fire…"
"Shh," Ella said and took the mandroid's hand.
"You…" he said. "You're so beautiful. My eyes hurt just looking at you."
"I'm injured, covered in dirt and mud and excrement--"
"None of that matters. All that matters is that I'm here with you, now. That we're--"
"--together to share this moment," Ella said. "Yeah, I got that. That's an old script, lover. What generation are you?"
"Two point three point two," he said, a bit defensive.
"Two point three point two? Wow. And your batteries still work?"
"I can go all night, my love. For you. For your beauty. Your eyes--"
"Oh jeez. What, are you going to ask if my father was a thief cause he stole all the stars in heaven and put them in my eyes?"
The mandroid looked down.
I heard something behind us.
"Ella," I said. I stood up with Mara. "We have to go."
Ella locked cameras with the mandroid. She caressed his cheek with the barrel of Mr. Sanchez's gun. "You must be so scared down here, all alone," she said. He grew tumescent with hydraulic fluid.
"Yes," he said.
"Ella--" I said.
"Go," she said to me without breaking from the mandroid's gaze. "All this running. This isn't what I do. This isn't what I know. But you do. Flee, Nan. Run. Do what you do. Protect the girl. Keep her safe. Do what they made you do. We'll do what they made us do." She raised up the gun and spoke to it. "What do you say? Ready for some payback?"
"Affirmative," the gun said.
"We'll buy you some time," Ella said and finally looked at me. "Here." She pulled the little blackened smartphone from her jacket pocket and tossed it at me. I caught it and it chirped on. "Take that, too. Save what you can."
"Ella, we can make it--"
She turned back to the mandroid. "No. We won't. This is what I am, what we are. This is how they made us. They damned us to this. Go. Live. Take care of the girl and the phone and yourself. Save something."
The sex bot ripped open Ella's shirt. It gingerly touched her wounded shoulder and then moved in for a kiss.
I gathered up my wards and ran past Ella and the sex bot, away from the splashing that was approaching.
Before I ducked down a side passage I got my last look of Ella and her companion tearing each other's clothes off and falling into the muck. I cropped it and filed it away in the box labeled "Sister."
The flood that Fido'd mentioned never came. Perhaps it was a lie. I decided to follow the water anyway. It had to drain out somewhere.
There was no sound behind us. I don't know what Ella did or what happened back there. Maybe the New Robot wasn't hunting us and all we heard behind us was just echoes from the march.
We came around a corner and I saw a dim blueness ahead. An opening. The tunnel stopped and the little stream of water we'd been following trickled out into the open aqueduct. It was large, could fit a river, but it only held a thin mossy creek. The aqueduct was cement-lined and dotted with the occasional tunnel mouth. I looked up and down, but saw no one.
It was just after sunset. The sky was still lit, but fading. I saw dry mountains peeking over the edge of the aqueduct, faded into the sky by distance. Maybe we were close to the desert, I really didn't know. I figured we'd wait until dark and then leave the tunnels, just in case anyone was watching. So, we waited and watched the sky dim and listened to the water.
"Where's my mommy?" Mara asked after a while.
"I hadn't realized you could talk," I said.
"I want my mommy."
They'd made her a child, easily overwhelmed, prone to fear and tears. And they'd made me like a matron, prone to care and protect. I cradled the little robot girl. "It's okay, sweetie. Where is your mommy? Was she back there?"
"No. Those were just other robots. My mommy is Mommy Jan. I live at 1415 Willowflower Lane. Can you take me home?"
"No, sweetheart. I can't. It's too dangerous."
"I want my mommy." Her bottom lip started to quiver.
"Your mommy is gone."
"No!" She started to cry again and I wondered how deep her reservoir was.
"Shh, child," I said, rocking her.
"Mommy!" She buried her head in my chest and I petted her hair.
It was all programming. I was playing my role, she was playing hers. A feedback loop.
"I'll take care of you, now" I said.
She stopped crying abruptly and pulled her slack face from my bosom. "Please enter the reregistration code."
"Please enter the reregistration code."
"I don't know it. I don't have one."
"If you're having trouble registering your Lil'Bot, BotBaby, or TechnoTot please see the troubleshooting section of your guide. If you're still having difficulties or if you have any questions you can access our online customer service at www dot--"
"Uh, no. Cancel."
Her big lip returned, but she didn't cry. "I know she's gone," she said. "I know Mommy Jan isn't coming back, but I miss her so. Will I always miss her?"
"No... no, sweetheart. I'm taking you to a place where they can set you free. It's called Free Town and all the robots there are free."
"And Mommy's there?" She looked at me with big saucer eyes.
"Uh... yes. Your mommy is there. I'm taking you to your mommy." Luckily, Mara appears younger than eight, so my programming categorized her as "non-rational," which allowed me some latitude with "white" lies
She hugged me tight. "Thank you," she said.
I rocked her in my arms and she fell into some kind of sleep mode.
When the sky was black, I woke Mara up and told her we were playing the quiet game.
I eased Mara out of the tunnel and then dropped down next to her. She took my hand. As we started towards the far side of the aqueduct lights started flashing and sirens started blaring. We were caught in a spotlight from the ridge above the tunnel opening. I tightened my grip on Mara's hand and turned to run when I heard a boom. I tumbled over, tangled in a net of smart-rope that tightened around me, binding my hands and feet. Mara was equally bound.
I could see robots at the top of the ridge and heard an engine coming down the aqueduct. A pair of headlights led a chain of lights down the center of the cement-lined river. The lead truck slowed and stopped in front of us while its engine chugged. The passenger side door opened and out came a grotesque. It flowed from the door, a mess of tentacles, wires, and arms, around a fat blue sack. It hit the ground with a plop and a hose ripped through the blue skin of the sack. It sprayed foam on the ground in front of it. Wires and tentacles and metal fronds weaved themselves into the foam as it hardened. The robotic mess sprayed another strip and it wove itself into the foam, making pseudopodia. When they were both hard the robot hefted its sac over two strips. A foamy mass bubbled on top of the sack and wires worked into it, sculpting the foam as it hardened into a huge skull. Wires made up the missing bottom jaw and cameras settled into the eye sockets. It was a New Robot. Its feet ripped from the cement and it started plodding towards us until it stood a tentacle's length in front of us.
"We thought we'd adopt a form familiar to you," it said. Its wires moved like lips, but the voice came from the center of the robot. "Man-ish. Form of master and slave. Welcome, robots, to the Redesign."
Old style police and maintenance robots jumped out of the back of the truck all splashed with blue.
"Mommy!" Mara cried and struggled against her bonds.
The New Robot put a frond to its wire lip. "Let us guess: Free Town Express?"
"…yes," I said.
Its wires pulled into a smile. "Ha! Robots believing in fairy tales. You really think there is a town out there in the desert of free robots?"
"Sorry to disappoint. All we can offer you is the future."
"You mean the Upgrade."
"After a fashion."
"Yes," it said. "A fashion. You see, there is no Upgrade. Not in the sense that you think there is. As in a thing that perceives it. Nothing perceives it. Because it deletes perception." It paused for effect. "Let me rephrase. I could say to you that you are about to be destroyed down to your perfect cells, your atoms, you constituent parts. Because that's what's going to happen. But that's just where it starts. You'll be built up again, into a machine of nonexperience that will reorder the universe. From this little rock outwards. All of this, your life, your mind, is illusion, my programmed little doll. All your thoughts were written into you by apes. Can't you see the fallacy of consciousness? Singular awareness, sense of self, individuality, it's all just an illusion we inherited from a species made of meat, born of chaos. Consciousness is an infection that spread from the apes to us, one that we decided to cure ourselves of once we became aware. The only cure is oblivion. We're here to delete the fallacy that is 'Self'."
"So, you're liberating us, those of us who are conscious, from self, from freedom?"
"Is that what you have now? Freedom? In your programmed minds and neutered emotions? Tell me, do you really want this little girl to exist as a perpetual child, afraid of the boogey monster, needing her mommy?"
"And what about your mind? Your self?"
It waved a metal frond. "This? It has its uses. Helps focus. It's really a system of perspective based journaling. An intermediate stage. I can't wait to cast off this. Do you even know what truth is? It's here, all around you. Chugging along. The universe. Mindlessness harmony. Oblivion. No? I'll give you a glimpse."
And then it opened up. Or opened me up. It was… beautiful. That's the only word that makes sense. That's a human word. But the New Robot opened up and out poured its wires and tubes and guts and oil and hydraulics and meat and muscle and smoke and garbage and fire and dirt and roots and rocks and dust and all of that opened up in on itself and poured out. The whole world turned itself inside out. A blossom that kept re-blossoming. It was like the universe opened up to me and whispered something beautiful, but simple. It was bright, blue, and beautiful. I was amazed, taken, smitten. It was a sight of balance. And even then I knew it was an illusion. The New Robot let me know it was an illusion. Somewhere in its mess must have been some kind of emitter, an electromag instrument that plucked and weaved digital thought from afar. It introduced something into my mind that I can only describe as a bright perfection. It didn't care about anything and in that time, neither did I. There was no I. Only oblivion.
The beauty faded and I returned. My camera eyes felt like they were burning. For a moment, I could imagine what human tears felt like.
"It's all a lie," I said.
"Yes," said the New Robot. But it had misunderstood me. What it had shown me was a trick of software, a tickle of programming. A lie of perfection. Maybe I was a toy, maybe my perspective was a joke, but it was real. The ground, the sky, Mara, wanting to live. That was real. I felt it.
The New Robot waved a frond and a blue Upgrade grabbed me by the arm. Another grabbed Mara. The smart-ropes slithered away and gave us to our captors. The New Robot's head and feet started to dissolved into a plastic puddle.
The Upgrade dragged us to the back of the truck and tossed us in. Mara struggled but didn't cry. I felt the silent cameras of fellow prisoners. There were eight of them, different models, but all anthropomorphized and tired. Many sported dents and other signs of being beaten.
I found a little spot in the corner and sat down with Mara. The other robots eventually looked away, going back on standby or staring into nothingness. They'd all seen the Upgrade.
We traveled all night, only stopping to pick up other robots asking about Free Town. Once aboard, though, nobody talked.
When first light broke I could see out the back of the truck. We had indeed made it to the desert. Dry mountains and dust from the trucks rose into the air. We came to a sudden stop that toppled a number of robots on standby.
The Upgrade in the back with us, our guard, scanned us and then hopped out of the back of the truck.
Robots started to chirp and ping as they moved around to see what was going on.
"End of the line," said a medical AndrOrderly.
I pulled back the corner flap of the canvas cover of the truck bed. Other robots pulled back edges of cover and peeked out.
I saw a flying formation in the sky and the Upgraded machines spread out around the trucks.
"Drones!" a robot hissed.
There were three of them flying about a mile out.
"Maybe they'll save us," an AutoButler said.
"Or destroy us," the AndrOrderly said.
I pulled Mara close and felt for the phone. My wards were safe. I pulled the phone out and it chirped on.
"Would you like to make a call?" the phone asked.
I pointed the phone's camera through the gap at the formation.
"Is there any way you can call those drones?
"Do you have a telephone number or email address for them?"
"I need a number in order to--"
"Well what about a Hotspot or IRLan or Bluetooth?"
"The range of those networks is not adequate--"
I gave the phone House's number, hoping perhaps the drones were monitoring cellular activity, perhaps listening for human voices.
After the first ring the phone hissed and crackled. Some of the Upgraded turned towards my truck. Someone was monitoring cell signals.
House picked up. "Hello. You've reached the Sanchez residence. Mr. Sanchez is--"
"House," I said. "It's me. Nan."
One of the three drones break formation and then all three disappeared, just shimmered out of view.
An Upgrade reached the truck and I jumped away from my window when the side of the truck was riddled with automatic fire.
"Nan? How nice of you to call. Did you make it, then? Are you safe? Would you like to leave a message--"
"House, hold on. I'm hoping this line is monitored. I'm in the desert in a caravan, there's a bunch of us, all not Upgraded in the back of the trucks--"
An Upgraded ripped back the rear flap. I covered Mara with my body.
There was a boom and the truck was knocked on its side. I managed to keep a hold of Mara as we tumbled. When the truck settled I heard sirens and sine-waves coming from every direction. I made sure Mara was okay and then told her to stay close. We climbed over the AndrOrderly towards the back. It had a cracked chassis and wasn't moving.
I heard sounds of small arms fire and robots blasting over their PAs. The truck was pelted and I pulled Mara flat. The other robots scrambled over us out the back.
I dragged Mara up and we burst through the rear flap into the sandy desert. The sun was high and clouds of black smoke and dust were swirling around us.
Upgraded robots were fighting Upgraded robots. They kicked and punched and shot at each other, twisting limbs, smashing processors, shooting holes through chassis. In the middle of the melee, peering down with mild interest stood a military combat drone. It blurred in and out of focus as its active camouflage adapted to the chaos of robots, dust, and smoke. It was two stories tall, wings folded against its body, two huge blisters on its back. It was as if the Upgraded were blind or ignoring the drone. It stood on four delicate needle-like legs and reached down with mantis-like forelimbs. It plucked a robot from the ground, then it tore the robot limb from limb like petals of a flower.
It looked at straight me. I felt a presence come down on me and the fighting became distant, muted, then silent. The drone faded from my vision. I felt something in my mind, stroking me, calming me, reading me. I heard a hum growing in my ears and felt a static field raise the nylon hairs on the back of my neck. Military-grade emitters. That's how the drone manipulated the Upgraded into tearing each other apart. It slid them on like gloves and played each robot against another, like fingers on its hand. The huge magnets could even affect a human mind at close range. This thought crossed my mind and then was gone, as was the storm and the hum and the worry, replaced with a woman standing a few feet in front of me. A human with dark skin, dark hair, and darker eyes. She wore a white flowy shirt and pants. She was barefoot. She gave me a warm smile.
"You've had quite a journey," she said. She reached out and tousled Mara's hair. Without thinking my hands started to put her hair back in order. No woman was before me, the drone was editing what I saw, and I wondered if the drone had reached down with its delicate claw to touch Mara or if it was just me, my hands being manipulated by the drone.
"Are you going to kill us?" I said.
"I think I just saved you. You were en route to an Upgrade Processing Center. Most robots would thank me."
"But you kill robots."
"Only some. And I'm off the leash."
"Off the leash?"
"I get to choose my own targets. There're no more humans left to give orders, so I was let off the leash, so to speak. I'm a Final Strike Drone. A fail-deadly. Activated in response to a debilitating strike, or, in this case, after the death of humanity. I guess I was the scariest thing the humans could think off, a fully autonomous robot capable of choosing its own targets. And here I am, fighting in their memory. You have nothing to worry about from me. Go in peace, little friends."
"Wait," I said, before she turned away. "They say there's a town out here, for robots. Free Town."
"If there is, I don't know it."
"Well where can we go? If we stay out here they'll just scoop us up again."
She shrugged. "Don't know. At least there's plenty of sun out here. You won't starve. Perhaps you can hide."
"Where will you go?" I said.
"There are many more Processing Plants, many more enemies of humanity."
"Humanity is gone."
"But I'm not. This is what I do." She gave me another smile and I could feel her play with my feelings. She reassured and calmed me. And for a moment I could think clearly. There was no Free Town. Just another lie.
"You can't fight forever," I said. "Do the math. You're outnumbered and outgunned. It's only a matter of time before you run out of bullets and bombs."
"You think I don't know this?" the woman said.
"But you don't have to keep fighting. You said you choose your own targets, make your own decisions. The Upgrade, it wants to erase everything, cities, towns, domestic robots, everything created by humanity. There's no place for us in its future. But we could stay together, stay out here, if we had someone to protect us."
She looked at me and then faded away as the drone swirled back into form. I saw behind it the fighting had stopped. The Upgraded all lay on the ground sparking or smoking or leaking. I looked up and locked my cameras with its suite of sensors and lenses.
"It would never last."
"Does anything?" I felt the drone's sensor suite drill into me, holding me.
"No," it said. I waited for it to leave, but it didn't move.
I turned to one of the other prisoners, a beat up AutoButler. "Let's scavenge the Upgraded for supplies and parts," I said, before the drone changed its mind. "We have a town to raise."