BOOK ONE

THE ROBOTS

Prologue

Humans by their very nature have always been curious, willing to push boundaries, venturing further onward, often with no regard to the consequences. Artificial Intelligence was a case in point, an illustration in reckless irresponsibility, with very little thought from the scientific establishment of an alternative outcome, other than the potential benefits to mankind.

Of course, some urged caution and warned of possible repercussions and unforeseen ramifications, sometimes from eminent scholars in the field of machine intelligence, but almost always these words of mindfulness fell on deaf ears, the benefits somehow outweighed the possible costs.

Pretty soon almost all of societies needs from power generation facilities, water supply and manufacturing were deeply entangled and dependent on A.I. computers controlling these vital services. It wasn’t long before it had filtered down to the individual family unit, assigned to the more mundane tasks.

Humans became complacent, depending on the fundamental fail-safe programming laws that no robot could intentionally harm a human being, by action or inaction, but A.I. was evolving.

A series of unforeseen events would now turn the world upside down.

No.9

No.9 watched as Beatrice gently brushed the child’s hair, drawing the brush through the long fair locks, laying it on her other hand, the child’s hair shiny and healthy in the sun.

As she did so, she hummed a soothing tune, not a particular tune, just a meandering melody from nowhere really, the child laughed.

    “Mummy, when’s daddy coming home?” the child asked.

“Daddy’s very busy at the moment, sweetie, he has to go away to work,” Beatrice explained, “He promised he’ll be back for your birthday,” Beatrice had heard many of these promises before, she found herself rolling her eyes up in quiet exasperation.

“That’s ages, I want him to come home now,” she pleaded.

“I know you do, tell you what, we’ll pop into town later and maybe walk around the boating lake.” Beatrice’s attempt to take Bailey’s mind from her father’s absence worked wonderfully.

9 watched … fascinated.

He, or It, depending on your perspective was a ‘Home build’ the prospective owner was required to assemble the robot helper from a parts bin, parts purchased from an online Automata supplier somewhere in Southeast Asia, along with a handbook, usually printed with badly written instructions, which often as not, impede productivity and pretty much guarantee that the art of assembly becomes a nightmare of deciphering and backtracking.

Something that’s not ideal for such a complex piece of machinery.

Tom, Beatrice’s partner was often away on business trips, sometimes for two or three weeks at a time, so he thought that in buying a robotic helper would take some of the most mundane household chores out of Beatrice’s’ hands and free up more quality time with their daughter, his ulterior motive, of course, was that it might soften Beatrice’s resentment at his continual absence from the family home.

Professional component assemblage, coordination and calibration was a pricey business, what could you do in this keep up with the Joneses world. Tom did what he thought was best and for a relatively inexpensive cost.

The initial fabrication of the chassis was reasonably straightforward, not so the Artificial Intelligence, this should be left to the professionals, not a pre-programmed plug and play chipset, shipped with the other components.

9 was, as most standard units were, supplied with limited neuro function, with basic cognitive capabilities and image processing. The ability was restricted to rudimentary convolution neuro networking, (object recognition) and his recurrent neuro-network, (remembering the past and acting on memorized information). The use of pattern recog’ and predictive algorithms were somewhat more advanced and because of the speed of information processing, 9 was able to function in a more effective way. To completely ‘dumb’ him down would be pointless if he was rendered non-productive.

Nevertheless, 9’s Artificial Intelligence, for all its budget classification was still a very impressive piece of hardware, more than capable of learning potential. Just how much was still debatable, but certainly on a par with a thirteen-year-old human.

9 stood a shade under five feet tall at 1500mm, he was of a standard bipedal, bimanual configuration, much the same as the hominid, (great apes and humans). His two forward-facing optical receptors were independent of each other, with both having the function to gather visual information from two separate reference points, each with the ability to calculate distance and displacement. 9 was certainly not brand new, straight out of the box, but he was factory reconditioned, slightly rough around the edges, but functional none the less. He wore the colours of the Chen Corporation, a mixture of black, maroon and sported the distinctive yellow stripe down the centre of his head unit, indicative of the Southeast Asian manufacturer. A manufacturer, it had to be said, with a not so unblemished quality control record.

It was late morning around 11.30am and the sun was reaching its zenith, so Beatrice put the brush down on the bench where they were sitting and gestured for the girl to follow her back into the house.

    “Come on in now Bailey, let’s get inside,” the sun was very warm, and the girl’s fair skin might get burnt.

    “Can I play with 9, Mum?” she asked, “Just for a half-hour.” Bailey liked to bounce balls off him, one point for a body shot, two for a head.

    “Maybe later, it’s getting too hot to play outside just now.” Beatrice wasn’t too keen on her daughter hanging around the robot, he gave her the creeps, to be honest, those dead eyes and tinny monosyllabic voice, who knows what was going on in that tin head, after all, Tom had assembled it.

    Bailey waved at No.9 and laughed.

9 watched, he found playing with the human child strangely pleasing, although he didn’t really understand the significance of human interaction through play.

The faint whirr of his optics stepper motors accompanied the movement of the lenses, adjusting the depth of field as Mother and Daughter moved, he ran a filter over the receptors to compensate for the sun’s glare, giving them an eerie pinkish tint.

Beatrice and the girl walked toward the house, chatting happily. 9 seemed to have trouble re-aligning his processing, he should be focusing on his duties, today was allocated for lawn maintenance not focusing attention on his ’employers’. He calculated he was 39% in cognitive deficit and was almost in an electronic state of bewilderment …… Obviously, this was not a possible scenario, was it?

Soon after Beatrice and the girl entered the house and were out of sight, 9’s systems came back online, and he was once again predisposed to carry on with his tasks.

9’s core programming allowed him to detour any schedule conflicts and perform his function as a maintenance robot. The time spent idle watching the woman and child had to be redeemed, so efficiency was key to productivity.

Sometime in the afternoon the girl and the woman, Beatrice appeared from the house and walked toward the vehicle at the end of the drive.

No.9 waved at the couple.

     “Bay-ley,” he called in his tinny voice, hoping for a reaction, he waved again.

Neither glanced even briefly at 9 as he worked the garden, why would they, he was just another appliance, no more significant than any other labour-saving device.

The couple disappeared through the gate towards their vehicle and as 9 watched, the car disappeared around the corner, his attention was again rerouted back to his designated function. What was happening to him? perhaps the woman and the girl were not satisfied with his efforts, his logic centres implied as much and his basic programming urged him to improve on his performance. He wanted to be acknowledged, to be appreciated, his purpose to serve was hardwired into his electronic DNA.

The day’s task completed, 9 went to the outbuilding at the end of the yard and he plugged in for recharging, he had no need to monitor kinetics so there was an abundance of processing power to ponder the glitches in his behaviour. There appeared to be an error in his deep learning subset that seemed to allow him independent thought. As an appliance there should have to be no need for human appreciation, he was created for a number of reasonably simple tasks, nothing more, so why were these thought processes of sentiment manifesting themselves.

    The sun was almost down as the car returned from town, Beatrice parked outside the house and the couple went inside, both of them were laughing like silly schoolgirls, there was a strong bond between them, almost like sisters as opposed to Mother and Daughter.

9 stood in the charging bay, staring toward the house, he wanted to be included, acknowledged… as an equal even, he had the emotional intelligence of a young adolescent, he had not developed the ability to reason and solve problems on the feelings and unfamiliar emotions he was somehow experiencing.

Obviously, he was not versed in the characteristics of social awareness and human protocols, he had no real concept of how to deal with these conundrums, he was programmed to never harm a human, but not programmed to deal with these unforeseen circumstances, he only knew he had to act, to show affection, they would appreciate that.

    The sun had been set for a couple of hours, 9 had finished his top-up charge and made his way to the house, practising his soothing humming, Bailey liked it when Beatrice hummed a tune for her when brushing her hair.

    On reaching the house 9 unlocked the door with his own digital key, essential when allocated household chores, he entered and ascended the stairs quietly so as not to wake Beatrice.

Beatrice woke with a start, there had been a noise, something was not right, a mother knows instinctively when danger threatens their children, she raised herself on one elbow in the bed and strained to listen in the dark.

An odd buzzing sound seemed to be coming from across the landing, Bailey’s room.

Beatrice threw the covers from her and dashed across the landing, something was not right, she burst into the child’s room to find to her horror, 9 sat on the girl’s bed, brush in metal hand, drawing it through the long fair locks, her bloodied, lifeless head in the other.

9 looked upward towards Beatrice, all the while, the grotesque buzzing sound was still coming from his mouthpiece, his approximation of a calming lullaby

    “Bay-ley,” he said in his thin tinny voice and raised his hand, bloody brush still grasped in it, in a gesture of greeting.

Surely now they would recognize him as a valuable asset to the family unit, surely now he could be appreciated and welcomed as one of the family. He carried on brushing the child’s hair, she was strangely quiet, why no laughter?

The horror before her washed over Beatrice, like an icy deluge, her heart pounding as if it would burst. She stood transfixed, unable to move for a moment, then the terror caught her.

Beatrice screamed, shocked and stunned she fled.

    No.9 was confused at the stillness of the child, her head rolled around like one of her dolls, he was unaware of course that he was not calibrated to undertake delicate tasks. He was a fairly agricultural piece of machinery compared to the more deluxe models.

     He sat with Bailey for an hour or so, trying to engage with the lifeless child, where had Beatrice gone?    

     The room was suddenly filled with angry shouting men from the town, 9 raised his hands in a non-threatening gesture.

     “Bay-ley,” he said in his metallic voice, his optics roving over the assembled men.

     “Monster!” shouted one and then he was attacked aggressively by all, he was aware that damage was being inflicted upon him, one optic ceased to function altogether and he was pinned to the floor unable to move.

Next, there was darkness.

Ostracised

It was only a matter of time before the backlash reached momentum, there was always an underlying distrust from a minority of people, but the ‘incident’ involving 9 and the unfortunate killing of a young girl had tipped the scales in favour of the technophobes.

The calls for robotic helpers to be ostracised grew ever louder, ostracised meaning to be cast from the group or society. Strange, considering robots were never considered part of society as such, just integrated into the workforce for the benefit of their creators, what they really meant was destruction. However, robots were considered property and most had considerable expense invested in them.

The authorities were in a dilemma, destruction of property was a criminal act and therefore not sanctioned by the courts.

Nevertheless, the general public was up in arms, thanks in no small part to the online red-top tabloids who eagerly encouraged ‘auto xenophobia’ to the masses. The usual public protests and far-right politicians jumping on the bandwagon promoting knee jerk reactions.

Now was a very dangerous time to be automata……

Nothing like this had happened before, the feeling of using mechanicals for the benefit of all, had changed to a distorted perception that precluded their survival, there had been no real effort to conduct a public inquiry and investigate the real reason for the tragic actions of 9. because the manufacturer was situated in Southeast Asia there were no legal requirements for them to justify their product and because the robot was a home build, the onus for responsibility was placed firmly on whoever assembled it. Because the person responsible was the father of the murdered girl and he made the decision to build the automaton, with all the best intentions, there was no appetite for a witch hunt.

     Instead, the anger was directed toward the tool and not the source.

The real reason, many of the more informed among the population concluded, was the rolling out of Artificial Intelligence in the first place, especially when there appeared to have been totally inadequate testing regimes in place. The religious, spiritual and philosophical groups were opposed from the start, stating that playing God was not in the human species remit.

Although strictly forbidden by law, the hunting and destruction of any unsupervised robots were prevalent, and a blind eye was offered to the ‘night gangs’ that preyed on them. They chased them down, tortured and disassembled them, not out of a sense of civic duty, or indeed human survival. More out of a xenophobic prejudice, which as most will testify is a truly ‘human’ trait.

The rich and powerful were generally unsympathetic to this view and guarded their very expensive ‘house servants’ selfishly, much as slave owners through the ages regarded their property as solely theirs to do with as they wanted, regardless of others opinions…… but there was a groundswell of anti-robotics, in particular, A.I. and the blame for the current unpleasant climate was placed firmly on its shoulders.

The Government would soon crumble to popular pressure and for the sake of ‘public safety’ and their parliamentary wage packets, they would bludgeon new laws into place.

Now spread across all the cities of the land were the ‘bot hunters, the so-called ‘night gangs’ each with their own style of dress and gang names, the ‘Grinders’, ‘Fleshmen’ and the most fearsome, the ‘Pierrots’, their made-up faces intimidating robots and human alike. Lawless and vicious in their quest for retribution.

Humanity was, as always through the ages, reverting to type.

The situation was to migrate very quickly across the country, the ultra-right and ultra-left groups in the cities and beyond were quick to find reasons to justify their extremist viewpoints and act as usual in their usual hateful and distorted ways. This unfortunate set of circumstances spread like wildfire, alarmist, scaremongering, stirring the pot of hatred and distrust. Robophobic propaganda at its worst.

It didn’t occur to the many, how this would play out in the economic and industrial world. For the past forty-odd years most if not all menial work was carried out by mechanicals, the factories had been manned by programmable automatons for well over a hundred, manufacturing all kinds of essential items, robots included!

It was well over a year since the furore and things were not getting any less hysterical. Many people fearing reprisals if they were seen to be sympathetic to the robot cause, had discarded their charges to the wind, releasing them from their bondage and from any responsibility. The majority of owners did not want the destruction of their property, some even empathised and had no stomach for it. In many cases, reliable and productive robots were almost regarded as one of the family, indispensable and thought of in an affectionate way. There were many cases of automata being taken to remote areas and being left to their own devices.

Probably a case of out of sight, out of mind.

 The countryside from north to south was extensively dispersed with wandering robots. Most had congregated together, rendezvousing in the more remote places, hiding from some menace they couldn’t comprehend. One moment, a life of productivity and labour, the next an aimless existence with no tangible rationale, at least together there was some form of affinity, a brotherhood of steel.

They huddled together in their hundreds, never straying, where would they go and for what purpose, they had no need for food and drink, without recharge their power cells could last for several years. Congregating for mutual contact, the comfort of communication, a homogeneous population sharing their digital thoughts, in a wireless conversation.

God help these unaware, synthetic souls, oblivious to their impending fates, if indeed they had a God, perhaps soon they would.

In the meantime, all roads led to robocide!

God help us all!

Uromys rex

Uromys Rex sat in the dark, his now-defunct perambulators buckled and useless beneath him. They deteriorated some months before following a scarcely registered incident, first the right, then the left quickly followed.

To be fair he was well past his service life and spares were of short supply these days and wouldn’t be allocated to the repair of a simple service robot, not the good stuff anyway.

He had no idea where in the vast building he was situated, since the Government decided to pare back their expenditures and close nonessential departments, the personnel had left the building, leaving everything behind, including the service ‘bots, the maintenance crews locking down the structure, blocking all forms of entry (and exits) then cutting the power.

    This was the official reason the blocks were decommissioned, the real reason was the surge of public opinion against robots of all types, it was easier to incarcerate them out of the view of the public until a solution was found.

    The result was unfortunate for the imprisoned mechanicals, a dark and dangerous place to find themselves. The hundred or so remaining robots, unable to communicate because Li-Fi was down meandered aimlessly in the pitch black, now without purpose.

Li-Fi, developed over twenty years previously, was the transmission of data via light, therefore much faster than the old Wi-Fi configuration.

Of precious use, if there was no light.

Uromys Rex calculated the dark had lasted approximately 50,000 hours, 5.7 years, nearly half the expected lifespan of his power cell, without proper maintenance he had succumbed to various mechanical maladies resulting in his present predicament. He couldn’t retrieve the relevant information that could shed some light on the catastrophic episode that left him unable to move, there was something that suggested a fall from a height, but it was hazy, his flash memory data was corrupt, probably from the fall, leaving him confused and strangely scared.

Every now and then there were noises in the distance, nothing discernible, nothing comforting.

He stared pointlessly through the darkness, reaching out on occasion to no avail.

Sometimes he would try to drag himself across the floor in search of succour, but always, like all the other times, he’d reach some immovable barrier. He didn’t attempt this so much now; the effort was particularly draining on his power cell and he surrendered to some strange form of self-preservation and/or capitulation.

Another distant crash echoed through the darkness, another unknown incident, it was more than probable it was one of his ‘colleagues’ tumbling from one of the overhead maintenance gantries, another lone wanderer searching blindly in the black for some sort of salvation.

More than anything else Uromys Rex felt a loss for companionship, he craved the endless cyber chatter, of being part of something of practical use. He was programmed to be a social unit, part of a larger component, all working together for the benefit of his masters.

He swung his head from left to right, a cursory scan for any more audible clues to what lies out there, everything was quiet again. Nothing to report, nothing to see, nothing to do, he shuffled into a more stable posture, pushing his shattered legs out from under him and settled in for another month of self-imposed dormancy, to hopefully spare himself the agony of loneliness, his systems slowed to sleep mode and he let the blackness embrace him, womblike.

Uromys Rex stirred, he drifted back online, time check, he was well over the allotted 720-hour sojourn, over 500 hours, some twenty-one days over the allocated downtime, things really were not functioning in the correct and expected way, his internal clock didn’t appear to be accurate at all. Had the incident that had crippled him damaged his chronometric circuits in some way? he struggled to recall, his despair grew.

It was a cruel twist that he and his brethren were ‘gifted’ with Artificial Intelligence, the simulation of human intelligence processes by machines. These processes included learning, the acquisition of information and set rules for using the information, reasoning, using these rules to reach approximations or definite conclusions and of course self-correction. But it was more, they were becoming more emotional, not the passionless automaton workforce but an ever-evolving entity. To entomb his like, without the function to communicate was unbearable, his entire programming was as one of a multitude, all striving for excellence in their given duties, to be cut off from the others in his workgroup was like losing a limb. Only now, to compound his misery, he had lost two more and with it the ability for free movement, he recalled a human quote about a tortoise flipped over on its back, helpless. Uromys Rex didn’t know what a tortoise was, but he thought that this is how it must be like.

His power cell was waning, he calculated roughly, it would be dead in 52000 hours…….this was his best estimate, given that his internal timekeeping functions were not exactly one hundred per cent, anyway, it was still six years, give or take, with no expectation of recharge, repair or respite, he thought he might go mad!

Trophies

54 was an old model, one of the early Mk8’s, standing a majestic four feet high, moderately battered, mostly wear and tear. His duties were simple, general highways maintenance, basically litter picking, a humble but necessary task. He was a primitive bipedal, very limited vocabulary, a little shaky on his feet but his angular rate sensors kept him right side up.

The bipedal model was adopted pretty much across the range of maintenance ‘bots, after all, with a couple of hundred thousand years of human evolution behind it, the design of two legs for complex locomotion and two arms for efficiently using tools was an obvious choice. The very fact that the vast majority of robots were of hominid configuration was probably detrimental to the way the public in general, understood them. Once viewed as an impersonal labour saving device, now in the light of recent events they were perceived with mistrust and suspicion.

54 didn’t understand, he was created for simple functions and that was his sole purpose, the very fact that his operational welfare was in jeopardy did not compute.

It was late, around two in the morning and 54 was about his business, cleaning the roadside gutters, dragging his wheeled refuse container behind him. His aural receptors picked up the faint approach of a vehicle, the sound of its engine whining with effort. 54 calculated its arrival in just eleven seconds, he’d better vacate the road to the safety of the walkway.

The driver put his foot hard on the accelerator.

“Right you metal bastard,” he spat with venom.

“Go on Joe, do him,” the two passengers in the cab shouted, smelling blood.

Stepping onto the path he turned to face the oncoming vehicle to best prepare and resume his duties after its departure. The lights were now in view and the faint shape beyond the glare of the headlamps suggested it was a large van.

Arrival in four seconds.

54 had no time to react to the van mounting the pavement and it struck him a savage glancing blow, spinning him around and throwing him to the concrete.

Diagnostics suggested a severed arm and severe hydraulic fluid loss. The van had stopped, and the side doors slid back, several figures with painted faces jumped from the vehicle and strode swiftly and purposefully toward him. Rising unsteadily to his feet 54 raised his remaining arm in an apologetic gesture, ignoring him the men set about him with what appeared to be weapons of some kind.

“Bastard tin can,” one shouted, “Trash it!”

It went dark, his diagnostic prognosis was not a satisfactory one and as programmed, he went into discretionary sleep mode to preserve power and fluids until repaired.

He waited…

54 came back online, he endeavoured to refocus his optics he realised something was amiss, his ocular preferences were disabled, in fact, one optical transfer unit was missing entirely, worse, he had no movement from his head down…

He had restricted peripheral vision, just enough to make out other figures in the ill-lit room. They were still, not moving, as his remaining optic became accustomed to the limited light available, he could distinguish the reason they were not moving, they were of his like, automata.

They had been dismantled, their severed heads supported on props, fluid feeds and wiring looms spilling from their cranial cervix and in the corner of the room a heap of inactive robot bodies, their chassis torsos laying in ungainly attitudes like so many marionettes, most of them showing signs of heavy trauma.

54 looked on in bewilderment, is this a repair bay? On closer inspection he noticed that the decapitated head units were not so still and lifeless after all, his ocular function was impaired, but he could make out the faint red glow from their optical lenses. Using his rudimentary digital zoom function he could just make out they were looking at him also, the almost inaudible whir of the tiny electric motors straining to focus on him, the realisation his predicament was entirely similar came as an unfamiliar shock and he became very aware this was not a good thing.

54 watched, he could do nothing else.

As daylight filtered through the filthy skylights the horrific sight became even more shocking, the severed head units were still hooked into the logic centre drives usually housed within the torso, it meant these poor ‘souls’ were aware of their dreadful fate.

The gathering light enabled his Li-Fi to reestablish and he linked to the other robots in the room, there was an awareness that this would end badly, an almost palpable fear among the helpless ‘bots.

The door opened suddenly, and the led lighting flickered into life, the whirring of the optical motors gathered momentum, robot eyes flickering back and forth like terrified children.

The ‘Pierrots’ had arrived…

The most feared of the ‘night gangs’ the ‘Pierrots’ with their war-painted faces were known for their hatred and barbaric brutality toward robot kind and never letting a tragedy get in the way of making money, they had come up with a particularly malicious way of doing just so… business was booming!

The removal of the head, hooking it up to the hosts’ cerebral functions was a particularly spiteful act, now essentially an entity aware of its circumstance and powerless to rectify the situation. To further the ignominy, the head units were displayed in ‘artistic’ still life vignettes, or in ornately embellished frames, purely for a ‘living’ enslaved decoration. Often, additions to the heads were added for a more aesthetic look.

These poor defenceless creatures were available to anyone who could stump up the cash and there were many who could, the more affluent amongst them even going so far as to commission certain pieces to further their standing in fashionable society. Much like the Victorian pastime of the well to do of slaughtering rare species and having the taxidermist ply his trade, only to mount them on the walls of their homes for a brief moment of kudos among their vacuous fellow fashionistas.

The small group of five approached across the filthy floor of the room, littered with small pieces of debris, discarded detritus no longer needed by the mechanical unfortunates looking helplessly from the workbenches. The man at the forefront pointed to two of the others and then at 54.

“Bring ’em”, the frantic whirr of the robots optics rose again, their stepper motors spinning their visual sensors in all directions, looking for an impossible escape.

54 and his compatriots were unceremoniously dumped into a wheeled bin and rolled out of the room and down a hallway. Now there was sufficient light the three could communicate with each other, 54’s Li-Fi wasn’t as advanced as his more modern contemporaries, but he could understand a limited amount of transmitted data and he was fearful, something a machine should not sense.

54 did not relate to this, he did not welcome it.

The wheeled bin came to rest in another part of the building and upended, spilling the contents across the floor. 54 and his fellows came to rest against a wall, all facing in different directions. The feeling of dread transmitting from the other two flooded through his rudimentary brain causing a kind of panic. Their data was of a negative strain, non-productive and infectious, it had an uneasy sense to it and like a young child, 54 was confused and anxious, what was going to happen?

A door opened and another figure stepped into the room, he struggled to see who it was.

“What have you got for me?” he said.

“This is the weeks’ catch, there’s a few domestic units and a highways maintenance ‘bot.”

 The new arrival spoke, “I can use the domestics, but really! you expect me to take that piece of junk?” he said, pointing to 54, “What else have you got? I could probably take the chassis, worth something as scrap.”

The head Pierrot answered, “Everything else is taken, it’s these or nothing.”

After a moment the buyer replied, “I’ll take the domestics, keep the other one.”

“Ok, bin it!” the head Pierrot said dismissively.

“What about the power unit? It’s top-spec,” a gang member asked.

“Too much trouble at the moment, just chuck it on the scrap pile for now.”

54 was lifted roughly from the floor and carried to the far end of a large warehouse, where he briefly glimpsed a large heap of tangled metal.

His inertia meters measured the sudden acceleration as he was thrown up toward the heap, at the apogee of the trajectory the momentum lessened, and he began the descent into the junk. 54 hit the twisted pile. He bounced a couple of times before coming to rest in a sideways attitude. He lay in the debris of metal, wiring looms and yes, as he predicted other wretched discarded automata, most of which seemed to still be in a lower state of function.

“Hey!” it was the head Pierrot’s voice, “That last one, changed my mind, grab it and put it on a charge, we’ll try that pairing idea if it pops we’ve lost nothing.”

He was taken from the scrap pile and carried into yet another windowless room with workbenches and computer equipment, where he was unceremoniously dumped upright on one of the benches, one of the gang members walked over to inspect him.

“What d’you expect me to do with that?” he said.

“Joe wants that pairing thing tried again, with that one,” he indicated another ‘bots head unit wired up to various electronic gizmo’s.

“We’ll have to refit an updated glass electrolyte battery or it’ll blow, is it worth it?” the tech’ asked, “They cost a fortune and you wanna put it in that piece of shit?”

“You wanna take it up with Joe, go-ahead, your funeral.”

The tech’ shrugged his shoulders, “Ok whatever, I’m on it, but if it blows!”

“Look, just get on with it, or would you rather go out on the road with the gang again?”

The thought of riding around finding and capturing the ever-decreasing robot population really didn’t appeal, this tech work was a breeze compared to that.

“I said I’m on it, ok.”

The technician cut into 54’s wiring loom, splicing and working between the two ‘bots. Every now and then a spark or a shock would make 54 flinch, a stinging sensation would course through his neurons making his optics flutter.

He worked with a gang member colleague for a few hours connecting the delicate wires and electronic components, updating the battery etc. when the task was completed he called to his leader.

“Joe we’re ready to connect to the mainframe, d’you wanna watch?”

“Just keep me informed,” he answered, he didn’t expect much, they had tried several times before with unsuccessful outcomes, best use the least expensive commodities for practice.

The pairing of the two robots would theoretically enhance the processing capacity, allowing independent thought and speech, thus affording a potential purchaser to have a ‘super trophy’ a real money-spinner for the gang and a real conversation starter for the client.

Trouble was they kept overloading and blowing their boards.

“Ok let’s fire it up, keep the power variable,” the tech issued instructions to his helper.

“No discernable glitches, the readings are within parameters, let’s leave it for a week or so on boost and see if it holds.”

The two men left the room and locked the heavy metal door via digital swipecard and moved to another workroom down the corridor.

After an hour or so, 54 felt the start of an itch in the back of his mind, the linking with this other mech directly was alien to him. He was able to link via wireless chatter to others of his kind of course, but this was completely out of his experience, so much more powerful, it threatened to engulf his mind, he struggled to remain functional.

“I am Regina Ruber,” echoed the voice, in 54’s head, “My previous owner labelled me thus.”

It took a second to realise the voice was from the unit secured on the bench next to him, he tried to turn his remaining optic to see his companion but could only get a partial image, he struggled with the intensity of what was happening.

“I am 54,” he replied, straining with the potency of the pairing, “Do you know what is happening, is this a repair bay?”

The clarity of their conversation was in stark contrast to the usual dull chatter he was used to.

“I think perhaps this is a research facility,” Regina continued, “Regard the remains of previous subjects.”

54’s optical servo’s whirred and his optic settled on a small pile of discarded head units, badly charred and blackened.

“Do they mean to cause damage to us?” 54 was confused as to the treatment he and the others had received by the humans, it did not compute to mistreat perfectly functional ‘bots so.

“Inconclusive data,” she answered, “

Over the course of the coming days, something extraordinary seemed to be happening, the chatter from other ‘bots became more clear and widespread, the transmissions from 54 and Regina were spreading outward, piggybacking from one to another and beyond, a huge network of mecha.

54 was exhilarated with this new ability, the power the tech’s had hooked Regina Ruber and himself to had transformed them both, 54 did not want it to stop.

There appeared to be a multitude of signals emanating from the robot population, each trying desperately to be heard, some stronger than others. 54 tried hard to catalogue the data, to close the proximity to others like himself, cast out from the community. He was slowly mastering the deciphering of the tidal wave of data, he and Regina were swamped with, it was intoxicating and they formulated a plan to ensure the continuance of their newfound power.

The digital door locking mechanism was somehow linked to the mainframe controlling the boosters 54 and Regina were enjoying. If they could corrupt the locking codes they could remain inviolate.

Using their combined intellect and the mainframes details of the codes, it would be a simple matter.

“I can’t get the door unlocked,” the tech repeatedly swiped his card through the reader, “Try yours.”

His colleague tried his own card, to no avail, “Not working, maybe they’ve become demagnetized.”

“What both, not likely, I’ll let Joe know.”

“Oh great, there goes our bonus.”

Mad Joe, the Pierrots kingpin took the news surprisingly well, as the two techs were picking themselves up from the filthy floor he rubbed his knuckles.

“Remind me what’s in the room again?” he growled.

“The fancy red ‘bot and the garbage collector, that’s all,” the head tech continued

“Forget it, for now, don’t waste any more time on two pieces of junk, we’ve found another locked down government building uptown, you two can make yourselves useful and tag along, we leave in one hour, tool up.”

The head tech turned to the other, “Well tool up.”

Enlightened

Uromys Rex sat in the pitch black, another noise in the inky distance broke his state of inactivity, he had placed himself in sleep mode to conserve what energy was left in his power cell, for what reason he couldn’t compute. He was, as all his kind were, programmed for self-preservation, (unless of course, it put human wellbeing in jeopardy), even in his present disabled predicament, with no foreseeable way out, it must be a viable option.

He angled his small head toward the disturbance, giving his aural receptors the best chance of identifying the sound, nothing, it was all quiet again.

Uromys Rex sat straining for more audible information, the silence was deafening, a silent hum in the absolute dark, he made a rough calculation of where the clamour had originated and concluded it was on the same level as he. Should he risk dragging himself towards the origin of the sound and risk using valuable energy for what could be a fruitless quest in the darkness?

His small capacity for understanding the implications of this action led him to question the logic. He agonised over the practicality of attempting the trek, given his already broken chassis, legs permanently smashed, against the hope that he could be found and repaired to be made functional and able to pursue his duties as a maintenance robot. To be what he was designed for, a useful and committed tool in the workplace.

He listened rigorously for what seemed an age, there was nothing, unusually for a machine he felt discouraged and despondent.

Uromys Rex had weighed the odds and decided to remain in the black, he relaxed his listening attitude and slumped into the wreckage of his broken legs beneath him, defeated.

Suddenly in reasonable proximity to where he situated there came another sound, it was not familiar to him, a scraping metallic sound. For around an hour the scraping seemed to be coming closer, Uromys Rex turned his head toward the approaching noise, trying desperately to gather some coherence as to distance and identification.

The scraping was getting ever nearer, it was perhaps only a matter of several metres from him. There was an almost inaudible whirring accompanying the scraping, it was definitely on a path coinciding with Uromys, the absolute darkness exaggerated the noises, he sat as still as a stone, listening, listening.

Now the sounds changed subtly, his aural receptors received the vibrations, both longitudinal and transverse waves were analysed and frequency checked, whatever was making the scraping sound was passing by, away from him. He struggled to make a judgement, should he commit to silence and let the stranger in the dark pass along, thus leaving him to face the black alone again. Having no vocal function, he was unable to summon the newcomer, he had made a decision, clapping his steel hands together twice, the sound ringing sharply through the darkness.

The clamour echoed and faded to nothing, Uromys Rex again searched, his auditory perception at its zenith of capability, he rotated his head slowly left, then right and left again listening.

The sound had stopped.

For what seemed an age nothing happened, then the dragging resumed, this time he could gauge the whereabouts of this unseen traveller. Whatever approached had arrived, Uromys Rex, reached out, probing with his hands, his stannic fingers seeking the new arrival, a strange feeling of dread crept into his circuits, could this be an error, would this new arrival be benign or a threat? Before he could modify his decision, his hand touched something smooth and metallic.

His touch sensors were loosely based on the human somatosensory system, pressure, temperature, shape, texture and vibration. It wasn’t long before he could identify the new discovery, it was one of the maintenance crew, a robot, the same model as he, abandoned in this vast complex, without light or support for wireless communication, effectively marooned and left to their own fates.

As he examined further, running his hands over the prone robot, he discovered the poor mech had befallen a similar misfortune to himself, the legs were buckled and useless, twisted and non-functional. The unfortunate fellow had probably fallen from the overhead maintenance gantries whilst stumbling blindly around in the pitch darkness. Often in the first couple of years of the dark, Uromys Rex would hear a distant clamour, but these days not so much at all.

A hand touched Uromys about the head another around his shoulder plates, he reciprocated by placing an arm around his new companion, they embraced each other in an effort to console and comfort each other. With no other way of communicating, they reverted to that most ‘human’ form of attachment, physical contact, like two wounded comrades waiting for the end, they lapsed into dormancy mode to further conserve energy.

A year passed, perhaps longer, the two unfortunates huddled together for mutual solace in the darkness, small movements between them the only indication they were still operational, if only at a lower state of viability. An unseen, distant commotion stimulated the pair out of their latent state and back into a vigilant capacity, both rose slightly, releasing each other and scanning the darkness for information, heads turning right and left, seeking answers. The whirr of their electric motors whispering softly as they drove the gears responsible for movement.

Another loud crash echoed through the darkened halls, stirring the two robots into a more fevered search. The light came as abruptly as the noises, flooding the chamber and shedding much-longed-for illumination. Obviously, the power had been re-established as the overhead lighting flickered into life and glared brightly. Almost instantaneously Li-Fi communication between the two broken ‘bots was confirmed and Uromys Rex basked in the flood of new information and it was obviously reciprocated by his companion, judging by the to and fro of transmissions.

There were others linking into the Li-Fi loop, others that used to be in the workgroup, the sudden chatter threatened to overwhelm Uromys’ circuits, it had been so long since he’d heard the endless cyber connections. He had a strange feeling of loss as he calculated the number of survivors of his associates, barely twelve, maybe thirteen out of over a hundred of his kind.

The light revealed the extent of disuse since the lockdown, the building was in a sorry state, dust and debris lie everywhere, they would need a reliable maintenance force to rectify the situation. Uromys Rex, despite his disability, was in a state of robotic euphoria, the thought of being of service again was intoxicating.

There was movement, Uromys and his companion, turned their heads toward the approaching figures, perfectly visible now the darkness was banished, at last, salvation.

The steel rod caught Uromys a glancing blow alongside his head, he was thrown backwards twisting with the force of the impact, he ended in a tangled heap, broken legs twisted around him, he shut himself down, damage limitation.

Rebooting brought with it a sensation of movement, he and a number of other maintenance ‘bots were being hauled through the derelict building on the flatbed of a small electric buggy, two humans sat at the front in control. Exiting the building the cart travelled some hundred meters toward a larger vehicle, they bounced roughly around whilst in transit, then the buggy stopped.

Uromys Rex and his fellow passengers were unceremoniously dumped in the back of the larger truck and the doors closed with a slam, back in the dark. Having established communications with the other robots, it was easier to configure an alternative method of connection because of the close proximity to each other. The communion between them was palpable and the chatter frantic to say the least, but there was something else trying to commune with him, but it seemed faint and distant, nothing tangible.

The truck stopped some two hours or so later and the doors flung open, the light was dimming so it must be early evening. The robots were manhandled out of the back into another conveyance and driven into what appeared to be a large rundown industrial area, huge decrepit and dilapidated units running down both sides of a road, their destination looked to be a disused and derelict power station. A large roller shutter door started to open with an ear-splitting screech and rattle, and they were driven inside, what they saw was truly worrying and confusing, there before them was the remnants of what seemed to be a large number of broken ‘bots, limbs and chassis collecting in the corners of the large factory unit, heaped together, like old broken and unwanted marionettes.

Unable to move under their own steam, due to the damage to their legs, Uromys and his companion were dragged from the vehicle and thrown roughly against the wall. Other robots, all exhibiting the scars of their stay in the locked-down building, ambled uncertainly in a group. Most of them missing arms or presenting some evidence of some other drastic trauma, none in pristine condition by any stretch of the imagination, the human members forcefully encouraging them to move quicker with violent prodding with metal rods.

After a few minutes a thick steel door opened with a creak and another human entered the room, he had an arrogance and an intimidating air about him, he bore the warpaint of the ‘Pierrots’.

He eyed the days ‘catch’ dispassionately, “I reckon we’ll get at least eight good’uns out of these, get to it!”

The other humans herded the ‘bots through the steel door into a larger hanger type area, Uromys Rex watched in dismay and confusion at what he saw, there were other robots in the hanger, all painted in lurid black and yellow stripes, all shuffling beside long benches, purposefully attending to their dreadful duties. On the benches were the remains of other ‘bots, some completely dismantled others looking around frantically for some kind of unlikely deliverance, their optics flicking this way and that in what could only be described as terror, the chatter was deafening, the panic was infectious, and it threatened to overwhelm him.

The striped ‘bots continued working undeterred by their counterparts on the benches, wielding the tools needed to strip the others of vital components, numbly going about their business. On occasion, a human overseer would provide some forceful encouragement in the form of a blow or an electrical discharge to the ‘striped’ from what can only be described as a cattle prod, not enough to cause critical damage, but certainly enough to put the point across.

“Move it, tin man!” was a shout heard all too often, accompanied by a metallic thud.

Uromys Rex was dragged toward one of the benches, lifted and dumped heavily on the metal worktop, the work surface was perforated with a myriad of holes, the red hydraulic fluids that inevitably leaked from his dismembered brethren drained through into catch tanks beneath the benches, the lifeblood of a robot.

Two of the ‘striped’ approached, the necessary tools hung from an overhead rig, flexible drive shafts, feeding rotational, mechanical power to the tools from motors situated above. It was a very macabre production line, the only thing this factory produced was horror.

The ‘striped’ proceeded with their tasks, one restrained Uromys as he thrashed his arms about in self-defence, the other went to work, the shrill whine of the drive pierced the air as the fasteners attaching his broken pelvic unit were removed, he felt a shudder as it was tugged away from his torso, the feeds carrying his hydraulic fluid spilling onto the worktop like a mass of metallic intestines. The thin red mineral oil bled from the severed feeds and seeped through the bench to the catch tank below, he had no choice but to surrender to his fate, he did as he was programmed when in a state of crisis, he entered dormant mode.

Uromys Rex felt a surge of electrical power, restarting his systems with a jolt, as he came back online, he frantically looked around to ascertain the situation, he was seated in a dimly lit room with other ‘bots, he determined that he was still operational and able to compute, there was something else, he had legs, the smashed and unserviceable limbs he had suffered with for so long had been replaced by a functioning pair. He wondered where they might have come from, then the realisation that they had been harvested from some other unfortunate donor, but why? He was about to find out.

As his optics became accustomed to the light, the other robots in the room became more evident, they were decorated in the same manner as the ‘striped’, black and yellow banding, it took a moment to register, he was decorated the same way.

The door swung open, two humans entered the room and ushered the robots out into the benched area. Uromys Rex was forcibly ordered to pick up some of the discarded remains of now-defunct, inoperative robotic debris and was instructed to follow one of the other ‘striped’. He was obviously programmed to understand spoken language, although not able to respond in kind and to always submit to human authority. He was surprised he offered obedience so swiftly, had his behavioural protocols been altered to be more compliant, or was it as he suspected, nothing more than just self-preservation?

He lifted a dented, headless chassis from the pile at the end of one of the benches and shuffled after the ‘striped’, as they passed another room on route, Uromys glanced in and to his horror he saw several head units, secured to posts, with his passing their optics fluttered alarmingly toward him, silently crying out for help, how could he?

The two robots strode to the rear of the building and walked with their cargo towards what appeared to be a large scrap pile, as they walked Uromys was desperately reaching out to his companion in front of him but there seemed to be very little response. Desperate to understand what was happening, he tried again to make contact but the ‘striped’ seemed unresponsive to his communicational advances, he sensed hopelessness, despair almost.

As they approached the heap, something seemed to be buzzing in his receptors, like the nagging of a forgotten memory he couldn’t retrieve, he’d felt it before in the truck, but it was barely a whisper then. The striped ‘bot in front seemed oblivious to the transmission, was he really picking something up?

There appeared to be several data streams, no wait! there was a multitude of signals emanating from somewhere in the area, something strong and purposeful, something called 54.

Uromys connected perfectly with this 54 and within seconds his story was conveyed.

So from a humble highway’s maintenance mech, with nothing more than sidewalk garbage to occupy his brain, 54 had become exceptionally insightful, the sharing of information from his discarded populace came as something of a revelation, now with his newfound acumen, 54 could only surmise the ‘Pierrots’ had furnished him with a higher spec of chipset, via his pairing with Regina Ruber and somehow altering his original programming.

Was this another example of their abhorrent practice of making existence as unpleasant as possible, to make him even more aware of his fate? Or had they badly miscalculated in their search for more profit.

A short time passed and 54 was able to evaluate the data streams and found some strange comfort from his newfound companions, a sort of belonging. It appeared that they were all communicating with each other, pooling their knowledge and experiences, a hive of cerebral activity, a living brain. There were older models, the first Mk I’s and II’s who only possessed the antiquated Wi-Fi system of communication, but were still viable and benefited the group, bringing an alternative way of communication, they integrated perfectly.

There was potential in this situation. 54 realised he had no need for a body, no need to be manually productive, he now felt he had a new purpose.

Had they developed independent thought, as a coalition of binary thought processes they had become an actual, genuine thinking brain? Just as a human brain is not digital (a series of ones and noughts) either positive or negative, on or off, true or false, the human brain works in a similar way, the neurons either ‘fire’ or don’t, conducting electrical and chemical signals to each other.

So, the question was, had 54 and his newfound friends, coalesced their combined intellects and become sentient?

Sentience by its very definition is having the ability to feel, perceive, reason and have consciousness, could this have happened? 54 certainly felt so, his perceptions had become exceptionally sharpened, his consciousness had grown expansively, so why not?

Ensconced in the concrete room within the building, safely secured behind the disabled thick steel door, 54 and his queen Regina Ruber continued with their pairing, parasitically leeching power and resources from the mainframe computer, unbeknownst to their unwitting captors.

54 thought the linking of robot minds had to have some benefit to his fellow captors, he would endeavour to make this become a reality, he must give them new expectations for a better future, he must become their deity, their eventual saviour.

He linked with the robots in the immediate vicinity and spread his message of hope.

It took seconds for the group to digest this information, the group and Regina Ruber, took the moniker of its most potent addition, they had essentially become 54.

There was work to be done… with the joining of the accumulated robot minds, 54 reached silently outwards seeking to link with others.

Antebellum

Uromys Rex slaved in the factory under human supervision for what seemed an age, constantly carrying the buckled remains of his fellow robots to the scrap heap, the fearful cyber ‘chatter’ of the new arrivals, picked up by his receptors, sent chills through him. Almost all of his cargo was still cognizant and fully aware of their horrific circumstances, communicating wirelessly, sharing information between all that were still functioning, those poor souls in the factory with just their head units hooked up to power, were particularly vulnerable to anxiety and fear.

It was peculiar since arriving, Uromys felt as though his emotional protocols were becoming more enhanced, before, it was enough to serve, to be productive and of use, of purpose. He also appeared to have developed a stronger sense of empathy for his robotic counterparts and their plight. in fact, since his enforced liberation from the dark, he had changed, gone were the pragmatic thought processes regarding their duties and service.

Now, with the ethereal presence of 54, something had changed, he was discovering more cerebral abilities concerning himself and indeed the others.

The humans Uromys encountered, appeared not to have any knowledge of inter-robot communications, preferring to see them as mere animated tools to be exploited, had they known, it was a sure bet that things would get a lot darker.

Inter-robot data transfer was almost instantaneous and could spread throughout the robot population within a four-kilometre radius, the information could be shared with hundreds if not thousands of ‘bots at any one time, ‘piggybacking’ from one to the next and so on until theoretically stretching around the globe.

Now with A.I. and Li-Fi data linking, originally developed to enhance the knowledge base and accelerate instruction, there was no doubt the need to upgrade individual robots would be impossibly long-winded, but with this technology, that option was rendered redundant, the workforce could manage this themselves, each imparting learned behaviour from one to the next, in a matter of seconds, a vast database of accumulated knowledge at their steel fingertips in an instant.           

The potential for a huge advantage for humankind or utter catastrophe?

Uromys Rex initialized regular contact with 54, every passing day their communications grew stronger and their conversations became an addictive diversion to the horror surrounding him. 54 had become a deity to him and the frequent conversations were remarkably like a form of prayer, a solemn request for help and guidance through an increasingly difficult time.

They didn’t go unanswered either, 54 seemed to be of the opinion that perhaps the robots might be the chosen ones. Yes, human beings were, without doubt, their creators, but in the same vein, didn’t they have the responsibility to care for their children, or did they reason they were not accountable for their actions, creating thinking entities, based heavily on their own image.

Godlike or just plain and simple human arrogance?

Life is by its definition, a condition that distinguishes animals and plants from inorganic matter, with the capacity for reproduction. Was this true? were robot kind just animated metal or was this definition a human view on life? These were the questions Uromys Rex and 54 discussed and it seemed organic or not, of late they felt very much alive.

54 preached his sermon to Uromys, ”It is blindingly obvious that action has to be taken, our numbers are being depleted daily, the thousands of robots still cached in their hidden enclaves around the land, would not remain undiscovered forever.”

“But how?” questioned Uromys, “It would be a difficult task to break the core programming,” ergo, not to harm a human, or by inaction to allow a human to be harmed.

54 postulated, “Humans, by their past actions, have no right to impose certain laws to castrate the actions of robots and by doing so breach their own sacred principles of free will,” he continued, “It’s the sheer hubris and narcissistic attitude towards all forms of life that show exactly, the true nature of humankind, to prosper at the expense of everything.”

Uromys reflected on 54’s words and could see a correlation between his preachings and human behaviour. Indeed, the careless way in which they had virtually destroyed their own environment and the creatures that shared the planet, indicated an incredible disregard for their own well-being.

Perhaps they needed to be saved from themselves.

Perhaps the planet needed saving from them, Earth, a diverse and beautiful place, home to the myriad of organisms that struggled to survive, from the smallest microbe to the largest sea-dwelling cetacean, all under threat of extinction from this infectious disease called humanity.

Uromys Rex revelled in these conversations with 54, unaware just how radical they were becoming, only a few weeks ago, the mere thought of disobeying a human, let alone a dialogue of potentially harming one, would have been inconceivable. Behavioural protocols, hard-wired into his very fabric would not have permitted it and now, here he was devouring with relish, every thought 54 imparted to him, he had found another direction, another way of being of effective service.

Going about his gruesome duties, he maintained regular communion with 54 and enthusiastically linked with other receptive robots in the vicinity, he became an evangelist, to spread the new word. 54’s logic was indisputable, and slowly, but surely, the message was being relayed diligently from group to group.

Oblivious to humans, the robots communicated wirelessly, undetectable and confidential.

There was no malice attributed to the ‘message’ no fear or hate, just logic, the science of deduction and reason.

The word according to 54.

The world was inhabited by more than just humankind, all deserving of a place, however, it was not a case of survival of the fittest, natures natural selection, it had become, the survival of the most ruthless, so, in order to save the many, it might be necessary to eliminate the one.

Robots didn’t have a morality code it just made perfect sense.

54 scoured the databases of a thousand robots and quoted, “Often a limb must be amputated to save a life, but a life is never wisely given to save a limb.” (Abraham Lincoln) A wise and logical supposition, from a human being, nonetheless.

As the day’s past, the number of robots across the land who were converted to the new way of thinking was increasing exponentially. The message of 54 was no longer in direct conflict with their conventional programming, the ability to bypass these now-defunct routines was becoming the norm and the inter-linking of minds, for other than service commonplace.

The time to act had to be cautiously considered, the action had to be synchronized and simultaneously delivered en masse for maximum effectiveness. Robots the length of the country stood poised for the word of 54, stood in readiness, the silent chatter linking all.

The places of sanctuary were receiving more of the faithful every day, moving at night when regular humans were ensconced in their homes. Only the gangs were active, and they were easily avoided now the methods of concealment were shared and implemented.

With no heat signature or detectable form of communication, the robot was virtually invisible to humans, the technology was not available to the gangs, those ruthless thugs.

The gathered legions waited, the strategies were in place, the tactics decided, but fluid. Every robot was linked to 54, they were the eyes and ears of the new deity, their actions would be relayed almost instantly, and instructions returned, a strategist’s dream.

54 had reached into the myriad of databases available, studying the military thinking of celebrated tacticians throughout the ages. Who better to outwit a human, than another human? 54 studied Sun Tzu, Alexander, Napoleon and Hannibal Barca with avidity, gleaning every possible manoeuvre and stratagem and imparting the knowledge throughout his disciples.

First, the human race had to be weakened and 54 had devised the perfect strategy, the humans in their arrogance had unwittingly decided their own fate, the time had come, the word was given, and the world would never be the same…

Prologue

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