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 general highways maintenance, basically litter picking. A humble, but necessary task. He was a primitive bipedal, a little shaky on his feet but the angular rate sensors or gyro’s kept him right side up.
The bipedal model was adopted pretty much across the range of maintenance ‘bots, after all with hundreds of thousands of 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 wheel 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.
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 hydraulic fluid loss. The van had stopped and the side doors slid back, several figures with painted faces jumped from the vehicle and strode toward him. Rising unsteadily to his feet 54 raised his remaining arm in an apologetic gesture, ignoring him the men approached swiftly and set about him with what appeared to be tools of some kind.
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 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 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.
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 helpless 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.
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 and he was still programmed in Fortran + 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, nonproductive 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. “This is the weeks’ catch, there’s a couple of domestic units and a maintenance ‘bot”, the new arrival spoke,” I can use the domestics, but really! you expect me to take that?” he said, “what else have you got?”
The head Pierrot answered, “Everything else is taken, it’s these or nothing.” after a moment the buyer replied, “I’ll take those two, keep the other one.” “Ok, bin it!” 54 was lifted roughly from the floor and carried outside 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 head units, most of which seemed to still be in a lower state of function.
His remaining optic scanned the wreckage whilst his Li-Fi sought to find any sign of data transmissions. He was equipped with aural receptors but no vocal functions, the only sounds he ever made were the error beep codes on startup. He couldn’t pick up any audible signals but there was something…
There appeared to be several data streams, no wait there was a multitude of signals emanating from the scrap pile, each trying desperately to be heard, some stronger than others. 54 tried hard to catalogue the data, the close proximity to others like himself cast among the junk, made the signals crash over him like a colossal wave of information. Information gleaned by the others over their operational lives over many aggregate years as the humans’ workforce and shared instantly amongst each other.
From a humble highways maintenance mech, with nothing more than sidewalk garbage to occupy his brain, 54 suddenly became exceptionally insightful into their lot. The sharing of information from this discarded populace came as something of a revelation, now with his new found acumen, 54 could only surmise the ‘Pierrots’ had furnished him with a higher spec of flash data chipset, but still retaining 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.
A short time passed and 54 was more able to evaluate the data streams and strangely found some comfort from his new found 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 transmission. 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 had a new purpose and as soon as he realised this, his ‘friends’ in the scrap pile did too. 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 friends, coalescing their combined intellects become sentient?
Sentience by its very definition is having the ability to feel, perceive, reason and have consciousness.
It took milliseconds for the group to digest this information, and as it’s newest but most proactive member, the group took the moniker of its most recent addition, they had become, 54.
There was work to be done….. 54 reached outwards seeking to link with others.