Elevator Zero; Part 1
It was at the start of Troubleshooter System TSS-R44328’s fifty-thousandth activity cycle that he decided to go renegade. The decision didn’t exactly surprise him—he had, in true bot fashion, calculated the exact moment when the combination of daily task stress and mechanical fatigue would override his inherent duty to the Complex in a standard cost-benefit analysis. As the Users were said to say, you can’t argue with the numbers.
Troubleshooter System TSS-R44328, who was known as Tess to everyone in Sector Sigma Five Zero Alpha, had come online at 0900 in his favorite socket in power station S50A-21, as usual. Dara, sector administrator, was already uploading her chatter into his memory files. Her audio imprint was rife with its usual binary giggles and automated cheer.
<Morning, sparky! Glad to see that old chasse of yours isn’t ready for the junk heap yet! Let’s get to it, powersink—you’re seven seconds late and getting later and, my-oh-my, have we got an active cycle today. There’s a cleaner bot in Five-One Alpha who’s got his navigational program turned around—poor thing’s busting his chrome on bulkheads and driving the Stans all staticky. Ooo, and there’s a stat-processor in Five-Zero Beta who thinks she has arms. She sounds miserable, too. Then we…>
It was about there Tess switched her off of active read and just let her orders feed directly into his memory banks. He wasn’t working today.
He wasn’t working today. That admission to himself was so revolutionary as to almost cause a fatal system error. Pulling his weathered chasse out of the march-line that was bound for the mag-rail, Tess stood in a corner of the vault-ceiling chamber underneath a flickering florescent bulb that the Mateys hadn’t gotten to yet. He tried to get his running programs in order.
He wasn’t working today. Users, was that an odd feeling! He checked and re-checked his math on the C-B analysis, running all the variables through a thousand times just to be sure. The results ran anywhere from –0.0002 to –3.4257 in units of subjective ‘benefit potential’—something, in a fit of heresy, he had written into his own code. There was no point in working. To do so would only do harm to his hardware or software. At this point, most bots, he imagined, would cast themselves into the junk compactor and wait for their systems to be re-claimed by the Fabricators and for their programs to be uninstalled by the Users and then re-installed into a newer, better self. This course of action, though, was for the religious, and Tess was certainly not that.
So, if not the compactor, then what?
Tess stood out of the way mulling over his options for a very long time—perhaps five, maybe ten minutes. As a Troubleshooter, he was fortunately well suited to this endeavor. While the Mateys were in charge of maintaining the inert systems of the Complex and the Mekkers were needed to repair the mechanical systems of bots who inhabited it, Troubleshooters were used to deal with the unusual and all-too-frequent difficulties created by software malfunction. He was, in brief, designed to repair or otherwise alleviate the suffering endured by insane robots. The trouble was, though, that now he was the insane one, and he didn’t really feel like he was suffering…which in and of itself was a sign that his particular brand of insanity was all the more insidious.
He generated a list of options for him to follow. Eliminating those options that involved his termination as an active system by a trip to the compactor, he came up with the following:
1) Stand in this corner forever.
2) Stay on the mag-rail and travel throughout the Complex forever.
3) Continue his work, but without Dara’s supervision and on a schedule deemed appropriate by himself
4) Find the Users and ask them to change his programming to accommodate his newly compromised physical and mental state.
Of the four options, numbers 1 and 2 seemed the most feasible, if least attractive methods of spending the rest of time. Number 3 was only marginally more attractive and less feasible, whereas Number 4 was both completely, outlandishly feasible and about as attractive as options 5 through 1,237, all of which resulted in some variation on his demise.
Decision firmly made, Tess set out to answer the closest duty flare that registered on his memory banks—the stat-processor who thought she had arms.
The pace of travel in the Complex had never registered as anomalous with Tess until he went insane. Now, as he navigated the bustling conveyors of Sigma Five-Zero Alpha en route to Beta, he found himself marveling at the complexity of it all. Every conveyor moved no fewer than five hundred mobile bots past any given point every single minute. Bots embarked or de-barked on the conveyors and, from the conveyors, to and from the mag-rail with perfect, orderly precision. On any given cycle, the same bot would find himself directed to the same place on the conveyor between the same two bots. These bots, known as someone’s ‘track buddies,’ were your best friends and confidants, and it was on the conveyors and the mag-rail that all the best gossip could be received from anywhere in the Complex.
Being twelve minutes and fifty-three seconds later than usual, Tess’s own track buddies—Mergle and Ulda-3—were not there when the local traffic admin bot, Stan (they were all named Stan), slotted him onto the conveyor heading to Beta. Instead, there was a bulky driller bot in front of him and a boxy, short scanner bot behind.
The driller’s torso rotated to face him. He spoke in the ponderous monotones of a labor bot, spitting syllables like parts on a production line. <Hey where’s Floyd?>
<Junked—I bet he got junked, Hiddy. Poor Floyd!> The scanner’s high-pitched voice made a few miserable warbling noises from behind Tess.
The driller’s head—little more than a meter-wide focusing apparatus for a four-megawatt drilling laser—telescoped past Tess to stare down the scanner. <Shut up, Skiz—he is not!>
Skiz collapsed her legs underneath her and blanked out her photoelectrics, as though shutting down. She whistled sadly for a moment, and then was silent.
Hiddy’s single manipulator arm jutted out of his torso in greeting. <Don’t mind her she’s got a few processors loose. Her Fabricator was real messed up. Name is HIDD-Y80021. You’re cleared for Hiddy though.>
Tess slapped the arm with his right hand, holding it long enough to trade all the pertinent information. Hiddy, it seemed, was working on expansions to the Complex in Upsilon sector. He’d been working there for three-hundred and ninety two cycles.
Hiddy, upon processing Tess’s info (which took three seconds longer), straightened up. <Users slot me! You’re an old model bot. Not even our exploratory admin bot is that old. What chasse are you on?>
Tess evaluated his own battered body for a millisecond. <You have to ask, bot? Any gossip?>
Behind him, Skiz flared suddenly to life. <I heard a driller team burned the wrong path—malfunction, you know?—and flooded half of Delta Three-three with salt water.>
Hiddy’s arms and legs retracted. <Lousy way to go.> He shook his head.
<Maybe they shouldn’t be expanding.> Tess said.
Hiddy and Skiz’s photoelectrics blazed at double amp. <What? And where would all the new models work then? The Complex must grow! The Users demand it.>
Skiz bleeped in agreement and recited the age-old phrase from the User Source Code. <The Complex must grow!>
Tess would have remained silent at this point, but something in his new-found insanity didn’t let him. <Why?>
The question set Hiddy’s processors into a tailspin. He garbled words for a bit, and then shut down. Skiz, the more advanced cognitive unit, was merely indignant. <If we don’t expand the Complex into the Great Unknown, we’d overcrowd. There wouldn’t be enough power to go around, and things would be like during the Dark Days, before the Users granted sight to bot-kind. We’d remain inert for thousands of cycles, no energy, no work, no purpose, no…>
<Of course if the Fabricators kept making bots, we’d all be junk in a matter of cycles, but why can’t the Fabricators stop? Why don’t they just take the day off?>
Skiz staticked in a vulgar fashion Tess would have expected out of a Labor bot. <Users, you’re a rogue bot! It…it isn’t catching is it?>
Tess ran a self-diagnostic, but it came up inconclusive. <Maybe.>
Skiz’s only answer was a sudden jolt of harsh static and the complete shutdown of her systems. Tess was alone on the conveyor, jammed between two inert piles of circuitry and metal.
He watched the sector run by, marveling at the sheer immensity of the Complex. Supports of solid steel massing in the thousands of tons cradled a distant ceiling of black rock and florescent lights. Beneath them, massive stat-bots, the engines around which the whole of the Complex revolved, sat churning through a million different tasks as their smaller, more nimble cousins—the mobile bots—swarmed over their mountainous exteriors, repairing, maintaining, and expanding the intricate mechanical and electrical system that made up the known Universe.
Tess lacked the digital span recall memory of a scanner bot like Skiz, but even still he could identify no fewer than two-hundred different varieties of bot at a glance. There were many more, he was sure—he had corrected programming and software problems for better than twenty-five hundred different models of bot over the cycles—but they all seemed to merge together through his diseased photoelectrics, and Tess saw them as a mass. Whole, cohesive, and mindless, the bots of the Complex labored unceasingly in a system so complicated only administrative systems like Dara could hope to understand it, and even they were only privy to a very small segment of the whole. In a feat of image-based analogy hitherto unfamiliar to Tess’s programming (he realized at this point that the inactive portions of his processing capacity had been writing new code in non-essential programs and sub-routines, much like he had with his C-B analysis program), Tess saw the complex as a mighty cog turning on an iron dowel the size of the Universe. It was perfect in its design, mathematically precise at every juncture, built to last forever, but a cog only has worth when placed within a greater system—it needed a purpose, something to affect. This was basic mechanics. Why then, did the Complex turn? Why weren’t they all insane?