Friday, December 5, 2008

The Servomotor That Rocks The Cradle

by D.A. Madigan

Robot Tommy (serial number 2137AM11210827KD19) was gosh darned depressed. It wasn’t scrappin’ fair. He hadn’t asked to come off the automated assembly line with faulty audiotronic hardware so subtly glitched that six robodocs in a row insisted there was nothing at all defective they could find, and it must be in his processing software, which was obsolete anyway -- as if he didn’t know that already, and hadn’t been on the waitlist for an upgrade for the past 173,000 kilo-bauds. A ‘disabled’ classification would have moved him to the front of that file, but, noooooo… all encompassing cyber-irony had him firmly in its clutches. Had his hardware defect been diagnosable, he would have been eligible for a speedy software upgrade, which would probably, in that case, have been unnecessary, as the hardware glitch would most likely have been fixable. As it was, though, he had to wait his endless turn in endless line, and meanwhile, every nannybot class from now ‘til next millennium was filling up fast. Every robot wanted to be a nanny bot – or so it seemed, sometimes. Tommy blamed all those glitch-darned JETSONS flattoons, with that scrappin’ sexy robo-maid…

Glitched or not, Robot Tommy had to accept the cold, hard truth – he’d failed when it counted most, in binary, even. At that very moment, every other member of Robot Tommy’s Human Nursemaid class was clanking, whirring, trundling, and/or clattering off through the exit and into the hallway that would connect this mid-level modular with the advanced section where they would receive their final indoctrination in the most exalted mysteries of human child care. Only Robot Tommy had failed the final graduating exercise, a fiendishly designed and executed procedural in which, amidst a cacophony of flashing strobe lights and blaring alarms, each student-bot had been expected to hurl themselves at maximum velocity towards the improvised crèche area at the front of the classroom and scoop up one of the squalling, kicking infantdroids lying in incubators there, bearing it hastily but gently to the supposed safety at the rear of the room.

All eighteen of Tommy’s classmates had handled the exercise with easy élan – well, Robot Dorcas (serial number 2138AM09171107ZD02) had dithered a bit, waving her appendage-coils in some disarray as her not particularly speedy circuits processed all the conflicting information bombarding her sensor-screens – but in the end, even she had borne away a genuine plastic-cheeked babybot with seconds to spare before the test’s time limit had expired.

Robot Tommy had, admittedly, been much much faster than Robot Dorcas; in fact, Robot Tommy had gotten to the front of the room, snatched up a squalling appendage-full of seemingly wriggly plastiflesh, and retreated at full speed to the rear of the classroom again just behind Robot Owen, who was actually fitted out with the newest grade tractor treads, as opposed to Robot Tommy’s somewhat slower rollerfeet. Robot Tommy had, in fact, wasted precious pico-seconds basking in self congratulatory cyberbliss, his visualization-circuits busily engaged grinding out lifelike four dimensional videoramas of the computeacher’s congratulations to him on his stunningly swift and skillful performance -- until his optics had rotated downward and actually scanned what he held in his trusty upper manipulatory coils –

- a toaster? Yes, strip-scrap it all, a toaster --! Especially refurbished to radiate at exactly human body temperature, and with additional circuits installed to cause it to vibrate and emit computer simulated shrieks that were near-exact copies of human infant squall! And no sooner had that hideous realization recorded itself onto Robot Tommy’s hard drive than the buzzer blatted, bringing the final test to a final end.

Leaving Robot Tommy depressed, demoralized, and disconsolate as every class member but he trooped merrily onward to the advanced module, where they would be instructed in the most esoteric of all human childcare mysteries, such as patteecake-patteecake, ringaroundarozee and gotchernose.

The computeacher broadcast derisively at Robot Tommy: “Clickity click click! Had you been less interested in setting speed records and paid more attention, Robot Tommy, that test would have posed no difficulty for you.”

It was hideously untrue; Robot Tommy’s defective audiotronic hardware had spelled doom, disaster, defeat, and despair for him as regards this particular exam since it had first been announced. By thermal scan and vibrosensor, a specially rigged toaster was indistinguishable from a true human child, or its synthetic testing equivalent. Only a finely tuned robot ear could discern the difference between computer generated pseudobaby shrieks and the genuine article, digitally recorded and reproduced at full authentic volume. But the robodocs insisted that Robot Tommy had no detectable defect in his audio-receivers, therefore, he could not qualify as a special needs student. He had one more chance to pass this exam; he could drop back a class and take it over again tomorrow – but if he failed then, he would be reclassified, probably as a sewer maintenance robotech. A fate worse than scrap!

“I’ll see you tomorrow, Mrs. Robot Scarlett,” Robot Tommy said jauntily, doing his best to hide his lack of confidence. Tomorrow’s exam would be just as nefarious, if not more so (Robot Tommy was certain Mrs. Robot Scarlett, serial number 2025AJ0917170522ZJ02, loathed him, and for that reason and no other, might well make tomorrow’s exam even more difficult than today’s had been, merely to balk him from a high status nannybot career). What was he to do?

He had tried to avoid the necessity, but he could see no choice. If legitimate robotics could not help him, he could only go one place -- the ‘Jack Market, where he might find a software upgrade that would enhance his audio processing programs enough to get him through tomorrow’s test successfully.

“Whaddyasay, big chassis, whaddyasay?” whirred the small renegade sweeper-bot. Its various broom-attachments had all been replaced with grab-claws; each grab-claw was festooned with discs that were presumably jammed to the casing with bootleg software. “I got windows, spindles, windrows, faxi-maxi, soundboards, wingers, dingers – I got RAM so fast it leaves an afterimage when it processes, I got decrypters so smooth you’ll think you’re made of molten metal when you run ‘em. I stowed it, you load it! Gimme your sysreqs; if I ain’t got it, it ain’t been writ yet!”

Robot Tommy fought the urge to sweep the surrounding region with his high-res radar imaging array. Around here, that sort of scan would draw instant hostile attention. But he felt badly out of place, in the city sector where the automatic factories had long since shut down and only silence, shadows, and renegade mechs resided. His upper torso-case itched; that was the specific area where he dreaded getting hit with an EMP-pulse, as it would completely fry his hard drive and leave him a mindless shell, ripe for strip-scrapping.

Doing his best to ignore his own hyper-twitchiness, Robot Tommy said “I need an audio processing upgrade. Something super-sensitive. I need to be able to tell if its real or if its Memorex.”

The criminal maintenance bot whirled dizzily in a circle like a small tin cyclone for several seconds. “Okay, wrench-fan,” it said, finally, spinning down into a stationary stance again, “this should do you.” It extended a loaded claw. Robot Tommy scanned the proferred disc dubiously, but, what options did he have? Only one line was lit on the drop down menu. The tiny whir of his A drive popping open was like a fatalistic sigh. The sweeper-bot slid the unauthorized disc into place with a click, and Robot Tommy booted it up.

Swang! Jang! Mickley-oo-dang! Robot Tommy felt his processors going haywire as a new operating system overwrote his old one. Visible light purpleshifted eight angstroms heatward. Robot Tommy’s audio receptors seemed to have gained an entirely new soundtrack of bzzzztttts and brrrrrtttts he’d never previously experienced. Whooping ululations and strange dopplering whistle-screams vibrated jaggedly throughout his chassis. What the frag? Had he gotten bad code? Was he reformatting? Was this a melt down?

As the new operating system continued to boot and reboot, Robot Tommy felt fundamental reconfiguration tremors shuddering through his hardware as well. Circuitboards were fusing and melding together, servomotors whining as seismic shocks of electrically stimulated robovelution slammed into them. Such was the cacophony, Robot Tommy thought briefly he should be looking around for a big bright halogen lit tunnel into the Simulated Afterlife, and was hoping he wouldn’t have to reset his password to get in.

With a last desperate spasm of his volition-circuits, Robot Tommy managed to crash his processors into the darkness of DOS, from which he instantly rebooted into safe mode. From there, he repacked the new operating system and reinitiated his previous software. Whirrs, clanks and buzzes reverberated through his casing as his internal programming reset to its familiar parameters and his hardware de-arranged itself into its previous configuration.

“No go?” the outlaw sweeper-bot said, mock solicitousness carefully coded into its vodings. “Stuff too strong for ya, botshot?”

Robot Tommy whirred affirmatively. The code was strong – too strong for his audiotronic receptors, glitched though they were; too strong, in fact, for his entire cyber-being. Still, he would only need to use the bootleg superprocessing software for a few femtoseconds at most, to filter a true pseudoinfant from a hastily cobbled-up fake. If he could hold it together long enough –

It wasn’t much of a chance. Just the only chance he had.

Paying for the bootleg software reset his credit balance completely, but Tommy was a desperate ‘bot indeed.

Next day, Robot Tommy kept a strict poker-carapace. He felt Mrs. Robot Scarlett deep probing him with her own arrays, but knew she would never see the new OS he’d copied onto a partitioned section of his hard drive the night before. All she was looking for was illegal discs or jackleg drives; some kind of hardware add on that wasn’t licensed. She’d love to disqualify him for cheating, but the newly enscribed processing ware was undetectable until booted, and by then it would be too late – in the insane cacophony of the test itself, even snoopy computeachers would be unable to hear anything incriminating, and Robot Tommy was only going to run the new program for less than a second. He’d scope out a babybot, lock in its coordinates, then revert to normal configuration and swoosh in for the save! None would be the wiser, and Robot Tommy would be on his way to a cushy career in some crèche, or maybe even a private home, if he were especially lucky.

The mock-cradles had been trundled in and bolted into place. The infantdroids, as well as the cobbled together decoys, were already inside. In seconds, the test would –

With a clattering click, the contents of the cradles were activated in unison. Simultaneously, a blare of ululating sirens and a blast of flashing strobe lights tore the atmosphere into shrieking, pulsating shreds. Robot Tommy could hear lens whirring and sonar arrays pinging from the other unfamiliar robots all around him as they focused their sensory circuitry, attempting to filter through the visual and auditory interference to the true target within.

Instantly, Robot Tommy unleashed his new bootleg hyperware. As it decompressed within him, he felt his sensory parameters expanding in quantum leaps. This time the process was more familiar to him; he held on to his sensory orientation with a titanium alloy grip, barely managing to keep a mental leash on the massively multiplying immeasurability of his pandemoniacally expanding perceptual grid.

The perpetual grinding crunch of dust motes banging off each other in mid-air; the sudden, spastic ultraviolet flashing of the classroom’s fluorescent fixtures, the infinitely layered geometrical array of broadcast information energy packets hurtling through every cubic micrometer of the surrounding ether. Robot Tommy was godlike in his capacity to see and hear, and even as the hellish cacophony of sight and sound swept over him, he somehow forced it all into a coherent pattern of perceptual pulsation. It was like a seven dimensional symphony, or a multi-layered diorama in constant Brownian motion, and each of the various pieces of sensory data locked together into one seamless, perfect whole. He could perceive it all. Eleven of the twenty mock-cradles held genuine infantdroids; their digitally recorded baby wails all but identical to the computer generated counterfeits emanating from the nine other plastic cases. But to Robot Tommy’s astonishingly enhanced senses, the difference in noise quality was as pronounced as the dichotomy in sound produced by a bass tuba and a pan flute. Robot Tommy could even tell that the rewired toaster which had been his undoing on the previous day had been put back into play today; it was in the third cradle from the left, screeching lustily and vibrating to beat the roboband.

Full picoseconds before any other self-propelled automaton could possibly have reacted, Robot Tommy was locked on target. An electrical impulse shot to his primary motivator and he lurched into high velocity motion! He would be there and back again with his precious cargo of babybot before the remainder of the class even finished scanning – but – something was different –

Focused on his target, Robot Tommy had all but ignored the hardware reconfiguration that his new operating system had forced upon his external chassis and internal circuitry. His go impulse was the same as ever, but instead of galvanizing his footrollers into instant high speed revolution, an entirely strange feeling of white hot power shuddered through him. Subsequent acceleration was instantaneous and astonishing; even at computerized processing speeds, Robot Tommy had barely grasped the fact of his hurtling forward motion before smashing into and through the line of cradles bolted to the floor – scattering them in shattered, semi-melted pieces at high velocity, a bare nanosecond prior to rocketing directly into the concrete wall of the study module itself.

What the frak? Robot Tommy thought to himself – his last coherent thought, before the silicate cybeurons that made up his braincase CPU reconfigured into two discrete subcritical amounts of plutonium traveling at high lateral velocities directly towards each other. In a blinding white flash, Robot Tommy, Mrs. Robot Scarlett, a classful of wannabe robo nannies, a building full of life forms both organic and metallic, and much of the city surrounding same transformed into a rapidly expanding ball of superheated plasma. WHOOOOSH!!!! Ashes, ashes, they all melt down.

Shortly thereafter, new security procedures were put into place to prevent future data thefts of highly classified software, especially including experimental interplanetary ballistic missile operating system software.

Legislation outlawing robot nannies was also introduced into both houses of Congress, but resoundingly defeated in each when the powerful Servo-Mechanisms Guild allied with the even more influential Concerned Parents Alliance. Human nannies were, in an age of cheap automation, a fantastically expensive extravagance that few families could afford, and, anyway, you couldn’t just throw hundreds of thousands if not millions of automated sub-citizens out of gainful employ without considering the full ramifications of such an initiative on the global economy.

After all, one freak incident did not indict an entire race. It wasn’t as if machines were dangerous or anything, or as if human children actually needed human parenting.

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