-1- balanced and watched its owner’s progress on BuilderZ, oblivious to what was about to happen. Mira knew she risked serious bodily harm, but she had no choice. She sat on her gaming chair cross-legged in her blue cutoff jumpsuit, and slowly reached towards the drone that perched quietly atop her short, pink hair. Moving too quickly would scare it and the service bot next to her and there wasn’t enough time to chase a frantic bot around the apartment.
“Gotchya,” she muttered, grasping its propeller before it could spin.
-1- beeped in alarm, not used to its owner’s touch being so firm. It could only mean one thing.
The drone’s circuits deduced the proper equations and alerted -0- of their impending doom. -0-’s periscope head rose to full height and it began tracking towards the bunker in her room whining, “Howdy? Howdy!” all the way.
“Oh, no you don’t,” she said, getting up and sliding the bar to lock its tracks from moving further across the cement floor. “That’s what we need to have looked at, Little Geek. Your chip shouldn’t be making that noise.”
“Howdy! Howdy!” it complained.
“Exactly,” she muttered as she held -1- from fleeing and snapped the rubber band over the propeller blades.
The drone beeped in sad confusion.
“I’m not hurting you,” she replied to the bot’s pitiful cries. “You’re due for updates and maybe an oil change.”
-1- went limp, its access doors hung open, landing gear mocking death.
“You’re okay, silly!” Mira rolled her grey eyes. “You guys act like I leave you outside with discharged batteries. Not everyone lets their bots inside, on the bed,” she lectured.
Mira walked to her closet and retrieved the bot transport crate. At its appearance, both robots began alarming like the world was ending more than it already was. She placed them inside, making sure they stayed upright on the old blanket, and locked the door that took her fingerprint to open.
Transport had arrived. She checked the time on her headset display, 1345, just enough time. Mira clipped on her bag, grabbed an extra air cylinder, then saved her bot’s certs in an easy-to-access file on her headset’s home screen. She had enough BuilderZ points saved up to afford the expensive ride, only certain transports would go to that part of town. It seemed to get more expensive the rougher it got.
She slipped on her Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus, or SCBA-mini, the canned air that kept her alive in Earth’s oxygen-poor atmosphere.
The bot carrier felt heavier. Mira turned to see -0- had grappled onto her gaming chair, causing her to drag it halfway across the room.
“Hey! Let go! Bad bot! Bad bot!” she chastised, tapping on it’s mechanical arm.
“Howdy?” -0- asked, releasing its grip, and retracted its arm back through the crate’s bars.
She pushed the chair back to its spot, then walked out her door.
Transport sat ready, a standard hovervan that smelled like cheap aftershave and cigar smoke. The bulletproof partition smeared with lipstick separated her and her bots from the driver, a man resembling Marlon Brando.
“What’s a girl like you doin’ goin’ to this part of town?” he asked, cigar dipping with each vowel.
“My bots need servicing,” she said, and held up the cage for the driver to view.
“Howdy! Howdy!” -0- whined.
-1- echoed its despair.
“I hear that!” The driver laughed like a hacksaw, ending in a cough that deprived him of a lung or two.
The town smeared by, descending from energy efficient domes to ancient, crumbling boxes. Within the deepest concrete, they finally stopped. The closest the transport would venture left her with a two-block walk. As the door opened, she was greeted with the stench of the waste treatment plant. Quickly, she donned the SCBA-mini and breathed the canned air. The points automatically deducted as the transport drove away.
Hurrying to avoid any trouble, she glanced at the street they needed to cross. The split second she turned her attention, a mumble jumper took advantage and landed in front of her.
Startled, she jolted back.
The man’s nearly bleached white eyes stared at her. “Gimmmeyerrrbotsssss…” he mumbled, jumping about from foot to foot. He must have had an eyeful of optic not long before, the conducive gel ran from the corners of his eyes.
“No!” she shrieked, instinctively putting herself in front of them. “They’re broken anyways, you wouldn’t want them,” she said, trying to remain calm.
“Howdy! Howdy!” -0- cried.
Optic really messed with peoples’ heads, and this mumble jumper was over stimmed. His nervous system had been hit with repeated jolts via the optic nerves, emitted from a special optical scanner popular on the black market. They took a lot of juice to power.
“Gimmme your botsss er I’ll take yer airrr,” He smacked an aluminum bat against his hand.
Frag. Mira couldn’t let her friends get chopped up just so some bleach-eyes could get stimmed. “Don’t hurt me,” she said clearly, hoping someone was close enough to hear her through the mask. Maybe she could distract him somehow and run away. She looked around. Frag. Was this the only deserted block in the city?
The mumble jumper swung his bat at her mask. Mira arched back, not quite in time, and felt the concussion as metal connected to metal, throwing her head to the right. She sensed time slow, frame by frame. The man loomed above her laying in the street, Godzilla in her view, and reached for her friends. She needed to stop him, but everything was spinning and ringing. She reached up, fingers curling futilely around the bars of their cage, and felt it ripped from her grasp. Her friends were being taken and there was nothing she could do about it.
“Stop,” her breath came in, along with grit and the odor of fermenting sewage. She choked, realizing too late she was breathing toxic air. Her lungs heaved the useless gas about, struggling to find something to convert. Scorched ozone coated her tongue and throat. She gagged, her body’s reflex in case of an obstacle restricting oxygen flow.
Her sluggish brain registered the spare tank in her bag. She ripped her zipper open, clawing at the smooth cylinder and the ruptured tank attached to her face. The force from the bat had knocked the threads tight. Finally, it spun loose. She twisted the fresh cylinder in its place. Sweet, fresh air filled her mouth and lungs, and she drew it in as a lover to a waiting embrace.
Mira’s thoughts cleared with the fresh O2. She looked up to see the thief escaping with her friends. He turned down an alley and disappeared.
She staggered to her feet and struggled after him. The alley was dark and dirty. She told herself not to follow, but ran into the darkness anyway.
Mira heard a zap, a scream, and a crash. Bleach-eyes rocked in fetal position, holding his bat hand. The weapon laid next to him; a scorched lightning bolt melted into the aluminum, each end showing charred points of contact. The bot carrier caved in where he’d tried to use the bat. Inside, she heard an angry “Howdy!! Howdy!!” She knelt to see -1- laying on its side, edge rumpled in damage, sparks bleeding life.
“No!” Mira screamed and scooped the carrier up. She wasn’t far from the office! Could she make it in time? She sprinted towards the light of the alley entrance.
Now suddenly, people were about. Where were you minutes ago? She pinballed through the crowd, ignoring the plinks of mini cylinders against her shoulders to save her friends.
“Howdy! Howdy!” -0- called in encouragement.
There, Dr. Fix-It. The sign announced it was pressurized and she gladly removed her mask as she hurried inside. She ran to the receptionist, a well-manicured man about Mira’s age. His hazel glassy eyes regarded Mira with complacency.
“Hello,” his monotone voice sounded as if he were reading from a script. “And welcome to Dr. Fix-It, what is It we can Fix today?”
“My bots,” she held up the carrier. “This one was attacked on the way here, has sparking damage to the starboard side, this one has a malfunctioning chip, says howdy,” she spouted, words struggling to free themselves before the next tumbled loose.
He looked disinterestedly at the bots and shrugged. “Do you have an appointment?”
“Yes!” she nodded frantically, voice becoming high-pitched and desperate. “Mira Pushevnik, these are -0- and -1-, appointment at 1415!”
The receptionist checked the screen. “You’re late,” he said. “It’s 1416.”
She looked at him dumbfounded. “Look! -1- is injured! We were attacked just outside and I had to save them! I’m lucky to have them alive…”
He rolled his eyes and clicked the button on the headset. “Yeah, they’re late,” she heard him say.
She peered at -1- and hoped it wouldn’t take too long.
“Okay, they’ll see you,” he admitted. “Please fill out these forms and they’ll call you from the door over there,” and pointed behind him.
She nodded and accepted the clipboard. She was baffled. In a world of headsets and electronic everything, paperwork still existed at the doctor’s office.
Mira sat down between a balding man with a mal-computing catculator and a perfectly manicured woman with a shopping droid.
The forms were 47 pages thick, double-sided. How could she fill this out in time?
She started with the easy things. Names, dates of manufacture, time of last service, credential numbers. Brand. She struggled. Mixed brand? She circled that. Static or replication? Static as far as she was aware. In the last 6 years she hadn’t seen them go into replication mode.
The shopping droid booped sadly and leaked hydraulic fluid in a puddle on the floor. The middle-aged woman complained loudly and shoved the droid’s input sensors into the puddle. “Bad droid! Bad!”
Mira wanted to tell the woman that’s not the proper way to program a droid when the catculator began spewing bundles of code on the floor. It proceeded to polish it’s outer casing as if nothing happened.
The catculator’s owner turned to Mira and said, “Such poor design. They sure enjoy simple equations, though,” he bragged, tossing a 3+8 and watched it return 11 with loud merriment. “My grandfather had one when he was a lad,” the man commented with pride.
The woman noticed the catculator getting all the attention. “My shopping droid is top of the line! Truckwalkoo’s signature line!” She could not have stuck her nose further into the air unless it had somehow decided to take flight from her face.
“If it’s so ‘top of the line’, why are you here then?” the man asked, caressing his catculator’s sensor cover.
The woman made an irritable noise. “It’s having some real issues,” she bemoaned. “First, it bought 400 enemas! I don’t need that many! Then when I asked for it to pick up my ‘happy pills’, it dumped an entire pallet, cracking my marble floor! I mean, what’s the use of having this pile of crap if it’s going to cause me even more problems?” She raised a heeled shoe to kick the defenseless droid.
The poor thing cowered away from the woman and leaked another puddle of fluid.
“Ewww!! And it does this crap!” the woman shrieked and kicked the outer casing, leaving a dent.
“Don’t hurt it!” Mira yelled, putting herself between the shopping droid and its abusive owner. “It doesn’t know any better! It sounds like it’s just trying to help! You need to program it!”
“Well why the frag would I be here otherwise?” the woman retorted in a nasty tone. “Don’t tell me what to do with my own property!” She stood up, heels giving her an extra foot over Mira’s 5’4”, and shoved Mira to the dirty floor.
“Howdy!” -0- rattled the crate.
“Reginald?” a woman dressed in scrubs stood at the door to the repair bays. “And Mathcat?”
“That’s us!” the man with the Catculator said and stood up. “Lemme just get rid of this here,” he said and scooped up the codebundle, depositing it in the wastebasket as he passed.
Mira felt terrible for the shopping droid as she watched the angry woman in heels kick the poor thing across to another seating area. She might report the woman, but stuff like that seemed to be low priority. So many people swarming to the high ground of Colorado had the police overwhelmed.
The paperwork had fallen off her chair, a corner landing in the puddle. Mira cringed, hoping the droid didn’t have any bugs, and dabbed at the soaked pages with tissues. Some ink had run, erasing all the lines of her name and address. After it dried, she’d have to re-write it.
“Mira?” the same woman in scrubs called.
Mira picked up the bent cage with her bots and walked towards the back office, passing the woman with the droid, who crossed her arms and refused to look in Mira’s direction.
Mira passed repair bay doors and could hear saws, pumps, pneumatic drills, and what sounded like an old tv laugh track on repeat.
“Hi Mira, I’m Lexa, Doc Frackle’s assistant. We’ll be in this room, here,” she said and opened door NE13. An exam bench laid waiting with a fresh towel and cover fastener removal tools.
Lexa had Mira place her bots on the towel, keeping restraints in place, although -1-’s wasn’t necessary.
“This one, -0-, has a chip issue, repeats ‘Howdy’ all the time,” Mira explained. “And -1- was attacked on the way here, hit by a metal baseball bat,” Mira bit her lower lip to keep from crying. Not right now, she told her tears.
The assistant nodded. “Let me just do a pressure check on the little guy here and see what systems are damaged,” she said, and turned to access the hose fitting inside -1-’s trapdoors. “I’ve seen worse that ended up being fully repairable.” Lexa connected the hose, hit a button and watched numbers on a display projected by her headset. “Okay you see here?” she pointed to the screen. “These low readings show damage to just the outer casing, no internal damage.” She smiled at Mira. “Next, we’ll do an electronics check. Could you hold the doors open here so I can attach the leads?”
Mira held -1- open while the woman attached a red wire to the red side of the battery and a black wire to an exposed part of -1-’s frame.
“Okay go ahead and let go, otherwise it’ll pick up the electricity your body produces and give us a false reading,” the woman instructed politely.
Mira stood back and watched the numbers climb to 6v then start ticking backwards to 3v.
The woman used a thin length of bare metal to probe at different circuits. One flashed and what remaining lights had been on now flickered off.
“Oh yup, we’ve got a leaker,” the woman said and disconnected the wires. “Probably needs a new battery, some soldering, maybe replace some of the damaged wiring. Nothing too bad, though. I’ll have the Doc check to make sure. And this guy,” she said and turned to -0-. “The only thing was the word repetition?”
Lexa opened -0-’s service bays and stuck her finger into the chip port.
“Howdy!! Howdy!!” -0- exclaimed in alarm.
“There doesn’t seem to be any debris or leaking oil here, sometimes that can cause it,” the assistant said distantly as she focused on what touch told her. “Huh. Did you know there’s an extra chip port? It’s not often a bot requires more than one chip.”
Mira was surprised to hear that.
“And wait, there is something here…” Lexa struggled, then pulled an object free. She held up a small rock. “I wonder if that’s what-” she began.
An image projected from -0- onto the bay wall showed the face of a creature resembling a crab or lobster, except its eyes held a level of intelligence that signaled Mira’s uncanny valley, millions of years of evolution screaming to avoid that diseased human.
The crab creature clicked and chirped like two marbles grinding on each other. The image changed to that of a technicolor cowboy, “Howdy!” the image said in grainy audio, the same sound -0- made in alarm or excitement. The screen flashed again to show another tv program, a woman sitting with a steaming cup, “You know what really gets me?” It blinked again to a newscaster sitting at a desk, staring in dread. “…the lies we are being told, about what happened. We are all in danger…” The screen flashed to a movie clip. A woman in a red dress and red hair giggled at the screen. “I tried to tell you, to tell them, but nobody listened! I know they messed up, but did you ask why? Maybe there’s a reason you don’t, you can’t understand. That reason is how it makes them feel.” Several clips from apocalypse movies showed the Earth exploding in different ways. The screen disappeared.
Mira and Lexa stared at each other in shock.
The door opened and the Doc walked in. “Okay, two broken bots?” he asked, a smile on his face.
Lexa broke first and said, “Nothing crazy. The little guy probably needs a new battery, some soldering, maybe replace some of the damaged wiring. Nothing too bad, though,” she repeated herself. “The other one just had a foreign body,” she said and held up the rock. Why was she hiding the weird message?
The Doc nodded. “I’m Dr. Frakle, I’ll just do the official looksy,” he said and prodded at -1-’s open circuits. “Yeah, use codes Contact with Blunt Object, Undetermined Intent, and Unspecified Open Wound of Other Part of Head, initial encounter.” He turned to -0-. “Let’s just do a little scansy,” he said and gently plugged the scanner into the service bot. The screen projected showing -0-’s properties and manufacture info. The doc paused at the listed chip and extra, unused slot. “Oh wow, that’s not good,” he mumbled.
“What’s wrong?” Mira asked in concern.
“Your bot has parts that The Coalition has deemed ‘hazardous’,” he explained. “I’m sorry, but this bot has to be put down, it’s too dangerous for me to let you leave with it.”
Mira cried out in anguish. “What?! It’s a service bot! It wouldn’t harm a soul!”
“Looks like it had a massive electrical discharge not long ago, imagine if that had been you?” The Doc counseled.
“The mumble jumper who did this did that to -1- did the same to my air tank, and -0- saved us with that shock!” Mira cried out.
Doc Frackle gave Mira a look of frank disbelief.
“We can give you a moment to say goodbye,” the assistant said, gently pushing the Doc out of the room.
Doc Frackle smiled in sympathy and said, “I know it’s tough, but it’s really for the best.”
Mira cradled her bots to her. “I can’t let you hurt them,” Mira cried at the assistant.
Lexa hugged Mira and whispered in her ear, “I can sneak you out. When I tell you, run,” she urged. She straightened up and said loudly, “Yes, we have a restroom, let me show you,” she said and helped her carefully place her bots in the carrier.
The assistant peered down the hall, motioned for Mira, then led them to the door for the restroom. “Your name and address are missing from your forms, so that’s good. I can also make sure the info is wrong in the database. I’ll distract everyone so you can escape out the service door in the restroom” she said in a hurried hushed tone.
“Why are you helping me?” Mira asked in disbelief.
Lexa smiled. “You stood up to Mrs. Saltich! I hate that lady! She doesn’t deserve to have shopping droids or bots of any kind in her service! She’s way up there in CyoCom, so our thousands of complaints have registered on selective ears,” she said in frustration. “You take care of your bots and get out of here. Don’t worry about what Doc Wackadoodle says, he’s paid by CyoCom to deliver these kinds of bots to them. I guess they pick up on signals The Coalition doesn’t want us to know about,” she said and hugged Mira. Lexa pressed a fob into her hand. “Use my transit privileges, I’ll get a new one next week.”
Lexa turned, opened door NE9 and proclaimed loudly, “Who’s stretched hoverzine was parked out front? I think a refuse machine just ran into it!”
A crowd of people including the Doc and Mrs. Saltich ran towards the front.
“Run!” Lexa urged Mira and began unplugging the surveillance system.
Mira nodded her thanks then scurried through the service door with her bots into the alley way outside. She donned her SCBA-mini and hurried in the opposite direction towards the transit station. Hugging her case close, she kept hypervigilant this time.
The station sat dim and gloomy, other transit users strolled and collected in small silhouettes, waiting for the next departure. Billboards recruiting new coworkers for Mira offered positions with CyoCom to repair what was left of the moon. Work on Monday was the last thing she wanted to think about now.
The transit arrived, exhaust air blowing clouds of dust into everyone’s masks. As the air ride relaxed, its accordion skirt pooched out on all sides.
Mira followed the line and picked her way to a seat in the middle, away from everyone else. She held up the cage to inspect -1-. Its lights flickered on and off. Mira felt a pit of despair within her gut. If she hadn’t insisted on taking her bots in, -1- wouldn’t be in the state it was in. And what was that weird message earlier? Mira wondered if she could even repair -1-. She had rebuilt it from wreckage but didn’t know if she had the right parts in her junk drawer now.
The transport alerted her stop was next. Mira gathered her things and stood to exit as quickly as possible before the auto doors closed. She nearly sprinted home to the egg-shaped apartment building she called “The Orphanage”.
Once inside, she carefully removed her bots, undoing their safety locks, and tore through her junk drawer for extra parts. She laid everything out on her towel-covered kitchen island and set about repairing -1-. Using everything she had, she made do with what she didn’t, and clicked in the battery. Nothing happened. -1-’s lights remained off. Mira sighed in frustration. This was beyond her skill.
“Howdy! Howdy!” -0- begged to be picked up.
“Not now, Little Geek,” Mira waved it away. “I’m trying to save -1-.”
“Howdy!! Howdy!!” -0- insisted and began driving up her leg.
“Hey! Okay, fine! Hold on,” she said and put down her screwdriver to pick the service bot up.
Instead of parking on her lap, it climbed onto the island and examined -1-’s open hatch. -0- stuck out one of its Swiss army appendages and connected. Bolts of electricity shot out of -0- and into one, zapping loudly.
“Hey! What-” Mira stood up as -1-’s lights flashed on.
-1- retracted its limp landing gear, closed its access doors, and spun up to eye level with Mira. It beeped with happy little chirps.
“You’re okay!” she cried out with glee. “I’m so glad you’re okay! Good job, -0-!” she congratulated the bot with a caress.
-1- landed on her head.
“I’m sorry, Little Geeks. I won’t take you there ever again!”
“Howdy! Howdy!” -0- agreed.
Mira said, patting -0-, “Someday we’ll figure out what that message meant…”