It didn’t have a destination. Unusual for a service robot to be without a specific place to go or to be in its corporate bot station being recharged or receiving maintenance. Nothing around it, the cars, the buildings the people, looked familiar. Not even the street sounds were recognizable.
“Hey! Robot! You okay?” asked a nearby, middle-aged latino man. “Don’t look okay…”
It turned and examined the man. “I… am not functioning within,” its voice stuttered and went into a variable pitch without rhythm, “ooopper--ationallllll parrrrr--amettt--erzzzz.”
The man no longer looked interested in the robot’s condition and muttered in Spanish as he briskly walked away. Other people were looking at it with confusion and worry. A few were using their wristers, oblivious to its presence. It moved into a nearby alleyway, walked down the poorly lit, dusty way then turned into a deep doorway arch. It stood there in stillness, eyes glowing a dull lime green from the shadows.
The robot’s communication systems were still down. It ran a new self-diagnostic and found it had a week’s worth of power, had taken 11,556 steps and was missing two memory files totaling ninety-three minutes and six seconds. A window in the robot’s vision opened and began to replay everything it had seen and heard in slow-reverse, starting from the end of the missing files. At the start, a blast of fire filled its field of vision then imploded back into a burning hot dog cart. Before that contained footage of a lot of walking to the southwest surrounded by hundreds of angry people with signs and bottles and rocks.
It stopped the playback and skipped back to the moment when where the Trager™ robot had confronted it at Alpha’s service alleyway entrance. Playing back in standard format it watched as the combat unit spun on its midaxis and skittered away on its crab-like legs toward the front of the convention center. It fired off taser bolts into the crowd along the way. The robot saw its own movement toward the central authority building then dozens of service robots ran toward and past him loudly announcing, “It’s burning! “It’s burning!” A few ran into it, knocking it onto the ground. The shaking and its damage displays suggested it was being stepped on. The playback went black, then flicked on with a message of “MISSING DATA - 13:23.07” and a listing of rebooting systems. It was walking forward among the crowd of angry people it had shown previously. It sped up the playback to double-speed which ended at the hot dog cart explosion before another blackout was followed with a message of “MISSING DATA - 79:43.45.”
It dropped the playback and attempted to bring up a map of the area. Without comms the geolocation system wouldn’t function. The number of steps helped to determine it had traveled 5.47 miles. It concluded that without a point of reference or the missing data, it was lost in L.A.
A survey of the alley showed the concrete buildings’ walls were covered in spray-painted symbols, wheatpaste posters and moss. It picked up the faint sounds of people talking deeper down the alleyway. It made a decision to investigate voices’ source and ask for directions back to downtown. As it made a turn and got nearer, it recognized the language as a mix of English and Mandarin Chinese. The service robot attempted to bring up its language files but received the familiar error code that without communications it would not have the ability to do more than recognize dictionary-based words.
In the middle of a wide mouth of the backstreet kneeled a circle of seven men and women. They wore a mix of synthetic leather and denim clothes, accented with bright patches, buttons and metal barbs. They were laughing and pointing at each other while one was rolling dice near a pile of cash on a piece of plastic sheeting. It approached without hesitation as the people turned, rising to their full heights and surprised at the robot’s presence. Hanzi letters were written on their shirts and tattooed on their checks. Most wore single-piece, wrap-around sunglasses despite the low light. It had never seen people look like this before now. It walked up.
“Nǐhǎo,” it said. “I have a malllll… functioning communications sssssystem. Do you know where theeeee nearest maaaaaaa… intenance center iiiiiiiiiis located?”
One of the women strolled forward and met it half way. She smiled a set of yellowed teeth at the robot, “You’re away from Mama corp, jīqìrén? Broken and alone?”
Two men from the group, standing behind the woman, were whispering to each other while another woman moved wide to the alleyway wall.
The robot continued to speak, “Yes. I… ammmmmm not at commmm… pleeete perforrr… mance.”
She took a quick look over her shoulder to see the smiling faces of her friends who looked back with eager expressions. “Oh, we can help alright. You are in the perfect place.” Her left arm flicked out to her side. A long blade with glowing red edge jutted out as she screamed, “Hóng dāo!”
The impact of the blade registered in the robot’s middle body. It felt the impact of its torso onto the ground. Its vision turned up toward the buildingtops. It attempted to stand but registered no access to its lower chassis and its arms and neck were immobile. Warning messages stated that significant damage had been sustained. “What…?”
The robot saw the long body of the woman stretch up and up as she stood over its head. The glow of yellow and red from her boot lights put a haloed blur in its vision, but her blade point was sharply in focus. “Your parts will net us plenty after we carve you up, Bot.”
Her eyes went wide. Then she stopped talking, fell to her side and out of view.
A man shouted out, “Yáng guǐzi!” and the robot registered the sounds of others running, grunting and falling to the ground. Then, there were only the unfamiliar sounds of the streets.
The upside-down face of an Asian man, maybe in his late 20s, with a pair of eyes glowing neon blue indicating retinal display lenses, leaned a couple feet away from the robot’s view, “For a service robot with a mostly, rounded head you sure are a shǎzi, Bot.”
“I am dammmmmmmmm… ageddd andddd reeeee… quire repaaa… ir,” the robot said.
“Damn right you do,” the man said with a huffed laugh. “Both halves of ya for that matter.”
It heard the man step back and the sound of a small, plasma-powered engine grew louder and closer. Its viewpoint changed as it was picked up by the man and placed onto the back of a motorcycle. The robot saw three, unmoving bodies. It recognized the woman it spoke to and two of the men from the circle. It saw the helpful man walk over to the robot’s leg and mid-axis units and sling them over his shoulder as he walked back toward the bike. “You are one tough unit though. Service that keeps on going and going, am I right?” He strapped the legs onto the bike and moved the robot’s head to the side, away from his face. It felt a jolt of power in its neck axis but was able to move to look around again on its own. “Your neck and shoulder servos were shocked shut from that huàidàn. Her blade had a monoshock edge. You walked right into a scrapgang’s den on, what I bet happens to be, your first night on the town, eh Bot?”
The robot didn’t respond but began rerouting power to its damaged voice processor and attempted to run repair analyses to determine just how much this man could help it. Just as the result of less than 15% probable flashed, he cleared his throat and spoke again.
“I’m Wez. I live nearby and don’t really get along with most everyone in this part of Walnut Park. I’ll take you to a friend of mine down south who has a great repair shop and it’s well away from the scanners and company drones.” He looked up, apparently making a call. The percentage jumped to 35%.
“Heya, Dees. Is the store open? I gotta fresh can of beans to go with your carrot salad.” He paused a moment and responded. “I saw, and more reason for me not to be up here near the cinders. Mind if I and my new friend join you both?” Another pause and then, “Cool.”
Wez winked to the robot strapped onto the back of his motorcycle as he mounted it, “You got some odd programming, Bot,” and he began to ride them out of the alleyway. “Most of the time if a service bot gets outside the perimeter of their primary network it sends out a signal to recover it or it gets shut down. There’s no central center around here. But despite events happening all over the L.A., the protocol for tonight would have all bots assisting with their event’s security needs. You’re doing none of that which makes me think you’re kinda different.” He set the bike to autopilot and pulled out a vaper tube from his inner jacket pocket.
Percentage raised again to 65%. “Whooooo… issss… Dees?” the robot managed to ask with its improved speech.
“Ha!” Wez blorted out with a cloud of vapor, “She’s the one that’s three-times smarter than me and twice as pissed off about the state of the world. Wow. Check me out. Talking about why I care to a talking toas… mmmm, no. I said I’d stop doing that. Promised Carrot I’d… Look. Bot, I don’t think riding you over to your corpse programmers - who’ll likely shut you off, wipe your drives and recycle your parts - is the right course of action. Might as well be hiring scrapgangs on contract. No. Let’s see what’s keeping you running this far from homebase first.”
It continued to work on its voice processor, “Why… do you… care?”
“Why? Because we need heroes. Here. Now. In the everyday. I went to school. Learned my history before C-Day. Everytime people put their faith into systems, every hùnzhàng time, inhuman beasts rise up. Setting rules. Placing values on things and people to establish order. We know these qín shòu abuse their way into power, but people keep trying to refine and perfect the ways we live in spite of what we know happens. So we keep seeing small groups replacing bigger ones until they grow and get replaced by smaller groups again and again and again. All filled with the greedy and sàng xīn bìng kuǎng.”
Wez took another long, draw off his vape and exhaled as the bike thrummed along the road. “This Measure Z is a total joke. The government wants back what it sold away. No way the Corpses will let it happen.” He seemed to calm down a moment and took a long drag off his vaper, blowing out the white mist into a quickly dispersed stream.
“I learned that how we treat the things we create can be very reflective of how we feel about one another,” Wez continued. “People have a tendency to treat everything like it’s disposable, upgradable or can just be replaced at the whim of the owner.” He pointed over to the 24-hour store they were passing where a wall holoscreen projected the news. The robot magnified and brought up the image despite its damaged vision to see the firefighters and equipment battling a large structure fire near the convention center. Wez continued, “That burning building survived the worst natural disaster in L.A.’s history, and tonight people are burning it to the ground because they think it’s gonna validate their cause. We don’t learn.”
“Then we go and fashion robots and limbs and parts in our own image; and, well…” He paused a moment as the bike crossed rail tracks and entered Lynnwood before finishing his comment, “Makes me ask a 20th century question, ‘Do engines get rewarded for their steam?’”
The percentage read 90%.
Wez seemed to stop in his speech, “Uh oh. Earthquake coming.”
It trained its audio sensors over to a nearby car and picked up the emergency radio broadcast announcing a three-minute warning for a 6.0 earthquake in the Los Angeles area and instructing people to enact safety protocols. “How much… further?”
Wez opened up the plasma injectors as he left State Street and rounded onto Imperial Highway. “Looks like we’ll make our destination just in time, Bot. I love this open lane. Gives me a chance to open up the injectors!”