Authors: Daniel H. Wilson
ALSO BY DANIEL H. WILSON
A Boy and His Bot
Mad Scientist Hall of Fame
How to Build a Robot Army
Where’s My Jetpack?
How to Survive a Robot Uprising
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places, events, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2011 by Daniel H. Wilson
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.
and the portrayal of an anchor with a dolphin are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.
Grateful acknowledgment is made to Houghton Mifflin Publishing Company for permission to reprint an excerpt from “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace” from
The Pill versus the Springhill Mine Disaster
by Richard Brautigan, copyright © 1968 by Richard Brautigan.
All rights reserved.
Jacket design by Will Staehle
Jacket image by Giimann courtesy of
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Wilson, Daniel H. (Daniel Howard)
Robopocalypse : a novel / Daniel H. Wilson. — 1st ed.
1. Robots—Fiction. 2. Artificial intelligence—Fiction. I. Title.
We are a better species for having fought this war
Twenty minutes after the war ends, I’m watching stumpers pour up out of a frozen hole in the ground like ants from hell and praying that I keep my natural legs for another day.
Each walnut-sized robot is lost in the mix as they climb over each other and the whole nightmare jumble of legs and antennae blends together into one seething, murderous mass.
With numb fingers, I fumble my goggles down over my eyes and get ready to do some business with my little friend Rob, here.
It’s an oddly quiet morning. Just the sigh of the wind through stark tree branches and the hoarse whisper of a hundred thousand explosive mechanical hexapods searching for human victims. Up above, snow geese honk to each other as they glide over the frigid Alaskan landscape.
The war is over. It’s time to see what we can find.
From where I’m standing ten meters away from the hole, the killer machines look almost beautiful in the dawn, like candy spilled out onto the permafrost.
I squint into the sunlight, my breath billowing out in pale puffs, and sling my battered old flamethrower off my shoulder. With one gloved thumb, I depress the ignite button.
The thrower doesn’t light.
Needs to warm up, so to speak. But they’re getting closer. No sweat. I’ve done this dozens of times. The trick is to be calm and methodical, just like them. Rob must’ve rubbed off on me over the last couple years.
Now I see the individual stumpers. A tangle of barbed legs attached to a bifurcated shell. I know from experience that each side of the shell contains a different fluid. The heat of human skin initiates a trigger state. The fluids combine.
Somebody wins a brand-new stump.
They don’t know I’m here. But the scouts are spreading out in semirandom patterns based on Big Rob’s study of foraging ants. The robots learned so much about us, about nature. It won’t be long now.
I begin to back away slowly.
“C’mon, you bastard,” I mutter.
That was a mistake: to talk. The heat from my breath is like a beacon. The flood of horror surges my way, quiet and fast.
A lead stumper climbs onto my boot. Gotta be careful now. Can’t react. If it pops I’m minus a foot, best-case.
I should never have come here alone.
Now the flood is at my feet. I feel a tug on my frost-covered shin guard as the leader climbs me like a mountain. Metal-filament antennae tap, tap, tap along, questing for the telltale heat of human flesh.
Oh Christ. C’mon, c’mon, c’mon.
There’s going to be a temperature differential at my waist level, where the armor has chinks. A torso-level trigger state in body armor isn’t a death sentence, but it doesn’t look good for my balls, either.
I’m lit. A jet of flame leaps from my thrower. Its heat blooms on my face and sweat evaporates off my cheeks. My peripheral vision narrows. All I see is the controlled spurts of fire I’m arcing out onto the tundra. Sticky, burning jelly coats the river of death. The stumpers sizzle and melt by the thousands. I hear a chorus of high-pitched whines as the chilled air trapped in their carapaces squeezes out.
No explosions, just the occasional sputtering flare. The heat boils the juice in their shells before detonation. The worst part is that they don’t even care. They’re too simple to understand what’s happening to them.
They love the heat.
I start to breathe again when the leader drops off my thigh and scurries toward the flames. The urge to step on the little mother is strong, but I’ve seen the boots fly before. Early on in the New War, the hollow backfire of a trigger-state stumper and the confused, hopping screams that came afterward were as common as gunfire.
All the soldiers say that Rob likes to party. And when he gets going, he’s one hell of a dance partner.
The last of the stumpers suicidally retreat toward the smoking lump of heat and the sizzling corpses of their comrades.
I dig out my radio.
“Bright Boy to base. Shaft fifteen … booby trap.”
The little box squawks at me in an Italian accent: “Copy, Bright Boy. This is Leo. Come in. Get your ass to shaft
. Holy shit. We got something for real here, boss.”
I crunch over the frost back to shaft sixteen to see for myself how real it is.
Leonardo is a big grunt, even bigger thanks to the hulking lower-body exoskeleton—LEEX—he picked up at a mountain rescue station crossing the south Yukon. He’s got the LEEX’s white cross medic logo covered in dead-black spray paint. The squad has tied a tickler rope around his waist. He’s backing up, step by step, motors whining as he pulls something big and black out of the hole.
From under his mess of curly black hair, Leo grumbles, “Oh man, this thing
Cherrah, my specialist, points a depth meter at the hole and tells me the shaft measures in at exactly 128 meters deep. Then she wisely steps away from it. Her cheek bears a sunken scar from less cautious times. We don’t know what’s coming out.
Funny, I think. With people, everything comes in tens. We count on our fingers and toes. It makes us sound like monkeys. But the machines count it out on their hardware just the same as us. They’re binary all the way to the core. Everything comes out a power of two.
Now the tickler emerges from the hole, looking like a spider with a fly. Its long, wiry arms grip a black cube the size of a basketball. The cube must be as dense as lead, but the tickler is crazy strong. We normally use ’em for grabbing up a guy who falls off a cliff or into a hole, but they can handle anything from a ten-pound vanilla babe to a soldier in full exo-rig. If you’re not careful, they’ll tickle your ribs to splinters.
Leo punches the tickler release, and the cube thuds onto the snow. The squad looks my way. It’s my call.
I sense that this thing is important. It’s gotta be, with so many decoys and this shaft so close to where the war ended. We’re only a hundred meters away from where the Big Rob that called itself Archos made its last stand. What consolation prize could be here? What treasure is buried under these frozen plains, where humanity sacrificed everything?
I squat down next to it. A whole lot of sheer black nothing stares back at me. No buttons or handles. No anything. Only a couple scratches on the surface from the tickler.
It’s not very rugged,
A simple rule: The more delicate a Rob is, the smarter he is.
Now I’m thinking that this thing might have a brain. And if it’s got a brain, it wants to live. So I lean in real close and whisper to it. “Hey,” I say to the cube. “Speak up or die.”
I sling my thrower off my shoulder slow, so the cube can see. If it
see. With my thumb, I mash the igniter. So it can hear. If it
The cube sits in the permafrost: blank obsidian.
It looks like a volcanic rock, perfectly carved by alien tools. Like some kind of artifact buried here for eternity, since before man
A faint light flickers under the cube’s surface. I look to Cherrah. She shrugs. Maybe the sun, maybe not.
I pause. The ground glistens. The ice around the cube is melting. It’s thinking, trying to make a decision. Those circuits are warming up as the cube contemplates its own death.
“Yeah,” I say, quietly, “puzzle it out, Rob.”
The tip of the thrower catches fire with a concussive
. From behind me I hear Leo chuckle. He likes to see the smarter ones die. Gives him satisfaction, he says. There is no honor in killing something that doesn’t know it’s alive.
The reflection of the pilot flame dances across the cube’s surface for a split second, then the thing lights up like a Christmas tree. Symbols flash across its surface. It chatters at us in the meaningless creaks and grinds of Robspeak.
I think. This thing was never meant for direct contact with humans. Otherwise, it would be spouting propaganda in English like all the other culturally aware robots, trying to win over our human hearts and minds.
What is this thing?
Whatever it is, it’s trying to talk to us, frantically.
We know better than to try and understand it. Every croak and click of Robspeak has a dictionary’s worth of information encoded. Besides, we can only hear a fraction of the sound frequency that Rob perks his ears to.
“Ooh, Daddy. Can we keep it? Please, please?” asks Cherrah, smiling.
I pinch out the thrower’s pilot flame with one gloved hand. “Let’s hump it home,” I say, and my squad gets moving.
We lock the cube onto Leo’s LEEX and haul it back to the forward command post. Just to be safe, I set up an EMP-shielded tent a hundred meters out. Robots are unpredictable. You never know when Rob will want to party. The mesh screen draped over the tent blocks communication with any stray thinking bots that might want to invite my cube to start dancing.
Finally, we get some alone time.
The thing keeps repeating one sentence and one symbol. I look ’em up in a field translator, expecting more Rob gibberish. But I find out something useful: This robot is telling me that it’s not allowed to let itself die, no matter what—even if captured.
It’s important. And chatty.
I sit in the tent with the thing all night. The Robspeak means nothing to me, but the cube shows me things—images and sounds. Sometimes I see interrogations of human prisoners. A couple times, there are interviews with humans who thought they were talking to other humans. Most times, though, it’s just a conversation recorded under surveillance. People describing the war to each other. And all of it’s annotated with fact checks and lie detection from the thinking machines, plus correlating data from satellite footage, object recognition, emotion and gesture and language predictions.
The cube is dense with information, like some fossilized brain that’s sucked up entire human lifetimes and packed them inside itself, one after another, tighter and tighter.
At some point during the night it dawns on me that I’m watching a meticulous history of the robot uprising.
This is the goddamn black box on the whole war
Some of the people in the cube are familiar. Me and a few of my buddies.
We’re in there
. Big Rob kept its finger on the record button all the way through to the end. But dozens of others are in there, too. Some of them kids, even. There’s people from all over the world. Soldiers and civilians. Not all of them made it out alive or even won their battles, but all of ’em fought. They fought hard enough to make Big Rob sit up and scribble some notes.
The human beings who appear in the data, survivors or not, are grouped under one machine-designated classification:
These damned machines knew us and loved us, even while they were tearing our civilization to shreds.
I leave the cube sitting there in the shielded tent for a solid week. My squad clears out the rest of the Ragnorak Intelligence Fields, no casualties. Then they get drunk. The next day we start packing it up and I still can’t bring myself to go back in there and face the stories.
I can’t sleep.
Nobody should ever have to see what we saw. And there it is in the tent, like a horror movie so twisted that it drives people insane. I lie awake because I know that every one of the soulless monsters I fought is in there waiting for me, alive and well and rendered in vivid 3-D.
The monsters want to talk, to share what happened. They want me to remember and write it all down.
But I’m not sure anybody wants to remember those things. I’m thinking that maybe it would be best if our babies never know what we did to survive. I don’t want to walk down memory lane hand in hand with murderers. Besides, who am I to make that decision for humanity?
Memories fade, but words hang around forever.
So I don’t go into the shielded tent. And I don’t sleep. And before I know it, my squad is bunking down for the last night in the ’rak. Tomorrow morning we set off for home, or wherever we choose to make home.
Five of us are sitting around a wood fire in the cleared zone. For once we aren’t worrying about heat sigs or satellite recognition or the
thop, thop, thop
of lookers. No, we’re bullshitting. And right after killing robots, bullshitting happens to be the numero uno expertise of Brightboy squad.