Authors: Dave Schroeder
Table of Contents
“We know what we are, but know not what we may be.”
— William Shakespeare,
“He’s everything you’d promised,” said Shepherd, the grizzled wolf-like, bear-like, brown-furred P
“And everything I’d hoped for,” said his human companion.
“His partner is something special, too.”
kk rubbed his chin.
“Absolutely,” said the other, “but not unexpected. She takes after her mother.”
“From what I know of humans,” said Shepherd, “it looks like the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
kk bared his teeth in what his species considered a smile. His companion smiled back.
“If they can survive the next week.”
“I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant
and fill him with a terrible resolve.”
— Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto
I woke up to the delightful sound of my partner’s voice whispering my name.
“Jack. Jack. Get up, Jack.”
Consciousness slowly seeped into my brain cells. I reached out an arm to cuddle with Poly, but she wasn’t there.
“Jack. Jack. Earth to Jack.”
It wasn’t Poly. It was my phone using Poly’s voice because that always got my attention.
“Jack, wake up! You’ve got a support call!”
Adrenaline flowed. I sat up quickly, and then realized that wasn’t a good idea. My head reminded me I wasn’t that far past having a concussion, and my ribs reminded me I’d been shot in the chest five times a month and a half ago. Why am I still alive? Bullet-proof vest, of a sort. Long story.
“What time is it?”
“Five-fifteen,” said my phone, apologetically.
“In the morning? Who’s calling at this hour?”
I swung myself around to sit up and noted a sharp, residual pain in my thigh from where I’d been clawed by a dinosaur—the same long story.
“Mike,” said my phone, “from WT&F.”
Widget Technology & Fabrication was one of my clients, or maybe I should say
clients, now that I’ve got a partner. I run a tech support company—for alien technology—called Xenotech Support Corporation. Ever since Earth joined the Galactic Free Trade Association there’s been a lot of demand for our services.
“Hi, Mike,” I said. “What is it
time? And why are you at work so early?”
Mike was the fab operator at WT&F and a good guy. He ran their Dauushan Model-43 large scale 3D printer.
“It’s Jean-Jacques,” he said, referring to the avaricious, corner-cutting CEO of WT&F. “A client provided a set of fabrication plans from that shady company.”
J-J had contractually agreed to have all his designs vetted by me before fabbing them. So much for that promise.
“Right. He had me start at midnight because his client wants delivery by noon.”
“What does he have you fabbing?”
When Jean-Jacques Bonhomme had first used plans from Factor-E-Flor he’d ended up with a hundred thousand pink robot rabbit lawn mowers.
“I don’t know,” said Mike.
“What do you mean, you don’t know? Wasn’t there a summary description with the specifications?”
“Yes, but the specs are for household vacuum cleaner automatons with eight manipulator arms to dust and move furniture.”
“It printed some of those, maybe fifty or so, then started spitting out component parts for something I don’t recognize. The octovacs are fitting them together. It looks like the finished product will be really big.”
“Just turn the unit off, then on again,” I suggested.
It was a lame, patronizing suggestion, but I had an excuse. I’d been sound asleep sixty seconds earlier.
“I would, but the octovacs won’t let me near the machine,” said Mike.
“I’m beginning to see your problem.”
I stood up—carefully—and headed toward the shower.
“I’m sorry to bother you, with you being banged up and all,” said Mike.
I appreciated that he was concerned for my health. Like I said, a good guy.
“I’ll be there in half an hour.”
“Faster might be better.”
Was that fear I heard in Mike’s voice? Yeah, it was. This was more serious than he wanted to admit. When you’ve done tech support as long as I have, you know how to tell when clients are scared.
“Hang on, I’m on my way.”
I skipped a shower and pulled on one of my corporate uniforms—khaki pants and a white Xenotech Support logo polo shirt. I picked up my backpack tool bag from its spot next to the front door and left. Trying to be smart about my injuries, I carefully walked across the dim apartment complex courtyard and through the security gate leading to the street. My van, summoned by my phone, was waiting for me. The sun wouldn’t be up for an hour and a half.
“WT&F,” I said, “and step on it.”
“Seat belt,” said my van.
I buckled up and we were off. What a way to start a Monday.
* * * * *
It didn’t take long to get there. WT&F’s building was a typical two-story glass and steel-framed structure situated in an almost suburban Atlanta office park. Nothing seemed amiss from the outside. It was so early there were only two cars in the parking lot. My van dropped me off right at the entrance. The front door lock buzzed open as I approached.
When I stepped into the lobby, I was irrationally disappointed that Poly wasn’t behind the receptionist’s desk. I knew she couldn’t and wouldn’t be there at five-thirty in the morning. Poly was at Georgia Tech pulling an all-nighter to finish up final revisions for a paper on Tigrammath artificial intelligence psycho-optimization she was writing with one of her Advanced Galtech professors. Instead, a petite, muscular-looking young woman wearing a security guard uniform was sitting at the reception desk. Her short blond hair was dyed in pink, purple and lime green accent stripes. I’d never seen her before.
“I’m CiCi,” she said. “Are you Jack?”
“That’s me,” I said.
Maybe it would be smart to get employee name tags now that XSC was growing? Later.
“Xenotech Support,” she said, reading the logo on my shirt. “Cool name.”
I nodded. “Thanks.”
“Mike told me to look out for you and send you right back to the production floor,” she said. “You know the way?”
“Yep,” I said, and headed past her desk toward the double doors leading into the main part of the building.
“Has anybody ever told you you’re kind of cute?” said the young woman.
I hated to be rude but pretended I didn’t hear her asking for my number and let the doors close behind me. I didn’t need
sort of complication in my life. Things were crazy enough already.
Mike intercepted me just outside the production floor. We shook hands. His were trembling.
“Thanks for getting here so fast. The octovacs forced me out and barred the door.”
Aggressively hostile vacuum cleaners—that’s not odd at all, not the way my life has been going lately.
“What are they doing now?”
Mike motioned for me to look.
We peered in through the narrow reinforced windows inset into the production room’s heavy steel doors. Through the thick glass we saw the massive Dauushan Model-43 fabricator. If a typical office copier was a tugboat, it was the size of an aircraft carrier.
Dozens of octovacs were scuttling around it. Covered in highly polished chrome, they looked somewhat sinister in a daddy longlegs meets Doctor Octopus meets
sort of way. Their central cores were disks the diameter of vintage Volkswagen Beetle hubcaps and a little thicker than a pizza box. Their bottoms were perforated so they could vacuum up anything they passed over. Manipulator tentacles were evenly spaced around the central core. They could extend from a few inches to over six feet, and were made from tiny, overlapping segments as supple as snakes.
Octovacs used their tentacles to walk on and to carry tools as well as move household furniture. They could also climb vertical surfaces if necessary. Instead of looking cuddly, like most modern household robots, these machines looked coldly efficient and deadly serious. They made grating, chittering sounds as they worked, like dozens of disapproving, out of sync stopwatches. Angry red beams of light pulsed from the tops of their central cores in counterpoint to the noise. I could see why Mike didn’t want to confront them.
The octovacs were building something that looked as ominous as they did. Internal sub-assemblies and curved external components were emerging from the Model-43 at high speed. Crews of octovacs were using their writhing manipulators to fit smaller components together. The element currently under construction was a concave black disk fifteen feet in diameter that looked like a wok big enough to feed an entire division of the Chinese Army. When the octovacs finished with the disk, Mike and I watched another cadre of them lift and carry it in the direction of the loading dock, out of sight to our right.
“What’s the fastest way out to the dock?”
I thought I knew, but Mike might know better.
“Down the corridor,” he said, “but I wouldn’t advise it.”
“Let’s head up to the roof and I’ll show you,” said Mike. “Thank goodness J-J is in New York today.”
I nodded. If Jean-Jacques had been here he would have certainly been screaming at us to fix this instantly, even though it was his fault for using untrustworthy fabrication specifications. Then again, he might wait until nine or ten o’clock, when he typically got to the office, before he started screaming.
We took the service elevator to the second floor in deference to my injuries and then climbed the maintenance stairs to the roof. An antique incandescent bulb in a fixture on the outer wall above the stairway door gave a dim light in the early morning darkness. When we crossed to the rear of the building and stared down at what was happening below us, I didn’t believe what I saw. It was so incongruous that I had to take a step back, shake my head to do a brain reboot, then advance for a second look. What I’d thought I’d seen was still there. In the high-intensity glow of the dock’s congruent-tech lights, we could see a gigantic humanoid robot lying flat on its back like Gulliver captured by octovac Lilliputians.
The eight-armed assemblers were fitting the big disk over its right knee joint. This robot wasn’t a friendly, brightly colored anime-style construct—it was a seriously badass-looking combat mech with enough firepower to take down Godzilla, Mothra, Gamera and Rodan simultaneously. The massive automaton was jet black and bristled with weapons. Cannons, energy blasters and missile launchers were attached to its shoulders, forearms and torso. Whoever tricked Jean-Jacques into building
machine was serious about maximizing threat potential. Who was behind it? And more to the point, why? I found myself wishing I was back dealing with a hundred thousand hungry pink robot bunny lawn mowers.
The robot took up most of the building’s rear loading and parking area. I tried to estimate how big it was, but that was difficult because its matte black finish seemed to absorb light. Its shins and thighs were each the size of shipping containers, so that made eighty to one hundred feet just for its legs. The whole thing would be two hundred and fifty feet tall once it stood up. If it stood up—and I wondered what I could do to stop it. It looked like it was almost completely assembled—only the left kneecap remained and that was ready to install. I should have gotten here faster.
“Where are the loading dock workers?” I asked.
Wait, would they even be on duty this early? Maybe if J-J had a rush order to fill.
“They split as soon as the octovacs took over the dock,” said Mike. “I’d walked out there before it was completely overrun and overheard one of them say something about having a bottle of tequila at home. He left and the others drove off behind him.”
I envied them—and I don’t even drink.
I pulled out my phone and asked it to zoom in on the robot so I could get a more detailed view. Many of the robot’s components had the rounded, organic look common to Orishen technology. I wondered if it could change shape and function, like so many other types of Orishen-designed equipment.
The Orish are an insect-like Galactic species that morph through several different forms over their lives—egg, larva, nymph, adult and supra-adult. Their technology is highly flexible and adaptable as well. I’d earned the equivalent of a Ph.D. at Mulbiri Tech on Orish so I knew my way around Orishen technology. I’d recently been successful in thwarting a villain’s evil plan by transforming Orishen-built troop ships into casinos, for example. Yeah,
The attached weapons didn’t look Orishen. They were bolted on and had a sharp, angular design that I didn’t recognize. It wasn’t Long Pâkk or Short Pâkk—two of the more belligerent GaFTA member species—though it did seem to have Japanese influences. I leaned over the edge of the roof to get a better look at the weapons systems. That turned out to be a bad idea. Two octovacs on the loading dock spotted me and sprang up the concrete and glass rear wall of the building, heading my way. I’d have to think fast.
I stowed my phone and reached behind me to open the compartment on my backpack tool bag that held my friend Chit’s bottle. I uncapped the bottle and shouted for help. A small, buzzing creature flew out just as the two shiny octovacs arrived on the roof. Mike ran for the maintenance stairs and was able to get behind a closed door. At least he was safe.
Unfortunately, that meant I was left to confront the two mechanical spiders without his assistance. They weren’t happy to see me. Two tentacles shot out from the first octovac and grabbed my ankles. Two more extended from the other octovac and encircled my wrists. They backed away from each other, pulling me off my feet and holding me face up, spread-eagled. I was being stretched like I was strapped to a rack controlled by an overzealous torturer.
All things considered, I’d rather be back in bed.