A Beast Like Any OtherGavin felt dizzy. He was on the floor, inhaling the burning electric smell that permeated the area. The cold metal surface was soothing. He fought the urge to pass out.
“Gavin, are you with me?”
It was the voice of Louise Meuron, a colleague and fellow field service technician. Gavin pushed himself up from the floor with effort. His muscles were sore. He looked at Meuron. Her face and hair were partially smeared with structure gel.
“What happened?” asked Gavin.
Meuron’s face lit up as with great relief. She staggered across the room holding her side. “Pipe explosion.”
“We have to activate the turbo batteries.”
“I’m not sure how we’re supposed to make it. Need to get to the other side of the machine hangars to reach the battery park. There are so many robots in the way. They could all be psychotic – out to kill us. No way to know.”
Gavin nodded. It wasn’t just the machine hangars, Upsilon was now littered with rogue machines and robots. It had been hell trying to stay clear of the erratic machines while still doing your job. Even the non-aggressive ones were a problem, their strength and spastic movements were a perfect formula for causing disastrous accidents. So far there hadn’t been any deaths, but it was clear that it was just a matter of time. They had to find a way out of this, and turning on the batteries was the first step.
“We have to get the batteries activated,” said Meuron.
“Then Carl and Amy will set up the automated production to keep the plant running after we’ve evacuated.”
“I know. Get the power under control and then get the hell out. Rest when we get to Theta.”
Meuron still looked worried, but she nodded and peered into the next room. “Come on, let’s move.”
Gavin followed Meuron as she staggered. They moved through Upsilon’s stark factory floors, climbing over a couple of dismantled universal helpers and a broken loader. It wasn’t the people at Upsilon that had taken them apart, it was the insanity spreading among the robots that made them turn on each other. The robots often fought, all the while screaming with maddened human voices. No one knew what what made them that way. It was just another of the many calamities that had struck Pathos-II and its sites and it was getting worse every day. The robots at the station were powerful beasts of burden that together could move mountains, but only when they were working with clear directions. The robots at Theta and the other sites were easily disarmed, but at Upsilon there were so many. The manufacturing plant just kept making more before it was finally shut down by the staff a few days ago. Thankfully most of the robots produced were for underwater work and simply couldn’t move effectively inside, but there were probably still a hundred rogue machines walking the vast network of corridors and halls at Upsilon and it was best to avoid them altogether.
“Are you kidding me?” Meuron was frustrated. They had stopped in front of a locked door. She was swiping her omnitool at the panel, but nothing was happening.
“The security profile is fucked.”
“Try pulling the tool chip and plugging it back in again.”
“No, it’s not that, someone – or something – changed the cipher.”
“Cut the power. We’ll pull it open.”
Meuron popped a maintenance panel open and started working a set of wires. Gavin stepped up towards the door and tried pulling it open. It was loose.
Sparks burst from the wires as Gavin forced the door open by hand. Meuron fell back against the wall as she dodged the failing circuitry. Gavin, impressed by his simple solution, looked down on Meuron who was sitting on the floor next to him. She looked shocked.
“Sorry, I just thought it was worth a try.” He smiled.
Gavin gave Meuron a hand and pulled her to her feet. He’d never thought about how small she was compared to him.
She must be shorter than 5 feet.
“Good job,” she wheezed, catching her breath.
They kept moving. They were getting closer to their goal. The backup system was a giant hangar-sized hall filled with what were simply referred to as turbo batteries. The technical definition was probably something dull that didn’t convey their incredibly power. Fully loaded they could keep the whole station running for months without the need for producing more power. When the geothermal plant was constructed some forty years ago, it was not considered reliable enough to be entirely trusted, so the batteries were put in so that if power production failed, the station would not go completely dark. Over the last ten years or so the production had become so stable that the batteries became effectively redundant. Luckily no one would benefit from dismantling them, so they remained unused, stuck in the oldest part of Upsilon.
The sections ahead were machine hangars, all large open spaces with literally tons of potentially infested machinery in their way. To avoid dodging between the unpredictable machines, they continued up a staircase and crossed the hangar via narrow walkways high above the ground floor.
“Have you been here before?” asked Gavin.
“I don’t think so. Most of this stuff was built and forgotten about way before I got here.”
Up on the walkways they were able to cover a lot of ground without risking the attention of the machines. Below them they could see container-sized loaders move about, frustrated and without purpose.
Gavin and Meuron spotted the entrance to the battery hall and descended a staircase leading down towards the main floor. A large UH-unit ambled close to the landing. Depending on how much they were moving, one tactic was to simply walk up to the robot, reach in between the body parts and pull the tetra cord that would instantly pacify the machine. The danger being if you weren’t fast enough the robot might pivot its torso and potentially crush your lower arm. Many of the staff had suffered various degrees of such injuries and it had even prompted some to come up with makeshift armor to wear on the arms.
“Come on, let’s just rush past it towards the gate,” whispered Meuron, clutching her omnitool.
“Wait, if the omnitool didn’t work before, we can’t trust it now. You need to upgrade it, remember? I’ll just take out the helper and we can work the door in peace.”
“Okay, just be quiet. There’s a lot of machines down this hall that might come running if they hear something.”
Gavin nodded and sneaked towards the UH. It was a large one, a model often called the Kodiak as it was the size of a bear and could effortlessly switch between standing on two or four legs.
He had done it a few times before, but it was always scary. It felt like sneaking up on a wild animal.
Gavin looked back at Meuron only to see that she’d already moved on. She was by the door popping a panel in the floor – accessing a valve that would slowly pry the gate open. Gavin rolled his eyes at the unnecessary risk she was taking, but kept focused on the beast in front of him. The robot swayed ever so lightly as it rose and stabilized its massive weight on its two rigid hind legs.
Gavin jumped forward, shoved his arm in between the moving parts and tried to reach the tetra cord. He didn’t get it.
The Kodiak swung around. Gavin panicked; as the heavy engine parts closed on his arm, he pulled it out as fast as he could, using the other arm to brace himself against the Kodiak’s armor plates. Before he knew what had happened the Kodiak staggered and they both fell to the ground. He saw his chance and plunged his arm back in between the moving parts. The Kodiak screamed in a scrambled digital mess of a voice as Gavin grabbed the tetra cord and pulled. The machine collapsed in a dead husk of scrap metal. Gavin got back on his feet clenching the tetra cord in triumph.
He felt incredibly lucky. He couldn’t believe he’d got out of that. It was like dropping a live grenade on the ground and by the grace of god being able to pick it back up and throw it away before it blew him apart.
Proud of his accomplishment, Gavin looked back at the gate Meuron was forcing. She wasn’t there. She’d managed to open it enough to slip inside the battery halls already.
Gavin hurried over and squeezed himself through the narrow gap Meuron had settled for. Inside was the turbo battery park that he had been hearing about. It was huge, but uninteresting, a collection of containers evenly spaced across the floor. Gavin had come in on a mezzanine floor so he had a perfect view over the hall. Meuron had made her way to a control room on the same floor. Gavin followed her steps and as he came up behind her she swung around with a large monkey wrench almost hitting him in the chest.
“Christ, take it easy. It’s just me.”
Meuron calmed as she realized who it was. “Don’t scare me like that.”
“Me? I’m not the one abandoning their friends while they’re fighting Kodiaks.”
“Yeah, well… I’m sorry. This is important.”
Meuron turned back to the controls and started hitting switches, booting an old terminal that seemed to have an entirely different system from the rest of the station.
“Can you get it running?”
“Yeah, it’s not a problem. Just keep your eyes open on the gate, okay? Don’t want the machines to even know about this stuff.”
“How can we be sure that this place won’t be affected by the same crazy that the rest is suffering from?”
“There’s not a lot of artificial intelligence here. It’s all very basic stuff. It shouldn’t get infected.”
“But what if some robots just decide to walk in here, tearing this place apart?”
“Let’s hope they enjoy electricity as much as we do.”
Suddenly the hall lit up with sharp cracks echoing inside. Gauges and meters snapped into position.
Meuron nodded. “It’s working.”
Gavin and Meuron made their way back. With their mission completed it was just a matter of not getting in the way of anything violent. Their long walk was accompanied by the usual strange voices and screams from corrupted minds stuck in bodies they couldn’t cope with. The danger of Upsilon wasn’t just the unpredictability of the machines, but the psychological agony of constantly hearing people you knew in pain. You just had to keep telling yourself it wasn’t real. It wasn’t them. It’s just robots.
“Come on, guys. The tool chip failed me. I need a security update!” yelled Meuron as she banged the door leading into the nest.
The door opened. Meuron quickly entered and Gavin followed. The group inside were familar, but there was something wrong. There was chief factor Jane Adams, of course – Carl, Amy, Shank, Jonsy, Rogers, and… Gavin?
“Get the tetra. Quick.”
Gavin didn’t understand what was happening. Carl leaped towards him and sank his arm into Gavin’s stomach.
Where was the blood?
“What are you doing?” asked Gavin in shock. “Who is that?” He pointed towards the other Gavin.
“Got it. Almost.” Carl pulled a cord from Gavin’s stomach. It looked weird. Gavin couldn’t move anymore. He was getting really scared. He looked to Meuron. She was avoiding him, trying to look away.
“Meuron! What’s happening to me?”
“It’s okay, man,” answered Carl and reached back into the stomach. “It’ll be over soon.”
Gavin couldn’t make this scene into anything believable. What the hell was happening? The people in the room looked uncomfortable, disgusted even. Meuron was in tears. The other Gavin looked rigid with stress. “Just kill it already!”
It? That can’t be right. I just helped out with the plan. We were getting out. I’m the real Gavin, right? I have to be. I am me. I am Gavin Finley, field service technician stationed at Upsilon, Pathos-II. I’m a real person. I am —