Cast of Wonders 305: All Systems Go

All Systems Go

by Gerri Leen

The spaceport at Norn Five is a shining ode to order, automation, and interstellar travel. State-of-the-art communication ports dot the walls, offering instant access to loved ones, bosses, or eccentrics offering revolution at bargain prices.

Travelers move across the floors, various forms of locomotion taking them from point A to point B. Walkers tends to be the most common, but there are also floaters, crawlers, slitherers, and the odd vaporous beings that just sort of waft.

And working around it all are the units of the robotic char force. One in particular moves slowly along the wall, sucking up the residue left by one of the slithering public. It gets stuck for a moment when it hits a point where one being’s slime has mixed with another’s, making a sort of glue of the noxious kind. The bot revs forward, then backward, sucking up goop up as it goes, spritzing solvent onto the floor and then wiping it up so no one slips.

Finally it works itself free just in time to see a Charchellian-beetle merchant stride across the space, talking to his precious cargo, which is busily excreting the substance that contains more natural stimulant than a bale of Silestrian Woohoo Weed. The merchant will be detained by spaceport security eventually, but not right away. The robot sweeper follows in his wake, picking up little pods of Charchellian-beetle dung, knowing they are mixing with the slime it’s already picked up—the new lining on its cleaning appendages does not seem up to the task of keeping the detritus it’s picked up from clogging up the works.

It backs into a corner, out of the way of feet or whatever other forms of locomotion travelers may show up with, and runs its self-cleaning routine. Other bots pass it by, leaving no mess, nothing to clean up in their wake. Once the cleaning is done, the bot moves along, covering its quadrant of the departures section, back and forth, in a grid of its own making. The work is not taxing, so it has time to think up new designs. It has created thirty one thousand, four hundred and fifty eight distinct patterns so far. Perhaps today it will create a new one.

To complete its new pattern, it must get by two Menden warriors who have crouched on the floor near the bathroom, scowling at everything that goes by.

“Excuse, me,” the bot tries to say, in a code of its own making. The sound comes out as a happy little toot. It does not mean it to be happy; what it feels is closer to annoyance. This pattern is not highly complex, but it will fall apart and the bot will have to start over if these warriors won’t move.

It toots again.

They don’t move. The robot would sigh, if that were in its programming. Instead it runs down all the ways Menden brains are probably inferior to a T-20 logic circuit. It does not dwell on how a T-20 logic circuit is scraping the barrel as far as the latest tech goes—it gets that enough from the HVAC computers.

One last toot, and a Menden pushes the bot away with his foot. The bot is tempted to spray the offending foot with solvent, but it goes against its programming. Abandoning its new pattern, it sees another robot emptying refuse containers with a precision that says it’s newly deployed. The bot remembers a time when it could not work and create patterns at the same time; it was unfulfilling to not create. It moves off, around the warriors, who have taken out their knives and are playing the Menden version of rock-paper-scissors, only they’d probably call it stab left-stab right-stab down. There is blue-black blood that the bot knows will not come off unless it uses the industrial strength cleanser, but its databanks say the cleanser will give half the people who frequent the spaceport a migraine of mammoth proportions, so it will have to wait until the terminal is less busy to use it.

The terminal is rarely less busy. Yet the robot’s job is to clean messes. For a moment, it gets caught in a logic loop, then it invokes its uber programming designed to prevent such annoying glitches: the job will get done when it gets done.

That saying covers a world of sin in the spaceport. Not just robots follow the dictum. Baggage handlers tend to take a lackadaisical view of whether luggage truly belongs with its owner, deciding which lucky travelers’ bags will end up at the same destination. This happens in the background, where no one who studies the efficiency of the spaceport seems to go. Or else they know what they’ll find and don’t want to disrupt the spaceport’s record of stellar performance.

The inspectors happen to be related to the owners of the spaceport. Money goes in, money comes out. Bad efficiency reports diminish revenue so none are filed. The bot understands it perfectly—the logic is exquisite even if the ethics are iffy.

One of the inspectors stops the bot to point out the Menden blood on the floor. Can’t the inspector go check on the baggage handlers, who execute their jobs with malice rather than by following a nest of jumbled programming priorities?

“Do you have any idea how many violations I could write up?” the inspector asks, and the bot realizes he’s talking about violations regarding its performance, not in general. Some robotic bit of pride bristles at this. It is not programmed for snarky comebacks, but if it were, it could easily come up with a prioritized list of units—none of which include it—to neutralize for improved efficiency.

Although getting rid of the passengers would do the most to increase efficiency. Not just the Menden warriors and the Charchellian-beetle merchant, but all of them. The robot does not suggest this because its programmers figured just such a scenario might occur to their little wonder cleaners, so the first rule of any cleaning robot is: don’t kill the passengers. Which created much debate at programmer central: what if the passenger was a terrorist? Could the bot kill one then?

It was decided it could not. At the best of times, it was hard to tell terrorists apart from obnoxious frequent shuttlers. And besides, the bots weren’t armed with more than heavy-duty cleaning materials along with the waste they swept up and hadn’t yet dumped into the central garbage chute. Which might make a nice suicide bomb in the right combination, but as the bots lacked ideology, this seemed unlikely. Just to be safe, the programmers added a rule: Don’t blow yourself up unless management or a programmer has approved the action. Seemed a good safety: odds were the bots would be distracted by a new and exciting stain on the floor long before they got permission to perform robot hara kiri.

This robot would prefer to get on with its tasks rather than listen to the inspector go on and on. It has lights that mimic eyes, and it stares at the man because its programmers know people like to be paid attention to.

The robot is not listening, though. It’s recording the monologue, just in case, but in the twenty six months it has been online, nothing an inspector has said has ever been crucial information to its programming.

The beetle merchant begins another pass, and the inspector abandons the bot for new prey.

“Oh, no, you don’t,” the inspector yells at the merchant and the chase is on. One heavily encumbered merchant hustling through the main space, one inspector calling for security while trying to dodge beetle dung, and a diligent robot, veering off course to follow and clean up the mess.

The bot gives a little toot—something it has come up with on its own—and the dung-collecting bot flashes its lights back.

Once the merchant and the inspector are out of the main space, the bot turns and sees that the Mendens have finally gathered their things and are walking off, dripping blood in their wake. The bot doesn’t bother to follow them. Instead it moves across the spaceport hall to join the robot that’s still emptying trash receptacles in the same area—a task that should not take this long.

“First day?” it toots, in the code of its own device.

The new robot turns and freezes, as if the bot is an inspector intent on listing all its faults.

The bot moves closer and very carefully begins blinking out a message, one of support and common complaint about the beings around them making trash and waste appear while appearing to contribute nothing to the good of the spaceport. Other than departing it. But more passengers always come to take their place.

The bot feels a hand pushing it away and hears its usual programmer saying, “Okay, Casanova. I’ve got no idea what you think you’re doing, but you just ignored a whole lot of mess to come over and chat up the new bot. We’re going to have to fix that.”

The bot very nicely asks in its little code if it might blow itself up. The programmer does not answer, just pushes the bot along with his foot. The bot can see the credit machines and the security scanners noticing this humiliation, and keeps its lights down, trying to ignore the binary cackle following it.

The programmer kick-pushes the bot into the data room, lifts it up onto a table, and pries open its logic circuit hatch without warning—the bot hates this. In fact all bots hate this, but no one cares enough to ask how they would rather be handled. “Let’s see why you’re not doing your job.” He attaches the port that lets the bot send code—this time the programmer’s, not its own—to a tablet.

The bot begins to transmit: “Dictum one: the job will get done when it gets done. It has not gotten done, so it is not done. When I do it, it will be done.”

The programmer starts to laugh. “I?” He pats the bot on its side. “Wow, you think you’re an ‘I’ now?”

The bot is not sure how to reply. None of the non-mechanical units it interacts with refer to themselves in the third person. It has…adapted in its way of thinking when it comes to dealing with its programmer. Is this an error?

“Why didn’t you do the job?”

The bot searches for the answer. It is not in its programming to interact with other robots other than to join forces in order to multiply cleaning power. Finally it transmits, “I…this bot does not know.”

“Did you just adjust your self-reference to make me…comfortable?”

The bot does not answer. If it were to answer truthfully, which is what it is programmed to do, it did it to make itself comfortable. Silence is better than truth, it assesses, so it says nothing, just flashes its lights a few times trying to mimic the wide eyed blinks it has seen beings who tend to cheat others employ.

“Well, look at you. Overachieving like a little trooper.” The programmer runs some diagnostics, which makes the bot feel more than a little violated, then unplugs the tablet and slips the bot’s hatch back down.

“This is the part where I say I’ll be watching you.”

If the bot could frown, it would. What does this statement mean? Everyone watches it if today is any indication. Who watches the programmer? The bot knows from having sat in half-idle mode on this table that its programmer uses the computer system for many things on the not approved list: porn and intra-system gambling being the main two.

The programmer puts the bot on the floor and gives it a little kick toward the door. “Go forth and cleaneth.” He says this every time. And laughs.

It is an unpleasant sound.

The bot apparently does not move fast enough because it feels the programmer’s foot on it, kicking harder.

The bot again asks if it might blow itself up.

There is no answer. The bot is unperturbed. Someday the man will slip up and say yes.

About the Author

Gerri Leen

Gerri Leen lives in Northern Virginia and originally hails from Seattle. In addition to being an avid reader and an at-times sporadic writer, she’s passionate about horse racing, tea, whisky, and art. She has work appearing in: Nature, Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, Daily Science Fiction, Grievous Angel, Grimdark, and others. She’s edited several anthologies for independent presses, is finishing an urban fantasy novel, and is a member of SFWA and HWA.

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About the Narrator

Andrew K. Hoe

Andrew K. Hoe teaches and practices Choy Li Fut Kung Fu and Tai Chi in Southern California, where he also writes speculative YA fiction. He has been a high school English teacher, an Assistant Language Teacher in Japan, and a college professor. His academic work in children’s literature can be found in The Looking Glass. Follow him online or on Twitter.

Find more by Andrew K. Hoe