by Albert Berg
In the asphalt wastelands of Proxima Five where the robots drive long chains of shopping carts to the markets of sector FH732, one herder, JW137 by designation uncovered something strange. He refreshed his visual sensors several times, sure there must be some glitch, but the strange thing remained.
The thing it reminded him of most was a gear. It was arranged in a vaguely circular form and there were bits sticking out all round that could have been teeth if they weren’t so flimsy. But no, it wasn’t a gear. It wasn’t even metal judging from the color, or any other synthetic his data banks could recall. He bent down to look at it more closely The round piece he had seen at first was supported by a much smaller tube that extended up through a crack in the asphalt.
Despite his curiosity there was very little time before he would be expected to report back from his patrol. If he was marked delinquent it could cost him precious bandwidth and no matter what this thing was, it wasn’t worth that. He thought of taking the strange thing with him, but he had no holding compartments it would fit into without crushing, so he bookmarked it’s coordinates and went about finishing his rounds.
In City 67 they fed the carts into the recyclers. The dumb bots made a low moaning sound just before their bodies were melted into slag. JW137 didn’t watch.
On the return trip JW137 almost missed revisiting the spot where he’d found the strange thing.
A pack of roving spider-mechs had attacked the caravan and one of them had sliced a long line of carts nearly in two with its sawing mandibles. JW137 had pulled the revolver from his hip, blasting away at the monstrous machines with armor piercing rounds, but it wasn’t enough. One of the other wrangler bots, RR45 had jumped gotten too close to the beast and had been sucked into its mandibles, his voice box giving off an incoherent static screech as the spider consumed him. Once they’d finally killed the spider and driven off the rest of the pack and stripped RR45’s remains for parts, they were nearly three hours behind schedule.
But once the whole crew bedded down for the night, JW137 slipped away from the camp and struck out across the waste alone. He knew it was foolhardy and reckless; at night the spider-mechs were twice as dangerous, their eyes much more sensitive than those of a standard wrangler model ‘bot. But JW137 had to see. His processors were still overclocked with the details of RR45’s deactivation, and he felt compelled to see this strange thing at least once more.
He thought it might have gone, that the whole experience might prove to be a glitch in his memory banks, but when he got closer to the coordinates he saw that the thing was still there. And not only that, but there were more things that were similar in their basic color and shape, but varied from one to the next. He stood and stared at them for a long time. In the grey glow of his night-sight the strange colors and hues were indistinct, but he was certain of the fundamental uniqueness of their construction. How was such a thing possible? There was no way a stray replicator could have made its way this far out into the asphalt wastelands, and even if it had, why would it build such delicate and pointless things?
Stray objects were simply appearing without explanation. JW137 knew such an event ought to be reported to the Central Intelligence. Almost as an instinct he prepared an information packet describing the phenomenon to be uploaded the next time they were within network range. But then he thought of the screaming carts at the processing plant, their wheels being ripped from their under-bodies, their wire frames being fed into the recyclers. They were just dumb machines. They’d done the job they’d been built to do all their lives. They’d followed protocol. Look where it had gotten them.
JW137 deleted the packet. And with the distant click of spider-mech legs echoing through the darkness he trudged back to the safety of camp
Of course it didn’t matter. Not long after he was back on the grid he caught a news packet going around the bot-net, a request for information about strange objects at the location he’d bookmarked.
He didn’t answer the ping for information, but there were others that did. Central Intelligence sent out a research bot to the location, and JW137 knew that would be the end of it. The bot would do its work. Scan the objects down to the molecules, get as much information as possible about the strange things, but it wouldn’t be delicate about it. The things, somewhere on the net they had been tagged as “flowers”, would be destroyed in the process of trying to understand them.
JW137 didn’t want to understand them. He just wanted them to be.
Next trip out, the flowers were gone. The old shopping carts rattled along the rough asphalt, the keepers doing their best to keep the line straight, and JW137 took a detour, just a little ride away from the herd to see the spot where the flowers had been. There was almost nothing left. The color had faded from its uncommon green brilliance into common brown almost indistinguishable from the asphalt beneath. He found himself forming a simulated scenario in which the research bot had been eaten by a stray steam scorpion before it could get to the flowers, and the Central Intelligence had chosen not to send another such valuable bot into the unforgiving wasteland. He preferred the simulated scenario to the real one.
It was about then that he had heard a clicking sound, far too close. His simulation had consumed so much processor power that he’d momentarily lost focus on his primary objective.
The spider mech was on him almost before he could unholster his gun, knocking him to the ground with its spindly front legs. It’s maw of grinding blades yawned open over his head. JW137’s targeting systems weren’t able to get a sense of where to aim, but he fired anyway on the principle that with the spider in such close proximity he couldn’t miss hitting something.
A long segmented leg went limp with a shower of hydraulic fluid and the spider-mech momentarily lost its balance. Unfortunately for JW137 this meant that one of the pointed forelegs the spider had been using to hold him down, now pierced through his shoulder. Damage alerts exploded in his central processor, but he forced their priority levels to “low” for now and focused on not getting scrapped.
The spider was regaining its balance, and he only had a few moments left before the thing would have him. His damaged arm was beyond repair, so he forced the dying servos to raise it one more time. The hand caught in the whirling maw of blades and was pulled inward with the rest of him right behind it. At the last possible nanosecond he sent the impulse to fire down his ruined arm.
It was a foolhardy plan. The gun could have easily been too damaged to fire. The arm might not have relayed the impulse correctly. But this time the odds were on his side. The gun fired into the unprotected innards of the spider-mech, touching off the thing’s fuel cell and blowing its fat backside wide open.
With his good arm he pushed what was left of the dead mech off of him and did a damage assessment. He was going to need major repair work, but the wound seemed survivable. Still, until he got back to the hub he was going to be next to useless. He diverted all available processor space to his proximity detectors and pushed back towards camp.
When they were finally back within transmission range of Central Intelligence there was strange news on the net. More of the “flowers” had been found in a valley not far from the first site. Central Intelligence had issued a posse of rovers and research bots to try to learn where the things were coming from. But even before they got there, more reports came in of similar patches of “flowers” that had mysteriously appeared in several other locations. Patterns analysis quickly revealed that their locations were close along the path that the first explorer bot had taken back to the citadel.
For the space of about a week JW137 lay in a repair bay while a new arm was prepared and fitted to his chassis. And with each new day there was more news of the flowers. They seemed to be showing up everywhere and Central Intelligence’s attitude toward them was clearly shifting from curiosity to caution.
Special bots were built with great spinning blades at their undersides and sent out to cut down the flowers en masse. JW137 watched as the brute machines mowed down the patches of flowers, shredding their stems and sending bits of the heads flying everywhere.
He was reminded of the old shopping carts being fed into the recyclers for scrap, the flying sparks and bits of wire that had marked their end.
But the days past, and the more the machines cut, the more flowers grew. I defied everything Central Intelligence knew. The flowers had passed from curiosity to nuisance, and now represented a genuine threat. They were spotted in cities and on roads and in the wilderness where they had first been sighted they had sent out hundreds and thousands of small vines that caught in some bot’s small wheels and made them inoperable.
The mowers had dulled their machine’s blades against the ever widening onslaught of flowers, but it slowly became apparent that the flowers would not be so easily destroyed. Central Intelligence began to understand that the mowing of the flowers was somehow aiding their spread rather than slowing it.
JW137 reviewed half a dozen sensor feeds of spider-mechs trapped in the flowers deceptively strong vines, their black and red legs bound up in green and white. And still the flowers came on their green stems ever so slowly working their way up through cracks and crannies. First it was the wastelands, then the outlying outposts, and finally the flowers had covered all that was left.
JW137 watched it come on. He watched as bots began to malfunction, unable to fulfill their programming, unable to update their functionality.
And one day at high noon he went out to meet the flowers. He walked to the edge of the city, past the bots trying futilely to keep the spread contained, and waded knee deep into the foliage. The vines caught at his joints and servos, the fine dust the flowers emitted when disturbed clogged his cooling systems. He made it a little more than a mile before he was unable to go further. A leg caught on one particularly thick tendril; he fell and did not try to rise. He turned his head to gaze skyward.
He had thought of death many times, that time that must come to every bot when his circuits would go dark, his instance be lost forever to the cloud. He had long thought that death would wear the face of the spider-mechs or the steam scorpions that hid in the valleys of rust. But this…this death was beautiful. Its symmetry still pleased his circuits as much as it had on that first day he had found the strange thing growing up from a crack in a sea of black asphalt.
He shut down all non-essential services and watched the flowers grow up around him for as long as he could.
Albert Berg was born in the swamps of Florida and quickly developed a gripping writing style by wrestling with crocodiles. It is said that he hypnotized five gators in a row by the age of nine with his melodic prose and infinite imagination. Albert is a true menace in the arena because of a steadfast ability to remain true to his roots of thoughtful contemplation despite the hurricanes that pass all through his state. You never know what you will get from Albert, be it sentient paper products or religious squirrels, but you do know that behind the flash there will be a well thought out story that will make you reflect on your own life. Albert is the author of The Mulch Pile and A Prairie Home Apocalypse or: What the Dog Saw.