I stumbled around for what might have been a day or two after the explosion.
I was exhausted and had no idea what I was going to do next. I kept pushing, in a roundabout and careful way, towards the city. Part of me wanted to find the nearest bar, but a creeping paranoia that
Part of me wanted to find the nearest bar, but a creeping paranoia that that was what the company expected me to do stopped me. I didn’t want to give them the satisfaction of tracking me down while I drowned my sorrows.
But the trek left me with nothing but my own thoughts. What started as a noble vow to track down my son and make him pay soon began to unravel, the more I was stuck in my own head.
As I approached the crest of a dune as I was on the verge of talking myself out of going back to the Berkeley Arms headquarters. Yet the view as I reached the top distracted me.
Nothing prepared me for how much it would have changed in the 20 or so years since I’d last seen it.
I’d had to scramble on hands and knees to reach the top of the dune, my backpack wriggling around and my exhaustion well and truly taking over. The sight beyond was the final straw – I didn’t even get to my feet at the top. The effort was too much.
Below me, spread out as far as the eye could see, was the city-state. Larger than it ever was. The walls were intimidatingly high, even from this distance, and covered with graffiti.
Towering above it all was the company’s headquarters. The throne of my son’s glittering empire.
And it all could have been mine.
I lay there in the dust, watching the splashes of neon light against the city’s greys and browns. I’d have to get past the gate in the wall. And the guards. And who-knew-what automated defences they’d installed since I was here.
Once I was in, I’d have to get through a labyrinth of market stalls, dwellings, black market vendors and scum. Not to mention more guard patrols. Then I’d have to get in the building, past security. And up all, at a guess, 100 or so floors. Then find my son. And then…
I felt so tired. I felt defeated.
If I was in any way unsure now about reaching my son, sitting at the top of that dune made my task seem outright impossible. I was underequipped, old, tired, and – truthfully – frightened. I had nowhere to go and no one to trust.
A younger man might have chanced it anyway. As I sat there, taking the city in, all I thought about was walking away. Disappearing. Maybe starting again.
But they’d found me once already, and probably easier than I’d like to admit. They probably found me ages ago and were just toying with me. They won’t let the trail go cold now.
I wondered if they were watching me at that moment.
I had no energy, no plan and – worst of all – no willingness to push through, come what may. I was an engineer – not a superhero.
I idly made a pattern in the sand with my finger. The more I thought about it, the more there only seemed to be one option left.
I just wanted to sleep. And forget.
It was as though a fog lifted in my head. Perhaps I was thinking sober for the first time in a long while as I rummaged in my bag.
I put the pistol to my head and, facing the city, pulled the trigger.
Berkeley Arms OS vOmega0094
Critical systems failure. Generating bug report.
– – –
– – –
– – –
Bug report complete. Stardate stamp 27.94
Rebooting….. Critical failure.
Rebooting… Critical failure.
Reg slapped the side of the computer. Then he did it again – presumably for luck.
“What’s the matter?” I asked.
Reg had been odd since he came back from the “Planet of the Dead Ladies“, as it had become – sadly – officially known. I’d tried to show an interest when he came back. I’ll not lie – it was an attempt to try and win him over after he’d rightfully pointed out I had no friends.
The only problem was that whenever I’d asked how it was, he’d sort of glaze over and mumble things like “You wouldn’t know, you weren’t there, man.”
And, even stranger, he’d been all quiet and helpful. He’d even started avoiding the Captain like the plague – there was a palpable tension when they were in the same room.
Anyway, the last few days had been rather quiet – Reg and I had been locked away in some cupboard, tasked with updating the AI systems on the robots serving in the bar.
Only, we’d run dozens of tests so far, and they’d all turned out a bit… squiffy.
“Reg? What’s the matter?” I asked again, assuming his squint at the screen was his way of trying to ignore me.
“I think it’s gone a bit wrong, this one.”
“Did you forget to close a bracket in the code again?”
“No… Uhm… I think my AI just killed itself in the testing phase.”
“What?” I put down my clipboard and headed over to his screen. This job shouldn’t have been this difficult. I think he was starting to use it as an excuse for hiding.
“Well, I set up the code and tried ordering a dry Martini to test it. Only… it ran off on one a bit. It’s been running the same scenario for about 48 hours after I placed my order, and I think it just killed itself.”
“So, you’ve been sat there all this time, watching this thing play out?”
“More or less…”
“And doing, how much work?”
“Well, like I said – I had to programme it to start with. Then I sort of… got sucked in.”
“You’re an idiot. The bloody robot only has to go from the table to the matter converter, and back, and avoid some people. Maybe change direction if it bumps into a table leg. It doesn’t need to be flashy. It doesn’t even need to be polite.”
“Yeah… So I might have changed a couple of… parameters…”
“Like?” I asked, bracing myself.
He took a deep breath.
“I made it an alcoholic former CEO of a city-state running corporation who had a background in robotics and a reluctance to develop AI because of the potential military applications and social ramifications, only then his psychopathic son kills this CEO’s wife and he has a bit of a breakdown, leaves the company, knicks a load of gear and sets up out in the apocalyptic wastelands in a sort of cross between Mad Max and Breaking Bad, and starts running this business where it’s sort of like online dating, but with assassinations and robberies and stuff, only it all goes a bit wrong and his son takes over the company and comes after him, branding him as a terrorist and using it as a chance to assert his power as the new CEO and also justifying military action in the wastes in a petty land grab.”
Reg had gone purple. I took a moment.
“It only has to serve fucking drinks, Reg.”
“I know… I just wanted to add some character to it.”
“It’s a robot.”
“We’ll have to see it all the time. I want it to have good chat.”
“How can it have ‘good chat’ if you give it so much backstory it gets depressed and kills itself before it’s even transferred into the chassis?”
Reg shrugged. “I’m not a shrink.”
“Programme it properly, Reg.”
I let myself smile as he went back to work. I would never admit it, but I’d sort of missed this while he was off being besties with the Captain.
I tapped the robot chassis as Reg went back to typing. Maybe he was on to something, and maybe a bit of character wouldn’t go amiss. “Ok, you can let it say a knock-knock joke or two.”
Reg practically beamed at me.
“Hey – this is me we’re talking about!”
“Exactly.” I let a couple of seconds go by. I felt it was time to address the elephant in the room. “Reg… What happened, on that planet?”
“Oh, that? The Captain and I were on all the drugs we could find and I think we had sex a little bit. But I can’t really remember if it actually happened or I just made it up.”
There was something brutally candid in his tone I wasn’t expecting. It explained a lot, but still, all I could muster was, “Oh.”
Reg screwed up his face. “Reckon I should ask him?”
…Was I about to try and drive a wedge between Reg and his infuriatingly alpha-male chum?
I shrugged. “Can’t hurt.”