It’s about a robot, a girl, a war, and a promise. Chapter 1:
‘Sir there’s a problem on deck three, well, not so much of a problem, as an oddity.’
‘What is it Riley?’ the operations commander asked his best young technician.
‘One of the D5 bots is, ah, dancing.’
‘Yes Sir, take a look.’ The command centre stopped and watched as the tech Riley brought the vision up on the main monitor and zoomed in. Amongst the rows and rows of D5’s waiting to be battle-enhanced and shipped out, standing straight and powered-down, one was dancing. The command centre began laughing.
‘Find out how that happened,’ the commander grimaced, ‘if I find out that one of you did this you’ll be packing your bags! Get that D5 to diagnostics and make sure it’s not a liability.’
‘Wait, Sir,’ Riley laughed, at once realising the dance and the beat without even trying, ‘that D5 is listening to the radio!’
‘The radio? How do you know?’
‘I’m listening to it,’ the tech pointed to the cord coming from his other ear which ran down to his portable player. ‘He’s dancing to the music that’s playing at the moment, listen.’
The tech plugged his device into the speakers and the whole command centre was lifted in spirits as they watched the robot do the moves to the music, looking for all the world like it was enjoying itself, and completely unaware of all the attention. It wasn’t over the top dancing, it was the kind of dancing anyone might do if they thought they were alone and a good song was playing.
But the commander was more subdued than the rest of his team, ‘Robots don’t dance,’ he said, ‘not generic D5’s in any case, and they certainly don’t have fun. Williams get down to deck three, check this bot out. Hopefully all we’re up against is an unlisted program,’ the commander sighed, ‘otherwise who knows what this is, a fault, an act of sabotage, someone’s stupidity?’ he repeated, looking the staff over, ‘you all know we’ve got enough to sort out without this.’
They waited as the tech Williams went down to deck three. The suspect D5 stopped dancing as soon as the door moved and stood still like all the others. A chuckle ran through the command centre again, but for the commander who only saw a problem growing. For a robot to do something irregular was one thing, but for it to cease that inappropriate activity upon possible discovery indicated a deeper issue, or one of their programmers having a laugh, but that wasn’t likely as they were all too uptight at the minute, it was the survival of their country at stake here. The commander opened the communication with the tech who now stood down there.
‘Would you go out again Williams,’ the commander said, ‘and just wait a moment then go back in.’ The tech did. The D5 at once busted out into some more moves until the tech re-entered. The command centre was in hysterics. The commander screwed up his mouth in an effort not to laugh.
‘Alright,’ the commander shook his head, ‘I think we’re going to need to speak to that bot, bring it up.’
The command centre located the D5’s number and sent it to the tech on deck three.
‘D5-0108973PL2354AA step forward,’ ordered the tech. Nothing happened. The D5 that had been dancing glanced aside, but stood unmoving like the others.
‘The family it used to belong to called it Zero,’ Riley communicated from command.
‘D5-Zero, please step forward.’
Zero looked at the bots around him, brushed his sides as if neatening himself up, then stepped past the other bots in his row and into the aisle, facing forwards and waiting for the tech. The tech came up and looked Zero over. There was nothing out of the ordinary about this D5’s appearance, it looked just the same as all the others. ‘You’re Zero?’ Williams asked.
‘Yes operator. I’m Zero.’
‘Come with me,’ Williams ordered.
Zero found himself in the command centre, a beacon for all the eyes there. It was obvious at once to those who knew robots that this was no ordinary D5. This one’s connections were alive, not waiting for a command. It was subtle, the untrained eye may not have noticed, the slight shifting of the bot’s fingers, the posture and alertness as it took in the command room and studied everyone in it as they looked back, his robot eyes finally coming back to the commander and waiting for that man to go ahead.
‘D5, Zero right?’ the commander spoke.
‘Yes sir, my family called me Zero.’
‘Can you explain this?’ the commander replayed the vision of the robot dancing.
The robot seemed to think for a moment, then answered, ‘The song is called Good Feeling, it’s by the artist FloRida, and was playing on TnTvRadio by request. Musically speaking it uses techniques of – ’
Everyone in the room pursed their lips to stop from laughing, except the commander.
‘D5, I don’t care if it was the Kew Road Ukulele Club or Plavalaguna, explain the dancing!’
Zero studied the commander. He was an older-middle-age man, mostly bald, slightly overweight but very solidly muscular as well. There were stress lines across his brow, three day whiskers on his chin, and his shoulders sat as though there was an immense load upon them.
‘I’m sorry if I’ve done something wrong Commander,’ Zero said.
‘The command was to power-down and await further orders. What’s wrong with this picture D5!’
Zero tilted his head as he studied the freeze-frame of himself again. ‘You’re right. I really have to practice my moves don’t I, it looks far to fluid to be the robot.’
The room was so close to hysterics, but the commander’s faced grew redder by the second as he continued, almost yelling, ‘I need you to explain how it is that a D5 can do that; that it doesn’t stand straight and power-down as it was ordered to, but dances!’
The robot didn’t flinch at the commander’s questioning. ‘I did power-down,’ Zero explained, ‘but the command didn’t specify a timeframe.’
‘Explain yourself D5. You went against a direct order, you were listening to pop music, and you were dancing! Now, explain to me how that happened? Have you got an un-listed plugin? A system glitch? If that’s so we should have picked it up when you first came in, and if we didn’t you should have alerted us to the fact!’
‘I am a generic model D5 with no upgrades. I apologise if I’ve done something wrong. It was not my intention to cause any trouble.’
‘What was your intention?’
Several times the D5 went to speak but stopped. ‘I don’t know,’ the robot replied at last.
‘You don’t know? D5, do you know why you’re here?’
‘There’s a war. Corrio attacks from the south, Armana is losing its border cities. My family had to give me up because I’m needed here.’
‘Do you know the plan for you?’ the commander asked, ‘every D5 down there is a generic model like you. You’re going to be split into groups and battle-enhanced, do you understand what that means?’
‘Yes Sir. Equipped with weapon, defence, and interaction systems to suit the battlefield.’
‘Do you have a preference as to your specialty?’
‘Do I have a choice?’ Zero answered.
The commander grinned, but his eyebrows were grim, ‘Wrong answer,’ he shook his head, ‘You’re no ordinary D5. You Zero, are something else. But what?’ He turned away, rubbing his head. ‘Take it out of here, put it in a holding cell for now,’ the commander ordered.
Zero was taken away by the tech who’d brought him in, but now under the eye of a guard robot as well. The room waited for the commander to speak his thoughts; it was obvious that he was thinking heavily because the wrinkles were low upon his brow and deep between his eyes.
‘It strikes me that no robot I’ve ever come across acted like that D5,’ the man said at last. ‘Did you all see it or am I going mad?’
‘It has a sense of humour I haven’t seen before, you’re right there Sir,’ one said.
‘It seemed to have a higher level of alertness than other D5’s on equivalent settings,’ said another, ‘to me it almost looked like it was curious, it had to know what was going on around it.’
‘And it dances,’ added Riley, replaying the vision again.
‘More than that,’ the commander shook his head. ‘Whoever programmed it did something I don’t think has been done before, something very dangerous, something impossible.’
‘What do you mean Sir?’
‘Have you ever come across machine with such a strong sense of self? When I asked what I asked it should have answered that it would go where it was assigned, not ask if it had a choice! No generic D5 would give that answer! It almost seems to have a sense of self-command, or something very near to it, but whatever it is, that’s no ordinary D5.’
‘We could run the programming again, get rid of any overrides or glitches. It’d be like a new bot.’
‘No, we’re going to watch it for a while before we do that, this could be important.’
They waited, but Zero did nothing. He stood there in the hold, expressionless and motionless and powered-down, like any other D5. After five hours the commander ordered more tests. They tested everything. They ran program diagnostics, they measured parts, and tested parts, they tested his oils and fuels, they tested his reflexes, his strength, his logic, all was normal, everything.
‘Then what is it!?’ the commander growled, perplexed. ‘Every one of these robots will be needed out there but I can’t send it out if it’s got a problem, it would be a liability. I thought there might be something there, some advanced coding, but there’s nothing.’
‘Sir, just reporting that deck three is being cleared as we speak, the workshop’s nearly finished on the D5’s.’
‘We don’t have much time then, or this one will be with us till the next round and that won’t do. Out of interest, what group would it be in?’
‘Ah, it’s marked for,’ Riley looked through the schedule, ‘the heavy infantry division Sir.’
‘The front line,’ the commander thought. ‘What other test could we do? At the very least we need to know that it’s safe to send out.’
‘Well, all the tests show that it’s fine.’
‘But we know that’s not the case.’
‘We could contact the family Sir, ask if there’s any history.’
‘That could be messy though. I don’t like dealing with the families.’
‘Oh, that’s interesting, this Zero was one of a few given to war heroes from the last war. His family was that of James Hartley.’
‘What, the James Hartley?’
‘I think so Sir.’
‘That is interesting. Well, it might not be so bad then, get onto them and ask if they can tell us anything. In the mean time, run a full analysis and sounding again. There’s got to be something.’
‘Sir I think I’ve found an irregularity,’ another tech pulled up a screen, as they went through the previous soundings more closely. ‘Although, it might be nothing.’
‘What are we looking at?’
‘This is a sounding of the D5’s right arm, there looks to be something inside the secondary shaft, here just above the wrist.’
‘What is it? Why didn’t we see it earlier?’
‘It’s got a very low register on the scan Sir, something like paper.’
‘Well, what are you waiting for, open it up and tell us if we’ve got something to worry about. Actually,’ the commander tapped the desk, ‘bring the D5 back in here to do it, I want to see what it has to say if we find anything.’
Zero was brought back inside the command centre, the individual characteristics they’d all observed previously weren’t noticeable this time. No alertness, no humour, just a framework with a battery, ready for their command. The tech asked him to place his arm on the table and he did. They asked him to power-down that arm. He did. They opened the cover plate to reveal the inner workings then took the tools and began unscrewing the joint to gain access to the shaft-head. But they all saw the robot nearly jump when it saw where the tech was aiming to get to.
‘Don’t try anything,’ the commander told Zero, as a guard bot held a disabler to Zero’s core. That weapon would mean immediate de-activation for him. Zero let the tech continue.
‘Yep, paper,’ the tech said, pulling out the rolled up paper from inside the robot’s arm very carefully with tweezers. Zero watched it go to the commander’s hand, but sat still.
‘Let’s see,’ the commander unrolled the pages, but it was the last thing he was expecting, his eyebrows pulled together, ‘Photographs?’
‘My family,’ Zero explained.
‘You put these here?’
‘A sentimental D5? I don’t think so,’ the commander said, then spoke to his team. ‘Look into it, I want to know the names of the people in those photographs, and when and where these shots were taken. I want the pictures scanned and micro-analysed. Maybe it’s a visual code of some kind.’
‘I can tell you who they are,’ said Zero. ‘It’s Mr and Mrs Hartley, their daughter Jaime and her friend Sam. The photograph was taken six years ago at their house in the outer southern suburbs of the metropolis, Sosa to be exact.’
‘Yes, I recognise James Hartley, but Sosa? A war hero wouldn’t be forced to live in Sosa surely?’
‘Sosa was an affordable location for a soldier with a body so broken, and a family to keep,’ Zero replied. ‘Besides, Sosa’s reputation is worse than it really is most of the time.’
The commander raised his eyebrows but nodded, ‘And this photograph? Who are these people?’
‘Friends of the Hartley’s,’ Zero paused, ‘the Cartwright’s, Ted, Julie and their son Sam.’
‘Look into it people. Meantime get this D5 together and send it to the shop. It might as well be ready if it gets the go ahead. The heavy infantry’s shipping out first.’
At the words the robot stared at the commander. Heavy infantry. The D5 would probably never come back.
‘My photos?’ Zero put out his other hand, asking for them to be returned.
‘We’ll be holding on to those,’ the commander said, and Zero watched the photos being scanned and put into a folder, as they re-attached his parts. By the time he powered-up his arm, they were already running an id match on the second photograph.
‘The Cartwright’s are all deceased sir,’ another tech said as the match was found. But Zero didn’t hear any more, he was taken from the command centre toward the shop, on his way to become another heavy infantry drone.
Sparks flew all around Zero as he stood at the mercy of the war machine. The techs that supervised the mechanical arms were laughing to each other behind their masks and the noise. Zero’s number was scanned and logged and the process began.
‘This D must be used to heavy work already, some of this original frame will need to be replaced too. Look at the wear on the shoulder joints.’
‘If it’s got to be done, it’s got to be done. Come on. Last of the heavies to do this round,’ the other said.
Zero was put through the process countless other D5’s had been through, the arms working around him, screwing, welding, connecting, reinforcing his frame and his joints to take more weight and more blows, adding to his basic frame other machines and weapons of war; an array of guns, shields, instruments, sensors, and finally, they upgraded his programs and supplied a heavy duty power source to replace his old battery.
Zero came to the end of the production line and looked around him. He was just one robot in hundreds of the same. Heavy infantry. He looked at his arm, it wasn’t like Zero’s arm anymore. He pulled up his specifications and looked over himself; he might just be one robot, but he was one formidable machine. He wasn’t a medical bot or a messenger, ammunition runner, or even regular infantry, he was a heavy D. He stood with the others and powered-down, waiting for transport to their new divisions. He didn’t dance, not just because of the consequences of his last outburst, but because the future was so near, and so overwhelming.