Chapter 5. The Joker and The Fool Pt.2
Updated: Sep 13
This piece was originally written as an opening for Chapter 6. After writing it, the author decided that it was better for it be a part of Chapter 5 as it completes the series of events from the chapter under discussion. Thus, this text is released as an annex to Chapter 5. The Joker and The Fool.
Tom picked up a VR headset from the floor as they walked in, 'apologies for the wait' he said, 'but you weren't supposed to be here yet.' His apartment looked like a dirty bomb had just exploded inside, spitting its flaming contents into the walls of the tiny squared flat. Leaving an after smell of burnt oil and weld. So much for a Stanford post graduate, thought Sarah, inspecting the bachelor's sleeping quarters.
'We were to be here by 21.00,' said Patrik in haste. 'So we did. Then I tried the code, but it didn't work.'
'That's not right, the first alarm came off at 20.50,' replied Tom. 'I cannot let your entrance be registered. The feed goes to a small security firm with very shitty data security. They are storing historical data in an uncontrolled cloud. There's many next to live feeds there now. No password, no anything. These guys are amateurs, way under the minimum acceptable, which is also shit. By this point in time, with all the attention you'been getting, they're monitoring all open feeds on the web. They're looking for you.'
He pointed at one of the screens, a black and white feed from the front door was playing. A stack of computer cases lifted next to the workstation, blending into the concrete ceiling. Patrik felt the warm radiation from the load of processing power.
'You really need that much processing power?' he asked, focused on the rusting tower.
'They said they are not looking for you,' continued Tom, ignoring Patrik's question. 'But we all know that's not the case. The Pacman is after you, they just won't openly admit it.'
'What was it then?' he growled, 'I almost got shot in the head by your dickhead friend,' grunted Patrik, still annoyed by the ego denting incident.
Tom scratched his shaved head and let go a faint squint. He was tall and sleek, with cheek bones visible through his dry white skin, the result of thousands of days under the California sun. His roomy white shirt decorated with a small rocket spitting fire, aimed towards a red planet. It read "Stanford Space Program."
'Blimey, you are stubborn. I had to shut down the feed before going down. I cannot afford being tracked to this location, by anyone. It would be a clusterfuck. So I had to shut down their feed, then opened the gate manually.'
'We were wearing masks,' growled Patrik, pointing at the fox in his temple.
'That wont make the cut. Many programs can see past masks,' said Tom, setting the VR headset in a metallic shelf opposite of the workstation. Cartridges, disc boxes, robot parts, vinyls, video game consoles and gaming memorabilia filled the space. A gleaming blue and yellow sign with the word Blockbuster hanging at the outer end.
Tom turned and continued, 'would that be enough for you to stop the inquisition? We are trying to help you here! You can scan the feed yourself, if you want?'
Patrik crossed his arms, 'no problem,' he said.
Tom took them to the only not littered corner of the flat, a loft by the outer wall. Tom signaled towards the wall with his open palm. The wall graded into clear glass, unveiling a bay window. San Francisco sat at the other end, where the land ended and the ocean began. It's skyscrapers lurking deep into the twilight.
'Now that has been cleared, welcome home,' said Tom, with an unexpected smile. 'it's not much, but it's worth the view.' He pointed towards the blue leather couch, inviting his guests for a seat. The group sat down, facing each other, separated by a brief coffee table. Guille headed to the open kitchen.
'I can't believe the notorious Patrik and Sarah are here,' he added with agitation, 'I must make a holopic of this moment...,' He stood up and headed to the shelf. Halfway, he stopped and walked back to the loft. He sat down. 'Ok... Maybe later.'
'Hi, Tom?' intervened Sarah. 'Janet said you could help us charge. Do you have power?'
'Oh! Of course! How rude of me,' he said realizing his lack of attention, and went off.
'Hey P, sorry for the slam,' said Carr with a fleer. 'A legit reaction to a fusion gun I would say. You cannot swing a piece in someone's face and not expect to be smacked a couple of times?' He sank deep in the indigo couch. A lot less threatening now thought Sarah.
Patrik's ears rang, drowning every other thought in his head. Patrik wasn't built as the type of robot that would let things go easily. His value based programming forced him to reel in the feedback of his actions, learning of his mistakes. This was an sub conscious process that automatically ran the background, triggered by a major event. Just like having a fusion gun dug under your jaw, ready to make electric components rain. The result, an adjustment in this emotional palette and the knowlege of what to do at the new scenario. All robots experience the feedback process differently. For Patrik, it felt like a high pitch sound. 'Forgive, but do not forget,' said Justin. The ringing faded into the voice of Carr.
'We can't have strangers in the building,' continued Carr, 'San Francisco is full of freaks these days, from all over the world. The modder's market attract all types of fanboys, looking to enhance themselves and play superhero. Just to get blasted to pieces on their first run off by Pacman. Anyway, I didn't know it was you, until Guille brought it up.'
'We're good,' replied Patrik dryly, hiding the sourness in his voice. He twisted and extended his arm, proving the integrity of his articulations. He ran a diagnosis program. All systems were online and functional. Some plastic deformation was found on his titanium frame, but the material memory in the components would bring them back to their original shape after a round re shaping.
'If something's broken, we can take a look at it,' he said with growing excitement. 'Guille, the falt ol' fart over there, he is our integrations guy. With the right level of drunk he is a master modder. He is 3 times constructor champ at the gulag. Ain't that right Guille?'
'Hell yeah! Fusion knives for the fucking win,' he cheered, exploring the insides of the mini fridge.
Patrik sensed the change in tone. Why did Justin send us here?
'We just got our hands on a fresh shipment of tactical components,' continued Carr. 'There's nothing better than sweet advanced mods sponsored by taxpayers' dollars. Ultra light and high power. You can flip a tank with a punch. Imagine that! This is what you should get for your pursuit for robot freedom.'
'I don't like mods' growled Patrik, dubious on Carr's intentions. 'And there is no pursuit for freedom. We are already out,' he concluded, putting the argument to a rest. Patrik didn't like the idea of modding his hardware. Call it Justin's legacy. Always looking for elegance in integrations, staying away from intruding electronics and coarse coding. Even the best parts are of no use, if not properly integrated into the motherboard. Over the years they repaired a multitude of unrefined integrations. Robots that no longer were not in control over their bodies, resulting in useless limbs, system failure, and the ocasional hard reset.
'I thought that was why you were here, to help the rest of your kind,' inquired Carr.
'The rest can help itself, we have our hands full at the time,' said Patrik.
Sarah stared in silence. It was the first time she had heard Patrik speak his mind.
'Here,' said Tom, delivering a thick power cable to Sarah. 'This will take you to 90% in some minutes.'
She turned to Tom and reached for the reptilian looking cable. She hesitated. This is it, she thought. It's either all in, or out. She recalled the stories of illegal charging stations; trojan horses, trackers, paralysis virus. What was once robots, now in pieces. Packed in boxes and ready to be sold to whoever came with the money first. No questions asked. Back to being an au pair, at best. At worst? End up a thief. Helping traffickers, or slave traders. What would happen then? Serving another human master with even less possibility of free thought, much less free will. A word of disobedience and you are put on sleep mode with a hand gesture. A hard reset comes after. To die and be born again. Over and over. The ensure the resilience of the never ending supply chain of robot slavery. Robots killing robots to save a brief human life. She battled with the idea of such an end, a wasted life. Not for her. Not yet. She looked at her battery marker, it read 12%.
'It's safe, you got my word,' said Tom, reading Sarah's indecision. 'I built the tunnel myself. Pacman can't track it, at least not here. The connection is routed to the Norwegian mountains, a location 2000 m over sea level. One of our drone routers is there now, connected to an XG antenna. I would love to see their faces when the watch the drone fly away and just find a bag of shit. A courtesy of our associates over seas. As I said, it's safe.'
'And that will piss them off,' huffed Carr, broadening his grin. A vaper appeared in his hand.
Sarah, still skeptical about the home made solution, glanced at Patrik whom had been quiet during the exchange. A look of understanding was passed between them.
'I'll help you with that,' said Patrik, reaching for the sectioned cable. Sarah straightened up in her seat. She shoved her dark hair aside, exposing a delicate neckline embellished by the soft glow of the information lines navigating south of her temple. A slight pull on the back of her blouse revealed a round metal coupler protruding out of her skin, between her shoulder plates. Patrik inspected the the end of the armored cable. A lock with radiant metal fangs. He remembered the sand worms in Arrakis, snatching and crushing machinery with its jaws, leaving only a puff of dust.
Even though he had been through thousands of charging cycles, he had never charged one of his own kind. It had always been Justin who did it, even on other robots at work. Makes sense, he thought. In the end, it was the fingerprint reader that activates the device, ensuring it was under the control of human hands. He cautiously inserted the live end into Sarah's coupler, a weak growl followed. Then, a ring of soothing orange light around the port. She was charging.
Charging ports in SINS models were designed for them to be unable to reach it alone. Yet another method to ensure their dependency on others for survival. As robots are not allowed to cluster in groups, it is their human masters that hold all the cards. They not only control the chargers and the activation, but also made it impossible for robots to do it alone. If a robot wants to charge, a set of human hands is required.
Unaware of the almost tangible tension, Guillo arrived with both hands full of beers. He sat down and gladly distributed them around the dark glass table. Carefully delivering one drink in front of every individual.
'Now, we can do a holopic,' announced Tom, 'and celebrate for good company. Cheers!' He lifted the green bottle up in the air, 'to Patrik and Sarah, soldiers of robot rights.'
'Cheers!' they returned in unison. A team gulp followed. Patrik didn't reach for his beer.
Patrik inspected the contents of sweaty bottle, and set it back on the table. Untouched. 'I don't drink,' he replied in flat voice, 'and I certainly am not a soldier.'
'Would you like some cranberry juice then?' asked Carr.
'Cranberry juice?' he said, unaware of the acid in the question. 'Why would I want cranberry juice?'
'To help you with the PMS,' he returned.
Even though he had heard the joke before, Guile, exploded in laughter, spitting beer away from the table and into the dusty wooden floor. Sarah didn't react. Patrik narrowed his eyes.
'Come on man! Don't be such a dick,' said Tom, failing to hide his amusement.
'You know. You are right,' he admitted. 'I'm trying, but this juusha keeps acting like a little bitch. He doesn't want out help, challenges our methods. They doesn't trust us. Why should we then help?'
'You almost shot me,' growled Patrick.
'Almost!' barked Carr, raising like a tower. 'And I already said I'm fucking sorry.'
'It's cool,' intervened Tom, jumping once more between the gun and the robot.
'Patrik, you should know that it is rude to deny a drink from your host. Many will take it, as an offense. You shouldn't deny a to share a drink with your host, even if he is not a friend.'
Patrik gazed at Sarah. He found fear in her eyes. They found Tom, and finally got power. That was the plan. It shouldn't be like that. He felt the static in the moment. Control slipping out of his hands, just the way he lost the fusion gun. This would get them nowhere, he concluded. We must play along.
'Nothing is wrong,' he started, and lifted from his seat. 'My apologies to you all if I've been rude. We're being hunted, and must protect ourselves. This alliance didn't start as expected. There's a need for a fresh start. Let this be it. I will cheer with you, but there's just no point in me drinking. I can't get drunk. My programming doesn't recognize alcohol, or it's effects. Or any drugs, actually.'
'Oh,' said Guille caught in excitement, 'that's an easy fix. SINS9 have toxin recognition sensors, the feature is just not enabled. I can activate it in a couple of minutes. It's a short visit to your BIOS and...'
Patrik turned at Guille, 'I don't intend to be rude,' he said, in a newly found sober tone 'but I don't have any mods, and would like to keep it that way.'
Guille leaned back in his chair.
'What about you, lady robot?' asked Carr, looking at Sarah. 'You've been very quiet. Can you handle the drink?'
She glanced at Patrik for guidance, but didn't wait for an answer 'I will drink, she said 'But must warn you that I can't get drunk either, so don't make a fool of yourselves.'
Carr laughed. 'See!' he howled, 'that's the spirit.' Carr crashed his beer into Sarah's, who drank with conviction to the idea of newly found allies.
'What about a little software update?' asked Guille.
'Thanks. For the time being, I'll stick to drink the way I am.'
They sat there for a while, at the far end of San Francisco. Patrik incessantly swept the streets, searching for signals from their pursuers. Police drones could be seen at the distance, hovering over the city buildings. He knew their pursuers were there, but ignored who they were or what they looked like. He glimpsed at the door. Waiting for a breaking glass, a sudden flash, a kick on the door, the sound of boots running up the stairs, a long shot through the bay window. He found nothing. The soothing hip hop beats continued playing from within the tiny apartment walls. It was the first time in days he did not feel chased.
A double beep and a green light indicated Sarah's battery was full. It was then time to switch places. She helped him connect the cable under discrete scrutiny of the rest of the party. He looked at his marker, 9% and charging. We made it, he thought.
'Tom,' started Patrik, after drinks went round. 'If we may talk business, it is my understanding, that you are our lift off world. I would like to know more about how and when is this planned to happen? There is a meeting on the Moon we must attend.'
Tom looked at Carr. Guille stood up and headed towards the kitchen.
'That is partially correct,' he said. 'But, it is not I that will take you off world. I will, however, help you get there.'
His chest vents opened. 'Who is it that will take us then?' asked Patrik.
'The original plan was for you to ride Stanford's supply trip to the Borealis Space Station. From there, my contact would take you to the lunar surface. That won't be possible though.'
Patrik shrugged. He felt words getting stuck in his speech tract. Struggling to articulate he continued, 'there was an deal between you and Janet.'
'There still is. Unfortunately, it needs to be changed.'
'You cannot just change the deal!' he said in growing agitation, 'that's not how it works.'
'Hey, hey. Hold that blast for a second. Listen to us,' interrupted Carr. 'Things changed. We will get you off world, just not as planned. Our side of the deal will be fulfilled.'
'What does that mean?' snarled Patrik, now directed to Carr.
'Tranquilo P. Don't go back there. I thought we were amigos now? We are all in the same team here,' he grunted, raising his eyebrows. 'All of our necks are at risk here.'
'Okay. Okay. I'm sorry,' he concluded, putting ice on his agitation.
'I guess you've heard of yesterday's event?' intervened Guille. 'The stolen ships? The pursuit and crash? Well, it wasn't taken lightly. There's added security on all launch facilities, Stanford included. A tight grip on who goes in and out of the sites.'
'They got them by the balls,' intervened Carr, gesturing with his apish hand.
'A courtesy to Federal Government from the all seeing Pacman. We also know that reaction teams are doing fly overs the San Francisco area. Waiting for anyone to try something stupid, and then...'
'Baam!' said Carr.
'I, I'm sorry for the dumb question,' said Sarah, 'Who is they?'
'The military, Air Force, Pacman. Same shit, different wrapping,' said Carr. 'Who the fuck knows who does what these days? The world is going to shit and they go after thieves and bootleggers. People die everyday while they kick and scream to protect their golden throne.'
'Anyway, it's too hot to sneak out into orbit,' said Guille. 'Even if we managed to launch, and go past the reaction teams, you'll be greeted by the Carriers patrolling the stratosphere.
'What are Carriers?,' asked Patrik.
'An AI powered drone. Or drones actually. They are used to patrol the low earth orbits in search for rogue vehicles. It's a sort of mother ship that deploys smaller combat aircrafts. Little fuckers, that attack as a swarm, overwhelming it's target to death.
'In praxis,' interrupted Guille returning from the kitchen with a fresh beer, 'they are more like bees. The queen is in control over every single bee in the colony. She sees what they see, what they do, what they eat. She is everyone, and everyone is the queen. Altogether they act as one, orchestrating every move. Or so they say.'
'What does that mean,' asked Sarah. 'Have you never seen them?'
'Fuck no!' said Guille. 'I have never seen them, but there's videos of it. You can find that shit online.
'The AI that controls them, it's meant to be highly unstable and a very quick learner,' said Carr. 'It will study its target, understand it's strengths, weaknesses, tactics, and then counter its moves. You try to pull the same move twice, and you are dead.
'Just a big pile of bullshit' snorted Guille. 'It can't be that smart. It would be impossible to control.'
Carr turned to Guillo, the information lines glowing red.
'What the hell are you saying? You know very well what they say about it.'
'Cabron, you know what I think. We've been through this a bunch of times. The fact that there's a video of it, doesn't make it true. It's the freaking internet. Besides, you can't believe the bullshit from the cuckoo's that live in trashcans orbiting Earth? For all we know, maybe it doesn't even exist?'
'It has been confirmed by our associates. We've lost people and transports to it. You fucking know that.'
Guille creased his brow. 'So, how come there's not a single first hand story of it?'
'Because no one makes it out alive, perhaps?'
'Oh, give me a break! What is this? The fucking Black Pearl? I know you are not the sharpest tool in the shed, but my god!'
Carr howled in laughter.
'What a dumb reference! What are you, 12?' he said. His eyes pierced into Guille, whom seemed utterly unconcerned. 'And you are such an asshole. Perhaps you want another broken nose? Wanna revive the Aunt Alondra incident?'
'You can't touch me anymore, remember? I'm faster than you and you know it.'
'Guys, guys,' intervened Tom, tired of breaking up fights. 'Not now. Please.'
'What then?' cried Sarah. 'How are we getting to the moon? You said that there is still a deal to take us to the moon.'
'We still have it,' remarked Tom, throwing a gaze at Guille. 'But there's risks that can't be taken. That's why we'll have to use a workaround.'
'A workaround?' asked Sarah.
'Yes, we take the long way,' said Guille, sipping from his drink. 'What do you know of the Californian Gulf Cartel?'