The laboratory was a vast domed room, strewn with machinery in various states of disassembly, vehicle parts mixed with computers, reploboxes, scanners, generators, and the rusted, partial frame of a robot colossus. Thrax’s buddy Kal Ecto Grammer stood in a small oasis at the centre of the clutter, bent over an atomic analyzer.
Thrax weaved his way through canyons of teetering junk to reach him.
“You have to do something about all this crap,” said Thrax, gesturing at the teetering piles.
“Kal exhibits all the signs of a hoarder,” observed Darwin. “A mental dysfunction of obsessive compulsive personality types. Somehow it remains in the gene pool.”
Kal took off a pair of bulky goggles that were attached to the analyzer by wires.
Thrax looked at him. Kal had narrow features, a beak like nose, and a wild shock of red hair. His eyes bulged in their sockets. Freckles speckled his face like a red Milky Way. He was a genius, and Thrax knew he also had a dozen quantum processing units implanted under the skin of his neck, allowing his mind to hold a thousand times as much information as the one hundred terabytes of an ordinary human mind. A fan of ancient attire, Kal wore an oil stained white shirt, waistcoat, and black slacks.
He was such a nerd, thought Thrax.
“I may need this stuff,” Kal finally replied, irked. “Soon as you throw it out, you need it. Murphy’s Law.”
Thrax settled on a stool across from Kal, who pointed at a black sphere resting on top of an old operating table. The sphere gave no reflection. Light drowned in it.
Kal tapped it with a mag-screwdriver. “You see that? What do you think it is? Aht! Don’t ask Darwin!”
“A big black basket ball?”
Kal snorted. “Shows how much you know, monkey man. That, my friend, is a top of the line Dynamic Matter Corporation Anamorphic Multi-Function Battlefield Superiority Robot.” Kal caressed it with affection. “A nanite shell with three hundred different configurations, guided by a diffuse quantum AI, onboard nanofactory that can produce its own ammunition, or drones. Deployable electromagnetic rail gun or five hundred gigawatt lasers.” He whistled. “Thing of beauty.”
“Huh. Hurts my eyes. Does it work?”
Kal sighed and gave it a smack. “Of course not, stupid. Totally inert.” He skipped back to his analyzer and perched on the padded seat. “Three hundred and twenty-seven hours and thirty-two minutes.”
“Sorry?” Thrax wasn’t getting it.
Kal grew cross and gestured at the sphere. “Hours! Try to keep up. That’s how long I’ve spent trying to reactivate it. Thrax my friend, with this puppy we could take over the continent. The world! If we just had the right command nanites. But we don’t. So it just sits here, taunting me!” He leapt to his feet. “God it’s so frustrating, you have no idea! Confounded at every turn.” He ticked off points on his fingers. “Tried forging, reverse engineering, hacking, rebooting, everything. Even then we don’t have activation codes or passwords.” He slumped down on the stool again and looked at Thrax wearily. “No rest for the wicked, pal.”
Thrax shrugged, playing dumb. “So it is useless. Throw it out.”
Kal started to go apoplectic, then stopped as if a switch had been thrown. “What do you want, Thrax? I’m very busy with the universe and stuff.”
Thrax smiled inwardly and slipped the dodecahedron out of his pocket. Tossed it in the air, casually, like a coin or marble.
Kal’s eyes narrowed with mild interest. Then opened wide. “Benefactor balls,” he hissed, and snatched the dodecahedron out of the air. He placed his nose an inch away from the tiny device. Grabbed an analyzer and set it against his eye. Gaped. “Can’t be. Yet... the level of precision is incredible. A thousand times the best machine accuracy.”
Bingo! Anything tech was catnip for Kal. Thrax’s heart leapt. Perhaps it was something valuable. Valuable enough to save his family. Maybe even something that worked. “It is important, isn’t it?”
Kal looked him in the eye for a moment, like Thrax had just said the most insane thing possible. The look turned to one of pity for an intellectual ant. Thrax could feel the disdain. Kal stood up and raced over to a pile of junk, throwing bits of machinery aside as he dug.
“I don’t like the look he gave us,” commented Darwin. “I’ve tried sending in probes through your finger tips into the object. It destroyed them on contact. Searching through databases. Still no match.”
“What?” said Thrax aloud. “What is it, anyway? A smaller version of your sphere, only with corners?”
“Sit still!” shouted Kal over his shoulder. “Don’t move a muscle. Don’t even think. And turn Darwin off.”
“Aw, hey, he’s not gonna...”
“NOW! Do it!” There was an edge in Kal’s voice. Even panic. It sent a chill down Thrax’s spine.
“Of all the nerve,” muttered Darwin. “He’s locking me out of the mainframe.”
The lights dimmed. Massive blast doors began to grind shut over the exits. Air vents slammed shut, drains clacked closed. A sphere of energy engulfed the black battle sphere. The room was doused in red light. Thrax tripped the neural trigger and shut Darwin off. Again. “Okay, okay. Done. You’re freaking me out.”
Kal raced back, holding a short tube. There was an impression at one end.
“You should be. God in a droplet of metal. ‘One ring to rule them all.’ G.R.R. Martin. Where did you find it?”
Thrax shrugged. “Android gave it to me.” “Android? What android?”
“There was a...”
“Yes, yes,” Kal waved his hands and shut his eyes. “Got it. Downloaded the recordings. Nice shot, by the way. Fascinating. They’re waking the android up now. Eight-Oh-Nine. Hmm. I want to take alook at his cortex. Nope, blocked.” Kal opened his eyes. “You showed this to anyone? I didn’t see it in the feed.”
“Pocketed it before I got out of the snail squid’s guts. Only you know.” said Thrax, rubbing the dodecahedron between his thumb and forefinger.
“Easy now,” said Kal. He placed the tube atop it; the impression fit the dodecahedron perfectly. “Fits. One point, Kal. Put it down on this.” He bent down and knocked a bunch of junk off a small containment field platform, a low cylinder about a foot high.
Thrax gently did so, and they both kneeled over it conspiratorially. “What does it do?” Thrax whispered, as that seemed the right thing to do.
There was a crash behind them, followed by a loud, thrumming hum. They both slowly looked behind them as a domed, cylindrical robot with a tapered bottom rose up out of a pile of junk, its old antigrav pods emitting a high pitched, strained whine. Cables and wiring cascaded off and fell into a jumble below. Six photon receptors clustered set in the oil streaked dome flicked open, lit, and focused on the dodecahedron. Steam jetted out of heat sinks on its flanks. Beneath, the air shimmered and wobbled.
“Friend of yours?” asked Thrax.
“I’d hoped. My pet cryobot,” said Kal a hushed voice. “Not so dead after all...” “Does anything you have work?”
Six circles on the surface of the bot unsealed, three per side, and ribbed tentacles whizzed out, tipped by black pods packed with gleaming manipulators. The tools deployed and clacked and buzzed and sparked while the arms undulated in the air before the two humans.
Thrax stood up. “Uh, Kal? Do I kill it?” Robotic eyes buzzed and focused on Thrax.
“Of course not,” hissed Kal, alarmed. “Don’t let it hear you. I’ve been hoping its repair cycles would turn over. Do you have any idea how valuable an antique like this is? Some crazy sorcerors would pay primo for this. Even before the collapse they were rare. Obsolete, really.” He bent down and edged towards it, peering at a circular window recessed in the sculpted belly, coated by a film of semi-opaque ice. There was a hint of a face behind it. “Hey, baby. How you feeling, huh?” He grinned back at Thrax and rubbed his hands together in glee. “This is awesome. Systems seem back on line. Maybe a little disoriented.” He waved at the little window. “Hey in there. Welcome back, Colonel...” He peered at the name engraved beneath the window, “...Stephen Houston!”
Thrax was unimpressed. He had no interest in some long dead head-in-a-bot. Thing could prove dangerous. Might way a ton, maybe two. No obvious weapons, but those arms looked nasty, and the sheer weight of the thing alone... He looked about nervously. “Kal, buddy, you got any weapons here?”
“Eh? Sure, all over the place. But none of them work. Be quiet! You’ll spook our friend,” Kal tutted. “These machines were used to preserve terminally ill humans, like a cryotube, only ambulatory, independent, run by an uploaded version of the patient’s personality. Cryostasis for paranoid types.” He turned back to the cryoborg. “No offense intended.”
The cryobot’s vocoder belted out a series of gruff, unintelligible sounds. Aggressive sounding. It began to edge forward. Junk beneath its antigrav field jittered, spun and spat outward.
“You know, I’m not sure the Colonel is entirely with it.”
“I’m thinking the Colonel’s hostile. He’ll take over The Pit. Let me blow it up.”
“Wait. Just... wait, okay? ‘Blow it up.’ That’s your answer for everything.” Kal tapped his forehead with an open palm. “Must have been reactivated by...” Kal paused in midsentence. He looked back at the dodecahedron, then at Thrax. “That’s not good.” He lunged and hit a stud on the containment field cylinder.
A force field sparkled to life, shimmering around the dodecahedron.
The cryobot reacted immediately: it bellowed a stream of guttural synthetic machine expletives and plowed forward like a self-propelled brick. A tentacle spun out, snagged Kal by the scruff of his neck and flung him into a junk pile. He toppled off and fell down into a rusted tub. He grabbed the rim, tried to haul himself up, only destabilized the pile in the process. It collapsed with a roar; he spilled out and was carried helplessly away on the junk avalanche, spinning over metal grates.
The cryobot stopped before the dodecahedron. Tentacles slashed repeatedly against the energy field to no avail. Thrax approached, then suddenly feinted forward, drawing limbs towards him. “Come on, corspicle head!” He chucked a wrench at it, and glanced off the dome harmlessly. The cryobot turned and jabbed with its metal tentacles. Thrax anticipated, and dodged easily, then ran down a junk tunnel, scanning for useful items. Lasers. Blasters. Kinetic energy weapons. Rocks. His heart leapt when he spotted the grip of a maser canon. It was jammed under a washing machine. With all his strength he pulled at it, freeing it. His triumphant grin faded when he noticed the front firing nozzle was gone. He dropped it with disgust, grabbed a crowbar, and prepared to face his enemy. “This wouldn’t be happening if you threw out your damn junk, Kal! Just saying!”
On a pillar of shimmering steam, the cryo-cyborg or cryobot or whatever it was closed in.
“Emergency. Command nodule,” its vocoder blared. “Release. Priority. Release nodule. Comply. Alternative: termination. Acknowledge.” The machine blocked the tunnel, all six arms deployed before it, each manipulator pod whirring with deadly diamond saws. “Addendum: medical assistance required.”
Thrax scanned the junk tunnel walls and noted two key points as tentacles launched forward, testing his reflexes. It moved forward, closer. Thrax struck with his crowbar, not against the cryobot but the junk, knocking out lynchpoints on the left and right tunnel wall. The piles collapsed inward in front of him, burying the bot. It blared alarm. Steam poured out from the jumbled mass as he clambered up and over it. “Take five, buddy,” he said, patting the junk mountain. Hot wet air seeped through it and drenched his clothes and hair. “Kal! I took care of the stiff.”
“Here!” Kal was crouched by his workbench, trying to speed reassemble an antimatter pistol. “Keep it distracted!” His hands trembled as he put the primer into the suspension clasp. “Knew something like this would happen,” he muttered angrily. “Stupid! The other way around. Should have seen it, so should have... Course they all would!” The primer slipped and fell to the floor. “Shit!”
Thrax tried to reply, but a clatter behind him drowned out his voice. The cyber-thing wasn’t beaten after all. Thrax’s combat sixth sense buzzed; he flung himself into the air. Three tentacles struck where he’d been standing, plowing through the floor plates. Coolant jetted upward from a ruptured pipe. Buzz saws screamed and cut metal. Foam spilled out of the hole and dried in place. Thrax landed awkwardly, hurting his ankle. But the foam gave Thrax an idea. He ran to the edge of the central clearing where Kal stacked his emergency safety tools. Fire extinguishers, dampners, the works.
The cyborg’s vocoder squawked again. “Life support system malfunction. Urgent. Activate insurance policy. Do not interfere. Imperative.” It rotated in place, turning back to the dodecahedron. “Surrender. Obey. Martial law: invoked.”
Thrax grabbed a spray sealant canister.
The cyber-whatever returned and hovered beside the shielded dodecahedron. It tossed away a cut out section of floor plating and pushed a tentacle pod tip inside. Buzz saws severed the power lines. The containment field faltered and winked out. Manipulators spilled out of a tentacle pod and snatched it up. Another tentacle edged toward it, unfolding an infoport.
“This is bad! If it accesses that, we’re all dead!” shouted Kal. His fingers trembled. He couldn’t finish the reassembly! If he didn’t...
The infoport connected. Strange, mechanical sounds came from every corner of the lab. Machinery that had been inert for centuries slowly began to throb back to life. Lights flickered on. Engines whined. Weapons primed themselves.
“We’re too late! It’s going to have the ultimate robo-trash army,” breathed Kal, horrified. He slumped. “We’re totally dead.” He looked about for his flask for a last drink.
“Never say die,” replied Thrax fiercely, and he catapulted forward, clutching the canister. He dove between the cyborg’s slashing tentacles and pressed himself against its hull, then shoved the spray nozzle into its heat sink and closed the contact. A great gush of foam filled the hot slats. Excess flabs of goop poured out. Thrax pushed around the rim, ducking tentacle blows, sliding the nozzle erratically up and down. The cryocyborg’s heat alarm sounded. Four-fifths along the canister sputtered and died. “Kal!” shouted Thrax, frustrated. He threw it down and rushed for the rack. “Dammit, Kal, these are supposed to be kept full!”
Buzz saws arrayed themselves around Thrax, hemming him in.
The black sphere on the table top trembled. Its surface began to bubble.
“It’s preoccupied,” said Kal softly. “Maybe...” He finished the reassembly and snapped the breach closed. Took aim. “Hey!” he called. “Colonel Houston!”
Robots and war machines loomed up behind Kal menacingly as the cryborg spun around. Within its central cryochamber, the face of a hideous, dessicated human could now be seen, wreathed in ice crystals, eye sockets empty and hollow, lips peeled back in a rictor grin. “Colonel Houston currently indisposed. Leave message.”
The shot blew the cryochamber apart, igniting the processing unit attached above, causing catastrophic failure. A series of loud explosive whumps reverberated inside the metal shell as the interior blew itself to pieces. Then flames shot out the top, and showers of sparks jetted out from the slave linked robots. The whole lot shuddered and the room’s lights flickered. Processors, turrets, and heads emitted high pitched screeches, then exploded. Shrapnel flew in all directions. Thrax dropped to the floor and covered his head while Kal just gaped, an odd little smile on his face.
The crocyborg slammed to the floor with a tremendous clang, followed by the other machines. Tentacles shuddered and went limp. Acrid black smoke curled out of every aperture and slit.
The mechanical trash army was somnolent once more.
Thrax scrunched his nose. The acrid stench of burning plastic was overpowering. There was a distant dull clunk, the twang of enclosed metal sheets, and then a soft steady rush of air as automatic systems activated.
“Wooo!” cried Kal, arcing his back and howling at the ceiling. “How’s that! Shot to the kisser!”
“About God damn time,” said Thrax, climbing to his feet. He rubbed his irritated nose. There were cuts all over his torso from the microsaws. He ran soft finger tips over them, smearing blood. His fatigues were shredded. Ruined. That was a bigger problem. His mom had sewn these fatigues by hand, old school. The cuts? They healed as he watched. Thrax shot Kal a cross look. “What took you so long?”
“Dramatic timing, my friend.” Kal sauntered over, spinning the pistol on a finger nonchallantly. He quickly lost control and the weapon flew off into a junk pile, falling between cracks, into likely oblivion. “Shit.” He dusted off his prim waistcoat and held up a hand. “Not in the face! Back off! I just saved your life.” Tension flooded out of his shoulders. Kal looked around at the mess. “Teach me not to keep functional weaponry around,” he added, and poked at the ragged crag that had been the stasis unit. “What a waste,” he sighed. “Hauled this thing out of the North Pyramid, you know. Remember that place?”
Thrax grimaced. “Try not to.” Bad memories. He rubbed his chin. “Right. Let’s get armed. Who knows what that cube thing will set on us next. We gotta ditch that thing.”
“Dodecahedron,” corrected Kal. They walked over to the containment cylinder. “No ditching. Don’t think that’ll be necessary.”
“That’s okay. After what just happened I’m not listening to you.” Thrax moved towards the little metal bauble.
“Thrax, Thrax! Relax! Hear what Houston said? Called it a ‘command nodule’. Well, if this lil’ puppy really was acting against us, it’d have activated everything, or at least picked something better than an old, half-dead cryocyborg. I got lots of top of line stuff here.”
“So? None of it works! Explain.”
Kal shrugged. “I thought you didn’t want to hear my opinion.” He settled down again before the mysterious metal lump.
“Fine.” Thrax knealt beside him. “Just this once.”
“Cryoborg was in conservation mode. Probably had passive sensors on. Detected the nodule. Nodule is power. Hope. So it threw everything it had left into a bid to secure it, nearly icing us in the process. Probably trying to get back to his health provider, which no longer exists, so it went bananas. Yeah. You see that sphere?” whispered Kal, turning and pointing at the inert black sphere.
“The black basketball of doom? Yeah,” said Thrax, rubbing his eyes. He didn’t like looking at it. “Sucks light in like it’s got no freakin’ surface.”
“Yeah. Well, this,” he said in a hushed voice, jabbing at the dodecahedron, “could control it. Along with everything else here of worth. If it worked and had a will. In which case we’d all be toast. It’s an Alpha Omega Unit.”
“So?” The term meant nothing to Thrax.
“So?!?” gasped Kal, as if he were regarding a retarded dog. “Don’t you watch banned threevee recordings?”
“No, they’re banned.”
“Whatever. With this, you can command anything. Anywhere. Everywhere!”
Thrax looked down at the small, unassuming metal object and smiled. This thing would save his ass after all.