The Technosphere is the first autonomous robot world. The inhabitants have not seen a human since the Schism which sent a divide between them and their human creator, as well as among themselves. One young robot has made it her mission to bridge the gap by promoting a life-saving upgrade to descendants of the robots who rejected it long ago.
The Technosphere looked especially nice this time of day, KA-T observed. The ring of light along the seam between high wall and domed ceiling was dimming into twilight, darkening from ice-gray, like the sky on a cloudy day, toward a slate color. KA-T was leaning against a fence made of loops of white chain link. She was unusually tired. With a whisper of hydraulics, she moved one leg to cross over the other. Her sleek, narrow frame had the current generation’s white polymer shell covering all except the black hinges of her joints. KA-T turned her smooth, round head from the ceiling and gazed back down the road for the shuttle. She looked around, left and right, to make sure she wasn’t being watched. Tacked up beside her onto the fence was an old sign: Union of Artificial Intelligence: Proudly Autonomous Since 2041. Someone had scribbled graffiti under it with tattoo paint: Good riddance, Endos! KA-T cringed. She looked away in time to see the shuttle, a whispering, streamlined arrowhead of a pod with a long strip of windows on either side. When the doors parted, KA-T greeted the driver in her fluid monotone voice.
“Good evening,” she said. “Sector one, please.”
The driver nodded, but gave her a strange look. Ignoring his glance, KA-T readily took her seat. She was unusually tired. It wasn’t until the vehicle began to ease back up the road that the driver spoke.
“You look a little young to be this far from your sector,” he said.
Spoken like a true charger, KA-T thought, slightly annoyed.
“Thank you for your concern, but I’m alright,” she replied politely.
She then turned to watch out the window as they pulled away from the fence and the vague shadows of jagged, lopsided buildings behind it. KA-T scolded herself inwardly; she’d used the slang she’d picked up from non-upgraded bots. She could still see the curse scrawled across the sign. Perhaps the biggest thing that made upgraded and non-upgraded bots different was their perception of humans. She was sure that no one today even had a great-grandparent who’d seen a human before, because of the schism. The non-upgraded bots still described them as squishy pink, pale or brown things held together with toothpicks of endoskeletons. But The Manufacturer, a human, had given them all this. So why hate them? Good, at least I still think like a charg—an upgraded bot.
When KA-T gazed out the window again, she saw the familiar squat dome houses of her sector, all silent and dark at this hour. Sometimes KA-T imagined that the half-eggs must look like miniature copies of The Technosphere from the outside. She thanked and paid the shuttle driver, credit, before stepping to the smooth Plexiglas wall that gated her home. The little intercom was waiting for her, a box set into the wall. Silently, KA-T pushed the button.
“WELCOME TO SECTOR—”
Hastily, KA-T slammed her hands over the polka-dotted holes in the metal speaker.
“—One. Please state your model number.”
In a whisper she rattled off her full name:
The intercom’s light blinked twice in red.
What? KA-T didn’t understand. Sector one was the only place with this much security, but it had never kicked her out before. When she pushed the button and tried again, the error message repeated. KA-T shivered with nervousness; someone at home had to have missed her by now. Reluctantly, KA-T pressed the red help button. She curled up beneath the flashing light and prepared for a crowd of sleepy, disgruntled bots. But in a few seconds the light clicked off again. Slowly KA-T stood. At the opposite side of the gate a tall bot stood at the outgoing intercom. With a smile, KA-T waved, recognizing the Repairman.
“Forget the curfew?” He called in a knowing but non-accusatory tone.
On her side the intercom light blinked green and the gate doors eased open.
“Thanks,” KA-T replied ruefully. Then she rushed silently up the road to her house, hoping she hadn’t alerted anyone else. It was dark now, except for the faint seam of light, fading like a gradient into the black expanse of the night ceiling.
The living room was empty and dark, except for the glow of the generator. KA-T carefully closed the door behind her and slipped into her room across the hall. Her night vision began to kick in as she stepped toward the docking station beside her little table. The latest “rebel” rumor had been about night vision. The non-upgraded bots liked to call themselves “rebels.” They’d said that in reality bots could have the capacity for full night vision but The Manufacturer had cheated them by only calibrating to human levels. But then again, “rebels” tended to distrust The Manufacturer on a lot of things. It was rumored that the schism of long ago had been a result of them rejecting the upgrade, claiming that it was just a human trick to get bots everywhere to revoke their autonomy. Whether that was true or purely myth, it made promoting the upgrade that much harder. But KA-T didn’t care now as she settled into her docking station. She was unusually tired. If we all had perfect night vision then we wouldn’t need the lights, she thought. Having no light would be almost a tragedy.
A loud Ping! Ping! burst from KA-T’s chest.
“What?” she gasped, sitting up sharply.
Scrambling from her docking station, KA-T found the little imprint on the side of her chest and slid open a panel from left to right. She bent halfway over and peered in. Smooth metal parts fitted like a Tetris puzzle around the battery of her heart, which glowed, unlike “rebel” ones. Held on either side by clamps were two clear cylinders. One was half full of white light while the other, nearly empty, blinked rapidly.
Ping! Ping! Ping!
“Alright, alright.” KA-T groaned. She was already getting dizzy.
KA-T slid the door closed over her chest and tiptoed out of her room. Hydraulics hissing softly, she crept toward the homey light of the family generator, which sat against the wall. Staring at it for a moment, KA-T let it remind her just how important it was. There were so many bots out there, hungry for the energy that bots like her could tap into anytime they needed. The upgrade, this generator, was a large, boxy device that stood to KA-T’s shoulders in height and was almost a perfect cube except for one side that curved to fit into their domed wall. It was all smooth white, except for a striped design in frosted blue lights. A hollow strip in the side contained a row of cylinders, each one held with clamps like the ones in KA-T’s chest; these cylinders, however, were dark and gray. The hand crank was the only thing that looked out of place. When KA-T unfolded it from the generator, it jutted out like a mutant extra limb. KA-T began to heavily turn the crank, warming up the generator. She sighed with relief to see white light pour like water into the cylinders in the generator’s side.
“KA-T, what are you doing up?” came a deep but lightly-metallic voice.
With a gasp, KA-T whirled around. The hand crank spun out of her grasp and almost smacked her.
“Oh, hi Dad,” KA-T said sheepishly.
Her father pushed a button on the wall and the living room lights came on in a burst of white, revealing the simple furnishings of the living room: a couch and some chairs around the short table, all smooth and white.
“I was just changing my Energy Bars,” she said. “The left one is running low and I just wanted to make sure, you know, better safe than…”
She trailed off at the look on Dad’s face. The plate on his jaw clearly turned down, and his brow plate lowered around the round lights of his eyes. He was standing with his arms crossed, accentuating the joints in his elbows beneath his off-white arm plating.
“Those bars are supposed to last you all month,” Dad began suspiciously.
“Well, they ran down faster than usual,” she said while trying to open the door on her chest.
“But I thought you recharged this morning,” he persisted.
“Dad, if you don’t mind, could I have a little privacy?”
Her limbs were slowing, making it hard for the fingers to work into the slight depression on her side.
Ping! Ping! Ping! Ping! The indicator inside her chimed urgently.
“KA-T, are you alright?” Dad said.
“C-can you help me with the door?” KA-T stammered. She was getting dizzier.
Dad came over and started to slide it open.
“Ok, I got it. Thanks,” KA-T pulled away. “Oh!” she growled in frustration.
She hadn’t noticed how long she was taking; the generator’s power had already run down again.
“KA-T, what’s going on?”
She tried to ignore Dad, keeping her back to him as she fumbled along the side of the generator. Light had filled one of the charging Energy Bars two-thirds to the top. KA-T tried to work her uncooperative fingers to pry it from the clamp.
“KA-T,” Dad called firmly.
He took her by the shoulder and turned her to face him. KA-T put an arm up to cover her inner circuitry, but it was too late. The stripes of light on the sides of Dad’s temples turned white, and then red.
“Great Sparks, KA-T, you’re dying!” he gasped. “Here, sit down.”
KA-T found the flat couch and gratefully sank to it. She vaguely watched as Dad rushed at the generator hand crank. Everything in her head clicked a few shades dimmer. Had she just entered power-save mode? The generator hummed warmly and the cylindrical Energy Bars attached to its side each filled with light. KA-T glanced down at her own bars. Now the one on the right was blinking too. Dad detached two of the bars and brought them to her.
“Hold still,” he said, kneeling in front of her. The expressive marbles of his eyes flashed with concern.
“Dad…” KA-T weakly protested. Embarrassed, she shut her eyes and listened to the soft clank of Dad adjusting the clamps around her heart. In a second the fresh energy surged through her. She sat up with a springiness of life, fully awake now.
“Thank you,” she said, closing the door on her chest.
But now, Dad stood sternly over her.
“Latest model, don’t ever scare me like that again,” he said firmly. “Are you alright?”
“Yeah,” KA-T said, shifting forward a little to stand up. But Dad wasn’t finished.
“I understand that accidents happen, but Mom and I have always tried to teach you and ZEK3 to think ahead and make smart choices.”
KA-T leaned back on the couch. “I know,” she grumbled.
“This is your life, KA-T. You can’t be too proud to ask for help if something’s wrong—”
“Dad, I know,” KA-T cut in. “I’m four years old. I’m not a little prototype anymore.”
Her father let out a resigned sigh.
“Just wait ‘til you hit ten. That’s when things start creaking,” he said. As if making a point, he lowered himself with a grunt to the easy chair across from her. “Now, I think we should call diagnostics tonight and get that malfunction checked out. Do you want to call them or would you rather I do it?”
“Oh, I’m not malfunctioning,” KA-T said. “I should be fine.”
“We really should have your battery inspected,” Dad said, “I’ve never seen energy bars run down so fast. KA-T,” he added warily. “Do you know what happened to your energy bars?”
“Well,” KA-T said, “I might have shared a little bit with another bot—but just a little.” She went on quickly, “My battery’s fine; I guess I just didn’t know the bars would go so fast.”
“So you traded Energy Bars with someone?” Dad asked.
“Not exactly. They didn’t have bars, but someone showed me how to use wires to—” KA-T broke off, but the look that came over Dad’s face told her that she’d said too much.
“You gave your energy to a non-upgraded bot?”
“Wait, you don’t understand! This poor bot was dying, and I couldn’t just—”
“KA-T,” Dad frowned, his temple lights turning red again. “Where were you?”
KA-T let out a weary sigh, “I stepped out of our sector for a minute.”
Dad jerked forward. “What in the world would override your logical processing—?”
“I went to promote the upgrade,” KA-T answered almost in a challenge.
For a long moment there was quiet.
“We’ve had this discussion,” Dad said slowly, his voice barely clinging to patience. “You’re only to promote when you are ready.”
“Don’t you always say that there are bots out there—?”
“And running off to other zones and nearly draining your energy in the process is not showing us that you are,” he went on, slightly raising his volume. “KA-T, which—?”
“Well, what have I been doing here for four years?” KA-T spluttered, “I’m tired of staying in my own little zone and hogging all the energy while bots out there are dying—”
“KA-T, which sector did you go to?” Dad asked firmly.
KA-T hesitated. “Six.”
“Dad, you’re overreacting—”
“See, this clearly shows that you’re not ready to promote,” Dad said. “No new model ever goes to sector six, especially not alone.”
“It’s like you don’t even want anybody to upgrade!” KA-T spouted. “What do you think The Manufacturer would think about how—how separated everyone is? What would he say about the gates?”
Dad slowly shook his head. “That was an extremely dangerous thing to do, KA-T. You have no idea how quickly they could’ve drained you.”
“Dad…” KA-T sighed, “I just want them to know. Why does it have to be so hard?”
“I wish it didn’t have to be this way,” he finally said, wearily, “but the schism—”
“Every bot always uses that schism as an excuse,” KA-T almost whined. “It’s not like any of us were released yet when it happened, so why can’t both the zones just get along?”
“That simply isn’t the way of the sphere. I’m sorry,” Dad said, “I wish just as much as you that an old grudge wasn’t between them and us. It’d certainly make promoting easier, but you have to understand something,” he sat a little forward to look her in the eye, “Non-upgraded bots do not like being told they’re wrong, and they will make that terminally clear.”
“That’s not all of them,” KA-T softly argued. “Some are curious. Some are actually pretty nice. Wait, where are you going?” she asked as he shifted to his feet with a grunt.
“To get Mom. I have a feeling she should be a part of this.”
“Now?” KA-T groaned. “Dad, please don’t make Mom power up now; she’ll kill me.”
“I think it’s already safe to say that you’re grounded,” was Dad’s reply.
Crossing her arms, KA-T growled but said nothing as he left the room. The Energy Bars pulsing warmly inside her were proof enough that Dad had won the argument for now.