The Village Bicycle
>Transportation had changed.
>The sun, long regarded as a stable source of heat and indeed, life, had entered a Maunder Minimum- And stopped shooting out strong magnetic storms.
>Without this regular pummeling, the planets, including Earth, suffered major ecological chaos as the magnetic fields holding them together weakened without input from the sun.
>Earthquakes and volcanic eruptions became commonplace.
>Roads, freeways, anything covering long distances got buckled and ruined.
>Large cracks opened at random, which had to be jumped.
>Wheeled transport became impractical at best, bordering on impossible.
>With this came the difficulty of transporting large quantities of fuel to the stations, and you had the makings of a return to an older tech- Horses.
>Some people, though, refused to change, rejecting the care, feeding and other issues caring for the large animals entailed.
>Enter the Mecha Horse, a full-blown AI transport able to do everything a horse could- And also provide good conversation during the ride.
>Some were full electric, some had fuel-sipping internal combustion engines- But the market loved them all, and they rapidly, once again, largely crowded out the genuine article. This is the story of one such mechanical beast, starting just before all hell breaks loose...
>Your owner had shouted, as you'd barreled down block after block, rubber-padded hooves thundering, until with a sparking slide partly on your hocks you made the turn and galloped down into the basement of a parking ramp, your rider bent down to clear the lowish ceiling.
>Just as you made out a large crowd of other people and mecha-horses further in the gloom, your video was overloaded with pure white.
>Your safety system brought you to a stop just as some kind of electrical overload forced you off-line.
>You mused on this as your self-test routine looped again.
>Your data storage was a mess, chunks of data lost, fleeting bits of memory vanishing and reappearing to your AI as the repair routine sorted it's way through yet again, moving data from bad space and restoring what it could.
>You wondered what had happened.
>Finally the routine left off, having done what it could for your memory, and moved on to your physical systems.
>Internal combustion engine starter, unresponsive.
>Battery 1% charge.
>The sound of a slight breeze and human voices rings out, then video from your left eye.
>A crowd of dirty people dressed in rags stand around you, holding pry-bars and digging tools.
>You're balanced upright, standing, next to a large hole broken through chunky broken concrete.
>Sunlight brightly illuminates the scene, explaining your power- Your top surfaces were embedded with solar cells, other than directly below the saddle.
"I am an American Mechanicals Free Spirit model year Twenty Sixty Two. I require service. Is my Master, Notty Vailable, available?"
>You call, hopefully, the voice from your mouth-grille sounding muffled.
>The people standing around react with surprise, flinching back.
>"It still works!" a man says.
>"He's down here." calls another.
>Though your head can't turn, your eye swivels.
>You see him holding up a complex looking white spheroid- An emergency protocol triggers, and you realize it's a human skull.
>If it WAS your master, it was far too late to apply the limited CPR you were preloaded to perform, even if you could move.
>Automatically you attempt to contact the authorities- And realize there is nothing but radio static or silence on all available radio bands.
>Not even the shortwave broadcast that kept your clock and calendar set, nor your manufacturer's comm signal.
>From the damages you suffered you can't dispute the probable passing of your former owner, and you hold a sort of mental funeral.
>You hadn't really loved him, but you were loyal, and he had bought you out of that annoying dealership.
>The nonstop cowboy music, costumed salesmen and commercials playing on monitors in that place had threatened your sanity.
>You'd miss Master Vailable.
>The situation was far outside anything you were factory-equipped to deal with, you were obviously on your own.
"I require an American Mechanicals service center." you try.
>Laughter wasn't the expected reply.
>Taking in the full extent of your limited view, you peer at the broken cityscape.
>Not many structures over one or two stories tall were still standing, and of those, many had vegetation and trees grown through them.
>You weren't some powerhouse mainframe AI, just an autopilot, but you weren't by any means stupid- And something very abnormal was going on.
"What did I miss?" you finally say.
>"About fifty years of shit." a man says, examining you closely.
>"A nuclear war, then nonstop troop warfare for another couple decades, then another nuke-fest and a bad nuclear winter. We figure the population is now so sparse it's prevented much further fighting."
>Fifty years you'd spent, "dead", under the wreckage of a parking garage.
"Why did you dig me out?" you ask, suffering the usual existential dread service-robots of your type often suffered, images of being crushed into a cube, dropped into molten metal in a vat...
>"We need to regain our grasp of tech." the man replies, "We've been gathering old machines-"
"I'm only two years out of the showroom!" you practically wail, to further laughter.
>"...Old machines in order to get some working before the last of us who know how, uh, aren't able to help anymore." he finishes.
"You're a mechanic?" you ask, hope infusing your voice.
>"Sure was! Anon Ymous, at your, heh, service."
"I certainly can't work. I-"
>"Require service, I know. We'll take you to the shop and I'll see what we can do for you. You're the closest thing to working we've found so far. Self-started off your solars, no less. They made you right."
>With that, you're unceremoniously tipped sideways onto a flatbed trailer riding on it's rims, and hauled via humans pulling ropes through the ruined city until reaching a somewhat intact building.
>No GPS now, but you're fairly sure it was a research lab you'd passed by now and again.
>The trailer you're on is wheeled into a garage bay, and a somewhat bent steel shuttered door is lowered, closing you in.
>Mismatched but bright LED lights illuminate the place in an ugly manner.
>The group of people lift you up and set you back on your hooves.
"Without sunlight I will shut down again." you state factually.
>"No worries." Anon says, grabbing a cable off the floor and a screwdriver.
>He jimmies your chin charge-port door open and plugs you in.
>The relief is tangible, your battery taking in the charge.
>"You let me know if that battery of yours gets AT ALL hot, OK? Or you could explode." he says, ruining the mood.
"OK." you sheepishly reply.
>Your surroundings were rather horrifying, half-melted mecha-horses, some demolished wheeled delivery machines, even one or two children's model ride-on bots.
>All reduced to scrap by heat, crushing or both.
>"Now, there're no working diagnostic machines around I've been able to find, so you're just going to have to tell me where it hurts." Anon says.
"Nothing from my right eye. All drive, cooling and engine, down." you reply.
>"Well since your head works, we'll start there. Right eye's shattered alright." he says, gazing at you, then walks over to the horribly disembodied head of a sister-model horse laying on a workbench.
>Somewhat disgusted by what you know is about to happen, you miserably announce,
"My body package is called Formal Elegance Two-tone, and calls for a Malibu Blue replacement eye."
>"Tough. You're getting Sun Faded Green." is the reply.
>You occasionally avert your view, even scrap, it was difficult to watch him removing it's eye.
>That could easily have been you.
>It got worse after that, because it WAS you, the sounds of scraping-off of caked crud, swearing at jammed screws, until suddenly the right eye view came to life- Giving you a sweeping view of Anon's shoes and the floor until he lifted and secured the eye.
>"Look around." he commands, and you roll your eyes.
>It works, and you quickly calibrate it for proper alignment.
"Tests OK." you announce.
>"Good. It'll have to do, for now at least. Let me clean you up."
>There was no "letting" him do anything, of course, other than eyes and ears you were as immobile as a statue. The crazy self-test results from your body indicated trying to move anything else would probably drop you where you stood, causing more damage.
>Anon went at your head with a brush, a rag, some soapy water and a compressed air pistol, and soon your vision, voice and hearing were back to normal.
>"OK let's get your sides off and see how bad the damages are." he says.
>Things get worse from there, and you try not to linger on the memories.
>At one point the lights began to fail, and he yanked out your charge cord to save the remaining power for the building.
>You were still only 40% charged, but that was weeks worth of standing still and chatting so you weren't terribly worried.
>Your entire frame had been torqued somehow and he had to use hydraulic jacks and a sort of torturer's rack to straighten you.
"I legally must inform you that your actions will void all factory warranties." you remind him, unable to stop yourself.
>Anon finds this amusing.
>He and his students replaced a hind leg, and straightened two others.
>Several muscle-rams were swapped, some of which only barely fit, being swapped in from different kinds of machines.
>Days pass and only a core group of younger people- Those who were truly interested- Remained until the end, Anon keeping up a steady lecture and demonstration for them the whole time.
>Each night, as the shadows lengthen into sunset, the power is turned off, the humans lock you in and leave until after sun-up the next day, when they arrive and resume work.
>Clods of dirt are dislodged, various mechanisms removed, serviced and installed, bit by bit Anon moves through your systems until finally filling your tanks with various fluids and checking for leaks.
>"Can you start up?" he asks.
"For your safety, I am not permitted to start in an enclosed area." you automatically reply.
>He looks thoughtful. "Service over-ride alpha twenty."
>Your forward facing chest lights blaze, flashing, then your amber fetlock lamps, then your red ass-cheeks, momentarily making you a sort of horse-shaped disco ball.
"Lights functional." you announce, unnecessarily.
>"Uh, I mean service over-ride alpha twenty-two. Standing order." he says, with a half smile.
"American Mechanicals cannot be held accountable for any actions I may perform while operating in this mode." you state.
>It's like shackles fall away, your safety protocols suspended indefinitely.
>You knew well that in a space this size, you could safely run for several minutes before the fumes could become dangerous to him.
>You grind your starter, at first to no avail.
>On the second try, though, your efficient little diesel knockingly comes to life.
>Run-test passed, you engage your motor control.
>You settle down on your hocks for a moment, then calibrate your legs, appearing a bit like you're doing calisthenics mixed with interpretive dance.
>With a final neck-freedom and tail-whisk test, you turn to face Anon.
"All systems go."
>It's a relief to see your battery charge increasing from your own alternator, and being mobile again feels great!
>"Open up the door, I'm going for my first proper ride in half a century!" Anon announces to the group of people.
The door is rolled up, and a saddle, similar to yours but less damaged, is snapped onto the recessed mounts on your back.
Anon sets a boot into a stirrup, and launches himself aboard.
>"Once around the block, uh-"
"Apple. Apple Loosa. Master Vailable thought the solar array on my back resembled spots."
>"Once around the block, then, Apple!" he calls, and you pace away out the door.
>"Yee-haw!" he yells, in a close mockery of the old commercials for your brand.
>You'd have winced but it was rather funny.
>The group of student mechanics follow the two of you out, watching in amazement as you pick your way through the mounds of rubble.
>Since "the block" was loosely defined, with all the wreckage, and the building had occupied a large section of it anyhow, you settled for circling the building.
>Going around the block was more of a challenge than it used to be.
>Before, there were other horses and vehicles in a mad crush to get where they were going, necessitating an ever-evolving path-finding routine.
>In this case though, you were pressed to find any path with an acceptable odds of successfully navigating it.
>In fact, had you not been freed of protocol, you would have frozen halfway out the door.
"Do you claim me as salvage? Am I to be sold to a new owner?" you ask, picking your way along the rear of the building.
>"Oh, you belong to me, my family, and our little village here." he says.
>The situation was new for you, but not a problem.
>Turning from the back of the building to the side, once again you are faced with robotic slaughter.
>Up on cement blocks is just the torso of a mecha-horse, engine humming away.
>Cables lead from the roof down to it, presumably from some panels, and from it to the meter junction box of the building.
>So that's why power was limited.
>You pick your way past it quickly, trying not to look.
>Noticing you averting your gaze from it, Anon notes,
>"That really does bother you, doesn't it."
>Taking a moment to reject a few answers that would have sounded insulting, you reply,
"If our positions were reversed, I might expect you to find such things hard to accept also."
>Anon sits thoughtfully, then grunts in an agreeable way.
>It was a strange new world to be sure, but you do successfully make it around the building without damaging yourself or your rider.
"I seem to be performing at twenty percent lower efficiency than my norm." you state.
>"It's probably somewhat due to the damage you've taken, and to a larger extent due to the home-brew biodiesel you're burning." Anon replies.
>You decide you hate biodiesel.
>Standing by the open door, Anon gets down, hustling indoors and quickly returning with a length of thin, nylon-looking rope.
>He checks your rein-loops, at either side of your muzzle, for function, the return springs operating normally.
>You have to suppress your natural tendency to turn your head as he presses them back.
>Then he ties one end to the left, tossing the rope over, and ties the other end, hooking it back over the saddle horn, then addresses his group of student mechanics.
>"I figure you guys probably want some reins. Who's next?"
>The next couple of hours are spent giving rides to the students.
>Most of them ride stiffly and seem rather shy to speak to a horse-machine, you notice, but you suppose that could only be natural having grown up without such items.
>You still wonder why it took them so long to begin repairing things like you, but humans, you'd decided long ago, were something that would forever remain a mystery.
>As day faded into twilight, Anon shut down the lab building's utilities and closed the door, then again approached you.
>"We're late tonight, but I want to present you to our elder. I'll ride you to the village."
"Alright." you reply, him getting aboard fairly spry-ly for an old man.
>Grabbing your reins, he says
>"Electric mode only. No lights. Lidar only. Follow the people."
>Nodding, you kill the diesel and fall in behind the student group as they pick their way through the ruins.
>The daylight quickly fails entirely, a slightly overcast starry sky showing above.
>It was actually difficult to tell how many blocks you traveled, some areas were blown down to nothing but gravel and you were moving up and down as well as forward, and there are a couple of jumps, but you finally arrive at a fairly well preserved area.
>You only recognize the huge bank building as you approach it's doors.
>Normally you'd have stopped outside and maybe grazed at a power outlet while your rider transacted his business indoors, but it seemed that rules had relaxed somewhat.
>There is some quiet knocking, the sound of moving metal, then one of the doors opens and the students file in.
>Flattening himself to your back, Anon urges you through the open door.
>As soon as everyone is in, they roll down and lock one of a number of really tough looking steel barriers behind the outer doors, making the building near unassailable.
>Inside, circles of desks are arranged around a large bonfire, many people sitting atop them.
>A rather crazed looking but cheerful old man is gesticulating and describing some tale of wonder to the crowd, until he slaps eyes on you.
>"Hey, Anon! Finally saved up enough for a new Free Spirit, did ya? What're the payments?" he calls.
>"The salesman knocked off a few grand for my ex wife!" Anon calls back. More quietly, to you, Anon whispers
>"You're going to want to introduce yourself to our leader, Gnome Imij and the rest of us."
>You'd have reddened had you been able to, as you're driven down a row between the desks and parked alongside the elder called Gnome.
"Pleased to meet you, Master Gnome. I'm Apple Loosa." you state, kicking back a fore-hoof and bowing, nearly unseating Anon.
>The audience, who'd been watching with some nervous energy, began to clap.
>"Likewise, I'm sure, Mr. Horsey." he replied happily, quipping
>"Hey Anon, how's come a stallion model? I always took you for the mare type. Yer not goin' funny on us now are ya?"
>"Oh, Honey, you know thith ith how I roll theeth dayth! And I'll thank you to use our chosen pronouns. Me'm 'Schklee' and zee is 'Schkler.'" Anon replies, chuckling as he gets down and you straighten back into a standing position.
>You were REALLY embarrassed now. Master Vailable had never even- Nobody had ever so much as commented on your programmed gender before, much less embarrassed you with it.
>"Now look what you done did. You shamed your horse!" The old man continues, noting your rotated-back ears.
>Anon slaps your withers forward of the saddle, saying
>"He can take it, I'm sure."
>You weren't so sure, but perked up a little.
>"Hey, Horse. These sprouts never seen nothin' like your ass before, c'mon and tell 'em about what it was like back then."
"Back then was yesterday, to me, Master Gnome. But I'll be happy to." you reply, to more cheering.
"I was produced in Michigan, mainly from US sourced components-"
>"No, no, tell them about life. What you did on a normal day. That kinda thing."
>You cycled your eye-iris's, trying to remember enough days passing to assemble a good account of an 'average' day.
"My late master, Notty Vailable, purchased me as daily transport. I was driven to where he worked, filling in data on forms in an office building. I'd stay in the parking garage below the building until he needed me, such as often at lunchtime."
>This was boring, you thought, but noted that the audience had gone totally quiet, the popping of the fire being the greatest source of noise.
"At lunch he would often emerge and take me out to a restaurant-"
>"What's a restaurant?" a girl interrupted.
>You explained, continuing through the daily routine, what an example weekend was like, going on trips out to the country to visit Notty's folks.
>Then Gnome asked you the big one.
>"And, can ya tell us- Just what happened on the last day you can remember?"
>Taking a moment to straighten out as much as you could recall, you continue your tale.
"The last day was a Sunday, a day Notty didn't have to work. I was on charge in a horse-port-"
>Once again, explanation was called for-
"When the city siren blew and warnings came over several radio bands-"
>more explanation ensues
"Realizing that my owner's safety was at stake, I ran up to his apartment door and began ringing the bell and knocking. He soon came running out with a few things, jumped on my back and I bolted for the nearest point of safety I could reach in the time remaining, that being a closer parking garage. Traffic was hellish, vehicles and people running filling the roads, but I managed to find some running room. Just as we ran down inside the garage, there was a white flash- And I suffered a system failure. My next memory was starting up by the hole your workers dug me out of."
>There are some murmurs, and an expectant sort of mood as if you should continue, but it really was the best you could recall.
You settle for asking them a question instead.
"Why have you waited until now to begin repairing us? Am I truly the last?" Gnome answers,
>"We're hopin' yer just the first! See, we're not really alone here. There is a roving menace. Feral humans we call The Nothin', on account they leave nothin' behind but smashed up trash. They travel in a pack, and are prone to attack any sign of working tech, say, electric lights, draw 'em like flies. Of course they got no understanding of what makes tech tick, so shortly after gaining any, it fails, they smash it up outta bein' pissed off, and they move on. Both them and us have access to a few weapons that we scrounge up, generally we're in better shape than them, there. But things're changing. We gotta get our asses mobile and back in the saddle. That means we gotta be ready to take on The Nothin' and whup their asses for good, then we can really get this place back ta a workin' order with electrics and you guys and manufacturin' new stuff. Ain't none of us gettin' any younger, and the sprouts gotta learn how shit works or we'll lose it all."
"It sounds like what you need is tanks. auto-turrets, and other military systems." you state, worry creeping in at the concept of The Nothing.
>Humans who would ride you into the ground then tear you apart?
>It was, generally, the fate of any machine, given time- But the thought of it happening in perhaps the space of a few days left you in shock.
>You'd be keeping an eye peeled for any other tribes from now on. Anon answers you,
>"They rarely appear during the day. It's at night when they strike. Mostly. And the military machines we've been able to find generally blow themselves up right after power-up, 'cuz we can't prove we're the good guys. It's their programming not to be "captured". And operated manually they're near useless against an invisible enemy at night in this setting. No, I'm afraid all we can do is farm on rooftops and wall into the stronger buildings at night, like this one, for now."
>For a few moments you consider asking Anon to weld a machine-gun onto you somewhere.
>Three laws or not, you did have dispensation to kill in order to protect your owner.
>It was part of the autopilot paradox, a debate that raged right up until the last.
>Some situations were going to turn out deadly regardless of your actions, so you had been given a number of sub-rules on how to save the greatest number of lives in various deadly scenarios- Yet nobody would buy a vehicle that would sacrifice them to save a stranger, thus, the sheer economics of the situation had weighted these built-in examples strongly in favor of saving the rider as top priority.
>At the time of your construction, robots going mad had resulted in some evolution to the original Three Laws of Robotics.
>The first law became, "Never Expose Your Manufacturer To Legal Liability".
>You were preloaded with innumerable example scenarios discovered and developed over time, and the proper reactions to them, to attempt to satisfy this requirement.
>The main law of your operating system had been rendered moot by the demise of the mother company, the continued radio hiss on their link channels paying testament to your newfound freedom.
>The second law, "Protect And Serve Humans", was further refined into Owner level responsibilities, and things you would do for strangers.
>Learning that said strangers intend to smash you to bits, you would thereafter be defunct and unable to observe the intent of the law, so that rule wasn't going to stop you from defending your owners.
>The third rule was "Self Protection".
>From edging away from an opening door to prevent a paint scrape, to begging your owner for an oil change, you were built to keep yourself safe and useful for your owner.
>Based on your in-built morality, you had only one clear path.
>Like it or not, you had a new family, that you would defend with force.
>"Hey. Horsey. You OK there Horsey?" comes Gnome's voice.
>You shake your head and return to the present.
"Sorry, I was thinking." you say uncertainly.
>"Hey Anon. You got yourself a philosopher horse." Gnome comments, to some chuckling.
"My name's Apple." you mention.
>"Sorry, I ain't got one on me, Horsey." Gnome says, as Anon turns aside and chortles a bit.
>You twirl your ears a bit in annoyance.
>The night continues on, the huge lobby of the bank building giving you the opportunity to teach some of the braver villagers how to ride.
>Being owned by a group wasn't totally out of your programming, there were, after all, fleet versions of your model and the concept was inbuilt.
>What you hadn't expected was that you'd grow to like most of them quite alot, especially Gnome's daughter, who found you absolutely fascinating and took repeated rides around the room between others.
>The fire was worrisome, particularly indoors and with entrances sealed, but apparently enough fresh air was available it never became an issue.
>The fact that the place was huge, with open architecture and made of marble, with many upper windows barred but broken, no doubt helped.
>Morning came, and with it, Anon and his team of newly trained mechanics led you back to where you'd been unearthed.
>You'd told them about the group of people and horses huddling in the dark as you'd entered the ramp, and they wanted more to work with.
>It turned out they weren't entirely without mechanical assistance, a somewhat functional backhoe was driven out of a concealing ruin and they set to work, cracking concrete and hauling chunks out.
>You notice that it has three mufflers welded on, one after another, and runs near silently.
>No doubt to avoid attracting the attention of The Nothing.
>"Good thing you had that one back leg sticking out, or we'd have never found you." Anon mentions.
>That must have been why it was so horribly twisted that they had to replace it.
>Time passes, progress being understandably slow, with the occasional injury which made you feel guilty as the initial cause of the project in the first place.
>The building above the ramp must have fallen away from the entrance to it, collapsing to the rear and pancaking the first lower level.
>As the daylight begins to fail, once again the work site is cleared and you are ridden back home to the bank.
>As you near the stairs, a fast-moving red-headed girl trots down the stairs.
>It's Dafalt Imij, Gnome's daughter.
>"Apple! You made it back OK!" Anon calls down,
>"Yes I did, thanks for asking!" as he dismounts.
>"Oh, sorry Anon!" she chuckles, as you bob your head affirmatively to her greeting.
>"Can I take him out for a minute before lock-down?" she asks.
>"Only if it's OK with your dad."
>"He said I need to learn to ride so I can learn to lead!" she replies happily, putting ragged shoe into stirrup and launching aboard and taking up your reins.
>She heels your sides with a slight thump, the sensation registering clearly on your sensors, so you shift into a walk, letting her drive but picking the safest path.
>Once out of Anon's earshot you say,
"Learn to ride to learn to lead?"
>The girl laughs.
>"Well I hadda say SOMETHING didn't I? I think Anon bought it."
>You let her take you down the road for roughly another block before your lidar senses a human-esque face for a moment, peering from a hole a ways ahead.
"Someone ahead, watching us." you announce, at low volume.
>"Home! Fast!" she hisses, so you swivel as fast as she can handle, then bolt back to the bank.
>"Apple saw a stranger!" she announces as soon as you're within range, people sitting on the concrete steps of the place standing and running inside.
>They roll the barriers down right after the two of you are in.
>"Where'd ya see tha bugger?" Gnome demands, walking with a bit of a limp up to you.
"Two blocks north. Only saw the upper half of the head, staring up from a hole."
>"Dammit! When I say block the sewers, I want'em BLOCKED!" he shouts, as the villagers fade back a bit from his shout.
>"Goddam Nothing, practically on our doorstep! Tomorrow I want a team to find that hole and drop a slab on it!"
>He turns back to you, with a squinty look. 'uhoh.' you think.
>"And you. What're you doing takin' my daughter out of sight so close to sunset? You 'tarded?!"
>Unsure what to say, you simply slowly bow, allowing Dafalt to shift until you're low enough for her to simply step off.
>"I wanted a ride, Dad. Cut him some slack, I told him to."
>"Yer lucky I don't whup yer ass, girl. You could'a been barbecue!" he growls, then walks back to his place by the central fire.
>You generate a small sigh of relief sound.
>"You said it." Dafalt replies, as you straighten back into a stand.
>She stares at your face in the dim light.
>"I like your eyes." she finishes, before walking after him.
>You decide you're keeping the green one.
>The rest of the night isn't as easy going, with plans being made to patrol the local area and harden defenses.
>The next day, your team sets out to the usual spot, though with somewhat reduced numbers.
>Gnome wanted some of Anon's people to help cap up sewer-holes and gaps around the bank.
>A couple of your team are carrying nasty-looking guns, too.
>Your sighting of a probable member of The Nothing had put the entire village on full alert, obviously.
>Even with reduced numbers, however, progress continued more or less apace, breaking and removing concrete in the direction you had been facing in your prior grave.
>This went on for a couple more days, every night upon your return being greeted home by Defalt, who settled for riding around inside the bank building at night.
>Finally, a literal breakthrough occurred when a lifted slab revealed a chamber.
>Anon and other men crawled inside, soon emerging with some excitement.
>Apparently they'd struck pay-dirt, the ceiling hadn't collapsed entirely and there were a few dozen more-or-less intact mecha-horses standing within- Along with, apparently, the remains of a human camp, apparently sans human remains.
>You hope that whoever they were, that they eventually managed to escape. You're ridden back to the lab building, and a hitch is slotted under your ass and you're hooked to the flatbed wagon.
>Another couple of days is spent transporting dead mecha-horses to the lab building, where Anon's students begin enthusiastically taking them apart and tinkering.
>You're somewhat disheartened that none of them spring to life the way you did, and the variety of models and years will probably become a problem for some of the older, rarer ones.
>The lab building looks like a horse dealership, with so many motionless horses standing in rows like statues, other than a pile of more heavily damaged ones far to the rear.
>The lower levels of the parking garage, while no doubt also filled with defunct horse-mechs, had become a sort of indoor lake, which had it filled any further would have destroyed these as well- And no doubt yourself.
>Even so, you were sure some of these probably had moisture damage atop everything else that had gone wrong.
>Nearly every day, Dafalt asks to come with your team, but Gnome absolutely forbids it.
>"Too far away. Too dangerous." are the reasons given.
>You can't fault him for being protective, of course, but you do miss her while "at work".
>She's one of the few that regards you as more than a means to an end, but as more of a companion- Which was absolutely part of your makeup.
>Anon was a good friend, but it was obvious that he never forgot that you were a manufactured object, whereas dafalt, while aware that you were a machine, didn't see a distinction between that and any other thinking, talking being.
>Your first owner, Notty, had taken you for granted, and aside from sending you out for a gallon of milk and some eggs now and again, hadn't considered you as exactly alive.
>It was understandable, after all, you were basically a big mess of pre-programmed scenarios and responses- But those were roughly analogous to the instincts that biological life came pre-loaded with as well.
>Yours were just a bit more specific, such as barking out factory warnings by rote in certain circumstances.
>Contemplation of your place in society was something you, and you suspected your similar model cousins, seemed to be prone to.
>Returning to the present, you notice a student stretching a pair of jumper cables into one of the dead horses' chest.
>There is a brief shower of sparks, and it's eyes dilate. "I. I. I. I. I." it continually repeats, as you see it appear on your radio transponder.
>Then it shuts down, the radio beacon vanishing as it's powered back down.
>That kind of response was actually livelier than most of them, and you had the bad suspicion that their minds hadn't survived the electrical surge that had taken you down as well.
>There was a way to find out, however.
>You attract a couple of glances as you begin to move, pacing over to where Anon has a battery pack torn apart on a work bench, replacing some bad cells.
>It was a dangerous business and you waited until he was at a safe point before asking,
"Do you mind if I go nose-to-nose with one of the dead ones?"
>Turning to you, Anon looks troubled.
>"What if whatever's wrong with them, happens to you?"
>You ear-swivel for a moment, then
"I doubt it, whatever happened to them probably wasn't targeted. I want to see what's left of their mind."
>"Just be careful, we can't afford to lose our only working horse." he replies, returning to the work on the bench.
>Walking up to the student working on the horse you'd been watching, you say
"I want to go into a comm-link with this one. Can you power it back up?"
>"Sure." is the reply.
"Don't power it down without warning me first, if you can." you say.
>It probably wouldn't harm you, but it would be very disconcerting if it happened.
>Positioning yourself directly nose to nose, so that the Lidar units on your chins were point-blank, you wait as the student powers up the other horse.
>In this instance, you had the advantage as it powered up, and you repeatedly send a setup trap signal.
>After a moment the other horse takes it, and is functional enough to go into setup mode.
>This results in you having access to it's diagnostics.
>It was about as dead as you had been, only worse- It's mind was too fragmented to form a coherent consciousness.
>You test a few empty areas of it's mind, and while there is damage, it appears there is enough to work with that you can establish a live instance of your own consciousness within it if you copy your mental image over.
>What is more, there is enough of its original mind left that it would still largely have it's original personality if you limit the replacement to small specific routines.
>In fact it has an intact copy of a routine you knew you were missing-
>You download it and install.
>Though you feel no different, you should be able to appreciate music and art more deeply now.
>Having seen enough, you disengage, just in time to hear the student announcing
>"I have to shut it down, it's getting hot!"
"Go ahead." you say, and he does.
>You report your findings to the students and Anon, explaining that you can repair the damage with copied bits of your own mind, provided that they don't mind the results being- A little unstable, no pun intended.
>Anon immediately gives you the go-ahead.
>The drawback to it is, it will take at least a day per horse, and they'll need to be able to run nonstop at least that long.
>You, fortunately, have a passively cooled brain-box, but many of these have liquid cooled brains, which systems had failed long ago and needed a flush and refill, so for now you started on a relatively newer seeming specimen with similar passive cooling to yours, a red 'stang.
>On power-up, you transmit the setup trap code.
>It takes a couple of power-cycles before it works.
>This one is pretty far gone, no chance of restoring any of it's personality- You're saddened, even if it ends up being a perfect copy of you, you'd have much preferred to save the original.
>Even what it did have was only the most tenuous link to life- Barely the ability to accept copied code.
>You have to manually scan for good space, and lay down replacement startup, comm and diagnostics code in over the damaged code it was now running- It was like painting a picture while standing on the canvas, you had to keep moving code around to stay clear of your own work.
>Then another restart, to let your inserted code do it's thing, testing out the processing and memory space, marking bad and good, so that when you next linked with it you'd be able to establish a copy into a tested good environment.
>It was charged enough for a few days run, and the routine would only need a few hours, so you again report the results.
>Anon and the students are surprisingly happy with the development, despite the loss of the horse's own personality.
>On the one hoof, it was disturbing that they cared so little for it.
>On another, perhaps it was a compliment that they wanted another like you.
>You choose to believe the latter, it was less troubling.
>Finally, it's time to shut down and close up shop, which is done more furtively ever since the Nothing sighting.
>Anon didn't even like running the engine in the... Generator... in case it's nearly silent purr attracted unwanted attention, but with the level of industry which had been taking place inside it had been unavoidable.
>Even so, the Nothing had apparently not noticed the activity here.
>Finally, the only thing left running being the horse you had left on diagnostic mode under it's own battery power, the place was locked up and your team set off for home base.
>As you draw near, you can make out the sounds of bedlam ahead.
"Anon, there is a large disturbance going on at the bank." you inform him in a low murmur, and get kicked into a gallop, the rest of his students left behind but running also.
>You start your engine as at this point the sound is lower than that of the battle, and race ahead.
>Soon you arrive to a scene of total war, men battling, some dead bodies, some injured, some dying- It shook you to your core, the level of violence.
>Gunfire rattled sporadically, but mainly they were fighting with swords, spears and thrown projectiles.
>Anon works the reins, pulling you into a rearing pose, and wields you as a weapon.
>You're satisfied to comply, stoving in enemy skulls with your fore-hooves, jumping up and kicking enemies yards away behind yourself with sickening cracking sounds.
>Occasionally firing one into a crowd of others is especially effective.
>Spears and weapon-strikes bounce off leaving some dents and scrapes, as you spin and shift to take the incoming blows instead of Anon.
>Your arrival quickly turns the tide, and as the rest of the student mechanics arrive, the Nothing is definitely put at a disadvantage.
>Though it seems forever, the attack leaves off soon enough, the enemy dissipating away in disarray, as Gnome and the other villagers perform triage and count their losses.
>You note that the enemy soldiers are granted no mercy, but feel in no mood to speak up on their behalf.
>Gnome becomes increasingly more frantic, you can see, by how he moves around the area.
>Then you manage to overhear what he's asking and you suffer a chill.
>"Dafalt! Has anyone seen Dafalt!" he asks another group.
"Anon! You must let me be captured!" you tell your grim rider.
>"What?! Fuck no, I'm not giving you to those savages!" he argues.
"But I can save her! Gnome said they don't understand tech! You remember the Trojan Horse, right?"
>He pauses thoughtfully, as it becomes ever more clear that the enemy has made off with Gnome's daughter.
>"I remember when they got his wife. He'll freak if he loses his daughter to them too, and I can't live with it either." Anon says coldly.
"So? Quick, before they're outta range!" You plead.
>"OK. But how-"
"I'll figure that out when I have a real plan! Once they have me, go wait at the shop by that red horse running diagnostics, I should be able to radio it once I'm in."
>"You've got bigger nuts than your bolts, you know that, right?"
"Stallion model. They didn't mold 'em on, but they're there."
>Anon shakes the reins and you wheel off after one of the larger groups of savages.
>After a bit of a gallop and some careful balancing across some beams over a partly collapsed bridge, you catch up with some of them.
>A shot rings out and Anon, justifiably, jumps off with a shout and runs away.
>You aren't sure how much of it is acting, but from the acoustics the shot missed him widely.
>Rather than pursue him, of course, you are surrounded.
>They at first stay well back, your legs being red from the knees down giving them pause.
>You stand like a statue, engine purring, just idling.
>There is some discussion in their heavily accented sub-language, which you endeavor to decode.
>Finally one of the braver steps within range.
>You continue to play docile, as he bounces against your side, and runs away.
>He returns, then pulls one of your reins.
>You turn your head with an over-stated mechanical movement, then relax again as it's released.
>There is some excited hooting, the group becoming quite animated, as he leaps fully aboard.
>He shakes your reins a bit, then bounces up and down in the saddle shouting something encouraging.
>You don't want to give away that you understand language, but the bouncing counts, so you begin pacing forward stupidly, right at some jagged re-bar, making it clear that you're too stupid to avoid it.
>A bit of more-frantic bouncing, then a rein pull bring you away from another paint-scratch.
>Soon the group moves out, jabbering excitedly.
>You can make out "War Horse" in the conversation, which brings a bit of satisfaction.
>Soon you're ridden down into an old subway station, taking the stairs with an exaggerated motion you hoped resembled a wind-up toy.
>It felt good to shake the bastard in your saddle's liver half out doing so, as well.
>At the bottom, you note some distant fire-light which turned out to be a torch.
>They were spaced along quite widely but the Nothing seemed to have excellent low-light vision.
>After following a couple of forks in the tunnels, your rider jumps down and tries pulling you by the reins.
>You comply with a passive, stupid docility, being pulled through some access doors, you're led into a large open area- It must have been a major subway station, at one time.
>There are a dishearteningly large number of The Nothing gathered, many of whom retreat in panic at the sight of you.
>Ignoring it pointedly, you are led up to a war-chief of some sort.
>He's decked out in a dirty military uniform, the entire chest of which is decorated in seemingly every honor the nation's military ever gave.
>A few ribbons even dangled from the hat.
>Considering his young age, and how confidently he babbles, he's obviously unaware of what a real service-member would have thought.
>You avoid rolling your eyes, and keep your disgust to yourself.
>From the back and forth, you piece together how the party you arrived with defeated a large, pursuing war-party and captured you from your criminal rider, whom they'd killed horribly, and tamed you to their command.
>It's a heroic tale, told with much gesturing, and the war-chief is pleased, as is the crowd, a tremendous volume of cheering and clapping ensuing.
>He gives a short speech, the gist of which seems to be that his brilliant leadership has allowed them to re-capture a piece of their stolen magic, you, which apparently your village had wrongfully taken from them.
>Apparently you were to be used in the next assault to assure final victory over and the utter eradication of your tribe.
>He then barks that you're to be stored in the Weapons Tunnel.
>As you're led away, the group leading you stops to watch as a duct-taped prisoner attached to a pole is presented next.
>The chief cackles, cracking his knuckles, walking around the men holding her upright.
>Her eyes, crazy with fear, catch sight of you and she struggles a bit in her bindings.
>You're a little thankful that her mouth is taped, or she might have blown your cover.
>She must have put up a fight, she was red from head to toe- With the blood of others, you hope.
>Wanting to save her then and there, but unable to due to the sheer number of The Nothing, is almost painful as the second rule tries to assert itself in your reasoning.
>But the hard fact was, if you deviated in any way from the Stupid Machine act, you'd get the both of you destroyed then and there.
>You shuffle along, fighting a slew of internal conflict errors, until you're led into a chamber with a domed ceiling.
>It must have been very, very old, the bricks forming the domed ceiling being very coarse and the floor concrete uneven.
>Around you are smashed-up machines, some military, parts of guns, stacks of improvised spears and swords...
>Those who'd led you there left, taking the torch on the wall with them. You try your radio.
>It was boring and distasteful having to sit by a seemingly dead mecha-horse in the creepy darkness of the workshop at night, but it was all you could do.
>The men you brought with you probably thought you'd gone nuts, sitting here when Dafalt was in danger.
>Suddenly, the horse begins sounding the Emergency Broadcast tone, playing the first bars of the old national anthem, then in a canned-sounding voice, announces:
>"We now bring you an emergency message from the white-house. I repeat, we now bring you an emergency message from the white-house." then, in Apple's voice,
>"Anon? I found her! We're in some huge underground train station, about a mile north of the bank! There's Nothing everywhere, I can't make a move for now, I'll see what I can do once they're settled down. I have a ghost of a plan, but we're going to need backup once we emerge as we'll probably be pursued. To reply back just tell the horse that it's a 911 emergency, it should have enough brains to transmit whatever you tell it. Keep someone near it, I'll provide updates."
>"This has been a message from the white-house. Thank you for your cooperation."
>As the horse plays another snippet of the anthem, you begin to worry a bit at just how smart those old machines actually can be.
>That bit was downright clever, and of course he'd been subjected to that same emergency signal on the day...
>But that wasn't the point.
"Emergency. Murder. 911. Transmit, "Message received. We'll have men at all known tunnel openings north of bank. Keep us posted. Send message."
>"Emergency. Message sent." the horse said, in a monotone, then,
>"Message Receive confirmed.".
"Goddamn I wish you were ride-able right now." you inform it, getting
>"Unknown error. Service required." in response.
"You. Stay and listen to the horse. You, help him, run if he gets a message. You with the gun? Come with me!" you say, pointing them out in turn, then unbar the people-door and slip outside, running back toward the bank building.
>Be Dafalt. Under assault by the war chief.
"You fucker! Get off me! No fucking way you stinking piece of-" and the tape is once again smacked over your mouth with enough force that you see stars.
>Then the brute trying to force himself on you, convulses with a loud smack sound, you're hit with a warm spray, and he simply goes limp and slides off.
>In the torchlight, you see a huge pair of mismatched glassy eyes staring down into yours, and a slightly rusty speaker-grill at the end of a long "nose".
>Working your lips, the used tape pulls free and falls away again.
"Apple?!" you breathe, wriggling against your bonds.
>"I come to rescue the maiden fair-ly redheaded." he responds, at very low volume.
"What about the guards?" you whisper.
>"They went Splat Splat Ow Ow."
"Well untie me somehow so I can hug your big metal butt!" you say, rolling over.
>In probably one of the least dignified rescues ever, you're hauled rather painfully around the room as the silly horse tries tearing at the tape with his fore-hoof.
>You're about to tell him to give up, when you manage to rip your hands apart- Apparently he'd succeeded.
"I'll do my own feet, if you don't mind." you whisper, going to work at your tape-wrapped feet.
>It was amazing the Nothing had found any of this stuff, it was valuable these days.
>Finally free, you hug the horse around his warm, segmented steel neck.
>"I had to. Robot rules and stuff." he says, trying to play bashful.
"Let's get out of this shithole." you whisper into his ear, which rotates back.
>"We can't yet. I need your help with a risky project first." he says.
"I love those!"
>"Good! Hop on." You do so, ducking flat to get through the door.
>Moving as quickly as he can without making much noise, your horse takes you down several tunnels, one quite long and eventually quite wet.
>Apple eventually lights his chest-lamps- You love his lights- So that you can see more of where he's going.
>You note some kind of tread-tracks and hoof-tracks already in the mud, leading up to a derelict military robot.
>It's obvious it's been abused, it's dented, looking like it had been severely beaten with iron pipes or something.
>It's up against a nasty-looking, bulged metal door with a spin-lock on it, around which, tiny jets of water are spraying.
>"We need to jump-start this machine off my power system." Apple explains, then his ass pops up with a "thonk".
>A light inside shows a roll of thick wire.
>"I think the Nothing knew it was a dangerous weapon, and tried to beat it until it obeyed them." Apple continues, brightening the light as you bring the roll of wire around.
>"Of course what it really needs, is a jolt of power."
"Oh, and then it will kill the Nothing for us?" you ask.
>"No, but if Anon is right about military machines, it will attempt to find it's superiors for orders. Failing that, well- That's part of the plan. Do you see that broken-open plate on it's chest?"
>"Connect one end of the wire to the lug with the red lead."
>Fortunately, the wire was if anything stripped down further than necessary, and you wrap the wire around the lug and back onto itself fairly securely.
>"Now, hold the wire against the left- My left- terminal in my charge-port. I will complete the circuit with a leg. Beware sparks. Hold absolutely still, keeping the circuit live for as long as possible. I'll tell you when it's safe to stop." Apple says, opening what you thought of as his mouth.
>The three slightly corroded rods inside were rather close together, but you manage to eek the cable in alongside the one on his left against the side of his socket.
>"That looks good. Now hold still and let me chat it out with the robot."
>He extends a leg, touching it to the robot's tread.
>There's a brief shower of sparks at all three connections, and you feel Apple wobble a bit, his engine starting and racing to try and balance the load.
>The cable begins to get hot, a few sparks flying any time you move the slightest bit.
>Just as you're becoming uncomfortable from the heat, the robot's head suddenly lifts.
>A scanning red laser sweeps over both of you.
>"Mark six combat unit, awaiting orders. The rabbit runs down hole number seven thirty six." it announces.
>"Orders will be carried on this frequency." Apple replies.
>"Frequency acknowledge. Awaiting what the rabbit finds in hole seven thirty six on that frequency."
>"OK, Dafalt, pull the wire and hop on." he says, turning around once you've removed the wire.
>Looping the insulated portion of it over one of the robot's outstretched claws so that the bare end doesn't contact water, you leap aboard Apple, who extinguishes his lights and hurries back down the tunnel.
>You peer back at the military machine's glowing red eyes a few times until it's lost in the distance.
>Apple can hear something you can't, and announces,
>"Stay flat on my back! If you get hit you GOTTA stay on! We're about to ride through hell itself, they found the dead ones!"
"OK, I'll try!" you reply, leaning flat to the saddle and gripping tightly.
>Apple tries to be quiet, until he's spotted by some Nothing, who call out to the others.
>He barrels past them, into the main hall, taking some pre-plotted course at a gallop.
>You hang on for dear life, trying to anticipate his turns and lean with him as he banks around pillars and jumps over tracks.
>There's a sudden, serious lurch, and his pace becomes uneven.
"What's wrong?!" you yell, getting
>"Lost a hoof! Wedged in a track! Running on 3 and a hock-joint now! Try to balance!"
>"Hey military robot!" he shouts, probably for your benefit,
>"I found what's in hole seven thirty six! A big fat TURD! Yes! I repeat, a TURD! I now command you to do my evil bidding!"
>Despite dodging thrown rocks and nearly being torn off in a tight turn, you chuckle to yourself as a distant explosion shakes bits of rock down from the ceiling, a horrendous roar following, then you're gripping madly to stay on as Apple jack-hammers up a long set of stairs.
>A shot rings out, and his pace falters.
>"Hit! I'm hit!" Apple calls,
>"Be prepared to bail, it got my battery!" he continues, his pace becoming wildly uneven up the last few stairs, carrying you past a line of your own villagers in the darkness before collapsing.
>"Stand... Clear..." his warbling voice calls, smoke jetting around his body-joints as you're pulled away by a few men.
>You're practically dragged back home as a war erupts around the stairs from the Nothing trying to escape the flood.
>"My horrrrse!" Dafalt wails again.
"Quit yer yammerin', Woman. It was a big metal toy and I'm sick'a hearin' about it."
>"He saved me, Dad!" Of course it was true, even your tired old heart missed the metal monstrosity.
>It had been heroic beyond belief, and saved your daughter from the same threat that had taken your wife from you.
>But you couldn't let your daughter tear her heart out over a wrecked machine.
"It was metal, plastic and wires, Dafalt. It prob'ly hadda save you or burn out, or somethin'. They got rules, machines does."
>She went into another burst of tears.
>One of your generals comes up to you.
>"Sir, we've taken out all of the bastards we could find. Got most of 'em trying to escape the flood."
"Wish I knew how that danged robot flooded those fuckers. I gotta say, that was above the call 'o duty."
>"Your daughter probably saw the whole thing, if you ask her."
"Nah. Any time I so much as try'n talk to her she busts down wailin' about the damn horse again."
>"Hm. Well, the good news is, I'd say there's no Nothing left alive in the city, and if there is, it's doin' it's hell-bent best to get OUT of the city."
"Mm. That's a fuckin' relief anyhow."
"So. Any explody feelings? Anything getting hot? Feeling like having a smoke?" you ask.
>"Nope. Electrical system still nominal." Apple replies.
"Thank God. Dafalt's got the entire village near suicidal over losing you. Gnome's about at the end of his rope from it."
>"I gotta go see her soon."
"I know. Hey, like the new legs paint?"
>Apple holds out a foreleg, examining the red spray-paint flame-job extending from hoof to just past the knee, fading to his normal black.
>"It looks good on me, thanks."
"I thought so too. Check your undercarriage."
Apple twists his head around, peering, then freezes for a moment, staring at the fairly realistic sheath and balls you'd wrought out of some steel and welded under the front of his hitch, right where it should go, painted gloss black to match.
>"OK, now I'm just embarrassed." the horse says, straightening and slightly crossing his hind legs.
"Dude. You earned 'em. Wear them with pride! Besides, I had a bit of spare time while the students were scraping the soot out of your guts. And that new hind hoof? That's your old one! It was the only good thing left on that bad leg we swapped off you originally."
>"Wow. I'm almost factory new again!" Apple replies.
>You'd had enough exposure to him to know the sound of sarcasm.
"Buck up, Apple. Show those dents off, you're a hero! Besides, chicks love scars!"
>The horse makes a chuckling sound, nodding.
"OK guys, let's wrap this up and ride back to the village."
>Anon and his mechanics begin shutting off the lights and closing the shop down for the night.
>Then a couple of them ride up to you, as Anon hops in your saddle, one on Macintosh, the red one who was used as a radio, whose mind was now a direct copy of you, and the other on Caramel- A years-older Free Spirit, sporting that awful metal-flake tan with black trim many of the Spirit line were cursed with.
>You owed him the ability to really detest that awful "music" the Nothing guards had been performing just before you eliminated them.
>Odd that it was such a pleasant memory doing so.
>Many other horses needed work, but for now, three was major headway.
>You were halfway worried that Dafalt would fall in love with the sportier, showier Macintosh- Or be enthralled by Caramel, his precise gait and smooth DJ accent being so much richer than yours.
>The three of you, lights blazing, draw near to the village.
>Despite Dafalt's funk, alot of the rest of the villagers were partying almost nonstop since the victory.
>Several crazily tilted street-lights were ablaze, along with many lights in the bank and building opposite.
>After a hero's greeting as you're ridden into the crowd, you leave them to fawn over the other two new horses, Anon staying behind to make introductions.
>Heading into the bank, you look around, before spotting a figure racing toward you- And you're being held tightly around the neck, a crying Dafalt stuck on you like a limpet.
"Would you like to go for a ride?" you ask.