0100 — Makuhero City
It rent the night, tearing through the starry skies on the wings of the night wind, metallic, wailing, dying—
An unnatural silence fell over Makuhero City, an anxious silence, as though the buildings themselves were waiting for something.
* * *
0108 — Mission Control, Hero Factory
“We don’t know what caused the scream,” Nathaniel Zib said to the line of waiting Heroes, “but we do know where it originated.”
With his pointer, he indicated a red dot on the holographic overhead map of Makuhero City behind him. The dot within was just three, maybe four blocks away. Stormer ran through his memories but could recall no information about the location. He glanced to his right — Jimi Stringer’s left eyebrow was raised — and to his left — Duncan Bulk had buried his right fist into his left palm, nodding like he was already imagining blasting enemies to rubble.
The blue glow from the hologram cast odd shadows over Zib’s face; he seemed worried, if such a word could be applied to a robot. He was short, only two-thirds of Stormer’s height, but he was Hero Factory’s mission control supervisor; Heroes, even those upgraded to 2.0 like Stormer, Bulk, and Stringer, still followed his orders.
Most of the time. Under the right conditions.
“Be careful, Heroes,” he continued; “we don’t know what’s out there, and for it to have caused a scream like that means it could be bad news. Dismissed.”
Bulk was already halfway to the lifts by the time Stringer and Stormer turned around. “I don’t like this,” remarked Stringer, ignoring Bulk’s enthusiasm. “Robots don’t scream.”
Stormer rolled his eyes. “What about the time when we were training, and you—”
“Shut up. You know what I mean.”
Stormer didn’t, really. But it didn’t matter. The lift had come up, and Bulk was inside, finger poised over the Door Close button in a clear threat for Stormer and Stringer to hurry. They complied, jogging the last few meters and sliding to a stop against the rear wall before the doors slid shut behind them.
* * *
0115 — Alpha Avenue, Makuhero City
As it turned out, there was nothing for Bulk to punch. There were also no shadowy villains for Stormer and Stringer to chase, no damage for the Robotic Law Enforcement, RLE, to investigate — in short, nothing to indicate this house was a crime scene.
Except for the single, lonely robot lying in the middle of the darkened apartment bedroom, limbs splayed at odd angles. His eyes were dark and blank: He had shut down. The lights of advertisements outside shone through the window, casting a hazy shadow of light over the body and partially illuminating the bed against the back wall, a little to the left of the window.
Bulk flicked on the lights; the harsh, artificial yellow glow revealed a datacase three shelves high and a desk on the exact opposite side of the room from the bed.
The RLE cops were elsewhere in the apartment; before the Heroes had arrived, the apartment had been sealed off, its residents calmed, and the crime scene taped off. But Makuhero city’s RLE only served as security. Hero Factory produced the Heroes.
The silence seemed somehow overwhelming. Stormer took a long, quick step into the room, swinging his blaster around in reflex — the RLE would have cleared the room already, of course, but there was no sense in interrupting routine.
“Creepy, huh?” Stringer had stepped up beside Stormer as the latter kneeled by the cold, metallic body. Not the tiniest whirr emanated from its innards. “Like nothing happened.”
It was odd, seeing a deactivated robot up close. Stormer was a veteran Hero, but all the same he hadn’t had to deal with... with the dead before.
“Creepy, indeed,” he remarked, lifting up the robot’s head to look behind it. “No visible damage; there isn’t a single scratch to suggest he was attacked.”
“That doesn’t mean he wasn’t,” Bulk pointed out.
“No,” Stormer agreed, setting down the head and flipping over the body. “It doesn’t.”
But deep in his mind, Stormer couldn’t help but feel something was wrong with that idea. No damage at all? — not even collateral in nature?
Abruptly, the white-armored Hero stood. “C’mon — we need to get this body back to HF for a full autopsy.” He turned on his helmet radio. “Zib -- all clear, but one’s dead. Cause: unknown. Transportation needed.”
“Copy, Stormer. A hover-stretcher is on its way. You’re dismissed.”
* * *
0800 — Training Pod, Hero Factory
Furno’s eyes glowed with confusion as he sidestepped a pair of virtual lasers, harsh against the dark backdrop of night. Using only his peripheral vision, he coolly blasted the simulated drones into oblivion.
“I don’t get it. How can you destroy a robot without damage?” Furno sent off another two blasts before ducking behind a boulder. He and Stormer were in a rocky valley modeled after the numerous ones crisscrossing Krion 8’s surface — it was night because Stormer felt they both needed more in-darkness training, though Furno had argued that point. Perhaps his fireball launcher had something to do with it.
Stormer shook his head in a curt reply, breaking from cover. Furno was part of Alpha 1, true, but that didn’t mean his lessons were over. “Think it though, Furno,” he called over the sound of more blasts: Repeating guns had arrived. He slid behind Furno’s cover, right foot first, firing blindly toward the enemies; a satisfactory boom met his audio receptors, and the rapid firing abruptly ceased as if the gun had been plugged shut. “Remember the nanobots?”
If any point of Stormer’s career was a low, it was when Meltdown infected his systems with nanobots and nearly succeeded in turning him against his team. It hadn’t depressed him, but it had brought him back to earth; he had suddenly found the robotic side of him irreplaceable, impossible to put out of mind.
“We’re robots, Furno,” explained Stormer with the patience only a veteran Hero could have.
Furno shrugged. “So?”
“So, does that make a difference? I mean, organic creatures must have experienced similar difficulties.” He caught Stormer’s pointed glance; he still remembered the veteran Hero’s dislike of speculation, for sure. “Er, I mean, if organic creatures existed, of course. Fossil evidence hasn’t yet proven—”
Stormer stood up, sighted along his blaster, and pulled the trigger in just two seconds before dropping behind the boulder.
—tatta-tatta — BOOM.
Another target struck. Stormer was on a roll today.
“Time,” said a sudden robotic voice in Stormer’s mind, and the sheer rock walls on either side of the Heroes, the dirt underfoot, and the remaining enemies faded away like a dream; in their place was a circular room, both its walls and lights pale white.
He blinked. He’d forgotten he had timed the simulation.
“So the autopsy’s done?”
“Probably,” replied Stormer. “Most likely.” He paused, then corrected himself: “Hopefully.”
* * *
0805 -- Autopsy Room, Hero Factory
Hopefully, apparently, was not a strong enough wish.
“No, Stormer,” said ZD840, the lead autopsy specialist. His metal plating was a shiny white, like he had just come off the assembly line yesterday; his four arms waved about as he spoke. “We’re still crosschecking the robot’s innards against available blueprints. At the moment, I highly doubt we’ll find any damage.”
Behind him, a large window, three meters long by two meters high, afforded a glimpse into the autopsy room. It was even whiter and more brightly lit than the race of Hero Factory; in its center lay a long medical table, and atop that table lay the dead robot. Its torso paneling had been opened all the way, and another ZD model was using its four arms to examine and scan various machinery while the other two stood by; their eyes were locked on the wall, but Stormer knew they were actually looking at their HUDs.
“Not even a cog or screw out-of-place?” Furno asked, incredulous.
Zed looked cross. “I said,” he began, his tone that of a teacher annoyed with an ignorant student, “we’re still crosschecking the robot’s--”
Furno’s eyes lit up at the demeaning tone, and Stormer was quick to step in. “Er, Zed. Cut Furno a break -- he’s still new.” Before Furno could interject Stormer placed a hand on his chest and added, “How long will it take?”
“Understand I can only give a vague approximation,” said Zed, “but I would guess at least another five hours, to allow time for double-checking the parts and testing various mechanisms.”
The white gleams upon his armor suddenly seemed harsh.
* * *
1155 -- Makuhero City
The white buildings glowed under the sunlight. Their design had been purposeful: Light was linked to positive ideas in the subconscious mind, and so a bright city ought to also generate positive thoughts.
What the designers failed to take into account was that such a peaceful city could be shattered so easily by a single scream.
And shattered it was.
The broken shards of silence fell; heads looked up from the roads, out from windows, everywhere across Makuhero City. The scream continued, never changing pitch even for a second, until just as abruptly as it had begun, it cut off.
On the surface, it was a sign of violence and terror. But beneath that was something more: a message. It was a harbinger, but for what, no one could know.
* * *
1210 -- Delta Drive, Makuhero City
“Bulk and Stringer are on their way. I’ve just finished briefing them.” Zib’s voice was somewhat fuzzy over the radio. Stormer had always found that funny; how could transmissions have the same audio quality whether he was in Makuhero City or Mekron City, a good few light-years away. “Continue your investigations as normal. Zib out.”
The comm clicked off, and Stormer closed his eyes in the robotic equivalent of a sigh. Thus far, the attacks, or deaths, or whatever didn’t make sense. How could a robot die without a single trace of damage?
“So we go in?” asked Furno, stepping forward.
Stormer nodded grimly. “That, and hope we get more evidence this time.”
Down the street, a Robotic Law Enforcement hover-car sat in the middle of the road, its lights flashing a warning. RLE personnel surrounded the entry to the fourth building on the left; they had already stretched police tape across the doorway. Spotting Stormer and Furno, they stepped away, clearing a path for the two Heroes. They ducked under the yellow tape and into an unlit entry hall.
They took the lift to the third floor -- RLE personnel had already discovered the dead robot -- so all that was left was for the Heroes to take control and perhaps take the body back to their headquarters. It was a well-known fact that Hero Factory had the best robotic engineers in the city, probably in the entire galaxy.
“Here,” said Furno suddenly, pointing to the only room with its door open. All the others were locked -- the robots who lived here, Stormer had been told, had been evacuated from the premises. What did they think was happening?
The Heroes glanced at each other and entered.
Though the lights were off, the window -- the completely intact window, Stormer noted with a frown -- was uncovered, letting sunlight stream into the room. It also fully illuminated the prone metal body sprawled across the floor.
Stormer knelt by the body while Furno glanced at the window, feeling along the frame for any signs of damage, anything to show that the Heroes had something to fight. But from the look on the younger, red-armored Hero’s face, there was nothing.
Carefully, Stormer lifted the shut down robot’s head and checked the back paneling. No evidence of tampering, he noted, and rolled the robot over. Still, there was nothing evident. For a moment he wanted to examine the robot himself, but fought against the urge; if he did, the ZD-series autopsy robots would have his head. And if he cursed -- this was a harder urge to resist -- Furno wouldn’t take it well. Neither would Zib, when he found out.
Instead, he dutifully reported to Zib, “All clear... but another’s dead. Cause: still unknown. Transportation needed.”
He waited for the other’s reaction. It didn’t come. Presumably Zib was having a hover-stretcher repaired; that, or he had turned off his radio so Stormer wouldn’t hear his curses.
Against his better instincts, Stormer muttered a few of his own.
* * *
1350 -- Autopsy Room, Hero Factory
Stormer had checked, double-checked, even triple-checked the diagnosis. And yet, he found himself utterly incapable of comprehending how nothing -- absolutely nothing, according to ZD840’s report -- could kill a robot.
“There -- there must be some mistake!” Furno, displaying typical rookie naivety. Of course there wasn’t a mistake, Stormer noted sourly; the ZDs had also checked, double-checked, and triple-checked their work. They were perfect.
They were robots, too.
Nevertheless, Zed shook his head in an obligatory reply / explanation. His contemporaries continued to mill around the examination room, closing and sealing the robot’s panels and beginning to move in the next body. “No. We checked--”
“--and double-checked, and triple-checked,” Stormer finished dully. “I know the routine.”
Again Zed shook his head. “There was no need to triple-check,” he said; “the robot is in mint-perfect condition... except, of course, for the fact that it’s shut down and won’t reactivate.”
“I read the report.”
“I know you did. I wasn’t sure if you understood it.”
It was a logical question in theory. In practice, it was just plain provoking.
But Stormer was used to jabs. Not all the citizens of Makuhero City liked Heroes. Some thought, especially after the nanobot debacle during which an LCD billboard featuring Stormer was destroyed, that Heroes were too dangerous to keep around.
At least, he thought, we do help them.
“So the time estimation...?”
“Eight hours,” replied Zed. “At least, mind you.”
Stormer minded, all right.
* * *
1500 -- Mission Control, Hero Factory
“But we need results!” was Zib’s reply to Stormer’s news: the second autopsy would be done by evening at the earliest. “What if other people are hurt?”
Quaddle beeped his agreement, then turned back to a computer screen, his four tendril-arms typing out a report to Hero Factory’s founder, Akiyama Makuro. Bulk and Stringer had once held a bet on how fast Quaddle could actually type. Stringer had guessed eighty words per minute; Bulk, one hundred. As it turned out, Bulk’s guess was at least fifty words per minute too low.
Furno nodded vigorously. “Exactly! That’s what I--”
“Furno: quiet.” Stormer’s cold gaze kept Furno’s tirade at bay. Turning back to Zib, who was standing by the central holographic display, the Hero said, “They need time. That’s all.”
“Time is something we may not have,” Zib pointed out.
“All right.” Stormer closed his eyes again. “Think of it this way, Zib: Do you want to do a job quickly, or do you want to do it well?”
“Zib!” Stormer cut off the robot.
Zib’s eyes shut for a moment in exasperation, then opened as he said, “Well. Stormer, I see what you’re saying, but as I’ve already stated, time is of the essence. We’ve been programmed to do a job, Stormer; that job is to protect Makuhero City. And right now, we’re--”
The sudden yell shut Zib up quicker than Furno would have; and, indeed, the younger Hero was glancing at his former teacher with a newfound hint of respect. But he didn’t realize why Stormer had snapped.
It was so obvious in hindsight. The dead beings were robotic: Their brains were filled with lines of programming code, and that code determined each robot’s unique behavior. Since there was nothing wrong with the robots’ bodies, that left only one option.
The programming had gone wrong.
If Stormer were organic -- if, because he wasn’t at all sure they had ever existed -- he would have broken out in a cold sweat.
As he was, he could still feel his body heat rising from the accelerated electrical impulses that were his thoughts, and the whir of machinery within his body filled his audio receptors. This was a robot’s equivalent of anxiety.
Slowly but deliberately, Stormer keyed his wrist comm for ZD840. The two seconds it took for the autopsy specialist to answer seemed the longest time Stormer had ever waited.
“Stormer? I told you, the autopsy--”
“Forget that! -- get the first robot and examine his programming!” barked Stormer.
Zed was silent for a moment. Perhaps he was surprised by the sheer level of command in Stormer’s tone. But then, that same command had sent many a Hero into death-defying action; and Zed surely knew that, too.
Finally he spoke. “We have the robot and we’re currently working past the encryption codes. I’ll contact you when we’ve uploaded the data in its entirety onto our computer.”
“Thank you,” said Stormer, and turned off the comm. Furno and Zib had broken from their momentary trance; both looked grim. As grim as Stormer’s face probably looked.
They stood like that, silent, for several minutes. Only Quaddle’s constant typing could be heard now; even he was silent.
Finally, Stormer’s comm clicked on. “This is Zed,” came a welcome voice. “We have the data and we’re running through it now. We’ve never done this before, you know, but it isn’t too hard. I’d like you Heroes to come up if you can.”
“I’ll summon the rest of the team,” replied Stormer. “Stormer out.”
* * *
1520 -- Autopsy Room, Hero Factory
Stormer, Furno, Bulk, and Stringer had stood just outside the window to the autopsy room for ten minutes before ZD840 moved.
“We’ve found something,” he said. “Let me transfer the display to your HUDs.”
A second passed before a flash half-blinded Stormer. Blinking hard in the sudden light, he couldn’t make sense of the symbols and technical terms that had appeared on his HUD, scrambled together like rocks in a blast zone. A glance at Bulk and Stringer’s faces showed they were feeling the same way. Furno, on the other hand, was oddly subdued.
Abruptly, a line of coding was highlighted in bright red. “The line you see highlighted,” said Zed, “is the problem. In layman’s terms: This portion of the program is intended as a failsafe in case errors occur. If too many occur, the robot shuts down.”
“But then... what was the error?” Furno’s eyebrows were raised, not in shock or confusion, but realization.
Then, Zed shook his head. “I don’t know. I’ve sent a message to Hero Factory’s program specialists, but thus far they can’t make anything of it.”
And that same sense of being a robot struck Stormer again. There was some thought floating before him, just out of his reach, like it was taunting him from behind a glass windowpane. But Stormer’s mind had broken through the window -- grabbed that stray thought--
Zed cocked his head. “Excuse me?”
Stringer followed suit, frowning. “What’re you talking about--?”
“Emotion,” Stormer repeated, not angrily, not impatiently, just... repeated. “We’re robots. We rely on programming. Why do we have emotions? And if we were programmed to have them... well, couldn’t emotional conflicts cause fatal errors to occur?”
Now Furno was shocked. He fell back against the window, rattling it and prompting the ZD robots behind it to spin around. “But... but then...”
And then it was Bulk’s turn to speak. Rather, he swore. “But that means--”
“--if we all have this programming,” Stormer finished, “then...” And he swore. “Zed. Get me in there.”
Zed suddenly looked uncomfortable. The white gleams on his metal plating seemed harsh again. So did his glowing eyes. “But Stormer, we haven’t done this on an activated robot before--”
Furno’s eyes were closed. Bulk and Stringer wached the byplay silently, eyes wide. The bright white lights above Stormer’s head, the floor beneath his feet -- all seemed to have gone, fled away to some distant land to escape the suspense. He was floating with his companions, staring down Zed, unable to even feel apprehension.
But then, perhaps that was a good thing.
Finally, Zed nodded, too stiff to speak. “Fine.”
Like a dreamer, Stormer slipped through the doorway into the room after Zed. He heard Furno’s worried, “It’ll be okay, Stormer!” but ignored it. Now wasn’t the time for comfort.
The table beckoned. Stormer slid onto it, rolling over so he stared at the ceiling. ZD840’s face slid into view above him. “We’re plugging you into the computer now.” Two jolts, more felt than heard. “Done. Now wait -- the encryptions might be more difficult within an active robot’s brain.”
Stormer managed to grin. “If it’s that hard to break into my mind, Meltdown was smarter than he looked. And I seriously doubt that.”
Then Zed was gone. Stormer laid there for only ten minutes, but those minutes were the longest he had ever endured. Surely even with a billion calculations going on within his head even now, the ZDs could pick out the backbone programming.
Hero Factory’s walls and ceilings were too white, he decided.
“Stormer.” Two jolts. “You can sit up.”
He did so. Zed was silent, stubbornly avoiding Stormer’s gaze.
“You have it. And...”
“We missed it before. There was an error counter in your programming, and...” Zed’s eyes locked onto Stormer’s now. “It won’t be long now.”
As if from a distance, he heard Furno and Bulk’s anguished yells. Stringer was silent, though, like Zed.
The whole situation had pushed Stormer to the breaking point, and now he was going to pay for it.
Stormer’s brain might have shut down then and he wouldn’t have noticed.