Heavy Lifting

Okay, this rogue robot recovery gig is getting old and I’m saying this as the tech geek of the team. So that should tell you something about our situation. I mean, it’s not like the hacker is trying to steal different robots every time—it’s always a Commando 237X, which also happens to be like one of the most valuable models the factory owns. So that’s a problem. Also, my teammate Bruno isn’t even considering other solutions. He just wants to shut the robot down.

Fine, great, so here we are. Again. Bruno is perched on the factory roof watching the 4-meter-tall human-shaped machine of high-grade alloys and compromised code tear a hole in the fence between the factory lot and forest outside. And I’m watching the video feed from Bruno’s glasses in my computer lab/living room and getting nervous.

«What the hell are you doing?» I ask through my mic, even though I kinda know the answer already.

«Not now, Gee,» Bruno whispers back. «Can’t you see what I’m up against? Please tell me the video feed isn’t acting up again.»

«No, I’m seeing everything damn fine. Are you?» The robot’s stooped, head bent, its black painted body scratched from years of use, and its weird three joint fingers are busy pulling the fence apart. According to the readout on Bruno’s glasses, it’s a 3.2-meter jump from the ledge Bruno’s on to the robot’s shoulder.

«Maybe,» he says. Which we both know means “Yes.”

«You’re not a superhero, dude.»

«One of us needs to be,» he says and as I’m opening my mouth to tell him that we should really try something else, Bruno jumps.

«SHITSHITSHIT!» Bruno’s not going to make it, he undershot, and I’m going to watch my friend die. Shitshitshit.

But then the robot takes a step back and Bruno manages to grab on. Or at least I’m guessing that’s what happened. I’m not exactly sure because my view is limited here. Point is, Bruno’s not falling anymore and the robot’s neck is like two centimeters away from his glasses and everything’s wobbling and oh my god, I think the robot is trying to shake him off like a wet dog.

«Don’t fucking let go, Bruno. Please!» I can hear Bruno’s torso thud as it bounces off the robot’s back and I’m picturing the bruises and I don’t know how to help. «Use the access key!» I say. I can see the panel, it’s on the robot’s right shoulder. Bruno’s hand is reaching for it, fingers scrambling over the hinges. «WRONG WAY! WRONG WAY! IT OPENS THE OTHER WAY!»

Finally, Bruno manages to open the panel and tries to plug in the key but everything is shaking and crap, he’s holding the plug upside down. «The other way, Bruno!» I’m trying not to be a complete asshole here because I know he’s hanging onto a rogue robot with one arm and the robot keeps moving and he can’t get the connectors to line up, but my muscles are seizing up with the stress and I feel so goddamn useless.

This plan really, really sucks.

Finally, he manages to plug in the access key, and I see the LED light up. At which point, I’m guessing, Bruno lets go because we’re falling again.

«SHITSHITSHIT!» I’ve never been on a rollercoaster and I’m fucking glad because I just manage to grab the trashcan under my desk right before I hurl.

I swear if Bruno survives this, I’m taking away his gadgets.

When I look at my monitors again, he’s on the ground, staring up at the robot’s massive back. «Hurry, Gina!» he yells, all panicky. The robot turns its head and locks eyes on him. «Hurry!»

Oh god, this is going to end badly, isn’t it? Bruno’s a good guy and all, but he has this annoying habit of freezing up. At the worst times. Shit, I can’t look, don’t have time to look, don’t have time to hesitate entering the usernames, passwords, program commands. This would be so much easier if I had more than the lowest level of security clearance here. Okay, I can do this. Hopefully before my friend gets trampled.

Okay, okay, file loading, come on, come on, come on. Hurry up. Bruno, please, don’t die.

The shell terminal pops up and I swear to god I’ve never executed a kill command so fast. End the program, robot, ABORT.

At first, the Commando 237X doesn’t respond. Then it says: «Help me.»

Then it shuts down.

Okay.

Okay, I think it’s over? I peek up at the screen, sort of half terrified of seeing Bruno’s blood splatter all over those damn glasses. But all I see is tall pines and clear sky. I can hear him panting though.

«Worst. Fucking. Plan.» I say. My voice is all shaky.

«I’m okay, thanks,» replies Bruno, wheezing.

«Fantastic. Because I just got so motion sick, I puked.»

«Hopefully not on the equipment.»

«I hate you so much right now.»

I put my head in my hands. Ok, real talk, this is not the job I signed up for. When Bruno asked if I wanted to join the robot systems team, it was supposed to be just me, him, a dozen repurposed robots, and lots and lots of lentil soup cans. Our jobs were to figure out more efficient routes and routines for the robots in the factory. That’s it. He’d be the guy on the floor and I’d handle the coding. And I was so excited to finally put some of my software skills to use, and you know, be part of the community.

My dad would say “The best laid plans,” but I think this is grade A bullshit. Bruno and I have had this job for a month and this is the fifth time in two weeks we had to recapture a rogue robot, though we managed to stop the other four before they got out of the factory and anyone else noticed. But every recapture has been super stressful. We need to use a manual access key to shut down a Commando 237X unit because the community’s equipment and infrastructure team is that fucking paranoid about something happening to these machines. I mean, I get it. The Commandos are repurposed ex-military equipment and there’s not many of them and the factory needs every person and robot it has just to keep feeding everyone in the area. But let’s be real here. I hang out with Bruno Wong, the most devoted community member ever. Shouldn’t that speak volumes about my moral compass, even if most people think I’m just Bruno’s assistant?

«Dude, we need to let the bosses know this is happening…» I say.

«They’re more useful to the community than we are,» he says. For a sec, I have no idea what he’s talking about. But then I realize he’s staring at the robot. Oh my god, he’s not even listening to me.

And a small, tired part of me agrees with him. I mean, I’m just the girl behind the code. Practically stuck in the house 24/7. There’s only so much I can do.

Screw this.

I push back from my keyboards and computer screens, grab my crutches, and get to my feet. Shit, I’m a wobbly mess. I look down and realize I vomited in the trashcan and on my favorite girl punk band t-shirt. So while Bruno is busy glaring at the Commando unit, I head to the bathroom and scrub. I feel like I’ve been electrocuted, though that’s just my muscles telling me they hate me for hanging out with Bruno. I really should find better friends. Except this factory town is pretty light on population. Just like every other community on this continent.

Plus, I really want to keep this job and Bruno is the only person who takes my skills seriously.

Fuck it, I use my wheelchair on my way back, because I don’t feel like working on my arm strength anymore.

By the time I’m in my living room/office again, Bruno’s on his feet. He’s still staring at the rogue robot. He’s taking these security breaches personally.

«We really need to figure out who’s behind these hacks,» I say to him.

«Easy. Selfish thieves.»

«That’s a broad definition and a narrow view, bro.»

«Really?»

«What if the people trying to hack them are just desperate for the extra manpower?» I say, running my fingers through my wet hair. Damn it, my hands are still shaking from Bruno’s crappy action hero maneuvers. «Or maybe it’s bored kids? Or maybe that factory worker who left, what’s their name—»

«It’s stealing,» Bruno says, in that idealistic, self-righteous tone he uses when he can’t win an argument. «No matter the reason.»

«Well, the communications network is pretty shitty outside of town. Maybe we should just follow one next time a Commando goes rogue.»

«Easy for you to say. I’m doing the heavy lifting here.»

I inhale and lean back from the screen. «Really, dude?»

«Sorry, Gee. Didn’t mean that. Rough day.» He sounds like a beat up, tragic emo band member. Serves him right. He’s busy playing savior, while I’m stuck here trying to figure out why. I’m tempted not to forgive him. But I care too much not to.

I sigh. «How are we going to explain the fence, dude?»

«We’ll figure something out.» He looks at the half torn fence and the forest of evergreens behind it. Thing is, Bruno’s super helpful and charming when he’s on his game. I mean, when we first met on one of my walks six months ago, he was the new person in town, a total stranger. I’d pushed my legs too hard that day and he hung out while I rested and we geeked out about tech and he walked me home. Later, I even let him try out my salvaged drone. And I’m super protective of my equipment.

I bite a nail as I look at the ruined fence. I don’t know how he’s going to swing this one, though. That’s a big hole.

Bruno glances around the factory lot. «So, I probably look like crap right now.» He tries to laugh. It sounds scary. «What’s the best route for avoiding people, Gee?»

«Hell if I know. Turn on the drone and give me a second.»

I wait for Bruno to boot up the aerial drone. As soon as it’s ready, I have it take off, loving the way the world slowly falls away as it climbs upward. I mean, I do what I can here, covering my office/living room with all the band posters I can find from back when musicians had things like merch and massive audiences. And I try to walk a little farther every week too, one way or another. But soaring above the old factory with its cracked pavement parking lot and patched up warehouses, it feels like freedom.

«I think we’re the only ones out here, Bruno.» I say after a moment. Which isn’t surprising considering how badly behind schedule we are. Heavy rains, floods, and mudslides have wreaked havoc on the infrastructure that was barely holding together anyway. Almost everyone in town is out trying to repair cell towers and roads or getting the crops from farms or delivering soup cans to nearby towns.

«Cool.» Bruno looks up at the drone and gives me a smile. Poor dude, he really does look like a beat up emo band member.

«Five in two weeks isn’t normal,» I say, trying again, because seriously, I’m really worried about this. I mean, I’ve heard of hacks occasionally happening in other communities, and the factory IT team is always on guard for it, but even then, it’s pretty rare and usually someone local is behind it. «I’ve been taking at look at the hacker’s code and it’s kinda sloppy and—»

«Please, Gina. Not now.»

Bruno can’t see throw my hands up in frustration. Damn it, if not now, when? I’m tempted to give up for the day and listen to all the black metal music I own until I feel better. Why the hell is he being so stubborn about this?

Then it hits me. Bruno’s embarrassed that this is happening on his watch. He and his mom came to our town about six months ago, walking all the way from another state, and since then, he’s gone out of his way to be useful here. So basically, he’s just as scared of being a failure to the community and losing his job as I am.

I sigh. «Fine. How about telling the equipment team to give me full access, then? I’m serious, dude. I understand that the Commandos are super important, but I can’t fix shit if I’m stuck at basics here.»

«Sure thing, Gee.»

But he doesn’t fool me with his platitudes. We’re going to have this argument again in T-minus two days, more or less. He’s walking away from the real problem. Which is why he doesn’t see the Commando 237X open its eyes, sit up, curl its fist, and throw a punch worthy of a robot uprising.

Bruno hits the ground with a groan.

Every muscle in my body seizes up. Oh my god, not again. What am I supposed to do?

«Move your ass,» I shout at Bruno and steer the drone so it’s right above him. But then I see that his glasses and the connecting earpiece are lying on the ground ten meters away.

Oh shit, now Bruno can’t hear me when I yell at him. Have I mentioned that Bruno sometimes freezes up at the worst possible times?

I make the drone spin in circles above the fallen glasses, trying to ignore that the lenses have cracks, trying to catch Bruno’s attention. But he spots the massive robot first and his face goes straight white. Then he faints.

Goddamnit, Bruno. I DON’T KNOW HOW TO DO THIS ON MY OWN.

Okay, okay, okay. Shit. Okay. Options? The key’s still in the robot. I still have limited access to the programming. Okay, okay, I think I can make this work.

I land my precious drone on the factory roof. I’m going to need both hands.

All right, step one. I bring up the robot’s video input on my computer screen, because as much it hurts to admit, I think Bruno’s glasses are broken beyond help and I’m not doing this without any visual feedback. So the robot’s “eyes” are now mine too. And it’s staring at Bruno. Which is sort of creepy.

Step two, the kill command. The one I’ve gotten oh so good at using. Except this time, it doesn’t work. Oh god, why isn’t working? The Commando begins moving to where Bruno’s lying sprawled in the dirt and the prompt’s showing that it’s running one of its military self-defense programs. Oh shit. Hard restart, robot. HARD RESTART.

The robot keeps moving forward, its military defensive programming more or less giving me the middle finger at every new line command I enter.

It’s four paces away from Bruno. Two.

«Sorry, dude,» I mutter as I do the only thing I can think of and run the original programming. You know, the one that made it go rogue in the first place.

I swear to god, the robot seems like it’s considering my request, like it’s tempted to give me the middle finger again. But then it stops walking, turns around, and starts moving to the fence. I almost fall out of my chair in relief. Dear god, I’m shaking again. Forget Bruno, my body is going to be a mess tomorrow.

Okay, okay, okay. I’ve got this. And for the record, I’m with Bruno on this one.

We are not going to lose this fucking robot.

While the robot is busy with the fence, I attempt to do the responsible friend thing and leave Bruno a message on his phone. My voice is so ridiculously shaky as I say, «Hey, Bruno, don’t worry, I got things under control,» that I wouldn’t believe me if I heard it. That is, if he actually gets the message. The cellular networks are shitty at best.

But Bruno’s a smart guy. He’ll figure it out. Or at least he’ll be in suspense until he drags his sorry ass to my house and asks me himself. I’m sure I’ll have a good story for him then.

Or at least, I hope so. God, I don’t even want to think about what’ll happen if I lose this robot. It’ll be all my fault and people will never trust me with anything again and that will be the end of my very short career. Worse, there’ll probably be families in neighboring towns that’ll starve if one of our robots gets stolen.

Oh god, I think I’m going to be sick again. My mom is always nagging me to ask for help and shit. I could really use some help now, but my parents and brothers and roommate are all on the road being useful and stuff and my teammate and only other friend in this lonely town is knocked out cold.

I guess that means the girl behind the code will have to do the heavy lifting after all.

So, when the robot finishes tearing that hole in the fence and steps out into the outside world, I go with it.

Here’s a moment of honesty for you: I’ve never been outside my little factory town. Yeah, I know. I mean I did as a little kid, when the roads weren’t in such terrible condition and my family still took vacations to the mountains or the lake and stuff. But nothing cool. I’ve always wanted to see live concerts or try a fresh mango or something, but leisure traveling is not really a thing anymore. Especially not for a chick with mobility issues.

Besides, it would be ridiculous for me to leave. I mean, my family’s here and it’s a good community, even if 85% of the population doesn’t remember I exist because most of the damn buildings have steps at the entrance.

That doesn’t mean I haven’t been working on my endurance, though. I walked almost two kilometers last week before my brother had to give me a piggyback ride home. My plan is to try to hike to the next town one summer, one way or another.

I imagine it’d be just like this, walking through the forest on a muddy but pretty even path, with nothing around except trees and squirrels and moss. Well, the robot’s doing all the heavy lifting right now, but I’m really loving the video feed.

The trail the Commando’s following is one of the delivery routes. According to the canning directory, it’s about 23.4 kilometers until the next town and nothing but forest in the middle.

Where the hell is this robot going? I mean, I’m not complaining because this must be what freedom tastes like. But something about these hacks, I don’t know, just feels off.

«Okay, listen dude, we need you back home,» I tell the robot’s code.

This would be a million times easier if the paranoid equipment team would give me full access. Sometimes I think Bruno is little bit too charming and people forget I’m part of the team. Which, I mean, I am, but I’m more than just a name and a voice, you know? I know I can be useful even though I have to depend on other people for, well, mostly everything that happens outside my house. And with the town barely holding itself together, sometimes I feel like just another responsibility.

Bruno can be straight up macho sometimes, but right now I’d give anything to be as independent as he is.

Though in this case, it’s probably a good thing that I’m not quite like Bruno. Read: Idealistic. Because…I might have been a bored kid once. Who taught herself the basics of hacking. I skill I think I’m going to have to use here because I’m not fucking losing this Commando unit.

So the robot walks and I type. It’s slow going for both of us. The muddy trail is a bitch for the machine and my rusty hacking skills are definitely a bitch for me. The only thing I manage to access is the Commando’s audio input and output. I test swear into the microphone and the robot suddenly becomes very foul-mouthed. All the birds in the trees flee.

Screw this. I try doing a hard restart again.

«Help me,» the robot says.

I pause mid-keystroke. What the hell? This is the second time the robot’s said this, but the first time meaning sinks in. Factory robots are programmed to only use that phrase when they’re stuck, like under a pallet or in a ditch. Which sometimes happens when they’re delivering shipments between towns.

But why is it using it now?

Huh. Color me curious. So, for the first time in my very short career as a rogue robot hunter, I let a hacked machine be.

Okay, now I’m confused. Why the hell is the rogue robot standing in front of a pile of fallen trees, staring? Why does this Commando unit stare so much? I mean, there’s nothing special about this spot. It’s just another point on the muddy trail where on one side, the terrain drops off and becomes a steep rocky slope. Like the hundred other spots we’ve passed on this stroll.

Then the trees start to talk.

«Oh, thank god.»

«Holy shit!» I say and almost fall out of my chair again, forgetting I left the audio output is still on. It’s become quite an indelicate robot in my care.

The forest goes silent for a moment and then…is that a dog barking?

«Who are you?» say the trees.

«Who the hell are you?» I say. Shit, my hands are shaking again. I might not be the most outdoorsy type of girl, but even I know trees aren’t supposed to talk.

«I’m Evie Stevenson. I could use some help.»

Why does that name sound familiar? «Where…where are you?»

«Down here.» Someone—not me—tries to make the robot move its head, but the prompt keeps saying “Invalid command.»

«Damn computer. Actually do you mind?» the trees say.

«Mind what?» I say, but then I see that I’ve somehow gotten temporary access to the robot’s motion control program. What the hell?

Cautiously, I have the robot step forward and tilt its head so that it gets a good look between two fallen trunks. Seriously, who is this terrible hacker?

Then I see the answer.

On a rocky ledge, about three meters below the robot, there’s a lot of open, empty soup cans, one very muddy dog, and one exhausted, muddy white-haired lady.

«Holy shit,» I say. «You’re the hacker?»

«Surprise,» Stevenson says. She looks like she’s about to cry with relief. «Who are you?»

«I’m Gina. I work with Bruno Wong on the robot systems team.»

«Oh, I’ve heard of you. I thought you were just his assistant.»

I sigh. «Trust me, he’s charming and all, but he’s useless without his gadgets.» This makes Stephenson laugh. Sounds likes it’s been a while since she had a good one. It sort of makes me happy cheering her up a bit. «I’ve brought you the robot you wanted, I guess.»

«Thank god. My tablet was starting to get super glitch-y.» She waves her handheld and the thing looks miserable too. Full of cracks. I wonder if I can fix it.

Suddenly, I feel really guilty about stopping the other four hacked robots.

«How did you end up down there, anyway?» I ask.

«I was accompanying a Commando delivering a shipment of cans. The factory needs someone to check on our customers occasionally.» The dog starts barking again and Stevenson beckons it over and puts an arm around it. «It was right before a storm hit and the winds got bad. We shouldn’t have been out here.» She stares at her dog’s ears. «The path got too muddy. The robot lost its footing and slipped but managed to stay on the trail. Me and Peanut lost our footing too, but we weren’t so lucky. The damn robot kept going on its route even though most of the shipment was down here with us.»

That’s when it clicks. «Oh, you’re the missing employee.» I remember seeing her name on the factory employee list. Everyone on it had weird nicknames in parentheses. Stevenson’s was ‘Tougher than your rusty robot, damn it!’

«They thought you ran off,» I say.

Stevenson’s expression is all sadness. «Did they really think I’d abandon them?»

«Yeah, they tend to assume the worst about people.»

«Or make snap decisions.»

I look around my lonely office. «Yeah.»

«Hey, I’d hire you. You figured this out with just an access key.»

That makes me smile. «Okay, listen, I’m going to sign off for a hot second. I think I just heard my roommate come home. Going to see if we can send some help.» I grab my crutches.

«Don’t go. Please,» she says. I think it’s the most desperate thing anyone has ever said to me. I get the feeling that this woman usually doesn’t let anything stop her, but right now, she looks scared.

I put down my crutches. «Okay. What should I do? I’m sort of limited from over here.» And to prove my point, the temporary access I’m using for the robot’s motion controls time out.

«Somehow I really doubt that,» Stevenson says. She’s completely serious, too. «How about giving a lady and her dog a lift?» She taps her tablet. «What’s your MAC address?»

I give it to her and seconds later a new window pops up on my screen. It’s full access to the robot’s program.

Holy shit. My hands are shaking again, but this time with excitement. This is what freedom tastes like.

I make good progress clearing the fallen trees, using the robot, of course. I even start to think this might be a straightforward rescue mission. But then a system warning pops up on screen.

Apparently, the Commando 237X thinks it’s under attack.

Wait, what? Attacked by who?

Then, the robot’s falling. Its video feed bounces as it hits the ground and I’m clutching the end of my desk. Seriously, this has to stop. My stomach cannot handle this shaky camera shit.

«Hang on for a sec, Ms. Stevenson,» I say through clenched teeth. Then I bite my lip, because oh god, I’m going to vomit again if I keep talking.

Fuck it, I’m just going to let the defense program do its thing because if you think you can just attack a rogue Commando in the middle of the woods, then you deserve to be crushed with robotic fury.

According to the code that I refuse to look away from, the robot picks itself up and spins around. It lifts its arms and brings them down over and over again.

Morbid curiosity makes me peek at the screen to see if the Commando has beaten the attacker into a pulp yet.

Then I see who the attacker is. Who is now lying directly under that angry metal arm.

Shit. Shit. Shit. Abort the program, robot. ABORT THE DAMN PROGRAM.

I hate déjà vu. Especially when it’s a repeat of bad ideas. He’s so fucking lucky though. The robot’s arm stops centimeters above Bruno.

For a second, neither of us can breathe. Scratch that: it’s all we can do.

«Worst. Fucking. Plan.» I gasp and the robot repeats my words.

Bruno blinks like he’s just seen the sunshine. «Gina?»

«Who else, dude?»

He opens his mouth. Then closes it. Then opens it again. «What the hell, Gee?» he says, finally. «I thought you wouldn’t…you couldn’t…»

«Couldn’t what? Do my damn job?»

He spots the key that’s still sticking out of the robot’s shoulder. «Oh.»

«What the hell’s happening up there?» Stevenson calls up. Peanut is barking furiously.

«Who’s that?» Bruno says, twisting around in the muddy path.

«Evie Stevenson. You know, the person behind the hacks. She’s been stuck there for weeks and needed help to get out.»

«Oh. You figured it out without me,» Bruno says and damn it, he looks like an emo band member again.

«Don’t move, dude, or I swear to god I will crush you.»

I walk the robot over to the ledge, which is mostly tree-free now. Carefully, I guide an arm down. Peanut is the first to come up. Then Stevenson.

«It worked,» she says when she’s back on the path. Her eyes tear up. «This absurd plan actually worked. You’re hired, Gina.»

We both laugh, while Bruno looks confused.

«Can I give you a lift?» I ask. Stevenson picks up Peanut and nods.

The Commando scoops them up in one hand and my stubborn, well-meaning teammate in the other.

Bruno keeps insisting that he can walk back on his own, which is sort of hilarious because right now, he has more bruises than charm.

«Chill, bro. I got this.»

My mom is right, it’s important to ask for help when you needed it. But sometimes you have to make your own help too.

«Gina—» Bruno begins, but I cut off the audio input because I’m the girl behind the code and I can.

I check on them occasionally though. Bruno’s pouting on the left and Stevenson is smiling in the nook of the robot’s right elbow with her arms around Peanut, who is cautiously wagging his tail. They can’t see me, but I’m smiling back at them.

This is what freedom is, isn’t it?

Oh my god, I’m going to have so much fun programming these Commando units. I have so many ideas. Starting with creating the best routines possible and trying to fix that hole in the fence. And maybe next time Stevenson walks to the next town, I’ll walk with her, one way or another.

A. T. Greenblatt

A.T. Greenblatt is a mechanical engineer by day and a writer by night. She lives in Philadelphia where she’s well acquainted with all four seasons and is known to frequently subject her friends to various cooking and home brewing experiments. She is a graduate of Viable Paradise XVI and Clarion West 2017. Her work is forthcoming or has appeared in Uncanny, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Fireside, as well as other fine places. You can find her online at atgreenblatt.com and on Twitter at @AtGreenblatt.

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