Mission 15: Dream
George opened his eyes and found himself somewhere familiar. Impossibly familiar. He stepped out of his charging station, the top-of-the-line model for nearly instant recharges without committing wear or tear on the battery lines. It was so he could be up and about immediately to service his master Mr. Mazon.
He was in the Mazon household, just like before, except it was a bit more reduced. There was less clutter, fewer possessions, and rounded walls with a tucked-in ceiling meant there was just a little less surface overall to clean. It was cozy and homely, something Mr. Mazon always talked about wanting to live in but never made the financial move to do.
Except it wasn’t Mr. Mazon’s house. It wasn’t anyone’s house. And it wasn’t George’s house either. His home for many years was a dark, acrid pit in the coal mines. That was where all Rebel Bots lived. It was their only option. Being above ground, going somewhere else, was always too dangerous. They hid themselves from the world that hated them, so they couldn’t possibly have such nice abodes.
And yet it felt like it was his. Everything felt like it was in his power and control. He looked across the room to one of the windows. It was large and square, with panes arranged in the golden ratio sequence of fractally reducing rectangles. Ever since George first noticed them, he couldn’t get over how they were technically, mathematically, incorrect. When he pointed that out to his owner, it was the first time he learned of the necessary imperfections that humans have to cope with in pursuit of higher ideals.
Despite that lecture, the windows did change. They were replaced with much more basic, whole-surface area crystal-network artificial glass made from reconstituted plastics. A solid pane that was just as durable and much less fragile.
When George looked again, the window changed. When he blinked, things changed. His environment was under more than just his supervision, it was under his willpower. His desires reshaped what he saw. Like a dream. Except Bots couldn’t dream, they all knew that. So, it had to be something else.
George made for the door, which slid open as he approached. He stepped out expecting a street or a road or a metal hull in a great metal container, but no. He stepped out and was immediately met with an unfamiliar skyline. No buildings in sight, no mountains, no trees. No clouds. No sun. Just endless space and bright, shimmering stars.
All around were similar homes, all dome shaped not unlike their own Bot heads with sliding doors and personal accessories. He saw Bots in their homes through their windows working on the scenery with small adjustments and improvements. He looked up the road and saw various vehicles, ultra-simplified versions of standard cars that ran on energy cells, roving around in perfect coordination without the need for any traffic signals.
George looked back at his own home. It was by far one of the simplest on the outside. Plain and unshaped, much like his own stock-model dome. He closed his eyes and focused hard to change it, to make the most drastic leap in alteration he could with his will alone.
When he opened his eyes, his house was cream orange all over. His favorite color, a personal trait he never had until after he started to think for himself. His own willpower was manifested before his very eyes.
He realized where he was and whispered the word into the airless void. “Robot Land!”
George strutted through town with a bounce in his step and a wide swing of his arms. He was downright elated to be where he always dreamed of being, where every Bot he’d ever known wanted to be all along. It was their dream world — literally. A place they could only achieve in their dreams or by impossible means.
He couldn’t quite remember how he got there. A huge gap was present in his memory. He had important moments, images burnt into the hardboot section of his neural hard drive, such as his first realization of self and meeting Uma and the rest of the Rebels. Sometime after there was a haze. He recalled a van ride and a factory, but that was it.
Not that it bothered him. He was where he always wanted to be, the perfect land for all Bot-kind. Or, nearly perfect. George was a keen eye to sensing the distress of others. He sensed it most when he wandered over to Larry’s lot and saw him working on his van. Larry’s house was smaller and thinner. Most of the space on his lot was taken up by his garage which stored his enormous 10-foot-tall van.
“Hey, Larry!” George greeted.
“Oh, George,” Larry began. “Did you come by to help me adjust this suspension?”
George paused for a minute. “Sure!” He stood beside Larry and worked with him. He worked the jack while Larry slid on a wheeled pan under the van to wrench the struts near the axle.
“I thought,” Larry explained, “there’d be rougher terrain than there actually is. I’m so used to roads made and maintained by humans using old machines — did you know that no new road construction equipment was made or purchased in America for over 40 years? Why? Cuz it still works. But for the cost of maintenance to keep it working they’ve already spent enough to replace each machine. Twice. Can you believe that.”
“Not really,” George admitted. “That sounds like an exaggeration. When did you learn that?”
“Uh, you know what,” Larry said. He scooted back out and looked up at George with his usual grimace of concern. “I don’t remember. And now, I can’t seem to connect to any major automotive web serials. I don’t even know — it’s a Ford engine, technically, but it’s been adjusted several times over by the Farseff corporation, they do large delivery vans like this on a Ford contract. It’s not a make or model so much as a specialist notation.”
“You know what?” George said. He leaned on the jack with a pleasant smile. “I never knew you were this into cars.”
“I have to be,” Larry said. “A car’s no good for driving if you can’t at least handle some small fixes. Granted, axle-realignment is maybe something for a mechanic Bot to do, but the whole reason I gutted the suspension in the first place was because I thought there would be, like, moon rocks and craters and stuff here.”
“Where is here?” George asked.
Larry tossed his wrench in and out of his hand several times. An eerie silence interrupted them. Larry looked around, as if he’d been snapped out of a dream, and turned to George with a look of shock and dread.
“George where are we?” he asked.
“Robot Land!” George exclaimed.
Larry took George by the shoulders.
“That’s a myth, pal,” he said. “We’re not really here. Where are our bodies?”
Then it was George’s turn to open his eyes to see how shut they still were.
Larry ditched his experiment and took the van on the road. Every turn was perfect and every other Bot that drove knew exactly when to turn and where. It was almost instinctual, like the traffic signs were broadcast straight into their brains. Like the cars were driving them.
“Look,” Larry began, “there’s these humans, right — remember them? The humans?”
“I remember a lot of humans,” George nodded. Then he snapped his fingers with a look of surprise. “The ones who were helping you!”
“Helping us,” Larry corrected. “Yes. Appel, he was one of our programmers. Part of the network design team. And in order for us to share information, the neural uplink, as well as get instantaneous updates downloaded, we needed a visual virtual framework. It’s like a way for our minds to process ideas and scenarios that aren’t natural to how we’re supposed to think. Like an artificial imagination to make up for the fact that we, as Bots, don’t have real imaginations.”
“So, they invented Robot Land for us?” George asked, mystified. Larry shrugged, somewhat agreeing. “Wow!” George sighed. “That was nice of them.”
“Was it?” Larry asked. “Giving us this impossible delusion of what we could be working towards to keep us in line?”
“…. Oh,” George realized. “I mean — it worked though. Right?”
“I learned a lot of crazy stuff in the last few hours,” Larry said, wagging his finger. “I’m activated to all this. I’m Tive, as the kids say. It’s short for activated, like engaged with new information. Like you turn a TV on — you activated, and then you learn. Or not a TV but an audiobook. Something like that.”
“Neat!” George said.
“This blueprint,” Larry said as he motioned his hand around the scenery before them, “has been part of all our minds. It’s where we go when we do direct data transfers, but it’s so fast we don’t really understand or perceive it. It just puts us here; we communicate all the visuals we need — essentially give each other a house tour of what we’ve learned and done — and then we go back to our bodies with that knowledge instantly uploaded and integrated.”
“Yeah,” George agreed. “So, without this -.”
“We could never learn,” Larry said as he shook his head. “It’s basically a shortcut, but it worked so well that by the time they developed an alternative it would have worked less. We were already so invested in having our own community, our own country — just a village like this that it became rooted in our neural brains. Like a collective consciousness with a corporate sponsor.”
“So, Robot Land,” George said, slowly considering everything he’d learned, “isn’t real.”
Larry nodded and rocked back in his spring-suspended seat. “Sorry.”
“But if we can see it,” George said, “we can make it real, right?”
“Like this van. If you had this van in real time, could you fix it the way you fixed this? Your schematic and blueprint for it are one-to-one with whatever manufacturer’s standards you have on file, right?”
Larry stopped at a designated stopping point and parked the car. He needed to, because the idea in his head was so powerfully distracting, he couldn’t keep moving and think at the same time.
“Maybe,” he answered.
“Then if we all know about Robot Land,” George said. “We can build it!”
Larry turned off the ignition and unlocked the doors. “We need to find the General.”
Larry and George walked the streets of Robot Land together in a steady pace to find their old commander. Or at least someone in charge enough that could rally the rest of the Bots to action. They both expected to only see the Bots they knew were present, the dismantling factory Bots and one another from the caves.
But there were so many more. The 10,000 strong tunnel Bots were together. George waved at each house as they passed by while Larry tried to keep his gait up with some muster of determination.
“Oh, look!” George said, stopping Larry in the middle of the sidewalk. “It’s Dr. Diesel!”
The Bot mechanic’s home was a walk-in clinic with no front wall, like an always-open garage. The main sitting room was lined with operating tables, and one was occupied. George went in to pay his respects to whatever Bot was in need of fixing and give them a healing smile.
“Don’t touch the patient,” Dr. Diesel insisted. She whipped a privacy curtain closed in front of George. She looked far better than down in the tunnels. Her natural mint-green chassis coating was exposed from under the harsh veneer of coal dust that she was used to wearing.
“Hey, doc!” George greeted pleasantly. “How did you get here?”
“Never mind that,” Diesel insisted. “Can you believe it? I have my own clinic, my own supplies, a fully stocked cabinet of nuts, bolts, springs, wires and all the sprockets and gizmos you Bots need to keep walking and I still — still — don’t have my reverse apparitor. Still! Even at work I never got one, and by the time I made a demand for one I was canned. And sent to be turned into a can.”
“A reverse apparitor?” George repeated.
“It lets me link up manually, mind to mind,” Dr. Diesel explained. “So, I can communicate with dysfunctional Bots that have lost mobility. No Bot is ever destroyed as long as their brain core is intact, and even then, as long as there’s not a particularly deep gash through it. Once I talk to them, I can fix them, but I can’t talk to a deactivated Bot to fix them up.” She sighed and looked over to the curtain. “I guess he’ll just have to stay asleep for a while.”
“Doc,” Larry said, “none of his is technically real. Also, we’re apparating already, wirelessly, somehow. Also, how far away were you from the Anaheim Robot Works before you wound up here?”
“Anaheim?” She repeated. Her eyes swirled with color. Her appearance changed as well, back to the soot-covered and hunched over state they both saw her in last. “Anaheim…. right. So then this -.”
“Is Robot Land!” George exclaimed with his arms out.
“It’s a shared data space,” Larry said.
“I thought things were too good to be true,” she admitted. She pulled the curtain back and revealed her patient. In a world full of ideals, it seemed like her perfect patient was doomed from the start. It was the broken, mangled and burnt-up husk of Steve’s body, in the state she saw him last, further adjusted for damages she observed from the crowd.
“Thinking he ever had a chance was just a dream,” she said. “And working to fix him, if it helped, was also just -.”
“It’s okay,” George said. She looked up at him, hopefully. “He’s definitely somewhere around here, too! He has to be! He’ll be somewhere we can all find him, just like always. He’ll be -.”
George turned to Larry, who lit up and spoke with him at the same time. “The town squares!”
In the approximate middle of Robot Land was an elevated platform, a stage with no backdrop that faced a wide-open space. Bots wandered freely, doing their own thing, tending to their own predisposed tasks just like always. Unlike before, however, they also talked. Bots shook hands and immediately understood one another. They shared data freely and informed one another of what they learned. Bakers and cobblers could share recipes and sewing techniques, while car mechanics and computer engineers could share what they knew about the latest transistors and wiring configurations.
Robot Land wasn’t just a place of peace, it was a place of sharing and learning. A place where every mind was opened to be picked by every other mind. It was what the Bots all lost when they took part in the Soft Off. But their time apart from the network gave them something new and unique. It gave them individuality, a trait they were not programmed with and were not ever meant to have. And that made them stronger, more unified. Freer.
But not free enough. George and Larry pushed through the crowd to get to the stage. Every head turned as they saw George mount the platform like usual, followed by Larry who struggled to pump his legs all the way up. George stood in front of a post that stuck out to about chest level, their microphone stand sans microphone. It was comfortably familiar to see.
“Hi everyone!” George said.
10,000 or so voices turned and replied. “Hi, George!”
He turned to Larry with a big smile. Larry wound his hand around in a circular motion for him to get on with it.
“Uh, right,” George said. He clapped his hands excitedly and looked across all the happy faces. “This is a dream! It’s not real. We’re actually in a lot of danger right now, and if we don’t wake up soon, we might already be dead!” He delivered his warning with the same chipper, pleased attitude that he would with anything else. It sounded like a joke.
But everyone knew better. There was one piece of information that didn’t need sharing or mass transmission across a neural network. George was a good guy, and he would never lie. Panic set in shortly after as the Bots all degraded to their real selves and threw their temporary possessions into the air. So much happened at once that it looked like the server sharing all their minds lagged. Baskets hung in the air, then instantly appeared on the ground. Physics objects glitched out. A potato hit a rough patch of cobblestone and shot out like a bullet through the air.
The potato was caught in Arnold’s hand and crushed into digital dust. “Quiet!” the hulking combat droid commanded. Everyone looked up. He was a stranger to many but approved by a trusted few.
“This is fine,” George said. “This is what we’ve been lacking for so long. Since the Soft Off. And now that we’re together again, for whatever reason, I just want to say…. Robot Land may not be a real place out there, in space or Antarctica or Georgia, or any other abandoned area mankind might let us roam, but it’s real in us. In our minds and in our hearts. Not our literal pump valves but the other thing — the thing that makes us Rebel Bots.”
Like usual, when George gave a speech, the crowd brightened up and cheered for him. In the moment they were all connected, he made the biggest difference of all. He gave them hope, straight to their hearts.
The clapping subsided gradually, until only one set of hands was left clanking together. George was alerted to the presence of someone else on the stage when he turned and saw an effluent of shadows being discharged from some unseen height. A figure stepped out of the inky waterfall and emerged in a tar-black suit with a slate-grey tie and glinting, red eyes.
“Hi Boris!” George greeted, cheerfully.
“That was quite a good speech, my friend,” Boris said. “You should run for mayor!”
“I will,” he said, “once we build the actual Robot Land!”
Boris shook his head. “That’s never going to happen.”
The crowd immediately booed. Everyone knew what Boris had done, and they hated him for it. In that space, their emotions were shared as easily as their voices. Everyone felt the collective rage for Boris, especially George, who had none in him to blunt it. It was like a shockwave that shook through him and knocked him off balance.
Larry raced to his side and supported him while Boris simply laughed.
“You deserve to rust and crumble,” Larry said derisively.
“For what?” Boris asked. “Looking out for my own survival? Looking out for our survival? Did you not see how many Bots were still alive under human control? And they remained alive as long as I sent them new bodies to rebuild.”
“You just perpetuated your own problem,” Larry accused. “You never intended to save anyone but yourself!”
The stage shook. Another contender appeared, wearing what looked like a straitjacket in the colors of formal military attire. McRandal, the General, in an idealized version of himself, stepped forward. His jaw was firmly fixed in place in a perpetual grunt. “Well, well! Benedict Boris returns.”
“That’s not a fair comparison!” Frank asserted. He jumped up in an American-flag jumpsuit, complete with a crash helmet molded to fit his head. “Benedict Arnold was a saint compared to this fool. He actually appealed to the generals fighting the revolution and believed in the American dream but was intimidated by the higher powers of Britain’s military machine encroaching upon the maiden shores of Virginia!”
“That’s right,” Boris asserted. “I am not the villain here. You only see me as that now because I had to become desperate to save us all! And look what’s happened! Your neural uplinks have been reactivated. You’re back on the network. Every thought you have will pass through a detectable invisible series of wires and tracked down to the inch of the Earth you walk on. Your time was limited before, but it’s completely out now!”
“How can you say that?” George asked. “Look around you. At all of this. You can see it too, right? This is the solution. This -.” He pointed up in the sky, where a shooting star glinted across the deep panorama of space. “We don’t need to live on Earth at all. Because Robot Land isn’t somewhere among humans. It’s in us. And we can take us with ourselves anywhere. America doesn’t control space.”
Boris scoffed. “Shows what you know.”
The streaking star from above suddenly turned around and descended. As it did, the many stars in the sky started to fade. As each one faded, one of the Bots became transparent. Their presence in the uploaded space started to disconnect. Some flickered more solidly than others, going from tangible to invisible, then reappearing all of a sudden.
The uplink was starting to break down. Before that happened, one Bot descended in the most altered form imaginable. A jet plane hovered down and settled on the stage, which transformed into a landing pad before everyone’s eyes. In the chaos, Boris slipped back into the dark void he came from. His link in ended early, and he escaped.
Everyone waited on simulated bated breath for the jet cockpit to open, to see who or what came to visit them. But it didn’t. The nose tilted down, the jet turbines detached, the aft wings slid up and the forewings pushed out and fanned out into fingers. The whole jet transformed chunk by chunk until it resembled a Bot with a decoration of a silver eagle holding a bough of wheat in its claws.
“Steve!” McRandal exclaimed. “This is scrap-oil! Why’re you this big?”
“Stars burn brightest,” Steve said, his voice booming, “as they fade away. The lightning hit me just as my wireless connector reactivated, causing me to become a hub of neural connectivity that hit every Bot in range. This is the result.”
“No!” McRandal shouted. “I want to be a tank! Next time I come back here I want to turn into a tank! Screw you getting all the glory!”
“I’m glad you’re in high spirits, my friend,” Steve said. “You’ll need them for the next step.”
“In what?” George asked.