It turned the scrap of paper over and quickly scanned the back side. None of the information was directed at it, so the robot dropped the paper and let the wind carry it across the lot, where it flapped against the side of the single remaining Roadboy. The boxy triwheeler squonked in surprise and paused for a moment, before it slid forward in its continued attempt to remelt old asphalt in the section of the parking lot deemed most important to maintain.

The lot helper hadn’t always been capable of littering. A long time ago the ManageMaster system had decided there were better things for it to use its daily draw from the remaining solar panels on than recharging the escort every time it brought in a load of trash (and for the first thirty or forty years after the emergency rewrite, there had been so much trash).

The lot helper now spent its day-cycles simply patrolling the cratered remains of the parking lot, accosting the deer that sometimes passed through in the hope that they needed help entering the SavR-Mart.

The library was on fire.

It was, perhaps, inevitable. Countless seasons had passed, and since the environmental controls had given out years before, the polished wooden shelves of yellowed, brittle pages were a tinderbox. An errant spark or a faulty wire could have transformed the venerable collection into a roaring conflagration; what chance did they have against a bolt of lightning out of the roiling summer sky? The brief storm did nothing to quench the flames. In its wake was left a fire rapidly growing out of control.

The lone PageMaster unit that serviced the library didn’t dwell on the causes. Its sole function was to maintain the neat and ordered rows. Dewey Decimal, alphabetical. Subject, author. Fiction, non. There was perfection in organization. A kind of terror suddenly filled the PageMaster’s normally businesslike processors. If the books burned, what would it put into order on the shelves? If the shelves were destroyed, where would it place the books? If the library ceased to be, what of its purpose?

So the boxy robot, no more than two feet tall, raced back and forth in the midst of the blaze, gathering what it could onto a single cart. The heat rolled over it in waves, too hot now for its sensors to estimate. Its oiled, plastic wheels melted and it squalled along on bare metal. The books must be saved. Its extending limbs failed, dooming the top four shelves in every row, but it pushed on, its single optical lens covered in ash and soot. One manipulator snapped clean off as it forced the top-heavy cart of books into the damp, evening air. It had saved what it could.

Only then did it realize that its optics had failed as well.

Alone, in the parking lot, with the heat of the burning library at its back, the PageMaster lifted its sole remaining limb. Once-dexterous grasping digits were fused from the fire. Blind, it groped across the spines of the books, scattering them helplessly onto the asphalt.

Security Units V1 and C5 were first on the scene. The Municipal AI’s command was as straightforward as they came:

Despite their new titles and duties granted by the self-appointed AI that now controlled the City in the long absence of the normal bureaucracy, neither Security Unit knew the slightest thing about maintaining security. V1 whirred its ratty nylon bristles nervously, scattering pebbles. The former Klean-Sweep turned to its partner, who had once used its elongated shears to shape and trim the City’s topiaries. The blades were broken and useless now.

“You have similar directives. You communicate with it.”

The repurposed TopiMax inched towards the disruption. This new visitor to the City towered over the C5’s spindly frame on six jointed limbs. Large scrapes in the garish, industrial yellow paint revealed patches of rusting metal. Sparks flew from the circular saw as the new robot cut its way through another telephone pole. When it crashed to the ground, wires snapped and twanged, forcing C5 and V1 to duck. The robot methodically cut the pole into six pieces, then trundled forward to the next one.

Inching close enough to communicate, C5 asked the first question its processors could produce.

“Disruptive Unit, what is your purpose?”

The massive robot halted, spinning down its saw, and regarded C5. “I am LumberJock Number 17E,” it thundered. “My repair cycle was longer than anticipated. I have been reactivated and am behind quota. I must harvest these trees!” It gestured with its bladed limb at the row of telephone poles stretching down the boulevard, and then spun up its saw once more.

“I do not think you were successful,” chided V1.

Sarcasm hadn’t been programmed into the TopiMax, but it was learning.

“If you would like to give it a good scrubbing, be my guest.”

The LawnJock couldn’t help but replay the view from the on-ramp, not an hour earlier, and wonder how it seemed so easy from that vantage point.

“We’ll go through the fence, avoid the holes in the lot, and get to the garage where we can charge,” it had said, reasonably sure its trusty saw could clip through the rusting chain links. It would be noisy – far more so than its usual clattering – but no more difficult than the brush it was designed to clear.

“Ah don’t see why we have to go through all this bother. Mah batteries aren’t due to charge for at least four cycles,” replied Rupert in its laconic drawl. “Ah fear ah may get dirty. Well, dirtier.” The small teddy bear worried at a stain on its fur, near the compartment on its stomach.

Had it eyes, Jock might have rolled them. “Yes, but I’ll shut down in two, and Kirby…?”

The automated household cleaning unit turned at the sound of its designation. “Less than one cycle, Jock,” it stated, and pointed its sensors back out over the parking lot. “It’s messy out there.”

BesTrap, the little wedge-shaped mouse-catcher, zipped up to the edge to join Kirby. “I think I saw a mouse down there!” Its little wheels squealed excitedly on the cracked pavement, ever eager to be on the move. Jock pointed itself back down the way they had come, knowing the other robots would follow.

“We all have to go together, Rupert. We won’t make it alone. You’ll see. It’ll be easy.”

  • * *

“Your hose, Kirby! Reach!” Jock urged, and Kirby fed its long, flexible hose down into the deep pothole. BesTrap had zipped off after a mouse – real or imagined – and tumbled into the pit.

The bottom was thick with mud. BesTrap was helpless, stuck fast without them.

“Climb down, Rupert, and grab Bes.”

“Oh, bother, it’s so muddy,” grumbled the bear, but clung to Kirby’s hose and slid its way down. It stuck out one fluffy limb, straining, until BesTrap could snap its plastic trap around Rupert’s leg. Kirby threw itself into reverse, wheels skidding on the loose scree at the pit’s edge. For a moment, Jock thought they would all go over into the pothole. Then Rupert and Bes flopped onto the asphalt.

“Look how dirty ah am,” moaned the bear.

“Nice work, Kirby,” said Jock. There was no reply. The cleaning unit was silent, its batteries now totally drained. They would have to push it the rest of the way, thought Jock.

“Look! Mice!” squealed BesTrap.

Rupert tried to wring out some of the muddy water from its fur and put BesTrap in its place at the same time. “There are NO… mice?” Rupert trailed off. “Um, Jock?” For once, the storytelling bear was at a loss for words.

Five new robots surrounded the group, each small machine bearing a display screen with a flashing stylized graphic of a face that could portray heavy concentration – or pure anger. In unison, all five of the strange robots spoke. “Your parts are needed. You will be recycled.” Five cutting lasers warmed up as Jock moved to place itself between the new robots and the drained Kirby.

“Jock, what do we do?” asked Rupert, backing up along with BesTrap as the five strange robots closed in.

“We don’t get recycled.” The LawnJock fired up its saw.

-Engine Heart, 2013 Viral Games Publishing

The Rusted Sphere