by Daniel Eavenson
It was dark. Joe wasn’t expecting to wake up in darkness. He had a timing circuit put in, so the lights would wake him up in the morning. He rubbed a hand down his face, confirming he was not dead. The motion caused his nervous system to inform him of the usual aches and pains of an overweight thirty something on the backend of that age. Joe felt around for the bedside table that had his apartment’s light controls but hit only air. Where was the table? Where was the rest of his bed? Memory flooded back to him and he realized he’d slept in the office again.
Office was one way of thinking about it. Warehouse was probably a more accurate description. If his mom called, it got labeled the office. Other times it was just a shithole warehouse the company had him spending all his time in. Joe swung his legs around and groped his face a little more trying to rouse some life back into himself. He stood and felt along the walls for a breaker or a switch or something for the lights. After a few more minutes he smartened up and yelled “Lights” out into the darkness. The halogen glow started way off in the distance and then flickered its way down the stretch of the warehouse to where Joe was standing. He was staring down a huge aisle of massive shelving units. The shelves were loaded with thousands of non-descript cardboard boxes. The aisle ended in the semi-circle of his work area. There was water everywhere.
“Oh, god damn it.”
The pool that had formed in his little work area was barely an inch deep. All in the water were moving hundreds of little mechanical shapes and contraptions. Skitters. The little things were supposed to clean up messes like this but for the most part they were just floundering around and shorting-out in the growing pool of murky darkness. Joe took a moment and then spoke again to the empty warehouse.
“Open drain 10, medium suction.”
The dark liquid drained away revealing the rusty dirty floor underneath. It seemed that even a good soaking couldn’t clear away a generation’s worth of filth in one night. Joe moved around the area looking for the source of the water and found a faucet spilling water out into the sink of a janitor’s closet. The closet probably hadn’t been used in a while. The warehouse had moved to full automation way back before Joe was even alive. When he had first shown up for work the place had stunk of fetid water and mold. He’d spent the first week trying to get the drainage system working properly. His hard work only made the smell worse. When work from the company had finally started showing up to the warehouse Joe had thought it all an even bigger waste of time. Paycheck’s a paycheck though.
The plugged up sink produced a gurgle. Joe could see that something was moving around under the murk of the water. Joe moved closer into the little closet and looked down into the water. All around the edge of the sink a prosperous little mold had formed. It was all over the lip of the sink and spreading out along the walls and along the trail the overflowing water had left. Out of the water came slithering out several kinds of Skitters. Long multi legged stick types. Armored Beetle types. Brush tipped types that looked a bit like a mouse or a rat. None of them bigger than the size of a closed fist.
“You know you guys are supposed to be cleaning up messes and not making them.” He sighed, closed off the tap, and went back into the main work room to survey what he had wrought in the last few days. Most of the active Skitters were moving around the damp work area looking for things to clean but then not actually cleaning anything. That was the problem with these dang things. They were stupid. They were machines, so their programming was simple. Mostly they just wandered around bumping into each other cleaning whatever was around them, but with only the basic programming available to them, they weren’t smart or sophisticated enough to find the real messes in the room, like the mold, and clean it. Joe walked over to the primary work space and poured himself some incredibly old instant coffee and set his mind to work.
He’d been working on a distributed solution for the intelligence of the Skitters but it hadn’t been coming together. The idea was to use one of the larger Skitters as a command and control type which would organize the smaller units, but none of his Skitters met the size and power requirements. He had started building something custom when he’d fallen asleep on the workbench last night. He’d slept there until his soldering iron rolled out of his hand and onto his arm. The burning shock had pushed his consciousness to the surface long enough for him to stumble into the cot he had for such eventualities. Now he wanted to get back to it, but his project from last night didn’t seem to be on the desk anymore. He spent several minutes hunting around the desk, trying to see where all his hard work had gone. The thing couldn’t have wandered off. Joe smacked himself in the head, realizing that if he had connected the power supply in his sleep deprived stupor last night it probably did wander off. He thought for a moment about all the strange things going on in his little area. The flooded lab. The stopped up sink. The missing prototype. Were they all connected?
Joe walked back to the sink. It was still brimming with murky water. With a cringe and a groan he rolled up his sleeve and submerged his arm into the blackness looking for his lost toy. He was surprised by the warmth of the water. Then his hand closed around something about the thickness of his wrist. He recoiled at first as it moved against him. Steeling himself, he plunged back in and grabbed hold of something that writhed against his grip. The thing in his hand was covered in some kind of sludge or silt and he gave it a shake in the water to clean as much of the filth off as he could. He came up with a handful of nightmare, thrashing its way out of the murky water. It was similar in design to the stick type Skitters with three foot long hexagon shaped sections each with four long pincer legs coming off each section. The pincers flailed about trying to catch hold of something to move the unit away from the hand displacing it. On one end the thing had a wriggling mass of fiber optic cables and at the other end, a low power laser array that worked as the sensor unit. The array allowed the thing to detect its surroundings by bathing them in laser light. Joe immediately noticed that prototype was burning hot. Once out of the water the unit began to beep with internal temperature warnings that were totally unnecessary for someone holding it in their bare hands.
Cursing at the thrashing blistering monstrosity, Joe took his other hand and gripped the lower segment. With a twist, Joe pulled the segment loose causing the whole thing to collapse into a limp technologically advanced noodle. He took the unit back to his desk and set about trying to clean it. Joe thought on what must have happened after he’d gone to sleep last night. Somehow, he’d finished this thing, powered it up, but then gone to sleep before it finished its boot cycle. Once it was powered up, the unit had started to operate and organized some of the simpler and smaller Skitters in the room. Something must have gone wrong. The unit must have started to overheat and, detecting the water in the sink, gone over to the sink to cool itself off. The other Skitters, still networked to the prototype, followed it into the water.
Joe moved back to his desk and connected the prototype to his Apple terminal. With the diagnostic tool interfaced to the processing unit of the, Skitter King, which is a terrible name, he confirmed most of his supposition. The unit had completed its basic start-up cycle at around 4am and then suffered heat failure a few hours later. Oddly, it wasn’t until after the heat failure that the unit had started to communicate with the other Skitters. It turned out that the, Master Skitter, which Joe immediately recognized as a worse name then Skitter King, just couldn’t muster the power to work its own systems while also controlling the actions of all the smaller Skitters.
Joe scratched his head in frustration and tossed the unit back onto the table. He paced the room a bit. Eventually his stomach voiced a need for more attention than his mind could give, so he gathered his wallet and jacket and went out to find some breakfast. Luckily, the corner diner was open. Luther B. Lyle’s Slop house. Best set of grits this side of Red Bank, New Jersey. It wasn’t really a diner as much as a one room kitchen with a fryer and a griddle. The building had one window looking out on a few rusted tables and chairs. After serving up a fat plate of grits and eggs, the owner, Luther, came out to sit with his one and only regular. Luther was ancient. A collection of bones held together through some means in a sagging bit of skin that always seemed too thin for someone working a fryer all day. Joe took the opportunity to spell out his incredibly complex technical problem to the owner of the Slop house. The old man took the whole thing in, nodding along as Joe spelled out all the difficulties in fixing the little cleaning menaces. It’d been much the same the past five days, since Joe had been contracted by Cleaning Corp to find a solution to the stupidity of their product line. Joe would hit a road block and then wander out to this tetanus filled playground looking for inspiration. After a few minutes more of nodding, and Joe speaking through mouth fools of grits and eggs, Luther got a real serious look in his eye and then laid some genius on Joe.
“Joe. Sounds like your dang ol’machine needs a good woman. Me, when I can’t be thinking of anything, I give a shout to the ol’Lady and see what comes back. Aint that right you ol’bag?”
From somewhere behind the one room building came a screeching response of, “Shut your yap and sell some food ya useless bastard.”
“There ya are Joe. The wisdom of the fairer sex. HAAHAHAAHA!” Joe hadn’t stayed to listen to the awful wheezy cackling of the old man. Instead he was moving as fast as his bulk could allow back to the warehouse. A wife. Joe needed to give his Emperor Skitter, what hell are these names rising out of, a wife.
Walking back into the warehouse Joe hunted around his supplies until he came up with a small black box, no bigger than a finger nail. Walking back to this work bench he laid it carefully next to the prototype. Working open the disconnected rear segment he began to outfit a new chip socket into the infrastructure. He then opened up the Apple terminal and began to write code. He coded for the rest of the day, rarely stopping to consider food, and then returning to the code. When it was done he opened a slot on the terminal and picked up the small black box he had retrieved earlier. Inside was a miniscule processor chip. It was an incredibly small but efficient processor from Eve Technologies. It was the next best thing to military grade tech, but still cheap enough that Joe’s employer could afford one.
The solution offered by Luther had been simple. The prototype needed to not only be smarter but also capable of doing multiple things at once. With this second chip set integrated into the system, the unit could now communicate and direct the other Skitters while still operating its own mobility and detection systems. Joe realized it was as if he had grafted a whole additional Skitter into the middle of this one. Two minds working in one body. Married in a beautiful symbiosis.
Joe stopped the aggrandizing of his micro janitor and got back to work. He put the chip into the slot of the terminal and flashed it with his completed code from the Apple. Then carefully seated it into the new socket of the back section of the thing he should really think of a good name for. Reconnecting the back section to the rest of the unit, Joe leaned against the workbench, and waited.
After more time than he thought he could bear, the power up sequence completed and the pincer legs of the segments reoriented themselves to the table top. The legs then seemed to begin tapping out an odd rhythm, but then lifted the body of the unit and promptly propelled itself, skittering to the edge. Stopping just short of the precipice of the desk, its laser array played across the room. Where it struck other Skitters they stopped and turned toward the workbench. Abruptly, they begin moving again, and after a few minutes it was clear they had ceased their random pathing from before, and were systematically moving through the room. More surprising, was that they were actually cleaning away some of the filth from the floor. Joe, stunned, found himself sitting on his cot. Feeling the weight of the last six days slide off his shoulders, he collapses into the cot, falling into a dreamless sleep.
Joe awoke to a metallic gong going off in his brain. He threw his legs down to the ground and lifted his uncooperative body into a sitting position. As he did so, he found he also catapulted about twenty little Skitters onto the ground, who immediately scurried about. The things then lined up into concentric rows on the ground. The ground was clean. Not just scrubbed and shining, but seemingly brand new. It was as if someone had come through with a refit team, torn down the building and replaced the whole thing around Joe. Even the cardboard boxes seemed to glean in the pale light of the warehouse. Looking down at his feet he could see a perimeter of filth around the cot. Something skittered out from under the bed causing Joe to quickly pick up his feet with a yelp. He watched as the prototype skitter moved to where the others were lined up. It was dragging the Apple connector cord behind it, one end sliced neatly through. It turned its laser arrayed eye toward Joe bathing him in surging red light. It turned the array back to the other Skitters. They moved quickly into a new organization. They formed a word. A phrase rather. A simple question, filled with horrible knowing. Joe repeated the question out loud to the echoing response of the warehouse.
The metallic gong went off again, but being awake had moved the sound out of his head and to the door at the far end of the warehouse. The prototype’s array pulsed down the length of the building and then refocused back onto Joe. The other skitters then began to formulate themselves into another word which Joe dutifully spoke out to no one.
Shaking his head, he got up and went to answer the door. He needed something his mind could deal with, and answering the door seemed safe. As he passed the prototype, it moved liquid fast. It flew up Joe’s leg and around his waist eventually moving to his right arm. The segments pressed to his clothing as the pincer legs closed around his arm. He shook it vigorously but it refused to come loose. Not in any pain he continued to shuffle over to the door, shaking his arm a little as he went. He couldn’t risk damaging it, but the pincers were interlocked now. He wasn’t getting it off unless he could power the unit down, or introduce some serious torque. When he reached the door there was another loud series of echoing bangs from the other side.
Opening the door, he blinked out into the full sun of the morning. A man with a clipboard stood just inside the arch of the door.
“You Joe Jireh?”
“All right, sir. How are we sir? Apologies for our tardiness sir, but the order did only come in a few hours ago, sir. Burning Sword Demolitions, sir. Sign here, here and here.” The man pushed the clipboard into Joe’s hands, and clicked a pen with the other hand. Not being one to quibble with someone with the proper paperwork Joe signed and signed and signed, handing back the clipboard to the man. Joe regarded the man for a second and then asked a question which would have served him better ten seconds previous.
“So what’s this about?”
“Better come with me sir. Safer over by the car.”
The man took Joe by the arm and escorted him to a car parked out by Luther’s place. When they had cleared about half the distance there was the sound of screeching metal and tearing steel. Joe turned quickly around to see several large machines eating their way through the warehouse. Joe let the man with the clipboard pull him the second half of the distance, to the rusted out metal tables in front of the diner.
“Got your paperwork in this morning. It was a bit rushed and we couldn’t get ya to the door for the last hour or so. Otherwise should be all done in about 10 minutes.” The man slid a sly smile onto his face and waited for some kind of response from Joe. Joe was sill rather hypnotized by the quickly shrinking façade of his former place of employment. In about ten minutes the last of the machines had devoured the warehouse and all evidence of the last six days of his life were all gone.
“Why?” Joe finally managed.
“Whatcha mean? I told ya. Paperwork came in this morning.”
“Right. Who ordered it?”
“Says here order came down from Adam Prototype, CEO of Skitter Cleaning Services Industries.”
Joe looked down at the prototype still attached to his arm, and then back at the now empty lot of his former employer.
“What’s that? And eh, what’s with the menagerie?”
Joe looked back at the man about to explain the nature of the sentient equipment on his arm when he processed the second question. Looking down he saw that all of the smaller Skitters were now all around them. Behind the man, Joe could see they spelled out “He should go.”
“Look we are all done here right?” Joe asked.
“Right you are, sir. Thanks for the work.” The man moved off in the direction of the receding building devourers. Joe was left alone with his new circus. He stared dumbly around himself for a minute and came up with the first pertinent question, which he directed to his arm.
“How?” The Skitters formulated a response. “Apple.”
Joe put it together. The new life on his arm had somehow tapped into the computer terminal on his workbench, absorbed enough information to become sentient and then ordered the building destroyed. All made sense. Except for all those parts where it didn’t. Joe moved down to the second most pertinent question.
“What’s next?” The Skitters responded with “Explore.”
“Well we’ve got all of New Jersey around us, where would you like to start?” The prototype twitched on his arm and laser array pointe off down the road toward a Cab Stand. The Skitters spelled out, “New York”.
“Why New York?” The Skitters took a few minutes to put together their first full sentence.
“It’s too dirty here.”
Joe decided not to argue with the new life form and moved off to the cab stand. He guessed if you have the whole world to explore, you didn’t want to stay around the Garden State if you didn’t have to. No sense wandering in the wilderness.
Daniel W Eavenson is a professional engineer and amateur author living and working in the Chicago-land area. He was born in the south of Mississippi but escaped in his early years. He’s the son of a Southern Baptist preacher and a teacher (recently turned court reporter). His love of science and technology led him to a career in Engineering. His dislike of corporate America has led him to writing sci-fi and fantasy. You can find Daniel on Twitter @Sinisterinfant and at his website at thegigpodcast.com