Escape Pod 841: Deepo 12
By Jeff Hewitt
Nothing made Deepo 12 feel more alive than doing its job.
Its actuators sighed as another cassette slid from its workstation, tinted blastic masking the rainbow sheen of the wafers inside. Dim strip lights curved over the protective casing as it clicked into place.
Then Deepo 12 waited.
3.9 milliseconds later, 12 received confirmation from the master control system.
If it could, Deepo 12 would have smiled. The fab was its home. Its purpose. Its raison d’être.
Deepo 12 knew what that meant, because its troubleshooting mode accepted 195 different language inputs. And people in the fab spoke several of them. But most spoke English, in one way or another.
For five years, for nearly 24 hours a day, Deepo 12 had worked in this AZ complex, shuttling microchips and their components around the clean room, or shifting inventory from one warehouse to another, or even assembling some of the products the chips went into.
The unit’s proprietary containment pod and manipulator arms could handle just about anything. Most of the time, that meant cassettes stuffed with silicon wafers. Deepo 12 would take them from one side of the kilometers-long plant to the other, pausing as machines crammed transistors onto their gleaming surfaces.
Sometimes processes changed, and Deepo 12 would be reassigned. Sometimes it would get hooked up to the complex’s extensive rail system. Sometimes it would scoot around on its omni-directional wheels. And sometimes it would sit idle, waiting for a task. It was only number 12 out of 357 automated transport robots, after all.
But of all its assignments over the years, it liked working the clean room the best.
That’s where Walter worked.
Walter was a clean workflow tech. The best in the complex, as far as Deepo 12 was concerned. And all the performance metrics from the master control system agreed.
Not that the MCS cared much for the humans on-site. As far as it was concerned, humans were dusty, error-prone inputs to the manufacturing and distribution processes. Which was true, for the most part.
But the metrics didn’t lie.
Deepo 12 liked Walter. In the years since its installation, they had processed 5,038,556 wafers together. With thousands of chips cut from each disc, and trillions of transistors etched into each chip, it was fair to say the two of them were responsible for sorting their share of electrons.
Walter always kept himself so well groomed for a human. Not like his friend Bashir, who often let his beard grow beyond AZ’s guidelines, and sometimes showed up looking like he hadn’t slept.
But the thing 12 liked most about Walter was this:
Walter talked to his machines.
He’d share little details about his life as they worked. His engagement. His marriage. His little one on the way. Sometimes he’d sing to them when things went well. Or even when things went wrong.
Deepo 12 remembered Walter’s first shift. It had noticed him in Electro-plating, the clean-shaven new hire nodding as the supervisor’s avatar explained his duties.
Apparently, 12 had been Walter’s varsity number. When he saw Deepo 12 roll by, he pointed, smiling as he shouted:
“Please don’t yell at the machines,” his supervisor scolded, her face flat. “They could confuse it for an emergency.”
But Deepo 12 understood. They had a special connection. Whenever malfunctions disrupted the fab’s workflow, it would recall that bit of memory as consolation.
Things were running smoothly today. No need for recall.
Deepo 12 saw Walter on its way to Etching. 5:08AM. Nearing the end of his shift.
Bashir leaned against the flat outer panels of a lithography machine as Walter ran maintenance on its lasers.
“I don’t know…” Walter mumbled, drooping eyes tracking data on its terminal. “I got a lot of–oh, hey Twelve.”
Maloom-op, 12 chirped.
“Everybody’s got shit to do, Walter. But this is important. This is the one, man.”
“You said that last time.”
Bashir closed his eyes, tapped the back of his head against the truck-like machine.
12 slowed down, staying close so its sensors could pick their conversation from the noise of the fab.
“This is different, man. People are mad. Two-hundred K are checked in for the march on Krypt. We’re going down in Greg’s van–“
The supervisor’s hologram blinked on, arms crossed.
“Clocked in yet, Bashir?”
The MCS pinged Deepo 12, noting its suboptimal time between stations.
Bashir shook his head, eyes still closed.
The supervisor made a show of checking her watch.
“Shift’s started. Might want to get on that.”
She flickered off.
Bashir shooed the empty space she left behind, then slouched toward his station.
“Think about it, Walter!”
Walter didn’t respond, feigning concern over the numbers on the display.
The MCS pinged again.
Walter saw 12 stalled in the aisle, hulking walls of multi-billion-dollar equipment on either side.
“What do you think, Twelve?”
Bashir called out sick the next day, and even though Walter wasn’t scheduled for another six shifts, he came in to cover. Deepo 12 admired how machine-like Walter could be when needed.
According to the MCS, it wasn’t just Bashir who called out. The entire complex clocked a 36% reduction in workers. Less than a skeleton crew in most divisions.
It wouldn’t explain why.
12 carted a boule in from the loading bay. The fat cylinder of crystallized silicon glimmered under the lights, warped reflections of the fab sliding to grey and black at its edges. Walter watched as Deepo 12 mounted the boule, saw prepped to cut it into wafers. The filament kicked on, atoms-thick wire whining as it spun.
Walter looked tired. Or worried. Deepo 12 wasn’t sure. Sweat clung to the exposed skin around his eyes.
“Weird day, huh, Twelve?”
12 released the boule, satisfied with the way it coasted into the saw.
Meep mop. Maloom-op.
Condensation clouded Walter’s work specs. He took them off, rubbing the clear lenses against his dust suit as they headed back to the loading bay.
Walter’s gait stuttered, the rhythm of his steps faltering by 432 milliseconds. He threw his specs back on. Deepo 12 probed its sensors.
Walter’s supervisor marched toward them, the wavering outline of her anti-static field framing frizzy black hair and a beige pantsuit. She glared at the unmanned stations, taking count as her high heels clicked down the long, central hall of the clean room.
“Walter.” She nodded as she passed.
Walter didn’t respond.
Now Deepo 12 was sure.
Walter was worried.
At midnight, the MCS updated the roster for the coming week. Because attendance rates remained 27.7% below normal, Walter would be working doubles for the rest of the month.
Deepo 12 found this suitable. But it also raised some questions:
Why the sudden changes to the schedule?
How long would the complex be at reduced capacity?
Would output suffer?
The MCS told Deepo 12 to mind its own business.
12 doublechecked the rota. Walter’s downtime had been reduced to 60 hours a week.
Would he still operate at full efficiency?
He’d pulled back-to-back doubles before. But those were rare occasions. Not plans from the MCS.
12 deposited a cassette with the dicing machine. The blocky Dutch device didn’t care about the changes any more than the MCS.
Walter trudged by as Deepo 12 collected another cassette.
Walter nodded, but said nothing.
At 4:52AM, Bashir showed up for his usual shift, along with several of the techs who’d called out the day before. They exchanged glances with Walter before confirming their assignments and clocking in.
Deepo 12 couldn’t decipher what those types of glances meant. It continued to the ion implanter, watching as Walter sighed and got back to work.
The implanter’s internal arms removed wafers from the cassette, glossy discs disappearing into the machine. A new cassette filled up with ionized silicon.
While Deepo 12 wasn’t as specialized as the implanter, the MCS provided it with a basic understanding of its function:
For microchips to work, ionized impurities had to be inserted into the semiconducting material. Implanters beamed these ions directly into the wafers. The resulting impurities freed electrons for use in the finished chips.
Impurities in the human workforce didn’t seem to have the same productive effect.
12 idled, listening to the buzz of the fab. Deepo units whined along rails in the ceiling. Jet streams of purified air pumped through the ventilation ducts. Lasers zapped inside featureless slabs the size of shipping containers. Dust-suited workers muttered to themselves.
A ping came in from the MCS:
12: Reassigned. Packaging.
As it drove to the airlock, it glimpsed Bashir heading for Management. Walter stared from the other side of the fab as he disappeared from view.
After a few shifts, conditions seemed to be normalizing. Attendance rose, breaching the MCS’s acceptability threshold. The strange tension between Walter and the others waned. Laughter returned to the clean room. Walter even hummed a tune he’d sung for Deepo 12 before; one about the unit being a ”speed racer,” words mangled and adapted to tasks in the fab.
But it didn’t last.
One day, as Deepo 12 collected a finished batch for testing, the MCS ordered a full stop.
Full stops were never good. They meant lost hours. Lost wafers. Lost output. Full stops made 12 anxious. Or the closest thing to it.
The workers paced, grumbling about the unplanned shutdown. Walter and Bashir loitered by the etching equipment. Deepo 49 sat between them, laden with cassettes.
“What you think it is?” Bashir moaned.
Walter shrugged, eyes roving across the fab.
Deepo 12 checked the complex servers for information. All systems were functioning within normal parameters.
It pinged the MCS for an update.
It waited 9.8 milliseconds, then pinged again.
Suddenly, the airlock doors flew open, contamination lights flashing from the walls and ceiling. The pressure imbalance ripped Bashir’s hair net from his face. Walter steadied himself against the etching machine.
A dozen men in black body armor poured through the airlock, armed with stun batons and shields. They looked like complex security, but the IDs had been removed from their suits.
They split into teams of three and fanned through the clean room. A few workers bolted for the emergency exits. Most just stood still, watching it all unfold. Like Deepo 12.
A team descended on Bashir, batons drawn. He put his hands up.
“Whoa, whoa–what’s this abo-“
But instead of finishing his sentence, Bashir grabbed a cassette from Deepo 49, hurled it at the closest black suit, and ran. The security guard swatted it away, splitting the tinted blastic and shattering the wafers inside.
Walter froze as the guards sprinted after Bashir. Shouts erupted across the fab. Equipment clattered to the floor as apprehended workers struggled against the security teams.
Bashir scrambled around Deepo 12, dislodging another cassette from its pod and whipping it at the next armored guard. The guard dodged, slid a small gun from their thigh holster, and fired. Bashir collapsed, legs caught in a viscous, hardening web. Two more security guards pounced on him before he could move, knees thumping against his ribs.
They hauled him up by his armpits.
“You see, Walter? You see?!” Bashir shouted, yanking his arms, silicon shards crunching under the guards’ boots as they dragged him out.
Walter looked away.
By the airlock, two men in business suits spoke to the clean room supervisor. She pointed at Bashir. The two men nodded in unison, black specs shielding their eyes.
Walter slumped against his machine, arms limp. The ventilation system whined. Dark, polychromatic flecks littered the floor, each failed chip glowing feebly under the strip lights.
The MCS should have sent warnings about the particulate levels. About the unsealed airlock. About the hundreds of now-useless wafers. Instead, it pinged:
12: Reassigned. Cleanup.
The MCS reverted to its usual, hyper-hygienic self, ordering all human workers home for the duration of the clean. The Deepo units pinged each other. They kept communications brief, hoping to elude the master control system.
The MCS seemed too busy to notice. It purged rosters, attempting to rebuild a schedule from the remaining workers. Other departments reported similar issues.
In the sanitation bay, a molecular scrubber was mounted to Deepo 12’s chassis. It waited as the units assigned sweeping duty circled the fab.
Deepo units: Malfunction?
The shop chatter cut out.
Nothing like this had ever happened. Workers had been terminated a few times over the years for espionage, or stealing, but those were isolated incidents.
This was different.
Cleared of debris larger than a nanometer, the MCS cycled the air from the fab and initiated a UV bath. In the purple half-light of the ultraviolet lamps, Deepo 12 contemplated what the fab would be like without Walter.
9 hours later, the MCS gave the all-clear. The first human returned 38 minutes and 16 seconds after that.
It was Walter.
The supervisor’s avatar told him to wait by the loading bay until more people arrived. Walter nodded and sat on a bench by the personnel lockers. He waved as Deepo 12 positioned itself for boule duty.
The supervisor cocked an eyebrow, then glanced at 12. She shook her head and blinked off.
As employees trickled in over the next hour, Deepo 12 found it only recognized a few of them. Badges with the word ”ObreLibre” and a corporate logo marked the strangers’ dust suits. The supervisor reappeared when enough for a skeleton crew had arrived, pale holographic lines blurring the bags under her eyes.
“Due to unauthorized organization off-campus, AZ has exercised their right to terminate any contracts found in violation of their terms. Those of you who’ve been with us for a while may notice some new faces around, starting today.”
Dust-masked heads turned to check the people standing next to them.
“Please join me in welcoming your new colleagues.”
The avatar clapped and gestured to the new workers. A few people nodded to one another. No one clapped. Then she repeated the speech in French.
Deepo 12 liked the new workers well enough. But they didn’t talk much, and they needed a lot of training. What Deepo 12 didn’t like is how the changes affected Walter.
His normally smooth face began showing signs of stubble. His performance metrics sagged. And since most of the temps spoke a strong French dialect, he rarely conversed with the others.
But worst of all, he stopped singing.
The MCS reported that output had fallen by 5.3% in the days since Bashir was taken. It attributed the fall to a range of variables, but for some reason omitted the staffing changes as a potential cause.
Incident reports multiplied. During Walter’s third double, one of the new hires vented a lithography machine, sparking a partial shutdown. The next day, another toppled a silicon boule, sending it rolling over the floor and damaging Deepo 99. Dirt was tracked through the airlock on a daily basis. Optical checks failed to catch misprinted die.
And most of the new workers smoked cigarettes before their shifts, despite company policy.
Attendance declined. One by one, the old workers, the humans Deepo 12 had worked with for years, stopped showing up. A couple days later, the MCS would remove their names from the roster.
Eventually, Walter was the only one left.
Deepo 12 watched him work, eyes straight ahead, almost like he really was the only one left, alone in the fab, going through the motions the MCS laid out for him. In his haze, he accidentally bumped one of the contractors.
The man pushed back, piqued.
“Fais attention, ‘ricain.”
Deepo 12 stopped next to them.
The contractor squinted at the Deepo unit, then back to Walter. He sniffed and went back to work.
Walter smiled at 12. But it looked wrong. It barely reached his eyes.
3 days later, attendance dropped below the master control system’s minimum acceptable level. Even the temp workers weren’t showing up.
Deepo units: Hold.
12 rolled to a stop.
The handful of remaining contractors disengaged from their assignments as the fab ground to a halt. They clustered by the airlock, whispering, voices almost lost to the endless thrum of ventilation. Machines wound down, until the whoosh of air and the bleeps of idled equipment were the only sounds in the building.
Walter swayed, hands on his hips as he scanned the clean room.
51 minutes later, the temps walked out without a word. Walter took off his specs and sat by the lockers, head in his hands.
Deepo 12 wanted to help. But it didn’t know how.
It scooted toward its friend, ignoring the standby warnings from the MCS.
The supervisor’s avatar appeared.
“Did you not get the notice?”
Walter examined his work specs, faint glint of information glossing their lenses. He shook his head.
“No, I did. I just-“
“Until the situation improves, we have to furlough the fab’s staff.”
“I understand.” Walter nodded, looking up at the image of the woman, sweats in place of her typical pantsuit. “I just need the hours. My wife and I-“
“I’m sorry. You’d have to put in a transfer request. But…”
The supervisor’s focus shifted, then came back to Walter. She pulled her hair into an unruly bun.
“You see what’s going on out there.”
Walter nodded, tears in his eyes.
“Go home, Walter. Stay safe.”
The hologram flashed off. With his boss gone, Walter noticed Deepo 12. Its internal fans hummed.
Unexpectedly, Walter laughed.
“Guess this is it, huh, Twelve?”
12 didn’t know what ”this” was.
Deepo units: Reassigned. Distribution.
With the fab down, the MCS shifted all automated workers to warehouse duty. AZ had phased humans out of those departments years ago.
12 ended up in Home Goods.
It had been assigned warehouse work before; mostly shifting pallets and racks from one place to another, or sorting box sizes for delivery units, or mounting packages for drone pick-up. The same basic movements, over and over.
Deepo 12 didn’t mind the repetition. It’s what it was made for. Every packed box and hauled pallet gave it a sense of accomplishment. A partition of the MCS kept 12 informed of order flow and delivery statistics, updating its tasks accordingly.
But it missed the clean room.
It missed Walter.
It even missed the hologram of the supervisor.
12’s arms hissed as they arranged flat-packed nightstands by serial number. After it stacked the tables, it would be fetching boxes of pool chemicals for pickup.
But something became clear after a couple days in the warehouse:
Orders were slowing down. The usually insatiable AZ customers, with their subscription services and recurring orders, were losing their appetite for microwaves and blenders and sunlamps.
Eventually, the MCS sent 12 to a new department. But packs of makeup, moisturizers, and hair products didn’t fare any better. Orders fell to a trickle across every division. Bare shelves revealed themselves as trucks missed deliveries.
And then, one day, it happened:
Purchases flatlined, with existing orders already fulfilled.
Deepo 12 waited for instructions, checking its sensors for something to do. Boxes of inflatable toys sat alone on a rack. A young boy smiled from the packages, missing front teeth repeated beneath a sorting code. Scuff marks lined the tiered shelves around it.
Deepo units: Charging stations.
12 followed a line of Deepo units back to the fab. They passed under the naked steel girders of the new wing, construction waldos frozen in place since the shutdown.
Once it went through decontamination, Deepo 12 headed for the far end of the clean room. The stark, angular machines, which had hummed 24 hours a day since 12 came online, loomed on either side. With all the human workers gone, the only light came from emergency beacons, dotting the building at regular intervals. Pale red shadows cut across the once-bustling floor.
Deepo 12 agreed with 39.
Though it wasn’t sure it knew what that meant.
Maybe it did now.
The charging bay gleamed at the edge of the fab. Status strips faded in and out, bathing the brushed steel and white blastic in yellow light. In formation, the Deepo units reversed into their docks.
As the status lights shifted to green, 12 pinged the MCS for information.
Questions burned in its memory:
How long can the complex last like this?
What happened to the orders?
When can we get back to work?
After 30 seconds of relative silence, Deepo 12 went into sleep mode.
It woke when its batteries reached capacity. 2.8 milliseconds later, the MCS pinged.
12: Assignment. Filters.
Despite the lack of activity, the clean room still required cleaning. The ventilation system’s graphene filters needed frequent replacements.
Deepo 12 slid from its berth and headed for the maintenance track. 16.2 meters and 20 seconds later, the MCS pinged again.
Deepo 12 queried the change in task.
Idled in the fab’s main aisle, 12’s sensors began picking up noises. Thuds. Repeated. And getting louder.
Deepo 12 reduced the speed of its coolant fans. Beneath the thuds, it heard voices.
Suddenly, the double doors outside the clean room burst open. A throng of men and women surged through, many carrying makeshift weapons. They held legs from unassembled furniture. Golf clubs. Fire pokers. An arm pried from a Deepo unit.
The mob threw itself against the bomb-proof glass, cudgels bouncing off clear latticework. Others toppled carts of equipment, shouting as they ransacked the halls. A few stumbled and disappeared from view. More charged in. A group of men in masks and homemade armor went for the airlock, crowbars in hand.
Deepo 12 wondered what they expected to find in the clean room. Not that they had any chance of breaching.
After smudging the glass with their attempts, most of the crowd tired and moved on to another part of the complex. The masked men continued prying until the MCS set off the fire suppression system. White foam gushed from vents in the ceiling, spreading across the floors outside the airlock. The masked men abandoned their effort as the foam piled up, slipping as they followed the rest of the mob.
The silence of ventilation fell over the fab, crashes and whoops fading into the distance. Motion sensor lights clicked off in the halls.
The MCS pinged:
Deepo 12 never realized how lonely it could get. How unproductive it could feel. How sad.
It took 338 hours and 13 minutes of downtime for it to understand just how much working in the fab had meant to it. How each task held a special significance it hadn’t appreciated until now.
Deepo 12 missed the orderly flow of the complex. The way the shifts overlapped, the MCS updating assignments on the fly, sorting people and machines the way a transistor channeled electrons.
There was a grace to it. 12 had never considered that until it was gone.
Something had happened outside the complex. Something the MCS couldn’t—or wouldn’t—explain to the Deepo units.
Instead, it spent most days running diagnostics on the power systems. Checking efficiency ratios on the rooftop solar. Stress testing the tidal stations. Doing its best to keep the fab ready to go at a moment’s notice. The word ”Sisyphean” popped up in 12’s language recognition modules.
The last thing the MCS seemed interested in was the missing human workers.
Deepo 12 found itself recalling files from memory, observing how the workers had moved, how they’d looked at each other, how each had their own peculiar way of doing things. In even their most basic tasks, they were more complex than the most specialized equipment in the fab.
Compared to them, making chips was simple.
The bleep of a key badge brought Deepo 12’s attention back to its sensors.
The outer airlock door opened. Two figures shuffled through, closing it behind them. Another bleep, and the inner door slid open.
Every operation in the clean room seemed to pause.
If Deepo 12 could cry, it would have.
It was Walter.
He wore jeans and a waxed canvas jacket, plaid flannel under its cinched zipper. Thick brown stubble covered his chin. A duffel bag hung across his back.
A woman in a long green coat clung to his side, her stomach too big to fit beneath its loose folds. She cupped the underside of her belly with one hand. Smooth black hair framed the olive skin of her face.
Contamination lights flashed from the ceiling. Walter ignored them and headed for the lockers, boots squeaking from the dried foam.
12, 39, 42: Cleanup.
Walter opened his locker and threw his work specs into the bag, along with a spare dust suit. Then, using a crowbar left by the mob, he pried the rest of the lockers open, throwing what he could into the open duffel by his feet.
12 decoupled from its charging station, speeding ahead of 39 and 42.
The woman sat on a bench by the lockers, exhaling and closing her eyes. Walter zipped his bag and tucked it under the bench. He kissed the woman’s forehead.
“I’ll be back. Don’t open the airlock.”
She nodded as Walter slipped out of the clean room, sealing the lock behind him.
Deepo 12 came to a stop 2.5 meters from the woman.
She batted her eyelashes, surprised by 12’s greeting.
Later that night, Walter carted one of the break room’s cots into a hidden corner of the clean room. A new bag, stuffed with supplies from the medical bay, sat nearby. He knelt and pulled a pill bottle from inside.
He handed it to the woman, who dropped two small gel caps into her palm.
Realizing it couldn’t sanitize the clean room as two humans filled it with particulates, the MCS gave up.
Deepo units: Charging stations.
But Deepo 12 didn’t want to go back. It watched as Walter curled up on the bed with the woman. The way they embraced reminded 12 of its charging base. She glanced down.
“What’s with that one?” She whispered.
“Mm?” Walter muffled into the back of her head, sounding half asleep.
“That robot. It’s… watching.”
Walter craned his neck to look.
“Oh. That’s Twelve.” He let his head fall back to the cot. “Twelve, this is my wife, Chanda.”
Chanda hesitated, then waved.
Walter and Chanda left the next morning. As the Deepo units swept, 12 wondered where they might be headed.
Why had they spent the night in the fab?
The MCS told it to concentrate on cleaning.
Months passed, and Deepo 12 spent an increasing amount of time in sleep mode. Two solar arrays had malfunctioned. With those offline, the MCS insisted the Deepo units conserve energy.
When it woke, 12 sometimes found itself booting into memory files, its sensor data suppressed along with instructions from the MCS. It would see Walter, young and cleanshaven, pointing and smiling. Then the empty clean room would come back, the quiet machines keeping watch over their own shadows.
One day, Deepo 12 woke to silence. No whoosh of air cycling through the ventilation ducts. No metronomic clicking from the charging stations.
The emergency lights pulsed. They’d lost power.
12 pinged the MCS.
It checked its sensors. At the opposite end of the fab, both airlock doors stood open. Two beams of light swept across the clean room. A third and fourth clicked on and off, highlighting the dead machinery as they neared.
An unfamiliar electronic squawk rang out, followed by a voice:
“Must’ve been the mains. Killed power in the fab. Flip it back.”
Deepo 12 recognized the voice.
Red and green LEDs rippled across the fab’s equipment as the power came back on. Motion sensors triggered the ceiling’s strip lights.
Two men swiveled in the center of the room, turning off their headlamps as they looked around. One wore a ripstop vest covered in pockets, a long-sleeve thermal rolled up to his elbows. The lights of the fab haloed the dark skin of his bald head.
The other man had a wiry brown beard and bushy hair. He tied a flannel shirt around his waist, his t-shirt stained with sweat.
Deepo 12 could hardly believe its sensors.
Walter was back.
The skin on his face looked darker. Dirt crusted his boots.
The master control system came back up, confused by the sudden shutdown.
Deepo units: Report.
Deepo 12 ignored it, letting the MCS get back up to speed on its own.
Walter smiled as he saw 12 approaching. He turned to the other man.
“Should be fifteen units in here, not counting the ones on rails.” He pointed to the deactivated units on the ceiling. “We’ll need to make a few trips.”
The other man nodded, eying Deepo 12 as it stopped in front of them.
He glanced at Walter.
“You know this one?”
The next day, Walter returned with a group of men and women, all toting power tools and muddy shoes. They positioned a motorized flatbed in front of the airlock, then got to work removing equipment from the clean room.
The MCS sounded the alarm. Red lights flashed. A klaxon shrieked.
Walter covered one ear and fished a handheld from his pocket.
“Control system’s still online. Cut the power.”
13.8 seconds later, the alarms cut out. Deepo 12 felt the MCS switch off as headlamps and flashlights flipped on. A plasma torch splashed blue over the clean room walls. Electric saws revved up.
Walter signaled for Deepo 12 to drive down to the airlock. When it got there, he crouched, tapping a gloved hand against the airtight pod where cassettes used to sit.
“Ready to go for a little ride, Twelve?”
Walter nodded, patting 12’s chassis. Then he walked around the Deepo unit, popped its charging port, and removed its battery.
Everything went dark.
When it came back online, Deepo 12 discovered it had been connected to a new power supply. A solar array at the edge of a wooded field. The sun hung above a rim of budding trees.
Its internal clocks logged the time: 00:00.
Deepo 12 checked its systems, curious about its new surroundings. No master control system pinged back. Instead, Deepo 12 found a database of handcrafted code appending its defaults. Information on plant life and climate data cascaded through its memory.
12 parsed the data coming through its sensors. Tilled mounds of rich black soil traced the field in rows. Some held leafy green shoots, popping up periodically into the distance.
Soybeans. Sunflowers. Tomatoes. Corn. Squash.
A few silhouettes roamed the field, squatting to inspect the plants.
Deepo 12 tested its mobility. As it scooted back and forth, it determined that its omnidirectional wheels had been replaced by fat blastic tires. A basket hung below its front manipulator arm. A seed satchel below the back.
In the near corner of the field, a weather-beaten two-story house rose from a terraced garden. Chanda sat on the front porch, nursing a newborn.
12 drove toward the house, treaded tires negotiating the uneven ground. As it neared, it detected pop-up structures dotting the land behind the house. People came and went from the field, wiping their brows or fanning their faces with sunhats. Some corralled children, still rubbing their eyes from sleep.
An old man tottered through a screen door at the front of the home, tailed by Walter, bulky tablet tucked under his arm.
“Slow down, Dad.”
The old man brushed Walter off, grumbling as he labored into a seat next to Chanda and the baby.
Walter sighed, shaking his head. He turned to face the field, waving as workers trekked in from the rows of plants. Then he saw Deepo 12, and waved again.
12 parked at the shabby wooden stairs leading up to the porch. Walter pulled the old tablet out, whistling the ”speed racer” song as he tapped out a sequence on its screen.
“Ready to get to work, Twelve?”
He looked tired, but happy.
Meep mop. Maloom-op.
Walter chuckled. “I bet you are.”
He tapped the tablet again. Instructions on how to seed peas came to 12’s attention. It reversed and headed into the field, sun climbing into the sky.
Deepo 12 got to work. Nothing could make it feel more alive.
By Valerie Valdes
And that’s our story.
Jeff has this to say about the story: We’re often told, by both the scientific and literary communities, that we shouldn’t overly “anthropomorphize” animals or machines. That we shouldn’t project human emotions onto creatures that seem so different from us. I think this is a mistake. What if cognition and emotional experience are evolutionary steps that even the simplest animals and machines are capable of making? What if our search for intelligent life, or our efforts to develop “true” artificial intelligence, are misguided? What if they’re already here?
I loved how this story filtered the setting’s larger social breakdown through the POV of a simple, sweet robot with basic needs and desires, and how ultimately those desires were honored. I think, too, that stories like this speak to how treating humans as automatons dehumanizes us all, while treating robots as more than objects can make us all better people.
Escape Pod is a production of Escape Artists Inc, and is brought to you with a creative commons attribution noncommercial no derivatives license. Don’t change it. Don’t sell it. Please do share it.
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Our opening and closing music is by daikaiju at daikaiju.org.
And our closing quotation this week is from Terry Pratchett, through whom the inimitable Granny Weatherwax said: “There’s no grays, only white that’s got grubby. I’m surprised you don’t know that. And sin, young man, is when you treat people as things. Including yourself. That’s what sin is.”
Thanks for joining us, and may your escape pod be fully stocked with stories.
About the Author
Jeff Hewitt grew up in Oswego, New York, surrounded by farms and factory floors. A graduate of Goldsmiths, University of London, he’s currently recovering from work as a post-production supervisor in LA.
About the Narrator
Scott Campbell searches for battles that will increase his skills for the battles to come. The slush pile underneath PseudoPod Towers is a worthy opponent. He also writes, directs, and performs for the queer (in every sense of the word) cabaret The Mickee Faust Club. He also write far too infrequently at the official online home of the Sleep Deprivation Institute (and pop culture website) Needcoffee.com. He lives in Florida with absolutely no pets.