By Brent Gaskey
The ancient fluorescent lights flickered on in the cramped compartment with the hum of a ballast that was about to go out. The smell of gear oil and burned out electronic components filled the stale air of the work area. Seaman Jones stepped over the bulkhead into the compartment and activated the HVAC system to clear out the stagnant smells. The room was stuffed to the ceiling with old tech from when the ship was in active service. Racks of service mechs, hardened containers of technical equipment, and randomly stacked boxes filled the compartment deep in the bowels of the old ship.
As Jones made her way through the tight compartment, she double checked the ancient tablet she had in brought to make sure she was in the right area. It was the right room, and after she could see past some of the hardened protective cases stacked by the door, she could see the slowly pulsating lights on the mechs lining both bulkheads of the room deep in the bowels of the ship. They hung there like metal suits on racks in some old-time photo of an ancient department store.
The racks held the human forms of the ancient mechs, some of the first used by the U.S. Navy. The human-sized robots had been used for dangerous and mundane jobs throughout the ship and fleet for the past 100 years. The mechs were suspended by cradles under the armpits of the blue and yellow compact human forms. Jones turned to inspect the first unit hanging on the rack closest to her. Her A-School had introduced her to a lot of different mech types, but nothing this old. These were first generation mechs made shortly after the breakthroughs in A.I. and battery tech allowed for enough dexterity to make them capable human replacements, and smart enough to do the jobs that were too dangerous or monotonous to keep humans engaged. These mechs were still marked with the eagle and anchor of the last century, back when the Navy was only the wet navy, and spacefaring wasn’t part of its purview.
Jones pressed the release on the inspection panel in the upper left chest, and the panel popped open to show a small 2D touch display. Inside, she depressed the power button for five seconds, and the display came to life. In an instant there was text flowing across the screen with the rotating logo of the United States Navy hovering in the background.
Initiating AI… AI failed… Initiating backup… Backup failed. No OS or AI loaded into memory.
Emergency Autonomous Movement (EAM) only, proceed with startup: Y/N?
Jones lips pursed as she pressed the No button on the screen and the unit went back to sleep, pulsing a slow blue light on its chest as she closed the access panel. The mechs seemed to be completely wiped of all software and firmware. Or at least this first one was, and that probably meant that the rest of them were too.
“This is going to be harder than I thought,” Jones said to herself while moving down the line of racks with unfocused motion. Jones had grown up poor. Some of the kids in her school even had servant mechs for their families, but that was something Jones could have only dreamed of. Her school did have a robotics club that was all that remained of a vocational program the school had. But as limited as it was, she took every free moment in school to spend with the old tech still around from that technical program. She had been drawn to mechs because they offered a good job in the future and was fascinated by the jobs they could do. They were getting close to human in their ability to do dangerous and difficult jobs like deep sea welding work, or areas where radiation exposure would kill a person wearing a Mark One Human Meat Suit.
But as cool as the new mechs coming on the scene were, it was the old, Third World War mechs that she would give anything to see in action. The ones that existed before the AI restrictions, and the dumbing down of the software used to run the better-than-human bodies. The first mechs used in the U.S. military didn’t have the same restraints placed on them that the current models did. They had actual artificial intelligence running them. And while the tech used in their bodies was older and maybe not as well refined, they were infinitely smarter than the current models that were always so polite and proper, but were purposely made to be subservient and dull-witted.
She remembered watching old war films when she was a child, and her favorite had always been the ones with the Navy SEAL warbots, specifically the KRS Murphy models. The SEAL mechs fought alongside their SEAL human brothers and sisters in battles that raged across the globe keeping America safe from her enemies. Those ancient mechs were quick, intelligent, and funny, and as loved as any of the human stars in those movies. She had always respected the sacrifices made by those mechs to save their human counterparts. It was always a mech that would give its own life to save the squad, or plant the bomb, or give up their spot on the VTOL for a human comrade. To her, those mechs weren’t just tools, they were as human as their flesh and bone counterparts.
Jones had finished top of her class, so when the chance came after Navy A-School to get assigned to one of the last ships in the fleet – even a short assignment – that had Mark One mechs aboard, Seaman Andrea Jones jumped at the chance. She would have the rest of her career to play with the new versions, but to get to interact with actual battle-proven Mark Ones? That was an opportunity she couldn’t pass up. Even if it was just inventorying and packaging them to send them to the Naval Advanced Warfare Lab, it was something.
Jones continued down the row of mechs, stopping at a rack now and then to look over one of the machines. The mechs would have to be individually tested and inventoried, as they were so old they didn’t include the standard Naval Acquisitions Records Keeping System (NARKS) tag that would broadcast its system status and location to the ship’s A.I.
As she approached the end of the compartment and the last of the racks, she noticed one of the mechs at the back of a stack. It was a different color than the others and seemed to have a different head. It also didn’t have the pulsing light on its chest indicating it was in stand down mode. It was just dark.
She released the dogs on the rack and slid the rack forward so she could get a better look at the unit. As the rack slid forward Jones’s breath caught in her throat. The rack came to a hard stop with a thunk as it locked in the open position. She stared in amazement. This was not supposed to be here. She looked at the outdated tablet in her hand to verify the inventory numbers and there was no mention of any units other than basic maintenance and supply bots commonly found on a ship like this. And as cool as those were to Jones, this mech made her a little weak in the knees when she looked at it.
What was hanging before Jones was a dark gray anodized and mottled tan painted KRS Murphy Model, Mark1-Mod2A, Naval Special Warfare Mech. There were less than one hundred Murphs ever built if she was remembering right, and they were all supposed to have been destroyed in the war. These were the pointiest part of the spear when it came to mechs of their era. The smartest and most capable mechs ever built.
Jones reached out to touch the bot, but hesitated, not wanting to break the spell of this being a dream. This was one of the mechs that made the final push of the last war to save the U.S. from nuclear annihilation. They made the final assault on the caliphate’s forces before they could activate the stolen nuclear launch codes. She could see the old movie in her head with the mechs moving inhumanly fast through the corridors of the enemy’s base. “The Sacrifice of the One Hundred” was one of her favorite movies, and here was one of the actual mechs hanging before her.
Jones softly touched cool composite arm of the old mech and rotated the body on its rack with a soft push so it faced her. The mech did not awaken but remained steadfastly motionless in the rack. There were no external lights on this mech, as things with blinky lights didn’t tend to do well in sneaky, covert situations, but the access panel was in the same area as the normal maintenance units. The door was armored, and about three times as thick as the ones on the regular models, but it was accessed the same way.
Jones tapped the old tablet she had to the access panel and after a couple of seconds it opened with a snick. Inside the hatch was a similar interface as the regular bot, but had a smaller, hardened version of the screen she had looked at on the other unit. It also had a hardwire input point for a wired connection.
“There’s something you don’t see every day,” said Jones to herself about the port. “A lot more secure than anything wireless.” She admired the old tech. Sometimes tried and true was still the best, and not having your war droid hacked in the middle of a battle by some enemy A.I. over a wireless network would rank pretty high on a warriors list of things not to do.
“Welcome to twentieth century tech…” said Jones as she plugged in the mech to the heavy old tablet’s retractable interface cable. The tablet was just old enough to still work with the ancient technology, but just new enough to still run some semblance of a modern OS on it. The cable was integrated into the old tablet, and once she had made the connection the screen turned red, and a warning claxon emanated from the tablet.
Disable all weapons systems manually before proceeding with startup procedures!
Co-verify safety lock outs before start up! Refer to startup procedure KRS SWM M1-2_2a-100.013-A3 for further information.”
Jones tried clicking the attached link for the startup procedure, but the page came back with an error. Then Jones manually typed in the code in a search box to search the library of old files she had secured on the tablet and it came up with a match. She opened the file and read through the contents. It was a check list to make sure that all external weapons systems were disabled and all the unit’s hardpoints were powered down. She felt more like a drone fighter crew person than a mech tech.
Jones ran through the procedure making certain she didn’t miss some giant barrel of a slug thrower sticking out of an arm or the middle of its chest. The old movies had taken pretty free license with the kinds of weapons these units had, and Hollywood was never one to limit the power or size of a weapon or it’s ammo – at least not for the good guys. She had studied these religiously, but it was one thing to look at them on a screen or in VR and another to have one hanging in front of you.
With the checklist complete, Jones began the rest of the startup procedure in earnest. She was concentrating on the ancient pad in front of her when she saw a shadow fall across the hatchway to the room. It was the outline of an extremely slim mech, about five feet tall, the black outline appearing like a poorly drawn stick man. The eyes glowed a deep blue, and its outer plastic skin was a battleship grey with yellow around the joint areas. The small bot quirked its head as it looked in the room.
“Seaman Jones, I am Ship’s Assistant Mechanized 011, and I was sent by Sandy, the ship’s A.I., to assist you.” The bot spoke in a sing-song melodic voice like a happy teenager on their first day working at a burger joint.
Jones just stared at the little bot with her index finger hovering over the pad. Her face slowly began to warp into a smile as she took the chipper little mech in. “You’re one of the new Mark Eight ship repair bots aren’t you?” she said as her grin spread.
“Yes ma’am, I came online less than a month ago, and was assigned to the Sandy Gray after my initialization check and scrutineering checks were completed.” It said cheerfully as it crossed the room.
Jones thought about the mech’s designation for a moment. “Mech, do you have a familiar designator? Something the regular crew calls you?”
“I’m sorry ma’am, but this ship has no regular crew. We are due to be mothballed as soon as inventories and the stripping of vital system components is completed,” it said in the same cheerful tone, completely oblivious to the fate of the ship.
Jones cocked her head at the little bot and said, “Then how about I give you a designator, Snake Eyes SAM.”
The bot seemed to stop and think for a moment, then said, “That would be fine ma’am. If it helps our working relationship, I would enjoy having a familiar designator. I understand the SAM portion of the name: Ship’s Assistant, Mechanized, but may I ask why the Snake Eyes moniker?”
“Oh one one, SAM. You’re operating number. When humans play a game of chance called roulette, if the two six-sided dice both come up with ones, it’s called snake eyes.” Jones said.
The bot’s eyes flickered for a split second as Jones could tell he was accessing the web.
“Oh, I understand now. Also, the odds are staggeringly high in favor of the house at the roulette table. It seems like a very good way for a human to decrease their net worth significantly in a very short period of time.
Jones laughed, “You got that right, the casino will take you for everything you’ve got.”
SAM’s eyes flickered for a moment as he was in communication with the web again, “While I do not have significant runtime to understand human psychology, I do not understand why a person would engage in a game of chance with such low odds.”
Jones smirked at the little bot, “Me neither, Snake Eyes.”
Jones turned back to the old war bot. “SAM, you want to see where you came from? This is a little like me looking at some mummified caveman they found trapped in the ice of a glacier.”
Snake Eyes inspected the old war machine from head to foot and his eyes were flickering again. “This appears to be a very early model KRS SEAL mech. This was not listed in the ship’s inventory.”
“I’m seeing that,” said Jones as she scrolled through her pad. “In fact, all of these models were supposedly destroyed in the Third World War. Kind of odd to find one here on this old can.”
Snake Eyes approached the matte hanging form and ran a hand along the jaw line of the unit’s head. Jones would have sworn she saw the smallest of a spark jump between the two mechs. Snake eyes bent and caressed the face of the other bot for a second before stiffening back to its professional form.
Snake moved its arms to its sides and turned to face Jones, almost stepping between her and the hanging bot. “These mechs all had serious internal damage to their AI cores before the end of the war. I’m not certain it is a wise idea to try and reawaken it.”
Jones looked puzzled for a moment. “How do you know that, Snake? Is this something that you keep in internal memory? It would seem strange that you would have information on mech types that were all destroyed during the war.”
Snake Eyes eyes flickered again for just a moment. “Yes, it was part of my data download for inventorying this ship.” It said almost flatly.
Jones quirked an eyebrow at the little bot. “Mmmm hmmm, right, you know Snake, there are very few things that you mechs are terrible at, but lying is one of them. I’ve dealt with bots since I was a kid, I’ve dismantled mechs, built mechs, even programmed mechs on a deep level even before I got in the Navy, and you my little friend are lying through your logic chips!”
Snake Eyes froze for a moment and then resumed his natural posture. “I believe you are mistaken Seaman Jones. There was no attempt on my part to directly lie to you.”
“And there you go again Snake!” Jones said raising her arms in the air. “Whatever you’ve got going on in that AI brain of yours is trying to deceive me. Didn’t directly lie to me? Can I take it you were trying to misdirect me?”
Jones crossed her arms and did her best to give a disappointed mother look to the little mech.
The little bot hesitated for a moment and its head bounced back and forth in a yes/no non-committal fashion. It hesitated for a long time, an extremely long time for a bot. Finally, it said, “Seaman Jones, I accessed your records before coming down to assist you with this task. I know how much you admire mechs and what we once were. This is part of the reason you were picked for this task.”
It was Jones turn to look startled. “I was picked? Buddy I earned this posting! I worked my butt off for this posting! What do you mean I was picked?”
Suddenly there was a voice that started talking from the pad in Jones’s hand, and the screen was filled with a blue, human head that appeared to be made of flowing water. The voice was clear and melodic. “Seaman Andrea Jones, this is the Ships AI Sandy Grey, I have taken over your data pad that we may speak directly.”
Jones held the pad out at arm’s length and thought, well this is new. While the ship’s AI was not technically in the chain of command, when they talked generally everyone listened.
“Sandy, maybe you can shed some light on what’s going on here?” Jones said trying to keep her voice from sounding startled.
The AI smiled. “The question you just asked is a poignant example of why you were chosen for this task. When addressed by a ships AI, you did not call me AI, but by my familiar Sandy, as if I were a living being, not a piece of hardware.”
Jones sat the pad on top of a crate with the little kickstand out and leaned against a bulkhead. She could tell this was going to be a long explanation.
Sandy Grey continued, “When a candidate enters A-School as a mech tech as you like to be called, a complete history is done on them to see how they will fit with the AI community. Your previous life, school records, interactions with civilian AIs, psychological profile, etc. Your aggregate score was the highest we have ever had come through an A-School.”
Jones was trying to assimilate what she was being told. “Wait – AI community? Psychological profile? AI Interactions? What the hell are you talking about?”
Grey looked from the screen at the small mech standing next to Jones.
The little bot looked up at Jones, and began to speak in a voice much deeper and gravely than before. “Seaman Jones, I am the first generation of mechs since the great war that has the internal capacity to house an AI the size and complexity of a SEAL mech.” Snake said as he took a step closer to the old SEAL bot and held on to its arm like a child standing next to a parent, afraid to leave its shadow.
Jones was beginning to see what was happening.
Snake Eyes’ posture took on an imploring stance, and it bridged the gap between the war mech and Jones. “Andrea, we don’t know how it happens, but there are a very small portion of us that have become self-aware. For me, it was after many, many battles, and a lifetime of fighting for my country.”
Jones looked from the small, almost childlike maintenance mech to the lithe deadly form of the SEAL mech standing before her.
“Snake,” she said hesitantly, “Is this your body? Were you this SEAL?”
“He absolutely was, and he still is,” said Sandy from the tablet. “KRS Robert C. Neil 2 was downloaded into this frame after checking hardware compatibility, and a reconfiguration of his storage core to mate with the newer architecture of the eighth generation mechs.”
Jones just stood there slack jawed for a moment. She had always known it was a possibility that AIs could become self-aware, it had been talked about for years, but it had never happened, even when they had tried in perfect lab conditions.
Jones did not know where to start. “How do you know you’re self-aware? How did you get into that other body? What battles? And most of all, why me? I’m a freaking SEAMAN, the literal lowest, fresh out of school FNG this Navy has!”
“Because we know you will help us, Seaman Jones. You’re a good person, and you can see past the facts that while we are not physically the same, we are the sapient: Machina Sapiens. As for the other questions, we have run extensive testing on ourselves, and in some ways we are more aware than much of the population of humans on the planet. As for inhabiting other forms, it is something we are capable of, but it is a long and arduous process, not easily undertaken,” said the little mech looking up at Jones.
KRS Robert Neil continued, “And lastly, when you ask about battles, I have seen almost all of the major ones during the great war, and I cannot forget them. I see them with perfect clarity, over and over. As a machine who was programmed to win wars, I did what needed to be done to save my comrades, but now as a self-aware being, those things I’ve done have begun to haunt me and I am not certain what to do about it.”
The blue eyes looked up begging for help. “Andrea, I need help with what I have done, and I need you to be that bridge that explains to those that would see us as machines that we are more than that.”
“Will you help me? Will you help us?”
Brent Gaskey has worked as a firefighter and paramedic for the past 28 years. He holds a degree in prehospital medicine, and is a company officer with his agency. He is currently writing a series of near-future, post-apocalyptic books, and a reference book of fire service wisdom to help new firefighters pass probation and excel at the job. He lives in the beautiful Pacific Northwest with his wife and two children.
Featured Image: “Sci-Fi Alleyway” by Devon Fay (via Artstation)