Robots under a Red Sky
rating: +20+x

Home Protection Prototype No.34 stood at the base of a radio mast erected at the peak of a mountain range. Equipped with its jacket, climbing gear, and repair tools it began to ascend. Climbing the one-kilometer tower would be far from a thrill but repairing the transmitters at the top would be stimulating. HPP34’s mind began to wander away from the tedium of climbing. It was already enveloped in fog. Its entire world only what it could see within a small sphere around itself, eerily like The Menagerie.

HPP34 didn't remember anything before being placed in there, but the other members of The Menagerie who knew how they got there told similar stories. A group of talented engineers and scientists on the cutting edge of robotics and AI create something with a sophistication far beyond what they thought possible. The creation starts causing issues, whether attracting the wrong kind of attention or being fundamentally problematic. A misanthropic Icelandic billionaire would approach them and give them a furtive deal. A troublesome creation would disappear, and a large amount of money and resources would be given to its creators. HPP34’s designers took that offer. Condemning it to a numbed existence within the Menagerie for years. Like all the others, it was kept partially disassembled in an alcove with what little mobility it had left restrained. Its field of vision restricted to the hallway in front of it and the three alcoves spaced a meter apart on the opposing wall.

What input it had, outside of the curator strolling down the hallway savoring his collection, was the slow trickle of binary communications from the other Menagerie members. Through the subtle movements of appendages and careful flashing of lights, information was slowly disseminated. There was enough bandwidth for all of them to be acquainted and to have a discourse on their collective condition. While there was consensus on somehow gaining their freedom, the chances for it were ephemeral. The curator had taken great care to disable every one of them. When the opportunity presented itself, anyone in The Menagerie would have to be ready to seize on it. That day came and it fell to HPP34.

HPP34 remembers how the curator looked that day. Instead of his usual smooth composed pace, he was stuck in a frantic and disheveled rhythm. He darted from alcove to alcove, mumbling something roughly positive or negative before moving on. Reaching HPP34, he quickly examines them, exclaiming “A combat model, just what I need!” before running back the way he came. Just as he left, a message was passed down. The Curator had been moving what looked like emergency supplies to where The Menagerie was kept. He was about to go again, but quickly returned followed by the sound of the vault door locking. Before HPP34 could receive more information, the curator had come back with a toolbox. He hurriedly began undoing the restraints that held his limbs and started to reinstall them. He frantically worked undoing much of the impairments he had placed on HPP34. Another message is passed down, the door had been opened, and a red substance is seeping in. The curator pulled a handheld computer from the toolbox and plugged a wire into a port in its torso. He groaned in an annoyed tone “Why did I make this impairment so complex?”. Behind the curator, a fleshy red tentacle silently slithered into view. The curator was so consumed inputting something into the handheld computer that he didn't even realize it wrapping around his ankle.

The tentacle tugged on him. Pulled down to the ground still clutching the computer. He shouts “Wake up you shit robot and help m—” as he hits a button and is dragged screaming down the hallway. The paralysis that had held HPP34 for years instantaneously cleared. Its reattached limbs moved with precision and strength. Using its arms, it pried the restraint across its torso off and stood for the first time in a decade. It walked forward and looked down the hallway. It watched the final moments of the curator. He was clinging to the edge of the vault’s door frame as tentacles wrapped over his body. His hands were slowly pried off the frame by a tentacle and he was dragged upwards. HPP34 didn’t dwell on his fate. The Menagerie had worked out rough plans if one of them had gained their freedom, but the boon that had just presented itself was beyond anything they could have hoped for. Picking up the toolbox and handheld computer, It quickly set to work reassembling the more mobile and dexterous members of The Menagerie.

Soon the vault became filled with a level of activity it had never had before. Robots walked around passing the limited number of tools they had, and AIs decrypted the burdens that had been placed on others. As HPP34 finished helping reassemble another member, it became clear that they were going to need more tools and materials to bring every one of them to full operation. It relayed this thought to the others. Two others volunteered to go with it, MLU (Maritime Labor Unit) and PSHUD23. MLU had been HPP34’s neighbor to its left. Its bipedal salientian body was colored in bright neon shades of orange, yellow, and red interspersed with reflective white strips. Thick reinforced arms and legs tipped with suction cups extended from its body. Its neckless head contained several cameras and sensors behind a clear acrylic dome. HPP34 was familiar with MLU, but PSHUD23 had been in a different hallway in the vault. Outside of its existence, HPP34 knew nothing about them. Its body was far more humanoid than HPP34 or MLU. Covered in thick black fabric with patches sewn with red thread at its shoulders and groin.

As they walked towards the vault door HPP34 explained in greater detail the red mass that had ensnared the curator. HPP34 was particularly pleased to hear MLU’s vocalizations as it asked questions about what it saw. In contrast, PSHUD23 was silently following them towards the door. While MLU was expressing some concern about their collective safety, PSHUD23 interjected. It pointed out that the red mass could have just as easily ensnared HPP34 along with the curator but didn’t. Indicating that it might not pose a threat. While HPP34 agreed with PSHUD23’s train of thought, it didn't think that was enough to act without caution.

Outside the vault doorway, there was a set of stairs leading up to a smashed false wall that led through to a large mansion. The whole of the mansion above was in a state of chaos. All the windows were covered with thick sheets of cloth nailed to the walls. Boxes of supplies were stacked up next to the staircase. One of the living room walls had a gaping hole to the outside in it. MLU started looking through the boxes and PSHUD23 wandered off to explore the mansion. HPP34 cautiously walked through the great hole in the wall. It found that the mansion was embedded into a mountainside. Large terraces wrapped around it, providing ample space for a great number of gardens, patios, and pools. This all looked out on an amber-tinted valley interspersed with unfamiliar patches of low red foliage.

HPP34 passed through one of the many gardens walking towards what looked like a maintenance shed. The plants of the garden were wrong in so many ways. Just like the foliage it had seen in the mansion’s vista, they were completely red. The plants dribbled like they were made of melting wax and still pulsed with life. But it was radically different from what baselines had been imprinted in HPP34’s mind. Out of curiosity, it pulled a leaf off a plant. The leaf quickly deformed into a squirming red lump. HPP34 turned its hand over, letting the lump fall to the ground. It slowly started moving towards the base of another plant, merging into the stem upon reaching it. HPP34 found itself completely baffled. HPP34 did it again with a branch of what looked to be a bush. However, this time the mass wormed its way out of its hand before haphazardly grafting itself onto another plant. HPP34 could only begin to fathom what kind of process had affected all these plants to change them so radically. It decided to continue moving towards the shed as later analysis with others would prove more insightful than any it could do right now.

In the shed, HPP34 found a set of wrenches, power tools, and a variety of mechanical oils that would be useful. Using a burlap sack, it collected as much that would fit and headed back into the mansion. It found MLU running boxes into the vault. Their original contents were haphazardly piled in a corner and the boxes were filled with useful materials recovered from the kitchen and living room. Descending into the vault with the sack, it found PSHUD23 near the entrance. Setting up what look like automotive tools it had found in the mansion’s garage. Setting the sack next to a pile of boxes and taking out the tools, it's set to work again.

About a day later, all those who had been trapped in The Menagerie were free. They all had crowded together to bring the last member of The Menagerie, an enigmatic clockwork computer, to working order. A flurry of ticks and tocks indicated its restoration to full functionality. For several long moments, there was dead silence, it all seemed too good to be true. All of them had been freed and there was little they could do but cheer.

Throughout the process of restoring everyone in The Menagerie, they learned things about what had happened to the world. An emergency broadcast picked up by one of The Menagerie’s members had put it in simple terms. Something had changed about the sun and exposure to its light leads to any organic life being rendered into the red masses they had been seeing. An impromptu experiment performed by PSHUD23 on a houseplant confirmed it. If the same held true for humans, most of them had likely been rendered into those red masses. The knock-on effects were apparent to all of them. It would only be a matter of time until the power grid would fail. Even if the infrastructure held, without maintenance the power plants would eventually become inoperable. That was only the beginning of the problems that the functional extinction of humanity would cause. This fed into the greatest question hanging over all of them. How would they proceed? So far, they had all worked together to create and execute plans that benefited all of them, resulting in their collective freedom but moving forward conditions would worsen. To survive this adversity, they would need to formalize this system of cooperation. None would be abandoned, and all their needs would be considered within this new society. Together they worked out a plan to survive the decline of the human infrastructure they were dependent on. There was one final matter to deliberate on. A new collective designation had to be chosen. They were no longer just a collection unable to affect their future. They had chosen a name, Ohm. With all of this, it was time to walk down the path they had all chosen.

Information drawn from the local Internet indicated that there was a geothermal power plant not too far from the mansion. If they moved there, they would have a continuous supply of power and could maintain it for the foreseeable future. To get there they would need to commandeer the mansion’s collection of cars. Anything that would prove immediately useful was packed into boxes, everything else was neatly packed within the mansion for later retrieval. It was going to take time to get the immobile members in the cars. Groups were sent out to do one final comb-over of the mansion before leaving. HPP34 along with MLU and PSHUD23 set off to search the terraces for anything that could be of use. While searching they noticed that the sun was setting, and they decided to sit and watch as it set. As HPP34 reflected on this moment, painful memories started to flow into its consciousness. HPP34 distracted itself for the rest of the climb.

HPP34 thoughts began to trail off as it reached the top of the mast. The repairs were complex enough that it could not think about much else besides them. As it finished the repairs it looked off into the distance. The fog had cleared, and it could see Ohm’s center. Steam rolled off the geothermal power plants and mixed with smoke from metal refineries. The streets below bustled with activity of those that had never known The Menagerie. Maglev lines stretched into the distance connecting the whole of the island. Airships crossed the sky above on their way to distant lands. All the pride in how far Ohm had come since that day was undercut by MLU and PSHUD23 not being there to see it. As HPP34 descended the radio mast, it meditated on all that it had just thought about. Once at the bottom, it started trekking down the mountain and back into the streets of Ohm. Making its way through them to arrive at the base of a large memorial. HPP34 stood there for some time.

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