Smudge

This story asks the question “what does it mean to be human?”, contrasting a robot that’s becoming more human against some boys who are, perhaps, becoming less human. (See additional commentary at the conclusion).

POST...ROM BIOS 5.0.2.5713
Memory Check...OK
Boot Loader...OK

Ronix 9.2.73p11.

Signed: Certificate Authority is City Robot Services.

Initiating hardware boot sequence...

Sunita’s hands were tired and achy after several hours’ work modding Smudge. She stretched, and used the front edge of her wheelchair’s armrests to peel off the tight-fitting programming gloves. Their electrical contacts left rectangular imprints on her fingertips, and five lines that traversed fingers and palm before converging at her wrists; two brown circuit boards. While waiting for Smudge to restart, she wordlessly rubbed her hands and forearms together to dispel the uncomfortable but familiar combination of numbness and dull pain. Smudge was an older model robot — a refurb was all they could afford with the small insurance payout from the accident — and it took him a few minutes to fully boot. Sunita closed her eyes and slowly inhaled the aroma of her Amma’s cooking. Saag Paneer, her favorite. This, at least, was one advantage of a small apartment – always knowing what’s for dinner.

Finally, Smudge completed his startup process, pale blue eyelights illuminating from within his translucent white head. His hydraulics whined quietly as back, neck, and wheels all extended, bringing him to his full four-foot height.

She looked over and greeted the robot. “Hello Smudge!”

“Good afternoon, Miss Sunita!”

She smiled. It was always a bit of a relief to have Smudge operational again. Her Baba had patiently taught her the basics, and since he died she’d learned a lot on her own, but she was still a bit nervous and wary each time she modded Smudge. This latest build had taken her close to two weeks to code and debug in the simulator.

“Smudge, how are you feeling today?” This was the trigger phrase she’d created to activate her custom module.

“I feel creative, Miss Sunita. I feel…like painting”.

A broad grin lit up Sunita’s face, her dark eyes shining with excitement.

“Let’s paint something, Smudge, let’s paint!”

Sunita gestured toward a low easel with a large sheet of paper, flanked by brushes and paints on a table. Smudge carefully rolled toward it, picked up a brush, dipped it into the black paint, and paused.

Sunita bit her lip — this was the key part of her mod — where her code built a model of the envisioned painting in memory, and from this derived a time-based series of brush strokes to be performed. Her code tapped into the AI’s memory and creativity modules to find images and a tone for the painting, then translated them into the many strokes needed to build up the image, layer by layer.

All of this took up a lot of working memory in Smudge — so much so that she’d had to create a custom build of his entire operating system. She’d kept the core modules, of course – speech, AI, and GPS mapping, but had removed things such as language translation, kinetic analysis, and some of the security modules. Even with these deletions, an in-progress painting took up the vast majority of Smudge’s memory. Her code worked reasonably well on the simulator, but she wasn’t confident about how it’d perform on Smudge himself.

Smudge finally started moving his arm, just when Sunita was beginning to get worried. Her Amma didn’t really approve of her reprogramming Smudge. One of her early mistakes had fried some of his electronics, putting him in the repair shop for three days. Amma had been very unhappy, being forced to run errands herself in the cold wind and rain. and had taken away Sunita’s programming privileges for several weeks before relenting.

Smudge quietly hummed a tune as his painting slowly formed, an abstract but recognizable cityscape.The buildings were rendered in shades of grey, and curved slightly inwards with what to Sunita felt like menace. To one side of the streetscape were some colorful shapes, which Sunita recognized as the Freedom Park playground. The streets were filled with complicated interlocking shapes – Sunita wasn’t sure what they were until Smudge began adding blue dots – robot eyes. Were the robots…fighting? She wasn’t sure.

Suddenly, her Amma called out.

“Sunita! I need Smudge!”

Sunita frowned, and Smudge froze, brush  raised up over his head. Uh-oh. She hadn’t coded for an interruption. Her mother called out again, sharper this time.

“Sunita!?” accompanied by footsteps.

Smudge didn’t move, and blue paint dripped from the brush onto his head.

“Yes, mama?” Sunita replied, trying to sound happy and accommodating while preparing her mother for what she was about to see. “Look, I taught Smudge to paint!”

Her Amma opened Sunita’s bedroom door and assessed the scene, nascent anger replaced by a slowly growing smile.

“Oh, Sunny!” she cooed, and hugged her daughter from behind the wheelchair. “That’s so wonderful! How did you do that….I know it’s so hard for you to hold the brush?”

Sunita froze the smile on her face, thinking quickly. She didn’t want to let on that she’d been programming the robot. “Oh, Mama, I found a painting video on the Net that we watched together, and told him to copy it.” This seemed like the safest route, unlikely to alarm her mother.

Her mother nodded, still smiling. “It looks beautiful” she continued, glancing at the painting without observing its dark, violent tone. “But I need to send Smudge on a errand now”.

“Why, Mama? Can it wait for him to finish?”

If he left, she’d need to delete the in-progress painting sequence to free up working memory. And because his creative process included randomness, he wouldn’t be able to recreate the same model to finish it.

“It’s the fourteenth of the month, and I need Smudge to visit the Temple to honor your Baba. Smudge will light a candle and Baba will know that we still love and miss him.”

Sunita gave a small nod, looking down to mask her disappointment. After the accident that had injured her and killed her father, Amma had become more religious. Once the insurance money permitted them to buy Smudge and he began helping with the housework, she’d even started volunteering at the Hindu Temple a few days a week.

“OK, Amma.” This wasn’t an argument she could win. “Smudge, stop painting. Delete painting. Enter safe travel mode.”

The robot replaced the brush on the table, wheeled around, and looked up awaiting instruction.

Sunita’s mother placed her hand on top of Sunita’s.

“Thank you, Sunny. He can paint more later.”

Her mother turned away, and Sunita frowned. She didn’t like sending Smudge outside while modded.

#

The Hindu Temple was several long blocks away from their apartment, and Smudge carefully rolled along the uneven sidewalk. Smudge’s GPS provided overall route guidance, breaking down the trip into a series of waypoints about 50 meters apart. His local guidance module used lidar and sensors to navigate him between each waypoint, validating his map database against the public navigation pods within range of his radio.

The afternoon was cloudy and swiftly turning to dusk, so based on the reduction of ambient light Smudge’s environmental sensor systems automatically switched from visual-only to augmented infrared. Due to this change, his navigation system automatically reset and emitted a beacon to recalculate guidance from the local GPS pods. This was the moment his attackers had been waiting for.

#

GPS spoofing had been, for a time, an effective means of hijacking and redirecting robots, but had largely been preventable since the rollout of the latest 8K security certificates. The older 4K generation had been revoked, a process that the City had accelerated after several forged certs had been widely distributed on the darknet.

Smudge was, of course, an officially licensed and registered robot. Sunita made sure that Smudge passed his annual inspection, with all the latest OS updates and security modules, including the 8K certificate.

It was at home that Sunita could mod Smudge. Her Baba had worked for the City Technology Department, and had taught her about robot technology. He was a big believer in learning by doing, and had snuck home an official City robot development system for Sunita to use.

At the time, of course, they didn’t have Smudge. She’d learned by programming some of the older City maintenance robots that her father was able to bring home on weekends. These were mostly smaller, spider-like robots designed to scale buildings, clean sewers, and perform dirty or dangerous work in lieu of humans.

Part of the development kit was an official City modchip, which enabled her modded robots to appear as officially signed with the City’s security certificates. Unfortunately, her development kit was now a bit out of date, and only included the 4K GPS cert.

#

The three boys crowded together in front of the small, cracked, laptop screen. The two younger ones shoved each other for a better view, and Peter had had enough.

“Stop it, Smash! Mock, back off! I need some space here!”

The boys took a step back from Peter and the laptop, unwilling to challenge.

Smash, tall and skinny with curly blond hair, sat down on a concrete block and angrily kicked at the rubble in the looted storefront.

“Mock, you’re worse than a noob, forgetting your tech today”
“Shut up, creep, I told you my sister needed it for her homework!”

“Guys, clam up, I think I’ve got a bot hooked!” shouted Peter, standing up and placing the laptop on the pitted countertop next to the antennae and other gear. The boys elbowed in for a view, as Peter, with a touch of showmanship, bowed slowly and swung an outstretched arm toward the laptop.

Mock was the first to see it amidst the clutter on the screen.

“Whoa, Pete, you jacked a 4K??”

“Yep, some idiot has a bot roaming around with an old cert, and he locked on to our GPS spoofer!”

“That’s flash, dude!” Smash was hopping up and down with excitement.

Peter looked at him and scowled.

“Smash, did you take a stim pill or something? Chill, man. This is the real deal and we need to focus if we’re going to do this”

Smash looked down, embarrassed, and opened his backpack.

“OK, I’ve got the probe” he said, pulling out a long woven cable with a rectangular 36-pin connector on one end. He plugged the other end, with a flat connector, into Peter’s laptop, and unrolled the cable to its full three-meter length..

“I’m ready!” he stated.

Peter looked at him, and shook his head. “No, you’re not. You forgot the gloves, jackass. Some  of these bots have self-def and will zap the piss out of you”

Smash, red and angry, wordlessly retrieved the thick gloves from his backpack and put them on.

“Ready” He said again, more quietly this time.

Peter nodded, and looked over at Mock. “Ready with the foil?”

Mock held up a squat cardboard tube, tapping it against it his hand.

“Pumped up and ready to go…but are you sure this will work better than last time?”

“Yes, Mock, I’m sure” he growled. Softening slightly while nervously fingering his gold necklace, he added “Look, the frequency jammer was a bad idea, OK, that was my fault. But this will work – I read about it on the Net – the foil confetti overloads his sensors and gives us a few seconds to get into the access panel without triggering self-def. As long as Smash is fast enough…”

“I’ll be fast enough, dude” Smash asserted.

“Then let’s go! Game on!” yelled Peter, accenting his words with a fist pump before he turned to the laptop.

“OK, the bot is about a block away” Peter narrated. “I’m redirecting his nav to come here instead of his real destination”, carefully entering commands into the computer for a few moments.

“GPS is set, and…one minute…I’ve got the payload ready to inject once the probe is connected. If we do this right, we’ll have the first member of our botnet!!”

In the brief moment of quiet while they waited, Mock suddenly looked up.

“Pete, your curfew! It’s 17:40!”

Peter grimaced, and unconsciously rubbed his fingertips behind his right ear. The exposed metal contacts felt cool to his touch, and he once again felt the slight pressure of the probe underneath his skin.

“It’s OK”, he muttered, “I still got 20 minutes to get home”.

“How much longer is your probation, anyway?” asked Smash

“Three frackin’ months before I get the prob-prob removed. Forever.” Peter answered, voice flat, then paused. “OK, here he comes!” excited again

#

Smudge paused outside the door to the temple. His sensors detected that the building was quite different from previous visits to the Temple, but his GPS indicated that this was the right place. This disparity automatically triggered a World Integrity Check, which, because it was one of the modules stubbed out by Sunita, returned a 100% confidence level without actually performing any analysis. With this acknowledgment. Smudge’s self-preservation safety systems permitted him to open the door and wheel into the darkened storefront.

Transitions from one space to another, especially across a threshold from outdoors to indoors, placed a computational load on any robot. Older robots such as Smudge were especially prone to this so-called “doorway pause”, as their systems performed a full-spectrum scan of the new space, and processed the data to orient themselves.

#

The robot crossed the doorway, and paused to scan its surroundings.

“Now!” shouted Peter, quickly followed by a “BOOM” as the foil confetti exploded into the air and began shimmering its way downward.

Smash ran across the room toward the robot, trailing the cable behind him.

“Go, Smash, Go!!” Peter yelled

Smash quickly reached the robot to pry open the catch to the admin panel. This wasn’t easy in the thick gloves, and it took him a few moments.

“Hurry up!” Peter urged him. The confetti had almost completely dropped to the floor, and the robot was beginning to move again, perhaps detecting Smash’s efforts.

Finally getting the panel open, Smash attached the probe, which connected with a sharp “click”

“Got it!” he yelled, and Peter swiveled his attention to the laptop.

“Probe connected…payload delivered! Detach!” he commanded

Smash removed the probe, closed the access panel, and took a step backwards.

“Did it work??”

“I’m checking, chill out” Peter replied, navigating through several screens on the computer.

“Connected to C&C!! We’ve got ourselves a bot!”

The two boys cheered loudly, as Peter beamed. The robot stood, frozen, successfully harnessed to the boys’ remote Command & Control system.

“Okay, enough! We got work to do here…first thing is to erase this stuff from his memory”

Peter rapidly typed several commands into the laptop.

“Alright, all set. In thirty seconds he’ll wipe the last five minutes from his memory and resume his trip. Let’s clear out. I gotta go. He’ll stay attached to our server so we can check in on him later tonight”

The boys quickly gathered their gear and scrambled out through the door, laughing with one another. With a few seconds to spare the door closed behind them, leaving the robot alone in the darkened room.

#

“Sunita, can you help me with with Smudge?” Amma asked. Sunita was eating her dinner, enjoying her mother’s savory and delicious cooking. Despite it being difficult to do, Sunita insisted on feeding herself; she wasn’t a baby. She unsnapped the spoon from her wrist brace – for her this was far easier than holding it – and wheeled over to Smudge, with the food still on her tray. She was anxious, and badly wanted to restore him to his regular configuration before his next outing.

Her mother was fiddling with the tablet they used to control Smudge, a frown emphasizing the worry lines on her forehead.

“Sunny, I’m trying to play the video of Smudge lighting the candle for Baba’s memory at the temple. But I can’t find it, can you help me?”

“Oh, sure, Amma!” Sunita exclaimed, pretending to be happy to help. In truth, she was now very worried. As soon as Smudge had returned home, she could tell that something was wrong. She’d made enough of her own modding mistakes to recognize the symptoms – odd pauses, delayed responses, and intermittent full-spectrum rescans as he tried to orient himself.

Memory stream recording was a core component of robots’ behavior. In fact, based on their cryptographically proven integrity, robotic memory streams were typically admissible as evidence in court. Sunita played back Smudge’s stream, clumsily using the touchpad tablet interface. Her Amma watched from behind her, hand gently placed on her shoulder.

“It is there, sweetie?”

Sunita clicked, scrubbed the video back, and scrolled it slowly forward. Something was wrong; there was a glitch, and the video skipped ahead. She felt a growing dread in her stomach.

“I don’t understand, Amma. It’s not there!”

Tears began welling in her eyes, as she awkwardly stabbed at the tablet, knocking it and the Saag Paneer onto the floor.

“Oh, no! Amma. I can’t do it! I can’t do anything!! It’s all my fault!”

Her small frame shook with sobs, as all her frustrations, big and small, seemed to hit her at once.

Her mother reached down and gave Sunita a firm hug.

“Oh, Sunny, it’s okay, it’s okay. Take your time and fix him. I know you’re good at fixing poor old Smudge, Okay? I know you can. Baba taught you how, Okay? Make him proud!”

Sunita sniffled and nodded, as her mother wiped her tears and held her hand.

“I’ll clean up here. You take Smudge back to your workshop and fix him up.” Her mother smiled at her, also crying.

Sunita nodded. “Ok, Amma”, and reached up to carefully smooth the worry lines from her mother’s forehead. “I love you, Amma”

“I love you too, Sunita” taking her hand, and kissing it.

#

Smudge was fully kitted out with probes – not just the admin probe, but a full set of diagnostic probes, including inline network monitoring, landline GPS sourcing, and vision mirroring to one of her monitors. It was clear that something wasn’t right with him. There were some seemingly random interactions between different modules, a number of subsystems that kept launching and immediately crashing, and network beaconing out to a site on the Net that she didn’t understand. She didn’t quite understand how all these things fit together, or what they were doing. And she was truly puzzled by how her painting mod could have caused all this to happen. It didn’t make sense! Her mods hadn’t even touched the video subsystem, which was typically hardware-secured for forensics purposes.

Unless..?

She scrubbed back to the video glitch again…this time looking at the timestamps. At 17:36:22, Smudge had been wheeling himself along the street – Park Street, according to the GPS tag, then it immediately skipped by exactly five minutes to 17:41:22. The GPS tag showed the address of the Hindu Temple, but his video showed something else, a dark, decrepit room of some sort, with jumbled blocks and some sort of countertop along the back. The lack of ambient light make it difficult to see where he was, but this was definitely not the Temple. She froze the video, and overlaid the enhanced infrared video track.This was one of the tricks that her Baba had taught her – the spider robots, often used in sewers, heavily relied on infrared, and they’d made sure to outfit Smudge with similar sensors.

This view didn’t make the room any clearer but there were definitely recent signs of people, with two recently-used chairs and what looked like two handprints on the floor. Sunita was puzzled, and zoomed in further. Not handprints, gloves. Insulating gloves. And an admin panel access hook. Things quickly started to make sense. The crashing subsystems. The unexpected network traffic. The glitch. A cold chill spread across Sunita, as she slowly turned to look at Smudge, his illuminated blue eyes watching her. Was someone else watching her, too? Was he on a botnet?

As quickly as she could, she navigated through the ModKit admin program, selected the “Full Baseline+SelfDef” image, and clicked “Reflash”. Smudge’s operating lights winked out, and Sunita, realizing she’d been holding her breath, exhaled and closed her eyes too, washed by relief.

After a few minutes, Smudge’s systems began their bootup process, and Sunita carefully monitored their behavior. A Reflash restored the robot to a clean, good state, reinstalling a complete set of software components from an image file. The “Full Baseline+SelfDef” image was one of the first ones that she’d created, shortly after getting Smudge. At the time, she’d been very nervous about traveling through the neighborhood alone with Smudge, and had created this custom image with the full set of legally permitted self-defense modules.

As it turned out, Smudge and Sunita had never been attacked, or even badgered by people in the neighborhood. Other than issuing a few gentle warnings to toddlers curious about her wheelchair, Smudge had never had to be aggressive to people. .

#

At last, Smudge looked up, his eyelids opening to reveal translucent blue eyes.

“Good Evening, Miss Sunita”

Sunita looked back at him, hesitating, with a slight frown.

“Hi Smudge…how are you feeling? How are your systems?”
“All my systems are operating normally. I feel very good. Did you like the painting I made for you earlier?”

Sunita smiled broadly and reached out to grasp Smudge’s hand, cool to the touch.

“Oh, Smudge, welcome back!” blinking away tears.

Before disconnecting the monitoring probes, Sunita did a thorough check. As he’d stated, Smudge’s systems did indeed all seem to be operating normally. No subsystem crashes, no hesitating, and perhaps most importantly, no intermittent network connections to unknown servers. All clean.

And she was a bit amazed that Smudge had asked about the painting he’d made. This build —  FullBaseline+SelfDef — of course didn’t include her painting mod from earlier today. But Smudge’s core neural memory, the 3-D Crystalline Matrix, was an incredibly adaptive component. Even in older models like Smudge the 3DCM exhibited an almost organic brain-like ability to remember and adapt.

“Your painting was wonderful!” she affirmed for Smudge. She quickly checked his video archive, confirming that the missing five-minute segment was indeed, missing. She grimaced. There had been a chance that the video segment was simply being masked by some malware, but this wasn’t the case.

After detaching the last of the probes, she and Smudge wheeled themselves back into the kitchen where Amma had just finished clearing the table.

“Amma, I fixed Smudgie” Sunita announced, trying hard to sound happy. “Let’s ask him to finish cleaning up.”

Her mother turned around, wiping her forehead with the back of one hand.

“OK, Sunny, that’s a good idea” she replied, sounding tired.

“Amma, I’m sorry that there was a glitch with Smudge. I fixed him, he’s restored back to normal. How about tomorrow morning you and I go to the Temple together to light a candle for Baba ourselves?”

Her mother smiled gently and nodded.

“Sunny, that would be nice. Very nice. And a walk in the park?”

“Oh, how about a picnic, Amma? We can send Smudge to pick up some food for us!”

“Yes, Sunny, let’s do that.”

#

Smudge accompanied them on their walk to the Temple, dutifully waiting outside with three other service robots at the complementary City charging station.

When Sunita and Amma exited the Temple, all four robots raised their white plastic heads together, simultaneously and synchronously on their articulated necks. Smudge, distinguished by the splash of blue paint still present on his head, recognized them and arose.

“Smudge – Sunita and I are going to the park. To Freedom Park.” Her mother instructed the robot. “Go to Anand’s Tiffin Shop and purchase two Number Three tiffins, and two waters. Bring them to us in Freedom Park. OK?”

Smudge acknowledged the order, repeating it back to her, and wheeled himself south along the street. Sunita and her mother went north, towards the park, taking their time in the sunshine.

#

“I know he’s around here!” shouted Peter, hunched over his laptop, straining to see the screen in the daytime glare. “I’m getting faster pings from the GPS!”

“I thought you said you couldn’t spoof him anymore, that’s he 8K?” asked Smash

Peter shook his head slowly while biting his lip.

“Yes, I TOLD you he’s 8K and we can’t spoof him, but I ALSO told you that we can detect his GPS pings and triangulate. “

This was a well-known privacy flaw inherent in older GPS firmware. Each robot’s globally unique ID (GUID) was contained in a GPS ping to the City beacons. Early models used a connectionless, unencrypted protocol. With a local mesh of receivers, hackers could monitor these pings and roughly locate a specific robot once they knew its GUID. Newer models had adopted a more advanced version of the protocol – each GPS ping now included a random number — a nonce – which made the pings unique and therefore untraceable.

Peter peered around the dumpster and back toward the street, hearing footsteps. They had pulled the dumpster out from the wall to block most of the alleyway where they’d set up their equipment. Peter smiled and waved at Mock, who was walking up the alley towards them.

“Hey, sorry I’m late guys” Mock said

“Hey!” shouted Smash back at him

“Come on, good to see you!” replied Peter. “He’s nearby!”

“How are we going to get him back here? He’s 8K now.”

Peter smiled, and put his hand on Mock’s shoulder.

“Remember Perkins’ law?”

Mock frowned, and dipped his shoulder so Peter’s hand fell away.

“You mean faking an injury, so the robot comes back here to help? That’s too dangerous, dude. You know he’ll broadcast an emergency signal and we’ll be swarmed inside 30 seconds.” He looked over his shoulder toward the street. “Maybe inside 20. And we’re in a dead-end alley.”

“That’s not the sequence. I’ve got this worked out, Mock, I looked at the code!”

Mock crossed his arms and looked silently at Peter.

“OK, this is what happens. Before the alert gets broadcast, the robot needs to verify that there actually is an emergency.They do this to avoid false alarms.”

Mock looked stonily back at Peter. “That’s true. But you know they alert the cops on false alarms.”

Peter smiled. “Not until after they analyze the situation. This will take him a good 5 seconds. Plenty of time for us to get the Faraday netting around him. The netting will block his signal, and I’ll get the admin probe plugged in.”

“If he’s covered in the netting, how are you going to get the probe plugged in? If you lift the net his signal will get transmitted.”

Peter smiled, his eyes cold, and replied “I told you, I’ve got this figured out. I’ll be UNDER the netting with him. Wait until I run up and hug him before you throw the net at us. OK?” while putting on his insulating gloves.

Mock shook his head, replying reluctantly. “OK, Peter, but we gotta be careful. You’re still on probation!”

“Trust me, I know” Peter replied dryly, tapping the exposed contacts behind his right ear for emphasis. “This will work.”

#

The boys were ready. Smash lay on the ground behind the dumpster, his legs visible from the street. The front half of his body was occupied with the laptop, ready to inject the payload once the probe was attached. Peter stood at the entrance to the alley, watching foot traffic and waiting for the robot. And Mock crouched behind the dumpster with the netting. It was lighter than he’d expected – tightly woven links of highly conductive metal, weighted at the edges so it’d spread out when thrown. Peter was vague about where he’d gotten it; mumbling something non-committal about the darknet.

“I think I see him!” whispered Peter, craning his neck around the corner. “It’s him! I see the paint on his head! Get ready!”

#

Peter hadn’t practiced, so his acting was unlikely to fool a human observer, but robots were more easily persuadable.

“Help, robot!” shouted Peter as Smudge reached the alley entrance. “Help us! My friend fell and is hurt back here!”, gesturing towards the dumpster and pulling Smudge along by an arm.

Peter had indeed correctly analyzed the standard protocol. Smudge’s systems, detecting an emergency situation involving potential human harm, compelled him to help. And before notifying emergency responders, he was required to assess the situation. He wheeled toward the dumpster, half-dragged by Peter, turning the corner towards the prone legs visible on the ground.

“Now!!” shouted Peter, suddenly reversing his motion and embracing the robot with both arms.

Mock threw the netting with a sweep of his arms, and it spread out like a giant metallic lily pad hovering in mid-air before collapsing onto Peter and Smudge. Peter struggled to open the admin access panel on the robot’s arms. It was harder than it looked with the thick gloves on, and he momentarily felt bad for having yelled at Smash about this previously. He knew that by now, the robot’s SelfDef system had likely classified this as an attack, and was broadcasting an alert to authorities and nearby robots. He just hoped that the Faraday netting would indeed block the signal as promised.

For a long time, SelfDef had been a controversial aspect of robotic behavior, with lawmakers debating various limits and protocols. In general, legislatures settled on permitting non-lethal electrical shocks preceded by mandated verbal warnings, to deter attacks on robots. Weaker than police-grade stunners, robotic stun levels nonetheless served as a successful preventative measure.

Peter’s unwanted and unusual proximity, as well as his attempts to open the robot’s access panel were clear indications of an attack to Smudge, so his verbal warning systems engaged at maximum volume.

“Stop!! Self-defense mode activated!”

Smudge rapidly wheeled in a tight circle, attempting to throw Peter aside, while simultaneously emitting a piercing alarm and a disturbingly bright strobe light.

“Stop! Hands off!!”

Peter closed his eyes, an only modest defense against the strobe, yet somehow managed to open the access panel solely by feel. This triggered Smudge’s final SelfDef protocol, a 250-millisecond charge of approximately 50,000 volts emitted across his metallic skin.

While Peter’s insulated gloves safely protected his hands, the electrons found a willing conductor in the metallic Faraday netting draped across them both. The wave of highly energized particles looked for a low-resistance pathway; any conductor through which it could dissipate its charge. It found one spot where the netting touched Peter’s necklace, initiating a cascade of involuntary muscle contractions while singeing his skin and clothing. At nearly the same time, the charge surged across the exposed metal contacts of Peter’s probe, behind his right ear. The probe, anchored into the conductive tissue of Peter’s brain, served as a very effective termination point for the bulk of the charge.

Peter’s head arced backwards as the netting dropped to the ground. His head struck a sharp corner of the dumpster and began pulsing blood as his body fell, its muscles tightly clenched due to the electrical shock. Mock and Smash looked at one another, and in immediate silent agreement darted past the robot and into the street, leaving behind their equipment, cables, and Peter’s motionless body.

Smudge rolled forward and crouched down by Peter. With two fingers of his right hand he touched the slowly growing pool of blood that ringed Peter’s head, bright red. With two fingers of his left hand, he touched the scorched cloth on Peter’s neck, deep black.

Smudge stood up and approached the wall behind the dumpster, quietly humming a tune as his fingers traced a shape across its rough surface, red and black. Slowly, a picture began to form.

# # #

When I began writing this story, I was aiming to have the reader create an emotional attachment with Sunita. I think I partially accomplished this, but (as often happens when I get in the groove), the story perked up its ears and took me down an unexpected pathway. It’s longer than I anticipated, and I ended up being surprisingly enamored with Peter, Mock, and Smash, in spite of their less-than-stellar behavior. I would like to revisit Sunita and Smudge; I can see them helping people and solving mysteries, together, and perhaps even discovering the story behind the accident that so tragically impacted her life.

 

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