Dragon Toasters

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Wolves

David was not the last person on earth. But that didn't mean that anybody else was alive either.

Hazy sun beat down on the ridge, causing a dance of heat distortions to frolic over David's arrayed solar panels. There were many human sensations that David had been compelled to scavenge to better serve his struggle for mechanical existence, but good old basking in the sun still felt like it should. With the added bonus that sunscreen was no longer an issue. Now, when it came to hard solar radiation that penetrated earth's atmosphere, the more the better.

Not from every point of view, though. Not only did solar power help top up David's capacitors, it did the same for many other mechanical beasties too, which made them, well, frisky. And when the mechanical ecology got frisky, it got more complicated. More dangerous.

David often found himself thinking about all the myriad of biological diversity that used to be such a central part to human attention. He regretted not remembering more, and always hoped to come across someone or something that might have a copy of some old pre-tribulation information. Not that the specifics would be of much use, since biological life on earth had gotten pretty damn scarce and pathetic. But the method of the understanding probably would have been helpful.

The niches might be totally different, and there wasn't any clean classification separation between mechanical plants and mechanical animals, but there was the same age-old struggle for survival. From his vantage on the mountain ridge, through his telescopes David could see two distinct types of tank-ant nests, and wondered how long it would be before their separately-tended and defended regions of solar collectors became too tempting for each other. All the while trying to withstand the predations of more powerful solitary machines, or preying upon less powerful nomadic machines.

David's mind was fractured. Part of him was watching all around him with dozens of cameras and sensors. Much of his care was being spent overseeing the machining of a precious billet of titanium into a replacement bearing joint, and carefully catching all the chips to re-cast later. Yet a third aspect of his mind was playing with ideas about how to better optimize his chassis.

Most autonomous machines or system of machines were some balance of competing factors. On one hand, there was simple mobility, which factored in both how fast the machine could travel, and how difficult a path it could take. There was also the fundamental issue of power collection. Solar power was the main supply for most machines, but it was dilute, so collecting much of it meant having access to large solar arrays. Which leads into the twin factors of offense and defense. And that, in turn, was connected to the ability to create or repair mechanisms of various complexity. Rounding it all out, was the factor of thinking power.

Being a human mind, distilled into a computerized existence, David was necessarily a bit heavy on the thinking power requirements. Most machines made do with a lot less, and were arguably of similar problem-solving capability. However, David was rather fond of his personality, and so persisted with lugging around the expensive microprocessors. He was getting a bit tired of looking like a 3-meter-long cockroach/centaur, though. The tribe of ex-human machines he had travelled with a couple decades ago had tried to persuade him to simplify into something more like the wheeled configurations they preferred, citing efficiency. But, at that time, David had been a bit too paranoid about giving up his many legs.

Decades of scuttling, though, can wear down a man's dignity.

Something was coming. David gathered his mind to focus on watching and listening. His little solar array crabs standing on the ridge with their spindly legs also acted as reasonably sensitive ground microphones. A distinctive rhythmic crunch was tagged as probably being the footfalls of 6 or 7 quadrupeds massing somewhere from 100 to 500 kilograms. What was worrisome was that they seemed to be already within 300 meters. That meant they were being extremely successful at avoiding David's lines of sight - which were quite good. It also meant that they were proficient at moving carefully, because things larger than 50 kilograms were usually detectable on this ridge by the microphones at about a 500 meters range. This caused David to suspect that the machines were likely to be at the upper end of the probable size range.

However, the gaps in David's lines of sight were not entirely accidental. One was overshadowed by a very precariously balanced about-to-happen rock slide, which conveniently happened to have a couple strategically-located explosives. The other was a difficult gully where the final approach was barren of cover from David's rail gun. The rail gun he was now charging.

The crunching sounds became considerably louder. This made David unhappy, but relieved. Looking at the histogram of the footstep sounds, it was clear that they - whatever they were - were warning him of their approach. That meant they were unlikely to be directly hostile. Overall, though, they demonstrated a pretty clear understanding of his sensory capabilities, which was never a tactically good thing.

They also obviously knew his approximate location, but that wasn't exactly a secret. Far from it - he had left advertising with approximate coordinates over most of the mountain, and told several intelligent nomadic machines he had encountered. So these machines were potential customers. Or, they could be raiders posing as customers in order to get close enough to overpower him.

How thrilling, thought David to himself in a sarcastic manner.

David checked the scatter program he had installed in his inventory of solar array crabs. The cheap but reliable little energy collectors were desirable devices, and utterly nonthreatening. So, if David found himself unable to deal with the aggressors, he'd flee, but also signal the tempting morsels to flee as well. Hopefully the difficulty of capturing a cranky old machine like David would be less appealing than catching the easy prizes.

A couple antennae flicked into view from a rock outcropping down the gully. They twitched for a moment, and were presently followed the sensor pod they were attached to - which looked to David like what he remembered a wasp's head looking like. David's own whip antennae were already up, as was his rail gun and integral telescopic sensors. David was feeling cautious, and kept everything important behind cover.

The approaching machine moved out from behind cover, revealing a lanky chassis with wolf-like demeanour. Its solar panels were clearly tertiary systems, and quite insufficient for its probable power requirements. Its design required supplemental energy inputs, but the sources need not provide the power willingly. It was a combatant.

It raised itself up onto its hind legs to assume a bipedal posture. This might have been done to appear more humanoid, and thus less threatening. To David's digitized hindbrain, it looked like a cross between a werewolf and satyr with a wasp's head, and it was damn creepy looking. Then its movements seemed to soften somehow, and it exuded a strange sense of shy self-consciousness. This was likely the result of the machine engaging a sentient Turing-beater program in order to ease communication. It held up its empty manipulating limbs and pointed its static pulse gun into the air in a manner that let David detect that it was not charged. And it transmitted a directional communication in plain text. "Can we talk?"

"I would appreciate it if the rest of your companions would show themselves as well." With obvious reluctance, the machine coaxed 5 companions into view. They were extremely similar in construction, with essentially identical weaponry. As a group, they graduated from damn creepy to outright spooky looking. Most machines, even the nastier predatory ones, didn't generate this sort of response for David. Part of him wondered what that meant, and then he damped down the routine that simulated his biological fear response so that it wouldn't distract him from trying to not be killed. "What can I do for you folks?"

The one running the Turing-beater made a hesitant step forward. "Please, sir, we have need of some high-density processors, and help installing it. Can you help us?" The machine fidgeted in an excellent simulation of nervousness. Its companions, however, were almost completely still except for occasional efficient movements.

"Tricky." David ran an inventory of the high-density processors he had, and checked to see how much of it he felt he could part with. "How much do you need?"

"The design parameter is physically limited by 300 cubic centimeters."

That caught David off guard. When asking for a brain, usually one would tend to want to know how smart it was. The volume required for a stack of processors tended to rely as much on power and cooling requirements as memory and speed. "Come again?"

"The design parameter is physically-"

"No. I understood that." Clearly not machines with much experience with discourse. "Your parameter is not a typical measure of HD processor requirement. Can you explain what you need the processors for?"

The self-conscious machine glanced at its fellows, and their antennae twitched in conference. "We need a brain for our friend. He lost his old one."

FUNNY flashed in one corner of David's mind. "The whole brain failed at once?"

"It was taken by an unknown aggressor, as well as draining him of charge."

Less funny. But very interesting. "Where's your friend now?"

One of the wasp-headed mechanical werewolf satyrs retreated behind the rock outcropping, returning a moment later carrying yet another chassis. With a mechanical approximation of tenderness, the inert chassis was laid down in front of the group. Then they backed up, giving David a clear view. And, if you were permitting yourself to anthropomorphize, they seemed to do so reverently.

David's six legs drew him smoothly from behind his cover, and he reared up his torso to allow better mobility of his arms as he quickly scuttled toward them. To their credit, the predator machines backed away but carefully kept themselves within his line of sight. It was an unspoken tactical nicety to demonstrate no subterfuge was planned, and it went a long way in David's esteem.

Looking at the machine up close, David could see could see that the overall design of the chassis involved some very carefully-sculpted components. David's "head" looked up from the chassis to regard the other predator machines, and could see that despite some minor proportional differences, they shared the same kind of artistic component morphology. That wasn't normal.

The inert machine's forward limbs had both been severed below the elbows, and had been carefully welded back together. A similar cut had been made to remove most of the wasp-like sensor pod head, and it too had been repaired. Yet another slice to a panel of the body could be seen as likewise welded together, and David had to struggle a bit to shift the chassis so that he could verify that the panel covered the primary power storage modules. Further forward on the chassis was a damaged panel that had not been repaired. It opened into a well-shielded cavity at the heart of the chassis, and David knew without measuring that is was 300 cubic centimeters in volume.

David did some rough calculations, then addressed the pack. "I can provide a replacement brain, but it will be difficult to adapt and install. You would be better off going to whoever created you, or scavenging the chassis for parts."

The nervous spokesmachine responded, "Please proceed with the replacement. Our creator was destroyed 32 years ago, and our design is not well-suited to carrying much spare componentry - we would waste too much. Plus, she was our friend."

It irked David that the programmed affection of the machines influenced him so much. Partially because he could not distinguish whether it was a functional part of the machines basic methodology or if it was an affectation done just to manipulate him. Humans were notoriously fond of loyalty, and David was no exception. "It would be a lot easier to accomplish if one of you would allow yourself to be disassembled."

There was a long pause. That meant that it was not a popular idea among the pack, and David could see their antennae thrumming as they discussed it among themselves. Eventually the response was, "We would rather not."

"It would reduce the chances of me making an unrecoverable mistake."

"We realize the logic of the suggestion, and we all agree with the idea theoretically. However, none of us is willing to volunteer."

David paused to dwell on that. "I suppose that makes quite a lot of sense to me, actually. I might have been interacting with too many hive minds lately."

The machines seemed to be staring uncomprehendingly at David. Or, at least, that's what his anthropomorphic personality interpreted it as seeming like.

"I mean that individual sacrifice means much less to hive minds."

"Oh. Yes. And your human origins should tend to make your perspective more individualistic - like us."

"Exactly."

They resumed staring at David, with the emotionally-enabled one doing a pretty convincing emulation of mild fidgeting. These machines probably didn't attend many parties.

When David felt sufficiently awkward, he moved on to one more item of negotiation. "So, what form of payment are you folks offering?"

"We can trade surplus electrical charge."

David smiled inwardly; money really was power. Well, charge. Close enough. "About 3 gigajoules should suffice."

The fidgety wasp-headed werewolf satyr increased its fidgeting. "That is too much; we do not have that much to spare."

David noticed that this response was delivered without the telltale trembling of its antennae, meaning that there had been no discussion amongst the pack. "How much do you have to spare?"

Now there was some antennae twitching. The machine replied, "We can manage 1.9 gigajoules."

"Well, you're in luck. I only expect half now, and the other half on delivery. It will take me a little while to complete this work, which should give you some time to hunt down the rest."

"We might not be able to obtain the additional charge."

"Then you might not be able to afford to have this work done."

There was some brief discussion amongst the pack, then their spokesmachine replied, "We will accept your terms. When will the work be complete?"

David guessed at a number, then tripled it. "At least 30 hours."

"That will be acceptable." The pack coalesced to connect their power systems, and extended an outlet to David. David had a spare capacitor, and shunted their 1.5 gigajoules to it, taking several long minutes to avoid heating loss during the transfer. At the same time, they gave David copies of the software kernels they wanted to be installed. When the transfer was complete, the pack loped away purposefully. And with eerie quiet.

David looked down at the inert chassis, and said to it, "I suspect that they might mean to kill me after you're fixed, sport.

Einstein

When the chassis stood up, David felt an odd sort of relief. The relief was that he hadn't made any mistakes so grave that the machine couldn't at least use its limbs, even though it shook and trembled with inexperience as it moved. What made it odd was that part of him was trying to think of the machine like a newborn, a new life. And he didn't know that it wasn't, ultimately, but big cognitive parts of him couldn't stop seeing it as a monster - something that would have loosened his bowels, if he had encountered it back when he had bowels.

The machine finished a preliminary self diagnostic, then started examining its surroundings. It had enough pre-loaded into its database to cause it to hiccup when it noticed David, and it paused its sweep to regard him more closely. "You creator?"

"No. I am merely your assembler."

It spent a while looking up what that might mean, and seemed unable to settle on anything sufficient. So it tried again. "Assembler not creator?"

"No."

"Can eat assembler?"

"I doubt it."

"Am hungry."

"I bet you are; your solar arrays are pretty puny. Let's hook you up to one of solar array crabs for a snack."

"Am protect?"

David thought about that for a moment. "Do you mean you or me, and who is protecting whom?" A solar array crab started prancing slowly and gracefully up the hill through the gloom. Sunset was dying pinkly over the distant horizon, but latent radioactivity of the valley kept a warm low-spectrum glow.

"Is purpose? Am protect you?"

"Ah." David felt an internal warmth, besides his small radioisotope thermal generator. The scary bastard might not be a monster, not really. "It's a fine thought, but you should consider that an optional tertiary function. Your primary function is probably to survive. Your secondary function, if you are a typical being, is to contribute to the survival of your kind - however you might want to define that."

"Who you?"

"For now, just call me Boss."

"Yes Boss."

"Good. Can you access the extra databases I've installed?"

"Yes Boss. What for?"

That was a good question. David didn't normally share this much experiential information without being paid for it. In this case, though, David felt like it could be a way to seed a future ally. "It's so you can understand some things without having to ask me. Just query yourself, and build a reference hierarchy that suits you."

"What ask?"

David snickered. It was spontaneous, and helped David believe that he really was himself. His battered old sense of humour was unpredictable, even to himself. The fact that he was amused at becoming frustrated with the newly-booted predator machine helped him feel almost human.

"You know, that's not a bad question. I suggest you submit that as a query to the databases." Thinking about it, David found himself extremely curious about what would surface foremost.

The machine whined. It was an odd sound that David quickly recognized as joint-motors testing their threshold amplitudes, though part of him couldn't help but associate it with an unhappy canine. Then the machine started swaying to and fro, and then began articulating its limbs through their full ranges of motion, one at a time. After that, it started walking. Awkwardly at first, then smoother as it learned its dynamics. It moved more quickly, and eventually was racing around in the gloom of the mountain ridge. Apparently, the question the databases thought should be asked related to physical status.

"You're not as light on your feet as your kin." David remarked, as the machine started jumping too. The phalanx of solar array crabs gave a discreet coded alarm signalling that they were hearing something upsetting, and David ignored them.

The machine skidded to a halt, and flexed its knees to cause its primary mass to bob up and down. "Am heavier?"

"No. They demonstrated an ability to perambulate with less noise..." The crabs were still going nuts, even though the predator machine was no longer moving. That's not right, that should have been demoted to a flag instead of an active alarm. Unless there was something else walking noisily. David summoned the real-time sensor feed from the crabs, and saw that there was indeed some significant ground-conducted noise. A couple kilometers away. Big. Approaching.

The predator machine started tapping its legs on the ground, to see what noise they made. "Hush!"

The machine stopped. "Yes boss."

David didn't have a gut any more, but he was still subjected to gut feelings. Usually they just warned him that his mode of speech was getting ridiculous, talking mostly to Turing-beater programs. Right that instant, though, David had the uncomfortable feeling that he was even more tangled in trouble than just dealing with potentially double-crossing clients.

A faint buzzing sound wafted from the darkness. David reflexively hunkered his carapace even lower than usual, while his acoustic sensors swivelled. The rebooted predator machine found it first.

"Direction 172°, azimuth 37°, range 350 meters."

A dot of bright heat showed up in the night, and image enhancement showed an old surveillance drone. Somebody was spending energy for a flying machine? That didn't happen often. The little drone swept across the rocky ridge at a height of a couple hundred meters, and David watched it with a growing sense of dread. Dread that deepened as he watched it bank to return while he kept most of a boulder between it and himself.

A mechanical bellow of drive motors could clearly be heard as something really large accelerated down below on the mountain side. David realized that the rebooted predator machine was still standing where it had been before, watching the drone with innocent interest out in the open. As were his herd of retarded solar array crabs.

"Shit."

"Expletive Boss?"

"Yes, Einstein. We've got trouble." David started quick-charging his rail gun. "Help me shoot down that drone, and follow me." Einstein's static pulse weapon charged faster than David's rail gun, and it snapped a shot off first. Close, but a miss, and now it was flying even more evasively. David scuttled further up the ridge, toward the rock slide, and Einstein gambolled after him. The drone circled, watching.

Loading a flak round, David ramped up his processing speed. Time seemed to slow down as his thoughts cascaded faster and faster. Secondary emotional processes started failing at that speed, and his processor quickly built up heat. Thoughts simplifying as they went faster, it became easier to focus purely on aiming. David blasted the drone with a narrow cone of tumbling needles, sending the flying machine spiralling out of the air to dash itself against the mountain.

Before his processors could get too overheated, David slowed his thinking back down to a more typical speed. David spun around and reversed direction, sidestepping the predator machine that was following.

"Where go Boss?"

David was scuttling rapidly over the rocky mountainside, his torso hunched low to be almost in line with his beetle-like main chassis. "Just follow me. As quietly as you can." After a moment of hesitation, Einstein followed. The long prehensile digits at the ends of Einstein’s legs made it quite possible to walk carefully, but it was a complicated affair to which the predator machine was still unaccustomed. Einstein struggled to keep up.

Upon gaining cover of a large rock outcropping, David waved Einstein to a halt. "Try to stay low, Einstein. And keep quiet. When we move, try to follow my path."

Einstein didn't reply.

Time shuffled along slowly, using annoyingly long moments and ponderous instants. In the shadow of the rocks, the light enhancing mode of David's tactical sensors showed the abandoned ridge line as a festive choral of amorphous shape. The flock of solar array crabs had settled down and were mostly still, but their residual heat and regular shapes caused them to stand out like insectile graffiti. A gentle warm breeze washed over the mountainside, suffusing David's microphones with a regretful ongoing sigh.

Maintaining a tightbeam link to the crabs, David could hear the rumble of the oncoming threat through their delicate feet. Whatever it was, it wasn't wasting any time, as it eschewed any of the ancient paths and trails, instead charging in a straight line toward the ridge.

With a spectacular splash, one of the solar array crabs was blasted into a hot billowing spray, announcing that the incoming threat had a line of sight of the ridge. And suggesting that it was really really unfriendly. This triggered the panic plan for the solar array crabs, and they scuttled erratically in different directions to act as a distraction. The rapidity with which all the crabs were dispatched, and the effectiveness of the weapon used, triggered a mostly-forgotten routine in David to query for a sphincter.

Einstein slowly turned his expressionless wasp-like head to regard David, and David cast back a slight sidelong glance. They didn't say anything. They resumed watching the top of the ridge as a chorus of heavy motors roared a climbing bass.

Cresting the visible portion of the ridge rose a huge gun, sweeping and sniffing like the snout of some horrific anteater. Most of the rest of its bulk was hidden behind giant armoured wheels that also articulated like legs, in a manner similar to but vastly more intimidating than tank-ants. Unmuffled by terrain, the big, simple drive motors didn't just rumble; they thundered. Dirt, rocks, and unlucky boulders were flung behind the tank as it scrambled to heave tons of armour up the mountain.

As hoped, it was headed in the direction that David and Einstein were last going before they shot down the surveillance drone. The logical objective was a high pass up on the mountain that would have relatively good cover, and the logical path lead across a slope of light scree. The slope of light scree topped by a rock face laced with explosives.

When the tank was in the middle of the scree, David triggered the explosives. David lacked the features to accomplish the smirk he felt at Einstein's flinch. After flashes danced and a ripple of concussion, a satisfyingly large portion of the mountain was cleaved free and left to the sorting power of gravity. The ground shook, and dust completely defeated the capabilities of low-light visual sensors. And of the giant tank-ant, there was no sign.

"Finish killing it, Boss?"

The thought of all the energy reserves that thing must have still had tempted David. "Uh, no. Let's leave. Now. Quietly." David backed away from their vantage point, and turned his chassis to move away from the area via a series of ridges. Einstein slunk dutifully behind.

Foraging

A few hours later, with the sky easing from being quite so totally dark and a number of kilometers further away, David and Einstein came across a worn path. It was not logged in David's ancient database, so he felt like following it - in the direction that lead more generally away from where they had last heard the giant tank-ant.

"OK talk now, Boss?"

"OK."

There then passed several minutes of continued silence. David smirked inwardly, after catching himself feeling annoyed at Einstein for not proceeding with a conversation as he expected. It was a sign that he was growing less paranoid of the frightening predator-machine when he started to anthropomorphize.

From experience, David knew that he could argue with the machine about the finer points of conversation, but that it would be ultimately futile. Machines were just too fundamentally honest, and most lacked the instinctive need to socialize and establish relationships. Maybe that was something that might develop eventually in some, but David hadn't seen it yet. The most they would do is run a Turing-beater program for more advantageous interactions with ex-humans.

And still, David couldn't resist himself. After all, he doubted most of the humans he had talked to in his life could pass a Turing test anyway.

"So, Einstein... where do you think we should go?"

"Away from big gun. Find energy, Boss."

Something in David's language center wanted to snort to express... something expressed by snorting. He wasn't sure what. Not being able to snort distracted him for a moment, and let him reformulate his thoughts. "Well, sure. But I can't help but notice that you appear to be staying near me. It is fine by me, but, I'm curious to know what you think our connection is."

"Connection, Boss?"

After a pause, in which a new vista of rocky desolation unfolded before the two machines, a spark of mutual understanding still failed to blossom.

"Let's assume that if I die that you will not linger near my body... not counting the time which it might take to extract any energy reserves that might remain and harvest what components you might deem useful."

Einstein did not respond, and just kept lanky pace alongside David's efficient scuttling.

"So, I'm going to suppose that you have some hope of gain by staying near me. Probably things hinted at in that database of information that I gave you - about finding energy, avoiding danger, that sort of thing." David discovered himself gesticulating with his most-humanoid upper limbs, and saw that Einstein was watching the motions intently. Probably wondering at that wasted energy.

David folded his arms to a neutral position. "The thing is, I am unsure about what benefit there would be in having you with me."

"Protection, Boss?"

"That's cute, but no. Not really. You're more of a threat-attractor than a defense, Einstein."

Einstein’s antennae twitched, and David guessed that he was not understanding.

"It's because you're so obviously a predator, kiddo. You'll make many other machines defensive."

"I see, Boss."

"Speaking of which, how are your energy reserves?"

"19,534,236 Joules."

"Crap; you're starving. Let's see if we can find some farmers we can barter with for some juice." David had been watching for threats all along, in his usual paranoid style, but his low stance meant that there were gaps in his review of his surroundings. He climbed onto the broken and bleached remains of a tree, and hoisted himself to a more vertical orientation, letting his long legs straighten out. First he watched the direction they came from, looking for signs of pursuit. Then he swept his telescopic sights along the wobbling horizon. "Things are looking pretty barren around here. Not a good sign. If I let you run down, how am I going to train you to do witty banter?"

Einstein made a few awkward motions with his antennae, but did not otherwise respond.

"See? Exactly my point." David imagined that he saw some motion of admission in the predator machine's demeanour. Or he wanted to imagine it. Or he was programmed to think that he wanted to imagine it. David hated letting himself slide down that rabbit hole.

David guessed that with less than 20 megajoules of power onboard, Einstein probably only had about 5 more hours of marching in him. That doesn't make for a lot of foraging possibility.

"Einstein, how about you take up a position atop this boulder and power down your motors."

"Not stay with boss?"

"No, I'm not leaving you. Keep your sensors active, and I'll stay in touch while I do some foraging."

Einstein twitched his antennae in a semi-voluntary sensory feedback loop while he processed. David guessed he was tapping into those auxiliary databases he had installed. The moment passed, and the predator machine climbed carefully up onto the boulder and hunkered down into an angular sphinx configuration. Then it was utterly motionless.

It was one of those things David never really got used to, that ability to turn into a statue, even though he could do it himself. It just didn't sit right in the program that emulated his instincts, and tended to conceptualize machine animals in terms of biological ones. But it did have some handy tactical uses. David reared his cockroach-centaur chassis into a mostly-vertical orientation and straightened his rearmost for legs, achieving an effective height of about 4 meters. Then he locked all his joints and powered down his own motors.

"Let's just wait for the sun to come up, and see what we can see."

The glowing carnival of radioactive night blossomed gradually into an intensely painted day. In the hours it took for the intense arc of the sun to free itself of the horizon, a few brave farmer machines crept or slithered or writhed or stretched or unfolded or rolled out of their hiding. The thing they had in common was that they used large solar arrays to harvest radiation energy from the sun. Most of them tended to keep careful distance from each other, all in a careful dance of competition for real estate. Most of them also tended to use very efficient movement, to conserve energy. But, again, the variety was staggering, and without clear differentiation between plant or animal.

Once the local demographic looked well into sorting out their territory for the day, David powered back up his motors and unlocked his joints. "OK, Einstein, let's see what we can find." As he moved to lower himself back into his normal scuttling orientation, several small farmer machines nearby folded up their arrays and discretely retreated back to their hiding.

"There are several ways to go about foraging. The one you're probably going to see most often, and is probably ingrained in your basic programming, is what we humans used to refer to as 'might makes right'. I don't really need to explain that, right?"

Einstein gave no conversational reply, though the communication diagnostic feedback showed that he was listening.

"What I'd like to demonstrate, for the sake of a counterpoint, is something I think of as more enlightened. Symbiotic. Civilized." David started scuttling forward, with an air of purposefulness about him.

"The philosophical hope is to encourage trade. I have technical services that I might employ to improve the situation of some beings hereabouts, and in return I negotiate for some of their power stores." The was a brief pause as David's line of sight to Einstein was interrupted as he scuttled around a boulder.

"That's just an example, mind you. Instead of technical services, you could offer services as a courier, or lookout, or even protection. Or any other kind of niche that you can figure out. It used to be, back when it was mostly humans, that a big niche was providing entertainment - but that's much harder to sell now." David did another sweep, looking for something in particular, and resumed his trekking.

"The trick, of course, is in finding machines of suitable intelligence to make such trades with. Not just in terms of simple intelligence, but also philosophical orientation. Because those can be just as varied as the physical forms." David slowed his scuttling before a large, awkwardly-waving set of radial fronds mounted on a telescoping tentacle.

"The easiest way to judge that, is to offer greeting. This machine appears to be sufficiently crude that I could greatly improve its efficiency, and also large enough that it could have some significant power reserves to trade." David then switched from discrete tight-beam to a more open and standardized hailing format.

"Hello there. May I offer my services?"

The tentacle shuddered, then heaved upwards as the buried main body it was attached to stood up. As it towered over David, the thick radial fronds snapped from their light-gathering splayed orientation into a much more sinister stabbing sort of attitude.

David's antennae drooped in a manner universally recognized as, "Oh, shiiiii-".

The bristling tentacle snapped forward, but David managed to pivot himself such that force of the blow brushed past him. Feeling the shock of the thrust hitting the ground, David quickly started reversing - and powering up his rail gun. The tentacle bristled its spikes and took a muscular swing, but at full reach it was too ponderous to clip David's scuttling form. Which is probably why it started charging after David on piledriver legs.

So impressed with the looming threat chasing him, David gave insufficient heed to his backwards retreat, and found himself scuttling over a small mechanical sun worshipper. A small mechanical sun worshipper that decided to grab onto one of David's legs. David's low cockroach-like chassis prevented him from actually tripping, but his escape was halted.

Shifting main power from legs to rail gun made an audible "TZZZZ". The towering-flail machine didn't seem to hear it, and closed in.

"CRACK-BANG!CRACK-BANG!CRACK-BANG!" Three heavy supersonic projectiles tore a rough equilateral triangle through a likely-looking ventral plate on the towering-flail machine, and paused its charge. It hopped backwards a half-step with small whining and grinding sounds, and wavered for a moment. Then it seemed to be gathering itself to tilt back into a charging orientation. "CRACK-BANG!" David shot it in an obvious eye. "CRACK-BANG!" An entire segment of joint connection bounced off of several nearby rocks, and the machine fell, crippled.

David made to finish it off, but noticed that his leg was still being held. "CRACK-WHUMP!" Shooting at partially buried machines didn't have the same satisfying acoustics, but David was free.

Einstein appeared, looking hungry.

"Shut up."

"Not say anything, boss."

"Shut. Up." "CRACK-BANG!"

David tread heavily over to Einstein after opening up the two disabled machines. "Should be sufficient charge in those two to last you a while."

Einstein said nothing, and went to feed.

Rambling

An efficiently hypnotic scuffle settled into David's insectile legs with a pleasant familiarity. How many dusty post-apocalyptic roads had he consumed in exactly this manner with these legs? Well, not these legs, exactly. There were hardly any original parts left any more - he had replaced virtually everything on all six legs over the past few nomadic decades.

Einstein was an odd addition, though. Most of recent memory had been solitary. But that had been a defensive adaptation, really. The other ex-humans had been so... depressing. And the more conversational machine life were all too new, too plastic, too oblivious to the significance of an ex-human's sense of tragic loss.

The overly-perky prance of the predator machine abruptly changed into a lope.

David twitched a main eye towards Einstein, and curved an antenna into a semaphore of a question mark at the predator machine.

"Status nominal, Boss."

David was thinking slowly, using only solar trickle charging, and contemplated whether this conversation would just hasten his inevitable abandoning of this companion. Old, illogically wise routines gave a digital sigh, and chided his consciousness for becoming an electric pessimism device. "I was just curious about your change from bouncy walk to business walk."

"Was just running one of your processes, Boss. It changed my walk."

Ignoring some projected warnings, David let himself succumb to pedantry. "First of all, kiddo, any process you develop and run from the databases of experiences I left in your head are yours. Second, any cognitive process - even one that happened to be imported completely from my brain to your brain - would only generate an idea or conclusion or question or guess or suggestion. Your primary cognition engine, your sentience, your you-ness: it decides whether to take that thought process output and turn it into any sort of action. Short of a big machine forcing your legs to move in a particular way, only you can change your walk."

"What if some big machine threatened me to change my walk without touching me?"

"Ha. OK, yeah, that's trickier. But if you still break down the causality, there is a level at which you are deciding to change your walk. Clearly there's a metaphysical level where the threatening machine has changed your walk, but your choice is necessary. The threat is just input, to the same degree as whatever sort of input made you decide to change your walk this time."

"OK, Boss." Einstein's antennae twitched betrayal to the complexity and vigorousness of his internal processes.

"So, why did you change your walk?"

"This locomotive mode was determined to be more efficient, and efficiency ended up outranking in priority over fun."

David found himself intruiged. "Fun?"

Einstein looked suddenly pleased with himself. Which, on a being that reminded David of a wasp-headed werewolf, was somewhat unsettling. "Assigned term to refer to cumulative sensory feedback parameters and motor control processing array."

"Holy shit, Einstein. That little dollop of gobbly-gook might just be the most interesting thing anyone has said to me for years. Now I just wish I knew what the hell you were talking about."

"Did I say it wrong, Boss?"

"How the hell should I know, buddy?"

Einstein's antennae drooped.

"I didn't mean that in a bad way, Einstein. Tell me more. More about that stuff you called fun. Your newly expanded ability to converse is nice... a pleasant surprise."

The predator machine perked up immediately. "When I booted up originally there was several routines for locomotion ready for use, but there was also a comprehensive system check and control-development protocol in your database."

"Huh. Right - I noticed you going through the motor tests. I developed that protocol because I've changed bodies a bunch of times - often without optimized routines yet."

"The meta-data also suggested that they would allow for potential development of control capabilities outside the scope of foreseen circumstance. Since my boot-up failed the lab-feedback initialization, it seemed like it might already be an unforeseen circumstance."

David tried but failed to smirk - his face couldn't perform the old reflex correctly. He did find himself wondering about the lab that had originally created Einstein and his kin.

"So a process was run, and it assigned the most value to feedback that showed optimized capability and minimized shock and wear."

"Yeah. The idea when I wrote it being that if you can know how best to apply forces you can translate that to a variety of other uses. Like fighting, or moving when damaged."

Einstein nodded - a defunct tidbit of human communication that Einstein had probably pulled from David's memories. "I knew that, right after you said it. Like when you were a tank that slipped down a ravine, and used your gun barrel to help you crawl out."

"Yes, and when I got out the gun didn't work and had to use it as a club."

They both slowed momentarily.

Einstein looked pointedly at David, lupine predator machine to centaur-cockroach body. "You died as that tank."

"Yes. Yes I did."

"So it wasn't really you?"

A familiarly troubling melancholy shivered along a spine that David no longer had. "No, not strictly speaking. But it really does feel like it was me, doesn't it."

"Yes, Boss. Well, no Boss." Einstein was sucked into confusing remembrances that were not his own, made out of meat-thoughts he could never have had. "It feels like it was ME. But that's wrong, isn't it Boss?"

"Exactly. The memories are all encoded as first-person, which makes them confusing for us. Well, probably more confusing for you than me because the... uh, flavour? ...or feel of the memories is clearly wrong. They feel less-wrong to me because they're very consistent with my other memories. Because they were the experiences of a different copy of me."

"So, having the same memories as you do, will that make me a copy of you too, Boss?"

"Nope. Well, I don't think so, anyway."

"OK, Boss."

David scuttled over a 4-meter-high concrete wall that had probably formed part of a defensive compound a century or so earlier, by somebody that was stuck thinking about the capabilities of upright monkeys. Einstein hopped lightly to the top of the wall, then bounced softly to ground on the other side. The top of the wall showed considerable wear from all the machines that had passed by this way, along the convenient natural pathway, and barely noticed the old barrier. David tipped his head and cocked a camera for a backward glance.

"A bunch of copies were made of the original biological David, but all of us became different. I'm just a copy that happened to develop a knack for survival, and somewhere along the way I decided to start collecting the memories of other Davids. Because we all started thinking the same way means that I was able to integrate their memories in with mine fairly easily, but they're still noticeably different. Even the memories that we share - of being the biological David - all differ subtly based on subsequent reinterpretations."

Einstein just continued loping beside David.

"Of the 8 other Davids I've come across over the years and been able to download their databases, only about half of them seem genuinely familiar to me. The other half all suffered some personality-diverging trauma or experience. It's kind of scary, to think about how malleable we can be. I'm not sure how true that was for biological humans, but it seems like the sort of thing I remember hearing about happening."

"What do you think happened to the original David?"

David stopped himself from answering. "You've got the relevant databases, and know that I don't know, and know all of my best guesses. Why do you ask?"

"Because there are several sets of best guesses, and I just want to verify that I know which one is yours."

"Sneaky. Well, you can be assured that everything with a timestamp less than 20 years old is all me."

A small machine startled near them just off the path, curled up its panels and quickly rolled away behind a rock.

"Recent database entries seem to only be comprised of assertions about not knowing."

"It's a philosophical thing. What do you think happened to him?"

Einstein pondered. "I think he escaped the planet into a spaceship and lived a long and happy life with a colony of other biological humans in a space habitat."

David tripped over himself, and came to an abrupt halt. "BWA HAA HAA HAA HAA!"

"It could have happened."

"HA HA HA HA!" David resumed walking, shaking his head.

"It is the best possible guess."

"Ha ha heh. OK, nicest possible guess, maybe. But not very likely."

"It is the only guess that provides any positive feedback. All others are either flat, or various degrees of negative."

David tried to arrange his antennae coyly. "This is more according to your 'fun' protocol?"

"Yes, Boss."

They continued down the path between the rocky mountain ridges, with more signs of mechanical life eking out existence.

"Wait a minute, Einstein. How did that 'fun' protocol you adapted from my database suggest that you revert to one of your ready-made business-walk routines?"

"It didn't. That was just where the 'fun' program came from. There was another over-riding protocol in your database about unbiased judgement. It pointed out the energy considerations of our situation, and strongly suggested the clearly more efficient locomotion mode."

"Ah."

Sounded an awful lot like an electric pessimism device.

Yojimbo

Another sunset found David and Einstein sufficiently far from the mountain where they left the giant tank ant that they were less interested in covering distance quickly. They stayed generally along the worn path they had been following, but were occasionally ranging from it in order to approach potential client machines. David had managed to barter some repair work with a cluster of sun-farmers for almost enough energy to compensate them for the distance they had travelled. Einstein still hadn't managed to really master conversational banter, but he was still the best travelling companion that David had had in over 30 years.

Cresting another ridge in the mountainous desert range, David froze and gestured Einstein behind him to halt.

Telescopic lenses agog, David saw a human figure walking along the path in the valley below.

A human figure? Really? A reassuring glint told David that it wasn't a mirage of meat, so internal suggestions that he was going insane were tabled. Nevertheless, the age of the humanoid chassis was long over. Long ago, before the environmental decline and the grinding deprivations of conflict over dwindling resources, humanoid machines were extremely common - to interact with humans and to use human-oriented equipment and construction. Even after biological humans weren't commonly found, humanoid chassis were still the de-facto standard among the various post-human cultures and societies. But that arbitrary standard faded in favour of evolving preferences - niches that the adapting and specializing nations were inclined to that humanoids couldn't fill. Eventually the humanoid chassis became the preserve of only one kind of being: ex-human nomads who clung to their distant origins. An ex-human was human enough for David.

Some dormant seed of hope sprouted in David's simulated psyche. Another old soul to talk to! As much as he admired the resilience and adaptability of the many pure-machine personalities he had met, they were all essentially too... new. Even machines, such as Einstein, infused with a built-in reservoir of philosophical topics to plumb from new perspectives lacked the sense of getting to know another soul. Something that had opinions and preferences about art, an abstract set of metaphorical language, or even a sense of humour. God, it had been too long. Too damn long.

David found himself urging his chassis into a run, his long legs scuttling in an eager flurry that let him seem to float over the terrain heedless of the path. He raised his torso into its most human-like posture and did something he couldn't remember doing since his biological incarnation: we waved. "Heeeey! Over here! I'm human too!" The sound probably didn't carry very well, but the electromagnetic transmission was probably received.

The humanoid turned its head to look at David, then it too started eagerly jogging towards David. Their elongated shadows thrown by the setting sun over the strewn boulders cavorted like happy marionettes. O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay! David giddily wondered if the other ex-human would be too unaccustomed to personal interactions to tolerate an embrace.

David’s wondering widened as he saw that the humanoid form had drawn a sword and sped up to a superhuman sprint. Its leaping gait caused the tattered robe to reveal a shiny skeletal form travelling with an alacrity that would have caused Sarah Connor considerable anxiety. David skidded to a stop. “Uh, that’s not right.”

The electromagnetic sense never quite meshed with David’s human-oriented perceptions well, so its newly-pinched feel for the region before him was confusing for a moment. Then one of Einstein’s static-pulses caromed crazily from the vicinity of the brandished blade. And, in a flash, it all made sense. “Einstein! Get out of here! RUN!”

His insectile legs now furiously scrabbling to accelerate his lowering chassis away from the fast metallic zombie, David also began charging his rail gun. But he did not bother quick-charging, because he knew his ammunition would be nearly useless against the powerful bending magnetic field wrapping around the superconducting blade. This was reconfirmed as another static-pulse veered crazily into the sky away from the lich-like target.

“Don’t bother shooting it! Just move as fast as you can!” And hope it doesn’t have any range weapons, David didn’t add.

To his credit, Einstein didn’t hesitate to comply and immediately stretched his lanky chassis into a fast gallop parallel to David’s course, but further ahead. “What that, Boss?”

At that instant David didn’t want to talk; he was too frantic looking for tactical options in the surrounding terrain. But rather than fully-face the depressing lack of useful results, he decided to distract himself with a quick explanation to Einstein.

“It’s two things: bad and terrible.”

“Not funny, Boss.”

“Wasn’t kidding, sport. It’s bad in the sense that it can almost certainly kick our combined asses – I think it’s one of the apex battle chassis developed just prior to the tribulations and was probably lavished with technology and capabilities that make us both look like simple bread warming appliances.”

“Toasters?”

David’s rear-facing sensors witnessed the humanoid machine leap clean over a rock outcropping that both he and Einstein had to scrabble over. “Or maybe just toast... It’s terrible in the sense that it has found a plasma sword. Not only does it cut through pretty much anything and deflect charge-affected projectiles, it also causes its processors considerable harm. It’s probably pretty insane now, but just cognizant enough to realize that it needs to fix its brains – which is why it cut you open to scoop out your previous-self’s main processors. And, incidentally, why it’s chasing us down now.”

“Anticipated intercept in 12 minutes, Boss.”

“Yeah, that’s pretty close to my guess too. We should split up so that it doesn’t necessarily get both of us.”

“OK, Boss.” Einstein veered 30° to the left.

David veered proportionally the opposite direction. He wanted to say something like, “It was good to meet you.”, but had the depressed sensation that he hadn’t really yet had a chance to find out who or what Einstein was going to turn out to be. The brain-stealing zombie shifted its sprinting to pursue David. Which was upsetting. It also made David glad he had given a copy of most of his database to Einstein; maybe at least a part of him would survive.

Several of the memory sets of his expired selves had warned David that the most effective way to compromise a talent for survival was to take it for granted. But that was not a problem David currently suffered. He had no idea how he could survive this encounter: it was able to deflect all his potent weaponry and was likely to be fiendishly hard to harm generally, he had no defense against that plasma blade if it got within reach, and it was faster than he was.

...Wait. Maybe that last part wasn’t necessarily so. The monstrous power and freakish agility of the humanoid gave it superior travelling speed across the current terrain. But scuttling has advantages with respect to other kinds terrain... Like the nearly-vertical cliff face that was looming 600 meters away.

Unfortunately, to change direction to flee towards it would let the galloping ghoul intercept diagonally. David cranked his joint motors past their safety limits, and made for the giant craggy rock. His perimeter cameras saw the blurry artifacts of his chassis-shaking sprint, but he could still make out the shiny lunatic grin of the metallic human skull as it loomed closer.

David reached the rock face a only 20 meters ahead of the streaking horror. He didn't pause, and immediately began ascending as quickly as he could - which, thanks to articulating piton-like digits on multiple legs, was very quick indeed. However, the superhuman skeleton leapt the last 10 meters with alarming alacrity, and landed clinging to the rock face. It tensed for another leap vertically, to intercept David's scuttling form. As it launched upwards, David slammed an explosive round into his rail gun - and shot it at the cliff face between him and the ballistic zombie. The blast of the explosion subtly veered the trajectory of the zombie. Not enough to prevent it from swinging its plasma sword and slicing off one of David's legs. But enough that it could not grasp any part of the cliff, and plummeted all the way back down to the bottom.

It was disappointing to see it land essentially unharmed on its feet, but not surprising. It rotated its head in the direction of Einstein, visible now mostly as a faint dust cloud, and began climbing the cliff more carefully.

David resumed climbing, and even missing one limb was still faster at it than the humanoid mechanical skeleton. But the cliff didn't go on forever.

Descent

Raw stone at the top of the cliff was hewn into semi-regular shapes. Whatever its original purpose had been, it now resembled an all-stone cemetery. This spawned an emulated psychological process in David's mind that he immediately terminated - dedicating every spare mental cycle to evaluating potential tactical options. Or escape routes. Or perhaps just the best place to die...

It was a stubbornly persistent emulated psychological process.

Hopeless, it all seemed. Nothing here could sufficiently hide his electromagnetic signature from careful searching. All he could seem to try was to obscure the direction in which he fled. With that aim, David tucked his torso low and scuttled across the sepulchral scene. The jarring sounds of the zombie's ascent was amplified by David's desperation.

What was that?

A gap in the stone, apparently from some kind of impact, had a strange yawning shadow in it. Hurrying over to look more directly, David could see that the gap opened up into a smoothly circular shaft. Straight down. Thermal imaging revealed nothing, and light enhancement could not coax any details about how far down it went. But longer-wavelength electromagnetic whispers suggested something exotic in the depths.

It occurred to the ex-human that the opening seemed to be in want of a manhole cover. He logged a mental note to review the merits of running a pun-seeking mental process in times of distress, and shut it down.

Normally, "something exotic" translated into arrays of problems not worth exposing one's self to. David scurried down the hole with only a hint of a pause. Headfirst; cockroach like.

David deactivated his wounded pride mental process. He really didn't have time for that either. It was time to move as fast and as carefully as possible, while watching the entrance for signs of pursuit. And death.

Titanium joints and carbide limb-tips ground against the walls of the shaft in a thrumming staccato as seven and a half limbs worked to rapidly lower David. Faint differences in surface texture might have been meaningful telltales of past use, or even gaudy painted warnings, but he didn't dare emit anything yet to reveal those details. Or to light himself up as a target. David didn't have sufficiently sensitive auditory receptors to guess how much further down it was, but the echoes seemed to just keep going and going. Before long, he guessed that he had descended below the level of the valley outside, and that this was taking entirely too long.

"Maybe I should stop here? Wait for the grinning zombie to try to follow, and if it jumps down the shaft it's not like it could duck. But what could actually damage it? It would have to be an explosive round, and that might cause the shaft to collapse. Hmmm... Then there's the possibility that it could just drop big fucking rocks down the shaft and then slice off my brains after I'm dashed and helpless. Yeah - keep moving."

One of David's elbows slammed unexpectedly into part of an unseen gantry, knocking him off kilter and causing him to lose his fragile traction and begin to fall. And a resounding klangg rang up the shaft. He scrabbled with this other arm and a leg to cling to the functionally invisible truss, letting dangle with legs splayed. The outstretched limbs encountered other hard contacts, and his swinging was quickly arrested.

"Well, shit. There's no way that the zombie didn't hear that... is there? How much farther down can this shaft go?" Half-expecting a search beam to blaze down the shaft and reveal him, David gingerly felt around the metal beams he was dangling from and grasped with more limbs for stability. Theoretically, the beams would allow for easier movement due to having actual limb-holds instead of just bracing across a shaft. But being totally blind meant that each hold had to be found by touch.

Wait; the echoes are different. There was a dripping sound, somewhere... not nearby. This was a large cavern of some sort. A quick glance upwards revealed the small bright dot of the top of the shaft was partially occluded by a verge - the truss David was clambering on was slightly offset from the upper shaft. Well, at least it's not just a blank well-like structure to die in. There looked to be some room to be cornered and murdered with dignity.

still in progress...