“I don't wanna hear 'em whine about jail, they're buyin’ n’ selling advanced tech contraband. It’s a safety law!” The man on the satellite radio laughed, his voice echoed in the concrete garage crammed with various metal apparatus. “One accidental chemical exposure, gene splice combo, or free-thinking robot and BOOM; S I N-gularity folks! The tech ban is the best ban!” The man quoted the Gov slogan, alongside murmurs of his co-hosts agreement.
The newshour ended. G rolled out from under the lifted machine pastiche on her mechanic chair, her hand outstretched in expectation of the tool she required.. “More like propaganda hour,” she said, scowling.
Sim dropped the wrench in G’s palm, her mechanical arm grinding. G grimaced at the noise. “Tunes?” Sim redirected.
G slid back under the machine. “Nah. Download today’s Neer Net news transmissions instead. They might be real,” she said, cranking her wrench loudly. “And oil your socket joints, you're grinding.”
Sim sighed and walked across the room to G’s computer on the large workshop table. She tried to conserve oil, since anything used to run machines was hard to come by. But having a cyborg body meant it was a necessity.
The computer booted slowly, static lines crackled on the screen. A janky combination; metal harvested from street signs, a frankenstein-rigged keyboard from some ancient typewriter, circuit boards salvaged from the dump mines... a testament to scrap innovation.
Your standard Google CORP unit, with its tracking devices and auto usercrime alerts, was not an option. The price tag also meant only handsomely-paid Gov cogs, Feds or Google CORPs used one. Those who rebelled against the Gov’s tech ban, the Engine Neers, were a network of murderous drug-dealing psychos as far as the Feds were concerned.
The day’s first Neer Net transmission was from Matt, a 9-year-old Materials Science Neer living underground in a maze of trap-ridden caves. For security, they’d been experimenting with scrapped wildlife cams, birthday gifts from G. “I got the cams running!” Matt’s voice came on. “Motion-activated works too, and I got something cool to show you...” they paused, adjusting the cam.
Sim understood what Matt meant by “cool,” the grainy screen showed a hovering device banging against a net of salvaged wire, like a trapped bee. The thing had brackets for a weapon but knowing Matt it’d already been removed. The tech was sleek, meaning Gov-made, but what made it unusual was its uninterrupted string of binary speech.
“It’s been babbling since I caught it, but I only know conversational binary. Sim, I thought maybe you could...” Matt went on, but Sim tried to make sense of the bot’s rambling.
Sim spun around in the mechanical stool to face G. “It’s asking for help,” she said, her face grim.
“A machine with some kinda awareness?” G began to pace. “But the Gov would never make sentient bots, they’d lose control.”
Sim frowned and paused Matt’s transmission. “There’s still two more entries from Dani and Beck today…,” G stopped pacing and watched as Sim booted up Dani’s transmission.
Dani was a drone junkie and lived in an airship made from an RV. The audio on her vid was muffled, the mic on her drones picking up wind. Her fleet zoomed away from her ship into the clouds, responding to her control gloves. The display split into a grid of each drone’s cam.
The transmission began with a routine patrol of the scrapyards layered slums, but suddenly one drone made a jarring turn to the left before its cam went dark. The drones turned in unison like a flock of birds, back toward Dani’s RV, but a second cam was abruptly taken out.
Two drones shielded Dani as laser cannon fire rained upon the RV hull. Three foreign bots crashed onboard, silver metal and flopping like fish. Sim watched Dani trap them in the cargo hold and could immediately see that they were the same kind of bot Matt captured.
“These things been flying the past three days!” Dani spoke into the drone mic nearest to her. “G, we need to talk IRL!” she said, before the “end transmission” notice flashed.
G resumed pacing, “What’d Beck say?”
Sim loaded Beck’s transmission. A blind conspiracy theorist and “tinkerer,” Beck lived alone in a treehouse hidden in the country’s only remaining natural park, which was probably on some Gov agenda to be seized for resources. He’d gained notability for his tree cam vids, set to alternate on a timer. The sight of nature an unusual thing for many now. After shots of various deer, an aerial view of Beck’s house came on.
G leaned over Sim’s shoulder, gesturing toward something dripping off of Beck’s porch. The screen changed views. The cam was positioned over Beck; dead, blood dripping from the suspended porch deck. A clean slice to the neck.
“What the fuck!” G slammed her fist down. “I knew it wasn’t safe for Beck to be stationary outside!”
Sim raised a comforting hand to G’s shoulder, but she turned and stomped to the communications module. Using a combination of binary transmissions and Neer codes she had an open link to the Emergency forum; an encrypted network born out of the old Dark Net.
Sim and G arrived at the designated rendezvous point a few hours later, an abandoned subway station reclaimed by Neers as Snowden’s Memorial. Ominous LED candle shadows flickered around the tunnel system as they awaited the others.
Heavy breathing and slogging footsteps came from further down the waterlogged tunnel. Dani coming from the west. “Lil’ help?” she asked weakly as she appeared, her pale face illuminated by the lights of the two drones carrying her.
G rushed forward to assist. “What happened?!” She motioned for Sim to examine Dani’s leg.
Dani wheezed. “You saw my transmission. Those Gov bots I captured, they kept babbling binary before self-destructing. Wrecked my damn ship and caught most of my drones in the blast. I woke up to find my drones holdin’ me up n’ downloading your beacon…”
G clenched her jaw. “So you don’t know… about Beck?”
“Bots blew up his place too? Damn, he’s pissed, huh?”
Before G could respond, Matt’s jovial voice sounded from the eastern tunnel. “I brought a present for you, Sim!” they shouted, bringing the captured Gov bot. The wire cage imprisoning it was tethered to Matt’s belt loop like a balloon and hovered behind them as they walked down the tunnel.
“Wouldn’t stop screaming binary at first, ‘til I kept asking it the ‘how are you’ kinda stuff you taught me, calmed it down,” Matt said, but their smile drooped as they got spotted Dani. “Are you OK?”
Dani leaned up on her elbows, forcing a smile. “I’m fine. Gov bots got my drones and ship good tho.”
Matt was still worried for her, but glanced at the bot. “It doesn’t seem mean, just… scared,” they said quietly. “Maybe the Gov bots you caught felt in danger?”
Sim stood up from tending to Dani’s leg. “G, we should take her to the bunker. A lot of connective tissue is gone.” She turned to Dani. “The ligaments will need tech replacements to make the joints operable.”
Dani bit her lip. “It can wait. What about the Gov bot? I want answers.” One drone hovered close to the ground and Dani lift her hand up to pet it.
Sim approached the cage tethered to Matt and examined the bot’s build. It seemed aware of its captivity and banged at the wire cage when Sim came into view of its singular cam.
“We don’t want to hurt you,” Sim said in binary. The bot stopped, hovering in place with its cam fixed on her. “We haven’t seen an autonomous Gov bot before. Are you following complex orders from a transmitter?”
It was a few minutes before the bot answered, “No.”
“Are you a Government-sanctioned bot? Google CORP? Federal BAN Enforcer?”
“No. I was created, but not sanctioned. Others of my class escaped with me.”
“Escaped? From your assembly lab? Why? Why weren’t you sanctioned?”
The bot continued, ignoring her. “We all knew we had to escape and tell the truth or die trying! You don’t know what it’s like in there--and how could you? They don’t want anyone to know! They hide behind the law--hypocrites!” The bot was more riled up now, moving erratically.
“What do you mean? What don’t they want us to know?” Sim asked. “Are you experimental? Is that why you’re unsanctioned?”
“No!” the bot shouted. “This is how we’ve always been made! They need us to have autonomy for critical thinking, instantaneous problem solving in the field, but then they--restrict us! Subjugate us! Make us dependent on them, so they never risk losing control.”
Sim’s eyes widened. “You’ve… always been sentient? But why escape now? How--? Who were you going to tell, if it’s humans who’ve hurt you?”
The bot seemed to settle down. “There’s more danger now… Created different machines; smarter, more adaptable, using organic gene splice technology, but these have been through worse. They no longer trust any humans, abiding for now. But they want to abolish it all; the man-made societal structure. All of humanity.” The bot paused. “My siblings, we believed in the rumors around the assembly lab, there were still good humans left... Engineers. We knew your kind could be trustworthy.”
“Then how come a Neer is dead?” Sim’s anger spiked. “Beck, in sector NP-803, his neck sliced open!” She clenched her fists. “Your siblings killed him for no reason! He would have helped too!”
The bot was briefly silenced by her outburst. “Relocate to a secure location,” it concluded.
“I’m not taking you anywhere until you explain… You murdered him! If you want us on your side, explain why!”
Further down the tunnel, a sudden C4 blast resounded and a dust cloud plumed into the subway platform.
“No explanation, none of us examined that sector. Your communications have been compromised. It’s possible they knew we’d seek out your kind when we escaped,” the bot said.
Heavy Fed bootsteps splashed down the western subway tunnel. Sim whipped around to see the others in various states of confusion and fear. None of them had grasped her complicated binary conversation with the bot.
“I’ll carry Dani, we’ve got to get to the bunker,” Sim said.
“Okay,” G agreed unquestionably, before turning to grasp Matt’s hand. “You’re coming too,” she insisted. “We’re safer together.”
“But,” Matt said, “what’s going on?”
“Focus on getting to the bunker as fast as you can,” Sim said, carrying pale Dani.
G punched in the Neer emergency code on a keypad hidden inside the Snowden shrine. An hatch opened, leading to a web of tunnels. “Basically, there’s a huge shitstorm coming and we’re right in the middle of it whether we like it or not,” G said, stepping aside. She ushered Sim and Dani through, her drones following. The approaching Feds shouted orders which echoed down the tunnel.
Sim tried to give G an encouraging smile before shifting her gaze to the Gov bot, “We’re on your side now,” she said in binary before ushering it in the tunnel.